“Not to worry.”

Posted in Opinion on September 18th, 2012 by byronkho

“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax. My job is is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.” – Mitt Romney

Unfortunately, the numbers are not on Romney’s side. According to 2011 numbers from the Tax Policy Center, 53.6% of Americans pay a positive amount of income tax, while 28.3% of Americans pay only payroll tax. Of the rest, 7.9% earn too little to be eligible for federal income taxes or are unemployed, and 10.3% are elderly and thus no longer in the job market. For a little perspective: this means that 83% of the country ARE paying income tax or payroll tax. This means that a great majority of the country is financing their country through a tax of some sort, and thus deserving of a government that promises them services in return for their votes and taxes.

Just saying “income tax” and “payroll tax” can be deceiving, though. A lot of people paying payroll tax are paying their full tax bracket but according to the calculations necessary for calculating their federal tax liability, they owe nothing on their federal income tax returns. A lot of people claim home mortgage interest deductions and child tax credits – which help lower tax liability, sometimes to zero or to negative numbers – both of which are popular with Romney’s Republican base and are one of the mainstays of the “typical” middle class lifestyle the US, through the IRS, has attempted to promote over the last few decades. If you’re middle class, you should have a home and you should have a few kids; invest in your communities and we’re telling you that government will be there for you and your family.

There are other factors too. Rich Americans are more likely to be subject to the capital gains tax, which means that a large portion of their income is taxed at a lower rate than many low wage-earning workers. For example, Romney’s income was taxed at 13.9% (at least, that’s what he tells us) whereas many low-income people in the United States are taxed at their full bracket of 15% through their payroll tax and show no liability at all on their federal income tax bill. The poorest Americans are still likely to be paying taxes in some other form, as there are sales taxes and use taxes and licenses and fees that it is hard to live without encountering at some point.

Additionally, tax liabilities decreased across the board for all Americans, rich and poor, due to tax reform and tax cuts engineered by Reagan and Bush Jr. Though Romney may lament their contribution, many of the non-income-tax-payers being villainized “earned” their situation back in 2002-3 due to political necessity. One senior Bush administration official posed a rhetorical question to a Washington Post correspondent: “Do you think we wanted to include a welfare payment to people who don’t pay taxes and call it a tax cut?… No. But that’s what we needed to do to get it done.” For rich people, it was a cut… for poor Americans, it was a “welfare payment.” Unfortunately, their language also utilized the wrong definitions for “people who don’t pay taxes” and generally missed that these were majority low wage-earners – who were still earning wages. If poor people don’t seem to be paying enough taxes, then that would be the fault of the system that dictated how much they should pay – and which provides loopholes that richer people can use to pay less.

What’s more astonishing about Romney’s speech is that he can so casually insult his own base. Many of the Americans on welfare and cash assistance programs tend to be from red states; furthermore, the states with the most non-payers of payroll tax are overwhelmingly Republican, including Florida. A lot of his support comes from elderly voters, who are extremely reliant on and rigid in their beliefs regarding Social Security and Medicare, both government subsidized social safety nets that should theoretically fall afoul of Romney beliefs. Many of the midwestern and Southern states who fall safely for the GOP time and time again get a lot of money for agricultural subsidies, despite being mostly unnecessary – and if that’s not a (food-related) entitlement, what should that be called?

Even without looking at any of the specific details, it’s hard not to criticize someone who says that the President’s role – his intended role -is “not to worry” about almost half of the population. The Founders stated that “government is instituted, and ought to be exercised for the benefit of the people; which consists in the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the right of acquiring and using property, and generally of pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” By people, the Founders implied all citizens of the United States, not just 53% of the country. Extending the thought out a little farther, it’s almost as if Romney is advocating that the President not be concerned with things like unemployment. Are jobs an entitlement? As citizens of the United States, is it our right to have a job? If the President shouldn’t worry about citizens with entitlement issues, then it’s a great reason not to have to worry about basically any issues at all.

Lest people be confused about what the role of government is, let me be clear about this – government is there to allow all people the enjoyment of life and liberty, not just a select few. We all live in this country of ours under a social contract – the Bill of Rights, the Consitution, the myriad laws and resolutions from our august judicial and legislative bodies – and by remaining here, that means we agree to a government that will help manage the implementation and safeguarding of the universal rights we promised ourselves. That means that we agreed to have the government be responsible for us. We can disagree on just how much responsibility that means – and what “enjoyment of life” means – but we must agree that the government is there for all people. Government is not allowed to abandon people because they are not working hard enough, or they don’t believe in the same things, or have too little money. That’s not in the contract.

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On comebacks.

