Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Insanity of Raising Taxes Before Spending Is Cut

The truly 'silly season' in politics is upon us now in full force.

You see it arise when Republicans start arguing over contraception (because they don't want to talk about reforming/reducing 55%+ of the budget that is in Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid)

You also see it arise when Democrats start waving the bloody shirt of 'raise taxes only on the rich!' (because they don't want to talk about reforming/reducing 55%+ of the budget that is in Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid)

You see, the most important thing for EITHER political party is to never talk about how to restrain the growth of any entitlement program. Ever. Mainly because every incumbent, even Tea Party incumbents, want to get re-elected and they understand the incredible power the AARP and the high number of seniors who vote every election.

Close to 50 million people age 55 and over voted in the 2008 elections versus 32 million Americans aged 18-34 in the same elections.  50 beats 32 in anything.

Both parties want to return to Washington DC as the majority party each election.  But since neither side talks about reforming any entitlement program during the campaign to build a mandate to do so, neither will ever take any action on the 3 largest components of our deficit/debt problems today: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

You want 'proof':  There have now been 20 Republican debates for the primaries so far.  How much of those approximately 40 hours of televised debate broadcasts have been devoted to a sober, deep drill down examination of the upwards cost pressures in health care in general and in Medicare and Medicaid in particular?

About 30 seconds or so.  Out of close to 2400 minutes or 144,000 seconds of the televised debates.   0.000208333333 or about .02% of the debates so far have been dedicated to the 3 federal programs that are chewing up over 50% of the federal budget or over $1.8 trillion this year. Of your hard-earned taxpayer money, or whatever the Chinese are still crazy enough to keep lending us.

Those are the primary components of the federal budget and the health care inflation in Medicare/Medicaid and in the VA and the military budget is the culprit in these exploding federal deficits for years to come.

Not talking about our  biggest problems today is akin to Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas completely ignoring the problem of the 'peculiar institution' called slavery during their great debates in 1858 in Illinois for the US Senate seat and talking about the weather and whether or not it was going to affect the winter wheat harvest that year or something more innocuous than that.

Social Security is technically drawing down the (fictitious) 'SS Trust Fund Surplus' as we speak today!  We were not 'supposed' to be drawing down any of that surplus for at least another 10-15 years!  Were we?

The SS Trust Fund 'Surplus' only exists in the imaginations of federal bureaucrats who thought it up 28 years ago in 1983 when Congress passed the last 'Save Social Security Act' after the Alan Greenspan Commission came up with accelerated payroll tax hikes and dramatically higher payroll taxes on self-employed people.

And yet, despite all of this 'silence' about addressing the fundamentals of our spending close to $3.6 trillion this year from Washington, there are still those, including President Barack Obama as the Drum Major-in-Chief beating the drums for 'higher taxes on the they can pay 'their fair share!'

Let us ask you the following questions:

1) Suppose you had an investment in a company that was poorly-run and bleeding cash every month through mismanagement and malfeasance from current execs.  Would you pour any more of your hard-earned money into this company BEFORE they could prove to you that they had taken care of the wasteful spending under their control?

2) Suppose your child wanted an increase in his/her allowance even though they did no chores around the house, were making D's and F's in school and generally treated you, the parents, as the hired help to boss around every day.  Would you raise the allowance to $1000/week 'just because they told you they needed the money?'

3) Suppose your federal government had done a terrible, awful job of managing the money you have been sending to them for the past decade; have never addressed any of the real problems in the biggest entitlement programs the world has ever known; spent money on wars overseas without budgeting for them or raising taxes to pay for them from the current generation; and generally made a mess of US federal finances by never even trying to balance the budget through spending restraint first.

Should you or would you just willingly send more of your money to Washington to 535 elected officials who apparently have zero capacity to: read, write, add, subtract, balance or that order?

Heck, no!  That would be the pure-T definition of insanity to the nth degree.  Only truly stupid people throw good money after bad....and we see evidence of it every single day.

