Keep it Simple, Stupid: The Tax Code Needs More Than Reform (8/31/2012)

NOTE:  This was originally published on Aug. 31, 2012 via  My more recent proposal on tax overhaul is available on via the Independent Voter Network here.

With Mitt Romney officially installed at the Republican nominee for president, we have officially entered the home stretch of the election season, yet since the departure of Herman Cain from the primaries, conversations about drastic changes to the tax code have gone by the wayside.

Simplicity is often a common theme today but when it comes to government, the principle eludes us. Why is that?

We spend so much time arguing about tax cuts or tax increases, the Buffett Rule and the Bush tax cuts, ad nauseum, when the truth is our tax code is way too complicated for anyone to make an educated assessment of what tweaks would be best for the country. The idea that it can somehow be “reformed” is, in and of itself, a joke.

What we need is something other than 8000+ pages of tax code, a catastrophe of cumulative legislation created by politicians pandering to special interests year after year after year.

The left has created class warfare by vilifying the rich for a tax code which favors them in many ways but also completely exempts the poor. Of the two, the latter may be more palatable but it is not acceptable when you consider how many people who receive benefits do nothing in return and don’t try to move beyond them.

The rich definitely use the system as it is to keep more of what they have but so does everyone else who can afford a CPA. This is human nature. It’s fantastic for accountants, tax attorneys and IRS employees but for the rest of us, not so much. Meanwhile, the many in the middle class earn too much to eliminate their tax burden and are not eligible for assistance but can’t afford to make tax-advantaged investments or hire professionals to help them lower their outlay.

We can argue about what is “fair” all day. Is it fair to take a little more of what a wealthy person earns? That is a highly subjective query. It is perhaps more fair to the country that helped create the wealth and they can indeed afford it but most importantly, those of modest means have the vast majority of their income taken up with basic necessities with little left over that is disposable income.

However, paying nothing should not be an option either. Even if you just pay a filing fee…you have the same protection of our military and the use of our roads and much more. Perhaps if everyone has to pay even a nominal amount, in essence have “some skin in the game,” it will encourage more people to take a stake in their government and hold it accountable for wasteful spending and inadequately dealing with fraud and abuse.

The tax code is nothing less than an abomination and it is so complicated we cannot make an educated decision on anything. The solution is simple and the tax code could be reduced to a flyer. These are just guidelines and we can argue about the rates later.

  1. 1  Graduated, semi-flat tax
  2. 2  Little to no deductions, no loopholes
  3. 3  Everyone pays a little; the more you earn the higher your percentage in small increments
  4. 4  All income treated the same whether earned, capital gains or other, including a lower FICA rate applied to all income
  5. 5  Similar measures for corporate taxes
  6. 6  Small national sales tax to garner revenue from the underground economy
  7. 7  Eliminate cap on FICA tax (social security contribution)
  8. 8  Reduction or elimination of the death tax except perhaps for the VERY wealthy – it’s already been taxed and is a burden on those who aren’t wealthy and inherit property
  9. 9  Eliminate or drastically downsize the IRS, saving taxpayers billions

Unintended consequences: CPA’s and tax attorneys and IRS employees may have to find more productive work than earning a living helping citizens forced to negotiate with an egregious and immoral tax code. Sorry guys but the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Live long and prosper…some other way.

Any questions?

How much of our political discourse and time in Congress is wasted talking about specific tax breaks, credits, incentives and other ways of pandering to special interests by inserting additional revenue rabbit trails in our tax code? There are many who feel that’s what makes legislators feel powerful and allows them to control us. Do you think if we relieved them of the responsibility of worrying about a pallet of ticky-tack bureaucratic baloney they might be able to work on actually accomplishing something?

In testing these ideas, liberals, conservatives and libertarians agree that this idea is at worst, a significant step in the right direction and at best, a short but complete template for a dramatically improved tax code. There are many things the left and right have substantial disagreement on but it seems at least in principle that in a simplified tax code we find common ground and that has been overlooked in Washington.

We continue on our current course at our own peril, not only unable to make informed decisions about what we can do but fighting over changes which don’t make any real difference.

We Need a New Perspective on Racism

MO_TEEN_SHOOTING_16The recent killing of two black men by police officers in Baton Rouge and Minnesota followed by a mass shooting of police officers in Dallas have brought the contentious issues of police brutality and racism back into the spotlight.

After a series of incidents in the public eye starting with the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, tension has increased between the police and the black community well beyond a comfortable threshold along with damaging the more encompassing topic of race relations. Sadly, after the election of our first African-American president, things seem to have regressed.

No one can deny the history of racism in this country, but we don’t seem to understand the legacy of the relationship to law enforcement today other than in caricatures. Here are some key points to consider:

•  Where there are humans, there will be racism but as the world gets smaller, we’ve seen bigotry diminish.

There will always be those who have prejudices toward people who are different; however, in the past we lived in communities segregated from one another and not just by race. Now that we communicate, travel, and live with people who are different, things are changing.

•  Discrimination in America was institutional and legal but that is no longer endorsed or practiced as a matter of course.

While Senator Tim Scott highlighted that a black person may still receive an unfair amount of scrutiny, Barack Obama was still elected and re-elected to the highest office in the land. Prior to that, the rival party nominated a Supreme Court justice, two Secretaries of State, and featured a black businessman as a serious contender for the 2012 nomination. In the private sector, there is a growing list of highly successful black business people from Oprah and Jay Z to Microsoft Chairman John W. Thompson, the future looks bright.

I asked Ron Miller of Liberty University some time ago if he believes we are still a racist country by nature. He answered with some thoughts from his article  Is America an Inherently Racist Nation:  “No, I do not. Were it so, no black person could succeed, and too many have succeeded and continue to succeed.”

Indeed, segregation ended half a century ago and the numbers who grew up in a time when that was seen as acceptable are diminishing. There are parallels: Joe McGovern writes about his cross-country journey as a liberal learning about conservatives, “Most of the younger conservatives I interviewed were totally pro-gay marriage, for example, and irritated with the older conservatives that keep making gay marriage an issue.” While race relations are tense right now, it’s more about the past and politics than ongoing racism.

•  In fact, America is consistently shown to be one of the least racist countries in the world.

