Saturday, October 21, 2017

Saving Our Democracy

Early this month a group of America’s top political scientists gathered at Yale University to answer to discuss whether or not American democracy in decline and should we be worried? The near unanimous conclusion was: American democracy is eroding on multiple fronts — socially, culturally, and economically.

Breakdowns in social cohesion, the rise of tribalism, the erosion of democratic norms such as a commitment to rule of law, and a loss of faith in the electoral and economic systems as clear signs of democratic erosion are the symptoms these students of politics offered as support for their conclusions.

While none of the scholars claim we’re near collapse they did say we need to work hard to solve America’s many problems soon. America’s institutions are where democracy has proven most resilient according to the researchers. For now, our system of checks and balances is working: the courts are checking the executive branch, the press remains free, and Congress is generally fulfilling its role as an equal branch.

According to Nancy Bermeo, a politics professor at Princeton and Harvard, democracies don’t merely collapse, as that “implies a process devoid of will.” Democracies die because of deliberate decisions made by human beings.

Most often, the people in power become disconnected from their fellow citizens, seeing themselves as a class unto themselves. They develop promote and pass policies that benefit themselves and their benefactors to the detriment of the rest of society. Over time the citizenry becomes angry and divided tearing society apart.

In the past when this has occurred in the United States we’ve managed to elect leaders who pulled us back from the brink using what you might call class compromise. Teddy Roosevelt became known for trust busting, breaking up monopolies that enriched the few at the cost of the many. His nephew Franklin Delano Roosevelt later was considered a traitor to his class as the wealthy patrician instituted policies and rules that cut into the profits of his wealthy peers in order to recover from the economic collapse caused by financial speculation.

Democracy takes a lot of work much like a marriage; both parties must make an effort to be fair and faithful. I’m not talking about the government or the political parties; I’m referring to the electorate, the citizens. When things were going reasonably well many in this country felt comfortable disengaging from our government forgot the importance of participation and engagement. Today the United States is among the industrialized nations with the lowest average voter turnout. In 2016 Texas was 46th lowest turnout in the nation at 55%. Some parts of Seguin were in the 30% range.

Civic engagement is critical to maintaining our democracy and it starts with little things like knowing who your city councilmember is and how to contact them. We should all remember that local and state government are actually more influential to most people’s daily lives than the president or congress because they make the rules we live by every day.

Political theorists refer to the “social compact,” an implicit agreement among members of society to participate in a system that benefits everyone. Such an agreement only succeeds when we the people demand that our leaders act in our interests and not those of the wealthy donor class.

We must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions; sometimes it just takes phone calls from enough constituents to get their attention. In other cases it’s at the ballot box. Neither of those things will happen with a disengaged electorate which doesn’t even bother to stay informed about what their elected officials are doing.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Comparing Democrat and Republican Tax and Budget Proposals

Congressional Republicans have released some of the details of their proposed rewrite of the federal tax code, and the Texas Association of Realtors responded with a study showing the vast majority of homeowners in this state would pay more taxes if the current proposals are passed into law. The realtors’ study also shows the Republican plan would cost Texas more than 22,000 jobs and $3.4 billion in economic activity, mostly due to the distribution of tax breaks being weighted to the top 5%.

Republicans are also promoting a budget that cuts Medicaid by $110 billion a year. Remember that a substantial fraction of Medicaid covers costs for about two thirds of nursing home residents. That means many of us could end up with our aging and ill parents and in-laws living with us. Are you ready for that?

In addition to those cuts the Republican proposal calls for $47 billion a year in Medicare cuts and raising the eligibility age from 65 to 67. While the proposal doesn’t say exactly how those cuts will manifest themselves they are guaranteed to come out of the pockets of retirees who depend on it for their healthcare. As to raising the eligibility age well that just means higher private insurance costs and industry profits as those of use reaching that again see our premiums rising rate of illness with age. Employer based insurance coverage will also cost more small companies with older employees.

These proposals haven’t gone unchallenged, Democrats in Congress have offered “The People’s Budget”. Where Republicans would cut the healthcare for seniors and reduce the number of people eligible for Medicare/Medicaid Democrats would expand Medicare by offering the Public Option which would allow every American to buy their insurance from Medicare if they can’t find a better deal on the private insurance market.

The Democrats proposed budget permits the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to negotiate cheaper drug prices with pharmaceutical companies. This will significantly lower the price of prescription drugs for seniors and save Medicare $429 billion. The People’s Budget also combats monopolies held by drug companies and the use of patent settlements to block generic drug competition for a growing number of branded drugs. The People’s Budget ensures Americans have access to affordable prescription drugs.

