Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Trump-Effect and Political Denial – Choosing Versus Owning

The 2016 election is certainly entertaining, which may not be a bad thing in and of itself. Surely a campaign season that engages the public’s interest is better than one that doesn’t or conversely that causes the public to disengage or worse completely abandon their participation in the political process. Of course, we can hope that most people would likely agree that the purpose of campaigns isn’t to entertain but rather instead to inform and participate on public and national issues.

So here’s an interesting question: Is the public more engaged on issues because of the quality of the campaigns, the debates, the issues being discussed?

Based on the content of topics in the news, I am hard pressed to conclude that the issues are being well served by anyone’s campaign, the debates, or what the media finds most deserving of its responsibility to present to the public. This isn’t to say that they are entertaining us, but it’s supposed to be the news not entertainment.

This isn’t unique to the 2016 election, the disingenuous style of political campaigns isn’t new but perhaps the extent and concerted efforts by parties, candidates and campaigns to adhere to and placate the extreme wings of their constituents is reaching the dysfunctional level. Add to this that no candidate or party have sound, reasoned and effective approaches or policies to deal with national issues and the net result is that we have the American equivalent of our candidate Nero(s) “fiddling while Rome burns”.

The source and cause of America’s political dysfunction isn’t of course principally with the candidates, it’s with the voters (including the ones who don’t). The reason is that the candidates and their parties can’t succeed without the complicity of the public allowing and even abetting the spectacle over the substance. It is this convoluting of emotional appeal in place of rationality that in part explains the rise in the “anti-candidacies” (those politicians who aren’t the same-old party hacks) that have a popular appeal. The appeal is satisfying, visceral and even communal. It’s politics as sport; the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ only one team can win view of the nation. The ‘traditional’ politicians even strive to garner that tribal susceptibility.

What does it mean to be an ‘anti-candidate’? It’s to be an ‘outsider’, a ‘pure’ this or that, a non-establishment partisan, and/or a ‘true-believer’. The benefits to being an anti-candidate is that you are already not something that the public hates, despises and sees as being the ultimate source of all the nation’s ills: Yes, a politician. Being an anti-candidate is a proclamation that you are not one of those scum that your supporters otherwise would object to.

The surprising aspect of being an anti-candidate is that they are appealing to the voters as not the people that these voters have so often elected in the past. The voters don’t seem to see the schizophrenic nature of electing a politician and then wanting someone who isn’t at all like the ones they just elected to replace them because they don’t like the results. Presumably the voters are applying a political version of the gambler’s fallacy. So if the voters just play another round they will definitely win because they have lost so many time before and are not due to get a ‘good’ politician. The notion that the voters themselves are choosing candidates that produce the unacceptable, inept, and damaging policies isn’t seen as the ‘original’ sin. Failing to see their own culpability the public is unlikely to comprehend that “the fault, dear ‘voter’, lies not in the ‘candidates’ but in ourselves”.

In this context, the ‘Trump-effect’ is a measure of how disassociated the voters can be with substance of a candidate versus the simple sensation itself a candidate creates. The Trump-effect presents itself across a variety of dimensions but in each the value and quality fails to present itself. Consider the value and quality that is derived from:

“He says what he thinks.” The implication is that he is being honest and not simply ‘politically correct’. Of course, saying what you think can be many things besides this, and there is no proof or validation that what is said is honest or in fact politically incorrect. Perhaps what is said prompts discussion, but then perhaps it just petrifies positions on an issue since what is said doesn’t contribute to a discussion, to an explanation of the reasoning that justifies the statement(s), or to a comprehension of what the issue is and what the impacts of any proposed policy would be. Is saying what you think good just because it is thought? Fools think what they say is good to the same degree that an actual intelligent person does. People who believe in their position on Climate Change think what they say is good, informed, reasoned, and correct; however, at the end both sides cannot be right. Saying what you think isn’t a sufficient condition to establish any merit in your position.

Then there’s celebrity, a trait that usually is detrimental to a candidate but it isn’t always so Trump isn’t the first celebrity candidate. But again what is the value or the virtue of celebrity in an anti-candidate being celebrity? Does celebrity prove or even demonstrate intelligence, wisdom, judgment, leadership, integrity, a sense of public/civic duty, or other admirable qualities that one would want in an elected official? Many celebrities are the epitome of the exact opposite of what voters would define as qualities that they seek in representatives. Just being well-known doesn’t attest to the abilities required to perform as national leader, or even a state leader.  

