Will Good Times Happen Again For Democrats?

Not since the height of the Gingrich revolution in 1995 have Republicans been as strong as they are now. President Bush has been more popular for more weeks than any president since they started taking presidential-approval polls — indeed, for longer than his top aides expected at the start of the war. Eighty-five percent of the public approves of the job Bush is doing, with about 60 percent “strongly” approving. People trust him over Democrats not just on foreign policy, but on economic policy. In a number of polls, his popularity is rubbing off on congressional Republicans. So the question on the minds of Republicans and Democrats alike is: Just how long will it last?

Polls come and go, and only a fool would try to predict where they’ll be this coming November, let alone in November 2004. But polls are not the only reason for Democrats to worry. And their situation could well get worse.

What drives Democrats crazy is that before September 11, they thought they had the Republicans where they wanted them: playing defense on health care, campaign-finance reform, and the environment. The recession was also bound to hurt the GOP.

When the attacks happened, Democrats were paralyzed — but only briefly. They quickly settled on the optimistic analysis of the war’s effects on politics: It wouldn’t have any. Democratic strategists James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Bob Shrum wrote a memo saying that Democrats should support the president on the war while clobbering his party on domestic issues. It was these latter issues that would sway voters in the 2002 elections. And while Bush was popular, the public had “underlying doubts” that would eventually, with Democratic help, resurface. The 2001 elections, in which Republicans lost the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey, seemed to confirm this analysis.

wgthafdThen a curious thing happened. At the very moment when the recession became impossible to ignore and the budget surplus vanished — the moment when Democrats expected to start scoring points — Bush moved decisively ahead of them in the polls about whom voters trust on economic and budgetary issues. Voters were willing to trust Bush with their pocketbooks, it turned out, as well as their lives. Nobody’s talking about “underlying doubts” any more.

Worse for the Democrats, it turned out that Bush was not going to ignore domestic issues while prosecuting a war — confounding their hopes that he would repeat his father’s mistake. In December, administration officials accused Tom Daschle of blocking the economic- stimulus bill for political reasons; somewhat surprisingly, a narrow majority of the public agreed with that complaint. In January, the president himself got into the fray when Daschle made a speech criticizing Bush’s tax cuts. Bush said he wouldn’t allow the Democrats to raise taxes by repealing some of his cuts. Several of Daschle’s Democratic colleagues, terrified of looking like tax-raisers, sided with Bush. The media, meanwhile, zinged Daschle because he wasn’t willing to say he would repeal Bush’s tax cuts. Daschle retreated.

Bush keeps coming out with new initiatives: One day it’s health care, the next the environment. As long as he does, it’s hard for Democrats to charge Republicans with indifference to domestic concerns. Republican strategist Ralph Reed compares Bush’s political achievement to Bill Clinton’s: “By the time we got to 1996, we [Republicans] had lost our advantages on taxes, welfare, and crime, and [Clinton] owned education. Now President Bush is moving similarly to own taxes and the military while negating traditional Democratic advantages on education and health care. That is a box I don’t think the Democrats can get out of.”

Many of the issues Democrats have left seem unlikely to help them. The economy appears to be recovering. Democrats are trying to make the deficit an issue, but it’s not much of a rallying cry. “You can’t eat or drink the deficit,” says Democratic political analyst Ruy Teixeira. “It doesn’t mean as much to people as it does to congressmen.” Moreover, Democrats who complain about the deficit have trouble explaining what they would do about it: raise taxes? cut defense spending? At a time when Democrats are already disunified — too many of them are thinking about running for president for them not to be — raising this issue only adds to the problem.

The Democrats have invested heavily in the Enron scandal — but like Enron’s employees, they don’t have much to show for their investment. A mid-February Gallup poll asked whether voters thought “the problems associated with Enron” involved mostly the Republican party, or both parties “about equally.” Twenty percent fingered Republicans, while 65 percent said both parties. The public is much more likely to suspect congressional Democrats of improper behavior toward Enron than to fault Bush.

