Tuesday, November 7, 2017

David Brooks, Reluctantly

Unsigned print via The Oatmeal

David Brooks writes ("The Clash of Social Visions"):
A familiar number on the caller ID screen. I gave it three rings, enough to grab a shluk from the vodka bottle and stash it back in the desk drawer, then picked up. The voice was familiar too, male, patrician, a little weary. "Brooks?"
"Not exactly."
"Listen, pal," I said. "I don't work for you any more. I'm a public intellectual. I serve a higher purpose now, I'm reweaving the fabric of our out-at-the-elbows society." It was true. Only the week before I'd lectured the nation about the dangers of excessive partisanship, and pointed out that sexual predation is caused by guys getting bored with the hookup culture, which they should not have joined in the first place, preferably by remaining forever 11 years old and remembering the lessons learned from reading Jane Austen, or at least watching the stuff on PBS. "The partisan's over."
Beat. Then he went on: "Listen, Brooks, it's not a lot we need, just a kind word on the tax bill."
"The what? Are you serious? Did you read Krugman today? 'According to the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation, by the time the law would be fully phased in, there would be huge income gains for millionaires — even bigger if you take repeal of the estate tax into account — with minimal benefits for a great majority of the population. In fact, tens of millions of middle- and lower-income families would end up facing tax increases, which is pretty amazing for a bill that would add $1.5 trillion to the deficit.'"
"You don't have to support it. Just say it has a social vision."
"What social vision?"
"To take from the rich and give to the richer!"
"The Republican vision is that the corporate sector is more important to a healthy America than the professional and nonprofit sector. The Republican vision is that companies that thrive in the red states, like manufacturing and agriculture, are more important for the country than the industries that thrive in blue states, like finance, media, the academy and the movies!"
"And the Democrats? Do they have a vision?"
He whined like George W. Bush imitating Karla Faye Tucker. "Please Mister, I live in San Francisco, just give me my mortgage interest deduction!"
I said I'd think about it.
The manufacturing sector represented 11.7% of GDP in 2016, and 8.5% of the workforce, for what it's worth. Food production (agriculture, forestry, fishing, and the like) is a bit over 2% of GDP and 3% of the workforce, if you count the undocumented immigrants without whom it can't survive. Just saying. I'm certainly not saying they shouldn't be more important than they are, especially in the distressed states that used to rely on them and now have so little to keep them going except the health care industry and the Walmart.

But the provisions of the Republican tax bill don't do anything for that situation. A lot of people, including apparently Brooks, seem to think that because of all the money it aims to squeeze out of mostly Democratic high-tax states through cutting off state and local income tax deductions, capping the mortgage interest deduction,  and taxing university investments, that that money is meant to somehow find its way to the mostly Republican low-tax states, but that's not the case. It all goes to corporations (i.e., shareholders), without regard to what states they're in or whether they run banks or factories, newspapers or hog farms, and to wealthy people with pass-through income. I just learned to my astonishment that in the current draft pass-through income apparently still gets the SALT deduction.
That's really shocking. The rich investor in Massachusetts gets to keep the deduction and the successful writer or heart surgeon or inventor doesn't. As Krugman says, it just keeps getting clearer that the aim of the bill is to reward people who have their money work for them instead of working themselves, like Emperor Trump:
Even among high-income Americans, the plan seems designed to reward those who don’t work for a living — or more precisely, the less you actually do to earn your income, the bigger your tax break. Business owners would owe less in taxes than high-earning professionals; passive investors, who just sit there and collect dividends, would owe less than those who at least run their businesses. And wealthy heirs, who did nothing to earn their wealth except choose the right parents, would pay no taxes at all.
Brooks rejects the plan—the $1.5 trillion deficit is too much and the generosity toward corporations is over the top—and he may suspect it could cost him a lot of money personally:

These changes could leave the rich paying an astonishingly high percentage of their income in taxes. Scott Sumner of EconLog calculates that when you throw in state and local taxes, rich Californians would face a tax rate of 62.7 percent.
(where "rich Californians" means "rich Californians whose wealth comes from work rather than investment). But he insists that the Republicans have a "social vision" on tax reform, and the Democrats don't:

What, by contrast, is the Democratic vision? Are Democrats going to spend the next few months defending the mortgage interest deduction and other tax breaks for their own rich?
I don't think we need to engage that argument particularly—we've got excellent ideas on what to do with the EITC and child tax credit, for starters. But why exactly should we agree there's a need for "tax reform" at all? Other than to add progressivity at the top and make sure the deficit finances things worth having, like adequate apprenticeships and job retraining, accessible substance-abuse treatment, etc.? Why should we agree with Republicans that the tax system in itself is some kind of urgent problem?

If voters feel they're too highly taxed, it's mostly not about the income tax in any case, but the payroll tax for entitlements (which most of us on the left are currently talking about massively increasing, with the Medicare for All program, in a way that might not much change the size of the paycheck for those of us who are seeing employer-sponsored insurance premiums on our pay stubs now, or those on Medicaid, but for the growing numbers of the Obamacare market, stuck in between, that could be a terrifying-looking loss of income, I really don't feel too good about that from the political standpoint). Let's consider talking about the taxation that the majority of us actually feel. But taking a purely negative attitude toward the current Republican ideas is exactly what they deserve. And I think the voters get it. Brooks is out there, under the instructions of his secret overlords, nobly disregarding his personal feelings about the piece of dreck, to distract them, putting the onus on us.

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