Thursday, March 24, 2011

Another War

I was accompanied by snow on my route these past few days. Monday's flakes were especially big, fat and sticky. I tried to enjoy them knowing that it could very well be the last of winter's white blanketing of our lawns and cars. Also, last weekend featured what the press was calling a "supermoon". While it was certainly full and looked rather large when low on the horizon, I didn't think it was as impressive as others I have witnessed since my recent purposeful awareness of my environs. Perhaps all the hype took away from the pleasure but the supermoon was not as spectacular as billed. For me, the best show was last Saturday's moonrise which I saw as I travelled with my son to bring him home for spring break.

As if we weren't engaged in enough military expressions, President Obama decided to join (some might say form), a coalition of western allies to attack Libya. Our old friend, Muammar Gadhafi has been killing his own people as they rise in protest of his authoritarian rule. Like the wave of freedom-seeking protesters that has swept across the Middle East these past few months, those in Libya are expressing their anger at decades of poverty and pain for the people while the comforts of oil money stay in so few hands. It is a scenario, with or without the oil connection, that is playing out in Egypt, Yemen, and Tunisia among others, and has implications for any eastern or western nation where the young have awakened to their plight.

While I understand that, in this case, the Libyan leadership was using more modern weapons at their disposal to quell the unrest than did some previous dictatorships, I have to wonder why we didn't intervene, militarily, on the side of any of the other citizen protesters. Perhaps because we dislike Gadhafi more than Mubarak in Egypt? Perhaps because there is oil in Libya but none in Tunisia? If the same type of protesting began tomorrow in an African country, would we call on the United Nations to intervene? If it happened in Saudi Arabia, would we create a no fly zone and shoot down the Saudi's American made planes?

I am glad that I am not in President Obama's shoes. I can only imagine the pressure he was under to "act" in support of the Libyan protesters or face the usual political pundits who would claim his hesitancy reflected a "deer in the headlights" reaction typical of his presidency, at best, an outright hatred of freedom at worst.

For me, I can't quite grasp how it is so easy for us to justify killing others in the name of freedom. And, even more baffling, how the winner in these conflicts is always in the right, as if they are divinely blessed. For all the millions of people who have been slaughtered throughout history by superior military forces, it must be difficult to swallow the realization that they were killed by the grace of someones god.

Perhaps this has been suggested already, so I don't want to assume I didn't hear it somewhere in passing, but it occurs to me that this wave of protest is a reflection, not of our military excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan, not a result of President Bush's drive to bring democracy to the world, not even because current President Obama has reached out to the Muslim world in a way that no previous president.

I think these protests, driven mostly by the young, are due to the power and pervasiveness of social media. Yes, it is Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey whom we should thank. In the last 20 years, their creations have spread the concepts of freedom and self determination, and the rights for all human beings to enjoy those freedoms more quickly than in the previous millennia of human existence.

So, perhaps rather than spending $850 billion on defense and the military, the United States should spend, lets say $10 or $20 or even $50 billion dollars instead towards supporting the continuation of the flow of information. Then we will have more than enough money for proper funding to fix the infrastructure of our country, and to maintain the many other domestic programs we cannot fund due to the incredible cost of waging war.

Yes, while we will have to put up with U-tube videos of stupid pet tricks and celebrities gone wild, we will also provide the millions of under 20's who reside in these suppressed countries the means to experience our freedoms. It is only a taste that they need, their youthful energy and vigor will provide the rest. After all, where previous totalitarian regimes always sought to repress newspaper, TV and radio, they now target Facebook and Twitter instead.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The NFL Labor Dispute

I have noticed more rabbits during my delivery route lately. They appear in my headlights and scurry this way and that both in the street and on front lawns, then disappear behind the safety of a bush or house or into a field. Of course, in the face of the (in comparison) huge monstrosity of the vehicle I drive, they must be terrified at my existence in their world. This morning I thought of the unfortunate occurrences taking place in Japan as I watched one particularly scared rabbit zip in and out of my vision. We have such grand opinions of ourselves, building great monuments into the sky, harnessing nature to power our lifestyle, and debating the will of the Creator as if we have a clue what the grand scheme really entails. Yet in the face of photos and videos of the devastation of a natural disaster such as has happened in Japan, we are off erred a glimpse of the power of nature. Unfortunately, the humbling that we feel is only short lived.

