Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Calling a sacred cow what it is

    I wanna grow up to be a politician, and take over this beautiful land. — The Byrds

    Eric Cantor needs to grow up. Unfortunately, the Republican House majority leader equates a tantrum with statesmanship. He is prepared to hold his breath until, well, until the federal government ceases to operate.

    President Obama should grant his wish. Take the Bill Clinton route. Put the blame for the collapse of debt-ceiling talks on the shoulders of those who refuse to talk.

    Cantor and Arizona Sen. John Kyl abruptly withdrew from talks overseen by Vice President Joe Biden because Biden and the Democrats wanted to talk about ways to raise revenue by closing tax subsidies and loopholes that benefit those who need no tax break.

      The latest impasse drew President Obama directly into the fray, the White House saying Republicans need to stop protecting "some of their sacred cows."

       That's putting it exactly as it should be. The GOP makes a habit of saying how the opposition fights to protect spending. What about tax dodges and subsidies?

      The administration has made compromises. The Bush tax cuts were allowed to endure into a new year — hundreds of billions of dollars in debt left on the backs of future taxpayers, plus interest.

       Obama has recommended spending cuts galore, including a freeze on federal pay. That's called compromise. Do the Republicans not have any responsibility to reciprocate?

        This is all about the absurd notion that somehow we can achieve $2 trillion in deficit reduction without increasing revenue in any way.

         With tea parties providing loud encouragement, the Republican Party adheres to the assertion that the revenue the federal government has is sufficient to pay for decades of activism including the largest peacetime defense buildup (Reagan), three wars (G.H.W. Bush, G.W. Bush) and a vastly underpriced expansion of Medicare.

       Built into this is the spiel that America's tax rates are oppressive and constantly rising. That, upon inspection, is a cured meat which could be easily shot down by Carl Sagan's "baloney detection kit."

       Taxes — federal and state combined, are their lowest as a percentage of GDP as they have been at any time since 1950. As Fareed Zakaria writes in Time magazine, the United States is among the lowest taxed of the large industrial nations.

      Anyway, Obama and the Democrats aren't proposing to raise the taxes of all Americans, though they should. Every American should pay more for all the government they've bought, and substantially more, because simply cutting spending is not going to resolve our debt problem. Even the draconian debt reduction plan of Illinois Republican Rep. Paul Ryan assumes tax hikes would have to come into play, um, way down the line.

    Why not now? How now, sacred cow?

     Republicans let out shrieks when Bill Clinton managed to engineer a tax increase on America's wealthiest taxpayers. Fiscal visionaries like Phil Gramm and Jesse Helms said the economy would tank. Devastation. Armageddon. What happened, if anyone recalls, was quite the opposite. For a brief glimmer of time the federal government actually bought back some of its debt: Yes, a surplus.

      When a one-vote majority on the Supreme Court gave George W. Bush custody of that surplus, he of "cut taxes first, figure it all out later," the surplus evaporated quicker than dew on a gila monster.

     It is high time to start thinking of our misguided tax policies in the same way we spend on things we don't need, like, for instance, policing the world against threats real and imagined.

      For one, says Robert McIntyre of Citizens for Tax Justice, our tax system "lets many of our biggest and most profitable corporations pay little or no tax."

      "Little or no." That's what the Eric Cantors of the world call oppressive and confiscatory. They're going to hold their breaths rather than address these tax inequities.

      Let them, Mr. President.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Time to govern? Harrumph

    In Blazing Saddles, cross-eyed Gov. William J. Le Petomane, hearing the town of Rock Ridge has met disaster at the hands of outlaws, announces to his coterie:

    "We've got to protect our phony baloney jobs, gentleman. We must do something about this immediately, immediately, immediately."

     "Harrumph! Harrumph! Harrumph!" goes his echo chamber.

     So, the governor issues a decree to make it even worse for Rock Ridge — which by the way is obstructing construction of the railroad.

     Harrumph, harrumph.

     Arizona has been ablaze, battling one of its most devastating wildfires with all its resources. Well, not exactly.

