Why Do Lefties Hate Tax Cuts on the Rich?

Reading Tim Pawlenty's paean to double plus supply-side-ism yesterday made me wonder, once again, why conservatives think we liberals are opposed to it. I mean, if it actually worked, why would we be? It's politically popular, and by their accounts it would generate trillions of dollars in extra revenue that we could use to finance our beloved lefty social programs. What's not to like?

The only answer I can come up with is that conservatives are now completely invested in their theory that we liberals loathe rich people so much that we don't care. We all want to screw the wealthy so badly that we're willing to forego the elections we'd win and the mountains of revenue we'd gain if we lowered their taxes. We hate them that much.

Or is there some other wacky theory that's popular in conservative circles but that I'm unaware of?

The Truth Will Out (And It Should)

Karl Smith:

To my mind there are few things that tax intellectual ethics more profoundly than whether the psychotropic debate should be had in public. It is my general feeling that it should not.

My blog is not read by the general public but I will make no attempt to be transparent. Those in the know, know what I am talking about.

Hmmm. I don't know for sure what Karl is referring to, but I assume he's talking about the ongoing debate over whether or not psychoactive drugs like antidepressants actually work. There's a growing body of evidence that they don't — at least not the way we think they do. Rather, they're mostly very expensive placebos.

Is this dangerous to talk about in public? Sure, to some extent. After all, relief is relief, regardless of whether it's caused by a known biologic reaction or by a more mysterious placebo effect. If you had a friend who was taking, say, Prozac, and they reported feeling a lot better, would you take them aside and inform them that research suggests Prozac is nothing more than a complicated sugar pill and their response is probably just a placebo effect? Sure, if you're an asshole. After all, telling them this has a good chance of making their belief in the drug vanish, and they'll go back to feeling crappy. Nice work, alleged friend!

But that's quite a different thing from discussing this as a general topic in public forums. Here's the problem: there are enormous commercial forces pushing to make sure that we all continue to think these drugs work, and a non-public discussion is almost certain to be far less effective than a public discussion at applying pressure for change. Without public pressure, we'll get an endless faux-analytic debate in industry circles that's dominated far more than anyone wants to admit by the financial interests of the drug makers. Their ability to control these debates by selective release of data, financial incentives to researchers and doctors, and sophisticated industry marketing campaigns aimed at physicians, is hardly a secret.

My take on the historical record is that it usually takes public pressure — and plenty of it — to really move the needle on this stuff. There are just too many powerful industry interests fighting to maintain their financial stakes and willing to manufacture endless doubt about results they don't like. Examples of this are simply legion. So if we want to get to the truth of this — and in the long term, that's the most helpful thing we can do for everyone — we need to have this debate in public. It's messy, but the net result will be for the best.

Timewaster of the Day: Hollywood Trajectories

Here's a great new timewaster. Slate managed to talk the folks at the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes into giving them access to their database so that you can create graphs of how well various Hollywood luminaries have been reviewed over the past couple of decades. Let's try it out. Last night I was watching Dangerous Liaisons on cable, so let's check out Michelle Pfeiffer's career. Here it is:

Interesting! Her role in Dangerous Liaisons is nearly her career high point (93% rating), second only to her star turn in The Fabulous Baker Boys (96%). After that her career takes a steep dive, bottoming out in 1996 with To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday (15%) and then steadily working its way back up.

Of course, this is pretty much what any film critic could have told you too. But this is much quicker and more quantitative, aggregating the preferences of thousands of reviewers over dozens of years. The graphing tool is here (scroll down). Have fun!

Via Doughnut Orbitals.

Dirty Tricks

So I'm browsing through The Corner this morning to see if anyone has said something outrageous that's worth a bit of mockery, when I come across a post from Christian Schneider about the ongoing recall elections in Wisconsin. It starts off with some stuff about Republicans claiming that the elections are being handled unfairly, and then offers up an interesting bit about Randy Hopper, a recall target who's in hot water because when demonstrators came by his house a while back, they "were told by Hopper’s wife to buzz off because he lived down in Madison with his 25-year-old mistress." Ouch.

But then there was this odd bit about Hopper and another guy who's likely to lose his recall election:

In order to delay recall elections, the GOP has planned to run fake Democratic primary candidates against the GOP challengers, which would push the elections back another month. That would give Republicans an extra month’s worth of distance from the collective-bargaining imbroglio that got them in this situation, and would allow more time to campaign.

Yet this will almost certainly be seen as a “dirty trick” by media and some voters.

Well, yes, I suppose it would be "seen" as a dirty trick. In fact, it would be a dirty trick. It wouldn't be the first time in campaign history this has been done, but still, it's unquestionably a dirty trick. Schneider, in defense, suggests that "it can be argued that the recall elections in themselves are merely dirty tricks," and I suppose that can be argued. Pretty much anything can be argued, as Sarah Palin's fans have conclusively proven over the past few days. But the plain truth is that a recall election isn't a dirty trick, while running a fake candidate merely to artificially extend a campaign (and cost taxpayers a bunch of extra dough in the process) is a dirty trick. That's why these candidates are called "fake." I hope this clears things up for everyone.

