Mr. Obama, It’s Time to Launch a New Apollo Program

I occasionally get forwarded one of those emails from some unwitting friend calling for a one day boycott of gasoline. They say something like: “Don’t buy gas on May 30th to send a message to the oil companies that we won’t stand for higher gas prices.” My universal response has been to tell my friend that if they want gas prices to go down, stop driving a car entirely, buy a bicycle, don’t use any fossil fuels if at all possible. A one day boycott is a laughable concept on its face as it doesn’t change the behavior of the companies that are being targeted. Even if everyone agreed not to buy gas tomorrow, they’d simply go today or the day after tomorrow causing a bump in sales on the days around the “boycott”.

The issues surrounding energy policy, however, run so much deeper. Those of us in the reality based community acknowledge that the extreme weather we’ve been experiencing the last few years is likely tied to global climate instability. We also see the pollution caused by our dependence on fossil fuels resulting in increased incidence of asthma, allergies, and other conditions and diseases. We see that nuclear power is not the answer because it leaves behind poisons that cannot be gotten rid of and the risk of catastrophic failure is just too high. There is also the little problem of our dependence on fossil fuel’s effect on our foreign policy. The invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq is, in large part, driven by the desire to control the world’s second largest oil reserve. Afghanistan is important, not because it has oil, but because it stands between rich natural gas and oil fields in Turkmenistan and the the Arabian Sea and has been in talks with Unocal since the mid-nineties to create a pipeline to export these resources. Not to mention national security problem of being so dependent on oil producing nations, many of whom coordinate their actions through OPEC.

The current policies are driven by entrenched interests, consumer demand, the state of our transportation infrastructure (ie. lack of alternative transportation modes), relative price of fossil fuels when the above named cost are externalized (nationalized), etc. Obviously, a one day boycott won’t do a darn thing in the face of these factors. The question then becomes, “What can we do about it?”

For all the reasons I’ve listed and more, it is imperative that we make the transition to a clean and renewable energy system as soon as possible. Our economy is currently at the mercy of those who control the oil spigots. If OPEC chooses to tighten supply, prices not only spike at the pump, but on everything that uses oil or gasoline in its production or transportation to market…which is to say, nearly everything. If it is our national policy to attempt to gain control of the spigots to prevent said economic disaster, then we pay for it in blood and treasure. The true cost of oil, between the wars to gain/protect access to it, the environmental impacts, the government purchased automobile infrastructure and the direct subsidies to the oil industry is hard to estimate. I’ve seen estimates all over the map, but according to a comprehensive study done in 1998 by International Center for Technology Assessment:

The majority of people paying just over $1 for a gallon of gasoline at the pump has no idea that through increased taxes, excessive insurance premiums, and inflated prices in other retail sectors that that same gallon of fuel is actually costing them between $5.60 and $15.14. emphasis added.

And that was in 1998, when gas was just over a buck! If you simply use an inflation calculator to help determine today’s range, it’s more like $7.73 to $20.89. That doesn’t include the change in the price at the pump of about $3 a gallon. So, perhaps an estimate of between $10.73 and $23.89 would be a more accurate range, the average of which is $17.31. If we knew that it costs us over $200 to buy a full (12 gallon) tank, how would that impact our driving habits? How would it compare with alternative fuel vehicles? Would Amtrak start looking like a better option?

And what about our power plants? Our whole system is set up to burn fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas or use nuclear as a “clean” alternative. While the coal companies want you to believe in “clean coal”, there really is no such thing. Mining the coal certainly hasn’t gotten any safer. Natural gas hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is linked to dozens of cases of water contamination. Nuclear, as I’ve stated already, is both perilous and poisonous. The radioactive waste is simply too toxic and the power plants too dangerous.

The interests allied against us are strong, determined and entrenched. They have pockets deeper than the Mariana Trench and the inertia of a sedentary, complacent, uninformed American public and the system that already exists. We will need to be equally determined, and while we do not have the resources of the fossil fuel companies, we do have a more powerful force, the power of the people.

It is well past time for us to take action. To force our politicians to stand for us, the majority of the people who feel the myriad harms of the current system. We need real leadership from Mr. Obama. We need to call upon the President to take a bold new step, as President Kennedy did in his 1961 address to congress launching the original Apollo Program. He must enunciate a broad vision of a future free from dependence on fossil fuels and propose an aggressive timeline for moving us toward a clean energy future, a new Apollo Program. If he will not willingly take this step, it is time to bring the force of our collective voice to him. We need him to realize that this is not just a matter of pollution, climate change, disease, war and national security, it is a matter of justice.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos


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Deflating Conservative Arguments: The Flat Tax

My neighbor in the apartment across the way is a good-natured centerist who is very interested in issues of taxation. He and I often get into discussions related to our tax system and he’s brought up the idea of a Flat Tax. It sure sounds like a good idea: everyone pays the same percentage of their income. After all, he argues, why should someone making a lot of money pay a higher percentage?

The problem with this idea, of course, is that it’s ultimately regressive, taking a more meaningful chunk of money from the least fortunate in our society. The counter question being, why should someone making only a little money pay the same percentage of their income as someone making much more and is it fair to tax them at the same rate?

Follow me below the fold where I level the Flat Tax in my continuing series Deflating Conservative Arguments.

