Posted by Cameron @ 9:39 pm on October 29th 2011

The story of B

Weirdly, I’m going to start with math. So hold on. Who remembers high school algebra? The slope of a line has a pretty simple little formula: Y = M*X + B. In this, M is the slope of the line and B is the spot where the line crosses the vertical (y) axis. Think about a line that is very simple: y=x this means that when y=1, x=1 and when y=2, x=2 which is going to make a line that goes out at a 45 degree angle equally in both the vertical and horizontal directions. The spot where it’s going to cross the y axis is 0 because there’s no alteration of B. Since B is zero and since y=x and when x=0, y=0 so the spot where the line crosses the y axis is 0. Now picture the new equation y=x+1. In this when y=1, x=2 and when y=2 x =3. The spot where this crosses the y axis is 1. The whole line is moved up a spot from the y=x line. It’s not very complicated but that little number has a lot of power in shaping the line. Remember this for a few minutes.

As the GOP primary season ramps up, the idea of a flat tax is getting tossed around. A flat tax seems like a simple enough idea where everybody pays the same rate of tax independently of income. Those that earn more will pay more in dollars but not percent of income.

It’s put forth as a simplification of the extremely convoluted system that we currently operate under. As a bit of a primer, the current system has a tiers where higher rates are paid on earnings above various thresholds. It’s always bugged me when people complain about being in a higher tax bracket. They aren’t really. Only the income above that bracket is in the higher tax bracket. For instance, consider a system with two brackets. The first is for money under $30,000 with a 10% rate and the second is for money above $30.000 at a 20% rate. If you earn $40,000, you’ll pay 10% on the first $30,000 and 20% on the last $10,000 for a total of $5,000. What this doesn’t mean is that if you earn $30,001 you’ll pay 20% on the entire amount. You’ll only be paying that higher marginal rate on that single dollar.

If the system was only as complicated as these tiers of variable rates, it would fill no more than a few paragraphs. The real complexity of the tax codes come in the numerous exceptions and write-offs and credits and all the other fruits of labor of the lobbyists who’ve succeeded in carving out niches of benefits for their clients.

So a flat tax is commonly suggested as a solution to this tax code bloat by folks with a more economically conservative bent. There are some reasonable objections to be made to such a cut and dry system though. Because of their more limited means, the poor will pay a higher percentage of their operating budgets in taxes than the wealthy. It’s a compelling argument to tilting the tax code so that those who earn the least pay less in real percentile terms. The way this is currently accomplished is with a combination of tax credits and low rates for the first portion of income.

The thing is, this could be accomplished with a flat tax remarkably easily. If the goal is something simple yet still somewhat beneficial to the poor, a simple straight line system with zero allowed exemptions or credits could be wonderful. I might be willing to allow some write-offs, but let’s assume that are none in the following example with a a tax code written like this in its entirety:

All income earned per person in excess of $20,000 per year shall be taxed at a rate of 20%.

So let’s do some math: somebody making straight minimum wage would earn $15,080 per year and would pay nothing in taxes for a rate of 0%. Somebody making $30,000 would pay $2,000 (20% of the amount above the threshold which is $10,000) for a rate of 6.6%. Somebody making 60,000 would pay $6,000 in taxes for a rate of 10%. Somebody making $1,020,000 per year would pay $200.000 in taxes for just shy of a 20% rate.

So there you go, a progressively tiered rate system built into a flat income tax system. Best of both worlds, no?

The cool thing is that $20,000 could be anything we want. If you hark back to the math at the beginning, you’ll recall that B has some power. That starting point of the income tax is nothing more than B. If B is zero, everybody pays 20% which is what is often understood to be the classic flat tax system. But if that value is moved it up to just $8,000, the system would be set up to that those earning the minimum wage pay just about half the rate of everybody else (in a graduated change, as we saw above). If it were made $50,000, it would be a a system where very few paid taxes higher than single digits.

