Friday, February 14, 2014

Whose Tax Policy?

At the end of 2013, many U.S. citizens learned that they were going to pay more income tax than ever before. Social Security, funded largely through the FICA tax, took a bigger percentage of paychecks. Income taxes increased. Tom Herman, writing for The Wall Street Journal, noted that there was also

an additional 0.9% Medicare tax on wages, other compensation and self-employment income.

Taxes went up a bit, and deductions - people's ability to shelter some of their wages from taxes - went down a bit. As a result of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, career-age people are paying income tax on their healthcare expenditures:

Many people under 65 with large medical bills will discover they can't deduct as much as they could a year ago.

But whose tax policy is this? Many voters blame Obama, but that may be a bit oversimplified. Congress had a hand in these matters as well.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Rethinking Obama

The various news media have presented a spectrum of understandings concerning Barack Obama. He mystifies both liberals and conservatives, both Democrats and Republicans. Those who voted for him, and those who voted against him, are equally mystified as to his essence. The thoughtful reader may quickly dismiss both the demonizations and the hagiographies.

Over time, interpretations of Obama have become nuanced. Observers have watched his actions in a variety of settings, with a variety of people, concerning a variety of issues. What emerges is not the simplistic view of a typical liberal Democrat. Whether one considers the phrase 'liberal Democrat' to be a compliment or an insult, the phrase does not apply in any straightforward fashion to Obama. Although the word 'progressive' has come back into fashion at the beginning of the twenty-first century - it was quite stylish at the beginning of the previous century as well - its application to Obama is not unproblematic. While Obama is in some senses very much a progressive, he also departs from the Wilsonian template. Obama's most obvious deviation from Woodrow Wilson can be found in the fact that Wilson introduced segregation into many branches of the federal government in which African-Americans and whites had previously worked side-by-side.

The questions to be answered are these: What is Obama's ideology? What is his personality? What is his value system? What are his goals? Which means will he countenance to achieve those goals?

Readers will note that the media's interpretations of Obama have carefully redesigned themselves over the years.

Discerning journalists note the tension between various aspects of Obama's persona. These different facets give rise to questions about what lies behind them - Who is the real Obama? Which features does his true personality have? Dinesh D'Souza outlines the competing visions of what Obama might be:

Barack Obama is an enigmatic figure, a puzzle both to his adversaries and to his supporters. Somehow the Obama of the 2008 election campaign seems to have metamorphosed into a very different President Obama. The two men are not merely politically different — different in their policy agenda — but also psychologically different. The centrist, reassuring Obama is gone and has been replaced by a more detached, unreadable and, to some, even menacing Obama. It’s hard for Americans to respond to Obama because we aren’t sure where he is coming from, what motivates him.

The above paragraph was written in 2010, by which time Obama had occupied the White House for about a year and a half. The earliest persona which Obama projected for the nation was a feel-good image, the moderate man of hope and compromise. Earlier personae, which he may have projected in local politics in Chicago, or in his Ivy-League student years, were not broadly presented to the nation.

the dramatic contrast between the two faces of Obama. What then are these two faces? The first is the face of the healer and unifier. This is the Obama who wrote in his book The Audacity of Hope, "We will need to remind ourselves, despite all our differences, just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams, a bond that will not break." Obama promised "a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans." The same Obama spoke at the Democratic convention in 2004, in which he said, "There is not a liberal America and a conservative America; there is a United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America, a Latino America and an Asian America. ... We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all us of defending the United States of America." That speech resounded with conservative themes, as when Obama described "the people I meet in small towns and big cities and diners and office parks - they don't expect government to solve all of their problems. Go into the collar counties around Chicago, and they'll tell you that they don't want their tax money wasted by a welfare agency or the Pentagon. Go into any inner-city neighborhood and folks will tell you that government alone can't teach kids to learn." This is the kind of talk you normally hear at the Republican convention. And when Obama was elected he pledged, "And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn - I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your president too." Let's call the Obama who uttered these inspirational words Obama I.
After his inauguration, a distinctly post-election tone emerged in Obama's words, and that tone was reflected in his deeds. The moderation and conciliation seemed gone; he promoted his agenda assertively, with little regard for the opinions of the voters:

Obama II, a very different character. This is the Obama who lambasts the banks and investment houses and forces them to succumb to federal control; the Obama who gives it to the pharmaceutical and health insurance companies, bending them to his will; the Obama who demonizes his predecessor and his opponents, portraying them as the source of all the problems that only he can solve. This Obama pushed through health care reform, essentially establishing government control over one-sixth of the U.S. economy, and he did it without a single Republican vote in either the House or the Senate. Nor did it matter to Obama that a majority of the American people, in poll after poll, rejected the proposed changes. Despite Scott Brown's stunning victory in Massachusetts, turning Ted Kennedy's Senate seat over to the Republicans, Obama found a way to make his health care reform the law of the land. This same Obama seeks to impose expensive environmental regulations on companies in the form of cap and trade legislation; he is going to sharply hike taxes on businesses and the affluent; he is scaling back the military budget and has announced a withdrawal of American troops from both Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, as before, Obama can be expected to trample over his opposition to achieve his goals. This Obama has dismayed Republicans and conservatives, and an activist Tea Party movement has mobilized against him.

Pulling quotes from the pre-election version of Obama and contrasting them with quotes from the post-inauguration Obama, the contrasts are highlighted.

The obvious question, as D'Souza frames it, arises: "So which is the real Obama?" Voters and journalists phrased it in various ways, but the question was the same. The distinct personae were presented; which one was real? D'Souza, in 2010, proposed a novel solution: neither was real. Instead, "we are in search of Obama III, an account that transcends and reconciles Obama I and Obama II." A deeper psyche might lie behind these two contrasting personae.

To find the common source of these two images, one must attempt to investigate the observable signs of Obama's inner world. Minds are not publicly measurable or visible, but concrete actions, words, and experiences can give clues about what might be in a mind - in this case, in Obama's mind.

To grasp Obama’s story, we have to put aside the multicultural mantras and the conservative boilerplate and enter Obama’s world. Imagine a little boy growing up in the sunbathed beauty of Hawaii, soaking in the culture, hearing about how the innocent natives were crushed and overrun by horrible invaders and profiteers. Imagine a slightly older child on a bicycle on the crowded streets of Indonesia, learning from his stepfather the harsh code of a developing country, shaped out of the history of European colonialism. Now imagine a young man undertaking a journey to Kenya, for many people a journey to nowhere, but for him a journey to his own past, where through inner soul-searching and conversations with relatives he discovers who his father really was, and what he must do to make good on the dead man’s unfulfilled dreams. This is Barack Obama. But for him these aren’t imaginings; they are memories. These memories are formed out of the indelible ink of experience, and they have by his own account marked the man. By attentively examining his experience as he tells it himself, and as elaborated by others who have researched his background, we can understand Obama in a way that he has not been understood before.

The set of experiences, then, which shaped Obama's psyche include: living the first ten or more years of his life with no personal contact from his biological father; living those years in an environment, carefully designed by his mother, which included many Asians and whites, but no Africans or African-Americans; living those years without ever attending an American public school; living most of those years outside the United States.

The first ten, twelve, or fifteen years of Obama's life were, then, filled with factors which nudge him into the role of an outsider: a United States citizen who spent the majority of his time outside the United States; an African-American who was raised primarily, almost exclusively, among whites and Asians; an American child who never attended an American public school.

Perpetually playing the role of outsider has taught Obama the peculiar ways in which he projects his various personae, and the content of those personae.

All of the above represents the state of the public's understanding of Obama circa 2010. As time elapses, more data become available; Obama's policies and words continue to unfold, revealing more clues as to the common root of his various exteriors. By 2012, a more nuanced understanding of Obama was within reach.

