May 18, 2012

Government Waste or Corruption?

A friend of mine recently told me a story that should anger any American taxpayer.  Not too long ago he was working for a company that had earned a $120 million federal contract for the development of a computer system and he was the project's manager.  The work was going well and the system was on schedule for an on-time completion.  After the company had charged $90 million of the full contract amount, a representative of the agency that had ordered the work, visited my friend and ordered a stop to it.

My friend, rightly so, was incredulous.  The system was still a work-in-progress, but enough had been completed that he could show it was living up to expectations.  The man said a demo wasn't necessary and that he didn't intend to take the contract away form the company.  In fact, he wanted to replenish the budget in full, but he needed the work to begin again from scratch.  Why?  Did it have to do with some new consideration or development that hadn't been a concern at the time of the bidding?  No, the agency wanted the work farmed out to a specific subcontractor.  

You probably already suspect what had happened behind the scenes, but here's the summary: 1) An original bidder on the project complained to a congressional representative who was on an important appropriations committee, 2) the congressman put pressure on the regulatory agency to rethink the project to include the losing bidder, and 3) the agency--afraid future appropriations would be jeopardized without political support--cancelled the contract and demanded the work be restarted with the new subcontractor.  Now, some people might call the result government waste, but in my mind, it's more than that.  It's corruption based upon the influence of a well-heeled corporation and the money at its disposal.  The result was that $90 million of tax revenue--money you and I paid--evaporated.  

We can't give corporations and billionaires the ability to exert financial arm-twisting in this way, and a good place to start would be to end their influence in campaign financing.  The degree to which fraud occurs is dangerous and destructive.  Here's a case in point: Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS has raised tens of millions of dollars from unnamed donors and is using the money in attack adds against democratic opponents.  This would normally be illegal, but he's getting away with it because he calls Crossroads GPS a 501 (c) non-profit entity that is working to enhance social welfare.  

This is nothing short of a scam that only increases the influence of the moneyed class in America.  We can't let him get away with it.  We only do so at our peril.  If you don't believe this is a problem, listen to this recording (from This American Life) of an elected official shaking down a lobbyist for money.  

May 16, 2012

The Farce of Tea Party Patriotism

The other day I was driving down the road and saw a car ahead that sported an array of bumper stickers and two miniature American flags where the dry cleaning is sometimes hung.  One of the bumper stickers advertized the call letters of the Bay Area radio station that features Rush Limbaugh.  Others addressed conservative causes: Defense of Marriage and gun rights to name two.  It was, however, the message placed in the center of the rear windshield that really got my goat.  It said quite simply, “I’m a Patriot.”

It bothers me that conservatives believe they are the only patriots in the country.  It also upsets me that many Christian fundamentalists believe conservatism is consistent with their faith.  Patriotism has nothing to do with such principals.  Here are a few of its aspects that I believe are worth mentioning:

  • A truly patriotic American will choose the education of the nation’s children as a higher priority than the amassing of weapons sufficient to destroy the world.
  • Patriotism means negotiating in good faith to fix the problems of the nation instead of filibustering away any real chance to solve them.
  • A patriot would rather see fellow citizens rehabilitated than demand a warped justice that is no more than institutionalized vengeance that fills prisons.
  • Patriots will regulate equal access to economic opportunity instead of prescribed behavior in bed.
  • The most patriotic of acts protect the young, old, weak and impoverished and insist that those blessed with good fortune contribute to the cause.
  • A patriotic America will accept good advice in order to leave to future generations an un-blighted world. 
  • Christian patriots will follow the teachings of Jesus—especially the injunction to love one another—rather than the Mosaic Law that speaks of stoning, condones slavery and depicts women as chattel.
What happened to the patriotism of the Civil Rights Movement and social programs, like the GI Bill, that led to greater access to opportunities and national prosperity?  Ditto Heads don’t have a monopoly on patriotism.  In fact, by their protection of corporate interests and the 1%, they don’t have much of a claim to it, at all.

May 15, 2012

The Evolution of the Wasp

There are over 5,000 species of a parasitic wasp occurring in North America that make up the family Ichneumonidae.  While they all live at the expense of other creatures, some take part in a reproductive process that is especially gruesome. 

