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It's true: I've been away from my beloved DailyKos of late.

But one of the biggest reasons for my semi-sabbatical from DailyKos (aside from the interminable length of the transition) has been my emphasis on getting involved in my local community of Ventura, CA, in the wake of the November election.  Ventura just turned blue in voter registrations, but it sent Republican Elton Gallegly back to Congress, and was instrumental in sending execrable Republican Tony Strickland to the State Senate after a hard-fought race.  So there's a lot to do here.  Among other things, I've been busy reviving the Ventura County Young Democrats, posting as contributing editor on the local Democratic Party site and the local progressive blog, and helping plan Inaugural celebrations to fundraise for the local party.  I was also just appointed as a delegate to the CA State Party.

My actions on the local scene were noticed by Brian Dennert, the main blogger for the paper of record in Ventura, the Ventura County Star.  His blog, Brian Dennert Here, has long served as a primary source of local news and discussion in the community.  As a blogger, he was also familiar with my work here on DailyKos, but had no idea until recently that I lived in the area.

Brian invited me to a text-only debate on his blog with a local Republican stalwart and former candidate named Mike Gibson.  The subject: Is America a Center-Right Nation?  Offered with minimal commentary below is the transcript of that debate.  I leave it to you to determine the victor... :-)

I was given the opportunity to make the first salvo:

Thank you, Brian, first of all, for the invitation to this inaugural debate: I hope it becomes a tradition for politicos across the Central Coast!

First off, let me state that America is above all a pragmatic nation: we want whatever works, and punish politicians and parties who don’t seem to be getting it done. Americans vote, by and large, by well-documented cycles more than anything else, and we’re at the beginning of a Democratic/progressive wave.

That said, there are things we can say about the national character—and contrary to popular belief, America is decidedly a center-LEFT nation. On nearly every actual issue polled by major polling firms, Americans as a whole stand squarely in the middle of—and quite often to the left of—the Democratic Party. The fiction that America is somehow a center-right country is predicated on two misleading statistics: the number of Americans who call themselves "conservative" in spite of their actual positions on the issues, and the number of Republican presidents elected since LBJ. Both of these, however, are highly misleading metrics. The reasons for these two happenstances can serve as the source of future discussion here.

But the fact is that on every issue from war to law enforcement, from taxes to spending, from wages to free trade, from labor unions to big business, from abortion to stem cells, environment to energy production, and crime to immigration, Americans not only prefer Democratic or even progressive positions, they do so by wide margins.

Him:

Brian,

Thanks so much for delaying things a bit tonight. I had a late meeting in Santa Barbara and just arrived home about a half-hour ago. I would also like to thank you for hosting this wonderful opportunity to debate the issues of the day and exchange ideas about political topics of interest. I want to thank David too for joining me in kicking-off what I hope becomes a regular event on the Dennert blog.

For my opening comments, I would like to start by saying that, in my view, America is very much a center-right nation. For starters, I would like to offer a few positions consistently represented in voting patterns form state-to-state on issues across the country that truly represent America's core conservative values: support for a strong national defense; an anti-tax bias; suspicion of government intrusion and overreach; support for law enforcement and strong law-and-order policies; a reluctance to support gay rights (Prop 8's passage in California as the most recent example); and reluctance to accept wholesale "immigration reform" (translation: amnesty).

This is just to name a few examples of the conservative principles that guide policy-making in the U.S. today. I welcome your responses, David.

Me:

Apologies for the length of this post, but it is necessary to make some corrections. I'm not sure what the voting patterns are to which Mike is referring:

  1. Democrats support and have supported a strong national defense. It was LBJ who started Vietnam, Clinton who marshaled NATO to go to war with Kosovo. I would remind my colleague that it was Republican Eisenhower who said that every warship was food taken from the mouth of a hungry child.
  1. On taxes, A Gallup Poll in April 2007 showed the following data consistent with most of the last decade: 66% think that taxes on upper-income people are too low, and only 9% think they’re too high. It’s even worse for corporations where 71% think corporate taxes are too low, and only 5% say they’re too high. Amazingly, only 53% think their own taxes are too high, while 43% say either that they’re too low or about right. In 2005 meanwhile, the L.A. Times poll showed that only 34% thought that tax cuts were a good way to boost the economy, while over 60% said that spending was the better way. Needless to say, a Wall Street Journal poll showed that an overwhelming majority said the Bush tax cuts were not worth it.
  1. On government, An NES Study in 2004 said the following: 67% say we need strong government to handle complex economic problems—the alternative response being that "the free market can handle complex economic problems without government involvement," which was only supported by 33%. And this was back in 2004. Those numbers will have shifted dramatically in government’s favor since. 58% say government should be doing more, not less. 59% agreed that government has grown because the country’s problems have grown.
  1. On immigration, we have the most damning stats of all. In May 2007, a CNN poll asked whether Americans favored or opposed creating a program allowing illegal immigrants to stay and apply for citizenship if they had a job and paid back taxes. 80% said yes, and only 19% opposed.

Meanwhile, the Pew poll in 2006 showed that 49% of Americans favored penalizing employers as a way to curb illegal immigration, with only 33% for more border control and a pathetic 9% for building more fences.

There is still a way to go on gay rights, but anti-equality propositions have been passing by smaller and smaller margins, and we are far way away from the dark days of Harvey Milk and preventing gays from teaching in schools.

Unfortunately, hyperlinking isn't possible in the comments section, else I would have linked to all the stats.  Me again, after a considerable delay:

As I await Mike's response, I feel compelled at add as well that it was Ronald Reagan who pushed for and approved a legalization package for immigrants in the 80s, and George W. Bush, Karl Rove, and John McCain who pushed for another here in the aughts. The fact that a vocal minority of Americans and their representatives in the House are bitterly opposed to sensible immigration policy is not indicative of the national character or opinion on the issue.

