Tag Archives: tax cuts

So There’s An Imaginary Forest. . .

Really, there’s an imaginary forest. This forest has trees and plants, but no animals, nothing that can hear, except you. Suddenly a wind picks up and a huge tree starts falling to the ground. Now think, if you weren’t there did it make a sound?

How long did it take before you said, “Of course.” Not very long, I’m guessing. It isn’t such a simple question though. Let’s talk a little about our sense of hearing. Hearing is an example of mechanosensation, meaning that our hearing organs, the ears, are interpreting the movement of molecules around us and sending that information to our brains. Sound is a wave, which means it is not a physical object. It is really just energy that causes molecules to vibrate. They bump up against other molecules and transfer that energy. That happens countless times until some of those molecules bump up against your eardrum. That information is then translated into nerve impulses that shoot up your auditory nerve to your brain. Then you hear something. This happens extremely quickly and is going on constantly. So a tree falls and vibrates the world around it eventually those vibrations make it to your ear and you think “I think a tree is falling.” Hopefully you look around to make sure it’s not falling on you. People usually argue that sound waves are still sent out even if no one is there and so the tree still makes sound.

The presence of sound waves isn’t the question, however. The real question is what is the very nature of sound. Is sound something that exists in the environment? Or is it merely our brains interpretation of something in the environment? Does the physical sensation of sound exist outside our heads or is it created by our brain? Imagine if humans lacked a sense of hearing. We could still discover sound waves in the environment. We could make machines that would detect them. We might still call them sound waves, but they wouldn’t mean the same thing to us. If we lacked a sense of hearing it would fundamentally change the way we think of sound, because our brains would not interpret that information the same. In essence, sound as we know it would not exist. So is the “tree in the woods” question really so simple? Should you have answered so quickly?

The “tree in the woods” question is perhaps not important in our lives. People certainly have more important things to worry about. The nature of sound and hearing doesn’t usually make the top 5. What’s the problem with that? The problem is that we answer so many important questions with the same quick, “of course.” Questions about government, politics, education, any number of important things get brushed aside and we just believe what we repeatedly hear. That’s why FOXNews can say the President is spending $200 million a day on an Asia trip and people believe. “Do politician’s waste our tax dollars? Of course.” We can be convinced that teachers have easy jobs and are overpaid. “Teachers only work 9 months a year, of course they’re overpaid.” We don’t demand thorough arguments and answers, so we don’t get them.

When I was a child I dreaded hearing one of my say four words. “Because I said so.” I hated it, because it was simply not an answer. I’ve always asked questions and I wanted a real answer but sometimes “because I said so” was just easier. For example, my mother would tell me to put on my coat. I would ask why, and she would say “because I said so.” She could have said, “It’s the middle of winter and if you don’t put on your coat you’ll have hypothermia before we reach the car.” That would have taken much longer I  would’ve needed an explanation of what hypothermia was. She went with brevity instead.

I only mention this because we are getting “because I said so” arguments and we’re responding with “of course.” The new Republican budget was unveiled recently. In a video Rep. Paul Ryan, showed that his budget would avoid a debt crisis. How? Well he had a graph and he said so. He doesn’t want people asking too many questions. We are being force-fed a mantra that tax cuts for the rich will create jobs. Republicans say it so often I’m beginning to think they have a “millionaire tax cut” button. Why do tax cuts for the rich create jobs. Because they said so. You could argue that the people who really create jobs are consumers, because they buy products and services thus creating demand for more products and services. This in turn employs more people to manufacture and sell those products and to provide those services. Virtually all of those consumers are not wealthy. So perhaps cutting taxes for them would make more sense than cutting taxes for the rich. You could make that argument. They would rather you didn’t. I’m amazed at the number of people who just assume the “tax cuts create jobs” argument is  true without taking the time to think about it. This brush-off by the public is how we ended up with “death panels.” Sarah Palin hopped on FOX and did some “golly gee Democrats want to kill old people,” number and we were off to the races.  Pres. Obama might not be a citizen. Why? Donald Trump says so. He said so multiple times so it must be ultra-true. These questions are far more complicated and take far more attention than we are willing to give. Yes, people are busy. They have families, and jobs and any number of things to do, but we are at the beginning of the next presidential campaign. If we want real leadership, we have to demand it.