Believe it or not, Americans, on average, are far more comfortable with neighbors of different races than most other countries.

•  While our society aims to provide equal opportunity, getting everyone to pursue it through various obstacles remains a challenge.

We have come a long way in passing civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, etc. and in some cases we’ve promoted affirmative action. Still, black communities suffer from disproportionately high rates of poverty and crime. Clearly, this is not due to the color of their skin or being inferior, so the answer to changing the dynamic is understanding why.

•  Shootings by police are relatively rare and don’t always reveal racial bias but there is still a difference in use of force.

Here is good news and bad news: a recent study by Roland G. Fryer Jr., a professor of economics at Harvard, examined over 1,000 shootings in 10 major police departments and found the disparity only in nonlethal force. Going over the study in the New York Times, Fryer wonders if this is related to cost, as officers face legal and psychological consequences when they unnecessarily fire their guns but excessive use of lesser force is rarely tracked or punished.

It is also more of a policing problem than a racial problem.   Heather McDonald of the Wall Street Journal reports:

“…blacks make up 26% of the police-shooting victims, compared with their 13% representation in the national population. But as residents of poor black neighborhoods know too well, violent crimes are disproportionately committed by blacks. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, blacks were charged with 62% of all robberies, 57% of murders and 45% of assaults in the 75 largest U.S. counties in 2009, though they made up roughly 15% of the population there.”

This means officers confront armed and often resisting suspects in those communities, raising the risk of using lethal force.

But white officers are not necessarily more prone to shooting innocent blacks. A Justice Department report on the Philadelphia Police Department found that black and Hispanic officers were much more likely than white officers to shoot blacks based on “threat misperception,” (a mistaken belief that a civilian is armed).  A 2015 study by Penn criminologist Greg Ridgeway, former acting director of the National Institute of Justice, found “black officers in the NYC Police Department were 3.3 times more likely to discharge their weapons than other officers.”

When Black Lives Matters and others protest the disproportionately harsh treatment of black men by police, they often have a legitimate beef. Tim Scott said as much during his speech and former Speaker Newt Gingrich recently observed, “It took me a long time and a number of people talking to me over the years to begin to get a sense of this: If you are a normal, white American, the truth is you don’t understand being black in America and you instinctively underestimate the level of discrimination and the level of additional risk.”

However, pointing this out without looking at crime statistics doesn’t tell the whole story. It’s time to acknowledge the problem without trying to assign all the blame. African-American policemen and conservatives are often disappointed that there is so much outrage about treatment by police when far more die at the hands of others in the community.

It’s no secret that members of any group are reluctant to call out their own.  On his Facebook page, police officer Jay Stalien tells of being treated as an enemy by his own people, just for being a cop:

“Black people kill more other blacks than police do, and there are only protests and outrage when a cop kills a black man. University of Toledo criminologist Dr. Richard R. Johnson examined the latest crime data from the FBI…and [CDC] and found that an average of 4,472 black men were killed by other black men annually between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2012….[while]  112 black men died from both justified and unjustified police-involved killings….

…to most black people…[o]nly the lives that make the national news matter…. Only the lives that are taken at the hands of cops or white people, matter. The other thousands of lives lost, the other black souls that I along with every cop, have seen taken at the hands of other blacks, do not matter. Their deaths are unnoticed, accepted as the ‘norm’, and swept underneath the rug by the very people who claim and post ‘black lives matter’.”

Critics will argue that this is the result of institutional racism and while a poorly crafted phrase, it isn’t without merit. If we can understand that blacks commit more crime without making it “because they are black,” we can start to untangle the causes.

My father always said, “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”  Jeff Guo described in the Washington Post how President John F. Kennedy, trying to help black people move past a history of discrimination, started early-childhood education and vocational training efforts that Lyndon B. Johnson would later expand into Head Start and the Job Corps, under the umbrella of his War on Poverty. Harvard Historian Elizabeth Hinton writes in “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” that Johnson’s efforts, largely based on former Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s studies on black poverty, were well-intentioned but misguided. At the time, leaders saw the connection between between poverty and crime but designed programs that treated the symptoms rather than the disease.

Then, in response to the increasing civil unrest, the federal government made its first major intrusion into local law enforcement, beginning a process of militarizing the police, creating the prison industrial complex and eventually, the War on Drugs. Addressing these issues and the their impact on African Americans along with gun violence is a contentious debate but Hinton argues the blame is bipartisan:

“Built by a consensus of liberals and conservatives who privileged punitive responses to urban problems as a reaction to the civil rights movement, over time, the carceral state and the network of programs it encompassed came to dominate government responses to American inequality.”

Johnson continued to treat urban black poverty and unrest as a problem of discipline rather than denied opportunity and leaders on both sides were unwilling to make the drastic investments in human development.  The legacy of that approach is what we see today and even in programs that are undeniably helpful to those truly in need, without sufficient accountability there will continue to be abuse.

Larry Miller had an extended conversation with Dave Rubin about the roots of this problem, questioning long-term consequences of rewarding women for out-of-wedlock births by giving them additional benefits.  Others in the black community have also noticed:  during his cross-country journey, McGovern also spoke to an African-American who grew up in the projects in Pittsburgh and told Joe, “he was on the bus heading to school and he heard a girl behind him tell her friend, ‘I’m going to get pregnant again and this time I hope it’s a girl so they’ll have to get me a bigger place,'” because she already had a boy and since social services wouldn’t allow boys and girls to share rooms, they would move her into a bigger apartment.

People will differ on what the government can and should do but we at least appear to be approaching a consensus on where the government has gone wrong.  As with gun violence, if we can approach the broader systemic issues, particularly where government programs have made things worse, we stand to have a greater degree of long-term success. The most important things we can do, with a healthy dose of addition by subtraction, are:

1.  End the War on Drugs and focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration

2.  Institute major prison reform, and focus on turning criminals into productive members of society

3.  Transition welfare programs into work and job training for teens and able-bodied adults

4.  Support school choice and education reform

5.  Increase gang intervention

6.  Create a genuine wealth-building program to supplement or replace Social Security

When we remove our own biases from the equation and look at matters objectively, the picture becomes more clear how the ongoing situation has contributed to tension between law enforcement and the black community and a resurgence of racial animosity. We are not always successful in implementing policies that help, nor in achieving the personal responsibility we expect from each other. An important part of dealing with any issue is realizing when you’ve made a wrong turn and getting the ship back on course.