The question of the value of B and at what angle the line should move upward at are policy questions. A flat tax can be as nearly as distorted and as unfair as our current system, but it’s a bit of a misnomer to represent a flat line as always y=mx as opponents of a flat tax generally do. There is a B, and B matters.

Posted by Brad @ 8:52 am on October 28th 2011

Today in Awesome Sauce

Hopefully you’ve seen it, but if not, Reason TV sponsored Peter Schiff to go to Occupy Wall Street and speak out on behalf of the 1%. He decides to invite argument, taking all comers. The result is pretty fun to watch.

Here’s the full video (a little over ten minutes).

Here’s an excerpt:

It gets really good around 1:45, when Schiff casually mentions that he pays half of what he earns in taxes – a fact that seems to genuinely startle the assembled masses. Also “I employ 150 people…how many people do you employ?” He ends up upbraiding the gathered 99ers for not doing their share.

I normally don’t like these kinds of videos, but this is genuinely pretty good.

As a footnote, Connecticut Republicans preferred Linda McMahon as their candidate for Senate by a 2 to 1 margin.

Posted by Brad @ 8:30 am on October 28th 2011

Ron Paul: Coherence on Gay Rights?

In a comment to a previous thread, Rojas made the following point which I think is dead-on:

His stances on gay rights issues are, frankly, incoherent. I don’t think even he knows where he stands on these matters on a day-to-day basis; he seems to be one of those people who’s been personally uncomfortable with homosexuality his whole life and who is only now coming to terms with it as a societal reality and squaring it with the rest of his ideology.

I think this reading, while perhaps not satisfying to those that want to paint Paul as either a conscious social conservative bigot actively trying to retard gay rights, or as a libertarian personal savior who really doesn’t mean whatever he might say that doesn’t fit into that paradigm, nevertheless has the benefit of probably being true. To it I would only add that occasionally Paul seems guilty to me of substituting a philosophical abstraction for a pragmatic solution to an immediate problem (as they did with Rand in his Civil Rights Act discursion). Which is fair enough, although A. that shouldn’t be confused with outright hostility or some kind of conscious-dodge-masking-a-real-agenda, and B. what do you want, it’s Ron Paul?

Anyway, this interview with the Iowa State Daily News caught my eye. Ron Paul on gay rights, in Iowa, circa this week:

Since Iowa State has a thriving homosexual community, I asked how gays fit into Paul’s philosophy of freedom. The congressman cringed at the question and shook his head in frustration.

“You know I just, I don’t think of people in little groups like that. I don’t think of people as ‘gay’ here and ‘black people’ there, or ‘women’ over here…Everybody is an individual person and everybody has the same rights as anyone else. The government has no business in your private life, you know, so if one person is allowed to do something so should everyone else. The whole gay marriage issue is a private affair and the federal government has no say.”

With the recent death of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” I suggested to Congressman Paul that the issue isn’t likely to go away any time soon, and asked how he would address gays in the military as president.

“Well, like I said, everybody has the same rights as everybody else, so homosexuals in the military isn’t a problem. It’s only if they’re doing things they shouldn’t be, if they’re disruptive. But there’s … men and women getting into trouble with each other too. And there’s a lot more heterosexuals in the military, so logically they’re causing more trouble than gays. So yes, you just have the same rules for everybody and treat them all the same.” Paul voted for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

This is, of a kind, the same answer he’s always given on (the whole “I don’t want to get into the subject of civil rights for Group X specifically because I view the whole segmentation premise itself as invalid and in my ideal society it doesn’t matter”). But he does seem to be doing what Rojas noticed: coming to terms and squaring. At the very least, I find it very, very hard to read Ron Paul on gay rights and come away with a sense that, on a policy level, he would be specifically hostile to them. Not particularly risen to be proactive, sure, but the line that Paul is a social conservative (in a policy sense) in libertarian clothing, a bigot, and would be actively engaged in trying to suppress gay rights, to be…hysteric.

