Why I won’t whine about federal taxes.

If you’ve ever tried to find an issue of the Congressional Record from say, April 18, 1959, you too know that it is much, much easier to find a particular episode of Law & Order playing on TV at any given time.

I spent much of yesterday morning searching for page 5696 on that date.  No luck.

Photo from columbia.edu/Corbis Bettman

Finally, I threw in the towel and emailed the Library of Congress. I expected I would hear back in a week or so. Twenty hours later, the answer is in my mailbox.

The anonymous Digital Reference Section did what elected officials always want government programs to do: Gave me some help, and then provided the tools for me to do the job myself next time.

The librarian attached Cong Record April 18 1959.  She or he was careful not to rub my nose in this failure, explaining that the 1950s were not available online, and oops! — the page numbers were 6252-53, not page 5696. Next time I know to go to a Federal Depository Library (all cities have ‘em) and get the stuff.

Oh, and the clip I was seeking? It announced an NAACP  youth march in Washington, D.C., in which thousands of young people, black and white, planned to demand equal rights for all.  “And they won’t take no for an answer.”

So, that’s why I won’t complain about taxes.

The Big Green Machine gets greener.

What if they gave a war and nobody wasted fuel?

As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman writes, it might just happen. Seems the US Navy and Marine Corps  are thinking green. “God Bless Them. The Few. The Proud. The Green. Semper Fi.” as he puts it.

As Friedman points out, Big Oil has such a stranglehold on Congress that there isn’t a chance in hell that any fuel-reducing strategies are going to make it into practice. But the Marines and Navy are figuring out ways to float green ships and keep the lights on in the war with fewer of those hyper-dangerous fuel convoys. Fewer convoys, fewer soldiers killed by roadside bombs.

And that’s the micro view in this war. In the big picture, if we were less oil dependent, it would change the whole political and economic ballgame.

Aside from the enviro benefits and Friedman’s point about a weak-kneed Congress, this campaign reminds me how much our view of the military has changed, especially among young Americans. War is still “not healthy for children and other living things” as the poster on my childhood bedroom wall claimed, but attitudes are very different. I am still haunted by the booing and back-turning that happened when my sister’s friends came home from Vietnam. We sent boys to be killed in the jungle, and punished them more when they came home.

If the military stays on this green path, it will change this dynamic even more. Won’t it be amazing if the day comes when we look around and realize that the biggest eco-heroes are in uniform?

Land of (limited) milk and honey.

We Americans have a hard time deciding if we’re a Land of Opportunity or Opportunism.

We’ve got a thriving “income defense industry,” which New York Times writer Paul Sullivan defines as “accountants, lawyers and financial advisers employed by the wealthy — and the merely affluent — to manage their financial affairs.”  (See the entire article, here.)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with holding on to your hard-earned gains, but much of what these defenders do amounts to standing on the necks of those living way down the food chain. The money-guarders’ machinations mean more tax dollars are growing interest off in distant accounts, not here at home paying for schools and roads.

Yet some of the tax dollars that are collected end up funding programs that do help the little gal. Case in point (and written about in the same issue of the NYT) is the feds’ 203(k) mortgage program. This little-touted method of borrowing allows us to buy ailing properties with small down payments and then renovate them under what seem like some wisely strict regulations. (Lynnley Browning’s article, here.)

Even when we have a good idea that benefits the worker bee in our society, we seem to make sure it doesn’t fully succeed. (For a start, can’t someone give better names to these tax-status things? Let’s branch out to punctuation marks at least: the 203(!) program would look a lot more upbeat, wouldn’t it?)

What we need is a better income defense industry for the regular folks. That used to be the job of elected officials, but, well, they’re busy elsewhere.

Yeah, Nick. I’m sorry too.

Prejudice, even xenophobia, is not always all about hate. Sometimes it’s about plain ol’ laziness.

This insight dropped on me this morning like the anvil in the old Roadrunner cartoons. Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column, “Message to Muslims: I’m Sorry” was the shove.

Kristof makes the point that those of us who fume over the question “Why don’t moderate Muslims speak up against extremists?” should also ask another question:

Why don’t I, a moderate non-Muslim in America, speak up against the extremists in my own country?