I wrote 402 words about the tree in the woods question. Imagine how many more words could be written about taxes, healthcare, and education. All of these discussions are going on in the federal government, and state governments. In the movie “Uncle Buck” there’s a scene where Macualay Culkin is asking rapid-fire questions of his Uncle Buck. Buck (played by John Candy) tells him he asks a lot of questions. Culkin replies, “I’m a kid. That’s my job.” When did we quit that job? When did we become so disillusioned that we decided it wasn’t worth asking anymore? We need to take up that job again, but it won’t work if we just accept any answer. So we have to ask, How many “because I said so” arguments are we going to accept before we ask for real answers? How many times are we just going to say, of course?  I used to think that Americans were just apathetic when it came to holding government accountable. I was wrong. We just don’t want to take the time to really examine the questions. So, I’m extending an invitation. It’s to a rally. A rally where we start asking the tough questions and demanding real answers. Where is this rally? It’s on your computer, in you living room, in your statehouses, or an imaginary forest. It’s anyplace where we know that sound exists because we make sure that people can hear us.

The Tea Party: Fed Up Fiscal Conservatives Or Anti-Obama Crusaders?

2009 saw the birth of America’s latest political outsider movement. In the 90’s it had been Ross Perot and the Reform Party. After that we had Ralph Nader and the Green Party. Today, in the age of Obama, we met the Tea Party. What was unique about the Tea Party was that they had no singular leader. There was no face of the movement. They were touted as everyday Americans fed up with Washington. An upstart grassroots movement meant to overthrow the establishment and put the power back in the hands of the people. That may be how it started. It didn’t last that long.

Since its inception the Tea Party has seemed to be a conservative movement. They claimed to have members from all walks of life; all political ideologies. They had only one core message. Control the deficit. Get government spending under control. Keep government limited. The banner at teapartypatriots.org reads: “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government, Free Market.”  Fiscal conservatism is supposed to be a Republican cornerstone. In the past 20 years that has changed. People who desire a balanced budget do come from both sides of the political spectrum. In fact, the only time recently that we have had a balanced budget was with divided government. When government has been completely in the hands of one party or the other the budget has not been balanced.  For a group of people to rise up and demand accountability from the government about its finances, and its intrusion on personal freedom, should be no surprise. That’s what the Tea Party’s message was. That’s what the Tea Party said they had been speaking out against for a long time. That wasn’t what happened. That version of history didn’t exist.

To claim that you are a group fed up with fiscal irresponsibility in 2011 means you need to account for some things. First off has to be why did you show up just now . The earliest references I can find to the Tea Party movement are in 2009. Our fiscal house was certainly out-of-order by then. It had been for some time however. Pres. Bush’s budget proposals led to the highest budget deficits in U.S. history. They were not only record-setting in number of dollars, but even if those dollars are adjusted for inflation. The first time the deficit has gone down since FY2002 (Pres. Bush’s first budget proposal) was FY2010 (Pres. Obama’s first budget proposal.) Yes Pres. Obama passed nearly a trillion-dollar stimulus package and the Tea Party was upset. Pres. Bush pushed a nearly trillion-dollar bailout of Wall Street. Tea Party members today will tell you they were against it. They weren’t upset enough to protest. There were no raucous town hall meetings. Where was the anger over fiscal irresponsibility spanning a decade of deficit spending that ended with a collapse of the economy not seen since the Great Depression? Where was the anger over TARP? Where was the anti-establishment feeling against Washington run amok? It didn’t exist.

