Stories We Will Still Have to Write in 2012

 

by WALTER and ROSEMARY BRASCH

 

In January 2009, with a new president about to be inaugurated, we wrote a column about the stories we preferred not having to write, but knew we would. Three years later, we are still writing about those problems; three years from now, we’ll still be writing about them.

We had wanted the U.S. Department of the Interior to stop the government-approved slaughter of wild horses and burros in the southwest, but were disappointed that the cattle industry used its money and influence to shelter politicians from Americans who asked for compassion and understanding of  breeds that roamed freely long before the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.”

We wanted to see the federal government protect wolves, foxes, and coyotes, none of whom attack humans, have no food or commercial value, but are major players in environmental balance. But, we knew that the hunting industry would prevail since they see these canines only as competition.

We wanted to see the Pennsylvania legislature stand up for what is right and courageously end the cruelty of pigeon shoots. But, a pack of cowards left Pennsylvania as the only state where pigeon shoots, with their illegal gambling, are actively held.

For what seems to be decades, we have written against racism and bigotry. But many politicians still believe that gays deserve few, if any, rights; that all Muslims are enemy terrorists; and publicly lie that Voter ID is a way to protect the integrity of the electoral process, while knowing it would disenfranchise thousands of poor and minority citizens.

We will continue to write about the destruction of the environment and of ways people are trying to save it. Environmental concern is greater than a decade ago, but so is the ignorant prattling of those who believe global warming is a hoax, and mistakenly believe that the benefits of natural gas fracking, with well-paying jobs in a depressed economy, far outweigh the environmental, health, and safety problems they cause.

We will continue to write against government corruption, bailouts, tax advantages for the rich and their corporations, governmental waste, and corporate greed. They will continue to exist because millionaire legislators will continue to protect those who contribute to political campaigns. Nevertheless, we will continue to speak out against politicians who have sacrificed the lower- and middle-classes in order to protect the one percent.

We will continue to write about the effects of laying off long-time employees and of outsourcing jobs to “maximize profits.” Until Americans realize that “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” we’ll continue to explain why exploitation knows no geographical boundaries.

The working class successfully launched major counter-attacks against seemingly-entrenched anti-labor politicians in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states. But these battles will be as long and as bitter as the politicians who deny the rights of workers. We will continue to speak out for worker rights, better working conditions, and benefits at least equal to their managers. We don’t expect anything to change in 2012, but we are still hopeful that a minority of business owners who already respect the worker will influence the rest.

There are still those who believe education is best served by programs manacled by teaching-to-the-test mentality, and are more than willing to sacrifice quality for numbers. We will continue to write about problems in the nation’s educational system, especially the failure to encourage intellectual curiosity and respect for the tenets of academic integrity.

Against great opposition, the President and Congress passed sweeping health care reform. But, certain members of Congress, all of whom have better health care than most Americans, have proclaimed they will dismantle the program they derisively call “Obamacare.”

During this new year, we will still be writing about the unemployed, the homeless, those without adequate health coverage—and against the political lunatics who continue to deny Americans the basics of human life, essentials that most civilized countries already give their citizens.

We had written forcefully against the previous president and vice-president when they strapped on their six-shooters and sent the nation into war in a country that posed no threat to us, while failing to adequately attack a country that housed the core of the al-Qaeda movement. We wrote about the Administration’s failure to provide adequate protection for the soldiers they sent into war or adequate and sustained mental and medical care when they returned home. The War in Iraq is now over, but the war in Afghanistan continues. The reminder of these wars will last as long as there are hospitals and cemeteries.

We had written dozens of stories against the Bush–Cheney Administration’s belief in the use of torture and why it thought it was necessary to shred parts of the Constitution. We had hoped that a new president, a professor of Constitutional law, would stop the attack upon our freedoms and rights. But the PATRIOT Act was extended, and new legislation was enacted that reduces the rights and freedoms of all citizens. At all levels of government, Constitutional violations still exist, and a new year won’t change our determination to bring to light these violations wherever and whenever they occur.

