Category Archives: Public Policy

Credit Card Conservatism

Who knows what the final version of the Republican tax plan currently winding its way through Congress will end up doing. Certainly not the people who actually vote for it. Last week the Senate passed a bill that nobody had read and many found, quite literally, illegible. Senators got the “final” 500-page version minutes before they voted on it and it was an editor’s nightmare. There were huge last-minute changes drafted in prescription pad chicken scratch. Here’s an example of what it looked like:

Based on just this one page’s marginal addendums, Senators were given only a few minutes to decide whether they would vote “yea” or “nay” on the critical issue of, and I quote as near as I can decipher, “adjustments attribulatos conservism for a craporation.”  Said adjustments subject to “(1) Inguanas in the care of ellifiths rumnitatdos craporation any incage.” Well, as a matter of public policy that’s a toughie. I suppose I could understand a legislator supporting rumitading Inguanas if it was all done by consenting adults. It’s a free country. But why force innocent ellifiths to get involved? Surely there’s some moral, if not legal, objection to that? And why does anyone have to get craporated at all? That sounds downright painful (Q: Howya feeling Bill? A: I’m craporated).

In all seriousness, the Senate has gone silly. When it comes to writing law, you kind of expect the House to indulge in the odd round of ill-considered speed stating. It’s kind of what it was designed for, to capture popular passions or, as is increasingly these case these days, to capture unpopular passions. The Senate, though, is supposed to be the grown up branch. If the House puts things on the boil, it’s the upper chamber’s job to cool them down. The Senate is supposed to be the reflective, ruminative chamber, the legislative nanny who pulls the government’s fingers out of whatever light socket the House has jammed them into. Well, these days, not so much. Present the Senate with the political equivalent of an electrical outlet and somebody’s digits–most likely ours–are going to get lit up.

It’s kind of hard to overstate the negatives of the process used to jam the tax bill through the Senate. Forget all the pat-on-the-back hoo-hah about that place being the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” There wasn’t any deliberation, no thoughtful pleas on one side balanced with reasoned pleas on the other. It was about speed, not plead. No public hearings, no real chance for any analysis, not even time to read the damn thing–there’s a high probability that not a single legislator really knew the specifics of what they were or were not voting for. Lobbyists wrote much of the law–more than half of the registered lobbyists in Washington DC report working on tax legislation  — and they did it on the fly. At least some senators received their copies of the “final” bill from lobbyists rather than from Republican leadership. This isn’t how you make law. This is how you make a mess.

The jettisoning of Senate procedural norms to engage in a slapdash sprint to pass legislation that is clearly going to cost a packet is all the more puzzling because of who is doing it. Lots of Republican senators — and certainly plenty of their colleagues in the House — have spent years campaigning on the dangers of growing government debt and deficits. Agree or disagree, resisting the production of more federal red ink has been a central principle for many Republicans. So much for that. Currently, there is little interest in such principles and even less in the interest that’ll be due on the principal thanks to the loan Congress will have to float to pay for it all (that interest is easily going to be 50-plus billion dollars).

A generous interpretation of what’s going on with the tax bill is that Republicans are playing the long game. By driving the deficit up and putting expiration dates on the middle-class tax breaks, at some point in the next decade a broke and unpopular government (bonus if it’s got a Democratic majority) will have no choice but to make some serious cuts. By then the rushed and incompetent legislation that created the empty pockets will be long forgotten. Taking advantage of the electorate’s political amnesia, Republicans can then say, “hate to do it, but the government is totally broke and we’ll have to take some of your Social Security and Medicare to balance the books. Bummer, but whaddya gonna do?  Don’t look too close, just remember Obamacare, Benghazi, Hillary’s emails, etc., etc.”

I’m skeptical some long-game master plan is under all this.  What we seem to be witnessing is a sort of credit card conservatism. Like shopaholics glued to QVC, the GOP just doesn’t seem to able to help itself. Desperate to cover the emptiness it feels over a lack of legislative accomplishments, Republicans are putting as much as they can on the old plastic fantastic to appease special interest sponsors and justify its majority. It’ll worry about the minimum payments later.

Buying goodies for your crew on the never, never, though, runs a big risk of buyer’s remorse. Voters clearly think they’re being suckered—public opinion polls suggest that large majorities think the tax plan is mostly a scam to benefit the well-off (you can peruse a range of them here).  So, passing a plan with dubious arguments about borrowing from the future so the Grey Poupon crowd can make bank in the here and now might stick in people’s memories longer than some realize. If that happens, the tax plan might turn out to get the reaction we all have when we open those monthly envelopes from Visa and MasterCard: Well, rumitard an Inguana, we’ll never pay this off. We’re totally craporated.

Bureaucracy Isn’t Funny

 

For most Americans government bureaucracy is a joke. Literally. Here’s an example: How many bureaucrats does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to screw it in, one to screw it up. There’s plenty more where that came from. Bureaucrats are good at fixing blame, bad at fixing problems. Bureaucrats never stop a buck here. Pass a buck, sure. Spend a buck, definitely. Stop the buck, not so much.

I know, I know, the japery isn’t exactly hitting Dave Chappelle or Jim Carey levels of hilarity in the old chortle department. But consider the material I’m working with here. And if jokes about the bureaucracy don’t make you laugh, I don’t mind. Because what’s happening at and to the executive branch agencies of the federal government these days just isn’t funny. Through a mixture of neglect, incompetence and premeditated demolition, the operational capabilities of a range of federal bureaucracies are being systematically degraded.

Plenty of the president’s supporters–and, I’m guessing even some of his detractors–are cheering on this dismantling. Everyone knows a government bureaucracy is a system designed to allow twelve men to do the work of one (bada-bing). Everyone knows bureaucracy is just cease on the wheels of progress (bada-boom). Maybe so. But everyone is dead wrong.

Let’s just take one example of a bureaucracy that’s suffering under the Trump administration, the Department of State, the executive branch agency dedicated to foreign policy. Managing foreign affairs has always been considered an important and central responsibility of the federal government. The Department of Foreign Affairs–which later became the State Department–was created by an act of Congress in 1789, the first federal bureaucracy ever brought to life under the Constitution. There’s a reason for this primacy–since the founding of the Republic foreign relations have been considered a central responsibility of the federal government, and wise management of that portfolio requires diplomatic expertise.

Most people see the sense in that. Foreign affairs are important to any nation state, or at least any nation state that wants to sell goods in foreign markets, buy stuff from foreign markets, protect its citizens when they travel abroad, and prefers to make jaw-jaw before war-war. For an economic, military and cultural juggernaut like the United States such functions are critical. Having an agency stuffed with experts on foreign governments and how they operate comes in mighty handy if you want to stop them from lobbing a nuke your way, or prevent them from otherwise being an irritant or nuisance to the national interest. Shoot, it’s pretty important if all you want to do is sell furriners more corn than the contents of a Hee Haw episode.

