Thursday, November 17, 2011

Do nothing and fix the deficit

Here we are less than a week before the deadline for the Supercommittee to come up with $1.2 trillion in budget cuts, or else! Few people in and around Washington are holding out much hope for the partisan committee to agree on cuts that will prevent automatic, across-the-board spending cuts. This column by E.J. Dionne offers a different — and far more effective — solution: Simply let the Bush tax cuts expire and go back to the tax rates in place 11 years ago.

It seems like a different universe but was only just over 10 years ago. The Clinton presidency closed out with a budget surplus and a projection of budget surpluses as far out as budget writers could project. The U.S. Treasury would be flush with money. President George W. Bush pushed a solution to the budget surplus problem: Reduce taxes. His argument was that the government was taking in more money than it needed. Unless taxes and revenues were cut, he argued, Congress would just spend that excess revenue in worthless ways. I admit that I found the argument at least a little appealing at the time.

But guess what — it's no longer early 2001. We no longer have a budget surplus. We have a $1.4 trillion deficit. Even if the Supercommittee succeeds beyond expectations and enacts a $4 trillion budget cut over 10 years, the federal deficit will increase because we'll be cutting only $4 trillion from a 10-year cumulative deficit of at least $14 trillion. Doing nothing — letting the Bush tax cuts expire and tax rates rise to their 1990s level (a time of great economic growth, by the way) — is a far more effective and fairer way to reduce the federal deficit and debt. Yes, it would require sacrifice by all taxpayers, and sacrifice is a word that has disappeared from political discussions, but if we're going to correct our budget mess, we will have to sacrifice, like it or not.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

You can't escape television's grasp

Last week, I spent a couple of hours in the waiting room of two car repair shops while my car's oil was changed and four tires were replaced. I had a good novel to read, so two hours of being absorbed in reading should have been a treat, not a negative.

But there was a catch. In both places, a television blared from its corner throne, and all of us customers were expected to bow down and worship the inane proclamations from the idiot box. Although I was absorbed in my book, I could not escape the unrelenting chatter from the TV. The giggling talk-show panelists, the whining soap-opera stars and peripatetic advertisers kept inserting themselves into the book I was reading, leaving me discombobulated and disturbed. When a television is in the room, there is no escaping it. It overwhelms conversation and distracts reading. It disrupts rational thought.

Although I detest being forced to give attention to the television with its too-loud volume, there are fewer and fewer businesses whose waiting areas are without a television. I've even found televisions built into gas pumps so that even the five minutes of pumping gas cannot be a respite from the ubiquitous tube. I usually hunt for a seat facing away from the TV, but in many rooms, all the seats face the television ("pay attention!"). You are a prisoner, and you cannot escape your torture.

A video screen (not always broadcast/cable television) can be found almost everywhere now — waiting rooms, banks, restaurants, gas pumps. It should be no surprise that most of the population is distracted, confused and unable to focus on a single task. The insatiable video distraction will not leave us alone.

Friday, November 11, 2011

On Veterans Day, I proudly wear the title

I was a reluctant veteran, but on this Veterans Day, I gladly share the spotlight with those who came before me and after — men and women who served their country, wore the uniform and sacrificed (even in small ways) for the nation's good.

Watching a History Channel documentary on the Vietnam War last night, I was reminded of why I was reluctant to fulfill my obligation. By the time I faced mandated military service (my draft number was 29), most of the American public had turned against the war in Vietnam. The carnage in that distant land seemed pointless; President Nixon was already withdrawing troops under his new "Vietnamization" policy. I chose an option that made it unlikely (though not improbable) that I would serve in Vietnam. I applied for and won a slot in Coast Guard Officer Candidate School.

In retrospect, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I spent three years in Washington, D.C., at Coast Guard Headquarters. I worked for some amazingly efficient and dedicated senior officers. I met and got to know people from all over the country. My horizons expanded greatly. I experienced the metropolitan atmosphere of the D.C. area. My respect for those in uniform grew enormously. I developed great pride in the Coast Guard and its members.

I proudly claim the title of veteran, though I never faced combat, never endured an overseas deployment, never spent more than a couple of days at sea, and never had to work very hard after graduating OCS. At the same time, I learned what all service members learned — to focus on what's important, to obey orders, to respect those in authority, to work as a team, to be confident, to take pride in your work, to do things right the first time, to make sure there's "a place for everything and every thing in its place," to honor your oath to uphold the Constitution.

Most every veteran takes away these lessons from their years in uniform. Even 36 years after my active service ended, these lessons are still with me. I am a veteran.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

An embarrassing exit for a legend

Penn State's board of trustees fire Coach Joe Paterno for failing to report an incident of child sexual abuse to police, and students riot in support of "Joe Pa"? If there's any doubt that big-time sports are running academia, it can be proven in the students' attitude: The big game with Nebraska is more important than protecting innocent child victims.

On the other hand, no one has been convicted in this case. A prosecutor has brought charges against the alleged perpetrator, former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, but Sandusky maintains his innocence and has not yet faced a jury. The charges against Sandusky have created a media sensation with many seemingly willing to forgo due process and fair trial. Paterno, as well, apparently will not get his day in court to defend his legendary reputation.

Regardless of the truth of the allegations, Paterno's departure is a sad ending for a storied career. He has won more college football games than any major-college coach, and he has avoided any hint of scandal. But if the allegations are true, he failed police his assistant coach and made only a minimal attempt to report the crime reported to him. Only a week ago, Paterno, 83, had seemed destined to walk away into history with insurmountable victories and a reputation without blemish. Now he may have only the victories.

But the students at Penn State who rioted on his behalf need a reality check. Big Ten football is one thing; child sex abuse is quite another. Hint: The latter is the bigger deal.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Obama missed deficit-cut opportunity

Barack Obama's greatest mistake as president is likely the opportunity he didn't take — the opportunity to endorse and push for the reforms proposed by the Bowles-Simpson deficit reduction commission. The proposals, which went nowhere after the much-ballyhooed panel reported back to the president, would have reduced the federal deficit by $3.6 trillion or so. It called for some tough cuts, including reductions in Medicare and Social Security spending, and it called for new revenues. In other words, it was a bipartisan plan, which was devised by a bipartisan panel of smart, experienced and realistic committee members. It could have given the president some shelter from inevitable criticism — this is what the committee recommended. But Obama let the controversial plan wither without his endorsement and without any effort to follow through on the course he had initiated.

Now, another panel, this one composed of highly partisan members of Congress looking out for their own and their party's political future, is tasked with coming up with a deficit reduction plan by Thanksgiving — or else. The "or else" is automatic spending cuts that would reduce government spending across the board, slashing essential spending as well as optional spending and entirely forgoing the option of raising revenues, which most Americans say they favor.

It's too late for Obama to go back and reconsider endorsing the Bowles-Simpson plan. His cowardly error has put us on this path that leads to potential chaos in only three weeks.

I can't think of a worse error in his presidency.