Friday, September 23, 2011

Did you know ... ?

Some news items that may have escaped your attention:
  • That Ground Zero mosque -- which is two and a half blocks from Ground Zero -- that raised such a hullabaloo last year quietly opened to the public Thursday Sept. 22 with an exhibit of photos of New York City children of different ethnicities.  The photos were taken by Danny Goldfield, a Jewish photographer.  There were no protesters.
  • Some, not a lot, but some potential employers actually advertise on job sites like and seeking applicants who are currently employed.   This is pretty outrageous.  Legally, prospective employers cannot discriminate against applicants due to race, age, gender or sexual orientation, but they can blatantly advertise their discrimination against the unemployed. Of course, potential employers can actually discriminate against all those categories because, as long as they don’t say it or write it down anywhere, who’s going to know.  Still, what’s the point of stealing employees from one company for another when there are so many equally qualified unemployed to fill those same slots? 
  • Speaking of discrimination, a recent poll by the Brookings Institute and the Public Religion Research Institute found that 46 percent, or nearly half, of those polled agree that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups.  A slim majority, 51 percent disagree.  Well, this is fascinating.  I was not only totally unaware that whites experienced much in the way of discrimination, I was also unaware that it is a big problem.  Maybe somebody out there can enlighten me as to how we whites are so abused. Not every instance of a black person getting a job you were competing for or an Hispanic store clerk being a little slow to ring up your purchases is discrimination against white people.  Maybe it's you.

  • We  seem to believe in religious freedom for some. That same poll showed that while 88 percent of Americans agree that religious freedom is absolute bedrock of our nation’s values, 47 percent agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values.  And, while two-thirds did reject the idea that American Muslims want to impose sharia law as the law of the land in the United States, six in 10 Republicans (almost the exact reverse) who “most trust Fox News” believe they do.  This fear of Sharia law is, of course, absolute lunacy.  Our nation’s 300-year-old body of common and statutory laws will never be replaced by sharia law any more than they will be replaced by the 10 commandments. Where would that leave our three million lawyers? Religious law of any stripe is just that, laws or commandments followed by that religion’s followers, if they want to follow them.  The rest of us will never be required to do so.  Don’t worry about it.
  •  It seems to me that people (and cable “news” organizations) set up straw men to worry about when we have plenty of real problems to solve.  Another example is the “English as the Official Language" movement.  The simple truth is, children of immigrants learn English, even if the first generation doesn’t.  It has been this way with every immigrant group since the Pennsylvania Dutch in the 1700s.  There’s no real problem there to worry yourself to death over or pass laws about.
  •  Rick Perry’s claim that Social Security is a Ponzi scheme is nuts.  It can become that only if we allow the Republicans to rip it apart, but we can protect it from insolvency if we have the political will to do so.  Republicans need to stop scaring the next generation about Social Security.  See this article.
  • The Justice Department really didn’t pay $16 per muffin for a 2009 legal education conference as NBC reported earlier this week.  Or probably not.  In any case, a $16 muffin beats the hell out of a $71 straight pin that should have cost 4 cents or a $1,600 roller assembly that should have cost $10, according to a recent Department of Defense Inspector General’s report on Boeing Co.’s overcharges for helicopter parts.   Where was the Mainstream Media’s reporting on that?
  • We really, really have to look at defense spending for areas to cut.  Why are we still building multi-billion dollar planes, tanks and aircraft carriers to fight the Cold War that have never, and will never, be used?  Why do we need 900 military bases around the world?  Why are we still furnishing troops for South Korea, Japan and Germany while those very flush countries go about the business of making money and not providing their own defense forces?  This too is nuts.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The real ‘rugged individualists’

