Saturday, December 29, 2012

Year End Top Films

Fanny Ardant as Maria Callas
Below find a short list of foreign films that will rival any to be found on the usual year-end “ten best” lists.

All of the films on the list are personal favorites of mine. I must confess that I have a preference for “feel good” films. For example, I understand the greatness of Italian neo-realist films but find them almost unbearable to watch. Also, I avoid films where the emphasis is on violence and eroticism.

Although I am a great fan of American films, I believe that foreign films provide an opportunity to see and understand other cultures. In addition to being great stories with great characters, they can open up a window to other worlds. For example, the Israeli film “The Band Visits” not only depicts current tensions in Israel and Egypt but also shows that ordinary Israelis and Egyptians are not much different from each other or anyone else.

The Band Visits: A charming comedy from Israel that depicts a day in the life of a small band of Egyptian musicians that mistakenly winds up in a remote Israeli settlement.

The Importance of Being Earnest: The classic version of Oscar Wilde’s play of the same name. It stars Michael Redgrace and the inimitable Joan Greenwood.

Wings of Desire: A German film that began as a homage to post-war Berlin but ended up as a homage to life and love. It stars Bruno Ganz and Peter Falk in a surprising role.

Bread and Tulips: A modern Italian comedy that depicts the adventures and travails of a housewife stranded in Venice. 

Callas, Forever: Franco Zeffirelli’s homage to Maria Callas depicts his imaginary understanding of the last year of her life. French actress Fanny Ardant is magnificent as Maria Callas.

Mao’s Last Dancer: This Australian film is based on the true story of a Chinese ballet dancer who after getting permission from the Chinese authorities to perform with the Houston ballet, decides to stay in America.

Johnny Stecchino:  This film stars famed Italian comic Roberto Benigni in a dual role as a simple school bus driver and as a Mafioso. One of the great comedies of all time but only available in VHS.

Roberto Benigni as Johnny Stecchino

Always: Sunset on Third Ave.: A charming Japanese film set in 1958 as Japan is emerging from the devastation of WWII. It provides an eye opening view of Japanese culture while at the same time showing that the hopes and dreams of ordinary Japanese were not much different from those of Americans of the same era. This film is hard to find.

I realize that the great majority of foreign films are probably just as trashy as most American films. But this list is taken from the cream of the crop.  They were made by adults for adults.


Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Message

Giorgione: Adoration of the Shepherds

In 1971, an incredible 1.2 billion copies of a single postage stamp were printed by the U.S. Postal Service. It was the largest stamp printing order in the world since postage stamps were first introduced in 1840. It was almost ten times larger that the usual printing of an American commemorative stamp. The stamp was one of two Christmas stamps issued that year. It depicted a Nativity scene by the Italian painter Giorgio Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, and portrayed Mary, Joseph, the Christ Child, and two shepherds.*

The Postal Service probably picked Giorgione’s “Adoration of the Shepherds” because it was one of the most prized possessions of the National Gallery. The scene is so familiar that it is easy to overlook its real meaning.**

This King is not protected by armed guards. There is no need to bribe or otherwise court influence with bureaucrats acting as intermediaries. Anyone, even the simplest and the humblest, can approach this King directly and in his or her own fashion.

Merry Christmas

* M.W. Martin: “Christmas in Stamps,” in Catholic digest Christmas Book, ed. Father Kenneth Ryan, St. Paul, Minnesota, 1977.

** I have discussed this painting on my Art history blog: Giorgione et al...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Newtown Massacre

The massacre of twenty innocent children and six school staff in nearby Newtown, Connecticut was too shocking too write about last week. I know that violent acts are going on all over the world but when it hits so close to home, it breaks through our psychological firewall.

Since the tragedy innumerable words have been written and by now the newspapers are full of articles and letters offering solutions to the problem. Inevitably, most take a one sided view. Some writers call for stricter gun control laws. Others decry the violence in our entertainment media and overall culture. Finally, others call for reforms in treatment of the so-called violent mentally ill.

I would like to suggest all of the above. It seems striking to me that most advocates of stricter gun control are also ardent defenders of Hollywood’s right to do whatever it pleases in depicting violence. At the same time, opponents of violence in the media are often strong supporters of the gun ownership. It seems that it is time for those on both the left and the right to come together and adopt each other’s solutions.

