Friday, January 03, 2003

Sullivan Award

Andrew Sullivan's various "award" entries are usually on the mark and often amusing. He also tends to gore everyone's ox equally. But he misses badly with his "Begala Award Winner 2002 (for excessive liberal rhetoric)." Part of the problem, of course, is the term "excessive." One man's excess (whether in liberal rhetoric or tales of beagles) is another man's bliss. Beyond the issue of relativism, there is the millenia old use of rhetorical excess as a literary device (see, e.g., the Gospel according to Matthew 19:24,"it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Now, there are no doubt Christians who believe that Jesus meant this comparison literally, but to discuss that point would require excessive digression). With that brief intro, let's dissect the award-winning quotation, to see in what sense its rhetoric might be deemed "excessive."

Bush's 'mandate' "includes using the taxing power to transfer wealth from working people to the rich.

Let's take a hypothetical taxpayer, call her Mary, married, two children living with her, earning $60,000 in wage income, and having no other source of income. In 2000 (taking 4 exemptions and the standard deduction), she'd have paid about $8,200 in federal income tax. In 2002 (assume no raise in salary; a dubious assumption perhaps, but in this economy, so's the assumption she'd still have her job), she'll pay just over $7,200. That's a savings of just under $1,000. Of course, more than a third of that is due not to the Bush tax cuts, but to the indexing to inflation of tax brackets, the standard deduction, and personal exemptions. Still, Bush has given her a tax break of roughly $650. I'm sure that cash comes in handy, trying to raise a family of four on $60,000 (gross) a year. But it hardly empowers Mary in any significant way. Add two zeros to Mary's income, and the tax break is all of a sudden worth about $60,000 (which is more than beer money, even to a $6 million Mary) And here's the downside: with a war looming, and less cash coming in to the Treasury, our budget deficit is ballooning again. Eventually, the spike in government borrowing is going to exert an upward pressure on interest rates. The well-to-do should weather that increase reasonably well (since they're likely to have little debt and lots of spare cash), but folks with variable rate mortgages and student loans, and with less cushion, will be in for a rude shock. The elimination of the inherited wealth tax amplifies the effect, and is an outright gift to the wealthy. Moyers' characterization pretty accurately describes the effect of the tax cut; if there's excess, it is perhaps only in ascribing to the President the motive, in cutting taxes, of achieving that effect. But that's fair too. It's not rocket science to see what the effects would be, and I think we can expect our President, even Dubya, to know a little. So the President either desired those effects, or was willing to accept them for some higher good that he hasn't explained very well.

It includes giving corporations a free hand to eviscerate the environment and control the regulatory agencies meant to hold them accountable.

On the environment, I confess to being too ill informed to comment. Again, though, if there's excess, it seems to be in ascribing to corporations a desire to eviscerate the environment or, which is the same thing, recklessly to disregard the environment. But on the matter of corporate control of (or influence over -- which is what Moyers probably meant (there's that pesky use of excess as a literary device)) regulatory agencies, he hits the nail on the head. Exhibit 1: Harvey Pitt as Chairman of the SEC. Fox guarding the henhouse. Nor is Moyers the only one with questions about lobbyist influence in the administration. Jonathan Chait summarizes some of the evidence in the New Republic.

And it includes secrecy on a scale you cannot imagine.

Here, Sullivan has a point, because Moyers is underestimating my imagination. Secrecy on a scale I can't imagine would be frightening indeed. But the Bush administration's love of secrecy, from immigration Star Chambers to its policy on the Freedom of Information Act, is pernicious enough. Read about it here.

Above all, it means judges with a political agenda appointed for life. If you liked the Supreme Court that put George W. Bush in the White House, you will swoon over what's coming.

Again, where's the excess? Bush has been open in his admiration for, and his intent to appoint judges in the mold of, Justice Scalia. I suppose it's excessive to use the word "swoon": Even I, uncommonly interested in the topic, have never swooned about a judicial nomination. But as excessive liberal rhetoric goes, it's pretty weak soup.

And if you like God in government, get ready for the Rapture. These folks don't even mind you referring to the GOP as the party of God. Why else would the new House Majority Leader say that the Almighty is using him to promote 'a Biblical worldview' in American politics?

Again, it's hardly time for the Rapture. Very over the top. But here's God's home at the White House. It includes handy advice to Churches on how to partner with the government. A far cry from naming the President fidei defensor, to be sure, though it's a title I'm sure he'd bear proudly.

