The real Mueller scandal

Eric Boehm:

If either major political party in American politics cared an iota about limiting executive power—and preventing the abuses that inevitably spring from such nearly unlimited power—Thursday’s release of a redacted version of Special Council Robert Mueller’s report would probably be the end of the Trump presidency.

Whether that end came via impeachment or through a Nixonesque forced resignation following a collapse of public and congressional support, it doesn’t really matter. In a normal political environment, the Mueller report would have been a damning, un-survivable bombshell for the administration—even without the special counsel finding evidence of collusion with Russia or choosing to bring charges of obstruction.

Instead, Trump will survive Mueller’s report (and has even declared victory) in the same way he survived every other major scandal—from the Access Hollywood tape to Stormy Daniels—of his short political career. He’ll survive because partisan interests dictate that he must, and partisanship now rules everything.

“If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state,” the report says. Lacking that exonerating information, Mueller kicked the question of whether Trump committed obstruction—and therefore the corollary question of whether he should be impeached—to Congress. That’s the right thing to do, given that Department of Justice precedent states a sitting president cannot be charged with crimes and that impeachment is a fundamentally political, not legal, process.

What will Congress do with the Mueller report? Likely not much, beyond fundraising off of it.

Republicans have already circled the wagons around Trump. “If Bob Mueller in two-and-a-half years of investigation—which includes both the FBI and special prosecutor’s time—doesn’t bring charges, I don’t know how much longer we need to be talking about collusion and obstruction,” Rep. Mark Meadows (R–N.C.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus and one of Trump’s closest congressional allies, told Politico. The ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, Rep. Jim Jordan (R–Ohio), said the Mueller report’s conclusions meant a “sad chapter of American history is behind us.” Would they be saying anything like that if a Democratic president the subject of Mueller’s report?

Meanwhile, House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) has effectively ruled out impeachment. That makes sense too. Democrats have a strong short-term incentive to campaign against a weakened Trump in 2020.

But beyond those acute short-term interests, neither party has much of an interest in setting a precedent that could be used to limit presidential power in the future. It’s possible both that Trump did not commit a crime and that he ought to be removed from office, but setting that standard would hang a cloud over every chief executive to come—and both parties desire to wield the power of the presidency more than they fear what the other would do with it.

The result: Saving Trump’s presidency makes sense for both parties in Congress, even as it undeniably deals another blow to the legislature’s status as a co-equal branch of government.

Intense partisanship and the desire for power, in short, will save the president from the political reckoning he probably deserves.

To be fair to Trump, he did not create the current hyper-partisan environment—though he does contribute to it and benefit from it. It’s the same symbiotic relationship, nurtured by the media, that birthed Trump’s presidential aspirations, germinated them into reality, and (if the details of the report are to be believed) guided many of the president’s near-obstruction actions over the past two years.

Let’s be clear about the content of the Mueller report: Trump made multiple attempts to obstruct the investigation, only to be stopped from doing so by his own subordinates—often because they ignored or contradicted his explicit orders. “The President’s efforts to influence the investigation were mostly unsuccessful, but that is largely because the persons who surrounded the President declined to carry out orders or accede to his requests,” the report states.

As Reason‘s Peter Suderman put it: “The picture emerging from the report is one of a temperamental and inexperienced president whose managerial bumbling and self-destructive instincts are kept at least partly in check by more experienced staff.”

In doing so, Trump’s underlings may have saved him (and others in Trump’s inner circle) from prosecution or impeachment. But that does not excuse the actions of the president. In a less toxic political environment, Republicans might admit to themselves that the man residing in the White House often seems unfit for the job—and is clearly unable or unwilling to recognize and respect the constitutional and legal limits of his office.

Again, Trump is not to blame for expansive powers granted to the modern presidency. Congress and the White House have worked for decades to build the executive branch into the leviathan that it is today. Impeaching Trump or otherwise forcing him from office would not undo all those mistakes—even though, as Gene Healy has argued persuasively, a more robust use of impeachment over the past 200 years would have improved the nation’s political state, “given how many bastards and clowns we’ve been saddled with over the years.” If only we had a time machine.

Allowing Trump to skate would not only add to this legacy of congressional acquiescence to executive misbehavior. It would set the bar so high that no future president would likely ever qualify for removal—or at least we would certainly hope so.

The next time a president abuses his or her powers the way Trump has, the country might not be so lucky to have him or her surrounded by aides willing to ignore direct orders.

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Muellering

Nick Gillespie has a unique take on the Mueller report:

I haven’t read the Mueller report and I don’t plan to any time soon. I don’t feel like I would gain much by sifting through what’s already been widely acknowledged to be 400-plus pages of Rorschach test. The main point of the “Russia probe” was to figure out whether there was any sort of hanky-panky going on between the former (future?) Soviets and the Trump campaign, and we now know that there was not.

But of course now the story shifts from dark worries about “collusion” to unrestrained outrage over the president’s ham-fisted attempts to “obstruct justice” by unduly influencing the investigation by lying in public and private, firing key players, leaning on witnesses, or otherwise gumming up the works. I trust my Reason colleagues (Scott Shackford, Peter Suderman, Jacob Sullum, and Eric Boehm), each of whom argues to varying degrees that if President Donald Trump isn’t technically guilty of obstruction, it’s not for lack of trying. It’s mostly because his subordinates either refused to follow his orders or screwed things up while trying to do his bidding.

But you know what? I don’t care that much that Trump was trying to obstruct justice in this instance. Certainly, if there is no underlying crime, you shouldn’t get in trouble for lying to the feds, even though it’s technically illegal. Section 1001 of Title 18 of the United States Code makes it a crime to

“knowingly and willfully … make[] any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” in the course of “any matter within the jurisdiction of the executive, legislative, or judicial branch” of the federal government.

But should it be? We’ll come back to the White House in a moment, but the way this sort of usually plays out for the little people is that, as Jim Talent observed last year in National Review,

The FBI gathers information about a person, finds facts that the person might want to conceal — not because the facts prove a crime but because they are embarrassing for some other reason — then asks about those facts in an interview, on the expectation that the person will lie and thereby incriminate himself.

As Popehat blogger (and Reason contributor) Ken White has detailed extensively, FBI agents are trained to get you to lie, thereby being able to arrest you or squeeze you however they want. As White wrote for Reason a year ago,

In the old westerns, rather than take the trouble of hauling mustachioed miscreants to desultory trials, lawmen would often provoke them into drawing first, thus justifying shooting them down where they stood. A modern federal interview of a subject or target is like that. One purpose, arguably the primary purpose, is to provoke the foolish interviewee into lying, thus committing a new, fresh federal crime that is easily prosecuted, rendering the original investigation irrelevant. Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001, which makes it a felony to lie to the feds, is their shiny quick-draw sidearm. This result not an exception; it is the rule. It happens again and again.

Consider George Papadopoulos. The special counsel secured his guilty plea not for improper contact with the Russians but for lying about that contact to the FBI. Consider Michael Flynn. He too pled guilty not to unlawful contact with Russians but to lying to the FBI about that contact. Consider Scooter Libby, or Martha Stewart, or Dennis Hastert, or James Cartwright, all taken down by the feds not for their alleged original misconduct but for lying about it. Even when catching someone in a lie isn’t enough to force them to plead guilty, it can add charges to a case. Consider Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, charged not just with substantive crimes but with lying to the FBI about them.

There is arguably no person on the planet less sympathetic than Donald Trump. He is a reflexive liar, a blowhard, a bully, and the goddamned president of the United States. He should be a better person on all fronts and there’s no doubt that he should set a better example than he does. But when it comes to obstructing justice, at least when there was no underlying crime, he shouldn’t be in any trouble whatsoever.

Far more important, the rest of us shouldn’t be when we get set up to lie by the FBI or other law enforcement folks who have a tremendous amount of power. At The New York Times, David Brooks suggests that one of the great messages of the Mueller investigation is that it reveals

Trump doesn’t seem to have any notion of loyalty to an office. All power in his eye is personal power, and the government is there to serve his Sun God self. He’ll continue to trample the proper systems of government.

