Saturday, August 13, 2011

Voices of Reason Invited to Speak Up, published in the Centre Daily Times, July 2011

Imagine a group of incompetent firemen in a burning building, arguing about where to attach their hoses, when to turn them on, and how much water to use.  While they bicker, a modest fire builds into a raging inferno.  The firemen are our congress, the fire is our debt ceiling and economy.  Where are we?  On the sidelines, helpless, and shaking our heads sadly.

The House Republicans, a few months after nearly shutting down the government and finally approving a budget, now want to deny funds to actually execute it by refusing to raise the country’s debt ceiling.  Their reasons are good – we do need to reduce our deficits.  The problem is, this has now turned into yet another gunfight at the O.K. Corral with the Democrats, and this time, amongst the Republicans themselves.

Their goal:  reduce the federal deficit by the same amount the debt limit is raised, which is about 2.5 trillion dollars through the end of 2012.  However, in true politician fashion, they’ve decided to do this over ten years instead of two, spreading most of the pain downstream.  But now the Democrats have jumped on board, and want a grander reduction – 4 trillion dollars.

As usual, the devil’s in the details.  Republicans will only consider spending cuts.  However, they can’t meet their goals without massive cuts to the big hitters in the budget – Defense, Medicare, and Social Security.  Democrats want a deal with ¾ spending cuts, and ¼ revenue increases. Many Republicans insist on no revenue increases, calling them tax hikes.   Some Republicans won’t vote for raising the debt limit under any conditions.

The puzzling thing is that Republican governors across the country are balancing state budgets through both spending cuts and revenue increases.  The revenue increases are from state employees who will now pay more for their health care and retirement.  The national equivalent to this would be increases in Medicare and Social Security taxes.

Here’s a painful fact, though: the $4T isn’t nearly enough, only reducing yearly deficits from about $1.5T to $1.1T.  We need far more than that, and in fact need to be running surpluses soon to pay down our debt or we’re in for even more serious problems.  Spending cuts alone cannot get us there – we simply must have tax increases of some sort, particularly to fund Medicare.

Another way to crank up our revenue is to finally do something to help put unemployed Americans back to work so they can pay taxes again.  Simply continuing to lower taxes isn’t helping – after the cuts of 2009 and 2011 our taxes are among the lowest in the industrialized world.  And yet our unemployment rate remains over 9%, with our companies still wary about hiring because our citizens are pessimistic and reluctant to spend.

Much of this pessimism is from watching our dysfunctional government.  The only way to fix our budget problems in the long term is to stop voting in extremists from both parties, and put reasonable, independent non-ideologues in office to address our debt issues in a common-sense bipartisan way.

Independents Shut out of Primaries, published in the Centre Daily Times May 2011

I’m not voting on Tuesday (there’s a primary on, in case you weren’t aware).  The only reason I’ll go to the polls is to bring my wife a cup of coffee and for my 9 year old to say hello while she works at the College Heights polling station.

Why aren’t I voting?  It’s not because I don’t want to – independent voters in Pennsylvania, and in half of our states, aren’t allowed to vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries.

Let’s count the reasons this is so wrong. 

1.     All eligible Americans should be allowed to vote.
2.     By not allowing independents to vote, each party often nominates their purest, most radical elements, leaving the independent-minded with poor choices in November.
3.     See reason number 1.

I realize I could simply change my affiliation to one of the parties so that I could vote in their primary.  I’ve done this before, and found myself on some mailing and phone lists I’d rather not be on.  Therefore, I’d rather stay unaffiliated.

It’s time for an independent category in our political system.  The two reigning parties have not been serving us well, and do not deserve to continue their monopoly on public service.  In 2008, Democrats swept into power, promising to fix the recession and deliver more jobs to America.  Instead, they spent a year and a half arguing with each other and the Republicans over health care.  In 2010, Republicans swept into power, promising to deliver more jobs to America.  Instead, they’ve spent their first few months in office busting unions, and slashing and burning education and any social program their far-right base dislikes.

What part of ‘please work on restoring jobs in America’ do these folks not understand?  It’s clear they’ll say anything to get elected, and then when in office, keep pounding away at their same old agendas.  A truly independent party might fix this problem.  Without a clear majority for either the Democrats or Republicans, they would be forced to work with a centrist independent group of senators and representatives on all major decisions.

I believe that there are already many folks in office who are actually fairly independent and moderate.  However, they are not allowed to vote their consciences because their parties threaten them, dangling reelection campaign funds and advertising over their heads.  If you don’t go along with the party line, say goodbye to your chances in the next primary.

