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RETURN OF THE TEACH-IN! Bernie Sanders (finally) got it right! But so did David Brooks: // link // print // previous // next //
MONDAY, DECEMBER 13, 2010

The occasional emergence of facts: Occasionally, despite our broken culture, a couple of facts turn up in the news. So it was in Saturday’s Washington Post, when Zachary Goldfarb reported some basic facts about the estate tax provisions of the proposed budget deal.

We thought those facts were a bit underwhelming. At any rate, here they are:

GOLDFARB (12/11/13): With the growing federal deficit, many analysts on both sides of the aisle agree that the estate tax's complete elimination is unlikely. The nonprofit Tax Policy Center estimates that the tax generated $14 billion in revenue in 2009.

[…]

In the unlikely scenario that Congress is unable to pass a deal, the estate tax would rise sharply next year. Current law sets a 2011 tax of 55 percent on estates worth more than $1 million.

Relatively few tax filers would be affected by the estate tax under the proposed deal—just 3,600, according to the Tax Policy Center. They would pay a total of $11.3 billion in estate taxes.

Under the estate tax preferred by many Democrats, 6,500 estates would be taxed, raising $18 billion for the government.

Are those facts perfectly accurate? We’re not sure. But according to Goldfarb, the estate tax generated just $14 billion in 2009, the last year it was in effect. That was a very small part of overall federal revenues.

According to Goldfarb, the estate tax would generate $18 billion in revenue in 2011 under the plan preferred by Dems. Under the provisions of the proposed budget deal, it would generate $11.3 billion—just $5.7 billion less. That difference represents a tiny proportion of next year’s projected deficit.

We’re interested in these numbers because they’re so small—and because this part of the deal has produced so much fury. (On the personal side, 6500 estates would have $5.7 billion less to disperse under the Democratic plan. On average, this is about $900,000 each, though some very large estates would gain much more than that.)

As noted, we can’t swear to the perfection of Goldfarb’s numbers, though we’re fairly sure they’re basically accurate. That said, facts turn up so rarely in our debates that we grab them where we can.

RETURN OF THE TEACH-IN (permalink): Last Friday, Bernie Sanders spoke for eight hours, on the floor of the Senate, about various issues involving economic equality.

We’d only say this: It’s about daggone time! But first, David Brooks got something right in that same day’s New York Times!

In our view, Brooks has been wrong quite often of late; it seems to us that he’s over-extending himself, trying to write two different “Big Think” pieces each week. But last Friday, we thought Brooks was very right about something that’s very important.

In his column, Brooks described the mental life of “cluster liberals” (and “cluster conservatives”). We don’t think we’ve heard those terms before; a quick Nexis search suggests to us that Brooks has coined some new language. But essentially, Brooks was describing the political mind-set we’ve long referred to as “tribal.”

What the heck is a “cluster liberal” (or “cluster conservative”)? As he started, Brooks described the mind-set like this:

BROOKS (12/10/10): Over the past week we’ve seen the big differences between cluster liberals and network liberals. Cluster liberals (like cluster conservatives) view politics as a battle between implacable opponents. As a result, they believe victory is achieved through maximum unity. Psychologically, they tend to value loyalty and solidarity. They tend to angle toward situations in which philosophical lines are clearly drawn and partisan might can be bluntly applied.

In a word, “cluster liberals” (or cluster conservatives) are tribal. They invest a lot of energy in loathing the other tribe. A bit later, Brooks described the syndrome in a more interesting way. In this passage, he explains why “cluster liberals” have been so angry about the proposed budget deal:

BROOKS: You don’t have to abandon your principles to cut a deal. You just have to acknowledge that there are other people in the world and even a president doesn’t get to stamp his foot and have his way.

Cluster liberals in the House and the commentariat are angry. They have no strategy for how Obama could have better played his weak hand—with a coming Republican majority, an expiring tax law and several Democratic senators from red states insisting on extending all the cuts. They just sense the waning of their moment and are howling in protest.

They believe nonliberals are blackmailers or hostage-takers or the concentrated repositories of human evil, so, of course, they see coalition-building as collaboration. They are also convinced that Democrats should never start a negotiation because they will always end up losing in the end. (Perhaps psychologists can explain the interesting combination: intellectual self-confidence alongside a political inferiority complex).

We thought this captured the essence of much liberal reaction to the proposed budget deal. To our ear, a great deal of liberal reaction has exhibited these three tendencies:

A tendency toward magical thinking: According to Brooks, “cluster liberals” have offered “no strategy for how Obama could have better played his weak hand”—for how he could have gotten a better deal, given prevailing circumstances. But rational thinking has played little part in some of these reactions. Some liberals act as if Obama got elected king—as if, as president, he actually does “get to stamp his foot and have his way.” Our system doesn’t work that way. But reading comments around the web, it’s striking to see how many angry liberals feel no need to explain how Obama could have rendered a better deal.

(This morning, Paul Krugman seems to say that he would prefer no deal at all. Does this mean no extension of unemployment assistance? Does he assume this would be passed as a stand-alone measure? He doesn’t say.)

