The Three Most Crucial Issues We Face 07-13-07
Given much of the backlash many people have received for openly expressing their political views, I debated whether or not to share my own views in what seems such a polarized and mean-spirited political climate these days. But as I thought about it, I realized that the more we are convinced to just play it safe and keep our mouths shut, the more the extremists on both sides, who seem to have hijacked the discussion, will win. The strength of Democracy is in the debate itself and the free exchange of ideas that eventually leads to solutions greater than the sum of the parts of those involved. Therefore, I'm going to add my thoughts to the cauldron, not because I pretend to be an expert or think I have the definitive solution, but simply in the hopes of stimulating you to think about these ideas and to improve on them with your own thoughts.
1) Public Funding of Elections. I would vote for any Republican or Democratic candidate who was serious about this one issue alone since I see the current Bribe-Funding of Elections as the base cause of much of what is wrong with our government currently. This issue infects both parties so thoroughly that the number of scandals traced back to it are impossible to list here. While the scandals grab the headlines, the true cost is what doesn't get done as a consequence, and this is why it is my number one issue above all others. Most of the further problems are insurmountable before this is remedied.
Currently there is something like ten lobbyists for every representative in Congress. Four of the ten alone represent the health care industry (drug companies, health insurance, etc.) so it's no wonder almost none of the candidates for any elected offices on either side seem willing to take them on in a serious manner. Even the Democrats who speak of universal health care haven't the backbone to address the underlying problems because they are just too far in this lobby's pocket. As of this writing, I haven't seen the film "Sicko" yet, though I've studied this issue for long enough to know exactly what it will expose. With such a funding system, only the candidates who get into bed with these lobbyists ever make it on the ballot, creating a self-censored system so that voters don't have an actual choice. No wonder the percentage of people who even bother to vote is so low.
On a recent visit to Washington D.C. to do a painting demonstration and slide show for the National Portrait Society, Susan and I went to one of the Congressional office buildings to get a pass from one of ourNorth Carolina representatives to observe a session of Congress. The halls were filled with lobbyists and our elected officials, but when we sat in the gallery of the actual Congressional Building, there were more tourists like us in the gallery listening to the speeches than members of Congress! The seats on the floor below were nearly empty since the Congress men and woman who used to actually debate and discuss issues now must spend the majority of their time raising money to finance their re-election campaigns. The real negotiations and discussions were taking place behind closed doors with the lobbyists who had paid the bill to put our elected officials where they were. The "public" forums of Congress and the Senate are no longer where the action is. Many of the most important bills, like the drug bill, energy bill, etc. are actually written by the industry lobbyists themselves. Many former Congressmen and Senators become obscenely paid lobbyists once out of office, both as reward for their favors to special interest, as well as to send a clear message to current officials of the grand pay-off at the end of the rainbow.
To ignore these industry lobbyists and actually do their jobs would be to lose their job, so any who might like to take the high road find it no longer in existence, washed away by the flood of money companies and even foreign governments pollute the system with. If you watch C-Span, you will never see a shot of all the empty seats the speeches are being given to since an actual Act of Congress forbids the cameras to turn and reveal this embarrassing fact.
In the current administration, many of the positions of government that oversee oil, gas, coal, agriculture, military spending, health-care etc. have been given to lobbyists and former employees from the very industries they are supposed to be overseeing and regulating. It is now a well-known fact that the leaders of the energy companies themselves were invited to write the Bush-Cheney energy bill that resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives and direct payments to these companies, not to mention the lowering of environmental standards. The transcripts from these meetings, which included Ken Lay of Enron infamy, still have not been released; which points to the fact that too much of what our elected officials are up to is done in secret. Secret earmarks, meetings with lobbyists, military tribunals, domestic surveillance, etc. But I'll wait until my second suggestion to tackle this one.
The examples could go on for pages and we haven't even touched on the system of personal bribery in the form of industries and lobbyists hiring spouses and relatives, of retired office holders receiving their rewards by being given inflated salaries in the companies they've favored in office, of the million dollar speaking fees companies and even foreign governments pay to politicians who have done what was asked of them. Suffice to say that without the banning of bribery-funded elections, there is very little hope of electing politicians who are working in our interest rather than those who financed their campaigns.
