America’s Future – Climate Change

To avoid confusion, throughout this post I will use climate change and global warming interchangeably. Within the context of discussing the climate crisis we and the world are facing, those terms mean essentially the same thing. 

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At the end of my earlier post regarding core threats to our democracy (America’s Future – Continued), I closed by identifying Climate Change as the worst existential threat to civilized society that the world is facing. Within that contextual thread of course, that makes climate change the most dangerous crisis facing our American democracy as well.

The international scientific community is virtually united in the view that global warming is real, being driven substantially by human activity, and will bring environmental catastrophe soon. Their modeling predicts the chaos, death, and disruption to human society of a 2 degree celsius increase in global temperatures from:  extreme heat;  hunger, wildfires, severe weather phenomenon (hurricanes, tornados, typhoons), loss of fresh water, rising and dying oceans, unbreathable air, plagues, economic collapse, climate conflict, and finally mass uncontrollable migrations by perhaps as many as a billion people; that combination of stresses may trigger a general breakdown of civilized society.

It is true that the best climate scientists simply don’t know precisely how global warming will play out. The feedback loops from warming are so complex that it is impossible to predict specifically what, where, and when catastrophe will strike. Also, it is not at all clear yet how much civilized society may be willing to do to mitigate climate change and its effects. However, there are two thing the scientists seem to all agree on:  1) it is already virtually impossible to limit global warming to 2 degrees celsius, which is and has been for the last 25 years the point at which scientists say global warming will become a global catastrophe; and 2) life on earth because of global warming will become much more challenging, dangerous, and chaotic than it is now regardless of what we do; it will only be less bad if we do something than if we do nothing.

Most rational people with access to factual climate information recognize that global warming is a world wide crisis of epoch proportions. And failing to address it as an imminent life or death struggle will stress the entire world order, probably beyond its breaking point. In this developing catastrophe every country will participate, intentionally or not; the threat to life itself will likely be felt first in the poorest countries, though they emit relative little pollution and have virtually no control of the crisis. The real societal changes necessary to combat global warming must occur in wealthier developed countries. That is where the burden of saving the world must rest.

The scope of what must be done to address global warming is immense. But if developed countries do not plan and implement effective strategies to combat it soon, the social impact of climate change will probably lead to much more death and destruction in the 21st century than both world wars of the last century. Nevertheless, the world community really could change the current trajectory toward catastrophe if it would demonstrate the will. With strong international cooperation among wealthy countries, the commitment of historic economic, technical, and scientific resources, and supported by global humanitarian initiatives, the worst outcomes could be prevented or substantially mitigated.

But I remain relatively pessimistic about the international community’s willingness to do what is necessary to prevent a worldwide calamity. That will require a level of consensus, leadership, and cooperation among nations that we have not seen before. And because of its influence on international economics and institutions (WHO, IMF, UN, and others) the United States will be an especially critical player in success or failure.

Unfortunately, at this point, and regardless of the science, too many Americans tend to kid themselves about the crisis we are facing. We have been hearing stories about imminent apocalypse for centuries, they say; worse though, particularly in recent years, a large minority of the electorate has become conditioned by climate change denier politicians to feel like the warnings are just crying wolf. Also Americans tend to believe that It won’t happen to us; our advanced capitalist and technological society can ward off any catastrophe once it is fully identified, they rationalize. The other issue that Americans face, maybe more than most other countries, is that we are the ultimate consumption society and seem unwilling to be inconvenienced by adjusting our behavior to address a situation as nebulous as global warming.

And to make matter worse:  American politicians and business leaders care much more about maintaining the political and economic status quo than facing the facts of the climate crisis. When pinned down on global warming they love to plead helplessness because China is the polluter-in-chief; they claim that Americans taking steps to cut emissions first will be an economic disadvantage for the US in the global market. While China’s hands are certainly not clean, American elites’ effort to shift blame for doing nothing is disingenuous.

In absolute terms – tons of annual CO2 emissions – China does pump more CO2 equivalent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other. But claiming that economic disadvantage defense sends the wrong message. China has more than 4 times the population of the United States. Based on relative populations and emissions the United States is in fact the world’s worst polluter; on a per capita basis, the US emits twice the greenhouse gases that China does. And per capita is what matters in the international political world where climate change initiatives ultimately must be negotiated. At the same time China as well as the European Union are already implementing carbon tax systems to reduce emissions; the United States is hardly even willing to talk about that yet.

Climate change is different from any previous existential threat the US or world community has ever faced. It will substantially increase the stress on all national governments, but particularly on liberal democracies, especially ours. Democracies will find it more challenging to placate their populations in the near and medium term than autocracies. As the climate crisis unfolds, people in most developed democratic countries will likely become much more nationalistic. They will blame other countries/societies as well as their own politicians for failure to act. They will demand immediate solutions to the resulting life altering tragedies occurring all around them. But no one will agree on what those steps should be or what sacrifices people should be expected to make. Democratic governance by its very nature requires a level of consensus that will be hard to come by; democracies may simply not be able to move quickly enough to satisfy their people.

Autocracies like China on the other hand will likely do relatively well early on. They can move quickly with bold public actions to give their people confidence that the crisis is being addressed. That will likely satisfy the populous, at least in the near term. It’s that image of charismatic strongman leaders taking bold action that frightens me about the danger to our American democracy. I fear the climate crisis will again attract people in the United States toward electing another demagogue (remember “I alone can fix it?”), and lead to further breakdown in the rule of law. Similar scenarios may play out in other liberal democracies.

It is within this backdrop that the United States as the world’s worst polluter and oldest democracy must assume a unique international leadership role in aggressively addressing global warming; if we don’t, the rest of the world is not likely to move quickly enough either. But we were essentially not even at the table until Biden’s assumption of the Presidency. And though President Biden’s Administration seems to be working hard at trying to awaken the nation to the scope of the challenge and marshal the resources, we still have no political consensus on which to build a strategy of our own, much less lead the world community.

First, we need to get our own house in order quickly; but that is not going to be easy. Seriously addressing climate change in the US will require restructuring our entire society to just get to where the Chinese already are today. But remember, to mitigate the coming climate catastrophe the goal must be zero net emissions by or about 2050, not just progress toward reducing emissions. Yet a large vocal minority of our electorate doesn’t seem to even accept that climate change is real, or if it is real, that it is a serious problem we need to address immediately.

Given the political pain of meeting net zero emissions by mid-century, I don’t think the US can be counted on to lead by example or even faithfully follow the lead of other international players like China or the EU. The long term global cooperation and selflessness required to mitigate global warming likely will not likely materialize. Therefore, I don’t think the world will come close to meeting zero net emissions by mid-century. That means that droughts, floods, sea level rise, and extreme heat will become much more common and make sizable portions of the earth virtually uninhabitable in 3 or 4 decades. As that happens uncontrollable mass migration will occur, economic chaos will rule in many countries, violence from non-state actors will become more common, broad civil strife will spread, and some nations will go to war over natural resources, especially water; that will signal the breakdown in stable society in many parts of the world. Governance will be so stressed by the existential threat to life and property that democracies may give way to authoritarian rule as a last resort way to deal with the worldwide crisis.