I’ve found that a lot of people don’t understand how our current progressive income tax system works. Many people think that the tax bracket you reach on your last dollar in income is the one you pay on all your income. I’ve heard people say things like “I got a $2000 raise, but it bumps me into a higher tax bracket” with a disparaging tone in their voice that belies the fact that they’ll be making more money. Fortunately, they won’t really be paying the higher rate on all their income. For example, a single person pays 10% on their first $8500, 15% on their next $26,000, 25% on their next $49,100, and so on. So if you make $34,000 and get a $2000 raise, you’ll be in a new tax bracket, but you only pay the new tax rate (25%) on your last $1500, and your total tax liability will be $5125. This computes to an effective tax rate of 14.23% ($5125/$36,000).

Okay, so now that that’s all cleared up, what about the flat tax? Even some of my more liberal leaning friends have been suckered in by this one. The proposal is that everyone pays the same percentage in federal income tax on all of their income, though proposals vary as to what the percentage should be. In 2008 Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) proposed a 17% flat tax rate. Let’s use this as our example because there is simply no concrete proposed rate that flat taxers are rallying around.

As you can already see by looking up at the previous example, a 17% rate is higher than the 14.23% rate that someone making a modest $36,000 pays today. The break even point is $48,438, meaning everyone making less than that gets a tax increase under a flat tax and everyone making more than that gets a tax break. Let’s look at the lower and upper end of the spectrum for greater relief. Billionaire hedge fund manager John Paulson (unrelated to former Goldman Sachs CEO and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) raked in $4.9 Billion ($4,900,000,000) in 2010. Though I know this is investment income and therefore subject to the capital gains rate, let’s pretend that it was counted as regular income taxed at the normal income tax rates. If this were the case, Mr. Paulson would be paying an effective rate of 35% under our current system or around $1.715 Billion. If his taxes were slashed to 17%, he would be paying around $833 Million, a savings of around $882 Million. On the other hand, a single person with no children living at the 2010 poverty threshold of $11,344 pays $1277 in federal income tax for an effective rate of 11.25%. If we instate the 17% flat tax, that would raise their taxes to $1928, a hike of $651.

So the question of fairness arises. What is fair? Is it just to lower billionaires’ taxes by half, but increase taxes on the poorest? Is it just? To me, the issue always come back to these simple questions.

So, what is a fair and just way to pay for our society? I believe that those who make the most money have benefited from the system much more than those who make the least. The poor tend to stay poor because they have the deck stacked against them from the get go. If both parents are working and struggling to make ends meet, children are not as able to succeed. If they live in an economically depressed area, they are likely going to schools that don’t have the resources to hire the best teachers or have the equipment necessary to prepare children for college. If you live somewhere where your life is in constant danger due to high crime (due to poverty), it makes it pretty darn hard to study. Conversely, the well off tend to become richer because they have safe places to grow up and don’t have the added stresses of poverty. They go to the best schools with the best teachers and the top of the line equipment, live in the cleanest, safest neighborhoods, and have parents who have the resources to help them achieve. The disproportionate amount of money spent on all of the services that our society provides such as schools and public safety go to the wealthier areas. This is because their local tax base (or private donations) keep their areas nice because they, as anyone, care deeply for their children and want them to succeed. The problem is that not everybody starts out at the same place, so to pretend that is the case is just fantasy.

The reality is that we’re all in this together and we need each other to succeed. Because the wealthy benefit more from our society, and the safety and security it affords them, they should pay more to keep our society (and the government that administers it) strong. It’s the only just thing to do.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos

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On Compromise and Capitulation

In my cross post of last Sunday’s article regarding the Rules for Republicans (as sited on the Oregon Tea Party website) titled “Wow. Just Wow.”, this comment on my sparked my attention:

And yet you don’t have to browse (1+ / 0-)

around on this forum for very long to see the mirror image of that attitude among some commenters here, only they believe these things about Republicans as a group.

These are the people who decry the Obama administration for negotiating and compromising with Republicans in Congress in order to pass legislation.

I agree with you, that people with this attitude are an obstacle to progress, but we should recognize that they’re on the left as well as on the right.

While there certainly are people in the Daily Kos community who do believe the flip of the Rules for Republicans about Republicans, I’m not sure why the commenter chose to state that these are the same people who “decry Obama for negotiating and compromising with Republicans in Congress in order to pass legislation.” I certainly believe that while Republicans in Congress are wretched, I don’t believe that the average Republican voter is. As stated in last week’s post, I tend to find them “misguided, deluded, inaccurate, lacking the facts or simpleminded”, but not evil. I do however fault Obama and the Democratic leadership for willingly undermining the “Democratic wing of the Democratic party.” So I responded:

When compromise is unnecessary (0+ / 0-)

…then why use it? At this point, with Republicans in control of the House, compromise is necessary, but when Dems had a 60 seat majority in the Senate and control of the House and Presidency, why compromise with Republicans? Why even talk to their side if they’re ultimately unwilling to vote for the legislation? We’d get better policy which would result in better political outcomes. There is also a difference between compromise and capitulation.

to which said commenter then replied:

Of course Democrats never really had (0+ / 0-)

a 60 seat majority. They had for a brief time after Franken was seated, 58 Dems, 1 socialist and 1 Lieberman. And before that, they had 57 Dems, 1 socialist and 1 Lieberman. And of those Dems, a good block of them were/are weevily backsliders.

As I recall, Lieberman threatened to block health care reform if there was a public option in it. Health care reform got watered down largely through having to negotiate with Democrats in the Senate, not the Republicans!

Honestly, I really get tired of hearing people complain about compromise being capitulation. From my experience in negotations as a lawyer, this criticism strikes me more as a sound bite cliche rather than an accurate description of the results.

