Opinion

The Great Debate

Heads, the rich win; tails, the poor lose

The rich, to mangle F. Scott Fitzgerald slightly, they rationalize differently than you and me. Whether they succeed or fail, they’ve always got a pseudo-scientific excuse. If they do well, it’s because their habits are better than those of the rest of us peons. If they do badly, it was their upbringing, since wealthy parents too readily substitute lucre for love.

Don’t believe me? Let’s turn to the headlines.

Last month, personal finance and self-responsibility guru Dave Ramsey posted a list on his website entitled, “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day,” originally written by New Jersey accountant and certified financial planner Thomas C. Corley, who, according to his website “studied the daily activities of 233 wealthy people and 128 people living in poverty.”

The list, which quickly went viral, was filled with the self-improvement tropes that could be called “Why the Rich Deserve Their Money.” Prosperous people eat less junk food than poor people. They read more books. They watch less reality television and make their children volunteer more time to charity.

It should come as no surprise that the country that brought you the myth of Horatio Alger should love such bits of wealth-building advice. We have a history after all, probably one going back as far as Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, which offered up such words of wisdom as “a penny saved is a twopence dear,” now widely remembered as “a penny saved is a penny earned.”

Franklin, however, lacked access to modern market research techniques. As a result, the modern iteration of this way of thinking really begins with the publication of The Millionaire Next Door in 1996, a book that posited that the wealthy might be our neighbors but they really aren’t like us. They are thrifty, luxury-eschewing self-made men; they drink Bud instead of merlot, and most certainly do not give too much to their children.

2014: Another election about Obamacare

Here we go again.

2014 will be the third election in a row in which Obamacare is the central issue. The Affordable Care Act, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March 2010, contributed to a fierce voter backlash against Democrats in November 2010. After the Supreme Court upheld the law in June 2012, the issue seemed to be settled by Obama’s re-election that November.

But no.

The botched Obamacare rollout this year has again thrust the issue to the top of the political agenda. Republicans are counting on opposition to Obamacare to propel them to a majority in the Senate next year. A conservative group is already running an ad attacking Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) for supporting Obamacare: “Next November, if you like your senator, you can keep her. If you don’t, you know what to do.”

2013 came to a close with two big political stories. The government shutdown in October was immensely damaging to Republicans. So damaging that House Republicans defied their conservative base and voted for a compromise budget deal last week. Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) attacked the Tea Party, accusing them of pushing congressional Republicans “into this fight to defund Obamacare and shut down the government.” A fight Boehner said all along was unwinnable.

Snarking at smarm: Muffling the public debate

A smarm vs. snark debate captivated the media, new and old, recently. Unlike most provocative or incendiary topics, this one has had staying power because it gets at the heart of the culture today. Also something darker and deeper — the way dissent is being stifled. Not in a big obvious way, but in a more subtle manner. Women, in particular, are being muffled. That’s the part that fascinates and disturbs me.

The topic was set off by an essay in Gawker by a writer and, yes, a thinker (a rare combination; so here is my first blast of complimentary snark, which is not an oxymoron), named Tom Scocca. He took vitriolic aim at the smiley-face troops who, he says, are smothering discourse under a blanket of aggressive niceness. He slams do-goody folks like Dave Eggers and the new book editor of BuzzFeed, who says he only wants to run positive book reviews.

OK, that’s silly and a tad scary — even to someone who writes books and has winced and raged at the occasional critical takedown. But anything that smacks of pre-emptive censorship even if there is a kind of worthy — or in the case of a writer like me, an ego-preserving — goal, is bad. On that, I agree with Scocca.

Obamacare’s endless exemptions

Thursday night, the White House announced yet another exemption from the pain Obamacare is causing so many Americans. This latest “fix” would allow some Americans who’ve lost plans to exempt themselves from Obamacare requirements by claiming the law imposes a “hardship” because it’s “unaffordable.”

“Hardship”…“unaffordable”…these are the Obama administration’s own terms. About its own law.

These are the very things Republicans and health experts warned about for years.

International pressure works on Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin had expected the grandest of guests for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Sochi — presidents, billionaires, the global big players.

For years he had imagined the presidential box like this: Needling President Barack Obama that NASA now depends on Russian rockets to get American astronauts into orbit. Emphasizing to French President Francois Hollande that France would be better served in the business world if it dropped all references to human rights. Making deals with the German delegation over champagne, as the ice skaters pirouette below, around the Olympic flame.

Putin’s dream is slipping out of sight. Month after month of unrelenting bad news from Russia has started to bite.