Gibson, evading the statistics, as he possessed no actual facts with which to counter me:

I would argue that polls do not tell the whole story, nor are they necessarily accurate predictors of human behavior and voting results. Certainly, the way polling questions are phrased, the population and demographic groups targeted in polls, the sampling techniques used, etc. are all factors that affect polling results (you can tell I'm a big fan).

To pick on a couple of the polls cited by David, people generally like to say that the rich are under-taxed, but the rub comes when people are asked to define "rich." For some, it's those making over $100,000 per year. For others (like our new president), it's $250,000. Some draw the line at $1 million. Again, it depends on who's being asked, who's doing the asking, and what parts of the country are being asked.

People are fond of deflecting the issue to others (the rich, evil corporations, etc.). In other words, those perceived to be getting all the breaks. The fact remains, however, that the middle class pays most of the taxes. So, in order to make a significant difference in increasing tax revenues, taxes would have to be raised on the middle class. How many people are in favor of that? That would be a good question on a poll.

If you asked the average (middle class) taxpayer if they are paying too much or too little in taxes, what do you think the response would be? People are fine with saying that taxes should be raised, but not when it will affect them personally. Again, it's a human behavioral issue, which often defies polling results.

It's also not surprising that the results of the Wall Street Journal poll showed that most people felt that the Bush tax cuts were not worth it. They did nothing to stimulate the economy. In fact, the economy got worse. Yet, this is the same plan President-elect Obama seems to be resurrecting.

Your argument (or so-called study) that people believe the government should do more to address the economic problems does not square with reality. David, you're talking about the same government that can't figure out how to successfully manage a program to help people pay for TV converter boxes. This is the government that we want to put in charge of managing our health care system or stimulating the national economy?

Your point on immigration reform is just as baseless. If Congress actually believed the results of the CNN poll you're quoting, the "comprehensive immigration reform" bill that was proposed a couple of years ago would have passed with flying colors. Instead, Congress members found themselves deluged with calls and e-mails protesting this as the worst idea ever conceived.

On the gay rights comment, Prop. 8 passed in one of the most liberal states in the country, with a history of supporting gay rights. Granted, the margin of passage compared to Prop. 22 in 2000 was smaller, but the point remains.

Me:

I agree that stances on the issues don't necessarily predict voting behavior--otherwise you would see, well, the just elected makeup of the U.S. government in perpetuity. Republicans began to get elected--and the South switched from Dixiecrat to Republican--when they began to believe that tax dollars were going less to themselves than to "Those People".

As a Republican said recently, "'Small government' Sarah Palin, for instance, actually increased spending in her state. So why did Republicans presume that she supported small government and less spending? Simple: because she is a Republican from a state that doesn't have a Chicago, Detroit or Harlem in it." Since LBJ "lost the South for a generation", Republicans have largely ruled the roost.

Still, the fact is that people who run on government's inability to work unsurprisingly find themselves unable to run government. After seeing Republican lack of regulation and government fail so spectacularly in Iraq, in New Orleans, and on Wall St., Americans are more eager than ever for a new New Deal. A majority of Americans still after all these years consider FDR a superior president to Ronald Reagan. Americans want a government healthcare system, because the alternative has been a disaster. And Bush began to lose popularity when he threatened the government-run Social Security program.

On immigration, yes, a vocal minority deluged the ultra-rightist members of the House and derailed immigration reform. That says nothing about the national character at large. and gay rights issues have made enormous progress in the last two decades, and I think we know that marriage equality will be a fact across most of America within 10-15 years.

The fact is that Americans--especially those outside the South and gated-community style areas--are progressive in their views on the issues. Republicans can only win elections by appealing to fear of imminent death from communists/terrorists/etc., or more usually by playing to people's worst instincts on race. The power of both these tactics wanes with each passing year, however.

To put it much more succinctly, Americans LOVE FDR's New Deal. Certain kinds of Americans have not been quite as supportive of LBJ's Great Society.

Republicans have spent the last 30 years attempting to roll back the New Deal under the guise of rolling back the Great Society. Now, however, their anti-FDR aspirations have been unmasked, and the Republican brand is in the doghouse.

And with time and the election of an African-American president, the antipathy to the Great Society is decreasing as well. It will be incumbent upon Republicans to discover new ways of winning elections.

Me again, after another long delay:

Because of the long delay, I feel compelled to add one more item: you say that "the middle class pays most of the taxes." You're right--that's is the entire problem.

In the runup to WWII, the marginal (highest) income tax rate was 94% (!!) on all income over $200,000. It stayed that way until 1964, when the top marginal rate was lowered to 70%.

It’s now been gradually Republicans and their rich contributors down to a pathetic 35%, and the entire debate between McCain and Obama about "Joe the Plumber" was about raising it to a paltry 38%, and only on every dollar above $250,000. And that doesn't even get into capital gains and investment incomes where the rich make most of their many, and whose tax rates have been cut to lower than the middle class' income tax rates.

If people feel that the rich and the corporate are getting special breaks, it's because they are.

America’s prosperity in the 1950’s and 1960’s was due to the egalitarian tax scheme, when CEOs only made a maximum 250 times their lowest paid worker. The American people want a return to the saner fiscal policies of the 1950's and 1960's.

He responds:

To your point on Sarah Palin, I would agree with you that, in politics, it's often style over substance or, perhaps more pointedly, perception over reality. I think a large part of her appeal came from her personal style and her image as a rugged individualist from a state that helped reinforce this image. It certainly wasn't sustainable over time, but it gave her the edge in the beginning.