I would love to close this post on an optimistic note. But sadly, I have little confidence in a healthy scenario being played out in the coming 30 years. I have already predicted that the US will be an autocracy by mid-century, perhaps in large measure because of the political stress from climate change, but also because we will not move quickly enough on any of our other core challenges that I identified in earlier posts. It’s not clear to me what happens beyond mid-century. Though it won’t matter to me, the whole world order will likely be fundamentally different in that timeframe.  My guess is that the United States will not survive in its current national form.

America’s Future – Money in Politics

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Money In Politics, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post:

Money In Politics:  Unfortunately, monied interests control much of our federal governance, especially the legislative branch as it relates to national finance and economics. Both of our current political parties have become beholden mostly to the wealthiest Americans because they have the money to influence (in some cases virtually control) who gets elected. And through corporate interests and other legal vehicles, wealthy Americans and even foreign investors effectively dictate much of the tax code to favor themselves; and their lobbyists often ghost-write federal legislation to support those same financial interests. With the Court’s help the wealthy and corporate interests have finally succeeded in even further corrupting our democratic processes for their own political and economic benefit.

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In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission that the free speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting independent expenditures for political campaigns by corporations, other non-human legal entities, as well as Super Political Action Committees (Super-PACs) established and organized by wealthy individuals for the specific purpose of political fundraising and spending.

The concept of corporate rights is based on the idea that corporations and similar legal entities are people within the context of the Constitution. It is certainly true that for social, political, and economic stability a corporate charter must grant protection for certain fundamental legal, business, and property rights. However, corporations as a class of entity exhibit no national loyalty or any of the responsibilities of United States citizenship. They are beholden to their owners who are as likely to be foreign investors with an abiding interest in monopoly and autocracy as much as they might be in American democracy.

The idea of rights of personhood for corporations in the constitutional context is absurd. The founding fathers were quite familiar with the power of corporations to corrupt the political process. They knew that such entities lacked both political and national loyalty, and that they used their enormous economic and political power to promote their own mercantilist interests. In fact the founders were painfully aware that the monopolistic objectives of the British East India Company and its political influence over Parliament and King George III was a proximate cause of the American Revolution itself. It is unthinkable that those same men would have been willing to give corporations freedom under the new Constitution to manipulate democratic governance for their own purposes. Clearly they saw the rights and authority accruing to corporations to be a function of that entity’s charter, not memorialized in the Constitution. But even if they had wanted to protect certain specific rights of corporations within the Constitution they would have documented them. Yet there is not a single mention anywhere in the Constitution of even the word “Corporation”.

But suddenly, with that one Supreme Court ruling in 2010 the entire political campaign finance landscape shifted. Now there are no limits on how much money public and private corporate entities can spend to influence political campaigns. They can spend directly or through Super-PACs, or if they don’t want the public to know who they are or what they are doing they can set up non-profit 501 (C) corporations through which they fund their political activities; those corporate entities are not required to identify the sources of their contributions.

Of course proponents will say that there are other national laws that limit foreign agents’ interference in national elections; and it is true, but that only works if we know who they are. Through these 501(C) corporations and other  “dark money” channels the Federal Government, and we the American public, would not even know if Russian oligarchs, Chinese business entities, or non-state foreign actors are funding campaigns for or against particular candidates. The only legal requirement any of those entities have is that they must not contribute directly to a candidate or coordinate with that candidate’s official campaign. Of course many of the organizers and managers of these Super PACs, non-profits, and LLCs already have long standing business and political relationships with the candidates they are supporting; only fools can believe that there is no coordination.

As a result of all of this, wealthy Americans’ and corporate money has driven the cost of elections beyond the reach of most candidates for national office who must depend on grassroots donations. Generally, only candidates endorsed by the wealthy through these Super-PACs, other political money mechanisms, or are already “bought and paid for” political minions have much chance of election. Sadly, beginning in 2010 these legally corrupt vehicles and strategies have been fully endorsed by the Supreme Court. Unless, or until, we get unlimited money out of the electoral process we will never return to healthy democratic governance.

America’s Future – Economic Inequality

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Economic Inequality, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Economic Inequality:  We have extreme and growing economic inequality within our electorate. The top 1% of Americans earn close to twice the earnings of the whole lower 50% combined. Even worse, that same 1% has more wealth than the total wealth of the lower 90% of Americans. The gap is continuing to grow, mostly because of unequal tax policy, which is substantially controlled by the wealthiest Americans and their business interests.

The influence over tax policy exercised by the wealthiest Americans through their political minions inevitably leads to favorable tax treatment for them while increasing the tax burden on poor and middle class working people. However, there are limits to the capacity of the working class to fund the needs of the local, state, and federal governments. The resulting unequal and unfair tax burden just cannot raise enough revenue; that ultimately starves the federal government of funds to meet basic societal needs such as public infrastructure, environmental stewardship, healthcare, education, and fundamental scientific research. Similarly, a myriad of other critical social and economic programs that keep the US competitive in the world community and meet the needs of its own citizens suffer.

But these wealthy Americans have an explanation for why they should get special tax benefits. It’s called “supply side economics”; the concept was introduced to the broader public in the 1980 Reagan presidential campaign. The idea is that investment by wealthy people is the ultimate driver that stimulates growth in the economy. So if they get preferential tax treatment they will build and spend, the entire economy will grow rapidly, tax revenues will increase, and that economic growth will “trickle down” to the working class who in the end will be the real financial beneficiaries. Even I believed that in 1980. But after trying it three times, all under Republican administrations, I can say unequivocally that it has not ever worked as advertised or intended. It does reliably produce two results you can always count on however; it substantially increases economic inequality, and it dramatically increases the national debt.

The level of economic inequality that the supply side economic strategy has created over the past 40 years manifests itself today in electoral unrest in a variety of ways that at first blush seem to be unrelated; however, racism and white supremacy, anti-immigration, xenophobia, even voter suppression efforts are all directly driven or exacerbated by the stagnation of real working class wages over the past 4 decades. The recognition of economic inequality associated with the belief that ones economic condition is limited by benefits or opportunities afforded to others less deserving is a powerful drug, especially when exploited by political opportunists. Regardless, virtually every outward expression of political discontent or rage if traced to its source has the economic condition of the working class as one of its primary roots.

Until the Reagan era limiting economic inequality was a core element of federal tax policy. It worked relatively well until it was dismantled in the 1980s and replaced with supply side economics. The implementation of that economic philosophy fostered an entire new industry of legal tax evasion strategies for the wealthy. Today, most wealthy Americans pay significantly lower tax rates than the working class, and through smart business manipulation many pay nothing.

For a long term stable society tax policy must be revised to address inequality; a much more progressive tax system must be re-implemented and include equal tax treatment of all income regardless of source. And we must reverse some of the worst inequalities that have already severely stressed the poor and middle working classes over the past 40 years. If we don’t do these things, political unrest will continue toward more progressively more extreme destructive and undemocratic ends.

