2012 - %3, January

Bruce Bartlett's Freakishly Good Tax Reform Timing

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 12:39 PM EST

Last night I read Bruce Bartlett's new book, The Benefit and The Burden: Tax Reform-Why We Need It and What It Will Take. It's written as a primer on American taxes, and it's a great introduction for anyone who doesn't really know much about the U.S. tax system and wants to learn the basics. It's clear, short, and a quick read.

Still, I confess that I was sort of charmed by Bruce's apparent optimism that genuine tax reform will be on the table after the election is over. "Genuine," of course, means broadening the tax base and getting rid of loopholes and deductions, and being revenue neutral at a minimum. In other words, it's not a tax cut. What are the odds of that?

Pretty slim. And yet, what do I see when I open my copy of the LA Times this morning?

President Obama will use his State of the Union address this evening to make a renewed case for an overhaul of the tax reform, one of a host of "common sense" ideas advisers say he'll offer to shore up the American economy and tackle the growing deficit.

...."We want to reward wealth and prosperity and success. But if we're going to move forward as a country, reduce our deficit, invest in things like manufacturing and education, how are we going to pay for it?" [David Plouffe] said on NBC's "Today" show. "There's no question that we have a tax code that's far too complicated, far too complex. And when the middle class, the average middle-class worker is paying more in taxes than people who are making $50 (million), $60 million a year, we've got to change that."

I still don't believe this is going to happen. Republicans are simply too deeply invested in the theology of both tax cuts and corporatism to cooperate on anything resembling genuine tax reform. It's not 1986 anymore.

Still, you never know. And it certainly demonstrates that Bruce has freakishly great timing. Tonight people will tune in to the State of the Union address and hear Obama calling for comprehensive tax reform, and tomorrow they'll all stampede to their local Barnes & Noble to find a nice, short book that explains what tax reform is all about. Bruce will become an overnight millionaire, right?

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SERVICE GUARANTEES CITIZENSHIP! DO YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE?

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 12:24 PM EST
From the film Starship Troopers.

The DREAM Act, a bill that was once supported by a number of Republican moderates, has become toxic for ambitious GOPers ever since it was embraced by President Obama. The latest iteration of the proposal would provide a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants brought to the US as children if they're planning to graduate from college or join the military, provided they meet strict behavior requirements over a decade. It failed to clear the Senate during the 2010 lame-duck session.

During Monday night's debate, however, the Republican consensus shifted just a smidgen to the left, as both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney endorsed the idea of a military-only DREAM Act, an idea once embraced by their fallen rival Rick Perry.

"If you live in a foreign country, and you are prepared to join the American military, you can, in fact, earn the right to citizenship by serving the United States and taking real risk on behalf of the United States," Gingrich said. "That part of the DREAM Act I would support."

"I would not sign the DREAM Act as it currently exists," Romney agreed, "but I would sign the DREAM Act if it were focused on military service."

Gingrich has signaled support for the military-only idea before, while Romney has previously rejected the DREAM Act wholesale. Still, Romney also once supported George W. Bush's comprehensive immigration reform plan, so you never really know what he's going to say. And Romney's made it clear he's still on board with forcing the parents and spouses of these prospective veterans to "self-deport" if they happen to be undocumented. 

The DREAM Act is premised on two basic arguments: Children should not be punished for the sins of their parents, and it's absurd for the United States to jettison potential high skilled workers who are not to blame for their own undocumented status. The military-only DREAM Act treats military service as a kind of punishment and levies a price for citizenship that neither Republican candidate was himself willing to pay. 

Iran Sanctions Bite Ever Harder

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 12:18 PM EST

While Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich were busy giving rabble-rousing speeches about how the appeaser-in-chief has been touring the globe apologizing for America and hollowing out our military influence, guess what happened?

Europe slapped a boycott on Iranian oil Monday, signaling that the Islamic Republic's second-largest market is likely to dry up as part of a U.S.-led sanctions campaign that has already inflicted serious damage on Iran's economy and sharply increased tensions.

....In the past, Europe often has resisted U.S. efforts to build pressure on Iran. "If you had told me a year or two ago that the Europeans would do something like this, I would have said you were crazy," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a research group in Washington that favors strong sanctions.

