Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Been Down So Long, It Looks Like Flat To Me

This column drew a letter to the editor today, who said I was all wet because the rich pay more in income taxes--the same old misdirection, that no taxes could possibly matter other than income taxes, suckers. Remember when those guys wanted to privatize Social Security but now just consider it an investment and not a tax so they can make these ridiculous arguments?

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 22, 2003

My side will miss a pretty big bet if we don’t support a “flat tax” at the state and local level.

Right-wingers are upset with Gov. Janet Napolitano’s citizen’s fiscal study commission because of its decision not to consider a so-called flat tax. The commissioners prefer to spend their time studying more “politically feasible” alternatives.

But during the past 50 years, the percentage of income paid by those in the top tier has been steadily reduced. In the 1960’s, millionaires paid a much larger share in taxes than did the middle class, without too much complaining. Today, millionaires pay basically the same percentage as do the middle and lower classes, and the whining of the rich never ceases.

The federal tax system is now only slightly progressive, while state and local taxes fall more heavily, in percentage terms, on those below the top. Whatever progressivity remains in the federal tax code -- even before these latest tax cuts, which gave the vast majority of benefits to those at the very top -- is overcome by the regressivity of state and local taxes. We already have a flat tax in this country; everybody basically pays the same percentage.

So a flat tax at the state and local level would be an improvement. If people at different percentiles paid the same share of their incomes to the state and cities, we’d have a more progressive tax system -- unlike today’s arrangement in Arizona, which asks more of working families and the middle class than the rich. Going “flat” at the state and local level might help compensate for these federal tax breaks to top-tier earners, making the overall system not quite so unfair to those not already rich.

Pointing out the “class warfare” aspects of GOP tax policy -- how we’re changing the system so that the top 1 percent pay a lesser share and the “bottom 99 percent” pay more -- is supposedly (according to polls!) not effective, because people always overestimate their own percentile. Just as every child in Lake Wobegon is above average, apparently some 40 percent of Americans think they are (or will be) in the top 1 percent.

I admire that kind of optimism. So instead of percentages, let’s talk actual numbers. Our current tax system is like an airport ticket counter. There are incredibly long lines, and nobody understands ticket pricing due to bizarrely complex and constantly changing fares.

The vast majority -- the “bottom 99 percent” -- must wait in long, slow-moving lines. There’s a much shorter “first class” line, where people get whisked through security in style, but first class requires an annual income greater than $400,000. That’s what it takes to join the top 1 percent and to truly enjoy the recent tax cut. If you make less than $400,000, welcome to the long, slow line with the rest of the “lucky duckies.”

People traveling coach soon discover that while they’re still paying about the same for their tickets as before -- after all, for the person making $100,000 or less, the tax cuts meant only “chump change” -- this particular airline has slashed the cost of first class travel. It still costs more to fly first class, but a lot less than it did. It also means that first class travelers now pay a much smaller percentage of their incomes than do coach flyers for the same trip.

That’s “Bush Tax-Cut Airlines” for you. The skies are friendlier for people making at least $400,000. But the vast majority get long lines, high prices, and bad service. So keep your seatbelts buckled, and don’t even think about using that first class lavatory.

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

More on "Yellow Rain"

I'm responding to a letter to the editor objecting to the reference to the unproven "yellow rain" allegations in my June 9 column (link not functioning).

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 15, 2003

Bill Laurie of Mesa wrote a letter in last Thursday’s Tribune claiming that the Reagan administration “yellow rain” claims were really true. I’ll never convince grassy knoll types, but “yellow rain” shows how GOP administrations stretch intelligence to fit ideological requirements.

First, while recently declassified CIA documents indicate that the USSR tried to develop mycotoxin weapons, they contained no evidence the Soviets actually used any.

Second, the “yellow rain” theory cannot explain the high levels of pollens in the samples. Pollen isn’t an effective dispersal agent. Citing sample contamination won’t work, because that undermines whether the samples -- not taken under controlled conditions, and lacking a chain of custody -- were valid.

Third, Meselson isn’t the only opponent of Seagrave (whose book, now out of print, was published in 1981) and Hamilton-Merritt. Meselson’s explanation also was supported by Seeley, Sarver, and Porton.

Fourth, the “bee feces” explanation got additional confirmation in June 2002, when a bee swarm in West Bengal province, near Calcutta, India, caused more “yellow rain.” “Bee feces” may sound funny, but it's been documented, multiple times.

Thus, while Meselson and Seeley’s explanation has been duplicated, nobody has found hard evidence of mycotoxins in any Southeast Asia battle zone -- no shell casings, dispersal devices, or residues. The Reagan administration-Seagrave hypothesis also depends on claims about secret evidence still not public, even 20 years later.

Fifth, the interviews with Hmong refugees have been widely discredited. Hamilton-Merritt did wonderful work among the Hmong, but the government’s investigatory interviews were contradictory, selective, and overstated.

Finally, for those confused by the science, recall that The Wall Street Journal editorial page made “yellow rain” a crusade, devoting almost as much ink as to Whitewater. If the “yellow rain” theory were proven, wouldn’t they be trumpeting it, now that the Bush administration cannot justify pre-war assertions that Iraq represented an imminent threat?

