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
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 zFacts.com 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)...now 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 responsibility...you 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?
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.
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.
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
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» A reminder about the big picture regarding faith and politics
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.
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).
Another Cal Thomas quote, this one from a recent WaPo article by Kathleen Parker:
If people who call themselves Christians want to see any influence in the culture, then they ought to start following the commands of Jesus and people will be so amazed that they will be attracted to Him...The problem isn't political. The problem is moral and spiritual...You have the choice between a way that works and brings no credit or money or national attention...Or, a way that doesn't work that gets you lots of attention and has little influence on the culture.
Another quote from Meacham's article:
The columnist Cal Thomas was an early figure in the Moral Majority who came to see the Christian American movement as fatally flawed in theological terms. "No country can be truly 'Christian'," Thomas says. "Only people can. God is above all nations, and, in fact, Isaiah says that 'All nations are to him a drop in the bucket and less than nothing'." Thinking back across the decades, Thomas recalls the hope—and the failure. "We were going through organizing like-minded people to 'return' America to a time of greater morality. Of course, this was to be done through politicians who had a difficult time imposing morality on themselves!"
Here is a collection of some of the things that have disappointed me about the Obama administration so far, in no particular order...
Congress set restrictions on firms receiving bail-out funds. The Obama administration is worried that the restrictions will be a prohibitive discouragement to those firms participating in the bail-out, so what did they do?
...the government has set up special entities that act as middlemen, channeling the bailout funds to the firms and, via this two-step process, stripping away the requirement that the restrictions be imposed, according to officials.
A few days after instructing the government to ignore George Bush's signing statements, Obama issued one of his own (instructing the executive-branch to consider dozens of provisions of the spending bill as advisory and nonbinding):
...Mr. Obama said he would continue the practice of issuing signing statements, though “with caution and restraint, based only on interpretations of the Constitution that are well founded.”
Please. The radical view of executive power by the Bush administration was unwelcome. It is no more welcome from Obama.
On occasion Obama has slipped from his principled stand against "politics as usual," instead dipping into the usual bag of political tricks. For example,
Obama suggests that the bulk of his opponents don't want to do anything at all. This makes them look absurd. It's true that some people hold this view. But the bulk of his opponents believe in some stimulus bill, just not the one he proposed. This is a perfectly standard political trick, but it's hard to pull off if you're a president promising a new kind of politics.
Obama and his aides also flirted with another old-style trick. Republicans during the last administration used to frame principled opposition to policy as ignorance of the problem the policy was supposed to solve. If you didn't like the Patriot Act, then you were soft on terrorism. In the argument over the stimulus bill, Obama and his aides often characterize those who oppose it as narrow Washington thinkers who don't know what's really happening in the country.
Then there has been the trend of doing the same thing but calling it something else. Homeland Security Secretary said the following about a new term for terrorism:
In my speech, although I did not use the word "terrorism," I referred to "man-caused" disasters. That is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear toward a policy of being prepared for all risks that can occur.
The term "war on terror" admittedly left a lot to be desired, but so does the new term:
In a memo e-mailed this week to Pentagon staff members, the Defense Department's office of security review noted that "this administration prefers to avoid using the term 'Long War' or 'Global War on Terror' [GWOT.] Please use 'Overseas Contingency Operation.' "
It was pretty pitiful to see Office of Management and Budget director, Peter Orszag, at a press conference flipping through his paperwork trying to find the phrase because he couldn't remember "Overseas Contingency Operation."
They've also been stumbling a bit in making a clean break form the Bush Administration's torture policies. Sure, Obama explicitly repudiated torture and announced the eventual closure of Gitmo, but in other ways he has been too tentative...continuing to invoke "state secrets" in regards to torture victims and debating whether to yield to Republican threats to "go nuclear" if the Obama releases certain documents that would be embarrassing to the Bush administration.
In an article in Harper's about the torture of Binyam Mohamed, Scott Horton said it nicely:
Barack Obama came to office with a commitment to end torture backed by promises of transparency and accountability. Yet the two cases relating to Binyam Mohamed cast a shadow over these promises. Obama need not repudiate the notion of state secrecy. It was debated in the course of the Constitutional Convention and has been invoked by executives at least as early as the Jefferson administration. But roughly 90% of all invocations of state secrecy in court proceedings have occurred in the last eight years, a clear sign that something is terribly wrong in the Department of Justice. State secrecy should exist to protect the nation’s military and diplomatic secrets, and those are the parameters which have governed its use since the time the Constitution was adopted. But state secrecy must not be invoked to keep materials secret because they would be politically embarrassing or harmful to individual politicians. And even more clearly, state secrecy must never be invoked to conceal evidence of a crime.
President Obama has committed to end torture and the extraordinary renditions program, and in light of that the decision to invoke state secrecy in the Binyam Mohamed cases can be understood as implementation of the commitment that Obama has made–and which I support–to grant immunity to intelligence operatives who implemented the Bush Administration’s felonious programs. But the proper price of immunity in these cases is a full and fair accounting for what happened and an appropriate system for compensating those who suffered torture and mistreatment. Canada already approached this issue in a fair and dignified manner in dealing with the claims of Maher Arar, another victim of a Bush Administration rendition to torture. Using state secrecy claims to cloak criminal conduct without any acknowledgment of the misconduct that occurred is a bad, even criminal, idea. It can only bring the government itself into disrepute and will serve to undermine the nation’s security and respect for state secrets.
