Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sunday Question for Conservatives

Lots of liberals today -- Jonathan Chait, Matt Yglesias, Jonathan Cohn, Paul Krugman -- are all taking the news about the GOP rejection of a very large deficit reduction deal to confirm what they see (and I agree) as obvious: the number one priority of current movement conservativism is keeping taxes low on rich people.

I don't mean to make this a gotcha question...I think such a priority structure is a perfectly legitimate policy position. But the Sunday question is: are the liberals right about this, or wrong? And, if the liberals are wrong about this, what is the correct priority structure among movement conservatives?


  1. “the number one priority of current movement conservativism is keeping taxes low on rich people.”

    That’s an absurd partisan statement -- Conservatives support low taxes for everyone.

    I’m actually not completely against revenue-raising tax reform, as long as spending cuts and entitlement reform are part of the package. I especially liked what was proposed by Obama’s deficit commission. I would have liked to see him come to the table with that.

    We also need to save money by bringing home the troops, although it doesn’t look like either side is really serious about this. Among small government conservatives like myself, this makes me doubt that Republicans are really serious about controlling spending. They also need to look beyond the big ticket items -- Rand Paul proposed half a trillion in cuts (one year) without touching entitlements or changing our military posture, just to show what could be done.

    If the GOP is really the party of small government, they should be prepared to put just about everything on the table. Unfortunately, they seem more interested in posturing for the next Presidential election than preventing the total financial collapse that the CBO is warning us about…

  2. Couves,
    Is it fair to say it of "movement conservatives," though? I guess a way of rephrasing that is: do you consider yourself a "movement conservative?"

    I think this gets us back to JB's earlier post today: what does that phrase mean? And, is it really the right phrase to use here? Or, are we actually speaking of hardcore Republicans instead of "movement conservatives?"

    You note that it's an "absurd partisan statement"....maybe the problem here is that we're conflating party and ideology.

  3. It is the top priority of many people who identify as conservative republicans. I don't think it is true of conservatives who are not dedicated GOP partisans. Things like abortion, marriage, guns and immigration are more important.

    I think conservatives who care most about social issues are treated like suckers by the GOP. Banning gay marriage and lowering immigration is much more popular with voters then low taxes on the wealthy but enacting supply side dogma into law is a higher priority for most GOP politicians.

    What is true conservatism is the subject of endless debate. What is a movement conservative is even more loosely defined.

  4. Matt,
    If you’re referring to my opening comment, I think it applies equally to movement conservatives. Unless I’m missing something, I can’t think of a tax increase that they like. The other comments are just my personal opinion. Although I generally agree with libertarian-leaning movement conservatives, I’m probably more sour on the GOP than many of them are.

    “…maybe the problem here is that we're conflating party and ideology.”

    I don’t think the distinction between party and ideology is always very meaningful. The parties are weaker than ever, yet partisanship is on the upswing. In my state, most of the talk radio-listening conservatives are registered independents. Having no party affiliation does not change the fact that many of them are very partisan.

  5. "That’s an absurd partisan statement -- Conservatives support low taxes for everyone."

    If that is the case - and I grant that it may well be - why do we see many instances of conservative refusal to provide tax relief to lower income people without tax relief for the well-off?

  6. Couves said:

    "the number one priority of current movement conservativism is keeping taxes low on rich people.”

    That’s an absurd partisan statement -- Conservatives support low taxes for everyone.

    Then why didn't they accept the permanent adoption of the Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000 when Obama offered it last year?

    Why are they threatening to bring down the world economy over issues like tax depreciation treatment of private jets?

    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    I think you're overlooking that the current Republican Party is a absurdly partisan party.
    - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

    The Republican party was for a health care mandate before Obama proposed one. They were for a deficit reduction plan that was 85% cuts/15% revenues before they were against it. They were for Cap & Trade before Obama proposed to implement it. Some of them were for Comprehensive Immigration reform before they were uniformly against it.

