Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cuba, Sí! Obama, Sí!

Next on President Obama’s travel schedule should be, “Cuba, Si!” The time has come and we have the right president to go to Cuba with hope and change. The question is not whether President Obama should re-establish US relations with Cuba but how. In this 60th year of the Castro revolution, here are suggestions for a visit that would have bi-partisan, all-American support.

Like his hero Teddy Roosevelt in 1899, let President Obama lead a charge up San Juan Hill. Let the purpose be the same—the liberation of Cuba from tyranny—but let his troops wear sandals instead of boots and let them be tourists and journalists and business leaders.

From that symbolic site where Roosevelt braved flying bullets, let President Obama brave what might be a barrage of words. Let him begin with praise Fidel Castro and his successor brother Raul Castro for inviting the Congressional Black Caucus to Cuba and with them honoring the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Let President Obama stand on San Juan Hill and dream of a time when the highest ranks of the Cuban government will be open to Cubans of African descent. Let him remind the Castros that among the many Americans who died on San Juan Hill were America’s Buffalo Soldiers, the men of the all black 25th Infantry. In their honor and King’s honor, let President Obama challenge the Castros to liberate Cuba once again as they promised to do 60 years ago.

Now let the Obama friendship tour of Cuba begin. At the inevitable presidential reception, let him raise his glass in a toast to the future and offer to remove all restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba as soon as Cuba removes all restrictions on Cubans traveling to America. Just as our Congressional Black Caucus recently traveled to Cuba as Castro’s guests, let him ask Castro to allow Cubans African descent to visit the White House. He should include among those Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet whom the Castros condemned to 25 years in prison for political protest.

Biscet has already been granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bush, so let President Obama use his faith in coalitions and the UN and remind the Castros that the United Nations called on them in 2005 for the immediate release of Dr. Biscet.

Let President Obama visit the shining new tourist hotels and promise that as soon as Cuba ends its racist hiring policies in these places, the US will allow unrestricted tourism.

Let him visit a prominent newspaper or publishing house and promise that as soon as political censorship ends in Cuba, he will encourage American firms and individuals to advertise in Cuban media.

Let him go to a Cuban radio and television station and promise to lift all bans on Cuban advertising and media ownership in the US as soon as Cuba allows truly independent radio and television and unrestricted reception of foreign media in Cuba.

Let him go to a Cuban post office where citizens can connect to the Internet and offer to send computers to any Cuban school or citizens’ organization if the government will allow uncensored connections to the World Wide Web and to such communications channels as Skype and YouTube and other social networking sites.

Even before he was elected, President Obama had brought hope and a little change to Cuba. Visiting journalists reported signs and graffiti appearing with the Cuban version of “Yes, We Can.” (A phrase the Obama campaign originally borrowed from the Spanish of Latino farmworkers striking with Cesar Chavez.) So, when President Obama is wrapping up his Cuban tour, let him stand side by side with Fidel or Raul Castro or both of them. Let him raise their hands with his and let him say his message as Cubans say it, “ se puede, coño.” (Yes, it’s possible, dammit.)

(Footnote: he might want to omit coño which is somewhat stronger than dammit, giving the phrase more the sense of, “Yes, it’s possible, f**ker.” and we suspect that if the President said only "Sí se puede" the Cuban people would fill in the rest. )

Thursday, April 23, 2009


A closer look at what the Obama administration is saying and doing about the banking industry shows that critics who charged socialism when it seemed Obama was close to nationalizing the banking industry were wrong. What he is doing looks more like the fascist system of government dictatorship over business. Or, as economist Alan Reynolds puts it, “The deeper purpose of the Treasury's ‘capital purchase plan’ appears to have been . . . to ensure that big financial firms will now be managed according to the principles of politics rather than economics.”

The method of setting up the system also bears similarities to fascist methods of winning public support—the propaganda of fear. This kind of fear requires dividing the country into us and them. This comes naturally to politicians who have built much of their careers on the idea that novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald was supposed to have embraced-- “The rich are different.” Fitzgerald, creator of The Great Gatsby, never wrote or said that. It was a lie Hemingway told about him.

Fitzgerald replied, ''Riches have never fascinated me, unless combined with the greatest charm or distinction.'' Politicians, for their part, have never been interested in the rich as fellow human beings. Except for their rich friends and campaign contributors, the only use politicians have for the rich is to call them greedy and cold hearted while in private squeezing them for campaign contributions.

