The Wistful Fantasies of Obama Supporters

President Barack Obama offers little in the way of policy proposals for the future, yet his most ardent followers continue to spin wishful fantasies about the great changes an Obama second term would bring. Obama has declared inequality in U.S. society to be the signature issue of the times; however, he doesn’t have proposals that would have a significant impact on that inequality. Many of his supporters, who see the Affordable Care Act as falling short of their hopes and dreams, still tout it as a waystation to more significant changes. In other areas, Obama’s supporters pay much more attention to what he says than to what he does.

A progressive tax rate structure, with a high top marginal rate, would be one of the best ways to lower the concentration of wealth and income among the top few percent of Americans and the concomitant advantages that accrue from that skewed distribution. President Obama foresees no major rearrangement of the tax code, whereby those with six-, seven-, or even higher digit incomes would assume a much higher share of the federal income tax burden. His proposed Buffett rule will raise an estimated $47 billion over ten years and it will apply to only a small percentage of millionaires. He already has broken a 2008 campaign pledge to not extend the Bush tax cuts and he will be hard-pressed politically at the end of 2012 to have those cuts expire only for those earning over $250,000.

At a New Mexico Sierra Club event held recently, Eric Griegos, a Democratic candidate for the First District U.S. House seat, was the featured speaker. I asked him about his support for the Buffett rule, since it won’t raise much revenue and will make it more difficult to enact a tax code with much higher tax rates as taxpayers advance up the income scale. Griegos acknowledged the small impact the Buffett rule would have on the deficit and that a tax rate structure reminiscent of post-World War II America would be desirable, yet he favored the rule because it would be remarkable if anti-tax Republicans — and some Democrats — would accept an actual payable 30 percent rate for the wealthy. 

It is going to become apparent at some point in the not-too-distant future, that much more revenue must be raised to fund largely locked-in budgetary imperitives; therefore, responsible political parties must begin to prepare the public for the needed financial sacrifices.

President Barack Obama frequently touts the number of times he has reduced taxes — at least 13 times for small businesses alone — thus, he has increased the difficulty of reaching his goal of raising an additional $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Of course, he can try to project much of those increases in revenue onto the six years after a possible second term ends for him. 

Besides the Buffett rule and ending part of the Bush tax cuts, the only other revenue raiser that Obama proposes for a second term is to close tax loopholes for the wealthy; however, the specific loopholes he has identified — subsidizing private airplanes and oil and gas subsidies/credits — won’t raise significant revenue. It is also notable in a recent Obama mailing I received, in which he defines what “CHANGE IS,” he proposes that one way to create jobs is to cut taxes even more.

A second major area  in which wishful thinking prevails is in regard to the Affordable Care Act, which many of those who wanted single-payer, or at least a robust public option, nonetheless support, because it advanced the nation closer to a more fundamental health care transformation. The more likely future reality is that a limited reform has vented away the pressure building to go to a single-payer system.

In seeing what an Obama second term might look like, it is instructive to focus on his record, not on the generalized, non-specific things he proposes to do. He is not likely to deflate a bloated Pentagon. reduce our capacity to build more nuclear warheads and delivery systems; trim and make more transparent our sprawling intelligence complex — promised in the 2008 presidential campaign — abandon his adherence to the positions of George W. Bush on civil liberties; build a renewable energy future by cutting back on fossil fuel production; and substitute a law enforcement/diplomatic approach for the largely military force approach now being followed in the War on Terror. Very recently, the Obama administration completed negotiations for a ten-year commitment to Afghanistan security after the tentative 2014 deadline for the removal of the bulk of U.S. troops. We don’t know the details of that agreement, but it portends a large financial drain on U.S. resources until at least 2024. Coupled with this not-yet-formally-completed Afghan commitment, Obama says in “CHANGE IS” that the U.S., “remains committed to Iraq’s long-term security….”

