Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Donald Trump is Talking ... Do We Want to Listen?

"Hail to the Chief" is replaced by the O'Jays' "For the Love of Money".

Camp David is shut down, and the presidential retreat is shifted south to Mara Lago.

The classic and historic White House furniture is replaced with golden chairs and giant banquet tables.

Air Force One is replaced by a sleek private jet, and Marine One by a flashy jet chopper.

Cabinet meetings would be run with George, Don, Jr., and Ivanka sitting on either saying, "It was a tough decision, but you made the right choice."

I think it goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that these are probably the first thoughts that come to mind when people consider the possibility that Donald Trump may throw his hat in the ring for the Republican nomination for president. Over the past few weeks, many politicians have stated that they cannot accept him as a legitimate candidate, that he is a joke, and that he has no business in the White House. Journalists, in a more indirect route, are expressing the same sentiment - you need look no further than Candy Crowley's response to answers he provided in a recent interview, or Savannah Guthrie's constant interruption of him during their sit-down this morning on the "Today Show".

But should we in fact be taking him seriously?

As David Brooks points out in his column in today's New York Times, Trump is leading in several GOP polls and is "within striking distance" of Obama in one poll. The website RealClearPolitics, in an average of surveys conducted by CNN, Fox News, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Gallup, and Pew Research, shows Trump trailing only Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney, while he leads Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Michelle Bachmann, Tim Pawlenty, Mitch Daniels and Rick Santorum - in that order. Yes, polls - as I and many others know - are only a snapshot of the views of a select group of people at that one particular moment.

But what does it say that he is polling that highly, when so many people claim he shouldn't be taken seriously? And what does it say about the remainder of the potential Republican field when a real estate mogul most famous for a reality television series is doing this well?

Trump is bombastic, loud, cocky, obnoxious, and focused on the wrong issues (Mr. Trump, please get over the Obama birth certificate issue, and no, it's not necessarily true that when countries win wars they can take over the losing country). But is he tapping into something? The same way that the Tea Party tapped American outrage over our nation's fiscal problems, Trump is tapping the base - as described by Brooks - of people who love "abrasive rich" men. And despite the fact that, contrary to what Trump says, we can't tell OPEC what to do, we can't just waltz in and take all of Libya's oil, and we can't necesarily put a flat 25% tax on every single import from China just to show them that we mean business, there's something appealing about it.

I like the fact that Trump says what he thinks, like it or not. I like his don't-give-a-damn attitude when confronting opponents. I like the fact that we have someone who has actually been in business (yes, in hotels, casinos, and apartments I could never afford, but in business nonetheless) is trying to come up with solutions on dealing with America's financial ledger. And he still has my support for firing Omarosa in season one of "The Apprentice".

Are people taking him seriously? No. Should people take him seriously? Perhaps. I only know that, regardless of whether he runs or not, he's added a bit of life to a Republican field that is putting me to sleep.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Charles Rangel Ethics Documents Here

Everything that you ever wanted to know about the investigation of Congressman Charles Rangel has been posted on the website for the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. It definitely makes for some entertaining reading, particularly since this is a man tasked with writing the laws regulating how we are taxed - and yet he found a way to not pay his taxes and "forget" to report income.

The documents are all available here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

More to Graham's Climate Backdown Than Meets the Eye?

Consider this sequence of events:

(1) The EPA releases a draft tailoring rule which will give the agency a framework for regulating carbon dioxide and GHG emissions by heavy industrial emitters in the U.S.

(2) Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman begin work on a revised version of climate change/cap-and-trade/environmental protection (what ever the word du jour is) legislation - rumored to include a provision which would hamstring the EPA's ability to regulate carbon emissions.

(3) The EPA submits its draft tailoring rule to the White House for final review, indicating that its finalizing and formal release could be imminent (per EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, most likely in May).

(4) Senate Majority Leader Reid - in a desperate gambit to save his seat in the November elections - shifts the priorities of the Senate legislative calendar from climate change to immigration reform.

(5) Senator Graham, angry at the sudden switch from climate to immigration, withdraws from negotiations, putting an indefinite pause on moving the legislation forward - and blocking the provision preventing the EPA from exercising oversight.

In the few days since Graham pulled back, there have been numerous columnists and bloggers theorizing that he took this action because of pressure from Republican leadership. I'm not sure I agree, and here's a wild theory I've come up with along those lines: he pulled out because of White House pressure. While the President publicly says climate change legislation remains a priority, could he privately want the authority to regulate heavy emitters in the hands of the Executive Branch? By pressuring the one Republican senator willing to negotiate on the Senate legislation (or was he promised something in return?) to step aside, the Administration could potentially have killed the bill and the provision taking away EPA oversight.

