Archive for April, 2011

You see very little of it in local or national media these days. But this nation is undergoing a major societal shift in how and which workers fit into key industries, mostly because of changing employment trends and automation. Our little Southwest “timber town” is an example.

Cutting trees, hauling them to mills and processing them into all sorts of wood products has been the major industry and employment here for over a hundred years. Generations of men have followed their fathers into the forests or the mills or both. The economic health of timber companies has been key to the health of the entire county. Always has been. Most people thought it would continue. But it won’t.

Caught in the national economic mess of the last couple of years, our county unemployment level hit more than 14% and currently stands at 12.7%. County commissioners, local service agencies like food banks and others who deal with people needing help, will tell you our real percentage of unemployed, underemployed and those not eligible for unemployment assistance is better than 20%. Possibly even 25%.

Still, as I write this column, there are nine mill or forest jobs being advertised on the local pages of the Oregon Dept. Of Employment. And have been for several days. Because of the old timber industry communications “grapevine,” most jobs never used to get to the advertising stage. So, with our high unemployment – real and suspected – why are there nine openings at Job Service just today?

The answer to that has several parts tied to those changes mentioned above. One reason seems to be, because of the multi-year high level of joblessness, some workers moved away, trying to find better opportunity some place else. I hope they did.

Another factor: many former workers have given up. So, while our unemployment percentage has dropped a bit, one reason is those people aren’t being counted any more. So that shoots some of the “good news” about a lower rate.

Still others have decided to get out of the timber business. Our local community college has a record number of non-traditional – read older – students studying for new careers at the moment. Nursing, basic phases of wine making and auto repair are some of the most popular. They’re not looking to go back.

But maybe the most important reason those jobs are out there is that the companies haven’t found workers – former and current – who have the training for the new ways things are being done. As in every other manufacturing field, timber is changing, too. Modernizing, if you will.

Several years ago, a plywood mill burned down near here. Over 200 people out of work. When rebuilt two years later, half as many people had jobs. The rest weren’t needed because of computerized improvements. Logs in some new mills can go from intake to dimensioned lumber for stacking without anyone touching them. If a guy hasn’t got the training – or hasn’t been retrained – he’s out. Simple as that.

It’s everywhere. Drew Greenblatt owns Marlin Steel Wire Products in Baltimore, MD. He makes wire baskets and used to pay a guy $6 an hour to hand-bend 300 pieces of wire each hour. Now he pays one guy $22 an hour; the one operating the robot that bends 20,000 pieces an hour! Merlin Steel had $800,000 in sales in 1998. Last year, $3.9 million in 33 countries. Automation makes products faster and makes them better, according to Greenblatt. Fewer people, better quality product, less reorders, ship orders faster and he’s not going back.

The timber business has been slow to change in some places. But a lot of the larger, international operators have been upgrading right along. If Home Depot, for example, wants several million board feet of dimensioned lumber, a worker at a mill in Cottage Grove, OR, pushes a button and the assembly line is reshaped for just what Home Depot wants. Electronically. Every piece.

Smaller operations in our county are changing bit by bit. During these last two years, some of them have been quietly upgrading equipment and streamlining both mills and staffing. A guy who used to use a peavy pole to shove logs around the mill pond before the recession likely will never see another such pole in his lifetime. Even if he’s rehired. A small, specially built boat, operated by one man can do the work a half dozen used to do with their poles.

In our county, automation and resulting employment trends are changing the structure of our major industry, the types of people needed to operate the new tools and requiring skills at much higher levels. In your county, it may be fishing or manufacturing or farming. Even with high unemployment and weak markets for many things, the shifting is going on. Quietly, mostly. But it’s there.

Which means we’re not likely to see unemployment down in the 4-5% range anytime soon. If ever again. Nothing’s as constant as change. Nothing.

As you scan today’s headlines about government at all levels in this country, the commonality in them is the lack of funding everywhere to carry on current operations. That is quickly followed by three always present factors: cut services or increase revenue or raise taxes.

I don’t know anybody who’s run for any office on a platform of “elect me and I’ll raise your taxes.” Certain political suicide. Which always makes me wonder why taxes keep going up and so many of the same people stay in office. But that’s another story for another time.

All northwest states have legislatures running and they’re producing their own headlines of revenue insufficiency and significant resulting cuts in budgets. City, county and school district folks are already holding their collective breaths, waiting to see what the coming slicing and dicing of tax dollars will mean to them. Less, yes. But how much?

There’s an effective tool available to all legislatures you don’t hear much about. Because it’s not used much. If they could summon up the political guts, this would be a great time to use it. I’m not talking about new taxes; I’m talking about getting rid of some of the hundreds of tax exemptions each state has historically allowed.

