Posts Tagged ‘Congress’

WASHINGTON AND WINNERS

Wednesday’s San Francisco Chronicle headlined, “GOP near tax, health wins.” Mid-morning, the tax bill passed. Not a single Democrat voted yes. The New York Times reported, “Victory for G.O.P. as House Clears Way for Trump Signature.” I used to think winning only involved sports and the Oscars. My bad—and America’s.

Will the new tax law promote the general welfare? Trickle-down economics has failed in the past, but circumstances change in every generation. What concerns me more is the attitude in Congress and the White House—and it’s not new—that the most critical reason to pass legislation is to defeat the other party. “Winning” equates with moral superiority. Only secondarily do politicians consider the nation’s wellbeing.

The new tax law certainly will impact the economy short-term and long-. Republicans see the gross domestic product (GDP) soaring, bringing Washington increased tax revenues—at lower rates, of course—to counter the projected additional $1.5 trillion deficit.

Most Americans, however, don’t see themselves winning. According to cnbc.com, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday “shows that just 24 percent of Americans believe the president’s tax plan is a good idea – barely more than half of the 41 percent who call it a bad idea.” Moreover, “by an overwhelming 63 percent to 7 percent margin, Americans say the plan was designed to help corporations and the wealthy rather than the middle class.”

The same cnbc.com report states, “there are signs that the tax debate has taken a political toll on Republicans and the president alike.” Do the “winners” care? Stated cnbc.com, “Dozens of lawmakers stand to reap a tax windfall thanks to a loophole inserted in the sweeping GOP tax overhaul bill, according to a review of federal financial disclosures.”

Donald Trump may not have helped his and the Republican cause when on Wednesday he announced, “I shouldn’t say this, but we essentially repealed Obamacare.” Has he thrown the healthcare system into chaos? If so, how will millions of affected Americans respond?

Of course, the mega-rich—including Trump—will win big. A coterie of far-right political donors, including the Koch Brothers, will reap a major return on their investment not only in the Republican party and its candidates but also in political action committees, think tanks and trade associations, as well as shell organizations designed to hide their tax-deductible contributions. For the frightening details, read Jean Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

The new tax law also will provide more work for CPAs and tax attorneys. They always win with the arrival of new legislation.

So, short term, the economy and stock market may spike, boosting Republican hopes to hold both houses of Congress in the 2018 midterm elections. But the nation risks experiencing what one TV commentator termed “a sugar high”—a burst of economic energy followed by a crash. If so, Trump supporters also will feel pain. The deficit—once an object of Republican concern—may grow so large that even Democrats express heartfelt concern. And in 2025, most middle-class Americans’ taxes will go up.

Let’s get real. No legislation is perfect. But laws passed without a meaningful measure of bipartisan support deliver “wins” that leave more than the minority party as losers.

To you who celebrate Christmas—Merry Christmas! May the holiday renew your spirits. To all: Happy New Year!  

The post will break for a few weeks and return January 12.

To respond, click on “comments” to the right just below the title of this post. Then go to the response space at the bottom of the post.

FOUR TOUGH TRUTHS

In the movie A Few Good Men (1992), Jack Nicholson is the Marine colonel commanding the U.S. base at Guantanamo. He famously tells a court martial, “You can’t handle the truth.” Given Tuesday’s election in Israel, last November’s American Congressional election and the state of the world, a number of regrettable truths confront us.

Truth #1: The victory of Israel’s Likud party, headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, is scary. Likud won 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats—hardly a mandate. The problem? Trailing in the polls, Bibi played to the worst fears and prejudices of the rabid right, warning that Israeli Arabs were voting (legally) in big numbers. He also said that he would never allow a Palestinian state—after long accepting a two-state solution given a partner on the other side. (Frustrating truth: Mahmoud Abbas was never that partner.) Yesterday, Bibi backtracked. He’s been misunderstood. He favors a Palestinian state under conditions that guarantee Israeli security. I do, too. But can anyone believe Bibi? His campaign rhetoric sent a statement to Jews in Israel and the Diaspora, as well as to the world community: “We can hate as much as they do.” Oh wait. Just kidding.

