Friday, September 15, 2017

Democratic Surveys, the Tax Code, and Economic Silliness

Not long ago I wrote a column critical of Republican fund raising “surveys.”  I noted the many ways in which they assert blatant falsehoods about the state of the nation, while appealing to unreflective visceral responses from potential donors.  Sadly, the same can sometimes be said about Democratic fund raising “surveys.”  

One popped up in my inbox from my own senator, Maria Cantrell, whom I admire and trust as an effective representative of the people of Washington State.  But her fundraising “survey” employed some of the misleading tactics the GOP has honed to a fine art.  Hers said she wanted to know what constituents think are important issues to be addressed in tax code legislation.  By asking rhetorical questions in the right way using the right words, it implied that:
  • Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are being threatened.  
  • Middle income and working class families are heavily burdened by over taxation and need relief.
  • The business tax code is outdated and too complicated.
  • Tax code revision would make home ownership and college education more affordable.
  • The super wealthy don’t pay their fair share of taxes.
  • Tax code legislation is needed to keep the U.S. from defaulting on its debt.

No doubt the “survey” author would object, saying it doesn’t assert any of those things, but of course it does, by clear implication in wording they hope will trigger a favorable response from potential donors, who will not bother to examine the issues in any depth.  

For instance, while Medicaid is financed through appropriations from the general fund of the federal government, in combination with state appropriations, Medicare and Social Security are financed through FICA (Federal Insurance Contributions Act), which is separate from income taxes paid into the general fund of the nation.  Tax code revisions can happen in many ways without affecting Medicare and Social Security, and, at least for now, there is no serious threat to either on the horizon.

At least in my opinion, middle and working class families are not burdened by over taxation at the federal level.  They may not like paying taxes, and complain a lot about having to do it, but taxes are the collective investment in the future of our lives together as a nation.  If anything, it's the huge burden of defense spending that we should be concerned about, but defense has become a holy cow no one dares to touch.  

As for taxes on business, large corporations are pretty good at evading them altogether.  It would probably be a good idea to lower the maximum rate by some significant measure, and eliminate a few bushel baskets of special loop holes.  How that would come about eludes me. 

It’s true that some Republicans have floated the idea of repealing the deduction for home mortgage interest payments, but few take it seriously.  It faces enormous opposition from left, right, center and every flavor of special interest out there.  In any case, the problem of affordable housing, which is serious, cannot be solved, by fiddling with the tax code.  Affordable housing is a function of many issues that have little to do with federal taxes, and a lot to do with state and local regulations.  The same is true for the cost of college education.  Various deductions and other tax code incentives merely poke at a problem that has its center elsewhere.  

And do the super rich one percenters not pay their fair share of taxes?  What is a fair share?  How about taking another approach.  If we were to dramatically increase the marginal rate on very high earned incomes to, say, something over 70%, it would probably not generate much additional income from the super rich.  But it would eliminate the incentive to pay super salaries, redirecting monies toward higher pay for middle and lower income earners.  It would both boost the economy and increase revenue flow to the government to help pay for the good things we want out of government.

Finally, are we in danger of defaulting on our debt?  It seems like we might be every time congress has to vote on the debt ceiling; an idiotic idea written into the law in 1917.  In practice, after all the political posturing and chest thumping has died down, we raise the limit and continue on our way.  In the meantime, we’ve raised generations of ordinary people who have no idea how national debt is managed, and have been lied to by scare mongering politicians yowling that we are selling ourselves into financial slavery.   No!  We are not in danger of defaulting!  We’re also not going broke.  We are in danger of mismanaging spending and debt, and need to hold congress accountable, but that’s another matter. 

