Archive for the ‘Government and public policies’ Category

 Answer: When a tax resumes its original level as required by law.

The Bush tax cuts enacted in 2001 and 2003 were to expire by the terms of the law that enacted them at the end of 2010.  You’ll recall last December the confrontation that occurred in Congress and between the Congress and the White House over a temporary extension of those cuts for two years based on an argument that a tax “increase”, that is to say permitting the tax rates to assume their levels prior to the cuts, should not take place during a delicate and tenuous economic recovery.

Based on this argument, the Bush tax cuts were permitted to continue for two more years, presumably to help stimulate that recovery.

But, since Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush, those who favored the original cuts and didn’t seem concerned with the deficits they produced, even during multiple wars, now are desperately concerned with deficits and “big government.”  Even such a conservative icon as Vice President Cheney was heard to say, during the astounding rise in deficits on his watch: “Deficits don’t matter.”

In Washington-speak what this means is: Republican deficits don’t matter: Democratic deficits matter a lot.

So now President Obama and many others propose to permit the original, pre-Bush tax rates to assume their original levels for the rich as a means of requiring the wealthiest two percent of our society to pay a share recognized as fair since the introduction of graduated taxes.  And what response is given by those now so desperate to balance the budget (as never before): “Don’t raise taxes.”

Permitting a temporary tax cut to expire as the original law provided is not “raising taxes”.  It is just that: letting taxes on the very wealthy return to their pre-cut levels in the interest of bringing down deficits.  The Bush tax cuts were but one more failed experiment in the flawed “supply side” theory of taxes.  They have never paid for themselves in increased revenues.  They have simply sped up the shift of wealth upward.

And don’t buy the argument that the richest Americans need tax relief so that they will invest in economic growth.  Nonsense.  The banks, corporations, and wealthiest Americans are hoarding massive amounts of cash and simply refusing to invest it…presumably until they are assured of maximum returns.  Giving them even more money will not guarantee a change in behavior.

Are We a Society?

Author: Gary Hart

           When asked about the impact of her draconian policies on British society, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said, “There is no such thing as society.”

            The current U.S. budget confrontation raises the same issue: is there such a thing as an American society?  The Oxford dictionary defines society as: “the sum of human conditions and activity regarded as a whole functioning interdependently” and as “the customs and organization of an ordered community.”

            The current confrontation between parties and ideologies is over the role of government.  But even more deeply it is a foundational disagreement over whether we are a society, a community, or whether we are a collection of individuals inhabiting the same geographical space.

            If we are all “in this together,” then we share more than just an interest in collective security.  And if we have collective interests, the instrument by which we pursue and promote those interests is the national government, not Wall Street or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

            As we learned in 1929 and 2008, markets can fail, usually through greed and lack of regulation.  Although a rising tide lifts all boats, a falling tide lowers all boats, except for the gilded yachts.

            The Goldwater-Reagan-Gingrich-Tea Party revolutions all called into question whether we are a society and therefore whether we act through our national government to pursue our common interests.  Though virtually all mature democracies have basically resolved this question decades ago, the people of the United States seem unable to do so.  Many Americans continue to believe we can have the public services a very large majority wants without paying very much for them.  Thus the “waste, fraud, and abuse” of the Reagan years.  Or a recurring vocal minority continues to argue that we should do away with those services altogether and devil-take-the-hindmost.

            It would be an interesting, though destructive, experiment to see how many Americans would like the nation the Tea Party seeks to construct.

            The current, and perpetually recurring, confrontation is only symbolically about “spending.”  Public programs flow from policies.  Policies flow from partisan ideologies.  Ideologies flow from political philosophies.  So long as the question of whether we are a society, a national community as Franklin Roosevelt believed, remains contested, so long will budget wars continue carried out by factions waving one banner or another mostly decrying the evils of government.

            Thomas Jefferson wanted our government to do only those necessary things that individuals could not do for themselves.  That is quite a large territory.  It includes transportation systems, public safety and judicial systems, public education, and national security among many other undertakings.  The real confrontation is over the social safety net constructed between the age of Roosevelt and the age of Johnson.  Overwhelmingly, the American people wish to maintain this safety net.  They simply do not wish to bear its costs, nor do they wish to accept its demise which would involve taking our grandparents back into our homes.

            In a perfect world we would have a great debate throughout the nation, not just in Washington, over the issue of whether we are a society, a national community, and, if so, what role we wish the national government to bear in maintaining that community.  Alas, we do not live in a perfect world.  So we let our elected officials struggle over budget cuts that are but symbols of our deeper dilemma and our unresolved definition of who we really are.  Two hundred and twenty years should have been enough time to have resolved this question.

