April 2010: Immigration kabuki theater, waiting for the VAT, and other observations

A tip of the cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

ARIZONA’S NEW IMMIGRATION LAW HAS ENCOURAGED A STRANGE FORM OF POLITICAL KABUKI THEATER IN THE U.S.—a stylized, and predictable, dramatic performance by those hoping to claim the moral high ground on the hot-button issue. Liberals have denounced the state’s new statute (SB 1070), which allows the police to check the immigration status of those stopped by law enforcement, as a Draconian assault on civil rights and an invitation to racial profiling. Conservatives have hailed the measure as a start toward upholding federal immigration law.

In fact, the law is unlikely to impact the illegal flow across the Arizona border: its effect is more symbolic than practical. The law is already facing legal challenges, and it’s clear that when local police start enforcing the law, there will be more lawsuits.

The law is surprisingly popular: a Pew Research Center for the People & the Press’s national survey found 59% of those polled approved of the Arizona statute and 32% disapproved. An even higher number, 73%, told Pew that they “approve of requiring people to produce documents verifying their legal status if police ask for them.”

Arizona’s elected officials have succeeded in jump-starting the debate over how the U.S. should deal with immigration. Popular opinion has coalesced behind a more restrictive approach; Gallup’s monthly poll of public perceptions of the nation’s most important problem found that “Americans grew more likely to name immigration (including illegal immigration) as the nation’s most important problem.”

Will this translate into more restrictive federal immigration policy? Don’t bet on it. There’s no consensus on what immigration reform should look like. Democrats recoil at the idea of tighter border controls. Conservative Republicans like to talk tough about immigration but many secretly prefer the status quo because migrant workers represent a source of low-wage labor for business. A compromise (sealing the boarder in exchange for a “path to citizenship” for illegal aliens) has no appeal for Republicans who fear a backlash from the Tea Party right. As a result, expect legislative deadlock on immigration policy in the future.

The Arizona law has been a boon to cartoonists and late-night comics. Daryl Cagle’s political cartoon site has aggregated (“Arizona’s Immigration Inquisition.”) One of Jay Leno’s jokes seems particularly apt: “Arizona has recently passed the toughest immigration law in history. The idea behind it is to drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona and back to their homeland of Los Angeles.”

IS A VAT TAX IN OUR FUTURE? President Obama and his economic advisors have been careful not to rule out a value-added tax, which is, in essence, a national sales tax, now employed by virtually all European nations. Considering the growing federal deficit, and the need to pay for expanded government entitlements, it’s easy to see the appeal of the VAT to Obama’s team.

At least one Reagan Republican, former Treasury Department economist Bruce Bartlett, has made a strong case for the VAT in a series of columns in Forbes (“Support The VAT” and “The Case Against The VAT“).

The VAT can produce large amounts of money very quickly, and politicians like it because it’s a tax hidden from consumers (and voters) and can be quietly hiked to higher levels without drawing too much attention.

But, as Matt Welch of Reason Magazine, notes in “EurObama” the European experience with the VAT suggests that it acts as a drag on job creation. Welch adds:

The grand irony here is that the very continent we’re scrambling to emulate has been moving aggressively in the opposite direction on taxes and economic policy.

While the US keeps corporate taxes frozen near 40%, EU countries have slashed them down to an average of around 25%. Top marginal income tax rates, which in the US are 35%, are under 25% all across the former East Bloc.

What are the odds of the U.S. adopting a VAT? If Democrats keep control of Congress in the 2010 elections, I’d put them at 75/25; if the Republicans win, the odds shift to 10/90.

GONZO JOURNALIST MATT TAIBBI HAMMERS NEW YORK TIMES COLUMNIST TOM FRIEDMAN in a review entitled “Flat N All That,” that is a funny, profane, and devastating takedown. In panning Friedman’s latest book, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Taibbi skewers Friedman for clunky prose, mixed metaphors, a “do as I say, not as I do” lifestyle, and assorted other failings. Give Taibbi credit: not too many other writers would invent charts of “AMERICAN PORK BELLY PRICES vs. WHAT MIDGETS THINK ABOUT AUSTRALIA 1972-2002” and “SIZE OF VALERIE BERTINELLI’S ASS, 1985-2008, vs. HAPPINESS” as a way to ridicule Friedman’s penchant for offering readers what he considers to meaningful graphs.

IF YOU THOUGHT LAS VEGAS COULDN’T GET ANY MORE VULGAR OR GROTESQUE, you were wrong. The Guardian reports that two “mafia museums” are set to open in Sin City. One is backed by the city (the Las Vegas Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement) and the other (the Las Vegas Mob Experience) by Antoinette McConnell, the 74-year-old daughter of Sam “Momo” Giancana, a notorious mobster. The saddest thing about this development is that these bizarre museums will no doubt be crowded with gawking tourists.

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM THE GREEK PHILOSOPHER ARISTOTLE: “Humor is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humor; for a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious, and a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.”

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders
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