A Balanced Approach

26 July 2011

The big talk in Washington these days is about the debt ceiling.  The US government is currently spending more money than it takes in, more than $4 billion a day.  That sounds like a lot, but it’s only about $50 a day per family.  That doesn’t sound so bad, but isn’t it more than you spend on food?  And that’s money they’re spending over what they’re already getting.  So add that onto the taxes you are already spending.

So here’s the deal.  The US is not allowed to borrow money unless it has been approved by Congress.  Approving this many loans is hard work, so Congress created what is called the debt ceiling.  They’ve said, all right, you can borrow this much money, from wherever you can get it, and spend it on whatever you want, but you can’t borrow any more.  The problem is, we keep borrowing, so eventually, we hit the ceiling, so Congress needs to raise the ceiling again or the US can’t pay its bills, like the interest on all that debt.  So there really is no ceiling.

So next Tuesday, we’re going to hit the ceiling again.  If Congress doesn’t raise it again, the US won’t be able to borrow any more money, so they’re going to be short about $4 billion a day.

Just about everyone seems to agree that we need to raise the ceiling.  If we don’t, we may not be able to send out Social Security checks to the seniors.  We won’t be able to make payments on all of the debts we have already.  And you know what happens when you don’t make your payments.  No, they won’t repossess the country.  But it will hurt our credit rating.  And that means interest rates will go up.  They go up for the Fed if we ever want to borrow money again.  They go up for business loans, home loans, and our beloved credit cards.  The argument goes that this will hurt business, cost jobs, and hurt our already ailing economy.  President Obama calls it financial Armageddon.

So everybody agrees.  Why don’t we raise the ceiling?  Well there is this pesky new group of congress called the Tea Party.  They have this whacky idea that we can’t keep borrowing more and more and never paying it back.  They believe that we should do something called living within our means.  They agree that we have to pay our bills, that the debt ceiling should go up.  But we have to make some changes.  They want us to cut the runaway spending, and to add a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution.

So what is a balanced budget amendment?  It means we’d add a clause to the Constitution saying that the government can’t spend more money than it gets.  Most of the states have a balanced budget amendment.  So do Germany and Switzerland.  To create a balanced budget amendment, it would first have to be approved by two-thirds of both houses of Congress.  Then, the legislatures of 38 states would have to approve it as well.  Even if this were possible, it could take years.  The bill of rights took two years to be ratified.  The 27th amendment took more than 200 years.  Even after this happens the amendment wouldn’t take effect for another five years.  Meanwhile, we’d be going further into debt, increasing our interest obligations, and reducing what would be left over to pay for other things like national defense and air traffic controllers.

But here’s a little secret.  We don’t need a balanced budget amendment.  We can have a balanced budget next Tuesday.  How?  Don’t raise the debt ceiling.  If the US can borrow any more, then they can’t spend more than they take in.  This will call for some tough choices, but tough times call for tough choices.  Social Security checks would go out, at least for a while.  There is a trust fund for Social Security with billions of dollars in it.  It can’t be diverted for other purposes.  We’d probably still pay the paychecks of the military, but we might have to bring them all home.  Maybe this is a good thing, since the current Commander in Chief doesn’t seem interested in winning anything.  Obama-Care?  What’s that?  NPR can survive on its own.  Maybe we’d have to skip the Cowboy Poetry Festival for a year.  (Don’t believe our Prince Harry.  Those people would still exist.)

Yes, there would be some tough choices to make.  The beauty of this plan would be that the people now in office would be the ones that would have to make them.  The tea-partiers say that we don’t have a tax problem, we have a spending problem.  There’s some truth to this, but the real truth is that we have a procrastination problem.  Everyone talks about spending less, but nobody ever does anything about it.  Congress is in constant campaign mode.  They want to add exciting new programs, not get rid of them.  They want to get reelected.  Obama is on record as saying that he will veto a bill unless it raises the limit long enough to get past the next election.  Even most of the spending cuts the tea-partiers are lobbying for are 5 to 10 years away.

