Sunday, June 28, 2009

are republicans more prone to extramarital affairs?

The story of Gov. Mark Sanford's extramarital affair, coming shortly on the heels (so to speak) of similar disclosures by Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, has many observers buzzing about the alleged hypocrisy of conservative Republicans and (more playfully) asking what exactly was in the water at last year's GOP convention. The issue is hardly limited to Republicans--witness Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and almost anybody named Kennedy--but there do seem to be an awful lot of "family values" types falling by the wayside lately. Is it coincidence or is there a pattern here?

I can think of three possible reasons why Republican males might be more prone to such affairs than their Democratic counterparts, along with some reasons they might be less so. On the positive (or should I say negative) side:

1. More repressed, misogynistic, or simply unpopular men might choose to become Republicans; their early difficulties with women would then give rise to hostile, or at least childish, behavior later in life. The problem is that there is not much empirical evidence to support this: people tend to choose parties on the basis of ideology, inheritance, or simply convenience rather than personality types. It does seem likely that politicians in general are more repressed, childish, and narcissistic than the overall population, but that is a different question.

2. Even if they don't start out that way, Republicans--especially social conservatives--tend to exaggerate the virtues of marriage, family, and so forth: having set a standard that they cannot possibly live up to, they fall farther and deeper once the contradictions catch up to them. As I noted in a previous post, the Virgin Mary is a powerful symbol, but somewhat less fun to be married to, and men who idealize their wives and children are arguably more susceptible to the wily, "darker side" women of whom there no shortage in political life. The problem here is that Democrats play the family game no less than Republicans, and seem to be not much less prudish, at least in their official personae. The problem of human frailty is moreover hardly unheard of in religious circles, and one would expect certain support mechanisms to kick in and prevent the nearly universal fantasies about younger/wilier women from becoming reality. I think this is somewhat more persuasive than #1, but not very much so.

3. The percentage of liars, cheats, and adulterers is pretty evenly spread among Republicans, Democrats, and the Socialist Workers Party: it is simply more fun to catch a conservative, "family values" type in bed with another woman (or man) and therefore attracts significantly more media attention. I must confess that I have never quite understood the logic here: religions universally concede that people are sinful (that's why we have religions), and making "hypocrisy" rather than conduct the issue would allow any politician to inoculate themselves against criticism by simply announcing that they were a liar, cad, or degenerate in advance. (Something like this make actually have happened with Bill Clinton, although not early enough to prevent his impeachment.) But people are only human, and it's simply more fun to find out that (say) the latest Pope or Ayatollah has a girlfriend than yet another revelation about Clinton, Edwards, and so forth. The "man bites dog" aspect of the story thus proves irresistible to all but the most forgiving among us.

So I think there is not much to #1, a little bit to #2, but most of the story is #3: not a Republican but a political (or male) problem that is simply more fun to talk about it when people try to deny its existence. One could argue that this is a good reason to keep politics about things like budgets and foreign policy that politicians can actually change rather than about personal virtue which they are unlikely to. But neither party seem likely to do this anytime soon, so we are probably stuck with the pontificating and hypocrisy--from both sides of the aisle--for the foreseeable future.

Friday, June 26, 2009

tax scholarship: critical and meta-critical approaches

I recently received a free copy of Critical Tax Theory: An Introduction, a collection edited by Profs. Anthony C. Infanti (Pittsburgh) and Bridget Crawford (Pace). The book, at 397 pages, is easily the most comprehensive work on the subject, even including a brief essay that I wrote a few years ago on Women, Poverty, and the Tax Code [perhaps that's why I got the free copy.] Ten, or is it twenty or thirty, years into the critical tax movement it provides an opportunity to take stock of what has and hasn't been accomplished.

The first thing that strikes a reader is the sheer volume and (for the most part) quality of what has been written. Along with race, gender, and sexual orientation, there are chapters on family tax, international tax, tax history, and even a chapter on the moderate/conservative response to the critical tax movement, appealingly labeled "critical perspectives on critical tax theory" (more on this later). All told, there were more than 50 articles, ranging from Grace Blumberg's now classic treatment of the taxation of working women (1971) to work completed in the past decade.

One is also struck by the diversity of approaches, which run the gamut from the application of traditional scholarly tools (fairness, simplicity, economic efficiency) in new topic areas--I am thinking here of work like Patricia Cain's on gay couples or Beverly Moran and William Whitford on taxation of African-Americans--to more offbeat approaches like that of Lisa Philipps on "discursive deficits" or Infanti himself on waging "guerilla warfare" within the tax system. But on the hold, the pieces are remarkably tame, perhaps confirming the suspicion that what is radical to tax lawyers is pretty much mainstream to everyone else. For example the Blumberg article, which leads off the collection, makes the pretty nonradical point that the combination of joint returns, nondeductibility of child care expenses, and other provisions tends to discourage wives and mothers from entering the labor force, a proposition that would seem hard to deny except that nobody had quite addressed it before. The articles on race, sexual orientation, and other hot button issues tend likewise to be rather more adventurous in their subject matter than in their methodology.

I suspect that this squares-masquerading-as-radicals feeling--a little bit like a rap group playing a college fraternity--results from the training of tax lawyers rather than any inherent aversion to more creative approaches. Tax professors are, put simply, more comfortable with economics than with culture, and even then with a very particular type of economics that has become traditional in the field. When noneconomic arguments are made about (say) the tax treatment of marriage or the need to encourage home ownership, there is a tendency to dismiss these as "rhetoric"--a neutral but essentially condescending term--and then return to the economic, or pseudo-economic, analysis that one was previously engaged in. This has always been true of old-fashioned tax professors, but it is interesting to see more critical or left-leaning scholars falling into largely the same pattern.

