Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Thoughts for Elul 6

In Thoughts for Elul 1 I discussed the homelessness crisis in Thurston County and Washington State.  One of the points I raised was how in the City of Olympia, the homelessness crisis interfaces with five different governments, making everything very cumbersome.  This bureaucracy overlap also increases expenses greatly, with duplication of efforts, working at cross purposes, etc.

Thurston County, where I live has an approximate area of 774 square miles[i] with an approximate population of 252,264[ii]. Compared to my home town, San Jose CA with its area of 180.0 sq mi[iii] and population of 1,046,079[iv], Thurston County is a fairly large area, but with not many people.
Another example of government inefficiency here is in Fire Services.  In Thurston County, there are at least 16 different fire departments. San Jose has one.  Serving my house with a First Due assignment is Station 31, part of Lacey Fire District 3. In responding to calls in my neighborhood, Station 31 is farther away than four stations in three other departments, and they must travel through the first due areas of two of those stations.  This hardly makes sense, from the standpoint of efficiency – every department has its own administrative and command services, which are redundant. Further, excess fuel is wasted with these needlessly long runs. It also makes no sense in terms of life saving response – the longer the response the more likely a death will occur.
This form of inefficiency exists in myriad other ways in our state. This only adds to the cost of doing things. Thus we get to the heart of today’s thoughts. Tax payer money.

Government services in this state are hindered by the inefficiencies described and many others.  They are also greatly hindered by the constitutional burden of not having an income tax. The result of this is a regressive tax system – those with the least pay huge percentages of their income to taxes, while those with the most pay little to no taxes. Every government has had to find creative ways to get funds. So, for instance, building permits are ridiculously expensive, as a funding source. Olympia has an inventory tax, which is paid on inventory on hand every quarter. If a merchant has an item on hand for more than 90 days, they pay this tax again!

So our state’s taxation system is broken, broke, inefficient and regressive. There is nothing good to say about it, unless you are one of the wealthy who benefit so greatly from the system.

So what should be done?

Clearly governments at every level need to evaluate EVERY service and department, looking for efficiencies to be gained.  Perhaps consolidating those 16 Fire Departments to just three or four might be a good start. Of course, that isn’t likely to happen any time soon, because that would ask too many bureaucrats to give up their fiefdoms. Streamlining government would go quite far in improving things.

But taxation reform is also needed. Washington desperately needs an Income Tax, which can only be done through a Constitutional Amendment.  Income Tax is not supported here though.  The rich don’t want it out of concern that they might actually be forced to pay their fair share. And the poor don’t either, out of fear that this will result in yet a higher tax bite for them.
An Income Tax here would need to be set up in such a way as to protect the poor and lower middle class.  So for instance, if they chose the Median Income of the state as a threshold, all earnings below the Median would be exempt from taxation.  So if the median is $50,000 and a person earns $40,000 they owe no income tax.  If they earn $60,000 they owe tax on $10,000 of earnings. How the rate would be structured is up for discussion. Certainly a flat tax rate on taxable earnings (which must include capital gains) would be simple. And if the Constitutional Amendment specifies that the threshold income must be determined every alternate year, when the Legislature has a long session, we could be assured that the Median Income is kept up to date, and people aren’t being unduly burdened with taxes.

So please, if you live in Washington, take this to heart. Talk to your legislators, county commissioners and city council people.  Take action! Work for efficiency at every level. And work for a tax reform that includes some form of Income Tax, so that people are more fairly and regularly taxed. This will also, in the long run, reduce costs as efficiencies are gained through removal of creative funding schemes.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thurston_County,_Washington
[ii] https://suburbanstats.org/population/washington/how-many-people-live-in-thurston-county
[iii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/San_Jose,_California#Geography
[iv] http://www.sanjoseca.gov/index.aspx?NID=2044

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Thoughts for Elul 5

The death yesterday of Senator John McCain prompted some discussions about the moral and ethical issues associated with being part of the warrior class – the military/industrial complex – in the US. I was in the US Navy for 22 years, and will pay for that for the rest of my life with the injuries I suffered in that service.

One cost I have not incurred, however, and for which I will be ever grateful, is the cost of taking a human life. Call it the Grace of God, Providence, Fate or what you will, but I missed out on combat operations a number of times by virtue of the assignments I had. I should note that my gratitude for avoiding combat did not truly develop until my time in Seminary, when I was learning intensely about the values, morals and ethics which we should all strive for.  This was, of course, concurrent with the Post 9/11 state of war, in which we are still embroiled, so this heshbon ha-nefesh, self-accounting, was rather easy.