The hope we and this nation had for change we could believe in, and which we still hope will not die, has been minced by the reality of petty politics, with the “Party of No” and its raucous Teabagger mutation blocking social change for America’s improvement. We can hope that the man we elected will realize that compromise works only when the opposition isn’t entrenched in a never-ending priority not of improving the country, but of keeping him from a second term. Perhaps now, three years after his inauguration, President Obama will disregard the disloyal opposition and unleash the fire and truth we saw in the year before his election, and will speak out even more forcefully for the principles we believed when we, as a nation, gave him the largest vote total of any president in history.

We really want to be able to write columns about Americans who take care of each other, about leaders who concentrate upon fixing the social problems. But we know that’s only an ethereal ideal.  So, we’ll just have to hope that the waters of social justice wear down, however slowly, the jagged rocks of haughty resistance.

 [Dr. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues columnist, former newspaper investigative reporter and editor, and journalism professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Rosemary Brasch is a former secretary, Red Cross national disaster family services specialist, labor activist, and university instructor of labor studies.]

 

 

 

A Crock Pot Tax-Exempt Idea

 

 

 

 

by Walter Brasch

 

            A wall of suffocating heat nearly vaporized me as I walked into Marshbaum's house. In the kitchen was a portable kiln spewing fiery venom that was curling the linoleum. In the den, wildly pumping a potter's wheel flinging clay all over the room, was Marshbaum.

            “Got a new hobby?” I asked from a puddle of water that I assumed was what was left of my body.

            “Hobby, nothing!” shouted Marshbaum over the noise. “This is my path to fame and fortune.”

            “Every one of your fame-and-fortune paths have ended in a cul-de-sac,” I reminded him. “You scamming the public into believing that slops of glazed clay dipped into leftover house paint are the last sculpture of a dying genius?”

            “They're cookie jars,” said Marshbaum wounded.

            “Still looks like schlock to me,” I suggested.

            “Work with me on this,” Marshbaum commanded, “it could result in a column for you.”

            So I played straightman while Marshbaum threw pots together. “Who,” I asked skeptically, “is going to buy ersatz cookie jars?”

            “Corporations,” he replied smugly.

            “For gifts?”

            “For receipts. Taxpayers keep their receipts in cookie jars,” Marshbaum explained, “so why not corporations? It’ll help them avoid paying any taxes. It’s easy. It’s simple. It’s—”

            “Probably illegal.”

            “It’s in the Tax Code,” said Marshbaum. “Individuals pay; corporations don’t.”

            “I doubt the IRS Code says anything like that.”

            “There are four million words in the IRS Code,” said Marshbaum. “Lower-class and middle-class Americans get a few thousand of those words. The rest of the code is a roadmap to help the wealthy and their corporations avoid paying taxes.”

            “The IRS encourages corporations to cheat?”

            “No, Congress does that. It writes the code to give rebates, tax deferments, subsidies, and all kinds of tax shelters that only the wealthy and their corporations can take advantage of. It’s just a way to reward their friends.”

            “But, it’s the people who vote for their representatives,” I said naively.

            “You think some homeless vet can afford to donate to Sen. Sludgepump’s campaign? You think Rep. Bilgewater even listens to the opinions of the impoverished and disenfranchised? Why do you think the Republicans want to cut into Medicare and Medicaid?”

            “To balance the budget?”

            “Because, Ink Breath, the rich don’t need those programs. That’s also why they want to cut funding for public education. The rich can afford private schools. The poor can’t. Besides, you can’t have an educated population of middle-class citizens. They might do something un-American, like actually learn something about the issues.” The issue, said Marshbaum, slinging clay and getting high on pot fumes, is that Congress allows the rich to realize their dreams that greed is not only good, it’s encouraged.

            Marshbaum explained that a Government Accountability Office analysis showed that almost three-fifths of all American-based corporations pay no federal taxes. The GAO study didn’t identify individual companies. Marshbaum, with the help of the Securities and Exchange Commission and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), did.

