Sunday, April 11, 2010

Katyn, Bishkek and You

We tax all the others and pass the revenue on to you

When the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939 they rounded up military officers, civil administrators, suspected Polish "agents", clergy, people with college educations, everyone who might oppose the invaders.  Then they shot them.  The most notorious barbarity is today known as the Katyn Massacre, although there were many others.  Wiki has a horrifying article.  If you take the time to read it, read it to the end and take a good look at the pictures.

The Soviets blamed the Nazis for decades and who could defend the Nazis, who were guilty of more and worse?  It wasn't until the collapse of the USSR that the truth came out.  The original orders still exist and they bear the names Stalin, Beria, Mikoyan and Voroshilov.  There's no doubt, and Katyn was only part of a larger ruthless slaughter.

Today there are apologists for Katyn, even deniers, and those who insist upon an historical context to help explain it away.  They are the same sort of historically bewildered folks who deny the horrors of the Holocaust (hello Iran), the Armenian Genocide (hello prez), American slavery (hello Gov McDonnell) and the persecution of Native Americans (hello so many of us).  Winners write the history, I suppose.

Fast-forward to last Saturday morning.  The elite of Poland's government and military, its current political opposition and its past anti-Communist heroes - the very people whose predecessors were murdered by the Soviet NKVD - were en route to Smolensk, Russia, for a joint Russia-Poland memorial to those killed at Katyn.  It was to be a healing event for both nations.  Their plane crashed, killing everyone aboard.  Looks like pilot error, an elite pilot thinking he was better than his ground controllers.  It happens, and this isn't an unknown outcome of such hubris.  There is no suspicion of external forces.

Poland is bereft of leadership.  The PM is next in line but he has little political infrastructure left.  The power vacuum is immense.  Surely Putin sees opportunity in this, a chance to nudge Poland back into the Russian fold.  Watch for Russia to increase its influence in Poland.  Watch for us to let them.

Russia has stepped forward before.  The Prague Spring of 1968 incurred a massive Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  In 2004 they poisoned the president of Ukraine with dioxin.  In 2008 they threatened to invade Poland over its US missile treaty.  That same year they invaded Georgia as well.  Invasions, threats and poisonings are just some of their tools.  Energy aggression is another, and a very effective and cheap one at that.  Russia is the main supplier of gas to northern Europe.

Russia seeks political turmoil in its neighbors and will foment it at its whim.  The latest example is the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan.  Legitimate unrest has led to revolution there, with hundreds killed in the streets of Bishkek.  Russia will step in to defend its bases and citizens in the same way it stepped in to "save" its erstwhile citizens in South Ossetia, Georgia.  Watch us protest, then ignore.  Again.

Eastern Europe - Central Asia - the Caucasus - Cuba - Venezuela.  Russia isn't quiet.  Russia isn't sleeping.  Russia is coming soon to a country near you.

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I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia.  It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma: but perhaps there is a key.  That key is Russian national interests.

Winston Churchill

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Whither Pennsylvania

We tax all the others and pass the revenue on to you

Repubs in Pennsylvania say their state could face a $1 bil deficit this year.  The Dem gov, Ed Rendell, says its too early to say... nine months into their fiscal year.  It's only $700 mil to date.  (Thanks, Business Week)

That's alarming on several levels.  If you can't forecast a state's deficit for a current year that is 3/4 over, how can we believe the 10-year cost projections for national health care that doesn't really ramp up for four more years?  The answer is, we can't.  No one really knows although some must profess to for the sake of politics.  

Penn budget negotiators made a deal last Oct to wipe out a projected 2-year deficit of $6 bil, with federal aid taking up some of the slack.  They promised no new taxes and predicted a rosy 3.2% growth rate next year.  Now they're telling their creditors not to count on that promise.  Turns out that deal ain't gonna happen.  Then they planned for a $525 mil deficit but they're already at $700 mil and growing.

Rendell's budget adviser says "If it doesn't deteriorate any further, and we have a shortfall of approximately $750 million, we can manage within that."  Well, maybe, but even that is with the feds forgiving a $275 mil state debt.  Has anyone forgiven $275 mil of your debt lately?

Just last week Penn legislators passed next year's budget based on that 3.2% growth figure.  Their senate appropriations committee chairman already says "Maybe 3.2 is higher than what we can reasonably expect."  One week.  That forecast was good for one week.

