I pay taxes.

This is a point that I would like both political parties in this country to grasp. It would be nice if a few of the talking heads on cable news and talk radio grasped the same concept. The reason that this is such a revelation is that in the hidden camera videos of Mitt Romney making casual and inflammatory remarks about poor people to rich donors he makes the comment that 47% of people in the United States pay no income tax and proceeds to use interchangeably “lower taxes” and “lower income tax.” This roughly parallels comments made in the past year by conservative pundits about nearly fifty percent of Americans pay no (income) tax and, therefore, are not invested in the American system. The only part of the system they are invested in is the welfare state and are merely dependent upon the state.

Leaving alone the comments in Romney’s speech about those people voting for President Obama merely because they are dependent upon the state and feel entitled to food and housing, the message Romney and pundits have been giving is that people who do not pay income tax (usually because they do not earn enough money to pay taxes–if they even have a job–or, alternately, because their income is well protected by offshore tax havens or they otherwise show a loss–people who likely will not vote for President Obama anyway) are not invested in the system, have little interest in the message of lower taxes (a fallacy), and will definitely vote for President Obama (also a fallacy).

The counter to these statements from the Democratic establishment is to immediately point out how wealthy the Republicans are and how the (income) tax policies only benefit those who already have money. This is done obliquely and manages to keep the debate about whether or not people do or should pay (income) tax.

There are kernels of truth to the debate, but I would like to take a moment to debunk one of the premises without actually getting at which political party I am likely to vote for this coming November. That is: I pay taxes.

This is only remarkable in this debate because, as a poor graduate student whose income hovers around subsistence level (and, yes, I feel entitled to food and housing), I do not pay the type of income tax usually discussed in this debate.1 Yet I do pay a payroll tax–that is to say, an interest free loan to the government that I am likely to get back at the end of every year (certainly investing me, and everyone else, in the system). I also pay both medicare and social security taxes, which I would like to get back at some point in my life. And those are just on my income.

I also pay taxes when I purchase gas or go out to eat. When I purchase books and school supplies. When purchase air-fare, pay tolls, or register my car. I When I purchase clothing and food.2 Anyone who has property pays property tax. Even if I get back the money I loaned the government at the end of the year, I still pay all of these other taxes, usually the more regressive taxes that hit people without money at a significantly disproportionate rate. I am also willing to pay these taxes and if, at some point in my life, I have enough money to owe taxes to the government, then I would be happy to do so (largely because it means my income would be higher than it currently is). In the meantime, I would like both parties to realize that my decision about which party I will vote for has little to do with how much money I currently possess or how much money I do or do not pay in income tax and, most importantly, that I do, in fact, pay taxes. We all do.

1That said, I have had to pay Missouri income tax most of the years I have lived here.
2I am in my fourth year in Missouri and this one still offends me.

Some Thoughts on Sandra Fluke and the DNC

Two nights ago I was watching football, having finished all the homework I had with me and really just wanting a distraction before bed. At halftime I had had as much of the commentators as I could stand for the time being, so I went to find a temporary distraction until the game began again. I settled on the Democratic National Convention. As it turns out I tuned in just in time to see Sandra Fluke’s speech. Until then, it was the only political speech I had seen this past year.1

Let me begin by saying that she was a very good speaker, with good cadence and emotion, and the audience responded. She also established a connection between her own plight and her audience.

Fluke rehashed her experience earlier in the year when she was barred from a hearing on contraception, silenced, and ridiculed for her comments at the time. She then offered that this election is a fork that will lead to radically different countries. An America under Mitt Romney, she says, “looks like an offensive, obsolete relic of our past…that future could be real.” In contrast, there is the America led by Barack Obama wherein “when [the president] hears a young woman has been verbally attacked, thinks of his daughters–not his delegates or donors–and stands with all women.”

To recap: men and Republicans (which may be the same set of people) are oppressing women as a means of accomplishing their political ends. Democrats (in this speech: women and Barack Obama) are the only group of people with humanity.

Whoever said that the Democratic Party is above fear-mongering?

I want comprehensive health care for all people. I believe that (at the least) birth-control should be covered by this health care (or, in our system, health insurance)…and Viagra should not. The only required procedures should be medically necessary. I believe that there should not be religious exemptions for this since it is a form of discrimination. Each person–male, female, or otherwise–should have control over his or her body. In much the same way, everyone should have equal access to education, government rights and services,2 etc. That reality is much closer to being realized for men than it is for women, I admit. So, I am sympathetic to the message presented here.

