Bloom Briefing 15: Trump's Authoritarian Persuasion; Tax Policy; March for Science

Welcome to the fifteenth edition of The Bloom Briefing: Notes from the Resistance. This week, David Van Howe guest-posts about the symbolism of Trump’s call to Erdogan, and I write a dispatch from the March for Science and an evaluation of tax policy. If you have any interest in guest-posting in the future, let me know. And don’t forget to encourage your friends and family to sign up to receive The Bloom Briefing!

The Symbolism of the Erdogan Call – David Van Howe

Earlier this week, President Trump called to congratulate Turkish president Erdogan for his victory in his nation’s constitutional referendum. The result consolidates presidential power at the cost of parliamentary checks and balances, in essence accelerating Turkey’s slide from democracy to autocracy.

Trump’s message was in direct contrast to those put out by European allies and the United States's own State department, both of which voiced support for the Turkish people and their civil, political, and human rights.

One of the few recurring motifs in Trump’s public life is his professed admiration of autocratic strongmen. The presidency has not changed Trump’s tone or message on such leaders. Beyond Trump’s well-documented praise of Vladimir Putin, there’s also his acclaim of Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi (Egypt), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines), Kim Jong-Un (North Korea), and others. This flirtation with the most anti-democratic of leaders remains the central danger, and the ever-present crisis, of Trump’s presidency because it raises questions about his own autocratic aspirations.

This week served a reminder that the greatest contemporary threat to democracy comes not from foreign powers hostile to democracy, but from within the democratic system itself. Writing in the New York Times, Amanda Taub examined how recent modern autocrats have used the institutions, norms, and processes of democratic government to undermine the systems through which they rose to power. “Today,” Taub writes, “the most common way for a democracy to collapse is through the actions of an elected incumbent, not a coup or revolution.”

The American founders were well aware of this inherent vulnerability of democracy; they had studied closely the republics of Europe—both ancient and more recent—and knew that virtually all had fallen into despotism. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton all wrote extensively on ancient republicanism, but perhaps the best articulation of this danger is in a warning sounded by George Washington in his Farewell Address:

“However combinations or associations… may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

In reviewing passages such as this, we could be forgiven for mistaking the Founders for prophets. The truth is that they were students of history, and skeptics of human nature as a result. Like any good scholar of history, Washington was thinking beyond the narrow confines of his own time and place.

Washington concludes that the only safeguard against such usurpations is the vigilance of citizens. It is the citizenry (rather than the institutions) that is the central bulwark in protecting and upholding the principles of republicanism (the distribution of power, the rule of law, free and fair elections, etc.). It is thus the American citizen to whom Washington addresses his farewell. His words, as he foresaw, continue to resonate:

“Towards the preservation of your government, and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite, not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts. One method of assault may be to effect, in the forms of the Constitution, alterations which will impair the energy of the system, and thus to undermine what cannot be directly overthrown.”

Four decades later, in 1838, Abraham Lincoln, speaking at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, echoed Washington’s idea that American democracy is more vulnerable from within than without: “If destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.” Lincoln goes on to argue for the close attachment of the people to their government. Important words in a time of seemingly rapid decline in democratic faith.

Lincoln was no prophet either, but he did offer this thought at the conclusion of the same speech:

“Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence.--Let those materials be moulded into general intelligence, sound morality, and in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws: and, that we improved to the last; that we remained free to the last; that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place; shall be that which to learn the last trump shall awaken our WASHINGTON.”

This is the duty to which we must hold ourselves more dearly now than ever before. We must fight not only for the policies that we believe are right but also for the ideals of democratic republican government. Without shared commitment to the foundational principles of democracy, there can be no democracy, because the ultimate defenders of democratic governance are not the institutions of said governance, but the citizens themselves. If the light of democracy is expunged from our hearts, then government of the people, by the people, and for the people may very well perish from the earth.

On Tax Policy

Ipsos conducted a poll for NPR about Americans’ attitudes on tax policy, and the results are telling, particularly in their betrayal of Americans’ ignorance. A minority of people know that the top tax rate is significantly lower now than it was in 1980. A majority of people believe that low-income people pay too much income tax even though 45% of Americans pay no income tax at all. And half of all Americans think that 75% of federal government revenue comes from income tax. (It’s closer to half.)

