Monday, February 28, 2011

Cutting the Deficit, Tax Cuts, and Sophie’s Choice

Cut spending, bring down the deficit!  That’s the mantra in today’s congress.  Good, that’s certainly what’s needed.  But, it’s not just about cutting spending and reducing costs.  It’s about what we believe is important to us.

What we choose to keep, what we deem worth the expense verses what we consider not worth the cost reflects our real values.  Let’s call it the “throw away” factor.  We downsize and reduce by getting rid of what we call frill, worthless expenditure, unnecessary excess and wasteful spending that we can no longer afford.

The question is, in the big scheme of things, what has real significant value verses what should be considered mere fluff and frill and therefore wasteful spending in our national budget?  What expenses, costly as they may be, are really investments for our future, and therefore worth keeping?  And who defines this for us?

It’s not enough to say, “I’m for balancing the budget, slashing expenditures and reducing our deficit.”  EVERYONE is for THAT!  But some politicians would have us believe that that’s all they need to say in order to get us to rally behind them.  Not so fast!  Simply saying “I’m going to cut, cut, cut!” does not make one a savior to our economic woes.  Cutting requires, nay, DEMANDS hard CHOICES.  And it’s the financial choices we make that are the real indicators of what we value and who we are as a people.

You have a lifestyle, a comfortable one.  You are settled in.  You like the way you live: movies, pizza, dinner out here and there, two fairly new vehicles in the garage, kids in sports, piano lessons, golfing on the weekend, a summer week at the shore, skiing in the winter, whatever.  Then the economy crashes, your income drops by a third to a half or more.  What are you going to give up, what are you going to keep?  How will you change your lifestyle to fit your new economic situation?  This is where the real you arises.    You hate making these choices.  You would rather keep everything as you had before.  But you can’t.  You are forced to make some hard choices, you cannot avoid it.  Your true values, what is really important to you, will now surface.

Remember the movie, Sophie’s Choice?  Talk about an impossible choice!  Yet, she was forced.  She had to make a choice: shall her daughter live and her son die, or…?  Seemingly unwilling or unable to make that horrible choice, the Nazi soldier orders that both children be killed.  “Take my little girl!” Sophie shouts in response.  That decision, the fact that she even made the decision, haunted Sophie over the years and eventually took its toll on her.  Is this too dramatic?  Does this have anything to do with our budget cutting needs?  If we are serious about our values, being and becoming a people of freedom and justice, honor, courage, and integrity, then yes.  It does matter, very much so.  Our choices matter.  What we value, matters.  How we spend our money, what we spend it on, and for whom we spend it on, matters.  It reveals our real character.

Take for example our military budget.  Our military is sacrosanct, extremely sacred and inviolable.  We dare not touch it.  We’d rather pull our kids out of college, sell our house and rent an apartment, eat less, skip doctor visits, and go without our prescription medicine before we reduce our military expenditure.  That’s how necessary and important our military budget is to us.  Okay, this is understandable.  After all, we are the mightiest nation on earth and we do have to defend our interests.  Nevertheless, I offer this one cautionary note.  When we make something sacrosanct, we no longer manage it with cool reason.  It is no longer accountable.  Given free reign it becomes dominating.

It’s like a homeowner handing over a major portion of the household budget to a Security Company and saying, “The skies the limit.  Whatever you need or want, we’ll find the money for it, just as long as you promise to keep our home safe from intruders.”  So, the Security Company gets all that it wants and asks for, with little accountability, no scrutiny whatever.  But, at the same time, the rest of the household budgetary items are attacked and thoroughly scrutinized with a fine tooth comb, with the war cry, “Reduce, cut, downsize, restrict, turn-off and shut-down; we simply can’t afford it!”

The military is only one of a few sacrosanct budgetary items we have.  There are others (consider our home mortgage tax deduction).  Yes, there are other major budgetary items that we hold sacrosanct and continue with, unquestioned; the military budget is simply the most obvious as well as the least likely to be questioned.  It seems to me that we are being unwise and foolish for worshipping such gods, treating them as holy and therefore untouchable.

