Monday, 25 April 2005

Humor Envy

Perhaps I'm loath to dedicate any posts here to the outrages of Tom DeLay because his antics rile me so that I lose all humor and equanimity. Jim Hightower avoids that malady as he notes that DeLay "doesn't need a cosmetic make-over, he needs an entire ethics transplant" in his latest essay over at Common Dreams. Perhaps I derive much of the humor from Hightower's high-pitched Texas twang which comes through for me as I read it.

For my part, I'll try to remember Texas as the home of Hightower, Moyers, Ivins, Ann Richards, and Barbara Jordan, rather than of Bush, Rove, Cornyn, Tower, and DeLay.

Saturday, 23 April 2005

Bill Moyers

Integrity was on display last night, as I joined a full house of kindred spirits in Seattle's Paramount Theatre to hear the wisdom of 'retired' journalist Bill Moyers. Moyers continues to spend the capital he has so richly earned during a career in newspapers, government, and television, to warn America of the dangers she faces from the marriage of a narrowly defined religion with one-party government.

Though the right wing noise machine has laughably mocked him as part of the "loony left", what makes Moyers so remarkable is not that he was one of the last liberal journalists on mainstream television (many may be more liberal), but that he was one of the last with the courage to speak the truth plainly, unconstrained by the government's definition of what makes news.

Anyone who has been watching Moyers for years, is well acquainted with his gentle manner, deep personal religious convictions, and gracious ability to engage a wide range of guests of a multitude of different persuasions in thought provoking conversation. While I've been delighted to be witness to his increasing forthrightness in exposing and condemning bought government, media consolidation, government secrecy, and political corruption, he retained to the end his ability to have cordial conversations with the likes of Grover Norquist or Richard Viguerie.

Responding to questions collected from the audience last night, to one which asked if he ever felt like strangling any of his guests, Moyers joked that perhaps there were times that the opposite may have been true, but went on to say how much he enjoys interviewing all sorts of people. The question betrayed the likelihood that Moyers may have been one of the more conservative people in the hall last night, but he is certainly one of the most courageous.

Another question asked him if in debate, who would he choose to represent the other side. He mentioned George Will, and it sounded like he was contemplating listing some other options, but instead segued into reflections on the importance of dialogue. "You know" he said, "we owe our adversaries the compliment of an argument."

His speech got right into the way that the Republican National Convention has leveraged the cultural conservatism of the religious right to establish a base which ultimately serves the interests of the corporate elite. He talked about the large faction of earnest, well-intended people who have made Timothy Lahaye's Left Behind series one of the best selling sets of books in America, subscribing to a particularized interpretation of the book of Revelation regarding End Times and the Rapture. Moyers believes that we dismiss these folks as loonies at our own peril, for their theology meshes with the greed of corporate elites who are drunk with power at their ability to roll back all manner of environmental regulation endangering the future of our species. If we are already in the last days the thinking goes, there is little concern about preserving our planet for future generations.

Midway through the speech I came to my senses and got out a notecard to capture some of the better quotes. In referring to today's power elite Moyers used an analogy from the Aztec [or was it the Maya?] civilization, where those in power so "insulated themselves from the consequences of their actions" that they eventually became "victims of their own privilege." In such an environment, as that which permeates Washington, D.C., the powerful become "devoid of the moral imagination to see life as others live it."

Moyers noted that it is not only the left which is seeing these dangers. He referred to an article in the Economist which states
A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap. The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society.
He also referred to the speech that he decided not to give us last night, which would have focused on media consolidation, but did capsulize his concerns about how the agenda of what is often decided to be news today is constrained to what the newsmakers will publicly say. But that's not really news. "News is what people want to keep hidden, everything else is publicity."

I cried a little bit on the night that Moyers bid us adieu on NOW, back on December 17, saying
I've learned from you not to claim too much for my craft, but not to claim too little, either. You keep reminding me that the quality of journalism and the quality of democracy go hand in hand. Or as a character says in one of Tom Stoppard's plays, "People do terrible things to each other, but it's worse in the places where everybody is kept in the dark."
Well, here I am trusting that more brave souls will come forward, and shine a light in the darkness as Moyers has done.

