THERE WILL NEVER BE A U.S. “VICTORY” IN AFGHANISTAN

The U.S. misadventure in Afghanistan started in 2001 because Islamic militant training camps supported the 9/11 attacks. Assuming this was a legitimate purpose, we made only a half-assed commitment to the Afghan war for all of the Bush 43 presidency. (Iraq, which played no demonstrable role in the attacks, moved to the front of the line based on the fear of unknown, unproven, and ultimately non-existent weapons of mass destruction.) 

 

From a historical perspective we should back up. Way up.

 

Afghanistan has been invaded time and time again throughout history. Some invaders have fared better than others, but ultimately, none in modern times have achieved any long term “victory.”

 

The whole area of what we now call the “Middle East” has been a region of tribal warfare since the beginning of recorded history. From time to time, various outsiders have invaded the region, temporarily changing the local balance of power, but none have maintained any sort of long term control of the region. The first outsider to achieve any significant “control” of the area was Alexander the Great who took over the entire Persian Empire in about 320 B.C. After he died in 323 B.C., control over the area fell apart again and internecine warfare continued until Arabs attacked from the west in 642. Although they “conquered” the area, they were never able to occupy or control the entire country/region. In 1219, the entire area fell to the Mongols who controlled the area into the 1500’s. For the next 300 years, the area was ruled by local or semi-local rulers. (”Controlled” is misleading. One of the ways rulers maintained their rule was by assassinating their rivals.)

 

And then the British showed up with all of their notions of Empire. (Not to belabor the point, but that notion generally did not work out so well. In case you haven’t heard, Britain is currently planning to apologize to several hundred thousand [now dead] children who were forcibly sent to Australia and essentially sold into slavery or indentured servitude. [You have to love the British sense of timing. Apologize after every one you are apologizing to is dead.] The British had two goals: (1) to get rid of poor people in Britain; and (2) to maintain white supremacy in an area facing the “yellow threat.”

 

At the time, Britain was THE world superpower. As they were so fond of saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Things weren’t so super in Afghanistan. The First Anglo-Afghan War lasted from 1839 to 1842. The Second Anglo-Afghan War lasted from 1878 to 1880. The Third Anglo-Afghan War lasted only a few months in 1919. The fact that the British found it necessary to go back a second and third time (and they are there now in a supporting role) suggests that any “victory” was, at best, fleeting.

 

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 because they were concerned about the “breakaway” republics on its borders decreasing its sphere of influence. (And western powers moving in to areas formerly within their sphere of influence, …………) They stayed there until 1992 when they declared victory and went home (with their tails between their legs.) Is this starting to sound familiar?

 

In 2001, the U.S. attacked/invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. Sounds good. Those sonsabitches should pay for what they did. There are two problems with that whole concept. First, we immediately lost sight of the bigger picture, and put all of ort attention on Iraq. (Which had nothing to do with 9/11.) So the real sonsabitches got very little attention while we fought a war in Iraq to what end? Second, which sonsabitches are we after? It isn’t the Afghani people as a whole, it’s the extremists who populated the Al Queda training camps and actually supported the 9/11 attacks. (Which is a little bitty teeny tiny chunk of the Afghan population.)

 

The “goal” in Afghanistan is to establish a strong central government which can/will exercise control over the hinterlands. Let’s be very clear – ain’t ever gonna happen. “Afghanistan” is a bunch of lines on a map. In the real world, there is no such place. Afghanistan is a big piece of land where every village is controlled by a single clan or tribe. There may be some sense of order in the major cities, but that sense of order stops at the city limits. By and large, the Afghan people do not and have never answered to a central government in Kabul (or anywhere else). When the British and Soviets invaded, the tribes adopted the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach and suspended their inter-tribal warfare until the infidels went away.

 

Here’s a little point of reference. Guess what the longest war in U.S. history is. Afghanistan. And where do we stand? Eight years in and are we any where near “victory?” And this is the really scary part – our leaders can’t even define victory, much less explain in any comprehensible way how or when we will achieve victory. They are actually changing the terminology. More recently we are not trying to “win”, we are trying to achieve “success”, whatever that may be. Even more recently, President Obama has proclaimed that we will “finish the job” in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the “job” is to make sure that Al Qaeda can’t regroup and reform and become a threat to the U.S. The only way to make sure that won’t/can’t happen is to maintain a significant military presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. (Which means it isn’t going to be over anytime soon.)

 

Guess what. History has a terrible habit of repeating itself. Britain, the greatest superpower of its time, suffered huge losses in Afghanistan. (In the first Anglo-Afghan war, tribesmen with homemade rifles laid siege to Kabul and during the siege and subsequent retreat killed 16,000 British and their hangers on.) The Soviets, one of the two superpowers of the time, spent ten years in Afghanistan fighting the mujahadeen to a standstill and then left. What’s changed? At the end of the day, not much. We have better toys than the British and the Soviets (who had the most advanced weapons of their time), but in the final analysis, we are in the same basic position – we have a bunch of high tech stuff which has limited utility in fighting a loosely organized but seriously devoted group of fighters in hard core mountainous terrain.

 

One other small detail, Afghanistan is once again the leading producer of opium on the planet. The Taliban did a better job of controlling opium production. Why? The U.S. isn’t even trying to control opium production. Why not? It’s simple. There isn’t anything else that provides the same return to the farmers (and drug lords.) Another small “victory.”