America’s Future – Systemic Racism

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Systemic Racism, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Systemic Racism:  Long term systemic racism is still entrenched in our American society. While less overt than decades ago, it still limits African-Americans from exercising the full extent of the privileges of being American that their white counterparts enjoy. And black children today still suffer from the residual economic limits imposed on their parents, grandparents, and generations before them. They also deal with much more subtle ongoing racial discrimination, no less destructive but harder to pinpoint and fight. Unfortunately, most conservatives seem bent on exercising plausible deniability even of racism’s existence; they call it a liberal fiction. More recently, but especially with the advent of the Trump Administration, we are also beginning to see white supremacists along with xenophobes, homophobes, ethnic and religious bigots, and other hate groups crawl out of the political sewers and become openly active again.

Brutal treatment of black citizens by police has been present but mostly successfully hidden or denied for generations. Now with the ubiquity of cell phone video, we are forced to face a mountain of evidence that demonstrates that it is still with us and far worse than we want to believe. The proliferation of cell phone video and social media has shone a bright light on abusive behavior toward various racial, ethnic, and immigrant classes. At the same time the dramatic spread of unregulated social media has become an attractive and primary venue for white nationalist, anti-Semitic, ant-immigrant, and other hate groups; extremists are free to spread political abuse, disinformation, and lies of all sorts, so far with little cost to themselves.

Racism and white supremacy have been with us since our founding. They were memorialized in our original Constitution. Even the surviving records of discussion and debate around the adoption of the Second Amendment demonstrate it had little to do with protecting the people from a tyrannical government. It was much more about Constitutional protection for white southern planters who wanted the right to use armed militias against potential slave rebellions. We are not likely to solve the societal problems that causes racism any time soon. However, with the advances in video technology, social media, and big data, it is clear there is still far too much evidence of systemic racism for us to ignore.

Sadly, many Americans in general, and conservative politicians in particular, are unwilling even to admit we have a serious racism issue. Most recently, Republicans have started a national effort to spread disinformation about a 40 year old academic concept called Critical Race Theory (CRT). The core idea of CRT is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. One can debate that issue, and we should. But Republicans go farther. They promote the idea that there is inherent danger in even teaching our children the truth about the role race has played in our history and how it relates today, much less take even baby steps toward addressing it.

At the end of World War II the GI Bill provided returning soldiers low cost home loans and funds to get a college or university education. That should have been a great equalizer for many returning black soldiers. But white politicians made sure that program was designed to generally exclude black soldiers. Call it reparations or whatever you like, but it is time to do something like the GI Bill for the black American descendants of slaves whom we continue to abuse through white focused economic and social institutions. As a society we must step up to the reality of our continuing racism and do a much better job of addressing its legacy than we have been if we are to remain a liberal democracy.

In this piece I am addressing abuse of African-Americans. However, we have a different but continuing equally abusive national relationship with Native Americans. I lay down a marker here on their behalf, but will leave that for another discussion.

America’s Future – Fiscal Policy

This is a companion post to “America’s Future – Continued”. It represents my expanded thoughts about Fiscal Policy, one of the core existential threats to our democracy that I outlined in that earlier post: 

Fiscal Policy:  We have a dangerously high and growing national debt, with deficits forecast to increase by at least $1 trillion every year for the foreseeable future. That is a fiscal time bomb we must deal with soon. Even with the best of intentions and most sincere political cooperation, along with reality based economic planning and decision making, re-establishing sound fiscal management will be very difficult. It requires hard choices in taxation and spending policies as well as a significant level of education for and buy-in from the electorate.

Our existing fiscal irresponsibility has mostly been possible because the United States late in World War II led the effort to define and implement rational international economic and monetary policy. Through its ongoing leadership over the last seven decades the US has generally been (until 2008) a source of international economic stability and a safe haven for financial investment. As a result of that long term stability, we still enjoy the lowest interest rates in the world, and the dollar is the primary reserve currency in global transactions today. Nothing protects our favored nation status though except continuing stable performance. Of late our divisive political situation is beginning to stress that.

In the last couple of decades we have begun playing a dangerous game with periodic political brinkmanship threatening to default on our debt obligations. We are again facing that political and economic catastrophy as I write this. That will eventually catch up with us and lead us to a diminished position in the view of the international economic community; and one actual default, even if only for a few hours, would likely create international panic and probably change the global financial equation indefinitely. Suddenly, we would be seen as economically unstable by the world’s financial institutions. It might even endanger the dollar as the primary reserve currency in financial transactions as well.

But even if none of that happens immediately, after a while (some years perhaps, but soon) our real or perceived political instability as well as our mounting debt load will begin to limit our economic growth. And interest rates are not going to remain as low as they have been for the past dozen years. Future borrowing will become more expensive as existing federal debt matures. That in turn will lead to substantially larger federal debt service expense going forward. As debt continues to grow and debt service expenses grow, less federal revenues will be left to spend on other legitimate domestic financial obligations.

It is clear that during the Covid pandemic balancing the federal budget can’t be the economic priority. However, left unchecked, continued deficit spending at the rate it has been over the two decades before the pandemic, or any level near or above our GDP growth rate, will threaten our longterm national economic stability. Unfortunately addressing and fixing the root cause of this threat can’t happen in today’s political environment.

America’s Future – Continued

In an earlier post I indicated that I expected the United States to become an autocracy by mid-21st century. I talked about the unaddressed core political  crises leading me to that conclusion, but did not specifically identify them. I also promised to offer some hopeful signs and things we could do that might protect and strengthen our democracy. I’m going to talk about all that here. So, let’s start with what I see that will lead us to an authoritarian government by mid-century:

Following are the 5 broad categories of political disfunction that I see as existential threats to our democracy. Whatever you think may need fixing in our nation, these 5 constitute the root causes of virtually every federal governance issue we need to address. In companion posts I will expand my thinking about these issues:

  • Fiscal Policy:  We have a dangerously high and growing national debt, with deficits forecast to increase by at least $1 trillion every year for the foreseeable future. That is a fiscal time bomb we must deal with sooner rather than later.
  • Economic Inequality:  We have extreme and growing economic inequality within our electorate. For long-term stability in our society we must revise economic and tax policy to correct that inequality.
  • Money In Politics:  Unfortunately, money has taken over our democratic electoral and legislative processes. Until and unless we get unlimited money out of the electoral process we will never return to healthy democracy.
  • Gerrymandering:  Through “stacking and packing” strategies our political parties can control the majority of Congressional districts in a state regardless of the overall preference of the voters. Gerrymandering as a political strategy must be eliminated.
  • Systemic Racism:  Long term systemic racism is still entrenched in American society. We must step up to that reality and do much better at addressing it than we have been if we are to remain a liberal democracy.

These 5 categories of threat represent an unsustainable political trajectory leading toward autocracy. Untreated, they will further metastasize into terminal cancers in our current governance model; maybe individually, but certainly collectively, they will lead us toward political catastrophe.

