Category Archives: politics

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?

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.

Paul Krugman, You Are a Coward

This column is in response to a post by Mr. Paul Krugman  of the New York Times on his blog page “Conscience of a Liberal” of 9/11/2011.  A link to his column is provided here: 

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/the-years-of-shame/?smid=tw-NytimesKrugman&seid=auto

Actually, Mr. Krugman, it IS just you. In your latest column you describe America’s response to 9/11 as “deeply shameful”. I think you are projecting.

You say that the atrocity of 9/11 should have been a unifying event.  In fact, it was – and that’s what bugs you, isn’t it? Because it led to a renewal of patriotism, love of country, and an appreciation for our military and for the sacrifices they make each day to protect this great nation. Thank God America doesn’t have to rely on people like you to protect our freedoms and personal liberty.

It really bugged you when so many Americans stood behind President Bush and Mayor Giuliani, didn’t it? They were, of course, your political enemies then as they are now, and it was their leadership that you found so unbearable, wasn’t it? (Full disclosure: I did not vote for Bush in either 2000 or 2004.) You say George W. Bush “raced to cash in on the horror?” Consider that maybe, just maybe, he was acting forcefully as the President of a nation under attack. Question for you: Did Barack Obama “race to cash in” on the killing of Osama Bin Laden in his address to the nation less than 24 hours later with more than a dozen references to his own role in ordering the killing? Is his administration “cashing in” on that hit by giving unprecedented access to America’s intelligence services to the Hollywood group that is creating a film of this event, to be released on October 12, 2012, just in time for the presidential election? (Full disclosure: I worked in the motion picture industry for several years and it is unheard of for a release date to be determined more than a year in advance of any film.)

Mr. Krugman, you state that the memory of 9/11 has been irrevocably poisoned. You speak entirely for yourself.  For me, 9/11 is and always will be a harsh reminder that the freedoms we enjoy in our great country are not free of cost, neither are they permanently assured. It is a reminder that Thomas Jefferson was correct in stating “The tree of  liberty must be watered periodically by the blood of tyrants and patriots alike.”

9/11 may be an occasion of shame for you, as you said. For me it is a time to remember Dwight Darcy, Brendan Buchanon, Mike Armstrong, and the twelve people from the high school I attended who were murdered on that day.  The only shame I feel is the shame that they all had to die so young.

In your columns over the years, you often consider the world in terms of victims and oppressors. I have 2,966 victims for you to consider – the innocent victims of a Muslim ideology that has been corrupted into a maniacal and nihilistic agent of violence and antediluvian self-delusion.

I wouldn’t have bothered to devote an entire blog entry to your misguided and hateful opinions, but by not allowing any comments to them on your website, you left me no choice.

Former President Bush said yesterday that 9/11 taught us that “evil is real and so is courage.” In your column today (and especially by locking out comments on what you said) you showed us all that you certainly lack the latter.

Treadmill to Oblivion

The title of Fred Allen’s 1955 autobiography could just as easily describe the state of our nation today.  Over the past fifty years, Americans have lost connection with the historical and cultural narrative that had previously united us e pluribus unum.

There are any number of reasons for this, from a gospel of consumption preached daily to a media-created, self-perpetuating “Me Generation”, to a destabilizing propensity for “celebrating diversity” with its accompanying moral relativism, to a general historical ignorance born of an educational movement that emphasized globally-focused social studies at the expense of traditional American history and values.

The by-product of all this is a nation of homeless wanderers looking for a place or cause to which they can belong.  Absent that, we face the world as individuals, alone.  Our previous national narrative, that of an American Dream offered to a nation of immigrants, of hard work and deferred gratification to benefit one’s progency, a belief in American exceptionalism, a social fabric centered on family, church, and community, of individual responsibility, is no longer operative.  In its place we have what author Joseph Roth (in his work Radetsky’s March)  described as “the bewildering meaninglessness that follows the disillusion of an ideal.” Like the Hapsburg Empire which Roth eulogized, the United States has been an amalgam of different peoples held together by an ideal. Unless we can reestablish a sense of common purpose and shared values our future is no more assured than was that of the Hapsburgs  one hundred years ago.

Currently, our national discourse is dominated largely by “Progressive” voices that declaim our former unifying narrative as a politically incorrect product of dead white male oppressors, and the Tea Party, which seems to want to drive America into the future while limiting our vision to what can be seen in the rear-view mirror.  Both roads lead nowhere fast.

We had better figure it all out soon. History is littered with examples of great nations and empires that rotted away from within. If we stay our current course, don’t be surprised to see the kind of social disruptions recently visited on the Middle East and the U.K. coming soon to a city near you. The egocentric nihilism of contemporary Amercan culture virtually guarantees it.

Anyone care to propose ways in which we can turn this situation around?

Walking the Walk

I once worked with an esteemed colleague, a veteran educator who used to tell his students and the world, if they would listen:

What you do shouts so loud, I can’t hear what you are saying.

In recognition of the inherent wisdom of his remark, I am hereby instituting two new awards:

The Walking the Walk Honesty Award given to those in public life who follow through and actually live what they preach to the rest of us.

