THE INNOCENCE OF A CHILD

On my last visit I noticed that my 8 year-old nephew had done an "If I was President, I would…" assignment that was proudly pinned to the wall as one commonly does with a child's school work. It was as excellent as I would expect from him, starting with a guarantee of solar powered jet packs for everyone (CAVEAT: Except for Bad Guys) before noting that "taxes should be cut 75% and everyone should get everything they want."

Adults love this kind of thing. There is something inherently amusing, perhaps even heartwarming depending on how much one likes children, about watching kids respond to things they don't completely understand with their imaginations. It's the reason people always ask small kids how old they think Daddy is. Knowing full well that they lack this information and probably do not grasp the concept of age very well, we nonetheless laugh heartily when the child says "Daddy is seven" or, alternatively, "Daddy is 200."

There is quite a bit of this going on when a teacher gives second-graders an assignment such as this one. Kids don't understand politics and we know their responses will lie somewhere among cute, funny, and incomprehensible. It is very easy, therefore, to read my nephew's response and chuckle. "Ha ha! Kids say the darndest things." Unfortunately, this is usually the exact same response that voting adults give to similar, albeit more specific questions. Minus the jet packs. Adults rarely bring up that part.

The fundamental problem with our government's balance sheet, which as we all know is deeply in the red, is that decision-makers respond to electoral incentives, which in turn means that they are responsive to constituent preferences (although the degree to and conditions under which they are responsive is hotly debated in political science). And constituent preferences make absolutely no sense collectively. Everyone wants more stuff from the government, lower taxes, and a balanced budget. Come to think of it, throw in a damn jet pack while we're at it. If we're making shit up, we might as well go hog wild.

The following data are from a handful of recent polls. Note that they are not all from the same poll, but each is based on a nationwide random sample:

  • "Do you think Congress has done enough to help create jobs, or don't you think so?" (CNN/Opinion Research Feb 12-15)
    14% Has done enough
    84% Don't think so
  • "Do you approve or disapprove of the way Barack Obama is handling the budget deficit?" (USA Today/Gallup March 26-28)
    37% Approve
    61% Disapprove
  • "Which of the following comes closer to your view of the budget deficit? The government should run a deficit if necessary when the country is in a recession and is at war. OR, The government should balance the budget even when the country is in a recession and is at war." (Bloomberg Nov. 2009)
    30% Run a deficit
    67% Balance the budget
  • Making the expiring Bush tax cuts permanent (CNN/Opinion Research Apr. 9-11)
    60% Favor
    33% Oppose
  • So, there you have it. Welcome to your new job as President, kid. "Create jobs" somehow (without spending money), keep cutting everyone's taxes, and balance the budget while you're at it. Oh, by the way, don't touch any entitlement programs. This collection of preference is nowhere near as eloquent, colorful, or amusing as the policies expressed by my 8 year-old nephew yet they manage to communicate the same idea. The only difference is that adults have a lot of rationalizations that purport to make this possible; for example, we can cut taxes and balance the budget by "cutting spending", usually on something like "earmarks" or "welfare" or some other $100 million chunk that means absolutely nothing in the yawning chasm of a multi-trillion dollar deficit. And some people express wonder that we keep borrowing, year after year.

    Pardon me for being subjective, but this is a lot less cute when eligible voters do it. I prefer the apple-cheeked eight year-old version. It allows me to plausibly claim that he will mature, something that the average American will not do in adulthood and probably skipped in adolescence.

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    27 Responses to “THE INNOCENCE OF A CHILD”

    1. beau Says:

      That caveat could hurt him at election time. My teabagger sources indicate that "bad guys" hold quite a bit of influence in DC.

    2. party with tina Says:

      First question is a bit of a wash, some people believe that the government should cut taxes in order to help create jobs, some people believe social spending is the answer. So of the 84% of the people who said congress wasn't doing enough, you can suppose only ~20% want care about cutting social programs. Bad logic, imo.

    3. Crazy for Urban Planning Says:

      Can I have a rocket powered jet pack too? I'm unemployed and by goodness, I deserve it.

    4. beau Says:

      I'm beginning to think that partywithtina is a liberal troll, just having some fun with us by playing Cheney's advocate.

      Did I say Cheney? I meant… no, I meant Cheney. Disregard.

    5. Jimcat Says:

      This is exactly why, on my more cynical days, I say that democracy is the wrong way to solve our problems.

    6. Aslan Maskhadov Says:

      Scenario: Defense contractor proposes jet packs for soldiers to "fight terror". Army turns down project, citing that jet packs would not work, as tests show the unlucky soldier would just skip around with their ass on fire. Project dies. Fox News, the next day: Obama weakens the military by rejecting vital jet pack soldier initiative. Ronald Reagan would never have done this.

    7. Keifus Says:

      Yeah, I'm not sure that, for example, special tax categories for interest income or freeing up inheritance were *electoral* influences, even if the electorate somehow swallowed the marketing. (I also wonder how those polled opinions shake out among voters and the non-voting half of the population. Which group expects free jetpacks more?)

      And I sorta wish they were pushing the development of solar-powered anything very hard. Your nephew is wiser than a typical American voter.

    8. John Says:

      The polls are very telling. Apparently, even in a time of recession AND war, the government is supposed to maintain a balanced budget whilst cutting taxes.

      No wonder the politics of this country are so vitriolic — they're played to be people that are absolutely insane, and staggeringly stupid to boot.

    9. ladiesbane Says:

      People don't understand a trillion dollars, but they do understand the hundreds or thousands that their tax cuts mean in their own lives. Even if most of us could count with our socks off, the concept of a trillion anything taxes the imagination.

      Americans, recently informed that their daily $4 lattes are a significant portion of their income (who knew?), think that if Donald Trump stops giving two bucks to a beggar every other Friday, that it will offset his million dollar tax bill. It's a wonder they don't think a nickel buys more than a dime. It's bigger, after all.

      Increasing taxes on the rich doesn't make sense to a lot of folks because they have no idea how rich some people are, and can't believe what a difference taxing such a small number of people could make. The flat tax conversation is a good jumping off point, because it sounds fair. If we all paid twelve percent, for example, I'd get a tax break, and Paris Hilton would pay a lot more. Then ask if they are in favor of tax cuts or increased taxes, and watch them try to cram their complicated feelings into "yes" or "no".

      As always, "simple" is good, "simplistic" is bad; an idea that, along with math, is not sufficiently stressed in school. Poorly worded interview questions are one reason I dropped my psych major. Relying on the results and calling it science? I don't have that capacity for self-delusion.

    10. bb in GA Says:

      For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

      H. L. Mencken

      I think that is the heart of the criticism of the Tea Party. Y'all think most anyone with their type questions is "Menckenizing."

      //bb

    11. party with tina Says:

      Aslan, there have been working jetbacks since the 70s.

    12. Hobbes Says:

      The problem with the flat tax, ladiesbane, is that one has to consider that we don't pay flat percentages of our income on our necessities. I spend roughly 10% of my monthly post-tax income on food, between groceries and restaurants. Last year as a grad student, it was more like 25%. And that's considering I now spend more money on food than I did as a grad student – I'm eating at Panera rather than Subway for lunch, and drinking wine with my dinners out rather than water with my ramen in. Paris Hilton, even if she ate at five star restaurants every night, would probably be hard-pressed to break 5%.

      The difficulty with a flat tax is, therefore, that expenditures are not flat. I can afford to pay a much higher percentage of my income (read: nonzero) now than I could last year. Yes, 12% of my previous income is a much smaller number than 12% of my current income, but as far as impact on my spending power goes, it would be FAR more difficult to make ends meet with a 12% tax on grad student income as opposed to a 12% tax on corporate whore income.

    13. ladiesbane Says:

      Hobbes, I only brought up flat tax as an icebreaker to use with people who think the wealthy are taxed sufficiently. I am not a supporter of the idea. Those I know who are do also support a cut-off for people who earn less than an adjusted amount of the poverty limit. But I'm sure there are some who would argue that costs of basic living are not relevant to the argument.

    14. Bugboy Says:

      You start with the premise that operating a government bureaucracy is equivalent to (or in small minds, SHOULD be equivalent to) running a private enterprise. That premise is flawed from the start and the whole "JOB" thing is just grease on that slippery slope.

      Government service is not a "JOB" anyone that anyone who gets into it for real doesn't do it to get rich…presidents don't get rich…from being president..they make money from the power it bring AFTERWARDS. That kind of dynamic goes up and down that political food chain.

    15. bb in GA Says:

      Hobbes,

      The asymetric nature of spending is covered by the "prebate" aspect of the Fair Tax. Everybody gets the tax prebated to them monthly on the poverty level necessities for their size family. Unfortunately, the Fair Tax won't ever be adopted because it shifts too much power from DC and the attendant gaggle of special interest lobbyists. It is a neat system though.

      //bb

    16. John Says:

      Most people that oppose current income taxation like to make that age-old observation: "Good heavens, the top 5% of the country pays 70% of the taxes!", or whatever the current figure is for that point in time. They always conveniently leave out that the top 5% of the country holds 70% of the nation's total wealth.

      Similarly with the reverse: "Bah, half of this nation doesn't even pay taxes, the dirty freeloaders!". They leave out the fact that the bottom 50% of this nation holds something like 2% or less of the total wealth. Combined.

      These figures are fairly consistent across time, as well — the top X% of income earners pays Y% of the tax burden and has close to Y% of the total wealth of the nation.

    17. What's in a name? Says:

      Not to shoot fish in a barrel, but the conversation was about a flat tax (e.g., the same marginal tax rate at every income level) not the Fair Tax (Neal Boortz's consumption tax pipe dream). However, bb's totally irrelevant and immaterial interjection of far-right talking points does follow the trend of what passes for healthy and reasoned political discourse in 2010.

    18. joel hanes Says:

      It's an old problem.

      "Panem et circenses"

    19. party with tina Says:

      what's in a name, talk about the pot calling the kettle black. BB's post wasn't irrelevant, it briefly answered a point in a very good post by Hobbes, he even addressed Hobbes. However, your totally irrelevant and immaterial interjection of personal attacks do follow the trend of what passes for healthy and reasoned political discourse in 2010.

    20. cartmanne Says:

      Someone should ask Bobby Jindall how he can criticize the federal government's response to the BP oil spill without his head exploding from his collossal hypocrisy. "When is Obama showing up with the jet packs!!????"

    21. What's in a name? Says:

      ladiesbane Says:

      The flat tax
      ______

      Hobbes Says:

      the flat tax
      _____

      bb in GA Says:

      the Fair Tax.

      See the problem?

    22. Ed Says:

      Ah, the Fair Tax. I can spot the Georgians from a mile away when they bring up that gem.

      Neal Boortz: Economist.

    23. bb in GA Says:

      ladiesbane Says:

      The flat tax
      ______

      Hobbes Says:

      the flat tax – but notes a problem on the lower end of the earning scale.

      bb says:

      There is an aspect of the Fair Tax which addresses that point.

      Why is that so out of order?

      //bb

    24. John Says:

      @cartmanne: Jindall is just exhibiting the prime trait of modern Republicans — criticize the Evil Gub'Mint™ constantly, right up until the point where its machinations serve you and your cronies. Then criticize the Evil Gub'Mint™ for not getting involved soon/deep/long enough.

      The hilarious part about the BP oil disaster is that "conservatives" spend all this time harping about THE WONDERS OF THE FREE MARKET, and then when their glorious Free Market™ royally fucks up and threatens to devastate the entire southern coastline…. "OMG WHERE IS THE GOVERNMENT WHY AREN'T THEY HELPING US".

      Honestly, what the federal government should do right now is rig a bunch of planes with giant, flashing, neon "BEHOLD THE WONDERS OF THE FREE MARKET" signs and fly them back and forth over the spill zone 24/7.

    25. ladiesbane Says:

      While I don't think bb was at all out of order to move from flat tax to fair tax (nor was Hobbes, for moving from "why polls can be hard to answer accurately" to "flat taxes have a big problem") but I regret having used an example that derailed the conversation. I still have a lot on my mind about the problems of poll-question phrasing and answer-options, and no one wants to go there.

    26. HoosierPoli Says:

      Flat taxes are a great idea as long as you don't understand what tax brackets are.