Church, State, and the IRS

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Alex Entz believes that the Johnson amendment, a legal provision restricting the permissible political activity of tax-exempt religious organizations, should be kept on the books rather than modified as it is in the House tax legislation. (In keeping with most reporting on this issue, Entz uses the term “repealed” rather than “modified.”) He makes two arguments: Loosening these restrictions could benefit progressives more than conservatives, and too much involvement in politics can prove injurious and even ruinous to churches.

The second point has real force. But it is a point better addressed to church leaders than to legislators. Pastors, priests, and rabbis should consider whether speaking out in an election will gratuitously alienate some of their flock, to mention one of Entz’s examples of the harms that can come from politicized religion. But it’s not the job of Congress, or the Internal Revenue Service, to protect them from making bad judgments.

Yachtsmen, Jackasses, and More

by Jay Nordlinger

In today’s Impromptus, I begin with Donald Trump and Robert Mueller. I proceed to Roy Moore and Vladimir Putin. I continue with the NFL. And so on.

In Friday’s Impromptus, I published a note from Richard Brookhiser, concerning auto-correct. He had been writing about Vyacheslav Molotov, the Old Bolshevik. Auto-correct wanted to change Molotov’s first name to “Yachtsman.” Rick commented, “A little bourgeois, comrade.”

Mike Brown, the editor of the Rockdale Reporter in Texas, tells me this:

We had a county commissioner here who served 24 years. Real good guy, Dale Jaecks. Naturally, I wrote his name a lot. And SpellCheck always wanted to change “Jaecks” to “Jackass.”

I told him that one time. He said, “I imagine there are some people in my precinct who would agree with that.”

I am told that SpellCheck wants to change “Nordlinger” to “Nondrinker” and “Mudslinger.” Heh.

’Casting About

by Jay Nordlinger

On Need to Know, Mona and I talk about Alabama, Israel, and other weighty matters. Then, toward the end, we discuss Hogan’s Heroes, where we really shine. We always have our finger on the pulse of popular culture.

Go here.

I also have an episode of Jaywalking, in which I ask the old question, Can music mean anything? Music without words, that is? Then I do politics, of the grimmer and lighter varieties. I have a note on Keith Olbermann (whose “Worst Person” I once had the honor to be). Then, finally, some more music — this time by a twelve-year-old girl.

Go here.

Jerry Brown’s Pot versus Donald Trump’s Kettle

by Wesley J. Smith

The radical governor of California–who signed bills legalizing assisted suicide, allowing non-doctors to be abortionists, and forcing pro-life pregnancy counseling centers to notify clients where to access free abortion (now before the Supreme Court)–has brought the Lord into his critique of Donald Trump. From The Hill story:

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) says President Trump’s stance on climate change demonstrates that he does not appear to fear the “wrath of God” or have any regard for the “existential consequences” of his environmental policies.

“I don’t think President Trump has a fear of the Lord, the fear of the wrath of God, which leads one to more humility … this is such a reckless disregard for the truth and for the existential consequences that can be unleashed,” Brown said in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” which is set to air on Sunday.

Glass houses and stones. Pots and kettles. Pick your idiom. 

The Police Murder of Daniel Shaver

by David French

If you have the stomach for it, I want you to watch one of the most outrageous and infuriating videos I’ve ever seen. It shows the police shooting of Daniel Shaver in Mesa, Arizona. He was crawling on his hands and knees, crying, and begging police not to shoot him. An officer shot him anyway:

The background is simple. Shaver was a traveling pest control worker. He was in his hotel room (a La Quinta Inn) showing off to guests a pellet gun he used for work. Police responded to a 911 call claiming that a man was pointing a rifle out a window.

When police arrived, Shaver was alone with a woman. They had been drinking. The police ordered them out of the room, and they came out, raised their hands, and got on their knees. So far, things seem routine. Police responded to a call from a concerned bystander, they were concerned that the suspect may have a gun, so they demanded to clearly see Shaver’s hands. That’s entirely fair and appropriate. 

Then, however, things got strange — very strange — rather than asking Shaver and his friend to keep their hands visible while police (who, at this point, had guns pointing straight at both of them) approached and applied handcuffs, they ask them to crawl towards police in a highly-specific way. The Washington Post’s account is decent, but you have to watch the video truly grasp the strangeness of the requests:

Langley tells Shaver to keep his legs crossed and push himself up into a kneeling position. As Shaver pushes himself up, his legs come uncrossed, prompting the officer to scream at him.

