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"Kids as Politics" -- My Latest American Prospect Column

My latest every-third-week contribution to the American Prospect online has been posted. I'm very enthusiastic about this one. It's a look at the use of children as a political theme over the last twenty years, and the successes and failures of the "kids as politics" strategy. I won't give the point away: read it yourself.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Do we need riots?

Peter Levine gently takes this and several thoughtful liberal blogs to task for the limited scope of our interests. A few days after a long, excellent and un-track-backed post about the Harlem Children's Zone and its founder, Geoffrey Canada, he points out that "I can sometimes get the attention of the Web's big guns if I opine on political philosophy in relatively general terms. Such editorializing can get me mentioned on Volokh, Crooked Timber, the Decembrist, or Matthew Yglesias. [hmm, one of these things is not like the others...-ms] But when I write about day-to-day social work, such as this interesting experiment in municipal government ... no one in the blogosphere seems to notice." I'm sure he's right about that. And it's a good point. As a representative of the policy-wonk extreme of the blogosphere, it's a surprising thing to realize. These are the things I've always been interested in -- esp. urban policy -- but I don't find myself writing or even thinking about writing about them here.

It's a reminder that, as much as the pluralism and spontaneity of blogs do have the possibility of changing the way we write about and understand public life, it's still mostly more of the same. We do it in our different ways and with different perspectives, but in the end it's still a lot of presidential horserace; a lot of "can-you-f...'in believe the Bush administration?"; some deeper examination and connecting-the-dots one of the week's major stories, and too much intramural blog games. Nor do I signs of some parallel group of either bloggers or traditional journalistic commentators who are closely debating the successes of various urban policy solutions. I'll try to keep Peter's encouragement in mind.

But the point actually reminded me of something I've been thinking about for a couple months, and you'll see the connection in a paragraph or two:

It occurred to recently me that in the mid-1990s, as the economic boom was beginning but widening income disparities also becoming apparent, a number of times I was in situations where I heard a great deal of concern from corporate types -- mainstream Republican or moderate Democratic executives -- about the level of inequality, and the problems of disadvantaged communities. The concern was not particularly driven by compassion or a larger social agenda. It was the traditional driving force that some historians credit for all the social reforms of the last century: Fear. The lid will blow. Something will happen. There will be a backlash. You can't have such enormous disparities and not expect people to react.

Today, perhaps I don't travel in the same circles (although that's not it, because I didn't travel in those circles then either) but I see no trace of similar concern. There is some corporate-leadership concern about the deficit (see the Committee for Economic Development, for example), and high-minded leaders like Bill Gates, Sr. and Warren Buffett, have taken specific stands against repeal of the Estate Tax and the Bush tax agenda. But I haven't seen any evidence of that more useful sense of a broader anxiety about their own scalps that you really need to win business's consent to change -- which will be essential to tax reform, health care reform, and all the other fights ahead. There also seems to be much less interest in urban issues generally than there was a few years ago.

So the question is, was there something different in the 1990s? One reasonable explanation is that the culture of business is different. Even a decade ago, there was a breed of executive that still had vestiges of a traditional sense of responsibility, who worried about his company's long-term prospects but also about the communities in which the company and its employees lived. Now the executives just worry about today's stock price, meeting the quarterly earnings number, their own bonus, and either their next career move or where they can move their headquarters to avoid taxes altogether. And the only fear their icy bones know is the thought that Elliott Spitzer might take their house and put them in jail.

That's actually a good explanation. As I wrote it, it began to seem almost sufficient. But that's not the point I was getting at, so forget it. Let's try an alternative explanation: The Los Angeles riots. (Or, "uprising," as I was long ago taught to call it.) Outside of California, the unraveling that led to 52 deaths, 2,500 injuries and destroyed 1,100 buildings in April 1992 is, I think it's safe to say, a faint recollection, on par with Hurricane Hugo. But for a few years, the riots brought political and business leaders face to face with the reality that poor people without opportunity might not remain docile forever. It led to enormous changes in LA., but also to a federal emphasis on issues of urban poverty even under the first Bush administration, which eventually led to the creation of federal Empowerment Zones and other innovations. Were there such a thing as a blogosphere in 1992-1996, I'm sure that Peter's observation would not have been true. There was just much more interest, generally, in urban conditions at the time.

