Sunday, December 10, 2017

Lies, Damned Lies, and SALT statistics

This is a Special Edition of Blank versus Blank. This post is the presentation of a single side of an issue. Because it is only one perspective, we call this a Blank Verse.

This Blank Verse is presented by David.

As the Tax Reform bill heads to a conference committee, now that a version of it has passed both the House and the Senate, one of the issues that has come up, and generated quite a bit of debate, is whether or not state and local taxes (SALT) should be able to be deducted from federal taxes.

Mark Twain popularized the quote, 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." The SALT exemption, and arguments for and against its elimination exemplify this sentiment perfectly. The SALT debate also illustrates that there are two sides to an argument, and both sides can be right.

Politicians in high, state-tax states want to keep the SALT exemption.  The argument they make is that their states provide more taxes to the federal government than they receive, so residents of their states should be able to deduct their SALT taxes.

But is that actually true? It depends on how you measure it.

It is true that more populous states pay more in federal taxes than those smaller states with less population. More people living in the state equals more people paying taxes. It is also true that people living in large, urban areas are wealthier, and therefore pay more in taxes than those in more rural areas.

But do they get less of their federal dollars returned? Do they get fewer services? Well, it gets a bit trickier to answer that question. There are many variables to take into account, and they aren't determined by whether a state leans blue or red.

Poorer states contribute less in taxes, and because they are poorer, they are more likely to receive money for programs that serve the poor. States that have military bases receive huge amounts of government funding, regardless of whether their SALT taxes are high or low.

Here's a nice, data-rich article describing various ways to run the numbers looking at the states as collective tax-paying entities:

Are Red States Tax Takers and Blue States Tax Makers? ~The Federalist, Kyle Sammin.

When the author breaks down the numbers by inter-governmental payments based on individual tax payments, he found that "against a national average of $1,935 in intergovernmental spending per American, red states receive just $1,879. Blue states get considerably more, at $2,124 per resident."

Which is a nice segue to a different way of evaluating the SALT exemption. Rather than running the numbers based on how much a state pays as a collective, how about comparing individual tax payers and their rates.

A Texan making $100,000 dollars a year doesn't get to deduct any SALT from his Federal taxes. Texas doesn't have a state income tax. So the Texan has to pay the entire federal-tax bill that comes his way. A New Yorker making $100,000, on the other hand, gets to deduct his rather large SALT bill from the federal taxes he pays. Based upon individual tax burdens, the Texan is paying much more to fund the federal government and all of its programs than the New Yorker. Is that fair?

As a Hoosier, I'm proud that my state legislators and governors have kept our tax burden low. But I find it unfair that folks in big-government blue states, that are making the same amount of money I am, are paying less than I am for federal programs and bureaucracy, some of which I don't support.

(As a side note, it was Democrat Evan Bayh who oversaw Indiana's largest tax cut during his tenure as governor. So taxes and tax cuts are not simply a Republican/Democrat issue.)

But income tax isn't the entire story either:

What are the Best and Worst States to Pay Taxes In? ~Investopedia, J.B. Maverick

I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard a liberal say that this group or that group wasn't paying their fair share. I could retire. As I've tried to illustrate here, deciding what is a fair share depends largely on how you lay out the numbers. Do you count as part of a collective, or as an individual? Since we pay income taxes as individuals, and not as states, I believe anyone who tries to parse the statistics based on collective data, is being misleading. Or, as Mark Twain would say, lying.

Will the SALT exemption remain in place, or will it disappear in the tax bill's final form? It probably depends on which statistics get the most media support. Since most of the big-media headquarters are located in big cities located in states with high-tax rates, I'm going to guess the media will focus on statistics that make their states look like victims, even though individual citizens are not paying into federal programs at the same rate as their smaller, low-tax states.

Numbers don't lie. Or do they?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

If the Flag Doesn't Symbolize Unity, What Will?

This is a Special Edition of Blank versus Blank. This post is the presentation of a single side of an issue. Because it is only one perspective, we call this a Blank Verse.

This Blank Verse is presented by David.

 We are a very diverse nation. And we have very diverse opinions. But overall, we have much more in common than we don't.

The NFL protests this season have opened up considerable dialogue, although not exactly what the NFL would have preferred, or the players anticipated. Several players have offered up their view that the protests about an inequality within the justice system, is a unifying event.

