22 September, 2008

The Candidates and Civil Liberties - The Final Grades

This is the thirty-fourth and final post in my series regarding the major Presidential candidates and their views on civil liberties. This is the most comprehensive investigation into these issues available on the web. This is not hubris or arrogance talking. I have literally combed through hundreds of speeches, thousands of newspaper articles, and thousands of internet resources to get this information. If there was anything better, or even anywhere nearly as good, I would've found it.

As I said in my original post in this series:

I read in a couple places that Libertarians support Barack Obama (D-IL) over John McCain (R-AZ) for President by a pretty hefty margin (53% to 38%). And while I question the validity of this poll for several reasons, at least one well-known Libertarian mulls an Obama endorsement.

Of course, Glenn Reynolds was kidding about the endorsement, and I was pretty sure he was, but it still piqued my curiosity. I wanted to find out which candidate really is "better" from a Libertarian perspective.

In the process I've learned much that I didn't know about both Obama and McCain. Some of what I learned about each was good, and some was bad. I've also learned how little I remember from my high school civics classes, and definitely have received a crash course in the U.S. Constitution and it's Amendments. Finally, I've learned that I'm not nearly as close to being a libertarian as I thought. There were many things I came up with that I tried to grade from a libertarian perspective, but that perspective was totally the opposite of my own.

It's taken me over two months to comb through all this information and write up my findings. I could write a book on this subject now. Some might say that I have already. :)

It's worth pointing out that I'm not a Constitutional lawyer, or a lawyer of any kind. Nor am I an economist. I have tried to look at things from a layman's perspective, and if I have misinterpreted any concept or any candidate's position on that concept, the fault is entirely mine.

So, where do the candidates stand?

Here are the individual results.

Obama McCain
First Amendment F D-
Second Amendment D- C-
Third Amendment B B
Fourth Amendment D+ D+
Fifth Amendment D+ B-
Sixth Amendment B B
Seventh Amendment C C
Eighth Amendment C B
Eleventh Amendment B+ B-
Thirteenth Amendment D+ B+
Fourteenth Amendment D+ C+
Fifteenth Amendment B B
Nineteenth Amendment B B
Twenty-First Amendment A- A-
Twenty-Third Amendment A- B
Twenty-Fourth Amendment B B
Twenty-Sixth Amendment B B
Taxes D B-
Abortion A+ D
National ID F F
Voter ID A+ F
Card Check F A+
Legalization of Drugs D+ F
Gay Rights A- D
Hate Crime Legislation F C
Growth of Government F A-
Property Rights B- A
Sovereign Rights C- B-
Ninth Amendment B- B
Tenth Amendment F D-

Now, before I can assign final grades, I need to discuss weightings. While each and every one of these rights are important, I doubt many people would weight "Card Check" the same as the First Amendment. So, I needed to come up with a way of "fairly" weight each an every grade.

Here's where we get to the most subjective part of this process. While I've tried to be as objective as possible while assigning grades, certainly the way I weight the individual items might be far different than how you would. I have a solution to that problem, which I'll discuss later.

The first thing I did was break the items up into groups. Here are the groups I ended up with.

Right Group Name
First Amendment Freedom of Speech
Second Amendment Guns
Third-Eighth Amendments "Other" Protected Rights (BoR)
Ninth-Tenth Amendments "Catch All" Protected Rights (BoR)
Eleventh, Twenty-First, Twenty-Third Amendment "Other" Amended Rights
Thirteenth-Fourteenth Amendments Abolition of Slavery
Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, Twenty-Sixth Amendments Voting Rights
Taxes Taxes
Abortion, National ID, Voter ID, Card Check, Legalization of Drugs, Gay Rights, Hate Crime Legislation, Property Rights, Sovereign Rights "Other" Non-Amended Rights
Small Government Small Government

Once I had the groups, then I needed to assign weights to each group. Here's what I came up with.