In California, no one has any idea what to do about their $21 bil (and growing)deficit.  State employees have been asked to take furlough days... but work anyway!  ArnieS promised several bil of spending reductions in Medi-Cal and prison spending but it didn't happen.  There is no relief on the horizon in CA.  The world's eighth-largest economy is in free fall.

It's no better here in Oregon.  Our state treasurer is taking away local property tax money and replacing it with promises to pay.  

Oregon is broke.  Oregon Gov Kulongoski proposed re-naming a bad stretch of road after a late friend of his, Randy Pape.  Cost of new signs?  $250K.  When the poop hit the paddle it was reduced to two signs for  $1,500.  Why not, say... NOTHING? 

This is the theater of gummint indifference and it plays near you 24/7/365.  Maybe Randy Pape was a great guy.  The ostensible reason for the re-naming is that he worked hard on gummint commissions.  WAIT A MINUTE!  He's working for US and he's supposed to work hard and effectively.  Now GovK says it wasn't him that proposed the re-naming after his old friend.  Well, yeah, he did write the letter proposing the re-naming but only because the highway commission asked him to.  Nice spin, Gov.

Government doesn't know how to run things.  (Hello, Health Care)  They only know how to keep spending to cover their tracks.  This is entirely independent of party politics, both are guilty.  When they run out of money they just take more of yours and tell you it's patriotic to pay taxes.  No, really.  And they pee it away on renaming roads after their friends and every other sort of self-aggrandizing crap you can think of... and health care.

California, New York, Oregon, Mass and several other states are already bankrupt measured by any conventional tests: assets v. liabilities, current liabilities v. current income, choose one, ability to meet current obligations.  So is the USA, which survives only on the full faith and credit of its pledge to lenders.

It's up to you to tell your representatives at every level, from city council to the prez, STOP SPENDING, WE'RE OUT OF MONEY!  Even if national health care is the best idea in the world (we could argue), we can't afford it (no argument). 

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Congress can raise taxes because it can persuade a sizable fraction of the population that somebody else will pay.

Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate in Economics

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Tanning Beds and Strippers

We tax all the others and pass the revenue on to you

I'm tempted to open with something about having some "skin in the game".  Tempted, but nah.  You expect better.

Go to a tanning salon?  The cost just went up 10% thanks to a new tax on indoor tanning.  It's a sin tax.  If you want to expose yourself to harmful UV rays it's gonna cost you.  That's if you do it in a way that might earn someone else a profit while you change colors.  The American Academy of Dermatology singled out "indoor tanning" (my italics) as a health hazard, ignoring the fact that the sun tans with the same rays outside.  If you go to the beach to tan, no tax on that... yet. Just parking fees and the gas to get there and back.  Nothing is free.

Like the DC bag tax, this one is tied to someone's idea of a needy cause.  Instead of the Astoria River, the tan tax is going to pay for national health care.  Congress traded away "botax", a 5% tax on cosmetic surgery, and picked tanning salons at 10% instead.  The International Tanning Association isn't nearly as powerful as the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery.  Pay up, tan girl.  It's for the children.

Remember when taking off your clothes in public was defended as free speech?  Happened right here in Oregon just last year.  Texas sees that as a taxable event, is what it is.  Yep, sin tax, 5 bucks a head to watch pole dancers at your favorite club.  "A naked money grab" is what the WSJ calls it.  Clever, those Wall Streeters.  This ain't about money or free speech, according to Texas.  Nope, it's about combating sexual assault.  Say what?  I've never seen an outdoor pole dancer and I can't help but wonder.  If tanning outside is tax-free, shouldn't stripping outside be free, too, and isn't that a logical extension of this debate?

This is sweet, from the same article:

The judges also challenged the state’s contention that its goal wasn’t to raise money or squelch free expression, but rather to deal with what the state described as the “combustible combination” of drinking and nude dancing.

What about the argument, asked Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, that the state was hypocritically “profiting off the very thing it is condemning?”

James C. Ho, the Texas solicitor general, said the state could have criminalized the activities at issue, but legislators chose to impose a fee instead.

There will be no combustible combining in the state of Texas, nosiree, nor raisin' money nor squelching of no free expression.  Just wouldn't be right, don'cha know?  Don't want to criminalize conduct that already pays $56 mil in taxes and employs 8,000 neither.  People just might notice it when 8,000 strippers show up in court.  Nope, Texas sniffed a sin tax and enacted it, simple as that.  Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am.

Your turn is next.

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People always ask me, did I learn anything when I was a stripper?  Yeah, I did.  One man plus two beers equals twenty dollars. -- Anna Nicole Smith