Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Someone on the Internet is wrong!

If you think grown men fighting on the Internet is worth your time then, by all means, keep reading. Be forewarned, though, that whoa boy is it tedious, and you could be watching cute animals falling asleep instead.

Those still with me: to the pissing match!

In a piece that I published yesterday, I wrote that, while journalist Radley Balko is great when writing about the drug war and police brutality, he's not so great when he devotes his time to economic issues. In particular, I took issue with his rather frequent complaint that poor people ought to bear a greater economic burden for the cost of government, a complaint he bases on a fear that said poor people will otherwise keep voting themselves government services for which they need not pay. While I tried to stress how useful I usually find his writing to be, Balko nonetheless appeared in the comments and accused me of engaging in, well, "personal attacks" -- I wish all my critics started out by saying how great they thought I was -- before engaging in a few of his own, suggesting I was too lazy, or perhaps illiterate, to read past the headline of his writings on the dire threat to the republic of poor people not paying enough taxes. (Ironically, his comment maintains that I accused him of backing the Iraq war and liking Glenn Beck, which itself suggests he didn't read my post all that closely.)

While I've responded in the thread, it's only fair to let Balko state his original argument in his own words, since he's accused me of misrepresenting his position. So here goes, from his “Obligatory Tax Day Post” this past April:
[T]here’s a real danger when nearly half of income earners pay no federal income tax at all. A near-majority and growing portion of the population can now vote for politicians to enact expensive policies that are paid for by an increasingly small percentage of earners. You don’t have to be an apologist for the aristocracy to see the problem, here.
Balko's suggested reform is reducing the income tax rebate that poor households currently collect in correlation with increases in government spending. Over at the League of Ordinary Gentleman, Erik Kain argues this isn't a bad idea:
A negative income tax that fluctuates when government spending increases and decreases gives many more people skin in the game. And not just so that they’re helping pay for the game – they’re not, after all, if they’re getting money back in the form of a negative income tax – but rather so that they can be aware of the consequences of government action. If you’re getting $3,000 back from the government each year and then we embark on massive spending increases, maybe launch a couple new wars or whatever, and now suddenly you’re only getting $1500 back – well I’d notice. And noticing is half the point of representative democracy, because then you can get pissed off about it.
Of course, as I noted yesterday, the entire premise of this reform is bogus, which is why I originally didn't delve into the specifics of Balko's proposed policy change. Those government services that do nominally benefit the poor, like Social Security and Medicare, are paid for through direct, regressive taxes that even the poorest workers pay; in other words, they're aware of the cost. The majority of the federal income tax, by contrast, goes straight to the military-industrial complex, which unlike social services is the one area of government no politicians are seriously suggesting ought to be slashed in this glorious age of austerity, political gimmicks aside.

Reducing the amount that poor households receive in tax rebates so that they “at least feel the bite of” of any future growth in government spending, as Balko writes in his tax day post and which Kain supports in his comment above, is asking them to feel the bite of spending that won't actually benefit them. And while I'm all for awareness raising, those households poor enough to qualify for a tax rebate are the least able to afford a $1,500 reduction in their income, especially in a time of high unemployment and stagnant wages. So yes, let's make Social Security and Medicare taxes more progressive, as both Kain and Balko would like to do, but let's not play games with the rebates poor households receive. The vast majority of Americans already oppose America's wars and asking poor people to share the pain of such government spending that, again, doesn't benefit them -- to say nothing of the vast majority of “government services” that serve the rich, from intellectual property to corporate personhood, but don't show up as budget items come appropriations time -- strikes me as a pointless and potentially harmful attempt to address a problem that proponents of the reform haven't really demonstrated exists.

Meanwhile, on Twitter -- yeah, I know, I hate myself too -- Balko took issue with my original post and my characterization of it as friendly criticism. "You misstated my premise, then called it 'fucking bullshit', 'right-wing' and 'superficial.' Friendly criticism, indeed!" Point taken: I use naughty words (sorry Mom), though I wouldn't necessarily consider "right-wing" one of them. In his next 140-character message to me, though, Balko pretty much validated the "superficial" critique, writing that "there's substantial support in low-income tax brackets for many programs you list [in your piece], including wars [and] stadium subsidies." The dubious premise, again: poor people who don't pay taxes are responsible for the growth in state power and government spending.

First, two-thirds of the public supports bringing the troops home from Afghanistan and Iraq. More to the point, though, does anyone actually believe that things like wars and long-term military occupations are fought at the behest of the voting poor? Or that ballparks are built for corporate sports teams, not because the rich people who own them have a lot of money with which to buy political influence, but because poor people want their neighborhoods destroyed so people from the suburbs can enjoy a ball game and a $9 hot dog?