“I’m sorry,” Shaver says, placing his hands near his waist, prompting another round of screaming.

“You do that again, we’re shooting you, do you understand?” Langley yells.

“Please do not shoot me,” Shaver begs, his hands up straight in the air.

At the officer’s command, Shaver then crawls down the hallway, sobbing. At one point, he reaches back — possibly to pull up his shorts — and Brailsford opens fire, striking Shaver five times.

In fact, the Post actually sugarcoats the encounter. At one point an officer tells him “do not put your hands down for any reason,” even saying, “If you think you’re going to fall, you better fall on your face.” Then he says, “Crawl towards me.” How he can crawl without putting his hands down, I don’t know.

As the sobbing man crawls, he reaches back towards his pants (perhaps to pull them up) and is immediately shot dead. He had no weapon. He had done nothing wrong. And now he’s dead.

Essentially, what the police told an innocent, law-abiding, intoxicated American was this: Follow my highly-specific, very strange instructions or die. There was no need to make him crawl. The police were in command of the situation. At no point is there a visible weapon. I have seen soldiers deal with al Qaeda terrorists with more professionalism and poise. When a man is prone, his hands are visible, and your gun is trained upon him, he is in your power.

At trial, the officer testified that he though the suspect was reaching for his gun, and that if he had a chance to do things over, he’d make the same decision again. In other words, he presented the classic defense. He was afraid, so he fired.

I’ve written about this before. Juries time and again acquit frightened cops, regardless of whether the cop botched the situation or whether his fear was objectively reasonable. I wrote this after the Philando Castile verdict:

Legally, it’s not enough for an officer to show that he was actually afraid for his life. He has to show that “a reasonably prudent person” would also have the same fear. Clever defense lawyers twist this standard into a line of argument that goes something like this: The officer was afraid, and he can explain to you the reasons why he was afraid. Therefore, it was reasonable that he was afraid. But real fear isn’t always reasonable fear.

That’s especially true when the police — through their own incompetence — create their own fear. Philando Castile was shot even as he followed his killer’s instructions. Shaver died trying his best to comply with a highly unusual, complicated set of commands while under extreme duress. Scared cops still need to be competent cops, and members of the public shouldn’t face death because a police officer can’t keep his emotions in check.

Finally, I know that police have a dangerous job, but they’re not at war. As I noted above, it’s infuriating to see civilian police exercise less discipline than I’ve seen from soldiers in infinitely more dangerous situations. Not one of the men I deployed with would have handled a terrorist detention the way these officers treated American citizens. 

Arizona law defines second-degree murder as killing a person without premeditation “under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to human life, the person recklessly engages in conduct that creates a grave risk of death and thereby causes the death of another person.” In this instance, the charge fit the crime. The jury’s verdict was a gross miscarriage of justice. My heart breaks for Daniel Shaver’s family. May God have mercy on his soul.

How Not to Write About the Tax Bill

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Here are the first two paragraphs of a Reuters report headlined, “Millions would lose mortgage, gift write-offs under U.S. tax bill: study”:

Millions of households would no longer benefit from federal tax deductions for charity donations, mortgage interest payments and property tax under Republican tax plans being debated in the U.S. Congress, a think tank said on Thursday.

The left-leaning Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy said that up to 29 million U.S. households now writing off donations, home loan interest and state and local property tax payments would no longer be able to do so under either of the two plans.

While all three deductions are maintained in some form in one or both of the rival Senate and House of Representatives bills, far fewer taxpayers could take advantage of them because of other proposed changes, said the Washington-based group.

You absolutely would be “able to” write off charitable donations, home-loan interest, and some state-and-local-property-tax payments under both the House and Senate Republican bills. You would be able to write off exactly as much in charitable donations and home-loan interest as you can today. Nobody would “lose” the write-offs that the headline claims millions would.

It’s just that millions of people would find it more advantageous to take the standard deduction. That’s because the bills raise the standard deduction and curtail the state-and-local tax deduction. The result is to make it less appealing to itemize. The article never clearly explains this point, and its language is alternately misleading and flat-out false. The reader comes away from the article knowing less than when he started it.

Pentagon to Conduct Its First Agencywide Audit

by Jibran Khan
The Pentagon will carry out an audit for the first time, having been pledged to by the 2010 NDAA.