It doesn’t get any easier to explain the Tea Party’s desires for limited government. The Tea Party really gained traction during the debate over healthcare. The original healthcare reform proposals included a provision known as the “public option,” or the “government option,” depending on which party or media outlet you listened to. The idea was that the government would provide an option for citizens to buy health insurance from a government program if they could not obtain it through an employer. Republican’s denounced it as a “government takeover of healthcare.” Town hall meetings about the reform descended into chaos across the country. Finally the “public option” was removed from the final bill. The Tea Party movement generally seemed to be against the bill even after the “public option” was taken out. As the Tea Party Patriots website says, they are for limited government. Are they? The healthcare bill does put government into the healthcare field, but only slightly. It doesn’t even give the people the freedom of government help. It only helps people deal with private companies. That’s something the “free market” Tea Party should be happy about. The real problem is that this is small government intrusion compared to what has happened over the past decade. After Sept. 11th, the Bush Administration used the fear of the American people to start a war and engage in the largest expansion of the federal government in 50 years. They created a new cabinet level post. They established a new level of bureaucracy over the intelligence community with the NID(National Intelligence Director.)  It later came out that they authorized the NSA to conduct a warrantless wiretap program that circumvented all laws set by Congress for surveillance.  Was that limited government? Was that the freedom ensured in the Constitution? Where was the Tea Party outrage? Where were the calls to end the invasion of our rights? They didn’t exist.

The real story of the Tea Party lies beneath the rhetoric and anger of everyday people. Everyday people may have had the passion for the movement but they didn’t make it happen. The major Tea Party groups all have strong affiliations with some more familiar organizations like American’s For Prosperity. So what’s wrong with that? American’s For Prosperity is a front group funded by the Koch brothers. The heads of Koch Industries. Charles and David Koch are far-right Libertarians with a lot of money. Combined they have more wealth than anyone but Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet. It doesn’t end there. Tea Party rallies were organized by all kinds of conservative groups. Tea Party leaders have often been linked to conservative groups. A quick survey of the Tea Party Express website shows that they endorse only Republican candidates, and sometimes far-right candidates over more moderate Republicans. All this points to a movement funded by ultra-conservatives to achieve an ultra-conservative agenda. The Tea Party may have started out with a message of fiscal responsibility, but that has been lost. They are only the pawns of the conservative money movement. They are the far-right’s “Anti-Obama Army.”  When Obama comes out and endorses something they will be right there to refute him. That is why Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann have become Tea Party darlings. They oppose Obama no matter what. They will attack him and his supporters no matter how ridiculous it sounds. Evidence doesn’t need to exist.

Third party movements have made huge changes in American politics. The Whig Party shook us in the mid-19th century. Teddy Roosevelt’s third-party bid nearly won the presidency in 1912. The Reform Party can be credited with electing and keeping Bill Clinton in office. Without the Green Party Al Gore would have almost certainly been president. The Tea Party does not seem to be destined for that outcome. A movement based on opposition to a man instead of issues has no future. Until Obama, they were not against a decade of fiscal irresponsibility. Until Obama, they allowed government to expand unchecked and intrude into our lives. Until Obama, they didn’t exist. After Obama, they won’t exist.

The Problem with Obama’s Tax Deal

Since the election last November, I’ve had some time to think. About 2 months worth of time actually. During my reflection Pres. Obama compromised with Republicans to pass a bill on the Bush tax cuts. I’ve written before that I think he did the right think, but there is one thing about it that I don’t understand. That’s the number two.The deal extended the tax cuts for two years. That means right in the middle of the presidential campaign of 2012 this is going to be an issue. As far as I can tell it’s a losing move for Democrats. The unfortunate truth for Democrats is that lower taxes always sound better.

