Monday, September 26, 2011

Is it Class Warfare or Welfare?

There has been rhetoric from those on the left lately about taxing the rich which has been countered by the right complaining about 50% of Americans not paying any taxes. Sorta reminds me of the college class called "how to lie with statistics" . . . or how to make your numbers tell your story. There seems to be a lot of that happening these days.

President Obama spoke to a crowd about his jobs program and the taxes he would like to use to pay for it and even said this is not class warfare -- it is math -- simple as that? Well, no, not quite. Our tax code was not written with the middle class in mind. The one deduction most families have is for their children. Homeowners can add the taxes and interest they pay on their homes and that is about it for most in Middle America. In 2005 more than 70% of all individuals filing used the short form, which meant they took the standard deductions. Businesses, corporate filers and wealthier taxpayers filed the more complex itemized forms. But did they pay their fair share? According to Forbes, regarding the top 25 companies in the US, apparently not. Much of the money from US Corporations is parked off shore in safer harbors and away from US tax liabilities. Huge earnings are offset by allowable losses and expenses in many cases. Profits made elsewhere are protected from US taxes.

Earnings from the big oil companies such as Exxon-Mobil exceeded $10 billion in the second quarter of this year driven by the increase in oil prices which were supposedly driven by the governmental instability in the Middle East and the banking issues in European markets. These price hikes directly affected the fragile economy in the US as companies, spending money for necessary fuel, continued to hold their cash tightly and not hire additional workers. It is said that the huge banking interests in New York are charging companies for cash deposits in excess of $50 Million, because they have chosen to keep the funds parked in money accounts, but not spend proceeds. Is there a moral responsibility from a corporation to give back to the city, state or country that made a business profitable? Should shareholders alone be the beneficiaries of corporate profits? Should profits be earned at all costs?

So when the average unemployment rate is around 9% and the economy is stagnant because consumers aren't buying and business aren't producing, why is there so much in the way of profits and excess cash in the system? Could it be that this is a psychological recession, are corporate interests still blowing on the economic soup to cool it down? States have less money because incomes and sales taxes are down. Businesses are selling less and paying part-time employees instead of full-time workers to save on benefits. More people are uninsured because the job no longer offers health care as an option. The Tea Party rails against those "feeding off the taxpayer" forgetting that the public workers have formed the backbone of our communities by fixing our streets, protecting our neighborhoods and teaching our children. They claim that "unreasonable pension payments" are bankrupting communities, forgetting that these employees often do not pay into social security if they have municipal benefits, so these modest savings will protect them in their later years. By not saving, funding or paying these earned and promised pensions, states and communities are breaking the promises made to these workers many years ago. Yet, some of these same right wingers would rail against unemployment benefits or food stamps to these same public workers.

Where is the collective outrage against the corporate welfare allowed for those 25 corporations and others which paid no US taxes, and who received a free ride? GE's tax return supposedly encompassed over 20,000 pages recently. Most US taxpayers could not afford to even buy that much paper, let alone afford the accountants and attorneys who came up with the numbers to fill those pages. Who elected Grover Norquist to dictate that corporations should not pay for the privilege of doing business? Where is the fairness in the system, when the IRS seldom questions the legality for offshoring of business assets? Why could there not be an excess profits tax, so Exxon-Mobil would have to share some of the extra billions it makes? Why did Bush era Republicans allow tax benefits to companies for moving jobs to other countries? Why could we not hold down the gas profits which were not based on market costs? If the American worker can be assailed by measures outside his control, why can we not look at higher taxes for corporate earnings achieved outside the country? Why is actual welfare for needy families castigated by the right when corporate welfare is called good business?