One of the six warships in which I served was a ballistic missile submarine, which could potentially have been armed with Trident D-5 ICBM’s.  These are of course extremely long range, destructive nuclear missiles.  The motto of this submarine force was “If you shoot your missiles, you have failed.”  In this force we saw our mission as one of peace through force – the “enemy” knew what was aimed at them, and so they wouldn’t dare attack us.  Of course they had the same kinds of weapons aimed at us. Thankfully we never used them!

In my near 60 years on this planet, I have seen our country involved in many illegitimate wars, and ONE legitimate war – Operation Desert Storm.  I detailed this in my Memorial Day post.  Iraq illegally took over Kuwait, and the world said, “wait a minute, we don’t approve.” We went in with a true multi-national coalition and liberated Kuwait.  Many people attacked President Bush (senior) for ending the war when he did. They felt he should have gone into Iraq and killed Saddam Hussein.  But Bush wisely ended the war (for the most part) once the objective of Kuwaiti liberation was met. Why was this important? Because of the truism that if you depose a Middle East despot, what you get in his place is way worse.  This came true of course, when Bush’s son did in fact depose Hussein.  The country was irreparably destabilized, resulting in the formation of ISIS/ISIL/DAESH (depending on how you name it).

We should not have gone into Iraq in 2003 with the escalation that we did. It was technically a new war, but in reality just an escalation of the remnants of Desert Storm, which remained.  We did, after all, attack Iraq at least weekly during President Clinton’s entire presidency.
The Prophet Isaiah writes of a time when “they will beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, neither will they learn war any more.”  The rub with this prophecy is that it is about the Messianic era. The challenge, though, is to understand that this is not for us to just keep on going about business as usual, and Messiah will fix it.  To bring the peace of the Messianic Era, we must work for it by bringing peace to our planet.
I do believe that our country needs to have a military force. But the key is that we need a National Command Authority that is deeply moral and ethical.  Even the relatively scandal free Obama Administration was unable to lead the military with the morality needed. It isn’t just about moral orders though.  A soldier who carries out illegal orders is just as guilty as the one who issued those orders.

And further, we face a new kind of threat.  The latest issue of Wired magazine details the cyber terrorist attack by Russian actors, aimed at Ukraine, that took down the entire Maersk Shipping industry, among others.  These actors can bring the world to its knees from the comfort of their living room couches. Warfare is no longer about guns and tanks. So we need a flexible force able to respond to these threats.

What we do not need, however, is a National Command Authority that is unable to distinguish good from evil. One which chooses to engage in warfare in order to line the pockets of their cronies, or to satisfy their lacking manhood. We need moral ethical leadership in this country more than ever.
That work starts now, if you haven’t started already.  We have national mid-term elections in less than 3 months.  We need to elect leaders in Congress and local offices, who can lead us properly, and not though ego, bullyism, cronyism, and greed. We need to ensure that Kavanaugh is not confirmed to the Court, that the balance of Congress changes, and that state houses change hands as needed. Do NOT rest on your laurels if you live in a safe district. Do what you can to impact districts where risk exists.

Do your best to bring the conditions which will lead to the Messianic era.  The alternative is destruction.  May we be blessed with a new year of peace and prosperity throughout the world.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Thoughts for Elul 4

The story is told of the Wise Men of Chelm (okay, maybe the story was somewhere else but we’ll go with it) that the mayor saw what was going on with the space race.  He gathered all the scientists, engineers, mathematicians and other brilliant people, and gave them the charge to come up with a space program that would top all the others.  He sequestered them for several months, and finally the lead scientist reported back to the mayor.  “We’ve come up with an amazing space program. Really yuge! It’s bigly!  We’re going to build a rocket and go to the sun!” The mayor asked, “Isn’t it awfully hot there?” The lead retorted, “It’s not a problem – we will go at night!”

The moral of the story? A program built by a committee is destined to be hugely flawed. And so goes the Affordable Care Act (ACA), commonly known as Obamacare.  This was modeled on Mitt Romney’s program in Massachusetts, and is a very difficult program for many to deal with. The ACA brings many important features, such as eliminating pre-existing conditions clauses, and mandating coverage for many conditions previously not covered.

But, it is a very troubled program.  Insurance companies are pulling out of a lot of markets, coverage isn’t uniform, and some states put more money into it than others. The result is that many people pay huge enrollment fees and huge deductibles for spotty coverage.

