News & Notes April 1, 2010

The President has officially changed his name to Barack McCain Obama.  He did this to blunt criticism that he was a socialist when, in actuality he has implemented numerous planks from his opponent’s campaign.

Ed Rendell, who suddenly got religion on government reform in his final year of office as Governor has agreed to join The Pennsylvania Progressive when he leaves office next January.

Arlen Specter has secretly told his wife Joan he plans to return to the GOP after the November election.  He said he can’t wait to burn that donkey tie and that slumming with working people makes him feel “dirty.”

Democratic Talk Radio has secured major sponsorship and will soon expand to ten radio stations.  Thanks to everyone who contributes to keep us on the air.

Tom Corbett has agreed his prosecutions of House Democrats was politically motivated and promises not to do it again until after the election.  That is, except for the Steve Stetler trial due to commence soon.

The Pennsylvania Green Party has decided to organize effectively and to mount major campaigns for Governor and Senate this fall.  No more tin foil hat candidates and no more infighting.

There’s good news and bad news on the dredging of the Delaware River.  While digging up the scum on the river bottom an old ship was discovered filled with old gold pieces.  The bad news is that that part of the river belongs to Delaware…

Now that it is April 1st I officially pardon Punxsutawny Phil.

Does God send natural disasters as punishment?

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Proceed with Caution: Tax Freedom Day Overstates Taxes Most Americans Pay

(Good article… – promoted by John Morgan)

By Sharon Ward

The Washington,D.C.-based Tax Foundation has declared April 13 Tax Freedom Day in Pennsylvania. That's how long the group says it will take Pennsylvanians to pay their 2010 tax obligations at the federal, state and local levels.

Problem is, this report takes a one-size-fits-all approach to all taxpayers – one that fits Bill Gates and Sam Walton a lot better than it fits you, me or most Americans.

By sizing its tax estimate to fit the wealthiest taxpayers, then spreading it out over the rest of us, the Tax Foundation provides a skewed look at how much we actually pay in taxes.

The calculation also relies on estimates that often change once the actual numbers come in and uses a methodology that stacks the deck against wealthy and high energy states.

Not to mention, it neglects to tell you about what you get for your tax dollars – everything from clean water and air to the roads and bridges you drive on every day.

THERE IS NO AVERAGE TAXPAYER:

The Foundation generates an estimate of average tax burden for Americans and for residents of each state.  The Chairman of Comcast and the mailroom clerk do not have the same income, but the Foundation assumes that to be the case in assigning a tax freedom date for all Pennsylvania taxpayers.  

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, using Congressional Budget Office analysis of taxpayers in 2006, finds that the Tax Foundation overstates federal taxes for 80% of taxpayers. That year, the Tax Foundation assumed an effective federal tax rate of 21% in its Tax Freedom calculation, which is higher than the rate paid by all but the top 20% of earners. The lowest 20% of taxpayers nationally paid 4.3% of their income in federal taxes and taxpayers in the middle paid 14.2% in federal taxes. Only the top 20% of taxpayers (people who earn $142,000 after deductions and exclusions) are paying 21% or more of their income in federal taxes.

 Tax Foundation Average Far More Than What Most Americans Pay in Federal Taxes

   
For 2010, the Tax Foundation assumes an average federal tax rate of 16.7%, the decrease being due to the Bush Era tax cuts which were focused toward people with higher incomes.

This calculation overstates the tax liability for most taxpayers and makes the “Tax Freedom Day” seem the same for us all. In fact, it reflects the date for only the top earners.

REVENUE NUMBERS ARE ESTIMATES AND SUBJECT TO CHANGE:

How can the Foundation report totally all taxes paid in 2010 in March? The Foundation estimates anticipated tax revenue from thousands of states and municipalities. These have proven to be hard to predict, particularly in hard economic times, making the estimated data unreliable.   

For example, a state might rank in the top 10 when the Tax Freedom report is released (to much grandstand play) only to have its ranking slip lower, much lower, when the actual numbers are reported by the U.S. Census. In 2005, the Foundation claimed 38 states had increased effective tax rates from 2000-2002; when actual data was available, that number dropped to four. Pennsylvania had three different rankings in 2002 alone.  To get a better picture of how Pennsylvania's taxes compare to other states, we rely on actual data, which is compiled by the U.S. Census and is neatly ranked by the Federation of Tax Administrators on its website.