            Pretending that the international crisis-of-the-week has led to the highest gas prices in years, the oil companies—smirks of greed tucked neatly into their wallets—made record profits, paid no taxes, and even received rebates and refunds from the IRS. Exxon Mobil made $19 billion in profits in 2009, paid no taxes, but received a $156 million rebate. Chevron made $10 billion, paid no taxes, and received a $19 million refund. ConocoPhillips during a three year period had a $16 billion profit, paid no taxes, and received a $451 million tax break. Valero Energy had $68 billion in sales, and a $157 million tax refund.

            General Electric had a $26 billion profit in five years, and a $4.1 billion refund. Boeing, tucked into bed with a $30 billion Defense Department contract, got a $124 million refund to sleep better

            Even those that received taxpayer-supported bailouts, after being a major cause of the sub-prime housing debacle, made profits, paid seven-figure executive bonuses, and received refunds. Bank of America scammed the people for a $1 trillion bailout, made a $4.4 billion profit, and received a $1.9 billion refund. CitiGroup, with a $2.5 trillion bailout, paid no taxes on a $4 billion profit. Goldman Sachs and Carnival Cruises were model corporate citizens by paying all of 1.1 percent taxes. Goldman Sachs had a $2.3 billion profit on an $800 billion bailout; Carnival, which took passengers and the taxpayers on a cruise, made $11 billion in profit over five years.

            “Assuming everything you say is true, how does your overpriced crock pot cookie jar allow the rich to cook the books to avoid paying taxes?”

            “Because it comes with extras,” said an enthusiastic Marshbaum. “With every 25 jars, you get a scanner and software that I created. All you have to do is scan the receipts, and my patent-pending pot ware zooms through the receipts to match the tax code and declare that the rich guy and his even richer corporation are tax-exempt.” The best part, said Marshbaum, is that corporations will be able to lay off thousands of six-figure income CPAs in order to maximize their profits.

            “But wouldn’t that just increase the problem we already have with unemployment?” I asked.

            “Not when the accountants and auditors—the ones who know all the corporate secrets—realize that the government pays 15 to 30 percent of all money it collects from whistleblower tips.  They may never have to work again.”

            “You’re brilliant,” I said commending my pot throwing friend. “Just brilliant.”

 

            [For decades, Walter Brasch has used cookie jars to collect his tax receipts, much to his wife’s and accountant’s annoyance. His next book is Before the First Snow, a work of journalistic fiction that explores war in the Gulf, the peace movements, and the effects of “clean” nuclear energy. The book is available from Amazon.com for pre-orders.]

 

 

 

 

Reasons to vote no on Wall Street reform don’t hold up

Wall Street reform looks to be in as much trouble as the energy bill. Though the bill was passed out of conference, it’s actually now losing votes on the Senate floor despite the addition of Maria Cantwell. Robert Byrd’s death is one and Repub Scott Brown is two, and four others are threatening to walk.The original vote was 59-39 with Specter and Byrd not voting. Factor them in, and we can only afford to lose two votes after gaining Cantwell's. If Russ Feingold continues to filibuster, then we need all four of the remaining waverers lest the 2007-8 status quo stands and Wall Street brings down the economy again.

Brown is opposing the bill and Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and the Maine twins are threatening to oppose it because of a $17.9 billion fee on big banks from the House version. Democrat Evan Bayh has also grown wishy-washy.

This is ridiculous. Big financial firms and banks have caused trillions of dollars worth of damage to this country - $700 in TARP funds, $787 billion in the stimulus, two consecutive quarters of 6% decline in US GDP, 10% unemployment – yet Repubs would risk it happening all over again rather than tax these crooks a paltry $18 billion? Puh-leaze! It's even more hypocritical when one considers the anti-bailout bleating of most of these Repubs. Here’s our chance for another Main Street bailout, and yet just as with the stimulus and unemployment extension, they’re saying no. Any good will Brown generated by introducing Elena Kagan to the Judiciary Committee yesterday is gone now.