Well, let’s see. I guess I’ve decided that Tea Party folks, Fox News, Rush Whatshisname, and followers of Sarah Palin are so absurd that there’s no reason to spend time debating their hateful and demoralizing messages and their flatly untrue “reporting.”

And I guess I’ve shrugged off the Arizona approach to illegal immigration because it seems so patently ineffective that it is beside the point to decry its racism.

And maybe because our tax structure is easily dismissed as slimy self-interested rich people taking care of their own, I haven’t felt much need to point out that it is systematic discrimination and larceny directed at the working poor.

In other words, because it is easier to ask: Why don’t those moderate Muslims stand up for what’s right?

I’ll tell you what: I’ll do better.

As with any new exercise, I’ll start slow. Whenever I hear someone trot out that moderate Muslim criticism, I’ll look up from my full plate in my cozy home long enough to say: Bullshit.

I can do it, I know I can.

Give Mom a check, and she’ll spend it on rent.

This post by Paula Span on The New Old Age blog in The New York Times is intriguing. It makes sense, but who knew Social Security had this effect so quickly?

(I’ve excerpted, then edited it down. See the whole piece here.)

In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, almost 70 percent of elderly widows lived with an adult child; by 1990, that proportion had plummeted to 20 percent, according to the Census Bureau.

Economists Robert F. Schoeni of the University of Michigan and Kathleen McGarry, now at Dartmouth College, investigated this phenomenon, using more than a century of Census data showing where elderly widows resided…they pinpointed the year the big change began: 1940. After that, the graph depicting the percentage of widows living with children resembles a ski slope: down, down and down some more, until by 1990 more than 60 percent of widows lived ALONE.

So what happened in 1940? The economists, testing various hypotheses, found a far simpler explanation.

In 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. In 1940, the monthly checks began to flow. And even those tiny checks — Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vt., got the first one, for $22.54 — were enough to allow widows, who had historically high poverty rates, to remain in their homes. As Social Security benefits rose and reached a larger proportion of the elderly, the trend toward remaining at home accelerated.

The single greatest factor driving this immense cultural shift, in other words, was economic. Once elders no longer had to move in with their children to survive, most opted not to.

“When they have more income and they have a choice of how to live, they choose to live alone,” Ms. McGarry said. “They buy their independence.”

Recalling the recall chat.

We recently had our washing machine recalled. Seven of its sister machines had rudely shocked the owners, innocent people just trying to stay ahead of the t-shirt pile.

Our machine did indeed turn out to be one of the few with the defect. I’d used the thing almost daily for over a year unknowingly risking my life. I tell you, this housewife thing is like combat.

The machine was fixed by a nice man who stuck around to share half my almond-butter sandwich and chat about the risks of wayward appliances and the politics of recalls. We wondered what people get paid when their washer turns on them. We wondered if recalls could be a way to manipulate stock prices. It was the sort of enjoyable conversation that two strangers have when neither one knows anything about the topics discussed. Sort of like a Tea Party gathering, only we weren’t blaming the government for high taxes, cellulite or anything else that has ruined our lives.

I wish the story in yesterday’s New York Times had appeared earlier. It was  headlined “Johnson & Johnson Recalls Hip Implants” and it would have been fascinating to kick around that development with the washer guy. Maybe some other customer will mention it to him.

Sweet land of liberty. Wait, not so fast.

Right on schedule: Times are tough, jobs are scarce, so the loudmouths look around for someone to bully.

The Sunday New York Times tells me:

1. Half of the 14.6 million people out of work have been that way for more than six months.

2. A group of senior Republican senators wants to revisit the 14th Amendment, which allows American-born children citizenship, regardless of their parents’ status. And, across the country there is frantic railing against plans to build Islamic mosques–especially a proposal for one near the World Trade Center’s graveyard.

Regardless of how you feel about people who come here following the ideal of freedom or those here who insist that they should be able to worship who/what/where they wish–you’ll surely agree with this:

If the Republican senators  put their considerable energy, taxpayer-provided resources and powerful media platforms to work on solving the unemployment problem, they could do it. If the likes of mediagenic Sarah Palin, a vocal opponent to mosque construction, joined in…even better.