Truth #2: The American political system isn’t working on the national scale—and needs an overhaul. President Obama seems out of touch to too many Americans. (Age-old truth: you can’t please all of the people all of the time.) His vaunted communications skills are way overrated. Worse, Congress makes a mockery of our democracy. Republicans detoured around the president and welcomed Netanyahu to speak before Congress in great part because they, like Bibi, pander to the far right. Allied truth: Money talks. Says who? The Supreme Court. Corporations have as much right to speak out as people. Only lots more cash. (Do I hear the Koch brothers wheezing in approval or is that Sheldon Adelson?) Grating truth: Many Republicans oppose the president because a Black man (defined in the U.S.A. as anyone with a drop of Black blood) sits in the White House. Mr. Obama can change his policies. He can never change his genetics.

Truth #3: Democracy may not always be the answer. How has it done in Iraq? Shiites continue to suppress Sunnis in a continuation of a religious conflict going back 13 centuries. Turkey’s Islamist president Tayyip Recep Erdogan has turned democracy into a sham. Iran’s elected officials, including the president, fall under the thumb of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. And would you really praise democracy in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood? Nasty truth: enlightened autocracy might work better in some cases. That’s the position of the noted journalist/scholar Robert Kaplan in his recent book, Asia’s Cauldron. Kaplan cites the incredible flowering of Singapore under Lee Kwan Yew and Malaysia under Mahathir Mohamad (whom Kaplan nonetheless recognizes as an anti-Semite). And no, I’m not a fan of Vladimir Putin, elected by, but hardly accountable to, the Russian people. By the way, he’s wonderfully satirized (and wonderfully played by Lars Mikkelsen) in this season’s Netflix hit House of Cards.

Truth #4: The Giants will not win the World Series. It’s 2015, people—an odd numbered year. The Giants just don’t do that. Joyful truth: they’ll still help take our minds off Truths 1–3.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

To respond, click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

CATCHING CAMBODIA

A few years ago, Carolyn and I visited Cambodia. After a stay in Phnom Penh, the capital, we flew to Siem Reap. Angkor Wat, the huge 12th-century temple complex, was breathtaking. But something else also caught my attention. The roads we traveled on made San Francisco look like a third-world city.

I often say that life is maintenance. On a personal level, we (well, not all Americans) take care of our bodies. We wash. We trim our nails and get haircuts. We also try to eat healthy food and exercise.

On a communal level, we seek to maintain our physical environment. But infrastructure projects don’t come cheap, and Washington is the prime mover. Shamefully, we’ve long neglected our roads, bridges and tunnels, and school buildings. Fortunately, the economy has generated more government revenue so more work has taken place. It hasn’t always been efficient, but that’s a problem of politics rather than engineering. Witness the attractive east span of the Bay Bridge pushed as a legacy by former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown and present governor Jerry Brown. Politically mismanaged construction often stalled. Costs soared. Grave questions remain about the bridge’s structural integrity.

In my neighborhood, the news is mostly good. The Doyle Drive project connecting the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marina District and downtown, as well as to San Francisco’s west side and the Peninsula, will be completed in another two years. Hopefully. In August, crews replaced our street’s sewer lines, part of a huge citywide project. Three weeks of dust and noise proved a small price for those needed repairs. Last month, other crews repaved our street. Nearby Park Presidio, a major boulevard badly in need of repaving, waits.

Infrastructure-wise, we’re catching Cambodia. But another type of infrastructure is crumbling down to the level of Cambodia, a dictatorship under Prime Minister Hun Sen: Washington. Last Tuesday’s election, which gave Republicans control of the Senate and expanded the GOP majority in the House is a symptom. So is a lack of leadership and candor coming from President Obama whose reserved, seemingly disengaged manner has worn thin with many Americans who voted for him. Our system of government—brilliant in its conception—has lost its way. Big money and the shrill ideology from extremists on both right and left have paralyzed Washington’s ability to advance the cause of ordinary, “purple” Americans.

In an age when citizens have huge caches of information at their fingertips, Washington’s ability to get things done has slowed beyond a crawl. It’s at a virtual standstill. Yes, powerful interests always have impacted elections, legislation, even war. Once, machine politics and backroom compromises—and yes, hands got dirty—moved the nation forward by passing the riches around. The system was imperfect but effective. Now, it’s dead.

We have the capacity to span bays and rivers, dig through mountains and construct inspiring buildings that serve the common good. We also have the capacity to build bridges across the aisle in Congress and down the Hill to the White House. If we’re intent on not catching Cambodia in political respects, we won’t need a new constitution. We’ll need integrity, courage and will. What are the odds?

