Thursday, April 30, 2009

A STRONG, TWO-PARTY SYSTEM

A small number of Republicans who describe themselves as moderates and a large number of Democrats who describe themselves as Democrats declare the importance of a strong, two-party system. Christine Todd Whitman waxes eloquent on the point:

"In the coming election cycle, we have the opportunity to remind the nation that our party is committed to such important values as fiscal restraint, less government interference in our everyday lives, environmental policies that promote a balanced approach between protection and economic interest, and a foreign policy that is engaged with the rest of the world." (NYT, 30 April 2009)

If I were Ms. Whitman, I would be embarrassed to pen such words, especially to “remind the nation” of the GOP’s commitments. Even people with only short political memories surely recall that the GOP controlled both the Presidency and Congress from 2001 to 2007, during which period the Republicans made clear their commitments. They doubled the national debt, to $12 trillion—so much for the GOP commitment to “fiscal restraint.” They launched an invasion into the lives of citizens with unauthorized wiretapping, the scope of which remains unknown—so much for the GOP commitment to “less government interference in our everyday lives.” They adopted environmental policies allowing coal companies to decapitate entire mountains and deposit the waste into streams and rivers, to the detriment of water quality, agriculture, and tourism in West Virginia—so much for the GOP commitment to “a balanced approach between protection and economic interest.” They rejected climate control and launched an unnecessary war—so much for the GOP commitment to “a foreign policy that is engaged with the rest of the world.” No one, I think, can match this 6-year record of Republican domination in the White House and Congress to anything like the commitments which Whitman claims are those of the Republican Party. Nor can one make must sense of her list of icons, including Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Reagan—(!!!)—, and excluding Teddy Roosevelt (!), the one Republican whose commitments most closely track hers.

If a moderate like Ms. Whitman can unashamedly reassert as basic GOP commitments its long-term departures from them, everyone can see how far the GOP has declined from the consistency, much less the cogency, of meaningful political discourse. She is neither dishonest nor hypocritical; to be either (or both), she would have to know that her remarks have nothing to do with the facts on the ground and “our everyday lives.” The GOP’s attachment to nostrums serviceable enough in the nineteenth century but useless in the twenty-first is so strong that even its moderates can no longer distinguish between the political fantasy of its nostalgic ideology and modern historical reality.

Delusionally, moderates like Ms. Whitman and Maine Senator Olympia Snowe urge the very conservatives who use or abuse them to reconsider their strategy of ideological purity. Such moderates are denying the reality within their party, whose conservatives want their votes but not their voices. If reality ever penetrates their denial, perhaps they will seek to work with, if not join, a Democratic Party which, among other policies, seeks to pursue fiscal policies appropriate to present and long-term conditions, restrain or end government violations of law and civil liberties, make partners of the economy and the environment, and respectfully re-engage the United States in world affairs. (And it might address the “everyday lives” of people who need health care which is accessible and affordable, and education

Ms. Whitman may deceive herself, but she is not likely to deceive many others. We know that the GOP has greatly departed from what she describes as its commitments. And we sense that a party with so little respect for dissent within its ranks cannot be a party prone to respect differences with the party across the aisle. Instead of being a party of “loyal opposition,” the Republican Party has become the party of opposition only. It just says “no.”

Monday, April 27, 2009

REFORMS: WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN AND WHAT SHOULD BE

The causes of the current collapse of the economy I have done my best to outline in my column “Obama—The Un-Robin Hood.” I want to take a more positive approach to the problem by suggesting cures.

But, first, a word about what should have been done and, if the economy continues to slide, can be done: put money in the hands, not of the feckless financiers, but of every man, woman, and child in America. Take, say, $2 trillion dollars, divide it by the 300,000,000 residents, and issue checks for $6,666 to every one of them (or pay in installments). It does not matter whether this windfall is spent or saved; people can cover expenses, pay their mortgages, pay on their credit cards, or put money in the bank. People will be directly and promptly helped, the banks will get money one way or another, and the economy will benefit. All good, and what Obama, were he not a conventional capitalist and elite-pleasing politician, should have done in the first place.

