The Gun Fight: Has it Only Just Begun?

After the Newtown massacre I posted my belief that a tipping point had been reached in terms of gun control.   Despite the failure of the Senate a few weeks ago to do anything about the issue, I still believed it, and apparently so does  Alec McGillis for reasons given in a New Republic piece titled:

English: Icon for recentism

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Is How the NRA Ends A bigger, richer, meaner gun-control movement has arrived.   The article is fairly long, so I will summarize its main points and then you can decide if you want to read more.

McGillis begins with the defeat of the Senate bill on background checks April 17 which seemed to once again prove the power of the NRA.   However, as you probably noticed, several Senators who voted against the bill received harsh reactions back home and there have been signs since then that a few might consider changing their minds.    Joe Manchin (D.), co-sponsor of the bill, is still working on gathering support.

But more significantly, a challenge to the alleged power of the NRA is growing while there is also some question as to whether its bite is smaller than its bark.  As Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut has pointed out: “…of the 16 Senate races the NRA participated in last year, 13 of its candidates lost.”   McGillis gives other examples as well.

He then traces the history of the modern gun control movement while concluding it did not have the power in the past that it does now.   For example, among the various gun control groups “there were disagreements over whether to pursue incremental reforms or more ambitious proposals like handgun registration. And the movement has always been woefully outmatched financially. Gun-rights groups, funded by gun manufacturers, have given more than $30 million to federal candidates since 1989, compared with just under $2 million by their opponents.”

But Michael Bloomberg of New York city, along with 14 other mayors, began to alter the balance with the creation of:  Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006.  Funded largely by Bloomberg’s fortune, the organization has continued to grow and build and should be a major force to counteract the NRA influence in the 2014 elections.  Adding to the force of that group are other organizations formed by assassination survivor Gabby Giffort and those of  “mom-activists” who lost love ones at Newtown or one of the other slaughter sites, such as Aurora, Colorado.

McGillis gives examples of the passionate commitment of these activists while concluding with a story on Joe Manchin defending his background check bill with a group of his constituents in West Virginia, including five belligerent protesters.

“By meeting’s end, it occurred to me that what I had witnessed was a microcosm of the new gun politics. There were only five protesters, but because of their belligerence, they had nearly captured the entire discussion. Manchin, however, had realized that there were a lot of people there who weren’t shouting at him—and when he persisted, it turned out that many of them agreed with him”.

Here is a link to the McGillis article.

Manchin, Bloomberg, Giffort, the mom-activists and a growing number of other passionate gun safety folks seem capable of challenging the NRA’s imagined dominance in the elections of 2014.

It is enough to remind me of the legendary words of Captain John Paul Jones, whose ship was aflame and sinking in a sea battle during the Revolutionary War.   When the British captain asked if he was surrendering, Jones screamed back:  “I have not yet begun to fight.”

He won by the way.

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Corporate Tax Reform: A Little Bit More if You Can Stand It

Ways and Means Committee, US Legislative Branch

Ways and Means Committee, US Legislative Branch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After writing my previous post I watched UPw/Steve Kornacki onMSNBC Sunday and he had his own response to the Apple hearing.  Perhaps that last post was already more than you want to know about reforming corporate taxes, but those who find the topic interesting should find Kornacki’s panel discussion worthwhile to watch here.  Scroll down the clips shown toward the left to find it.

For those who don’t want to bother, here are a few points made that add to or enhance what I wrote.   As it turns out, Matthew Yglesias, who I mentioned in my post, was on this panel and he made the case again for changing the focus away from additional corporate taxes and on to individuals, such as corporate executives and shareholders.  For one thing, individuals cannot so easily pretend to be “based” in Ireland.

Adding perspective, Ylan Mui of the Washington Post  pointed out that the government takes in far more money from individual taxes than corporate ones (about one trillion from the former to about 240 billion from the latter in 2012).

While Yglesias is a liberal, his idea is not the common liberal position which is to just charge corporations higher taxes, with the Congressional Progressive Caucus wanting taxes on all corporate profits made overseas the same as income earned here.

In contrast, the conservative position, as indicated in the previous post, is to reduce taxes on corporate earnings abroad to entice their return here as opposed to making a home in Ireland or wherever.

Steve Kornacki suggested President Obama’s position includes lowering taxes on foreign earned money in exchange for closing some corporate loopholes.  Obviously, there are various ways to mix and match reforms.  The question is whether any soup will pass a sufficiently collective Congressional taste test.

