Thursday, June 30, 2011

A New Protection Pledge

In the last post, I talked about the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” which Grover Norquist has placed in front of all incumbents and candidates for office, and gotten quite a few to sign.

In England, there is a move toward a different type of pledge coming from a similar inequality being experienced there as here.  The Equality Trust (profiled earlier in this blog) has asked all members of Parliament to sign an “Equality Pledge” which reads as follows:

"Compelling new evidence presented by The Equality Trust shows that more equal societies - those with a narrower gap between rich and poor - are more cohesive, healthier, suffer fewer social problems and are more environmentally sustainable. In view of these findings I am committed to making the UK a more equal society as the most effective means of building a better society.  I will therefore actively support the case for policies designed to narrow the gap between rich and poor; and engage with the debate on which measures should be implemented to achieve that aim."

This is a relatively new movement and is being organized from the ground up.  Citizens are asked to place the Equality Pledge in front of candidates or incumbents so that by the time the politician signs it, he or she is reasonably confident that his or her constituency is aware of the issues that give rise to this pledge. So far, 75 of the 659 Members of Parliament have signed it and the number is growing every day.  This pledge is much more low-key than the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.  The Equality Pledge commits the signer to support the “case for policies” and to “engage with the debate” without holding them hostage to any particular policy or proposal.  It does put signers on records as agreeing with the proposition that more equal societies do better than less equal ones.  

Given our historical inability to approve even the very mild language of the Equal Rights Amendment or CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women) and the struggles to approve the Voting Rights Act, it seems unlikely that very many in Congress would sign an equality pledge. 

But what if we decided to sign it, just in the privacy of our homes, with no hoopla, no announcement on Facebook or Twitter?  Just a commitment to raise issues of equity and equality whenever and wherever we can and to engage in deep, meaningful and honest conversation with ourselves, friends, family and co-workers on just what kind of society we want, and what are the policies that get us there? 

I pledge to start this weekend:  the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”    It seems like a good time to raise the questions and to finally acknowledge that these truths are not self-evident at all, but must be made evident through debate, discussion, and made meaningful through very profound changes in the way we all do business

Friday, June 24, 2011

Raising Taxes

“I don’t think there’s any conceivable way, under current circumstances, that any Republican would vote for any kind of tax increase whatsoever.”  Bruce Bartlett, former economic adviser to President Reagan

This interesting sentence appears in the April 2011 issue of the Christian Science Monitor, in an excellent article called “Budget Stalemate: Why America Won’t Raise Taxes” by Liz Marlantes.  The sentence does not meet standards of good writing, but does, in its repetitiveness, make a stronger point than if it were the more succinct, “No Republican will vote for any tax increase.” 

Let’s parse it and see what we find:

“any conceivable way”:  could this mean that some moderate Republicans would like to conceive a way to vote for revenue as one solution to our deficit?

“under current circumstances:”  which are what?  What could call for tax increases: more than a trillion dollar deficit, double digit unemployment,  60% of seniors living on Social Security alone, 30% of Americans with no health insurance,  25% of children living below the poverty line, and so on?  There are apparently other circumstances that pressure Congress and none of them seem to have anything to do with the common good.

“any Republican:”  because they are all of one mind?  Or are they one mind divided amongst the whole GOP?  Or is this is another remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”?

“any kind of tax increase:”  Republicans are even willing to reject regressive and unfair tax increases, such as a federal sales tax?  This is a new day, indeed. 

“whatsoever:”  This wonderful old English word in the King James Version of the Bible begins the Golden Rule, “Whatsoever ye would that others should do to you,  do ye even so to them.”  This word is now the final word summarizing complete abrogation of any commitment to the public good. 

The source of the word “any” in this context is an unelected powerhouse named Grover Norquist who runs an organization with the moderate sending name, “Americans for Tax Reform.”  Since 1986, Norquist has asked every incumbent and every candidate for office to sign a document called “The Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”  The pledge says, “I promise to the people of my state that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”  Again, we see the emphasis “oppose and vote against” or “any and all” because to do one and not the other is not sufficient.

In 1986, Norquist was able to get 100 members of the House and 20 Senators to sign it.  Today 40 out of 47 Republicans in the Senate have signed it, along with one Democrat and one Independent, and 235 out of 242 Republicans in the House have signed it, along with two Democrats.  (For a full list of signers and a look at the actual pledge, see the Americans for Tax Reform’s site.)

People sign this because it comes with money and help with campaigning, and not signing – or signing and then not following through – is met with swift punishment.  The goal of having  bi-partisan dialogue on how to create fair and just tax policy that pulls our country out of this recession and helps everyone have a better quality of life is stopped at the starting gate when so many people have basically said, “Let’s talk, but I have already decided what I am going to do.”  

