Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reasons and reasons ....

(this one ran long)

As I have before, I will make a comment on Jack Kelly's column today Presidential Petulance, but only a brief one. His topic today might be that the Obama administration is exercising bad judgment, using the example of the trial of Kahlid Sheikh Mohammad. But Kelly doesn't talk about intelligence secrets coming out in civil court, or even the laughable claim that allowing terrorists to appear at a trial will somehow expose Americans (particularly New Yorkers) to Islamic propaganda. But Kelly doesn't really mention that, he only talks about how no one wants terrorist trials in their own city. I guess Kelly's hidden message is that terrorists should be tried in military tribunals. Now personally I think we should have faith in our legal system and in fact put it on display for all the world. If it means that terror suspects (remember, they haven't been convicted) go free because the ham fisted government (under either Bush or Obama) mistreated suspects in an illegal manner, or because the evidence against them is weak or non-existent, then the worls will see we take our own rules seriously. And Kelly can go live in Russia or China or some country that has laws and procedures he approves of.

But Kelly, who doesn't quote the President directly in his column, appears to just want to call the President names. His last word: "The president's petulance at not getting his way overcomes good judgment."

The lack of reasons for policy proposals continued when I watched "Meet the Press". First Tim Pawlenty talked about the need to reduce spending (read: assistance to the poor) and reduce taxes (read: increase profit for business) and the need to get government out of the way of business to help create jobs including things like not having no card check (read: jobs but low wages and no benefits).

Understand, the gap between rich and poor has widened since the 1950's. It widened hugely in the 1980's when Reagan "reformed" the tax rates (taking out some deductions, yes, but cutting the top tax rate in half). The rate of increase of the widening has risen (during Republican administrations) and fallen (during some Democratic administrations), but the gap between rich and poor has been increasing for more than fifty years.

Some time in the 1960's, as the civil rights movement grew from a southern issue into a national issue, pressure grew for the government to assist the poor, to level the playing field to some extent. Why is that important? Well, there is a new report from the OCED about how important parental income is for a child's earnings (roughly 48% for the US, 49% for Italy and 50% for Germany). It was, of course, much worse in the 1960's (remember there were riots in Philadelphia, Watts, Newark, Baltimore and DC). Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam changed in the minds of first a minority and then a political majority of Americans from helping heroic Vietnamese stand of the tyranny of communism to vicious Americans bullying and massacring innocent Vietnamese (and by the way no argument on my part that communism in practice is in fact totalitarian). Civil rights, Vietnam and other social issues combined to create a liberal synergy, even as there was a minority/majority backlash (Nixon in '72) which became a full fledged change in direction in the 1980's.

But some aid to the poor has stayed in place even today. Pawlenty and the conservatives on the discussion panel on Meet the Press didn't mention things like the Earned Income Credit and Medicaid by name as things to eliminate (although Pawlenty did use the magic word "entitlements", the assistance the government gives everyone else besides me). In fact, Republicans might not even want to eliminate those programs. because the actual negative effect of making poor people even poorer might be more riots and political tensions, and the effect of denying medical assistance to the poorest might be the elderly or chronically ill dying on the sidewalks.

Still, the Republicans are proposing that un-named government programs must be slashed, and we need tax cuts to stimulate the economy. Now, there was a tax cut in the '60's that did help some, although the actual timing, effect and causes for the results are somewhat debated. But right now I regard Republicans calls for tax cuts as giveaways to wealthier voters, particularly since I can see firsthand the poorer tax payers don't pay any taxes at all. Will employers who save money with a tax cut say to themselves, I could use this extra money to hire another worker, or should I keep it myself? Well, the employer is getting the money from a tax cut (not from extra work), so why hire another worker, especially when you can get a 50" home theater? We have already seen many wealthier Americans show large amounts of greed in the mid 2000's buying houses hoping to "flip" them.

So the debate on the surface in America has to do with first how legislation passed during Obama's first year has not worked. The number or percentage of uneplmoyed people contains far too many wealthy people (Republicans have never expressed concern for the number of unemployed black youths, even even much concern for the number of slain black youths). Second, Congress has produced a huge, overly bureaucratic health reform bill. And third, congress hasn't passed a health bill because it hadn’t gone through reconciling committee, which is part of the narrative that government is actually frozen. So Obama, while being too aggressive in allowing Congress to pass bills, has also not been aggressive enough in pushing Congress to pass bills. And although Obama had tax cuts in the stimulus bill (which Congress also worked on), they were the wrong kind of tax cuts because they hadn’t come from Republicans.

But I think the debate underneath the surface is actually whether the government should help people, or maybe who the government should help. Republicans have made it clear that they are willing and want to talk about how Americans (voters) are angry at the government. They are willing to pay lip service to the idea that the Bush years were bad, as long the conversation moves to how bad the Democrats are now. And the Republicans want to talk about how Democrats are thwarting the will of the majority of American voters who elected them by not allowing the Republicans who were elected by a minority of Americans to actually set the legislative agenda and write the legislation.

But the legislation they happen to mention wanting to pass is the problem. As I mentioned before, I suspect the tax cuts the Republicans want to pass will only benefit wealthy Americans. Tax cuts that have helped the rich in the past have not trickled down to the poor, not even in part. I mean, maybe the Republicans could take a page from the Democrats playbook and claim the gap between rich and poor would be even wider without trickle down economic policies.

Really, the fundamental debate is whether we as a people agree government has an obligation should make an effort to help poor people, or whether it should only help the rich (facilitate the markets). Now, we have already established government should help senior citizens, although senior citizens are the wealthiest age group. Yeah, some are buying cat food, but statistically they are doing better than the rest of us. And parts of the debate are probably incorrectly framed. Even though health insurance was originally offered as an inducement to work at a particular company, I believe corporations have over time realized that healthy workers (who don’t take time to visit sick kids or a sick spouse) are productive workers. So a single payer or heavily regulated private market universal health insurance system would benefit us all. But past that, should government financially help families of one or two parents raise kids? Does that help those kids become more productive citizens? Or is it something we should do because we have enough 50” plasma TV’s and SUV’s?

Clearly the Republicans think that an economic downturn is the right time to make the argument that we do not have enough to help our poor. But if some wealthy are suffering now, all the poor are suffering more. In any event, I believe that is the real debate that is going on. I think for a brief moment, literally, in October of 2008 while we were in shock from the market drop and watching John McCain dodder around a town hall and complain, we maybe also thought that electing a black man could help us to take steps to absolve us of our sins (those of us who might admit in the dark of night that we have sins). But now many of us have decided to go back to blaming the government for our problems, and every one else’s too (isn't the phrase "government is the problem"). Meaning don’t touch the money you give me, just cut off everyone else.

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