As Reason notes, taken together his stance on gay marriage and DADT puts him to the left of Barack Obama on the subject – and certainly to the left of ever other Republican polling over 1%.

Posted by Adam @ 9:58 am on October 27th 2011

Self-sacrifice urgently required in Utah.

There has been a bee-tacular disaster in Utah. 20 million bees, hopefully destined for a furnace, have broken free from a truck in Utah.

20 million! That’s about seven bee stings per Utah resident. Which seems like a lot, but I think we can rely on our plucky Western brethren to take the hit for Team USA. Men in New York Town a-bed will count their manhood less, etc, etc.

Posted by Brad @ 8:55 am on October 27th 2011

Thought of the Day

Any extended protest, given sufficient passion and time, morphs into a protest against police brutality and law enforcement oppression.

Posted by Brad @ 3:16 pm on October 26th 2011

The Best Thing Written About Occupy Wall Street is Also the Best Thing Not Written About the Tea Party

I read The New Yorker religiously, despite the fact that its political coverage is, at best, patronizing and, at worst, seems to view approximately half of America as if they were savage space aliens whose motives are barely worth guessing at much less trying to understand. However, catching up on my backlog after coming back from Ireland, I was struck by the first story they wrote about Occupy Wall Street. Specifically this passage:

What OWES doesn’t have—and is under some pressure, internal and external, to formulate—is a traditional agenda: a list of “demands,” a set of legislative recommendations, a five-point program. For many of its participants, this lack is an essential part of the attraction. They’re making it up on the fly. They don’t really know where it will take them, and they like it that way. Occupy Wall Street is a political project, but it is equally a cri de coeur, an exercise in constructive group dynamics, a release from isolation, resignation, and futility. The process, not the platform, is the point. Anyway, OWES is not the Brookings Institution. But its implicit grievances are plain enough: the mass pain of mass unemployment, underemployment, and economic insecurity; the corrupting, pervasive political influence of big money; the outrageous, rapidly growing inequality of wealth and income; the impunity of the financial-industry scammers whose greed and fraud precipitated the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; a broken political system hobbled by a Republican right willing and usually able to block any measures, however timid and partial, that might relieve the suffering. If Occupy Wall Street can continue to behave with nonviolent restraint, if it can avoid hijack by a flaky fringe, if it can shake the center-left out of its funk, if it can embolden Democratic politicians (very much including President Obama, who, lately and belatedly, has begun to show signs of fight), then preoccupied Main Street will truly owe OWES. Big ifs all. It’s too early to tell, but not too late to hope.

Now obviously the list of “implicit grievances” would differ substantially (though not entirely) from the Tea Party movement. But what strikes me about this bit, from Hendrick Hertzberg, is that the thrust of it is more or less exactly how I felt – and Hertzberg and other New Yorker writers absolutely did not – about the Tea Party movement. The only main difference is that the Tea Party chose as their battleground the actual political process behind the decision-making they were reacting against, whereas the OWS movement’s battleground appears to be more…I dunno, social?

But still, it always floors me to come across this kind of complete lack of intellectual empathy (the ability to assume that people with whom you disagree are not necessarily insane or ill motivated, but rather have a rational though process that might still be wrong but is nonetheless legitimate and ought to be understood and, ideally, engaged with).

OWS, of course, should be so lucky as to have the kind of actual impact that the Tea Party has had, but Hertzberg is absolutely correct to understand that their activism is borne of very legitimate (not in the sense that you agree with them, but in the sense that they have a right to them), if implicit and sometimes only barely consciously understood, grievances, and that a constructive (or in the OWS case, semi-constructive) engagement with those grievances is not only a Good Thing, but a Very Good Thing, no matter the cause, for the political process and the marketplace of ideas. Whether OWS comes to anything or not, Hertzberg nails it by identifying it as a kind of primal scream, a release valve, and that the impulse behind giving that scream, opening that valve, is a noble – and ennobling – one.

