The Missouri Budget Crisis And The Year 1985

Yesterday’s editorial in the Joplin Globe included this bad news for Missourians:

The state faces a $500 million to $700 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2012 that must be resolved by the Legislature and Gov. Jay Nixon. There is little hope for substantial federal funding to offset that shortfall.

The only news worse than that is what the Globe editorial said in response to that bad news:

We urge our governor and legislators in the upcoming legislative session to continue to make the painful choices necessary to keep Missouri state government living well within its means.

Let’s keep it that way with responsible state and local government and the acknowledgment from our residents that government is not a cure for all that ails society today.

Where does one start with such, well, with such reactionary Republican ridiculousness?

Okay, I’ll start with being the first resident to acknowledge that government is not a cure for all that ails society today.  There.  That’s done.

Now, to the “painful choices necessary to keep Missouri state government living well within its means” nonsense. 

It has become obvious that conservative governance in this state, as well as in the country at large, has undertaken a “starve the beast”—the government is always the beast—strategy.   Nationally, we are paying less in federal taxes as a percentage of GDP than at any time since 1950, which is illustrated nicely by this graph:  

Notice the increase in revenues resulting from the famous 1993 tax increase (which created budget surpluses) and the decline in revenues resulting from the Bush tax cuts (which created massive deficits).  And notice that the conservative strategy of starving the beast is working to the extent that nearly everyone is now talking about entitlement cuts and other government-reducing exercises.

As for the states, according to the conservative Tax Foundation, there are only 15 states with a lower combined tax burden than Missouri.  But more disturbing is, in the words of  The Missouri Budget Project, “the erosion of Missouri’s revenue base since 1985”:

Missouri General Revenue spending as a portion of the economy is below the 1985 level.  The Hancock Amendment to Missouri’s Constitution restricts state general revenue growth to the ratio of general revenue to personal income that existed in the 1980s. The ratio of the two measures provides a picture of how far Missouri state general revenue has declined when compared to the state’s economy. State general revenue in FY 2010 was just 3.124 percent of state personal income, well below what it was in 1985 and nearly $2 billion below the Hancock “lid.” 

Here’s the chart:

Let this sink in:

State general revenue in FY 2010 was just 3.124 percent of state personal income, well below what it was in 1985 and nearly $2 billion below the Hancock “lid.”

Was Missouri an unfit place to live in 1985?  Were businesses and people fleeing the state? Were things so bad that we can’t see our way to go back to the revenue percentages of that time? 

Of course not.

That $2 billion would solve the “crisis” we face now, without the Joplin Globe fretting over “painful choices,” which really means painful budget cuts that naturally hurt the most vulnerable among us.

How about an editorial on that?

The Climate Has Changed And So Has The Politics

“He had discovered that the earth itself was breathing.”

Justin Gillis, referring to scientist Charles David Keeling’s finding that the levels of atmospheric CO2 oscillated according to the seasons

In an informative article published last week in the New York Times, Justin Gillis points out that now that climate change deniers—through the Republican takeover of the House—have some political clout, they intend on using it to “subject climate researchers to a season of new scrutiny”:

One of them is Representative Dana Rohrabacher, Republican of California. In a recent Congressional hearing on global warming, he said, “The CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rather undramatic.”

But most scientists trained in the physics of the atmosphere have a different reaction to the increase.

“I find it shocking,” said Pieter P. Tans, who runs the government monitoring program of which the Mauna Loa Observatory is a part. “We really are in a predicament here, and it’s getting worse every year.”

It was from data collected—beginning in the 1950s—on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa that Dr. Charles David Keeling discovered “the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” which Gillis claims “transformed the scientific understanding of humanity’s relationship with the earth.”

When Keeling made his first super-accurate measurements, he discovered that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 310 parts per million.  By the time he died in 2005, it was 380 parts per million and rising.  Gillis writes that predictions are that without efforts to control carbon emissions, “the number could pass 560 before the end of the century, double what it was before the Industrial Revolution.”  Here is the way Gillis explains what may result from such an increase:

The risks include melting ice sheets, rising seas, more droughts and heat waves, more flash floods, worse storms, extinction of many plants and animals, depletion of sea life and — perhaps most important — difficulty in producing an adequate supply of food. Many of these changes are taking place at a modest level already, the scientists say, but are expected to intensify.

None of that worries right-wing radio and television talk show-climatologists, their climate change credentials being that they have microphones and big mouths.  It is these chattering consensus-doubters who are responsible for much of the shift in public attitudes toward climate change. Polls show an increase in skepticism, which emboldens public officials like Dana Rohrabacher and Republican Senator Jim Inhofe to pursue their crusades against the science of global warming.

According to Wikipedia, Senator Inhofe has compared the environmentalist movement to the Third Reich; he has compared the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo; he has said that global warming is “the second-largest hoax ever played on the American people, after the separation of church and state.” 

Needless to say, Inhofe is one of the right’s heroes, when it comes to this issue. 

As for the politics of Dr. Keeling, whose research first alerted us to the possible dangers of global warming, here is Gillis again:

In an interview in La Jolla, Dr. Keeling’s widow, Louise, said that if her husband had lived to see the hardening of the political battle lines over climate change, he would have been dismayed.

“He was a registered Republican,” she said. “He just didn’t think of it as a political issue at all.”

You can bet we will be in for a real treat when newly empowered Republicans in the House execute their assault on the lifetime work of Dr. Keeling and his fellow scientists.

Hillbilly Tolerance And The Founders

For those of you out there who don’t live in these parts and wonder just what it is like, here is a sample of opinion submitted to the Joplin Globe from someone from Lamar, Missouri, birthplace of Harry Truman.  This opinion, unfortunately, represents the thinking of a lot of folks here in the Ozark foothills.  For lack of a better word, let’s just call it hillbilly tolerance:

Like so many others, I too long for the days of old when politicians behaved more like statesmen. But in those days, most of them were at least nominally Christian, not like today when so many in both parties are, at best, Christian in name only.

The last time I checked, “nominally” meant something like “in name only,” so essentially what the writer, Dave Spiering, is saying is this:

In the good old days, most politicians at least called themselves Christians, not like today when so many in both parties, at best, call themselves Christians.

Get it?  Neither do I.

In any case, I suppose the worst of what Mr. Spiering had to say was the following:

So who’s to blame? John Adams, our second president said: “Our system of government is designed for a Christian people, and is wholly inadequate to govern any other.” If we as Americans refuse to humble ourselves and return to our creator, how can we expect any better than gridlock and demagoguery?

Forget for a moment the breathtaking audacity of claiming that any gridlock or demagoguery in our political system can be attributed to a refusal—especially on the part of our politicians—to prostrate themselves before “our”—meaning, of course, the author’s—creator. 

Often, it is precisely an unwarranted reliance on the dubious dictates of divinity that leads to gridlock and demagoguery, since politicians often stake out uncompromising positions that conform to their religious convictions, real or imagined.

But let’s look at that John Adams quote again:

Our system of government is designed for a Christian people, and is wholly inadequate to govern any other.

Now, as an online commenter pointed out, that isn’t exactly what Adams said.  Here is the quote in some additional context:

Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

A moral and religious people,” and not “a Christian people.”  That’s quite a difference, don’t you think?  Especially if you were “a moral and Islamic American,” or “moral and Jewish American.”

I don’t know if Mr. Spiering ever bothered to check the Adams quote out himself or whether he just copied the erroneous version from some right-wing Christian publication or website, but it is an example of the narrow-mindedness and intolerance of conservative Christianity. 

