Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Johnny, They Hardly Know Ye

Tax-cutting Republicans love JFK.  Well, it might be more accurate to say that they love their uninformed caricature of JFK.

Ever since Ronald Reagan made the GOP the party of "all tax cuts, all the time," every time the political debate turns to taxes, Republicans re-discover their crush on JFK.  Right on cue, this past Monday, Rep. Michael McCaul, R-TX, appeared on MSNBC's "Hardball" to make the Republican case for extending all of the Bush tax cuts, including those on income over $250,000 a year.  And he once again trotted out the Democratic tax-cutter:

There was a president by the name of John F. Kennedy who said let's cut taxes to get the economy moving again, and it worked…. Kennedy said that tax increases will not get the deficit and debt down and it will not create jobs because he knew it kills jobs.  It seems to me that the party of Kennedy has gone far astray from his principles.
In the Connecticut senate race, Republican candidate Linda McMahon (of pro wrestling fame)  has used footage of JFK talking about tax cuts to suggest that he would support her position.

It's hard to know where to start, but let's begin with the kernel of truth here.  It is the case that Kennedy did propose a tax cut during his short presidency (though it was actually pushed through Congress by LBJ, one of the more unpopular presidents among today's Republicans).

What Rep. McCaul does not say, and probably does not know, is that Kennedy was a rather reluctant tax cutter, in part because he did not want to increase the deficit.  The push for the tax cut came from Walter Heller, Kennedy's chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors.  Heller's reasoning was explicitly Keynesian: he believed that economic growth could be stimulated through a larger deficit, and thought tax cuts would help achieve that goal (in short, the opposite of contemporary Republican dogma that states that cutting taxes can reduce the deficit).  According to Richard Reeves' definitive biography, President Kennedy: Profile of Power, when Heller first proposed the cut early in the administration, Kennedy replied: "I asked people to sacrifice and you want me to start by announcing that I'm reducing their taxes?"

Eventually, in part due to fears that a recession might doom his re-election hopes in 1964, JFK was persuaded that it made both economic and political sense to propose a tax cut in his January 1963 State of the Union address.  His plan, he told Congress, was to reduce the current rates "which now range between 20 and 91 percent to a more sensible range of 14 to 65 percent."

Do not adjust your screen.  You read that correctly.  The top marginal tax rate in 1963 was 91 percent for income above $400,000 a year.  It was 50 percent for income between $32,000 and $36,000 a year.  John Kennedy was calling for a 65 percent top marginal rate to spur the economy, and this has made him the GOP's favorite Democrat, the one today's Democrats should emulate, whose principles his party has abandoned.  Barack Obama is calling for a top rate of 39.6 percent and he is labeled a "socialist" by that same GOP.  One can only imagine what new terms of opprobrium the right would need to create if Obama proposed a 65 percent top tax rate.

It is hard to know whether this attempt by modern Republicans to claim JFK as one of their own is the result of insincerity or ignorance, but in either case it is at odds with historical reality.  Kennedy proposed cutting taxes because the massive debt from World War II, which necessitated those high tax rates, had by then reached lower, more reasonable levels.  His decision, in short, was contextual: taxes were exceedingly high, the debt was relatively low, and the economy needed stimulus.  Today's Republicans are ideological.  There is no context in which they are against tax cuts, and there is no context in which they see tax increases as justifiable.

Interestingly, one of the critics of JFK's 1963 proposal predicted this.  Democratic Sen. Albert Gore Sr., father of the former vice-president, said at the time: "Once taxes are cut, they are not likely to be reimposed…. Congress will always be ready to cut taxes, never ready to raise them.  It is a beautiful theory about moving taxes up and down, but it is only a theory, utterly impractical in our system."

President Clinton succeeded in proving Gore Sr. wrong in 1993, raising the top marginal tax rate despite Republican claims that economic apocalypse would follow.  Seven years of economic expansion ensued. President Obama is trying to prove Gore wrong again.  But since Congressional Democrats now seem too scared to even try before the midterm elections, whether he succeeds or not will depend on the vote in November.  Despite the fact that a solid majority supports the president's plan, every sign indicates that the voters will send to Washington enough ideological Republican tax cutters to thwart him.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The "Balance" Fallacy

Of the many baneful effects of the rise of Fox News, the perversion of the word "balance" must be at or near the top.  Rather than forthrightly declaring their conservative perspective, they disingenuously insist that their news coverage is "fair and balanced."  They sometimes allow a milquetoast and ineffective figure like Alan Colmes on air to weakly present a liberal perspective, and then pretend that makes for "balance."