Group Name Weighting
Freedom of Speech 3
Guns 3
"Other" Protected Rights (BoR) 2
"Catch All" Protected Rights (BoR) 2
"Other" Amended Rights 1
Abolition of Slavery 3
Voting Rights 2
Taxes 1
"Other" Non-Amended Rights 1
Small Government 1

So, the three most important things to me are Freedom of Speech, Guns, and Abolition of Slavery, each with weight 3. Right behind them are Voting Rights, The "Catch All" Protected Bill of Rights (9th-10th amendments) and the "Other" protected rights from the Bill of Rights, which have weight 2. The rest of the items each have a weighting of 1.

You may not agree with these weightings. I don't expect you to, frankly. I didn't "cook the books" though. These are the weightings I came up with before I ever started working on this series.

There's one final piece to the puzzle. I had to assign a numeric value to the letter grades, so I that I could do the necessary averaging. I used percentages and the numbers are below. I assigned a low end and a high end for each grade value, and the midpoint value is a calculated average of the low and high. For F, I artificially set the midpoint to 50. This was a decision I made which I admit is entirely subjective. What should an F be? 0? 59? 29.5 (midpoint of 0-59)? You can make arguments for any of these values. I chose 50 because I wanted to separate it quite clearly from D-, but not give too much of a penalty for one. This value is completely arbitrary and I admit it.

Grade Low End High End Midpoint Value
A+ 98 100 99
A 93 97 95
A- 90 92 91
B+ 87 89 88
B 83 86 84.5
B- 80 82 81
C+ 77 79 78
C 73 76 74.5
C- 70 72 71
D+ 67 69 68
D 63 66 64.5
D- 60 62 61
F 50 50 50

Note that setting the low and high end for F to 50 does not mean that 50 is the only legal value for F. Anything sub-60 is an F.

Enough on process. I'm sure you're all on pins-and-needles wondering what the final grades came out to be.

Well, here they are (scores in parentheses).

Obama: D+ (67)

McCain: C (76)

Advantage: McCain. (Note that I commented previously that McCain's First Amendment grade now appears to me to be too low. Raising it to a D+ raises his score by one point to a 77, which is a C+ rather than a C.)

As I mentioned earlier, there's a high degree of subjectivity in how the final grades are calculated. And, while I believe that I was fairly objective in the individual scores, you may disagree with one or more of those as well. I wanted to make it possible for you to adjust individual scores to your beliefs and the weightings as well to give your own final grades.

To that end, I have created a spreadsheet that has all my calculations and uploaded it here. You can download it and adjust the grades and weightings to your pleasure. Enjoy. I created the spreadsheet in Excel 2007, but saved it in the 97-2003 format. I have tested it in OpenCalc 2.4 as well. Cells that are highlighted are calculated values. Don't change those.

I have one final note. I've been asked several times about third party candidates. Let me be blunt. It took an enormous amount of my time to track down all this information on the two major candidates. I don't have the time to do every single candidate out there. In addition, the amount of information available for the third party candidates is orders of magnitude less. So, in my opinion, such an exercise for a candidate or candidates that have no chance of winning would be a complete waste of my time. If someone else wants to do the research work, I'll be happy to add their findings, but I'm not about to put any more work into this than I already have.

21 September, 2008

The Candidates and Taxes

This is the nineteenth post in an ongoing series regarding the major Presidential candidates and their views on civil liberties.

This post is about Senator John McCain's (R-AZ) and Senator Barack Obama's (D-IL) plans regarding taxation.

What?  You don't think taxes have anything to do with civil liberty?  Think again.

If you live in a nation with a 0% income tax rate, you're absolutely free. You work for yourself and your family, and while your efforts may support another, you are not owned by them and your job is not owned by them. On the other hand, if you live in a nation with a 100% income tax rate, you are a slave to the government. You work for it and not for yourself.

Where your nation falls on that line determines your freedom. The closer to 0%, the more free you are, and the closer to 100%, the more like a slave you are.

So, where do the candidates stand on this issue?

As always, we'll start with Obama.

Obama wants to end the Bush tax cuts.

It is true that I would roll back the Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans back to the level they were under Bill Clinton, when I don't remember rich people feeling oppressed.

Obama plans to raise the capital gains tax.

Sen. Barack Obama’s, D-Ill., top economic advisors announced on Thursday that he is seeking to raise the capital gains tax rate from 15 percent to 20 percent for those Americans making more than $250,000 per year.

