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Politics Without Purpose: September 11 Should Not Be Another Media Event

It was another one of those weeks in the capital when our leaders debated matters crucial to the survival of American civilization.

Did President Obama try to upstage the Republican presidential debate by asking to address a joint session of Congress that same night? And did House Speaker John Boehner dis the president, and the presidency, by denying him that slot?

Tempted though I was to weigh in on this important matter, I decided instead to head over to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, to preview a small but immensely powerful exhibit marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.

There, displayed for the first time, are sacred relics of 9/11: the crumpled piece of the fuselage where the American flag had been painted on the Boeing 757 that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, a flight-attendant call button from the plane, a window shade, a landing gear strut, and a log book with the pages intact. The exhibit is simple and raw, without glass or showcases. Some dried mud caked on an airplane seatbelt was flaking off onto a tablecloth.

Nearby is the door from a fire truck crushed at Ground Zero and the beeper of a man who died in the South Tower. There’s a Pentagon clock frozen at about the time American Airlines Flight 77 struck the complex and the phone on which Ted Olson received the last call from his wife on the doomed plane. Most poignant, perhaps, is the postcard from another passenger, written to her sister the day before the crash to give the address of a new home in which she would never live.

The spare exhibit brought back the horror of that time. But it also reminded me of the pride in what followed, the national unity and sense of purpose.

The warm feelings didn’t last long, of course, destroyed by the war in Iraq and the politicization of homeland security. By now, we have lost all sense of purpose in politics, alternately distracted by Sarah Palin’s bus tours, Anthony Weiner’s private parts, David Wu’s tiger suit, Donald Trump’s birth-certificate campaign, and Dick Cheney’s broadsides.

Obama, whose uncertain trumpet has ceased to rally even his own troops, contemplated his long-delayed jobs agenda while lounging on Martha’s Vineyard last month. His leading Republican rival for the presidency talks of treason and secession. Another challenger arranges to quadruple the size of his California home (his defense: He’s only doubling the living space). Lawmakers play games with the debt ceiling and wound the nation’s credit rating but can’t agree on anything to put Americans back to work.

The political extraneousness of the moment, in other words, is like that of early September 2001. We spent those days amusing ourselves with Gary Condit and shark attacks. President George W. Bush spent August on a record-long ranch vacation. The biggest issue under debate: stem-cell research. Warnings about Osama bin Laden were ignored while the administration obsessed over rewriting a missile treaty with Russia.

What will it require to end the drift this time? A depression? Another attack? Or is there a less painful way to regain national purpose?

“For most people,” curator David Allison told me as I toured the Smithsonian exhibit, “Sept. 11 is only a media event.” The exhibit is a modest attempt at changing that, taking that day’s ruins out of storage and rekindling memory. The lucky few who see the exhibit during its short run will be reminded that there are things more important than whether the president addresses Congress on a Wednesday or a Thursday.

Consider the simple postcard, written by Georgetown economist Leslie Whittington to her sister and brother-in-law, as Whittington, her husband and their 8- and 3-year-old daughters headed off to Australia for a sabbatical. The card, postmarked Sept. 12 at Dulles Airport, must have been mailed just before the family boarded American Flight 77. The note says, in its entirety:

9/10/01

Dear Sara & Jay,

Well, we’re off to Australia. When we return we will have a new address (as of 11/30): 8034 Glendale Rd. Chevy Chase, MD 20815

We don’t know our phone # yet. While we are in “Oz”, email will work best for contacting us: whittinl@georgetown.edu.

Love, Leslie, Chas, Zoe & Dana

I thought about Sara receiving that postcard from her dead sister, and about those little girls who never made it to Glendale Road – because of 19 evil men and a government distracted by less important things.

Then I went out onto Constitution Avenue, where, across from the museum, a bus labeled “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” had just parked.

 

By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 2, 2011

September 3, 2011 Posted by | 911, Congress, Conservatives, Democracy, Democrats, Disasters, Freedom, GOP, Government, Ground Zero, Homeland Security, Ideologues, Ideology, Journalists, Lawmakers, Liberty, Media, National Security, Politics, President Obama, Public, Pundits, Republicans, Right Wing, Teaparty, Terrorism | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hurricane Irene And The Benefits Of Big Government

Don’t expect anybody to throw a tea party, but Big Government finally got one right.