Starting a truly unaffiliated, independent party would very likely draw some of these public servants in.  Combine it with a new wave of centrists, and perhaps we could build up a moderate group that represents the 25% or so of us who don’t identify with either party.  Then, we might be able to restore some common sense and reasonableness into our government.  The first step though, is to allow Americans like me to vote in Pennsylvania, and in other state’s primaries.

Natural Resources Key to Unlimited Energy, published in the Centre Daily Times, April 2011

Until 2008, you probably took the energy you used for granted.  The gas in your car, electricity that powers your home, and perhaps the natural gas you use for heat seemed plentiful, and didn’t cost much.  That world is gone forever, as Middle East chaos, oil slicks in the Gulf, coal mine disasters, and Japanese reactor meltdowns have us off-balance and confused, wondering where to turn for energy in the 21st century.

We should clearly find more energy here in the US, so we aren’t forced to buy so much of it from other, sometimes unfriendly countries.  Some advocate the ‘drill, baby, drill’ approach, but that won’t do us much good, since the oil extracted here is sold to the highest bidders in the global energy markets.  The natural gas boom looks like the classic quick fix, and could provide decades of cheap power.  However, even our home-grown natural gas could be sold overseas, jacking those prices upward.
Another part of the answer is simple, but one that many of us don’t seem to like – use less energy.  Recent increases in automobile fuel efficiency requirements, with more to come, are encouraging.  Electric cars also sound great – at current electricity prices.  With deregulated power companies, though, it seems doubtful those prices will stay low.

Our best move is to better harness the limitless natural resources we have.  Our atmosphere constantly spins its way around our planet, blowing faster at higher altitudes, where expanded wind turbine farms could generate far more electricity than they do now.  Hydroelectric turbomachinery – in dams or offshore – are even stronger power sources. The sun is perhaps our greatest gift – radiating a huge supply of energy onto the earth every day.  All of these sources, used optimally, could easily replace fossil fuels in our lifetimes.

What’s to keep us from seeing a future like this?  The current energy suppliers, of course.  The CEOs who run our fossil fuel-based energy companies love to point out that the investment required to advance green energy to the point where it costs less than traditional energy is exorbitant.  However, these CEOs don’t like to admit that their own companies have been receiving generous government subsidies for decades.  Also, many of these companies have ‘befriended’ enough politicians to avoid being taxed fairly for the resources they extract from our states (sound familiar?).

Mankind has been put in an ingenious puzzle – given enough burnable resources to power our lives for a limited time, but also an enormous body of clean energy that could power our world indefinitely. Do we follow the fossil-fuel CEOs down the easy path, and doom our children and grandchildren to a new dark age without the easy energy they are accustomed to or the means to extract it from new resources?  Or do we follow engineers and scientists down a more difficult short-term path to a world where energy is limitless and clean?  The answer seems simple, and yet politicians from the fossil-fuel states are trying to steer us down the wrong path, spewing nonsense about how any government attempt to nudge us toward new and smarter energy would cost jobs and ruin our economy.

Even if we continue taking the easy road – know that other countries are not.  When fossil fuels begin to run out, we face the sad future of being a country subservient to Asian and European clean energy technologies.  We cannot let this happen.  The only thing standing in the way of a better energy future is ourselves.

To Reduce Unemployment, Pass New Trade Bills Soon, Published in the Centre Daily Times February 2011

The recent recession has turned many of us into armchair economists.  I’m often surprised to find myself reaching first for the business section of the paper instead of the sports, hoping to see that unemployment statistics are getting better. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics ( about 7.5 million Americans lost their jobs between 2007 and now, more than doubling the number of unemployed to 14.5 million.  Most of these folks were in the ‘goods producing’ sector, with the rest in supporting areas like trade and transportation and business services.  This decline in manufacturing and construction has actually been going on for a while now.  In 1979, over 1 in 4 employed Americans actually made and built things for a living.  Today, only about 1 in 8 do.  We’ve become a society of service providers, selling each other things (usually made in China), growing and serving each other food, and taking care of our aging baby boomer population.

While many large companies are starting to hire again, they’re doing so at an extremely cautious pace.  Small businesses, which employ about half of all private sector workers, are still struggling to hire as they try to get loans from stingy banks still smarting from their losses in the subprime home mortgage markets.  The direst employment projections are for state and local governments, which after the expiration of the 2008 and 2009 stimulus programs, are facing massive deficits.  Reluctant to raise taxes to balance the books, governors and mayors will soon be laying off hundreds of thousands of teachers, law enforcement officers, and other public servants.

