Spiritualizing the election

I am astonished to hear how so many Christians are talking about the election.  They are interpreting the Obama victory as a sign that America is no longer a Christian nation, struggling to understand how Christians could have been denied the victory, questioning God’s will and raising questions of theodicy, and on and on.  May I remind everyone that Christians were not defeated, even in the most literal level.  The candidate evangelicals became so spiritually invested in is not a Christian.

Perhaps the real spiritual significance of the election is that Mormons were denied their Constantinian moment.

The blue states’ tax break

In the negotiations to avoid falling off the “fiscal cliff,” Republicans are proposing cutting out tax deductions in exchange for lower tax rates.  I worry about the fate of charitable giving deductions and the impact eliminating them might have on  churches.  (One option being discussed is to just cap them for the wealthy, but many non-profit organizations–museums, colleges, and just about any entity running a capital campaign–depend heavily on big donors.)  Another potential casualty is the home-mortgage deduction, doing away with which may deal yet another blow to the housing market.

These may all make economic sense and, if rates are lowered, individuals may not take a tax hit.  But they will still have consequences.  Charles Lane looks at another IRS deduction that most of us appreciate, that for state and local taxes.  He shows, though, how the most liberal states have been using this provision to soften the blow of raising state taxes, forcing the rest of the country to subsidize their profligate spending:

Taxpayers have been allowed to deduct state and local income and property taxes since the federal income tax began in 1913. (Sales taxes have at times been deductible, too, but that’ s a relatively minor issue.) The theory is it’s unfair to make people pay twice for the public services they receive. That’s doubtful, though, since, despite some overlap, federal taxes support different services than state and local.

What the deduction does is enable higher-income states and localities to tax — and spend — more than they otherwise would, while shifting some of the cost to other states. It also encourages them to collect revenue in forms that are easier to deduct on federal returns.

Two states, California and New York, reaped almost 30 percent of the deduction’s value in 2009, the latest year for which I could find Internal Revenue Service data. Other states that benefit disproportionately include Connecticut, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts and Maryland.

In 2009, 73 percent of the deduction’s benefits went to taxpayers with annual incomes above $100,000, according to the Congressional Budget Office; fully 20 percent of the benefits went to taxpayers with annual incomes above $1 million.

Starting to notice a pattern? Basically, what we have is a significant federal tax subsidy for “blue” state governments. These also happen to be the states having the most difficulty living within their means, what with their expensive urban school systems, bloated pension liabilities and all. Yet they have an incentive to close their budget gaps by raising income taxes rather than reining in spending, because the deduction helps them pass the tab to other states, most of them red.

California Gov. Jerry Brown addressed his budget woes through a referendum this year to boost the top income tax rate, just as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn pushed an income tax rate increase through his legislature last year.

Now you’re beginning to understand how this seemingly innocuous tax break distorts financial flows within and among the 50 states, as well as between the states on the one hand and Washington on the other.

As for negotiations over a “grand bargain” between President Obama and the Republican House, the state and local tax deduction complicates that process, too.

The main bone of contention is the federal income tax rate on top earners, currently 35 percent. Obama says it is going to be hard to raise enough revenue without returning that rate to 39.6 percent, the level during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Republicans insist that eliminating deductions and tax breaks could bring in more revenue without raising rates — while getting most of the money from the wealthy, just as the president wants to do.

In fact, the Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, has shown that eliminating all itemized deductions while leaving tax rates where they are now would raise $2.2 trillion over 10 years. That’s $600 billion more than President Obama is seeking from Congress.

Of course, not even the Republicans are proposing such a sweeping reform, which would certainly make the tax code more efficient — but also wipe out breaks for charitable giving and mortgage interest that enjoy wide red-state support, too. And the president himself has suggested limiting deductions in combination with rate increases, perhaps by capping the rate at which deductions may be claimed.

But because its impact is so heavily concentrated in blue states, the state and local deduction creates an asymmetry: Democrats have an extra reason to insist on raising rates, and Republicans have an extra incentive to demand loophole-cutting. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, but I have noticed that those most skeptical of the loophole-closing approach include Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

So let’s all say a pre-Thanksgiving prayer for a successful negotiation — and remember that even a very grand bargain would still leave our state and federal tax and budget systems in need of major reform.

via Charles Lane: The best deduction to chop – The Washington Post.