TAX FOUNDATION'S STATE RANKINGS ARE FLAWED

:The Foundation's methodology stacks the deck against states with wealthier populations and high energy use.  The winners in this year's competition are not coincidentally West Virginia, Mississippi and Louisiana, which have the lowest per capita income of all states, and Alaska, which generates most of its state revenue from taxes on oil companies that the Foundation counts against other states that import Alaskan energy. Why:

  • About two-thirds of the total tax payments in the calculation are federal taxes. Because of the progressive federal income tax, wealthier people pay higher taxes. The wealthier the state, think Connecticut, the higher the ranking.
  • The Foundation allocates corporate, severance and tourism taxes to the people who pay them rather than the states that collect them. So if your state has wealthy people who own a lot of stock, they are assigned the corporate tax that the company pays in another state.  Similarly, severance taxes, although paid by energy companies in Oklahoma, Texas and West Virginia, are charged to taxpayers in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.

The Tax Foundation's methodology breaks the link between state action and state tax rankings. Under the Foundation's methodology, adding a severance tax will improve Pennsylvania's ranking and business climate index because that tax will be paid by residents of other states.

PRICE BUT NO PRODUCT:

The Foundation's reports remind us what we are paying but not what we are paying for. This year our tax dollars have gone to pay for Social Security payments for seniors, health care for pregnant women, and a chance at college for young people. They provide funds for the development of the swine flu vaccine and new cancer treatments at our medical centers. They create jobs by funding highway and bridge repair. They also provide armor to the troops in Afghanistan and aid to the people of Haiti. And that's just federal taxes.  

The implication that Americans derive no benefit from government expenditures, as posed by the Tax Foundation Tax Freedom Day report, is inaccurate and does nothing to inform the debate.

Sharon Ward is the Director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a non-partisan policy research project that provides independent, credible analysis on state tax, budget and related policy matters, with attention to the impact of current or proposed policies on working families. Learn more: www.pennbpc.org.
 

The Politics of Hate and the Sixties Backlash

There’s an old saying that youth is wasted on the young.  The older I get the more truth I see in the cliche.  When we were young, growing up in the 60’s we thought we had all the answers.  It was a time of extremism, opposition to a failed war in Indochina, a President who lied to the nation, wholesale violations of civil rights by the FBI and “The Man.”  Race riots over segregation and assassinations of our leaders fueled anger and created a huge schism between the young and those over 50.

The youth rebellion made for a tumultuous time.  The result was a serious conservative backlash against the hippies, war protesters, Blacks who demanded their rights and women who also wanted equal rights.  The Woodstock generation has somewhat of a foggy memory of those days, fogged somewhat by all the drugs.  The Sixties were a decade of sex, drugs and rock and roll and our elders either resented us, hated us or simply tried bashing in our brains.  The Chicago 7, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gene McCarthy, George McGovern existed to the soundtrack of our lives, the folk song protests and the anti-war music defined our lives growing up.  You didn’t trust anyone over 30.

The result was the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 as conservative Democrats, mostly middle aged white men, crossed over to the GOP and led a conservative movement which held the White House for most of the next thirty years.  The price paid by the Sixties generation has been steep because we had everything but wisdom.  Wisdom only comes with age and many times, even not then.  I watched “The Last Lecture” by the late professor Randy Pausch and something he said stuck with me:  “Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”  

We didn’t get what we wanted in the Sixties.  We wanted an end to the Vietnam War (it went until 1975), free love, deregulation of soft drugs, an end to the Lyndon Johnson Administration and its credibility gap, honesty in politics and government, leaders with character and charisma, great music, and equality for all.  Young and idealistic it was a magical time in which to come of age because the goals were lofty.  Unattainable but worthy, goals, most of which, we continue to seek today.  Was it worth the price we paid for repressive Republican Presidents?  No.