This has been true for years now, but two recent news stories pointedly drove home for me the pervasive distortion of the idea of "balance."

On the ninth anniversary of 9/11, the Portland Press Herald in Maine ran a front-page story about the end of the Muslim observance of Ramadan.  The editor subsequently apologized for running the story because many readers found it "offensive."  He went on to say: "We have acknowledged that we erred by at least not offering balance to the story."

The logic of this is curious to say the least.  What exactly required "balance" here?  The implication is that it was wrong to cover the peaceful religious celebrations of American Muslims on 9/11 without acknowledging the awful thing 19 other (mostly Saudi) Muslims did nine years ago.  I defy anyone to find anything in the article itself that is offensive.  The focus of the story is a religious community gathering to raise funds for the needy.  But somehow it lacks "balance" because there was no mention of the terrorist attacks in 2001.

This is the same collective guilt mentality that pervades the opposition to the Islamic center in lower Manhattan.  The idea that "positive" coverage of any Muslim event requires "balance" in the form of acknowledgement of 9/11 carries the clear implication that the crime of 9/11 is something that all Muslims carry, like original sin.

There is nothing "balanced" about that.  Quite the contrary, it is inherently imbalanced.  That mindset insists that the murderous acts of a small group of religiously motivated fanatics must forever weigh down one side of the scales.

The Texas Board of Education this week passed a resolution to curtail references to Islam in world history texts.  According to a New York Times article

“The purpose of this resolution is to ensure there is balanced treatment of divergent groups,” Gail Lowe, the chairwoman of the board, said. “In the past, the textbooks have had some bias against Christianity.”
According to an AP article, this charge is ostensibly based on the fact that a text (no longer in use) "devoted more lines of text to Islamic beliefs and practices than Christian ones."

In this case, "balance" is defined quantitatively, and "more lines" equals imbalance.  It seems blindingly obvious to me that schoolchildren in Texas, an overwhelmingly Christian state, might need to read more "lines" about Islam than Christianity to gain an equal knowledge of both, given that they are highly likely to already know quite a bit about the latter.

The resolution makes clear, however, that it is not just about space.  It denounces both "significant inequalities of coverage space-wise" and "demonizing or lionizing one or more of them over the others." Though this language seems to call for equality, the chairwoman's statement above makes it clear that they believe that only Christianity is being demonized and Islam lionized.  Not surprisingly, they seem to offer no specific examples of this beyond the "space-wise" reference.

So what does "balance" mean here?  Conforming to the ideological preferences of the board.  The author of the resolution, Randy Rives, inadvertently exposed the real agenda: "If you can control or influence our education system, you can start taking over the minds of the young people."  He thought he was talking about his phantom enemies, but he was truly talking about himself.

"Balance" does not mean ensuring one's preferred outcome in a discussion.  It does not mean mechanically giving equal "space."  It does not mean finding one "pro" and one "con" perspective and presenting both (no good historian would "balance" a discussion of the Holocaust with a Holocaust denier's point of view).  It means honestly airing material with a focus on facts and a dedication to divining the ever-elusive truth.  But the word has become so debased today that people rarely seek true balance.  Is it any wonder that our political discourse is so out of balance?

Friday, September 24, 2010

"Gimme Eat"

One of the best things about my job is that it allows me to revisit books I've read and enjoyed in the past.  This is particularly true of my humanities class on banned books--there are plenty to choose from, so I can rotate new ones in every time I teach the class.

Last spring I decided I'd add Joseph Heller's classic war satire Catch-22. The title has of course become part of the American vocabulary. Even people who've never read the book or seen the movie know what it means: an illogical situation for which there is no solution.

But when I re-read it this summer, it was another scene in the book that seemed to capture this moment in American history. The ambitious Captain Black decides that the best means to a promotion is to show his unquestioned loyalty, which then leads him to require that everyone who comes to his intelligence tent sign a loyalty oath. Inevitably, the "Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade" escalates to the point where "[e]very time they turned around, there was another loyalty oath to sign." Eventually, signing a loyalty oath was required before eating in the mess hall.

