Thursday, August 18, 2011

VOA, Untimely Death, Iktar Dinner, Again at Eastern Market, Rick Perry, Errant Volunteer, Ortega, British Riots, Women in White, Buffet Manifesto

Last Monday, a reporter for Voice of America TV (short programs distributed in many languages through the internet) came to my house to film and interview me. She went through all my photos to select some to use in the piece, which will feature three former Peace Corps volunteers who have come home to do something different than they did before their service. Certainly that is the case for me, Spanish interpreting, annual visits back to Honduras, membership on the boards of three internationally oriented non-profits, and a book.

I was shocked to see this news notice: Saul Solorzano, who escaped the bloody tumult of civil war in his native El Salvador and became a seasoned leader of an advocacy organization for Central American refugees in Washington, died Aug. 17 at Washington Hospital Center. He was 49. The report went on to say he had died after falling down the stairs at his home. I knew the guy! He bought my book! He was only 49! You just never know when your time will be up.

On Tuesday, attended an overflow Ramandan Iktar dinner sponsored by Amnesty International where the fast is always broken with the consumption of date, though there weren’t enough dates to go around that evening. Our speaker was an Arabic-speaking American who had just returned from several months in Egypt, where he said that the military is cracking down more forcefully than before, a worrisome development. The main questions facing the new non-Mubarak Egypt are the relationship with the United States (and the future of US aid) and whether Islamic religious bodies will occupy a separate sphere, like in Turkey, or whether it will be religious state like Iran. At least 10% of Egyptians are Christians.
Probably at least 10% of Americans are non-Christians and American Muslim, especially, have felt alienated and discriminated against since 9/11. But Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann seem bent on declaring ours to be a Christian nation.

Now that my African visitors have departed and before my longstanding housemate returns on Labor Day, my house is very quiet. After many hot weekends when I stayed home, this past Saturday, went out to talk Peace Corps and try to sell my book, taking my table and displays over by myself to the Tortilla Café across from Eastern Market. Few people were out and most who passed by were not anyone who might be interested in the Peace Corps, either to join or even read about it. Many were listening to ipods or talking on cell phones. Others had small children or dogs—not folks exactly ripe for a Peace Corps career, because you wouldn’t take either to a foreign country. Some people my age were with their children and grandchildren—again, they wouldn’t leave their grandchildren. So, I don’t even try to talk Peace Corps with them. Others are not Peace Corps material because they are over or underdressed, i.e. women wearing high heels, low-cut blouses, and too-short shorts with beehive hairdos. Still others have too many tattoos and piercings or are just too overweight to be accepted. So there was only a narrow range of people whom I appealed to. Some turned out to be former volunteers, to whom I gave Peace Corps Response material, that is about 6-month assignments available to former volunteers. Others took my free information packets. Only one person, a French woman my age who had accompanied her American husband to Africa years ago bought my book. I suggested that she and her husband could go back now with Peace Corps, but she said his health is too frail, he has a pacemaker and other health problems, so she will content herself with joining vicariously through my book.

In Honduras, according to the local Hispanic press, 25 policemen were arrested for participating in criminal acts such kidnappings and joining criminal gangs.

Republicans have created a self-fulfilling prophesy, stalling on raising the debt ceiling, refusing the “grand bargain,” helping to send the stock market plunging, then blaming the Obama administration for not fixing the economy. And Michelle Bachmann, who has contributed considerably to the economic jitters, declares that she can fix it all quite easily. I do hope some voters are wising up about her. This whole stock market plunge and ups-and-downs are nothing more than worry writ large. Nothing objectively has really changed to cause such massive sell-offs. Investors concerned about a worldwide recession are making it actually happen! Maybe I’m Pollyanna, but I’m wondering what we ordinary folks can do to reduce the polarization in our country and daily lives. The least we can do is listen to one another. And that means that the other side should listen to us too!

