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Thursday, September 11, 2003

 
9/11 WIDOWS VS. GEORGE W. BUSH

Two years later, victims' families still can't get any answers.

If I were, say, James Lileks, I might view the second anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks as the opportunity to navel-gaze and compose an essay -- one part poetry, four parts pudding -- about how deeply, deeply moving the whole affair was for me and my daughter who, even though we're far removed from the actual site of the attack, are more conservative and therefore more American and therefore more offended by it and suffering more from it than all those icky liberals in New York City. (Very, Very Happy has the definitive Lileks summary/parody.)

Lileks is the Reader's Digest of the blogosphere -- popular, poorly written, right-wing, long past it's prime. He is again, today, exploiting 9/11 for all he's worth. Like President Bush, he seems to view this tragic evil act as a blank check in support of whatever it is that conservatives want to do next. Like President Bush, he isn't interested in how or why this happened (3,000+ Americans dead, not a single resignation or firing).

Today Lileks even conjures up the hypothetical widow of "a man who went to work two years ago and never came back." Lileks has to resort to this imaginary widow -- strong, resilient and resolute, supportive of godandcountryandaboveallbush -- because, like President Bush, he refuses to hear from the actual, real-world wives and husbands and families of "those who went to work two years ago and never came back."

Like Fox's Bill O'Reilly -- who famously cut off the microphone of one 9/11 victim's son, screaming "Shut up! Shut up!" -- Lileks doesn't seem interested in listening to these real family members.

See the real people might not be as convenient or complacent as Lileks' imaginary ones. They might be angry. They might ask awkward questions. They might be like Kristen Breitweiser.

Breitweiser lost her husband in the World Trade Center, and she wanted answers. When all she got was stonewalling, she started asking even more -- and more pointed -- questions about what happened on 9/11, and why, and who screwed up and what are we doing now?

Read:

"Four 9/11 Moms Battle Bush" by Gail Sheehy in The New York Observer.

Kristen Breitweiser's Statement to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

"Relatives of 9/11 Victims Distraught Over Reports Bush Received Advance Warnings" by the AP's David Crary.

Breitweiser's Salon review of the Showtime movie "DC 9/11," which she calls "A 'mind-numbingly boring' propaganda film."


posted by Fred Clark 2:39 PM

 
ALABAMA IS YOUR FUTURE

And no, that's not a good thing.

I am angry with the people of Alabama. I am angry in that sad and frustrated way that one is angry with a battered wife who, upon leaving the hospital, refuses to press charges and goes back to her abuser, imagining that he really loves her.

The defeat of Gov. Bob Riley's tax reform referendum Tuesday was foolish, short-sighted and petty, but above all self-destructive.

The people of Alabama have ensured that the crimson tide of red ink will continue to flow in their state capital. They have ensured that they will remain poor and overtaxed. They have ensured that the poorest citizens in Alabama (i.e. -- most people) will continue to pay taxes at about four times the rate of the wealthy few. They have ensured that their public schools will remain the worst in the nation. They have ensured that their state will continue to rank at or near the bottom of every measure of the quality of life -- more comparable to neighboring Mississippi and with territories like Puerto Rico and American Samoa than with places with genuine statehood, like Georgia or Ohio or Pennsylvania.

Alabama's vote on Tuesday was stupid, stupid, stupid.

Here's what The Washington Post had to say:

Alabama's conservative Republican governor yesterday met resounding defeat in his highly publicized crusade for a $1.2 billion tax increase -- eight times the biggest previous increase in state history -- to resolve an unprecedented fiscal crisis, shift the tax burden from poor to rich and improve public schools funded at the nation's lowest level per child. ...

With state reserve funds mostly depleted by the first three years of large shortfalls, analysts have said the only alternatives to tax increases are large spending cuts in basic services such as public schools, higher education, corrections and Medicaid.


The Alabama vote and its consequences provide the clearest picture of America's future, the future that George W. Bush is unraveling for all of us. Alabama, with the lowest and most regressive taxes in the nation, is Grover Norquist's vision of paradise.

As Gov. Riley asked, "If having the lowest taxes in the nation means we're going to have an economic explosion, where is it?"

The answer, of course, is that a regressive, inadequate tax structure that guarantees massive deficits and a failure to invest in education, health and basic public safety is not -- as George W. Bush and his Svengali, Norquist, argue -- the path to economic growth. It is the path to feudalism and to the Mississippization of America.

