Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A few corrections

Updated 3/20/2013

Due to an editorial error, David Brooks's column of March 19 misstated the location of a statue of a powerful, rambunctious horse and extremely muscular man in Washington, D.C. It is not outside the Department of Labor headquarters in the Frances Perkins Building on Constitution Avenue, but a quarter of a mile west at the Federal Trade Commission, in two versions, one on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue and the other on Constitution Avenue. Also, the horse is not being depicted as "reined in", i.e., stopped in gallop by a rider, but rather wrestled into harness from the ground. The man is dressed in a pair of baggy pajama bottoms.
Humanity Controlling Trade (Pennsylvania Avenue), by Michael Lantz (1942). Photo from University of Washington Law Library.
The statement that the statue "used to be a metaphor" is inaccurate; it was in fact intended as an allegory, and  continues to be one. Nor is it the case that the [jump]
man represents Government and the horse Capitalism: rather, as the statue's official title suggests, the man is Man or in more contemporary language Humanity, and the horse is Trade, as befits its location outside the FTC. What it would mean outside the Department of Labor if it was located there instead is anybody's guess.

Given the strenuous Socialist Realism of the work's style, it is perhaps inadequate to call it an allegory of "liberalism". It certainly might be said to represent the common-front view of the New Deal that capitalism as represented (metonymically) by trade needs always to be restrained by the people represented (literally, through elections) by government (under the undoubtedly liberal construction that government should not only be of and for the people but also by them).

To this extent, the author should not have said that liberalism has changed in this respect, or that
many progressives seem to believe that government is the horse, the source of growth, job creation and prosperity. Capitalism is just a feeding trough that government can use to fuel its expansion.
Liberals continue to follow Karl Marx in the belief that capitalism is a primary agent of growth and prosperity. To turn the allegory upside down correctly, Mr. Brooks should have suggested that many conservatives believe that government is a savagely powerful horse that must be held in check (the conservative construction being that government cannot be of and by the people at the same time).

In the same column, Mr. Brooks erred in suggesting that the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget proposal represents a "new worldview". It would also have been preferable not to claim that the CPC budget attempts to "boost economic growth with a gigantic $2.1 trillion increase in government spending" without explaining what he is talking about, which is not clear from the budget itself:
Our Budget’s Bottom Line
• Deficit reduction of $5.6 trillion
• Primary spending cuts of $869 billion
• Net interest savings of $856 billion
• Total spending cuts of $1.7 trillion
• Revenue increase of $3.9 trillion
• Public investment of $1.7 trillion
• Budget surplus of $30.7 billion in 2021, debt at 64.1% of GDP
Holy Mother of God, I've only got through three paragraphs! Sisyphus, by Jane McAdam Freud.
Mr. Brooks failed to adhere to Times journalistic practice in suggesting that the tax experience of the golfer Phil Mickelson ("rich people in places like California and New York are seeing the government take 60 cents or more out of their last dollar earned") is of any general relevance; as Len Burman commented in ultra-liberal Forbes Magazine,
My first reaction is that Phil should talk to his accountant because his effective tax rate is surely lower than 60 percent.  The fiscal cliff deal raised his marginal income tax rate to 39.6% (assuming he’s in the top bracket).  The phase-out of itemized deductions will add about 1.2% and he will also have to pay a combined Medicare tax rate of 3.8% (the regular 2.9% for self-employed people plus the new 0.9% surtax enacted to help finance the Affordable Care Act).  According to the New York Times article, Mickelson will also owe 13.3% in California state income taxes because he’s in the new millionaire bracket.  That adds up to 57.9%, but state income taxes and 1.45% of the payroll tax are deductible from federal income tax, so that reduces their net cost by 5.8% (39.6% of 14.75%).  In net, Mickelson will owe about 52% of his marginal earning in federal and state taxes.

But suppose Mickelson’s upper estimate on his tax bill–63%–were right. Is he saying that a $10 million endorsement deal wouldn’t be worth doing if he only got to keep $3.7 million after tax? Really? Mr. Mickelson, do you understand that the typical American would have to work about 75 years to earn that much money before tax?
It is likewise incorrect for Mr. Brooks to allege that "the entire Democratic governing vision, from President Obama on down, is based on the notion that we can have a growing welfare state and pay for it by taxing the top 2 percent" since all proposals to date from the president's on the right to the CPC's on the left call for huge cuts in government expenditures (see table above). Nor should he have given the impression that by citing Third Way's attack on the same straw man (which he should have identified more clearly, but I'm pretty sure it's this one) he has brought the straw man any nearer to existence; as the authors clearly state, their argument is irrelevant to the Obama proposals and as we have seen they are also irrelevant to the CPC plan.

Contrary to Mr. Brooks's assertions, you do "have to be a rabid supply-sider to believe that when you start taking away 80 percent or 90 percent of somebody’s top marginal earnings, you are going to get some pretty screwy effects"; because only rabidity could prevent an observer from recognizing that this experiment has been tried, from 1936 (79%) through 1940 (94%) to 1964 (78%) without conspicuously screwy consequences, unless by "screwy" you mean "marked by unparalleled growth accompanied by low relative inequality".
Image from Photobucket.
Mr. Brooks falls short of this newspaper's ethical standards in casting aspersions on European workers of the later 20th century for rewarding themselves with shorter work weeks and longer vacations after they had worked an economic miracle, as if there were something morally superior in demanding cash, particularly at a time when the choice of more leisure time would help to alleviate a fairly severe job shortage. Moreover, his remarks are stupid.

By the same token, it is almost beyond belief unseemly when he complains that "tax rates can have a surprisingly large influence on how much people invest in education, how likely they are to create businesses and which professions they go into." A highly progressive tax system might indeed encourage more young people to "settle" for teaching, firefighting, growing vegetables and raising pigs,  dancing, and practicing public interest law or family medicine. If it discourages them from becoming hedge fund managers, derivatives traders, or professional lickspittles like Mr. Brooks, so much the better. 
These job creators, in their overweening pride, declared themselves the equals of Apollo; whereupon the god sent his dread labor unions to strangle them all. Drawing by Filippo Agricola, early 19th century, Victoria and Albert Muscum.

Update 3/20:
What is said crudely in my next to last paragraph ("his remarks are stupid") is said very elegantly by Matthew Yglesias in a column in Slate:
The biggest problem the liberal faction of the Democratic Party generally has is getting heard at all, so I'm really glad that David Brooks dedicated a column to explaining his problems with the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget that was released last Thursday. In a way, I think Brooks' complaints make the case for the CPC budget more strongly than any of the praise I've read. 
So read the whole piece.

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