And yet I found myself offended by what I heard. The speech (as so often happens) felt disingenuous to me. The purpose was to fire up the Democratic base, rally women behind the perils of a Republican led country, and remind women of past insults. The problem is that (besides perhaps trying to anger conservative viewers) the target demographic of the speech was liberal and moderate women who have a personal stake in control of their bodies. Fluke repeatedly melded “our” problems with “my” experience and what “we” are. She also pointed out the work that “our foremothers” did. The dichotomy was conservative and oppressive men with liberal women.

Omitted were liberal men, and conservative women. In fact, as a liberal man who is also white I felt villainized by association. Men were the opponents, the people keeping the women down, etc. Sure. Historically that is accurate, but only in generalizations. There are many conservative women who oppose birth control, are pro-life, and believe that women should be subservient to their husbands. Moreover, the implication may be made that those folks have been duped or oppressed by men, but that is not always the case. If I were ever to persuade a female student of anything liberal or radical, then the same thing could be said about her.3 Conservative men, despite a recent track record for making bizarre statements about women, women’s anatomy, and health care, were not the most vitriolic opponents of Fluke’s speech. Those were the conservative women.

Omitted too were issues about the Democratic Party. Not everyone in the party toes the line, and the party is just as (or nearly) as beholden to corporations as Republican Party.4 Not every has always supported health care as a human right or that everyone should pay the same amount. Not everyone believes in birth control. And, in part, not every Democratic president has young daughters (and the partial implication that Mitt Romney could not possibly understand or care, perhaps because of his personality…or is it because he has sons rather than daughters?). Of course, they calculus was that if I had such a response to the speech, then those other white men who were oppressing Fluke will be apoplectic, and the tradeoff was reasonable. For my demographic within the Democratic Party they have other people to address. Then again, if I was a good follower, then I would be appropriately outraged not at Fluke, but at her oppressors. But I would rather be in a party–and population–of people who think for themselves.

In sum, I am on board. I support the platform Fluke laid out (though I have only a little love for the Democratic party). I just also felt insulted because the force of the speech lumped me in with the other side, the enemies. The only man identified in the speech and also praised was Barack Obama, for obvious reasons. So, I understand, but I found the entire display distasteful. There are plenty of men who are not oppressing women. But that was not the message Fluke gave.

1 In fairness, I saw two minutes of the speech before, have since seen clips of Clinton’s speech, and saw one of the speeches last night that I did not particularly like, but was not offended by.
2 See: Marriage.
3 I can also think of at least one man in the public sphere who has been duped by a woman.
4 The next speech I saw talked of the Republican efforts to disenfranchise minority voters and otherwise oppose race relations. True though it was, there was no mention of machine politics for the Democrats or simply finding new voters (such as graveyards and dogs). There was also no mention of the Romney family on race relations. The political history of the United States is spotty enough all around (with more than one election stolen or won in a backroom deal) that calling out the other guys on such issues without (at least) proof that you aren’t finding your own way to manipulate voters and voting is suspect.