 

Not to make you wet your pants, but as much of a nightmare Afghanistan is, Pakistan is far worse. They have nuclear weapons. (60+/-.) If everything goes to hell in a handbasket, we could have a bunch of tribal leaders (or Islamic fundamentalists, or who knows) in control of nuclear weapons. Not to worry, their rockets can’t reach the U.S., but they can damn sure reach India (their perpetual enemy) and Israel (their newer perpetual enemy) and at least most of the Middle East and Southern Europe. I’m not a huge fan of crazy people having handguns, much less nuclear weapons.

 

So where does this leave us? Without overwhelming brute force, Afghanistan is not governable as a “country.” Are we willing to make that brute force commitment? Should we make that commitment? How long are we willing to make that commitment? Five years? Ten? We have been in Korea for over 50 years. Afghanistan isn’t Korea. In Korea, we face off against those commie bastards across a demilitarized zone, but we don’t actually shoot at each other. (And haven’t in decades. Same goes fo Cuba.) Last I heard, things aren’t that simple in Afghanistan.

 Michael Baumer

 

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LESSONS IN CONSTITUTIONAL HISTORY – PART 1

In this silly season of the hearings on confirmation of Sonya Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court, many Republicans have raised questions and criticisms of her judicial philosophy. Republicans (claiming to be conservatives) generally lament “judicial activism” in favor of honoring the “original intent” of the Founding Fathers. (And they really were the Founding “Fathers”, there wasn’t a Mother among them.)

 

I encourage every American to read the Constitution for himself/herself. It isn’t very long and although there are some provisions which are a little difficult because of the language, it is really pretty straightforward. Keep in mind that at the time it was drafted, this was a truly historic change in how people viewed their government. (It was not, however, the first declaration of the rights of citizens. The English Magna Carta of 1215 was the first “Western” declaration of the rights of citizens. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, circa 1790 B.C., was one of the first written codes of laws. It isn’t what we think of as a “Bill of Rights.” In modern legal parlance, it was mainly a penal code with a property code thrown in.)

 

The original U.S. Constitution contains seven articles. Those articles address, in principal part, the duties and functions of the various branches of government. The original Constitution wasn’t nearly as egalitarian as most Americans understand it to be (or nearly as egalitarian as most school history classes make it out to be.)

 

In the spirit of egalitarianism, let’s review the actual provisions of the Constitution. I will refer to the “original Constitution” as the Constitution as adopted in 1787. The Constitution was ratified by the individual states. Delaware was first on December 7, 1787. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was last on May 29, 1790. The first ten amendments, now commonly collectively referred to as the “Bill of Rights,” were not adopted until 1791. This is a significant distinction, as will be recited below.

 

In considering what constitutes “original intent” (and where we stray from that intent), consider the following indications of that intent.

 

Article I, Section 2 addresses the House. This section defines the powers and duties of House members. The word “he” appears once in describing who may be a House member.

 

Significantly, this Section also addressed indentured servants, Native Americans, and slaves. For those of you who are not familiar with the concept of indentured servitude, in the 1600’s and 1700’s, people would agree to come to America in exchange for the cost of their transportation. They would agree to be bound to serve the person who paid for their passage for a specific term of years and they were paid for their service. They were not “slaves” in the sense that they could not be bought and sold as property (or serfs in the European model as they were not bound to the land), but they were bound to their employment contracts.

 

The original Constitution provided:

 

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, and three fifths of all other Persons.”

 

Let’s be very clear. Persons “bound to Service for a Term of Years” were counted for the purpose of apportioning Representatives and taxes, but they did not have the right to vote. Indians who paid taxes were counted for the purpose of apportioning Representatives, but they did not have the right to vote. Indians who did not pay taxes did not count for the purpose of apportioning Representatives, and they did not have the right to vote. “All other Persons” included slaves who were counted as 60% of a person for the purpose of apportioning Representatives, but they did not have the right to vote. Free born African Americans and women and children are not specifically mentioned anywhere in the original Constitution. They counted as persons for the purpose of apportioning Representatives, but in most states free born African Americans did not have the right to vote. Women did not have the right to vote in any state until 100 years later.

 

Article I, Section 3 addresses the Senate. This section addresses the powers and duties of Senate members. The word “he” appears twice.

 

Article I, Section 6 addresses compensation for members of the House and Senate. The word “he” appears once.

 

Article I, Section 7 addresses passage of legislation and the presidential veto. The word “he” appears four times, the word “his” appears three times, and the word “him” appears once in reference to the president.

 

Article II, Section 1 provides that the executive power shall be held by the president. The word “he” appears five times, the word “his” appears twice.

 

Article II, Section 2 addresses the power of the president with respect to the military and the cabinet. The word “he” appears four times.

 

Article II, Section 3 addresses the state of the union address. The word “he” appears seven times with respect to the president.

 

Article IV, Section 2 addresses extradition. The word “he” appears once. (In a bizarre way, this is good for women. Under the express terms of the original Constitution, extradition from one state to another to answer for crimes is limited to “he.” “Shes” are not subject to extradition. (Original intent. Plain language. What can I say?)

 

The words “he”, “him” and/or “his” appear in the original Constitution 31 times. The words “she” or “her” do not appear in the original Constitution. Not once. Nowhere. Under the terms of the original Constitution, as written, women had no rights. They were not entitled to run for political office. They were not entitled to vote. Under most colonial laws, their right to own property was seriously restricted. They essentially did not exist for the purposes of the law of land.

