Paul Ryan, Sean Parnell, and the Curse of the Underpants Gnomes
Ever get that feeling that something happening to you right now is also something that has happened to you before?
It’s agonizing, as you attempt and fail to put your finger on the memory, hidden deep within your cranium, behind the thought of an almost forgotten relative or a previous place of residence. You think: “Where have I seen this before? I know I’ve been here.” But it doesn’t come to you.
It’s like the echo of a chorus to an annoyingly ambiguous song, violently stuck in your head – staying just far enough inside the shadows that you can’t mentally Shazam it.
This week, I experienced this twice. I don’t recommend it.
On Thursday, I tuned into the one and only vice presidential debate. While Joe Biden struggled to figure out if he should be smiling or looking somber, Romney’s pick for VP – Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan – was asked about his ticket’s tax policy proposals. The Romney/Ryan campaign has been steadfast in their advocacy of a tax policy that offers an across the board 20% tax cut to all Americans. This includes reducing the corporate tax rate to 25% (a rare point of agreement between both campaigns) and repealing both the estate and alternative minimum wage taxes, while remaining deficit neutral – all while keeping taxes static on the middle class. The reductions in tax revenue will be offset, they say, by closing loopholes.
Step 1: Lower taxes. Step 2… Step 3: Profit. I’ve heard this somewhere before.
The next day, Governor Sean Parnell reinvigorated his calls for a reduction in oil taxes. He has been working tirelessly to repeal his predecessor’s Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share Act – ACES. He feels that, by cutting $2 billion in revenue to the state per year, this might inspire oil companies to increase energy development.
After his plan failed in the legislature last year, he decided to take advantage of the once-in-a-decade opportunity that presented itself to him. This year, because of redistricting as a result of the census, 59 of 60 seats in Juneau are up for grabs. Parnell is therefor lobbying for a shiny new legislature to take up his charge for a big old giveaway to the oil companies. Who knows, maybe they’ll feel all thankful and give us a couple bucks back to buy something nice for ourselves.
Step 1: Lower taxes. Step 2… Step 3: Profit. Seriously, I’ve heard this before. Where have I seen this? It’s, like, right there on the tip of my tongue…
Oh yeah. Got it.
I was seventeen in December of 1998. At the time, I couldn’t tell you who my congressman was, but I could talk your ear off about stuff I watched on television. On the thirtieth episode of Comedy Central’s South Park, the gang – Cartman, Kyle, Stan, and the resilient Kenny – was assigned a homework assignment by Mr. Garrison on a current event happening in the world. Added to the staple group was a new character by the name of Tweak.
Tweak was the son of small business owners. His parents ran a local coffee shop. He obviously over-sampled their product; he was jittery, prone to nervous ticks, and had this theory about magical gnomes who stole his underpants.
Tweak convinced the group to spend the night at his house to observe the gnomes and report their activities as their group homework assignment.
When the kids finally confronted the gnomes, Kyle challenged them as to why they were stealing the city of South Park’s underpants. It was simple, they explained.
Gnome: “Collecting underpants is just phase one. Phase one: collect underpants.”
Kyle: “So, what’s phase two?”
The gnome thought, thought some more, looked from side to side, failed to arrive at an answer, and finally called to one of his gnome friends, high atop the mounting pile of stolen underwear in the cave which served as their warehouse.
Gnome: “Hey! What’s phase two?”
Gnome 2: “Phase one, we collect underpants.”
Gnome: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. But what about phase two?”
Gnome 2: “Well, phase three is profit. Get it?”
Stan: “I don’t get it.”
The equation is then revealed with the almighty chart:
Flash back to Thursday’s debate. Representative Paul Ryan was challenged by the non-Jim-Lehrer moderator, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, to delve into the specifics of the Romney campaign’s tax policy proposal. He could not. He said there was a “framework” that would lower rates twenty percent. The details would be hashed out in a bipartisan fashion, which would play out in Congress. Congress would debate the ups and downs, amend where necessary, work together, and pass the tax policy. Like the good buddies they all are.
Point of fact, we’re talking about our Congress. The one we have that can’t agree on anything. The one polling worse than communism. The Congress approved of by 13% of Americans because they would argue about the usefulness of oxygen if it served them politically. Yeah. That one.
Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi opined at the ridiculous absurdity of giving Congress an idea and expecting them to turn it into rational, logical, agreeable policy and then to vote on it accordingly:
“So essentially, Ryan has just admitted on national television that the Romney tax plan will be worked out after the election with the same Democrats from whom they are now, before the election, hiding any and all details.”