Here is what the triumph of the Bush/Norquist vision will mean for the state of Alabama, as David M. Halbfinger reports in today's New York Times:

Today, as legislative leaders emerged ashen-faced from a meeting with Mr. Riley on the extent of the fiscal crisis, it appeared that his dire forecasts would come about: prisoners turned loose, nursing-home patients turned out and schoolchildren denied textbooks.

"What's going to happen is horrendous," Senator Larry Dixon, Republican of Montgomery, said. ...

Lawmakers said more than a dozen state agencies and departments could be "zeroed out," others cut in half, and tens of millions of dollars could be saved by canceling tuition subsidies for private colleges and universities. As many as 5,000 to 6,000 nonviolent offenders could be made eligible for early parole, the income ceiling below which Medicaid pays for nursing-home care could be lowered, the state's prescription drug program could be cut and state workers and teachers could pay more for health benefits.

The education budget alone is in for cuts of $268 million ... Ed Richardson, the superintendent of education, said the result could be "cataclysmic," leaving 4,600 teachers and 2,000 support workers without jobs and forcing many struggling schools to close.


As Alabama crumbles further into Third World-style decay, most of us will view this as a tragedy and a failure.

For George W. Bush, it's a vision of paradise.

(No More Mister Nice Blog has more on the Alabama vote.)






posted by Fred Clark 1:50 PM

 
TWO YEARS LATER

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.

We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.

The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

-- Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg, Pa., November 19, 1863.

posted by Fred Clark 5:40 AM


Tuesday, September 09, 2003

 
HOUSING STILL "OUT OF REACH"

The national Housing Wage for 2003 is $15.21/hour.

That's the figure the National Low-Income Housing Coalition uses in its annual report on housing affordability in America. The "housing wage" is the amount "a person working full-time has to earn to afford a two-bedroom rental unit at fair market rent while paying no more than 30 percent of income in rent."

So what happens if, like millions of us, you make less than the "housing wage"? First of all, you get a one-bedroom apartment -- though that doesn't save you as much as you might think. Then, well, you pay a whole heck of a lot more than 30 percent of income in rent.

What do you do if you make the federal minimum wage of $5.15/hour? You find a bunch of roommates, you get a one-bedroom apartment, and you still pay more than a third of your income in rent.

The bottom line is that wages are stagnant, but housing costs continue to rise. The NLIHC has the entire report online.

As you read it, keep in mind that President Bush has run up a deficit of more than $500 billion for next year, and that housing assistance is something he's likely to cut for a pittance of savings.

"Emergency funding" President Bush has requested for Iraq war: $87 billion

Total 2004 budget for HUD (Dept. of Housing and Urban Development): $31.3 billion

See this graphic for more such comparisons.



posted by Fred Clark 5:11 AM

 
D-DAY FOR ALABAMA

Today, Alabama votes on a tax-reform measure that would fundamentally restructure that state's identity and improve life for the vast majority of its residents. Alabama's plantation-style tax code is a remarkably regressive, Dixie-feudalism.

As Glynn Wilson writes in The Christian Science Monitor:

The archaic tax code Alabama uses today is enshrined in the constitution, dating back to 1901, which makes the referendum necessary. Timber companies, which own over 70 percent of Alabama land, still pay less than 2 percent of state property taxes. Here, timberland is taxed at 95 cents an acre; in neighboring Georgia, it's $5 an acre. Alabama compensates by placing an unusual share of the tax burden on the poor, with income taxes starting at $4,600 and a grocery tax that tops 10 percent in some parts of the state.

Gov. Riley is trying to correct the injustice of that system, while also trying to correct for the state's structural deficits -- $675 million next year if the referendum on tax reform does not pass.

And no one is predicting it will pass. That will leave Riley with a massive political defeat and a massive fiscal crisis, but he'll still be better off than the majority of Alabama residents, who will eventually come to realize that they had a chance to improve their state, but were just too stupid to take it.

posted by Fred Clark 4:55 AM

 
SUTTON'S LAW AND CHARITABLE GIVING

What a new GOP proposal reveals about the majority of Americans.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) has taken the lead in pushing for H.R. 7, a measure he says is intended to "spark increased charitable giving and, in turn, inspire even more good works by even more charities" (see here and here).

This modest legislation would allow "Americans who do not itemize on their tax returns the opportunity to deduct a portion of their charitable contributions." It contains a few other modest, but worthy, measures as well, such as increasing the deduction for corporate charitable contributions (a boon for Paul Newman, among others) and reauthorizing a federal program for Individual Development Accounts.

