Raise our taxes!

The Thinker by Rodin

Merry Christmas everyone! And it’s a merry one here as we had actual snow for Christmas, about five inches locally. So yes, we have a white Christmas, which was a rarity but now that I live in New England maybe not so much. It still seems kind of magical.

Can it be a downer to get money for Christmas? We don’t collect on this money for a while, but as part of my 2018 planning I have been trying to figure out our budget. Trump promised Americans a big fat tax cut for Christmas. Now that this tax bill has become law, I decided I needed to crunch the numbers. The bill is still being digested but based on one online calculator I figure that our federal taxes will be $3352 less than what it would be had Congress not passed the law.

And yet it is a downer. It is true that I could take that $3352 and write a check to the U.S. Treasury and they would be happy to take the extra money. If I did this I would be in the top .01% … of taxpayers who actually send money to the U.S. Treasury in excess of what they owe. (Hmm, maybe not, considering how many undocumented send in payroll taxes from which they will never derive any benefits.) Unfortunately, it wouldn’t patch the nation’s roof.

What am I talking about? I’m talking about spending tax money to fix what’s desperately in need of repair. We could start with our crumbling infrastructure, something even Republicans in the age of so-called “fake news” cannot deny. Where I live they recently closed yet another bridge over the Mill River because it was too dangerous to actually use. Another one across the Connecticut River went down to one lane for more than a year while it was slowly repaired. With the tax bill now law Trump wants to make a “deal” with Democrats to spend on infrastructure. We know two things about this: it will be paid for with borrowed money if it happens at all and it will go to enrich Trump’s friends, if not Trump himself. So as desperate as the need is, maybe Democrats should take a pass for now.

Our lack of political will has resulted in crazy solutions. In Northern Virginia where we used to live the solution to the traffic problems is not quite to actually solve it, but to add HOT (high occupancy toll) lanes to the capital beltway and other places. Those with the money can escape a lot of the crushing traffic. Since the pricing is usually dynamic, it depends on supply and demand. Recently I-66 between the beltway and D.C. was opened for HOT traffic. It got so crazy that recently a one-way toll reached $44 dollars. That works out to more than $4 a mile.

Even in the rich D.C. suburbs, that’s a lot of dough. In most cases these HOT lanes don’t feed the government’s coffers. Instead, they go to private companies given very long-term leases to construct these extra lanes. So they may make traffic flow for those who few that can afford it. But they don’t really solve the problem of crumbling highways and bridges elsewhere.

Needless to say, the Trump Administration’s infrastructure “solution” involves a lot of what they are doing in Northern Virginia. In short, driving is becoming a privilege for the wealthy. As for the rest of us, we don’t get to eat cake: we get to sit in more traffic and get stuck in more potholes.

I really don’t think the United States qualifies as a first world country anymore. Perhaps I can say it’s true about certain things we elect to fund adequately, which is basically only the military. We’re the best at waging high tech wars and blowing stuff up. It’s pretty much all the other stuff that we won’t pay the freight on. I recently finished teaching another dispiriting class at a local community college. My students were incurious, clearly didn’t study and usually didn’t seek me out when they were having problems. Granted that these are students who probably got by with C’s in high school, but it’s clear we have huge problems with our educational system. The general problem though is we won’t make the investment required for education. We pay teachers scandalously low wages while overworking them. And now teachers can’t even claim a deduction for school supplies. Yep, that’s part of the $3352 extra we expect from the tax bill: basically we’ve taking money out of the pockets of teachers!

I wish the federal government operated a lot more like New England towns. Here towns practice real democracy. Across the river in Hadley, Massachusetts there were a number of town meetings to debate issues like construction of a new senior center and a new fire engine purchase. Basically the issues are publicly debated and if you show up you can vote. These tax overrides are not trivial. It means citizens pay extra property taxes. Both issues though won.

Not in our current Congress. The tax bill’s process was just shameful. There were at best cursory hearings. Leadership behind closed doors wrote most of the bill. There was no attempt to even consider ideas from Democrats. It was narrowly tailored to technically qualify under Senate budget reconciliation rules, which required only 51 votes. Hand written amendments were inserted into the bill from lobbyists sitting outside the Senate chambers. It was the complete opposite of a New England town meeting. The process could not have been any more opaque, less democratic, or less republican either for that matter.

Republicans are hoping that taxpayers will be bought off by temporary tax cuts in the bill. Our share looks to be $3352. In reality, it buys us nothing. However, it makes the debt worse, makes our infrastructure worse and gives money to those who need it least. And we are on that list. For goodness sakes, we’re retirees with a very comfortable income! $3352 a year means nothing to my standard of living. We can’t give it to our employees as bonuses; we don’t any of them. It’s not enough money to coax us to buy a private jet or even a fancy car. The truth is there is really nothing more for us to buy that we want or crave. We have a paid off house, two cars, free electricity from solar panels and good pension plus plenty of savings and investments. We take a couple of really nice vacations every year too.

