Help me learn how to read laws — January 9, 2013

Help me learn how to read laws

I wonder if my dear readers could educate me. Here’s where I got started: my employer’s payroll company, ADP, emailed me to say that as of this year, the mass-transit-pass employer fringe benefit reduces taxable income by as much as the parking-permit fringe benefit; it used to be that you got more for parking. I found this unjust, and was pleased when the injustice was corrected.

So now I want to go find the part of the law that rectifies the injustice. As per that earlier blog post, the relevant section of the tax law appears to be 26 USC 132.

First thing I seem to have discovered: you can’t understand any part of that law until you read all of it. Here’s the first relevant piece:

(f) Qualified transportation fringe
	(1) In general
	For purposes of this section, the term qualified transportation fringe means any of the following provided by an employer to an employee:
		(A) Transportation in a commuter highway vehicle if such transportation is in connection with travel between the employees residence and place of employment.
		(B) Any transit pass.
		(C) Qualified parking.
		(D) Any qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement.
	(2) Limitation on exclusion
		The amount of the fringe benefits which are provided by an employer to any employee and which may be excluded from gross income under subsection (a)(5) shall not exceed
			(A) $100 per month in the case of the aggregate of the benefits described in subparagraphs (A) and (B) of paragraph (1),
			(B) $175 per month in the case of qualified parking, and
In the case of any month beginning on or after the date of the enactment of this sentence and before January 1, 2012, subparagraph (A) shall be applied as if the dollar amount therein were the same as the dollar amount in effect for such month under subparagraph (B).

That final paragraph says “equalize transit passes and parking”. Got it. But two things:

1. ADP says that the benefit is $240 per month, which disagrees with the $175 in (f)(2)(B).
2. The final paragraph says that this equality of benefits ends when 2011 ends, which disagrees with ADP.

So I look around some more and I find two things that address these problems:

1. Section 6(A) in this same law applies an inflation adjustment — hence my statement that you need to read the whole thing to understand the rest. It seems to say that you take the CPI from the preceding calendar year and divide by the CPI for 1992, then multiply by whatever (f)(2)(A) or (f)(2)(B) say.

All right, so we consult the CPI. First of all, I don’t know what ‘the CPI for 1992’ means: does it mean January of 1992? It probably doesn’t much matter which part of 1992 I pick (we’re not Zimbabwe), so I’ll just grab 140.3, the annual average for 1992. Then we get 2012’s CPI, which is about 230. So the multiplier is 1.64. Multiply by the $100 in (f)(2)(A), and I only get $164 — not the $240 that ADP reported.

But again recall that final paragraph, quoted above. It says that mass transit and parking are equal. So let’s assume the pre-inflation-correction benefit is $175 per month, and again apply the 1.64 multiplier. That brings the mass-transit benefit up to $287 — which is now too *high*. So now I’m confused where the $240 came from that ADP mentioned.

2. The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 extended benefit parity until the beginning of 2014, specifically

> (a) IN GENERAL.Paragraph (2) of section 132(f) is amended by striking January 1, 2012 and inserting January 1, 2014.
> (b) EFFECTIVE DATE.The amendment made by this section shall apply to months after December 31, 2011.

The law as it’s archived at Cornell doesn’t seem to reflect this.

So I’m confused on three general points:

1. How do I know that I read all the parts of the bill that modify the particular paragraph I’m interested in? (John E. McDonough’s magisterial [book: Inside National Health Reform] explains very patiently the complicated way in which one needs to read the Affordable Care Act. Do I need a McDonough by my side to read any law? Do I need a Marion Nestle to walk me through the farm bill?)

2. How do I know that I’m looking at the most up-to-date version of a particular section of the law?

3. How do I know that there isn’t another section of the US Code that’s relevant to the particular policy — in this case, commuter fringe benefits — that I care about?

Affordable Care Act silence is deafening — July 1, 2012

Affordable Care Act silence is deafening

Does it seem to anyone else like Democrats — including the President — passed the Affordable Care Act and then promptly stopped talking about it altogether? If my read on the situation is right, that’s because they perceived the law polls very poorly. But

1. If you’re going to lose an election, lose with your back straight. Either voters dislike your voting for the law or they don’t. If they don’t care how you voted, there’s no need for you to be silent about it. On the other hand, if they dislike it, and you believed in the law when you passed it, then stand up for it. You didn’t run for office just to win re-election; presumably you ran because you wanted to achieve something positive, and you thought the law was positive. If the voters do care and you didn’t believe in it when it was passed, your opponent is still going to hound you for your vote when you run for re-election. So what’s the point in hiding from it?