 

Article I, Section 9 of the original Constitution provided: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight [1808], but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.” Basically, any of the original thirteen states could authorize the “importation” of “persons” in any number they deemed appropriate as long as they were willing to pay the “slave tax.” (In case you don’t understand the historical perspective, importation of persons means bringing slaves into the country. The Founding Fathers found the issue of slavery to be so contentious that they elected to avoid the issue and let it be settled at a later date. This decision was, ultimately, partially responsible for the Civil War.)

 

Article I, Section 4 of the original Constitution provides: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof:…” Although the Constitution says WHO may be elected to national office (Representatives must be at least twenty-five years of age and seven years a citizen, Senators must be at least thirty years of age and nine years a citizen, the president must be at least thirty-five years of age, fourteen years a resident of the U.S. and a natural born citizen), it leaves it to the states to determine HOW their representatives would be selected. The result was that individual states could and did impose restrictions to limit the vote primarily to free, white, Christian men over 21 who owned property.

 

None of the original 13 states gave women the right to vote. Many required men to own a certain amount of property to vote or hold office. Mainly on the local level, the right to vote or hold office was limited to members of a specific religious faith, or denied to members of specific faiths. Catholics and Jews were a favorite target of these laws. The original constitutions of Georgia and South Carolina provided that only Protestants were eligible to serve as representatives. Five states (New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and North Carolina) gave the right to vote to free born African American men. Freed male slaves (or so-called “freedmen”) did not have the vote. (North Carolina later disenfranchised blacks in 1835.) Although the vote was extended to most white men by the early 1800s, literacy tests, poll taxes, and the like were used to limit voting by non-male persons into the early 1900’s and by non-white and poor white persons well into the late 1960’s.

 

The original U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787. The first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, were ratified in 1791. Most Americans think of the Bill of Rights as part of the original Constitution. This is not only factually incorrect, it ignores the significance of the Bill of Rights as additions to the original Constitution. The Bill of Rights were sufficiently controversial that the Constitutional Convention declined to address these (what we now perceive to be) fundamental rights ensured to every American. These changes to the original Constitution were approved four years after the fact. Think about that. We had to think about it for a few years whether every man had the right to freedom of speech. Freedom of worship. Freedom from search of your home without a warrant. The right to due process. The right to a jury trial. In 1787 these were (at least potentially) radical ideas. Now we accept these rights as the most basic rights available to every American.

 

The amendments to the original Constitution “fixed” many of these omissions. (Or attempted to.)

 

The 5th Amendment provides that no person may compelled to be a witness against “himself.” Apparently, non-”hims” may be tortured to obtain helpful testimony. (Don’t tell Dick Cheney. He was apparently willing to torture any non-American he defined as an enemy combatant. If he read the Constitution closely, he could actually torture “shes” and “hers”, citizens or not, with impunity because the Constitution does not deem them worthy of protection.)

 

The 6th Amendment provides that a defendant has the right to confront the witnesses against “him”, that he have the right to compel witnesses in “his” favor, and that a defendant have the right to an attorney for “his” defense. The 6th Amendment, by its express language, does not apply to women.

 

In 1865, the 13th Amendment was ratified. That amendment abolished slavery.

 

In 1868, the 14th Amendment was ratified. Section 1 of this amendment provides: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of its laws.” The intent of this amendment was to give every freed slaves equal protection of the laws. (Natural born Americans would include all Native Americans, most of the freed slaves and their descendants, and women.)

 

The first sentence of the amendment defines who is a “citizen” of the United States. The second sentence has three clauses. The first clause provides no state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens. The second clause says no state shall deprive any person of life, liberty, or property. The third clause states no state shall deny to any person equal protection of the laws. The second and third clauses apply to “any person”, not just “citizens.” Any person would seem to include not only male persons, but also female persons, white persons, black persons, brown persons, red persons, yellow persons, hetero- persons, homo- persons, Christian persons, Catholic persons, Muslim persons, Jewish persons, agnostic persons, atheist persons, young persons, old persons, …….. Because the first clause applies only to citizens and the second and third apply more broadly to any persons, it would seem that equal protection should even apply to non-citizens, including illegal immigrants. “Any person” would seem to include every person. Approved in 1868, but still not a reality in 1968. (Or 2009.)

 

In 1870, the 15th Amendment was ratified. That amendment provided that the “rights of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged… on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

 

The 14th and 15th Amendments were intended to give “equal” rights to all. Unfortunately, many states (particularly in the South) responded by passing laws intended to limit the right of the freed slaves and their descendants to vote. Well into the mid-1900s, only a small fraction of black citizens in the South were allowed to vote, notwithstanding their right to vote.

 

In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified. That amendment provided that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged”.. on account of sex. This amendment gave women the right to vote. Several states had already done so, starting with Western states. (Wyoming was first.) It is, perhaps, worthy of note that the first proposed amendment giving all women everywhere the right to vote was not proposed until 1878, almost 100 years after adoption of the Constitution. 42 years after that, it actually happened.

 

In 1924 Congress passed legislation that extended citizenship to Native Americans born in the United States. (The first Americans were now officially Americans. A century or two or three after the fact.) Citizenship gave them the right to vote.

 

In 1964, the 24th Amendment was ratified. That amendment prohibited states from denying the right to vote “by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.” The poll tax was a favorite gambit (mainly in southern states) to deny voting rights to poor blacks. Black voters who showed up to vote would be charged a “tax” for the privilege of voting. Although white voters were (theoretically) subject to the same tax, they were frequently not required to actually pay the tax. Literacy exams were a similar ploy. Although not addressed in the amendment, this was another common ploy to deny Southern blacks the right to vote.