What can the government do to resolve these issues?  While the president’s vision of an alternative energy-driven new economy is intriguing, it won’t lead to 7.5 million new jobs anytime soon. Besides, the days of stimulus are clearly over with Republicans controlling the House.  Reforming the corporate tax code might provide more incentives for businesses to hire, but that will take years to debate and implement.  The Republican mantra of reducing regulations?  Unlikely with Obama in the White House (and frankly, much of our industry needs regulating – let’s not forget the Gulf oil spill or the lost West Virginia miners too quickly).

While new job-creating federal policies are unlikely, there is another way to put Americans back to work, and that is to get our country back into the business of making things.  This means not just selling things to each other, but exporting more goods to other countries with newly well-heeled citizens, like China, South Korea, and India, as well as to South America.  We already export more stuff than any other country in the world (except for China), including a lot of airplanes and automobiles, pharmaceuticals, farm goods, and fuels.

Obama wants to double our exports within five years – a lofty goal, considering we export almost 1.3 trillion dollars in goods now.  It’s been done before, but typically over a ten year period, not five.  This is why trade agreements with South Korea, and with Panama and Columbia, are in the works.   Both parties in congress seem willing to debate, and hopefully pass these agreements.  The big jackpot, however, is China, with its newly wealthy behaving a bit like ours did in the 1950’s and 1960’s – all wanting their share of the new Chinese dream.  The President and congress need to find ways to carefully push our way further into these markets as soon as possible.

Stimulus II, published in the Centre Daily Times December 2010

Get ready for Stimulus II, also known as the “Two Year Bush Tax Cut Extension/One Year Social Security Tax Cut/One Year Unemployment Benefit Extension/Add your Favorite Congressional Deal Sweetener here” bill.  To both extend the Bush Tax Cuts temporarily and pass a second stimulus bill, President Obama has made a deal with the Devil (the Republicans), or so liberal Democrats would have you believe.

Most of us have seen the details in the papers – the compromise would dump almost 900 billion dollars into the economy over the next two years, most of it tax cuts and unemployment benefits.  Liberal democrats call this bill a sellout to the rich, and are threatening the president with retribution.  This doesn’t seem constructive, as the real debate should be about (1) whether the bill will actually stimulate the economy in a big way, as most conservatives believe, and (2) is the price tag (nearly a trillion dollars added to the deficit) worth it?

Extending unemployment benefits (about 60 billion) is a no-brainer.  The unemployed use their checks to pay their bills and shop for food, so the money goes directly into our economy.  The potential benefits of the Bush tax cut extension are less clear.  Low income families will use most of the cuts (460 billion) to continue buying goods and services.  The rub comes with the extensions for the wealthy (80 billion, plus 70 billion in estate, or ‘death’ tax reductions).  Economists are divided on whether this money is stimulative, or just goes into bank and trust fund accounts.  The one year Social Security tax reduction is intriguing, though, as it benefits the middle class the most.  But, will the middle class go on spending sprees in 2011 with this ‘rebate’, or will they pay down debt or save it?  I’m inclined to dump my cut (should the bill pass) into my daughter’s college fund, which isn’t very stimulative.

Why isn’t congress only passing the portions of this bill that are guaranteed to help the economy?  Because congress is full of politicians – nothing simple and straightforward happens there.  Republicans, who believe strongly in supply-side economics (money and prosperity flow downhill from wealthy companies and individuals), have tied unemployment benefits to extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  Also, our Senate has degraded to the point where only bills with supermajorities (60 votes or more) can pass, forcing compromise between the parties.

I am torn in many ways on this bill.  In spite of economists declaring the recent recession over, there are over 8 million people who lost their jobs in the recession still looking for work.  Consumer confidence remains stubbornly low.  More stimulus may be needed to nudge our economy to the point where it becomes self-sustaining.  However, our debt keeps growing, and borrowing more money than necessary to give rich folks tax breaks doesn’t seem like a great idea.

After much reflection, I’m inclined to support this bill, and caution liberal Democrats that recent polls seem to show that most Americans do as well.  The recent election is also a clear sign that Americans want compromise.  Trashing the rich and the president is not helpful for the country right now, and I encourage my liberal friends to save their anger for 2012, when we’ll all have this debate again, hopefully under better economic conditions.