It isn't. The why of their protest was overshadowed by the when of their protest.

It used to be that many Americans spent their Sunday afternoons watching the NFL. It was a unifying event. But now, for many, the introduction of politics into the sport destroyed that unity. According to ratings, many Americans are now spending their Sunday afternoons doing other things.

After the President got involved, likely for political gain, the players doubled down on their calls for unity. But it was a call for unity within their teams, not unity as a country. It should have been obvious to them that they were on the wrong side of this argument when Pittsburgh Steeler Alejandro Villanueva's jersey became the best-selling jersey in America after he stood for the anthem alone, as his team "unified" within the locker room.

Alejandro Villanueva standing alone for the National Anthem

Drew Brees, Saints quarterback, said, "Do I think that there's inequality in this country? Yes I do. Do I think that there's racism? Yes I do. I think that there's inequality for women, for women in the workplace. I think that there's inequality for people of color, for minorities, for immigrants. But as it pertains to the national anthem, I will always feel that if you are an American that the national anthem is the opportunity for us all to stand up together, to be unified and to show respect for our country." (Brees stood for the anthem.)

It is regrettable that icons of national unity like “The Star Spangled Banner” and the American flag are being used for division, no matter how worthy the cause.

The players who didn’t stand for the anthem have cited numerous reasons for their protests, such as police brutality, racism, and even opposition to President Trump and his policies, but the general, overriding message they are sending is this: We are not a united country anymore.

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress resolved "That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."

The United States Flag predates the adoption of the U.S. Constitution by 12 years. It's been a part of America longer than the basis of our legal system that the NFL players are protesting against.

In South Boston, Virginia, at the Annin Flagmakers factory , workers were asked by their local newspaper to name life's most important elements. No matter the political or ethnic backgrounds, the same answers come back: family, work and faith. When asked to sum up the values Americans broadly share, they point to their handiwork and what it stands for — freedom, opportunity and prideWhen presented with the idea of living in any other foreign land, they uniformly say "no, America can't be beat".

"We may be divided on some things, but when it comes down to the most important things we come together," said Emily Bouldin, a 66-year-old seated before a jabbering sewing machine on an Annin production floor awash in red, white and blue. "Because we realize, together we stand, divided we fall."

"The United States is the freest and the best country on this earth and that flag represents that," said Ed Haney, a 69-year-old maintenance mechanic at the Annin plant.

The NFL protests, because they are so open to interpretation, are ineffective. Whatever message these players are trying to send is obscured by the reckless way they’re doing it. There are plenty of other venues for protests. This is not the forum for such protest. By this time, most (but not all) of them clearly realize their tactical error. They have begun kneeling at some point during the pre-game, but they are standing for the anthem.

However, one thing is for sure, recreating national unity can’t come from top-down economic solutions or policies. It can only come from a healthy, revitalized culture and leaders who know how to channel it in the right direction. A stand for unity in America is healthy, in the right forum, and with a unified goal of making America the best that it can be.

America was never a perfect nation, but we have made incredible progress. The flag represents our aspirations and goals. It represents the best of America, not the worst.

Watch this short video of a men who had a dream of raising a 400-foot flag pole in Wisconsin, and see the excitement the project brought about in everyone involved, from designers, to engineers, to the construction crew. The flag is unifying. A really big flag is really unifying.

The Making of the Acuity Flagpole.

The American  flag itself is the most easily accessible image for unity. Is it lawful to burn it? Yes. Is it lawful to take a knee during the National Anthem? Yes. But is it unifying to do so? Absolutely not.

It may be permissible to do something, but it is not necessarily beneficial to your cause. In the instance of the NFL, protesting during the displaying of the flag and the playing of the National Anthem has aligned many Americans against the players and their cause. The message has been lost because of the manner of protest.

A great many Americans treasure the flag for very personal reasons. Members of the military specifically believe they have fought, and many of their peers have bled and died for this country and it's ideals. The American flag represents that sacrifice and the deaths of any soldier who has ever worn the uniform of our country.

These same veterans admit that one of the ideals they fought for was free speech, and for Americans to be able to protest. They understand better than most of the protestors why these rights make America a great country. But they don't have to like it, or condone the disrespect to the flag and all of the great things it represents.

