Thursday, September 29, 2011

Book festival wastes taxpayer money? Not! -- Sept. 29, 2011 column


About 200,000 people thronged the National Mall last weekend -- not for war protests or to demonstrate against Congress or the president. They came to celebrate books.

In this time of dwindling bookstores, surging e-book sales and ever more virtual commerce and remote companionship, the 11th annual National Book Festival brought together more than a hundred authors, swarms of readers and stacks of old-fashioned books in print.

The festival, started by Laura Bush as first lady, is free, and generations of families showed up for readings, book signings and children’s programs. Among the preeminent writers on several stages -- Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, historian David McCullough, biographer Edmund Morris, humorist Garrison Keillor, poet Rita Dove, children’s author Katherine Paterson, and memoirist Dave Eggers.

I listened to a few authors talk about their work, wandered through a tent where state libraries gave out flyers on intriguing state and regional book festivals and state maps. I browsed the book tent and bought two and then stood in a long line to get one signed. There’s something you can’t do with a Kindle, I gloated. (Later I watched a YouTube video on how an author could digitally “sign” an e-book. Complicated is an understatement.)

It was heartening to see so many people enjoying themselves with books, but something nagged at me. How much was this feel-good event costing taxpayers? Could it be perceived as, horrors, a waste of money? Would the long knives of congressional budget-cutters slice out its heart?

Stan Collender, who has worked for both the House and Senate budget committees and is the author of a book on the federal budget process, raised questions about the festival on his blog on the Capitol Gains and Games website.

“It might be possible to achieve better results at a lower cost if the government distributed vouchers all over the country and let people get books from local stores,” Collender wrote after the festival a couple of years ago.

“Some might consider the program to be a waste because it directly benefits only a relatively small number of people and is held in only one city. Others might believe it’s a waste because they don’t think it’s the federal government’s job to promote reading over, say, movie watching. Some might think it is waste because they don’t like the authors whose books are featured or because the language in their books offends them,” he wrote.

Whoa. Don’t tell the tea party.

Me, I’m a soft touch for books and reading. Not only do I think the festival is not a waste, I’m fully prepared to argue that it’s money well spent. OK, it’s not as important as National Institutes of Health researchers’ searching for a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s, but it’s definitely worthwhile. The government should encourage literacy. How else will we compete in a global economy?

I’d read about the festival’s deep-pocketed corporate sponsors, including Target, Wells Fargo, AT&T and the Washington Post. In 2010, David M. Rubenstein, cofounder of the Carlyle Group, a global private equity fund, announced a $5 million gift over five years. But was it enough?

I called Jennifer Gavin, acting director of communications for the Library of Congress and the project manager of the festival.

The festival is estimated cost $2.2 million this year, she told me, and there’s good news.

“We aren’t financing this with taxpayer dollars. It’s financed through private donations.” Gavin said.

None of the corporate sponsors get in the door for less than $30,000. This year, Rubenstein offered to spring for another $300,000 above his announced gift so that the festival could expand from one to two glorious days.

A few Library of Congress employees – about 20 -- devote about 15 percent of their time overall to the festival, Gavin said. Other than that, it’s paid for with donations. That’s a relief.

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington thanked the corporate sponsors, supporters and more than 1,100 volunteers at this year’s festival. Because of them, he said, “We can look forward to this beloved celebration of reading and literacy for years to come.”

See you there next year?

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Math is scarier than class warfare -- Sept. 22, 2011 column


Feisty Barack Obama tried to bluster his way to Democrats’ good graces by confronting the Republican whine about class warfare.

“This is not class warfare,” the president lectured Monday in the Rose Garden. “It’s math.”

Rather than blaming the rich, Obama argued for fairness in a tax system that lacks it. Most people approve of higher taxes for the wealthy, and they’re fine with corporations paying more, polls show.

Political campaigns are about contrasts. After capitulating to congressional Republicans after the 2010 election, Obama has turned toward his liberal roots.

Conservative Republicans meanwhile are doing their own math. Playing to tea party anger and alienation, Republicans propose to slash and burn federal programs they never liked while cutting taxes for “job creators.”

We have plenty of time to weigh these competing visions before November 2012. My guess is that despite the evidence of rising inequality, most Americans still want to believe we’re a small-d democratic, open, optimistic society. They’re deeply unhappy with the country’s direction but hope government can work again.

It’s worth remembering that the last two winning presidential contenders did so with pledges to bring the country together. As president, Obama and George W. (“uniter, not a divider”) Bush demonstrated how difficult it is to deliver on the promise.

Republicans like to say liberal Democrats are forever fomenting class warfare, but Democrats did learn something from the wretched John Edwards. Long before his personal and professional life imploded in scandal and federal court, Edwards proved that pitting the haves against the have-nots is dumb politics.