Double Deja Vu

Author: Gary Hart

 If you live long enough you often see events seem to recur.  In 1979, as chair of the Nuclear Regulatory subcommittee of the Senate Environment Committee, I conducted the Senate’s investigation of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, including flying in a military helicopter over the plant when, we found out later, the reactor was critical.

The subsequent investigation and hearings led to major reforms in operations and oversight of the nation’s existing reactors.  But it all came back with the Fukushima nuclear crisis the last few days.

Even before Fukushima, and despite the emerging consensus favoring renewed attention to nuclear power as a partial solution to global warming, no new reactor construction applications have been submitted.  The problem with nuclear power is not simply one of safety.  It is one more of economics.  So long as we depend on OPEC oil supplies, OPEC can drop its prices and make multi-billion dollar plant investments uneconomic overnight.

In the spring of 1991, I was invited by the Libyan government in secret to negotiate an arrangement with the first Bush administration whereby the PanAm bombers would be turned over to us in exchange for the opening of negotiations leading toward normalization of diplomatic relations.  There were days of serious discussions in Geneva and then in Tripoli.  It came to nothing because the Bush administration turned down the offer and we had to wait several years to finally get the bombers.

While in Tripoli for three days I spent a good deal of time with an English speaking young minister.  A high official in the Italian government told me thereafter that he was “the most dangerous man in the world.”  It turned out to be Moussa Koussa, Libya’s current foreign minister who just defected to the West.

It makes one wonder what further recycling of history may occur.

If you believe our nation is basically sound, and if you believe fairness and opportunity are still universally available in America, I urge you not to watch a movie called Waiting For Superman.  If you have any conscience at all, it will break your heart.
You will see the desperate decline and potential collapse of our public school system, considered by Thomas Jefferson to be absolutely essential to the survival of the American Republic.  For the decline of public education is not merely an economic issue of competition with the Chinese.  It is a moral issue at the core of what a nation with a heart owes its children and future generations.
In this movie you will see teachers failing to teach and students failing to learn.  You will see parents desperate to get their children into better schools that offer hope for the future.  You will also see those students, often quite young, waiting for their number to come up in a cruel lottery where only a few will be chosen.  You will see their young faces when their number does not come up. 
Though only elementary school students, they know instinctively they have lost their best, perhaps their last, hope of living a better, more productive life. 
If those last pictures do not cause you to weep for them and for your country, then you have entered the land where hearts no longer break.

More than even Afghanistan and Iraq, the profile of 21st century conflict is represented by Libya.  A civil war involving the overthrow of a dictator by indigenous forces, in a nation rich with oil, in which the oil-consuming Atlantic nations intervene militarily to prevent the dictator from slaughtering his own people.  Meanwhile, those same nations are not intervening on behalf of indigenous uprisings in Bahrain, which also has oil, and Yemen.  These latter two countries have been much more helpful to us than Libya has.

There is every indication that some Libyans rising up against Ghaddafi are also anti-American, possibly to the point of supporting terrorism.  We don’t know whether this is true in Libya or elsewhere because we had not developed intelligence on the Arab “street”.  Sound confusing?  It should. 

Conflict in this century will make 20th century nation-state wars, against imperialists, fascists, and communists, look simple by comparison.  Good guys versus bad guys.  But what principles do we use to decide on intervention where neither side threatens us, where both sides or all sides may be unpleasant guys, where one side or both sides don’t wear uniforms, and where clear moral authority is not possessed by anyone?  This new century of conflict is going to be much more grey and plaid than black and white.

It is to be hoped that we don’t simply decide to use military force by the toss of a coin.  That would be a prescription for willy-nilly arbitrariness honored by no one.  So far, the only positive development in the Libyan arena is the rare leadership shown by Britain and France.  They seem to have forced our hand.  But that is not all bad.  I have believed for quite some time that other democratic nations had to step up on peace making and peace keeping.  We can’t and shouldn’t try to do it all.  Let’s hope this new spirit of shared responsibility expands. 

Even so, we are all going to need a new set of consistent and defensible principles on when and how to intervene in the affairs of other nations.

A Great Man’s Birthday

Author: Gary Hart

This month former president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev will celebrate his 80th birthday.  Few figures in the second half of the 20th century have been as pivotal as he was.

For decades to come historians will debate and deliberate over the end of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and how credit for both should be allocated.  The best account to date has been rendered by one of America’s most effective career diplomats, Ambassador Jack Matlock.  His book, published this year, is entitled: “Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led American Astray–and How to Return to Reality”.

