Category Archives: Politics

The Responsibilities of the Powerful


In light of all the talk about violence involving police officers recently, let’s fire up the way-back machine and look at what Ramon Llull had to say back in the 13th century about the people who were expected to wield the government’s monopoly on force:

“Item, office of knighthood is to maintain and defend widows, maidens, fatherless and motherless bairns, and poor miserable persons and pitiable, and to help the weak against the stark, and the pure against the rich; for oft-times sick folk are, by more stark than they, beaten and robbed, and their goods taken, and put to destruction and poverty, for fault of power and defence.

“For right as the hewing axe is ordained to cut down trees that hinder ploughing of lands, and carts and chariots and merchandises to pass through the forests, so is the sword of knighthood ordained to cut away and destroy the wicked unworthy weeds and vines of thorns of evil men that hinders labourers, merchants, traitors to travel through the world which is as a forest and wilderness when it is not well tended; of the which evil men should be weeded out by knights, keepers of the law, that good men might live in shelter; and he that is a knight, and does not this, but does even the contrary, should be taken by the prince, or by other worthy, faithful, and honourable knights, and put till dead.

“For when a knight is a reaver, or a thief, or a traitor or a murderer, or a lollard, schismatic or heretic, or in such crimes openly known and proved, then he is unworthy to live, but to be punished in example of others that defoul that most noble and worthy order and abuse it against the points and the properties of that order.”

Hat tip to Gilbert of Hay by way of False Machine for the translation.

This all predates the Lockean notion of the social contract, but strikes me as largely compatible with it. Society-in-general delegates a portion of its collective power to a few individuals who in turn promise to shoulder a greater portion of society’s responsibilities. That nice strong man in blue is supposed to protect those who cannot protect themselves. If he takes to beating and robbing the people, taking their goods and destroying their property, it is of paramount importance that the other men in blue stop him, that they publicly stop him, punish him, and show that the public’s trust is well-placed. Otherwise the social contract is in breach and the public must seek remedy.

Pondering Measure Q

If there’s one item on my November ballot that has rustled my jimmies, it has to be Santa Rosa’s Measure Q. Q proposes to take the seven-member city council, traditionally elected as at-large representatives of the entire city, and divvy them up into separate districts to represent the various neighborhoods and constituencies of various parts of town. They will continue to select a mayor from among themselves, and will continue to server four-year terms.

There are two leading arguments that I have seen put forward by the “no” camp here, both in the form of newspaper articles and push-polls I’ve received at home. Quoted from yesterday’s Press Democrat:

First of all, Measure Q takes away 85 percent of your current votes for members of the City Council. This stifles your political voice, not enhances it as proponents claim.

Second, you now have the ability to vote for all seven council members. If you vote for Measure Q (district elections), you will not be able to vote for six other council members. Consequently those six will no longer be accountable to you. This undermines your influence as a citizen, not enlarges it as the proponents claim.

The stickler in me that perks up whenever numbers come into play immediately sees this as a steaming pile of bullshit. If you reduce my ability to vote for city council members from 7 members to one member, that leaves me with a little over 14% of my number of voted-for council members. So your two arguments for me are that I only get 1/7th of the power and furthermore, in addition to that, I get my voting power reduced by 85%? That’s just repeating one argument twice. This may be nit-picking, but I don’t appreciate being spoken to with those kind of patronizing smokescreen tactics when I’m entrusted with legislative responsibility over my community at the polls.

The more substantial problem with this line of reasoning is that while a resident of Santa Rosa has normally been able to vote for candidates for all seven Council positions, the 2010 census shows my vote is competing with some 167,814 other opinions. So overall I have 7/167815ths of a say in who our representatives are. Split that up into districts as proposed by Measure Q and my voting power becomes, ostensibly, 1/23973rd. No change in the prima facia potency of my ballot. Instead of 7 extremely-watered-down votes, I get one somewhat-less-watered-down vote.

To get a little more practical, in 2008 there were eleven candidates running for four open positions. In 2010 there were seven candidates running for three open positions, some of whom also ran in 2008. In 2012 there are seven candidates contending for four open positions. It’s pretty clear that we don’t have a rough time scrounging up two or more candidates for every open position under the existing system. I consider that a good thing, your mileage may vary.

