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No, actually, the government is not calling you a "right-wing extremist"

Friends, I understand that you have a very low opinion of the Obama administration and would not be surprised at all if they considered you to be an "extremist" because you are pro-gun, pro-life, believe in limited government, are concerned about illegal immigration, etc...BUT, I read the DHS report about right-wing extremists (link)  that has your knickers in a twist.  I also read a recent DHS report about left-wing extremists (link) and a recent press release from the FBI about left-wing extremists (link).

It is clear to me that all of the mainstream conservatives who are claiming that the DHS is calling them "right-wing extremists" are misreading what the report is saying (assuming they have read it).  The report is about right-wing extremist groups.  Reading the report (and the one about left-wing extremists groups), it is clear that extremism as far as the DHS is concerned is defined by the proclivity to resort to violence (which is common sense anyway because that is what DHS seeks to prevent).  Violence is mentioned throughout the reports.

The reports do identify issues of concern to many right-wing extremist groups (states rights, gun rights, immigration, abortion, etc.) and left-wing extremists groups (globalization, the environment, animal rights, etc.)...BUT, those things are not what defines an extremist.  Proclivity to violence is what defines extremists.  Normal conservatives and liberals (like you and me) are also often concerned about immigration, abortion, the environment, animal rights, etc.  Unless we are contemplating acts of violence and terrorism in response to our concerns, we are not extremists in the eyes of DHS.  The DHS report does mention some specific examples of right-wing extremist groups (militias and white supremacists) but does not, given a fair reading, equate normal people who are concerned about abortion or gun rights with extremists like those.

Again, let me emphasize, there is an important distinction here that is critical to understanding these reports. The report on right-wing extremists does not identify core conservative values as extreme. Instead, it indicates that some extremists are motivated by core conservative values. The left-wing reports indicate that some extremists are motivated by a stereotypically core liberal value (environmentalism), but that is entirely different from identifying environmentalism as an extreme value!  When someone states the fact that some extremist groups that perpetrate violence against abortion providers are (of course) motivated by opposition to abortion, obviously I should not take that to imply that I am an extremist just because I oppose abortion.

That, to me, is a common sense reading of the recent reports on extremism.  Of course, I don't necessarily expect everyone to use common sense in reading reports like these.  Some people will tell you that the DHS is calling you a "right-wing extremist" and, again, I understand that you are inclined to believe them (given your very low opinion of the Obama administration).  However, as far as I can tell, those people who are telling you that are not actually telling you the truth.

National Indebtedness

I recently cited an article on taxes in Forbes by Bruce Bartlett, economist and former Reagan administration official.  From a recent follow-up from Bartlett:

The truth is that the greatest addition to national indebtedness occurred in 2003 when Bush rammed through the Republican Congress a massive expansion of Medicare to provide drug benefits even though the system was already broke. According to the latest report from Medicare's trustees, the drug benefit added $7.9 trillion to the nation's indebtedness. This should have led to massive tax protests on April 15, 2004. But, of course, there weren't any. Those protesting this week were only protesting because it is a Democrat who has increased the deficit. When a Republican did worse, it's like Emily Litella used to say, "Never mind."

Of course, people are free to protest whatever they want whenever they want, and are also free to change their minds. Maybe this week's tax protesters would have been out protesting even if McCain were president, but I don't think so. I believe this was largely a partisan exercise designed to improve the fortunes of the Republican Party, not an expression of genuine concern about taxes or our nation's fiscal future.

People should remember that while they have the right to their opinion, they are not entitled to be taken seriously. That only comes from having credibility gained by the correct presentation of facts and analysis and a willingness to be even-handed--criticizing one's own side when it is wrong and not only speaking up when the other party does the same thing.

I'm sure many of the protesters were very concerned about Bush's spending and (hypothetically) feel like they would have reacted the same if McCain had been the one bailing out the banks and stimulating the economy.  Still, in the last ~ 30 years of ballooning deficits, there have only been 2 years when the Republicans controlled neither the White House or Congress, yet conservatives have picked such a period of relative impotence to take to the streets about taxes and debt?  That doesn't seem like good timing to me.

Tea Parties

Some folks are eager to frame them as a grass-roots movement; others emphasize connections to inside-the-beltway interest groups.  Who cares?  I don't know why it matters.  Regardless of who the true instigators are (probably plenty from both categories), there are obviously a multitude of regular folks turning out for these protests.  It does seem kind of funny to me though that folks who just a few days ago were deriding turning off your lights for "Earth Hour" as a silly and risible publicity stunt don't see sending a message with tea bags as the same.

