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Sunday, July 25, 2010


Call it what you choose, our elected officials in Washington have before them the opportunity to create a legacy to rival FDR's.  In their 'Where Oysters Grew on Trees' article in the July 24, 2010, issue of the New York Times online, Rowan Jacobsen and Michael Beck describe how the Gulf of Mexico's shoreline has been considered for repair even since before Hurricane Katrina.  Now, with the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster ruining what's left of what we've already laid virtually bare, a cleanup is necessary to restore the Gulf waters to their pre-spill condition.  I believe that we have in our capacity to restore the entire Gulf shoreline from the Mexican border to the Florida Straits using money from BP, stimulus funds, private groups like the Nature Conservancy and others.  What it will take in money will be dwarfed in comparison to the political will that would be necessary to undertake and complete such a mammoth project.  It would be a project of such magnitude that it would necessarily outweigh public opinion that might form against it in the short term.  It must be done for our children, for the animals that call the Gulf home, for the fisheries that begin their cycles in the Gulf...for everyone.
The largest man-made ecological disaster in history must be met with the largest public works program in history.  There really is no other way.  The man or woman who leads that recovery should go down in history as a global hero.  We are currently mired in 2 wars; Afghanistan, a legitimate war, and Iraq, one questionable at best.  As we retire those troops to home by means of force reduction, let's consider how many will be discharged from active duty - a full time job - and will hit the unemployment rolls .  Why not offer them positions with the Gulf Restoration Force?  In our military we have women and men accustomed to the rigors of relentless combat operations.  The act of offering them employment on a priority basis would do several things for them, and for the greater good.  I list below a few of my ideas.
First, it would give returning combat veterans the chance to reintegrate into society while keeping mind and body occupied and utilizing their prime leadership and motivational skills.  It's well documented how many soldiers returning from combat operations have difficulty readjusting.  It's fairly certain that the army of Gulf Restorers would need to be billeted near the Gulf, so why not use FEMA housing that's already paid for, which would allow many of the veterans to remain close to their comrades and to slowly spin out the post-traumatic shock that many understandably experience.  It would even be proper to have on-site counselors in those areas with a high concentration of veterans to help them through the PTSD and with their return to society-at-large.
Second, with the return of high numbers of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of unemployed will skyrocket, certainly not a situation we need at a time when we're only beginning to emerge from the Great Recession.  Why not authorize funds to keep as many of those vets employed as possible?  Money now used for the 2 wars could be used in our own 'Gulf War'.  It's a win-win for everyone:  Politicians of all stripes who support the plan could point to how they supported a public project that not only restored the ecosystem of the entire Gulf of Mexico, but how they also prevented a spike in unemployment that might very well have tipped the US into a double-dip recession.  Beyond just veterans, the Restoration will also need workers of all kinds from across the country; engineers, heavy equipment operators, barge pilots, manual laborers, managers, supervisors, facilities management for the housing areas, food services personnel and support, fuels technicians, health care workers, and on and on.  Pretty much the same people we now have in uniform, but with a lot more added to that list.
Third, we owe it to the following generations because it's we who made the mess.  We can blame BP all day long for the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but there was already a disaster up and down the Gulf coast in lost wetlands, lost habitat and lost fisheries, much of it resulting from our need and greed, oil and seafood.  If we have to be in those areas to fix them because of the spill, why not go ahead and fix them right, return them to their fully productive state as Jacobsen and Beck encourage.  Politicians are fond of pointing fingers and holding others' feet to the fire, but perhaps its time to see if they can pass the same test themselves by doing what has to be done and looking towards the long goal rather than just the next election.  Maybe they could even work as part of a bipartisan effort between The Party of No and The Party of Spend Spend Spend.   Imagine a plan so big that people from the Green Party to the Republicans, conservatives to liberals, Progressives to Libertarians all work side-by-side for the greater good.  In doing so, they might just find that they have more common ground than they thought.  It could even lead to politicians backing down from their current Defcon 1 positions towards each other and working together for the sake of the nation and not for their own political ends.
Fourth, it's just the right thing to do.  We all know it.  We know the task of Restoration will be enormous.  It seems like a daunting challenge, but like any other emergency, it calls for triage.  We'll need to identify the highest priority areas and those are likely to be the areas affected by the oil disaster.  Next, we'll need to marshal our Restoration Forces to strike those areas hit hardest.  We're lucky to have our Field Marshall already there, already  familiar with the situation, and already working on solutions:  Admiral Thad Allen, USCG (Ret.)...if he would stay on for a while.  Then we'll need to examine what worked and what didn't, and move to the next area.  I believe that one approach might be to find the hardest hit areas, clean them of oil and restore them first, then break out into specialized forces to move east with one team and west with the other until the entire area is clean.
Beyond being our current leaders' legacy, it could be the enduring legacy of multilateral cooperation.  Coming together in our nation's time of need to fix the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States would show that We The People can put aside our partisan beliefs and work together to solve this problem.  The question is, do our leaders in politics have the political will - or the moral courage - to realize that if we do not fix this problem, we have lost within ourselves one of the very things that make us American:  Courage in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds.