In the current case, being a consistent and steadfast individual regarding core issues seems to be an asymmetric requirement. An anti-candidate can be a “Flip-Flopper” who has changed their stance on issues one or more times while other candidates from the same party would be disqualified if they were to ‘flip-flop’ or had ‘flip-flopped’ in the past. How the same voters who castigated previous politicians for what is now nothing to be concerned about doesn’t explain what changed about the quality of the candidate unless the issue was never important to begin with.  

Finally, like other facets of an anti-politician, the concern over special interests’ having too much political influence is asymmetric. Claiming to be untainted by special interests is a claim but as all prospectuses note the claims made ‘based on past performance is no guarantee about future performance’. The claim isn’t necessarily accurate either. What constitutes a ‘special interest’ condition of influence, and thus how can voters know that none exists? Plus, since much of our political influence comes from political action committees and lobbying entities, the assertion that an anti-candidate is somehow free from or ‘pure’ of influence is a dubious claim. There is an asymmetry that isn’t absent in this situation that doesn’t seem to have occurred to others. If you have been a contributor to campaigns in the past, how exactly would you be clean of political influence? Perhaps if considered in a more fundamental context of the current political environment which has to exist for an anti-candidate to be possible there must exist the value and quality of having been a contributor to produce in fact a precursor cause to the dissatisfaction that the public has with politicians and with imbalanced and self-serving political influence.

That brings us to the salient question. Why do the voters attend to the spectacle and the entertainment and so ardently avoid the issues? Being an insider or outsider is only important if it brings with it a difference in what the public policies and approaches to government will be. Making an impact there requires that those policies are clearly stated, presented in contrast to that of one’s opponents, and explained in the context of how they will be delivered. And when those policies and approaches fail in being delivered and don’t produce the results “promised”, as they so often do, a candidate needs to be forthcoming with what their plan is for what corrective actions and changes will be made to undo the errors in policies that were advocated by said same candidate.

The voters should take heed of an American truth: “You get what you pay for.”; but more importantly voters ought to be equally concerned that “You pay for what you get.”

Friday, October 2, 2015

Fairness and New Burdensome, Onerous, Demanding, Trying Tax(ing) Plans

It’s campaign season, so that also means that the public, the media, the political parties, and a plethora of special-interest groups will be striving to bring the electorate on board, to bait you with something you want, to hook you with some attractive emotional lure. This is not unusual, in fact, it is the very essence of a political campaign: trying to win over the hearts and minds of the voters. So this season is like those that preceded it. The politicians are trying out various forms of bait to find those that are effective in getting nibbles from this years’ stock of voters. Fairness is a recurring component in several of the newly refurbished lures.

Voters are attracted to an eclectic set of lures. Given the Family: Voter, we can find a wide range of species and sub-species that appear to have various genetically triggered compulsions for one particular type of lure while other species are irresistibly drawn to different bright and shiny items. Among the lures required by any candidate trolling the depths or shallows are the must-have standards: foreign policy, healthcare, National Security, Jobs, the Economy, and oh yes TAXES.

Not surprisingly we are seeing candidates’ Tax Plan proposals being cast onto the scene in hopes of snagging a few voters. New tax approaches to resolve the problem that has so cunningly evaded any effective or successful strategy for decades. New creative ideas to excite the public so as to entice taking a bite. Feeding on how their frenzied frustration, anger and disdain for the current tax code and the IRS. Innovative plans that completely change the cost of government to the public and to businesses.

Well, maybe not actually new, or creative, or innovative ideas but at least they are plans so that’s something. It’s not really important that the plans aren’t new solutions, because the salient issue is whether our nation’s tax system can be improved. Isn’t that really what the voters are looking for? A tax system that is “fairer”, that improves the nation’s economy, that helps families afford a decent lifestyle, that promote business and growth, and that delivers the government and government functions required to sustain the nation. All the things that the public wants, and candidates are solicitously promising, that their plan will achieve; particularly a “fairer” way of taxing.

