Saturday, December 28, 2002

TEN GUYS AT A TABLE: THE REST OF THE STORY

There's a very annoying guest piece in the Lincoln Journal Star from December 26th written by William Orr. For those of you who are not Nebraskans, William Orr is husband of former governor Kay Orr, who gave us our corporate kickback scheme still the most sacred cow in our budget. Mr. Orr has served as a lobbyist and activist for conservative causes.

Here's the guts of the piece, a conservative chestnut: "Suppose that every day, 10 men go out for dinner. The bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this.

The first four men -- the poorest -- would pay nothing, the fifth would pay $1, the sixth would pay $3, the seventh $7, the eighth $12 and the ninth $18. The 10th man -- the richest -- would pay $59." When the cost of dinner is decreased by the restaurateur, the argument over how to deal with the reduction results in beating up the 10th guy and no one being able to pay for dinner. Therefore, we should not revolt against the rich, for they are the engine powering our society, I guess.

There's been one response to the editorial, which points out how each of these guys earn their livings.

What bothers me about this whole article is that the assumption in it is that the tenth guy is the one who has all the money and no one else has money but for the tenth guy's magnanimity. Nor is there any discussion of why it is that the tenth guy has all the money in the first place. I've been wrestling with a clever response. There are several possibilities:

Under the tax policy put forth by the American Enterprise Institute, those four guys who pay nothing and the fifth who pays a buck should pay more, so the ninth and tenth can pay less.

The $59 that the tenth guy pays comes from the work that the first five guys do -- but they can't afford to pay close to full price, even though they would if they could. The tenth guy gets paid 30 million plus stock options. The first four guys get paid less than eight bucks an hour. If the company makes money as a result of the work the first five guys are doing, the tenth guy gets major bonuses, and the first five guys get a nickel an hour raise. If the first five guys talk about forming a union because they want better wages, the tenth guy hires goons to threaten the first five guys and their families. When the corporation that the tenth guy is running tanks it in, the first five guys are on the street and the tenth guy cashes in stock options for several hundred million.

The rest of the story is this: after they beat up the tenth guy, the other nine realize that the money the tenth guy's been making off of them is now theirs to keep, and they have not only enough to pay for dinner, but to take their families, too!

BLOGGER SEEKS WISDOM AND GUIDANCE

I want to add a "Comments" section to this work of political genius. Blogger Pro apparently doesn't have such a creature and while there may be one available through BP at some point in the future, we don't know when.

Please send suggestions by email. Thanks in advance.

Friday, December 27, 2002

TEN THINGS I HATE ABOUT BEING A LIBERAL

[Ed. note: Mr. Charest is supposed to be working. Indeed, he is working, in between writing clever pieces for his blog.]

[Ed. other note: For those liberals who take No. 3 far too much to heart, this article is written tongue in cheek. It's a joke. Sarcasm. Irony. Humor. Oh, never mind.]

1. Liberals are expected to accept every new loony spiritual fad with open arms, no matter how off-the-wall it is. When someone calling himself Swami Sittinanda Dakhadabey gives a lecture on Soul Duality, every other liberal in earshot must embrace it or be branded "closed minded."

2. All liberals are assumed to be promiscuous. And omnisexual. While that was great fun in the 70s when I was in my 20s, it isn't as much fun as it used to be.

3. Liberals are in dead earnest about everything. We take things way too seriously. NO sense of humor at all.

4. Liberals don't dance as couples. They dance solo. Or in big groups.

5. Liberals think too much. When you have a roomful of people arguing over whether it is better to use cloth napkins (don't kill trees) or paper napkins (don't pollute with phosphates), that's too much thinking.

6. Liberals want to be monolithic in their support for causes. If I oppose big business and monopolies, it's assumed that I oppose Chinese occupation of Tibet (I do), the war against Iraq (I do, with reservations), and genetically altered grain (I don't).

7. Liberals use big words and long sentences. With the exception of some of the strike rhetoric of the 60s, you will never win over a bunch of liberals with slogans and sound bites. We wants facts, logic, and syllogisms. That means you have to work harder when trying to convince a bunch of liberals about much of anything.