Norquist, who has never run for and so obviously never held public office, is not on the staff of the Republican National Committee nor has he been appointed to any public position.  Yet he has amassed the power and money to control how most Republicans vote on tax policy.  The only thing he cannot really amass is all the votes of the American people, and this is the good news in the tax debate.  The Center on Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland presented voters with a simplified but realistic version of what the budget might be in 2015 and let them make their own tax and spending choices.  They weren’t told they had to balance the budget or to bring down the deficit.  Those decisions were up to them.   The study showed that on average, voters reduced the deficit by about $400 billion, with Democrats cutting more in spending than Republicans.  91% of respondents, including 77% of Republicans and 66% of self-identified tea partyers, chose to raise taxes by an average of $292 billion. 

Our Congress is far more opposed to taxes than the people they are supposed to represent.  We, who are those people, must make it clear that we believe that taxes are a fundamental tool to creating a working democracy.  We call for accountability in spending, a tax structure that calls on everyone (including the corporations who are now people) to pay their share, vigorous and informed debate on what constitutes ‘fairness’. We pledge to vote for people who will return “whatsoever” to the front of our sentences, for example, “Whatsoever is best for the common good should drive any and all public policy."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wealth for the Common Good

This Tuesday’s featured partner is Wealth for the Common Good, who along with The Agenda Project are co-sponsors of the Patriotic Millionaires Campaign (which we covered on this blog in April), to increase millionaire tax rates. Wealth for the Common Good is a network of business and civic leaders, wealthy individuals and partners, promoting fair and adequate taxation to support public investment in a healthy economy.

This month they released a video directed to John Boehner and members of Congress entitled “Tax Me”. It’s worth checking out:

And if you haven’t done so already, sign their petition and check out who else is on board.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Death and Taxes

Recently I stayed in a small house near a cemetery.  The cemetery was huge, with a nice walking path encircling it, and so I walked around it.  I am fascinated by graveyards and will often stop to visit old ones when I am driving through communities that have them.  The old gravestones often have epitaphs which tell cryptic stories for which I fill in the details.  In this one, a husband’s tombstone listed his name, birth and death dates, then “Goodbye.”  The wife has a tombstone next to him, but she either isn’t buried there or isn’t dead yet (her birth year is 1915.)  Why “Goodbye” and not “Goodbye my love” or “Gone but not forgotten” or “Till we meet again” which can be found on several of the other tombstones?  Of course I fill in that this guy was a complete jerk, probably a cheater, perhaps abusive and everyone was happy to say “Goodbye, you *#*!”  

Another seems more poignant:   “Gone too soon.” But the person lived from 1905-2000.  Dying at 95 does not seem too soon in the sense I first read it.  I fill in the story:  the person died before her only living relative, a distant cousin, could get there and find out where she buried the silver or kept the key to the safe deposit box.  “You should have visited more often, you self absorbed creep” I admonish this made up deadbeat relative. 

Many of the gravestones had flags on them, probably placed there on Memorial Day.  Many of the men in this cemetery were veterans; most from World War I or II, but several from Viet Nam or Korea.  Most of the veterans had lived through the war and died as old men, but a few had been killed in action.  There are two very recent graves; these with tombstones that are flat on the ground to make mowing easier.  They have flags and their tombstones indicate that they were killed in Afghanistan. 

I fill in their story.  Because I am staying in an economically depressed area, with high unemployment I imagine these young men deciding to join the army, get an education, and see some parts of the world they have only read about.  Like many young people, they will not really believe that they can be killed or maimed:  that fate is for others.  Off they go, and back they come in a body bag. 

As I keep walking in the cemetery I think how different our world would be today if we had taken the route of reason after Sept 11, 2001.  For almost a week, or maybe more, every country in the world felt sorry for the USA.   Even countries traditionally critical of our imperialism and arrogance felt that the loss of innocent life was wrong.  Shortly after 9/11, the Taliban offered to capture Osama bin Laden and take him to The Hague, to be tried in World Court.  The United States squandered an opportunity of a lifetime when we turned them down and decided instead to attack Iraq based on a web of lies.  Proof that most of us have learned nothing from that experience could be seen in the chanting “USA, USA!” which followed the announcement of the assassination of bin Laden. 

A cemetery is a wonderful quasi commons.  Although the gravesites belong to individuals, and the maintenance is generally done through a private society, most cemeteries are open to the public and are quiet places for contemplation.  

Death and taxes are named as the two things no one can avoid. But must so much of our tax dollar pay for death?  Our military budget is larger than it has ever been in history, factoring in inflation.  I imagine someday someone generations from now walking through this cemetery and marveling at how many of the really old gravestones are of people who served in wars.   “Thank goodness that is behind us,” she will muse.   “What were they thinking in those days?” 

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Economists for Peace and Security

This Tuesday’s featured partner is Economists for Peace and Security, an international network of thirteen affiliated organizations promoting economic analysis and appropriate action for peace, security and the world economy. They work locally, regionally and internationally to to promote non-military solutions to world challenges, and to effect policy changes that can build a more just and peaceful future.