So what are they protesting?  Supposedly it's not anti-Obama protests (the signs in the crowd seem to tell a different story).  It's apparently a protest against taxes.  That doesn't make too much sense to me.

As Bruce Bartlett pointed out in Forbes:

The irony of these protests is that federal revenues as a share of the gross domestic product will be lower this year than any year since 1950. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government will take only 15.5% of GDP in taxes this year, compared to 17.7% last year, 18.8% in 2007 and 20.9% in 2000.

The truth is that the U.S. is a relatively low-tax country no matter how you slice the data. The following tables illustrate this fact by comparing the U.S. to other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based research organization.

Total Taxes as a Share of GDP, 2006















Czech Rep.








Slovak Rep.






































Source: OECD

The new guy is cutting taxes on nearly everyone and raising taxes a few percent on the richest among us to rates still comparable to the rates under Reagan.  The rich do pay more than their share, but not in the extreme.  Though it's done all the time, quoting a statistic like the top X % of earners pay Y % of taxes (Y >> X) without mentioning the % of income Z that those folks earn (Z approximately equal to Y) doesn't say much.

The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that the protest is about the future higher taxes that will be an eventual consequence of our deficit spending.  However, Obama's proposed spending isn't a radical departure from the way that all the administrations from Reagan forward (Clinton's excepted) have been ballooning the deficit.  Here's that plot I mentioned recently from that illustrates the debt as a percentage of GDP:


From Data360, here is a plot of debt history in absolute terms.


To me, the real difference is that Reagan ballooned the deficit to grow the military, Bush did it to pay for the war in Iraq, and Obama proposes to fund the economic stimulus, healthcare reform, and addressing climate change.

At this point, the Republicans who are suddenly so worked up about spending really can't do much about it anyway.  There's a Democratic president and large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.  A couple years ago when there was a Republican president and Republican majorities in the House and Senate (and rapidly ballooning deficits) that's when conservatives could have done something.  For some reason they didn't.  Now that they've lost the presidency and their congressional majorities and we're in the middle of an economic crisis for which (economic conventional wisdom tells us) deficit spending is the prescription for facilitating a faster recovery...of course now is the time to really get behind fiscal know, now when the Republicans don't have the power to actually do anything about it.  Uh huh.

I agree that fiscal responsibility is a good idea.  Obviously, we can't continue to pile up national debt forever.  Sooner or later, we're going to have to make some tough choices.  By the way, Americans now have a more favorable view of taxes than they've had in a long time (link).  As I've said here and elsewhere before, I don't mind paying my taxes all that much.  Evidently this is because I have a very different view of the value of government than the tax protesters do.  I think government does much good.  It also wastes plenty by the hands of both Republicans and Democrats, but I don't think that invalidates all the good.  I don't begrudge the social safety net that my taxes provide.  Sure, there are abusers, but (apparently unlike the Tea Party protesters) I think the safety net is mostly about helping good people through some of the rough spots, not funneling a bunch of money from good hardworking people to freeloading losers.  Michael Westmoreland-White puts it this way:

Taxes are the price of civilization.  With taxes, we pay our police, firefighters, teachers, and other public servants.  If we want good roads, bridges that don’t fall down, levees that don’t break, an electric grid that works, we must pay taxes.  If we want our elderly cared for, we pay taxes. (Poverty in old age used to be a chronic problem. Since the advent of Social Security taxes and Medicare, poverty in old age is relatively rare in the U.S.  Children’s poverty, however, is a huge problem in the U.S.) If we want our veterans cared for, we pay taxes.  If we want good government, we pay taxes.

It is true that taxes can be high and oppressive.  The Bible has plenty of examples of such.  But, in the U.S., we have some of the lowest tax rates–and, because of that, some of the worst public services.  When anti-tax sentiments run wild in state and local legislatures, these governments must enact “hidden taxes” to get needed revenue: higher fines and court fees (and speeding quotas); higher rates for public parking; higher driver’s license fees, etc.