8. Liberals, especially male caucasians, will never admit that anyone who isn't a male straight caucasian may be wrong.

9. Liberals, especially caucasians, carry more unearned guilt than five hundred Catholic families.

10. Liberals never get it through their heads that things will never get better. So they keep working to make the world better for everyone in it and, in the process, annoying the hell out of those who just want to sit back and not be bothered.
TEN THINGS I LOVE ABOUT BEING A LIBERAL

[Same caveats. But fair is fair.]

1. The parties. I have never found myself saying "Hi, I'm Stephen, damned glad to meet you" at a party full of liberals. I've also never found myself jamming at one in the morning at a party full of conservatives.

2. The food. You won't find jello carrot salad at a liberal fundraiser.

3. The languages. There's something very empowering about carrying on a conversation at a party in Polish, German, Spanish and English all at the same time. At gatherings where conservatives congregate, I'm lucky to find people who can string more than four words together in grammatical English.

4. The arguments. Conservatives spend a lot of time saying, "Oh, yes, I agree!" Liberals, on the other hand, tend to start statements with "Well, that's true, but..." followed by a ten minute diatribe on why you are completely wrong, even if they really agree with you. Then it's your turn, not to mention when someone else jumps in, whether invited or not.

5. Outrageousness. Conservatives are uniform, plain, bland. It is not without good cause that my wife (far more liberal than I) refers to her plain cotton bras as "Republican bras." Liberals are colorful, multicolored (literally and figuratively), bright-hued, sparkly, and lively. And just plain outrageous, willing to do almost anything to get a "wow" out of someone. Preferably a conservative.

6. Birkenstocks. My feet finally sealed my political convictions when I gave up military oxfords for birks.

7. The guilt. (I know I listed this as something I hate, but what the hell...) Since I left the Catholic Church I felt remarkably guilt-free. Now that I am a liberal, I feel responsible for everything from slavery to the death of algae in the Antarctic ice cap. Every time I feel like my guilt is beginning to dissipate, I listen to NPR and it comes back. It keeps me humble.

8. The music. Tom Lehrer's "Folk Song Army" is as valid today as it was thirty-five years ago:

We are the folk song army
Every one of us cares,
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice,
Unlike the rest of you squares!

Still, it beats the hell out of "I'm Proud To Be An American."

9. More interesting scandals. You gotta admit that, although as constitutional issues Iran/Contra and Watergate were abominations, the Big Dawg getting a blowjob in the corridor behind the Oval Office was a lot more fun to read about than delivering a cake to the Ayatollah. Liberals play fast and lose with traditional mores. Conservatives play fast and lose with established legal concepts.

10. Somehow or other, despite everything going against us, we still have this silly idea that we can make things better. When the entire State of Nebraska votes Republican, that's when the liberals crowd into the state Democratic headquarters, bang heads together and say "What the hell are you thinking?" We're at our best when the odds are the shortest. And we keep plugging along. Conservatives win because they have the laws of political inertia on their side. Liberals win because we have more energy, more enthusiasm, and more faith.

BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID.

Thanks to Nitpicker for the tip on this article about investigation of "un-American activities."

NORTH KOREA DOUBLE DOG DARES BUSH

If George Bush II were a schoolyard bully who had been threatening Saddam Hussein (who is, himself, a bully), Kim Jongil is another bully with a meaner right than Saddam.

"Saddam, I'm warning you, you better not have any nukes or I'll pound the crap out of you!" says Dubya.

"I don't have any nukes!" Saddam says, trying desperately to hide something behind his back. "Leave me alone, man!"

Out of nowhere comes Kim. "I've got nukes. Right here in my hand, Georgie-Porgie. Whaddaya gonna do about it?" he says, and waves the nukes in Bush's face.

"Get oudda here. I'll deal with you in a minute, Kim. Now, Saddam, what have you got in your hand?"

"Nuffin. Lemme alone!"

"I'm gonna pound you into the sand, Saddam, you jerk! Kim. back off, man! I'm warning you!"

"Yeah, yeah, so you say! You said you'd kick Saddam's butt if he had nukes. Well, I got nukes. C'mon, Mr. Big World Policeman, or are you afraid of me? Huh? Huh? Huh?"

"Don't mess with me or you'll be sorry! I can kick you and Saddam's butt at the same time! Don't screw around with me!"