There’s much truth to that formulation, which has been echoed by many of the president’s critics. But there’s a bigger takeaway worth underscoring, one that is vastly more important than Donald Trump who, truth be told, is acting how most presidents have acted in the past and will act in the future.

The bigger takeaway is that the federal government exercises vast and nearly unchecked power over virtually every aspect of our lives. As civil libertarian and Three Felonies a Day author Harvey Silverglate has told Reason, there are literally hundreds of thousands of federal regulations under “each of the federal criminal statutes … [and] you’re just assumed to know [them] and you can be picked up and you can be charged and these are real criminal violations.” And if that doesn’t work, the feds can snag you simply by talking to you. Contempt for Donald Trump shouldn’t obscure that brutal reality, which will outlive the Mueller report and probably most of us, too.

 

Jesus the libertarian

Caleb Shumate:

Jesus Christ. That name means many things to many people. Some call him Lord and Savior, some a good man and wise teacher, and others a radical rebel.

A good place to start when talking about Christ the Rebel is noting the fact that the reason the Jewish teachers of the law didn’t like Jesus in the first place is that they saw him as a threat to their political power. We can see many examples this throughout the gospels, such as his healing of the man with the withered hand in Mark 3:1-7, or Jesus and his disciples picking grain on the Sabbath to eat in Matthew 12:1-9, which enraged the Pharisees because they viewed it a violation of the law of Moses.

Jesus also clearly advocated for a limit on government authority as he noted in his encounter with the Pharisees in which they questioned him about taxes. They tried to trap him into giving an answer which would make the people listening angry and thereby lose his credibility with his followers. He responded to this with the famous phrase “give to Caesar, what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s”. Now, some people would say here that Jesus was advocating for taxes, but it is clear that when you look at the conversation which takes place in Matthew 22, that he is very clearly placing a limit to the authority of government.

Libertarians should also be able to appreciate the fact that Christ believed in the superiority of private charity over a welfare state. In fact, you will not find a single place in the Bible or the words of Jesus that supports the existence of a welfare state. Instead, you will find commands that followers of Jesus take care of the poor like the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37, the feeding of the 5,000 in Matthew 14:13-21and the feeding of the 4,000 in Mark 8:1-10. You will also find when James wrote his letter to believers, he says in verse 27 of chapter one that real faith is demonstrated by taking care of the poor, the widows and the orphans.

Libertarians will also find in the words of Jesus that he was a man of peace and not an advocate for an unjust war. Although Jesus was definitely not a pacifist by any means, he was a peaceful man and not a warmonger. I mentioned earlier that the Jewish religious leaders who made the case that Jesus should be crucified did so because they saw him as a threat to their power.

It should also be mentioned that the reason many Jews rejected him as the Messiah (and still do today) is because they believed the Messiah would be a political revolutionary who would lead a revolt that would overthrow Roman rule and set up a Jewish State. We can see that Jesus repeatedly advocated for peaceful actions as much as possible healing the sick, feeding the hungry and loving those that were most despised in society at the time. Christ frequently said to be kind and loving in your actions with others. We can see this in his instructions in Matthew 5:38-40 to “turn the other cheek” and his blessing to the peacemakers in Matthew 5:9.

I love how Ron Paul spoke of his faith in Christ. When he was once asked about it he said, “I get to my God through Christ. Christ to me is a man of peace he is for peace; he is not for war. He doesn’t justify preemptive declared war. I strongly believe there is a Christian doctrine of just war and I believe this nation has drifted from that. No matter what the rationales are we have drifted from that and it’s very, very, dangerous and I see in many ways to be unchristian. To justify what we do in the name in the name of Christianity I think is very dangerous and not part of what Christianity is all about. Christ came here for spiritual reasons, not secular war and boundaries and geography and yet we are now dedicating so much of our aggressive activity in the name of God, but God, He is the Prince of Peace. That is what I see through my God and through Christ. I vote for peace.”

Lovers of liberty can also appreciate the fact that although Christ was a man of peace, he realized there were times in which his followers may have to use force in the form of self-defense. As Jesus told the 12 disciples in Luke 22:35-38 before his crucifixion took place, “35 And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.” 36 And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. 37 For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH TRANSGRESSORS’; for that which refers to Me has its [fulfillment.” 38 They said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” And He said to them, “It is enough.” (NASB)

Jesus later tells his disciple Peter, “he who lives by the sword dies by the sword” after he cuts off the ear of one of the Roman guards who arrested Jesus to take him to be crucified. I have always seen this not as a complete prohibition of violence altogether, but instead that the only justifiable means of violence is in defense of an individual’s life.

I once had a conversation with a fellow Christian about the importance of the preservation of natural freedom and why believers should be both informed and involved in the political process. The response I received was something along the lines of, “I don’t care about worldly affairs man, I only care about reaching lost souls for Jesus.” That statement both disgusted and saddened me, but I can’t say I was surprised in the least. I have told other Christians before that I care so much about liberty because Christ died so that I may have ultimate freedom – not just in a spiritual sense, but in a natural one as well. As he said in Luke 4:18, “18 The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon Me, because He has anointed Me [the Anointed One, the Messiah] to preach the good news (the Gospel) to the poor; He has sent Me to announce release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to send forth as delivered those who are oppressed [who are downtrodden, bruised, crushed, and broken down by calamity],” (The Amplified Classic Translation).

It is in large part because of my Christian faith that I became a libertarian in the first place. I realized, after studying the modern expressions of political philosophy, that libertarianism was the only one that is completely compatible with Christianity. I took the words of the Apostle Paul very serious when he said, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” That most assuredly includes the yoke of a tyrannical government!

As Christians both here in the United States and around the world … celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection which makes us spiritually free, may all of faith or non-faith remember and be thankful for Jesus’ contribution to the development of the Western World, which allowed the birth of the great American experiment and modern libertarian thought.

The West is best

Tom Holland:

Declarations of hope that Notre-Dame can be resurrected have been much in evidence this Holy Week. Such is the lesson of Easter: that life can come from death. Unlike the Eiffel Tower, that other great emblem of Paris, Notre-Dame provides the French with evidence that their modern and secular republic has its foundations deeply rooted in the Middle Ages. Notre-Dame has always been more than just an assemblage of stone and stained glass. It is a monument as well to a specifically Christian past.

Last summer, one of the world’s best-known scientists, a man as celebrated for his polemics against religion as for his writings on evolutionary biology, sat in another cathedral, Winchester, in the United Kingdom, listening to the bells peal. ‘So much nicer than the aggressive-sounding “Allahu Akhbar”,’ Richard Dawkins tweeted. ‘Or is that just my cultural upbringing?’ A preference for church bells over the sound of Muslims praising God does not just emerge by magic. Dawkins — agnostic, secularist and humanist that he is — absolutely has the instincts of someone brought up in a Christian civilization.

Perhaps, then, the debt of the contemporary West to Christianity is more deeply rooted than many — believers and non-believers alike — might presume.

Today, as the flood-tide of western power and influence ebbs, the illusions of European and American liberals risk being left stranded. Much that they have sought to cast as universal stands exposed as never having been anything of the kind. Free-thinkers who mock the very idea of a god as a sky fairy, an imaginary friend, still hold to taboos and morals that palpably derive from Christianity. In 2002, in Amsterdam, the World Humanist Congress affirmed ‘the worth, dignity and autonomy of the individual and the right of every human being to the greatest possible freedom compatible with the rights of others’. Yet this — despite humanists’ stated ambition to provide ‘an alternative to dogmatic religion’ — was nothing if not itself a statement of belief. The humanist assumption that atheism and a concern for human life go together was just that: an assumption. What basis — other than mere sentimentality — was there to argue for it? Perhaps, as the humanist manifesto declared, through ‘the application of the methods of science’. Yet this was barely any less of a myth than the biblical story that God had created humanity in his own image. It is not truth that science offers moralists, but a mirror. Racists identify it with racist values; liberals with liberal values. The primary dogma of humanism — ‘that morality is an intrinsic part of human nature based on understanding and a concern for others’ — finds no more corroboration in science than did the dogma of the Nazis that anyone not fit for life should be exterminated. The wellspring of humanist values lies not in reason, not in evidence-based thinking, but in the past, and specifically in the story of how a cult inspired by the execution of an obscure criminal in a long-vanished empire emerged to become — as the great Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin has put it — ‘the most powerful of hegemonic cultural systems in the history of the world’.

