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Background Check Bill Highlights Need to End the Filibuster

I’ve long been a critic of the filibuster. The Senate’s rules that sixty percent of its members vote in favor of a measure is an onerous requirement for a democratic society accustomed to majority rule. Today, the chamber once again showed how ineffective it is at governing when a 55-45 majority voted in favor of expanded background checks. You read that correctly. Fifty-five senators voted “Yes” and the amendment still failed because of the archaic rules of the Senate.

United States Senate Chamber

The universal background check proposal negotiated between conservative Republican Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Blue Dog Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia was a watered-down amendment that would have required a background check for purchasers at gun shows and online. Previous proposals offered by Senator Chuck Schumer of New York would have also included private sales between friends, neighbors and family. The Toomey-Manchin amendment stripped this language to accommodate conservative senators.

The reason that the measure failed to reach the sixty vote threshold is clear: the NRA opposes any attempt to thwart gun purchases, even if it means allowing criminals and the mentally ill to purchase a gun. They continually lied about the bill in alarmist fashion, saying that it would lead to a gun registry and eventually to confiscation. Then they used threats against senators: a vote in favor of common sense background checks would be considered a vote against the Second Amendment, promising to unleash hordes of cash to defeat their re-election bids.

I’ve argued in the past that the filibuster is itself unconstitutional and should be abolished. The Constitution calls for a majority vote in the House and a majority vote in the Senate with the Vice President acting as the tiebreaker. The Vice President never needs to fulfill his role, however, because the rules of the Senate simply allow minority members to bottleneck any action with as few as 41 senators. This practice must end. Contact your senator and tell them that you support eliminating all filibusters. We cannot allow a small minority of extremists to grind our democracy to a halt.

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Posted In: Election 2012,Election 2014,Politics

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Obama Backstabs Seniors with Proposed Social Security Cuts

Voters who cast their ballot for Barack Obama in November have a right to be angry. After criticizing Mitt Romney as a “reverse Robin Hood” and deriding Paul Ryan’s budget plan as “social Darwinism” (a plan which would privatize Medicare, costing the average senior an extra $6,350 in out-of-pocket medical expenses), the president has proposed a “compromise” budget that would take the ax to Social Security.

“Disguised as [a] deficit reduction plan, it’s really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It’s nothing but thinly-veiled Social Darwinism. It’s antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who’s willing to work for it — a place where prosperity doesn’t trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that’s built to last — education and training; research and development — it’s a prescription for decline,” the president described Paul Ryan’s budget during the campaign.

Now the president takes his own swing at social Darwinism. Politicians in Washington have found a nice new term for cuts to Social Security. They call it “chained CPI“, which would reduce cost of living adjustments (COLA) to less than inflation. The chart below reflects different COLA projections: blue represents a more generous COLA for the elderly due to higher health costs, red is the current model, and green represents chained CPI.

The president pretended to be a defender of the poor and middle class in the campaign, declaring that “no current beneficiaries should see their basic benefits reduced” and “the administration will not accept an approach that slashes benefits for future generations.” Now that he has won re-election on a mandate to preserve both Social Security and Medicare, the president has reversed course and is looking to strike a “grand bargain” with Congressional Republicans on deficit reduction. The problem is that he plans on doing so not by addressing the main drivers of our deficit – the bloated military budget which is rapidly approaching an unsustainable trillion dollars a year or historically low tax rates – but instead by targeting the very program that defines the modern Democratic Party.

President Obama AARP

Forty-four percent of seniors would live in poverty if Social Security were not in existence today. It is a vital program for the well-being of this nation’s most vulnerable citizens. It has greatly reduced the incidences of homelessness and premature death.

Any tampering of the Social Security system should keep these facts at the forefront of discussion. But in Washington, the impact that cuts have is often one of the least concerns. Many politicians, especially on the right, see Social Security as just another line on the federal budget.