In the twelve years since LA, there has been remarkably little urban violence in the U.S., and what there has been -- such as in Cincinnati -- has generally stayed focused on the police misconduct that was the spark, and not moved on to engage larger questions of economics and power in the way that L.A's rioters did as the hours went on. Urban and African-American voters are as implacably opposed to the Bush administration and as angry at the current direction of the country as any other reliably Democratic bloc, but there is no sign of actual unrest anywhere. I can't say for sure that it's because things are better, but in general, Harlem, the South Bronx, Central Brooklyn, Philadelphia, Baltimore, DC, and the other urban areas I'm loosely familiar with seem vastly more full of business, civic life, stable families, and culture than they were in 1992. So it's a good thing, very good. I don't mean to wish for or condone riots, which have many terrible consequences, beyond the violence itself, for racial harmony and many other things. But -- and this is my only point -- it's hard to escape the sense that our politics would be somewhat different, and there might be more worry some about the extremes of income inequality, if the ruling class still had some anxiety about driving the Lexus downtown.

As for the turnaround in urban America, who's responsible for that? That's a big question-- largely it's the doing of people like Geoff Canada, in every community. Their work at rebuilding the fabric of city life benefited from good fortune in long-wave behavioral trends such as the predictable waning of the crack epidemic and the less foreseeable reversal in the teen child-bearing rate. Large-scale government programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, and improvements in service delivery also had something to do with it. The long boom was probably most responsible, as black workers were no longer the last-hired/first-fired of short-term booms like 1986-89, but held on long-enough to get a real toehold in the labor market.

And that, I have no hesitation saying, is Bill Clinton's doing. Ron Brownstein made this point in the LA Times today, but I want to use a more elaborate statistic that includes race and poverty: From 1979 to 1991, the median income of the bottom 40% of African-American households declined by 11% in inflation-adjusted dollars, to a historic low of $8,228 in current dollars. (In other words, 20% of black households had income less than $8,228.) During that Reagan-Bush period, the median income of lower-income white households rose slightly, to $17,586. The racial disparity remains, but during the Clinton years, real median income for lower-income black households rose more than 30%, to $12,245 in 2000, while the same figure for white households was $19,841, about an 8% gain. While none of these are amounts that a family can be expected to live on, the black household is finally at least moving into the same general zone where white families are stagnating.

If this were Bill Clinton's only legacy, it would be a considerable one. Ironically, this success has had the effect of allowing policy makers to turn their attention away from urban issues and racial disparities, and dissipating the anxiety about the cities that drove some positive reforms in the 1990s. On the other hand, it does allow someone like John Edwards to begin to talk about poverty and have it understood that he is talking about white andblack and Hispanic families. It allows for a greater possibility of cross-racial alliances among the poor and on behalf of the poor, as the white and black poor converge. And that is a healthier spur for change than worries about urban unrest could ever be. But now it just has to happen.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 28, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

The Many Presidencies of Bill Clinton

My comments on the need for a President Kerry to find a way early on to find compromise with centrist Republicans, and in effect split the opposition party, stirred up some responses, so much so that it even split Michael Froomkin and Brad DeLong, who, if I recall correctly, are childhood friends. I hate to be responsible for such a breach, so I'll say a little more.

Both see my comments in the context of the omnipresent Clinton administration. DeLong says my advice is similar to the advice that Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen (and others) gave Clinton in 1993: to reach the centrist coalition around Senators like Breaux, Chaffee and Durenberger. (Good advice, although a question remains, which I'll pick up later.) Froomkin thinks the problem with Clinton was that he negotiated too much: "He triangulated. He fogged about. He appointed Republicans as judges." And, he argues, if Kerry wins by a landslide, he will have a mandate to govern and won't have to compromise with anyone, and we should conduct ourselves now as if that were possible.

This quarrel reminds me of what I think is the key thing to realize about the Clinton era: It was not a single administration. The way to understand Clinton is as something like a prime ministers in a European parliamentary system, a Gladstone or a Poincaré, who dominate their era not in a single government, but by moving in and out of power, forming several different governments with different coalitions over the years. Brad DeLong's key political lessons, like mine, come from the first Clinton government. Froomkin is basically complaining about the second Clinton government, which he formed after the brief Gingrich premiereship.

The first Clinton government did not triangulate. It came in with a little much triumphalism, and thought the only task was to organize the Democrats, which turned out to be more difficult than they realized. It had one huge, enormous accomplishment: the budget bill of 1993, which not only brought in the revenues that would eventually get the budget back on track, but also transformed numerous aspects of government: the entire student loan system, for example. That was passed by using the one process by which a single party can move an agenda entirely on its own, if it controls both Houses of Congress and the Presidency: the process of budget reconciliation. (I wrote about reconciliation, which has been the key to Bush's domination of the agenda, in my long essay on the Senate a few weeks ago.) Even then, he had to surrender key parts of the agenda, such as the BTU Tax (a comprehensive tax on energy, which later became Congressional shorthand for forcing House members to vote for something unpopular and then surrendering on it in the Senate: "We got BTU'd"), and it squeaked by on a single vote. But everything else Clinton tried to do -- his economic stimulus package, his crime bill, his health plan, basically foundered on the shoals of his failure to understand the limits of his power and mandate.

