Monday, March 29, 2004

The politics of class envy

Mark Dorroh

When we're very young, envy plays an enormous role in our perception of justice. Any small child who thinks his sibling was given a bigger slice of dessert pie is liable to make a large production out of it.

"No fair, his is more than mine!"

As we grow older and begin earning our own slices of pie, we're expected to learn that not everybody gets exactly the same rewards out of life. Sometimes this is due to accidents of birth, but to the extent that we live in a free enterprise system of merit-based remuneration, acquisition of wealth in America is most often based in ability and commitment, plus the invisible hand of market forces.

That is to say, it's not fair that Michael Jordan has reflexes three times as good as mine, plus a higher IQ, a powerful physique and a degree in economics from a prestigious university. But the fact of the matter is, Jordan worked unimaginably hard to hone his physical and mental abilities. The same is true of Meryl Streep's acting talent and Bill Gates' software savvy. We don't all get dealt the same hand in the big game of life, but as any poker player can tell you, in the long run, it's how you play what you're dealt that determines whether you win or lose.

Sadly, many of today's political paradigms are built not on assumption of personal responsibility so much as the childish politics of envy. Take the campaign catchphrase, "tax breaks for the richest Americans."


Set aside the rhetoric for a minute, and let's see what's really going on here. In the most recent rounds of federal tax cuts, everybody in a given tax bracket got the same rate reduction. That's what "marginal rate reductions" mean. When you think about it, it's really quite similar to what happens with your city or county real estate taxes. At the local government level, everybody understands that if the real estate rate declines by a few cents per hundred dollars valuation, people with $500,000 houses will save more on their tax bill than people with $50,000 houses. That's how marginal tax rate reductions work. Those who pay more than I do will save more than I will when rates are reduced for everybody. That's also elemental fairness, unless you subscribe to the politics of envy.

Interestingly, at the federal level, even after all President Bush's tax cuts were enacted, the top 10 percent of wage-earners still wound up paying something in excess of 60 percent of what the government collects in personal income tax revenues. So in fact, all those "tax breaks for the rich" somehow managed to leave that despised economic class holding most of the bag regarding our shared liability for paying America's public bills.

The people who advance the modest proposal that we "eat the rich" are doing us, the citizens of average means, no big favors. They'll try to make us believe we're getting some sort of advantage out of the deal, but analyzing it in macroeconomic terms proves otherwise.

In the big picture, the fact about rich folks is, the money they save on taxes has to be put somewhere, and where it mostly goes is into investments. If one's income is high enough, it's nearly impossible to spend it all, and anyone with an ounce of sense is going to take the leftover money and lend it out at interest.

Because of supply and demand, more private-sector money available for investment means lower consumer interest rates. Most of the money the government does not take from a rich taxpayer goes into the massive American capital-lending pool through one financial instrument or another.

Then, when we need a home mortgage or a student loan or a business loan, the more private-sector cash not locked up in government programs, the cheaper our money will be to borrow.

These are inconvenient facts, facts which should now compel us to ask the inconvenient question, "It worth cutting down on our own access to affordable capital, just to get even with people who have more of it than we?"

Class warfare and collateral damage

Class warfare is like any other kind of warfare. It hurts not only its intended targets; there's always some collateral damage to the general population. That is the nature of warfare, economic or military.

To put it another way, "no one wins a war, one side just loses more than the other."

Confiscatory rates of taxation bleed money out of private investment markets and put it into government programs, some highly necessary, others of dubious worth. Unless you believe a huge institution like government is more efficient at making investment decisions than individuals with hopes and dreams and the willingness to work incredibly long hours to succeed, there's no way higher tax rates on the rich ever benefit anyone but politicians who make careers out of spending "O.P.M." (Other People's Money) to buy votes from credulous constituencies who possess an insufficient grasp of basic economic theory.