The Easter story lies at the heart of this narrative. Crucifixion, in the opinion of Roman intellectuals, was not a punishment just like any other. It was one peculiarly suited to slaves. To be hung naked, helpless to beat away the clamorous birds, ‘long in agony’, as the philosopher Seneca put it, ‘swelling with ugly weals on shoulder and chest’, was the very worst of fates. Yet in the exposure of the crucified to the public gaze there lurked a paradox. So foul was the carrion-reek of their disgrace that many felt tainted even by viewing a crucifixion. Certainly, few cared to think about it in any detail. Order, the order loved by the gods and upheld by magistrates vested with the full authority of the greatest power on earth, was what counted — not the elimination of such vermin as presumed to challenge it. Some deaths were so vile, so squalid, that it was best to draw a veil across them entirely.

The surprise, then, is less that we should have so few procedural descriptions in ancient literature of what a crucifixion might actually involve, than that we should have any at all. Nevertheless, amid the general silence, there is one major exception which proves the rule. Four detailed accounts of the process by which a man might be sentenced to the cross, and then suffer his punishment, have survived from antiquity. These accounts are to be found, of course, in the New Testament. There is no reason to doubt their essentials. Even the most skeptical historians have tended to accept them. In the words of one of the most distinguished, Geza Vermes, ‘The death of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross is an established fact, arguably the only established fact about him.’

Altogether more controversial, of course, are the stories of what happened next. That women, going to the tomb, found the entrance stone rolled away. That Jesus, over the course of the next 40 days, appeared to his followers, not as a ghost or a reanimated corpse, but resurrected into a new and glorious form. That he ascended into heaven, and was destined to come again. Time would see him hailed, not just as a man, but as a god. By enduring the most agonizing fate imaginable, he had conquered death itself. ‘Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…’

The utter strangeness of all this, for the vast majority of people in the Roman world, did not lie in the notion that a mortal might become divine. The border between the heavenly and the earthly was widely held to be permeable. Divinity, however, was for the very greatest of the great: for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself. Even Christians, in the early years of the cult, might flinch at staring the manner of Jesus’s death full in the face. They were as wise to the connotations of crucifixion as anyone. Paul, the most successful and influential of early missionaries, readily described Christ’s execution as a ‘scandal’. The shame of it was long felt. Only centuries after the death of Jesus did his crucifixion at last start to emerge as an acceptable theme for artists. By 400 ad the cross was ceasing to be viewed as something shameful. Banned as a punishment decades earlier by Constantine, the first Christian emperor, crucifixion had come to serve the Roman people as an emblem of triumph over sin and death. An artist, carving the scene out of ivory, might represent Jesus in the skimpy loincloth of an athlete. Far from looking broken, he would be shown as no less muscled, no less ripped than any of the ancient gods.

We are the heirs to a later, much more unsettling way of portraying Christ’s crucifixion. The Jesus painted or sculpted by medieval artists, twisted, bloody, dying, was a victim of torture such as his original executioners would have recognized. The response to the spectacle, though, was far removed from the mingled revulsion and disdain that had typified that of the ancients to crucifixion. Christians in the Middle Ages, when they looked upon an image of their Lord upon the cross, upon the nails smashed through the tendons and bone of his feet, upon the arms stretched so tightly as to appear torn from their sockets, upon the slump of his thorn-crowned head on to his chest, did not feel contempt, but rather compassion, and pity, and fear. That the Son of God, born of a woman, and sentenced to the death of a slave, had perished unrecognized by his judges, was a reflection fit to give pause to even the haughtiest monarch. This awareness could not help but lodge in the consciousness of medieval Christians a visceral and momentous suspicion: that God was closer to the weak than to the mighty, to the poor than to the rich. Any beggar, any criminal, might be Christ. ‘So the last will be first, and the first last.’

Christianity had revealed to the world a momentous truth: that to be a victim might be a source of strength. No one in modern times saw this more clearly than the religion’s most brilliant and unsparing critic. Because of Christianity, wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘the measure of a man’s compassion for the lowly and suffering comes to be the measure of the loftiness of his soul’. The commanding heights of western culture may now be occupied by people who dismiss Christianity as superstition; but their instincts and assumptions remain no less Christian for that. If God is indeed dead, then his shadow, immense and dreadful, continues to flicker even as his corpse lies cold. The risen Christ cannot be eluded simply by refusing to believe in him. That the persecuted and disadvantaged have claims upon the privileged — widely taken for granted though it may be today across the West — is not remotely a self-evident truth. Condemnations of Christianity as patriarchal or repressive or hegemonic derive from a framework of values that is itself nothing if not Christian.

Familiarity with the Easter story has desensitized us to what both Paul and Nietzsche, in their very different ways, instinctively recognized in it: a scandal. The cross, that ancient tool of imperial power, remains what it has always been: the fitting symbol of a transfiguration in the affairs of humanity as profound and far-reaching as any in history. ‘God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.’ It is the audacity of it — the audacity of finding in a twisted and defeated corpse the glory of the creator of the universe — that serves to explain, more surely than anything else, the sheer strangeness of Christianity, and of the civilization to which it gave birth.

Today, the power of this strangeness remains as alive as it has ever been. It is manifest in the great surge of conversions that has swept Africa and Asia over the past century; in the conviction of millions upon millions that the breath of the Spirit, like a living fire, still blows upon the world; and, in Europe and North America, in the assumptions of many more millions who would never think to describe themselves as Christian. All are heirs to the same revolution: a revolution that has, at its molten heart, the image of a god dead upon an implement of torture.

Jonah Goldberg:

The other day Ben Shapiro offered what should have been an utterly banal statement about the fire at Notre Dame:

Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing.

Now, I have no problem with quibbles (and neither does Ben) from Catholics who point out that Notre Dame was a monument to the glory of God and what Catholics believe to be the One True Church as delineated in the Nicene Creed. But, I doubt any of those Catholics took offense at what Ben said. And if they did, they should probably lighten up. I’d also point out that Cathedrals were the space programs of their day (“The Knights Templar were the first Space Force”: Discuss). Cities and nations constantly competed to see who could build the tallest Cathedral — which is why most are built on the tallest ground available. The idea was both theological and political. Theologically, the idea was to get as close to God as possible. Politically, it was a desire for, well, national greatness.

Anyway, what I have a huge problem with is the bonfire of asininity that ignited from people who think “Western civilization” is a term reserved solely for the alt-right and other bigots (David French addressed the point well here). In a piece about Ben’s excellent book on Western civilization — I’ll reserve my quibbles for later — The Economist labeled him an “alt-right sage” and a “pop idol of the alt right.” To The Economist’s credit, they retracted and apologized. But the immediate assumption that praise for, or pride in, Western civilization is a species of bigotry and racism is a perfect example of the sort of civilizational suicide I describe in my own book on the subject.

So adamantine is this absurdity that some Shapiro haters actually assume he’s not actually saying he thinks the West is superior, only “tacitly” suggesting it.

Ben might as well be standing in the center of Times Square waving a giant foam finger that reads “Western Civ #1” on it. But the idea is so offensive to some people they think he wouldn’t dare say it outright.

What’s So Great about Western Civilization?

I’ve covered much of this at length — book length but also in this G-File — elsewhere. So I’ll go in a slightly different direction.

Forget calling it Western civilization for a moment. Instead think of a kind of party platform with a bunch of planks:

  • Support for human rights
  • Belief in the rule of law
  • Dedication to democracy
  • Free speech
  • Freedom of conscience
  • Admiration for science and the scientific method
  • Curiosity about other cultures
  • Property rights
  • Tolerance or celebration of technological and/or cultural innovation

I’ll be generous and stipulate that 90 percent of the people who are offended by pride in Western civilization actually believe — or think they believe — in most or all of these things. They just have a problem connecting the dots, so I’ll try.