For the record, some exemptions are legitimate; a few even necessary but each should be short term with required re-examination at periodic intervals; every two years, for example. A real re-examination at a real date-certain.

While tax exemptions are talked about … quietly … many people can’t connect letting some corporation save a few dollars directly to what the individual pays. So here’s Tax Exemption 101. Amounts are fictitious but the concept is real.

Suppose the government budget is $100.00. Suppose there are 10 entities to be taxed. Ideally, the bill for each: $10. But the legislature tells the tax collector Glutz Shipping Company is exempt from the $10 tax payment from now on. So the bill for each of the remaining nine taxpayers becomes $11.12. Gotta have $100 for that budget. Then Smurf Boilerplate gets the same legislative exemption. That leaves each of the eight payers left a bill of $12.50. Still need that $100.

The government set a $100 budget so it has to collect $100. How much is collected … and from whom … is based on who is exempted and who is left to pay. How to cut the tax pie. Tax Exemption 101.

Every state … every one … has given exemptions. By the hundreds. Nearly all go to business because businesses have lobbyists. You and I don’t have lobbyists. That’s Tax Exemption 102.

During legislative sessions, state capitols are filled with lobbyists. While some are volunteers and members of private organizations, far more are there to represent those who hire them. Businesses, corporations, other levels of government. Most of the time, it’s an honorable calling and lobbyists can be a big help to lawmakers. I speak from experience.

But the active phrase here is “ … there to represent those who hire them.” Chances are Glutz Shipping and Smurf Boilerplate have a lobbyist or two. Or three. They appear before taxing committees with reams of statistics justifying why their companies should be exempt from paying one tax or another. Maybe, at the time, a good case was made to allow it. Maybe that case was made in 1957. Some 54 years ago. That’s Tax Exemption 103.

But … has the legislature gone back in the ensuing 54 years and checked to see if that good case still exists? Are business conditions for the exempted what they were in 1957? Was the state enjoying good economic times when the exemptions were allowed so authorizing them was not a real problem?

My guess is each Northwest state … each one … has hundreds and hundreds of exemptions on the books that haven’t been looked at in many a year. Even if there’s a legal requirement to do so.

No one wants to increase taxes. This year, when governments, businesses and individuals are being hit from all sides, all of us have enough to do just to keep current. So what better time to put some staff people to work compiling every tax exemption allowed into a single list? Every one since statehood. Dust off the old books and check every damned entry. Hire some qualified temps if necessary.

Oh, there’ll be a hue and cry heard from every exemption holder, every chamber of commerce, every lobbyist with a credit card. We’ll be told this will just put more government load on already overtaxed companies and we’re going to chase ‘em out of state. Not gonna happen. Every state is in the same boat. They’re all looking at their hole cards and trying to make budget.

The people you’ve sent to the legislature, wherever you live, will tell you they’ve looked under nearly every rock and have twisted the tax turnip as tightly as they can. Fat is gone; muscle is bleeding and bone is next. To totally review and, where appropriate, revoke these tax breaks takes real guts. It’s not easy. But it’s time.

Tax increases may be unavoidable. But their size can be limited. Before going down that road, my suggestion is to carefully check on who’s paying their fair share now. And who isn’t.

Now this is flat out scary!

Author: Barrett Rainey

Several weeks ago, I had a brief conversation with the city manager of our little Southern Oregon community. He’s an affable fellow, who’s earned high marks for his job performance. He’s well-schooled in city affairs and dealing with city officials. I told him of a bill in the Michigan Legislature, at that time, that concerned me. I thought it might concern him. A “heads up” if you will.

The bill in question would authorize Michigan Governor Rick Snyder to send one of his self-appointed “financial managers” into any Michigan city of his choosing. It allowed that “manager” to remove the elected mayor and city council from any authority whatsoever, leaving them with no power to do anything. Further, the “manager” could unilaterally break any contact with any entity, void any agreements with city employees or anyone else and take any action he deemed necessary for any reason. Or no reason. Power unrestricted. He’d be God.

Neutering elected officials really bothers me. I thought it would bother our city manager, too. It apparently didn’t. His response was something like “Well, that’s interesting.” Conversation over.

Fast forward to Monday of this week. The bill, now law, was used to remove all authority of the mayor and council in Benton-Harbor, MI. On his arrival, the Governor’s “man” said they could call meetings but take no action. They could publish minutes of meetings during which no action was taken. They could adjourn the meeting where nothing was done. That’s all! The “manager,” Joseph Harris, is now in absolute charge of all city affairs in Benton-Harbor after neutering leadership elected by the residents.

