Tuesday, May 03, 2011

America's Wealth of Fact-Free Political Opinion

It appears that many politicians and commentators - particularly those on the right, though some on the left as well - have adopted a fact-free rhetoric to support their positions.  Apparently, if fat-free is good for your physical health, fact-free is good for your mental health.  Or at least the political health of fact-free proponents.

Actually, while fact-free opinions are problematic, the real issue here is made-up facts that have no basis in reality but sound good and support one's argument.  To be clear, I'm using 'facts' as statements which can (to a certain extent) be proven true or false.  So you can have false facts, and that's really my concern.  Maybe I should have said Truth-Free, but it's not nearly as alliterative.  But at least I'm disclosing my own slight-of-word here. 

Let's look at an example.  Dave Cuddy's Compass Piece in the Anchorage Daily News Monday offers a number of glaring examples.

1.  He starts by saying:
OK, so our nation is now in bankruptcy.

Is the US 'in bankruptcy'?  Not even close.  Investopedia defines bankruptcy this way:
A legal proceeding involving a person or business that is unable to repay outstanding debts. The bankruptcy process begins with a petition filed by the debtor (most common) or on behalf of creditors (less common). All of the debtor's assets are measured and evaluated, whereupon the assets are used to repay a portion of outstanding debt. Upon the successful completion of bankruptcy proceedings, the debtor is relieved of the debt obligations incurred prior to filing for bankruptcy.
The US has not filed for bankruptcy.  Why not?  Because our assets far exceed our debits.

According to Wikipedia 
As of March 25, 2011, the Total Public Debt Outstanding of the United States of America was $14.26 trillion

Rutledgecapital says the US total assets come to about $200 trillion.  Mybudget360 estimates that US household net value in the US in 2009 was $70 trillion alone.  This later figure doesn't count any of the assets of the US government, whether we're talking about land, buildings, machinery, art and historical artifacts and monuments, and on and on. How much do you think Yosemite is worth or the Everglades?  You get the idea. 

So, we have the assets to pay our debts with plenty left over.   

The US is NOT in bankruptcy. Rather, we're like some rich guy who has the means, but just doesn't want to pay his bills. Yes, we should be careful with the spending, but I believe the right's 'starve the beast'  strategy of continually reducing taxes, so there will be a 'crisis' requiring us to cut government, is now being played out.  

2.   Some of this is so fuzzy that it defies proving true or false.  But let's try another.
Obamacare is a consequence of importing the poorest and neediest of legal and illegal immigrants, and of bankrupting our entitlement programs.
Nothing about the flaws of capitalism that lead insurance companies to cut off those with pre-existing conditions or to lobby Congress to prevent government health systems from bargaining for lower drug prices? 

It's the fault of immigrants.  Where are the facts?  If we look at Medicare we find that the population is 78% white - probably not a lot of  immigrants, legal or illegal.  Hispanic is only 8%. 

United StatesPercent0% - 100%


OK, maybe he wasn't talking about Medicare. But even Medicaid is only about 1/4 Hispanic.

United StatesPercent0% - 100%


We all know [sarcasm alert] that poverty among Blacks and Hispanics has nothing to do with past or continuing discrimination and everything to do with their just being inferior and lazy. That's why they're getting medicaid. 

What about Social Security?  It appears that ethnicity data for social security is unreliable and not readily available.  But I suspect there aren't too many illegal aliens and I'm still not sure what Cuddy's problem with legal aliens is.  Since Cuddy is making the claim, it should be up to him to prove it, not me.

What about Veterans benefits?  It doesn't look like Hispanics (US born, legal or illegal aliens) are causing the problem.

How exactly are legal and illegal aliens causing the problem?  It's my understanding of immigration law that the 'neediest' don't have much chance to get to the US as legal alien.  We like people with money and education. Those poor that do get in, make up a tiny percent of legal immigrants. 

And if Cuddy has a problem with legal aliens, how many generations make you ok? And if we're calculating the cost of legal immigrants to the US, how about calculating the benefits?  How do we factor, for instance, the financial benefit to the US of people like Google co-founder Sergy Brin? 