Now we are 'on-record' as saying that we would take a $1/head tax hike on everyone in return for a $10 trillion spending reduction package over 10 years.  We understand that there are a majority of Democrat US Senators under the spell of Nevada Senator Harry Reid who apparently are so spellbound by his charisma and leadership that they just do everything he says and tells them to do.

He tells them to stand firm on 'raising taxes on the rich!' and waves the bloody shirt just like David Axelrod tells President Obama to do about every 3 weeks.  Count 'em and see if that is not the interval of these 'soak the rich' speeches.

But if we could get $10 trillion in spending reductions in return for a measly $1/head tax hike, we would do it in a split second simply because it would be in the best interests of this nation to take bold action to reduce these deficits today so we don't become like Greece tomorrow.

It would be in the grand American spirit of 'compromise' which is as deeply embedded in the US Constitution as the DNA in your own body identifies you as the son or daughter of two parents.

We understand that there are some people on Planet Earth, such as the majority of Democrats who control the US Senate under the spell of Senator Harry Reid, who just do not want to cut spending anywhere, anytime or any place (They have not even passed a budget for the past 1000 days or close to 3 years running for Goodness Sakes!!). Since we have a civil government that demands compromise, people who want smaller government spending have to work with people who want to raise taxes to get something we want done for the good of the nation: lower debt.

It would still be throwing $1 in tax hikes in the gutter because there would be trillions more in spending that can and should be reformed or eliminated. But we would get $10 trillion in spending reductions which means $10 trillion in lower deficits and $10 trillion in less debt incurred to pass on to our children and grandchildren to pay.

Raising taxes to pay for an ever-expanding, not optimally managed federal government without dramatic spending cuts or reforms is simply 'insane'.

Cut the spending first.  And then let's see if any taxes are needed to to plug the deficit gap.

Our guess is that they will not be needed.  From the rich or anyone else.

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

'Augustinian Sensibility' and Politics

St. Augustine of Hippo
What does that mean?

We were honored and had the distinct pleasure to have Michael Cromartie of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics and Public Policy Center (yes, that is not an oxymoron; there does exist such a place in our nation's capital) speak at two recent classes we held at Duke University for budding citizen-politicians we are now training at The Institute for the Public Trust. (see below)

Michael is an expert at the nexus where public policy, faith and the media intersect...and if the recent brouhaha over the Obama mandate for health insurance issued by the Catholic Church was any indication, his services will be needed now more than ever it seems.

His lecture was insightful, entertaining and helpful, as it always is, but one thing really struck us this time when he explained what 'augustinian sensibility' should really mean to people in the public arena and all of their varied supporters:

'Don't expect too much out of your elected leader(s) because you are surely going to be disappointed when they don't deliver what they promise during the campaign.'

Think about it.  We all want our favorite leader to lead us all to the Promised Land, just as Moses led the Israelites out of the desert and to the River Jordan's very edge.  (Remember, Moses screwed up and didn't get to lead his people into the Promised Land. Joshua did)

But how can 1 person in a pluralistic society like America ever lead ALL of us to the Promised Land when we all have such different and varied definitions of what the 'Promised Land' looks like?

Ronald Reagan came to Washington in 1981 after trouncing Jimmy Carter in the lop-sided 1980 election on a wave of 'American Pride and Western Cowboy Spit and Determination!' only to fall short of his stated claims to balance the budget and make the federal government 'smaller' during his term.

It doubled in size.  From $591 billion in 1980 to $1.143 trillion in 1989.

President Barack Obama came into Washington in 2009 on a palpable sense of 'Hope and Change' because many people believed he was a 'transformational' leader on the order of Mahatma Gandhi of India and Abraham Lincoln combined with FDR and was somehow going to make life better for everyone...and balance the budgets at the same time.

He failed as well.

What the heck happens between a campaign and actually having to do the hard work of governing?

Everything it seems.  Campaigns are 'fun' and promises are 'easy to say' on the campaign trail.  Just ask George H.W. Bush 41, he of the 'Read My Lips; No NEW Taxes!' promise at the 1988 Republican Convention.

But the Founders wisely set up a gauntlet course where no one person or faction could ever get 100% of everything they wanted in any single session of Congress or presidential term.