Under the circumstances, Democrats will almost certainly feel compelled to hammer Republicans on entitlements with even more vigor than usual. Here they may actually be able to make some headway — especially if Republicans go wobbly under the attack. Democrats might even be able to eke out a decent result in November based on better organization and factors peculiar to individual races.

But what Democrats should really dread is that the war will become an issue in the November elections. The conventional wisdom continues to be that it won’t. The Democrats are still taking every opportunity to say that they support Bush on the war — an approach that shields them from danger but, it’s worth noting, doesn’t do anything to build up their own credibility on the issue. But what if we invade Iraq? A lot of Democratic congressmen and senators would be viscerally opposed, and many of their supporters would be too. Polls, on the other hand, have shown strong support for toppling Saddam ever since September 11.

Fashion And Party Politics Make Well Dressed Bedfellows

Fashion industry officials are opening their wallets wide to back their favorite candidates and parties leading up to November congressional and state elections, after which stricter rules for campaign contributions could likely be in place.

Among retailers heavily into the business of 2002 campaign giving is retail giant Wal-Mart Stores, which is demonstrating how it also dominates general merchandise, department and apparel specialty stores in amassing a political war chest.

Halfway through the two-year congressional-election cycle, the Bentonville-Ark.-based chain’s political action committee collected $630,272 in donations from Wal-Mart store managers, executives and workers, as well as others outside the company. Of that amount, Wal-Mart gave $589,480 to mostly Republican candidates and activities, according to year-end 2001 Federal Election Commission reports.

fnppmwAt this pace, Wal-Mart by the fall will likely outpace its $694,032 in contributions made during the 1999-2000 election cycle, which in turn surpassed the $159,575 given by the company from 1997-1998. The increase in political spending reflects “a growing realization in the last few years that Wal-Mart needed to be more politically active” and help like-minded candidates get elected, a company spokesman said.

“There are a rising number of issues at the local, state and federal level that affect retailing,” he added.

On Capitol Hill — where most retail, as well as apparel and textile PAC dollars are spent — there’s a beehive of issues that could affect business, good and bad, ranging from taxing the Internet and making apparel imports from Andean countries duty-free to exposing employers to medical malpractice lawsuits and tightening cargo security procedures.

Also at stake is the control of the House and Senate. Democrats need to claim only six seats in the House to gain a majority, whereas in the Senate, Republicans need to wrest a single spot to take charge.

For the most part, retailers tend to favor GOP candidates, but they still contribute to Democrats who favor industry issues. The same goes for apparel and textile manufacturers and importers, although Seventh Avenue has had a more liberal, Democratic bent over the years.

“When the houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans there is more of a pro-business support,” said Steve Pfister, senior vice president of government relations at the National Retail Federation.

One regular recipient of retail, as well as apparel and textile importer campaign dollars, is House Ways & Means chairman Bill Thomas (R., Calif.), the gatekeeper of all trade and tax legislation, who is a proponent of lowering import tariffs. His counterpart on the Senate side, Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D., Montana), although a bit more tempered in his advocacy of free trade, is also popular with those in the fashion industry who import.

The domestic textile industry, concerned about increased competition from low-cost imports and lowered trade barriers, tend to favor lawmakers who question legislation that expands trade breaks for apparel and textiles.

Burlington Industries, though in Chapter 11, is among a handful of mills that has stayed active in political fund raising and backing textile-state lawmakers. The company, based in Greensboro, N.C., so far this election cycle has given $1,000 to Sen. Fritz Hollings (D., S.C.), as well as House Textile Caucus chairman Rep. Howard Coble (R., N.C.), both diehard defenders of the textile industry. Burlington also has one of the meatiest textile industry PACs, reporting $72,469 in contributions, of which $16,000 has been handed out.

One potentially huge political donor, billionaire textile magnate Roger Milliken, doesn’t maintain a PAC through his Milliken & Co. Unlike other corporate chiefs, Milliken isn’t an active fund-raiser. Rather, he keeps his giving to the $25,000 limit the FEC places on annual personal campaign contributions and backs only GOP candidates and party causes.