One problem is what “facts” can be agreed upon as a place to start?   The Right always emphasizes our official corporate tax rate (35% to 38% or so)  as being the highest in the world, even though the “effective rate” is more like 25% (or judged even less by many liberals).  While the Right always points to  that official rate, the Left and most journalists covering the topic emphasize the effective rate and that it varies greatly from company to company.  As Frank Clemente of Citizens for Tax Justice pointed out on the show, 30 of our largest companies paid no federal income tax between 2008 to 2010 (many of them profiting from a deal made as part of the stimulus plan).

As you can see, this is a tough topic to get a handle on let alone for Congress to do anything about.   Still, the House Ways and Means Committee recently came up with a 568 page report on various tax options, and the Apple story along with I. R. S. mismanagement of those tax exemption requests might help keep the embers of possible reform alive.

Having some roots in the usually barren ground of the House of Representatives might help.

Timothy Cook Goes to Congress: Slicing Up Apple

Image representing Apple as depicted in CrunchBase

Image via CrunchBase

Congressional grand standing has not been limited to President Obama’s “trifecta of trouble”  this past week.   Wednesday Tim Cook, the  CEO of Apple, was called on the Senate carpet to defend Apple’s  lodging billions of overseas profits abroad instead of bringing the money home to be taxed.  Most notably Apple has a shell company in Ireland where they hold some 30 billion in untaxed dollars.

In an indirect way this hearing brings up a key problem with our economy, an incredibly complex tax code which makes what Apple is doing a good business decision and not “pernicious” as John McCain (R.) said or cause “real harm” as Carl Levin (D.) suggested at that Senate hearing.

It is the sort of thing that makes Apple look bad, but the company is an “iconic U. S. firm” and pays possibly the highest amount of any corporate taxes in the U. S.   Also, what they are doing is not illegal.   In fact, as Matt Miller points out in an editorial, “Cook and his colleagues have a fiduciary duty to minimize Apple’s taxes under the law.”

The problem here is not Apple, but a tax code that does not incentivise corporations making profits overseas to bring those profits home as our corporate tax rate is the highest in the world (at least in theory; corporations have phalanxes of lawyers to reduce the “effective rate”).   The key underlying factor in all of this is:   ” The fate of companies and countries in a global age now diverge. The success of U.S.-based multinationals no longer assures the prosperity of American workers.”

How can that be changed?  The key is to “realign the interests of companies with those of the country.”  Miller, a political centrist who concentrates on ways in which the two parties might actually work together,  offers one suggestion about adjusting individual corporate tax rates in his editorial….

….while the more conservative Kyle Smith in Forbes likes Tim Cook’s notion of reducing the corporate rate for overseas earnings to around 10% to entice that money back home….

…..and on the liberal side of the spectrum Matthew Yglesias argues in Slate that we should stop taxing corporate profits because they are too slippery to get a handle on,  and just raise taxes on individual incomes instead.

What I find so interesting in these three articles is that right, center and left can all agree upon this much:  Apple (and other corporations) are not the culprit;  our byzantine tax code is.

Finding such agreement is great, but reforming the tax code, while so necessary, is a classic case of the devil being in the details.    Almost everyone agrees reform is needed, but nobody wants to lose what the present system gives them or allows them to keep.   Over decades reforming the tax code has meant  interest groups lobbying for more exceptions for themselves.  The number of pages in the tax code and regulations doubled from 26,300 in 1984 to 54,846 by 2003 to around 74,000 now.

Keep this in mind when listening to members of either party or political commentators talk about the necessity of reforming the tax code.  They make it sound like a panacea, but if anything useful to more than a few can actually be agreed upon by Congress, it won’t be agreed upon any time soon.

Obama Scandal: More Smoke than Fire?

A pitchfork next to a compost bin.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last week feels a long time ago.  I had an image  of villagers with torches and pitchforks marching on the home of Dr. Frankenstein, a.k.a. Barack Obama.  And I was among them, right behind Jon Stewart.   Reading an article by Jonathan Chait since then has prompted me to put my pitch fork down.

“Scandal is a powerful, yet weirdly amorphous term of art in politics. Conceptually, the division between a scandal and a mere controversy or flub or policy dispute is hard to define.  It required a peculiar sequencing of events to transform what would on their own have been normal political controversies into the nebulous, all-encompassing Obama Scandals.”

Chait then breaks down the sequence of events that mixed together was like combining nitro and glycerin in terms of exploding scandals.   The chain reaction was initiated by a news report Friday, May 10 about Benghazi emails that was soon looked upon as sloppy reporting, but by then a scandalous mood had taken hold and its flames were fueled by revelations about  I. R. S. and Justice Department behavior that was questionable at the very least (*1).

