Albany Santa

New readers may not be aware that I oftentimes post editorial cartoons done by an extremely talented artist/commentator living in the Adirondacks named Mark Wilson.  His pen name is “Marquil”, and his work can be found at his website, EmpireWire. I think that his art and editorial content rival anything you’ll find in any paper, anywhere. 

I don’t post all of his submissions, because some of them don’t really have any WNY relevance, but I hope you enjoy them and give him some love. I think they’re excellent. 

Congressional Republicans Poised to Raise Middle Class Taxes

We know the drill – our sovereign debt is about to be downgraded because (a) the Congress couldn’t get it together to pass a budget that includes both a reduction in public spending and a repeal of the Bush/Obama tax cuts for the richest earners, so they punted to a so-called “Supercommittee” to do it; and (b) predictably, the Supercommittee was unable to reach an agreement because a tax hike for the wealthy was out of the question for almost all Republicans, and some Democrats.

So, now with our malaise economy of high unemployment, uncertainty, and a crisis of demand in the market, the federal government refuses to increase revenues by asking the wealthy to pay more, and is instead seeking contraction of the government’s involvement in the economy. To say this is backwards would be an understatement.

Many fingers have been pointed in recent weeks at Republicans’ obeisance to a pledge most of them signed with Grover Norquist’s “Americans for Tax Reform“. As ATR describes it,

…candidates and incumbents solemnly bind themselves to oppose any and all tax increases. While ATR has the role of promoting and monitoring the Pledge, the Taxpayer Protection Pledge is actually made to a candidate’s constituents, who are entitled to know where candidates stand before sending them to the capitol. Since the Pledge is a prerequisite for many voters, it is considered binding as long as an individual holds the office for which he or she signed the Pledge.

Yet, the Republicans have pledged themselves into a corner.

Part of the Obama stimulus package included a payroll tax holiday for wage-earners. Social Security payroll taxes are paid equally by the employee and his employer at 6.2%. The tax holiday reduced the employee’s share to 4.2%, and the Social Security trust fund took no hit whatsoever.  A vote to extend the tax holiday is scheduled for later this week, and all indications are that Congressional Republicans are going to vote against it.

For a $50,000 earner, [the tax holiday] meant paying $1,000 a year less in payroll taxes. It was agreed in that law that the holiday would cost the Social Security Trust Fund nothing—the depleted revenue would be replaced out of the general treasury. So the holiday adds to the general deficit but does not affect the trust fund.

This is part of the Republican jobs and economic program, which basically amounts to “prevent anything Obama might do to help the economy, so one of our party’s questionable fringe candidates wins the White House in 2012.”  All it’s missing is a catchy acronym.

And if the no-tax-hike-pledge-taking Republicans vote against a renewal of the payroll tax holiday, thus effectively raising taxes on wage-earners. The party that supported President Bush’s gimmicky $300 rebate checks now recommends a plan that may plunge us deeper in an economic hole, all in the hopes that Obama would get the blame.

Two economists at the Economic Policy Institute say ending the holiday would reduce GDP by $128 billion and cost 972,000 jobs in 2012. The EPI is a liberal outfit, but Mark Zandi of Moody’s, who advised John McCain in 2008, agrees that raising the payroll tax back to where it was could cause another recession.

And besides those macroeconomic concerns, there is the simple question of money in people’s pockets as they try to tough out the economy. A thousand dollars to a $50,000 earner, or $1,500 to a $75,000 earner, isn’t nothing.

The Democrats? They want to further lower the earner’s share to a full half – 3.1%, and they also want the reduction to apply to employers at the same 50% rate, in the hopes that more money in the pockets of consumers will spur economic activity, and that more money in the employers’ coffers might spur further hiring.  For $255 billion, you target the real job creators directly. How will they pay for that?

