|March 20, 2014||The Agitator #108: What would Reagan do?||no comments|
|March 13, 2014||The Agitator #107: Defense spending and more||no comments|
|March 04, 2014||The Agitator #106: Tax change and other folly||4 comments|
|February 26, 2014||The Agitator #105: Religious freedom bill that isn't||4 comments|
|February 20, 2014||The Agitator #104: Cigarettes, Merry Christmas, price gouging||3 comments|
|February 14, 2014||The Agitator #103: Taxes and campaign issues||1 comments|
|February 06, 2014||The Agitator #102: Deja vu all over again||4 comments|
|January 31, 2014||The Agitator #101: Snow and politicians||3 comments|
|January 22, 2014||The Agitator #100: Corruption and reform||3 comments|
|January 17, 2014||The Agitator #99: Tax exemptions & free markets||2 comments|
Because Obama is so disliked by conservatives and most Republicans, the question frequently comes up how Ronald Reagan might have done things differently with the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan, our military, taxes, and everything else a president has to deal with. (I voted for Reagan both times.) This is a counterfactual, and with all counterfactuals, change one thing, let one of the moving parts fail, and there could be a very different outcome. I think it fair, though, within this limited space to try and sort through some of the issues and see if things would be a lot different. Certainly, many of the readers of this column will differ (most in Cobb for sure), but it makes for an interesting discussion.
Obama is being ridiculed for his fecklessness in Crimea, for not standing up to Vladimir Putin. Yet all of my conservative friends readily acknowledge that we should not do anything to provoke a war with Russia over it. Obama and European leaders are talking in unison about applying a number of financial sanctions, but the Russians have options too, and Putin is probably more willing to let his people suffer than any American president would if either side is to apply heat. Only John McCain and Lindsay Graham seem to think that we should consider some kind of military intervention.
While this is going on and still to be played out, the Pentagon is looking at huge cuts in size of our manpower levels for all the services. While many complain about the shrinking military, they don’t want a tax hike to pay for one that they want. Considering the Great Recession and its ongoing aftermath with lower revenue, money is a more important factor than it was during better times.
Obama has been blistered for the death of our ambassador and four civilian security personnel in Benghazi. Yet I haven’t heard a single word from the right about the failed security precautions that resulted in the deaths of over 240 marines in their barracks in Lebanon in October 1983 when a suicide bomber rammed his truck into it. There was active intelligence that such an attack could occur. Despite that, marine sentries were not permitted to have loaded magazines in their weapons. The bomber was subsequently identified as an Iranian national. Yet Reagan never retaliated against Iran, and he was never held to account for the security lapses. I personally wouldn’t hold him accountable, but since Obama is somehow accountable for Benghazi, I would think that the same rules for where the buck stops should also apply to Reagan.
Reagan inherited a very bad economy, and several years into his presidency the high unemployment rate dropped very significantly. What is rarely discussed in connection with how Regan got unemployment under control is the record setting deficits he created. His deficits were off the chart compared to all of his predecessors with the exception of FDR, who had to deal with the Depression and WW II, and who Reagan considered one of America’s best presidents. Reagan spent money that we didn’t have to build up our military that had deteriorated after Vietnam for a lot of reasons. I don’t have an argument with what Reagan did---it got results by pouring money into the economy---but when Obama suggests spending money to stimulate the economy, he is a “tax and spend” liberal. WW II and Reagan’s deficits proved that there are times that government spending can work to prime the pump of the private sector.
People forget that Reagan substantially increased taxes when he was governor of California, and while he was successful in lowering taxes as president, he also raised them several times. But the right doesn’t remember these inconvenient truths. Nor do they like to bring up the amnesty that Reagan got through for some three million illegal aliens. I think Reagan proved to be a sober president, a man who understood politics on a national and international level, who at first was considered a traitor by the right for negotiating arms limitations with the Soviets, and only later proving to have been bold and wise.