Do you think the average American worker is treated fairly by the "system"? What would you do to improve our tax code? Should the rich pay a higher rate? Should hedge fund managers -- whose average earnings were over $1 Billion dollars -- be allowed to have their earnings taxed at the capital gains rate of 15%?
May I say that again -- individual earnings of over one billion dollars? When the average American earns less than $50,000? Somebody help me understand the reason for their tax breaks. Let me know what your thoughts are on taxes.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Remembering September 11, 2001

When I was coming of age, one was often asked, "where were you when President Kennedy was shot?" For us that bleak November day was a defining moment for our generation. It was the time when innocence was lost, when the world changed into a less trustworthy place. Conspiracy rumors sputtered for years afterwards, the times were unsettled. For previous generations it was the attack on Pearl Harbor or the Stock Market Crash of 1929. For many today their most horrific time was when the events of September 11, 2001 occurred. It remains a day of chaos, incredulity, and tragedy. Few Americans were left untouched either directly or indirectly. As mentioned by President Obama during remarks at the Sunday Kennedy Center memorial concert, who can ever forget the first responders filing into the burning Twin Towers as others were escaping, then suddenly faced with death? Who can deny their selfless response to a sworn duty? I sense that most readers here could mention feeling disbelief when both towers fell. Who did not cry when the towers entombed so many ordinary people? Who has not felt the pain of survivors mourning and looking for loved ones? I know I was moved by the posters and photos on fences and lampposts. I could not help but feel a comradeship with the grief of the families who spent days not knowing but being afraid to find out what happened to their special person. Who has not marveled at the bravery of those passengers who took down a plane in Pennsylvania, rather than see others gravely harmed? Who has not seen themselves in the government and military workers at their desks in the Pentagon, who were in just the wrong place when the planes hit? These victims were all just regular folks, such as you or me, living their lives, most trying to do their best, but cut down too soon in a most improbable manner. I postulate that is why this is so close to us, that these events were not happening in extraordinary times or places.

Yet as we look back, now only ten years later, it seems to have been an event that was both near and far. Near enough to still bring tears, yet far enough away to allow some reflection. Near enough to show rough scars, distant enough to demonstrate some healing. Sunday, on the tenth anniversary, memorials were unveiled and speeches of healing were made. Many performers shared musical tributes; two I heard were Paul Simon singing Sounds of Silence and a flutist who played Amazing Grace. Both were tunes of stark simplicity. In many ways television is at its best with commemorative events. We have the kaleidoscopic view as well as the historic view paired with tapes from that day. Looking back we can see with different and hopefully wiser eyes as our perspective is tinted with time. There was sorrow, horror, anger and rancor then. Some of that remains yet with us. As the anniversary becomes more distant, what will remain in our collective memories. What will we tell succeeding generations? I hope we will focus more on bravery and survival, rather than terror and fear. What will we teach the children? Towns across the country have received portions of the building remnants to incorporate into local memorials. The Newseum in DC has a powerful photo exhibit and video from producers and reporters on that fateful day.

Many spoke of how the events in 2001 united us as a nation. Congressional Democrats and Republicans together stood on the steps of the Capitol, their voices raised in unison, as they sang patriotic tunes. The country united behind the President who declared war on terror. We stood together and spoke of our desire to move forward and not give in to fear. The almost three thousand men, women and children who died as a result of the plane crashes are not to be forgotten. Across this country memorials continue to bring people together in solemn and simple ceremonies in towns and cities large and small. Many have said they treasured the unity of the post September 11 period. Americans in foreign venues reported being stopped on the street by nationals who wanted to express their condolences. A friend, who was stranded in China when the airports were closed, described the kindness of strangers given to her just because she was an American. The world then shared our pain and joined in our sorrow.

Yet it should be mentioned that much has changed since terror came to our shores. We have fewer freedoms, our complacency is lost each time we remove our shoes at an airport or have our bags searched on the Metro. The world which shared our sorrow and supported us in Afghanistan -- when we searched for Bin Laden -- turned away when our country went into a misguided war in Iraq. Yet as a nation we have stood behind our armed forces as they went bravely off to war and returned, some 5,000 dead from Iraq, more thousands in Afghanistan (all in all, so many are so young). Many more return maimed or brain damaged. What has been the price of these wars in both money and in our self image? Hopefully we soon can say we will be out of both countries and wage no more war there. Now also the mastermind Bin Laden is dead and his organization is in shambles, yet we cannot cease vigilance. However, what is the long-term cost to our democracy, for our safety? Freedom isn't free, say some, but how do we measure its cost?