Maybe interest rates would go up.  Maybe they wouldn’t.  We have enough revenue to pay our debts if we decide that’s important.  And, guess what?  If we don’t borrow any more money, we don’t need to worry about the interest rates.  Our creditors will feel much safer is we are paying our debts than if we keep digging a deeper hole.

The time for rhetoric has passed.  It’s time for some action.  It’s time to make some tough decisions.

Leave the ceiling in place.  Let congress vote, one at a time, for the programs they want to fund.  (News flash:  The Appropriations committees do this already.  But they relegate most of this busy work to non-elected staffers.)  If the House and Senate can’t agree, it must not have been very important.  Cut!  If the president doesn’t agree, he’s got his veto.  If Congress can’t override his veto, it must not have been very important.  Cut!  When the revenue is all spoken for, we’re done.  If the cowboys still get their poetry festival, good for them.  If not, it must not have been very important.  If we, the people, don’t like the choices made, we have an election coming up next year.

Don’t Vote!

2 November 2010

Seriously, don’t do it.  Don’t vote.  At least until after you’ve read this.  And maybe not even then.

How can I be serious?  People have fought and died for our right to vote.  From the Civil War to women’s suffrage, true heroes have risked and sometimes given everything for us to have this privilege.  Isn’t it our responsibility to exercise this right and participate in the democratic process?  I still say no.  Sometimes it is our responsibility not to.

With every right there comes an equal responsibility.  Consider the First Amendment .  It grants to me the right to free speech.  I can say virtually whatever I want, whenever I want, with full impunity.  I can stand on the street corner and hurl racial epithets to those that pass by.  I can burn the American flag.  I can march with the Ku Klux Klan.  But should I?  I say no.

Let’s look at a more direct example.  In 1993, a true piece of human filth, Richard Allen Davis, kidnapped a 12-year-old girl, Polly Klaas, from her mother’s home.  He then sexually assaulted her and strangled her to death, dumping her body beside a freeway overpass.  (I apologize for not having a better description than human filth. It is insulting to both humans and filth.)

Davis had been in and out of jail and prison since the age of 12.  He had been convicted of multiple kidnappings and sexual assaults.  Yet, somehow, this predator was free to walk the streets in 1993.  This outraged the people of California.  This led to Proposition 184 on the California ballot in 1994.  Known as the Three Strikes law, it says, basically, if you commit three felonies, and two of them are violent felonies, you’re going to prison for life without parole.  If this law had been in place before Polly Klaas was murdered, Davis would have already been in prison for life, and she might be raising her own children today.

But there were some parts of Prop 184 that some perceived as flaws.  For example, the law does not require that the third “strike” be a violent crime.  It can be as simple as someone committing petty left.  This led to life sentences for crimes as small as stealing a slice of pizza or shoplifting videotapes.  (I’ll bet he’s pissed after finding out about DVDs.)

Some, myself included, found this to be fundamentally unfair.  For example, one can have dozens of shoplifting convictions, then go out and molest two children, and only spend a few years in prison.  On the other hand, someone can be convicted of two armed robberies when they were sixteen can get a life sentence for shoplifting a pack of chewing gum when they’re 42, even if they have served their time for the robberies and stayed out of trouble otherwise.

So Proposition 66 was introduced in 2004.  This proposition would require that the third offense to  be a violent or serious crime before the three strikes rule could be used.  But it did some other things as well.  For example, it doubled the penalty for committing a second violent felony.  More than that, it increased the penalty for the first offence, and added a “two strikes” provision for sexual crimes against children, like the one Richard Allen Davis committed.  It would give life sentences to these bottom feeders for the second offense.  No more third chances to ruin the life of another innocent victim.  It added some fairness to the law, but it was actually tougher on violent crime.  In my opinion, anyone who was in favor Prop 184 should have liked Prop 66.

