1) Sensible Tax Reform?
It appears that Republicans in the U.S. Congress are veering away from the (politically) dangerous ground of entitlement reform, even though President Obama has put on the table an offer to let them have something they long demanded -- a reduction in the inflation adjustment for Social Security and Medicare, plus possible even the Bowles-Simpson age-adjustments. It seems that (as happened with Obama Care) the GOP finds nothing more loathsome than when the opposition says, "Okay, we'll do it your way. So let's make a deal."
Instead, reports suggest that the GOP leadership in the House is leaning toward attempting Tax Reform, with the aim of eliminating almost all deductions, in exchange for a dramatic lowering of tax rates. Read up on this, because it will raise a firestorm! And the attempt will run into the same forces that stymied tax simplification for 60 years… a coalition of powerful interests who -- though hating each other -- will join forces to protect their sacred cows.
As it turns out, I have long suggested an extremely simple approach that would avoid this pitfall, by simplifying first and then dealing with political matters second. It sounds impossible, but it is actually rather straightforward, if only we tried the method called "No Losers Simplification."
Easy, logical and blatantly sensible… and do-able because it has a trick to keep everyone calm from the git-go. So, what d'you think are the chances?
Oh, a final note on U.S. taxes. How the Maker of TurboTax Fought Free, Simple Tax Filing. Intuit has spent millions lobbying to keep tax season miserable.
2) Are things getting better?
Optimism is so out of fashion these days, on both the left and the right, that - ironically - a guarded optimism has become the natural state for any genuine contrarian. I could try to ignore that reflex and stay true to my natural dour cynicism. But facts are lining up with those who see light at the end of the tunnel. For example, I often cite Professor Steven Pinker's proof (The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined) that on average, per capita levels of violence have declined steeply (if unevenly) around the world every decade since 1945.
Now Oxford University has released a study that breaks down human well-being into a ten-factor "Multidimensional Poverty Index" that encompasses nutrition, school attendance, access to clean water and electricity and so on. While there are many laggard zones of misery (e.g. Ethiopia and Malawi), there are also zones where recent good news has been very strong. For example, if the study’s 'star' countries, Nepal, Rwanda, and Bangladesh, continue to reduce poverty at the current rate, they will halve MPI in less than 10 years and eradicate it in 20. These leaders are followed by Ghana, Tanzania, Cambodia and Bolivia.
In truth, I have my doubts in some ways. There is a certain level of "take-off" development that is fairly easy to get rolling when dynamic people are allowed to strive effectively for their families under honest government that blends top-down investment, infrastructure and care with a looseness that encourages enterprise, under predictable and reliable law. Hernando de Soto's reforms in Peru showed that a mix of liberal and libertarian measures can have stunning positive effects that neither could achieve alone. (Defying simplistic fools who demand we choose only one wing of the lobotomizing "left-right axis.")
Still, there are many pitfalls, like endemic corruption, plus the fact that every phase presents new problems, as China is finding out. As we found out.
But that's just me, trying hard to remain cynical... and yet forced -- as I was while writing Existence -- to conclude that we are a bright species. And our natural condition is a brilliant insanity called hope.
3) The New Great Divide
Oh, but then I turn and see trends that threaten to wreck it all! Like the ongoing train-wreck demolition of the egalitarian "American Dream."
Wealth disparity in the US hit its lowest levels during the generation after Franklin Roosevelt, with the booming of a healthy middle class and the flattest society ever seen (when it came to matters like social class)… all of it during the healthiest market entrepreneurial economy in history, amid unmatched economic growth that lifted nearly all boats and enabled us to finance bold new projects like space, science and civil rights.
Alas, since 1980 we have seen a trend back toward the steeply pyramidal social structure that dominated in 99% of societies that had agriculture and metals. Now the trend is accelerating. It took off since 2001 and continued in the first two years of recovery.
From Pew Research: A Rise in Wealth for the Wealthy, Declines for the Lowest 93%:
"From 2009 to 2011, the mean wealth of the 8 million households in the more affluent group rose to an estimated $3,173,895 from an estimated $2,476,244, while the mean wealth of the 111 million households in the less affluent group fell to an estimated $133,817 from an estimated $139,896.
