Monday, February 13, 2012

Last Call

It's worth noting that the big takeaway from the President's budget at Bloomberg News today was this article:  "Obama Proposes Higher Dividend Taxes in Focus on Wealthiest".

The proposal, in the president’s fiscal 2013 budget released today, would reverse his previous policy that called for taxing dividends more lightly than wage income. The plan would treat dividends as ordinary income for married couples making more than $250,000 a year and individuals making more than $200,000. The dividend tax proposal would raise $206.4 billion over 10 years.

“We simply can’t afford to devote $206 billion for lower tax rates for the highest-income Americans,” Gene Sperling, White House director of the National Economic Council, told reporters today. “Our system for taxing investment income for the most well-off Americans is clearly broken.”

Obama is proposing a top individual income tax rate of 39.6 percent in 2013, up from 35 percent. His budget would tax capital gains at a top rate of 20 percent, up from 15 percent. The top dividend tax rate is now 15 percent.

An additional 3.8 percent tax on the unearned income of couples earning $250,000 and individuals making at least $200,000 will take effect in 2013 as part of the 2010 health- care law. As a result, some taxpayers would pay 43.4 percent in federal taxes on their dividends next year, almost triple what they now pay. 

Yeah, the super-rich paying 15% and getting away with it like Mitt Romney?  That would come to an end, except as Jon Bernstein reminds us, Republicans would rather raise the deficit than ever, ever, ever make anybody earning more than $250,000 a year pay a dime more in taxes.

Sure, Republicans talk tough about balanced budgets. But when it comes to real budget deficits — you know, federal spending vs. federal revenues — Republicans lose interest real fast. Under closer scrutiny, their plans dissolve into gimmicks and magic asterisks. When Obama and Speaker John Boehner started serious negotiations into larger deficit reductions last year, the House GOP conference revolted. Their big structural reforms, from “CutGo” to the line item veto to their “balanced” budget amendment, virtually always turn out to be perhaps effective tools for keeping taxes low for rich folks, but do nothing at all for getting spending and revenues to match. And now, the same thing has happened on the payroll tax cut. Republicans simply don’t rank fiscal balance very high in their list of priorities. They’re always willing to cut spending on those things they don’t want to spend money on anyway, but if it comes to compromising, what gives way is their supposed commitment to budget discipline.

In the end, Grover Norquist and his Club For Growth goons are the biggest threat to our economy, period.  Because of them, we can never raise taxes on the rich.  Ever.  And because we can never raise taxes, the only alternative is massive, brutal Greek-style austerity, which is what every single GOP candidate for President is promising.

Zandardad and the Mustache Of Freedom are right:  screw a third party, America needs a responsible second party.

Number Crunchers And Green Eyeshades

The President unveiled his 2013 budget plan today, and the details and priorities are very interesting, to say the least.

President Barack Obama would almost double spending on the U.S. infrastructure over the next six years and would pour $350 billion into a jobs plan while shrinking the budgets of most other domestic agencies.
The blueprint for the fiscal 2013 budget released today would spend $476 billion through 2018 on highway, bridge and mass transit projects, funded in part by winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It cuts some energy programs, farm subsidies and federal workers’ retirement plans, while bulking up the Securities and Exchange Commission and creating a new panel to investigate unfair foreign trade practices.
Investing in the nation’s transportation grid is a fresh attempt to create jobs for a president facing re-election this year amid voter concern about the economy and unemployment at 8.3 percent in January. In addition to gasoline tax revenue, transportation spending would come from a $38.5 billion-a-year transfer from the fund that now goes to war spending.
“Most Americans understand that a crumbling infrastructure is not the way to build an economy that can last,” White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program. “We need to make sure we have a manufacturing base in this country” and workers with appropriate skills, said Lew, the former White House budget director.
Obama’s proposals for discretionary spending must adhere to August’s Budget Control Act, which imposed spending caps that the administration estimates will generate about $1 trillion in deficit reduction over the next decade.

Less bombs, more bridges.  Makes sense to me.

With a Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the document has little chance of becoming law. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said “no,” when asked yesterday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” if Obama’s budget had any change of passage in that chamber.

Please note that this was technically saying no the day before the plan came out.   We need MOAR CRAZY HOSTAGE TAKING if we're going to have a real budget.  But things are so bad for the GOP right now that what I thought was the obvious plan, attaching legislation to exempt all employers from having to provide coverage if they reject it on religious grounds, to the payroll tax cut extension?

Orange Julius folded his cards and now wants a clean extension for the rest of the year.  What the Blount Amendment will now get attached to, I don't know.  It can't possibly pass a stand-alone vote.

Don't Haiti The Players...

