Thursday, March 26, 2015

The psychology of the flat-tax

Under a 20% "flat tax" scheme, someone making $10,000/year pays $2,000 tax while someone making $100,000/year pays $20,000 tax, i.e. $18,000 more tax. It's somehow OK for the richer person to pay $18,000 more in taxes than the poorer person just because he or she makes more money, but having that person pay $18,001, $19,000, or $25,000 more in tax would be an injustice. This makes no sense whatsoever. - Matt Bruenig
If we can't find an explanation for the flat tax's popularity in morality, we should probably look elsewhere. Fortunately, its advocates are fairly explicit:

  • "It ought to be just a simple, one page postcard," Ted Cruz told Fox News over the weekend.
  • "The Internal Revenue Code's headache-inducing complexity is a scandal," Reason writes.
  • "We need a new tax system that is simple, honest and fair," Steve Forbes wrote in one of the founding texts of the flat tax movement, Flat Tax Revolution.
Strip away implausible language about justice and calls for the flat tax invariably devolve into calls for simplicity. Here is where I think the debate takes a revealing turn. Advocates for the flat tax always come armed with an endless parade of examples of unjustified tax code rules that, in their totality, convey an impression of byzantine complication. And yet, if you subject any one rule to a minimal degree of informed scrutiny, it usually stands on its own merits. It is at least debatable, which is how it survived legislative debate and became enacted into law.

In this sense, the argument against a complex tax code is often better understood as an objection to the complexity of the world that built it and the world that it applies to. This is entirely understandable. As Adorno writes,
Naive persons fail to look through the complexities of a highly organized and institutionalized society, but even the sophisticated one cannot understand it in plain terms of consistency and reason, but are faced with antagonism and absurdities... Thus people even of supposedly "normal" mind are prepared to accept systems of delusions... [which] reduce the complex to simple and mechanical inferences, doing away with anything that is strange and unknown...
Understood this way, the flat tax makes perfect sense: it's an opiate against the oppressive and alienating complexity of the modern world. It quite literally "provides a short-cut by bringing the complex to a handy formula and offering at the same time the pleasant gratification that he who feels to be excluded from educational privileges nevertheless belongs to the minority of those who are 'in the know.'" Confronted with the massive edifice of our tax system, we can invest extraordinary energy into understanding the problems that afflict our world and the efforts we make, through taxation, to address them -- or we can accept gross simplifications, and sneer at the know-it-alls who defend the system and make everything more complicated then it needs to be.

So on one hand, I think we can understand policies like the flat tax as a symptom of late capitalism, with all of its attendant, proliferate social complication; and on the other hand, we can understand them as a kind of psychological defense mechanism against this problem, which victims are well aware of but do not actually understand.

This unconscious dimension of the psychology behind the flat tax deserves more thought. There is, as Matt notes, something odd about a right-wing tax plan which cares less about proportion than rigidity - which is violated whether the government collects $7000 or $1 over a 20% rate. This fixation on purity, the anxiety and paranoia over contaminating the tax code with sinister complications, and the obsession with essentially arbitrary numbers and sequences (9-9-9, anyone?) are all symptoms with a pretty straightforward diagnosis.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

We might always be this stupid

The complete inability of our society to deal with obvious consequences of our actions is what has doomed it.  This society will not survive.  The questions are only “How many people will it kill going down?” and “What will the next society look like in the ashes of a world left to us by this one?” 
Whatever it looks like, it will be very different.  

This all may sound pretty dire, but it probably isn't dire enough. That humans will learn from their mistakes after the collapse of civilization seems like a pretty meager hope, but even that may rest on the same optimism about progress and rationality that the rest of Welsh's post sets out to debunk.

It seems just as likely to me that the survivors are going to be just as prey to the same sociopathies as we are. They'll forget the lessons of history just like we do. They'll walk into the same progress traps. They'll kick cans down the road, and eventually it'll cost them.

There's no evolutionary reason to assume that we'll learn our lessons. Some species narrowly dodge extinction - and then they go extinct. Our mistakes will probably be too sudden and severe to exert the kind of selection pressures that would help us adapt. Consider global warming, for example: it is likely to destabilize civilization within a few generations. If the worst happens, it will completely consume us in a matter of centuries. And the first victims, of course, are going to be those whose ways of life contributed to the problem the least.

