Sunday, August 24, 2003

Gilligan's Island Economics

This week's East Valley Tribune column didn't get the best headline, but read through to the punch line instead. I think I've found a way to describe Bush's tax policy--it's Gilligan's Island economics, designed by people who watched the show as kids and identified with the Millionaire.

I first recalled the character's name as "J. Thurston Howell III," but according to the Internet Movie Database, it's Thurston Howell III, played by Jim ("Mr. Magoo") Backus. No first initial. I must have been thinking of J. Fife Symington III.

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 24, 2003

The latest example of President Bush’s disregard for Americans making less than $350,000 annually is the incredibly obscure Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset, which afflicts former public servants who change careers. People who worked in the U.S. Army, or as teachers in a state (like Texas) with a separate retirement system, who then retire and start a second career, find that Social Security doesn’t work for them like it does for everybody else.

Current law treats anyone vested in a separate public pension system as getting a “windfall.” Their Social Security benefits -- both the employee’s and any spousal benefits -- get reduced by two-thirds of the employee’s other retirement benefits.

The WEP/GPO only affects workers who participated in public pension systems separate from Social Security. But many teachers, Air Force, and Postal Service retirees work second careers, pay the same Social Security taxes, but then don’t get the same benefits as a co-worker with the same tenure and salary. Two-thirds of their earned Social Security benefits essentially get taxed away because these employees -- and only these retired public employees -- earned a second pension.

There are wrinkles in the WEP/GPO; the tax gets reduced after working more than 20 years in the Social Security system, and eliminated entirely after 30 years. But police officers or military personnel retiring from duty and starting second careers may not want to work another 30 years -- and may have counted on Social Security so they don’t have to.

Like the Alternative Minimum Tax, the WEP/GPO originally was intended to affect only highly-compensated individuals. But while it may have made sense decades ago to treat public pensions differently than private ones, inflation has swept middle-class families into both the AMT and the WEP/GPO. Everyone in Washington knows that we need to reform the AMT, and it makes no sense to tax teachers’ and firefighters’ pensions punitively, either. But unfortunately, the Bush administration believes people making $350,000 annually need our help more.

The administration’s unwillingness to fix the AMT and WEP/GPO problems highlights some of Bush’s lies about his tax policies. When Bush remembers to insert the qualifier, he claims he’s cutting taxes for everyone who pays income taxes. But even that’s a lie; about 10 percent of people paying income tax will get nothing.

But frequently Bush and other GOP partisans claim their tax cuts benefit everyone who pays taxes -- without the “income” qualifier. To make that claim, they must pretend that Social Security taxes aren’t taxes, but rather just pension payments, all of which taxpayers get back eventually. (This trick requires them to forget years of their rhetoric about Social Security privatization, but forgetting what you said last year is apparently a right-wing specialty.)

But the WEP/GPO problem shows that’s a lie, too. These public-system retirees working a second career don’t get back their Social Security payments. They just pay the taxes.

How hard is it to understand that Social Security taxes are taxes? They’re regressive, affect everyone, and haven’t and won’t be cut. Instead, Bush has cut taxes on dividends, the estate tax, and income taxes at the top brackets, all to benefit people making more than $350,000 a year -- and at the expense of middle-class AMT payers and retired teachers and military personnel facing the WEP/GPO.

I finally understand the Bush mind-set. He’s watched too many reruns of Gilligan’s Island. (Everybody sing: “A four year cruise.”) Bush wants to stiff Gilligan, the Skipper, the Professor, and Mary Ann, all so he can give massive tax breaks to millionaire Thurston Howell III.

It’s a Yale thing; you wouldn’t understand.

Monday, August 18, 2003

Some of the Religion, Some of the Time

The quip at the beginning of last week's entry became this week's column. The column is also available at the East Valley Tribune website here. And, yes, it gave me yet another chance to use the Pirates of the Caribbean line. That's should pretty much beat it into the ground. Anyway, I hope I can shake the Unitarians among you right down to your unitards.

I did make some progress with one of my right-wing readers, convincing him that if Dennis Prager says something, that doesn't mean all Jews believe it. Another reader, who usually doesn't agree with me, also noted that we hear far fewer sermons against gluttony these days, and most of them are followed by invitations to a church supper. And how about Dr. Laura becoming a Christian? Talk about a trade that helps one team, anyway.

Selective Morality

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 17, 2003

When did the sum total of religion and morality in public life get condensed down to making abortion illegal and, while of course having nothing against homosexuals personally, insisting that they don’t do anything too homosexual?

I guess those big unabridged Bibles got too heavy to cart around, much less consult, so as a labor-saving device, the religious right trimmed it down to the really, really abridged version, opposing abortion and homosexuality. Oh, that and making my kids say a Len Munsil-approved prayer in school.