The Defense Department will conduct an agencywide financial audit for the first time in history, following requirements in the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act. In a conference yesterday, the Pentagon committed to annual audits, with reports to be issued in November.

The Department’s careless approach to finances is notorious. It has gone so far as to bury a study that demonstrated how it could save $125 billion dollars of bloat, to continue a multi-trillion dollar corporate welfare program for a jet with decades-old computing and worse flying ability than planes from the 1970s, and so on, deflecting any criticism by asserting that the skeptics do not care about American lives.

Now that the audit can be delayed no longer, it will be interesting to see how it affects the bipartisan blind eye given to DoD mismanagement. Of course, considering that much of it has been known widely for years, perhaps there will be no effect.

CNN Misreports Date of ‘Incriminating’ Email to Trump Campaign

by Philip H. DeVoe

This morning, CNN published an article alleging an effort was made to connect Donald Trump’s presidential campaign with documents hacked from the Democratic National Committee nine days prior to their publication. CNN reporters Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb used as evidence of this implicit collusion an email sent on September 4 containing a decryption key and web address for the documents, which were hosted by WikiLeaks.

As it turns out, however, that email was actually sent on September 14, the day following the documents’ publication, rendering the “exclusive scoop” by CNN a non-story. Furthermore, it seems that the email’s author, Michael J. Erickson, doesn’t work with WikiLeaks at all. According to a follow-up piece in the Washington Post, Erickson described himself to the campaign as the president of an aviation management company. Alan S. Futerfas, an attorney for Donald Trump Jr., told the Post that Erickson was unknown to the campaign and his email just one of “a ton of unsolicited emails like this on a variety of topics.”

Just last week, ABC News reporter Brian Ross committed a similar error when he incorrectly reported that Trump directed former national security adviser Michael Flynn to contact the Russians during Trump’s candidacy; actually, Trump’s direction came while he was president-elect. While Ross was suspended from ABC News for four weeks without pay and pulled from all Trump-related coverage, his — and the CNN reporters’ – mistake has lasting effects on public perception of the Trump collusion investigation (not to mention the economy; Ross’s report caused the Dow to fall by 350 points). By rushing articles to print without fact-checking, these reporters are exacerbating a lack of trust in journalists, undermining special counsel Robert Mueller’s very real investigation, and fueling unequivocal dismissals of Trump wrongdoing as “fake news.”

As of publication, CNN has not updated the story.

David Bentley Hart on Daniel Dennett

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Every ten years or so, Hart gives Dennett a good drubbing. This time it’s in The New Atlantis.

Here, as it happens, lurks the most incorrigibly problematic aspect of Dennett’s project. The very concept of memes — Richard Dawkins’s irredeemably vague notion of cultural units of meaning or practice that invade brains and then, rather like genetic materials, thrive or perish through natural selection — is at once so vapid and yet so fantastic that it is scarcely tolerable as a metaphor. But a depressingly substantial part of Dennett’s argument requires not only that memes be accorded the status of real objects, but that they also be regarded as concrete causal forces in the neurology of the brain, whose power of ceaseless combination creates most of the mind’s higher functions. And this is almost poignantly absurd. . . .

The entire notion of consciousness as an illusion is, of course, rather silly. Dennett has been making the argument for most of his career, and it is just abrasively counterintuitive enough to create the strong suspicion in many that it must be more philosophically cogent than it seems, because surely no one would say such a thing if there were not some subtle and penetrating truth hidden behind its apparent absurdity. But there is none. The simple truth of the matter is that Dennett is a fanatic: He believes so fiercely in the unique authority and absolutely comprehensive competency of the third-person scientific perspective that he is willing to deny not only the analytic authority, but also the actual existence, of the first-person vantage. At the very least, though, he is an intellectually consistent fanatic, inasmuch as he correctly grasps (as many other physical reductionists do not) that consciousness really is irreconcilable with a coherent metaphysical naturalism. Since, however, the position he champions is inherently ridiculous, the only way that he can argue on its behalf is by relentlessly, and in as many ways as possible, changing the subject whenever the obvious objections are raised.

About That Tuition-Waiver Deduction for Graduate Students

by Veronique de Rugy

I was on PBS the other night to talk about the House and Senate versions of the tax plan. At some point, we started talking about how the House reform plan treats graduate-student tuition waivers as taxable income. In response to the other guest on the show saying that it was malicious, I pointed out that a tuition waiver was indeed income. Based on the response I received from listeners, you would have believed that I had just endorsed torturing kittens.