Into this insanity steps Major ______ de Coverley (his forbidding manner kept anyone from asking his first name). Finding his path blocked by men waiting to sign the oath, he

paused in the doorway with a frown of puzzled disapproval, as though viewing something bizarre. He started forward in a straight line, and the wall of officers before him parted like the Red Sea. Glancing neither left nor right, he strode indomitably up to the steam counter and, in a clear, full-bodied voice that was gruff with age and resonant with ancient eminence and authority, said:
"Gimme eat." ...
For several terrible seconds there was not a sound. Then Milo nodded.
"Give him eat," he said.... "Give everybody eat!" ... and the Glorious Loyalty Oath Crusade came to an end.
Ever since reading that passage this summer, I've been waiting for someone of some stature to step up and say "Gimme eat."

During the anti-Muslim hysteria of the last month, I hoped former president George W. Bush, who had said all the right words in the aftermath of 9/11, would reiterate them now, when we desperately need someone with credibility on the right to say them. But he remained silently in line.

As self-labeled Tea Party candidates, many with no real qualification for office other than being "anti-establishment," knocked off more reasonable primary opponents, I waited for some significant figure in the Republican Party to say "Enough! Politics is serious business, and it needs serious, reasonable people."

And last week, when I heard Karl Rove describing the Republican nominee for senator from Delaware, Christine O'Donnell as someone with a "checkered background," I thought perhaps the moment had come. He went on to say: "It does conservatives little good to support candidates who, at the end of the day, while they may be conservative in their public statements, do not evince the characteristics of rectitude and truthfulness and sincerity and character that the voters are looking for.... There are a lot of nutty things she's been saying."

Here, I thought, was the de Coverley moment, and on Fox News, no less! Rove had broken Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican."  You could see the shock on Sean Hannity's face, and hear the amazement in his voice as he said that he disagreed with Rove.  Disagreement among conservatives, live and on the air and on Fox, no less?  "Gimme eat!"

But it didn't last. The next day, Rove furiously backtracked.  What happened?  In the meantime, he had had been chastened by the Tea Party's Captain Black, Sarah Palin, who told him: "It's time for unity."  Being questioned about his comments, once again on his employer, Fox News, Rove said "I endorsed her the other night." While he reiterated that she had some questions to answer, there were no more aspersions on her character or references to the "nutty things" she's been saying.

And the Glorious Tea Party Loyalty Oath Crusade went on.

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Simply Stealing"? Simply Silly

The closer we get to an election, the more absurd the political dialogue becomes. Last Sunday, a Spartanburg Herald-Journal editorial denounced the president's proposal to extend the current tax rates only for those making under $250,000 a year as "Simply stealing." That's right. Raising taxes is theft.

As silly as that statement is, it is illustrative. This debate regarding the extension of the Bush tax cuts is exposing some basic fault lines in American politics, the same lines that have dominated since at least the tax revolt of the late 1970s that culminated in the Reagan tax cuts of the early 1980s.

The basic question is this: should the current rates, which are set to expire at the end of the year, be extended as they are for all income groups (the Republican position), or should they be extended only for couples making under $250,000 a year (the president's position).

Before engaging the merits of the two positions, a little history for context. The reason they are set to expire is that the Republican Congress that passed the current tax rates back in 2001 had to limit the time they would be in effect in order to keep down the long-term loss of revenue. In other words, if nothing were to be done by this Congress, and tax rates were to revert to the levels of the 1990s, it would be due to the way Republicans wrote the bill back in 2001. And they wrote it that way so that they could pass it using reconciliation (yes, the same technique used to amend the health care bill, which today's Republicans denounced as an anti-democratic abuse of power).

But no one seriously proposes doing that. Republicans propose, as they have ever since they passed the initial bill in 2001, that the current rates should be made "permanent." In the 2008 campaign John McCain took that position, while Barack Obama argued that they should be extended for those making under $250,000 and allowed to expire for those making more. One could argue that the election results should have settled that question, but Republicans have done little in the last 18 months to show that they respect the results of the last election.