All that other stuff about helping the poor, the sick, the stranger, and the least among you, much less opposing capital punishment -- well, to quote Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s not a code, really, it’s more like “guidelines.”

Nice little morality you got there, which requires only that you impose your beliefs regarding abortions, sex, and prayer on other people.

To gain entry to heaven, just push other people around or, even better, have the government do it for you. It’s an even better deal than the "virgins in paradise" myth for suicide bombers. Bossing other people on earth must be fun, or so many people wouldn’t do so much of it.

“But government shouldn’t enforce charity,” some might object. Well, if government should get back into the business of outlawing abortion and homosexual acts, or requiring prayers, to fulfill religious dictates certainly not shared by all Americans, why shouldn’t government also get into the business of making sure we’re healing the sick, feeding the poor, and caring for the least among us? Aren’t those mandates somewhat more prominent in the actual text?

(Sure, the Bible does contain much fire-and-brimstone about homosexuality. It also commands that we should stone disrespectful children to death, but we’ve managed to interpret our way around that one. But the Bible itself is quite vague about abortion, which actually is a latecomer in this debate -- which only makes the reduction of all of Judeo-Christian morality to these issues, and only these issues, even more absurd.)

If we’re supposed to use the criminal law to make everybody, of whatever faith, behave according to what Tom DeLay and Pat Robertson say the Bible says, then what’s stopping us from revising the tax code to “encourage” people to act more religiously in other ways? If you’re willing to throw gays and pregnant women in jail to get them to behave as you believe, what’s the possible objection to a little coerced charity and doing unto others?

Why, when it comes to capital punishment, or autistic kids needing treatment, or sick adults unable to afford health insurance or prescription drugs, or illegal aliens dying in the desert, all of these people wanting to wear their religion on your sleeve suddenly become pro-choice? They can’t let government enforce that sort of morality. It might cost money! Instead, government should stick to that old-time supply-side religion -- the kind that lines the pockets of the rich, and requires devotion only from other people.

I missed the passage where Jesus urged that the wealthy pay less in taxes and control others’ behavior; maybe an additional sermon available only to Republicans explains the religious basis of this “trickle-down morality.”

These so-called moralists are thumping an amazingly abbreviated version of the Bible. If they really want more religion in public life, then bring it all in, not just the comfortable stuff that burdens only other people. Maybe if they push using government to feed the hungry and heal the sick and to end capital punishment, then their talk about morality and religion won’t seem quite so amoral and hypocritical.

Sunday, August 10, 2003

If Gay Marriage Upsets You, Then Don't Have One

I decided to shake a stick at this particular hornets' nest again. The emails already have been a lot of fun, but surprisingly more positive than negative.

I'm just trying to figure out how the sum total of morality in public life supposedly consists of anti-abortion and anti-gay positions. I guess those big Bibles were too heavy to carry around and consult all the time, so the religious right had to trim it down to the really, really condensed version: opposing the "Big 2." All that other stuff about helping the poor, the sick, the infirm, and the stranger among you, much less opposing capital punishment--well, to quote Pirates of the Caribbean, it's not a code, actually, it's more like "guidelines." Nice little morality you got there, where all you need to do is say that other people can't have abortions and/or sex, and all you need to do to enter the Kingdom of Heaven is throw stones at them. But that's next week's column.

If you're really up for a treat, the Marianne Jennings column alluded to in the fifth paragraph is available here. Enjoy. And the J.D. Hayworth joke made the paper!

The 'Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy'

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 10, 2003

It doesn’t strike me as odd that Catholics would believe one thing and Episcopalians another, and that as a Jew, I wouldn’t believe either. But those upset with society’s increasing acceptance of homosexuals have a different agenda. For them, it’s not enough for each faith to decide what is and isn’t allowed. No, some -- and certainly not all -- religions need buttressing by governmental fiat.

Apparently the Almighty isn’t all that mighty; without a constitutional amendment, these folks believe it’s curtains for divine Providence -- and welcome instead to Providence, R.I., whose gay mayor received about 80 percent of the vote.

It’s an amazingly selective sensibility that lets these people see migrants dying in the desert or kids denied health care, and blithely say, “That’s life” -- but gays entering into civil unions in Vermont rocks their very core.

President Bush isn’t sure about a constitutional amendment that, separation be darned, will let government assist certain, and certainly not all, religions. The lawyers are “looking into it.” Searching for “controlling legal authority,” no doubt. Sure, the phrase “separation of church and state” never appears in the Constitution. Neither does “presumption of innocence.” So unless you abandon both those principles, give that old chestnut a rest.

The Tribune’s other extremist columnist (in the other direction) last week denounced a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy encouraging societal acceptance of homosexuality. (Hey -- if there’s a Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy, why not admit the existence of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy?)