Now I don’t mean to say Benton-Harbor is not without some problems. Financially strapped? Yes. Which city isn’t? A new trash hauling contract became controversial and produced some lawsuits. There’s some competition for the city’s water services and several city officials have clashed at long meetings. So? Anything there that hasn’t happened hundreds of times in hundreds of city halls across the country?

Right here in “River City,” I’ve watched council members clash over giving one member access to have city records copied. Quite a vocal battle for several meetings. The council and city manager just finished a set-to among themselves and the chamber of commerce about continuing to split large revenues with the local visitors bureau. We’ve had a fracas over an award of a large, exclusive city communications contract to an out-of-town company. City council “waters” here in “River City” do not always flow smoothly. Nor do they in your hometown, either, I’d bet.

So, has anyone been sent into your town to take all power from those you elected in city hall? Has an outsider been sent by your governor to break any or all contracts affecting your city? To set aside collective bargaining with employees? To scrap your budget and write his own?

I didn’t think so. Well, how would you feel if that happened? I’ll tell you plain and simple how I feel. It scares the Hell out of me! Abridging guaranteed rights of citizens at the whim of a governor – or anyone else – is to be feared. Greatly!

Here’s another interesting fact about the Benton-Harbor situation. The governor is a Republican who pushed this takeover bill through a Republican-dominated legislature and who has sent in a Republican “manager.” If memory serves, one of the precepts of the Republican Party – in Michigan or elsewhere – is a strident belief of the need for less government; a mantra of “local” control of such minimal government as may be necessary. I’m certain my memory is right about that. So, what’s wrong with this picture?

If you strip it down, what’s happening in Benton-Harbor – a community about 90% black with an average annual income of just over $10,000 – you’ll find union busting. But, more than that, it’s an attempt by some Michigan Republicans at the state level, to totally reshape all municipal government and its conduct. It’s “Big Brother” government in the hands of people who want to remake local government for those a step down on the political ladder. It’s social engineering. And there are currently five states actively pursuing this. Michigan is just the most blatant. So far.

Oh, there’s one more thing you should know. The governor picked a small community of relatively powerless and impoverished people who have absolutely no resources with which to fight back. The Republican legislator who authored and carried the bill is a ranking executive of a worldwide appliance company headquartered in Benton-Harbor. Another local Republican legislator headed the lobbying effort. His claim to fame is he’s spent the last several years of his life promoting a luxury development on the site of a large Benton-Harbor city park, the perpetual contract for which is now in the hands of the governor’s “manager.” Who can cancel it.

If – when – the development is built, it’s doubtful many Benton-Harbor residents, with the $10,000 average income, will be able to afford the $5,000 annual fee to play on the golf course that once was their city park.

Is there a clearer picture here now? When exposed to the light, does what the Michigan governor and legislature did seem to be in the best interests of local government? Of the citizens who elected that local government? Do you think other governors and other legislature’s will watch this and create their own “managers” with power to cancel elections if Michigan is successful?

Does it scare the Hell out of me? You Damned Betcha!!!

A friend chides me from time to time about the number of SECOND THOUGHTS I’ve written dealing with (1) the dangers of our current economic straits, (2) a national political atmosphere of seemingly insurmountable partisanship and (3) the number of simple-minded ideologues in Congress who don’t understand the terrible consequences of their ignorant discourse.

He’s right. There have been many. For good reason. There’ll be more. And I’m not alone.

Monday, economists and other staff of the respected Standard & Poor’s Ratings Service published an unprecedented and very public downgrading of credit worthiness of the U.S. to handle its debt. First time in its history. It did so because, as S&P credit analyst Nikola Swann wrote, “We see the path to agreement (to a solution) as challenging because the gap between the parties remains wide.” Further, the U.S. government is in danger of losing its top ranking being restored if it doesn’t come up with a credible plan for reducing that debt. Soon.

Within minutes of release of that document, every open stock market in the world dropped straight down. A lot! Those of us with retirement plans invested in those markets lost, too. Double digits.

The warning voices of we little people out here in the wilderness don’t carry very far. But a Standard & Poor’s rating, sounding the same warning, is a voice heard ‘round the world. Professional investors and managers of international economic resources hear that one loud and clear. The folks at S&P are very aware of that and of the likely reaction in those world markets. You can bet the subject of issuing such a public warning was hotly debated before it was done.

Included in the document – but seemingly lost in the headlines – was another economic and political comment of note. Britain, France and Germany were singled out for S&P praise for moving much more quickly and forcefully to get back on solid ground – beginning three years ago! Each country was facing the same dismal debt situation but stepped up to the plate and did what had to be done. Quickly.