This is a problem for a number of reasons. Social Security is a program that is fully financed by beneficiaries. Social Security is a retirement insurance program that you pay into your entire life. It is a guaranteed benefit, a social contract that our government has had since the New Deal.

Second, a quick look at the budget will show that Social Security does not contribute to the budget deficit and has not for decades. In fact, the federal government has raided the Social Security Trust Fund to pay for things such as wars, tax cuts and stimulus measures. Amazingly, $2.7 trillion was owed by the federal government to the Social Security Trust Fund in 2011, according to a Trustee report.

In other words, the government has taken your retirement money to pay for its pet projects. The Afghanistan and Iraq wars, for instance, are estimated to cost a stunningly high $4 to $6 trillion over the long haul due to veteran medical costs and interest on the debt. Now politicians in Washington want to add insult to injury by cutting benefits to retirees after they blew their life’s savings on everything except for Social Security.

As is typical in Washington parlance, instead of calling chained CPI what it is – a benefit cut – they are instead referring to it as “savings”. And for his part, President Obama says that his proposed budget is a “compromise” which includes chained CPI as a component to deficit reduction.

The problem is that Congressional Republicans weren’t even at the bargaining table. Speaker Boehner rejected the plan out of hand on the basis that it includes any tax increases at all. In fact, it’s a remarkably generous proposal that offers $2 in spending cuts (to Social Security and other cherished programs of Democrats) for $1 in tax increases.

“If the president believes these modest entitlement savings are needed to help shore up these programs, there’s no reason they should be held hostage for more tax hikes. That’s no way to lead and move the country forward,” Boehner said.

Once again, the president has negotiated with himself. Boehner can now turn around and say that Obama’s “compromise budget” is the starting point for negotiations and we end up near the Ryan budget as an end point. This is not how a negotiation is supposed to work.

The president has failed voters who believed in his message of fairness. He has thrown seniors and future retirees under the bus in favor of an ever-elusive “grand bargain”. Let the Republicans be the ones to call for cuts to a program that is vitally important for seniors. They’ve been doing it since the program was founded nearly a hundred years ago. We’re Democrats. We believe in strengthening Social Security, not leaving seniors at the mercy of overzealous bean counters who harp about the deficit but ignore its true causes. President Obama, we deserve better.

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Posted In: Election 2012,Election 2014,General,Politics

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Dusk Before Dawn

A presidential election to replace a corrupt U.S. government is upended by a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Agent Ethan Clark and the CIA investigate a possible coup in Moscow while monied interests at home threaten American democracy itself. The sequel to 2012’s spy novel Operation Bald Eagle promises to thrill readers while posing troubling questions about the fate of self-government.

$3.99 on Amazon
$3.99 on Apple’s iBookstore
$3.99 on Barnes & Noble
$3.99 on Sony Reader Store
$3.99 on Kobo
$3.99 on Smashwords

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Operation Bald Eagle

Agent Ethan Clark faces one of the most challenging missions in his thirty year career working for The Agency. A Chinese businessman attempts to acquire a highly valued American technology company with sensitive U.S. government contracts. Intelligence suggests a possible cyber attack is in the works, but all is not as it seems. A thrilling adventure across the globe awaits.

$2.99 on Amazon
$2.99 on Apple’s iBookstore
$2.99 on Barnes & Noble
$2.99 on Kobo
$2.99 on Smashwords

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The James Bond Movie Guide

The James Bond Movie Guide is the ultimate source for this renowned movie franchise. With a collection of reviews and summaries for the 22 films, you will learn about each in detail and without fear of spoilers. A list of facts and cast for each film is included, along with series-wide facts, trivia, figures, and charts. Adding to the value are reviews for James Bond video games dating back to GoldenEye 007, some of the best Bond quotes from each film, as well as a list of the top 10 greatest James Bond theme songs.

