I was sick yesterday, but nobody else seems to have blogged this. 5 December 1995 was the release date for the public beta of the Shockwave Player for Director on Windows. At the time, Shockwave was a sort of generic term for a variety of Macromedia online initiatives, including Authorware, Freehand, and xRes (which involved a player and a server-side application that intelligently delivered portions of high-resolution images stored in xRes’s pyramidal file scheme). Director files were run through a separate tool called Afterburner. Playback on Macs was still a few months off. Flash (as a MM product) was more than a year in the future. We owned online multimedia then.
A couple of weeks back, I was invited to sit in on a conference call about Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) Fair Flat Tax Act. The Fair Flat Tax Act of 2005 is based on several principles: relief for middle-class and lower-income taxpayers, tax simplification, tax break and loophole elimination, exemption of state and local taxes, and encouragement of savings and investment. It proposes reductions in the number of tax brackets, increases to the standard deductions for single and married filers, modifications of corporate aircraft deductions, and a number of other changes.
I’ve held off writing anything about this until now for a couple of reasons. I’m not a tax expert or a fiscal policy wonk, so evaluating the plan meant doing some research on numbers that I didn’t have at my fingertips. Also, because the only literature available on the plan is through Sen. Wyden’s web site, and none of it includes any of the figures the plan is using for revenue or expenditure projections or comparisons to current revenue estimates, it was difficult to get a grasp on exactly how the plan would affect overall revenues or changes in the balances between income levels and business income.
Apart from the name — “flat tax” always makes me think of that creepy Steve Forbes stare — the plan has some laudatory goals: treat work and wealth equally; end the discriminatory treatment of renters; increase revenue to pay down the debt; etc. The Wyden aides on the call said they expected President Bush to begin pushing his own idea of tax reform (presumably they’re expecting it to be labelled a “flat tax” as well) and that Sen. Wyden’s proposal is an attempt to get out ahead of the GOP for the next year.
That’s a good thing. But after some time to look at the numbers and some emails with one of the Senator’s staff, there’s something lackluster about FFTA2005 that makes my heart thump a little more slowly with dread.
During the conference call, my question to the Senator’s staff was how the ratio of corporate income taxes to personal income taxes in general revenues* was going to be affected. The point had already been made that the plan would reduce the deficit by $100 billion. In answer to my question, we were told that the increase in corporate income tax revenue under the plan would account for the bulk of the reduction, although we were then told that the $100 billion was actually spread over five years (the plan has a sunset of 2010). This is one of the points I made sure to check, because my understanding is that the deficit is calculated on a year-to-year basis, and reducing the deficit by $20 billion in each of five years doesn’t really mean you’re reducing it by $100 billion.
As we’ve seen though, in Iraq and on the Gulf Coast, $20 billion doesn’t go as far as it used to. That’s why I turned to the people who have the figures on these things, the Bureau of the Public Debt. According to them, the public debt as of 1 December was $8,107,952,560,719.68 (that’s $8.1 trillion). Their helpful little guide to the debt explains the difference between the debt and the deficit. Back in January, the administration forecasta record $427 billion deficit for the fiscal 2005 budget, up from $412 billion in fiscal 2004. That number was reduced in August to $331 billion. That was before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
Over the past four fiscal years (2002-2005), the total debt has increased by an average of $531.5 billion. The annual reduction in the deficit proposed in Senator Wyden’s plan is less than 4% of that number. The Bush administration’s budgets have increased the size of the deficit each year, but even if it stayed at its current level, the debt would exceed $10.75 trillion in five years. With FFTA2005’s reduction of the debt by $20 billion for each of those five years, it would still be $10.65 trillion. That’s trading an increase in the debt of 32.7% for an increase of 31.5%.
The Oregonian ran an editorial on Saturday (3 December) about a City Club of Portland lecture by David Walker, Comptroller General of the US Government Accountability Office (MP3 file). Walker is particularly concerned by out-of-control spending, but sees a problem that cannot be solved by program cuts alone. The editorial makes this note about one of his points: “‘Very few tax cuts stimulate the economy,’ and almost none pay for themselves, he said.”
The Concord Coalition, which is one of the groups promoting Walker’s current Fiscal Wake-up Tour, estimates that accumulated deficits over the next 10 years will create another $5.7 trillion in debt — that’s $3.6 billion more than the estimates of the Congressional Budget Office (both figures are in addition to the current debt). Where the CBO’s estimate is based on several years of stable deficits which miraculously shrink sometime after 2010, the Concord Coalition makes several assumptions they consider more realistic (like the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts being made permanent and continuing but decreasing expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan) which predict that the deficit will reach more than $500 billion by 2010 and increase to nearly $900 billion by 2015. Against these types of numbers, even $100 billion of deficit reduction every year wouldn’t do much. The FFTA2005 plan is one-fifth of that.
My concern with FFTA2005 is that it’s a little bandage for a bleeding artery of a problem, and not one of those new-fangled bandages made out of shrimp shells, either. While I applaud Sen. Wyden’s initiative at addressing the issue and seemingly sincere interest at closing some loopholes (although I don’t see anything about, say, offshore headquartering in the Bahamas or Caymans), the actual effects seem far too small to effect real change. It comes off as like wonky fiddling with the edges; an attempt to make it look like something is being done without actually addressing the problem. Any fiscal benefit it might make could easily be swallowed up in the next hurricane season, terrorist attack, or half-year of combat operations overseas.
During one of my exchanges with Sen. Wyden’s office about the FFTA2005, the phrase “the perfect being the enemy of the good” was brought up in response to my criticisms. There’s no doubt that FFTA2005 would be better than the steadily-mounting deficits of the Bush administration, but kicking the fiscal ball five years down the road isn’t exactly what I’d consider to be a good plan. If I was a strategist for a fiscally-conservative Republican with aspirations for the 2008 presidential election (not that that’s likely to happen), and FFTA2005 became the Democratic alternative to the administration’s own tax plan next year, I think I could make a good case that the plan doesn’t address the problem of the national debt and the deficit seriously enough, that it lacks — in the words of the Oregonian editorial paraphrasing David Walker — “the courage and will to stabilize the deteriorating economy with major spending cuts, tax increases, or both.”
* According to a 2003 report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the share of corporate income tax receipts has dropped from more than 20% of total federal tax revenues in the mid-1960s to just over 7% in 2003. In the same period, corporate taxes have gone from 4% to 1% of Gross Domestic Product.
Today’s Morning Edition featured a profile of Lincoln Chaffee (R-RI) which featured this tidbit (at 2:15 into the story):
BRYAN NAYLOR, NPR: In 2002, Chaffee was the only Republican senator to vote against authorizing the war with Iraq. He tells Chamber [of Commerce] members he never bought the Bush administration’s argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, even after Chaffee visited CIA headquarters.
CHAFFEE: And they showed me satellite pictures and I just — nothing convincing at all. They talked about aluminum tubes they were going to make uranium or something in. Uh, Mancini’s hardware [garbled]
[Chuckles from crowd]
CHAFFEE: But I, uh, I was unconvinced.
So, Sen. Chaffee could see through the rhetoric of the mushroom cloud. Why couldn’t Democratic senators like Clinton, Kerry, and Biden? Or did they buy into the strategic concept of a war in Iraq? Or were they just worried about looking soft?
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) on was on Meet the Press on 4 December, and gave some insight into his views of the use of paid propaganda in a free press:
MR. RUSSERT: The Pentagon, in fact, was paying Iraqi journalists to publish articles favorable to the United States’ position. The Los Angeles Times first reported it. The Pentagon has now admitted it. Should they stop it?
SEN. McCAIN: If these are accurate stories and written by legitimate people, then I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. If they are not accurate and they are made up by different people, then, of course, it should be stopped.
MR. RUSSERT: But here we are trying to teach democracy…
SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: …and freedom of the press…
SEN. McCAIN: Yeah.
MR. RUSSERT: …and lack of state-sponsored censorship if you will and we’re paying Iraqis to print articles?
SEN. McCAIN: Well, I don’t know if that’s a standard practice or not in Iraq. If these are accurate stories, we should make every effort to get them out if they’re accurate. We’re in a propaganda war where this is a war for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people as well. I think we need more details as to exactly what went on, but if it’s legitimate…
MR. RUSSERT: But in principle you have not problem paying the Iraqis…
SEN. McCAIN: But if that’s the standard procedure in Iraq, if that’s what you need to do to get a story in one of these newspapers, but it has to be accurate and it has to be done by a legitimate person. I understand these are men and women who serve in our military that are responsible for these stories. If that’s the only way you get stories in, then I’m not terribly offend by it, Tim.
The person with the bucks, of course, gets to determine what’s “accurate” and who’s a “legitimate person.” Armstrong Williams sends a big hello.
Comment on this diary at Daily Kos
inspired by this thread about getNetText and Proxies a couple of days ago, I’ve now written a little parent script (“HTTP Class”) for using MultiUser xtra for all kind of HTTP requests. It’s far from beeing perfect, but maybe a good starting-point for further customizing.
It has the following features/advantages over standard net lingo:
– supports all HTTP/1.1 methods: GET, POST, HEAD, TRACE, OPTIONS, PUT
(e.g. HEAD can be useful to check if a server is running, or to find out the size of some file without actually downloading it; TRACE can be used to find out which Proxy-Server(s) exactly is/are used; …)
– accessing password protected resources (Basic Authentication, like common Apache .htaccess/.htpasswd protection)
– using Proxy-Servers (without or with Basic Authentication)
– sending arbitrary HTTP-Headers
– supports file uploads with POST (data is automatically base64-encoded, script on the server has to decode it again) and PUT method
– Cookie-Support (send and receive session-cookies; support of persistent cookies could easily be added)
– Session-Support (by automatic resending of session-cookie)
– resuming of interrupted downloads (simply by adding “Range: bytes=
-” and “If-Range: ” HTTP headers
Included in the zip/sit is also a little tool called “HTTP Sniffer” that’s based on HTTP class. I allows to quickly send arbitrary HTTP requests to any URL, and analyze the response (a bit like the “Live HTTP headers” Firefox extension, but more powerfull). Maybe it can be useful to examine http-network problems or debug server scripts…
Feedbacks and ideas for improvements welcome.