 

In 1967, the 25th Amendment was ratified. That amendment provided for disability and succession of the president. The word “he” appears three time, the word “his” eight times. Women obtained the right to vote in 1920, but a 1967 amendment to the Constitution assumes that the president would always be a “he.” (”Rosie the Riveter” and her contributions to the war effort and democracy were apparently lost in the “fog of war”of World War II. FYI, my mom’s mom was a Rosie.)

 

In 1970, the 26th Amendment was ratified. It lowered the voting age to eighteen. (This was passed against the backdrop of Vietnam, when eighteen year olds were being sent to die, but did not have the right to vote. Maybe against the guy who sent them to Vietnam.)

 

So what does all this mean? The Founding Fathers intended that America would be ruled by a class of white, land-owning, Christian men. Women had no rights. Native Americans had no rights. Slaves certainly had no rights. Free born, property owning, black men could vote in only five states. The rights of white men were often restricted to men who owned property. In many of the colonies and local communities, voting was limited to members of specific religions. By some estimates, 50% or less of white men could vote into the early 1800s.

 

Many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. George Washington, the father of our country, owned slaves. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence owned slaves. Jefferson was, at one time, one of the largest slaveowners in Virginia. (He apparently fathered a child from a slave named Sally Hemmings.) James Madison owned slaves. James Monroe owned slaves. Washington (1), Jefferson (3), Madison (4) and Monroe (5) were all from Virginia, one of the leading agricultural states. Neither John Adams (2) nor John Quincy Adams (6), both from Massachusetts, owned slaves.

 

The Declaration of Independence contains the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” (The original version of the declaration said “life, liberty, and property.” Ben Franklin convinced Thomas Jefferson to change it.) A profound thought. One of the most important documents in human history. BUT, the signers of the Declaration generally didn’t think slaves or Indians had the right to “liberty.” None of them thought women had many substantive rights. Although the Declaration “only” specifically guarantees “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” those words are preceded by “unalienable rights, including………………..”

 

So, when all of the rich, white, male, Christian, Republican Congresscritters blather on about the original intent of the Founding Fathers, are they advocating that only white, property owning Protestant men have rights, are they just seriously ignorant about American history, or is this just cowardly pandering to their equally ignorant base? Sadly, I suspect that the vast majority of these people are not ill-willed, they are just seriously cowardly. And they are in Washington, doing as much damage as they can manage.

 

God bless America.

 

Michael Baumer

 

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The Employment Situation is Worse Than You Think (and so are the Consequences)

The official unemployment numbers released by the U.S. Department of Labor are a lie and the government knows they are a lie, but they tell the lie anyway because they want to avoid mass hysteria. These are the numbers for June, 2009:

 An additional 467,000 jobs were lost in June. (This is the preliminary number. It will be revised in about a month.) This was particularly bad news because economists had predicted 363,000 jobs would be lost. In addition, many economists had cited the slowing pace of job losses as a sign that the recession was ending. New, higher unemployment numbers suggest that optimism may have been a little too optimistic.

 The average work week fell to 33 hours, the lowest since 1964.

 The Bureau of Labor Statistics breaks the unemployment numbers down into “alternative measures of labor underutilization.” (You’re not unemployed, you’re underutilized.) 

  •  ”U-1″ is the most limited category of unemployed persons as it only includes people unemployed for at least 15 weeks.
  •  ”U-2″ includes only people who involuntaryily lost their last job, either through layoff or by completing a temporary assignment.
  •  ”U-3″ is the official unemployment rate and reflects “unemployed” people who are actively looking for work. For June, 2009, there were 14.7 million unemployed persons, or 9.5% of the working population. This is the highest unemployment rate since late 1982.
  •  ”U-4″ reflects “discouraged workers.” (Unemployed people who have quit looking for a job.) This adds an additional 800,000 workers which raises the unemployment rate to 10%.
  •  ”U-5″ reflects “marginally attached workers.” (Unemployed workers who want a job, are available to work now and have looked for a job in the last year, but not the last month.) This adds an additional 4.4 million workers which raises the overall rate to 10.8%.

 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U-4 and U-5 include “groups of persons neither employed nor unemployed.” (Only in Washington does that make any sense.)

  •  ”U-6″ reflects “involuntary part time workers.” (People who have a part time job, but want a full time job.) This adds an additional 9 million workers which raises the overall rate to 16.5%.

 A phenomenon we have seen more of lately is the person who lost their job in the tech industry and has been unable to find a job so they are free-lancing as a “consultant.” I am not sure how the unemployment statistics account for these people (or if they even do.) They are “self-employed” but would rather be employed because of the steady paycheck and benefits.

 My practice allows me to meet people with all kinds of jobs, in all kinds of businesses, from little mom and pop operations to the largest employers in our area. A trend we have seen more and more of in the last year is what we have come to refer to as the “less employed.”

  •  Several large employers have eliminated or reduced “shift differentials”, higher pay for working the evening shift instead of the day shift.
  •  Many employers have eliminated overtime. (Austin has several large manufacturers which have traditionally offered as much overtime as employees wanted to work.)
  •  Several employers have instituted mandatory “furloughs.” (Employees are required to take off a specified number of days per month without pay.)
  •  Several employers have instituted across the board pay cuts in lieu of layoffs.
  •  Several employers have stopped paying for health insurance, or are only paying a portion.
  •  Several employers have eliminated ESPP plans.
  •  Several employers have eliminated stock option grants.