I have never owned a gun and never plan to own one, but I know very good people who do. Two beloved uncles were avid hunters, and so is my younger brother, a retired NYPD officer who also happens to be a fanatic about gun safety. 
Even before the massacre of the children and their teachers in Newtown, it was hard for me to understand the intransigence of some people on both sides of the issue of gun control. On the one hand, I have never been able to understand why a hunter might require an assault rifle or a handgun that is just about the modern equivalent of the machine guns that were banned in the 1930s.

On the other hand, I am aware that even states like Connecticut that have the most stringent gun-control laws are among those with the most violent crime rates. Bridgeport, Connecticut is usually among the Nation’s leaders in firearm related murders. Frankly, I believe that the possibility that a one of my neighbors might actually own a revolver is a real deterrent to crime in my neighborhood.

Still, I don’t believe that the right to bear arms allows me or my neighbor to assemble an arsenal fit for a SWAT team. We have banned especially lethal firearms in the past and we can do it again. I know that criminals will probably find ways to get their hands on assault rifles, but the supply could be limited at the source.

While we are at it, I think that there is another so-called right that needs to be somewhat restricted. Why is it that proponents of stricter gun control laws never seem to oppose the acts of violence that appear daily in films, video games, and on TV?  The release of a new film this Christmas season was delayed because of the massacre in Newtown. Was it perhaps because the film begins with a rooftop sniper looking through his scope at a young girl? You could be watching “Miracle on 34th St.” this season only to see it interrupted by commercials for films full of bloodshed. I can’t imagine the violence that my grandchildren see on their video games where they themselves become the shooter.

Maybe, most of us wouldn’t be led to commit acts of violence by witnessing violence, but what about the mentally ill? Some will say that exposure to this violence does no harm. Some also argue that it limits free speech and stifles artistic creativity.   If what people see on TV does not influence behavior, why do advertisers spend so much money promoting their wares, or politicians buy so much ad-time to get elected?

As far as artistic creativity is concerned, I believe that I can make a very strong case for censorship. During the 1930s the film industry adopted the now infamous “Production Code.” Faced with the threat of government censorship resulting from a public outcry, Hollywood agreed to police itself. Any new film would have to be reviewed and modified it if failed to meet certain set standards. The Production code was abandoned decades ago but modern filmmakers and critics still bemoan the censorship that gripped Hollywood.

Recently, Turner Classic Movies released DVD sets of some of the pre-code films and a reviewer in the Wall St. Journal thought that the Code had been a great tragedy. However, in his own review he could only point to one or two films of even limited value from the pre-Code era. He failed to mention that the adoption of the infamous Code ushered in what most critics regard as the Golden Age of film.

For example, 1939 is regarded as one of the greatest years in Hollywood history. “Gone with the Wind” swept most of the Oscars, but moviegoers that year also saw: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; Wuthering Heights; Goodbye, Mr. Chips; Stagecoach; the Wizard of Oz; Ninotchka; Of Mice and Men; and Dark Victory. The next two years saw the likes of Citizen Kane; the Maltese Falcon; and Casablanca—three of the greatest films of all time. Restrictions on the so-called creativity of producers, directors, and artists only forced them to greater heights of excellence.

The  Newtown massacre occurred right in the midst of the Christmas season. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people on both sides of the political spectrum could come together next year to make America a more peaceful society? ###