The question that remains unanswered is a historical counterfactual: We know that Clinton did not do much to reach Republicans in the first year, but we also know that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, in an unprecedented move, essentially sent the word to his troops that they were not to treat Clinton the way Democrats had treated the first Bush or Reagan -- that they should not give him nothing. Do not allow him to govern. So, if Clinton had tried harder, would he have been able to break Dole's party discipline? I don't know. However, I suspect that the discipline in opposition to Kerry will not be nearly as tight. Back then, even moderate Republicans, especially in the House, were sick of being pushed around by the Democratic majority and could find common cause. Now they're sick of being pushed around by their own conservative colleagues. The split is there.

It was the second Clinton government, the one that he formed sometime in late 1995, that triangulated its way back to reelection. By that point, Clinton was negotiating with Republicans, but he was doing so from weakness, just as I worry about Kerry having to do. He was negotiating with Trent Lott and Orrin Hatch, not choosing who to negotiate with and when to negotiate. This is what I want Kerry to avoid.

I agree that I don't want to concede all of this in July of the election year. That's why making McCain the VP probably wouldn't have made sense. A candidate cannot put forth a persuasive agenda for renewal and simultaneously acknowledge how much of it he will have to compromise on. But, by the same token, I want to avoid the cycle of disappointment when Kerry faces the recognition that his power to implement an agenda depends on his finding a working relationship with Congress.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 22, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack

Negotiating With the Republicans

A week in Maryland and DC -- some vacation, some meetings -- and I found almost no opportunity to update the blog. Not much to report from the trip, other than a reminder that, when I lived in DC, I would always notice tourists dragging their drooping kids around and think, "Don't people realize that little kids aren't built to handle this climate?" And then, there I am, in my shorts and sandals, tugging a three-year-old across the Mall. Still, she was pretty firm that if she was in Washington, she wanted to see the White House and the Capitol, not the Zoo, and was pretty excited about the whole thing. Then I went off to my meetings and left my wife to keep her busy for another day and a half, which they did.

In the course of three days in DC, I had an interesting conversation with someone who I will just identify as one of the most savvy and successful of liberal policy advocates. He laid out the following scenario for a Kerry administration, regardless of whether Democrats win back the Senate by a tiny margin or not: Kerry comes in with a head of steam, has some great policy ideas, but can't get anything passed. Around the middle of the year, in the face of futility, he has to start negotiating with the Republicans.

This goes back to my first comments on the transition, but I think that is a terrible, highly undesirable outcome. It is more or less what one would expect, based on the experience of the Clinton Administration and, conversely, the first Bush administration. But it is a disaster. It means that Kerry, probably with his job approval rating sinking, will find himself trying to negotiate with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. This will not be like Reagan negotiating with Tip O'Neill in the 1980s, a respectful conflict of viewpoints. Frist not only will be scheming to run against Kerry in 2008, he not only knows no boundaries to the primacy of political power, but he also has shown not even an inkling of regard for the country or its long-term well-being. Nothing good will come of that.

And this prediction reinforces my belief that Kerry's only hope for success, even if he is blessed with a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate, is to begin very early on working with the Republicans that he can work with: as I put it in that previous post, "moderate and not-so-moderate Republicans, from Snowe and Chafee to McCain and Hagel in the Senate, and their handful of counterparts in the House." One key to political power, I believe, is understanding in advance when you will have to negotiate and when you can exercise power. And when you know you have to negotiate -- as Kerry will have to -- you want to decide for yourself when you negotiate and with whom you negotiate. Kerry's choice, then, is likely to be this: Do I negotiate with Snowe and Voinovich in January, or with Frist and DeLay, from a position of weakness, in September? That's not a hard choice.

I'm quite hopeful that Kerry understands this, and that one advantage of his Senate career is that he knows these Republicans and has a history of working well with them. But then the question becomes, will the Democrats let him cut this deal? There will be the partisan triumphalism: "We won. Why do we have to deal with those assholes?" There will be specific differences on issues, because the Republicans are likely to put a much higher priority on long-term deficit reduction, which will bring to a boil the long-simmering conflict over "Rubinomics." But, Ashcroft's Office of Legal Counsel is wrong: President's don't get to operate unilaterally. And Kerry will have an easier time negotiating with people like Senators Snowe and Voinovich, who are decent and well-meaning and who do not set out to destroy government, than Clinton had negoiating with the nominal Democrats of his day, such as Senator Shelby of Alabama.