… with a 3.5 percent surtax on dollars earned over $1 million per year. In other words, if someone earns $1.3 million a year, she will pay the extra 3.5 percent only on the last $300,000 in earnings; that is, an extra $10,500 a year (bear in mind that this person takes home, after taxes, around $30,000 every two weeks). So it certainly raises the taxes of the very wealthiest. But it gives more money back to middle-class people, and it stimulates the economy, perhaps to the tune of 50,000 jobs a month, maybe even more.

The Republicans would have supported something like this if it was their idea, but now it’s the Democrats’ plan and must be blocked reflexively. Interestingly, they’re likely to grudgingly demand a continuation of the status quo, in which case they’re asking that the deficit be further enlarged.

Decisions, decisions.

What should President Obama do? Take it to the people.

Obama should give an Oval Office speech Wednesday night and say: “If you are an employee and make less than $1 million, or if you are an employer of any size, I am trying to give you a tax cut. If you are an employee who makes more than $1 million a year, you should write and thank your Republican senator, because the Republicans are blocking me and helping you.”

The proof couldn’t be more stark. The national Republican Party isn’t the party of low taxes. It’s the party of the superwealthy and the social warriors.

Europe on the Brink

The collapse of the eurozone would likely have a very negative affect on our economy, but would devastate Europe. The euro’s survival depends on large part on Germany, the EU’s largest economy. While founding members like Germany and France are quick to blame rapid expansion of the EU into developing countries of the former Eastern Bloc, but Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski gave a speech to the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Berlin, basically imploring – and demanding – that Germany get off its ass and save the eurozone.

Excerpts of Sikorski’s blockbuster speech are summarized in this Financial Times op-ed (registration required).

To the always-Euroskeptic United Kingdom, Sikorski had this to say:

A critical issue is whether Britain, such an important member of the EU, can support reform. The eurozone’s collapse would hugely harm Britain’s economy. The UK’s total sovereign, corporate and household debt exceeds 400 per cent of gross domestic product. Can London be sure markets will always favour it? We would prefer Britain in, but if it can’t join, please allow us to forge ahead. And please start explaining to the British public that European decisions are not Brussels’ diktats but results of agreements in which you freely participate.

The two euro zone economies with the largest growth over the past four years have been Poland and Slovakia – relative EU newbies who are often blamed by the founding economies for being the root of all eco-social evil.

The EU has always been a sort of quasi-government – not even rising to the level of a confederation, its union has always been more about economics than politics. Sikorski believes it’s time to strengthen the EU into a “fiscal federation”.

What, as Poland’s foreign minister, do I regard as the biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland in the last week of November 2011? It is not terrorism, and it is certainly not German tanks. It is not even Russian missiles, which President Dmitry Medvedev has just threatened to deploy on the EU’s border. The biggest threat to the security of Poland would be the collapse of the eurozone.

I demand of Germany that, for its own sake and for ours, it help the eurozone survive and prosper. Nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say this, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You may not fail to lead: not dominate, but to lead in reform.

It’s created quite a stir throughout EU, which boasts 500 million residents and represents 20% of global GDP.

Wanamaker's One Sunset

Former Buffalo economic development czar Timothy Wanamaker returned to town yesterday to be convicted by Federal Judge Arcara for charging $30,000 in personal expenses to his BERC credit card. Wanamaker left Buffalo in 2008 to fail as city manager in Inglewood, CA.

Wanamaker has yet to be sentenced, but the Buffalo News alludes to the possibility that Wanamaker’s plea deal is part of a larger, ongoing investigation into mismanagement and embezzlement of HUD funds at City Hall.

Stealing economic development money from a struggling city – it doesn’t get much lower than that. One wonders why CitiStat didn’t pick up all of it, and one wonders how cooperative and informative Mr. Wanamaker will be with federal investigators between now and his March sentencing.

 

Wanamaker’s One Sunset

Former Buffalo economic development czar Timothy Wanamaker returned to town yesterday to be convicted by Federal Judge Arcara for charging $30,000 in personal expenses to his BERC credit card. Wanamaker left Buffalo in 2008 to fail as city manager in Inglewood, CA.