Where do they think most of these ideas come from? Where were they most successfully put into action? What civilization today or in some bygone era manifests these values more? Chinese civilization? Islamic civilization? Aztec? African? Indian? Persian? Turkish?

I’m not trying to belittle any of those cultures, nor deny their contributions to human history. I’m not even trying to argue – here, at least — that Western civilization is objectively superior in some scientific or God’s-eye-view sense. As with the debates over nationalism, there’s no arguing — and no reason to argue — with a French patriot about whether or not America is “better” than France. I would think less of a Spaniard who didn’t love Spain more than he or she loves France. It’s like arguing whose family is better, we love what is ours. As Bill Buckley liked to say, De gustibus non est disputandum.

But the weird thing is that many of the people who are outraged by benign nationalism or the benign pan-nationalism that is pride in Western civilization take no umbrage when someone from Iran or China says they think their civilization is best.  This of course is a manifestation of the ancient cult of identitarianism, which the best traditions of the West have battled internally at great cost for thousands of years. Saying Western civilization is great hurts the feelings of some people invested in some other source of identity. And it hurts the feelings of some Westerners because they think it’s a sign of enlightenment to get offended on other people’s behalf or to denigrate the society that gave them their soap box.

The irony is that the willingness to entertain the possibility that some other culture has something important to offer or say to us is actually one of the hallmarks of Western civilization (and the condescension with which many Americans treat other cultures is also a more regrettable side of Western culture). We “borrow” stuff from other cultures constantly, starting with Christianity itself.

This is particularly true of America, which is why our menus read like the requested meal plans from a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. This profound lack of self-awareness manifests itself most acutely among progressives who wear their Europe-envy on their sleeves. Oh, they’re so much more civilized over there. Well, what civilization do you think “over there” is part of?

Western civilization is a work in progress because that’s what civilization means. If you want a Cliff’s Notes version of what my book was about it’s simply this: Every generation, humans start from scratch. As Hannah Arendt said, every generation Western civilization is invaded by barbarians — we call them “children.” As babies we come into the world with the same programming as Viking, Hun or caveman babies. These barbarians need to be civilized and that’s a job primarily done by families, which is why the days are long and the years are short. We teach barbarians how to be citizens in the broadest sense of the word, through formal education, religious teaching, social norms and the modeling of proper behavior. In other words, we assimilate people into a culture.

As Alan Wolfe writes in his discussion of Immanuel Kant:

As cultivating a field yields a better product, the arts and sciences cultivate us by improving the quality of who we are. No wonder, then, that when we look for a term that expresses the way we improve upon nature, we use “culture,” which has the same root as “cultivate.” And civilization—expressed in German not only as Zivilisation but also as Kultur — far from corrupting our soul, makes it possible for us to bring good out of evil.

The way you sustain and improve upon a culture is by fostering a sense of gratitude for what is best about it. You celebrate the good in your story while putting the bad in the correct context. Conservatism is gratitude, and as I noted on Fox the other night, one of the most compelling things in reaction the fire of Notre Dame was seeing how many people recognized their own ingratitude for this jewel of their own civilization. The Church was in peril because the French took it for granted. But, like that feeling one gets deep in the soul when a loved one in peril, millions were overcome with a sense of what they might lose. And now France is devoting itself to restoring what was almost lost.

Has Western civilization made mistakes? Sure (cue the Monty Python skit about Rome). Terrible things have been done in its name, a statement one can make about every civilization that has ever existed. But to say that the mistakes define us more than the accomplishments is suicidally stupid. And if you subscribe to those planks I mentioned above, I’d like to suggest that telling people they’re bigots for taking pride in the civilization that brought them forth better than any other is like taking a sledgehammer to the soapbox you’re standing on.

And to do it in the name of virtue tweeting is one of the purer forms of asininity.

Happy (?) Tax Freedom Day, Wistaxsin

Wisconsin has arrived at Tax Freedom Day, which according to the Tax Foundation is …

… the day when the nation as a whole has earned enough money to pay its total tax bill for the year. Tax Freedom Day takes all federal, state, and local taxes and divides them by the nation’s income. In 2019, Americans will pay $3.42 trillion in federal taxes and $1.86 trillion in state and local taxes, for a total tax bill of $5.29 trillion, or 29 percent of national income. This year, Tax Freedom Day falls on April 16, or 105 days into the year. …

… Since 2002, federal expenses have surpassed federal revenues, with the budget deficit exceeding $1 trillion annually from 2009 to 2012. In calendar year 2019, the deficit is expected to increase from $981 billion to $1.09 trillion. If we include this annual federal borrowing, which represents future taxes owed, Tax Freedom Day would occur on May 8, 22 days later. The latest ever deficit-inclusive Tax Freedom Day occurred during World War II, on May 25, 1945. …

The total tax burden borne by residents of different states varies considerably due to differing state tax policies and the progressivity of the federal tax system. This means that states with higher incomes and higher taxes celebrate TFD later: New York (May 3), New Jersey (April 30), and Connecticut (April 25). Residents of Alaska will bear the lowest average tax burden in 2019, with Tax Freedom Day arriving on March 25. Also early are Oklahoma (March 30), Florida (April 4), and Louisiana (April 4).

Put another way, Wisconsin has the 16th highest federal, state and local taxes in the U.S., up from 17th one year ago.

This blog follows Tax Freedom Day every year — April 12, 2010, April 16, 2011April 21, 2012April 20, 2013April 22, 2014April 25, 2015April 27, 2016, April 27, 2017, and April 19, 2018. The first eight years were under Democratic presidents, and Democrats raise taxes as often as the sun rises in the east. On the other hand, Republicans controlled the executive and legislative branches of state government from 2011 to 2018, and yet this state’s tax burden got worse, not better.

The difference between 2017 and 2018 is not, sadly, because of major tax cuts; it’s because of a difference in the Tax Foundation’s methodology. As it is, with a Democratic governor and a Legislature apparently hell-bent on increasing gas taxes despite a majority of the public not favoring gas tax increases, our 2020 Tax Freedom Day will probably be later than this year’s.

Given the reality of our overtaxation, this from Yahoo! Finance isn’t a surprise:

As the tax deadline nears, residents of some states are bearing the brunt of it more than others. …

WalletHub looked at four different types of taxation: Real-Estate Tax, Vehicle Property Tax, Income Tax, and Sales & Excise Tax.

Here’s a breakdown of each, based on WalletHub’s data:

Being a homeowner in New Jersey isn’t cheap at all — in fact, NJ residents see the highest effective real-estate tax (otherwise known as property tax) rate in the country, at 8.13%. Trailing behind are Illinois (7.71%), New Hampshire (7.33%), Connecticut (6.89%), and Wisconsin (6.47%). WalletHub calculated these rates by dividing the effective median real estate tax in that state to the median income. …

And if property taxes are an issue, note that Hawaii has the lowest rate at 0.90%. Alabama, Louisiana, D.C., and Colorado aren’t far behind, all under 2%.

In terms of taxing residents income states like Alaska, Florida, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming all have a 0% rate. Yet, in Kentucky, residents pay a 5.01% tax on their income. Maryland, Oregon, and Pennsylvania are pricey too, with tax rates above 4% on their residents.

That is, again, after eight years of Republican control of state government. The GOP and former Gov. Scott Walker deserve complete blame for failing to campaign into the state Constitution Taxpayer Bill of Rights-like permanent controls restricting spending and taxes.

The sins and sin of socialism

Today is, depending on the Christian church, Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, the night of the Last Supper before Jesus Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday.

This weekend concludes Lent, during which Christians are supposed to ponder our sinful natures. The Episcopal Church, of which I am a member (though I sometimes wonder why given the actions of the national church and some of its bishops), often uses its Rite I for Lenten Masses, which uses “thee” and “thou” that wasn’t contemporary even last century.

(Aside: More presidents have been Episcopalians than members of any other religion, including most recently George H.W. Bush. The two things I have in common with Franklin Delano Roosevelt is that he too was an Episcopalian, and he was the senior warden of his church, St. James in Hyde Park, N.Y., as I have been and am now. FDR was senior warden even when he was president, which makes one wonder how many Vestry meetings he attended, or perhaps he attended via radio from the White House.)