If that agency isn’t up to par personnel-wise, it’s hard to do that stuff, or at least do it competently. And the State Department these days is the opposite of stuffed. There are 72 appointed positions in State that the Trump administration has yet to bother submitting a nominee for.  And we’re not talking coffee boy and copy gopher sort of jobs. The president has yet to nominate anyone for four of the six undersecretary positions (you can find a running tally of Trump administration nominations here ). State Department careerists have been heading for the exits for six months, essentially with Trumpanistas smirking, “don’t let the door hit your butt on the way out.”

While foreign policy experts across the ideological spectrum have responded with alarm to the hollowing out of the agency, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says it’s all just so much pointy-headed fuss and feathers. There’s no need to worry about State being undermanned because, and I’m not making this up, the United States doesn’t need so many diplomats because world crises and conflicts are getting resolved. Uh-huh. I guess we don’t need an ambassador to South Korea (no one nominated) or a special envoy to North Korea (ditto) because, well, nothing going on in that neighborhood. We haven’t got a representative to the European Union either, but what the heck, everything looks tickety-boo over there and it’s not like they’re important to US interests.

President Trump has given assurances that there’s no cause for disquiet or concern. Sure, the government of the United States is increasingly managing its foreign relations without experts who know the language, culture, politics and modus operandi of allies and opponents. But who needs ‘em. As Trump puts it, “I am the only one that matters.” That news was received by two pops. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping popping a cork. Everyone else popping Prozac.

The erosion of expertise, professionalism and technical competence would be bad enough if it were limited to the State Department. But it’s not. It is a general, systematic trend across the federal bureaucracy. Education, Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Agriculture–whole swaths of the federal government are in various stages of being hollowed out and actively undermined by the people appointed to lead them. These efforts may very well turn the United States government into a joke. But it’s really not that funny.

 

Talking Turkey on Tax Plans

Henry Clay Warmoth was a famously corrupt governor of Reconstruction-era Louisiana who never claimed to be anything other than the carpet bagging chiseler he was. “I don’t pretend to be honest,” he said. “I only pretend to be as honest as anybody in politics.”* And, as everyone knows, candor is harder to find in politics than molars in a hen house.

Warmoth would, no doubt, appreciate the truthy-falsey nature of the marketing campaign surrounding tax reform plans currently working their way through Congress. The recently passed plan by the House differs in pretty substantial ways from what’s currently being floated in the Senate, so who knows what specifics will emerge from the legislative difference splitting. Regardless, Republican proponents promise– crossed hearts, pinkie swear and everything—that once all is said and done, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy put it, “Every single American is going to keep more of what they earn.

Well, not every American. Obviously. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, Congress’ non-partisan bean counter of tolls and tariffs, there’s winners and losers (you can see their report here). The short version is that some Americans–mostly big, important rich Americans–will get to keep a truckload more cash, more than $40 billion of it.  The middle class will get to keep a skosh more, at least until their tax breaks expire. Those earning under $40,000 are–surprise, surprise–being set up to get screwed.

It’s seems accurate enough that most people will get a modest bit of tax relief from the House bill (something on the order of a hundred bucks), but between 1-in-5 and 1-in-3 will actually see their taxes increase a bit. And a good chunk of the actual tax relief is set to turn into a pumpkin in a few years. The modest tax goodies for suckers, um, regular citizens, have an expiration date. This is needed in order to mathematically keep the deficit kraken submerged in a (fake) shallower sea of red ink. So, the number of people who will see their taxes rise as a result of Republican plans will grow over the long term. And who ends up paying more? Hint: If you’ve got more than six zeroes to the left of the decimal point in your checking account, don’t sweat it. The GOP has your back.

You can get a good sense of how the House Republican tax plan will effect Americans as a whole by just looking at what it will do for the roughly 45 people who at least nominally call me boss (they call me a lot of other stuff too, much of which I won’t repeat). I sit at the apex of the mighty knowledge producing machine known as the University of Nebraska’s Department of Political Science. Its employees include professors, administrative staff, adjuncts, teaching and research assistants. No one in this group is a 1 percenter (or even a 10 percenter), but at the top end there’s a group earning a decent upper middle-class income. That group includes me, so lover of lucre I am, I was eager to see how the Republican plan would line my pocket. To do this I used an online calculator designed to give you a rough idea of what your tax burden would look like if the House plan actually became law (there’s several to choose from, the one I used for all calculations in this post can be found here, and you can follow this link to figure out what your own tax payoff might look like).

For me, it turned out not a huge amount, a couple of hundred bucks give or take, with adjustments up or down based on which set of assumed numbers I plugged into the calculator. At the extreme end, punching in the most hopeful (and unrealistic) estimates I could get the calculator to spit out a tax savings for me of about eight hundred dollars. Let’s just round that out to a thousand because it makes the math easier. Using the Warmoth guide to veracity, then, I can honestly say the Republican plan would put an extra grand in my pocket.

Let’s take a look at the other end of the income spectrum in my department. On this thin end of the wage spectrum are teaching and research assistants. These are grad students who get paid a $16,000 annual stipend, plus a tuition waiver. Under current law, the tuition waiver is not counted as taxable income, but under the House Republican plan it is. So, tax relief for these guys means getting taxed on money they never had. The table below shows the difference in their tax bills under current law and the Republican plan.

Yep, their tax bill jumps by about 500 percent, increasing by about two thousand dollars. At least in my little world, then, what the Republican tax plan does is redistribute income from the have nots (grad students) to the haves (me). A thousand dollars translates into about twenty bucks a week. Putting that much extra in my weekly paycheck will have pretty much zero impact on my saving or consumption patterns. Taking two thousand dollars from a grad student is a serious hit—it represents a couple of months of take home pay.

Broadly speaking, this analogy seems to be generalizable. Current tax reform plans in Congress will be a huge boon to the Wall Street crowd, a huge boondoggle for the poor, and people in the middle like me are being offered twenty bucks a week to go along and pretend it’s all a good thing. Unlike Warmoth, though, some of us have met bribes we’re willing to refuse. This tax reform plan is a seriously bad idea. Honest.

Chernow, Ron, 2017. Grant.  New York: Penguin. p. 757

The Big Equihack Makes A Case for Regulation

Equifax, the embattled credit rating agency known for its signature Windows 95 security app, has been taking it on the chin over the past few weeks. And, fair enough, the company deserves what it’s got coming. It is a business built entirely on sneaky-beaky data diddling, a giant corporation dedicated to hoovering up every jot and tittle of your personal information and peddling it to usury merchants for eye-watering fees.

Essentially, Equifax is in the business of selling online identities, yours almost certainly among them. By some estimates, worldwide it has information on 800 million individuals and 88 million businesses stuffed into its data swag bag. What those files contain is everything you need to get a credit card, open a mortgage, and secure a loan. It probably goes without saying, but if that information falls into the hands of the iniquitous, the virtual you may be up to your neck in financial hurt. The real, you, of course, will have to deal with the consequences.

