Two Worlds

Leaving college, I had always thought the two worlds of politics were Republicans and Democrats. I thought that Libertarians usually always vote Republican if they vote, and “Independents” are just partisans who want attention.

The latter may be mostly true, even if some people switch sides a lot, but after five years in our nation’s capitol I have come to a different conclusion:

The two worlds of politics are those who know the system and those who believe the spin. 

This is not to say that spin has its place, it definitely does. This post was inspired by a discussion I had on facebook with a  guy I went to grade school with who is four years younger than I am.  It started with a Fredrick Douglass quote and him alleging that Republicans only call Obama names like socialist and communist because they are racists.

Naturally, I disagreed and said many people do believe that some of his policies bear a resemblance to tenets espoused in those philosophies. I continued by asserting that:

If an alien fell off of a spaceship and you made this argument to them, they would ask “Well, how is what President Obama doing not what communists and socialists do?” And then you’d either have to start answering why you don’t think that’s the case or insist that it’s not true and they only think that because President Obama is an African-American. In the latter scenario, you wouldn’t convince them. In the former, if your argument was good, you might convince them.

His argument was a classic red herring. My grade school acquaintance, rather than respond to my comment went down the road of GE’s tax bill, and the richest 1% and of course the “fair share” argument. As a former tax wonk, I could have discussed this with him for hours.

It’s not that I am really bad at convincing people, it’s just that when getting down to the nitty gritty of a policy, most people don’t wish to dip below the surface. They have their conclusion and they’re sticking with it. If I wanted to be an asshole, I would have asked him to explain, in his own words, why net operating loss carryforwards are good/bad policy.

It’s like that scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin: 

“First of all, you throwin’ too many big words at me, and because I don’t understand them, I’m gonna take ’em as disrespect. Watch your mouth and help me with the sale.”

Whenever any policy wonk, D.C. insider, or person with knowledge about how the system works tries to debate policy nuances with somebody who doesn’t, it never ends well. People always wanted to know about Congress and wanted to talk politics with me when I would visit Humphrey’s.

I didn’t like having these discussions. Do you really want to talk about tax reform? Really?

Most times people just want to say their opinion. I’ve found that letting them say that, and then changing the subject works best at preserving friendships. Only when people are drunk do they really want to debate you, and you can usually let them have it without much fear of repercussion — they’ll be too drunk to remember what was said in the morning. Which means you wasted your time. Other times, you start down that road, and the other person will constantly change the subject as a debate tactic.

Back to the tax discussion, rather than focus on NOL carryforward and other technical issues, I went the philosophical route:

So are you saying it is wrong to use legal means to owe no taxes?

He wouldn’t answer the question, and I responded after every post with some variation of “You’re not answering my question, is it wrong to use legal means to owe no taxes?”

I got this gem from him:

Right is Right and wrong is wrong no matter what side of the fence you are on.

To which I responded:

‎”Right is right and wrong is wrong.” But is it wrong to use legal means to owe no taxes?

Eventually, I just got so sick of him dodging the question I framed it this way:

If you think paying no taxes at all is a fairness issue, do you oppose the EITC? It helps millions of people, many of whom owe no federal incomes taxes at all avoid paying billions in taxes (roughly $59 billion last year alone.)

Not surprisingly, the EITC was something he wasn’t terribly knowledgeable about because his response was, I kid you not, a cut and paste from a 1997-98 State budget office analysis of the EITC. Word for word. Something that was written when he was in the third grade. Citing is one thing, but essentially plagiarizing a 15 year old report, well, is another.

These discussions rarely end well, but this one just ended abruptly — he stopped responding. Better than other outcomes to be sure. It left me with some conclusions:

  1. It is usually not worth your time discussing political issues with people who don’t know how those things work (regardless of whether or not they share your political views.)
  2. Cognitive dissonance is much worse than I initially thought.

Of course, there are exceptions. My friend Kenn isn’t a tax nerd, but even when he and I disagreed, we always had productive and thoughtful discussions. I think he learned from me and I from him.

My friend Brian Nichols is probably one of the smartest Democrats I know on tax policy, I really enjoy discussing tax reform with him. If you locked us in a room, we’d produce a good tax reform bill.

Before I write my post on the prospects for fundamental tax reform, I wanted to get this off of my chest:

The “two worlds” I spoke of earlier aren’t political divides, they are divided by knowledge of the intricacies of the issue and their willingness to have an honest, in-depth, open discussion.

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