Friday, April 28, 2006


In writing this blog and pursuing my general curiosity regarding social issues, I have tried to familiarize myself with theories on social programs, taxes, etc. across the political spectrum. An immediately obvious problem with such an endeavor is that few politicians, lobbyists, or policy advocates at think tanks and elsewhere actually say what they mean. And when they do, statements are usually comprised of half-truths and twisted words. Infrequent are the times we start with a problem and work towards a solution and common are the instances when we seek alternative results through proposed "solutions" or invent the problem once we have the goal in mind.

As others have pointed out, Listerine effectively combats gingivitis, but gingivitis never seemed to be much of a problem until Pfizer needed a better way to market a new product. And with that we have the unfortunately eternal problem in understanding policy proposals, theories, concerns and solutions by anyone who might have an interest in the outcome (no matter how tangential or hidden). The question will always remain: is this just the next gingivitis?

To take this blog's most recent example we can use the estate tax. The goal of the Republican party and anyone Republican or not advocating repeal of the estate tax is simple: convince as many Americans as you can that they should be worried about a gum disease called gingivitis. Once you convince them that they should be worried, show them that you have the solution. It's easy actually, just gargle twice a day for 30 seconds and stand up for what is morally right--and the gum disease will go away. Informing people that only the ultra-rich are at risk of gingivitis is not a compelling argument. That information should be avoided.

The average American needs to feel that he is at risk. We're talking the farmer, the small business owner, the upwardly mobile professional, the middle class family who still hasn't given up on the "American dream," the old who will see it faster and the young who will see it eventually. Inform people of the advantages to a healthy mouth. We want people to have healthy mouths. Then they can be productive members of society and be able to enjoy the lives they've worked so heard to earn. If you don't use Listerine the entire American economy will suffer (and that's not to mention the whole moral issue).

So am I saying gingivitis doesn't exist? No, but what if I told you that only the wealthiest 2% of Americans will even be at risk of gingivitis? Then you'd know that Listerine is still a pretty good mouthwash, but saying that gingivitis targets small business owners, farmers, or even rich Americans may not even be dignified by a response from the American Dental Association.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Moral Highground

Morals assertions always strain consensus and the area of taxation is no exception. The Bush administration (along with many other Republicans) has made it clear that the estate tax is a moral issue. David Cay Johnston gives a nice overview of the Republican viewpoint in his book Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Rich--and Cheat Everybody Else (you can probably guess where he comes out from the subtitle). Discussions surrounding the estate tax are simply not necessary under the viewpoint that moral issues need not be debated with spreadsheets but with a simple belief in right from wrong.

Okay, but that leaves us nowhere closer to understanding the best path among three choices: (1) keep the estate tax, (2) eliminate the estate tax or (3) rework the estate tax. I don't disagree that the estate tax (or "death tax") is a moral issue. It is morally reprehensible to remove a burden from the rich and shift it downward on everybody else. The money lost from estate tax revenue must come from somewhere unless we are prepared to reduce spending by an equal amount. Combine the estate tax reversal proposals with further cuts on taxation of the ultra-rich and soon the giant sucking sound takes on a totally new meaning for the bottom 98 percent of the income distribution. Tax proposals based on morals alone should dictate a course that leaves those who can afford it least paying the least. There is nothing morally responsible about keeping money in a family with fancy sports cars and vacation homes after death if a single penny of that lost taxation comes from someone working far harder for far fewer spoils.

Republicans are usually pretty good at naming things, and in a headline reading society such a skill is sadly important. But the death tax? I actually find the Paris Hilton tax far more clever. This country is supposed to be a meritocracy. Clearly, all efforts to keep money in the hands of the ultra-rich as each generation passes on advocates an aritocracy. Perhaps we just need patriots with a better understanding of history. Needless to say, dead people don't need money.

In truth, the best public relations move by those seeking to eliminate the estate tax is confusion. Advocates of estate tax repeal capitalize on confusion over who is going to be hit by the tax. In reality, most people will never even come close. Johnston discusses an early Republican strategy to make the public believe that the estate tax takes farms away from families. I guess the thought of Lassie sleeping on a bench in Penn Station is just too much to swallow. But the strategy soon became rediculous when it was clear that no farm in America could be identified as falling to such a result. What do we call that? It's not an eggageration if it's a flat out lie. The estate tax is absolutely irrelevant to all but the richest 2 percent of Americans. And that figure is most likely over-inclusive.