I have yet to hear this version of the Confession of Sin in an Episcopal church, even during Lent:

… We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins
and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.

Both of the two Episcopal churches of which I was a member used language that differs little from the more contemporary Rite II:

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.

The currently most famous Episcopalian is Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., and for some reason one of the herd of Democratic presidential candidates. Independent of his sexuality, he, like nearly every current presidential candidate (including the Democrats not as famous as Comrade Bernie Sanders), claim to support socialism.

Any of those socialists who are practicing Jews or Christians are promoting sin. Jesus Christ, recall, was a devout Jew, and all of Christianity comes from Judaism. Whether your description comes from Exodus or Deuteronomy, two of the 10 Commandments are to not steal and to not covet.

Everyone who lies about socialism (for instance, denying its death toll of upwards of 100 million among the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam, Cambodia and elsewhere, or claiming that socialism hasn’t worked because it hasn’t been done correctly) commits a third sin, lying. (A recent letter to the editor in southwest Wisconsin newspapers claimed there was little difference between socialism and Christianity. Fortunately a Catholic priest corrected her manifold errors in a later letter.)

The Quran agrees:

  • The thief, male or female, you shall mark their hands as a punishment for their crime, and to serve as an example from GOD. GOD is Almighty, Most Wise.
  • … incur GOD’s condemnation upon him, if he was lying.
  • Do not withhold any testimony by concealing what you had witnessed. Anyone who withholds a testimony is sinful at heart.
  • You shall regard the parents, the relatives, the orphans, the poor, the related neighbor, the unrelated neighbor, the close associate, the traveling alien, and your servants.

One thing liberal Christians fail to grasp about the Gospel is that everything Jesus Christ tells us Christians to do — feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, showing strangers hospitality, visiting prisoners — is an individual responsibility. Jesus didn’t tell churches to do those things, and He didn’t tell the Roman government to do those things; He told us Christians to do those things.

I got into a brief social media argument — I’ll pause briefly to allow readers to get over the shock of that — when someone (potentially a former Facebook Friend) posted about Tiger Woods’ winning last weekend’s Masters golf tournament, and how wonderful it was that Woods overcame his addiction to painkillers and his back problems. To that I asked if Woods had un-done his dalliances with women to which he wasn’t married after his marriage. The writer really didn’t care for that, and she really didn’t care for my next statement that our society might be less screwed up if we were more judgmental of each other and each other’s wrong actions. (She also didn’t care for my opposition to worshiping athletes — in addition to celebrities and politicians, though I didn’t mention them — and also accused me of being priggish and probably thought I suffer from excessive self-regard. I know my sins and flaws.)

Anyone who points out bad behavior of others may be reminded of the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery whose stoning is thwarted by Jesus’ suggesting that whoever was without sin should cast the first stone. What you hardly ever hear is what He said at the end of that incident: “Go and sin no more.” Even if no longer sinning is impossible for us fatally flawed humans, that does suggest we should at least make a sincere effort to avoid that specific sin and sinning generally. You see that decreasingly often in our sinful, permanently flawed world, and I bet you haven’t heard that in church any time in your recent memory. And yet it applies in our world even after the Resurrection. Jesus Christ didn’t die for our sins so we could go on blithely sinning without consequences.

This being a world full of people who suffer from excessive self-regard who don’t like to be reminded of their sinful nature, that might explain decreasing attendance in church. But our failure to “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness” well explains our world continuing to spiral into a toilet. Don’t like that statement? Well, as Jesus Christ said, a prophet is without honor in his own house.

 

On Assange

Tucker Carlson:

If you watched a lot of the coverage of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s arrest on television Thursday, you likely came away with the understanding that he is some kind of Russian spy who is in trouble because he stole classified documents from the U.S. government.

That is not true. It’s factually incorrect, and saying so is not a defense of Assange. We’re not here to promote him or excuse any number of things he said over the years that we disagree with quite a lot.

But just so it’s clear, whatever his sins, Assange did not steal documents from the United States government. He did not hack the DNC servers. He didn’t break into John Podesta’s Gmail account.

There is no proof that he is working for the Russian government or ever has worked for the Russian government. Assange has never been charged with any of that and wasn’t on Thursday, no matter what they tell you.

If you’re upset about the theft of classified documents from the U.S. government — and there is reason to be — we already know who did that.

A 22- year-old Army private named Bradley Manning, now called Chelsea Manning. In 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to stealing secret material and got 35 years in prison for it.

Shortly after that, President Obama commuted Manning’s sentence. This allowed Manning to leave jail decades early, go back on television as a commentator, and then run for political office.

So if your real concern is America’s national security, you have someone to be angry at — Barack Obama. And yet strangely, nobody is.

Instead, they’re furious at Julian Assange for posting the documents that other people stole. “Julian Assange has long been a wicked tool of Vladimir Putin and the Russian intelligence services,” wrote professional moralizer Ben Sasse, who also serves in the U.S. Senate. “He deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Wicked? The rest of his life in prison? Idi Amin ate people and never faced this kind of scorn.

Not even close. Nor, for the record, was Amin ever extradited. He died at 78 years old in his own bed, leaving behind 43 loving children.

So what’s going on here? A couple of things. First, Julian Assange embarrassed virtually everyone in power in Washington.

He published documents that undermined the official story on the Iraq War and Afghanistan. He got Debbie Wasserman-Schultz fired from the DNC.

He humiliated Hillary Clinton by showing that the Democratic primaries were, in fact, rigged. Pretty much everyone in Washington has reason to hate Julian Assange.

Rather than just admit that straightforwardly – that he made us look like buffoons, so now we’re sending him to prison — instead, they’re denouncing him as, you guessed it, a Russian agent. “Justice should come to Julian Assange for his role in Russian meddling in our election and the sooner the better,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Okay, so once again, just to be totally clear, no one has ever shown that Julian Assange is a Russian agent. The indictment against him does not say that; t doesn’t mention Russia at all.

But that has not stopped virtually every politician in Washington from repeating Senator Blumenthal’s line, including many Republicans. Robert Mueller nearly killed the Russia collusion hoax. Julian Assange is allowing them to keep it alive.

You’d think journalists would say something about this. Assange is, after all, one of them. What do you call a man who publishes news for a living?

Assange is no sleazier than many journalists in Washington; he’s definitely not more anti-American. He’s broken stories the New York Times would have won Pulitzers for. And yet many of his colleagues have disowned him.

So why all the hostility to Julian Assange? Assange’s real sin was preventing Hillary Clinton from becoming president.

“Oh, please,” wrote Alexia Campbell of Vox. “Assange is no journalist. We know who he works for. ” (Meaning Russia.) “Julian Assange is not a journalist,” explained Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker, without actually explaining. Ken Dilanian of NBC, who doesn’t so much cover the national security state as he writes memos on its behalf, noted that, “Many believe that if Assange ever was a journalist, those days ended a long time ago.”

At NBC when they tell you “many believe” something, it means they believe it.

So why all the hostility to Julian Assange? Assange’s real sin was preventing Hillary Clinton from becoming president.

Former Democratic staffer and current CNN anchor Jim Sciutto explained it this way: “He is central to several cases. He is central to Russian interference in the election. The U.S. intelligence views him as a middleman, a cutout that he was in effect part of this interference.

He’s central to questions about what the Trump administration or Trump campaign, I should say, knew prior to the release of those materials, right? What were the communications between Roger Stone, et cetera? It’s possible that this has something President Trump himself is not particularly excited about.”

It’s remarkable to watch this. It’s bewildering, actually. There was a time, not so long ago, really, when reporters didn’t applaud the arrest of other journalists for publishing information.

In 1971, the Washington Post and the New York Times published a trove of stolen classified documents about the Vietnam War.

It was called the Pentagon Papers. Remember that? Liberals loved it. Books were written celebrating their bravery.

As recently as 2011, the Washington Post saw the connection: “A conviction of Julian Assange would also cause collateral damage to American media freedoms.”

A Post op-ed said that year, “It is difficult to distinguish Assange or Wikileaks from the Washington Post.” And that’s true.