Which brings me to the ongoing labor dispute in the NFL. Generally, I lean toward the side of workers in most labor issues. To me, owners/business operators hold the vast majority of the cards so when a particular labor group can draw even or perhaps inch ahead, I feel it is a win for all workers. In this case, though, we are talking about millionaires fighting with fellow millionaires, and it leaves me cold. Regardless of who wins this fight, the loser will still be neck deep in money.

In reality, all football fans in particular, and sports fans in general are the losers here because no matter how is shakes out, the fan will foot the bill for someones increased revenue.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am a big sports fan. I follow all the professional sports teams of Philadelphia, and up until recently was able to attend a few Eagles games each year. So it is not easy for me to say that I hope there is no football season this year. I hope the two sides cannot come to an agreement to share the billions of dollars at stake, and decide the play chicken with the sport. I hope that their resistance to compromise (by the way, when did compromise become an indicator of weakness?), causes a complete cancellation of the 2011-12 football season.

More importantly, I hope that fans like myself come to realize that sports is just a diversion from life, not life itself. That we can enjoy our Sundays (and Monday nights, and sometimes Thursday nights, and, yes even Thanksgiving) without the sport. I hope that we find more time to spend with our families, more time to walk in the neighborhood or the local park. More time to read, listen to music or go to a movie. I hope we find that it is nice to watch a football game, but not necessary. Then, perhaps, when the labor dispute is settled, the embattled millionaires will realize that they need us more than we need them and sports will revert back to its proper priority in life.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Trickle Down

A devastating earthquake followed by a tsunami has created chaos in Japan this past few days. Getting overly excited about budget battles might seem trivial when compared to the loss of life and the still unresolved issues related to the nuclear reactors that have been negatively affected by nature's wrath. Perhaps a day will come when material possessions and the pursuit for them are prioritized appropriately by man. Perhaps it will take more acts of nature to help us along the way as it seems that despite our obsession with the material, disasters seem to bring out the best in us via humanitarian aid for the unfortunate. In the meantime, it might be helpful if we kept in mind that we should be working in concert with nature and not in competition.

This past week, Governor Corbett of Pennsylvania, proposed his 2011-12 budget. Going into the process, it was known that the governor was faced with the daunting task of balancing a budget with a $4 billion deficit, a task he made even more difficult by promising no tax hikes to close the gap.

The good news is that he was true to his word; no tax increases. The bad news is that he was true to his word. No new taxes but massive funding reductions, centered mostly in education and human services. He also plans employment terminations which will result in hundreds of public employee layoffs.

It appears that Governor Corbett has taken a page from the now 30-year old economic theory called trickle down. Originally, it was envisioned that this theory would create a rising standard of living for the middle class by allowing big business and those with the resources to proceed unencumbered; less regulation meant more free enterprise meant more money and opportunity for everyone. Unfortunately, the past 30 years has instead resulted in higher incomes for a very small percentage of Americans and a stagnation of the standard of living for working, middle class families.

Now, with governor Corbett's plan, the theory has come full circle. But in this case, the Governor's plan features the trickle down of the pain and suffering of sacrifice for the middle class. While state taxes may stay the same, local taxes will rise to cover the shortfall in funding, and/or jobs will be lost in many communities. Less jobs will mean less money to spend which means less goods and services being purchased which means less orders which means less need for employees. You get the picture.

Somewhere down the line, we, as taxpayers, will learn that voting for someone who pledges no new taxes will not necessarily result in no new taxes for the middle class. We never asked the governor elect how he was going to handle the $4 billion deficit so he never detailed his plan until elected. Now we get the details and are surprised that the tax burden will trickle down to the local level. That old saying, fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice (or over and over again) shame on me, comes to mind.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

More on the Budget

As the sunrise is coming earlier now, I am starting to see glimpses of it as I finish my weekday route. The last few days I was witness to a slight dawning of the light over a scenic view of Lenape park as I drove down Oak Street in preparation of making a left towards the library. Unfortunately, I will only be privy to this until Saturday as Daylight Savings Time begins Sunday morning and I will be thrust back into the dark for my weekday route for another few months.

