Xpatriated Texan - A Maverick Believer in the Garden State

Christian Liberal is not an oxymoron

Location: United States

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Away from Blogs

I am now in North Carolina - right on the edge of the earth. Hopefully, I won't fall into oblivion and will be back blogging probably around the 4th.

My father-in-law is recovering from quadruple-by-pass, valve replacement, aneurism repair surgery and we're down here a few days to make sure things are heading in the right direction.

I know everyone will be praying for us, and I appreciate it.

For now, consider this an open thread. Let me know what topics you'd like me to address or just let everyone know what annoys you about the world and the people in it.

So, until I'm back in Jersey - Happy Trails!

Monday, June 27, 2005

Coincidences that Really Aren't

The reason there was no post on Friday is because I spent the day driving to Rochester to attend the wedding of a dear friend. The drive wasn't too bad - we got up early enough to miss all the traffic - and the scenary is beautiful. Really, if you haven't visited upstate New York, plan a vacation there soon. A tip: plan it for the summer.

My wife likes to say there is no such thing as a coincidence - she's one of these people that believes everything happens for a reason. Well, the weekend was full of either reasons or coincidences. I'll let you be the one to figure out which.

The wedding preparations were rather unexciting until someone decided to steam the veil and somehow a hole mysteriously appeared where no one had seen one before. Now, any of you who have been around a bride who is only hours from her wedding knows that this is a matter of national security. I mean, call out the National Guard because someone is going to lose their life over this.

It gave me a chance to actually play "big brother" for once. Having had nothing but big brothers myself, it was kind of a heart-warming experience to pull the bride to one side and tell her, "No wedding is perfect. All the stories we told you of the mistakes in ours was so you could understand that. Yet every wedding is perfect. It is made perfect by the love in your heart and in your husband's heart. One day you'll have a daughter that will be running around ready for blood because something didn't go right and you'll take her aside and laugh with her about your veil."

I was right. the wedding was, indeed, not perfect, yet it was, in fact, as perfect as it could possibly be. The joy in her face and the light in her husband's eyes were enough for every adult there to remember why they had said their vows to the person that completed their life. I am very happy to report that the bride hugged me very tightly after the wedding and said, "You're right. It was perfect. Thank you."

Another coincidence or not was that I was honored to spend well over an hour in conversation with Pastor Jim, who officiated the wedding. Smoking a celebratory cigar with the good Pastor was a first for me - actually it was the first of any kind of cigar I smoked with any Pastor. I was pleased to find a fellow soul - someone with a quick wit, a keen mind, and a burning dedication to his calling in life. If I get to shake his hand again in friendship, it will be only one more blessing in a life of many blessings.

Our talk ranged widely from Buffalo politics (which, like everywhere else, are deeply screwed) to what the bride and groom meant to the church they attend to what is becoming my speciality - the connection of politics and faith. Pastor Jim spoke about how he feared for his church becoming polarized between young and old and how they seemed to have so little in common far too often. I made an off the cuff remark concerning an article I had read long ago about how a church had faced a similar problem and solved it when the elders of the church formed a daycare for the single mothers of the church. I don't remember where the church was - though I want to say it was New Zealand - and I haven't heard anything about how it worked out. Obviously there are challenges for an undertaking of that type, but the church, as I recall the story, overcame those challenges and found themselves pulled together through the love of the children.

Pastor Jim chewed his cigar a bit and said, "Maybe this is a God thing, meeting you here like this." I shrugged, but the thought was rather exhillerating. It's nice to drop a comment that might actually help someone. Obviously, it's a long way from an offhand comment to reality, but somehow I think Pastor Jim just might be the kind of man who can make those things happen. At least, that's the impression I get. I know his parishoners think highly of him. That's a good start.

After the wedding, I gave Pastor Jim one of my cards and spoke to him of Jim Wallis and God's politics, and also of my fledgling association with the Christian Alliance for Progress. I didn't know at the time that the words I were speaking to Pastor Jim were sparking a bit of a controversy on the 'net. Enough for it to be picked up by Jesus Politics and Father Jake. Faithful Progressive was kind enough to mention it as well.

On the way home, my wife and I spoke about my conversation with Pastor Jim. It seems he remarked to a few people that he enjoyed our conversation as much as I did. I told my wife that I have always been blessed with the ability to make easy friendships with Pastors and Preachers. I think part of it is that I respect the position - after all, if they do it well, God gets the glory, but if they make a few mistakes, they are the one to catch Hell for it. It makes me feel a little better about the sudden decision I made to jump in with the Christian Alliance and tell them, "Yes, I'll organize the state of New Jersey."

So, Father Jake, you Garden State saint, send me directions how to find you and we'll have a cup of coffee and a donut. I take my coffee black and my donuts fresh - but I'll substitute an ice cream sundae in a pinch.

United States of China - or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Oil Dependency

Question: What do Unocal, Maytag, and IBM's personal computer division have in common?

Answer: They are all targeted as the result of America's wrong-headed "free-trade" monetarist foreign policy.

Apparently, it takes an oil company to make Republi-vangelicals realize that their relentless pursuit of a dollar may actually be destructive to the American economy and people.

Yes, apparently sending a few billion dollars a year to the Chinese state-owned business conglomerate results in making them rich enough to take over our American businesses. Don't think for a moment that successfully buying American businesses won't mean those jobs automatically move to China, either. It only makes our dependence on China that more complete.

For those that don't keep up on oil companies, let's review what Unocal potentially being a Chinese company means:

1) Unocal is on the brink of being taken over by Chevron-Texaco, which broke into the Fortune 500 top ten when those two companies merged. The acquisition of Unocal by Chevron-Texaco would rival Exxon-Mobile and is a bad enough development for consumers since that would put Standard Oil West and Standard Oil East back together and push them to the brink of reconstituting one of the largest monopolies in the world.

2) Unocal was posed to become a major Asian producer when the Taliban went bat-shit crazy in the 1990s. That pipeline still holds the potential for uniting South-Middle Asia, and although Unocal is not currently bidding, a take-over by China would almost guarantee they would dominate that project.

3) Unocal is already heavily involved in oil operations on Alaska's North Slope. This puts Unocal in a position of pre-eminence for drilling in ANWR should that be approved.

4) Unocal owns a sixth-part of Alyeska - the company that operates the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. 20% of all American produced oil.

Now, I will connect the dots for anyone who can't see the obvious problem with this situation.

If Unocal is bought by the Chinese, they would collect a premium on every barrel of oil sent through the Alaska pipeline - which is about one-fifth of every drop of oil produced in America. Want to see oil prices really screw the American economy?

If Unocal is bought by the Chinese, about one-eighth of all oil produced in Alaska would belong to the Chinese. This situation would only worsen if ANWR were opened for exploration - both because of expanded drilling opportunities for Unocal and because of a pipeline extension that would be a windfall for Alyeska.

Are you seeing big super-tankers full of dollars moving from San Francisco over to China?

If Unocal is bought by the Chinese, and wins contracts for natural gas and oil pipelines across Afghanistan, we would actually have American soldiers defending the ability of the Chinese government to turn a profit from international oil and gas markets. Those guys wearing our uniforms in Afghanistan? Yeah, they would be dying for China.

If Unocal is bought by the Chinese, our entire economy suddenly becomes threatened with being subject to Chinese conditions. We import BILLIONS of dollars worth of goods from China - many of which are used as parts in our floundering manufacturing sector. Those parts could suddenly face drastic price increases in the threat of a pipeline slowdown/shutdown forced by Unocal. The domestic need for oil would be irrelevant for drilling in ANWR as Chinese demand leads to oil wells being capped and held for Chinese use until prices make it profitable to sell to American refiners - prices like $100 per barrel, for instance.

In other words, our wrong-headed destruction of barriers to American money flowing into China is about to come home to roost in a very big way.

It's time to act now, before the future of America is held in the hands of the Chinese government.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A Cure that Won't Kill - a Tale of a Public Advocate

Anyone who has followed politics for more that - oh, twenty seconds - knows that a true public servant is a rarity. The idea, like chivalry, isn't dead, but the patient is ill and the heartbeat is fading. Meanwhile, the doctors are slam-dancing like drunken Marx Brothers waving a tree saw and hammer and talking about "resuscitating the patient".

Well, I don't want to be resuscitated. I want to be heard. But it's awfully hard to be heard when you live in the twenty-first century and the government is stuck in the nineteenth.

Really, when was the last time you heard of "government" and "computers" used in a sentence that didn't contain the word "disaster"?

Love them or hate them, computers are here to stay. Of course, they aren't staying on your desk - they're portable laptops and sidekicks and PDA's and about a billion and a half other gizmos that make neat sounds and have pretty flashing lights. Oh yeah, our foreign business competitors use them to kick our butts, too.

