Saturday, February 28, 2009

Thinking Big in Small Times, Part 2

A lot of things are down now. Things we wish were up: Employment figures. Manufacturing production. Profits. Wages. Even bonuses on Wall Street (although only the bankers are likely to miss those). Things that are up — cost of health care, and personal, business and federal debt — we wish were down. There's one thing that is currently down (and most people are pleased that it is) but I wish was up, even though I know no one will like it. That's the price of oil.

Americans have been spoiled by low gasoline prices for most of the automobile's history. Unlike drivers in Great Britain, the European Union and elsewhere in countries that have no petrol reserves to call their own, we've paid a comparatively small price for our automotive freedom. We're spoiled. So we were shocked, shocked to see prices shoot up in 2008. We got a reprieve — one we do not deserve — when the bottom fell out of the world economy, and diminishing demand brought the price of gas back down from its brief peak at about $4 per gallon. While that may have you sighing we relief, it irritates me to no end.

If the climate change folks are right and global warming is the threat they think it is, it makes no sense for our government or us to sit back and watch the price of gas fall.

The Obama Administration has missed a significant opportunity to stimulate the economy, to stimulate development of alternative energy and begin to wean America from its dependence on foreign oil. We could make a truly meaningful investment in and make progress toward those worthy goals with one simple act: Institute an adjustable tax rate on gasoline that raises it's price, again, to $4 a gallon (with an adjustment clause to cover any future inflation).

I'm not joking. Consider: We know from our recent past that $4 per gallon is a pain point for Americans that stimulates real action: Last year, people bought and actually rode bicycles, took mass transit, drove less, negotiated "work at home" days with their bosses and began to talk about electric and hybrid electric cars like they're more than a curiosity.

At $4, demand would stay low, so crude would continue to trade low and the tax raised would remain high. The best part is that the increased tax revenues could be a huge stimulus to the economy and go a long way very quickly toward getting us out of our fossil fuel predicament.

Here's how: I paid $1.75 for gas just the other day. I bought 8 gallons of gas for my subcompact car. If I had paid, instead, $4 a gallon under our new tax, the revenue raised from me at that one stop would have been 8 X $2.25 = $18. Conservatively, let's say everyone drives a subcontract and that we all fill our tiny tanks only twice a month. Again conservatively, let's say there are 50 million cars on the road in the U.S. That number times the $36 in tax per month comes out, per annum, to $21,600,000,000. That's right, $21.6 billion.

Wow. Well, wait. There's more.

We all know that most people spend twice to three times as much as I spend on gas in my thrifty little compact and that there are many move petrol-driven vehicles. There are, in fact (I just looked it up), more than 250 million passenger vehicles on the road in the U.S. today. If they all consume only my meager amount of gas, the tax revenues would add up to $108 billion. Adjusted for filling up four times a month (more realistic) that figure doubles. If we allow for half of the passenger vehicles to be bigger than my subcompact, we could probably almost triple the amount. Just to be safe, let's call it $300 billion. That's more than six times the total amount Mr. Obama has earmarked for alternative energy development in his stimulus bill. And this would be real money, not debt.

If we really believe we have a problem with global warming, and we really accept the fact that saving the planet is an immediate and grave concern, then we've got to have the guts to pony up some real dollars to solve the problem.

I'd be on the hook for $432 per year, because, yes, I only fill my tank twice a month. (Some of you would pay more, but that's your choice. Nobody's holding a gun to your head.) I'd consider that a small price to pay for a meaty, effective investment in technology that will hasten the day we're in possession of affordable clean transportation and no longer dependent on fossil fuels. (There will come a day, if we don't act now, when it will cost far more than that, per person, to slow the destruction of our planet. And someone may have a gun to our heads, at that point. Worth considering, don't you think?) Frankly, most of the people I know spend at least that much on beer, frothy caffeine-laced concoctions, donuts and/or fast food every year, none of which will save the world or their waist lines. And they think nothing of it.