The only exception was in 1998, when he gave Hollings $900 in his Senate reelection bid. Milliken and the South Carolina Democrat are like-minded in arguing how U.S. free-trade policy has caused the demise of the country’s manufacturing base, including textile production.

Milliken’s Washington lobbyist, Jock Nash, said his boss “thinks having a PAC is like trying to get someone who works for you to adopt your views.”

“Clearly, a company our size could have a huge PAC,” Nash said. “It certainly would make my job a lot easier if I had money hanging out of my pockets like some in the retail, textile and apparel industries.”

The second-largest retail player this election cycle is May Department Stores, having amassed $192,183, of which $86,922 has been disbursed, according to the FEC’s year-end 2001 records. Sears is in third place with a $188,604 war chest, of which $102,965 has already been sent to candidates and political party PACs.

In the apparel industry, there’s been little activity thus far among corporations in the political-giving game. However, one industry standout is the activewear and sportswear maker Russell Corp., which reported $73,826 in its war chest by mid-2001, of which $4,000 was given to candidates.

Among apparel industry executives donating individually to campaigns are Paul Charron, Liz Claiborne’s chairman and ceo, who has backed Sen. Charles Schumer’s (D., N.Y.) reelection bid with a $2,000 donation. Likewise Elie Tahari, owner of Tahari Ltd., and his wife, Rory, have each given $1,000 to Schumer, as has Leonard A. Lauder, the Estee Lauder chief.

Brothers Paul, Maurice and Armand Marciano of Guess Inc. are demonstrating their political largess, giving a combined $31,000 to Democrats. Of that money, a $20,000 check written by Maurice went to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which in turn will dole the money out to party candidates.

Calvin Klein, another loyal contributor to the Democratic party, has given Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) $2,000 for his reelection campaign. Klein also wrote a $50,000 check to the party to be used this election, a donation that falls into the category of soft money.

Soft money is directed to political parties for non-campaign purposes, like building party membership and get-out-the-vote drives. The funding isn’t regulated by the FEC, has no limits on the size of contributions and would be outlawed under campaign reform legislation that has passed the House. Backers in the Senate of campaign reform legislation are hoping this is the week they’ll push the bill through, although filibusters from the opposition are still being threatened.

Both parties have become adept at raising millions of dollars in soft money from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. The enormity of soft money raised and its popular use in funding advertisements that portray candidates in negative lights without naming them has made such contributions a likely target for reform.

Other soft money contributors in the fashion world are Gap’s Inc. chairman Donald Fisher and The Limited’s chairman Leslie Wexner, who’ve directed their donations to the GOP. Wexner has given state GOP efforts $25,000 in this election cycle, which follows a $100,000 contribution he gave in the last go around.

Fisher also has written a $25,000 soft-money check to help GOP campaign efforts at the state level for this year’s elections. This contribution is minimal compared to the 2000 presidential election, when Fisher wrote soft-money checks of $305,000 to the GOP and $30,000 to Democratic activities.

Even though soft money would become illegal after the November elections under the proposed legislation, wealthy contributors won’t necessarily be stymied in their big-time political spending. Under the proposed reforms, individuals would be able to increase their net contributions to politicians and PACs to $95,000 in a two-year election cycle, up from $25,000 a year.

In addition, current individual limits of $1,000 donations per primary and general election would increase to $2,000, and that amount would keep pace with inflation. In addition, state and local parties could still receive individual donations of up to $10,000 a year for things like get-out-the-vote drives.

Steven Weiss, communications director with the Center for Responsive Politics, said under reform legislation outlawing soft money, candidates and parties would have to work harder to amass “hard-money” contributions from individuals or PACs. However, Weiss expects no downturn in total political giving under reform.

“The pressure will be on to raise even more hard money,” Weiss said.

He also noted that negative political advertising funded by soft money could still be paid for by hard money. However, the reform legislation would ban radio or television broadcast of these so-called issue ads within 60 days of an election.