The U.S., alone, is mired in a polarized morass of political stubbornness with both sides content to watch the fires grow. Even after the report’s release, House Republican leaders said there would be no approval of an increase in the nation’s debt ceiling without billions more cut from the current budget. A budget which, by the way, has only five months left in the fiscal year to make such reductions.

If the S&P warning caused such market trembling, what do you suppose the effect will be if efforts to increase the debt ceiling fail?

The folks at Standard and Poor’s took this drastic action not because of the size of the debt or that it can’t be handled. No, they did what they did because – for two years now – nothing has been done to handle it! And they don’t see any light on the political horizon to tell them it’s going to be done any time soon.

Somebody has got to take the legislative and executive branches of our government to the woodshed. Anyone who’s ever created a family budget knows you can’t cut your way out of debt and you can’t spend your way out of debt. Those are the two basic sticking points of our current national crisis. That same financially responsible citizen also knows if you’ve taken a path of action in the past that didn’t work – simply spending or simply cutting – you don’t do it again.

The S&P move should be considered a warning shot across the bow of the ship of state. It should not be ignored. World markets are very responsive to such economic professionals. They have to be. The message is simple. Very simple. ACT NOW!

The budget proposal floated by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) is getting kicked from pillar to post on Capitol Hill as always happens when someone commits a controversial subject to paper. He’s earned some criticism but also a bit of credit

While I’ll admit to not having read the whole thing, I’ve looked at parts that are getting the most attention: mostly expenditures affecting individuals, of which he included many. But defense spending I couldn’t find because he’s ignored the subject; proposed tax increases or elimination of some of the current exemptions which were not in my copy. It’s hard to discuss what isn’t there except to say that, before any real budget is laid on the table for serious discussion, cuts in defense will have to be included. Must be included. Tax exemptions and targeted increases, too.

The place where Ryan is taking the most well-deserved hits is in his plan for Medicare. Basically, he wants to increase age qualification by the year 2022- which needs to be done despite the AARP. Where he’s deviated from real life is to stop open-ended federal payments for medical procedures and create a direct government subsidy for seniors to buy health insurance. This assumes, of course, that any insurance company around will sell a policy to an 80-year-old guy who has had three heart attacks, got a kidney transplant in his 40’s and who is a cancer survivor. Surely some company will step forward. Yeah, you bet.

He would require insurers in a “Medicare Exchange” program for seniors to take all applicants with no cherry picking of only the healthiest. Take all comers. Except he’s put in some “trap doors” through which you could drive an insurer’s Hummer.

Ryan claims savings in Medicare spending of $285 billion yearly by 2030. I don’t know if he really means that in his heart because such numbers are contingent on all conditions staying pretty much constant. And they don’t.

Whether his figures hold up to scrutiny by impartial eyes is a matter for more qualified observers than me. Ryan, at this point, should get some credit for being the first politician to put hard numbers to paper and producing a document that covers a lot of budgetary ground. It will become hamburger in the grist mill of Congress and whatever budget is produced – whenever it’s produced – will likely look a lot different. But he’s started something.

As a fixed income senior – and a Medicare participant – talk of changing what personal experience tells me is a well-run program increases my heart beat. As we’ve aged in our household, it’s become a more important part of our lives. But the plain fact is it needs an administrative tuneup. It really hasn’t had one since the late ‘60’s when it started. Times – and we – have changed.

One important consideration should be “means testing.” That’s shorthand for adjusting the benefit to an individual’s income. If you make more like Warren Buffett and his billions, your Medicare buy-in should be higher – if at all. If you have less billions – like us – the buy-in should be lower – if any. If Ryan’s idea of having both the Buffett’s and the Rainey’s buy into a private Medicare insurance program with that buy-in adjusted for their respective incomes is adopted, that’s fine. “Them what has” don’t need as much federal help as “them what hasn’t.”

When Medicare was created 45 or so years ago, American’s were living just short of 70 on average. Now that average is in the 80’s. So maybe entry into Medicare slides up gradually until the year 2030. Month or so each year until then.

Whatever happens to Ryan’s stack of paperwork, he deserves some credit for creating it. Medicare has always been considered a sacred cow and politicians that messed with it in any way were pilloried by seniors and their representatives. We can’t afford to continue doing that. The program DOES need changes. Responsible changes. Done with a scalpel but not an axe!

There are many other budgetary land mines in the document. They’ll be found. And while the issue of reducing defense spending is not in there, it definitely must be. Taxes, too.

It’ll take those with serious minds some time to read the entirety of Ryan’s work to find all they’re looking for. But for the carpers and the simple-minded – of which we have far too many in Congress – the hip shooting has already begun.

