Tuesday, February 27, 2007

One of the many ways the rich stay rich

The Washington Post has discovered that Sen. Clinton failed to list her family charity and her position within that organization on her disclosure forms. Her staff asserts that this is an error. I can't think of any reason to have withheld this information this year after having reported it in previous years. Since the existence of their charity is not in doubt, I am willing to take her at her word.

What interests me is the Washington Post's reporting of the monies involved.

Assuming the numbers to be correct; that the Clintons were able to write off 5 million of their taxes due to their charitable donation of 1.5 million, something seems askew in the tax code. It must be more complicated than this, right?

My wife and I gave approximately 6% of our income in charitable donations last year- considerably less than those who tithe the standard 10%. Frankly, our giving is unrelated to any tax benefits that it might accrue. It is an afterthought- sort of a "oh yeah, we can write that off too."

It is "well known sonny Jim" (5 points to the person who can correctly identify the movie on the basis of this phrase alone and the Cranky Prof can't play) that the rich don't see charitable donations the same way as the rest of us.

There is undoubtedly a State interest in encouraging charitable giving and tax write-offs are an effective tool to further this policy objective. But, does the society lose the benefit of that charity by receiving less than was donated?

Take the Clinton's example (again, assuming that the Post has it right). It is clearly a benefit to society for 1.5 million to make its way into funds that provide for the alleviation of poverty, injustice, and misery. But, these are also legitimate roles of government and ones that consume significant tax dollars. If the larger society lost 3.5 million in the bargain, of what benefit is this to us?

I am not advocating for the end of the charitable gift write-off. Again, this is a smart way to further the public policy of encouraging charitable giving. However, if the Clinton example is merely one of many, then we may be robbing Peter to pay Paul and may be far poorer for the experience.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

News Flash!!! Christianity is a Hoax!!!

James Cameron of "Titanic" fame has produced a new special "The Jesus Family Tomb" in which he details "proof" that Jesus Christ was buried with Mary Magdalene and his son Judah. The Discover Channel and the History Channel have agreed to air the piece.

I will refrain from delving deeply into the religious perspective on this since it should be obvious that those who hate Christians, or merely think us daft and gullible, will be elated while persons of faith that respect the religious beliefs of their fellow human beings will be dismayed with another, tedious, assault on the broader concepts of faith. I will say this though... early Christians were murdered because the societies around them bought into speculative and bigoted rumors about their faith. Persecution built up the Church then and the persecution of the Modern age will do the same.

Bring it on Mr. Cameron... Your denial of our faith only firms up the Truth.

Of greater interest to me is America's reaction to this attack on the basic tenet of the Christian faith; that of the Resurrection.

There will no doubt be a vocal cry from Christians of every denomination against Cameron, those who bankrolled him, and those stations that air the episode; and rightfully so. Where others go out of their way to offend and cause injury to one's culture and faith, it is right and proper to raise one's voice. As a Christian it is even more critical because we are supposed to proclaim the Word, particularly before those who do not believe.

However, no boycott, the only useful mechanism for the influencing of corporate America, is likely get much traction and I would not expect any meaningful demonstrations against our persecutors.

American media outlets are quite shy of assault on faiths other than Christianity.

I think of this as a "natural" consequence of "majority status." We see something similar with the general acceptance of bigoted race, gender, and culture representations in the media of the "majority." The media's participation in an unrelenting assault on the the predominant religion, race, and culture of a America is tied, in part, to the perception that no great harm is visited upon us by such attacks.

It may be true that no articulable injury is done by such attacks.

Though I have had to endure endless articles designed to damage my faith in the Roman Catholic Church, had to self-censor the shows that I watch so as not to have my blood reach a boiling point, and have had to be selective in what my children view, there has been little impact on my economic or social situation by the bigoted attacks of a militantly secular society. At least for now, those who openly seek harm to those of faith are in the minority and their attacks have not reached me.

However, a local child was told that he could not wear a costume of Jesus to his school's Halloween pageant because the principle believes that the Constitution forbids the mingling of the State and religion. (Her words, not mine.) The boy was allowed to take part only after he took off his crown of thorns and agreed to change his entry to that of a "Roman." The boy's mother was angry enough to file suit.

