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The IRS Comes for Matt Taibbi
Coincidence? Seems highly questionable
“Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” Joseph Heller wrote in Catch-22. And Matt Taibbi has every reason to be paranoid, The journalist has spent his career reporting on some of the most powerful entities on earth, often exposing stories they’d rather keep out of public view. As the most prominent reporter involved in the Twitter Files, Taibbi has already attracted the wrath of many of Elon Musk’s critics in politics and media. Now it seems the government itself is paying attention.
According to Taibbi, an IRS agent showed up at his home the very day that he was testifying before Congress on revelations about Twitter to the Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. At issue are his 2018 and 2021 tax returns — the former of which had already been electronically accepted, and the latter which shows the IRS owes Taibbi a good deal of money.
This seems far too odd to be a coincidence. Typically, these types of matters are handled via letters and phone calls, not house calls. House Judiciary chairman Jim Jordan is demanding answers in a letter to the head of the IRS and Treasury secretary Janet Yellen. President Joe Biden should echo these concerns. It would be an easy lay-up to demonstrate that he’s not on the side of singling out taxpayers for abuse based on where they exist on the political spectrum.
Americans have lost so much faith in our institutions of government in part because we fear these supposedly neutral entities operate as partisan activists. In the past decade, Tea Party-related groups were targeted aggressively by the IRS, which pored over tax returns and applications for non-profit status, clearly seeking ways to harm their ability to organize. Targeting individuals over their personal work and views has been done before, and could be happening again. With a massively increased IRS budget incoming, Americans should be mindful that they could turn up next on the list.
Are Americans Over Traditional Values?
Patriotism, religious faith, having children and other priorities that helped define the national character for generations are receding in importance to Americans, a new Wall Street Journal-NORC poll finds.
The survey, conducted with NORC at the University of Chicago, a nonpartisan research organization, also finds the country sharply divided by political party over social trends such as the push for racial diversity in businesses and the use of gender-neutral pronouns.
Some 38% of respondents said patriotism was very important to them, and 39% said religion was very important. That was down sharply from when the Journal first asked the question in 1998, when 70% deemed patriotism to be very important, and 62% said so of religion.
The share of Americans who say that having children, involvement in their community and hard work are very important values has also fallen. Tolerance for others, deemed very important by 80% of Americans as recently as four years ago, has fallen to 58% since then.
Bill McInturff, a pollster who worked on a previous Journal survey that measured these attitudes along with NBC News, said that “these differences are so dramatic, it paints a new and surprising portrait of a changing America.’’ He surmised that “perhaps the toll of our political division, Covid and the lowest economic confidence in decades is having a startling effect on our core values.’’
My initial reaction to these numbers was different than most. If these numbers had been produced by my firm, I would immediately assume we had made a mistake and send them back to an analyst to double check.
Take a look at the zig-zaggy pattern on the community involvement question, for instance. That’s the only pro-social item on here that went up in the previous 21 years before the 2019 survey, but it’s declined by more than half in just four years without any clear inciting event explaining why. One could maybe speculate that people locked inside during the pandemic did not go out and do volunteer work, but a drop of 35 points in four years is implausible on its face.
The point here is not that the Wall Street Journal and NORC released bad data. The Journal is one of the more thoughtful media sponsors of polling and NORC is the premier survey data-collection organization in the country. Rather, the dramatically different results we see from 2019 and 2023 are because the data was collected differently. The March 2023 survey was collected via NORC’s Amerispeak, an extremely high-quality online panel. In the fine print below the chart, we can see that data from previous waves was collected via telephone survey.
Why should this matter? After all, panelists on NORC’s Amerispeak panel are recruited probabilistically, using the same random sampling methods as a telephone survey. It’s more expensive, but when when you want online data that looks as close as possible to the old gold-standard telephone survey data, you use NORC’s Amerispeak.
But survey mode still matters. Surveying the exact same types of respondents online and over the phone will yield different results. And it matters most for exactly the kinds of values questions that the Journal asked in its survey.
America Shrugs, And The World Makes Plans
What if American political polarization and economic mismanagement continue to undermine American power so that the U.S.-based order continues to decay despite greater allied support? If countries lose confidence in the ability of the U.S. order to survive, even with stepped up support from allies, they will inevitably begin to plan for their security in a post-American world.
That kind of planning is what Mr. Akita calls Plan B. It isn’t primarily the state of the American military that drives people to contemplate Plan B—at least not yet. It is questions about our will, competence and political and social coherence that keep our allies up at night. For Europeans, the fear that Donald Trump might return to the White House most worries them. Many Asian and Middle Eastern countries had fewer problems with Mr. Trump, but they also worry about his, and America’s, unpredictability.
In the Middle East, the transition to a Plan B world is already under way. For longtime allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the American world order is receding in the rear-view mirror. Fairly or not, President Biden is widely seen as both weaker and less reliable than Mr. Trump—who wasn’t considered a particularly able foreign-policy leader in his own right. As the aftershocks from the Afghan withdrawal continue to reverberate and as Iran advances relentlessly toward a nuclear weapon with no visible response from the U.S., Plan B looks more realistic every day.
New Demands For a Pause in A.I.
Here is an Elon Musk-signed petition, with many other luminaries, calling for a pause in “Giant” AI experiments. Here is one excerpt:
In parallel, AI developers must work with policymakers to dramatically accelerate development of robust AI governance systems. These should at a minimum include: new and capable regulatory authorities dedicated to AI; oversight and tracking of highly capable AI systems and large pools of computational capability; provenance and watermarking systems to help distinguish real from synthetic and to track model leaks; a robust auditing and certification ecosystem; liability for AI-caused harm; robust public funding for technical AI safety research; and well-resourced institutions for coping with the dramatic economic and political disruptions (especially to democracy) that AI will cause.
Few people are against such developments, or at least most of them. Yet this passage, to my eye, shows how few realistic, practical alternatives the pausers have. Does regulation of any area, even simpler ones than AI, ever work so well? Exactly how long is all this supposed to take? How well do those same signers expect our Congress to handle, say, basic foreign policy decisions? The next debt ceiling crisis? Permitting reform?
Is there any mention of public choice/political economy questions in the petition, or even a peripheral awareness of them? Any dealing with national security issues and America’s responsibility to stay ahead of potentially hostile foreign powers? And what about the old DC saying, running something like “in politics there is nothing so permanent as the temporary”?
Might we end up with a regulatory institution as good as the CDC?
By the way, what does it mean to stop the “progress,” but not stop and not cease to improve the safety testing? Are those two goals really so separable?
Overall this petition is striking for its absence of concrete, practicable recommendations, made in the light of the semi-science of political economy. You can think of it as one kind of evidence that these individuals are not so very good at predicting the future.
Items of Interest
“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.”
— Joseph Heller