Then, for the future, a few basic reforms can establish guidelines within which the market can operate freely and protect the larger interests of the economy as a whole. The resulting economic stability can play a political premium by reducing social stress and partisan rancor.

The thrust of these reforms is not to constrict the free market, but to construct a “fair market,” in which all parties to an economic transaction are reasonably informed of its benefits, costs, and risks. In capitalistic economies, all parties wish to maximize their individual interests by means fair or foul. As a result, one party often benefits at the cost of the other—with the present meltdown a cumulative result. To avoid such dire outcomes, we need to think of maximizing the collective value of the transaction to both parties. If so, maximizing and balancing the collective value of the transaction requires a mediator. That mediator is the government operating through rules and regulations which neither prescribe nor proscribe transactions, but ensure their fairness to all parties.

On this understand, I offer the following reforms:

• Transparency of all types of financial companies, trusts, funds, etc.
o Complete, accurate, intelligible, and standardized statements of corporate activities and financial reports
o CEO, CFO, and CBD certification of disclosure statements
o Zero-tolerance enforcement, and mandatory penalties and medium-security imprisonment for any violation of law for false or fraudulent filings or representations (confiscation of all company-related benefits, including those transferred to family and friends)

• Joint Legislative and Executive Branch pre-approval of all new financial instruments or arrangements, with market impact statements (like filings for new drugs or power plants)

• Non-transference of any debt instruments (loans, mortgages, etc.) individually or collectively with other instruments
• Dedicated excise tax on financial transactions for a reserve fund as insurance against a future regulatory failure or unforeseen circumstances

• Revitalization of anti-trust legislation to reverse already horizontally integrated financial corporations and to preclude future horizontal integration in the financial industry—all to eliminate the problem of too-big-to-fail mergers

• Integration of the credit card system, reform of its eligibility requirements, and reform of its costs
o A national consumer-credit clearinghouse to establish means-based limits on credit-card ownership, ceilings, and use
o Federal regulations requiring disclosure of, and limiting, interest, fees, and penalties on credit or debit accounts

• Substantial down-payment requirements on mortgages (like margin requirements for stock market purchases)

• Dollar-for-dollar income tax exemption for savings account deposits less withdrawals, with balances not more than the FDIC limit:
o General savings accounts: annual net total deposits not to exceed amount of earned income up to adjusted gross incomes of not more than 20% of FDIC limit, with tax on account interest
o First-home mortgage savings account: annual net total deposits (non-mortgage withdrawals taxed as income), with no tax on account interest

• Retroactive recovery of all non-salary compensation of any kind or amount since 1 September 2008 by officers or former officers of financial companies requiring federal assistance.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

REPUBLICANS DEFEND TORTURE

In grubbing for something, anything, to discredit the Obama Administration and distract from the record of the Bush Administration, a lot of high-ranking Republican officials and office holders—Vice President Cheney, General Michael Hayden (head of NSA and CIA), and some other CIA directors—have cobbled up a defense based on claims that the release of torture memorandums or the renunciation of torture endangers American security. Their concern is either that the disclosure will help enemies prepare to resist torture if America resorts to it sometime in the future (under the GOP) or that America is ruling out the use of a tool necessary to national security.

The first claim is that knowing our torture techniques helps enemies resist them. But these memorandums tell our enemies nothing not already known to them. They know that America has tortured prisoners in the past and suspect that it will torture them in the future. They know our techniques because repatriated victims have reported their experiences, and international organizations and worldwide media have broadcast them. The only people not to know much about American torture are the American people.

The second claim is that torture has produced useful results. Nothing released so far supports this claim. High-level officials insist on this point. However, lower-level CIA operatives once engaged in interrogating prisoners have denied that torturing them produced any significant or useful information. Some Democratic members of the Senate Intelligence Committee say they have seen nothing of value derived from tortured prisoners, and their Republican committee colleagues have not contradicted them.

Part of the second claim is that torture is indispensable when the situation is urgent. This part of the claim is dubious. The CIA waterboarded two “high-value” prisoners 266 times in one month, one of them on average nearly six times a day. We do not know whether at the end of the month either offered up anything useful. But we do know that neither offered up anything quickly. From here, it looks like brutality only.