     The state, stewing in a sauna of right-wing anti-tax fundamentalism, has cut $1.2 million since 2009 from set aside funds to prevent and stop wildfires. Hmmm. Could've used that.

     Government is the problem, understand, until you need it.

     One of the untold stories of Hurricane Katrina was how poorly it reflected, not on government per se but on those in government who thought the free market could do government's job better. Heckuva job.

    This included contractors hired by the FEMA to provide emergency transportation in a hurricane, but who were tied in knots of the kind of red tape that we are led to be believe can be tied only to — ack — bureaucrats.

     In Texas, a veritable bureaucrat massacre was waged under Gov. Rick Perry, who entrusted social services to a computer system that was supposed to obviate the need for all those paper shufflers. It ended up being a debacle beyond imagining. Texas ended up rescinding reams of pink slips to state employees who, it turned out, were actually needed to serve other people.

     By Perry's quill stroke, the state authorized a massive privatization of the Department of Human Services, including mental health and mental retardation. Bidders were not expected to show that they could run these services better, or at a savings to taxpayers. They were just supposed to show up, bid and take them off to their respective carnal lairs. When the vastness and intricacy of these enterprises became clear — biting off more than one can chew, as it were — the bidders stayed away.

     You see, sometimes you need government.

      Unfortunately — OK, horrifically — the Gov. Le Petomanes of the world continue to profit from doing things that don't serve their constituents, at least those who need what government does.

       What we see increasingly is people ascending to government not to govern but to find increasing ways to impede governing.

       Texas schools face $4 billion in budget cuts — billion with a "b" — if a bill passed by the state House survives.

        This fiscal tough love, Texans are led to believe, was made necessary by the terrible economy. Well, yes, and no. A big reason why Texas schools are in this hole is because Perry and the Legislature dug it several years ago. On the pretense of school finance reform, they authorized a property tax cut that was not matched by the means to recoup the lost dollars through a new business tax.

        How convenient this has all been. Laissez faire policies and grandstanding politicians allowed the economy to collapse, and now say that calamity means it's time for more of their kind of medicine, which calls for dismantling government services.

      In Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein writes about how right-wing schemers have seized on catastrophes manmade and otherwise to dissemble the kind of government that helps the masses, this in favor of the kind that gets sold off to insiders. It's happening across the country and in other countries.

      Who does Gov. Le Petomane serve? The railroad. And so he is content to consign Rock Ridge to the dust.

      The amazing thing is that through any number of appeals — say, to piety, to bigotry — the governor knows he'll be re-elected. And so does the railroad.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Stop America's costliest war

    The sad thing is that bad things always come with "war."

    Sure, war is a bad thing unto itself. And when will we study something other than war when we measure ourselves and our leaders? Dylan songs aside, when?

    But the concern here is the term — war — which we toss around like we toss around "clearance sale" and "now with fluoride."

    Naming anything a "war," except the kind that summons a nation's every sinew, as in the mobilization of Dec. 7, 1941, is not only fallacious but ultimately self-defeating. 

    "War on poverty"? Bad choice, Mr. President. Can't defeat poverty. You can ameliorate it in many ways, and you did. But "war"?

     "War on terror"? Maybe the worst word choice in our nation's history. John Kerry was absolutely right in challenging the term. Ironically, the decorated war veteran committed the error of just not being brazenly militant enough for the moment.

     Terror is a condition. Terrorism is a means to that end. War involves rolling tanks, killing innocents (war's own means to its end), naming names — governmentwise, while unaffiliated shadow players do what terrorists do with primitive means.

     War involves suspending our own hard-fought rights and abdicating democracy to the executive branch.

     And in the case of the "war on terror," it appears to be all the above without end.

      But if "war on terror" has an open-endedness to it, what about "war on drugs"? It has become, literally, a life term. Afghanistan, now 10 years on? Vietnam? Cost and duration considered, no "war" we've known compares.

       The war on drugs is America's costliest, most futile endeavor to ever acquire the term "war," and looks to outlive anyone who ever conceived it or first nodded in assent. For what?

