seeking knowledge and laughter, putting a bullseye on inaccuracy

Politics & Religion

Thoughts on the two - frequently both.

Tim Geithner

Can you believe Obama nominated some dude for the Secretary of the Treasury who didn't pay his taxes? UNBELIEVABLE!!!

Well, you shouldn't believe it - because it isn't true. The truth is considerably more innocent. But that doesn't make for headlines or good confirmation hearings I guess. Thus far, the best written account I have found was on the New York Times. I quote from it below.

The Diane Rehm show covered this well on Friday morning's News Hour (first hour). The gist is that international employees are told by the IRS to treat their income as self-employment. However, it was not clear on what deductions you can take against that income. From what I know, Geithner took the advice of his accountant (though some have said he ignored the advice of his accountant) and apparently underpaid as later determined by the IRS.

Then he was audited and he had to pay up for his errors in 2003 and 2004 but not in 2001 and 2002 apparently because there is a statute of limitations that only allows the IRS to go back 3 years. So he was free on years 2001 and 2002.

That chronology raises the question, however, of why Mr. Geithner did not voluntarily correct the earlier nonpayment of self-employment taxes after the 2006 I.R.S. audit identified the problem for 2003 and 2004.

Well, the better questions is what he could have done about it. According to guests on the Diane Rehm show, the IRS has no mechanism for even accepting old payments. This may not make much sense to us, but if you go to the IRS and say you want to correct a mistake from ten years ago, apparently they will tell you to keep your money.

But they didn't want to look like fools so they found a way to accept the back payments from TG. Without defending TG's fiscal policies (something I admittedly don't know much about), I think it pretty clear that all this junk about his taxes is a waste of time because there is no impropriety here. Maybe they should focus on cracking down on white-collar criminals instead of grand-standing on some bullshit non-issue.

President Obama

And so begins another chapter in our history. Let's hope it goes better than the last.

I was fortunate enough to watch the Inauguration as the Birchwood Cafe - with many Obama supporters. Two of my co-workers were heading over there, so I joined them and watched it with a lot of people clapping and cheering loudly throughout - with the occasional hiss or Boo for you-know-who.

As of today, it seems that my fellow citizens have a lot more patriotism. I only hope that they will not overlook his coming mistakes or bad decisions. Because he will make them. And at that point, we have to push him back on the best course for this country.

I cannot think of anyone else I would have as the President of the United States at this moment.

Who Pays for What?

After reading another insightful article from The New Republic on the Auto Industry, I reflected a bit on some of the ways in which we have seriously mixed up who pays for what in this country.

Jonathan Cohn's "Auto Destruct" is an excellent article that quickly explains one of the factors in the downfall of the Big 3 automakers. Unions have been blasted by many on the right for being the main problem, but that is far from the truth and ignores many of the benefits these unions brought to the United States - particularly, a strong middle class.

Union power is at historic lows and the middle class has been stagnating - these are not unrelated factors. But the truth is that the middle class would be suffering anyway, and businesses would be moving offshore even faster (I believe) if unions were stronger now.

The problem is that we have greatly mixed up who gets what benefits in this country - and who pays for them. For decades, higher wages, retirement benefits, subsidized daycare, health care (HEALTH CARE!!!), went to those who were working for the right company. These companies tended to be unionized or run in a more non-profit manner (giving employees more benefits than the market was otherwise offering similar employees elsewhere - as with Half Price Books, a company I worked for after undergrad). Make no mistake - these companies made profits, but did not treat employees like crap just to make more.

This is not an equitable manner of distributing important "benefits" like HEALTH INSURANCE, affordable daycare, and retirement benefits. Fortunately, we do have a fairly equitable system of retirement benefits - it is called Social Security and the government runs it. This is good because you should not be forced into poverty after you turn 65 merely because you worked for the "wrong company" or lost your job.

Health Insurance, affordable daycare, and other benefits should be available to all citizens - especially in an economy designed to run at 4% ish unemployment. If you tie these benefits to jobs, then you are intentionally forcing - under the BEST of circumstances - 1 in 25 people to go without.