Then there was the presentation at my local elementary school that included a Christmas Tree with a Menorah, and red Crescent cutouts to adorn the tree. I suppose that Christianity was demonstrated by the tree itself?

Of course, as a Pennsylvanian, I cannot ignore the change in PA law that extends the statute of limitations for sex crimes, specifically to open the door to more false accusations against Catholic religious. (It will be interesting to see whether volunteers for children and teen programs dwindles on account of a statute of limitations that could have one defending one's actions thirty years from now for perceived injuries today.)

There are lots of other examples, but I find it interesting that the majority status inoculates one to injury and bars protection. I wonder if this will continue when my race and faith are minorities.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

The Bank of Mexico

Thought I'd pass along this campaign email from Congressman Tom Tacredo. He's an outsider running for President as a Republican on the issue of illegal immigration and border security. The Bank of America move outrages me and I think Tancredo sums up the issue well. I look forward to seeing him stir up the forthcoming GOP debates.

Dear Friend of This Campaign,

I feel outraged! The Bank of America scandal has given me one more reason I must run for President.

The Bank of America admitted last week that it has begun issuing credit cards to Illegal Aliens. I plan to stop them!

Bank of America has admitted it has changed its ID requirements for credit cards so that Illegal Aliens can qualify. The bank's motive is higher profits.

Yet if an ordinary Illegal Alien can get a credit card, couldn't a clever terrorist? Or just about anybody in the U.S. illegally with something to hide?

Our whole national security system is thrown overboard when drug dealers, human smugglers, and possibly even terrorists can gain access to the U.S. financial system. What was the Bank of America thinking?

And here's what really makes me angry. The other Republican candidates are being totally silent about this matter.

No protest from McCain. Silence from Giuliani. Nothing from Romney. I can't find any candidate who cares.

If you help get me elected President, I promise to clean up this Bank of America scandal. I will shut down credit cards to Illegal Aliens!


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Friday, February 16, 2007

Open Thread: Iran

Has TPS ever featured an "Open Thread" before? I dunno. Perhaps in the early/glory days. Anyway, I thought I'd try making this one to break the silence. But I'll gear it around a more specific question. What's going to happen with Iran? It looks like a nearly-nuclear Iran in 2007 is more of a threat to the United States, Israel, and the free world than Saddam Hussein's Iraq ever was. But is our credibility too damaged to lead another pre-emptive strike type war in the Middle East? I think the answer is yes and no. But my thoughts aren't as clear as I'd like them to be. Thoughts anyone?


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Saturday, February 10, 2007

Looking Back at Iraq

Write me off as a peacenik all you want. But I have no doubt that the history books will tell this story accurately in time. And it boils down to this. For varying reasons, neo-conservative forces in the Bush admninistration wanted war with Iraq in the post 9/11 world. We can debate how nefarious these causes were, but there's no doubt that it was this cabal whose growing influence pushed a nation into war. A group led by life-long pals V.P. Dick Cheney and Sec of Def Don Rumsfeld convinced President Bush and, in turn, much of America and the free world that the case for war was strong.

A mere 4 years later, it turns out that their case was actually very weak from the beginning. That Iraq possessed WMDs? Wrong. That Iraq had a connection to terrorists like al-Quada that had attacked America before? Wrong. That a Saddam Hussein-led Iraq contributed to the instability of his nation and the Middle East? Apparently, even this is proven wrong as the vacuum of power left in Iraq makes the region more deadly everyday.

And this doesn't even concern the execution of the war and miscaluclations such as how we'd be greeted as liberators, how "shock and awe" would win the fight, how the insurrgency wasn't a factor to worry about, how 120,000 troops could pacify a bitter nation, how an Iraqi civil war wasn't likely, etc, etc.

We're not talking about a flawed, reversible government policy on the environment here. We're talking about mistakes that resulted in the largest conflict this nation has waged in 40 years. A war which has seen the killing of thousands and wounding tens of thousands of American troops. A war that has cost the US taxpayer $500 billion dollars and counting.