I take your points on the anti-regulation policies of the Bush administration as just another example of the swinging pendulum of national politics. That is to say, people tire of policies that they thought they supported when they elected the previous administration, especially when they see them as not helping them as individuals as much as they thought they would. The usual response is: Let's vote for something as far away from the previous administration as possible. But, the reality is, they rarely see the dramatic positive changes they were hoping for. Call me cynical, but history has borne this out.

I'm not a total pessimist though. I remain hopeful because I believe in the strength, perseverance, and creativity of the American people. Not the politicians, necessarily, but the people.

I think the public's continued fascination with FDR is due to his perceived hero status for "rescuing" us from the Great Depression. However, there is certainly no guarantee that the programs and policies that were initiated by him would work as effectively today as they did then. We shall soon find out, I guess.

It is also true that a revered figure's glowing popularity tends to increase over time. The same was true of Kennedy (president for less than 3 years). I predict that Reagan's popularity will grow over time as well. You may recall that he wasn't nearly as popular when he first left office as he is today. Time both obscures and magnifies things.

On the immigration bill failure, I disagree wholeheartedly that it was a vocal minority that derailed it. If anyone is adept at reading polling results and the tide of public opinion, it is members of Congress. They live and die on this stuff. They hire professionals who tabulate and interpret the data for them and they certainly react to the results. They could see that this so-called reform bill was political suicide and they backed off. Simple as that.

Finally, I agree with you that the Republican Party needs to reinvent itself to become successful at winning elections again. I think you will begin to see this happen very soon.

Sensing my opponent has already basically conceded the point, I respond:

It seems that we're not as far apart on this issue, perhaps, as it may seem. Still, a few points are in order.

  1. FDR is popular not just because of the Depression and WWII, but directly because of the New Deal. Ultimately, FDR is popular precisely because of Social Security, Medicare, labor regulations, and other progressive government actions--all of which were fought by conservatives of the time as forcefully as national healthcare is being fought today.
  1. I think you may see Reagan's popularity dwindle. Reagan's raison d'etre was deregulation and reduction of government, opposition to Communism, and reduction of the deficit. On the third he is an acknowledged failure by all parties; subsequent history has shown that the Soviet Union was teetering on collapse in any case; and the end of result of deregulation and gutting government can be seen on Wall St. and the streets of New Orleans today. FDR's policies and bills remain popular, thus he remains popular. I doubt history will be as kind to Reagan.
  1. Pro-government positions are not as simple as a backlash against a previous, failed administration. The American People rarely if ever vote for smaller government for themselves. To quote a Republican on another blog, "people have never opposed socialism for themselves. People have for decades wanted free public schools, grants to go to college, retirements, medical care, money to keep their businesses and farms afloat, etc. So in other words, Americans support the socialism that benefited them and people like them. They just oppose it for the other guy. The Great Society was easy pickings, because it went to a small segment of society that, let's face it, most people didn't like anyway." Deregulators and government-cutters are not and never were popular when it comes to programs that affect them personally. Ultimately, the "anti-government" issue nearly always came down to race and race alone.
  1. Again, you have to look at what actually happened on the immigration bill. "Congress" didn't vote against it. The bill was supported by Bush, Rove, McCain, most of Democratic Caucus, and many of the moderate Republicans. What happened is that the conservative base--a small minority of the voters--threw a temper tantrum and vowed to primary any Republican who voted for the bill. So Republicans decided it wasn't worth the hassle to upset the 20% of Americans that make up their rabid base, and derailed the bill in the House. The events in the Congress are not at all at odds with the poll numbers; they simply reflect the power of a vocal minority to affect policy.

I am curious as to how you see the Republicans reinventing themselves to win elections in this Center-Left voting environment.

His fact-free reply follows:

David, on your comment on a country seemingly longing for a return to FDR's policies, I couldn't disagree more. While some of his policies and programs had good intentions initially, they have also had long-lasting negative consequences.

For example, Social Security is now in a heap of financial trouble (teetering on insolvency), which again speaks to a national governmental program that has failed the test of time due to mismanagement and lack of forethought. Medicare is in even worse shape.

As I said before, socialized/nationalized health care is a similarly-intended program to provide for the public good that I believe would be disastrous to place in the hands of government. Do we want the same folks running the DMV responsible for your personal health care needs? I know I don't.

FDR-era labor regulations and the subsequent rise of the unions as a social and political force in America is another good area for examination. Since the 1950's & 1960's, labor unions have experienced a continuing decline in power and influence in America. Granted, their membership numbers still make them a politically potent force, particularly for Democrat Party candidates.

But, one only has to look at the recent scandals involving SEIU in Los Angeles and the ineffectiveness of the UAW in the struggle for (again) government intervention in the financial troubles facing the Big 3 automakers. Americans tend to be more pragmatic than idealistic and can readily see when something has gotten way out of control (unrealistic/unsustainable wage & benefit packages being demanded by labor unions).

Your points on the lack of a backlash by the American people against big government are interesting, but somewhat flawed. I agree that people are generally self-interested and tend to support the government programs that benefit them most. The same is true of taxing policies (it's OK to tax the other guy to death, but don't come after me). On the expenditure side, the reason that pork barrel spending still remains popular, despite the amount of breast-beating and discrediting it receives among politicians of all stripes is because the folks at home see it as benefiting their local or personal situation.

However, when a program reaches a tipping point, in terms of failures in management, oversight, and execution (Social Security, again, being a good example of this), people expect their government to respond by offering fixes or alternatives. Now, perhaps, total privatization of this program may not have been the best idea (and, in retrospect, probably would have been disastrous), the fact remains that the federal government has done absolutely nothing to address the imminent failure of this program.