So perhaps everyone gets what they want: Graham gets some sort of payoff later on; Reid gets his immigration bill and (presumably) secures his reelection; and the Administration gets to control a big sector of American manufacturing. Far-fetched? Perhaps - but certainly plausible...

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Value-Added Tax (-man Cometh)

I can remember hearing it often: " I will not raise taxes on anyone making less than $250,000 a year." No how; no way. My family was not going to be hit with higher taxes; thank you, President Obama! I'm so glad to know that...

What? That's not true, you say? My taxes will go up? That can't be right - except I'm looking at numerous news reports saying that the President and his fiscal commission are considering the implementation of a value-added tax (VAT) that would hit everyone in the United States. I'm also reading how phenomenally the implementation of a VAT in Europe has worked out for our neighbors across the Atlantic. Let's look for a moment at excerpts from an April 15, 2010 story in the Wall Street Journal on this topic:

VATs were sold in Europe as a way to tax consumption, which in principle does less economic harm than taxing income, savings or investment. This sounds good, but in practice the VAT has rarely replaced the income tax, or even resulted in a lower income-tax rate. The top individual income tax rate remains very high in Europe despite the VAT, with an average on the continent of about 46%.

In the U.S., VAT proponents aren't calling for a repeal of the 16th Amendment that allowed the income tax—and, in fact, they want income tax rates to rise. The White House has promised to let the top individual rate increase in January to 39.6% from 35% as the Bush tax cuts expire, while the dividend rate will go to 39.6% from 15% and the capital gains rate to 20% next year and 23.8% in 2013 under the health bill, from 15% today. Even with these higher rates, or because of them, revenues won't come close to paying for the Obama Administration's new spending—which is why it is also eyeing a VAT.

One trait of European VATs is that while their rates often start low, they rarely stay that way. Of the 10 major OECD nations with VATs or national sales taxes, only Canada has lowered its rate. Denmark has gone to 25% from 9%, Germany to 19% from 10%, and Italy to 20% from 12%. The nonpartisan Tax Foundation recently calculated that to balance the U.S. federal budget with a VAT would require a rate of at least 18%.

Proponents also argue that a VAT would result in less federal government borrowing. But that, too, has rarely been true in Europe. From the 1980s through 2005, deficits were by and large higher in Europe than in the U.S. By 2005, debt averaged 50% of GDP in Europe, according to OECD data, compared to under 40% in the U.S.

Certainly, if the Administration were considering such a tax, they would come right out and say it. Hey, Austan Goolsbee, you'll be straight with us, won't you?

So there we have it - an official White House spokesman telling us ... absolutely nothing, although clearly demonstrating his ability to give fantastic non-answers to basic questions. What makes it worse is that he's an economist giving non-answers; where's Paul Krugman when you need him? At least he'd give you a straight answer...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Votes for Sale in Congress

Doling out favors in exchange for votes on key legislation isn't anything new in the halls of Congress. One of the most notable examples occurred during the vote on the Medicare prescription bill several years ago, when Republican leadership in the House of Representatives allegedly offered campaign contributions to the candidate son of a congressman who was wavering on his vote. Today, it appears to have happened again; President Obama - in perhaps one of the wildest coincidences ever - nominated Scott Matheson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

What's the coincidence? Only that Matheson's brother, Jim, is a congressman from Utah - and is a wavering vote on the health care reform bill.

If anyone tries to say this is just a coincidence after Matheson decides - after what I assume will be couched as "careful consideration and listening to the views of [his] constituents" - to vote yes, I won't be able to look at them with a straight face. The country is going broke, legislation that we can't afford gets passed almost daily, and votes are getting bought and sold like stocks in a Madoff investment portfolio. Madoff got caught for his Ponzi scheme and the fact that the taking of one person's money to pay off the dividends of others was a house that collapsed around him.

When will the congressional Ponzi collapse?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Labor Boss Redux: Andy Stern and the SEIU

As a brief follow-up to my post yesterday on the effectiveness and value of union leadership, I was interested to read a story on the website for the San Francisco Bay Guardian regarding leadership elections held for SEIU Local 1021. I think the headline says it all: "SEIU Members Oust the Old Guard."

According to the story, the defeat of the entire slate of candidates put up by SEIU president Andy Stern "was a stunning repudiation of the union leadership." And Stern's candidates didn't just lose; they lost big. The article continues, "In addition, it could roil SEIU's internal politics after a turbulent year, in which Stern created divisive clashes with his own local health care workers, UNITE-HERE, and the California Nurses Association."