Overall then, looking ahead to what President Obama will likely do if reelected, the public motto should not be “Yes We Can” but “No We Shouldn’t.”

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Obama Dropping Iranian Options Off the Table

President Barack Obama has frequently stated that with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, all options are on the table, including bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Yet, Obama has been dropping options off the table until the military attack option has become about the only one standing.

The most intriguing question being raised now is whether or not Obama was mouse-trapped by the Israeli government by its “Can’t Wait” campaign on the need to bomb Iran now or soon to prevent irreversible progress on Iran developing a nuclear bomb. And did Obama strike an agreement with Israel that if the Israelis didn’t attack Iran before the U.S. November elections, the U.S. would do the job for them if Iran crossed a red line, probably short of a confirmed development of a nuclear bomb?

The option to have other countries enrich Iranian low-grade uranium was dropped even before U.S.-Israeli consultations of the past few months. The five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, once endorsed outsourcing enrichment; however, when Turkey and Brazil were on the verge of such a deal with Iran, the United States led the opposition to it.

During the course of the Cold War, the U.S. followed a policy of live-and-let-live with the Soviet Union and other nuclear powers, including China. Obama has burned that bridge. So if the talks now underway with the Iranian government fail and sanctions don’t induce Iranian capitulation, the bombing option is the only one left. There is general agreement that bombing Iran would retard its nuclear program by only a year or two.

Jonathan Schell has said that “Disarmament wars threaten or occur when force becomes the chosen instrument for preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.” Schell sees a “remarkable” similarity between Obama’s policy on Iran and George W. Bush’s policy on Iraq a decade ago:

“As Bush did, Obama suspects a country of developing nuclear weapons. As Bush did,              he deems that unacceptable. As Bush did, he rules out the live-and-let-live solution of containment. As Bush did, he identifies military force as the ultimate solution. Most important, as Bush did, he sees the particular crisis in question (Iraq for Bush, Iran for Obama) as a skirmish in the larger global cause of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”*

There are two bills before Congress — S. Res. 380 and H. Res. 568 — which would require  a military strike upon Iran acquiring a “nuclear weapons capability.” A total of 26 national organizations have banded together to sign a letter to the House and Senate chairpersons of committees considering the bills. The organizations oppose the bills and also want the “no contact policy” with Iran abandoned.

In their letter, the 26 organizations cite likely consequences of a military strike on Iran: make a nuclear-armed Iran more likely; impose tremendous burdens on a fragile world economy; spike oil prices; cut jobs at home; and have a devastating effect on human rights and the pro-democracy movement in Iran.

Jonathan Schell’s solution is to permit Iran’s enrichment of nuclear fuel to nuclear power-grade in return for Iran’s full disclosure of its nuclear programs and their history, along with acceptance of strict inspection and controls to prevent the country from enriching uranium to nuclear weapons-grade. Or to go Schell one better, the U.S. could follow the live-and-let-live policy of the Cold War.

The best solution of all for nuclear weapons proliferation is a nuclear weapons-free world.

* Jonathan Schell, “Thinking the Unthinkable,” The Nation, April 23, 2012.

Buffett Rule Exposed as Popular Fraud

The Tax Policy Center, a nonpartisan research group, has estimated that the average tax rate, including payroll taxes, for the middle 20 percent of U.S. families will be 15.9 percent by 2015. Of the 217,000 families that will be affected by the Buffett rule, 4,000 will have incomes exceeding $1 million and tax rates below 15 percent. So, according to the Tax Policy Center estimate, less than two percent of the families affected by the Buffett rule will have tax rates below that of the middle 20 percent of families. Roberta Williams, a senior fellow at the Center, says: “The taxes paid by middle-class families are a lot lower than we think they are.”

Democratic lawmakers and Democratic Party officials have largely embraced President Barack Obama’s embrace of the Buffett rule, by which millionaires and their billionaire betters would pay at least a 30 percent tax rate. The 30 percent standard is designed to make sure that the very wealthy pay a higher income tax rate than do any members of the middle-class. The Buffett rule will have no effect on those with six-figure incomes.