So get prepared to deal. Sometime this summer hackers swiped the personal data of 143 million people from Equifax. The company waited a month before letting on that they’d allowed just about every adult American’s online soul to be surreptitiously sucked up by dark web’s bagman. Indeed, even now Equifax doesn’t seem to be exactly clear on everything that’s gone missing, when it went missing, or where it went. On the upside, as long as you promise not to sue them they are willing to, um, not act like complete shits. Ha, ha, just kidding! You can read in-depth about their incompetence, perfidy, and rapacious contempt for consumers here, and here, and here, and just about any other media outlet in reach of the Google machine.

True, a boo-boo this big demands that there be some consequences. Someone might be exiting corporate headquarters with the boot of ignominy attached to the seat of their pants, and no doubt there will be one or two on the receiving end of a stern finger-wagging. That, though, seems about the far limit of accountability Equifax is willing to voluntarily countenance. And even the shamed executive given the old slingeroo will no doubt depart with millions in compensatory severance boodle. I suppose that will help salve the sting of accidentally helping expose the whole credit rating shootin’ match for the cesspool of consumer-screwing avarice that it is. It goes without saying that there’s little hope of a golden parachute cushioning the fall for the rest of us. In so many words, we’re being told to just flap our arms real fast and hope for the best.

As usual when corporate greed grubbers drop this sort of a manure muffin on the plates of an unsuspecting populace, there is a boost in hue and an uptick in cry about the dangers of letting all these free range corporate chiselers run wild. Dern that federal gummint, shouldn’t it have done something? You know, like, maybe, regulate them? At least a little bit? Huh, now there’s an idea.

Of course, there is a broad agreement these days that regulating free markets is a bad idea. In general, Americans are not big supporters of government regulation, and they seem to have specific objections to passing and enforcing rules of fair play on businesses. Their elected representatives are not big on the idea either. And the people who run credit rating agencies definitely give the whole concept a thumbs down. Back in June, at the exact same time hardworking cyber-thieves were starting to pump data out of Equifax like water from a fire hose, the Consumer Data Industry Association was aghast that Rep. Lloyd Smucker (R-PA) hinted he might ask Congress to pass a rule or two protecting consumer privacy.

In high dudgeon they wrote him a letter pointing out that: (a) credit rating companies already were staggering under the onerous burdens of federal regulation, and (b) there was no need for any gummint regulation because of the industry’s widely recognized fervent dedication to protecting sensitive information. The CDIA noted what resolute defenders of the public trust the Equifaxes of the world were, and the “strong authentication techniques” they used to insure that “consumer disclosure is not going to the wrong person.” As they summed up, “The consumer reporting industry is adequately regulated and goes to great lengths to ensure consumer data is protected” (you can read the full letter here).

A seasoned veteran of the corporate-political interface will be able to parse those words carefully enough to extract their true meaning: “We’re lying our asses off about being over-regulated, and we don’t give a flip about who has their mitts on Joe Q. Public’s digits, but we’re richer than Croesus and want to keep it that way. So bug off. We’ll call you if we need a bailout.” Or words to that effect. In reality, the credit rating game is played with extraordinarily little public oversight, and what oversight does exist is as likely to be implemented by state governments as the feds.

Maybe the Equifax data breach will change that. Certainly there’s a lot of people charging around the public arena right now pointing out that a pretty good-sized equine just exited the barn, so maybe the federal government should do something about all those open doors. And, indeed, given that credit rating agencies deal in what amounts to our online avatars–remember, “their” product is our identities–it makes a lot of sense for government to treat them as the equivalent of a public utility. That means regulating them, really regulating them, not using the fill-in-the-blank rule book they currently operate under.

There’s some small chance this will actually happen. Free market fan boys have at least temporarily muted their assassin’s creed vows to do in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the federal agency that, despite the best efforts of Congress, has actually been trying to keep the gouging, duping, hood-winking and general larceny in the financial sector to a minimum. There have even been some rumbles about untying one of the CFPB’s regulatory hands in deference the degree of inconvenience the Equifax hack is visiting upon citizens.* Maybe, just maybe, the financial industry is not quite the steadfast protector of privacy it claims to be. Some in Congress seem, however reluctantly, open to the notion that companies like Equifax are more interested in profits than probity. Maybe a federal bully boy with the power to stick up for the small guy is not such a bade idea, even if it does cut a fraction of a point off the old quarterly profit report and downgrade executive bonuses from truly obscene to merely outrageous.

I wouldn’t hold your breath, though. Any such regulation is likely to give the Gummint-Bad-Bidness-Good Congressional Caucus the fantods, and those lads have patented a legislative solution that automatically dilutes any real restraint placed on Wall Street and its brood. The Great Equihack Gaffe of 2017 might raise a doubt or two about the dangers of unchecked financial finagling, but, as is almost certainly being pondered in corporate lobbying suites right now, what’s all that money for if not to calm the qualms of wavering legislators?

 

* Congress has tightly secured both of the agency’s hands behind its back back to make sure they didn’t give too much aid and comfort to predatory consumers asking awkward questions about why they had six Wells Fargo checking accounts they didn’t ask for.

Hurricane Hypocrisy Makes Landfall

 

 

When it rains it pours, unless it’s Texas. These days the Lone Star state is dealing with H2O in such brobdingnagian portions they’re figuring out ways to contain five barrels of water in a ten gallon hat. Never mind the impossibility of that Tardis-like volume-to-space ratio. It’s Texas. If it means helping a neighbor in need, they’ll get it done.

Yet while the good people of the Gulf Coast deal with disaster of Hurricane Harvey with a lot of laudable can-do grit and community comity, there’s a forecast of a political storm front blowing in, bringing sturm, drang, and the possibility of a category four casuistry cyclone. Yes it’s kind of depressing that politics has to stick its nose into all the come-together spirit many have displayed in a very difficult week. Big scale natural disasters, though, inevitably raise a holler for help from the gummint. And some of those now doing the hollering are increasing the chances political precipitation to better than 90 percent.

Actually, make it a 100 percent. There’s no doubt and virtually no disagreement that the federal government needs to get in there and help with the recovery efforts. The feds spent $60 billion-plus on relief efforts following Hurricane Sandy in 2013. Patching things up after Harvey’s devastation is likely to put at least as much of a dent in Uncle Sam’s wallet, but this is one of those big spending bills likely to have bipartisan support. Most people will not begrudge the federal government spending their hard earned tax dollars on rebuilding lives and communities walloped by a Revelations-level meteorological malevolency. You’d have to be a pretty unfeeling bastard to think otherwise.

