2012 - %3, April

The Rich Aren't So Different From You and Me After All

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 10:00 PM EDT

Did you know that the richest 1% of Americans pay 21% of all taxes? That's a lot! But do you know why they pay 21% of all taxes? It's because they make 21% of all the income.

Suddenly that doesn't seem all that unfair, does it? In fact, the rich are doing mighty well for themselves if we basically have a flat tax in America. And as it turns out, they are, and we do: the federal tax system is modestly progressive, but state and local taxes are modestly regressive. Add 'em all up and you end up with a pretty flat tax system. Here are the numbers for 2011 from Citizens for Tax Justice:

Click the link for information about tax rates. All told, Americans pay about 28% of their income in taxes.1 The poor and working class pay a bit less, but the entire top half of the income spectrum, from middle class to super rich, pays almost exactly the same rate, around 29-30% of their income. Not a bad deal for the wealthy.

1In case you're curious, that's about 24% of GDP. Roughly speaking, we pay about 15% of GDP in federal taxes and 9% of GDP in state and local taxes.

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Why George Zimmerman is Unlikely to Ever Be Convicted of Killing Trayvon Martin

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 8:03 PM EDT

Yesterday, referring to the Trayvon Martin case, I asked whether "wrestling someone to the ground and throwing some punches" was enough to count as a reasonable fear of great bodily harm, the standard in Florida for defending yourself with lethal force. Today, a reader sent me a link to a Sunday piece in the Tampa Bay Times, and the answer sure seems to be yes. The detailed tick-tock of exactly who did what that night is interesting in the court of public opinion, but apparently it matters not a whit as far as the law is concerned:

"The real issue is what happens around the 60 seconds prior to the shooting," said Ed Griffith, a spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, which brought the charges against Greyston Garcia. "Everything else has emotional content, but from a legal perspective, it all comes down to the 60 seconds before the incident."

It doesn't matter if you're the one who initiated the confrontation. It doesn't matter where you are, as long as you have a right to be there. It doesn't even matter if you shoot someone who's fleeing. All that seems to matter is whether you have any kind of plausible claim to have feared great bodily harm. Here's a recent case:

Nine days after Trayvon Martin was shot dead in Sanford, Brandon Baker, 30, and his twin brother were driving separate cars toward the apartment they shared in Palm Harbor. Seth Browning, a 23-year-old security guard who later told deputies he was concerned with Baker's erratic driving, pulled in close behind Baker to get his license tag number.

Baker turned off East Lake Road, then onto an access road and came to a stop....Browning followed and stopped....Baker climbed out of his truck and walked to Browning's window. His brother [] said Baker was trying to figure out why Browning was tailgating him.....Browning sprayed Baker with pepper spray, then shot him in the chest. He told deputies that Baker had punched him and he was in fear for his life.

....More than 500 people have signed their online petition to get "stand your ground" repealed. "This case is being considered a 'stand your ground' case and should not be since Seth Browning was the sole 'AGGRESSOR' and 'CHOSE' to tailgate, pull over, pepper spray, and shoot and kill Brandon Baker," it says. "Seth Browning did NOT act out of self defense and should be prosecuted for killing Brandon Baker."

But if history serves, the pursuit may not matter. The case will hinge on what happened in the moments before Browning pulled the trigger, and whether he feared for his life. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gaultieri said this week that the case is still under investigation.

The whole story is fascinating and well worth a read. And while I'm no lawyer, it certainly seems to suggest that if George Zimmerman ever goes to trial, prosecutors will have a tough time winning a conviction.

UPDATE: In the third paragraph I originally said, "It doesn't matter if you're the one who started the fight." That was sloppy. The story itself suggests that it doesn't matter who "initiated the confrontation." That's legally a different thing. I've corrected the text.

Corn on Hardball: Why Does Mitt Think He Should Be President?

Wed Apr. 4, 2012 7:29 PM EDT

David Corn and former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele appeared on MSNBC's Hardball to discuss Mitt Romney's latest attempts to define why he should be president. Now that his victories in the GOP primaries have established Romney as the all-but-inevitable Republican nominee, the 2012 presidential race has narrowed down to a fight between Romney and President Obama. Will Romney, often labeled a flip-flopper, be able to take control of his image and redefine himself for the general presidential campaign?

David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. Follow him on Twitter.

