Carl Scott points us to this excellent Jonah Goldberg essay on Breaking Bad. More tomorrow (maybe).
I’m up to the fourth season, but I have also been watching the last half of the fifth season. Here are several thoughts,
The money isn’t really about the money for hardly anybody. One of the conceits of the show is that the drug money can’t really be spent in large, visible quantities because of the of the IRS. The result is that the most financially successful characters end up with huge piles of money that they either can’t spend or have to spend very slowly. Gus Fring lives in a modest house and drives an unflashy car. Fring had the drive, precision and intelligence to run a fully legitimate and successful restaurant chain if he wanted. He would have worked no harder and he could have lived larger (to say nothing of the dangers he would be avoiding). But he wanted the power (and he – like Walt – had issues he wanted to work out through power).
The Nazi gang steals over sixty million dollars of Walt’s money. The Nazi leader Uncle Jack makes the point that they have all the money that they could ever need. They don’t need to keep cooking meth. But his nephew Todd says something like “How can you walk away from all that money?” And Uncle Jack goes along.
Isn’t the answer “Easy. I don’t want to keep doing something extremely dangerous in order to get money that I can’t spend.” It would make some kind of more sense if the Nazi gang was going to use the revenue flow to try to overthrow the government or something. But no, they are just out in the desert meth camp instead of lolling around on some Nazi beach or whatever it is they do. The money is just a way of trying to fill holes in their souls. Only Jesse has retained enough of his soul to recognize it doesn’t work that way.
There is this new sitcom called The Goldbergs that is set in the 1980s. The trailer doesn’t look all that funny. When I first heard that there was going to be a sitcom set in the 1980s, my first thought was that the producers would be kind of sloppy and treat the 80s as some kind of simultaneous cultural moment and just use any stuff that happened in the decade even if it shouldn’t have happened in the moment when the series is set. The review I linked to mentions one such anachronism as you have a white suburban kid in 1985 talking about Flavor Flav at least several years too early. Maybe Grandmaster Flash. Maybe Run-DMC.
That stuff bugs me not in a fanboy way, but in how it mixes up different cultural moments. There was this other sitcom set in the 1980s that was obviously inspired by That 70s Show. It wasn’t that good. In one episode we see the neighborhood celebrating the US Hockey win at the Lake Placid Olympics. In a later episode, the teenage characters are listening to a song from Def Leppard’s Pyromania album. The problem is that the Olympics were in 1980 and Pyromania was released in 1983.
It isn’t just the sloppiness. It is tough to get something out of a cultural moment if you get the moment that wrong. In 1980, inflation would more likely be the bigger economic worry, while in 1983 people were more likely to be worried about unemployment. In 1980, the background foreign affairs-related worry would have been something to do with feelings of US impotence. In 1983, the background chatter would have more been more about the threat of nuclear war. The stresses people would tend to face would be different depending on when in the 1980s the show was set.
It shows up in other things too. In 1980, a wrestling fan in the Northeast would have cared most about the feud between Bruno Sammartino and his treacherous former protégé Larry Zbyszko. In 1983, pint size (and even teenage) Northeastern wrestling fans would be jumping on each other yelling “Superfly!!” (As in Superfly Jimmy Snuka.)
After Mike Lee unveiled his pro-family, pro-middle-class tax plan, Republican Senator Jeff Sessions gave a speech focused on the struggles of the middle-class and workers who are struggling to find jobs. Sessions was one of the few members of Congress from either party to examine the Senate’s immigration bill from the perspective of America’s current population of low-skill workers. That doesn’t mean I necessarily agree with everything in Sessions’ speech. I wonder if the Manhattan Institute’s Scott Winship might find Sessions’ description of the economic conditions of the middle-class a little too pessimistic. In any case, Lee and Sessions are using their status as senators from strongly Republican-leaning states (in federal elections) to shift their party’s concerns in the direction of the middle-class and those struggling workers who aspire to join the middle-class. Good for Lee and Sessions.
I can’t say enough good things about this speech on family-friendly tax reform by Utah Senator Mike Lee. It is a beautifully written argument for a Republican tax agenda that prioritizes the interests of middle-class and struggling working parents. Lee’s speech also contains some powerful but very civil criticisms of the ideas underlying Romney’s 47% comment and Rand Paul’s flat tax proposal. Lee’s identity as an insurgent, constitutionalist, Tea Partier allows him to position middle-class-oriented populism as authentically conservative. This is a huge step toward making the GOP a more middle-class-friendly party.
Lee also has also borrowed the right elements from the libertarian populists. The libertarian populists are all about cutting spending and tax deductions that favor connected special interests. Lee gets at what is best in libertarian populist rhetoric when he says:
It is government policies, after all, that trap poor children in rotten schools; poor families in broken neighborhoods; that penalize single parents for getting raises, or getting married.