In short, President Kerry will only be able to govern if he is able to split the Republican Party. The split has already opened thanks to the White House's ideology of total control and the embarassment and chaos it has caused; Bush's defeat will open it much wider, freeing Republican moderates to acknowledge the insanity of the past three and a half years. But Kerry must complete the split, just as Reagan completed the split of the Democratic Party, and we must allow/encourage him to do it. Otherwise, we're doomed to watch him negotiate the terms of surrender of his presidency to a soulless cat-murderer.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 21, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

My Boss's Blog, Philanthropy and the Right

Two things that I've been meaning to do here for a long time, and that are somewhat related: The first is to call some attention properly to my boss's blog, which he started months ago and which I've been promising to link to for at least that long. The second is to write a little bit about the politics of philanthropy, since I do work at a foundation, after all.

If the phrase, "my boss's blog" leads you to expect topics like "Did you know that the Chinese character for crisis combines danger and opportunity?" you will be pleasantly surprised by Gara LaMarche's blog. He is far more interesting than I am, in that he reads books with things in them that didn't really happen (a genre that I intend to take up again, since I've noticed people seem to like it), sees about 900% more movies than I do, and has musical tastes which are, well, let's just say eclectic and surprising, although a little heavy on the female-singer-songwriter category for my own post-punk tastes. He's also had a fascinating career, mostly in human rights, at the ACLU, as director of the Texas Civil Liberties Union, at the PEN Writers Center, and then starting in 1996, he essentially created the Open Society Institute's U.S. programs, adapting some of the strengths of George Soros's daring and democracy-promoting philanthropy in Eastern Europe to the U.S. context.

(A reporter friend who was writing a story about people losing their jobs over things they wrote on their personal blogs asked me if I had to worry about that, and I said no -- but that I was in a slightly unusual position since everyone above me in the organization had spent much of their careers at the ACLU, so free expression is not a problem.)

More recently, Gara has been giving a series of speeches, linked on his blog, many of which concern the need for foundations to be more directly engaged with the policy issues of the time, as opposed to believing that what they are engaged in is neutral experimentation or services. This is from his speech
to the Wisonsin Donors' Forum
in April:

I'm going to illustrate this argument with examples from OSI's own work, which of course I know best. But I want to start by using the example of one of the leading members of the Donors Forum of Wisconsin, the Harry and Lynde Bradley Foundation. One key goal of the foundation is to ?encourage decentralization of power and accountability away from centralized, bureaucratic, national institutions back to the states, localities, and revitalized mediating structures in which citizenship is more fully realized.? For Bradley, a critical aspect of carrying out this agenda is the support of faith-based institutions, particularly providing parents with public funds so their children can attend schools like the four sponsored by the Holy Redeemer Institutional Church of God in Milwaukee?s central city, which won the praise of President Bush when the foundation sponsored his visit there last July. The Bradley Foundation has been a leading force in efforts to expand the use of vouchers as a vehicle for school choice. ...The recent report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, "Axis of Ideology: Conservative Foundations and Public Policy," documents this impact in detail with grudging admiration. NCRP, which locates its values on the more progressive side of the political spectrum, like OSI, writes that "the success of these organizations is not something that the NCRP or its members would necessarily celebrate. But the manner in which foundations on the right support, fund, and relate to their grantees is certainly to be admired.?

NCRP goes on: ?With resources that pale in comparison to centrist and liberal foundations, conservative funders have supported public policies that now impact the entire nation. Perhaps that is why foundations on the right tend to spend so little on evaluation ? they can easily see their impact in the newspaper, on TV, in America's classrooms, and in the courts. And perhaps it is also why centrist and liberal foundations have to spend millions of dollars and work with multiple consultants to determine their impact.? Ouch.

No one familiar with my history or with the work of OSI would be surprised to know that I do not share the Bradley Foundation's enthusiasm for vouchers or certain aspects of welfare reform. But I applaud the foundation?s direct engagement in public policy. It recognizes that demonstration projects are fine, but ... models do not replicate themselves. They require someone?s money. The only difference, and it is a significant one, between Bradley's work on vouchers and, say, OSI's large investment in afterschool programs in New York City and Baltimore is that we believe successful and necessary initiatives like afterschool should be public obligations, like roads and libraries. We believe that requires a progressive taxation system and democratically-determined public expenditures. Bradley would like a smaller government and to have public funds allocated more by individual than collective decision. That is indeed, a central debate of our time.

But both of us realize that engagement in public policy debates is crucial to advancing our vision of society.

All of the examples I provided at the outset, of OSI- and locally-supported initiatives in Wisconsin, involve policy change.
Charity and pro bono work can correct individual miscarriages of justice due to police ineptitude or misconduct. But only the passage of laws mandating minimum standards or providing more funding for indigent defense or better-equipped police labs will correct what is in fact a systemic problem, and reduce the number of miscarriages requiring correction. Corrupt judges can be exposed by investigative journalism and from time to time removed from office. But publicly-financed elections ? something that by definition can only come about through engagement in the political process ? can assure that judges are free to act impartially, without dependence on compromising contributions from the plaintiff or defense bars

That is a concise statement of a particular viewpoint about what liberal foundations ought to be doing. This also fits into an overall theory of "what's wrong with the left?" Under this theory, it is the institutions of the right, its think tanks, foundations, grassroots groups, and networks of state legislators that account for its advantage, and if the left built similar institutions, it would be more successful. I've commented on this before.