The strangest thing to me out of all of this is that so many Christians apparently experience no cognitive dissonance when it comes to embracing tax protests.  On some level, tax protest seems to me to be fundamentally selfish (and, of course, I must admit that I'm selfish in many ways too).  The New Testament says plenty about money, poverty, selfishness, etc. but it's not really fairly summarized by "what's mine is mine, don't try to take it."

Remember these passages?

Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"

18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?"

21 "Caesar's," they replied.
      Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.


Matthew 6:19-24

19 "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 "The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. 23 But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

24 "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.


Matthew 19:16-26

16 Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, "Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?"

17 "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Jesus replied. "There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, obey the commandments."

18 "Which ones?" the man inquired.

   Jesus replied, " 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,' and 'love your neighbor as yourself.'"

20 "All these I have kept," the young man said. "What do I still lack?"

21 Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, "Who then can be saved?"

26 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."

Don't get me wrong.  I'm not just pointing fingers at the Christian tax protesters.  I'm pointing at all of us, myself included.  It's commonly accepted that most of us Americans are rich by global and historical standards.  I worry about us.  I worry about me.  Am I a rich young man like the one mentioned above?  If not, why not?  I'm not surprised that plenty of Christians are bothered about taxes.  I am surprised by the intensity of those feelings.  Prominent Christian organizations are even actively promoting the tea parties.

What it really comes down to is that if this were the kind of sign that most Christians could truthfully hold up in protest, I'd feel a lot better about the anti-tax movement.

Jesus said: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." Don't try to spread my wealth because I've already done it!

By the way, there's a nice collection of Tea Party photos here: link

Miscellany 10 Apr 09

» You might be confusing tyranny with losing...

» A reminder about the big picture regarding faith and politics

Psalm 146:3-6

3 Do not put your trust in princes,
       in mortal men, who cannot save.

4 When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
       on that very day their plans come to nothing.

5 Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
       whose hope is in the LORD his God,

6 the Maker of heaven and earth,
       the sea, and everything in them—
       the LORD, who remains faithful forever.

Isaiah 14:13-17

13 Who has understood the mind of the LORD,
       or instructed him as his counselor?

14 Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him,
       and who taught him the right way?
       Who was it that taught him knowledge
       or showed him the path of understanding?

15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
       they are regarded as dust on the scales;
       he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.

16 Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires,
       nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.

17 Before him all the nations are as nothing;
       they are regarded by him as worthless
       and less than nothing


» Can someone explain to me how a defense budget that is increased 4 % over the previous year will "gut the military" and "leave us weaker to pay for the president's domestic programs?"

» Anyone else think it strange that in one breath Camille Paglia chastised Michelle Obama for being overly familiar with the Queen of England (not showing enough respect to a monarch) and Barack Obama for bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia (showing too much respect for a monarch)?  And then following it up with this paragraph:

Probably the main reason for my unorthodox view of politics (as in my instant approval of Sarah Palin) is that I had much more childhood contact with working-class life than appears to be the norm among current American columnists. One of my grandfathers was a barber, and the other was a leather worker at the Endicott-Johnson shoe factory in upstate New York. Thanks to the G.I. Bill, my father was able to attend college, the only one in his large family to do so. I was born while he was still in college and mopping floors in the cafeteria. Years later, he became a high-school teacher and then a professor at a Jesuit college, but we never left our immigrant family roots in industrial Endicott. To this day, I have more rapport with campus infrastructure staffers (maintenance, security) than I do with other professors or, for that matter, writers. Don't get me started on the hermetic bourgeois arrogance of American literati!

Ugh.  I understand why conservatives love her (because she loves Rush and always prefaces her token pledge of support for Obama with a litany of (IMHO) wrong-headed criticisms), but why does anyone else?

» Conservadudes, the fellow who did the poll you're citing to show that Obama is "the most polarizing president" says that conclusion is unfair.  He emphasized that the very large discrepancy between Obama's support among Democrats and among Republicans is driven by long-term trends and by the very enthusiastic reaction to Obama within his own party, no because Obama is especially polarizing.

» The Grace Conversation blog is off to a rocky start, in my opinion.  I like the concept, and they're getting plenty of comments.  However, I think they should have allowed people to submit comments but not published them.  The 4 main authors could have worked together to incorporate any key contributions from the comments into the main posts in such a way that they remained coherent.  The free-for-all of a blog with comments doesn't necessarily make for good reading (especially for someone who comes upon it after the fact) or a disciplined focus (which is something I think a discussion like that one really needs).


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