Archive for July 2011

How Can Everyone Be Right While At The Same Time Be Wrong?

July 31, 2011

The past couple of months have weighed heavily upon the nation’s common sense.  Solutions to reining in the nations unsustainable deficit problem have been glibly floated without even the simplest use of mathematics to confirm their proposed impact.  Other proposals sacrifice some segment of our society in order to make spending cuts, and still do not solve the basic problem.  Where do we go from here?

For everyone who says we need to increase taxes, or says we need to cut defense or entitlements, they must be asked, “is your goal a balanced budget”?  If the answer is no (or sometime in the future), their suggestions should be ignored.

For everyone who cries out for a balanced budget, they should be asked, “are you willing to pay taxes for the service the government does provide and are you willing to pay taxes for the reducing the debt we have already accumulated”?  If the answer is no to either part, their suggestions should be ignored.

Strangely, there should be a lot of room for a rich dialogue over what is the proper role of government in the 21st century.  It is possible that some will hold government should provide for security and aid businesses, and provide only the skimpiest of social safety networks.

It is possible that others will hold there should be much more government involvement in society, maybe modeled after some European countries.  In the end, however, what ever level of government services is selected, they must be paid for and the debt should be reduced (because it is costing money each year).

The natural consequence of this process, making choices, goes like this.  If the social safety net is severely reduced, the poor and unemployed will put pressure on State and local governments, and their costs will go up.  If the social safety networks are maintained (or even increased), the need to generate greater tax revenues will increase too.  Without citizens working more and paying greater taxes, the deficit will bloom again.

Maybe we should first be asking some more basic questions before we go about proposing solutions to the deficit problem, like

  • Why is the US health care cost the highest (50-100% per capita) in the world and yet still not close to the best?
  • Why is the US Defense Budget equal to the size of all other countries combined?
  • Why does the US, who has 4% of the world’s population, incarcerate 25% of the world’s prisoners ?

These are just a few of the most glaring examples of US policies, well intended, that do not make sense and do not work as conceived.  There are many more and each must be interrogated if there are to be meaningful reforms in Federal spending.

Unfortunately, the deficit debate has lacked any of this insight.  And that is how everyone can be right, while at the same time be wrong.

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General Custer’s Last Stand

July 30, 2011

I would bet that General George Custer might have chosen a different time to pursue those Indians at Little Big Horn if he had had another chance.  The GOP has achieved a similar distinction in Washington with its ideological battle over the deficit and debt.  While potentially noble in spirit, the tying the debt limit to the deficit reduction is both foolish and dangerous in practice.

The GOP has, in the process, exposed its fractious nature.  Independents can now see that if you vote Republican, you are voting for the hard right, not some moderate or reasonable close to center group.  As they say, you get what you pay for.

Most of the GOP positions fail tests of reason or are lacking in fairness.  Tax revenue increases is the most obvious.  The GOP says, “no tax increases”.  Even if you do not want to see tax increases, as the debate continues, it will be come clear that tax loopholes and special exemptions already create unfair differences.  If eliminated or at least modified, significant tax revenues increases could be realized.

Medicare and Social Security are two entitlements which need some benefit modifications AND more funding in the form of payroll taxes in order to be balanced.  Defense spending is currently equal to the size of all other country’s spending.  Is more needed to be said?

Individual income tax is another off the table item.  Why?  The GOP says because raising taxes in a fragile economy hurts jobs because it hurts “job creators”.  It is hard to imagine a more outrageous and unsupported claim.  Raising taxes on the wealthy might be considered unfair if the middle class is not asked to pay more but there is absolutely no connection with job creation and America’s very wealthy.

So how does George Custer get into this?

The GOP has chosen to tie the debt ceiling to reducing the deficit and debt.  This is totally unnecessary since the 2012 Federal budget could be just as good a target.  Even more “Custeresque” is that if the US should default, no one knows for sure what the unintended consequences might be.  Experts, however, predict grave consequences.

George Armstrong Custer was not fit to lead and it appears neither is the GOP.

Crystal Clear

July 29, 2011

The New York Times reported that the Roman Catholic diocese in Orange County, California was negotiating to purchase from the Crystal Cathedral Ministries, the former evangelical “mega church”.  The reported bid was $50 million.