But that was before the Trump election and the total war that followed, a war in which the media have definitively chosen a side.

Press freedom?

Sure, as long as we agree with your politics. The First Amendment? Well, that all depends. Who did you vote for?

The guardians of speech or now the enemies of speech.

The people charged with policing power are now colluding with power.

There’s a reason you see John Brennan on NBC all the time. They’re all on the same team now.

We’re not saying any of this to defend Julian Assange.

We just want to be absolutely clear about who hurts this country more — and it’s not him.

Tax cut lies and reality

Madeline Osburn:

Monday [was] the first Tax Day under the new Republican tax bill passed in December 2017, and the results are not what Democrats and their media apparatus predicted. Many Americans are discovering that they are not only alive and well, but indeed paying less taxes.

As Ben Casselman and Jim Tankersley pointed out in The New York Times, there is a disparity between what Americans thought they would be paying the IRS this year, and what they actually paid. This myth, “appears to flow from a sustained — and misleading — effort by liberal opponents of the law to brand it as a broad middle-class tax increase.”

What falsities did these liberal opponents tell the American people would happen pending the passing of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act? Here are a few of the most outrageous examples of fear-mongering.

1. 10,000 People Will Be Killed Every Year

Economist and former Treasury secretary Larry Summers wrote in a Washington Post op-ed that “the conclusion would follow that the tax bill would result in 10,000 extra deaths per year.” On CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” he explained why he thought the bill was “very dangerous.”

“When people lose health insurance, they’re less likely to get preventive care, they’re more likely to defer health care they need, and ultimately they’re more likely to die,” he said.

2. The Tax Bill Is ‘Akin To Rape’

Bruce Bartlett, a writer and former Treasury official, said the bill would not create a single job, that Republicans want the poor to pay more taxes to force them to work more, and that the bill is “really akin to rape.”

3. ‘Armageddon’ and the Worst Legislation Ever Considered By Congress

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who was minority leader at the time the bill was passed, said the tax reform bill was “the worst bill in the history of the United States Congress.”

When a reporter asked her later about her hyperbolic descriptions, she replied, “No, it is the end of the world. The debate over health care is life and death. This is Armageddon.”

4. Grad Students Will Have to Quit Doctorate Programs

When graduate students were told their tuition waivers for working as teaching assistants and researchers would become taxable, they calculated that their taxes would increase by 61 percent.

As she started to do the math, tears welled up.

‘I would have to drop out,’ she said. ‘If this tax bill passes, I can’t support anyone, I can’t even support myself.’

5. America Is Dead

At least, according to Kurt Eichenwald.

6. Republicans Want to Kick the Poor, Middle Class In the Face

Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell described the ways Republicans are using higher taxes to “plan to punish the poor and middle class.”

I used to think the Republican Party’s obsession with top-heavy tax cuts was about pleasing wealthy donors and maybe also fulfilling some misguided Randian fantasy. If the poor and middle class happened to be collateral damage, so be it.

But it’s starting to look like shafting the little guy has become a feature, not a bug, of the GOP’s budget-busting tax plan.

The left-leaning Tax Policy Center reported that 91 percent of middle-class taxpayers are getting a tax cut this year.

7. Most People Are Getting Bigger Paychecks. Here’s Why That’s Bad

Rick Newman at Yahoo Finance wrote about a looming “tax surprise” in 2018, without ever explaining why giving the government a smaller interest-free loan with every paycheck might be better than a fat refund.

The TCJA lowered the overall tax burden for about two-thirds of workers, leaving a majority with slightly larger paychecks. But a quirk could leave some taxpayers with an unhappy surprise as they file their 2018 returns this year, and find that the refund they were expecting is smaller than before. Some people accustomed to a refund could even end up owing money, instead.

8. New Yorkers Allege All Americans Will Suffer

The day before the tax bill was signed in December 2017, protesters staged a “die-in” on Wall Street, near the New York Stock Exchange. One protester laying on the ground held a sign in the shape of a gravestone that read, “RIP/tax scam helped the rich/not me.”

“If we don’t stop this, we, the young people, are not going to have a future,” the protester, Nova Felder, told City and State New York.

A number of New York community leaders participated in the protests, too. “All of us will suffer as a result of those who care more about corporations than they do about the people,” said New York City Public Advocate Letitia James.

9. An Endless, Global Recession

“We are very probably looking at a global recession, with no end in sight,” wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “I suppose we could get lucky somehow. But on economics, as on everything else, a terrible thing has just happened.”

More from Casselman and Tankersley:

Experts are divided on whether the tax law was a good idea. But there is little disagreement on this core point: Most people got a tax cut.

The Tax Policy Center estimates that 65 percent of people paid less under the law and that just 6 percent paid more. (The rest saw little change to their taxes.)

Other analyses reached similar conclusions. The Joint Committee on Taxation — Congress’s nonpartisan team of tax analysts — found that every income group would see a tax cut on average. So did the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a left-leaning think tank that was sharply critical of the law. In fact, that group went even further: In a December 2017 analysis, it found that every income group in every state would pay less on average under the law in 2019.

So far, tax season seems to be playing out more or less as the experts predicted. H&R Block, the tax-preparation giant, said last week that two-thirds of returning customers had paid less tax this year than last (excluding people who owed no tax in either year). Taxes were down, on average, in every state.

“The vast majority of people did get a tax cut,” said Nathan Rigney, an analyst at H&R Block’s Tax Institute. That’s been clear all along, he added, “just now we have real data to back that up.” …

The tax savings were relatively small for many families, however. The middle fifth of earners got about a $780 tax cut last year on average, according to the Tax Policy Center.

Most Americans would probably welcome a $780 windfall. But in contrast to 2001, when President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department mailed rebate checks to taxpayers, last year’s tax cuts showed up mostly in the form of lower withholding from workers’ paychecks. A few extra dollars in a biweekly paycheck proved easy to miss. Moreover, as taxpayers filed their returns, many found they were due smaller refunds than in the past, which may have further skewed perceptions of the law.

“Most people didn’t recognize the increase in take-home pay, or at least didn’t attribute it to the tax cut,” Mr. Rigney said. Some of them might realize it now that they’re filing their taxes, he said, but “it’s little consolation to discover that you received a couple thousand dollars during the year but you already spent it.”

High earners did far better under the law. The top 20 percent of earners received more than 60 percent of the total tax savings, according to the Tax Policy Center; the top 1 percent received nearly 17 percent of the total benefit, and got an average tax cut of more than $30,000. And that’s not even factoring in the law’s huge cut to corporate taxes, which disproportionately benefit the wealthy households that own the most stock.

Surveys consistently show that what bothers Americans most about the tax system is not that they pay too much but that they think corporations and the wealthy pay too little, said Vanessa Williamson, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who studies public attitudes toward taxation. The tax law only sharpened those concerns.

Envy is a sin. And if that’s how most Americans feel, most Americans are wrong.

John Phelan adds:

Data from the Tax Foundation shows just how ‘progressive’ the system is. In 2016, the top 10% of income earners earned 46.6% of all income in the U.S. and paid 69.5% of the total income tax received by the federal government. The top 1% of income earners earned 19.7% of all income in the U.S. and paid 37.3% of the total income tax. In other words, the top 10% of income earners pay, as a percent of total taxes, 50% more than what they earn. The top 1% pay, as a percent of total taxes, twice what they earn as a percentage of total income. When people say that the rich should pay their ‘fair share’, how much more disproportionate those people want these numbers to be?

‘The rich’ generally work for their money

Ok, but the predictable response to this graph is that the rich don’t make most of their money off income but instead off capital gains and other sources which are taxed at much lower rates.

This was one response I saw to this data. It it wrong. As I wrote last week, in a recent paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research titled ‘Capitalists in the Twenty-First Century’, economists Matthew Smith, Danny Yagan, Owen M. Zidar, and Eric Zwick ask the question “Are the richest Americans idle rich—who derive most of their income from their non-human capital—or are they entrepreneurs and other working rich—who derive most of their income from their human capital?”

After examining the data on how the top income earners make their money, their answer is that,

Consistent with the labor income view…top earners are predominantly working rich rather than idle rich, and that the majority of top income accrues to the human capital of these wage earners and entrepreneurs.

