Friday, May 28, 2010

Californians Will Pay the War Tab

Who will pick up the tab? On the micro scale, everyone has experienced this question, typically at restaurants. In society, when services are given to the poor, the unfortunate, or even those who competently avoid taking responsibility for themselves, either donors pay or taxpayers pay the tab.

Then there is the War. Mostly in Afghanistan these days, but it could flare up any minute in Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Korea, etc. There are direct costs to the occupation of Afghanistan, and then there is the ongoing, bone-crushing cost of maintaining the U.S. military establishment as a whole. There is no doubt that U.S. taxpayers are picking up this tab. But taxpayers are a varied lot, and pay or evade a wide variety of taxes.

Yesterday's vote in the U.S. Senate on special funding for the occupation of Afghanistan illustrates some interesting shifts in the tab-picking-up dynamic. Some Senators in the Democratic Party and some Senators in the Republican Party voted against the funding. The Democratic Party naysayers want a timetable for withdrawal set. The Republican Party Nays had voted against the amendment to attach a withdrawal timetable for the bill. They voted against the bill itself because no provision was made to raise the money for it; it would add to the deficit. So they want the meal, They are worried about who will pay the tab.

American taxpayers have run up an enormous tab. It is called the National Debt. There is interest on the national debt, which itself makes up a big part of the Federal budget each year.

Back when the Dems were the outs and wanted to be voted in, they opposed the war as pointless. Now the leadership of the Dems, including the President, sound exactly like the leadership of the Republicans did just a few years ago. Only the Republicans, given their self-inflating, gun-toting constituency, can't oppose the war openly. There are no votes there. What they can do is point to the way the Democratic Majority is taking out a mortgage on America, at variable interest rates, with no ability to pay if either interest rates go up or the economy cycles back into recessionary mode.

Who will pay the tab? With the Democrats in power, the Republicans are worried that taxes on the "rich" will be raised. After all, you can't squeeze tax dollars out of income-less people living in Obama-villes. The rich already pay a lot of the tax burden, but they also get some pretty good breaks, like not paying taxes on capital gains until the capital is sold, which is typically only when they die. I would rather be rich and pay at higher tax rates, but once you are rich you get used to spending your money like anyone else. Higher taxes for the rich could mean waiting a year before buying a new Bentley, or taking a few days less vacation on the French Riviera, or having to fire one of the maids. That is the kind of irritant that makes rich people put pressure on their politicians.

You know how it goes. "Sure Bob, last year I raised $100,000 for your campaign, but then you raised taxes and now Sally Sue's vacation budget is $250,000 short."

In case you have not noticed, in Democratic majority districts the rich have to pick up two tabs. One is for the presumed winners, the Democrats, and the other is for the Republican Party candidates, to keep their hopes alive and the pressure on the Democrats.

Talk about a quagmire. The Democrats can't get out of Afghanistan without a "victory" because that would make them vulnerable to the Republicans. The Republicans are really, really worried about the future tax burden (and everyone should be), and the smarter ones are beginning to realize that the military part of the military-industrial complex has gotten to big compared to the industrial part. Too much industry has left the U.S.A., leaving a service-based economy that can't pay for the industrial goods we import.

Once I was working as a waiter in a pizza joint and a table of customers ran out on me. The restaurant owner, chewed me out thoroughly, but did not carry out his threat to take the tab out of my miniscule wages. He had to pick up the tab.

When taxes get high, evasion becomes commonplace. Some blame the Greek crisis on that phenomena.

Before dining out, which I seldom due since my wife and I both prefer cooking ourselves, I like to negotiate who is going to pay the tab. I don't like surprise. I especially don't like heavy drinkers who suggest that the tab be split "evenly." The federal deficit and national debt are one big surprise waiting to happen. There is absolutely nothing in our legal codes about who exactly is going to pay that tab.

