May 22, 2011

A more reasonable faith

We don't have a tax problem; we have a spending problem.
—Paul Ryan, John Boehner, Eric Cantor et al

Today's ultra-conservative Republicans believe taxes are of the devil. This is an article of faith, undoubted and unchallenged. It was not always thus.

During the post-WWII consensus, Republicans as well as Democrats regarded taxes as the price for civilization — and progressive taxation as the best way to pay for the civilization the public wanted.

For seven of Eisenhower's eight years in the White House, the top marginal tax rate was 91% on income over $3 million in today's money (the first year, 92%). When Nixon took office, the top rate was 77% on income over $1.2 million. The last year of Ford's term, it was 70% on income over $750,000.

But by 1980, the post-WWII consensus was out of gas. Stagflation, the Iran hostage crisis, the oil crisis and Carter's apparent ineptitude to solve any of these big problems contributed to a public bad mood. Enter the Reagan Revolution.

With clarity, relevance and evangelistic fervor, Reagan and his acolytes preached a popularized supply-side economics to a public thirsty for a new faith. Focus on those who produce, not "welfare queens" who merely consume. Cut taxes and remove regulations from businesses. The supply of goods and services will explode, lowering prices. The ensuing economic activity will create jobs and increase federal tax revenues. All gain, no pain.

Fast forward 30 years. Like the post-WWII consensus before it, supply-side doctrine is out of gas. It can no longer explain on its own terms its real-world effects: massive deficits, crushing federal debt and business malfeasance that pumps oil into the Gulf of Mexico, nearly destroys an entire world's economy and kills 29 miners.

But received dogmas die hard. Those reared in the Reaganite supply-side faith are loathe to express doubt even in the face of devastating counter-evidence. Thus the truly nonsensical and oft-heard sermon that federal deficits and debt stem merely from over-spending and not also from under-taxing.

Yes, we have a spending problem. And yes, we have a tax problem. If we are to fix our problems, we'll have to reject supply-side dogma for a more reasonable faith: one that balances free enterprise, fair play and fiscal realism. One that pays for the civilization we want and envisions a civilization we can pay for.

Rings true to me. And you?

May 3, 2011

Why do we celebrate a killing?

I will mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.

I live in Madison, WI, where the center of gravitas is very progressive. This is new for me. Though I grew up in the Midwest, I spent most of my adult life in the South, Madison's political mirror image.

I'd wager a body part that most of my friends in Atlanta and Orlando were pleased with the news of Osama Bin Laden's killing. Some might have groused minimally over who gave the order; they would have preferred Bush. But I doubt very much that any spent a nano-second hand-wringing over America sending in soldiers to shoot the man dead. This was a government program they heartily supported.

And my Madison friends? A very different story. Many posted on Facebook or tweeted an abbreviated version of the above quotation, mistakenly attributed to Martin Luther King but reflecting his nonviolent ideals.

Along with the ersatz quote, people posted their sentiments. They were uncomfortable with the reaction that spontaneously erupted across the country. Celebrating a killing just seemed, well, unseemly.

I understand this sentiment. It flows from a love of fair play for all people that I share, making me more comfortable politically in my adopted home than in the South. But I think my progressive friends have missed something crucial in this event — something that makes me OK with the whooping, hollering, and high-fiving.

Americans aren't celebrating a killing; they're celebrating justice.

Some wrongs are so wrong that they cry out in our hearts to be made right. Mass murder — especially massive mass murder — is one of these wrongs. If this were 1943 and a team of GIs had successfully assassinated Hitler, our celebration would have been similar — and similarly fitting.

Does this solve all the problems? Of course not. Justice is like beauty. All people long for it. But its content is fuzzy, person-relative, and culturally communicated. What's just to us is part of the story that is ours, rooted in our experience, forming our beliefs, spawning our actions.

But that doesn't make it nothing. That just makes it human.

Can a celebration of justice turn to bloodlust? Sure. Granted, the line between them is impossible to draw with certainty. But that doesn't mean there is no line.

Can one argue that our idea of justice is no better than Bin Laden's? Sure, though I'm unembarrassed proclaiming that the mass murder of innocents is universally unjust.

But quibbling over what constitutes justice is beside the point. Whether you think Bin Laden's killing was just or not, that's what Americans spontaneously celebrated. Justice. Not the killing itself, which was incidental.

I for one can't fault people's natural, deep desire for justice — and their explosion of joy when they believed it was served.

Rings true to me. And you?