Gara's version is more subtle than that, because he understands that the goals of the Bradley Foundation are not merely the inverse of his own. The report he cites from the National Center for Respsonsive Philanthropy presents the more basic view of the argument: conservative foundations, unlike their liberal or moderate counterparts, put their money behind an organized, well-designed effort to change public policy, and if liberal foundations would only do the same, the public debate would at least be more balanced. I call this the "I'll have what she's having" theory of political change.

A more provocative response to the argument arrived recently from William Schambra, undeniably a leader among these conservative foundations, formerly of the aforementioned Bradley Foundation and currently at the Hudson Institute, writing in Philanthropy, the journal of the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Schambra makes three main points: First, that left-wing reformers such as NCRP see in the funding priorities of the conservative foundations "breathless speculation about conspiracies so byzantine and insidious as to be worthy of Russell Crowe in the movie A Beautiful Mind." Schambra actually moves on quickly and does not say one word to challenge the idea that conservative funding could be seen as a conspiracy, but nonetheless I think he's right. There is not so much an "axis of ideology" on the right as a general commitment to build organizations that roughly reflect conservative viewpoints, in all their diversity. The many conflicting views on the right are actually nurtured through their funding of many different kinds of institutions. While there are influential strategic leaders on the right, some of whom operate through foundations, the same might be said of the left. But the real point of the NCRP is not to say there is a conpiracy or ideological congruence, but simply that almost all of the conservative philanthropic dollar goes to build institutions that promote policy change. It does not go to feed the hungry, even though it is conservatives who argue that the private sector should be responsible for alleviating human need. Indeed, where the conservatives do fund services, it is to prove a point, such as the merits of private schools for poor kids, not to actually experiment with solutions or to improve lives. Liberal foundations are indeed not so clearly focused on policy change.

Second, Schambra argues that the liberal commitment to diversity is incompatible with an ideological focus. He points out that left-wing groups also argue that "Less funding should go to elitist cultural and academic institutions, more to smaller, politically aggressive grassroots groups that would carry the multicultural views of oppressed races, ethnic groups, and genders into national councils. ...As Rick Cohen noted at Hudson, 'People of color; immigrants; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered people; and the urban and rural poor?perspectives from those constituencies infuse a great deal of our work.'...Would [multiculturalism] amount to the 'clarity of vision' or 'coherence of theme' attributed to conservative philanthropy? Probably not." Of course, there is no necessary incompatibility between diversity/identity politics and an ideological focus. Indeed, a progressive movement that reflects the broadest base of those affected by current policies and inequalities must be stronger than one that does not. Schambra is right, though, that only one can be the top priority. The tense relationship between identity politics and the need for organizations that move a political agenda into the mainstream is perhaps more complicated than Schambra recognizes, and even as new institutions are created that do mirror those on the Right, there are activists ready to dismiss them as too white or too elitist.

Finally, Schambra makes his most daring argument of all: Right-wing funders aren't really doing much of anything at all, just following the mainstream of American thought:

How, by contrast, have conservatives managed to develop "clarity of vision" and "coherence of theme?" The statement of purposes issued by the conservative Bradley Foundation declares that it is "devoted to strengthening American democratic capitalism and the institutions, principles, and values that sustain and nurture it." It is particularly interested in cultivating "a renewed, healthier, and more vigorous sense of citizenship among the American people" through "healthy families, churches, neighborhoods, voluntary associations, schools, and other value-generating 'mediating structures.'"

This is not a list of humanity's problems, with shining promises to get at their roots and solve them through social science work. Nor is it a stirring indictment of the injustices of our past, opening onto inspiring vistas of an egalitarian, multicultural future. It is, rather, a sober, modest pledge to remain true to the American constitutional system as it came to us from the Founders.... Establishment foundations tend to ignore that vision, radical foundations to despise it. A non-conservative foundation hoping to duplicate conservatism's success simply by adopting its philanthropic techniques overlooks one important explanation for that apparent effectiveness: When conservative foundations enter the field of public policy, they are not trying to make something happen that is at cross purposes with America's underlying political and institutional framework, but rather fully in accord with it.

This is nonsense. As a supporter of school choice through vouchers, I can see the argument that they are in keeping with longstanding American traditions, but basically that's just a value argument. Vouchers, radical tax reductions, and other aspects of the Bradley are every bit as radical a challenge to the "underlying political and institutional framework" as they at first seem to be. I don't really understand why a thoughtful advocate like Schambra would want to deny that.

