Monthly Archives: March 2012
On Defining Moments: Essay for March 29, 2012
In our nation’s history, there have been numerous defining moments. They are times characterized by incredible amounts of courage and foresight, principle and action. The root of all defining moments for these United States of America took place on July 4, 1776, in Congress assembled, when the founders signed a declaration with the most empowering words the world had ever, and still has ever, known.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Thirteen years later, many of these same founders developed a constitution that precisely delineated how this government was to derive those powers from the governed. They created three distinct branches of government to provide the checks and balances necessary to dampen any intemperate actions of the executive and legislative branches. They did so by applying the scrutiny of the judiciary through a laborious process that ultimately rests with the Supreme Court of the United States.
And so our country now finds itself at a defining moment in its history. We have concluded the oral argument phase regarding the Constitutionality of several provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. What is at stake here reaches far beyond a debate about health care or medical treatment. It is not a disagreement between the rich and poor in America. It is not about where our morality lies.
What is at stake here is a single word: Liberty. Can our government compel its citizens to do something against their will under penalty of tax? The Declaration of Independence lists no fewer than 27 grievances against the British Crown, including this one, “For imposing taxes on us without our consent.”
It is thought that the Supreme Court of the United States will announce their decision shortly before their summer break in July, almost 236 years to the day the Declaration of Independence was signed that first codified the concept of consent of the governed. It was the first time in history that the rights of the governed limited the acts of government.
Liberty is indeed at stake in this debate. Also at stake is the integrity of the Supreme Court. To the untrained ear, the passion and persuasion of the legal and Constitutional arguments among the protagonists is nothing short of breathtaking. It is a showcase of our Republic. I am certain the whole world is watching but we citizens of America, we descendents of these brave founders, must admire the process that has taken this bitter and hotly contested legislation to a point of resolution.
So what will the Supreme Court decide? I do not know with certainty. I have no crystal ball. But I do have a feeling that despite ideological and political proclivities, despite hull crushing pressure from constituencies across this country, despite the unrelenting media spotlight that will descend upon this Supreme Court, justice will prevail.
I believe the decision will surprise any who think that Presidential appointments anneal a Justice to the party of the appointing President. The line of questioning has been balanced and encouraging to me; so much so, in fact, that I do not foresee a 5-4 decision of an ideologically split court. While I have my own opinion of the outcome I am no Constitutional scholar. We leave that to these professionals, these 9 Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States, to determine. I believe they have a sense of the gravity of the moment as well. I believe they see the obvious conflict between the power of the government and the necessary consent of the governed.
Said Thomas Paine in December of 1776:
These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.
In three months we shall learn the outcome of two years of litigation, frustration and intimidation. We shall learn whether we will emerge from this chapter in our history with a renewed sense of liberty or a heightened sense of despair.
The ball is in their court: the Supreme Court. And I have faith in them.
Filed under Essay
On Taxation and Entitlements: Essay for March 17, 2012
Two articles of interest hit the New York Times this week that each of us should read. “A Nation of Too Many Tax Breaks,” by Eduardo Porter, graced the front page of the Business Section. It chronicled the seeming disparity between the collection of taxes and the distribution of tax breaks in America by quintile. The second was an essay by Thomas Friedman describing the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. They both deserve some air time.
Any analysis only provides a tiny glimpse of the complexities of the problem statement: Is taxation and redistribution of wealth in America a fair deal? First off, there is nothing simple about the distribution of government spending or about the manner in which such funds are generated through taxation. Neither is there anything fair about how it is done. Both policies reflect a complex series of compromises and programs designed to aid one sector of the population at the expense of another. Those policies cut both ways. Over time, the original intent of such policies become muddy indeed, yet we are saddled with their consequences seemingly forever.
Take the Porter article for starters. Said Porter, “Taxpayers in the top fifth of the population shoulder three quarters of the Federal tax burden and receive only 10 percent of the entitlement spending…[while] Families in the bottom 40 percent of income distribution pay about 1 percent of taxes and receive about 60 percent of entitlements.” He goes on to point out that on the tax break side, the upper quintile receives more tax breaks on an average of $214,000 in income than those in the lower quintile receive on $8400. No kidding.
This dichotomy would appear to emanate from the lower tax rates on capital gains and dividends, benefits associated with those who have investment income. They naturally reside in the upper income brackets, thus skewing any inequity conclusions that Porter asserts. The obvious conclusion one takes from this so-called analysis is that there is a disparity that can be reconciled by eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest of Americans in the form of increasing taxes on capital gains and dividends. This timeworn and threadbare argument always suggests that the wealthy in America were all born with silver spoons in their mouths; that nobody actually worked to earn their wealth; or that they came by it unscrupulously. It is not true. Most wealthy Americans earned their money. And any distinction hardly matters.
Enter Tom Friedman. He is definitely a thinking man’s columnist. I don’t often agree with his conclusions but his presentation of fact is usually compelling. He’s the kind of man with whom I’d like to have a cup of coffee. Freidman sees, as do I, the necessity of a balance between the actions of public and private America. A country where the excesses of unchecked capitalism cannot stifle an economy and the excesses of government regulation does not strangle the private sector. It is more than that, he argues. He speaks of striking grand bargains between competing interests. Perhaps it is one like that nearly struck between President Obama and Speaker Boehner last summer.