The Talking the Talk Hypocrisy Award given to those who, alas, tell us what is good for us to do and then do something else for themselves.

So here we go:

A Walking the Walk Award is presented to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York. Now I know what some of you are saying: “Bob, have you gone over to the Dark Side?” Relax, it’s nothing like that. And I still disagree with Senator Schumer on many issues. (Chuck, did you really say on July 30,2011 that illegal immigration creates jobs?) I’ve heard all of the jokes about him too.

Q: Where is the most dangerous place to be in the United States?

A: Between Chuck Schumer and a TV  camera.

But let us give this man his due.  Schumer has been a vocal lifelong supporter of our public school system. Unlike other pols who give lip service in support of public education and then  a) send their own children to exclusive private schools while  b) voting to deny poor families any form of real choice of schools for their beleaguered kids – yes I’m talking to you, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, and hundreds of senators & congressmen – Chuck Schumer’s kids attended New York City public schools (as did my wife, BTW).  As far as I know his children are still alive and thriving. Hats off to you, Senator Schumer, for walking the walk and showing the depth of your commitment to public education!

On the other hand…

A Talking the Talk Award for hypocrisy is given to Al Gore for the dissonance between what he preaches the rest of us must do to “Save the Planet” and what he himself actually does on a daily basis. (Want to compare your carbon footprint with mine, Al? Bring it on.)  The Grand Master of Environmental Disaster flies around the world giving speeches on the urgent need for responsible environmental behavior.  Four years ago, ABCNews, using the information from Al Gore’s actually utility bills, reported that Al paid more than $30,000 for his energy use on his Tennessee home alone! He used 221,000 kilowatt hours of electricity the previous year, more than twenty times the national average. Once this story leaked out, Gore did make some energy improvements to his home, but it still features natural gas lanterns in the yard, a year-round heated outdoor pool, and electric gates.  The utility bills for the pool house still average more than $500 per month.  For the pool house. I’d warn him to watch that rising water level in the pool, but just found out that this past year Gore purchased an ocean-front property in California, so I guess rising sea levels are last year’s concern. On the other hand, Al’s new California estate features nine (count ’em) bathrooms. Nine bathrooms for “only” five bedrooms? Of course, there is an obvious explanation why Al Gore needs nine bathrooms, but I won’t elaborate other than to say he is hereby awarded a much-deserved Talking the Talk Award for hypocrisy on a truly global scale.

Of course, Al won’t really care.  He’s already left town in his private jet, spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere while on his way to give another speech excoriating Americans on their indifference toward the environment.

No, It’s Not 1937 Again.

It is amazing how the mainstream media will pick up on some phrase or idea and then run with it before stopping to see if that idea survives objective examination.

I woke up this morning only to be told that it is now 1937.  I looked around for Rod Serling, but he was not behind any of my drapes and I didn’t find any cigarette stubs lying around either, so I knew this wasn’t the Twilight Zone.

Or maybe it is.

Submitted for your approval:

You may or may not be aware of the conventional historical wisdom, but here it is anyway.

FDR and his New Deal pulled America out of the Great Depression through a myriad of governmental programs and Keynesian economic policies of deficit spending.  By 1937, FDR had become concerned about the national debt his administration had run up, so he reduced government spending and support for New Deal programs. The result?  The economy tanked into the “Roosevelt Recession” of 1938.  Only when he increased government deficit spending the following year did the economy rebound.

This is a very convenient interpretation, if your present day agenda is having the federal government apply a second stimulus to our stalled economy, even if it means borrowing more money to spend, or raising taxes in the middle of our current economic doldrums.

My personal feeling is that FDR was a terrific leader in the first year of his presidency, and in the last five years of his presidency.  In between?  Not so good.

Back to 1937 with some facts that are similar to our situation today and some that disprove any commonality between 2011 and 1937.  Then judge for yourself if history is about to repeat itself.

  • In 1937, we were not really in year 7 or 8 of a Great Depression that began with the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and deepened with the passage of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff of June, 1930.  Our economic foundation had begun to crack and crumble years before, in the mid 1920s, on America’s farms. The market crash and Smoot-Hawley were consequences of the Farm Depression and declining consumer demand, not initial causes of the Great Depression. (Smoot-Hawley, BTW, was intended as tariff protection only for America’s beleaguered farmers, but once the bill reached the floor of Congress, it was larded up with additional layers of tariff protections for special interests who hired lobbyists to help reshape and expand the legislation. Does that sound familiar?)
  • The unemployment rate in 1937 was at 15% But the unemployment rate among non-farm workers was above 20%, and would remain so, until FDR created a “war economy” in 1940-41.
  • 1937 saw FDR’s budget actually reduce government expenditures by 3.6%. The current federal budget debate is about whether or not to reduce the rate of growth of the federal budget, not whether the budget itself will decrease in the years ahead. Current projections are that the federal government’s spending will increase so much in the next decade that, even if you accept the Obama Administration’s rosy projections for 4.1% annual economic growth, we will add more than $10 trillion dollars to the national debt.
  • In 1937, the GDP finally surpassed the GDP of 1929.  It had shown healthy growth since 1933, after four years of decline.
  • In 1937, US imports declined by 22.3% over the previous year. In 2011, imports are at an all-time high.
  • In 1937, private sector business investments decreased by 34.8%, not because FDR cut back on federal spending on the New Deal, but because of uncertainty made worse for business investors by a multitude of often conflicting government programs and regulations, and because FDR moved to raise taxes.