Thursday, 21 April 2005

Mischaracterizations of "the Left"

Rob Salkowitz wrote a very thought provoking piece last Friday over on Emphasis Added which initially made me bristle when it appeared he was recommending a repudiation of those on the left who have more radical or idealistic leanings. While I very much share Rob's disdain for those of any political persuasion who are so invested in a rigid way of seeing things that they cannot reason with those who disagree with him, I am very fond of many whose commitment to principles trump practical considerations, in instances where they view a practical compromise as tantamount to conceding their core ideals. Rob wrote:
...there are two distinct “Lefts” in America. One, which for better or worse should be considered the “true Left,” is the left by intention. These are the leftover socialists, the unconditional pacifists, the hardcore identity-politics groups, the eco-extremists, and the New Age “visualizers”.... To the extent that these folks had a moment in American political history, it was more than 35 years ago, and even then, their relevance was defined mostly in opposition than in actual achievements in government. For a brief, tragic moment in the early 70s, the Democratic party took these people seriously, and they’ve been paying the price ever since.
Whoa! Sure there are some fruitcakes among them, but this seemed rather harsh. Nonetheless, I couldn't deny an important kernel of truth in the point.

Rob goes on to distinguish the "other" left in America as what he calls the "Left By Default" or LBD.
The LBD define themselves as pragmatists, and self-identify as the “reality-based coalition.” Advocacy for particular positions and policies is rooted in analysis of issues, attempts to build coalitions and compromises, efforts to see value in opposing positions with the goal of reducing conflict and harmonizing good ideas. Because different groups and people have different modes of analysis and different preferences for outcomes, there is some disagreement over strategic objectives. However, there is broad agreement on the tactics of reason, compromise, learning from observation, and distrust of dogma.
While I was annoyed at such a simplistic division of the left into two groups, always aware of the uniqueness of each of us and the complexity of the fabric of "thought-space", again I could not deny the utility of Rob's way of looking at this. Especially with respect to the way that the Right in America has capitalized on vilification by association to the point that:
The Right, whatever its internal disagreements, has been unified and extremely successful in binding the two together in public perception, which has served the purpose of neutralizing effective reality-based criticism of the Right’s radical agenda. People who are not themselves right-wing ideologues nevertheless “know” (as a result of exposure to right wing propaganda) that anyone who doesn’t support Bush must be some kind of flag-burning, pot-smoking pacifist faggot – or at least, not sufficiently opposed to such as to be trustworthy. The success that the Right had in branding John Kerry, of all people, as some kind of left wing hippie, demonstrates the effectiveness of this tactic.

By the end of his post, Rob fully redeems himself with this summation:
The really complicated part for the opposition is that there often isn’t much policy disagreement between the True Left and the LBD. LBD does not necessarily mean centrist or DLC-style conservative: it simply means fact- and results-oriented, rather than ideologically motivated. Groups like MoveOn and ACT are fairly far to the left in their critique, but not because they are Marxists or eco-terrorists. They make a fact-based case for their positions and argue in terms of tradeoffs and benefits, priorities and costs: the language of serious policy discussions. People may not agree with them all the time, but it’s not correct to dismiss them as crazies in the same way as you can dismiss people who try to apply chaos theory or quantum physics to political debates, or root arguments in quotations from Engels and Lenin on the assumption that this adds indisputable legitimacy to their positions.

People have been talking about purges of far Left or too-far center people from the opposition coalition, but to the extent that that discussion is based on ideology, it’s not productive. What the [Right] has right is its ability to agree on tactics and approach, despite significant differences in ideology. They have banished the reality-based members of their coalition and have fused everyone else together under a banner of uncompromising extremism, regardless of the specifics of their issues. An effective opposition needs to do the opposite: unite those committed to a sensible, realistic approach to issues, regardless of their ideological positions, and draw sharp distinctions between our thoughtful and serious approach to the real problems of today, versus the simplistic, harmful and staggeringly incompetent methods of those now in power.
Now this is fairly consonant with what I've been chirping about since the inception of this web log, even though I continue to insist that preserving my values in the process is critical. But importantly my values are not lock-step adherence to some abstraction, but commitment to principles of justice, peace, fairness, and knowledge. Our most important allies in the coming years are going to be practical conservatives who recognize that more sensible policy can be accomplished in dialogue with sensible people who are more liberal, than can be had by working with the theocratic right-wing ideologues who have been instrumental in bringing Republicans to power. I full well expected that to happen sufficiently last year to depose Bush, but it remains a real possibility worth hoping for even now.