Like Rojas (and like Rojas mentioned in our first post on OWS), I am always a fan of activism and a non-cynical engagement with ideas and the world around you. My appreciation for that is not dependent on whether I agree with the underlying premises and conclusions of those activists or not – and why should it be? The world, unquestioningly, would be a better place if people who perceive injustice get up and do something about it (non-violent and constructive).

As for me, an America where the citizenry still gets inspired to activism – even where I disagree with the goal of that activism – is far preferable to one that is flatlined, either through oppression, lazy cynicism, or some kind of “centrist” homogeny (give me a Congress that includes some Bachmanns, Pauls, Kucinichs, and Waters – all – over one entirely full of McCains and Liebermans and Obamas and Romneys, any day). If the problem with America ever becomes TOO much citizen empowerment and raging against the machine, then maybe we can nitpick causes. But until then, anybody that has the balls the passion to stand up and be heard has my respect. Would that Hertzberg and authors like him felt the same way.

Posted by Brad @ 9:45 am on October 26th 2011

Making a Law to Let the Government Lie to Get out of Complying With Laws

That’s exactly what the DOJ is doing.

A proposed rule to the Freedom of Information Act would allow federal agencies to tell people requesting certain law-enforcement or national security documents that records don’t exist—even when they do.

Under current FOIA practice, the government may withhold information and issue what’s known as a Glomar denial that says it can neither confirm nor deny the existence of records.

The new proposal—part of a lengthy rule revision by the Department of Justice—would direct government agencies to “respond to the request as if the excluded records did not exist.”

Presumably, it’s to get out of the pain of having civil liberties groups drag federal departments into court because they know they’re sitting on documents that they legally ought to have to release. Also, to not have to bother with the manual labor of destroying videotapes.

What spurred this specific revision?

Open government groups also contend that the proposed rule could undermine judicial proceedings.

In a recent case brought by the ACLU of Southern California, the FBI denied the existence of documents. But the court later discovered that the documents did exist. In an amended order, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney wrote that the “Government cannot, under any circumstance, affirmatively mislead the Court.”

The Obama DOJ response: Yes, we can.

Let this all sink in for a moment.

Posted by Brad @ 9:24 am on October 25th 2011

Music Video of War is Hell

Also, new Tom Waits album out today!

Tom Waits – Hell Broke Luce

Posted by Brad @ 9:46 am on October 21st 2011

Climate Science – Still Right, Turns Out

One of the few scientists that the right has heralded as speaking the truth to Big Climate sets up his own study to counter what he saw as shoddy work from existing climate research labs. Gets the results back

In the press release announcing the results, Muller said, “Our biggest surprise was that the new results agreed so closely with the warming values published previously by other teams in the US and the UK.” In other words, climate scientists know what they’re doing after all.

Posted by Brad @ 9:05 am on October 21st 2011

OWS As Status Symbol

Somehow, that whole 99-1 thing has lead to quasi-wealthy hipsters walking around with signs mentioning that they’re kind of rich. Plus, Kanye West!

I’m almost starting to miss the WTO protesters.

Posted by Brad @ 10:04 am on October 20th 2011

After Awlawki, U.S. Doubles Back and Kills His 16-year-old American Son

And the Obama administration, who just executed a teenage American citizen, refuses to discuss the matter. They have decided they can kill American citizens (by what legal justification, we have no idea, and it is not a decision that is apparently subject to review, appeal, or accountability), on their say-so, for justifications they prefer to keep secret, and, in their opinion it’s none of your business and you have no right to know anything about not only the operational details but even what powers the executive branch of this country now have (or think they have, which is the same thing). They are literally just secretly declaring themselves powers at this point – it’s not even the Bush-level of power grabbing, wherein he at least railroaded rubber stamps through (signing statements, secret court decisions, actual legislation however ridiculous). The Obama administration has apparently decided that they needn’t bother with any of that. They just secretly declare themselves to have the authority, and voila, they do.