Having said all of that, the tax code is in serous need of revision.  However, between Trump and Ryan we have been flooded with messages that we need to get the economy going again, when it’s going just fine, thank you very much.  We’re told we need to get people back to work, when unemployment is at an all time low.  And yes, the participation rate is low too, but messing with the tax code can’t fix that.  So to fix non existent problems they propose legislation that would do two things:  cut taxes on those whose taxes should be raised, and increase the deficit claiming it will be paid for by future economic growth that seems highly improbable.  As a sop, they suggest a modest tax decrease for the middle class that, in my opinion, they don’t need and it would’t help the economy anyway.  I don’t get it.  It baffles me altogether.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Travel, Tourism, and Connections

We like to travel, exploring new places, meeting new people, and discovering more about the world we live in.  It’s especially rewarding in retirement because we have time to be tourists in ways we seldom had before.  The popular and famous places all over the globe are popular and famous because, for the most part, they’re worthy of being seen and experienced.  We’re doing our best to do just that.  So friends find it a little odd when they ask if we’ve been there or seen that, and we haven’t, at least not yet, because they know our adult lives have been spent on the road and in the air all over the place.  But it was a different kind of travel, a different kind of tourism, and in some ways just as interesting.

My wife can speak for herself about the places she’s been and experiences she’s had.  As for me, for nearly fifty years I observed, visited, and paid attention to the way people live, work, and hope.  One way or another I’ve been through all fifty states, and a good part of Canada, generally bypassing popular tourist and cultural sites, unless I had a spare day.  Being a tourist was crammed into an hour or two of free time eked out of a busy schedule.   Like many others, I joked that I was more familiar with airports, motels, and meeting rooms than anything else. 

It was the price paid to spend serious time examining, up close, big cities, small towns, huge corporations, factories, local stores, farms, ranches, forests, rivers, mines, and all the other miscellany of everyday life that drives the life we live, connecting us to each other.  With them came hours of conversation with community and business leaders, workers and top executives, and politicians of every stripe.  From them I learned about their worries, hopes, and dreams for themselves, their businesses, and the communities they lived in.

Recent articles have asserted that we live too much in bubbles that separate us from one another, limiting our ability to understand one another.  Maybe, but I’m reminded of a public television series called “Connections” hosted by James Burke.  It was popular in the late 1970s, and popped up again in the ‘90s.  Each episode explored the webs that connect us to history and each other.  Whatever bubbles we’re in, they are linked to all the other bubbles out there in the most amazingly intimate ways, so maybe they’re not bubbles at all.  In any case, my work-a-day version of travel was a constant learning experience about the connections that bind our lives together, for good and for ill.  They form an incredible organism, never still, always changing, resistant to our planning, command and control.  

It’s not that we can’t plan or should’t; planning is essential.  But the best and most well executed plans can do little more than influence modest course corrections we hope will be beneficial in the long run.  We delude ourselves if we think it can be more than that.  But I digress. This is about travel and tourism, and maybe connections.

That phase of my life of travel ended some time ago, but what an adventure it was, leaning about so many things in so many places among so many people.  Now we get to be more ordinary tourists, wandering about, mouths agape, looking here, poking there, taking photos, following guides, and visiting places we used to fly over or drive by.  National Parks, scenic rivers, off shore islands, they’re all on the list of places seen, and places yet to be seen.  A jungle lodge in Costa Rica, the museums of London, villages in Tuscany, rounding Cape Horn, and Gaudi’s amazing architecture have delighted us beyond measure.  China and Southeast Asia have called to us, and we have answered.  The Great Barrier Reef, Tasmania, and the fjords of New Zealand await. 

What makes it even richer is that I’m never anywhere that I don’t see and experience the connections that tie us together organically, wonderfully and intimately.  It may not have happened had it not been for all those years traveling to communities, meeting with companies, working with leaders to plan as we were able for a future life.  So here’s to travel and tourism. As Rick Steve’s always says, “Keep on traveling.”

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A Darker Shade of Grey growing Darker

They would not vote for Clinton.  It wasn’t that she was a Democrat, although that was enough.  They’ve never voted for a Democrat, ever.  But, as they also claimed, there were just too many grey clouds surrounding her.  I suspect it may also have had to do with her being a woman on the heels of a black man, but they would deny it to the end of time.  So they voted for a charlatan surrounded by clouds of a darker shade of grey, hoping he might turn out to be a true conservative who would make this country great again.  With reluctance, they admit they’ve been had.  It would have been better to have not voted at all.  

I understand their reluctance to vote for Clinton.  Beyond all else, she epitomized for them an imaginary Wall Street dominated Eastern Establishment working in partnership with out of control tax and spend liberals to take away whatever was left of middle class life, replacing it with government regulation and welfare.  You can’t have eight years of talk radio and Fox t.v. selling it without making it stick in the minds of many. 