2. Whether something polls well or poorly isn’t an objective fact ‘out there’ in the universe; whether it polls well depends a lot on whether people whom Americans like — such as President Obama — are out there selling it. Which they aren’t.

3. The ACA as such polls poorly, because it’s been demonized as ‘Obamacare’. But some of the individual provisions — no discrimination against pre-existing conditions, lengthened coverage under one’s parents’ health insurance — poll well. In many cases I think it’s just that people don’t know what’s in Obamacare. In other cases, like the mandate, people genuinely seem to hate it. That seems like a failure of education: people need to understand that there are only a few ways to make health coverage universal without the market unraveling. Democrats have been *terrible* about selling the mandate.

4. Do you care about ensuring that everyone has health insurance, or don’t you? We really need to make clear that that’s what this comes down to: we believe in universal coverage; they don’t. If you believe in universal coverage, something like a mandate is unavoidable. (Expanding Medicare to everyone would have been another option, but insurers never would have stood for it.) Lately Republicans seem to be facing up to this, and at least admitting that they don’t care about universal coverage. If nothing else, that has the virtue of consistency. But it’s morally repugnant.

Accounting gripes and the tyranny of trillions (part of an occasional series) — October 16, 2011

Accounting gripes and the tyranny of trillions (part of an occasional series)

Matt Yglesias makes the entirely correct point that We Underinvest In Infrastructure Because We Overinvest In War, Health Care, And Low Taxes, along the way noting the various estimates of how much we need to be spending over the next N years on bridges, roads, and whatever else. Various organizations give us various numbers:

> All of the numbers are so gargantuan large that theyre useless when youre trying to communicate with the public, said Roy Kienitz, undersecretary for policy at the Department of Transportation.
> The American Society of Civil Engineers has estimated that an investment of $1.7 trillion is needed between now and 2020 to rebuild roads, bridges, water lines, sewage systems and dams that are reaching the ends of their planned life cycles. The Urban Institute puts the price tag at $2 trillion.

The fact that these numbers are so gargantuan is exactly why we shouldn’t be talking about them in raw terms. $2 trillion is an essentially unfathomable number. So let’s try it some other ways:

The IRS collected about $2.3 trillion in fiscal year 2009, across personal income taxes, corporate taxes, Social Security taxes, the estate (“death”) tax, Medicare part A, various excise taxes, and so forth. Individual U.S. states collected about $704 billion in 2010, of which 33.5% was income tax and a bit less was sales tax. Federal and state taxes altogether, then, come to about $3 trillion. So our $2 trillion infrastructure investment is about 2/3 of the country’s total tax bill. (The $3 trillion tax bill, to put that in some more perspective, comes out of a $14 trillion GDP. Taxes come to about 21% of GDP, in other words.)

U.S. 10-year Treasurys are available at historically low rates right now — right around 2.5%. So let’s say the government borrowed $2 trillion today, and paid it off at 2.5% over the next ten years. How much would the monthly payment come to? (There is probably a lot of complexity about government financing that I don’t understand, but I’m treating this exactly like a mortgage with a 2.5% interest rate. Feel free to correct me if there’s some important nuance I’m missing.)

The monthly payment, it turns out, would be about $18.8 billion. This is getting more fathomable. And while the various governments’ $3 trillion in receipts come from many classes of tax levied on many different types of people and businesses, let’s just simplify and say that there are 144.1 million taxpayers — which is the number of individual Federal income-tax returns. How much will each of those taxpayers have to pay every month to ensure that our bridges don’t collapse in a decade? The answer: $18.8 billion per month divided by 144.1 million taxpayers, or $130.43 per month.

Now *that* is a number I can understand. The cost of ensuring a non-crumbling infrastructure is $130.43 per person per month. How much of an increase is that over what we pay now? Well, we pay a total of $3 trillion per year, or a quarter-trillion per month, or about $1,731 per return per month. $130.43 is a 7.5% increase over what we pay now.