Edwards during the 2004 Democratic primaries presented a sharp view of “two Americas…one privileged, the other burdened…one America that does the work, another that reaps the reward. One America that pays the taxes, another America that gets the tax breaks.”

The Democrats rejected Edwards’ glass-half-empty populism, although the patrician John Kerry then picked him as his running mate.

Obama specifically shielded the poor and middle class in his proposal to tame the federal deficit through $4 trillion in cuts and revenues over 10 years. It’s about math, yes, and it’s also about choosing which services should be cut and whose taxes should be raised.

Republicans who cry class warfare don’t see their own choice to favor the rich with tax breaks as a form of class warfare.

Nobody wants to be one of the chumps Leona Helmsley disparaged in her famous remark that “only the little people pay taxes.” Even big people sometimes do go to jail for tax evasion, she learned.

Obama used the bully pulpit to float the principle that billionaire investor Warren Buffett and his kind should pay more in taxes than their secretaries – a no-brainer – but, disappointingly, the president didn’t send Congress a plan for accomplishing the goal.

Timothy Geithner, the Treasury secretary, told reporters, “Now there are lots of different ways to achieve that principle. We’re not going to give the Congress a detailed proposal for how to meet that specific principle now because there’s lots of different ways to do that.”

Meanwhile, Republican presidential candidates are working the other side of the street. They are making political hay of the 46 percent of people who didn’t pay any income taxes at all this year.

What Republicans don’t explain is that two-thirds of people who pay no income tax do pay the payroll tax for Social Security and Medicare. Only about 18 percent pay neither income nor payroll taxes. Of these, more than half are elderly and more than one third are non-elderly with incomes under $20,000, according to the Tax Policy Center, which is run by two Washington think tanks, the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution.

And even the poorest of the poor pay state and local sales taxes.

The American dream holds that anyone who works hard can climb the ladder and become rich. People who see themselves on the ladder are more agreeable to tax breaks for the wealthy.

These days, though, the poor and the middle class are losing ground. One in six Americans – 46.2 million -- live below the poverty line, the most since 1993. Almost 50 million Americans lack health insurance.

Americans also lack confidence that wealth is in their future. About eight in 10 people surveyed last month said it was unlikely their net worth would reach a million dollars in the next 10 years. Only one in five surveyed thought it was likely, the Associated Press-CNBC poll reported.

That math should trouble politicians of both parties.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Why 'Buy American' isn't the answer -- Sept. 15, 2011 column


I snagged a patriotic, giveaway T-shirt at a Washington Nationals baseball game the other day. Stars and stripes decorated the team’s curly W logo, but the tag inside said “Made in Mexico.”

Visiting Ocracoke, N.C., this summer, I stopped by a National Park Service shop and got a souvenir shirt -- made in India. The flagpole I bought at the neighborhood hardware store so I could fly Old Glory outside my house? It was from China.

Like most people, I’d rather buy American, and I’m willing to pay a little more for the privilege. Reports say if each American spent an additional $64 a year on American-made goods, we could create 200,000 new jobs. That sounds good, if the jobs are decent. I’m inclined to let China keep the crummy ones and for us to create jobs with a future.

Politicians tend to go for the easy fix. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, shopping at a Smithsonian Institution museum shop last year, was distressed to find miniature busts of the Founding Fathers and other trinkets made in China. He pressured the Smithsonian to sell more items made in the USA.

In June, the Museum of American History opened The Price of Freedom shop on the third floor. The shop’s name isn’t a snide comment about higher prices, although American-made coffee mugs cost about $20 each, compared with $10 to $12 for mugs made overseas, a museum spokeswoman told USA Today. “The Price of Freedom” is the name of a nearby exhibit.

In July, the Senate passed a measure requiring that all American flags purchased by the federal government be entirely American-made. Previously, flags with 50 percent foreign content were OK. The House likely will wave the flag bill through this fall.

Such moves are dandy symbolism, and they play well politically. When President Barack Obama hit the road this week to sell his $447 billion package to create jobs, he made restoring the nation’s manufacturing base sound simple.

“We’ve got to start manufacturing. We’ve got to sell more goods around the world that are stamped with three proud words – “Made in America,” the president told a cheering crowd in Columbus, Ohio.

Applause greeted a similar Obama line in Raleigh, N.C., the next day. “We’ve got to start manufacturing and selling more goods around the world stamped with three proud words: “Made in America. Made in North Carolina. Made in Raleigh,” he said.

But a Buy American provision in Obama’s bill has ruffled relations with Canada.
Obama’s American Jobs Act would require that only iron, steel and manufactured goods produced in America be used for public buildings and public works. More than $100 billion could be made available for projects renovating schools and building roads and bridges and other transit projects.

The Buy American rule seems sensible, considering that the bill’s purpose is to create American jobs.