....The effect will be amplified by a new round of U.S. sanctions, which, if fully implemented, will prevent companies that do business with Iran's central bank from dealing with American companies....China says publicly that it will not yield to pressure to give up Iranian oil, but it has reportedly cut back on purchases for January and February and is pushing for discounts.

How about that? Europe is now fully on our side, Russia and China are officially neutral but not actively undermining us, and Iran is starting to feel serious pressure. Somebody's foreign policy seems to be having an actual effect.

It can't be President Obama, though. Too weak. Here's what's really happening: the EU is desperately getting on the sanctions bandwagon because they're afraid that President Gingrich will bring down the hammer after he wins a landslide 535 electoral votes in November (the big-government leeches in DC stubbornly hold out against the tide, of course). The fear of Newt is forcing them to get serious for the first time ever.

Think I'm joking? Ten bucks says some actual conservative columnist makes this argument. For all I know, someone already has.

Gingrich's Anti-Muslim Sugar Daddy Funded Film Shown To NYPD

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 12:00 PM EST
Scary Muslims Are Scary.

The New York Police Department, currently facing criticism from Muslim and civil liberties groups over a CIA-advised program that involved "mapping" the city's Muslim enclaves, showed an anti-Muslim training video to thousands of officers, the New York Times reports. The film purports to describe the centuries-long process by which Muslims are seeking to dominate the planet, and in particular the United States, by covertly subverting the Constitution and implementing Taliban-style Islamic law. 

The story was first broken by the Village Voice, but the Times' piece connects the film, The Third Jihad, and its shadowy sponsor, The Clarion Fund, to the 2012 election:

The 72-minute film was financed by the Clarion Fund, a nonprofit group whose board includes a former Central Intelligence Agency official and a deputy defense secretary for President Ronald Reagan. Its previous documentary attacking Muslims' "war on the West" attracted support from the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, a major supporter of Israel who has helped reshape the Republican presidential primary by pouring millions of dollars into a so-called super PAC that backs Newt Gingrich.

Adelson's donation to Gingrich likely has something to do with their shared anti-Palestinian views, namely the notion that Palestinian national identity is "invented."

However, Gingrich isn't the only candidate with links to the Clarion Fund, who as Salon's Justin Elliott and The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg have written, is also tied to a radical Israeli settler group. One of Mitt Romney's Middle East advisers, Walid Phares, who spent much of the Lebanese civil war as a political and ideological adviser to the leadership of a Christian militant group that committed atrocities, remains on Clarion's adisory board. The aforementioned former deputy defense secretary is birther Frank Gaffney, who also sits on Clarion's advisory board and recently praised Gingrich for saying he wouldn't appoint a Muslim to his cabinet unless he or she promised not to try and "impose [Shariah] on the rest of us." 

While Gingrich's formal ties to the million-dollar Islamophobia industry are stronger than Romney's, and Gingrich himself has endorsed the whole "stealth jihad" conspiracy theory, the former Massachussetts governor has nevertheless made an effort to quietly acknowledge those who believe American Muslims are quietly working to replace the Constitution with Taliban-style Islamic law (and force all of us to eat halal turkeys at Thanksgiving) by picking one of their more scholarly cohorts as an adviser on the Middle East. 

Greek Debt Talks Going Down to the Wire

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 11:57 AM EST

Reuters reports on the "voluntary" restructuring of Greece's debt:

Euro zone finance ministers on Monday rejected as insufficient an offer made by private bondholders to help restructure Greece's debts, sending negotiators back to the drawing board and raising the threat of Greek default.

....Banks and other private institutions represented by the Institute of International Finance (IIF) say a 4.0 percent coupon is the least they can accept if they are going to write down the nominal value of the debt they hold by 50 percent.

Greece says it is not prepared to pay a coupon of more than 3.5 percent, and euro zone finance ministers effectively backed the Greek government's position at Monday's meeting, a position that the International Monetary Fund also supports.

I love the smell of voluntary in the morning. Felix Salmon has more.

Kate Sheppard on Countdown: Did the White House Downplay the Scope of the BP Spill?