So, is it 1937 again in 2011?  You be the judge based on knowledge of historical facts, not because media parrots cluster around a catch phrase or somebody’s political talking points.

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Sometimes, it isn’t too easy to make sense of economics, especially when the numbers are so large they can almost not be imagined.  And over the past month or so, the debt increase arguments in Washington tossed around numbers so much that you got the impression the speakers were trying to obfuscate rather than inform. So try this one on for size:

If the US government was a family, they would be making $58,000 a year, they spend $75,000 a year, and are $327,000 in credit card debt. They are proposing BIG spending cuts to reduce their spending to $72,000 a year. These are actual proportions of the federal budget and debt, reduced to a level that we can understand.

 

One nation, under God, indivisible? No, I don’t think so.

We are as fundamentally divided as a people now in 2011 as we were in the 1850s, just prior to the Civil War.  Back then the division centered around the issues of racially-based slavery and the proper relationship between the state and federal governments.  Today the divide is defined by an economically based  servitude and the nature of the relationship between the individual and the coercive power of government of all levels.

In the 1850s there were people on both sides of the divide who saw the inherent dangers the our situation but they had no real solution,  proving helpless to prevent the drift toward the Civil War.  And as Shelby Foote, the eminent Civil War historian points out, the Civil War was the result of our failure to do what Americans had previously done so well, i.e. compromise.  There were back then two groups of irreconcilable ideologues, abolitionists who considered slavery a moral evil, not a political issue, and ardent states’-rights proponents who saw the power of Washington in any area of their lives as a threat to their sovereignty.  These people identified themselves more closely as members of a particular group (their state) than as American citizens. For them the form of bondage that most offended was the subservience of the South to the Northern bankers, shippers, and industrialists.  Today there are many Americans who have a greater allegiance to an ethnic, cultural, religious or economic interest than to our national interest.

It might be instructive for Americans, and especially our leaders, to go back and revisit the years from 1850 to the outbreak of hostilities in 1861.  I doubt they will bother.

Yet I believe that in some sense, perhaps only lightly felt, Americans realize the perilous nature of our present situation, at least to the extent that they understand we can’t stay on our present course. (In a July 10 Rasmussen poll, 68% of Americans surveyed said the Unites States was heading in the wrong direction, only 25% in the right direction.)

I believe that ordinary Americans are looking for someone, a leader who could transcend our entrenched interest group-centered attitudes and bring us together.  That was, after all, a part of Obama’s appeal in 2008 when he said “there is not a conservative America and a liberal America, there is the United States of America.  There is not a white America, a black America, a latino America or an Asian America, there is the United States of America.”

Whatever happened to that idea?  More and more it seems these words were just empty campaign rhetoric.The man whom so many hoped would take blue states and red states and turn them into a Purple Nation has become just another political Great Divider. And our divide is wider and seems more insurmountable than ever.

So here we are now, no longer One Nation, Indivisible.  And lacking the leaders with the courage to risk offending their various political bases.  In one sense, we are reaping just what we have been sowing for more than a generation.  We no longer imbue our children with a sense of commonly held ideals, we no longer tell them our National Story. The road to political power is now paved with the efforts to get our fellow citizens to see themselves as belonging to specific interest groups (white, black, latino, male, female, gay, lesbian, transgendered, liberal/progressive, conservative, senior citizens, union members, public service employees, gun owners, etc. etc.) and if enough members of these various groups can be convinced of their own victim-hood and entitlement, so much the better.  If enough of these interest groups can then be cobbled together into temporary electoral coalitions, you win.

Shared sacrifice?  Common purpose?  Those ideas are for chumps, quaint perhaps, but not really meaningful in our world today.

The Civil War was the greatest political calamity our nation has ever faced,  It is a pity we haven’t remembered its lessons.  The Great Depression of the 1930s was the worst economic calamity we have endured.  The economic collapse of 2008-09 was proof that we turned our backs on the harsh lessons the Depression taught us about economic safeguards and restraints, and about fiscal responsibility.

Both the Civil War and Great Depression severely tested the bonds of our nation and its people.  Putting the pieces back together in each instance was a long, painful, and sacrificial process.

Getting out of our current political, social, and economic mess will also be slow and painful, and it will certainly entail sacrifices.  Are we any longer up to the task?

My guess is no, not as we are presently disposed.  What will be required is a different type of political leadership, perhaps a different shared definition of both Fulfillment and Success, and the renewal of a sense of shared identity and purpose (if in fact these things any longer exist in America). Here’s hoping it is not already too late.