As far as PAC contributions, which comprise the bulk of political giving in the retail, apparel and textile sectors, the rules wouldn’t be changed under reform legislation. Current law caps PAC contributions per primary and general election to $5,000 for a candidate and $15,000 for national party or other PACs. The PACs can also give to as many candidates or other committees as they want and they are already banned from soft-money donations.

Hollering At Hollings!

Today’s Democratic party is supposed to have made peace with the market. Modern Democrats favor free trade and technological development. They are friendly to Silicon Valley. High-tech executives, in turn, look kindly on the Democrats. In 2000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, individuals associated with computer and Internet firms gave $40 million to politicians. Slightly more than half went to Democrats.

Unfortunately for the techies, some Democrats are not following the new program. Even more unfortunately, one of these Democrats is the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. South Carolina’s Ernest “Fritz” Hollings is a proud protectionist, an eager regulator, and a steadfast ally of the trial lawyers. To the extent that the high-tech industry supported Democrats, it helped Hollings get his chairmanship. He is now returning the favor by stiffing the industry’s agenda. When the Information Technology Industry Council gave out its most recent ratings, most senators scored above 80 percent. Hollings came in dead last, at 45 percent.

hahThe 80-year-old senator is generally indulged, seen as a colorful character at best or a harmless joke at worst. When he gets in the news, it is often because of some outrageous remark. In 1993 Hollings explained why African “potentates” went to international conferences: “Rather than eating each other, they’d just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva.” His candor, or maybe just his nastiness, lets him say things that his colleagues do not — such as that Strom Thurmond, the man who has made Hollings the longest-serving junior senator in history, is “not mentally keen” and is using the Senate as a “nursing home.” Hollings dispenses with a lot of the contemporary politician’s cant. In his last campaign, he said his Republican opponent was “a goddamned skunk” who could “kiss my fanny.”

But Hollings is not merely a character. He is a tough and persistent fighter for his positions, and he is in a position to do real damage to the economy.

Hollings has elevated his dedication to protectionism, pork, and the tort bar to high principle. He has voted against almost every free- trade deal that has come before Congress: against NAFTA in 1993, against the global free-trade bill in 1994, against free trade with Africa and the Caribbean in 1999, against normal trade relations with China in 2000. He has not yet announced a position on the pending legislation to let the president negotiate future trade deals, but his website describes similar laws as “not only unwise but unconstitutional.” His position on trade reflects that of his state’s textile lobby, but he is also clearly a protectionist by conviction. Whatever his motives, Hollings is a chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee who is hostile to international commerce.

Hollings also backs every bill that would generate more work for the trial lawyers, from the “patient’s bill of rights” to a new “passenger’s bill of rights” that would, for example, create an actionable right for passengers with allergies not to be in the presence of peanuts. In 1999, he opposed even the bill to protect the high-tech industry from liability for Y2K-related problems.

In addition to voting against the interests of the tech sector, Hollings has denigrated its importance. He considers manufacturing far more vital to the economy and worries about the alleged erosion of our manufacturing base. During the debate over trade with China, he said that he would rather have BMW employing people in South Carolina than Oracle or Microsoft.

Hollings’s chairmanship comes at the worst possible time for techies. They are still struggling to get out from a sectoral depression that has entailed widespread layoffs and bankruptcies. The political climate in Washington has also turned decidedly pro-regulation. From force of habit, the government is applying to new technologies regulatory models that were initially developed for other industries. Internet taxes are a good example. The old sales-tax system, in which states tried to tax consumers, has proven unenforceable for e-commerce. But the states are unwilling to rethink their tax structures. So Congress is likely to respond to their predicament by giving them greater powers to enforce their current tax codes. Hollings, of course, supports the expansion of state tax authority.

He is also playing a key role on two bills that affect technology companies. The senator is blocking a bill that would make it possible for more people and businesses to enjoy high-speed Internet (“broadband”) connections. And he is the sponsor of another bill that would impose draconian regulations on digital devices in order to protect copyrights.

