Low Tax is Not What We Need

Low tax never made anyone’s life good.

Consider India. Millions of Indians pay no tax at all, and they are so miserable that suicide is at a record high. In the US, low tax means nothing to you if you can’t pay for your cancer treatment until you go bankrupt. We already have taxes that are too low.

Taxes too low!? How is that possible?

It’s very simple. The cost of a good life is not measured by how low taxes are. We forget that only the rich can afford high quality with low tax, because they can buy anything they want. That’s why they always want to cut their own taxes.

What we want is the best quality of life, and that’s very different from mere low taxes. Let’s attempt to determine what gives us high quality of life. Here’s what I think.

First, high quality of life isn’t very dramatic. The elements of a good life are pretty basic: clean air, clean water, safe housing, healthy food, competent medical care, and a few more. All of these will cost much more if they aren’t paid for with taxes.

We don’t really need public transit, right? But if we have nothing but private cars a simple trip downtown in any US city will cost a fortune, the trip will take much longer, and parking will be a bear. Good public transit is much better, and far cheaper. Scope it out yourself, beginning with car cost, insurance, and maintenance. Cars are damned expensive.

But perhaps medical care is the easiest element to illustrate why low tax can mean high cost.

It’s not a contradiction at all. As literally every modern nation except ours knows, the cost of national medical care is about half the cost of individually purchased healthcare.

Did that come through? We pay twice as much.

Look at it from the other end. Let’s say a new nation wanted to have health care for everyone. They might decide that $2,000 a year for every person is enough. That would work fine if everybody had the same income, because everyone would have the same advantages. Unfortunately, not everyone has the same income. Capitalists earn a lot, and the poor don’t earn enough to buy health care.

If health risks for the poor are not shared, any serious disease will easily kill them, which will cost everyone more. Repeal of the Affordable Health Care Act would cause 44,000 additional deaths each year. All of us eventually pay for these unnecessary events.

Back to our new nation. What happens if health care is paid for with private insurance? The cost for health care would be $2,000 plus the extra cost the insurance companies would add. Don’t forget that insurance premiums provide no health care at all, and capitalism demands that profit be maximized for the benefit of the owners.

In sum, we pay a lot of money to insurance companies that provide no health care at all, yet absorb a large part of the money spent on health care. And the poor are often left to die because they can’t afford the insurance. We have this gross malfunction even though we spend twice the money that countries with national health care pay.

There are other reasons we spend so much on health care. First, training for health care professionals is very expensive, which leaves new doctors with huge debt they must discharge through high earnings. In other countries the government pays for their training, and they don’t have to earn a huge salary just to get by. Second, the cost of medications is determined by capitalists, who, as we have seen, have no compunction about pure greed. They apparently do not understand that they are not making fly swatters, that health care is a sacred duty. Third, charges for care often have little relationship to the quality of care because they are controlled by profit-maximizing capitalists. In countries where the government manages all the elements of health care, all costs are kept at a fair and consistent level. Providers are paid fairly and everyone gets all the care they need, paid for with taxes, because that’s the most efficient and fairest way.

In virtually the same way, all the other elements of good living—clean air and water, healthy food, safe housing, and so on—are most efficiently paid for with tax revenue and/or managed by the government. Everyone benefits and the cost to individuals is much lower. Imagine having to pay for clean water by yourself—think Flint—with corporations allowed to dump whatever they wanted to into the water supply. Imagine your house wired by some dodo unclear on the concept of electrical codes.

But, some say, government just can’t do anything right. That is nonsense. Government services, from federal to local, are full of programs that are well managed and efficiently priced.

It’s not low taxes we need, it’s the best services, and that has very little to do with low taxes. Low tax virtually guarantees higher cost.

The Lingering Death of the Carbon Age

Donald Trump’s presidency, custom built for the benefit of the very rich, is not a new fashion. Every few years the power shifts in an unsteady balance between those motivated by the welfare of the people, as Lincoln’s memorable Gettysburg address states, and those who think money itself is the highest order because they have a lot of it.

What is new is the failure of the latter to understand that the larger world has changed. But it has, a lot. Republicans show every sign of resisting or ignoring the increasingly obvious sea change from from carbon captured millions of years ago in the age of dinosaurs, to energy from the sun that surrounds us every moment and will not be exhausted. Energy from sunshine in the form of electricity and heat, wind-derived electricity, ocean wave-generated energy, natural purification powered by the sun, from tides, and many other sources, and continually improved by the ingenious devices of people everywhere.