The Democrats proposal would eliminate the preference for investment income over labor income which allows a hedge fund manager to earn the same amount as salaried employee and yet allow them to pay a lower tax rate. Currently, the tax code gives preferential treatment to income from investments, long-term capital gains, and qualified dividends. The People's Budget ensures the rich pay their fair share by creating new tax brackets for millionaires and billionaires. It preserves existing marginal tax rates for middle-class families while restoring Clinton-era tax rates on annual incomes above $250,000. For annual incomes above $1 million, it would adopt new progressive tax rates topping out at 49% for $1 billion and over.

While the Republican budget cuts billions from public education spending The People's Budget provides universal access to quality pre-k programs, which will expand social mobility by helping low-income and at-risk students read and write at the same rates as their peers. It would also provide $41 billion a year to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities.

Even with the cuts proposed by congressional Republicans their budget would increase the deficit $200 billion each year because they also increase tax breaks for big corporations and the 400 or so wealthiest families in the nation. This is the era of Borrow and Spend Republicans.

Friday, October 6, 2017

John Kuempel Touts Distractions From Real Issues

Recently our state representative John Kuempel mailed out a flyer touting he presumably considers accomplishments from the recently completed 2017 legislative session. In this piece of tax payer funded propaganda Kuempel expounds on the value of SB 263 which substantially lowers the cost of handgun license as assisting lower income folks in their quest to take advantage of their Second Amendment rights. I won’t argue the meaning of the Second Amendment or its value in a modern society. Instead I would ask if reducing the fee by over $100 leaves other tax payers subsidizing the cost of administering the licensing program? If it doesn’t, then why were we being gouged by the state in the first place?

On “Election Integrity” Kuempel claims that the smattering of marginal issues addressed in several house ethics related bills is somehow meaningful reform. In reality one of the bills he touts, SB 5 which is another attempt by the legislature to pass a voter ID bill was immediately challenged in court where U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos found it was passed with discriminatory intent and is therefore invalid. The legislature made no attempt to deal with redistricting even though both the state House map and the Congressional district maps have both been found to have been drawn with discriminatory intent. There was a bill filed which would have taken the entire redistricting process out of the hands of the state legislature and put in the hands of every day people but Republicans couldn’t even be bothered to give it a hearing.

Public Education has been considered a top priority of the state since it was enshrined in the state constitution in 1845. Once again Kuempel and his Republican colleagues gave it short shrift. Admittedly they did right by shoring up the retired teachers’ health care plan known as TRS Care but the pittance the provided for educating our precious children barely covers the increase in enrollment across the state. Once again many districts across the state will fund their public schools on the back of property taxes. The problem is that no all districts have the same average taxable real estate values so kids in low taxable value districts don’t get the best teachers or facilities.

Kuempel’s pro-birth stance belies the fact that the legislature placed an undue burden on women whose pregnancies fail by forcing them to pay for burial or cremation services instead of disposing of the remains the same way as an amputated foot or arm. The same bill no forces women to purchase separate coverage for abortions that were once covered by their regular health plans. Regardless of how you feel about abortions most Americans understand that there are some medical circumstances involving either the health of the mother or the viability of the fetus where the only safe thing to do is to abort and now those mothers who haven’t recognized the need for a separate policy will be forced to pay for the procedure out of pocket.

All the purported advances in Kuempel’s missive simply distract from his failure to actually do something to improve the lives of his constituents or in some cases made them worse off. Texan’s whose homes suffered damage in the recent hurricane and haven’t filed a claim with their insurer yet lose some of their rights to compensation due to legislation he voted for. Texas has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and no substantive action was taken to address it. I don’t think John Kuempel has much to be proud of, do you?

Published in the Seguin Gazette, September 29, 2017

Friday, September 29, 2017

It's Not About Healthcare, It's About Campaign Contributions

Once again the Republican Party is leading the charge to take away access to health care from 30 million or so Americans. The leadership is attempting to rush the bill through with minimum scrutiny in order to meet a September 30 deadline for acting with only Republican votes.

When eight months and countless hours of hearings in multiple committees in both the House and Senate had been held prior to the vote on the Affordable Care Act Republicans screamed that the bill was being voted on before anyone knew what was contained in it. Now that Republicans control congress their efforts to take away health care from tens of millions of Americans, 11 million of whom are so poor they qualify for Medicaid, there will be only one hearing and it will be in the Homeland Security Committee which has never held a hearing on healthcare or much of anything else that isn’t about security from terrorism. There will be no witnesses testifying other than the senators who developed the legislation, so no one will hear from health policy experts or the people who will be affected. Make no mistake about it, this is a backroom deal and the goal is to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires who don’t need or deserve those breaks.

