Monthly Archives: December 2010

Fiscally Conservative vs. Fiscally Responsible

I have always considered myself to be fiscally conservative but socially progressive. I have never subscribed to the tyranny of conspicuous consumption.  I do not think that more stuff makes one happy.  I do not believe problems are solved by simply throwing money at them.  I do not like debt.  I pay cash for cars and such.

Recently I was challenged by a friend.  She suggested that we have allowed “fiscal responsibility” to be re-branded as “fiscal conservatism.”  I think she has a point.  In today’s political environment, “conservative” does not mean “modest.”  And recent political history does not suggest that conservatives tend to govern in a more fiscally responsible way.

United States deficit or surplus percentage 19...

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I clearly recall the warnings from the right about the dire consequences if Bill Clinton were elected president in 1992.  They predicted that he would greatly increase the budget deficit.  Yet this progressive president managed not only to balance the budget but to leave office with a surplus budget.  This was quickly reversed by the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush.

Clearly the term “fiscal conservatism” has a long history, so it does not fall into the category of terms recently coined by the right to reframe debates to their advantage (as explained by George Lakoff).  But it does continue to serve the purpose of reframing the term “conservative” to make it seem to be equivalent to “responsible.” It is also misleading.

Those who are politically conservative are not more fiscally responsible based on their history. What separates progressives and conservatives is their attitude about taxes. Conservatives seem to always advocate for cutting taxes and reducing our country’s revenue. Progressives appreciate taxes as a legitimate method of funding government.

I think my friend is right; I need to start calling fiscal responsibility by its correct name.

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Death To America! & Starve the Beast!

Anti-American graffiti in Tehran

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One image that is certain to churn up angry emotions in any red-blooded American is the image of mobs chanting “Death to America.”  How odd it is to me that some of those very same angry people would embrace the political philosophy startlingly described as, “Starve the Beast.”

“Starve the Beast” is a fiscal policy that is advocated by many conservatives and libertarians.  “The Beast” referred to here is the U.S. government. The idea is to ensure that the U.S. remains in financial distress so that it will have no choice but to cut programs.  It does not seem to care which functions of the government wither away.  It does not care about reducing deficits. In fact, it is a policy that actually depends on deficits to coerce U.S. citizens to weaken its own government.

I hate to break it so some, but the “America” that those angry mobs want to see die is the same U.S. government that some among us apparently want to starve to death.  When we fight wars, we fight to preserve the U.S. government’s control over our land.  Patriotism is the love for one’s country, and in our case our country is literally defined by the boundaries of the U.S. government.

The U.S. government is a republic.  That is, it is a run by people who we elect to represent us.  It does what our representatives decide it should do.  All of our anger against politicians is, therefore, veiled anger against ourselves.  If there are idiots in Washington, if there are crooks in Washington, then that’s because we picked them for the job.

We live in somewhat difficult times.  There is much to be frustrated about the way our government functions.  Some of us realize that it is our responsibility to correct the beastly aspects of our government.  Others just want to starve the beast.  Those angry mobs who yell, “Death to America” are not particular about the method of bringing down the U.S. government; starvation is as good a method as any other.

So why would any patriot join the ranks of those chanting “Death To America” by added their voice to the sympathetic chorus of “Starve the Beast?”  Well, frankly it is because they care more about reducing their own tax burden then they do about the health of America.

Despite the fact that a strong America allowed them to accumulate their wealth, they are now happy to bite the hand that fed them.  Because that same America asks them to give back to their society from their bounty, they have the nerve to call it a “beast.”  They no longer need to invest their wealth in the U.S.A.; they can now invest their assets into China or into other emerging markets.  America’s death will not measurably disrupt their lives; they can take their bounty elsewhere.

There will always be those who are looking out for number one at the expense of society.  Unfortunately these same self-centered people have figured out how to invest some of their money into means to convince other not-so-wealthy citizens to advocate and vote against those citizen’s own best interests.

I am not sure how to combat such forces.  I suppose I try in my feeble ways through this blog and by other means.  I worry about how close to starvation our government will have to get before the electorate wakes up.

Christmas Comes Early for Limbaugh, et. al.

Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of mar...

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Now that Congress has agreed to extend the Bush tax cuts, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, and Sarah Palin will all be receiving a little extra spending money courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers. If Newsweek is correct about their incomes, and assuming they make the same amount next year, then by my calculations, Rush will be getting an extra $2,103,385.20, Glenn Beck will be getting $1,178,185.20, Sean Hannity will be getting $782,185.20, Bill O’Reilly will be getting $710,185.20, and Sarah Palin will be getting $494,185.20.

