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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Palin is popular — not because she's a "populist," but because she works for the whole population "with a servant's heart"

Christopher Orr has a very interesting post at The New Republic about Gov. Palin entitled The Case Against the Case Against Sarah Palin. No, it's not savaging the MSM or Hard Left sources who've been vomiting out smears so fast it's hard to keep track of them — I, for one, have been playing Whack-a-mole since the announcement on Friday, and they finally seem to be slowing down some. Rather, Orr quotes at length from an unnamed Alaskan friend, who describes the fates suffered by those Alaskans who made the mistake of failing to take Gov. Palin seriously at various steps during her political career.

The collective term to describe them now is "Roadkill," and what they all have in common, be they Republicans or Democrats, is the look of sharp surprise on their (political) corpses' faces (which replaced looks of smug confidence). In a sentence, his theme is: "Trivialize her at your own peril."

His last two paragraphs particularly interest me:

Sarah Palin is a living reminder that the ultimate source of political power in this country is not the Kennedy School or the Davos Summit or an Ariana Huffington salon; even now, power emanates from the electorate itself. More precisely, power in 2008 emanates from the working class electorates of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Sooner or later, the Obama camp will realize that the beauty pageant queen is an enormously talented populist in a year that is ripe for populism. For their own sake, it had better be sooner.

I think the first of the paragraphs I've just quoted is dead-bang on the money, and I emphatically agree that Sarah Palin's political career so far is a compelling, eloquent proof of that. It is exactly that which thrills me about her nomination, and exactly that which makes her a game-changer in this race.

What I disagree with, though, is Orr's friend's choice of the term "populist" in his final paragraph. Sarah Palin's not a "populist," but a public servant in the most classic sense of that term, and it is precisely that which has made her "popular."

John "Two Americas" Edwards is a classic populist. William Jennings "Cross of Gold" Bryan was a populist. In external appearances, Barack Obama is a populist, but only at times.

Populists are class-warriors who advance by setting up class conflicts — "us against them." When Barack Obama proposes to penalize one class — shareholders of energy companies — through a windfall profits tax, he sells that pitch on grounds that the energy companies are somehow worthy of punishment, that they're greedy (moreso than "plain old capitalists"), and that the product of their efforts, the cash from the fossil fuels they've brought to market and sold, should be forcibly stripped from them and redistributed to some favored class.

Ultimately, populism is an appeal to the greed of the class the populist politician wants to favor. And ultimately, it is a destructive, hateful sort of politics. (Populists are usually also insincere hypocrites, as with John Edwards' $600 haircuts and 27k-square-foot house on its 102-acre estate.)

Obama's 2004 Democratic nomination speech was explicitly anti-populist in its "One America (not Red America or Blue America)" theme. He recognizes that populism actually provides inferior rhetoric, since it's ultimately grounded in hate and envy and class war. But Obama's actual policies, as opposed to his occasional rhetoric, are all about forced income redistribution. Obama in his substance is even more of a populist than Edwards, or Al Gore. And when Obama says he'll "fight for you," he means he's going to "take something away from someone else" to give it to you.

Gov. Palin is not a populist — rather, she's incredibly popular, and that's what Orr's friend was probably trying to say. Indeed, she's popular in large part because she's not mainly a populist. In this, she reminds me a great deal more of Ronald Reagan than of even John McCain (who occasionally needs some correction on this very subject, as when he he's talked about "excessive profits"; other times, as when he says "he wants to make everyone rich" instead of taking more from the rich, he's back on the right track.)

In her dealings with the energy companies who already have huge investments in Alaska (ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and British Petroleum), both with respect to the revision of Alaska's severance tax and the building of the new cross-state natural gas pipeline, she has been an extremely tough and able negotiator. She's insisted that the discussions be thoroughly disinfected by the sunlight of publicity, with no back-room compromises. She's very big on setting corporate actors into competition with one another, which challenges them to perform at their highest levels and benefits the public as a result.