 None of these actions have resulted in higher “unemployment” statistics, but all of these people are “less employed” in the sense that they have less income than they had previously, and many are not in a position to reduce major fixed expenses.

  •  Many of my clients are not in a position to sell their homes because they now owe more than the house is worth.
  •  Many of my clients owe more on their vehicles than their vehicles are worth. Due to economic conditions, there is less demand for both new and used vehicles. Less demand means lower values. (In 2007, 38% of new car loans had “negative equity” from a prior vehicle rolled onto the new vehicle.)
  •  Your mortgage company (or car lender) isn’t going to reduce your payment by 30% just because your income went down by 30%.

 I am not suggesting that you feel sympathy for people who still have jobs but are making less money. That’s not the point. 70% of U.S. economic activity is based on consumer spending. Unemployed people are obviously going to spend less because they simply have less to spend. Less employed people are less likely to spend, also, because they either feel constrained by their more limited resources, or they are afraid they will be the next one to get a pink slip. Someone who is concerned that he may soon be unemployed is far less likely to commit to the expense of a new home or major home improvement, is less likely to commit to a new car purchase (much less a toy like a boat or jet ski), and is less likely to even make “minor” purchases like a new big screen TV. All of this is evidenced by the simple fact that U.S. consumer saving has increased significantly in the last two years. People who are afraid save, they don’t spend.

 Until U.S. consumers truly feel that the economy has “turned around”, they are unlikely to increase U.S. economic activity by spending on consumer goods. Add the decreased availability of consumer credit, and you should not expect significant economic growth in the foreseeable future. (And for more good news, expect a future post on the coming real estate/mortgage crash. Not the one we have been experiencing, the new bigger, better crash that is still a year or two away.)

 

 Michael Baumer

 

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Please Raise My Taxes

The current U.S. federal gasoline tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. The diesel tax is 24.4. States add varying amounts. (Texas adds 20 cents. New York is highest at 41.3 cents.) In most of the rest of the industrialized world, the gas tax is MUCH higher. The reality is that in most industrialized nations gas has cost five dollars plus per gallon for many years. (In the Middle East and China, gas is far cheaper, but only because the governments subsidize fuel costs.)

In addition, in many countries, there is a significant tax hit for buying fuel inefficient vehicles. (In China there is a 40% sales tax for cars with engines larger than 4 liters.)

In the U.S., the auto industry has owned “our” elected representatives in Washington for the last 20 (or 30, or 50) years. Fuel taxes are ridiculously low. Fuel efficiency standards are a joke. “CAFÉ” standards (Corporate Average Fuel Economy), which theoretically measure the fuel efficiency of a manufacturer’s entire fleet of vehicles, actually has two standards: one for cars (currently 27.5 mpg) and a different, lower standard (currently 24 mpg) for “light trucks” which includes SUVs. The result has been that there has been no incentive for the Big Three to make more fuel efficient vehicles or for Americans to buy them.
The huge big news is that President Obama has raised the CAFÉ standards. The new CAFÉ standards require that every manufacturer’s fleet efficiency standard is raised to 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. These changes are significant not only because they significantly raise the fleet standard, they also eliminate the lower standard for “trucks”. “Fleet” standards will actually be fleet standards, not fleet standards except for ……, except for, ….., except for,……. (Isn’t the truth a wonderful thing?) The reason (the only reason) the president could “get away with” the change and the increase is because the auto industry is on the brink of collapse and is in no position to say no. It’s about time.

BUT and this is a but in all capital letters, bold print, underlined, with red ink, ….. if we (me and you, America) really want to change things, we should raise the federal fuel tax significantly. Like at least a dollar per gallon. (Breathe slowly. If you are feeling faint, put your head between your knees.) Before you assume I am some left wing lunatic that drives an electric car that gets 100 miles per gallon, let me assure you that I drive one of the least fuel efficient vehicles on the planet besides a Hummer. I drive a Ford F-350 four door four wheel drive long bed diesel truck. It gets 13 miles per gallon in the city and a little more on the highway. I actually have an excuse (or two) for my contribution to global warming. First, I live about one-half mile from my office. It takes me less than two minutes to get to work (unless I stop at Starbucks). I drive to the bankruptcy court three or four days per week. It is seven miles each way. My day to day life (grocery store, restaurants, gas station, liquor store, plant nursery, Lowe’s and Home Depot, etc) is within a two mile radius of my house. My truck may get crappy gas mileage, but I drive significantly less miles than almost everybody I know. Second, I own a farm/ranch in the country outside of town. It is forty miles each way there and back. I actually use my truck to haul fence stuff and trailers and equipment and hay bales and ……… (A Prius won’t haul a lot of hay bales or fence posts.)

Until recently, I owned a luxury sports coupe. I won’t say what brand because I’m not criticizing that particular manufacturer, I’m criticizing all of the major manufacturers. The speedometer on my car went up to 180 miles per hour. Seriously, 180 miles per hour. Where am I supposed to drive a car 180 miles per hour? (I never drove it over 130. On the Interstate. At 3:00 in the morning when there were no other cars.) My car had a large V8. The same car with a medium sized V6 would still go over 100 miles per hour AND get 5 miles per gallon better gas mileage. Why do we sell cars that go 180 miles per hour?

If we raised the gas tax and diesel cost a dollar more per gallon and I knew (or hoped with my fingers crossed) the government wasn’t just flushing my tax dollars down the toilet, I would be willing to pay the tax because it is in the best interest of the country. My country. (Your country, too.) In theory, the federal fuel tax is supposed to pay (in part) for highway construction. In case you haven’t been watching the news, we haven’t done a very good job of maintaining our infrastructure. (I seem to recall a bridge dropping into the Mississippi in Minneapolis.)