At a time when the Catholic Church is closing inner city churches, and at the same time, going hard right (like in back to the past), the notion of buying a futuristic building and then putting the parishioners to sleep with Latin mumbo-jumbo is quite a hoot.

 

Shameful but Deserved

July 28, 2011

In 2010, the nation turned out many Congressional (as well as many State wide)Democrats.  In their place, voters chose Tea Party and conservative Republicans.  This election was hailed as an example of voters speaking their minds.  I just wonder what language they were speaking?

The 2010 election was mainly about jobs.  Democrats were described as more interested in wasteful spending than stimulating the economy and generating new jobs.  The GOP would fix that.

America is now seeing the fruits of a dysfunctional GOP caucus.  The best part is that we have not seen half of it yet.  Should the nation default, as it now appears likely, a series of chain reactions will take place that will make 2010 look like a boom time for jobs.  The reason is this unmanageable caucus does not know how or when to draw a line in the sand.

Tea Party and conservative Republicans are quite correct that serious steps must be taken to bring the deficit and the debt under control.  They are also correct that entitlements must be challenged and changes made.  The question is, why now and why tie this issue to the debt ceiling increase?

The 2012 Federal Budget has not been passed yet.  This is an equally opportune time to draw the line in the sand and cause the government to grind to a halt.  The advantage of this stand is that the damage is contained domestically and the full faith and credit the Country is not stained.

There is plenty of GOP and Tea Party rhetoric that make little sense to me.  Never the less the US has been built upon “majority rules”.  Even if I think position such as allowing insurance companies to fatten their bottom lines by denying some coverage due to pre-existing conditions, or forcing the elderly on fixed incomes to pay substantially more for Medicare may be morally wrong, I respect the right of others to hold these opinion.  I assume that these policies, if they became law would very soon be seen as hollow (and cruel) and reversed.  That’s how our process is suppose to work.

Democrats have not demonstrated a completely honest approach to the debt crisis either.  Their proposals on spending reductions have been vague, skimpy, and half hearted.  The only mitigating factor has been that the GOP demand for no new taxes strikes the face of reason and fairness.

When two children misbehave, it is often better to punish both children than try to figure out which one is “more” wrong.  I wonder whether there will be new candidates when the 2012 ballots are finally printed?  I think the entire Congress (including new Tea Party members) should be turned out of office.  What do you think?

Real Reform

July 27, 2011

Most polls are registering a very disturbing but unfortunately understandable trend.  Congress, the polls say, is totally dysfunctional and the two major political parties are viewed as almost worthless.  How can America extract itself from this quandary?

Some say there is simply too much ideology in politics.  We need our representatives to be more pragmatic.  Others say our politicians do not consider logic or hard data.  They need to be more fact based.  Others say, well the problem is related to the cost of campaigning.  We need to reduce the cost of elections.

While I think all of these are factors, I think we are overlooking the lure and the corrosive effect that results when each elected official seeks to improve their financial worth while in office.

It is hard to fault anyone who wants to improve their personal financial position but when the means to do so runs clearly head on into ethical behavior there is a problem.

Do you think your congress member can pass these basic ethical questions?

1. Does your Congressional member still have financial connections (even if active participation has been suspended) with any private firms, especially former employers… The objective is to insulate the Congress member from any potential gain for steering business to one of these firms, or from being influenced because someone else tries to steer business to his/her old firm.

2. Does your Congress person still trade in stocks and securities?  Ethically, all securities holdings (at the time of election) should be put in a blind trust, AND, the congress member should recuse themselves in all matters that could impact companies in which they holds stock. Congress members and their immediate families should not  invest in any private or public stock while in office.  It would be acceptable to invest in widely available indexed mutual funds…  The objective is to shield congress member from decisions that favor certain industries and would in turn benefit the Congress person.

3. Does your Congress member receive Honorariums (money to give speeches or attend special meetings)?   The best situation may be to receive none, but a limit of $500 per speaking engagement would be acceptable… Speaking at golf tournament dinners, or on a cruise, or at a vacation spot is also unacceptable unless the Congress person pays for their own entry fee.  The objective again is to avoid receiving goods and services which are not available to everyone else, and represent a gift to the Congress person.  The implication being that gifts beg a returned favor.