This extension of the charitable deduction is a Good Thing. It will probably provide a slight boost in charitable giving -- although the (also slight) loss in federal revenue will exceed that increase in giving. It will also, unfortunately, complicate what had been one of the least complicated portions of the tax code.

But after all, if wealthy donors deserve tax relief in recognition of their contributions to charity, then the non-wealthy ought also to deserve such relief. Right now, the tax code rewards "all these people who gave their gifts out of their wealth" but not the poor widow who "out of her poverty put in all she had to live on."

The reference there is to the story told in the Gospels of Mark and Luke:

As he looked up, Jesus saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. "I tell you the truth," he said, "this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on." [Luke 21:1-4]

The temple treasurer, of course, had to take a more pragmatic view than Jesus did. As meaningful as the widow's gift may have been, and as much as her sacrificial giving is an inspiring model for us all, "two very small copper coins" are still only two small copper coins. The gifts from the wealthy passersby may not have been as meaningful, but they're a lot more helpful for the charitable recipient.

The proponents of H.R. 7 have claimed that this step will unleash a torrent of new charitable giving. This is disingenuous.

First of all, the non-itemizing taxpayers were already contributing without the incentive of tax savings. That added incentive might prompt a little more giving on their part, but their giving doesn't seem to be motivated as much by a concern for tax liability as, say, estate planning by the wealthy is.

This brings up the second point, again echoing Luke's story -- while non-itemizers often give whatever they can, they usually cannot give very much. Sutton's Law is a factor here. (Willie Sutton was the bank robber who, when asked why he robbed banks, replied, "Because that's where the money is." Wise man, Sutton. The IRS should have hired him.)

Non-itemizers are, by definition, those taxpayers least able to contibute to charity. They have negligible assets and investments. They do not own homes. They are wage-earners. Their largest tax liability, in fact, is not the income tax, but the payroll tax.

This is not the most auspicious group on which to pin one's hopes for a torrent of new charitable giving.

Yet what these non-itemizers lack in financial clout individually, they make up for in sheer numbers. Proponents of the new deduction have repeated pointed out that some 86 million Americans do not itemize their tax returns.

Pause for a moment to consider that figure and to appreciate how astoundingly out of step it is with almost all discussion of the tax code in Congress and the media. There are 86 million Americans who do not need to itemize their income tax returns.

Why does Congress and the media act as though this group -- the majority of the country -- is an afterthought fringe when it comes to reporting or legislating on taxes?

Dick Armey and Steve Forbes hyped their flat-tax schemes with the promise that taxpayers would only need a single, one-page form. But 86 million of us are already using a simple, one-page form -- the 1040EZ. (Someone mail one to Forbes, I doubt he even knows what they look like.)

Consider President Bush's three recent tax cuts, most of the effects of which all sailed over the heads of these 86 million Americans. Think of how little attention is paid to the burden of payroll taxes -- again, the primary burden for these 86 million Americans, and for 7 out of 10 American households -- compared to the vast column space dedicated to debating the estate tax, which applies to only a tiny fraction of that number of people.

Consider also that the estate tax is estimated to leverage about $12 billion in charitable giving every year. President Bush and the Republican Party hope to abolish the estate tax. If they do, then the 86 million wage-earning, rent-paying taxpayers who do not itemize their returns will have to dig even deeper into their shallow pockets just to keep America's charities from losing ground.

Sutton's Law suggests that if you really want to "spark increased charitable giving" then you should focus on "where the money is." That means, among other things, maintaining the vitally important estate tax and the charitable lifeblood it leverages.

I like H.R. 7, but primarily as a matter of fairness. Let's not pretend it's going to be a windfall for charitable giving.


posted by Fred Clark 4:01 AM


Monday, September 08, 2003

 
MUNDANE SPEECH, EXTRAORDINARY NUMBER

$87 billion. Where are we going to borrow that from?

The big (perhaps only) piece of news from President Bush's speech last night was that he will ask Congress for $87 billion in "emergency funding" for Iraq and Afghanistan.

$87 billion. Start counting now, by thousands, and see how long it takes you to get to 87 billion.

Remember when presidents at least tried to deliver speeches in an exciting/inspiring/meaningful way? The president spoke in a monotone and never took his eyes off the teleprompter. He continued his odd habit of pausing arbitrarily (perhaps at the end of each line on the screen?) in the middle of phrases and clauses and thoughts. If Bush's speech were punctuated according to the way he delivered it you would find a sea of weirdly placed commas and ellipses. He seems to have been coached to keep the delivery sloooow, with plenty of pauses to let the message sink in. But the pauses instead give the impression that the president is merely short of breath, or short of attention, or both. Michael Gerson is a talented writer, it must pain him to hear his words presented in such a thuddingly dull delivery.