If we actually used the fuel tax money to repair and build roads and bridges, one result would be to create a bunch of jobs right here in the good old U.S. of A. (It’s kind of hard to outsource jobs building a bridge in Minneapolis to someplace not pretty close to Minneapolis.) We might also use some of the money to help communities with light rail and similar construction (and energy saving) projects.

Another result would be more Americans driving more fuel efficient cars. The result of that would be less carbon emissions in the U.S. And I don’t want to hear about the growth in emissions in India and China and we can’t really make a difference. The U.S. was the worst offender for decades. The fact that somebody else is a sinner is no excuse for you to be a sinner. We have failed to lead by example. Maybe we should take the high road for a change.

Another result would be that we would import less foreign oil. Lots of the right wing nut jobs make a big deal about us being dependent on oil from “countries that hate us.” The implication is that we are importing all of our oil from those dirty rotten Arab Muslim terrorist sons of bitches. Not only is this racist fearmongering (which is why the right wing nut jobs like to say it), it is simply false as a matter of fact. The top source (by far) of oil imported to the U.S. is …………. Canada. That’s right, Canada. (Those dirty rotten Anglo/French Protestant hockey playing sons of bitches.) The next source on the list is ………… Mexico. (Those dirty rotten Spanish Catholic soccer playing sons of bitches.)

Maybe I am hopelessly misinformed, but I was under the impression that Canada and Mexico actually like us. (Most of the time, anyway. As neighbors go, I know we don’t mow our yard often enough, but we really don’t play our stereo that loud and we always invite you over when we have a party.)

Venezuela is third and Saudi Arabia is fourth. (I’m guessing those are the countries that are supposed to hate us.) If you go far enough down the list, the Virgin Islands come in at twelve, the U.K. at fourteen, and Norway at fifteen. (Please tell me Norway doesn’t hate us.) My concern about importing foreign oil isn’t because Canadians hate us, it is about our trade deficit, which is an ongoing problem that has to change.

Between raising (really raising this time) the CAFÉ standards and increasing the federal gasoline tax, there would be a significant incentive for automakers to make, and for Americans to buy and drive, more fuel efficient vehicles. America has not had any real energy policy during my lifetime. This was a complete abdication of responsibility by industry and government. (And every American, but industry and government are supposed to be the grown ups in the room.)

So, to all of our elected representatives in Washington, do the right thing for a change. Do what is right for America, even if it is terribly unpopular. (Most Americans have short term memory loss, anyway.) Please, raise my taxes.

Michael Baumer

<p align=”justify”><a href=”http://baumerlaw.com”>Law Office of Michael Baumer</a></p>

Senator Lindsey Graham – My Favorite Five Year Old

Just a stray thought on President Obama’s nomination of Sonia Sotamayor to the Supreme Court. Senator Lindsey Graham has been making the rounds on the political talk shows where he has conceded that she is “qualified” to sit on the court. Qualified is, after all, the appropriate standard. (Isn’t it? If it isn’t, shouldn’t it be?) Not is the nominee the same race, religion, sex, profession, zip code, went to the same college as me, same ethnicity as me back seven generations, …….. Not is the nominee the “same as” me. Not does the nominee “think like me.”

When President Obama was Senator Obama, he apparently (I say apparently based upon recorded statements by the then Senator) voted against now Justice Alito based upon philosophical differences. (“I don’t agree with how he thinks.”) Senate Republicans are now evaluating whether or now they “can” (not will) vote for Judge Sotomayor based on the President’s “standard” for approving Supreme Court nominees.

I watch this whole drama play out and have to marvel at the whole thing. Senator Graham admits Judge Sotomayor is qualified, but isn’t sure whether he “can” (his word) vote for her because of a vote Senator Obama made several years ago. This reminds me of the kindergarten conversation where we have the “You’re a butthead”, “No, you’re a butthead”, “Well, you’re a bigger butthead.”, “Well, you started it”, “No, you started it” conversation. Silly me. I thought when you got to the United States Senate, you were supposed to act like an adult, not a five year old.

I do understand Senator Graham’s political position, but this isn’t supposed to be a political position. (Is it?) A U.S. Senator isn’t supposed to be a purely political animal. He/she is supposed to do what is “right” for the country, what is “best” for the country. What if……..? What if ……….Senator Graham (and every other Republican senator) could vote for Judge Sotomayor just because she is actually qualified, and then make a passionate political speech about what a butthead President Obama is. That is supposed to be how it works. Instead, we have “tit for tat” ad nauseum and nothing happens and they (Republicans and Democrats, Senators and Representatives) waste our tax dollars. Day after day, after day, after day,……………

I’m old fashioned. I always try to take the “high road” approach. Maybe if a Republican senator or two (or three) voted to approve Judge Sotomayor, the Republican party could claim to be something other than the “party of no.” Let’s assume that President Obama is a …. (Butthead? Liberal Hack? Commie?) Okay. Great. So what? Here’s a crazy notion. Somebody (anybody) could vote for somebody “else” (on the other side) and say “I’m not overjoyed about my vote, but they deserve it.” Doesn’t somebody have to be the first one to step up and do the right thing? Somebody? Anybody? Apparently, not Senator Lindsey Graham. Resident five year old.

