Saturday, October 27, 2012


Things that aren't so

One of my father's favorite sayings was:  "It isn't the things that you don't know that hurt you.  It's the things that you know that aren't so."  Our political discourse is full of such things.  I would like to  dispose of a few of them.

1.  The growing national debt will eventually ruin the economy.  It depends on who the creditors are.  If China holds most of the national debt, that country will have a strangle hold on what American administrations can do to stimulate the American economy.  The Chinese will insist that any American administration must stimulate the Chinese economy.  However, if the debt is owed to American citizens, the economic effect is small.  In this case the American government is not collecting enough revenue in taxes and must borrow money from those Americans who have a lot of it.  With a better tax policy, those rich Americans would be paying the money in taxes instead of buying government bonds.

2.  The world is full of enemies and we must maintain an invincible military system to protect ourselves.  Before the great Communist scare after World War #2, the world was full of enemies.  It was also full of friends.  We, with our allies, had just defeated a monstrous enemy: the Hitler regime in Germany.  We also defeated the Japanese.  Because of our great fear of the Russians, we embarked on an arms race with Russia whose purpose was to wreck the Russian economy.  The Russians finally withdrew from the arms race, not because it was wrecking their economy but because their political system was unraveling.  The arms race and the Russian fear of the American menace actually held their system together for years.  We have no possible enemies today to match or even come close to what we feared from Russia in the period 1950 to 1980.  We have no need for a military system anywhere near as big as the one we now support.

3.  Social Security must eventually fail because the ratio of retirees to workers will become less greater than one retiree for two workers.  At some point the tax on the workers to support the retirees will become unsustainable.  This argument is made by someone who assumes that Social Security will continue to be supported only by the payroll tax and that the average retirement age will remain at 65.  People are now living longer.  Many people now continue to work past the age of seventy.  In fact, many retirees seek out work, either as paid workers or volunteers, as a means of avoiding the boredom of having nothing to do.  If you ignore the tax problem and look at the economic situation, it is apparent, to me at least, that our economy can easily produce the surplus needed to support retirees in comfort without depriving all others of any of their pleasures.  The problem is simply one of how to keep the books.

4.  Universal health care is impractical because we can't afford it.  With our present system of fee for service health care in which many doctors regard their practices as cash cows, the cost of all kinds of health care is rising faster than the rate of inflation.  Other countries, many of whom have various forms of universal health care, manage to provide needed or adequate health care for half or less the cost to Americans of their health care.  We have examples in this country of providers of health care that provide excellent care at a low cost.  The best example is the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.  If we can persuade doctors to provide health care in that way, then we can certainly afford a means of providing good health care to everyone, regardless of wealth or poverty.

Monday, October 22, 2012


Third Rail of Foreign Policy

As we say in church, after the bible reading:  Here endeth the debate.

Thanks be to God!

I had to listen to the entire 95 minutes to be sure I didn't miss the discussion of an important issue.  The topics for discussion (argument? debate?) were related to foreign affairs.  The moderator started with a recent event that has achieved much publicity but really isn't important enough for inclusion in a serious discussion of American foreign policy: the attack on our Consulate and the death of our ambassador to Libya in Benghazi.  Other unimportant issues were discussed and argued over.  Altogether, it wasn't a very educational or enlightening program.  It was comparing the tactics of the two contestants for the Presidency.  Mr. Romney was smooth, a good speaker.  Mr. Obama was not a smooth speaker.  I am tempted but will refrain from saying that Mr. Romney was slick.  After all, I am prejudiced against him.  I've already sent in my vote-by-mail ballot and I didn't vote for him.  The third debate between the two men had no more effect on my decision than either of the first two.

What I missed was a serious discussion of one of our most serious and long-running foreign policy problems.  To be unkind, I will call it a failure.  Many Presidents have struggled with this problem: both Bush younger and elder, Clinton, Reagan, Carter, and now Obama.  Solving this problem would greatly ease our problems with the Muslim countries of the Eastern Mediterranean.  I mean our failure to bring about any agreement or even a willingness to negotiate between Israel and the Palestinians who were displaced in various wars after the creation of Israel in 1948.  There are Palestinians in exile who have title to properties in Israel.  Some still have keys to their houses.  These properties and houses are now occupied by Israeli citizens.  Israel will not allow the displaced owners to return, even for a short visit.

American Presidents have repeatedly urged the Israeli government to stop its program of supporting "illegal" Jewish settlements being built on land that is on the Palestinian side of the boundary between Israel and a proposed Palestinian state.  Every nation in the world except Israel and probably Iran agrees on that border.  It's understandable that the Palestinians see the continued growth of "illegal" settlements as a threat to the existence of any Palestinian state.  To a Palestinian, it seems that the true intention of Israel is to delay negotiations for a long, long time, while additional settlements enlarge the Jewish state until the entire land of Biblical Israel is cleared of Palestinians.  To a fervent Jew, the settlement activity is a process of reclaiming land that long ago God gave to the children of Abraham and to Moses.  To a Muslim, the land formerly known as the British Protectorate of Palestine (and before that as part of the Turkish Empire) is land that had been converted to Islam.  Having been converted, it must never be allowed to relapse.