Yet notwithstanding all the articles and commentaries about supposed cruelty to grad students, the House Republican plan is based on conventional tax analysis. Simply stated, tuition forgiveness in exchange for work is indeed a form of income even if no money technically changes hands. So the “exclusion” currently in the law is a loophole. Saying this doesn’t mean that grad students would feel no pain or wouldn’t have to pay higher taxes — even though with the doubling of the standard deduction and lower tax rates, it may not be as bad as what people fear. By the way, lost in the drama is the fact that outright scholarships would remain tax free. In other words, don’t be surprised if universities re-categorize tuition waivers as scholarships if that part of the House plan is in the final bill. Voila!

Now, let me say this upfront: In the search for a better tax base and genuine tax reform, getting rid of this tax preference is the right thing to do, especially if it is a way to pay for lower tax rates on corporations or individuals. I may not have started with that particular provision but that’s beside the point.

Yet this gives me an opportunity to highlight an issue that I and many others have complained about for a long time. The current tax code is based on a fundamental conceptual flaw (Warning: wonk alert!): As its base, our tax code uses the “Haig-Simons” definition of income: consumption plus the change in net worth.

In other words, it starts with a presumption that there should be double taxation of income that is saved and invested. As Dan Mitchell has explained, you see this approach from the Joint Committee on Taxation. You see it from the Government Accountability Office. You see it from the Congressional Budget Office. You even see Republicans mistakenly use this benchmark.

This is the wrong definition for the tax base. It introduces economic distortions to savings and investment by not accounting for the timing of economic profits. The Haig-Simons tax base prohibits an objective accounting of tax subsidies.

The best example is to look at so-called tax expenditures in Table 13-3 of the Office of Management and Budget’s Analytical Perspectives. The table lists all those tax breaks, exclusions, credits, and deductions as defined by a Haig-Simons tax base. But the result is that it fails to make a distinction between the preferences that are subsidies to special interests and those meant to mitigate some of the income tax’s bias against savings and investment and that attempt to move us towards a more neutral treatment of these activities.

Among the provisions meant to correct the frequent double-taxation imposed on investment and savings income, we find the deferral of taxes on income earned overseas through foreign subsidiaries and affiliates, the exclusions for IRAs and 401(k)s, and the supposedly preferential tax rate for capital gains and dividends.

Among the provisions meant to subsidize particular groups through the tax code, you find tuition-forgiveness deductions, the deduction for domestic production activities, the deduction for entertainment expenses, deduction for employer-provided transportation and parking, and the deduction for moving expenses. All of these and many others are repealed in the House version of the tax-reform plan.

Unfortunately, the House failed to repeal the biggest of them all: the deductions for employer contributions for medical-insurance premiums and medical care. As I have noted in a recent paper on tax preferences:

The exclusion for employer-provided fringe benefits, such as health insurance, is a prime example of a provision that should be repealed. It is distortionary, unfair, and — most importantly — a major contributing factor to the ever-growing cost of healthcare. Because it promotes overuse of insurance, it also dramatically decreases the amount of healthcare costs paid by consumers themselves as opposed to by a third party. Americans today pay only 12 percent of their healthcare expenses out of pocket, which weakens normal market forces. In addition, as Fichtner and Feldman have noted, it also results in profound horizontal inequity since “there is roughly a 30 percent price difference between employer-provided premiums and individual premiums.”

It’s a shame because it would have provided for a lot of revenue that could have been used to reduce the top marginal income tax rate and avoid the idiotic bubble tax.

Hopefully, the House’s effort to get rid of some genuine tax expenditures — and that includes the tuition-waiver exclusion — sets a precedent that could lead one day to the needed repeal of the health-care deductions.

One thing is sure: Fixing the tax code’s internal inconsistencies with tax preferences introduces a number of problems, if only because it complicates the tax code and people fail to differentiate between the good and the bad tax breaks. The U.S. economy would be better served by defining the tax base to eliminate the need for tax expenditures through a neutral “consumption tax.” It would certainly be more simple, efficient, equitable, predictable, and have a more neutral treatment of consumption and future consumption.

