Marilynne Robinson Calls Out Twaddle

November 17, 2017

In this week’s New York Review of Books, Marilynne Robinson makes a public declaration of her disgust with deconstructionism. Robinson is a 2012 recipient of a National Humanities Medal, and teaches at the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop.  I don’t believe there is a novelist or essayist whose clarity and honesty I value more.

She doesn’t just see “deconstructionism” as silly or wrong-headed, she sees it as harmful. She says,

To be painfully candid, I consider a great part of what is offered to students as intellectual discourse, at least in the humanities and social sciences, to be a sort of higher twaddle. This so-called learning, most recently “theory,” seems harmless in so far as it has no meaning outside the classroom, or beyond the journals and conferences that sustain it and establish the hierarchy of its practitioners. But it is deeply harmful in that it wastes time and teaches students to think and write badly, to master as they can the terms and assumptions of twaddle.

And this,

In-group language usually signifies and defends an elite of some sort, and the tendency of this particular jargon is to imply that books, history, experience itself, are not to be understood by the uninitiated. Indeed, there are interpretive dogmas ready to demonstrate that the writer actually meant the opposite of what he thought he meant, or something else altogether, being inevitably implicated in the biases of his period and social class, and an entrenched defender of these interests, whatever his words might say. This notion is elitist in the worst sense, and divisive as well.

Deconstructionism is not honest, analytic thinking, says Robinson, it is ideology, and that is why it is harmful.

The good society depends for its life on insights into present circumstances and into present tendencies in the culture, insights that arise out of honest and open discussion, that is, on intellectually competent citizens, people capable of clarity and attentiveness. Yet we have allowed our thinking to be conformed to the model of ideology, which is the old enemy of ideas, as it is of plain realism. The language of ideology has all its conclusions baked into it. It is wholly unsuited to the life of an open and evolving society. Our higher education has been in part responsible for our decline.

Calling out deconstructionism as “twaddle” matters because in this present crisis of the Republic we need our Humanities at their very best.  We need our Universities at their very best.  We need honesty and clarity, discussion and deliberation.  Deconstructionism gives us none of these.

These are claims Robinson is making, not really arguments against deconstructionism, but I believe they are the right claims to make.  Bravo Marilynne Robinson for writing this, and bravo NYRB for publishing it.

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Why Trump Won: Edsall’s Analysis

November 16, 2017

I’ve read dozens and dozens of articles dissecting why Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016,  Many of them made sense.  Many of them were illuminating.  But none has hit me as hard as Thomas Edsall’s column in today’s New York Times, White on White Voting.

Edsall shows, drawing on research from a number of scholars,  that the biggest swings in the electorate between the two elections of Barack Obama and the election of Donald Trump came in communities that were (a) overwhelmingly white and yet (b) had seen a significant percentage rise in the numbers of Blacks and Hispanics.

Trump’s margin of victory was highest in those municipalities that are close to (but not quite at) 100 percent white.  Says Edsall,

Trump’s anti-immigrant, racially loaded messages resonated most powerfully among voters living in the least diverse, most racially isolated white communities. It is in these locales, which are experiencing the earliest signs of minority growth, that anxiety over approaching diversity is strongest.

Read the whole piece, please.  You’ll come away with a sense of how racial animosity whipped up by a leader and a party determined to take advantage of fear was a key to the election.  Adds Edsall:

When I look back at the 2016 election, what is really striking is how much influence over the course of events was exercised by the relatively small numbers of voters in super-white municipalities and counties and by the politician who ignited them — how the last gasp of a small fraction of the electorate set the nation on such a dangerous and destructive course.

Those of us who live in communities that are overwhelmingly white (as I do) have work to do as we look toward 2018 and 2020.

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James Fallows and Me on ‘Tribal’

November 9, 2017

Back on October 31, James Fallows of The Atlantic published a piece titled The Broken Check and Balance.  The header for it said “It’s up to Congress to police the executive—but so far, its Republican leaders are placing tribal loyalty ahead of their constitutional responsibility.”

He was getting at something important about Republicans in the Congress today, but the word “tribal” rankled some readers.  One wrote, “The use of tribal in the political white sense does not go over very well among Native folks for obvious reasons. It feels like a putdown of one of the last cultural distinctions that exemplifies tribal sovereignty.” Fallows asked fro suggestions from readers.  He got quite a few, and published them on his blog in several tranches:  first, second, third, and fourth.  And then, today, a fifth, in which something I had sent him appeared as the last item.  Here’s what I wrote:

I think you’re trying to do too much with a single word.

You are looking for a word to capture a relentless preference for me and my kind: what’s good for us is what’s right.