Unlike Texas, about half the states accepted federal funds and expanded Medicaid. Some of those states are represented by Republican Senators that have already stated that they will vote to take away that funding. Just eliminating Medicaid expansion means 11 million Americans will lose their healthcare. Sure they can still go to an emergency room when they’re really sick or injured but that treatment only covers stopping them from dying right then it doesn’t cover prescription anti-biotics or blood pressure medicine and it doesn’t cover follow up care to insure that a wound hasn’t become infected.

Even Republican governors like John Kasich of Ohio and Bill Walker of Alaska oppose the repeal because they know that doing so will hurt their constituents. Walker is seen as key to getting the bill passed this time as he’s believed to have influence over Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of the three Republicans to vote no last time.

You’d think that at least some Republican Senators might shy away from voting for something that will hurt their constituents so severely but what you don’t know is that a network of wealthy donors has made repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the tax breaks that depend on it a condition of them providing $300 million to $400 million for the 2018 election cycle. In other words no tax breaks, no campaign donations. If Congress fails to repeal the network, led by the Koch brothers, will likely spend much of those funds on primary challengers and make an example of those Republicans who stood in the way.

That’s the problem with our campaign finance system; it’s obvious that these wealthy donors expect to get what they want for their money and just as obvious that our elected leaders are willing to give it to them but it isn’t illegal, even though it is antithetical to a healthy democracy.

 Published in the Seguin Gazette September 22, 2017

Friday, September 22, 2017

What hurricanes and cyber crime have in common

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have devastated huge swaths of the coastal United States damaging homes, businesses and public facilities including roads, water treatment plants and power systems. There have been pleas for donations of food, clothing, water and personal hygiene products. Thousands of first responders, power company employees and civilians have rushed in to save lives. Even Washington in a surprise move got its act together and responded promptly with federal funds to support the recovery effort.

All of that has been big news, including the explosion and fire at the Arkema chemical plant outside Houston which sickened first responders when the toxic fumes from a fire blew over them. Knowing what chemicals are stored at a site which is at risk of fire, flood or other catastrophic event is important for a number of reasons. If you know what might explode or catch fire you can take the precautions necessary to protect your life and health such as wear a gas mask or respirator, wear hazmat gear or increase the distance between the material and you and the people you’re protecting. Then in the aftermath when you’re trying to clean up the mess it’s important to know what chemicals may have contaminated the soil and water. If you’re a fan of CSI or a medical show based in an emergency room you probably know that it’s a lot easier and faster to find a toxin in someone’s blood if you already have an idea of what you’re looking for. Now imagine you’re in the Houston refinery and chemical plant corridor. Wouldn’t you want to know what chemicals you’re likely to find?

What you may not know is that Arkema and other similar chemical plant operators have successfully lobbied to be relieved of their responsibility identify the chemicals stored at their facilities. They spent a few hundred thousands of dollars and stand to save millions. The risk of their failure to disclose can be measured by the damage to the health of the first responders charged with keeping people in the area surrounding their facility safe and the contamination that the public will be contending with for years to come. There is so much toxic material in the flood waters that people are being told not to even try to recover their clothes from flooded homes as the toxins can’t just be washed out.

The hurricanes are the only big news affecting millions of people though, credit reporting company Equifax just announced that due to a security breach 143 million Americans are now in danger of having their identities stolen. How is this connected to the disastrous hurricanes and the undue influence of money in politics discussed in the paragraphs above you might ask? It turns out that Equifax along with the other big credit reporting firms are lobbying congress to prevent the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau’s regulations on forced arbitration from taking effect later this year. Why is that important? It’s important because Equifax states on their webpage where you’re supposed to go to find out if your social security number and other identifying information was stolen has a small print item which says that by checking on your information you are accepting their claim that you can’t sue them and must use arbitration to get restitution. In other words if you ask them if they failed in their duty to protect your information you have absolved them of responsibility for their failure.

These are just two examples this week of the power of money to influence regulations meant to protect Americans. Why do we allow this to continue?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Rescinding DACA isn't the Christian thing to do

When President Obama signed the executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), he said up front that it was a temporary measure designed to give Congress time to act on comprehensive immigration reform. He and most Americans believed it was in the nation’s interest and part of our character to not penalize young people for the actions of their parents. The people eligible for DACA, had to have been brought to this country so young that they had no choice in the matter. They had to be currently in school, have graduated from high school, obtained a GED, or have been honorably discharged from the Coast Guard or armed forces. Not only that but, they couldn’t have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor, or more than three misdemeanors of any kind; nor pose a threat to national security or public safety. In other words they had to be educated upstanding individuals, the kinds of people we all want in our community and working with us.