Regarding the Republican Party's need to reinvent itself, I feel that the party needs new energy and ideas and new faces (Bobby Jindal of Louisiana comes to mind). John McCain, clearly, was not the best candidate we could have fielded in 2008. He was too strongly identified with the old guard of the Party.

I'm not saying the GOP needs to abandon its core principles and values (small government, low taxes, fiscal discipline, strong national defense, etc.), but it needs to re-engage the American public in a discussion of where we're headed as a nation and a people.

One example of a change in direction would be on the foreign policy front. We need to develop national leaders who are willing to engage in pro-active diplomacy (Nixon/Kissinger come to mind) and are willing to help troubled/politically unstable nations help themselves as well. We need to be willing to broker and facilitate cease fires and peace talks in hot spots, such as between Israel & the Palestinians, African nations steeped in violence and tribal warfare. We need to be less the isolationist idealogues and more the engaged leaders in world affairs.

Back to the original theme of this discussion and my initial premise, that America is a center-right nation, you had pointed out earlier that only 4 Republican presidents have been elected since LBJ. But, in looking at the 4 Democrat presidents who have been elected during this same time frame (LBJ, Carter, Clinton & Obama), you would have to agree that there is not a raving liberal among them. I fact, all (with the exception of Obama who hasn't been tested) would most likely be rated as centrist to conservative Democrats.

Seizing on the fact that my opponent has basically missed the entire point of the debate, I respond:

Mike,

I'll respond point by point, but I must reiterate the central question of this debate. The question at hand is not whether liberal or conservative policies are more effective (though that is a debate I would also love to have). The question is whether liberal or conservative policies are more popular: i.e., whether America is center-right or center-left.

In that vein, whether you believe that social security or other New Deal programs are financially troubled or effective is essentially irrelevant. The fact remains that every aspect of the New Deal remains extremely popular. People DO want a new New Deal, and they like the old New Deal. Once national healthcare is enacted, that too will be very popular. Which is really all the indication you need of the country's essential character not only now but in the past: a Center-Left nation.

That said, I'll address your points in sequence:

  1. There is no crisis in Social Security. A knowledgeable person might reasonably argue that Medicare has a solvency crisis within the decade. Social Security, however, is projected to be solvent for decades. Further, if a program as important as social security were to be underfunded according to the current system, a grateful nation would find the money to continue it. Bush's wars of adventurism in the Middle East certainly haven't paid for themselves at the cost of over $2 billion/week.
  1. On healthcare, you can link the government to the DMV all you want, but I guarantee you that the DMV has a higher approval rating than any HMO. Healthcare in this country is irredeemably broken, and America will sooner or later join with the rest of the civilized world in providing healthcare for its citizens. I am happy to have the same organization that runs the post office, the military, the police, the firefighters, the road crews, social security, medicare, and all the other highly popular, highly effective government programs upon which we depend take responsibility for my health. I'd certainly rather that, than continue to line the pockets of Blue Shield's CEO and investors, paying more money for coverage than I would for taxes on a national plan.
  1. Labor. Again, you conflate efficacy with popularity. The question is popularity, not power or efficacy. The fact is that labor unions remain very popular, and much more so than big business. The fact that the labor unions have lost power in this country is directly attributable not to a loss of prestige or popularity, but rather to Republican policies specifically designed to cripple unions. Republicans don't win elections when they do because they hate unions, but rather in spite of the fact that they do so. Republicans run on culture wars, not on economics; it is only once elected that they promote retrograde economic policies under the radar that are contrary to the desires of the American people.
  1. You continue to frame the (center-left) popularity of taxing the rich as a form of NIMBYism. It isn't. America's rich pay a far, far smaller percentage of their combined payroll/investment income than do the rich in almost any other industrialized democracy. Even so, only 53% of average Americans feel their tax burden is too high. Almost half of Americans feel they're paying the right amount of taxes--*but that the rich are paying far too little.* That's not NIMBYism: that's a decided center-left policy preference, and one that is grounded is the reality that America's rich are essentially getting away with murder. The rich have been waging class warfare on the middle class for decades, and screaming "class warfare" anytime we fight back.
  1. The number of Republican presidents elected since LBJ is an arrow in your quiver, not in mine. I explicitly said so. Ever since LBJ lost the South and the gated-community types, Republicans have had their heyday playing thinly veiled racial politics, anti-Communist/anti-Muslim scare tactics, and anti-elitist culture wars--despite the fact that Americans disagree with Republicans on nearly every policy issue. It worked for a few decades and got some Republican presidents elected, but the strategy has played itself out. The GOP is now a party of the South and its cultural allies: not a good strategy for long-term success.

I agree with you that the GOP needs fresh faces to deal a country that is not only decidedly center-left, but finally getting over a three-decade long racial hangover. With Virginia turned blue and much of the Southwest increasingly Hispanic, the GOP will have to abandon the culture/race war model for winning elections. And that says nothing of Millennial generation voters--voters who are neither racists nor homophobes, and whose Democratic voting patterns spell doom for anti-gay and anti-Hispanic Republican tactics outside of certain gerrymandered areas.

Certainly, entertaining a more diplomatic foreign policy will be a start. But in the end, the GOP will have to begin running not against government, but as the party that seeks to run government more efficiently. Once it does that, however, it will have conceded the point: that America is a center-left nation, and that not only is the New Deal here to stay, but a new New Deal is coming. At issue will not be its implementation, but rather its administration.