But is every plan able to deliver the same results? Because if every plan can solve the problem then it must not have been that hard. Isn’t one plan better than another? Because if they all provide for the same “fairness” and the same value then does it matter whose plan you prefer (or which candidate)? Are all plans at least better than the current tax system? How would we know? Because if they’re not then aren’t we just going to be reeled in to feed the system rather than being taught how to fish so we aren’t dependent upon a ‘catch and release’ campaign returning us to the same pool?

I believe that there is a way to answer those questions. It may seem a little strange and certainly it’s unusual, and it goes against every rule of political campaigning; but maybe voters deserve a little more than they are getting, just like they deserve a better tax code than the one they currently have.
Every voter wants a “fair” tax code. Ok, almost all voters do; or the majority do. Enough voters want a “fair” tax code to make having one in your campaign important. And having “fairness” being a key element of the new plan is the only way to bait the hook and satisfy them. So given how important “fairness” is, what exactly would a “fair” tax plan be? What is “fair”?

Surely a “Fair” tax code in a democracy would treat everyone equally. Now equally doesn’t mean everyone pays the same dollar amount in taxes, no one is as moronic as to expect that. Equally means that there aren’t special rules and circumstances that would advantage one person or group over others; no special exemptions, deductions, loopholes, credits, incentives, nothing that makes it un-“fair”. Except is a system that doesn’t recognize some or any special rules and circumstances really “fair”? Is having no deductions for children/dependents and taxing a family of four the same amount as an individual or couple with no dependents dollar for dollar the same amount when their incomes are the same “fair”? What about being blind? What about deductions for home mortgage interest? Excessive medical expenses?

It is not self-evident that “fairness” is excluding all else from consideration. In fact, if there isn’t any reason to take into account special circumstances why is there a different tax rate for income versus capital gains? Is it “fair” to tax one form of earnings less than another? We all know the rationale used to treat the two forms of earning differently, but that doesn’t explain why the two tax categories is “fair” just that there is a reason (and we believe a benefit) for the unequal treatment.

Being realistic no one is expecting that the tax system will be perfectly “fair” but we are looking to ‘fix’ the blatantly un-“fair” present system that isn’t even close to “fair” or treating everyone equally.
Except does the present tax-code treat people unequally? What if it actually treats everyone exactly the same? Now since it is a very complex tax-code, and there are tons of exemptions and ‘this’-s and ‘that’-s; let’s focus on the progressive rate method. That’s unfair right? As you make more, we tax you at increasing rates. It’s like you’re being punished for succeeding. But not actually, since the progressive rate method taxes everyone exactly the same. Just like the “flat-tax” method, and just like the four-tiered Trump plan, or the ‘this many/that many’ tiered plans. The particular rate schedule method doesn’t tax you differently, so how many rates you have is a red-herring. Don’t be distracted by the notion that the rate makes the difference, it doesn’t. Under every plan, every one, you will never pay more or less than anyone else for the same amount of earned income. Every American pays the same tax on the first thousand dollars of taxable income, for the first ten thousand, hundred thousand, million, ten million and billion. What differs is that not everyone earns a million. But you and the millionaire and the billionaire each paid exactly the same amount of taxes on that first thousand dollars of taxable earned income.

The “fairness” isn’t in the rate table, or in the flatness of the rate, or number of tiers, or the difficulty of the math. If that was where the “fairness” really was then even our elected politicians could have solved this problem long ago. And any of the candidates running today would be able to solve the problem (unless they have done something really, really stupid with their plan that would be just unexplainable). But the rate structure isn’t where the unfairness is, the unfairness is in the complexity of the special rules and circumstances that alter what is or isn’t counted as taxable earned income.

To get to “fairness” the questions that need to be dealt with are much more difficult than picking a rate. Those answers will require a clear and understandable rationale for a tax policy and even a taxing rate structure that addresses fundamental aspects of our nation, it’s economy, and the preservation of our democracy. We will have a “fair” tax code when we have agreed how to handle the needs of the people and the nation in a manner that meets our responsibilities to our freedom.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Solutions: Doctrine for Conflict/War Driven Immigration

What the United States, the European Union and Middle-Eastern nations need both individually and in a correlated manner is a Doctrine of Conflict/War Driven Immigration. It would be even better if the United Nations had a Doctrine for Conflict/War Driven Immigration; but such a doctrine would run afoul of procedural controls that prevents the United Nations from affecting a policy that would disturb one or more of its privileged members. So the proposed doctrine would be a foreign policy lightning rod for those nations and world powers who either benefit from war/conflict situations or who fear the doctrine would interfere with their ability to act on the world stage without consequences beyond their control.

