Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Tax and spend

 President Biden unveiled his proposed budget for the next fiscal year yesterday. The 2023 budget weighs in at $5.8 trillion dollars, but there are a few surprises. One of the biggest is that the 2023 request is less than the $6 trillion that Joe Biden asked Congress to approve last year

What may not be surprising is that the $5.8 trillion is less than what Biden really wants. The Biden Administration has not given up on Build Back Better, but those programs are not included in the budget because the plan is still being negotiated in Congress.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash

“Because those discussions with Congress are ongoing, the budget does not include specific line items for investments associated with that future legislation,” Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young told The Hill in a conference call with reporters.

Also surprising is that rather than defunding the police, the Biden Administration is proposing increases in military and law enforcement spending. The laundry list of these items include:

  • $1 billion in aid to Ukraine

  • $6.9 billion for other European allies

  • $30 billion for state and local law enforcement and crime prevention

  • $1.7 billion to combat firearm trafficking

The budget also includes money to strengthen America’s health infrastructure and bolster defenses against future pandemics.

What isn’t surprising is that Biden’s budget contains a proposal to pay for the spending with a tax hike. The proposal, which is in keeping with Biden’s campaign promise not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000, calls for increasing the top corporate tax rate from 21 percent to 28 percent and would institute a 20 percent minimum tax on the top 0.01 percent of earners and households worth more than $100 million. The Biden Administration claims that these tax increases will reduce the deficit by $1 trillion over 10 years.

This follows a pattern of many administrations of both parties in proposing that we spend money now and promising spending reductions in the future. Don’t believe it.

In a statement accompanying the budget proposal, President Biden said, “My Administration is on track to reduce the federal deficit by more than $1.3 trillion this year, cutting in half the deficit from the last year of the previous Administration and delivering the largest one-year reduction in the deficit in U.S. history.”

He adds, “We spent less money than the last [Trump] Administration and got better results: strong economic growth, which has increased revenues and allowed us to responsibly scale back emergency spending.”

But the truth is a bit more complex. The Trump Administration’s borrowing and spending was high even before the pandemic, but stimulus spending and COVID relief boosted the federal deficit even higher in Trump’s last year. Returning to somewhat normal levels of spending and reducing the deficit were natural by-products of getting the virus under control.

Likewise, Biden benefitted from the recovery from the COVID recession. The recession began under Trump and the recovery… well, the recovery began under Trump as well because the COVID recession only lasted two months. But the lingering virus and trade war made the recovery slow.

In fact, the economy is fairly strong now despite inflation and high gas prices. Tax revenues are way up even before any potential tax hikes because the economy is growing. That allows Biden to accurately claim that the deficit is being reduced under his watch.

The fundamental problem is that at $5.8 trillion, federal spending remains far above the $4.3 trillion from 2016 or even the $4.7 trillion from 2019, Trump’s last pre-pandemic year. There’s a strong case to be made that extra spending was needed to see us through the pandemic, but as the pandemic fades, there is no sign that spending is going to return to pre-pandemic levels.

It isn’t as if a lot of the budget items are not good or even necessary things. We needed to spend to fight COVID-19. We need to help Ukraine fight off the Russians. Failure to do so may be far more costly than the billion dollars that Biden wants to spend on them.

These and other items, like the $44.9 billion to fight climate change, will be the focus of the budget battle to come, but in the end, these items are mere sideshows. It isn’t the bovine methane emissions studies or midnight basketball that are breaking the budget. Even the sum total of foreign aid accounts for less than one percent of federal spending.

America has an entitlement problem. Social Security, unemployment, and health spending account for about 62 percent of the federal budget. Those categories are considered mandatory spending and are on automatic pilot. No matter which party holds the White House or what the top-line number on the budget is, spending on those items is going forward without further discussion or appropriation.

The only politician in recent years who has talked seriously about entitlement reform was Paul Ryan. And both parties wanted to send him packing.

Neither party wants to touch entitlements. The idea of protesters with signs saying, “Keep government away from my Social Security” may be an internet meme, but it’s also strikingly close to the mark. If you don’t believe it, just go into a Republican internet chatroom and advocate Social Security reform.