One issue in this what to call ‘our kind’ or ‘us.’  “Tribe” may be the right word, but why not race or nation or clique or faction?  Is there some general word we can use for ‘my kind?’  Whatever word we chose, we’re likely to give that word a pejorative cast, and some may take exception because they want to use that same word for “us” in a more positive way – like ‘nation’ or ‘tribe.’

Another issue here is what we make of the claim of rightness in the preference for me and my kind.  This is a question of justice, not terminology, and it’s far the more important issue.


In The Republic, Thrasymachus argues that ‘justice is the interest of the strong.’  There is, he asserts, no deeper or transcendent sense of justice.  This is precisely the proposition that you want to hold us to scorn.  A preference for me and my kind is also an undisguised claim that we (me and my kind) are the strong, and that we will prevail.

Socrates/Plato didn’t think much of Thrasymachus’s understanding of justice, and you and I don’t either.  It’s pernicious, and yet it is a very common weed in human understanding.

You’re looking for a way to capture that growing acceptance in the United States of justice as the interest of the strong – that belief that any talk of justice having a higher moral foundation is just foolishness.

Trump embodies that Thrasymachus-ian understanding of justice.  He didn’t give birth to it in modern American politics; he simply has found a way to gather a following — including a disturbing number of Republican leaders – around that conception.  (It’s all the more remarkable that this ugly conception of justice is often dolled up in Christian evangelical terms.)

I don’t know a single word that captures this.

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What’s Unfair and Fraudulent in the GOP Tax Proposal

November 6, 2017

A few days ago in We Want Fair, Not Fraudulent Tax Reform, I promised some links to pieces showing the GOP Tax proposal to be unfair and fraudulent.  Here they are — and there may be more.  It’s a stinko plan.

Background on U.S. Taxes

WaPo’s Wonkblog on The state of the American tax system, in 8 charts,

Overall on the GOP Tax Plan

Jason Furman analysis (Furman is a Professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School and also affiliated with the Peterson Institute for International Economics). A few headlines:

  • Not a time for tax cuts,
  • the House Bill is not well-designed,
  • Large increase in the deficit,
  • New pass-through loophole is complicated and distortionary,
  • Cutting the corporate rate to 20 percent is more likely to reduce wages than to increase them,
  • Cutting the corporate tax rate to 20% is likely to reduce GDP, etc.

Paul Krugman (NYT, Nobel Prize Winner in Economics) on the ten lies that Republicans are telling about their tax plan.

Dylan Matthews in Vox on The Republican Tax Bill, Explained.

Effect on the Deficit

Tyler Cowen, conservative, influential blogger at Marginal Revolution, damns with faint praise: The plan as a whole is a reckless expansion of the deficit, but if that is going to happen anyway this is one of the better ways to do it.  

Fortune Magazine on Why Trump’s Tax Reform Won’t Fix America’s Federal Budget Mess.

Bloomberg on Most Economists Agree: Trump Tax Plan Will Widen Budget Deficit.  Kicker: “Tax code simplification is a laudable goal, but it is not clear whether very many tax loopholes will be closed,” said Thomas Fullerton, professor of economics and finance at the University of Texas at El Paso. “Unfortunately, the risk of a widening deficit is pronounced.”

Distributional Effects

Joint Committee on Taxation analysis, the upshot of which Kevin Drum headlines as Surprise! The Republican Tax Bill Mostly Helps the Very, Very Rich.

Tax Policy Center analysis, whose conclusion is this “In 2018, all income groups would see their average taxes fall, but some taxpayers in each group would face tax increases. Those with the very highest incomes would receive the biggest tax cuts.“ Read the NYTimes report on the report here.

WaPo’s Wonkblog on Winners and Losers in the GOP Tax Plan.

Targetting of Harm to Blue States

Kevin Drum’s analysis (Mother Jones). More here.

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We Want Fair, Not Fraudulent, Tax Reform

November 3, 2017

I sat in on a conference call yesterday with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi organized by people for the American Way.  Topic: the Republican tax proposal.  I was grateful for the opportunity, but disappointed in the offering.

The emphasis was on tactics: what can we (Democrats) say in Republican districts to weaken support for and ultimately defeat this tax bill.  Of course that’s one thing that should be on Rep. Pelosi’s mind, but I also want to hear a clear message about what we (Americans, all of us) should want in a tax bill.  I didn’t hear that framing at all. Instead, I heard snippets of this or that bad feature of the Republican proposal, but no broad framing.  What’s the positive, clear framing message?

Here’s my suggestion: We want fair, not fraudulent, tax reform.  