If we can afford to contribute more, certainly those that make more money that we do can too, and they likely wouldn’t notice it either. And it’s not like there aren’t lots of things that would make productive use of our tax money.

But it only works if it is done nationally. The .01% of us who might give extra to the U.S. Treasury can’t fix this problem. It must be done nationally and it really can only be done if richer people give proportionately more, and the even richer people give even more. And the truth is they won’t notice the extra taxes either. And that’s because (a) they’re rich (duh!) and (b) the rich don’t trickle down anything of consequence. Trickle down is a lie. Putting money into things like a crumbling infrastructure, education and allowing poor people to just get buy though buys a whole lot and improves everyone’s lots.

Raise our taxes!

An Overplayed Hand

The Thinker by Rodin

When you are in power one of the hardest lessons is learning to say, “Enough!” As Bush said shortly after his election last year, “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style.” He, like the four new Republican senators and the handful of new Republican congressmen, read way more into their electoral victory than was evidenced by the facts.

Bush, for example, claimed, “I’ve got the will of the people” when in fact he scraped by with a bare majority: 51 percent to 48 percent. 51 percent is not a mandate. In electoral votes, it was 286-252, the closest electoral college result in modern American history, despite running against the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. 60 percent, maybe, is a mandate. 51 percent is not.

What about those new Republican senators? Democratic incumbent and former minority leader Daschle lost to Thune in South Dakota, a very red state, by two points. In Florida, Martinez wins by two points too. North Carolina: Burr wins by five. Republicans did better in the Deep South, winning decisively in Georgia, Oklahoma, Louisiana (after a runoff election), Oklahoma and South Carolina. But there were also some Democratic surprises. While Obama’s victory in Illinois was not in doubt, gathering 70% of the vote is stunning. And the red state of Colorado appears to be trending blue, picking mainstream Ken Salazar over Peter Coors by four points.

So the 2004 election was essentially about getting the power without really having the mandate. A more astute party would use the opportunity to cement their power through moderate choices. But instead the President in specific and the party in general have dramatically overplayed their hands.

Seizing the reins of power must be addictive. It must be hard to think clearly when you can get pretty much what you want. Not much else can explain the stunningly bad choices made by the Republicans lately, and their inability to grasp the seriousness of the situation. By about a three to one margin Americans are appalled by the attempts by the President and Congress to intervene in Terri Schiavo’s case. Today’s Washington Post-ABC News Poll is one of many that should tell Republicans they are in serious trouble. Bush’s approval rating is at 47%. Only with the war on terrorism does he gets more approval than disapproval. (This still surprises me, based on how badly it was bungled.) On his handling of social security he has 64% disapproval. When asked which party better represents voters’ personal values Democrats lead Republicans by nine points.

When asked whether the Senate should “go nuclear” (changing Senate filibuster rules to make it easier to confirm Bush’s judges) 66 percent oppose the change and only 26% approve. Clearly majority leader Bill Frist isn’t paying much attention to polls. Instead he is courting Christian conservative voters, wackos like this guy:

Putting more evangelicals on the court will mean rulings more in tune with the religious convictions of churchgoers, said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

“We are not asking for persons merely to be moral,” Mohler said. “We want them to be believers in the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Meanwhile, over in the House of Representatives, Majority Leader Tom Delay puts in a new Ethics committee chairman who is his personal friend and tries to change the rules to make it harder to kick him out of power. He finds nothing wrong with his numerous ethical problems, despite being thrice admonished by his own Ethics Committee and despite this Washington Post article, which demonstrated that his 2000 trip to London was paid for by lobbyists. What an irony that “The Hammer” Delay was one of the boatload of Republican congressmen elected in 1994 in the Gingrich revolution. It was Gingrich’s Contract with America that promised term limits. That clearly failed to materialize. The Contract also promised lots of other things including reining in a government: “too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public’s money.” And here we are with a government far more grandiose than any Republican could conceive in 1994. But most ironic of all, the Contract called for “restoring the faith and trust of the American people in their government.”

Instead we get tyrannical politicians nominated for the United Nations, extremists judges renominated for the federal courts, and anti-citizen legislation like the new bankruptcy law that screws the average American yet does nothing to require that creditors stop handing out credit cards like they were candy.

My sense is that Republicans have dramatically overplayed their hand. Rather than representing mainstream values they have shown they demonstrate extreme values. It is clear that they pander to corporate interests, not the people’s interests.

And the irony is I find myself cheering them on. Keep up the good work. Keep denying your ethical violations, Tom Delay. Keep chatting with Christian Conservatives like the weird Tony Perkins at the so-called Family Research Council, Bill Frist. And yes by all means try your “nuclear option”. This time the Democrats won’t be seen as obstructionists. Instead it will be clear which party is really outside of the mainstream and which party really stands for the average American. And thank you George W. Bush for nominating some of the most controversial people in the Republican Party for your top posts. By all means keep pressing for “personal” social security accounts. With every out of the mainstream move the opposition grows and ordinary Americans rethink their choices. They can see the Republican reality at last and it is not pretty.

Republican cannot see it, but the handwriting is already on the wall.