Thursday, September 22, 2011

Independent Thoughts on the Last Republican Debate

Primary debates are very interesting for someone who doesn't care what party someone is, because they're specifically geared to pull at the emotions of those who are already in one regions of the political landscape. The recent Presidential debate had a lot of expected moments, but some unexpected ones, and some which I think can be used as springboards for more genuinely understanding the politics behind this little experiment we call America.

Note: I'm pulling any quotes below from this CNN transcript of the event, and I've read the debate fact-checking on both Politifact and, as well as from the ever-entertaining and very-right-leaning conversation taking place on Facebook's General Election 2012 group. Also, I've only found one place that contains the whole CNN/Tea Party Express debate, although it's broken up into a lot of smaller videos.

There'll be another debate tonight - Thursday, September 22, at 9:00 pm ET - run by FoxNews/Google. You can view it streaming online live at this link at 9:00 pm ET. This one will feature the libertarian Gary Johnson, governor of New Mexico, who is a social liberal, fiscal conservative, and seems far saner than Ron Paul. We'll see.

Now, on to my thoughts and commentary on the last debate:

1. The HPV Issue

One issue that's gotten a lot of press was the fact that Rick Perry, as governor of Texas, signed an executive order requiring that girls in the state get a vaccine against the Human Paploma Virus (HPV), which is a sexually-transmitted virus that has been linked to certain forms of cervical cancer. There is voluminous scientific evidence that HPV is very wide-spread, occurring as often as in 50% of sexually-active adults. In other words, if you have sex, there's a very good chance that you'll be exposed to HPV.

Now, I have always considered the debate over HPV to be fairly silly, the ramblings of anti-government puritans who fear that children will become sexually active if told their risk of getting cervical cancer in 30 years is diminished ... but Rick Santorum (of all people) framed it in a way that I think actually has some legal, constitutional, and even logical merit:
Why do we inoculate people with vaccines in public schools? Because we're afraid of those diseases being communicable between people at school. And therefore, to protect the rest of the people at school, we have vaccinations to protect those children.  
Unless Texas has a very progressive way of communicating diseases in their school by way of their curriculum, then there is no government purpose served for having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government. This is big government run amok. It is bad policy, and it should not have been done. 
The legal justification for mandating innoculation is not to protect that one person, but to protect all of the other people who will get sick if they're exposed to that person's illness. As such, a State does not have the right to implement it. Michelle Bachmann echoed this idea:
... to have innocent little 12-year-old girls be forced to have a government injection through an executive order is just flat out wrong. That should never be done. It's a violation of a liberty interest.
Now, the overall trend of these attacks is on the idea that Perry implemented this as an executive order, which means it never came up for debate in the legislature, and was more of a decree than an actual law... however, as the next point point brings up, even legislation can be dictatorial.

2. When States Attack 

In attacking Romney's "Romneycare" plan (the Massachusetts plan which provided the framework for much of Obamacare, implemented when Romney was a governor of Massachusetts), Michelle Bachmann took a hard line against the government's right to mandate that citizens buy health insurance:
... no state has the constitutional right to force a person as a condition of citizenship to buy a product or service against their will. It's unconstitutional...  (APPLAUSE) ... whether it's the state government or whether it's the federal government
So, here we have two things that the state can mandate which Michelle Bachmann seems to believe are fundamentally against individual liberty. Both Romney and Perry have suggested that they are states' rights issues, and were good for their states, but that similar plans on a national level are unconstitutional, because the Tenth Amendment leaves all rights not expressly granted in the Constitution with the states.

Here is my question:
Based on a strict reading, does the Constitution allow the federal government to strike down an unjust state law?
Obviously, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has done this many times - especially in the last century and a half - but this is always a fundamental dividing line between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats feel SCOTUS should have this power, Republicans typically do not. When the court legislates in this manner, the justices are dismissively called "activist judges."

But what if a state implemented an unjust law, then would those who vote it down still be "activist judges?" If SCOTUS overturned Massachusetts' health insurance mandate, would they be violating their Constitutional limitations or defending the liberty of a people who are being oppressed by their state government?

Of course, this question could also be asked about slavery, executions, Jim Crow laws, treatment of women, homosexuals, the mentally handicapped, and other legislation that some states have considered fine and others consider oppressive in some way.

I'd love a Constitutional purist/states' rights advocate to explain what I'm missing on this one and what, if any, role the federal government has to play in such a scenario.

3. Romney & Capital Gains

This was the one aspect of the debate which I found swayed me toward a candidate instead of away from them. Here is Romney's response to a question about a flat tax rate:
The idea of a national sales tax or a consumption tax has a lot to go for it. One, it would make us more competitive globally, as we send products around the world, because under the provisions of the World Trade Organization, you can reimburse that to an exporter. We can't reimburse our taxes right now. It also would level the playing field in the country, making sure everybody is paying some part of their fair share. But the way the fair tax has been structured, it has a real problem and that is it lowers the burden on the very highest income folks and the very lowest and raises it on middle income people. And the people who have been hurt most by the Obama-economy are the middle class.

