The Confessions of a Confused Misfit
I confess I never admired John Edwards -- and used to argue with the late Christopher Hitchens about the blow-dried lawyer’s suitability for president. I didn’t think much of Al Gore or John Kerry, well before the “he lied!” vein-bulging fits and the wind-surfing spoofs. I was not surprised when Susan Rice just disclosed that she is worth considerably over $30 million -- and has money in Keystone no less. Are they all part of the “one percent”? Did they pay “their fair share”? Do they “spread the wealth”? At what point in his life did Al Gore know that he had made enough money (before barreling ahead and making more)?
Why do a Timmy Geithner and John Kerry preach about raising taxes while trying their best to break the law to avoid them? I remember the Clintons seeking write-offs for the donation of their underwear, Tom Daschle not counting limo service as income, and Hilda Solis with a lien on her husband’s property. Why wouldn’t the above pay too much rather than too little? If Barack Obama did not get free government everything, and made several millions on his serial memoirs, with his mansion, prep schools, and Martha's Vineyard vacations to pay for, would he still preach that guys like him need their taxes raised?
Of course, I accept without much worry that government service can lead to the contacts that lead to big money. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld made millions in the private sector in between D.C. jobs. I grant too that old-boy networking is lucrative. George W. Bush’s Texas Rangers small fortune came from having powerful friends in the right places. No doubt Colin Powell and Bill Clinton are multimillionaires. Bravo to them both.
But what we cannot stomach is all the sermonizing about “fair share” and “play by the rules” and “the one percent” from those who seek to be exempt from their own rhetoric. Can’t Warren Buffett keep quiet and just leave his $50 billion to his heirs -- and let the wonderful federal government do what it must with a $30 billion estate tax on his earnings? Can Bill Gates’ people really manage the Buffett $50 billion better than HUD or HHS? And if so, why a HUD or HHS? His estate will dodge more tax liabilities than what millions of his proverbial overtaxed secretaries pay. Why isn’t George Soros one of the despised money speculators of the sort that Occupy Wall Street was enraged about? Isn't trying to break the Bank of England a bit too much money-grubbing? So weird what constitutes good and bad riches!
I guess the rub is not big or small money, or what you must do to get it and keep it. No, the lesson instead is what you say when you get it. If I were to advise a young rich man, I would promote entering politics or the media and talking up the liberal redistributionist state, the model being a sort of Chris Matthews, Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi, Jon Corzine, or Jay Rockefeller. You may meet and marry a rich person, while all sorts of doors will open that allow you to keep and compound what you garner -- and you will feel wonderful in the bargain.
I also confess as a misfit that I was one of the few who never understood the rhetoric of illegal immigration. Of course, “undocumented worker” leaves millions out of the definition who are not working and never applied for, or ever had any, documents to begin with, in a way that the damnably exact “illegal alien” does not. “The borders crossed us” did not make sense, given that 99% of present-day illegal aliens could not cite a California residential pedigree back to 1900.
If we add all the contradictory declarations and try to sort out a common theme, then, it would, to be honest, go something like the following: “I am leaving my home in Latin America and crossing the border illegally into the United States, because I have that right since my cheap labor is going to be exploited. But if I do not work or cease working or go on public assistance or get arrested, I still have that that right to ignore the law to enter illegally because the American Southwest was once the land of my forefathers. True, I am leaving one land of my forefathers for another land of my forefathers that interlopers have changed. I don’t particularly like what they have done, but by all means I must go there and not return to the more pristine and unsullied land of my forefathers.”
For immigration to be fair and without prejudice, race and skin color must alone count -- not biased skill sets and education levels. Do you think an immigrant who needs public assistance and does not speak English is any less valuable to America than one with a PhD in electrical engineering, English fluency, and $10,000 in the bank?
So the present discrimination is fair when it prejudices those by ethnic affiliation, but bad when it is color blind and adjudicated through merit-based education and skills. There is no longer such an arcane thing as a federal law that says you must enter the United States legally. Instead it is de facto assurance that if you wish to enter the U.S. with an advanced degree or capital, and if you are not crossing into the United States across the Mexican border, then you must get in line and wait years while we adjudicate your dubious case. Latino politicians who demand amnesties for illegal immigrants from Latin America are disinterested and fighting bias; all others who favor legal immigration from all countries on racially blind considerations of education and expertise are racist.
I think that sums up the debate and will explain why the Dream Act is the beginning, not the end, of amnesty -- and why a return to merit-based legal immigration will be fought most of all.
Given that the president does not wish to return to the Clinton-Gingrich spending cuts, or even the Clinton-Gingrich tax hikes across the board, and given that he does not wish to embrace his own Simpson-Bowles commission's recommendation, and given that he wishes to tax only those who make over $250,000 to reduce the deficit by 7% -- and has no real plan to find the other 93% other than through new capital gains hikes, estate taxes, and commercial taxes, then all the other wisdom about making and saving goes out the window.
Why would one farmer scrimp and save to pay off debt or bypass a new tractor or pickup to ensure that one day his heirs receive his 80 acres free and clear -- only to have his survivors pay 55% of any value over $1 million to the more deserving government? Would it be all that much worse to live it up, spend, enjoy life, and leave them a farm tax-free, with a $500,000 bank debt on it? Is the man of debt morally preferable to the man of capital -- the former a noble victim with the right non-monetary values, the other a suspect Scrooge hell-bent on private lucre? Will my grandchildren one day brag, “I thank my ancestors that I had no inheritance and now have zero net worth, and I thank God that I managed to keep my income under $250,000”?