Tsunami Wreckage Crosses the Ocean

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 5:27 PM EDT

 Tsunami debris track.: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using model data courtesy of Jan Hafner, International Pacific Research Center.

Tsunami debris track: NASA Earth Observatory image by Jesse Allen, using model data courtesy of Jan Hafner, International Pacific Research Center.

Where's the  5 million tons of debris from Japan's Tohoku earthquake and tsunami headed? The government of Japan estimates that 70 percent of it sank to the seafloor while 1.5 million tons kept floating. The map above and video below show track predictions of the Surface Currents from Diagnostic (SCUD) model. From NASA's Earth Observatory:

Orange and red shaded areas represent parcels of water with a high probably of containing floating debris. The deeper the red color, the higher the likely concentration. The debris field stretches roughly 5,000 kilometers by 2,000 kilometers [3,100 by 1,242 miles] across the North Pacific. The model begins with more than 678,000 "tracers" being released from various points along the northeastern coast of Japan on March 11, 2011...The still image above shows the predicted distribution of debris by April 3, 2012.

Debris was initially carried by the powerful Kuroshio Current towards the North Pacific Current. Some should reach western North America within a year or two, while much is likely destined for eternal capture in the North Pacific Gyre's garbage patch.

 

 

A Non-Impossible Fix for Europe's Economic Problems

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 4:20 PM EDT

Is there an easy solution to the problems of Europe's south? Well, one of the eurozone's fundamental problems is that (a) workers in the GIPSI countries are uncompetitive and (b) the GIPSI countries are running persistent trade deficits. They need to import less while Europe's core (especially Germany) needs to export less.

So how do you make workers more competitive? One way is to simply cut their pay, but that's hard. Another way is to substantially reduce payroll taxes, which reduces labor costs without cutting take-home pay.

And how do you discourage imports? One way is to devalue your currency, but countries in the eurozone can't do that. Another way is to raise your VAT, which makes goods more expensive.

Put those together, mix in some more sensible monetary policy, and you get "fiscal devaluation" plus higher inflation. That's the recommendation of Georgetown's Jay Shambaugh, glossed here by Matt Yglesias:

  1. A pro-exports tax swap in peripheral countries where payroll taxes are slashed and the money is made up with higher VAT.
  2. A pro-consumer tax swap in the core countries, where VATs are slashed and the lost revenue is made up with a combination of bigger deficits and higher payroll taxes.
  3. A higher inflation target from the European Central Bank.

Shambaugh also recommends increased ECB purchases of sovereign debt; capital injections into stressed banks; and bigger budget deficits in "non-stressed" countries. This all sounds surprisingly....reasonable. And even doable. It still wouldn't be easy, since there would very definitely be some losers from this kind of policy, but it's not flatly impossible. That's a start.

Does the Supreme Court Have It In for the Democratic Party?

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 1:22 PM EDT

As long as we're obsessing about the Supreme Court this morning, I might as well make another point that's been on my mind lately: If the Supreme Court overturns Obamacare, it would be their third major anti-Democratic decision in the past dozen years. That's capital-D Democratic. As in the political party.

When it comes to judicial activism, conservatives claim that we liberals have nothing to complain about. The Warren Court was famously activist in a liberal direction, after all, and we lefties thought that was just fine. But there's a real difference here. The famous Warren Court decisions — ending school segregation, expanding the right to counsel, enforcing one-man-one vote, banning organized school prayer — were obviously decisions that conservatives didn't like. But there was nothing in them that was especially damaging to the interests of the Republican Party.

But things are different this time around. In 2000, Bush v. Gore sent the Democratic Party's candidate for president packing and installed George W. Bush in the Oval Office. In 2010, Citizens United opened the floodgates of corporate campaign money, a ruling that very plainly disfavored the Democratic Party on a purely operational basis. And if Obamacare is overturned, it will be a decision that kills off the Democratic Party's biggest legislative achievement in decades.

The current Supreme Court is obviously more conservative than we liberals would like, but that's what happens when the other guys win elections. To some extent, them's the breaks. But to hand down decision after decision that very plainly opposes the agenda of one party over another is quite another. If there's an argument to be made that the court is endangering its legitimacy, this is it. It's not just that overturning Obamacare would be a prodigious repudiation of major legislation based on a very small and questionable point of constitutional law, it's that it would hammer home the point that this court just doesn't like the Democratic Party much. That's not something that either Democrats or Republicans really ought to be comfortable with.

