Thursday, December 13, 2012

Irwin B. Goldstein, 1929-2012, R.I.P.

Last Friday night, at about 1:15 AM, my father, Irwin, suffered a major heart attack. My brother, Miles, had arrived for a visit with his wife and young daughter just a few hours earlier and was able to perform CPR till the paramedics came.

They were able to revive him and transport him to the hospital, but he was in a coma from that point on. 

Leslie and I were called at around 2:40 AM, washed up, threw a bag of clothes together, and drove all night, arriving at the hospital before 9 AM Saturday morning.

Once all the family was gathered at his bedside and had said our final goodbyes, ventilation and all support, other than a morphine drip for comfort, were removed at approximately 11:30 AM.
We were told that death would not come immediately. Maybe it would be a few minutes, maybe a few hours. As he hung on, that became "twelve hours, tops." Then, "by early Sunday morning." Despite all odds and expectations he held on another twenty-eight hours with family by his side. 
At 3:12 PM on Sunday, December 9, 2012, our father opened his eyes one last time and died looking into the eyes of our mother, his beloved Judi.
(What follows is a rough transcript of what I said Tuesday, in eulogy, at my father's funeral:)
In trying to decide what story to share with you all today, I wanted to share something that wasn't just personal, but a story that really explains who my father was; something to demonstrate his character. And what came to mind wasn't an early childhood memory, but something from just a couple of months ago.
As I'm sure you all know, Dad had been suffering from Alzheimer's for several years. Alzheimer's is heartless and relentless and was slowly taking him away from us.
It took away memories and details. It took away being able to have in-depth conversations and ask for advice. But it never took away the essence of who he was.
He was still overwhelmingly positive, happy, and loving life and his family. He was always pleased to see people he recognized and give a warm hello.
So the story:
The last time we went out to dinner was to a local place where my parents know the chef/owner and the chef's mother, Barbara, who is the hostess.
About a hundred times during the meal, Barbara would walk by our table to seat another group, and each time she'd pass, Dad would smile at her and say, "Hi! How are you doing?" to her like greeting a long lost friend. It was repetitive; but it was sincere. And she responded kindly each time because she knew he was sincere.
Some who only saw him at work might just say he was a good shmoozer, but he genuinely loved people, and everybody he met loved him.
At home he was still concerned for everybody else's comfort and happiness above his own, and making sure he was taking care of his family and any guests. "Can I get you something?" "Are you okay?" "Do you need anything?" ... Over and over again.
It's true, he wasn't the same as he was before Alzheimer's. But he was still Irwin. We may have already spent a couple of years mourning the decline, mourning the inevitable, and missing the details, but HE was still very much there, himself, with us, and taking care of us, till the very last.
... Okay... One personal childhood memory... One I don't even think my brothers know. A secret story...
Most of you know that Dad loved to play golf, and if you knew him long enough, that he played hockey as a kid. But we were not huge sports fans in our family. Still, when I was growing up, one of my favorite tv shows was ABCs Wide World of Sports.
I enjoyed Jim McCay, but more important was the ritual of how we watched it. Dad would lie down on the couch and I would lie down beside him, with his arm around me, enjoying the comforting aromas of Old Spice and Budweiser.
I have no idea where the rest of the family was on Saturday afternoons, but for me, "The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" meant I would have ninety minutes alone with my Daddy.
Goodbye, Daddy. I love you.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Marginal Tax Rates 101

With all the current hysterical coverage of the impending "Fiscal Cliff" - or "Obama Tax Storm," depending on who you're listening to - and seeing what certain of my friends and associates are saying or posting online about it, it is unbearably clear that most Americans haven't the faintest idea of how marginal tax rates work.

It's not their fault. Politicians and the media have been talking down to us and "simplifying" the discussion for so long, that they'd have you believe things that simply are not true. For example, you may accept as "fact" that President Obama and Congressional Democrats want to raise the tax rate on those who earn more than $250,000 from 35% to 39.6%.

Using that statement and some basic arithmetic, you would assume that a family with $251,000 in income would see their taxes rise from $87,850 (35% of $251,000) to $99,396 (39.6% of $251,000) - a total tax increase of $11,546. You would also be wrong.

The statement "President Obama and Congressional Democrats want to raise the tax rate on those who earn more than $250,000 from 35% to 39.6%" contains three major "simplifications" that lead to these sloppy (and expensive) calcluations:
  1. Uses "earnings" (implying total gross salary) instead of "taxable income" (after all deductions, adjustments, and exemptions).
  2. Implies that you pay a single rate on all your earnings, instead of explaining how marginal rates apply.
  3. Uses a $250,000 figure that is two decades out of date. That figure for the 2012 tax year is actually $388,350.
Let's take these one at a time...

Earnings versus Taxable Income: Nobody, but Nobody, pays income tax on 100% of their income. Each version of the IRS form 1040, from the one-page EZ to the more complicated versions with dozens of attached schedules and sub-forms allows you to reduce the amount of income on which you owe taxes. Frankly, the more complicated a form you use, the more you are reducing your tax liability.

But even a single guy, just starting out, with no dependents, educational expenses, mortgage, or anything else to deduct, just using little old form 1040EZ, will take a standard deduction of $5,950 for 2012. That means, if he earns $30,000, he'll only pay taxes on $24,050. That tax will come out to $3,173, or about 10.5% of his gross income, or 13.2% of his taxable income, even though he's in the 15% tax bracket.

What's that? You don't get how somebody in the 15% tax bracket only pays 10.5% in taxes? Let's move on to that second "simplification" ...

Marginal Rates apply to earnings above the margin: When politicians talk about raising the rate on "incomes above $250,000" (really: taxable income above $388,350), they only mean the increment, or margin, above that figure. It doesn't change the taxes paid on the first "$250,000" you earn ($388,350 taxable).

To explain, we'll build a more complicated example than our single guy above. Let's assume a couple with a nice home, two kids, and combined total salary income of $450,000. They're going to file jointly, so they'll look at Tax Rate Schedule Y-1. Their taxes will be:
  • 10% on taxable income from $0 to $17,400, +
  • 15% on income over $17,400 to $70,700, +
  • 25% on income over $70,700 to $142,700, +
  • 28% on income over $142,700 to $217,450, +
  • 33% on income over $217,450 to $388,350, +
  • 35% on taxable income over $388,350.
But, before they figure out their taxes, they'll itemize their deductions to reduce their gross actual income and find their net taxable income:
  • Mortgage Interest: $16,500
  • Two Kids ($3,800 each): $7,600
  • Charitable Giving (1.5% of their income): $6,750
  • Business Expenses: $7,500
  • Miscellaneous: $3,500
  • Total Deductions: $41,850
(This is a real simple example with modest deductions - I didn't include any medical expenses, educational expenses, deposits to retirement accounts, etc. - These are just a few of the ways to reduce your tax liability.)

So, using Schedule Y-1 above, here's what their federal income taxes will break down to:

 Earnings  Tax
Deductions  $41,850 $0
10%  $17,400  $1,740
15%  $53,300  $7,995
25%  $72,000  $18,000
28%  $74,750  $20,930
33%  $170,900  $56,397
35%  $19,800  $6,930
Totals:  $450,000  $111,992

Their bottom line is $111,992, or 24.9% of their total income of $450,000 ... even though they're in the top 35% bracket.