The proposed doctrine is conceived on the principle that non-military citizens of a nation where the societal structure is disintegrating under internal conflict or civil war have a right to safety in their lives, their families’ lives, in their businesses/professions, and in their beliefs. In essence the doctrine asserts that when a nation’s governmental entities cannot ensure the safety of their citizens or is the actual threat to their citizens and thereby results in a portion of their population to attempt emigration to another country. That situation of emigration would constitute a condition for other nations receiving the influx of emigrants to be empowered to act under the doctrine.

When internal conflicts produce massive, large-scale exoduses of their civil population to other nation states’ territories, the consequence is invariably an immigration crisis to those affected nations. The crisis can manifest along any number of dimensions but always includes humanitarian, security and economic problems. Accommodating the influx of people requires that receiving nations’ government agencies have policies, resources and funding to respond to the immigrants. Even if these nations’ had programs in-place to handle nominal levels of immigrants, those programs do not automatically or simply ramp-up to deal with a large rapid increase. Even when extraordinary efforts are made to respond and provide care, the immediate actions and solutions are only temporary. As additional immigrants continue to arrive and as the duration of support extends over time, the impacts on nations can exceed their ability to provide refugee relief and to accommodate and integrate the refugees into their economies and societies.

These crises usually result in border closings and confrontations, isolation camps for refugees, refugee smuggling activities, internal political issues, and of course increasing costs. Regardless of the outcome of the conflict/war within the refugee’s home nation, the receiving nations will not have a means to recover their costs from those nations that caused the crises. Thus providing a haven for citizens of other nations in conflict is a destabilizing force that has few, if any, benefits. It thus become incumbent upon these nations to affect policies and programs to respond more effectively than just struggling with refugees and hoping for an end to the conflict that will allow for repatriation.

The proposed Doctrine for Conflict/War Immigration permits a nation or group of nations to designate a nation undergoing conflict and thereby promoting emigration to their nation as a regional or global stability threat. Based on evoking the doctrine under this circumstance the impacted nation(s) would be within their rights to secure a section of the refugees’ nation for refugee support, settlement and protection. Thus under the doctrine affected nations become governmental representatives for the refugees in the area(s) designated as in-nation refugee havens. Any action taken by any group, in-national military force or any external entity not in-nation against the haven areas would represent an act of war and permit military actions against such without restrictions.

Within the haven area(s) the doctrine’s policies would be to promote the resettlement of refugees into the delivery of local business, healthcare, community and to become the internal security and law enforcement operation for refugee/residents. No accommodation is made for any military group that is actively engaged in the on-going conflict, so the haven is not an area for one side, faction or group to organize or secure their military resources. The haven area(s) create a safe place for civilians until those citizens decide to rejoin with whatever government is recognized as a post-conflict sovereign government or become a separate state. The nation(s) instituting the haven(s) use their resources on constructive solutions that don’t disrupt their own economies and cause internal displacements that add to the problems produced by the immigration events.

This doctrine is intended to make it undesirable and self-destructive to nations that engage militarily in internal conflicts that result in mass migrations of their citizens to other nations. The doctrine does not address or offer a basis for responding to internal national conflicts that do not involve civil migrations.

The Doctrine of Conflict/War Driven Immigrations puts in place an option and a means for nations to respond to the causal agents of the crises rather than just being caught in a responsive position with little to no impact on or influence on the factors that are at the source of the crises. Ignoring the cause through inaction has the predictable outcome of not making any difference.

Monday, September 14, 2015

A Faithful Belief in the Law Of Unintended Consequences

Kentucky may be the Tennessee of the 21st century. While I doubt that the Kim Davis – Rowan County Clerk’s office incident will spawn a play or motion picture, it may be setting a precedent that has interesting implications. At this writing the situation revolving around the ‘conflict’ between the right to marriage equality versus the right to religious freedom has apparently settled into a proclaimed victory by both sides. Certainly the Constitutional right to equal treatment regarding same-sex marriages is unaltered and required despite the clerk’s refusal to perform the function herself; and the clerk seems satisfied to just not engage in fulfilling that function within her office while allowing other office personnel to process and approve the licenses.