Wednesday, 20 April 2005

Overreaching & Striking Out on Levy Reform - Again

An attempt to remove the onerous super-majority requirement for passage of school levies in the state of Washington just died quietly without coming to a vote last Friday in the state Senate.

So just who was it in the Senate leadership that kept HJR 4205 from coming to the floor? Senator Rosemary McAuliffe had successfully gotten it through committee back on March 31. It was probably the same Senate leadership which had tried to get their own more aggressive version of the bill, SJR 8202, which would have applied to capital bond issues as well, through the Senate earlier in March.

Some background is in order here.

Local taxing districts are allowed to raise funds for certain aspects of public education via excess levies for maintenance & operation or technology or via bonds for capital improvements. (Teacher pay is funded statewide in order to enforce some degree of equity across school districts.)

Currently when such a levy is proposed, it must be approved by a 60% majority of voters in the district. Not only that, but in order to be validated there must be a voter turnout of at least 40% of the previous election. While there is a straightforward reason to think that votes should only require a majority, I am not entirely unsympathetic to reasoning that a bare majority of voters which includes many non-property owners passing a large tax hike in an unpublicized election might be subject to some abuse. The current law is illogical on three counts, however, and I've long wished we could at least remove the worst aspects of it.

First, tying the validation percentage to the previous election means that it is harder to pass these measures in years following highly publicized national elections than it is in off years. Any validation threshold should be independent of which year it falls in the election cycle.

Second, having the validation percentage represent the total vote rather than the yes vote leads to the illogical possibility that a levy might pass by an overwhelming margin, and yet fail because not enough OPPONENTS turned up to vote. Any such validation should require that the YES vote meet some percentage, so that it is never the best strategy for a NO voter to simply not vote.

Third, 60% is simply too onerous a requirement. That means that one vote short of half again as many yeses as noes results in a failing levy. In Washington it has not been uncommon in many districts for levies to fail in spite of garnering 58-59% of the vote. It's always seemed to me that those at 'victory' celebrations of NO campaigns which barely manage to get 40% of the people to vote against new taxes ought to feel pretty sheepish about their cheers.

Changing the supermajority and validation rules requires a change to the State Constitution which in turn requires a 2/3 vote in both legislative chambers, followed by passage of the Resolution by a statewide popular vote. In the 24 years that I've lived in this state, there have been numerous attempts to remove the supermajority requirement AND the validation requirement, but every such attempt has shot for the moon and come up empty. In fact the legislature has never been able to get any version of such a Resolution to the people for a vote since the statute requiring a 60% vote was first voted on by the people and put into the Constitution in 1944.

So while I'd be pretty happy with a more modest modification that required, say 54% majorities and a validation level of the YES votes representing 20% of the registered electorate, once again the reformers on this have overreached and left us with the status quo.

Admittedly there were some compromises suggested along the way that would have so eviscerated the effort to be almost as bad as nothing. One such failed amendment to both of the recent bills was to apply the simple majority requirement only to levies brought to vote in general, rather than special, elections. The idea with that, as with the stringent validation requirements, is to avoid "stealth" passage of levies by running special elections not broadly advertised except in the education community, in order to sneak them by the broader public. But for other reasons, special elections make sense, as there is less noise about all of the other issues distracting voters, and levy issues don't become surprise issues in the voting booth causing many to vote in ignorance, often in a gut reaction against raising taxes. Protection against stealth is warranted, but is best accomplished by requiring the YES vote to be some reasonable percentage of the registered electorate.

The fact is though, that the bill which never came to a vote in the Senate, though it breezed through the House, did not have a general election only provision (though an amendment would have surely been offered probably by either Hargrove or Sheldon - the conservative Democrats in the Senate), and the gutless leadership chose to let it time out, rather than risk a second defeat on the same issue in a single session.