Now, if this were a real playground battle, the whole thing would be resolved by the teacher coming out and breaking up the fight and sending everyone inside for class. Unfortunately, there is no teacher to break this up. All we have is Bush looking like a playground bully, North Korea looking like a nuclear power in a very dangerous place, and Saddam Hussein still looking like a pain in the ass.

Has it occurred to anyone that maybe Saddam and the North Koreans have been working on this together -- that it is no coincidence that Kim Jongil popped up and said "We got nukes -- now what?" just as the US started looking for them in Iraq? If it has occurred to someone (and I can't imagine that everyone has missed that possibility -- I ain't that smart), is anyone acting on it?

Thursday, December 26, 2002

FINALLY, A DEMOCRAT PROPOSES SOMETHING POSITIVE AND CONCRETE

[Thanks to The Daily Kos for the tip on this.]

Some time ago Robert Reich in the American Prospect proposed a two-year holiday on payroll taxes for the first twenty thousand dollars of income. Now John Kerry, setting himself up as opponent to George II has proposed the same in today's Boston Globe. Good for him. I'm delighted that there are signs that the Democrats, and especially presidential candidates, are putting concrete proposals out for people to consider. This one ought to catch some attention, especially if it is adequately publicized. As Reich pointed out in his article, it should be a win/win situation for Democratic strategists this year:

[F]orce Republicans into a Democratic box. Make them choose between a payroll tax cut for more than 130 million American working families, worth about $5,000 to each family, or a tax cut for the richest 2 percent of American families, worth millions to each of their do-nothing kids. If Republicans are too dumb to choose a payroll tax cut over an estate tax cut, Democrats should blast them. Use it as ammo for 2004. Make it a central part of the Democratic message. Yell about it on television, radio. Bellow about it from rooftops. (Robert B. Reich, "Whose Tax Cuts?," The American Prospect vol. 13 no. 22, [error with month-text.comp] , 13 )

John Kerry is less extravagant, suggesting a holiday only on the first $10,000 of income. Still, it ought to appeal to more than the idea of cutting taxes for the wealthy and increasing them for the poor. And, unlike Reich's proposal, it doesn't touch the "lockbox" of Social Security.

Where will Nebraska's Congressional team stand on this? Good question: the proposal hasn't even gotten onto the floor of Congress. Money bills have to be introduced in the House, so Nebraska's sole "Democratic" Senator, Ben Nelson, won't be able to act on it for many months, if at all. Doug Bereuter, representative from the Lincoln area is an old-school Republican (he's not made many neo-cons happy recently and does not stand high on the approval list for the religious right) and may well think this isn't a bad idea. God knows what Lee Terry (Omaha's representative) will think -- he's a new member.

Regardless of what the congressional gang thinks ultimately, it's for the Nebraska Democratic Party to jump in and support this proposal and back it with as much noise as possible. If they don't they'll be missing another chance to stand up and show why we are better than the GOP for this state.

On another note: this is the driest December on record for this state. We're still in a drought, with little prospect of things getting better. Now that the GOP is at the helm of Congress for the next two years, we can expect little drought aid, and that very grudging. The NDP ought to be putting out a list of specific demands for Congress of what the farmers need for drought aid. Not just "we need federal aid," but specifics. And it ought to hit the media this spring, about planting time -- and also about the time that Congress is least likely to do anything.


HEALTH CARE -- A MODEST PROPOSAL

[Editor's note: I've been mulling this one around for a long time. It's based very loosely on my vague memories of how the German health care system worked in 1991, the last time I lived there. I suspect it's changed since then; I also suspect that my memory of the system is imperfect. I am not an economist, or a health care management anything. I'm just a guy who thinks we can do better to make sure that everyone has the benefit of what could be the best health care system in the world. -- SGC]

Every time there is mention of "national" or "socialized" or "universal" health care -- in other words anything that would make sure that all Americans have the benefit of the "best health care system in the world" -- several groups get all wrapped around the axle: doctors, health insurance companies, unions, and the average citizen. It's worse than getting twelve people to agree on how many pizzas to order, what sizes, and what toppings. Of course, since there's a lot of money to throw around at our representatives (contributions, not bribes), the insurance companies and doctors usually have the final say.

Two countries come up for comparison whenever "national health" is mentioned: Britain (whose "National Health" was a disaster by anyone's measure) and Canada (whose system is working fairly well). No one talks about the other systems that exist in places like Germany or Sweden. I remember the German system fondly: it's a situation run by a coalition of unions and insurance companies with minimal government involvement, but providing some of the most comprehensive coverage in the world.