When I hear Ron Paul or other Teapublicans talk about “rugged individualism,” I shudder.  I’ve seen it, at least from a distance, and it isn’t pretty.
In 1962 when I was 18, my father took me to Wyoming to meet my grandfather, William O. Mayberry, for the one and only time.  He was 79 years old and lived in a one-room shack on the high prairie near Newcastle, Wyoming.
The shack was an uninsulated wooden shed, a little larger than the one where you might keep your garden tools.  It was furnished with a bed, a small table with two wooden chairs and a wood stove.  No armchair, no sofa, no kitchen, no TV, just a small tabletop radio.  He did have indoor plumbing, an added-on “water closet” with a small sink and toilet.
He also had an old car, a 1940s-something Studebaker, I think, which he drove at a stately 25 miles an hour whether he was on a highway or dirt road.  He never rode on an airplane, never traveled more than a few miles from his home and never saw a baseball game.
My grandfather was so crippled with arthritis he couldn’t stand up straight, but he did odd jobs at a nearby sawmill several days a week to earn money for food and gas and chewing tobacco.  His uniform was bib overalls.  He lived like that until he died at 90 in 1971.  I don’t know what became of his shack, but somebody should have turned it into a museum honoring the western pioneer spirit.
He was the very embodiment of rugged individualism.  In 1893 when he was 11 years old, he walked behind a covered wagon herding pigs up the last remnants of the Oregon Trail, from Red Cloud, Nebraska, to Cambria, Wyoming, where his father and grandfather went to work in a coal mine.
The Mayberrys had gone bust in Nebraska in the Depression of 1893, the worst depression the country had ever experienced until the Great Depression.   I suspect my ancestors had also gone bust in every depression and recession prior to that and just kept losing their land and moving west at each downturn, from Maryland to Ohio to Nebraska and finally to Wyoming.   
When he was 19, my grandfather was a ranch hand on the Flying “K” ranch near Newcastle, according to the 1900 census.  After that, he turned his hand to whatever jobs were available.  He was a lumberjack, a cook, worked on the railroad, caught and tamed wild horses and tried his hand at ranching.
He married in 1911. He had saved enough money to buy himself a herd of cattle and he obtained a land grant from the government in 1913.  His entire herd froze to death that winter and that was the end of his homesteading.  
My grandmother, Laura Belle, died in 1914 from what her death certificate says was “neuralgia of the heart.”  She was 27 and had given birth to twins the year before. 
That land grant, and later maybe a tiny bit of Social Security, was the only thing my grandfather ever got from the government.   Did he have Medicare in his last few years from 1966 to 1971?  I don’t know but I hope so.
(My father and his twin brother had the good sense to join the Navy shortly before World War II and get the hell out of Wyoming for good.) 
So when I hear someone talking about good, old-fashioned “rugged individualism,” I wonder if they have any idea at all what they are talking about?  I can’t help but think they have idealized a way of life they have never experienced and would refuse to embrace today.
Is that what they want?  A one-room shack out in the bitter cold of a Wyoming winter?  A radio for entertainment?  Working into their 80s at one menial job after another?  Living most of a lifetime without modern medical care?
I honestly don’t think they do.
My point is this:  my grandfather was, for me, a living embodiment of the lives of nearly all Americans in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the New Deal created a Middle Class.
Millions of other American “rugged individualists” – farmers, ranchers, miners, factory and mill workers, garment workers – lived in lifelong poverty because they had to, not because they chose to exemplify some wondrous, noble libertarian fantasy. 
Ron Paul and the Tea Partiers seem intent on nothing less than repealing the Middle Class and all the nation's economic gains of the 20th century. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Don’t tax you, don’t tax me …*