Friday, December 7, 2012

Tax Rates and Tax Cliff

Bush Tax Cuts and Federal Revenues

An increase in tax rates on the rich, or anyone else, does not always lead to increased government revenues. Historically, almost the opposite has occurred. Over 50 years ago, President Kennedy lowered tax rates and Federal revenues grew dramatically. President Reagan did the same thing with the same result when he took office.
Even the much-maligned Bush tax cuts did not reduce Federal revenues. In 2002 the Federal government collected 1 Trillion dollars in income taxes and 1.88 Trillion in total revenues. By 2007 after five years of Bush “tax cuts”, Federal income tax collections went up by 50% to over 1.5 Trillion dollars, and total government receipts exceeded 2.5 Trillion. In 2007 the total federal deficit was a mere 160 Billion dollars, the same it had been in 2002. Only with the recession did income tax revenues go down to 2002 levels although total government receipts stayed higher.
Today, total Federal government revenues are the highest they have ever been. Unfortunately, in the last five years massive government spending has far outstripped the increased revenues produced by the Bush cuts. Even if the President were to tax those making over $250000 at a rate of 100%, it would not come close to dealing with the massive debt roll accumulated during his previous four years in office.
Ironically for conservatives, it would appear that reductions in tax rates lead to increased government revenues and only enable more government spending. At the same time, it would appear that raising tax rates would actually lead to less revenue for Washington? Why should this be so?
In the last election campaign Governor Romney tried to make the point that lower tax rates would actually grow the economy and produce greater revenues for the Federal government. Most people, including those who should know like politicians and newspaper editors, could not understand the concept.
But there is another factor. Increasing tax rates only increases tax avoidance strategies both legal and illegal. Recently, a noted political commentator suggested a national lottery where people would be entered in the drawing for the huge payout if they would only submit their tax returns to audit. He estimated that 2 Trillion dollars of income goes unreported every year. His scheme is a crazy one but it illustrates the insanity of our whole tax system.
Increasing tax rates on the rich or anyone else will only encourage more tax avoidance since the potential reward gets greater. If someone’s income is taxed at a 50% rate rather than 25%, the potential reward for deferring, sheltering, or otherwise hiding income has doubled.
How many contractors do you know who prefer to receive payments in cash? How many people do you know who receive unemployment benefits, but who at the same time work “under-the–table” somewhere? If people in such negligible tax brackets risk breaking the law for such a small return, what do you suppose the prosperous will do?
For example, you can raise the tax rate on capital gains, but people will only pay the tax when they finally sell the asset that has increased in value. If the government raises the tax rate on dividends, corporations will just reduce or even eliminate their dividends. Investors will also cut back or even sell their positions in dividend paying stocks in anticipation of an increase in tax rates. I’m not making this up. Just recently, Costco announced a record $7 per share dividend before the end of this tax year. The company is headed by one of President Obama’s major supporters in the last election.
Inevitably, increases in tax rates never produce the expected tax revenues. Just look at the state of Connecticut. Two years ago newly elected Governor, Dannell Malloy, and an overwhelmingly Democrat legislature pushed through the largest tax increase in State history. Now, the expected revenues have failed to materialize, and the Governor’s hapless aides can only blame the failure of the economy to grow over the past two years. ### 
Click to enlarge

Monday, November 26, 2012

Huntington Library and Museum

On a recent trip to California my wife and I were able to visit the magnificent Huntington Library located in the posh little town of San Marino just outside of Pasadena. The library and the surrounding grounds were originally the home of railroad magnate Henry Huntington. After his death in the 1920s the home and its extensive collection of European and American  art were turned into the incredibly beautiful museum.

Huntington Library and Museum
San Marino, CA

The collection is so large that it takes at least four buildings to display only a portion. But what a portion! In the building devoted to European art there is a room dedicated to some exquisite Renaissance Madonnas, as well as a splendid collection of French eighteenth century  art, but the centerpiece of the Huntington is the magnificent collection of British eighteenth century portraiture.

This collection is mainly found in a great room covered with beautiful full-length portraits of beautiful men and women. Pride of place goes to Thomas Gainsborough’s famed “Blue Boy” which was purchased by Huntington from famed dealer Joseph Duveen in the early 1920s for the then record breaking price of $700000. Everyone knows the painting but hung as it is in the place of honor in the midst of all these beautiful paintings, it takes your breath away.

Equally striking is Thomas Lawrence’s “Pinkie” a portrait of an 11-year-old girl standing in a cloud-backed landscape. The portrait of Pinkie was ordered by her grandmother, and Lawrence was able to capture the budding loveliness and gaiety of this young girl.  Sadly, Pinkie died of tuberculosis shortly after the painting was completed.  Nevertheless, the painting holds its own today hung as it is directly opposite the “Blue Boy” at the other end of the great room.

In  between are paintings of the “beautiful” people of eighteenth century England during the era of the American Revolution, an event of whose significance most were probably unaware. I was interested in these paintings not only for their beauty but also because some of the people depicted were friends and associates of the subject of my doctoral dissertation of long ago, General Henry Seymour Conway. Conway was a soldier and a politician who rose to great prominence during the era of the American Revolution, and some of the people depicted in the Huntington library collection were associated with him.