At one level this might be viewed as a form of ‘reasonable accommodation’ for her religious beliefs. Although, to fulfill the spirit of the legal basis for that position it would seem to imply that her religious beliefs are to be considered a disability recognized under another law. This does not seem reasonable since religious beliefs are deemed a normal aspect of our civil lives. So it would seem that the accommodation is made more in alignment with another law that supports and permits social accommodations to individual’s religious beliefs and traditions. However in neither case of making an accommodation does its underlying supportive law allow for a public official to not fulfill their official duties.

So the question to be considered is what are the ramifications of the current accommodation or ‘stand-off’? Just because this case may be considered settled, as long as no one attempts to introduce yet another lawsuit related to a subordinate issue like: challenging the legitimacy of the issued licenses, or creating a hostile work environment if the issue were to surface in her office; there can be subsequent effects for the precedent that is being accepted. In other words, what are the Law of Untended Consequences that follow from this state?

If one elected official can decide individually based on a religious belief what governmental functions and duties they are permitted to refuse to perform, how wide ranging is that individual’s discretion in ignoring the law? No one can say that this objection only applies to this one duty but no others because how would anyone know? With the precedent that it’s permissible to reject a function that offends your beliefs then at any time another law might be just as offensive or even more so to one’s beliefs. In some cases this would become apparent immediately upon refusal such as when the Clerk’s office refused to issue marriage licenses; however, not all deviations from adhering to the law need be so obvious. If the Clerk determined that following a procedure wasn’t proper and allowed a filing to be approved that would have been rejected is procedures were followed, who would know or perhaps complain? The unintended consequence, we have a precedent that approves of a public servant not following the law.

Next effect that can follow from this precedent: does the right to not have to follow the responsibilities of one’s office extend to all levels of government? Can the Clerk’s staff operate independently of the Clerk’s positions on policy because of their religious belief? This would mean that there is no equality of the law since it now depends upon the whims of those public servants who are paid to follow their interpretations of religion and not the fundamental principles of our American system of government. Now if you think that having a horde of public servants running wild with our laws is disturbing, imagine the consequences on the other end of the public servant spectrum; let’s think state and federal legislators, executive department heads, state governors or the president.

Why an opportunistic politician might even deduce that they could justify any decision, policy or action simply by citing their religious belief that compels them to follow the ‘laws of God’ which have supremacy over the ‘laws of the land’. Now I know that no one would think any of our politicians would ever do such a clearly unconstitutional act since they took an oath of office sworn before their respective deity of choice. But now there is a precedent that says there really isn’t any requirement to follow the Constitution not even if you are a strict interpretationist.

I keep wondering if this was the reason that the Founding Fathers were so insistent that the government must avoid putting a governmental stamp upon civil enforcement of a religion’s view upon the public. Allowing a public servant to use a religious belief to negate a law is effectively recognizing that religion at the exclusion of others. So a consequence of the reasonable accommodation becomes a crack in our American principle of religious freedom. It cannot be possible for the government to support one religious view that contradicts another religious view on the same question without overtly ‘establishing one religion’ within the context of the law.

There might be a motion picture concept in this notion after all, but it’s not a story about the self-appointed clerk of the law but about the willful forfeiture of a sacred American principle and the slow corrosive impacts that can proceed from there. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Biden, To Run or Not To Run?: The Logic of In or Out Decision

VP Biden has been struggling with his decision to run for President. This can’t be a new issue or even a recent issue that he has had to contemplate over the last year or two. There can be many factors that he has been juggling and evaluating in striving to arrive at his decision.

This isn’t an unusual situation for anyone involved in a complex situation where there are many factors that can be considered as relevant to the decision. It happens with business and corporate leaders facing issues in their industries that require a direction from the executive(s). In many ways the abundance of issues, factors, questions, alternatives and a constantly changing environment that impacts the decision often leads to ‘analysis paralyses’.

So here’s a perspective that might help VP Biden in his decision.

