Category Archives: Opinion

Much Ado About Nothing?

Yesterday was the four billion dollar ZERO. Both campaigns spent that amount, trying to convince the American people that their party, their candidates were somehow uniquely qualified to lead our country out of the current malaise. It changed nothing.

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The next few days, weeks — hell, the next few months —  will unfortunately be filled with post mortems, dissecting the election in nauseating detail. Statistical analysis of voting patterns will provide fodder for columnists, analysts, bloggers, and political junkies.

But the one number that jumps out at me is this: 14,000,000.That’s how many Americans who voted in 2008 stayed home yesterday. And no, it wasn’t Storm Sandy, this drop-off in participation was nationwide.

Think about it for a minute. Fourteen million Americans basically checked out of the game. Fourteen million people are no longer playing. I guess they are the electoral equivalent of the millions of Americans who have stopped looking for work. It would figure.

So tell me, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, John Boehner – what exactly are you celebrating today? We have a lot of deep problems in this country right now. But I have one important question for you all:

How do you get people to believe, once they have lost their faith?

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In Praise of Hubert Sumlin (1931-2011)

In American we pay attention to the stars and the superstars. Less time is spent appreciating the side men, the back up band, or the supporting characters. Which is why the death of Hubert Sumlin less than two months ago went generally unreported and unnoticed.

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Who was Hubert Sumlin? Far more people heard Hubert than heard of him. If you ever listen to Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters, you hear Hubert Sumlin’s exploding Gibson Les Paul Goldtop defining the background. He spent most of his time in the background, you see. When you listen to Eric Clapton or Keith Richard you are hearing Hubert Sumlin. His licks and stylings are found in so many blues-rock performances these days that contemporary rock musicians should wear a Hubert Sumlin patch on their shirts the way NASCAR drivers display their sponsors’ logos.

Like so many blues sidemen, Hubert’s contributions to American music went largely unacknowledged except by true blues afficionados. And like many blues greats, he died quietly. The end of Hubert Sumlin’s road came in Wayne, New Jersey on December 4, 2011. His funeral expenses were paid by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, who knew a great one when they heard him play.

Here’s to Hubert Sumlin, who gave dignity and stature to all sidemen, everywhere.

Watch Hubert show you how it is done…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPCPm0FPNk8

Here’s another link from the American Blues Festival in 1964 where you see how a young Sumlin (who is seen only on the side) keeps the music rolling behind Howlin’ Wolf’s great vocal (Wolf’s backup guitar is unamplified). The definition of a perfect side man:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ex3nc0Km77g&feature=related

R.I.P. Vaclav Havel (1936-2011)

The Velvet poet has died, perhaps fittingly in this time of the year when believers celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. Vaclav Havel was a revolutionary man of Peace, a man with the courage to take on the oppression of Communism and fight this battle armed only with his pen and with his words. He brought forth a new birth of freedom and liberty to the land of my ancestors and enhanced the dignity of all Humanity.

God rest you,  merry gentleman!

Fighting Words: The Legacy of Christopher Hitchens

The world is a poorer place today, a less erudite, insightful, interesting, thoughtful, reflective, and outrageous place today. Christopher Hitchens passed away after losing his long twilight battle with cancer.

Hitchens was one of the most brilliant minds and greatest rhetoricians of his time. Volumes could be filled with his greatest insights and deadliest retorts. I, like many, stood in awe of that intellect and of his strength in facing and annotating the step by step inevitability of his own death while never letting go of his will to write in the face of it all.

As a writer, I know that one of the great ones has left us. Hitchens’ greatness as a writer was not simply a product of his intellect, erudition, or his absolute fearlessness in taking on any topic or anybody at any time. His greatness came in his embrace of the necessity for him to say, and do, and write the things he did. In his own words, he said it best, as always:

“I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life.”

Hitchens was engaging even when he was being outrageous. Even when he went around skewering Mother Teresa I couldn’t dislike him. He was at times most likable when being his most frivolous self, in his embrace of his own vices, and in his flouting the laws and platitudes of over-serious micromanaging authority. As he once said,

“The essence of tyranny is not iron law. It is capricious law.”

As a man of faith myself, I could not share in his atheism, nor applaud the anger he often expressed toward modern religion. But you had to respect both his humanism and his humanity. I will remember him most for his love of democracy, his high regard for words and their power, his loathing of militant Islam and the courage he showed speaking out against it, and for his respect for the First Principles of the enlightened men who came up with the audacious idea of America itself, Christopher’s adopted country.