25 July 2010

Why we need a national sales tax

Under our current byzantine tax schemes, it's virtually impossible for anyone who holds a job not in the tax field to understand how much he or she is paying to whom.  And, since it's so difficult to understand one's own taxes, how can a person possibly understand where he or she stands compared to everyone else without listening to "advocacy journalists", an oxymoron, or devoting every waking hour to keeping abreast of tax laws while still holding down a job and having a life?  Right.  Difficult if not impossible.

We're all very concerned, understandably, that we pay our fair share of taxes, and no more.  We're also concerned that OTHERS pay their fair share of taxes, and no LESS.  We're concerned about the rich getting tax breaks, the poor being given a free ride, and the bulk of the tax burden being borne by the middle class.  Well, there's a solution to this:  A national sales tax to replace the national income tax and ALL other taxes, regardless of what we call them - payroll taxes, telephone taxes, FICA, including the ones not labeled as taxes. If we pay it to the government, IT'S A TAX! 

Here's why this makes sense.  First, it completely prevents the wealthy from receiving tax breaks; if they consume more, they pay more.  To insure that items bought abroad aren't excepted when brought back to the US, they will pay tax, on a preset electronic schedule available to all via the internet, at the Customs checkpoint immediately upon return to the US.  Anything bought abroad and shipped to the US will be subject to search and taxation before delivery.  While that will require more manpower, it could be discouraged by doubling the tax rate, and the savings in IRS manpower should more than offset the increase required by Customs.  (4 July 2010 addition - Another advantage of 100% of all imports being searched is that we virtually eliminate the possibility of anyone sneaking anything into the country that could be used by terrorists, e.g. fissionable materials, poisons, biological agents, et cetera.)

Second, the poor already pay sales taxes, and they have withholding and income taxes, so since they consume less, theoretically, then they PAY less when the national sales tax REPLACES all other federal taxes. This must be written into the Constitution as an amendment.

Third, the national sales tax would be IN ADDITION TO other state and local sales taxes, but this amount is offset by having more in a person's paycheck due to the repeal of all other federal withholdings.  Basically, a person would receive his full paycheck minus any state, local, personal, or other non-federal withholdings.  Employers would return to the employee in the form of increased wages that portion of an employee's federal tax THAT THE BUSINESS CURRENTLY PAYS (most people don't realize that employers pay HALF OF THE EMPLOYEE'S federal income tax out of the COMPANY'S funds), which should result in increased spending which will, in turn, increase revenues to the federal coffers AND increase business revenues.  

Fourth, yearly filings of federal income tax would cease.  It's a certainty that some lobbying group or another would protest that it would result in loss of jobs, but the system would work for the greater good.  Perhaps those same people could be offered jobs with Customs on a priority basis.  