I don't recall clearly the details of how the German Krankenversicherung works. However, dredging both from my bits and pieces of my simplified memory and combining it with my own thoughts, here's a skeleton proposal for a health care system that might make everyone minimally unhappy.

We establish a national health insurance board made up of representatives from the medical profession, the trade unions, and the private insurance companies. Each year or so, the board meets and determines what will be the minimum services offered by private health insurance companies. (Note that the government does not offer health insurance at all). The board then determines how much per person this minimum standard will cost. Call it an annual health care premium. Part of this premium is paid by the employer, part by the employee, and part by the government. The proportions vary according to your income and financial status. The lowest income folks would receive the highest subsidy from government and employers; the highest earners would pay the greatest share themselves out of their own pockets (which, I suspect, is no change from the status quo). Perhaps we might sweeten the deal with a tax credit for employers who pay premiums for low income workers. Just a thought.

Each employee or other person covered under the program is free to choose whichever private health insurance provider he or she wants -- Blue Cross, Zurich, Fred's Health Insurance, anybody who meets the standard. Here's the interesting part: once this number is determined, the private insurance companies compete for each person's premium. Every year, each citizen selects the insurance company who will provide his/her health insurance. They do so by considering the "extras" the companies offer. Some companies offer benefits over & above the minimums. Say, for instance, that the minimum requirements call for one dentist visit per year. Company A may say "we'll give you two visits." Company B may say, "we'll give you two visits and a free toothbrush." And so forth. Other companies may offer better customer service. Whatever. But the companies may not go below the minimum requirements. When you choose your company, that's your provider for the next year.

Aside from the minimum standard, none of this is dictated by the government. There is an incentive for the insurance companies to provide more, rather than less: if they want your money, they have to deliver. It's a finite pie. Costs are also kept down, I would think: if there is only so much money to go around, doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies must necessarily control their charges to avoid pricing themselves out of the market. Finally, a significant appeal of this system would be this: it's run privately, rather than publicly. The "government" doesn't control anything except the mechanism of paying its share of the three-part payment of the premium. Everything else is run through the insurance board.

But what do I know? I am just a simple hillbilly from North Carolina now chasing ambulances out where the buffalo used to roam.


Tuesday, December 24, 2002

MAYBE WE WILL SURVIVE AFTER ALL

Bush and Cheney want to attack Iraq so bad they can taste it. Pyongyang is daring us to come on. Workers all across South America are rising up against the corruption fueled by the increase in business brought to them by globalization of trade. India and Pakistan are but an artillery duel away from wiping the entire subcontinent off the face of the earth.

"You will hear wars, and rumors of wars, but the end is not yet." Thus spake Rabbi Yeshua Nezariot two thousand years ago. I take from that a message of hope: things sound bad, but maybe we won't kill each other off after all. Buried in the midst of the myriad faiths and philosophies and religions is one concept so simple and self-evident that it surprises me anyone can miss it. It's memorialized in every "major" religion. I am fond of two expressions of it, one by a friend of mine, now passed on to the next level:

There are no sins against the gods, for mortals cannot be expected to know what the immortals would have of them. There are, however, sins against humans; for only the insane or the foolish can fail to know what their fellow beings require.

Or, as Rabbi Yeshua, Jesus of Nazareth, said, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. This is the Law and the Prophets."

To all who read this, I wish for peace for you, your families, and those around you. Remember that, above all, "the earth is one nation, and all mankind its citizens."

Stephen Charest
Lincoln Nebraska

Monday, December 23, 2002

MORALE IS EVERYTHING

Explain to me, O Secretary of Defense who has never worn a uniform, why you see fit to roll back the meager pay raise proposed for the troops whom you are about to send into battle? Tell me the reason, O Commander in Chief who was AWOL for many months from his cushy, non-combat Texas Air National Guard unit, why the men and women who will die for the cause no one understands must do so on reduced rations? Why in the hell, with a war pending that nobody seems to want outside of the DOD and defense contractors, are we telling the men and women who will be shot, gassed, bombed, and possibly stricken with diseases, that they are not worthy of the tiny pay raise set aside for them?