So, can the American government execute its citizens – even minors – with no due process, based entirely on a secret, unappealable, and even unknowable standard (subject to change at any time)? Yes, yes they can. Why? Because fuck you, that’s why. There is, literally, no limit to what they can do (stomp on a child’s testicles? Execute the children of “enemies of the state”? Designate anybody outside all legal protections? Yes, yes, yes). And there is no longer any check, balance, appeal, or even right-to-know.

I really do believe we have, for all intents and purposes, lost our democracy.

Posted by Brad @ 9:15 am on October 19th 2011

What Percent Are You?

This is fine and all, but for an accurate depiction of whether you’re a have or a have not – and by how much – try this one.

Posted by Brad @ 8:36 am on October 19th 2011

I Don’t Care About…Illegal Alien Domestic Workers of Candidates!

Seriously, is this still being trotted out as a line of attack on candidates? Really?

I don’t know that a single vote has ever turned on the “he had a Mexican illegal immigrant mow his law in 1994” issue. It’s even more weak sauce than the old “while a Senator, he missed XXX votes” line. How lazy of a campaign strategist do you have to even bother putting that opp research in front of your guy?

Posted by Brad @ 1:54 pm on October 18th 2011

Things that don’t make you racist

Being a part of a populist horde that may include in it a few actual racists or quasi-racists.

Posted by Rojas @ 10:58 am on October 18th 2011

Things that make you a racist

#24,112: Failure to be sufficiently critical of Herman Cain.

Posted by Rojas @ 2:03 pm on October 17th 2011

Occupy Fox News

The social media is all a-twitter at what turned up in the henhouse over the weekend. I’m not sure why. Here we have the unofficial organ of the party that overwhelmingly opposed TARP…giving voice to someone who also opposes bailouts. This is a suprise…how, exactly?

The better question might be: why would people who are mad about corporate greed be supportive of an administration that is stacked to the gills with Goldman Sachs officials?

Posted by Adam @ 12:40 pm on October 17th 2011

Cain’s 9-9-9 plan only plans to replace 90% of current government income; the shock, the horror.

CNN have an article on Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 plan, with its main theme being the amount of Federal Taxes that will still be raised from taxes other than those in the 9-9-9 spectrum (income tax, sales tax, corporation tax).

It’s a worthwhile topic to explore, indeed, an essential one. Personally, I think that like more obvious “fair tax” plans, it’s a gimmick that will never see anything approaching the light of day, a cheap claim to make from a candidate who’ll never have to try to bring it into existence. Unfortunately, CNN’s Jeanne Sahadi doesn’t appear terribly interested in giving it an honest accounting, because after pointing out that $90 billion of Federal Revenues will come from outside the 9-9-9 plan, she gives us this to illustrate that magnitude of the sum:

The revenues these taxes generate are no small sum — equal to nearly half the money now collected in corporate income taxes.

As it stands, for most people that’s a pretty useless comparison because they don’t know how significant corporate income taxes are (although even vague knowledge of Federal tax revenue totals would suggest that $90 billion isn’t a large fraction of the total). So how big a deal, proportionally, is this? Well, we should accept that we’re using historical figures and maybe Cain wants to lower overall tax receipts significantly (let’s hope so!) but we can get a ballpark figure here to tell us how much of our current tax load arises from these taxes; from the CBO via the taxpolicycenter, we have this:

So, there we have it, 12% of the 2009 Federal revenue came from corporation taxes; half of that is 6% but “equal to 6% of current government income” doesn’t really sound very significant.

Speaking of not significant, how’s this for an ending:

One other major source of income for the federal government isn’t exactly a tax, but it would also remain in place under Cain’s plan. The Federal Reserve returns any profits it makes to the federal government, much of it coming from interest paid on its massive holdings of U.S. Treasuries.

And because the Fed has purchased trillions in assets in the last three years in an effort to help the economy, those profits have been huge — last year the Fed returned a record $76 billion to the treasury.

