Sonny's Corner: Is the System Broken?

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Sonny Foster"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.

By Eugene Glock

Again this morning I heard one of the talking heads, sometimes called political experts, say that the government in Washington is broken. (By the way, if you look up the parts of the word “expert” in the dictionary, you will find that ex means “has been” and spurt is “a drip under pressure,” and that seems to fit admirably.) I would agree that it isn’t working as envisioned by the founders of this great nation, but I prefer to think that it is like a very complex piece of equipment that continually has new parts inserted in the “system,” and, although intended to make the machine run like new, they don’t always accomplish that. It is easy to blame the mess on “those people in Washington,” but that is not where the real fault lies. The fault lies with the people who “buy” those parts—the members of Congress and the president and the Supreme Court. I use the term “buy” intentionally because, unfortunately, that is really how most of those parts are obtained and sent to Washington. With the mistaken belief, in my opinion, that unregulated spending on campaigns is a matter of free speech, those elected representatives get to Washington only by having nearly unlimited amounts of cash at their disposal to compete for the right to represent us. Too many people seem to let the rhetoric of innumerable advertisements make their choice for them on which is the best candidate. Until we find a way to select candidates on their views on what to do to solve our nation’s problems and then send them to Washington to use their intelligence to work out ways to address the problems, we will continue to flounder. Right now, if I were a kindergarten teacher preparing the reports for the “students” in Congress and the administration and courts, I would check the box that says “Does not work and play well with others.”

The founding fathers chose to establish a Republic governed by a democracy as its form of governing. The basic meaning of a democracy is to govern by majority rule. It does not in any stretch of meaning infer that one solution to a problem is always the best. I have been around long enough to have learned that any one solution to a problem, even if it is my own, is not always the only way or the best way to attack the problem. Most of the time the best solution is a combination of the various solutions proposed by participants. This is called compromise, which seems to have become a naughty word in Washington these days. The blame, however, rests with the citizens who have selected representatives on the basis of their promise to support only one point of view. Both parties, and some independents, are guilty of this use of a philosophical litmus test to determine who will get their massive financial and personal support. None of the groups, liberal, conservative, or any other philosophical leaning, represent this misguided approach to governing so clearly as the Tea Party. They sent representatives to Washington with the specific charge to refuse to compromise, even if it meant total disruption of the system. They accomplished their goal of disruption but did nothing to really address the multitude of serious challenges our nation faces in rapidly changing times. The sad part is that the Tea Party has some very worthwhile suggestions for curbing spending, but by themselves they are not the real answer to bringing our financial house in order. The Democrats have some very good suggestions for addressing the budget problems by dealing with the revenue side of the ledger. Unfortunately, these suggestions by themselves are just as ineffective as those of the Tea Party or others fixated on the spending side of the budget.

I was fortunate to spend ten years on the Ag Advisory Board of the Tenth Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. This is a nonpartisan part of our government charged with keeping our nation’s economy on a somewhat even keel, regardless of the party in power and what Congress decides to do in the fiscal realm. They don’t enter directly into policy making, but they certainly analyze the possible impacts of various proposals so they can make adjustments within their authority to try to keep things running as smoothly as possible. One thing that I learned from that experience was that the economy can sometimes be stimulated by tax cuts. However, if the money to replace the lost revenue has to be borrowed, as is the case now, the nation will likely never recover the lost revenue entirely. This is because interest has to be paid on the money borrowed to replace the revenue. If there is increased economic activity, only a very small part of this increase in economic activity results in revenue to the treasury. You will always see many statistics that justify the tax cuts under all circumstances. However, I still remember what my Dad told me. One of his sayings was, “Figures don’t lie, but liars can sure figure.” When you study all the data surrounding tax cuts, you can certainly find bits and pieces of information that indicate that tax cuts result in increased federal revenue. I don’t think the wealthy and those making lots of money should be penalized, but I do think they should pay the same proportion of their income in taxes to the federal government as the rest of the population. Our current system of taxation allows them to legitimately say that they pay a higher tax rate than the rest of us. This is very misleading, as they have many pretax deductions built into the tax code that allow them to remove income before it is taxed. All these “economic stimulators” for various segments of the economy of our nation have been implemented to assist what was viewed as a critical part of the system that needed help at the time. Unfortunately, although the need for stimulus of a segment is usually short term in nature, the tax break is never repealed. When someone gets one of these “stimulators,” the rest of the taxpayers have to make up that loss of revenue. Our system has become so riddled with these “tax breaks” that the actual amount of taxes paid on any given income is severely skewed between diverse classes of citizens.

Until the Congress addresses amendments to the entitlement programs—Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—we will never really have a chance to reach the vibrant economic situation that for so long was attributed by the world to the United States. I fault the president for not leading the charge to deal with the entitlements. The president should also be leading the charge to lead Congress to deal with the unfair and ineffective tax code. Correcting the inequalities in tax breaks and addressing the entitlements would enable everyone to pay a lower percentage of their income in taxes. Some would undoubtedly pay more than now, but no one could then complain that they pay an unfair rate.

The bottom line is that we, as citizens and beneficiaries of citizenship in the greatest nation in the world, must change our attitude. We must accept the fact that our nation can only move forward at a pace that matches that of other emerging powers in the world if we work together to find solutions to the problems that face our nation. This means that we must argue vigorously for what we believe are the best solutions to problems, but we must also accept that we must try different approaches, many times a combination of suggestions by many different philosophies. If these compromise solutions do not totally resolve the problem, then our elected representatives must again address the problems with the experience gained by the less-than-perfect solutions. Moving forward, if only to a less than ideal solution, is far better for the nation than doing nothing and letting the problem continue to grow to even larger proportions.

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