In California we have seen the same problem with the state budget. Every constituency sucking on the state tit, from welfare babes to billionaire contractors, wants more, at the very least a restoration of the recent budget cuts. Paying for more means raising taxes on an entire class of people. But taxes really do hurt people, and the economy, and are already high except for one class of people. Those who have benefitted from the undervaluing of their buildings, for tax purposes, due to Proposition 13.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Yes on 14

14. Elections. Increased Right to Participate in Primary Elections

California's Proposition 14, on the ballot for the June 8, 2010, would make major changes in how citizens get elected to office in California. While it is not without its risks, it is a reform well worth trying. At its core it makes elections less partisan for offices in the State Legislature and U.S. Congress. It takes a step towards the non-partisan model already used in elections for local offices like school boards, city councils, and county boards of supervisors.

Under the current system a primary and a general election are held, with each recognized political party selecting a candidate in the primary. A candidate who comes in second in their parties primary is out no matter how many votes they get. A candidate who wins their primary (and third party primaries are rarely contested) goes onto the general election no matter how few votes they get. Independent candidates (highly discouraged by election rules) also go straight to the general election. This violates basic principles of democracy.

In the new system the two highest vote getters go on to the general election, whatever their parties. In many of the election districts, as they are currently gerrymandered, the likely outcome is either two members of the Democratic Party or two members of the Republican Party. The consensus among political pundits is that this will cause the elections to gravitate towards the center.

For instance, moderate Republicans (often fiscal conservatives who are pro-choice environmentalists) have trouble winning Republican primaries in Republican districts. By coming in second in the primary election, behind the more conservative Republican but ahead of any Democrats, a moderate Republican could be in a position to win the general election by appealing to Democratic voters who can't simply vote the party line.

Voters would need to do more thinking; they would no longer be able to simply rely on party labels printed on their ballots.

Third parties, notably the Green Party, have argued against Proposition 14, asserting a right to have their candidates in the general election. First, this is not a right. Second, Prop 14 creates a major opportunity for independent and alternative party candidates. Using the Green Party as an example (no disrespect to Libertarians, etc.), currently there are very few registered Green Party voters. So in a primary Green Party candidates only get a few votes. This makes them look like losers even as they advance to the general election. If Prop 14 passes anyone can vote for a Green Party candidate in the primary election. Even if the candidate is not in the top 2, they have a much-improved chance of getting out of the under-five-percent ghetto, if they run a strong campaign. Which means they are in a position to do better in the next election.

Also, a Libertarian in a largely Republican district might have a chance of coming in second ahead of the leading Democratic Party candidate. A Green (or Peace & Freedom Party) candidate in a heavily Democratic Party district might come in ahead of the leading Republican.

The main point democracy advocates should be making is that Proposition 14 allows voters to vote for who they want in primary elections. They are guaranteed that the two top vote getters will go head-to head in the general election. Party bosses will lose some power.

Today the Democratic Party dominates the state, and it is ossified. Money and power have created a machine that prevents reform from within. Prop 14 allows insurgent Democrats (and Republicans, and Greens) to gain control of their local party. It won't be easy, but at least it will become possible.

Whether 14 passes or not, the big problems will remain. The California Constitution is a bloated mess. Most money in California politics comes from relatively few rich people. We are saddled with the federal system where are most important decisions are made in Washington, D.C. by representatives of states that are even more befuddled by the modern world than our own representatives are.

If Proposition 14 passes it will not go into effect until the 2012 round of elections. In 2010 we will mostly see the re-election of the same incumbents who got us into the current mess. Except when they are term-limited out and replaced by the next player in line in their party machine.

But in 2012 we would see politicians having to earn the right to be in the general election by getting enough votes. The people of California could begin to be united in the pursuit of excellence in government, rather than divided by moribund political parties. We might begin fixing some of our social and economic problems, instead of leaving them as black energy holes.

Vote Yes on Proposition 14.

Text and Arguments, Proposition 14