“Is there nothing we can do?” you may ask. Well, we are not helpless and it’s not too late, but the clock is ticking; we have to muster the will of the American electorate to change the equation. There are a variety of things we could do to mitigate these 5 core threats but they all take political commitment and courage. We could:

  • implement ranked choice voting for all elected federal office holders, effectively eliminating the need for primary elections that limit voters’ real choice of political leaders;
  • implement federal legislation that would specify the terms of universal federal voting rights and govern the details of election processes in all elections for federal officeholders;
  • provide federal funds to match individual donations to the campaigns of candidates who demonstrate some recognized threshold of political viability for federal elective offices, including making certain that wealthy individuals have no more financial influence than average working Americans;
  • make it illegal for corporations and other non-human entities to contribute money in-kind support to specific candidates, parties, and political causes, including influencing employees and contractors to contribute;
  • outlaw PACs as well as other dark money political influence vehicles;
  • dramatically limit lobbyists’ access to and influence over federal officeholders, including offering ANYTHING of value to such officeholders, even including lunches and dinners;
  • require Congressional districts to be drawn and approved by non-partisan or bipartisan commissions;
  • implement term limits for federal judges, including the Supreme Court;
  • subject confirmation of Supreme Court justices to required endorsement by majority approval of both parties in the Senate;
  • regulate media outlets to eliminate distribution of disinformation and lies;
  • implement a more progressive income tax and make the same rates apply regardless of source of earnings;
  • restructure Social Security tax to apply to all income regardless of source and make SS payments needs-based;
  • implement universal healthcare;
  • implement a wealth tax, or tax the previously untaxed appreciation of assets transferred through gifts and inheritance;
  • and most radical of all, we could call a Constitutional Convention and revise our Constitution to memorialize 21st century norms that better reflect American societal diversity, national realities, and electoral priorities.

If we really want to save our democracy, we will do all or most of the things I list to address our core challenges to healthy democratic governance. If we did them, we could stabilize our democracy in one or two election cycles.

When you consider the immensity of our governance challenges you may feel hopeless and wonder if improvement and recovery is even possible. It certainly is still possible to change our political trajectory, but it is getting late. And there really are some potentially hopeful signs we might be able to build on. It all depends on how committed our national politicians are to saving our democracy. Some of those hopeful signs are:

  1. President Biden and his Administration are attempting to lead our nation in a fundamentally different, better, much healthier democratic (small d) direction. Rebalancing the governmental priorities more toward social, physical, and economic infrastructure as well as rational foreign policy are long overdue initiatives. Forcing wealthy and corporate interests to step up and contribute a fair share of the burden of societal needs is absolutely a step in the right direction. If Biden is successful in getting enough Congressional support to implement his plans, our democracy will be significantly strengthened. It will go a long way toward leveling the field of opportunity and reducing the political chaos, hate, and tribalism we are living with now. It’s not enough yet, but he seems to be stepping up to address most of the critical issues.
  1. My greatest hope though is in America’s young people, those finishing high school and college today. In the coming 30 years they will be our political leaders. As a class of Americans, the youth I am exposed to seem to be much more flexible in their thinking and less dogmatic than their parents’ generation, and substantially more humanitarian than mine; they endorse diversity of thought, ethnicity, and culture, don’t suffer from the same depth of racial prejudice as earlier generations, are less religiously extreme, and are just generally more open-minded than older folks. If there is real hope to make our democracy healthy, it will be because younger people decide to break free of their elders’ tribal thinking, engage in social justice, and support physical, social, and economic safety for all Americans. I see hopeful indications in the new generation if it’s not already too late when they take over.
  1. Another hopeful sign is that in spite of all the rhetoric, it seems a significant majority of Americans don’t buy the tribalism of the Trump Republicans. So far they are mostly a “silent majority” who are just disgusted with the whole sleazy character of politics. As they grow in frustration, hopefully they will become much more vocal and politically active. At some point they may stand up, say enough is enough, and take strong decisive action to re-establish and reinforce political sanity.
  1. There are also random unpredictable events one might hope could help put  the hate mongers back in cages and pull us together as a people. The best most immediate such event would be if the Trump Republican Party lost massively across the board in the 2022 mid-term elections. That would undoubtedly get their attention in a dramatic way and perhaps drive the crazies out of favor. Trump’s influence on the Party would likely implode and probably change the political landscape overnight.
  1. Another possible game changing event, though much slower, might be if Trump were convicted of, and imprisoned for, inciting the January insurrection or even bank/tax fraud or other business crimes. In that scenario, assuming there is still a core of moderate Republican politicians left, enough of them may feel free to bring their rational conservative credentials to the table and participate in the governance process.
  1. And though certainly not to be hoped for, some unanticipated apocalyptic event on the international scene could possibly reunite us. Obviously Covid did not do it, but something external that threatened our sovereignty might quell much of the hyper-partisanship and usher in a new dawn of political compromise and cooperation.

To Summarize: I would be ecstatic if a major shift back to rational governance were to occur. But I’m not counting on or expecting that to happen. And hopefulness for possible moderating political events won’t save our democracy. I desperately hope that President Biden finds the legislative partners he needs to change the political trajectory of our nation before it’s too late. However, 4 or 8 years of one rational administration will not be enough. We need a continuum of political leaders, both legislative and executive, who care first and foremost about our country and take their oath of office seriously. We need them soon to save us from ourselves.

The truth is however, I doubt that we will pay nearly enough attention to any of the critical destructive challenges we are facing. Democrats don’t have enough of a legislative majority or internal discipline to overcome the filibuster and Republican obstruction in the next year for any major breakthroughs to occur. And through voter suppression and gerrymandering the Trump Republicans will likely take control of the House and/or Senate in 2022, positioned to undo everything Biden may have been able to accomplish through executive action. The Republican vision and policies as they seem to be describing them now will further strengthen the hands of would-be demagogues. Result:  In the near and medium term we won’t do enough to redirect our political trajectory away from authoritarianism.

Meanwhile while we dither, the earth will keep on getting warmer. That will stress all the world’s democracies in coming decades like nothing else can; even if we do everything else I suggest to strengthen our own democracy and don’t adequately address global warming, it is all for naught. Climate change is an existential threat to all civilized society and humanity itself. And we are on track to lose that battle. I will address my thinking on that in a subsequent post.

America’s Future

Recently a friend who reads my literature asked me if the United States was going to survive. I have been agonizing over our political situation myself since Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party. I have also frequently engaged in conversations with others about what our national future holds. The consensus among the folks I know seems to be generally pessimistic about our trajectory and fear that our political institutions and governance systems are not up to the challenge of dealing with our current democratic decline. I believe there is reason to be concerned, even fearful.

As I think about it, asking if the US will survive is actually the wrong question. I don’t see a scenario where the United States disintegrates or breaks up into smaller national entities in the near or medium term – say the coming 30 years – like the Soviet Union did in the early 1990s. It will take longer than that for our existing national structure to collapse. A more pertinent question in my mind is: what will the political, social, and economic fabric of the US be in that timeframe –  around mid-21st century?

In answering that question I would say:  if we do not fundamentally overhaul our political party structure and behavior soon, we will likely become an effective autocracy by mid-century. We will have a super-powerful President, a subservient Congress, and a federal Judiciary providing legal cover in support of the strategy, tactics, and personal wishes of the President; essentially we will have a milder version of the current Russian political model. And in the process we will have surrendered our leadership in the international community. That by itself will create a whole new world order.

We have been moving in the direction of autocracy for several years with Congress ceding more and more of its own power to the President, and in our more recent hyper-partisan climate the federal judiciary has partially morphed into a political tool of the President who chooses the Justices; currently it seems to be the judicial arm of the Trump Republican Party. The autocratic scenario I describe is certainly not healthy but I expect it to continue and deepen in coming decades.