Reflecting on Reagan’s historical record, I have a hard time thinking that he would have been so different than Obama today. I also don’t believe that the same Ronald Reagan, using a pseudonym, could get very far in today’s Republican Party based on his record. He would be considered a RINO and persona non grata. Reagan may have projected being a better leader than Obama, but his record doesn’t support the mythical icon that he has become in far right quarters.
Republicans have complained about taxes since before Ronald Reagan lowered them before raising them again. Any Republican running on a platform of a needed tax hike, any Republican breaking his promise of no new taxes is doomed from the start. That’s a fair political debate that the voters should hear before casting their ballot accordingly.
I am in Representative Tom Price’s Sixth Congressional District. He wrote a letter to his constituents dated February 18, 2014. It was written on congressional stationary, and in small print at the bottom it said that “This mailing was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense. It is provided as a service to constituents.” Actually it was a highly partisan letter that to my way of thinking should have been paid for out of his campaign funds.
In the letter Price laments, as I do, the “millions of hours complying with the tax code while our businesses face the highest tax rates in the industrialized world.” He continues that House Republicans have included tax reform as part of their budget plan in order to “simplify the system, eliminate special interest loopholes, and make America more competitive.” All well and good and makes for a great campaign slogan. Too bad the reality is that it’s more smoke and mirrors, more red meat show and tell with absolutely no substance.
Juxtapose Price’s comments with fellow Republican Dave Camp of Michigan. Only a few days after the release of Price’s letter, Camp published the results of his research and hard work in proposing a new tax code. It would close the special tax breaks that wealthy hedge fund operators get, compress taxes into three categories, eliminate a lot of deductions that are antiquated and supported by special interests, and reduce the complexity of filing a return. The immediate reaction to Camp’s honest proposal, one that deserves consideration, debate, argument, and perhaps a vote, came from House Speaker John Boehner, who when asked about it said, “Blah, blah, blah, blah.”
If that doesn’t tell you how serious Republicans are about streamlining the 70,000 page tax code, you are indeed a hard person to convince. I wondered where Tom Price’s voice of support for Camp was when Camp first came out with his bill. After all, in light of Price’s letter, Camp addressed the very concerns that Price raised. What we got from Price was the voice of silence. If Americans are watching this game being played out, they should know that they have no hope of tax reform. Republicans have a majority in the House and may even gain the senate in November. But don’t expect change. They didn’t do anything when Bush was president and they had both houses, and it won’t happen if they once again have the chance.
In the meanwhile on the state level, the state House successfully passed some bills to provide tax breaks to help luxury jet owners and other business interests. The proponents defend this by saying that it keeps and creates jobs, and other states grant similar largess. I guess if every state did the same, eventually no business would pay taxes in order to remain “competitive.” Delta was once given a fuel tax exemption when they were going through hard times. An argument can be made for it in such cases, but now that they are making nine figure profits, shouldn’t that tax gift be reconsidered? The state stands to lose $150 million with the latest sweetheart presents, but if you follow the money and who gave to whom just before the General Assembly began, you can see how it played out.
And so my fellow readers and taxpayers, be prepared to continue to shell out more money for your tax accountant or lawyer. There is no relief in sight. Be comforted by Price’s letter funded by your hard earned money, and trust him to lead the charge for tax reform as his letter promises. Then wait for his first word of support of the one Republican, Dave Camp, who at least did the work and came up with a proposal that deserves attention. Several tax cycles will pass and you still won’t hear Price utter one peep as long as Boehner considers it blah, blah, blah, blah. That’s the modern definition of leadership, and Price is the leader of it.
The General Assembly has joined with a handful of other states to ensure that all Georgians’ religious freedom is protected, especially from the mean spirited Obama administration that has no regard for the Constitution. The two bills working their way through the legislative process are H.B. 1023 and S.B. 377. I wish I felt better and safer, but in fact I feel a lot worse.