A separate article on the website of the Alliance for Worker Freedom also questioned the disparities in the pension funding levels of SEIU workers. According to their analysis, "In 2006, the SEIU National Industry Pension Plan, a plan for rank-and-file SEIU members covering 100,787 workers was 74.9% funded. A separate fund for employees of SEIU had 1,305 participants and was 90.6% funded. The pension fund for SEIU officers and employees had 6,595 members, and was 103.3% funded. This inequity was not always the case. In 1996, the SEIU National Industry Pension Fund had close to 110% of the funds it would need to pay all promised pensions to its workers."

Further, "The problem of poor funding is not only in the national pension plan. Research by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce revealed that 13 SEIU local pension plans were all less than 80% funded. Six of them were less than 65% funded. In 1996, all of them were more than 65% funded, and half were more than 80% funded. While those who were in poor shape back in 1996 are worth significant concern, the Massachusetts Service Employees Pension Fund is perhaps of greater concern. It fell from nearly 110% to 70% funded in 10 years, and the SEIU 1199 Upstate Pension Fund fell from 115% to 75% since its inception in 1999."

Pension plan security for the leadership, and pension plan shortfalls for the rank-and-file members.

So again I ask the question: are union members - in this case the SEIU - really benefitting from their leadership? The folks in San Francisco don't seem to think so, and I wonder if those who are checking their pension coverage feel they are getting the best...

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Labor Bosses: Still a Friend to the American Worker?

The history of organized labor in this country has certainly been an interesting tale, and the personalities who have led the numerous trade and professional unions over the years have certainly become more and more "entertaining" as time has passed. During these many decades, it seems that the motives of the union bosses have changed as well.

I should interject here that I am not a member of a union, but union representation has been a fairly significant part of my family's history. My father, a teacher for nearly 20 years, was a member of the VEA and NEA, as were/are several of my relatives and friends who are currently teachers. My late paternal grandfather, a 42-year employee at a Virginia iron foundry, was (I believe) a member of the USW (I'm actually in the midst of a project attempting to learn more about that part of his life). I had a great uncle who was a career railroad employee, and I can only assume that he was part of a union as well. In short, unions have helped my family over the years.

Even though I have traditionally been fairly conservative in my political views, I can certainly see the value that labor unions provide for American workers. Just in the past 24 hours, I have seen several media reports about unions gathering to protect the 1,000-plus workers in danger of losing their jobs at a Whirlpool plant, several thousand employees at Continental who voted to become part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the collaborative efforts of the AFGE and TSA employees to provide contract and benefit protections for those employees through membership in the federal employees' union. Even though nothing has been certain during this time of economic upheaval the downturn has affected union and non-union workers alike, I would think that being a part of a union would provide some sort of safety net - even if it is just networking through locals to try and find a new position, if not enjoying the protection of a solid contract.

The dynamics of unions have certainly changed over the past several years. While union membership within the federal government has gone up, private industry union representation has dropped. Whether it is a combination of right-to-work laws or employers who make an effort to provide strong salary and benefits packages to their employees so that a unionization effort is unnecessary, the shift in hard numbers for membership has changed.

And, as I mentioned at the beginning of this entry, so seemingly has the approach and style of union bosses.

To me - as a union outsider - it seems the glory days of unionization were during the era when the A. Philip Randolphs and John L. Lewises of the world were hard at work, forming trade unions, working for protections for train porters and steelworkers and coal miners, and setting up a network (the old AFL and CIO, pre-1955 merger) of locals around the country to ensure that American workers could achieve the dream of a comfortable, middle-class (or more) life. Over the years, though, it seems the motives of the union bosses have changed; first, there was Jimmy Hoffa and his ruthless drive to take over the Teamsters, including his close collaboration with members of organized crime. More recently, Andy Stern of the SEIU has drawn fire from a wide range of folks for the unlimited access he seems to have with the Obama Administration (read that as "unlimited influence," perhaps?), his alleged lobbying efforts even after dis-enrolling as a registered lobbyist, and now his appointment to the newly-created debt commission.

Now I don't know Andy Stern, and I have never met Andy Stern, but from the media I have read (and I will freely admit that much of it has been of the non-union variety) it seems that Stern has gradually become more concerned with his own success than that of his members. I seem to see Richard Trumka of the AFL-CIO out in the field, supporting his workers, than I do Stern.

So using the SEIU leadership as an example, I have to ask: are today's labor bosses more concerned with the strength and stability of their members or with their own power and level of access. My perception of today's unions is certainly slanted; I read stories of the success of union locals and see how they continue to provide value for their members, but it is countered by watching what the big boys in Washington are doing.

I am hoping that union members and non-union employees alike will weigh in on this issue. I pose the question not out of anger, spite, or from a conservative tilt, but just to get a fuller sense of how people feel about today's union leadership. At the very least, I'm hoping that my research into my grandfather's professional life may give me a more complete picture of the importance of the USW on the stability of his family.