Boy and Girl, Interrupted

A lack of both compassion and common sense are keeping the abortion rate unacceptably high for a society which ought to be finding ways to lower it.

Boy and Girl interrupted

Somehow, the abortion debate is never far from being front and center in the news. No matter how bad the economy is or what’s going on in the rest of the world, Americans seem to have an insatiable need to focus on this issue. When the landmark Roe v. Wade passed through the Supreme Court in 1973 and set a precedent regarding the legality of abortion, could anyone have imagined we’d be arguing about it so incessantly over forty years later?  Framed as a “social issue” it’s no surprise to those who consider abortion the taking of an innocent life, terminating a pregnancy continues to be a source of contentious debate.  Advocates for choice see scrutiny as part of a “War on Women,” or less the hyperbole, part of an effort to limit a woman’s options in health care and choices about her own body.

Roe has no chance of being overturned even though Americans identifying as “pro choice” was at a record low in May of 2012 but in 2015, pro-choicers are outpolling pro-lifers for the first time in 7 years.  Regardless, view are not evolving on this issue:  while support for gay marriage has increased at an unprecedented rate in the last 20 years, favorability for abortion has remained much the same.  Many people who identify as pro-life still favor abortion rights in some cases – 52% in the 2012 Gallup poll.

It would seem with an issue so emotional there would be a compelling reason to find solutions that reach the best possible outcome for all concerned. During his presidency, Bill Clinton stated clearly he felt abortion was a “tragedy” but nonetheless it should be “safe, legal and rare.” While pro-lifers continue to oppose abortion in most instances, pro-choicers have fought hard to make sure it remains safe and legal but seem less concerned with rarity.  What many pro-lifers don’t realize is that they aren’t helping matters.

Who would have thought that the left and right could actually unknowingly conspire to keep the abortion rate from dropping even further?  While abortion rates rates been on the decline and 2012 saw teen pregnancies hit a 40-year low, one would think this is still an option chosen more often than most people would be comfortable with.

The Guttmacher Institute reports in 2011, the abortion rate reached its lowest level since 1973.  Still, twenty-one percent of all pregnancies end in abortion and in 2011 alone, 1.06 million abortions were performed.  From 1973 through 2011, nearly 53 million legal abortions occurred.

By contrast, consider this 2012 headline NBC News:   ” ‘No one really cares’: US deaths in Afghanistan hit 2,000 in ‘forgotten’ war’ ”

So do we have an abortion problem? Some people don’t seem to think so.

One might assume the majority of Americans feel that abortion is, for lack of a better term, a necessary evil or at least an understandable, if undesirable choice under difficult circumstances. That would seem to be the kind of sentiment that would support policies helping to reduce the occurrence along the lines of Clinton’s thinking.

However, that’s not where we are. Perhaps part of it is as former Obama supporter and recent GOP convert Artur Davis mentioned, “this is not Bill Clinton’s Democratic Party.”  This may reflect a chicken-and-egg scenario with what  appears to be a lack of motivation to reduce the number of abortions once you get too far to the left. Have we become so concerned about not judging that abortion has become “no big deal” in some circles?

As Dennis Miller observed “the left wants to cover you from cradle to grave. It’s getting to the cradle that’s the tricky part.”  Is a Democratic party once led by Clinton and a GOP opposed to abortion in most cases effectively addressing the millions of abortions going on in any sort of meaningful, effective and pragmatic way?

The most extreme advocates of a given position frequently get the most press and are also the most eager to espouse their views. In recent conversations with women about the issue of choice, I was admittedly surprised by what I learned. Among other things, I was told that there are no unborn children, only fetuses. I also heard the fetus referred to as an unwanted invader, hitchhiker, fetal matter (a combination of blood, mucous and tissue), parasite and other terms which, although technically correct in some instances, seemed a little dehumanizing. In some cases “zygote” was the most generous description offered.   Was it so long ago that a pregnant woman was referred to as “with child” and “eating for two?”  How did we come to this?

One woman I spoke with reminisced when abortion first became legal it was literally no big deal. She reflected on how, more recently, it inexplicably became a source of anxiety when it shouldn’t be any different than excising a mole.  In fairness, she admitted her views are “left of Cuba” but she’s a mother of two children.  She went on to say that she loves her kids but when she was pregnant she felt much differently.  And of course, then came the sentiment, also echoed by others, that as a man I had no right to judge a pregnant woman’s feelings.

I would agree that a man is in no position to identify with what goes through a woman’s mind and body during pregnancy and I never made any such judgments; I simply found some of the characterizations of the unborn a little…sterile.

Relating that story and some of those thoughts resulted in a different woman in another conversation to classify me, as well as anyone not firmly in the pro-choice camp as a “pre-lifer” in spite of the fact that I never stated I felt abortion should be outlawed.  Curiously, this person is also a prominent advocate with Emily’s List.

I do not mean to represent this line of reasoning as universal; however it goes a long way to explain why more isn’t being done to make abortion rare in addition to safe.  If you view a fetus as nothing more than tissue, why bother worrying about what happens to it?  More often than not; however, I think it’s a simple question of priorities and apparently for many, the rights of a child do not exist until out of the womb.

That is not to say the majority necessarily feel this way but many do, as evidenced by those who want no restrictions whatsoever.   Henry Blodget, writing for Business Insider, echoed the familiar “the tadpole is not a frog” sentiment when he said “because although I believe that life begins at conception, I understand that some people don’t believe that and/or that some people might, given certain circumstances, choose to terminate that early life at a point when it is not even remotely human.”  Of course, it doesn’t look human but the DNA is identical.

And those who are most adamant about protecting abortion rights frequently portray anyone who doesn’t concur as a right-wing extremist.  After former Representative Todd Akin’s infamous statement that a woman who has been a victim of a “legitimate” (presumably forcible) rape has the benefit of some natural protection against pregnancy, most probably as a result of the psychological and physical trauma she suffered, virtually every notable Republican made it clear they found his remarks grossly inaccurate at best and extremely offensive at worst. Most asked him to remove himself from his Senate race.