  7. If it can easily be construed in this way, then it is as "true" in the unknowable world of motives. I don't think that just because many Republicans are close, personal friends of the Koch brothers, and are heavily supported by them, means that they do the Kochs bidding for the money. Seriously. Marketing strategy isn't about buying people, it is about being involved in their lives and trusting in human behavior. I think the Republicans have painted themselves into a very tiny little corner for lots of reasons. The point is, they are making independents like me very unhappy by their appearances and being clustered together in such a tiny little corner.

  8. Tybalt and JS,

    Republicans oppose anything that will raise taxes. Their position seems pretty unambiguous to me, even if I don’t agree with it.

  9. I think the top priority is not keeping taxes low on rich people which is not to say this is not a the "Our Father" of the conservative rosary. The top priority since 2008 seems to be driving the brown guy from office in 2012 and installing a horse's ass.

  10. One of the things I find unattractive about the left is a perception that liberals tend to be bad at understanding the motives of their opponents. "Understanding" in an "Art of War (Understand your opponent better than he understands himself)" sense. Perhaps this is a function of the socially-driven mindset not attending enough to individuals' motivations. Whatever the reason, the ubiquity of the "Republicans are insane!" meme wrt the debt debate is a depressing example of a lack of understanding one's opponent.

    Rather than 'Republicans are insane', how about 'a civil war is brewing in the Republican tent'? A civil war between the very powerful 'rich guy' sect and the also very powerful 'old guy' sect.

    Why, asks a liberal, can't the rich guy just accept reasonable, Clinton-era tax rates and help us all out? (This jibes with the social mindset, of course). If I get all Sun-Tzu and imagine myself making $250,000/year, I stand to lose about $1,000/month returning to the Clinton rates. Think I'd notice that, but it wouldn't be the end of the world.

    But...if I were a rich guy any older than Mark Zuckerberg, I'd think back to a time when rich folks were taxed not at Clinton-era 34% rates, but Carter-era 90% rates. I'd think forward to a growing entitlement crisis in the USA, especially increasingly unwieldy health care costs for the elderly. And while I might be able to live with 34%, it wouldn't take much imagination to see that 90% is out there, particularly given the explosion of entitlement costs to come, and the lack of political will to deal with them.

    So before I signed off on returning to 34%, I'd want an iron-clad guarantee that this new bad tax rate trend would immediately end. How valuable would such a guarantee be from a politician? I wouldn't trust a guarantee, so I'd need to see some serious cuts or serious plans wrt the coming entitlement explosion.

    Therein lies the rub. For rich folks to be comforted that a return to Clinton rates is the end of rich guy tax increases, serious entitlement reform is needed. Entitlement reform that antagonizes old folks. Which means Boehner is trapped in an uncomfortable box.

    Worse, Obama's in there with him. There's an iron law of politics that says that you should let your opponent destroy himself if he's willing to do so, but here that could buy Obama an impeachment - or worse, economic catastrophe that torpedoes his second term.

    This "rich guy" vs. "old guy" battle within the Republican tent seems damn near intractable. But its not at all comforting to say that they're just insane. There's a solution to insanity, which makes Republican insanity, as a diagnosis, a source of false hope.

  11. CSH:
    Doesn't it go beyond the identities, though? I mean, aren't there a lot of people incensed over the top marginal tax rate who are never going to pay that rate? Even if those who would pay this top rate are all in the GOP, that still makes them a small portion of the GOP.

    However, I think it makes more sense if we include with them people who THINK they will someday make that much money, and are already inclined not to like taxes for philosophical (or, from most liberals POV, a philosophicalish) reasons. And, once we get there, we get to larger contingents of people who believe X, Y or Z.

    Of course, now we've just come full circle, and our "movement conservatives" are being defined as "movement conservatives," so my more expansive group runs the risk of not shedding any light on the question you raise.

  12. Matt Jarvis -

    You're certainly right that a lot of rank and file conservatives are along for the anti-tax ride without having any personal skin in the "fear-a-90%-tax-rate" game. Perhaps some of them think they'll someday be subject to the top rate, as you suggest. Probably a lot of them are partisan sheep to the rich guys driving this train. Its not difficult to collect such sheep into an anti-tax pen, especially when the proposed taxer is a liberal, and a black guy to boot.