There is no more important political issue in this country, at the moment, than the national debt and the interest thereon. From the Buffetts of the world to the homeless of the world, each of us is affected.

Congress has far too many shallow thinkers and ideologues who lack the ability to do what Ryan has done – much less understand it. His ideas – bad as some of them are – must be given a fair hearing. Theirs should not.

There are three names in the daily news I would like to see banished; Lindsey Lohan, Charlie Sheen and Tea Party. The first two I’d get rid of because their disintegrating lives deserve the utmost privacy and their certain end is none of our business. At least not in running commentary.

As for the T-P, it has passed its usefulness and no longer describes the group of vocal separatists that it once did. Tea Party does not appear on any state’s election ballot. It’s not a registered third political party. It’s no longer an entity unto itself – if it ever was. It is the Republican Party in both tone and reality. Despite all the media coverage and noise, it is no longer a legal or definable separate entity.

I don’t mean to denigrate the T-P for being Republican. There are some well-grounded, sincere and thoughtful people who have become involved for what they consider good and proper reasons. That’s a fact. It’s my personal belief those more thoughtful participants will eventually figure out they’re being used and return to reality.

But, there are some mean-spirited, self-interested billionaires behind the noise and some equally less-than-honest people working in its hierarchy. And there are some lifelong malcontents and fringe-thinking people who’ve been drawn to it. Those, too, are facts.

Some 60-80 members of Congress elected in 2010 call themselves “Tea Partiers.” Aside from the inexperience-at-the-top-of-their-voices many have displayed, there were already plenty of folks in Congress louder and crazier than some of the new bunch. Ol’ Louis Ghomert of Texas makes my case. There are others.

But on the roster of congressional membership, and in all other ways political, these T-P types are Republicans. There is no Tea Party in Congress despite the intellectually and factually-challenged Michelle Bachmann’s efforts to make it so. Just two parties. Not three.

What has disappointed me in these first few months of the current session is the willingness of experienced Republican leadership to pay so much attention to the new people. Granted, they may – or may not – represent a snapshot of the mood of the electorate several months ago. But, even so, incoming freshmen in almost any civilized group are usually given the rule book, told to read it, and assigned to the back row – and silence – until they mature. For many good reasons.

Not this bunch. They want change and they want it now! Discordant voices of people who’ve never read a federal budget – much less created one – are being paid too much attention. Most have no idea of how our government’s interconnectedness with other world economies often dictates our own spending. Rather than acknowledging the “ship-of-state” is large and requires a great deal of time to maneuver, they’re treating it as a row boat that can quickly change directions. It can’t. Their efforts to do so can create great damage if they prevail.

Happy with the current congress? No! And I’ve said so many times in boldface type with very large letters. We’ve got intellectual and political gridlock of the first order. Self-interest on a massive scale. And a bunch of folks that don’t know the difference between a political campaign and being a member of congress when that campaign is over.

But heavy-handed and attempted quick manipulation of the levers of government can create still more problems – worse problems. The idea that people who’ve never flown before can pilot an aircraft in trouble is fodder for the movies. Not real life.

The late Idaho Gov. Robert Smylie told me a long time ago “There’s a reason why every law is on the books. Somebody wanted it and worked to see it get there.” He was absolutely right. Every law is the result of someone’s hard work or a perceived need that had to be met. Every one. Good ones and bad ones.

Before this discordant and largely politically-challenged bunch is paid a lot more attention – and before there’s any wholesale cutting of this and that – each item on the chopping block needs to be examined. Very carefully. Each must be reviewed to determine if the need, the constituency, the reason for its existence, are still valid and necessary. Putting an axe in the hands of ideologues with no broad view of the needs of everyone in this country can create lasting problems. Even some of life and death.

Maybe someday there will be a valid reason for a third political party in the good old U.S. of A. Maybe sooner than later. But, for better or worse, we now have only two. Whatever force got these new, loud and often grating voices to Washington, it needs to be dissolved – forgotten. There are Democrats. There are Republicans. There is no Tea Party.

The longer this fallacy of subdivision within the Republican Party is allowed to fester, the more the present stalemate will worsen. And we can’t afford that.

Lest you think we media opinion types make up all this stuff about Republicans in Congress further dividing our society by giving more to the “haves” and taking away from the “have nots,” you need look no further than the federal budget prototype introduced by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI).

Ryan chairs the House Budget Subcommittee. While presidential budgets proposals are normally dismissed out of hand, the one that comes out of the House Budget group normally gets more discussion.

Ryan’s claim is – and I’ll leave it to you to determine how much validity it has – his version would save $4 trillion over 10 years. I put no trust in that number – by Ryan or anyone else – because our economy and world conditions affecting that economy change so drastically, so rapidly and for so many different reasons, any long term prediction is a leaf in the wind. Besides, for this discussion, it doesn’t matter.