The first question that comes to mind is whether there really is an attack on our religious freedom, which is part of our freedom of conscience. I am unaware of the government monitoring the sermons of clergymen. I know of no churches that the government has closed. I’ve never seen or read about army tanks surrounding a single house of worship in America. In fact, as I’ve written about before, religion is much favored in this country with special tax benefits that only clergymen can claim, property tax exemptions, and breaks from tax reporting exclusive to houses of worship. To be sure, and rightfully so to my way of thinking, some churches have come under IRS scrutiny for openly and blatantly endorsing political candidates, a violation of the tax code. Then again, any church is free to support a candidate of its choice if it decides that giving up the tax break is worth it. America has always been about choices, and this isn’t an onerous one.
There have always been and always will be bigots when it comes to race, religion, national origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, and other categories of people. The 1964 Civil Rights Bill outlawed outright discrimination based on race and most of the foregoing classifications. No law is going to be perfect, and proving discrimination is not easy. Most challenges go nowhere because it’s hard to prove someone’s real intent unless you have strong evidence. If Georgia were to allow a business to refuse service because of someone’s sexual orientation based on the businessman’s religious beliefs, the door will open for an affirmative defense for anyone to discriminate for any reason and to fall back on their “religious” convictions. Try proving that the person is lying.
On March 25th, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments concerning whether the government can mandate that birth control be included in the health insurance a corporation provides to its employees. The issue will include the question of whether or not corporations are people. Mitt Romney said they were, but he never addressed how a corporation could have a conscience, how it could serve time in prison for committing crimes, why it doesn’t pay the same rate of taxes as individuals, or other things that constitute a living, breathing being. The court will have to decide if the Plaintiff in this case, Hobby Lobby, is merely the legal fiction that corporations are, or if they are more. Interesting side bar on Hobby Lobby is that while they profess that their religious freedom is being violated because they don’t believe in certain forms of birth control, they purchase most of their wares from China, which has one of the highest abortion rates in the world. Makes me wonder about their sincerity.
If Georgia’s religious freedom bill were to pass, all sorts of other defenses would be used to deny blood transfusions to patients undergoing surgery, medications could be eliminated from health insurance policies on religious grounds, and countless other consequences, many unforeseen. Imagine that such a bill was the model for a federal law. I wonder if soldiers could claim, as crazy as it sounds, that they didn’t have to fight because it would violate their beliefs.
Lastly, one has to wonder about how such a law squares with all the hype from our elected representatives who tout the importance of creating good jobs and attracting business to Georgia. Can they really believe that this law promotes those objectives? Have they considered how many businesses have gay C-level executives? Some companies might publicly state that Georgia is off their lists, but many would probably just passively go elsewhere. It is sad to think that our state, which has come a very long way since the 1960s, that has built an international reputation for being progressive, could undermine all that with a law that smacks of something out of the 1950s. Have these elected officials no shame?
This week alone I heard two conservative radio talk show hosts blasting regulations in the marketplace for impeding business growth. I can’t recall any conservative over the years defending any regulation as being good. Makes me wonder if zoning laws that protect a nice subdivision from having a box store move in next door would be an exception.
Recently CVS announced they would be discontinuing the sale of cigarettes in their chain of drugstores. I was surprised, but shouldn’t have been, at the outcry of this decision. Among the arguments attacking the drug company was that cigarettes are a lawful product and therefore it is wrong to have a self-imposed ban on them.
Each December Bill O’Reilly becomes a “victim” of the secularists who he claims are trying to wipe out Christmas in the public sector. His favorite argument to prove his point is to highlight some businesses that don’t allow employees to wish customers Merry Christmas. What he never mentions is that there is no government involvement in a company’s decision to instruct employees that they are not to use this greeting. Again, it is strictly a business decision. If customers don’t like it they are free to shop elsewhere. Just maybe if there is a noticeable drop in sales the company might change its policy. Amazing how the marketplace works when it’s left alone to correct imbalances, especially those that don’t really affect anyone’s quality of life like the zoning example.
