Friday, April 11, 2014

The Sky Is Falling

Have you noticed how fast that, whenever a tax increase, regulatory change, or new mandate is proposed on a business activity or income, the End of America and our Economy is quickly upon us?  The corporate press releases immediately flood the “news” shows and print media decrying “this latest attack on free enterprise.”  Jobs will most certainly be lost, costs to consumers will rise, innovation will be stifled, freedoms will be lost; capitalism will be plunged into an unrecoverable downward spiral.  Lobbyists and special interest groups jump into action and start organizing their campaigns: more pictures of polar bears stranded on disappearing ice floes will show up in mailboxes; mini-drama ads of a married couple at the dinner table staring at stacks of already unpaid bills will hit the TV airways.  Twitter and Facebook messages will spike.  Political parties and candidates will take some small legal footnote, or one isolated anecdotal story, and make it into a seemingly grave national issue.  In the deafening roar of all of the noise, the original substantive issue, and the truly pertinent information relative to it, will be drowned out.  Meanwhile, the Fate of the Republic will seemingly hang in the balance.

In the end, if the proposal does make it into passage and implementation, doomsday will surprisingly somehow manage to slip away.  It will be all but forgotten as the country adjusts, moves on, and awaits the next forthcoming mis-informational crisis.

In the 1980s, Congress managed to actually pass a reform of the U.S. Tax Code.  A lot of special interests were losers in that battle, the general public the overall winner.  Yet the economy survived, the lobbyists continued to thrive, and over the last 25 years the Tax Code has been subsequently and gradually riddled into even worse shreds – now unfair to most everybody.

In this same period, the “3-martini businessman lunch” was curtailed by limiting the tax deduction for business/travel meals to 50% of the actual charge.  The food and leisure industry projected a great loss of revenue as business people would “no longer spend their money on client entertainment.”  Didn’t happen.  Business lunches (and dinners) had already become an embedded part of the business culture.  The only restaurants with empty tables were the establishments serving bad food.

Ditto those locales that banned smoking in eating establishments.  Restaurants, and particularly bars, protested loudly that smokers would no longer come to them.  Yet as this grass-roots, local-option initiative progressively moved across the country, smokers adjusted, non-smokers were delighted, and the bar stools stayed occupied.  Even in tobacco country.

Ditto with seat belts in automobiles.  These and other safety measures were projected to add significant costs to manufacturing a car, costs that would be passed on buyers who would no longer buy.  Today seat belts are a given, drawing none of our attention.  Auto sales are at a record high.

Ditto with gas efficiency.  From the dawn of the oil/energy crisis in the 1970s and the rise of gasoline prices at the pump, for 30 years car manufacturers fought making any improvements in gasoline efficiency.  Until the federal government bailed them out of bankruptcy and made “improved mpg” a requirement for the cash infusion.  Five years later the auto companies are now tripping all over each other trying to out-claim who has the best mpg – double what they used to produce. Mandates and the marketplace still work.

Ditto when, 40 years ago, some states started requiring a 5¢ deposit on glass and canned drink containers.  The food and drink industry howled that this added “cost” would reduce their sales.  But consumers paid this one-time 30¢-for-a-6-pack container charge, brought their recyclables back for a revolving refund, and bought just as much beer and soda as before.  Meanwhile, a whole recycling industry was quick-started, and litter on the roadsides went down dramatically – something that our mountains of western North Carolina could greatly benefit from.

The list goes on and on.  Proposals made; screams of protest about loss of jobs and revenue as costs rise; and then little or nothing of the doomsday scenarios happens.  Because in the end, Americans have always been creative and adaptable to new changes in their lives, even if they come kicking and screaming.  Americans like what they like, and being creatures of routine and habit with continuing expectations of “a better life,” their creativity finds a way to still meet their needs.  The added costs do not materialize, off-setting schemes are developed, consumers adjust their budgets to compensate.  Every time gasoline spikes to $4/gallon, drivers protest to their local news shows how they “will have to cut back on their driving and vacation trips.”  A few months later people are putting just as many miles on the road as before.

It is all a reality of life we need to remember as politicians posture their rhetoric for the November 2014 (and 2016) elections forthcoming, and businesspeople push for their pet special interests.  Obamacare will not bankrupt or destroy the economy.  Equal pay for women and raising hourly wages above the poverty level will not likely prevent my next franchise or fast food meal or hotel stay.  The same will be true as alternative  energy products come into being; as solutions arrive to our air pollution that leads to adverse climate change; as fairness is ultimately returned to the Tax Code; as “more wealth” no longer means “paying a lesser tax rate”; and as spiraling health care costs are finally reined in.  Chicken Little hysterically told everyone that the sky was ready to fall; he was wrong, and corporate America and politicians are wrong.  The sky is still properly safe and where it belongs.

Corporate America needs to buck up and stop whining and find solutions rather than problems.  “The wealthy 1%” needs to start paying tax rates at least equal to everyone else.  Yet there is another obligation that is required.  An obligation on We the General Public.  We have to stop being fear prone, and susceptible to the fear-advertising that is sent our way.  We also have to buck up and agree to pay our own fair share of the true costs of living.

Roads and bridges are crumbling and desperately need major repair.  Gas taxes pay for that.  Converting old power plants to cleaner turbines takes significant investment money.  Rate charges pay for that.  Throwing litter and waste into streams and roadsides costs money to clean up.  State taxes pay for that cleanup.  Growing safe food and manufacturing safe products cost more money than deadly items from an unregulated China.  Federal taxes pay for those inspections that keep us safer.

Buying things on the cheap without recognizing the true long-term costs they actually require – from initial production to final disposal – is both foolish and irresponsible.  Taking in our recyclables is incomplete unless we subsequently buy the goods made from those recyclables.  Safety, waste disposal, humane working conditions come at a price – a price we all have to be willing to pay in full.  That may require some new priorities in our budgets, some different spending decisions.  But we cannot yell at corporate America’s bluster and self-serving decisions if we in turn bluster about our self-serving needs for “cheap prices at any cost.”  Our consumer dollars need to be spent far more wisely, whatever our financial circumstances.  The real cost of a car is far more than the invoice taped to the windshield.  The real cost of our life has been heretofore more than we have been willing to pay.  No more.

© 2014    Randy Bell