I can wrap my head around “my tax bill will increase by 7.5%.” The story gets even rosier if you consider that investors are currently willing to lend the Federal government money to be paid off in 30 years for about 3%. That lowers the monthly payment to about $60 per person, which is about a 3.5% increase in overall taxes.

All of this assumes, recall, that every dime of the $2 trillion would be new money — money that we wouldn’t spend anyway. That is obviously false: if a bridge collapses, we’ll presumably repair it. And presumably there’s a lot of roadwork that we’d already be doing. But assuming it’s all new money, the average tax bill would go up by somewhere between 3.5% and 7.5%. I can wrap my head around the concept “my tax bill will increase by 5%,” much more than I can wrap it around “$2 trillion over the next decade.”

Note also that, if we somehow managed to get a lot of high-income people into this country, we could lower the per-person expense even more. What counts as “affordable” depends to a great extent upon how many people live in this country, because “per-person expense” has both a numerator and a denominator. There are two obvious ways to get more high-income people into this country: either (1) allow in any immigrant who has an employer to sponsor him or is looking to get a Ph.D., or (2) encourage native-born Americans to have more babies. Ideas for how to make either (1) or (2) happen will have to occupy another post at another time.

Trillions are unfathomable, so it’s important to find some way to put them in context to make them fathomable. Switching from aggregates to per-capita numbers is one quick way. Switching from “costs over ten years” to “cost per person per month” is another way. Percentages are another good measure: percent of GDP, say, or percent of current tax revenues. Otherwise we get stuck in massive-number fatigue, which helps no one (except maybe the political party which takes terrorizing you over the budget as its reason for being).

The weakness of retrospective conservatism — September 17, 2011

The weakness of retrospective conservatism

I don’t know why I made the mistake of reading David Brooks. This is a mistake that I’ve avoided making for *so long*. Why must I make it now?

Anyway, I’ll be quick. Brooks’s point is basically that people expect their government to do massive social engineering and do it well, and that they should rather expect it to fail: the systems government is engineering are just too massive to engineer them well. This is by way of telling us that government isn’t going to get us out of this recession, and that it’s foolhardy to expect that.

Let’s imagine it had gone the other way: Alan Greenspan had jacked up interest rates to prick the housing bubble a few years back, or any number of regulatory steps had been taken to tighten lending standards. Then Brooks would have nothing to talk about today.

Or go back to Hurricane Katrina. There were various conservative pundits, solemnly averring that the government’s disastrous response was just proof that central planning never works, and that people should never expect to get any help from anyone but themselves and their families. But had the government — at all levels — done its job, we never would have heard them claiming that this was proof of the government’s wisdom.

If we want to talk about the failures of central planning, let’s talk about war, or the DoD. There could be nothing more centralized, more hierarchical, or more literally regimented than the U.S. military — yet this is supposed to be why conservatives are all about the military. It’s a killing machine precisely because it is focused, like a massive machine, on the task of destroying other militaries.

So do we see David Brooks shaking his head from side to side as he sighs, telling us that war is not the answer because central planning never works? The closest we get to that is an apology, after the fact, for having supported the invasion of Iraq.

The best we can say, then, is that Brooks has learned his lesson, and will never again support conservative-friendly centralized government projects; he’ll be just as intolerant of conservative government causes as he is of liberal ones. We’ll just see about that.

How much is the employer health-insurance subsidy worth? (Or, I regurgitate Austin Frakt.) — July 9, 2011

How much is the employer health-insurance subsidy worth? (Or, I regurgitate Austin Frakt.)

I come back to Austin Frakt’s post calculating how much the Federal subsidy for health insurance is worth every few months, and I think I have to re-study it every time. It’s a hugely important post.

Probably a lot of others don’t read wonky health-insurance blogs quite as obsessively as I do, so the background is like so: your employer (if you’re lucky enough to have an employer that supplies health insurance) doesn’t pay taxes on the health-insurance fringe benefit. When they pay you a dollar in wages, they have to pay their part of Medicare and Social Security taxes. Once they’ve paid their taxes and passed your wages on to you, you have to pay taxes on them. Health insurance isn’t like that: your employer doesn’t pay taxes on health benefits, and neither do you. So one dollar in health insurance is worth more than one dollar in wages to you and to your employer.

