Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cliff Diving

This is the true story... of 535 strangers... picked to live in a House (and Senate) together and have their lives taped... to find out what happens... when people stop being polite... and start getting real...The United States Congress.

First a little rant on group projects.

If you're not a Slacker, you might assume that we love group projects. You'd be wrong. Some teachers love group projects because there are fewer total assignments to grade and any number of class days spent overseeing kids' group work while tracking her (the teacher's) Etsy account. Meanwhile, he gets to claim that he's teaching collaborative skills and group dynamics.

Slackers hate group projects. We hate them because we usually end up doing more work than we would have done otherwise. The Slacker Way means that we calculate precisely what must be done to get by, and do only that. We're not trying to harm anyone with this, but we're willing to accept more uncertainty for ourselves than may be acceptable to the group as a whole. Unfortunately, this means that we put forth more effort for the good of the group than we would ever do for our own grades.

Group work tends to mean:
  1. More total work  - Even poorly conceived group projects tend to involve more effort from the group than would be expected from an individual. This is a problem because of:
  2. Unequal contribution - Group work almost always comes down to one sorry soul putting forth the majority of the effort. Usually this person is the one with the highest standards or the greatest concern about failing. This is especially difficult because of:
  3. Poor individual accountability - Teachers sometimes try to deal with this through individual grades for individual work, but that's not really a group project as much as it is a series of individual projects being completed in tandem. When individual credit for contributions is not carefully scrutinized (remember: Etsy), it tends to go to:
  4. That one guy - Every group has one person who isn't very good at contributing, but extremely good at taking the credit. He will schmooze, grandstand, and give halfhearted thanks to all of the team members--usually in an effort to cement his collaborative skills rather than to actually distribute credit. For more on the type, see also: here. By the way, it is possible for that one guy to be a woman.
The thing about the one person who does all of the work and the one person who takes all the credit is that they sometimes intentionally exclude everyone else in the group. That means that all of the rest are just sitting around with their thumbs up their...noses, hoping that things are going well. This is what happened with the Fiscal Cliff negotiations. Twice.

Negotiations suck because in order to get something you want, you need to give up something you also want. I don't know what was on the President's or the Speaker's lists of must-haves, but I'm sure that my own list would have been different from either. This is because they are both fundamentally moderate, while I am a wing-nut. I think we can more easily discern what was on the Minority Leader's and the Vice President's list, since that's the deal that was eventually made, but only they know what each went into the room needing, wanting, and willing to give up. The art of compromise seems to often yield a product that no one is especially happy with.

My biggest gripe is that Vice President Biden traded away the Payroll Tax Holiday. Since Republicans are supposed to be the ones on the side of cutting  taxes, I'm not sure why this one ended up on our list rather than theirs, but I think it was a huge mistake to sign the deal without it.

See, the first paychecks of the New Year are going out this week and next, and there will be less money in them. My guess is that lots of Americans are just learning about the whole Fiscal Cliff thing by opening their checks and finding that Obama raised their taxes. Actually, he cut your taxes two years ago and then let them rise on their own. Actually, that's exactly what was supposed to happen with all of the rest of the taxes. Unfortunately, many people do not perceive the world with this degree of nuance--I know, I've graded their answers to essay questions. 

What we're left with here is a bunch of tax breaks for wealthy people, corporations, some help for the truly financially screwed, and the kinds of little goodies that legislators throw in to grease the skids a bit. It's a normal part of the process, but it deserves some discussion nonetheless.

Where the President failed here, however, is the art of group work. Had he allowed January 1 to come and go, all of the taxes would have gone up. Then, he could have proposed a brand new tax cut plan that actually made sense. Two examples: ensure that money that your money makes is taxed at the same rate as money you earn; and end the Payroll Tax Holiday that rich people enjoy on income over $110,100 that makes this tax so regressive.

Instead, he managed to put himself in a position where someone else gets the credit for the stuff people like (they will forever be called the Bush Tax Cuts), he gets the blame for stuff people hate (the "increase "in FICA), and rich people have more money (thanks to tax cuts on capital gains, dividends, the estate tax, and the Alternative Minimum Tax--to name a few) available to fund Republican candidates who will oppose his second-term agenda. Worst of all, Republicans have declared defeat, and vowed not to give any more ground going forward with the debt ceiling, sequester, and spending bills..

Maybe this is all part of a brilliant scheme to teach Americans how taxes really work, and which taxes really affect them. Red states are full of people who vote squarely against their own financial self interest. Maybe this is part of a long-range plan to educate a demographic who still includes lottery tickets in their financial planning portfolio. I kinda doubt it. My guess is that, like Obamacare, this tax thing is an ugly compromise, full of Republican ideas, that they will now use as a blunt object to knock us about the head. What's actually most disturbing is that POTUS could probably benefit from reading this blog.

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