So, yes!  Cut, downsize, and reduce the deficit.  But all choices have their consequences.  We should ask our politicians to provide us with a detailed analysis: Who will benefit the most from the programs that are marked for cutting?  What sector of the national population will suffer the most?  What values are being reflected by your choice cuts?  What do these cuts say about our national character and our supposed values of the pursuit of life, liberty, justice and happiness for ALL?

And let us ask ourselves: What gods do we really worship?  Is it the rich, the powerful, big business, military might, greed, selfishness, and elitism?  Or are we making choices that reflect real concern for equality, a level playing field for all, fairness and fair play, with integrity and accountability?  Our national ethos says that we do not and will not neglect the needy and will not oppress the less fortunate, and will not favor the few over the many.  It is simply not who we are and not the kind of people we choose to be.  Or is it?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Facing the Egyptian Domino Effect

We've tended to think that religious fanaticism is the problem.  We blame fundamentalists.  Yet, the recent uprisings, the peoples’ revolt that is going on in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and others, now being dubbed the domino effect, is not about Islam but economic, military, and political tyrants.

Oh yes, it’s true, religious fundamentalists will want to take advantage of the occasion and work its ugly head into the picture.  Let us brace ourselves for a possible radical Islamic Fundamentalist call for Jihad against the so called wicked West in some of these countries, if and when the uprisings succeed.  Nevertheless, the passion that is fueling the fire in the belly of the populace toward a call for toppling these governments is not self-righteous Islamic dogma.  It is a cry against the brutality of economic injustice, social oppression, and police-state rule.  They want equity, justice, and just plain ole basic human rights.  Freedom!

Oppression is oppression whether it’s religious or secular, economic or political or military.  The sad part for us is that the U.S. has been in cahoots with many of these oppressive governments within the Middle East—Egypt being a most outstanding example, given our relationship with Mubarak.  No wonder the people (who happen to be Islamic by faith) hate and resent us.  They view us as hypocritical.  We go to war in Iraq in the name of freedom and democracy yet we’ve been supporting so many oppressive governments in the Middle East—because of our economic interests (oil!) of course.  So we reap the consequences—their hatred and their desire to see the U.S. taken down and humiliated.

Islamic Fundamentalists understand this, and have and will use this sentiment to their advantage.  Is it possible for the U.S. to correct this and adapt to the peoples’ movement in these countries without being two-faced?  What will it cost us in terms of our own Middle East policy, security, and economic interests?  How much are we willing to let these Middle Eastern countries shape their future without too much meddling on our part?  What should we be most worried about—Islamic Fundamentalists or loss of economic benefit, clout and influence in the region (oil!)?

For example, from their perspective (i.e. the peoples of Middle Eastern countries), the real reason why our government took us to war in Iraq was not because it genuinely believed Saddam Hussein had actual weapons of mass destruction nor was it to free the Iraqi people from his oppressive rule; rather, it was because our government feared that Saddam was no longer a dictator we could trust to keep Iraq’s oil reserves flowing in our direction to our advantage.  It was our need to maintain some kind of controlling interest in Iraq’s oil fields that motivated us to go in and “take out Saddam.”  This is the way they see it.  Getting rid of an evil tyrant was only secondary, if even that, to our real motivating interest in keeping a stake-hold in Iraq’s oil reserves.  Our relations with other oppressive rulers in the Middle East only served to bolster and strengthen this conclusion?

Let us not be naïve or willfully blind about this.  We want, we need our oil.  Is it not true that we would have much less concern about Middle East countries if they had no oil to speak of?  Many African countries, for example, have suffered under more terrible dictators and tyrants than Saddam, yet we’ve not sent our armies into Africa.  Why not?  African countries do not have the kind of resources that can make or break the American economy as oil can.  So, we are in a quandary.  On the one hand our deep rooted American values demand that we always root for independence, democracy, and freedom.  But our national economic interests and lifestyle demand that we ensure a free flowing shipment of oil from Middle East Countries, and if that means supporting dictators and tyrants, so be it.  That’s been our policy to date.  So, what now?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tax Season!