Combining Cronyism and Political Correctness at the University of Texas

by George Leef

Yes folks, it’s true — even in conservative states, higher education has been largely captured by the forces of “progressivism.” Nearly all college and university presidents prattle away about their commitment to diversity, to saving the planet, to “enriching” the curriculum with all kinds of grievance courses, and so on. The University of Texas (UT) is no different, with leadership no different from what you’d expect in California or Massachusetts. It is also steeped in cronyism, with leaders cozying up to big donors.

In today’s Martin Center article, UT grad and lawyer Mark Pulliam exposes some dirty laundry at the university. The case involves a Title IX accusation against a male student, his exoneration by an objective fact-finder, and the reversal of that decision by UT president Gregory Fenves. Why? The accusing female student’s father is a UT big-wig — that’s why.

Then the male student, who had been branded as a sexual predator and suspended for five semesters, filed a lawsuit.

“As a result of the lawsuit,” Pulliam writes, “Fenves was scheduled to testify under oath in federal court in late November. The proceedings up to then had been conducted in relative secrecy, but that was about to change. That’s because in court Roark would be able to examine Fenves about his highly-suspect decision on the record, with the attendant public scrutiny and media coverage. Not surprisingly, neither Fenves nor UT wanted to reveal the details of this squalid tale.”

After reading about this, UT donors might think twice before writing another check.

Analyzing the November Jobs Reports

by Robert Stein

The labor-market picture keeps getting brighter for American workers. Nonfarm payrolls increased 228,000 in November, beating consensus expectations. In the past year, payrolls are up an average of 173,000 per month.

Although civilian employment, an alternative measure of jobs that includes small-business start-ups, increased only 57,000 in November, that gauge is up 196,000 per month in the past year, so some convergence in the two measures of jobs should be expected.

The unemployment rate stayed at 4.1 percent, as expected, but we anticipate continued declines in 2018–19. The lowest unemployment rate since the late 1960s was 3.8 percent in 2000 at the peak of that era’s tech boom. We expect to beat that by the end of 2018. The lowest jobless rate in the 1960s was 3.4 percent; assuming we stay on track for a major cut in the corporate tax rate, we think that record will fall in 2019, eventually hitting the lowest levels since the early 1950s.

Although a relatively low participation rate makes it easier to have a lower unemployment rate, the participation rate is slightly higher than a year ago and the size of the labor force is up 1.6 million in the past year after a gain of 1.8 million in the year ending November 2016. In other words, the jobless rate has been falling even though the labor force has been expanding.

Other good news in today’s report includes a drop in the median duration of unemployment to 9.6 weeks, tying the low so far in this expansion.

As usual, we like to follow total earnings, which combines the total number of hours worked and average hourly earnings. Total earnings are up a sturdy 4.8 percent from a year ago, signaling plenty of growth in consumer purchasing power. This is not about the “rich getting richer”: A separate report on the earnings of full-time workers shows wages are rising faster for workers in the bottom half of the income range than the top half.

Put it all together, and we have a recipe that makes a rate hike at next Wednesday’s Fed meeting almost certain. The Fed will also likely say it foresees three rate hikes in 2018. We think that’s about right, but the odds of a fourth rate hike are higher than that the Fed moves only twice.

Ethics Committee Clears Rep. Nunes in Classified Information Case

by Philip H. DeVoe

Yesterday, the House Ethics Committee cleared House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) of disclosing classified information during a March press conference, when Nunes verified that President Barack Obama had wiretapped President Donald Trump’s transition team. The allegations emerged after Nunes admitted to receiving the information that led to his conclusion from confidential White House documents.

Back in March, Nunes said in an interview with Wolf Blitzer that his role as Intelligence chair often leads him to the White House, where officials will show him confidential material relevant to ongoing investigations. He explained that using that information to base his conclusion is a key part of an investigation, a claim the Ethics Committee seemed to substantiate in its decision, finding that nothing Nunes shared in his statement was classified.

In a statement thanking the committee, Nunes said he appreciated the members’ determination that he “committed no violation of anything — no violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or any other standards of conduct.” He concluded his statement by calling out the Democrats on the panel, who made statements “that appeared to prejudge this matter before they began investigating the complaint” and implored the committee to make transcripts of their statements public, to show how partisanship doesn’t influence the outcome of congressional investigations.

One of Roy Moore’s Accusers Alters Her Story About Her Yearbook

by Jim Geraghty

One of the women accusing Roy Moore just did him a huge favor.