And then there is price gouging. It never fails that following some natural event that causes shortages, like the two recent snowstorms, some businesses will significantly jack up their prices. The screams I heard on the radio were deafening. Yet I wondered why. I thought the marketplace was all about supply and demand. And if folks don’t want to pay the exorbitant price at the moment, they can do without for the time being or find another place to buy a product where the owner might see a business opportunity to gain new customers now and in the future. Free markets at work. Nary a word from the conservative complainers that just maybe gouging occurs because a business has to make up for lost sales during the emergency, his costs may have gone up, or other economic considerations.
I saw a Facebook posting of a Delta ticket that went up from a few hundred dollars to $8,000. I won’t disagree that this is outrageous, but the person objecting is a very strong conservative. The solution is simple if you don’t like the price: find another way home and perhaps discontinue your support of the airline. Same for baggage fees. Lots of complaining about them, but again, the solution for these conservatives is to leave the markets alone and take your business to an airline that doesn’t charge them.
I am not suggesting for a minute that I support gouging or some of the business practices that conservatives object to. What I am saying is that the hypocrisy of the free-marketeers reeks. They are fine with free markets and no regulation as long as it doesn’t impact them. Most don’t live near a coalmine and never even saw one. So mining safety regulations don’t really matter to them. All of us take our clean water for granted without giving a thought to the laws and regulations that ensure its safety. Same for the myriad of safety regulations when we fly, purchase food, the clean air we breathe today, and so much more. I grew up with the stench of polluted rivers and beaches in NYC, and air that was dangerous to your health. A WW II veteran on my first ship was from Manhattan. He told the story of swimming in the East River as a boy, but before anyone jumped in they decided whose turn it was to be the “sludge” breaker. The creation of the EPA in the early 1970s changed all that. The young today who object to the EPA wouldn’t know what those days were like.
The marketplace works just fine when businesses decide things for themselves like selling cigarettes or what holiday greetings are appropriate. As for government regulations, it’s a fair political discussion to debate whether there are too many. What is absurd is the notion that agencies like the EPA should be abolished despite the measurable improvements in our healthier quality of life. Perhaps whenever such arguments are raised we should do as we were taught starting in high school: follow the money.
There are two very significant federal races for office underway right now. The U.S. Senate election could be decided in the May 20th primary, but it’s still too early to know if Democrat Michelle Nunn could pull an upset. The winner of the primary for the congressional 11th District, currently occupied by Phil Gingrey, will almost certainly take office in Washington next January since no Democrat can overcome the Republican dominance for this seat.
Sadly none of the Republican candidates are talking about the real issues that affect our daily lives. We are being bombarded with why Obamacare is killing America, the assault on your Second Amendment rights, religious freedom and birth control (a thoroughly bogus argument in my opinion that I hope the Supreme Court will put to rest), gay marriages, and deficits among the higher profile arguments. All are fair game for political discussion, and I am all in favor of having that debate, but when you look at your paycheck, prepare your taxes, and otherwise try to figure out how to make ends meet, are you really thinking about any of the foregoing issues? Does it not bother enough taxpayers to scream out in protest against having to pay accountants and lawyers to figure out what they have to pay the government? This is not a pitch against taxes; we need taxes, and as Oliver Wendell Holmes said, taxes are the price we pay to live in a civilized society.
The tax code’s complexity is outrageous. It is a full employment bill for CPA’s, tax preparers, and tax lawyers. All we ever hear from our elected officials is that the code needs changing, but when has there been a meaningful effort by one party or the other to gather the necessary support and actually do something about it? Write to your representative to complain and you will get a nice response about how s/he supports change, is a sponsor to some bill, all of which is meaningless blather. The ones who write the tax code are the special interests seeking a credit, deduction, tariff, deferred payment, etc. And they get to write the code because they are the heavy contributors to our representatives’ campaigns. The person benefiting from a credit due to insufficient income to pay taxes certainly didn’t write that provision into the code. When you live hand to mouth you don’t have money to give to politicians. But this credit is pennies on the dollar compared to the gimmees the tax writers of the tax code get. When you are a serious campaign contributor, you are on the “team.”