Indeed, some CIA agents sometimes restrained themselves in torturing prisoners because they thought that they had gone beyond the limits of what was legal or moral. Hoping to excuse them from prosecution, Obama offers the “they-were-just-obeying-orders” defense, one rejected by the Nuremberg Trials of war crimes. His effort may not succeed but not for lack of trying in the face of growing repugnance at American torture.

The question of results makes the justification of torture depend entirely on practical grounds. Of course, enemies can justify torturing our troops on the same grounds. If we can ignore national or international law, never mind moral law, against torture, enemies can do likewise. If we torture enemies, enemies can torture our troops. Ironically, the most practical thing turns out to be the legal and moral thing.

We are going to learn a lot more about American torture in coming days, weeks, and months. But the education will be painful, both because of the revulsion which torture prompts in most people. If people do not like torture, they are not going to like the people who promoted it. So Republicans have much to fear from documents already released and to be released, investigations by the Justice Department and the FBI, hearings by Congress, and all kinds of official and media reports.

The present GOP strategy is to pre-emptively discredit the Obama Administration in order to distract attention from the brutality and dishonesty of Bush Administration officials, Ninth Circuit Judge Jay S. Bybee, and other Department of Justice officials; and to protect them from exposure and possible impeachment or indictment. The more we know, the less savory these officials appear to be in their contempt for basic American values, their lack of respect for the law of the land, and their cynical abandonment of traditional standards of, and aspirations to, civilized behavior.

I do not pretend that torture or torture after rendition to other countries did not occur during previous Democratic as well as other Republican administrations. But under their administrations, torture was off the books because everyone knew it was illegal and wrong. The Bush Administration’s innovation was to use the Department of Justice to legitimize and sanction torture as a matter of official state policy, to pervert national and international law to promote its political and military policies. At the same time, the entire apparatus of denial, secrecy, and twisted legal constructions were all efforts at concealment and anticipatory defense against the discovery of what they knew was wrong-doing, both illegal and immoral. (Without approving of past uses of torture, I note that using it against agents of established despotic states is an entirely different matter from using it against agents of indigenous terrorist organizations. Torture does not greatly aid recruitment and popular support in such states, but it does in areas in which such organizations exist.)

Not the least of concerns is that the post-9/11 policies and plans for torture came from the highest levels of the Bush Administration. President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and others in the Administration lied to the American people when they stated that America does not torture. Inevitably, sooner rather than later, the GOP defense will descend to semantics: we in the Bush Administration know what we meant by “torture”; what do you mean by “torture”; and who is to say who is right in the face of a then waxing, now waning, threat? Fortunately, the word has established legal definitions, so that quibbling and quarreling is not going to save the GOP. And for the administration which once proudly pooh-poohed “reality-based” thinking, the facts will be torture: a slap in the face or a douse of cold water.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

“IF YOU’RE BROWN, YOU CAN HANG AROUND”

Big Bill Broonzy’s lyric occurred to me while I was trying to make sense of the Tea Bag Parties on Tax Day. From all of the media coverage, I distilled that they offered more frenzied incoherence than anything else. I discerned that some people object to taxes.

The Boston Tea Party did not protest taxes. It protested the Crown’s refusal to permit American colonists to have representatives with a voice in shaping tax policy. The cry was, “no taxation without representation.” Well, whatever we think of them, we have representatives who presumably represent us in voting for or against taxes.

Many seemed to have protested the billions and billions being spent to bail out the very institutions which and individuals who, in promoting or purchasing speculative investments, respectively, played fast and loose with the economy. Were it not for Bush and Obama, most of these high rollers would have lost their shirts or blouses. Which—set Bush aside—raises an interesting question: why is a street-savvy guy like Obama robbing the middle-class to bailout the rich?

There are many answers, some good, and many of them apply. To which I add another: he is trying to hang around. In America, Obama, with a white mother and a black father, is “black.” To look at him, he is brown, yet he is perceived as black, and many people fear or loathe blacks. As I suspect that he conceives it, part of his job as the first “black” president is to show whites that they have nothing to fear and little to loathe. If so, his conception is about right; the lack of fact and the diffused focus of the Tea Bag Parties, attended almost entirely by whites, suggests an issue not to be spoken.

