Friday, March 24, 2006

Three March Posts

March 21, 2006

From The House of Orwell

Someday, not long from now, we will tell our grandkids about the good old days, when if someone used a word you didn't understand, you just had to crack open your Webster's dictionary to nail it down.

For example, if in "the old day's" if someone issued a notice with the following headline, what would we have thought it meant?

"IRS Issues Proposed Regulations to Safeguard Taxpayer Information."

The word “safeguard” is the key. Webster says it means:

“Safeguard: a precautionary measure, stipulation, or device b : a technical contrivance to prevent accident.”

Well, I'm for that! Unfortunately the Bush administration has not only shoved aside the US Constitution, but Webster as well. The words sound the same. They are spelled the same, but their meanings are now, well, flexible.

The headline noted above was atop a Treasury Dept. press release announcing that your tax return and mine will soon be up for sale to anyone, any where, at any time.

“The Internal Revenue Service is quietly moving to loosen the once-inviolable privacy of federal income-tax returns....If it succeeds, accountants and other tax-return preparers for the first time would be able to sell information from individual returns -- or even entire returns -- to marketers and data brokers.... The change is in a set of proposed rules the Treasury Department and the IRS published in the Dec. 8 Federal Register, where the official notice labeled them "not a significant regulatory action." (Full story)

Like the Dubai ports deal, the administration tried to slip this little gem by with as little advanced warning or fanfare as possible. The press release was issued the same day 30-day comment period began. The entirely misleading headline was designed to throw off newsroom editors who routinely toss out reams of government agency press releases every day because 99.9998% of them are no more interesting or noteworthy than a 5th grader's “What I did on vacation,” report.

But someone noticed and now the administration is in full Sgt. Shultz mode again: “I don't know nutting ...I didn't see nutting..” Suddenly no one of any rank seems to know anything about the genesis of his rule.

IRS spokesman William M. Cressman was left to try to explain the contradictions between the actual rule and the headline of his agency's own press release. He explained that the “safeguard” referred to in the headline referred to a new rule requiring that, before tax preparers can sell a customer's tax return to someone they need to have the customer's signature authorizing them to do so.

But wait, there's already a real safeguard against that. Tax preparers are now simply prohibited from selling (or even telling) anyone else the information on your tax returns -- PERIOD – signature or no signature. Besides, how often do you read all the fine print before you sign that stack of forms your accountant shoves in front of you on noon April 15th. Case closed.

Poor Cressman was completely lost when he tried to explain where this new rule came from. "why this issue has come up at this time other than our effort to update regulations that date back to the 1970s and predate the electronic era," he mumbled.

(This new proposed “safeguard,” awkwardly made its debute the same week after corporate tax preparer, H&R Block, was indicted for screwing taxpayers by selling them bogus savings accounts.)

Imagine all those hungry tax preparers out there who have, for the past five years of so, watched nervously as programs, like Turbo Tax, cut into their annual take. Now imagine they could make more money selling your tax return data to interested parties, than preparing taxes. And speaking of Turbo Tax, imagine that it's owners, the same company that produces the Quicken accounting programs, could sell all that hot data from the growing number of taxpayers using their service to file their taxes electronically.

Yep, this is another Dubai ports deal in the making. No one, except the handful of companies itching to profit it, will find anything to like about this new rule.

Also remember this the next time this administration talks big about combating identity thief. Being able to purchase tens of thousands of American's tax returns would be the Mother Lode for ID thieves around the world. We might as well simply publish all our on-line banking user-names and passwords and ATM PIN numbers while we're at it.

Even this late in the game I continue being amazed by the brazen, naked chutzpah of this administration and it's corporate backers. Talk about the fleecing of America, this would be the fleecing of Americans themselves. Breathtaking.

Anyway, for at least the next three years, you might want to put your Websters Dictionary on the shelf. It's an unreliable tool for understanding what this administration means when it says something.

This is particularly true when ever they use the word, “safeguard.” If these guys say they are about to safeguard something for us, hide it, if you can.

For example, here's a sampler of some of the stuff the Bushies claim to be “safeguarding,” followed by links to what they're really up to:

* Democracy
* Free speech
* Peace
* The environment
* The economy
* The American middle class
* Jobs
* Income growth:

One More (Pissy) Item
It's time for another round of welfare reform. Let me explain.

I was driving to the store yesterday listening to the radio. A public service ad was running. A nice lady with a soft, ladies caring voice from the Bush Agriculture Dept. peaking directly to senior citizens. She said that the rising cost of medical care, especially drugs, was leaving a lot of seniors so short of money they were not eating properly. She said that many of those medically broke seniors did not know that they may qualify for federal food stamps.

