Page Two: Proposal Postcards
Proposition 2 and other economic quandaries
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master – that's all."
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There
In so many ways, it's all about words: That's where the devil is and the details are. I used to think words were easy. Images (even though I was fluid in many of their languages), music, noise, sounds – they could hook you up and hang you out. Often, I'm so slow on the uptake that almost anything, no matter how carefully put or patiently explained, escaped my understanding. But words – I could control that speed.
I was wrong.
Below: the first two picture postcards in what may well be a series.
1) Regarding the 'Chronicle's Proposition 2 endorsement:
Endorsements are rarely easy, most involving the commitment of time, energy, and thought, with endless discussions followed by multiple drafts. Citizen-initiated propositions are often the most controversial; when it seems very likely that our position will be unpopular with many readers, it becomes even more intense. As with Proposition 2 this election, our dissent rarely has to do with a serious philosophical disagreement but is more often about execution: the wording of the proposition, its scope, and potential unintended consequences.
Even if one is completely sympathetic with the ideas driving the legislation, there are problems in that it will be implemented as it is written, not as intended. If deciphering this meaning proves unduly controversial, then often the exact meaning ends up being determined within the judicial system, by lawyers and judges very removed from the creation. The proposition might do exactly what is intended, but all too regularly that is not the case. It can impact present and future projects (that are not even mentioned), establish unwelcome precedents, and be difficult to implement, and always there is the possibility of litigation (including potential associated costs).
There are some of us who feel, for example, that getting specific laws in place by crafting them as City Charter amendments is a very bad way to make laws.
As the endorsement process begins, we ponder, meet, argue, break for lunch, and then meet some more. We are not engaged in a popularity contest but trying to be straight with our readers. When we have genuine concerns, we share them. We may be flat-out wrong, or wrongly focused on doomsday scenarios that will never happen, or exaggerating or underplaying the potential range of consequences. We do not sell out; most of the time, there is no one to sell out to. Ironically, this go-round we have been accused of selling out by alienating our core advertising base. This seems like a contradiction. Being at odds with those advertisers who have been in the family for so long is not good business.
Proposition 2 has caused some genuine, far-reaching concerns. The pro-proposition supporters assure all of us that, after it passes, there may be stomping and yelling, threatening and damning, but that it will end in resignation (even if bitter) and compromise rather than in storm-the-ramparts litigation. Those against the proposition practically guarantee that there will be a season of litigation like none we've ever seen before. Either could be right. Either could be wrong.
This time, however, there is even more division than usual, even among Chronicle staff. There seems to be general agreement that the proposition has some serious and unresolved problems. Those most fervently supportive of Proposition 2, however, care more about the message it sends than the details that might not be fine-tuned. They think the time for caution is over: Better an incendiary proposition than nothing, and better a screaming demand for consideration than easy-to-ignore decorum. They are hoping the proposition ends up working exactly the way that its key supporters are predicting, but they don't really care. They are fed up; they are angry. They want to take chances; they want to send a message. More power to each and every one of them and their causes.
Unfortunately, I'm an old, nervous, maiden aunt, fretting over every possible consequence. Over the decades, I've moved faster and further than most, always crouched and usually after dark. It isn't due to any affection for taking chances, but because circles interest me not at all, and, if one is just running in place, well, why not sleep instead?
My nerves are shot. There were bad years here – bad years that I took as even worse than they were. The rituals of mundane bloodletting never ended, while at least once a day my nerve endings became so wrapped up together that the whole system shorted out.
Caution is not just my co-pilot but in my lap, with unintended consequences an ever-present obsession. I didn't weigh in on this one, but if I had, I would have brought nothing different to the table. Not this time. Sure, I've lived in different lands, with new ways, my whole life – but always holding back, taking note, watching, waiting.
Now, we are used to the damnation of the street-corner, ideologue messiahs: Little do they care for our effort and even less for our opinion, unless it is in perfect agreement with their thoughts. But with so many others chiming in with such hostility, really, does this paper and its ongoing coverage really deserve to be so harshly dismissed because of disagreement over one issue? Do readers and advertisers really want us not to express our concerns and opinions but simply reflect theirs? Is more than 27 years of coverage transformed into mere glitter and garbage by one endorsement?