Sadly, the Republican controlled congress never got its act together due to their obsession with insuring that President Obama failed. While Obama was re-elected and had a moderately successful presidency despite Republican obstruction congress failed to govern and couldn’t manage to pass an Immigration Reform bill of any kind, even one that Obama would have vetoed.

Now Trump, the darling of many evangelical Christians, seems to be acting more like an Old Testament believer than the Christian he claims to be by visiting “the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34). Whatever you think about people who have overstayed their visas or illegally crossed the border how can any merciful, loving person punish the children of those people? We’re talking about kids who brought here at the average age of six who know no other home, no other culture, and often have no other family. Many of them are now parents in their own right, with babies who are citizens of the United States by birth.

I regard this action as Trump’s spiteful rage over his failure to get his border will approved and built. Regardless of that Trump has put the onus of passing legislation on congress. Speaker Paul Ryan claims “It is my hope that the House and Senate, with the president’s leadership, will be able to find consensus on a permanent legislative solution…”  Well, if he’d bother to look at legislation that’s already been filed he’d know that there already is a permanent legislative solution called the DREAM Act, which is a bi-partisan bill now co-sponsored by both of Colorado's U.S. Senators, Democrat Michael Bennet and Republican Cory Gardner.

If Republicans really want to govern they’ll come together or this bill or some other proposal in time for it to be signed before Trump’s six month delay in DACA termination expires. I frankly don’t hold out much hope given that as much as I’m glad they failed this same pathetic leadership couldn’t pass a health care reform bill even though it was touted as their number one priority.

I for one, will be doing what I can to put pressure on recalcitrant legislators in an effort to insure that they offer the mercy and justice that I learned Christianity meant from Sister Agnes and Brother John Fairfax. I hope you will too.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Upcoming Republican Tax Break Giveaway Spree

This coming Tuesday Congress will go back to work and the top item on the agenda, according to House Speaker Paul Ryan, is tax breaks for billionaires. Of course, he doesn’t call it that but nevertheless that’s what it amounts to. Oh sure, there’s talk of cutting out loopholes but the biggest ones they’re talking about are the breaks that many of us take advantage of such as the mortgage interest deduction and the one on taxes we pay to states and cities in the form of sales tax.

On top of that the size of the tax breaks the Trump, Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are talking about can’t be made up just by closing loopholes. If they can manage to agree on a bill that resembles anything like what’s been proposed and Trump signs it we could be looking at adding another $1.2 trillion in debt each year. It should come as no surprise that it would also break a Trump campaign promise.

Back in September 2015, Trump made this pledge to the American people regarding his tax plan: "It reduces or eliminates most of the deductions and loopholes available to special interests and to the very rich. In other words, it's going to cost me a fortune -- which is actually true -- while preserving charitable giving and mortgage interest deductions, very importantly." As I’ve already mentioned the mortgage interest deduction is already on the chopping block. Another proposed change to the tax code that many don’t understand involves what are called pass through businesses like sole-proprietorships and closely held partnerships. Trump’s proposal would drop the tax rate from 35% to t 15%. Since many of Trump’s real estate ventures are sole proprietorships and closely held partnerships he and his children stand to get huge tax breaks. Given Trump’s penchant for bald-faced lies breaking his campaign pledge comes as no surprise.

Then there’s the Republican bogeyman called the Estate Tax, which doesn’t kick in until the estate is worth well over $5 million. Trump and Ryan want to eliminate it entirely even though it only affects 5200 estates of the very wealthiest Americans. Since that tax rate on qualifying estates is 40% of the amount over $5 million, and assuming he’s telling the truth about his net worth, Trump’s kids stand to save $7 BILLION in taxes.

The triumvirate of Trump, Ryan and McConnell are working hard to make the investments that the oligarchs of this country made in their elections payoff. In fact that’s really what the effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act is really all about. Part of that legislation implements a 3.8% capital gains tax to pay for healthcare.

With such huge tax giveaways there aren’t enough places to raise taxes by cutting other breaks so the most likely plan is to cut benefits just like Gov. Sam Brownback did in Kansas. His efforts to implement Republican low tax ideology wrecked the Kansas economy after six years and made him the least popular governor in the country until fellow Republican Chris Christie overtook him. Recently the Republican controlled legislature in Kansas recognized that trickle down economics doesn’t work and has reversed some of Brownback’s deepest cuts.

 If there is any hope of saving the economy of the entire country Democrats and non-crazy Republicans must stop the Trump/Ryan tax proposals in their tracks.

Published in the Seguin Gazette - September 1, 2017