The first point here, while accurate, is a nit pick. I was referring to the Democratic caucus which includes Sanders (not really a problematic guy) and Lieberman (a tremendous pain in the ass). The second point is also true, the Dems had to negotiate with the Dems, but they also for some inexplicable reason (perhaps to “appear reasonable”?) brought Republicans into the discussion. The third point is what really rose my eyebrows. I think a lot of people don’t understand the difference between compromise and capitulation.

Here’s the New Oxford American Dictionary definition of Compromise:

Compromise, n. an agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.


Here’s the definition of Capitulation:

Capitulation, n. the action of surrendering or ceasing to resist an opponent or demand.

As you can see, a compromise is based on mutual respect and mutual power. Activist organizations engage in direct action campaigns to alter a power relationship. When a corporation, for instance, has all the power and abusing a community, there’s not much an individual can do about it, but if a lot of community members organize, they can start to challenge the corporation’s actions because they’ve altered the power balance. If they negotiate first, they will lose because they have not demonstrated their power, and are therefore not considered worthy of compromise. However, when they use this power to shut down a store, pursue a crippling boycott, or participate in mass demonstrations, the opposition suddenly views them as worthy of concessions. While it does not succeed in all cases, it is almost always better than doing nothing at all.

Organizations, politicians and constituencies capitulate when they have not demonstrated power, even if they have all the power in the world. This is where both Obama and those of us on the left failed in the health care debate. We were fractious (as usual) and sedentary. The right was united in their opposition and vocal. They dominated the news and won the publicity battle. While Obama did eventually pass a weak bill that included the moronic individual mandate, he had an opportunity (an I would say a responsibility) to lead and he failed. Had he taken a position on the issue and fought for it, the outcome would’ve been a more robust reform package, a more energized base, and a demoralized opposition. This could’ve been a home run.

So here’s my response:

When you start from a weak position… (0+ / 0-)

you’re negotiating at a disadvantage. Obama took “single payer” or “medicare for all” off the table from the get go. This worsens the bargaining position. He also didn’t fight. Compromise is not always necessary (or at least not to such an extreme). I know Lieberman and the corporate Dems are/were the issue, but why not go to Connecticut, Montana, North Dakota, etc. and stump for the strongest possible plan instead of just saying, “well, we can’t do it if Joe/Max/Kent don’t want to go along.”?

Obama’s unwillingness to fight for progressive policy on anything is what makes him a capitulation machine. If you fight and lose, at least you’ve fought and the people would have your back. But negotiating out of the gate is a recipe for failed policy and bad political outcomes. The president is responsible for generating a strong negotiating position for his desired policy. He must take it upon himself to get out there and generate the pressure on those dissenting voices within his own party and the opposition. He did so against Kucinich, so I know he knows how. This only leads me to the conclusion that weak policy is what he had in mind in the first place, so capitulation was not only the outcome, it was the game plan.

The difference between compromise and capitulation is in a compromise, both sides get some things they like, but nobody gets everything and a capitulation is when one side gets most or all of what they like and the other side gets very little or none of what they want. The difference is determined by how one side is seen by the other side of the negotiation. If you are seen as weak, the outcome will be capitulation to all of the demands of the other side (in this case, the insurance industry and their bought off congress critters on both sides of the aisle), if you are seen as strong, you may in the end compromise, but you’d get a lot more out of the deal then a complete cave in and abdication of your values.

Some progressives say that the health reform measure was good. Some say it was better than nothing. I agree with the latter, but just barely. The individual mandate is a corporate giveaway and a politically toxic idea (witness how it was used in 2010). Obama and therefore the Dem leadership started from a weak position, lessened that position by not fighting and eventually came up with a plan that would enrich the insurance companies and help mobilize the right while demoralizing the left. You can call it what you will, but I call it capitulation.

While compromise is sometimes necessary, it is not always. Many times we can attain a better policy and more positive political outcomes through standing by our highest values of justice, equality and liberty.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos.

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Wow. Just Wow.

As part of the US Uncut movement, on April 1st I sent an email to the organizer of the local Tea Party group in a (perhaps naive) attempt to bring the two groups together around a common cause. Here’s my email:

Subj:Portland Uncut/Portland Tea Party Alliance?


I’m involved in the Uncut movement an was thinking that the Tea Party may be open to working together to get corporations who are not paying any taxes to pay their fair share. While I know that we may disagree on what represents a fair share and how those tax revenues should be used, I’m sure we can agree that the corporations who are paying nothing while making huge profits (or even claiming a tax rebate), are cheaters and need to pay into the system they use, just like the rest of us. As you said at the TP rally on tax day 2009, it’s not a partisan issue, so I hope we can come together around tax fairness for these corporate tax cheats. What do you think?

Ross Lampert

I had watched a video of the Oregon Tea Party event in 2009 where the organizer spoke and he seemed somewhat reasonable. I got a response back from him fairly quickly saying:


I’ve cc’d your message to the current TP chair.

With kind regards,


I asked him to keep me posted, but never heard back. A friend from the Uncut movement asked me on the 21st if I ever heard back from them and when I said I hadn’t, he said it wasn’t surprising and sent me a link from their website to a posting called Rules for Republicans.

I read this and was blown away. I understand not agreeing with someone’s ideas or their reasoning, (see my series: Deflating Conservative Arguments), but this was way beyond the pale. This seems more like hate speech than any rational thought and it actually scared me. When we cannot have a conversation with people who disagree with us, when there is no trust, when they think of us as “evil”, what is next? This is the kind of talk that lead to the genocide of my people. This is the kind of talk that lead to the genocide in Rwanda. It is wretched and it doesn’t belong in our political discourse.