President Obama is touting the Buffett rule as a deficit-reduction measure but it is projected to raise just $47 billion in revenue over ten years, a relative pinprick on the deficit.

It is the case that beginning with Ronald Reagan, the top marginal tax rate was significantly reduced and then George W. Bush drastically shifted the federal income tax burden down to those lower on the economic totem pole by granting the few percent of the nation’s wealthiest people the lion’s share of two major tax cuts. From World War II to the Reagan 80s, the top marginal tax rate varied from 70.45 to 91 percent and the bottom marginal tax rate varied from 14 to 20 percent. The period after World War II was a time of great economic prosperity and the tax rate structure was generally accepted as fair because so many people were doing well, and those who were not were not doing so due to high taxes.

There is little doubt that the very high top marginal tax rates were a major factor in maintaining a more equitable distribution of wealth and income in the united States, because there was less opportunity for the high earners to accumulate wealth. However, attention on who should pay what share of the federal income tax should not be focused so centrally on the wealthiest Americans. Generally speaking, when it comes to the federal income tax, under-taxing is nearly universal, illustrated most clearly by the IRS conclusion that in the last year for which data is fully available, only 53 percent of U.S.households paid any federal income tax. Those who try to rationalize away the fact that nearly half of households pay no federal income tax by arguing that they pay sales tax, property tax and many other kinds off taxes, overlook the obvious fact that those who pay federal income tax also pay these other taxes. What is needed is an income tax system that results in a higher percentage of households paying a tax; increases the taxes of the middle-class and the near-wealthy; and causes the wealthy to pay not “a little bit more” as President Obama likes to phrase it, but a substantial additional amount.

In a much earlier blog, I proposed a tax system with the following major features: 1) tax rates ranging from 16 to 60 percent — Robert Reich would make the top rate 70 percent; 2) tax capital gains at the same rate as regular income; 3) cut in half the too-generous child care credit; and 4) tax corporations under the provisions in effect in the Eisenhower years, when corporations provided a much larger share of national government revenue. Eliminating the current 10 and 15 percent tax rates and cutting in half the child care credit would increase the percentage of households paying some federal income tax.

The heavily promoted Buffett rule has a “feel good” effect, because the tax code will be a little fairer in many people’s minds. The real danger of the Buffett rule is that it will slow any momentum that has been built up, especially through the Occupy Movement, to have a progressive federal income tax structure, with a much higher top marginal tax rate. The best we can hope for from President Obama is that he restore the 39.6 percent top marginal rate by having the Bush tax cuts expire. Given that recent signs of an economic slowdown may mean that at the end of 2012 we may be in an economic situation reminiscent of the  end of 2011, Obama may feel compelled to ask for a similar tax package. The likely GOP price would be another extension of the Bush tax cuts.

The Buffett rule should be jettisoned and a new taxation structure enacted, along the lines outlined above.

Actions of George W. Bush Leading to Impeachment: Part III

This is the third part of a blog on actions of George W. Bush which should have led to impeachment. I first published this piece on November 6, 2007, sending it to the Peace Action network. What prompted the writing was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi challenging the listeners of talk show host Ed Schultz to find even one law that Bush had broken.

V. Grey Areas

1) According to United Press International, 300 Special Forces troops were introduced into Iraq shortly before the March 2003 invasion, where they joined Delta forces and CIA paramilitaries already in the country. Introduction of foreign troops into a sovereign state without an invitation is tantamount to  an invasion and is thus against international law and the UN Charter.