The first bill, sponsored in the House by Louisiana Republican Billy Tauzin and Michigan Democrat John Dingell, is designed to correct a flaw in the Telecommunications Act that Hollings got passed in 1996. That act was an attempt to have government-managed competition. It allowed local telephone companies, also called the “baby Bells,” to build lines for high-speed Internet connections — but only if they let competitors use the lines, and at a discounted rate.

The rationale was that the baby Bells had a monopoly over local telephone service and should not be allowed to use that established monopoly to gain market share in the new broadband market. The practical result is that the baby Bells have had no incentive to build the new lines and have therefore largely declined to do so. Cable companies have been active in the broadband market, but lack of competition has stunted that market’s development.

The Tauzin-Dingell bill would loosen the restrictions on the Bells so that they would have an incentive to build broadband lines. Many techies have maintained that the bill is key to a sectoral recovery. Whether or not that’s true, the potential benefits of letting this market develop are credibly estimated to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. Tauzin-Dingell passed the House comfortably.

But Hollings says it’s “dead on arrival” in the Senate. He’s still worried about the Bells’ market power — even though they have not had legally protected monopolies for almost 20 years, and even though the cable companies would be competitors if the Bells got in. Hollings is so concerned about imagined Bell monopolies, he wants to break up these companies — an idea two analysts at the libertarian Cato Institute say “would set back telecommunications policy 20 years and constitute possibly the most radical, proregulatory measure to come along for any American industry in decades.”

While Hollings’s position is unreasonable, he may succeed in blocking reform. So far, nobody in the Senate is taking him on. The ranking Republican on the Commerce Committee, John McCain, used to be the Senate’s leading advocate of telecom deregulation. He fought Hollings on the 1996 act, and in 1999 he sponsored legislation that went much further than Tauzin-Dingell. Now McCain has switched sides, echoing Hollings’s concerns about monopolies.

Concerned as they are about Hollings’s position on broadband, high-tech companies are likely to be even more upset by his copyright-protection bill. That bill is a favor to the entertainment industry, which is Hollings’s second largest source of campaign cash (after lawyers). What it would do is mandate that computers, CD players, and DVD players — and any other device that can play or record digital information — be unable to duplicate copyrighted material. The manufacture, import, or sale of machines that can perform such duplication would be illegal.

The bill is backed by Disney, the Recording Industry Association of America, the Motion Picture Association of America, and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Their worry that the work they produce will be pirated is understandable. But Hollywood had similar worries about the VCR when it was invented, and the response was not to prohibit VCRs or to impose federal technology mandates on them. Eventually, Hollywood figured out how to make money from the new technology by adjusting their business model — which is what they should do now, too.

The Hollings bill is sweeping: It would make it illegal for the owner of a CD to copy it for his own use. It is a break with precedent, since we have not heretofore insisted that consumer technology be government- approved. It imposes costs on technology manufacturers unfairly. (It’s not their fault that the music industry makes CDs that are easy to copy.) It’s also insulting: The entertainment industry is treating its customers as presumptive criminals.

In sum, Hollings is beholden to anti-technology interests. He fears new technologies that threaten those interests. He opposes legislation that would allow for technological development. And he sets back free trade more effectively than all the rioters in Seattle put together.

The 2004 Nightmare In A Nutshell

Unity or no national unity, this question is on the brains of Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Sens. John F. Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman, and all the others who were potential candidates before September 11. But it’s only on the tongue of Sharpton.

On Senate Majority Leader Thomas A. Daschle: “His position in Washington could be used against him.”

On Edwards, who made his fortune as a trial lawyer in the area of personal injury: “I would want Edwards to run, because he [was] a lawyer who represented victims and made a lot of money. I fought for victims all my life and didn’t get paid.”

On Kerry: “I know who he is, but I don’t know how much of a profile he has in the black community.”

