Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Starving the Beast

It’s called ‘starving the beast’: the theory that a constant, consistent reduction in taxes will result in smaller government. A government that has a reduced income stream will, out of necessity, reduce its expenditures and inevitably shrink in size.

The starving process can take many forms. Reduction in income tax rates, particularly at the higher income levels. A reduction in the number of income tax rates, i.e., eliminating the progressivity of the tax rates, thus reducing the volume of dollars coming into the government coffers. Tax caps on government, such as the recent 2% cap imposed on local governments in New York State. Creative tax breaks that favor certain segments of the economy, which has the two-fold impact of reducing tax revenues and reducing supposedly ‘onerous’ regulatory burdens on the market.

Each of these methods has been used in the past 30 years, the result of the ‘Reagan revolution’ of conservative government. We can all argue about whether it has really reduced the size of government; most of the numbers demonstrate that it has not, primarily because governments find creative ways around them. 

Such tactics have had disastrous affects at the state and local government level, where government is obligated to balance its budget annually -- unlike the federal government, they can't print money.  California's education system is frequently held up as an example:  once the leader in the nation, that state's education system suffers from poor school performance and failing infrastructure, as the tax investment has dwindled due to 'proposition 2 1/2', which placed a limit on property taxes.  Over the past 30 years, the State has not filled the gap.

A mandated squeeze on taxes forces governments at all levels to make choices, to prioritize where the revenues are spent. And the impact is not always pretty – because the decisions tend to favor those with money and power. Health care, education, food assistance, unemployment programs are targets for cuts, while tax abatement and business investment loan programs are funded.

Meanwhile, those at the top of the income pyramid get to keep an ever-increasing percentage of their money. Reagan and his disciples – the Grover Norquists of the world -- believe that such a system permits the dollars to ‘trickle down’ to those in lower income brackets, as those with money would invest in the market, expanding opportunities for all.

It hasn’t happened.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Education Disparity

David Brooks weighed in on the income disparity issue on October 31. He did not deny the movement of wealth to a smaller percentage at the top; as with so many apologists, he downplayed the significance and magnitude. He also identified the other disparity, which he names the Red Inequility:

Then there is what you might call Red Inequality. This is the kind experienced in Scranton, Des Moines, Naperville, Macon, Fresno, and almost everywhere else. In these places, the crucial inequality is not between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99 percent. It’s between those with a college degree and those without. Over the past several decades, the economic benefits of education have steadily risen. In 1979, the average college graduate made 38 percent more than the average high school graduate, according to the Fed chairman, Ben Bernanke. Now the average college graduate makes more than 75 percent more.

He believes this Red Inequality is much more important, and has a longer-term negative impact on our country. He states that what we actually need is to close the opportunity gap by improving our capacity to get more people through higher levels of education.

He is right. But if we were to ask him whether we, as a society, should pony up more dollars to get more people through college, he would probably hesitate.

And there, he would be wrong. Because money – and the heavy financial burden necessary for students to complete college and beyond – is one of the greatest roadblocks to that educational opportunity he so eloquently defends.

A roadblock the 1% never has to worry about.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Occupy Albany

Occupy Wall Street may not come up with solutions, but at least it is asking the right questions in a nonviolent setting. I don’t believe that love can be forced, but I believe it can be provoked. I don’t believe that generosity can be forced, but it can be provoked. Occupy Wall Street is provoking generosity.

Shane Claiborne, co-founder, Simple Way, in Christian Century, 10-20-2011

The Occupy Albany folks are camped out in the park outside my office window. I can’t actually see them thru the trees; the western part of the park, which I overlook, is the responsibility of the State, while the eastern section is managed by the City. The occupants choose to test the City’s resolve on the 11PM curfew, rather than the State.

The Occupy movement has taken lots of hits over its perceived lack of focus. The themes appear to be corporate greed, banks, and the financial structures of society. The rallying numbers are 1% and 99%, the former representing the percentage of the population that owns over 40% of the wealth in the country. The media also seems to pick up on a leadership issue: there is no one organization that commences, manages, and stimulates the urban-based occupations, and no specific individuals that make the speeches in front of the camera – the usual ‘official spokesman.’