Of particular interest is their monthly e-newsletter, NewsNotes, which in addition to including information on current projects, announcements of upcoming events and publications, and listings of funding and employment opportunities, it also includes an action corner and updates on their member’s activities as well.

The March 2011 edition included a 19 point plan for reducing military spending by almost 7 trillion over the next nine years. And it is written by two libertarians, proving that it is not only liberals who are appalled by the defense budget!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Prisons, Immigration and Profits

This is the post meant for last Thursday in our Race and the Commons series.

On Saturday, the LA Times ran a story about a family that had been separated for a year and a half because the father was in a Detention Center, while our nation's broken immigration system figured out whether it would deport this husband and father of U.S. citizens to Guatemala, a country he didn't know since he'd lived in the U.S. since he was a young child. The profile of this family is moving because it shows the human impact of our nation's harsh immigration enforcement policies on mixed status families, in particular, and because it's hopeful outcome is the exception to the rule.

But another important element of the story isn't covered by the reporter, but is buried in the comments section where the family's lawyer, Glenn Fogle, added some details to flesh out the story:
The real travesty here is that a man was separated from his wife and young child for about 20 months in a jail 9 hours away because a court notice was sent to the wrong address and then pointlessly kept in jail at a cost to the U.S. taxpayer of $48,000, which went to the Corrections Corporation of America. The only one that profited here was a big corporation. This is not right and something needs to change. Mr. Guzman and his family are one of many, many thousands of cases across the country.

Again, we're forced to ask the question of who profits from our country's obsession with incarceration. In the last few years immigration enforcement policies have been ramped up, and policies aimed at making life unbearable for immigrants have spread across the country; it's a strategy of "attrition through enforcement."

Arizona's SB1070 put this strategy front and center the national debate last April. The racial profiling law has since been copied in other states around the country (particularly in the South).

But what's been largely ignored is the role that private prison companies have played in promoting this type of legislation. With the increased focus on preventing racial profiling in the last decade and the recent changes to drug laws that have fostered racial disparities for many decades, it seems that companies that profit off of incarceration have been working to sustain their bottom line by expanding the pool of people of color they can profit off of keeping locked up.

The coordination of private prison corporations with anti-immigrant lawmakers is yet another example of the importance of keeping certain functions of government public and protected from the profit motive. And the many stories of families torn apart by the prison industry's greed shows yet again that low income people and people of color suffer most by the enclosure of the commons.

Personal Observation on Rough Social Equity (or lack thereof) at the ER

I was all set to finish the Race and the Commons series last Thursday, but was waylaid by a NYC pothole that wrenched my foot and landed me in the ER. While sitting in the ER, I overheard two contrasting conversations.

At first, a woman was on the other side of the curtain. She was concerned about her lack of insurance and kept asking the Physician's Assistant who was handling all our cases about the costs of procedures, drugs, etc. that were being administered. I sympathized with her financial concern ... even though I have insurance I'd spent an hour on the phone with my insurance company to figure out which hospital was "in network."

At some point the uninsured woman was replaced by a pair of bankers (this isn't an assumption, they boasted quite loudly about their jobs). As a plastic surgeon who'd clearly come down to the ER especially for this case (he was wearing designer jeans and a pink oxford shirt, unlike the rest of the staff's scrubs) was giving one of the duo stitches, the three men chatted. They name dropped ... identifying people they knew in common, marveling at what a small world it is. And they compared notes on their porsches ... I'm NOT kidding: one of the bankers was shocked that the surgeon didn't have a convertible while the surgeon defended the sporting-qualities of his hardtop.

It was such a banal conversation, but strikingly different from the concerns and reality of both myself and the uninsured woman who had occupied the bed just an hour earlier. The experience drove home how how vastly unequal our society is.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

10 Years of Bush Tax Cuts

The next post in the Race and the Commons Series will appear next Thursday.  In the meantime…

Our friends at Citizens for Tax Justice have put out this summary of the Bush Tax cuts after ten years.  These cuts, if extended, will nearly double the deficit and mostly benefit the rich. 

Here’s what CTJ has to say:
Ten years ago, on June 7, 2001, President George W. Bush signed into law the first of several tax cuts that drove the balanced budget he inherited from President Clinton deep into the red. Last year, Congressional supporters of Bush’s policies pushed through an extension of these tax cuts through the end of 2012.
  • Many lawmakers want to extend the Bush tax cuts again into 2013 and beyond, which would almost double the federal budget deficit.
  • 47.2 percent of the benefits of this tax cut extension would go to the richest five percent of the nation’s taxpayers.
  • The richest one percent would receive an average tax cut of $68,079 in 2013.
  • The poorest 60 percent of taxpayers would receive an average tax cut of just $487 in 2013.
One really has to wonder how any of this can possibly come under the rubric, “fiscally responsible.”