Monday, September 26, 2005

The Three Great Lies

Hey, this one was fun. At what point do these die-hards stop believing that George W. Bush will respect them in the morning?

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 25, 2005

It’s time to revisit the “three great lies.” Oh, “the check’s in the mail” and “I’ll respect you in the morning” still stay on the list. ‘Wingers used to like to say that the third lie is, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” But President Bush has ruined that one.

After all, anytime somebody criticizes this administration’s policies, their response is to pretend that the critics were attacking the front-line grunts. Concerned about the administration’s woeful planning and dreadful execution of the Iraq war? Their response is outrage that anyone would think that our brave men and women on the ground aren’t doing the best they can.

So the next time somebody tries to claim the “third lie” is that government one, just do what Bush does: Hit back with outrage at the horribly unfair denigration of those members of the Coast Guard who risked their lives to save stranded hurricane victims off roofs, or the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries officers who were out in their boats saving people almost the minute the storm passed, or the National Guard troops still protecting property and saving lives. Attention, ‘wingers: All those folks are from the government, and they are indeed there to help.

Instead, these days the third lie is when Bush and the GOP Congress say, “We’ll pay for it by cutting spending.” This is nonsense on several levels. First, Bush and the GOP have been promising fiscal discipline, but instead delivering deficits and excuses, for five consecutive years. Fool me once, maybe twice, but five times?

Second, is there really $200 billion in waste, fraud, and abuse in this year’s budget? If so, Republicans put it there. They’re running the government, and it’s their budget, so it’s their waste, fraud, and abuse. Are they really doing that bad a job? And doesn’t it bother anybody?

Third, if you’re unwilling to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, defense, and interest on the debt, then all other so-called “discretionary spending” amounts to about $500 billion annually. Apart from those items, everything else (help for border hospitals, student loans, education, research, you name it) would have to be slashed by 40 percent to pay for Katrina. It just isn’t going to happen. It’s so “not going to happen” that anybody who pretends it could happen is either lying, deluded, or can’t add.

But apparently there are plenty of people who, so long as it’s George W. Bush speaking, still pretend to believe that the GOP will cut spending by $200 billion. They’re probably willing to believe, as long as it’s President Bush telling them, that the check is in the mail. And I guess that when Bush says it, they still believe that he’ll respect them in the morning.

Speaking of morning-after respect, Sen. Jon Kyl, who accused me of “playing on the grief everyone feels for victims of Katrina,” isn’t above playing more than a bit himself. As reported by Time, Kyl and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., were talking about new difficulties they faced trying to eliminate the estate tax, something that in 2003 would have benefited a grand total of 328 taxpayers in Arizona. Apparently, concern about spending some $200 billion on Katrina may make some people less certain of the need to cut taxes so much for so few.

Sessions left an anti-estate-tax proponent a voice-mail message, “Jon Kyl and I were talking about the estate tax. If we knew anybody that owned a business that lost life in the storm, that would be something we could push back with.”

In Kyl’s world, there are natural disasters that level whole counties, leave major cities unfit for human habitation, and render tens of thousands homeless. Then there’s the possibility that somebody might have died unexpectedly with too much money. Guess which of those problems actually concerns Kyl?

Despite vigorous searching throughout the Gulf Coast, the estate tax people haven’t found a dead rich guy to “push back with.” He must be a myth, a non-existent “urban legend.” Just like “compassionate conservatism” -- or Jon Kyl’s heart.

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Medicare Prescription Drug Plan

Best citizen analysis yet, from a Sierra Vista Herald report on the Senior Medicare Forum in Bisbee on September 19:

Sister Carol Huss of Double Adobe probably summed up all the complexities best when she joked, "I've been sitting here listening to this carefully, and I've decided the best thing for me, is to pray for a happy, snappy death."

Monday, September 19, 2005

If a Petard is Hoisted in a Forest but No One is Listening, Does It Make a Sound?

One delightful side effect of the right wing excusing the federal government by blaming state and local officials for the response to Katrina is that we happen to have a state official here in Arizona that they might not want to make the beneficiary of this new-found demand for competent governance. But you never know.