Unacceptable, says Canada’s trade minister. Canada plans to fight, as it did a similar provision in the 2009 economic stimulus act. Canada won an exemption that time.

A nationalist group called the Council of Canadians is calling for a “Buy Canadian” movement to freeze out American firms, the Toronto Sun reported.

In Washington, the unfolding Solyndra scandal comes at the worst possible time for a president trying to pry funding from a reluctant Congress.

The FBI launched a criminal investigation and Congress held hearings about the bankruptcy of Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar-panel manufacturer that received a $527 million federal loan guarantee as part of the 2009 stimulus package. When it shut down, the company laid off about 1,100 workers.

Congressional Republicans charge that the administration hurried the Solyndra loan guarantee so it could show that the stimulus worked in creating jobs. The administration denies it rushed and insists that the 2009 stimulus package is helping create a viable American solar industry.

Solyndra was the third American solar company to declare bankruptcy in the last few weeks. Corporate executives and federal officials blame China’s aggressive efforts to dominate the solar industry. China reportedly has plowed $30 billion into solar subsidies in the last year and is flooding the market with cheap solar cells.

Too bad the Smithsonian stopped buying those trinkets. China will never give up on that solar thing now.

(c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Judge voids military pension buyout scheme -- AARP Bulletin

Military retirees should think twice before getting involved in pension buyout plans.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Four more years? Not exactly -- Sept. 8, 2011 column


There’s no way around it. The chants of “Four more years! Four more years!” at President Barack Obama’s Labor Day rally in Detroit were unsettling.

Obama grinned as the cheers erupted, but he’d have to be delusional to think people really want to stay on the current path for four, or any, more years. And that presents a challenge for his re-election. A president always runs on his record, and his report card shows he needs improvement.

“Four more years!” also inevitably evokes a period in American history most Democrats, indeed most Americans, would rather forget. It was Richard Nixon’s rallying cry in his 1972 re-election campaign. After his landslide victory, he was gone in less than two years, swept out with the Watergate scandal.

And in case anyone is wondering, this also is no time for “Obama’s the one!” or for substituting jobs for peace in Henry Kissinger’s famous 1972 slogan, “peace is at hand.” The columnist Russell Baker observed wryly in the New York Times in June 1973 that “peace is at hand” meant, “as events demonstrated, `We will still be bombing them in the summer of ’73.’”

“Jobs now,” though, could work -- real jobs, that is, not just as a slogan.
Historians tell us no president since FDR has been re-elected with unemployment above 8 percent. Unemployment was 7.8 percent when Obama took office and held steady at 9.1 percent in August with 14 million Americans officially out of work.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts joblessness will remain above 8 percent until 2014. While there’s no science about 8 percent, Obama needs to be able to show improvement by Election Day.

Before his economic speech Thursday to a joint session of Congress, Obama’s job approval had sunk to the lowest levels of his presidency. Only about 40 percent of people approve of the way he’s handling his job. People are even more disgusted with Congress.

Obama’s decline has precipitated a wave of voters’ remorse and second-guessing. Hillary Clinton warned us, commentators say, as they dream of what might have been had she won.

I went back to re-read some of Clinton’s campaign criticisms of Obama, and they were eerily fresh and on point.

“It’s time we moved from good words to good works, from sound bites to sound solutions,” she declared in February 2008. People “need a president ready to manage our economy,” who’s “ready on Day One,” who won’t need “on-the-job training.”

Ah, but Clinton’s cogent arguments couldn’t hold a candle to Obama’s word castles.

Drew Westen, a psychology professor at Emory University and “messaging consultant” to Democrats, wrote in the Times magazine last month:

“Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted ‘present’ (instead of ‘yea’ or ‘nay’) 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues.”

Voters hoped that Obama would use his gift for words to turn the country around.That may have been na├»ve. In any case, the country’s mood is bleaker than ever.

Still, Obama isn’t Jimmy Carter, whose job approval rating in September of his third year plummeted to 32 percent. And, anything can happen in the next 14 months. For one thing, congressional Republicans are making noises of cooperation. Then, too, the GOP could put up an extremist who is unacceptable to the independent voters who decide elections. Obama could yet be Bill Clinton who recovered handily from a job approval rating of 46 percent in September of his third year.

One could argue that nothing can prepare anyone for the challenges of the Oval Office. The president with extensive domestic experience gets hit with global crises, while the internationalist finds the country beset by domestic problems and natural disasters.

So, let’s stipulate that Hillary was right, and Obama arrived woefully unprepared. But she’s not running this time, and he’s neither delusional nor dumb.

After four years of trial by fire, he will know what he didn’t know then. Obama may be able to argue that it’s the Republican who will need on-the-job training, while the sitting president is ready for the next four years.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.