Side note: notice that the politicians seldom call their own rich campaign contributors greedy. Thus, the concentration on private bankers' and investors' high salaries while not a word about the often higher salaries and percs of Hollywood stars and pro athlets and university presidents. Not a word about the high salaries of officers in government run corporations like FNMA or of people in the World Bank or IMF where Tim Geithner and Larry Summers used to work.

Hemingway invented a conversation with Fitzgerald in which he has himself reply to "the rich are different." He puts down his old friend with, “Yes, they have more money.” That exchange actually took place when Hemingway, then quite rich himself, told literary critic Mary Colum that the rich were different. She put down Hemingway with the reply, ''The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money.''

Hemingway, of course, was like so many rich dilettantes, secure in his wealth while romancing socialism. Maybe Hemingway stole Colum’s wisdom and claimed it for his own out of guilt at being a rich and increasingly lazy drunkard. He knew that Colum spoke the essential truth, one that wold rob the present administration of its scapegoat. “Wall Street” (whoever that is) and bankers are no less and no more greedy or compassionate than other human beings.

So why is President Obama, the self-declared reconciler and unifier leading a team that is intent on pretending superficial economic differences are moral chasms between innocent suffering and evil greed?

The easiest excuse, of course, is that he has set aside only a small group of the rich as villains, and why cry for those who have the consolation of wealth? We do note that his villains are those rich who generally did not support his campaign or his policies.

More important than the numbers or the victims' resources is the President's methods. Scapegoating a small group is a typical fascist ploy for popular support. The President is neither embraces fascism nor does he hate his fellow rich Americans. Even more reason for him to reject fascist tactics that have never achieved anything but making trains run on time before disaster hits.

I suspect that this wealthy President who grew up in modest circumstances and who succeeded on a combination of talent and membership in a favored class, and who then, by his own admission, failed as a community organizer among the poor, feels considerable guilt. So did Ernest Hemingway. The aging writer, unable to change or redeem himself, losing his literary powers, ended his binge of drinking and self-glorification in suicide.

Obama, young and enjoying the highest political power, has chosen to work toward compassionate ends through cold-hearted means. Villifying productive people, telling them how much they can earn, telling them it’s their patriotic duty to pay higher taxes, and even telling them when they can return government money they didn’t want will result in alienating or paralyzing not just a few bankers, investors, and auto industry executives. It has already begun to send productive people looking for hiding places and escape routes.

The combination of spending binge, higher taxes, and propaganda campaign can destroy the economic hopes of the poor and the middle class. In a country where almost everyone wants to be rich, and where they can vote, Obama’s methods will not lead to fascism. They could lead to political suicide. In the life that exists beyond that limited death, President Obama would continue to be rich, and the poor he wants to help would continue to be poor.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Are You Nobody Too?

You’ve seen it or you can see it—the way 47 year old, beetle-browed, double chinned Susan Boyle stuffs a sandwich in her face, tells the backstage interviewer she’s ready to sing, then stumps out onto the stage of a nationally televised British talent show. She dares to confront a live audience of mainly young and hip Brits in her nondescript beige dress that covers her thick body more like a tube than a garment. Her sturdy legs protrude from below and terminate in white high heels that she uses somewhat as if they were stilts. If you haven’t watched, please do it now: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9lp0IWv8QZY

The three judges make a chick sandwich—two tanned unblemished guys flanking a sleek young blonde. Watch the guys snigger as she introduces herself. “And what’s your name, darling?” asks the youngest guy leaning back and playing with his pen. He asks her age and rolls his eyes when she says she is 47. When she says she wants to be as famous as Elaine Page, the beautiful blonde who starred in the debut of Evita, judges and audience faces wince and snigger.

By her own description she was just another Scottish woman living alone with her cat Pebbles, singing in her church choir, never married, never courted, never noticed outside her own circle of friends. Today over 12 million people have watched her sing on YouTube.

What made her an instant sensation on the Internet and British and American television? Not her sure enough good singing voice. Her real triumph was the way she suddenly and decisively smashed and shamed the smug superiority of the three gliteratti judges, the two fay, condescending back stage assistants, and an audience ready to laugh at a bush-browed, sack-of -potatoes woman who dared sing for them in a national talent show.

And what will she sing a judge asks. “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables she announces confidently to the audience that clearly pities the dreamer. Within a few bars not just her voice but her confidence and her identification with the song lift both audience and judges out of their seats. They are applauding and shouting approval. She sings on. The song is everything.