This change is happening no matter who doesn’t want it or how rich they are. Several nations have either achieved or are about to achieve complete energy derivation from the sun, and independence from all fossil-based fuels. These are nations where government isn’t so interested in making a few people very rich, and are permanently focussed on the welfare of all their people.

The very rich deniers, in fact, risk the very lives of their own descendants—and ours—because the Carbon Age has died, and they waste large sums of money that should be spent on the future, not on dinosaurs.

Some of you have probably seen the bones of the colossal dinosaur in New York’s Museum of Natural History. It’s so big that its tail extends out of the huge main hall and into a hallway. It is said that the tail is so far away from its tiny brain that there needs to be a sort of second brain to operate the tail.

What has happened is that the Carbon Age dinosaur has died, but the little tail-brain of carbon investors doesn’t know it. Those who do are moving on, building new societies not built around oil and coal.

Here’s another way of looking at it. We’ve all seen the guy in the cab at the rear of the fire department’s “hook and ladder”. He steers the rear wheels. He turns the rear wheels first in the “wrong” direction, then the “right”, so the very long truck can make sharp turns. He is like the old carbon investors who deny that the world has changed. They are not going to steer in the “wrong” direction because they deny that it’s necessary. And they are going to crash the fire truck, which then becomes useless, like a 21st century economy built around coal-powered steam trains.

The US has from the very beginning been a nation ruled by the Almighty Dollar, something noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in his mid-1800s tour of the country. As a nation of inventors and innovators, there were more than a few people who turned their talents into wealth, sometimes vast wealth. Among these were the millionaires, now the billionaires, whose great wealth derived from oil, gas, and coal. Today many descendants of these same people expect their carbon-powered festival to continue forever.

But it won’t. It can’t, because the combination of over 7.5 billion people in the world and the pollution caused by the use of these fossil fuels has poisoned everything and created global warming and other signs of radical change that are now inescapable. But, in spite of massive undeniable evidence, the carbon dinosaurs still don’t believe it, because to do so would mean the end of their big celebration. So they spend many millions to convince others by means of manipulated evidence and outright lies that the changes that are all around us don’t exist.

Our new president is one of these ignorant deniers, because he too gets richer from these antique investments. As the commander in charge of the country he will do all he can to preserve his own bragging-wealth, along with the other very wealthy. These are the people who keep the dying Carbon Age on ever more expensive life support, while more advanced countries understood long ago that a new age of renewable power was already upon us, and we must shift our efforts to survive. They have succeeded, whereas the deniers harm the future for the sake of money they don’t need.

National medical care is not hard

This is why national health care plans always win out over our ridiculous greed-driven plan.

Just imagine you go in for a checkup and the doc gives you bad news. You have a cancer. Fortunately, it’s treatable. She schedules you for a CT scan and a number of other tests. You are scheduled to see an oncologist, who will be in charge of your case. You go in. The oncologist reviews your CT and your lab tests, and establishes a series of treatments that include the very latest developments. She consults with a nearby teaching hospital, which gives you a series of injections and medications that make your own body attack your cancer. After a number of treatments you are returned to health. Your oncologist monitors your health for years after your treatment. For this extensive and expensive medical care you pay nothing out of pocket.

Who gets paid, and how much? Everyone is paid a salary. Nobody gets money for scheduling extra tests. Nobody gets more for scheduling extra appointments. Or for prescribing a particular drug. Nobody’s salary is ridiculously huge; nobody’s is too low. The technologists and administrative personnel are also salaried. There are far fewer administrators because there are no insurance companies to pay. All pay follows a government pay scale, with adjustments according to locale, with extra pay in occupations and in places where there is extra need. All personnel earn more with longer service and more advanced expertise.

The government pays off the educational debt of newly minted physicians. They do not need insurance, because the government treats all conditions, including bad outcomes, and accommodates patients who were injured by their treatment. Each doc’s practice is monitored by government agencies, and extra training is required in the case of deficiencies. The government requires continued training to keep them up to date.

Every person in the country receives unlimited medical care paid through taxes. Health care workers are salaried, and all products, including medicines, are not allowed to be exorbitant as at present.

Is national health care free, as we so often hear? Of course not. It’s paid for through our taxes. But paying for it through taxes means it costs 50% of the market-driven cost we pay now.