Assorted Links

  1. Mitt Romney would restore “Angle-Saxon relations between Britain and America-Speaking about the relationship between Britain and the United states, an adviser of Mitt Romney said: “We are part of an Anglo-Saxon heritage, and he feels that the special relationship is special…the White house didn’t fully appreciate the shared history we have.” The immediate response is the charge of racism and, I can’t help but agree. But beyond that, I want to know who authorized this person to speak who uses the phrase “the special relationship is special”
  2. The Ruins of Empire: Asia’s Emergence from Western Imperialism– A story in the Guardian that traces some of the recent history of imperialism and the attempts to escape it. The author has a particular stance (that, ultimately, Western Imperialism impeded and destroyed cultures and societies by attempting to impose its own values) and is, for the most part, correct. He is not as directly critical as Said, but does call for a paradigm shift away from “narcissistic history,” that is history obsessed with western ideals, which causes a one-sided history that helps define the world as between “masters and slaves.” That said, the author does play down the impact of most Asian imperialism (yes for Japan, no for China), religious conflict, and the breakup of the Soviet Union. Rather than address these tricky issues, the author just wants to persuade you of the problems of viewing the world from a western perspective.
  3. Too much to bare– A reporter at the Guardian got permission to get a behind the scenes look at one of the older strip clubs in England. The story feels half-formed since she got expelled from the club for talking to the girls without first getting authorization. The club owner and the company line is that the work is well paying, respectful, and rather benign, while there were actually some darker sides. Besides the usual problems, the women actually need to pay for the permission to work–whether or not they actually get hired for the night. Unfortunately, the author makes a point of sticking to the quotes and to the narrative of what happened rather than providing analysis.
  4. But is it a Book?– A report in the Chronicle about one book historian who argues that an electronic “book” is not actually a book, which is the artifact of recorded text. The suggestion is that for all the benefits of the digital book, we are losing something by losing the artifact.
  5. James Bond with a Mask-An article that suggests that Batman on film is reduced to a supporting character in his own franchise, and basically begs Hollywood to keep rebooting the series until they actually capture the Batman of the comics–the qualification for “getting it right.” The author brings up some good points, but I am not sure it is possible. For one thing, comics and cartoons are not limited by the human body and technology for filming. For another, perhaps the larger concern, the author seems to be under a delusion about what the directors (some, at least) are trying to accomplish and why the studios continually reboot these franchises. I would expect that the rumored reboot of Batman (already) has little to do with Christopher Nolan’s infidelity toward the comic.
  6. Is Mythology Like Facebook-Well, no. But scientists are using statistical analysis of social networks to look into the whether or not, or at least plausibility that, myths reflect actual worlds or social networks.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Marilyn Monroe: A proto-feminist– an extract from a Marilyn Monroe biography that suggests that she was a troubled person, but should not be dismissed (as she was by early feminists) as merely the willing toy of powerful men.
  2. What it Means to See the World With an Eye Toward a Facebook Update– An op-ed about the idea that our collective uncertainty about the place and position of Facebook is nothing new, but just the latest outgrowth of a consistent feature of the human experience. The author also concludes that Facebook is real life.
  3. Mitt Romney And Father Follow Bush Family Father-Son ReversalA story in the Huffington Post about how Mitt Romney is in many ways the opposite of his father in the same way that George W. Bush was the opposite of his father. It brings up some good points, but I think it is rather superficial punditry.
  4. No More Urban Officers?– An article in The Atlantic about the changing demographic of the military in general and the officer corps in particular. The main argument is that city schools are suffering a decline in ROTC programs, while the most successful programs are at large, relatively rural, state schools have more. It does not actually address the total numbers of people enrolled in the ROTC programs rather than total number of programs, though.
  5. Is Medical School A Worthwhile Investment for Women?-A report about a study that claims that, after taking into account time and costs, women would make more money as a physician’s assistant than they would as a primary care physician.
  6. Sadly, Nation Knows Exactly How Colorado Shooting’s Aftermath Will Play OutFrom time to time the Onion is accurate enough that its political satire transcends humor into the realm of the depressing. “Oh, and here’s another thing I hate I know,” Brennen continued, “In exactly two weeks this will all be over and it will be like it never happened.”
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Willard is a Funny Name

A while back I read something Anthony Bourdain wrote about his frustrations initially getting into the T.V. business because they explicitly told him to cut back the witty and insightful dialogue and exotic locations for his show and instead focus on grilled meat and anything debasing or demeaning. Or something like that, I am paraphrasing. He also gets fired up about much of what is on the food network, with rants about how Bobby Flay (who can really cook…and seeing him on the gimmicky, but ultimately impressive Iron Chef proves this) is repeatedly drawn in to go cook food that other people are good at in some sort of propped up competition or is limited to cooking on a grill, Emeril resorts to catch-phrases and silly noises, and Sandra Lee’s Semi-Home Made is an abomination to good food everywhere. Again, I paraphrase, not to mention am probably inserting some of my own ideas on his. Many of these people seem like they are perfectly nice individuals and they are in the world trying to make their way, but most of the time their shows make for awful television. Bourdain’s problem with the T.V. industry is that they base all of their decisions on ratings rather than either good food or good television. Why cheesy, gimmicky, and awkward shows continue to get good ratings is an enduring mystery. I much prefer any show that makes me think, and, as such, one of my favorite No Reservations episode is the one where he was in Beirut when the latest war between Israel and Lebanon broke out and Israel had to invade Lebanon. It was not a typical episode, but since they continued to film and then did retrospective about the conflict itself, it made for an excellent hour of television. I want my television to be smart, but, with certain, limited exceptions, I am apparently in the minority on this one.