      Considering what we are doing, spending, and committing in terms of human capital, the recent report by the Global Commission on Drug Policy deserved banner front-page treatment — right alongside the latest Charlie Sheen update.

      The report, from a group that includes ex-heads of state and such diverse voices as former Secretary of State (under Ronald Reagan) George Shultz, former Fed chairman Paul Volker and former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, called the war on drugs a total failure "with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world."

      Yes, it didn't just call the effort a dud, a fizzle, a fiasco. It called it destructive — "devastating."

       Say, how much have we been spending to achieve all that?

       State and federal, we're spending about $40 billion a year. Sure, that's chump change compared to occupying two countries militarily. But that's not the only cost of the drug war.

     This year some 1.6 million Americans will be arrested for drug possession or distribution. Like the military bases we set up overseas, we will then commit to housing, feeding and otherwise tending to the needs of each of them for an indeterminate time.

      The Global Commission said such repressive strategies cannot succeed. Only strategies that approach drug abuse as a medical or societal problem short of criminality will work. It pointed out that the most repressive countries about drugs — like Russia and Thailand — have the worst drug problems per capita. Countries on the polar, holistic, side of the equation like Switzerland and Australia have the fewest problems.

     The commission recommends an end to the militant approach to drugs, and the legalization of marijuana.

      The White House challenged the commission's findings, just like a war department would do. At least it acknowledged the fact that we cannot arrest and prosecute our way to a better day. We need a stronger and clear-eyed approach to treatment, it said. Agreed.

      With several states now having legalized medical marijuana, with police looking the other way when hundreds of thousands of young people openly light up joints each spring on "4-20," we are in many ways in the phase we saw in the last two to three years of Vietnam and today in Afghanistan — sensing that we can't achieve much more with war, but being unable to figure a way to end it.

     The answer is to get real about costs, about pyrrhic results, about the benefits of undercutting organized crime by treating pot differently. Start by finding another name for a fiasco.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

That voodoo that they do

    One can't paint recent job figures as anything but dismal. However, anyone who says the economy is grim across the board isn't paying attention.

   "Board" is an apropos word. Boards — as in "chairmen of the" — have been doing spectacularly of late. In the last year, annualized corporate profits rose 42 percent. In the last quarter of 2010 they were a record $1.68 trillion.

    Yes, profits — the sweet elixir by which all boats are raised. Do you feel it?

    Except — hold your boat. If you didn't have a job a year ago, those profits have done absolutely nothing for you, or anyone else needing employment.

    Simply put, Nobel laureate Michael Spence tells Time magazine, "Companies are hoarding cash."  It bespeaks a "fundamental disconnect," in Time's phrasing, "between the fortunes of America's firms and those of its employees."

    Though this appears to present the matter as something new or astounding about how the American system works. That's the way things have always worked.

    In the political context, this is "Fool me once. Fool me twice. Fool me as many times as you wish." The Republican Party gets the message, and will fool you as soon as authorized to again.

     It was true fool's gold for the economy when George W. Bush managed to cut taxes for all, and particularly America's wealthiest, back in 2001. And it was the same brand of pyrite a few months ago when the newly empowered Republicans in Washington said, "Deficit be damned; keep those tax cuts for America's wealthiest in place."

      Then they railed against the deficit.

      Maybe if those tax cuts really were the way we could mend a broken economy we could justify the $700 billion they cost to continue them. However, we now have 10 years to guide us as to the efficacy of the Bush tax cuts. To call them a costly failure is something you can only dispute unless you drip with wealth and are that much wealthier because of them.

      Where do we start? The National Priorities Project points out that the government has spent more than $400 billion over the last decade in higher interest payments to finance the debt deepened by the Bush tax cuts.

      Meanwhile, economics writer David Cay Johnston, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times, asserts "overwhelming evidence" that the Bush tax cuts "did not spur investment." He points out that job growth in the George W. Bush years was one-seventh that of the Clinton years. Wages also fell.

      Interesting: Republicans have seized on the new job figures to say that President Obama's policies have failed. Actually, Obama's much-reviled stimulus package is the only thing we can point to that, in fact, worked.

