Friday, February 27, 2015

Short: Who, me? I'm not for Obamacare.

Look at this double-speak from a GOP senator who's freaked out that people will lose their health insurance subsidies:
"We're not going to help the law, but we're going to help the people, so they are not left in the lurch."
This senator (John Barrasso of Wyoming) is thinking ahead, and making some plans in case the Supreme Court rules that subsidies can't go to people in all states. 

Barrasso would 'not help the law' by continuing a key provision of the law that many people depend on. Does this mean that the law isn't quite as horrible as advertised? Why keep part of it going if it is horrid? 

Oops, pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Your invisible need for Obamacare

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Burn them out

I've been thinking lately that the fighting in the Middle East seems different in a vague way. A key here is the vagueness, If I can figure out more precisely what is different, I'll might have a new, important insight that I didn't have before. So let's try.

Al-Queda, ISIS, and Boko Harum seem amazingly cruel. They blow up mosques, they blow up markets, they gun down students, the latter two kidnap girls and boast about selling women as slaves. It's barbaric, and it's definitely not in the stream of 20th century Western European behavior.

So, does it seem strange just because it's cultural different? Maybe. I'm surrounded by a liberal-tinged expectation of civility, support for the unfortunate, fair competition rather than conquest, electoral democracy, freedom of speech and religion, and all that.

Perhaps the ISIS and Boko Harum practices seem strange because they are culturally different. However, that explanation doesn't really work well. Japan and China are cultural quite different without causing the distaste and fear that ISIS/Boko Harum do. Besides, Japan, China, Europe, South American, and the US manage to get along.

What's really horrifying about is how the extent of the rejection of modern, western civility. Even the Taliban, who dynamited a precious piece of history (a huge hillside carving of Buddha), didn't go this far in their rejection of modernity. They didn't try to bring back slavery.

I seriously wonder how this philosophy can appeal to many people, and whether it has much of a future. Certainly, modern life has its bad side. We live in crowded conditions, have cheap, unhealthy entertainments, cheap, unhealthy food, and lives with less meaning and purpose than we'd like. But it seems to me that slavery and beheadings aren't the antidote to modernity. Do some people really want to go back to the cruelty of the past? For some, it seems that the answer is 'Yes.'

ISIS in particular is using cruelty to provoke a response. It hopes to provoke a war between Christians and Muslims, and has lately been ramping up the killings and abductions of Christians. Evidently they would relish all-out war, but the western countries aren't going to give it to them.

It's a better strategy (for the West) to limit their involvement, and let the cruelty of these radicals lead to their isolation. Already Jordan and Egypt are taking a stronger stand against ISIS. If only Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates weren't so slow in denouncing ISIS and seriously fighting against them. Of course, that is part of the reason ISIS, Al Queda, and Boko Harum have grown--there is too much support for any Muslim fighters, and their cruelty has (up till now) been a selling point. I certainly hope that has finally tipped. Maybe the supporters, who used to cheer the occasional bombing in Israel or the West, are finally repulsed by the amount of blood. It's about time.


Extra. A fascinating description of the religious underpinnings of ISIS.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What conservatives convey when they say "unAmerican"

So Obama is unAmerican, yet again. This time it's Rudy Giuliani making the accusation, but he's had to walk it back a bit. It's no longer that Obama doesn't love America and doesn't love the American people. According to Giuliani, Obama just doesn't tell us often enough, so we're left sad, wondering and bereft, uncertain whether the Great Father loves us.

What a bunch of nonsense, yet it plays over and over again.

If these conservatives had any idea about the connotations of calling someone 'unAmerican,' they'd be a whole lot more careful. As part of a minority group, I know what it means to be degraded and treated as subhuman. It doesn't happen often, but the sting of it is visceral. It goes right through the core, and spawns amazing anger.

Image this. I was born in America, so I must be American, right? The only way I wouldn't be an American is if:
  • I decided to go to another country and become a citizen there.
  • I was a traitor to my country.
  • I wasn't human enough to deserve the title of being an American.
Since I haven't emigrated and I'm not selling military secrets, people who would call me unAmerican must mean that I'm subhuman.

Just consider this contrast: in my family, I'm loved as one of 'us.' We have powerful mutual bond of caring. But to some people, I'm lower than a dog--a blight on the earth. In their selfishness and hate, they wish I didn't exist even though I haven't done anything against them. Those feelings are at the opposite ends of a spectrum, and that's what being the target of prejudice is like.

