How Dune Explains Tea Party Republicans’ Dominance of the Debt Debate

“The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”
Paul-Muad’dib to the Guild navigators, Dune, by Frank Herbert (1965)

Variations on that line have been going through my head ever since the debt-ceiling debate cranked up in earnest a few weeks back — to me, it explains the fundamental strength that conservative Republicans possessed as the negotiations progressed. Basically, they don’t CARE about government, and most seem as though they’d be happy to see it go away entirely. Democrats, by contrast, BELIEVE in the need for government and are hence horrified at the thought of taking actions that risk damaging it and the people who count on it.

Many people have compared the House Republicans’ position on the debt ceiling to a hostage-taking or a shakedown (“nice economy you got there — it’d be sad if something bad happened to it”), and it’s a good analogy in the sense that their power derives from their ability (and willingness) to destroy something of value to their political opponents. Of course, government services might just be valuable to their constituents as well, something we’ll learn more about in 2012.

It’s also worth pointing out a deeper selfishness involved involved in the equation: Democratic states functionally subsidize Republican states, and as I found in my distant days in the Texas Legislature, (relatively) pro-tax urban areas typically subsidize low-tax rural counties (think of Michelle Bachmann’s family farm subsidy payments as an example). It must be easy to bad-mouth government when someone else is footing the bill for the benefits it gives you and your neighbors….


Written by
Colin Delany
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  • Obama’s not exactly the Kwisatz Haderach now is he? He should’ve taken the spice and then started freaking people out by saying things like:

    Try looking into that place where you dare not look! You’ll find me there, staring out at you!

  • The notion that states that vote democratic subsidize states that vote republican is based on innumerate false aggregation. People vote as individuals and pay taxes as individuals. We tax individuals unequally but give each person one vote. Since we have a secret ballot and individual tax returns have some facade of privacy, it is not practical to make an actual calculation whether Republican voters subsidize Democratic voters. But does anyone doubt that people who tend to vote Republican pay a lot more in taxes than people who tend to vote Democratic?

  • Hi Mark, thanks for the comment.

    Actually, I think you’re making a very big assumption — people in places like New York, New Jersey, California, Washington State, Massachusetts and Connecticut make more money on average than people in Montana, Alabama, Mississippi, etc., and are hence going to pay both a higher percentage of their income and a higher absolute amount in taxes. And, these states both tend to vote Democratic and also demonstrably underwrite the low-tax policies of places like Alabama, etc.

    So I don’t know if your statement about Republicans paying more in taxes is accurate — anyone out there have some real numbers?

  • Even if I am wrong about the total tax paid by individuals tending to vote Republican versus Democratic (fat chance), you repeat the errors of both aggregation and equating vote totals with tax totals.

    Is there a real doubt that the vast majority of urban poor vote democratic whether it is in their interest or not?

    Do you really not understand that vote totals are not appropriately aggregated versus tax totals and federal aggregate disbursements by state? That is objectively silly bad mathematics, ergo the word “innumerate.”

    The burden would be on you to establish the correlations you claim between the payment of tax by individuals and the marginal winning vote and policy victories by state.

    If someone has real numbers they have broken the law to collect the underlying data. It is possible someone has credible estimates of income tax paid by Republicans versus Democrats.

    Conversely, I made no assumption about even distribution of income and taxes across states. I pointed out that the aggregation of these values has no meaning.

    If the majority of voters in a state vote one way it is not an indication that the majority of the tax paid in that state voted one way or the other.

    You would have to establish that the total tax paid by the election winning voters was more than the total tax paid by the election losing voters to make any valid claim about taxes paid and policy preferences.

    Find yourself a neutral competant mathematician and have a lengthy discussion on this if you do not understand yet that this sort of aggregation is patently invalid.

    From your response I am inclined to think you were actually bamboozled by the original article you cited, so I am not inclined to think you were trying to lie with statistics, but were merely taken in. If you are trying to have valid policy discussions here you should strive to avoid misleading claims of unprovable correlation.

  • Um, yeah. I don’t think you did yourself or your arguments any favors with that one. “Do you really not understand…” is simply a way of saying “I’m right and if I make you sound stupid for disagreeing with me, maybe you’ll go along.” Sorry — I stopped falling for that one in freshman philosophy. Thank you for playing!

    In any case, nothing in what you said refutes the original study that I linked to, or my own experience working in the Texas Legislature, where it was a demonstrable FACT that taxes from urban areas subsidized more-conservative rural areas — a fact that we dealt with every day on an appropriations subcommittee my boss served on. Extra money for rural schools? Check. Property tax exemption for agricultural land? Check. Prisons, mental hospitals and other state job-creators deliberately placed in rural areas? Check. Extra health funding for rural hospitals? Check. More state service offices per capita in rural areas? Check. Rural counties favored in highway funding? Check, ad nauseum. The part of the state I grew up in would have collapsed economically without state support, while Dallas, Houston, San Antonio, Austin and El Paso would have chugged along quite nicely either way — and kept their money.

    And it was a demonstrable FACT that those rural areas elected virulently anti-tax legislators, who were also quite happy to have their districts favored in all of those funding formulae and many others. Ah, sweet hypocrisy…is it any surprise that Alaska, for instance, is one of the greatest net recipients of tax money per capita in the country, and also one of the most reliably Republican?

    Finally, I’ll let this chart speak for itself. Good day, sir.