4. Has members of your Congress person’s family (mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister)
received special benefits such as employment, contracts, or special favors from businesses or special interests doing or seeking to do business with the Federal Government?  In addition, the family member’s employers should not contribute to the Congress member’s campaign unless the relative has had already 5 years work experience with that firm…. Objective is to reduce the chance that the Congress member receives directly or indirectly favors (through employment of a relative)…

5 Does your Congress member follow a basic ethical standard?  Examples are refusing to accept lunches, dinners, airplane transportation (private or commercial), vacations, conventions entrance fees, gifts (greater than $25.00), or any other item of value… Objective… simply remove temptation.

6. Would your Congress member agree to a Five Year Limit on joining any firm which does business with the Federal Government following his/her government service?   This is designed to prevent the “revolving door” syndrome… Congress members can do many favors for outside firms and interests, and then collect with high paying jobs later.

These six guidelines do not assure good government.  They do assure, however, that if government still fails to perform, the cause rests squarely upon the elected officials or the party to which they belong.

Norway’s Example

July 25, 2011

Over the weekend, the magnitude, horror, and ultimately the stupidity of senseless killings in Norway unfolded.  Over 90 people lost their lives.  The self confessed perpetrator claimed a long list of reasons but why these 90 people (not some others) was not one of them.

Ironically the killer was a “christian fundamentalist” who claimed to fear the gradual decay of Norwegian society as more and more foreigners immigrated.  His main hate target was Muslims and their Islamic religion.  Those victims who were killed were not.  He saw himself, never the less, as performing a heroic feat.

History is replete with case after case of horrific acts done in the name of religion.  History, also has more than enough examples of horrible acts for other purposes such as power and money.  What is it that can be learned from this latest incident?

I would submit that a popular American political slogan provides a clue.  Barry Goldwater said, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”.  He could not have been more wrong.

Those who cling to “doing god’s work” or “defending liberty” almost always do it in a way that interferes with the rights of others.  These professed reformers or crusaders put forth their interpretation as the correct (and often only) version of justice.  This is a criticism not so much of the goal but of the means to achieve the goal.  Killing doctors who perform abortions in order to save lives is sick and demented.  Killing innocent Norwegians because someone feels there are too many immigrants is just as sick and demented.

Maybe the Buddhists had the right idea.  If they felt very strongly about something and wanted to call attention to it, self immolation was the preferred method.

The Republican Coalition

July 23, 2011

It is about time that we began to call a coalition, a coalition.

The GOP is no longer a political party with a thinking core and some slightly divergent sub-caucuses.  Rather, the GOP is a convenient assembly of people who cannot call themselves Democrats.  But other than that, this GOP is a very low order functioning group.  Like other countries with multiple party coalitions, the new GOP seems to be able to agree on recess and when to have its picture taken, and not much else.

The breakdown in debt ceiling negotiations between GOP Speaker of the House, John Boehner, and President Obama is a case in point.  What is the GOP thinking?

Boehner (and most but not all other GOP leaders) says that default cannot happen, the risks are too serious.  Why, then, did the GOP tie large spending cuts to raising the debt ceiling limit in the first place?

The issue is not that large spending cuts are needed.  They are needed in a big way.  The issue is out of whose back side are the cuts to be taken?  Anyone with a pulse would know that deciding where to cut will be a protracted and ugly process.  So why tie it to a time sensitive decision?

One answer is that strategy decisions like this are what weak coalitions often do.  Each faction within a coalition sees things crystal clear.  Together, when trying to choose a comprehensive path forward, the coalition appears to be living in an unworldly fog.

Republicans seem to have lost the public opinion vote around taxes.  Most independents now believe tax increases need to be part of a solution.  The GOP can’t even enunciate the words “tax increases”, they must say, “reduced tax expenditures”.

So where does the GOP go from here?

The high road is to compromise around a Simpson-Bowles or “gang of six” or a last minute “Obama-Boehner” $4 trillion ($3 in cuts for $1 in tax increases) plan.  At present it is hard to see this happening.  It would, however, give the GOP their best chances in 2012.

The low road, and one far more risky, is to finally cut the debt ceiling extension free from this issue.  This path would allow the GOP to campaign on cuts and no taxes while claiming the Democrats have no plan and just want to spend more.

The low road plan is risky for two reasons.  One, the GOP coalition might not agree to this approach, and second, the Democrats might introduce some plan (like Simpson-Bowles) and allow the GOP to gag once again on new taxes.

My take is that the GOP coalition will choose the no-win path.