Monthly Archives: July 2012

Money and superiority

In a recent speech to political donors in Israel, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney attributed Israel’s economic success, as compared to its Palestinian neighbor, to its cultural superiority.
It was an inflammatory statement that harmed decades of U.S. efforts to serve as an intermediary in bringing peace to the war-torn region.
Romney’s correlation between culture and per-capita gross domestic product also raised concerns about how he would view his constituents if he wins the November election.
Romney’s home state of Massachusetts has a per-capita GDP of $52,915, one of the highest in the nation. Alabama sits near the other extreme, with a per-person GDP of $31,301. Does that make Alabama the cultural inferior of Massachusetts? Qatar — which follows Sunni law and has an absolute monarchy — has a per-capita GDP that is more than double that of the U.S. Is Qatar our cultural superior?
Equating money with cultural superiority may go over well with wealthy donors. It’s a precarious argument, however, for a politician who seeks to lead a nation consisting of many states and people who lack financial advantage.

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Filed under Capitalism, Romney

Romney needs to show tax returns

If Mitt Romney wants to be president of the United States, he needs to be open about his finances.
Democrats would find some reason to gripe about Romney even if his candidacy raised no legitimate questions. Politics are all about finding fault, and both parties do so with enthusiasm.
Indeed, voters are so bombarded by the attacks that they tend to ignore all of them. After a few dozen complaints about Romney using car elevators and strapping his dog on a station wagon, it’s tempting to stop listening.
Romney’s concealment of all but one tax return, however, is in a different category.
What little Americans know about the candidate’s income raises questions. In 2010, he made $20 million but paid a tax rate of only 15 percent. He has money in numerous offshore banks, including some that are popular havens for avoiding U.S. taxes. At least some of his income has come from investments in companies that specialized in moving U.S. jobs to foreign locations. He also has unspecified investments in China.
Complicating all this is the fact that much of Romney’s campaign focuses on tax policy, specifically on plans that would minimize the taxes on the highest earners.
Americans have no legal right to delve into Romney’s finances, but he has no legal right to serve as our president. The issue is one of trust. Romney wants voters’ trust. Withholding financial information is the wrong way to get it.

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Filed under Election 2012, Romney

Throwing the poor overboard

There are dozens of versions of the joke, all of which involve five people on a life raft that can only hold four. Usually one is a lawyer. Which one to toss?
In Alabama, it’s not a joke. We face massive cuts in Medicaid in fiscal 2013. Gov. Robert Bentley may decline a Medicaid expansion included in the Affordable Care Act that would begin to take effect in 2014.
Which person are we throwing off the life raft? The poor one.
A capitalist system evaluates people according to their wealth. In the context of economic decisions this may not be fair, but it is rational. There are plenty of exceptions — rich people who got their money from their parents and talented people who, because they were born into poverty, never got a chance to hone their talents — but generally it makes sense. Those who have accumulated assets have shown they have economic value to society.
In the life-raft jokes, as in the Medicaid dilemma, the issue is not about economic value. It is about intrinsic value as a human. The people thrown out of the Medicaid life raft really may die. In choosing which of the five to throw overboard, we are not making a decision about economics but about their comparative value as humans.
In making such moral judgments, most people look to religion rather than economics. The predominant religion in Alabama is Christianity, and its teachings on the relevance of financial accomplishment to human value are clear. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he instructed them to take no bag, no change of clothes and no money. His advice to the rich man was to sell his possessions and give to the poor. “Woe to the rich” is a refrain that runs throughout the New Testament. Jesus rejected any positive correlation between riches and human value.
In throwing the poor person off the boat, though, it may be that we are not just evaluating his value as a human. We may be asserting a likelihood — again with many exceptions among both the rich and the poor — that those who have accumulated assets have earned a place on the raft. They have worked hard for their success.
I’m pretty good at Scrabble. If Americans collectively decided to honor Scrabble scores, I’d be thrilled. I would memorize all the two-letter words, learn the words with a Q and not a U, and generally work hard to excel in a system that rewarded a talent I already possess.
Within that artificial reward system, I’d be in my glory. My spot on the life raft would be secure.
As a society, Americans have chosen not the rules of Scrabble but those of capitalism to dictate rewards. We have enacted laws allowing the ownership of property, hired police to protect property rights, funded courts to enforce contracts, enabled stock exchanges and created shareholder rights. Americans have agreed to play a game that some are good at and some are not.
If just after I memorized the Q words America switched from Scrabble to chess, I’d be sunk. Suddenly my place on the life raft would be precarious. My value as a human would be no less, but my value in the changed system of rewards would plummet.
There are solid economic reasons for rewarding capitalist talent, but capitalism is an artifice. The talents that made Bill Gates and Warren Buffett rich would be of little value in societies that did not agree to protect intellectual property and stock certificates. In cultures that decided physical prowess or family lineage were the appropriate measures of human value, Gates and Buffett would be unexceptional.
In an economic game played by capitalist rules, Gates and Buffett had the qualities necessary for success. Change the game and the rules, though, and those qualities would have little value.
When we are deciding who should live and who should die — whether the issue is a spot on the life raft or access to medical care — the choice is not about economics. The mere fact that we have decided to reward excellence in capitalism or Scrabble for some purposes does not mean we are bound to use the same measure for others.
We maintain an economic system that predisposes some to success and some to failure. The moral — and yes, religious — question is whether we want that system’s financial scorecard to determine who gets thrown from the life raft.
We could just as easily choose Scrabble scores. Or just maybe, we should be looking for a way to build a larger raft.

