Saturday, February 14, 2015

Suggestions for my Congressman Concerning the Tax Code

It's tax time! I hope everyone's sending out their tax cards and humming a tax carol as they go about their business. For the first time in I don't know how many years it looks as though Kris and I will get a refund this year. Part of that comes from my having turned sixty-five, allowing me to  bump up our standard deduction from $12400 to $13600. Whoopie. Another of the benefits almost without number we Americans get as we become living fossils.

My conservative friends preach tax cuts as a panacea for all that ails the American economy, but all their tax slashing proposals seem to be heavily weighted towards wealthy people, on the dubious (at best) theory that they will take those tax savings and invest them in new enterprises, thus creating employment for the working class. Empirical evidence suggests this does not happen nearly as much as proponents of these cuts believe.

I'm not against tax cuts, especially if they reduce my own personal tax bill. Since I prefer the concept of trickle up economics, here are a couple of ideas for tax reforms that would help people of modest means.

Social Security payments to older persons, or people whose spouses have died and who are raising children by themselves, are taxable except for those who are truly impoverished. Making those payouts non-taxable would put extra money into the hands of the people who are most likely to spend it, thereby relieving them of economic stress and stimulating the economy.

As mentioned, I as a certified oldster can now claim another $1200 exemption for my wrinkled skin and toothless grin. (Believe me, the toothless thing is real. I just cracked a tooth last night and am afraid the dentist will want to pull it when I see him, as see him I must.) Increasing the amount of that exemption bump would be beneficial for me and millions of others like me.

Those are changes in the tax code that would be applicable mostly to elderly Americans, but this next one would work to the advantage of younger people. Prior to 1982, people who itemized their deductions could write off interest paid on loans other than mortgages. In other words, if a person had to get a car loan, or was paying off credit card debt, the interest would be deductible. Young people who are healthy and who have just bought a house find it makes more sense to take the standard deduction than itemize, even though they are struggling to make those house payments. Medical expenses can only be deducted to the extent they total more than 7.5% of the taxpayer's adjusted gross income, seldom the case for those who are moderately healthy. So, if interest on auto loans or other indebtedness was restored to the tax code, many more people would be able to itemize and get a larger refund.

(That medical deduction thingee could also be liberalized.)

So, Congressman Lamborn, are you listening? I bet you're not.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Merry Christmas

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

And in despair I bowed my head
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Getting Ready for Christmas

At our house, I try not to think much about Christmas until after my wife's birthday on December 10. It seems wrong to me to submerge any December birthday in the annual culture blitz accompanying the biggest holiday of the year.

But today it's the 14th. We're back from a wonderful week visiting Arizona, full of the desert and pine forests, and I'm listening to the Downton Abbey Christmas album as I write this. We wish you a merry Christmas, and a happy new year!

I've already begun my usual round of Christmas rituals, dredging out many Christmas movies for their annual showings - from good George Bailey to little Ralphie, who only wants a bb gun for Christmas - and reading again Dickens' great Christmas ghost story. By Christmas eve I plan to be sated with carols and emotional overload. I might even look at "Christmas in Connecticut" once more, though to be honest, it's really a bad chauvinistic movie.

When I was a child, Christmas was a kind of silent war of wills between my parents. My father, though he felt the phrase "Keep Christ in Christmas" was banal, heavily emphasized the religious aspect of the day, the church organist at numerous Christmas Masses, and was a little contemptuous of the secular commercialism - Frosty, Rudolph and the rest. Mom, on the other hand, believed Christmas is a children's festival. Why not have Santa, lots of presents, and all the other foolishness of the holiday season? And so they battled behind closed doors over how much to spend on Christmas and on what. Mind you, Dad wasn't stingy. He was quite willing to spend money on us for things like musical instruments or educational toys. I remember a chemistry set as a Christmas present, and my brother who loved meteorology, never wanted for thermometers or other weather instruments.

Timing was also a kind of issue for them. I recall Dad saying that when he was a boy no one mentioned Christmas or a Christmas tree until Christmas eve. Then, one by one, the siblings would arrive home with bundles which they hustled out of sight to wrap and place under the tree that would be erected and decorated that night. I'm sure he thought that was the proper way to do things.

My mother's childhood was badly constrained by poverty, so I'm inclined to think she was compensating for her deprived early years by providing her children with the kind of opulent Christmas she never had. Accuse her of trying to buy our love if you want, I prefer to believe she had a warm heart and loved us all dearly. Usually she won out and he accepted the whole commercial holiday festival with more or less good grace.

My point here, and I do have one, is that we differ from one another in how we keep Christmas, or whether to keep it at all, and it behooves us to bend a little when we have differing opinions and enjoy the happiness of others, however they find it.

Merry Christmas to one and all!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Governor Rick Scott

With the elections just a few days away, I think it's important to repeat this old blog entry concerning Rick Scott, governor of Florida and strident opponent of Obamcare.

This is a quote from the Wikipedia article on Rick Scott.

