Opinion

The Great Debate

Populists, plutocrats and the GOP sales tax

February 1913 marked a turning point in U.S. history. One hundred years ago this month, the states ratified the 16th Amendment, clearing the way for adoption of a federal income tax. Two decades before, in 1892, the Populist Party had first put a progressive income tax on the national agenda.

The income tax faced steep conservative opposition. Since it was enacted, in fact, the political wars over income tax have never stopped. Conservatives battled against it when it was first proposed and have continued the struggle ever since. Now, Tea Party conservativism has given that fight new force.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter called tax systems the “thunder of world history.” Because if you dig beneath the rhetoric, tax systems reveal the underlying direction in which societies move. The saga of the income tax says a great deal about changes in America.

In the decades before the income tax, the rich grew extremely rich while most Americans struggled on the edge of poverty. Mark Twain dubbed it the Gilded Age: Plutocrats built ever-bigger mansions; hard times pressed on everyone else. Yet by the 1950s, the income tax had played a crucial role in the mix of policies that narrowed the income gap and built a broad middle class.

Over the past 35 years, however, those policies have been under siege.

Corporations have bent the regulatory regime to their will. Legal barriers have helped efforts to dismantle the trade unions. And conservative assaults have pounded the progressive structure of the income tax. As a result, the United States is experiencing a crisis of inequality not seen since the last Gilded Age.

Obama must surprise in State of the Union

President Barack Obama stirred with an unexpectedly powerful inaugural address – a second effort that far surpassed his first. He summoned great themes of American history to argue cogently for his second-term agenda. Now he has a chance to deliver a State of the Union address that improves on those of his first term, too.

The key to success? Presidents still have the power of surprise. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “I am like a cat. I make a quick stroke, and then I relax.” As in his inaugural, Obama should surprise us – this time with new policies and sharp specificity. On the budget, democracy reform and immigration, the president stands well positioned.

Forget the Super Bowl, or even the Oscars. For us policy wonks and ex-speechwriters, this is the biggest event – the time to crack open a beer, microwave the Buffalo chicken wings and settle down in front of the TV for a siege of viewing.

Rebuilding our economic backbone

We’re getting beat by Estonia.

Not that there’s anything wrong with the tiny state on the Baltic Sea. But the nation that built the Hoover Dam, pioneered the Interstate Highway System and created the best aviation system in the world, is rapidly sliding toward the bottom of the list when it comes to infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the economic backbone of any modern society. Without a reliable, functioning system, things we take for granted would fall apart: roads and bridges, schools, public and private transportation, the energy grid that powers our lives, the water we drink. But today the United States no longer leads the world in infrastructure competitiveness. Countries like the Netherlands, South Korea and Singapore now rank in the top 10, according to the World Economic Forum, while the United States, once No. 1, has fallen to 14.

If this does not concern you, it should.

Building America’s Future, a national and bipartisan coalition of state and local elected officials that I co-chair with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, recently updated Falling Apart and Falling Behind, a comprehensive report on the state of America’s infrastructure.

Time for a serious deficit plan

 President Barack Obama pledged to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term. But because he focused on political gimmicks, rather than real reform, we’ve seen trillion-dollar deficits and nearly $6 trillion added to the debt instead. Based on what we heard from the president at a news conference Tuesday, his unserious attitude is likely to continue.

That’s worrying. Unless we can get a handle on Washington’s overspending, and quickly, it will continue to undermine our economy and jeopardize our children’s futures.

Sadly, the White House is not yet serious about doing that. Instead, it has predictably suggested politically driven tax hikes as appropriate offsets for the sequester, including a tax on corporate jets. If that sounds like a poll-tested P.R. gimmick rather than a serious solution, that’s because it is. A permanent tax increase like that would take 10 years just to raise enough money to replace one week’s worth of the sequester.

Seeking consensus on immigration, guns

Two tough issues — immigration reform and gun control. “It won’t be easy,” President Barack Obama said about gun control in December, “but that’s no excuse not to try.”   Tuesday, he said about immigration reform: “The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become.”

Which does he stand a better chance of winning?  Answer: immigration. On immigration, Obama has Democrats strongly behind him. Republicans are divided — and freaked out by the issue. On guns, he’s got Republicans strongly against him. Democrats are divided — and freaked out by the issue.