Ugh!!  It’s here. Tax season is upon us, February, March, April, and then taxes are due!

Don’t get me wrong.  I really don’t mind paying taxes.  Yes, really, I’m happy to pay my fair share.  A strong, dynamic, healthy, successful and flourishing nation requires a solid tax base.  BUT!  A solid tax base means one that is fair, just, broad, and simple.  Is our tax system simple, fair, just?  I think not.  And that’s where my aggravation kicks in when I do my taxes.
First, doing taxes should not require hours and hours of prep, process, and procedure.  Consider the taxpayer’s nightmare: “Please carefully read IRS publications 55775, 54854, and 3454 in order to properly fill in line 24.  Submit worksheets 1, 2, and 3 for item A and first refer to item C to decide whether you need to complete item A or item B prior to Item C.  See tax code for qualifications and restrictions before completing item A or B.  Ask your tax consultant when all else fails.  If he/she can’t help, add 20% penalty fee for not getting it right in the first place and start the process over to see where you went wrong.  Or better yet, just assume you owe the maximum amount and deserve the least amount of tax credit reduction, then pay-up and shut-up.”

Simplify!  Just simplifying the tax process might help reduce a lot of the pain from paying, let alone making it more equitable and just.  There is an old mechanical engineering adage that says, “The more working parts there are, the more potential there is for breakdown; so keep it simple.” So, likewise, the more obscure, convoluted, and complex a tax system is, the more potential there is for tax fraud, tax evasion, misuse and abuse, and other unfair and unjust inequities.  Yes, I realize that tax software programs such as Turbo Tax and H&R Block makes doing taxes somewhat easier.  But they still refer you to IRS publications, codes, and cautions when you are called upon to make a choice, “Do I file this form or that form, is my documentation adequate, how do I substantiate this with that?” and so-on and so-forth.  The availability of tax software is no excuse for having a complex tax system.  But, since there is a whole industry built around our complicated tax system that would be put out of business if we made doing taxes too simple, we can bet that a simpler tax system is not going to happen anytime soon.

Make it fair and just!  The rich, powerful and wealthy share less of the overall tax burden than do the average American.  Why is this: loop holes, entitlements, special interest groups, favors to business and industry, incentives, and whatnot?  Of course, this won’t change either.  Take the AMT, the Alternative Minimum Tax.  This was meant to prevent the extremely wealthy from escaping to pay their real fair share of taxes on their assets/income (by claiming excessive exemptions for example).  But, over the years it has become yet another encroaching tax burden upon more and more of the middle class.  It’s just around the corner for many of us.  Congress has been “gracious” enough to forestall its inevitable grip upon the middle, middle class.  But they know it brings in too much money for them to simply stop it altogether and tailor it back to become the instrument for which it was created in the first place, a means of making sure the very wealthy pay their fair share of taxes on their wealth.

A fair and just society is not just about due process of law in the criminal courts, as in retributive justice.  A just society is one that is economically just as well, vis-à-vis, distributive justice.  Do all people have a just and fair opportunity for economic gain, growth and stability?  Are all its citizens sharing a just and balance portion of the tax burden?  Or do the laws of business and economy mainly protect and benefit the rich, highly favoring the powerfully wealthy?  History teaches us that one danger for all great nations or empires (Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, the Byzantine Empire, e.g.) is the slow movement toward tax imbalance and injustice; the tax system inevitably moves toward favoring the extremely wealthy at the expense of the majority of the populace.  The middle class shrinks and shrinks, the poor expands and expands, while a wealthy minority begins to control more and more of its nation’s wealth and resources, always a recipe for eventual implosion and/or toppling. 