On March 19, 1997, investigators from the FBI, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Health and Human Services served search warrants at Columbia/HCA facilities in El Paso and on dozens of doctors with suspected ties to the company.[20]

Following the raids, the Columbia/HCA board of directors forced Scott to resign as Chairman and CEO.[21] He was paid $9.88 million in a settlement. He also left owning 10 million shares of stock worth over $350 million.[22][23][24]

In 1999, Columbia/HCA changed its name back to HCA, Inc.

In settlements reached in 2000 and 2002, Columbia/HCA plead guilty to 14 felonies and agreed to a $600+ million fine in the largest fraud settlement in US history. Columbia/HCA admitted systematically overcharging the government by claiming marketing costs as reimbursable, by striking illegal deals with home care agencies, and by filing false data about use of hospital space. They also admitted fraudulently billing Medicare and other health programs by inflating the seriousness of diagnoses and to giving doctors partnerships in company hospitals as a kickback for the doctors referring patients to HCA. They filed false cost reports, fraudulently billing Medicare for home health care workers, and paid kickbacks in the sale of home health agencies and to doctors to refer patients. In addition, they gave doctors "loans" never intending to be repaid, free rent, free office furniture, and free drugs from hospital pharmacies.[4][5][6][7][8]

In late 2002, HCA agreed to pay the U.S. government $631 million, plus interest, and pay $17.5 million to state Medicaid agencies, in addition to $250 million paid up to that point to resolve outstanding Medicare expense claims.[25] In all, civil law suits cost HCA more than $2 billion to settle, by far the largest fraud settlement in US history.[26]

How did this guy manage to stay out of jail, much less become governor of Florida?

Monday, September 22, 2014

A Letter to the Editor

Congressman Doug Lamborn, Republican from the Fifth District in Colorado, where I live, wrote an opinion piece for the local newspaper last week, that just begged for a rejoinder, so I wrote one. It was printed in Sunday's paper, and here it is.

Congressman Doug Lamborn writes in the Thursday paper that the Obama administration is thwarting petroleum development on public lands leading to gas prices twice as high as when the president took office. This is simply intellectually dishonest. Gas prices were unusually low in January 2009 because of the general economic decline. I bet we all can remember $4.00 a gallon gas during the Bush years.

Mr. Lamborn then plumps for the Keystone pipeline as a supposed cure for these energy woes. The Congressman claims tens of thousands of American jobs would result and millions of barrels of oil would be refined in the United States. This too is disingenuous. The pipeline would be a big construction project, some of it across private land condemned by local governments, with big profits for the contractors and the handful of speculators who are invested in the Canadian oil fields. The oil would be refined in Texas for transshipment to the Orient. Aside from some temporary jobs – not tens of thousands or anything close to it – there would be no benefit for working Americans and a terrible risk of contaminating oil spills.

Lamborn goes so far as to impugn the motives of pipeline opponents, saying they are acting from outright malice. What malice is there in trying to protect our aquifers and watersheds? If Mr. Lamborn feels free to malign the Obama administration for caring more about environmentalist donors than working Americans, it seems reasonable to return the rough comment by accusing pipeline proponents of being in the pockets of big oil and big contractors.

We will go to the polls this November. We will have a choice to make between those like Mr. Lamborn who cling to the dirty energy economy and those who look to the future and who want to protect our public lands.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Military Service of US Presidents

Military Service of US Presidents

Lately there’s been talk of a Constitutional Amendment mandating that any president of the United States must have served in the armed forces. It got me wondering about past presidents and their service. What follows is from memory, so there might be some mistakes, but it’s accurate in the main.

  1. George Washington. Service in the French and Indian War and commanding general in the American Revolution.
  2. John Adams. No military service.
  3. Thomas Jefferson. No military service.
  4. James Madison. No military service.
  5. James Monroe. Honorable service during the American Revolution.
  6. John Q. Adams. No military service.
  7. Andrew Jackson. General in the War of 1812, and Indian fighter.
  8. Martin Van Buren. No military service.
  9. William Henry Harrison. General, Indian fighter.
  10. John Tyler. No military service.
  11. James K. Polk. No military service.
  12. Zachary Taylor. General in the Mexican-American War.
  13. Millard Fillmore. No military service.
  14. Franklin Pierce. No military service.
  15. James Buchanan. No military service.
  16. Abraham Lincoln. Brief service in the Black Hawk War.
  17. Andrew Johnson. No military service.
  18. Ulysses Grant. General in the Civil War.
  19. Rutherford Hayes. Colonel in the Civil War.
  20. James Garfield. Army officer in the Civil War.
  21. Chester Arthur. No military service, hired a substitute in the Civil War.
  22. Grover Cleveland. No military service, hired a substitute in the Civil War.
  23. Benjamin Harrison. Army officer in the Civil War.
  24. Grover Cleveland.
  25. William McKinley. Sergeant in the Civil War.
  26. Theodore Roosevelt. Colonel in the Spanish-American War.
  27. William H. Taft. Secretary of War, no uniformed service.
  28. Woodrow Wilson. No military service.
  29. Warren G. Harding. No military service.
  30. Calvin Coolidge. No military service.
  31. Herbert Hoover. No military service.
  32. Franklin Roosevelt. Under Secretary of the Navy during World War I. No uniformed service.
  33. Harry Truman. Missouri National Guard, combat service in World War I.
  34. Dwight Eisenhower. Career soldier, combat service in World War I, commanding general in World War II.
  35. John F. Kennedy. US Navy combat service during World War II.
  36. Lyndon Johnson. US Army service during World War II, no combat.
  37. Richard Nixon. US Navy service during World War II, no combat service.
  38. Gerald Ford. US Army during World War II.
  39. Jimmy Carter. United States Naval Academy, no combat service.
  40. Ronald Reagan. US Army during World War II, no combat service.
  41. George HW Bush. Combat veteran of World War II.
  42. Bill Clinton. No military service.
  43. George W. Bush. Service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
  44. Barack Obama. No military service.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ferguson Missouri