In this context the final chapter, which discusses the criticisms (so to speak) of critical tax work, is especially interesting. Particularly provocative is the final piece in the collection, by Amy Wax, which suggests that the pretax world may discourage women from becoming homemakers and that additional subsidies for "working" women may thus exacerbate rather than counteract preexisting inequities. Or, to put the matter differently, tax provisions that encourage women (or men) to stay home with their children may reflect an economically dubious, but culturally sophisticated, intuition that traditional family structures are in need of protection, a protection which economically "rational" reforms may strip away.

In the context of Infanti and Crawford's book, this insight appears almost as an afterthought: but what if it is actually the real point? What if the seemingly irrational tax subsidies for marriage, home ownership, domestic oil and gas production, and so on are not so irrational after all, but reflect nonquantifiable but nonetheless powerful intuitions that certain forms of behavior are more beneficial to civilized society than others? (Try to find a study that doesn't conclude that children born to married couples do better than those living in single-parent households.) What, that is, if the real critical scholars are the ones who make the intellectually difficult but vital case in favor of these culturally based provisions, and the self-styled crits--nearly all of whom are trained in traditional tax methodologies and remain highly suspicious of cultural arguments--are the real reactionaries? Something to think about.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

the iranian election part iii

As all the world knows, nonlethal has turned to lethal violence in Iran and a stolen "election" looks increasingly like an incipient coup d'etat by the right wing (Ahmadi-Nejad/Khameini) forces. Whatever one thinks of the US response--I think it's generally been a day late and a dollar short--things look grim for the Good Guys in the short run. But it pays to take a somewhat longer view.

There are always at least two stages in a regime's collapse. The first is when its ideology is discredited in the eyes of everyone except (or sometimes even including) the regime itself. This is also the stage at which the regime ceases to be a model for thinking people located outside the country. That is, more or less, where Iran is today.

The second is the actual physical collapse of the regime. How long this takes depends on the internal cohesion and ruthlessness of the regime, and to some degree on outside forces. In the Soviet Union this took less than a decade, although rather longer if measured against the entire Soviet Bloc, where the failures of the system were visible much earlier. In South Africa it took several decades. China has gone twenty years since Tian An Men with communism effectively dead as an ideology but the system clinging to life based on a combination of repression, economic growth, and a claim (however improbable) to have inherited the authority of the former Chinese emperors.

The bottom line is that a system which loses its underlying legitimacy may take a long time to collapse, but it always will, and it is generally speaking better to be ahead of the curve than behind it. That doesn't mean that one should ignore the country completely in the interim, or that outside intervention will necessarily make a positive (or any) difference. But one should be clear which side one is on, as the people of Iran have done this past week, and as the rest of the world--with infinitely less at stake--has an obligation to do, as well.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

u.s. soccer team beats spain

I missed the second half because I decided to try penalty kicks against my 14-year old and broke his retainer (he's leaving for camp tomorrow). But that didn't do much to diminish the U.S. team's accomplishment in beating Spain, the world's top-ranked team, in the Confederations Cup held in South Africa this week. The Confederations Cup isn't the World Cup, and soccer doesn't get the attention here that it does everywhere else in the world, and of course we haven't had a war against Spain since 1898: all reasons this will probably get less attention than (say) the hockey win over the Soviet Union in 1980, or Shakira's newest outfit. On the scale of improbability, though, it probably ranks even higher: a moment of justified pride for a team, and a sport, that have taken their collective lumps.

I've written before about soccer, and the difficulties it has in attracting a North American audience. Perhaps this victory, and a strong performance in the 2010 World Cup, will help to turn it around. The U.S. plays the winner of tomorrow's Brazil-South Africa match in Sunday's final.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

the iranian election part ii

The increasingly obvious fraud in the Iranian election, and the incipient use of force (albeit mostly nonlethal) against protesters, mark a point of no return in the situation. As Fareed Zakaria wrote in a fine post today, the regime may well survive, but its ideology--the notion of divine sanction combined with broad popular support dating from the 1979 revolution--is pretty much dead. In this sense, although not in the level of violence, the crisis resembles Tiananmen Square 1989, when the Government retained political authority but Chinese communism as an ideology disintegrated.

The implications for US policy will take time to sort out. Commentators like Roger Cohen of the NY Times, who admits he understated the evils of the Iranian regime (but asks others to admit they underrated the Iranian people), deserve great credit. The Obama Administration, I think, deserves somewhat less. While keeping a judicious silence is perhaps a wise strategy, at times the Administration seemed almost to want the who affair to go away, as if its policy of "engagement" with Iran was more important than any particular change in that country.

In reality, as Cohen and Zakaria's comments suggest, events have already passed Obama by. The issue now, as in 1979, is not engagement vs. confrontation but how to adjust to a new reality in Iran, in which the old alternatives are fast becoming irrelevant. In remaining a step or two behind the action and appearing indifferent to a popular uprising--one which he may have helped to inspire--the President has made a slow start. Here's hoping that he will prove wiser in the long run, and put U.S. policy on the side of history rather than on the sidelines.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

the iranian election

There are two interpretations of Ahmadi-Nejad's "surprising" landslide victory: (1) he cheated, (2) Western reporters have, a la Tien An Men Square, been talking too much to urban liberals and not enough to rural conservatives to know what's actually happening. Early indications suggest an element of both. Either way, it is a major setback for Obama's process of engagement with Teheran, which looks increasingly like a one way street, and not in our direction.