So while Iraq may have become an unpopular topic around here, this kind of stuff can never get old to me. Iraq may soon belong to the history books. But it is the next Iraq that scares me. And how such a mistaken cause for unnecessary war will make it all-the-more difficult for America and the world to identify future necessary causes for war. As if it wasn't hard enough already.

N.B. -- I have removed my original quoted references from a disputed story in the Washington Post on the Pentagon's pre-war case for a link between Saddam's Iraq and Al Queda. If the quotes are wrong then they have no place getting in the way of what I find an otherwise worthy debate. Thanks to longtime friend and recent sparring partner TSL for bringing this to my attention.

BTW, in my defense, this is my first Iraq post here in awhile. Iraq's always been my big politcal issue and I am always amazed more here don't obsess on it like me. Oh well. Anyway, I had a 45 minute phone call on Friday from a buddy of mine stationed in Samarra, Iraq. He was very insightful and I guess it got my juices flowing. While this guy is very proud of his service and ready to fight on orders, I can assure you that our military is growing frustrated over there. His basic point-of-view conveyed to me was that "these people over here have been fighting forever and there's not much we can do to stop them. But we sure are caught in the middle." Well put, I think, and I hate that our troops are in such a helpless spot. They deserve better.


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Tuesday, February 06, 2007

It's Budget Time

One of my favorite times of the year is upon us. The President has released his FY 2008 Budget Recommendations to Congress. Okay, so I admit I’m just a bit odd, but come on can’t you just feel the excitement? Well maybe not unless you’re an armchair economist, political junkie, or work for OMB, CBO, or the Budget Committees in Congress does this get your blood pumping, but it should. Why? Well, because other than elections, I can’t think of any other time when there is more inaccurate, misleading, politically spun, and horribly wrong prognostications and predictions about the future of the economy as a whole, economic growth specifically, tax policy, spending priorities, and everything else called for in a document that doesn’t actually mean anything. Remember the President doesn’t make the budget, Congress does. He only gets to “recommend” certain expenditures and allotments; Congress decides whether a President will actually realize his budget targets and goals.

Before I launch into yet another tirade about the division of power in our government, and how we and the press always gives the President way too much power and influence, let me say that everything you will hear, read, and see, from Congress, the President, Republicans, and Democrats, is a farce. Its been spun, rinsed, scrubbed, oversimplified, and spun again, all for your quick 30 second or less consumption on the evening news and in the newspapers. Bottom line, none of it is accurate. But don’t take my word for it, just read the fine print and understand a few simple things. First, remember, no one can predict the future. This is important because that is what all budget prognosticators try to do. Regardless of whom they work for or what their agenda is, they are all trying to sell you a view of the future from their particular point of view. Problem is, none of them know what the hell they are talking about. Oh sure, they are all very smart economists, accountants, political consultants and the like, but there is not a Nostradamus in the bunch; besides what was he for predictions, 1 for 10 million, or something like that. If there were, we’d have a lot rosier future I can tell you that.

Second, remember there are no rules governing the President/OMB in his budget recommendations, except the due date. There are, however, strict statutory guidelines for CBO, the Congressional Budget Office, to follow. This difference usually explains about 80-90% of the “gaps” between what the President predicts and what CBO “scores.” Sometimes, the President is closer to correct, other times its CBO that was “right,” neither is ever 100% accurate. The biggest difference, CBO is required to predict the future based on what the law actually is as of the date of its proposals. The President is allowed to use whatever means he wants, including assumptions about what the law is likely to be, or what he would like it to be in a given year. Tax policy is usually the place where this difference is starkest. For example, this year the President has predicted that in 5 years (2012) there will be a significant federal surplus, where as CBO has projected a substantial deficit, though not as large as current deficits. Why the difference? Well for one thing the President assumes that Congress will extend his tax cuts, currently set to expire in 2010. CBO is prohibited from using the same model by statute, because the law currently says no more cuts after 2010. Moreover, the President assumes a robust percentage of growth in GDP and, therefore, substantial increases in tax revenue. CBO can’t follow such predictions, as they are required to use model and averages based on actual happenings over the last few years. This prevents CBO from both being overly optimistic or overly pessimistic in its forecasting. This is not to say CBO’s methods are better or worse, just to point out that they are constrained, and for some very good reasons. CBO is supposed to be neutral and non-partisan, they are to be “objective” or as objective as possible. Congress needs untainted, unvarnished opinions and forecasts, and they are not going to get them from the President -- whether a Republican or a Democrat -- hence the cabining of CBO’s methods. Final point to remember. War costs have been primarily “off budget” menaing that the President has not been including them in recent submissions because they are considered emergency or supplemental spending. Word is that they have included some of the costs this time around, but not all of them. CBO includes all expenditures, emergency or otherwise, in its predictions, as required by statute. So they assume a higher amount of spending over the next 5 years than the President allows for.