Here’s the first of the “Rules for Republicans”:

1. The era of liberalism is over.
Today there are no liberals in power; there are only radical leftists. They are the enemy, not the opposition. Their ideology is not simply wrong; it is evil.

In all quotes from this document, Italics are in the original, bold is emphasis added.

In their 8 stages of genocide, Genocide Watch outlines the first stage as Classification. This means dividing people into “us and them”. The main counteraction is creating universalism among the population. For instance, we’re all Americans. While Classification is not in and of itself problematic, when combined with the third stage, Dehumanization, it becomes a veritable tinderbox of hatred.

In this first Rule, it is clear that the author is not only classifying those of us on the left as “radical”, but also dehumanizing us. This is not an isolated incident. I know people on the other side who I strongly disagree with on many topics, but I don’t think of them as the enemy or as evil. I may think of them as misguided, deluded, inaccurate, lacking the facts or simpleminded. I may even have real hatred for the policies they advance. But evil? Really??? They think we’re EVIL?

2. It is impossible to be too cynical about the intentions, motives, and truthfulness of radical leftists.
They will always exceed our most horrifying expectations.

Wow, according to Rule 2, we’re not only radical and evil, we’re worse than evil! One cannot be too cynical about our intentions because they’ll always exceed one’s most horrifying expectations! Um…what? I don’t understand my intentions, I guess. I thought I just wanted what’s best for all of us. I’m not really sure what my motivations are either. I suppose they must be rooted in pure evil and borne of satanic vice. I guess I just don’t get myself…oh, that’s because I’m obviously not able to be truthful!

3. Radical leftists are continually seeking to destroy America’s historic foundations, particularly our Constitution.
Their goal is to rebuild upon the rubble according to their own evil vision and to gratify their insatiable lust for tyrannical power.

Oh, that’s my goal! I had no idea. It seems that the author of this document has no knowledge that the foundation of our republic is based on the work of the father of liberalism, John Locke. Our constitution was written by liberals steeped in Lockean philosophy. “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”, ya know, that quote so oft used by the tea party which is taken from some declaration is a paraphrase from Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. According to Rule 3, we want to destroy the constitution! I’m not sure what our “evil vision” is that we want to replace it with, but this whole point is ridiculous. While I do think we need to amend the constitution to eliminate corporate personhood and thus help to roll back wealthfare (aka. corporate welfare and welfare for the rich), I’m not in favor of scrapping the document itself. Or at least I didn’t know I was…until now.

4. Radical leftists are continually seeking to infiltrate and undermine American institutions.
They are especially attracted to institutions where there are unearned wealth, sinecures, and ambiguous standards of accomplishment.

I’m not even really sure what this means. I suppose it means that we’re trying to destroy the government from within by…working? Or perhaps somehow gaining positions that require little or no work but pay anyhow? How? Your guess is as good as mine.

5. Our people must always be seeking to restore America’s tested, historic, foundational principles and to guard and protect our Constitution and our cherished institutions.

Again with the us vs. them. So, the Tea Party is the defender of true American values, principles and guardian of our constitution. Oh, I get it, if you say you support the constitution and its values and principles even while the politicians you support actively work to undermine those same institutions, values and principles, you’re the true patriots!

6. Civility must never trump truthfulness.
Civility is a highly commendable virtue; truthfulness is vastly more commendable.

‘Cause you can’t be both truthful and civil. Sometimes truth is indeed hard for someone to take, but it doesn’t mean you should be nasty in how you say it.

7. Ideology must never trump truthfulness.
We Republicans need to constantly examine our own ideological principles to make sure they are, first and foremost, true. Then we must proclaim them boldly and straightforwardly.

HahahHaHAHahhahhahHHAHhahAHHAhahahHAHahA!!! Oh, let me breathe for a second…hahahahhahHHhahhahhhahahahahHhaAhaHaHHahahAhaAhahahaahahaahhAhaaa. *whew* Wow…damn.

I don’t really even know where to start here. This is the most hilarious thing I’ve read from the right in a long time. They don’t usually know how to use humor, but this is outstanding. What?!? It’s not meant to by funny? Yeah, this must come from someone who doesn’t understand the meaning of the terms “ideology” or “truth/truthfulness”. If they did, perhaps they wouldn’t support people like Jon Kyl.

8. Never try to out-compassion a bleeding-heart radical leftist.
Conservatism is the most compassionate — and most truthful — political philosophy there is. Radical leftism, by contrast, is based on false promises intended not to better the lives of anyone, but to recruit gullible, ignorant people as “useful idiots.”

Another doozy. The last line in this Rule seems an awful lot like psychological projection. If Conservatism were the most compassionate political philosophy, why are there so many people going hungry in America? Why are there so many poor? Why after over 30 years of trickle down economics is there a growing income gap? These are not merely Republican problems, they are problems that both parties have contributed to over the years, mostly because they have both become more conservative and have thus followed the failed policies of supply side “voodoo economics“. If Conservatism was truthful, it would recognize its own failures.

9. Challenge radical leftists to live up to their own publicly proclaimed ethical principles.
They never do. They just fake it. (Cf. Alinsky Rule #4: “Make the enemy live up to their [sic] own book of rules.”)

Well, they may have a point here. A lot of what we believe in may be impossible to live up to in our current society because of the way our society is set up. I’m not sure it means we are faking it, it just means that some things are not possible to do. While I am all for living in a more ecological way, if I need to visit my family in Chicago, bicycling there is not really a viable option. I must say however, that there are an awful lot of members of the Tea Party who are on government support (social security, medicaid, medicare, employment insurance, etc.) or use government infrastructure such as roads or mass transit to attend the rallies to protest the taxes that pay for these services. While I try to live up to my ethical principles to my utmost ability, I’m not sure most Tea Party members even understand the impact of the policies they’re advocating upon their own lives. I also find it endlessly amusing that people on the right are quoting from Alinsky. Most of them have probably never read his work as it seems some of his statements are grossly misunderstood.