Eric Fleischauer

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Filed under Alabama politics, Capitalism, Health care, Obamacare, Poverty, Religion

Spirit of America is bright

Decatur’s Spirit of America Festival had its birth at a time of national strife.

It was 1967.

The Vietnam War was claiming the lives of tens of thousands of Americans. The people and their leaders were divided on the wisdom of the war.

Protests and riots became common. The nation shook as it became clear that Americans had conflicting visions of their country’s destiny.

Former Decatur Daily publisher Barrett C. Shelton, one of the founders of the festival, leapfrogged over the national divide.

For all our disharmony, he realized, we all love America. For all the dispute over the wisdom of the war, no one could look in the eyes of our soldiers and recognize them as anything other than heroes.

On Wednesday, the festival again showed its healing power. Americans can argue about pretty much anything, but not about the patriotism of Laura Ayers, Lt. Col. James L. Walker and Melinda Dunn.

Harvest resident Ayers, who received the Audie Murphy Patriotism Award, is a civilian at Redstone Arsenal. She has spent countless hours volunteering her time to soldiers and their families. She is co-author of a Reintegration Action Plan workbook for returning soldiers.

Walker, who received the Barrett C. Shelton Freedom Award, is well known to those in Decatur.

After retiring from a distinguished military career, he established the first Army JROTC Program at Austin High School in 1995. He not only has developed the program into one of the best in the nation, he has provided hard-nosed support for hundreds of high school students. Many have gone on to serve in military academies.

Melinda Dunn, president of the festival, won the Humanitarian Award for her work promoting family events and historic preservation.

The patriotism exhibited amidst the pageantry and fireworks of the Spirit of America Festival was a reminder that love of country is not a partisan affair. We may have different visions for our country, but we all want her to succeed.

Because of people like Ayers, Walker and Dunn — because of the thousands of ordinary citizens who showed their patriotism Wednesday — America will continue to embrace the compassionate strength that make it the proudest nation on Earth.

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Filed under Democracy

The cost of blocked opportunity

Almost a half century later, we understand the loss all of us sustained by denying opportunity to a few.
As a result of segregation, the members of the Decatur Negro High School football team had few opportunities, athletic or otherwise. The post-graduation options of even the best players were essentially limited to a semi-professional team, the Decatur Rough Riders. From 1960 to 1966 the Rough Riders had a 66-2 record. The players got paid — $3 — for one of those 68 games.
We rightly focus on the unfairness to the black players. They were deprived of measuring their talents against white players. They were almost completely blocked from playing on college teams or in a professional league.
The loss, though, was not just theirs. Many fans who would have enjoyed watching the dazzling moves of Leo Gray or the impossible receptions of Madison Romine never had the chance. College and professional teams that might have been excellent with players whose talent was honed at Decatur Negro High School had to instead settle for being mediocre.
We all would have been better off if they could have tried out for the big leagues. Their lost opportunity was a loss to the sport.
While we finally understand that all of us were victims of segregation, we have been slow to apply the lesson to economics.
In 2009, one-fourth of American households had zero or negative net worth. After three more years of high unemployment, the number is probably higher now. In Alabama, 42 percent of non-white households had zero or negative net worth in 2009.
In an economic system that reserves its greatest rewards for those willing to risk capital, that means one-fourth of our players can’t even try out for the team. They have no capital to risk. They struggle to obtain housing, health care and food. Starting a business or attending college is, for most, unimaginable.
We routinely debate the morality of such a system. Is it fair that some are deprived of almost any opportunity for success by virtue of the financial status of their parents?
The other question, though, is also compelling. How much worse off are we, as a society, because we are deprived of the talent and energy of so many? What would America look like if all children had the chance to excel, without the ever-present fear of going without food, without shelter or without needed medical care?
One lesson of the Rough Riders is that all of us are worse off when we block some from opportunity.

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Filed under Capitalism, Poverty, Race

Penalty? Tax? Who cares?

The battle between leaders of the Republican and Democratic parties over whether the Affordable Care Act is partially financed by taxes proves only one thing: They think the people have no sense.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the individual mandate under the power of Congress to levy taxes. Because the law gives people a choice — pay money to the Internal Revenue Service or buy health insurance — the political debate has devolved to the lowest possible level.