Here's what Andrew Raseij has to say about that:

"... while other major cities around the world and even here at home are focused on creating a true 21st Century infrastructure – and equipping their citizens to thrive in the new global marketplace – New York is mostly standing still. Seoul and Tokyo are busy raising the speed limit on the information superhighway. And our government can't even tell New York straphangers when the next subway is coming."

Here the nurse? "Doctor, the patient is awake and pissed off. Perhaps you should do something."

Doctor Marx Bloomberg twiddles his cigar and replies, "I am doing something, sweetheart. I'm blowing the West Side Stadium deal - can you bring me some Chapstick?"

Okay, let's turn to someone who has a clue what leadership is. Andrew Raseij again:

"My hope in putting forward this "NY Wi-Fi" plan is to fill that imagination gap. I want to show the voters just what they could gain from this modest investment in our common future, starting with our education system. Right now most students in our public schools can only get access to a computer for a measly one hour a week. That helps explain why kids in South Korea have better and faster access to the U.S. Library of Congress than kids in the South Bronx. My plan will change that, so that we don't settle for leaving no child behind – our goal should be to help every child get ahead."

Whoa! Hold on! Where is the empty rhetoric about "accountability" and "standards" and "testing"? How will the educational consultants make a living, Andrew? Besides, silly upstart! Children don't vote!

"I have learned a great deal about this particular problem through my work with MOUSE, a non-profit I founded eight years ago to help wire our public schools and train students and teachers in using technology. Every year, we have trained about 1,000 students in a hundred schools to be their school's systems administrators. They in turn support 89,000 students and 6,000 teachers in making sure that the computers work when they're supposed to, so learning moments can happen. And they save the school system $1.2 million a year. Even better, more than 90 percent of the kids in our program graduate and go on to college."

Doctor Marx Bloomberg:
"Noyse, we have a problem. No, the patient's fine. That's the problem. Give him some dum-dum juice and stick him in a voting booth - STAT!"

Back to Andrew:

"Many of our elected officials, including our current Public Advocate, could not tell a server from a waiter, let alone envision a universal "Wi-Fi" system and bring the city together to support it. The only way that's going to change is if we elect new leaders who "get it" – that's IT, as in information technology – and who can see the connection between the technologies of today and the New York of tomorrow."

Ouch! Andrew, come on! The new century is only five years old! Can't we ease into it a bit slower? Do we really need today's leaders today? I mean, look around! Yesterday's leaders are doing such a wonderful job!

I think Andrew just whizzed by with a crash cart. You know, we might just make it after all.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Mountain Men and Pioneers

In what we now generally refer to as "the days of the Old West", a peculiar breed of man was born. He was called "the Mountain Man", and he was only one of a series of larger-than-life heroes in the American mythos. They were tough men, dependent on nothing more than their wits, knowledge of the land, and a good rifle. They hunted, they scouted, and they opened up the West.

But they didn't win it.

He was replaced in short order by another semi-wild man - the American cowboy. The cowboy has been romanticized beyond any real resemblance of his job. Thanks to John Wayne and John Ford, we know the West not as it really was - but as it should have been.

But cowboys didn't win the West either.

The West was won by hardy souls we refer to generally as "pioneers". The loaded up their Conestogas and headed west with nothing more than a dream and a handful of tales of a better life. They set out for California and Oregon, but large numbers settled between Kansas and Santa Fe or the Tetons and Cascades. For the most part, they led hard and mostly short lives - rarely living into what we'd call "old age" today. They fought, the plowed, they sowed, they reaped, and they prayed.

Pioneers are what you used to see on "Little House on the Prairie" - a whole community devoted to making sure everyone survived and prospered. They accepted hard work as both an opportunity and as a necessity. They pulled together when times were hard and sometimes they even fought amongst themselves.

You don't hear about pioneers anymore.

Instead, you hear Mountain Man talk - Cowboy talk - about "individual rights" and "individual responsibility". Why, to listen, you'd think there never was a city built on the Great Plains of North America. All it took was a few good shots with a six-gun to scare out all the natives and make the world safe for civilized folk.

But it was the civilized folk that bestowed upon us our real heritage. It's a heritage of community involvement and community justice and community, community, community. It's very telling to think for just a moment that every place these people settled, they set up a government - and they gave that government power to work in the name of the community to achieve community goals.

Law. Order. Security. Justice.

Those are the inheritance of the sons and daughters of pioneers.

And, yes, they were fiercely independent, too.

But they understood first and foremost that independence is truly interdependence. A man has a right to build as big a fire as he wants, but he has the responsibility to prevent it from destroying his neighbor's property. Rights are always counter-balanced by responsibilities. Rights are granted to the individual by the community, and they are revoked if they are not used responsibly. You can own a gun - but use it irresponsibly and it will be taken from you. You can speak your mind - but slander someone and you'll have to pay a fine. You can own your own life - but you cannot own anyone else's.

Many years ago, John Donne put it this way: "No man is an island'. This is the fatal flaw in the political thinking from the right - they want to pretend that we are an island - that we can really pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. All the while they neglect to realize that our boots are given to us by our community.

But the left is also too quick to condemn the idea of personal responsibility. Despite challenges to the contrary, every person who succeeds ultimately does so because they take the responsibility for doing so. No amount of social spending will cure that equation.

The trick is to find the correct balance between individual responsibility and community responsibility - between Mountain Man and Pioneer. Between Democrat and Republican. Between Liberal and Conservative.

The "spirit of the West" turned a "wild, unsettled land" into a heartland that feeds the world. Such great things are possible when both individual and community are honored.

I believe that such great things are still possible.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Father's Day

Father's Day has always been a loss to me. Growing up as the youngest son of a single mother, it was simply meaningless. For most of my life, I didn't know where my father lived, though I certainly knew who he was and what he was doing.

Dad was, for most of my life, a picture on the wall, a memory that brought fond smiles to everyone who knew him. I remember him coming home from the Navy twice - once before I had even started school when he took us out for hamburgers and then piled us into the car for a fishing trip out on the Pecos River. I don't remember much about the trip - after all, I was pretty young. I do remember throwing tumbleweeds on the fire and watching the sparks catch the wind and get carried off into the darkness where they winked out of existence. I remember sleeping in Grandaddy's camper and Uncle Hubert shining the flashlight in on Uncle Tom in the middle of the night and telling him to go check the trotline. Tom hit his head on the roof of the camper, cussed a bit, and went back to sleep to dream he had checked the line. The next morning he got up looking for fresh fish to fry for breakfast. Tom also told me that Fig Newtons were made with cat turds and kept it up until I wouldn't eat any more. At that point, he scooped up the bag and finished them off saying between each bite, "Mmmm, I sure do like these cat turds."

I couldn't swim yet, so Dad made me wear a orange life vest anytime we got near the river. At one point I got caught in the current and started screaming for help. I heard Tom say, "He's headed for the rapids." In my young vocabulary, "rapids" meant "mean water". I remember Dad looking over his shoulder and disappearing under the water. That scared me even more because I had spent all summer staying up late to watch monster movies. Somehow Dad surfaced about two feet on the other side of me so the current carried me into his arms. As I kicked and fought my way up on his shoulders, he laughed and said, "What's a big boy like you screaming like a girl over a little water for?" That pretty well took the screaming out of me. If Dad could laugh about it, how could I be scared?

The other time I was, I think, in third grade and we once again piled into his old car and went down to the Pecos. The snowpack had melted early and the river was high - and I managed to catch more fish than anyone by snagging two white trout. I remember it mostly because my brother Will and I got to drink a whole case of Shasta sodas - which was probably more soda than we had both consumed in our whole life at that time. Oh yeah, Will almost drowned and was pulled out of the Pecos by Dad while I was catching perch and brother Jim got one eyebrow and a good bit of hair on his head singed from standing downwind while Dad lit a tumbleweed for Will to warm up.

The big thing about that trip was Dad found a stray dog - a little speckled bird dog covered with millions of fleas and ticks that was so skinny his ribs actually cast a shadow on his flanks. Dad fed that dog - that he somehow named "Hotshot" on the spot - all the bacon we had and a few potatoes soaked in bacon grease. We didn't do much fishing, but I remember dad spending two enternities going over Hotshot, crushing fleas between his fingernail and thumb and burning ticks with his cigarette so they let go of the dog and he'd flip them into the fire.

I also remember that Dad went to sleep sitting on a rock and drinking coffee - it seems coffee didn't do much to keep him awake. At one point his foot slipped out from under him and he spilled the coffee on his pants. The really important part we didn't find out for a few minutes when Dad finally looked at the fire and noticed that the toilet paper had been kicked into the fire when he slipped. We climbed the bluffs and chunked rocks out into the river and Jimmy sat on a rattlesnake.