Posted in Music on September 17th, 2012 by byronkho

DUAL COMEBACKS for Ben Folds Five and the crew of Fraggle Rock! In the next episode, it’ll be Lamb Chop and Reel Big Fish. “Everybody’s doin the fish…” (Lamb Chop: “Thank God they’re skipping the lamb course.”). And then there’ll be the Canadian version, with the Elephant from Sharon Lois & Bram dueling it out with Alanis Morissette. (“You, you’re uninvited. Yes, you. Elephant in the room.” Squish.)

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On Voting.

Posted in Opinion on September 13th, 2012 by byronkho

Thomas Paine is credited for being one of the primary founders of the American state. He wrote “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis”, which helped influence dissent toward England and promulgate and continue support of the American Revolution throughout the War. He initiated a mission to Paris in 1781 that, with Ben Franklin’s help, encouraged the donation of 16 million livres (1.2 million pounds) from the French government to US coffers. Without this huge influx of “free” money, it is unlikely Congress could have continued paying the army and support staff.

Paine stated “to take away the right [of voting for representatives] is to reduce a man to slavery.” In 1806, three years before his death, he was denied the right to vote in his chosen homestead of New Rochelle, NY, by Tory election inspectors who were adamant that he was not an American. His enemies in the New York legislature then went on to engineer a ruling against him when he pursued the matter in court; Paine lost. Though he spent his life supporting the right of individuals to vote for their political representatives AND despite helping the American state into existence, he died without the ability to vote in these United States via illegal manipulation of the voting process by elected officials with grudges.

Thus it is disappointing to see the increase in election-changing laws in the middle of an election year: the timing pointing to rather obvious manipulation of the process for favorable outcomes of one party above another. Paine might have rolled over in his grave, had not he already suffered the indignities of similar electoral maneuvering during his lifetime. He would already be rolled over.

Here are a few heinous examples of voter disenfranchisement this year.

1) 40% of Philadelphians are currently without a vote due to the new PA voter ID law. There are 0 previous instances of voter impersonation fraud in PA history. Furthermore, the law was upheld in an Aug 15 ruling by the Hon. Robert Simpson that drew heavily from previous PA case law: the 1869 case of Patterson v. Barlow. In that case, the court supported the legalization of different voting procedures for the city of Philadelphia because it was providing too many voting rights to “rogues and vagabonds”, such that the net result was “to place the vicious vagrant, the wandering Arabs, the Tartar hordes of our large cities, on a level with the virtuous and good man.” Too many poor people were voting, thus the court ruled in favor of not poisoning the well with their vote.

2) There are almost 4 million ex-felons who are unable to vote. States in swing states are likely to suppress re-enfranchisement of felons, and more particularly, in states where a) there are more felons of color and b) communities of color are more typically pro-Democrat. Hardly surprising is the fact that most criminals who are able to regain their voting rights tend to be white-collar criminals, who skew Republican.

In probably the worst example, Florida contains an ex-felon population that is about 1 in every 10 adults, or 1.3 million people. According to the Nation, 200,000 of these – non-violent offenders who have completed their full sentence – were to be eligible to vote in this year’s elections under reform passed by Gov. Charlie Crist; sadly, the new Republican governor, Rick Scott, rescinded those laws and prevented that entire population from voting. Ex-felons are considered to have suffered for their crimes and are “safe” enough to be let out into the general public again… but they can’t be trusted with voting?

3) Federal judges found Texas to be guilty of gerrymandering districts to decrease Hispanic and African-American influence, while also providing economic services, district government offices and important job-growth projects – hospitals, state universities, sports stadiums – to only white areas and removing them from majority Hispanic or African-American areas. Unsurprisingly, many of the minority populations voted Democrat, and the gerrymandering was managed by Republican state administrators.

On top of that, Texas also has a new voter ID law which is discriminatory in its application against poor people.
– The issuance of IDs requires presentation of a birth certificate, which costs $22. Every citizen should be able to acquire a state-issued ID for free, especially when it’s necessary for voting!
– More than 1/3 of Texas’ counties do not have a Department of Public Safety office, which issues the state IDs. If people have an extremely hard time getting to these offices, how will they get IDs? Texas is a large state, and poor people who have limited access to cars and/or gas will be unable to drive the distance or give up the necessary time.