Obama's mysterious policy actions, and cryptic statements, give clues about an underlying ideology which is aimed, not at America's role in helping other nations lift themselves to a first-world standard of living, but rather at a process in which the United States would lose a significant amount of its economic, military, and political status among the world's nations, and a process in which the average American family would see its net worth and its real income shrink. These, it emerged, were Obama's goals. In 2012, D'Souza wrote:

Obama is not merely the presiding instrument of American decline, he is the architect of American decline. He wants America to be downsized. He wants Americans to consume less, and he would like to see our standard of living decline relative to that of other nations. He seeks a diminished footprint for America in the world. He detests Americas traditional allies, like Britain and Israel, and seeks to weaken them; he is not very worried about radical Muslims acquiring a nuclear bomb or coming to power in countries like Tunisia and Egypt. He is quite willing to saddle future generations of Americans with crippling debt; he has spent trillions of dollars toward this end, and if he had been permitted, he would have spent trillions more. He has shown no inclination, and has no desire, to protect America’s position as number one in the world; he would be content to see America as number 18, or number 67, just another country seated at the great dining table of nations. The strength of my thesis is that it is completely congruent with who Obama is and what he does. We don’t have to assume that he is always getting results opposite to what he intends; we simply have to see that he intends the results he is getting. He emphasized in his inauguration speech his goal of "remaking America" – and he is doing it, recognizing that in order to remake America he must first unmake America.

Between 2010 and 2012, as a clearer understanding of Obama emerged, the reading public became aware that Obama neither liked nor trusted America as a civilization, as a society, or as a culture. Of the many attempted explanations for Obama's 2012 reelection, none have countenanced the notion that his general policy direction was popular. He was reelected despite his policies and despite the murky ideology that fueled them. Obama has no confidence in the United States Constitution, a document which codifies the governmental process which is most apt at preserving and protecting freedom. Obama has no affection for the worldview embodied in texts like the Declaration of Independence or the Bill of Rights, and no affinity for the ideas and writings crystalized political, religious, and economic liberty in America - ideas and writings like those of John Locke, Thomas Paine, George Washington, and the others who together made possible the highest degree of freedom to be found among the nations of the world.

Directed by his own inner ideology, which see America as a neocolonialist oppressor rather than as a liberator, Obama finds little or nothing laudable in the American tradition. Forgetting, or choosing to ignore, that the United States was the incubator for abolitionism and for women's suffrage, his ideology categorizes American success as a priori evil. Rather than see America as having the opportunity help other nations rise in economic and political freedom, Obama believes that the United States must decline in order for others nations to grow. His ideology is captive to zero-sum thinking, not only in matters of economics, but in matters of cultural and political capital as well. Rather than see the United States as a leader of nations, a first among equals, in a scenario in which a rising tide lifts all boats and prosperity can flourish simultaneously in many nations, Obama asserts that only by diminishing the United States can he offer a chance to other countries. D'Souza continues:

Never before in American history have we had a president who seeks decline, who is actually attempting to downsize his country. Presidents are elected to protect and strengthen their country, so why would a president weaken it? We cannot answer this question without understanding Obama himself, his background, and his ideology. Without such understanding, we are vulnerable to all kinds of crazy theories. I am certainly not one of those who say that Obama hates America, or that Obama is a traitor, or that Obama is a Manchurian candidate who is being manipulated by some secret cabal. Not so – Obama is doing these things because of who he is, because of what he believes. He subscribes to an ideology that says it is good for America to go down so that the rest of the world can come up. He wants Americans to be poorer so that Brazilians and Colombians can be richer. He thinks it would be beneficial to us and to the world for there to be many rich and powerful nations, with no single nation able to dominate or dictate terms to any other. Obama is a visionary for global justice. He wants to set right the ship of the world that, in his view, has been tilted to one side for nearly five hundred years, ever since Western civilization began to

flourish in the sciences, in technology, and in political development. Obama sees Western Civilization's forward movement not as illuminating a path which other nations might follow, but rather as a form of theft. Rather than encouraging the third world to develop itself as the first world has done, Obama wants to dismantle the first world. He does not envision the possibility of the first world helping, or working in partnership with, the third world; he believes that only harm can come from the first world, and nothing beneficial. His solution, in light of his beliefs, is to deflate the first world. The humbling and humiliation of the first world is on Obama's policy agenda.