In this, she has been acting aggressively on behalf of all of the citizens of her state. She hasn't demonized the oil companies. Nor, contrary to some folks' claims, has she tried to confiscate the profits that are flowing to their shareholders in these times of record prices through a windfall profits tax. Indeed, she's keenly aware of their importance in providing jobs and a property tax base for the state, and one of the regular paychecks that has kept her household going over the years (before she became governor and he shifted jobs) has come from First Dude Todd's employment by BP. And like most Alaskans, she's strongly in favor of aggressive (but environmentally responsible) development of Alaska's natural resources.

But in her dealings with the energy companies, she has insisted, through a mildly progressive and nonconfiscatory severance tax, that her citizens share in their record profits, since the fossil fuels being extracted will be forever lost to the Alaska tax base and represent a great deal of the state's wealth. And she's insisted that whoever builds the cross-state pipeline bring not just management but capital to the deal, and that it be an open bidding process. This put the noses of the big three companies already invested there out of joint, and a Canadian company ended up winning the bid. Those companies are now looking at a competitive alternative on their own, and maybe that will end up being what's built instead, but if so, it will be on a vastly different basis than the old "business as usual" was done in Alaska.

Most significantly, she's not using the budget surplus created by the proceeds to benefit particular classes and subclasses of citizens, but rather is rebating a large portion of that surplus directly to Alaska's citizens on a per capita basis. (Rebating it through other means isn't practical: Alaska has no state income or sales taxes to give tax credits against, and of course a rebate against property taxes would favor the rich.) That's popular, and it's literally based on population, but it's not "populist" in the John Edwards or Barack Obama senses; they doubtless would have used that money to fund more government programs targeted to particular subclasses.

When Sen. McCain introduced her on Friday, Gov. Palin used an odd turn of phrase is incredibly revealing. She did not paint herself as a warrior, which is the classic populist line, "I will fight for you [against the evil classes]." Look, instead, at how she characterized herself:

Now, no one expects us to agree on everything, whether in Juneau or in Washington. But we are expected to govern with integrity, and goodwill, and clear convictions, and a servant's heart.

Public service, instead of divide and conquer. Wow, what a concept!

Posted by Beldar at 04:42 PM in 2008 Election, McCain, Obama, Palin, Politics (2008) | Permalink


Other weblog posts, if any, whose authors have linked to Palin is popular — not because she's a "populist," but because she works for the whole population "with a servant's heart" and sent a trackback ping are listed here:


(1) arb made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 5:20:28 PM | Permalink

I would say that Sarah Palin is indeed a (lower case p) populist, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary:

1. A supporter of the rights and power of the people.

Or by the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1892, Amer.Eng., from L. populus "people." Originally in reference to the Populist Party, organized Feb. 1892 to promote certain issues important to farmers and workers. The term outlasted the party, and by 1920s came to mean "representing the views of the masses" in a general way.

(2) Jim Rhoads aka Vnjagvet made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 5:21:41 PM | Permalink

I have been waiting for my entire adult lifetime for someone to genuinely run on a "cut the BS in DC" and "help the small and independent businesses and other producers" by easing their tax and regulatory burdens" ticket.

Fred's point about "taxing from one side of the bucket" and hoping it has no effect on the other side was right on point.

On the McCain ticket, we have two people who have close relationships to entrepreneurs, and understand what it takes to encourage success.

On the Obama ticket, we have two gentlemen who have no contact whatsoever with entrepreneurs, and have proposed nothing in their policies to reflect concerns of the producers in society.

I am a professional "retiree" who has no pension. My retirement plan is to continue to perform the work I have loved since my mid-twenties, but at a reduced pace and for people I want to help.

This plan works so long as the government doesn't take more money from me than they have in the past eight years.

I must say that I am more encouraged by this Republican ticket than any other in memory, including RR.

(3) arb made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 5:25:45 PM | Permalink

In other words, she's popular *because* she's a populist. And that's a very good thing.

(4) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 5:34:09 PM | Permalink

arb, thanks for the comment. "Populism" goes back at least to Julius Caesar, but it always has involved setting "the masses" against someone else, some "other" class. That's what I think the term commonly means now in modern political discourse, and I don't think it describes Sen. Palin if it's given that meaning, notwithstanding what your older dictionary says.

I think dictionary.com, which is based on the most current Random House unabridged, is closer to the mark:

1. the political philosophy of the People's party.