I struck me like a bolt from the sky – the pharmaceutical companies are getting federal welfare. Yes they are. Think about it.

My wife is Family Nurse Practioner. She sees patients all day long and many are elderly. And, she says, many of them tell her they are either not taking their meds because, if they paid for them they wouldn't have enough money by the end of the month for food and utilities.

It's a growing problem that wasn't made any better when the Bushies made it illegal for Medicare to use it's enormous buying power to negotiate lower drug prices for the eldery.

But their drug company contributors have a good thing going and they want to keep it going. And having old folks showing up dead at emergency rooms looking like emaciated concentration camp victims because they couldn't afford food would be a PR nightmare for drug companies. Right?

Right. Which is why the federal government is stepping up to fill the holes in senior's budgets left by the friendly folks at Merck and Pfizer. And there you have it; welfare for the drug industry.

Question: How is this different from the socialized health care model the Bushies treat with contempt?

Answer: Follow the money, honey.

The most important quality of money, you must remember, is that it's fungible --

“Fungible: being of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in the satisfaction of an obligation,” as per our friends at Webster.

In this case the federal food stamp money being used to keep the heat off drug companies.

We've already seen welfare reform for the poor. What say we start trimming back on what I call “welfare bumper shots,' -- federal money spent to clean up in the wake of one corporate harvester or another, be it feeding literally “drug-starved” seniors, or cleaning up environmental messes.

Maybe we should create a new category of welfare recipient. The corporate welfare king or queen? It worked on the poor, and they didn't even own yachts and villas.

Pizzo's Simple Solutions
Complicated Problems
(An Occasional Series from the upcoming book:
Governing: Just That Simple)

Today: How To Fix Palestine

What to do about Hamas taking power in Palestine?

I suggest policy makers in the West curl up this weekend with a copy of O. Henry's short story, Ransom of Red Chief. Therein they will find the answer. But, since George doesn't read much, I will elaborate.

You see, it really doesn't matter who's running Palestine. What matters is who is paying the Palestinian National Authority's bills. And for way too long it's been western countries shelling out billions of bucks. The E.U alone has been coughing up about $200 million for Palestine.

As for the US, well, President Bush wanted to give the Palestinians $350 million – before Hamas won. But wait? Where would that money come from? Yesterday Congress raised the US debt limit to $9 trillion by authorizing the borrowing of another $700 billion from China and Japan. So were are going to give $350 million of that borrowed money to the PNA? Huh?

Meanwhile Arab countries, many now rolling in $60-a-barrel oil revenue, have largely sat on the sidelines over the years badmouthing the west. And, just to keep thing interesting, they've been sneaking millions of dollars to terrorist groups – including Hamas – to finance more trouble.

That brings us to the current situation. The West doesn't like Hamas because of it's terrorist roots and refusal to denounce violence. But those same Muslim countries that have done their best for decades to make matters worse now pretend to be “outraged,” that the West is balking at supporting a democratically elected Palestinian government. Never mind that none of those Arab governments are have genuine representative governments themselves. Still, with straight faces, they insist the West is obligated to give Hamas a chance.

Okay. They've convinced me. Let'sdo just that.. give Hamas a chance. Let's give the Palestinians a chance to really get to know their blow-hard supporters in the region -- the Saudis, the Iranians, the Syrians. And let those countries get to know their ADD-inflected cousins, the Palestinians.

Yes, let's tell the Muslims of the Middle East we agree to give Hamas a chance.. just not on our nickel. Tell them that, since they like-em, have supported them in the past, why stop now? They're yours – ALL yours.”

When these Muslim countries complain -- which of course they will, because that's what the do best -- our response should be a simple shrug.

“Gee. Sorry guys, but we can't. Due in part to the soaring cost of oil, we're kinda strapped right now. In fact, at this point in time, you folks have more loose cash than we do. Hell, we're broke. Hey, by the way, could we interest you helping us and buying some of our 30-year bonds?”

Anyway, let's admit it -- the West has gotten a really rotten return on the billions poured into Palestine over the past couple of decades. Despite the best attempts to teach Palestinians the fundamentals of responsible governance, they took their example from the Muslim nations around them; backward, inefficient and breathtakingly corrupt governance.

Exhibit A: Yasser Arafat. By even conservative estimates Yasser Arafat stole upwards of half a billion dollars of the western aid money. Some have said it could have been closer to a billion dollars. (You didn't really think Arafat's party leaders were fighting widow Arafat for power after her hubby's death did you?)