2) John McCain's innovative plan for a redistribution of debt:
Do not be fooled. Certainly it brought more than a single tear to my eye to see that community-organizing pioneer Saul Alinsky is still considered dangerous by some. These days, the only times Republican candidate Sen. John McCain shows joy is when he is introduced at rallies (either by his wife or running mate) and when he initiates a new personal assault on Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama – whether slurring Obama's character, ladling guilt by association over him while denying doing it, detailing his inexperience, or labeling his policies with carefully chosen terms that may have no relevance but are certainly loaded. In the last few days, McCain has seemed almost genuinely beside himself with delight as he's accused Obama of being a socialist and labeled his tax plan essentially a Marxist redistribution of wealth.
This is ludicrous and untrue in any number of different ways. The United States Congress passed a graduated income tax in the 1890s. This became a progressive (a variation on graduated) tax with the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913 (on behalf of my conspiracy-theory brethren, I'll point out that they, at least, contend that it was never ratified). The kind of progressive tax that Obama is proposing, which has been the main tax-rate structure for more than 90 years, is neither socialist nor Marxist. McCain is certainly hoping to scare Americans into believing otherwise, but it's just not true.
Still, how can an old lefty's blood not run just a tiny bit quicker to hear "socialist" used as a slur and "redistribution of wealth" as a purely demonic condemnation? It's like hearing a love song from the first summer you were in love, one you haven't heard in decades.
Despite McCain's pained awe at the thought of increasing taxes for any American, he has left out of the equation Bush and the current administration's budgetary "new math." This involves cutting taxes, spending like crazy people, ignoring any kind of regulation of monetary markets and financial institutions, and blaming anything gone wrong on the Democrats.
Perversely but also almost brilliantly, McCain is not only running very separately from Bush but also running away from the latter's administration while also attacking its failures and policies, although he does this without ever getting specific. Without missing a step, when convenient, he aligns himself with it. What brings this all together into a stunning and audacious act of political art is an emulation of Three Stooges slapstick routines, as though they provide the perfect choreography for political strategy. A campaign of running separately and running away from Bush, attacking and aligning with his administration, is layman's work for true visionaries. The dazzling, fireworks-lit-sky, dance-of-10,000-lights climax is when McCain champions the exact same fiscal policies as Bush did when he ran eight years ago. Bush claimed that cutting taxes for the richest Americans would result in a healthy, booming economy with the burst of prosperity so robust that there would be no tax shortages from the cutting. As he was on a TV sitcom and woken from an eight-season fever-dream, ignoring the many disasters that resulted from halfassed economics, McCain is offering the exact same menu of economic and financial policies: "Maybe we didn't get anything close to right last time, but that's no reason not to try again!"
What was most missing during those giddy, intoxicated first six years of the Bush administration – all Republicans all the time – oddly enough, was Republicanism. Instead of demonstrating the restraints one would expect from conservatives, they participated in sending spending debt spiraling out of control. The Iraqi war proved a multiplier for a deficit the Republicans were already raising to unprecedented heights. At the same time, taxes were cut for all Americans, but most extensively and deeply for the richest.
In contrast to the balanced budgets of the final Clinton years, staggering budget deficit resulted. Who could have guessed? Unlike those tax-and-spend Democrats, however, this time it was "spend and spend but don't tax" Republicans who were at fault. According to some nonprofit tax groups, whereas Obama's budget proposal could result in $2 trillion-plus deficits at the end of the decade, McCain's is likely to go over $4 trillion.
The reality is that labeling Obama's tax plan as a socialist redistribution of wealth is partisan rhetoric designed not to represent the proposals but only to slander the candidate.
Overlooked in all this is the Nobel Prize-worthy conceptual reinventing of basic fiscal planning and budgetary responsibility that Bush/McCain have pioneered: not some soul-eating economy destroying communist redistribution of wealth but instead a breathtaking new idea.
Instead of worrying about balancing the budget or demonstrating any kind of restraint, this visionary planning involves cutting taxes while spending without hesitation (entitlements are take-home change compared to the Pentagon's budget). It's that easy. Just smile and say, "What, Me Worry?" We've seen all kinds of incomprehensible financial tools coming from Wall Street during the last decade, but this one is so simple. Spend now and cut taxes now. Spend more and cut taxes more. Then, rather than worrying over any of the ugly and minor details of budget balancing, just move the numbers in those columns over (and then maybe over again). This way they are off of our books as well as being a gift that keeps on giving – to our children, our children's children, and our children's children's children's generations.
For much more on the Chronicle's endorsement process, see The Making of an Endorsement.