Another almost-completely-missing-the-point headline, but that's how it goes. I guess the "blame the administration" stuff was too subtle this week. But it's an excuse to repeat The Late Show Top Ten list from Friday:

Top Ten Questions For The FEMA Director Application

10. "Are you able to convey a false sense of security?"
9. "What percentage of your resume is fabricated?"
8. "In a crisis, which state or local officials would you blame?"
7. "What are your plans after you resign?"
6. "Do you mind if the last guy left the office smelling like Arabian horses?"
5. "Which is most serious: A disaster, a catastrophe, or a dis-astrophe?"
4. "Does Robert Blake dating again count as an emergency?"
3. "Can the president easily add '-ie' to your last name to form a nickname?"
2. "Can you screw up bad enough to take the heat off the president's mistakes?"
1. "Michael Brown...Idiot or moron?"

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 18, 2005

This past week, conservatives have been extra-special busy making the case for reelecting Gov. Janet Napolitano.

It turns out that despite forming a huge new bureaucracy in the Department of Homeland Security, in spite of vast oceans of spending on DHS, the federal government isn’t capable of, and apparently isn’t supposed to be capable of, taking care of Americans in the event of catastrophes.

Instead, we’re told that if a disaster occurs, we should view the feds -- despite their size, funding, resources, and rhetoric -- as second-tier players. The real key when the worst occurs is our state and local officials. FEMA exists only to dole out money (to politically well-connected companies and friends of the administration) after the fact.

Even with a couple of days advance warning, the feds will be late and spend more time talking with lawyers than paying attention to the weather reports. Until TV anchors tell them what’s going on, they won’t know and won’t seem to care.

This administration and Congress can drop everything and act immediately if there’s an argument over removing a brain-dead woman’s feeding tube, but if hundreds of thousands of people have their homes and communities destroyed, well, that takes them a while longer to respond. We’ll interrupt the president’s vacation immediately for meaningless Terry Schiavo legislation, but after all, she was one person. Destroying Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana is merely statistics.

So we’ve learned that, for at least the next three years, if trouble hits, whether here or in neighboring California, we’re basically on our own for the first week or so. And if anything goes wrong, we’re supposed to depend on our governor and mayors, not the loftily-named Department of Homeland Security. So who do you want to be responsible for protecting you and your family while the feds diddle: Don Goldwater? John Greene? Teresa Ottesen? Or Gov. Janet Napolitano?

You always knew that governor was a big job. But now you know that for so long as the current administration and their buddies in Congress view the federal government as a dumping ground for hacks and campaign flacks, choosing a governor can be a matter of life or death.

That’s what the 2006 elections should be about -- which candidates will do a better job of keeping us safe and making the right decisions in a crisis. Anybody can give a good speech; too often we confuse a nice speech with the right stuff. Anybody can spend tons of money, after the floodwaters recede; too often we confuse quantity (of dollars) with quality (of leadership and response). But among those asking to be our governor through the end of the decade, who has the smarts, experience, and cool head needed to make the right calls in a crisis?

In 2006, you could vote for a former state and federal prosecutor, an experienced governor who diffused a dangerous prison hostage standoff with no loss of life. Or you can look to the other team, which so far is offering somebody whose only claim to fame is being a nephew, an insurance lawyer, and a college student.

Napolitano didn’t need to cut short her vacation to deal with the Lewis prison hostage crisis. She and her team didn’t let critics distract her from keeping those involved alive. Meanwhile, Republican officials, just like their fellow hacks in FEMA, spent their time consulting with lawyers, seeing if they could abuse the grand jury process for political gain.

Despite what the party currently ruling Washington may think, the point of government isn’t to cut taxes on the rich while simultaneously fighting two land wars in Asia and increasing spending by leaps and bounds. Sometimes, when you least expect it, you have no choice but to trust that your government has prepared, and has the resources, for an emergency -- and that competent people are in charge.