On Monday, six years to the day after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and obliterated the notion of a competent federal government, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate offered an anecdote that showed just how different things were with Hurricane Irene.

On the podium in the White House briefing room, he recalled the satellite images of Irene’s path. “Do you remember seeing the satellite, how big that storm was and how close it was to the state of Florida?” he asked. Fugate, the former emergency management chief in Florida, said that a decade or so ago, “Florida would have had to evacuate based upon this track.”

Instead, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s improved models predicted landfall in North Carolina, and, in fact, “the track was only about 10 miles off of where they actually thought it was going to come ashore.”

This was just one piece of the overall anticipation of Irene and response to the storm that has earned high marks for FEMA and NOAA. Like the killing of Osama bin Laden, it was a rare reminder that the federal government can still do great things, after all other possibilities have been exhausted.

Such successes might provide an antidote to the souring of the public’s confidence in government. By coincidence, a Gallup poll released Monday showed that only 17 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the federal government, a new low.

More likely, however, Americans won’t have long to savor this new competence in government. NOAA has already been hit with budget cuts that will diminish its ability to track storms, and FEMA, like much of the federal government, will lose about a third of its funding over the next decade if Tea Party Republicans have their way.

In the spending compromise for this year worked out between congressional Republicans and the White House, NOAA’s budget was cut by about $140 million (House Republicans had sought much larger cuts) and money for new satellites was cut by more than $500 million from President Obama’s request. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco warned in May, “we are likely looking at a period of time a few years down the road where we will not be able to do the severe storm warnings . . . that people have come to expect today.”

Congressional Democrats and the White House were somewhat more successful this year in resisting cuts to FEMA that Republicans had proposed. But under the House Republicans’ plan to freeze discretionary spending at 2008 levels over a decade, FEMA cuts are inevitable. According to an analysis by the Center for American Progress’s Scott Lilly that takes into account inflation and population, this amounts to a 31 percent cut in real per capita spending on discretionary functions such as FEMA.

Tea Partyers who denounce Big Government seem to have an abstract notion that government spending means welfare programs and bloated bureaucracies. Almost certainly they aren’t thinking about hurricane tracking and pre-positioning of FEMA supplies. But if they succeed in paring the government, some of these Tea Partyers (particularly those on the coasts or on the tornadic plains) may be surprised to discover that they have turned a Hurricane Irene government back into a Katrina government.

The Irene government would seem to have its benefits. Before the storm struck, 18 FEMA teams deployed from Florida to Maine, repositioning as the emphasis moved to New England. Food, water, generators and tarps were in place along the storm’s path. In Vermont, when the storm forced evacuation of the state emergency operations center, the workers relocated to a FEMA facility. In North Carolina, FEMA provided in-the-dark local authorities with generator power. And everywhere, FEMA, given new authority by Congress after Katrina, didn’t have to wait for states to request help.

“We have to go fast; we have to base it upon the potential impacts,” Fugate said Monday, describing the Irene response. “That’s why we look at these forecasts we get from the hurricane center, and we make the decisions based upon what the potential impacts could be. If you wait till you know how bad it is, it becomes harder to change the outcome.”

That’s one model. The other model is to have a weak federal government, without the funds to forecast storms or to launch a robust emergency response in time to do any good.

You might call that the Tea Party model.

By: Dana Milbank, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, August 29, 2011

August 31, 2011 Posted by | Big Government, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Democrats, Disasters, GOP, Government, Homeland Security, Ideologues, Ideology, Politics, Public, Public Health, Republicans, Right Wing, States, Teaparty | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Forget The Rich: Tax The Poor And Middle Class

Nothing is certain but death and taxes, it used to be said, but in the madcap times we live in, even they’re up for grabs.

No matter what proof the White House provides that Osama bin Laden indeed has had his bucket kicked — and at this point even al Qaeda admits he’s dead — there still will be uncertainty. Whether they ever release those damned photos or not, a lunatic few will continue to insist that Osama’s alive and well and running a Papa John’s Pizza in Marrakesh.

