Change Can Be Painful

I have been mulling over the concerning level of distress that now seems to infect so many of our personal and national conversations. Donald Trump is, to be certain, at the root of some of this because he refuses—or is simply unable—to finesse much of anything. President Trump finds the rawest possible nerve to rub at the most inopportune possible time—and keeps right on rubbing it no matter how loud the howls. I will agree with those who argue that he is an irritant; this is not much of a mystery.

It is, however, just as true that a great many problems we have tried desperately to ignore for decades are now impossible to avoid—and Donald Trump is many times simply the blunt instrument for our reckoning with unpleasant realities.

We are enslaved by public and private debt, the cost of medical care is outrageous, our public schools are failing many children, higher education is amazingly costly and often captive to ideological battles, homelessness and hunger haunt many, families and communities are fragmented, and there is a fairly pervasive sense that our governmental structures have devolved into self-serving parasites that pay little attention to the needs of those whom they claim to serve. All of this frustration and rage erupted last November, and our nation opted for chemotherapy over continued palliative care—hence at least some of the pain we are today experiencing. Aggressive treatment of our maladies is a shock to a system long accustomed to soothing platitudes and bland reassurance.

Now we have steep tax cuts and pointed discussions about reducing our expansive—and expensive—government structures. Tough questions are being asked about how to remake our healthcare and health insurance systems to reduce cost. Charter schools and school choice plans are corroding the public education monopoly. Higher education is suddenly having to justify both its mission and its stupendous cost. Public aid programs of all types are asking for much more responsibility from recipients. Zoning and tax policies that artificially inflate housing costs are under attack. People are pushing back against experts and policy makers who promote punitive and half-baked ideas regarding what is best for us.

As for government and government officials, they are disliked, distrusted, and disrespected by the vast majority of Americans—many of whom are now approaching a state approximating open rebellion. This is not surprising because our long national experiment with expanding government to provide endless freebies fueled by reckless borrowing has now crashed into the inevitable arithmetic of profligacy—eventually you run out of money. Avoiding real-life financial decisions by charging the spiraling costs of government programs rife with waste and inefficiency to future generations of taxpayers—who are now stuck with the tab—was loads of fun for elected officials who could keep handing out goodies without the political inconvenience of raising taxes to pay for them, but the incredibly large check for that stupendous party has now been dropped in our laps. Tough and divisive discussions are certainly ahead.

There is, in addition, a certain degree of anger generated by the very act of finally facing up to our problems. I find a good many of our recent hot-button debates concerning education, immigration, economic policy, and national defense seem animated by intense frustration over being forced to make hard decisions rather than being allowed to obliviously cling to questionable narratives and notions—heedless of cost or consequence.

After decade upon decade of waiting for improvements in hidebound public schools, parents are now demanding alternatives for their children. After abdicating control of our borders and endlessly extending the stays of those offered “temporary” refuge in America, enacting reasonable and long overdue immigration policy changes is a shock for a great many. Shrinking government and unshackling businesses from inane regulations seems very frightening to those who have grown comfortable with stultifying statist ideologies. Pushing back against terrorist groups and rogue states has terrified those who have forever counseled appeasement. At every turn, definitive and firm action has raised the hackles of those invested in bureaucratic inertia and willful ignorance.

It is clearly painful for some to have to abandon the familiar failures and pursue a new path. However, watching new charter schools succeed where others had failed, immigration laws and procedures being thoroughly debated and—President Trump’s alleged comments about “sh*thole countries” notwithstanding—vastly improved, business activity rising and unemployment shrinking while the stock market booms, and ISIS crushed at the same time North Korea is finally being forced to the bargaining table, it is increasingly difficult not to recognize that the time for a clean break with the failed ideologies of the past is right now. Bewailing successes that conflict with stale orthodoxy seems sillier by the day, and if we can stop imagining crises and instead work cooperatively to implement yet more fresh creative thinking regarding the issues facing our nation, we can likely achieve wonders.

Abandoning shibboleths is scary, adopting unfamiliar ideas is stressful, and accepting the necessity for change is upsetting. Nonetheless, we need to step out of our comfort zones and recognize that which is familiar may not be either helpful or good, and all the protests and complaints will not diminish the need for a thorough re-evaluation of ideas and philosophies that many have held dear for a very long time. We might not always be pleased—or even comfortable—with the decisions that are made as a result, but many times we—as a nation—will be better off.