There have been plenty of other ways in which the change Obama promised has been slow in coming. He promised to reform the earmark process). He promised to post bills on the web and allow at least 5 days of comments before signing them, but so far he hasn't been doing it. Of course, there are reasons and excuses, but sooner rather than later you need to stop making excuses and deliver on what you promised. It's not as if the record has been dismal so far (you can check the Obameter: 22 promises kept, 7 promises compromised, 4 promises broken, 4 promises stalled, 56 promises in the works, and 421 with no action), and sometimes keeping a promise is a mistake...but we expect better than what we've seen so far.
Then there is the AIG bonus fiasco. The Obama administration knew about the bonuses and then played along with the populist outrage. At least they eventually squashed the silly tax bill Congress put together in response to the bonuses.
Perhaps silliest of all, he's been turning of the job of president into a car salesman:
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Another quote from Meacham's article:
The Jesus of the Gospels resolutely refuses to use the means of this world—either the clash of arms or the passions of politics—to further his ends. After the miracle of the loaves and fishes, the dazzled throng thought they had found their earthly messiah. "When Jesus therefore perceived that they would come and take him by force, to make him a king, he departed again into a mountain himself alone." When one of his followers slices off the ear of one of the arresting party in Gethsemane, Jesus says, "Put up thy sword." Later, before Pilate, he says, "My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight." The preponderance of lessons from the Gospels and from the rest of the New Testament suggests that earthly power is transitory and corrupting, and that the followers of Jesus should be more attentive to matters spiritual than political.
From a Newsweek article by Jon Meacham:
By the time of the American founding, men like Jefferson and Madison saw the virtue in guaranteeing liberty of conscience, and one of the young republic's signal achievements was to create a context in which religion and politics mixed but church and state did not. The Founders' insight was that one might as well try to build a wall between economics and politics as between religion and politics, since both are about what people feel and how they see the world. Let the religious take their stand in the arena of politics and ideas on their own, and fight for their views on equal footing with all other interests. American public life is neither wholly secular nor wholly religious but an ever-fluid mix of the two. History suggests that trouble tends to come when one of these forces grows too powerful in proportion to the other.
P.S. Lately I find myself frequently annoyed by article headlines that exaggerate the content of the article. This one by Meacham is titled "The End of Christian America" but quickly admits:
According to the American Religious Identification Survey...the percentage of self-identified Christians has fallen 10 percentage points since 1990, from 86 to 76 percent.
Let's be clear: while the percentage of Christians may be shrinking, rumors of the death of Christianity are greatly exaggerated. Being less Christian does not necessarily mean that America is post-Christian.
In response to Obama's weekly statement last week, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) said the following:
“In the next five years, President Obama’s budget will double the national debt; in the next ten years it will triple the national debt.
“To say this another way, if you take all the debt of our country run up by all of our presidents from George Washington through George W. Bush, the total debt over all those 200-plus years since we started as a nation, it is President Obama’s plan to double that debt in just the first five years that he is in office.
“He is also planning to spend more on the government as a percentage of our economy than at any time since World War II.
I don't blame Gregg for being concerned about debt. We simply can't continue to grow the debt forever. That's common sense, but let's keep Obama's budget proposal and Gregg's sensationalist response in historical perspective. Let's take a look the history of our debt. The national debt is currently about $11 trillion.
Largest % of GDP since WWII? Well, conventional wisdom says that we're also in the midst of the worst recession/depression since the Great Depression that immediately preceded WWII. Conventional wisdom also says that it was deficit spending in response to the Great Depression and WWII that got our economy back on track. Though we should be concerned about the debt, Keynesian economics says now isn't the time to cut spending. Here's a plot from zFacts.com that illustrates the debt as a percentage of GDP:
Gregg is also quite concerned that in 5 years Obama will double the 200-plus years of debt since we started our nation. Well, that 5-year to 200-year comparison is silly. For many of those 200 years, the size of our economy was nothing like it is now...they simply aren't comparable.
From Data360, here is a plot of debt history in absolute terms.
The blue line is what Gregg is talking about in his 200-plus-year concept. However, take a look at the value when Reagan took office ($1 trillion). Then follow the line to the present day. That little plateau and slight reduction were during the Clinton years. During the 20 years that Reagan, Bush, and Bush were in office, the debt grew from $1 trillion to $11 trillion, a factor of 11. Compare that to the debt growth that is freaking out Gregg: doubling in 5 years (equivalent to 2x2x2x2 = 16 over 20 years) and tripling in 10 years (equivalent to 3x3 = 9 over 20 years). That is, Obama plans the debt to grow by a factor comparable to what happened under Reagan and the two Bush presidents.
Reagan had his tax cuts and immense military build-up. His peace-time debt growth was unprecedented. Bush had his tax cuts and war in Iraq. Obama has his economic stimulus, healthcare reform, and addressing climate change. Regardless of how you look at the debt (in terms of % GDP or in absolute terms), it seems to me that Obama's budget plans are more or less a continuation of the addiction to debt pioneered by Reagan, Bush, and Bush. It's no secret that fiscal conservatives aren't too happy with the debts racked up by George W. Bush, but I don't get the impression that the feel the same about Reagan. I'm pretty sure that the debt accumulation by neither Reagan nor Bush elicited the doomsday projections that Obama's is prompting. Does Obama Derangement Syndrome deserve any of the blame.