Apparently that wasn’t good enough. In an effort to further ostracize Republicans for any pro-life stance, many Democrats and much of media felt the need to portray all of them as ideological religious extremists. In an interview with VP candidate and practicing Catholic Paul Ryan, when asked about his views, he stated that he personally has never felt that the method of conception changes the meaning of life; however,  he and Mitt Romney were running on a platform that included allowing abortion for rape, incest and health concerns for the mother.  The Raw Story then covered the interview with the headline “Ryan believes rape is ‘just another method of conception.’

Is there a spin-doctor in the house?

When you have the truth on your side, why exaggerate?  Can we not all agree that while there is a legitimate debate over when life matters and where the rights of a mother end and those of the unborn begin, no one is echoing the old Texas gubernatorial candidate Claytie Williams sentiment “if you’re gonna get raped you might as well lay back and enjoy it?”  In the world of politics it’s more important to allege Republicans have no compassion whatsoever for victims of rape.

But the right of a woman to choose isn’t the only argument on the table. Sometime abortion is justified in other ways. Often we hear objections to legislating based on religious views rather than science.  I wholeheartedly agree.  But another commenter went on to say that claiming life begins at conception has nothing to do with science-it’s “religion.”

Actually, the medical and scientific definition of conception is the creation of a new organism.  We can discover a single cell on another planet and that means we’ve found life there but a fertilized egg is not. The truth is, we don’t really know when all the pieces which make us fully human are in place. After all, there are some things about humanity, such as sentience, consciousness or a “soul” that we don’t fully understand. Science doesn’t provide these answers but it seems intuitive that once an egg is fertilized the DNA is set and after implantation in the womb, if nothing natural or unnatural interferes, you end up with a baby.

Aside from the definition of the word, science does presume that life begins at conception quite simply because it makes logical sense. From sources as reputable as Harvard Medical School even to notable proponents of abortion in the past, the admission that the process of fertilization creates a human being is common knowledge. The issue for many of these individuals then becomes much more intellectually honest; there is no denial that we are taking a life and the determination becomes not when life begins but rather, when does it matter.  That’s a subjective determination and it would seem, from an ethical standpoint, that we should err on the side of caution—but many feel that determination should be solely at the mother’s discretion.

I have also heard the seemingly reasonable argument that no baby who isn’t wanted should be brought into the world. Without discounting the difficulty of carrying a baby to term, when you consider all the childless couples who are willing to adopt, perhaps there is a misconception of what unwanted is.  And of course, there are the tit-for-tat retorts, one of which is the opposite of Dennis Miller: . To quote one individual, those who are pro-life are only so “right up to the moment of birth, when they drop them like they are hot rocks…no education, no medical care, no food, no shelter…you’re on your own little one.”   While the right admittedly seems to focus more on cutting social programs than necessary and prudent reform, didn’t we all learn in kindergarten two wrongs don’t make a right?

That is often accompanied by remarks about people dying overseas by our hand because of war, the death penalty and other claims that pro-lifers only care about the unborn.  This are fair points we’ll address later, but if you don’t equate a fetus to anything human, a few million in the biohazard bin doesn’t really matter, does it?

Ironically, it resembles the retorts you often encounter when speaking to the left about entitlement reform. The first response is usually about how little abuse and fraud there is, often followed by the argument that military spending, corporate welfare and tax breaks for the rich are a much bigger problem.  Even if true, it’s still the logical equivalent of dismissing concerns about AIDS and diabetes because cancer and heart disease are greater problems.

The pro-choice crowd bristles when accused of being “pro-abortion” but neither side is concerned enough to focus on minimizing abortions. To the contrary, for abortion advocates the vast majority of the effort seems to be protecting abortion rights along with making sure that pro-lifers are portrayed as anti-woman zealots who stop caring about children once they are born.  Reasonable guidelines on when the rights of the mother intersect the rights of the unborn?  For too many people, it’s never.

So most reading this are either thinking “preach it” or angry at another misogynistic anti-woman pre-life blogger.  Stay with me a bit longer.

For those against abortion, at least everyone can count on the ongoing efforts of the pro-life movement to do everything in its power to reduce the number of abortions in any way possible, right?  Well, know.  This team has a quarterback who can throw long but the receivers are slow, run poor routes and can’t catch. They need to focus on the running game. Unfortunately that’s not happening.

I’m not saying that opponents of abortion aren’t vocally and consistently doing what they can to illustrate how they view abortion as wrong. Clearly they do; but in terms of working within the current laws to reduce the number, there is a complicit failure of epic proportions.

Abortions are usually the result of an unwanted pregnancy, the key operative word here being “unwanted.” Is there anyone out there in favor of unwanted pregnancies?  No?  Good!  Then perhaps we can all work together on finding better ways of preventing them. So, abortion opponents,  in my best Sean Connery voice (circa The Untouchables) “What are you prepared to do about it?”

I find it hard to explore many issues without a cliché’ or an old adage as so many of them are simply on the mark. Can we not all agree that half a loaf is better than none?  Again, apparently not. Guttmacher also reports:

“when used correctly, modern contraceptives are extremely effective at preventing pregnancy. The two-thirds of U.S. women at risk of unintended pregnancy who practice contraception consistently and correctly account for only 5% of unintended pregnancies. “

Not surprisingly, the same people who scream about entitlement reform are frequently the ones who don’t want to pay for anyone else’s birth control.  Guess what?  Neither do I, but given the option of either chipping in for birth control and the knowledge to use it or having either a) more abortions or b) another kid on welfare and food stamps, I’ll gladly ante up for the former.

There are of course, religious objections to providing birth control either through government funding or private insurance, most notably from the Catholic Church. The question then becomes, where do you draw the line?   Christian Scientists don’t believe in medical care but I don’t think any credence would be given to the argument of someone refusing to pay taxes that support Medicare and Medicaid.  Observant Jews don’t eat pork, shellfish and other specific non-Kosher foods but I don’t see anyone fighting to keep them off public school lunch menus.  There are many, many people who would like to see birth control and the education that needs to accompany it made a priority and with good reason.

Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post hit the proverbial nail on the head when she remarked during the Sandra Fluke/Rush Limbaugh spectacle:

“The only question has been whether the federal government can force religious organizations to pay for something that violates their freedom of conscience. For the record, if I were dictator, I’d put contraceptives in the drinking water on college campuses. But the Catholic Church and other religious entities do not share my view, and our laws have always tried to allow generous exceptions to rules that conflict with moral principle.”

