hearts and minds

August 6, 2006

With Respect to Fallibility

Admitting and correcting our mistakes keeps us in our own good graces, as well as of those we love and care for. It returns us to the proximity of perfection. Part of the burden of leadership is that the circle of people to whom we bear responsibility for mistakes is wider. Leadership requires us to love and care for those within that circle, and to admit and correct our mistakes. Or else we do not deserve that mantle.

The White House presumes that its current occupant and advisors are infallible. It refuses to admit, much less accept responsibility for or correct any mistakes whatsoever. The buck is passed, the fall guy is a private, and private citizens pay the piper.

Consider the budget busting tax cuts, 40% of which go to the wealthiest 1%. They were initially advocated by the Bush Administration as a solution to the “problem” of the Clinton era budget surpluses paying off the national debt “too quickly”. We don’t have to worry about that any more. Accounting tricks briefly hid the looming deficits that inevitably resulted from that policy as the tax cuts for the rich were phased in over a period of years. Consequently, the surpluses disappeared to be replaced by record and still growing structural deficits.

The economy simultaneously skidded to a recession and 19 religious fundamentalists, mostly Saudis, armed with box cutters attacked the nerve centers of corporate world trade and the U.S. military and killed 3000 people. The tax cuts for the rich could no longer be rationalized as a solution to budget surpluses. But neither were they rescinded in the face of the startling change in circumstances. In fact, additional tax cuts that favored the wealthy were rationalized as somehow part of the war on terrorism. The rest of us were told to go shopping and spend money for our contribution to that war.

Those tax cuts were a big mistake for us and we were misinformed.

Consider the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Waging pre-emptive war and attacking someone who has not attacked you is going out on the limb of morality and international law. President Bush sent America way out on that limb, which unfortunately could not be supported. The world knows and there is no disputing now that the reasons advanced at the time for undertaking that invasion were false. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no connection between Iraq and the perpetrators of the 9-11 attack.

Rationales made up after the fact, and after the truth became widely known, do not excuse that America has invaded a sovereign nation and has killed with arms over 100,000 Iraqi people without moral or legal justification. War is not to be embarked on as a speculative enterprise, seeking the justification in the spoils, and then dismissing the relevance of lack of evidence when the justification cited is not found.

That war was and is a big mistake for us and we were misinformed.

Consider the proposed privatization of Social Security. The President claims he wants to “strengthen” Social Security. A shortfall is projected to occur in about 2042 when no surplus remains in the Trust Fund, and the only funds available to pay benefits are the revenues from payroll taxes. Prior to that, if no changes are made, payroll taxes will continue to increase the Trust Fund surplus for another decade. After that, benefits will be paid to orphans, retirees, and the disabled partly from Trust Fund income and partly from payroll taxes.

Let’s look for a moment at these projections. Trusting souls might assume that the same, or at least consistent assumptions would be made about the economy by the Administration to predict various future scenarios. Not so. Assumptions were used to predict when the Social Security Trust Fund would disappear. Radically different assumptions were used by the Administration to justify the income tax cuts for the rich. And assumptions were used by the Administration to show that private accounts funded by diverting money to them from Social Security would provide an average return higher than the average Social Security retirement benefit. If you use either the assumptions used to justify the tax cuts, or the assumptions used to promote private accounts, to determine when the Trust Fund disappears, the answer is “never”, at least for any foreseeable future. If you apply the assumptions used to predict the Trust Fund will run out of money in 35 to 40 years to the question that compares returns, the scheduled Social Security benefits will outperform average returns from private accounts. Such bias questions either the competence or the motives of the Administration’s economists.

The President’s plan calls for 1/3 of total payroll tax revenue to be diverted to “personal investment accounts”, while continuing full benefit payments to current and future retirees. If that is done, Social Security will immediately have to pay out more than it takes in, and the Trust Fund surplus will be gone much sooner than currently predicted. Now how, pray tell, is that strengthening Social Security, unless by strengthening, you mean demolishing?

It’s important to note that privatizers never mention the system’s insurance provisions that protect surviving spouses and minor children, and disabled persons.

Privatizing Social Security would be a big mistake and we’ve been misinformed.

Consider that President Bush has nominated well over 200 persons for lifetime positions in the federal judiciary. All but ten of them have been confirmed by the Senate and appointed. That’s a remarkable record. It is a much higher approval rate than the obstruction that occurred during the Clinton Administration. Now President Bush is re-nominating his selections that previously failed to win approval. And the majority leader in the Senate threatens to change the Senate rules if they don’t get appointed now.

Advice and consent does not mean a rubber stamp. Lifetime federal judges must wisely balance and protect the rights of the people, and should not be appointed if only a thin majority of the Senate approves their appointment. There should be a wider spectrum of agreement on their suitability for the responsibility. That’s how the rules of the Senate work. (Remember, half of the U.S. Senate actually represents only 16% of Americans.) The very small percentage of judicial appointees who have not received this approval since 2000 does not indicate capricious political obstruction. It confirms that the President is not infallible, and that the process works. The Bush Administration is expecting obeisance, rather than accepting the check and balance hallmark of American democracy.

Changing the rules of the Senate to get 100% approval of a President’s nominees to lifetime judgeships would be a mistake for us, and again we’ve been misinformed.

The repository of infinite wisdom and infallibility does not reside in the White House. We expect more respect for people from our leaders.

May 26, 2005

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