$3.99 on Amazon
$3.99 on Apple’s iBookstore
$3.99 on Barnes & Noble
$3.99 on Sony Reader Store
$3.99 on Kobo
$3.99 on Smashwords

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Ozzy

Ozzy is the short story of a cat and his master. After losing his beloved wife, the man struggles to cope with a lonely life, a troubled son, and the nightmares of his past.

$0.99 on Amazon
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Operation Bald Eagle Now Available for Free

My favorite four letter word starts with an F but it’s not a profanity: FREE. Download Operation Bald Eagle — absolutely free — at Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBooks, Kobo or Smashwords to celebrate the release of its sequel, Dusk Before Dawn! B&N’s Nook and Kobo have free apps, as does Apple for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.

Agent Ethan Clark faces one of the most challenging missions in his thirty year career working for The Agency in Operation Bald Eagle. A Chinese businessman attempts to acquire a highly valued American technology company with sensitive U.S. government contracts. Intelligence suggests a possible cyber attack is in the works, but all is not as it seems. A thrilling adventure across the globe awaits.

Download at Barnes & Noble
Download at Apple’s iBooks
Download at Kobo
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Dusk Before Dawn Launches on Amazon, Smashwords

The sequel to Operation Bald Eagle is finally available. I am proud to release Dusk Before Dawn after a long five month process of writing, proofreading and editing. My heart and soul went into perfecting every word in this book. It is, in my opinion, the best piece of fiction that I have done. Fans of Operation Bald Eagle will definitely not be disappointed.

Dusk Before Dawn is a spy novel featuring the veteran CIA Agent Ethan Clark and his young colleague, Martin Frost. The story takes place across the Atlantic where a Russian invasion of Ukraine upends a presidential election to replace a corrupt U.S. government. Agent Clark must investigate a possible coup in Moscow at the same time that monied interests at home threaten American democracy itself.

If you enjoy spy novels and political dramas, Dusk Before Dawn is an absolute must-read. It’s available for the affordable price of $2.99.

Dusk Before Dawn

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Replacing the Sequester: 3 Ways to Save $1+ Trillion Without Raising Taxes or Gutting Programs

Today, the horribly named “sequester” goes into effect, forcing $85 billion in spending cuts over the course of the rest of 2013 all because Congress failed to enact an alternative bill. The cuts are divided evenly between defense and non-defense items, including discretionary spending on everything from unemployment benefits to education funding. Medicare will also be targeted but not Social Security. The economic impact of these cuts is not yet clear but with anemic GDP growth and a stagnant job market, any cuts in government spending in the United States would put a dent in the economy.

So what could Congress do to replace the automatic spending cuts? Well, for one, they have the power to restore all funding without instituting any cuts or tax increases at all, but aside from that, there are a number of ways for the government to save money that would make a whole lot of sense, yet encounter political resistance for a variety of self-interested reasons.

1. Medicare Buy-in

One of the easiest ways for government to raise revenue without raising taxes is by instituting a Medicare buy-in program. An estimate by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office pegged the savings over ten years at a substantial $110 billion. By itself, it solves one-tenth of the sequester.

What does a Medicare buy-in plan mean, though, you ask? It means that the federal government would allow individuals on the open market to buy into Medicare. Currently, the program only accepts citizens over the age of 65, which is financed through payroll taxes that you pay over the course of your life. The problem with this is pretty obvious: senior citizens are an extremely high risk pool compared to someone who is, say, thirty years old.

Basically a Medicare buy-in program would work like this: anyone under the age of 65 could get a plan by paying for a premium based on a specific set of conditions (age, whether they’re a smoker, etc.). You would get all of the benefits of Medicare, the country’s most efficient health insurer in terms of cost, without breaking the bank. Since Medicare is not a for-profit venture, the plans would also be cheaper than private insurance.

So what’s preventing Medicare buy-in from taking effect? That one is pretty simple: private insurance companies killed it in the Senate in 2009 because the price efficiencies of a Medicare buy-in program threatened their profit margins. However, any discussion about deficit reduction should include it.

