Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Das Bull

I finally got a chance to take a look at the new McCain attack ad that plays on the celebrity status of Barack in an attempt to convey a 'more sizzle than steak' image of our Democratic nominee. Something struck me as especially odd about the piece, but I had to watch it a few times to get at what it was. If you haven't seen it, watch it now and see if anything comes to mind.

It finally dawned on me as if I was hit upside the head with some schnitzel. Despite the gratuitous images of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears, it is another celebrity altogether with whom the ad attempts to link Obama.

The opening of the piece
- the chanting German crowds, the camera angles, all of it - looked like an updated version of old Hitler newsreel footage. Watch it a couple of times and you realize (at least I do) that this is no coincidence. On its surface, the ad is a routine 'don't believe the hype' piece. But the real subtext of this commercial is to implant a 'cult of personality' message by shamelessly invoking Nazi parallels.

I'll admit to having reservations about my belief that McCain supporters would stoop to such a tactic, but my doubts were quickly allayed when I did a search on the Google for 'Obama Hitler'. It took all of .19 seconds to find a slew of results including this gem by a writer for the National Review. In whining about the fact that McCain simply can't get any attention from the media, she talked about how much attention Barack's acceptance speech at the convention will likely generate. Apparently having no rational way of trying to make a point, she blurts out:
To me, this is evocative of something Leni Riefenstahl might have documented.
For those who miss the somewhat obscure, and inflammatory, reference, Leni Riefenstahl was, among many other things, the cinematographer of the Nazi propaganda film "Triumph of the Will", a film that purely coincidentally contains the rally footage from the 1934 Nuremburg Congress that was evoked by my watching the McCain ad.

But don't think that the vitriol is is limited to your Republican media outlets. Continuing this year's wacky pastor parade comes Pastor James David Manning, who crosses the line of reason and decency by such lengths that the line is just a blur in the rearview mirror of his crazymobile.

You have got to watch this one to believe it.

The fact that one can find so many variants of this message is simply beyond the pale. And given that they're playing the Hitler card and it is only July, who knows what else they'll trot out between now and November. (Can you imagine if they find out about Barack's '666' birthmark?)

But keep in mind, that even in a Presidential campaign, Godwin's Law still applies. And under Godwin's Law, McCain's a loser.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Heat is On

Well, it looks like the last few weeks have gotten the better of my blogging duties. Apparently, the frequent pop-ups in my head that I should write about one subject or another, never quite made it from my brain to my keyboard.

In any event, I hope that everybody has been enjoying summer so far. And while most every day seems to bring some form of political news ripe for commentary (Hey, let's deploy the National Guard in Chicago! Oh, I never discussed it with anybody first? Oops.), I'll leave that task to others for now.

But as the summer sun continues to beat down on us all, the heat continues to increase on the Governor to sign the pay-to-play ban bill sitting on the his desk. There was little doubt that the recent campaign fundraising disclosures were going to result in renewed attention being given to the issue, and today's SJ-R editorial does not disappoint. While there have been countless editorials from papers around the state supporting the bill, this one does a very good job at crystallizing the present issue. Give it a read.
IN ESSENCE, Blagojevich is saying he won’t sign a law that will apply only to his office because it’s not strong enough. That logic rocks our system, though not in the way Blagojevich has promised.

If Blagojevich were serious about ridding Illinois government of “pay-to-play” contracting — or even the appearance of it — he would have voluntarily stopped taking donations from contract-holders long ago. That would have meant his campaign would be $238,500 lighter this year, but it also would have demonstrated real resolve to end pay-to-play.

And there is absolutely nothing that would stop Blagojevich from signing this bill, then working with the General Assembly later to add more reforms.