“I am outraged. I have to pay over $800 in school taxes.  I am on Social Security.  What’s wrong with this picture?  P.S. I have no children in school.  Wake up, government.”
This item appeared in Sound Off today.  Something like it crops up several times a year in Sound Off:  “I’m a senior citizen.  I have no children in school.  Why do I have to pay school taxes?”
My first thought was, wow, which school district does this person live in?  That’s a pretty low school tax bill.  I pay more than three times that. 
But then I realized, Outraged must already be getting a pretty good low-income tax exemption.  He’s already getting a break most of us do not get, but he wants more.  He does not want to have to pay for any public service that he himself does not get.
Take comfort, Outraged, that there are tens of thousands in this county who would all but kill for that school tax bill.
Still, it’s a common complaint.  I hear it a lot in the 55-plus community where I live.
I will never ask that question though because I already know the answer:  When I was in school for 13 years and when my son was in school for his 13 years, senior citizens were sharing the school tax burden along with me and my parents, and they had no children in school either.   And when their children were in school, other senior citizens were also paying school taxes (and grousing about it) back into the dawn of time.
If those seniors had not, and if Outraged and I did not now, the cost of public school to working parents would be prohibitive.  This is called “shared sacrifice.”  It is also called "having a stake in society."  We all have a stake in making sure that our children and their children are well-educated so that our nation can continue to be great and our children can prosper, whether or not we personally gain from it.
Shared sacrifice is why the people of Wyoming and North Dakota enjoy beautiful interstate highways even though they could not afford to pay for them and their small populations get very little use out of them in comparison to the highways of Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  But what the heck, we don't have much of a stake in North Dakota. Want to tear up an interstate anyone?
Property taxation has long been a somewhat inequitable form of taxation.  The size of the mini-mansion that one lone, widowed senior citizen is rattling around in, say in Swarthmore, or  a rowhouse that a young family with five kids is occupying in Glenolden, may not be the most accurate indicator of that person or family’s wealth and thus ability to pay.   Their actual income would be.
Unfortunately, property taxation is what we use to pay for local services.  And along with property taxes comes one thing that I’d bet Outraged would never give up: local autonomy.   The people of Middletown want Middletown fire trucks and ambulances to come to their aid, they want their children to go to school in, or at least near, Middletown. 
They want Middletown police to … oops, my bad there.  They want all of the municipalities of the state of Pennsylvania to pay for their police services through the State Police.  Never mind that those other municipalities are also paying for their own police services. This local autonomy thing can get a little tricky.
I think that what Outraged would like most is to not have to pay school taxes at all.  For that to happen, under our current system, younger, struggling families would have to pay a whole lot more to make up the difference.   
Or maybe, since Outraged’s family is grown and has no need of public schools (or perhaps his kids went to parochial schools), he wants to eliminate public schools altogether.  Maybe he has bought into the rightwing idea that public schools are merely little Socialist indoctrination factories.  Maybe he thinks everyone should be home-schooled.
Public schools are not Socialist indoctrination factories, they are socialization factories.  Same root, different meaning.  If you don't know the difference, you were not well-educated. 
Schools are where we send our children to learn the common elements that hold us together: English, history, civics, math.  They are where we learn that democracy is good and fascism is bad, that we all have the right to speak freely, and that our founding fathers were noble revolutionaries who brought us freedom and not selfish colonists who didn’t want to pay their fair share of taxes.  
But eliminating public schools could be a way to go.  Only those children whose parents can afford it would be educated in private schools.  Of course, we would soon have the economy and social structure of Haiti or Bangladesh, but hey, we seniors will be dead by then so why worry about it.
If Outraged wants to get out of paying school taxes, he has to have a plan to replace them or do without them.  Let’s hear it.

*“Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”  The late U.S. Sen. Russell Long, describing the public attitude toward taxation, circa 1975.
Long was a great proponent of tax breaks for business and was also the architect of the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is the reason so few poor people have to pay taxes and the rest of us actually pay them.  Another one of those shared sacrifices, stake in society things. Go figure.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Meehan's town halls sap the soul

Abandon hope all ye who enter here.  Having sat through two of U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan’s town meetings yesterday – and all credit to him for even holding them, most congressmen didn't – I can predict right now that there will be no letup in the current gridlock in Congress until after next year’s election, if then.