Why do I paint such a pessimistic picture, you might ask? I would actually call the picture realistic. We are facing several growing strategic crises in our national governance that threaten to metastasize into terminal cancer if we don’t act. Even as I write this …… a) we have growing fiery electoral division fanned by Trump and his sycophants;   b) growing anti-Semitic violence;   c) increasingly bold and open white supremacist and xenophobic activism;   d) new state laws designed to suppress the vote of minority Americans;   e) the Supreme Court endorsing discrimination by the Catholic Church against gay couples as well as upholding election laws that are demonstrably discriminatory against people of color;   f) Republican legislators voting against bipartisan efforts to even investigate what caused an insurrection on January 6th;   g) and Republican leaders threatening discipline against any member who supports or participates in such investigation. These are all happening in real time and are serious departures from democratic norms; that does not bode well for a future democratic nation.

We desperately need honest national dialogue and hard decision-making on these and a multitude of other fronts if we hope to remain a viable liberal democracy. The danger signs of decline resulting from political disfunction are clear to anyone who cares, but they are generally being ignored. We just don’t have the collective political will to make the necessary hard choices and compromises, or even admit that we are in crisis.

And while we are suffering political paralysis here at home, democracy as a form of governance is declining around the world; nationalistic autocracy is on the up-swing. If you doubt that, just study the journey of Hungary, Poland, and Turkey as examples of the trend. The United States is also not immune; in some ways our American Democracy is more fragile than many. While we take great pride in our Constitution, that document is only a broad framework for national democratic government. And its 18th century societal context as well as the onerous process required to amend it prevents it from staying relevant in times of rapidly changing political, social, and economic reality. In fact on the core democratic crises threatening us today, the Constitution is silent on all of them.

Real strategic governance decisions are made by political parties promoting competing ideas, debating relative merits of alternate strategies within the broad framework of the Constitution, and ultimately compromising on some common ground that moves us toward solving our social, political, and economic problems. That requires multiple responsible political parties willing to deal with our national diversity and all the serious challenges we face in a fair and equitable way. Our success or failure as a liberal democracy literally depends almost entirely on that healthy political party structure and its associated rational behavior. 

So, the single most critical sign that we are headed for serious trouble is that there is a fundamental breakdown in our political party structure. Today that stable foundation has been virtually destroyed along with the balance it brought to governance. We no longer have two fully functional political parties. The Republican Party has been hijacked by Trump, the would-be demagogue, and no longer represents a reliable negotiating partner with which Democrats can do the nation’s business.That is a crisis of epic proportions for any democracy and is playing out badly for us right now.

At this point the Democratic Party seem to remain healthy with a reasonable balance of legitimate views on national governance. Its most liberal ideological wing energetically advances social programs especially important to working poor and middle class people. At the same time there is a moderate liberal core of the Party, led by President Biden, that recognizes the need for progressive initiatives, but also understands what is politically practical and knows that compromise with moderate conservatives is critical for healthy democratic governance. Under Biden, the Democrats seem to be making a serious effort to find that common ground on which to build bipartisanship and move critical national policy and legislation forward. So far there is no significant moderate conservative core with which to negotiate, let alone implement governance plans and strategies.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Trump Republican Party has abandoned any rational or moderate element in favor of a purely reactionary tribal mentality that sees cooperation and compromise as weakness. While the Republican Party has been drifting toward that extreme since the Reagan era, it has accelerated dramatically under Trump’s control, and today seems totally subservient to his personal mission of hate, division, and destruction of democratic values.

Trump has proven a brilliantly effective manipulator of Republican politicians as well as social media and his electoral base. He continues to promote the “big lie” about the 2020 election; hardly any Republican office holder is willing to challenge him on that, and most of his base seems to still believe it. It is not clear how many of the party politicians are actually obsequious sycophants versus how many are simply afraid to cross him for fear of losing their next election. But in the end it does not matter. The result is the same – further erosion of our democracy.

Under Trump’s thumb Republicans are successful obstructionists. Because of archaic legislative rules (not in the Constitution by the way) they can and do effectively block any serious attempt to address the critical governance issues we must deal with. That is a trip toward destruction and we are a long way down that path. If the landscape does not significantly change soon, continuing decline of democracy is virtually guaranteed. Eventually, ongoing failure of those political party institutions combined with growing division, frustration, and unrest in the electorate will lead to another Trump-like political figure being elected. There are several already waiting in the wings. They have learned the rules of the dictators’ playbook from Trump and are honing their skills at dishonesty, deceit, and electoral manipulation.

Again, the democratic crisis in the United States today is centered around the absence of two or more rational political parties. The result is that several core areas of national governance which are critical to our survival and in desperate need of attention are being ignored. In my view that will end our liberal democracy by mid-century.

Is there no hope? Is there nothing we can do? There is always hope; and yes, there are things we could do to change our political course and strengthen our democracy. In a separate post I will discuss some of them as well as those core areas of crisis in our current governance system that must be addressed. But the changes necessary will affect every facet of American society and require buy-in of a large majority of the electorate. In this age of big data, social media, disinformation campaigns, and computer algorithms that help corrupt politicians distort or deny facts, blur truth, and reinforce electoral prejudices, I just don’t think we will endorse the necessary new order, at least not in time.

Our future does not have to be the way I describe, and we can’t know with certainty how our national political character will play out in coming years, but autocracy is what I expect. At mid-century I won’t be around, so if I am wrong you can laugh at how stupid I was. But if nothing structural is done quickly to change our national trajectory you will probably have to say: “why didn’t we listen to that guy?”

My Credo – National Immigration Policy – Asylum

In an earlier post titled “My Credo – National Immigration Policy”, I outlined my views on a conceptual framework for granting permanent residence to immigrants seeking to come to the United States. In that post I addressed how asylum seekers should be considered as follows:  “6)  Asylum seekers – case by case consideration based on conditions and associated circumstances in their country of origin leading to the need for asylum.”

Currently we have a crisis on our southern border with a major influx of people crossing the border illegally and seeking to claim asylum.  That led me to decide I need to expand my treatment of that particular criteria for granting permanent residence in the US.

Most of the people arriving at our southern border claim either fear of gang violence or poverty as the reason for seeking asylum. It is hard not to emphasize with their plight. It is well known that poverty and violence are rampant in Central America as well as Mexico to a slightly lessor degree. I don’t fault them for trying to get into the US. If I were in that situation I would try almost anything to improve my family’s lives and prospects just as they are. Nevertheless, as the public policy of our nation we must consider whether poverty and local threats of violence alone are the right criteria for the United States to grant asylum to people who simply show up at, or cross, our borders? After a lot of soul searching, I believe it is not!

Poverty and violence are a global phenomenon. According to the World Bank there are nearly 700 million people worldwide who live in abject poverty. Similarly, there are perhaps another billion people who are regularly in danger of or actually subjected to gang, political, racial, religious, and/or ethnic violence. Most of those people would jump at the chance to come to the US. But we cannot admit them all. The question seems to be: should we give preferential consideration to those who simply violate our borders because they have more access than people in other parts of the world? I don’t think so. As one of the wealthier nations I believe we have a broader responsibility to world order.