When we allow government to take in taxes money that should go into investment markets, we're really allowing our own future loan rates to be artificially inflated. The reason most of us don't understand this principle is that the money pours into government coffers in large identifiable chunks, whereas the money we save through lower interest rates dribbles back to us in small, regular increments. The resulting gap between economic perception and reality makes it pretty hard for most non-economists to see the benefit of reasonable tax rates on the rich.

There are far too many politicians who regularly pimp us out through the crafty use of class envy, denying our families lower rates on borrowed money, at the same time (and not coincidentally) making us all more reliant on government than we would be if we were to get, instead of government largess, cheaper interest rates.

It's a mug's game. It's also a fitting punishment for a nation of voters cunningly manipulated through the politics of envy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

News you can abuse: fun with The New York Times

Mark Dorroh

There are all kinds of ways news can be abused. Sometimes it's intentional, sometimes not. Reporters and editors try to keep media manipulation and mistakes to a minimum and their professional objectivity to a maximum, but it's a constant battle.

According to some New York media wallas, the latest examples of intentional media manipulation by powerful interests are the "video news releases" sent to television news departments by the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

The New York Times, which broke the story, claims that the videos look and sound like news stories prepared by reporters and editors, but they're actually informational puff pieces touting the Medicare drug benefit bill enacted last year while simultaneously explaining to senior citizens how to use it. In one "video news release," actors pretending to be reporters give President Bush a standing ovation. In another, HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson stresses the voluntary nature of the program.

But the "reporter" who filed the stories and did the stand-up announcing job in front of the cameras is an actress, not a reporter. She didn't work for a broadcast news department and the script she read was prepared by a public information officer of the Department of HHS. Was this an attempt to fool news departments?

By way of explanation, I should stipulate that I spent most of a dozen years as a radio news director, and in my opinion, any editor who couldn't tell these were puff pieces should be fired, yesterday.

Such packages land on the desks of news directors every day, sent over the transom by the government, from unscrupulous companies trying to get free advertising and from advocacy groups who will tart up a position statement and present it as a news release.

Any news professional who was not asleep at the switch would find it pretty hard to mistake these puff pieces for anything but what they are. Only a terminally stupid or extremely lazy editor could confuse them with unbiased news reports.

Back in the '90s, when I was running the WHAP news department in Hopewell, Virginia, I saw this stuff all the time. If it had an interesting slant, I'd put it into a newscast, making sure to identify the source so the listener could decide on the credibility of the story for himself. I knew the "reporters" were really public information officers, paid flaks, so I would just edit out their voices, rewrite the scripts for our staff to announce, and use only the tape "actuality" of whoever was the subject of the report or the supposedly expert commentator on the subject. Then, if it was a controversial enough issue, I'd call up someone on the other side for a comment, just for balance.

From what I've read, the video news releases for the Medicare drug benefit were essentially government-created versions of this sort of faux news release. A smart editor who wanted to use the story would have simply called up one of the Medicare drug benefit bill's many opponents and gotten the other side of the story, which is what I suspect most editors did.

An HHS spokesman points out that such video news packages are sent out regularly for public information purposes, but the Times piece claims the packages were not labeled to identify them as government agency handouts. The paper contends that omission could possibly have led some to believe they were actual, unbiased news reports. So now there's an investigation over whether or not a federal law was broken. Apparently there's a rule in federal code against the government paying for propaganda ... that is, propaganda not approved by Congress.

The flap over whether or not the video news releases were aimed at fooling anyone is a tempest in a teapot; it's news you can abuse.


Thursday, March 11, 2004

The blood curse of the Passion: anti-Semitism or anti-dogmatism?

Mark Dorroh

I haven't yet seen Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and won't until I can rent it and watch it at home. I'm not a fan of extra-bloody movies, and from the reviews I've read, the only way I think I could stand to watch this one is via DVD on a small television screen.

