May 15, 2006

Fred Takes The Liberal Test

Since Frinklin was interested to know how I'd answer the questions on the "Liberal Test," I decided to give it a whirl, even though I tend to think laundry lists like this are pretty silly.

1. Undo the bankruptcy bill enacted by this administration Yes. I agree with Frinklin on the need for personal responsibility, and I have limited sympathy for people who pave the road to debt hell with credit cards and plasma TVs. However, given the number of people who declare bankruptcy due to illness-related calamities, I think tightening the bankruptcy laws needs to come after we reform the health care system (see #4).

2. Repeal the estate tax repeal
Sure, but it's not a major priority for me. There are many things that need fixing more urgently than this.

3. Increase the minimum wage and index it to the CPI
Yes, and absolutely. While I see certain problems with the "living wage" concept (given my bakcground in economics, how could I not?), I do think the minimum wage is overdue for an increase.

4. Universal health care (obviously the devil is in the details on this one).
I'm with Frinklin here: how can you absolutely endorse this without knowing the details of the plan? As a principle, I'm absolutely for it. This does not mean that I'd endorse every universal-coverage plan that came along. However, I will say that it would be hard to conceive of a system worse than the one we have now.

5. Increase CAFE standards. Some other environment-related regulation.
Yes and yes (although the second "principle" is so vague as to be meaningless). I think, ultimately, getting serious about alternative energy sources is a must. Imposing higher CAFE standards is one way to get us there. So is increasing funding for research into alternate energy (possibly funded by a gas tax). So is increasing tax credits for hybrid vehicles. What is not helpful is staging a photo op in front of the Capitol Hill Exxon, whining about gas prices, and proposing half-baked solutions like mailing everyone a $100 check. (Both parties are guilty of this bold approach to problem-solving. I'm not sure what's more disheartening: the naked cynicism of this approach, or the politicians' well-placed certainty that people will buy it.)

6. Pro-reproductive rights, getting rid of abstinence-only education, improving education about and access to contraception including the morning after pill, and supporting choice.

7. Simplify and increase the progressivity of the tax code.
Well, yes. But I have yet to meet anyone, liberal, conservative or otherwise, who is opposed to simplifying the tax code. As with health care, the devil is in the details, unless you're pro-flat-tax like my blogpartner. (I'm not.)

8. Kill faith-based funding. Certainly kill federal funding of anything that engages in religious discrimination.
I'm leery of this, simply because I'm worried that for a lot of liberals, this would boil down to "no federal funding for anything remotely connected, in any way, to religion." I believe in a healthy church-state separation, but I think we Democrats have a tendency toward excessive hostility toward religion, which offends many sincere people of faith and walks right into the Republicans' "faith-vs.-heathenism" trap. But that's a separate post entirely. So I'll say no and yes, sharing Frinklin's caveat that I'd like to see what this supposed "religious discrimination" consists of.

9. Reduce corporate giveaways.
Well, duh.

10. Have Medicare run the Medicare drug plan.
No, no, no. Replace the Medicare drug plan with something useful instead.

11. Force companies to stop underfunding their pensions. Change corporate bankruptcy law to put workers and retirees at the head of the line with respect to their pensions.
Hmmm. I'll say yes, but: The sad fact is that these pension plans are driving a lot of American companies to bankruptcy in the first place. We need to figure out a solution that allows American industry to remain competitive, or what little industry we have remaining is all going to flee overseas, either through outsourcing or foreign competition. Shaking your finger at companies and saying, "Stop underfunding your pensions!" isn't an answer. The idea of putting workers and retirees at the head of the bankruptcy line has more appeal. So I'll say no and yes.

12. Leave the states alone on issues like medical marijuana. Generally move towards "more decriminalization" of drugs, though the details complicated there too.
Eh, no. If we're going to change the drug policies, we need to do it at the federal level. Legalizing (or decriminalizing) drugs in some states but not others is asking for trouble. That said, we need to have an honest discussion about the merits of things like medical marijuana, rather than sticking our fingers in our ears and saying "It's bad la-la-la-la-la-la I can't HEAR you!"

13. Paper ballots

14. Improve access to daycare and other pro-family policies.
Yes, but what's a "pro-family policy"? The Christian Coalition thinks an anti-gay-marriage amendment is a "pro-family policy." Has anyone ever stood up in favor of an "anti-family policy"?

15. Raise the cap on wages covered by FICA taxes.
Yes. I take issue with Frinklin's contention that Democrats don't think any Social Security reform is necessary; both parties have demagogued this issue heavily.

16. Marriage rights for all, which includes "gay marriage" and quicker transition to citizenship for the foreign spouses of citizens.
Yes. I mean, come on, people. This one isn't hard. I hadn't heard the foreign-spouse thing was that big of a deal, though.

I count 16 yeses, 5 nos. (I'm not sure how Frinklin and I came up with a different number of answers, but so be it.) I suppose I'm liberal, which strikes me as accurate. This "test" is pretty much pablum, though. In my opinion, it's more instructive how you answer the questions that whether you say yes or no.

To use an example from Frinklin's and my answers: We both said "yes" to the "universal health care" question, but I'll bet that his conception of an ideal universal-coverage plan is very different from mine. We answered differently on the bankruptcy-law question, but I wouldn't be surprised if we had more common ground there than on the health-care question. Also, I agree that the "test" doesn't tell you all that much without including some foreign-policy questions.

I don't know that Atrios intended this as a "Liberal Test" as such, though. I think it was more of an attempt to define what Democrats (or at least the liberal blogosphere) believe, which is a noble and necessary effort. I'd like it better, though, if it was stated in the form of certain principles which would form the liberal worldview (you know, "that vision thing") rather than a laundry list of programs. Democrats already suffer from a lack of vision and big thinking; advancing a list of vague programmatic objectives doesn't help matters.

Posted by Mediocre Fred at May 15, 2006 07:38 AM | TrackBack
Well, yes. But I have yet to meet anyone, liberal, conservative or otherwise, who is opposed to simplifying the tax code.

Yep, I don't think anyone could disagree with this, and yet the tax code never gets any simpler. One of the great mysteries of life.

Posted by: frinklin at May 15, 2006 10:34 PM

"One of the great mysteries of life."

Not really -- Robert Samuelson pointed out that almost no one is willing to simplify the tax code if it means losing his own deductions, credits, etc. I think you would have to guarantee a majority of likely voters that their taxes would not increase before such simplification would occur, though you could fudge the calculation slightly by pointing out how much is spent on tax preparation in time, energy and stress as well as money and assuming that a simplified tax system won't require the services of H&R Block.

Frinklin, you benefit from mortg@ge deduction; I benefited from the $2000 deduction for hybrid buyers; Fred's parents benefited from the child credit and college tuition deduction. Some students even benefit from the EITC, which probably wasn't originally intended for them. The conservative/ third way liberal method of providing financial incentives is to give people various tax breaks for desired behavior. Probably most economists would consider this an improvement on the old-school liberal method of giving money directly for preferred programs, but that ignores the transaction cost involved in complicating the tax code. Whatever one says against government spending, at least it used to be pretty straightforward.

The last simplification was by Reagan, who managed to cut the top federal income tax rate by killing lots of deductions and thereby maintaining tax revenue. It was stopping the loopholes that did it, not the Laffer Curve -- I still haven't met the person who decided not to become a millionaire just to spite the government out of her taxes. Also, I'm suspicious of Samuelson's praise for "broadening the tax base," if by that he means "make those lucky duckies pay federal income tax too."

(This comment brought to you courtesy of Jason Taylor, my history of U.S. economics prof.)

Posted by: PG at May 16, 2006 03:06 PM
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