Friday, May 31, 2013

Tax reform is barreling down the wrong track

North Carolina's tax system is antiquated, unequal and unfair and has been in need of revision for decades. But the proposals being offered by the Republican majority in the General Assembly do little to make the system more fair and reasonable.

Expanding the sales tax is sensible because far more of the economy is based on services than on products, compared to when the sales tax originated in the 1930s. But the new proposals fail to make the sales tax fairer while expanding the number of transactions subject to the tax. Charging the sales tax for food and prescription medicines is a step backward that will have a greater impact on those least able to pay. The elimination of the tax on food was a significant victory more than a decade ago, and reneging on this decision turns back the clock on low- and middle-income residents.

In exchange for corralling grocery purchases and services for taxation, the tax bill would barely nudge the sales tax downward — dropping the rate only from 6.75 to 6.5 percent. That's not enough for consumers to notice — just 25 cents on a $100 purchase while the tax would go up by $4 (the food tax is now 2 percent) on $100 worth of groceries.

Legislators seem determined to lower, or even eliminate the state income tax. Wiser use of incentives and elimination of corporate tax loopholes could bring down the income tax rate, but Republican legislators need to disabuse themselves of the notion that the income tax is evil, in and of itself. The income tax is fundamentally fair and effective if it limits exceptions to the tax code. Instead of bribing corporations to move to or expand in North Carolina, the state could lower its corporate tax rate to treat all corporate citizens equally.

A progressive income tax makes the reasonable assumption that those most able to pay would pay a higher rate. This concept can even be applied to the so-called "flat tax" if the law provides for a tax exemption on the first $20,000 (for example) of income. In this example, a 5 percent rate would apply to all tax returns, but a family with $20,000 in income would pay no taxes while a family with $220,000 in income would pay $1,000 in taxes. The rate and the amount of income exempted from taxation can be adjusted to meet the needs of the state.

Anti-tax legislators (and constituents) need to realize that state taxes go toward good and useful projects — public education, universities, county health services and social services, highways, law enforcement, public safety, etc. These are services that the state residents want for themselves and their neighbors. The task of the legislature is not to starve these useful and desirable services in the name of low taxation but to ensure that funds are raised fairly, allocated wisely and spent responsibly. Instead of "How can we cut our friends' tax bills?" the question should be "What is the fairest, best and most efficient means of raising the funds needed for the services our constituents want and expect?"

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sexual harassment is no longer entertaining

All the embarrassing news about the Armed Services' sexual harassment problems has gotten me thinking about how much things have changed in not so many years.

Take the movie "MASH" or the television show of the same name. What would now be considered criminal sexual harassment was a staple of the humor in the movie and TV show. I happened upon a "MASH" rerun recently that was the pilot of the TV show. In it, Capt. Hawkeye Pierce put together a raffle with a grand prize of a weekend in Tokyo with the sensuous "Nurse Dish." Maj. Margaret Houlihan tried to put a stop to the affair, calling on a general with whom she'd had a heated affair, to punish the perpetrators of the raffle. The general called Maj. Houlihan "Hot Lips."

In the movie, the frat-boy doctors at the 4077th MASH first sneaked a microphone beneath the cot where Houlihan and Maj. Frank Burns were about to consummate their lustful longing, broadcasting all the heavy breathing and her urgent, "Frank, kiss my hot lips!" to the entire unit. Later, the doctors took revenge on Houlihan by rigging the wall of the shower tent to collapse while she stood naked in the shower for the pleasure of the men gathered around in chairs.

These episodes, based on the book "MASH" written by a MASH doctor, were set in the Korean War — about 60 years ago — when the definition of sexual harassment and relationships between the sexes were far different from what they are today. But the comedy of these episodes were viewed and popularly accepted by movie and television audiences. The movie was a huge hit in 1970. The TV show ran from 1972 to 1983, and I cannot recall a single objection to the humor being offensive or insensitive to women.