One could imagine your child's education being tied to your employer. Is it so different than health insurance? It is just as bad an idea - some things must be available to all if we are to be a free society with social and economic mobility.

As we fix these problems, I think it important to remember that putting such societal responsibilities on private businesses was never the best approach - and unions like the United Auto Workers fought to put these responsibilities on the government where they belong. But they were fought, in many cases, by stupid companies like GM that have made an art out of biting off their nose to spite their face.

If we want to be competitive and keep businesses local, we need to free private businesses from the responsibilities of health care, daycare, and retirement. By continuing to expect companies to provide these things, we are making a policy choice that rewards companies like Wal-Mart that explicitly screw their employees to cut their prices - which drives responsible companies out of business.

Great Title, Great Column

I have wanted to write something like this for a long time. But this Cenk guy beat me to it - Kudos to him and his great column, "Not Another Word on Gay Marriage Until They Execute an Adulterer"

They are completely and utterly disingenuous. They don't mean a word of it. They don't give a damn what the Bible says. They just want to use it as an instrument of hate.

The Bible says eating shellfish is an abomination. Yet there are no Red Lobster Amendments. The Bible says you shall not wear two different types of cloths at the same time. Yet there are no Propositions against cotton and wool combos.

David Corn on Rick Warren

Ironic title eh? Some man-on-man action!

I greatly enjoyed David Corn's comments on why Rick Warren sucks as Obama Convocation speaker.

B3B 2

As a follow-up to my Big 3 Bailout post, my boss published this op-ed in the Pioneer Press, which rightly defends the unions which are getting savaged in the debate over the automakers.

One of the points he does not make is that some have calculated all the tax incentives used to lure the foreign car manufacturers to these southern states, and they are quite significant. Let's not leave that out of the equation of whether tax dollars should support automakers - because they certainly do in the case of the Nissan, Honda, and Toyota plants down south.

Further, I would note that the wages and benefits are better in those non-unionized plants because the owners are fearful of their workers organizing. So they offer better wages and benefits as an incentive to prevent union activity.

Finally, one of the more important things we should do to bail out all companies and make them more competitive internationally, is to develop a good health care system that does not lash you to whatever health care plan your employer has. Health insurance tied to your employer? What a dumb idea.

B3B

Bail out the Big Three, already. Though, perhaps it is poetic justice that so many in the Midwest support Republicans while Republicans will cavalierly bail out Wall Street while ignoring an industry employing more people, but located in the Midwest.

Whatever we might do in "normal" times, these are not those. This is a time when we have to decide whether we will pursue a Hoover or FDR path. Many Republicans are opting for Hoover, having not learned anything - but what would you expect from people who don't believe in evolution? Perhaps evolution does not believe in them either.

This is a terrible time to let the Big 3 "American" automakers fail. Continuing yesterday's theme of pimping the December 3, 2008 issue of The New Republic, I will defend this position by referencing Jonathan Cohn's "Panic in Detroit."

Cohn argues that Detroit is much closer to solving its own problems than most realize. Both management and unions have worked together to become more competitive and embrace "collborative quality management" to be competitive with the foreign competition. And it is succeeding.

According to the most recent Harbour Report, the benchmark guide for manufacturing prowess, Chrysler's factories now match Toyota's for the most productive, while both Ford's and GM's are improving. (A Toledo Jeep factory was actually named the nation's most efficient.) Consumer Reports now says Ford's reliability is approaching that of perennial leaders Honda and Toyota, whose ratings actually slipped last year.

As for those who argue that they should go bankrupt anyway, and the market will be able to help resurrect them, Cohn offers some strong evidence that bankruptcy would be a disaster - and not for the reasons that so many suggest (people supposedly won't buy cars from bankrupt auto companies).