Or the Texas Republican congressional delegation. A surprisingly large number of this crew (about 30) actually voted against the major relief package for Hurricane Sandy (the Disaster Appropriations Relief Act of 2013), including the state’s two current senators, Ted Cruz and John Cornyn. There were two basic justifications given for this opposition. First, it’s a lot of money and maybe the federal government should figure out somewhere else to whack out a few tens of billions in the name of prudent book balancing. Second, there was a lot of bean counting ballyhooing that the Sandy relief bill was so packed with pork that adding a slice of lettuce and a tomato damn near made it a BLT. Cruz, especially, did a lot of puffing and pontificating about this latter point.

There are two big objections to these objections. To take the latter point first, the bill was not by any stretch of the imagination the bag of pork rinds and bacon bits Cruz made it out to be (he claimed two-thirds of it was not related to Sandy). The Congressional Research Service looked into this matter in some detail and found the bill was almost entirely focused on addressing the needs created by Sandy (read the report for yourself here). More generally, while certain conservatives were scuffing their cowboy boots and indulging in some lengthy green-shading and grand standing, victims of Hurricane Sandy were left swinging in the wind waiting for their government to help. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie—a fellow conservative Republican—had a well-documented hissy over Congress’ reluctance to unchain its checkbook. For once, Christie deserved some sympathy.

As Cruz is finding out, principled objections to federal government over-spending and over-reach get overcome pretty damn quickly when the ruinous climatic calamity is slamming into your own state. I seriously doubt Sens. Cruz and Cornyn will respond to any fiduciary nitpicking over a Texas relief package with a principled conservative, “sure, let’s take an extra month or two and make sure we’re not spending a cent more than we need to.” Well, they won’t if their constituents have any say in the matter.

This is the problem with drinking the hard line, government-is-always-bad Kool Aid the Cruz’s and Cornyn’s flood politics with. Just as there no atheists in foxholes, hard core don’t-tread-on-me states’ rights types get pretty scarce on the ground when it’s fifteen feet under water. Some situations call for massive acts of collective action and the institution most capable of providing it is the government. When such situations occur, the old Reagan joke that the most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” just isn’t funny.  It’s not the free market that gets people out of a disaster zone.

The government responds to a calamity like Harvey by throwing resources at the problems of disaster victims—everything from local government first responders, to state troopers, to the feds with the Coast Guard, FEMA, and the Corps of Engineers. After the storm subsides, the federal gummint will be there in the form of the Federal Housing Administration, the Small Business Administration, special programs set up by the Internal Revenue Service to help with tax relief, the Department of Labor to help with income and job assistance, and a bunch of other programs and agencies mandated to help out (BTW if you’re in a Harvey-affected area and need of information on any of this, look here).

Here’s how a free market responds to something like Harvey: it figures out a way to make money off disaster victims. This is widely condemned as price gouging—and it’s happening right now in Texas. But what is currently jacking up the prices of a case of bottle water to $99, and will no doubt have sheet rock going for similar inflated prices within two months, is the exact same free market mechanism people like Cruz and Cornyn say the federal government should never interfere with. The market is simply allocating resources by obeying the law of supply and demand. Limited supply plus high demand equals gas going for, if some reports are accurate, twenty bucks a gallon. It’s unfair, it’s unjust and it’s taking advantage of people who can ill afford the hit. Well, yeah. That’s sort of how Wall Street works, too.

The point is not that markets are always bad and government is always good, or vice versa. That sort of either-or thinking is (a) dumb, and (b) sooner or later makes hypocrites of people on both sides of the divide. One of the few good things to come from Harvey is seeing people like Sen. Cruz recognize, however grudgingly, that the federal government isn’t simply the instrument of some freedom-killing Satan he routinely makes it out to be. Properly organized and funded, it’s also a pretty good mechanism to help out tons of people in very real need. Hopefully both Texas senators will remember this the next time a disaster hits a state that is not their own.

DONATE AND HELP: Dealing with something like Harvey is a collective effort, and I don’t just mean the folks on the ground and the rest of us acting collectively through government. A lot of good organizations are pitching in.  You can find a list of reputable (i.e. no scams) groups helping out Harvey victims here. Please consider donating.


The GOP’s Preexisting Condition

 

It is not true that the preamble of the Senate Republican health care plan consists solely of a villainous mustache twirl. Nor does it conclude with an evil cackle. In between, though, the bill is cartoonishly mean spirited. Here’s the short version: It proposes chucking millions of poor people off of their healthcare plans while providing a massive tax break for the rich. It does raise the question of who, exactly, Mitch McConnell had in that secret lair writing this thing.  Dick Dastardly and Gargamel, maybe?

Enough of McConnell’s own troops blanched at the bill’s kid show villainy that a vote planned for this week was immediately punted to sometime else. After months of secret confabs and assurances of a bigger-er and better-er healthcare plan, the Senate Republicans basically said screw it and belly flopped into the same steaming pile of political doo-doo their House colleagues just perfumed themselves with. Whatever the ultimate fate of healthcare reform in this Congress, both chambers have now made one thing crystal clear: Despite years of high-horsing on the issue, the Republican Party doesn’t have a freakin’ clue about what it should do about healthcare. It is pretty unanimous in proclaiming that Obamacare must go. But as lots of people like lots of parts of Obamacare–no preexisting conditions, keeping kids on parental plans, and retaining Medicaid expansion—making it go without ticking off a lot of people is getting increasingly hard.

What congressional Republicans are trying to do doesn’t make a whole lot of political sense. The basic task they’ve set for themselves is to replace an increasingly popular program with something that is definitely different, but tries to do the same thing, at least enough so that people won’t notice the new plan leaves the elderly, the infirm and the poor less well-off while benefiting the wealthy.  Hmm. Good luck threading that needle. Thus far, the strategy of repeal and replace advocates basically boils down to promising moonbeams and bubble love while delivering not just tough medicine, but not much medicine at all. The GOP rhetorically favors what it legislatively opposes. It is entirely against Obamacare, but is for its central policy objectives. It is against people losing coverage, but crafts legislation guaranteeing that they will. It promises a better plan, which is so bad that it doesn’t want anyone to read it. How the heck did the Republican Party managed to paint itself into such a ridiculous corner?

Well, here’s the scoop. It’s no secret that the Republican Party doesn’t like Obamacare. What seems to have gotten lost in all the through-the-looking-glass world of healthcare politics is that the Democratic Party didn’t like it much either. If you actually want to understand the risible, farcical state of healthcare politics in the United States, that’s a critical and often overlooked fact. The fight over Obamacare is not, as it is so often portrayed, a battle between the left and the right. It’s the left trying to get the right to take yes for an answer, while the right absolutely refuses and instead insists on going through with an epic self-inflicted ass whooping.