Whatever making American Great Again might have meant to them during the campaign, it’s rotted on the shelf with nothing to replace it.  The darker shades of grey surrounding Trump have turned darker yet.  What’s next?  Trump remains president.  He’s no figurehead.  He has real power and can make real decisions.  But the generals under him seem to have formed a de facto junta able to limit his most outrageous tendencies, giving some modest degree of coherence to foreign policy, if not domestic.  Hurricanes and fires have placed competent political and career technocrats in charge of doing the best that can be done with the resources at hand, without any sign of presidential leadership.  The overwhelming need to deal with them forces most everything else to a lesser place on the national domestic agenda.  It helps that the more incompetent political appointees seem to have been stymied by their own incompetence.  Their occasional appearances are duly noted and duly dismissed, with some degree of concern that they might do  something damaging, and tiny rays of hope that they might do something needed.  In the meantime, their departments keep on doing what they usually do.

In other words, the ship of state continues to function reasonably well in spite of a captain who makes Queeg look sane.  It offers some degree of comfort, but military juntas and a civil service on automatic pilot are dangerous to democracy.  The sooner it can end, the better for us all.   The 2018 midterms are a long way off, but they are the most promising opportunity for the nation to return to a reasonably well functioning congress in which far right wingers would be demoted to as far back on the back bench as possible, where they can entertain themselves throwing spitballs at far left wingers.  In the meantime, a sufficiently roiled election may inspire new leadership to work for the good of the nation, negotiating in good faith from their respective positions. 

Meanwhile, maybe, just maybe, talk radio hosts will lose enough sponsors and audience to return them to the backwater swamps from which they emerged.  Maybe, just maybe, Fox news will become a legitimate source of factual, useful information.  Maybe the rest of broadcast journalism, including public radio, will knock off their customary tone of anxious hyperbole about almost everything they report on, and adopt the calm, confident voices we desire in professional journalists.

There is hope.  Between now an November of next year, let him golf all he wants, encourage him to use Camp David often, if he wants a rubber ducky to play with, give him a rubber ducky.  Just keep him busy with whatever amuses him.  A revitalized congress will not change who occupies the White House, but it may encircle him with with enough constraints to get us through.  Congress has been complaining about the imperial presidency since Nixon.  Now is their chance to do something about it. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Love Does No Wrong to a Neighbor. Start There

“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” 
So wrote Paul in his letter to the Romans as he summed up what it meant to be a follower of Jesus, not for those ancient Romans only, but for us also.  So simple, and yet so hard.  Even Paul struggled with it. 
Loving one another has been a problem for a long time. We’re not good at it.  In our day, love has come to mean something warm, fuzzy,, affectionate, romantic, and intimate, so it’s hard to imagine what Jesus meant when he commanded his followers to love others as he loved them.  Emotion had little to do with it.  Words and actions dictated what he meant.  The gospel narratives describe them in some detail, and it’s from them that we can learn how to love others whom we don’t want to love; good grief, it’s not all that comfortable.  Breaking down personal and social barriers that have worked so well to protect us from the contagion of undesirable others requires more, harder work than many of us are willing to undertake.  Engaging in the work of healing and reconciliation that goes beyond the norms of every day life is even harder, especially when it involves the lives of people we think don’t deserve healing and with whom we don’t desire any reconciliation.  Worse yet, when we are the ones in need of healing and reconciling love, how can we attend to others?  It’s easier just to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, and let it go at that, content that we (almost) never commit adultery, steal, murder, or covet.  That should be enough, right?  
It isn’t. It’s contentment we can’t claim because we do commit adultery, steal, murder, and covet.  Adultery, for instance, is only partly about sex.  It has a lot more to do with corrupting the integrity of any relationship.  That means between friends, coworkers, casual acquaintances, and entire classes of others we don’t even know.  It’s something we do with great regularity through gossip, snap judgments, prejudice, and the simply hurtful things we say about others and to others.  We steal whenever we assume the right to use something, or somebody, that we have no right to use.  Maybe it’s as trivial as pencils from the office supply cabinet, unintentionally of course.  More likely it’s more serious, such as stealing a person’s good name, running red lights, driving under the influence, running up credit card debt with no way to repay, cheating on taxes.  You can probably add a few more to the list.  We even commit murder, maybe not by killing the whole person, but by killing a little bit of a person with our cruel words, determination to get revenge, selfish works, and the host of things we do to others that, in the words of a friend, “feel like a knife thrust into my gut.”  That’s murder by inches and pounds of flesh.
It turns out that we can’t rest contended that we’re good people, while others aren’t, or at least not as good as us.  We can’t duck being held accountable for our own actions in a society where mutual accountability to each other is highly valued.  We are not excused from making judgments, provided they are provisionally made in the spirit of humility.  But in all of these things, we are first and always accountable to God for loving others as Jesus has loved us.  Where are we to start?