What the NFL players seem to have finally realized, is that taking a knee during the anthem was the wrong manner and time to make their point. Did it start a discussion? Oh boy, did it. But Colin Kaepernick's original message has been overshadowed by the fallout over the choice of protest. Within a few short months, the NFL has fallen from it's perennial spot as America's most popular sport. Major League Baseball has taken over that spot just this year. There are other factors that play into this shift, such as the resurgence of the never-win Chicago Cubs finally winning the World Series last year. But while the NFL toppled, and it's negative ratings climbed, college football remained stable in it's fan base and viewership. So it's only professional football that is currently falling. Most polls list the NFL protests as a major factor in fan opinions. And the opinions have largely been negative.

The American flag can unify us, in a time where unity is needed.  Go out and buy one and hang it on your house today.  If the flag as a symbol can't unify us, is there anything that can?

We are all Americans, even when we disagree about the solutions to our problems. Whether it's Obama or Trump who wears the mantle of President, they both stand in front of an American flag, and represent our country to the world. I disagreed with Obama, and you may disagree with Trump. That's America, my friend. Let's rejoice in our Americanism.

There are calls for national unity everyday, yet those calls are usually followed by the usual, divisive identity-politics-messaging. Real unity will come from people like you and me, who choose to find unity with those around us each and everyday. It also means we have to find unity with those who disagree with us, each and every day.

Let's be Americans. Together.

Have a thoughtful Veteran's Day this November 11th. The NFL is planning for some extraordinarily big celebrations next Sunday. Perhaps they can repair some of the damage the've done. Waving some flags and sincerely applauding veterans will certainly be a unifying step in the right direction.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

DACA: Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA is an "American immigration policy that allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. As of 2017, approximately 800,000 individuals—referred to as Dreamers after the DREAM Act bill—were enrolled in the program created by DACA." The policy was established by the Obama administration in June 2012 and the policy was largely rescinded by the Trump administration in September 2017. What should be done now?

Photo credit
DACA, the  Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, is illegal.

This is not just my opinion, but is (or was) the opinion of a former US President and Constitutional law professor.

President Obama said that he, as the Executive of the country, could not just create DACA. It needed to be enacted as law by the Congress. He made this argument very clearly numerous times.

“I’m president, I’m not king,” Barack Obama, October 25, 2010

“I think it’s important to remind everybody that, what I’ve said previously, I am not a king, I am head of the executive branch of government,” Obama said in an interview with Univision. “I am required to follow the law, and that is what we’ve done.” Barack Obama, January 29, 2013

Yet, he then changed that position and created DACA through executive order when the Democrat-led Congress failed to act. Multiple states sued on various grounds, and many cases are still pending before the courts, but so far, the former President's original argument is winning the day. He didn't have the authority to create DACA. In it's current format,  DACA isn't legal.

Which brings us to the present. DACA beneficiaries are in a state of limbo that President Obama created. President Trump put the ball squarely in Congress's court, which is where this belonged in the first place. Congress needs to take up the issue (which Democrats could have done when Obama was in office, and had a super-majority in the Senate). President Trump has done the right thing by pressuring Congress to act. President Trump's Executive Order and subsequent rules created a provision that no changes be made to the status of current dreamers for 6 months. If Congress does not act within that time frame, DACA may end. Perhaps that's what Congress needed all along, a deadline.

Dealing with DACA is something that Republicans in Congress would rather avoid. They were very happy to have DACA for two reasons: 

  1. it allowed them to complain about Obama enacting it (as shown by your response above) to appeal to their extreme base, and
  2. it provided a humanitarian solution, appealing to everyone else. 

This is analogous to the healthcare situation: complain about Obamacare, but allow it to stand. But Trump doesn't understand (or doesn't care about) that dynamic. Or perhaps it is by design: he loves conflict and chaos! 

In any event, this puts the future of the Dreamers into the hands of the Republicans. What will they do? I suspect that they know that Congress is going to look very different in a year and a half when the Democratic party retakes the House, and maybe Senate at this rate. Then Congress can create a real solution for those stuck in this limbo. So, I expect the current Republican-led Congress will allow the DACA idea to die. That will appeal to their base, and the Democratic party can provide the humanitarian solution that the rest of us really want.