Although you have to admit that Obamacare came pretty darned close to getting everything the President and the Democratic Party wanted in terms of passing a massive new piece of legislation that will permeate every sector of the nation, including the Catholic Church, for decades to come, don't you?

Part of it is because many people confuse our democratic republic with pure 'democracy' where majority votes rules in every instance.

It doesn't in Congress.  Not by a long shot.  In fact, the way the rules of the Senate are set up, many times a minority of 41 Senators can, and will, slow down legislation to make sure that the rights of the minority party, be they Republicans or Democrats, will not be trampled by a stampede of legislation from the dominating majority led by a President of the same party.

Just as the Founders envisioned it.  They were as opposed to concentrated power in any office of government as they were for the promotion of liberty and freedom for the citizenry.  It can be a confusing and yet delicate balance especially to millions of voters who vote for someone and expect everything the winner says will get done will actually 'get done!'.

Let's take a look at where an 'augustinian sensibility' might help cool the flames of politics out there and bring some reason and common-sense to our public discussions about civic issues:

  • Will any President bring total happiness and 'fairness' in terms of creature comforts to the entire population?  Not likely unless he is a total magician or Santa Claus.  It is simply impossible for any President or Congress to change the American system overnight and start redistributing all of the assets and wealth any better than the current free enterprise system does on a daily basis where owners pay workers out of their savings or investments.
  • Will any President or elected Member of Congress or Senate be able to keep the price of gasoline from skyrocketing if Iran closes off the Straits of Hormuz? Nope. Gasoline prices are a function of supply-and-demand and/or 'fear' of future supplies versus demand. Foreign policy might help dictate the direction of gas prices but unless we elect a future Jed Clampett President one day who controls a supply of newly-discovered oil greater than all OPEC countries combined in the Tennessee foothills, a US President has very little to do with the price of oil in the world markets.
  • Will any President or Congress ban any abortion from being legal in the United States again?  Or, to the converse side, remove any restrictions now on abortion in the country so that abortion-on-demand will happen anytime, anywhere and for any reason? No. In fact, it can be argued that American politics has been held hostage to the abortion debate since Roe vs Wade in 1973 and the debate has raged between the 49-yard lines, to borrow from a football analogy. Being 'pro-life' or 'pro-choice' has become sort of a proxy that has further polarized our national discussions to the point where we can not even get pro-lifers and pro-choicers to agree that balanced budgets are a good thing anymore.  To our collective detriment.
  • Will any POTUS or Congress ever solve anything anymore?  That is a good question in these days and times.

Two other quotes Michael passed along bear repeating in this context:
Max Weber : 'Politics is the strong and slow boring of very hard boards' and
Reinhold Niebuhr: 'Politics is the method of finding approximate solutions to basically insoluble problems.'

Maybe we should listen to these guys, St. Augustine and Michael Cromartie while we are at it.  Then maybe we will stop trying to kill each other all the time in the public square.

Augustine did have one great quote that might apply to politicians as well when they say they want to be a 'uniter, not a divider':  'Lord, make me chaste.  Just not yet'. (from his great book, 'Confessions'. Read it. You'll see why for a long time, it was the second-most read book in the world behind the Bible)

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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Contraception, Health Care Plans and The Constitution

Why has the contraception edict by the Obama White House caused so much trouble?

It drives Catholics and other church-goers bonkers.

For good reason.  It goes against the very essence of who we are as Americans as you will soon see.

The Catholics were understandably upset over the forced mandate of contraceptives being included on any health care plan offered by the Catholic Church to any of its millions of people across the nation or group plans offered through any of its entities.  That goes against their religious belief that contraceptives are not acceptable to use as for family-planning purposes.

But Protestant religious groups across the nation were irate as well, even though their denominations accept the use of contraceptives for family-planning.

What gives?  What was at the heart of this enervated opposition to President Obama's health care policy?

We think this edict bore right through the mantle of the often-shallow American political game and went right through to the magma of what it means to be an American.  It is worth examining just so everyone understands where it came from.