To pull apart and analyze such a document would take far more space – and wonkish political interest – than we have here. For the purposes of supporting my premise about the “haves” and the have nots” we need only look at two items. Health care and the military.

Here is the stark reality. While Medicare and Medicaid could stand some restructuring, Ryan proposes cutting both while not diminishing the Pentagon budget by a single dime! Not one! You can’t get much “starker” than that.

Poll after poll after poll after poll dealing with Medicare/Medicaid show the same outcome: 60-80% or more of Americans want no reductions in those areas. Changes? Maybe. Reductions? No! That’s largely because those dollars are more than budget numbers. They’re directly linked to millions of individuals in this country who would be adversely affected – in some cases by very human issues of deprivation and death. Most of us – regardless of political inclinations or party – feel strongly about these two programs which deal with basic human needs. Redesign? Certainly. Means test? You bet. Cut? No.

The Pentagon is entirely a different matter. The same kind of repeated polling finds most of us – including many in the military and some at the top of the Pentagon itself – believe cuts can and should be made in defense spending. Recently, Defense Secretary Gates and other top brass lobbied Congress to cut several billions of dollars in unnecessary and unwanted military toys. They lost. As they have before.

The reason Congress prevailed has nothing to do with wisdom or value of the systems. It was simply political butt-saving. Some members of both parties – including House Republican leadership – have large companies in their home districts making those unwanted items and they aren’t going to risk upsetting the folks at home. My guess is they could be upsetting more voters at home by continuing to throw money down the unwanted and unnecessary weapons rat hole instead of listening to the professionals.

So, Ryan’s budget blatantly takes from the “have nots” and gives to the “haves.” There are many other examples of doing the same thing. Those old tax breaks, you know. Lots of ‘em. Business, of course. So, all the political posturing and blame-baiting will keep Congress from any progress on the debt unless – and until – three things happen.

First, stop talking “cuts” to re-balance any future budget. You cannot “cut” your way to a healthy economy. At great pain to a lot of innocent people, you may stem the bleeding but you won’t get out of the hole. Take a year or two or three to build a new, baseline budget. Examine every item for necessity and legitimacy. Justify every expense. Budget for today’s spending. Stop patching the old one to “make do.”

Second, increase revenue to pay the bills. The only way to do that, without inflicting great pain on the “have nots,” is to go back to the drawing board and redesign how taxes are collected, from whom, how much, on what and who isn’t paying. Multi-national corporations, for example, are avoiding taxes by utilizing loopholes in the current tax code. Those loopholes need to be plugged and all of us – corporations as well as individuals – need to share the load proportionally. There is no other, fairer way. Means test what comes in. Means test what goes out. Again, tax and collect for today’s world and stop simply doing “business as usual.”

Third, bring our military home from two wars of lost cause because those wars are political extravagances we can not afford. With no end in sight – and certainly no victory – they have drained, and will continue to drain, our resources of lives and dollars desperately needed at home.

While it would be easy to say Ryan’s budget ideas should be rejected out-of-hand, it would be wrong. It’s a place to start. But open, reasoned minds need to examine every line with some rational thought about what effect it will have on all of us. Especially the weakest of us.

Congress has no higher responsibility than to assure government’s presence in our lives is minimal and necessary. And when it is, fair. Fair to the “haves.” Fair to the “have nots.” One reason many in Washington have forgotten that is because too many of them “have” so much.

There was a time in life when I thought about a career in some sort of public service. But we had a war in Korea so I joined the military and put the public service idea on the back burner. Somehow, life went on after my hitch and I never got back to it.

What brings that memory to mind, at the moment, is the outrageous and deliberate attempt by mostly Republican office holders in several states and Congress to try to demonize public servants. Teachers, fire fighters, police, garbage collectors, office workers and just about anyone else who toils for the taxpayer – especially in state and local levels of government.

When did these folks – a lot of ‘em highly educated professionals who could do better for themselves in some other line of work – become the enemy? When did my granddaughter’s eighth grade teacher go bad? And my friend, the fire captain. What did he suddenly do to earn such legislative animosity?

What we’ve seen in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Maine and a few other states, is a direct attack on the professional rights of those in public service to enjoy collective bargaining and the ability – through association – to try to protect and improve their lot in life. It’s not a money issue. It’s a professional rights issue!

I’m neither pro nor anti-union. That’s another topic for another time. Fact is, what’s behind this scurrilous public flogging is another story, entirely divorced from public service. It’s been a flat-out – and thus far successful – misdirection drive to take away the right to bargain or other collective association. That’s wrong!