Beverly Young Nelson, the former Gadsden waitress who presented her high school yearbook she said was signed by Roy Moore, altered the story she originally told regarding the yearbook signature.

In an interview Friday with ABC’s Good Morning America, Nelson said she made some notes in the yearbook below where Moore signed it. Underneath Moore’s alleged signature is a date and location that Nelson said Moore signed the yearbook – “12-22-77″ and on the next line “Olde Hickory House,” the restaurant where Nelson worked and she said Moore was a frequent customer.

This doesn’t mean that the rest of Nelson’s story about being sexually assaulted is false, or that she “forged” the signature, as some outlets are reporting. But it does mean that her initial press conference misrepresented some of the information:

About a month later, I received my yearbook from Southside High School, where I had spent my freshman and sophomore years. I happened to bring my yearbook to work with me to the restaurant on December the 22, 1977. I put it down at the end of the counter. Mr. Moore happened to notice it and asked me if he could write in my yearbook, and I felt flattered. And I said “yes”. He wrote in my yearbook as follows: ‘To a sweeter, more beautiful girl I could not say Merry Christmas. Christmas 1977. Love, Roy Moore, Olde Hickory House. And it signed it, ‘Roy Moore DA.’”

Except… according to what she’s saying today, he didn’t write “Olde Hickory House.”

Looking back in retrospect, it did seem odd that Moore would write, “Christmas 1977″ above his signature and then write “12-22-1977″ underneath it, and switch from cursive to print writing in the same inscription.

Some will conclude that if part of her initial accusation was false, then the rest of it shouldn’t be trusted, either. Gloria Allred, Nelson’s attorney, has done more to hurt the public trust of the other women accusing Moore than anything his campaign could do.

We Had To Pass the Bill To See What’s In It

by Jibran Khan

Who would have thought that manually amending a multi-trillion-dollar tax-cut bill in the wee hours of the morning would pose problems?

It turns out that when the JCT economists were pulled from their beds last Friday night to score and estimate the last-minute, hand-written deals of the GOP’s tax bill, they made some big miscalculations. For instance, the restored corporate AMT (alternative minimum tax), which they projected would bring in $40 billion of tax revenue to offset new cuts, is now projected to raise over $300 billion in revenue, according to Lily Batchelder of NYU Law School and formerly of the Senate Finance Committee.

As someone concerned about deficits, I would generally rather see revenue being underestimated than overestimated. Nevertheless, the fact that parts of the final calculations could be off by hundreds of billions of dollars raises a red flag about the process. It is hard to see this as anything but evidence that tax reform is being rushed in pursuit of a big ‘win’ before the end of the year.

Congress’ First In-Vitro Fertilization Sex Scandal

by Jim Geraghty

From the last Morning Jolt of the week:

Congress’ First In-Vitro Fertilization Sex Scandal

Picture the scene: a busy, overworked office of the House Ethics Committee.

Staffer One: Urgh. Well, that completes another case. What a weirdo. Who’s next?

Staffer Two: Congressman Trent Franks of Arizona.

Staffer One: And what did he do? Allegedly?

Staffer Two: He asked two female employees to bear his child as a surrogate.

Staffer One: (blinks) Wait, what? Run that by me again.

Staffer Two: It says on the complaint that he asked two female employees to bear his child as a surrogate.

Staffer One: Two? What, did he want twins or something?

Staffer Two: (reading) The congressman says he never “physically intimidated, coerced, or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff.”

Staffer One: No, he just wanted his genetic material to be placed within the wombs of his staffers and carried to term. How, exactly, do you bring up a request like that? ‘Hey, I need you to carry something for me… for about nine months?’

Staffer Two: The staffers say the request made them uncomfortable.

Staffer One: I’d imagine so!

Staffer Two: It’s probably worth noting that there’s no sign of any prurient interest.

Staffer One: No, it’s just… weird. I mean, really weird, man! Of course it’s inappropriate for the workplace! How would you feel turning down your boss for a deeply personal request like that? Every time he made a decision after that, you would wonder if he was punishing you for turning him down, or if your refusal was playing a factor in his decision.