There are many such bargains to be struck that involve repairing a crumbling infrastructure increasingly incapable of moving goods to market; invigorating an educational system that has become the most expensive in the world but is producing only mediocre results; that addresses the growing gap between the needs of the youngest against the needs of the oldest in our society.
Most importantly, the Federal budget deficit must be closed. And it must be done without smoke and mirrors and without demonization of the advocates on the revenue side and on the spending side. The truth is that the tax system is severely broken. Spending must be decreased through Mr. Freidman’s grand bargains and revenues must be adjusted through tax reform. Corporations do not need the special treatments the currently receive. They are quite capable, or should be quite capable, of competing on their own. If they are not, they should be left to mercy of market forces.
Capitalism was not invented in America but it reached pinnacles of greatness in the 20th century, a greatness that has lost some luster as we claw through this 21st century. Our objective in this political debate in 2012 should not be to paint either side as evil, unless they really deserve it. I am willing to recognize that eliminating a special tax break for a privileged constituency might actually result in them paying more taxes. Now that is what I call fair.
Let the spending cuts begin.
On Vegas, Revelations and Parades: Video Essay for March 10, 2012
On Vegas Illusions, Revelations and Parades: Essay for March 10, 2012
It is said, “Whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” But I don’t like to follow the rules. I spent some time in Las Vegas recently and observed a lot of interesting things that I’d like to share.
First of all, nothing about Las Vegas is real. That is what my taxi driver said and it is true. The hotels are themed from exotic places around the world: Paris; New York; Rome; Venice. Neither are the restaurants native. They are transplants of famous eateries from those same cities. Fabulous celebrity chefs have cut and pasted their originals in luxury hotels: Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali. It would seem that if you can make it on The Food Network you can make it in Las Vegas.
When viewed through the lens of Las Vegas, it was difficult to discern that there exists a poor economy. In fact, lack of discernment was prevalent on many levels. I saw many different types of people: gamblers, of course; revelers of all sorts; bachelor parties; bachelorette parties; a few weddings. There were some children but not many. The city hardly slows down as the staged entertainment merely ebbs as the evening turns into the wee hours.
Then there is the other side of the city, the absolute beauty of natural surroundings that begged to be hiked and climbed and scaled. A starker and more constantly changing landscape I cannot remember. Ever the outdoorsman, I brought my hiking gear with me and set out on several treks. I was taken by the unforgiving terrain; the fickle weather; the swings in temperature; the arid ground; the lack of life giving water. It reminded me of the landscapes I’ve seen flying over Afghanistan or through newsreels more up close and personal.
It brought to mind the ground that our troops trod upon every day. The burden they carry on their backs is made heavier by the thin air at altitude. The dryness in the back of their throats is made more so by the thirsty wind. Heaving and hauling through landscapes better suited to mountain goats and indigenous peoples, the sweat momentarily clings to the brow then quickly evaporates. Water brings only temporary satisfaction. The ordinary American citizen cannot live the experience our troops face every day.
I left the hillsides for the day and headed off to one of those famous Las Vegas buffets to fill the pit in my belly. Cuisines from around the world lined the walls: Asian, Italian and Barbeque. That is when it struck me. There was something I had not seen in Vegas; something not yet imported. I had not seen any soldiers in uniform. Perhaps there were some in the crowds but they were not obvious.
Las Vegas has not yet created any warzone fantasy world for vacationers to visit. If they did, it might resemble the hillsides in Red Rock Canyon where I climbed. They would have to recreate the dust, the dry, the rocky and the extremes of temperature to capture even a moment of what it must be like for our troops in Afghanistan. And even if they could, who would be enticed to participate? After all, it is not nearly as much fun as watching make believe swashbuckling pirates in front of the Treasure Island Casino.
Perhaps we can settle on something a little more traditional. How about a parade?
The length of the war in Iraq is second in duration to the war in Afghanistan. They are twice as long as our World Wars. Millions of Americans have served time in theatre. Together, the wars have taken the lives of almost 6500 of our youth. More than 14,000 have been wounded. The time has come to recognize the many sacrifices that these soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines have made in order to protect our way of life. They have done what we have asked of them and then some. They deserve not only a public display of our affection and admiration, they deserve a break. They deserve to come home to a job.
It is truly ironic that we laid our finest young Americans upon the alter of sacrifice so that the wretched of the most uncivil of societies may endure. Our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq were not liberating Paris from the Nazis; they were tracking down the Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists and sympathizers who wrought havoc upon our nation and the civilized world. And they did so amid conditions that few of us can imagine. They repay us with resentment.
Spring is nearly upon us. The season of parades draws neigh. It is time for a homecoming and a celebration. Bring on the music and the bands, I say. And bring on the job training that will permit these talented and motivated veterans to reenter the workforce with the dignity they so ardently deserve.
What happened in Vegas should stay in Vegas to remain forever forgotten; what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan should never be forgotten.
Filed under Essay