Dan Steele, of the Washington State School Directors’ Association, told me that organization had lobbied the Senate NOT to bring their own more aggressive reform measure up, but rather wait on the House version so that the double defeat syndrome would not be a risk. The WSSDA offered their own summary of this issue seven years ago, and really the facts of that document have changed little since then.

This issue received some measure of attention in the media and the blogosphere back in early April, when the bill was in Senate committee, but it is only through the WSSDA that I learned time had expired, and the bill was dead. There was some disagreement between Columbian Watch and Horsesass on whether something is better than nothing on this, but I'm at a loss to understand the presumption that the Hargrove constraint to the general election would have passed, and I'm certain that leaving bonds out of the mix was a worthwhile compromise. Steele explained that in fact bonds, due to their long term nature, often require super-majorities for non-educational measures, whereas there are ways for localities to raise general property taxes for most other purposes (parks or jails or libraries for instance) which are not available for school levies which are always excess levies requiring a 60% yes vote. It's untenable to me that funding for schools should have a higher bar for passage than funding for libraries, parks, or jails.

Tuesday, 19 April 2005

Time to Get Local

This site was christened last May as a place for me to air my thoughts about national and global matters, and general political theory. But I live in a very particular locality, and while I'll always tend to seek a big picture perspective, it's high time I crawl out from under my global rock and wake up to things closer at hand. With that in mind, I've started paying more attention to Washington State's governance, where we have the opposite situation from that in D.C., with Democrats in control of both chambers of the legislature and (in a now famous squeaker) the governorship. We've had a Democratic governor now since 1992, but it's the first time in over eight years that there's been a majority in both houses.

Look soon for a post here on the recent failed attempt to do away with the super-majority requirement for local school levies to pass.

While doing my research on that, I've been becoming better acquainted with other Washington State bloggers, including many of those linked to by the Pacific NW Portal. Carl Ballard who provides us with the Washington State Political Report kindly linked to my linguistic profile post yesterday, more than doubling my usual traffic. Brian Moran (I think that's his name) gives us washblog, which has in its sidebars the most usable list of links to government, party (Greens & Dems), and media sites across the entirety of our state that I've ever seen. And then I stopped long enough at to discover the wonderful writing of David Goldstein, who I knew of heretofore only as the initiator of the "Tim Eyman is a horse's ass" initiative, which was killed before I had a chance to sign it. In fact it's a testament to the extent to which I've eschewed local issues here that this is the first mention Eyman has gotten on my blog. Along with Tom DeLay, Eyman is one character whose very name or image causes the blood vessels in my neck to bulge, and my face to redden.

Goldstein recently appeared to start a post as an afterthought to a reference to an article on Daily Kos, but really got rolling with one of the best indictments of the ascendency of the scary right in America that I've ever seen. Stick with it; it's worth the read!

Sunday, 17 April 2005

My Linguistic Profile

This is a neat idea, though I'd like one that was even more detailed. There were several questions in the survey where my answer was pretty much free variation, but I had to pick one. Perhaps I tended in those cases to pick what I hear the most NOW which is why my Dixie score wasn't higher. I wonder what's typical for 24 years in the Southeast followed by 24 years in the Northwest.

My Linguistic Profile:

60% General American English

20% Dixie

10% Yankee

5% Midwestern

5% Upper Midwestern

I just took it again, reversing all my choices where I thought I could go either way, and got 50-25-20-5-0. That's probably closer to what I expected - though I might have thought a little more Midwestern and a little less Yankee, being married to a Michigander.

Friday, 15 April 2005


The local contingent of Women in Black in my community have held vigil without fail every Friday evening since sometime before the beginning of the Iraq War.

Their silent dignity is testament to their steadfastness in witness to injustice and call for change. As my local bus passed them tonight, a couple of riders in front of me were commenting about their commitment to standing in the rain. "Whatever" I heard one say. "Bless them!" say I.

Thursday, 14 April 2005

Eliminate the "Death Tax", but ...

As Congress and the Republicans continue to shift the tax burden exclusively toward labor income and away from accumulated wealth [House bill passed] , [Senate bill pending], I find myself reflecting on the notion that some believe money which has been taxed once should be exempt from tax in the future. This is one prime argument against the estate tax, but one which I find phony.