Now, during this time a conservative interloper had asked me to define the difference between the rich and the super-rich, and to say just whose taxes I would be willing to raise.  So I responded to him as well:

In response to Jimmy's question about wealth, it is not for me to decide what the tax brackets should be. Clearly, there are the rich, and then there are a super-rich. Also, money that makes one rich in Kansas is barely enough to afford a mortgage in some parts of California. I think that Obama's plan to tax every dollar above $250,000 at a 38% marginal rate is more than fair: remember, from the late 1930s to 1964, the marginal rate was a whopping 94% on all income about $200,000, and the economy seemed to hum along just fine.

Still, the key point is not specific numbers. The key point is to reward WORK, NOT WEALTH. Because the rich and the corporate make most of their money not from wages and payroll but from investments, Republican politicians have tried to encourage as much money as possible to be dumped into investments at preposterously low tax rates. Only a fool works for a living in today's America rather than investing, the way Republicans have rigged the system. Of course, those policies have led to bubble after bubble in investments, horribly short-sighted business policies, and an unstable system teetering on collapse.

More important to note, however, is that an increase in investments doesn't equal and increase in standards of living for the middle class. While the DOW MORE THAN TRIPLED from Reagan's administration to George W. Bush's, INCOMES ACTUALLY DECLINED VERSUS INFLATION over that time, even as productivity soared. In other words, people for the last 30 years have been working harder for less pay, while the wealthy investors make a killing.

It's time to begin taxing wealth again, and reduce the taxes on work.

It is here that my opponent betrays the real reason for his staunch Republican views: he simply wants to hold onto his daddy's 8-figure wealth:

Regarding the rich and poor debate, I'm going to throw something out there that is very close to home for me and, hopefully, adds some additional perspective to the discussion. My Dad made an average of $4 million a year in his last 10 years in business, selling houseware products to large department store retailers (like Robinson's, Macy's, Saks Fifth Ave, Neiman Marcus, to name a few). He also branched out internationally for a time and was selling products to Taiwan, China, France, and Indonesia. This is where he made his fortune and allowed him to retire at the age of 55 with more money than he could possibly spend during the rest of his life. He retired with a very healthy nest egg, valued at nearly $250 million by his independent accountants.

This money, or a good part of it, has, in fact, been reinvested in the community already through public/non-profit collaborations that are designed to yield long-term positive results for the community as a whole (excellent return on investment instruments), So, those that are decrying the banks and financial institutions. Most of these organizations are just ineterested in a short-term bridge loan to get them over the hump and allow them to start producive services agin.

In my view, that's where the tax increases
need to happne. Most promosing miffle classers wuth lot ogs tebure

What happened to Gibson's keyboard here is utterly unknown to me.  Perhaps it refused to cooperate with continuing to spew such remarkable drivel.

My response could have been brutal, but we were asked to refrain from ad hominems, so I kept it short and civil:

Mike,

I applaud your father's initiative, good fortune and generosity. But it would be more than a stretch to say that reinvestment in the community is the norm for the hyperwealthy. Reinvestment in the local community is even more rare. Usually, wealth is reinvested in real estate, the stock market, hedge funds and other even more exotic investments that don't actually benefit the community.

Furthermore, most Americans would rather trust the mandated reinvestment of government under popular control into accountable measures designed for community benefit, than trust to the good graces of a few wealthy individuals who may or may not be benefactors, and who pick and choose and businesses and causes worthy of their considerable endowments.

Gibson, however, displaying the foolish tenacity characteristic of the insecure, wouldn't allow the point to drop:

David,

My point with my father was simply to show that there are many out there who voluntarily contribute to programs for the disadvantaged and the needy, not to mention the job creation and economic stimulus benefits their business investments typically provide, in some cases, lifting up entire communities out of poverty and despair.

Bill Gates and his wife have done marvelous things with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, for example. These are the people who would be targeted for huge tax increases under your plan because the government thinks it should be the one doling out all the goodies,
thus disincentivizing private sector entrepreneurs to continue doing these wonderful things that benefit people.

Instead of making the rich the bogeyman and, therefore, someone to be targeted for tax increases, shouldn't we be encouraging them to be even more entrepreneurial and invest their money in new or expanded companies and businesses that will have far more of a far-reaching, positive effect on the economy than offering $600 tax rebates to everyone at tax time, or paying for TV converter boxes?

Don't you see that once the government gets
their grubby little hands on these folks money, it immediately becomes a disincentive for further re-investment and charitable contributions? It becomes more of a struggle to hang on to what they've got. And that's not good for our country over the long-term.

I would also like to refute the point you made regarding unions. I will point to recent events concerning the UAW workers and their efforts to persuade Congress to enact a full-scale bailout of the auto industry. How can you expect the American public to support a class of "blue-collar" workers who are making over $73 an hour for assembling automobiles using the latest robotic equipment that minimizes physical exertion while providing maximum safety features to protect the workers? Most middle class workers are making less for doing far more highly-skilled jobs, many of them requiring advanced college degrees or technical training.

This is the same weak argument that cashiers at grocery stores tried to make a few years ago when the foodworkers unions went out on strike. People are not very sympathetic with the plight of workers who are earning over $30/hour to run a product through a price scanner. It just doesn't wash with most people, except the union workers themselves, of course.

I agree that a new era is coming with regard to government's involvement in a whole host of things that it has never been involved in before. To many of us, that's a very scary notion. And the sad part is that they will be using yours and my money to conduct this widespread sociological/economical experiment.

But, again, being the center-right nation of spirited pragmatists that we are, we will not tolerate government failure for too long. I remain very hopeful of this.

My response (and many thanks to bonndad and his Great Depression diary series for this one!):

As appealing as the notion might be, charity does not begin to do anywhere near the sort of good that populist government action does.

When Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, when the weekend didn't exist, when children worked in factories 14 hours a day with no minimum wage, charity was the most significant aid to the poor. It barely made a dent.

These same arguments that government action will reduce the influence of charity were made during the Great Depression by the robber barons looking to maintain their wealth. Just one example of this follows, taken from Arthur Schlesinger's book on the Great Depression. After the meltdown, Hoover appointed Walter S. Gifford, president of AT&T, to the "President's Organization on Unemployment Relief." Appearing before a Senate committee, he said the following (and I quote from Schlesinger):

"Gifford disclosed imerturbably that he did not know how many people were idle, that he did not know how many were receiving aid, that he did not know that the standards of assistance were in the various states, that he did not know how much money had been raised in his own campaign, that he knew nothing of the ability of local communities to raise relief funds, that he did not consider most of this information as of much importance to his job....

But on one question Gifford was clear: he was against federal aid."...THAT IT WOULD REDUCE THE SIZE OF PRIVATE CHARITY." His "sober and considered judgment" was that "federal aid would be a 'disservice' to the jobless."

In this case, "federal aid" referred to things like unemployment, social security, medicare, food stamps. You know, everything the rightists hated then supposedly because it would reduce charitable giving. That wasn't really the point, of course: the point was to keep their wealth even as the masses stood in breadlines. Or, to use a modern parallel, 40% of Americans go without health insurance.

The fact is that the reductio ad absurdum of this argument ends in feudalism: allow the noble class to amass huge hordes of wealth, and allow their noblesse to olige upon the peasants to avoid starvation. It didn't work then. It certainly didn't work in the Gilded Age of the late 19th century. It didn't work for Hoover. And it doesn't work now, either. This is the essence of "trickle down" theory--or, as it was more aptly termed at the beginning of the 20th century, "horse and sparrow theory": give horses all the oats, and the sparrows will get what comes out the other side. Trickle-down supply side economic theory (and its correlative, the importance of "charity" as a lever of social justice) has been thoroughly discredited once again--nor do Americans support it when it understand what it really entails.

On unions, the $73/hour statistic is an outright lie and fabrication of the rightwing noise machine. The average union autoworker makes far, far, far less than that: to reach $70/hour for the average UAW worker, you have to include only all future estimated retirement benefits for current workers, but also benefits paid to current retirees. It's a fabricated stat. None of which changes the essential point: labor unions remain popular with the majority of Americans. What resentment there is of unions in America is that unionized workers tend to make more than those who are not unionized. Apologies for crudeness here, but...DUH. That's the point of collective bargaining. The answers to that resentment is for those workers to...well...*unionize*. Which is exactly what the Employee Free Choice Act will make so much easier to do, and allow wages to actually attempt to keep pace with inflation for a change.

Finally, I agree that we are a nation of pragmatists. But nothing in your arguments begins to suggest that we are center-right.

Isn't the whole point of the last 8 (if not the last 28) years that the followers of Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, Tom Delay, Karl Rove and Dick Cheney are living in a fantasyland wholly unrelated to reality, good governance, or even the will of the American people in terms of policy positions?

Government has not failed us, any more than it was government that failed us in 1929. It didn't fail us in New Orleans, in Iraq, or on Wall St. It was conservative ideology that failed us in all these cases: an ideology of deregulation, social darwinism and ultra-laissez-faire capitalism that made a mockery of government and declared that "government is the problem."

The nation has finally woken up to the true agenda of conservatism after years of being blinding by race and other fear tactics, and they don't like what they see. Because when push comes to shove, this nation is decidedly Center-Left.

Becoming desperate and somewhat belligerent, Gibson responds:

David,

It seems that we have one fundamental difference in our viewpoints on human nature. You seem to hold fast to the notion that the top priority of the rich is to hold onto their money while I have seen clear evidence of the opposite, not only in my own family but in the numerous charitable organizations and foundations established by those with means who have been inspired to do something meaningful to help the underprivileged. I mentioned the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a stellar example, but there are thousands more out there.

Now, I will concede that those who work hard to establish a business and build it up over many years do feel it is important to keep a reasonable amount of what they earn through there own hard work, sacrifice, creativity, and risk-taking. Makes sense, I'm sure. And I certainly believe they should pay their fair share of taxes like the rest of us.

I think where we get into trouble is by assuming they should pay exponentially more as a percentage of their income because they've reached a certain financial pinnacle in their lives. In essence, this is penalizing success. It only encourages the kind of behavior we have decried for our large corporations, like exporting their operations to foreign countries where the tax rates and environmental regulations are more desirable. In other words, we need to consider the consequences of our actions.

The other point on penalizing successful entrepreneurs through higher taxes is the disincentive this creates for more new businesses trying to enter the marketplace. It is not just about charitable contributions from wealthy entrepreneurs, more importantly, it is about the spillover benefits that these new businesses provide to the overall economy including job creation, investment opportunities, and, yes, additional taxes flowing into the local economy.

Yes, we are a nation of pragmatists. The point being that we are cautious and realistic when it comes to the danger of runaway government.

We have seen the backlash effects of this in the past (over-taxation in California - Prop. 13; court rulings on the death penalty that have been overturned by voter initiatives - including in California; court mandates on busing that have found to be impractical & counterproductive; gay rights rulings that conflict with the will of the people - Prop. 8 in California; and the list goes on).

Some efforts of government have actually been stopped in their tracks by lack of public support and the reaction of the public (universal health care during the Clinton administration, so-called "comprehensive immigration reform" in 2006; and even in my own little town of Ventura - the dreaded "911 fee").