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

THE YEAR OF LISTENING

During the Jewish month of Elul (August/September) leading to the recent High Holy Days, I made a semi-resolution. The Sages caution against making vows and for good reason, so I avoided going that far. But I determined to try to be a more attentive listener. That’s a challenge.

I took inspiration from Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) 4:1 attributed to Ben Zoma: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” So often, we only pretend to listen to others while our mental wheels spin on and on. We hear words, but the thoughts and intentions behind them don’t register. We’re too engrossed in googling our minds for ways either to refute the speaker or demonstrate that we know more.

Many people, myself included, love to engage in forms of mental gymnastics. But at the age of seventy, I’m increasingly aware not of what I do know but of what I don’t. I’ve recognized the possibility—indeed, the probability—that others can offer ideas worthy of reflection rather than rebuttal or revision.

Not that I’m waving the flag of false humility. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:7 advises that there is “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” Obviously, I’m still blogging. Moreover, we all have a responsibility to add knowledge to a discussion or class. When we withhold a fact or considered comment, we deprive others of a learning experience. And while good judgment is required, we have an obligation to correct an error that might mislead others.

Attentive listening also can improve personal relationships. At Congregation Sherith Israel’s Rosh Hashanah services, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller gave a sermon on listening without defensiveness when an issue arises. Rather than protesting, interrupting or displaying anger, she said, we do better simply to hear the other person out. Yes, disagreement and anger have their places. But they too often become knee-jerk reactions when someone else speaks about a subject or offers an opinion that may make us uncomfortable or even be contentious.

I started practicing attentive listening last Saturday morning at Torah Study. It went fairly well. I spoke only once—to ask a question. I focused not on what I know but on what others know or how they might get me to look at a piece of the text in a different way. Members of the group may not hear very much from me for the next year (at least), but that’s because I’ll be listening to them.

This brings to mind mid-term Congressional elections only a few weeks off. Our senators and representatives in Washington have a less-than-praiseworthy record when it comes to listening to members of the other party—and sometimes to those of their own. I don’t expect Republicans to become Democrats or Democrats to morph into Republicans. But failing to listen attentively reflects a disturbing preference to demonize others rather than find common ground. Such elected officials say they seek to strengthen the nation. They only weaken it.

So here’s to listening and learning something new. I can’t promise that I’ll succeed, but I won’t fail to try.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

JUST WHAT IS THE FLAG?

What piece of cloth doubles as a lightning rod? The American flag. Today (June 14) being Flag Day, that’s worth talking about.

On this date in 1777, the Second Continental Congress adopted the American flag—thirteen stars then. President Wilson established Flag Day in 1916. In 1949, Congress legislated National Flag Day.

The American flag is a powerful symbol. And often a symbol of power. As well, it’s a lightning rod to those who hate the United States. You’ve seen the photos and videos of flag burnings across the globe. There’s a reason: Many governments have much to fear from our Bill of Rights and continuing legislation to protect it. If they had such laws—and honored them—they’d be out of power.

On the other hand, some who claim to love this country also abuse the flag. America’s super-patriots see it as something of a free pass enabling this nation to do anything at home and abroad without question or censure. The flag represents license to the self-righteous to avoid self-examination. “We’re Americans. By definition, we can’t do wrong.”

We can and we have, but that’s not my point. I love the flag, because I love its symbolism of a nation continually struggling to evolve. We’ve always had our faults. Slavery and anti-Semitism make my list. I can’t say I’m sympathetic to Manifest Destiny, either. It slaughtered and ground down Native Americans.

But if our errors are all you see in the flag, you’re missing the boat. Which reminds me of the boat my father, Morris, sailed on to arrive at Ellis Island at age 2-1/2 in 1906. My family were immigrants and Jews at that. But America offered us a home. So in our flag I see the promise of a nation that continues to march forward despite its faults. That questions and protests openly—a process no amount of cell phone and Internet monitoring by the National Security Administration will halt. I mentioned slavery and segregation. I don’t have to mention that we have a Black president. And I don’t have to mention that anyone can criticize Barack Obama as freely as they criticized George Bush or Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush or Ronald Reagan—and every president before them.

