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Another Landscape

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All this week end, I ‘ve been having one of those periods when I wake up in full remembrance of Very Odd Dreams.  Sometimes I wake  up three or four times a night, always to be faced with sorting out what is real and what is not.

These are not necessarily bad dreams.  And, to the extent that dreams are only bad if they make you feel bad while you’re dreaming, they haven’t been bad dreams at all. 

I had one where I made it to my mother’s funeral–set for this Tuesday, finally–and started worrying about what had happened to my father, because, since he wasn’t dead yet, I was going to have to locate him before the service was over.

Of course, my father has been dead since 2006, but it took me a good couple of minutes after waking up to remember that, and stop the mental mechinations about what to do next.

I had another dream about a little section of my upstairs bathroom floor suddenly being made of an entirely different material than the rest of the floor and then falling off–and that one was oddly comforting, because all I could think of was that since it was only this part of the floor with the different wood that broke off, the rest of the bathroom was probably safe.

The next one I remember with any clarity had to do with interviewing Christopher Reeve, in his wheelchair but without the physical disabilities that went with it.   He took pictures of me in the process–or had somebody else take them, since he was in them–and he gave me one where I was leaping through the air like a dancer in Swan Lake while wearing this little black and white house dress thing I sometimes put on when I’m entirely alone.

If you’re the kind of person who thinks dreams tell us something serious about ourselves, these are going to be disappointing.  I can see where the one about my mother’s funeral actually taps into my day to day anxieties, but the other two are just odd for the sake of being odd, at least as far as I know. 

All of this should be leading up to something, but I’m not sure what.  It’s Sunday.  My usual “take the week-end to cool off so you can think” mode isn’t working.  Sometimes my brain just goes into overdrive and there’s nothing I can do to stop it except get somebody to hit me with a two by four, which they are oddly reluctant to do.

And there’s no America’s Next Top Model marathon on Oxygen, either.  There was one yesterday, but it’s of the cycle I like the least, and I didn’t bother. 

What’s worse, I have this terribly distinct feeling that I got a lot accomplished yesterday, but I’m just not sure what.

I mean, really, if I’m going to run myself ragged doing stuff, the least I owe myself is remembering what it was.

But if I’m going to be this floaty about whatever and everything, I might as well throw out two things I’ve been thinking about that I don’t really know yet how to finish, and we’ll see where they go.

First is this–I think we do our federal budgets backwards.

Instead of starting with what we’ve got and seeing what we can cut–either really cut (as in make less than last year) or fake-cut (as in make less than we wished for this year)–what we should do is throw everything out, make a list of the core functions of government that we must deal with, fund those, and then figure out what we can and want to afford from the wish list.

I am not, of course, unaware that the real problem here would be determining what amounts to the core functions of government, but for me they would comprise those things without which we could not have a government at all.

That would, on the federal level of the United States, include things like Congress, the Presidency and the Federal courts, the military, various policing operations (FBI, CIA, parks service rangers, air traffic controllers, the SEC), and keeping the stuff maintained (repairing buildings, roads, dams, etc).

It would not include “social programs,” because we did exist as a country–and many countries exist even now, without them. 

If we want them, we can add them in phase two, after phase one had been taken care of.

And, in fact, we are going to want them–or some of them, at any rate.  We’re going to want Social Security and Medicare, certainly. 

The point would not be to eliminate social programs, but to:  a) drill it home that such programs are the luxuries of a rich society and b) get us to have a conversation about what of such programs we actually want to have. 

This ought to get rid of the thousands of tiny programs that exist mostly because some Congressman somewhere wanted to say he’d brought something home to his district, and that eat up tiny but accumulating amounts of money in staff and material.

And that, almost always, end up alienating more members of the public than benefiting any.  

Trust me, the Tea Party is going to like the federal government a lot more when it’s not hectoring them about their weight and telling them they can’t have a cigarette in their favorite bar after work. 

Of course, to really put an end to this kind of divisiveness, we’d have to go back to letting states and municipalities make their own rules about the way they want to live,  but that’s for another discussion.

