Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Ground Zero Mosque"

I’ve been reluctant to comment in writing about the “Ground Zero Mosque” because enough had been said, leaving little to add. Anyone paying attention would know by now that the proposed site is two blocks from a corner of Ground Zero in an area that is now filled with strip joints and tattoo parlors. Calling it a mosque rather than a community center is analogous to referring a Knights of Columbus hall as a Catholic church.

The legality of the project is confirmed by the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion. For that reason alone I come down on the side of its being built without further ado. Parenthetically it is my understanding that freedom from religion is also assured. In this context a strong argument can be made against government financing religious endeavors, which is done through tax exemption. I see no reason why religion shouldn’t be privatized like other businesses. As to those who object to the project on principle, my opinion is that they are motivated by political/financial gain, bigotry, mean spirit, ignorance or a combination of the above.

However my conclusion comes with some ambivalence. I wonder how much thought the imam and his people gave to the likely consequences of the project. This is a diverse country in which those predictably opposed to the project, not famous as silent sufferers, would make their Pavlovian responses heard. The folks who run the media know a good thing when they see it. Much of the ill will engendered by this undertaking is not covered by the Constitution. When I changed beers after hearing my brand advertised on a Rush Limbaugh show I wasn’t violating his right to free speech.

In addition to being a distraction from things that matter more, the wide coverage of this controversy figures to boost Al Qaeda recruitment. The argument can be made that churches are verboten in Saudi Arabia. But that country doesn’t have freedom of religion etched in stone in its most venerable laws. Quite the opposite! Osama bin Laden couldn’t have planned it better.

I have no reason to impugn the motives of the people who started this project. But I see the results of their action as hurting the country, and wish it had never been started. Since it has, it should be allowed to proceed. It must if we want the think of ourselves as a nation of laws.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mom and Pop

In light of the major specifics on which both political parties are diametrically opposed, there is surprising agreement on generalities. Both parties unabashedly claim to be against corruption and in favor of prosperity, although in the latter case Republicans might settle for a little less as long as this man is president. Even their proclaimed priorities aren’t that different. Republicans trumpet concern for “small business” while Democrats hail the “middle class.” The interests of these two are fairly compatible. After all where did the figurative “Mom and Pop” come from? The problem lies in the definitions.

The division comes into sharp focus in the debate on extending Bush tax cuts, in which numbers are needed to define broad terms like small business and middle class. Democrats favor extension, but only on lower incomes, couples earning less than $250 thousand and individuals under $200 thousand. Republicans want to keep tax cuts on higher incomes as well.

The GOP argument raises questions about the line between small and big business. In the case of Mom and Pop we’re talking about businesses earning $250 thousand or more in taxable income which, with the help of deductibles, leaves room for a bit of mad money. To help make the GOP case let’s give our couple a healthy 10% return making their total investment $2.5 million. If the return were only 5%, that would make the value $5 million.

Granted, by some standards this might be considered small business, although in that case I’d be curious where a business becomes “big.” The claim made by the GOP that a marginal increase of 5% would discourage further investment is open to question. Putting in another half mil would produce another$50 thousand income which would increase taxes by a meager $2,500 only on income from the additional fifty Gs. If I was Pop, Mom would be getting a lot of pressure to go for it.

Democrats are correct in claiming that their plan would help the middle class. But they seriously understate the case. On one end it might be hard to think of $250 thousand annual income as middle class. Members of Congress are paid $175 thousand. But the other end is where the requisite deception begins. After deductions all incomes are taxed, albeit at lower rates. This includes people with incomes below the poverty level which covers, dare I say it, the poor. If there’s one thing the “vast” middle class resents it’s the thought that their taxes may be used to help the poor. This harp was played with virtuosity by Republicans in sweeping both Houses in l994 so the word has been scrupulously avoided by Democrats since. “Middle class” will do nicely.

Shocked as I am it is evident that both political parties are lying, one of them through their teeth.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Feigned Ignorance

Not everyone who read my last letter about the “feigned” ignorance of Eisenhower and Sarah Palin realized it was written tongue in cheek. So I want to make a heartfelt apology to Ms Palin for having suggested, even in jest, that her ignorance is not genuine. As president, Ike had occasional reason to fake it. Sarah doesn’t need to because she’s a natural.

Sarah’s assortment of non sequiturs is reminiscent of Gracie Allen. Much of Gracie’s “ignorance” was written for her, making her literally a comic actress. Sarah’s written speeches plus whatever she can write on her hand, are just run of the mill doctrinaire. It’s when she has nothing to read and has to wing it that the fun begins. The following, quoted in Newsweek, says it all. “Oil and coal?  Of course, it’s a fungible commodity and they don’t flag, you know, the molecules, where it’s going and where it’s not….So, I believe that what Congress is going to do also, is not to allow the export bans to such a degree that it’s Americans who get stuck to holding the bag without the energy source that is produced here, pumped here.” Few if any speech writers are capable of this kind of prose. Gracie’s was a stage persona while Sarah is all method acting.