A noted biologist describes the process in the following way (taken from The Greatest Show on Earth):

The female wasps lay their eggs in live insect prey, such as caterpillars, but not before carefully seeking out with their sting each nerve ganglion in turn, in such a way that the prey is paralyzed, but still stays alive.  It must be kept alive to provide fresh meat for the growing wasp larva feeding inside.  And the larva, for its part, takes care to eat the internal organs in a judicious order.  It begins by taking out the fat bodies and digestive organs, leaving the vital heart and nervous system till last—they are necessary, you see, to keep the caterpillar alive. 

Here is a question I pose to anyone who insists upon a literal reading of Genesis: Do you really believe God is, on one hand, benevolent, but on the other hand, capable of creating this horrific spook house creature?  In my darkest dreams, I couldn’t imagine such a torture leading to death.  I hope, on behalf of the caterpillar, that it doesn’t feel pain. 

Now, here’s my point: Even if evolution wasn’t empirically proven to be a description of how nature perpetuates itself (which is has) I would believe in it, rather than put my faith in a being capable of imagining and creating that poor caterpillar’s hell.  But if you can only accept literal readings of the Bible as true, let me remind you of what’s contained in Genesis 1:20:

And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.

Did you catch the subtlety?  It says God let the waters bring forth life.  Later in Genesis, God lets the earth do the same thing.  That, to me, suggests a creative process that gives our environment an important part to play.  After all, what fowl is born out of water, except in the way all life emerged from a primordial soup? 

If you honestly want to know whether science has it right and evolution is factual, there is plenty of evidence.  In fact, the mechanics of the theory have been replicated in experiment after experiment and seen in observation after observation.  The reason we call evolution a theory isn’t because it hasn’t been proven—again, it has.  The nomenclature is based upon the conservatism of the scientific approach.  We’ve only proven it inductively by examining all the available evidence, rather than through deduction in the way of a mathematical proof.  In the same way, relativity is also a theory, but that hasn’t stopped us from using its equations.  

If you're teaching your children that evolution is one of the devil's lies, you're doing them a great disservice.  You might as well teach them not to take the next generation antibiotic, because it will be fashioned using the knowledge evolution has imparted to us.  You might as well tell them to remain ignorant about breakthroughs in the study of DNA, because it has given us the mechanics by which evolution occurs.  In fact, you should tell them not to study biology at all, since you cannot divorce it from evolution, except in the minds of Christian apologists.  It is the framework by which biology is understood.  When I have the time I’ll summarize the results of a fascinating biological experiment to support my point.

May 14, 2012

The Ryan Budget and Territorial Taxation

Have you looked at Paul Ryan’s budget?  Among its many proposals benefiting the ubber-rich at the expense of the poor, it calls for a shift away from our system of taxation based upon worldwide income.  In doing so, the plan would exempt from U.S. taxation foreign profits earned by multinational corporations.  This aspect of the proposal is little understood and has received almost no press coverage, but it speaks volumes about the lengths conservatives will go to enrich the 1%. 

Today, when a U.S. citizen earns interest on investments held in a foreign bank or trust, he’s required to report the income to the IRS, subjecting it to U.S. taxation.  The same is true for corporate profits booked by overseas subsidiaries.  However, tax lawyers and accountants have found sophisticated ways that the rich use to shield income and avoid such liabilities.  This is crucial to note and the subject of an earlier blog I wrote.  If you’re unfamiliar with the issue of transfer pricing, go to this link.  It will be worth your time. 

The problem with Ryan’s proposed shift to a territorial system of taxation goes beyond a loss of revenue, which would be substantial.  (The Tax Policy Center estimates that his plan will result in a $4.6 trillion shortfall in revenue by 2022--$10 trillion if the Bush tax cuts are retained as Ryan proposes).  In my mind, the more significant problem is that it will result in regulatory arbitrage.  What do I mean by that?  Have you ever noticed how many U.S. businesses incorporate in states (Delaware, for example) outside their places of operation?  They often do that in order to take advantage of a less intrusive regulatory environment.  AIG, for example, was able to choose its federal regulator and opted for the Office of Thrift Supervision (it had ingeniously purchased a small S&L to give itself the option).  AIG's management knew it would receive little sophisticated supervision as a result, which was part of the truth behind the company's implosion.  The OTS, which was familiar only with the simple business model of thrifts, was completely unprepared to regulate the complexity of AIG's businesses.  In a similar way, if we allow a shift to territorial taxation, it will encourage our multinational corporations to book more income in less intrusive tax havens and move their operations (and probably more jobs) offshore.  They will do it to enrich shareholders at the expense of workers.