Ethics legislation is an ever-evolving beast. There is no single, perfect ethics bill that will stand for decades unchanged. And to be successful, ethics legislation must come from collaboration, not from one person or entity dictating what the laws should say. The Blagojevich administration’s perpetual demand for the perfect has set up obstacles for what would be solid reform.
I hope to crank the blogging up somewhat in the near future, there really are some interesting things going on (both big and small), but in the interim, I hope that everybody is enjoying the summer.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy Independence Day

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Deja Vu All Over Again

Sometimes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Lately, the talk has increased about the need to restructure our public pension pension systems to one similar to those found in the public sector. The Mayor has a special commission looking at the idea, news outlets are increasing their focus on the issue, and our pension liabilities are looming larger than ever.

An e-mail from a reader yesterday triggered my recollection that I had written something on this subject a few years ago (pre-blog). A little bit of searching, and voila, I found it. Below is a letter that I wrote that was published in Crain's in June, 2005.

June 13, 2005

Dear Editor:

I would like to take this opportunity to applaud the views expressed in the June 6 editorial, “A shameful lack of progress on pension reform”. To draw upon the vernacular favored by Governor Blagojevich, if there were ever a system in need of rocking, it is how we structure Illinois’ public pensions. And the conclusion of our recent legislative session has clearly shown that the time for this change is upon us.

As the recent legislative session drew to a close, I reluctantly joined the majority of my Democratic colleagues in supporting a budget-saving pension plan of last resort. While the bill contains several significant and overdue reforms to our pension systems, it also books over 2 billion dollars of anticipated savings that may never occur. It was a vote that I should not have cast.

A May 2005 Civic Federation report presents facts that we would be foolish to ignore. At the end of FY 2004, Illinois’ unfunded pension liability stood at $35.1 billion, a greater amount than any other state. Total liabilities stood at nearly $90 billion. The funded ratio--the amount of assets needed to cover liabilities--was just 60.9 percent, second-worst in the nation. The report further sets forth that State funding of public employee pensions has gone from approximately $635 million in 1996 to an estimated $2.6 billion in fiscal 2006, and that this number could reach $14 billion by 2045.

The Illinois General Assembly has shown a historic inability to exert the necessary discipline to resist the ever-growing demand for increased retirement funds for future state retirees. Compounding this problem is the relative ease with which the legislature has used deferral of mandated pension obligations as an easy way to circumvent budget difficulties. Our current defined benefit pension plan guarantees payments that are tied to years of service and salary. In what may well be the only means of staving off a looming fiscal disaster, the State should take a page from the private sector playbook and seriously consider switching to a defined contribution plan. Without any negative consequence to any current state employee, this significant change in our pension system would not only inure to the benefit of future state employees, it would simultaneously establish a more predictable and responsible benefit system for the stability of the Illinois budget.

Defined contribution programs are akin to a 401(k) retirement account: The ownership and control of the investments remain in the hands of the employee, not the State. The employee invests up to a predefined percentage of their salary, with the state contributing an additional preset amount. And contrary to the old adage, under this scenario, you can take it with you; the retirement funds are portable should the employee leave the State’s employ to go into the private sector. This truly is not a 'Democratic' or 'Republican' idea. Indeed, if properly implemented, such a plan can be beneficial in attracting and satisfying qualified employees while at the same time restoring 'fiscal virility' to Illinois. These are concepts that all of us should readily embrace.

To their credit, six states have taken a cue from the business community and have converted to a defined contribution plan for new hires. (An additional six states offer hybrid plans.) Similarly, the Illinois General Assembly must rise above the mentality of thinking in terms of election cycles and take those steps necessary to preserve the fiscal solvency of our state for future generations.

It's almost as if time has stood still - almost except for the fact that things have gotten worse.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A Taxing Problem

This one is a little long, but I think that it's worth a read, so bear with me.

As part of the select group of citizens who have just seen their sales tax rate go up to 11.25%, (I've yet to be able to fathom the rationale that the businesses in my district somehow reap such a benefit from McPier that their customers should pay 0ne percent more than do customers of stores in the rest of the county), I share in the public frustration that our present level of taxation has reached its rational limit. So have taxpayers.