Will we have a revolt among the military? Certainly not. At least not in the first few years of the Mideast Wars. And if there is one, it won't just be about pay. But why in the hell do we put our airmen, soldiers, marines, and sailors in a cranky mood just before we send them out on a stupid, stupid mission?

All leaves will be cancelled until morale improves.

By the way, if you wonder where a liberal gets off commenting about the military, I do so by virtue of twenty-one years in the Air Force, as a non-commissioned and commissioned officer. I served during Vietnam and the Gulf War. Funny how folks like me and Colin Powell, who have been there, who know what is really involved in making war, are the most reluctant to cry havoc.
$157 MILLION DOWN THE DRAIN -- AND NO ONE WANTS TO STOP IT?!?

The Omaha World Herald reports that $157 million dollars were lost to the State of Nebraska in tax credits and refunds under the so-called "Employment and Investment Growth Act," which is also known as LB 775. Corporate tax income declines, personal tax income declines, our legislature has met twice this year in special session to cut the state budget and has done serious damage to the University of Nebraska, state social programs, law enforcement, and other major programs. But only eleven state senators are interested in cutting the kickbacks?

What the f*ck is that all about?

The best we can get is a very wimpy desire to have companies disclose just how much money they get under this kickback scheme. Thirty some senators think we need more "accountability." Dave Landis of Lincoln is a driving factor in this movement. He cites the loss of 400 jobs at Goodyear in Lincoln as evidence that the payola has been squandered -- he wants to know where the money went.

Dave, you can do better than that.

When there's a projected $673 million dollar tax shortfall over the next two years, why the hell isn't this payola scheme on the block like everything else? More importantly, why the hell isn't the Nebraska Democratic Party beating the war drums to take the proverbial axe to this scheme? It isn't going to take any more jobs now than are already going down the tubes.

I've commented on this before so I won't beat it to death. Just remember that we're still paying Danegeld and no one seems willing to stop.
"I'M A CHRISTIAN SO THEY CALL ME A RACIST"

Let me get this straight. Trent Lott, in an interview yesterday outside his Mississippi home, said that "When you're from Mississippi and you're a conservative and you're a Christian, there are a lot of people that don't like that." This, he claims, is why a trap was set for him to fall into. He fell, and thus is no longer the Senate majority leader.

Once again, Lott reverts to the classic conservative tactic, especially appealing to the religious right, of portraying himself as a victim of religious persecution. Now it's not criticism for his latent racism, but persecution for his religion. That's going to sell very, very well in Mississippi and Alabama. (Remember that neighboring Alabama is the state that gave us Judge Roy Moore and his ten-ton Ten Commandments in the Alabama Supreme Court, the ultimate f*ck-you to the Supreme Court.)

Many liberal causes have been reduced ad absurdio by conservative opponents to hyper-simplistic religious arguments. Non-discrimination at work for gays and lesbians? Can't do that, because that requires good Christians to oppose their own beliefs by supporting sinners. Domestic partner rights for gays or lesbians? That endorses sodomy, which the Bible condemns. The Equal Rights Amendment? It undermines the man's "servant leadership" position in the family.

The problem here, of course, is that once you take a political argument -- subject to logic and reason -- and switch it to a religious argument, you lose the appeal to logic and reason. "God said it, I believe it, that settles it!" reads a bumper sticker I've seen frequently in the rural parts of Nebraska. How can you argue with that? You can't.

I am a big fan of William Jennings Bryan's positions on labor, progressive taxation, and anti-big business policies. I part company with him on race and religion. He was a fundamentalist, as demonstrated by his legal prosecution of Scopes in the infamous Monkey Trial in Tennessee. In Inherit the Wind, the fictionalized version of that trial, his character summarizes the religious positions of the "people of the land" this way: "These are simple people. Their faith is all they have." Unfortunately Bryan (or his alter ego) was not far off. Out here where the buffalo used to roam, the worst thing you can do is to seem to challenge God. By characterizing his struggle as a religious persecution, Trent Lott really has begun to make himself a martyr.

Let's just remember that we liberals will never win over the religious right. Our fight is for the thinking middle. To win them over, we still need to offer thoughtful alternatives. The thoughtful middle won't fall for "I'm a martyr." Neither will they fall for "We aren't them." The Lott affair is over. Let's get back to working out our plan for 2004 and beyond.