The Holocaust provides another instructive lesson on human adaptation, because it is a man-made catastrophe that much of world has taken deliberate and specific measures to avoid repeating. The resurgence of openly neo-Nazi parties and the persistence of genocidal aggression throughout the world shows how well that's going, but consider an even more basic point:

Among the Holocaust's survivors, it has always been a widely shared belief that memory is a crucial safeguard against its recurrence. That's why our culture was immediately flooded with memorials, memoirs, histories, analyses, dramatizations, and other artifacts: not just in mourning, but as a matter of documentation.

And that's why it's so alarming that today there remains no consensus over who the Nazis were or what it is about them that we are to avoid. The American right (and an increasingly large faction of Europeans) now insists that it was something about Hitler's handful of opportunistic socialist gestures that we should avoid - as opposed to, say, the gas chambers. This has obviously happened because powerful people have seen an advantage in transforming our collective memory into an ideological weapon against their enemies. And because of this, our society has become increasingly tolerant of precisely those dangers we set out to avoid.

So it is true that whatever civilization emerges from the rubble will in some ways look different. We may, for example, no longer have much fossil fuel or potable water at our disposal. But insofar as we find a way to survive, our worse instincts will probably survive along with us.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Libertarians can't think dialectically, EG are dumb

A watch made by A. Lange & Sohne known as the Grand Complication—just six were manufactured in 2013—was priced at $2.5 million. But come next month, some fabulously wealthy watch wearers will trade in their handmade timepieces containing thousands of perfectly calibrated moving parts for a far more useful $349 Apple Watch that was mass produced in a factory in China...The bottom line is that the Apple Watch is part of a trend in which the lifestyles and accouterments of the super wealthy increasingly look a lot more like yours and mine. (h/t @hammerdialectic)
The fancy line of criticism here is to observe that the same productive forces that make old technologies less expensive also create unaffordable new technologies, thus maintaining a gap between the rich and the poor. Generalized, this point expresses a dialectical understanding of our economy, which is of course a definitively Marxist understanding, leading inevitably to all of Marx's fancy conclusions and so on.

The simple line of criticism here is duh we didn't always have smart watches you dingus, so maybe we don't have other technologies right now that will widen the gap again?

These are both different ways of saying the same thing, because Marx's arguments are actually pretty simple if you can hold two thoughts in your head at the same time. But complicated jargon about dialectics shouldn't obscure the basic point that libertarians are dumb lol

Sigma Alpha Epsilon's PR denial, and the sociology of dissociation

"You know and I know that this isn't the house we lived in," Sigma Alpha Epsilon alum Blake Burkhart writes, responding to footage of his fraternity chanting racial slurs and singing songs about lynching.

On one hand, this reads exactly like standard PR boilerplate, the sort of flat denial we're used to hearing from spokesmen and press secretaries when their bosses get caught forwarding a racist email or speaking candidly at a private fundraiser. Here, the point is obvious: to cast doubt on reporting of the incident, politicize the audience reception, and maintain the support of third parties.

But on the other hand, Burkhart isn't addressing third parties. He's explicitly talking to people who know what happened and who have personally experienced racism in SAE.

We all live in bad faith to a certian degree, ignoring our crimes and thinking about ourselves in the most positive light possible. Burkhart's formulation, however, suggests that this psychology is susceptible to the norms relentlessly cultivated by our PR industry. Denial, he has learned, is an effective and productive way to engage with inconvenient reality - whether you are dealing with customers, constitutents, or yourself.

But this dynamic should probably be understood as something more than quotidian denial, because it isn't simply coming from the internal defense mechanisms that maintain psychological homeostasis. The key point here is that this psychology is being fostered by industrial practice - that is, by the massive economic forces that make PR denials so ubiquitous and prolific. Ultimately, it's an expression of capitalism itself, which builds a massive media apparatus in which PR denial is effective and useful as a means of navigating the constant injustices and trauma inflicted by our economic system.