Turns out that the subsidy is really distorting. Professor Frakt’s exercise may already be clear to everyone, but I don’t think it was clear to me for a while. So in bullet form, trying to make it as clear as possible (to myself as much as to everyone else) it’s like so:

  • For every dollar an employer pays out in wages, a certain fraction of that dollar goes to taxes (employer pays Medicare and Social Security). Call that fraction T.
  • So for every dollar in wages that the employee receives, the employer pays $(1+T).
  • Flip that around: for every dollar in wages that the employer pays, the employee receives $1/(1+T).
  • Now the employee has his dollar in wages. Of that, a certain fraction goes to taxes (Medicare, Social Security, federal, state). Call that tax fraction E.
  • So the employee is left with $(1-E) of his dollar.
  • But his dollar was already $1/(1+T) of what the employer spent.
  • So of every dollar the employer spends on wages, what ends up in the employee’s pocket is $(1-E)/(1+T). Call this F, for “Final amount in the employee’s pocket.”
  • This means that $(1-F) goes to taxes, for every dollar the employer spends on wages.
  • Put another way: a dollar spent on health insurance, which no one pays taxes on, loses the government $(1-F). 1-F is called the “tax price.” Professor Frakt links here to a paper by the omnipresent Jon Gruber, an MIT professor who was central to building Massachusetts’ universal-coverage system, and who advised President Obama on the Affordable Care Act. The paper — “The Impact of the Tax System on Health Insurance Coverage” — sounds interesting.

To put some flesh on the numbers:

  • when the employer pays you a dollar (in wages, but not in health insurance), it spends 6.2 cents on Social Security and 1.45 cents on Medicare Part A. So T = .062 + .0145 = 0.0765.
  • you pay Social Security and Medicare Part A (same percentages as your employer), plus your Federal marginal tax rate (I’m in the 28% bracket), plus your state marginal rate (Massachusetts’ is 5.3%). So my marginal rate is 40.95%, whence E = .4095.
  • So when my employer spends a dollar on health insurance rather than on wages, the government loses 45 cents that it would have picked up in taxes. (Professor Frakt ends up with 37 cents using more-conservative assumptions, namely that the state tax rate is 5% and that my Federal marginal rate is 20%.)

This distorts the labor market — encouraging employers to buy more-expensive health-insurance plans — and costs the government money that it could be spending on other valuable things.

And it’s regressive: if you’re in the top (35%) bracket, you’re getting more of a benefit from the health-insurance subsidy than is someone in the 28% bracket. Same goes for the mortgage-interest deduction, and it may be even worse there: not only do higher-income people get more off their taxes for every dollar they spend on mortgage interest than do lower-income people, but the more you spend on a house, the more you can take off your taxes. Assuming Bill Gates’s house cost the $97 million that some random web page says it did, that he put 20% down, and that he financed it with a 2%, 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, he’ll be able to use the mortgage-interest deduction to avoid paying taxes on $26,345,019.10 in income over the life of the mortgage. Assuming he’s in the 35% bracket, that’s $9,220,756.69 that the mortgage-interest deduction saved him. Whereas if you’re in the 28% bracket and finance a $350,000 home the same way, you’ll save $33,270.77 over those same 30 years.

These “tax expenditures” cost the government money in the same way that buying a bomber or building a road costs it money. But tax expenditures haven’t, until recently, appeared on the radar in the same way that a $500 toilet seat does. We may well be paying for Bill Gates’ $500 toilet seat, but it hasn’t had the same visceral effect.

Paul Ryan and “libertarianism by default” — May 22, 2011

Paul Ryan and “libertarianism by default”

I’ve feared for a while that my generation would become libertarians by default: the social safety net has been so thoroughly worn down that there’s little social contract left; I fear that people expect Medicare and Social Security to be gone by the time they retire. If that’s what people expect, then they stop lobbying to strengthen Social Security and just look out for #1. Republicans, meanwhile, have never stopped trying to destroy Social Security. Current retirees will never let Social Security end, but maybe my generation will. My parents’ generation expects Social Security to be there, and many of them have pensions. My generation might well expect Social Security to die, and we all have very weak 401(k)s instead of reliable pensions. So we may not know what to lobby for, because we’re not used to having a social safety net to fall back on. We may not know what we’re missing until it’s gone. Hence libertarianism by default: the libertarianism of apathy.

