Saturday, December 9, 2017

No Statute of Limitations

Look, it took me a while, too. But you can't say the GOP is acting egregiously by trading a vote in the Senate for their souls and then turn around and say "But we need Al Franken's vote and voice!" You don't get to put bad actors on a sliding scale of moral dysfunction unless you've been personally victimized by each of them in turn. You can't say that our side is eating its own while the other side is getting off scot free; you have to say that our side is doing the right thing, and their side is doing the wrong, evil thing. You can't suggest that a person's youthful shenanigans aren't relevant if that youthfulness is defined as that person's 30s or 40s. There's no statute of limitations on being an asshole.

And of COURSE we should be going after Donald Trump. And Justice Thomas. And Woody Allen. And Roman Polanski. And Ted Kennedy should be glad he's dead.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The GOP Plan, Personalized

NPR has been especially good at providing charts and information about the contents of the enormous GOP tax plan. Although we don’t yet know what a reconciled bill might look like, I’ve used some of their information on the House and Senate proposals to guesstimate the effect on our household.

There’s not a lot of change for us here. Under the House bill, we may stay the same. Under the Senate bill, we might go down a percentage point. If we made $50K more a year, we’d see a much bigger drop. (Note to self: Make more money.)

We don’t take the standard deduction, so this is moot. I am self-employed and typically pay quarterly taxes and itemize. If we did take the standard deduction, our deduction would actually go down, from $25,450 for a family of three (with existing personal exemptions) to $24,000 (with such exemptions removed)—not the fabulous bargain the GOP has implied. Nevertheless, it may end up being a better deal than itemizing, now that so many other deductions are going away. We will have to see.

From around $1000 now, this could go up to as much as $1600 to $2000 or so. We're no longer eligible, since our dependent is over 17. We might now get a temporary credit of $300 to $500 for a dependent who's not a child. And luckily for us, we don’t use child care anymore, because that deduction is gone.

SALT (State and Local Taxes)
This was a battle between Senate and House. Right now, with the Collins amendment, it looks like we’ll only be able to deduct up to $10K for state and local property taxes. That’s a sizable loss for us; our school taxes alone are over $12.5K. Deducting state and local taxes is a key reason for people in NYS and other high-tax states to itemize. Losing or lowering this is going to hurt. We'll get hurt, and so will local accountants!

Our dependent is about to graduate from college and intends to join a national program that will help her earn graduate school tuition through work. It now looks likely that any GOP tax plan will attempt to tax the money she does not pay toward tuition as though it were earned income. Nor would she any longer be able to deduct $5,250 in employer-provided work-related education, should it be offered to her. Instead of seeing her launch her career debt-free and independent of us, it seems very likely that we will end up subsidizing her continuing education or helping her to find loans—whose interest, by the way, she will no longer be able to deduct.

Marco Rubio let slip what most of us knew would happen once the tax bill became law—the GOP plans to go after Social Security and Medicare to make up some of the trillion-dollar burden on the deficit. Depending what that looks like, we have a relative who may need our assistance sooner rather than later. Not to mention that we ourselves are going to qualify for those benefits within the decade, if they still exist.

NYS will be hard-pressed to balance a state budget if upper income taxpayers can’t offset their property taxes with SALT and start leaving in droves. So what will the state do—cut services? One of us works for the state and could lose his budget or his job if that happens. Raise taxes to cover the losses? That will hurt, too. Your tax bill, and ours, is more than just one bill. Cut it in one place, and it may balloon somewhere else.

If the GOP plan is reconciled, our 2019 federal tax bill is likely to be higher than our 2017 tax bill. We will lose a lot in SALT. We might gain a little if we change tax brackets. And by 2025, only our millionaire friends (note to self: Make some millionaire friends) will be paying less than they do today; we will certainly be paying more than we would have if the tax structure stayed as it currently is. Even the breaks for small businesses in the GOP plan are designed to help the top 1 percent, not a small business like mine.

Let's consider, too, what those taxes will pay for. For example, this year's budget eliminates teacher training and cuts food in schools, coastal research programs, NIH training, affordable housing programs, senior-work programs, education at NASA, and 50 programs with the EPA. It increases the size of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps while slicing back UN peacekeeping funds.

Add to that some of the hidden features of the GOP tax plan—allowing churches to endorse candidates without losing tax-exempt status! letting parents start 529 funds for the unborn or apply them to private K-12 education!—and you have a tax plan that is designed to support a right-wing agenda while ensuring that the rich get richer. I’m not surprised that the GOP didn’t reveal the Senate plan until half an hour before the vote. I’m a little surprised that they had the stones to let it be seen at all.