Sunday, I attended an interfaith memorial service at a local Muslim Community Center as hundreds in my town joined in a spirit of community and brotherhood. People of many nationalities and religions, (Jews, Christians, Muslims and others), offered words for hope and read from religious works with common themes, from prophets writing long ago. Many spoke of peace and understanding and common dreams for a better world. Elected officials mentioned the need for a community to come together, while the religious leaders spoke of the need for all peoples to have peace. Obviously we need more than words. We need hearts and minds to change. We need a government not ever eager to go to war. We need messages of intolerance and actions of hatred to cease. I remember the words of a song, "let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me" -- will this ever happen in our lifetime?

Let me hear from you -- how can we start to achieve peace? What did you learn from this day of remembrance?

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Republican Candidates Debate

Did you watch the debate which was held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California? Did you, like me, also think that the former President must have been spinning in his grave as his policies were so misconstrued by all on that stage? I must admit that I have never worshipped at the feet (or feats) of the "great communicator," but I do believe that this group was tripping over themselves in stated allegiances to his principles while concurrently marching so far to the right of wherever he had been.

Everyone looks at debates and tries to determine winners and losers; I did the same. Let's see if you agree with my assessment.

Governor Romney appears to have helped his campaign the most in contrast to Governor Perry, although Ambassador Huntsman also tried to stand out. Even though Huntsman moved right, some of his statements were the most coherent, especially regarding a refusal to take pledges and in support of science. Michelle Bachman made no blooper statements, but her remarks neither stood out, nor made a difference. Actually she was lightly regarded by the moderators who wanted a knock-down between the two Governors and were not equitable in their questioning of the candidates. I think this reflected poorly on them, rather than the candidates. There were no questions regarding foreign affairs, nor were solutions sought regarding the world financial markets.

Former Senator Rick Santorum appeared out of his league, Newt Gingrich seemed surly, and Herbert Cain seems to live in an alternate universe. Representative Ron Paul had major differences with Governor Perry which he tried to emphasize, but they were on state, not Federal issues, mostly. And, finally, Perry was apparently his usual self, insisting that Social Security was a Ponzi scheme and would never pay benefits to our children. He was defensive about his jobs program, and could not speak adequately to the lack of medical care for more than 26% of Texans. He appears to prefer posturing to providing real solutions or answering direct questions directly. Once he ran out of prepared responses to predictable questions, he foundered and seemed less sure of his answers. In a surprising response to a question about the death penalty (used more often in Texas than any other state), Perry reinforced his positions, did not step back and received prolonged applause from the partisan Republican audience.

Governor Romney did engage in some give-and-take and appeared to relish the chance to provide a clear difference between himself and Perry. However he still provided no new ideas, nor did he move toward the center or try to reach the independent voters who sit mainly in the middle. Although he vowed that he was not a Tea Party member, he drew no distinctions between the Tea Party positions and his policies. Given the cast of characters on the stage with him, he did not seem to feel that he needed to stray from the radical policies they espouse. He did say that he would try to improve Medicare and Social Security. Although he has supported privatization in the past, he gave few details and tried to expand the distance between himself and Perry on this subject. He alone seemed to be running more against President Obama than his fellow Republicans, despite his drop in the polls to second place once Perry entered the race.

The biggest loser was Michelle Bachman, who despite her win in the Ames straw poll, has been in free-fall ever since Perry stormed out of Texas. Commentators in the MSNBC post debate show relegated her to the second tier and Hunstman and Santorum to the third tier.

One effect of this may be the ability to raise funds. Ed Rollins quit as her manager, citing age and health concerns, but one should wonder. Huntsman, Gingrich, and Romney have independent sources of income, so they do not need to go outside for funds. Perry has lots of moneyed friends, so he can stay the course.

According to the New York Times, candidates were sometimes loose with the facts: Some talked around the jobs issue and called for changes in regulations not in effect and opposed climate change protections which were said to be causing job loss -- a claim which has not been proven. All spoke out against the President's health plan with Bachman shouting out against "Obamacare" as job killing and made extraordinary claims about Social Security and Medicare. Other claims that stated global climate change is not happening and not man-made are -- to my way of thinking -- a denial of reality. There was little attempt to reach out, and in the Reagan Library they went where even Reagan would never have gone. How sad the process on the right has become.

So, who do you think was a winner or loser? Do you think the country is really moving this far right? Share your opinions here.