This is all just speculation about what might happen, of course. This generation might turn out to be just as passionate about liberal causes as was FDR’s generation — particularly after watching several bubbles and crashes over just the last decade. Certainly *I* think that this calls out, more than ever, for more active management in the economy, and particularly for more protection against the business cycle. I think a lot of people my age think the same way. Now if only our elected representatives would stop merely trying to prevent the death of Social Security, and instead take the fight to the Republicans.

These thoughts have all been bubbling for a while. They were brought to a boil by a terrific short piece in the New Republic (via Matt Yglesias). Well worth your time.

Accounting fictions, cutting off your nose to spite your face, pound-foolishness, and other metaphors besides — February 19, 2011

Accounting fictions, cutting off your nose to spite your face, pound-foolishness, and other metaphors besides

The reporting on budget cuts is just all wrong. The [newspaper: Times] reports that the House is set to cut $60 billion, but doesn’t really go into detail on what those cuts include.

Among the cuts that it does describe are an amendment to deny funds to Planned Parenthood. Now, this is really stupid. As of 2008, only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s expenses went toward abortion; about 13 times that much went to contraception, and 9 times more toward STD treatment.

So what does a “smaller budget” in the Planned Parenthood context mean? It means more unplanned pregnancies. This may or may not increase expenses in the future (you can imagine scenarios under which it increases, and others under which it decreases), but you miss the entire picture if you focus narrowly on how much avoids going into the budget today.

Or take the IRS, everyone’s favorite bad guy. The GOP is predictably going after it. But we know what happens: cut from the IRS budget, and more people avoid paying the taxes that the law requires them to pay. If you think the tax burden is onerous, fine; then change the law so that it’s less so. But if you want to enforce the tax law, that enforcement costs money. The IRS budget pays to enforce the tax law. If you think that a marginal dollar of IRS expense leads to less than a dollar in taxes recouped from cheats, then suggest ways to improve the ratio. The way the press talks about the budget, however, avoids discussing benefits, and the GOP is in no rush to debate the merits of a marginal dollar in IRS expenditures. (Far be it for me to suggest that the *very point* of cutting the IRS’s budget is to make it easier for wealthy people, the GOP’s natural constituency, to cheat on their taxes.)

Or take the $131 million the GOP wants to cut from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s budget. Greater SEC oversight might have prevented the financial crisis that we’re just now digging out of. That would have saved us trillions of dollars in bailout money. If a marginal dollar of spending on the SEC yields more than a dollar of savings, we should spend that dollar; if it doesn’t, we shouldn’t. But narrowly focusing on expenses without focusing on results is the essence of foolishness.

Everyone loves to attack regulation of the sort that the SEC engages in. And yes, it confers costs on businesses. When the EPA fines firms for dumping toxic waste into the water, that’s regulation too, and that’s an expense. But it also saves money: keeping toxic waste out of the water keeps people safer, lets them live longer lives, keeps them in productive economic activity for more hours every day, etc.

The SEC’s and the EPA’s budgets are visible costs: the numbers are written down in a book and debated. Their benefits — birth defects prevented, financial crises averted — are longer-term, and the connection is not always visible. In fact, if government is working well, we often don’t notice the regulation’s benefits. Had the SEC been working perfectly, we might have avoided a financial crisis altogether. When FEMA fell apart under the Bush administration and New Orleans drowned, we noticed that failure; had FEMA done its job, there would have been nothing to notice. We had 30 or 40 years of financial stability after the Great Depression, in no small part because banks were kept highly regulated and boring. I suspect this invited people to think that regulation was unnecessary, because the world seemed to do fine without it. But that doesn’t mean the regulation went away; it just means the regulation was invisible.

Invisible, properly-functioning regulation — from FEMA, from the SEC, from the EPA — means invisible benefits: cities that don’t flood, financial crises that don’t drive us into recession, rivers that we can swim in without thinking of the agencies that made it possible. The costs, though, are there for everyone to see in the budget books every year.