UPDATE: NPR reports that the 529 for fetuses may be out of the revised bill.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lone Hawk

So it turns out Bob Corker was the only real deficit hawk in Congress. The other Republican senators were, as this September GQ story predicted, using hawking as "a cover story to disguise callous opposition to social programs."

It may seem bizarre to see this cavalier attitude toward budgets in the very people who stymied Obama at every turn, allegedly to balance the budget or lower the deficit. But if you accept that all of that was about stopping Obama, that none of it was about deficits or the national debt, it starts to make some kind of sense. Not that the deficit isn't still in play; next up will be a determined effort to cut social programs to keep that deficit from ballooning into the trillions. Expect no mention to be made of the tax bill that caused that problem in the first place. Because in this brave new world, not only does no one blame you for lying about your intentions, but also no one remembers your lies 20 minutes after they are uttered.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Net Brutality

We have arrived in a Brave New World where no polling can be trusted. Schneiderman's whistle-blowing on the bot-driven responses to the FCC's calls for comments on Net Neutrality prove that online polling is even more corrupted and corruptible than telephone polling is. Are we still going door-to-door to create the 2020 census? We'd better.

Thursday, November 16, 2017


Things are moving fast in the media's exposure of sexual assault, and now it's become surprising. Surprising to start reassessing Clinton or Anita Hill in light of today's This Shall Not Stand attitudes, surprising to see how far we've come since Trump's Billy Bush conversation a year ago. Surprising how my sense of outrage links directly to my politics—Al Franken? Nooooo—or my appreciation of someone's talents (Kevin Spacey? Louis CK? Nooooo), whereas I completely embrace the downfall of pseudo-Christian right-wing loons and have a sort of schadenfreude when it comes to Woody Allen.

While Senators squirm anxiously and wonders whether they could stomach seating the hideous Roy Moore, should he win his seat in Alabama, I wonder how many of them are pondering whether they could survive amplified scrutiny of their own careers—the airing of photos, the youthful hijinks that bordered on abuse.

I would so love to relitigate Clarence Thomas's Supreme Court confirmation. That would be sweet.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The New Megaphone

A group with more time on its hands than most of us is tracking the Russian social media that allegedly interfered with our 2016 election. It's an impressive array of stuff aimed to take advantage of American divisions and identity politics.

Meanwhile, people on the right and the left continue to say "No votes were changed" by this particular kind of interference, as though only direct hacking into voting machines could make a difference, as though messaging has no relevance to political choices, as though the election of a brainless oligarch were inevitable because [Hillary/Amerika/blue collar jobs/your best guess here].

Of course, that is bullshit. And now I know it's bullshit, because I have witnessed close at hand how easily an election can be hijacked using only social media. Our recent NYS Constitutional Convention vote was a test case in this brave new world of issue-branding.

Now, NYS has voted against holding a Convention before. In 1858, 1916, 1957, 1977, 1997—people decided against it  for a variety of reasons. But that was before we were the land of indictments, fighting Illinois for the title of Most Corrupt State in the Union.

Take a look at how polls rated the likelihood of a yes vote on the ConCon over the course of 2017. From 64-24 percent YES in August to 57-25 percent NO in November—that's a massive swing in a short period of time. What caused it? Did NYS clean up its act? Did the legislature convince people that it could police itself and pass the amendments the people requested? Not exactly.


I started seeing social media posts from NYSUT back in early summer, along with posts from a group that called itself New Yorkers Against Corruption, a slick name for an organization that actually fought to retain New York corruption and the status quo. If you go to NYAC's website, you find, in the small print, a contact called Thomas Meara at a company called Kivvit. By its own admission, Kivvit "designs and manages campaigns with the issue and client outcome in mind." It is a large PR firm that works for clients such as Ford and Comcast. Tom Meara himself has an interesting resume and has done union work.

The main thrust of NYSUT's and NYAC's posts was that a ConCon would eliminate public employee pensions. This rapidly evolved online, in the thrilling game of Telephone that social media mirrors, into the ConCon's taking away existing pensions. As far as I can tell, the unions were the only ones suggesting this as a probable result of the ConCon. Since no delegates yet existed, nobody was touting the removal of pensions as a campaign promise. In a state with nearly half a million people employed in el-hi education alone, the threat of pension reform is significant. It didn't matter whether the method was simply voting to eradicate public pensions, or voting to allow the money from the pension fund to be used for other purposes—both of which I saw described online—the threat galvanized a NO vote with public employees and rapidly moved via shares and retweets to involve supporters of teachers, supporters of fire fighters (rarely the same people), and many people for whom a pension was just a distant dream. It did not matter that the NYS pension system has gone through radical changes via legislation and renegotiation, from Tier 1 now to Tier 6. The thought of putting their hard-earned coin in the People's hands was more than public employees could bear.