This doesn't change the current problem at the Pentagon. If news reports are true, the Armed Forces have a serious problem with ranking officers and non-coms forcing subordinates to provide sexual favors and a larger problem of senior officers not viewing the issue with sufficient seriousness. The Armed Forces seem to be lagging behind the general public, which only a generation ago found mistreatment of women and sexual harassment to be entertaining comedy. Not so any more.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

I dream of the dead

I dream of the dead.

Seven years ago, after my parents died, I would find them in my dreams, healthy and mobile, visiting us in the house where we had lived so many years and where they had shared Thanksgivings and other special occasions with us. They were mobile and lively, not confused, sedentary and uncommunicative as I had seen them in their last months and years. I found their visits to my dreams comforting as my somnolent brain saw them as they had been, as I wanted to remember them.

A couple of nights ago, my older brother came into my dream. I was sitting in a meeting somewhere with a crowd of people when I heard someone behind me speak into his smartphone, "Call Bill Tarleton." I looked around and recognized the man as someone from our hometown, someone about my brother's age, a friend of his. In my dream, I knew him, but I have no idea who he was. I looked at the man holding the phone and said, "Tell him I said hello."

It was at that point that I remembered. My brother died last November. We could not call him. Not ever.

My grief that seemed dream-like at the time, consumed me once more, six months after Bill had died unexpectedly following surgery. We had traveled a thousand miles for the funeral, a whirlwind trip that contributed to the feeling of unreality, of something that is not really happening. When we were back home, nothing seemed to have changed. I was not accustomed to seeing my brother often, separated as we were by so many miles, so thoughts of his death disappeared from my mind. Denial. We just won't think about it.

I was reminded of the dream I had 51 years ago, the first instance I can recall of dreaming of the dead. My sister, four years my senior, had been killed in a car crash. My dream that night, so vivid I still can feel it, had me happening upon her in a disguise. She explained to me that she and her best friend had decided to trade identities for the weekend, and it was her friend, not my sister, who had died in that tragic accident. I awoke that morning relieved that our nightmare was over, explained away by a schoolgirl prank. But my relief was short-lived as I emerged from the bedroom to a household gasping with grief and numbed by mourning.

I put no faith in dreams.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tornadoes' destruction raises theological questions

Yesterday's deadly tornadoes in grabbed America's attention away from the still-stagnant economy, the latest scandals in Washington and the turmoil overseas. At the gym after work yesterday, I pumped away on the elliptical trainer for a half hour as I watched and listened to the reports of the horrific destruction. Images of devastation filled the little TV screen as emotional reporters tried to find words for the tragedy. First responders shuffled through the wreckage, listening for cries of help and seeking some signs of life.

Several reporters I heard described seeing people wandering aimlessly with a dazed expression on their faces. Such monumental destruction is more than our senses can process. Whenever we see such scenes, we wonder how we would react, how we would cope with the loss of loved ones or homes. Two years ago, I got a taste of that emotion when I was called back from an out-of-town trip to help with the recovery from a tornado that had hit Wilson. On the 75-minute drive, we worried that we might find our home or our whole neighborhood ripped apart, but we were fortunate. Our home suffered little or no damage, and the neighborhood was largely unscathed. In the coming days, I was able to see some of the destruction and to look into the blank faces of tornado victims.

Soon afterward, I wrote this blog post about the theological questions that such devastation rouses in us. Why did God create tornadoes, whose path of destruction — demolishing one house while leaving the one next door unharmed or killing one child while those around him survived — seems unjustly random or arbitrary? Like most of the big theological questions, this one still has no satisfactory answers.

But one minister I heard being interviewed yesterday had one response. When the reporter asked him how he felt about the destruction of his church, the pastor replied, "We'll be fine. ... Everything I have and everything I am belongs to Him. ... We'll be fine." Or, as Saint Paul said, "Whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."