Personally I would go far beyond college campuses.

I realize that this is an awkward thing to ask an observant Catholic to consider and they’re already living in a society that does not share their values as far as respecting the unborn. In the interest of helping prevent abortions, do we dare ask them to also support others using birth control?  I think we should.

Yes, traditional Catholics and others can continue to expect abstinence but let’s be realistic: few are listening and abstinence-only education doesn’t work.  We can encourage other natural methods of pregnancy prevention but they are difficult to employ consistently.  In attempting to find the path to the moral high ground we are proving the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

In a conversation with a friend and observant Catholic, I learned somethings about the church’s attitude toward birth control. If a family is genuinely going to be adversely affected by the birth of another child, it is not a presumptive rule that birth control is out of the question; rather, the family is directed to consult their priest and pray in order to find the best solution.  Wiggle room in church doctrine?  Who knew?

If the Catholic Church can be open to that idea, perhaps some flexibility in the rest of the pro-life crowd would be in order.  That means those Tennessee legislators and others who don’t want kids “exposed” to any information about sex other than “don’t have any.”  It means the ones who want to pass “don’t say gay” laws. It means the ones so concerned with promoting “gateway sexual activity” that they make teachers worry about being fired for even discussing it. And the ones who think that by not teaching children about the complex realities of sex we will somehow insulate them from the simplistic view and endorsement they get from their peers, movies and television.

It’s a shame we can’t all be home or church schooled and turn off all portrayals of sex in the media but last time I checked outside influences were still not the final determination of puberty, curiosity or urges and the sexual revolution was decades ago.  So here’s a Fox News Alert for these folks: we can’t stop people from having sex.   We can teach abstinence first and try to teach family values but ultimately, we can’t turn back the hands of time and reverse the sexual revolution.
That being the case,  it’s time to think about doing everything possible  to minimize the number of unwanted pregnancies resulting from people who either don’t have easy access to birth control, don’t know how to use it properly or don’t care enough to be bothered.  We are often forced to choose between the lesser of two evils and while I am not a theologian, I presume that the gap between birth control (including helping pay for someone else’s) and abortion is significant.

We should put effort into promoting awareness, education and even birth control at public expense if necessary.  Few are interested in taxpayer-subsidized abortions but efforts to drastically reduce abortion by preventing unwanted pregnancies should be encouraged, especially when they are proven to work.   “Fiscal responsibility” is not a short term proposition.  Believing in personal responsibility and not wishing to pay for someone else’s birth control are fair understandable but we forget our role in teaching others, particularly where the family unit has broken down.  Supporting birth control and education teaches personal responsibility in addition to reducing unwanted pregnancy and hence, abortion.   Sometimes the end does justify the means and remember:  Jesus saves but Moses invests.

Many who have children they can’t afford actually cost the taxpayer more and the cycle continues, so perhaps it’s time for pro-lifers to put their money where their mouths are and do something besides just opposing the idea of abortion.  Like it or not, It’s still legal in this country and for those who wish to work to change the law, that is your right.  In the meantime, devoting energy to mucking up the system with ticky-tack laws designed to impede the process is unproductive.  Stop wasting airtime and taxpayer dollars trying to make it harder or more humiliating for women who choose to exercise their legal right to have an abortion.  It’s not an effective strategy and only provides fodder for your opponents.   Yes, women should be strongly encouraged to consider all the options including adoption but forcing her to have a transvaginal probe is a little more than intrusive.

There are also extreme points of view about how a someone considering an abortion should be treated. I spoke to a woman who, to her credit, had given birth to a son conceived via rape and firmly believed that regardless of the horrible beginning, her child was a huge blessing. Unfortunately she also stated that she believes any woman having an abortion deserves be humiliated and treated with disdain.  It’s understandable that not everyone wishes to extend the horror of a rape to a nine-month or longer ordeal.  Pregnancy is hard enough on a woman who wants the baby.   Yes, adoption would be ideal but we should all be able to empathize with a friend who commented to me that if given the choice between forcing her daughter to carry a rape-conceived fetus to term or an early abortion , she would prefer the latter.

More clichés come to mind: both sides seem to be stuck in a cycle of trying to shut the barn door after the horse is already out.  It doesn’t work, so here’s a better suggestion: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  That also involves not throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s understandable why Planned Parenthood is controversial. With roughly 86% of non-federal revenue from abortions, Planned Parenthood is a fundraising machine and heavily involved in the political arena.  They have also opposed initiatives that require waiting periods before abortions and bans on late-term abortions,  which have been illegal in the U.S. since 2003.  That certainly puts them on the outside of mainstream thought, plus they receive millions in federal funds plus state and local grants.

However, they do a lot of good. Of all services performed, abortion only constitutes 3%. According to the organization:

“In 2009, Planned Parenthood provided 4,009,549 contraceptive services (35% of total), 3,955,926  sexually transmitted disease services (35% of total), 1,830,811 cancer related services (16% of total), 1,178,369 pregnancy/prenatal/midlife services (10% of total), 332,278 abortion services (3% of total), and 76,977 other services (1% of total), for a total of 11,383,900 services. The organization also said its doctors and nurses annually conduct 1 million screenings for cervical cancer and 830,000 breast exams.”

Clearly, if accurate, the other 97% is an important part of women’s health care, particularly for the less fortunate, including contraceptive services that prevent even more abortion.  PP reports that 75% of their clients have incomes at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. So when the Texas legislature decided to battle the Obama Administration over funds for the Women’s Health Program by defunding PP, they were potentially inhibiting lot more than abortions. Not all geographic areas have the same problem but many do.  This is the kind of thing giving fodder to those who decry the “War on Women.”

There are other ancillary things as well which don’t bode well for pragmatism or common sense. Before the 2012 election, Paul Ryan was the target of some criticism for taking stimulus funds back in his district after he had opposed the stimulus itself.  After the program was passed and the funds allocated, whom would Ryan have served by standing on principle if that meant denying his district some of the money that was already being spent?  By the same token, while abortion is legal, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to oppose research that uses aborted fetuses. The recent controversy at Planned Parenthood suggested profiting from the sale.  If that is the case, clearly it’s not OK.  Otherwise,  if any of the research can be used to cure disease or save lives, perhaps these deaths might not be for nothing.  Again, this is not about deliberately terminating pregnancies to reap the rewards; it’s about finding the benefit in an admittedly unfortunate situation and making the best of it.