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The Tax Cut Gamble

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Republican-led Congress will pass a significant tax cut. This prospect is—depending on your tax bracket, political ideology, and the state where you reside—a cause for either rejoicing or anger. Expert predictions about the effects of this tax cut bill, which will certainly reduce overall federal government revenues, should not be trusted. The long-term outcome will be determined by the unknowable responses of legislators and individuals to both its specific provisions and broad intent—which is to push broad reductions in the size and scope of government by cutting off access to funding.

Those who predict that this bill will increase the deficit and drive yet more federal debt have ample cause for concern. Previous cuts to federal taxes during the Reagan and Bush administrations produced exactly this outcome because there was no political will in Congress to reduce outlays to match available revenue. Washington simply borrowed to make up the difference, which has ballooned federal debt from roughly $1 trillion at the start of the Reagan administration to over $20 trillion today. If voters keep electing members of Congress who promise more despite less money in the coffers, the net result of this tax cut will be no reforms and continuing fiscal catastrophe at the federal level.

Any drop in federal revenues also impacts the states. Washington’s largesse is particularly important to local economies built around schools and healthcare (“Eds and Meds”), which are dependent on a variety of federal cash sources and could suffer if the D.C. money stops flowing. Moreover, given the many mechanisms that shift federal dollars into state economies—which run the gamut from research grants to highway construction money to public safety funding—the possibility that the spigot might be tightened is sending shivers down many a spine.

If states decide the easiest path forward is to raise state taxes in order to avoid making difficult fiscal choices, the effect of any federal tax relief will be lessened. A lack of political will to cut spending to match available revenue—this time on the state level—will diminish or eliminate any positive effect of the federal tax cut for many citizens.

This tax cut legislation is a significant risk for Republicans in Congress because—whether due to sheer economic ignorance or partisan political posturing—many opponents are describing this bill as a “tax cut for the wealthy”. They are absolutely correct that the wealthiest will enjoy most of the gains, but this is simply because the rich pay most of the federal taxes—about 45% of Americans, in fact, pay no net federal income taxes at all. It’s not a conspiracy against the poor, but it plays well with audiences who perhaps slept through ECON 101 in college, and you can be certain that those in government and elsewhere who are worried that shrinking tax revenues might reduce their influence and power will repeat this half-truth—loudly and endlessly.

This does not, however, mean that the Federal tax code is either sound or fair. There are far too many opportunities for imaginative accountants to find perfectly legal deductions and loopholes for wealthy individuals and corporations that enable them to avoid paying their fair share—and this needs to be remedied. These additional revenues can help to correct fiscal imbalances in critical federal safety net programs such as Social Security, which is in dire financial condition due to the flood of baby boomers rapidly bankrupting the system.

One flash point for many voters is the status of the deduction for SALT (State And Local Taxes) now enshrined in the federal tax code, which works out to be an indirect subsidy paid by everyone to those who live in high tax states such as New York and California. As financially painful as the loss or reduction of this deduction might be for some, it works out to be an immense windfall for the wealthiest, an egregiously disparate benefit offered to those who earn the most. In order to cushion the effect, changes could be phased in over a two year period, but this is a reform that must be made out of a sense of fairness for all. Sometimes “me-me-me” must be set aside for a greater societal good, and this might also force wasteful state and local governments to reconsider their excessively expensive policies and practices.

This tax reform is a gamble, but to continue as we are is a disastrous “sure thing”—more wasted tax dollars and more crushing government debt.

 

 

 

 

 

These D.C. Shenanigans Don’t Interest Me

The recent indictment of a prominent Washington political lobbyist, Paul Manafort, is prompting a rapturous response from some. Even though the criminal charges have nothing to do with last year’s election, those who wanted Hillary to win are now convinced that impeachment (Remember that Russian collusion!) is right around the corner. However, there are others who, even if not thrilled with President Trump’s policies or personality, are notably cooler to the idea. Me? With apologies to Rhett Butler—and as much as it pains me to say this—I don’t give a damn.

If you ever needed further proof that Washington, D.C. is a world utterly separate from the one we downtrodden peasants occupy, you need only to listen to the self-important chatter emanating from the banks of the Potomac regarding this non-story about a non-issue that is nonsense.