Instead, they are repeating mistakes of the past that will exact a price far greater than we can afford.

Keep your tired, your poor...

We perfected this behavior long ago, when the Civil War ravaged the Southern economy and led to a new kind of racism and segregation. The period called Reconstruction promised a lot to African Americans. Almost all of those promises were broken within a few years. Then, as now, citizenship was something to be denied, then granted, then denied again by the ruling class.

It took the South a century to recover and begin to thrive economically after legislation and social mores forced “free” blacks to the back of the bus and denied them the basic rights that came with citizenship for their white neighbors.

Along with the xenophobic and racist policies, the region got a culture that worked white mill workers (including their children) literally to death, and ensured they’d die in debt to the company store. Citizens and de facto slaves alike woke up to a land stripped of coal, timber and other resources by the same folks who promised that segregated mills would lead the South out of its poor past. Fast forward a few decades and see how it played out: The images seen around the world of dogs and fire hoses being used to govern are still synonymous with “the South” and “civil rights,” despite the enormous progress of the last 60 years.

We’re out of work, we’re broke, we’re scared and we’re going to fix it all by putting our collective foot on the necks of whomever we can keep down.

It won’t work this time around either.

(NYTimes stories: “Jobless And Staying That Way” by Nelson D. Schwartz and  “I’m American. And You?” by Matt Bai. Also, “Across Nation Mosque Projects Meet Opposition,” by Laurie Goodstein.)

Taxes are not the enemy.

We Portlanders used to go online or pick up the phone to get the city’s help on anything from graffiti to a wily garbage-tipping raccoon to a pothole. Now the handy online forms seem to be disappearing and the corps of neighborhood helpers has been whittled down.  I picture a stadium-sized empty office with a lot of phones tethered to one answering machine.

This isn’t unique to Portland, and in fact the Rose City is better off than most. But everywhere I turn, I hear or read people grumbling about taxes and bloated government. (What is it with old high school boyfriends on Facebook who turn into such right-wing whackjobs?)

Let’s not simplify this to the point of idiocy. Taxes are not evil. We should reserve our ire for politicians who make entire platforms out of promises to cut taxes. Cutting waste and shifting priorities is vital, but that doesn’t mean putting on a blindfold and heading out to the weedy garden with a machete.

This New York Times column, “America Goes Dark,” by Paul Krugman hits it on the head:

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.

(PS: If you need to rail at someone or something about huge waste and routine gouging of the little people…Big Banks present plenty of opportunities. Check this out. Wells Fargo is not the only bank defending its practice of charging customers big fees for small services.)

Goodbye Senator Byrd. Be glad you missed the news today.

One of the faceless commentators talking during the solemn carrying of Senator Robert Byrd’s casket this morning observed that the most significant thing about the late Senator’s tenure is the enormous social change on his long watch.

Byrd himself exemplified that change, moving from membership in the Ku Klux Klan as a young West Virginian to a supporter of civil rights measures as a seasoned statesman.

The comment no doubt gave a lot of other people pause as it did me. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would have thought longer and deeper about the thesis had the footage of Byrd not been followed by a live studio shot about the oil spill.  On the set was one of the new news-hotties stretching her long legs from a tall chair facing the camera, chatting with Phillipe Cousteau Jr, grandson of the revered Jacques Cousteau.

Yes, Senator Byrd lived a long life. Long enough to die on a day when “news” comes from a nitwit in snakeskin high heels schmoozing a low-wattage, high-ancestry bullshitter about one of the worst environmental disasters on record.

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

This is your ivy-covered brain on drugs.

Reed College in Portland has long enjoyed its reputation as a haven for the brainy, gifted and creative student. In recent years it’s also become a standout for the idiotic public state-of-denial exuded by its president and top brass who allowed a monster drug problem to take root on campus.

A couple of heroin overdoses didn’t rattle the top dogs as much as the feds stepping in with warnings that undercover cops will be milling about during a campus festival that historically has been a haven for drug sales and use. Now, at last, it looks like the college’s leadership might just have to grow some cojones.

From The New York Times:

“…Law enforcement officials raised an unusual theory of liability. Under a federal law intended to close crack houses, anyone who knowingly operates premises where drugs are used may be subject to serious criminal and civil penalties. Education lawyers, however, said they were unaware of that law’s ever being contemplated, let alone used, in the context of higher education.”