Ambassador Matlock was our ambassador in the Soviet Union during the Gorbachev era and participated in every summit President Reagan had with the Soviet leader.  He saw both men about as close as they could be seen.  He wrote his book after neo-conservatives in the George W. Bush administration argued for war in Iraq and the use of military force as a principal instrument of diplomacy.  He makes a powerful case, based on the Reagan-Gorbachev experience, that this is folly.

Ambassador Matlock admires President Reagan and thinks his change of course on Russia and the Soviet Union to have been critical.  But he also says that this alone did not end the Cold War.  He believes and so documents that Mikhail Gorbachev took dramatic, unprecedented steps within the Soviet structure and toward the U.S. that made the end of the Cold War possible…and paid for those steps with exile.

Only history, accurately told, can finally render praise and blame.  For myself, I have sent President Gorbachev, a friend since 1986, best wishes for a happy birthday…and warmest thanks for his courage.

Fiction in Foreign Policy

Author: Gary Hart

The 21st century is wasting no time in letting the U.S. know we don’t run things anymore, in case there is anyone left who thought we did.  From Tunisia to Oman everyday people are rising up, in almost every case against governments with whom we were friendly or whom, in the case of Egypt, we heavily supported financially.

These lessons work both ways.  We are about to get a really profound lesson from a government we have opposed for fifty years–Cuba.  Future students of American history will be scratching their heads about this case for decades to come.  Our embargo and refusal to normalize diplomatic relations has nothing to do with communism.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t have had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War, with China since Nixon, and with Vietnam despite our bitter war there.

No, Cuba was pure politics.  Though it started out to be a measure of an administration’s resistance to Castro’s politics, it very soon became a straight-jacket whereby first-generation Cuban-Americans wielded inordinate political power over both parties and constructed a veto over rational, mature diplomacy.

That is about to end.  And wouldn’t you know it is ending because of…oil.  In an important report a few days ago, the Center for Democracy in the Americas ( documented major oil exploration and production plans off Cuba’s northwest coast in the Gulf of Mexico.  Guess who is helping develop this major project.  China.  It is building a state of the art drilling rig, according to Italian design and paid for by the Spanish state oil company (welcome to globalization), which will then be towed 10,000 miles to Cuban territorial waters. 

Because of our Neanderthal policy toward Cuba, the U.S. will neither profit from the production nor will it be in a position to apply its post-BP experience to make the exploration environmentally safe–though it is 50 miles from Florida’s coastline.  This is both sad and embarrassing. 

Second generation Cuban-Americans are finally beginning to change their community’s attitudes and make it clear they no longer are interested in holding the mighty U.S.’s foreign policy toward a tiny nearby country hostage to their parents’ anger.

Everyday people in North Africa and the Middle East are taking control of their own destiny, largely without our help.  Maybe this new generation of Cuban-Americans will do the same to straighten out one of the U.S.’s strangest foreign policy detours in its history.

Even so, why does it always have to be about oil?

The current struggle for America’s soul is between a Coolidge/Hoover coalition that wishes to use current budget deficits to eliminate as much of the Great Society and the New Deal as it can and a reactionary liberal faction represented by much of the Democratic party that fights primarily to prevent this from happening.  The Nostalgic are right to do so, but that will not restore economic health.

The Old stretches from antique FDR haters to present day anti-government know-nothings using, as I strongly believe, deficits purposely trumped up by “supply-side” tax cuts (not to say also two expensive, prolonged wars) to justify returning us to pre-Depression America with no ladders of opportunity, safety nets for the elderly and the young, and regulations to protect food, workers, consumers, and the environment.

The Nostalgic are those in the Democratic party now bargaining with the Old as to how much of this to permit.  A number of Democratic leaders are complicite in the tax cuts for the wealthy and the Iraq war (see The Courage of Our Convictions), so they are prevented from assessing blame.  Most people think of “liberal” as innovative.  But I was involved in a national nomination campaign more than a quarter century ago where the party opted to protect its traditional policies rather than prepare for a dramatically changing world of globalization, information, energy security, and military reform.  It is possible to be “liberal”, in the sense of the left, and still be reactionary when the choice is to protect the past or to innovate for the future.

The only way to make any serious dent in the federal deficit by spending cuts is to abandon the New Deal safety net (which primarily benefits the middle class) and the Great Society ladders of opportunity (Head Start and so forth).  This is the project of the Old.  The other option, tax increases, is not feasible in an economic downturn and when the right has made paying for the government people want seem socialistic.