So it is a heady time in Washington — a heady time for piety, profits, and military power, all joined at the hip by ideology and money." - Bill Moyers, paid for in part by your tax dollars, on PBS.

I'm shocked --shocked -- to discover that people are expressing political on PBS, which is partly funded by my tax dollars. But as Andrew well knows, there are opinions from the right, as well as the left, that find an outlet there. Hardly an award-winning quotation, if you ask me (at least not for liberal excess).

Monday, December 30, 2002

What she said

Arianna mouths off about a big pet peeve of mine: the ubiquitous apostrophe. What really gets Arianna going is the use of apostrophes to render the plural of acronyms or abbreviations ("C.E.O.'s", for example). The sin that drives me crazy is "it's." I see this in briefs and even in judicial opinions all the time. Not only is it unprofessional for people who write for a living (lawyers and journalists) to make such an obvious error, but it's such an easy error to avoid. Here's the rule folks: Always use "its" (no apostrophe) in formal writing. "It's" is a contraction, meaning "it is" (It's a gorgeous day) or (less often) "it has" (It's been lovely chatting with you). Contractions are not proper in formal writing, unless they are a direct quotation of speech. Use your word processor's "find and replace" function to make a global change in all your documents. It's that simple.

Before I read Arianna's column, I thought I was alone in my frustration. Brava, Arianna.
Another Brick in the Wall
The lead editorial in this morning's New York Times finally takes President Bush to task for Executive Order 13279, disingenuously styled Equal Protection of the Laws for Faith-Based and Community Organizations. The courts and law reviews will be busy with this insidious ukase (and the larger crusade of which it is but a part), for quite a while (and yours truly will, I hope, have a hand in the work). But a little blogging is in order.

Let's start with the title. The choice of the equal protection language is politically astute (imagine the affirmatives from the Jaywalk All Stars on the push poll question: "Do you favor President Bush's efforts to provide equal protection of the laws to faith-based organizations?" Who could say no?). But to issue an Executive Order to assure faith-based organizations equal protection of the laws is a curious thing indeed. One would think that to the extent that faith-based organizations have a right to the equal protection of the laws, the Constitution itself ought to protect that right sufficiently. Are faith-based organizations currently being denied the equal protection of the laws? How? Are the courts in on the conspiracy?

Indeed, one might plausibly argue that faith-based organizations get better than equal protection of (at least some of) the laws. They are the beneficiaries of annual wealth transfers in the billions of dollars, in the form of property and income tax exemptions. Just think about what might happen to your real-estate taxes should churches, mosques and synagogues have to pay them. Compared to you and me, the protection of faith-based organizations from the revenue laws seems pretty damn equal! (Note: I don't for a minute suggest that these exemptions ought to be eliminated).

But EO 13279 has nothing to do with providing "equal protection" to faith-based organizations. It is, quite simply, an order to federal agencies to cut checks to churches: "No organization shall be discriminated against on the basis of religion or religious belief in the administration or distribution of Federal financial assistance under social service programs." (sec. 2(c)). The EO, to be sure, makes nods in the direction of separating religious indoctrination from federal funding. It requires that a faith-based organization receiving federal funding conduct "inherently religious activities such as worship, religious instruction, and proselytization" in a separate time and location from programs receiving federal funding (sec. 2(e)), and must not use federal funding to support those activities (sec. 2(f)). Now that division is well and good, it seems, except for two policing problems: Who? and How? First, the who: a government ombudsman? (or better yet,a corps of them? another group of bureaucrats? auditing our churches, monitoring their activities? Thank you no.) Second, how? Money is fungible. Woe betide the auditor who's going to try to enforce this kind of segregation. The EO specifically allows the churches to use their facilities to provide the programming the government is funding. Which means, presumably, that a portion of the church's mortgage is going to be an expense that can be charged back to the government program. Of course, what that means is that the government (that's you and me, folks) inevitably is paying for the upkeep of churches. No thank you. And the bigger problem: what's an an inherently religious activity? To an observant Jew, the easier question might be "what isn't?" I for one don't want the government going anywhere near that question, let alone answering it.

This is fertile ground for further inquiry (including the question I've begged above, about the principled distinction between tax exemptions and outright grants), but time is fleeting.

A Happy and Healthy 2003 to all, should I not post again before tomorrow evening.