Of course, these religious arguments have no place in any decision as to who should be allowed to live on the land.  On religious grounds Muslims could argue that the entire Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) should be returned to Islam.

The only mention of this serious problem in our foreign policy came when Mr. Romney quoted Mr. Obama as having said that their was space between our policy and that of Israel.  Mr. Obama quickly denied that there was any space.

Our policy regarding Israel is a "third rail" that politicians dare not tough.  That's a pity.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Does my life have a purpose?

My wife of 57 years passed away almost five years ago in November.  I have continued to live in our house.  To avoid falling into depression I have deliberately sought out other activities to occupy my time and such talents as I have.  These new activities include membership in a service organization, becoming a member of a Neighborhood Council, and attending services at a church.  These are new things for me.  When my wife was alive I was active in a Democratic political club.  Before retiring in 1989 I worked at an interesting job.  After retiring my wife and I took numerous trips, both within and without the United States.  Altogether, during all our married days, we visited Mexico, Canada, Thailand, Egypt, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Germany, Mongolia, Hong Kong, Austria, Italy, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands, Ireland, and others.

Not long ago my neighbor suggested to me that I need a wife.  He said he would introduce me to some eligible women.  I thanked him for his kind offer, but so far I have not taken advantage of it.  After more than 57 years with the love of my life I don't think I am capable of giving another woman the love I had for my wife.  Besides, I am old and a sense useless.  I don't think a new wife would be happy with me.

I muse from time to time about my life.  Why did fate (or God) let me have 57 years of married life and then end it?  Why didn't I join my wife in eternal rest soon after she left this life?  Does my continued good health and ability to walk for an hour or more three times a week have any meaning?  Is there any meaning to my continued mental alertness and memory?  I seem to be good for at least another ten years.  I may see some of my great-grandchildren.

I've decided one thing.  I have an obligation to be happy.  I also have an obligation to make other people happy.  I can't make them happy unless I am happy.  My children are financially secure, so I have no serious financial obligation to anyone.  I have enough income to enable me to live in comfort.  I can't think of any other obligation that I might have.

Here's to happiness!

Thursday, October 18, 2012


About Gasoline Prices

Again, recalling the debate between Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama last Tuesday evening, Mr. Obama missed a chance to nail down the half-truth or actual lie that gasoline prices are high and can be brought down by simply pumping more petroleum out of the ground.  In fact, the price of gasoline has virtually no relation to domestic petroleum extraction.  Our country has more refining capacity than we need for domestic purposes because we export gasoline to the world market.  Hence, the price of gasoline in the United States is related to and correlates with the world price of the fluid.  Our domestic production of petroleum is small in comparison to the production by Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, and other major producers.  Doubling our own rate of petroleum extraction would have very little effect on the world price of crude petroleum.

This misleading claim, that gasoline is expensive because the Obama administration doesn't encourage domestic petroleum extraction, has been fed to the uninformed public for years.  It's a Goebbels lie that becomes true if repeated often enough.  I hope that Mr. Obama takes up this issue and explains the situation clearly before Election Day.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


About Social Security

I watched the debate Thursday evening between Paul Ryan and Joe Biden.  For whatever it's worth, in my opinion Mr. Biden did very well.  Contrary to some of my Republican friends, I did not find him offensive or condescending.  Rather the show was like a political argument I had with my friends over coffee the next day.  We may laugh at each other, but it's in fun.  We enjoy a good lively argument.  That's my take on what Joe and Paul were having.  I enjoyed it.  I thought Mr. Ryan handled himself very well also.  He also laughed and smiled.

I was bothered by a remark by the moderator, Martha Raddatz.  She asked Ryan what plans he had for dealing with the problems of Social Security and Medicare, which are going to go broke in a few years.  It was as though she was spoon-feeding him a soft question, one that he had a well-rehearsed answer for.

My point is that Social Security isn't going to go broke.  I heard this explanation from Alan Sloan on a TV program.  His advice was to follow the money.

Let's follow the money.

The payroll tax was designed to provide for all the benefits to the retirees.  In fact, for many years it provided a surplus.  What should the Social Security Administration do with the surplus?  It didn't make sense simply to lock the cash up in a safe.  The best thing to do with it was and still is to invest it in very safe interest-bearing bonds.  The safest investment I know is US Treasury bonds.  The Social  Security excess is taken to the US Treasury in exchange for bonds.  The money then goes into the general fund where it is mixed with other income to the federal government.

As the number of retirees increases, more and more of the payroll tax is used for paying benefits and less is used to buy bonds.  When the payroll tax falls short of meeting the cost of benefits, the Social Security Administration will start cashing in the bonds.  The US Treasury will take money out of the general fund to redeem the bonds.  Even though the payroll tax doesn't cover all the benefits, the system will operate in this way until the last bond has been redeemed, sometime around the year 2040.