My prediction is that Biden’s budget will meet the congressional ax. Both sides will point fingers at the other. The Freedom Caucus will threaten to shut the government down or cause a default, which would be one of the few courses of action that would be worse than continuing to grow the national debt. In the end, some form of the budget will pass although it will probably be the result of a budget reconciliation being passed along party lines.

We really should be working to reform entitlements and get federal spending under control. Since that isn’t going to happen, putting off the inevitable fiscal crisis for another few years will have to suffice. Hopefully, we’ll one day have adults in charge of the government again who can turn things around before we experience a Greek-style debt crisis.

Right now, neither party is interested in anything beyond pleasing their own bases with pork and posturing.


In other news, a federal judge ruled that Trump's attempt to steal the election likely involved criminal activity. The ruling was in a lawsuit by the January 6 commission seeking access to John Eastman’s papers.

Monday, March 28, 2022

Unscripted straight talk shakes the world

 Two of the big stories of the past few days revolve around unscripted remarks. In a world in which even “reality” television often plays out to an edited storyline, going off-script has dire consequences and can move both news cycles and nations. I’m not talking about Chris Rock and Will Smith’s confrontation at the Oscars here. Rock’s comment was scripted and I’m not sure that Smith’s reaction wasn’t.

Both of the recent outbreaks of straight talk were big news, but on the world stage the bigger incident was from President Biden’s speech on Ukraine from Poland. The speech was one of Biden’s best by many accounts, but nine words that were ad-libbed by the president stole the show.

Towards the end of the 27-minute speech, President Biden interjected, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” 

And a collective gasp went up from around the world.

Interestingly, many of the same people who celebrated Donald Trump for his brash talk and unpredictability are now attacking Biden for his straight talk. The question of the day is whether Biden initiated a call for regime change in Russia. To me, the answer is both yes and no. President Biden seemed to be saying what most of us are thinking these days.

“For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” 

That is not a policy statement. That is a plea. A prayer.

Back in 2002, President Bush did make a call for regime change in Iraq. As the congressional vote on the Authorization to Use Military Force approached, Bush said, “The time of denying, deceiving and delaying has come to an end. Saddam Hussein must disarm himself, or, for the sake of peace, we will lead a coalition to disarm him.”

That is an ultimatum. That is a call for regime change if Saddam did not comply. That does not resemble what Joe Biden said.

Whether the phrase was intentional or not, Biden was right. Vladimir Putin needs to go. Assuming that there is a satisfactory outcome to the Ukraine war that leaves the country free and the rest of the world intact and not radioactive, Putin cannot be trusted at the helm of a nuclear power. The man who has brought the world to the brink of WWIII cannot be trusted not to start another war.

Putin does need to go, but that does not mean that US policy is regime change. There are several other ways that Putin’s regime could be changed without the involvement of American forces. The best-case scenario would be a coup in the tradition of authoritarian regimes everywhere. If Russia’s generals and oligarchs see that Putin is destroying their country and their wealth, maybe they will take matters into their own hands. Failing that, Russia has had two revolutions in about 100 years. It might be time for another.

It isn’t likely that President Biden’s plea will be ignored by Vladimir Putin. It won’t change anything either. A Twitter friend pointed out that a Pentagon report cited by Radio Free Europe before the war already assessed that the Russians believed that the US wanted regime change. The date of that assessment? 2017. When Vladimir Putin’s buddy, Trump, was in the White House.

The worst aspect of Biden’s comment may prove to be the attempts to walk it back. That is what sounds weak and uncertain.

Shifting gears to the second incident, which was chronologically first, in last week’s confirmation hearings., Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) asked Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to define the word “woman.”

Jackson declined, saying, “I’m not a biologist.”

Although Judge Jackson’s unscripted answer has been panned by right-wing pundits, it isn’t a bad one. It’s ironic that Republicans have spent years arguing for an objective, biological definition for gender rather than a subjective one based on mental state, but then when a judicial appointee accepts biology as a basis for defining what is a woman, the party mocks her.