The United States can only practically accept a small fraction of the world’s population who truly need asylum from war, persecution, and other crises. Therefore we have to choose carefully and humanely who is granted asylum based on some rational criteria and prioritization.

I do not think the people from Central America should be allowed to overwhelm our capacity to process asylum considerations because it is easier for them to cut in line. People in other parts of the world likely have stronger cases for asylum. And in many such cases the crisis may have been precipitated or exacerbated by our own foreign policy. 

Given all that, I offer the following criteria for who should be considered qualified for asylum in the United States:

a)  refugees fleeing from a civil war;

b)  people fleeing violent regional racial, religious, ethnic, or political persecution;

c)  people from areas suffering longterm famine.

In my mind, for the asylum criteria to apply, agencies of the United Nations must have affirmed that the conditions above are widespread in the region designated and have asked that the international community respond to the severe need for relief of this extreme human suffering.

I endorse wise use of US programs, policies, and funding to address root causes that lead Central Americans to want to leave their home countries in the first place; more economic and political stability in those countries will be good for us as well.  I am even willing to consider some mild level of immigration preference to those who live in our hemispheric neighborhood. Any such preference, however, must be limited and conducted within a normal immigration quota system along the lines of what I described in my earlier post. Using political asylum as a vehicle for skirting normal processes, or just accepting those who show up, is never the appropriate option for rational and humane immigration policy.

America’s Economic Reality

The economic health of the United States is at a critical stage. We are suffering from two related crises that threaten the stability of our democracy and need our immediate and continuing attention. This is not a popular discussion topic, but one that is well overdue.

The first crisis is that our national debt has reached a dangerous level. We currently owe about $28 trillion, roughly 130% of our current Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It has never been that high before; the previous high was shortly after World War II when the debt reached 118% of GDP. Unlike then when the US government mostly owed its citizens, today the government owes a large portion of our national debt to itself, and another significant portion is held by foreign actors, especially China and Japan. That makes it a national security issue as well as an economic crisis.

To make matters worse we have no national strategy for reducing the debt. Even before the pandemic we were on track to run $1 trillion annual deficits for the foreseeable future. That is clearly unsustainable over the longer term and must be addressed sometime soon. The debt may not be a serious problem today when the dollar is the world’s reserve currency and interest rates are near zero. But that won’t last. In the future it will become a severe limitation in our ability to grow our own economy and compete in the ever increasing globalization of markets. And the fix will require fundamental structural changes in how we raise federal revenue as well as how we spend it.

Meanwhile, we are suffering an economic and social catastrophe from the coronavirus. We have close to 10 million people unemployed, some facing foreclosure or eviction, and many others who can’t provide for their own most basic needs; Americans are literally going hungry. In the near term we must make hard choices that will exacerbate the debt problem.

We need immediate and substantially increased deficit spending to shore up our social safety net as well as the nation’s economic health if we want to recover from this crisis any time soon. At the same time we need to invest in our decaying national infrastructure to remain competitive in the world economy. Further, we need to recognize that it is going to be virtually impossible to cut social spending with the current economic suffering that the working and middle class are facing, as well as the long term demands from an aging population. In fact, we will probably have to expand social spending over the coming 10 years for structural reasons beyond the current crisis.

The second national economic and political health crisis we face is economic inequality. In the near term inequality is likely more dangerous for our democracy than the size of the national debt. A large segment of the electorate already feels economically hopeless, particularly exacerbated by the impact of the Covid pandemic. It is especially politically dangerous when the working poor and middle class recognize that the wealthy are gaming the system. And it is clear to everyone today that wealthy Americans are not paying a fair share of the electorate’s collective tax obligation; instead they are exploiting loopholes in tax law not available to everyone else.

Remember when it was widely reported that Trump paid no tax as a rich private businessman? Challenged about that in the 2016 Presidential debate, he proclaimed “that makes me smart.” Though most of the wealthy don’t brag about it the way he does, they also use loopholes and tax code manipulation to legally evade a substantial share of their tax obligations.

The electorate is also becoming more and more aware that the wealthy use their economic power to actually structure tax law and policy in favor of themselves. That reality along with the economic suffering experienced by most working people breeds political unrest. We are seeing that play out today, though the source of that frustration is often masked and manifests itself in racism, xenophobia, hate crimes, and other destructive behavior that may seem unrelated to inequality.

Economic inequality, however, is not a new problem; it has been building to its present critical level for the last four decades. The current economic situation has just shined a brighter light on the extent of it.

A Little American Tax Policy History

The stage was set for the current fiscal pain, economic inequality, and associated political instability forty years ago. In 1981 the Reagan Administration introduced the “supply side” economic experiment into American government, commonly known at the time as Reaganomics. Proponents of that strategy argued that high tax rates were stifling business and economic growth. They claimed that reducing tax rates on wealthy individuals and corporations would encourage vast new capital spending, spur economic growth, and generate substantially more federal revenue than the then-current tax rates. Further, those visionaries assured us that this investment of windfall profits would energize the economy in ways that would result in wages and economic benefits increasing in a “trickle down” effect to working poor and middle class Americans; everyone would win. During the 1980 Presidential election, I am embarrassed to admit that concept made perfect sense to me. I supported it and Reagan’s election whole heartedly; unfortunately, Reagan successfully implemented that tax policy soon after his election; and then we all quickly discovered that it did not work as intended.

Prior to the 1930s the exclusive goal of federal tax policy was to raise necessary federal revenues. Beginning with the Roosevelt Administration, however, a goal of limiting income and wealth inequality became an additional key objective of federal tax policy. That administration recognized that wealth inequality was a destabilizing force in democratic governance. Thus from the 1930s to 1981 the highest federal marginal income and estate tax rates averaged about 70%. In that same time frame the corporate tax rate hovered around 50%. There is clear statistical evidence that using tax policy in that way really did provide necessary federal revenues while keeping economic inequality in check.Then the Reagan economic revolution and his tax experiment hit. That was the beginning of the end of American fiscal responsibility.

Since 1980 Republicans have implemented the supply side economic model three times when they enjoyed political control (the Reagan, George W. Bush, and Trump administrations). It has never delivered the promised results, in fact just the opposite. What it has done is dramatically increase the wealth of those already wealthy, substantially increase the national debt, and effectively stagnate economic growth for working poor and middle class Americans.

Some reference statistics illustrate the point that supply side economics is a failure in our American economy, at least at the tax rates in effect prior to the Reagan Administration:

  • In 1980, before Reagan, the top 1% of Americans earned about 10% of total national income; the bottom 50% earned about 20%. Today the numbers are almost reversed; the top 1% earn 20% of national income while the bottom 50% earn about 12%.
  • The shift in the wealth share enjoyed by Americans is even more dramatic. Today the top 1% of Americans have around 40% of total national wealth, but staggeringly, the bottom 90% have only about 25%.
  • At the same time the debt to GDP ratio went from 32% in 1980 to 106% in 2019, the year before the pandemic. It is predicted to exceed 130% this year and continue to grow even after the current health and economic crises are over, unless fundamental structural changes are made.
  • The 33 years starting in 1948, the first year after the economic shock of industrial reconversion and assimilation of returning military personnel into the labor force after World War II, and ending in 1980, the average annual GDP growth was 3.8%; the next 39 years, starting in 1981, the first year of Reagan’s “supply side economics”, and ending in 2019, the average annual GDP growth rate has been 2.6%.
  • And remember the higher GDP growth prior to 1981 was while we suffered under those “business stifling” high tax rates. Does that economic performance seem like supply side economics has been a success? Why would Republicans keep promoting its virtues? Could it be as simple as those wealthy and corporate constituents tend to give large donations for the opportunity to exercise influence over the “right” tax legislation and policies?