Don't Believe Everything you Hear or Read in Political Ads, published in the Centre Daily Times, November 2010

Here’s a sample of our junk mail over the past few weeks, and some of the amateurish ads on TV lately:  “Joe Sestak voted to send your jobs overseas to China.”  “Pat Toomey voted to send your jobs overseas to China.”  “Joe Sestak voted to gut Medicare.”  “Pat Toomey wants to privatize Social Security.”  Are all of the candidates for major Pennsylvania offices really that heartless, clueless, and vicious?  Of course not.  Then why are these folks slinging manure at each other?

I believe President Obama got it wrong in his famous speech at the 2004 democratic convention, where he declared there is no Red America, no Blue America, only the United States of America.  There is a red and blue America, but until fairly recently, those Americas were small parts of our society.  Yes, about 70 of our population identifies themselves as Democrats or Republicans, but most of those aren’t the ones screaming at each other at increasingly violent town hall meetings.  The rest of us are more relaxed – call us ‘Purple’ America.  We remain friendly with each other at the office or at neighborhood and community gatherings even if we have different political views.  However, there are unsettling signs that the non-stop exaggerations, vitriol, and outright lies spewed over cable news and other media is starting to corrupt purple America, turning more of us into extremists.

More disturbingly, our leaders are fanning these flames, rather than trying to put them out, in order to win elections.  We must remember the only thing that motivates politicians – the fear of losing their jobs. This means any candidate in a tight election will say or do anything to gain an edge, even spreading half-truths and lies about their opponents (shocking, I know).  So, to get re-elected, the politicians continue to tear apart our society, and further polarize us.  Purple America keeps shrinking.

The potential outcomes of this polarization range from unpleasant, to frightening.  We’re already seeing the unpleasant – we essentially have only two entities in government, not 100 senators and 435 Representatives.  Each entity, the Democratic and Republican parties, casts one vote, with nearly all of their members in lockstep.  This means little gets accomplished.  Critical issues like balancing our budget, and even defending our country, are ignored as the politicians run home to pound their chests, wrap themselves in the flag, and demonize their opponents.

To see the frightening – open your history books.  The last time our country became even more polarized was the 1960’s, with history-changing assassinations, and police and soldiers beating and killing our angry young and minorities.  Other countries that became this divided have done unthinkable things.  Many moderate Germans in the 1930’s claimed they never noticed how radicalized their nation was becoming until it was too late.  Same goes for the Spaniards before their catastrophic civil war.

We cannot let our politicians and media take us down paths like that. We must regain control of our own views, and our own future.  Start by questioning everything you hear.  And, when something really bothers you, dig around until you find the facts and make your own decisions ( is a handy website to start with).  Finally, we must remain tolerant of our friends and neighbors views, even when they disagree with ours.  This is, after all, what makes America the most open and dynamic place on earth.

An Independents View of the Federal Budget, Published in the Centre Daily Times October 2010

‘We live within our means – please tell the president,’ reads a bumper sticker I’ve been seeing lately.  Are our leaders really spending our country into the ground?  To find out, I took a detailed look at our federal budget (it’s available online at

Our budget is huge – 3.7 trillion dollars in 2010 - the largest in the world.  About 62% of it is mandated by law, covering Social Security (about 20%), Medicare (12%), Medicaid (8%), unemployment benefits (6%), other help for our poor and elderly (11%) and the net interest we pay on our national debt (5% … for now).  The remaining discretionary 38% is what congress and the president argue about every year, paying for defense and homeland security (23%) and domestic programs (15%).  Incidentally, the infamous ‘pork barrel’ projects are just 0.5% of the budget.

We only have about 2.4 trillion dollars to spend though, leaving us with a 1.3 trillion dollar shortfall.  What’s causing the deficit?  The Recovery Act, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush tax cuts, and the Bush Medicare prescription benefits add up to over 800 billion.  The remainder of the deficit isn’t irresponsible spending, but a nearly 500 billion drop in tax revenue, thanks to the recession and the large numbers of unemployed.

Even with a rebounding economy and diminishing war costs, we won’t return to the budget surpluses of the Clinton years because of strongly increasing outlays for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and our rising national debt.  The number of people that receive Social Security and Medicare benefits is rising dramatically.  Combined with the increasing costs of medical care, we’re staring down the barrel of a 1.2 trillion dollar yearly increase in those outlays by 2020.  Also, with over 14 trillion dollars to pay off, our interest payments will soar from 200 billion this year to 800 billion in 2020.