We’re being fed a barrage of trumped up and entirely phony messages that teachers are in it for the money and not for our children; that police and fire personnel are more interested in feathering their economic interests than protecting life and property; that garbage workers – through their unions – have emptied the taxpayer’s pocket and are being paid too much.

Because of others excellent research and good reporting, it’s no mystery where this crap is coming from and who’s paying for it. Much of the money – hundreds of millions of dollars of it – comes from the Koch brothers of mining and chemical producing fame. Through dummy “public” fronts, they and some of their billionaire friends have become the deep pockets for all things right wing and anti-union. And mostly phony. They’ve created shell “associations” with high sounding names like “Americans for Freedom and Justice.” But research regarding membership and who pays the bills has found, in some cases, only a single contact person hired by the Kochs, with a mailing address in one of their companies.

This fraudulent political prostitution is part and parcel of the tragic decision by the U.S. Supreme Court granting the individual right of free speech to corporations. We’ve had one election cycle since the “activist” conservative side of the Court prevailed on that one and already Americans have lost much of what little control they’re otherwise guaranteed in the election process. The price tag for politicians who will sell themselves to the highest bidder in their attempts at self-preservation has gone up. Way up! Anonymously. And legally. Far beyond the ability of citizens to individually compete.

National – and some state – politics have gone from an open process, with constitutional rights of participation by the electorate, to a meat market where only corporate “individuals” can afford to play. If a corporation – or as in this case, the Koch brothers – finds a willing politician who’ll vote the corporate line, no individual and no group of individuals can prevail. If the Kochs say unions are bad, guess who’ll get rid of them? The whore with the vote.

If you think the legal and anonymous pile of money was large in the last election, as Mr. Jolson said, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

This nation is beset with more major problems at the moment than any single time in my life. Many of them – undeclared and losing wars, a national debt we can’t even pay the interest on, dozens of elected incompetents who have no idea how government operates – are the result of too much money having a cancerous effect on the rights of the electorate. Even an informed electorate. We no longer control our political affairs or destiny because of a Supreme Court decision that says you and General Motors have the same rights of citizenship. But, in reality, because of outsized corporate economics, your rights are being abridged.

In 1954, Pres. Eisenhower rightfully warned us all of the military-industrial complex, of its excessive power and resources, of its ability to work against America’s interests if in the wrong hands. He just never thought to look East, up Constitution Avenue, to warn us of the Supreme Court for the same reasons.

Many years ago, when I was growing up in Bend, Oregon, we had a community “character” as did many small towns. Probably in her 60’s and always in a long dress, she wore a large scarf around her neck – no matter the weather – with a flowered hat and veil atop her piled up hair. Always the same. In our ignorance, most everyone referred to her as Crazy Alice.

Aside from her daily sameness of dress, she was noticed by everyone because she always curtsied when passing Bend City Hall or the Deschutes County Courthouse. Did the same with fire hydrants along Bond and Wall Streets. And mailboxes. And the new fangled parking meters that were appearing. Always. Never saw her miss.

When I interviewed her for the high school paper, she said her reason for the curtsies and an occasional bow was because she “respected government as everyone should.” The buildings, the fire plugs and the parking meters were all government property; symbols that, to Alice, deserved to be recognized. And respected.

Though never having bowed or curtsied to taxpayer-owned real estate or implements like Alice, I’ve always felt things governmental should be respected. Later, as a veteran, that respect was coupled with patriotism in a more adult sense. I often thought of Alice as I matured and she didn’t seem so “crazy.”

There are many useful and important words missing from our political world today. Words like respect, compromise, getting along, comity, “meet you halfway,” cordiality, friendship, agreement, bipartisanship, together, etc. As you read and hear of our politics, those words aren’t used. Except, maybe in Oregon’s current legislative session where a 30-30 membership in the House appears to be trying hard to stay away from those angry adjectives. Fragile peace? Yep, though at the moment, it’s holding. But across the rest of the nation, respect just doesn’t fit in the dialogue.

This week, I was behind an older Dodge pickup, waiting for the light to turn green. On both sides of the back bumper were stickers that said “Sarah Palin, 2012, You Betcha’.” Between those two, was another, larger one. It said “Hey, liberal scumbag! Why don’t you try rooting for America for a change?”

Now, to me, those sentiments sort of foreclosed any opportunity the driver of that pickup and I would have a conversation. About anything. I certainly know his sentiments. But he certainly doesn’t know yours or mine. Because he doesn’t want to. Not important to him.