She complained that gays have been able to hijack the culture partly because they’re better educated; on average gays are twice as likely to have a college degree. Such an unfair advantage -- if you can’t get them pregnant, it’s so much harder to keep them barefoot and ignorant.

Nobody can coherently explain why if two gays marry that somehow jeopardizes everybody else’s marriages, when even repeated failed heterosexual marriages don’t. Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh are each on their third “until death do us part,” but failures in their first two tries each doesn’t stop them hectoring everybody else about morality.

Look, if gay marriage upsets you, then don’t have one.

Why do ‘wingers, who complain about the “nanny state” when it tried to provide health care, education, and housing to people in actual need, suddenly want government to protect their feelings?

Don’t give me shopworn “slippery slope” arguments, either. When you stop two gay adults from having a relationship, who’s being protected? There’s no statistically valid evidence that people in committed gay relationships commit crimes, or don’t live as long, or threaten children. This prejudice doesn’t protect anyone, just some people’s sense of what’s yucky.

Ultimately, the arguments against gay marriage have no factual basis; they come down to somebody deciding what they find personally repugnant also should be outlawed. But lots of things that make lots of people go “yuck!” should remain perfectly legal.

Ever see open-heart surgery? Smell a dairy farm? Eat sauerkraut? Try to visualize the physical circumstances that allowed Congressman J. D. Hayworth to become a father. If that doesn’t make you go “yuck!” then you’re just not visualizing hard enough.

But “yuck!” ain’t good enough. It’s no basis in a free society for imposing what is essentially personal sensibility upon consenting adults whose sensibilities are different, and who don’t need you to “protect” them from themselves.

I’m enjoying this argument, because I think it’ll end one of the more tiresome tropes of the current liberals-vs.-conservatives debate, the one about which side is more fun. Sure, liberals want to take away ethnic and sexist jokes. But conservatives’ version of political correctness wants to take away sex.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

Conservative-Approved Judicial Activism

Here's a case where both liberals and conservatives can applaud activist federal judges who second-guess local governments--in condemnation!

Yeah, it's a boring legal topic--hard to make condemnation sexy, or angry. My excuse is that I was on vacation last week, nothing (via the Internet) seemed to be happening in Arizona politics, and August 3rd was Ice Cream for Breakfast Day in our household, a family tradition that I stole from a law school classmate and you're free to steal from us. If you're a kid and live in Arizona, where it's 90 degrees for the low temperature and 110 for the high and school starts this coming Monday, you need something to look forward to in August.

Municipal Condemnation

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 3, 2003

A recent federal district court decision, called Aaron v. Target Corp., helps show that federal courts increasingly will oversee municipal condemnation, regardless of what the Arizona Legislature eventually does.

The Aaron case -- based on the opinion as reported by Prof. Patrick Randolph of the University of Missouri at Kansas City -- shows municipal condemnation at its worst. Target wanted to replace an existing St. Louis store, built on leased ground, with a larger store with additional parking on a second landlord’s property. (Rote disclosures: I own some Target stock, and shop there, too.) Target approached the landlords, who were interested in striking a deal if Target also renegotiated the rent.

Instead of negotiating, Target acted like a sports franchise and went to city hall. Target claimed that because of the landlords’ “unreasonableness,” unless the city helped acquire the land, Target would close the store, eliminating both jobs and municipal tax revenues.

Target and the city then got a very successful store declared a “blighted” area. Together they ordered a study, with Target’s lawyers helping draft it. The study found blight (surprise!) based on the building and parking areas being “physically deteriorated, unsafe and dangerous” -- but the lease made Target responsible for maintenance. The study also found “blight” due to Target’s “substandard” computer and network systems, which weren’t real property.

There’s more, of course; the city never sent the report to the two landlords, but rather to Target in Minneapolis, so the landlords lacked notice of the public hearing. The city also granted Target $4 million in property tax abatements over 10 years. The city’s redevelopment authority then offered to purchase the property involved for less than $3 million, which the landlords considered an outrage.

Anticipating a condemnation, the landlords raced to federal court seeking an injunction to stop it -- and convinced the judge that they wouldn’t be treated fairly. The judge noted Target’s considerable involvement in the process, the landlords’ lack of notice, and the difficulty in condemnation of fighting the reasons for the government’s actions. The court found the denial of the landlords’ due process rights “manifest and palpable,” whether or not the landlords got just compensation.

But much of what happened in Aaron occurs in any condemnation case. The judge was offended by Target’s extensive involvement, but in a “good” redevelopment project, the municipality works closely with private developers. The landlords didn’t get notice, but it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to track down all owners in slum areas. The fast deadlines and limits on discovery apply to all condemnation cases. Making any sort of viable downtown won’t happen in Arizona without extensive public support. So procedural rules that apply in every case will slow or stop “good” condemnations as well as “bad” ones.