You can bet the “education lawyers” associated with Reed are now sweating the possibility of being the first case in which this “knowingly operates” clause is applied within academia.

The students, of course, will find an amusing, telegenic way to thumb their collective nose at the police presence on campus during the fair. They, at least, act in character, questioning authority. Maybe the leadership of their college will buck up and act in character too. Finally.

Holsters and health care.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has answered a question that’s been nagging at me: What’s really behind the strong opposition to the health care plan?

I know that some people worry that changes in insurance regulations will erode the coverage they already have. I’m convinced that out-and-out racism plays a role and that some opponents are more interested in seeing President Obama fail than taking care of their neighbors.

But these things don’t explain the fiery anger, the bold willingness to stand up in front of the entire world and say NO to better care for more Americans, including millions of children, hardworking adults and folks with chronic conditions that can be labeled “preexisting.”

Barbour’s now much-quoted remark about guns turned the light bulb on over my head:

“I do not believe the United States government has a right, it has the authority or power to force us to purchase health insurance any more than, in the name of homeland security, they can force every American to have to buy a gun,” the governor said.”

Setting aside for the moment that this statement is historically inaccurate (look up the Second Militia Act of 1792 in which folks were indeed required to go forth and get guns), Barbour’s sound byte speaks volumes. On some level these opponents simply do not believe that decent health care is something every person needs, therefore they see no reason to create laws that ensure its delivery. They see health care as an option, a luxury; something that people elect to have, like the premium cable package.

Here’s what I’d like to see: A running ticker like the ones in Times Square that report stock prices. Only this one would chart each visit to a doctor or medical facility by an elected official who votes on health care measures, state or federal.

Consider this: rental credits = coverage

The kneecapping may be over between enemies fighting over health care reform, but lesser shin-kicking will continue.

We’ve got some miles to go before these changes to our health care system and insurance industry are really “historic” as is being said. For now, it’s a live battle.

There’s plenty of good news, however. Reform that gets more kids covered or keeps folks with preexisting conditions in the fold is long overdue. Somewhere, the late Sen. Ted Kennedy can be proud.

One big worry, it seems to me, is the continued reliance on the workplace as the host for insurance.

Obviously it makes sense for most people to get coverage through employers, but alternative models would put new safety nets in place. We’ll have the infrastructure to do this. The new reform package includes a plan for health-coverage exchanges/marketplaces where consumers not covered by employers can “shop” for their insurance. Why not expand this plan?

One way to do that: Create small renter tax credits and allow taxpayers to cash ‘em in for coverage plans in those new marketplaces.

My neighbors down the street are a case in point. Yes, they will be helped by the new reforms–with a chronically ill adult, a young-adult employed part-time and a child, they have several vulnerabilities addressed by the plan just passed. But they aren’t out of the woods yet. The head of the household is retired, so traditional employer-based coverage is not in place. He is not old enough for Medicare yet.

Because the family rents a house, they don’t get the tax break that we get for paying interest on a mortgage. Now that the American dream of homeownership at any cost has proven to be something of a nightmare, perhaps it’s the ideal time to revisit a structure that rewards only “owners” versus reliable renters–and to do so in a way that allows people like my neighbors to have a real stake in their health care coverage.

A man for all, some, and no seasons

General Alexander Haig was a man of immense contradictions.

The former Secretary of State, who kept the home fires burning while Nixon went down, was an intelligent speaker who fractured the English language; a soldier who eschewed chain-of-command behavior. He was a statesman who alarmed presidents with his Papal devotion and naked ambition to assume the highest secular role in America.

The New York Times obit by Tim Weiner does a masterful job of fitting a biography in a small space. Read it here.

Time for groundshaking change

Why is it that earthquakes always hit so hard in the poorest areas?

The erudite New York Times columnist David Brooks reminds us that poverty means shakily constructed buildings, inadequate water, sewer and medical services even before the disaster strikes. He offers grisly evidence of how that plays out: The 1989 quake in the Bay Area and the recent one in Haiti were the same magnitude: 7.0. But while 63 people died in California, upwards of 50,000 are dead in Haiti.