The Republicans will say–and are saying–that their tax bill

  • will lower taxes for all families
  • will be family friendly by expanding child-related tax credits
  • will spur economic growth
  • will encourage ‘Made in America’ business
  • will streamline and simplify the tax code.

There’s a clear framing message there, and we will hear it relentlessly.

The first thing we want to say about this is that it is fraudulent.  This tax bill, if approved, will not do any of these things.  This tax bill is a tax-cut-for-the-wealthy tax bill.  It will not provide meaningful tax relief for middle or lower income families, it will not spur economic growth, and it will not do anything else that Speaker Ryan claims it will.  The claims made on behalf of this bill are false.  [In a subsequent post, I’ll provide links to evidence-based demonstrations of the fraudulent claims behind this tax proposal.]

Notice, too, that the Republican case for their tax bill says nothing about its effect on the federal deficit.  If passed, it would certainly massively increase the deficit.

The other thing we want to say about this bill is that it is unfair, and that what we want (all Americans) is a fairer tax system.

A fairer tax system would put more emphasis on taxing every dollar earned in a similar fashion. A fairer tax system would eliminate loopholes and special provisions that allow the wealthy to pay lower tax rates on some or all of their earnings.

The Republican bill does next to nothing to eliminate current loopholes and adds several others.  For example it would not eliminate the carried interest provision, which allows hedge fund managers to enjoy a reduced tax rate on their earnings (and which Trump said he would eliminate),  The bill would eliminate the Alternative Minimum Tax, which insures that wealthy pay some taxes even if their use of loopholes and special provisions would otherwise reduce their tax bill to zero.  The bill would allow more business income to be treated as pass-through income taxed at a lower rate. The bill would eliminate estate taxes on very wealthy persons (the current tax system already has no taxes on estates valued at less than $5 million).  These are all steps toward greater unfairness.  

In addition, this tax bill if passed would not promote economic growth. We do not lower taxes to promote economic growth.  We are already in the third longest period of expansion of the American economy in history.  That’s a legacy (unacknowledged by Republicans) of the Obama presidency.  A tax cut for the wealthy now would only serve to worsen the deficit and imperil future economic growth.

What we need is a fairer tax system, one that would would end loopholes and special deals for the wealthy.  

Over the summer, Senate Democrats sent a letter to Republicans emphasizing four points about what they would insist upon in any tax bill:

  • it would work through regular order,
  • it could not raise taxes on the middle class or
  • cut taxes for the one percent and
  • the reforms couldn’t increase the deficit.

That’s essentially the same framing message. Now I want to hear it voiced, clearly and often, to the American people.

One more thing to insist upon: no tax bill of any sort without first seeing Trump’s tax returns.  

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Do We Need Tax Reform?

Do we need tax reform? If so what should it look like? Why do we need ‘reform’ and what should our goals be in changing the federal tax system?

These questions should be uppermost in our minds as we digest the sketchy proposal put forward this week by Republican leaders. We need a positive proposal, or at least the broad shape of one. Criticism of the Trump/McConnell/Ryan proposal is too shallow and won’t take us anywhere.

Should we be trying to lower federal tax receipts overall, or just make the burdens fairer? Do we want to tax every dollar earned in the same way, or are there certain activities we want to encourage through the tax code? If so, which activities? Investments? All investments, or just those reasonably expected to generate new jobs?

Should corporations be taxed as well as individuals? At the same rate? Charitable contributions? Home ownership? Both of those even if they disproportionately favor those with higher incomes?

We need to be grappling with these questions, tough as these may be. I believe we need fairer taxes, but not a tax cut. We need the federal government to do at least as much as it is doing at present.

One of the few public policy matters on which Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton agreed during the campaign was that the ‘carried interest’ loophole for hedge managers should be closed. For starters it tells you a great deal about the Republican sketch that it doesn’t even bother to mention that loophole. “Carried interest is the portion of their clients’ profit paid to managers of private equity, venture capital, real estate, and other funds in return for managing those funds. The payments are the managers’ compensation, for which the top tax rate would otherwise be 39.6%. But because of the loophole, carried interest is instead taxed at the capital gains rate, which tops off at 23.8%.” Not fair, not defensible.

The failure to address the carried interest loophole is the first indication that this is not ‘tax reform’ but rather a tax cut for the wealthy. E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post certainly thinks so. “The only thing today’s Republican Party knows how to do is cut taxes for the very rich.”

The response from the proposal’s supporters is that this tax bill (once written) will generate enough economic growth that it will pay for itself and benefit everyone. Bruce Bartlett, a policy adviser to Ronald Reagan, lays that shopworn untruth to rest. The bipartisan, wonky Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget agrees. (You can read here, on p 8, what the Republican Platform in the 2016 election had to say about the federal debt. Hint: it didn’t call for a massive increase in the debt.)