Georgiana Spencer, Duchess of Devonshire
by Sir Joshua Reynolds

For example, there is Georgiana Spencer, a distant relation of Princess Di, who would marry into the wealthy Cavendish family and become Duchess of Devonshire. For a while during her short life she was the reigning queen of London high society. General Conway was a close associate of the Cavendish family and a number of Dukes of Devonshire. Incidentally, two centuries later, Fred Astaire’s sister and original dancing partner, Adele, would marry another Duke of Devonshire.

The Huntington Library sits in the midst of beautiful grounds and fabulous botanical gardens. We went upstairs and happened to look out a window to behold a landscape more spectacular than anything in the paintings. Even down below sitting near the children’s garden, we could behold the striking San Gabriel Mountains acting like a frame for the whole scene.

By that time our four and a half year old granddaughter was getting a little tired but earlier she had gone through the picture gallery with great enthusiasm. She took innumerable pictures with her digital camera. Looking at Pinkie and the other beautiful ladies in their stunning gowns, at one point she exclaimed, “this is glorious!”

We visited the day after Thanksgiving and the large parking lot was practically full. Nevertheless, the grounds are so large and the collections so designed that we never had the feeling that you get in so many museums of being crowded, rushed, and jostled. The Huntington Library is one of America’s great museums, and anyone visiting in the Los Angeles area should not miss it. ###

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Another Military Scandal

General William 'Kip' Ward
In the wake of the recent scandals surfacing around the sexual behavior of top-ranking military officers, another less lurid problem has largely gone unnoticed. 

A few days ago the Secretary of Defense demoted the head of the US Africa Command, General William 'Kip' Ward, from a four star to a three star general. Although this general was not fooling around with other women, he was apparently taking his wife along with him on expensive junkets and charging their lavish personal expenses to the military. There is no need to go into the spending details that amounted to over $80000 since the incident brought to light a much bigger problem.

Coinciding with his demotion, General Ward decided to retire but the demotion to three star status caused his military pension to drop from about $240000 per year to about $210000 per year. In other words, the general's pension dropped by $30000 per year, an amount equivalent to the maximum benefit an ordinary citizen can expect to receive from Social Security at normal retirement age.

In the Social Security system the benefit amount is limited by a cap on earnings qualifying for retirement benefits. If a citizen earns more than $100000 per year, Social Security is only designed   to provide a benefit based on actual earnings below $100000. Ordinary citizens earning over $100000 are rightfully expected to save on their own if they want a higher retirement income. Moreover, under Social Security retirement benefits are calculated based on a worker's average earnings over 30 years.

 These same rules do not apply to Federal employees like General Ward. Why should citizens be required to provide a pension benefit for the amount of Federal or government salaries over $100000 per year? Obviously, General Ward was making over $250000 per year in salary not to mention the other very substantial benefits and perks of his office. He could certainly have afforded to save for his retirement on his own.

Since his pension was based on only the last couple of years of his career, the amount required to adequately fund it is enormous.
It would take over $6000000 earning 4% interest to provide an income of $240000 per year. To keep it simple that means that if the General had served for 30 years, we would have had to kick in $200000 for each year of his career to provide a pension for him that most of us can only dream about.

General Ward and others like him in the government would have   very comfortable retirements even if their pensions were based on the average of their earnings over their whole career, and if they had supplemented with a 401k type plan. However, it would appear as if the general lived like a potentate during the last years of his career, and will even with his demotion continue to live like a potentate for the rest of his life.

If we multiply the General's situation by the millions of Federal, State, and Municipal employees throughout the land, we can understand why the Federal government is so deeply in debt, and why many states and cities are on the verge of bankruptcy. Governments are finding it impossible to fund these excessive pension benefits. Even sadder is the fact that the ordinary soldier in the General's command can hardly afford to maintain a family.

Is it any wonder that State and Municipal worker unions were the largest contributors to President Obama's re-election campaign?  ###

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Election Aftermath

Ohio Result 2012

I have learned my lesson and will no longer make predictions. Even though I do not regret my endorsement of Governor Romney, and still believe that my assessment of the two candidates was correct, I acknowledge that wishful thinking made me lose touch with some basic facts of American politics.

On election night all eyes were drawn to the map of the pivotal state of Ohio. There it was: a sea of red surrounding a few blue islands. The most prominent blue island was Cleveland in Cuyahoga county in the northwest corner of the state. The vote there was decisive. Next day I did a search for the 10 worst cities in the country and sure enough Cleveland was close to the top.

