Running for Preacher

In the unlikely event he gets elected president, would former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee hector the country to death about cutting carbs?  Maybe, but he seems to have an even more ambitious goal than slimming us down.  As he put it on Meet the Press Sunday:

I think America needs positive, optimistic leadership to kind of turn this country around, to see a revival of our national soul.

Really: is our national soul in such a parlous state that its last, best hope is… Mike Huckabee?  I thought it was the Left that was supposed to believe America was in decline. 

More to the point, even if there was such a thing as a “national soul,” tending to it is not part of the president’s job.  In the taciturn and businesslike language of the Constitution’s Article II, you won’t find anything making the president our national pontiff–any more than you’ll find the language that supposedly makes him Supreme Warlord of the Earth.   

This isn’t just a complaint about the Republican party, or the Religious Right, or even about religion in politics.  I’m not sure Hillary Clinton was talking about religion in her ”politics of meaning” speech diagnosing America’s “sleeping sickness of the soul,” our deep existential angst stemming from our inability to redefine “who we are as human beings in this postmodern age.”  I’m not sure what she was talking about, but whatever it is, it doesn’t sound like something bold executive action can or should fix. 

And Barack Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” isn’t a specifically religious concept.  Instead, judging by his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote speech, it seems to refer to the continuing promise of redemption through presidential politics.  Belief in that ideal would require a leap of faith far beyond anything demanded by the world’s major religions.

Reviving our “national soul,” healing our spiritual malaise, unifying the metatext and subtext of our postmodern age–none of this is the president’s business.  He or she is a constitutional officer, charged with faithful execution of the laws.   

Former Senator Phil Gramm’s 1996 run for the G.O.P. nomination was a colossal bellyflop, but he had at least one moment of glory.  Pushed by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson to talk up values issues on the campaign, Gramm snarled: “I’m not running for preacher.  I’m running for president.”  How many of today’s candidates can tell the difference? 

Tax Reform Is the Right Way to Lower the So-Called Tax Gap

Many politicians in Washington think they could get a lot more money to redistribute if Americans could be compelled into being fully compliant with the internal revenue code. Yet the world’s leading expert on the underground economy estimates that the United States has less evasion than any other nation [.pdf]. Moreover, the Wall Street Journal notes that the vast majority of noncompliance is the result of tax code complexity, which is why the only pro-growth way to generate more revenue is lower tax rates and simplification:

The “tax gap” is the difference between what the Internal Revenue Service thinks taxpayers should be paying and what it collects. The IRS currently estimates this at about $290 billion a year. Ask any Congressional chairman how he intends to close the deficit, expand the Medicare drug benefit, reform the Alternative Minimum Tax or subsidize college education, and the answer is invariably “close the tax gap.” Last year the Senate held some half-dozen hearings in search of this pot of gold. …We suppose politicians are allowed to dream. But it’s worth recalling that Washington has searched for this revenue Atlantis for decades without success. …Nina Olson, the IRS’s taxpayer advocate, told Congress last year that IRS auditors have found that an estimated 94% of noncompliance is the result of honest mistakes by tax filers who simply don’t understand the 17,000-page beast of a tax code. One obvious answer would be to simplify the code (more on that later). But this requires political will, so Congress naturally prefers the easier route of ratcheting up taxpayer regulation and enforcement. …Our personal favorite would require that Americans withhold taxes from any cash payments they make to such individual contractors as babysitters, gardeners or plumbers. They’ll love that one in the suburbs. Implicit in all these new plans is a much bigger IRS staff to monitor and chase tax miscreants. Here’s another bad idea: Many doctors and lawyers who are incorporated under subchapter S will often pay themselves lower wages but higher dividends, in order to reduce self-employment taxes. The law is vague on the limits of this practice, and it is undoubtedly abused. But the Joint Tax Committee’s preferred solution is to make all professional income – even dividend payments – subject to self-employment taxes; this is nothing more than a backdoor tax hike. …There is a better way. The more complicated a tax system, the more likely taxpayers won’t understand, or will try to dodge, the rules. Simple tax regimes, such as a single flat rate, encourage compliance and efficiency, not to mention economic growth. This has been the experience of many Eastern European countries after they imposed a flat tax, and the U.S. had similar jumps in reported tax income from “the rich” following the 1986 tax reform that cut rates and closed loopholes.

Capitol Hill Briefing Re: Standard Health Insurance Deduction

At noon this Friday, the Cato Institute will host a Capitol Hill briefing on President Bush’s proposal to replace the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored coverage with a standard health insurance deduction.

Discussing the proposal will be: Katherine Baicker of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers, Leonard Burman, director of the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, and me.

The room number and video of the event can be found where you preregister, here.

Friedman or Plato?

As noted earlier, today is Milton Friedman Day.  My modest contribution is this essay.

I call this the Fundamental Problem of Political Economy. How do we limit the power that idiots have over us?

One solution, that might be traced to the expression “philosopher-king” associated with Plato, is to hand the reins of government to the best and the brightest. Since the late 19th-century, the Progressive Movement in American politics has championed this approach…

The other way to avoid having our lives run by idiots is to limit the power that others have over us. This is the approach that was embedded in our Constitution, before it was eviscerated by the Progressives. It is the approach for which Milton Friedman was a passionate advocate.

Please Help This Young Man

This case is extremely important.  The fates of a young man and of freedom of speech are at stake.  Abdelkareem Nabil Soliman will be sentenced on Thursday for alleged crimes in Egypt, including insulting the president.  Please read about his case at http://www.freekareem.org/.

Please send a respectful letter by fax or email to the Egyptian Embassy requesting that the Egyptian government correct the error of arresting him and allow him his freedom.

Toward a Neo-Khomeinist Foreign Policy*

From the annals of irony, this from Laura Secor’s interesting rundown of the Iranian political scene in the NYT Magazine:

Composed partly of military and paramilitary elements, partly of extremist clerics like [Taqi] Mesbah-Yazdi and partly of inexperienced new conservative politicians, those in Ahmadinejad’s faction are often called “neoconservatives.” But to the extent that they have an ideology, it is less new than old, harking back to the early days of the Islamic republic. Since that time, the same elite has largely run Iranian politics, though it has divided itself into competing factions, and the act of wielding power has mellowed many hard-liners into pragmatists. Ahmadinejad’s faction, on the other hand, came into power speaking the language of the past but with the zeal of the untried.

Ali Ansari refers to “Iran’s neoconservatives” repeatedly in this book, but I thought it was more rhetorical flourish than an actual description that people use in Iran.

* Title reference here.