In addition to reduced marginal tax rates the Reagan era introduced a Republican laissez-faire approach to economics and federal governance in general. That persists today and has had additional profound negative effects. It fostered a breakdown in the sense of national responsibility corporations and the wealthy feel toward collective social justice. Suddenly it was acceptable to use the tax code to shift federal tax obligations away from themselves and toward working poor and middle class Americans. That led to the creation of an entire new tax evasion industry (they call it tax avoidance, but it’s evasion just the same) starting in 1981. The major accounting firms immediately began developing imaginative financial vehicles for their corporate and wealthy clients with the sole purpose of legally evading their tax obligations. Tax shelters, shell corporations, and off-shore tax havens became the norm. That’s still the modus operandi and is substantially why we are in the economic mess we are today.

Here are Some Things to Keep in Mind:

Only about 60% of federal income is actually taxed. Much of that is by design to benefit the wealthiest Americans virtually exclusively, through investment vehicles and soft enforcement of existing tax law;


Employees pay a 6.2% Social Security tax on their earnings, plus a matching employer contribution of 6.2% in lieu of wages. Self employed people pay the entire 12.4%. That is a very regressive flat tax on the poorest of the working class. But to increase the regressiveness, those with current incomes of more than $142,800 don’t have to pay on additional income above that amount; that specifically shelters the financially comfortable and wealthy from having to pay for Social Security in proportion to their earnings;

Employees also pay a 1.45% Medicare tax plus an equivalent employer match in lieu of wages; self employed individuals pay the entire 2.9%. This payroll tax is used to offset some of the cost of healthcare for people 65 years of age and older; it also provides certain basic health services for people with disabilities;

Even the employer paid portion of Social Security and Medicare taxes are designed such that they favor the wealthy. The employer portion of the tax is a deductible expense against capital earnings by business owners and corporate shareholders;

Generally, private healthcare insurance, through an employer in lieu of wages or individual policies, covers those younger than 65. That is probably the most regressive and inequitable tax of all because it is such a large portion of working Americans’ income. And sadly, it is usually not even called a tax or treated as such in national economic statistics since it is mostly paid to private insurance companies;

State and local taxes tend to be almost universally regressive. They disproportionately impact the economic health of the poorest and lowest middle class working people. For example: state and local sales taxes are generally levied on goods that working people need and buy most; but not on services (i.e., entertainment, legal services, housekeeping and other personal services); those are purchased and used much more by wealthy people;

Pure investment income is taxed at a much lower rate than wage income, and in some financial instruments not at all; Likewise, corporate and business income is generally taxed at a lower rate than wage income; since the vast majority of such income is earned by wealthy individuals they enjoy a lower tax rate than working people;

After-tax undistributed corporate profits are not taxed to the shareholders in the year in which they are earned. With efficient tax manipulation and estate planning they may in fact never be taxed;

Most American multinational corporations use foreign tax havens and other tax code manipulation to “launder” significant portions of their profits to evade US taxation.

What To Do?

As I mentioned in the beginning of this paper we must face the need to fundamentally restructure how we raise national revenue as well as how we spend it. The emphasis of this paper is mostly on restructuring national fiscal policy to raise needed federal revenue for a balanced budget while reversing economic inequality growth through intelligent application of tax policy. There are many things we need to consider in restructuring our economy. Following I will offer several appropriate changes that make sense and seem necessary to me:

Military Spending

I need to deal up-front with the most fundamental and politically controversial element of fiscal restructuring which I think is critical for our long term survival and leadership in the world community. That is the need to rebalance our spending between military and non-military needs. Our current annual military budget ($732B) is higher than the next 12 highest spending countries combined. That includes China ($261B) and Russia ($65B), two of our most antagonistic military competitors. I accept the  argument as probably reasonable, that our military spending should be higher than other countries because of our historical position of leadership in the world community, but 4 times China’s and 11 times Russia’s?

National security spending is a large element of our economy; we can’t simply ignore its impact on fiscal priorities and tax policy. It is clear to me that less, but more efficient, military spending is a necessary and achievable part of getting our fiscal house in order. I have not done the research on specifically how to reduce military spending. And I am not proposing to undermine our military preparedness or make us less secure; but we need to focus on future military needs and not on preparation for fighting wars of the past; in short we need to spend more intelligently. My goal here is just to stake out placeholders for further consideration.

To that end, I suggest that we need to restructure military spending to substantially shift our national security investment away from major military hardware systems and toward diplomacy, intelligence assets, cyber security and offensive capabilities, artificial intelligence systems, and special operations military forces. That emphasis is likely to be much more economically efficient than our current hardware-focused footprint. And it is more likely to better meet our twenty-first century security needs. It’s time to face the reality that future military conflicts are more likely to be localized “hot spots” than major wars capturing and occupying territory.  But even if a major conflict were to erupt, it would be fought mostly with intelligent systems, missiles, and specialists, not with aircraft carriers, manned warplanes, and other hardware intensive systems. We also need to recognize that we cannot afford to be the world’s police force, which historically since World War II has not won us many friends anyway.

Domestic Fiscal and Tax Policy

In the broadest terms, it is critical to both rational fiscal and tax policy that we reinstate a significantly simplified progressive federal tax system that includes limiting economic inequality as one of its cornerstone objectives. Among other things, that means we must tax income uniformly across the wealth spectrum regardless of how it is derived. That won’t be politically easy. The wealthy with their economic power and access to politicians have a disproportionately strong influence over tax policy. Regardless, that is critical to success and we must find the national will and a way to do it.

With restructuring military spending, and within the above context, there are a number of steps we could take to solve our current unsustainable fiscal condition and reform the US tax code to be more just. Our goal should be to eventually balance the federal budget, arrest and then reduce economic inequality, while saving our democracy in the process. Following are a few things in some combination that we should consider doing:

A.  Personal Taxes

  • Tax all personal income at the federal level on a more progressive basis as well as uniformly regardless of the source, whether wage based or capital investment based. If all income were uniformly taxed regardless of source but no other changed were made, even using today’s personal income tax rates, we could virtually balance the annual federal budget;
  • Eliminate the cap on Social Security taxation above a fixed earnings limit. There is no rational economic or fiscal reason for cutting off continuing taxation on incomes above a specific threshold, currently $142,800;
  • Make all income Social Security taxable both from wages and investment income. Why should only wage earners have to pay Social Security taxes while earnings that come from investments are untaxed?
  • Similarly, index Social Security benefits to need, do not tax, and gradually phase them out at higher levels of wealth and income;
  • Use the additional SS savings and revenue generated by taxation of all income and needs indexing to (a) establish Social Security on a long term financially sustainable path, and (b) lower SS tax rates across the board. Reduced rates will significantly benefit working and middle class Americans whose income is earned almost exclusively from wages;
  • Replace Medicare/Medicaid with universal healthcare insurance for all Americans with costs heavily subsidized or free for at least the lower half of income earners. Sustainability of Medicare is already even more in financial crisis than Social Security. We have to do something soon or it will collapse. Why not do the right thing?