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RIP: Insider Trading in Congress

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 1:17 PM EDT

Chalk one up for the reformers.

On Wednesday, President Obama signed into the law the Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge (STOCK) Act, which bans members of Congress and their staffs from using non-public information to get a leg up in the stock market. The law also creates a system for tracking in real-time the stock deals of those walking the halls of Congress. The STOCK Act's passage marks a victory (of sorts) for the good-government group Public Citizen, a long-time advocate of banning congressional insider trading. Here's a useful White House fact-sheet with a full rundown of the law's provisions.

What the STOCK Act does not do is shine some much-needed sunlight on the so-called political intelligence industry. Political intelligence companies meet with lawmakers and their staffs and gather valuable information for Wall Street firms and hedge funds to use in their investment decisions. But a provision forcing these companies to register like lobbyists, included in the original STOCK Act, was stripped out by House Republicans. That explains the bittersweet celebration from Public Citizen's top lobbyist Craig Holman, a driving force behind the bill. "This is a good bill—the most significant ethics achievement of the 112th Congress," he said in a statement. "But it could and should be stronger, and legislation is pending to strengthen it."

The bill's passage marks the end of a years-long, little noticed fight by Holman and others to outlaw congressional insider trading and drag political intelligence firms into the open. What set the STOCK Act on the path to passage, though, was an explosive 60 Minutes segment on the issue last November. (You can watch it here.) Coached by Holman, 60 Minutes' Steve Kroft laid out how members of Congress appeared to make investments based on non-public information. Kroft named names, among them House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio); House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.); Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), chair of the House financial services committee. (All the lawmakers denied any insider trading.)

The segment landed like a bomb in Congress. The number of co-sponsors to the STOCK Act leapt to 93. The Senate soon passed the full STOCK Act by a 96-3 vote.

Although the House would later pass a watered-down version of the bill, its passage is an important win for Holman and his allies. What's more, Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) has already introduced new legislation on political intelligence-gathering.

A Look Back at Supreme Court History

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 12:05 PM EDT

Speaking of constitutional history, Andrew Koppelman has an interesting piece today in the New Republic about a 1918 case that's surprisingly apropos of today's fight over Obamacare — and the conservative fear that upholding it would mean that Congress has been fully unleashed and can now do anything it damn well pleases. Back then, it was about a new federal law that banned the interstate shipment of the products of child labor:

The parallels between the child labor issue and the health care issue are remarkable. In both cases, the legislation in question was the product of a decades-long struggle....Only the federal government could address the issue, since no state would act on its own....Both then and now, challengers to the statutes had to propose that the Supreme Court invent new constitutional rules in order to strike them down. At the time it considered the issue in 1918, there was nothing in the Supreme Court’s case law that suggested any limit on Congress’s authority over what crossed state lines. On the contrary, the Court had upheld bans on interstate transportation of lottery tickets, contaminated food and drugs, prostitutes, and alcoholic beverages.

That’s why the Supreme Court’s invalidation of the law in 1918 astounded even those who had most strenuously opposed enactment. Hammer v. Dagenhart declared — in tones reminiscent of the Broccoli Objection to Obamacare — that if it upheld the law “all freedom of commerce will be at an end, and the power of the States over local matters may be eliminated, and, thus, our system of government be practically destroyed.” Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, dissenting, wondered how it could make sense for congressional regulation to be “permissible as against strong drink but not as against the product of ruined lives.” The Court responded that unlike all the contraband that it had permitted Congress to block, the products of child labor “are of themselves harmless.” This meant a completely novel constitutional doctrine: The Court took unto itself the power to decide which harms Congress was permitted to consider when it regulated commerce.

If Obama is going to delve into Supreme Court history to defend healthcare reform, maybe he should skip Lochner and Schechter and instead talk about the Supreme Court's overreach in Dagenhart. Reminding the country that a conservative court once overruled Congress and stood up for the right of 9-year-olds to operate power looms twelve hours a day might bring a little perspective to things.

Mitt Romney and Scott Brown: Frenemies or Soul Mates?

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 11:46 AM EDT
Sen. Scott Brown (R–Mass.)