There are three questions that should allow a perspective candidate to reach their decision.

1.       What is in the ‘best interest of the country’?

2.       Would running be ‘right for him’?

3.       Would it be ‘right for his family’?

The first question is asking if he thinks he has a ‘better vision of the policies and approaches for leading the nation than other candidates’? If not then he should look to whomever he thinks has a better vision and support them. If he does believe that his leadership would best serve the nation then what would be the rationale for not running?

Would the second question cause him to decide not to run? There really isn’t much logic that would lead to such a conclusion. If his candidacy would be better for the nation, then how is his not running right for him? Will he be better off if the nation is served less well? Will he feel he has done his duty to the nation he has served up to now and then allow less than the best vision guide the country? If he thinks his view is what the nation needs then there is no conclusion that running isn’t also right for him.

The same assessment applies to the third question. What is best for the nation is best for his family also. That’s one of the basic tenets of a “government by the people, for the people and of the people”. WIt hat is best for the nation serves the individual themselves best and serves their family best; else on what basis would his vision, his policies, his leadership be ‘best for the nation’?

So VP Biden really has one question to answer. Is there another candidate who has a better approach to leading the nation? Because that is the only reason to run, whether you think you can do a better job than other candidates.

This doesn’t make the other issues, problems, risks and obstacles that will still exist once you decide to run go away; but it puts them into the proper perspective of deciding to run or not. They are not the reason not to run, they are the challenges to be overcome because running is the best thing for the country and that makes these challenges worth the effort.

Monday, June 1, 2015

American Leadership: Opportunities Lost – The Give Me Liberty or an Election Ad

Our nation remains a chaotic exercise in determining the viability of applying our democratic theory to sustaining our American values in an ever changing world. Keeping faith with our creed of liberty and freedom is no less at peril from without and within than in every era since its foundation. And just as in each age before ours, the protection and preservation of our freedom demands our attention and diligence. So the current contention over the Patriot Act’s renewal for national security interests and groups demanding the Act’s expiration to protect against government invasion of individual privacy rights. So the issue has been cast as a choice between privacy rights versus national security, the lines have been drawn, sides have been taken, and the struggle to win supremacy is underway.

But wait! This presents the issue as an ‘either/or’ contest, as if there is no way to accomplish both simultaneously. How exactly was this assessment and analysis made to reach that conclusion? Who decided that the areas of concern over privacy were unable to be resolved by a proper understanding of the requirements, constraints and goals of achieving effective national security policies and maintaining individuals’ information and data privacy from governmental intrusion or abuse by others? There is no “law of physics” that requires that security and privacy interests are mutually incompatible. There is no principle of democracy that necessitates that the government cannot fulfill both these duties in the service to the public.

Why then isn’t there a solution that provides for both public needs? What prevented anyone on either side of the conflict from solving the total issue, not just their side of the issue? It’s leadership, or more to the point it is a lack of leadership. Now there are many facets of failed leadership that are at fault here: organizational, commercial, technical, legal, civic, media, and the one that tops the list – Political.

The risk to privacy from government and thus the conflict are planted in the foundational aspects of our society, in its political fabric. So to fail in solving the issue in the nation’s best interests, it was necessary for the political leaders to be at the forefront of that failure, to be the leaders of failure and dysfunction. Nowhere was this inadequacy of leadership so prevalent than in Congress and amongst the group of presidential candidates seeking then ultimate in leadership positions.

Even in their insipid efforts to appear to be a leader the contenders for the crown have exhibited only their typical approach of picking a side that conforms to their media persona and strutting the peacock plumage appropriate to their media-mating displays. But these sideshow tactics are not the steps of successful leadership. Leaders will acquire the relevant and necessary information on the entirety of the issue; both the side they may be initially starting from and the side that they perceive as the problem, risk or threat. Effective leaders will organize their resources and assign trusted and knowledgeable individuals to formulate approaches and strategies to address the problems. Where necessary, good leaders will consider the recommendation(s) made from their organizations and choose the approach and strategy that they see as the most effective and beneficial in achieving their entities’ goals. Once a direction is selected the prudent leader will explain the decision; why it the correct strategy, how it will achieve the desired objectives and addresses all needs and contingencies, and how the strategy will be implemented and managed to insure that the goals are achieved and the requirements met.