2. Closing military bases overseas and ending wasteful programs

Any serious deficit reduction has to start at the root of the problem: military spending. Between fiscal year 2001 and 2010, the military budget increased a staggering 81%. The United States spent $768 billion on defense spending in fiscal 2011. This is more than we spend on either Medicare or Social Security. When you add on top of that the $141 billion for veterans benefits, defense-related spending tops $900 billion a year. That does not even include the cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which alone amounted to over a trillion dollars!

This is not to suggest that we should cut veterans benefits or the pay of our fine men and women in uniform, which account for only about a quarter of military spending. Our fighting forces are relatively lean compared to the top-heavy leadership. The ratio of officers and flag officers to uniformed personnel (per 10,000) is at a historically high 7. This is up from around 6 in 2001 and fewer than 2 during World War II.

As the New York Times put it in 2010, “there are now 963 generals and admirals leading the armed forces, about 100 more than on Sept. 11, 2001. Meanwhile, the overall number of active duty personnel has declined to some 1.5 million from 2.2 million in 1985, even though the Army and Marine Corps have grown since the Sept. 11 attacks, to carry out the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

However, the bulk of military spending is on expensive equipment that we do not even need or use, overseas military bases, and on research and design for future weapons. To give you an idea of how overstretched the U.S. military really is, consider the fact that we have active duty military personnel stationed in a ridiculous 148 countries. Let that sink in: 148 countries.

This includes nearly 55,000 stationed in Germany and 35,000 in Japan, over sixty years after World War II ended. Likewise, Korea has nearly 30,000 military personnel as well. The problem is that once we start a conflict, we never leave these countries. The same would have been true of Iraq (where there were plans for permanent bases) if the American people had not demanded an exit.

3. Financial transaction fee

An interesting proposal from Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa would raise $352 billion over ten years for the federal government without even touching income tax rates. The idea is pretty straightforward: charge a three penny fee for each $100 of a trade on stocks, bonds, derivative contracts, options, and other complex Wall Street instruments. Initial public offerings are exempt.

Importantly, the fee would target high-risk speed traders who threaten the financial system with their erratic behavior and short-term gain outlook. Those looking for long-term investments in solid companies, rather than speculative trading based on events, would be minimally impacted by such a fee. It would also have a decidedly small effect on the poor and middle class (for example, $50,000 worth of trades would come to a measly $15), whereas the sequester cuts target these groups almost exclusively.

Combined with the Medicare buy-in, a financial transaction fee would save the government the equivalent of roughly half of the sequester. The other half could easily come from reductions in military spending by closing unneeded bases, winding down the war in Afghanistan, eliminating wasteful weapons programs and counting the interest saved on the debt (which is substantial when you’re talking about over $900 billion in defense-related spending per year). The only thing stopping Congress from doing any of this is the political will to do what is right.

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Posted In: Election 2014,Politics

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Chicago’s Evolving Skyline

Few cities in the world have been transformed as much as Chicago. First a small trading post, the city rapidly expanded to the nation’s second largest by 1890 (only forty years prior it was not even in the top 10 largest cities). The Great Chicago Fire, industrialization and post-industrialization have all changed the face of the Second City over the decades. Here is a look at the city’s skyline over the past roughly 100 years:

The first image was taken in 1926 from the top of the Tribune Tower near the Chicago River. It’s facing north along Michigan Avenue with the only noticeable building remaining being the Water Tower (which itself was one of the few buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire). Image two was taken in 1970 slightly further south of the Tribune Building, which can be seen just beyond the brown office building. In the background is the John Hancock Center, which was the tallest building in the world outside of New York City when it was built in 1965. Today, it is the fourth tallest building in Chicago at a height of 1,127 feet. The third image was taken in 2012 from the top of the Sears Tower, the tallest building in the world until 1998, which is several blocks southwest of where the other images were taken. It includes most of downtown Chicago, including the Trump Tower (2nd tallest in Chicago), Aon Center (3rd) and John Hancock (4th).

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