There are several very easy fixes for this problem.  First, the payroll tax will still pay for about 70 percent of the benefits.  One simple fix is simply to continue taking money out of the general fund to supplement the payroll tax.  That fix requires very little effort by Congress and can be done with little publicity and public debate if we agree that Social Security is a good thing and ought to be continued.  Another fix is to raise the limit on income that is subject to the payroll tax.  I don't know what the exact limit is at present, but it is somewhat less than $150,000 a year.  Increasing that limit will not require the rate of the tax to be changed.  Rather, it will require high-income earners to pay tax on a larger share of their income.

When I was a young man, just starting my working career, I heard comments from other workers expressing the idea that when they retired, Social Security wouldn't be there for them.  I don't know the source of that rumor, but it has been around long enough that many people believe it.  Remember what Josef Goebbels, Hitler's minister of propaganda, said: "If you tell a big enough lie [and tell it often enough] it becomes true."  The rumor that Social Security is going to go bankrupt is just that sort of big lie.  It is propagated by people who hate the very concept of a retirement program run by government.  I don't put Martha Raddatz in that category.  Rather, she is gullible.  Paul Ryan is smart enough to know how Social Security works.  He is one of those who wish it to go bankrupt and want to help it along.

Friday, October 12, 2012


Reaching across the aisle

In simple terms this argument in favor of Mr. Romney as President is that as Governor of Massachusetts he succeeded in reaching across to the Democrats in the State Legislature to accomplish his goals.  As President he would do the same and accomplish his goals in spite of the gridlock that has prevented the Congress from acting on any of Mr. Obama's goals since the Republican take-over in 2010.

In college I was taught to be suspicious of a similarity of two situations if the differences between them outweighed the similarities.  Let's compare Obama after 2010 with Romney as Governor of Massachusetts.

Mitt Romney faced a legislature in which 87 percent of the members were Democrats.  He didn't have to deal with the Republicans at all.  If he and the Democrats could agree on doing something, it would be done.  Republicans played no part in the operation of the government.  He could ignore the Republicans completely.  There was no need to "reach across the aisle."

Barack Obama faced a House of Representatives with a Republican majority.  The Democrats had a majority in the Senate but not enough to squelch a filibuster.  The Senate and the House often disagreed on legislation.  In addition, Mr. Obama faced a Republican Party that was devoted to making sure he didn't get reelected in 2012.  Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, stated as much publicly and often.  Republicans were not interested in cooperation or compromise in the interest of getting anything done about the economy.  Mr. Obama tried "reaching across the aisle" but accomplished nothing except to have his hand bitten.

The argument in favor of Mr. Romney comes down to "he's a Republican and Republicans in Congress will cooperate with him."

Most of the commentary I've seen or heard in print or on the air is based on assuming that both political parties are equally to blame for the gridlock.  I don't accept that facile substitute for analysis.  I heard Mr. McConnell speak those words: "Make sure he's a one-term President."

Saturday, October 06, 2012


What Mitt Believes

Mitt Romney, before Wednesday, October 3, spoke comforting words to his rich, right-wing, radical supporters.  He assured them that the "47 percent" who paid no income taxes deserved nothing but the back of the hand from a Romney Administration.  Wednesday evening we saw a changed Romney.  He denies that he favors a big tax break for the wealthy one percent.  He promised jobs, a tax break for everyone, a balanced budget, more government revenue, no abolition of social security or medicare, no reduction in defense spending, but cuts in unnecessary government spending, such as the federal subsidy for public television.  The public can have employment, low taxes, etc., etc., without any discomfort.

I am reminded of a short Will Rogers movie I saw once.  Will played a candidate for Congress campaigning among a group of Midwestern farmers.  His opponent was a plump man in a fancy dress suit who was telling the farmers that he, if elected, would reduce their taxes, balance the federal budget,  etc.  Will, dressed like a farmer, recognized that the farmers were experiencing a drought.  He addressed them as a farmer and promised to bring them rain if elected.  He won all the farmers' votes and the election.  To me, Mitt sounds as though he is promising rain.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama didn't challenge Mr. Romney's promises loudly and effectively.  He offered a professor's critique: the numbers don't add up.  You can't reduce tax rates, cover the loss in revenue simply by tinkering with deductions, reduce costs significantly simply by abolishing the subsidy for PBS, keep defense spending high, etc., and still balance the budget.  This argument is too complex for the average viewer.  What most viewers were looking for was a zinger.  Obama should have borrowed a page from the Reagan campaign book and told Mr. Romney, "there you go again."

Debates don't matter a great deal.  They're like cheering at a football game.  The public isn't interested in detailed analysis of programs.  Most of us haven't grasped the size of the ratio of one billion to one million.  Anything more than a million is a large number that we can't easily comprehend.  That's why it makes sense to believe that simply reducing or eliminating the subsidy to PBS will free enough money to balance the budget and make a payment on the national debt.

Promise on, Mr. Romney.  God will get you for your exaggerations.  He may punish you by making you the next President!

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?