“Love does no wrong to a neighbor. “ Love begins through becoming more aware of how easily we harm our neighbors, adjusting our behavior to stop it, as best we can, and moving from there into the hard work of healing and reconciliation.  We’re not very good at it, but there is no alternative, if we intend to follow Jesus.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Breadth & Depth of Ignorance

The older I get (mid seventies) the more aware I am of the breadth and depth of my own ignorance.  As Country Parson, I write on politics, economics, and theology (Christian), because they’re the only three things I know much about, which I gained through academic learning and a lifetime of work.  But in truth, I know very little about any of them, and even less about the rest of the the world of knowledge and experience.  What I can be is curious about all of it, interested in learning at least a bit more, and open to new experiences.  I can think, reflect, ask questions, engage in conversation, and check facts.  I can also be honest about the things I’m unlikely to read up on or try to do, and that list is getting longer.  Backpacking through Nepal is not high on my list, but a nice three star hotel might work, four or five would be better.

I’ve been thinking about that for a while, partly because I write articles intended to be value oriented and well informed on subjects of topical interest that I hope will be of interest to others.  At the same time I’ve been distressed by the abundance of material published on the internet that appears to have little or no foundation in verifiable evidence, and often expresses nothing but unreflective, uninformed, strongly held opinion.  Even some sites favoring political views I endorse use irresponsible hyperbole, and unsupported assertions, in the cheapest from of tabloid journalism.  In the midst of it, a few acquaintances have wondered what degree of hubris it must take for me to put my own opinions out there as if they had superior value to others, especially theirs.  It’s one of those “Who do you think you are?” things.   Good question.

Close friends with advanced degrees in philosophy, theology, sociology, mathematics, and medicine have probed the depth of disciplines in which I have gleaned only a smattering of knowledge over the years.  Each of them has achieved far deeper knowledge of their disciplines than I ever did in mine.  And what are mine?  They are the proverbial “Duke’s Mixture,” a miscellany of subjects orbiting around politics, economics, and theology, permitting me to be a “Jack of each and master of none,” which, as it turns out, is an pejorative aphorism existing in almost every language and culture.  By the way, did you know that a long time ago a guy named Duke sold pouches of mixed Virginia tobacco?  It was OK but not great.  Being a Jack of all trades was once said about Shakespeare by someone who thought him too much of a tinhorn know-it-all.  So what’s a tinhorn?  But I digress.

Thankfully, among well educated friends in my age group (the sixty to eighty gang), I hear a similar lament.  It’s good to have company.  As gifted and experienced as they are in their fields, most admit their lack of knowledge about others, and their willingness to be informed because they are curious about the world around them.  What they bring to their curiosity is years of training and experience in evidence based thinking, and an openness to a variety of views.  A world of unknowns yet to be explored, and a willingness to act with courage on provisional truth, opens for them a future as pregnant with possibility as it appeared to be when they were eighteen.  So here we go.  Let the adventure begin – in a reasonable degree of decadent comfort. 

Monday, September 4, 2017

It's Time to Sacrifice. Let's do it!

It’s time to sacrifice.  Let’s do it.  Anything around we can sacrifice?  Altars came up in conversation the other day, and that led to talking about sacrifice, which seems like such an unpleasant word, conjuring up as it does images of slaughtered animals, and even humans.   Sacrifices are so, so Pagan: virgins, volcanoes, and all that.  It comes from watching too many Indiana Jones movies.  What follows is a brief take on sacrifice that may be helpful to those who have wondered about it.   

