Friday, December 28, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff

Much has been written about the so-called fiscal cliff, which looms large on January 31, and the inability of Congress to avoid it.  But what has not made the headlines is that this entire nonsense is a Republican creation, stemming largely from their inability or unwillingness to make permanent the temporary Bush tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003.  Everything else follows from that.  But why are Republicans to blame for the current crisis?

First, Republicans continue to cling to the notion that any tax increase, on anyone, at any time, is heresy.  Of course, that begs the question of why they wrote an automatic tax increase into the original Bush tax cuts, which they eagerly voted for.  Even this week, the pundit class is saying that the Republican logic now seems to be it is better to "go over the cliff," then supporting legislation in early January that they could call "tax cuts," even though tax rates would simply revert back to 2012 levels for most people.

Secondly, no one seems to be talking very much about other effects of going over the cliff, particularly the effects of expiring stimulus measures that lowered the Social Security payroll tax on working class Americans, and extending unemployment benefits.  There are also a number of tax credits that would expire, including childcare tax credits and tuition tax credits.  Republicans seem perfectly content to impose upon working class Americans a substantial tax increase, apparently because, well, I'm not sure why.  The juxtaposition of their ambivalence on the payroll tax increase against their iron-willed insistence on maintaining low marginal rates on those with incomes over $250K is baffling to this observer.  It seems the only difference is whose ox is being gored, and Republicans seem to believe it is better that the working class suffer in order to reward the so-called job creators.

Finally, this whole "fiscal cliff" moniker is ill-begotten.  For true deficit hawks, going over the cliff would result in substantially higher revenues and substantially lower government spending.  Of course, the widespread slashing of government jobs and government contracts would mean a substantial slowdown in the economy, with the threat of Japanese-style deflation and another decade of stagnation.  The "new normal" of the past five years would seem like the boom times of the 1950's in comparison.

So what is the solution?  Here are four measures to avoid the fiscal cliff and put our economy back on track:

  1. Make the current personal income tax rates permanent.  This would include the top marginal rates.
  2. Significantly tighten the definition of capital gains.  If the justification for treating income from capital gains differently from income from wages, salaries, and tips is to reward job creators, then write the law to make sure jobs are being created.
  3. Extend the payroll tax holiday.  Revisit the issue when unemployment drops below 6%, then phase in the increase.
  4. Extend existing individual tax credits.  Revisit these credits as part of comprehensive tax reform.
  5. Enact a gradual sequester plan.  This plan should gradually reduce agency budgets over five years for discretionary spending, including defense.
The first order of business for the new Congress should be a comprehensive overhaul of the tax code.  I'll address that in a future blog post, so say tuned!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Taking God out of Schools

Many commentators, including ordained Baptist minister Rev. Mike Huckabee, have attempted to link the shooting spree at Newtown Elementary School in Connecticut to the government "taking God out of schools."  Many on the right wing have picked up on that theme, apparently referring to the landmark 1962 Supreme Court cases Engle v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp, where the court ruled that mandatory prayer and Bible readings in schools violated the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment.

The lessons of Scripture reveal to us a God who is omnipotent and omnipresent.  In particular, Psalm 139 says this:  "Where can I go from your Spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend into heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, you are there; if I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you." So we cannot flee from God's presence, because God is present wherever we flee to.  God is present and powerful even in the darkness, even in the public school where "God has been banned."

The lessons of Scripture also reveal to us a God who is not impressed by flowery prayers at football games or NASCAR races or over the school intercom system.  Christ Himself taught us this about prayer in Matthew 6:   “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.  But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.  And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.  Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."  There is no virtue in public prayer, and certainly no Scriptural basis that encourages us to impose prayer on others.

So as Christians, it seems to me we should reject the notion that government has somehow "removed God from schools," because it is bad theology.  The God we claim cannot be banned from any place.  As the prophet Amos says, God hates our feasts, and despises our solemn assemblies as practicing our piety in public.  The world will not know us because we require the world to pray our prayers or observe our holidays, rather they will know us by our fruit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Gun Violence in America

What can we do to make our schools, malls, movie theaters, office buildings, churches, and other public places safe from gun violence?

1.  Immediately prohibit those on the FBI Terrorist Watchlist from purchasing or possessing firearms.  It is simply astounding that the gun lobby, led by the NRA, opposes such a ban.