Government will continue to be dysfunctional to the point that it is not even certain that communities hard-hit by Hurricane Irene will receive significant federal help to rebuild their battered infrastructure or that Congress will pass a routine transportation bill to repair and rebuild highways, airports and railroads nationwide – a bill overwhelmingly approved by every Congress since Republican President Dwight Eisenhower first launched the federal highway system in 1956. 
It is crystal clear to me that Meehan will continue to march lockstep with his Republican House brethren down the path to hell, leading this country into the new Great Depression, firmly believing all the while that his is the true path to salvation.
He traveled around the county yesterday with his slide show of Republican talking points: sense of uncertainty (for business), record debt, complicated, uncompetitive tax code (for business), if the government were a family…, yada, yada, yada.
At each point he mentioned a Gallup Poll that showed that 80 percent of those polled are frustrated with government, but he seems blissfully unaware that it is the relentless Republican/Tea Party assault on President Obama and the Democrats that has caused that frustration.
“I’m frustrated too,” he told about 50 people in Concord and roughly 250 in Springfield, but he never concedes that his lockstep voting with the Republican Party on every major issue contributes to that frustration.
“Where are your jobs bills?” voters asked.  They never got a single straight, specific answer.  Here are Meehan’s solutions instead:
1.      Get our fiscal house in order (cut government spending) and strengthen Social Security and Medicare  He never says how, but he did vote for the Ryan budget that would turn Medicare into “insurance support” payments, a proposal that the Congressional Budget Office says would cost seniors an addition $6,000 or more a year for health insurance. $6,000.  Think about that.
2.      Bring certainty to job creators – reform the tax code and cut corporate taxation (more on this in a minute) and cut bureaucratic red tape (that is, cut environmental and business regulations).
We got lip service, lots and lots of lip service and vague answers and “I don’t know where I stand on that issue, I’ll have to look into it.”  
Tax the wealthy? Never.  Taxing them their fair share would only bring in $75 billion a year, which he fails to note would be $750 billion over 10 years, or roughly the same amount as the taxpayer bailout of the banking industry and their ultra-rich, thieving executives, none of whom have seen a day in jail because, as Meehan observed, what they did was not illegal.
The best question asked at the Concord meeting:  “Given the Republican declaration from Day One to make sure President Obama is a one-term president, would you vote against improving the economy if it hurts Obama or would you vote to improve the economy even though that would make Obama look better?”
Meehan allowed as how that was a “loaded question” (It’s not considering on Day One, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell declared that the Republicans’ top priority is to ensure that Obama is a one-term president).
Eventually Meehan said he “would like to work with Obama” to improve the economy.  It was as half-hearted, self-serving, vague “what I think you want to hear” response as you can imagine. 
The best question from the Springfield meeting: “How can you lead us out of trouble when you’ve lost the trust of the American public?”
Meehan noted that “That is an observation well-stated.”  He didn’t say anything else.  How could he?  Politicians of every stripe, including Obama, really have lost the trust of the American people.
Here are three words I never heard Meehan say at either meeting: “fairness” “Middle Class.”  Nor did he ever acknowledge that it is consumer demand that stimulates job creation, not tax policy, and you can’t have increased demand for goods and services when people are unemployed or unsure if they soon will be.
He is adamant that our tax code places a “punishing burden” on business, you know, the job creators who haven’t been creating jobs for the past 10 years.
Punishing burden? Read this report put out yesterday by the Institute for Policy Studies that found that in 2009, 25 of the biggest American corporations not only did not pay any federal taxes, many actually received millions in federal subsidies and  paid their CEOs very handsomely, so handsomely that CEO pay now is now 263 times the pay of America’s average worker.
How is a 35 percent corporate tax rate punitive when, as Meehan says, each corporation has an office full of lawyers whose sole jobs are to ensure that the company pays zero?  What is he doing about that?  Oh yeah, he’s going to simplify the tax code and LOWER the corporate tax rate.
I think Pat Meehan is a decent man, what we in other times would have called “a moderate Republican” and I think he wants to do the right thing by his constituents.   He’s a former federal prosecutor who does know something about the corporate thievery that has brought this nation to the brink – perhaps over the brink – of destruction.
But he’s a freshman congressman who feels he  must toe the leadership’s line and he needs those corporate/law firm/insurance/real estate/Republican re-election campaign committee donations to be re-elected.
How glorious it would be if Meehan voted in the interests of the voters each and every time, if we could see him doing that and if, as a result, we would sweep him back into office election after election without his having to constantly shill for contributions and dance for lobbyists.
But that’s not reality.  In reality, the game is fixed, the system is profoundly, perhaps irrevocably, broken, the people lose and Meehan or someone like him will continue to represent the powers that be while the rest of us do whatever we can to survive.
Abandon hope.