For someone who has been the victim of prejudice, the pain is a memory seared into your soul. This talk about Obama as 'unAmerican' brings back the memory with great intensity. I remember exactly what it felt like to be bullied and hated for being different, and I will never be on the side of those bullies. So I'll never be on the side of the Republicans who do this.

I don't think I'm the only one who reacts with visceral emotion to this kind of language. I think this is a common reaction among people who've been discriminated against. I've certainly heard first-hand stories with that undercurrent. We may not be able to rid ourselves of all prejudice, but we don't have to throw these kinds of insults like grenades.

But some people don't get it. It's as though they've always been on top, always been in the majority, always had enough money and advantages. They don't realize that calling someone 'unAmerican' is dehumanizing. They don't know that visceral feeling of being rejected and discriminated against. It's ironic that you have to go through a particular kind of pain to understand it. I guess some Republicans literally don't understand.

But that's not an excuse for being so nasty and lacking empathy. It doesn't take a lot of sense to learn that 'unAmerican' is an insult of major proportions, and it shouldn't be used carelessly. The ire that it creates, and the counter-charges of racism, are completely understandable. No more excuses from those who use this language.


Maybe I'm cooling down, and can apprehend other meanings. Perhaps people who use the term mean something closer to "this isn't good for America as a whole." That's plausible too. But they are still blind in the implications of using a word that so often means 'traitorous' or 'subhuman' in many contexts. As I said, no more excuses.


Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Do Sharia No-Go zones exist?

First, I'm going to be clear that I can't answer this question. It's hard to prove that something doesn't exist, while it's much easier to definitely show that something does exist. If you want to prove that Big Foot exists, produce a living or dead example that can be probed and x-rayed. If you want to prove that a Sharia No-Go zone exists, it's somewhat harder, but it should be possible. Get eye-witness accounts along with photos and hopefully video.

The reports of a sharia No-Go zone in Dearborn are fake. Evangelists were heckled, and objects were thrown at them when they crashed an Arab celebration. Based on that distinct provocation, and the reaction, some biased news outlets are claiming that 'Christians were stoned.' To me, that sounds like an organized, quasi-governmental suppression and punishment, not a dust-up between two unfriendly groups during the equivalent of a county fair.

It's even harder for me to know what's the story in Europe, where there have been much higher levels of immigration from Muslim countries. This article refers to many sources, but is still dubious. It features someone (an caucasian convert putting up one 'sharia zone' sticker), and few other pictures of these supposed zones. This list of French zones, supposedly sharia No-Go zones, may just be a list of high-crime or high-need areas. My French is too rusty, but maybe that's the point. A translation would be likely to reveal the knowing misuse of this piece of information. Snopes debunks it.

Why should I worry about one of many faked news stories? I suppose it got my goat that a nationally known and probable GOP presidential candidate would promote such dreck. I'm referring to Bobby Jindal. As this article says: "I'm tired of being semi-alone in viewing the Louisiana governor as especially cynical and dangerous." Yes, that's the way it looks to me too.

So it's strange to be agreeing somewhat with Jindal that Muslim immigration has brought some big problems. Jindal says "it is completely reasonable for nations to discriminate between allowing people into their country who want to embrace their culture, or allowing people into their country who want to destroy their culture, or establish a separate culture within." Muslim enclaves have too often been places where radicalism flourishes without pushback from non-radical voices.

I'm a strong believer in diversity and pluralism, but also in not inviting avowed enemies to share your house. The US and European countries, in the name of diversity and charity for refugees, have been lax in screening out those who would bomb us, kill us, and take over our countries. We should have been more careful in vetting refugees and other immigrants, but since we weren't, we have the problem of an unknown number of bombers and terrorists among us.

This leads to a lot of complications that I haven't been able to sort out. How do we keep an eye on potentially violent Muslim terrorists without shredding the rights guaranteed by the Constitution? I hoped I could work out an answer in time for this post, but I can't. This is a tough issue that we face here in the US, but is even tougher in Europe. This is the real question, as opposed to the fake worry about sharia zones and Christians being stoned.

Don't like the neighbors? Don't move here.

Extras. I also looked for Youtube videos showing these sharia zones. Most of the videos are of talking heads, except this interview with two English women, and an interview with a pro-Sharia spokesman. No good evidence for sharia No-Go zones at Youtube.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Republicans (dis)united

Tearing something down is easier than building it up. That's been an advantage to the GOP for the last six years. They could be united in opposition to Dem policies, which went ahead regardless. They could be united as they voted to repeal Obamacare. But they couldn't unite on a definite policy--one with numbers and consequences to actual people. Their budgets were a bunch of hand-waving, their replacement for Obamacare was just a pile of toothpicks. They could agree to cut food stamps (that wasteful Dem program), but not how to handle the farm subsidies that are the flip side of food stamps (both being the purview of the Agriculture Department).