Cleveland has a population of about 430000 people but Forbes magazine placed it atop its list of most miserable cities in the country. Significant factors in the assessment were high unemployment, high taxes, and political corruption. Cleveland is part of Cuyahoga County where in the past 10 years more than 300 public officials have been convicted of crimes. A recent FBI investigation ensnared more than two dozen government employees on charges of bribery, fraud, and tax evasion.

Cleveland also has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country with thousands of abandoned homes. Apparently, it provided down payments through the Federal Afford-a Home program to people who could not afford the mortgage payments.

Reading about Cleveland brought to mind nearby Bridgeport in my home state of Connecticut. Looking at election returns it was clear that the Democrat political machine that has controlled the city for the past 50 years once again brought out the vote not only for President Obama but also for even the lowest functionary. For example, Christina Ayala young woman of 29 was elected to the State House of Representatives by a margin of about 3000 to 300 despite the fact that prior to the election, she had run a red light, caused an accident, and fled the scene. Her father is a prominent Bridgeport politico who now has virtually appointed two daughters to the State legislature.

Mireya Porto of Bridgeport surveys her car totaled in recent accident . 

Bridgeport even voted to restore an elected Board of Education after the state of Connecticut had stepped in a year ago to replace the notorious old board with an appointed one. Under the guise of restoring the Board to popular control, it has just been handed back to the party machine.

I write not out of sour grapes but to point out a basic political fact. For the past 50 years under virtual one-party rule. Bridgeport stands as a monument to the effects of one-party dominance. It has one of the worst school systems in the State. It has one of the highest murder rates. The city has been virtually bankrupt for the past few years since it requires about 150 million dollars of state aid each year to keep its failing schools going.

Why is it in the interest of the people in cities like Bridgeport and Cleveland to vote Democrat year after year? What do they hope to gain except for jobs and opportunities for a few anointed leaders? Even more puzzling is why Republican politicians so often fail to approach this substantial voting bloc and show them that they don’t have to accept the status quo.

I do not understand why every four years the Republican Party enters the race for the Presidency down by three of the most populous states in the country. They automatically concede California, New York and Illinois to the Democrats even though those states are social and economic basket cases. So many times in the campaign it seemed to me that even though Romney and Ryan had a good message, they were preaching to the choir. The people of Cleveland, Bridgeport, Miami, and Los Angeles were not even listening, or else could care less about budgets and tax issues.

In the future the Republican Party will have to show people in the American cities that they don’t have to tolerate poor schools, street crime, and urban decay. ###

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Romney Endorsement

The Weekly Bystander would like to endorse Governor Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, for President of the United States. This endorsement reflects both a very negative view of President Obama and his Administration, as well as a very positive view of Governor Romney. 
I must admit that I have never liked President Barack Obama. Here are the reasons.
From the first I regarded him as a totally inexperienced politician who was the product of a notorious and corrupt Chicago political machine. When commentators scoffed at the inexperience of Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska back in 2008, how could they have overlooked the fact that she was far more experienced than Barack Obama and that she was only a candidate for Vice-President?

Since 2008 I do believe that President Obama has grown in office but at the same time I believe that he has been one of the most divisive Presidents in history. Putting aside the merits and demerits of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), the most objectionable aspect of it was the way it was rammed through Congress. Does anyone remember the political tricks that were used at the time?

Whole states were exempted from its provisions in order to gain needed votes. Reluctant Senators were shamelessly bought off. Finally, a bill was passed by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate where it was altered. The amended bill was never sent back to the House for approval or even to a conference committee. It was merely “deemed” to have been approved by the House of Representatives. It was Presidential advisor, Rahm Emanuel who uttered the famous words, “we’ve got the votes, so f__k em!” What a way to unite a country.

Since that time the economy has remained in the doldrums and scandal after scandal has engulfed the country in both domestic and foreign affairs. The latest involved the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya. Much has been made of the Administration’s attempt to deny that it was a terrorist attack but the President has skirted two much more important issues.

He deliberately avoided an honest question in the Second Debate about how and why requests for additional security were denied. He still has not answered the question. Finally, an attack on an American embassy is an attack on American soil. Why has the President refused to acknowledge this fact or given an appropriate response?

I wrote the following description of Governor Romney’s qualities back in August and since then I believe the Governor’s campaign and debate performance have lived up to my expectations.