Back in 2008, I spoke fairly highly of the Fair Tax, which was a flat tax bill that had some enthusiastic support among conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. I liked that the Fair Tax removed all tax burden from the poor, and the notion of taxing consumption rather than income seems just philosophically like a more egalitarian approach.

Until, as Romney points out, you actually run the numbers. What you find really happens is that the tax burden on the poor and the wealthy tend to drop heavily, but the middle class is saddled with a huge tax burden. (I also personally question the validity of many of the economic assumptions behind the Fair Tax, especially in light of the bang-up job economists have done managing the economy over the last decade.)

Romney continues with a proposal that intrigues me:
And so my plan is to take the middle class individuals and dramatically reduce their taxes by the following measure. And that is for middle income Americans, no tax on interest, dividends or capital gains.
If this was handled right, I think this might be a really good tax reform proposal. It depends on how you are dividing "middle income Americans." The benefit is obviously that it will allow low and middle income Americans to keep more money, and this seems like a good way to give a tax break.

However, if Romney extends this exemption too high, then it becomes yet another tax break for the wealthy, and one which they don't need. Capital gains tax rates are not huge. As Warren Buffett said in an interview last month, current capital gains taxes are great for the wealthy.
Well, I think -- what really gives the low rates to the very rich like me is the -- is the low tax on dividends and capital gains.  If you take these rich people what the IRS singles out, from 1992, they’ve almost had a tenfold increase in capital gains.  They’ve had a tenfold increase almost in dividends.  And those -- those are taxed at 15 percent and there’s no payroll tax on it.  Now, the payroll tax accounts for almost as much revenue to the government as the income tax.  It’s close -- $800 billion plus on payroll taxes last year; about $900 billion on income taxes.  That’s where the money comes from in Washington.
The argument in favor of reducing these rates, even among the wealthy, is often that they'll encourage investment, but Buffett sort of refutes that argument based on his experience:
I’ve worked with capital gains rates of 39.9 percent and 36 percent and 25 percent, I have yet to hear one person say to me, "If I call you in the middle of the night Charlie and I say Charlie I’ve got this hot investment idea."  Your reaction is not to say "No matter what the tax rate, forget it, I’m going back to sleep because the capital gains rates are too high."  No, what you’re going to do is you’re going to say, "Tell me the name, quick, Warren, before you change your mind."  And you know, I have never had one person decline to invest with me. 
Okay, I do question that last sentence as perhaps a bit of hyperbole, or maybe he meant "decline to invest with me [because of the capital gains tax]". Still, overall I think this is probably very true. My guess would be that during Mitt Romney's years in the private sector, the capital gains tax was never a cause for someone to avoid investing in one of his businesses, either.

Buffet does a great job of laying out the distinction in how these tax rates get distributed, based on the way your money comes to you:
If you make money with money, you get taxed ... at very low rates; 15 percent dividends in capital gains.  No payroll tax.  If you make money with muscle or hard work or sweat of your brow, you get taxed at rates that move on up.  And most of the people, the middle-class gets taxed at rates of either 15 percent or 25 percent on their income tax, but then they get really hit hard on the payroll tax and that’s what brings the rates in our office up to an average of 36 percent if you leave me out.
Middle income earners, of course, can still "make money with money," in which case they'd get hit with both the payroll tax AND the capital gains tax. If you're talking about someone making a low 3-figure salary, perhaps married, with kids and a mortgage, that could be crippling. So I think reducing the capital gains - in a way that's either got a cap on the amount excluded or has an exemption tied to income - has a lot to go for it.

And, honestly, it strikes me as a common sense plan that could be consistent with both liberal and conservative values, depending on how it were implemented. It's a shame that the government's not going to do anything useful until after the election, or maybe we could get this passed.

4. Herman Cain's Regulatory Reform

I really like Herman Cain. He's a businessman and so says what he thinks. He's the idea guy. And his ideas usually are interesting and make some sense ... until you think about them for 10 seconds.

In the last debate, he said, when responding to how he would handle energy exploration:
I would put together a regulatory reduction commission for every agency starting with the EPA. This regulatory reduction commission -- one of my guiding principles is if you want to solve a problem go to the source closest to the problem. So the people that I would appoint to that commission will be people who have been abused by the EPA. That would be the commission that would straighten out the regulatory burden.
On the surface, this sounds rather sane ... again, until you think about it for five seconds. His "guiding principle" is "if you want to solve a problem go to the source closest to the problem." So, who does he go to in order to solve EPA regulation problems? "People who have been abused by the EPA."

In other words, the group in charge of re-defining EPA regulations would be the people that the EPA has designated as having had the worst track-record of following EPA regulation.

It seems like Cain basically believes that the EPA just shouldn't do it's job, which is fine ... but he's going to use this strategy to "put together a regulatory reduction commission for every agency."

Who is going to be on the regulatory reduction commission for the Pentagon? The people who have been abused by the Pentagon? Does this mean terrorists will be on the commission?

Will criminals be reviewing Justice Department regulations?

Like I said ... his plans sound good, until you take a few seconds to think them through.

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