The next time I saw Dad, he was climbing out of his car in the driveway the summer before I started High School. He was retired from the Navy now and I was going to spend a whole week with him. I remember listening to records with him - Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash. Somehow the counterweight fell out of the arm and Dad tried to balance it by stacking quarters on the head of the needle. His hands shook so bad that he had to use both hands and still managed to drop more quarters on the record than even hit the tone arm on the way down. He drank a lot of beer, smoked a lot of cigarettes, and we had the only father-son conversation we would ever have. I wrote about that here.

The next time I saw Dad - the last time I saw him - he was wearing his service blues and laying in a box. I don't remember much of that day. Somehow I left Grandaddy's house with a couple sacks full of live chickens - a big Jersey Giant rooster that eventually grew to be about ten pounds, a couple of red "Cherry Eggers" that laid two eggs per day, and a Auracana rooster and two hens that had silver flecked feathers and laid eggs that were pastel blue and green. I don't know why it's important to put that in, but the story just doesn't feel complete without including that.

Sometimes I see Dad in my dreams. He looks just like he did when we spent those last few hours together. He's always smoking, the cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his head cocked to the side so the smoke doesn't get in his eyes. He told me two weeks before I got divorced that it was going to happen and everything would be alright - and that I should fight hard for my kids. He told me that he was proud of me when I became the first one in the family to graduate from college. Once he pulled a paper out of his pocket and gave it to me, telling me that "Mr. Kennedy wants you to know something" - the paper said, "Love the writing - Jack". At various times when I was worried about my brothers, he's told me, "Don't worry, son. It ain't time for us to fish again. We'll go fishing again soon - but not yet."

I don't often miss my Dad. Even as I treasure these few memories I realize that one of the reasons they are all good memories is that there are so few of them. I can't help wish for more, even though that's an impossible wish. I feel the loss, though, when I realize that my kids will never know the gentle strength of their grandfather. They'll never understand when I try to describe the way the scent of his hair oil mixed with stale beer and cigarettes - or how that can possibly be a good smell. It's a hard thing to miss something you never had, but somehow I've managed how to do so. Fortunately, I've also learned that it isn't necessary to live with that on a daily basis. I've learned to let it come and go as it will, neither viewing it as an enemy that reminds me of what I've lost or a friend with which to tie my future to the past.

I'm a father now, and sometimes I think that helps me understand my father. Sometimes it only makes him more of a mystery. I think fathers are always a bit of a mystery to their sons - I know that probably fits pretty well coming out of my son's mouth, too. I don't talk to him enough. I don't see him hardly ever. But I never stop loving him. I never stop being proud of him. Maybe someday we'll get past this mystery phase and find a way to relate to each other as men.

My daughter called me earlier today to tell me she loves me. She also needs my address so she can mail me something. At least I can offer my kids that. Looking back, thinking forward, that isn't such a bad deal.

To anyone out there who is a father, and to everyone who has a father - happy Father's Day.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Where Forth Art Thou, Middle Class?

Get ready. Two Americas may not be enough.

The Rich, the Poor, and the Middle Class - or, in Western terms, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.

It's no great revelation that American politicians try to push messages that resonate with the "Middle Class". You can barely turn on any political show without hearing how the "Middle Class" is struggling. Republicans say the way to help them is to cut everyone's taxes. Democrats say the way to help them is to expand the social safety net. But who are they really talking about?

The problem is that just about everyone thinks they are Middle Class.

Obviously, not everyone is Middle Class - it just isn't possible for everyone to be "middle" anything. Take a look at Wikipedia's discussion on what constitutes the Middle Class. It should just about blow the lid off of most people's misconceptions that they have any hope of making it as high as the Middle Class.

Let's use Wikipedia's somewhat formulaic method to determine what Middle Class in America means.

Throw out anyone who is obviously "rich". I'll use the nice round number of $1,000,000. If you make more than a million bucks a year, I think it's safe to say you're rich. Making $999,999.99 doesn't exactly qualify as "not-rich", but these things can't be any better than our numerical system. Regardless, I find it difficult to see anyone claiming that a million a year does not qualify someone as being rich.

Next, throw out the poor. Here, the federal goverment helps us be a bit less arbitrary. They have an official "poverty level". However, the federal government says that you are only poor if you are single and make less than $9,570 a year. That's just ridiculous. If your total housing costs are only $500 a month, that comes out to $6,000 per year by itself. You have a whopping $3,570 for food, clothing, and everything else you might need? Better be good at budgeting because you have less than $300 per month to meet your needs. If you have a dependent child, then you can make an extra $3,260. Anyone who has ever bought diapers and forumla knows that is a ridiculous number.

Furthermore, the government knows it's ridiculous. Federal guidelines for assistance have cutoff levels ranging from 125% of federal poverty guidelines to up to 185%. What is the point of setting a guideline if it must be exceeded for any realistic usage? Well, for one thing there's the fact that federal minimum wage, at a standard 2000 hour work year, only pulls in $10,300 - before any taxes or deductions. If the federal poverty guidelines were raised to where the 125% cut-off were made the full poverty level, then anyone who makes minimum wage would automatically qualify for benefits. 125% of $9,570 is $11,962.50 - and that's $1,662.50 more than you can make on minimum wage (without overtime). So, if we actually put the poverty level where it should be then we'd have to face the fact that we are condemning people to a life of working in poverty their whole life. Since we cannot stand our own hypocracy, we pretend like you can get by on that wage.

For our purposes, though, we'll use the 185% maximum cut-off for federal aid. After all, if that is the most you can make and get help, then you cannot be in poverty above that (insert a sarcastic tone there). So our search for the Middle Class cuts out anyone who makes less than $17,704.50 (if single - that works out to $8.85 per hour).

In the strictest sense, then, the "Middle Class" could be said to be anyone with income from (let's round it up) $20,000 up to a million a year. That's a pretty wide range. However, Wikipedia says we should throw out the "working class". Unfortunately, there is no good working definition for this term.

If we split the income range in half, we end up starting the Middle Class at $510,000 per year. That's pretty high.

The Middle Class should be somewhere between the rich and the working class. I'll make an arbitrary decision and say that to qualify as Middle Class, there has to be at least the ability to make ends meet on one income. Obviously, this also has to do with lifestyle - but lifestyle goes hand in hand with income and class. The difference between the high end of the working class and the low end of the Middle Class shouldn't be seen as which car they drive or the clothes they wear (remember the difference is really only a few dollars at the extreme ends) - it is the ease with which that income is brought into the home.

$250,000 seems too high to cut out the workers and $100,000 seems too low (after all, it's just two people making $50,000). If we split the difference, we come up to the number of $175,000. This would fit our extended definition where, if made by one worker, the other would not have to work at all. As well, if the non-working partner were to take a medium-wage job - say enough to escape poverty on their own - the difference would not be significant (though probably welcome).

Our working class, then, makes between $20,000 and $175,000 and the Middle Class starts at $175,000 and reaches all the way to a million a year.

Hold on a minute - I just hurt myself with that statement.

An interesting thing about this little intellectual journey is that the cut-off numbers tend to agree with the federal tax schedule. If you shift to the "Married, filing jointly" schedule, you'll see that the lowest tax bracket's high limit is $14,600 - which if you add back in the standard deduction for two people is remarkably close to our $20,000 lower limit. You'll also see that the $175,000, when standard deductions are added back in, is just a hair below the high limit on the 28% tax bracket.

Here's a rant against the unfairness. First, those still below the poverty level are paying 10% of their income in tax! If you think $2,000 isn't a lot to these people, then understand that it is four months of total housing costs! Hey, though, the poor suck, so let's stick it to 'em hard and fast.

Now let's look at the upper level unfairness. You'll notice that 100% of those who are considered wealthy here face no increase in taxation at all! Once you make it past what would be lower Middle Class, you don't face any sort of increase in taxation ever - ever!

Most economists believe that a strong Middle Class is necessary to balance the winners and losers of capitalism. The working class is the real backbone - it is responsible for churning out the "productivity" upon which all other classes depend. From looking at our tax code, you'd never guess either of these things. You'd think that the only people that matter are those who can break into the top bracket.

It's also interesting to me how closely this mirrors the tax system I mulled over in a previous post. Okay, maybe it isn't so interesting since both intellectual exercises sprung from the same brain. Still, it shows a very important problem.

If anyone wants to bring any type of real fairness to the tax policy, they are going to have to convince Americans that they are not even close to being as rich as they believe they are. Given the ability of Americans to deny reality, this will be an uphill battle.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Sometimes, It Comes Down to Money

If you haven't read my Roundin' Up The News post (and why haven't you?) then you may not know that Carol Marsh was defeated in her bid to become Hoboken's first female mayor. She fell about 1,400 votes shy of winning - which is a considerable amount (somewhere around 17% of the vote). A large part of this has to do with the internal workings of the campaign, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that she was outspent 10:1. David Roberts actually spent a million dollars in this campaign. For a mayoral race. A million dollars.