I know Christopher Hitchens ferociously denied himself the possibility of an afterlife. In this, I hope he has been proven spectacularly wrong. And so I can only wonder in wonder at what Christopher might be saying to Thomas Paine tonight.

Black Friday – Our New Holy Day of Shopping Obligation

It’s bad enough that Christmas has been largely stripped of its spiritual dimension. Now Americans are in the process of reducing Thanksgiving to a similarly empty materialistic exercise. Thanksgiving, as the word implies, involves pausing to express our gratitude for the people, gifts, and blessings that give meaning and depth to our lives.

Over the past few years this aspect of the Holiday has taken a back seat to a new phenomenon – Black Friday. In fact, television commercials and Internet ads seem to breeze past Thursday entirely, pointing us to the day after and creating a National Shoppers’ Day. This artificial commercial construct and the hyping it receives contain a pernicious message for all: you are defined by what you own. So be thankful that there is no problem in your life that can’t be solved by the purchase of this year’s “must have” items; be thankful that you live in a society where your most materialistic impulses can enjoy immediate gratification.

Of course, biologically and sociologically speaking, instant gratification is the domain of the infant. And this eternal infant in all of us, whether we are 3 years old or 53 years old, is the target of the Black Friday assault.

It’s an interesting holiday recipe: start with a cup of envy, add a half stick of greed, flavor it all with a sense of personal insufficiency. Baste frequently with false promises of easy fulfillment through material acquisition. Sprinkle with easy credit every 15 minutes. Simmer over constant low heat until it all comes to a boil of artificially created shoppers’ hysteria. Then open the doors around midnight and get out of the way.

Look, if people want to fall for this I guess they will. I just think it’s a shame. And a sham.

Here’s what is REALLY going on: In our lousy economy, retailers are concerned that people will be sufficiently hesitant about going even deeper into debt that they will pull back in their holiday spending to more responsible levels. But – if they can be sufficiently seduced at the start of the shopping “season” – they will part with their money early on, and you still have four more weeks to convince them they still haven’t spent enough in their inexorable march toward insolvency.

An overstatement? I hardly think so. Americans are merely employing on the family level the behaviors our government is practicing on the national level.

George Will – A Voice of Reason is a Treasure Forever

In the current absence of Edmund Burke,

George Will  pinch hits with this wonderful commentary.

 

Clarity of vision, clarity in expression.  Plus he’s a baseball fan.  Thank you, George.

Let’s Go METS – the Millionaires Extra Tax Supply

Much to-do has been made lately of the problems with our tax system.  Depending upon whom you ask, the problems are usually framed in one of the following ways:

1) Taxes are too high already and should not be raised;

2) Taxes on the rich are too low and they must pay their “fair share”;

3) There are too many tax loopholes that need to be closed;

4) Our entire tax code needs to be reformed.

Before I chime in with my own suggestions, let me present a few facts:  (The following numbers reflect most recent data available from the I.R.S. as given to their Congressional Overlords.)

1) The top 1% of American taxpayers pay 30% of all federal personal  income taxes;

2) The top 10% of American taxpayers pay 70% of all federal personal  income taxes;

3) The Bottom 50% of American taxpayers pay no federal income tax at all;

4) Capital gains tax rates in the US are among the highest in the industrial and post-industrial worlds, and are twice as high as those in Canada which has had lower unemployment, lower per capita debt, universal health care, and higher economic growth than the US over the past four years;

5) If the economy tanks into a double-dip recession, federal tax revenues will decline;

6) Once the US economy rebounds, tax revenues will increase;

7) Long term, SOMETHING needs to be done to bring federal revenues and expenses into line.

These are no major revelations for sure, just things to keep in mind as the discussion about taxes goes on over the next year.

My Suggestions: 

Stage I – Attitude Adjustment

1) Don’t put a band aid on a carotid artery that is currently bleeding $1,500,000,000,000 in debt this year. The patient is too sick and is getting sicker by the day.  A sense of urgency is not out of place here.

2) Ditch the use of the word “fairness”, which has been serially abused on the political scene and used to justify any number of partisan initiatives. As Jimmy Carter said, in perhaps his only accurate public statement, “Life isn’t fair.” The government should be more concerned about the fairness of equal opportunity and less about imposing equal results on the people.

3) Let’s all agree that, just like skateboarding, making lots of money and/or being rich is not a crime, nor is it necessarily a sign of personal greed or misplaced moral priorities. And wanting to be wealthy doesn’t mean you have a lesser developed sense of “consciousness”.

