I Just Bought a Drone

Tuesday night, while the Good Wife and I slept, our checking account was ransacked by the Internal Revenue Service. This is where our (personal) record amount of federal taxes will eventually end up.

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The Internal Revenue Service needs reinventing. Could there be a worse name? It sounds like something from an Eastern Bloc dystopian novel. How about the Public Commons or the Public Commons Service? Now the most dreaded sentence in the English language will be, “Hi, I’m from the Public Commons Service.”

Granted, that’s barely scratching the surface of what’s wrong with the PCS. The main problem with our tax system is once our checking account is raided, we have next to no say over where our federal tax dollars go (apart from voting for two senators and a congressional representative). For example, despite being anti-war educators, 27.7% of our federal taxes go to the military (defense and military benefits + veteran benefits) while 1.32% goes to education. We’re forced to help purchase drones, when we’d much rather help purchase improved teacher salaries.

At the same time, our hawkish neighbors might compensate for our military stinginess by designating far more than their 27.7% for the Pentagon. And of course, our other neighbor, Dan, Dan, The Transportation Man, would significantly increase his 2.65% transportation contribution.

A few significant improvements would result from this experiment in direct financial democracy. 1) Complaining about tax rates would decline. 2A) Government departments and programs would have to explain to the public why they’re deserving of a greater percentage of the total revenue available. And 2B) The more they could demonstrate fiscal responsibility, the more support they’d gain.

Admittedly, these ideas won’t slow the accelerating gap between the Haves and Have Nots. On April 15th, I listened to a panel of tax experts discuss tax reform on the Diane Rehm Show. I was much more intrigued by the tone of the discussion than the details of their ideas. The tone was, “Our tax system is so complex that improving it by simplifying it is impossible, but I’m happy to play along with your national audience anyways.”

As anyone who has tried to improve K-12 schooling, reduce global warming, reduce money’s influence in politics, or eradicate drugs and crime from their community will tell you, those who have a vested interest in the status quo benefit greatly from a sense of overwhelming complexity. Reformers, whether tax or otherwise, can’t wrap their arms around the whole problem, and therefore, don’t know where to begin making changes. Eventually they try piecemeal reforms. Before those reforms take hold, people’s patience runs out. Gradually, everyone and everything reverts back to “normal”. With each passing year or decade, what’s viewed as “normal” becomes more deeply entrenched, making significant change even more difficult.

Tax reformers have lots of good ideas including deductions they’d tweak or eliminate altogether. But they can’t see the forest because of the trees. Their ultimate challenge is to convince the public that simplifying and improving our tax system is possible.

 

 

 

 

Congress in a Nutshell

And our national debt.

From today’s WSJ:

Rep. John Garamendi is known as a staunch advocate for cutting unnecessary defense spending. But the California Democrat avidly defends one program: a fleet of high-altitude surveillance drones that the Pentagon wants to scrap.

While Mr. Garamendi says the drones are a critical Pentagon tool, there is another reason he is a vociferous defender of the unmanned aircraft: Pilots who control them work at a base in his congressional district.

The Limits of Obama’s Liberalism

Post Inaugural Address, Slate Magazine trumpeted, “A Liberal Love Letter”. The tease read, “Obama’s partisan speech was a pledge to gays, women, immigrants, and the working class.

So forget all that January 2009 naivete about bipartisanship. The plan is to put the activist government pedal to the metal for the next 16-18 months.

Except when it comes to teachers and education. Obama’s education policy is nearly indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s whose reform proposals were nearly indistinguishable from Bill Clinton’s, whose policies were nearly indistinguishable from George Bush Sr’s. Pre-Senior, the education policy pendulum swang about every ten years between traditional schooling practices and progressive reforms. About twenty years ago the pendulum got seriously stuck. Wedged in wet cement that then dried when Bill Clinton adopted Senior’s narrow, uninspiring, national education goals.

Granted, President Obama jammed a lot into his inaugural address and inaugural addresses are more about vision and guiding principles than specific policies. Given that, here’s what President Obama should do before (#1) and during (#s 2-5) his State of the Union Address on Tuesday, February 12th, to extend his “liberal love letter” to education.

1). Thank Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his service and appoint someone with real life K-12 teaching experience. A woman with credibility. Someone less inclined to use international test scores to criticize teachers. Someone less likely to mindlessly preach the math/science “economic engine” gospel.

2) Repeat this weekly. “We must learn to think about students as future citizens first, not consumers or employees.” And also, “We’ve erred in thinking about schools like businesses and only emphasizing math and science education. For the sake of our democracy, we must pay much more attention to the arts, the humanities, and social studies education.”