We the voters are responsible for the mess we are in. We elect the masters of smoke and mirrors. They can denounce Obamacare all day and night, but it’s very unlikely to be rescinded. Instead there should be bipartisan effort to make it work better. What you will hear, though, from Republicans is about all their healthcare reform bills in the House that they control. What they won’t tell you is why none has even made it out of committee. Congressman Tom Price touts his bill as the panacea for reform, so why hasn’t he even gotten so much as a hearing on it? Obamacare has become a red herring. It is and should be an issue for debate, but to run on repealing it, as Phil Gingrey’s empty promise to do, is not going to make one difference in our daily lives. The likes of Gingrey love to throw out red meat and red herring to the voters, but neither is all that appetizing.
Republicans have traditionally been the party of business. Perhaps if some of the leaders put together a bipartisan team of professionals---accountants, lawyers, business executives, state and local government officials, and more, they could come up with a new tax code that would not only make the U.S. more attractive as a place to set up shop, but it would inure to all Americans. My best guess is that it won’t happen, and the whipping boys of campaigns will continue to be Obamacare, guns, religious “persecution”, and other issues de jour, issues that won’t make one dime’s worth of difference when you stroke your check to the IRS and try to meet all your other financial obligations.
The media has been all but silent about the upcoming debt ceiling issue that will become relevant on February 7th. Secretary of the Treasury, Jacob Lew, says that he can find money here and there to borrow in order to pay the nation’s bills until about the end of the month. Contrast the national attention of last fall when we hit the debt ceiling and congress was unwilling to budge. I suspect that the voice of silence we are hearing this time may be a hint that a deal to raise the debt ceiling is in the works.
It is unlikely that the opponents to raising the debt ceiling in the Republican Party are going to submit quietly. What little I have already heard on the topic is that tea party Republicans are insisting on corresponding cuts in spending. That sounds good if you are trying to fool the American people into believing that raising the debt ceiling is like getting another credit card to go on a spending spree. In fact this Republican controlled House worked out a bipartisan budget agreement recently that increases spending, particularly for defense, over the next several years by restoring money that had been cut by the sequester. Raising the debt ceiling allows for the government to pay for the spending that has already been incurred, not future spending.
All of this makes for great political rhetoric, and you can be sure that you will hear a lot about Obama spending us into oblivion without one word of acceptance of responsibility by the responsible parties: our elected representatives. Obama can’t spend what hasn’t been authorized even if he wanted to. So as long as we keep unneeded military bases open, build weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want or need, continue the social costs of defense at current levels, and tout how defense is the main priority at all costs, then we need to pay for it. If some of this amounts to a jobs program under the guise of defense, so be it, but the taxpayers ought to know that it doesn’t come for free.
It was comforting to know that our two U.S. senators from Georgia voted for the latest farm bill that will cost over several years approximately a trillion dollars. Included in the bill are insurance subsidies and price supports for various crops. Farming has become largely a big business enterprise, and as such these businesses should bear the risks and rewards as any other business. But Johnny and Saxby don’t want to tell their constituents that food prices may rise as a result, and conservative taxpayers who complain about government giveaways don’t want to pay the real cost of farm products despite touting that free markets should be allowed to work their magic.
Another giveaway program is the subsidy that taxpayers provide for flood insurance to those who choose to live in a flood plain. Many, if not most of those that live along the beaches, rivers, and other waterways, have the money to pay for their spectacular views, but somehow they can rationalize that the rest of us should help them pay for it. If Republicans insist on government cuts, three ripe areas are wasteful defense spending, farm supports, and flood insurance subsidies. It won’t happen, though. My preference would be to put some of that money into paying for the rehab programs funded by the private sector for our seriously injured war veterans. That too won’t happen. The constituency isn’t large enough.