So what is he doing? For the rich and powerful, mostly the white elites along the eastern seaboard, he is trying to minimize their losses. For middle-class bigots, mostly the white southern and western officials of the Bush Administration, he is repudiating his oath of office and everything he knows about law—treaties, Constitution, United States Code, case law—to prevent the prosecution of their former leaders.

His is a fool’s enterprise. He cannot appease, much less overcome, the racist bigotry of those whom he would assure any more than Jews could appease or overcome German anti-Semitism by complying with harsh Nazi laws against them. Debasing his integrity by squandering taxpayers’ money and setting a dangerous precedent for the future—he puts the President and his staff above the law—will likely reinforce the racist prejudice that blacks are inferior and unworthy to lead. His idea that prosecutions of Bush administration officials would be perceived as retribution reflects his fear of this accusation from bigots. If he keeps trying to ingratiate himself with the unappeasable, he will encourage disrespect, discontent, and dissent, even among his erstwhile supporters, and undermine his efforts.

My best advice to Obama: do what is right, not white; show us your best, it will be good enough; and trust most Americans to follow your example and your lead. They voted for change they believed in; you need to believe in the change for which they voted.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

TAX TALK AND TALK AND MORE TALK

I actually like to pay my taxes—do not urge me to pay yours, though—and, when I used an accountant, my instructions were, “when its gray, be sure to pay.” But I do not want to pay for waste, fraud, and abuse—one reason why I repeatedly criticize both private-sector health care and public-sector education costs. Too much for too little.

But the litany which I have heard throughout my lifetime—taxes are too high—never resonates with me for a lot of reasons. First, no one who utters this inane litany ever defines the yardstick. After the war, the upper tax bracket was 91 percent—too high. It has been coming down ever since. It is now 35 percent—still too high. When will it not be “too high”? I suppose that someone’s answer will be a “fair tax,” namely, a regressive (low) flat tax rate proposal, which would transfer the greatest proportionate of the tax burden to the middle class. Perhaps someone can tall me why people in the middle class hard pressed by the economy like the idea of the rich getting ever richer. Do they think that they are going to win the lottery to put them in the upper crust?

Politicians pander that the taxes sent to Washington should be money kept in our purses and wallets. What a joke: our money is not in our purses or wallets; it is overspent in credit cards. In aggregate personal spending, We the People are over $2 trillion dollars in debt. We feel pinched because of our own versions of waste, fraud, and abuse; and our inability to manage our budgets to match income with expenses. We blame Uncle Sam instead of ourselves.

And second, I no one who utters this inane litany ever specifies which cuts in expenses would results from a rest of a cut in tax revenues. No one says, “let’s cut Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, national defense, or disaster relief.” No one says,” let’s cut VA hospitals, assistance to small businesses, agricultural subsidies, construction of dams and levees, funds for roads and highways and bridges and airports, research grants to colleges and universities, or anything else. Some people just get cute about some highly specialized, lightly funded research project on a species of butterfly and think that they have proposed a solution to the budget problem. Either get serious or give it up to private grumbling over beers with friends.

A relevant story from the mid-80s. When, as chair of a country-level PTA committee, I discovered that a management problem was causing enormous waste in the computer program: one staff committee purchased 48K software applications, and another purchased 16 K computer; of course, no one could use either, so everything sat unused and unusable in storage rooms. With my committee’s support, I persuaded the Executive Committee, then the county PTA, to seek a drastic cut in computer funding until the school administration could proceed sensibly. (BTW, no PTA had ever asked for budget cuts.) In response to pre-budget pressures, staff reduced its request 50 percent; in response to my speech stating the PTA’s position, the School Board cut the computer budget another 50 percent and directed the Superintendent to form a joint staff/public committee to review and redesign the entire computer acquisition and training program and to develop a more modest budget. Results: savings estimated at over $15 million (almost $30 million today) over the original plans three-year life, and an effective, efficient planning and budgeting process of the computer program. The point: specify and explain.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

IT’S A TAXING DAY

Beware the Ides of April. Tax returns and usually some taxes are due. The occasion for national carping is at hand. But set me down as someone who has never understood what the carping is about.

