Monday, May 4, 2009

While I was out

For just $1 a day...

My long hiatus from this blog doesn’t signal its (or my) death—just taxes. As usual, I waited until the last few days and then furiously scoured my records for deductions. I used to think it was a national myth that people who file their taxes on the last day are the least likely to get audited, but evidently it’s true. So that’s what I do.

Then I had to take another few days to catch up on all the things I put off while doing taxes. And then the NBA playoffs started and who can ignore that insane scene now that Blazermania has uprisen from the dead? (Does anyone else think the current Blazer ad slogan is as awkward as a pimpled teenage boy asking a girl to the prom?) So the Blazers lost, but the Celtics won a thrilling seven-game series and L.A. is always there to root against.

In the past few weeks since my last post, our world has encountered the likes of Susan Boyle, a new swine flu, a new Arlen Specter, a new-old venue for baseball in Portland, a smashing start of the baseball season for ex-Mariner Raul Ibanez, the resurrection of Wall Street executive pay and the continued decimation of state budgets, particularly those funding education. Not to mention the ongoing sagas of the bridge to oblivion, the dual bush-league stadia and the convention center hovel, er, hotel..

What follows, then, is not my usual wonky and erudite analysis (aka, "rant") of a specific issue, but quick takes on some actually relevant issues:

Education funding: Portland is still haunted by the Doonesbury lampoon of several years ago about being so woefully short of funds that school had to end over a month early. The prospects for the coming year make that scenario look rosy. And yet most of what I see from Salem concerns sharpening the axe and chopping off a chunk of what's left of our education system.

The state is a billion dollars short of what it takes to almost adequately fund public education. According to the Portland Public Schools web site, PPS is $57 million short, though others think these projections are too optimistic. Whatever the case, it's just stupid to cut education budgets. Really, there's enough wealth in this state and city to put that money back into the budget.

Let's put it in the terms used by public broadcasting appeals: $1 billion is just $1 per day every day for every adult in Oregon. And $57 million is a measly 35 cents a day for every adult living in Portland. Sure, for the 12.5% of Oregonians who are unemployed, that $1 a day may be crucial to their own lives—and to be realistic, it's very likely at least 20% of the population isn't employed. On the other hand, the other day on the MAX, I saw one grizzled homeless guy round up $5 and give it to an obviously newly-homeless family. If the homeless can come up with spare change to help each other out, I'm sure we all can chip in.

The legislature should implement a temporary surtax—for just this biennium—that hits each taxpayer's gross income with a percentage charge sufficient to recoup that $1 billion, or however much is needed.

Wall Street Salaries: Yup, the top dawgs on the Street were down for a few months, but then they manipulated their banks' earning statements for the first quarter and as a result, their compensation is as high as ever.

Conservatives like to point out that the wealthiest five percent pay more than half of U.S. income taxes. There's a simple reason for this: they have all the money. (And actually, when you factor in FICA, state and local property taxes and sales taxes, the fat cats don't pay nearly that high a percentage.

Income inequality is at its highest level since the 1920s, perhaps, according to some studies, the highest ever. Either pay scales need to level out or the tax code should be set back to Eisenhower era levels. Under that Republican president, the top rate on incomes over $400,000 was 91 percent. High time to bring those rates back. If Congress won't do it, the Oregon legislature should. After all, the top tax rate in Oregon is 9 percent, which is paid by anyone who earns over $6,500 a year. That's ridiculous. Bump up the tax rate for wealthier people and put the money into education.

Arlen Specter: Sure, he weaseled out of the Republican Party to rescue his sorry butt from defeat at the polls next year, but Specter's defection just shows how irrelevant the GOP has become. Everybody knows that except the lunatics still running the Republican asylum. After all, just 20 percent of all voters are registered in the party.

As Bobby Kennedy once said, “Twenty percent of the people are against everything.” So that percentage is about as low as you can go.

The intriguing question here is how American politics will realign. For the past three decades, since the Age of Reagan, America has only had a far right party (the Republicans) and a centrist party (the Democrats). Liberals have been out of power since the early 1970s. Both presidents Carter and Clinton were centrists, neither of them any more liberal than Richard Nixon.

Obama has succeeded in appealing to liberals, moderates and even some conservatives. The political pendulum swung so far to the right during the Bush era that virtually every thinking person has joined Obama in bringing things back to normal. The cultists in the Republican Party have labeled him a socialist when all he is doing is returning to economic policies that were mainstream under Eisenhower.

Eventually, once these corrections are made, there's going to be discord. It may be delayed until after Obama leaves office, or it may emerge sooner. The Democrats tent has ballooned to include a lot of people who don't necessarily get along with one another. Already, the administration's kid gloves approach to Wall Street has drawn jeers from liberal economists and labor union chiefs.

It makes sense that political parties stand for something, and it's not enough to just stand for sanity and responsibility in government, just because the Republicans seemed to oppose these values. I therefore expect a party shakeout. There will emerge an enlightened pro-business faction that embraces free market approaches while admitting the need for basic government oversight, and a more welfare state faction that demands heavier regulation and government intervention. One of these factions may get to be called Democrats and the other will be named something else. Either that, or as in Europe. there will be splinter parties, such as Labor Democrats, Christian Democrats or just a Liberal party. Or maybe all of the above.

Blazers: On the sports blogs, there's lots of talk about trades and doing things to strengthen the team and take it to the next level. My gut feeling is the less messing around, the better. This is a team that won 54 games and kicked the Lakers' butts this season. The NBA is all about match ups and the Blazers had a hard time matching up with Houston this season. If they had been seeded against Utah, Dallas, San Antonio, New Orleans or Denver, they would still be playing. They might even have had better luck against L.A.

Fans want to dump Steve Blake and find a better point guard. Newsflash: that guy is not going to come from the Blazers' current roster, unless you switch Roy to point guard. And let's take a look at the league's premier point guards: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Steve Nash, Tony Parker are all on vacation as of now, too. Meanwhile Derek Fisher of the Lakers is still playing, and he's no better than Blake at this point in his career. Neither, really, is Jason Kidd.

So let's keep Blake and then pick either Sergio Rodriguez or Jered Bayless as the back up and develop him. We all know that Rudy Fernandez is a rising star who can play in big games. Nicholas Batum also has the potential to be another Tayshaun Prince and should be all the Blazers need at small forward. Oden, if he stays healthy, will emerge as a strong, though probably not dominant, center. For next year, I'd still give Joel Przybilla the bulk of the minutes—the 'Zilla earned them by become one of the most reliable defensive forces in the league this year.

So it comes down to this: trade Travis Outlaw, who despite being a relatively good streak shooter can't learn his defensive assignments and doesn't rebound well for his size. He's a nice kid, but he gets way too many minutes as it is. I'd give up on Martell Webster, too—he's not as good as Batum. My ideal move for the off-year is to sign Grant Hill to a two-year deal. Hill has been physically sound the past two years and played marvelously for Phoenix last year. He is a solid citizen and a great team player and he could tutor Batum in the nuances of the game. He signed a two-year contract with the Suns in 2007 and that means he should be a free agent now. The big problem is that he will command a salary higher than what the Blazers can afford under the cap this year.