10. Refuse to use the favorite language of the radical left.
Their language is always intended to spread lies and propaganda and to create confusion, fear, and retreat, not to convey truthful information.

Again, this is intended to sow the seeds of distrust. It is one thing to be skeptical, but quite another to accuse a whole group of people of lying and spreading propaganda.

11. The language our people use should boldly convey real information accurately, precisely, and above all, truthfully.

With all the emphasis that the author of these Rules puts on truth, you’d think that they’d make more of an effort to make sure their statements are true. I rarely (if ever) hear any constructive ideas coming out of the Tea Party. They just say that our budget is out of whack and we need to get it under control. I agree with this, but the question is “How?” Their only answer seems to be to take a hatchet to social programs and foreign aid. This approach will not get us to a balanced budget, it’ll just cause a lot of misery while still requiring a serious look at cutting military spending and increasing taxes on the rich.

12. Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.
This is Alinsky Rule #5, word for word, but we Republicans have a special advantage in applying it to radical leftists because ridicule or satire, to be really effective, must be rooted in truth. That’s why leftist ridicule flops; it’s usually based on lies.

Indeed, ridicule is man’s most potent weapon, however I’m not sure why they think leftist ridicule flops as the Daily Show and the Colbert Report are top rated comedy shows. These shows are all about ridicule of the right (though they do ridicule politicians of all stripes). There aren’t too many good comedians from the right, but hey, you can’t win ’em all, right?

13. Attempting to reason with intractable, hardcore radical leftists will always end in futility.
Such people are incorrigibly anti-rational, so it is impossible to establish an authentic interlocutory interface with them. The only realistic way to engage them is to crush them politically, using any and all truthful and lawful tactics.

Therefore we shouldn’t bother to get into debate, it will only be frustrating. Let’s just go home and polish our guns instead. As the last Rule, it seems that this is trying to say, we’re right, they’re wrong, so there! This is also saying that it is impossible that we may have a valid argument. Whenever I see my hardcore reactionary rightist cousin, we have some good, productive and interesting conversations. Perhaps those in leadership positions on the right don’t want their flock talking to the other side for fear that our ideas may prove to be more powerful than theirs. Perhaps we may even sway some of the faithful to look at things in a different way. Maybe some might defect. If we don’t work to heal our political discourse, we will only become more polarized, leading to further rancor; the possibilities that flow from that are frankly frightening.

Rule 13 has the only use of the word “lawful” in this set of Rules and I’m glad it’s there. The beliefs outlined in these Rules are what leads people who are mentally unstable to commit acts of political violence. This seems to be a shot across the bow, an attempt to raise the bodies of anyone who is willing to buy into this madness. I maintain a steadfast hope that this kind of thinking could soon be eradicated and we can return to a more civil and reasonable discussion of policy and the effects thereof.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos.

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Deflating Conservative Arguments: Tax Increases Hurt the Economy

While listening to NPR on our drive home on Tuesday, my wife and I heard Rep. Tom Price (R-GA) say (emphasis mine):

Well we, we believe that tax increases, by and large, and, and for the most part, decrease the economic vitality and, and ability for this economy to recover. Uh, if you tax, uh, something you get less of it, and right now if we tax productivity or if we tax, uh, businesses to a greater degree, we think that you stymie and, and stifle the economy’s ability to grow.

This is a very typical conservative view of the effect of taxation. The only problem is that it’s, “by and large, and, and for the most part,” not true. Join me below the fold as I pop another conservative balloon with the needle of truth in my ongoing series, Deflating Conservative Arguments.

The conservative argument goes like this: increasing taxes takes money out of hands of regular people who would spend that money (as they see fit) and therefore stimulate the economy. There is a grain of truth in this if the government is taking money that would otherwise be spent on consumer goods and services or invested into productive capacity (as opposed to being used for debt reduction, speculative investment, or savings).

Even President Kennedy was for tax cuts and spoke in favor of lowering the tax rate throughout his Presidency. However, when Kennedy took office in 1961, the tax rates, were much higher than they are today. The argument that taxing income at this level would take money out of the economy made a lot more sense and led to the Tax Reform Act of 1964 which lowered all tax rates over two years in a somewhat regressive manner. Note: For purposes of illustration, I am using the rates for Single taxpayers, no exemptions, deductions or credits, and not adjusting for inflation.

The lowest marginal rate fell from 20% in 1963 to to 14% in 1965 (on your first $2000 in income) and the highest marginal rate went from 91% on income over $200,000 in ’63 to 77% in ’64 and then the top bracket was eliminated and the next bracket, income over $100,000, became the new top and was lowered to 70% in ’65. While the richest Americans certainly got the lion’s share of the tax break, the money that those in the lower classes would have gotten would be spent on consumer goods and services and therefore, would have a stimulating effect on the economy. It could even be argued that those in the top income brackets would spend more because the previous tax rates were a large bite of any income over $200,000, so even a millionaire would purchase more things or even perhaps put money into a new American business.