B.  Corporate Taxation

  1. Eliminate the tax evasion benefit of shell corporations and off-shore tax havens for multinational corporations. The data to do that already is collected and IRS access exists;
  1. Tax American multinationals on worldwide income net of taxes paid to other countries;
  1. Tax foreign multinationals at the US corporate rate on income they earn on sales in the United States;
  1. Tax individual shareholders’ at personal tax rates on corporate income earned by closely held corporations (those not publicly traded) or where the only or primary reason for incorporation is to reduce tax liability. This will eliminate the ability for wealthy individuals and members of professional groups (i.e. law firms, engineering and architectural firms, doctors, other professionals) to evade fair taxation through use of the corporate structure.

Note:  Items 1, 2, and 3 are entirely achievable within existing international trade treaties. They are just not being enforced. That also has the potential of raising tens or hundreds of billions of dollars in tax revenue that is currently being evaded by tax loopholes and lax enforcement. It will also likely have a trade stabilizing benefit of causing other countries to implement more uniform corporate taxation across the international community of nations;

Additional Loose Ends

If we implement all or most of the tax reforms I outline above we may still not achieve long term fiscal stability and reasonable economic equality. To do that we likely will need to deal with additional cost and revenue drivers:

—  High quality healthcare costs must be addressed. The United States currently spends about twice as much per-capita on healthcare as other developed countries do; at the same time those countries already provide universal healthcare and have better life expectancy and health outcomes than we do. That should tell us market-based healthcare does not deliver the cost efficiency or quality we need and ought to expect. A non-partisan  but comprehensive national analysis of the best economic balance between public and private services to provide quality healthcare should be initiated. It must consult with all legitimate stakeholders and the resulting recommendations must be implemented by the federal government. Universal healthcare is a necessary American right. We must implement it if we want to claim to be a liberal democracy in the twenty-first century;

—  When all the dust settles and political posturing shakes out we are likely to need to tax the undistributed corporate earnings of publicly traded companies to the shareholders as income from those corporations in the year in which it is earned. That will be a very heavy political lift and a most controversial provision of any revised tax code, probably as much as universal healthcare. It will be derided by conservatives as a wealth tax; not quite, but it will be very unpopular among the wealthy.

I have two arguments in favor of that provision:

  • First, from the models that I have seen we can never get to any reasonable level of economic equality (say like we had in the 1950s or 1960s) if we allow the wealthy to simply reinvest their wealth indefinitely without any intermediate taxation. That is particularly true if we continue to endorse a very low estate tax policy. We have to consider significant taxation of one or the other.
  • Secondly, if we want to talk about a wealth tax, the poor and working class people already pay a wealth tax on virtually their entire capital investment – their homes. We call it property taxes. And while the wealthy also pay similar taxes on their real property, unlike working class people it represents a very small percentage of their total wealth. If we want to call it a wealth tax so be it. But it seems only fair that the wealthy should pay tax on the largest share of their wealth just as poor and working class people already do.

—  The IRS and Justice Department mission should be substantially strengthened with additional personnel and other necessary resources to implement robust tax investigation and compliance enforcement. Since the beginning of the Reagan Administration the IRS has been starved of resources. Predictably, investigation and enforcement have continually declined year after year. As IRS enforcement declines, more evasion occurs. We need to reverse that trend so that the electorate can become more confident that the tax system is treating everyone equally and fairly.

—  I have not discussed anywhere in this paper the economic cost of our lack of investment in pre-K childhood development, inadequacies of our education and justice systems, disparity among races, or white public institutional bias in preserving inequality. These all have real but hard-to quantify economic impact. We can legislate and regulate to correct some elements of them. But others require a fundamental shift in American society’s appreciation and respect for each other. We can’t fix that in fiscal or tax policy. The increasing diversity of color and culture in America over time is probably the only solution for some of that.

Finally

This is a strategic concept paper. It is not intended to be a prescriptive solution to our fiscal crisis or a formula for how we must reform our tax code. It is my best effort to consider where we are, how we got here, and the kinds of things we need to consider to get to a better place. It is offered to prompt rational discussion on the subject and offer ideas on how we might reform our systems to strengthen our democracy and serve the American electorate more equitably than is being done today. If it meets even part of that goal I will be ecstatic.

My Credo – Abortion 2

Some months ago I published my credo on abortion. I presented my views on what I thought should be a balanced American approach to treating that controversial subject. I thought my idea included a respectful recognition of different points of view, but had as its central focus the reduction of the incidence of abortion. Since then, however, I have received substantial criticism from members of the evangelical community for my “anti-Christian” and “murderous” attitude.

In private email (no one had the courage to post in my blog forum) my critics’ rhetoric seemed to have little to do with an honest interest in reducing abortions; it was directed much more toward efforts to force Americans to yield to a particular political agenda. So, shifting to the purely political implications:

Though I am a lifelong MODERATE conservative I am offended by the hypocrisy of the Republican/Evangelical alliance and its hateful intolerant message on abortion. They try to claim the moral high ground but invariably actually travel the low road. Their leaders howl loudly about the preciousness of life and how abortion is such a moral sin against God and country. But at the same time they brag about their law and order credentials and take pride in their record of putting “vicious criminals” to death. While there is no agreement about when life begins, certainly no one can deny that a man led into the death chamber is alive when he enters.

When I challenge conservative evangelical extremists about this clear hypocrisy they typically offer one of two defenses: “Well I haven’t focused on the death penalty; my main concern is the poor innocent unborn babies”; or “those criminals were found guilty in a court of law and got their just punishment”. Both arguments ring hollow to me. Either life is precious or it isn’t! If their faith and political convictions are sincere why is it that they think God allows them to decide which life to protect and which to take. On the other hand, if their argument about the death penalty is valid, would they also be comfortable with and supportive of abortion as long as a jury of her peers agreed that a woman could have that procedure?

Regardless of my personal feelings on the subject it is clear that the public debate about abortion is not primarily driven by spiritual or moral concerns. It is a wedge issue Republicans/Evangelicals use in jockeying for political power. Democrats are generally an undisciplined party and not particularly idealogical; they are pro-choice because they depend on broad political coalitions and that is where most Americans are. Republicans on the other hand are much more idealogical, disciplined, and wedded to group-think. They are pro-life because they have forged a narrow coalition with white evangelical leaders, gun rights advocates, anti-immigrant activists, old paternalistic white men, and various other ultra-conservative groups.

Finally, I know nothing I can say will sway Republicans or Evangelicals; they are stuck in their own “righteous” political bubble. But the most despicable aspect of their “holier than thou” attitude is their hateful abuse of poor families. They work tirelessly to block abortion rights which mostly only affect poor women; but then they insist on cutting the very social services that help provide for the children that result from unplanned pregnancies. That seems both un-Godly and un-American to me!

I don’t plan any more comments on this subject barring some unanticipated major political development.