Second–what always bothers me in discussions about the progressive income tax, or “taxing the wealthy,” or whatever, is that they entirely leave out any consideration of a necessary consequence of such taxes, and that consequence is very important.

The consequence is this:  if I place very high marginal tax rates on upper level incomes, what I essentially do is to privilege those people who already have money against those who do not.

Look at it like this:  let’s say John and Stephen both earn $100,000 a year at Megacorp Financial.  John’s family was lower middle class when he was growing up.   He’s got a ton of college loans and other debt, and no working capital at all.  If he’s careful, he’ll be able to build it up over time.  In the meantime, he puts aside a down payment and takes on a hefty mortgage, and generally struggles along to get himself going.

Stephen, on the other hand, came from a rich family.  He has no college loans, because his father was able to write a check.  He didn’t sweat his down payment, either, because his grandparents left him a five figure trust fund he could tap as soon as he wanted to buy a house. 

What a high marginal tax rate does is insure that John will never catch up to Stephen–even if Stephen does less well at work over time.  A high marginal class rate protects Stephen’s upper class standing from challenges from people like John.

Before you start saying that today’s rich aren’t happy with those marginal rates–no, they’re not, but the upper 1% of American wealth at the moment is almost 60% self-made.   They are, in fact, exactly the people who ought to be antagonistic to such rates.

Back in the Fifties, I grew up among other people–the 1% of their time, they might privately complain about high tax rates, but they did absolutely nothing to actively advocate them.  They knew that those rates–along with metatastizing regulations that automatically privilege existing large corporations over upstart smaller ones–were almost all that was keeping their half baked children in the social class to which they’d been born.

And if you don’t believe me, I’d like to point out that virtually none of the people who were in the 1% in my childhood are there now.  And even those people who are there as heirs tend to be there as heirs to self made made–the Waltons, for instance, and the Krocs.

One of the things that makes it hard to talk about progressive taxation, though, is one of those “the two sides aren’t talking about the same thing” moments.

One side says that social programs do nothing to lift people out of poverty, and the other side says they do–but they’re using entirely different definitions of “poverty.”

The second side–the one that things social programs lift people out of poverty–defines “poverty” as “having all the stuff you need to live decently.”

The first side–the one that thinks social programs don’t–defines “poverty” as “being able to live decently by your own efforts without needing government support.”

And that’s why that discussion never goes anywhere.

I’m going to go wandering off and do something.

Or not.

Written by janeh

April 17th, 2011 at 9:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Another Landscape'

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  1. Well, as long as we’re plotting revolution, I’d say first amend the constitution to permit a welfare state and set limits on it. Then we can go back to enumerated powers. Until we do that, the debate on Federal powers and spending begins from a false premise. It will be long, but not productive.

    But second thing is to have a much less detailed government. The rich and well-connected (and the political class generally) gain some from the progressive income tax, but they gain far more from a tax code in many volumes and from the discretionary power of bureaucrats–those “metatastizing regulations.” The recent flood of waivers is only a particular example. If you can make exceptions to the law, they are far more likely to be made in favor of the Senator’s old college classmate or the lobbyist whose daughter is in the same ballet class as the daughter of the bureaucrat than they are to help mere citizens.

    The rise of detailed government tracks quite closely with increased concentration of wealth. I don’t think we can expect the middle class to prosper under a system which leaves such a marvelous tool at the disposal of the very rich and the very connected.


    17 Apr 11 at 10:32 am

  2. I tend to think of repeated, clearly-remembered dreams as my subconscious, tapping on the microphone and yelling, “Hello, helloooo, is this thing on?” Sometimes it takes days and several iterations of symbolism before I get an inkling of the message, because my subconscious is murky and only peripherally interested in clear communication.

    I think the confirmation of this notion is that after I get a clue as to the content of the message, as in, “oh, I get it, I’m feeling like I need to spend more time on art in my life,” the dreams go away. Message received.