2. (lowercase) any of various, often antiestablishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies.

3. (lowercase) grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism.

4. (lowercase) representation or extolling of the common person, the working class, the underdog, etc.: populism in the arts.

Ultimately I don't think we're disagreeing with one another on the merits, just quibbling about the vocabulary. And indeed, I was just quibbling with Orr's friend. But I do think the contrast with the Edwards/Obama view is important.

(5) Milhouse made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 5:54:10 PM | Permalink

Most significantly, she's not using the budget surplus created by the proceeds to benefit particular classes and subclasses of citizens, but rather is rebating a large portion of that surplus directly to Alaska's citizens on a per capita basis. (Rebating it through other means isn't practical: Alaska has no state income or sales taxes to give tax credits against, and of course a rebate against property taxes would favor the rich.)

I've got to take issue with this. If the only justification for taxation is that the state has essential expenses that have to be funded from somewhere, then it must tax as little as possible. To whatever extent it has another source of money to fund its necessary expenditures, it has no right to impose any tax at all.

To argue otherwise is to say that the state really owns everybody's property, and they only rent it from the state, and therefore it's right and just that they pay rent, even if the state doesn't need the money. Essentially it's those property taxes that are being mailed out to every Alaskan citizen; how is that different in principle from a wealth-redistribution program that would make Obama drool?

(6) alvah halle made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 6:57:27 PM | Permalink

First off, welcome back.
Lastly and formostly, Sarah Pallin is and has changed the dynamics overnnight and it will not stop here.
The idiot 'media', already breast deep in their own synthetic and deathy brewed stew will, in my opinion, be put to death tonight.....politely.
She brings a fierce wind (and three generations overdue) of change onshore.
Welcome back.
Here is to calmer waters sooner than later.
ac halle

(7) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 7:21:37 PM | Permalink

Milhouse: I see where you're coming from, and agree with you in principle. But I think the state already IS taxing its general citizenry close to as little as possible. It's "tax freedom day" already arrives earlier than that of any other state.

The current surplus is very much related to current oil prices. It can't be counted on to continue indefinitely.

I don't know all the details, but Alaska already has had for many years some sort of "permanent fund" to which regular contributions are made to provide against the day when severance taxes and royalties no longer can fund the state's government.

As for the severance tax: The whole notion behind this type of tax is that it ought to reflect asset values, but the oil companies' original capital investments were made when oil was at $7-$10/bbl, and were expected to be profitable then. Obviously they're wildly more profitable now. I say, and I think Gov. Palin says, Good for them! That should incentivize the energy companies to invest more, take more risks, and continue to develop. They also can afford to pay higher salaries, hire more people and train them better, etc.

That there is the additional excise tax on the portion above $30/bbl, when it's less than half of one percent, strikes me as a pretty modest amount of tax progressivity, and as I pointed out in my original post on that tax, the rates actually drop below the level of the previous excise tax on the portion above $92.50, so she was passing a tax cut. (There are also provisions in the new law which were designed to close loopholes on expenses that oil companies could use to lower the calculated per-barrel market prices on which the tax was being assessed, and others designed to encourage new capital investment.)

Plus, keep in mind that there are traditional tax and spend Democrats in Alaska, who would very much like to impose an Obama-type confiscatory windfall profits tax.

The rebate actually recognizes your exact point -- i.e., that the state has just permitted the extraction and sale of property that belonged to everyone in common. The rebate is the state saying: Here's your share, spend or invest it as you wish.

Finally, like almost all other legislation, the tax that was passed was the product of compromise, and she had to give something up to get Democrats on board (to offset the allies of the GOP good old boys she ran off, all of whom would rather see her fail).

Politics is the art of the practical, and the perfect ought not be permitted to get in the way of the very, very good. I'm not claiming -- no one would claim -- that Sarah Palin's been a perfect governor. But oh! She's been very, very good.

(8) SMSgt Mac made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 9:39:08 PM | Permalink

Beldar, I'm kicking myself for not posting this two days ago. I'm not kicking too hard because you did a better job than what I was planning. Thanks!