"The upper 7% of households saw their aggregate share of the nation’s overall household wealth pie rise to 63% in 2011, up from 56% in 2009. On an individual household basis, the mean wealth of households in this more affluent group was almost 24 times that of those in the less affluent group in 2011. At the start of the recovery in 2009, that ratio had been less than 18-to-1."
Which raises a pertinent question to ask our conservative friends. Is there ANY wealth disparity that would cause some of you to admit that "Class Warfare" has historically been waged top-down, and that pattern always tries to return? Our parents' generation knew the answer. President Obama spoke of his love for his Kansas grandparents who both served in World War II and who pretty much raised him. The "Greatest Generation" that defeated Hitler and overcame the Great Depression -- they adored FDR and re-elected him by huge margins. Not in order to destroy capitalism, but to save it. From the enemy that always, reliably ruined free and fair competitive enterprise -- and freedom -- in 99% of all human societies.
Those who today have one supreme goal... to portray FDR as satan ... they stand with the oldest and most pervasive enemy of freedom and yes, the foe of market capitalism that Adam Smith denounced and against whom the American Founders rebelled. Is there some point when you would recognize that old foe?
Hint: it is not a dogma or doctrine, or any particular group of people. It is a drive that fizzes out of most of us, when we find ourselves atop a pyramid. A drive to thereupon grab the power to stay up there. By cheating.
But it gets worse when 40% of the world's wealth is controlled by less than 150 people. How does competition happen when our lords own a higher percentage of the wealth than the French aristocracy did, in 1789?
4) Interesting political miscellany
Have any doubts about my comparison with the French Revolution? Read about the most expensive real estate on Earth - One Hyde Park, in London - where apartments sell for almost a quarter of a Billion dollars, to secret shell corporations that disguise the owners from the nosy masses. That's a "B" in "billion."
And shifting over to provocative potpourri... The most religious states show highest rates of anti-depressant use.
Does this really surprise you? The origins of the Tea Party - and climate denialism - in the tobacco industry. (See also Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway, as well as my article: Distinguishing Climate "Deniers" from "Skeptics.")
Lipstick on a pig? Reince Priebus gives GOP prescription for the future. Sorry. I miss Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley, true conservative intellects who enjoyed high-level argument and science, who reacted to bad outcomes by changing their minds, and who above all believed in negotiation. Even, occasionally compromise. If Mr. Priebus and his colleagues ever decide to get serious, the great result will be to stop Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave.
Oh, but then - when you least expect it - sanity appears to be flowering in one area, at least, and some Republicans are leading the way! California GOP Representative Dana Rohrabacher's Respect State Marijuana Laws Act (H.R. 1253) is far from the only bill in Congress that would wind down the federal war on weed. But unlike the efforts of liberal Democrats who want to remove marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, this bill or something like it may have a decent shot at passing in the not-too-distant future. I can't believe it. This madness seems finally to be ebbing. And if that insanity can ebb, let's work on others?
5) And finally, regarding gun control...
Did you notice that for a decade liberals were quiet about this issue? And even now, spurred by stunning tragedies, all most of them are asking for is background checks and a restored limit on assault weapons. Why so little? Simple. Under Bush, many liberals started quietly arming themselves. Despite noise from some irredentist lefties, many liberals (a totally different species) are fine with responsible and accountable weapon ownership. Like their own.
If we are going to debate an issue, let's start with clean facts. Yes, Mother Jones has a left-ish perspective. But this set of graphics (Challenging the Myth that Guns Stop Crime) is effective when they take on some of the fibs being told by the NRA.
Again, I claim the middle ground. Frankly, I am more sympathetic with moderate gun owners than Mother Jones is. In fact, many liberals and moderates understand the undercurrent motive that makes the gun folk dig in their heels… a fear of eventual confiscation of all personal weapons.
A fear that I go into, with some evenhandedness and detail, in my article, The Jefferson Rifle: Guns and the Insurrection Myth.
I've said it before. Simply screaming aloud the second half of the Second Amendment will not make the first half go away. And that first half (twelve words) will serve as a loophole wide enough to drive a bulldozer through, if some future panicking public and a new Court decide to "well-regulate" the "militia." You guys need another, better amendment. And I am offering one that liberals would help you to pass.
Again, most Americans don't wish to eliminate personal gun ownership, and would join in rising up, if it were ever tried. They simply want more responsibility and accountability, the very thing that we achieved with motor vehicles....