Too often, politics comes down to who has the deepest pockets. That's reality, and I don't expect it to change a whole lot in the near future. However, unless we work to change it, it will not even change in the far future. In other words, it's an overwhelming job, but putting it off doesn't make it smaller. In fact, it only makes it a bigger problem.

Of course, campaign finance reform has been tried before. More often than not, the results have been next to nothing - at best. The result has been a string of reformers left scratching their heads and wondering why they even bothered to fight.

I would like nothing more than to say that things are different now. They aren't. More often than not, the campaign goes to the highest bidder - literally.

But if that's true, it's only because we refuse to insist that things be different. Here in New Jersey, Doug Forrester spent around ten million dollars just to win the Republican primary. He'll probably go through at least twice that much in the general election and the same is true for the Democratic Candidate Jon Corzine. Why is it that we tolerate an auction for our political offices? Candidates for office are forced to either be independently wealthy and use their own money or whore themselves to everyone with a big enough checkbook. Increasingly, it's a combination of the two.

We deserve better.

Our democracy is supposed to work on the principle of "one man - one vote". The influence of big money in political campaigns is nothing more than the attempt to get a little bit extra for your vote. In fact, in the case of non-voters donating money, it's an opportunity to get one vote out of none. After all, which really has more pull in determining the election: one vote or one million dollars?

Of course, you have the contributions that are intended to curry favor, as well. I'm not talking about all contributions - and I generally try to stay away from the claim that contributions are given to influence policy. Isn't that true of the political contest in general? If Candidate A wants to build a park and I want a park built, then I am not defeating the system by contributing to his campaign. No, it is when Candidate A wants a park and Candidate B doesn't want a park and I give a large amount to both sides that the system is truly defeated. I simply cannot both want a park and not want a park. The contribution, then, is given solely for the purpose of buying influence with whoever wins. That, my friends, is a defeat of the entire purpose of democracy.

The first thing that we need to do, in my opinion, is limit donations to the electoral district in which the campaign will take place. If Carol Marsh wants to run for mayor of Hoboken again, then she should only take contributions from people within the City of Hoboken. There is simply no reason why someone in Jersey City or California should be able to fund a mayoral race in a town in which they don't even want to live. The people of Alabama, for example, should have no influence over and election in Kansas.

The second thing we should do is to limit contributions to natural persons who are eligible to vote. Corporations should not be able to determine who gets elected, nor should political action committees or "independent" attack groups. Democracy is built upon "one man - one vote" - which means that if you aren't a human being you shouldn't have any part in the election. If enough individuals are effected by a company's actions, they'll vote accordingly. Each of the people who work for the company already have a vote - they simply don't need more influence than that.

While I think expenditures should be allowed to proceed unhindered, I do not think the same for donations. Simply acquiring greater wealth does not entitle a person to greater influence in an election. Rather than limiting contributions to a particular candidate, we should limit political donations by individuals - by amount and with the stipulation that a person cannot support more than one candidate in the election.

I also would like to see a blind private-public funding of elections. Rather than sending money directly to the candidate - who can then know who to thank and in what way - the money should be sent to an independent commission and then disbursed to the candidate. The commission takes care of all the filing requirements - checking and double-checking that all the proper laws have been followed. The candidate then only has to worry about getting their message out. In order to provide a fair playing field, public funds should be used to guarantee a minimal amount necessary to run the campaign. If the candidate gathers more than some maximum amount, all public funds must be repaid and no further amount would be disbursed.

I know that I'm leaving myself open to the charge of betraying these principles. After all, I've openly made please for funding to various campaigns without stipulating that I believe you should be directly involved in the campaign area. I admit that I'm guilty of this. I am, at the bottom, a realist. Imposing all of these restrictions on a candidate right now would do nothing but ensure total failure in an election. If that weren't true, then there would be no need of implementing them.

So, we must use the rules as they are to our benefit in trying to change those rules. In the meantime, support candidates who are actually trying to change the way the game is played. People like Chris Bell in Texas who noted recently that there are campaign contribution limits at every level of government in Texas except in state-wide races. You have to wonder why it's a good thing to limit contributions to a federal Senator, but not to the State Governor. People like Andrew Raseij in New York City who has voluntarily limited contributions to his campaign to the (insane) level of $100 per person.

It's a small start, but it's important to get started now. Today. Each day that goes by is one more day our political leaders are bought like a cheap whore by people and corporations with the money to buy them.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Cutting our Throats to Spite the Unions

It's no secret that Conservatives generally view labor unions with suspicion. The reason is simple: they believe that people with money should be able to spend it anyway they want without anyone telling them how to do so. A labor union, to monetarists, is an abberation that inverts the economic power system and creates impediments to the free flow of capital.

Am I exaggerating? Read this link. Or notice the way this post substitutes "Socialism or Marxism" for "liberal politics". Or read this. Or find out how labor unions are run by the Soviet Union.

The fact is that for many older conservatives, opposition to labor unions at home was a growth of the same opposition they showed to the Soviet Union abroad. Communism was inherently evil, they believed. Especially among thinkers like Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, or Friedrich Hayek, labor unionism was an effort to overthrow everything that made America great - and by America, they meant "free trade".

So it was that anti-unionists in Congress, like Robert Taft of Ohio and Barry Goldwater of Arizona, pushed for anti-union legislation. Ultimately, they were able to limit the ability of unions to set up union-shops by promoting the false idea of "the right to work". To these perverse thinkers, you should have a "right" to work without anyone but your employer looking out for your health, safety, and well-being. The right to work, in this instance, is nothing more than the right to slavery under slightly different terms.

Those who have actually read a little history will remember that the US and USSR were actually allies during World War II. It was not until the USSR made a grab for Berlin - and by extension the industrial capacity of Germany - that the two became enemies. However, that strategic maneuver on the part of the Soviets gave the conservative (at the time still in its infancy) an issue to seize upon and say, "We told you so! We were right all along! You just have to listen to me!" (Oddly enough, that sounds like many of the most strident voices on the right today.)

To the small group of conservatives, the Soviet Union had always been the enemy anyway - because they (supposedly) operated their government for the benefit of the workers! There was literally no difference in fighting the Soviets and fighting the AFL-CIO. Both actions were necessary to defend capitalism and free market economics. In order to do this, it was necessary to ban most, if not all, trade with the Soviet Union.

This is not a defense of the Soviet Union. The human rights abuses and lack of civil rights destroyed generations of human beings. Rather than honoring the work and glorifying the workers, corruption twisted the goals into placating the worker while the ruling class enriched itself. Eventually, the entire system depended on a web of lies that, when exposed to daylight, crumbled into nothingness.

Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan, the Crown Prince of Conservatism, sat in the White House. His virulent anti-communism leads to the twin actions of busting the Air Traffic Controllers Union (for which they perversely named an airport after him) and a military build-up aimed at crippling the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, the crumbling facade of the corrupt Soviet leadership was coming to an end. The great experiment in the name of workers had betrayed its ideas and its people - and eventually this brought it to its knees. The timing was such that Ronald Reagan was able to leap to the head of the class and claim sole responsibility.

So we come to the current day. Labor unions are struggling in a legal system that is unfriendly towards them. The tipping of the federal judiciary to the conservative end of the spectrum has made it more difficult for labor to win victories in the courts and the removal of barriers to international trade has made strikes (in most manufacturing industries) ineffectual, if not impossible to pull off. This has a single common base that reveals a betrayal within the Conservative movement of one of its core values.

That issue is free trade with China. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Chinese labor is much cheaper than American labor. As well, business doesn't have to deal with regulatory restrictions - such as health and safety regulations, environmental regulations, etc. Honestly, the only reason this country has a single manufacturing job left comes down to two reasons: 1) a fading sense of patriotism; or 2) they don't have the money to relocate.

The rise of Wal-Mart cannot be overstated in this development. The demand for ever decreasing prices forces companies to relocate in order to compete. The result is a swelling trade deficit with China. All of this is for no other reason than breaking the backs of the unions. Understand that "more competitive labor pricing" is nothing more than a nice way to say "scab labor" - or less emotionally "people so desperate they will take any wage".

Meanwhile, the flow of money in and out of the country towards China works to the benefit of China - our "trade imbalance" is nothing more than a subsidy of China to the tune of almost two hundred billion dollars per year. How long do you think that we would have waited for the USSR to fall if we had given them two hundred billion dollars per year? What if that two hundred billion dollars came with a few million jobs?

Don't get suckered into thinking that China is our "competitive partner". We are in competition with China. The flow of trade dollars into China from America necessarily weakens our manufacturing base and strengthens theirs. It makes our currency weaker and theirs stronger (technically, their currency doesn't vary as it is pegged to the US dollar. This is only true until our subsidies make their currency stronger than ours.). It takes money out of our economy - taking away jobs and forcing down wages - while giving the jobs and wages to therm.