Here is another example from a less-Ozarkian, but still intolerant, source, Coral Ridge Ministries, founded by Dr. D. James Kennedy.  On its website, under “Truth #4,” we find the above quote plus two additional quotes:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.  — John Adams

Religion and morality are necessary to good government, good order, and good laws, for when the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.        — William Paterson, a signer of the Constitution from New Jersey

So far, we have three quotes from allegedly infallible “founders,” and so far we have exactly zero evidence that by “religion” or “morality” these men referred exclusively to the Christian faith.  Yet, like the claim by Mr. Spiering from Lamar, we find this erroneous conclusion advanced by Coral Ridge Ministries:

The Founders understood that Christian morality was essential for both the preservation of liberty and the stability of law. They knew that if Americans ever abandoned the biblical standards of morality, there could be no fixed boundaries to maintain either liberty or law. Consequently, there would be no end to the possibilities of national evil. They saw that the future of the nation was dependent upon the vitality of religion and the exercise of biblical morality.

All of that nonsense* was extracted from a few quotes about morality and religion, which contained no references to Jesus or the Bible.  As you can see, these religious zealots take this stuff seriously.  It’s either their way or doom.

But I like what the anonymous commenter on Mr. Spiering’s letter pointed out:

Our country will be better when politicians don’t even have to be a ‘Christian in name only.’ Why should someone have to put on a religious facade to be viewed as a person with morality.

The entitlement to deceit that Mr Spiering has shown with his misquotation, is just a small example of how religiosity doesn’t imply righteousness.

Amen.

____________________________

*Nonsense?  Yes. For anyone who has ever read the Old Testament accounts of Yahweh-sanctioned murder and mayhem, this quote is ridiculous:

They knew that if Americans ever abandoned the biblical standards of morality, there could be no fixed boundaries to maintain either liberty or law.

Which “biblical standards of morality” would we be talking about?  Those that allow for the killing of innocents in the name of the religion of Yahweh?

Nonsense, indeed.

Local Yahoos And The Race Card

The Joplin Globe published an editorial today on the “controversy building around the travel expenses of Joplin Councilwoman Melodee Colbert-Kean.”

It seems Colbert-Kean accepted a position on the board of the National League of Cities without obtaining input from the city council, from which she has sought and still seeks reimbursement for some NLC-related expenses.

My interest is not in whether the city should or shouldn’t reimburse her, or whether she should or shouldn’t have sought the opinion of the Joplin city council before accepting the NLC offer. 

Here’s what I’m interested in, which was found in the “Discussion” section of a news story about the issue on the Globe website:

Please, please Melodee make that call to good ol’ buddy Al and claim something, let’s get it all out in the open for review like it should be.

Forget for a moment the reference to her as “Melodee,” and focus on the reference to her as a “good ol’ buddy” of “Al” Sharpton, noted African-American civil rights activist and attorney.  Where did he come from and how does the commenter know whether Colbert-Kean knows Al Sharpton at all, let alone well enough to be a “good ol’ buddy”?

That reference to Sharpton was written by “Geoff”—presumably Obama-hating Globe blogger Geoff Caldwell, who also wrote this:

Sadly Colbert-Kean is behaving in the same way as thousands of other elected officials, they just feel because of their position they are somehow special or entitled to behave outside the rules.

The only ‘honor’ you have Ms. Melodee is that you were elected to the city council to represent the citizens of Joplin, not to travel to Denver and D.C. to inflate an already bursting ego, especially if said inflation is paid for by us.

Remember, it is you, not them who has spent over a third of all the money spent on travel in the past three years. Play the card if you want but better make darn sure you know what’s in the deck before you do.

Now, obviously I don’t have a problem with anyone criticizing any politician, whether it be a city council member or the President of the United States.  But why would “Geoff” raise the issue of Al Sharpton and the race card or whether Ms. Colbert-Kean feels “entitled“? 

And why would that same blogger, who refers to President Obama as “boy,” refer to Ms. Colbert-Kean as having an “already bursting ego”?  How does he know that? 

Oh, yeah. Ms. Colbert-Kean is (whisper) black.   You see, here’s a picture of her:

Yep!  You can tell just by looking at her that Ms. Colbert-Kean will go running to her good buddy Al Sharpton seeking representation, if she doesn’t get her way.  Isn’t it as plain as day?  And it’s obvious she feels “entitled.”  It’s written all over her face!

Except that the Globe reported this exchange between Ms. Colbert-Kean and another council member, Morris Glaze:

Glaze asked: “Before you were elected to the board, shouldn’t you have come back and asked the council?”

“No, it’s pretty much an honor to serve,” Colbert-Kean replied. “It’s fine either way you vote. I will still go either way you vote.”

That doesn’t exactly sound like she’s headed for Al Sharpton’s law office, does it?  Or that she is even demanding reimbursment.

Yet, another brilliant commenter on the Globe story wrote this:

‘Pretty much an honor’ sounds like another council member with entitlement issues. It’s funny how this ‘honor’ comes at the expense of the people and taxpayers of Joplin…

Entitlement” issues?  Hmmm. There’s that word again. You get it, don’t you? 

Another commenter even posed as Al Sharpton himself:

sharpton wrote:

im ready for your call, melodee

To be fair, many of the online comments actually addressed the issues without the allusions to Ms. Colbert-Kean’s complexion.  But we still have a long way to go before we can get to the point where African-Americans are judged according to their deeds or misdeeds, without some yahoos—whether bloggers for the local newspaper or anonymous commenters—playing their own race card.

Democratic Accomplishments: No Brag, Just Fact

“This is a very good day.”

—Barack Obama

Having been fairly critical of the President in recent weeks, it’s time for a little praise.  Finally convincing Congress to end the military’s “Lie and Die” policy, also known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” President Obama has the right to be proud.

And so does the Democratic Congress.

Sometimes, as we liberals get passionate about what we didn’t achieve and why we didn’t achieve it, we forget the number of victories and their importance.  In fact, this is the most productive Congress since the early Johnson administration.

Now that New START and the 9/11 first-responders bill look like they will get through the Senate, it’s time to look back at all the accomplishments of the first two years of the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled legislature.

As usual, Saint Rachel has provided the perfect segment, which includes a warning that some of the Democratic accomplishments will be under assault come January 5, when Republicans take over the House.  

There’s barely enough time to savor the wins:

Adam And Eve And The GOP

A dispatch from the intersection of reason and superstition:

The good news is that fewer people now believe that God personally constructed Adam and Eve—the first Republicans—less than a mere 10,000 years ago.  

The bad news is that the number of folks who still so believe is a disturbingly high 40%.  That means four in every ten of your fellow Americans—likely more in southwest Missouri—have either no understanding of or appreciation for modern science. 

However, there is more good news: The number of people who believe in evolution-without-divine-strings-attached has almost doubled over the last thirty years.  But there is also more bad news: That number is only 16%. 

One of the more disturbing results of Gallup’s poll is that 37% of college graduates and 22% of post-grads believe in creationism, which just goes to show that in America you can get a college degree without getting an education.  What a country!

In any case, here is how it breaks down by political affiliation: 

As you can see, more than half of the Republicans you meet believe that the Earth is still wet behind the ears and that a few thousand years ago there were two human prototypes parading around naked and ignorant in a lush but, it turns out, dangerous garden.

The Corporate Internet?

“Allowing corporations to control the Internet is simply unacceptable. ”     

—Senator Al Franken 

Tomorrow, according to Senator Al Franken, is a big day, if you care anything at all about whether corporations will ultimately control the Internet.  The Federal Communications Commission will meet on Tuesday to discuss new regulations related to the issue of “net neutrality.”   Here’s Franken:

As a source of innovation, an engine of our economy, and a forum for our political discourse, the Internet can only work if it’s a truly level playing field. Small businesses should have the same ability to reach customers as powerful corporations. A blogger should have the same ability to find an audience as a media conglomerate.

