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By Jan C. Ting

Obama’s fiscal cliff tax deal led us into sequestration

I believe President Obama genuinely opposes the sequestration spending cuts now going into effect. I don't believe the cynics who think he secretly welcomes the spending cuts as long as he can blame them on Republicans.

But if the President really wanted to prevent sequestration, he made a strategic mistake back on January 1, when he agreed to make permanent most of the so-called Bush tax cuts which had been scheduled to expire automatically.

President Obama claimed $600 billion in new tax revenue from the rich over 10 years from his fiscal tax deal. But compared to what? That's new revenue only compared to what would have happened if all the Bush tax cuts had been extended, something that was never going to happen, as the President himself guaranteed.

As a result of the January deal, the rich saw their tax rate on corporate dividends permanently reduced to only 20% from 39.6% under President Clinton, and they shared in the tax cuts on income under $400,000. The Congressional Budget Office actually scored the fiscal tax deal as INCREASING federal deficits over 10 years by $3.9 trillion compared to if it had not passed.

So much for deficit reduction and finding new net revenue.

If instead, President Obama had allowed all the Bush tax cuts to expire on December 31, he would have put himself in the strongest possible position for a grand bargain on taxes, spending, and the debt ceiling. Republicans would be incentivized to support tax cuts from the higher restored Clinton-era tax rates. And increased tax revenues would have reduced some of the political pressure to cut spending to slow deficit growth.

While everyone claims to favor simplification and reform of the tax system, the January fiscal tax deal resurrected mind-boggling tax complexity including phase-outs of the personal exemption and itemized deductions for certain taxpayers. There was no constituency for these phase-outs. There were no lobbyists pushing for them. The only supporters were politicians trying to find some tax revenue enhancements without further increasing tax rates. These phase-outs would be a top target of any true tax reform.

Having made the expiring Bush tax cuts permanent for 98% of taxpayers, and allowing even the top 2% to keep some, but not all of those tax cuts, Republicans have little incentive to head off cuts in federal spending which they advocate as policy. The January tax compromise they negotiated with President Obama enabled Republicans to be intransigent on spending cuts, even as they shed crocodile tears over the details and methodology of sequestration.

So the automatic spending cuts of sequestration have begun, and are likely to proceed for awhile with no prospects for compromise on the horizon. But I doubt that the consequences for the economy will actually be as dire as predicted by the Obama administration.

The stock market is near record highs. Clearly investors do not see 2.4% sequestration cuts from a $3.5 trillion federal budget as a major threat to the U.S. economy. We will have to adjust to the mandated across-the-board spending cuts of sequestration. And who knows? Limiting federal spending might prove to be good for us.

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Why the proposed immigration amnesty should and will fail

The so-called comprehensive immigration reform proposed by a group of Senators and President Obama amounts to immediate amnesty for millions of immigration law violators, the lifting of limits on future immigration, with some window dressing designed to assuage skeptical voters.

We've seen this act before. The 1986 amnesty promised to fix the immigration problem by amnestying 3 million immigration law violators, strengthening the border, and penalizing employers for hiring illegal immigrants. It didn't work then, and it won't work now.

We know that merely strengthening the border and threatening employers who hire illegal immigrants are not sufficient to limit the numbers of foreigners seeking a better life in the U.S. An amnesty simply attracts more illegal immigrants, now conservatively estimated at 11 million.

Illegal immigrants make a rational choice when they decide to violate our immigration laws. They weigh the costs, including the risks of getting caught, against the benefits of a better life. We attract more illegal immigrants by reducing the costs through discretionary enforcement and improving the benefits through amnesty.

The Pew Research Center estimates that the U.S. population will increase from 300 million to over 400 million by 2050, mainly because of immigration, and that's if we do nothing. And expect 600 million by the end of the century, again if we do nothing. 