2.  Immediately ban the manufacture and sale of large capacity magazines (more than 10 rounds) for any firearm for civilian use.  At the same time, fund a program to buy back and destroy existing magazines.

3.  Prohibit concealed firearms in schools, malls, movie theaters, office buildings, churches, and other public places.

4.  Close the "gun show loophole" by requiring a background check for any firearms sale.  Crack down on illegal gun sales, with serious jail time for those found guilty of selling guns illegally.

5.  Immediately put in place a national gun crime database to track firearms used in crimes.  Again, it is simply astounding that the gun lobby opposes such a database.  Any firearms recovered or captured or otherwise obtained in a criminal investigation should be confiscated and destroyed, similar to the way proceeds of drug cases are confiscated.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Rich Political Candidate: A Modern Day Parable

This is a modern-day parable about a wealthy political candidate's conversation with Jesus.

There once was a wealthy political candidate, who became wealthy partly because of the inheritance he received from his wealthy father.  His wealth grew enormous through all kinds of financial deals and a favorable tax code that allowed him to accumulate much treasure.

In a meeting with his campaign advisors, he decided to set up a public meeting with Jesus.  It would be good publicity, and he might get some good campaign advice.  So he had his assistant send a meeting request, but wanted the meeting timed to get best advantage of the news cycle.  Jesus responded enthusiastically to the meeting request, and so the appointment was set.

At the appointed time, the wealthy candidate showed up to the appointed place.  It was a small house, with no air conditioning, and rather sparsely furnished.  Jesus greeted the candidate warmly, "How about a glass of wine"?

"I'm sorry," the candidate answered.  "We Mormons don't drink wine.  Besides, you surely don't have a proper wine cellar."

"Oh, no," Jesus laughed robustly.  "All I have is this jar of water on the table.  But I can simply say a few words and whip up a bottle of Henri Jayer Richebourg Grand Cru in a heartbeat.  By the way, what's the deal with the magic underwear?"

"I'm sorry again," the candidate answered.  "I came here to ask some serious questions."

"Forgive me," Jesus replied.  "I was just trying to lighten the mood.  You know, God created a sense of humor, too!"

"Well, humor is not something I find important.  But I came to ask, what must I do to gain God's favor in this election?"

Jesus roared with laughter.  "Well, God doesn't really have a vote, you know.  It's hard for the Creator to produce a birth certificate for the photo ID.  But if you want to look good in God's eyes, you need to make sure you follow all the rules."

"Well, I am a strict rule-follower," the candidate proudly beamed.  "I wear my magic underwear all the time, I refused the wine - even from you!  And I'm trying hard to make sure no woman gets an abortion."

"All that is fine for what it is," Jesus said with a sad tone.  "But it seems you have somehow acquired a strange notion of what the meaningful rules are.  For example, if my very first miracle was to turn water into wine, what's with a rule that says you can't have a glass of wine?  And magic underwear or mutilating your body or saying some magic words?  None of that means anything.  And while abortion is indeed bad, so are poverty and war and hunger and other things that result in innocent deaths.  Are you equally passionate about those evils?"

The candidate became a bit defensive.  "Well, one person can only do so much.  You have to pick your battles, you know, and I picked abortion.  Someone else can worry about poverty and hunger and war.  Besides, I give 10% of my income to the church.  But you have avoided my question.  What must I do to gain God's favor?"

Jesus laughed again.  "You want to be the leader of the free world, and let someone else worry about poverty and hunger and war?  That's a strange notion of leadership!  But that's OK, and your tithe has certainly gone to build and maintain a beautiful huge cathedral or tabernacle -- I get confused with all the names you people give things.  

"But I admit I am pulling your chain a little bit --you really ought to try this humor thing out.  After all, God created (through evolution, of course) giraffes and babboons, right?  But seriously, you need to sell all you have, and give the proceeds to the poor."

"Wait a minute!" the candidate replied indignantly.  You want me to sell everything, empty my bank accounts in Switzerland and the Caymans, give up the elevator in my garage, and Rafalca?  If I give all my money away, who will be the job creator?"

"Well, that's the offer.  Take it or leave it."

And with that, the candidate excused himself quietly and left.