While the largest portion of the tax revenue would go to alternative energy research, development and commercialization programs, some of the funds could be used to give folks incentives to buy electric cars while they're still a bit pricey, to prime the pump (but not the gas pump).

All this, of course would create jobs and put autoworkers back to work, not to mention get money and credit flowing again. And the best thing about this new tax program is the built-in performance incentive. People hate paying taxes. It's just human nature. So it would be mightily painful (at least psychologically), and that's good. They'd be pressuring their Senators and Representatives to bully the car companies (who owe us, big time, for the bail-out funds) to get the job done. The more money we raise in taxes, the faster alternative energy gets mainstreamed. The sooner we all are driving electric cars, the sooner the tax goes away and, hey ... the pain stops! Then we can all get back to our Mochas and Budweiser.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thinking Big in Small Times, Part 1

As the world watched, President Barack Obama spoke before the gathered U.S. Congress on Tuesday. Thankfully, he refused former President Clinton's public suggestion to paste on a cheerful attitude, and he did not preen like Clinton at the numerous standing ovations.

Instead, he took pages from a couple of former Republican presidents. Like Reagan, he focused attention past policy to where attention really belongs, which is people: He gathered a number of people together from all walks of life and, while they sat watching with First Lady Michelle, he told some of their stories: Of a bank exec who gave way his bonus of missions to his employees and former employees. Of a high school student who had the audacity to write to the members of the U.S. Congress about the pitiful conditions at her crumbling small-town school in South Carolina. He quoted her words, "We are not quitters." Like the first Roosevelt, he used the "bully pulpit" to hammer home the necessity to confront huge problems with realism — that is, admit that they are big and painful problems — but also recognize that implicit in those problems are opportunities for those willing to embrace monumental tasks with Mr. Obama's brand of audacious hope. He spoke seriously about his determination to act and did not waste words on either pollyanna prognostications or partisan accusations.

Republicans spent the week preceding the speech visiting radio and TV talk show hosts and commentators, sounding the old saw about "too much government," forgetting that the "government" is just us. "Of the people, by the people and for the people." They justified their complaints by claiming they did not want to saddle future generations with an unbearable burden of debt.

It is revealing that, even before the President's speech, when pundits were grumbling about Mr. Obama's glumness, the public's estimation of Obama's grasp of the situation and his job performance so far is astonishingly positive. Miraculously, the 60+ percent approval rating he held on Election day and Inauguration Day is holding.

Yesterday, Mr. Obama followed his speech with a prosposal for a federal budget in which he intends to follow through on his campaign promises (wouldn't that be a change!). Unlike the previous administration, Mr. Obama has included the cost of waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq in the budget and proposes cuts that a broad group economists has recommended for years. He's rolling back the "trickle-down" tax-incentives program for the wealthy, a relic of the Reagan era, which has, instead, caused most wealth to "trickle up" at quite a fast clip, contributing to a widening gap between rich and poor. And he's called for regulation that would prevent the kind of brazen, profligate piracy that has passed for investment banking and mortgage lending in the last decade.

Audacious? Yes. Hopeful? That's putting it mildly. Yet, history is on Obama's side. At times of crisis, great leaders — who did not flinch from "impossible" tasks — have set in motion changes that enabled economic development and technological expansion. Lincoln (a Republican) build the first transcontinental railroad despite the financial and human price of our most tragically costly war ever, our own Civil War. At the height of WWII, the second Roosevelt, a Democrat, pushed through the G.I. Bill, despite the greatest national debt we'd ever run up, which gave a generation of returning soldiers college educations that put America first in the world, technologically. Mr. Obama has set his course unflinchingly (and God speed) because he must.