In the end, that may be a positive paradigm. The ultimate democracy: the group is the power and the power is derived from collective decision-making. A romantic notion, certainly, but it gives the group the ability to fend off singular ad hominem attacks. Push on one part of the balloon, and another part expands.

The group’s argument is appropriate – wealth is distributed inequitably in this country, and major American corporations have been a primary driver. But the focus of the protest is misplaced.

In our system of capitalism, the purpose of a corporate entity is to earn profits for its shareholders – a system that applies to the small corner store owner as much as it does to a multi-national. Corporations are going to act in their best interests to maximize profits and reduce costs through every means available: closing plants and offices or cutting staff; seeking property tax cuts from local governments; lobbying for a lower capital gains tax; pitting one town against another and one state against another for gimmies like free ‘shovel-ready’ property, tax abatements, or interest-free grants; threatening to leave town unless taxes are reduced or waived; pushing for reduced regulations, higher tariffs on foreign goods, or tax advantages for foreign investment. Major companies have successfully argued for bailouts from the federal government to stave off failure – thus privatizing profits (it’s mine, I earned it, I’m not sharing) and socializing risk (durn, we failed, everybody must kick in to save us, the shareholders can’t do it alone).

Corporate America can’t be blamed for working that system – no matter how questionable or ethical the tactics.

We are to blame for letting it happen.

We have a structure in place for countering these activities. That’s what government is for. This is the role of government, the people we select to set policies in the form of law and regulation, and the agencies created to implement and enforce them.

That role has been distorted for the past 30 years, as we have tilted the balance of our assets, our income, and our wealth through regressive tax policies, poorly-conceived investments, and lax regulatory enforcement.

Somehow, government is now viewed as a bad thing.  And we are worse for that image.

Monday, April 18, 2011

We're all Connected

“There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.  And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill.”
                                                            President Obama, April 2011

George Packer in The New Yorker:

Republicans are once again trying to privatize Medicare, gut Medicaid (by turning it into block grants), cut education spending and regulations that protect the environment, and give yet another round of tax cuts to the rich.  They continue to insist – despite years of evidence to the contrary – that market forces will lower health-care costs and that tax cuts will create economic growth and lift all incomes.  “Ideology makes it unnecessary for people to confront individual issues on their individual merits,” the late Daniel Bell wrote.  “One simply turns to the ideological vending machine, and out comes the prepared formulae.”  Ideology knows the answer before the question has been asked.

There are still plenty of people who believe the pap that our country still thrives solely because of individual initiative, the ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ nostalgia that built the cabin in the Kentucky woods.  The problem with this theory is that it ignores the power of a society to ostracize and dispense with those individuals that do not have the opportunity to succeed, or have been slapped down by economic/social conditions of their own environment.

Our economic system is based upon accumulation of wealth by shareholders:  the business exists to bring profits to those who fund or manage the business.  This is not an intrinsically bad system, as long as we, as a society, create other vehicles and methods to create some equity in society.  That’s what government is for.  Obama referred to this last week when he spoke of the positive role of government:  “a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation…We’re a better country because of these commitments.  I’ll go further.  We would not be a great country without those commitments.”

Sunday, April 10, 2011


I'm a published poet.

The latest edition of "Spitball -- the Literary Baseball Magazine" arrived in the mail on Friday.  My poem "Row 747, Upper Deck" is one of five poems interspersed with short fiction and an article about the 2010 Hall of Fame inductees. The cover is a black and white representation of Andre Dawson taking a long look to left, his home run swing completed, the Montreal Expos ensignia across his jersey.  I attended a few games in that city, a lost franchise.  Maybe it is fitting that my first published poem was about baseball.

It is incredibly flattering to have your work recognized.  When I opened to page 20 and read it again, I wanted to re-write it, of course.  Always room for improvement.