Steam without boiling water

Engineers at Rice have devised an ingenious process that allows the generation of steam without boiling water using nanotechnology (particles that are extraordinarily small) plus ordinary sunlight.  Among other applications, this could revolutionize the possibilities of solar energy.

In the Rice experiment, the researchers stirred a small amount of nanoparticles into water and put the mixture into a glass vessel. They then focused sunlight on the mixture with a lens.

The nanoparticles — either carbon or gold-coated silicon dioxide beads — have a diameter shorter than the wavelength of visible light. That allows them to absorb most of a wave of light’s energy. If they had been larger, the particles would have scattered much of the light.

In the focused light, a nanoparticle rapidly becomes hot enough to vaporize the layer of water around it. It then becomes enveloped in a bubble of steam. That, in turn, insulates it from the mass of water that, an instant before the steam formed, was bathing and cooling it.

Insulated in that fashion, the particle heats up further and forms more steam. It eventually becomes buoyant enough to rise. As it floats toward the surface, it hits and merges with other bubbles.

At the surface, the nanoparticles-in-bubbles release their steam into the air. They then sink back toward the bottom of the vessel. When they encounter the focused light, the process begins again. All of this occurs within seconds.

In all, about 80 percent of the light energy a nanoparticle absorbs goes into making steam, and only 20 percent is “lost” in heating the water. This is far different from creating steam in a tea kettle. There, all the water must reach boiling temperature before an appreciable number of water molecules fly into the air as steam.

The phenomenon is such that it is possible to put the vessel containing the water-and-nanoparticle soup into an ice bath, focus light on it and make steam. . . .

Halas said the nanoparticles are not expensive to make and, because they act essentially as catalysts, are not used up. A nanoparticle steam generator could be used over and over. And, as James Watt and other 18th-century inventors showed, if you can generate steam easily, you can create an industrial revolution.

via Making steam without boiling water, thanks to nanoparticles – The Washington Post.

Romney in exile

Just a couple of weeks ago, Republicans were hailing Mitt Romney as the man who would make a great president.  Now, after some more tone-deaf remarks by the Republican presidential candidate of the sort he’s been making all along with party members defending him, his former followers are repudiating him.  From Dan Eggen of the Washington Post:

Ten days after failing to sail into the White House, Mitt Romney is already being tossed overboard by his party.

The former Massachusetts governor — who attracted $1 billion in funding and 59 million votes in his bid to unseat President Obama — has rapidly become persona non grata to a shellshocked Republican Party, which appears eager to map out its future without its 2012 nominee.

Romney was by all accounts stunned at the scale of his Nov. 6 loss, dropping quickly from public view after delivering a short concession speech to a half-empty Boston arena. Then came a series of tin-eared remarks this week blaming his loss on Obama’s “gifts” to African Americans and Hispanics — putting him squarely at odds with party leaders struggling to build bridges with minorities.

“You can’t expect to be a leader of all the people and be divisive,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Friday on MSNBC, adding: “Someone asked me, Why did Mitt Romney lose? And I said because he got less votes than Barack Obama, that’s why.”

It’s a remarkable fall from grace for Romney, who just 10 days ago held the chance of a Republican return to power at the White House.

The messy aftermath of his failure suggests that Romney, a political amalgam with no natural constituency beyond the business community, is unlikely to play a significant role in rebuilding his party, many Republicans said this week.

“He’s not going to be running for anything in the future,” said Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), who sharply criticized Romney’s comments about Hispanics. “He’s not our standard-bearer, unfortunately.”

via Romney sinks quickly in Republicans’ esteem – The Washington Post.

Is this fickleness and disloyalty?  Or recognition that Romney was not really a very good candidate?

Setting policies by means of SuperPACS

A case-study in contemporary policy-setting.  The Republicans put off Hispanics, which is arguably demographic suicide.  So how to change the anti-immigration stance associated with the party?  Reason? Discussion?  Debate?  Coming to a consensus?  No.  Start a super PAC that will give money to pro-immigration Republicans and sponsor primary opponents against Republicans who vote the wrong way.