It would have been nice had the terrorists who run Wall Street and the mortgage industry not strapped the monetary equivalent of C4 explosive to the world economy. But Mr. Obama is right: If we the people do not risk acting now to secure renewable energy technologies, rein in health care costs, and make better and higher education available for the youth whose future we have mortgaged, than that generation will have precious little to thank us for when it inherit a debt that will be there anyway in the form of runaway social security and medicare entitlement burdens that, because of a still faltering economy and resulting low GDP. And he was right, therefore, also to call upon Congress to end a quarter century of "ignoring the elephant in the room" and begin to deal with those entitlements now.

More power to you Mr. Obama. Do not flinch or shrink from the task. Stay the course. Do not be intimidated by naysayers among Republicans or distracted by the pettiness of those within your own party who would waste your time and our money extracting a pound of flesh from your predecessor. If either camp has its way, we will sow wind and reap whirlwind.

Keep speaking directly to the folks who put you where you are. Continue to respect the electorate, speak straight with them, don't lie to them, don't coddle them, and don't underestimate them.

Don't give them the government they deserve. They got that with Clinton and Bush. Give them better. That would be a change. With any luck at all, they'll live up to it.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Holding Hope Hostage

Just when we've heard enough disturbing news to last all week, what with all the educated second-guessing going on about President Obama's stimulus bill, we read a report in the Chicago Tribune today that Ronald Burris didn't quite finish saying all that needed to be said to those who were vetting his appointment to Mr. Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat.

Seems he "didn't have the opportunity" to tell them that he had spoken to the brother of recently removed and now former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich on several occasions about a "donation" he might want to give in consideration of that appointment. Burris' announcement raised howls of protest from pundits of all stripes ("He didn't have the opportunity???" they asked, in mock shock) and there was much bemused speculation about what if anything might happen now. Some cried for his removal while others sardonically suspected the thing might get swept under the rug, somehow, because Burris is black.

Saddest thing about it all, for me, was not the reports or the pundits prattle, but the "comments" posted by ordinary people in response to the news. Most assume Burris is just trying to head off what might have been an even more painful third-party revelation. Some are angry or just plain disgusted, but an even greater number are neither surprised nor particularly concerned. It is, after all, politics as usual. One writer summed up what many others suggested:

"Everybody lies, what's new here people?" wrote one Chicagoan. "Do you people even think that it's ever going to change? It's going to happen until the end of time. We're just the pawns and there's nothing we can do about it."

Mr. Burris has joined Mr. Blagojevich, Mr. Bernard Madoff and spouse, the entire cadre of Wall Street bankers and sub-prime mortgage brokers, President Bush and friends, the Big Three automakers and by implication, just about everybody else who has access to money, power and privilege on the "These people are why I don't give a shit" list kept by every cynic.

I must admit, I can hardly blame them. Disappointing news is difficult to bear. Cynicism is a balm of sorts: Point to the long list of crooks that you are personally powerless to do anything about and say," What a crock! What can I do? And what difference would it make, anyway?" Smother your disappointment under a protective blanket of "Who cares?" Then go on with your life and look out for number one.

Of course, to act on that plan, you've first got to forget that the folks on your "shit" list got there because their hopes, like yours, gave way inevitably to disappointment. And in their pain, they gave way to cynicism.

Here's what I think. And I've said it before. We get the world we deserve. The rich, powerful and politically connected who feed like pigs on financial folly do so because they can count on just enough cynicism in the public's mind to deflect serious consequences. They know that we, who might be doing something to combat the greed and corruption are hoping, instead, only to greedily take a turn at the trough.

It's a sad irony that the apostle of "audacious hope" has arrived in Washington at a time when too many Americans seem ready to forget Inauguration day, because the "morning after" is turning out to be as bad as he warned it would be.

Mr. Obama had the courage to say it wouldn't be easy and that it would get worse before it got better. Mr. Biden had the good sense to admit that there's a chance that no matter what this administration does, its efforts could fail. The cynics had a field day with that one, of course. But they'd have been just as put out with pollyanna platitudes, so there's no pleasing them, it seems.