Using the media/political simplification of all things numerical, we would have thought they were paying $157,500 in taxes (35% of $450,000). We would also assume that the Democrats' proposal to let the top rate return to 39.6% would increase their taxes by $20,700 to $178,200 (39.6% of $450,000).

But, now that you know how real math works, you know that raising the top marginal rate on this well-to-do family will bring their total federal income tax burden to $112,903. An increase of only $911 (0.2% of their total income) - quite a bit less than the $20,700 certain politicians and journalists would suggest. Because, now you understand, the rate change from 35 to 39.6% only applies above the margin, to that last $19,800 of their taxable income.

So, where's  $250,000 in all this? When President Clinton's tax increases created the 39.6% rate twenty years ago, it was for taxable income over that figure. And, because politicians and journalists are lazy, they've just continued referring to that number ever since (if you don't like "lazy" please come up with a better explanation that doesn't include "lie"). But the cut-off point for each of the tax brackets actually adjusts each year for inflation.

By 2003, when the Bush tax cuts were going into effect, "$250,000" was $311,950, but we kept saying "$250,000" out of habit. During the 2010 "Fiscal Cliff" discussions, "$250,000" was $373,650. Today, it's $388,350. Is that really so hard for reporters and politicians to understand? Never mind...

But aren't we Taxed Enough Already? The Tea Partiers are both wrong and right on this. Regarding federal income tax rates they are completely wrong. Current federal income tax rates are at their lowest point in over 60 years. And, yes, because the base line for each marginal rate has gone up at least as fast as inflation (why $250,000 is now $388,350), that means this year's tax burden is less than last year's.

But, in part because federal income taxes have been held at historically low levels for a decade, other taxes and fees have gone up. States, not getting as much as they used to from the feds, may have increased their income, property, or sales taxes, as well as made cuts. Counties and cities, not getting what they used to from the states, may have raised local sales taxes or passed "special assessments" added on to property tax bills, and/or made cuts in services. Across the board, fees for everything from parking to getting married etc., may have increased to make up for shortfalls from another area.

Because sales taxes, use fees, etc., are not progressive, like the federal income tax (multi-tiered, the rich pay a higher rate), the burden of these taxes falls more on lower and middle income earners. So, depending on where you live, what you earn, and a few other factors, you may indeed feel as if you're paying more in taxes over-all, even with a smaller annual bill from the IRS.

Bottom Line: You probably know where I stand on this. I don't believe it's asking too much of a family that earns nearly half-a-million dollars annually to kick in another grand in taxes when the country faces a fiscal crisis. To insist on holding even this top rate down will only result in more cuts in services and/or increased taxes and fees elsewhere down the line.

But regardless of whether or not you agree with me on the politics, can we all at least agree to use real numbers and real math?

For more fun with tax brackets, this page on has an easy, interactive tax calculator that allows you to see how all of this works and check your tax rates across time and space.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Few Election Stats

One more post-election wrap-up here, now that Florida is officially in the blue column. This gives the President re-election with 332 electoral votes to Romney's 206. The popular vote also went to the President with 62.1 million votes (51%) to Romney's 58.8 million (48%), a 3.4 million vote advantage.

I'd say this is a clear mandate, but is this a landslide? Let's look at how the Republican pundits described what they would consider a "landslide" before the election:
  • George Will predicts "321-217 Romney landslide"
  • Glenn Beck, "landslide for Romney, electoral college 300+ R"
  • Michael Barone predicts "Romney trounces Obama in electoral college 315-223"
  • Larry Kudlow "predicting a 330 vote electoral landslide" (for Romney)
  • And let's not even get started on Karl Rove...
So, clearly the Republican pundits agree that 332 electoral college votes is a "landslide" - but I'll stick with clear mandate. Or was it?

When all the dust is settled, there will still be 40% of eligible voters (about 78 million) who chose not to participate last Tuesday. And, that figure includes about 13 million voters who participated in 2008, but couldn't be bothered with it again only four years later. More analysis will need to be done to determine how much of that drop-off in voting was due to voters displaced by Hurricane Sandy, and how much due to apathy, but I'm betting on apathy to beat Sandy in a landslide.

You know from my last post that I have some ideas for fighting voter apathy. I'll have some more to say about that later. But for now, here's an interesting info-graphic about who did (and didn't) vote this year (also shows how much more effective the Obama campaign was at using social media).

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Democracy Pledge

Tuesday evening's election result was a great success for the future of our country. No, I'm not talking about the re-election of President Barack Obama (although I am quite happy about that). No, I'm today I'm talking about the election of Angus S. King, Jr. as the new U.S. Senator from the great state of Maine. King will join Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont as one half of the Independent population of the U.S. Senate. As King, the former two-term independent Governor of Maine, said on his website:
... Angus promised Maine people that the only consideration he would take when casting his vote would be the interests of Maine and the country, not a political party's agenda. In electing [him] ... voters rejected the bitter partisanship that has brought our political process to a standstill, and embraced a new Independent direction. 
Yes, despite my campaigning for Barack Obama's re-election, I am still an independent at heart and by registration. One of my core beliefs is that our country is at its best when the largest number of citizens possible participate in our democracy. As a left-of-center independent, I thoroughly reject the false dichotomy that all Americans can be put into two neat divisions of Republicans or Democrats. I also view the negative influence of big money on elections as one of the main reasons for voter apathy.

Put together, those beliefs make a simple formula:
More Choices - Corrupt Money = Higher Voter Turnout and a Working Democracy
So, in order to achieve this, I propose a "Democracy Pledge." Candidates of all parties ("major" and "third") are encouraged to take the Pledge by promising to champion at least three of the following reforms. Voters are encouraged to support those candidates who have taken the Pledge, and to promote the Democracy Pledge concept.

The Democracy Pledge Platform consists of the following:
  1. Repeal Citizens United; Pass a Constitutional amendment stating that only people are people, not corporations! - (See Move to Amend)
  2. Reign in Super PACs; Make candidates responsible for message and spending of independent groups acting on their behalf. Limit contributions to both candidates and PACs at all levels.
  3. End the Electoral College; The Electoral College was a compromise to balance the power of slave states and free states. We need to either end or vastly reform the electoral system to put more emphasis on the popular vote.
  4. IRV (Instant Run-Off Voting) or Preference Voting; Makes every vote count and allows for more points-of-view in the electoral process.
  5. Early Voting in All States; A minimum of two weeks, including at least one full weekend.
  6. Change Election Day; Tuesday made sense in the 1840s, but now it is an inconvenience for the majority of working Americans. Either move election day to a weekend, or make Election Day a holiday.
  7. No Straight Ballot Voting; Require voters to choose a candidate in each race, rather than pull a "straight ballot" lever.
  8. Fair Debates; Change the Bi-Partisan Commission on Presidential Debates to a Non-Partisan Commission. Any party or candidate that has achieved ballot status in enough states to reach 270 electoral votes must be included. Encourage those states where debates take place between statewide office holders (i.e.: Governor or Senator) to enact similar open debate provisions. - (See Open Debates)
  9. Voter ID; Identification requirements that are onerous or require any expenditure on the part of the voter are an impediment to participation and potentially un-Constitutional. Any ID requirements that are enacted must be minimal, sensitive to the concerns of all, and with any financial burden falling upon the state making such a requirement.
It is not my point here to promote any one candidate or any one third party or ideology; it is to promote democracy. It is also not my point to automatically oppose major party candidates. To get any reforms passed will require allies across the spectrum who believe in democracy and participation. If we can get any number of these reforms enacted, we can broaden political discussion, minimize the influence of money, and increase voter participation.
"In reality, there is no such thing as not voting: you either vote by voting, or you vote by staying home and tacitly doubling the value of some diehard's vote." - David Foster Wallace