Prominent Republicans are launching a new super PAC they hope will help begin repairing the political damage left by years of anti-illegal-immigrant rhetoric that has dominated GOP primaries and alienated crucial Hispanic voters.

The organization, to be called Republicans for Immigration Reform, aims to undermine what organizers call the “extremists” who have pushed party nominees to stake out far-right positions such as opposing a pathway to legalization for millions of illegal workers, students and children.

Even before it raises money and establishes target races for 2014, the group’s organizers told The Washington Post, it will help smooth the way for wavering Republican lawmakers to vote next year for an immigration overhaul. Such a measure suddenly gained momentum last week after GOP leaders watched President Obama’s dominance among Hispanic voters help carry him to an electoral college landslide.

Spearheading the group is Carlos Gutierrez, the Cuban American commerce secretary under President George W. Bush. He is joined by Washington lawyer Charlie Spies, co-founder of the pro-Mitt Romney super PAC Restore Our Future, which, illustrating the very trend that the new PAC aims to thwart, aired some tough ads during this year’s primaries accusing Romney’s rivals of supporting “amnesty” and being “too liberal on immigration.”

“There’s currently only energy on the anti-immigration reform side, and we want to be able to provide some cover for Republicans that vote in support of an immigration reform approach,” Spies said.

Spies and Gutierrez declined to cite a fundraising goal, but both enjoy close ties to corporate America, which generally favors looser immigration laws. A super PAC can accept unlimited donations. Spies’s pro-Romney group raised $142 million for the 2012 campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

“This is not small ball,” Gutierrez said. “We’re serious, and we are going to push the debates on immigration reform to a place where I believe the Republican Party should be in the 21st century.”

via New super PAC hopes to give cover to pro-immigration Republicans – The Washington Post.

Let us bracket the issue of immigration reform and whether Republicans need to loosen up on the question and make major efforts to attract Hispanics.  I myself agree that something on this order needs to be done.  So let’s not talk about that.  Let’s discuss this method of forming policy and making laws.

On any issue, we can now expect a SuperPAC to fund one side and probably another SuperPAC to fund the other side.  (I am not disputing their “rights” to do so.  Let’s not talk about that either.)  They work by rewarding, threatening, and punishing lawmakers with money, using campaign contributions–given, withheld, or given to an opponent–as a means of coercing support of a legislative agenda.

Doesn’t this replace democracy with plutocracy, so that money becomes the actual means of governing?  This strike me as a step beyond simply raising money for a campaign.  As we have seen, raising and spending money will not necessarily win you an election.  You get special interests making contributions but that may or may not determine how a lawmaker votes.  This tactic, by contrast, seeks to determine which candidates can run for office in the first place and fixes their position on an issue, which is determined not by the give-and-take of a rational process but by the SuperPAC that has quite literally bought their vote.

Kurt Vonnegut on writing and living

Kurt Vonnegut, author of Slaughterhouse-Five among many others, seems like a much better author when you’re young.  There is a close link between idealism and cynicism, both of which are characteristic of the young and both of which are necessary to appreciate Vonnegut’s dark humor.  I remember reading him as a college student with great excitement and appreciation.  But now. . . it’s just not the same.  Still, you have to appreciate his wit, and an affection lingers.

Dan Wakefield has just published a collection of his correspondence entitled Kurt Vonnegut: Letters.  In a review, Michael Dirda gives us some bon mots from those letters:

“Unsettling business for an artist, where everything that happens in New York has universality, and everything that happens outside is ethnography.”

The term paper, he tells his writing students, should be “both cynical and religious.”

“The secret of good writing is caring.”

“No picture can attract serious attention without a human being attached to it in the viewer’s mind. . . . Pictures are famous for their human-ness and not their picture-ness.”

“I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which I took very hard. To an unmoored, middle-aged man like myself, it was heartbreaking. That’s all right. I like to have my heart broken.”

To his son, Mark: “I ask a favor for your mother’s sake: please look awfully nice at your graduation. She is a dear, romantic girl, and I want her to be as happy as she can possibly be at the graduation of her only son. . . .I am talking about hair, of course.”

“Story-telling is a game for two, and a mature storyteller . . . is sociable, a good date on a blind date with a total stranger, so to speak.”