Conservatives are telling you that you can’t count on the feds, at least not while they run things. So listen to them. Your life may depend on having a competent governor, so make sure you elect (or in this case, reelect) one.

Monday, September 12, 2005

How Come It's Class Warfare Only When We Fight Back?

This week's column answers two questions that I've always wondered about: Can I get Yiddish into the Tribune? And if a Yiddish tree falls in the East Valley forest, would anybody other than me understand what it means? So far based on the emails, the answer is pretty much, other than my editor, "no."

But I love a good political food fight. In response to my column on 9/4, Kyl wrote a piece published on 9/8, which had enough material in it that despite having to catch a plane at 2 pm, I could dash off this week's column in the morning. We'll see if he wants to continue dragging himself down to my level in the public prints. You can read him in printer-ready format or in newspaper format, as well as the printer-ready version and newspaper version of my column if you wish. I plan on having no official position whatsoever with the Pederson campaign, so my columns will continue to pass muster under the Chuck Coughlin-Horizon standard of impartiality.


East Valley Tribune, Sept. 11, 2005

If Sen. Jon Kyl’s defense of repealing the estate tax were a stock, the SEC would bust him for fraud.

Kyl says that his estate tax “compromise” will “only” cost one-third of my estimate, or $290 billion instead of nearly $1 trillion. He (and the Congressional Budget Office) get the smaller number because they include (as I painstakingly noted in the original column) only four actual years of repeal. So the real cost of 10 actual years is $745 billion, plus another $225 billion in additional interest costs. Again, this is the same sort of budget trickery that made the administration’s Medicare drug “benefit” fit the budget, for a year -- then the numbers exploded when you have to include a year with the plan actually in effect.

Kyl claims that we can give a new estate tax cut because “the deficit is currently on track to drop by half.” Note that he can’t claim that the deficit will be eliminated; even under their best possible projections, the GOP and Bush administration will spend far more than the government’s revenues. This is called “moving the goalposts” -- victory isn’t a balanced budget, but merely one that’s somewhat less out of balance.

And those figures are now even more inaccurate, because (as I also noted) they don’t include any spending for the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, or the recovery from Hurricane Katrina -- which is now at over $70 billion, and according to the Bush administration, that’s just for the next few weeks. None, zero, zilch of this spending is included in those rosy deficit-reduction scenarios.

What’s worse, those scenarios also include resumption of the estate tax at 2000 levels in 2011, because that’s current law. So not only is billions of spending that we know is coming -- that Kyl has already voted to spend -- not included in those projections, so are billions in revenue that he wants to give back to really rich people.

So that’s Kyl’s budget flim-flammery. Now in talking about the estate tax, he claims that “members of the tiny minority of extraordinarily wealthy Americans . . . usually avoid the death tax altogether.” Nowhere does he cite any study or evidence of this absurd proposition.

Think about it. If Kyl’s little fairy tale is true, then why are those extraordinarily wealthy Americans spending all this money on lobbyists and TV ads? Why in the world would extraordinarily wealthy people like the Mars candy and Campbell soup heirs and the publisher of the Seattle Times care about the tax rate --unless they actually face paying the tax?

The Wal-Mart heirs never got involved in politics before, but they’re spending tons of (non-deductible) money on this particular cause. Why? As Michael Graetz, a former Bush I Treasury official noted, those heirs “would save billions of dollars in tax” if Kyl gets his way.

If the point is to protect small businesses ($10 million being “small”), then we could bump up the lifetime exemption. But that wouldn’t help the very rich -- which is why Kyl, on their side in this particular class war, wants to use most of the amount on the rate cut, not increasing the exemption.

Finally, Kyl acts like it’s some natural disaster which nobody could foresee that the estate tax disappears in 2010 and reappears in 2011, and that we need to fix that pronto. But that’s exactly what he voted for in 2001. If that’s a problem, he created it.

Lots of observers (like me) pointed out the absurdity of the one-year repeal at the time. (“Grandpa, for New Year’s, we’ve decided to take up skydiving. You first.”) If the Bush tax cut only had room for so much in estate tax relief, it could have been used for a permanent increase to the exemption. But Kyl and Bush decided that this no tax in 2010, and full resumption in 2011, was better. And now they’re so surprised that they were wrong.