On an unrelated topic, I tip my hat to the Cobb County police officer who was shot the other day while making a traffic stop. Few tasks are more dangerous for a cop than pulling someone over. There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop. These men and women who risk their lives daily without the public realizing it deserve a lot more than they get. I hope that when the economy improves our uniformed services will be first in line for a much deserved pay raise. It’s long overdue and shameful that we aren’t doing better by these loyal public servants.
One of my good friends recently said that Mayor Kasim Reed and Governor Nathan Deal looked like two Soviet bureaucrats while making their comments to the press about the snowstorm. As I spent 20 hours in my car (Peachtree Dunwoody Rd. and Hammond Drive to lower east Cobb), I felt better listening to Deal as he took full responsibility for the lack of preparedness while blaming the weather forecasters. Then Mayor Reed added to my level of comfort as he assured us that they learned from the January 2011 ice storm and all would be okay.
I thought it amusing to read comments and listen to interviews from people affected by the storm. Invariably they discussed how their elected officials and appointed bureaucrats failed, how they were unprepared, made bad decisions, and otherwise let the people down. Certainly there is some merit to the criticism. I just find it ironic that so many voters in Georgia who believe that government is the problem, that we need less government and fewer government workers, are the same ones that expect their government to work miracles in a time of crisis. I am sure many of the same people also think that the private sector could do a better job in these circumstances, yet I wonder how they would coordinate their efforts with all of the municipalities involved, and what the companies would do to stay profitable in between crises.
This storm, while bad, was nowhere near as bad as so many I have lived through. But it produced the single greatest mess impacting so many people, and you have to ask yourself why? As I see it the biggest problem is that we live in a state where the car is king. People generally don’t like public transportation and prefer the freedom that their cars bring even if they are stuck in traffic all the time and have to plan their lives around traffic. Now some of the opponents to the TSPLOST are proposing to allow individual counties to work with a neighboring county to come up with transportation alternatives. TSPLOST would have focused on the region, and being that the latest storm hit a wide region, I’m not sure how more localized fixes would alleviate our traffic problems. Consider that there is strong opposition to bringing MARTA rail service just to the new Cobb stadium, while at the same time the biggest concern with the new home of the Braves is the additional traffic it will bring.
The whole world saw on CNN what a small snowstorm can do to Atlanta. If anyone thinks that it won’t influence companies in whether to relocate to the Atlanta area, open a branch, or to start a business here, they are clueless. The world also watched how the governor handled it, and that too will factor into their thinking. Among the questions that will be asked are whether the Atlanta metropolitan area has a good, reliable transportation system, and whether Georgia produces the kinds of political leaders that makes things happen and solves problems. If this governor or any other candidate for public office thinks that just lowering taxes is going to draw businesses from all over the map, they are either drinking Kool-Aid or returning from a vacation in Colorado.
If anyone thinks that help may be on the way with alternatives to Governor Deal in the upcoming Republican primary, consider this. One opponent, David Pennington was quoted saying that Deal “failed miserably”, but never offered a syllable about how he would deal with weather crises in the region. His only mantra is about taxes. The other candidate, John Barge, said that he would have “taken the heat” for closing the schools early, “especially when it involves safety. Yet Barge, the state school superintendant, said that he did not urge the schools to let students out early out of fear of “overreaching.”
Nothing will change or improve until we solve our transportation problems. There isn’t enough asphalt to hold all the cars in the Atlanta metropolitan area. So all we can do is sleep well knowing that the governor has arranged for more salt bins to be strategically placed around the state. I wish that had consoled me the other night, but it didn’t. At least some consolation came from knowing that our underpaid uniformed public servants were out in full force doing the real work. To them I say, thank you!