The Aaron decision is one of several recent federal court decisions questioning whether condemnations actually serve a public purpose when the ultimate goal is moving property from one private owner to another. These cases have found a taking for a purely private use unconstitutional, even if just compensation is paid, despite the supposed deference by courts to local determinations of local issues.

Courts increasingly are second-guessing municipalities on such condemnation decisions, regardless of whether state legislatures impose additional procedural hurdles on the condemnation power. Courts may be better for fixing abuses of condemnation, because they can do case-by-case analysis, and legislatures can’t.

If the Legislature still wants to act, then limit local development concessions everywhere but in downtowns and true slum areas. The Aaron court stopped the condemnation, but not Target’s $4 million tax abatement. Focusing less on procedure, and more on substance, might result in legislation with a better chance of success next session.

Monday, August 04, 2003

The Hatred That Dare Not Speak Its Name--At Least Among Moderate Swing Voters

Jon Stewart did have the best take on gay marriage. If it isn't mandatory--he's worried his wife might not approve if he had to marry a gay guy--then who cares? I'm getting the usual emails from the right wingers, but they're sounding more desperate than usual on this one--and they're rallying around gay marriage, not the Texas sodomy law.

And I love the Vatican coming out against gay marriage in part because doctrine holds that the purpose of marriage and the sole purpose of sex is procreation. That'll settle that tiresome debate about which side is more fun, liberals or conservatives. Hey, liberals may want you to speak politically correctly--but conservatives want to make sex illegal.

East Valley Tribune, Jul. 27, 2003

Hey, right wingers: It’s your gay-bashing that’s going “in the closet.”

It’s been fascinating to watch GOP politicians react -- or studiously avoid reacting -- to a formerly hot-button issue. Last month the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas anti-sodomy law with an opinion that speaks broadly about privacy rights and personal freedoms. (These concepts are holy to conservatives when you’re talking about rifles, but apparently not when talking about some other guy’s gun.)

Since that decision, has our President, who campaigned in favor of that Texas anti-sodomy law when running for governor, said anything about, quoting Justice Scalia, the Court’s supposed endorsement of “the homosexual agenda”? Has Sen. Rick Santorum, defender of the Republic against the allegedly imminent threat of man-on-dog sex, uttered a peep of protest?

(Exactly what is the homosexual agenda? Is it published anywhere? Adopted by a convention of duly elected delegates? Of course not; the supposed “homosexual agenda” is strictly a creation of right-wing fundraising. And if the “homosexual agenda” existed, it would look much like the “heterosexual agenda” -- except that heterosexuals don’t have to worry about getting fired or beat up because they’re heterosexual.)

Nah -- the formerly-customary gay-bashing has been left to strictly third- and fourth-tier Republicans. When the highest-profile spokesperson you can muster is the easily-mocked state Rep. Karen “Stop me before I wed again!” Johnson, and all of the state’s big GOP guns remain uncharacteristically silent, what does that tell you?

The White House goes after an ABC News reporter who aired a story that displeased the Administration, and they leak opposition research to Matt Drudge, who cares not that the reporter is gay, but that he’s (gasp!) Canadian. (Apparently Karl Rove is willing to sacrifice the hockey fan vote.)

Sen. Jon Kyl is a master at “narrowcasting” his right-wing message only to the precisely receptive audience, so maybe he’s talking about how the Supreme Court decision was an outrage or the usual anti-gay stuff, but only so right-wingers get the message. But he won’t make noises about that “homosexual agenda” in places where (gasp!) more moderate voters might hear him.

Going after gays is becoming about as meaningful, and rational, to an increasing majority of Americans as, say, control of the Panama Canal. That is to say, it’s just so 20th century.

Get it? Pretty soon, gay-bashing will be heard only in a right-wing closet where only right-wingers can hear. The GOP will want to feed you that raw meat, but only when nobody outside your little circle can watch. Oh, they still want your votes, and will say all the right stuff, but that’s it. Just watch as the anti-gay stuff becomes the hatred that dare not speak its name.

Hey, ‘wingers -- why should only heterosexuals have to fret about community property law?

More and more Americans will recognize that all this right-wing rhetoric, these totally bizarre and overblown claims that what homosexuals may do with their private lives somehow threatens my marriage or yours, is utter nonsense. Their blather will make as much sense in a couple of years as all those Bible-thumping segregationists fifty years ago “defending” America against the moral threat of racial equality.

Just watch America evolve before your eyes. Give it a couple of years, and all of today’s GOP heroes will be pretending they actually were for gay rights before it was cool. Like Strom Thurmond on race -- or just like how all top Republicans in Arizona are falling over themselves to denounce the upcoming anti-immigrant initiative.

Your tide is an ebbing tide, ‘wingers. Our tide is a flowing tide. And don’t think the GOP doesn’t know it.