From the preceding verbal meandering it might be hard to tell on which side of the fence she sits. One look at the audience at her rallies leaves no doubt. They are on the older side and very, very white. To her credit, in talking to reporters she has managed to memorize key words to many right wing talking points, not always relevant to the subject in question. I see a rough similarity to dolls that “speak” words when a string is pulled.

Now that Sarah’s vice presidential flirtation is behind her and the imminent threat has been removed, she is just what the doctor ordered, comic relief for a nation in distress. This may be a case of sending in the clowns. Circus audiences were once a slice of Americana and I’m for whatever might work. So I want to thank her for giving us laughs at a time when we need them. And lest we forget, a hearty note of appreciation to John McCain for abandoning her on our doorstep.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Ignorance and Bliss

A TV retrospective on the Eisenhower years told of an exchange between Ike and his Press Secretary James Haggerty. When asked about his planned response at a scheduled presidential press conference to the threat of an invasion of Taiwan by Mainland China, Ike said not to worry, that he would “confuse them.” And confuse them he did.

His response to the expected question was sufficiently incoherent to compete with any Bush dissertations, George Senior that is. Junior’s classics were brief, often one word. He seemed unused to speaking, and maybe even thinking, in long sentences.

Many people listening to Ike’s response might have considered him uninformed. But since his career had been the military this simply wasn’t the case. Unlike Douglas MacArthur a few years earlier, he realized that China’s intentions were inscrutable. Knowing he had no proper answer he got by with feigned ignorance.

The Straits of Formosa have been peaceful since so his response evidently served its purpose. An unequivocal answer might have aggravated the situation. This shows that there are times when appearing dumb can be an asset. By now you may have figured where this is going. Yes, I am thinking of the Belle of the Yukon. (I know the Yukon is in Canada, not Alaska. But the phrase has a nice ring to it and what the hell, north is north)

If knowledge can be camouflaged by apparent ignorance we may be overlooking the bright side of a possible Sarah Palin presidency. If the expertise she’s hiding is proportional to the ignorance she uses to hide it, this has to a milestone in the history of political rope a dope. Newsweek’s Jacob Weisberg has described her ramblings as “Fox News without punctuation.” I wish I’d a said that!

My guess is that we will continue “misunderestimating” this woman because I don’t expect her to run for president in 2012, at least not in a serious way. I don’t think she wants to be president. There’s too much work involved which would take too much time from what she likes best which is being herself, Aimee Semple McPalin.*

*Aimee Semple McPherson was a famous evangelist in the first half of the 20th Century. For those interested there’s plenty about her on the internet.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Price is Right

While I’m of the impression that most people receiving these letters agree with most of what’s in them, here’s an opinion that should be an exception. I believe Congressional salaries should be raised. A majority on both ends of the political spectrum probably think otherwise, more so the political right because it’s currently a nominal minority in both Houses.

I first got this notion from a book by Tip O’Neill. As respected as the former House Speaker was, any argument involving the arguer’s well being should be taken with a grain of salt. But his reasoning did make sense as far as it went. He wrote that as his party’s leader in the House of Representatives it was his job to recruit candidates to run for Congress. Many qualified people were reluctant to leave jobs that paid considerably more than they could make in Congress if they were elected.

Congressional salary of $175 thousand may seem like a lot of money to most of us and the fringe benefits are considerable. But to many people earning something in the vicinity of seven figures or more, this is insufficient income to build the nest egg that people of that earning capacity have in mind. This income doesn’t even qualify for the top tax bracket.

The difficulties in recruitment encountered by Mr. O’Neill are part of a larger picture. In offering only upper middle class salaries for some of the nation’s most important jobs, the aphorism “you get what you pay for” comes into play. In addition to eliminating many of the most qualified, the pool from which these legislators come is expanded to include people of lesser ability, integrity or both. Along with the opportunity to in effect sell one’s vote, albeit at a seriously discounted price, this is a recipe for disaster.

There are exceptions of course. The deserved disapproval of Congress is not a fair reflection of all 535 members of the two Houses. It has been shown recently and repeatedly that it doesn’t take a majority to gum up legislative machinery and it doesn’t require close scrutiny to learn who is doing the gumming. A modicum of reason and knowledge will do. Unfortunately many of our most vocal citizens are lacking these qualities and voters seem on the verge of rewarding the gummers.