But even without seeing the Passion, it's hard to ignore the concern being vented over Gibson's supposedly anti-Semitic depiction of the blood curse some Jews called down on themselves when Pilate offered them a choice of whom was to be spared crucifixion, Barabbas or Jesus. With the new anti-Semitism (thinly disguised, especially in Europe, as anti-Zionism) rearing its ugly head once again, that concern is not misplaced. I think it would be profitable to ask what exactly was the nature of the Passion's blood curse. Was it a curse upon Jews and their children, or is there more to it?

I believe that whatever the initial nature of the curse, it has become, over the years, a racist manifestation of the ancient practice of using selected groups of persons, usually defined by race, ethnicity, class or religion, as scapegoats. Also, those who called the curse down upon themselves are amazingly similar to today's believers who still don't quite understand what Christ was trying to accomplish in his 33 years on Earth.

The practice of scapegoating - irrationally blaming the unavoidable problems of life on an innocent individual or group - is among humanity's most primitive reactions to misfortune. Its definition may be an Old Testament invention, but plenty of non-Jewish cultures have their own versions.

Of course, for theological purposes (with which I profoundly disagree, but plenty of others endorse), Christ was here to be our universal scapegoat, to take the sins of humanity upon His own shoulders, thereby creating the possibility of salvation for we, the sinners. But a secondary use of the role of the scapegoat was also in play at Golgotha. At an early age, Christ began arguing with the Scribes and Pharisees about God's Law, and He pretty much never quit arguing with them for the rest of His career as an itinerant rabbi.

Down throughout history, whenever times get tough, it's the anti-dogmatist freethinkers who are most often chosen as scapegoats. So it was with Jesus; His heavenly wisdom challenged earthly dogma, threatened the authorities and made of Him a natural scapegoat for political reasons quite unconnected to His spiritual mission.

For modern context, let us consider for a moment the body of modern conservative Christian dogma regarding the relationship between church and state. In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly told us His mission was not creation of Heaven on Earth (i.e. - an Israeli revolt against their Roman masters), but rather was one of preparing the way for us to enter into the presence of the Lord after death.

The Romans killed Christ because they thought he might be the King of the Jews who would lead a revolt to throw off their colonial yoke, while the Pharisees handed Him over to the Romans to get rid of a noisy troublemaker.

Christ said quite clearly that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and unto the Lord what is the Lord's. But that message was lost in the muddle of dogma and politics at Calvary, as it is even today, with otherwise perfectly intelligent Americans trying to inject more religion into government.

Then as now, the Christian division of God's business from affairs of state was misunderstood, mostly because the high-church dogmatists chose to misunderstand it.

So, if indeed some Jews did call down a curse upon themselves, the real curse devolves upon authoritarian spiritual leaders blinded by dogma, rather than persons of a particular bloodline. That multi-generational curse is upon those who ignore God's truth because it threatens precious dogma and Earthly power.

And Jews certainly don't hold any kind of monopoly on that sort of spiritual blindness. Look at some of today's headlines, and you'll see plenty of Gentiles being willfully ignorant of Christ's injunctions to keep separate our duties to God and Caesar. The Scribes and Pharisees didn't get it 2000 years ago … and they still don't get it today.

If Jesus came back tomorrow morning, the modern-day Scribes and Pharisees, the Fallwells and Robertsons and Swaggerts, the Judge Roy Moores and Anthony Scalias would run for the crucifix and nails with an alacrity which would make a drowning man clutching at a life preserver appear hesitant in the extreme.

Considering the ways in which these guys selectively ignore huge, essential portions of His 2,000 year old teachings, imagine how much their authority would be challenged by His return today. Their attempts to remove the dividing line between citizen duties to church and state would be denied by the Author of their own religion.

Their temporal power and spiritual authority would vanish, even as their Lord returned.

The curse called down upon humanity just before Pilate washed his hands was not on Jews alone. It was upon any supposed believer whose mind is so clouded by Earthly dogma that he can't see, hear or allow into his heart the Heavenly truth.

Friday, March 05, 2004

God Bless the House GOP: "Referendum or gridlock" forever!