To every decision there are costs and benefits, but somehow government policies are treated as though they conferred costs and never benefits. This same refusal to see the forest for the trees came up when the Affordable Care Act was being debated. Democrats insisted on keeping the cost of the bill below an arbitrary limit of $1 trillion over 10 years. But don’t focus on “how much the government spends on health care”; focus on “how much the average taxpayer is spending on health care”; whether the taxpayer’s expense comes out of taxes or from his wallet is largely immaterial. Presumably when the government spends $1 trillion on health reform, that’s going to lower the amount that we consumers have to spend out of pocket. So it’s just transferring expenses from one bucket (out-of-pocket health-care expenses) to another (taxes). Does a dollar taken from taxes reduce out-of-pocket expenses by more than a dollar? If so, there’s a good argument that we should spend that dollar; if not, there’s less of a good argument.

Granted, you could argue that government expenses are *always* worse than personal expenses, no matter the ratio. This is an argument from principle, which you get from dyed-in-the-wool libertarians, and it’s crazy. I think most Americans would reject it out of hand, and it absolutely wouldn’t sell. Suppose a dollar of government health-care expense, or a dollar spent regulating the private insurance industry, saved $10 off the average American’s out-of-pocket health expenses. Would you be willing to let the government handle this and charge you your dollar of tax? I know I would; I hope you would too.

Sometimes what government gives us for our taxes is something that the private market just couldn’t provide. Medicare provides insurance for old people, which they *couldn’t get at any price beforehand*. Here it’s not even a question of how much it costs the government to provide something that the market also provides; it’s the government creating a functioning market where none existed before.

Again: to every policy there are costs and there are benefits. We live in a time when government policies are assumed to consist solely of costs with nary a benefit. Republicans rejoice in this assumption, which allows them to talk about “cutting $60 billion” without having to answer the question: are they also cutting more than $60 billion in benefits?

We need to stop considering government expenses in their own separate bucket. At the very least, we need two expense buckets: out-of-pocket expenses and tax expenses. We simply cannot view the federal budget in isolation from the rest of the economy.

Choosing low-calorie meals (at the margin) — September 21, 2010

Choosing low-calorie meals (at the margin)

It’s one of the largely unpublicized but seemingly very important parts of the Affordable Care Act that restaurants with more than 20 establishments will have to start attaching calorie counts to their menu items. (This is in section 4205 of the bill. Because THOMAS links are still, bizarrely, after 15 years, inscrutable and impermanent, I’ve included that section below the fold.) I find this completely excellent. It may not end the obesity epidemic in this country, but it will certainly help at least some people make healthier decisions at restaurants. Quite often one just doesn’t know which items are unhealthy. It’s shocking how often a seemingly healthy menu item really isn’t; for instance, I got a Cobb salad from Cosí/Così just about every day for a few months, until I found on their website that it’s a 700-calorie salad. I no longer order that. At any lunch place that lists calories on the menu (Au Bon Pain, say), I routinely look for the lowest-calorie item. Even if I don’t pick that item, I look around the menu with that as a baseline. (The descriptor “low-calorie,” unfortunately, often means the same thing that “diet” does on soft drinks [which I also never drink]: “a natural-tasting ingredient has been replaced with the finest gross-tasting chemicals that Northern New Jersey petrochemical plants could churn out.”)

So I give huge thumbs up to this innovation. It may not solve anything, but it’ll help.

Continue reading

My only post on the mosque controversy — August 18, 2010

My only post on the mosque controversy

Here’s what I don’t get. Ideally, in a well-run society of intelligent people, you need to advance arguments for your position. You can’t just wave your arms up and down, claim “It’s not right!” and expect that to be the end of it. And your own personal disgust isn’t grounds for anything. When you enter the public sphere, you’re supposed to present *arguments*.