We live in a time of huge budget deficits. If we look at the reality of the situation two things almost certainly need to happen. We need to cut the amount of money we spend, and we need to raise taxes. The Tea Party movement is built upon fiscal responsibility. at least in theory. The rhetoric you hear from them doesn’t support that, however. What we heard in the last election was that taxes are too high, and government spending was out of control. What is most interesting about that argument is that taxes are exactly what they have been for 10 years, and spending (along with the deficit) has been growing that entire time. Where was the outcry then? Why weren’t Tea Partiers angry in the last year of Pres. Bush’s administration when the budget deficit went over a trillion dollars for the first time? The truth is that the Tea Party cares little for fiscal responsibility and more for the government not taxing them at all. They don’t consider the consequences of that, however.  It is easy to say the government should take less of your money, but not so easy to deal with the reality of what will happen if they don’t. It’s easy to want your paycheck to be bigger, but difficult to deal with the fact that you can’t survive in retirement and old age because Social Security and Medicare are not funded.  The Tea Party is existing in a world that will never come to reality, because it is impossible. They want the services that the government provides, but don’t want to pay for them.

Unfortunately for Democrats it is easy to buy the Tea Party’s vote.  All you have to do is follow the formula that Republican’s used in the last election. Promise lower taxes, say the problem is just government spending. If you simplify the argument to the point that it doesn’t make any real sense, it will probably work. Kevin Yoder, who is the new congressman for the Kansas 3rd district, ran a campaign commercial in the election where he said, ” Washington taxes too much, borrows too much, and spends too much.”  He never mentioned what would happen if they did less of any of those things. That wasn’t important. What was important was saying Congress is wasting money. He wouldn’t want to mention that they were wasting money on things like helping the poor, old or disabled. He wouldn’t want to mention that we spend billions on military programs that go nowhere, only to further the most technologically advanced military in the world unnecessarily. He wouldn’t want to propose real solutions, because real solutions almost always have side effects that some people don’t like.

The real problem with the tax deal is that it makes it more difficult for Obama to be re-elected. It they had extended the cuts for 1 or 3 years, it would be an entirely different situation. Democrats have little to gain from a tax argument in an election. Any real fiscal conservative would say that when the time comes we need to eliminate the Bush tax cuts. I’ve heard a few say just that, but in an election year logic takes a back seat to winning. In a year where the future of not only Congress, but the White House, hangs in the balance, we can expect a lot of politics, and little of sensable policy.

Obama Did the Right Thing

Pres. Obama recently struck a compromise with congressional Republicans over the fate of the Bush tax cuts.  Many liberals (myself included) wanted the President to pick a fight. At some point he has too. Compromise is seemingly great. In fact, our country was built on it, but many see Pres. Obama as being to eager to compromise. This was the perfect issue to pick a fight with Republicans.  The only difference between the President’s plan and Republicans plan was an extension for people whose lives would most likely not be affected but a minor tax increase. The wealthiest Americans would see their income tax rates rise from 36% to 39.6%.  No wealthy American was going to lose their house over 3.6%, but many middle class Americans are losing their houses right now.

I recently wrote that Democrats needed to take a stand and show Republicans for what they are; obstructionist whores for corporations and the rich.  Democrats could have done it. They could have won, but they didn’t. Instead, the President chose to compromise. So, the rich get to keep more of their money. That won’t help stimulate the economy though. It’s generally accepted that the rich will spend about what they would anyway. The rest will be saved to insure they remain rich. So despite all this, why should we support Pres.  Obama? We should support him because it was the right thing to do.

As part of this compromise unemployment benefits are being significantly extended. The portion of payroll taxes that workers pay will be cut. Both of these measures should help to stimulate the economy by putting more money into the hands of a large number of people.  Unemployment benefits are a direct government investment in our economy. People who collect them will almost immediately spend them. They have to. Those benefits pay for groceries and housing. They are a direct injection of money into the economy. So, while the wealthiest among us will have lower taxes, the least fortunate will be able to support themselves and as a result support the economic recovery.

This was not a bad compromise, but Pres. Obama must take advantage of it. He may not have done it for the politics, but he should promote the politics of it. Republicans refused to do anything unless the rich pay  lower taxes.  Economists agree lower  taxes for the rich  are  not the most effective way of stimulating the economy. Putting money in the hands of the most Americans can do much more.  Republicans held up the business of the country to ensure their wealthy friends would keep their money. Pres. Obama compromised to make sure the economic recovery would continue while ensuring unemployed Americans could put food on their tables. He was right. They were wrong. Pres. Obama needs to make sure that America knows it and does not forget.