"Some men change their party for the sake of their principles; others their principles for the sake of their party." - Winston Churchill

"Democracy is not something you believe in or a place to hang your hat, but it's something you do. You participate. If you stop doing it, democracy crumbles." - Abbie Hoffman

"Just say 'No' to the two party system." - Me

Friday, October 26, 2012

California 30-38

No, "California 30-38" is not a sports score, and, no, it's not a highway designation. 30 and 38 are competing propositions in the November 6 election, and Californians are in such agreement about the problem they each seek to address, that we're going to send them each down to defeat. But let me explain what they are first, and then tell you why we're probably screwed.

Here's the basic problem: Our state is broke. Our June 2012 budget gap was about $16.6 billion. The budget deal worked out between Governor Brown and the legislature balanced the budget with about $8.1 billion in spending cuts, $2.5 billion in "transfers," and the last $6 billion in new taxes "pending voter approval."

Prop 30 was placed on the ballot by the Governor as part of that budget deal. The $6 billion hole is filled by increasing the tax on incomes over $250,000 (or $500,000 for couples filing jointly) for a period of seven years, and a 1/4 cent per $1 increase in sales tax for four years. The funds go into an "Education Protection Account" within the state General Fund. Because it's within the General Fund, it increases the Prop 98 guarantees to education (K-12, plus Community Colleges), but also frees up some existing funds for other purposes.

The Prop 30 taxes go into effect immediately to cover the $6 billion gap in the current year's budget. If it fails, the budget deal included "trigger cuts." We will have a balanced budget this year, no matter what. Those $6 billion in automatic cuts include $5.3 billion from public schools for the current school year. Ever wondered what would happen if thousands of teachers got laid off in the middle of the school year? Or if your local school district defaulted on its bond payments? You might just find out if Prop 30 fails to pass.

Prop 38 is an alternative tax plan, not negotiated by the legislature, but put on the ballot by Molly Munger, who has spent about $33 million of her own money to pass it.  (Coincidentally, Molly's brother, Charles Munger Jr., has spent about $22 million of his own to lead the fight against Prop 30). Prop 38 raises income taxes on just about everybody (incomes over $7,000) for twelve years, but leaves sales tax alone. The money goes into an "Education Trust Fund," but this one is outside of the General Fund, so it is in addition to the Prop 98 guaranteed funding from the (diminished) General Fund. Prop 38 does not include Community College funding, but does include early childhood education.

Prop 38 could be an interesting alternative to the Governor's plan, except for one fatal flaw: It takes effect next year, leaving the "trigger cuts" in place for this year. Prop 38 might help in the future, but the chaos the trigger cuts would cause in education this year would do incredible harm to 100% of public school students in the state this generation. But I will vote for it anyway.

Yes, I will vote for 38, AND I will vote for 30. The proponents of each have campaigned as though we have to make a choice, and can only vote for one or the other. That is not true. And this is why I say we are doomed.

California law provides for a way to reconcile two propositions passing which each address the same issue: The one with the most votes prevails. Yes, if you vote for 30 & 38, and they both pass, you don't get two tax increases, you only get the one with the most support.

Prop 30 was headed for victory, until the Mungers, Molly and Charles, put over $55 million of their fortunes into ads against 30 and for 38. Now support for 30 has dipped to 46% approval. Meanwhile, Prop 38 only has 39% of voter approval in current polling. Now, it's been a while since I was in school, but in the old days 46+39 equaled 85% in favor of one or the other. Even if we assume there's some overlap in support, there's clearly a majority in favor of some tax increase.

Despite the fact that the majority of Californians agree that we need to enact one or the other tax increase to save our schools, and our state's competitive edge, both propositions will fail because we're being presented with the election as a "choose one only" option. The majority are for saving the state, but those who would rather destroy California than pay one cent more in taxes win by dividing and conquering the majority. Which, the conspiracy-minded might wonder, may have been what the Mungers had in mind all along.

If you're a Californian voter, I hope that you'll join me in voting for both propositions, 30 & 38, and may the better solution prevail.

Here's my quickie ballot guide to the rest of the California initiatives:

30 - taxes/budget Yes
31 - budget reform No
32 - special exemptions No
33 - auto Insurance undecided
34 - end death penalty Yes
35 - human trafficking Yes
36 - 3 strikes reform Yes
37 - GMO labeling Yes
38 - tax rates Yes
39 - business tax Yes
40 - redistricting Yes

Sunday, October 21, 2012

George McGovern: Acts of Faith

"Politics is an act of faith; you have to show some kind of confidence in the intellectual and moral capacity of the public."
"No man should advocate a course in private that he's ashamed to admit in public."
"The highest patriotism is not a blind acceptance of official policy, but a love of one's country deep enough to call her to a higher plain."
"For many years, I wanted to run for the presidency in the worst possible way - and last year, I sure did."
"I'm fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in."
George McGovern, July 19, 1922-October 21, 2012
Early this morning, former Senator George McGovern died in hospice in Sioux Falls, SD. He was 90 years old and surrounded by friends and family.

McGovern was a proud liberal till the very end. A man who had "learned to hate war by waging it" as a decorated World War II bomber pilot, he was the Democratic Party's nominee to challenge President Nixon's re-election in 1972.

While I had been somewhat aware of the players in the 1968 Presidential election, and as a kid in Massachusetts, certainly was caught up in the tragedy of of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, it was the election of 1972 - and its aftermath - that first truly sucked me into the life of a political junkie. At the age of eleven I walked our precinct with my mother getting word out about McGovern, and on election day we stood outside the polling place (in the snow) with our last-ditch effort electioneering.

Of course, the result was that Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, carrying 49 states, and ceding to McGovern only the District of Columbia and Massachusetts. I was both devastated and fascinated by the results and began collecting souvenirs of the trouncing: bumper stickers bearing the slogans "Massachusetts the One and Only" and "Nixon 49/America 1," a pin that simply read "OS4MY" (for, "Oh Shit, Four More Years!"), and other memorabilia that I only wish I could still find.

Of course, even before the election was over, there was some question of dirty tricks involving Nixon's team doing something over at the Democratic Headquarters located in the Watergate Hotel and office complex. I followed the Watergate hearings closely. As for many others of my generation, this was hugely formative in how I would see politics and government for the rest of my life.

