Friday, August 17, 2012

I'm Glad You Told Us About Your Tax Rate, Mitt Romney

I have children, and I try to adopt a measured tone when they admit they did something terrible. I want to punish them - usually the thing involves property damage - but I also need to encourage them to be honest.

Okay, then... I'm sooooo happy you told the truth, Mitt Romney. 'Kay? That's good, when you do things like that. It's important for you to be honest. You made the right decision. I'm just also disappointed that you pay a goddamn 13 percent tax rate. I'm very, very, very disappointed in you, because you're a multi-millionaire, and you want to pay taxes like you're something between a new teacher and a Walmart greeter.

I should have known, of course. Capital gains taxes are nothing new, and the rates are not a state secret, and neither is the fact that rich people have really good lawyers and accountants. But having the number out there makes it more real and undeniable. It's the difference between...

I think your girlfriend is cheating on you.


Here's a Tumblr page of your girlfriend cheating on you.

Back in January you made the argument that the government really taxes this kind of income twice. Jon Ward's article in the Huffington Post stated:

"What capital gains tax breaks have done over time is recognize there are two levels of taxation in capital gains. One at the corporate level, which is a 35 percent rate, and then another at the individual level, which has been 15 percent. So combined, it's about a 50 percent tax," Romney said in a separate interview with CNBC's Larry Kudlow Wednesday.

Of course, then you had to walk it back a bit:

When asked whether Romney was saying in his Wednesday interview that he pays a rate of 50 percent, a Romney adviser told The Huffington Post that he was not. "He's simply explaining the concept of double taxation as it relates to corporate profits," the Romney campaign official said.

So, that's the concept of it, and evidently some rich people are getting soaked. But not you, actually. In fact you can structure a company as a "flow-through entity" so that its funds pass directly to the shareholders and avoid corporate tax. And the same structure allows you to incur the liability of a company. In other words, when it comes time to tax you, the government treats you as a person, a shareholder, and taxes you at a low rate. If a bad decision of yours ruins someone's life, suddenly the court system has to treat you as a company instead of an individual. You have it both ways. And this is well-known and common, but it's complicated enough that you can always fashion a talking point to convince people that you're the victim here, that you're the little guy. And you can distract the voters from the fact that the system has very different rules for rich people and the rest of us. And you're not going to release those returns, because then a huge pile of stark, undeniable facts attached to numbers would spill out.

If you released your returns, voters would realize this isn't a contest between a liberal and a conservative. This is a contest between a moderate and a Bond villain.

Here's what the number says to me: It says you guys can't run as the party of fiscal responsibility anymore. You can't try to maintain a system where the super rich get to dodge responsibility for their citizenship and then tell the rest of us you're going to tackle the deficit by converting Medicare into a coupon giveaway for gauze and Tylenol. You can't turn Nana into soylent green, so you can keep your car elevator and your dressage horse, and also say you're the grown-ups.

This isn't about social justice. It's not about greed. It's not about income disparity. It's not another stupid ideological battle between whether it's better to run a country based on Ayn Rand books or Springsteen lyrics. We have hard choices ahead of us - we have to get our debt under control, improve infrastructure and education, and turn an out of control military industrial complex into something that actually protects Americans. You clearly want to build a country of gated communities, private schools and security, and a legal system with all the transparency and free access of a country club. This is about whether you people are going to pay your fair share. This is about whether you people are going to be equally accountable.

You need to work on being a good citizen, Mitt Romney.

You can start by losing this race.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

"Red Dawn" Might Be The Most Intelligent War Movie In Decades

The trailer for the remake of Red Dawn has surfaced on the web, and it is shocking. This movie - about an invasion of the American homeland - may be the most brutally subversive critique of US foreign policy since Apocalypse Now. The preview is a catalogue of why our military interventions fail, and why insurgencies succeed. You should watch this film, bring friends, and talk about it afterwards. It might make you write to your Congressman. It might change how you see everything.

Just 39 seconds into the trailer the audience witnesses an airborne operation from the ground - menacing and beautiful columns of aircraft with an American flag in the foreground. The slow-moving line of planes is like a distorted World War II propaganda film, or CNN footage of one of our TV wars with the POV reversed. Immediately an accident destroys a suburban home and brings the terror into stark focus. In that one instant the filmmakers thoroughly dismantle the notion that a tactic like "Shock and Awe" could be anything but a strategic disaster, as "collateral damage" poisons the legitimacy of the attacker among the civilian populations. You can't kill a man's family, and then win his heart and mind with a pamphlet, the director seems to be telling us. Why didn't we realize this before?