Now Republicans will have to write some bills. They can no longer use the Senate Dems as the crutch that finally puts together bills with some hope of passing.  So far, however, the Republicans haven't been able to write or pass most major bills. The conservatives attempted to write an anti-abortion bill, and then found that they didn't have enough votes. Well, the country didn't exactly need new abortion restrictions, and we all went on with our lives.

The next hurdle will be funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The last Congress funded them for two months because certain Republicans wanted the opportunity to force Obama to change immigration policies. But it turns out that it's easier to criticize the president than actually make him do something. It's very difficult to find the right carrot or stick to force the president to act the way you want him to act. (I've got that odd deja vu sensation--this came up in a different context recently. Oh yes, How do you make frat boys behave?)

Ahem, back to the point. GOPers want to make Obama reverse his immigration policies, but they don't seem to have a big enough stick. A few are aching to use the 'power of the purse' and cut off funding, but that was a failure last time because Obama just waited them out. Do they have another strategy? Maybe, but anything else is likely to fail too.

Unfortunately, the Republicans are also disunited in realizing their impotence. They may well thrash themselves skinless during brawls over what to do. There are some Republicans (with larger Latino constituencies) begging the rest to cool the anti-immigrant focus. Will they really be heeded with the right wing always ready to launch invective against these supposed RINOs and traitors? I really don't know. The right wing may let this fight go, but I can't see them doing it every time. The right wing is going to show that they're different from the RINOs--it's just a matter of time.


"Democrats want your 401k" came true, a little

I almost missed this story because there was no way I would listen to another State of the Union speech. Obama floated the idea of taxing 529 college accounts to help pay for his proposed program for free community college tuition.

The current law says that money placed in 529 account isn't tax deductible when it goes in, in contrast to an IRA, where you get to exclude the contribution from your taxes for that year. However, all the earnings that accumulate are tax-free. So, the principle is that you're taxed either at the beginning or at the end, but not both.

I haven't been able to verify that Obama proposed to tax the earnings in 529 accounts because the proposal is already dead. This is no surprise. The upper middle class doesn't want to lose some of their tax advantages, like deductions for mortgage interest, pre-tax contributions to IRAs and 401k's, or 529 college savings accounts.

Progressives would take your 401k

So who was Obama listening to when he made such a blunder? I don't know, but I have to guess that it was typical progressives--the kind who think a 70% tax rate on high incomes is fine. There are progressives who don't know how much the middle class cherish their tax breaks. They imagine that the middle class feel wealthy, and don't mind giving more to help those much closer to poverty. These progressives are quite wrong--the middle class doesn't want to give up more, and they definitely don't want to pay more tax.

I know there are a lot of progressives like this because I live in a town with way too many of them. According to them, we can't build or improve soccer fields because we must direct the money to the poor and underserved. We can't preserve a beautiful parcel of land, because that money should go to build affordable housing. Teachers and town workers shouldn't get a raise because, well, they already have paychecks. These progressives have never seen a poverty program they didn't want to fund at a higher level and have never seen anything other than poverty programs that deserve a little more money.

Would these progressives like to tax my 401k? Indubitably.

I'm not so crazy about the idea of giving them free rein to put a siphon in my retirement savings, and I have a lot of company. The people who share my view include a lot of Dem supporters--especially in academia and in liberal states. That explains the pushback and fast reversal on the 529 proposal.

Limiting deductions is not confiscation

So the idea of taxing 529 accounts was quashed. I assume that no powerful Dem will listen to progressives who want to do something similar to Roth IRAs. But how about regular IRAs and 401k's. These programs have a different kind of tax advantage--you get to deduct contributions from your taxable income, saving 15% or 25% or even more, depending on your tax bracket.

It's possible to lower the amount that people can deduct, and that's not the same as double-dipping with the taxation. Limiting deductions is already happening. Deductions of many types phase out for those earning over $100K. There are limits on the amount of 401k contributions that can be deducted on your tax return. Fiddling with limits of deductions isn't the same as double taxation, or confiscation--though some mindless conservative media outlets don't seem to know the difference.


Extras. I noted back in 2011 that some conservatives warned that Dems want to confiscate your 401k savings. It was based on a Big Brother-like proposal to limit the types of retirement savings plans and have them all managed by the government. That sounds scary, but the proposal didn't go anywhere. If you're scared, this article tries to talk you down. Jared Bernstein evaluates the tax breaks from 529s. No surprise who gets most of the benefits.