Wanamaker has yet to be sentenced, but the Buffalo News alludes to the possibility that Wanamaker’s plea deal is part of a larger, ongoing investigation into mismanagement and embezzlement of HUD funds at City Hall.

Stealing economic development money from a struggling city – it doesn’t get much lower than that. One wonders why CitiStat didn’t pick up all of it, and one wonders how cooperative and informative Mr. Wanamaker will be with federal investigators between now and his March sentencing.

 

Need a Job? Erie County is Hiring

Obviously, this is from a press release. First house-cleaning in many years, what with the first incoming Democratic County Executive since 1988.

POLONCARZ TEAM ANNOUNCES IT IS ACCEPTING RESUMES FOR POSITIONS

County Executive-elect Poloncarz Encourages Those Interested in Serving Erie County in his Administration to Submit Resumes Online

ERIE COUNTY, NY—Today, Erie County Executive-elect Mark C. Poloncarz announced the launch of his transition team’s new website at http://www2.erie.gov/transition.   At the website, Erie County residents can find the latest news from the Poloncarz Transition Team, as well as the list of available positions and how people can submit an application for a position.

Over the next month, the transition team will look to fill approximately 70 positions within the incoming Poloncarz administration ranging from department heads to other policymaking, administrative and managerial confidential staff positions. The transition team strongly encourages anyone interested in serving Erie County to submit an application electronically. The transition team’s executive committee, chaired by businessman Michael Joseph will review cover letters and resumes and make recommendations to the County Executive-elect.  A list of the available positions, job specifications and qualifications and the process for applying for a position in the administration can be found at http://www2.erie.gov/transition/index.php?q=applying-job.

Poloncarz stated, “I will rely on the expertise and unique viewpoints that each of my transition team members bring to the table to help me recruit an administration representative of all of Erie County.  I encourage anyone who is interested in serving our community as part of my new administration to visit the transition website and submit their resume as soon as possible.”

Transition Chairman Michael Joseph added, “The executive committee strongly encourages Erie County residents to go to the transition website, review the available positions and their qualifications and to apply online. We are accepting applications and seeking highly qualified and diverse candidates to serve County Executive-elect Poloncarz in his administration.”

 

The Participation Trophy

The Buffalo News’ Colin Dabkowski weighs in on the ongoing debate over whether we should criticize good people’s good efforts when they fail to live up to expectations.

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/colindabkowski/status/141639995155955712″]

[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/colindabkowski/status/141643531306545152″]

Prioritizing the Bailouts

Anyone remember Rick Santelli? He became famous for a day or two when he assailed the Obama stimulus for “rewarding bad behavior” because it included money for mortgage relief.

While many tea party types cheered Santelli’s rant for exposing the Indonesio-Kenyan socialist usurper President Obama for the Leninist Hitlerite he is, as it turns out, Obama’s mortgage relief plan would spend $85 billion to help keep beleaguered Americans who were upside-down on their mortgages in their homes.

Yet as of early 2009, the federal government committed $7.77 trillion to bail out the banksters, Santelli made no noise whatsoever about rewarding their bad behavior.

This is America! How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills? Raise their hand.

Outrageous outrage! That’s what Santelli says in his infamous rant. Yet he and the traders whooping it up with him have dummied up when it comes to almost $8 trillion to bail out the “loser” banks.  Despicable people for despicable times.

Christmas in Niagara Falls, USA

The Niagara Falls Holiday Market is a phenomenal idea. Take a largely abandoned, gritty street not far from a natural wonder, invite locally-owned businesses and artisans like 464 Gallery, Sarah Walley, Delish, Zillycakes, Tony Walker, and others to set up in little sheds along the street, add a festive atmosphere, some concerts, a skating rink – and voila, a European-style Christkindlmarkt.

It has huge potential to help reinvigorate a dead downtown, to bring people to the New York side of the Falls for something that isn’t casino or waterfall-related, and to start a great tradition. I really wanted our visit to this market to be awesome. It didn’t quite hit that mark, but it was fun enough.