In Mitt Romney the Republican party has found an attractive candidate to put up against a floundering Administration that seems totally unable to understand or deal with the country’s economic woes. I must admit that I am a political conservative and that I do like Mitt Romney but here are a list of qualities that I think any observer would agree with.

1. Romney has an attractive appearance. He appears youthful and energetic both in person and on TV. His wife and family are equally attractive. Again, in the age of American Idol this quality cannot be underestimated. Obama has no advantage here.

2. At the same time Romney appears to be intelligent, experienced, and quite capable of handling the demands of the Presidency. It would appear that he has been successful in practically everything he has set his hand to. Never mind the Olympics, he managed to get elected as a Republican governor of one of the bluest states in the country. Even the critics of his career at Bain Capitol would have to admit that he was successful there.

3. No one can doubt that he showed great skill he winning one of the most grueling primary campaigns in memory. Those who question his campaign strategy and tactics should give him credit for knowing what he is doing. He is no dope. His selection of Paul Ryan as running mate was a masterstroke. Moreover, the Romney campaign is and will be extremely well funded unlike the McCain disaster. Obama will not have the overwhelming financial advantage he had in 2008.

4. Even his so-called negatives will be perceived by voters as positives. He is wealthy and makes no bones about it. Independent voters are wise enough to understand that a rich person has a great incentive to protect the rights of private property so basic to our country’s health and freedom. If the election is about class warfare and divisiveness, the Democrats will lose.

5. I don’t think his religion will be a factor. I know very little about the beliefs of Mormons, but I once overheard a man say that he never met a Mormon he didn’t like. He seems to be a devoted family man. Again, Obama has no advantage here.

Below find a video of the last two minutes of Governor Romney's remarks at the annual Al Smith dinner. The first eight minutes showed him in a very jovial mode but toward the end he appeared very Presidential. ###


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Foreign Affairs Debate

The third Presidential debate was the most uneventful so far. Although it was supposed to focus on foreign affairs, neither candidate seemed to want to discuss the subject at length. The questions of the moderator were so general and broad that both President Obama and Governor Romney had no difficulty in turning the debate to their major domestic concerns.
Both agreed that to be strong abroad, America had to be strong at home and that easily led to a discussion of their differing domestic agendas. It never occurred to either that weakness at home requires an even stronger and skillful foreign policy. After all, we are still facing enormous financial difficulties here at home.
Who really believes that the recession is over? Our debt is at unimaginable trillion levels and keeps increasing. China holds a considerable amount of that debt and the more we owe them, the more we are in their power. That is, unless we one day do the unthinkable and default on our own debt and bring down our economy as well as the Chinese.
We are also weak because we have stretched our military resources to the limit. We have been at war in the Middle East for over a decade and even though both candidates declare the troops will be out of Afghanistan in 2014, there is no guarantee that we have seen the last of Iraq and Afghanistan. We have armed and trained over 300000 Afghans. Who can say that they won’t be part of a Taliban resurgence?
I wonder if President Obama wouldn’t have done better if he had just brought our troops home after his election. There would have been a huge outcry but it would have largely been forgotten by now. Would the situation in the Middle East be any worse than it is now?
Speaking of bad situations I understand why both candidates are so alarmed at the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon, but I can’t understand why both showed no alarm at the fact that Pakistan has 100 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. Shouldn’t an object of our foreign policy be to dismantle Pakistan’s nuclear capacity? This is especially important given the fragility of Pakistan’s internal situation and the possibility that their nuclear weapons might one-day fall into the hands of terrorists.
Since we give so much money to Pakistan, shouldn’t an object of our diplomacy be to guarantee Pakistan’s security in exchange for an end to its nuclear program?
All in all, I think that Governor Romney showed that he is certainly adept in the area of foreign affairs. Even though the spin masters tried to give the edge to the President, I believe that the Governor will continue to gain in the polls. The President certainly didn’t help himself by his insulting references to ships that planes can land on, or others that can go underwater. Maybe, he has appeared on Leno and Letteman too many times. ###

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Second Presidential Debate

Kerry Ladka: Libya question

Every commentator seems to agree that the second Presidential debate between President Obama and Governor Romney was the most contentious so far. Most also agree that President Obama made a much better showing than he did in the first debate. I admit being partial to Romney but sitting in my living room, I found it hard to say if either candidate had scored a clear victory.