Mark Dorroh

I'm the type of Republican who probably spends more time getting mad at my party as I do supporting it, but every so often, elements of the Grand Old Party get it right. This week, I was frankly thrilled to see the Republican Virginia House of Delegates majority put its foot down on the question of tax hikes. The "referendum or gridlock" stand taken by House Speaker William Howell and his supporters may or may not still be alive by the time this column is published, but it is an idea whose time has come.

I agree with our own Delegate Riley Ingram, who says the House plan to raise taxes by half-a-billion dollars for absolute necessities is the way to go.

In this correspondent's opinion, anything beyond that should be decided by the people. To the argument, "We don't want to become California," I can only say anyone who can't tell the difference between Virginia and California, with or without a one-time referendum on tax rates, isn't paying close attention. Unlike California, Virginia citizens can't get a referendum question on the ballot merely with a serious petition drive; here, our elected leaders must make the call.

And what ever happened to the love of referenda evinced by our governor when he ran for office? Did the dual defeat of local option tax hikes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads suddenly change everything he believed about the wisdom of voters? When a bedrock principle gets wiped out by situational reality, it implies to the casual observer that the principle wasn't very solidly held to begin with. Such apparent cynicism bodes not well the next time a candidate professes to deeply believe in something during an election cycle.

The other argument against a tax referendum is that "leaders are abdicating their responsibility to govern" by turning selected decisions over to the electorate. Well, maybe. But in a Democratic Republic such as ours, the dynamic between leaders and constituents has always been a subtle and ever-changing one. The Constitution recognizes referendum and recall as essential voter rights; even the founding fathers recognized that sometimes elected officials don't know it all.

Senate Republicans, whose tax hike package exceeds even that of the governor, need to dial it down a bit and quit casting aspersions on their brothers and sisters in the House. There's no dereliction of responsibility here, just recognition of unusual budget times which call for an unusual budget fix.

And what, precisely, is the problem with asking the opinion of the people who pay the tab and have to live with the consequences? We have a very well-educated state here; most Virginians are perfectly competent to deal with complex issues. Do the governor and Senate Republicans think they'll suddenly turn stupid when confronted with a hard choice?

There's a fine line between executing one's duty as an elected leader and being an elitist who thinks voters are unqualified to set their own priorities. Sure, elected officials have the benefit of devoting their full attention to the issues during General Assembly sessions. But that shouldn't exclude the rest of us from the process, especially in weird budget times such as the one we're living in now. It would seem to this correspondent the best bet would be a vigorous public education campaign with both sides presenting their best case to voters, followed by a referendum.

Having said all that, let me say this: As stated before in this space, my distaste for state tax rate increases is based in a couple of understandings, both of them historically verifiable. First, no matter how much money government spends on perceived public needs, it will never be enough to satisfy every citizen. And then there's the small matter of the extra billion dollars in projected revenues left over after all state budget needs were funded in 2000. If General Assembly had left that money in the fund balance, it would have been earning interest and would have been available to patch revenue shortfalls caused by the bubble bursting and the post-9/11 expenses of homeland security. But, sadly, that's not what happened. What happened was (drum roll), every blessed dime was spent by a General Assembly which had already covered 100 percent of legitimate state needs.

Just for fun, let's analyze that occurrence in familial microcosm: If your son or daughter had a sudden windfall of $1,000, went out and blew it all, then came to you a year or two later whining about not having enough money, what would you say? A responsible parent would call attention to the $1,000 and hope the kid learned a valuable lesson about saving and spending.

We, the voters, are in the position of parents to the General Assembly. Unless we force members to face the consequences of their profligacy, we have no one to blame but ourselves as taxes steadily rise, workers are bled white by taxation approaching confiscatory levels, and the almighty state exerts progressively more influence over our family budgets and private lives.

Let's not blow the chance to make our childish legislators learn from their mistakes. I say, "Referendum or gridlock forever!"