But the underlying point is correct: The liberal and conservative traditions and institutions are different, and simply adopting either the philanthropic techniques or the other structures of the Right will not reproduce the Right's political success. "I'll have what she's having" is not a political philosophy.

I hope to write more about this in the coming weeks. In the meantime, take a look at my boss's blog.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 21, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack

Did the Iranians Burn Chalabi? Were they trying to help us?

Today's Financial Times carried a fascinating letter by John Brady Kiesling, the U.S. diplomat who resigned eloquently during the run-up to the Iraq war.

Kielsing's letter looks like compressed version of an op-ed. It would be great to have the full-length version, because there is a lot here. In short, Kiesling suggests that the Iranians deliberately revealed Ahmed Chalabi's dual role, and in doing so, helped free the U.S. to manage the transition in Iraq without the disastrous influence of Chalabi.

...Iran's Baghdad intelligence chief incriminated Mr Chalabi as an Iranian informant, transmitting Mr Chalabi's alleged revelations via the very communications link Mr Chalabi had just told him the US could intercept.

It is safest to assume that this gaffe was deliberate: the Iranians exploited the US's allergy to Iran to neutralise a shared problem. The leak ended a disastrous 18-month stalemate during which Paul Bremer, the US administrator, had been unable to impose a coherent Iraqi reconstruction policy, because Mr Chalabi had the Washington connections to thwart most concessions to Iraqi reality.

The Chalabi fiasco underscores, paradoxically, that Iran is the US's necessary partner in Iraq. Iranians see a defanged, stable, unified Iraq as a national interest worth considerable toil and treasure - preferably the US's rather than their own - to achieve. Iranians enjoyed America's floundering in Iraq, but only up to a point. Mr Chalabi may have promised the Iranians the moon, but the Iranians knew he was no more trustworthy as their partner than as the US's.....

President George W. Bush's lack of curiosity about Saddam Hussein's Iraq proved catastrophic to all concerned.

This seems credible to me, even though it's so bizarre that you almost expect Arvin Sloane to suddenly appear as the mastermind behind all this.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 10, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

My Latest American Prospect Online Article is Up

The Permanent Raw Deal
We know liberals face trouble if Kerry loses. But here's the tough choice they face if Kerry wins.

Keeping with the historical theme of the column, this one goes back to the decision by liberals to make entitlements -- or "The Permanent New Deal" -- the cornerstone of the agenda, how that promise has been eroded, and how the far right is on the verge of creating a system of "anti-entitlements" that will similarly constrain government for many decades to come.

It's pretty dense, because it's a huge topic. I think this might actually be the kernel of the book I'd like to write, although a book with the word "entitlements" in the title is probably guaranteed to have max 500 readers, and that's before they get to the chapter on the history of budget reconciliation!

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 9, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Good American Journalism Review article on political blogs

By looking at my own site referrers, I found this good article from the American Journalism Review about political blogs. It's reasonable and thorough.

Although the author doesn't rank me with "the rock stars of political blogging--Glenn H. Reynolds (www.instapundit.com), Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com), Joshua Micah Marshall (www.talkingpointsmemo.com) and Mickey Kaus (www.kausfiles.com)--moody maestros who stroke their keyboards more quietly but no less fervently than Coldplay's Chris Martin," there is this paragraph:

Ryan Lizza, a reporter for The New Republic covering the presidential campaign, says he reads blogs "pretty religiously. I have a list of 10 or 15 blogs that I check in with at least once a day." Lizza thinks "one really smart blog that deserves to get more attention" is The Decembrist (markschmitt.typepad.com), which "tends to be more thoughtful, more of an essay style." But he cautions that "you don't want to get too wrapped up in what some parts of the blogosphere are obsessing about, because it can sometimes be this self-contained world."

In addition to writing for The New Republic, Lizza started a blog just before the primaries as an outlet for tidbits and other material that might not hold for a week until the print edition (www.tnr.com/blog/campaignjournal). "It's a little different," he says. "It's not a blog in the sense that it's a list of things that Ryan Lizza has read out there on the Internet. I'm trying to keep it more reportorial and not just a list of random thoughts."

So, thanks for the plug, Ryan! I'll try to return the favor someday.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 8, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Are these people really lawyers?

What struck me about the reports today and yesterday on memos from the Justice Department and the Defense Department arguing that U.S. prohibitions on torture might not apply to the treatment of prisoners in Iraq or Guantanamo was not so much their moral implications -- I'm beyond the capacity for shock -- but their glib, loose, bull-session tone. The memo from the Office of Legal Counsel is not available, and if Ashcroft has his way, it won't be, but based on the quotes in the Times and the Post, it just doesn't sound remotely like an actual legal argument, much less "a scholarly effort to define the perimeters of the law." It seems to be just a series of assertions, such as, "in order to respect the President's inherent constitutional authority to manage a military campaign . . . [the prohibition against torture] must be construed as inapplicable."