The richest of the rich will remain extremely rich regardless and Paris Hilton will never have to get a job no matter who wins this "moral" battle. All we really have here is morbid trickery.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Baby Steps

Some of my recent posts, the present one included, seem much less grounded in facts and theories and more so words soaked in my own philosophical ramblings. Indulge me in one more.

I try to keep up with various blogs, websites, and publications of groups focused (directly or indirectly) on overlapping issues of social justice. Of course basic logic and a cursory reading of my posts indicates that hunger tops the list. A less cursory review, but still supported by basic logic, is that separating hunger from other major issues instantly makes any further analysis uncredible. I admit, I was suprised to see RESULTS' 2006 campaign on how to end hunger not even mention hunger or anything related to food. The second highest priority listed is healthcare. Yet I need not chart too deeply into that area for we all can understand that health costs relate to food the minute you choose between spending a dollar on bread or medicine. And that's just the beginning. Housing is also on RESULTS' short list and is equally understandable. You know the landlord is coming for next month's rent with the same regularity as your kid asking for his next meal.

And at the same time none of that seems to matter as much as making sure people eat. Yes, the thought of concentrating all efforts on hunger alone would receive my father's admonishment as being penny wise and dollar foolish. But with a penny and an empty stomach your choices are limited. We need to focus on both, of course, but how can we better focus on hunger? The logistics need work--there's no question. I commend the work of food banks (both wonderful national organizations like Second Harvest and all the tiny grassroots groups I'll never know of), volunteers, and government support (which is sometimes silly and sometimes brilliant). But the system is flawed in ways both large and small. I don't have the space to go into detail here but suffice it to say that a little creativity could lend itself to more effective and efficient distribution of the ever so needed food to the ever so needy.

The above is relatively obvious, but only part of what must be pushed forward as the first step among many. Awareness is the other half. I hear the cynics already, but there is no doubt in my mind of the vital role UNDERSTANDING takes in hunger activism. First I long for a truly credible account of hunger in America. One day I'm just going to have to figure this out myself because few reports on hunger leave a reader with much confidence. And second, that more accurate knowledge can be conveyed to the public. I mentioned the cynics above for many believe that you care or you don't. But what if this is based on a false belief of the situation? If hunger exists at levels anywhere near some reports, then the general public may turn away from the belief that we're an over-eating, couch-planted MTV-watching society and towards thoughts hunger, starvation, and struggle down the street and around the corner. Hunger should be understood as it exists in America, and then it should be thrown at us staining everything we see and touch so that we understand it is part of our country. What you do from there is another question.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Charles II

Yes, Charles is back! I previously wrote about Charles here. Charles, as a quick introduction (or reminder) is an elderly man I met around lunch one day in downtown Houston. He was probably the first homeless person I bothered to talk to for more than a moment or bothered to help with anything more than coldly exchanging cash for guilt.

I saw Charles again last weekend. Interestingly, I was well outside downtown Houston this time. Charles was over on the University of Houston campus, just outside of the McDonalds by the baseball fields. I walked by him and he asked me if I could help him out. He looked familiar but I didn't really think anything of it. Charles was trying to sell me a ring and/or a necklace for an allegedly substantial discount.

It suddenly dawned on me that this man was CHARLES! I asked his name and we know what he said. Ironically, Charles had absolutely no recollection of me. My last interaction with him left him essentially in tears and me with a somewhat life-changing memory. I tried to job his memory, sure that he was just uncomfortable and couldn't place me at the moment. This never happened. Charles had absolutely no memory of our interaction.

I'll admit this was not my first reaction, but this result is really how it should be. I helped Charles simply to help Charles. This was not about me and it wasn't about my guilt -- which could have been eliminated with a five dollar bill. And the extra money I gave him at the time was also very much for the moment. I hoped it would keep food in his stomach for a week or two, but I hardly taught him how to fish. It was good to see Charles again. For just a second, while I stood there, it felt like there was more at work than just me and just Charles. I hope to see him again.

On a personal note:

I apologize to anyone who has noticed the lack of recent posts. Thank you all for your continued support. Without a hint of vanity, I can say that it gives me great pleasure and great hope to see that this blog has received 1800 hits since its inception 3 1/2 months ago. My last comment regarding visits to this site goes back to the end of February. Since then the site's been getting over 17 hits per day. Let's face it, this is not a sexy topic, and there's lots out there on the internet to combat any desire for procrastination. In short, it is wonderful to see some interest in the topics discussed here.