Well, that might upset Libertarians, ideologues and Paulites (or perhaps I repeat myself), it doesn’t really seem to me to be terribly incisive. For all the failings of Cain’s headline tax policy, that it’ll leave maybe 10-ish percent of current revenue streams intact doesn’t seem like a killer.

Good work, CNN.

Posted by Rojas @ 10:52 am on October 12th 2011

Occupy retirement homes?

We haven’t discussed the various permutations of the “occupy” movement yet, largely because Brad is attending to Ireland and none of the rest of us ever has anything to say to initiate discussion. Short version: I’m in favor of it. As with the Tea Party, I find civic engagement to be generally praiseworthy in and of itself, and the movement’s initial greivance–the apparent insulation of Wall Street firms from any form of accountability, either in political or capitalist terms–is very much correct. Of course, one would wonder why people who are angry about said lack of accountability would choose to support politicians who favor bailing the bankers out of the crises they engineered, and who staff their administrations with Goldman Sachs personnel, but I digress…

Anyway, here is Niall Fergusson, making the intriguing argument that the true enemy of the OWS crowd is the Baby Boomers–and that realistically, they are likely to see their income reduced more substantially by the demands of existing entitlement programs than by any form of predation by the rich. In short, he wants to replace class warfare with generational warfare…and he has an intriguing idea for bringing it about. Money quote:

So occupying Wall Street is not the answer to this generation’s problems. The answer is to occupy the Tea Party—and wrest it from the grumpy old men who currently run it.

A fusion of OWS and the Tea Party dedicated principally to entitlement reform? Now there’s a coalition I could support without reservations.

Posted by Rojas @ 6:17 pm on October 8th 2011

Ron Paul wins the…wait, wins the WHAT?

Don’t ask me, man. I don’t understand it either. It’s not as if the man lacks values, and it’s not as if libertarianism is incompatible with them…it’s just that this seems like the LAST constituency which would buy into either idea.

Posted by Rojas @ 10:28 pm on October 6th 2011

Topeka “decriminalizes domestic violence”

Well, kinda-sorta.

Posted by Adam @ 2:44 pm on October 5th 2011

All my childhood are belong to Death

Earlier today, fast bowler Graham Dilley died aged only 52. He was a good bowler, really rather fast, but is probably most famous for his part in the extraordinary England win at Headingley in 1981, where he batted, despite no particular talent for batting, for ages with Ian Botham in the second innings while Botham flayed the leather off the ball and dug England out of a huge hole (a situation from which hilariously deadpan Bob Willis, on creaky knees, wild hair and a huge head of steam, bowled a blinder and defeated Australia*); Dilley is the guy at the other end for a lot of Botham’s innings and shown taking a catch in the deep in the Willis video. Dilley was a genuinely good guy who was liked by everyone and who bowled through the period when I became obsessed. Cricinfo story on him and some reactions.

*A game in which England were in such a bad position that odds of 500-1 were offered against an England victory, odds so high two of the Aussies put a tenner on it, although it was clear that had nothing to do with the win. Botham had just been removed as captain but retained as a player.

Bert Jansch also died today, of lung cancer at the age of 67. I got into Pentangle through listening to John Renbourn in the 1980s when I was a teenager and there’s not been a better band, before or since, in any genre. Bert Jansch collaborated with Renbourn, a collaboration which in some respects naturally grew into Pentangle; Jansch was a genius, one of the best and most influential guitarists of his day. Not as famous as he might have been, I guess, but I love listening to him play. Here’s some classic Pentangle, with Jansch singing and playing guitar:

Here’s Jansch in the 1970s, making it look easy. In an interview, Johnny Marr (a big fan of Jansch) remarked how aggressive Jansch’s guitar-playing was, and it’s pretty obvious here:

Lastly, here’s Jansch playing with Johnny Marr and Bernard Butler.

Rest in peace, chaps.