Dodd and Franks have made some small changes to address these petty concerns, but that won't solve all the bill's political woes - and not just because Brown is still playing coy. Democratic Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin is also planning to vote against the legislation, as he did before conference. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) also voted against it in May, but her concerns about derivatives seem to have been addressed. Feingold, however, is almost taking the position that unless we end too-big-to-fail (and it is too bad that the bill doesn't), then we should leave the current system in place exactly as it its.

I truly admire Feingold and am happy to fundraise for his re-election campaign, but I think he's making a terrible mistake here. If the bill’s strength is already losing it votes, holding out for something better will lose even more. Give Feingold what he wants and not only do the four Republicans firm up their opposition, perhaps we lose not only Bayh but Ben Nelson as well, who voted against an initial procedural motion. That takes us from a possible 61 and passage to a ceiling of 56-57 and failure.

It made sense to filibuster in May when there was still a chance to strengthen the bill, but we’re in the end game now. Either we pass this bill or one very close to it, or we don’t pass a bill at all. This wasn’t the case before conference when the August recess was still far away, but it is the case now. If Feingold and others want to register discontent, they should vote for cloture and against the bill, but a vote against cloture is a vote for Jamie Dimon and a vote for the 2007-8 status quo.

Boehner: Taxpayers Should Bail Out BP

Lisa Murkowski’s failed EPA disapproval resolution had two nicknames: the Dirty Air Act and the Big Oil Bailout. The former was more appropriate, since the resolution wouldn’t have given any money directly to the oil industry. Murkowski’s ideas are bad, but not that bad. John Boehner’s ideas, on the other hand, really are that bad.

The House Republican leader, a long time beneficiary of BP campaign contributions, said yesterday that taxpayers should foot the bill for cleaning up BP’s mess in the Gulf Coast. His comments followed a similar statement from the conservative US Chamber of Commerce. From TPMDC:

In response to a question from TPMDC, House Minority Leader John Boehner said he believes taxpayers should help pick up the tab for the clean up.

"I think the people responsible in the oil spill--BP and the federal government--should take full responsibility for what's happening there," Boehner said at his weekly press conference this morning.

Boehner's statement followed comments last Friday by US Chamber of Commerce CEO Tom Donohue who said he opposes efforts to stick BP, a member of the Chamber, with the bill. "It is generally not the practice of this country to change the laws after the game," he said. "Everybody is going to contribute to this clean up. We are all going to have to do it. We are going to have to get the money from the government and from the companies and we will figure out a way to do that."

This is blatant hypocrisy from Boehner, whose office said just this week that “The federal government should be focused on getting its own fiscal house in order, not providing more bailouts with taxpayer money.” Still, we shouldn’t be surprised – according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the Energy and Natural Resources sector has been Boehner’s fifth largest source of contributions over the course of his career to the tune of $896,148, including $15,200 from BP. In general, BP has given twice as much to Republican candidates as it has to Democratic candidates.

Michael Steel, the Repub leader’s spokesperson (not the RNC chair), has been backpedaling furiously since the press conference, telling Greg Sargent, “No taxpayer money for cleanup or damages -- period. BP pays," and the Huffington Post that “Boehner made a general statement… but he has said repeatedly that BP is responsible for the cost of the cleanup." As the HuffPo’s Jason Linkins points out, though, “Do you agree… [that] taxpayers should pitch in to clean up the oil spill?" is a pretty specific question, and Boehner said what he said. Yet even if Steel does succeed in rewriting history and walking back the leader’s comments, the Chamber of Commerce’s Donohue was even more specific when he said “we are going to have to get the money from the government.” Spin it any way you want, but these are the stated beliefs of the modern Republican Party: oligarchy first, and the people only if there’s time left over.

Weekly Audit: Congress to take up financial reform, but will it be strong enough?

by Zach Carter, Media Consortium blogger

Next week, the debate over financial reform will begin in earnest when Congress returns from its Easter break. Both political parties are gearing up for a major fight, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. An out-of-control banking sector has cost the economy over 7 million jobs since 2007, and without major reforms, Wall Street could repeat this disaster in just a few years’ time. But thanks to Wall Street’s lobbying might, all of the necessary reforms are currently in jeopardy.

