Welcome to the first annual “Most DisCREDITed Awards.” In a bad-economy year full of silly laws, mortgage miseries, political gaffes, Hatfield-McCoy feuding, credit downgrades, mysteriously rising prices, fee gouging of every description, and art-project political campaigns—whew(!)—I thought you might like a guide to help you to weed out the ridiculous from the truly tragic. So what follows are the awards for the worst ideas, policies and personalities of 2011.
Most DisCREDITed Tax Reform Idea
9-9-9 is the hands-down winner. Of course the plan had one major advantage: It was, like its creator, very simple. Everyone could understand a 9% personal income tax rate, a 9% corporate tax rate, and a 9% federal sales tax rate. Everyone could understand the credibility lent to it by the fact that it was plagiarized from a very popular computer game (remember SimCity?). Best of all, everyone could understand that in the world from which Herman Cain emerged, presidential candidates would be expected to be able to quote something like a computer game or a Pokémon movie, instead of, say, Shakespeare. It’s probably not worth rehashing the wildly destructive effects of implementing such a plan here; let’s just say that most people don’t come from the same planet as Mr. Cain. In fairness, however, maybe given his interplanetary origins he was just speaking a different language. Perhaps what he really meant was “nein, nein, nein!”
Most DisCREDITed Election Campaign Policy Meant to Be Taken Seriously
There were many possibilities in this category, but ultimately we had to go with Mitt Romney’s idea of letting the home foreclosure epidemic “run its course.” Right now there are about 1.5 million homes going through that foreclosure process; there are about 3.5 million more homeowners who are significantly delinquent in their monthly mortgage payments; and there are about 10 million homes that cannot be refinanced because they are worth less than their existing mortgage debt, with those 10 million homeowners in varying stages of distress. If we let the foreclosure process run its course, we might just find ourselves in a situation every bit as bad as the nadir of the Great Depression, and we may create a problem of homelessness and despair rivaling a sub-Saharan civil war in its scope. Luckily for Mr. Romney, a dozen states have passed laws meant to disenfranchise the homeless, among others, so at least the victims of today’s real estate market may not be able to vote come November.
Most DisCREDITed Financial Institution Initiative
Another easy choice, although one that cannot be ascribed to a single institution. In the middle of 2011 came a cascade of new fees from banks; chief among these was the heinous fee for debit card usage. In many—but not all—cases the new fees were insidiously small-sounding, but they managed to create a hue and cry from all quarters. People switched banks, credit unions were flooded, and petitions were signed. Everyone seemed particularly outraged that banks had the cheek to charge people for accessing their own money through a card and a system of machines whose use had been encouraged by the banks for years. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the banks that had been bailed out in 2008 and 2009 seemed to be very profitable by 2011; hence the truffle-like search for new fees struck a very sensitive chord in many consumers around the country. The banks argued that the Durbin amendment to the Dodd Frank act, which drastically reduced fees paid for debit card usage by merchants, forced the banks to seek their profits by new means. Irrespective of the merits of their position, the consumer reaction was so pronounced that eventually most banks chose to abandon the debit card fee. Someone learned a lesson from this—it’s just not clear who.
Most DisCREDITed Budget Reform Plan
Paul Ryan’s budget takes the cake in this category, and eats it too. “We need to get rid of all these accounting tricks, all these budget gimmicks, and we’ve got to attack the drivers of our debt,” said Ryan very earnestly, reminiscent of Our Gang’s Alfalfa without the cowlick. However, upon a not very close examination it became completely obvious that Ryan’s budget was itself filled with accounting tricks and budget gimmicks, some supplied by the conservative Heritage Foundation and others resulting from blatant mischaracterization of Congressional Budget Office assessments. Worse, instead of attacking the drivers of the debt, it seemed to mostly attack drivers of postal trucks, by more or less eliminating Social Security and Medicare, as they have been understood for generations, for people who are today under 55 years of age. Ryan’s budget became laughable, like the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact (which purported to outlaw war as an instrument of national policy), only faster. Even Newt Gingrich, in a rare burst of candor, referred to it as “right-wing social engineering.” In any case by the end of the year, the Ryan being talked about most was an NFL quarterback, not a congressman from Wisconsin.
Most DisCREDITed Former Speaker of the House
Okay, okay, it’s Newt. John Boehner will have to wait for next year’s list.
Newt seemed lost after debunking the Ryan budget, and then a shoo-in after the debates. Ultimately, he was rebuffed for some unforgiveable sins, like appearing with Nancy Pelosi and acknowledging the existence of a global warming problem, or having enough money to have a large account at Tiffany & Co., but not enough to do saturation negative advertising in the campaign. The facts of his colorful marriage history and ethics problems didn’t seem to have much impact. This may be probative of the idea that the definition of “sin” was modified a bit in 2011, at least among likely Republican primary voters.
Most DisCREDITed 222-year-old Idea
Image: Blind Hen, via Flickr.com