The silence simply thunders.

Monday, June 23, 2003

Getting Our Money's Worth

The headline's not quite accurate, as my point involved not just federal spending but also state budgets, which particular bullet we may have dodged here in Arizona, at least this year, but the threats to funding for developmental disabilities--to pick an example about which I often write--will return again anon.

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 15, 2003

As Thomas Friedman of The New York Times wrote last week (he supported the Iraq war, so you’re obliged to listen), start deciding what you will do without.

With the budget battles at both the state and federal level winding down, start figuring out what services you won’t get anymore. Everybody loves getting something for less than its cost, or even for nothing. But that’s no formula for long-term survival, much less success.

That’s what all these tax cuts mean. Arizona fixed this year’s budget with federal bailout funds, but we’re committed, at both the state and federal levels, to paying less. So start thinking about getting less.

Do you prefer fewer cops, prosecutors, judges, trials, or prison sentences? Even if nobody moves to Arizona, there’s inflation, and people in the system expect to earn more as they gain experience. Just keeping up costs more each year.

But as Arizona grows, we’ll have more crooks and scoundrels. You can’t handle a larger problem effectively using the same numbers of people and money. Without more of both, we stretch the system even thinner -- and the crime that falls through the cracks could be the one against you.

Everybody must get less. We have to pay interest on the rapidly-increasing national debt; the alternative minimum tax (AMT) needs fixed, and then there’s that Medicare prescription drug benefit. Military spending is increasing rapidly, and the Bush administration wants to spend billions on a missile defense system that will be built first and tested, if at all, later. That’s a pretty long line.

With less to go around, seniors on Medicare will get less health care, or their physicians and hospitals will get paid less. Veterans will find longer lines and fewer benefits. College students will graduate with greater debts.

We can’t hire more border patrol agents, buy more high-tech weapons, protect civilian airliners from terrorist attack with electronic flares, and funnel money to so-called faith-based charities and cut spending simultaneously.

Forget about doing anything new. Take one example: A permanent death benefit for fire and emergency workers. How can we pay for an entirely new discretionary spending program, when Congress and the Bush administration have committed us to spend less in that category, in real terms, than now?

Oh, nominal spending numbers may increase eventually, due to inflation. But inflation, advances in technology, and population growth mean getting less because (on average, anyway) we’re paying less. (You may not notice, because those big breaks for the rich really skew the averages.) You’ll do without, or else pay more for services you now get. Forget dreaming about some big new program. The future is clearly less, not more.

We’re way beyond throwing out bathwater; with the Arizona legislature considering cutting funding for prenatal care and caring for premature births, we’re throwing out the babies. The new state budget makes it more expensive to adopt special-needs kids with disabilities, too.

The next time somebody -- like my friends on The Tribune editorial page -- talks generally about cutting spending, stop them. It’s not abstract anymore. We’re cutting services, by the billions. Make ‘em tell you specifically what they want you to give up.

Sure, you may not have an autistic kid, so that budget cut won’t bankrupt your family. But you, or somebody on whom you depend, probably get something out of the social compact, whether it’s Medicare, a state university, your kids’ public school, or even a government job.

Figure out what you’re willing to do without, because something’s gotta give. And it isn’t going to be the big tax breaks for people making more than $330,000 a year.

Monday, June 09, 2003

Fool Us Once, Shame on You. Fool Us Twice, Shame on Us

Remember "yellow rain," the first time we got overstated, and ultimately inaccurate, claims about weapons of mass destruction (although that's not what they were called back then)? Are any of you even old enough to remember yellow rain? Alexander Haig? There's nostalgia for you.

A brief dialogue:

L: The evidence that Bush lied about Iraq having vast supplies of weapons of mass destruction is as solid as the evidence of a connection between Iraq and Al-Queda.

R: But that's preposterous. There's no evidence that Bush lied, only leaks and assertions from people with an axe to grind and who want to persuade people based on emotion, not fact.

L: Exactly.

Mendacity and Mythmaking

East Valley Tribune, Jun. 8, 2003

Critics of the Bush administration’s overselling, to put it mildly, of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction probably fear looking foolish if U.S. forces eventually find some (any?) WMD.

Fate is indeed callous, and worrying comes naturally to me; after all, I’m Jewish, and a Democrat, but I repeat myself. But the more I think about it, the less I fret.

First, nobody who sold us on the idea of Iraqi WMD now seems the least bit concerned. Does President Bush look like he’s worried about where all those nasty weapons went?

If before the war Iraq actually had WMD, but now that we’re occupying the country and haven’t found any, doesn’t that make any Iraqi WMD completely unaccounted for, and more likely available for acquisition by terrorists? Wouldn’t that make us less safe?

(One of my less coherent critics attacked my last column because I hadn’t heard that before the war Iraq put all its WMD on two ships that were sunk. Gosh -- some of you ‘wingers will believe anything.)