Key Reforms

Writing for The Nation, Christopher Hayes offers a useful primer on financial regulation, highlighting three reforms that are crucial to any bill.

  • With no effective regulation of consumer protection issues for years, the existing banking regulators were more focused on preserving bank profitability than on going to bat for ordinary citizens. If banks could make big profits with unfair gimmicks (or even fraud), regulators usually looked the other way. The solution is a strong, independent Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) charged with nothing but protecting consumers from banker abuses, an agency with the broad authority to both write rules and enforce them.
  • We need to rein in the $300 trillion market for derivatives, the complex financial contracts brought down AIG. Unlike ordinary stocks and bonds, derivatives are not traded on exchanges, so nobody really knows what is going on in this tremendous market. When something goes wrong, like with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, nobody can tell who the problem will effect. Without information, markets panic, and the entire financial system can collapse within a matter of days. Fortunately, this problem has a simple solution: require all derivatives to be traded on exchanges.
  • Too-big-to-fail is too big to exist. The U.S. has never had banks as large as those that exist today, and their size gives them enormous political clout. It’s part of the reason why regulators didn’t make banks obey consumer protection laws, and why banks have been so effective in derailing reform. It’s been almost two years since the Big Crash, yet we are still wrangling over reform because giant banks deploy giant lobbying teams, and have almost unlimited resources to devote to their lobbying efforts. If we can’t scale back the banks’ power by breaking them up into smaller institutions, it’s unlikely that other reforms will be effective.

As Margaret Dorfman emphasizes for American Forum, a strong CFPA would help protect small businesses, since a huge proportion of them are financed with credit cards and home equity loans (Dorfman is CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, an advocacy group for women that should not be confused with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—a nasty lobbying front for a few hundred high-flying executives). As Dorfman notes, small businesses are where most new jobs come from– if a regulator can ensure that these businesses are not pushed around by abusive banks, they can help repair our jobs.

Unfortunately, all three reforms are in real jeopardy as the bill moves to the Senate floor for a vote, as Simon Johnson notes in his Baseline Scenario blog carried at AlterNet. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd (D-CT) hasn’t included any language on breaking up the banks, he has significantly watered down the CFPA proposal President Obama put forward, and derivatives reform was almost entirely gutted in the House.

What’s at stake

So what’s at stake? For some perspective, consider last week’s jobs report. As Steve Benen notes for The Washington Monthly, the U.S. economy added 160,000 jobs in March, the first significant monthly gain since the start of the recession, and the best jobs report in three years. But while it’s good to see the economy actually adding jobs, at the March rate, it would take more than three-and-a-half years to win back the 7 million jobs lost since 2007.

This jobs disaster was not caused by faceless and unpreventable forces—it was the direct result of a reckless and unregulated banking system. Without major reforms, banks will always have this economic leverage when that recklessness overpowers them: bail us out, or watch your economy collapse.

This is an issue of basic democratic fairness, as Noam Chomsky explains for In These Times. Wall Street has purchased the right to bend public policy to anything that benefits banks—the rest of society is not their concern. The bailouts of 2008 and 2009 make that clear. After wrecking the economy to enrich themselves, bank executives then looted the public coffers with the threat of still further economic havoc.

And the political clout of America’s largest banks insulates them from criticism when they profit from abuses—particularly when those activities don’t spark wider economic crises. As Andy Kroll highlights for Mother Jones, J.P. Morgan Chase is currently making a killing by financing mountaintop removal mining (MTR). MTR is an ecological nightmare—literally a bombing campaign in which entire mountains in Appalachia are destroyed to make way for cheap coal. That’s meant billions in profits for J.P. Morgan, and an environmental catastrophe for the United States.

Obama and Congress have a choice. They can play financial reform for campaign contributions, pushing a watered-down bill that will function as a set of reforms-in-name-only. Alternatively, they can do their jobs, confront a dangerous financial oligarchy head-on, and help build an economy that works for everyone.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

 

 

 

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