By contrast, today the top tax bracket (35% on income over $379,150) is the lowest it’s been since 1916, the 4th year of the federal income tax. This fact means that much more income is staying in the hands of the rich rather than feeding the governments coffers. If you made a million dollars in 1963, you’d have had a tax liability of $880,680, but if you made a million dollars today, you’d have a tax liability of $326,558. Okay, so you’d have 554,122 more dollars to spend. Great, but how much can someone really spend on consumer goods and services? How many American businesses can one person start and actually handle? How much demand can any one of us actually create?

Nobody knows the answer to that for sure and it is certain to vary to a great extent, but there is a limit somewhere. Once that limit is reached, any income over that amount is excess income that will be saved or put into non-productive (speculative) investments. Therein lies the answer to the eternal question of taxation, (ie. What is the appropriate level of taxation?) The appropriate amount to tax, in the sense of generating the most economic activity, would be the amount that puts any excess income to productive use. This level is probably somewhere closer to the 1963 tax rates than the 2011 rates.

The conservative argument that increasing taxes is bad for the economy assumes that all money that is in the hands of the income earner will be spent in the most economically productive way. This is plainly not true. After someone has reached the limit on their own consumer spending and has started as many businesses in America as they can, they will either use their money to speculate or sit on it. While investing in American businesses does increase our economy’s demand for supplies, equipment and labor in the US, speculation does not. It is merely a bet that such and such business will do well. Speculation adds no demand to the system and those dollars could therefore be used more wisely to do so. Clearly the same is true for savings although some savings is obviously necessary to have a personal cushion and be able to live with dignity in ones old age.

In contrast to the conservative argument, increasing taxation rates on top income earners, such as in the proposed Fairness in Taxation Act, which would implement new brackets of 45-49% for millionaires and billionaires, would actually increase economic activity. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, the author of the bill estimates that if it was enacted in 2011, it would generate $78 billion in new revenue. This would then get spent by the government on goods and services, generating more demand for goods, supplies, equipment and labor (read: jobs). This is money that is currently unproductive and would be put to good use.

I would even go so far as to say that lowering (or perhaps eliminating) taxes on the lowest income earners while raising taxes (even drastically) on top income earners will generate the most economic activity as it will simultaneously put more money into the hands of people who will spend it immediately and put money that is currently unproductive back into the economy. Although the People’s Budget does not include lowering taxes on low income earners, it would allow us to balance our budget without cutting needed programs, or endangering social security or medicare and medicaid and put our fiscal house on the path to sanity.

The grain of truth in the argument that tax increases hurt the economy can only be true as far as the assumption that all money that is not taxed is being put to its most economically beneficial use. Raising taxes on top income earners will not hurt the wealthy and it will not hurt the economy. It is a simple matter of fairness and justice.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos

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Deflating Conservative Arguments: The Myth of Individualism

My rabbi recently told a story about a bunch of people in a boat. One of them started drilling a hole in the boat under his seat and everyone screamed, “What are you doing?!?”. The man drilling the hole said, “What business is it of yours? I’m doing this under MY seat. It doesn’t effect you.” The commentary is, of course, that we’re all in this together even if we think our actions don’t effect others.

To me this is a perfect parable for the myth of individualism. Conservatives have seized upon the idea of individualism to further their argument toward a more corporatist state. Their argument goes that individuals, given access to all pertinent information, will make the best decisions for themselves, their communities, their states and their country. It further considers these all to be the same thing; the best decision for the individual is the best decision for everyone. This obviously ignores any conflicts that may exist among individuals and between individuals and society. It also ignores greed.

You may be asking yourself, “Why is ‘individualism’ a ‘myth’?” According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (subscription only), one definition of “myth” is:

Myth, n. A widely held, but false belief or idea.

According to The Free Dictionary, Individualism is defined as:

Individualism, n. Belief in the primary importance of the individual and in the virtues of self-reliance and personal independence.

Simply put, this is the theory that I described above. In order to believe in individualism, you must be willing to believe that what we do has no effect on the outside world, that there is no causal relationship between anything that we do and the things we see around us. It’s easy to put the lie to this by simply taking a look at any interaction between people with a material conflict such as the example provided by the boat parable, or perhaps this: the nuclear industry and those individuals working for it are making the best decisions for themselves, but it comes at a terrible cost to many others. The fact that we’re all in this together is why I call individualism a myth.

I would further argue that the myth of individualism causes self destructive behavior. There are plenty of stories of malfeasance to choose from, Enron, BP, fracking, Madoff, etc., etc., etc. All of these came about because someone thought it was the best thing for them to do. They didn’t consider the negative impacts on other people, the environment, health and safety, fairness, equality, justice or economic well being. The prime reason that the decisions leading to all of these crises are made is profit.

As Ambrose Bierce noted in his work the Devils Dictionary:

Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.

It is beyond any doubt that individualism causes destructive behavior, but self destructive behavior? Well, consider that the individuals making the decisions on behalf of the corporations, or on behalf of themselves (as many of the top decision makers have incentives to make their corporations more profitable), just as the man drilling the hole in the boat, also must live with the consequences of their actions. In many cases, they might not feel those consequences immediately, but eventually, everyone is impacted.

But alas, this myth is a useful one when you’re trying to gain the support of the rural poor to advance the will of the super rich. Many of the people who make up the base of the Republican party are the same people who get beaten down by Republican policy. This is because, like most Americans, they don’t pay any attention to the policy after the election, so they believe the rhetoric. They believe in individualism because when you’re a farmer or rancher, you work the land and raise crops or cattle by the sweat of your own brow. This is the very appealing image of rugged individualism as portrayed by Reagan and before him Teddy Roosevelt. However, when you look at the results of policies of conservative governance, you see a widening of the income gap caused by upward redistribution of wealth.