2) The U.S. tried to blame the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan for the deplorable conditions at Shebanghan Prison: the finding of at least 15 Taliban captives, smothered to death near the prison; the suffocation of Taliban captives in airless shipping crates; and the finding of dead Taliban with feet or hands tied, meaning they had been killed after being captured. A good treatment of U.S. command responsibility in Afghanistan can be found in the December 12, 2002 memo to the Council on Foreign Relations, written by Holly J. Burkhalter for the Physicians for Human Rights. A special report on detainee mistreatment in Afghanistan can be found in a late August 2002 issue of Newsweek. Yet another good source is to google Special Forces in Afghanistan and link to “Vietnam Redux.”

3) According to the Winter 2002 report by the Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Immigration Naturalization Service picked up 1,200 to 2,000 people from Arab, South Asian and Muslim backgrounds. The Justice Department was going to great lengths to keep the immigration proceedings secret. During the 2000 presidential campaign, George W. Bush had criticized the Clinton administration for conducting closed immigration hearings.

4) Questionable appropriation of funds:

a) General Tommy Franks used funds not appropriated for that purpose to plan the war on Iraq.

b) Money was secretly expended to individuals to promote Bush administration programs, such as the $240,000 supplied to a talk show host to promote No Child Left Behind.

c) A Pentagon-funded contractor in Iraq used servicemen to write puff pieces under the guise that they were articles written by Iraqi journalists.

5) Malfeasance fostering corruption:

a) According to Naomi Klein, an Iraqi reconstruction watchdog, not one additional auditor was provided in the initial appropriation of over $18 billion for Iraqi reconstruction.

b) A British auditing firm could not find a paper trail for about 20 percent of Iraqi oil money earmarked for reconstruction.

c) Testifying before the House Government Reform Committee on October 4, 2007, auditors for the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction said that the State Department does not know specifically what it received for most of the $1.2 billion in expenditures under its DynCorp contract for the Iraqi Police Training Program. The books were in “disarray.”

It is not the case that actions with very destructive outcomes always involve the breaking of specific laws. Operating a government in a very secretive way; having a reckless disregard for the checks and balances in government; and being heedless of the effect of your nation’s actions on international opinion, constitutes conduct worthy of severe censure, even if no laws are broken.

Speaker Pelosi, the listings of Bush administration wrongdoing or misconduct are illustrative of the iceberg in the ocean, as much more is hidden than is seen. Yet this limited treatment far exceeds your challenge to Ed Schultz that you be advised of one law that President Bush has broken.

 

Actions of George W. Bush Leading to Impeachment: Part II

The prior blog covered violations of the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva and Hague Conventions by President George W. Bush and high officials in his administration. Part II contains listings of violations of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. statutes, long-standing legal practice and  indiscriminate use of weapons of mass destruction.

III. Violations of the U.S. Constitution, U.S. Statutes and Long-Standing Legal Practice

1) The invasion of Iraq without a declaration of war violated the U.S.Constitution, which gives the Congress the sole power to declare war.

2) The detention of a U.S. citizen, Jose Padilla, without charges and without access to a lawyer for a considerable time, violated due process provisions of the U.S. Constitution.

3) Wiretapping without a court order violated the FISA Act of 1978. Ignorance of the law is not a factor, since there is a oft-played audio in which George W. Bush assures the nation that no one can wiretap without a court order.

4) The use of presidential signing statements was once a purely ceremonial affair without any legislative intent. Ronald Reagan was the first president to try to give signing statements a legislative intent and to urge judges to use such statements as a factor in legal rulings. President Bush greatly expanded upon the scope and number of such statements, as initially brought out by a Boston Globe story specifying at least 750 such statements.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the president may participate in the legislative process only by proposing legislation and vetoing/approving bills.

5) Although the firing of eight U.S. attorneys was within President Bush’s discretion, as frequently claimed, the fact that no explanations have been provided for individual firings; the fact that those who may have played roles in the firings can’t be questioned due to claims of executive privilege; the fact that documents related to the firings are being withheld from Congress;. and the fact that emails have been lost or erased, raises the strong suspicion that the firings were due to the eight running their offices in a manner that was insufficiently politically partisan.