By the middle of 1974 both Nixon, and his VP, Spiro Agnew, had resigned in disgrace, and I had moved to California. I would eventually earn a BA in Politics and a Master of Public Policy and Administration. My career would allow me to have meetings with legislators at all levels of government. I would volunteer on a few more Presidential campaigns. But the inspiration and dedication of that first candidate, George McGovern, and the lessons of 1972-1974 have never been far behind.

My thoughts go out to the McGovern family and all those who knew this great man and hero to the left. I only hope that before he passed, he sent in his absentee ballot.
The blogger in 1972; the t-shirt says, "Vote."
Read more at:
The McGovern Center
George McGovern @ Wikipedia

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Republican Tax Policy Explained and Debunked

Sometime last years I promised that I would write about blog about the Laffer Curve, and how it has determined Republican tax policy for the past 30 years, from Reagan to Romney. Well, it's a little late, and it's in a video rather than a written blog, but here it is.

Sit back and learn about Dr. Arthur Laffer and the little doodle he made on the back of a napkin that ended up changing U.S. economic policy for a generation, and why a vote for Mitt Romney is yet another vote for the Laffer Curve.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Power of We the People

Today is Blog Action Day 2012 - an annual online event that brings together bloggers around the world to write about a single topic of global importance all on the same day. This year's theme is "The Power of We."

In trying to decide what to write here that would fit in with my usual themes and obsessions, I considered writing about the importance of voting in the upcoming election. You know, all "We the People" and all that stuff. But that's too easy a mark.

Instead I thought I'd go for something broader, and talk about the different levels of We.

Yes, on this blog I tend to talk about politics and government as the mechanism of We the People, and our individual roles in selecting, electing, detecting, and rejecting our [hopefully] representative leaders. But, as many of you know, I have made my career in the nonprofit sector, which is another primary way that individuals organize to put the Power of We into action.

The question here then, is if each of these sectors represents how We cooperate with each other to benefit the community, what is the proper role for each?

For me, the simplest answer is that it is frequently a matter of the scale of the problem, and the minimal level of support that will be guaranteed.

First the scale question. No Federal operation or bureaucratic process will ever turn the vacant lot next to the neighborhood elementary school into a gardening nutrition program. For that, you need a partnership of local leaders, working together with local businesses and nonprofits to organize the volunteers and materials needed. Meanwhile, nothing short of Federal intervention was going to save the auto industry. Volunteers and bake sales would not have resulted in GM reclaiming its mantle as the largest automobile producer on the planet.

As to the minimal level of support, I believe that in a country where we like to brag about being the richest nation on Earth, it should be a matter of national honor that we don't let our fellow citizens starve - regardless of how productive or "worthy" they have been. The Food Stamp program exists to fill that need, but the amount of food you can purchase that way is minimal. Getting beyond guaranteed basic survival is where other partners have to step in. That becomes the role of regional food banks, and local nonprofit programs to work with clients one-on-one to help lift them out of poverty.

Regardless of whether we're loosely organized into grassroots groups to solve neighborhood troubles or looking to Washington to guide us on national issues, the unifying thread is that the individuals work best at problem solving is when we work together. That, at whatever level, is the Power of We the People.

Have a happy Blog Action Day, people. You've earned it. Oh, and don't forget to vote.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Political Trivia: Ryan's Odds

There's still a bit over a month to go before the Presidential election, and the debates have yet to start, so much can still change, but recent trends show that President Obama is headed for re-election, and that Governor Romney's campaign is tanking hard.

This has led much of the punditry to focus on Romney running-mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, and how he plays the next month with an eye to running for President himself in 2016. This led me to wonder, what are the odds of a losing Vice-Presidential candidate going on to eventually a) get their party's nomination for President, and b) actually win the Presidency?

It turns out, odds are that after November 7, Ryan becomes not much more than a footnote in history books.

Since the dawn of the modern political parties (1828 for the Democrats and 1856 for the Republicans), only two losing VP candidates have gone on to win their party's nomination, and only one of those went on to win the Presidency.

In 1920, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the losing VP candidate under James M. Cox on the Democratic ticket. FDR, of course, went on to win the Democratic nomination and the Presidency in 1932 (and re-elected in '36, '40, and '44).

On the Republican side, Bob Dole was incumbent President Gerald Ford's running mate in 1976, and himself captured the nomination in 1996, losing to incumbent President, Bill Clinton. (Note, Dole was not the incumbent VP in '76, Nelson Rockefeller was Ford's appointed VP.)

So, if you consider that from 1828 through 2008 there have been 46 Presidential elections, that means  there have been 92 major party VP candidate opportunities (some years have included more than two major contenders, but we'll keep the math simple here for a Saturday morning).

That makes the odds of Paul Ryan eventually getting the Republican Party's Presidential nomination (assuming a loss this November 6, please) 2:92, or 2.17% and sets his odds of being elected President at 1:92, or 1.09%. Those are pretty long odds, but somehow, I'm still not comforted.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Five Brave Republicans

By now you've all read the news that the Veterans Job Corp bill failed to pass the US Senate yesterday by only two votes. You've probably also heard that this was a surprise, as it was purposely crafted to be bi-partisan and non-political, with input from Republicans as well as Democrats.

Whether the Republican change of heart was due, as they claim, to the bill's costs, or whether, as many believe, it was because they felt putting anybody to work (veteran or not) just before the election would help President Obama's re-election efforts, is not the point of this post.

While every other liberal bloggers is shaming the Republicans who contributed to the bill, only to vote against it, I'd like to take a few moments to thank the five Republican Senators who actually voted their conscience, and chose to help our veterans, and our country, and put policy above politics for at least this one issue.

They are: Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, each of Maine, Dean Heller of Nevada, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Of course, some might say, it's easy to be brave if you're not running for re-election this year. Olympia Snowe is retiring from her Senate seat, so this may be one of her last votes ever, but she has many times demonstrated her independence from the Republican leadership. In fact, her frustration with the current Republican mind-set of destroying Obama before fixing America may be part of her decision to not seek re-election. I would like to thank Senator Snowe for her service to our country.

Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins are each in safe seats this year, so this vote may or may not come back to haunt them later. Even so, there are many more Republican Senators in safe seats (Senators face re-election every six years), why are there only two willing to vote for jobs for veterans? Safe or not, it takes courage to cross party lines these days.

Scott Brown and Dean Heller are each facing re-election this year, which makes their votes even more important. Brown is running in traditionally liberal Massachusetts against the nationally known (and funded) Elizabeth Warren. Some might dismiss this move as just playing to local biases, but considering that when Brown first entered the Senate (filling Ted Kennedy's old seat) it was feared he'd be the furthest right tea-bagger of them all, he still deserves to be thanked for this vote.

I know less about Heller, other than that he's a recent appointee now running for the first time to continue in the Senate. For a "new guy," who probably needs the help of the National RNC in his election, to buck the tide and go against the party is, to me, a positive sign of independence.

Okay, enough positivity and praising of Republicans. I will use this one paragraph to point out those who voted against this bill. Or, rather, one Republican Senator in particular. I find it dishonorable and disgusting (but not surprising) that "the mother of all mavericks," John McCain, is not on this list of those who put veterans above party. Shame on you, Senator McCain.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Why I'll Be Walking

On September 22, 2012, I will be participating in the 2012 Alzheimer's Association Walk to End Alzheimer's, and am committed to raising awareness and funds for Alzheimer research, care, and support. Currently, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer's and that number is expected to grow to as many as 16 million by 2050. Our future is at risk unless we can find a way to change the course of this disease.

