Monday, November 27, 2017

Tax Cut Swindle

“The chief business of the American people is business.”      Calvin Coolidge, 30th President

Republican Calvin Coolidge was the ideological hero of our 40th President, Ronald Reagan. Coolidge was a pro-business Vermonter who believed in a conservative philosophy of limiting government in the affairs of business people and the everyday activities of citizens. Less than one year after leaving office, his “hands off” policies help lead to our decade-long Great Depression.  60 years later, Republican President Ronald Reagan espoused a similar pro-business agenda, passing a tax cut bill designed to “boost the economy.” He promised that the resulting shortfall in tax revenues would be made up by a spike in the economy from increased business profits which would generate new income. A short-term loss would be made up for by a long-term gain. Sounded good; everybody would win.

Except that it did not work. By the end of his second term, the deficit was soaring, paper profits were disappearing, and the savings and loan industry had collapsed. Republican President George H. W. Bush had to pass tax increases to try to close the resulting gap, which helped cost him reelection. It took Democratic President Bill Clinton and Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich to pass the first balanced budget in over a century – all subsequently undone by Republican President George W. Bush’s unfunded Iraq War and expansion of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, sealed by yet another housing recession. History repeats itself.

Fast forward to 2017. Republicans control Congress and the presidency, but by the end of the new president’s first “honeymoon” year little-to-nothing of substance has been accomplished legislatively. Desperate to show their voter base some accomplishment, they roll out yet again the promised land of tax reform. The strategy in January was a) fast-track repeal of Obamacare after seven years of promises, then b) a quick passage of tax reform – two major objectives in an impossibly short timeline. Nine months later, Obamacare repeal was dead, exposing the weaknesses in Republican governance. So tax reform became the do-or-die face-saving – to be done in two months in the face of all the corporate lobbyists stacked up on the playing field.

Like their disastrous approach to Obamacare repeal, Republicans excluded Democrats from negotiations, as well as most of their own party members – another secret process by party leaders. When the proposed legislation finally came out, “tax reform” (hard to do) had become “tax cuts” (easier to sell). The Christmas tree of “something for everyone” was open for gift giving. Fast-tracked token committee hearings were held to hide the secret bargains therein.

Great pains were taken to claim this was not a giveaway to the rich, but was targeted to Middle Americans. Except that is a lie (confirmed by the CBO). Repeal the estate tax, which benefits only the tiniest percentage of the richest Americans. Reduce corporate tax rates from 35% to 20% – but is any big corporation actually paying 35% (versus less than 10%) given their armies of tax lawyers and accountants?  New exemptions for private plane owners. Keep special low tax rules for Wall Street investment bankers, while eliminating tax exemptions for individuals. Permanent tax cuts for businesses; temporary tax cuts for individual citizens. On and on.

And the middle income folks that are supposedly the target of all of this? Double the standard exemption – absolutely no help to homeowners and others who itemize their deductions. Increase the child care credit – good for struggling parents, but no help to adults with grown or no children and senior citizens. Cut the tax rates for lower income taxpayers – at last, an actual shared benefit. Except for the other things you lose to offset that benefit: e.g. caps on medical expenses that continue to bankrupt families; cap or eliminate state and local tax deductions (just “coincidentally” a higher impact on “blue” states); limit deductions for student debt; add new taxes on underpaid graduate student tuition stipends. Cutting the tax rates while raising one’s taxable income is supposedly a win for the middle class?

And by the way, while we are at it, stick in an unrelated attempt to kill Obamacare by gutting the mandatory medical insurance requirement – which has nothing to do with tax legislation. That will put 13 million people into the uninsured ranks, and send them back to emergency rooms for “free” treatment when they get sick – a visit that in fact will be paid for by all insured people. The resulting premium increases for the insured will more than offset their promised tax cut.

The end result? 1.5 trillion dollars of new debt over the next 10 years. This from the party of supposed deficit hawks, who resent “welfare bums and their entitlements” but willingly support special-interest corporate entitlements as “good for the economy.” But not to worry. This exploding debt will be paid for by extraordinary (and unprecedented) GDP and income generation, resulting in new tax income to cover the new debt. Sound familiar? Reagan, 1981.It did not work then; it will not work now, Economists are shaking their heads; lobbyists are laughing all the way back to their corporate headquarters.

