Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Is It Wrong To Tax the Old Today To Enrich the Old of the Future? (Is It Only the Media, Stupid?)

Bill Greider has always been a voice of reason who provides excellent historical context for the smoke and mirrors journalism deluging us today.

April 26, 2013 by The Nation

President Obama discusses the federal budget at the White House. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) 

At the start of his second term, events pushed President Obama to choose between the living and the dead. He chose dead millionaires over elderly people living on Social Security. The wealthy were given a most generous reduction in the estate taxes to be collected when they die. Social Security beneficiaries were told to live with smaller benefit checks. Instead of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, Obama went the other way.

A more ambitious political leader would articulate and demand what he wants and what his party will insist on, regardless of whether it seems immediately achievable. Democrats are instead undercut by Obama’s sense of caution.

I asked Robert McIntyre, the celebrated reformer at Citizens for Tax Justice, what he makes of this odd presidential twist. “The Obama administration has mixed feelings about old people,” McIntyre dryly observed. “Old people on Social Security deserve smaller benefits. Old people who own estates worth tens of millions deserve smaller tax bills for their children.”

How could this have happened with a Democratic president in the White House? In early January, under pressure to make a “fiscal cliff” deal with Republicans, the president signed a new estate tax law that delivered a gorgeous windfall for those with accumulated wealth—or, rather, for their children or others who inherit the family fortunes. All rich people are now entitled to an estate-tax exemption of $5 million. That is seven times larger than the exemption that existed in the last years of the Clinton administration ($670,000) and more than double George W. Bush’s ($2 million).

Furthermore, because this new estate-tax exemption is indexed to protect against inflation, the exemption will keep growing bigger year after year. For 2012, the exemption rose by $120,000 and another $130,000 for 2013. That’s an annual inflation-driven increase of about 2.5 percent, though Social Security recipients received an increase of only 1.7 percent at the same time.

The new cost-of-living index Obama has proposed for Social Security would work in the opposite direction. It is designed to reduce Social Security benefits in future years, less than what people would get from the present calculation. The White House describes its so-called “chained CPI” as a technical fix that is good government policy.

Yet, taken together, these changes are a revenue loser for the government. The generous reductions in the estate tax will cost around $400 billion in lost revenue by not reverting to terms before the Bush II presidency worked to undermine it. The “chained CPI” fix for Social Security and other programs, including the estate tax exemption, is expected to save only about half as much as the estate tax loses—and those savings come not from the rich, but the broad ranks of working people.

Meanwhile, fewer than 4,000 very rich people will be left to pay the estate tax. This is not total victory for Republicans—they wanted to abolish the estate tax altogether—but it seems close enough. If you want to understand how the federal government drives the nation’s increasing inequality, look no further than the federal tax code.

The president is evidently having second thoughts of his own, at least about the rotten estate-tax deal he accepted. His new budget message promises to reopen that bad bargain and reinstate the estate tax exemption of $3.5 million that existed during his first year in office. Good luck with that one, Mr. President. It is hard to take his gesture seriously since the president proposes to restore the estate tax in 2018—two years after he has left office.

A more ambitious political leader would articulate and demand what he wants and what his party will insist on, regardless of whether it seems immediately achievable. Democrats are instead undercut by Obama’s sense of caution.
Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, though supportive of Obama on the “chained CPI” issue, has wistfully cited an alternative remedy proposed by the late Robert Ball in his last years. Ball was a wise and trusted Social Security commissioner whom liberals relied on. He wrote that government could insure the permanent solvency of Social Security by raising the cap on the payroll tax deductions and by dedicating the revenue from the estate tax to keeping the Social Security trust fund in good health.

That connection between dead millionaires and retired working people could solve a lot of problems. It probably sounds too radical for Obama Democrats.

The president’s recurring problem is his softball style of governing. He begins negotiations by giving up his leverage—offering to retreat from the party’s crown jewels like Social Security or the strong estate tax Democrats traditionally defended. Then he asks Republicans to be reasonable and reciprocate. They respond by kicking him in the shins. Republicans play hardball, and with considerable success. Obama Democrats are playing badminton.
William Greider
William Greider is national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He is author of "Secrets of the Temple: How the Federal Reserve Runs the Country" and, most recently, "Come Home, America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country."

Robert Parry is an excellent source of information for understanding the issues that most occupy the country's owners, er, I mean renters.

Exclusive: Rich right-wingers, including the Koch Brothers and Rupert Murdoch, are eying the purchase of the Los Angeles Times and other major regional newspapers to create an even bigger platform for their propaganda, a media strategy that dates back several decades, as Robert Parry explains.

The U.S. news media was never “liberal.” At most, you could say there were periods in the not-too-distant past when the major newspapers did a better job of getting the facts straight. There also was an “underground” press which published some scoops that the mainstream media avoided.


(Image: Still from the film, "Citizen Kane")

So, reporters revealed the evils of racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s; war correspondents exposed some of the cruel violence of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s; major newspapers defied the U.S. government in printing the leaked history of that war in 1971; the Washington Post uncovered some (though clearly not all) of Richard Nixon’s political crimes in 1972-74; and the New York Times led the way in publicizing some of the CIA’s dirty history in the mid-1970s.

