Friday, March 04, 2011

Late Night Hell with David Letterman

The philosopher Charlie Sheen once said "Hell is the impossibility of reason." Yes, he was quoting someone else. And reading from a script. And in later years he said such things as:

“I was bangin’ 7 gram rocks and finishing them because that’s how I roll. I got tiger blood man. Dying is for fools.”

But, with that hell thing, he had a point.

I was reminded of it watching the recent performance of Sen. Rand Paul on Late Night with David Letterman. Bringing the reason was Sen. Paul, bringing the hell was Letterman. Despite a masterful job by Paul discussing our country's impending fiscal crisis and its causes, Letterman's continued response, which never failed to draw approving applause, was variations of:

You know, I think he's wrong about some of these things, I just can't tell you why.

In other words, Letterman admitted his arguments were shallow, exposed as deficient, yet he was still impervious to persuasion in the face of the facts. Does that sound like any political activists you know?

Below are some excerpts (transcribed by me) of Letterman's comments from the show. Rand Paul does an admirable job answering back. But he tended to stay on the high-minded, theoretical plane, which seemed to fly over Letterman's toupee. I will attempt to assist by providing additional commentary.

After tossing some bouquets to Al Franken, Letterman got down to the big issues:

I saw a thing the other day that said Republicans are in favor of taxcuts for big corporations and people making a substantially wealthy income. Is that true?

Where would a run across a thing like? The Daily Kos? Archived copies of Star Tribune editorials? Graffiti on the bathroom walls at the MinnPost offices?

I haven't seen a Republican backed plan for cutting taxes for anyone recently. Tens of trillions of dollars of debt, and counting, has a way of chilling that talk. Letterman may be conflating this with the recent debate on whether or not to raise taxes on higher income earners, an idea rejected in bi-partisan fashion in Congress and agreed to by the Obama administration. They key to the misunderstanding seems to be his inability to comprehend that not raising taxes is not the same as a tax cut.

Of course, in principle, Republicans are for reducing the burden of government for everybody, not just the wealthy (i.e., job creators and the ones paying the overwhelming amount of income taxes already). The idea is that paying nearly half of one's income to the government is wrong on its face. And that the government is involved in areas where it has no expertise or competence and is doing a worse job than the private sector. And that government intrusion crowds out private enterprise, innovation, and creativity. And the growth of government is creating unsustainable debt obligations. Has Letterman ever run across a "thing" like these arguments before? His remaining comments reveal no evidence of it.

After Rand Paul talked about wanting to grow the private sector and shrink the public sector Letterman responded with:

Who represents the … who peoples the public sector? Who are they? We're talking about the firemen, policemen, teachers. You want to shrink that strata of American workers and give tax breaks to people who could well afford to pay a higher rate.

Nobody wants to irresponsibly "shrink" the number of people holding critical, legitimate public sector positions, like policemen and firemen. Losing those positions should be last on the priority list when governments are looking to make cuts. (Although, for some reason, many Democrat politicians put it first).

We should employ the amount of people in those positions that are needed to meet citizens' expectations. However, the point is, we should employ them at reasonable compensation rates. That is, the level at which quality people will still take the jobs, but not grossly above the levels of commensurate private sector work, or above our ability to pay it with a reasonable tax rate.

You've confused me now. If we're talking about these people, is it in fact the people in the middle class, that represent the middle class, that hold most of these jobs. Teachers and fireman and hospital workers and on and on. So they will lose their government paycheck, is that right?

No, they won't lose their paychecks if those positions are needed. But they may not have Cadillac retirement and health benefits any longer. They'll be paying into the system at the same rate as those in the private sector and getting equivalent benefits. Non-government employees shouldn't have to work until they are 70 so public sector workers can retire at 55.

Letterman also seems to be making a class-based argument. Because these workers are middle class, nothing can happen to their jobs. Even if they are over paid or redundant, because they aren't "rich, they have to be retained. It's the view of public sector employment as an entitlement or welfare benefit. And that's no way to run an efficient operation that serves the needs of the citizens.

What would be wrong then in terms of leaving the public sector alone and reducing tax benefits for the wealthy and large corporations. Why couldn't you make up your money that way? (APPLAUSE)

What would be wrong with leaving public sector employees alone? All of those things I just said.

Why can't we just soak the wealthy and large corporations? In short, they don't have enough money to fund trillions and trillions of dollars worth of ever expanding commitments. And confiscatory tax policies lead to reduced wealth creation and ultimately reduced tax revenues.

When Rand Paul informed Letterman that the wealthy pay the overwhelming share of income taxes in t his country, Letterman responded with:

I think there's something wrong with those numbers. I don't know what it is, but I'm pretty sure there is something wrong with them. (APPLAUSE) Thank you, you're applauding my stupidity.

His first use of the feelings over facts defense.

I just don't think it makes sense to me. You look at these people in Wisconsin and we're talking about the people we've been talking about. Why don't we just raise the taxes and let these people have the collective bargaining, let them have their union representation, and go back to their jobs (APPLAUSE)

The only thing preventing the Wisconsin public sector workers from returning to their jobs is themselves. They abandoned them of their own free will to protest for more money. Of course, they only did so because they knew there would be no consequences. Unlike private sector workers, public sector workers can abandon their jobs and still have them whenever they decide to return.

Letterman's plea for the status quo in expenses, but more ever more takings in taxes, reveals a lack of a basic understanding of macroeconomics and the belief that there is a magical, unlimited pot of money out there that we can continually access.

When Paul informed him that the average teacher in Wisconsin is making $89,000 per year, Letterman responded with:

They should be making twice that. (APPLAUSE). The school system in the United States of America is in desperate need of attention. I mean we agree on that. The school system is bereft. It needs attention. It has fallen behind. We are embarrassingly trailing other nations in terms of public schools. (APPLAUSE).

He's right about the performance of US Schools. What he doesn't note is that the United States already spends more on education than just about any country in the world. If money were the solution, we'd be among the top performers.

When Paul extolled the virtue of local control over federal control, Letterman responded:

Well something has gone haywire, because it's not working. And I'm not sure that I agree with that argument. And by the way, if we're going to throw money at something, what about education? You know, for God sakes, let's just see if it improves somehow.

Who says we have to "throw" money at anything? The tax payer's dollars should be spent judiciously. And there is enough data on the relationship between spending and performance to allow us to make decisions based on more than "let's see if it improves somehow".

After a spot-on defense of the virtues of competition in improving output by Rand Paul, Letterman concluded with:

You know, I think he's wrong about some of these things, I just can't tell you why. I'm sorry. (APPLAUSE)

Letterman then went to commercial break, which gave him time to formulate a more well thought out response to all of Rand Paul's facts and logic. Upon returning, and with Paul already shuffled off stage, he let go with his conclusion:

… they want regular guys to lose their collective bargaining position. And also wealthy fat guys to get tax breaks. That's it!

A similar argument to what is coming out of the mouths of protesting activists and public employee union representatives. If a one-on-one fact based tutorial from the likes of Rand Paul isn't enough to overcome this stubborn ignorance, I'm not sure what will be. It is the impossibility of reason.