I feel the same way about my political commentary and satire. One of my great frustrations with the recent political satire for the presidential election is that there seems to be one repeated joke: oh, boy! Willard Mitt Romney is a funny name! Failing that bit of uproarious humor, there is also the joke that he is so detached that he is actually an android or robot. Then, if nothing else is working, there is always his Mormonism, as Mormonism is an inherently funny religion, what with the taboo against drinking, their polygamy, and their magic underpants. The list of the “funny” things about Mormonism could go on, but really boils down to nothing more than pointing and laughing at a group of people who are different from the rest of us. I mean, the rest of us have as many differences amongst ourselves, too, but we’ve collectively decided that Mormons are weird. As far as I am concerned, Mormonism ranks above average on the cult-behavior scale, and is significantly more patriarchal, insular, authoritarian, and bigoted than I am comfortable with, but I’ve also outgrown my need to make light of any particular religion. Well, at least for superficial and petty reasons. I have my own concerns, but I have never been directly harmed by a Mormon, so I have more pressing concerns in the meantime.1 Most of all, those jokes are boring, but based on how often people makes those jokes, I can only assume that reminding people ad nauseam that Mitt’s real name is Willard, or that calling him “Mittens” results in a ratings bump and cheap laughs, else why do it?

So, yes, Mitt Romney has a funny name. What I don’t understand is how this is any different from someone calling Joel “Drool” in first grade (or, for that matter, Aaron Sorkin falling back on “Mohammed al Mohammed bin Bezeer” when in need of a recognizably Muslim name). Yes, people have names, names can be distorted, and some of the names are funny. That said, it is his name and I feel no more need to make fun of him for it any more than for his religion. The standards are different for public figures, but this is the same type of behavior that makes children in elementary schools cry, becomes outcasts, and, particularly if he ever asked people to stop, could constitute harassment in any other situation. I mean, yes, I laughed at a lot of the stuff that came out about George W. Bush during his presidency, but for most of those years I was a teenager. Looking back at all of it, I am rather embarrassed and, frankly, appalled at my taste. I’ve been there and I’ve moved on. Now, I am wondering what it says about our voting (or T.V. watching public) that much of the political satire has devolved to schoolyard taunts, (literal) name calling, and superficial observations. Mitt’s name is Willard. Get over it.

I am also willing to concede that there is a non-negligible chance that in some aspects of governance Mitt Romney would make an excellent president. I also believe that there is a significantly higher chance that Mitt Romney as president could make for a catastrophe nearing or reaching Bushian proportions. I think a lot of this would depend on who his advisers are and how much he bows to the his base. One of the repeated assertions about Romney is that he is smart and deliberate, so if someone is able to sit down and explain to him how his actions could destroy the country, I genuinely believe that he would listen. Moreover, I think that he would not be an unmitigated disaster in foreign policy, a realm in which even the foreign affairs Wunderkind Barack Obama (he did, after all, win the Nobel Peace Prize) has begun to regress. Despite these assertions, I also do not believe that Romney brings anything new to the table that Obama does not. Since President Obama is somewhat more liberal on social issues than Romney and has a slightly better track record on issues like taxes and debt than Romney, who, by all accounts, resorts more to tricky accounting than real solutions.

But I also don’t particularly care about Romney’s tax returns. I think he should release them for the sake of clarity, but given the few pieces of information we do have and the publicly acknowledged loopholes in the tax code that results in men and women with as much wealth as Romney has to pay significantly lower tax rates than the general public, the basic shape of the answer should be clear. At this point, the repeated demands are a form of rabble-rousing with a principled facade. Moreover, it is boring. I get it, Romney has a lot of money, but that this really constitutes news anymore. Some of the lurid details could be interesting to the general public inasmuch as we live in a voyeur society–which is how I attempt to explain reality t.v. shows and the celebrity of people who have no discernible accomplishments other than to be born rich. So, yes, the tax returns could be interesting for a variety of reasons, but when it comes to his qualifications to be president, I think that asking what he is hiding in his taxes is the wrong question. Closer, but still off the mark (at this point) are the questions about his record. I am sure that much of the Obama reelection campaign policy is to continually drive home to the voters that Romney has no principles and can be found on record professing adherence to both sides of pretty much every major issue, though The Onion maintains that Romney has a deeply principled side. Even closer is Romney’s record with Bain Capital and as Governor of Massachusetts. But these questions have all been asked and examined and so the answers have become increasingly stale and netting more and more marginal returns.2

There is one question in particular that I want someone to ask Romney: where does he stand on his father’s record and policy stances?