Americans pay fewer taxes per capita than Europeans, but, for us, they are always “too high.” I have no idea what anyone means by “too high”; in my seven decades, taxes have always been “too high,” but the economy did better when taxes were far higher than it has been doing for several decades when they have been lower. Is there a counter-intuitive possibility lurking here, namely, that higher taxes are the concomitant of a stronger economy?

I can imagine that when we spend twice as much per capita as they do on education and health, and get mediocre results perhaps, people have some grounds for complaint. But perhaps the complaints should be, not with taxes, but with the health-care industry and the public-education combine, which do not produce results commensurate with their funding. (I just love the blame equally shared here between one private-sector and one public-sector industry.)

Otherwise, I think that paying taxes is the patriotic thing to do. Talk the talk; walk the walk. If you sound off as patriotic, then pay up as patriotic.

I cannot imagine loving our country and not wanting to support our government, which, by the way, through our representatives, is intended to do as we wish it to do. If you are not paying attention and are not working to do see that it does what you, among millions, think that it should, you should blame yourself, not the government and not its taxes.

I cannot imagine not having most of the things which the government provides with our taxes. I know of no one who believes that government should not provide for the national defense or emergency assistance. I know of no one who wants to give up Medicare and Medicaid, and very few who want to give up Social Security. Most agree that we need interstate highways, research laboratories, national parks, and a lot of things which promote, or give assurance of, a strong economy and safety, health, and environmental quality.

Of course, I feel no pinch just now. I so hate to pay penalties and interest for underpayments that I overpay my quarterly estimated taxes. I do not know whether I pay less in lost interest than in penalties and interest, but I do know that I am getting a refund and a good deal for my tax dollar.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

SHOOTING FROM THE LIP

I have no trouble with the right to bear arms. The Constitution is an evolving document, so that, even if the Second Amendment originally implied a right to bear arms only in a militia, I am content that it now implies the right to bear arms. But I do have trouble believing that this right is an absolute one. After all, no First Amendment rights are absolute. The right to free speech does not entitle anyone to libel or slander anyone else, to commit perjury, to yell “fire” in a theater, to incite to riot, etc. So I do have trouble with the right to bear—that is, possess and use—any arms at all unconstrained by similar concerns for the public good.

State, district, or territorial legislatures should define constraints on types of arms, use, and ownership for the public good. I see no more danger from registration and regulation to ownership and use of arms than I do of automobiles. But I see no danger to denying people assault rifles, bazookas, rocket-propelled grenades, Stinger missiles, and a lot else. Or restricting use of arms to hunting game, killing critters, and protecting people. Or restricting their deployment which recognizes differences in safety concerns in countryside and city. Permitting the carrying of automatic weapons near schoolyards makes much less sense than allowing bars, strip joints, or adult movie stores near them. As it is, no one can carry arms into schools or most other public buildings, or unto planes. Legislatures do regulate the possession and use of arms without outlawing arms.

Legislatures should also restrict the bearing of arms by certain kinds of people. They deny former felons convicted of violent crimes the right to possess arms. They sometimes deny deranged or disturbed people the right to possess or purchase arms. They deny children the right to purchase arms but allow parents to buy them for them. Legislatures do regulate the bearers of arms without outlawing arms.

More problematic are citizens who believe that the possession of arms gives them a sense of security or protection from possible or perceived threats against their freedom by the federal government. I am aware of such claimed, but no such creditable, threats in my lifetime. Today, some people perceive the enormous scale of government action to address economic difficulties as a power grab; I can understand that view, but I cannot make the transition from an objection to bailouts or stimulus funds to any concern about the right to bear arms.

Indeed, the Obama administration has publicly stated its support of the recent Supreme Court decision establishing the individual’s right to bear arms, militia or not. Nevertheless, some blowhards charge the president with plotting against gun-owners. I hope that such indulgence of fears or defiance of facts has no unintended consequences. But if some wingnut reacts by shooting the president, legislatures may place truly tough constraints on gun possession and use which will make defenders of the Second Amendment long for the good old days.