    The health care angle of this issue for rich folks is interesting, no? Caveat, of course: Medicare comes from payroll taxes, obviously, so a general tax increase due to retiree health care costs would require some fungibility in the tax code. Probably not a show stopper.

    When you consider the continuing miracles of medical life-saving technology that are both a) extremely effective, and b) extremely expensive, the only thing stopping a universal medical care system from sustaining a high quality of life for vast numbers of elderly citizens is endless resources to do so. Directly or indirectly, the bogeyman of 90% marginal taxes on the rich could get us a long way toward the goal of enriched health for all elderly.

    Which is what should make the implosion of the Ryan plan particularly scary. The voucher system, for all its flaws, at least provided a way forward that capped the exposure of rich folks to endless tax increases supporting endless health care expenditures. How did Republicans, generally, embrace the Ryan plan?

    Prof. Bernstein suggests in the next thread that the 14th amendment is unlikely to be invoked...I'm not so sure. I could see the 14th amendment, together with Obama impeachment (but, obviously, not removal) the easiest way out of this trap for Boehner and Republicans. A way out that is, obviously, not good for Democrats or the country.

  13. As a liberal, a few comments. First, CSH, you are lucky I'm not President. I would take that impeachment in a second. No President who has been impeached deserved it, so I would be in good company. I wouldn't even bother offering a defense. And I wouldn't be convicted - but I would be out from under the tyranny of the extreme right. As for "conservatives want low taxes for everyone," news flash: taxes are the lowest they have ever been, and one large consequence of that is that the government is underfunded - with zero appreciable improvement in the economy as a whole. What conservatives really want is the repeal of the New Deal.

  14. CSH,

    As Bernstein frequently points out, keeping down spending as a percentage of the economy is important to conservatives. And they see higher taxes as an inducement to yet more spending. Sure it benefits the wealthy, but you could say the same for positions taken by the Democrats….

    On Medicare -- the Paul Ryan plan saves money by asking middle and upper income retirees to contribute more for their healthcare. The plan redistributes income downward, yet Democrats oppose it. I would argue that Dems are not primarily trying to protect the wealthy, or even the middle class -- they are trying to protect the entitlement system as it currently stands. Their position on entitlements is as much about a philosophical commitment as is the Republicans’ position on taxes and spending.

    You may disagree with the Republicans’ position on these issues, but to say it’s all about their obsequence to the rich is a partisan catcall, not useful analysis.

  15. Couves,

    Thanks for engaging my argument; in hindsight I realized I sounded too snarky wrt the Republican rank-and-file. In arguing that they were sycophants, I didn't mean it in the traditional, (liberal), Republicans-are-idiots sense, rather in the sense that either partisan tent has interest groups that attempt to push their agenda, which always includes attempting to enlist random same-team slobs that simply want to identify with being on the 'right team'. This sort of thing happens on both sides of the aisle.

    For me, the troubling thing about the failure of the Ryan plan is not the Democrats that opposed it, but the Republicans. Because it seems to me that we need something along the lines of the Ryan plan to assuage the fears of tax creep held by rich taxpayers, and I further think that elderly Republican voters will stand in the way of any sort of Ryan-type plan.

    Which, in conclusion, is not a judgment call on the rich, the elderly or anyone else. As a conservativish fellow, I sympathize with the rich person making $250 K, taking home $140 K, and having to give back $12 K of that to return from Bush to Clinton rates. And then...who knows how much more? I sympathize with that. I also sympathize with the elderly who understandably hate vouchers. I sympathize with all of it.

    And then I say, we've got a real problem on our Republican hands.

  16. CSH,

    There’s no doubt that interest groups are important, but your analysis is fundamentally flawed in a number of ways. Everyone's taxes will go up if we don’t fix the Medicare problem. And you’re still ignoring the fact that conservative Republicans support small government on principle.


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