       A bipartisan panel of economists in December pointed out the stimulus legislation had created 2.7 million jobs and saved millions more. The analysis literally credited the stimulus package for averting a second Great Depression.

      If you recall, the stimulus bill also contained tax breaks. But they were a different kind, a targeted kind that achieved a lot more than the Bush kind. Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, who advised John McCain's presidential campaign, estimated that the Bush tax cuts generated only 35 cents in economic activity for every dollar committed. The targeted cuts in the stimulus bill stimulated three times as much. Why? Because they went to people who needed the help.

     How long, how long, will Americans swallow the trickle-down fiction that rewarding the wealthy will make us all better off? Or that cutting taxes, regardless of our deficit situation, is good for us? That last time the economy was doing swimmingly it was on the heels of the Clinton tax increases, a move Republicans said would be disastrous.

    George H.W. Bush was the one who coined "voodoo economics" for what the tax-cut, deficit-by-design party has been doing for three decades. Somewhere along the line we should have learned something. We know America's moneyed class has.

      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Living in a tea party fantasy

     So, the space race took off, and the United States stayed behind. John Kennedy had great ambitions for it and for us, but as 50-year-old tapes now reveal, he was concerned that budget hardliners would shoot it down.

     And so they did, and the Soviets draped the heavens in red.

     It was the same with Richard Nixon and the Environmental Protection Agency — opposed by spending hardliners and states-rights devotees. So, when time can to declare Lake Erie dead, they just mixed its ambient solids with asphalt and paved it.

     It's all as the anti-government crusaders of a future century would have it.

     The Centers for Disease Control? Never happened. The Public Health Service, the umbrella organization under which the CDC was established, didn't happen,  because anti-spending forces said that disease control was best left up to Doc Jones down the road.

      So, when diphtheria and malaria swept the country, Americans attributed it to God's vengeance for the outbreak of rock 'n roll.

      The interstate highway system didn't happen, either. Too costly and federal. Roads would be left up to each state and berg. If they connected, they connected. And they didn't. States like Texas that didn't want to be a part of the whole weren't, literally.

      Dwight Eisenhower called the interstates essential not just for commerce but for military readiness. But of course, they weren't. They were just more big government from Washington.

      Airports? No need for federal involvement. Local governments could take care of that — if they wanted to face the wrath of taxpayers. And most city council members and county commissioners didn't run to do that.

      All of these things the federal government didn't have to do, according to the Constitution: fly to the moon; build highways and airports; protect the air, water and soil; guard against epidemics.

      In a tea party fantasy world, it wouldn't have happened.

      This musing surged the other day to read that House Republicans seek to zero out two key programs that affect many lives: the Transportation Enhancement component of the Surface Transportation Act, and the Safe Routes to Schools program. Both assist communities in meeting pedestrian needs and building pedestrian-bicycle infrastructure.

    Transportation for America, an advocacy group that promotes such needs, points out that 47,700 Americans died from 2000 to 2009 when struck and killed walking. To often those deaths are due to the lack of safe places for their feet to be.

      The Safe Routes to Schools program targets blighted inner-city areas where children walk to school. I walked one such area in Texas — before and after. Before: Children walked in the streets or in fields demarcated by broken bottles. After: Well, let's just say most U.S. taxpayers would be proud of what they did there with a very modest investment.  

     Those who would shut these functions down would say we don't have the roughly $1 billion annual outlay the two programs represent. Sure we don't. Not when we'll spend $708 billion on the military this fiscal year alone, maybe building walkways in Kabul.

    The tea partiers will say sidewalks and bike lanes are a local matter, and federal aid to cities should cease, anyway. Then again, when many of them — they who have fled the multicolored nature of the city — take their wealth to their suburban neverlands, it's hard for cities to meet many needs at all. Oh, and these people still come back to dine, and work or sell their wares to those people they flee.

       What a dream: to just run from it all, the whole the American experience, the shared communal responsibility that has defined this land. Welcome to the fantasy.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.