3.  How about this one?  
Higher taxes are a consequence of crazy overspending. Stimulus spending is a consequence of government interfering in the housing industry -- pushing for too liberal lending to put people who couldn't really afford housing into houses, artificially stimulating the economy ... and resulting in a housing bubble that now threatens our economy (coupled with the structural deficit).
What higher taxes is Cuddy talking about?  From USA Today May 2010:

Amid complaints about high taxes and calls for a smaller government, Americans paid their lowest level of taxes last year since Harry Truman's presidency, a USA TODAY analysis of federal data found.
Some conservative political movements such as the "Tea Party" have criticized federal spending as being out of control. While spending is up, taxes have fallen to exceptionally low levels.
Federal, state and local income taxes consumed 9.2% of all personal income in 2009, the lowest rate since 1950, the Bureau of Economic Analysis reports. That rate is far below the historic average of 12% for the last half-century. The overall tax burden hit bottom in December at 8.8.% of income before rising slightly in the first three months of 2010.

Here's a chart of tax rates  which shows that in the 1950's the top marginal tax rate was around 91% for income over $400,000.  Why is millionaire Cuddy complaining about high taxes?  His income bracket hasn't had it so good since the 1920's with just a couple of years of exceptions.

And why is he blaming government?  I'm sure he knows that Clinton handed GW Bush a debt free country in 2000 and it's the GW Bush pro-capitalism years that pushed us into the financial crisis we face today.   I know that Republicans don't think it's fair to mention the Bush legacy, after all he only had eight years to run up the national debt, while Obama has had two years and three plus months now to fix it.

I won't even get into the idea that the housing crisis was caused by liberalizing lending policies.  Credit default swaps played no role? Here's a Pulitzer Prize winning analysis that refutes Cuddy's opinion on this.  Judge for yourself, but don't simply accept it because Cuddy said it.

4.   One more, I don't have all night to check Cuddy's facts for him.  I'm just trying to make the point he's loose with his facts. 
Half of American voters now pay no federal income tax, and so, have no motivation to keep spending and taxing down.
First, the statistic is 47% of Americans, not of voters. I'm not sure if anyone has figured out what percent of voters don't pay federal taxes.   Most of us know that lobbyists have a much greater influence on taxes and spending than do voters - especially voters with low enough income to not pay taxes. Except, of course, the General Electrics, but then they don't vote - they have to pay for legislators. 

To Cuddy's credit, he mentions federal income taxes, which many commenters have not.  Of the 47%, many pay a variety of other taxes.  Those with lower incomes pay much higher percent of tax in payroll and other taxes than the wealthy. 

TheAtlanticWire deconstructs the 47% pay no taxes 'fact' that comes from a Tax Policy study last year.  The piece quotes a NY Times article on why the wealthy pay more taxes:
There is no question that the wealthy pay a higher overall tax rate than any other group. That is an American tradition. But there is also no question that their tax rates have fallen more than any other group’s over the last three decades. The only reason they are paying more taxes than in the past is that their pretax incomes have risen so rapidly — which hardly seems a great rationale for a further tax cut.
 And it quotes another Atlantic writer to point out that the increase in people not paying federal income taxes has Republican fingerprints. 
The Atlantic's Derek Thompson argues the 47 percent statistic is "a monster that Republicans have helped to create." Looking at the Earned Income Tax Credit--which pushes many Americans' federal income tax burden to zero--Thompson explains: "The EITC is a Republican creation. It was enacted in 1975 under President Ford (a Republican), and expanded numerous times over the last 35 years by Republicans."
 One wonders why Cuddy first complains that tax rates are so high (when as shown above they aren't)  and then complains they are too low.  But he doesn't call for raising taxes, rather he calls only for cutting spending. 

It's funny though.  I agree that there are a lot of Americans who feel entitled to a good life without paying for it.  But I think a lot of that comes from the impact of capitalism. 

All those advertisements tempting people with a cornucopia of products and services.  And all those credit card offers filling our mailboxes telling us to spend, spend, spend.  And making bankers, like Cuddy, wealthy on people's growing debt through usurious interest rates.

And let's remember that a huge percent of the entitlements - like health care - goes to those capitalist companies Cuddy thinks will save us, such as drug companies, medical equipment manufacturers, and hospitals.  In most cases, the consumer never even sees the money.  And defense spending goes to a myriad of contractors who supply everything from food, communication, transportation, weapons, vehicles and planes, and on and on. 

So beware of the truth-starved opinion pieces.   Even the ones you agree with!

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