The various arguments advanced by Republicans today reveal the inconsistency of that party's economic vision. In 2001, they argued that the tax cuts were necessary because the federal government was running a surplus. Today, they argue that the extension of the tax cuts is necessary, even for the very wealthiest Americans, despite the fact that the federal government is running a huge deficit. So it seems that regardless of economic circumstances, taxes should always be cut.

They denounced the president's stimulus bill in 2009 because it was based on Keynesian economics: the idea that in a slow economy, the federal government should cut taxes and increase spending to increase economic activity. Republicans rejected that theory, and claim it has failed. Now they say no one's taxes should go up during a recession--which is itself a Keynesian concept.

They say we need tax cuts now, because the stimulus failed, while neglecting that fully one-third of the stimulus bill was tax cuts (and which Republicans almost unanimously voted against).

They argue that the president's proposal would hurt small businesses and prevent them from creating jobs, while the New York Times reports that fewer than 3% of small businesses would be affected by it:

"Even among the 750,000 businesses that would be subjected to the higher rates in 2011, many are sole proprietors — a classification so amorphous it can include everyone from corporate executives who earn income on rental property to entertainers, hedge fund managers and investment bankers. Because 80 percent of America’s 32 million businesses are sole proprietorships, 90 percent of the tax cut would be derived from businesses without employees."

In other words, it would have virtually no negative impact on jobs, while adding $700 billion in revenue to federal coffers.

None of the arguments against the president's proposal put forward by conservatives hold water. So what is the real reason? Fortunately, some people have trouble hiding their true agenda. In a stunning display of political obtuseness, Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell stated last week said that those who make over $250,000 a year are “the people who’ve been hit hardest by this recession.”

This will come as news to the millions and millions of unemployed and under-employed Americans struggling every day to make ends meet. What should not be news to anyone is the dogged determination of Republicans to resist tax increases for the wealthiest Americans, regardless of the consequences. The wealthy have suffered the most, they believe, and cannot be asked to sacrifice any more. That's the honest explanation, but don't expect to see it in this season's campaign ads.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

"Burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes."

As a new fall semester begins, I sadly find some interesting parallels between the news and one of my courses. My humanities class for first-year students is called "Ban it! Censorship in Literature and Film." In it, we read books that someone, somewhere has tried to ban, or have removed from a library and/or curriculum, and we discuss what inspires the impulse to censor.

The first novel we read is Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, in which the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to burn books. And, until earlier this evening, Terry Jones, the leader of a small, radical group in Florida was planning to burn 1,000 Qurans on the ninth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. This is what they call a teachable moment.

By coincidence, I also recently read Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, a novel which begins with a real historical event: the burning of thousands of Arabic manuscripts by Ximenes de Cisneros, Archbishop of Toledo, shortly after the Spanish Reconquest. The desire to destroy the unfamiliar is an old human impulse. Where there have been books, there has been book burning. It is the tribute the ignorant pay to the power of words.

I am awfully close to a free speech absolutist, and I would object to any governmental attempt to prevent this or any book burning. As abhorrent and ignorant as I find the impulse, it is still speech and thus a constitutionally protected right, and there can be no compromising that. My problem is with the hateful mindset that lies behind it, and the way that mindset has been aided and abetted by people who should know better.

The planned Quran burning was conceived before the recent upsurge of Islamophobia that has grown exponentially since reckless politicians began normalizing it with the politicization of the planned Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, but the attention it has garnered is clearly related to that other controversy. The Quran burning has inspired a wide variety of responses, but the one that has gotten the most attention this week is Brian Williams' interview with General David Petraeus, who said the event "puts our soldiers in jeopardy very likely."

While I think Petraeus is probably correct, I am disturbed by the idea of a military leader declaiming on whether or not American citizens should exercise their constitutional rights. I certainly would not think it appropriate if he were to say that opponents of the war in Afghanistan should not protest, and used the same justification. This is the proper role of political leaders, not generals.

But I do understand why Petraeus spoke up. In part, he was filling a leadership void. What the Florida fanatics were planning to do is despicable, and our political leaders (of all parties) should have spoken out and condemned it so that the world would hear loud and clear that the American people as a whole do not approve of the desecration of anyone's holy book. But there was little leadership of that type earlier this week, particularly from conservatives.