Characters then talk about the enemy's superior technology:
"How did this happen? There's a new class of weapon. Everything went offline and
never came back."

The occupier has an edge. But right away, we know that such a weapon can be stolen or defeated. And so the filmmakers explain how a vicious, determined insurgency rises out of the wreckage of a defeated country and destroys its conquerors.

The group coalesces around an off-duty Marine, who trains them in combat tactics and marksmanship:

"I can't. Yes, you can. Just relax... and squeeze."
"I'm going to fight. Anyone else who wants to join is welcome to. We'll hit them on our terms."

The makers of Red Dawn are reminding us of the disastrous decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority to disband the Iraqi army, creating a large class of unemployed and angry people who could organize into a potent threat. At the same time they know that bringing security forces into our orbit does not necessarily solve the problem. Local military and law enforcement always have the potential to connect with hostile elements and betray the occupying army from within. In a few spare words of dialogue this movie is presenting us with the most deadly paradox any victorious military faces if it wants to seize a country and recreate it in its own image.
The video shows the insurgent forces grappling with the invading army using their superior knowledge of the terrain and an ability to move easily in the local population. Every mall, every street becomes a potential trap for the occupier. The director's visual of the Wolverines popping out from the ground reminds us of Arminius crushing the Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest. Smarter men than this author have observed that the modern Teutoburg - the wilderness that neutralizes the superior equipment and tactics of 21st century centurions - is the human terrain of cities, suburbs, and even virtual networks. We enter this wilderness every time we intervene. But Red Dawn makes it really visible to a civilian audience for the first time.

The rebel leader tells us why they are so effective in the clip: "We're the Wolverines. And we create chaos." An occupying army has to rebuild infrastructure, provide services, and demonstrate its power without brutalizing the people. The rebels just have to topple whatever was painstakingly built in a single, violent moment. And it is always easier, much easier, to destroy than create. We have to relearn this lesson every time we invade a country and attempt to win its people over, Red Dawn reminds us. When will we stop forgetting it?

But it's the personal story of the insurgent commander and his brother that has the most revealing, and depressing, message for US policymakers. As a military officer kills their father, he tells his boys to avenge his death:

"Boys, I love you both. But I want you to do what I would do. Kill this piece of -" He never finishes his sentence. But he doesn't have to.
"They messed with the wrong family," the insurgent commander says later. It is a chilling statement, with a logic as pitiless as Napoleon's famous dictum: "The moral is to the physical as three to one."
"For them, this is just some place," the insurgent commander says, revealing his tactical, strategic, and psychological advantage at once. "For us, this is our home." And these advantages can only multiply. As the occupying force kills fathers, sons, cousins, and friends they only create the next generation of fighters, ever more determined and ever more ruthless. It is the seeming genius of Red Dawn to show us this truth in what would otherwise be a relatively tired action movie plot point.

But it's the meta-narrative of Red Dawn that transcends the medium, and delivers a powerful and vital message to people who haven't even seen the movie. The film's creators originally portrayed the Chinese army as the primary villains, but studio heads forced them to change the antagonists to North Koreans in post-production, according to media reports like this LA Times article.
"The changes illustrate just how much sway China's government has in the global entertainment industry, even without uttering a word of official protest," the report states. "Hollywood has learned the hard way that besmirching China's image on-screen can have long-running implications for the many arms of a modern media conglomerate."

It's obvious that the makers of this film have created a brilliant piece of Andy Kaufman-style performance art around the production of Red Dawn. As the movie is a commentary about the foolishness of fighting multiple insurgencies around the globe, the media chatter surrounding it focuses our attention on how our military expenditures drain our economy of resources while the Chinese government - the villain who must not be identified - uses economic leverage to change the behavior of some of the largest and most powerful American companies.

"For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill," according to Sun Tzu. "To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." The creators of Red Dawn have drawn our attention to this strategic fact without directly stating it.

The tone and execution of the film are very similar to this bit of journalistic theater. Red Dawn, an artful takedown of American militarism, is so similar to the kind of ignorant, simplistic movies that celebrate this militarism, that some may question whether it is pitch-perfect satire at all. Some might even believe it is praising exactly what it condemns. But this is impossible. For the people who made Red Dawn to expect us to take it as a straightforward blockbuster, they'd have to believe this country has learned absolutely nothing from the awful ordeals of its recent past which have killed thousands of its bravest, most idealistic young people and devastated their families. It would have to be a film produced by a nation of contemptible idiots, for a nation of contemptible idiots.

That simply can not be true.
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