When the program was being worked on, many experts urged Congress to enact universal Medicare.  Currently, anyone in our country over 65 or on Social Security Disability is eligible for Medicare. The program has its quirks and problems, but over all, it’s a very effective program. And because it is a single payer program, providers know what they will get paid, and what to charge their patients.
Opponents to universal Medicare decry the huge costs to the government, to enact such a program. Would it be expensive? Of course it would.  If there were negotiated pharmacy prices, the way the VA does, it would be much better, though.

But here’s the thing. If you look at the per capita cost of Medicare and compare it to the per capita cost for medical care for ALL Americans, or look at the current total outlay for medical costs in our country, including associated costs for people who don’t have good coverage, the costs are way higher currently than they would be under Medicare.

People argue that they wouldn’t want the Federal Government managing their care. Too centralized. Taxes too high. Etc.  Plus Big Pharma and the insurance lobbies don’t like it because it will cost them a lot of money.

Tricare, the military program, uses insurance companies to manage the care and pay the benefits, and Tricare does the overall policy and rules management.  The VA has its own network, and uses contracted providers as well. As a retired Navy officer and disabled veteran, I receive benefits from all three.  It is crazy that I have three policies. I have great care, but it’s very complex too.

If we were to take the best of all three programs, and put it together, we could have health care coverage for ALL Americans, that would not break the bank. Taxes would have to be higher, but in the end, the total outlay would be much less, and productivity would increase because people would be healthier.

It is past time for single payer insurance in our country!  May we see a new year come in with health and prosperity for the USA and the whole world.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Thoughts for Elul 2

I live in Olympia, WA.  Like many State Capital cities, the primary industry is state government. The other major economic contributor here is military personnel stationed at Joint Base Lewis McChord. There is some industry here, but it is not substantial.

Olympia is also located at the edge of the Seattle suburban zone. Due to the housing crisis in Seattle, costs of housing around the Puget Sound have skyrocketed.  

The lack of job growth coupled with the housing crisis have resulted in a homelessness crisis in the Olympia area, as well as in Seattle and other areas in the Puget Sound.  Olympia is unique however.

In close proximity to the State Capitol campus are lands under authority of five different governments, the State of Washington, Thurston County, and the Cities of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater. In addition, there is Native American land in close proximity.  The consequence of this is that many of these five governing bodies tend to respond to homelessness by trying to push the problem into someone else’s jurisdiction, or by using the police to arrest people. Putting poor people into jail and prison only feeds the prison-industrial complex, and does nothing to solve the problem. 

There is one exception to this.  The City of Olympia, with its current leadership, is taking steps to respond to this crisis, but they cannot do it alone!

Because of the ineffectiveness of the governments here, the clergy communities along with several advocacy groups, are working to try to find immediate solutions, so that people can stay safe, free of attack, extreme weather, and arrest.  But this is not a sustainable solution, and it does not solve the problem.

So what must be done?  After the Great Depression, the Federal Government created a number of public works programs. These put people to work, which restored the economy and self esteem of the individual. Yet after the Great Recession of 2008, the Government gave money to the big banks and auto makers but did nothing to fix the problem.

Our country has a major infrastructure crisis, and so it only makes sense to do public works programs.  But these cost money, and of course the neoliberals in Congress and the White House don’t want to spend money on anything except a huge military/prison-industrial complex.

But public works programs create jobs and that results in people paying taxes, and taking out loans, so all industries become whole. Our so called leaders are too short sighted to see this though.

Locally, what can be done? There are a number of items that must be accomplished to end long term homelessness.  
 These include, but are not limited to:

a)    Jobs programs to provide people with livable wages.

b)    Education and training programs, designed to accommodate various learning abilities.

c)    Improved medical and mental health programs in the area.

d)    Access to affordable housing.

Parts of these have been tried in limited ways. But without a full press effort on the part of all governments involved and on local business leaders, this is not sustainable.  The work cannot rest on the faith communities. We do not have the resources or expertise to do all the work that is needed.

In the Talmud, Tractate Avot (2:16) is written: (Rabbi Tarfon) used to say: You are not required to finish the work, but neither may you desist from it.

I call on Governor Inslee, the Thurston County Commission, and the Mayors, Managers and Councils of Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, to work together, with funding provided at all levels, to find creative solutions to this problem.  You cannot continue to sweep it under the rug or push it into someone else’s jurisdiction.  Only by working together, smartly and efficiently, can you actually make progress in this situation.