The high point of the union blitz, as far as I'm concerned, came when a union leader went on the radio to tout a no vote to keep big money out of politics. The money spent by the unions in opposition far exceeded any money put up by ConCon supporters. It is worth remembering that the unions, in conjunction with a few other groups, were primarily responsible for the failure of the vote in 1997 as well, back when we had no examples like Wisconsin to suggest that New York might screw its public workforce.


At the same time that this Save the Pension social media blitz was going on, environmental groups were sharing their own Save Forever Wild concerns via social media. For every ten pension posts I saw, there was perhaps one environmental post. And whenever I mentioned that Forever Wild had in fact been created via Constitutional Conventions in 1894 and 1938, I got a flurry of lists of Good Guy Conservation Agencies who were urging a no vote. This despite the fact that we've been chipping away at Forever Wild legislatively over the last decades.


It's worth thinking about how Facebook works. My tendency to click on political and educational posts means that Facebook is eager to throw political and educational posts my way. That might easily explain the ten-to-one pension posts I saw compared to environmental posts. But my guess is that money talked, and the unions spent so much that it was only natural that pension posts overwhelmed environmental posts even on the feeds of environmentalists. It would be interesting to compare notes.


Somewhere around late August, I started reading posts urging a no vote because the Mercers, Steve Bannon, and ReclaimNY were urging a yes vote. This one took off like wildfire, multiplying throughout the intertubes like the zombie apocalypse. Attaching the names Mercer and Bannon to anything was enough to electrify the left. It did not matter one bit that ReclaimNY had actually decided to back down on their initial tendency to vote yes because they did not trust that existing legislators would not be delegates. The entire Constitutional Convention was now an alt-right conspiracy.


Some of this Mercer thing was a corruption of an actual Mercer-led blueprint for holding a Constitutional Convention via Article V—of the U.S. Constitution, not the NYS Constitution. There is a difference. One is a literary work of genius. The other is a pedestrian how-to document. Perhaps misled by this conflation, people started posting in the fall about "saving our constitution," as though something that tells us how bingo and lotto are to be regulated were a precious work of art. By this point, it was no longer clear to me who was behind any of the posts I was reading. The "no" signs all over the state were union-bought, but the many tentacles of nuttiness now crowding out the pension and Forever Wild stories seemed to be spontaneous.


Shot down rather quickly late last summer, but too late to do any actual good, was the notion that a ConCon would cost the people of New York $300 million. The Rockefeller Institute, which tried like Peter at the dike to poke their fingers in all the holes erupting around the ConCon, found this erroneous number perpetrated by various public officials. Although a series of stories appeared in media around the state saying that the number was specious and probably five or six times the real cost, the truth mattered little by that point.


In 1997, hero and would-be Assembly reformer Richard Brodsky strongly supported the Constitutional Convention against his legislative leadership, and so did Governor Mario Cuomo. As ConCons make strange bedfellows, they were joined in their yes votes by Tom Golisano, Rudy Giuliani, and ChangeNY. This year, you had to look long and hard to find a legislator in favor of the Convention, and although Governor Andrew Cuomo pretended to lean yes, he danced a little sidestep the day before the vote and announced his plan to vote no.


The weirdest motif that occurred late in the battle was the one that suggested that our system of altering the Constitution worked fabulously well as it was. I've written before about how bizarre this logic was. In just a few months, we had entirely lost the thread of corruption and dysfunction and landed in a place where all was well, so why rock the boat.


If you don't believe votes can be changed by persistent, false messaging, I give you New York State from August through November of 2017. I believe that if "yes" organizations had been quicker on the uptake (and had unlimited funds and a great PR firm), they could have fought back with credible arguments and changed some minds, or at least retained their original advantage. As it was, they mostly wrung their hands and ceded the field. Those of us who watch NYS politics with a jaded eye (and who have actually read the Constitution) could only stomp out miscellaneous flareups with no hope of actually ending the firestorm. New York now gets to putz around until 2037, content in the knowledge that its people don't really want substantial change. And maybe Russia will hire Kivvit in 2018—I'm sure they'll accept rubles if the price is right.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The SALT Vote

Am I the only person to think that Reed and Collins voted for the SALT deduction in a careful calculation among the NY delegation about whose seats were least vulnerable?

If you think you're immune to ouster, you can support the White House without repercussions. I consider it a really bad sign.