But we never heard a word of criticism from Arab leaders in the region about the crippling corruption of the PA. That because first, when it comes to corruption, they live in glass tents themselves. But also, most of the money the Palestinian leaders were stealing wasn't Muslim money. It was money from those bleeding heart infidels in the EU and US. No harm, no foul.

Which brings me back to The Ransom of Red Chief. In that story a couple of hapless kidnappers snatch a brat of a kid, who calls himself Red Chief, to hold for ransom. By the end of the story the kidnappers were paying the kid's parents to take him back.

So, give the Muslim nations of region their own Red Chief, the Palestians. The fastest way to straighten out Palestine – and teach their do-nothing, loud-mouth, trouble-making neighbors a lesson, is to force them to walk their own talk. Tell them they are “it” for the next five years when the PA submits invoices. After that we'll talk.

Not only would this intensify surrounding Muslim natons interest in the formation of an honest and efficient Palestinian government, but would dry up money that might have otherwise gone to Palestine rejectionist/terrorist groups.

I may be wrong, but I don't think so. I think those phony royals in Saudi Arabia, for example, would put up for long with thieving Palestinian leaders if it was their money being stolen. In fact I strongly suspect that, had it been Saudi money Arafat was siphoning off to Switzerland, Yasser would have developed fatal breathing problems at around the $10 million rather than the half billion dollar mark.

Also, once it's Arab money going into new bridges and public buildings in Palestine, I kinda doubt these robed donors will be quite as sanguine about slipping terrorists a few bucks under the table to blow it all up.

So there you have it -- Pizzo's Simple Solution to Fixing Palestine. Force wealthy Muslim nations to pay more than lip service to the Palestinian cause. It's their turn to put their money where their mouths have been. Less hard talk and more hard cash.

But how to begin?

Lock Palestines's new Hamas leaders in a room with the finance ministers of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Iran. Then, to set just the right mood, pipe in just the right music:

Getting to know you,
Getting to know all about you.
Getting to like you,
Getting to hope you like me.


Weekend Reading Assignment
Day of reckoning for the Current Occupant
Garrison Keillor
March 15, 2006

Self-Screwing Voters

During the Ronald Reagan era Republicans learned something remarkable. They didn't
t have to personally screw working Americans, because working Americans could be tricked into screwing themselves. Imagine that!

Please accept my evidence:

Exhibit A: those self-screwing“Reagan-Democrats.” That little screwing cost us billions -- $165 billion from Reagan's deregulated savings and loans alone! Then the Reagan tax cuts let those who stole all that S&L money keep more of their booty. And let's not forget the billions we let them pour into defense industry coffers for all that Star Wars stuff that, two decades later, still doesn't work.

Exhibit B: self-screwing working class (Red State) voters for Bush. They voted for lost jobs, lower wages and a war their kids could fight and die in. Hot digitty – screwed blue and tattooed too. Self-screwed -- not once, but TWICE!

So, Republicans have the proof -- self-screwing works! Voters can actually be convinced to support and vote for people and policies that 180 degrees against their own interests! Amazing.

Now say hello the next GOP gambit – self-screwing Latinos.

Exhibit C: (work in process) By supporting what appear to be “humane,” laissez-faire immigration schemes -- amnesty and guest worker programs -- while opposing strong employer sanctions, Republicans hope to win the hearts and votes of America's growing Latino demographic. If they succeed, (and it looks like they just might,) it would be akin to convincing chickens to vote for Col. Sanders.

By luring the Latino vote Republicans hope to remain in power and continue policies that drive US wages down. Their weapon of choice is cheap Mexican labor -- and to make sure it stays cheap.

The logical outcome of this scheme is an end of the American middle class. That extinction is already underway. And labor unions would be powerless to do a thing about it. What's the use of threatening to strike when employers have non-union hombres lined up around the block ready to work for less?

Nevertheless, just try to get a straight answer from Democrats on immigration. Forget about it. The best you can get out of Democrats is an admission that America – the most powerful immigration magnet on earth -- has no immigration policy. But when asked what their solution is they contend it's not their problem.

“We are not in charge,” Dems coyly coo. Republicans are in charge. It's not our job to come up with a solution, it's the Republicans job – and they've failed to do so.”

There you have it. Even as uncontrolled immigration pushes US wages lower and lower, Democrats – the alleged “party of working Americans,” does nothing. Why? What angle do they think they're playing?

It's sickeningly transparent.

* Polls show a growing percentage of Americans unhappy about the uncontrolled, illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico. Since voters are likely to blame Republicans Democrats are in no hurry to solve the problem.
* Also, speaking tough on immigration might alienate the fastest growing voting demographic, Latinos. Democrats see Latino voters as the ethic replacement for black voters who have now lost faith in Democrats.