Of course, Republicans immediately jumped to the conclusion of administration wrong doing to a Watergate degree with impeachment at the top of their agendas, this before their multiple Congressional investigations had really gotten underway.   Ever hear of the legal theory of  “let’s execute him first and then give him a fair trial?”

Now, besides that piece of bad reporting on Benghazi, there is reporting on the workings of the I. R. S. which sums up the source of the wrongdoing not as White House intimidation, but as “little guidance from D. C. and a flood of new non-profits…(that)…left an office overwhelmed,”   according to the L. A. Times (*2).  Of the three “scandals,”  the gathering of phone records from the Associated Press seems the most serious, but when you hear Republicans spouting out about an attack on First Amendment rights try to recall that it was Republicans who most stridently decried the leaks in the Obama administration and how they must be investigated, i. e. these rock throwers live in glass houses.

That is not to say there is nothing in the “trifecta of trouble” that merits investigation.  We just don’t know where it all will lead.   But for now it seems there might be a lot less fire and more smoke than appeared last week.   Smoke dissipates and when it does you often see the sun.   Way to early to tell, but the summer might not be as overcast for Democrats as it seemed.

Read Chait’s  The Strange Case of the Obama Scandals  and the pieces referenced below and decide for yourselves.

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(*1)  The May 10 news report on Benghazi emails that initiated the aroma of scandal soon to become a stench was made by ABC’s Jonathan Karl.  As one media critic put it:  “At best it is extremely sloppy” reporting.    Here’s an analysis from Media Matters.

(*2)  The L A Times article was on the front page last Sunday.   Today in the Washington Post Richard Cohen sheds further light on an overwhelmed I. R. S. bureaucracy in Cincinatti who wound up questioning more conservative applications because most of the applications overwhelming them were from conservative groups.

The Political Theater Scene is Full of Bad Actors

I don’t know how Broadway is doing these days, but political theater abounds.   Yesterday marked the 37th time the Republican House passed a bill to repeal  Obamacare.   And for the 37th time it will go nowhere in the Senate managed by Democrats, but as House Speaker Boehner has said, it will remind the American people where Republicans stand?

English: Former Speaker of the Florida House a...

English: Former Speaker of the Florida House at CPAC in . (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Does anyone need a reminder out there?  Don’t they stand for everything un-Obama?  Now, courtesy of the administration, they have a bunch more Obama stuff to be “un”, all conveniently tied to a general theme articulated by  Senator Marco Rubio.   He characterized the Obama administration as a “culture of intimidation.”  Obviously it must run very deep as one-third of the committees in the Republican controlled House seem compelled to launch  investigations.

I saw a bit of one hearing on TV this morning dealing with the I. R. S.  kicked off by the Republican chairman saying that this scandal reflected a culture of intimidation and cover-up in the administration.  Aren’t you supposed to ask questions first and then  draw conclusions later?

Listening to the vague answers I. R. S. officials gave the committee suggested to me bureaucratic incompetence was more at play than administration over reach.

Columnist David Ignatius, never shy about criticizing the Obama administration, sees the situation quite differently.    Rather than evidence of nascent totalitarianism, he sees  “a frightenly impotent government”.   And, as for the Republican reaction:  “Another generation would have said:   Let’s get on with it.  We say, let’s have another investigation.”

But what can Democrats expect?   What if these scandals had broken out during a Republican administration?   I can imagine hearing the words “police state” bandied about.   The one high card I can see in Obama’s hand is the Republican tendency to over-the-top outrage, bloviating themselves into phony oblivion.  Already the  “I” word is being tossed around (impeachment) and my own favorite “stone them to death” comment:   “this scandal is Iran Contra and Watergate multiplied by 20.”

As we head into a dreary summer of poorly acted political theater, let’s try to get a laugh or two wherever we can find one.   If you haven’t seen Jon Stewart’s take on this mess watch it below.   Funny stuff.  Unfortunately for  Democrats , the laugh is mostly on us.

P. S. – As always, “followers” receiving posts in your email will need to go to my web site to see video (click gravatar in upper left).

Constitution U. S. A. and Obama’s “Trifecta of Trouble”

Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!

Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A very bad week for the Obama administration could make Peter Sagal’s day.   Sagal, the NPR host of Wait Wait…. Don’t Tell Me! on weekend radio, begins a month long series about the constitution tonight on PBS (check your local listings).