Today we’re witnessing those same white, middle aged men doing the same outrageous things to turn off the mainstream voters.  The Politics of Hate has overcome people for whom the Sixties passed by, who sold out once they got over 30, were left out because of a lack of education, or who blame minorities and women for their personal failings.  It’s still the hippie’s fault, still those wild, rebellious youngsters who started the sexual revolution, still everyone else’s fault.  Once again we find ourselves in an unpopular war, one which we entered because of a President who lied to the country, a government which represses our rights, an uncertain future and a lack of accountability.  Today these people are organizing themselves not to protest an unjust war, not to protest the massive debts run up by their chosen GOP leaders, not to protest the shredding of our constitution by George W. Bush, not to protest the torture of human beings, not to protest continued inequality for every citizen, every person, but to protest their own failures.

Where were these people the last ten years?  They were Nixon’s Silent Majority as long as it was someone else’s ox being gored.  It wasn’t their sons and daughters being sent to Iraq under false pretenses to be blown up by IED’s, it wasn’t their taxes going up to pay for Bush’s Folly, it wasn’t their fault outsourcing took their jobs to Asia while they shopped at Wal-Mart, it wasn’t their fault Fox News lied to them about it all.  No they aren’t responsible for anything, especially falling silent when voices needed to be raised most of all.

Now they are preaching the Politics of Hate because we had the temerity to elect a Black President.  The virulent racism was evident before the 2008 election and has now manifested itself in the Tea Party movement, rise of right wing militias, the lack of pretense of the GOP as anything but the Party of Hate, attacks upon anyone publicly identifying ourselves as liberals.  This too will pass but not before we expose every one of them for the foolish racists they are, not before we make sure the good American people understand exactly what the RNC and its Tea Party stand for, the hatred they engender and the violence they embrace.

The next generation must remember these lessons, remember what it is these people are doing, the America they wish to bring back, the hatred which would destroy America’s values.  The difference between then and now is that in the Sixties our goals were worthy, idealistic and worth fighting for.  Hate and violence are never worth fighting for.  I don’t apologize for the 60’s but I am sorry for the end result.  Today it is time to reorganize to fight the forces of hate and defeat them now that we’re older and wiser.

Administration Reverses Student Loan Privatization

Included in health insurance reform was a bill affecting student loans.  The Department of Education has been working on this since last summer when I recall being on conference calls with Sec. Arne Duncan discussing the proposals.  Basically this Act reverses the privatization of the student loan business which has cost young people huge amounts of interest.  I recall college loans running in the low single digits but today some of these usurious rates pass 20 and 30% interest.

During the Pennsylvania presidential primary two years ago Hillary Clinton asked the students in her audiences (almost every event was on a college campus) what rates they were paying.  Hands remained up as she got to 30%.  Most seemed to be around 15-20%.  Those are obscene rates.  Private banks have been ripping off our young people with these usurious interest rates so the President has done something to protect these folks and their financial futures.  The government is back in the student loan business again and they are also expanding Pell grants by $36 billion over the next decade.  Closing the private bankers gravy train saves $68 billion and ends the taxpayer subsidies for private profit.  As Sec. Duncan said on yesterday’s conference call “should we subsidize banks or invest in higher education?”

Other significant facets of the law simplify forms students and parents use to apply, allow erasure of debt for any student who puts in ten years of public service following graduation and eases the burden of loan repayment by capping those at 10% of income.

Saddling our young people with mountains of debt is bad policy.  The cost of a college education has soared as state governments continually cut subsidies to balance broken budgets and private lenders soaked them with high interest rates.  We faced the prospect of a new generation unable to purchase homes or have disposable income because too large a percentage of their incomes were going to repay these loans.  The economic cost of that was prohibitive and simply went to fattening the profits of private banks.

AFL-CIO Endorses Specter

In a serious blow to the Sestak campaign the AFL-CIO announced yesterday it is endorsing Sen. Arlen Specter for re-election.  Though they cited his voting record since switching parties a year ago the giant labor organization undermines its credibility be endorsing someone with only a 60% lifetime voting record on labor issues.  Pennsylvania AFL-CIO President Bill George said last year that such a record is good for a Republican but bad for a Democrat.  What has changed?  