Let me be clear.  These figures represent the extra amount of money that these individuals will be able to keep thanks to the insistence of the Republicans that the Bush Tax Cuts be extended beyond the income threshold of  $250,000. The Democrat‘s proposal was already set to let each of them keep $4,681.50 more than what the current law allowed.  But why should they be satisfied with America borrowing only $5000 on their behalf when they can make future generations be on the hook for millions?

These millions of dollars are not really a gift from Uncle Sam.  No, each of these individuals worked very hard to make sure that like-minded citizens were elected to office last November.  It is thanks to their success that this windfall is coming their way. This is America, after all, so their hard work should be rewarded.

Placating Petulant Politicians

Bobby Jindal

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When oil began spewing from the BP well in the gulf, Bobby Jindal was quick to react.  He was not going to allow another catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina to damage his political career.  He would use this threat as an opportunity to boost his career.  Suddenly he was all over the news. Although this spill was caused by a multi-billion dollar U.K. corporation, Jindal was quick to skewer the U.S. government.

You see in the alternate universe of the Ronald Reagan inspired Tea Party, the government is never there to solve problems; it is the problem.  Jindal was quick to insist that sand berms be built.  The government experts said it was a boondoggle, but what do Tea Partiers care about those pointy-headed scientists?  What do they know?

Jindal achieved his objective: he got a nice political boost; he appeared on TV like a strong leader who was standing up to the evil forces of the U.S. government.  His fortunes were not hampered by the inconvenient truth that those berms ended up capturing “a ‘minuscule’ amount of petroleum at an ‘overwhelmingly expensive’ cost,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

The news of how he spent taxpayers money foolishly in order to further his career will not likely cause much of a stir. Few news people will dare to even suggest that there was anything unethical about it.  Not many will even hear about it. Certainly not as many people will hear about this compared to the number of people who saw him during the crisis. Politicians know that petulance is rewarded because people gather around to see what’s going on in the midst of a crisis, but they bore quickly. They are quick to seek out new sensational news, so the result is that few stick around to see what happens in the aftermath of a crisis.

Although I consider this situation to be a testimony about Bobby Jindal’s ethics. He is not the real problem here. There will always be Bobby Jindals around to take advantage of the public. The problem lies with us. We need to break our addiction to quick and dirty entertainment distilled from reality. When news and scandals become sport, we begin to lose our perspective. We begin to believe convictions born in the heat of the moment, and those beliefs result in political actions that ensure long careers for people like Bobby Jindal.

An Economic Recovery for Some

As we approach the end of the year, it is customary to reflect back on the past year. Economically this has been a year of slow recovery.  It doesn’t feel much like recovery though.  The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) declared that the recession ended in June of 2009.  Since then, we have been experiencing what is euphemistically called a jobless recovery.

Since the end of the recession, the stock market has risen by 30%, but our unemployment rate has risen by 3%. In other words, those who make their living from investments in the stock market did very, very well, but those who depend on a job to earn a living didn’t do so well. This has become fairly standard in our economy. According to last year’s census, the income gap between the rich and poor grew to its highest level in history. The gap is about double what it was in 1968. Today, the richest 20% in America makes 50% of the money.

We’ve seen these jobless recoveries before.  In fact every recovery we’ve seen in the past quarter of a century have been  so-called jobless recoveries.  The last recession we saw that hasn’t been labelled as such was between July 1981 and November 1982.

I can’t help but think that this phenomenon is something we have inherited from the Reagan revolution. I’ll never forget his penchant for selling policy by retelling suburban legends about the sloth of poor people, straight out of the Reader’s Digest. We can thank him for the pejorative, “Welfare Queen,” and I think we can thank him for arguments we here today about how cutting off funds from the poor is tough love to help them kick the habit of public assistance.

Such arguments are easily digested by those suburbanites who have never met anyone on food stamps. It helps them swallow their guilt about lining their own pockets with tax breaks while they cut off food and shelter to those in need. Of course they need strong medicine to relieve their Christian conviction. Jesus had the nasty habit of insisting that we help the poor rather than worry about what sins we perceive they’ve committed.

Read Their Lips: No New Taxes

President George W. Bush and President-elect B...

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Everyone knows that Republicans and Tea Partiers have no political will to raise taxes, and now it seems that Obama is willing to box himself into the same sort of expectations. It’s not just that he caved in to the demands of the rabid right to extend the Bush Tax Cuts to the richest in our nation, his speech likened raising taxes on the middle class to shooting hostages. Apparently keeping taxes at the level where the Republicans like them is now a matter of life or death.