In the first place, it bothered me that both candidates while being polite and attentive to the town hall questioners, tended to largely ignore the questions. I know that this is standard operating procedure, but both seemed less than genuine when they used a question to go off on a standard stump reply.

It made me think back to a sales meeting many years ago when a big shot from the home office visited our local office to deal with some pressing problems. He assembled us all in the meeting room and indicated that he had come to listen to our questions and problems and that he had no preconceived agenda. Then, he opened the floor to questions and in response to the first launched into a two-hour exposition of how he had achieved such success in his own career. Needless to say, there were no further questions after this ordeal.

Nevertheless, the debate contained some extraordinary revelations. At one point Governor Romney indicated that one of his goals was to eliminate the tax on savings and investment income for people making less than $200000 per year. President Obama did not pick up on this bombshell and since the debate I have seen no discussion anywhere.

Elimination of tax on savings and dividend income would mark a revolution in the personal finances of most Americans as well in the financial services industry. Tax deferred bonds would lose much of their luster for middle class America. Tax-deferred annuities would lose much of their reason for being. Even IRAs and other retirement plans would become less attractive. On the other hand, dividend-paying stocks would become even more attractive especially to Seniors. In a focus group right after the debate one older woman said that this issue alone would make her vote for Romney.

Again, I admit my anti Obama bias but even though he was more energetic, I can’t say that he made any memorable points. From the first, he went back to his original story line that his opponent was only interested in helping rich people and cared little for the middle class. In my opinion, the class warfare theme is getting weak.

I thought that Governor Romney did a creditable job but I believe he missed a golden opportunity on the Libya question. The question was asked by a man who later identified himself as a supporter of the President on social issues, but who admired Romney’s business skills. Here is the question he formulated with some of his buddies at work.

Question: We were sitting around, talking about Libya, and we were reading and became aware of reports that the State Department refused extra security for our embassy in benghazi, Libya, prior to the attacks that killed four Americans.
 Who was it that denied enhanced security and why?
President Obama was the first respondent and no one watching or reading the transcript later can honestly say that he answered it. He never said who denied the enhanced security or even admitted if it was denied. He certainly never got to the why.

Then it was Romney's turn. I know it's hard to react quickly when 60 million people are watching and so much is at stake, but at the moment here is what I thought he should have done. He should have approached the questioner, Kerry Ladka, an ordinary American citizen, to repeat the question. At that point he only had to say, "I can't answer your question, only the President can." ###

Monday, October 15, 2012

Vice-Presidential Debate

Vice-President Joe Biden
Traditionally, the Vice President of the United States is little more than a political figurehead holding an office that has virtually no power or responsibility. Who can remember the names of any one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Vice-Presidents except for Harry Truman who would be forgotten today if he hadn’t assumed the Presidency on Roosevelt’s death?

Even though Lyndon Johnson was a master politician and a power in the Senate for years, no one has ever claimed that he was picked as JFK’s running mate because of his ability. He was chosen mainly to help secure Texas for the Democrats. After the election he was never in the Kennedy inner circle and only cruel fate elevated him to the Presidency.

No one would argue today that Vice-President Al Gore played a key role in the two Clinton administrations. On the contrary, it appears as if Clinton and Gore couldn’t stand each other. In 2000 President Bush’s choice of Dick Cheney bucked the trend. He was hand picked by Bush and no one would deny that Cheney played a key role for better or worse in the two Bush administrations. Some even believe that he was the real power behind the throne.

In 2008 candidate Barack Obama and his closest advisors went back to normal. To offset Obama’s race, youth, and inexperience they chose a venerable old party hack, Senator Joe Biden, as running mate. Is there any one who believes that Biden has played a key role in the Obama administration during the past four years? In fact, he has been such an embarrassment that there was even talk of dropping him from the ticket this year.

Nevertheless, there he was up on the stage the other night for the traditional Vice-Presidential debate with Republican challenger, Paul Ryan. As many have pointed out, his behavior was annoying but what he said was even more annoying. He was going to play the role of the wiser older man who would put the young whippersnapper into his place. For example, he tried to pull a Lloyd Bentsen and try to induce Ryan into equating himself with John Kennedy. It fell flat.