This is not what we have seen with the Patriot Act renewal issue. Neither proponents from either side or any of our elected or aspiring public figures have stepped up to these responsibilities. This is not to say that some of them haven’t taken a position or demanded action, but they seem to be addressing only the side that they see as the one that is more important than the other, i.e., the choice of one side over the other.

 In looking at the failure to pass a legislative act to authorize national security policy before the expiration deadline, what excuse will our leaders proffer? Those opposed to the proposed authorization used tactics that didn’t allow sufficient time for our leaders to get the job done. Because the strategy of waiting to the last minute and hoping that that will force the opposition to acquiesce is a demonstration of leadership.

Perhaps leadership is using procedural tactics to stall and delay action is leadership. Except, where is the alternative decision, the better strategy and solution that will accomplish the national security and the protection of privacy needs that are so critical and important to the fabric of our democracy? Was the preventing a vote strategy required because there wasn’t sufficient time to provide a better solution? This would be despite the fact that this issue didn’t spring up at the last minute, the issue has been in the fore for years now, the date of the Patriot Act’s expiration was known and thus a solution need date was obvious, or was it that no solution could be offered to address the issues on the table because our ‘leaders’ are not able to lead.

If some claim that their ‘leader’ succeeded the question should be succeeded at what? Is the issue resolved? No. Are the consequences from the inaction better than the consequences of action? No. There must and will still be legislation required to authorize national security activities and absent an informed approach and strategy to address the conflicting social interests the problem persists. What have we succeeded at? We have succeeded at playing political theatre with a benefit to the political campaigns, to the media minutes spent on the crisis (whichever side you may be on), and to the continuity of dysfunction in government. Do we have a successful solution to the issues, the risks, the public interests? So surely this is leadership.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Income Inequality: An Uneven Playing Field

The topic of Income Inequality, is an unfortunate name for this issue. Whether this misfortune was unavoidable is not particularly instructive as to the importance of the issue in American society today. What is salient about Income Inequality isn’t its name, so regardless of the words selected to establish it as an iconic political issue what is important is what the underlying is to the nation. Equally important is that what the issue is isn’t understood to mean some commonly accepted set of ideas or concepts. Certainly there is no assurance that any two individuals agreeing or disagreeing over the issue are actually working from a framework that allows them to meaningfully communicate with each other.

How then is Income Inequality to be properly and effectively discussed and debated by politicians? How are they to present their views, explain their reasoning for what policies and approaches they are advocating for legislative efforts, building support for in their campaigns, and persuading voters that their answer for Income Inequality is superior to others being touted? The answer should be obvious but it’s not apparent that anyone is doing the one essential thing that the nation needs: Framing the issue for the public.

What then is Income Inequality? If we were to ask politicians, members of the media, or you how likely would it be that any of the answers match? If they don’t match, how could a sane and rational national policy be formulated?

Let’s take the simplest and most basic definition of Income Inequality: Each person in the US doesn’t make the same income as every other person in the US. This can’t be the issue since it is disconnected with every aspect of America’s economic system, society and would even violate the religious beliefs of many. From this we can conclude that the Inequality is not that different people make different income amounts than others make. In fact we actually expect this to be true and accept it.

We are going to have to explore the issue further. Is the issue related to the ‘Income’, to the ‘Inequality’, to both, or to some indirectly referenced concept that is obscured behind the Income Inequality label?

On its surface one might think that Income isn’t the issue. No one is against people having incomes, no one can rationally think having ranges of incomes is a de facto bad system, and no one can expect incomes to be untethered to some productive value of exchange. What then could be a source of disagreement about Income? Wait! Could it be what we agree that we have defined Income to be?
We all know and understand what we mean by income, right? It’s the same for everyone …,  hmmm?; well maybe not. There’s salary/wages, there’s tips, there’s stock grants and options, there’s gifts, there’s capital gains or losses, interest, barter, charitable donations, prizes, and … . So what actually constitutes income may be part of the concept encompassed within the Income Inequality issue. Even if we all agreed which types of ‘values’ were considered income or not, we should all agree that some of these value-based categories are not treated equally. Is that what’s at core of the Inequality issue?