Why would anyone get another degree at night school, work weekends for another $20,000 a year, add 30 more patients, or seek to expand a sales route if it put you over the dreaded us/them limit of $250,000? Or, conversely, why would anyone on unemployment or disability or food stamps go out to find an entry-level job that paid less than government receivables?
As I understand the Obama message, it goes something like the logic of illegal immigration: The free market quite illogically and wrongly sets salary levels. Education levels, specialized skills, experience, hard work, character, luck, accidents, good health -- and all the other criteria that arbitrarily factor into one man making $250,000 and another $50,000 -- are just too random and unfair.
Therefore, a well-educated Ivy league technocracy, with lofty moral intentions, can fix what the market broke. Simply tax those who make too much at a level where they live about like those who unfortunately make too little and pay no federal income taxes. That way everyone but the technocracy can live about the same, and the economy will not be dragged down by all those unnecessary things that too much disposable income buys -- from private swimming pools and assault rifles to jet skis, crew cab pickups, and Hummers. Why, though, do we not stop tax breaks for Hollywood, or have a 70% surtax on incomes over $5 million (per picture), or tax incomes of those in government who go into the private sector at 80% for the first two years of the revolving door?
In any case, I hope there are enough Volts, Solyndra-like jobs, loan forgiveness programs, and new Fannie and Freddie mortgages to go around. I also hope that enough self-employed Californians of the despised group stay around who will soon pay 39.5% on large portions of federal income, 15.3% in SECA taxes, and from 10.3% to 12.3% in state taxes, as well as the regular sales and property taxes and assorted “user fees.” Let us hope that our schools, freeways, courts, and parks are exceptional enough for them to offset the cost of remaining a Californian.
I have been studying the recent national conversations on race -- from the Susan Rice matter to Joseph Lowery’s whites-in-hell rant -- and talking to as many minority friends as I can. I think I have almost figured it out.
There are two things going on: affirmative action and diversity. In the first case, it is not a matter of minority or majority populations. Here in California, so-called Latinos are a majority. Nor it is necessarily a matter of skin color. Rather, finding an edge as a deserving group eligible for federal and state advantage hinges on one thing: self-identification as a Latino, African-American, or Native-American who has historical claims against the collective white majority. Elizabeth Warren taught us that one can land a Harvard professorship not by a proven Indian pedigree, but by assertion now and then of “high cheek bones” -- and by association the inherited trauma from Wounded Knee to the Trail of Tears. I am still confused, however, as to why Ward Churchill, who went to so much trouble to adopt Indian dress, nomenclature, and tribal affinities, was ostracized as a rank faker (inter alia), while the multimillionaire, elegant Warren pulled it off, with blond hair and business suits to boot. True, Churchill fudged federal affidavits, but so must have Warren, who never quite had a law license to boot.
I know a lot of proverbial Bob Smiths these days with Latino mothers. They look no different than Italians or Armenians. They have a rougher time proving aggrieved status than do Juan Lopezes whose mothers are Anglos. Two of my students married Mexican-Americans and divorced, and kept their names to apply (successfully) as minorities for fellowships. And why not? After all, do we want to get in the racial pedigree business to determine that the applicant Linda Martinez is actually Welsh and Linda Jones is actually one-half Mexican-American -- if we can’t tell by talking to them or examining their bank accounts?
Ethnic emphasis of any sort helps -- a trill, accent, native dress, or exotic spelling. Self-identification is important, along the lines of a pony-tailed Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell that conveys quite a different notion that being born one Benny Campbell. I saw a bumper sticker the other day for Cuesta JC. It now reads Cuésta College -- a little PC flair is all it takes. Had I only been name Thor, with a middle name Ragnar, and changed my spelling a bit -- Thor Ragnar Hansson -- I think I could have pulled off the Swedish exotic thing. I once had a used Volvo 544 and a used Electrolux, and ate Rye crackers.
Diversity is another matter. My Punjabi friends, far darker for the most part than Latinos or Native Americans, complain that they get no help, even as diverse peoples. Even rich Portuguese can piggyback onto the Latino edge. But there is nothing for Pakistanis or those of the Hindu faith. I investigated all this on numerous occasions for students (one of my Egyptian students got caught, against my advice, checking “African-American” -- too literal or too northern). Armenians, Greeks, or Arabs don’t qualify. So skin color, appearance, and economic status matter little.
Still, honorific diversity is a consolation prize. There is a larger community of hyphenated Punjabis, Japanese, Koreans, and Arabs who don't receive affirmative action and who by name and race count as “diverse,” which in the words of liberal post-election commentators meant that they are not old white guys and thus the stuff of a new coalition in America. That was the brilliance of Obama and ultimately his legacy: he redefined America by uniting rich Japanese-American orthodontists, affluent Cuban-Americans, Oaxacan illegal immigrants, African-American students, Indonesian taxi-drivers, and all sorts of others as “us” and not “them” -- with the even more brilliant qualifier that for the shrinking white majority there was still one last opportunity for salvation by loudly announcing one’s Obama sympathies and deploring rampant racism. At least I think that was what all the “civility” was about -- “punish our enemies,” "nation of cowards," the Trayvon Martin and Skip Gates commentary, “my people,” “put y’all in chains,” “got your back,” white people in “Hell,” and on and on.
Still, don’t ask me for consistent rules about who is qualified for affirmative action, or about who is part of the diverse community, given that even universities can’t figure it out: again, just note Senator Elizabeth Warren -- now our first Native American female senator.