Michael Baumer 

 

 

Law Office of Michael Baumer

John Boehner is a Dumbass, Part 2

I was watching the news night before last, and in another attempt to criticize the Obama healthcare plan, Rep Boehner said “If you like the lines at the DMV, if you like the post office, you are going to love public healthcare.”

Let’s start by inquiring when was the last time John Boehner went to an actual post office? (I’m sure he staffs that out to a minion.)

And why is he down on the Post Office? (Technically, the United States Postal Service.) I practice law in Austin, Texas. I routinely receive mail from Houston and Dallas the day after it was mailed. The next day. At most, it takes two days. I get mail from California all the time on the second day after mailing. From half way across the country. No special delivery, no expedited processing, no muss, no fuss. And all for the every day low price of 44 cents. In case you are interested, the official number for the pieces of mail delivered by the USPS for 2008 was 201,128,003,000. That’s right, 201 billion pieces. Or 550 million pieces every day (Saturdays and Sundays and legal holidays included.)

The USPS employs about 615,000 hardworking people. If you think about the numbers, they do a truly impressive job. They don’t deserve some congresscritter trashing them because he is trying to score political points.

Michael Baumer

Law Office of Michael Baumer

Congress to the Rescue – the First Time Homebuyers Tax Credits of 2008 and 2009

Congress passed the Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008. It provided a tax credit up to $7500 for homes purchased between April 8, 2008 and July 1, 2009. If you purchased the home in 2008, you can take the credit on your 2008 tax return. If you purchased the home in 2009 (before December 1), you can take the credit on your 2008 or your 2009 return. (If you already filed your 2008 return and took the credit, you can amend.) And, you don’t really have to be a first time home buyer. If you did not own a home in the last three years, you can take the credit even if you have owned a dozen homes in the past.

Sound good? A tax credit is usually a gift that allows you to reduce the amount of your taxes (not the amount of your disposable income.) The surprise here is that the 2008 credit isn’t really a credit – it is a loan which must be paid back at the rate of $500 per year for 15 years starting with your 2010 tax return.

But wait, in 2009 the credit was extended to $8000 for homes purchased prior to December 1, 2009 and you don’t have to pay it back (unless the home ceases to be your main residence within three years of purchase, in which case the full credit has to be repaid in the year the home ceases to be your main residence.)

But wait, what if I bought a home in early 2009 and already took the old you have to pay it back credit on my 2008 tax return? Easy, you can amend your 2008 tax return and take the 2009 $8000 you don’t have to pay it back credit instead of the 2008 $7500 you do have to pay it back credit.

Could we possibly make this a little bit goofier? Your government – here to help.

 

Michael Baumer

Law Office of Michael Baumer

JOHN BOEHNER IS A DUMBASS

John Boehner, Republican Representative from Ohio and House Minority Leader, appeared on one of the Sunday morning news talk shows a couple of weeks ago to start the pre-emptive attacks on President Obama’s as yet incompletely articulated health care plan. President Obama has set out several issues that need to be addressed, but is leaving it up to Congress and the stakeholders to come up with the specifics of a plan to address those issues. One of the issues is providing health care to the 41,000,000 Americans without health insurance. President Obama has stated that there must be some public health plan component. The health insurance industry (and their paid minions, lobbyists and legislators included) are having conniptions.

Rep. Boehner, always articulate (and well coifed), stated (and this is from memory so it may not be exactly word for word): “Our goal is to ensure that every American has access to quality, affordable health insurance.” (I have to start by asking who “our” is. House Republicans? Republicans generally? The health insurance industry?)

More significant is the stated goal of “quality, affordable health insurance” for every American. Think about that for a second. Almost everyone who reads this will say “Hey, Mikey, what’s wrong with quality, affordable health insurance for every American?” The answer to that question is absolutely nothing. It just completely misses the point. The goal is not to provide quality, affordable health insurance, the goal is to provide quality, affordable health care. Insurance may be a means of achieving the actual goal, but it is only a means to an end, it is not the end itself. The problem with Rep. Boehner and his ilk is that the very way they phrase the problem discloses that they already have a bias toward a particular conclusion, which is that the answer (and the only answer) is to extend private health insurance to more people. Apparently, Rep. Boehner has short term memory issues. (Actually long term, too). Am I wrong, or hasn’t Hillary Clinton been shouting in the wilderness about health care for every American for maybe twenty years or so? Sounds like a great plan, John, but where have you (and your masters) been for the last twenty years? If the solution is so simple, why do we still have the same problem twenty years later?

The Republicans are philosophically opposed to any form of public health plan. (If I had a nickle for every time a Republican used the menace of “Socialism”, I would be one rich son of a gun.) The Republicans are opposed to any form of public health plan, but how do we extend private health insurance to the poor and the working poor? More specifically, who pays for it? If public funds are used to help pay in whole or in part for private health insurance (i.e., by subsidizing the cost for the poor and working poor), it is still “Socialism.” If we use public policy tools to coerce (if you don’t provide health insurance we will tax you) or cajole (if you do provide health insurance we will give you a credit) employers to provide health insurance, it is still “Socialism.” (Of course, providing tax loopholes for the rich in the delusional belief that their largesse will “trickle down” to the masses of the lower classes is “Socialism”, too, but that is a topic for another day.)