Bush's tendency to recite from the teleprompter in an uncomprehending monotone led to this bit of fun from The Washington Post's Style section. Readers were challenged "to come up with a line to be secretly inserted into George W. Bush's teleprompter for his next State of the Union message."

Here are just a few of the entries:

And now if we'll bow our heads for a moment of silence on the loss of Udai and Qusai ... (Lisa M. Greenhill, Washington)

Some have asked if my tie is too tight, others have questioned my amphetamine psychosis ... (Don Jernigan, Shreveport, La.)

I think of Hillary at the strangest times. (Don Duggan, Bethesda)

I repeat my promise to personally pay for the college education of every American citizen who cannot afford it. (Tom Kreitzberg, Silver Spring)

I wish to announce my conversion to Islam. (Stephen Dudzik, Olney)

Nod your head and look serious, then smile before saying the next sentence. (Larry Phillips, Falls Church)


OK, you can stop counting now. Even if you never took a break to eat or sleep, it would take you about three years to count by thousands all the way up to 87 billion.

That's over $300 for every single man, woman and child in America. More than $1,200 for that hypothetical "average" family of four Bush said would save $1,000 from his tax cuts.

This at a time when the states are broke, household debt is running at about 110 percent of household income, and the federal government is predicting a $480 billion deficit next year after coming up $401 billion short this year. We're broke. So where are we going to get another $87 billion?

Part of the answer was suggested last night by Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), whose hearty praise of the president's speech contained a little bit of political judo. Biden came to praise Bush, and thus to bury him. After loudly applauding the speech, he was able to begin charting where the billions in emergency funding might be found:

I personally think we have to do it [pay for rebuilding Iraq], but ... The conservatives are going to be very skittish, because this will bump the deficit to around $600 billion. And many of us are going to point out that we can't afford to do this war the right way and have these massive tax cuts become permanent.

Massive tax cuts or a rebuilt Iraq? We can't afford to have both, so President Bush will have to choose.


posted by Fred Clark 3:48 PM


Sunday, September 07, 2003

 
THE MYTH OF "IDENTITY POLITICS"

Atrios has a series of interesting posts (with excellent discussions in the comment sections) on the decidedly pale cast of the SCLM (and even of the actual liberal media -- such as The American Prospect).

He's highlighted the way the phrase "identity politics" has arisen as a parallel to the phrase "class warfare" -- a means of slapping down anybody who gets uppity over the way they're getting routinely rogered by Rich White Men. (E.g.: "Why did Katherine Harris strike thousands of black voters from the rolls in Florida without cause?" "Stop with your racist identity politics.")

The use of the phrase "identity politics" is a sign of fear. It's the fear that Public Enemy described as "fear of a black planet," and the fear that George Orwell described in his essay "Marrakech":

But there is one thought which every white man (and in this connection it doesn’t matter twopence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when he sees a black army marching past. ‘How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they tum their guns in the other direction?’


posted by Fred Clark 5:34 PM

 
PRONOUNCING ACRONYMS

A sophomoric observation about powerful but secretive white men.

So I'm reading this commentary in The Guardian by Michael Meacher, Tony Blair's former environment minister. The essay, titled "This war on terrorism is bogus," is rather conspiratorial, but it also raises some interesting questions about the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) -- an influential Washington think tank that produced a national security blueprint in 2000 authored by, among others "Dick Cheney (now vice-president), Donald Rumsfeld (defense secretary), Paul Wolfowitz (Rumsfeld's deputy), Jeb Bush (George Bush's younger brother) and Lewis Libby (Cheney's chief of staff)."

I've read about the Project for a New American Century before, always pronouncing its acronym phonetically "P-NACK." But while reading Meacher's essay it occurred to me that the "C" in PNAC is not the hard C of cottage or cauliflower -- it stands for "Century" and thus must be prounounced as an "S" rather than as a "K." Thus the proper pronunciation is "P-NAS." As in:

Compared to most think tanks, the PNAC is not very large, but the powerful thrust of its message has penetrated deep into the Bush administration ...

This is all pretty juvenile and perhaps inappropriate. But what would be appropriate? How am I supposed to respond "appropriately" to a small group of rich white men sitting in an office drawing up blueprints for recreating the world in their own image, when I -- a private citizen in an alleged democratic republic -- am powerless to stop them or even to call them to public account?

Dick jokes are one of the few freedoms we have left.





posted by Fred Clark 3:47 PM


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