Here are some of the reasons we pay so much now. Docs graduate with enormous education debt, which requires them to earn a high salary from the first. They also pay huge malpractice insurance premiums. The technologists in their service are paid moderately. The many administrative personnel who are required to manage the massive paperwork required by the insurance companies are paid the least the system can get away with.

But insurance companies are the biggest reason our health care costs so much. Insurance companies try to minimize all services in order to maximize profit for their shareholder owners. They pay full time people to disallow medical care. They may disallow expensive tests. They may refuse to pay for the treatments the doctor requests. They may refuse to renew any patient’s insurance, or even pay for treatment if the patient’s condition is presumed to exist prior to signing on to their insurance plan, or even if they decide it’s too expensive. Their upper executives are paid tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Stockholders expect a significant return on their investment.

The result is that our healthcare costs literally double what other countries pay. Double! Moreover, the quality and success rate of our medical care is inferior to many others, not to mention that many Americans have no insurance at all, and their health suffers for it. Lack of insurance often results in medical bankruptcy, or death from untreated conditions.

And yet conservative Republicans will not even consider proven superior systems. Why? Mostly because that would remove the possibility for the top administrative officers to become billionaires, and it is Republican dogma that says making the rich still more rich will somehow benefit the country. In spite of years of claims to the contrary, Republicans simply do not have a viable plan for health care. That is because they insist on a for-profit capitalist plan, and not a single dollar of the billions spent on for-profit insurance goes toward medical care of any kind.

The real purpose of our present plan is to maximize profit and executive pay.

Established Principles That Don’t Work

The differences between liberal and conservative principles are simple enough to spell out: the primary concern of liberals is people, all of them; of conservatives, money, stability, which are expected to help people.

Of course it’s not as simple as that. Conservatives dislike change. They want to conserve things as they are for as long as possible. Liberals realize that change cannot be retarded, it will happen one way or another, particularly in our fast changing world.

But this explains the conservative fear of people who aren’t exactly like themselves, because they are, or represent, change. Since most US conservatives are pale like me, they fear people with darker skin because they are “new”, different, and weird. Languages they speak are suspicious: those housekeepers are probably plotting something. Arabic spoken on an airplane must be about the hijacking being planned. Even German, the language of the ancestors of many US citizens, elicits fright.

“Speak English!”, some of these fearful people shout at the startled newcomer. People who speak only one language, in contrast to those they castigate. People who expect someone fresh off the boat to speak fluent English, it having never occurred to them that they themselves would be utterly baffled for years if they moved to virtually any Asian country. (But of course they wouldn’t make such a move, because that would be change.)

Liberals celebrate these differences. They make our experiences richer, with foods, art, music, and culture that are fresh and interesting. Liberals feel ashamed when they themselves haven’t mastered another language than American English.

But these are individual differences between conservatives and liberals, whereas the inoperative principles are most apparent in the practice of government, and especially of economics.

In each incoming Republican conservative administration, the president-elect spells out the goals of reducing taxes, cutting wages, reducing or eliminating bureaucracies or whole departments, and reducing taxes on the rich. The assumption is that taxes are too high, government operations are inefficient and better left to private enterprise, and that it is the rich who will build the economy if they are given the right conditions.

Each and every one of these assumptions is easily proven to be false, yet conservatives have built an unshakable faith around them that has endured for a long, long time.

The US has some of the lowest taxes in the modern world. That’s because we prevent the government from providing certain efficient services and instead entrust it to private enterprise, where the primary goal is always profit maximization. We remain the only modern nation that doesn’t have nationally sponsored health care.

If you don’t believe that the profit motive drives up our health care costs, then you must explain why these costs are so high where doctors are free to determine how many tests they order, where they profit from ordering more, yet costs are much lower where doctors do not have such a free hand. In national plans Big Pharma’s disgusting greed is not given free reign either, yet in the US it routinely crushes the household finances of families when someone has a serious disease and they have only moderate income. This never happens with national plans, yet in the US the most common bankruptcy is caused by disease.

Health care costs here are double what the rest of the modern world pays, and insurance is the primary reason. The insurance industry contributes absolutely nothing to health care, yet consumes a huge part of the cost, as much as one in three dollars. Nearly this entire cost vanishes with national health care, yet for some reason conservative Republicans continue to recite the rosary of private enterprise in the face of such facts.

The belief that government is incapable of efficient operation is equally false. Numerous government operations have been models of efficiency, including Census, Environmental Protection, Social Security, and so on. Except, of course, when Congress meddles, particularly with the purpose of proving how inefficient they are, something that is easily accomplished with big budget cuts.