Your opinions do not reflect any facts on the ground.  Sixty-six percent of Republican law-makers support DACA. When this comes up for a vote, Republicans will support creating a pathway for citizenship for dreamers. This is a win for Republicans. A majority of Americans support DACA, and Republicans will be the ones to put it into law, something Democrats promised during the Obama years, but failed to get done. ( I'm glad you have the optimism that your party will be in control, and get it done the next time around, something they failed to do when they had control of both houses and the executive branch.)

The only catch is whether Democrats will balk at attaching any sort of border security measures with DACA. The White House has said that Trump will not insist on any sort of wall, but increased border security is something that must be included in the deal. A majority of Americans support increased border security, and it was a major point Trump made on the campaign trail. 

As this graph illustrates, Americans support making DACA law, and they also have soured on a physical border "wall". They support a compromise (65% to 27%) of both enacting DACA as a law and increasing border security, something the President and most Republicans support. This compromise is the way forward. Everyone wins, including dreamers.

At least you are willing to concede that the dreamers are stuck in limbo because of President Obama's  executive order, and Congress needs to act. I consider that progress.

The Dreamers were saved by Obama's administration, otherwise they would have already been subject to deportation. Those dreams were dashed by Trump's rescinding of DACA. 

I hope you are right that Republicans will join the Democrats to help save the Dreamers. And the Dreamers' parents. And all immigrants. Unfortunately, you are also right that the Republicans will probably also attach something else to the bill that has nothing to do with the Dreamers' lives and will end up killing the bill. I know many Dreamers and it breaks my heart to see their lives being batted around as a political football. 

There are many in the Republican party (e.g., Trump's base) that do not want anything like DACA to pass. We'll see if the Republicans can gather their support for a such a popular program. I'll be very surprised if they do get it passed. But hope springs eternal! It would be ironic if it falls back to Trump to make an executive action to again save the Dreamers.

Two things before we wrap this up:

Dreamers are in this country illegally. It was not through any fault of their own, but they, and their parents broke immigration laws. There are laws for reasons, and there are penalties for breaking the law. What is currently going on is an effort to change the law to allow them a path towards citizenship. Only Congress can pass that law. Obama placed dreamers in a very precarious position with false promises. I consider the actions he took to create DACA (a program he repeatedly said he could not create legally) during an election season to be one of the most blatantly cynical and partisan things he did while in office. President Trump is leading an effort to make dreamer's status legal under the law. Trump won't enact any executive actions for the very reasons he had to start the process of undoing former President Obama's: It's not legal, and won't stand up in court.

Border security isn't something that has no relationship to dreamers or their status. Dreamers entered  our borders illegally. Border security funnels immigrants towards the legal means of entering the country, and taking their first legal steps towards US citizenship. If Democrats don't see DACA as having anything to do with our borders, then they will cause these efforts to fail. Border security and immigration go hand in hand. Immigrants are welcomed. The first thing they need to do is recognize that the country they are entering is a nation of law. Addressing DACA is the first step to reforming the entire immigration process, which currently appears to be too complicated and expensive for many.

Building a wall has nothing to do with the Dreamers. You imagine their parents sneaking in via a hole in a fence. But many Dreamers aren't even from Mexico, and many came here legally. Perhaps their parents overstayed their student or work visas. They may have taken a plane into the US legally. So, no, a wall on the southern border won't help solve any problem. And neither will "increased border security" if they come in legally. So that has little to do with Dreamers. Democrats are fine with increased security all around, such as limiting gun violence. It is a question of priorities.

This country sure has changed over the last 100 years. Most of the people in the US whose parents came to the US have no idea whether they are here legally:
"When people say their ancestors came legally, if they came before 1924, everybody was legal,” said Ngai. “It wasn’t a choice they had to make. After 1924, if you couldn’t get a visa because your country’s quota was filled, many came without documents. They sneaked in." - The Inquirer
It is a world that is upside down where doing something to save the tax-paying Dreamers is seen as "cynical" and rescinding the attempt is seen as "leading an effort to" save them. In any event, I don't know why you insist on stating this mixed up position when it has little to do with what to actually do next. It is pretty simple: just turn Obama's policy into law. As your graph shows, most people want this. Except for the elected Republicans. We'll see what happens in Congress. And then we'll see what happens in the next election.