The United States sends trillions in aid to poorer counties like Haiti, and it clearly hasn’t helped enough. Brooks raises our dismal record at bringing about economic growth around the globe. He cites the various reasons: We’re basically clumsy at this sort of thing; micro-aid, while important, is only one piece of the puzzle; and — most interesting to me — our concerns about cultural correctness.

Brooks, comparing Haiti’s poverty to the Dominican Republic’s progress, puts it this way:

“Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.”

Haiti, he writes, has resisted progress for a number of reasons: the influence of voodoo religion that emphasizes life’s capriciousness; mistrust of authority; widespread neglect and abuse of children. (Who presumably do not grow up equipped to improve things.)

“We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures,” Brooks writes. “But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

The point here is not to hold back dollars to Haiti, but to use this nightmarish earthquake to take a hard look at how US aid can be used to help other countries grow out of poverty. We don’t have a great track record in this, but we do now have the right person in the White House to push the issue — someone who can speak plainly on the traditions and cultural behaviors that block progress.  The rest of the world will listen to President Obama when he talks about culture, poverty and duty.

Blazing new insurance trails

When my bathrobe belt got caught in the silverware drawer this morning, nearly giving me whiplash, it started me thinking.

Why isn’t the health-insurance industry bombarding us with new products? It’s clear that whatever way the wind ultimately blows, the days of “pre-existing condition” translating as “license to print money” are coming to a close.  Sure seems like an ideal time to drum up some business.

There’s nothing risky about blatant doom-based insurance marketing. When cancer insurance came out years ago, there was a collective gasp from those consumers who thought it opportunistic and macabre. But people got over their pique and bought the policies.

So, how about some coverage that meets untapped needs of aging boomers? Dedicated policies for deafness resulting from all those rock concerts? Stair-tumbles linked to depth-distorting reading glasses? I’m positive that many of us would jump at coverage meant to protect us from the costs of the inevitable carpal tunnel, blurred vision and squishy discs resulting from hunching over computers all day.

And, for sure, cosmetic-procedure protection would fly: Botox, lipo and eye lifts gone bad; sloppy tattoo removal, and please, please, please, some relief for those over-pursed victims of that lip-plumping, sheep-collagen injection nonsense.

Come on people, show some initiative. Those big ol’ insurance buildings and CEO salaries don’t pay for themselves you know.

Not quite a Christmas miracle, but close

The health care measure passed by the Democrats: It isn’t perfect, but it’s a whole lot closer to perfect than anything we’ve had so far.

If you’re a woman or a man, with kids or without, if you have a chronic health condition or someone who never darkens a doctor’s door…it’s all good. Go out and light a candle to the late Ted Kennedy today. And maybe one for the lobbyists from AARP too.

If you’re fuming about the possibility that your excellent existing coverage might cost a bit more next year…well, just go have some eggnog and get over your selfish self.

Bite this: A little satire among friends…

At last, a meaningful debate about feeding the hungry:

Should food stamp purchases be restricted to healthy stuff? Or, more accurately, should the rules keep stamp users from buying bad stuff, like junk food?

The New York Times has a series of bloggers weighing in on the question, here.

I personally feel it is high time that we clamp down on the growing problem of government-funded purchases of hot dogs.

Of COURSE, we, the taxpayers who make food stamps possible, should get to decide what poor people eat! (And, admit it, that would be sort of fun, right? No more standing next to some food-stamp slacker at Winco while she buys Cheese Doodles. Now she’s gotta buy… lentils. Yeah, the 10-pound sack!)

Poor people, as everyone knows, need guidance…and a lot of it. If they could handle big decisions on their own — like buying white bread instead of whole-grain — they wouldn’t be in whatever mess got them on the bread line in the first place, would they?

Aside from the nutritional case to be made for getting more people into a high-fiber zipcode, closer regulation of food stamps would put an end to the growing problem of poor people spending so much time sitting around dining tables, yukking it up over a fun meal. A serious, focused mindset is key to finding gainful employment and pulling oneself up out of poverty. Every hour lingering over high-fat, high-sodium chicken pot pies is an hour lost.

I could flog this point, but, oops!, there goes the oven timer! Got to go!