The Tax Policy Center released a report that concluded that the proposal simply could not do all the things Romney has claimed it would do, and also was forced to concede that “Because we have received no details on proposals to reduce tax preferences, the TPC analysis does not include those proposals.”
Bloomberg’s Josh Barro simply asserted: “The idea is intuitive, but wrong.”
So, the stage is set. Phase one describes a massive tax cut for all Americans, paid for by unspecified closed loopholes, which does not add to the deficit and does not shift the burden to the middle class. Phase three describes the plan as working. Phase two?
The next day, as the punditocracy spun themselves into oblivion trying to adjudicate who “won” the debate, Governor Sean Parnell spoke before the Alaska Support Industry Alliance and blasted the legislature for balking at his proposal to lower taxes on oil companies – to blow up a policy that secures funds for all the stuff that, otherwise, we would be paying for through a state income and/or property tax.
In a meme ready for facebook, where it promptly landed, Parnell said: “Simple math tells us that Senators with a spine for decline are costing Alaskans tens of billions of dollars in untapped, locked up oil in legacy fields.”
I really like simple math. It’s a lot more convenient than complicated math. I also like money. Tens of billions of dollars sounds great. I would love tens of billions of dollars. Who are these senators to stand in the way of tens of billions of dollars?
The problem is the same. There is money buried in the earth underneath Alaska. In Prudhoe Bay, in Ooguruk, and on and on. But to assert that the legislature has served as the fatal clog in a direct line of cash that would otherwise be flowing through a tube linking Prudhoe oil fields to our personal checking accounts is ludicrous. The problem is that the legislature – in particular, the Senate Bipartisan Working Group – has served as a clog in the tube linking the buried treasure money, which pays for the services we depend on, to the savings accounts of Big Oil.
One of the members of the senate working group, Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), fired back at the Governor, saying: “”He wants to take Alaska from being an owner state to being an owned state.”
As the ADN pointed out during our last special session, “The governor’s proposal ran into serious trouble largely because of its broad tax cuts for existing North Slope fields that would have cost the state $1.5 billion to $2 billion a year, about the same amount generated by a bill that passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate.”
Through the governor’s proposal to give away oil revenue to the oil companies – without any guarantee, or really any strong indication whatsoever, of increased production and investment – BP, Conoco, and Shell become the sole beneficiaries of the deal.
The Governor and his supporters can threaten us with rhetoric about the (slowing) decline of throughput in the pipeline, but that doesn’t translate to anything meaningful for us. If we upend the cash flow that, under current policy, consistently results in keeping our fiscal house in order, we essentially are constructing a new pipeline of capital that simply floats revenues from the North Slope, far over our heads, to corporate accounts in Texas and Europe.
Like the Romney/Ryan tax plan, all we know is that, in phase one, the Governor wants us to cede control – control defined as a lot of money every year – to unprecedentedly profitable corporations. And he’s doubling down, making that the heart of a statewide election that could change Alaska’s financial security forever. Solely on Sean Parnell’s assumption that our benevolent corporate overlords take pity on us.
In phase three, this results in increased production.
Paul Jenkins, op-ed writer for the ADN and fierce supporter of this specific breed of hope-and-a-prayer oil tax reform, even remarked critically of Parnell’s handling of the situation.
“You would think… that Parnell this year would have been ready with truckloads of data. You would think he, himself, would have led the charge, demanding to testify, hectoring the media, twisting the screws to counter the blanket of union ads aimed at blocking reform. Forceful, savvy leadership — always with a red line-item veto pen in his pocket. Smart guys up front. You would think that. You would be wrong.”
Rolling Stones’ Matt Taibbi offered similar criticism of Ryan’s inability to explain the nonexistent specifics of his ticket’s tax policies – which, for the same reasons, absolutely hold true to Governor Parnell’s actions as well:
“[Y]ou should laugh, you should roll your eyes, and it doesn’t matter if you’re the Vice President or an ABC reporter or a toll operator. You should laugh, because this stuff is a joke, and we shouldn’t take it seriously.”
And without specifics, we should laugh. We are not dealing with serious actors promoting legitimate policy proposals. And it would behoove of us to take off the kid gloves and start being real about it.
We are citizens being courted by well funded, well dressed underpants gnomes. And we deserve better. We deserve a damn explanation for phase two.