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4.12.02

I notice skippy linked to a post I did earlier about the Wall Street Journal's "tax the poor" plan. So I'll milk the issue for all it's worth ("find a winner and never deviate from it" works for Hollywood, right?).

Most people commenting on the plan have taken a pretty cynical view of the motivations behind it. And really, the WSJ set them up by declaring that part of the plan was to make the poor resent the government. But I think I can uncover a different cynical tack to take. I think the barrage of criticism is just what the WSJ wanted.

The "tax the poor" piece sounds like a decoy balloon. The decoy balloon strategy in politics is this: You mention an idea that's similar to the policy you favor, but much more extreme. You let your enemies fixate on this caricature, and exhaust themselves knocking it down. Then, when your real plan comes out, it looks moderate by comparison. People say "hey, that's not so bad. What were all those x-wing nutjobs so bent out of shape about?" It's basically the opposite of the "how to boil a frog" strategy, under which you slowly ratchet up toward your goal so that people don't realize you've drifted from the center.

The war on Iraq is a good example of a decoy balloon. Bush's opening gambit was to declare that we were going to invade now, and screw the rest of the world. He even released a policy manifesto that made real the anti-war movement's worst nighmares about American unilateral imperialism. The image of the war that Bush portrayed early on is still the focus of the anti-war movement's criticism. Yet look at his actual policy. He went to the UN and got permission -- even France agreed. He's building a coalition. And he's not talking about attacking anyone but Iraq, even though North Korea pretty much hand-delivered a causus belli under the Bush doctrine. I find it hard to believe that this shift was entirely due to pressure from the supine Democrats or the overrated Colin Powell. So the anti-war movement has become marginalized in the eyes of the large segment of the American public who support war but are uneasy about unilateralism.

It seems likely that the WSJ editorial was a similar decoy balloon. Conservative policymakers are likely preparing a new tax proposal that would shift the tax burden away from the rich. But it's not nearly so clear-cut a case of "soak the poor" as the WSJ plan. Once Paul Krugman and E.J. Dionne have locked themselves into assailing the decoy, the new plan can emerge as a reassuring comparatively moderate measure, and those who criticized the original will seem like crazy left-wingers. I think the language of the editorial hints that it isn't a serious policy recommendation -- I mean, "lucky duckies"? I guess the "make them hate the government" line wasn't self-parodying enough.

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