Bush, Rumsfeld, and the rest look like fraternity boys who sent the new pledges on a snipe hunt. Now that we’ve scoured Iraq and found nary a snipe (just two trailers that, if you eliminate all other possibilities, might have been snipe pens) they’re having a tough time keeping up the pretense. Some joke, huh?

Too bad in this particular snipe hunt, dozens of our servicemen and women had to die -- and are still dying -- far from home. But life is better in Iraq now, and after all, isn’t that why, by a 5-4 vote, we elected George W. Bush?

Second, it’s not the first time these guys tried a WMD scare. Some twenty years ago, the Reagan administration and The Wall Street Journal editorial page used similarly unreliable and unconfirmed reports from exiles to allege that the Soviets had used biological weapons in Southeast Asia. But the “yellow rain” mycotoxin claims, despite their repetition and vehemence, were disproved by independent scientists.

But that generation of neocons never paid any price to their credibility. Instead, the false and overblown WMD claims helped justify their defense programs and plans. Maybe this generation also believes that once you convince yourself, then it’s not really a lie, is it?

And speaking of Bill Clinton, Bush’s critics should get to fire away with nary a concern because Republicans never worried about getting anything wrong about Clinton. So shouldn’t we get to pummel Bush without worry, too?

Remember the FBI files, Mena airport, the Travel Office, the Arlington National Cemetery waivers, the haircut at LAX, the trashing of the White House on moving out, the Hillary gift registry? Remember Whitewater itself, or Al Gore saying that he had “invented” the Internet?

None of those claims were accurate, but ultimately it didn’t matter, to what most people think of either the Clinton administration or of all those Republicans who huffed and puffed and never once apologized for getting anything wrong.

It’s heads-I-win, tails-you-lose. Bush got swoons from columnists because he stayed away from the return of the U.S. Air Force crew captured by the Chinese in 2001. The conservatives admired his restraint; after all, Clinton could never have resisted putting himself into the limelight like that.

Heck, Clinton was such a self-aggrandizing egotist, he might stolen the spotlight by meeting the crew by landing on an aircraft carrier or something. That would have been flagrant and terrible if Clinton had done it. Of course, Bush doing it is entirely different.

No wonder these guys take all the tax cuts for themselves. “Stretching the truth” to justify a war is just standard operating procedure.

Monday, June 02, 2003

It All Depends on What You Mean by WMD

If it's really all about human rights, it's on to the Congo!

East Valley Tribune, June 2, 2003

Feeling nostalgic? Let’s recall those glorious days of yester-month, when Iraq absolutely, positively had weapons of mass destruction:

“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction.” Vice President Dick Cheney, Aug. 26, 2002.

“Our intelligence officials estimate that Saddam Hussein had the materials to produce as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent. In such quantities, these chemical agents could also kill untold thousands . . . U.S. intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein had upwards of 30,000 munitions capable of delivering chemical agents . . . The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa. Our intelligence sources tell us that he has attempted to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production.” President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, Jan. 28, 2003.

“Intelligence gathered by this and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised.” President Bush, March 17, 2003.

“We know where they are. They’re in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, south and north somewhat.” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, March 30, 2003.

“For bureaucratic reasons, we settled on one issue, weapons of mass destruction, because it was the one reason everyone could agree on.” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, quoted in Vanity Fair and by Reuters.

You can read the whole series of quotes, a dramatic arc running from total certainty and imminent threat (remember those balsa-wood drones?) to “who claimed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, anyway?” at "Billmon's" Whiskey Bar.

I guess Bush decided to “restore honor to the Oval Office” by limiting his lying to things other than sex.

Speaking of lying, those of you expecting those millions of new jobs from the so-called “Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003” need to remember this sorry history. When new jobs prove as rare as Iraqi WMD, the rationale for the $350 billion tax cut undoubtedly will keep changing before our eyes.

If this “jobless recovery” continues -- and reporter John Hilsenrath, in the May 29 Wall Street Journal quoted experts who believe that due to productivity growth, the economy needs to expand at greater than 3.5 percent annually, which most predict as far too optimistic, to generate new jobs -- we soon will see far different rationales.

We’ll probably hear those new jobs never existed, or went to Syria or Iran, or got destroyed before the tax cut. I doubt we’ll hear the real reason, that the Bush administration’s goal always has been cutting health care, education, and other programs to give the rich more money.

And from the “If Democrats Tried This, You’d Kill Us” Department, why the near-complete silence over both the Arizona Senate GOP leadership calling in DPS to ferry Sen. Linda Binder back to Phoenix, and Rep. Tom DeLay involving the new federal Department of Homeland Security in the Texas redistricting brouhaha?

As The New Republic noted, “When FBI files showed up in Bill Clinton’s White House, Republicans, with the help of the press, screamed with outrage, even though no evidence that they were used for any partisan purpose was ever uncovered. Yet, in this case, when we know that police powers were harnessed for partisan gain, the issue elicits laughs.”

Finally, I can’t resist noting that another Tribune columnist “spelled out” an interesting complaint in describing the questioning of Sen. John McCain at the GOP forum in Scottsdale (read carefully): “Why aren’t some Republicans staying true to Republican principals?”

That’s odd. Everyone knows school administrators are usually Democrats.