A week before the election, it looked like the initiative would be passed.  But at the last minute, a well-meaning billionaire spent millions of dollars on TV and radio ads against the proposition, warning people that, if passed, “26,000 dangerous criminals and rapists” would be released from prison.  The claim was untrue, but it scared people.  The yes vote for Prop 66 was 47%, so the initiative was defeated.  Today, a serial child molester in California can be sentenced to as little as three years for their second offense.  While we are still handing out life sentences for shoplifters.

Prop 184 was passed by 72% of the electorate.  I don’t believe that anyone who voted yes on 184 and actually read the law proposed by Prop 66 voted no.  So what happened?

What happened is that people went to the polls and voted on an initiative that they didn’t really understand.  They relied on what they heard on the radio or saw on TV to decide on which way to vote.

This is happening over and over again.  It doesn’t just apply to ballot initiatives.  It’s the same for elections for city council, state congress, and the US president.  The election is won by the side that spends the most money.  It goes to the highest bidder.  People, this isn’t democracy.  It’s EBay.  (I actually coined that phrase six years ago, before I’d ever heard of Meg Whitman.  It has a certain irony today that it didn’t at the time.)

How do we fix this?  The only way to stop this, is to understand what you are voting for. Actually read the law before you vote yes or no.  It’s easy to find them online.  Before you vote for a candidate, go to their website and see if they stand for the same policies and principles that you do.  Look at their track record and see whether their actions show that they really believe what they say.  Look at their voting record, if they have one.  If you don’t do this, you’re really selling your vote.

Two years ago in California, almost the opposite happened.  Almost every initiative on the ballot failed, in part because they were sponsored by big corporations, and people were sick of people trying to buy elections.  This is a step in the right direction, but it’s almost as bad.  An initiative should become law if it is a good law.  If a corporation spends a billion dollars on an ad campaign for proposition X, this doesn’t make it a bad law by default.  And if it has a catchy slogan, that doesn’t make it a good law.  Read the law.

Let’s say I see an ad on TV for a beautiful new sports car as it drives along a curvy mountain road looking sexy.  I don’t do any research.  I don’t find out what it’s maintenance record is like, what kind of gas mileage it gets, what kind of performance it actually has, how safe it is, or what kind of consumer reports it has received.  Then I go straight to the dealer and buy one.  If it turns out to be a lemon that spends more time in the shop than it does in my garage, that’s my fault.  I got what I deserved.  If I vote for a candidate without doing the research and I get a bad legislator, that’s also my fault.  But that’s not your fault.  Why should I think it’s ok to elect someone to govern you when I don’t know anything about them?

So, again I say, don’t vote! If you haven’t read the impartial analysis on a ballot measure, much less the entire law, don’t vote on it.  If all you know about Jerry Brown or Meg Whitman is what you see on TV, don’t vote for either of them.  Leave the decision to those that have done the research.  Don’t vote for someone because they have the best or the most commercials.  Don’t vote because you like their slogan.  Don’t vote for someone because your friend or your spouse is voting for them.  Though if they’ve done the research, at least that’s something.

Don’t vote for a proposition if you don’t really understand it.  Don’t vote for a bill if you really don’t care.  Let the people who will be affected by it make the decision.  Don’t guess.  Don’t flip a coin.  You don’t have to vote for every issue on the ballot just because you’re in the booth.  You can skip some.  Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Don’t vote for someone because they’re pretty, or they give good speeches.  That just proves that they read well and know a good speech writer.

Don’t vote for someone just because they’re a Democrat.  That’s not democracy.  That’s a club.  And don’t vote for a Republican just because you’re mad at the Democrats.  Vote for the person who will do the best job.