Thank you,


Thursday, April 06, 2006

A Court Unlike Any Other

I left off the last post on the importance of public opinion in wage "reform" so to speak. (I just wrote and erased a few ways to put this and none seem quite appropriate. This is not really about reform in the sense that many believe our wages are appropriate at all levels--though curiously many times not their own.)

Yet I do not want to put forth an overly passive view of public opinion on wages in this country. As indicated previously in this blog, minimum wage is a topic of serious concern for many individuals and advocacy groups. The ability for states to raise their own minimum wages above the $5.15 per hour federal level has pushed all focus down to the states. ACORN still pushes for increases at the federal level and I certainly believe it is symbolic of our values, yet the practical arguments are better divided in 50. There are many reasons why it may be more appropriate for these decisions to be determined by the states. One such reason is the ability to tailor the lowest wages to the cost of living a bit better. At the very least, a poor worker in California can be happy to receive more than one in Arkansas--only appropriate when cutting the monthly rent check.

Groups on all sides have attempted to utilize the state-specific forum. Sometimes it is difficult to determine who has the advantage when the debate is narrowed, but overall, I would have to side with those advocating wage increases. If for no other reason, the larger the audience, the easier it always seems to be maintaining the status quo.

I discussed the ballot proposal in Michigan previously -- ultimately leading to the passage of a bill by the Michigan legislature. Now Arkansas, among others, sees momentum moving towards a wage increase. Arkansas is one of still many states using the federal minimum (though to be technically correct, some states have enacted their own minimum wages but they are identical to the federal minimum). A recent piece out of Little Rock discusses the group Arkansans Fighting to Save Our Jobs. The awkwardly named group calls a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $6.25 (representing the first increase in nearly 10 years) a "job-killer." Is it? In fairness, the answer is not entirely clear, but I can say with confidence that arguments against wage increases of this sort simply don't add up. More to come on such arguments....

Monday, April 03, 2006

Minimus, Not De Minimis

It is difficult to leave the issue of minimum wage, or really wages in general. Indeed, looking back over many of my posts, this blog could easily be titled Wages in America, or hopefully a more clever derivative . Wages from the minimum to the maximum, and everywhere in between, provide a foundation for many issues of social justice. I have only begun my tax discussions here, but it is immediately clear now that these will nearly all topics will be grounded in wages (compensation/benefits/etc.). And to discuss the minimum wage with any accuracy requires looking at all other social benefits provided to or available to our poorest workers: federal and state EITCs, WIC, food stamps, unemployment, etc.

Psychologically, wages represent to many of us a fundamental human characteristic: we always want more. Rumor has it that when John D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money a man needed to be happy, he stated: $5,000 more than he has (this comes out to about $111,000 today). The equivalent would be hearing Bill Gates in an interview saying: $100,000 more than he already has – it speaks to human nature or misaligned priorities, or both. But it nonetheless speaks to want many of us want—we want to make more money and keep more of what we make (higher salaries, lower taxes, and so forth).

From a social standpoint, wages can indicate value. I see myself treated differently when I am in a suit and tie compared to sweatpants and a t-shirt, or when I drive up in a fancy car versus a cheap rental. When you have more money people tend to believe you are more honest, more responsible. I see those who make great sums of money act with a sense of entitlement that “allows” them to treat others as though their own time is more valuable. Often this opposite seems more true with a moment’s reflection.

Wages can also indicate the presence or absence of social justice. In a recent article out of Israel, for example, the author suggests that no one in Israel should earn more than 1 million shekels per month (or just under $2.6 million a year), stating that, “this norm is inappropriate. It stands in opposition to most Israelis’ natural sense of justice.” Do our values in America (“as Americans”) differ from a country like Israel that, while tiny, has thrived on innovation like few others? If so, can we rest on the believe that our innovative and economically powerful country has excelled on a history of free market principles, or must these sometimes be reevaluated? There is clearly no tolerance for large companies cheating their workers. Juries have come down hard on companies like Wal-Mart when found guilty of not paying overtime, companies like Starbucks who manipulate the exceptions to white-collar exceptions, and others. In doing so, we draw a line that says, no matter how much we support aggressive, creative strategies and business operations, we do not tolerate THAT.

But a courtroom is not the appropriate venue for most issues of this nature, and the repeatedly successful suits indicate, if nothing else, their failure to correct the problem. A minor sting and a verdict most beneficial to the plaintiffs’ attorney is not a victory worthy of celebration. Far more powerful and generally appropriate is public opinion. We’ll leave off there for a day or two….
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