A better answer could have been scripted. Judge Jackson could have - should have - said that it isn’t the job of judges to define what a woman is. When a law deals with women, it is up to the legislature to define what a woman is.

Laws typically define important terms within their text. It is when laws are poorly written and vague, Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law for example, that judges are called upon to decide what the law means. Or strike down the law for being unconstitutionally vague.

Whether she meant to or not, Judge Jackson correctly acknowledged that biology is what defines a woman. Conservatives should be ecstatic and progressives should be apoplectic.

The MAGA side celebrated Donald Trump, an inveterate liar, as a truth-teller. But this week we saw two examples of truth-telling that were rejected by those same people. For better or for worse, President Biden has said what most of us are thinking: Putin needs to go. May the words pass from his lips to God’s ears.

And when Judge Jackson is confirmed - and she will be - and cases about transgender rights come before her - and they will - I hope that she remembers the day that she acknowledged that she was not a biologist. Laws need to reflect the reality of biology and gender rather than mental misconceptions that some people might have.


If you have Amazon Prime, I watched a good movie last night. I think I watched “By Dawn’s Early Light” when it originally came out on HBO back in 1990, but with the war in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin threatening a nuclear response, the plot takes on a new validity.

In the movie, a stray nuclear missile launch from Turkey sets off a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. I won’t give away any more of the plot, but I’m keeping an eye on Deb Haaland.

Tweet of the Day: Geoff Duncan is Georgia’s Republican lieutenant governor. This tweet is notable because it is one of the first tweets from a Republican officeholder noting that it is time for the party to move on.

From the Racket

Thursday, March 24, 2022

A cornered Putin is an apocalyptic threat

 Today marks the one-month anniversary of when the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv was supposed to fall within 72 hours. The spoiler alert is that one month later, not only is Kyiv still in Ukrainian hands but there are indications that the defenders are pushing the Russian invaders back.

I was one of the people who thought that Kyiv would inevitably fall in a matter of days, but that Kyiv’s capture wouldn’t mean the end of the war. I was half right.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

What we have seen over the past month is probably similar to what would have happened if Kyiv had fallen. Around the country, Ukrainians have formed resistance to the Russians that is both organized and unorganized, both passive and active. Russian beliefs that the Ukrainian people would roll over and accept their fate - much less welcome the invading army as liberators - proved far off the mark.

Russia is losing so badly that Vladimir Putin is being humiliated. Steve Berman made a compelling argument this morning that this is no accident, but that it was all according to a NATO plan developed to meet the invasion that everyone has known may be coming since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.

Regardless of why Russia is losing (and there are many links in this chain), Ukraine would be winning just by surviving. But beyond surviving, the Ukrainian defenders are bleeding the Russian army of both men and equipment. The estimated 15,000 Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine in less than a month now exceeds the number of Russians killed in a decade of fighting in Afghanistan. The Pentagon estimates that the Russian combat force in Ukraine has lost more than 10 percent of its original size. These losses will not be sustainable for long, but there is no end in sight.

In addition to bleeding the Russian army, Ukraine is also taking back territory. A counteroffensive this week reportedly made small gains in pushing the Russians away from Kyiv. Around the country, the invasion is mostly stalled and Ukraine is even clawing back small territorial gains.

The fact that Ukraine is winning is good news, but it also means that the war is entering a new and dangerous phase. As Vladimir Putin becomes more humiliated and more cornered, the man who holds the launch codes to a large share of the world’s nuclear weapons becomes even more dangerous.

Think back to the early days of the war. Russia claimed that it was intervening to protect Ukrainian citizens. That may have lasted 24 hours. As resistance mounted and the invasion bogged down, Russian forces quickly began to target civilian areas with indiscriminate artillery fire, airstrikes, and thermobaric “vaccuum bombs.” Last night, Russia reportedly attacked suburbs of Kyiv with white phosphorus, a weapon that has horrific consequences when used against unarmed and unprotected civilians.