A good deal of the initial commentary about the proposal focused on the call to repeal the estate tax.  “To protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer, we are finally ending the crushing, the horrible, the unfair estate tax, or as it is often referred to, the death tax,” Donald Trump said in a speech unveiling the proposal. Politifact rated this statement “Pants on Fire” for its level of dishonesty.  A tiny number of farms or small businesses are affected by the estate tax today.  Eliminating the estate tax would benefit the very wealthy.

The most comprehensive analysis of the effect of the proposal so far comes from the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. They estimate that if passed the federal government would lose $2.4 trillion over the first ten years and a further $3.2 trillion over the subsequent decade. This would add significantly to the federal debt. The beneficiaries would primarily be those with high incomes, especially those in the top 1% of U.S. incomes.

One deduction the sketchy proposal would eliminate is the provision in the tax code that would allow you to deduct what you pay in state and local taxes from your tax bill. (The provisions for exempting employer-provided health care, mortgage interest payments, and charitable giving – all largely benefitting the more affluent would stay in place.) This would hit particularly hard those states with higher state taxes – most of them more likely to vote Democratic. It will also likely be one of the more controversial features of the proposal.

But the real issue is not what we make of this or that feature of the proposal. The real question is what would fairer taxes look like?

Here’s what the 2016 Republican Platform said about taxes – and on page 1.

The current tax code is rightly the object of both anger and mockery. Its length is exceeded only by its complexity. We must start anew. That will be an enormous undertaking and, if it is to succeed, it must command the attention and approval of the American people. It cannot be engineered from the top down, but must have a common sense approach, and be simplified.

Our proposal is straightforward. Wherever tax rates penalize thrift or discourage investment, they must be lowered. Wherever current provisions of the code are disincentives for economic growth, they must be changed. We will not divide the American people into winners and losers. We will eliminate as many special interest provisions and loopholes as possible and curb corporate welfare, especially where their erosion of the tax base has created pressure for higher rates. We will be mindful of the burdens on families with children and the impact on an aging population. We will seek simplicity and clarity so that every taxpayer can understand how much of their income is consumed by the federal government.

We will welcome all to this enterprise — to discuss, debate, challenge, and amend — so that together we can restore economic growth for the American people and, even more important, renew their faith in the future.

Perhaps it is a place to begin. But, in fairness, here’s what the Democratic Platform called for (p 12):

At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, we believe the wealthiest Americans and largest corporations must pay their fair share of taxes. Democrats will claw back tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas, eliminate tax breaks for big oil and gas companies, and crack down on inversions and other methods companies use to dodge their tax responsibilities. We will make sure that our tax code rewards businesses that make investments and provide good-paying jobs here in the United States, not businesses that walk out on America. We will end deferrals so that American corporations pay United States taxes immediately on foreign profits and can no longer escape paying their fair share of U.S. taxes by stashing profits abroad. We will then use the revenue raised from fixing the corporate tax code to reinvest in rebuilding America and ensuring economic growth that will lead to millions of good-paying jobs.

We will ensure those at the top contribute to our country’s future by establishing a multimillionaire surtax to ensure millionaires and billionaires pay their fair share. In addition, we will shut down the “private tax system” for those at the top, immediately close egregious loopholes like those enjoyed by hedge fund managers, restore fair taxation on multimillion dollar estates, and ensure millionaires can no longer pay a lower rate than their secretaries. At a time of near-record corporate profits, slow wage growth, and rising costs, we need to offer tax relief to middle-class families—not those at the top.

Democrats believe that no one should be able avoid paying their fair share by hiding money abroad, and that corrupt leaders and terrorists should not be able to use the system of international finance to their advantage. We will work to crack down on tax evasion and promote transparency to fight corruption and terrorism. And we will make sure that law-abiding Americans living abroad are not unfairly penalized by finding the right solutions for them to the requirements under the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) and Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR).

We will offer tax relief to hard working, middle-class families for the cost squeeze they have faced for years from rising health care, childcare, education, and other expenses.

Maybe there are some ideas here, too.  Let’s talk about what we want to accomplish together.