Beyond the statistics, and the numbers, this is personal. I have seen Alzheimer's take its toll on a number of people, including my grandmother, my wife's grandmother, and now watching the slow decline of my own father.

Walking on September 22 won't be easy for me either. I had foot surgery at the end of June. In August, my foot was still bandaged and I was walking with a cane. Only on September 2nd did I actually walk for a full mile. Sure, I was sore, but that's what ice packs are for. I still have a screw in my foot, but that's nothing compared to Alzheimer's. I'm doing this.

But, I need your support! Please click this link and make a donation to help the Alzheimer's Association advance research into prevention, treatments and a cure for Alzheimer's. For the millions already affected by the disease, the Association offers care, education, support and resources in communities nationwide.

Thank you for your help!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Come to Meme

Rather than go on my typical rant here, about how willfully and blissfully misinformed it seems most people are, I'll just vent my anger visually with this:

"I don't need to read the news. I get all my information from Facebook memes."

File this one under "If you can't lick 'em, join 'em." (BTW, it is an original photo - I shot it at Mission Ranch, Carmel.) Feel free to share :^)

Monday, July 02, 2012

Review: In One Person

In One Person
In One Person by John Irving
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In One Person was a fully satisfying read that would have earned a 5-star review had it been by another author for whom I did not have such high expectations.

From the first paragraph - concluding with the line, "We are formed by what we desire. In less than a minute of excited, secretive longing, I desired to become a writer and to have sex with miss Frost--not necessarily in that order." - I was pulled into this novel and the life of William Abbott and his extended family.

But as much as the novel pulled me in, it built at a slower pace than I would have expected. The narrator continues to linger in Bill's teenage years at the Favorite River Academy long after I was ready to move on. These years are important to the story - and great reading - but much of what's to come is alluded to here, but is never as fully described as these early scenes.

I still wanted to read more about the summer in Europe with poor Tom, and how that relationship ended. There's virtually nothing about William's early college years, before returning to Europe to study in Vienna. Another gap appears following the return from Vienna.

Still, even with the long, perhaps uneven, build-up, by the time we get to 1981 and the start of the AIDS epidemic, Irving has us where he wants us. The reunions with poor Tom and "two cups" Delacorte are presented tenderly and to great effect.

As Richard Abbott tells our narrator (page 311), "If you live long enough, Bill--it's a world of epilogues." It's a John Irving novel, so the epilogues include the deaths of many of the characters: by AIDS, but also suicides, a car wreck with a drunk driver, and even natural causes.

There are reunions and survivors in these epilogues as well, including the elusive Franny Dean, and despite the dark topics of AIDS and fear inspired hatred, there's a chance for a hopeful ending; even in young Kitteridge's anger there's a desire to understand.

Understanding and tolerance is what John Irving always asks of us through all his novels - to have some sympathy for those who live society's taboos. "We already are who we are, aren't we?"

In the end, while this was a very good book, and I do recommend it to those who either love John Irving or are interested in the story, it falls somewhat short of such classics as The Cider House Rules, A Prayer for Owen Meany, or even the more recent Last Night in Twisted River.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

I Sing the Body Literate

Last night Earth lost one of our most brilliant and imaginative literary minds when Ray Bradbury passed away at the age of 91. Bradbury's books were the first to introduce me to the world of adult literature as well as science fiction, and probably the first to inspire in me the desire to write.

It was around 1970, I was about 10 or so, when I picked up a copy of The Martian Chronicles. From those first pages of Rocket Summer I was hooked. For a kid in Boston, who grew up following our conquest of space and landing on the Moon, the images came through clearly. The heat of the rockets, leaving for Mars, melting the Ohio snow were vivid in my imagination. By the end of the book, There Will Come Soft Rains, was etched equally into my thoughts and my life.

There were other "young adult" authors that I read in that period. Of course, S.E. Hinton's books were all on my shelf. The Hinton books were great for a kid who felt like an Outsider, and also helped teach me about literature. But the Bradbury books took me further, outside of myself, and into a universe of possibilities and morality.

I read more of Bradbury's short stories (The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl comes to mind) and novels, and later saw the movies that came from them. Truffaut's excellent adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 being the first, and later The Illustrated Man, starring Rod Steiger. That movie could not compare to the images that Bradbury illustrated through his prose, although to this day, when I see somebody with excessive tattooing, I hear Steiger's voice in the back of my head saying, "They are not tattoos; they are skiiiin eellustrationz."

And, of course, there was the Twilight Zone episode he wrote, I Sing the Body Electric. Many include this among the worst Zone episodes for its dripping sentimentality, but I always found comfort in Bradbury's melding of technology with heart.

Bradbury was not himself a "techie" or mechanical person. He never drove since witnessing a car accident when younger, and was afraid to fly. I learned that second bit of trivia from Bradbury's appearance as a contestant on "You Bet Your Life" with Groucho Marx. It came out through Groucho's interview with him at the top of the show. I don't recall whether or not Bradbury said the magic word triggering the duck to come down with $100.

The soft rains have come. Ray Bradbury, R.I.P.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Generosity Causes Homelessness

Here's the story: A driver tries to give a disabled person a few bucks at an intersection, one dollar falls to the ground, and the driver is given a $344 ticket for littering.

What the ...? Well, you see, in Columbus, Ohio, it's illegal to give money to a panhandler.

Um, okay, but the ticket was for littering? Well, you see, the penalty for littering is higher than the penalty for giving to a panhandler, so they're prosecuting him for the "greater crime." All for giving a few bucks to a disabled panhandler.

This is your tax dollars at work. Not at work, trying to help a disabled adult whose only income is from panhandling. No, that would be foolhardy, and would only encourage people to be disabled and destitute. No, this is your tax dollars hard at work punishing those naive fools who help out their fellow man.

Anti-panhandling laws (and anti-"camping" laws, and loitering laws, and...) arise out of the notion that if you make life inhospitable to the homeless and destitute, that they will, at best, suddenly be able to get a job and move inside, or, at the least, move on to another locality.

In Columbus, however, they've taken the next step. It's no longer enough to punish the poor for being poor, they've taken it upon themselves to punish decent citizens who take pity upon their fellow man, and therefor encourage them to be disabled and broke.

In some ways, this does make sense: it's easier to collect a fine from the guy with a job than from the guy on the street. But this is also their public policy, they obviously believe that it's that driver's fault that the guy in the wheelchair is a beggar.

Clearly, the good people of Columbus have discovered and gone after the root cause of poverty: Generosity. If we would only stop caring about the less fortunate among us, life would be wonderful, and our streets would be clean and safe.

Thank you, Columbus, for leading the way to a sweeter smelling, less caring America!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Side With...

Each election year there are a variety of websites that claim to match you with your perfect candidate for President. This year, one which has done a pretty good job of it is I Side With... (.com). I Side With... uses a wide-ranging questionnaire to determine your politics. In some categories you can expand beyond the basic questions to give additional information.