In case you just woke up from a coma, there have been three Obama administration scandals erupting this past week, all raising questions about the power and veracity of federal government, the sort of things which make some reach for their copies of the constitution, and others to spout things as if they actually knew what it says.    First there was Benghazi which had become old hat but found new fuel when a few State Department whistle blowers testified before Congress,  casting fresh doubts on the Obama administration’s handling of the events and its early accounts.

Then later in the week it became clear the the I. R. S. had singled out the applications of conservative groups for non-profit status for greater scrutiny than most.   And then it turns out the Justice Department was secretly gathering information about the AP and its contacts, seemingly fishing for those who leak information the Obama team doesn’t want leaked.   AP being the main conduit of general information upon which other media depends makes spying on them particularly significant.

It all made NRA zealots seem to have a point in a paranoid sort of way.   Despite Republican hyperbole and feigned outrage, a lot of what has happened here is what often happens with government.   Power is abused, revealed and then cut back until abused again.   That is how our system has worked and continues to do so.

At any rate this is great advertising for PBS.  The tendency of governments to abuse power is the bedrock upon which the constitution was created, you know, the idea of the necessity of a balance of powers so no-one gets too powerful and abuses it.   That the powers have become so balanced these days that little gets accomplished is another matter for another time.

In addition to its topical nature, the Sagal series looks like it has some of the fun of his radio show.   There he will be riding a red, white and blue Harley across the country talking to all sorts of people about the constitution and what it means to them.  It looks fun and informative, too.

It also gave me something to write about today.   Other than an immigration bill toddling along, not much was happening in Congress prior to this week and even less will happen now.   Except for an abundance of new hearings and increased name calling.  It is what prompts cable chatterers to dwell on the 2014 and 2016 elections, as watching this Congress is like watching paint dry.  These recent revelations will only make compromises even tougher to make by distracting attention and politicizing whatever attention can be mustered to deal with our national problems.

A mess has just gotten messier.  Don’t hope for much change any time soon.

The Israeli Attack on Syria and John Kerry’s Visit to Russia

When you heard of the Israeli air strikes in Syria near Damascus early Sunday morning did you share my reaction?  “This Syrian thing could really get out of control.”  The attacks were reportedly  aimed at preventing the transfer of advanced Iranian-made missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon for possible use against Israel.

Not surprisingly, the Syria government has called them acts of war, but has yet to respond and they may not do so because they have their hands full with their civil war, which may have emboldened the Israelis to make the strike.

English: Bashar al-Assad under pressure

English: Bashar al-Assad under pressure (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ironically, Israel does not seem  eager to topple the Assad regime, as they fear what might replace it.   Their goal is to stop weapons from Iran coming through Syria to Hezbollah.  Though  enemies, the two nations have co-existed quite well for decades, despite Syria’s support for terrorist attacks on Israel and an Israeli air strike on a nuclear plant in 2007.

All that just touches upon the complex nature of what one commentator called a murky situation bound to get murkier.   But now there is the possibility that the Israeli attack could prompt a regional conflict with consequences impossible to forecast.   This Washington Times article gives a fuller sense of the entanglements, for those who want more background information.

But it leaves out Russia’s role in all of this and Russia has been the biggest stumbling block to the international community’s resolving the Syrian civil war.   Amidst the murk, one thing clear is that without Russia’s backing, the Bashar Al-Assad government would fall.

Russia and Syria have diplomatic ties that go back decades.   Now Russia supplies them with the arms, oil and other economic necessities to continue their fight, the supply of which has gone up during the civil war.   Also, Russia is intricately involved in other ways,  with a naval base at a Syrian port and advisers aiding the Syrian anti-aircraft missile defense.

Which is why I am relieved that Secretary of  State John Kerry left for Russia yesterday to discuss this matter, among others.   Even if no agreements are made, it is extremely valuable that both governments understand each other and what might ignite the entire region.

Why Does Russia Support the Syrian Regime?  is a piece in About.com that provides an excellent overview of the relationship between Russia and Syria, while also linking to a piece that describes yet another reason Russia has maintained its support for Assad.

Russia firmly believes in the principle of non-interference in internal affairs of sovereign states, as does China, both wary of the interference  of other states in their internal affairs.   And both believe that principle was “blatantly ignored” by the NATO coalition in the Libyan civil war.  In turn, both have prevented the U.N. from taking a stronger stand in Syria.

Despite its profits and principals, the Russian government surely knows it is backing a loser in Assad, and that may leave room for a turnaround in policy if it can be done in a way that does not make them lose face.

Come on, John.  Help ’em find a graceful way out.