A lost opportunity

President Obama promised that he wanted to change the way Washington does business. He wants and more open and honest government. By turning a blind eye to the new Treasury Secretary’s failure to pay his social security taxes for 2001 and 2002 (until he was nominated to head the Treasury Department, which included the Internal Revenue Service), the President missed an important opportunity to demonstrate the seriousness of his commitment to the integrity of his administration. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has risen quickly through the ranks to high position, is highly respected, and will most likely make an excellent Treasury Secretary. However, after being audited by the IRS in 2006 and found to have mistakenly failed to pay his social security taxes for 2003 and 2004, any misunderstanding he might have had about his need to pay these taxes were surely removed. Yet he did not pay the unpaid social security taxes for 2001 and 2002 until his nomination by Obama to his current position at which time he paid an additional $25, 970 in back taxes and interest penalties.[1] No person is indispensable and the failure of the President to sacrifice his first choice for the position looks more like business as usual than a new page of integrity.

The slippery slope has been greased and viola, down the slope we go with the revelation that Sen. Tom Daschle (S.D.), President Barack Obama‘s nominee to head the Health and Human Service Department had not paid more than $128,000 in back taxes over several years. Is that over the line, or should we forgive him as well?

In the interest of fairness and to reestablish the principle that the law applies to every one, Congressmen John Carter’s office issued the following press release:

“IRS Penalties and Interest Eliminated for All U.S. Taxpayers under new “Rangel Rule” Legislation

“(WASHINGTON, DC) – All U.S. taxpayers would enjoy the same immunity from IRS penalties and interest as House Ways and Means Chairman Charles Rangel (D-NY) and Obama Administration Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, if a bill introduced today by Congressman John Carter (R-TX) becomes law.

“Carter, a former longtime Texas judge, today introduced the Rangel Rule Act of 2009, HR 735, which would prohibit the Internal Revenue Service from charging penalties and interest on back taxes against U.S. citizens. Under the proposed law, any taxpayer who wrote “Rangel Rule” on their return when paying back taxes would be immune from penalties and interest.

“We must show the American people that Congress is following the same law, and the same legal process as we expect them to follow,” says Carter.  “That has not been done in the ongoing case against Chairman Rangel, nor in the instance of our new Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. If we don’t hold our highest elected officials to the same standards as regular working folks, we owe it to our constituents to change those standards so everyone is abiding by the same law.  Americans believe in blind justice, which shows no favoritism to the wealthy or powerful.”

“Carter also said the tax law change will provide good economic stimulus benefits, as it would free many taxpayers from massive debts to the IRS, restoring those funds to the free market to help create jobs.”

Alan Reynolds of the Cato Institute promptly noted that: “The bill also needs a Tom Daschle amendment to also provide immunity from criminal prosecution for outright tax evasion, such as not bothering to report $83,000 a year from consulting fees, or pretending that being given the use of a free limo with driver (a payolamobile) is not really income but simply "a generous offer from a friend." 

This all sounds sadly familiar.

[1] http://finance.senate.gov/press/Bpress/2009press/prb011309d.pdf

President Barack Obama

January 20, 2009

Happy New Year

Today is a proud day for America. Yesterday, Martin Luther King Day, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, wrote in the Washington Post about "The Dream This Jan. 20" saying that “Martin Luther King Jr. would be extraordinarily proud of Mr. Obama for becoming the nation’s first black president. Perhaps more important, he would be proud of the America that elected him.” We can be proud, not because we elected a son of a black Kenyan (in whose country I will spend three weeks next month), but because we elected a very intelligent and thoughtful leader, who happens to be black—despite his being black (to be blunt). In Obama’s own words “It changes how black children look at themselves. It also changes how white children look at black children. And I wouldn’t underestimate the force of that." I am happy to say that when I saw the title of the Post article in which that last quote appeared, "President-Elect Sees His Race as An Opportunity", I actually thought it referred to his campaign for the Presidency.

But Obama’s own thinking is far deeper than that. “Beyond the symbolism of his historic achievement, Obama said, he hopes to use his presidency as an example of how people can bridge differences — racial and otherwise. ‘What I hope to model is a way of interacting with people who aren’t like you and don’t agree with you that changes the temper of our politics,’ he said. ‘And then part of that changes how we think about moving forward on race relations. Race relations becomes a subset of a larger problem in our society, which is we have a diverse, complicated society where people have a lot of different viewpoints.’

Obama embraces the traditional American values of personal responsibility and hard work. At dinner last night long time friend Sergio Pombo suggested that many older black leaders (the we are victims and are entitled to this or that crowd) are bound to be disappointed that Obama doesn’t deliver to them all the favors they hope for. These old attitudes will pass along with the white prejudices that helped give rise to them and Obama will help speed their passage by insisting that position and honor be earned. Washington DC’s black mayor, angered a few of the city’s older black residence (the vast majority of its residences are black) when he replaced the black chief of police with a white woman and the black Superintendent of Schools with a Korean woman because they were the best available. The vast majority of the city is excited by the implications, and prospects for a better city.

I am very impressed with the professional experience and quality of Obama’s cabinet appointments, especially his economic team. I expect many good things from them. I also expect things I probably will not like much because Obama has more faith in the capacity of government to do good than I do. What we desperately need from our national leaders after eight years of “my way or the highway” is serious debate about the important economic, foreign policy, and security issues before us. President Obama, who as President of the United States works for all of us, must build broad understanding of and consensus for new policy initiatives, and he has the skills and intension to do just that. We need to put behind us the view of some low lives that claiming Obama was really a Muslim (as if that automatically disqualified him) constituted an intellectual argument against what ever he might propose. We must return to a civil public discussion of the pros and cons of policy options rather than demonizing those with whom we disagree. I for one will do my best to marshal soundly reasoned and empirically supported arguments for private market solutions and limited but efficient government. I hope that the debate will focus on the most appropriate and beneficial partnership (and boundary) between government and the private sector (us).

Those who accused Bush W of manufacturing evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq are guilty of the same enemy demonization. The fact that our war in Iraq was a tragic mistake does not mean that Bush did not think he was acting in the national interest. As E. J. Dionne Jr. pointed out in the Post in "Why the Uniter Divided Us", “Bush did not respect the obligation of a leader in a free society to forge a durable consensus. He was better at announcing policies than explaining them. He dismissed legitimate opposition and plausible doubts about the courses he wished to pursue. It is partly because of these failures that Americans reacted by selecting a successor with such a profoundly different political personality.” Fortunately, President Obama is a man of a very different temperament and not a minute too soon.

I suppose that it is human nature, one that civilization is dedicated to overcoming, to be less comfortable with or suspicious of people not like ourselves. The demonization of those we political disagree with feeds on itself unnecessarily sharpening political divisions. In another interesting Post article yesterday Shankar Vendantam reported on research on this subject in his article "Why the Ideological Melting Pot Is Getting So Lumpy". It seems that neighborhoods are becoming more homogenous politically (e.g. Greens vs. garden fertilizerers) rather than ethnically or religiously. My Iranian neighbor dropped by for tea the other day and shared an interesting comment about our neighborhood (he lost everything in Iran when the Shah fell and he and his wife moved to the U.S.). He said, you know there is only one other Republican in this neighbor (of 64 houses) besides you and me. He is also excited about Obama’s Presidency though he didn’t vote for him either.