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The President, shock and awe, and Tertullian

Yesterday, I wrote about the current President's "2 percent solution," that is, his punitive tax raid on the top 2 percent of US tax filers.

The crucial thing to understand about that attack on achievement is that it is a histrionic, not an economic, gesture. Raising taxes on (while simultaneously cutting deductions for) top earners will not do much to improve the Treasury's balance sheet. But it will cause pain among the affluent. It will also cause delight among the more than 43 percent of tax filers who pay no income tax. (Is that fair?) So the President scores two points: he punishes those whom he resents, and he panders to the crowd whose approbation he craves. Tertullian said that one of the pleasures of the blessed in heaven is witnessing the torments of the damned in hell. Tertullian's teaching has been rejected as heresy by the Church, but that doesn't mean he didn't recognize a familiar psychological depravity when he saw it. Taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others is an unfortunate but not infrequent pastime of homo sapiens sapiens.

Many people, I believe, have been stunned by the President's behavior in his first weeks in office. It's been a shock and awe performance. Historians of this period will look back in wonder: how ever did a new President waltz into office and, before he had even finished unpacking, extract $800,000,000,000 from taxpayers for partisan spending programs? Partly, it was a matter of successful rebranding: the President managed to convince some important people that his spending package was really a stimulus package, i.e., something that would help the economy, not hobble it. We know better now, having just suffered the largest post-inauguration market rout in history. But those historians will note with interest how, even at the beginning of March, some reputable commentators still referred to the President's poverty program as "stimulus package."