What about third party candidates?  A lot of us won’t vote for someone in the Green or the Libertarian party, even if we like everything they say, because we don’t want to waste our vote.  If everybody feels that way, nothing can ever change.  We’ll always have the same two parties running everything.  We’ll just swing back and forth from one side to the other.  If nobody felt that way, then some of these candidates would have a chance, and you wouldn’t be throwing away your vote.  If you like the Peace and Freedom candidate, vote for her.  Send a statement.  Maybe they won’t win, but maybe someone else will be see that and have the courage to vote Peace and Freedom in the next election.  If you are voting for the lesser of the two evils, you truly are throwing away your vote.  I won’t be voting for Jerry Brown or Meg Whitman, because I really can’t stand either one of them.

Am I really saying don’t vote?  Not really.  But I am saying you should know what you are voting for.  Your votes are going to affect your life.  But they will also affect the lives of your neighbors.  Voting is a right.  But it’s also a responsibility.  If a responsible person doesn’t know what they’re voting for, the responsible person doesn’t vote.

Talking Trash

4 October 2010

Aren’t you sick of the negative political campaigns and the misleading TV and radio ads this election season?  Not that this season is any different.  I find them insulting.  They assume that we aren’t capable of thinking for ourselves.  They assume that we’ll remember the five second slogan on we saw on TV on election day, instead of reading the ballot measures or doing research on the candidates to make the best decision.  Judging from the results of most elections, they may be right.

A recent example is the latest bru-ha-ha involving Meg Whitman, a candidate for governor in California, the former leader of EBay. She’s running against Jerry Brown, a career politician, and the former governor of California.

The latest scandal involves a former household employee of Ms. Whitman, Nicky Diaz.  There is some disagreement about what exactly happened, or exactly what it means, or exactly why it matters, but there are some facts everyone seems to agree with.  In 2000, Ms. Whitman contacted an employment agency to find a nanny for her children and housekeeper for her home.  They referred Ms. Diaz, who was hired for the job.  She produced a social security card and California driver’s license, and filled out the appropriate tax forms.  The identification Ms. Diaz provided was fraudulent.  She was an undocumented worker and not legally permitted to work in the United States.  In 2009, about the time Ms. Whitman began running for governor, Ms. Diaz asked Ms. Whitman for help in gaining US citizenship.  At that time, the nanny was fired.

Everyone seems to agree on these facts.  But there are several sides to the story.

Meg Whitman’s side:  Nicky was a valued employee, but she lied to get her job.  When it was revealed that she was an illegal alien, and that it was illegal to employ her, her employment was terminated.

I haven’t exactly figured out Nicky Diaz’ side.  It seems to be something like “She’s a mean lady who didn’t help me.”  In her words:  “”I was shocked and hurt that Ms. Whitman would treat me this way after nine years. I realized at that moment that she didn’t appreciate my work. I felt like she was throwing me away like a piece of garbage.””

Gloria Allred, Ms. Diaz’ attorney, has another side.  She claims that Ms. Whitman and her husband knew all along that Nicky was illegal, but they kept her on so that they could exploit and abuse her.  They only fired her in 2009 because she could become a political embarrassment.  As proof of this, she produced a document sent by the Social Security Administration stating that there was a problem with Ms. Diaz’ Social Security number.  There is a handwritten note written on the letter, apparently written by Ms. Whitman’s husband, Griff Harsh saying something like “Nicky, would you please look into this.”  She claims that Ms. Diaz found lots of letters from Social Security just like this in the family garbage.

I don’t want to get too heavy into the debate.  But let’s look at the facts.  Both sides agree that the nanny was fired when she came and asked for help getting a green card.  This is consistent with Whitman’s claim that this is when she discovered Diaz was illegal.  If this is true, Whitman had no legal option but to terminate the employment.

Allred claims that Diaz was employed just so she could be exploited as an undocumented worker.  Really?  She was paid $23 an hour to be a nanny.  How many illegal aliens get $23 an hour?  For that matter, how many nanny’s get $23 an hour?  The average pay for a nanny in the United States is $13 an hour.  This doesn’t sound like exploitation to me.  And if she really felt exploited, why didn’t she go back to the employment agency and look for a different position?