There could be several reasons for Russian targeting of civilians. One obvious reason is that who is a combatant is becoming blurred as Ukrainian civilians take up arms against their oppressors. Another is to instill terror in order to make things more difficult for the Ukrainian government and army. Finally, I’ll bet that a big part of the strategy is to send an “FU” message to Ukraine that if you fight back, your cities will be razed and your people will be slaughtered.

If the third possibility is accurate, then we have a lot to fear in coming days and months. As Putin becomes more and more desperate to to salvage his - and Russia’s - reputation as a world power, the temptation will be strong to up the ante. To that end, Russia has a variety of options short of a full-scale nuclear war. There are the small, tactical nuclear weapons that Steve discussed a while back, but there are also chemical and biological weapons. These weapons may not turn the tide of the war, but they could turn a Ukrainian victory into an everybody-loses scenario.

It isn’t clear whether the Ukainian army has troop concentrations that would be suitable targets for a small nuclear strike, but even a small, low-yield nuke would be devastating in populated urban areas. Likewise, a chemical or biological attack probably would not poke a hole in the Ukrainian defensive lines but could be used effectively to punish the country for not being subjugated.

Vladimir Putin is going to push the bounds in his quest to either take Ukraine or scorch the earth in retribution for his failure. The West has tried to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia in hopes of preventing an escalation to a possible nuclear war. Putin, on the other hand, seems to have no such qualms.

It seems likely that at some point NATO is going to be confronted with Putin’s use of weapons of mass destruction. At that point, we are going to have to collectively decide whether to give in to nuclear (or chemical or biological) blackmail or risk a potentially humanity-ending confrontation with a rogue dictator. (This choice isn’t a new revelation. I foresaw it back in early March.)

The question is whether the risk of nuclear confrontation over Ukraine is greater than the risk of not confronting Putin. Aggressive countries around the world will sit up and take notice if Russia is allowed to get away with using WMDs in Ukraine. It will be a factor that China includes in their plans to take back Taiwan. It will be a consideration for North Korea, Iran, and even powers like India and Pakistan. The message received will be that if you have nuclear weapons, you can do whatever you want. Ultimately, that sort of thinking will likely lead to the apocalyptic confrontation that we are trying to avoid.

To his credit, President Biden has confronted the threat by calling out Putin’s allegations that Ukraine was developing chemical and biological weapons in secret labs as false flag rationales for Russia’s own use of chemical weapons. Biden also threatened Putin with "far-reaching consequences" if Russia used WMDs in Ukraine. Putin ignored similar warnings in the runup to the invasion.

When snakes are cornered, they sometimes become so stressed and agitated that they mistakenly bite themselves. In the case of venomous snakes, this can be a deadly error.

Right now, Vladimir Putin is a cornered, agitated, venomous snake. He may very well bite his own tail in a desperate attempt to extricate himself from the dire situation that his bad judgment has created.

The war is going better for Ukraine than I would have dreamed possible, but we are far from being out of the woods. The darkest and most dangerous days of the conflict may be ahead of us.


Tweet of the Day: Today’s tweet refers back to yesterday’s confirmation hearings for Ketanji Brown Jackson. A great many Republican pundits seized on Jackson’s refusal to “provide a definition for the word ’woman’?”

Jackson declined, saying, “I’m not a biologist.”

Republicans chortle at the response, but Atticus Finch points out that the answer is reasonable. And reasonably correct.

Jackson’s deferral to biology is actually a good sign since the primary biological definition is based on sex, not a fluid concept of gender. A woman is a female of the species and BiologyOnline defines “female” as “an individual of the sex which conceives and brings forth young, or (in a wider sense) which has an ovary and produces ova.”

I don’t think Republicans would have a problem with that.

On the contrary, if they prefer a subjective and legalistic definition, they might be disappointed. As I’ve pointed out in the past, a legal definition of a word is whatever the law in question says it is. For example, if the definitions section of a law defines a grilled cheese sandwich as a woman, then that definition is legally binding.

Sure, it makes a great soundbite for a Democratic-appointee to say that she can’t define what a woman is, but the reality is that accepting the biological definition is something that we should hope she stands by when she is on the Supreme Court.

From the Racket