How the Game is Played, IPO Division

Back when I used to work for a living, I often wondered why investment banks all charged 7% fees for managing IPOs. Why wasn't there more competition among bankers? Why didn't some sharp IPO operators at Goldman or Morgan Stanley head off to start up a boutique firm that snagged high-quality business with slightly lower fees? What happened to the free market?

Well, now we know the answer: because there's widespread collusion on Wall Street. Felix Salmon summarizes the damning evidence here.

Quote of the Day: Bernanke on Spending Folly

From Ben Bernanke, speaking at the International Monetary Conference in Atlanta today:

If the nation is to have a healthy economic future, policymakers urgently need to put the federal government's finances on a sustainable trajectory. But, on the other hand, a sharp fiscal consolidation focused on the very near term could be self-defeating if it were to undercut the still-fragile recovery....By taking decisions today that lead to fiscal consolidation over a longer horizon, policymakers can avoid a sudden fiscal contraction that could put the recovery at risk.

Translation: Don't cut federal spending, idiots. Cut it in the future.

Further translation: The economy is fragile, but we at the Fed aren't going to do anything about it. And I guess Congress isn't going to do anything about it either. But for God's sake, at least limit yourselves to doing nothing. Actively slashing spending is almost too stupid to bear thinking about.

Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, the conservative Republicans who have run the Fed for the past 24 years, have now both gone on record telling their fellow conservative Republicans to back away from the cliff and stop being idiots. It's a sign of what's happened to the GOP that these warnings have had no visible effect other than to make them apostates to be maligned in stump speeches.

Tim Pawlenty today:

I promised to level with the American people. To look them in the eye. And tell them the truth.

OK, Tim. Hit me with it. I'm ready to be leveled with and told hard truths that I might not like:

I propose just two rates, 10% and 25%.....A one-third cut in the bottom rate....And a 28% cut in the top rate to spur investment and job creation. In addition, we should eliminate all together the capital gains tax, interest income tax, dividends tax and the death tax.

....Once we unleash the creative energy of America’s businesses, families and individuals as we did in the eighties and nineties, a booming job market will reduce demand for government assistance. And rising incomes will increase federal revenues....5% economic growth over 10 years would generate 3.8 trillion dollars in new tax revenues.

So that's Tim Pawlenty's hard truth? That if I suck it up and accept lower taxes, federal revenues will magically go up and our deficit problem will already be half solved without anyone having to do anything? That's some tough talkin', governor. You'll probably take a real hit in the polls for this kind of truthtelling.

It's hard to know what to say about this. The pander quotient in Pawlenty's speech is just off the charts. It's less a speech than a series of Reagan-era applause lines bulked up on steroids and then stitched together for public consumption. Reduce taxes on the rich (plus a little bit on the middle class so it's not too obvious what's going on). Cut corporate taxes. Pass a balanced budget amendment. Raise the Social Security retirement age. Eliminate the post office, the government printing office, Amtrak, and Fannie and Freddie. Apply "Lean Six Sigma" to generate 20% spending reductions.1 Slash regulations that cost us $1.75 trillion per year. Repeal Dodd-Frank. Repeal healthcare reform. Gut the EPA. Keep the dollar strong. No more "printing money."

I dunno. It feels like Pawlenty is auditioning for the lead role in a campaign remake of "Heart of Darkness" or something. A couple of miscellaneous comments, though. First, after a few years of skirting dangerously close to reality, I guess it's once again official Republican dogma that tax cuts pay for themselves and then some. Glad to see they can still kick it old school. Second, it looks like the battle of the GOP "adults" — Romney and Pawlenty — is taking shape. Romney lately seems to be hedging a bit toward non-insanity, hoping that there's still a majority in the Republican Party that isn't quite willing to sail completely over the Palin/Beck/Limbaugh cliff into fairyland. Pawlenty, conversely, is going all in. If you believe in faith, freedom, and that old-time supply-side black magic, he's your man.

Which will Republican voters choose? I don't know, but the battle lines seem fairly well drawn now.

1No, I have no idea what this bit of corporate consultant babble means either, and I refuse to Google it to find out.

How Did We Manage to Kill Ilyas Kashmiri?

A friend emails to alert me to the following interesting timeline:

May 27: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Islamabad with a list of five top militant leaders that Washington would like to see dead. One of them is Ilyas Kashmiri, a terrorist leader who is close to al-Qaeda and suspected of playing a role in both the Mumbai massacre of 2008 and several attacks within Pakistan, including last month's attack on a naval base in Karachi.