After two years of at best benign neglect and at worst, damaging and deadly neglect, representatives of the UN Security Council are visiting Haiti first hand to take stock of the country's situation after the devastation of the January 2010 earthquake.  They'll find that Hatians on the streets of Port-au-Prince aren't terribly inclined to give them a warm welcome, either.

A new allegation of rape involving Pakistani soldiers and three young Haitian boys in the city of Gonaives has triggered renewed protests and demands from Haitian senators that U.N. soldiers lose immunity and be tried in a Haitian court.

Efforts to replace the 10,581-strong U.N. force with a new Haitian army also persist. And anger over a deadly cholera epidemic, which originated near a U.N. camp and has sickened more than a half-million people and killed about 7,000 people, continues.

"The image of their forces has deteriorated," said Daly Valet, a political analyst and editor of Le Matin newspaper in Port-au-Prince.

At the same time, the delegation led by the United States will find a post-quake nation whose huge problems continue to exceed the limits of the U.N.'s mandate.

Political infighting and deepening polarization and debate have paralyzed the country in recent months, making for a potentially volatile situation.

"The recent two-year anniversary of the tragic earthquake makes this a good time for the council to go there and assess progress and encourage Haitian leaders and U.N. officials to take further positive steps," said Kurtis Cooper, a spokesman for the U.S. mission. "Clearly many challenges lay ahead, especially how to create economic opportunities for the Haitian people. And it is now time for President Michel Martelly and the Haitian government to convert their good ideas into actions."

Haiti continues to face absolute misery, and there's little that either Haiti's new Martelly administration nor the UN seem to be able to do about the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  While Europe is certainly falling apart and we have problems here in the US, Haiti has largely been ignored.  Hopefully the UN will start to take real action in Haiti and soon.

It would be nice if the rest of the planet did too.

Read more here:

Nerdy Stuff Regular People Can Do

For less than $200, a man took a regular small closet, not really used for much of anything, and turned it into a hidey hole disguised as a recessed shelf.  It has two way glass so he can look out, and a shade he can pull so the light inside won't ruin the effect of the glass.  It also has a brilliant way to prevent being locked in by accident, and allowing the crown molding to seamlessly block light and conceal the entrance.

All of it was done with pieces you can get from your local Lowe's, and doesn't rely on the $300 special hinges that are famous for this project.  A little creativity can go a long way, but simplicity is what makes this so darned cool.

In a world of war, disease and crime this is a pretty cool time to check out a project like this.

Happy Birthday To Blume!

I guess you can read if you want, but most male readers will want to skip this one.  Sorry, fellas.

Yesterday, Judy Blume turned 74.  I believe every girl in my age range read at least one of her books, but I hadn't thought about Tiger Eyes for at least two decades.  It made me read a little about who she was and how she managed to reach a nearly universal appeal with girls twelve through fifteen.  Then I remembered how funny and realistic the characters were.  Parents said stupid things sometimes, and the kids were just as mean and unfiltered as they are in real life.  At a time when most fiction was shallow and safe (Sweet Valley High, anyone?), Blume challenged the market by giving us a story that had warts and tears and those argh moments only a teenage girl can know.  She was unflinching when it came to the difficult parts of life, and that gritty sort of storytelling was magical in its liberation.  We could be cranky, we could make mistakes, we would survive no matter what life hurled at us.  We were introduced to compassion and morals at the time we were forming ideas about the world.

I do vaguely remember some discussions about whether Blume crossed the lines of being appropriate.  My general memories say that parents were offended by the material, but couldn't quote an example or specific reason.  My parents let me read anything I wanted and always had, so I watched the debate from the outside.  Blubber was just what I needed to read at that age in life, however.  I really did feel for both Jill and Linda in different parts of the story, and going to small school full of cliques had left me feeling unsure of school friendships.  This totally accurate portrayal of how fast popularity can turn in on itself was as much of a warning as the realization that the teasing eventually moves on is a balm for the victims.  It also touched on racism, and was an introduction on why it was wrong and how to react when confronted with racism.  Her books really did prepare me for some of life's ugliness and gave us a chance to work out those ideas in our head before life blindsided us with the scariest beast in the world: the sixteen-year-old she-bitch.

Tiger Eyes is going to be released as a movie soon, with Blume's son directing.  A story that teaches kids about grief and loss, it will likely be updated but contain the same message that it's okay to be sad and life goes on (as it should).  For kids who have lost a loved one or have just felt a strong fear of death, Tiger Eyes is the perfect introduction to the grief process as well as starting a discussion with kids just now realizing that parents are human and therefore can die.

Happy birthday, madam.  I think I'll head to Amazon now and order a copy of Are You There, God?  It's Me, Margaret for my youngest niece.  I still have my copy, but there is something special about having your own.