One reason to release the memo is to find out if it is really this vacuous. The lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel and the White House Counse's office are the best the Federalist Society has to offer. They've gone to the best law schools, clerked for Thomas or Scalia -- they can be expected to put together an argument that, even if wrong, at least appears to be grounded in a well-researched analysis of the law and precedents. Instead, these memos read like, at best, a bunch of drunk right-wing freshmen arguing about what they think the law should be.

We do have the full texts of the January 2002 memos from White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez, and the response/edits from the State Department Legal Advisor, and the contrast in tone is as illustrative as the contrast in content:

Gonzalez: "The war against terrorism is a new kind of war...this new paradigm renders obsolete the Geneva Convention's strict limitations on questioning of enemy combatants and renders quaint some of its provisions that captured enemy be afforded such things as commissary privileges..." No reasoning is given for why prisoners captured in these wars need not be fed, or how being "quaint" makes these provisions inapplicable.

Powell (via Legal Advisor): [I couldn't find a single quote that best illustrated the different tone of the Powell memo. Basically, it begs Gonzalez to present both the pros and cons of declaring that the Geneva Convention inapplicable to the entire conflict in Afghanistan, asking Gonzalez, among other things, to at least inform the President that "the OLC opinion is likely to be rejected by foreign governments and will not be respected in foreign courts or international tribunals."

It is as if the interns from the speechwriting department are running the show

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 8, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Learning to love consumption taxes

[Updated -- see below]

A few years ago, I worked with someone who viewed his mission in life as being to bring the enlightenment of a European-style Value-Added-Tax (VAT) to these shores. Every time he would launch into an explanation of just how rational and efficient it would be for the retailer to rebate the tax to the wholesaler and the wholesaler would rebate back to the distributor and the distributor back to the manufacturer, and then the consumer would collect a rebate based on income so the system could be made progressive, blah blah -- I would wince. It just seemed utterly technocratic and unrealistic, something only a management consultant could love. And taxing consumption always seemed inherently regressive, since poorer people need to consume more, if not all, of their income.

I've always been interested in large-scale tax reform, but with an old-fashioned moderate purism: my ideal would be a reasonably progressive tax on all income -- because income is the best measure of ability to pay -- on the broadest base (that is, all income included), with relatively low marginal and average rates. And I've been particularly wary of certain kinds of limited consumption taxes, like cigarette taxes or the "capuccino tax" that people I know sought to pass in Seattle last year. I understand the aphorism that "if you want more of something, tax it less and if you want less of something, tax it more," but I worry about making revenues and services dependent on things we want less of. For example, I have no doubt that the heavy taxation of tobacco, in combination with other policies and a general cultural shift, will mean that within five years, cigarettes will be virtually nonexistent in the U.S, outside of high school parking lots. Which will be a good thing, except it will cause a severe fiscal crisis in states that are either heavily dependent on tobacco taxes or have already borrowed against the revenues they expect to receive from the tobacco settlement. In the meantime, the burden of government will fall more and more on a shrinking number of deeply addicted individuals.

But I've started to rethink my attitude.

This op-ed by Ted Halstead and Maya MacGuineas of the New America  Foundation makes a good case that the payroll tax, at least, should be replaced by a progressive tax on consumption, calculated not through the complex transaction-by-transaction method of a VAT, but simply by taking income, subtracting the first $25,000, subtracting total savings, and taxing the rest.

In the only comment I've seen on this,Matthew Yglesias commented that, before one could evaluate such a proposal, you would have to know what the rates were. The rates are certainly not irrelevant details, but in this case, Halstead and MacGuineas are talking about a replacement for the payroll tax. You really don't need much more information in order to compare it to the payroll tax. With the exception of tax  rates that are explicitly and steeply regressive, just about any system would be fairer than a flat tax on the first dollar of income through $88,000, applied only to income from labor. Whatever the rate, if the first $25,000 of income, plus any savings, were tax-free, it would result in a gain worth $4,000-$4,500 to a worker earning in that $25,000-$30,000 range, exactly the group that has gained almost nothing over the last 25 years. (I'm assuming that the employers' share of the tax would be passed on to the worker in some form of wages or benefits.) That's not trivial; in fact, $4,500 makes all the innovations of the last decade, such as the child tax credit, look trivial. For a full time worker, $4,500 would be the equivalent of a $2 an hour raise!.