Difficult as it is to define, a strong nation will maintain a fair and just tax system that is as broad and inclusive as possible, supported by the majority and benefitting the majority of its people.  Our challenge therefore is not just a matter of cutting the deficit and cutting taxes; it’s about assuring that the tax load is evenly distributed and maintains as large a tax base as possible.  It’s about requiring everyone to pitch in and provide their fair share of taxes in accordance with one’s income, wealth, status and position.  For example, this nation chose to engage in two war fronts (Afghanistan and Iraq); now all of us must pay for it.  There will always be liars and cheats, tax evaders and other social/economic riffraff.  Nevertheless, if a system is fair and just overall, most people will be supportive and will not complain, knowing that they are paying for the common good, making us a strong, prosperous and healthy nation.  In the end, none of us can afford to shirk our responsibility as fellow citizens to pay for this nation’s strength, especially the extremely well-to-do.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Egyptian Challenge

What do we, the average American citizen, know about Egypt?  Were you as surprised as I was?

I admit my ignorance.  Until the outbreak of the popular uprising calling for his resignation, I had no idea that Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, was so unpopular with his own people.  Even the Egyptian army favored the peoples’ cause over the president’s.  Then I wondered: what does this mean for the U.S. who seems to have been on good terms with Mubarak?  And why were we on such good terms with President Mubarak, if his own people hated him so much?  And how does the average Egyptian citizen view U.S./Egyptian relations in light of that fact?

If the Egyptian people want Mubarak out, then so should we.  Right?  After all, who are we to stand in the way of a popular uprising against an oppressive dictator?  But what if it means that an extreme, rightwing, Islamic religious group like the “Muslim Brotherhood” gains control over Egyptian society?  Then what?  Even here, I have to admit, I know little about the Muslim Brotherhood, but what I have read about them gives me little comfort.

What are the options?  Support a hated and resented dictator, invite chaos, or accept the encroachment of an extreme rightwing Muslim Brotherhood upon Egyptian politics?  I'm sure there are more options than these three.  Nevertheless, this is shaky ground that our diplomats are walking on?

Nevertheless, as an American citizen here is what I would NOT like us to do.  I would not like to see the U.S. take a unilateral, go it alone, “What America wants, America Gets!” approach to the situation.  At best, I would like to see the U.S. conjointly cooperating with other appropriate nations and international powers to assist (if assistance is needed) the Egyptians in their move toward a new government.  The U.S. need not be the only nation sticking-its-nick-out to alleviate what could become a new Middle East crisis in the international scene.

Similarly, I would like to see the U.S. keep a healthy respect for Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and international boundaries in the area.  That is, I would NOT like the Egyptian people to get the feeling that we, the U.S., are asserting our power and influence in inappropriate ways, making them feel as if they are not in control of their own destiny.  Egyptians must be able to make their own decisions, lead their own people and nation, without feeling as if they have become puppets to greater outside powers, whether it be the U.S. or any other national power that has an interest in Middle Eastern politics.

So far this is exactly what President Obama’s approach seems to be.  Good for him.  We are neither being too assertive nor demanding, nor are we simply sitting on the sidelines pretending that what happens in Egypt is none of our business.  A difficult balancing act this is, but a necessary one.

Thus, we Americans need to be patient, support the diplomatic process, and most importantly respect the Egyptian peoples’ wishes.  Yet, we obviously cannot be naïve about the possible dangers involved.  After all, we ARE talking about the Middle East, always a volatile minefield, which is why we must avoid approaching this situation as if we are the masters of its outcome.

And so, let us pray for our diplomats and politicians who are directly dealing with the Egyptian crisis, that they may have a keenness of mind and heart, wisdom and awareness, and insight and perception.   Let us pray that they will say, speak, act, and do the right things in the right way, for the right reason, in order to have the best possible outcome.  And let us wish the best for the Egyptian people.