I was curious if this was a viability issue due to the current poll numbers but apparently it came down to President Obama pressuring Labor to support his guy.  This is curious since Obama ran workers under the bus in his health insurance reform bill.  I don’t understand why this endorsement came out.

Final Day of the Fundraising Quarter – Can You Be Number 50 for Joe Sestak?

{First, a cheap plug for my blog Senate Guru.}

I just wanted to remind everyone that today (Wednesday) is the final day of the first fundraising quarter of 2010.  The fundraising totals reported by federal candidates will help determine their relative strength as we head toward Election Day 2010.

Please contribute as generously as you can today.

For instance, you can contribute to Joe Sestak’s campaign for U.S. Senate via my Expand the Map! ActBlue page.  On it, Joe has 49 contributions.  Can you be contribution number 50?

(Remember: every contribution you make to Joe via the Expand the Map! ActBlue page is not only a show of support for Joe but an investment toward recent Republican Arlen Specter’s long overdue retirement!)

1,000 Words About Mauritius

Crossposted from Border Jumpers, Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack.

Full disclosure: We had never heard of the Republic of Mauritius until the day we bought a ticket to go there.

Our pathetic excuse: Lonely Planet doesn’t list it in their Africa book.

When we arrived people seemed shocked to meet two people from the United States – hotel clerks, cab drivers, and street vendors who’ve worked on the island for years said they never met Americans before.

Yet, this is clearly America’s loss because sitting in the middle of the Indian ocean is one of the most incredible islands we’ve ever visited.

We always try to reduce our carbon footprint by traveling via public buses, but in this case a boat didn’t seem like a good option and flights from Johannesburg were extremely cheap. We resisted the urge to splurge on an all-inclusive beach holiday and opted for the more budget hostel pay-as-you-go experience.We had only four days and wanted to make the most of them and interacting with people seemed more interesting than lounging forever on a beach.

While English is the official language, few people spoke it. Bernie’s upbringing in Montreal came in handy as we interacted with people using French. Our cab driver from the airport to Grand Bay, Shivan, told us how safe the country was and how people co-exist harmoniously, “we are different colors, with different cultures, but we live together peacefully here. People are all the same, and we all treat each other that way.” The more we interacted with locals, the more people echoed the same sentiments. The traditional foods we ate reflected this multi-ethnicity melting pot, blending Indian, Creole, Chinese and European influences.

“It’s not like most places in Africa,” another cab driver told us. “You can walk anywhere at night. You can leave your stuff unattended. We don’t have much crime here, people will help you  – not bother you  – and its very rare that they will steal anything from you.”

We asked another local named Richard why he thought it was so safe and he told me that the government took care of it’s people. “Everyone gets a good pension, no matter how long or where you worked; all people get access to health care and free education; and if you’re too poor to own a house then the government builds one for you with electricity for free (and after paying basic rent for seven years, you own it).”

Another person we asked, named Marie, said that Mauritius lacked the government corruption of most African countries, citing it as the reason people visit there over nearby islands such as Madagascar and Comoros. “We have a real democracy,” she said.

In Mauritius, the government is elected on a five-year basis. The last general elections took place on July 3, 2005 in all the 20 mainland constituencies, as well as the constituency covering the island of Rodrigues.

The British left the country after they attained independence in 1968, and became a republic in 1992. According to the 2009 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, which measures governance using a number of different variables, Mauritius’ government earned the highest rank among African nations for “participation and human rights” and “sustainable economic opportunity”, as well as earning the highest score in the index overall. Mauritius came second in “rule of law”, and fourth in terms of “human development” (source: Wikipedia).

Our hostel (Grand Bay Beach Residence), booked via Student Flights (affiliated with Liberty travel in the United States), was terrific value. It is located in short walking distance from the town of Grand Bay and the ocean. The price was around thirty dollars per night, but considering the fact that free 3G WiFi worked on the outdoor deck and taking into account the hours we spent uploading video files and talking on conference calls to the United States on Skype – we got lots of unexpected value.  Things like restaurants and tourist destinations are very expensive on the island, but buying groceries and having drinks in the hotel room before heading out dancing allows budget travelers to enjoy everything without a hefty toll on your wallet. All the beaches everywhere in the country are public for both locals and tourists and that was something we enjoyed taking advantage of.