And finally,  the same “two wrongs” argument cuts both ways.  We do need to understand foreign policy shouldn’t routinely include preemptive wars.   We do need to reconsider the death penalty. And yes, it’s time we make sure children are taken care of after they are born, even if their parents are deadbeats.

We may never know if the powers of the universe look unfavorably on a species that wantonly interrupts its own procreation once the offspring has been created and kills each other continually thereafter.  Regardless, there is much more we can do to to prevent something that most people agree is an undesirable course of action. We can do much more of what is known to prevent unwanted pregnancies and terminate fewer, which will have many long term benefits and coincidentally, may determine how much more of this ongoing contentious debate remains in the headlines.

Yes, it’s time to replace Social Security, not fix it

Yes, you read it correctly.  Here are the words politicians are unwilling to utter.  Democrats have made it clear they wish to preserve it while many Republicans have argued for partial privatization.  Bernie Sanders has launched a campaign attacking the Koch brothers and organizations who have questioned the viability of Social Security and suggested fixes, claiming they want to “destroy” it.  Sanders, meanwhile, has pledged to expand it.  Are concerns about the programs viability legitimate or is it all Koch-funded propaganda?

Signed into law in 1935, Social Security now encompasses a group of social insurance plans that help protect the elderly and disabled from dire straits – by most accounts, a noble endeavor.  Medicare and Medicaid were added in 1965.  Unfortunately, with a growing number of elderly and disabled, the financial stability of the program has been challenged.  Since 2010 SS has been in a severe negative cash flow position and estimates show the disability fund may run out of money as early as 2016 (that’s next year for those of you not paying attention) and the retiree benefits by 2034.  After that, income will lag behind benefit liabilities.  While Senator Sanders and others blame the Kochs for misinformation, the Social Security website says as much:

“The last 5 Trustees Reports have indicated that Social Security’s Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) Trust Fund reserves would become depleted between 2033 and 2037 under the intermediate set of economic and demographic assumptions provided in each report. If no legislative change is enacted, scheduled tax revenues will be sufficient to pay only about three fourths of the scheduled benefits after trust fund depletion.”

MEANING, it will require 100% of the contributions of current workers to fund current retirees and that will only be enough to pay 75% of the benefits. If the ratio of retirees to workers grows, the problem will get even worse.    Further, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) that will be bankrupt by next year has got even bigger problems because the number of recipients has quadrupled since 1970 and as explains,

“the statistics show large increases in applications for disability benefits when the economy is struggling and unemployment is rising but fewer applications when the situation is reversed,  Given that people obviously don’t become more or less disabled depending on how the economy is performing, it means that people are using the program as a form of unemployment insurance.”

This is not a situation completely unique to the United States.  We are living longer and the demographics that existed in the  post WWII-boom with a larger number of younger workers and a smaller number of retirees has turned upside-down.  Countries that are heavy on entitlements and haven’t prepared for this change are facing economic disaster along the lines of Greece.

Is this something that can be fixed or is there a better way?  Of course there are ways to make the existing system last longer but that doesn’t address the more fundamental question of whether or not it’s the best way to provide social insurance for the elderly and disabled.

Most people do not understand how SS actually works.  In theory, and many presumably believe in practice, a worker’s contributions to SS would be kept in an individual account and put aside for retirement or other need.  Many Americans believe this is how it works, along the lines of Al Gore’s famous “lock box.”  That is not the case.  Social Security checks do not represent a return on invested capital and as Pew Research points out, “the taxes paid by today’s workers and their employers don’t go into dedicated individual accounts (although 32% of Americans think they do).”

According the the SS website, “tax income is deposited on a daily basis and is invested in “special-issue” securities. The cash exchanged for the securities goes into the general fund of the Treasury and is indistinguishable from other cash in the general fund.”  The SS trust fund therefore has no money in it long term as the cash is converted to debt notes and bonds.  The money itself then becomes available to Congress for spending as with all other tax revenue.

The government then depends on the sale of securities in order to fund retirees, along with the taxes of current workers.  A program that assists seniors in the needy is certainly a distinguishing factor of a civilized society but the problem is twofold:  one, in that the program is not fundamentally structured in a simple way that provides individual retirement benefits and as such, gives a very limited returns.  In addition, the program has run out of money in the past and is going to again unless changes are made.

Of greater concern and unknown to most Americans, legally no one is actually “entitled” to their benefits, meaning the government is not legally obligated to pay them.   As early as 1937 in Helvering v. Davis the Supreme Court ruled that Social Security was not a contributory insurance program, saying, “The proceeds of both the employee and employer taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like any other internal revenue generally, and are not earmarked in any way.”  Even more alarming, in 1960 regarding Fleming v. Nestor, the Supreme Court ruled that citizens don’t have a right to Social Security benefits even if they paid into the system and Congress can change the rules at any time.

In essence, as Michael Tanner of the Cato Institute accurately points out, “Social Security is not an insurance program at all. It is simply a payroll tax on one side and a welfare program on the other. Your Social Security benefits are always subject to the whim of 535 politicians in Washington.”

Yet when some Republicans mention even partial voluntary privatization, there is a backlash.  while the private market admittedly offers much greater upside, people have also experienced substantial losses and that isn’t ideal for a social insurance program.

What is the answer?  Many Republicans demonize Social Security without acknowledging its intent, dwelling on the cost rather than addressing the fundamental flaws.  Meanwhile Democrats exploit the public’s ignorance to use preserving SS as a talking point, never admitting that there are far better ways to craft such a program.  If there was ever a doubt that Social Security in its current form has become a political tool, look no further than the ever-contradicting-himself Paul Krugman, who expressed great concern over the program in 1996 and agreed with Bill Clinton that “every single year we avoid resolving this, it will get harder and harder and harder,” and continued his expression of worry for years, only to back peddle in 2007 and ostracize those expressing similar concerns.   Sadly, this has become routine for economist-turned-pundit Krugman who has made similar about faces on minimum wage and other issues.