Many have suggested that a flat tax would be the fairest system, but there will always be tax cheats if a filing system like that used for the current federal income tax scheme is used.  A sales tax system should be much harder to cheat as long as the sole requirement be 'If you buy, you pay tax'.  Simple is difficult to get around, in this case.  When businesses/employers purchase raw goods, they're charged tax.  When they sell those goods, they collect tax.  No exceptions.  When an employee is paid, she or he purchases food, shelter, clothing, and other items, and pays tax on each item.  No exceptions.  

To enact these changes, it would take an uncharacteristic move by the current US Congress:  A true non-partisan effort.  Not "bipartisan" and certainly not "unilateral".  NON-partisan is the only way it would work - congressmen from both sides of the aisle, as well as third parties, would need to work together to draft and enact legislation that would repeal ALL other federal taxes (remember, if you pay it to the government, it's a TAX!)   

Five states - Alaska, Delaware, Montana, New Hampshire and Oregon have no sales tax, so they would need to institute the system from scratch, and Hawaii would too although its "sales tax" is paid by businesses, not directly from the consumers.

That's it.  One flat-rate federal sales tax everywhere in the United States.  The more you spend, the more you pay.  No exceptions.                                                                                                            Originally posted 15 April 2010

Don't make me go all Nostradamus on your ass

I don't have a crystal ball.  I don't throw chicken bones, read tea leaves, nor do I use tarot cards.  I read.  A lot.  As my friend Edwin once said, "I read all kinds of shit".  I do.  I read things I agree with, and I read things I disagree with completely.  One of my former Army unit's motto was "Hostem Cogere".  It's Latin for 'Know the enemy'.  I've had that as my personal motto ever since.  I also read things to try to UNDERSTAND opposing points of view, not merely to know what those differing opinions are.  I CAN be influenced by opposing views, at times.  So, like my friend Edwin, I read all kinds of shit.  
I'm a Progressive.  For those who're unfamiliar with the term, it's not synonymous with 'liberal', as the GOP/Tea Party/Faux News would have you believe.  There have been four periods of Progressivism in American history, the first being in the early 20th century, and the fourth underway today.  A few notable Progressives were/are President Theodore Roosevelt, explorer John Wesley Powell, activist Susan B Anthony, writer Upton Sinclair, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, author/activist Noam Chomsky, journalist/author Thom Hartman, Senator Al Franken, and former Vice President Al Gore.  
But the point of this article is prognostication - what I believe lies in our future, some good, some bad.  What seems a long time ago to me, my late teens and early twenties, I began noticing how the course of American events mirrored the events we were taught about the downfall of major civilizations and empires.  I would ask questions about the thoughts of the instructors, but most were Christians and I saw a pattern in their answers, which was that they all believed, some more some less, that within their lifetimes they would experience the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.  My early religious training had expired, due I guess to a short shelf-life or something, but I think because I began to see inequities between what I saw Christians saying and what I saw them doing.  And because no one could explain to me why the Bible was so full of contradictions.  The answers always referred to faith and belief, not reason and logic, and really weren't answers at all.  Pressing for answers only lead to suspecting glances and frowns, and deflection of my inquiries by making small talk about the weather and birds.  But, I'm hardheaded and like to get to the truth of any question, even if I don't or won't like the answer.  So I set about studying how civilizations break down.  
A few of the most prominent characteristics of a civilization or empire in decline; a breakdown in civility, political hubris, polarization of secular and religious factions, a decline of the civilization's standing amongst its fellow states, and economic breakdown.  Today, we see all of these things happening.  While virtually the entire world economy is going through a period of stagnation, some elements, like the BRIC nations - Brazil, Russia, India, China - are showing merely a dip in an otherwise upward trend.  The same isn't so certain at home.  In fact, national-wealth-building industries such as heavy iron and steel works, ship construction, heavy equipment , automobile and aircraft manufacturing, businesses that take decades to establish, have gone overseas to cheaper labor markets in Asia.  High technology which was once the forte of the US has now followed the same cheap labor escape routes.  For decades, some of us have been telling anyone who cared to listen that allowing our economy to become service-industry based was a huge mistake, and now we've seen the rise of China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and Korea to displace us as the new masters of industry.  Today, there are half a dozen car companies in the US; China has 47, and they're coming here.  