As for taxes, having to pay them is no longer a sure thing either, especially if you’re a corporate giant like General Electric, with a thousand employees in its tax department, skilled in creative accounting. You’ll recall recent reports that although GE made profits last year of $5.1 billion in the United States and $14.2 billion worldwide they would pay not a penny of federal income tax. Chalk it up to billions of dollars of losses at GE Capital during the financial meltdown and a government tax break that allows companies to avoid paying US taxes on profits made overseas while “actively financing” different kinds of deals.

It gets worse. In 2009, Exxon-Mobil didn’t pay any taxes either, and last year, they had worldwide profits of $30.46 billion. Neither did Bank of America or Chevron or Boeing. According to a report last week from the office of the New York City Public Advocate, in 2009, the five companies, including GE, received a total of $3.7 billion in federal tax benefits.

As The New York Times‘ David Kocieniewski reported in March, “Although the top corporate tax rate in the United States is 35 percent, one of the highest in the world, companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less… Such strategies, as well as changes in tax laws that encouraged some businesses and professionals to file as individuals, have pushed down the corporate share of the nation’s tax receipts — from 30 percent of all federal revenue in the mid-1950s to 6.6 percent in 2009.”

What’s greasing the wheels for these advantages is, hold on to your hats, cash. Over the last decade, according to the NYC public advocate’s report, those same five companies — GE, Exxon-Mobil, Bank of America, Chevron and Boeing — gave more than $43.1 million to political campaigns. During the 2009-2010 election cycle, the five spent a combined $7.86 million in campaign contributions, a 7 percent jump over their 2007-2008 political spending.

“These tax breaks were put in place to promote growth and create jobs, not bankroll the political causes of corporate executives,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said. “… No company that can afford to spend millions of dollars to influence our elections should be pleading poverty come tax time.”

And by the way, those campaign cash figures don’t even include all the money those companies funneled into the 2010 campaigns via trade associations and tax-exempt non-profits. Thanks to the Supreme Court Citizens United decision, we don’t know the numbers because, as per the court, the corporate biggies don’t have to tell us. Imagine them sticking out their tongues and wiggling their fingers in their ears and you have a pretty good idea of their official position on this.

Meanwhile, last week Republicans like Utah’s Orrin Hatch, ranking member of the US Senate Finance Committee, grabbed hold of an analysis by Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation and wrestled it to the ground. The brief memorandum reported that in the 2009 tax year 51 percent of all American taxpayers had zero tax liability or received a refund. So why, the Republicans asked, are Democrats and others so mean, asking corporations and the rich to pay higher taxes when lots of other people — especially the poor and middle class — don’t pay taxes either?

Hatch told MSNBC, “Bastiat, the great economist of the past, said the place where you’ve got to get revenues has to come from the middle class. That’s the huge number of people that are there. So the system does need to be revamped… We have an unbalanced tax code that we’ve got to change.”

All of which flies in the face of reality. As Travis Waldron of the progressive ThinkProgress website explained, “The majority of Americans who do not pay federal income taxes don’t make enough money to qualify for even the lowest tax bracket, a problem made worse by the economic recession. That includes retired Americans, who don’t pay income taxes because they earn very little income, if they earn any at all.

“And while many low-income Americans don’t pay income taxes, they do pay taxes. Because of payroll and sales taxes — a large proportion of which are paid by low- and middle-income Americans — less than a quarter of the nation’s households don’t contribute to federal tax receipts — and the majority of the non-contributors are students, the elderly, or the unemployed.”

What’s more, ThinkProgress notes, “The top 400 taxpayers — who have more wealth than half of all Americans combined — are paying lower taxes than they have in a generation, as their tax responsibilities have slowly collapsed since the New Deal era.”  In the meantime, “working families have been asked to pay more and more.”

So maybe death and taxes are no longer certain, but one thing remains as immutable as the hills. In the words of another golden oldie, there’s nothing surer — the rich get rich and the poor get poorer.

By: Michael Winship, CommonDreams.org, May 10, 2011

May 14, 2011 Posted by | Businesses, Class Warfare, Congress, Conservatives, Corporations, Democrats, Economy, Elections, General Electric, GOP, Government, Income Gap, Jobs, Lawmakers, Middle Class, Politics, Republicans, Tax Credits, Tax Increases, Tax Liabilities, Tax Loopholes, Taxes, Voters | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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