Cohn considers the different types of bankrupcty, explaining which is more likely, and why the results of this option could be even worse than the status quo -

If anything, Chapter 11 might reinforce some of Detroit's worst habits--starting with its tendency to seek the lowest prices from parts suppliers, even if that means switching companies frequently and paying relatively little attention to part quality. Toyota is famous for taking the opposite approach: It eschews easy savings in order to maintain long-term relationships with suppliers; these relationships, in turn, allow Toyota and its suppliers to collaborate on design and quality. It's precisely the sort of production technique that the Big Three should be adopting. But, in a Chapter 11 filing, under pressure to improve the bottom line as fast as possible, they'd be unlikely to do that.

If you have questions on the bailout - read this article.

And for those who argue that they should be held accountable for their ineptitude ... well, we don't hold anyone else accountable for their actions so maybe we should just give them the Congressional Medal of Honor or Presidential Medal of Rewarding Stupidity, right, Thomas Friedman who should be arguing that the automakers only need 6 months to turn the corner - as he did for years during the War in Iraq.

B Frank, F'ing Bailout

Fun headline - I'm combining two great articles from the December 3, 2008 issue of The New Republic.

Let's start with the interesting history of Barney Frank in "Bailout: The redemption of Barney Frank" by Michelle Cottle. I've been really impressed with Frank over the past year but I did not know much about the openly gay Representative.

This piece provides a lot of interesting background - and reinforces my impression of him as someone that you would not want to disagree with unless you really knew what you were talking about. I've loved him on the Diane Rehm show interviews throughout the fall, where he is very feisty. I think we are lucky to have him as House Financial Services Committee chair during these difficult times.

From the article, discussing a high level White House meeting on the failing economy before the first debate:

In the presence of such august company, a less confident man might have been intimidated into silence or at least decorous deference. Not Frank. He kept jumping in, quizzing Bush officials and pressing Republican legislators on their objections to the proposal. When John McCain rambled vaguely about the need to alter the package, Frank cut in to demand: "Like what?" As the senator finished, Frank huffed, "I still don't know what your proposals are."

Of the three articles I want to discuss, the most fun one is called Gosh Darn Sons of Guns" by Jeffrey Rosen.

It covers the idiocy of current FCC regulations regarding cussin'. Which reminds me - if you haven't listened to or read the lyrics to Steve Earle's "F the CC," now would be a good time.

Are Americans becoming more tolerant to cussin'? Fuck yes we are. And it is about damn time. We are talking about sounds. Oh dear, my delicate sensibilities... wah wah wah. Grow up. We have real problems in this world without wasting time on this bullshit.

Nonetheless,

Under the new policy, the FCC reserves the right to evaluate each fleeting expletive in context, giving five unelected commissioners the power to decide whether a particular expletive was "essential to the nature of an artistic or educational work or essential to informing viewers on a matter of public importance."

This, of course, is the policy promoted by the same people who keep claiming they want "less government." And the result is unsurprisingly lame:

ABC wasn't fined for broadcasting Saving Private Ryan, because the FCC decided that expletives were central to the message of the film, but an educational station was fined for broadcasting the PBS documentary "The Blues" because the expletives uttered by music producers weren't deemed necessary.

The FCC has apparently wrestled with whether the F-Bomb (which is a nice way of saying Fuck and no one is fooled), always has a sexual connotation and decided it does. So when I ask, "What the fuck?" I could just as well say, "What the missionary position?"

Meanwhile, people like Don Imus actually offend people and others use words to intentionally harm people - especially across racial, class, sexual, and gender lines, but are not investigated by the FCC because they ain't cussin'. Ain't that a pile of shit?

The article asks whether all this is necessary since we have the V-Chip and the option of just turning off the TV. People horrified by the base popular culture can buy DVDs of Disney movies or whatever floats their boat. This is a solution that actually maximizes everyones freedom, not just a bunch of puritans who write tens of thousands of letters to the FCC about how they are afraid of going to hell if their TV swears at them.

America the Liberal

The New Republic changed my entire perspective and thoughts on the new Obama Administration. Following election day, I first thought it best if Obama took a slow, gradual, approach to change and did not push too hard for progressive reforms. I had bought the bullshit that this is a conservative country.