Given that we already know our federal government is a hopelessly corrupt conglomeration of back scratchers and influence peddlers masquerading as public servants, I am going to guess that I am not the only one who finds it impossible to work up to the target level of outrage. Listening to supposedly sane commentators froth at the mouth concerning the notion that lobbyists might not be the most honest of God’s creations reminds me of Captain Renault in the movie Casablanca fulminating about the doings at Rick’s Cafe: “I am shocked—shocked—to find that gambling is going on in here!”

The outrage machine will, however, continue to grind on for as long as it is good business to do so. Anger and investigations encourage donors to write checks, so that is as good a reason as any to try to gin up a story about an apparently corrupt lobbyist into the latest iteration of “the scandal of the century”. If you read many of the reactions in the media, one notable undercurrent is that these investigations and indictments might—at least temporarily—interfere with the real business of Washington insiders: Making obscene amounts of money by selling access to executive, legislative, judicial, and (most important of all) regulatory power brokers. Working for the public good is just fine—as long as it does not interfere with personal profit.

A short list of what our federal government should be preoccupied with might include right-sizing operations in order to stop driving our nation into ever more catastrophic debt, holding agencies and departments accountable for producing measurable public benefits, devising cost-effective strategies for dealing with our crumbling infrastructure, reforming the cesspool of campaign finance, strengthening our military to meet a host of new and disturbing dangers, and pushing back against the many threats to our rights to privacy and free speech. If you can’t focus on your jobs, just get gone for good—for the good of us all.

If I want to watch stupid people engaging in stupid behavior, I can tune into countless reality television shows where dysfunction is worn like a badge of honor. I (perhaps unreasonably) expect more from my national government—particularly in light of the many problems we face today. Perhaps a few high profile prosecutions will provide some minor temporary benefit that will help to support the illusion that real change in a culture of entrenched corruption is at last at hand, but I strongly suspect that much stronger medicine will be necessary to heal what ails our country. Occasionally sacrificing someone of middling importance on the prosecutorial altar does not absolve our nation’s capitol of its many sins. There is far more to answer for regarding the many messes we are in today due to neglectful—or actively damaging—leadership in Washington.

However, feel free to enjoy the D.C. circus of empty rhetoric and feigned concern if that is to your taste. However, I am certain I am not the only American who just does not care—and wants the whole crowd of crooks and cuckoos out of our lives as soon as possible. I can’t say that many of them will be missed.

Do You Feel Safe Yet?

One aspect of our world today that is not commented upon enough amid all the noise of the news cycle is the 24/7 monitoring of our daily activities. A great deal of the ever-present peering into our personal lives is tied to our commercial and financial activities; some of this surveillance is protecting us from fraud, but a much larger portion is designed to better understand our spending habits in order to sell us more junk we don’t really need with money we don’t actually have. However, the more worrisome monitoring of our lives is that which supposedly protects us from international criminals and terrorists—and which has turned us all into germs parked under a very big microscope.

I suppose it is a perverse tribute to the power of the algorithms embedded into the very fabric of our lives today, but we are continually made aware of needs we did not know we even had thanks to the pop up ads on our browsers. Even the helpful viewing suggestions on Netflix are busily compiling a list of our dreams and desires drawn from our viewing profiles, which will immediately be used by businesses to prod us into even more spending and track our purchases down to the very last stick of chewing gum. Although I appreciate it when my credit card company calls to check whether I just purchased lawn furniture in a store five states away from where I actually live, I twitch a bit when I am called about an item I’ve bought that was flagged simply because it fell outside my “purchasing profile”. I realize I’ve probably fallen into a blandly predictable pattern in my life, but need I be reminded by MasterCard just how boring I have become?

Even within my four thin walls, my electronic footprint of daily activities, helpfully logged by my devices and Internet service provider, are keeping a fine record of my life, activities, and thoughts. Sometimes, just to be a rebel, I will pull a physical book off a shelf or search for information on Google that does not interest me in the least—simply to screw with the system. This is my mild and ineffectual revolt against Big Brother. Of course, fifty years from now we might all be grousing about the government-mandated technology embedded in our refrigerators that chastises us when we don’t eat enough leafy green vegetables, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain so much about the tyranny of our technology today.

However, the oddest aspect of our conversations when we talk about the constant spying into everything we do is just how much of it is justified by the need to keep us secure in a seemingly ever more insecure world. Having entertained myself this morning by counting all the cameras that recorded by daily bus commute to work—and will today monitor my movements on my college campus throughout the day—I cannot help but contemplate how little privacy I have once I step outside the walls of my home. How sad is that?

