Monday, October 23, 2017

An easy out

I just heard on NPR a story about yesterday's elections in Japan, where people are well and truly frustrated with their situation.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is unpopular, but he was re-elected, because people didn't see a feasible alternative. That in turn fed an understandable frustration with politics and discouraged many people from going to the polls.

125,000 people gave their votes to the "Support No Party" party - "Its signature issue is that it's sick of politicians."

That was a piece of last weekend's elections here in the Czech Republic as well.

And many U.S. voters last fall cited Trump's status as a non-politician as a reason to support him, while Hillary Clinton was hurt by being characterized as a consummate politician.

On the one hand, people's frustration is understandable. While "the economy" is doing reasonably well, the median household has not had a great run of it over the last 40 years, and the median person intuits that government has something has something to do with that, whether through misguided action or the lack of necessary action.

But the call to look beyond "politicians" is, ultimately, lazy.

Because the essence of politics is not who makes policy, but what policy ultimately gets made.

Different tax structures affect the economy in different ways.

People's lives will be different - in ways big and small - if you adopt one set of regulations or another.

There may be some effect from knowing which party or particular politician implemented a given policy - "who did it" will very easily affect how people perceive it, and to some extent people's perception can influence the effect a policy actually has.

But only to some extent.

In the end, the key facts of a progressive income tax structure with five brackets between 10% and 40% are things like the cut-offs for those marginal rates, the size and nature of deductions, etc. The fact that it was implemented by Democrats or Republicans is - at best - secondary.

And this points to the big problem with a stance of, "I hate politicians."

What - do you expect the non-politicians you elect to miraculously do things that are non-politician-y, and therefore good?

Well, which things, exactly?

Should it be lower tax rates? Which ones, and how much lower?

Or should it be higher tax rates? On whom? Should capital gains be taxed along with regular income, or not?

Should we have a carbon tax? Or a permit system to control greenhouse gas emissions? Or should we gut the Environmental Protection Agency?

Any of those things could be done by a politician, or by a non-politician.

"Don't get all wonky with me! I just want to get those politicians outta there and replace them with some people who've got some common sense!"

Alright then.

Gordon A. Craig in his book The Germans mentioned a speech by a local Nazi politician sometime before the Nazis actually came to power. Firing up his local supporters, he called out, "We don't want higher bread prices! We don't want lower bread prices! We want National Socialist bread prices!"

That didn't work out well.

When people say they want to oust the politicians without being able to articulate what policies you think should be implemented and why, it sounds just to me just as mindless.

And in its unwillingness to grapple with reality, it strikes me as similarly dangerous.


  1. Miss you here in Oneonta. Elections coming up. I was just thinking the other day: why, oh why, do people in the US steadfastly refuse to elect people who will raise taxes on the wealthiest? And why, oh why, do people in the US fall for the idea that the Republicans will give people in lower income brackets a "tax break"?

    1. Thanks for the link to Danny's funding page.

      As Kate has said a few times, it feels weird being here, so far away from home when there's such a shit-show going on there.

      But the Czechs were considerate enough to create their own shit-show here just so we wouldn't feel left out:

      To your questions, I don't have an answer (not that I expect you were expecting one). I suppose a significant piece of it is, "But the Demonrats are baby-killers who wanna take my gunz!"

      But I'd guess another piece is that people have really internalized ideas like progressive taxation being punishment for success, and low taxes on high incomes being a strong stimulant for broad-based growth.

    2. Yep. And I also think people want to have a fantasy that they are about to make it into that high-tax bracket. Even if they really don't know how statistically implausible that may be.

  2. You missed the debate last night, during which one of the candidates (not me) pledged to eliminate taxes and defund arts programs. Good times.

    1. That wasn't you? If you'd have pulled that out, you would at least have had the element of surprise working in your favor.

  3. I think we've had enough surprise in our elections lately.