Meanwhile, although the Republican party (and conservatives generally) espouse individualism as a core value, social conservatives don’t really want individuals to have any real choices that pertain to their personal lives. It really only takes one look at today’s war on women, or their fight against the rights of gay Americans, or their recent onslaught against labor. It’s clear that while they talk a lot about individualism, they really only like it when it means that corporations can do whatever the heck they please.

Many people have been taken in by the myth of individualism over the years. There are always those who are willing to believe that people can make it on their own, despite the fact that everyone needs the things society provides through our government in order to succeed. If it weren’t for our shared systems of education, transportation, sewage, water, (subsidized and regulated) power, public safety, dispute resolution (the courts), etc., it would be impossible for businesses and the individuals behind them to succeed.

The truth is that there really is no such thing as individualism. The whole concept is a falsehood, a myth. The reality is that we truly are all in this together, but in the minds of so many conservatives, you’re on your own.

Cross posted on Daily Kos.

Update: In the linked posting on Daily Kos, a few people have noted in the comments that there are positive aspects of individualism. This is not what the diarist meant to address. I was referring to individualism as a societal theory, not a personal trait. I’m specifically referring to people pursuing their individual self interest as is discussed in the free market ideological theories of Milton Friedman. Sorry if this was unclear.

In this vein, individualism causes destructive behavior because it presumes that what is right for the individual is right for all. This is a false presumption as what feels good to me might be to pillage the village, but clearly this would not be best for the village. People who see themselves as disconnected from the community (even if all they want is to be left alone), do harm to themselves and others whenever they act in a way that is harmful to society.

I’m not saying that we don’t have individual responsibilities or arguing that we should have some sort of big brother watching what we do, or that we shouldn’t be allowed to do things that we like. I am arguing however, that we have an effect on one another, whether we know it (or like it) or not.

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The time is Now!

Elections have consequences. In 2010, the Republican base, fired up by the tea party, continued capitulation of the Democrats and their unadulterated hatred of President Obama, swarmed the ballot box and delivered a crushing blow. Many legislative chambers, governor’s mansions, and congressional seats fell to the overwhelming anger of the revved up, conservative base dominated electorate. All the while, the milquetoast Democrats had disappointed, disaffected and generally ignored their base, and so in turn, the people who elected Dems in 2006 and 2008 just stayed home.

The Democrats never seem to get the message that the ideas of the left are much more popular than those of the right. They never seem to fight for our values. Our values are stronger than theirs. Our values are Equality, Liberty and Justice. These are foundational principles of our republic and they are incredibly powerful. But instead of consistently framing their messaging around these values, Democrats back away, compromise, lose faith in the fact that Americans side with the left on issue after issue and crumble in the face of conservative arguments.

The Republicans, however, always align their arguments with their values of “limited government” (even though they tend to grow the government), “constitutional rights” (although they tend to infringe on civil liberties) and “personal responsibility” (while they encourage corporations to externalize costs and internalize profits). They frame every issue around these key values and have gotten a lot of average Americans to buy into their world view through these values.

But it has finally gone too far. In their new found power, Republicans are proceeding to fire up the much larger liberal base by ignoring the vast majority of Americans in favor of catering to their ideologically driven base. Now is the time to build upon the the uprising in Wisconsin and across the Midwest.

It occurred to me recently that I cannot remember the last time that the left had a major offensive (advancing our agenda) legislative victory, but I can name a lot of major offensive legislative victories of the right. The fact that I can’t remember it is primarily because I was born in 1976 and the first President I remember is Reagan and secondarily because there hasn’t been one since at least 1980. You may argue with this, but I’m not talking about elections or court decisions, I’m talking about major pieces of legislation that advanced the progressive agenda. The Affordable Care Act is a gigantic subsidy to the insurance industry, so I don’t see it as a victory. Mostly, the things we’ve won on have been defensive victories, and while it’s important to defend what we’ve got, we’re not advancing our agenda and when we lose, our agenda is being rolled back. Many times, even when we win, we still lose. Had we prevailed in Wisconsin, our unions were still making concessions, so even if the right to collective bargaining is defended, we’re losing ground on pension and salary. What I’m saying here is that because we’ve been on defense for so long, we sometimes win battles, but we’re losing the war.

It’s (past) time to go on the offense. Republicans, emboldened by this past election are staging an all out attack on all fronts. They’re giving tax breaks to businesses that primarily help the wealthy, setting up future crises, while using the current budget crisis to kill public employee unions, attempting to disenfranchise reliably Democratic voters, waging war on women, the poor, disabled and elderly. They are trying to roll back government benefits to the people while bestowing them on the rich all while wrapping this in rugged individualism, limited government and “hey, it’s not in the constitution”.

But we’ve always been in this together,

We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately. ~ Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence

had need for governmental protection from abuses,

The public be damned! ~ William Vanderbilt upon his doubling of fares on New York streetcars

and it is in the constitution.

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. ~ Preamble of the Constitution of the United States (Emphasis Added)

And we have instituted real, positive, progressive changes in our society, and we can in the future. All it takes is for us to join together and organize. We have seen the rumblings of this in Wisconsin and I for one hope it continues. We must learn that rallies are all fine and dandy, but limited in their scope if those being protested will not heed the will of the people peacefully. Accountability through recalls is fantastic but horribly slow (especially in this case). There is some talk of a general strike which would be amazing, but how about some creative new tactics? Perhaps the good people of Wisconsin should visit their Governor at his Mansion 3 miles Northeast of the Capitol at all hours of the day and night. Perhaps its time to bang on some pots and pans so that he hears us. Perhaps.