Obama plans to bring back the "marriage penalty".

That's why his plan would not raise any taxes on couples making less than $250,000 a year, nor on any single person with income under $200,000

And that's not entirely true as the following chart shows:

Notice that the effective marginal rates go up even at income levels of $30,000 per year.

What accounts for the higher rates? First, Obama expands the maximum child and dependent care credit for families with one young child from $1,050 to $1,500 and phases down the credit over a longer income range, from $30,000 to $58,000. Throughout this income range, the credit is phasing out at a rate of $30 per $1,000 of income, thus raising the effective tax rate by 3 percentage points. Obama also makes certain credits refundable, which introduces a tax penalty of 10 percent or 15 percent, depending on the income bracket.

Obama wants to subject higher incomes to the payroll tax for Social Security:

Senator Obama got specific today. He’d now subject earnings above $250,000 to payroll tax.

The effect of this would be raise the marginal rate for the highest bracket to 60%.

The top 35% marginal income tax rate rises to 39.6%; adding the state income tax, the Medicare tax, the effect of the deduction phase-out and Mr. Obama's new Social Security tax (of up to 12.4%) increases the total combined marginal tax rate on additional labor earnings (or small business income) from 44.6% to a whopping 62.8%. People respond to what they get to keep after tax, which the Obama plan reduces from 55.4 cents on the dollar to 37.2 cents -- a reduction of one-third in the after-tax wage!

Obama wants to raise corporate taxes (remember--corporations don't pay taxes, you do!):

Obama proposes funding the tax cuts by closing corporate loopholes, cracking down on international tax havens and increasing the dividend-and-capital-gains tax for the wealthy, he said.

I've discussed Obama's plans for "windfall profits" taxes previously.

Obama wants to mostly repeal the estate tax, although this is at odds with what he's said his entire career:

Sen. Obama proposes a $3.5 million exclusion in 2009 and thereafter, with a top rate at 45%. His plan will "fully repeal the estate tax for 99.7% of households," says Jason Furman, Sen. Obama's economic policy director. "He would add certainty and stability to the tax code by making the 2009 estate tax parameters permanent, exempting estates of up to $7 million for a married couple," Mr. Furman says. The Obama plan "retains the estate tax for the top 0.3% of estates in order to restore fairness to the tax system, helping to pay for a tax cut for 95% of workers and their families."

Obama's plan will lower taxes for some groups, but on the whole it's a gigantic tax increase.

McCain spokesman Brian Rogers pointed to an analysis by the non-partisan Annenberg Political Fact Check that found that the gross tax increase would amount to $103.3 billion in 2011, the largest single-year tax increase since World War II. The Annenberg study pointed out, however, that "most economists" prefer to measure tax changes as a percentage of gross national product, in which case it would be the fifth largest increase since 1943.

Yippee.  Only the fifth largest since 1943, and the study doesn't consider non-renewal of the Bush tax cuts as a tax increase.  That might be true if Obama was running for President of Fantasyland, but he's not.  He's running for President of the United States, and here, getting rid of a tax cut is a tax increase.

So, how does McCain look?

McCain wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, even though he originally voted against them.

McCain has simply seen the light and now understands the power that business tax relief has to spur economic growth and innovation. Said J.D. Foster, a former Bush White House and Treasury tax policy expert, now at the Heritage Foundation: "It's logical that he wouldn't be repeating the arguments he made then. We all learn from experience."

Or maybe it's political necessity.  But, I digress.

McCain wants to keep the capital gains tax at its current 15% level.

McCain has pledged to keep the capital gains rate at 15 percent,

McCain has always opposed the "marriage penalty".

Wishes to eliminate marriage penalty and supports marriage tax credits.

McCain has said that he won't raise payroll taxes, but he's also said nothing's off the table.

“He (Obama) wants to raise Social Security taxes,” McCain said, again looking down at his notes. “I want to fix the system without raising taxes.”

...when asked specifically if payroll tax increases were on the table — that “there is nothing that’s off the table. I have my positions, and I’ll articulate them. But nothing’s off the table.”