Once your survey is complete, you are shown how close your views are to those of each of the declared candidates. Here are my current results:

I say "current" results because the I Side With... algorithm is apparently updated as more information becomes available, or when the candidates change their positions (this must keep them up late at night, keeping up with Mitt's policy gymnastics). Candidates that have dropped from the race are also dropped from your results.

When I took the I Side With... survey, back on April 21st, my results were slightly different than when I logged back into the site just now to write this blog post. At that time Barack Obama and Fred Karger were each tied at 70% concurrence with my views. Clicking on "More info" under Obama today, I see that he pulled ahead of Karger by 4% after yesterday's statement on gay marriage.

Romney, meanwhile, has dropped from 31% agreement in April to only 13% agreement today, and Ron Paul has dropped from 37% to 25%.

Holding steady as the candidate I most agree with, is Green Party candidate, Kent Mesplay, at 83% in April and May.

Not shown in the graphic, but in the survey, is Jimmy "The Rent is Too Damn High" McMillan, with whom I currently have 37% in common (clearly, we agree about the damned rent, but not much more).

Back in April, I enjoyed taking the I Side With... survey and reading the results. The site is cleanly designed, easy to use, and clicking "More info" under any of the candidates clearly explains how they arrive at the results. Today, I'm even more impressed with how they've continued to refine their algorithm and update the results. A great effort. Check them out at

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

My Day With Newt

"I'm not a natural leader. I'm too intellectual; I'm too abstract; I think too much."
- Newton Leroy Gingrich

Poor Newt should have realized it was over last week when he was bit by penguin, but he's slow to process these things. You know, because he's an abstract intellectual and has to think things through. Even after losing five more primary contests yesterday, he's still officially in the race for another week, with plans to likely drop out on May 1. My guess is that he bet somebody that he'd make it through April.

But it reminds me of how, after he resigned the post of Speaker of the House in disgrace, in November 1998, following investigation into his ethics violations, he still hung around Congress another couple of months, clinging to his seat there till January 1999. And then all America figured that, like Dick Nixon, we wouldn't have Newt Gingrich to kick around anymore.

At the time, I was working for an organization called HandsNet. We were kind of like a nonprofit AOL for human services professionals. It was a fun and exciting time, and somewhere between surviving the Y2K scare of 1999 and not surviving the dot-com bust of 2001, my boss, Michael, and I were invited to participate in a forum on public policy and the Internet.

It was a fairly intimate group - no more than 100 people - assembled in a meeting room at San Jose's Fairmont Hotel, with tech execs, local politicians, and Michael and I representing the nonprofit ".org" space. We were taking our seats and looking over the agenda when a gnome-like little round man with sunken cheeks came waddling into the room with a small entourage. I turned to Michael and said, "Poor SOB has to go through life looking like Newt Gingrich." We each laughed.

Then the introductions started... Oops. It was Newt.

My memory of the day was that, much as I would have liked to confirm his evil bastardness with some heinous statement or another, he turned out to be a good participant. He did not try to dominate the conversation, and when in dialog with others he listened respectfully, and his responses showed that he heard the other person's points - even if he didn't agree.

At the end of the day I felt that his leaving Congress had humbled him. I also felt that I had gotten a glimpse of Professor Gingrich, and that he wasn't quite so bombastic and egotistical as Speaker Gingrich had been. His full political rehabilitation to where he would be considered by many to be a semi-plausible contender for the Republic Presidential nomination would take another decade. And, as we've seen, in that decade his arrogance was fully recovered as well.

I mentioned this meeting a couple of weeks ago, when I was catching up with Michael over lunch. He had no recollection of either the forum or of crossing paths with the former Speaker. So it goes.

And so we bid farewell to the 2012 Presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich. We'll miss him. Well, Michael won't, but somebody will, I'm sure.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Income Tax Blog

It seems apt that the final weekend before 2011 tax returns are due should start with Friday the 13th. I completed our returns and filed electronically last month, although I didn't mail the required checks until this past Monday (no refund here).

Back in January, I wrote about Mitt Romney's 15% effective tax rate. Around the same time, in the Statue of the Union Address, President Obama also talked about how wrong it is that millionaires should pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries, or teachers, policemen, or other middle-income earners. To illustrate the point, Warren Buffett's secretary was sitting with the First Lady in the audience.

"The Buffett Rule" was introduced to correct this, with the simple premise that those with over $1 million in annual income shouldn't pay a lower tax rate than middle-class families. To promote passage of the Buffett Rule, the White House has posted a "Buffett Rule Calculator" - just plug in your income and your taxes, and see how many millionaires pay less than you do!

So, how did I do (actually, for my wife and I, filing jointly)? After deductions, we had an effective tax rate of 17% - higher than 37,600 millionaires. Some of our income is taxed at the 25% bracket, but our over-all effective rate is 17% thanks to some generous deductions, primarily the home mortgage interest deduction.

That deduction alone reduced our income by nearly 14% and had a dollar value greater than a full time job at the federal minimum wage. Think about that for a moment. We are not rich by any stretch, and are frankly going through some lean times. Even so, we write off from our income more than many people earn.

With the rich dodging taxes above, and the working poor struggling with a sub-standard minimum wage below, the gap is getting wider. The Buffett Rule is a small, symbolic step, and I support it, but it's just the tip of the iceberg in getting our economy working for everybody again.

(Tell your Senators to vote for the Buffett Rule by clicking here...)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

So Long, It's Been Good to Know Ya'

As I write this posting, I have 324 friends on Facebook. But, considering it's an election year, and I tend to be quite open with my strong opinions on things political, the folks over at the Pew Internet Project would like to warn me that I can expect to have only 262 Facebook friends by November 7.

That's because 9% of users of social networking sites "have blocked, unfriended or hidden someone because they posted something about politics or issues that the user disagreed with or found offensive," and another 10% of those on Twitter and Facebook, "have blocked, unfriended or hidden someone because they post too frequently on politics."

I don't believe I would ever fall into the second group; de-friending just because the person likes to talk about politics. I would also never de-friend simply because I disagree with the person's politics. If that were true, I'd have long ago dumped several of my Facebook circle who post daily reminders of why they're voting for Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul. (Thankfully, I don't have any Rick Santorum voters in my circles. Or, maybe I did, but they already dumped my liberal ass? More likely, they're just too embarrassed to admit who they're voting for in public.)

Actually, I quite like seeing posts on my newsfeed from all over the political spectrum. I enjoy reading things from different points of view, even when I find them dangerously stupid. Of course, I try to be polite in my commenting, and not just come right out and tell them they're being stupid. And I'm usually successful at that.

And then there have been times when I'm afraid I've gone too far in my commenting, and been surprised when the person was still on my friends list the next morning. I'd like to take this moment here to thank them for that (you know who you are).

But the "found offensive" thing... I'd like to say that I'm not easily offended, and that I have a high tolerance for questionable humor. But there are some areas where I have to draw the line.

If I find your ideas politically offensive (see example)  I will argue with you, but I will not be the one to click the "unfriend" button. I will also remain your friend, no matter how pious, self-righteous, and pig-headed you are in declaring your beliefs to be morally, ethically, or intellectually superior to mine (I've done a bit of grandstanding myself, this post included).