3) Empower teacher leaders—not Governors or other politicians, business people, or education bureaucrats—to design rigorous teacher evaluation systems. Acknowledge that the curriculum grew frighteningly narrow over the last twenty years in part because education bureaucrats have insisted on tying together students’ standardized test scores, teachers’ evaluations, and teachers’ compensation.

4) Acknowledge that appeals to economic competitiveness and national greatness don’t inspire teacher or students. Stop asking teachers and students to work harder for the sake of the country. Remind everyone that academic achievement results when students have inspiring teachers; positive peer pressure; and most importantly, caring adults in their lives who combine high expectations with tireless support and encouragement.

And since I’m in “pie in the sky” territory. . .

5.) Start a “MaD” program or “Mothball a Drone” and use the Defense Department savings to A) fund scholarships for especially capable, culturally diverse, college students pursuing teaching certificates and B) to boost teacher compensation more generally.

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I hereby swear to continue the education policies of George W. Bush (whereever he might be).

Veterans’ Day—Be Very Careful

I woke up yesterday to a Daily Olympian headline that read “Attacker ignored cries of ‘We are children,’ Afghan witnesses say. The article described the trial of Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, who allegedly murdered 16 Afghan civilians and wounded six more in a nighttime rampage on March 11th.

After skimming that news article, I started pancaking while listening to a story on National Public Radio about the Obama administration’s 300-person Al-Qaida Yemeni “kill list”. A few years of pilotless drone bombings later, there are around 1,000 members of Al-Qaida in Yemen.

To many military readers and listeners those stories were more evidence of the media’s anti-military bias. The implication being we’d all be better off if the media just reported on all the good the military does.

Then I went to adult Sunday school where Melinda, our young intern, was leading a discussion on our church formally becoming a “military friendly” congregation a designation that requires meeting a few criteria. I like Melinda. Married to a three tour Iraqi war veteran, she’s personable, articulate, and  a huge NASCAR fan.

She shared a story about a veteran who returned to a church that strongly condemned him for his wartime activities. Understandably, people were dismayed. Melinda added that now he is among the “most anti-Christian people you’ll ever meet.”

It’s more common she said for churches to fail veterans through a debilitating silence, which they interpret as negative judgement. Logically then, the only option is to proactively and positively embrace military veterans and their families.

I did the unthinkable. Asked a question. Unless my attorney has a better one, my defense is maybe the maple syrup went to my head. You would think I would have learned by now that you can’t question the military, especially on Veteran’s Day. The bumper sticker “Dissent is patriotic” is what liberals wish was true. You cannot question the size of the military, military strategies like the drone program, or even the effects of war on its victims without raising the ire of the pro-military super majority.

The default thought process is you can’t question the military because we’re all indebted to them for our freedom. Unquestionably, that’s been true in the past. Between 1941 and 1945 we were indebted to all Allied forces for our freedom. Apparently, once true always true. The specific thinking being that current military campaigns against Yemeni Al-Qaida or Iraqi insurgents keeps the U.S. safe from foreign invasion and/or terrorist attacks, preserves our constitutional government, and makes it possible for dovish bloggers to question the military. To question is to be ungrateful for their sacrifices including extended separations from their families, risk of serious injury or death, and endless challenges upon return. The ancillary question is “What have you done for your country?”

I told everyone that I understood the aforementioned church silence of which Melinda was critical because I interpreted it as confusion which I share. A few people pushed back because it’s not even okay to be confused. You have to be all in, all the time.

Our military, I added, is fueled by nationalism which doesn’t factor into the New Testament. More specifically I asked, “How do we embrace the Beatitudes, which I think are the essence of the gospel, and the U.S. military whose values are often antithetical to the Beatitudes?”

Some of the Beatitudes from Matthew Chapter 5:

4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.

7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.

8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.

9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called sons of God.

Had there been one large cartoon cloud above everyone’s heads, it would’ve read, “No he didn’t!”

Melinda replied confidently. Too confidently. “Lots of military are anti-war. My husband is anti-war.” The message being that one has to separate individual members from the actions of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines more generally. On the surface that’s sensible, but as could have been predicted, a few people questioned my question, and Melinda elaborated. The gist of her message was it’s okay for people in the church to be anti-war as long as congregations are pro-military.

The inherent tension in that seemed lost on her. It seems to me, truly anti-war servicemen and women would not re-enlist or they’d band together to change the military’s culture and mission.

We need anti-war military personnel to take the lead in creating a new military. A multilingual one that is steeped in the social sciences. One that’s smaller, less misogynist, more knowledgeable about world religions, more transparent, and more adept at winning the hearts and minds of people intensely wary of American power.

There’s little hope for reinventing our military without impolite questions and uncomfortable moments in adult Sunday schools around the country. My hope is some of you will join me in breaking the silence and daring to be impolite.