We have had several recent illustrations of how inoperative is the belief that improvement occurs when money is given to the rich. Kansas under Brownback is the poster child. Tax cuts for the rich always result in a decrease in tax revenue. This is not offset with new factories, as claimed, because the very rich don’t build factories. They invest in “investments”, and send manufacturing jobs overseas, along with their hidden income. The resulting decrease in tax revenue creates budget cuts in essential services, greater unemployment, and a general decline in the quality of life.

We would all be better off if conservative Republicans occasionally took time off to consider their beliefs and assumptions. The same is true of liberal Democrats, of course, but it is the Republicans who have held us back. It was Harry Truman who said, “Even the Republicans are better off under the Democrats”.

There are many important things to debate in Congress, but nothing will improve until Republicans quit making obstruction their sole operational principle and examine their beliefs in view of the evidence.

Let us hope they do so before the country collapses.

A Few Minor Observations for the Coming Age

Hillary Clinton was elected to the presidency, but it’s the fifth time the loser will move into the White House, thanks to the obscenely useless electoral college. Republicans and their disaffected are rejoicing.

Donald Trump is a despicable person, a persistent liar, philanderer, misogynist, and cheat, singularly unqualified to be president. A man with the attention span of a kindergartener, who has probably never actually read a book in its entirety. He won with lies and appeals to hatred, telling white America they have been cheated by Democrats. Trumpsters have short memories: it was Obama who rescued Michigan from economic oblivion, yet they voted for Trump.

I read what he wants to accomplish, and agree with some of it. But most of it is the usual Republican nonsense that gives money to the rich at the cost of those who aren’t, the triumph of Big Money. Not only will we now have a billionaire for president, the very rich will have complete control of all parts of the national government. The very rich and their Republican puppets will rearrange things so they can burn unlimited fossil fuels, which will affect the entire world in calamitous ways.

Unfortunately, Republicans and the very rich have almost no understanding, or even belief in, the most significant issue in the entire history of humankind, the inexorably changing climate. A Republican carried a snowball onto the Senate floor to “prove” that warming is a hoax, and too many others presented such stupidities like, warming can’t be real because carbon dioxide isn’t poisonous. 

But climate change is already here, increasingly obvious, and can only get worse. Melting of “permanent” ice is already decades old, and now it looks like the entire ice mass of Greenland and both polar ice caps will melt over the next century or so. This will increase the depth of the ocean by over eighty feet. Likewise, temperature increase is already advanced. In several parts of the globe extended periods of 120ºF or higher cause tens of thousands of deaths every year, and the hottest US cities and regions experience a month or more when the temperature never drops below a hundred. Eventually the average ambient temperature will cross the 125ºF mark, above which human life is not possible.

But these concerns are long range. Besides casual attitudes toward our descendants, Republican dominance means thoughtless voiding of laws that protect the lives of us all right now.

Trump never failed to play to the anger and racial hatred of people who feel they have somehow been wronged by people with darker skin. This is a common tactic of tyrants, one played masterfully by Adolph Hitler. The “wronged” come to believe that Those Others are the reason they are not rich and respected, and therefore they are treacherous and inferior. In so doing Trump earned the full support of the KKK, the neo-Nazis, and every other racist, white supremacist hate group in the country. In effect, Trump gives them all license to commit violence against Jews, blacks, homosexuals, Mexican-Americans, Muslims, immigrants—anyone. Nazi graffiti appeared even on election day. In many places it will become dangerous for anyone who seems even slightly different to walk down the street. With some 350-million guns in the country, Trump has issued a general license to kill.

One wonders why white supremacists believe as they do, since their only achievement is accidental paleness, and not one of them has accomplished anything of real significance.

A third element lies in the realm of economics. Trump has repeatedly proven to economists that he knows nothing about the subject. In fact, Republicans in general tend to be ignorant of it. Paul Ryan, majority leader of the House, is widely admired by Republicans for his economic plan for the nation, a plan of sheer nonsense that depends on many billions of dollars of phantom cash from mysterious unexplained sources that not even the GAO can find. Or perhaps they expect that doing away with their favorite boogiemen will put money into the budget and somehow make it work.

They will almost certainly rescind social programs they don’t like, programs that millions depend on: Social Security and Medicare, particularly Obamacare. This will throw Americans by tens of millions into abject poverty with no escape, including millions who believed Trump’s fantasies. These cuts will have absolutely no effect on the budget, but many bureau budgets will be cut enough to make their departments ineffective, thus crippling essential government programs. Since Obama already cut the bureaus, it’s hard to imagine how further slashing will help.