In numerous polls, people prioritize concerns over healthcare, jobs, immigration, North Korea, terrorists both domestic and foreign. Tax cuts are way down the list. Yet nothing is being done about those priority issues. Less than 20% of people support this Republican tax plan, yet Republican representatives and senators are trying to push it through. 90% of Americans supported expanded gun background checks after the Sandy Hook massacre, yet their wishes were ignored. Who is Congress listening to and working for? Need you ask?

Beware of these Republican representatives, senators, and president bearing gifts. Keep billfolds and purses locked safely away. What is being advertised is not truth in advertising. It is slick marketing hiding a faulty product, with the real benefits hidden safely out of view within the secret legislation. Originally, ALL middle income taxpayers were guaranteed to get a tax reduction – a promise now being fully backpedaled. The current estimate is an annual tax savings averaging $800 for incomes less than $40K. Less than $70/month. $17/week. That is one family dinner per week at McDonald’s. Certainly every dollar helps for a family in need; we should not make light of that. But does dinner at McDonald’s warrant $1.5 trillion in new debt, disproportionate tax breaks for the mega-wealthy, and more income for corporations who are enjoying record boom times and have jobs begging to be filled? How about focusing on real tax reform and job training to fill those vacancies we already have, instead of squeezing lower-oncome taxpayers even further for “benefits” they will never really see?

Our nation has a full menu of important issues and significant needs to be addressed. They require the contributions of those among us who can see the big picture within which these issues and needs fester, but who also have the depth of thinking and insight to provide concrete and genuine solutions. What we do not need is another superficial bandaid that simply distracts us from the real work that needs to be done, driven by a crass and cynical short-term pandering for votes rather than the genuine long-term economic betterment of the citizenry. This kind of blatant flim-flamery trivializes our real concerns and deserves our complete rejection. We should all remember the full quote of Calvin Coolidge from 1925:

“The chief business of the American people is business ...  Of course the accumulation of wealth cannot be justified as the chief end of existence … We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization. The chief ideal of the American people is idealism. I cannot repeat too often that America is a nation of idealists. That is the only motive to which they ever give any strong and lasting reaction.”

©   2017   Randy Bell   

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Assessing A Life Lived

How are we to properly assess one person’s life lived? What criteria should we apply? What standards are relevant to our decision? What examination should guide our decisions?

In the year 2017, this has become more than a philosophical question. Rather, it has become virtually a daily challenge for us as news headlines routinely present a series of individuals for our judgment. Most notably has been a divisive debate over our statues and memorabilia to Confederate leaders in the American Civil War, and the tsunami of accusations of sexual assault against entertainers and other public officials.

For some, the discussion is easy. Guilt or innocence is black and white in absolute terms. There are good people and there are bad people. For others, the assessment is not so easy, oftentimes presenting such questions is a gray hue. Why do otherwise good people do bad things? Why do otherwise bad people do good things? Depending on one’s perspective and circumstances, was Robin Hood a mere thief stealing from the rich, or a savior of the suffering poor?

From a religious perspective, the question is never easy. The Christian asks us to love our neighbor without exception, and to judge not lest we be judged. The Buddhist asks us to love the person while also resisting his/her “unhealthy” actions. The Jew tells us not to take vengeance or bear a grudge against our neighbor. The Moslem asks us to repel evil deeds by responding with good deeds. If we aspire to be a person of faith, our scripture teachings will not give us much comfort in the land of black and white. So what compass do we follow out of this wilderness?

First and foremost, we ought to remind ourselves that the people we are tempted to judge are just that – people. Fallible, inconsistent, and often incomprehensible human beings. Humans are fully capable of operating on both sides of judgement, even as one side may dominate over the other. We are capable of doing good work and supporting other humans, even as we have our secrets and regrets for past actions that we guard from public display. Our history cannot be relived; our desired apologies are likely too late; our values, thinking and beliefs likely change in each of our successive decades. Right and wrong are rarely absolute, but are most often circumstantial. Because of their contradictions, assessing our contemporaries is hard enough. How to assess our ancestors can feel virtually impossible.

Today, we are witnessing a seeming never-ending flow of women coming forward to take on the powerful over acts of abuse they have experienced. And this time they are being heard. In many instances, these acts go back years, even decades, held in secret by a convergence of cultural apathy, the power of money and influence, the feeling of being all alone and humiliated, the “blame the victim” retaliation, and the sense of powerlessness. But when Gretchen Carlson went public with her story of abuse from Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, and she won, it opened the gates to a flood of shared stories involving other perpetrators and their victims. Each woman who has come forth has created a domino effect of encouragement, and a safety net for others who have finally been able to think: “Maybe now they will believe me, and maybe I can help to stop this in the future.”