It is government policies that inflate costs and limit access to quality schools and health care; that hamstring badly needed innovation in higher education; and penalize parents’ investment in their children.
Much more on that in a moment.
And of course it is government policy that gives preferential treatment and subsidies to well-connected corporations and special interests at the expense of everyone else.
What Lee gets is that it is not enough to cut subsidies and deductions for the connected. Most people won’t see it as “populist” to eliminate subsidies for green energy just to cut taxes on high-earners. At best, it just looks like money being shifted around among different groups of elites. The rhetoric of libertarian populism is most effective when connected with policies that will directly benefit people around the median income and Lee just hit that sweet spot.
This might be the quietest big news of the week. The American Enterprise Institute is hosting an event for Utah Senator Mike Lee to unveil his new family-friendly tax reform. If Lee’s plan is much like Robert Stein’s, the plan would involve expanding the child tax credit and making it fully refundable against payroll tax liabilities, cutting taxes on investment and cutting or eliminating deductions that are mostly used by high-earners while keeping the top marginal income tax rate at the pre-Obama 35%. This could be game changer for the Republicans on taxes.
Romney’s plan to cut income taxes across-the-board by 20% would have primarily benefited higher-earners and Romney famously declared his plan would have done nothing for the 47% of American families who had no net income tax liability (but many of whom had a payroll tax liability). Romney’s deal with the American public was that high-earners would get a large tax cut and everybody else would get either a small tax cut or… the indirect benefits of cutting taxes on high-earners. Rand Paul’s tax plan is to cut taxes on high-earners and raise the tax liabilities of many middle and lower-middle-class families – and Paul’s plan would hit families with children especially hard. A family of four with two children earning $50,000 would see a tax increase of $340 over current law. A family of five with three children would see a tax increase of $1477.
A family-friendly tax reform would offer the electorate a new deal from Republicans Family-friendly tax reform would cut the tax liabilities and improve the work incentives of middle-class parents and parents who are struggling to get their families into the middle-class. Taking a page from Tony Abbott, Republicans would highlight the contribution made by working parents who are investing in raising children. Robert Stein-style tax reform would make the tax code more growth-friendly by encouraging capital investment and cutting taxes on the distribution of corporate profits to shareholders. It would also offer a new deal to high-earners (especially high-earners without minors). The Republicans would support a lower top marginal tax rate than the Democrats, but, because of fewer deductions, many high-earners would pay more in taxes than they do now.
The Republican party would still be the better deal for most high-earners over the long-term. Obama-sized government would involve ever-larger tax increases and many (though not all) of those tax increases would fall on high-earners. Republicans would still be the party of lower spending, lower regulation and (compared to the Democrats) lower taxes. The Republican party would still be the better party for most high-earners, but the GOP would prioritize changing the tax code to benefit the middle-class while increasing economic growth. With his unimpeachable Tea Party credentials, Mike Lee might be exactly the right the guy to explain that family friendly tax reform is an authentically conservative populism that is both good policy and good politics.
Ronald Brownstein argues that Republicans need to win over a larger share of nonwhite voters if they are to remain competitive in future presidential elections. Brownstein suggests “comprehensive immigration reform” as the kind of policy Republicans need to make gains among nonwhites. The victory of Tony Abbott in Australia indicates that Republicans can grow their party without obeying the wishes of liberal journalists. Republicans don’t need to move left on immigration or abortion. Republicans need to shift their focus from high-earners to the middle-class and people who are struggling to join the middle-class.
Brownstein argues that winning over the “missing white voters” who sat out the 2012 election would not be enough for the Republicans to form a winning coalition, but Sean Trende (who first wrote about the missing working-class white voters) made the same point. Mitt Romney underperformed with working-class white voters. Romney also underperformed with Asian-American and Latino voters. Romney performed worse than McCain among Asian-Americans and Latinos despite Romney having the benefit of better conditions. You could look at Romney’s weak performances among both working-class whites and nonwhites as entirely separate and that, in the future, Republicans have to choose between either making gains among working-class whites or making gains among nonwhites.
But you can also look at Romney’s weak performances among working-class whites and nonwhites as linked. In the 2012 exit poll, 53% of the respondents answered that Romney’s issue agenda would primarily benefit the rich. Presumably, many of the working-class whites who stayed home felt the same way (even if they were not willing to vote for President Obama either).
The Kaiser Family Foundation found that African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans are more likely than whites to lack health insurance. John Logan found that, due to residential patterns, middle-class and affluent African-American and Latinos (and even middle-class Asian-Americans) are more likely than middle-class whites to live near people who are struggling economically. African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans are all more likely than whites to support Obamacare.