We drove across the Island learning more about the country’s agriculture, which, next to tourism, is their biggest source of income. Sugar cane is the largest export, and the plots of land growing them stretched for miles. We were told that this crop accounted for a quarter of all exports from the country. We also saw lots of pineapple and coffee being grown.

Yet, an industry that surprised us was the booming hi-tech sector. We certainly didn’t expect coast-to-coast wireless internet (3G) when we arrived (it covers 60 percent of the island and is cheap and widely assessable).  

We also played tourists and visited Triolet Shivala, the biggest Hindu temple of the island. The temple is dedicated to the Gods Shiva, Krishna, Vishna, Muruga, Brahma and Ganesha. This place is also the longest village on the island.

We also saw the “Coloured Earths of Chamarel,” among the oddest sites of the island. There are seven-coloured dunes at Chamarel, the result from the weathering of volcanic rocks. And a short drive away, we relaxed, eating spicy pineapple near the breathtaking Chamarel waterfalls. And we admit, we visited the beaches there as well.

As we boarded the plane, we looked at each other, and said we hoped to visit this magical island again.

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Keystone Progress Asks For Corbett Records

Keystone Progress has filed right to know requests for communications involving Attorney General Tom Corbett’s frivolous lawsuit against enactment of health insurance reform.  The group is seeking to discover if their was collusion among Republican Attorneys General in filing these suits:

The Right to Know request asked for all correspondence to and from Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett and the Attorney General’s staff with individuals inside and outside of Pennsylvania urging Corbett to file the Republican-orchestrated frivolous lawsuit. Corbett’s announcement of filing his suit occurred before anyone had a chance to read the legislation. [Copies attached]

The first request is seeking any correspondence between Corbett and his office and entities outside of the Commonwealth.  The Attorney General has coordinated his activities with other attorneys general, even before there was legislation to challenge.

The second filing seeks correspondence between Corbett and his office and Members of the General Assembly and their staff.  Legislators were encouraging the Attorney General to file a suit, again even before there was legislation.

“Our members believe that this lawsuit is purely partisan politics,” said Michael Morrill, Keystone Progress Executive Director. “Taxpayers have a right to know if there has been a national conspiracy to take political action from the Office of Attorney General, especially in light of Corbett’s prosecution of others for using their offices for partisan politics.”

This could be quite interesting.  Corbett, the presumptive GOP nominee for Governor, is already under fire for using state phones to communicate with his campaign while, at the same time, prosecuting Democrats for using state resources for campaign work.  The new Pennsylvania Open Records Law presumes all of the records being sought to be public and the AG has but five days to respond to Keystone Progress’ request (filed last Friday).  Will Tom Corbett comply with the law?

Jack Wagner Unveils Government Reform Plan

Gubernatorial candidate Jack Wagner outlined his plan for reforming state government and I’d say it is modest.  He calls for s state constitutional convention but would limit its scope.  We need a full convention.  Some of his steps would simply do what state government is supposed to do:  pass a budget on time, bid state contracts, etc.  Jack calls campaign finance limits the “mother of all reforms.”  It isn’t, enacting public financing of elections would do that because it would remove the corrupting effects of money and end “pay to play” once and for all.

His plan says nothing about lobbying reform or reducing the legislative slush funds which resulted in the BonusGate scandals.  There is nothing from the Auditor General about auditing these accounts either and I find that omission shocking.  The general outline of his plan:

 Hold a constitutional convention to empower citizens to bring fundamental reforms to state government

·         Reduce the size of the General Assembly by 1/3

·         Eliminate bonuses in state government

·         Get state government spending under control

·         Pass state budgets on time

·         Bring competition to every single contract in the state procurement process

·         Ban local governments from attaching risky derivatives/”swaps” to their debt

·         Ensure that taxpayers receive property tax relief promised by gaming

·         Enact campaign finance reform and end pay to play

·         Allow independent voters to participate in Primary Elections

·         Take the politics out of the redistricting process and promote nonpartisan, compact, and contiguous redistricting