The common idea of sacrifice is to kill or destroy something of great value as an offering to the gods, hoping it will be acceptable, with the idea that, if the gods appreciate such a costly gift, maybe they’ll do something nice in return:  rain, a bumper crop, winning the Lotto, something like that.  After all, what could be ore costly than a prize bull, the best from the orchard, or something else of great material value?  Surely the gods would be pleased.  Those kinds of sacrifices were common features of many  religions all over the world, and something like them was also a part of ancient Judaism, yet it was different.

Our western ways of religious thinking are rooted in conflicting sources, Jewish and Greek, but when it comes to sacrifice, Jewish ways prevail.  In spite of all the sacrifices demanded in the Mosaic law, there was always the sense that God did not need them, and they were never meant to be bribes to get God to do something, not that people didn’t try anyway.  The sacrifice of an animal or first fruits of the harvest was intended to be costly, the best and first of what one had, as a sign of commitment to a relationship with God and obedience to God’s law.  God didn’t need to get it.  The people needed to give it.  Think of it as God’s version of the old rule that you can’t give away kittens, but you can sell sell them.  Needless to say, it got corrupted in dozens of ways, all of which are duly recorded in the Hebrew scriptures.  The tradition from which we emerged was nothing if not honest about its own shortcomings.

While ancient sacrifices may have been bloody and costly, the whole idea was that what was offered would be made holy, and the holiness would extend to the persons offering the sacrifice.  It was not the death or destruction that counted, but the making holy of something that, in a sense, opened the door between the people and God, allowing the free flow of one into the other.  Our English word, sacrifice, is clear about it, coming as it does from a Latin root that means exactly that.  The ultimate door opening for Christians was Jesus on the Cross, which, at the empty tomb, was proved not to be a bloody death of something sacrificed to be made holy and acceptable to God, but the Holy One declaring death itself defeated and a new understanding of sacrifice given in place of the old.

Jewish sacrifices ended with the destruction of the temple in 70 c.e..  In the meantime, the new Christian faith went in another direction.  Each week they gathered for worship and shared a simple meal of bread and wine, which they understood to be both a remembrance of the Last Supper, and a participation in the actual presence of Christ in the bread and wine.  It was a sacrifice in which they presented the bread and wine to God who made it into holy food and drink to nourish them for the days ahead.  Then they presented themselves, their bodies and souls, to be holy and reasonable sacrifices to God – that is, they presented themselves to be made holy and useful to God.  Being human, it didn’t last long.  That’s why it was repeated each week. 

As the centuries passed the rite became corrupt.  Somehow the priest was understood to be repeating Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and the idea of sacrifice drifted back to seeking God’s favorable response for something.  For instance, paying a priest to say a quick mass could get your dead loved one out of purgatory a little faster.  The more masses, the quicker he or she could get out.  Sort of like TSA precheck financed with bribes to the agents, and a great money maker it was.  Five hundred years ago things had become so bad that a German priest named Martin Luther nailed 95 complaints to the door of his small town church, asked for debate, and demanded reform.  It didn’t stay local.  Thanks to the printing press, it got published and sent around Europe, setting fire to the Reformation.  Thirty years later the Church had divided into Protestants and Roman Catholics, and each had reformed their ways.  

Since then, the Church has continued to divide into various sects and denominations, each with it’s own understanding of what Christianity means, and disagreements about what sacrifice means.  Churches remaining in the Catholic tradition: Roman Catholics, Anglicans (Episcopalians in the U.S.), Lutherans, and some others, have altars that remain places of sacrifice, in the old sense of presenting ourselves as holy and reasonable sacrifices to God as we are fed with the holy food and drink of bread and wine in which Christ is truly present.  It’s sacrifice that means everything to those who take it seriously.