From a recent AP report: “GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry told New Hampshire voters Wednesday that he does not believe in manmade global warming.” He’s even suggested it’s a hoax, invented by scientists to get money for research. I think Michelle Bachmann has said something similar. They both promise to create jobs and grow the economy, but are in favor of slashing government programs and services, which, at least in the short-term, will mean fewer jobs, not more. They are the real job-killers, not Obama. Just repeating something over and over doesn’t make it true, which I hope most voters will come to realize. If not and they vote for these charlatans, they will come to realize it too late for us all.

Distressing news in this Peace Corps 50th anniversary year is that a volunteer in South Africa has been arrested for having sexually molested at least five South African children under 6. Although recruits undergo an FBI check before being accepted, undiscovered or future behavior obviously doesn’t show up there. Another blot on the corps’ reputation.

Looks like Daniel Ortega, technically prevented from running for a second term in Nicaragua, is doing so anyway and is running without genuine opposition. And all he has to do is get more votes than any other candidate, not a majority, according to the constitution. Whatever happened to the spirit of UNO that propelled Violeta Chamorro into the Nicaraguan presidency in 1990 when I was an election observer there? Now, it’s all back to the usual fragmented, weak, and internecine opposition candidacies, which allowed Ortega to win his current term. I’ve spoken ad infinitum in the past with Nicaraguan anti-Ortega leaders, each one resisting giving up his fiefdom and long-shot chance at winning himself. So, Nicaragua will get Ortega once again and the opposition will deserve to lose. Sorry guys, you well know the winning formula from 1990, but refuse to try it again.

I understand that the British riots have been described in Libyan official media as a democratic “uprising” against an unjust system. Certainly, they got out-of-hand, going way beyond London where they first started, with opportunists and anarchists taking advantage and apparently some meddlesome types actually fomenting unrest on purpose, using social media to spread mayhem, an example of the reverse or perverse side of what social media can accomplish. At the same time, doubtless, a feeling of economic frustration and genuine grievance was being expressed by quite a few participants. The same feelings of deprivation and even anger are evident in this country and could lead to destructive copycat flash mobs and unrest here as well. Social media is certainly a two-edged sword.

Amnesty International is investigating the following report.

Santiago de Cuba / Palmarito de Cauto / August 7, 2011

Ladies in White (a peaceful group of Cuban women who are family members and supporters of Cuban political prisoners) and human rights activists holding meetings in their homes, suffered such violent attacks by the political police that many of them had to be hospitalized this Sunday, August 7, 2011, in the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Palmarito de Cauto, in the Eastern province of Cuba.

After attending Sunday mass in the Cathedral of Santiago de Cuba, government led mobs with blunt objects and members of the Ministry of the Interior were waiting outside for the twenty Ladies in White as they were on their way to march through the streets of Santiago de Cuba with their flowers to demand the release of all Cuban political prisoners. Access to the Cathedral was interrupted by police squads led by Lieutenant Colonel "Elliott" as loud music and governmental propaganda was heard through loudspeakers. The twenty women were followed by the mob, were insulted, threatened, and pushed into buses that took them to an unknown location.
The home of the ex-political prisoner, Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, where activists were gathered as well as three minors, was also attacked by a government led mob that threw stones to the house. The home of activist, Maximiliano Sanchez was also attacked in the same manner.

As a result of the violent acts of repression carried out in the cities of Santiago de Cuba and Palmarito de Cauto by the Cuban Ministry of the Interior, six human rights activists were hospitalized with fractures, contusions, and wounds that had to be sutured. By orders of the political police, doctors refused to provide these wounded activists with a medical certificate which they need in order to accuse Cuban authorities of the violence perpetrated against them.

Among those critically hurt: Julio Cesar Salazar Salinas, Osmelis Cruz Dacal, Annis Sarrion Romero, Magalys Fernandez Eulices, Prudencio Villalon Rades, Jose Angel Garrido Morris, Osmelis Cruz Dacal, Juan Carlos Vazquez Osoria, and a neighbor who tried to defend the activists: Rubilandys Torres Perez.