It isn’t popular to stick up for ‘the rich’ these days. But the data shows that, generally, they work for their money. It also hows that they pay a disproportionate share of income tax. As a consequence, a tax cut is going to ‘disproportionately’ benefit ‘the rich’; they pay a ‘disproportionate’ share of the taxes.

On Tax Day

Dan Mitchell:

There are some fortunate people (in the Cayman Islands, BermudaMonacoVanuatuAntigua and Barbuda, and a few other places) who don’t have to pay income taxes.

The United States used to be in that lucky club. The income tax did not become a permanent blight upon the nation until 1913 (there was a temporary income tax during the Civil War and an attempted income tax in 1894 – ruled unconstitutional in 1895).

Indeed, this odious tax is a relatively new invention for the entire world. If my memory is correct, the first income tax was a temporary measure imposed by the United Kingdom to finance the fight against Napoleon. And the U.K. also was the first country to impose a permanent income tax (ironically, to help offset lower taxes on international trade).

In every case, politicians followed the same script. Income taxes originally were supposed to have low rates and only apply to the rich.

But it was simply a matter of time before small taxes on the wealthy became punitive taxes on everybody.

Since today is tax filing today for Americans, let’s take the opportunity to highlight two specific unfortunate consequences of the income tax.

First, it enabled the modern welfare state. You can see from the chart that the explosion of redistribution spending only occurred after politicians obtained a new source of revenue (a problem that was exacerbated in Europe when politicians adopted value-added taxes and were able to further increase the burden of government spending).

Needless to say, this is a reason to oppose an energy tax, a wealth tax, or a financial transactions tax. Giving politicians a new source of revenue is like giving alcoholics the keys to a liquor store.

Second, the income tax enabled costly economic discrimination. Prior to income taxes, governments largely relied on trade taxes and excise taxes, and those levies did not create many opportunities for mischief.

An income tax, by contrast, allows the government to impose all sorts of special penalties – either with discriminatory tax rates or with extra layers of tax on saving and investment – on people who generate a lot of economic output.

And it’s worth mentioning that the income tax also allows politicians to create all sorts of special credits, exemptions, deduction, exclusion, and other preferences (about 75,000 pages of them) for politically well-connected interest groups.

These penalties and preferences are both morally troubling (rampant cronyism) and economically damaging (back-door methods of central planning).

Let’s wrap up today’s column with this helpful reminder that the income tax is basically a penalty on productive behavior.

P.S. Politicians can play games with other revenue sources (i.e., special VAT rates or differential tariff burdens), but the income tax stands apart because it is capable of generating large amounts of revenue while simultaneously giving politicians considerable ability to pick winners and losers.

The income tax was instituted in Wisconsin to reduce the property tax. Then the sales tax was instituted to reduce the property tax. The state sales tax is two-thirds larger than when originally instituted, and yet property taxes are still considered too high, but then again so are our other taxes in this overtaxed state.

Jeffre Tucker adds:

The income tax is enshrined into law but it is an idea that stands in total contradiction to the driving force behind the American Revolution and the idea of freedom itself. We desperately need a serious national movement to get rid of it – not reform it, not replace it, not flatten it or refocus its sting from this group to that. It just needs to go.

The great essayist Frank Chodorov once described the income tax as the root of all evil. His target was not the tax itself, but the principle behind it. Since its implementation in 1913, he wrote, “The government says to the citizen: ‘Your earnings are not exclusively your own; we have a claim on them, and our claim precedes yours; we will allow you to keep some of it, because we recognize your need, not your right; but whatever we grant you for yourself is for us to decide.”

He really does have a point. That’s evil. When Congress ratified the 16th Amendment on Feb. 3, 1913, there was a sense in which all private income in the U.S. was nationalized. What was not taxed from then on was a favor granted unto us, and continues to be so.

This is implied in the text of the amendment itself: “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.”

Where are the limits? There weren’t any. There was some discussion about putting a limit on the tax, but it seemed unnecessary. Only 1% of the income earners would end up paying about 1% to the government. Everyone else was initially untouched. Who really cares that the rich have to pay a bit more, right? They can afford it.

This perspective totally misunderstands the true nature of government, which always wants more money and more power and will stop at nothing to get both. The 16th Amendment was more than a modern additive to an antique document. It was a new philosophy of the fiscal life of the entire country.

Today, the ruling elite no longer bothers with things like amendments. But back in the day, it was different. The amendment was made necessary because of previous court decisions that stated what was once considered a bottom-line presumption of the free society: Government cannot tax personal property. What you make is your own. You get to keep the product of your labors. Government can tax sales, perhaps, or raise money through tariffs on goods coming in and out of the country. But your bank account is off-limits.

The amendment changed that idea. In the beginning, it applied to very few people. This was one reason it passed. It was pitched as a replacement tax, not a new money raiser. After all the havoc caused by the divisive tariffs of the 19th century, this sounded like a great deal to many people, particularly Southerners and Westerners fed up with paying such high prices for manufactured goods while seeing their trading relations with foreign consumers disrupted.

People who supported it – and they were not so much the left but the right-wing populists of the time – imagined that the tax would hit the robber baron class of industrialists in the North. And that it did. Their fortunes began to dwindle, and their confidence in their ability to amass and retain intergenerational fortunes began to wane.

We all know the stories of how the grandchildren of the Gilded Age tycoons squandered their family heritage in the 1920s and failed to carry on the tradition. Well, it is hardly surprising. The government put a timetable and limit on accumulation. Private families and individuals would no longer be permitted to exist except in subjugation to the taxing state. The kids left their private estates to live in the cities, put off marriage, stopped bothering with all that hearth and home stuff. Time horizons shortened, and the Jazz Age began.

Class warfare was part of the deal from the beginning. The income tax turned the social fabric of the country into a giant lifetime boat, with everyone arguing about who had to be thrown overboard so that others might live.

The demon in the beginning was the rich. That remained true until the 1930s, when FDR changed the deal. Suddenly, the income would be collected, but taxed in a different way. It would be taken from everyone, but a portion would be given back late in life as a permanent income stream. Thus was the payroll tax born. This tax today is far more significant than the income tax.

The class warfare unleashed all those years ago continues today. One side wants to tax the rich. The other side finds it appalling that the percentage of people who pay no income tax has risen from 30% to nearly 50%. Now we see the appalling spectacle of Republicans regarding this as a disgrace that must change. They have joined the political classes that seek advancement by hurting people.

It’s extremely strange that the payroll tax is rarely considered in this debate. The poor, the middle class and the rich are all being hammered by payroll taxes that fund failed programs that provide no security and few benefits at all.

It’s impossible to take seriously the claims that the income tax doesn’t harm wealth creation. When Congress wants to discourage something – smoking, imports, selling stocks or whatever – they know what to do: Tax it. Tax income, and on the margin, you discourage people from earning it.

Tax debates are always about “reform” – which always means a slight shift in who pays what, with an eye to raising ever more money for the government. A far better solution would be to forget the whole thing and return to the original idea of a free society: You get to keep what you earn or inherit. That means nothing short of abolishing the great mistake of 1913.

Forget the flat tax. The only just solution is no tax on incomes ever.

But let’s say that one day we actually become safe from the income tax collectors and something like blessed peace arrives. There is still another problem that emerged in 1913. Congress created the Federal Reserve, which eventually developed the power to create all the money that government would ever need, even without taxing.

For the practical running of the affairs of the state, the Fed is far worse than the income tax. It creates the more-insidious tax because it is so sneaky. In a strange way, it has made all the debates about taxation superfluous. Denying the government revenue does nothing to curb its appetites for our liberties and property. The Fed has managed to make it impossible to starve the beast.

Chodorov was correct about the evil of the income tax. Its passage signaled the beginning of a century of despotism. Our property is no longer safe. Our income is not our own. We are legally obligated to turn over whatever our masters say we owe them. You can fudge this point: None of this is compatible with the old liberal idea of freedom.

You doubt it? Listen to Thomas Jefferson from his inaugural address of 1801. What he said then remains true today:”…what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one more thing, fellow citizens a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.”