Trump himself brags about his business prowess, but it doesn’t really exist. As economist Robert Reich pointed out, if he had simply invested his entire inherited fortune in an index fund, he would be at least four times more wealthy than he is. Even the money he did make was largely due to up-front payment for use of his name, as well as out-and-out cheating of his clients and employees. Most of his ventures either went bankrupt or earned far less than he claimed. Frankly, he’s a liar and a cheat, which his election is unlikely to change. The economic benefits he promised followers simply do not exist.

Perhaps he didn’t really expect to win, and now finds himself confronted by his own ignorance, with a plan that will punish his followers. How long will it take them to realize that? What will happen when they do?

The Official City Garden

Every city should have at least one official city produce garden. It should be large, on city land, run by an experienced manager, and grow produce to be distributed free to citizens who need it.

Every city has a number of difficulties to deal with regarding its poorest citizens. Homelessness is a problem that is unlikely to go away, but improvements may be made in various ways, including the city garden. Not all of the homeless are those who have lost control of their lives because of substance abuse, and among the rest, all they need is a bit of work and a subsidized place to live.

Recent news tells us that long term unemployment among boomers fifty or older has created a serious problem. Too many people in this category are perfectly capable of working and want to work. But they are unemployed for various reasons, and many have tried unsuccessfully to find work for years. The result has been discouragement, depression, abuse of alcohol and drugs, and suicide.

Hunger in our cities is a completely solvable problem. Most cities have various programs that improve the distribution of food for those who can’t afford to buy enough. This is done through dining halls that serve anyone who shows up hungry, through distribution plans to families that qualify, through school breakfast and lunch programs funded in various ways, and through meal delivery systems for those who have difficulty leaving their home.

A large, subsidized city produce garden can contribute mightily to assist these programs.

Most cities own large properties that have been unused for many years. Often they are school sites abandoned or obsolete, and often these sites consist of an acre to several acres of land. Plots this size can produce large amounts of food.

Imagine such a plot, perhaps previously occupied by a school, or an industrial building such as a bus barn. If it is a school plot, it probably fronts on two streets, and is roughly square, and about four acres. Preferably, all buildings have been razed. If not, they must be. All building materials such as concrete and blacktop must be removed. If needed, the soil must be supplemented with clean topsoil from other city sites. Garden grade soil is not necessary, because the soil will be constantly improved with use.

Probably the plot will need to be surrounded by a fairly high fence to protect against theft of equipment and vandalism. A sturdy shed to hold the machinery and hand tools will be needed, which will include a small office. Work can continue through the winter with soil preparation, tool maintenance, and seedling growth in cold and hot frames or greenhouses. Greenhouses can be seasonal or permanent.

Frequent communication between the garden managers and receivers of the produce will be important in order to distribute the produce in the most efficient manner.

Depending on the size of the establishment, one or two full time personnel will be needed. It should be the policy to hire as many of the discouraged unemployed as possible, preferably for about 20 hours weekly. Pay for these persons should be well above minimum or subsistence, probably in the range of $20 an hour or more. This will give a substantial number of the unemployed enough income to afford rent in subsidized apartments. Since they will also qualify for free garden food, much of their cost of living will become manageable.

All cities process organic waste materials such as cut grass and chopped weeds, garbage, and chipped wood. Most such materials can be composted to enrich the garden soil. Wood chips are usually better used to form pathways in the garden, making it cleaner and dryer to work. Chips also prevent excess evaporation and control weeds. If needed, restaurants and food stores can be recruited to contribute organic waste for composting. After a few years of such soil treatment the garden soil will be very rich, and will produce massive amounts of food. No commercial fertilizers will ever be necessary. In addition, it will be unnecessary to till the soil in any way, because the constantly added mature compost will keep the soil soft and rich. All that is needed is to plant the seeds or young plants.

The costs of operating such an enterprise are not huge, but they are substantial. But my belief is that the payoff for the city lies not only in the value of the food produced, but in reducing the amount of assistance needed for the poor, homeless, and unemployed. The amount of produce from a four-acre plot fertilized with the waste products of a typical city will very soon be measured in tons of food. In addition, many cities will easily support multiple plots of this type.

A well managed food growing and distribution system should make hunger among the poor a thing of the past.