Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...

Tuesday, September 30, 2003  

Okay, let's talk hate. Jonathan Chait's written a lovely article for the New Republic describing why liberals hate Bush. It isn't a huge departure from the arguments we're hearing from Conason et. al., but he does throw something new into the mix. Rather than just catalogue Bush's "misdeeds," he explores why the actions so incense lefties. Thus he takes it out of the realm of presumed-fact and explains how certain actions are interpreted by liberals. Given our assumptions and prejudices are different than conservatives, it's not surprising we find some of his actions odious, even while the same actions are exalted by conservatives.

Conservatives believe liberals resent Bush in part because he is a rough-hewn Texan. In fact, they hate him because they believe he is not a rough-hewn Texan but rather a pampered frat boy masquerading as one, with his pickup truck and blue jeans serving as the perfect props to disguise his plutocratic nature.

Conservatives will take exception, of course. They will point out that being a pampered frat boy doesn't preclude the possibility that you might actually enjoy clearing brush from the barren wastes of your West Texas "ranch." Okay, but who cares what righties think? We’re talking what pisses us off. Bush might well like to go dumpster diving after high tea--that doesn't mean he understands what it means to be homeless.

So I think Chait's right. It seems that part of the reason he's written what amounts to an apology cum tantrum is so that he can move forward. Hate, after all, is important to acknowledge; it's death to nurture.

So I read with interest a debate Chait conducted over the past week with the National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru. It deviates from Chait's article thesis--Ponnuru isn't interested in why lefties hate (though he's happy to see it)--focusing more on the events themselves. For many of us lefties, the Bush presidency has been an exercise in credulity, or more likely, sanity. We listen to the news, watch the polls, and then look at Bush and his actions and begin howling madly at the moon: surely there is no way to reconcile the two versions of reality.

Chait and Ponnuru examine these realities to illuminating ends. One gets the sense by reading their versions that conservatives must not be that much more excited by what they see on the news than we are; apparently, it substantially differs from their view as well. And the result is something remarkable: comprehension. We see how reasonable people might arrive at differing positions. I'll give a particularly provocative example: tax cuts.

It's true that Bush hasn't executed a partial retreat on his tax cut, as Reagan did. But it's also true that Bush's tax cut was modest in size compared to Reagan's. The Gingrich Republicans wanted to abolish four Cabinet departments, cut spending, and kill Americorps. Bush has created a Cabinet department, increased spending--including on education--and pledged to boost funding for Americorps. Reversing the New Deal? This president won't even take on the Tennessee Valley Authority. Or Title IX. Or the National Endowment for the Arts. You're quite right to say that Clinton was willing to offend liberals on some important issues. Bush is willing to offend conservatives on some, too: racial preferences, for example.

You assert that Bush's tax cut was "modest in size" compared to Reagan's. In fact, Brookings scholars Bill Gale and Peter Orszag showed that, if you allow for some technical corrections (which I'll explain if I you make me) Bush's tax cut is 2.3-2.7 percent of GDP, compared to 2.1 percent for Reagan. Plus, in 1986 Reagan felt bad that he had opened so many loopholes for the rich and pushed for a tax reform that made the tax code more progressive. Bush, to put it mildly, shows no sign of doing anything like that.

It's hard to evaluate your claim about the size of Bush's tax cuts without knowing what "technical assumptions" Gale and Orszag make. Having followed Mr. Orszag's work on Social Security, I suspect that I don't share those assumptions. The tables in this Treasury paper back up my assertion. In any case, Bush's tax cuts were not so large that they are expected to result in income taxes as a percentage of GDP being lower at the end of the decade than they were at the start.

You asked for the technical assumptions on the tax cuts, you got 'em. Before 1985, the tax code was not indexed for inflation. This meant that people would be pushed into higher brackets every year even if their real income stayed the same. (TNR forcefully advocated indexing, by the way.) This meant that without regular tax cuts revenues would naturally rise as a percentage of the economy very rapidly. So, about 45 percent of the Reagan tax cut merely offset natural revenue growth from inflation. Secondly, Reagan agreed to scale back his tax cut in 1982. If you want to look at the actual revenue loss of the Reagan tax cut, you need to consider the net cost. So, examined in light of realistic comparisons, Bush's tax cut was larger than Reagan's.

Chait gets the last word there, but do you think for a minute that Ponnuru would leave it at that if he had another shot? [Update, 10/1. Mr. Ponnuru alerts us that he does indeed have a response.]

We started at hate, so let's return there. What I particularly enjoyed about this exchange is that it had exactly the opposite effect of hate. I enjoyed Ponnuru's honest take on the questions and his lightness and humor (he's the funnier writer). While I don't find it difficult at all to muster hate for Bush or Tom DeLay, I do for Ponnuru. He's a reasonable, honest guy (at least here, in my only exposure to him).

My home state of Oregon once had a reputation for innovation. We led the way on conservation, land-use planning, recycling, and on and on. During that great phase of innovation, our left and right worked very closely together. They did not indulge in hatred, but rather had the kinds of exchanges we see here. In the 1980s, political polarization struck Oregon, and last year we were such a laughingstock that Doonesbury mocked us.

Hate dooms political movements--inevitably. What's less obvious is that it dooms political processes as well. But then, I guess that looking at the way the federal government has operated over the past 15 years would have confirmed that. As Dems move forward, I suppose it's wise to remember that those whom you demonize today are those you'll be crafting legislation with tomorrow. Talking about what a pinhead Bush is may feel good, but it sows evil seeds.

posted by Jeff | 1:07 PM |
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