Also attacked and hurt in Palmarito de Cauto: Angel Verdecia Diaz, Andry Verdecia Osorio, Amado Verdecia Vive, Ramon Bolaños Martin, and the wife and daughter of activist Jose Daniel Ferrer Garcia, Belkis Cantillo and Fatima Victoria (6 years of age ).

The Coalition of Cuban-American Women denounces and makes an urgent appeal before international public opinion concerning the escalation of brutal and aggressive acts by the Cuban government against a Cuban civil society that is peacefully demanding fundamental rights in the island. The lives of these Cubans are in danger and we hold Cuban authorities responsible for their physical and mental wellbeing. Coalition of Cuban-American Women- Translation to English/ / Tel: + 305-662-5947

Information provided by JOSE DANIEL FERRER GARCIA in Cuba – Telephones (Spanish): ( + 53 631267 ) or ( + 53 790867 )

August 14, 2011, New York Times
Stop Coddling the Super-Rich

By Warren E. Buffett

OUR leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.

While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate. Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors.

These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places.

Last year my federal tax bill — the income tax I paid, as well as payroll taxes paid by me and on my behalf — was $6,938,744. That sounds like a lot of money. But what I paid was only 17.4 percent of my taxable income — and that’s actually a lower percentage than was paid by any of the other 20 people in our office. Their tax burdens ranged from 33 percent to 41 percent and averaged 36 percent.

If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot.

To understand why, you need to examine the sources of government revenue. Last year about 80 percent of these revenues came from personal income taxes and payroll taxes. The mega-rich pay income taxes at a rate of 15 percent on most of their earnings but pay practically nothing in payroll taxes. It’s a different story for the middle class: typically, they fall into the 15 percent and 25 percent income tax brackets, and then are hit with heavy payroll taxes to boot.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Since 1992, the I.R.S. has compiled data from the returns of the 400 Americans reporting the largest income. In 1992, the top 400 had aggregate taxable income of $16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 percent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to $90.9 billion — a staggering $227.4 million on average — but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 percent.

The taxes I refer to here include only federal income tax, but you can be sure that any payroll tax for the 400 was inconsequential compared to income. In fact, 88 of the 400 in 2008 reported no wages at all, though every one of them reported capital gains. Some of my brethren may shun work but they all like to invest. (I can relate to that.)

I know well many of the mega-rich and, by and large, they are very decent people. They love America and appreciate the opportunity this country has given them. Many have joined the Giving Pledge, promising to give most of their wealth to philanthropy. Most wouldn’t mind being told to pay more in taxes as well, particularly when so many of their fellow citizens are truly suffering.

Twelve members of Congress will soon take on the crucial job of rearranging our country’s finances. They’ve been instructed to devise a plan that reduces the 10-year deficit by at least $1.5 trillion. It’s vital, however, that they achieve far more than that. Americans are rapidly losing faith in the ability of Congress to deal with our country’s fiscal problems. Only action that is immediate, real and very substantial will prevent that doubt from morphing into hopelessness. That feeling can create its own reality.

Job one for the 12 is to pare down some future promises that even a rich America can’t fulfill. Big money must be saved here. The 12 should then turn to the issue of revenues. I would leave rates for 99.7 percent of taxpayers unchanged and continue the current 2-percentage-point reduction in the employee contribution to the payroll tax. This cut helps the poor and the middle class, who need every break they can get.
But for those making more than $1 million — there were 236,883 such households in 2009 — I would raise rates immediately on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains. And for those who make $10 million or more — there were 8,274 in 2009 — I would suggest an additional increase in rate.

My friends and I have been coddled long enough by a billionaire-friendly Congress. It’s time for our government to get serious about shared sacrifice.

Warren E. Buffett is the chairman and chief executive of Berkshire Hathaway.

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