What the Democrats really wanted was not Obamacare. What they wanted (and still want), was a universal, single-payer system. In other words, something where you’d be dunned a payroll tax which would support a sort of Medicare for everyone program. Most other industrialized democracies have some version of this. Yet back in 2009/10, even in the warm after-glow of their freshly minted congressional majorities, Dems knew they were never going to get what they wanted. Single-payer smacked of socialized healthcare, which guaranteed full-throated Republican opposition and made the politics, at best, tricky. But single-payer also threatened the interests of a lot pretty powerful groups—insurance companies, for-profit hospitals, swaths of healthcare professionals—who saw that approach as diminishing their livelihoods, or even extinguishing them entirely. That made the politics not just tricky, but pretty much impossible.

So back in 2009 the Dems controlled Congress and the White House—just like Republicans do now—and they wanted to do something about healthcare. They especially wanted to do something about the millions of Americans who had no coverage at all, but their preferred policy, a single-payer system predicated on compulsory social insurance payments, was a non-starter. So what Plan B that might actually be feasible? What the Dems hit on was, wait for it, a Republican plan. That became what we know as Obamacare. It’s true. The basic ideas behind Obamacare had been floated for decades by the GOP. Back in the 1970s the Nixon administration tried to push a program that looks very much like Obamacare. In the 1990s a Senate plan was backed by a who’s who of Republican heavy hitters that, among other things, proposed individual mandates, insurance markets, subsidies for those who couldn’t afford premiums, and a ban on preexisting condition exemptions. In 2006 Massachusetts actually adopted a state-level forerunner of Obamacare, requiring all its citizens to purchase health care, providing subsidies for those who couldn’t afford coverage, and mandating employer provide plans. The governor who championed it was Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican Party presidential nominee.

All the stuff that the Obamacare repeal and replace squad has railed against for years – the individual mandate, a massive expansion of the federal Medicaid program, scads of government dough to subsidize insurance premiums – are mostly Republican ideas. Don’t take my word for it. Fox News said more or less the same thing. For Democrats Plan B was largely Republican Plan A. The Dems tried to shoehorn something in between those two points on the not entirely nutso assumption it provided a shot at substantive bipartisan reform.

Didn’t work out that way, did it? The Republican Party was all for its ideas unless Democrats—especially Obama–were also for them. They sure as heck weren’t taking yes for an answer from that crowd. So the GOP took powder, had a hissy, and, pretty cynically, went after the major legislative achievement of Obama’s first term with spectacular alternative-facts like Sarah Palin death panel fairy tales.

Completely cooked up horror stories aside, the truth is there’s plenty to criticize about Obamacare. Even for its supporters it has always been viewed as more of a least bad feasible option rather than an end all and be all. But it’s hard to make any improvements if one side resolutely insists the entire thing reads like the script of Omen III, even if that same side wrote most of the script. And that’s pretty much how the GOP got itself in the fix it is in. It hasn’t got any better ideas than Obamacare because Obamacare was its best healthcare idea. This whole wave-the-bloody-shirt, anti-Obamacare crusade has, no doubt, been politically useful, but it also means the Republican Party has spent the better part of a decade knocking the stuffing out of its own thoughts and theories on healthcare policy.

It’s slowly seems to be dawning on GOP leaders (President Trump excepted) that it might not have been such a good idea to make its most promising healthcare policy proposals politically toxic. They have screamed long and loud that Obamacare is a disaster and given a chance they’d prove they can do better. That got them out of the political wilderness. But now they are out of ideas.

They may also find themselves out of luck. The standard GOP policy fallback—whatever the problem is, cut taxes—is not going to work here. The Republican Party had a good political run by demonizing Obamacare. That’s about to end because the electorate called its bluff and said, “okay you win, whaddaya you got?” The answer they’ve come up with–a waffle between warmed over Obamacare and Dickensian-levels of cold-heartedness—is not exactly what the doctor ordered.

Upside Down Politics

We humans are a disagreeable bunch. Put two of us together and give us the job of making a decision that’s binding on both and sooner rather than later you’ve got an argument. What movie to watch, what pizza toppings to order, what color curtains to buy, whatever the issue at hand we’ll find a way to bang heads about it. And that’s just two of us. Imagine trying to split hairs among 320 million opinions on really important stuff like tax rates, social security, and access to healthcare.

Luckily for us we have a specialized set of institutions to handle these big collective conflicts. That’s basically all a representative democratic system is, just a big conflict management mechanism. That mechanism has worked pretty well in the United States, repeatedly showing itself strong enough to handle Defcon Level Three magnitudes of dissent without the wheels coming off.  Sure, there’s plenty of sturm and drang during election season, and ample rations of finger pointing and policy caterwauling by opposing political teams in between full-on ballot box clashes. In the normal course of things, no big deal. Democratic systems swallow  differences, masticate them into the bitter paste of compromise, and digest them into a painful legislative bowel movement. Everyone agrees that the end result stinks, but, boy, it sure makes everyone feel better.

That process works best, though, when disagreement takes a particular form. Take any given policy issue—gun control, taxes, education, welfare, whatever—and imagine different preferences on what the government should do about that issue. Take gun control as an exemplar. The range of opinions on gun control is massive. On one end is the firm belief that government should not regulate guns at all, that the only thing standing between us and jack- booted totalitarian dystopia is Uncle Fester and his private stash of military-grade weaponry. On the other end is the equally firm belief that Uncle Fester is a nut bag. He’s not making anyone safer, including himself. His concealed shooter will never bag the baddies of his fevered Chuck Norris delusions, but there’s a decent chance it’ll blow off his own butt cheek while he’s dropping trou in the Walmart crapper. For folks on this end of the spectrum, the government should control access to things that go bang very tightly, maybe even regulate them out of existence.

In between those two extremes there’s a lot of room for degrees of difference, a sort of gun regulation policy dial with multiple settings. I’m not suggesting that any one of those settings is better than the other, I’m just saying consider what that big range of opinions looks like.  Because the distribution of preferences on gun control, or any other issue, can take on very different shapes. And that shape helps determine how, or even if, our democratic institutions can handle our disagreements on that issue. What political scientists would consider a nicely behaved shape would look something like this:

This is a normal curve, and in reality a lot of policy preferences (and a lot else in the world) roughly approximate this distribution. If opinions on policy issues look like this in the general population and that distribution of preferences is actually represented in a legislature, then representative democracy is in business. If we take this shape as representing preferences on gun control, on one end of the distribution we’ve got libertarian firearm fetishists and on the other we’ve got fainting daisies who want trigger locks on Nerf guns. Most opinions, though, are piled up in the middle, i.e. most people think guns should be regulated, but not to the point that gun ownership is onerous to the average law abiding citizen. Because that center is where most opinions (and most votes) reside, representative legislatures will naturally gravitate to that as the law making sweet spot.