While not as blatant – or publically crass – that sort of in-your-face attitude permeates our political world these days. It’s probably best represented by some of the people in Congress who call themselves members of the ethereal Tea Party. Not all. But by far too many. In their ignorance of how our government works, they’ve staked out a position of “my-way-or-the-highway.” Compromise is not in them. Neither are comity, agreement, working together or any of the other adjectives listed above. One way. My way. Like the pickup driver.

Last week, House GOP Leader Eric Cantor came awfully close to emulating the guy in that pickup. Cantor is not new to Congress so his arrogance had to be deliberate.

He announced to the media the House would be voting on an as yet un-introduced bill to stop any shutdown of the federal government. By law. Further, with his majority, it would pass and it would become law at that time. Reminded by some in the media that the Senate has to agree and the President has to sign any legislation before it can become law, Cantor ignored those voices, saying “It will happen.”

Those voices were right and Cantor was dead wrong. Days later, the bill came up, and while a dozen Republicans were smarter than Cantor and voted “no,” it passed and Cantor reiterated his “now it is law” claim on national TV. He “doubled down” as they say. Wrong twice!
The bill will go nowhere.

There is so much of this verbal cancer in Congress that it has become – and will continue to be – inoperative. It is an impediment to effective governance as it ignores a national debt that’s eating us alive while the last election’s “job promisers” waste valuable time on abortion, union busting, publically embarrassing racist hearings and obstructionist tactics.

The current congress will end, nearly two years from now, as ineffective – or worse- than it is today. Like Cantor and that pickup driver, too many members have put their philosophy on display to such a degree that those who see things differently have no chance of connecting.

I’m glad Alice can’t read this. It’s not the government she respected so deeply. Mine, either.

At my age, when I hear the words “stress test,” they’re normally coming from my very competent physician and friend. I had never known of the term being applied to state and county governments until an Associated Press story with that information hit my desk.

AP conducts this monthly examination using a score from one to 100 as it compiles unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy rates. Lower numbers are good; higher are bad. The average across the country is 11.2 with any government entity scoring higher considered “stressed.” F-Y-I: there are 3,141 counties in the U.S.

In some ways, it’s like my doctor’s stress test. Both tests use a number to measure pressures being felt; one on my body; one on the body politic. Higher numbers aren’t good in either case.

The first statistic that jumped out was this: of the 20 worst economically stressed counties in the whole nation, 14 of them are in California. Fourteen of 20! Of the six remaining, three are in Nevada, one each in Arizona and New Mexico, with the only other top 20 badly stressed county in Missouri. All in the far West except one!

The most stressed counties had high concentrations of unemployment in utilities, construction and real estate. Can anyone say “terrible housing market?” If there’s any good news for those states, it’s that all but Arizona rank healthier than a year ago.

So, if those are the worst, where are the 20 least stressed; the places where things are going much better? Well, Nebraska with six counties, North Dakota four, Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota with two each, and Wyoming, Texas, Virginia and Vermont one each.

Interesting. Most stressed: 19 of 20 in the far West. Least stressed, 18 of 20 in the Midwest.

AP didn’t say so but I’d guess, with the least stressed counties being mostly in mid-America, it’s somewhat tied to picking up a lot of the out-migration folks from the East and Northeast. At the same time, the most stressed counties seem to be largely those that were smokin’ with large census gains just a few years ago before things cooled off. Now they’re seeing very high vacant and foreclosed housing numbers in those states that could indicate fallout of a lot of folks who moved West when times were better.

If a score of 11 is sort of the breakpoint, what does it say about Nevada with the worst number: 21.41? Nevada topped all three rated categories of unemployment, foreclosure and bankruptcy.

One unusual bright spot: Osceola County, Florida, had almost as bad a stress number as Nevada a year ago. But, since then, a Harry Potter attraction opened at Universal Orlando and the stress factor dropped into the normal zone. Just that one thing.

This AP survey was done in January. So it’s a snapshot of conditions at that time. The crucial thing to watch in the next several months is if counties with the worst stress numbers go even higher as legislatures begin to cut deeply into state funding going down the food chain. And if Congress ever gets its act together, what will the expected loss of federal dollars do to the upward stress pressures? Eighteen counties in Oregon alone are hanging on by their fingernails to see if federal safety net funding continues, even at a reduced level.

As a region, Northwest states came in about midrange. Not too high; not too low. Our neighborhood has some bright spots in the rated categories even though pockets of high unemployment skewed things a bit higher. Just as the nation’s economic problems began piling up slowly around here, so, too, will improvements lag a bit. And the stress level will recede slowly.

So there you are. A fiscal stress test for the states. And their 3,141 counties. My guess is if you asked your friendly neighborhood county commissioner, his/her stress level is higher, too.