We aren't. Or that is to say, asking whether the country is liberal or conservative may be like inquiring into the shape of water. The answer should be: it depends.

There entire issue is well worth reading, but I'll start with an article in the 19 November, 2008 New Republic - by John B. Judis - "America the Liberal."

He notes that both Clinton and Carter misjudged the readiness of the country for liberal reforms - something I cannot attest to being too young at the time (or not born yet in the case o' Carter) to really pay attention.

He also talks about why North Carolina, Florida, Virginia, and Colorado are more and more progressive (aside from fundamentalist conservatives basically ruining the country) - they are increasingly attracting professional and moving to a post-industrial employment base. These workers are less likely to buy into social smokescreens raised by Republicans to distract voters from important issues like regulations to make sure companies aren't poisoning us or engaging in risky practices that will destroy the economy.

He provides some interesting statistics though I would remind readers that 76% of all statistics are made up on the spot.

In March 1981, two months into the Reagan administration, a Los Angeles Times poll found that 54 percent of Americans thought there was "too much regulation of business and industry" and only 18 percent thought there was "too little." By October 2008, 27 percent thought there was "too much" and 45 percent thought there was "too little." In a Pew poll released in March 2007, 83 percent backed "stricter laws and regulations to protect the environment," and 66 percent supported "government guaranteeing health insurance for all citizens, even if it means raising taxes."

Attitudes on social issues have also changed dramatically. The Pew poll from March 2007 found that the percentage of Americans who believe that school boards should have the right to fire gay teachers fell from 51 percent in 1987 to 28 percent. Those who want to make it "more difficult" for women to obtain abortions dropped from 47 to 35 percent. Those who think that "it's all right for blacks and whites to date each other" rose from 48 to 83 percent. The poll also found that 62 percent of the general population--and 83 percent of college graduates-- disagreed with the notion that "science is going too far and hurting society."

So there is some good news after the setback of Prop Hate in California.

In that same issue, Sam Tanenhaus dissects "The Imperial Vice Presidency," reviewing Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency by Barton Gellman. I'll be looking for that book - just put it on my wish list.

America's Hard Sell

Michelle and I just returned from the weekend at her parents' place in central Minnesota. Another great weekend - chopped some wood (not much, I'm not in top woodchopper form, it seems), did some reading, and ate a lot of great food.

The cover story of the Nov/Dec 2008 Foreign Policy magazine, "America's Hard Sell," [snippet only unless you subscribe] is an in depth look at the international arena and ideas that are shaping it. The article is by Bruce W Jentleson and Steven Weber - I have read Weber previously and find him insightful.

I really like the discussion explaining the "marketplace of ideas."

In the United States, it is popular to declare war on a problem. So, for example, American political leaders, whether liberal or conservative, consistently appeal for a “war of ideas” to defeat international terrorism. The metaphor is crisp, actionable, and morally compelling. It’s also wrong. Ideas don’t fight wars, and any policy that follows from that formulation won’t work. Ideas don’t go to combat; they vie for the commitment of individuals in an arena that is less like a battlefield and more like a marketplace. The United States is facing a global competition of ideas, and the rules of engagement are much closer to those set out by Milton Friedman than Carl von Clausewitz.

Who dominates in such a marketplace? To start, markets are places where leaders need followers more than the other way around. Presumptive leaders don’t issue orders; they make offers. Eventually, it is the followers who decide whose leadership they find most attractive at that moment.

This is the way to understand the world. The Bush Administration understood the marketplace of ideas at home and ignored it abroad, to its great detriment. Of course, at home, it misunderstood the marketplace of ideas by thinking it could offer no substance - eventually their incompetence caught up with them.

Ideas are the foundation - but you need to put something on top of it. Or a different way of thinking about it would be to say that you need ideas to get attention and you need results to keep attention. Having a huge military may be a growing detriment in this marketplace - few want to listen to the imperial power.

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