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Remembering and Respecting

September 29, 2017

We are awash these days in controversies about how we show our respect for this nation and its history, and how we show our disagreements with what’s happening or what has happened in the past. Monuments to leaders of the Confederacy, the National Anthem, the Flag: all these are once again in the center ring of this country’s drama.

e-pluribus-unumI have little taste for these symbolic clashes. Going back to the Vietnam War I have friends who will not rise for the National Anthem and who will not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I do rise and I do recite, and I have no beef with those who do not so long as I know them to be thoughtful people of good will. I do not take their not-rising and not-reciting to be acts of disrespect. I understand how their sensibilities are inflamed. Their protesting in this way does not strike me as a way to make progress on matters about which I care: endless war, white supremacy, vote suppression and more.

A few nights ago Ellen and I were at a Portland Symphony concert. On taking the stage the conductor Robert Moody led us quickly into playing and singing the Star Spangled Banner. I rose and sang along. I saw others remain sitting. Moody said he played the Anthem as a mark of concern for those Americans battered by hurricanes and many applauded, but I doubt that this did little for the storm-ravaged, and others surely put a different construction on the event. I didn’t mind too much and yet the playing of the Anthem at that time struck me as something I wouldn’t have chosen to do if it had been up to me. On this occasion I felt a bit coerced. Nevertheless, asked to show a small mark of respect for this, the country of my citizenship, I followed along. Inflaming the sentiments of those around me does not strike me as a helpful step.

At such moments I remember Albert Camus: “I love my country, but I love it in justice.” My country is not always just and we have important work to do to make it more just. In this regard it will not help to fail to show my love of country. But only so long as I’m not being manipulated into seeming to approve of things just the way they are.

Over the past two weeks, Ellen and I have watched the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick “Vietnam.” There have been moments both terrible and tender. We’ve often had tears in our eyes. We’ve talked about the difference that the nine-years difference in our ages makes. Watching this documentary has seemed to me like an important act of respect to those who died, needlessly, on both sides and to those whose lives were torn apart. We were both struck at how many of the contemporary political ills of our nation trace back to the illusions and lies of the War in Vietnam. How do we recover our ideals and trust? That question seems worth our attention.

On the other hand, I’ve been paying very little attention to the protests of NFL players and the tweet-storm reaction of the foolish, venal man who is currently the President of the United States. I’m glad the players taking a knee are standing up for racial justice (yes, ironic) but I know that I have more constructive things to do than follow this tempest and I worry that the real issues are being buried beneath the who-is-disrespecting-who-or-what claims and counter claims. Posturing is far more Trump’s preferred terrain than any cause or purpose I care about. (On the celebrity front, I’m much more appreciative of what Jimmy Kimmel did to keep the right issues in view on healthcare.)

I do think there are important issues deserving my attention and yours in the question of monuments and memorials. I do think that the various monuments to leaders of the Confederacy should come down, and no I don’t think this is a slippery slope to having no monuments at all because all humans have done bad things.

Monuments and memorials are one of the ways we tell our nation’s story. We need to regularly tell that story, noting both the high points where we advanced “liberty and justice for all” or slipped back. Every time we tell the story, we tell it a little differently: there are different tellers, different audiences and time has passed since the last telling. We learn new things. Over time, some bits recede in importance, and they should. We never can and never should tell it in exactly the same way.

We erect monuments and memorials, making them of bronze and granite and other sturdy stuff, to give some solidity or permanence to the telling. Our national monuments to Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln seem quite wonderful to me and I think always will. (When I visit, I especially like reading the stone-inscribed texts on the walls of the Lincoln and the Jefferson.) However we tell the nation’s story, these monuments are solid reminders than these singular people did extraordinary things, things that far outweigh less good things they also did.

Similarly the Vietnam Memorial strikes me as a holy site of national respect. (I think I like Arthur Danto’s distinction between monuments and memorials even if we do not follow it consistently.) It seems altogether right that we have preserved (for example) the Gettysburg Battleground, the Little Bighorn Battlefield, and the USS Arizona Memorial. Ditto the Statue of Liberty.

And yet, we need to remember that the telling of the nation’s story, the story of “e pluribus unum” and “created equal” and “liberty and justice for all”, is a story that can never be frozen in stone. Every telling is itself someone’s effort to emphasize some things and therefore give less attention to others. Each telling, thus, is an assertion and also an exercise of power. There’s nothing wrong with that. Or nothing wrong so long as we remember that no one’s telling is the last telling or the only authoritative telling. We all have a role in telling the story: that’s part of our story.

To love our country is to love a work in progress, never finished. Monuments and memorials, anthems and pledges are all efforts to give permanence to some way of understanding. This week I am remembering that full respect for the efforts of the past looks at all of these as having only relative permanence. Today or next year or next decade we are likely to need a different monument, perhaps need to remove one erected long ago. We’ll likely tell the story differently. Only with such a recognition can we pledge allegiance or sing the national anthem (perhaps we need a different one) with a full heart.

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