So, my thanks to Mike Shannon and William McGill, the Editor and Poetry Editor for 'Spitball'.  You can see other poems they have selected at their website

Monday, January 24, 2011

Two Speeches

“Now let me suggest…that if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional.  Our loyalties must transcend our race, our tribe, our class, and our nation, and this means we must develop a world perspective.  No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone, and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world.  Now the judgment of God is upon us and we must learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”
         Martin Luther King, "Christmas Sermon on Peace", December 24, 1967

“[we must] use this occasion to expand our moral imaginations, to listen to each other more carefully, to sharpen our instincts for empathy, and remind ourselves of all the ways our hopes and dreams are bound together…I believe that we can be better. Those who died here, those who saved life here—they help me believe. We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.”
                   President Barack Obama, Tucson Memorial Service, January 13, 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

Weapons of Mass Destruction

A 22-year-old mixes with a crowd at a public gathering with the local congressional representative.  The true picture of democracy:  an elected official asks her constituents for opinions and conversation.  The young man pulls out a 9-millimeter pistol with a 30-bullet clip, capable of firing multiple bullets in seconds.  In less time than it takes to pull a pin from a hand grenade, six people are dead, 14 injured.

And the discourse over the past two days is about the 'atmosphere of vitriol'.

We should be asking why anyone should legally carry a weapon that can kill six people in a few seconds.  Clearly, rational people would not argue that a hand grenade is a reasonable weapon to carry in public.  Why should an automatic weapon be an exception to that rule?

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The first State of the State

From George Washington's first speech to Congress, January 8, 1790:

"The welfare of our country is the great object to which our cares and efforts ought to be directed, and I shall derive great satisfaction from a cooperation with you in the pleasing though arduous task of insuring to our fellow citizens the blessings which they have a right to expect from a free, efficient, and equal government.”

Young country with no defined self-image of unity quite yet.  But the new (old) leader already knows that unity in vision from elected officials is the best way to succeed.

The old days, and the old ways, were not purer in cooperation, nor more efficient in governance, than today.  Those Congressmen and Senators were still preoccupied with self-interest, and prochial (sic, and i don't feel like looking it up!) interests of their own states.  They were still hesitant to assume large-scale powers that would override states' rights.  The House is having the same argument this month as they attempt to alter 2010's health care act.

George did say that their task was to insure 'to our fellow citizens.'  Was he including women in that statement, even while speaking to a roomful of men?

He probably opened with a prayer.  He should have opened with poetry.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Stuck in the Middle

Gerry Rafferty is an asterisk on the music compendium of the early 1970s.

Yet, Dave and I had our memories triggered on the way home from work today.  NPR's 'All Things Considered' did a short story about Rafferty, who died at 63 today.

First semester, freshman year, Lycoming College, fall 1972.  The corner of Washington Boulevard and Franklin Street, Williamsport.  Late night trips to the small sub shop.  The jukebox inevitably playing "Stuck in the Middle with You" -- mainly because one of the football lineman, who frequented the place at the same time, loved that song.  Infectious song, one of those that took over the music memory socket in your head and did not let go -- like his other songs,  "Baker Street", "Get It Right Next Time".

A producer on 'ATC' probably had memories triggered upon the news of Rafferty's death.  So Gerry gets a few more minutes of fame, and another few thousand minds are humming along.

I believe a sub shop still occupies that corner.  I may go find out; I got a note today from my history professor at Lycoming, inviting me to speak to a seminar class.

A song hook, a sub shop, and Dr. Larson, all within a few hours.  Threads link so many things in life, in the shortest of timespans.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Lost analog memories

My brother Dennis still had the tape recorder.

Our famiily gathered for Christmas in Cooperstown last week.  Dennis brought the old Grants tape deck, a small portable player/recorder with three settings:  play, rewind, record.  He and I had used it to record the Christmas Eve broadcast from Apollo 8 in 1968.  We both think it also contains other music and commentary that we recorded during our early teen years.

The brown tape ran on two reels about three inches in diameter, and looked to be in fairly good shape; the box, which measures about 11 inches across and eight inches wide, came with a cover.  We bought fresh batteries -- two C's and a 9volt -- and inserted them; the positive/negatives both faced the same direction, something rare in devices today.

Dennis hit the play button, and the motor dragged the tape at less than optimum speed.  It emitted a low sound at various points, as if a voice were speaking in very slow motion from the bottom of a well.  The reels turned in fits and starts, and he turned it off.

The tape still contains memories.  The 40-year box just is not the device to bring them to reality.  Oh well, thank goodness for new technology -- we can see the whole thing thanks to digital archiving and the internet.

[Incidentally, I highly recommend the White House Inn if you ever visit Cooperstown -- a very welcoming and comfortable B&B.  Ed, Margie, Pattie and Mary are excellent hosts, and it is a fine gathering place.]