May 29: Syed Saleem Shahzad, the Pakistan Bureau Chief for Asia Times Online, disappears. Shahzad, who has been critical of Pakistan's ISI and has exposed its cooperation with al-Qaeda elements, is known to have had contacts with Kashmiri and other jihadists.

May 31: Shahzad is found in a canal 80 miles outside of Islamabad, tortured and beaten. His cell phone is wiped clean from the previous 18 days.

June 3: Kashmiri is reportedly killed in a U.S. drone attack.

My friend asks: did the ISI simply kill a journalist who embarrassed the government and the military? Or did they torture his contacts out of him, as they've done to journalists before, on our behalf?

There are other alternatives, of course, including the possibility that the ISI had nothing to do with either Shahzad's death or the drone attack on Kashmiri. They just aren't very plausible. There's probably a pretty good story here for an enterprising reporter who's not afraid of ISI reprisals.

Chart of the Day: Being Rich in America

Via Felix Salmon, here's a fun new tool to play around with: the World Top Incomes Database. For example, here's a chart showing how the top 1% are doing in America vs. six other rich economies from around the world. Pretty good job, rich Americans!

You can create your own charts too. Just click here and then click on "Graphics." It's fun for the whole family — assuming your family is really wealthy, anyway. For the rest of us, at least it's free.

Assisted Suicide, Round 2

One more go-around on assisted suicide. Ezra Klein writes that he was unpersuaded by Ross Douthat's column on Monday condemning the practice:

But for all that some of the arguments for physician-assisted suicide are convincing, this article by Ezekiel Emanuel continues to give me pause. Emanuel shows that unbearable physical agony is almost never the reason patients give for seeking euthanasia.... Depression and other forms of mental distress — which are, of course, a sort of pain — are by far the more common motivator.

Emanuel also worries that the option of euthanasia will lead to worse care for the dying, and perhaps even subtle coercion on the part of loved ones and medical professionals who can no longer bear to see a patient suffer, or, more worryingly, can no longer afford to treat their suffering....That may seem alarmist now, but give euthanasia 15 or 20 years to become commonplace, and abuse, or at least overuse, is much easier to imagine.

I want to make a couple of points, one practical and one a little more philosophical. Emanuel's piece is 14 years old and I don't know if he's changed his views in the meantime, but on its merits I didn't find it nearly as persuasive as Ezra did. On a practical level, Emanuel argues that the experience of the Netherlands, which effectively decriminalized assisted suicide in the early 80s, demonstrates that not every physician follows the rigorous rules that have been set up to insure that assisted suicide is available only to those who genuinely want it and are of sound mind. But in fact, the numbers he cites are fairly small and not especially troubling. Only about 1% of Dutch deaths are assisted, hardly a tidal wave; most violations of the law are minor; and there's very little evidence that there's any serious level of abuse going on. It's trivially true that no human set of rules will ever be perfect, or perfectly followed, but falling short of perfection is a poor argument against how the Netherlands handles assisted suicide. In fact, the evidence suggests that they've done quite a good job of policing themselves on this front. If you don't want to die, nobody in the Netherlands is prodding you to do it anyway.

On a more philosophical level, the bigger issue here is the existence of a slippery slope: once assisted suicide becomes widely accepted, doctors and loved ones might start coercing dying patients into accepting it. It would be foolish to pretend that this an entirely ridiculous concern, but there's a good general rule to follow when you think about slippery slope arguments: does the slippery slope work with or against human nature? The former are far more dangerous than the latter.

For an example of the former, think about the torture of terrorist detainees. If we allow it in a few cases, is that likely to lead to a slippery slope in which we torture more and more prisoners? I think that's a real concern: millennia of human history demonstrate that jailers routinely torture their prisoners unless there are extremely strong, bright line rules against it. It is, unfortunately, pretty universal behavior If you break the taboo against it, you unleash that dark part of human nature, and once unleashed there's a very stong likelihood that it will feed on itself and get continually worse. That's why keeping this hard-won taboo in place is so worthwhile.

But what about assisted suicide? If it's legalized and becomes accepted, will it lead to doctors and family members trying to get rid of old and dying patients? In some cases, yes: the world is full of bad people, after all. But how likely is this to become a widespread problem? Not very, I think, because it flies against everything we know about human nature. Hollywood potboilers notwithstanding, family members don't generally want to kill off fellow family members, and that goes double for actively killing off parents. There are always going to be a small number of cases where this happens, but with even minimal safeguards in place it's simply not likely to ever become a major problem.

So the arguments against assisted suicide still seem weak to me. What's more, as with all proposed policy changes, you need to ask the question: compared to what? Will there be abuses of assisted suicide? Of course. This is the real world we're dealing with. But our current system of caring for the elderly already features massive, gruesome, systemic abuses. These abuses aren't hypothetical, they're real. The chances that a properly constructed assisted suicide regime would produce worse results strikes me as slight.