The proposal is moronic and must have been written by the Chamber of Commerce, which cares nothing about working class Americans.  The fact that Paul Ryan is pitching it is an indication that he and the other Republicans who support it are bought by moneyed interests and are party to the institutionalized corruption that jeopardizes the health of our nation.  What is painfully clear in all this is that a faction of America's leadership not only wants to reduce corporate income tax rates, but to eliminate it all together.  But conservatives have no middle ground.  Either corporations are people, in which case they must pay their fair share of income tax and help build the roads, schools and other public projects that benefit them, or they are not people and shouldn't be allowed to fund super pacs that give them the ability to buy elections and elected officials.  

May 10, 2012

A Heavenly Reward

Decades ago I persuaded a high school friend of mine to investigate the Mormon Church and for several months she studied with missionaries, only to decide the teachings weren’t to her liking.  Then years later she visited me after we’d gone separate ways to college.  With a weekend of activities planned, I asked if she would mind a brief stop at a Kinko’s to get copies of a document that I needed for the next day.  It would only take a minute.

When we stepped into the copy shop, however, we noticed that there was only one worker behind the counter and two customers ahead of us.  The other customers—an elderly lady and her granddaughter—had the Kinko’s lady copying what I recognized to be a Book of Remembrance.  A Book of Remembrance is, for active members of the Mormon Church, a family history that has been painstakingly gathered and recorded by the person who possesses it and generally includes a detailed genealogy.  In the case of the elderly woman and her granddaughter, the copy-in-progress was meant as a gift and tender reminder of the importance of family.  However, because the pages were of odd size, the young women behind the counter was copying an impressive stack of paper by hand, one at a time.

The worker looked at me and asked what I needed.  I answered that I wanted twenty copies of a one-page document, all on standard paper.  She then turned to the grandmother and suggested that my job go first, since it would only take a few seconds to complete.  The older woman responded that the next person through the door would then get similar treatment and she would never get her print job done.  I understood the point and told the worker that I could leave my document and come back for copies later.

Once we left the store my friend said something that bothered me.  She said we’d just witnessed the primary reason she could never consider joining a church.  When I pressed her on the point, she answered, “You guys are so focused on personal salvation that you don’t give a shit (her words) about being kind to each other.”

Now, I know the criticism is unfair and exaggerated, but it serves to substantiate a point Jon Meachem recently made in a Time article entitled Rethinking Heaven.  The gist of his point is that the idea of heaven as a place where the righteous earn an eternal reward gives people license to not give a shit (my words now) about the people around them who might need help.  In my mind there are two unfortunate results of a traditional view of heaven:

  1. We can justify our lack of assistance to—and empathy for—those who suffer from adverse circumstances because we can say they will have a lasting reward someday if they’re only good enough to deserve it. 
  2. In justifying our inaction, we ignore the fact that we serve God best when are in the service of our brothers and sisters here in this life.  In essence, we leave it to God to bless others.  It becomes His responsibility, rather than our own.

As an alternative view to this, Meacham writes:
The scholarly redefinition of heaven as a manifestation of God’s love on earth has been illuminating, for it at once puts believers in closer proximity to the intent of the New Testament authors and should inspire the religious to open their arms more often then they point fingers.  Heaven thus becomes, for now, the reality one creates in the service of the poor, the sick, the enslaved, the oppressed.  It is not paradise in the sky but acts of selflessness and love that bring God’s sacred space and grace to a broken world suffused with tragedy.
To me, it’s no coincidence that the secular governments of Western Europe have stronger social safety nets than that of Middle Eastern countries and yes, the good ole US of A.  Where people believe poverty is just a temporary condition that can be resolved with good behavior and God’s blessing, there is a temptation to devote less attention to the matter.  But therein lies the rub.  In short, if we’re not working to bring a bit of heaven to the unfortunate souls around us, we don’t deserve the heavenly rewards we seek.