What Petraeus said put conservatives in an awkward position. Many of them, Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin in particular, have been whipping up Islamophobia for weeks over the New York Islamic center. Those same people have held to a knee-jerk "do what the generals say" policy throughout the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And for a couple of days they seemed puzzled as to how to respond. They believe Islamophobia is a winning political issue, but don't want to contradict Petraeus. What to do?

Yesterday, they found their talking point. Minority leader John Boehner said: "To Pastor Jones and those who want to build the mosque: Just because you have a right to do something in America doesn't mean it is the right thing to do." [emphasis added] Palin chimed in today with the same sentiment: "People have a constitutional right to burn a Koran if they want to, but doing so is insensitive and an unnecessary provocation--much like building a mosque at Ground Zero." (This last phrase--"mosque AT Ground Zero"--is simply a lie. Anyone paying any attention knows the proposed Islamic center--which will include a prayer room--is 2-3 blocks away. To continue to use that false phrase at this point is a deliberate lie.)

This is clever politics, but it is absurd logic. They cannot have their Islamophobic cake and eat it too. There is no equivalence here at all. The true equivalence is between Jones and the demagogues who are opposed to the Islamic center. What connects them is their shared belief in collective Islamic guilt.

The only way one can reach the conclusion that an Islamic center in the neighborhood of the World Trade Center site is "insensitive" is if one first concludes that Islam as a religion, and Muslims as a group, are responsible for the attacks of 9/11. There is no other way it can be "insensitive." The only thing connecting the sponsors of the project with the 9/11 hijackers is that they are all, along with 1.5 billion others worldwide, Muslims. That is collective guilt. (One sign at the New York protest read "Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11." This is the same as Muslims or Jews saying "Everything I need to know about Christianity I learned from the Spanish Inquisition.")

The book burning plan was motivated by the same collective guilt mentality. Jones is quite upfront about it. "Islam is of the Devil," he forthrightly says. While he and his assistant have lately taken to using the phrase "radical Islam," they are not planning to burn books by radical Islamists. There is a book, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden, which they could burn. If they wanted to get really sophisticated, they could burn the works of Sayyid Qutb, the man widely considered to be the founding philosopher of Al Qaeda. They could burn an effigy of Osama bin Laden. Would there be any serious objection in this country to any of those acts? I doubt it. But they did not propose doing that, because they blame Islam as a religion for 9/11.

By burning the holy book of Islam, the Quran, on 9/11, they meant to make a clear symbolic statement: what happened on 9/11 is inherent to Islam. They blame not the individuals involved, or the organization to which they belonged, but the religion to which they belonged. And in that, they are doing the same thing as the opponents of the Islamic center.

I began writing this post late this afternoon, before hearing the news early this evening that Jones had linked his decision to cancel the burning to an alleged commitment to move the Islamic center in New York (Imam Rauf has denied making any such deal with Jones). But when I heard the news, it made perfect sense. Because of the growing criticism, Jones was looking for a face-saving way out, and Boehner and Palin gave him the formula: tie your hateful event to the New York Islamic center. He seized upon that, and declared that he had a deal and had achieved his goal (though he had never before today stated that as a "goal" of the Quran burning). It may work. It may allow them all to avoid the potential disaster this planned event threatened--this time.

But unless they stop fanning the flames, there will be another such incident. The demagogues have been riding the tiger of Islamophobia, and this threatened book burning hinted at the problem with that strategy: it may begin to turn and devour them. What ostensibly responsible leaders on the right have been doing for weeks now is normalizing bigotry. Their mentality, even if they won't admit it, is the same one that was behind the book burning. They may scramble now to disown this manifestation of their cynical political maneuvering, but they own it. They have given permission for people to indulge their most base and hateful impulses. They have made collective guilt directed at a religious minority in the U.S. a mainstream idea. They have abandoned their responsibility to lead. And they are responsible for the consequences.

That is how we came to the point today where the Secretary of Defense placed a personal telephone call to a crazy fanatic. That is how we got to the point where that fanatic could use religious blackmail to hold a nation hostage, to the point where the commanding general in Afghanistan felt he had to speak out so as to fulfill his duty to protect his soldiers. This is what happens when the blind ambition of reckless politicians leads them to forsake principle for personal political gain.