Tue Jan. 24, 2012 11:27 AM EST

Mother Jones reporter Kate Sheppard joined guest host David Shuster on Current TV's Countdown with Keith Olbermann on Monday night to discuss a new report alleging that the White House pressured scientists to underestimate the size of the Deepwater Horizon disaster:

Kate Sheppard covers energy and environmental politics in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. For more of her stories, click here. She Tweets here.

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Your Daily Newt: Thomas Jefferson Airplane

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 9:52 AM EST
Newt Gingrich puts a hand over his left ear, presumably to block out the sound of that awful rock music.

As a service to our readers, every day we are delivering a classic moment from the political life of Newt Gingrich—until he either clinches the nomination or bows out.

Newt Gingrich's ring-tone is ABBA's "Dancing Queen," so the operative question when considering his musical tastes isn't whether they're terrible, but just how that came to be. The answer, as with all things Gingrich, has to do with politics. In an interview with Frontline in 1995, his college friend, David Kramer, explained that Gingrich didn't really the see the point in music if he couldn't manipulate it for political gain:

I remember one afternoon taking the 'White Album' over there and playing it through and explaining to him what was significant about this whole experience. I'm not sure he ever figured it out. One night we went to a Jefferson Airplane concert in New Orleans and he found that very interesting—there were a lot of people there who were very excited and of course, his question was, 'Is there any political value in this?'

Sounds fun. As it happens, "Dancing Queen" actually has been appropriated for political ends. In 2010, the far-right Danish People's Party, obviously well-informed of the listening habits of 21st-century Danish youths, rewrote the lyrics to the song in an attempt to appeal to younger voters. When ABBA protested—"ABBA never allows its music to be used in a political context"—the party took the song down.

Candidates Hate Super-PACs (But Love Them, Too)

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 6:00 AM EST

If you were a candidate, you'd have plenty of reasons to hate super-PACs: They can raise unlimited money to attack you, all while keeping a safe distance from your opponents so that they don't look like mudslingers. On the other hand, you'd also have plenty of reasons to love super-PACs: They can raise unlimited money to attack your opponents, all while keeping a safe distance from you so that you don't look like a mudslinger.

Which explains why Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich can't seem to make up their minds on whether they want to embrace or erase super-PACs. Where they and the other candidates stand on the 2012 election's big-money groups:

Mitt Romney
Super-PAC relationship status: It's complicated
Last Wednesday, Romney told a South Carolina audience, "It's not that I don't support super-PACs. We raise money for super-PACs. We encourage super-PACs. Each candidate has done that." But during a debate just the day before, he took the opposite view: "We all would like to have super-PACs disappear, to tell you the truth…I think this has to change." And last December, Romney called super-PACs a "disaster," saying that campaigns should be able to raise unlimited funds instead: "We really ought to let campaigns raise the money they need and just get rid of these super-PACs." Yet Romney, whose affiliated super-PACs have poured $11.9 million into the race, has also said that the Supreme Court made "the correct decision" in Citizens United, the decision that paved the way for super-PACs.

Newt Gingrich
Super-PAC relationship status: It's complicated
During a New Hampshire debate in January, Gingrich attacked super-PACs as "totally irresponsible, totally secret, and I think it's a problem." At a campaign stop in the state, Gingrich echoed Romney's call for unlimited campaign fundraising, saying that he'd like to "allow people to donate unlimited after-tax money as long as they report it every single night on the internet." That was before casino mogul Sheldon Adelson dropped $5 million on Winning Our Future, the pro-Gingrich super-PAC that's been going after Romney. Gingrich has called Citizens United "a great victory for free speech." Super-PACs supporting him have spent more than $4 million.

Rick Santorum
Super-PAC relationship status: It's complicated
Santorum recently said that a constitutional amendment to roll back Citizens United "would be against the right to petition your government." Like his rivals, he's criticized the super-PACs attacking him; he described the rhetoric of one pro-Romney group as "just yuck." Yet Santorum may owe his campaign's continued existence to the super-PAC backing him. Billionaire Foster Friess, one of the 2012 election's biggest donors, is a key funder of the pro-Santorum super-PAC the Red White and Blue Fund. (Friess told NPR that he'd prefer a system in which "you or I could give whatever amounts we want directly to the campaign.") So far, pro-Santorum super-PACs have spent $2 million.