This is not to say that I am not sympathetic to the plight of the average Chinese person. I am. However, I am more sympathetic to the plight of the American worker. The only thing that is worse than having American workers at the mercy of American business owners is to have them at the mercy of Chinese business owners. In trying to break the unions by pursuing policies that allow constantly lower wages and less regulation, we are cutting our own throat. Increasingly, it is looking like the knife we use to do so will have "Made in China" stamped on the handle.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Why I Oppose Drilling in ANWR

After getting into two more online arguments in the last two days about energy policy and drilling in ANWR, and having to repeat information I've given out time after time (after time after time after time), I decided that I should put it all together for everyone to see. This way I can merely point to my blog and tell people to read it before they want to discuss ANWR with me.

Here is a summary of the arguments for and against drilling. Thankfully, it also debunks the claims from both sides. Both sides, it seems, are bursting at the seams with fertilizer.

I will admit from the beginning that I'm not that interested in the ecology of oil production. We need oil for our world to work properly, and that's simply the fact. It has to come from somewhere, and it is generally better if we produce it ourselves than if we import it. Unless and until someone perfects a substitute for oil in our modern world, we are just going to have to deal with the environmental fall-out, both at the production site and at the usage site. This doesn't mean we should simply say, "Screw it, let someone else clean up the mess." No, it means that we should recognize that our way of life is ultimately destructive and do everything we can to limit that destruction. I, for one, am not about to go back to the days of the Old West just to save a few barrels of oil a year.

If you approach this issue from any other perspective, you are being hypocritical about it.

Here's the point of opposition: the amount of oil that will be produced from ANWR is too little to be worth the damage it will cause. Further, it is not necessary for us to develop ANWR at all. It is a better choice, a wiser choice, to save it for future development.

Hold on to your hats, it's time to throw some numbers at you.

Currently, the United States consumes approximately 20 million barrels of oil per day. Of this, we import just under twelve million barrels of oil. This is the level of "dependence on foreign oil" that everyone likes to talk about and sound like they're special.

Here's a link to a list of the top countries of origin for American oil imports. If you look at it, you'll notice something no one ever speaks about - we aren't that dependent on the Persian Gulf. Of the top five importers into the United States, only one - Saudi Arabia - is in the Middle East. Depending on the exact day, Canada, Mexico, or Venezuela will send more oil than Saudi Arabia. Some days, all three do.

If you look at the next five - again, only one is a Persian Gulf country. Exactly the same pattern holds for the next five. Strange. I thought the Arabs were holding us hostage over oil prices. It's a funny way to make us dependent on them when the top three Persian Gulf importing countries contribute less than twelve percent of our oil imports. Exactly who are we trying to declare independence from? The Canadians and Mexicans? If so, then why the Hell did we ratify NAFTA?

The most optimistic analysis puts the average maximum daily output from ANWR at about two million barrels of oil per day. At that rate of production, the site should produce for at least 25 years, and probably closer to 35 years. Okay, so it looks like ANWR will produce enough oil for us to tell the Saudis to shove off. If construction started today, that level of production would not be reached for eight to ten years.

Moreover, we don't want to quit buying oil from the Saudis. If you look at this chart, and do a little math, you will find out that the US accounts for slightly more than sixteen percent of all Saudi Arabian oil. That means we are more important to their economic well-being than they are to ours. To put it differently, if all oil between them and us were cut off, it would hurt them more than us. Who is truly dependent?

This means that we have a tool to use in international politics. Understand that Saudi Arabia cannot produce enough food to feed itself. When the price of our oil goes up, the price of their food goes up. Guess which one can more easily be done without?

Here's the next reason why we don't need to drill in ANWR - we have Canada and we have Mexico. Canada actually holds the second largest amount of oil in the world - and that's only counting oil that is both known and able to be recovered with current technology. If you count what is known and will not be accessible for several years, Canada is actually way over Saudi Arabia in oil. How much? 175.6 trillion barrels. The associated natural gas - which is liquid due to low temperatures - totals more than all the natural gas known to exist in the rest of the world.

Drilling in ANWR now looks about like spitting on a fish before you throw it in the ocean. It may make you feel better, for some odd reason, but there's just no point in it.

Here's the real kicker - oil from Edmonton is cheaper than oil from the North Slope - which is cheaper than oil from ANWR would be. Even if production prices are exactly equal - which they aren't - Edmonton is a thousand miles closer. That means the cost of getting it from there to here is cheaper.

So instead of begging to the Saudi princes, President Bush should beat a fast track to Edmonton - perhaps take in a hockey game, eh? - and look at ways to work on an international partnership with Canada. ANWR will never replace all of the Saudi oil flowing into the US - Alberta can - and should. Let's double Canadian oil output and see how desperate the Saudis become when we tack on a $5 per barrel surcharge on oil that comes from non-democratically governed countries that deny equal status and voting rights to women.

Let the oil in ANWR stay where it is. If it is ever needed - like in 200 years when Alberta runs out of oil - then it will actually be worth the price of the environmental degredation that comes with oil production.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Succumbing to Partisanship, Adhering to Principles

Believe it or not, I've never been much for partisanship. I tend to agree with George Washington and the authors of the Federalist Papers that partisanship leads to extremism and extremism is the most destructive political force known to history. I simply don't trust any party - even one I built from the ground up - to maintain its principles when faced with doing what's right or doing what's necessary to get re-elected (or elected in the first place). Power is a seductive mistress and principle is a demanding one. Very rarely do they go together.

I see it here at the local level - in Hoboken and in Jersey City. I've written about the method of co-opting challengers as a means of maintaining power. It needs no explanation as to how political office-holders can reward supporters and enrich themselves to retain power - we see that at all levels of government. This is exactly the sort of betrayal of values of which I speak.

However, unless and until political parties are banned altogether, they will be with us. I would much rather each politician and each policy build an ad hoc support system based on the value of their ideas, but this is not the way politics operates. To bind myself to "the way things should be" rather than dealing with "the way things are" is to do nothing more than ensure failure. The beliefs I hold dear deserve better than a plan to fail.

So, this past Tuesday, I swallowed my theoretical pride and voted as a partisan in the New Jersey Democratic primary. Anyone who has read this blog more than two or three seconds realizes that this is not a change of direction so much as it is a confirmation of the way I've been leaning for some time. Actually, I'm sure some will be surprised to learn that I am only now becoming a "real Democrat". Suprise!

The move into the Democratic Party is the result of the increasing ideological split between the parties. Once, both parties held a wide swath of ideological ground. Over the last twenty years, the Conservative wing of the Republican Party has pulled the entire country farther and farther to the right - while simultaneously violating any principles (such as fiscal responsibility) that I might have recognized as being attractive. The result is that the Democratic Party has become, more and more, my natural ideological home.

The primary political value I hold is that government should be a servant of the people whom it governs - not the businesses, not the wealthy, not any one group above all others. It exists to ensure every individual has equal protection of their rights - the very same rights we joined as a society to create. The natural result of this idea is that I tend to put a lot of emphasis on looking after the groups in society that are the most powerless and in giving voices to them. That tendency led me to support Carol Marsh in Hoboken and Jon Corzine for New Jersey Governor. I'm not saying Carol or Jon come from the same place in life that I have - it would be amazing to me if they had, in fact, grown up in a poverty-stricken family in Texas - but the things they say and the things they do truly reflect this primary value. This is also true of Chris Bell for Governor of Texas - except I am sure he came from Texas. None of these three are perfect, but they do create policy built on reality and look after the little guy.

Observant people will notice two new candidates I am offering support for on this site - Andrew Rasiej for City Advocate in New York City and Tim Kaine for Virginia Governor. Both of these actions are based on reviewing their campaigns - and in the case of Mr. Kaine, his record of service - and finding them to be in agreement with my principles and values. Although both candidates are competing for offices that are out-of-state for me, I feel that the pool of good candidates is too small to leave them out. In short, I believe they deserve my support, and I'm giving it to them.

I'm not paid by any of these campaigns - although I probably wouldn't turn it down. If any offers come in, I'll let you know. The closest I come to be "influenced" into participating is having a collaborative relationship with Micah Sifry, who works on the Rasiej campaign, and having made fast friends with Brian Urbano, who is on the Marsh ticket. I've spoken directly to Carol, and her running-mates, and have found nothing about them that gives me reservations about my ongoing support for them. I've spoken with people on the Corzine and Bell campaigns and am assured that they, too, share my principles.