Yes, the American people voted for "change" with the election of Barack Obama. There is no doubt about this. Clearly, the public wants to see a change in direction with regard to our economy, foreign policy, and the transparency of government.

But, I say, be careful what you wish for. I just hope the Obama administration is smart enough to proceed with caution and pragmatism
with its policy proposals. Otherwise, we shall see this "center-right" America looking for yet another course correction.

Growing tired of the fact-free rantings of Mr. Gibson, I begin to respond more forcefully:

Mike,

If, as we agree, the American nature is fundamentally pragmatic, then let us be pragmatic. The question is not one of human nature, or the souls of rich folk as it were (though I think we know where most people stand on that, and it isn't on the GOP side). The question is what works and what doesn't.

We've tried giving rich people lots of money, and cutting or lacking social programs for the many, in the hopes that the rich would provide charity or additional investment out of the goodness of their hearts. IT DOESN'T WORK. It didn't work in the Gilded Age. It didn't work for Hoover. It doesn't work now. The rich get exponentially richer, and the poor suffer while the middle class stagnate.

Almost everyone knows this. That's why the polls show what they do: that America is decidedly center-left, and that they want the rich sharing a much larger part of the tax burden.

To your other points:

  1. The issue is not taxing "success". Doctors, attorneys and successful business owners are successful and make a great deal of money, a fact with which most people have no problem. At issue is the taxing of WEALTH, in which individuals make exorbitant amounts of money by doing fancy footwork with other money. Wealth invested in financial instruments is, by and large, unproductive for society, but very productive for the investor. The idea is to encourage productivity and real creation of new businesses by taxing WEALTH instead of work.
  1. Even if we were taxing "success", a system in which I could never accumulate enough wealth to buy 20 Lamborghinis and 7 beach houses would in no way reduce my desire to own 2 Lamborghinis and 3 beach houses. Personal wealth that reaches the high 8 or even 9 figures is extravagant, utterly unnecessary, and detrimental to the good of society. People don't tolerate it for long of their own free will: such disparities end either in bloody revolution (I call graduated income taxes "guillotine insurance"), or in the dictatorship to keep the huddled masses in line.
  1. If we are truly taxing wealth rather than work, placing investments overseas will matter little, as the dividends are taxed regardless. I seriously doubt that most of the wealthy will move to Dubai to escape taxes: and, in fact, we already know what happens in these circumstances. Europe's and Japan's wealthy have largely stayed put, happy to do their part for a just and healthy society.
  1. To your point about backlash--yes, certain aspects of the Great Society ran into the buzzsaw of racial prejudice and misogyny in this nation. The 1960's were a time of great upheaval, and there was some backlash against newly liberated women and minorities who were (wrongly) perceived by prejudiced majorities to be receiving the lion's share of government benefits. To that end, we have the election of Ronald Reagan; Prop 13; the election of 1994; "law-and-order" statutes that disproportionately affect minorities and the poor; the insistence on the death penalty, which seems to only be inflicted on minorities and the poor; and a host of other conservative SOCIAL measures.

The Right was also able to flood vast amounts of money into conservative think tanks and K-Street lobbying organizations, flooding the airwaves with lies about the nature of national health insurance, or Reagan's fictional "Cadillac-driving welfare queens".

In none of this, however, did the American people suspect their culture war Republican allies had a target firmly placed not on the Great Society, but on the New Deal. They wanted socialism for themselves, just not for minorities.

As I said, however, the nation has woken up to the GOP's attack on the New Deal; they've begun to reject the billion-dollar lies being told about national healthcare; and racial prejudice, misogyny, and homophobia are literally dying away with generational replacement and strong Hispanic immigration.

The GOP has gotten away for a few decades with turning a Center-Left country against its own interests and desires by race-baiting and playing culture wars. Those days are largely over now, and the Center-Left character of this nation is strongly reasserting itself now, and will continue to do so in the coming years.

It is now that Gibson allows his inner motives and prejudices to shine forth in all their glory:

David,

It seems that your theory is: If relying on the private sector and charitable organizations (in addition to the existing social service safety net) to provide for the needs of the poor isn't working, then we should turn this responsibility (lock, stock, and barrel) over to the government. This is nonsensical.

You hearken back to the Hoover era as evidence that relying on private philanthropy doesn't work; however, you've completely discounted the programs that have been put in place by Roosevelt and LBJ since that time.

The reason the middle class stagnates is because they are forced to shoulder the largest share of the tax burden. Now, I agree, there's a reasonable argument to be made if this is sound public policy or not. But, we have to look closely at the alternatives and their consequences.

If we, as you suggest, decide that increasing taxes on the rich is the best course of action, then what does this do to the potential for economic growth in a down economy? It further hampers it. Ask any economist worth their salt and they'll tell you the same thing. This is elementary economic theory.

Again, I say that America is certainly in the mood for change and, I agree, the last presidential election reflects this without a doubt. But, I maintain that the poll results you refer to are shaky in terms of what this means to the average American in terms of changes in tax and economic policy.

You may recall the "redistribution of wealth" comments by Obama in the final days of the presidential campaign that raised a significant number of eyebrows across the land. This, to me, is further evidence of this country's center-right orientation. This is a scary proposition to most Americans because it runs contrary to a basic premise of our society - free market capitalism. This may sound outlandish, but if Americans truly disagreed with this fundamental principle, you would see an awful lot of applications for passports to China & Russia.

You argue that Americans have an issue with people making exorbitant amounts of money, but, you must admit, without the Microsofts, Apple Computers, and Hewlett-Packards, there would be a lot less capital circulating throughout the economy to stimulate investment and economic growth. I think people, at a gut level, understand this principle and can see the detrimental effects of stifling this through random wealth redistribution policies.