This principle is called “net neutrality” — and it’s under attack. Internet service giants like Comcast and Verizon want to offer premium and privileged access to the Internet for corporations who can afford to pay for it. 

Franken complains that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, an Obama appointee, has been courting the very corporations he is supposed to be regulating in order to get them to endorse the FCC’s newly proposed regulations, which Franken says are “worse than nothing.”  He says, 

grassroots supporters of net neutrality are beginning to wonder if we’ve been had. Instead of proposing regulations that would truly protect net neutrality, reports indicate that Chairman Genachowski has been calling the CEOs of major Internet corporations seeking their public endorsement of this draft proposal, which would destroy it.

No chairman should be soliciting sign-off from the corporations that his agency is supposed to regulate — and no true advocate of a free and open Internet should be seeking the permission of large media conglomerates before issuing new rules.

Although I don’t want to press this point beyond the appropriate boundaries, in too many ways, the Obama administration—vilified on the right for being a socialist “regime”—resembles the prior administration, in terms of its deference to corporate and business interests. 

That’s not to say that the administration should be the enemy of those interests, it’s just to say that the administration should be the friend of the consumer, of the public, of we the people. 

Many of us believed that when we sent Barack Obama to the White House, he would act as a check against moneyed interests, protecting the public—via the regulatory arm of the government—from corporate domination.  But in the case of the FCC and net neutrality, what is happening seems like a familiar Bush-era scenario: make regulations so innocuous as to get corporate support for them. 

After discussing the various ways that large media giants could manipulate the Internet to make profits for themselves, Franken ends with this:

Imagine if a cable news network could get its website to load faster on your computer than your favorite local political blog. Imagine if big corporations with their own agenda could decide who wins or loses online. The Internet as we know it would cease to exist.

That’s why net neutrality is the most important free speech issue of our time. And that’s why, this Tuesday, when the FCC meets to discuss this badly flawed proposal, I’ll be watching. If they approve it as is, I’ll be outraged. And you should be, too.

What’s The Matter With Mexico?

More than 3,000 people have been murdered this year in Juarez, Mexico, which has six border crossings into the United States and is just an hour south of Las Cruces, New Mexico.  According to some estimates, 1.3 million folks live in Juarez.  That’s about the same number who live in Dallas.  There have been 93 murders in Dallas so far this year.

Last year, more than 2,600 were killed in Juarez. Relying on AP records, Olivia Torres writes that despite the fact that so many were murdered in 2009, Mexican prosecutors filed a mere 93 homicide cases and got 19 convictions.

Needless to say, Juarez, Mexico is a mess.  Perhaps most of Mexico is a mess. Since 2006, there have been more than 30,000 drug-war deaths there.

Torres opens her story with this:

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico — Gunmen killed a mother who had been protesting for three days in front of a governor’s office in northern Mexico to demand justice for her slain daughter, authorities said Friday…

The vicious nature of the killing – which was caught on a security camera and broadcast repeatedly on national television – added to the anger. The video shows masked men pull up in a car Thursday night in front of the governor’s office in Chihuahua city, the capital of Chihuahua state, where Ciudad Juarez is located.

One man appeared to exchange words with Escobedo Ortiz, who tried to flee by running across the street. The gunman chased her down and shot her in the head, said Jorge Gonzalez, special state prosecutor for crime prevention.

You have to read the entire sad story to get just how strange is the system of justice—if you call it that—in this part of Mexico. 

I read the stories about the violence and the murders and the drugs and the dysfunction and I wonder:  Is our War on Drugs at least partly responsible for what’s happening to our southern neighbors?  Is our demand for drugs responsible? Is it our exporting guns to the drug dealers that is the problem? Or is that country just hopelessly corrupt?

I don’t know.  I have heard those who love Mexico say that we are getting the wrong picture of that wonderful country on our nightly news.  Again, I don’t know.

I only know that if I were a Mexican living anywhere near the border of the United States, I would be sitting up day and night trying to figure out how to get my family the hell out of Mexico.

Even if it pisses off the Tea Party.

Remarks And Asides

Here’s what wrong with Washington:  Harry Reid was told by nine Republicans that they would support his efforts to get the omnibus budget bill—which would have funded the government through next September—to the floor for debate, which meant it would have eventually passed the Senate. 

But because of a fear of the Tea Party—in the person of Jim DeMint, who demanded the 1900-page bill be read by the Senate clerk, a 50-hour endeavor—Republicans who gave their word to Harry Reid stabbed him squarely in the back at the last minute Thursday night, while he was on the floor.  He was forced to pull the bill and make yet another deal with Mitch McConnell over a continuing resolution.

Now, backstabbing Republicans are a problem, no doubt.  But why can’t the guys on our side at least name names when deceit like this happens?  Reid said on the floor that he would not call out the names of those senators—liars, all—who pulled back their support.  He said they knew who they were.  Yes, they do.  But the rest of us don’t. 

UPDATE: At noon today, I heard Andrea Mitchell, on her show on the “liberal” network MSNBC, say that Reid was “outfoxed.”  Outfoxed? The definition of that word is, “to surpass in guile or cunning.”  In other words, both sides were using guile and Reid simply got out-guiled by a better guiler.  That’s what happens when Democrats refuse to name names and put a face on the deception of the other side. 

At least Missouri’s own Claire McCaskill, who was going to vote against the omnibus bill anyway, did call them out. She specifically mentioned that the Republican Minority Leader had his own earmarks in the bill and fiercely criticized Republicans for their hypocrisy. 

_____________________________ 

Last night, the headline on CNN was: House passes Obama tax plan.  Get that?  It’s Obama‘s tax plan.

On CNN’s Anderson Cooper last night, I watched the first ten-minute segment, which was about all the “game playing” in the Congress.  Except, that if one were just a casual observer of American politics and didn’t know the truth, the impression left by Cooper and cast was that “both sides” were engaging in the game playing. 

This is Anderson Cooper and CNN at their split-the-difference best.  In order to solidify their self-described standing as the anti-Fox and anti-MSNBC network, they distort the truth to make it appear they are being neutral.  That’s not journalism, people.  Both sides are not equally guilty as regards the mess that is Washington, D.C.

______________________________

A new poll found what we all know:  Republicans believe certain facts about the world that are not in fact facts.  But so do Democrats.  The study also found that “those who had greater levels of exposure to news sources had lower levels of misinformation.”  Of course, that makes sense. 

But then there’s this:

There were, however, a number of cases where greater exposure to a particular news source increased misinformation on some issues.

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely), most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points), the economy is getting worse (26 points), most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points), the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points), their own income taxes have gone up (14 points), the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points), when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points) and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points). The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it–though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.

Surprise!

To be fair, there was one case in which MSNBC and NPR were allegedly the guilty party:

Daily consumers of MSNBC and public broadcasting (NPR and PBS) were higher (34 points and 25 points respectively) in believing that it was proven that the US Chamber of Commerce was spending money raised from foreign sources to support Republican candidates.

Given the fact that the Chamber of Commerce won’t—and doesn’t legally have to—release donor lists or reveal just how it keeps foreign money separate in its accounting, it’s understandable how folks could jump to that conclusion.  But, again, to be fair, it is conclusion jumping, since apparently there isn’t a way to prove it.

So, in the Misinformation Olympics, Fox “News” has nine gold medals, and MSNBC and NPR have one bronze.  In other words, Fox is the East German swim team of propaganda.  Congratulations!

Obama Tax Deal Makes It Even Better To Be Rich

I was all set to just get over it.  To bite my tongue and quit ragging on Obama and the Democrats for paying ransom to the Republicans over the tax issue.

Then, I came across a depressing article at Bloomberg Businessweek, written by Ben Steverman.  If you’re still trying to recover from the madness, I advise you not to read on.