Now, granted, sometimes — often — personal disgust sells things. It shouldn’t, but it does. I’m convinced that the fundamental belief underlying opposition to gay marriage, for instance, is that opponents believe anal sex between men is disgusting. (If the gay-marriage debate were about *lesbians’* right to marry, I doubt it would be nearly this acrimonious.) There have been lots of purported “arguments” over the years against gay marriage, but none of them amount to anything at all. “Marriage is about raising children”: sure, but what about childless couples? “But won’t this lead to pedophilia and bestiality?”: obviously not, because obviously we only support marriage between consenting adults. And so forth. The problem with these arguments isn’t that they’re wrong, it’s that they’re *incredibly* wrong. They’re remarkably simple to swat down. It’s so simple to swat them down that they don’t even count as arguments. They’re not arguments; they’re reflexes. They’re meant to make other people raise their fists in agreement; they’re culturally evocative totems, not arguments. I’m not obliged to respond to your culturally evocative totem, and you’re not obliged to respond to mine. We’re only obliged to respond to arguments made in good faith. And so far as I can tell, no one has made any such arguments against gay marriage.

Nor have they made any such arguments against the “mosque” in lower Manhattan. The only “argument” I’ve seen is essentially that the wound from 9/11 is too raw, and that the area around Ground Zero is holy in some way. But clearly the “mosque”‘s opponents would have no problem with a Christian or Jewish (or Buddhist, or Zoroastrian) place of worship in that area. So the fundamental argument against the mosque, so far as I can tell, is that *Muslims as collectively guilty for 9/11*.

That’s it, right? Everyone knows that that’s the subtext beneath the entire dispute. If you can find some other, deeper reason why the “mosque” shouldn’t be built there, let me know, but I’ve certainly not seen it. And when Newt Gingrich says that “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia”, it’s clear that he means exactly what I’ve suggested. All Muslims are responsible for 9/11, so there’s some kind of global [foreign: quid pro quo] that requires the Muslims everywhere to pay for the crimes of Muslims anywhere.

Put that way, I hope everyone would acknowledge that it’s a profoundly stupid, offensive, and false proposition. A tweet asking whether, since Tim McVeigh was Catholic, no churches should be allowed near the Murrah Federal Building sums it up as well as anything could.

And that’s it. That’s all they’ve got.

The debate became immediately confused, like they always do, by the meta issue of how this will affect [choose your favorite politician] in [choose your favorite upcoming race], or more specifically whether this will make Democrats look like pussies on what should be a morally clear issue (answer: yes). But all of that is immaterial. And doesn’t it just needlessly exhaust you? It exhausts me. There are a lot of things to think about in this life. There are a lot of things to get mad about. There are a lot of arguments to have about a lot of really important things. Becoming a morally aware adult, it turns out, is really hard.

If a lot of people are upset about the “mosque” in lower Manhattan, that is their business. If so many people are upset about it that it will cause some politicians to lose their jobs because they’re insensitive to others’ concerns, it is the politicians’ business to care about that. It is not my business to care about that. It is my business, as a rational member of a democratic society, to look at the arguments put forward against the Cordoba House and judge them on their merits. And there are no arguments. Shouldn’t that settle it?

Forgive me if this is an oversimplification of how democracies work. It certainly is. There’s a time and a place to engage in spirited rat-fucking. Other times, you just have to claw through the confusion on these issues, acknowledge that they really have no argument, and move on.

Barack Obama…for state senate! — June 22, 2010

Barack Obama…for state senate!

Back when I was in college (Carnegie Mellon class of 2000), a friend who was attending the University of Chicago gave me a placard that was posted hither and thither on Chicago’s South Side: a dorky-faced guy with a ridiculously toothy grin smiling out at us. It read

“Barack Obama

for state senate”

My buddy Josh and I thought this was hilarious. Over the years, we turned the guy on the placard into a superhero. We’d be studying for one hard exam or another and would say to one another, “You know who could ace the piss out of this test right now?” The other would respond, “*Barack Obama!*” to which the first would respond, inevitably, “…*for state senate!*” Or we’d be at the gym: “Man, these weights are *tough*! … Know who could lift them without breaking a sweat?” “*Barack Obama!*” “…*for state senate!*”

The years go by. It’s 2004. There’s a dude up on the stage at the Democratic National Convention who’s making everyone ask, “Why do I have to vote for Kerry? Why can’t I vote for this guy?” Josh and I called one another: “Uh … dude, do you see who’s on stage right now?” It was surreal.

It’s still surreal. Every few months it occurs to me afresh that Josh and I were making this obscure local politician the punchline of a joke probably a decade before he became president of the United States. Bizarre.