On the other hand, there is something unseemly about the feds hovering over the estates of the dead, waiting to extract their portion before the remains are distributed to heirs. Indeed if a fabulously wealthy person wanted to leave the entirety of their estate to charities and the indigent, then I too would find it offensive for any portion to be taxed before being distributed according to the wishes of the deceased.

A few years ago, before I investigated this, I had always assumed that the estate tax was really an inheritance tax, which strikes me as the reasonable and fair way to collect from those who can afford to contribute their fair share toward our collective coffers. So put me on record as being opposed to the estate tax, BUT simultaneously in favor of instituting an inheritance tax with a MODEST exemption - something in the order of 15K to 50K, not the insane million dollars, which is currently the case.

I wondered why the feds taxed estates rather than inheritance to begin with, and found part of the answer here.
The Committee [in 1916] recommended an estate tax rather than an inheritance tax because many states already imposed inheritance taxes. It felt that the estate tax helped to form a well-balanced system of inheritance taxation between the Federal Government and the various states and that an estate tax could be readily administered with less conflict than a tax based upon inherited shares.
Ease of administration and balance with existing state taxes were the rationale in 1916, and I wonder if they remain legitimate issues today. It is easy to imagine concerns around ease of cheating for inheritors. I wonder if filing of documents with the IRS by an estate for each beneficiary inheriting over some threshold amount would be less onerous than the current paperwork associated with estate taxes.

To be sure, there are details and consequences which are well beyond my ability to fully apprehend, but the logic of taxing windfall inheritances seems fundamentally sound and fair to me. If one accepts the notion that government does have a role to play in providing for societal concerns that otherwise would not be attended to, then the necessity of a tax which calls on citizens to contribute to those functions as they are capable is clear. If income from labor contributes to such an ability, then certainly income from inheritance does as well, and I see no logic in exempting inheritances up to one million dollars. That the deceased paid taxes on his/her income during his/her lifetime, should have no bearing on whether the beneficiary is exempt from declaring inheritance as part of their income. In a healthy economy money moves all the time from salary to purchase to expenses to salary, etc. We don't exempt someone from payroll taxes because they were paid for by sales which had been taxed.

There is a legitimate concern about assets with a large value for which a tax could not be paid without liquidating the asset. For that I would suggest deferred taxation at the point of the sale of the asset. The gain would then be taxed, and the basis of an inherited asset would be zero plus any portion of the exempt portion of the inheritance applied toward that asset. The same would go for inherited stocks and bonds.

While I'm changing the tax code, ;-) here are some more:
  • Remove the cap on the Social Security tax while reducing the rate.
  • Exempt the first $500 of interest income.
  • Capital gains are simply income; tax at the normal rate - if anything tax gains from very briefly held securities at a higher rate.
  • Do away with the mortgage interest deduction (from which I benefit mightily). After all, aren't renters also paying this for their landlords - only in a disguised manner?
  • Do away with lots of other special deductions based primarily on the strength of some lobby.
  • Keep the deduction for charitable gifts, AND make it claimable on top of the standard deduction.
  • Remove the "marriage penalty".
  • Keep the deduction for state taxes paid, but only if not taking the standard deduction.
  • Adjust the tax rates, which would remain on a progressive sliding scale, to account for all of these changes and begin to close the deficit gap. (I'm guessing they would actually go down due to inheritance taxes, removal of deductions and special capital gains rates.)
So that's a lot of changes, and I don't claim to be able to anticipate all of the unintended consequences. Certainly studies would need to be done to anticipate the effects. But the current system is broken, clearly benefitting those with access to power at the expense of those without that access. It's hard to get people to take to the streets to affect tax code changes, but the Republicans have been able to mobilize on behalf of some bizarre constitutional amendments lately - surely we can do better. Probably not during this administration, but maybe someday.

One more thing: I just don't buy it that a national sales tax is the way to go, though the people at Fair make an interesting case for it, accompanied by a government 'rebate' to EVERYBODY to cover the cost of consumption taxes for the very poor. Ultimately, they're saying that our system of government is too corrupt for the changes that would spread the burden fairly to ever become law. They may be right, but we can keep working at it.