Don’t dislocate your shoulder from patting yourself on the back

Roy Peter Clark:

The disappearance of a pregnant woman out West became national news. What possibly could have happened to her? Her husband expressed his grief and anxiety in front of a national TV audience. I turned to my wife next to me on the couch. “He did it,” I said. And so he did.

Between cop shows and real-life crime stories, we all recognize the trope: The first suspect is the partner or spouse, often the one who reports the crime.

Detectives are trained to sniff out the truth. That’s why the slang for them is bloodhounds — because they “track down” the killer. The metaphor is apt.

Science writer Marc McCutcheon notes that “The bloodhound’s epithelial membrane, or ‘sniffing organism’ is 50 times larger and thousands of times more sensitive than a human’s. The trace of sweat that seeps through your shoes and is left in your footprints … is a million times more powerful than the bloodhound needs to track you down.”

Let’s hear it for the nose. Journalists have all kinds of noses, or maybe just one nose, but a nose with a third nostril.

Among professionals, journalists are the dogs. They are guide dogs and watchdogs, trackers and pointers, but never lap dogs. They stand guard in the public’s yard. When danger, or even uncertainty, approaches, they bark. It’s a form of news telling. Hey, pay attention! Look at this! This guy doesn’t smell right!

Reporters as dogs.

My wife and I are again on the couch. A story out of Chicago of a young celebrity, Jussie Smollett, black, gay, the victim of a hate crime. At 2 a.m. on a frigid Chicago street, he is assaulted by two vicious thugs who claim allegiance to President Donald Trump, pour some liquid over him, and place a noose over his neck.

“This doesn’t smell right,” I said. She gave me a disgusted “you doubt everything” look.

I have spent 40 years listening to journalists and learning their lingo, their slogans, their metaphors. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That’s an old one. But at one time it may have been even more cynical. Melvin Mencher, an influential and curmudgeonly teacher at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, offered this version: “If your mother calls you Sonny, check it out.”

In other words, not only may your dear mother not love you, but how can you be sure that she is your real mother at all?

The distinction that most matters is the one between skepticism and cynicism. The practical skeptic doubts what he knows. His concern is about knowledge. The skeptical editor asks: “How do we know that?” Or “How can we know that?” The cynical editor has doubts about the ability of humans to act with good will. Her concern is about morality. That editor assumes the worst about people in general, especially those being covered.

“I better check that out,” comes from the skeptic. “They all lie, all the time,” comes from the cynic, a word, by the way, that comes from the Greek meaning “dog.”

Cover politics for any length of time and you will learn that, indeed, they all lie, all the time. Cover police and courts for any length of time and you will learn that, indeed, most of them lie, most of the time. However cynical you are about politics, you’re not cynical enough. Abyone who has something to gain by lying will.

I polled my Facebook friends — mostly the journalists among them — to get their sense of what it means when “something doesn’t pass the smell test.” How did journalists come to grow a third nostril?

Here are some of their ideas:

  • Veteran editor Walker Lundy wrote, “I always used the Two-Minute Mile Rule. It’s impossible for a human to run a two-minute mile. If you come across a story that sounds impossible, it probably is.”
  • Adam Hardy wrote: “If something doesn’t pass the smell test for a journalist, I think that’s shorthand for ‘More reporting is needed.’”
  • Dean Miller riffed on that strategy: “If too good to be true, too starkly good guy/bad guy, more reporting is needed.”
  • Tamara Lush wrote, “If you’ve covered crime long enough, you come to notice patterns. In motives, how events unfold, even how perpetrators/witnesses/victims tell stories. When things don’t fit those patterns, the intuition kicks in. That’s not to say a reporter shouldn’t pursue the story, but it’s one of the caution lights.”

Every veteran journalist I have ever met could tell me a story about being fooled or misled by sources. As a result of those experiences, reporters learn to be cautious with the statements of public figures, but sometimes the source seems so reliable that fabrications, falsehoods and distortions sneak through.

When editors intervene, they are looking for holes in stories, gaps of important information. At times, an editor will smell something in the text that is a little off and requires verification. In a collaborative spirit, the editor prosecutes the story, a kind of journalistic devil’s advocate. We love this story and want it to be true, and because we want it so much, we owe it to everyone to check it out, down to the last factoid.

Andrew Meacham, an expert practitioner of feature obituaries, shared this classic case on Facebook:

As an obit writer on a daily deadline, I was delighted to learn of a recently deceased physician who only did house calls. How quaint! Usually I checked backgrounds on potential subjects before investing a lot of time. But because he was a doctor, somehow that didn’t strike me as something to do immediately.

For me the “something isn’t right” element was physical but not olfactory. More like a nausea you try to deny or ignore until it’s just about time. In this story it was the too-pat responses from the widow about why he gave up his clinic to treat elderly shut-ins. He just enjoyed it more! He found it fulfilling. No anecdotes about that decision, maybe something he said about why he liked house calls better. It felt like a false bottom.

Four hours into my reporting I started searching his name, and quickly learned that four female patients had accused him of improver behavior. It was the state’s Board of Medicine that said he could no longer work out of an office, not some nostalgic desire to return to small-town America of the 1950s. We killed the story.

In summary, here are things I have learned about the smell test:

  1. Think of your nose as an early-warning detector. If you smelled something unusual in your house, you would get up off the couch and check it out.
  2. In the process of getting a story, more reporting is the antidote to many poisons.
  3. Both writers and editors must be willing to “prosecute” stories, especially the ones we most want to believe.
  4. A good question reporters can ask themselves: “How do I know this?” A good question for editors to ask reporters: “How do we know this?”
  5. If “everyone” believes something, it is still worth checking out. If that thing turns out to be wrong, that will make its own important story.
  6. You will not become a better reporter by assuming that everyone is lying to you. That makes you a cynic. Double-checking the assertions even of trusted sources makes you a dutiful, practical skeptic.
  7. The best way for an inexperienced reporter to develop a third nostril is to hang around with reporters who have one. Follow the work of such reporters and ask them how they sniffed out the evidence.
  8. All of these are versions of the same sensibility: “This doesn’t smell right.” “This doesn’t feel right.” “Why does my gut hurt?” “Where’s my B.S. detector?” “My spidey-sense is tingling.”
  9. You are not born with a third nostril; you grow one. In other words, this alert response is not based on instinct, which, technically, you are born with. These responses are learned, which is why more experienced journalists recognize and trust them.
  10. Your nose is more powerful than you think.

This last point is confirmed by science writer Marc McCutcheon in the book “The Compass in Your Nose”:

All humans have a trace amount of iron in their noses, a rudimentary compass found in the ethmoid bone (between the eyes) to help in directional finding relative to the earth’s magnetic field.

Studies show that many people have the ability to use these magnetic deposits to orient themselves — even when blindfolded and removed from such external clues as sunlight — to within a few degrees of the North Pole, exactly as a compass does.

And, for the record, if your mother says she loves you, you should probably say “I love you too, Mom,” but don’t be surprised or offended if she checks it out.

Well, aren’t we full of self-regard. Care to guess how much real investigative reporting most reporters do in your careers? Answer: None. We might like to tell ourselves we investigate as part of our jobs, but the fact is that most of us lack the time and resources to dig very far into stories.

How much investigative reporting do you think political reporters did during the Obama administration? Even worse, how much investigative reporting took place during the Clinton administration? (Notice any investigative reporting taking place in Wisconsin about the current governor, in stark contrast to his predecessor?) Similar to the way that dissent becomes patriotic during Republican presidential administrations, investigative reporting becomes cool again once the occupant of the White House has an R after his name.

Until I read this I had no idea who Clark was, or is. Maybe it’s unfair, but I have a hard time believing Clark has ever met a reporter from a real newspaper — that is, a newspaper where the staff isn’t angling for an appearance on the Sunday morning TV talk shows in order to further their careers. In other words, the veracity of this opinion doesn’t pass the smell test, since discerning readers can count the number of times big-time media either screws up something or fails to report what it should report. Bloviating such as this is a big reason the media is in poor regard in the eyes of the public, and getting worse by the day.