So it's all gloom and doom, right?  Well, those are just a few of the harbingers of the future.  The real gloom and doom will come as a social shift.  In the past century, we've seen what radical shifts in national policy and social thought in either direction can do.  Germany, Japan and Italy shifted radically right while the Soviet Union and China shifted left.  The end results of both shifts was close to the same - the new regimes sought to eliminate their opposition by whatever means they felt necessary.  The Nazis at first used a banner of radical Christianity to send Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, homosexuals, Gypsies, and others, to their deaths, or to concentration camps, at best.  The Soviets sent intellectuals, political opponents, members of certain religious groups like Jews, and others, to the firing squads, gallows or gulags.  The one certainty of revolutions with a zealous religious element is that someone's going to die.  In the 20th and 21st centuries, we saw peaceful revolutions like Czechoslovakia's  Velvet Revolution, resulting in the Czech and Slovak Republics, but this was a movement AWAY from authoritarian, totalitarian rule...not toward it like what's facing us.  
Here it is:  
1) A fight for oil will create wars around the world, resulting in the first TRUE world war.  The wealthiest nations will come out on top, not the nations with the best armies.  At the same time, rising seas from global warming will have begun inundating low-lying coastal areas around the world creating climate refugees even in places like the US and Europe.  
2) China will become the most powerful economic force in the world, but will lag behind the US militarily, initially, but might in arms will follow economic power.  
3) The BRIC nations will become 2nd world countries, much like Britain and France following WWII, with good standards of living, decent human rights policies, and relative security since no one is out to knock second best out of its niche. 
4) The US will no longer be a superpower economically, and its military power will diminish as a result of the loss of economic power.  Perhaps as a result of the loss of its economic supremacy, but certainly after the loss of military primacy, the US will fall into a period of revolt and will simultaneously face foreign aggression and even invasion.  The best organized entities will come out on top; the wealthy and organized religions will create zones ruled by themselves, some as theonomies and theocracies, some as oligarchies, some as virtual monarchies, but all will claim that absolute rule by them alone is necessary for their survival.  
5) A long period of persecution of homosexuals will begin, the flames of which will be fanned by the radio and television hate mongers, most currently found on Faux Noise, and more yet to be trained.  The Tea Party, the new American-bred Taliban, will find a banner behind which to rally the troops having already sown the seeds of that particular discrimination.  Eventually, an interfaith synod comprised of leaders of authoritarian religions such as Christian reconstructionists, radical Muslims, ultra-orthodox Jews, and possibly even others like tribal African religions, will meet and declare homosexuality a capital crime and sin, following the same beliefs about homosexuality that they hold today.  Immediately, homosexuals will be rounded up and, once again forced into labor camps for use until extermination.  
As we gain more and more scientific knowledge and venture farther into space, we also retrench in areas of social progress to the same point we were when we left the cave and went hunting and gathering.  Down through the ages, it seems that whenever people need someone to use as a common perceived enemy, it's homosexuals.  Yes, Jews have had their share of tribulations too, but today the most fanatical of them have joined the ranks of the gay haters.  And that's where we are, right now, one step away from the next homoholocaust.                                                              Originally posted 21 March 2010

A few thoughts on Corporatocracy and inheritance

Alexis de Tocqueville, a French political thinker and historian, observed in his 'Democracy in America' (1835), published after traveling in the United States, "Among a democratic people, where there is no hereditary wealth, every man works to earn a living...Labor is held in honor; the prejudice is not against but in its favor."  And this brings to mind the thought that at some point in our future, we must abolish hereditary wealth and inheritance of wealth.  I know that it's not a popular theme and is often considered socialist or even communist, but think it through to its logical conclusion.

Today, we have about 6.8 billion people on the planet, already overcrowded beyond the point of sustainability, according to many scientists, by a factor of 5 or better.  Wealth accumulates in the hands of a few.  The world's wealthiest families are secretive about their wealth and well understand how to spread it so that no one family member draws too much attention.  But, the real power that that wealth buys rests in the hands of one or at most a handful of that family and that power allows their wealth to continue to grow and accumulate.