But, if you resort to overt racism or sexism or other hate speech to try and make your point, where you have no legitimate point to begin with, I will remove you from my view. That's it. You've been warned.

Now, the Pew study has a bright side too. Although I may lose up to 19% of my friends for either being too political (10%), or just not the right type of political (9%), they also point out that 16% of users have "followed or friended someone because that person shared the user’s political views."

So, my net loss may only be 3%, dropping me from 324 to 314. But it will be a much more civilized and intelligent 314. I'm looking forward to that.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Rush Still Doesn't Get It

Thanks to pressure from a few Republican leaders and the loss of at least half-a-dozen sponsors, Rush Limbaugh has issued an apology to Sandra Fluke for calling her a "slut" and a "prostitute." And, in that apology, manages to once again ignore the point of her testimony before Congress, lie about the purpose of the hearing, and make her out to be a self-absorbed sexual adventurer.

"I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke," Rush's apology states, after three days of on-air attacks that included the above remarks, as well as repeatedly stating that she is "having so much sex she can't pay for her birth control," and suggesting that if she's going to force others to pay for her sexual activities she should videotape them and post them online for us all to see.

The "apology" continues:
I think it is absolutely absurd that during these very serious political times, we are discussing personal sexual recreational activities before members of Congress. I personally do not agree that American citizens should pay for these social activities.
A few points for those who may be tempted to agree with the above statements, or anything else Rush has said on the topic:
  • Ms. Fluke's testimony had nothing whatsoever to do with her sex life. She was speaking on behalf of a friend who lost an ovary. The friend had been prescribed birth control pills to help control ovarian cysts, but because her health insurance did not cover "contraception" she could not take the medication, and she lost the ovary. Yes, "birth control" is prescribed for a number of reasons beyond the desire for "guiltless sex."
  • The hearing was not about whether or not American citizens should pay for the "sexual recreation" of others. The topic before Congress last week was whether or not private employers should be allowed "moral exemptions" from new requirements that birth control be included under preventive health care coverage. As stated, this is not about "sexual recreation," it's about family planning and access to prescriptions for a number of health concerns.
  • Rush repeatedly suggested that if somebody has trouble affording birth control pills, it must be related to the amount of sexual activity they are having. I have trouble believing that a man over 60, who has had four wives, does not know how the pill works, but one takes the same number of pills, regardless of how often they have sex, or how many partners they have, or whether they are a single college student or a married person.
This non-apology may appease a few of his advertisers and take the heat off Republican leaders to call him out, but it perpetuates the misinformation that was behind his insulting, sexist tirades.

Insurance that includes contraception adds no additional cost to the premium, and may actually reduce premiums. Insurance is all about risk, and insurers prefer a known, relatively low cost to the risk of a much higher cost. In other words, paying for birth control pills at about $900-1,200/year is better for the insurance company than the risk of paying for a pregnancy, including prenatal check-ups, hospital delivery, risks of complications... (a minimum of $10,000+).

And let's not forget that most pregnancies end by adding a new dependent to the policy; a new dependent who will require much expensive attention in those first few years. Contraception is a bargain to insurance companies compared to the risk of pregnancy.

It's not the insurance industry that's trying to get contraception removed from the requirements of the Affordable Care Act. It's religious zealots and right wing clowns like Rush, who have to resort to misrepresentation, insults, and outright lies to score political points. Apology not accepted.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy Rare Disease Day!

Today is Rare Disease Day 2012! Who knew there was a special day set aside just for talking about rare diseases? I only just found out about it minutes ago, and just in time to celebrate.

In honor of Rare Disease Day, I decided to check out the Rare Disease Database to make sure my rare disease was listed... and it is! Gilbert Syndrome's listing is there, and fairly accurate:
Gilbert syndrome is a mild genetic liver disorder in which the body cannot properly process bilirubin, a yellowish waste product that is formed when the liver breaks down old or worn out red blood cells (hemolysis). Individuals with Gilbert syndrome have elevated levels of bilirubin (hyperbilirubinemia), which occurs because they have a reduced level of a specific liver enzyme required for elimination of bilirubin. ... Bilirubin levels may increase following stress, exertion, dehydration, alcohol consumption, fasting, and/or infection.
I did learn some other names for Gilbert's, including, Unconjugated Benign Bilirubinemia, Meulengracht's Disease, and Familial Nonhemolytic Jaundice. My personal nickname for it - Semi-Chronic Fatigue Syndrome - has not yet made the list. I call it that, as when my bilirubin levels rise, I feel it more as fatigue (and often hunger) without exhibiting too many outwardly visible signs of jaundice. It also makes my urine look like thick orange paint. Aren't you glad you asked?

Unfortunately, according to the Patient Organizations Database, there is not yet an organization dedicated solely to Gilbert's, although there are a few general liver and genetic disease organizations that would gladly accept me as a member.

So, how will you celebrate Rare Disease Day 2012? Visit for fun party ideas, or maybe some serious life saving information.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

When Wars Collide

We Americans love to declare war on whatever social problem we feel is of vital importance - and sometimes we assume that our political nemesis has declared the war on us. At any given time, depending on who you ask, any number of wars may be raging. From the religious right's point of view, one of those is the War on Christianity. From the progressive left's point of view, a big one is the War on Women's Health.

Over the last couple of weeks we've watched as these two wars met head on following the Obama administration's refusal to grant religious employers an exemption to new rules requiring that health insurance plans include coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services. When we talk about religious employers here, we're mostly referring to nonprofit social service organizations, universities, and hospitals: organizations that serve the general public (not just co-religionists), and who employ people of all faiths and beliefs.

To the right, this is a violation of these groups' (primarily Catholic) fundamental right to religious freedom, by forcing them to pay for a product (contraception at a minimum, abortion at the extreme) that goes against their beliefs.

To the left, the denial of this coverage violates the employee's (mostly women) access to a full range of health care options, and forces them to abide by their employer's religious restrictions - whether or not they are of the same religion.

Whose rights are more important? The employee's rights to make their own private health care decisions with their doctor's advice, or the employer's rights to not have to support practices they don't believe in?

I believe that the employee's rights have to win out. Not only for the access to care, but also for the right to privacy. Under HIPPA, we all have the right to privacy regarding our medical records, including not having to share our health care decisions with our employer.

But the employer is paying for it, right? Well, let's take a look at that a little closer. Those against the administration's decision are saying that religious organizations will "be forced to pay for contraception and abortions." But that's simply not true. Employers pay for health insurance only. What the employee does with that health insurance is their own business.

Saying that the employer has the right to dictate health care choices made by an employee is the same as saying the employer has the right to dictate what the employee may or may not purchase with their paycheck.

Do you need to ask your boss permission before making any purchases for your home? It's the employer's money after all, isn't it? Of course not! Once they pay you, it's your money, and your decision how it's spent.

Same with health insurance. Once the employer purchases it - as part of your compensation package for your labor - what you do with it is between you and your doctor only. At least, it should be that way.