I wrote on Monday about GOP political guru Eric Fehrnstrom's dilemma heading into the November election: How to convincingly shill for two candidates, Mitt Romney and Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, who hold sharply diverging views on the some of the biggests issues of the day. What will Fehrnstrom say when he's inevitably asked to defend Romney's fierce opposition to the Dodd–Frank Wall Street reform law—a law that Brown voted for (after watering it down) and is campaigning on already? Make one false step and you're the star of someone's $500,000 ad buy.

The flip side of that dilemma is that even if Fehrnstrom doesn't end up disparaging one of his candidates' positions, Democrats are perfectly content to lump Brown and Romney together as BFFs. Brown, locked in a dead-even re-election battle against Democrat Elizabeth Warren, got a lot of traction ahead of his 2010 special election by pushing back against Democrats' attempts to tie him to George W. Bush and other Republicans. Relative to the rest of the party, he's still quite popular in Massachusetts, in large part because voters see him as somewhat mavericky.

Massachusetts Democrats would like to change that, and they're hoping the presence of another Massachusetts GOPer on the ballot next November will make it easier to tie Brown to more-unpopular Republicans. Here's a new spot just released from the Massachusetts Democratic party:

There's some symmetry to the campaign, at least. For some time now, Warren has tethered her Senate campaign to the fortunes of President Barack Obama. Warren played a starring role in the president's recent documentary-quality infomercial, and the Obama campaign recently sent out two minutes of deleted scenes from the film featuring...Warren, talking about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau she conceived and helped design.

President Obama Shockingly Gets a Small Point of Legal History Wrong

| Wed Apr. 4, 2012 11:37 AM EDT

Speaking to reporters yesterday about his healthcare reform legislation, President Obama suggested that "a law like that" — i.e., one that clearly regulates interstate commerce — "has not been overturned at least since Lochner, right? So we're going back to the '30s, pre-New Deal." James Taranto is simply outraged:

In fact, Lochner — about which more in a moment — was decided in 1905. Thirty years later, after the New Deal had begun, the high court unanimously struck down one of its main components, the National Industrial Recovery Act, as exceeding Congress's authority under the Interstate Commerce Clause. The case was A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corp. v. U.S.  (1935).

....In citing Lochner, the president showed himself to be in over his head. The full name of the case, Lochner v. New York, should be a sufficient tip-off. In Lochner the court invalidated a state labor regulation on the ground that it violated the "liberty of contract"....Lochner, which was effectively reversed in a series of post-New Deal decisions, did not involve a federal law — contrary to the president's claim — and thus had nothing to do with the Commerce Clause, which concerns only the powers of Congress.

This cracks me up. It's true that Obama got this wrong. Clearly he hasn't been brushing up on his con law cases lately. But I'd be surprised if a single person in the original Republican primary field had even heard of Lochner or Schechter. As I recall, in 2008 Sarah Palin couldn't even name a single Supreme Court case other than Roe v. Wade.

Conservatives have long been desperate to paint Obama as an idiot — when they're not busy painting him as a Harvard elitist, that is — but if the best they can do is to feign outrage over the fact that Obama mis-cited a century-old Supreme Court case, they're digging pretty deep. If that represents the outside boundaries of Obama's ignorance, I'd say we have a pretty well-briefed president.

UPDATE: Okay, two things. First, it was a wee bit hyperbolic to suggest that none of the Republican primary candidates had heard of Lochner or Schechter. Several of them are law school grads, and those are famous cases. They've probably heard of them.

Second, one of the common defenses of Obama is that he meant to say "Lochner Era," which is just shorthand for the era from 1905 to the mid-30s, during which the Supreme Court routinely struck down laws that regulated commercial interests. Maybe so. But he specifically mentioned "pre New Deal," and the Lochner Era goes at least until 1935, when Schechter was handed down. That was very famously a New Deal case (it overturned the NIRA), not pre-New Deal. So that doesn't really fit.

Generally speaking, I've been a little surprised at how careless Obama has been on all this. His original statement that overturning ACA would be "unprecedented" was pretty sloppy. As it happens, I think it would be unprecedented in recent history, but you need to say that, and then say at least a few words about why it would be unprecedented. And the Lochner stuff was sloppy too. I'm not sure why he hasn't been a little more careful in his choice of words.

Nonetheless, listening to conservatives wail about a minor bit of imprecision in a small corner of con law history is a little hard to take, as is their frenzied suggestion that Obama was repudiating the whole concept of judicial review. Coming from a party that makes ridicule of pointy-headed, book-learnin' elites practically a litmus test for the presidency, it's a bit much.