Short story, CBO predicts higher spending and lower revenues than the President, hence CBO claims deficit where the President claims balanced budgets and surplus by 2012. Bottom line, they are both crap. Both methodologies are seriously flawed and neither is to be taken seriously. Will this happen? No, of course not, but every once and a while it would be nice to pull back the curtain and see that there really isn’t anyone pulling the strings who has a clue. Or maybe that’s just me.

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Monday, February 05, 2007

How Was Your Holiday?


So I guess we know what 63% of the country was doing last night. Is it just me or has the Super Bowl nearly-officially become America's 3rd most prominent holiday? The idea sounds un-American to give it priority over days like Memorial Day or Independence Day, but think about it. On what other days but for Thanksgiving and Christmas do so many people get together and celebrate a common occasion through food, drink, socializing, and partying?

I went to Winn-Dixie on Saturday night (merely for baby food, by the way) and the place was abuzz. I'm sure this experience could be seen in grocery stores throughout America as well. Again, save for the days before Thanksgiving and Christmas, are there really any other times where every line in the store is guaranteed to be open, crowded, and also full of beer, salsa, and chicken wings?

So let's give thanks for the Pilgrims who started this great nation. Let's praise the Lord for sending his son into this world to save us. But, most of all, let us be grateful for the gift of American football and pray for strength to endure the next 6 months without it!

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A Look Ahead

The above link will take you to an interesting story from Friday's Washingtonpost.com Politics Blog. The article offers a preliminary guess at the top ten most vulnerable House seats in the elections of 2008. Not surprisingly, 8 of the 10 are now held by newly-elected Democrats. So there may be some hope yet for Republicans if they can get their shit together on Iraq, immigration, and spending.


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Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Rise of the Democrats

An interesting poll was released by Gallup earlier this week. It reveals just how much the Republican tide has seemingly now receeded. Is it merely a temporary end? Perhaps. Only time and the election of 2008 will tell. But I was genuinely surprised to see that, according to the poll, Republicans now outnumber Democrats in only 6 (mostly small) states -- TX, UT, SC, NE, WY, ID. Even Georgia is now labeled as "comparable" which means it may be in play for 2008, but I doubt it.

I realize that not everyone around here defers to poll results as much as I do. And I get that. But I would note that these polls were dead-on accurate as recently as the election of 2006. On the other hand, Karl Rove's self-proclaimed "own math" hasn't been seen lately, even at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue!

Anyway, here's the story. The link is above.

An average of all national Gallup polling in 2006, consisting of interviews with more than 30,000 adult Americans, finds 34% of Americans identifying as Democrats, 30% as Republicans, and 34% as independents. The parties had been relatively even in terms of national strength since 2001. The most recent figures represent the largest Democratic advantage since the Clinton presidency.

The increasing Democratic advantage is mainly due to declining Republican identification, rather than increasing Democratic identification. From 2004-2006, Republican identification declined from 34% to 30%, while Democratic identification increased by less than a percentage point (33.6% to 34.3%). During the last three years, the percentage of Americans identifying as independents increased from 31% to 34%.

The Democrats' advantage expands when taking into account the "leanings" of independents. In 2006, 50% of Americans identified as Democrats or were independents who said they leaned toward the Democratic Party. 40% identified as Republicans or leaned to the Republican Party. That 10-point advantage more than doubled the Democrats' 4-point advantage in 2005, and is the largest gap Gallup has measured in any year for either party since it regularly began tracking leaned party identification in 1991. This is the first time since 1991 that a party's support reached the 50% level.

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