While the use of terms like 'liberal' and 'conservative' and 'Democrat' and 'Republican' leads quickly to oversimplification and overgeneralization, it is nonetheless true that many - not all! - of Obama's opponents, who are called and would call themselves "Republicans" or "conservatives," mistakenly attempted to understand Obama through the template of traditional American leftism - the Democrat Party and its version of liberalism. Obama is not cut of the same political cloth as George McGovern or Franklin Roosevelt.

Obama is not a conventional liberal; he is not from the same mold as Bill Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, Michael Dukakis, or Jimmy Carter. Rather, Obama draws his identity and his values from a Third World, anti-American ideology that goes by the name of anti-colonialism. Obama’s philosophy can be summed up in David Gelernter’s phrase: America the Inexcusable. Notice that this is an affirmation of American exceptionalism, but exceptionalism of a special kind. According to this ethos, America is exceptional in being exceptionally militaristic, violent, greedy, selfish, and rapacious. For Obama, America is the plunderer; and he is the restorer. Traditional Democrats want to preserve American leadership and have America be a model for the World; Obama wants to displace American hegemony and realign America in the world. Traditional Democrats want a bigger economic pie so they can redistribute income in America; Obama wants to curb America's growth and redistribute wealth globally so he can reduce the gap in living standards between America and the rest of the world.

As an axiomatic principle, Obama's desire to humble the United States explains other policy decisions. Seen in this light, Obama's educational policies are not about education, but rather about weakening the nation; his environmental policies are not about the environment, but about weakening the nation; his healthcare policies are not about healthcare, but about weakening the nation; his economic policies are not about prosperity, but about weakening the nation; his energy policies are not about supplying the United States with fuel, but rather about weakening the nation. Only when understood from the standpoint of Obama's desire to harm the United States to his policies make a sort of consistent sense.

As a matter of political necessity and political expediency, Obama has needed to disguise his goal, and thereby enlist the support of environmentalists, economists, educators, and other specialists. But these segments of support become gradually disillusioned by the gnawing feeling that Obama doesn't have their interests at hearts: he mouths environmentalist slogans and issues enough executive orders to appear supportive of environmental causes. Yet, while banning allegedly for environmental reasons certain energy sources in the United States, he facilitates those same activities in other nations. Viewed through the lens of environmentalism, these actions seem self-contradictory; viewed through the lens of Obama's desire to damage the United States, these actions are consistent.

The Obama administration has been blocking oil drilling in America, and it is already moving to restrict and control the use of fracking. Indeed, Obama actively promotes policies that reduce America's access to energy, raise energy prices, and cost jobs which often end up moving abroad. These policies seem not only ill-advised, but politically risky for Obama. So why would he do this? The obvious explanation is that Obama is a dedicated environmentalist, deeply worried about global warming and oil spills and wary of the environmental and safety risks involved in the relatively new technology of fracking.

Obama has made no significant moves to encourage the world's big polluters - mainland China foremost among them - to clean up their environmental usage. Obama sees environmental policy as a tool to harm the United States economy. His feigned passion for environmental causes would quickly disappear if he calculated that they offered him no opportunities injure the American economy.

Yet this environmental explanation of Obama's behavior is clearly wrong. Even as Obama blocks and restricts energy exploration in America, he has been helping other countries exploit their energy resources. Specifically, the Obama administration has bankrolled oil drilling in Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. This oil is destined not for export to America, but for Brazil’s, Colombia’s, and Mexico’s own use, which includes selling some of it to the Chinese. Obama also supports massive wealth transfers from the West to the developing world so that developing countries can grow and meet their increasing demands for energy.

Between 2010 and 2012, then, readers and voting citizens got a more distinct concept of Obama as his policy objectives emerged with sharper clarity. Obama was neither a moderate centrist nor a typical leftist in the tradition of America's Democrat Party. Instead, his policies are shaped by geopolitical view in which the third world nations are cast in the roles of victims, America is seen as capable only of exploitation, and the solution to the world's problems lies in the dismantling of America's global influence and demolition of America's domestic prosperity.