It’s not that there was anything new in the article, in terms of what we already knew about the general ramifications of the Obama-McConnell tax deal (doesn’t that just roll off the tongue?).  It’s just that the article lays it out in all its ingloriousness.

Titled, “It’s a Great Time to Be Rich“—by the way, when isn’t it a great time to be rich?—the article begins:

Under legislation approved by the U.S. Senate on Wednesday, Dec. 15, and now moving on to the House, savvy wealthy Americans would be able to capitalize on an environment in which their tax rates on income and investments remain at historic lows. Also, new rules would make it possible to pass on fortunes to heirs with less fuss and lower taxes than all but a brief period of the past 80 years. It’s a far cry from the 70 percent bite the federal government took out of the largest incomes and estates as recently as 1980.

Here are some facts from the article (all the highlights, italics, and teardrops in the following are mine):

Except for a period from 1988 to 1992, the top [income] tax rate has never been this low since 1931.

Says Indiana University law professor Ajay Mehrotra:

The most surprising thing is that rates have remained at this level even as the U.S. has been fighting two wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. Historically, income taxes on the wealthy have spiked during wartime: The first income tax was initiated during the Civil War and then later repealed. The top rate on income hit 77 percent in 1918, during World War I, and 94 percent from 1944 to 1945, during World War II.

Starting in 2010, all taxpayers, including those in high income brackets, could convert traditional, tax-deferred individual retirement accounts, or IRAs, to tax-free Roth IRAs. Importantly, in 2010 only, the law allows taxpayers to spread the tax payments required by such conversions over 2011 and 2012. When it looked like tax rates would rise in 2011 and 2012, this looked like a bad deal, Baxley says. Now, with rates remaining the same over the next two years, a Roth conversion can be a lucrative move.

As for sources of income, this shocked me:

For the country’s wealthiest families, income from wages can be far less important than income from investments…18.1 percent of all Americans’ cash income comes from business ownership or capital investments, compared with 64.5 percent from labor. For those in the top 1 percent of earners, however, business and capital income make up 53.6 percent of income and labor accounts for 35.3 percent.  Thus… taxes on capital gains and dividends can be far more important to the rich than income tax rates. The tax compromise extends a 15 percent top tax rate on long-term capital gains and dividends enacted in 2003, which is the lowest rate since 1933. The top capital-gains rate was 77 percent in 1918 and, since 1921, its highest point was 39.9 percent in 1976 and 1977—though certain gains could be excluded from taxation.

Let’s be clear:  For the top 1% of earners, their top tax rate on more than half of their income is 15%!  That’s why billionaire Warren Buffet can lament that he is taxed at a much lower rate than the folks who work for him.

As for estates, excluding the 2010 anomaly, the Obama-McConnell estate tax will be the lowest since 1931, and that’s only on individual estates over $5 million. And,

The number of people who must worry about estate taxes, already tiny, would shrink to less than 0.2 percent of the population… In 2009, when the exemption was $3.5 million, 14,713 people had fortunes large enough to file taxable estate returns, according to the IRS. Just 4,296 of those people had estates of $5 million or larger… From 1942 to 1976, the estate tax rate was 77 percent for estates over $10 million, and only estates under $60,000 were exempt from the tax entirely.

Finally, for those unfortunate folks who have to fret over the fact that their estates are over the $5 million exemption (or $10 million for husband and wife), we find that,

the new tax legislation is written to make it much easier to manage their fortunes. For example, individuals can easily pass their remaining tax exemptions on to their spouses after death, without creating complex trusts. Also, new rules treat gifts to children during a donor’s lifetime the same as those made after death, making it easier to pass on estates before assets appreciate and incur extra taxes.

And,

Low interest rates make this the perfect time for many clients to set up trusts like Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts, known as GRATs. In a GRAT, parents loan assets like stocks or even an interest in a private business to the trust at the lowest interest rate possible under the law, which is set each month by the IRS. If the value of those assets increases over time, the GRATs’ beneficiaries reap any benefit above that interest rate. Luckily for those who set up GRATs now, interest rates are at record lows—the IRS set the December rate at 1.8 percent.

Obama and other Democrats had sought to limit the use of GRATs, but failed. “That’s a wonderful technique for parents looking to pass assets on to children at nearly zero [tax rates],” says Jennifer Immel, senior wealth planner at PNC Wealth Management.”

I think I’m gonna be sick again.

Republican Congressman Says Next Year’s House Can “Correct” The “Damage”

I was listening earlier to the House debate the Obama-McConnell tax deal, also known as the Free The Middle Class And Unemployed From The Republican Kidnappers Act of 2010.  The bill will add $858 billion to the nation’s debt, including $32.5 billion for the estate tax giveaway over the next two years, according to CBO estimates.

Along comes Rep. Tom McClintock, a Republican from California, who warns the House of peril should the tax cuts expire and we return to those horrible 1990s, when we were enjoying budget surpluses.  But I want to look at something else Congressman McClintock—who supports the tax deal—said this morning:

Some of my fellow conservatives object to the 15% of this bill that spends money we don’t have, and I agree. But that damage can be corrected through off-setting spending reductions next year. The new Republican House majority can do that without the Senate or the President simply by refusing to appropriate funds—and is committed to doing so.  But it cannot rescind the taxes next year without the Senate and the President…

Now, this, my friends, is instructive.  If Mr. McClintock is correct, if next year the tea-drunk House can simply refuse to fund the government to the tune of $129 billion—15% of the tax deal—then don’t we have a right to know how they plan to do that, before Democrats agree to this tax cut package?

Away In A Manger

How stupid do they think we are?

This morning on Morning Joe, Mike Barnicle asked that question relative to the comments made by Republican Senators Jim DeMint and Jon Kyl yesterday, who suggested that Harry Reid was disrespecting the Christian faith by keeping the Senate in session through the normal Christmas break.

Here is the START treaty obstructionist Jon Kyl’s remark:

It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out without doing — frankly, without disrespecting the institution and without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff.

Now, forget about the fact that there is still a lot of legislative work to be done because of Republican obstructionism.  And forget about the fact that Harry Reid himself is a Christian, and presumably is fond of the whole wrapped-in-swaddling-clothes-lying-in-a-manger thing.  And forget about the troops all over the world who aren’t taking a Christmas break.  Or others here at home that may get off half a day on Christmas Eve, then the weekend, and it’s back to work on Monday.

Forget about all that, but remember this: Some Republicans, particularly in the United States Senate, have become so arrogant that they think they can say or do almost anything with impunity.  They think they can take the most extreme positions and still count on the support of the voters in their states, who often unflinchingly reelect them.

In other words, they think their voters are idiots and fools.

Just yesterday, Senators John Cornyn and John Thune held a press conference for the purpose of ridiculing the $8 billion dollars worth of earmarks in the 1900-page omnibus budget bill. The bill is more than $1 trillion dollars.

The problem with the press conference idea was that some reporters in the room were aware of the Republican scheme, particularly ABC’s Jon Karl, who grilled the two senators on their own earmarks—tens of millions of dollars worth—in the bill. 

“How do you have any credibility on this?” asked Mr. Karl. 

“Because we’re going to vote against the bill,” Cornyn replied.  “This is the wrong way to do business.”

“Senator, were you wrong when you put these earmarks in before?” Karl asked.

“Karl, this is not just about earmarks,” said Cornyn.

Except, that it was just about earmarks. That was the point of the press conference, remember?

You see, what these Republican Senators thought would happen was that the Democrats, who have the responsibility of governance, would pass the budget bill that included GOP earmarks, and the Republicans could oppose the bill, but still get goodies for their states with clean hands. 

Except someone dared to commit journalism and ruined the whole thing.