There you have it. Good old fashioned Clintonian triangulation. Problem solving is for suckers. Let the immigration situation fester out of control so voters will blame Republicans. And, by doing nothing about illegal immigration Democrats hope they can "wink,wink" their own vote getting message to Latino voters -- "We're really on your side."

The only trouble with the Democrat's plan – aside its inherent cynical, immoral dereliction of duty -- is that it won't work. In fact it will backfire on Democrats by playing right into the GOP's hands -- again.

To understand the Republican's immigration gambit you first must understand what immigration means to their corporate supporters. In word, cheap... cheap labor and plenty of it. Cheap labor is critical now, thanks to another GOP sacred cow, free trade.

Here's the situation Republicans face:

* Free trade has created an devastatingly non-level playing field for American manufacturers,
* In response to competition from cheaper foreign sources American companies have moved more and more of their manufacturing jobs off shore,
* That's resulted in a wholesale gutting of America's once robust manufacturing base, seen by many as a core national security asset,
* The only way to stop that hemorrhage is to force US wages down so that goods produced here can compete with goods produced off shore,
* The only way to accomplish that is with a flood of immigrants willing to work significantly less than American workers.

Batta bing, batta bang.

Still not convinced? Need more proof? Okay, here comes.

The administration, and its Republican allies in Congress, have thrown out a lot of ideas about how to secure the border; a fence, more border guards, high-tech surveillance systems etc. All that stuff would cost billions of dollars, money that, like Star Wars, would line the pockets of the usual suspects, Halliburton, SAIC, and other favored contractors. And, like all that Star Wars stuff we paid for -- none of it will work.

What Republicans have not proposed is something far less expensive that would work – employer sanctions. Real employer sanctions. A law that made hiring illegal aliens a crime. Such a law would do more to stem the uncontrolled flow of job seekers across our border than a ten mile high wall stretching from San Diego to Florida.

So, why hasn't Congress passed, and the President signed such measure into law? Because they know it would work. And that would defeat for their hopes that immigration will drive US wages lower.

And yes. despite what conservative think tankers contend, uncontrolled immigration from Mexico does drive wages lower, despite what the US Chamber of Commerce says to the contrary.

George J. Borjas, a scholar with the Center for Immigration Studies finished a study on the ct of immigration on wages earlier this year.

"There are 16 million foreign-born workers in the United States right now, " Borjas said. "What does that do to the marketplace? It creates more competition, particularly for low-skilled workers."

Borjas reported he found that the immigrants who entered the country between 1980 and 2000 lowered wages of native-born workers by an average of 3.7 percent. The reduction in earnings occurred regardless of whether the immigrants were legal or illegal, Borjas found. He also said a new guest worker program, such as that proposed by President Bush, could further threaten the earning power of U.S.-born workers by creating more competition with foreign workers. (Full Study)

So, what position should Democrats take on immigration reform?

1. Lower wages in other countries are not the only reason their products are cheaper. After making something with their cheaper labor they still have to incur additional cost of shipping their product half way around the world. Free trade needs to become free and fair trade. That means companies overseas that want to sell products to American consumers must comply with a few fundamental rules. They must provide a baseline of worker safety and the comply with the same environmental rules that apply to American companies producing similar products or services. Such requirements would increase the cost of production for offshore manufacturers thereby leveling the playing field for American manufactures here.
2. Border security is a national security issue, not a jobs issue. I am not worried about Jose' sneaking across the border looking for work. I'm worried about Abdullah and friends sneaking across the border in the dead of night looking for a target.
3. Illegal immigration is not a border issue, it's an employment issue. You don't look for illegal workers at the border, but at the places that hire them. Pass laws that subject employers to very large fines for employing illegals and then use those fines to hire additional INS agents. (Oh, and for repeat employer offenders – jail time.)
4. A guest worker program is fine, as long as it requires that foreign guest workers are paid exactly the same as American workers for the same work.
5. Finally, the national minimum wage is currently an unlivable, unconscionable $5.15 an hour, (which when adjusted actually is $4.15 in spending power.) Had the minimum wage kept pace with inflation it would be $9 an hour today. Raise the national minimum wage to $10 an hour. Ignore BS form the right that raising the minimum wage costs workers jobs. What it would actually do is make more lower wage jobs attractive to American workers. That in turn would reduce the demand for imported labor willing to work for a lot less.

Will Democrats figure this one out before it's too late – again. Or will the Republicans win again, this time by convincing Latino voters to screw themselves by voting Republican?

Time will tell.