For those interested in getting involved in Campaign Finance Reform in North Carolina, here's a website for you! www.democracy-nc.org To find an organization in your state and to get involved in a national campaign to clean up the system, go to http://www.publicampaign.org/ This should not be a partisan issue -- bothparties are corrupted by this!
2) A Balanced Tax System and the National Debt
The tax system in this country is incredibly complicated. No doubt everyone can agree on this, but the basic issue is very simple. Everyone should pay their fair share, be they rich or poor, and regardless what they derive their income from, and our spending has to equal our tax income.
The most surprising thing to me is how well marketed our skewed tax system is that almost no one I talk to generally even realizes the massive disparity that exists. To his credit, Warren Buffet recently pointed out that he paid a tax rate of 17.7% on his 2006 income, while the receptionist at his company paid a tax rate of 30%.
This was certainly no surprise to me, but I was amazed at the amazement displayed by even those people I know who are extremely bright and supposedly well-informed on such matters. Most people assume that we have a "Progressive" tax system that causes the higher earners to pay a higher tax rate. How could it be, then, that one of the richest men in the world has a tax rate nearly half his receptionist's and the majority of working and middle class people in this country?
Let me introduce you to the Great Income Shell game. Under the first shell, is money that most of us earn, called income. This money is taxed at a graduated, "Progressive," rate which does, indeed, go up the more of it you make. For most taxpayers, this constitutes the majority, if not the entirety, of what they earn. Possibly it is this lack of experience with the other forms of income and the different rules that apply to them that accounts for the fact that most people assume wealthy individuals' entire income is covered by this graduated system. Here's why it doesn't...
Social Security or FICA tax, also known as the payroll tax, is an additional tax of approximately 12.4% on earned income. Since your employer deducts this tax before sending you your paycheck, most people don't think much about it unless they are self-employed and have to send it in them self. But here's the real tricky part. This additional 12.4% tax is only assessed on the first $94,200 you earn (in 2006 - it goes up each year and will be 102,000 in 2008). Someone who earns $94,200 will pay $11,680 in Social Security Tax (remember, this is in addition to their income tax), while a billionaire like Warren Buffet will also only pay $11,680 in FICA tax no matter how much he makes, constituting a mere fraction of a percent of his income. This sort of tax is regressive, the opposite of progressive, where the richer you are, the more it benefits you and the less tax you pay as a percentage of your income. Only about bout 6.5% of taxpayers are above the cap, and since they are the wealthiest individuals in the country, the idea that the 93.5% of people making less than them should pay more of a percentage of their income in taxes is utterly unconscionable, in my opinion.
There's a false belief by many that the money you pay in Social Security Tax is set aside for you by the government and then given back to you when you retire. The money you pay in FICA tax goes to pay the retired beneficiaries now, both those who depend on it for their survival and those who are millionaires. I have actually seen some very wealthy people joke about spending their "tinny" Social Security checks on a bottle of wine each month. But suggest that they might not be entitled to such welfare when the government is running a deficit and other people use even smaller checks to survive exclusively on, and you will receive a lecture on why this is "their" money since they paid Social Security Tax their entire life. I wonder what the argument of the first recipients of Social Security were since they hadn't paid the tax throughout their life? I don't mind paying Social Security Tax for retirees who need it, but I hate the idea of picking up the tab for a few hundred dollar bottle of wine for someone who is already rich and paid a vastly lower percentage of FICA tax than everyone else has!
Beyond this, the money from Social Security isn't even actually set aside exclusively for Social Security anymore, but being used to fund the general federal budget, the war, etc. (even with this looting of the trust fund we are still running up an enormous deficit, so the IOU for all of this will be passed down to the next generation). Rather than raise general taxes to pay for such things, our government is using this regressive tax along with loans from other countries (especially China) to pay for their irresponsible spending profligacy.
I won't bother with the numerous ridiculous, though creative, arguments used by the wealthy to justify this entitlement since they are simply more of the Great Shell Game created by lawyers, lobbyists, and politicians to dazzle us into confused compliance at their greedily exempting themselves from paying their fair share and even insinuating themselves onto the welfare rolls at the expense of working class people who must pick up the largest share of the tab.