[UPDATE: I must not have been paying attention the last week of May. Everyone I reliably read commented on this proposal: Kevin Drum, Max Sawicky, and also some good comments at Paperwight. Max also pointed to a very thorough academic paper by Daniel Shaviro, which I should have read before posting. I don't understand Max's claim that the payroll tax is progressive. There are more regressive taxes, I suppose, but one with no zero bracket at the bottom, a flat rate, a ceiling, and applied only to labor doesn't seem to merit being called progressive. I'll conced that, inclusive of benefits, the payroll tax-Medicare/Social Security package is slightly progressive, but as I'll discuss below, it's not all that redistributive and that may be the key to its political staying power. Kevin Drum's comment is that the whole idea is politically unrealistic. I've got more to say on that below, but in short, there are times when the smartest political tactic of all is to put forward the most complete alternative, rather than to fight around the margins of the current debate, and I'm convinced this is such a time.)

(Incidentally, MacGuineas's lengthier statement of the case for replacing the payroll tax with a consumption tax in the book The Real State of the Union does give some rates, purely as an example: 10% on all non-saved income between $25,000 and $100,000, and 15% above $100,000. I don't know whether these numbers have been run through the appropriate models to estimate whether they would raise enough revenue to replace the payroll tax, or even if models used by, for example, the Tax Policy Center are able to estimate all the impacts, including the likely shift from consumption to savings.)

Of course, we still need the revenues for Medicare and Social Security -- and more than the payroll tax was bringing in, to put them on better financial footing -- so lifting the payroll tax burden from the working near-poor would have to mean a shift to the better-off. I have argued against proposals to remove the ceiling on the payroll tax entirely, because it would undermine one of the political strengths of Social Security, which is that it is basically a good deal for everyone, and create for the first time a class of people who would pay much more into Social Security than they get out. This would be the case with a consumption tax as well. But, in general, the political calculus around consumption taxes might be easier to manage, because the tax is in a sense, optional and unpredictable. It can be avoided by saving and investing. And since consumption presumably levels off at higher incomes anyway, there is an inherent limiting effect, which there would not be if the ceiling on income were lifted entirely.

But there are three other reasons that a consumption tax is suddenly more appealing to me:

1. It could capture income from investments. The payroll tax is regressive not just because it is flat and then drops off at higher incomes, but because it applies only to income from labor. Simultaneously, the trend in the tax system under Bush is to get more and more income from investment out of the tax code entirely. That's the effect of Health Savings Accounts, or Roth IRAs (which some House Republicans are pushing to expand), of the special rates on dividend and capital gains, and of the "Opportunity Society" savings vehicles that Bush intended to push this year but has held back. These tax breaks don't so much create incentives to invest as simply make income from existing investment tax-free. It's as a result of these special provisions that Warren Buffett could find himself in the 15% tax bracket, while his secretary pays twice that rate.

Under a consumption tax, income that people took from investment and did not add back to savings would be taxed just like income from work. That would be a huge breakthrough. And at the same time, there would be an incentive to save and invest -- probably a much greater incentive than through gimmicks like Roth IRAs and tax-free dividends, because it would actually be an incentive to invest, not just an incentive to collect income from investments.

2. A consumption tax for Social Security and Medicare might act as a subtle means test on those programs. Presumably seniors who earn enough to consume more than $25,000 a year would also pay some tax. This would help recapture some of the benefits for those who don't really need them, without an elaborate means-testing structure.

3. The more radical the change the better, as far as I'm concerned. Even if the consumption tax offered no advantages compared to the current tax code, it would at least restart the debate on a totally fresh basis. If we spend the next four years fighting about income tax rates and how much of the Bush tax cuts to repeal and how much to keep, the victories will be modest and compromised, if there are any victories at all. That's the debate the nihilistic Right wants to have; the only way to restore the revenues needed to make government work is to sidestep that debate entirely.

Once such a consumption tax is in place, it could be scaled up or down as needed. It could replace part of the income tax, or it could be expanded to provide additional funding for a system of private accounts that would match savings, scaled to income, as an addition to Social Security rather than a replacement.

There are plenty of details about such a tax that do need answers, though:

-- How would housing costs be treated? The home is the principal savings and investment vehicle for most families. Would mortgage payments be treated as savings? Or just the principal portion? How much revenue would be left behind if they were? How much further would that skew the burden against renters, especially if the income tax and the mortgage interest deduction remained?

-- What about borrowing for current consumption? Would the proceeds of a second mortgage be treated as non-saved income?

-- And finally, I just need an economics lesson: What would be the economic impact of so heavily taxing consumption? I know that the savings rate is too low, and that we are financing current consumption by borrowing from abroad, but isn't current consumption helping to drive the economy also? Wasn't excess savings the problem Keynes was trying to solve? Isn't it easy to swing too far in the other direction?

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 5, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack