James Hohmann in his Daily 202 published a list of the size of charitable donations that major Democrat primary contenders have given in years past; as a percentage relative to their total income. Something that is possible because they have released their tax returns for the public to see. It’s interesting to read the list on the eve of Maundy Thursday – or Holy Thursday as it is now more commonly called – and reflect on what charity means in 2019.

The answer seems to lie with who’s at the top of the list as the most generous giver to charity: Elizabeth Warren and her husband at 5.5% of their total income. And as we know, Warren favors stringent regulation of the financial industry and higher taxes to pay for elaborate all-consuming social programs. But at least she’s consistent with her dogma.

At the other end of the spectrum is President Trump who maintains his taxes are none of our damn business. Which is a fairly American way of viewing the question of charity, even as America and Americans are by far the most generous givers on the planet towards charitable causes. Unlike many European countries that insist that the state should fill the gap, funded by high taxes of course.

Faith and works.

A long-puzzled-over verse from Paul the Apostle (I’ve already given away my team by naming St. Paul in such a manner) engages in an excruciatingly elegant and complex meditation on faith and works in his letter to the Galatians. Faith and works. Christians have killed and tortured and died over how to interpret those words so it can leave one weary of the endless argument that today still lives on in unexpected ways.

Like when we talk about taxes.

One can argue that the moral righteousness that some statists seem to infuse their fiscal arguments with comes from the argument over how to balance faith and works, with the statists obviously coming down on the side of works.

Government works of course.

So while Warren is surely pleased that her charitable giving (as a percentage) swamps the very frugal and very wealthy Beto O’Rourke (who gave a fraction of a percent of his and his wife’s total income), she’d much rather have her charitable giving nailed down by the IRS with a steeply progressive tax rate codified into law by a Socially Democratic Congress.

And that brings up a further point. The only way for works to be truly acceptable to the progressive woke crowd that have taken over the Democratic Party is for the IRS to raise taxes, and charity be damned. So that’s just one more reason for moderate Catholics to feel they no longer belong as Democrats, aside from the principal reason they feel that way which is the abortion issue.

But interestingly as Michael Warren Davis (who edits the Catholic Herald) writes in the Washington Examiner, Catholics are no longer a voting block the way Evangelicals are:

Catholics are such a diverse group, and we’ve become so thoroughly integrated into mainstream America, that we represent the “average American voter” better than any other denomination. A 2016 Pew poll found that 37% of Catholics are Republican and 44% are Democrats. That’s precisely the mean of all U.S. adults. With apologies to Ohio, Catholics are the most accurate bellwether in presidential politics.

We’ve spent centuries dispelling myths about papal plots to overthrow the government, proving to our Protestant neighbors that we’re average, harmless Americans, and this is what it’s gotten us. There’s not even a “Catholic vote” to speak of — nothing comparable to the coveted evangelical vote, anyway. If there were, 25% of the electorate would go to a party that agrees with Ocasio-Cortez on economic and environmental policy but to former Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum on social issues. Instead, at least half of Catholics will continue to vote for Democrats …

Even as abortion on demand becomes a litmus test for party candidates.

As signs of a growing gap between moderate Democrats (who are still arguably a majority of Democrat voters) and the party leadership become evident, one has to ask whether conservative Catholics will continue moving to the GOP to enough of an extent for them to be able to claim the GOP as their home. Or whether in America, Catholics are truly universal and reflect the broad cultural outlines of the country to such an extent that their identity and faith melt into the background.

A similar set of concerns with regard to Jewish Americans was expressed in a recent piece in Tablet written by Adam Garfinkle titled: The Collapse – Is this the end of American Jewry’s Golden Age? In the article, Garfinkle writes:

One of those reasons is that American Jews are rapidly and irreversibly becoming politically homeless. They are losing their “natural” political hearth in the Democratic Party. Partisan political support for Israel has shifted sharply to an increasingly white-populist GOP—a party the vast majority of American Jews will never feel at home in.

One can’t help but conclude that diversity of faith and culture is being driven out of the Democratic Party by hard-left identity politics puritans. It’s long past time for the GOP to truly and generously make room for them, whatever the protestations that they already have been doing so for some time now. It’s just that right now the party of LIncoln is a more populist and nativist party for understandable reasons.

But that may not prevent the GOP from ending up being the more diverse party in a few years time. It just may be possible, as long as you define diversity as something more than politically prescribed identity.

And give faith and works enough space to co-exist.

AOC is the Democrats’ Voice

© 2019 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.

Let’s give credit where credit is due: Has there ever been a freshman Congressperson who has made anywhere near as much of a national impact in so short a period of time as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? She’s only been in office for a few months, yet it seems as if she’s in the news every day. Her commentary and progressive vision have certainly taken the Democratic Party by storm and she is the unquestioned de-facto leading speaker for her side. She’s also a media darling—on both sides—because of her fearless, flamboyant, often outrageous statements. She’s definitely newsworthy.

AOC, as she’s amusingly known, has made an astonishingly high number of notable proclamations and policy proposals in rapid succession. No subject is off-limits; there is no area of national importance where she hasn’t weighed in. She has an opinion about everything and is only too eager to share it. Significantly, she obviously feels that her take on the various subjects is important and worthy of serious consideration. Some would say she thinks her opinions should be accepted as gospel-like fact and carried out in their entirety.

Some of her more pointed declarations:

The Green New Deal:

‘The world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change.’

‘Like, this is the war, this is our World War II.’

 ‘Today is the day that we choose to assert ourselves as a global leader in transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy and charting that path.’

‘I’m the boss, I’m trying. If you’re trying, you’ve got all the power, you’re driving the agenda, you’re doing all this stuff.’

Medicare for all:

‘’The United States should be a nation that allows improved and expanded Medicare for all.

Blocking Amazon’s New York City headquarters:

Anything is possible. Today was the day a group of dedicated, everyday New Yorkers & their neighbors defeated Amazon’s corporate greed, its worker exploitation, and the power of the richest man in the world.’

 Abolishing ICE:

‘An agency like ICE, which repeatedly and systematically violates human rights, does not deserve a dime.’

The most meaningful aspect of AOC’s flamboyant presence on the national stage is not her never-ending stream of continually outlandish opinions on any number of important issues, which is certainly impressive enough. Instead, it’s the supportive, almost giddy coverage afforded to her by an incredibly sympathetic liberal media, as they use her nearly-baseless pontifications to promote their own favored viewpoints, but without having to present AOC’s opinion as their own. They get to present it as “news”—something a high-profile politician said today—and thus attempt to pre-empt any direct criticism of that media outlet taking sides.

Has the rise of the AOC phenomenon caused Nancy Pelosi’s standing as the Democratic Speaker of the House—the supposed official “leader” of the Democratic House majority—to be diminished or threatened? Is there friction or conflict between them? Are AOC’s almost-daily pronunciations causing a rift in the Democratic Party between the new ultra-progressive wing and the older, more-traditional liberal faction?

Probably not.

Unbeknown to her, AOC’s newness and youth are being deftly exploited by Democratic Party veterans. They simply run her extreme radical progressive ideas up the flagpole to gauge public reaction. If her ideas seem too extreme, the Pelois and Hoyers of the world can distance themselves from them and reassure the swing/independent electorate that AOC is full of youthful exuberance and unrealistic ideological enthusiasm, but she doesn’t speak for the heart and soul of the real Democratic Party.

Pelosi will attempt to subtly put forth the notion that her party—the real Democrats—love their country, embrace the capitalistic American Dream where anyone can become a success, and fully support a clean environment with commensurate sensitivity to business and jobs. However, they are more compassionate, inclusive and aware of the needs of individual groups (like women, minorities, LGBTQ, etc.) than those hard-hearted, inflexible, further-right-than-ever Republicans. “Don’t worry—you can still advance your career and live a very nice life; we’re just going to make sure everyone has healthcare, breathes clean air, pays their fair share of taxes and that there’s common-sense diversity in the workplace and in our schools. That’s reasonable enough for you to vote for us, right?” That is Pelosi‘s and her ‘traditional wing’ Democrats’ implied stance. Whether it’s believable or not is another matter, but that’s their line, their distinction from the AOC wing.

But…if a radical idea posed by AOC seems to have legs and takes hold, then the Pelosi faction will be quick to glom onto it and claim it as their own. This way, they can have it both ways: Let AOC put everything out there. If a proposal or stance is so extreme that the mid-line swing voters reject it, then Pelosi will dismiss it as AOC’s naïve inexperience getting the best of her. If an idea from AOC seems to fire the public’s imagination and appears to become mainstream thought, then the traditional Pelosi wing can adopt it as if they were in favor of it all along.

AOC is the perfect trial horse, a no-lose proposition for traditional Democrats who are too cautious to propose liberally-adventurous, ground-breaking ideas of their own. They will willingly let AOC charge into the machine-gun fire of public opinion and take whatever hits come her way, but they will happily go along for the credit ride if any of AOC’s ideas strike a favorable chord.

For seasoned political observers, the most entertaining aspect of this entire scenario is that AOC has absolutely no idea that she’s being used by her own party. That’s how seriously she takes herself.

Among the various Democrat electoral strategies that involve attempts at damaging President Trump with the hope of preventing a win in 2020, we have the tax-return strategy. Now that Mueller has failed to come up with the goods, and given that most people realize that Nadler and company in Congress will be going over the same ground as Mueller with not nearly the same resources (neither financial nor in terms of expert prosecutors) in order to try and score political points, we have the spotlight turning towards Trump’s tax returns.

The language being used, as usual when it comes to the Trump opposition, is both apocalyptical and self-righteous. Here’s Steve Rosenthal at the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center, as quoted in The Hill:

[The] request tests Mnuchin’s oath of office: whether Mnuchin will faithfully execute the laws of the United States, or whether Mnuchin will bend to the will of the president.

Which also sets up the narrative of Mnuchin the faithful loyalist who’s breaking the rules for evil President Trump. But, Rosenthal’s over-the-top assertions aside, is the Secretary of the Treasury actually breaking any rules by declining to release the president’s tax returns?

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts is reportedly using U.S. Code Section 6103 (f) as a way to try and force the IRS, and therefore Mnuchin (given that the Internal Revenue Agency is part of Treasury), to disclose President Trump’s tax returns from the past few years. Here’s what U.S. Code Section 6103 (which deals with disclosure of tax information by the IRS and which in most cases stringently prohibits it) subsection (f) in part states:

Upon written request from the chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means of the House of Representatives, the chairman of the Committee on Finance of the Senate, or the chairman of the Joint Committee on Taxation, the Secretary shall furnish such committee with any return or return information specified in such request, except that any return or return information which can be associated with, or otherwise identify, directly or indirectly, a particular taxpayer shall be furnished to such committee only when sitting in closed executive session unless such taxpayer otherwise consents in writing to such disclosure.

In closed executive session. How reassuring, right? No problem with leaks from those sessions if it ever actually happens that President Trump’s lawyers accede to Chairman Neal’s written request.

While Section 6103 (f) provides the technical loophole that Democrats have been looking for, is it constitutional to force disclosure of a president’s tax returns?

Let’s start with the fact that income tax was nowhere in the constitution and income taxes didn’t appear until Lincoln needed to finance the Civil War and Congress established a tax in 1861 for that purpose. Then early in the 20th century, more income taxes on corporations followed. However, as David Herzig, a tax expert, outlines in Forbes the presumption was that taxes were public information:

When enacting the country’s first federal income tax to finance the Civil War, in 1861, Congress provided that all returns should be “open for examination.” Likewise, when Congress came up with the first income tax for corporations, in 1909, the law provided the returns “shall constitute public records and be open to inspection as such.”

But, by the 1920’s and 1930’s, the pendulum had shifted to privacy. These rules and norms were memorialized by the 1970s and 1980s in IRC section 6103.

In other words, U.S. Code Section 6103 was enacted by Congress some 30 to 40 years ago to push back against IRS disclosure of private tax information and to provide a wall of privacy. So, what we have is a tension between freedom of information and privacy. Here’s Herzig again:

IRC section 6103, protects taxpayers from forced disclosure and trumps the primary legislation for disclosure, the Freedom of Information Act. FOIA enables the public to inspect rulings and many other IRS documents, files, and memoranda, but it does not encompass “matters [that are] specifically exempted from disclosure by statute,” e.g., IRC section 6103.

Mnuchin is caught in this crossfire between administrative state regulations and Congress which of course enacted those very regulations in the 70’s and 80’s.

President Trump, as a political choice, should have been more amenable to releasing his returns. His refusal seems to reflect his thinking as a businessman rather than as a politician, which is part of why he was elected. But now we have a tactic that Democrats are going to use to hint darkly that Trump must have debts with Russian banks or goodness knows what else and this compromises him.

The problem is changing key norms dealing with taxes because Trump is president. This is something Congress should legislate if they truly believe they should make it law that any nominee for President has a legal obligation to release their tax returns. As Herzig writes:

By amending IRC section 6103 for presidents, vice-presidents or some subset (i.e., party nominees), Congress can rebalance the rules. But approaching legislation in a knee-jerk fashion is problematic. It is no fun to say we should weigh and contemplate such a change, but it is necessary.

Americans value privacy.

Or do they?

In answering that question, it is interesting to note that the two New York legislators who are pushing for a law obliging the release of tax returns for top officials in New York State, have themselves reportedly not yet done so.

If we’re going to return to a presumption that individual tax returns are public information at least for certain offices in government, then the Federal Government (rather than individual states) may be the way to go. But would that mean that private taxpayers are next?

Tax returns as instruments of shaming private citizens and not just politicians in the public square? Think about that as you consider what AOC tweeted:

We didn’t ask you.

It’s Not About the Money

© 2019 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.

There are probably few endeavors where human nature, psychology and communication strategy play as critical a role as politics. Whether or not a politician knows how to play the media (including the relative effectiveness of the various media vehicles), understands how their audience will react to their communication, is at ease with the subtleties and complexities of massaging and customizing a well-crafted message, all of these are central to determining if a given politician will be successful at being well-received and covered favorably.

Like him or hate him, President Trump has proven to be extremely adept at doing the one thing that all politicians hope to do: get his message out in a clear and unfettered manner, so that his audience knows exactly how he stands on a given issue or policy. He Tweets his messages daily directly to his audience, circumventing the distorting filter of the hopelessly biased liberal media, leaving them to comment and criticize him after the fact, once President Trump has already made his stance clearly and definitively known.

Another thing that President Trump does in marked contrast to virtually every major national politician who has preceded him in the last several decades is that he actually says what he means. He doesn’t couch his comments in trick phrases, codespeak and slippery euphemisms.

The Democrats are absolute masters of trick phrases, codespeak and slippery euphemisms. Being attuned to satisfying so many special-interest groups, the Dems have perfected the art of communicating in a deceptive manner, designed to deliver the message that their targeted audience wants to hear, whether or not the Democratic politician actually means it. That “targeted audience” might be a desired voting bloc (women, minorities, LGBTQ, immigrants, Millennials, etc.) or it could be a media outlet from whom that politician is hoping for favorable coverage (CNN, MSNBC, NYTimes, WaPo, Facebook, etc.). Either way, Democratic language is invariably intentionally-crafted and pre-planned to yield maximum positive political benefit.

Let’s look at some of these Democratic phrases—

“It’s not a partisan issue.”

When you hear this one, your antennae should spring to attention. This means one thing and one thing only: It is a partisan issue and the Republicans are wrong. It’s a cover phrase that then gives the Democratic talker free reign to criticize Republicans for any and all reasons under the sun while maintaining the appearance of ‘balance’ and non-partisanship.

“We can all agree on this.”

This is code for, ‘If you don’t agree with the Democratic position on this issue, you’re a prejudiced, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, anti-LGBTQ self-absorbed ignorant religious conservative zealot concerned only with your fat-cat donors.’

“It’s not about the money.”

It’s precisely about the money.

“We want a fair and open process.”

Translation: ‘We’re pretty sure this investigation is going to go our way and show the Republicans to be at fault for some grievous, Constitutional-level crime so please don’t interfere with it in any way, no matter how blatantly corrupt and unfair the investigation process is.’

“I don’t think we should go down that path [Trump impeachment].”

What this actually means is, ‘I’m praying—like our entire Party is—that we’ll uncover a raft of undeniable, unequivocal crimes so heinous that we won’t even have to go through the bother of initiating the impeachment process in the first place. Instead, we’ll go straight to resignation, ideally being led out of office in handcuffs.’

You have a right to be believed. We’re with you.”

This really means than even the slightest whiff of questionable behavior on the part of a Republican male towards a woman should be assumed to be the Crime of the Century but blatantly worse, seemingly inexcusable acts by a Democratic male are to be forgiven or ignored, because ‘we need to understand the context.’

“It’s a manufactured crisis.”

This is a good one. Whenever Republicans bring up a legitimate issue, Democrats dismiss its importance, especially if they (the Democrats) do not want to address it or have no solution for it. The border wall is the latest example of that. National security, drugs and violent illegal immigrants pouring in through a porous border certainly comprise a real issue, but the Dems—looking to cultivate votes—do not want to address the problem. They also want to deny President Trump a political “win,” by depriving him of the opportunity to say he fulfilled his campaign promise and built the wall.

An ancillary benefit to the Dems of claiming this is a “manufactured crisis” is that it deflects attention away from their own manufactured crises (like the Mueller investigation, which has been exposed as nothing more than an empty distraction fabricated by petulant, detached-from-reality Democratic partisans emotionally incapable of accepting the stark finality of the 2016 election) and enables them to play offense and keep the political pressure on Republicans.

This is the language of today’s Democratic politicians. Their liberal media allies eat this up and cut them all the slack they need, never drilling down past the surface clichés or holding them to account in any meaningful way. 

In all candor, some Republican politicians employ the same type of slick codespeak, but they do not enjoy anywhere near the same degree of political cover from the popular media as do the Dems. Therefore, it’s not as effective when a Republican does it. 

Refreshingly, President Trump Says What He Means

However, unlike the Democrats, President Trump does not speak in slippery euphemisms. He says what he means:

“I will build a wall to keep out the drugs and violent criminals.”

“Europe is a mess—weak economy, weak military.”

“We’re going to have great trade deals for this country, unlike what we’ve had in the past.”

“The days of China ripping us off are over.”

“A country without borders is not a country.”

“When you look at your 401k, it’s a beautiful thing.”

People may disagree with the actual substance of his comments. People may dislike the style in which his comments are delivered.

But President Trump communicates in a manner unlike any politician before him: Direct. Unequivocal. Unambiguous. That, we really all can agree on.

Five years before Mark Zuckerberg was born, I was feeding cards (yes, those little cardboard-paper-with-holes-in-them thingies) into a large machine in order to do a regression analysis for my undergrad economics thesis on an energy pipeline’s feasibility. I suppose it was a mainframe. Maybe an IBM. I’m not sure. When Zuckerberg started up Facebook in February of 2004, I had a PC and the extent of my programming skills was manipulating a few basic commands in IRC-Chat.

In the decade and a half hence, I have tried to learn a few basics of code – python, SQL, and Html/CSS – with limited success. I have admittedly achieved far less than those who have had to learn to program for work or educational reasons, or both. But we all feel a little like we’re chasing or being chased, by something far too big to really understand.

Maybe in part that’s because Zuckerberg over those 15 years has changed the world.

And apparently destroyed some really vital things that helped us form civil society, as we’re beginning to realize. As all of us try to keep up. Even many of the employees at Facebook itself, or at Google, for example.

James Poulos – the LA-based musician/writer/commentator has unleashed in an opinion piece at the Washington Examiner, a devastating and depressing assessment of the effects of social media, and particularly of Zuckerberg’s destruction of what had been mainstream media, and what still is in some ways. But with an important difference:

Major publications have to go begging at the feet of Facebook, and that has changed how we think and deal with each other. Here’s Poulos:

Whether it’s injecting creative works into the market, opinions into the maelstrom of the online discourse, or corrective lectures into raging debates, the potential payoff for all these sorts of activities is plummeting.

The culprit is not simply digital tech’s propensity to glut markets until demand collapses. In our era when just about anyone can write, record, produce, and release a single, a movie, a podcast, or a video show, the barriers to entry are so low that the market space has filled to the brim with content that’s almost totally inessential to nearly all would-be consumers.

Most content on the net is close to zero in value, according to Poulos. That is, when you measure value as people’s willingness to pay for something.
As well, the revenue that media used to earn from advertising have been swallowed up by Facebook in the years following Napster and the collapse of the music industry. What used to be aggregators – like evil record companies and righteous monopolistic media companies – are now 2nd rate players who no longer create a shared space – one with restricted access where not just anyone could write for a newspaper or record an album – a space where we can consume and critique and think about our shared entertainment and news. And share a common culture.

Social media (and that includes video games if you think about it) blew it all up real good. Something increasingly evident over the last couple of decades.
As a result, what we are also seeing over these last few years is how social media has played a key role in the tribalizing of society into hostile factions. Here’s Poulos again:

Television is now so democratized and secularized that it has become little more than ammunition for cultural skirmishes, losing even superficial commonality. Social media, too, is faltering; influential “creatives” and creative “influencers” have begun to realize that posting their hard work for free brings them little more than fleeting attention, often of the hateful or irrelevant kind. And in the high-prestige, high-pay “knowledge work” industries that depend on mass participation in communications and culture markets, even the most expert of elites have very little idea what to do about it.

In other words, a network of over a billion users has turned us inward not outwards and made us retreat from the offline world where eye contact and conversation matter. Nowadays, eye contact and conversation are possible, but sometimes a little tricky or even dangerous, especially if political opinions collide.

Of course, if James Poulos had written his wonderful essay over 20 years ago, I likely wouldn’t have read it unless he was lucky enough to have been published by the right media players and then to have appeared on prime-time television, just when I happened to be watching. And I had then driven to some bookstore or convenience store that carried a magazine that contained that specific article and had bought the damn thing as opposed to a newspaper or a couple of Kit Kats. An unlikely series of events. Poulos is much easier to reach and to read because of the very processes that also make getting paid well a distant reality for most.

And finally, without our globalized and digitized world, you wouldn’t be reading this opinion, because there wouldn’t be anywhere for me to write it.

Yes, for most of us, making a reasonable living as a content provider is not an option. There’s too many of us, quite simply.

I’m not sure most consumers of social media mind that in the least bit. Consuming what you want, or at least what’s within easy reach and for free aside from the ads, is not a business model that the billion plus users of Facebook have any problems with.

So maybe it’s only journalists, writers, musicians, film directors, and the endless and various content providers who wish more people would read them, see them, hear them, feel them, touch them and please, please, please, pay them that is the problem. And that would be their problem. Our problem. Not yours.

So, the question becomes how do we rebuild functional forms of workable consensus in an age that is deconstructing mono-culture media at a savage pace?

I wonder if, as I read my own question again, things like broad and lasting consensuses on almost anything is possible any longer. Someone my age worries that today’s youth is too inward, too indoors, and too uninterested in the offline world. One they still live in, but hardly notice anymore between the selfies and games.

I’m wrong about that of course. The so-called indoor generation will remake the world as they grow up and get jobs, the way boomers, then gen-X’ers and now millennials like Zuckerberg have remade the world. I’m just not sure if I’ll understand or like what my son’s generation does.

I just hope and pray they’ll like and understand a few of the things that made life wonderful in my youth. Like playing Monopoly after dinner.

Oh. That’s in fact what my son’s asking me to do tonight. Play that odd game Monopoly with him. He might even turn off his play station he says. Or at least put it on pause while we play. That’s not a bad start, even if it’s a tiny one.