What people with religious faith vehemently disagree with is the heavy-handed intrusion of the power of the federal government into matters of their faith.  If there is anything that is a core American principle, it is the protection of everyone's right to believe, or not believe for that matter, in any particular religion.

It is a clearly enunciated right in the US Constitution. The Constitution speaks of religion in two phrases: The first is the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment:  'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;'.

The second is Article VI:  '...but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.'  Go tell that to Mitt Romney.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is about it for the Constitutional language on religion and religious freedom.

There are 3 other 'foundational' documents, however, that you need to be aware of and understand whenever it comes to religious freedom issues in America, even though they are not in the US Constitution.  

The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, penned by Thomas Jefferson in 1779.
The Danbury Baptists Letter to President Thomas Jefferson in October, 1801.
President Thomas Jefferson's Response to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802.

Click on the links above and take a look at these important American documents.  It is simply impossible to come away with any other conclusion than the fact that Thomas Jefferson, speaking on the behalf of many of the Revolutionaries and Patriots of the day, wanted to make painfully clear that one of the prime motivations for fighting the War for Independence and establishing the new Republic was to guarantee the free exercise of religion without ANY interference or hindrance or mandate from the federal government. Whatsoever. Ever.

Jefferson's language in the Virginia Statute is rife with 'liberty' and 'freedom' words and themes written in only a way that he seemed able to and catch the spirit of the human need to be able to worship freely without any interference from anyone or any state-sponsored government.

The point to keep in mind as you read these documents is that paramount in their minds was the experience of the state-sponsored Anglican Church of England as well as the state-sponsored Anglican Church of Virginia in colonial and post-revolutionary war days.

Did you know that you could not hold office in the Commonwealth of Virginia unless you were a solid Anglican or Episcopalian in good standing? Not only that, taxes were collected from the taxpayers of the Commonwealth of Virginia to support, you guessed it, The Anglican Church of Virginia!  The word 'antidisestablishmentarianism' comes from the political battles in England and Virginia over the 'disestablishment' of the Church 'from' the state.

Can you imagine that?  Collecting taxes today to support any church in your state, be it Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim or Rastafarian?

Jefferson and his founding brothers rejected that notion for the new Republic in 1789.  His response to the Danbury Baptists was written to assure them that he had no interest or desire as President to do anything that would be construed or mis-construed as recognizing or establishing any particular religion as the 'state-sponsored' religion of the new federal government.

The Danbury Baptists were aggrieved just like the Virginia Baptists or Methodists must have been in the sense that they were not allowed to hold public office and participate fully in the new republic's business.

Jefferson's letter back to them sought to assure them of his independence in this issue and he included this phrase: '...thus building a wall of separation between Church & State' to emphasize his understanding that the state should not impose a state-sponsored religion on anyone anywhere in this nation.

That phrase has been noodled, dissected, mis-represented and mis-handled ever since then by parties on all sides of various issues, depending on whether it suited their political purposes or not.

This is the landmine that the Obama Administration stepped on which has blown up in their face.  It flies in the face of the American experience that any President or Congress can tell any religious group what to do and that includes whether the Catholic Church has to offer coverage for contraceptives or not in their offering of insurance plans.

Reading some of the foundational documents might actually be helpful to everyone involved, wouldn't you agree?

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Friday, February 3, 2012

'Render Unto Caesar What Is Caesar's'

From Politico:
'President Barack Obama on Thursday tied his proposal to raise taxes on wealthy Americans to his faith, telling leaders gathered for the National Prayer Breakfast that Jesus’s teachings have shaped that conclusion.
The rich should pay more not only because “I actually think that is going to make economic sense, but for me as a Christian, it also coincides with Jesus’s teaching that ‘for unto whom much is given, much shall be required,’” Obama said at the Washington Hilton, delivering remarks at an annual event that every president has attended since Dwight D. Eisenhower.'
Well, this brings up a lot of other verses to consider, doesn't it?
  • Jesus Himself Paid Taxes! (Matthew 17:24-27)
  • 'Render Unto Caesar What Is Caesar's' (Matthew 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26)
  • Submit Yourself To The Governing Authorities (Romans 13:1)
  • Pay Taxes Because The 'Governing Authorities' Are God's Servants (Romans 13:5-7)
Now, politicians always have to be very careful when they are mixing Scripture with advocating public policy.  What about the confusion between 'church and state' here?  Didn't President Obama just step over the line by 'invoking' the Holy Lord by intimating that He thinks higher taxes on rich Americans is a 'good thing' to cure our budget deficits as if Jesus is some sort of OMB Director?