4) In yet another incident, Texas deliberately disenfranchised hundreds of living citizens – mostly black and elderly, who tend to vote Democrat – through the “dead voter” purge, where supposedly dead voters are routinely dropped from the voting rolls. Using information from the Social Security Administration, which the SSA itself views as unreliable, the Republican secretary of state recently ordered a purge of 80,000 “dead” voters from the rolls. This was remarkable because regular methodology would have the purges being done in much smaller batches, as the information came available. In those cases, the number of false death notices would be manageable, and rectifying the issue could be done in reasonable time. Instead, hundreds of living voters received letters stating that their voter registrations were revoked as they were deceased. They may have a chance of legally rectifying their situation before the election, but there are the usual obstacles: human delay at government offices, technology failures, paperwork morasses, busy lines. There are also potential future ramifications, if ever voter rolls are run against state social services or tax agencies. In response to the whole situation, the secretary of state’s office promised that those voters could just show up to the ballot box and vote, regardless of their “life” status. However, with Texas voter ID laws being as they are, the chances that they will actually be allowed are… nil. After all, they are an “illegal” – they were just declared legally dead and are, illegally, not. The whole situation seems timed and stage-managed to keep as many of these “problem” population voters away from the polls as possible.

The greater problem here is that there is no oversight for people getting on to the “dead voter” list and basically no appeal. The state can shove any person on the list for no apparent reason, and it is up to that person – and not the government – to get their legal situation changed back to alive. That process will cost people time and money, and probably require them to “prove their identities” via additional pieces of ID that they may not have needed in the past. Imagining the confusion is easy. For younger generations, these are issues that can be fought over over longer periods of time: lawsuits against the state, appeals to the Supreme Court, public relations battles. But for voters now, and for all elderly voters overall, it’s a travesty. The current complainants are mostly minority and elderly, thus providing a double whammy at trying to overcome this legal existential limbo the government just threw them into. Of these, it’s only the lucky ones that were able to complain to the right people, who helped them sort it out and expose their issues to the media and to advocacy groups nationwide (some of whom are thinking of filing lawsuits against Texas). The rest may never figure it out.

Is voting a right or a privilege? And despite a few cases of voter fraud, what is the reason for trying to make the election process harder and harder every year? It’s hard enough to get people to come out and vote, and the hardships involved will only de-motivate a lot of people. Even worse is the image that the whole electoral system is rigged against the public: if politicians are seen to be obviously trying to make voting a hardship, it passes on the assumption that the politicians are rigging the system against the individual, and that the individual is powerless to do anything. Ergo, their vote will not count even if they are able to deliver it. And those politicians are the ones they may have voted in to begin with! In some cases, changes in the election law may be warranted but these should only be done in non-election years, when the urge for partisan politics will be at its lowest. When timed during the most sensitive political periods, it only comes across as desperate disenfranchisement of unwanted voter populations and contempt of the voting public as a whole.

One sour answer to the right vs. privilege question is this: we do not have a federal right to vote. It is left up to the states to configure our right to vote – worrisome because in some states, it is not explicit in their constitutions that citizens have a right to vote at all. We do have the privilege of directly electing members of the House of Representatives, but the system whereby we vote for these members is done through states voting rights laws. We have a sway on the presidency only inasmuch as we can sway our legislature to appoint electors who will vote our way for the president; in essence, our vote is a vote for the vote. By electing our state officials, who then decide what our right to vote should be, we are deciding our own fates. In PA – as in Texas and Arizona and Indiana and many other states on this great continent – we have doomed ourselves for the short-term, though it is still a beacon of hope that a future government will undo the mistakes of the past one.

In his “Dissertation on the First Principles of Government”, Thomas Paine starts his treatise on Representation with these words:

The true and only true basis of representative government is equality of rights. Every man has a right to one vote, and no more in the choice of representatives. The rich have no more right to exclude the poor from the right of voting, or of electing and being elected, than the poor have to exclude the rich; and wherever it is attempted, or proposed, on either side, it is a question of force and not of right. Who is he that would exclude another? That other has a right to exclude him.

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Katherine of Valois.

Posted in History and Politics on September 12th, 2012 by byronkho

Katherine of Valois – the youngest daughter of mad Charles VI and an avowed nymphomaniac; who grew up abandoned by her parents and virtually all the serving staff such that she was constantly filthy, starving and neglected; and who later became the wife of Henry V, the mother of Henry VI and finally the lover turned secret wife of Owen Tudor (whose Welsh grandson later became Henry VII and the progenitor of the Tudor Dynasty) – remained in an open casket aboveground in Westminster Abbey for 369 years following her initial internment of 72 years. In 1669, Samuel Pepys remarked that “I did kiss a queen” after embracing her leathery mummy. She was finally buried (for the second and hopefully final time) in Henry V’s chantry chapel in 1878.

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Arizona and “Show Your Papers”

Posted in Opinion on September 6th, 2012 by byronkho

I understand that Arizona had a large illegal immigration problem. I say “had” because the amount of illegals leaving the US is rising and, according to recent statistics, more than the amount of illegals entering the US. This data, to be precise, applies only to Mexico, but that’s the population of most “danger” to Arizona. If those numbers can be relied upon, this means that the problem is actually disappearing. Thus, it’s puzzling – but not extremely so – that Arizona felt it had to pass a “show your papers” law, and a little puzzling that U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton felt it was okay.