(9) Gregory Koster made the following comment | Sep 3, 2008 10:04:54 PM | Permalink

Dear Mr. Dyer: Good heavens. A couple more of these posts of yours, and orchids will be growing on the North Slope. Bring on the cold water, I say:

1. I'm close to Milhouse on the taxation issue. I take issue with you on the severance tax being nonconfiscatory. Any tax is confiscatory; try not paying any tax, no matter how low the rate, and see what happens. You have a point about confiscation, summed up by the old political truism that I just made up now, viz: a confiscatory is the only Tory of which liberals approve. But try to define the point where a "reasonable" tax becomes confiscatory. I'll step back as I hate trying to stuff cougars into barrels...

Milhouse's point fails on the larger issue, which is this: Alaska does not really have a severance tax. We define it that way in law, but a severence tax is really a royalty. The problem with royalties in extraction industries is this: they go away. Deposits are exhausted, wells dry up. Taxes are forever; royalties aren't.

From your own experience as a Texan, you know that oil has been a mixed blessing for Texas state government. Not only is the exhaustion problem there, but extraction industries are notoriously boom-and-bust. Again, your Texas experience is instructive. Extraction industries are notorious for corrupting governments as well, as a casual look at OPEC countries will tell you.

2. A true test for Governor Palin is to be questioned, so:

"Governor Palin, sooner or later, Alaska's oil will be gone, and with it 65% [a wild guess---GK] of state revenues. What do you have lined up to replace it? What sort of industries are you trying to attract that can pay taxes, and employ Alaskans who have yet to experience the joy of paying State sales/income taxes?"

Here's where I part company with Milhouse. Alaska is on a sinking ship. It may take years to sink, but sink it will. The aftermath is gruesome. I live in Washington state, and the southwest corner of the state, Pacific and Grays Harbor counties relied for years on timber harvesting and the salmon industries. Today the wood and the fish are gone, and these counties are on life support, easily the poorest parts of the state. It can happen. No one outside the liars in the press would expect Palin to have rectified this long-term dilemma in her 20 months. But hearing her thoughts on this subject would be instructive, a chance for her to shine. Or not as may happen.

3. I also think you are excessively harsh on the idea of being populist. You're paying to much attention to its degraded forms, preched by such frauds as Edwards. The original 1880s Populists had a substantial, real grievance, that wasn't well addressed by either political party. So they started their own, only to be swallowed by Bryan, who started out honest, but went downhill fast, as Mencken pointed out. Today populism is in bad odor, if only because unilke 1880, there's plenty of government wizards on the scene, ready to save us all---whether we want it or not.

Sincerely yours,
Gregory Koster

(10) Milhouse made the following comment | Sep 4, 2008 12:28:20 AM | Permalink

Beldar, Greg, I'm not talking about the severance tax, which is just a royalty that's been given another name so it can be deducted from federal taxes. I'm talking about the other taxes that Alaska collects. If it got this surplus from the oil companies' severance tax, instead of posting cheques to every Alaskan it should have gone to lowering next year's taxes, or else to giving each taxpayer a refund in proportion to the taxes they paid. "Thank you for paying your tax; it turns out we didn't need all of it, so here's the change." Beldar says that would disproportionately benefit the rich; I say and so it should, because they're the ones who paid the tax in the first place.

(11) Beldar made the following comment | Sep 4, 2008 1:33:50 AM | Permalink

Milhouse: I don't think individuals have paid much by way of taxes in Alaska for many years, at least not since the Alaska pipeline construction was finished. If you try to start rebating for previous years, you run into the problem of what to do with people who've moved, who've died, etc.

If Obama were doing income redistribution, you know he would write it so that the people with incomes over a certain amount get nothing back.

It's also not a good idea, for business planning and overall tax policy, to turn other taxes on and off like a light switch year to year.

The notion of the rebate is that everyone currently living in Alaska has an equal share in the value of the resources being produced. If it can be repeated next year, maybe it will.

People who've paid property taxes have generally paid those to their local governments, for local schools and services. Because their properties are benefiting from those services, imposing a tax on them that's proportional to the value of their property isn't thought to be terribly controversial.

I can't fathom what you've got against putting money in everyone's pocket, to spend or invest, in equal measures. I just don't follow your argument this time, my friend. But I'm still listening, if you have the patience to educate me.

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