However, all of the snooping that swirls around our daily lives and spending pales in comparison with the broad and disturbing reach of the national security state’s ceaseless sifting of our activities.

We are, of course, regularly reassured that international drug lords and bloodthirsty terrorists are being foiled by the alphabet soup of federal and state government agencies vacuuming up every facet of our lives with little concern for our confidentiality. However, since the passage of the Post-9/11 Patriot Act, we also have seen an explosion in the number of private corporations that work under government contract and spy on every aspect of our existences and the world around us. According to an article in The Nation last year, the “intelligence-contracting industry… is worth about $50 billion.” Just to give that huge but amorphous number some context, this means that private companies engaged in all manner of surveillance are today an economic behemoth with roughly the same revenues and reach as FedEx.

This translates into the political punch necessary—via campaign contributions, consulting fees, and promises to locate jobs in key legislative districts—to perpetuate their power and further expand their mandates. Therefore, we can be reasonably certain that no one with any actual ability to influence contracting or legislation will ever, ever suggest that our national security apparatus needs to be trimmed—there is simply too much money sloshing around the system for it to be otherwise. All those wonderful taxpayer-subsidized paychecks have rendered this sprawling and largely unaccountable system impervious to change or reform, which is exactly what often happens when our government decides it is time to “protect” us—the functional outcome is that the livelihoods of many others are forever protected at our expense.

I am certain that all manner of fanatics and dead-enders have been stopped by a suspicious phone call, bank withdrawal, or illegal left turn that was identified and flagged in a database somewhere. However, this might not be as comforting as we might like to believe. The recent horrific sniper attacks in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 dead and 527 people injured, should give us pause for reasons that go beyond the terrible facts of the crime. The shooter apparently smuggled both a veritable arsenal and an unbelievable amount of ammunition into a major downtown hotel in a city that might have more cameras per square foot than almost any other in the United States. As frightening as the actions of this madman where, the perhaps even more scary fact is that none of the surveillance technology nor the people tasked with operating it had a clue about what was going to happen—until it did.

The inevitable response to this incident and so many like it has, of course, been a call for yet more monitoring, restrictions, and expanded governmental powers to protect us. No one who hopes to win an election is ever going to say that they are simply incapable of protecting everyone from the random horrors of life. This would to call into question the broad purpose of government as it has come to be defined over the past century, an increasing powerful and intrusive set of overlapping entities that claim to be able to keep us safe and happy if we fork over enough tax money.

As the regulatory and police powers of the state have increased and sought to save us from the anxieties generated by foods with insufficient fiber, people who might disagree with us, and sharp scissors, the obvious failures mount up—and the only ones who seem surprised are those who still somehow believe that the solution to every problem is to give government (wait for it!) yet more regulatory and police powers. This is, ultimately, a circular and self-defeating fool’s errand. Even if we put a camera inside every home, a cop on every corner, and a microchip in every individual, we will still not be safe from life because life is an inherently unsafe and potentially upsetting endeavor. Even the best choices sometimes have bad outcomes, and random weirdness and cruelty will never be eliminated from our world no matter how many forms we are required to fill out.

Frankly, I am perfectly willing to forgo the illusory security provided by living my life under the camera’s unblinking eye. Perhaps something bad will happen to me or someone whom I love as a result, but such is life. In fact, it might be much more of a life—exciting, risky, and completely ours to navigate—than the silly and scolding simulacrum we now have. Just as G-o-d is unable to prevent all of the pain that is part of life, so can we be certain that G-o-v cannot insulate us from every potentially dangerous situation, object, or person. This might seem awful to some, but perhaps we simply have to live our lives, deal with the consequences—and whine a little less about the uncertainty of it all.

 

The Hangover

The question at the heart of the movie from which I am taking the title of this commentary—“What the hell happened last night?”—is perhaps an apt description of the state of the Democratic Party today. It seems to me that a lot of energy is still being expended trying to figure out “what happened” last year to derail the dream of a liberal utopia where the party would never end. Watching Hillary Clinton now wander the country like Marley’s ghost, rattling her chains and bewailing her fate, one has to wonder when those who are still stunned by the election of Donald Trump—and the many sharp policy turns his ascendancy represents—are going to snap out of their stupor and fully engage with the many changes now afoot.