While such work surely offended the Right and many parts of the Establishment, the stories had a common element: they were true. They were not, in that sense, “liberal” or “conservative” or “centrist.” They were simply accurate – and they helped spur America’s other democratic institutions to life, from protests in the streets to pressures on the courts to citizens lobbying government officials.
It was that resurgence of participatory democracy that was the real fear for those who held entrenched power, whether in the segregationist South or inside the wood-paneled rooms of Wall Street banks and big corporations. Thus, there developed a powerful pushback that sought to both hold the line on additional (and possibly even more damaging) disclosures of wrongdoing and to reassert control of the channels of information that influenced how the American people saw the world.
In that context, one of the most effective propaganda strategies was to brand honest journalism as “liberal” and to smear honest journalists as “anti-American.” That way many Americans would doubt the accurate information that they were hearing and discard many real facts as bias.
As a journalist for the Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s, I encountered these hardball tactics while covering the Reagan administration as it sought to manage the perceptions of the American people mostly by hyping external threats (from Managua to Moscow) and demonizing some internal groups (from “welfare queens” to labor unions).
Reagan’s men described one of their central goals as “kicking the Vietnam Syndrome,” that is, the resistance among the American people to be drawn into another overseas conflict based on deceptions.
The Air Waves War
But the key to their success was to gain control of as much of the U.S. news media as possible – through direct ownership by like-minded right-wingers or by appeals to senior news executives to adopt a more “patriotic” posture or by intimidation of those who wouldn’t toe the line.
The tactics worked like a charm – and were aided by a simultaneously shift on the Left toward selling off or shutting down much of the Vietnam-era “underground” press and instead concentrating on local organizing around local issues, “think globally, act locally,” as the slogan went.
This combination of factors essentially gave the Right and conservative elements of the Establishment dominance of the news. Like an army that controlled the skies, it could fly out and carpet-bomb pretty much anyone who got in the way, whether a politician, a journalist or a citizen. No truth-teller was safe from sudden obliteration.
The Right’s success could be measured at different mileposts in the process, such as the Republican containment of the Iran-Contra scandal in 1987 and President George H.W. Bush’s pronouncement after crushing the out-matched Iraqi army in 1991 that “we’ve kicked the Vietnam Syndrome once and for all.”
This new media reality – as it expanded through the 1990s and into the new century – meant that the Right could put nearly any propaganda theme into play and count on millions of Americans buying it. Thus, President George W. Bush could make up excuses to invade Iraq in 2003 and face shockingly little media resistance.
Eventually a few voices emerged on the Internet and at some lower-rung news outlets to challenge Bush’s case for war but they could be easily discredited or ignored. It took Bush’s disastrous handling of the Iraq War and other domestic and foreign crises to finally put a wrench in this right-wing propaganda machine.
However, the overall dynamic hasn’t changed. Yes, MSNBC – after failing in its attempt to be as right-wing as Fox News – veered leftward and found some ratings success in offering “liberal” assessments on domestic politics (though still avoiding any serious challenge to the Establishment’s views on foreign policy).
There also are some feisty Internet sites that do challenge the conventional wisdom in support of U.S. interventionism abroad, but nearly all are severely underfunded and have limited reach into the broad American population.
Buying Up Newspapers
And, the likelihood now is that the Right will consolidate its dominance of the U.S. news media in the years ahead. In the very near future, some of the country’s most prominent regional newspapers may fall under the control of right-wing ideologues like Rupert Murdoch or the Koch Brothers.
Koch Industries, a privately owned oil and gas giant which has provided the means for Charles and David Koch to lavishly fund libertarian think tanks and Tea Party organizations, is now exploring a bid to buy the Tribune Company’s eight regional newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, the Hartford Courant and the Chicago Tribune, according to a report in the New York Times last Sunday.
By buying the Tribune newspapers, the Koch Brothers would give themselves another strong platform for delivering volleys of right-wing propaganda and wreaking havoc on political adversaries. I remember in my days covering Capitol Hill being told that what a congressman fears most is the determined opposition of the hometown newspaper.
Another expected bidder, at least for the Los Angeles Times, is media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who already owns Fox News and powerful newspapers in the United Kingdom and the United States, including the Wall Street Journal.
On the other side of the bidding are some liberal-oriented businessmen eying the Los Angeles Times, but it is not clear if they can compete with the fat wallets of the Koch Brothers and Murdoch. The New York Times reported that Koch Industries might have an edge in the competition because it would take over all eight newspapers at once.
Some on the Left mock the idea of investing in the “dinosaur” industry of newspaper publishing and question the value of owning even some of these prestigious names in American journalism. It is certainly true that those newspapers have declined in recent years due to poor management and shifts in advertising dollars.
But they still influence how people in those metropolitan areas learn about the world. The newspapers also help set the news agenda for local TV stations and bloggers. The Baltimore Sun, for instance, produced some of the most important reporting on the Reagan administration’s human rights crimes in Central America, as well as publishing groundbreaking stories about domestic spying under George W. Bush.
Yes, some of these newspapers have disgraced themselves in recent decades, such as the Los Angeles Times’ shameful attacks on journalist Gary Webb after he revived the Reagan administration’s Contra-cocaine scandal in the late 1990s. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]
But Internet sites – even ones like Consortiumnews.com with a strong interest in doing investigative journalism – lack the financial resources and the editorial support to carry out those kinds of costly investigative projects, at least with any regularity.
Without major investments by honest Americans in honest journalism – whether the Old Media of print or the New Media of electronics – the United States will continue to drift into a made-up world of right-wing paranoia and pretend facts. And that is a danger for the entire planet.
Robert Parry
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat. His two previous books are Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'.

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