I like “The Star Spangled Banner,” too. I do a little meditation anywhere the flag is raised and the National Anthem played or sung: “May this symbol of the nation continue to remind us to strive to be the best we can be.”

Sometimes I hear Americans—mostly young—say how terrible this country is. I take their comments with a grain of salt. They’re idealistic as they should be. A dysfunctional Congress, Wall Street and the growing income divide upset them. Well they should. Yet their outrage is quintessentially American. We’re born to protest. As they grow older, they will learn a little more history and appreciate how far we’ve come—and that true patriots can seek to build a better society without devaluing the nation.

I’m proud of what America stands for, what we’ve achieved and our determination to be, as Israel in the Torah, a light unto the nations. May our flame, unlike lightning, burn bright and steady and for the good of all.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s novels SAN CAFÉ and SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. You’ll also find online ordering links for iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com. 

“CHICKEN”—A WASHINGTON FABLE

The sheriff admitted that the county had too much road to cover. The department had been cut way back. Federal money wasn’t flowing to the state like it used to. Funding for counties and municipalities was drying up. Yet those crazy kids kept finding new ways to kill themselves.

The sheriff knew a thing or two about “Chicken.” He’d never been a bad kid, but maybe he’d displayed an occasional bit of hazy judgment in his high-school days. Like others, he’d gone to Friday-night contests where a guy in one car drove straight towards a guy in another car, pedal to the metal, to see who would swerve away first. And God forgive him, he’d even taken his old Chevy out on the road one night to give it a go.

But the sheriff got his diploma, did a stint in the Marines, attended community college then earned a four-year degree in law enforcement. He owed all that to the fact that while those crazy kids played “Chicken” back in the day, they always chickened out. What’s more, the onlookers never expected to hear the sounds of crushed metal and broken glass. The game was dumb, but the kids understood the risks and managed to avoid them.

No longer. The sheriff didn’t know whether it was the influence of TV, which seemed to get bloodier and bloodier, or video games, whose blood lust he didn’t at all understand. Or maybe it was something in the water.

Worse, the rules of the game had undergone a drastic change. Two drivers didn’t simply speed towards each other, stupid enough as that was. Now, the onlookers were participants.  They actually stood in the middle of the road between the two cars. Risks to the drivers had become minimal. Kids seeking a new thrill exposed themselves to way bigger risks. And the drivers didn’t give a damn about who they hurt.

So it was that the sheriff gathered with deputies, local police and state investigators. Flashes of red and yellow lit their faces. The only sounds they could hear above their hushed conversation came from police radios, ambulance sirens approaching from every direction and TV-news producers instructing their camera crews.

“What gets me,” the sheriff told a reporter, “is that the two drivers knew that the kids in the crowd between them would absorb the brunt of the punishment. The drivers figured they’d probably just walk away.”

Of course, they did the perp walk before deputies drove them to the county’s juvenile lock-up where they would be temporarily sequestered. Thanks to air bags, they’d suffered little more than scratches.

The onlookers were another story. Left unprotected, many went to county hospitals. Several were taken to the morgue.

“What I can’t understand,” the sheriff exclaimed, “is why the onlookers kept standing there and cheering on drivers coming right at them. Those kids, they could have voted with their feet. But they didn’t. What the hell were they thinking?”

The two drivers were released on their own recognizance shortly after midnight.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

QUESTIONS

The election is over. We can all take a breath. But that breath better be short. Because looking back—and forward—a lot of questions come to mind.

1. If the nation is as bad off as so many people believe, why did President Obama win? Discontent should have swept Mitt Romney into the Oval Office as it did Ronald Reagan in 1980 when he trounced Jimmy Carter. Granted, Mr. Obama won on a narrow popular-vote basis. Do those who voted for him know something about this nation that Romney supporters don’t? (Thursday’s report of first-time state jobless claims dropped to 355,000, a continuing sign that employment is slowly expanding.) Can Republicans learn something from this election?

2. If the Republican Party is a party of “old white men,” how did Mr. Romney come so close? The GOP seems trapped within a narrowing demographic. Yet many disaffected voters who aren’t “old white men” almost put Mitt Romney in the White House. The ideologues on the right opposed Obama from day one. But many Americans who voted for Obama in 2008 or didn’t take to Romney demonstrated disappointment with the President’s  record. What did they think Obama should have done? What does Obama believe he should do differently? Can Democrats learn something from this election?