Even Hillary Clinton has argued in the debates with Barack Obama that removing the cap on Social Security would be an undo additional tax of one trillion dollars on the "middle class." I was glad to see Obama point out that the upper 6.5% of taxpayers cannot possibly constitute the "middle class." Further, the trillion dollar amount is the estimated amount that would be raised over a decade if the cap is eliminated completely. The truth is that the middle and lower class are the only ones paying the full percentage. I have a suspicion that opposition to a tax break that favors such an elite and small group has a lot more to do with the donors to a politician's campaigns (for both parties) than anything else.You can read a more detailed description of the Social Security Tax and how the original intentions of this tax went astray at http://www.ctj.org/pdf/socialsecuritytaxearningscapnov2006.pdf
Let's look under another shell.
Capital Gains Tax. Say you make money using a different method than working for it. Now I don't want my wealthy friends thinking I'm insulting them by saying that investing in real-estate, the stock market, or any of the other Capital Gains generators isn't very demanding work. In many cases, such investing is a full-time job just as surely as working in an office or anywhere else. It's just that the government doesn't consider this sort of income the same as it does for salaried-work. That is the reason those who make their living off of this sort of business can and do rejoice since they only have to pay a flat, 15% tax on such income as well as being exempt from Social Security Tax altogether. President Bush reduced the Capital Gains tax rate from 20% to 15% in 2003 and has even stated his belief that it should be eliminated altogether.
Since few lower and middle class people in this country get a substantial amount of their income from the sale of stocks and real-estate, the lower tax rate once again benefits wealthy tax payers regressively more. This is the real reason people like Warren Buffet pay such a lower percentage of their income in tax. Since almost none of his wealth comes from a traditional salary, but from Capital Gaines, he only pays 15% on that, rather than what he would if it were considered "earned-income" like the majority of us make. Even without the cap on Social Security Tax, he wouldn't have to pay it since Capital Gains income is sheltered from that altogether even under the cap. Even the billions that are paid to Fund Managers on Wall Street have been sheltered under this tax umbrella and deemed Capital Gains rather than salary for work, despite the fact that the managers aren't even investing their own money, but being hired to manage other peoples money! How did they manage this? You guessed it -- millions of dollars in campaign contributions to both the Democrats and Republicans.
If the Capital Gains tax is eliminated completely, as has been suggested by President Bush Jr., we will create a class of people who simply are not taxed at all. Without the estate tax (which is set to disappear in 2010), their children will inherit their billions tax-free (unlike someone who might win a lottery, or even receive it in a will from a non-parent, for example) and then continue investing and growing their fortune through further untaxed Capital Gains, to give to their children and so on. This is the very definition of a hereditary aristocracy and a very dangerous direction for our country to be heading in. Again the arguments are creative, relying on the bizarre assertion that this money has already been taxed and should not be so again, apparently even as it grows thousands of percent beyond its principal and on down through successive generations. "Hey, it's not fair to tax my money since my Great-Great-Great-Grandfather paid tax on it already!" will be the refrain of our country's future golden-spooners. http://www.ctj.org/pdf/estatetax20080306.pdf explains in detail how only one percent of all estates are currently taxed, since only estates worth over 2 million dollars for an individual and 4 million for a married couple are put into this category.
We have not even touched on all the special tax breaks written into the tax code that only the wealthy can take advantage of - IRAs, college funds, mortgage interest, special tax-free health care funds, etc. - that further skew the percentage of actual tax paid. As with most of these issues, the root cause of the problem is, you guessed it, Campaign Financing, where lobbyists and other corporate contributors get their bribes paid back with interest in the form of special tax breaks for their industry or on a broader level for their entire class. "Tax breaks for corporations (and their investors, particularly large ones) were a major part of the Administration's 2002 and 2003 initiatives. If class warfare is being waged in America, my class is clearly winning."Warren Buffet
Property Taxes. This is the final shell under which the unfairness of the tax system hides. Bound up with it is the way we fund public education, since a good deal of the revenue from Property Taxes goes to funding local schools. If you live in a wealthy area, then you are likely to have a much better public school system to send your children to since houses cost far more than those of a poor neighborhood or rural school district. In this way, a wealthy home owner can console themselves with the fact that their property taxes are being spent exclusively on their own children and those of their community and not on some needy children across the tracks. This flies in the face of what public education was meant to be - a fair and equal use of public dollars to educate our children.