    But not every clearly remembered dream is such a message. Sometimes they’re just processing the daily dreck. Sometimes my brain is just weird.


    17 Apr 11 at 12:13 pm

  3. “It would not include “social programs,” because we did exist as a country–and many countries exist even now, without them.”

    Any of them ones you’d care to live in?


    17 Apr 11 at 1:25 pm

  4. So, here’s the thing–I think I should at least answer Mike to the extent that I can.

    And my answer is–yes. I would have had problems with the United States of 1925, but none of them would have had to do with the existence, or lack of existence, of social programs.

    In fact, in many ways, I would have found the era superior to this one WHERE SOCIAL PROGRAMS AND THEIR EFFECTS are concerned.

    I did the shouting for a reason. It would have been an inferior era on things like racial segregation.

    But whether social programs are a net gain or a net loss depends on which of their effects you’re looking at.

    An expanded welfare state has meant an increasingly intrusive oversight of the family by various agencies empowered to intrude into that family on the basis of–well, what’s that old term? On the rule of men and not of law.

    The decision to remove a child from a home is left up to “best social work practice,” which more or less comes down to the social worker’s opinion. If such a standard had been suggested to apply to, say, burglary (we don’t have any actual evidence of burglary, but in my opinion a burglary must have been committed), most civil liberatarians would have a fit.

    In 1925 America, I could decide to go into a bar, buy a drink and smoke a cigarette. These days–nope. Bad for me! People who live in Washington think it’s awful, so nobody gets to do it! Health should be your priority. If you’ve got other priorities–well, we’ll just force you to do it our way.

    In 1925 America, my local school district (my town) would have decided the content and structure of my local school–and that meant that lots of schools would run in a way I don’t approve, but MINE would run in a way I did.

    Never mind the endless nattering about people’s weight, whether they get enough exercise, whether they eat high fructose corn syrup, what kind of chairs they sit in at the office, and the endless other forays into private life that come down to “we give you money, so we get to tell you how to live.”

    I’m willing to give up a LOT in the way of security in order to maintain my personal liberty, to make my own decisions about my own life my own way.

    And in case you’re wondering, I’ve lived through periods when my life has been very precarious indeed. I still felt this way.

    As I pointed out in the post, we’re probably going to want at least some of the social programs.

    But social programs are still not a core function of government, whose purpose is to keep the peace, not to “provide services.”


    17 Apr 11 at 1:40 pm

  5. Worth noting that segregation was another of those intrusive government social programs. Plessey v Ferguson was set up by the railroad company trying to get Jim Crow laws declared unconstitutional. The railroad managers weren’t “social activists,” but businessmen who found maintaining two sets of passenger cars an expensive inconvenience. Same thing in apartheid South Africa, where companies were continually trying to put their best people in jobs the law didn’t permit them to occupy.

    The governmental response, of course, was that the rules were in the overall interests of society, and if that interfered with private profits, tough. Governmental wisdom was not to be challenged by such mean-spirited people.

    The governmental program changes, but the rationale remains constant.


    17 Apr 11 at 2:02 pm

  6. I once knew a man who insisted that the primary duty of government was “justice”. I suggested water, food and shelter were higher priority but he took their existence for granted.

    Tax the wealthy. Let me throw this article from the Christian Science Monitor into the discussion to provide actual ammunition.


    My father was born in 1898 and remembered the passage of the income tax amendment. I once asked him how it got by 3/4 of the state legislatures. He said that at the time the tax was only going to be paid by 1 or 2% of the population.

    The Labor Party is one of the major Australian political parties. Its controlled by the unions. Back in the 1970s and 80s, it was known for national party meetings at which the delegates chanted “Tax the Rich!”

    After they won control of Parliament, they did indeed change the tax laws. But they forgot inflation and we had “Bracket creep.” After a few years, construction workers and miners who were doing lots of overtime found themselves in the top marginal tax rate!

    I’ve become very skeptical of “tax the rich”. It always seems to end up as tax the middle class.


    17 Apr 11 at 5:47 pm

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