I have spent some time reviewing various breakdowns (with accompanying opinions) of the proposed 2011 federal budget. The numbers are staggering but in a nutshell, there is about $2.5 trillion dollars expected in revenue with $3.8 trillion estimated for expenses. Quite a discrepancy!!

From what I can gather, slightly more than half of the revenue comes from income taxes, individual and corporate. Just under half comes from social security and other payroll taxes and the slight remainder (about $200 billion, or approx, 8%)comes from a small group of other sources.

Output is divided into discretionary (about 37%) and mandatory spending (the remaining 63%). In raw numbers, mandatory spending is $2.4 trillion. This means that we could have a budget surplus of about $100 billion if we only spent the money we had to and nothing else.

Unfortunately, the categories on the discretionary side of the ledger include the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Justice, State, Transportation, Treasury and Veterans Affairs, just to name a few. And, of course, the Department of Defense.

Clearly, the mandatory spending side of the issue needs to be addressed, and that includes Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid which account for $1.5 trillion. Until we see our elected representatives begin discussing these programs, all this "serious" talk about cutting funding for items like Planned Parenthood or the Corporation of Public Broadcasting is purely political bombast.

Think of it this way. Examination of your personal monthly budget reveals that after you pay your $1000 mortgage and $200 in utility bills, you have $60 left to eat and clothe yourself and family.

Serious problems need serious discussions. Too bad we aren't getting any, and shame on us for not demanding them.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Its about revenue, stupid

Last weekend I was treated to a pretty pink and purple sunrise.

This past week, Monday I think, there was a moon rise very early in the AM. The moon was just a sliver and during the 15 minutes when it was low on the horizon, it was perched in the sky nearby a large point of light, probably a planet. The juxtaposition of the two was like something you would see on a SciFi movie about a far away world.

I have heard many a deficit hawk claim that our current budget deficit woes are about spending, spending, spending. Rep Ryan has emerged as one of the leading voices in this area and he has been quoted more than once as saying something to the effect that tax revenues are fine, it is the "out-of-control" spending that has created the fiscal mess we are in.


I googled federal tax receipts and found that tax receipts for fiscal year 2009 (many Obama blamers forget that the federal budget runs from September through August so the 2009 budget was President Bush's last) were about the same as those for 2005. Clearly, the recession was in full bloom causing a backslide of tax receipts which was not matched by a similar reduction in spending. In retrospect, it is easy to see how devastating such a reduction would be and realize that very little could have been done to prevent it. (The 2009 deficit was $1.4 tillion by the way). What President Bush started - a federal plan to bolster the economy via the TARP program, various bailouts for the automakers and Wall Street - President Obama continued via more bailouts for troubled industries and the stimulus program. As a result, the 2010 federal budget, still saddled with 2005 level receipts, saw an increase in spending over 2009 to create another $1.5 trillion deficit for the year.


Clearly, we need to work towards bringing receipts and spending more in line. But to ignore the fact that tax receipts were reduced $400 billion from 2008 to 2009 (almost 20% less) ignores half of the budget deficit issue. Also, and it is certainly debatable, there are many economists who would say that the bailouts and additional spending that occurred in 2009 and 2010 prevented an even more severe recession. Again, it is hard to know what would have happened, but it is certainly conceivable that the current state of recovery would not be as far along as it is without the increased spending.

I have heard it said that President Reagan won the cold war by outspending the Soviet Union. A look at the federal budget numbers for his eight years in office reveal that there was a strain on our federal budget as well resulting in yearly federal budget deficits as well as a doubling of our national debt. If we assume it was money well spent then, why aren't we as willing to assume the current deficit spending is also worth while if it avoided a deeper recession?

Sometime soon, taxes will rise. History is clear; President Reagan's deficit spending spree resulted in higher taxes during his 2nd term and during that of the first President Bush. Rather than starting now, Congress and President Obams recently chose to extend the Bush era tax cuts, thereby increasing the deficit even more. Again, the idea is to get more money into the hands of the populace but the fact is, the debt will increase.

Lets reduce spending. But lets recognize that a deficit is the normal result of a recession. And lets also remember that how we reduce federal spending will reveal our priorities. We applaud the deficit spending which contributed to the decline of the Soviet nation. Will we be as eager to continue deficit spending if it helps fellow Americans stay in their homes, secure access to medical services, obtain medical coverage, afford higher education and place food on their tables?