In the West, we commonly hold the mistaken belief that if you own stock, you own part of a company.  That's true only in the most remote of senses.  In reality, only those people with preferred or "blue chip" stock own the company.  The rest, the vast majority of stockholders, own common stock, which vests the owner with precisely....nothing.  A common stock owner has merely loaned that company money to grow, or fail, at very low interest rates.  Again, the real power rests in the hands of the few who hold preferred stock and are the real owners of the company. Everyone else simply has loaned them money to gamble; they're far too smart to gamble with their own.

Recently, the US Supreme Court issued a ruling that overturned legislation which prevented corporations from contributing money to political campaigns.  It will allow other entities such as labor unions to spend freely, too.  The age of the Robber Baron has returned, ushered in by a conservative court bent on invalidating anything that smacks of restraint or moderation in campaign finance reform.  Conservative political organizations are already mobilizing, smelling progressive blood in the water.  Who benefits from this ruling?   The very same wealthy people who own the corporations - Corporate America, the Corporatocracy that's been in place for years just got free rein from the highest court in the land to influence politics in America as they see fit.  And they see fit to insure that laws are enacted and taxes are lifted so that they can rake in profits unlike any ever seen. Even if this ruling had direct impact only on labor unions, it would be just as disastrous.  While it allows both corporations and labor unions to finance campaigns directly, it is going to result in mudslinging of the like that hasn't been seen in a century.  Voters will be so inundated by half-truths and outright lies from both sides that finding the truth in between will be virtually impossible, and that's exactly what the conservative-biased Supreme Court wanted; conservative organizations already control the airwaves while simultaneously labeling mainstream media as liberal.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  All of this is precisely what the real powers of wealth desired - media control that keeps the pot stirred, the subservient workers too busy with petty quarrels to look into where these problems came from, and too distracted to notice the man behind the curtain.

Congressional Republicans have stuck together on one thing:  The attempt to thwart any legislation that comes from anyone other than them, regardless that it might do good for everyone.  They would rather see the nation fail along with the Democrats than work beside them for the good of the country.  It's the politics of greed, nothing more.  They have proven to be the spoiled brats on the playground who refuse to play at all if they can't have everything their way.  And despite the FACT that Republicans have absolutely no concern for their constituents beyond getting their votes in the next election, a misinformed, duped public continues to vote for them.  The powers behind the conservatives know this.  They know that they can do anything and get away with it because the vast majority of their voters are people who would rather believe what they're told than think through thorny issues.  It's not a matter of trust; voters don't fully trust anyone, even the ones they help elect.  It's a matter of conservative voters being so invested in the morass that's been created by Ronald Reagan, Bush 41, and Bush 43 with the assistance of Blue Dog Democrats that they don't want to admit that they're wrong. To admit they're wrong means that we will have to push the reset button, and the middle class will never allow that, but will continue drinking the Kool-Aid and pretending that everything will be OK....some day.  So the problem grows and worsens.

Who will ultimately benefit from all of this?  The ultra wealthy.  The same people who always have benefited from wars, famine, and every other man-made pestilence.  For them to have the wealth they hold, someone has to be poor, someone has to do the gritty work that they wouldn't put their hands to, someone has to live in the hovels and work for pennies a day, and someone's child has to go hungry.  There is no "trickle down" wealth creation. That's a fantasy.  And everything that modern politics does allows them to continue their hereditary wealth to the point that, one day, they'll own everything and the rest of us will be forced to rent from them.  Do you really think that the housing bust following the housing boom was an accident?  Why are derivatives so hard to understand? Because they were designed to KEEP us from understanding.  The boom was accidental, the bust most certainly was not.  How could they continue to accumulate wealth if others were allowed to do the same?

All hail the new American Corporatocracy!  America has finally gotten the government it deserves.                                                                  Originally posted 28 January 2010