Instant doomsday predictions: In the wake of the budget proposal, liberals came forth with predictions of doom—predictions which were often voiced with the certainty of true religious belief. (In Brooks’ language, these people almost seem “convinced that Democrats should never start a negotiation because they will always end up losing in the end.”) Will a temporary payroll tax holiday “destroy Social Security?” We don’t know, but some liberals have seemed quite sure; last Friday, Julian Selizer warned about that possibility at Salon. (Salon headline: “Obama is dealing away FDR's legacy/Cutting the payroll tax could boost the economy now—and it could also destroy Social Security later.”)

One day earlier, Robert Reich had played a different fear card, warning that the proposed deal could ruin our competitive standing in the world. (Salon headline: “How Obama's tax deal hurts America's global position/We're already falling behind other nations, a trend the president's latest compromise will only accelerate.”)

Will this apparently underwhelming deal destroy Social Security? Will it cause our infrastructure to crumble? Ruin American schools? For ourselves, we have no idea. But reading comments around the web, an amazing number of liberals seemed to become amazingly sure in an amazingly short amount of time. In some cases, these people had been lied to by their intellectual leaders. Example: To heighten the fear, Reich lied about the plan again, writing again that Obama had “agreed to $900 billion in tax breaks—the lion's share for the rich.” Nothing resembling “the lion’s share” actually goes to the rich, of course. But so what? Reich has written this ludicrous claim two times. In each case, Salon printed it.

For the record, this is the way tribal conservatives have long acted. The Hannitys deceive the herd; the frightened herd quickly stampedes.

A tendency toward denial: In his most interesting formulation, Brooks suggested that cluster liberals (and cluster conservatives) have a hard time accepting the basic fact “that there are other people in the world.” In the current situation, this profoundly tribal reaction has been reflected in liberal denial about the way our political system works. Duh! Given the need for a super-majority in the Senate, the preferences of Republicans will inevitably be reflected in any possible budget deal. But many liberals have seemed to be in denial about this blatantly obvious fact. We thought Rachel Maddow exhibited this tendency as she spoke with poor Austan Goolsbee last week (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 12/10/10). But many liberals have seemed to be angry at the idea that Republicans got anything at all in this deal—and tribal players on both sides of the partisan divide were quite sure that their side got the short end of the stick. (Obvious tribal reaction: Conservatives are lying when they say this!) In this striking post, Digby is convinced by a graphic that the overall deal is “clearly much closer to the GOP wish list than anything the Democrats wanted.” That graphic is useful if well understood. But for various reasons, it can’t begin to settle the question of which side got more of what it wanted. In her post, Digby almost seems “convinced that Democrats should never start a negotiation because they will always end up losing in the end.” At any rate, she has quickly accepted the idea that the other side got much more—on the basis of a graphic which can’t begin to settle that question.

Can “cluster liberals” accept the idea that conservatives / Republicans / Tea Party members actually exist in the world? Over the past few years, it has often seemed that the answer is no. It has often seemed that tribal players think those evil-doers can simply be wished (or insulted) away. If we insult them, they’ll disappear! This has represented our own Field of Dreams—which leads back to Bernie Sanders.

Good God! Who could believe it? For eight hours, it actually entered a liberal’s head to stand up and talk to the public about deeply important issues! Granted, Sanders was conducting his teach-in too late; liberals should have started doing this many years in the past. Have conservatives failed to speak? Over the past thirty years, they have churned a steady flow of disinformation about all basic political topics. With the liberal world too lazy (or haughty) to bother responding, many of these claims have become conventional wisdom in our broken political discourse. (If we lower our tax rates, we get extra revenue! European-style health care has failed everywhere it’s been tried!)

Last Friday, it actually happened! A liberal actually got off his ass and spoke, for hours, about a major topic! Sanders spoke at length about the shape of our nation’s growing inequality.

Bernie Sanders spoke to the people! If this had started decades ago, we might not be in the ludicrous shape we’re in. But for much of the past few years, tribal liberals have seemed to take perverse pride in refusing to speak to the people. Truth to tell, we love to hate—we love to hate the great unwashed for the great sin of not being just like us! Mainly, we like insulting the masses. We don’t even try to tell them the truth, unless they’ve been pre-insulted by big roaring nitwits like KO.

Cluster liberals love to hate! Your country is sinking beneath the sea, in part due to our endless display of contempt for “those people.”

Brooks got it right—and so did Sanders! But here’s our question: Where have the teach-ins been up till now? Why hasn’t Sanders been speaking on C-Span, night after night, over the past many years? Why haven’t other liberal solons joined him in a long glorious teach-in? Why hasn’t the rest of the liberal world insisted that they get up and speak? If we liberals want to change American politics, we actually have to speak to the people; we have to convince them to see things our way. The people are real, and they really exist. They really won’t be moving away if we insult them enough.

Tribal liberals prefer to hate. Speak to those people? Please!

Replacing the shrinks: Brooks wants to consult some shrinks about the way cluster liberals “see coalition-building as collaboration”—are “convinced that Democrats should never start a negotiation because they will always end up losing in the end.” (Presumably, cluster conservatives react the same way.)

Counselor Brooks can save his money; we can explain the syndrome.

Why do tribal players reject all “collaboration?” Why do they find themselves hating every deal? It’s because they hate The Other so much! In any possibly deal, The Other will always get something he wants. But tribals hate The Other so much, this causes terminal pain.

Any deal will quickly seem vile! As any psychiatrist can tell you: Keeping The Other from winning at all is the tribal player’s key goal.