But more to the point, what do these verses actually tell us about the American Experience as a nation over these past 223 years?

That we are a nation of 'rebels' who don't look kindly on despotic leaders and rulers, that is what it says.

Here's what we mean:

Apparently, none of the Revolutionary Founders of this nation paid too much attention to the admonition to 'submit to the governing authorities' very well, did they?  What did they do?

They stuck more than their finger into the chest and then the eyes of King George III and told him through a bloody war (which anytime really is 'politics by other means) to go stuff it somewhere and don't ever bother us again.

And then, they did something truly amazing.

They wrote a Constitution of self-rule that completely eliminated any vestige of single person rule in America.

No, not the one we live under now.  The Articles of Confederation, adopted in 1781. The 'first' Constitution and the one that coined the phrase 'The United States of America' for the first time.

There was no President. There was no Supreme Court. There was no bicameral legislature. Just one unicameral legislative body where 13 representatives of the 13 states would meet and have to arrive at a unanimous vote to get anything done.

So, in God's eyes, who then became the 'governing authority' under which to submit and pay taxes and do other things the 'government' ('of the people, by the people, for the people' know, what Lincoln said at Gettysburg) told them to do?  Who is the 'Caesar' now?

You see the difference? It is one thing to have a single person make decisions for the rest of us all based on his/her personal feelings and predilections.

It is an entirely other thing to have a group of people hammer out a deal under which they know themselves that they are going to have to live under the rules they hammer out and then return home to face the approbation or the disgust of their many neighbors and friends who live near them, not across the ocean or in Washington, DC far removed from the 'real world'.

We think President Obama has made the mistake in assuming that we live in an America under the rule of a 'Caesar' or at least a very powerful President during his term in the White House.

To some extent and to be fair about it all, the power assumed by the President has been steadily escalating over the past 80 years since FDR took the reins of the White House during the last (but far more severe) Great Depression in 1933.  Ronald Reagan consolidated power during his term in the White House through his charm and personality and George W. Bush did some things that still give us heartburn to be honest about it.

But we really don't live under a Caesar and never have. We don't live in a nation ruled by a King, a czar, a potentate or even a Grand Poobah of the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes like in the Flintstones cartoons.

We live in a democratic republic where we are supposedly ruled by fellow citizens who are supposed to argue, debate, scream if they have to over policy differences in Congress and our state legislatures....and then come to some reasonable compromises and conclusions and go home.

The problem is that Americans seem to have become inured to the idea that The President and the Executive Branch of our government is far more important and powerful than the Congress (of the People) is. Take a look at this chart and see what we mean.

Maybe this 2012 presidential election cycle is a good time to discuss, maybe at least for 10 minutes in one of these interminable debates, the proper role and perspectives on self-governance nowadays.

The Founders spent 13 years in, first, a bloody, protracted war on the battlefields and then heated debates in the councils and pubs over what to do next between 1776 and 1789 to set up what they thought was the 'ideal' structure for people to govern themselves in a free society.

We think now that the 'governing authorities' are ourselves, and not a Caesar, that it is time we start acting like we care about what is happening to our nation and get involved in some tangible worthwhile manner this election cycle.

Like maybe you running for some elective office for example or at least coughing up some significant dough for candidates who do have the courage to run for something.

'Rendering Unto Caesar' when you are actually the 'governing authority' takes on a completely different light, doesn't it?

(This was not written as a plug for The Institute for the Public Trust that we are running now to help train new people to run for public office but if you want to learn more go to the link below and/or contribute to help us complete this mission and goal)

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