Because of this, the schools of wealthy neighborhoods have become de facto private schools. Unless you have the resources to move into one of these pricey neighborhoods or to send your children to an actual private school, you have little chance of receiving a comparably adequate education for your children. Because the elite of our country is predominately white, the system seems inherently racist but I'd argue that is far more about greed, privilege, and class. The prejudice of the entire tax system locks into place the wealth and privilege of those already at the top and makes it nearly impossible for those at the bottom to compete regardless of their race. Much is made of the fact that African-American's do statistically poorly in college entrance exams, but should this surprise us when most have been subjected to twelve years of under-funded schooling? What would happen if all school property taxes were simply pooled together and distributed on a per child basis equally? (This is actually the way many countries do it) I can hear the screams already - of rage from the wealthy, but of hallelujah in places like Mississippi where it takes the spotlight of disaster to show us what America is really like for many of our citizens.
The Solution is simple. Get rid of all the thousands upon thousands of pages of tax breaks and regulations that keep the army of tax specialists employed in a job which wastefully squanders the economic resources of all of us in both time and money. Treat all income as income - money that you have above what you had last year is income, whether from a salary, inheritance, sale of a painting, house, stock, or whatever! That's it; like I said, simple. I'll leave it to our honorable representatives, hopefully free of campaign contribution bribes this time, to determine what the tax rate should be and whether it is on a progressive scale or simply a flat tax that everyone pays regardless of their income. Remember, even with a flat rate of 30% for everyone, the Warren Buffets of the world and most of the rich elite would actually be paying more tax than they do now.
This change would affect the majority of citizens very little, in fact, since they are already paying the maximum in Social Security tax rates, and with a much smaller percentage of capital gains income. Once the highest earner's incomes are brought up to parity with the rest of us, the rate for middle and lower earners might very well go down. Putting money into the hands of middle and lower class people has been clearly shown to benefit the economy and society in general far more than putting it in the hands of the supper rich, who tend to save it rather than spend it. I have no objection to a slightly progressive tax and possibly with the first $15,000 exempt for everyone so that the poorest are exempt altogether, as well as the already existing two million dollar exemption for estates to protect family homes, farms, etc., but such details are not worth going into here since it is the big principals that really matter at this point. Don't confuse this suggestion with the proposed "Fair Tax" put forward by some Republican primary candidates. To see why this is both unfair and unwise, go tohttp://www.factcheck.org/taxes/unspinning_the_fairtax.html
While there is a great deal of patriotic talk these days, the most patriotic act most of us who aren't in the military will ever perform is in paying our taxes. As my income rises every year and puts me farther and farther over the Social Security Tax threshold, not to mention the higher and higher percentage of capital gains tax I earn on investments, I have to say that I am ashamed to see the total percentage of tax I pay go down. I know that my country has been good to me in giving me the opportunities, safety, and freedom to follow my passion and succeed. I don't feel resentful paying taxes on the money that my country has made it possible for me to earn, especially since it will ensure that others after me will have that same opportunity regardless if they are a relative. I do get disgusted at seeing my tax dollars wasted, which is one of the reasons I put public financing of elections at the top of my list, but this doesn't mean I think I should be given a special exemption. Maybe it is because I can remember how much of a struggle it used to be simply to survive when I started out as an artist that I am so aware of how unfair it is to ask those at the bottom who can least afford it to pay more than I do. Certainly it is criminal to ask them to pay more than Warren Buffet and I only wish there were more people with a conscience like his to point this out.
The growing national debt is a result both of tax and spending policies that our politicians have simply failed to deal with realistically. During the past thirty-five years, politicians have spent more money than the country received in taxes for thirty-one of those years. We, the People, are also responsible since we punish those leaders who try and do the right thing (as the first President Bush did when he raised taxes) and reward those who tell us the happy fiction (as the second Bush did when he cut taxes mainly for the wealthy and actually increased spending on all fronts). Any student of history will remember that the British Empire essentially ended when the United States threatened to sell all the British treasury notes it held unless the British backed down in the standoff of the Suez Canal. This would have sunk the British economy and they were forced to give in and relinquish their preeminent position in the world. The more we borrow from China and the rest of the world, the more we place our own country in the same danger.