In this instance, I am not questioning Mr. Boehner’s integrity – I assume that he (as a good Republican) truly believes that the insurance industry is pure of heart and mind and that extension of private insurance is really in the best interest of the country. I just think he is hopelessly out of touch with reality. The single biggest problem with American healthcare is that access to healthcare is controlled more by the insurance and pharmaceutical industries than it is by doctors. Health insurers increase profits by denying coverage, not by allowing greater access to healthcare. Because they are public companies, there greatest duty of loyalty is to their shareholders, not to their insureds. How many Americans have health insurance plans which do not cover basic wellness? (Checkups, blood pressure monitoring, cholesterol monitoring, diet and nutrition counseling, etc.) Americans, in large part, get healthcare after they need it, not to prevent them from needing it in the first place.

The right wingnuts will tell you that with public health care, a government bureaucrat will pick your doctor and tell you what treatment you are entitled to. (You are supposed to be terrified by this prospect.) The reality now is that an insurance company bureaucrat makes those decisions. (How many of you have been denied coverage for a specialist or a procedure because the insurance company decided it was not “necessary?”) The truth is that in most industrialized countries with public health systems, you get to pick your doctor, healthcare costs less overall (because it is a break even endeavor, not a for profit endeavor), and the quality of healthcare is better (measured by objective standards like longevity and infant mortality.) Anybody who tells you horror stories about public health systems is either telling you stories from thirty years ago, or they are just outright telling you lies. The fact that every other industrialized nation on the planet manages to provide better quality healthcare more cheaply than we do suggests that maybe we don’t have the best system.

Every American should have access to quality, affordable healthcare. That is a fundamentally simple proposition. The fact that many do not is a disgrace.

As a note, I understand that Rep. Boehner is not the only Republican involved here, but as the House Minority Leader he is one of the leading faces and voices of his party. I also understand that calling a U.S. Representative a “dumbass” might not seem terribly professional (or articulate.) The original working title for this post was “John Boehner is a moron”, but then I recalled that “moron” is actually a term of art and has a specific meaning. A “moron” is defined as someone with a mental age between seven and twelve or an IQ between 50 and 75. I am prepared to concede that John Boehner’s IQ is at least well above average and significantly above 75. Dumbass is a more generic term with no clear definition. I use it here more in the sense of philosophical myopia. I also understand that Rep. Boehner is not the only Republican afflicted with this condition, and that there are many Democrats who should probably get tested, as well. (Of course, they all have a great insurance plan which is not available to you, even though you pay for it for them. Kinda funny how that works, huh?)

Michael Baumer

Law Office of Michael Baumer

Senate Lapdogs KowTow to Their Banking Masters

On April 29, 2009, the US Senate, by a vote of 51 to 45, blocked passage of bill that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify mortgages in two important ways.

First, Judges could lower and fix interest rates. Many borrowers with subprime loans started out with low “teaser” rates for two or three years that then increased (usually not more than two percent a year) until they reached a maximum rate determined by the borrower’s creditworthiness at the time the loan was made. I have had several clients whose interest rates have now reached 12% or more. Because they have less then sterling credit and/or their house is now worth less than the mortgage balance, they are not able to refinance at a lower rate. The legislation would have allowed bankruptcy judges to lower the rate to a published rate and fix the rate for a term up to 40 years.

Second, the leigislation would have allowed bankruptcy judges to “cramdown” mortgages to the value of the property securing the debt. In many parts of the country, property values have fallen significantly, so the property owners are “upside down” on the mortgages.  In that situation, the borrower typically cannot refinance (Why would a new lender want to make a loan it knows is undersecured on the day the loan is made?), cannot sell (Unless the lender is willing to do a “short sale” – accepting less than the full loan balance to allow a sale to go through ([some lenders are allowing short sales, but many are not]), and really has no incentive to keep making payments on a property that is worth less, and in many instances, far less than the the mortgage. From a strictly business standpoint, it makes more sense for the borrower to walk away and let the house be foreclosed.

The banking and mortgage industries fought the legislation through their usual scare tactics, claiming that the legislation would make it harder to get a loan, would make interest rates go up, and buyers would have to have larger down payments, all because lenders would not be assured that the loans would be paid in full. Apparently all of these morons haven’t heard about all of the foreclosures happening around the country. After foreclosure, the lender does (not might, DOES) incur costs for holding and disposing of the property. (Changing locks, removing any property left behind, maintaining the property [cutting the grass, if nothing else], insuring the property, paying property taxes, etc, etc, etc.) When the lender ultimately sells the property, they get to pay closing costs, usually including a six percent realtors commission. Lenders also tend to discount property prices so they can sell the property more quickly. (Which has the eeefct of driving down property values for the rest of the neighborhood.) Lenders lose MORE through a foreclosure than they would by allowing the loan to be modified.  If a bankruptcy court modifies the mortage, the borrower stays in the house and resumes payments (typically within 30 to 75 days), and the lender incurs only minimal attorneys fees for participating in the Chapter 13 and none of the costs or headaches of holding and disposing of the property.

Allowing bankruptcy courts to modify mortgages is actually in the best interests of the lenders, too, although they are apparently too stupid (or dishonest) to admit that fact. You should remember that these are the same people who promised us that interest rates on consumer debt (credit cards and installment loans) would go down if Congress passed the 2005 amendments to the Bankruptcy Code. If the interest rates on your consumer debt went down in 2006, you would be the first person to tell me that.

Senate Republicans with the help of a few conservative Democrats have sent a clear statement that if you are not represented by a very highly paid lobbyist, do not expect your elected “representatives”  to represent your interests. Wall Street gets billions, Main Street gets nothing. As a Texan, I would like to thank Senators Hutchison and Cornyn in particular for their parts in this farce.

Michael  Baumer
Law Office of Michael Baumer

by Michael Baumer