Ms. Allred claims that Ms. Whitman must have known about Nicky’s status because she got a letter from Social Security.  Um, who has that letter?  Nicky Diaz.  Is there any evidence that Ms. Whitman ever saw the letter in the first place?  And what is Ms. Diaz doing with somebody else’s mail?

Of course there are all the letters that were supposedly put in the trash.  Really?  Is there any evidence of this?  And think about this.  Their story was that there was someone inside Whitman’s house for nine years, going through her garbage, and this is the most dirt they could come up with.  Not much of a scandal if you ask me.

Finally, the intent of the whole affair is obvious from the timing.  Two months before the election.  Allred is a life-long liberal, with connections to Jerry Brown going back to his first stint as governor.  Not long ago Ms. Allred raised a similar scandal against then gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger, also months before the election.  Even if everything Allred claims is true, Ms. Diaz chose the wrong lawyer.  Who can believe anything Gloria Allred says with her track record?

Finally, who really cares?  Seriously, what difference does it make?  Suppose Meg Whitman employed an illegal alien until a year ago.  Does that mean she won’t be a good governor?

Oh, but she speaks out against employing illegal aliens.  She’s a hypocrite.  Maybe.  Barak Obama wrote about his experiences with drugs.  Is he a hypocrite when he enforces US drug policy?  Maybe.  Do you want him to stop doing it?  Is he a bad president because he does?

But Rick, you say, it goes to character.  Seriously, who cares?  I don’t care if my governor has character.  I care if they do a good job governing.  If we eliminate everyone that has ever had a scandal in their past from running for office, who’s left?  Not me.  You?  Anybody you know?  It doesn’t leave many people.  And those that are left are not there because they’d be good leaders.  Probably their left because their more careful about who gets to see their garbage.  If someone has never made a mistake in your life, it may be because they’ve never done much of anything.  The only people I know who have never had a parking ticket have never owned a car.

But doesn’t character matter?  All things being equal, of course it does.  But think about it.

When I think about a politician with character, I think of Jimmy Carter.  Carter is probably the best ex-president the US has ever seen.  He travels to other countries to negotiate peace settlements, to oversee elections, to get US citizens released from foreign prisons.  He builds houses for the homeless with his own hands.  In all seriousness, while I don’t agree with everything President Carter says and does, I admire and respect the man.

That having been said, I think Jimmy Carter was the worst US president in my lifetime.  He is a great person, but was a lousy executive.  Even if you don’t agree with me, would you argue that Carter was a better president that Bill Clinton?  No?  Would you say that Clinton had better character than Carter?  If you had to pick one to replace Obama, who would it be?  The one with character?

I’m not writing this to endorse Meg Whitman.  Her main qualification for governor is her experience as an executive running EBay.  And I’m not happy with everything I know about her time there.  On the other hand, I’ve met Jerry Brown, and I remember the last time he was governor.  With all his time in his many offices, I’ve seen that he’s an excellent politician.  But I’ve never seen any evidence that he’s qualified to govern.  I do wish there was a better candidate available to choose from.  We’re not even left with a choice between the better of the evils.  It’s more like a choice between evil or dumb.

I started this rant complaining about negative campaigns, and I only brought up Meg Whitman and Jerry Brown as an example.  Nobody likes negative campaigns, but they keep happening, because they work.  And there’s really only one way to stop it.  Stop listening to them.  It’s up to you and me.  These tactics work because we fall for it.  And they won’t stop until we stop paying attention.  If you vote November 2, don’t do it because of some TV commercial you saw that appeals to the lowest common denominator.  Don’t do it because of a sound bite from a press conference obviously intended to offend your sensibilities and distract you from the issues.  Do some research.  Find out where people really stand.  And then, based on facts, and not innuendo, vote for the candidates that you honestly believe will do a better job.