Biden threw a number of low blows. He must have had his staffers pore through the files until he found a couple of letters that young Representative Ryan had written to him. He was really scraping the bottom of the barrel. He also mentioned that Ryan had requested stimulus funds for two of his constituents as if it was somehow reprehensible. Was it really on the same level as Solyndra? Moreover, had Biden never done it himself during a long career in the Senate that turned him into a multi-millionaire?
What a despicable person. He even had the nerve to introduce the tragic death of his first wife into the debate. When Martha Raddatz, who did a fine job as moderator, asked him about negative ads, it is no wonder that Biden evaded the question. 

Just a word about Congressman Ryan. Frankly, I thought he could have done a better job. He should have ignored Biden for the most part and concentrated on the sorry record of President Obama. ###

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Romney's Tax Plan


I would like to put my two cents worth into the almost interminable comment on last Wednesday’s Presidential debate. In the first place, even though I have never been a supporter of President Obama, I do not think that he gave as bad an account of himself as both sides have suggested. To me he appeared to have grown and matured in office into something much more than the inexperienced but charismatic community organizer of four years ago.

On the whole, despite disagreeing with most of what he said, I thought the President did a good job but he was simply overwhelmed by the knowledge, experience, competence, and conviction of Gov. Romney. Romney showed that not only did he belong on the same stage as the President of the United States, but that he also belonged in the Oval Office.

On one occasion the President said that it’s just arithmetic or math. Nevertheless, few ever bother to do the math when trillions of dollars are involved. For example, the President as well as most commentators did not appear to grasp what Romney was getting at when he suggested that cutting tax rates was not the same thing as cutting taxes. Let’s look at Romney’s claim that cutting tax rates would not reduce Federal revenues but actually might increase federal revenues.

Federal tax rates use a graduated scale. There are currently six different tax rates: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, and 35%. Here’s how it works. Everyone pays 10% of the first $8700 of taxable income. Income from $8700 to $35350 is taxed at the 15% rate. The tax rate on income from $35350 to $85650 is then taxed at the 28% rate, and so on until the 35% rate is applied to income over $388000.

So, let’s use as an example, an unmarried taxpayer with a taxable income of $85650. Remember, taxable is adjusted gross income minus personal deductions. On the approximately $50000 of taxable income over $35350, this taxpayer would currently pay the 25% rate or $12500. Romney proposes reducing tax rates by 20%, which would bring our taxpayer’s rate down to 20% thereby reducing his tax to $10000. Romney’s plan would save our taxpayer $2500. Multiply that by millions of taxpayers and it adds up.

However, Romney proposes to offset that reduction by eliminating or scaling back some tax deductions or tax credits. Suppose the above taxpayer had a $20000 tax deduction for mortgage interest and real estate taxes. If he was only able to deduct half that amount, he would owe an additional $2500, thereby neutralizing his savings from the reduction in his tax rate.
If the taxpayer’s bill remains the same, and the government collects the same amount of tax, why even bother? In the first place, there is a question of fairness. A tax deduction is worth much more to a taxpayer in the 35% bracket than to one in the 15% bracket. Even Democrats don’t object to this inequity that favors the wealthy.
More importantly, lowering tax rates does stimulate the economy. Gov. Romney tried to explain it last Wednesday and I hope that his running mate will continue in the next debate. History is on their side.
Over 50 years ago, President Kennedy lowered tax rates and Federal revenues grew dramatically. President Reagan did the same thing with the same result when he took office. Finally, even the much-maligned Bush tax cuts did not reduce Federal revenues. In 2002 the government collected 1 Trillion dollars in income taxes and 1.88 Trillion in total revenues. By 2007 Federal income tax collections went up by 50% to over 1.5 Trillion dollars, and total government receipts exceeded 2.5 Trillion. In 2007 the total federal deficit was 160 Billion dollars, the same it had been in 2002. Only with the recession did income tax revenues go down to 2002 levels although total government receipts stayed higher.
Two final notes on the first debate:
First, commentators were shocked that President Obama did not bring up Gov. Romney's 47% comment. I can only guess that the President's advisors must have felt that Governor Romney was prepared to knock that one out of the park. Any major leaguer will knock a 95 mph fastball out of the park if he knows it's coming.
Second, I though that veteran newscaster Jim Lehrer did a fine job of moderating. He allowed the focus to stay on the candidates and kept himself in the background. It was the best debate I have ever watched, and Lehrer had a lot to do with it. ###