On Gephardt: “I’ve met him; I like him; I think he’s a decent guy. But he’ll be leading the charge to take over the House. How is he going to then turn around and say that he should be President?”

nmianAnd, of course, on himself: “It was Harold Washington’s race in ’83 that energized Jesse Jackson’s presidential race of ’84. In many ways, Freddy could be the same person for me.” “Freddy” is Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, whose candidacy to succeed Rudy Giuliani as mayor of New York was taken straight out of the racial-politics playbook (Sharpton endorsement included). And Ferrer finds himself in startlingly good shape to take the Democratic nomination on October 11. Sharpton will be in Iowa and New Hampshire in the next three months, and an exploratory committee including Cornel West and Charles Ogletree, and a bunch of other people he won’t disclose, will convene at the end of October.

On Gore: “Al Gore had a lock on the black vote. Against who? Against George Bush?” Try to suggest to Sharpton that Gore will enjoy the overwhelming support of African-Americans who will still be smarting over the memory of Florida, and he gets really mean: “The same argument was made for Walter Mondale!”

Not surprisingly, the conventional wisdom is more conventional. Most Democrats feel that Gore, however grizzled and drifting, will be no pushover. This was true even before recent events put a premium on foreign policy experience. (Others contend that if ’04 is remotely about national security, any Democrat might as well put the election in a fruit basket and send it, with a card, to the Republicans. But that is another issue.) It is widely, if begrudgingly, accepted that Gore still has an enviable level of name recognition; that even his diminished fundraising network is mighty next to that of most of his competitors; and that he does not suffer the contempt among Democratic voters nationwide that he does among Democratic operatives in Washington.

It is Edwards whose presidential star is most readily cited as having fallen, on the apposite grounds that his standing as a first-term Senator denies him the allegedly requisite gravitas. Ironically, then, it is Daschle who is more seriously hamstrung because of the gravitas that he has just acquired. Even in placid times, as Bob Dole painfully learned, the dictates of running the Senate practically contradict those of running for President. In times like these, when the task of disciplining a Caucus into bipartisanship becomes a point of real import, the requisite balance seems functionally unimaginable. Edwards’s folk, on the other hand, are doing all they can to keep their guy in the mix; they tell the story of 1992 as a parable of the foreign-policy-neophyte-Southerner who beat the Bush. (Clinton is also said to be blissfully high on the thought of an Edwards candidacy, and the two speak frequently.) Kerry has laid off half his fundraising people. U.S. News & World Report’s Washington Whispers has it that he will use the break from politics to bone up on his foreign policy, which he will no doubt study en route to New Hampshire on October 13.

As for the conventional wisdom on Sharpton, it divides into three camps: those who are dismissive of the idea that he can be the next Jesse Jackson; those who are dismissive of anyone who would want to be the next Jesse Jackson; and those who are not dismissive at all–or at least not dismissive of his ability to influence the race–because they come from New York.

Only God knows how his candidacy will play, but I would be willing to bet: Reporters who are now unfamiliar with or contemptuous of Sharpton will be palpably shocked by his intelligence, guiltily psyched by his quotability, and inevitably impressed with his ability to bring large crowds to their feet. Expected to get no votes, he will get some votes–and in some places, quite a few votes. Astonishment will take hold. Cameras will follow him everywhere at the convention. There will be much discussion of how the party will neutralize or use him, followed by a retrospective discussion of what, if anything, it all meant.

Whether or not that slice of New York politics is paid any heed nationally, this one definitely should be: As the aftermath of September 11 carried him to superlative heights of leadership, it seemed as if Giuliani was about to be swept on a tide of adulation right past the city charter and into a third term. Within days, that possibility had devolved into the question of whether Giuliani ought to be allowed to stay on for a few extra months. And within days of that, it is Ferret, who opposed the notion of an extension, who has gained momentum, and Public Advocate Mark Green, who supported Giuliani’s staying, who has lost momentum.

