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No scares here, just opinions
Egyptian mummy seller in 1875 (photo by Félix Bonfils). That’s pretty much how I feel reading the news these days.
As those familiar with my work probably already know, I am not much for alarmism. It’s not that I’m never alarmed about anything. There are things I worry deeply about (climate change, for one; the prospect of war with China, for another), and I’ll write about them. But even when I’m really worried about something, I doubt that yelling about it is going to be productive. Human nature doesn’t change in the face of threat; if Covid has reminded us of anything, it should have reminded us of that.
This does not make me a very good fit for opinion journalism, now or, I suspect, ever. People want to be alarmed and I have a hard time giving them what they want. Sometimes that leads me to write columns that haven’t aged so well, like this one from the day after the 2020 election about how the system was working and democracy was holding up just fine. But I can live with my track record overall. And while I wouldn’t call myself someone to turn for if you need reassurance, I can live with being someone you turn to when you want to be moved more to contemplation than to action.
All of which is to say: this isn’t really a Halloween post, as I haven’t written scary stuff this week. October 31st just happens to be a Sunday this year.
A Taxing Problem
My one column of the week at The Week will likely prove divisive. Since it is at least partly critical of the short-lived Democratic proposal of a wealth tax (actually a tax on unrealized gains on unsold assets, which might be even more complicated) as a way of partly funding the reconciliation bill, it may convince some readers I’m drifting to the right. On the other hand, the column starts this way:
Why do we have to pay taxes, anyway?
I remember when my son first asked me that question. He'd received his first paycheck and saw a chunk of money had been withheld. Immediately, the budding little Republican started to gripe about the government taking his hard-earned pay. So I did what any parent would and explained that taxes are how we pay for various common goods, from roads and bridges to police and fire departments to hospitals and schools. These are things for everyone's benefit, I said, and that everyone should have access to, so we need to pay for them together. That's taxes.
But Americans don't tend to talk about taxes in those terms anymore. Instead, we increasingly talk about taxes in punitive language, not as the way we pay for things we believe should be available for all, but as the way we punish those whom, in one sense or another, we see as having seceded from that common good. I worry that shift makes setting tax policy more contentious and complicated than it already would be.
This really wasn’t always the case. I can remember when there was real debate in both parties about what kind of tax system would best accomplish the goals of fairness, efficiency and progressivity. And some of that debate is still around; you can still find center-left and center-right advocates of a carbon tax, for example, who argue that it would raise significant revenue fairly efficiently while also encouraging a transition to a less carbon-intensive economy. But that’s decidedly the exception these days. After over a decade of rock-bottom interest rates, we’ve gotten used to a fiscal policy that is very nearly incoherent, where taxes are almost completely divorced from spending; and when there’s no pressing need to raise revenue, there’s no pressing need to debate the authentically best way to raise it.
I suspect those days are coming to and end, though. I wish I were sure that their demise will lead to a saner style of policy debate.
Two posts on the Substack this week, both prompted by my time at the Austin Film Festival:
The first tackled the tragic accidental killing on the set of “Rust,” and the need to hold producers accountable for dangerously ill-run sets.
The second related two storytelling incidents from my time in Austin, one involving me and one not, but both pointing to the need to go into yourself, the true source, to find what a story is really about.
The World Elsewhere
I’m going to recommend two pieces that I think should be read together.
The first, by Matt Yglesias, suggests that Senate moderates who are largely immune to party discipline—like Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema among the Democrats, or Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski among the Republicans—could save the institution (and possibly American democracy) by abandoning their respective parties to form a centrist bloc ready to caucus with either party, or (even better) to revamp the Senate along entirely less-partisan lines. This is something I’ve thought many times, but have never written up because it’s obvious why it won’t happen: it would put all of the responsibility of every decision on those senators, leaving them maximally exposed come the next election.
The second, by Conor Friedersdorf, calls for anti-Trump Republicans to unite behind Floriday Governor Ron DeSantis to be the GOP nominee in 2024, on the grounds that precisely because he has some real appeal to the Trumpified base while not having the uniquely dangerous personality that Trump has, he represents a potential path forward for the party to move beyond Trump, and to escape the authoritarian temptation, without intra-party civil war. Once again, this is something I’ve thought many times, but have never written up because, once again, the primary objection is obvious: the party cannot move beyond Trump unless either Trump moves on or the party actively rejects him, neither of which seems remotely likely at this point in time.
I recommend both pieces nonetheless, because I think their arguments are worth reading and engaging with and don’t consist entirely of the usual wish-fulfillment that so many pundits indulge in. But they don’t entirely avoid it either. The case for Manchin and Murkowski leaving their respective parties to form a centrist bloc needs to be made on the basis that it would be good for them, not that it would be good for America or even for their respective parties. I think that case is tenuous at best. Similarly, the case for NeverTrump Republicans to unite early behind DeSantis presumes both that DeSantis wants to run against Trump and that their backing would help him win. Neither is at all clear.
But if the pieces make Manchin and DeSantis seem less scary, and more like normal politicians representing their constituents (however you might disagree with how they choose to represent them), then that in itself is worth doing.