My prayer is that Mr. Obama himself can resist the cynical tide and maintain his hold on the hope that got him, against all odds, into the White House. My hope is that he can withstand the partisan pride on both sides of the aisle and continue to call all to bipartisan action. If he can't, then no one else will. I think he can. But he can't turn hope into history alone.

Hope that caves at the first blow is no hope at all. When you trade it in for cynicism, you add you own name to your "shit" list. You meet the enemy in the mirror each morning. You hold hope hostage.

We can dwell on Burris and Blago and Bush and bankers. We can waste a lot of time blaming (that is not to say that responsible parties shouldn't be brought to justice for wrongdoing). But right now, we would do well to simply to stand with the guy who we elected because he preached hope precisely when we needed to hear it.

An American people that can choose hope when things look hopeless will be a far greater balm than any stimulus bill.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Back Taxes, Big Bonuses, Bye-Bye Bipartisanship

I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the honeymoon is already over.

Contributing to the end-of-honeymoon chill were revelations about Obama appointees' lax tax performance. Tom Daschle, Mr. Obama's choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services and the man tapped to take the lead in the president's promised health care initiative, withdrew his name on Tuesday this week. He was the third of four Obama Administration appointees to face uncovered tax shortfalls and the second to bow out. Republicans questioned whether those who don't pay their own taxes can be trusted to handle the tax money paid by others. You can't blame them for that.

Mr. Daschle's unpaid tax bill amounted to $128,000. I don't want to sound like I'm complaining but that's more than twice what I gross in a year. How does one "inadvertently" overlook that much money? (I wouldn't want to be Mr. Daschle's accountant this week.)

It would be understandable (not excusable, let me add) if someone in a lower-middle tax bracket, who has six kids, one of whom spent the year in a hospital, happened to "inadvertently" underpay a tax bill. But someone in Mr. Daschle's tax bracket ought to be paying his accountant to ensure he pays all he owes, and maybe some extra, particularly if he or she aspires to public service.

Then there was the bonus backlash. Mr. Obama mirrored public outrage at reports that financial institutions passed out huge pay packages and perks to those who helped perpetrate the catastrophic losses in world stock markets. In response to Obama's call to curtail compensation, Wall Street insiders — good Republican supply siders, no doubt — complained that if compensation is capped, then banks wouldn't be able to attract the best talent — conveniently ignoring the fact that the best talent got us into the mess in the first place. Administration efforts here seem doomed to failure. Wall Street has seen attempts to curtail excess pay in the past. These folks are nothing if not expert at designing pay packages that get around statutory limitations. Next to Mr. Daschle's tax lawyers, Wall Street execs are second to none at the art of the loophole.

Finally, there was the embattled stimulus bill. Faced with economic conditions that, some economists now speculate, may not respond to a stimulus bill of any kind, Mr. Obama has managed to float a bill in the House, but with no Republican help whatsoever. A Senate version was eked out with the votes of only three on the other side of the aisle.

Republicans complain loudly, now, that the stimulus plan won't work, without bigger tax cuts and less government spending (sound familiar?). They've accused Democrats of mortgaging our children's future, forgetting somehow that a Republican administration took out the first half of that mortgage, this past November, to bail out broke investment bankers and then mismanaged the bailout distribution, to boot.

Mr. Obama's pleas for bipartisan cooperation are mere formalities, now. House and Senate Democrats will soon conference in hopes of delivering a single bill to the Oval Office for signature by Mr. Obama's mid-February deadline. Mr. McCain, as echoes of his concession-speech promise of cooperation quickly fade, has taken up his new role of opposition leader as his troops battle to gut the bill of provisions that make them look "liberal" to the conservative base back home. In the end, they'll cast their nay votes.

Why? Because Mr. McCain and company, having placed their bets on a stimulus-plan failure, are settling back to callously watch the carnage as Main Street goes down with Wall Street. They fully expect to blame Obama for the failure they didn't vote for and then put one of their own in the White House in 2012.

Inside the Beltway, it's back to business as usual.