Alexis de Toqueville wrote: "The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money." The situation is even worse, however, since the politicians are bribing us with our children and grandchildren's money. Think about this every time a politician proposes a tax cut, new program, or even outright "tax rebate check." Where are they proposing the money for such things comes from? A loan from the Chinese? Surely there will be a time when this must be repaid by raising taxes or cutting some government program. And then think of all the wasted money paid on interest to the lender of this 9 trillion and growing amount of money we've borrowed.
Republicans say cut spending and waste, while Democrats say raise taxes. The real truth is that both are right, but who's going to vote for that? I guess I'm the only one.
To learn more about the over 9 trillion dollar national debt and the associated issues, I'd recommend the book, "Where does the Money Go" by Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, the Editors of Public Agenda Online.http://publicagenda.org/
3) Government Transparency
Of commissions and meetings,
Of Congress, the President, and all branches of government
In those few cases where national security necessitates secrecy (at least temporarily) oversight is still essential by an independent commission. Without it, there is no way of keeping such power from being abused for political or personal gain.
For all the rest, I think our government would be far more honest if every congressional office and every meeting room in the White House had a web camera installed in it. After all, we are told that the surveillance of American's phone calls, e-mails, and financial records should only bother those of us who are doing something wrong, so why shouldn't that logic apply the other way as well? I'm being a bit facetious here with the web cam suggestion, but I was first made aware of a similar watch-dog system when I was in Tibet and learned that historical Tibetan government was based on a dual system of a secular official who actually carried out the tasks of government, paired with a Buddhist Monk, for each and every office, whose sole responsibility was to oversee what was being done and report any irregularities to the Dalai Lama. The argument is given that people will not speak frankly if they know they are "on the record," but I have a feeling that is not the real issue at all. If a lobbyist or expert isn't willing to state their views publicly, then surely they can't have much confidence in what they're saying. No doubt the real fear is of embarrassment at the shameless disregard such meetings show for the public good in the service of greed. Michael Bloomberg, as Republican Mayor of New York, uses a similar system with his "office" merely an open desk in a large room with everyone else's desk. No closed doors, no secret meetings or telephone calls, etc. It can work.
Which leads neatly into the issue of claiming "executive privilege" to simply hide embarrassing deals with lobbyists or to protect other officials who have broken the law. The founders of our country worried about the special powers granted a President during a wartime crisis and realized even then that a president could create an artificial environment of "perpetual war" to set themselves up with the absolute powers no different than a monarch. This is certainly what is now happening with such things as rendition, torture, secret trials where the accused isn't allowed to see the evidence against them, unsupervised domestic surveillance, kidnapping of foreign nationals, and the list goes on. All under the justification of a "War on Terror" that is so vague it might never be said to end.
None of this could happen if transparency were enforced by the Congress as the founders intended. When Harriet Miers claimed that she did not have to appear before Congress because she was ordered not to by the President, alarm bells should ring not just for our current situation, but for the precedent it sets for future Presidents. If the Congress doesn't show some backbone here, it could damage our system of checks and balance far into the future by dangerously expanding the power and secrecy of the Executive Branch far beyond the reach of any check or balance. Further alarm bells should ring at the fact that the CIA was exempted from the John McCain bill banning the use of torture on detainees. Then, of course there are the mercenaries we are hiring through companies like Blackwater, many of whom are not even American citizens and are answerable to no one except the President. History is replete with examples of how dangerous such private armies can be even to those who first built them, especially when there is no way of overseeing their actions through the military chain of command. If we truly need more soldiers than the voluntary military can supply, a draft is what is needed, not mercenaries. There are certainly times when horrific actions are necessary for a country's survival, all I'm saying is that such things should be decided in the light of day by all of us and not under some cloak of secrecy by a private army that may turn on us someday or commit acts in our name that will lower our moral standing. The world will see the hypocrisy of condemning others for human rights violations and then committing them ourselves.