Ron Paul
Super-PAC relationship status: Friends
In his book Liberty Defined, Ron Paul criticizes foes of Citizens United: "Those who attack the court's decision say that corporations and unions have no rights of free speech, following the flawed belief that government can regulate commercial speech in advertising." A page later, Paul also decries limits on campaign fundraising, even though "the amount of money being spent on elections is obscene." Pro-Paul super-PACs have spent about $360,000.

Barack Obama
Super-PAC relationship status: Former enemies*
A week after Citizens United was decided in 2010, President Obama criticized the ruling in his State of the Union address. "Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that, I believe, will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limit in our elections," Obama declared, as Justice Samuel Alito appeared to mouth, "Not true, not true." Last July, an Obama spokesman told the Los Angeles Times that "neither the president nor his campaign staff or aides will fundraise for super-PACs" (a rule that apparently doesn't apply to his former staffers). Last week, in a Politico article detailing how the pro-Obama super-PAC Priorities USA Action is lagging behind those of his GOP rivals, an Obama campaign representative said, "I don't think the president is just ambivalent about his super-PAC. He's flat-out opposed to it." Priorities USA Action spent about $100,000 attacking Romney in South Carolina.

*Update: Obama has since decided that he and super-PACs are frenemies; his campaign plans to help fundraise for Priorities USA Action.

Buddy Roemer
Super-PAC relationship status: Not friends
The former Louisiana governor still hasn't received any debate invites, but he's keeping his campaign alive to decry the influence of money in politics. He routinely criticizes super-PACs on Twitter and starred in a Stephen Colbert super-PAC ad to poke fun at them. Roemer, who has proposed the "elimination of Super PACs entirely," has no super-PAC supporting him.

Chart: Is Obama Really the "Food Stamp" President?

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 6:00 AM EST

In his South Carolina victory speech, Newt Gingrich laid into President Obama and disparaged him as the "food stamp" president—as if it's a repugnant notion to help Americans when they're struggling. In any case, he inspired me to chart some data.

I calculated the percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population—anybody 17 and older who's neither in prison nor the military—receiving federal food aid. (Click on links for source data; I used the July population figures.) The red and blue bars indicate the party of the president who created that year's budget. For instance, Obama's first budget was for fiscal year 2010, which commenced in October 2009. So for the first three quarters of 2009, America was operating on a Bush budget.

So what does this tell us? Well, food stamp use is certainly higher than it's been in more than four decades. Is that because, as Gingrich claims, Obama is nurturing a culture of dependency? Hardly. It just means that more people are hurting (to the degree that a few have even resorted to illegal activities to pay the bills).

The chart also tells us that the explosion of participation in the food stamp program began with President Bush's first budget and continued all through his tenure. More Americans signed up for food assistance under Bush than have signed up under Obama—so far, anyway. And if you really want to blame presidents for soaring food stamp use, you should probably also point out that Bush had eight years to turn the trend around—including four years with backup from a solidly GOP Congress—yet failed to do so.  

The steepest decline in food stamps came under President Clinton—when Gingrich was House speaker and the nation was going hog-wild with its dot-com boom. President Reagan, Gingrich's hero, whose deficit spending helped fuel a degree of prosperity, oversaw a decline in food stamp use followed by an increase that left things worse than when he took office.

In short, it's disingenous of Gingrich, and really kind of insulting to out-of-work Americans, to go after Obama on this account. The candidate is smart enough to know that the number of hungry people seeking help is a pretty good gauge of our economic health. And as the chart makes clear, neither party has a monopoly on the good times.

UPDATE (Jan. 24, 3:41 EST) — This just in. A large and growing share of food stamp households (48 percent) are working households. So much for Newt's dependency theory.

We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for January 24, 2012

| Tue Jan. 24, 2012 5:57 AM EST

US Army Spc. Gerald Schumacher of 2nd Battalion, 35th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, climbs a mountain on January 11, 2012, in Watapur district, Kunar province, Afghanistan. Photo by the US Army.