Thus far, I believe I have been able to mix my new-found partisan standing with adherence to my principles. Those who know me also know that I'm not shy about criticizing Democrats or praising Republicans when those actions are called for. I expect to continue this tradition of speaking truth, if not TO power, at least ABOUT power. I've not reached a point in my life where I'm willing to trade principles for partisanship, and I hope that by laying things out and making the decision an open one that I never will reach that point.

In the end, the decision as to whether or not to continue to trust me is in your hands. Unlike elections, in this medium you do not have to choose between the lesser of two evils - you can choose as evil as you like. I've come to know a few of you through your comments and I know there are some who come and do not comment. While I cannot speak for all of you, I do believe that those I do know of will not be offended by this partisan standing. Agree or disagree, I hope you keep coming back and keep speaking your mind.

That is, after all, what freedom and democracy are for.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Marriage of the Flesh, Marriage of the Spirit

It's a poetic and unwieldy sentence: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh."

It isn't one sentence at all. It's two sentences. Actually, it's one full sentence and the independent clause of a second.

The first one should be "A man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife" - that's it. Put the period in right at the end.

Before we move on, let's deal with a little issue of the word "cleave".

Cleave, literally, means both to adhere closely and inseparably and to cut away completely. A muscle cleaves to a bone, but a butcher cleaves this adjoining when he butchers an animal. It's an odd word. It is its own antonym. It contradicts itself. How can it be possible that a man can join himself inseparably to his wife and still remain apart from her?

The word comes from an Old English term "cleven". If it looks or sounds familiar, it's the same root for the word "cloven" - as in a cloven hoof. I happen to know a little about hooves because I grew up raising cattle and sheep and pigs and horses. Let me explain how marriage is like a hoof.

Here's a cow's hoof for reference. Yechh! I know it isn't pretty, but do you know how difficult it is to find a picture on the web of a cow's hoof that is still connected to the body and isn't diseased? No, I didn't think you would.

Anyway, notice the structure. There are two distinct sections of hard, black, semi-shiny enamel that the cow stands on. Those are actually the cow's toenails - which we call a hoof. Yes, a cow actually walks on tip-toe. Didn't know cows were natural ballarinas, did ya? Yep, all a cow really wants is a pink tu-tu and matching pointe shoes.

Back to the picture. Just above the hairline, you see a narrowing of the leg. This cow made it easy on us by having a stripe of lighter colored hair at this spot. That's the fetlock - what we could call the ankle. Everything below it is the foot.

For a large animal, the cloven hoof is a miracle of design that allows it to walk. The toes move independently, yet are held stable by the foot. As the cow presses down on the foot, the toes shift weight automatically, balancing a two-thousand pound animal effortlessly on its toenails. The hard enamel obviously allows the soft footed cow to protect the intricate bone mechanism in its foot from being punctured or otherwise injured. The hoof is two parts working together independently to accomplish a common goal.

Not unlike a marriage.

I could get very preachy here about how God put this into the Bible as a blueprint for marriage - but I won't. Everyone has heard that line of reasoning and either they like it or not. The point I want to make is that a good marriage consists of two people working together. They are joined by a common bond that allows them to pursue common goals. However, they are also slightly independent of each other in how best to adjust to the demands of reaching that goal. At least, that's the way it works when it's good.

Now, let's go back to the remaining clause and fill out the rest of the sentence.

"They shall become one flesh." It works well as an independent sentence, but it misses the thrust of the passage as a whole. Let's tack on what is normally considered the next sentence as a dependent clause.

"They shall become one flesh, and so they find no shame in their nakedness."

This is th reason Adam entones, "Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh". Because there is no shame in marriage - at least when it's healthy. Two people face each other naked - not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally and, yes, financially. They accept what they see as part of themselves because they are cloven - they are joined without losing identity.

It is this nature that makes marriage strong - but also what makes it fragile. If we over-value either the joining or the unjoining that comes with marriage, we under-value that other aspect that makes it work. For the hoof to work, both joining and unjoining must work. For a marriage to work, both dependence and independence must balance.

I was not fortunate enough to see this sort of relationship modeled in my home when I grew up. I was not able to model it to my children in my first marriage - to the point where my daughter once told me, "If I ever get married, I hope my marriage isn't like yours." Ah - our children know how to kill us with the truth.

The wonderful thing is that Christianity is, if nothing else, a religion that promises a second-chance. What is salvation if not an opportunity to set things right and start anew? How many second chances are we offered? Jesus taught, "even seven times seventy." That's a lot of divorce attorneys!

I read a lot of blogs these days and I get a peek into a lot of lives. Like everyone, I measure them against my own and often find things in my life are not what I want. That is never true when I look at my marriage, though. It sustains me through my bouts of depression, my periods of unemployment, my doubts, and my fears. More than that, it provides me with a boundless joy that I would never have without it. It is the simple joy of holding hands, the invigorating joy of passion, the sustaining love of family.

And, like a toe that works effortlessly, it is easy to take for granted. I'm sure I'll get an odd look for this post - comparing my marriage to a cow's foot and my wife to a toe. What can I say? My mind works in odd ways. I'm fortunate enough to have a wife who not only loves me despite this fact - but because of this fact. I am, in so many ways, a very fortunate man.

Though our marriage is not perfect - and none are - I do believe whole-heartedly that I now have a marriage my daughter would like to emulate one day. I know that it is a cloven relationship and one in which there is no shame.

May you all be so richly blessed.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The Forgotten Man and Economic Malaise

When economics is being discussed, there is almost always a Forgotton Man in the room.

Instead, grand words are thrown around to defend the latest symptom of economic malaise as being simply temporary and due to factors beyond the control of the government (or more specifically, the party in power). These words quickly give way into the tired old euphemisms lauding whatever economic indicator is particularly hot at that moment. This is up, that's down, and the only thing that we know for sure that will happen is that the rich will, in fact, get richer. After all, wealth is self-perpetuating - or at very least allows one to take advantage of many more options than are available to those with less wealth.

For the monetarist - the Supply-sider, the Reaganomic-ist, the Free Trader, the Voodoo Economist - the only goal is the unfettered flow of money. Anything and anyone who stands in the way of this goal is The Enemy. Taxes, for example, restrict the free flow of money by diverting a portion of that money into the public coffers. The Wealthy Man is the Hero to this group - it is because he invests his money that businesses exist, it is because he expands his business that jobs are created, it is because he "takes a chance" on running a business that the economy runs. Here is Atlas Unchained in his Armani, dashing here and there in his Mercedes, battered by incessant phone calls and business deals and haunted by a family that aches for his presence. He is Sacrifice. He is Entrepreneur. He is Business.

The Forgotten Man here is the one that is described as being a "structural weakness" in the changing economy. The Forgotten Man is the one who punches the time clock and lives by the sweat of his brow, the muscles of his back and arms, the wit and wisdom of his intellect. When he is done with his work, he goes home to a family that is overburdened with bills and responsibilities. His wife works two part-time jobs and they sit at the kitchen table and decide which bill not to pay this week. He is Hero to his kids when he can coach their Little League team or when his hard-won lessons of life can ease the ache of disappointment. When his children are sick, he knows how many hours his wife will miss work and he schedules overtime to make up for it - because they are a team and they are partners and partners know how to give and take for each other to be successful. His reward is the love that glows in the eyes of his wife, the respect that is won from his friends for his work ethic, the emmulation and rebellion of his kids as they strike out on their own.

He is invisible, but his dollars are not. He scrimps and saves and manages to buy his son the latest video game, his daughter the new prom dress, his wife that night out with the girls, and on weekends he drinks a few beers with his friends, gets a little too loud, a little too rambunctious. When the sun comes up Monday, he's back with his crew or his staff or maybe on his own - working, working, working. His Invisible hands produce the economy from the ground up and his Invisible needs, when added to those of his friends, becomes the Invisible Hand that monetarists like to rely upon to make sure the economy stays on track.

Because he is invisible to the monetarist, his needs are invisible. This Forgotten Man depends upon Providence to make sure the food he feeds his children is safe - but Providence in this case is the hand of the government inspector at the FDA. The Forgotten Man depends on a transportation system he cannot even fully understand - and that dependence is upheld as a Public Trust by the government that paves the roads, maintains the bridges, and connects the cities into a throbbing, pulsing living economic system. But he is invisible - because his bank account does not have enough commas in it - and he is Forgotten.

The Forgotten Man's needs begin to fall from the minds of the Monetarists. They see the Cross of Gold on the Mountain, and they will not let a few minor "economic adjustments" dissuade them. They demand more control over their money - so their taxes are cut. They demand greater suppy of money - so interest rates fall and money becomes cheaper and - oh, by the way less valuable. And when all the dollars from all the corners of the country are overflowing the coffers, the Monetarist demands a greater pool to draw from and suddenly international laws become void. Now the Monetarist draws money from neighboring countries or even distant countries with which he does business. The Cross! The Cross! It is within reach! Only a bit more! Hurry! Cut taxes again! Overspend government treasuries to create new money! Push interest rates lower so more people overmortgage their future! Create bigger "Free Trade Zones"!