One Last Word. I realize that I have left out a lot of important issues. Though I was very strongly in favor of the Afghanistan War and still wish we would concentrate more on getting Osama Bin Laden, I have been passionately against the Iraq War since I could not see its connection to terrorism. Attacking a country that has not attacked us, especially without world wide agreement, seems dangerously irresponsible. Even so, I have placed the three issues above atop even this issue because I see them as having the potential to cause even greater fundamental damage to our country in the long run. To some extent, without the secrecy, the influence of the Oil Lobby (one has to wonder what urgings they gave on the Iraq issue in those meetings with Cheney), and the corporate incentives a war creates for companies who give large campaign contributions to the politicians (Halliburton, Blackwater, etc.) the war might very well never have happened. Certainly if we allow officials to bully our intelligence officers when they try and inform us of misleading statements our elected officials are using to sell a war, as Joe Wilson and others did, then the same thing will happen again and again.
The only other issue that rises to a similar level as my three main ones are the Environmental issues I've spoken about in other essays. There's enough written on this that anyone can get the facts for themselves without me going over it all here. A good starting point is Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" documentary. Once again, however, I find it depressingly hard to imagine that the kind of major decisions and realignments of purpose necessary could ever happen within our current campaign funding system. There has been a very deliberate, corporately funded effort at disinformation on this issue both inside and outside government that has succeeded in blurring the scientific facts for a very long time. Such efforts would not be possible without the influence bought by lobbyists.
Gun control, Abortion, Gay marriage, Stem cell research, the so-called "War on Drugs," Immigration, and all the rest are certainly important and will be invoked once again to stir up some passionate political theatre during the campaigns; with very little changing from the status quo when all the dust settles. These are issues that raise great passion in the voters, cause people even to vote against their own true self interests at times. But they are diversions for the most part, while the three issues I've listed above are the ones that have the power of radically transforming our country; that already are transforming it, in fact. Whether or not we change the direction of this societal drift depends not on our politicians or which of the current crop the lobbyists and corporations have put forward for us to "select," but on how closely we pay attention to what is slowly happening to the country around us. The gradualness of the change is the danger. Will we recognize it soon enough to exert our collective will and set things right as our founders so clearly hoped would happen when the ship of state strayed off course? Or will we wait until it is too late, when we find we are ruled by an untaxed corporate aristocracy with such monopoly on political power, wealth, and even surveillance no less absolute than those that set off the French Revolution?
There are a lot of problems with our system, but the one thing that sets us above all the dictatorships in the world is that when things get really bad we have the power to change it. I love my country and am willing to fight for it, which is why I'm speaking out here no matter how many sales of paintings it costs me.
Please feel free to e-mail me your thoughts. I'm always searching for the truth and have no problem with changing my mind when I discover my errors, which occur daily.
Here's some further reading on some of these subjects.
OPINION | October 14, 2007
Here's a link to a video someone just sent me -- viewing the u-tube clip will give you the main facts. It shows clearly the distortions campaign bribery and secrecy are having on the military. http://iraqforsale.org/
Here's a recent documentary on PBS I'd recommend that explains the details of how government earmarks corrupt our politicians and waste so much of all of our money, not to mention endanger our soldiers by buying them inferior equipment. This is absolutely not a partisan issue since both parties engage in the shameful practice.
I'd encourage everyone to see the film "An Inconvenient Truth"
For those interested in getting involved in Campaign Finance Reform in North Carolina, here's a website for you! www.democracy-nc.orgThe website details how campaign bribery distorts the system even at the local level, leading not only to appointments of incompetent and corrupt officials whose only qualification is that they've given or raised large amounts of money for governors and the like (often so they can steer state business to their own companies), but also offering practical and detailed solutions to the problem.
To find an organization in your state and to get involved in a national campaign to clean up the system, go tohttp://www.publicampaign.org/ This is not a partisan issue -- both parties are corrupted by this!
http://rangevoting.org/ - This describes some of the different voting systems and their drawbacks. A good book on the subject is "Gaming the Vote" by William Poundstone. Of all the systems, Range Voting seems to be the best option, certainly better than the system we currently use.
Some great books I'd recommend that are related to these subjects are