Opinion

The Great Debate

The lost promise of progressive taxes

By midnight on April 15, roughly 140 million Americans will have filed their federal income tax returns and breathed a sigh of relief. Politicians from both parties, however, will spend most of the day criticizing our current tax system.

Conservatives bemoan that not enough people are paying taxes. They insist that a minority of “job creators” and “makers” are underwriting the social benefits that go to the “takers.” Liberals cite the growing concentration of wealth and lament that the rich don’t pay their fair share. In this new Gilded Age, they say, the 1 percent should be paying far more of their annual earnings.

Yet neither party seems willing to reform our tax system dramatically. Both avoid talking about the vital link between taxes and government spending. This was not always the case.

More than a century ago, during the first Gilded Age, lawmakers embraced progressive taxation. Responding to the massive inequalities between plutocrats and workers, policymakers used graduated taxes to rebalance the tax burden, reminding Americans about their shared duties to each other.

As the nation struggles through another period of rising inequality and social dislocation, history shows there are effective ways to address these issues.

The Republican war cuts through CPAC

The 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference has ended but the harsh debate between the Republican establishment and the Tea Party goes on. Though nothing remains static indefinitely. Things do change.

The venerated conference, for example, begun years ago in a room at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel, has more of a corporate, insider feel than in the Reagan days. During the 70s and 80s, this meeting possessed a revolutionary “up the establishment” flair.

Some in the Tea Party complained that this year’s conference favored establishment incumbents, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senator John Cornyn (R-Tex.), rather than offering a platform to their conservative challengers.

What unites Democrats? Republicans!

Back in 1901, Finley Peter Dunne’s character Mr. Dooley said, “The Dimmycratic Party ain’t on speakin’ terms with itsilf.” Is that happening again now? You might think so, given the talk about a populist revolt on the left.

But Democrats are in fact remarkably united on most issues. They agree on everything from increasing the minimum wage, to extending unemployment benefits to raising the debt ceiling.

Yes, there are divisions emerging over trade and energy. But it’s not anything like the bitter confrontations we used to see among Democrats over civil rights and the Vietnam War. It’s also not anything like the bitter civil war that’s broken out in the Republican Party. No one is threatening to walk out.

Reagan’s true legacy: The Tea Party

 

Challenging the status quo is the correct condition of American conservatism.

At the end of the American Revolution, Benjamin Rush, who had signed the Declaration of Independence, vowed that though the war with Great Britain was over, the Revolution would go on.

The stirrings of original American conservatism were found in such sentiments. For the proper state of American conservatism — from Thomas Paine to Thomas Jefferson to Abraham Lincoln — is to be in a perpetual struggle for intellectual revolution.

Ronald Reagan, whose 103rd birthday would have been Thursday, exemplified this. No surprise the Gipper regularly quoted all three men.

Populism: The Democrats’ great divide

One day after President Barack Obama called for moving forward on trade authority in his State of the Union address, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared, “I am against fast track,” and said he had no intention of bringing it to a vote in the Senate.

Reid’s announcement came after 550 organizations, representing virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party outside of Wall Street, called on Congress to oppose fast track. Though obscured by the Democrats’ remarkable unity in drawing contrasts with the Tea Party-dominated Republicans in Congress, the debate between an emerging populist wing of the Democratic Party and its still-dominant Wall Street wing is boiling.

For a constantly disputatious “big tent” party, Democrats are remarkably unified behind the jobs and inequality agenda the president ticked off in his State of the Union address — raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, paycheck fairness for women, paid family leave, investment in infrastructure, education and research and development, and an “all of the above” energy strategy. Republicans block action on all these relatively modest reforms, providing ammunition for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

2014: Another election about Obamacare

Here we go again.

2014 will be the third election in a row in which Obamacare is the central issue. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, contributed to a fierce voter backlash against Democrats in November 2010. After the Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2012, the issue seemed to be settled by Obama’s re-election that November.

But no.

The botched Obamacare rollout this year has again thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda. Republicans are counting on opposition to Obamacare to propel them to a majority in the Senate next year. A conservative group is already running an ad attacking Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for supporting Obamacare: “Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”

2013 came to a close with two big political stories. The government shutdown in October was immensely damaging to Republicans. So damaging that House Republicans defied their conservative base and voted for a compromise budget deal last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked the Tea Party, accusing them of pushing congressional Republicans “into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government.” A fight Boehner said all along was unwinnable.

A road paved with sand

Bills have been introduced into both the House and the Senate to dismantle the federal government’s role in interstate highways and leave that massive responsibility to individual states. Tea Party adherents and other conservatives are applauding this effort. The Interstate Highway System, they argue, was largely completed in the 1980s and local communities should provide their own transportation needs.

The new transportation bill proposed by Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Representative Tom Graves (R-Ga.) however, tragically misses the mark when it comes to our national infrastructure needs. Their legislation would abandon the highway trust fund just when our roads and highways are most in need of reconstruction, repair and expansion.

Though many voters are demanding a check on big government, our elected officials need to remember that the Founding Fathers wrote into the Constitution a federal obligation to build and maintain a national infrastructure. Localizing responsibility for the Interstate Highway System is a complete disconnect from how the world’s largest economy works.

Post-shutdown: Time for recriminations

Recriminations!

It’s a familiar ritual in Washington every time a party loses a battle or a candidate loses an election. Only this time, it could lead to something more serious: A split in the Republican Party.

The most severe recriminations are aimed at the Tea Party. Why did they take on a fight they were certain to lose? And without any endgame or exit strategy? Don’t they understand how politics works?

Here’s the answer: No.

Or rather, they do understand how politics works — and they reject it. The United States has a Constitution that divides power. The only way anything gets done is through deal-making and compromise. It’s been that way for 225 years. (See the movie Lincoln for a good example).

Tea Party zealots hold the public debate hostage

This year’s contrived budget crisis is headed to its climax, as the date for defaulting on the nation’s debt approaches.

Washington’s budget debates are dizzying and incomprehensible. But at stake is what kind of country we will have. House Republican Tea Party zealots, backed by well-funded right-wing lobbies, continue to manufacture budget crises. They want to alarm Americans into accepting cuts in basic security — in food stamps, and home heating, in Social Security or Medicare benefits — that would otherwise be utterly unacceptable.

Lost in the uproar is any reasoned discussion of the real strategies we need to make this economy work for working people. It is vital that the president and the Democrats in Congress end this macabre dance and make it clear to people just what the stakes actually are. The measure of any compromise deal is whether it will crush the hostage-takers.

Shutdown scenarios for a no-budget blockbuster

What will a shutdown of the federal government ultimately look like?

One well-known scenario suggests that roaming bands of survivalists will be plundering stockpiles of abandoned weapons; the last vials of deadly diseases are cracking under the unsupervised mechanisms at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and all communications and travel are frozen — airports shut down, highways unpatrolled, bridges collapsing.

No, wait…that’s The Walking Dead. A zombie menace has shut down any federal authority, and local groups form nomadic associations to survive.

In another scenario, self-appointed militias are in control, and rebellion is brewing. Cities have been abandoned. There is no federal authority. Communities are isolated and terrified.

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