As a green-card holder who pays a large amount in taxes every year (just to legitimize my point of view: I am legal and a respectable and productive member of society), I am not at all enthused about ever going to Arizona or any state that implements these kinds of laws. I was planning on revisiting Phoenix – it was great last time around – but the possibilities of harassment seem too high to bother with. That’s my tourist dollars that are not going to any Arizona businesses. Their loss, I guess. Why?

First, the fluid nature of ID. According to this legal provision, all individuals would have to provide proof of citizenship if asked. But what is proof of citizenship? It’s not a driver’s license, which is provided to illegals as well as legals, basically so that safety of the roads can be protected if one will be driving regardless of immigration status. For Arizona, it’s a green card – which I refuse to bring with me everywhere. If it’s lost or robbed, it’s an extreme hassle to replace. Even to get a temporary interim card is a hassle. What is one supposed to do in the meantime, if an ID is required?

Meanwhile, in some of the states with voter ID laws on the books, state university IDs are not allowed as evidence of voting eligibility – but NRA membership cards are. Remember, the NRA is a private political organization while state universities are public organizations funded primarily by the state, and the IDs they give to students are thus given and backed by the state. Why should private NRA memberships be on a higher level of legitimacy than state-issued IDs – and for voting purposes?

Back to being stopped by cops and having to provide identification: if I can vote with my driver’s license or my NRA membership card, why should I need to flash my green card to prove myself on a routine traffic stop? I say “routine traffic stop” as I have not ever been a drug smuggler, murderer, kidnapper, etc., and extremely doubt that I would ever be stopped for actually perpetrating a real crime; thus, any stop I would be involved in would have to be a “routine traffic stop.”

Second, there seem to be no real guidelines on what constitutes “reasonable suspicion.” There is hardly an argument I can think of that doesn’t somehow lead to racial profiling. If one was stopping a white person, there would not be reasonable suspicion that they were illegal. The amount of white illegal immigration in the entire pool of illegal immigrants is negligible – but the amount of Hispanic and Asian illegal immigration is not. Logically, “reasonable suspicion” might lead the cops to stop any Latino or Asian as there is a much stronger possibility they would be illegal versus if it was a white person.

At the same time, there are a lot of cash-strapped localities, including in Arizona, that have gotten in trouble for “trapping” minority drivers through their town and confiscating their cars and cash items based on claims of “reasonable suspicion” of criminal activity and/or drug importation/transportation. In a few of these cases, it was discovered that there was definite racial profiling of poorer drivers who would be unlikely to afford legal fees or the time necessary to fight charges in a strange locality; thus, the sheriffs of those regions were stealing private property from US citizens on false charges. These cases were only publicized because the corrupt law enforcement officials accidentally stopped wealthier individuals, who were then able to file class-action and individual lawsuits against those townships once they returned home.

Thus, the term “reasonable suspicion” is much more suspect. What such a law – based on “reasonable suspicion” and given the previous examples of law enforcement uprightness – would do for possible future unfortunates in the wilds of Arizona is hard to know. I have my own “reasonable suspicions,” however.

Finally, constant harping on ID requirements is something that is very reminiscent to me of totalitarian governments. Not to prove Godwin’s law right: but which government was it that had a real hard-on for paperwork? “Ihre papiere, bitte” (“your papers, please”). If you didn’t have your citizenship and transit permission papers on you, that was grounds for imminent arrest, torture and/or on the spot execution. Worse still, the definition of “citizen” was constantly changing, as was transit permissions. If you’re a Class B citizen on this day, you are not allowed to go through “privileged” areas, ie. the good area of town, etc. etc.

I do not believe the US is anywhere near that kind of a totalitarian state, but it’s definitely a slippery slope. After all, National Socialist totalitarianism started in the much more free auspices (comparatively, comparatively… historians should not get too excited) of Weimar Germany. Oppression always starts somewhere.

Not surprisingly, Arizona has had a mass exodus of Hispanics, legal and otherwise, that are unhappy with how the law is shaping up in that state. It is curious that Arizona, with its majority Hispanic population, was able to pass such laws and keep them on the books; then again, it really shouldn’t be a surprise given the Republican tendency to gerrymander district lines to minimize the effect of majority minority populations (ahem, Texas) and keep the voting power of wealthy districts at a maximum. Democrats have done similar actions in the past, but the most recent egregious examples – also prosecuted in federal court – have been Republicans.

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