Greek Fire, Part 52

And this time, Greek Fire is literal.

Lawmakers in Greece voted early Monday to approve another round of austerity measures, sought in return for a new eurozone bailout of the debt-stricken country.

As lawmakers debated, police turned tear gas and stun grenades on protesters outside Greece's Parliament. Several buildings, including a bank, cafes and a movie theater, in Athens were set ablaze.

Twenty-five protesters and 40 officers were injured in the clashes, which occurred throughout the city, police said. Authorities detained at least 30 people.

The package, which includes deep cuts in government spending, wages and pensions, will help pave the way for eurozone finance ministers to sign off on the new €130 billion ($172.6 billion) bailout deal. It passed Parliament in a 199-74 vote.

Greece needs the funds in order to meet €14.5 billion in debt repayments due next month.

The riots in Athens are ugly.  Not as bad as the ones that gripped Britain last year, but then again if they tried in Britain what they are doing in Greece right now, you'd better believe people would be in the streets.

Sadly, when they try that austerity crap here, it's called Very Serious Centrist Economic Policy.

Losing The Battle They Lost 22 Years Ago

Thinking to myself this weekend about President Obama's brilliant move on birth control coverage , it's occurred to me that the Supreme Court absolutely must have dealt with the question of religious liberties versus federal law before now, otherwise we would have heard this argument sooner.

On Twitter, Matt Yglesias was one step ahead of me and noted this 1990 Supreme Court decision on just how far a person's First Amendment religious liberties go when it comes to resisting laws they don't agree with morally.  The case was Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, where two Oregon men were fired and denied unemployment benefits for using peyote.

The two men claimed that the law against peyote use violated their religious liberties because they consumed it as part of a Native American religious ceremony.  The lower court in Oregon agreed and reversed the decision that denied them unemployment benefits.  The State of Oregon appealed the case up to the Supreme Court.  The 6-3 decision by the Supreme Court held the following (emphasis mine):

Respondents in the present case, however, seek to carry the meaning of "prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]" one large step further. They contend that their religious motivation for using peyote places them beyond the reach of a criminal law that is not specifically directed at their religious practice, and that is concededly constitutional as applied to those who use the drug for other reasons. They assert, in other words, that "prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]" includes requiring any individual to observe a generally applicable law that requires (or forbids) the performance of an act that his religious belief forbids (or requires). As a textual matter, we do not think the words must be given that meaning. It is no more necessary to regard the collection of a general tax, for example, as "prohibiting the free exercise [of religion]" by those citizens who believe support of organized government to be sinful than it is to regard the same tax as "abridging the freedom . . . of the press" of those publishing companies that must pay the tax as a condition of staying in business. It is a permissible reading of the text, in the one case as in the other, to say that, if prohibiting the exercise of religion (or burdening the activity of printing) is not the object of the tax, but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended. 

Now, that's a huge thing right there.  In 1990, the Supreme Court created precedent by saying that unless the express purpose of a law is to curtail religious freedoms, that the law does not violate the First Amendment.  If you feel it does, too bad.  The decision continues:

Our decisions reveal that the latter reading is the correct one. We have never held that an individual's religious beliefs excuse him from compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate. On the contrary, the record of more than a century of our free exercise jurisprudence contradicts that proposition. As described succinctly by Justice Frankfurter in Minersville School Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Gobitis, 310 U. S. 586, 310 U. S. 594-595 (1940):

"Conscientious scruples have not, in the course of the long struggle for religious toleration, relieved the individual from obedience to a general law not aimed at the promotion or restriction of religious beliefs. The mere possession of religious convictions which contradict the relevant concerns of a political society does not relieve the citizen from the discharge of political responsibilities."

Pretty straightforward if you ask me.  For the Catholic Church to be right about the President's rules on birth control coverage violating the First Amendment, all they have to do is prove that the law was specifically designed to violate the Catholic Church's prohibition on birth control.   Good luck with that, guys.

Oh and I know what the next argument will be:  "That decision is irrelevant, it was obviously written by a secular, Christian-hating liberal!"

It was written by Justice Antonin Scalia.

Game, set, match, America's women and President Obama.  Thanks for playing.  TPM puts up this article:
Not satisfied with President Obama’s new religious accommodation, Republicans will move forward with legislation that permits any employer to deny contraception coverage in their health insurance plans, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said Sunday.
“If we end up having to try to overcome the President’s opposition by legislation, of course I’d be happy to support it, and intend to support it,” McConnell said. “We’ll be voting on that in the Senate and you can anticipate that that would happen as soon as possible.”
For the record, I called the GOP using this Blount Amendment as part of the payroll tax hostage package on Saturday.  Just sayin'.


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