Here is ABC’s report on the issue (after a too-long commercial): 


Republicans Say They Will Kill The Hostages

Head hostage taker, Mitch McConnell, warned any would-be rescuers that if they tried any funny business, he would kill the hostages with tax hikes:

From Roll Call:

The Kentucky Republican’s comments came in a statement shortly after the Senate agreed to move toward final passage of the tax measure, which would extend Bush-era tax cuts for two years and unemployment benefits for 13 months. McConnell struck the deal with the White House last week.

“We now urge the House leadership to bring this bipartisan agreement to a vote without political games or partisan changes designed only to block this bill’s passage in the House. If the House Democratic Leadership decides to make partisan changes, they will ensure that every American taxpayer will see a job-killing tax hike on January 1st,” McConnell said in the statement.

Nothing—absolutely nothing—could be clearer:  The Republicans are ruthless bastards, when it comes to protecting their moneyed constituents.

 And they don’t give a damn about anyone else.

Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell has a special message for 99% of the American people.  See if you can guess what it is:

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Earmarks, Schmearmarks

This morning, I heard the toe sucker, Dick Morris, deplore the presence of a paltry $8 billion worth of earmarks in the 1900-page, $1.3 trillion omnibus federal budget bill coming to the floor of the Senate this week. 

Members of both parties have plenty of earmarks in the bill, but it is particularly hypocritical for Republicans to use the issue as a wedge during last month’s campaign and then rush to get earmarks in the budget before all tea party hell breaks loose next month in the House.  

But such hypocrisy is not unusual on the right.  Just consider Dick Morris’ protest about earmarks this morning on the Republican “News” Channel.  He condemned the inclusion of earmarks in the budget bill because, he says, they represent corruption in the process.  He calls the game “legalized bribery,” and he claims there is a correlation between the earmarks and donations to political campaigns.  And in that he’s not far from wrong.    

It works this way: Say a university is given a $500,000 grant—via an earmark inserted by Senator X—to research just why it is that some men are attracted to toe sucking.  The university’s lobbyist then turns around and donates $50,000 to Senator X’s campaign.  Voilà. 

Dick the phalangephile has a point, of course.  It is beyond unseemly what happens not only at the federal level, but at the state level, including right here in Missouri.  Politicians are on the take all over the place, because they need money to survive the next election.

And that’s where the hypocrisy on the right comes in.  People like Dick Morris—a political consultant, as well as a foxy regular on the Republican “News” “Channel—rage against a machine that they refuse to reform. 

The right-wing furiously opposes any meaningful change in the system, unless the change makes it worse—see the Citizens United decision.* If we revamped the campaign finance system by providing public money, we would save a lot of dough in the long run.  Senator X would be less tempted to insert the toe sucker research earmark in an appropriations bill just to get fifty grand from a university, although that would mean we may never know what makes Dick tick.

As for Morris, Media Matters exposes his and Fox’s part in the game, and here is just a sample:

In 2008, Morris repeatedly touted the National Republican Trust PAC’s website, GOPTrust.com, and asked viewers to “give funds to GOPTrust.com.” Between October 27, 2008, and November 17, 2008, Morris mentioned GOPTrust.com during at least 13 Fox News appearances without disclosing that the organization paid $24,000 to Morris’ consulting firm Triangulation Strategies from the beginning of October 2008 to November 24, 2008.

And:

Morris has served as the chief strategist and ad crafter for the conservative group League of American Voters (LAV), which opposed the Democrats’ health care reform proposals. On Fox News, Morris implored viewers to donate for ads opposing health care reform at least 10 times just in February and March, often directing viewers to his website, which contained contribution links for the LAV. Morris also regularly solicited funds on Fox for 2009 LAV ad campaigns.

Republicans get away with this blatant hypocrisy all the time on Fox, of course.  No matter the issue, whether it’s earmarks in particular or government spending in general, they get credit for publicly agitating against obvious deficiencies in the system, while secretly undermining those who are trying to fix them. 

__________________________________

* In an article on Clearly New Mexico, we find out that the toe sucker was the front man in a “campaign phone blitz” in that state, which aimed to “take back America” from those noted socialists, “Reid, Pelosi and Obama.”  The message began:

“Please stay on the line for an important message from Dick Morris of Citizens United.”

Jon Stewart’s Tribute To Republicans

If you missed the first segment on The Daily Show last night, you missed a good one.  Here it is, the “Lame-as-F@#& Congress“:

America, 2010

Just some sobering facts about the country we live in:

From Bloomberg News:

Wall Street’s biggest banks, rebounding after a government bailout, are set to complete their best two years in investment banking and trading, buoyed by 2010 results likely to be the second-highest ever.

And from Scott Rubin, nobody’s liberal, in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Cash bonuses on Wall Street this year grew 17% to $20.3 billion according to estimates by the New York State Comptroller‘s office.
 
Mr. Rubin writes:

Where to start? The best place to begin is probably to point out the absolutely blatant perversion of capitalism that the financial crisis has caused. To call this country “capitalist,” is a complete and utter joke. America is not a capitalist country. Period….

Look at what has happened. We have this industry - Wall Street – that has blown up the American financial system, from time to time, with amazing consistency. This happens over and over again. In 2008, by any rational person’s measure, they outdid themselves.

Keep in mind that “Wall Street” is supposed to be a symbol of “capitalism” and “free markets.” But what happened when the exorbitant risks that these banks and securities firms were taking became a source of enterprise-threatening losses instead of enormous profits?

The losses were subsidized by the public of course! What happens when the profits begin rolling in again? They are pocketed by the Wall Street elite of course! What form of capitalism is this? The level of moral hazard that has been introduced into our nation’s financial system is appalling. Mark my words, another crisis, of equal or greater magnitude to what we saw in 2008, is on the horizon.

And finally, from Paul Krugman, who is a liberal economist, we have this:

These days, we’re living in the world of the imperial, very self-interested individual; the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit. Look at the protagonists in the global financial meltdown, and you won’t see faceless corporations subverting individual will; you’ll see avaricious individuals exploiting corporate forms to enrich themselves, often bringing the corporations down in the process. Lehman, AIG, Anglo-Irish, etc. were not cases of immortal hive-minds at work; they were cases of kleptocrats run wild.

And when it comes to the subversion of the political process — yes, there are faceless corporations in the mix, but the really dastardly players have names and large individual fortunes; Koch brothers, anyone?

If you ask how it’s possible that a handful of bad actors can get their way so often, the answer has to be, wasn’t it ever thus? What we call civilization has usually been a form of kleptocracy, varying mainly in its efficiency (the Romans were no nicer than the barbarians, just more orderly). Yes, we’ve had a few generations of government somewhat of, by, for the people in some places — but that’s an outlier in the broader sweep of things.

So never mind the hive-minds; good old greed still rules.

How’s that for an even-handed assessment of the State of Our Union?

Be Proud You’re A Rebel, The South’s Gonna Do It Again

There’s still time to get your $100 tickets to the upcoming “secession ball” to be held—where else—in Charleston, South Carolina.  The official name of the ball is The South Carolina Secession Gala, billed as an “EVENT OF A LIFETIME!!!”  

It is partially sponsored by The Confederate Heritage Trust, which claims to exist to “present the true history of the South.”  If you believe that then you probably believe that the Ku Klux Klan exists to “present the true history of Christian charity.”

South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States on December 20, 1860, and contemporary Southerners will gather on that date this year  to “celebrate the courage and the integrity of 170 men who signed their signatures to the Article of Secession,” apparently still a proud moment in the history of the South.

According to The State website,

…ball attendees, who will pay $100 a ticket, will don formal, period dress, eat and dance the Virginia Reel as a band plays “Dixie.” The evening’s highlight will be a play reenacting the signing of South Carolina’s Ordinance of Secession 150 years ago, which severed the state’s ties with the Union and paved the way for the Civil War.

Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit! It’s a party!  Saddle my horse, Kunta Kinte, I’m goin’ to town!

The State reports that another sponsor of the event, the S.C. Sons of Confederate Veterans, pooh poohs the charge by the NAACP that the ball “is nothing more than a celebration of slavery,” by erroneously claiming that slavery was not the cause of the civil war:

The ball is a way to honor the brave S.C. men who stood up to an over-domineering federal government, high tariffs and Northern states that wanted to take the country in an economic direction that was not best for the South, said Mark Simpson, the S.C. division commander for the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Will this stuff ever end?

The S.C. division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has a statement on its website that includes the following:

The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South’s decision to fight the Second American Revolution.

The “motivating factor” was “liberty and freedom”?  Whose liberty and freedom?  What those Confederate soldiers were fighting for—even if some of them didn’t know it—was freedom for rich white folks to own black slaves, no matter how hard contemporary conservative revisionists  try to convince us otherwise.

The soon-to-be-celebrated official secession document is windily titled the Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union. In that document you will find 18 references to slavery, including the following:

…an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations, and the laws of the General Government have ceased to effect the objects of the Constitution.

You might wonder just what those “obligations” were of the “non-slaveholding States”:

The Constitution of the United States, in its fourth Article, provides as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor, but shall be delivered up, on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.” [...] The same article of the Constitution stipulates also for rendition [sic!] by the several States of fugitives from justice from the other States.

In other words, some of those Northern non-slaveholding states were not returning freedom-seeking Negroes—private property as the South saw it—back to the South for more Southern hospitality. 

The secession document put it this way:

Thus the constituted compact has been deliberately broken and disregarded by the non-slaveholding States, and the consequence follows that South Carolina is released from her obligation.

And if any more evidence was needed to prove that the secessionist movement was always about the issue of slavery, here’s more from the document:

Those [non-slaveholding] States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection…

The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

There is no doubt that the Southern rebellion was designed and executed by people who thought they not only had the right to enslave others, but insisted the rest of America aid and abet them in their crimes against humanity.

And it doesn’t matter how many revisionist balls or galas or celebrations the descendants of the rebels hold, nothing will change that fact.

 

Let’s Have A Debate Over The Estate Tax

Maryland Congressman Chris Van Hollen chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee this year and thus saw, up close and personal, more than 60 of his fellow Democrats defeated—many of whom lost their seats for making some tough votes in support of President Obama. 

Last week, Mr. Obama accused some of them of “playing games” and being “sanctimonious” over his deal with Republicans on the tax cut issue.

Today, on The Daily Rundown, Van Hollen was asked about whether Democrats in the House would eventually support Obama’s deal.  He specifically mentioned the Estate Tax compromise, which has irked Democrats all over the country, and he indicated that Democrats want to see a change in that part of the deal before the package comes up for a vote in the House. 

He then turned the question around:

Why don’t we put this question to the test:  Are Republicans really willing to hold up tax relief for millions of Americans—middle class Americans and others—in order to provide a $25 billion hit to the deficit that benefits 6,600 estates at an average benefit of $1.8 million?

We’ve never had that debate.

That is the point, isn’t it?  We’ve never had that debate. 

It’s about time we did.

Here is the segment from The Daily Rundown:

The Guns of December

Everyone knows that Retail is the Reason for the Season.*

Everyone, that is, except the fanatics who think “Happy Holidays” is code for “Kill The Christians!

This year’s war on the War on Xmas seemed to begin with Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, who mounted his high horse to tell us he wouldn’t mount his parade horse this year in Tulsa because “Christmas” was missing from the title of the city’s annual Christmas event.

Well, despite Inhofe’s protest, and wind chills in the twenties, the McNellie’s Holiday Parade of Lights in Tulsa (the sponsor, McNellie’s, is, appropriately, an Irish pub) was full of Christmas cheer. And I enjoyed what one celebrant told the Tulsa World:

“It’s silly,” Lisa Williams said of the brouhaha that brought national media attention. “Oklahoma gets to be in the news for silly stuff.”

I would like to explain to Ms. Williams that the reason why Oklahoma is always in the news for silly stuff is because it is full of silly politicians and silly people who elect them. But now is not the time. It’s the holiday season, for God’s sake.

Just a few days ago, we had Gary Bauer joining in on the annual assault on good manners and inclusiveness, which is the war on the War on Xmas.  Bauer, a Christian conservative fanatic, once ran for president of the United States on the Family Values Ticket, God being his running mate.  Bauer began his column, aptly titled, “The Real War on Christmas,” this way:

Some will argue whether the would-be Christmas tree bomber intended to target Christians at the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony in Portland, Oregon last week. What’s beyond dispute is that the ideology that fueled his hatred, radical Islam, is targeting Christianity in a religious war meant to destroy the Judeo-Christian foundation of our country.

Okay.  I know what you’re thinking: So what?  That’s pretty standard stuff for right-wing Christians, some of whom believe 9/11 was not an attack on America generally, but specifically an attack on Our American Jesus.  Of course, no reason is given why the terrorists didn’t just crash a jet into the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the largest church in the United States and a mere seven miles from Ground Zero, but logic is not normally a feature of faith-inspired conspiracy theories.

In any case, here is Bauer’s next paragraph:

But the American jihadists are a little late to the war on Christianity. Radical Islam’s secular enablers have been driving Christianity from the public square for decades. Notice I said tree lighting – not Christmas tree. The tree in Portland has already been downgraded to a mere “Tree Lighting” by the liberal city fathers. There was no room for Christ on tree lighting night.

Now, before anyone gets upset over Bauer’s strange comparison of a terrorist’s desire to bomb Portland with a secular tree-lighting event, I want to be fair.  Mr. Bauer told Gail Collins of the New York Times that the unseemly equivalence was just a tease:

To me, it was just a nice rhetorical way to get people to read the column.

Given that rationale, I suppose I should have started today’s blog post this way:

Gary Bauer, noted conservative Christian and anti-War on Christmas activist, was caught in bed with one of Osama bin Laden’s children, a boy named Muhammad.

Have a Merry War on Xmas everyone!

_______________________________

* The truth about Christmas is that despite what most people think, the holiday shopping season, although vital to retailers, is not a make-or-break moment for the economy as a whole.  An informative post at DailyFinance by Charles Hugh Smith makes a couple of interesting points about how overstated is the importance of the holiday season:

• Holiday retail sales are a modest 3.4% of the entire U.S. economy.  The U.S. GDP projects at $14.7 trillion for 2010, compared to total holiday retail sales in 2009 of $504 billion.

• “We often read that consumer spending is about 70% of the economy (some analysts say it is more like 60%), but the retail sector is only the “value added” part of retail sales. If we look at the entire retail sector of the economy, we find that it is 7.9% of the GDP, compared to a 21.4% share for the finance, insurance and real estate sector.”

And, although DailyFinance doesn’t mention this, I want to point out to all those Post Office-hating conservatives out there that the mailing industry—of which the Postal Service constitutes the vital center—represents about 8% of GDP, roughly the same as the ENTIRE retail sector.  So there.

Elizabeth Edwards, R I P

As word comes that the Westboro Baptist Taliban plans to picket the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards tomorrow in Raleigh, I couldn’t help but wonder just what it is that inspires religious fanatics to do the things they do.

And I’m not just talking about obviously reprehensible things like conducting protests at funerals, but seemingly less reprehensible things like criticizing Mrs. Edwards for not mentioning God in her widely reported farewell post on Facebook.  Here is the opening of her last message:

You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces—my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined.