Unfortunately, this being an election year, too much will be made of this perfectly reasonable decision by the administration, and they may be forced into a compromise position. While the compromise may temporarily appease those on the religious right, it will certainly be a set-back for women's access to health, and blow to privacy for us all.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Freedom of the Press? We're #47!

Media watchdog organization, Reporters Without Borders, has just released their World Press Freedom Index - a tracking of several indicators of press freedom - and the United Sates has fallen 27 points since their last survey; from #20 to #47. That puts us behind Slovakia, El Salvador, and Ghana, but still (slightly) ahead of Latvia and Haiti.

Much of the reason for the sharp drop this year is attributed to local over-reaction to the Occupy movement, with mayors and police chiefs nationwide having journalists carried away along with demonstrators. The great irony in all this is that American journalists now have greater freedom in covering protests overseas than they do at home.

But beyond last fall's local yahoos trying to make their city streets safe for holiday shoppers, the crackdown on a free press in America continued yesterday in Washington, DC, at a hearing of the House Science Committee, where Oscar-nominated documentary director, Josh Fox, was arrested for trying to film part of the hearing:

As Fox says in this interview, "The First Amendment to the Constitution states explicitly 'Congress shall make no law... that infringes on the Freedom of the Press.'" Is Congress exempt from the Constitution now, or have we just decided that we no longer need a free press?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Returning Democracy to the (Natural) People

Today marks the second anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which unleashed unlimited spending by corporate "persons" to influence our elections. We saw some of the effect of this in the 2010 mid-term elections, and we're seeing it already this year in the wildly expensive and nasty fight for the Republican nomination. But, while Citizens United expanded the concepts of corporations as legal persons and money as speech, it didn't start there.

It actually started about 125 years ago with the case of Southern Pacific Railroad v. Santa Clara County. In that decision, the court held that the railroad corporation was entitled to rights under the 14th Amendment. Many cases between Southern Pacific and Citizens United have further expanded the concept of corporate rights and personhood, often at the expense of human citizens.

But the humans have not given up hope, and have begun to fight back. Move to Amend is an organization trying to pass an Amendment to the Constitution that would clearly state that corporations are not people, and money is not speech. Yesterday, they held rallies across the country themed as "Occupy the Courts" aimed at overturning Citizens United and educating people on the need for a Constitutional amendment.

I attended in San Jose, where our rally took place in Saint James Park, across the street from the very courthouse where the Southern Pacific case began 125 years ago. There were a few speakers, including a city councilman and a woman who was fired from Walmart for being a whistle-blower, followed by a skit of "campaign speeches" from a robot representing different corporations. We then marched through town, past the Federal office building, and ending for second, smaller, rally in front of City Hall.

At its height, there were maybe a couple hundred of us. Not too large, but a good sized group for a rainy weekday. But where was the media? I saw only a couple of people who seemed to be taking notes or a few professional photos, but no TV crews. The Move to Amend folks are going to need to get much better at PR if this movement is to take off.

Passing a new amendment to the Constitution may be difficult, but is not impossible, and the stakes could not be higher. While there has always been an undue influence of money in our political process, Citizens United amplifies it hundreds of times over. Corporations are now able to give untraceable millions to SuperPACs that are not bound by any of the controls or limits that we've placed on candidates or individuals. They can say pretty much anything and will drown out the voice of We the People.

We have to make it clear to our leaders, and to the corporate interests that fund them, that democracy is for us human citizens only, and is no longer for sale to the highest bidder. One person, one voice, one vote.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Why 15% Should Matter to the 99%

This week Mitt Romney let slip the real reason why he's reluctant to divulge his tax returns. It's not how much money he earns that he's hiding - we're all aware that it's a considerable sum - it's the tax rate he pays on that income that is controversial.

Because Mitt's income is mostly from investment earnings, he pays the capital gains rate of 15% on his millions rather than the current top marginal rate for wages of 35%, or even the average middle-class top marginal rate of 25%. This has left his supporters to explain why this very wealthy man should pay a lower tax rate than most middle-class Americans.

Capital gains, we are told, are very special because of the risks involved. Not every investment pays off, after all. Very true. But, of course, that's why losing investments can be written off as business expenses and deducted from one's over-all income, reducing one's taxes. So, why, when an investment is successful should it be taxed differently than regular employment income?

Well, 15% of $1,000,000 is still more than 25% of $75,000! Kinda like how, if you buy in bulk at Costco, you get a lower price on food. That's fair, right? Well, in as far as that analogy does hold water, the tax code already has provisions for the "bulk buyer" (IE: additional children = additional deductions). In my case, my home (modest by CA standards, but expensive by national standards) gives me quite a mortgage interest deduction. Add that to my business and other expenses and I probably deduct as much from my income than a minimum wage worker earns in a year.

But on the taxable portion (after deductions), I gladly pay a rate that's somewhat higher than the minimum wage worker because of my relative success. And somebody who earns 10-20 times what I do should pay a little higher yet. Certainly no less a percentage. So, why so much lower?

Well, they say, the rich need an incentive to invest. Why bother if your earnings after taxes will barely keep up with inflation? When I hear this argument I always have to reply that I don't think the rich are as lazy as you think they are. I have faith in their entrepreneurial drive that they'd still invest, create, and build, even if capital gains were taxed as regular income. As long as the tax rate is below 100% any gains are still better than a mattress full of cash (and, no, I'm not suggesting a 100% tax).

If you buy that "incentive to beat inflation" argument, then people should be turning down C-level jobs that hit the 35% marginal rate, and even middle-management positions in the 25% range, and all the MBAs would be looking to work in mail rooms. It turns out, however, people prefer to have 65% of $500,000 over having 75% of $75,000. So, why does investment income require a tax rate so much lower than income from labor?

Gosh! You're just envious! After all, everybody has the opportunity to invest and get the tax benefits of capital gains! Well, perhaps we do have that opportunity, but not to the same extent. According to the Washington Post, "The 400 richest taxpayers in 2008 counted 60 percent of their income in the form of capital gains and 8 percent from salary and wages. The rest of the country reported 5 percent in capital gains and 72 percent in salary." When you defend 400 out of 312,877,450 with "everybody can do it," it's more than a bit of a stretch.

Here's the thing about all this in relation to Willard Mittens Romney: the millions he makes each year from capital gains are not even from investing his own money. There is no risk involved. Mitt's millions are part of his retirement agreement with Bain Capital. Every year he gets a nice slice of Bain's profits, even though he hasn't worked there in 13 years.

Of course, while most of his income comes from Bain and other capital gains, Mitt does work part-time as a public speaker. He describes his income from speaking fees as "not very much." It's actually $374,000/year. As a point of reference, $380,000 is the cut-off point for being in the top 1% of earners.

Capital gains have not always been taxed as low as 15%. This rate is the result of tax cuts (from both GW Bush and Clinton) that were supposed to inspire and encourage the wealthy to invest more, thus creating new jobs. As you can see, that plan didn't quite work out.

Many Republicans are now pushing for a new rate on capital gains: 0%. Romney, in his defense, is not one of them (although he does have other tax cuts in his plan). But if Newt Gingrich is elected, Mitt's tax bill will fall to nearly nothing.

So, please, remind me again, why are capital gains taxed so much lower than income from actually working for a living?

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