To prevent debt payments from swallowing nearly all our budget, we must pay off our loans.  We must not only balance our budget, but run surpluses for the foreseeable future.  Modest cuts to our entitlement programs are necessary, particularly for those who don’t depend on them for their day to day living, as well as cuts to both domestic and defense spending. 

However, even Draconian cuts won’t come close to balancing our budget.  We must consider what no politician seems willing to do – raise taxes.  Our deficits simply don’t allow us to extend the Bush tax cuts (about 230 billion dollars yearly), except for the lower and middle classes.  Also, while minor benefit cuts should keep Social Security solvent, we must raise Medicare taxes to keep up with future skyrocketing increases.  Incidentally, even with these increases, a US citizen’s tax burden would be among the lowest in the world.

It’s up to us to fix our national debt problem.  Our political leaders are borrowing huge amounts of money every year (mostly from China) to bribe us with tax breaks so we don’t throw them out of office.  I’d rather pay more taxes and trim spending now so our kids don’t face a catastrophic US default on our loans, throwing the world into a depression far worse than what we just faced.  We must make it clear to politicians that they need to seriously address our deficit, using both budget cuts, and yes, necessary tax increases.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

An Independent's View of President Obama - Published in the Centre Daily Times July 2010

I have been reading with interest and confusion recent news articles about how successful President Obama has been in implementing his agenda, and how he’s losing popularity because of it.  It seems that independent male voters no longer approve of his plans for our country.

Well, this independent male voter sees a president who is doing precisely what he promised to do.  Perhaps my fellow male independents didn’t listen to Obama’s speeches carefully when he was running for office.  As an independent – I paid a great deal of attention, and believed (and still do) that his way of doing things deserves a chance after many years of an earlier, failed approach.

After the worldwide economic trainwreck of 2008, our country, and most of the other wealthy countries of the world, quickly infused huge amounts of capitol into the global economy to head off a worldwide depression.  This seems to have worked, for now, but could not suddenly reset us back to the flush times of pre-2008.  The fact is, we won’t see times like that for many years, perhaps decades.  I’m not sure those times were all that great, considering that they were fueled by unsustainable credit spending frenzies and what that led us into.  Last week, an uneven, but worthwhile overhaul of our financial system became law – fulfilling one of Obama’s promises.

The earlier promise fulfilled – that of healthcare expansion to millions of our friends and neighbors who did not have it – seems to me to be a no-brainer.  And yet, so many of my fellow independents seem to disagree with this notion.  While I suspect that the budget estimates for the expanded health care plan are optimistic, I have no problem paying extra, if necessary, to help those of my fellow citizens in need.

I understand that the large concern in most independents, and nearly all Republicans, is the growing deficit.  It bothers me too.  However, although I’m certainly not an economist, it’s clear that our deficits are driven largely by millions of Americans who are jobless and are no longer paying taxes, and thousands of businesses who are losing or making less money, and also no longer paying taxes.  With the exception of the stimulus plan, the notion that Obama is spending us into the ground is simply not true.  Our outlays haven’t changed that much since the Bush years, and indeed most of our current outlays are holdovers from those years.

The long term deficit reduction plan – less war spending once we finally draw down from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and the end of the tax cuts for the wealthy in 2011 – clearly must be augmented with more cost reduction measures.  However, in my opinion those measures must wait until the economy has healed more than it has so far.  Ripping off the bandages of support for the horrific economic wounds our country has suffered too early could drive us back into the days of early 2009 (and the 700,000 lost jobs each month we suffered back then).

So, to my fellow male independent voters, please remember what you voted for, and also remember that recovering from 2008 and 2009 quite simply takes more than just a few months, or even years.  Screaming at the quarterback who came into the game down several touchdowns for not immediately leading a historic comeback in a matter of minutes doesn’t help.  Instead, let’s keep open minds, be patient, and try our best to remember that we’re all Americans, and that we’re in this together.

Friday, August 5, 2011



I am an independent voter who writes opinion columns for my local newspaper - the Centre Daily Times.  I'll be posting my old columns shortly, and any new ones I write, soon.

I'm fairly conservative on defense and spending, and fairly liberal on social issues.  Above all, I believe that ideology has no place in politics, and that America's politicians have lost their way, catering to extremists on both sides.

By writing about the important issues we are now facing, I hope to convince more people that moderation and common sense should win the day, and that more of us contact our representatives and senators to pull them away from the strident ideologues that seem to influence them most.

I look forward to your comments.