But the Cross is an illusion. Like the Seven Cities of Cibola disappearing before the eyes of the Conquistadores, the economic targets are never good enough. With more and more millionaires reporting record income to the IRS and paying smaller and smaller portions of their fortunes, the economy still struggles through its malaise. Like a horse with a wounded leg, it flounders, it squeals, it kicks out in rage and pain.

And the Forgotten Man staggers on under a crushing burden of debt - some of it his own, some of it foisted upon him through the Monetarists shifting tax brackets - and still he struggles to make sure that he can lie honestly upon his death bed and know that his efforts are the reason his children will never know hunger or want.

And with every day, another dollar flows from the Invisible Man into the coffers of the Monetarist where it magically becomes ennobled. Now visible, it is used as a weapon to rob the Forgotten Man of his reward - it turns the sacrifices for his children into foolishness and erodes the hope and faith that made him rise anew every morning to face his job again.

The addictive lie of the Monetarist world pumps through our veins, inducing euphoria as we plunge the needle back into our arms again and again. Each time, we make ourselves a little more invisible, a little more addicted, a little more dead. And when the eventual reality comes to pass that the Monetarist drive for greed destroys the empty husk of consumer-driven economics, it is the Forgotten Man that will starve and apologize to his children for bringing them into the world. The Monetarist will sip champagne and wait for the next "recovery" to begin the cycle anew.

Friday, June 03, 2005

The Fallow Ground of Democracy

Raising crops is hard on soil. It pulls vital nutrients out of the soil with each successive crop. If no action is taken, crop yield will slowly decrease as plants are starved for nutrients by the soil beneath them. In times past, farmers rotated crops - planting beans one year, corn the next, sorghum the next, etc. The stalks of the plants were then plowed back under to renourish the soil so it would be ready the next spring for a new crop. The Bible teaches that Jewish farmers were to go one step further - every seventh year they were to let their fields lie fallow.

Asking a farmer not to plant - that's what "fallow" means - is literally asking him to not try and make a living. It's like asking a banker not to use money for a year or a lawyer not to try a case for a year. It was literally takeing food out of the mouth of the famer and his family. What good could this possibly do?

The first thing it did was teach the farmer to live frugally. He was to set aside a portion of his grain for six years so that his family would not go hungry during his sabatical year (yep, that's where that word comes from). The second thing it did was make him depend upon God for providence. Even if you have a whole silo of corn, once planting time is over you are not going to get any more corn if the silo burns down. The third thing it did was to make farmers depend on each other - if your neighbor was on sabatical and needed food, it was your duty (and evidence of God's providence) for you to feed him. If you want a fourth reason, it also forced a stern work ethic on the farmers to work the land an entire year without bringing in a crop - see, "fallow" means you don't plant, but it doesn't mean you don't plow.

All of these things are also good for the soil. Giving the soil a year's rest allows it to replenish its nutrients. However, abandoning a field for a year does nothing for it. Anyone who has been in West Texas in late March knows about sandstorms that result from the drying topsoil not having enough growth to hold it down. By turning the soil, the nutrients mix more evenly. Turning the soil also allows the billions of organisms in each tablespoon of soil to gain better access to oxygen and thus processes decaying plant and animal matter into rich soil.

Much of this knowledge has been lost in the United States because most of us are no longer farmers. Even those that are farmers rarely leave a field fallow. They don't even rotate crops. They simply spray nutrients and pesticides and force the soil to give up more and more. Over time, more fertilizer is needed to maintain the yield.

The prophet Hosea said, "Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD, till he come and rain righteousness upon you." (10:12). He was calling an agricultural based society back to God's plan for them. See, there are only two forces that make farmers leave behind the Biblical plan for farming - greed and fear. Greed causes them to plant during their sabatical because they want to be better off. Fear causes them to plant during the sabatical because they don't want to lose what they have. The result is an un-balancing act that rushes headlong into destructive production as the only legitimate reason to farm.

It occurred to me today that democracy is much like farming. Our fields are the population at large and our seeds are our ideas. Year after year, the same ideas are thrown out into the same fields. There's no sabatical here - every year holds the potential for a bumper crop. The partisan faithful are plowed back under and turned to aerate them. Some years erosion cuts them back and leaves horrible valleys that divide the faithful because of some intrusive issue.

There's no longer an off season for politics - it's all campaign all the time. That's the fertilizer being pumped back into the tired soil. Damn it, you will vote for me this time! And by the time our tired bodies finally yield a pitiful harvest of votes, the reaper slices it off and disappears for another year. Like a stripped stalk of cotton, we stand naked in the tired soil of tired ideas feeling tired and used and unappreciated. If laying fallow is God's plan for farming and farming and politics are no so different, then we are no closer to God's politics than we are to letting our farmers take off a year.

But this analogy only holds if you look at politics is something that is done TO you and not WITH you and FOR you. Where is this country Of the people, By the people, and For the people? Somehow, I can't find it! When was the last time the people of the country really had meaningful input on policy? Traditional politics doesn't measure people's values or ideas, it claims an idea in their name and whips up support for it in an "us versus them" manner that erodes the popular support necessary to make democracy vital. Like the farmers in Hosea's time, we are driven by greed and fear and have no time to look after each other or to look up to God for guidance.

If democracy is like farming, then we have to place ourselves in the position of the farmer and not the crop. We have to be willing to work, to discuss and dialogue with our opponents as well as our friends. Democracy works, like ancient farming societies, when we worry more about helping each other and worry less about winning this election or that office. Instead of laughing at the firey young activist, we should sit and listen for the truth under her passion. Instead of waiting until the election truly is the choice between the lesser of two evils, we should work the entire year to make sure that the candidate choice has at least one non-evil selection.

Last night I was asked what I thought the state of democracy was here in this country. My answer then was that it was improving. My answer today is that it is lying fallow - it is an unfulfilled promise waiting upon a few faithful workers to dedicate the labor necessary to bring in the crop.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Income Tax - Inflicting Numbers to Expose a Lack of Fairness

I'm sorry if the numbers hurt - there's no way around it for this discussion.

While President Bush is playing Chicken Little with Social Security, and Democrats finally found some spine to oppose him, the fact is that he has wreaked havoc on our tax system. In fact, the problem with Social Security is our income tax system.

The Census Bureau tracks income limits and income distribution in American families. From 1967 to 1980, the poorest 20% of American families increased their share of all income from 4.0% to 4.3%, it then dropped steadily since then and was only 3.4% in 2003 - 0.6% less than they had when we declared war on poverty. Meanwhile, the highest earning 5% of American families saw their share of income drop from 17.5% in 1967 to 15.8% in 1980. Since then, it has risen to 21.4%. This means that 5,600 families account for over a fifth of all income earned in the United States.

What happened in 1980 that changed things so badly? Ronald Reagan happened. Don't think that the wealthy were hurting when Reagan got into office. To break into the top 5% of family income in 1980, you needed $51,500. If you adjust for the value of the dollar in 2003, you needed $108,894. This is up from $19,000 in 1967, or $88,678 in 2003 dollars. Anyway you measure it, the rich got richer even before Reagan came along - even during the "turbulent '70s". A 73% gain from 1967 to 2003.

Meanwhile, the maximum income for the poorest 20% of Americans rose from $3,000 to $7,556 and then on to $17,984. If you adjust for inflation, the poorest 20% of American families scraped by on no more than $14,002 in 1967, but saw this rise to $15,977 in 1980. Since then, it has grown to a whopping $17,984 in 2003. Okay, the did better - marginally. Only 23% better than thirty-six years earlier.

According to the IRS tax charts, someone who makes $154,120 will be in the 33% tax bracket. If they slightly more than double their income, they will only pay an additional 2% tax.

The median income - the point at which exactly half of all families make more and half make less - for 2003 was approximately $65,000. That means a single person will face a tax increase of 15% - on top of the initial tax rate of 10% - to simply make it half way up the ladder. To understand what it takes to move upwards, consider this:

If that person doubles their median income to $130,000, they pay an additional 3% tax increase. If they manage to double their income again to $260,000, they will pay another 5% tax. Doubling it again to $520,000 will result in only an additional 2% tax.

That means that making it to the halfway point on the income ladder results in a fifteen percent tax increase, but multiplying that income by a factor of eight only results in an additional tax of ten percent.

Of course, the first $5,000 of income is exempt from taxation. Why? What can you do with $416,67 a month?

The truth is that we get an exemption because it is considered to be more important that you be able to take care of yourself than to pay taxes. You should be able to pay for some level of existence before you begin paying taxes. I don't know of anyone who can get by on $5,000 a month - well, maybe the homeless guy that lives in the park, but I hardly think that's a model we want to emulate.