Now, I am by no means an expert on George Romney; in fact, I am only slightly knowledgeable above George Romney’s Wikipedia page. George Romney began his missionary work in a Glasgow slum and ended up as the president of the Scottish missionary district. Later he credited his missionary work as one of the major formative experiences for his career. Later, while chairman of the American Motor Company, Romney fought against both big labor and big business as impediments to a strong economy. He also had a good relationship with the United Auto Workers, and supported the implementation of the state Fair Employment Practices Act. As governor he supported the Civil Rights Movement, going so far as to walk with NAACP marches over housing discrimination, and designating the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Detroit March as Freedom March Day–sending a representative, but going to Church himself since it was Sunday. These actions were taken against the wishes of the Mormon Church. Perhaps even more telling, George Romney helped institute corporate and personal income taxes in Michigan and supported programs to help student afford college. He increased the size of government, but also left office with a surplus. He became the secretary of Housing and Urban development after losing the presidential election to Nixon in 1968 on account of his support for the war in Vietnam and various other gaffes (one insider said that Romney gave “the impression of an honest and decent man simply not cut out to be President of the United States.”)3, a role in which he actively campaigned for the desegregation of housing. This is an excerpted account of his life and career, mostly gleaned from Wikipedia, but he comes across as a highly capable individual who, other than the support of the Vietnam War) would make a fair president in my book.

So, I want someone to delve into his father’s legacy on taxes, on civil rights, on student loans, and many of the other issues I haven’t had time to research, and then, in some sort of insistent and comprehensive fashion, ask Romney what his stance on these issues is. For that matter, I wouldn’t mind someone asking the same questions to Barack Obama, though, clearly, he has less of an immediate connection to George Romney.

I should also note that George Romney has been covered somewhat during this particular campaign, including some discussion about how George Romney tried to stand up to the conservative wing of the Republican party and lost the election because of it. But though the point is probably a good one, it is more punditry. Nowhere in the (somewhat limited) searches I have done have I found anyone taking a hard look at George Romney’s stances on policy in both his corporate and political careers and asking Mitt Romney where he stands. The closest I have found is one piece of political punditry at the Huffington Post that examines the how Romney is running his campaign (thereby coming to conclusions rather than asking questions). But political punditry is practically useless, a small step up from athletic punditry.4

No more name calling. No more asking the same, boring questions again and again and again. I want real answers. If the next presidential debate solicits questions from the public, I encourage everyone to insist that they use some variant on this question because that might be the only opportunity to get an answer. It might get rejected. It may be that there is no useful answer to be had even if it gets asked. That should not stop us from calling for the question to be asked. If you feel the same way or feel that there is any sort of legitimation in this question, I encourage you to raise this issue with others.

1Even if I am related to this guy. Mormons are higher on my watch list than most religions, in part for the reasons listed above, and in part because of A Study in Scarlet, which led me to believe that they make marvelous villains. Let’s just say that I have my concerns about the extent to which the Mormon church exerts influence over its members, but that is no reason for me to mock them for being different from me.
2This phenomenon is not limited to politics. It seems that every media outlet picks its several top stories and every story has its own few facets. Derek Jeter, therefore, had an interesting comment on his reputation as a boring subject of an interview over All-Star Game Weekend, saying that he has this reputation because he keeps getting asked the same questions. If a reporter asked him anything new, then he would have new answers.
3It was the 1968 campaign where George Romney helped begin the trend of releasing tax information by releasing multiples years of tax returns for public scrutiny.
4I am endlessly frustrated at the number of words sports analysts use to “analyze” the Knicks’ decision not to sign Jeremy Lin, or the fact that Tiger Woods is doing his best washed up golfer impression going on four years now, or whatever the flavor of the week is.