3. Will Congressional leaders choose patriotism over power? House Speaker John Boehner and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi face re-election every two years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who elevated making Mr. Obama a one-term president to the top of his priority list in 2008—also faces re-election in 2014. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid has until 2016. All want to be re-elected. Have they and other Congressional leaders the courage to move to the center and end Washington’s gridlock? Or will they keep pandering to their political bases and hold the nation hostage to their ambitions? Can Congress learn something from this election?

4. Will the American people face reality? Many Americans believe that the President and Congress can control both the domestic economy and global economy. Washington can regulate pragmatically to help prevent the kind of economic bubble that led to the Great Recession. It also can encourage the building of infrastructure, from roads and bridges to better schools. But what assurances can it make of success? Will Americans continue to believe that the economy can be controlled like a dancing bear in a circus? On the geopolitical front, the U.S. can help foster positive outcomes. But do we really believe that “American Exceptionalism”—and this indeed is a great nation—grants us not only the right to recreate the world in our image but also the unfettered ability to do so? What lessons have we taken from Iraq and Afghanistan? Can the American people learn something from this election?

America in 2012 is not the America of 1952… or 1972… or 1992. The rest of the world has changed even more. One of our great strengths is flexibility. Will we use it? Or will holdouts on the edges of the right and left look backward?

I believe that Americans can look forward to better times. But we will never provide suitable answers to our extensive challenges until we start asking suitable questions.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first three chapters of David’s new novel, SAN CAFÉ at davidperlstein.com. SAN CAFÉ is available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.

DO GUNS KILL PEOPLE?

Kids play at war. I did. When I was ten, friends and I made wooden rifles for mock combat. We took apart fruit and vegetable crates, did some sawing and hammered a few nails. But we knew the difference between make believe and reality. If only that were true of the National Rifle Association.

I have no brief against guns, either for hunting or self-defense. As long as weapons are licensed. And as long as they’re appropriate. Which rules out assault-type weapons good only for causing mayhem. Like the AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and .40-caliber Glock handgun a man allegedly used to kill 12 people in an Aurora, Colorado movie theater a week ago.

Not that the NRA agrees. They keep reciting the same old mantra: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” As if Americans armed to the teeth don’t drive up the murder rate and body count.

Yes, even with stricter gun control, murders would occur. And yes, you can kill people with legal hunting rifles, shotguns and basic handguns. But the more lethal the weapon—and the more such weapons are made available—the greater the killing. One thing I learned in the army—the closer you get to your enemy, the greater the risk he may kill you. Bayonets? Knives? Bare hands? You take your chances. But give someone an AR-15 at ten meters (33 feet) and he can tear apart another human being—many human beings—without getting his hands dirty.

Many murderers use guns—and assault-type weapons—precisely because they make killing so easy. You stand apart—or drive by—and simply pull the trigger. Your target can outrun a knife in the hand but not a bullet. The more rounds you carry, and the more rounds your weapon can spit out, the more deadly and out of control you can be.

After the Aurora savagery, a friend posted a question on Facebook: “When is the President, Congress and the Supreme Court ever going to stand up to the National Rifle Association?” The answer is, “never.” The NRA accentuates its far-right paranoia with tons of cash targeting politicians who want to change our gun laws. Not abolish guns. Just rid us of assault-type weapons that have no place in our homes and on our streets.

While the President and many in Congress may be sympathetic to strengthening our gun laws, their overriding concerns are election and re-election. This presents Americans with a real conundrum. Politicians tell us they want to make the nation safer. But they can’t help us if NRA money boots them out of office. So they kick the can down the road and don’t help us at all.

You want courage? Watch John Wayne battle the Japanese in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Of course, his real name was Marion Morrison, and he never served in the military during World War Two. But John Wayne remains America’s symbol of courage. And he may as well until more politicians exhibit some spine and do battle against the perversion of freedom represented by NRA rhetoric.

Although the NRA has it half right. Guns don’t kill people. People abetted by the NRA’s undue political influence kill people.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

Read the first 2-1/2 chapters of SLICK! at davidperlstein.com. Which, by the way, received a great review and coveted Star as “a book of remarkable merit” from Kirkus Reviews. To purchase a signed copy, email me at dhperl@yahoo.com. SLICK! also is now available at iUniverse.com, Amazon.com and bn.com.