At the risk of making a personal attack, what if not "superficial" can you call the belief that the state invades countries and gives corporations billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded welfare because that's what voters -- poor voters, no less -- want? Balko's a good guy, and is easily one of the best chroniclers of the abuse of state power in the U.S., but the idea that, of all things, we ought to be fearful of poor people who don't pay federal income taxes bankrupting those who do -- as opposed to bankers and bomb makers -- is, well, bullshit.


  1. Anonymous10:07 AM

    Anyone who spouts opinions on the interwebtoobz like Balko ought to know, "attacks" on those opinions are going to happen.

    For someone who plays at a tough critic of civil rights abuses, he's really more like a little jellyfish or other invertebrate.

    And his record on cop-criticism remains suspect given his defense of Mehserle in the murder of Grant.

    Seems to me he's just a privileged white boy from the midwest, who thinks a polisci degree makes him brilliant. I think he needs to grow up and realize that being a "provocative libertarian" carries with it the likelihood that he'll provoke someone to criticize him AND his bullyboy opinions.

    Poah widdow Wadwee! Thumwun dithagweeth wif hym!

  2. I forgot about the Oscar Grant stuff. For anyone interested, here's his defense of the "involuntary manslaughter" verdict in the case: http://reason.com/archives/2010/07/12/justice-for-johannes-mehserle

  3. When did the federal budget get opened up to direct vote such that the citizenry could actually have a say in it? I can't see how the negative tax argument could have any validity outside that scenario.

  4. Todd,

    I think Mr. Balko accepts a federalist premise, that a vote for the legislators is a vote for their policies.

    If that is the case, it's remarkably naive. If it's not the case, I'm just wrong.

  5. Here, here I say. I gotta thank Charles for sticking up to this guy and not giving him a free pass. It strikes me as similar to the critique of Dawkins and Hitchens that, while they rightly criticize religion as a major source of problem, they give neo-conservatism a free pass. When that's the REAL problem. I think the banter is helpful, I'm surprised the dude is so sensitive.

  6. Balko, like Aristotle's nature, leaps into victimhood, a pandemic amongst defenders of wealth inequality and "free market" animism, when you criticize the false presuppositions of his argument. He turns into a matter of politesse---How dare Charles Davis take his arguments seriously, analyze them, and find them wanting? That, just like our regressive tax system and plutocratic welfare queans(the "a" is meant, is just NOT FAIR!

  7. turns it into-and missed ) after meant c'est dommage

  8. I would not call this tedious at all. Poor bashing has become a national pastime and now the right is trying to expand the playing field to public unions. Private unions are on deck. It is vitally important to fight this trend from any source.

    Another pernicious idea is from people who think their ideology is so consistent and logical that an attack on one issue is an attack on all issues. Or people that feel their ideology is intrinsic to their idenity so any attack is a personal one. Professional libertarians seem especially guilty of both os these.

    Last point, throwing stadium subsidies into this mix is ridiculous. They aren't federal, they are tiny baby potatoes, and are usually funded by either broad based or traveler specific sales taxes. That is by all residents or by none.

  9. ConArtist, can you point to where Dawkins gives neo-cons a free pass?

  10. Someone's wrong on the Internet Part 2!I meant Sam Harris.

  11. Mark,

    To be fair, I had a line in my first piece about this topic referring to stadium subsidies as the modern day "circus" that goes along with the "bread" that is SS/Medicare, so that's how they first came up and why I think Balko mentioned them.

  12. Anonymous1:46 PM

    The libertarian-leaning Republican candidate Ron Paul even pointed this out in his recent PBS interview with Judy Woodruff (around the 5 minute mark).

  13. Anonymous9:14 AM

    Great link to the PBS interview.

  14. zilcho11:30 PM

    Maybe imposing pain on the poor would make privileged middle class liberals more aware of their choices?

    The rich won't mind and poor are to piss poor stupid and isolated to "have an effect" on politics as they are.
    But all the self congratulating liberals who feel open minded by incorporating neo conservatism into their rhetoric might be pushed, by phony bleeding heart guilt, to think about more decent and real solutions.

  15. Anonymous5:12 AM

    Actually, there's a HUGE reality gap in the original argument (about the votes of the poor effecting gov't spending) which is that people's votes are represented by their elected officials, at all. Unless you personally went to a fundraiser and handed one of these blood-suckers a check, your interests will continue to be ignored.