This is the typical “us vs. them’ black and white thinking that permeates our political landscape.  It’s unfortunate because better options are usually right in front of us…or sometimes, to the north.

Canada, for example, is a real, multi-faceted social insurance and pension plan:  a hybrid of a pay-as-you-go and private pension plan.   Canada has its own taxpayer-supported social security-type system for senior citizens of modest means, the the Old Age Security pension (OAS), but also provides the Canadian Pension Plan.  The CPP Investment Board states as “a global investment organization, we invest in public equities, private equities, bonds, private debt, real estate, infrastructure and other areas. “

While the OAS and CPP provide benefits somewhat comparable to Social Security, the contributions are much lower. As of  2013, employees contributed 4.95% of gross income between $3,500 and $51,100, up to a maximum contribution of $2,356.20. The employer matches the employee contribution, which totals 9.9% of pensionable income.  In contrast, Americans are currently contributing a total of 12.4% with a cap of $7,254 as of 2015.    Canada as well as the UK are also offering tax-free universal savings accounts and not just for retirement.

So Americans really aren’t getting a good deal.  There is much criticism of Wall Street for making a lot of money and the benefits of investing are mostly relegated to the top half of earners.  Most people would like to ride on the same train but also don’t want to put everything at risk, even if they have the wherewithal to invest.   Others are worried about educating the public about diversification.  Suggestions at even an option for a voluntary, partial use of one’s own social security contributions to be put in private accounts by President George W. Bush and Paul Ryan were soundly rejected and while the idea has great merit, it certainly presented challenges for transitioning.

America’s seniors are already the new middle class and have become that with a combination of Social Security, pensions and investments they made during the Post WWII boom.   The New York Times reports that today’s seniors have greater resources than previous generations but the trend is not likely to continue.  While paychecks may be larger, SS benefits may be smaller when today’s workers reach retirement age and today’s 401(k) savings plans are not guaranteed nor as generous as employer-sponsored pensions of the past.  States and local municipalities are also being forced to look at unfunded liabilities and overly generous promises made as they try to avert bankruptcy or some cases (Detroit) come out of it.

The best solution?  Most reasonable people, if educated, would presumably want the benefit of the private market without the risk.  is that too good to be true?  In private investments alone, yes…but what if the government worked in partnership with the market?

The Rise Up Theory of Economics, also known as The USA plan,  advocates the best of both worlds:  It redirects the payroll contributions presently paid by individuals and employers into personally-owned investment accounts that can grow into millions over the citizen’s working life. Instead of going to the government, the funds are invested in a unique USA (Universal Savings Account) in safe indexed stock funds that have historically been growing at over a 10% rate for the last 25 years and most importantly, the proposed enacting legislation would guarantee no reduction in benefits.  The accounts will be backed by the government and insured against loss; in other words, all of the upside with none of the risk.  In fact, if successful, the guaranteed minimum benefit could be increased in the future.

How much better would the economy be and how much less would seniors and others be reliant on govt benefits if they were able to retire at an average of 8x their current salary?  The potential is staggering:  even an minimum wage worker earning only $7.25 for a 40-year career (much less than anyone is likely to earn) is able to accumulate a nest egg of over $1.2 million and receive a $10,000 monthly benefit check.  Some of that would presumably need to be set aside to insure against loss but regardless, it is far more than Social Security provides now or ever will in the future.

Every responsible person who has the money to invest does so because of the returns.  There is no reason this opportunity should be relegated to only the top half of earners.

Real concerns, many of which are legitimate criticism of any type of privatization would have to be addressed.

  • Many people can’t manage their own money so the contributions still have to be involuntary.
  • A new plan shouldn’t cost the taxpayer more than it does now.
  • Taxpayer funds should be in trust and unreachable by politicians, Congress, taxes, courts, one’s creditors or spouses and by the taxpayer himself until retirement.
  • All present and future retirees without the time to accumulate substantial nest eggs must be guaranteed to receive the amounts presently paid under Social Security, Disability and Medicare.
  • Taxpayer’s funds cannot be managed by stockbrokers or investment houses; the trust will invest directly, bypassing commissions and other costs associated with brokers.
  • Taxpayers will have control over which bond or stock funds his or her money is invested in during their working life. These funds will track the steady upward movement of the market and grow with our economy.
  • No risky investments will be allowed.  Funds should be diverse and contain hundreds of quality stocks to avoid having a few crash the entire account.

Now the bottom half of earners won’t have to watch the top half reap the rewards of investing while hoping that someone such as a Bernie Sanders opining about income inequality will change things by raising taxes and minimum wage.   Ironically, it satisfies the supposed goals of those who will likely work hardest against it by turning the non-existent “trickle-down theory” into a windfall for everyone—something the actual supply-side economics advocated.

The USA plan, or one similarly crafted, creates and preserves wealth for anyone who works.  That is the first, most important and obvious benefit…but there would be many more.

The infusion of over $100 billion of new investment capital into the stock market every month would be a powerful force against economic stagnation and provide capital to accelerate job creation.  It should put the economy into overdrive.  By doing so, as well as creating much greater wealth in retirement, it could also be the impetus for paying off all debt and unfunded liabilities, followed by taxing Americans at much lower rates.  Long term, it could possibly reduce or eliminate the need for separate government pensions and Medicare,  end the need for businesses to independently fund retirement plans and potentially reduce the size of government dramatically by eliminating much of the bureaucracy dedicated to social service administration.  The creation of wealth could even dramatically reduce crime.

But the opportunity for such a system goes even further by providing a bipartisan, in fact non partisan, solution to the desires of both parties.   Dick McDonald, creator of the Rise Up Theory / USA Plan, elaborates:

“Faced with the competing interests of right and left – Republicans and Democrats – it was up to me if I was to construct a new economic theory to meet certain basic requirements of both philosophies. The right has always been focused on ways to increase the flow of capital into the equity markets to keep the economy growing.   On the other hand, Democrats and their many diverse special interest groups continue to look to the state for answers to their varied social and economic needs and to finance their myriad of programs by taxing the rich. “

Many assume that wealth is finite and we must take from the rich in order to give to the poor and hence, ostracized supply-side economics by falsely portraying it as “trickle down.”  The USA Plan actually does what true supply-side endeavors to provide:  greater access to capital and lower tax burdens for everyone.   It meets the demands of both parties by increasing the wealth of the “have-nots” without taking anything away from the wealthy.  The only ones who may be disappointed are those who truly believe that great wealth should not exist.