The problem is that on many issues, that particular distribution of preferences doesn’t exist, at least not as they are represented by legislators. These days most lawmakers are elected to office as tribunes of the right or left, and do not represent the beliefs of the moderate and less ideological center. Well, no worries, our democratic institutions can deal with that. Say we do not have one normal distribution of preferences, but two distinct distributions, one for conservatives/Republicans and another for liberals/Democrats. So the range of opinions we might actually see represented in a legislature look something like this:

 

Here there really isn’t one middle ground, but two. The average conservative lawmaker prefers something fairly distinct from the average liberal lawmaker. Things tend to get a lot more partisan and contentious in this situation, but as long as those two curves have a reasonable amount of overlap a legislature can still converge to a point in between the two sets of average preferences. True, getting there can involve a lot of nasty kicking and screaming. Both sides are more likely to describe the resulting law or policy as snatching bread from the mouths of babes and mothers than a reasonable half-a-loaf. But compromise is still possible. Friction on the democratic gears might be high, but the machine itself grinds on.

That friction gets higher the further those two distributions move apart. In the extreme case the two curves cease to overlap and there’s no middle ground at all. People standing on the extreme tails closest to each other might be able to talk to each other, but the rest of their tribe isn’t going to let their wacko moderates actually build bridges to the other side. In this sort of a situation the democratic machine tends to just lock up.

That’s bad enough, but what we’ve got today is something even worse. On a lot of issues we’ve got upside down politics. Take a look at the first figure and imagine it upside down, something like this:

This inverted normal curve would represent a situation where preferences are split in two and piled up at the extreme ends of the distribution. Not only is there no middle ground between the two sets of preferences, there’s no middle ground on either side. The distribution of preferences now falls into a dichotomy—you’re either with us or against us. Here compromise isn’t the normal price of dealing in democratic politics, it’s surrender. Any attempt to accommodate the other side’s interests represents unforgivable apostasy.

Disagreements characterized by an inverted preference curve are intensely resistant to compromise. This is the politics of first principles, where the other side doesn’t simply have a different point of view, the position they hold is morally repugnant and they must be defeated, not bargained with. Democratic institutions aren’t designed to deal with this, they basically just lock up. The only way to unfreeze the machine is for one side to get a big enough majority to ram its preferences through without any input from the other side. Of course if the other team wins come next election, they’ll ram through exactly the opposite. This can be even worse than a complete lock up because the system is redlining as it lurches from one extreme to the other. At some point the engine will burst a gasket or throw a rod and the whole thing will blow up like my extended mechanical metaphor.

Does this mean there’s no hope for a more civil polity? Hardly. That upside down curve is an uncomfortably accurate description of contemporary policy legislative preferences in Congress and an increasing number of state legislatures. What it doesn’t describe – at least not yet – is the shape of public opinion among the actual electorate. On most issues, peoples’ beliefs still look pretty normally distributed (picture 1), or at most as two reasonably distributed sets of preferences with plenty of overlap (picture 2). So why do we have legislators practicing upside down politics (picture 3)? The simple answer is we let the people on the far end of the distribution pick our legislators. It’s those guys who actually bother to show up in primaries and determine our choices in a general election.

If we want the system to get back to working better then we in the big not-so-ideological middle need to vote in lawmakers who actually represent a reasonable distribution of preferences. Is that likely to happen? Right now I doubt it. But it’s high time the voters threw the system a normal curve.

Trumpcare Treats the Winner’s Curse

I’m a political centrist receptive to certain conservative arguments, but since big chunks of the Republican Party took the cuckoo train to looney town I’ve had a hard time finding common ground with the GOP. This past week, though, I’ve been surprised to find myself sharing certain attributes with the House Republican caucus on a critically important political issue. To be specific, like most Republicans in that chamber I have neither read the American Healthcare Act of 2017 (ACA) nor do I have an inkling of its real implications.

I’m not surprised I know jack about the ACA. My general impression is that it’s a tangle of bosh and baloney, the sort of legislative sneaky beaky undertaken by partisan bagmen and interest-group special ops. But who knows. It’s a heavy read (full text here) and it’d take days for me to parse out even its broad-stroke ramifications. I can’t be bothered because we professional observers of politics just have too much else on our plates these days. The Trump White House’s typical daily schedule of a morning Twitter calumny, a noon-time peccadillo, the three o’clock scandal, the five o’clock firing, all topped with a busy evening of minions competing for victory in the arch madness bracket, just doesn’t leave us much time for anything else.

So there, I admit I know diddly about ACA except what’s reported in the media, and I’m pretty skeptical about that because I guarantee most of the professional gum-flappers haven’t read the bill either. If you and I lack a full and nuanced understanding of a complicated piece of legislation, though, it’s not supposed to be a big deal. We have tribunes representing our collective interests and they get paid to pay attention to these details on our behalf. So it’s galling in the extreme to discover that scads of them just voted to re-order a sixth of the nation’s economy and adjust the probabilities of millions getting health care coverage without reading any of the fine print or, I’m pretty sure, even the large-print Cliff’s Notes cheater card.

And it really does seem to be the case that many cast votes for this bill while being unburdened by any real understanding of its potential consequences. There was no independent analysis of its costs, no hearings, and it was being heavily amended the night before it was frog marched out onto the House floor for a vote. The ACA was the legislative equivalent of a 300 pound churro and there’s no way anyone choked that down in a few hours. This was never going to end well and it didn’t. Republicans initially took a victory lap, crowing that the ACA was the dog’s bollocks plus a bag of chips. Then reporters started asking all the high-fiving gloaters what was actually in the bill and what did it all mean and the umming, and ahhing began. It became pretty clear, pretty quickly that whatever was in the bill, it was at best a half-baked dogs breakfast and almost certainly political kryptonite for the GOP.

Late-night comedians pounced, and the sheer ineptitude of some of the spluttering gas passers who yayed the proposal nearer to law would be funny if the issue wasn’t so serious (here’s John Oliver making the point). A dawning recognition that they’d just dropped themselves into five fathoms of poo sent the Gang that Couldn’t Toot Straight slinking home for recess and hoping voters didn’t notice the stink. The few Republicans brave enough to face their constituents this week got the rotten tomatoes treatment, egged on by Democrats who were busily organizing schadenfreude squads. Most GOP House members just laid low, only mingling with constituents whose sycophancy qualified as a pre-existing condition. As for the rest of the voters, the GOP crew mostly seemed to be hoping they’d suffer a mass attack of convenience amnesia and forget what a colossal cock-up the House just made of things.

Well, good luck with all that. The real question is why did the House Republicans do this? Forget all the bumpf and babble about how the bill is going to be a huge improvement on what we currently have. Outside the House, even most Republicans don’t buy that. Plenty of GOP Senators, for example, are treating the bill the House just handed them like it was the towel used to clean up after an epic case of the bad-churro squits.