Such an environment will make it very interesting to watch politicians pretend to grapple with the budget deficit. If tax hikes are off the table, then what’s left? Well, I would encourage you to take a look at a nifty calculator/puzzle courtesy the New York Times. Try your hand at balancing the budget for yourself. See how far you can get without raising taxes. According to this puzzle, it is possible to do it without raising taxes, but I invite you to see for yourself what sort of cuts would be required.

Telling Secrets: Julian Assange Finds Himself Cornered

Julian Assange at New Media Days 09 in Copenhagen.

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Julian Assange‘s Swiss bank account just got closed. His website has been chased out of town. He can’t get donations through PayPal anymore. It’s amazing how fast this man’s world is shrinking after he embarrassed diplomats around the world.

I can’t help but notice that this same man, Julian Assange has previously revealed U.S. military secrets that ostensibly put soldiers and other individuals at risk. I can’t help but remember that our former president seemed not to be bothered when his own State Department leaked information that put a CIA agent, Valerie Plame at risk. What has suddenly changed to bring such swift action from the powers of the world? Perhaps it is that those who specialize in keeping and revealing secrets has had their own “craft” used against them.

I am not sure how I feel about Julian Assange. I’ve heard the arguments on both sides, and my interest is not to evaluate the merits of those arguments here.

This episode makes me want to reflect on the nature of secrets. I attended a high school that had been founded more than 100 years earlier with the motto: “Do Nothing On The Sly.”  These words were already considered passe when I attended back in the 1970’s.  Despite its out-of-fashion status, that motto carried a profound idea: If you never succumb to the temptation to hide your actions, then you are unlikely to ever do anything immoral or illegal. This motto acts like an ethical alarm whenever one is tempted to cover one’s tracks.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus implies that secrets are ultimately futile. He says, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light” (Luke 8:17). Jesus is speaking eshatologically, I believe, but oftentimes we find that things we thought would remain secret end up being revealed long before Judgment Day. There is some inherent wisdom in this notion of doing nothing that we have to hide from others.

What if one were actually to live by my school’s motto? What if one refused to do anything on the sly or hidden? What if a nation were to function according to the idea that everything should be open for inspection by the public? It sounds terribly naive, doesn’t it?  It’s easy for me to think of many excuses why doing some things on the sly is okay. But that motto has always nagged at me. Has our society bought into a form of corruption by playing the sophisticated game of state secrets and covert operations? Could a modern state survive without keeping secrets? Most everyone discussing the actions of Julian Assange assume that governments must keep secrets. I think it would be healthy for us to examine that assumption.

More Extortion Threats from Senate Republicans

Our Republican Senators are demanding that the Senate address two key issues, funding the government and cutting taxes on “all Americans” before they do anything else. The 42 members of the Republican Senate Caucus signed a letter stating, “While there are other items that might ultimately be worthy of the Senate’s attention, we cannot agree to prioritize any matters above the critical issues of funding the government and preventing a job-killing tax hike.”

“All Americans” is their noble-sounding code for the rich. There is a consensus that the Bush Tax cut should be extended for Americans whose income is no more than $250,000 per year. If the Republicans would agree, then they could quickly pass a bill that would mean that all but the wealthiest Americans could benefit from continued low tax rates. So the Republicans are not really fighting for “all” Americans at all. They are holding the rest of us hostage to their demand that their rich cronies continue to get their Bush tax cut.

The irony of their demand seems lost on many people. They demand that the U.S. government address its funding problem while simultaneously taking an action that is at odds with solving this problem. One way to help the funding problem would be to raise the taxes on those who make more than $250,000. Clearly this is not the solution the Republicans have in mind. They are much more comfortable cutting off benefits to people who make less that $2 a year: the unemployed.

As far as their calling this a “job-killing” tax hike, well this is just their typical Orwellian double-talk. If they had any interest in creating jobs, then they’d want the government to invest in programs that are productive means of growing jobs. Examples of such means would be a direct stimulus or even extending unemployment benefits because those benefits are much more likely to be funneled into the economy than another bonus check for the rich. But of course they don’t like either of these ideas because the trickle up effect is much smaller than the benefit of a direct gift of cash.

What I can’t figure out is why the populist movement know as the Tea Party Movement would align themselves with a group of politicians who so transparently put the interests of the rich and powerful over the interests of the majority of Americans.