Friday, May 17, 2013

Congress aims at wrong angle in latest scandals

All the heavy breathing in Washington has to do with two scandals: the deaths of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, and the targeting of conservative groups by the IRS. There's also the issue of subpoenaing the Associated Press' phone records, but, truth be told, few people outside the news media give a day-old doughnut about that.

The problem with the two big scandals is that the congressional investigators are aiming at the wrong issues. The Libya inquiry is all about what the administration did after the murders: Why were the "talking points" changed to eliminate al-Qaeda and to blame the attack on non-existent demonstrations about a video? What was President Obama's role and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's role? What were they trying to hide?

The real issue in this matter, as this Atlantic article points out, is not the post-incident cover-up and obfuscation but the pre-incident failure to protect American lives. American diplomats died needlessly because they were left unprotected in a hostile country teeming with Islamist haters of all things American. The State Department asked for more money for overseas security; Congress said no. Congress should be addressing the failure of the government to protect those people sent into harm's way to represent the United States.

On the IRS issue, it's deplorable, though I doubt criminal, to selectively delay applications from right-wing associations while giving a pass to left-wing associations that apply for tax-exempt status. Heads, as they say, have rolled at the IRS as the president tries to deal with this embarrassment. But, again, Congress is in an uproar over the wrong aspect of this case.

The real problem, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus has pointed out, is that political pressure groups are masquerading as social welfare organizations and are getting tax-exempt status. Regardless of whether these groups are Tea Party types or Lean Forward progressives, they should not be operating as tax exempt entities under section 501 (c) (4) of the tax code. These are blatantly, openly political lobbying/voter swaying groups who spend nearly all their revenue on political activities. Their tax-exempt status robs the Treasury of millions of dollars and drags down the reputations of legitimate nonprofits, covered by 501 (c) (3) of the code.

There's no political benefit to going after the abuse of the 501 (c) (4) rules, so Congress is ignoring the whole issue. But the U.S. Treasury and U.S. politics would be better off if Congress changed the law to make it clear that "social welfare" does not include political activities, even where there is no specific "vote for" or "vote against" wording.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Look who's overruling "the will of the people"

Let me see if I understand this: North Carolina voters elected Republicans to a majority share of the seats in the General Assembly because the Republicans promised smaller, less intrusive, closer-to-the-people government. Now that they're in power, the Republicans are proposing measures that take away from cities (the governmental level closest to the people) the authority to regulate development and construction through zoning laws. They're taking away from some county school boards (also close to the people) the authority to determine when, where and how large schools should be built. They're telling women and couples that their health insurance carriers can deny them coverage for contraceptives. Heck, they're even telling municipalities that they can't regulate smoking in city-owned parks and amphitheaters.

Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson, who is sponsoring the ban on local control over smoking at locally owned facilities, says smokers are upset at not being able to smoke whenever and wherever they desire. Statistics from 2011 show that fewer than 22 percent of North Carolinians smoke. That leaves 78 percent who would prefer to enjoy a walk in the park or a baseball game or concert without having to smell burning tobacco or contend with smoking litter. Newton's bill would even overrule a public referendum that passed overwhelmingly in Wrightsville Beach.

You can't get any closer to the people than a direct public referendum. But the new Republican majority knows better what the people need, even if they have voted to the contrary.

Now, which party is it that wants to create a "nanny state" that dictates what's good for individual citizens?

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Continuous campaigning is not governing

Campaigning and governing are not the same thing. You can be good at one and bad at another. What doesn't work is campaigning 365 days of the year, and that's what Congress and the White House are doing.

President Obama has shown his skills as a campaigner. He has won two national elections against heavy odds both times — the first time because the primary road was hazardous and the second because he faced a conservative backlash against his policies.

Now look at him: He faces three significant challenges involving the deaths of American diplomats in Libya (and the apparent administration attempt to minimize the nature of the attack against the U.S. outpost), the IRS targeting of conservative political groups for special scrutiny, and his Justice Department's taking of Associated Press phone records. The president has remained in the campaign mode throughout these problems, pushing his programs to voters while ignoring the voters who really matter — the ones inside the big building on Capitol Hill.