Let Obama Be Obama

I applaud Pres. Obama on his efforts for bipartisanship.  At any other point in our history a great amount of good could be done for the people with a leader like him. This,however, is not any point in our history. This is the age of polarization. Former Senator Ted Kaufman (D-DE), in a Daily Show interview about a month ago, that speculation that this Congress was in gridlock was not really true. In fact, this Congress had passed more legislation than any Congress in 50 years. He was right, but this is about quality not quantity.

We got a healthcare bill, but it didn’t provide a public option and includes a mandate to buy insurance from private companies.  We got a financial reform bill that Wall Street CEO’s said would be good for their companies. We got “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repealed, almost.  At every fight, Pres. Obama and Democrats compromised away significant progress to avoid pissing too many people off. This is why I’d like to know if Pres. Obama ever watched “The West Wing.”

Pres. Obama could learn a lot from the fictional Pres. Josiah Bartlet. Bartlet’s first years didn’t go as well as any president would hope. At one point, Pres. Bartlet is convinced by his Chief of Staff to voice his opinions and push for progress. Actor John Spencer’s character, Leo McGarry, then gives a short speech to the White House staff saying:

“We’re gonna lose some of these battles. And we might even lose the White House. But we’re not going to be threatened by issues: we’re going to put ’em front and center. We’re gonna raise the level of public debate in this country, and let that be our legacy.”

I think Pres. Obama could learn from those words.  I think he has great ambition, and vision. He has failed to have the will to make them reality. To start with I believe he needs to take a strong stand on tax policy.  The House recently passed an extension of the Bush tax cuts for everyone but the wealthy, those making over $250,000 a year.  In the Senate, Republicans plan to block it, and a compromise is apparently in the works.  I believe the President should stand his ground. His party is still in the majority. He believes he knows what is right for the country, and he should fight to take that course. The major stumbling block is the dreaded Senate procedure known as the “filibuster.”

What I don’t understand about the filibuster is why it’s dreaded. Here is my idea. Have a Democrat go into the Senate and propose the extension of the Bush tax cuts that Pres. Obama wants. What are Republicans going to do? Yes, they can block the bill. There are not 60 votes to limit debate, but if it’s a filibuster they want; let them try. These days filibusters aren’t what they used to be. Strom Thurmond’s 24 hour opposition to civil rights in 1957 doesn’t exist, but it could, and Democrats could make it happen.

Here’s how it works. Senate rules require that any Senator be allowed to speak about a particular issue for as long as they see fit. However, the speech only has to be relevant for a short time in a legislative day. A legislative day is not a calendar day. A legislative day can last for many days as long as the Senate recesses rather than adjourns. So for three hours the debate on one issues must be relevant, but for several days afterword it can be anything. A Senator can read from every phonebook in the country if they want to. The only way to stop it is for 60 Senators to vote to limit debate. Generally, all of this is ignored and the threat of a filibuster stops a bill from moving. The Senate majority leader, in this case Harry Reid (D-NV), can require a “traditional filibuster” meaning that Republicans have to hold the floor. If they relinquish it the bill goes to a majority vote. Now, Senate rules allow the Republicans to easily hold the floor for a very long time, but that is what Democrats should be hoping for. Let Republicans stand up and read their recipe books. Plaster the image of Mitch McConnell reading whatever he chooses in the effort to prevent tax relief for 98% of Americans. (As a side note, it would actually be interesting to know what our elected leaders choose to read.) Let C-SPAN and cable news provide 24-hour coverage of “Filibuster 2010.” In the end, the winner will always be someone trying to do something not someone trying to stop everything.  If Republicans want to prevent anything from getting done, so be it. But make sure it’s being spread to every household in America. Make it public, and make it personal. Democrats need to spread the word to low-income and middle class families that their taxes are going up because Republicans want to read recipes and phone books instead.

If Pres. Obama wants to be a great leader, he must stand for what he believes and let Republicans show Americans that they are standing in the way.