On both issues, the president has the public solidly behind him. That’s his biggest asset. “There’s already a growing consensus for us to build from,” he said on Dec. 19, five days after the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre. “A majority of Americans support banning the sale of military-style assault weapons.’’ On Jan. 29, when he went to Las Vegas to speak about immigration reform, he said, “A broad consensus is emerging and … a call for action can be heard coming from all across America.”

Dems shouldn’t mess with Texas

 

There has been much ado lately about the Democratic Party’s new project to turn Texas blue. What’s lost on the liberals in D.C., California and Manhattan who will throw money at this futile effort, however, is that the Texas Republican Party is different and far stronger than its counterparts in other states. And it’s not just because the Lone Star State under Republican control has become the envy of the nation in terms of job creation and economic growth.

One reason Democrats think the GOP’s hold over Texas is so precarious is demographics. Latinos make up 38 percent of the state population, a portion that is projected to rise to more than 50 percent by 2030. Since GOP nominee Mitt Romney got a dismal 27 percent of the Latino vote in November, it seems intuitive that a growing Latino population would spell trouble for Republicans. Yet Texas Republicans have done far better with Latinos than Republicans nationally because their approach to immigration has not been the antagonistic sort offered by Republicans in California, Arizona and other states.

In 2001, Governor Rick Perry signed a bill that allows children brought to Texas by immigrant parents to receive in-state tuition if they have lived in Texas for three years, graduated high school and been admitted to a state public university. Romney’s vicious and shortsighted attacks on this law during the GOP primaries are widely credited with hurting him with Latino voters in the general election.

Judicial overreach to redefine presidential power

The first months of President Barack Obama’s second term promise to be full of big political fights on issues ranging from comprehensive immigration reform to the problem of gun violence to addressing America’s fiscal woes. Last week’s decision on recess appointments by three Republican-appointed judges on the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, proves there’s another battle worth waging: over the confirmation of judges to that court.

In invalidating Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the three-judge panel issued a troubling decision. And one that should spark a response. For it shows us, yet again, that it matters who sits on our courts.

First, this decision flies in the face of 150 years of practice by presidents of both parties. It represents the judicial overreach that Republican politicians usually decry. There were a total of 260 intra-session recess appointments made between 1867 and 2000, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service. President George W. Bush made 141 intra-session recess appointments, and Obama has now made a total of 26.

For Obama’s second Inaugural, skip the poetry

President Barack Obama should hope that old adage, “You only get one chance to make a first impression,” isn’t true. In his second Inaugural Address Monday, he has a chance to sharpen his arguments and move the nation in a way that eluded him the first time around.

Instead of a soggy sermon about political maturity, Obama should offer a ripping defense of his vision of government and its role in the economy. He has nothing to fear but controversy itself.

Obama faces a low bar. Facing history, presidents often choke. They know that these talks are among the only ones sure to be collected in a book or chiseled on the wall of their presidential library. The genre tends toward the ponderous.

Boehner resurrects the antebellum South

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) is now in Williamsburg, Virginia, meeting with his House Republican conference at their annual retreat. The GOP House members have likely gotten over the initial shock of the November elections – in which President Barack Obama won more than 51 percent of the vote and the Democratic majority swelled in the Senate.

Though the Republicans lost House seats and their candidates collected more than a million fewer votes than their Democratic rivals, the GOP retained a majority in the House of Representatives. This consolation prize has allowed Boehner to claim that House Republicans have a mandate every bit as compelling as that earned by the president. Conservative champions Grover Norquist and Representative Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) echoed this claim.

“It’s very wrong to suggest that only the president has a mandate,” asserted former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who knows from congressional mandates. “The House Republicans also have a mandate, and it’s a much more conservative mandate than the president’s.”

When political compromise is suspect

The odds are that the extremely close national election wasn’t close at all in the place where you live.

And that’s a problem.

For the past four decades, Americans have been self-segregating into communities where they are increasingly likely to vote with their neighbors in overwhelming majorities. In 1976, only a quarter of voters lived in a county where either Jimmy Carter or Gerald Ford won by 20 points or more. By 2008, 46.7 percent of voters lived in one of these landslide counties.

This year, the national margins narrowed still further. But more than half of all voters (52 percent) lived in a county where either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney won by 20 percentage points or more.

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