Some conservative bloggers and online commenters have criticized Mrs. Edwards for not partaking in the death-bed convention of acknowledging the goodness of God, his tender mercies, and his wonderful gift of grace. 

Here is Donald Douglas, a conservative blogger who calls himself a “pro-victory Associate Professor of Political Science,” whatever the hell that means:

Being anti-religion is cool, so Edwards’ non-theological theology gets props from the neo-communists. Still, at her death bed and giving what most folks are calling a final goodbye, Elizabeth Edwards couldn’t find it somewhere down deep to ask for His blessings as she prepares for the hereafter? I guess that nihilism I’ve been discussing reaches up higher into the hard-left precincts than I thought.

Personally, I don’t see that much daylight between Mr. Douglas and the Westboro Taliban.  Mr. Douglas simply chooses to do his protesting online, safely away from the counter-protestors who will certainly be in force tomorrow, as the life of Elizabeth Edwards is celebrated.

I don’t know what Mrs. Edwards’ theology was, and I don’t know what kind of God, if any, she believed in.  I do know that in announcing her death, Christianity Today, a defender of evangelical theological conundrums and other silliness, inexplicably posted some remarks she apparently made in 2007 that naturally offended conservative and Talibanic Christians everywhere:

I have, I think, somewhat of an odd version of God. I do not have an intervening God. I don’t think I can pray to him — or her — to cure me of cancer. I appreciate other people’s prayers for that [a cure for her cancer], but I believe that we are given a set of guidelines, and that we are obligated to live our lives with a view to those guidelines.

And I don’t believe that we should live our lives that way for some promise of eternal life, but because that’s what’s right. We should do those things because that’s what’s right.

Given her battle with cancer, given the fact that her husband betrayed her in front of the world, given the fact that her 16-year-old son was killed after his Jeep was blown off the road by a gust of wind—wind being a prominent metaphor for the Holy Spirit in the Bible—who in their rational mind could blame Mrs. Edwards for not offering any thanks to God for the tragedies in her life or begging him for mercy in any possible world beyond?

Her son, Wade, was driving to the family beach house in North Carolina in 1996, when a strong wind forced his Jeep off the road and caused it to turn over.  Another boy sitting next to him walked away from the accident. How does one account for that within an evangelical theology that sees God as the Great Intervener, the God of Love who hears and answers prayer?

Here’s how Mrs. Edwards explained to Larry King what happened upon finding out about Wade:

…the first thing I did was sort of fall to the floor and just
screaming, “No!” That is actually how I felt. You know, it can’t be true.

And as I moved through the next weeks, first days being you’re just in shock. But as I moved through the next weeks and months, I had this idea that God was going to find some way to turn back time and he was going to be alive.

I would see somebody mowing their lawn and say, no, no, no. Or don’t build a porch or don’t — if everything stays the same, God can do what I always hoped he would, and that was to save the innocents. And I realized, of course, in time that that wasn’t so.

To save the innocents.”  That’s really the highest mission we should associate with God, isn’t it? 

To save the innocents.”  It’s the one thing we should expect from a God of Love, right? 

To save the innocents.”  We tell our children goodbye in the morning, and if we expect anything from God, we expect him to see to it that they return to us unharmed.  Is that too much to ask?

But the newspapers are full of stories that disappoint us, even if that disappointment comes at the expense of other people’s children and not our own. 

Most of us read about the death of Wade Edwards and we understand the overwhelming grief of his mother because we understand that what his death means in the end is that there may not be a God to save the innocents.  We may be telling our children goodbye for the last time each morning and there is No One to assure us otherwise.

Naturally, Mrs. Edwards turned inward to try to make sense of her life.  Larry King read a passage from her book:

As I have felt further less-devastating blows in the years after Wade’s death, I cannot understand how I merited these blows. What did I do? Even though I think I know better, I still continued to ask and continued to wonder.

King then asked her if she had any guilt:

Actually, guilt is one of the things you might go through in grieving. I don’t really feel guilt. There’s a lot of times when I’ve certainly wondered, what did I do wrong to cause Wade’s death?

…With the cancer, you know, did I drink the wrong things or eat the wrong things?

…And certainly with the latest indiscretion [her husband's affair], you know, what did I do to cause this to happen?

… And I have to recognize with each of these things, they just happen. You didn’t have to do something wrong to justify them. You still sort of wonder, is there some grand plan where you’ve done something someplace else?

She told King that after all the tragedies, the God she “believed in before is not the same God.”

And who could expect otherwise?  Who, but a fanatical, fearmongering, faithaholic would criticize anyone for altering their understanding of God in the face of such heartbreaking experiences as befell Elizabeth Edwards?

By my lights, Mrs. Edwards’ life in this respect is a testimony to reason, a testimony of one who refused to shape the facts of experience to fit an Iron Age theology. Instead, she found strength in her humanity, as she expressed at the end:

The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful.

Nobel Laureate: “Someday China Will Be A Free And Democratic Country”

Two months ago, I wrote about Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize today in Oslo. Actually, he wasn’t there, since the Chinese have him in prison.

Instead, an empty chair represented Liu, which in reality represents China’s refusal to join the civilized world in all but its commercial glory.  The Chinese government, which detained Liu’s wife and other dissidents in order to prevent them from attending the ceremony, had labeled the event as “political theater,” and aggressively told the nations of the world that their attendance would show “disrespect” to China. 

The Chinese are in good company, since today’s ceremony marked the first time a detained laureate had not had a representative present since the Nazi’s prevented Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist, from attending in 1935.  Congratulations to our wonderful trading partners and financiers.

Here is a list of the nation no-shows, who were invited but chose not to attend:

Pakistan, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Iraq, Vietnam, and Morocco.

Liu, who to this day isn’t well-known in China, was a professor and political philosopher who began pissing off the Chinese in 1989, when he got involved in organizing pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.  We all know how that ended.  Liu reportedly told his wife that he was dedicating the peace prize to the martyrs of the Tiananmen Square protests.

Human Rights Watch posted today Liu Xiaobo’s non-apologetic statement, not long after he was convicted of “subversion of state power” and sentenced to 11 years in prison by the Chinese government in 2009:

I believe that my work has been just, and that someday China will be a free and democratic country. Our people then will bathe in the sunshine of freedom from fear. I am paying a price to move us in that direction, but without the slightest regret. I have long been aware that when an independent intellectual stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison. Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer.

Amen.

[photo: Heiko Junge/AP]

Glenn Beck’s Toasty White Friends

On his radio show this morning, Glenn Beck, who peddles fear for ca$h, said during a particularly inane conversation with a particularly inane caller:

If you are white or you are an American citizen or a white American citizen you are pretty much toast.

Ca-Ching! 

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for November, 2010:

Black folks: 16%,

Hispanics: 13.2%

Toasty Whites: 8.9%.

Meanwhile, the median household income for 2009:

Blacks: $32,750

Hispanics: $38,039

Toasty Whites Alone, not Hispanic: $54,461 

Meanwhile, the median family net worth in 2007 dollars:

Non Toasty White or Hispanic: $27,800

Toasty White, non-Hispanic: $170,400

Meanwhile, millions of Americans who follow Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh pretend that there is absolutely no racial ingredient in their toxic stew of sudden solicitude for the wellbeing of America, by which they mean the wellbeing of white folks.

And those white folks seem to be doing just fine compared to those scary, if underachieving, dark people.

President Obama Is Better Than This

During his press conference on Tuesday, President Obama’s sarcastic and condescending tone toward liberals was bad enough, but it appears he got some facts wrong and drew at least one wrong conclusion due to his peculiar pique.

As Dan Froomkin writes, Obama correctly made the point that the Social Security program did not come into existence in the form we have it today.  There were incremental changes along the way.  But Mr. Obama characterized the program’s beginning this way:

This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people.