The most viable option is to make the economy grow again, but not at the old levels and not merely by manipulation of money, which is what passed for growth for the past two or three decades.  I mean real growth based on an explosion of innovation in the technology sectors (including medicine), in energy creativity (fusion), in services (requiring US workers, not Indians and Pakistanis to provide them), in transportation (fast trains), in new food production techniques (vertical farms), in construction (synthetic materials), in water (desalination), in carbon replacement, in about every sector of the global economy where American innovation still can lead.

While Wall Street waits for these innovations to prove profitable before investing, and the Old and the Nostalgic struggle to clean up the mistakes of the past, the real role for government in the 21st century is to stimulate a cascade of innovation, which is the only way to put our economy back on its feet, to make it grow, and to provide the revenues to maintain a truly civilized society.

So said Winston Churchill who then added the punch line: “…except for all the others.”  An accompanying American colloquialism is: “If you like laws or sausages, never watch either one being made.”  Any doubts about either of these observations should be erased by current developments in both the Middle East and in Madison, Wisconsin.

A lot of people in the Middle East are rising up to overthrow autocratic governments and in some cases, as in Libya, sacrificing their lives to do so.  Whether what follows in the several upheavals underway comes to resemble democracy of any hue remains to be seen.  Struggles for power have begun, struggles involving the military, religious factions, entrenched wealth, and the lifeblood of much of the region–oil.

There are lessons to be learned meanwhile about the limits of power, in this case American power.  Were we as powerful as some believe, both here and elsewhere, we would play a dominant role in the outcome of these struggles.  No doubt we have interests.  Sadly, oil from the Persian Gulf, and militarily the Fifth Fleet base in Bahrain.  Except for trying to identify the winners, and encouraging them to be democrats, however, there is little we can do to shape the outcomes.

Meanwhile, in Washington and Madison, and soon in many other State capitols around the country we are seeing democracy in action with street demonstrations that don’t look all that much different from Cairo and other cities.  Democracy is easy when the economic pie is growing.  It begins to creak and crack, however, when the pie is shrinking.

The struggle here is whether we will return to a pre-New Deal America with many fewer ladders of opportunity, safety nets for the poor and elderly, and regulatory protections for consumers, workers, and the environment.  That is really what this endless political struggle in American regarding the size and role of government is about.  There is some evidence to support the theory that the unstated purpose behind so-called “supply side” tax cuts was to create such huge deficits that the domestic role of government would have to return to the age of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge.  Two endless wars have not helped in this regard.

Hold on to your seats.  For we are entering a period when we will find out how strong American democracy really is…and what our values really are.  When the tea party gets the kind of government it claims to want, few Americans are going to like it.  But then, of course, we will have to start our struggle for justice and fairness all over again.

I Want To Be Just Like You

Author: Gary Hart

The immigration “debate”, which routinely produces more heat than light, is contentious in part because it assumes foreign people entering the United States want to remain foreigners and not become Americans.  Most recently the British prime minister decried “multiculturalism” because it was producing more or less permanent ghettos in the U.K.  American critics of Mexican immigrants often reflect the same opinion.  And throughout our history as every wave of immigrants arrived here, there were always haters who sought to keep them in their place.

Experience, at least in the U.S., proves that immigrants don’t want to be separate and will find a way to break out of a majority-imposed ghetto.  Name a hyphenated-American group that has refused to integrate.  Of course, different cultures, like different religions, seek to retain their identity.  But it is a fundamental fact of human nature that young people want to fit in.  They want to dress like, eat like, date like, and mostly of all sound like American kids.  Even though none of us can change our skin color, it is amazing to look at and listen to kids of varying colors and nationalities who look like and sound like fifth generation American kids.  We didn’t become a melting pot by accident.

This powerful urge is called assimilation.  Anyone over 50 finds it difficult.  Everyone above the age of 5 finds it easy and important.  Assimilation is very near the heart of the genius of America.  People all over the world want to come here for a lot of reasons, most importantly economic opportunity.  But they–and most of all their children–want to become Americans in every sense of the word.  You don’t do that by insisting on speaking your original language or dressing in strange clothing.  Besides which, television and global marketing are making millions of people all over the world into something like Americans.  Osama bin Laden hates this.

Whatever else the immigration debate–one in a series of many throughout our history–is about, it should not be about assimilation.  Pick virtually any nationality group and bring them to the United States.  It is an absolute guarantee that their children will be every bit as American as yours and mine