4) Personal and corporate philanthropy should be encouraged rather than discouraged by the federal tax code. Abolishing the tax deduction for charitable giving is retrograde.

5) While there may, indeed, be no free lunch, neither is there a painless solution to the financial mess that is the federal government.  Mr. Politician: Don’t play the American people for fools by advocating “feel good” measures that have little to do with the depth of our real financial problems. (Note to President Obama: If you tax the mega-rich – you know, the REAL millionaires and billionaires – at 100% of their income this year, confiscate all their corporate jets for sale at government auction, what do we do with the other 97% of our national debt that would remain, or the $9 trillion in new debt that you project will be added to it over the next ten years?).

6) Taking a class warfare approach will further divide the nation and make solving our financial problems more difficult, not less.  We got into this mess together, we need to get out of it together. A shared-burden solution must be found.

7) ANY politician who demogogues this problem is part of the problem.

Stage II – Tax Code Reform

1. Tax consumption rather than income. A VAT (Value Added Tax or national sales tax) would have the additional benefit of encouraging savings and investment, both of which we need to do. Perhaps we would need a much-lower flat-rate tax as a platform for VAT, I leave that to budget bean counters to decide.

2. Keep capital gains taxes as low as possible to encourage corporate investment and expansion. Job Creation in a capitalist society is the primary responsibility of the private sector.

3. Everyone should pay some nominal tax. You can’t have a cohesive society when half the population pays no tax at all and relies on government more and more. I don’t care if the bottom tax is $50 per year.  All citizens should be tax payers and recognize that they have a stake in efficient government.

4. Re: Loopholes – As a general rule, close them.  Phase out the deductions for mortgage interest, phase in taxation of health care coverage.  Don’t do these now in a fragile economy, but prepare Americans for them ultimately.  Begin phasing in these changes over a five year period beginning in 2012. Oh yeah, no more loopholes for corporate jets. And the next time that the Democrats in Congress try to pass such a perk, I expect the Republicans to stand firm and vote NO.

5. Re-establish the link between revenues and expenses.  Every American household gets this, why can’t politicians? I won’t go as far as to support a mandated balanced budget amendment, but how about mandating that every increase in tax revenue rates must be accompanied by a cut in the budget of equal or greater value?

Now… about those millionaires and billionaires that the President is so eager to take out behind the tax woodshed…

Consider the following, Mr. President:

1) People making $200,000 per year or couples making $250,000 per year are neither millionaires nor billionaires.  Perhaps you are figuring that they are Republicans, I don’t know. But I just wanted to make sure you had your numbers straight – I know you wouldn’t want to mislead the American people with your magnificent oratory.

2) Instead of trotting out some billionaire stooge who complains that he isn’t being taxed enough, finesse the entire issue, Mr. President.  You’ll look good, the billionaires will look good, everybody wins, OK?  Here’s what you do:

a) Set up a new government agency. Let’s call it the Millionaire’s Extra Tax Supply (METS). You can even name another czar to run the agency without getting congressional approval if it will make you feel better.

b) Invite (yes, I know that’s not as fulfilling as “coerce” but bear with me here) all American millionaires and billionaires who deem themselves undertaxed to contribute to the METS.  You could set up a tiered giving structure, like so many philanthropies and the Jesuits do, i.e. the “President’s Council” for those who voluntarily donate $10 million annually, the “Andrew Carnegie Council” for annual giving of a billion or more, etc. And at the end of each year, the sum total of all their gifts could be used to pay down the national debt!  Imagine what Chris Matthews could do with something like that. Or, you could use the money to pay doctors who agree to treat Medicare patients once Obamacare begins to kick in.  Perhaps you could skim 10% off the top of their total donations as administrative costs and apply this money to your reelection campaign. (Most of these guys were big givers to you in 2008, so I’m doing you a favor by streamlining this, like that intercontinental high speed train you’ve always wanted.) Ultimately the entire process could be open to American taxpayers of all income levels!  Citizens voluntarily giving until it hurts to help clean up the mess in Washington!

I can see it now.  As the program takes hold, millions of my fellow Americans, chanting as one “Let’s go METS!, let’s go METS!”

Finally, in addition to a grab bag of buttons, posters, presidentially autographed 8″ by 10″s, membership cards, all program donors could receive ten free tickets to see my favorite baseball team try to play the game at CitiField.  There will be plenty of good seats available next year, after all.  Just like in Washington, D.C.