I confess I didn’t catch this misstatement of the facts at the time.  The truth is that, as Froomkin puts it:

The Social Security Act, as first signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935, paid retirement benefits to the primary worker — and not to their widows and orphans. It wasn’t until a 1939 change that the law added benefits for survivors and for the retiree’s spouse and children.

But the real serious mistake President Obama made was in discussing the public option debate during the health care fiasco:

So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats had been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple of million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

Forget for a moment the tone of that comment.  And forget for a moment that the Congressional Budget Office concluded at the time that the public option plan might benefit “3 million to 4 million,” which means Mr. Obama missed the mark by a factor of two.

The greater problem seems to be in Mr. Obama’s failure to grasp not only why liberals were so adamant about the public option, but his failure to understand its potential effect beyond those who might have directly benefited from it. Froomkin explained it perfectly:

What the president conspicuously disregarded was that the central point of the public option was that its existence would exert enormous competitive pressure on the private insurance system. The goal was not to serve a particularly large number of people directly — that would only happen if the private offerings were terribly inadequate. The goal was to keep the private sector honest. So no matter how many people it enrolled, “the provision,” as Obama put it “would have affected” tens of millions.

Froomkin also pointed out a flaw in Mr. Obama’s “rhetorical structure”:

If he truly believes that good things start small, like Social Security did, then criticizing the public option for starting small isn’t logically consistent. And the tax cut he agreed to is hardly a half measure in the right direction; it’s a colossal collapse in the wrong direction.

President Obama is better than this.  Clearly, he is upset with liberals for not fully appreciating what he has done, and to some degree he has a point about that.  I have been critical of some on our side who have been too eager to criticize Obama for any misstep or for his dogmatic belief that part of a loaf is better than going hungry.  Health insurance, after all, is now a right in America.

But in the case of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and Obama’s tactical acceptance of supply-side doctrine, the President must understand that on this issue he is tampering with a fundamental principle of the Democratic Party.  And he should at least be as understanding of liberal opposition to what he’s doing as he always seems to be of the fierce, unrelenting, irrational, Republican opposition to nearly everything he has done.

Rather than scold liberals for their so-called “purity,” he should—night and day—publicly scold Republicans for theirs, which is doing much more damage to the non-wealthy part of the country than anything the most committed liberal could do by criticizing their leader.

Liberals And The Estate Tax

Let’s talk about the estate tax, which seems to be one of the two Mr. Ed-sized pills liberals are expected to swallow, if they are to accept Obama’s deal with the Republican devils.

Currently, the estate tax, known in Republican circles as the death tax, is ZERO.  That’s right.  This year, if you move on to the hereafter, and can’t find a way to bring your treasures with you, you can pass every last cent on to your heirs without those greedy tax-and-spend liberals getting their government-stained hands on your assets.

But prior to this year’s “Die Now” tax sale, the rate and the exemption, or “exclusion amount”—the maximum allowable credit before taxes kick in on individuals—were, according to Wikipedia, as follows:

As you can see, if nothing were done, if no deals were made, then the estate tax would readjust to the exemption levels of 2002 and the tax rate of 2001.  Quite a difference from zero, no? 

By the way, the Obama administration had previously proposed setting the estate tax exemption and rate at the 2009 levels, and while the House agreed, the idea was nixed by Senate Republicans.  Go figure.

According to the IRS, because the estate exemption amount, and thus the estate tax return filing amount, has declined since the Bush tax cuts implementation in 2001, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of estate returns filed:

So, it’s no wonder that when one considers the effects of the Bush income tax reductions and the higher estate exemptions and lower estate tax rates, added to war spending and other Republican goodies, that we are in a debt mess.

But back to the scene of the latest crime.  The hostage takers, also known as the Republican leadership, with their guns at the temples of the unemployed and middle class taxpayers, told the police—President Obama—not only do they want to protect the income of their rich constituents by keeping their income taxes at a historic low, they also want to make sure that when their rich constituents go to be with that Big Republican in the Sky, that their considerable estates be relatively free from taxation, which is defined as liberal theft.

So, they extracted a ransom from Obama as follows:

Exemption Amount: $5 million     Tax Rate: 35%

Let’s compare that to the do-nothing 2011 estate tax exemption amount:

Exemption Amount:  $1 million     Tax Rate: 55%

So, you can see why liberals, who generally believe that wealth should not be endlessly perpetuated among small groups of, well, wealthy folks, are a little bit perturbed that their leader would make such a bargain.  Liberals also generally believe that the potential inheritors of massive wealth do not have a moral claim on it, since they did nothing to earn it except pass through a Lucky Seven birth canal.

In any case, liberals feel like the estate tax compromise amounts to the Republicans, after kicking Democratic ass, demanding that Democrats send them a thank you note for doing so.

So, if we assume that the Obama administration’s original pre-kidnapping proposal—to return the estate exemption amount and tax rate to 2009 levels—were the baseline in the negotiations with the GOP kidnappers over this issue, then it looks like this:

Obama Position: Exemption Amount:  $3.5 Million Tax Rate: 45%

Compromise:      Exemption Amount:  $5 million  Tax Rate: 35%

The IRS reports that in 2009 fewer than 34,000 estate tax returns were filed, with gross assets of $194 billion (above the filing threshold of $3.5 million).  And here’s how it ended up:

After accounting for marital and charitable bequests, as well expenses and debts of the estate, less than half of the estates filing in 2009 owed estate tax. The combined estate tax obligation of these estates was nearly $21 billion.

As near as I can tell, there are around 250,000 people who have a net worth between Obama’s $3.5 million dollar exemption threshold and the Republicans $5 million dollar exemption threshold. And just as a crude computation, let’s apply the current mortality rate to those 250,000 folks. That means about 2000 of them will die each year for a total of 4000 during the two years of the deal Obama made with the kidnappers. 

So, there you have it. Republicans are presumably willing to hold hostage millions upon millions of Americans—and jeopardize the economic recovery—just so about 4000 or so rich folks will find themselves posthumously exempted from taxes. (Remember, Mr. Obama said that he had to make this concession or the deal would have fallen through.)

That’s why liberals are having problems paying this outrageous ransom to the Republican hostage takers.

Obama Calls Republicans “Hostage Takers”

“I think it’s tempting to not negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed.”

—Barack Obama

Having just watched President Obama’s extraordinary news conference, I assume that his performance, while defensive, will likely stymie most serious Democratic Congressional opposition to his compromise with Republicans.  It is very difficult to play offense against your own quarterback, and I suspect that a majority of liberal legislators will make some noise and then swallow hard and accept this deal.

And if his “hostage takers” response to Chuck Todd’s question about Republican recalcitrance gains widespread attention, or even if it doesn’t, perhaps Mr. Obama will continue using it as his theme going forward, while he engages Republicans in the battles to come:

I think it’s tempting to not negotiate with hostage takers, unless the hostage gets harmed. Then people will question the wisdom of that strategy.  In this case the hostage was the American people and I was not willing to see them get harmed.

Rarely has Mr. Obama, when not in campaign mode, been so stark about the methods of Republicans.  And although he could have been much more passionate in his criticism of his political enemies, calling them “hostage takers” at least puts the issue in terms Americans can understand.

I will say, however, that I find it strange that Mr. Obama, towards the end of the event, seemed to express much more passion against those on his own side, who, he insists, fail to appreciate what he has done so far.

While he has a point about that in many cases, some of us wish he would get at least equally passionate about what Republicans have done and what they intended to do, if it weren’t for the President’s willingness to compromise with them.

In any case, President Obama challenged Republicans not to assume he could be bested so easily in the future.  These were unique circumstances, he warned.

On that, we shall see.

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