What’s striking about this is not that the four-more-years movement never took off–even amid the most overwhelming public support, the idea would have been much more easily said than done. What is striking is that there was not, in fact, overwhelming public support; that, while his (considerable) supporters and the media were saying that this city was unimaginable without this mayor, there were clearly legions of New Yorkers who did not want him in office for an extra day. This emphasizes the point, both so easy to see and so easy to lose sight of, that different people see things differently. War is one of those things.

“You may have a huge backlash on military engagement, which falls directly on people of color,” Sharpton says of the next three years, citing the fact that African-Americans serve disproportionately in the military; in the types of civilian jobs that tend to be hardest hit by service-sector layoffs; and in the ranks of citizens most disturbed by the notions of broadened law enforcement power, particularly racial profiling.

It is impossible to know to what degree any or all of these considerations will constitute a legitimate critique of the Bush presidency in general, and of the prosecution of this war in particular. But make no mistake, every Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 will try to find a way to communicate all these things. They just won’t ever say them.

Taxing The Economy? Really?

Although I am an opponent of excessively high tax rates, both because they can be unfair and because they can impact on our efforts to protect and support our families, there is ideological tunnel vision in this right-wing, libertarian Republican position.

Yes, success is in part the result of hard work and ability, the rewards of which are deserved. But I know that my individual success is also in part the result of good luck and support from others. Even more important, it could not have been achieved in the absence of the society of which I am a member. I have an obligation to respond more than proportionally because I have profited more than proportionally.

tterRecognition of such obligation is part of what I was taught as a child. It is essential to being a mensch: literally being a “man” but figuratively being a “human being.” I admit that I wish my top tax rate were lower. But when the recent tax reductions were enacted, I would have voted instead for decreases in the regressive Social Security taxes for lower income brackets. These are the brackets in which rent is a huge burden and in which medical and dental care is most difficult to afford.

I know something about this because we were very poor when I was a child. Yes, I succeeded nonetheless, and I am grateful. However, as a supporter of family values, I know the price my family paid. I would rather see my taxes remain high than to lower them at the expense of the poorest among us.

Moreover, as, I hope, an intelligent citizen, I know this is also in the interests of my society and not merely of the poorer among us. The less income the lower classes have, the poorer their health and the less they achieve educationally. When significant elements of the population pay this price, the whole nation suffers. Our medical costs escalate. Our skill levels decline. Our productivity diminishes.

Yes, high taxation beyond a certain level would have similar consequences. But I would not work harder if my taxes were lowered, and I doubt very much that Bill Gates would be less productive if his taxes were increased.

In its own way, the Democratic Left is every bit as ideological and stupid as the Republican Right. Even worse, it is demagogic, stirs class hatred, and drives us apart. The argument for reducing the capital gains tax once the immediate crisis has passed is very strong. High corporate tax rates likely are counterproductive, although much corporate pork cannot be justified. Subsidies for activities vital to national defense are justifiable. Maintaining shipbuilding and production of computer parts likely are in the national interest.

We should have the right to place some of our Social Security payments into market accounts, although perhaps the government should specify a small number of such funds with which it would negotiate a competitive price. To the extent that Social Security represents a social safety net–for instance, disability or death payments–I do not see why this portion of the tax should cease at under $80,000. And, yes, there is no “lockbox.” That is a fake argument because the ability of the government to pay out claims depends on its collection of future taxes, whether the Social Security tax or some other tax.

Back in 1996, Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, won his campaign in part because he went to senior groups and convinced them that their pensions were threatened. If I had been running, I would have been too ashamed to use senior citizens in this fashion and certainly would not have looked as pleased with myself, as he did, if I had.

Let me return to September 11. Each traveler who attacked the terrorists was a mensch. They did what human beings should do. That is what society should expect of us. It is what we should expect of ourselves and, therefore, something for which we should not expect praise. It is a sign of the previous state of our society that we feel compelled to praise behavior that should be expected because most people no longer do what any mensch should be expected to do.

Several years ago someone who saw me tell a clerk that he had given me an extra ten in change wanted to shake my hand. I deserved absolutely no credit because that is what we should expect everyone to do. We will have a sound society only when most people behave like a mensch and expect absolutely no praise for this.