Any way you cut it, the ACA is bad press, bad politics, and almost certainly bad policy. Yes, the jury is still out on exactly what the bill costs and how it will shape health care access and delivery, but the uncertainty is mostly about whether it’s merely awful or catastrophically dire. Voters are ticked at House Republicans, pretty much the entire swath of healthcare-related interest groups are ticked at House Republicans, and even Senate Republicans are ticked at House Republicans. It seems puzzling that the majority of an elected legislative chamber would load both barrels, pull the trigger and perforate their lower extremity with such deliberate gusto.

I think the primary reason for the eagerness to commit this self-inflicted wound boils down to a variant of the winner’s curse. To social scientists, the winner’s curse technically describes the tendency of people to overpay in auctions of common value. Roughly translated into actual English, that basically says that people who aren’t fully aware of the value of something (or its cost), tend to bid up its price. This leads to buyer’s regret, the feeling you get after blowing a hole in your wallet on something that turns out not to be the dog’s bollocks and a bag of chips. That’s the winner’s curse.

And that’s what I think House Republicans have on healthcare. Over the past eight or nine years they have ridiculously bid up what they can fork out for a healthcare plan. They’ve argued Obamacare is a disaster that’s failing and that only they can fix the problem and win the nation a shiny new, super-duper most-definitely-not-Obamacare health plan. Complicating their bid was the spreading realization among voters how much they liked at least bits of Obamacare, especially stuff like preventing insurers from denying coverage, requiring coverage of pre-existing conditions, and keeping children on parental coverage into their mid-20s. And the millions who got healthcare thanks to Medicaid expansion definitely want to keep that.

Well, no worries said the Republicans, you can have all that, plus you won’t have to pay for it. That’s a pretty damn high bid and as long as Obama was in the White House the GOP didn’t have to worry about having it called. Then they won. Everything. And having so fervently promised their frothing base how Obamacare was all death panels and socialist overreach, they had to make good on their bid or look like pikers of the highest order. Problem was, all they had to back their bid was the political equivalent of wooden nickels and monopoly money. They had to lay their currency down, of course, burning through pretty much all their political capital to purchase the bill they so desperately wanted. And finally having closed the sale on an Obamacare repeal they now own it. Indeed, as Nancy Pelosi said, they positively “glow in the dark” with it. They are also belatedly starting to realize their shiny new phosphorescent purchase isn’t worth what they paid. In precise political terms its value is diddly and squat.

Carrying that into the next election really is likely to be a curse, one Republicans cast upon themselves by winning.

Smeared Science

A doctor walks into his practice’s waiting room and finds a man who tells him, “Doc, I have shingles.”

The doctor replies, “Shingles is a serious condition, but I know how to treat it.” And without performing any physical examination, ordering any diagnostic tests, or asking any questions to prepare a preliminary case history, the doctor starts writing prescriptions. The list includes antivirals, pain killers and the best balms and salves the pharmaceutical arts can offer. The doctor hands the prescriptions to the man and says “use these to fix the problem.”

The man takes the prescriptions, scratches his head and says, “Uh, okay, if you say so, I’ll use these to fix the problem. But what do you want me to do with the shingles?”

Now the doctor is confused. “Shingles? What do you mean what should you do with the shingles?”

“The shingles in my truck,” says the man. “I’m here to fix your roof.”

There’s an alarming and increasing number of elected officials who remind me of that doctor. These are lawmakers offering policy prescriptions without fully understanding the issue at hand and having only a dim grasp of how the solutions they are so eager to implement actually relate to the problem. They can often be spotted by their fondness for the phrase “I’m not a scientist, but …” What follows is usually the sort of twaddle that not only convincingly confirms the lack of lab coat cred, but also hints at a deep commitment to abetting alternative-fact moonbeam production. So in that spirit, let me just say that I’m not a phrenologist, but I’m pretty sure the knots on the lumpy heads blathering such babble and balderdash are not there to increase grey matter carrying capacity.

I’m not sure exactly when it became respectable to be anti-science, but boffin bashing has definitely gone mainstream. While America has always taken a perverse pride in its anti-intellectualism, just lately things seem to have progressed from needling the nerds to actively hunting them down. They once roamed across our social landscape in their thousands, rattling their horn rims, fiddling with slide rules, and engaging in arcane mating rituals involving hot Bunsen burners and flashy pocket protecter displays (a lot of scientists are involuntarily celibate). Not anymore. The people currently running the federal government—from the president on down—have pretty much declared open season on scientists. They are being systematically deprived of their primary source of nourishment–research grants–and being subjected to public censure, denunciation and even humiliation.

Near as I can figure, science has attracted this ire because it keeps supplying political discourse with an unending streams of data and facts that are irritating and inconvenient to a large swath of ideological policy preferences. This is particularly notable on—but far from limited to—science’s nosy parker prognostications on climate change. Science has reached a consensus conclusion that human society’s two-century long carbon fart is having a noticeable effect on the atmospherics of our collective planetary elevator (here’s 12,000 scientific studies with gory details). This sore distresses fossil fuel types and their political minions who were hoping the rest of us wouldn’t notice the stink, much less start agitating for the government to consider the corks-in-bungholes option.

The upshot of science’s insistence that the facts aren’t pointing in the same direction as certain ideological policy preferences leads to not just political discomfort, but to some truly jaw dropping acts of sophistry. For example, Jim Inhofe, a United States Senator, quite seriously argued that one unseasonable DC snowstorm convincingly disproved those 12,000 climate studies (he brought a snowball into the chamber to prove his point). So who’s correct on climate change? Well, on one side you’ve got a sizeable city’s worth of weather nerds sporting more advanced degrees than a thermometer. This lot have spent decades analyzing oceans of data and trying to sort signal from noise in peer reviewed research. And on the other you’ve got a legislator clutching a compacted fistful of frozen precipitate whose specious wuffling is not doing Bill Nye’s blood pressure any favors.  (BTW Jim, if you’re looking for extra meaningless data points, we had a very hot day hereabouts back in February).

That sort of comparison doesn’t put certain policy agendas, or certain policy makers, in a flattering light, and that fact almost certainly explains the attempt by the current leaders of the federal government to push science into the dark. That movement is truly scary. There are plans afoot to seriously cripple the scientific enterprise at the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and even the National Institutes of Health (!). Academic labs at all the major research universities are facing cutbacks. The list of agencies and scientific research projects nervously awaiting the chop is depressingly long and is going to insulate public policy from sound science in a whole raft of critically important issue areas.

The only good news is that with science out of the way policymakers won’t have all those annoying empiricists mucking up their prescriptive plans with substance and knowledge. This will allow government policies to be pursued on the basis of good old fashioned ideological shamanism. Yep, that should work out well. Not.