Whatever those on the ground in Wisconsin decide, I’ll be there to help. I’m not going to physically go to Wisconsin as that would be a burden on both me and them, but I will send food boxes for strikers, I will gather donations, I will help organize. This is what we need and there’s a name for it…solidarity.

Which brings me back to my broader point, we on the left are too fractious. We organize around important issues when we need to be organizing around our crucial values. We each fight on our specific issue, but fail to get each others backs. We must realize that there are only two types of power the world has ever known; money power and people power, and people power is stronger if we have the numbers. However, as Ben Franklin made the point earlier in this post, we cannot fail to hang together. We need to unite the various movements of the left. The labor movement, the environmental justice movement, the peace movement, the civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights and human rights movements. We need ALL progressives to come together, to stand together, to fight together. The fate of our country, our republic and our economic well being depends on it. This is an epic struggle for liberty, equality and justice and we must not falter. The time is now.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos

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Deflating Conservative Arguments: The Nanny State

Recently, on a plane trip across the country, I was seated next to a guy who bought the conservative “nanny state” line. You know, the one that goes “Democrats want to set up a nanny state to protect you from yourself.” Although he bought this and other conservative talking points, he was not an unreasonable guy. When I told him that it wasn’t other citizens that I was worried about, but rather voracious corporations, he seemed to get it. The laws that protect us are there as ways to protect us against corporations, who in their lust for profits, will look the other way on all kinds of consumer and worker safety issues. I told the guy, I’m happy that there are people who inspect restaurants to make sure the food is safe and I’m glad that there’s an organization that regulates airlines to make sure they operate safely. This seemed to turn him a bit.

This conservative talking point is one of the strongest they’ve got. Those who espouse it have built up a mythos around it that creates the feeling that the government is overreaching, over-regulating and generally ‘up in my business’. We need to counter this with the fact that regulation protects us from those who would do us harm for the sake of their bottom line. Lets take a deeper look.

Conservatives use fear as their main motivator to move their base and convince the electorate to vote for Republicans. When countered with facts and examples, these fear based arguments don’t stand up. The “nanny state” argument is powerful because it plays on the fear that many Americans have of government intrusiveness into their lives. However, when we look at it, laws that conservatives say are there to protect us from ourselves, are generally there to protect us from corporations and irresponsible citizens. Nobody is going to care if you do something that endangers you and nobody else, it’s a free country and you can walk on your hands down the street of New York City if you want, I wouldn’t recommend it as you may get hurt, but you’re free to do it, and therefore there is no law against it. However, if you walk on your hands across a busy street against a light, there is a law against that (not the walking on your hands part, just the crossing against the light part) because you’re endangering others. If someone hits you because of this, it puts you in the hospital or morgue and them in the mechanic’s shop, hospital or morgue. We have these laws not to make your life more difficult, but to make order from chaos.

Conservatives and Republicans use this argument to rail against regulation on everything from your right to breathe smoke-free air to the Consumer Financial Protection Agency. In his 2009 article, Professor Paul Schultz argues:

Part of the mission of the CFPA, according to Schultz, will be to ensure that “traditionally underserved consumers and communities have access to lending, investment and financial services,” and that the CFPA should maintain a group of examiners specially trained and certified in community development to conduct CRA (Community Reinvestment Act) examinations of larger institutions.

“In other words, the CFPA will pressure banks to make loans to borrowers that they would not otherwise make,” Schultz says. “Isn’t that one of the reasons we got into so much trouble in the first place?”

Really? This guy thinks it was too much regulation that caused the financial collapse?

Au contrare, it was the corporate greedheads who pushed for and achieved the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999, effectively eliminating much of the regulation of the financial industry and thus allowing them to make riskier loans then bundling them and selling them as mortgaged backed securities. These securities became known as the “toxic assets” that, when individuals started to default on their loans, brought about the global financial crisis.

If the reason that we “got into so much trouble in the first place” was that banks were making “loans to borrowers that they would not otherwise make”, where is the self interest of the banks? Was it in making sure the loans they made were going to be paid back? While that would make sense from a business point of view, it doesn’t seem that they followed their best interests here. Why? And if the CFPA didn’t exist yet, how was the government responsible for “pressur[ing] banks” to make these loans?

The reason that the banks were not following what would appear to be their self interest in making loans that would be paid back is because the lack of regulation realigned their self interest. They could make a loan to anyone and then sell it on the secondary market and not bear the responsibility if the loan went bad. Under the Glass-Steagall Act, banks couldn’t do this because the Act separated commercial and investment banking. Therefore if a bank made a loan, they couldn’t sell securities and vice-versa, thus they couldn’t securitize these bad loans (ie create the “toxic assets”) in the first place. Repealing this legislation allowed the banks to do so and they did it because they would make more profit by reselling these bundles of high risk debts to the unknowing market. What used to be the in the self interest of banks (profiting off of creating loans that would be paid back) was changed by the lack of regulation into generating greater profits from duping some poor suckers into buying packages of loans that were likely to default. In other words, the profit motive undermined the entire global economic system casting us all into the abyss of a recession.

While some regulation could rightly be seen as government overstepping its bounds, intruding on our civil liberties and infringing on our rights, most regulations are to prevent the people from becoming victims of corporate greed. When it comes down to it, almost everyone understands the basic concept here and the need for the government to regulate, so when we hear the term “nanny state” being thrown around, we need to be able to have a civil conversation bringing our friend, neighbor, acquaintance or loved one back to the reality that government regulation serves the purpose of justice in defending us from those who would do us harm just to make a buck.

Cross Posted on Daily Kos

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