Let's begin addressing the tax system by making the tax exemption a workable level. $20,000 seems a bit low for most parts of the country, but $30,000 seems a bit high. Let's use $25,000 as a starting point. Everyone gets to earn $25,000 before they have to pay taxes. Wow - that's somewhere around 30% of the population! You want to see this economy boom? Let 30% of the population spend every dime they make. As someone who actually raised a family on less than $25,000 a year, I can attest that you pretty well have to spend everything you make at that level to get by. Allow dependents to gain a deduction of another $5,000 each and you have a family friendly tax policy.

By the time we get to $25,000 we have passed the truly "working poor" but we are still caught in the "working near-poor" or "the struggling workers". A light tax rate of about 5% for the next $15,000 of income will begin paying for government without unduly burdening these people. That puts the 5% tax bracket at $25,000 to $40,000.

The idea of having tax brackets is that people at similar income levels have similar problems. The next income bracket should be much wider as we are actually dealing with the lower middle class here. The 15% tax bracket should reach all the way to $100,000. Raise it to 20% from $100,000 to $300,000, then 25% from $300,000 to $500,000. After that, we are no longer talking about people who are struggling in any real meaning of the word. We are past the middle class and reaching into the upper classes.

We are also getting to the areas where people can be taxed steeply and not be hurt. From $500,000 to $1 million the tax rate should rise to 35%. From $1 million to $10 million, it should be 45%. Over $10 million, it should be 55%.

We also have to redefine "income" as being any money that enters your control during the year. It isn't just what you get paid - it's the value of the stock options and loans against them that CEOs use to avoid paying taxes. It's the value of a second home rented to your company rather than them renting you a hotel room. If you didn't have it at the beginning of the year, and it came into your possession during the year, it was income for you. There is no reason why some people should be advantaged to have a portion of their income exempt while those who make less have to pay tax on all of theirs. Wealth should not go hand in hand with avoiding taxation.

I spent a good bit of time over the last several years searching for numbers, tracking exemption values, adding up different levels of income, finding percentages actually paid, and a lot more. What I found is that a plan like this - the actual numbers have to be fudged a bit to make them work perfectly - actually brings in the same or more money for the government and allows the vast majority of people to pay less tax. At the very least, it creates a system where a person can raise a family honestly without having to hide assets.

So it soaks the rich - guilty as charged. Honestly, that's the whole plan. When a CEO takes $250 million in compensation - plus more in unvalued compensations - they screw every single one of the company's employees and customers.

The biggest reason why the growth of incomes for the wealthy was held down from 1967 to 1980 was an income tax structure that punished people for being greedy. It discouraged usury in the boardroom. It encouraged even the wealthiest to live a thrifty life - to save for things they wanted rather than simply take the money and run. Ronald Reagan changed that.

Ronald Reagan has, upon occassion, been called a man of God and character and an Evangelical Christian. What God calls for greater injustice in society? What God says, "Turn your back on the poor and ensure the wealthy never even have to look at them." What tenet of Evangelical doctrine says, "Tax cuts are holy - covet thy money and zealously sneer at those with less."

Ronald Reagan was many things - but he did not save the economy - falling oil prices and the actions of Paul Volker did that. He did not bring down the Soviet Union - internal corruption, privateering, and greed did that. He did not make it safe to be American - the world was less safe when he left office because of his policies (particularly in South America). He did make it safe to hate poor people. He did make wed Calvinist doctrine into economic policy. He showed us that our eyes can indeed never be satisfied and our destruction can never be filled.

He showed us how to build ourselves a Hell - using only a tax policy.

Hell is Desire

The Bible verse of the day says, "Hell and destruction are never full; so the eyes of man are never satisfied." Interestingly enough (to me anyway) this ties directly to my ongoing review of American Political theory. If you've never heard of Thorstein Veblen, then you've probably thrown around a few of the terms he coined - like "conspicuous consumption" or "pecuniary emulation". The Amazon review casts Veblen in the mold of Adam Smith, but I don't see it.

Smith's most famous work is "The Wealth of Nations". He advocates a strong monarchy that utilizes the church as a means of social control - much like the Scotland in which he lived. It cannot be stated too strongly that Smith's Calvinist theology impacted his view on the world - obviously anyone's beliefs effect the way they see the world working. Smith's field of work was overtly economics, but the theological bent of his writing should be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the idea that man is inherently evil and God's will is impossible to thwart.

Much of what is today called "free-market" economics comes from Smith. He believed that each man working in his own interest, steered by the invisible hand of the market (which is an economic synonym in Smith's work for "GOD"), will naturally cause conditions of greatest harmony. The belief is inherently theological. Calvinism holds that everything in the world is exactly as it is because that is God's will. God's will cannot be thwarted, therefore everything must already be according to God's will. It is the circular reasoning that led Liebnitz to say this is the best of all possible worlds because anything less would mean less than the maximum glory is due God. This is the type of Christianity that Nietzsche decries as the slave mentality.

Veblen, more than a companion of Smith, is an indictment of his theories. Veblen goes to great lengths to show that we have not developed the best of all possible worlds at all. Rather, civilization grew up around a society that gave power to the priests and warriors - who took their living from the greater society in return for various forms of protection. Their manner of dress and lifestyle was designed to show that they were superior - they had more jewelry, finer fabrics, more women, etc. However, before modern society, these classes had to sometimes prove they were superior - warriors had to do battle and priests had to stave off plagues with their faith. We have, obviously, moved on from this period in history.

The effect of this path of development, though, is that physical labor is downplayed. Real power lies in the hands of those that don't have to work the fields or the fires or the mills. Real power is the ability to command someone else to do this work for you. In ancient priest and warrior classes, this was an spiritual or physical threat. In modern society, it is a financial one.

Who makes more money - the man who hammers out a statue or the man who resales it? Who has more power - the plumber who is daily up to his elbows in piping or the banker who never dirties his hands?

Veblen says that this emphasis on not doing physical labor and on ostentatious displays of wealth lead necessarily to jealousy. The son of the plumber sees his father busting his hump his whole life, but envies the boy in his class with the new Corvette. Naturally, he is drawn towards doing those things necessary to get the Corvette. This is "pecuniary emulation". The plumber's son must have the latest fashions, the fastest car, the best of the best to keep up with Corvette-boy. Why? Because he must compete for the scarce resources - such as the affections of a woman, prime property upon which to build a home, etc.

It's the story of "keeping up with the Jones's". Individually we are programmed to compete. Sociologically, we are designed to emulate success. Spiritually, this leaves us hollow.

There is always someone higher on the ladder. Paris Hilton always has a new TV show to take your attention. MTV always has another "Cribs" to show you how you fall short. Even your boss has a better suit or shoes or tie or a new car. And you are just you.

Smith says this is evidence that God is good. Veblen says it leads to the oppression of the working man and woman. It is no longer enough to hire a maid to clean for you, you must now hire a manager to tell the maid to clean for you. In the Old South, the high gentry refused to beat their own slaves - they hired poor whites to do it (which, incidentally, is where the term "cracker" as a racial slur against poor whites comes from). Excess leads to depravity - and it takes the Marquis de Sade to claim that this is a necessary good for society.

We are told that free-market theory proves that high taxes on exhorbitant incomes kills an economy. It does no such thing. It may delay growth, it may slow growth, but it cannot stop it. Why? The eyes of man are never satisified.

Do you think Paris Hilton suddenly decided to get her latest yacht (or whatever her last big-ticket purchase was) because she had her taxes cut? Of course not. She wanted it because her eyes were not satisified. A 33% tax rate lets her claim her temporary happiness a bit faster than, say, a 50% tax rate - but she was sure to get her heart's desire anyway.

What cutting taxes does is allow more conspicuous consumption and pecuniary emulation. It also leads to a government overspending, which weakens the value of the dollars we spend. Who gets hurt? Not Paris Hilton. She's still going to buy that boat.

It is us - the great unwashed 97% of Americans who make less than $300,000 per year that are hit the hardest by weak dollars and government deficits. Yet, like lambs at the slaughterhouse, we bleat for the butcher to come faster, faster, faster. Cut our taxes again and plunge us deeper into financial crisis! Take our well-being and that of our children! This IS the best of all possible worlds! The growth of our economy is PROOF that God is with us!

Once our tax rates punished people for usurous incomes. It taught the wealthy, as well as the poor, that they must live a thrifty life to satisfy their eyes. It was the only means of disciplining the extremely wealthy - which Veblen tells us are the self-righteously powerful. Now we have traded our society for a few measly points of GDP and more people get left behind every day.

Our eyes are never satisfied, our pockets never full. Twenty years of Calvinist economics, and we still haven't had our fill of Hell and destruction.

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