6) The current case of an Interior Department undersecretary doctoring scientific documents is just the latest skirmish in a long-running war against science conducted by the Bush administration, in which the revision of scientific information to downgrade the threat of global warming has been the most repeated offense.

IV. Weapons of Mass and Indiscriminate Destruction

President Bush has inveighed against weapons of mass destruction but he has not been held to account for the weapons of mass and indiscriminate destruction used during his presidency.

1) The 15,000 pound Daisy-Cutter was used in Afghanistan beginning in the first week of November 2001 to try to dislodge Taliban troops dug-in to stop a Northern Alliance advance on Kabul. Later, the Daisy-Cutter, along with the B-52 bomber, was used to pulverize caves and tunnels in the White Mountains to prevent their use by the Taliban and foreign fighters.

The Daisy-Cutter can incinerate an area equivalent to five football fields.

2) The use of the B-52 bomber to carpet-bomb dug-in Taliban was first advocated by Senator John McCain. The imprecise nature of B-52 bombing was emphasized when a 2,000 pound bomb killed a number of U.S. and anti-Taliban troops on December 5, 2001. B-52s were used in the heavy bombing of the White Mountains, raising serious concerns about long-term ecological damage.

3) Cluster bombs were heavily used in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Tragically, the bomblets used in Afghanistan were the same color as the food packages being dropped by another arm of the government. The U.S. military claims only a one percent failure rate of the bomblets but failure rates on the older versions are much higher.

Cluster bombs are not banned by international law but there is a strong movement under way by as many as 40 nations to ban them due to their deadly effect on civilian populations.

4) Depleted uranium, with its long-term radiation effect, has become a commonly used munition by the U.S. military due to its superior armor-piercing capability.

5) The U.S. military first denied using white phosphorous or any other chemical in Iraq. The Pentagon later said that white phosphorous was used strictly to illuminate positions in Fallujah, Iraq. Finally, after U.S. troops in the Fallujah offensive spoke out, the Pentagon acknowledged that white phosphorous was used in combat to drive insurgents from their positions so they could be killed by heavy explosives.

Italian RAI state television showed video images of white phosphorous being used in Fallujah; said it was being used “in a massive and indiscriminate way” against civilians; and reported on civilians in hospitals with phosphorous burns — phosphorous can burn to the bone.

Protocol three of the 1980 Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCCW), prohibits the use of white phosphorous against civilians and military targets located within a concentration of civilians. The U.S. has ratified only protocols one and two of the CCCW. Ironically, before the invasion of Iraq, the Bush administration warned that use of chemical weapons by the Iraqis could bring the use of nuclear weapons by the United States.

6) President Bush has not ruled out using nuclear weapons against buried nuclear facilities in Iran. Using Hazard Prediction and Assessment Capability software developed by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Physicians for Social Responsibility has calculated that using a B83 nuclear bomb, adapted for bunker busting, to attack the nuclear facilities at Ishahan, Iran, could kill three million people with one explosion.

 

Actions of George W. Bush Leading to Impeachment

In his State of the Union speech in January 2012, President Barack Obama proposed to create a unit to look into business fraud and another one to look into illegal or improper trade practices. Later, he created, by executive order, a trade bureau, which, in a prior blog, I made the case that the action was very likely unconstitutional, because Congress has the power to regulate interstate commerce. If these proposals involve looking back at prior conduct, they violate Obama’s dictum that he didn’t want to investigate for prosecution, any high crimes and misdemeanors that may have been committed by George W. Bush and high officials in his administration. Obama said he wanted to look ahead, not back. Therefore, I thought it was appropriate to repeat a piece I published to the Peace Action network on November 6, 2007. Since it is a fairly long piece of writing, my plan is to publish it in three blogs.

Speaker Pelosi, you recently told Ed Schultz, on his talk show carried by Air America, that you would welcome anyone providing information about a law that President Bush has broken that should lead to impeachment. The listings below provide specific instances in which laws at the national or international level have been broken, or in which widely accepted norms of governmental operation have been violated.

