Wednesday, June 25, 2008

5-4 Against: The Supreme Court Strikes Down Capital Punishment In ALL Rape Cases

Rather than attempt to copy the journalistic aspect of this news, I will simply state that today the United States Supreme Court ruled that capital punishment for rape, regardless of the age of the victim, is cruel and unusual unless the victim is killed by the rapist.

This ruling is bound to be controversial, despite the fact that only five states had laws permitting capital punishment in cases of child rape and only Louisiana allowed such a sentence to be given on the first offense, because of the despicable nature of crimes against children and the moral outrage such crimes engender in the public. This moral outrage is the justification for the slippery slope sexual predator legislation that deprives sex offenders of many of their constitutional rights, which one could claim laid the mental justification for the battery of civil rights abuses in the 'Patriot Act' and the conduct of the Justice Department during this administration.

Despite the controversy, this ruling was the right one. Capital punishment is a slippery slope of its own, and every instance in which the government is allowed to kill people creates one more justification for the next instance. If one is morally opposed to capital punishment, one should be against capital punishment. Every horrible, vicious, disgusting crime which serves as an exception justifies judicial murder.

The author of the specific Louisiana law under scrutiny in this case said that even opponents of the death penalty would kill anyone who raped their own children. This is the natural parental impulse, yes. Parents defend their children or avenge them if they fail to protect them. Despite not being a parent, I can safely say that if I had a daughter and she was raped then I would want to kill the rapist myself.

This argument for judicial murder fails on two levels. First and foremost, people want to kill other people all the time. Violence is part of the package of instinctive responses to anger. Yet we, as sentient human beings, do not simply kill someone every time we want to kill someone. When we do, we are arrested and tried for murder. Parents may want to kill the rapist of their child, but the expression of that desire in the statement, "I would kill anyone who raped my child," is not proof that they would actually commit the deed under the circumstances. It is an expression of the natural emotional and instinctive reaction they experience at the mere thought of such a thing. If people truly killed people every time they wanted to do so, the murder rate would be far higher than it is even in our relatively murderous nation.

This leads directly into the second failure of the 'you'd do it if it was your kid' argument: people who know right from wrong know that murdering your child's rapist is not morally justified in a modern society of law. That doesn't mean that they would not choose to do so anyway, but it is no more morally justified to kill a child rapist because 'any parent would do it.' Despite the genuine and justified admiration for democratic input into the legal system, morality is not democratic. Something is right or it is wrong, and its popularity does not make it morally acceptable. Nor, as all our parents told us from a young age (whether they believed it or not) do two wrongs make a right.

The ancient Romans believed that there were only three appropriate legal punishments: punitive fines, exile (always accompanied by extremely harsh punitive fines unless undertaken voluntarily in lieu of trial), and execution. That's the moral ground that the slippery slope of acceptable capital punishment finally reaches if taken to its fullest measure.

If that's what you believe, then you are entitled to your opinion.

That doesn't mean that we should allow the government to be ruled by your standard.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

'Major Blunders': Another View of Obama's Recent 'Mistakes'

CNN chose to make a big deal of what a terrible political mistake it was for Obama to announce that the chief of staff for his running mate would be a fired Clinton campaign manager. While the Democratic strategists they had on to discuss the issue did their best to legitimately explain the decision, they made no attempts to strongly communicate its clear and important message or the strengths of the decision. Wolf Blitzer, Lou Dobbs, and the various Republican strategists (of course) were negative and very heavy-handedly so. The words 'blunder', 'error', 'insult', etc. were spoken quite bit. Dobbs, a man whose economic populism suggests strongly that he should be backing Obama loudly, was the most abusive in tone.

Was it really a mistake? I don't think so. The decision to hire Hillary Clinton's fired campaign manager as the chief of staff for the vice presidential campaign sent a clear message that Hillary would not be the running mate. It sent this message without a big speech by Obama about why Hillary wasn't going to be his running mate or revealing what his other thoughts on his choice might be. When Obama announces his choice and it is not Hillary, the angry shock that would have inevitably followed without this announcement will have been diluted by the foreknowledge created by the hiring being criticized. It's better to take a small hit in the short term and to move on strong than it is to take a big hit when you can least afford it. So far, to me, it appears that Obama and his campaign staff have been operating in full understanding of this principle and have been unafraid to take the jabs to slip the right crosses. I can only praise a political toughness seldom seen in Democratic nominees, even if Obama isn't my nominee of choice.

Obama has also received a slough of criticism for his decision to opt out of the campaign finance system. I can understand this criticism, as there is a strong belief in the need for political campaigns in which corporate and PAC bribe money plays a smaller role. However, the loopholes in McCain-Feingold allow for massive amounts of soft money to be used in elections. Just bribe the party instead of the candidate, the candidate will know where the money came from.

I applaud Obama's decision to opt out of the public finance system. Yes, that's right, I applaud it. Vigorously. The Republican Party traditionally outspends the Democratic Party on soft money 'issue ads' that amount to the most vicious kind of attack ads. Small, private PACs like 'Swift Boat Veterans For Truth' have been added to the mix in good measure and no one knows where their money comes from. With all due respect to the necessary process of reform, you do not enter into a fistfight with one hand tied behind your back when your opponent has a knife in his pocket. Gore and Kerry both did this, and it ended badly for both of them.