You also make a counter-argument to my point about the danger of American business taxing policies increasing the incentive for businesses to export their production activities to foreign countries. To clarify, I wasn't talking about exporting wealth or assets, I was focusing on the production/manufacturing side (i.e., labor, equipment, and facilities). We have seen this occur, some would say, partially as a result of free trade agreements (like NAFTA), but also as a result of high labor costs in the U.S., as well as overly burdensome environmental standards.

I also find it interesting that you turn the backlash against the New Deal/Great Society programs as a function of racism and misogyny. How convenient.

I think one really good thing about Obama's election, coming from a lifelong conservative, is that the rants of such avowed spokesmen for minority America as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton have finally been brought into question (and rightfully so). No longer will it be a convenient out for liberals to claim that the economic shortfalls of minorities is the result of racism and misogyny.

Your final point on the center-left character of this nation reasserting itself under an Obama presidency is not a given, as you suggest, but more of an unproven theory. I would submit that this is a temporal change in the winds and will be overcome (in time) by this country's center-right predisposition.

Having had just about my fill, I get the last word with an angrier final response:

Mike,

It seems appropriate for the end of this debate that we are speaking at cross-purposes, and further enlightenment is not really possible. You continue to repeat statements that have no basis in reality, history, or poll data. As I've already made my central points with signficant data support and no particularly cogent refutations, I'll close with a few refutations of my own to your points such as they are:

  1. As I have repeated before, wealth investments are taxed at a lower rate than is work income. Warren Buffett pays a lower effective rate than his secretary. This is unjust and bad policy, and the American people definitively do not like it.

And as I said before, the marginal rate from the late 1930s to 1964 was NINETY-FOUR percent. Our strong economy during that time was BECAUSE, not in spite of, those marginal rates. Republicans today who predict dire consequences for taxing the rich are lying: we already know what happened in the United States with these rates, and we know what has happened in other industrialized nations with higher rates than ours. There is no economic meltdown, no flood of capital overseas. There is, rather, economic and social justice. These are not hypothetical situations: there are easy parallels to draw concurrently and historically. Taxing wealth instead of work works, and managed economies are highly successful over the long run compared to laissez-faire boom-and-bust economies.

  1. Your mention of China and Russia is humorous--both are crony capitalist societies. Perhaps a better comparison would be the large number of Americans fleeing to Canada and other countries to get quality healthcare they can actually afford.
  1. You're right: Americans do recoil at the phrase "redistribution of wealth", because it brings to mind authoritarian communism, and the taking of money from the white, suburban middle class, putting it instead into black inner cities and East Los Angeles. Ask Americans if they'd like to see the billions scammed by the CEOs of Citibank & AIG and other "masters of the Universe" put instead into national healthcare and an Apollo Program for a green economy to combat global warming, and you'll see overwhelming support for it. It just depends on how you frame "redistribution".

Republicans have been redistributing wealth from the middle class to the super-rich for decades, and most Americans want to reverse that trend.

  1. That you could remotely claim that Microsoft is a stimulator of the economy shows just how far out of touch is the average Republican. Microsoft and Apple constitute a duopoly that produce mediocre, overpriced products that swallow up and destroy the ability of small businesses to compete, innovate and create jobs. Unless you are directly employed by or invested in these companies, you know that their impact on the economy is to suck cash out of consumers with comparatively little benefit in return--especially in Microsoft's case.

That is true tenfold for healthcare companies, oil companies and others whose only purpose is to swallow up outrageous record profits, not benefiting any local communities to speak of, from a populace with little choice but to line their CEO's and investors' fat pockets.

  1. We can argue forever the causes of minority poverty--though the idea that no more than one or two generations separated from Jim Crow laws, George Wallace and blaming "welfare queens" for society's problems, those communities should be blamed for their own plight is laughable. But that's not the argument. The argument is that the entirety of the racist South, as well as "white flight" gated and suburban communities, flipped Republican after LBJ, desperately afraid that their tax dollars should go to "Those People." This is common consensus in the political science community.

Fortunately, the power of that race-fueled backlash has shrunk to the South and to America's less populated exurban and rural communities.

The Republican coalition now consists of just three types:

  1. Residual racists uncomfortable with any portion of their tax dollars going to blacks or Hispanics, and desirous of indiscriminately killing any ethnic or religious group around the world who makes them fear for their safety;
  1. Religious fundamentalists furious that women may be having sex without the appropriate "consequences", and terrified that gay people might "recruit" their children if allowed to live out their lives in open happiness; and
  1. Super-wealthy families desperate to keep their 8-figure incomes untouched by the nasty hands of the same "big government" that provides the services and protections upon which they so heavily depend.

It is for these last that I have the least patience.

The American character is distinctly Center-Left. We were among the first to give women the right to vote. When Europe went Right during the global depression of the 1930's we went Left with FDR. We love the New Deal. We state distinct preferences for center-left positions in nearly every poll. And we will soon have a new New Deal, which will meet with overwhelming public approval as well. The only question is how quickly overwhelming public sentiment for these programs results in their effective implementation over the top of the lobbying of wealthy Republicans and their corporate allies.

So ended my first ever official debate with a Republican.  Personally, I'm excited.  Mike Gibson has his eyes on higher office; without a more coherent expression of his Neanderthal worldview and a more cogent defense of his desire to keep his Daddy's millions, he's likely going nowhere.

Meanwhile, readers across the county got a chance to see a full expression of the differences between a real progressive pragmatist, and the sort of Republican that has controlled the area for far too long.

Originally posted to thereisnospoon (David Atkins) on Mon Jan 12, 2009 at 04:48 PM PST.

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