In Ferguson Missouri, there has been almost continuing unrest for better than a week now, occasioned by the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.

One presumes that Officer Wilson is on paid leave and in seclusion somewhere while his department’s internal affairs division investigates, probably joined by now by personnel from the state of Missouri and the US Department of Justice. There can be no doubt that Officer Wilson has been questioned exhaustively, and his answers will be checked against the physical evidence and any witness statements.

Meanwhile, the air waves are full of opinions concerning the killing, and the streets of Ferguson have been filled with people, either outraged by Mr. Brown’s death or taking advantage of it to get some five-fingered discounts from local merchants. There have been numerous arrests, mostly for failure to abide by a curfew. The Ferguson police, using much military surplus equipment, have, it must be said, adopted a confrontational approach to the protestors.

Today’s news stories said the officer was treated for swelling around one eye after the incident, but earlier reports that the bones around his eye were shattered – apparently trumpeted by Fox News – are untrue. There are reliable reports that Mr. Brown was shot at least six times, including twice in the head. There is no reason to doubt that all of those wounds were inflicted by Officer Wilson’s gun.

Having been in law enforcement myself, including several years as a law enforcement supervisor, I have a few thoughts concerning all of this.

First of all, there hasn’t been any definitive statement made to the public about how all this began. I’ve heard that Mr. Brown either was jaywalking or had shoplifted a pack of cigarillos from a convenience store. It is also said that Mr. Brown paid for the cigarillos. Jaywalking and shoplifting are both misdemeanor offenses, warranting a police contact, and either a violation notice or a summons. Neither offense deserves an officer-imposed death sentence.

Second, police officers are not robots or automatons. Officers are trained to ignore insults and normally are able to do so. I always felt that I could let ninety-nine nasty comments bounce off me, but every hundredth zinger just gets under a person’s skin and starts to burrow in and can’t be forgotten. Still, an officer is trained and expected to maintain a professional demeanor even under stress. I remember telling one of my rangers, “When you start to take it personally it’s time to step back and get some perspective.” An officer shouldn’t lose his temper just from name-calling.

Third, police officers receive periodic training in unarmed combat techniques. I would be flabbergasted if Officer Wilson did not have this training. So the question that immediately arises is, why didn’t he use his training? In addition, police officers carry non-lethal equipment for just such circumstances. I can’t think that Officer Wilson wasn’t carrying a baton and pepper spray. (I left law enforcement before tasers became available, so won’t comment about them.) Again, why did he resort to his firearm when he could have used his other equipment?

Fourth, officers have rules of engagement just as the military does. These rules do not include firing on an unarmed offender, with the lone exception of a violator who is trying to take the officer’s gun. Since Officer Wilson’s statements about his contact with Mr. Brown remain confidential, there is no way for the rest of us to know if that was the case. With an aggressive unarmed offender, the officer should adopt the “ready stance” with feet braced, arms at waist level to repel an attack either by the opponent’s hands or feet, and can have the baton in hand. With the exception of Mr. Brown grabbing for his gun, there is no reason I can think of for Officer Wilson, or any officer, to draw his firearm against an unarmed man.

Fifth and last, let us have some faith in the judicial system and in each other. I realize this is difficult in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, just to name one, but what else really do we have but trust in our prosecutors and our juries. The forensic evidence ultimately will either exonerate Officer Wilson or lead to his arrest, trial and lengthy imprisonment. Clearly it will be difficult for Officer Wilson to explain why it was necessary to shoot Mr. Brown six or more times. It will, I think, be particularly difficult for him to justify the shots to Mr. Brown’s head. If the two men were close together, a shot to the head would have to be fired at a sharp upward angle which doesn’t seem at all consistent with what I’ve heard of Mr. Brown’s injuries, and if they were at a greater distance what possible justification did he have to shoot at all?

Television and Internet accounts say there is now a legal defense fund for Officer Wilson that has raised over $100,000 already. I think he’s going to need it.

One last remark. I might be wrong about this, but I am inclined to think that the same people, the same media pundits who leaped to the defense of Cliven Bundy and his band of insurrectionists who were aiming loaded weapons at law enforcement officers who were within the lawful scope of their duties, are the same people who are besmirching the reputation of the late Michael Brown and defending – extolling – an officer who did use lethal force against an unarmed fellow American.