When someone pulls a knife, you pull a gun. Obama doesn't intend to be passively knifed. He intends to fight back and win.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fixing the Roof When the House Has A Bad Foundation: Real Tax Reform

John McCain and Barack Obama have been sniping at each other over their respective tax plans, each assuring the American people that their plan is the best and that the other candidate's plan is wildly irresponsible. McCain insists that Obama's tax plan will drastically raise taxes, using a disingenuous tone of warning intended to suggest to everyone who listens to him speak on the subject that their taxes will go up. Barack Obama argues that the working and middle classes are overtaxed and that McCain's tax cuts will benefit the wealthiest segment of American taxpayers and not benefit the vast majority of Americans. This is the expected tax argument between Democrats and Republicans during an election year, and everyone is used to it by now... but the issue of taxes is still, for some reason, the strongest weapon in the Republican arsenal. Obama's language in this election suggests he intends to actually debate the tax issue on some level rather than resort to the standard Democratic counter of social programs, though he has those ready too.

Yes, the richest American taxpayers would benefit greatly from McCain's tax plan. The biggest cuts in his plan go to the top two tax brackets. At the same time, however, his tax cuts for the working and middle class are real. They are not as big as Obama's, it is very true, but they are real. Obama's plan does raise the taxes of Americans in the very top bracket by more than $700,000 a year. Yet his tax cuts for the bottom two tax brackets are nearly ten times McCain's cuts.

So McCain's argument is that the rich are overtaxed and the working class and the middle class are taxed about right, but could pay a little less. Obama's argument is that the working class, the middle class, and the mildly rich deserve tax breaks and the very rich are undertaxed. Each tax plan applies corrections to the perceived problems.

The flaw in both tax plans is that, while the working poor and the middle class are overtaxed in the present economy, the wealthiest Americans are both overtaxed and undertaxed. The highest tax rate, currently, is thirty-five percent. Even I find that excessive. Unfortunately, the percentage of people in the top bracket who pay taxes on their full taxable income is not particularly large. Ridiculous definitions of 'income', high priced tax attorneys not available to the middle class and working class, and a bevy of loopholes and tax shelters add up to equal an entire industry in legalized tax evasion.

The most important cure for the system is to reduce the defintion of 'income' to its real meaning: money received. Eliminate capital gains taxes and the estate tax and classify all capital gains above a specific level and all inheritances as 'income.' This would exempt bank interest and eliminate all taxes on the vast majority of stock dividends, while taxing high risk-high interest mutual funds like any other form of gambling. It would fairly tax inheritances, without confiscating them nearly in their entirety. In an age where stock brokers' questionairres for new customers include an 'income' category and mega-investors make their entire living off capital investments or playing the market, calling capital gains anything but income becomes ridiculous. An inheritance is income, it's money you didn't have that you have now.

The program would also entail the elimination of legal tax shelters and closing of the loopholes available to the wealthiest Americans. Deductions for charitable contributions would be more carefully capped and the definition of 'charity' would be reduced to its true intent much as the word 'income.' The website of the American Prospect advertises that donations to the liberal magazine are tax deductible. I'm certainly on the political left and I am a great fan of prospect contributors Sarah Posner and Courtney E. Martin, but voluntary donations to a business (and the American Prospect is a business, one must subscribe to the magazine to read much of the content, full access to to current issues online is only available to subscribers despite the very fine free content on the website) is not a true 'charitable donation' and should not be tax deductible. The loopholes that allow the 'overtaxed' to pay far less than they are required to pay need to be closed.

Perhaps most importantly, the way corporations are taxed needs to be changed. Instead of the unstable system of corporate taxes currently in place and constantly under conservative attack, corporate entities need to be assessed on a basis of corporate income as if they were individuals paying income tax. Extra taxes not based on this formula should be eliminated and loopholes closed.

Not being a financial expert, I will not presume to set actual tax rates myself. However, I would reduce the number of brackets to three and tax the richest Americans at the same rate as the mildly rich Americans. This would increase the taxes on the latter and significantly cut the taxes on the former. Some of the lower end of the current second highest tax bracket would be readjusted into the bracket below them.

Economists have been saying for some years now that the poverty line should be raised to about $25,000 a year, so I would give the Earned Income Credit to every taxpayer making less than $25,000.

Once the new tax brackets were established and the rates set, tax cuts and tax increases should all be temporary rather than permanent. Tax cuts on the working poor and many of the middle class are entirely appropriate in difficult economic times, but should not necessarily last when conditions improve. Tax hikes on the wealthy might be appropriate when times are flush, but should be rolled back in a bad economy.

I think that this system makes more sense than the system currently in place, and I think that conservatives would be more happy than unhappy with the simplification of the system and the cutting of tax rates at the top levels. Liberals would find that more money came into the system as loopholes closed and corporations and wealthy individuals were taxed more logically and fairly. The tax burden on the working poor would be drastically reduced.

This is a very radical change to our present system, but the problems of government spending and mushrooming debt are real. Our current, conservative administration has proved they can be a nightmare. It's time to do something about it on a practical level, not an ideological level.