“Ah ha!” GOP leaders cry, “the Supreme Court holding proves it’s a tax.” “Oh no!” Democrat officials squirm, “people might see this as a tax.”

It is what it is. Maybe it’s a “tax,” maybe a “penalty” and maybe an “exaction” — the term used by the court.

Who cares? It is an amount of money that people must pay if they are either so reckless or so poor that they decline to buy a product. The poor will receive a subsidy to assist them in buying the product. The reckless will be deprived of their past practice of saving a few dollars with the knowledge that those who do pay premiums will be stuck with the cost of their care in an emergency.

There are — gasp — other taxes included in the law, most imposed on companies that will benefit from the fact that our health care system now will service a much larger percentage of Americans.

Despite what politicians may think, voters are not so slow that they depend on the label used by either judges or politicians.

If it is a tax, so be it. America has paid taxes for goals far less noble than providing an opportunity for basic health care to the 30 million citizens who currently go without it.

http://www.decaturdaily.com/stories/Penalty-Tax-Who-cares,98237

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Filed under Election 2012, Health care, Obamacare

Tyranny? Get real

We cloak our political grievances in the powerful words of the Declaration of Independence, but the truth is we are sore losers.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” wrote Thomas Jefferson. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
“— That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government … But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The words are frightening, not because of the context in which they were written but because we have adopted the same language to describe modern America.
I searched my recently received e-mails and found 51 that used the word “tyranny,” most critical of President Barack Obama for either health care reform or immigration and some complaining about corporate political contributions.
One was from former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, almost certain to return to the bench in November. Moore, like many, was explicit: “Perhaps the week before July 4th is an appropriate time to recognize the tyranny of the federal government that is now upon us. The recent history of our federal government, to quote the Declaration of Independence, ‘is a history of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.'”
Thinking it might be a fluke, I listened to a few minutes of talk radio. There I heard Neal Boortz explain that we are living in a despotic regime, ruled by a tyrant. In fairness, the conservative fury was fueled by two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, one of which upheld the federal Affordable Care Act and one of which struck down a state immigration law. Had the decisions gone otherwise, the language of revolution might have been coming from the Left.
What a bunch of whiners we are.
The American colonists had no representation in a British parliament that passed onerous laws targeting them. What limited legislation the colonies could pass was subject to veto by a hereditary king. Parliament required colonists to buy from and sell to London-based monopolies, imposed taxes on the colonies and required colonists to provide food and quarters for British soldiers.
These and other laws were unpopular in the colonies, but that was not the point. What brought the colonists to the conclusion that they must declare independence was their utter lack of input. They were governed by an external force.
Far from being a monarch, President Barack Obama was elected by a majority. His limited powers can extend for a maximum of eight years, and that only if he again wins a popular election in November. In 2008, most Alabamians voted for someone other than Obama. That does not mean they have no representation, as was the case with the colonists. It simply means that, in one election, they did not get what they wanted.
Despite its nickname, Obamacare was not an imperial pronouncement by our elected president. It is a law that received a majority of votes in a House of Representatives elected by the people of each state. It received a majority of votes from the Senate, which consists of senators that received a majority of votes within their respective states. It was signed by the duly elected president. A Supreme Court, consisting of justices appointed by duly elected presidents and confirmed by the elected Senate, ruled that most of the law was a constitutional exercise of Congress’s power.
The colonists had reason for outrage. They had no significant rights of self-governance. No matter how oppressive the laws passed by a foreign parliament, no matter how malicious the dictates of a foreign king, they had no redress. They took up arms not because they lost an argument to the majority, but because they had no representation.
We abuse the Declaration when we use the same words to describe our current condition. Despite our lofty rhetoric, our gripe with controversial laws is not that they are the product of tyranny, but that they are not what we wanted. To make our tantrums seem less childish, we cloak them with the noble words of our Founding Fathers.
Both the Left and the Right have come unhinged. Whether the issue is immigration or health care, tax cuts or the environment, we cling to our beliefs with hyper-partisan certainty. We have convinced ourselves that only tyranny — by Obama, corporations, judges, or sinister conspirators of the Left or Right — could have caused us to lose a political battle.
Our ancestors fought and died not so we could have everything we wanted, but so we could participate in the process of governing ourselves.
In the same Declaration whose language we have coopted for the political disputes of the day, our Founding Fathers noted that not every grievance is cause for secession.
“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes,” Jefferson wrote.
Our Founding Fathers did not rebel because they lost a political debate, but because they had no right to participate in that debate. Our complaints — that we were on the losing side of the latest legislative or judicial pronouncements — are both light and transient.
We need to get a grip.
Contact Eric Fleischauer at http://www.mile304.com or eric@decaturdaily.com.

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Filed under Democracy, Election 2012, Obamacare