And so the once-mighty are falling. Weinstein, Spacey, Cosby, Lewis CK, Roy Moore; the list grows. Yet one cannot summarily dismiss the reality of the brilliant movies and acting careers enabled by Weinstein; the acting accomplishments of Spacey; the racial barriers broken by Cosby. Those accomplishments are as real as their indecencies. The juxtaposition of acclaimed artistry adjacent to the endless abuse of power are not easily assimilated in our collective minds. Yet both are all too real.

The same difficult conflict exists with our historical figures and personal ancestors, complicated by the passage of time, changes of circumstances, and altered social norms and scientific opinion. We admire John Kennedy and his Peace Corps alongside images of Jackie, Caroline and John-John, while acknowledging his White House womanizing. We admire the high oratory of Abraham Lincoln who ended slavery while preserving the Union, even as we acknowledge his opposition to “mixing the races” and his suspension of civil liberties during the Civil War. We admire the brilliance of Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence that proclaimed “all men are created equal,” even as he concurrently condoned limiting such equality. We canonize George Washington for winning the Revolution and turning the ideal of our unique Constitution into a working government, even as his slaves maintained his plantation at Mount Vernon. Southerners revere Robert E, Lee and assorted leaders of the Confederacy as well as the everyday grunt soldier for their wartime skills and their “noble sacrifice for the Cause,” even as we must finally acknowledge that they were insurrectionists attempting to break up the American Union, and their Cause of slavery was anything but noble – an abomination, in fact – and their Cause was defeated.

Monuments have been built, schools and buildings and institutions have been named, and quotations have been repeated for such contemporary and historical persons. Each had worthy output of note; each had output or conduct that is seen as unacceptable in today’s norms. So what monuments do we build? Which do we tear down or un-name?

We ought do well to anoint our heroes cautiously. The Abrahamic religious traditions talk about a full accounting of our life before God. If each life – including our own – has its share of “good and evil,” then both sides of that ledger will have entries. When we are required to assess the quality of any individual life lived, we need to avoid easy absolute judgements – a person is all good or all bad – and rather make the harder effort for a “net” assessment. Did the “good” (his/her contributions to the betterment of society) outweigh the “bad” (detrimental actions toward society)? And in the cases of historical figures, good and bad must necessarily also be measured against the cultural norms of the times – just as our honorable actions today must not be wholly assessed against the different societal norms of 100 years from now.

So I will watch a Weinstein movie and appreciate its brilliance, even as I support his expulsion from his Weinstein Corporation and the Motion Picture Academy. I will support the Jefferson Memorial, even as I acknowledge his slave-holding and affair with Sally Hemmings. Roy Moore has given a lifetime of public service, but he does not deserve a U.S. Senate seat due to a lifetime of ill-will towards others. I will support a statue of a Confederate soldier honoring a commitment to bravery and allegiance to community, but move that statue to a Confederate cemetery. Similarly, the Confederate Battle Flag and other War artifacts should be kept but moved into appropriate museums. They are historical memorabilia which have no place on public government grounds that serve all citizens. I would leave the statue of General Robert E. Lee at Washington & Lee University honoring his military leadership, university presidency, and model behavior for post-war reconciliation. Yet any statues of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, founder of the Ku Klux Klan, should be obliterated due to his continued fight against such reconciliation. Un-name that which is no longer appropriate, but perhaps find another commemoration where appropriate. Service to the Confederacy should not be an automatic disqualifier for commemoration – what else did that person do in life? Extend compassion to the person; deter, condemn, and punish when necessary his/her unhealthy actions. For it is through compassion that we open that most difficult door to healing and forgiveness.

In the end, these are case-by-case decisions, not global knee-jerk ones. They should be made predicated on the harder work of taking a balanced view of a life’s contribution, without Monday-morning quarterbacking the times and circumstances. However, what is important in all cases is that we tell the FULL and complete story of these lives, not just selected versions. Stories of how good can be done in spite of our human shortcomings, and how bad can be done in spite of our propensity for good. How we choose to live, and how we resolve our human contradictions, is the real story of our lives. I am comfortable in these contradictions, because they are my own very human contradictions.

©   2017   Randy Bell