Take from that what you will.

McCain wants to lower corporate taxes.

Republican White House candidate John McCain will promise on Tuesday to lower corporate tax rates if he wins the U.S. presidency and ease the tax burden on middle-class workers to help revive the faltering economy.

McCain is against "windfall profits taxes" on Big Oil, although he may have been in favor of it previously.

Republican Sen. John McCain criticized Sen. Barack Obama's call for a windfall profits tax on the oil industry on Tuesday, despite leaving the door open to the same idea last month.

McCain's plan generally lowers taxes across the board:

Under John McCain's plan, the rich would pay much less than they do now, the poor and middle-class would pay a bit less

Before I deliver the grades, I feel it necessary to comment on a couple things. First of all, I deliberately did not address the economy or the deficit. I wasn't trying to determine which tax plan was better for America, but merely determine which candidate was generally in favor of lowering taxes and which generally in favor of increasing them.  As for the deficit and the economy, I've seen criticisms of both plans, so maybe that means they're both bad.

Another problem with this post, is that unlike my more recent posts, there was a huge amount of information available, and not always consistent.  Both candidates have changed their views on this subject during the campaign season, so I've tried to get the most recent articles.  Obama released a new tax plan this week, that doesn't raise taxes nearly as much as his previous plan did.  If I'd done this post last week, my Obama section would've been even more critical, I think.

Despite the changes in opinions of both candidates on specifics, their general viewpoints have not changed.  Obama is in favor of higher taxes. There's little doubt that Obama's plan will increase the tax burden on most taxpayers in America (note that I said most taxpayers, not most Americans).  McCain, on the other hand is less easy to define, but, in general, has supported lowering taxes, or at least keeping them where they are.


Obama: D. His newest tax plan brings him up from an F, frankly. I'm tempted to make this a D-, but it is true that most of his tax increases hit a small percentage of Americans. I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt because I'm in that small percentage. That graph above makes me very nervous, though, and it should make you nervous too.

McCain: B-. This would be at least a solid B if he were more consistent (or a solid D if he were more consistently bad, I suppose), but his "current" views on the Bush tax cuts, and capital gains taxes push him up.

Taxes: Advantage McCain

Results so far:
  Obama McCain
First Amendment C- D-
Second Amendment D- C-
Third Amendment B B
Fourth Amendment D+ D+
Fifth Amendment D+ B-
Sixth Amendment B B
Seventh Amendment C C
Eighth Amendment C B
Eleventh Amendment B+ B-
Thirteenth Amendment D+ B+
Fourteenth Amendment D+ C+
Fifteenth Amendment B B
Nineteenth Amendment B B
Twenty-First Amendment A- A-
Twenty-Third Amendment A- B
Twenty-Fourth Amendment B B
Twenty-Sixth Amendment B B
Taxes D B-


UPDATE: I've been criticized for not taking into account this report from the "non-partisan" Tax Policy Center. Well, first, either there has never been a good tax plan from a Republican, or this "non-partisan" group is tilted very far to the left. I've watched them for years, and they've never once had anything good to say about a Republican plan that I recall. Second, I think there are several things that the report doesn't take into account. I've stated before that corporate taxes are merely hidden taxes on common citizens and Obama's going to raise corporate taxes. Third, they assume while McCain's plan "could" increase economic growth, that the resulting economic growth would not reduce the deficit. Finally, and following up on that same thought, both plans will increase the deficit pretty significantly unless additional revenue (from economic growth) appears somewhere, and McCain's plan is the only one of the two likely to promote economic growth. Therefore, I think Obama is making promises he can't keep.

History is also against Obama, having voted to increase taxes 94 times. Yes, I know this FactCheck.Org article says that count is incorrect.  I think the FactCheck.Org article is, at best, written by someone who is hopelessly confused.  According to FactCheck, the RNC counts multiple votes on the same bill as having voted multiple times. Wow.  How else would they be counted? Also, FactCheck tells us that the RNC counts voting against tax cuts as a vote for a tax increase.  Shocking. The FactCheck article needs to be fact-checked. As written, it's bunk.