NSA revelations: Fallout can serve our nation

The fallout from the Edward Snowden revelations continues to snowball. With each disclosure, allies, businesses and influential authors call for reform. There is ever growing pressure on the Obama administration to respond and quell these concerns before permanent damage is done.

As the crisis grows, many in Congress and the executive branch now focus on explaining why these programs are critical to countering terrorist threats and securing the country. President Barack Obama’s meeting with technology leaders Tuesday marks an early signal of willingness to engage in open dialogue. But until Washington fully addresses the concerns of these various groups through tangible government reform, the fallout will likely worsen.

Trust has been the principal casualty in this unfortunate affair. The American public, our nation’s allies, leading businesses and Internet users around the world are losing faith in the U.S. government’s role as the leading proponent of a free, open and integrated global Internet.

Why do New York politicians hate small business?

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo appointed a commission to figure out how to make the Empire State more business-friendly and change its reputation for high taxes. The New York state government is now running commercials on national television touting the tax breaks that businesses can get by relocating there. “Small Business Saturday” – the annual post-Thanksgiving event encouraging folks to patronize small businesses — was heavily promoted in nearly every media outlet.

However, there may be no place in the country that treats small businesses worse than New York. Harmful policies come out of both City Hall in Manhattan and the State House in Albany. The commercials, narrated by Robert DeNiro and set to Jay-Z’s iconic song, Empire State of Mind, may look cool, but what New York needs to make itself more conducive to investment, job creation and economic growth, is better fiscal policy. Not more glamour.

Though it’s great to see Cuomo own up to the fact that New York’s tax climate is inhospitable to employers — and events like Small Business Saturday are nice — this doesn’t change the fact that New York’s political class is uniquely hostile to small business. To the detriment of the entire state economy.

Should the U.S. force citizens to save?

Americans aren’t saving enough to retire. This gap poses a problem for everyone, not just people who will face near-poverty when they can’t work anymore. Does that merit forcing people to save more?

Retirement in America is supposed to be financed by three sources: Social Security, employer pensions, and additional saving. Social Security in America makes up the foundation and serves two roles: it’s a forced saving plan by making everyone contribute 12.4 percent (the employer and employee contribution) of their income (up to the first $113,700 they earn) in exchange for the promise of income in retirement. It’s also social insurance because the lower your income, the larger your benefit will be relative to what you paid in. But for most people, it is not intended to finance all of retirement.

The problem is the other two sources are falling short. Employer pensions, for those who had them in the private sector, have been replaced by private accounts like a 401(k) plan. With these accounts, the individual is left to save enough and bear investment risk. Alas, most people don’t contribute enough. That’s apparent with baby boomers, the first generation to have these accounts for decades, who are nearing retirement with meager savings. According to the Survey of Consumer Finances collected by the Federal Reserve Board, the median value of financial assets (non-housing saving) of working Americans between age 55 to 65 was just $67,000 in 2010. That means many people will retire almost entirely dependent on Social Security and take a big cut in their living standard.

Danger and delay on dirty bombs

When highly radioactive material that can be used in a “dirty bomb” is moved to or from a hospital in New York City, it is done in the dead of night on cordoned streets with high security.

In Mexico two weeks ago, a truck moving a large canister containing radioactive material was hijacked at a gas station — where it had been parked with no security. The cobalt-60 that was stolen from the vehicle and then extracted from its protective lead shield is so potent that it is considered a significant national security threat under U.S. guidelines.

There are now no international mandatory requirements for how to control these dangerous materials — including how they should be transported. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog, has only issued recommendations, in the form of a voluntary Code of Conduct.This disconnect between how nations manage extremely dangerous nuclear materials sought by terrorists creates significant security vulnerabilities. If a dirty bomb is exploded anywhere in the world, it would cross the nuclear terrorism threshold and open the door to further attacks.

Iran: More than Persia

When Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was campaigning, he promised the country’s many ethnic minorities to expand the use of their languages. Rouhani recently signaled his intent to keep that promise, by appointing Iran’s first presidential aid for ethnic and religious minority affairs, acknowledging the country’s minority challenges.

In the multi-ethnic state that is Iran, the political meaning of the population’s diversity will have serious consequences as political normalization with the West continues. Both the United States and the European Union should understand the significance of Iran’s multi-ethnic makeup and prepare policies that can address it.

Washington and Brussels should view this process as similar to when Mikhail Gorbachev began opening the Soviet Union to the West, it quickly became apparent that the Soviet Union was –not only composed of Russians. Later, it became clear that what the West had considered to be “Yugoslavians” or “Czechoslovakians” were, in fact, many different ethnic groups.  Few of these peoples shared a civic-state identity.

  •