Trying to stay practical, different segments of the population vote at different rates. Elderly, educated white people are more likely to vote than younger minorities with less education. There are a thousand demographic divisions one could look at, but generally speaking the portions of the population most likely to vote, and thus more likely to see their interests reflected in the City Council Elections tend to be clustered in a section of town that can be broadly describes as the north-east quarter. Most of our Council members in recent decades hail from that area. People who live in the North-west are more likely to vote than their counterparts in the less affluent South-west, and would see their voting power decreased somewhat. Meanwhile everybody else that is already in the habit of casting a ballot will see their per-capita voting power increase.

Regarding the ancillary argument that district representation would lead to intra-Council division and strife, delaying projects that are in the whole city’s interest, it seems to me this has always been the case and likely always will be. Many cities use district representatives successfully, and there is little indication that at-large representation is of any benefit at all.

As somebody who doesn’t live in a bastion of high election participation, Measure Q appears to be in my self interest.

Full text of Measure Q (PDF)

Bickering about tax fairness is dumb

Listening to the radio earlier today, somebody was ridiculing Mitt Romney for claiming in a Univision interview that he had given back nearly 50% back to the community, and that his last two years of taxes indicated this. There were a few points made by the radio host that break down as follows:

  • He didn’t really release two years of his taxes because he hasn’t filed for 2011 yet and only released an estimate for that tax year.
  • His net personal tax rate for 2010 was 13.9%.
  • His charitable contributions were “over 15%.”
  • At one point in the interview he said he gave back about 40% back to the community, based on 13.9% plus 15%. That’s only 29.9% total.
  • His claim that the corporate tax rate of 35% is the reason capital gains taxes are lower than income taxes is spurious.
  • Counting the corporate tax rate of 35% he figures he gave back about 50% of his profits on average for the past two years.

Well, each of those points has some degree of merit and certain degree of bullshit. Clearly the point about giving back about 40% was him confusing some numbers. Romney would have to have been taking something else into account to get to that number. As for the 50% business, let’s take a look at two fairly naive theoretical situations:

In one case, Romney is a sole proprietor of a business, in the other Romney is a shareholder in a corporation. In one case all his profits are income, in the other case his profits are capital gains. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend that the corporation really pays 35% in taxes:

Romney-as-income Romney-as-corporation
Total Profit $100,000 $100,000
Tithe $(10,000) $(10,000)
Personal Income Tax $(18,824)
Social Security $(12,400)
Corporate Income Tax $(35,000)
Capital Gains Tax $(8,250)
Total Tax Paid $(31,224) $(43,250)
Cash Remaining $58,776 $46,750

That’s a naive breakdown, as it doesn’t take into account several thousand pages of tax code, personal exemptions and deductions aside from a 10% tithe to the Church of Latter Day Saints. Personal income tax is at a lower rate than corporate income tax. Social security tax (which you have to double-up on if self-employed because normally your employer has to match what you see on your pay stub) is lower than the capital gains tax, but capital gains is taxed on dividends and such, which are after taxes so it’s 15% of the 65% post-tax corporate income.

At the $100,000 scale, corporate taxes don’t look quite so drastically unfair, do they? The same dollar value of goods or services were sold, and the liability-limiting corporate setup ostensibly pays more in taxes. And yeah, it works out to about 50%. That’s what I think of as the theoretical tax rate that Romney’s accountant starts with, and that guy’s job is to game it down in his client’s favor.

Ramp that scale up to, say, $20,000,000 instead and it’s a bit different. At the personal level Social Security tops off a little over the $100,000 mark, whereas the capital gains and corporate tax rates have no cap. Several thousand pages of tax codes and subsidies and other shenanigans render hypothetical situations like this moot anyway.

“How much did you give back?” is a loaded question that can take into account a lot of things. Does the questioner mean just Federal Income Tax? All federal taxes? Does that count park fees? Taxes on airfare? On your phone bill? Does it count state taxes? If so, is it just state income tax, or do property and parcel taxes count? Or minimum usage fees from municipal utilities? There are dozens of variations built into that seemingly-simple question. Playing “gotcha” about the specific number Romney cites about how much of his money he kicks back to society-at-large (as opposed to simply spending on himself, his friends, and his family) serves little purpose in illuminating the public about important political decisions in the next few months.