Congress has also been guilty of choosing campaigning over governing. It has been reported that the orientation of freshman members of Congress includes a weekly quota for raising money. And Sen. Mitch McConnell let slip the truth three years ago when he said Republicans' top legislative agenda was to prevent Obama from winning a second term.

Until the leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue decide to govern together instead of campaign continuously against each other, little or nothing will be accomplished.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Hearings into Benghazi raises doubts about U.S. security

This week's hearings into the Sept. 11, 2012, fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, has shone a light on the Obama administration's bumbling as Islamist militants attacked the lightly guarded U.S. facility. In emotional, heart-wrenching testimony, witnesses told of the desperation inside the consulate as the attack raged and no American military personnel came to rescue them.

The incompetence of the administration in not providing minimal security at the facility in the violence-torn and volatile country was compounded by having Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations fill in for higher-up administration representatives on Sunday talk shows a few days later. Rice attributed the attack to a spontaneous demonstration over an anti-Islam video. That explanation, reportedly based on U.S. intelligence briefings, was quickly disputed and then rescinded. But the damage was already done. The administration was seen as attempting to appease Islamic militancy rather than protecting American lives.

This week's hearings left some doubt about whether the United States could have scrambled military assets to intervene in the attack and perhaps save diplomats' lives. A top military spokesman said it would have taken 20 hours to get F-16s from their base in Italy to Benghazi, and then they might not have been effective. If that is the state of readiness of our thinly stretched military, then what would happen in the event of a major attack by something more than lightly armed insurgents? Congress should delve deeper into the response time and the effectiveness of military assets in the Mediterranean, including aircraft in Italy and ground forces in Tripoli.

At a minimum, security for U.S. diplomats in Benghazi was lacking. Exactly why the consulate was understaffed and under-protected is not yet clear, but it seems certain that Ambassador Christopher Stevens and others need not have died when the Islamists attacked.

The fatalities in Benghazi might also be the pin that bursts the balloon of Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions. In earlier testimony before Congress, she said, in an exasperated tone after a series of hostile questions, "What difference does it make" how Americans died? That video will haunt her for the next four years at least and will be replayed by her adversaries again and again.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Congress acts on sales taxes for online purchases

The Senate has passed and sent to the House a bill requiring online or catalog retailers to collect sales tax and send it to the state where the customer resides. Local retailers, as well as national chain stores, have fought a long time against the prevailing norm of online sales going untaxed while they had to collect the tax. Online retailers, they argued, were getting an unfair advantage while local retailers' prices, including state and local sales taxes, might be 10 percent higher than online prices.

When I was in the newspaper business, the N.C. Press Association pushed hard for state legislation that would force online sellers to collect state sales taxes. The newspapers were looking out for their advertising base. Online sellers do not advertise in the local newspaper, so newspaper publishers were eager to help their primary source of revenue.

I was troubled at the time that the Press Association was taking the side of the retailers against the interests of most readers, who were benefiting from the lack of sales tax when making online purchases. But my primary concern was the constitutionality of any state's efforts to force businesses in another state to collect that state's taxes. The Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, gives Congress exclusive power "To regulate commerce ... among the states." Clearly, only Congress has the power to tell one state's residents that they must collect taxes for another state. Advocates for a state requirement that other states collect North Carolina's sales taxes ignored this little impediment.

Congress, which does have the authority to require non-residents to collect taxes for another state, has awakened at last to this issue. Congress should level the playing field that is now tilted against brick-and-mortar retailers. States — and some cities — will rejoice if Congress approves a requirement to collect sales taxes on interstate sales, but online retailers might still have an advantage. The ease of shopping from the comfort of home and quickly scanning through thousands of available products cannot be matched by the big box store down the street or the mom-and-pop store at the corner.