The market was officially opened on the Friday after Thanksgiving. The reviews on its Facebook page were unflattering – people were disappointed. Many vendors hadn’t set up yet. Some were completely absent.

We went on Saturday right at 11am when the market opened for buy local day. I’m hopeful that this event gets its act together sooner rather than later. Tony Walker was nowhere to be found. Arrowhead Winery and other local vendors we were looking forward to checking out were absent or closed. 464 Gallery had a great tent-full of locally-produced arts and crafts, and we were honored to meet Sarah Walley herself, who had a table set up to sell her famous French macarons. But Tony Walker? There was no evidence of it anywhere. Biscoff Gourmet was shuttered. I didn’t see Menne Nursery. andBuffalo was still under construction. I didn’t see the Sabres store, either. I saw no evidence of DiCamillo’s at that hour. At least two cabins were empty and without signs.

It’s always difficult to set up a new event – especially one as ambitious as the Niagara Holiday Market. It’s also seductive to make excuses such as “well, at least someone’s doing something positive in the Falls”.   And it is.

But if I was one of the merchants who was able to get it together to be up and running on November 25th, I’d be a bit disappointed that others (especially some marquee names) weren’t. We traveled out of our way to enjoy a stroll and do some shopping in a place where neither really happens, ordinarily.  It was surprisingly empty and devoid of holiday cheer.  Perhaps it would make more sense to be less ambitious in terms of time, and limit it to the three December weeks leading up to Christmas. Maybe the organizers need to crack down on late and lackadaisical vendors.  When an event has so much promise, do it right.  I want the market to work – to thrive and to become a tradition, so hopefully its organizers will learn from their mistakes.

At least one published report indicates that the market costs $900,000 to put on, and that half of that money comes from city and state government. All the more reason why this should be professionally organized and done well.

On another note, the former Oxy Headquarters building known as the “flashcube” has been “saved” by a local developer but now resembles the food court of a dead mall. One gets the sense that it’s taking up loads of super-valuable parking spots. Neither its exterior nor interior are inviting, and it joins its neighbor the former Rainbow Centre as a past-its-prime eyesore stinking up the border with Canada. It’s ugly for a simple building from 1981, and is in palpable disrepair. It’s the Bronx-on-the-Falls.

UPDATE: Full disclosure, about a month after this post was originally written, one of the market’s vendors has retained my legal services to secure payment of a contractual debt.

The Real Looters

From a New York Times profile of how multibillionaire heir and man-of-leisure Ronald Lauder avoid paying taxes on his income.

The tax burden on the nation’s superelite has steadily declined in recent decades, according to a sliver of data released annually by the I.R.S. The effective federal income tax rate for the 400 wealthiest taxpayers, representing the top 0.000258 percent, fell from about 30 percent in 1995 to 18 percent in 2008, the most recent data available.

And the economy tanked.

“There’s real truth to the idea that the tax code for the 1 percent is different from the tax code for the 99 percent,” said Victor Fleischer, a law professor at the University of Colorado. “Any taxpayer lucky enough to have appreciated property is usually put to a choice: cash out and pay some tax, or hold the property and risk the vagaries of the market. Only the truly rich can use derivatives to get the best of both worlds — lots of cash and very little risk.”

The story praises Lauder for making charitable donations of money and art to certain causes, the philanthropic way to tax avoidance. However,

“It’s admirable when people back their charitable impulses up with donations,” said Scott Klinger, tax policy director of the group Business for Shared Prosperity. “But the tax code shouldn’t allow the wealthy the kind of loopholes that let them, essentially, force other taxpayers to underwrite donations to their pet causes.”

So when you joke and mock the Occupy protesters for being a bunch of unwashed nouveau hippies with no point or direction, consider for a moment that the system is now rigged in favor of the very rich – especially those who make money from money.  When you look at the taxes withheld from your paycheck each week, or fill out your 1040 on TurboTax, remember that you pay a larger share of your income to the IRS than the superwealthy.

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