If you don’t know the song, it opens with this stanza:

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high,
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.

The last lines are these:

But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms
We cannot weather...

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I'm living
So different now from what it seems
Now life has killed
The dream I dreamed.

As the applause and screaming approval die down, the older of the two male judges tells her that when she walked onto the stage “and stood there with that cheeky grin and said, ‘I want to be like Elaine Page,’ everyone was laughing at you.” The younger guy says he had been expecting “something extraordinary” and it’s clear he means extraordinarily bad.

Few people, even professional actors and singers, have ever turned an audience around as decisively as this Scottish nobody. And she did it not by acting or performing in any professional sense.

Those judges, theater people, television hotshots, and the hip audience—they all had a dream. Their dream was that they were somebody and other people were nobodies. Many of us dream this to justify ourselves, and most of us know better. Emily Dickinson once played on this theme with her lines:

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there's a pair of us -- don't tell!
They'd banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

Susan Boyle proved that inside every nobody is a somebody. Perhaps she reached inside of those frogs and that bog and killed their dreams. But she brought back life to their hearts.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Inheritance Tax: Making Death Fair(er)

"The fairest death tax rate is zero" The Wall Street Journal argues once again today. I would revise their statement to say, "The government should not be among a citizen's heirs." The Journal backs up its position with a bogus supporting argument: "because the money was already taxed when it was earned." The Journal's sword has all the piercing power of a wet noodle.

By the Journal's "logic," if I have a net $1,000 after paying taxes on my income, and then I pay that $1,000 to a carpenter to build a deck, the carpenter's income should not be taxed because I already paid tax on it.

The carpenter, at least, earned the $1,000 by exchanging labor and talent for my money. Most heirs have done nothing except they were begat by the right parents. For the child, conception is a supremely passive act requiring neither talent nor labor on its own part.

Large inheritances do create significant inequalities in opportunity. All of us who were conceived by parents who were poor when they made us and continued to be poor until they left us can list numerous important inequalities of opportunity. Like Andrew Carnegie, I am against inheritance. I am equally against government taking any portion of wealth left by a dead citizen.

Government itself, meaning politics, is all about distributing opportunity unequally. That is exactly why politicians want to rifle the pockets of the dead--so they can distribute opportunity to their favorites.

I propose some examples of how we might create more equal opportunity with what the dead could not take with them.

Let the rule be that inheritance can consist of a house and funds for higher education but no more. If an heir has earned part of the family business, let that ownership be established before the parent's death and bear some recognizable equivalence to work and talent. Make reasonable provision for keeping the business in the family by allowing the heir to pay tax on the remaining ownership interest out of profits or by selling sell it. Require that all wealth remaining after such inheritance be distributed in one of the following ways:

--as a pro-rata tax reduction for all Americans

--as a donation to the qualified charity of the deceased's choice

--paid into an independently operated national endowment whose income would reduce interest rates on student loans or venture capital for first time entrepreneurs

To make this politically popular, call it The Fair Death Stimulus Plan.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Kaufman Income Tax Leadership Act

Herewith I propose the 2nd of a series of very simple laws to fix very complex problems which I immodestly call The Kaufman Acts. The law I propose would have one of two effects—the cleansing of our tax code or of Congress. Should any member of Congress have the courage and wisdom to introduce my Tax Leadership Act, even defeat of the bill would certainly lead to proposals for a much simpler income tax or the defeat of many members of Congress who have made the present tax code a piñata of favors and a Sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of their fellow citizens.

The Kaufman Income Tax Leadership Act

Whereas, the near impossibility of correctly filling out income tax forms makes lawbreakers out of millions of Americans, and

Whereas, it would be a national disgrace to have our law makers and law breakers be one and the same,

Therefore, the Congress of the United States hereby declares that every member of Congress shall fill out personally his or her income tax forms and declarations, and

Therefore, any Member omitting required information or making an error in calculation shall pay a fine of no less than $1,000.00 or twice the amount of his or her annual tax payment, whichever is larger, and

Therefore, any Member omitting required information or making an error in calculation in two subsequent years shall become ineligible to vote on any tax measure before Congress, and

Therefore, any Member omitting required information or making an error in calculation in filing any three federal tax declarations shall become ineligible to serve in the next Congress or to hold other federal office for five years.