Staffer Two: Yeah, but let’s keep in mind, one of the toughest difficulties a couple can go through is infertility issues. People enduring that can find the sight of any child or any pregnancy upsetting, because it feels like they’re being denied something they want so badly, something that everyone else seems to get to have, even accidentally or at an inconvenient time. High school sex-ed classes make it sound like you can get a girl pregnant by looking at her for too long; it’s maddening for couples to find they’re having difficulty getting pregnant after all that time of trying to avoid pregnancy. The yearning for a child, and risk of not having one, can throw anybody for a loop. I once read a book where a guy described going through a difficult pregnancy with his wife and crying at the sight of kids in car repair commercials. My point is that Franks… may not have been at his peak emotional and psychological health when he made these requests.

Staffer One: Those are very good points. But you can’t ask your staffers to do something like this!

Staffer Two: No, of course not. As their boss, Franks had a responsibility to make sure these women never felt like they were obligated to do something inappropriate or excessively personal, and procreation certainly seems to be on that list. But Franks probably shouldn’t be lumped in with John Conyers and all the other creeps in the pile of paperwork in front of us.

Staffer One: In the aspect of seeing others as objects for his sexual pleasure, correct. But in some ways, this case is the clarifier of the current trends because of that difference. The key problem running through so many workplaces, so many prestigious offices, and so many halls of power is not an inherent “brutality of the male libido,” as that New York Times op-ed put it. The problem is people in authority not understanding or not caring about boundaries, not seeing those under them or around them as human beings deserving of respect, and losing any reticence or hesitation about abusing their power over them. Upset or not, it’s hard to believe Franks thought very long or hard about how his staffers would feel upon getting this request, or the awkward and difficult position he was putting them in by making it. The House Ethics Committee will have to–

Staffer Two: (checks phone) Wait, never mind, says here he’s resigning. Well, that saves us a lot of time and paperwork.

Staffer One: Great. With Franken going, let’s call our counterparts in the Senate and ask them if they want to grab a drink. The busy days aren’t likely to end anytime soon.

The Biggest and Grimmest

by Jay Nordlinger

Ash Carter has worn many hats. He is a scientist (having earned his doctorate in theoretical physics from Oxford). He is an academic and professor (spending his career at Harvard). He is a defense official (serving in government, periodically, from Reagan onward). From 2015 to 2017, he was SecDef. He has equal amounts knowledge and experience.

And he is my guest on the latest Q&A. He talks some of the biggest and grimmest subjects: nuclear proliferation, North Korea, and Iran. I also ask him about the defense budget. I am wary of a phrase I have heard my whole life: “lean and mean.” What does he think of that? I also ask him about the relation between the military and the civilian population. Is there too great a gap? Do civilians sentimentalize soldiers? Is it okay to say “Thank you for your service”?

A wonderful guest. Again, to hear this podcast with Ash Carter, go here.

A Righteous Walk-Off

by Jay Nordlinger

In 2009, we published a piece called “My Kingdom for a Safe Zone.” I was talking about the intrusion of politics into places where it really didn’t belong: concerts, sports events, and the like. Was there no refuge from politics — and partisan politics — anywhere?

Readers sent me their stories and their complaints. Their e-mails would be headed “Safe-zone violation!” Some of those stories were infuriating or heart-rending.

In Impromptus today, I have an item about Manny Laureano, the principal trumpet of the Minnesota Orchestra. Rufus Wainwright was the orchestra’s guest that night. From the stage, he talked politics, bemoaning the Republicans’ just-passed tax plan. Laureano, fed up, got up and left.

I write,

Laureano may get into trouble for his action. Later, he made this acknowledgement: “Obviously, my contract says I’m not supposed to walk off stage during a performance.” But, you know? Sometimes a man has had enough. I understand this, having endured these political speeches at concerts for years and years. (This is a recurring subject of mine.)

So, let me say again: Bravo, Manny. Your walk-off spoke for many of us who don’t have the opportunity to make the same gesture.

Tax ‘Reform’: Motivating the Wrong Base

by Andrew Stuttaford

One of the reasons for the speed at which the Republican tax proposals are being pushed through has been the belief that the GOP needs to have a major legislative achievement to its credit before the midterms. There’s something to that, but, as I mentioned the other day that rather assumes that the ‘accomplishment’ will be positive – and popular.

Count me skeptical about how positive that accomplishment will turn out to be. The two bills are certainly not without their merits, but the urge to ‘just do something’ (and to do it on a largely arbitrary timetable – why ‘by Christmas’?) seems to me to have led to a wasted opportunity. A more modest, more carefully considered plan might, in the end, lead to better, more substantive reform and, more than that, reform with a better chance of withstanding a  reversal in the GOP’s  political fortunes.