There are those who might say that this is all being too hard on certain policy perspectives, and is being way too deferential to science and scientists who, let’s face it, are not always super-consistent in their conclusions and have been known to make a boo-boo or two. Fair enough, it is true that science is not correct 100 percent of the time, and it is equally true that perfectly competent and legit scientific studies can still reach conclusions that are incorrect. Plus we still haven’t got flying cars, meals in a pill, and I’m not sure if eggs are good for us this week or if they’re still avian cholesterol and cancer bombs. Yeah, sometimes scientists definitely got some ‘splaining to do. That is no reason, however, to substitute fact-fogging charlatanism for what is, for all its faults, the greatest knowledge producing process ever conceived.

The bottom line is that shooing science away from governance and public policy might usefully serve the political agenda of one side or the other in the short term. In the long term, though, substituting politics for science is to substitute blind faith for insight, soft ignorance for hard knowledge, and flights of political fancy for grounded reasoning. In short, if policymakers ignore and de-prioritize science they become that doctor in the waiting room instructing someone to fix a hole in the roof with prescription paper. And what with the climate changing and all, that’s likely to get us all wet.


The Big Problem With Tax Reform

It’s that time of year when millions of Americans can be found gazing disbelievingly at their tax returns and having sudden attacks of small-government conservatism.  It’s not just the fiduciary ouchie of Uncle Sam’s annual pocket book pinch that stirs up pique and vexation. Most people get that taxes are a necessary evil and we all have to cough up something. Less understandable is why the obligatory villainy has to be so damn unfair and complicated.

There’s no doubt we need tax reform. The United States tax code is currently a codex of bean counting hieroglyphics that not only takes our money, but also mocks our incomprehension. The cryptic incantations tax accountants annually sprinkle over spreadsheets animate the government’s extended palm alright, but they also raise the middle finger of its other hand.  This gets us all steamed. None of us really understand what’s going on, but we’re all pretty sure we’re getting shafted and that something really should be done about that. Well, be careful what you ask for. Something is about to be done.

The problem we have right now is not the clear need for tax reform, but the people who are about to take on the task. This would be President Trump and his (cough) loyal troops controlling Congress. Now under normal circumstances I’d be okay with the GOP taking point on a tax code touch up. But we’re not talking about a bunch of establishment and main street types with a strong sense of noblesse oblige taking on the job. Nope. Who we have chomping at the bit to blue-pencil the government’s revenue rulebook is a motley collection of corporate chiselers, Ayn Rand fanboys, and pettifogging market militants shilling little more than libertarian moonbeams. This will not end well.

A big part of the problem seems to be that this group has bought into the broadly shared assumption that tax reform is easy. It’s not. For example, most people who are not rich think those on the upper end of the income scale are a bunch of tax dodging ripe sucks. So the obvious and fair thing to do is just adjust the rules to squeeze a few more shekels out of the fat cats and silk stockings. And, fair enough, this crowd clearly has access to feats of tax dodging prestidigitation not available to mere mortals slogging through their 1040s with nothing more than coffee and a cheap calculator. But the rich already pay most of the taxes. The folks at the tippity-top of the remuneration pyramid—the 1-percenters—pay roughly half of all the income taxes collected.  The top 50 percent of earners pay pretty much all of the federal government’s income tax revenue. Roughly half of Americans pay zilch in income taxes, mostly because they haven’t got much income to tax—these are the working poor, the elderly living on social security and the like.

So, what’s a fair adjustment here? Shove more of the burden onto the wealthy? Well, it’s no secret where the sympathies of the Republican tax reform principals lie. They want income tax cuts, which basically means the moneybags will be paying less. Does it mean the poor will be paying more? Probably. The Trump administration is already trying to get rid of Meals on Wheels. If they’ll take away a hot meal from granny, I doubt they’d have scruples about skimming off her Social Security check too. And good luck with that. Regardless of the specifics, any demographic shift in tax burden—inevitable in any major tax reform–is going to be politically explosive.

Well, what if we forget about who is paying and what constitutes a fair share. Let’s just try to simplify the tax code, which all agree is a convoluted thicket of rules and laws, credits and deductions, all of it held together with loopholes and bookkeepers’ chewing gum. Why not just ditch all this deduction and exemption jazz and go with a flat tax, an idea that still has plenty of supporters in the GOP? Let’s say you pay 20 percent of everything you earn over $50K, and tack on another percentage point or two for income levels that get progressively north of that. That makes things simple, right enough. But that too is almost certainly going to bring about a big shift in tax burdens—under most flat tax proposals the rich are paying less and the bottom half are paying more. And we’re right back to the big political stink of the last paragraph.

Well, maybe we could just prune out some stuff. Problem there is where you see a thorn ready for the shears, others see a rose. Pretty much every group you care to mention has a big chunk of the tax code dedicated to its own self-interest. For example, the middle class loves the ability to deduct mortgage interest from income, a perk that costs the federal government nearly $100 billion in revenue every year.  Good luck prying that prized bennie out of the hands of middle-class homeowners. Those folks vote. Well, what about ending the deduction for state income taxes? Texans would be fine with that because they don’t pay state income tax. On the other hand, folks with state income tax rates at or near double digits—Iowa, California, Minnesota and New York—are going to howl because they’ll get dunned extra.

In fact, all reform paths lead to pretty much the same political pong – somebody is going to feel gulled and they are going to raise a stink. That inevitably leads to liberal applications of emollient special breaks, and exemptions, and exceptions … in other words just the sort of special interest sugar boogers that gets people all worked up in the first place. Here’s the bottom-line: the real problem with our tax system is not its complicated rules or its inequitable distribution of revenue burdens.

You see, we want a lot of stuff from government—social security, health care, education, the 82nd Airborne, interstate highways, crop insurance, someone to catch the baddies, and someone to help when Hurricane Obvious blows through and leaves that tree hugging smartass saying “I told you building in a floodplain was a bad idea.” All of that costs, in technical terms, a crap ton of dough, and most of us would prefer somebody else popped for it. That is the central, unavoidable problem of any attempt at tax reform: We want a lot from government and we want someone else to pay for it. Russell Long, a United States Senator from Louisiana and well-known tax law wonk, once summed up the central conundrum of tax reform in three lines of doggerel:

Don’t tax you

Don’t tax me

Tax that feller behind the tree

And there you have it. Tax reform is always sold on the promise that the fellow behind the tree is a mooch and we can make things right by making him pony up his fair share.  But there is no fellow behind the tree. Until everyone gets that, tax reform is always going to be political nitroglycerine. Before we try to rewrite the tax code what we really need is a grown-up conversation about what we want from government and what we are willing to pay for it. Then, and only then, can we meaningfully get down to the business of figuring out how to split the tab fairly.

Political scientists don’t know much (see our predictions on Trump’s electoral prospects). But we are pretty confident that we are not going to get that conversation. What we’re going to get is what usually happens with major tax reform efforts—a political bun fight that leaves everyone ticked off and convinced they are stuck paying for somebody else’s dessert. The only real guarantee is that whatever tax reform flummery the GOP whips up, that fellow behind the tree is not paying for it. Just you and me.