Not only are Kyl’s numbers as bogus as a Fife Symington financial statement, but he’s complaining about a problem he himself caused. Only a Yiddish word can describe this kind of behavior: Chutzpah.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth? Not if Jon Kyl Can Help It.

Frist's office just announced that they're putting off debate and votes on cutting the estate tax this week, given the need to pour money into the Katrina relief effort. But they didn't sound happy about it. And why, exactly, are any Democratic senators supporting cutting the estate tax?

Another headline that doesn't quite capture the point of the column.

East Valley Tribune, Sept. 4, 2005

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., hopes to have one of those “only in Washington” reactions to what may be the most extensive, and expensive, natural disaster in American history. With President Bush announcing the largest relief effort in recorded history, with an entire major U.S. city uninhabitable for months, and with the costs of rebuilding not yet known but undoubtedly staggering, Kyl has a plan on how not to pay for it: With a huge estate tax cut to benefit only the top 1.2 percent of taxpayers.

You might think that with the country fighting two land wars in Asia simultaneously and with the recovery effort from Katrina gearing up, a prudent person would hold back, might want to put some money aside, and at the very least would try not to run up more debt. But that’s not Kyl and the Bush administration.

Remember that while the federal government is already projected to run a big deficit, the real numbers will be worse, because of GOP insistence on paying for both wars through so-called supplemental appropriations. This tactic means that budget and deficit projections don’t include the wars’ costs. We know we’re spending some $60 to $80 billion a year for years to come. But you’re allowed, apparently, to strut and loudly refuse to cut and run -- but you never have to explain where the money comes from, or even to account for it.

We also know that disaster relief for Katrina will be an emergency supplemental, also not in the budget, and which therefore will make the deficit picture worse. Nobody has a clue now how much rescue, much less rebuilding, will cost. It’s likely to cost plenty, given that the Bush administration is catching flack over lack of preparedness and slow response, and their customary reaction to criticism is spending a ton of money. It’s will be money that the government doesn’t collect now, and must borrow -- making the deficit picture worse, because of additional interest payments on that new debt.

(For those of you thinking, “let ‘those people’ suffer, they chose to live there” -- remember that, apart from the immorality, folks in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana could say the same about our complaints that the federal government isn’t spending enough to stop illegal immigration. After all, we “chose” to live here, in a border state.)

So what’s the Kyl plan for dealing with a $300 billion deficit that will be made worse by another $100 billion in war and Katrina spending? An estate tax cut costing nearly $1 trillion over 10 years, a huge gift to the wealthiest 1.2 percent.

Unless he’s embarrassed by the pictures of suffering along the Gulf Coast, Kyl hopes to have the Senate vote this week on so-called estate tax “reform,” which would mean huge tax breaks to people inheriting $10 million or more. This “compromise” plan would cut federal revenues by $745 billion over the first ten years -- which money would have to be borrowed, increasing interest payments on the national debt by another $225 billion.

Kyl is using typical Washington-style “fuzzy math” to claim the cost is “only” $290 billion, by including in his 10-year estimate only four actual years of repeal. He massaged the calculation by including in the cost estimate six full years before the cut ever would take effect.

(This accounting trick should sound familiar. It’s how the Bush administration, in addition to lying about the actual numbers, claimed that the new Medicare drug benefit would cost “only” $400 billion. They delayed the program’s start date so there were fewer actual years in the estimate to make the number smaller. Everybody acted really, really surprised when next year’s budget numbers came out, and the cost -- and the deficit -- suddenly jumped. Fool you once, etc.)

We’re at war and watching what may be the largest natural disaster in our history. Unless the pictures of Americans who have lost everything to floodwaters shame him, Jon Kyl thinks we should respond by giving a $745 billion tax cut to the Wal-Mart, Gallo, and Campbell Soup heirs.

It’s called “thinking like an incumbent.”