With that rough background on sacrifice, it’s time to wrap it up by saying something about the watered down, nearly meaningless use of sacrifice that populates everyday talk, especially church talk.  “I’ve sacrificed so much,” and all its cognates, is little more than a whining plea for sympathy or adulation having nothing to do with receiving that which is holy as nourishment to do holy work.  “Sacrificial giving,” a term heard often during pledge drives, is usually understood to mean giving until it hurts, which no one ever does.  What it should mean is giving resources for the purpose of making them holy for holy work.  Amazing what a difference that can make.  OK, enough of that.  We’re done for now.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Trump's Fundraising Mailers: models of political lying and they work really well

I noted in a recent column that I’m on several GOP mailing lists.  It helps me keep up with things.  A “Trump Agenda Survey” showed up several days ago, and here is what it had to say to prospective donors about the state of the nation, keeping in mind that it was sent out before Harvey hit Southeast Texas.
  • A border wall is needed to stop illegal migration
  • Obama’s executive orders were unconstitutional
  • Immigration laws have not been fully enforced (we’re being overrun)
  • Sanctuary cites should have their funding cut off
  • Our (weak) military needs to be rebuilt
  • Federal regulation is preventing economic growth
  • Lands must be opened to more carbon fuel production
  • Bad trade deals must be renegotiated to favor American jobs first
  • The inefficient federal bureaucracy needs to be shrunk, and made more accountable (to whom?)
  • A flatter, simpler tax code would be more fair to all
  • Federal spending on infrastructure should increase
  • Corporate tax rates should be reduced to increase employment
  • Government unions should be suspended by executive order
  • Federally mandated “Common Core” curricula should be eliminated
  • GOP leadership should change senate rules to overcome Dem. opposition to the Trump agenda
  • Because congressional Democrats have no intention of working in good faith with Trump
  • Mainstream media will not give Trump fair, unbiased coverage of his policies and leadership
They’re posed in the form of questions loaded with unstated assumptions and assertions leaving no doubt what the answers are supposed to be.  In fact, no one ever looks at the answers.  They only want to tell a story and get some money.  The illusion that they care what you think helps.  The point is that this “survey”, and others like it, presents rank and file GOP supporters with a grossly misleading, sometimes flat out false picture of how the nation is faring.  It’s a picture that’s widely and unshakably believed.  After all, would the Grand Old Party lie?  Heaven forbid.  Besides it confirms the story that has been told in other fund requests sent repeatedly to the same people for the last eight years.  The same thing repeated enough times becomes true in the minds of many.

To be fair, I’m also on a number of Democratic lists, and get their “surveys” also.  They too betray a bias, but in a much different way.  While their questions imply answers they hope will resonate with donors, they’re generally about issues  being honestly debated in the public arena, relate to verifiable conditions, and promote legislative solutions with some probability of success.  They don’t appeal in a way that drives into the deeply felt convictions of their base in order to elicit knee jerk responses.   In other words, they’re predictable, unexciting, and seldom stoop to fear mongering.  It could be that Democrats don’t really have the same kind of base, and, such as it is, it’s wildly diverse, made up of sharply divided opinions about what should be done, and, until recently, not emotionally up in arms.

That changed under Trump’s twitchy twitter finger, and  bloviated speechifying oozing with racism, sexism, pandering, threats of violence, and promises of more tax relief for the very wealthy.  The Democratic base may still be all over the place, but wherever they are, they’re united in emotionally charged outrage over the doors of bigotry and injustice the president has opened, and through which he has invited the worst and most dangerous of human tendencies toward racist authoritarianism.

The “Resistance”, that’s what they call it.  The thing is, resistance, by itself, seldom wins elections.  When it does, it often has no idea where to go next.  For Democrats to make it an effective political movement, resistance must be yoked to a solid, workable agenda articulating what the party is for, stated in emotionally attractive, easily understood terms aimed directly at the middle class, and those who aspire to it.  Otherwise, the  emotional energy of resistance will simply sputter out in self induced exhaustion.  

Given that, to whom do they need to appeal.  Obviously those who are emotionally outraged.  They’re first, but then who?  Not the Trump base. They’re a lost cause.  Next must be the 50-70% of registered voters who have given up voting altogether.  Finally, there are growing numbers of center-right Trump voters who now realize they’ve been scammed.  All they really want to know from Democrats is that they’re not raving, left wing socialists who will tax and regulate them out of everything.  Suspicious though they might be, they will vote for the right Democratic candidates at the state and local levels, maybe even for congress. 

We shall see what will happen.