Part of what is happening is that the median nonwhite voter is ideologically to the left of the median white voter, but that is not the whole story. On issues like taxations vs. spending or abortion, a larger percentage (though still a minority) of African-Americans and Latinos support the conservative position than voted for Romney in the last election. Just like with working-class whites, Romney underperformed. Romney’s failure to address people’s concerns about health care coverage, his obsession with the high-earners who “built that”, and his contempt for the 47% who had no net income tax liability likely hurt him among both working-class whites and with persuadable (and even right-leaning) nonwhites across the income distribution.
Romney’s failures and Tony Abbott’s win point to a different Republican party strategy than the one Brownstein suggests. You don’t have to support every Tony Abbott proposal, but maybe he can teach us a few things worth learning about how to win as a pro-life, free market conservative. The 2012 Republican strategy was to start with the priorities of high-earners and the business lobbies and then try to craft a rhetoric to sell a high-earners-first agenda to the middle-class. The high-earners “built that” and, if their taxes were cut, then those high-earner job creators would create you a job. Also Republican believed that you could build that too, and when you did, they would have a tax cut waiting for you. Brownstein’s suggestion for growing the Republican party is to find the common ground between liberal journalists and the Chamber of Commerce. The irony is that Brownstein’s suggestion would make the GOP’s agenda even more like that of the business lobbies.
Or Republicans could follow Abbott’s example and build a conservative agenda around the priorities of the middle-class (and those who are struggling to join the middle-class). Republicans shouldn’t copy Abbott’s agenda. They don’t have to come out for paid parental leave. But Republicans need a middle-class agenda for America’s political context. Republicans could propose tax reform that would cut taxes on middle-class parents. Republicans could propose their own health care reform that would secure access to health care for working families at a lower cost than Obamacare. Republicans could support an immigration reform that would make our immigration system work better for struggling workers of all ethnicities. Republicans don’t have to move left to grow the party. They have to show how a conservative party can prioritize the concerns of middle-class families.
1. My wife is in the late stages of pregnancy with our second child, so blogging is going to be light-to-nonexistent for a while.
2. I have some On The Square thoughts about how some kinds of respect for Obama’s words and the concerns of some Obama supporters could be used to defeat Obama’s policy preferences.
3. Riffing on a point that Ben Domenech made on twitter, the humanitarian case for intervention in Syria would be more convincing if we were talking about a bigger intervention. Right now we are talking about a limited airstrike in retaliation for the use of weapons that have killed a very small fraction of the war dead. Humanitarian military intervention would mean using force to bring the civil war to an end. The same goes for some of the strategic arguments used by the Obama administration. It really would be a good thing to eliminate the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles, and make sure that a post-Assad Syria does not have ungoverned areas that become Hezbollah and Al Qaeda statelets. The problem is that the most obvious way to accomplish these goals is to invade Syria and conduct counter-insurgency and state building operations. Events can shift the range of what is politically possible, but right now, a president who proposed such a policy would more likely be committed to a mental institution than gain authorization from Congress.
So President Obama is proposing a limited missile strike in order to send the message to foreign governments that if they deploy chemical weapons against their own people, the US might eventually launch an attack that wil leave the targeted regime intact.
So I spent about an hour listening to John Kerry talking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about President Obama’s proposed strike. Here are some thoughts:
1. Kerry argued that the refugee crisis from the Syrian civil war was destabilizing Jordan. That strikes me as more of an argument for a military operation designed to bring down the Assad regime as quickly as possible rather than the “targeted” strikes that Kerry admitted Assad would weather.
2. Kerry argued that one purpose of the proposed strike is to deter future chemical weapons attacks by Assad. Assad’s regime is in a struggle for survival. How confident are we that a “limited” strike can be calibrated so as to deter the use of chemical weapons if Assad believes they might make the difference between victory and defeat. It would seem that the most likely deterrent would be the certainty of defeat. This limited strike for the purposes of deterrence sounds a bit like the “graduated pressure” strategy in Vietnam.
3. Kerry argued (very reasonably) that it would be very dangerous for Syria’s chemical weapons to fall into the hands of extremists in a chaotic post-Assad Syria. Are we at all certain that this strike can comprehensively destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles? Isn’t this an argument for bringing down the Assad regime as quickly as possible and doing whatever it takes to prevent the emergence of Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda statelets within post-Assad Syria? Isn’t Kerry proposing a strategy in which the most likely scenarios are that either Assad survives or that the factions of a post-Assad Syria fight over somewhat smaller chemical weapons stockpiles?
4. But who, other than John McCain, Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham are arguing for anything like this kind of commitment? Could public opinion sustain such a policy as the public seems to oppose even the more limited bombing proposed by President Obama?
5. A problem for the Obama administration is that their arguments are most persuasive on those points where their proposals are insufficient.