I. Violations of the UN Charter

1) The “shock and awe” psychological campaign conducted against Iraq before the March 2003 invasion, complemented by the public threats to use the full force of the U.S.military, violates Article II of the UN Charter, which calls upon Member nations to refrain from threatening the use of force.

2) The invasion of Iraq violated Article 51 of the UN Charter, which limits a claimed right of self-defense to a response to an armed attack.

3) The claim by the United States that it can unilaterally enforce selective UN resolutions goes against long-standing U.S. practice and bypasses enforcement provisions in the UN Charter.

II. Violations of the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva and Hague Conventions

1) The command responsibility doctrine in the Nuremberg Principles holds that those in positions of command cannot escape responsibility for the actions of subordinates.

2) The seminal document in the paper trail of torture authorization, the Bybee memo, cleared the Justice Department and received the imprimatur of White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales, who labeled the Geneva Conventions as “quaint.” President Bush holds the command responsibility for this memo.

3) The Rumsfeld memo specifying harsh means of interrogation and the very similar September 2003 memo by the top commander in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez, both implicate Bush under the command authority principle.

4) Holding detainees without charges or any judicial action violates a basic precept of the Geneva Conventions, by which the status of detainees must be established by competent authority operating within a structure of law.

5) Mistreatment of detainees, up to and including torture, at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in Afghanistan and in Iraq has been so common a practice and so varied in method that it is difficult to catalog  the mistreatment, but clearly, common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions has been so tattered and torn as to have ceased to be a restraint on U.S. action under President Bush.

6) The practice of extraordinary rendition, by which detainees are sent to other countries for interrogation, without judicial process, may not technically violate the Geneva Conventions, but it is an abhorrent act that violates the spirit of the Conventions. Although the U.S. insists it gets assurances that the receiving countries will not practice torture, there is no practical way to check on the fulfillment of the promise. According to an article on detainees’ mistreatment in the December 26, 2002 Washington Post, at least 100 suspects were sent to other countries by the United States.

7) Changing the laws of an occupied country, as was done by the Coalition Provisional Authority, especially the promulgation of Order 39, which allows extensive penetration of the Iraqi economy by foreign corporations, violates the Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Army Field Manual, “The Law of Land Warfare.”

The next blog will take up the violation of the U.S.Constitution and statutes; also, it will cover the use of weapons of mass destruction.

 

President Obama’s “Flexibility” Should Not Be Defended

While President Obama was having a private talk with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, he apparently didn’t know that his microphone was on and told Medvedev that after his “last” election he would have “more flexibility” to make some modifications in the Eastern European missile defense shield. Obama was taken to task, mainly by conservative commentators, for offering to give something up without asking for concessions on the part of the Russian government. One suggested concession is that in exchange for the United States giving ground on the shield, the Russian government display a more cooperative attitude on putting pressure on the Syrian government to stop killing its own citizens.

The missile defense shield is a major sore point with the Russian government, who see it as easily convertible to an offensive threat to their national security; therefore, President Medvedev has announced a buildup and repositioning of Russian nuclear forces to counter the threat. Medvedev has also threatened to nullify the New START treaty reached with the Obama administration.

Critics of Obama have focused on the wrong issue: the anti-missile shield is a carryover from the George W. Bush delusional belief that if Iran develops a nuclear missile capability, it might fire missiles toward Eastern Europe. The only change that Obama has made in the Bush initiative is that he has changed it to a defense against short-range, not long-range missiles.

It was a mistake for President Obama to have adopted a much more modest version of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars fantasy. He should begin a retreat from his embrace of anti-missile missiles. If he can get concessions from Russia that would be in the foreign policy interest of the United States, that would be supportable, but the important needed change in policy is to begin to prepare the political ground for the removal of the Eastern European shield and to stop the waste of money on anti-missile missiles.