To say that the political and social Left in America is in an exceedingly surly mood is putting it mildly. Having convinced themselves in 2008 that the election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of an inevitable electoral wave that would permanently put their policies in place, most were stunned when the tide receded and Democrats suddenly found themselves with the lowest percentage of state and federal elected officeholders since the 1920’s. As much as those who voted for Hillary Clinton like to comfort themselves with the fact that she received more popular votes, the basic problem still remains that Secretary Clinton was running for President of the United States—not Empress of New York or Queen of California. Watching the middle of the nation turn bright red on Election Night, leaving only isolated blue redoubts on the coasts and Chicago, liberals were left to curse the grim math of the Electoral College and cling to the hope of still elusive proof of Russian collusion, neither of which has yet yielded much beyond cranky sound bites on CNN and MSNBC.

And so the hangover began.

To say that the Democratic Party has a long road to recovery on a national level is like saying someone who has been run over by a truck—and is now sporting a body cast—is a little under the weather right now. Locked out of power in D.C. and many states, Democrats have resorted to erecting the moral equivalent of a spite fence by continually castigating Republicans for their hateful ignorance while reassuring themselves that today is all nothing but a bad dream that will pass when they awaken to find Trump is finally indicted and removed from office.

This might not be the wisest course of action. If the Democratic Party is going to rebound sooner rather than never, it seems three specific actions would get them off to a good start:

Elevate the next generation of leadership—immediately.  It is time to finally admit that the folks who lead you down the road to ruination need to be replaced. The “Chuck and Nancy” show in the Senate and the House has clearly run its course, and the next tier of loyal Capitol Hill lieutenants who have also helped to propel today’s electoral meltdown are little better. The time for a shake-up is right now. The longer the Democrats wait and keep fresh talent on the shelf, the longer it will take to turn around their national fortunes.

Prioritize. The Democratic agenda that has developed over the past few decades boils down to the following: “Everybody should be given everything they want (unless it is a bottle of pop or a Nativity scene) by the government for free every time they ask for it—and no one need suffer from an opinion contrary to our own regarding the need for this.” As a result, our nation has ended up with a tottering and financially unsustainable big government monster that has turned the Democratic Party and its supporters into an easily caricatured herd of pettifogging bureaucrats who seem to have their noses in everybody’s business—all while gleefully belittling those whom they don’t like. It is little wonder that so many voters are ditching them. It’s time for a thorough discussion to distinguish what is important from what is tangential. After this is done, Democrats can pick a few signature issues and rebuild their tattered brand. However, if they plan to continue to be all things to all people (except for, of course, those people whose opinions and values they don’t like), the Democratic Party can expect a long stretch in the wilderness.

Talk less and listen more. One of my father’s favorite sayings was this: “You’ve got two ears and only one mouth—that should tell you something.” The unfortunate Democratic propensity for telling everyone (very loudly) why they are wrong has not won a lot of votes recently. It might be better to put down the mocha lattes and spend some time around voters who don’t live in New York, San Francisco, or a college town. Someone who disagrees with a core Democratic tenet is not necessarily a disagreeable individual; it is simply a fact that their beliefs are being informed by different life experiences, values, and judgments. Most people are fairly reasonable and are willing to have a sensible discussion on a variety of issues; if, however, your conversational style tends to leap into sneering condescension directed toward those whose beliefs differ from your own, you’re going to have a hard time convincing anyone. Moreover, sometimes you just have to adjust to the possibility that—incredible as it might seem—you are just plain wrong. That’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but that might be just what is necessary to prompt a Democratic renewal.

Will any of this happen? I hope so. Thoughtfully planned and executed government policies play a major role in improving our daily lives and ensuring a bright future for our nation, and we need cooperative and respectful dialogue to create a better tomorrow for our citizens and our country. Most importantly, given the broad range of challenges ahead, we need voices from across the political spectrum involved. It is not healthy for our country to have the electoral math so skewed in one direction, and a reinvigorated and resurgent Democratic Party could play a significant role in promoting programs that would ensure a more broad-based prosperity.

However, to be honest, I don’t yet see this happening. The Democratic finger-pointing and purity tests seem still to have to run their calamitous course. However, I humbly offer this blueprint for a path forward. If my suggestions turn out to be wrong, so be it. I offer them for whomever might care to listen—from one concerned citizen to another.