For too long, government has shown an inability to the very thing that is expected of homeowners on a daily basis - live within our means. Rather than make tough decisions in tough times, and (thankfully) without the federal option of printing more money, local governments have found themselves unable to resist dipping into the pockets of their constituents. If one person does it to another, it's called robbery. When the government does it, it's called taxation.

Taxes are like fiscal crystal meth for governments. They just can't get enough.

But between increased taxes on everything including bottled water at the city level, and a county sales tax hike that was shamelessly, almost offensively, coupled with the creation of over 1000 county new jobs, the sad fact is that local officials have let down the very people who have repeatedly elected them into office.

Now this isn't to say that there are not tax proposals that I think make sense. In the interest of full disclosure, I have long supported an increase in the state income tax, provided that the revenues would be used to address some of our structural budgetary shortcomings, such as our pension obligations. I have also advocated for a change in our sales tax structure that would better reflect the present-day service-based nature of our economy. But the unabashed ramping up of taxes to feed the insatiable beast that is government is simply no longer acceptable.

What about the state you rightfully ask? I think that the latest gamesmanship at the state level displays its own form of egregiousness. Trying to prey upon taxpayer frustration, the Governor is once again attempting to play the 'Speaker Madigan wants to raise the income tax' card. And it must be noted that his play is being made in furtherance of his shilling for his version of a much-needed capital bill.

But what would ordinarily be valid political posturing rings hopelessly hollow when one looks at the facts coming from the man behind the curtain.

Last year, the Governor pushed what may go down as the biggest failed proposal in the history of big failed proposals when he tried to force through his $8 Billion Gross Receipts Tax. In defense of his efforts to pummel Illinois' business community, the Governor trotted out his message that he 'would not tax the working men and women of Illinois'. (He had long given up on the whole 'reform and renewal' mantra, but that's a story for another day.) Never mind if those men and women would no longer have jobs if their employers left Illinois because of the GRT, he was simply not going to tax those working men and women. More power to him.

Sounds good, right? Well it might have until you look at his proposal to help balance the budget and to fund his capital bill proposal. While the Governor continues to blame Mike Madigan and the House Democrats for the out-of-balance budget on his desk (you know the one, the one that was also approved by the Senate, controlled by his staunch ally Senate President Jones; the one that the Governor was going to make critical cuts to, but then lacked the testicular virility to actually do it), he doesn't have much to say about his plan to help balance the budget and to fund his $34 Billion pet project. (And let's not forget the fact that the House also passed a no-growth budget, one which may have left a number of needs unmet until another day, but one which would have also resulted in us living within our means for a change.)

It turns out that the same Governor who simply would not, could not tax working men and women put forward a plan that is blatantly propped up on some of the most regressive taxation known to working men and women. The Governor's capital bill plan is premised, in large part, upon a massive expansion of gaming as well as a leasing of the state lottery.

Now I won't go into much detail on either one of these proposals, but let me say this. Gambling is the most regressive tax out there - plain and simple. Yes, it's self-selecting, and yes, more casinos here may help capture dollars going out of state and from out-of-staters. But at the end of the day, gaming revenues have historically come from those who can least afford it. (For the record, I have long opposed the placement of a casino in Chicago, and I additionally voted against the Rosemont bill several years ago.)

As far as the lottery is concerned, and without getting into the bigger picture issue of the wisdom of leasing state assets, two of the underpinnings of the lottery lease are to allow better targeting of 'key market demographics' (read poor and minorities), and a reduced number of winning tickets. Take more money from poor people and let fewer of them win. Yeah, that's the ticket.

So in sum, the Governor rightfully wants to improve our state's school, road and bridge infrastructure. On that part, I'm with him 100%. But the same Governor who was so adamantly opposed to any new taxes on the working men and women of our state wants to pave those roads and bridges on the backs of those very working men and women. I'm not buying it - and neither should the public.

I don't profess to have all of the answers, but when I look at what is going on at every level of government these days, I sure see a lot of problems.