As for popularity, well…

Ramesh writes:

A political drawback of the Republican tax bills is that they raise taxes on a significant number of voters by curbing the deduction for state and local taxes. A lot of these voters are in households that make between $100,000 and $500,000 in taxable income. About 40 million tax returns come from that group, and its members are disproportionately likely to face higher taxes as a result of Republican tax legislation.

In a recent post, I conceded (it’s obvious enough) that the upper middle class are, by definition, very, very far from the breadline, but the notion that, despite that happy state of affairs, they are incapable of feeling resentment towards those at the peak of the wealth pyramid is misguided.

Ramesh appears to agree, asking “whether Republicans make these households happier if they cut taxes more for households richer than they are?” Somehow I don’t think he believes so. He adds:

The editors of the Wall Street Journal would have congressional Republicans believe that the answer is yes. Once again, they are arguing that cutting the top income-tax rate will salve the pain of voters who are currently slated for tax increases.

I doubt it, and as I argued before, “the Republican leadership also ought to be thinking more carefully about the consequences of taking on the upper-middles, a productive, noisy and influential section of the electorate unlikely to overlook the fact that, so far as this tax plan is concerned, their interests have been clearly subordinated to the interests of the 1% or 0.1%.”

Their discontent could well be bad news for many of the remaining GOP office-holders in blue states (there are nearly 30 Republican Congresspeople in New York, New Jersey and California alone), and not, I reckon, just there.

Over at CNN , Chris Cillizza looks at the midterms (my emphasis added):

Midterm elections — like the one coming up in 2018 — are all about turning out base voters. Why? History tells us that only the most stalwart partisans turn out when the presidential race isn’t on the ballot. So if your side wants to pick up House and Senate seats in a non-presidential election, you need to find ways to excite its most committed members.

Which is where the Republican tax plan approved by the Senate last week comes in. And the fact that, according to a new CBS poll, lots more people hate the plan than love it.

Just 16% of people in the poll said they “strongly” approved of the GOP tax plan. That number pales in comparison to the 40% who said they “strongly” disapprove of it.

A similar question — “Which best describes how you would feel if the Republican tax plan was signed into law?” — produced equally concerning results for Republicans. Just 8% said they would be “excited” by the new tax law while 22% said they would be “angry.” (Another 28% said they would be “satisfied” and 31% said they would be “disappointed.”)

Dig into the numbers and the direness for Republicans becomes more apparent. While 46% of Republicans strongly approve of the tax plan, 71% of Democrats strongly disapprove.

Ditto the “angry” versus “excited” breakdown. Just 19% of Republicans said they were excited about the prospect of the tax bill becoming law as compared to 39% of Democrats who said they were angry.

What those numbers suggest is that the Republican tax bill is a major motivator for Democratic base voters and far less of one for the GOP base. Meaning that the tax bill looks far more likely to drive Democrats to the polls to show their anger and disapproval than it is to push Republicans to vote next November in support of it…

It is not (quite) too late for the GOP leadership to make substantial revisions to their tax package, especially if they can bring themselves to walk away from that unnecessary and  self-imposed Yuletide deadline. There are good economic and fiscal reasons why they should – and the political case for doing so seems close to unanswerable.

Another Bad Idea for the Tax Conferees

by Ramesh Ponnuru

A political drawback of the Republican tax bills is that they raise taxes on a significant number of voters by curbing the deduction for state and local taxes. A lot of these voters are in households that make between $100,000 and $500,000 in taxable income. About 40 million tax returns come from that group, and its members are disproportionately likely to face higher taxes as a result of Republican tax legislation.

Would Republicans make these households happier if they cut taxes more for households richer than they are?

The editors of the Wall Street Journal would have congressional Republicans believe that the answer is yes. Once again, they are arguing that cutting the top income-tax rate will salve the pain of voters who are currently slated for tax increases.

The Journal wants a top income-tax rate of 35 percent. In both the House and Senate bills, the only people who pay more than that are singles making more than $500,000 and couples making more than $1 million. Around 1.7 million returns report taxable income above $500,000, and even many of them would not see any benefits from the Journal’s proposal.

Whatever else a deeper tax cut for the country’s highest earners would accomplish, it can’t do much to help with the political problem that concerns the Journal.