Or to put it in simpler terms, we have built a culture that encourages us to rely on denial as a way of dealing with our problems. And because this tendency is being driven by massive social forces, it's cultivating a pathology that invididuals are increasingly unable to resist. And as magnitude and proportion are what distinguishes mere denial from psychotic dissociation, comments like Burkhart's should probably be understood as the latter.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Right to work" isn't a frame - it's a brand

Matt Lewis at the Daily Beast is thrilled that Right To Work legislation is passing in Wisconsin, but his analysis of its success is complete gibberish:
Language is important, and you know your framing has worked when your opponents use it, too. “Right to work is desperately wrong for Wisconsin,” Wisconsin's Democratic leader in the Assembly recently complained.
His battle was lost before he finished saying it. Who could be against the right to work?
Answer: the people who are openly opposing it, mentioned in every preceding sentence. This is a direct contradiction, and it isn't just a symptom of bad writing: it reflects underlying problems in the notion of "framing" in general.

On one hand, people who talk about framing insist that an effective frame should be difficult to contest - that is the entire point. It's what, we are told, makes RTW so majestically clever: the way it transforms a technocratic point of labor law into an epic battle between tyrannical government and industrious freedom. The right side of such a battle should be patently obvious, and no one who has been persuaded by the framing should be inclined to oppose it. Framing succeeds not by winning arguments, but by preempting them.

And yet RTW has hardly preempted anything - as Wisconsin demonstrates by Lewis's own account. Not only are its opponents still fighting, but they are fighting in precisely the way that framing is supposed to prevent. They fight on the political right's own carefully calibrated terms and openly call RTW "desperately wrong". Lewis seems to think this impossible or at least unlikely, but that's precisely what is happening.

The explanation is simple: framing doesn't work. Everyone knows exactly what RTW means: it's a policy of prohibiting union security agreements. People don't support RTW because they've been cleverly fooled by some elaborate rhetoric gimmick; they support it because unions are unpopular, and because there's a systematic incentive to try to free-ride on the benefits won by unions without paying unions dues. RTW opponents are able to plausibly argue against this because unions still maintain a baseline of support throughout the nation, and because some people appreciate the importance of union security agreements. The controversy is more sophisticated than some crude argument over a right to work, and people understand it because, contrary to the partisans of framing, people are not in fact idiots.

So what good is framing? Lewis is explicit about this: "you know your framing has worked when your opponents use it, too". In other words, the criterion of success is not winning the argument; it's just going viral, like a catchphrase.

This makes plenty of sense from a marketing perspective. If you're a PR firm, a campaign consultant, or a political columnist, your job isn't to win: it's to publicize your product in order to get business. Frank Luntz is probably happy enough when Scott Walker signs anti-union legislation into law, but that's not what pays the bills. He wants people using his catchphrase - even his political opponents. When you stop thinking of "framing" as a linguistic magic trick and start thinking about it as a marketing gimmick, the RTW brand is much easier to understand.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Soviets and Reagan's PATCO strike

Saturday, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker repeated a claim that has become a truism among a certain genre of conservatives in recent years:
Walker contended that "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime" was then-President Ronald Reagan's move to bust a 1981 strike of air traffic controllers, firing some 11,000 of them.
"It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world," Walker said. America's allies and foes alike became convinced that Reagan was serious enough to take action and that "we weren't to be messed with," he said.
The PATCO strike was indeed big news in the United States, but it has always struck me as a bit odd that this would resonate the same way in the Soviet Union, much less significantly impact its decisions. Americans routinely overestimate the rest of the world's interest in our domestic affairs, and this particularly line plays a little too neatly on right-wing narratives about sympathies between communists and unions, the role of "credibility" in foreign policy, and the valorization of Reagan as the single-handed conqueror of the Soviet Union.

Looking into this has only deepened my suspicion. First, Walker has been caught in a lie about this before, when he claimed that "documents released from the Soviet Union showed" the impact of Reagan's actions. This was directly rebutted by Reagan's own diplomat to the USSR, who said that "There is no evidence of that whatever."

Beyond those fabricated documents, the only susbtantive claim I can find comes from Steven Hayward's book "The Age of Reagan," where he writes, "The White House realized it had gotten Moscow's attention when the Soviet news agency TASS decried Reagan's 'brutal repression' of the air traffic controllers."

But he provides no further details on this quote, and I have been completely unable to find it in TASS's archives. And Hayward is a conservative iconoclast who has spent his entire career riding the right-wing think tank gravy train, publishing climate change denial and Solyndra conspiracy articles in fringe outlets like The Weekly Standard and Power Line.

I see at this point no reason to take for granted the narrative about Reagan impressing the Soviets with his PATCO firings, and every reason to suspect fabrication in Hayward's book.