It’s hard to make the case for rewarding bad performance. But we can see where the status quo has put us. Congress, our national legislature, is not close to working as well as it should. In light of the circumstances under which its members are admitted, it is working as well as it can.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

14th Amendment

Constitutional Amendments are a frequent and relevant subject of political discourse. The Fourteenth, granting automatic citizenship to all people born in the United States, is now front and center. In response to those clamoring for more restriction on immigration, leading Republicans are threatening to revoke it.

While I disagree with their conclusion, I concede their point. On one hand it’s hard to impugn the motive of an expectant Mexican mother going to great length to make her child an American citizen. But it’s at least plausible, if not probable, that this was not the intent of the people who wrote this amendment. As an aside I suspect that the “Founding Fathers,” commonly spoken of as being of one mind, didn’t see eye to eye on everything they signed. The conflicting interests of thirteen colonies had to be reconciled so the results had to have reflected compromise, an element once present in Congress by both parties.

There’s no questioning the wording of the 14th Amendment on this subject and I’ve yet to hear a threat of judicial appeal. To repeal or even modify a Constitutional Amendment, another must be enacted. The Twenty first Amendment repealing prohibition was necessary to nullify the Eighteenth that established it. So we’re talking about revising the Constitution, a process considerably more cumbersome than an Act of Congress. In the late 1970s the E.R.A Amendment passed both Houses, but failed to win ratification by the required number of state legislatures.  

Because of its inherent difficulties, passing a Constitutional Amendment requires a fairly broad consensus. We’ve only had twenty seven, the most recent being in 1992. In effect it deferred any pay raise Congress might vote itself until the next Congress convened. The law that required this change was hardly a high point in the legacy of those who wrote it.  Even the Founding Fathers were human. To their credit, attempts at correcting this oversight began in 1789 and came to fruition two hundred and three years later. As I said, this is a cumbersome process. The next to last Amendment in 1972 lowered the voting age to eighteen. With draftees of this age dying in Vietnam, passage was both easy and sensible.

Many of the current crop of enthusiasts want to make repeal retroactive by stripping citizenship from those who have come by it in this manner, further evidence of the  emptiness of these threats. The noise being made by GOP bigwigs is purely a symbolic attempt to strengthen a base less in need of enthusiasm than reason. As an indicator of things to come, I’d put it on a level with those three cornered hats. 

Monday, August 2, 2010

Oh Rochester

An overlooked item in last week’s news is that the tea party, by setting up offices in a state, has become the Tea Party. Now we know to capitalize those two letters. Punctuation aside, I consider April 15, 2009 the real birth of the movement. That was when a bunch of people staged a nationwide protest over taxes due that day. These taxes were, in a way not yet specified, more objectionable than taxes they’d paid at the same rate the previous year when Bush was president.

The organization took its name from Boston Tea Party, a colonist protest against a British tax on tea. The original event required strapping men to throw heavy barrels of tea into Boston Harbor at the risk of being killed by the British. This defiant spirit is being renewed by little old ladies with tea bags tied to their bonnets. Could the original tea baggers have had a Woman’s Auxiliary? 

I can’t begin to describe these people. Ok I can at least begin. My guess is a sizeable portion consists of inveterate Republicans who don’t like losing the presidency and are still fighting the War of 2008. Many of them particularly dislike losing it to someone like him. I’m not sure what they’re for, but one thing they’re all against is government. When one considers that many of them are against legalized abortion, and consequently for government enforcement of its prohibition, the situation gets a bit fuzzy. As I said I can only begin to describe them.

The time has come when they have become less a subject of humor than a source for concern. Advocates from extreme ends of the political spectrum are a legitimate part of democracy. But there are some limits to the extremes which they can be advocate. The prescribing of “Second Amendment remedies” for what we think ails us exceeds those limits. Michael Reagan in a talk radio podcast said that Google and Yahoo are sending 90% of their political contributions to “liberal” groups. He was clearly urging a boycott of these businesses by people who don’t like liberals. Mr. Reagan sir, this is not the ‘50’s and these companies are not subversives talking about overthrowing the government. You folks own that one now. They are successful enterprises in a capitalist nation that isn’t in the habit of blacklisting corporations whose transgression is not agreeing with you.

What the Tea Party may lack in numbers is balanced in part by enthusiasm. Given the usual light turnout for midterm elections its adherents may have an inordinate effect on America’s near future. It remains to be seen how much damage they can do. But in the longer run their influence is bound to diminish considerably. Just one look at participants at Tea Party rally and you know that they are not spring chickens. A major driving force behind their anger comes from their cultural view of people of color, particularly that color, as shiftless, frightened or at best as simple happy servants. Their influence will diminish gradually and inevitably as the influence increases of people who know of Rochester only as a city.