McDonald continues:   “Create an economic theory that does both… It is going to be an involuntary rain storm of mammoth proportions for all classes of Americans and substantially close the gap between the rich and the poor.”

This plan is actually relatively simple in concept and execution.  The only real complication is in transitioning over.  It is long past time for all Americans to understand that our leaders have a propensity, even when intentions are good, to create overly complex, mediocre and often poorly performing solutions to society’s ills.  Our tax code is probably the best example but Social Security is another.  The creation of great wealth for all Americans is not an unattainable pipe dream and would go a long way in helping to alleviate a lot of other social welfare issues that divide us, as well as lessening the need for relying on government to solve them.    Government is here to provide support where the private sector isn’t sufficiently incentivized to do the right thing; it isn’t supposed to take its place.

The Democrats have championed—and guys like Bernie Sanders wish to expand—programs that are fundamentally flawed and don’t provide the kind of “relief” that the USA Plan could.  Meanwhile Republicans have offered half-baked solutions that offer upside but lack provisions ensuring that Americans without the wherewithal to invest wisely or cover their losses won’t be at risk of losing everything.

Of course, if we solve this problem, there might be far fewer special interests left to pander to.  In fact, if we truly eliminate poverty, we’ll have to find someone else besides the wealthy to demonize.

The Summer of Islam


Don’t know much about history; don’t know much theology.

What I know about Islam isn’t from much direct contact.  I haven’t read the Koran and I don’t have Muslim friends, not because I’ve avoided them or refused to be with them; I simply haven’t had much opportunity. As a Jew, I can’t help but be concerned about what Islam means to those who seem to favor its more antagonistic precepts.

Those who are critics of organized religion are quick to point out that various faiths have had dark periods.  The stories of the Sanhedrin and particularly Caliphas don’t reflect well on some of the early Jewish hierarchy. Everyone knows about the Crusades and rampant corruption in the Catholic and Anglican churches for hundreds of years.  Even Buddhists, for whom non-violence is a central tenet, are not immune.

Today, however, it seems on the surface that most of the more serious ideology-driven violence is at the hands of radical Islamists. Major terror groups are numerous and in places such as Iraq and Syria, it seems that many Muslims are at war with each other as much as with people of different faiths.

I am not writing to get into a detailed theological or philosophical conversation about Islam and whether or not it is a “religion of peace.” It seems clear to me today, as it has been for others in the past, that how a religion is practiced is largely a matter of culture. Where people are prosperous and happy, there is usually peace. Where there is poverty and despair, it is replaced by anger and that sometimes leads to violence. In today’s society, that violence may be against those perceived to be evil in the eyes of the Almighty, especially if those people are living well.

With religious extremism, as in politics, it is often a vocal minority rather than the majority that drives the agenda.  It may very well be that the vast majority of Muslims are peaceful but as Bridgette Gabriel pointed out during short historical lesson about the Nazis, Russians and Chinese, the peaceful majority is often irrelevant.  Well, I think we can at least be confident knowing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Dr. Oz aren’t going to hurt anyone.

We can read and analyze the Koran and discuss what it says and it doesn’t say but ultimately, it’s about who we’ve become as human beings. Clearly there are things in the Old Testament that we consider barbaric today and don’t follow them literally. Today, most of us recognize that race, color, creed, sex and ethnicity are not grounds for discrimination and increasingly, not sexual preference either. The more advanced countries and particularly those that are democracies have clearly made more progress than others.

It’s difficult not to be thinking about what Islam means to the rest of the world during the middle of more conflict in Syria, Iraq and between Israel and the Palestinians as well. While not every critic of Israel is anti-Semitic (or for those who prefer the more politically correct “bigoted towards Jews”), it seems anyone who is bigoted against Jews is a staunch critic of Israel. It’s interesting to find today people who may not otherwise be racist or perhaps even give others a pass, as Hitler did for the Japanese and certain Arabs who cooperated in achieving the goals of the Third Reich…a major driver of the anti-Jewish sentiment in the Middle East percolating before WWII that has only increased since.

But other than my correspondence with anti-Jewish bigots and critics of Israel online, I don’t have much direct experience to speak of. There is one instance that stands out in my mind, however.

Several years ago when the kids were fairly young we went down to the San Antonio zoo. It was during the summer and it was hot…very hot. For a typical summer in South Texas most people know it’s not unusual to hit triple digits and when it’s sunny, well…it can be brutal.

So we were walking around the zoo in the heat I saw a Muslim couple and their baby. He was walking around in shorts and a button-down short sleeve shirt and sneakers, pretty similar to what I was wearing. She was covered from head to toe in a black burqa…with nothing but her eyes showing. In addition, she was the one pushing the stroller around. I didn’t think much about it at the time…I just kind of looked and her and thought, “wow…that sucks.” I felt my neck and the sweat soaking into the back of my T-shirt in the suffocating heat and shrugged my shoulders and we went on about our business.

It became one of those moments that sticks in your mind. Now, whenever I see a Muslim woman, very few of whom are wearing more than a hijab, I always remember the couple in San Antonio. I always feel compelled to stop a woman who looks friendly and say, “would you mind if I ask you a question?”

I want to ask someone why this is OK…without getting into whether or not she can drive or any of that…without asking why they don’t feel that resisting temptation is incumbent on men rather than on women obscuring their natural appearance….without asking why a man of faith shouldn’t be strong enough to behave himself.  That would be a long philosophical discussion but my first inclination is simply to find out if they really think it’s a good idea for a woman to be walking around in 100+ degree heat completely covered by a black burqa. I mean, for all I know they could have some advanced hydration and cooling system ala Dune.

But I never have. I just keep thinking about it whenever I see someone.

Most people have a lot more questions or existing opinions about Islam and with everything going on in the Middle East it’s no wonder…but for many people there is nothing quite as real as what they have experienced first hand.

I frequently quote John Adams, who famously said, “Ideology is the science of idiots.”  I personally believe that it often trumps common sense.  The reality is that it probably supersedes a whole lot more.