Taxes are complicated (Americans, to the tune of 90%, agree), so let’s make sure we’re all on the same page. In our present system, income-earners (i.e., people who money for work) pay a certain rate of tax on every dollar earned up to a threshold, at which point additional money earned is taxed at a higher rate. This is why we refer to it as the marginal tax rate. It’s the tax rate on the last dollar or next dollar of income earned.

If a single person earns $100,000 in the year, the first approximately $10,000 is taxed at a rate of 10%, the next approximately $28,000 is taxed at 15%, the next approximately $53,000 is taxed at 25%, and so on. The top tax rate, on income over $415,051, is 39.6%.

When people think that the top marginal tax rate is lower now than it was in 1980 (44% of people, including 52% of Republicans thought this), they’re not just wrong, they’re wrong by rather large amount. The top marginal tax rate in 1980 was 70%. The U.S.’s top rate of 39.6% is actually relatively low for post-industrial economies. Almost all of Western Europe has a higher highest marginal income tax rate (Scandinavia: Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland; the Low Countries: Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg; Iberia: Spain, Portugal; and the major EU economies: Germany, France, Austria, Italy, and, for the moment, the UK).

Some on the left, including the present author, argue for a higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy. When income inequality is at its highest point in nearly a century, there’s no reason why the wealthiest, who are doing better (relatively and absolutely) than they have in decades, shouldn’t be asked to pay more in taxes.

But income tax policy isn’t the only way of extracting more tax revenue from the wealthy. Many high-income households generate much of their revenue through capital gains – returns on investments in stocks or bonds. In the U.S, the top capital gains tax rate (which is paid by only the top income bracket) is 20%. Most other capital gains are taxed at 15%. Taxing capital gains at a higher rate would generate more revenue from the highest-income earners.

Perhaps surprisingly (given current tax policy), most Americans (across party) believe that income tax rates should be lower than capital gains tax rates. In other words, work should be taxed at a lower rate than wealth appreciation. If I have $100 million in the bank, and it returns a paltry 1% per year (which I withdraw to fund my bare-bones lifestyle), I’d be earning $1 million pre-tax. At a 20% tax rate, I’d be paying $200 thousand in taxes. If you have nothing in the bank, but earn $1 million in pre-tax income, you’d pay $326,626 in taxes.

Our tax policy actually reinforces our socioeconomic hierarchy. It taxes those earning more money in income higher than those earning more money from wealth appreciation. That’s how Mitt Romney had an effective tax rate of 13% on his tax returns released (see, normal candidates do this) before the 2012 election. One way of making our society more socioeconomically mobile would be to tax capital gains at a higher rate.

Dispatch from the March for Science

On Saturday, I attended the March for Science. It’s hard to estimate the number of people who attended, but given the cold, rainy, and windy conditions, I found the turnout to be impressive.

The most curious aspect of the march was the explicit attempt by the organizers to not make the march partisan or anti-Trump in any way. This is, I suppose, in keeping with the scientific temperament. Scientists want hard evidence, not heuristic interpretation. The messy world of democracy and partisan politics doesn’t fit well with the reservation of judgment required by the scientific method.

That’s why it’s good when the funding to science mostly just keeps flowing and scientists themselves don’t have to become political. But when politicians attack science to score political points, or deny scientific consensus on a given subject (cough*climatechange*cough) then science has to respond, and that was the purpose of the march.

Perhaps the idea was to make this march the good cop to the Women’s March’s bad cop. Regardless of the intent, I felt the lack of politics actually somewhat undermined the goals of the march. If the science being done is important to society, and the Trump administration is defunding it (or threatening to defund it), then the march needed to specify the ways in which Trump administration defunding science research will harm society. I felt that level of specificity was lacking.

That criticism aside, the march certainly accomplished its first order goal: demonstrating to the country and the world that there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who are committed to the principles of science and want government to fund more of it.

Additional Reading:

At Esquire, Natasha Leonard wrote a nuanced correction of mainstream media reporting of violent protests, with particular attention to Berkeley, where there were clashes last weekend.

At The Guardian, George Monbiot reviewed a new book offering a fundamental rethink of economics. The book is Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth. I will likely write more on this in the future.

At the National Review, David French penned a thoughtful critique of conservative-celebrity culture.

Two weeks ago, I referenced Mehdi Hasan’s assessment in The Intercept that Trump supporters were motivated more by race than economics. This week, Thomas Wood, writing in the Washington Post, noted that race was a bigger motivator than proclivity for authoritarianism among Trump supporters.