Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hey, Congress: First, do no harm -- Feb. 21, 2013 column


A Wal-Mart executive complained that February sales were “a total disaster.”

His email leaked and naturally made news. We rarely sniff panic from the world’s largest retailer.

The fact that Wal-Mart shoppers were staying home, though, was hardly surprising.

On Jan. 1, Congress and the White House raised the payroll tax 2 percentage points -- from 4.2 percent to 6.2 percent – for every working American. A family earning $50,000 will have a thousand dollars less to spend this year.
A thousand dollars may sound like zip when some Americans can afford to spend $100,000 on a closet -- not on the clothes in the closet, mind you, but on the spacious and fancy dressing room where they armor-up to meet the day.
“These days the cost of a closet can rival or surpass that of the kitchen,” the Wall Street Journal cheerfully advised.
Talk about parallel universes. For most Americans, confidence in the economy has slipped. We’re  worried about higher gas prices. Gas rose 45 cents on average in 31 days, the fastest climb since 2005.

We still have 12.3 million people officially unemployed, and 46.2 million of us live in poverty. The poverty rate for children under 18 is about 22 percent.

But other Americans, a fortunate few, have disposable income such that they can drop $100,000 to $250,000 on a closet.

While Wal-Mart sales are down this month, high-end retailers have been on a roll, reporting huge gains in sales. 
And we’re worried about higher taxes on the very rich? Really?

The country’s richest citizens, the Forbes 400, are worth an astonishing $1.7 trillion, the most ever.  Income inequality has been growing by leaps and bounds.

In the past, the very mention of income inequality provoked Republican wrath and charges of class warfare. Fortunately, Warren Buffett has changed that.   

“In recent years, my gang has been leaving the middle class in the dust,” the sage of Omaha wrote in a New York Times op-ed last November.

President Barack Obama declared in his inaugural address last month that “our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.” He has proposed a hike in the minimum wage, which Republicans are expected to kill.

It’s too bad that “first, do no harm,” the pillar of medical ethics, doesn’t apply to our elected officials in Washington.

While Congress enjoyed an extended Presidents Day vacation, political leaders played a game of chicken with the looming sequestration spending cuts. Many economists warn that if those across-the-board cuts take effect March 1, they will usher in another recession.

When the president arrayed blue-uniformed emergency medical workers behind him on Tuesday to warn of impending job losses should Republicans fail to negotiate on a deal, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed it as a campaign stunt. 

House Speaker John Boehner took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal  Wednesday to warn that the sequester threatens national security and thousands of jobs – and to lay blame at the president’s feet. Both Boehner and McConnell gigged Obama for wasteful federal spending.
 “No one should be talking about raising taxes when the government is still paying people to play videogames, giving folks free cell phones and buying $47,000 cigarette-smoking machines,” Boehner wrote.

I looked into Boehner’s claims. The Energy Department did pay 13 workers at a company in Michigan who played video games and otherwise goofed off when they should have been working. I’m shocked, shocked that this could happen in an American workplace. 
The government started providing discounted phone service to poor people in 1985. Cell phones were added under President George W. Bush. As for the cigarette-smoking machine, Veterans Affairs recently approved such a contract for research into the health effects of smoking in lab mice. 

Nobody likes government waste, but taken together all three projects represent such a miniscule amount that they hardly should be allowed to hold the entire nation hostage. 
Washington needs to find a way to keep the economy afloat. If a few can build $100,000 closets, most should be able to shop at Wal-Mart.

© 2013 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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