The fact that different kinds of income are treated differently would only be an issue if their availability were somehow biased or constrained to some income earners and not others? So this may be a factor in the Income Inequality issue. Now I recall debates about the fair versus unfair aspect of these different categories for years, so these differences are not new. The argument for the different treatment of one type of income versus is usually based on how it benefits the overall economy compared to other types. Hence, long-term capital gains are taxed at lower rates than wages; with the justification being that the investment promotes and produces increased value in the overall economy. This income opportunity is available to anyone who assumes the investment risk, as long as they have financial resources to make the investment. While not truly available to all income earning levels in the country, the openness to investments are generally unbiased. I am sure there are some that are significantly biased or constrained to a very small group in the population; but I am not sure this is where the Inequality issue resides.

I don’t think we should get into the question of whether allowing some individuals receive ‘value’ that is not treated as income in the same context as say a basic wage earner’s income is. Allowing an executive to be granted $10M in stock as part of their compensation should not impose any treatment of the value of those shares are income. Yes it seems set up to benefit a small group of individuals, I think the root problem that people may have here is actually contained in a dimension of inequality discussed later.

Is the Inequality issue related to how income earners are impacted by other dimensions of the economic environment? Don’t factors like inflation or wage growth rates impact everyone more or less equally? The answer is no, they do not. Perhaps we are getting closer to what Income Inequality is connected to. How so?

If everyone received a 2% raise in a given year, the more you made before the more you make from the raise. That’s fair, isn’t it? If you earned $10K, you get $200 more. If you earned $100K, you get $2,000 more. If you earned $1M, you get $20K more; and if you earned $10M then you get $200K more. The mathematics of this is one reason that the Income Gap increases between any two groups. Why is 2% for everyone what constitutes fair?

I know that raises often are driven in part (or completely) by the need to meet inflation or workers would be losing ground (buying power) to inflation. But a 2% raise doesn’t have the same impact or consequence to every earner. There’s a proportion of the population that still lose ground to inflation with a 2% raise. This is because their income is already below the Consumer Price Index amount that would keep them even with a 2% inflation rate. This group will not be able to buy the same amount of food, shelter, energy, clothing, transportation, … that they use to be able to purchase. This group truly is worse off despite getting a raise. Anyone not getting a raise is also worse off, so our fixed-income population is pressed more. The Inequality dimension appears to be surfacing along this perspective of our economic system. If the 2% wage (income) increase was the amount required to keep the average person making the average income whole then everyone below the average is losing economic ground from where they were the year before. Conversely, everyone above the average is making some progress in increasing their economic value; with those higher up the income range gaining more over everyone below them. This is why there is an element of truth to the “rich get richer, and the poor get poorer” observation. So the gap grows even if everyone can hold their relative position. Now remember that the average income is significantly greater than the median income amount. So in fact, more than half the population is disadvantaged with a keeping up with inflation view if it’s the average that is the ‘breaking even’ point. Keeping doing this year over year, the math doesn’t change and the gap increases faster and faster. But this is all driven by the math, there is no ‘value’ proposition for why this is fair. There is no rationale that explains how this is in the best interests of a society or a nation.  There is also no reason to believe that such an economic system is sustainable. Is the Inequality issue perhaps nothing more than a predictable consequence of the unstable economic state that such a system produces?

There has to be some other rational for why the system should reward the higher income earners to a progressively greater degree. In fact, we hear lots of arguments to this effect. Investments create jobs and that benefits the economy and everyone. This argument sound good, and I would agree that there should be some benefit to those of make investments. But that argument while useful in establishing a principle that investment is an important element in a competitive economy, it need not guarantee that investments result in what is good for the economy, for the nation or for the majority of the public.

If the widening Income gap is part of the Inequality issue, is it nothing more than recasting that an “expanding middle class” is key to strengthening the nation’s economy and security? The principle that Henry Ford used to have a wage for employees that would also make them customers was an early insight into the wisdom of the business community understanding that wages are a double edged weapon. One side may have a short-term cutting edge while the other produces damage in the long-term.

Income Inequality is coming into focus but still it exists in a foggy landscape. Given the hazy view, are the politicians just blowing more smoke contaminating the view more; or are they clearing the air so that we can all see what the issue is, how it affects us personally, nationally, economically and supports or degrades our American values and goals?