Another amnesty will accelerate that rapid population growth. Where will another 100 or 300 million people obtain schooling and health care and energy to heat their homes? Where will they drive and park their cars?  Anyone here concerned about the environment, waste disposal, open space preservation, clean air and water?

Both my parents were immigrants. I respect and admire immigrants, as we all should. But that's not the issue. The issue is: how many?

The United States is experiencing a protracted period of unemployment still hovering around 8%. Prolonged unemployment is a tragedy of broken lives, broken families, foreclosed homes, and life without health insurance. Legal immigrants, including those amnestied, will be able to compete with unemployed Americans for jobs.

If we're willing to accept unlimited immigration in order to keep wages low and corporate profits high, we should just say so and stop paying for all the immigration enforcement window dressing. But if we want to set and enforce a limit on immigration, we have to be willing to say no to would-be immigrants who look a lot like our own ancestors, not because there's anything wrong with them, but simply because admitting them would exceed our legal limit.

And if those immigrants come anyway in violation of our immigration laws, we have to be willing to deport them, in order to raise the costs and decrease the benefits of illegal immigration, to deter future immigration law violators.

That's not an easy choice. But I think the American people want to enforce a numerical limit on immigration, even if it means turning away people who look like our ancestors. To do so, they will have to repeatedly contact their members of Congress to tell them to stop the amnesty. Start by sending a fax with a click at the website numbersusa.com .

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No one needs snail mail more than 3 times a week

The current controversy over eliminating Saturday mail delivery prompted me to look up something I wrote two years ago.  Here it is:

The U.S. Postal Service is probably the government agency which has been most adversely affected by the internet revolution. The high volume of personal and business correspondence which used to be mailed is now e-mailed at much lower cost. Despite cutting jobs and raising postage rates and fees, the Postal Service remains in desperate financial condition, running multi-billion dollar deficits annually, unable to fund health benefits for future retirees, and predicting default on other payments due if relief isn't granted by Congress.

Congress should authorize the Postal Service to take the necessary steps towards financial stability, including flexibility in funding employee benefits, authority to eliminate underused post offices, and reducing the current six-day per week delivery system.

Delaware's Senator Tom Carper who chairs the relevant Senate subcommittee has introduced legislation authorizing some of those reforms. But the Postal Service itself has been reluctant to embrace the reform which would do the most to address its financial crisis: reducing mail delivery to 3-times per week.

In 2010 the Postal Service paid for an expensive study by business consultants McKinsey & Co. which recommended reducing mail delivery to 3-times per week. But the head of the Postal Service immediately rejected that recommendation, which it had paid for, saying, "I think that would negatively impact our business.... If we change delivery from six to three, the ubiquity of our product and the value would be diminished."

Nobody needs mail delivery more than 3 times a week in the age of the internet. Most communications go faster by e-mail. Express deliveries can still be done for extra fees by the Postal Service or by private carriers like UPS or FedEx.

Gradual conversion to three-times a week delivery would permit a significant reduction in the number of Postal Service employees, which could be accomplished through attrition without layoffs. Eventually half the mail could be delivered on Monday-Wednesday-Friday. The other half could be delivered Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday. Reducing employees means reducing expenses including health and retirement benefits.

The Postal Service is not and cannot be run as a jobs program. The multi-billion dollar annual deficits must end.

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Joe Biden for President in 2016?

It's less than three years now before the first presidential primary elections of 2016. Anyone who wants to be a serious candidate in those primaries will need to start organizing a campaign soon.

My home state of Delaware knows Vice President Joseph Biden well. He was first elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972 when he was only 29 years old. Delaware voters re-elected him six times to additional six-year terms in 1978, 1984, 1990, 1996, 2002, and 2008.

Delaware is a small state consisting of a single congressional district. Most Delaware voters resident more than a few years can tell personal stories about Joe Biden and their contacts with him. Senator Biden has demonstrated his desire for higher office by twice campaigning for President in 1988 and again twenty years later in 2008, before accepting nomination for Vice President. He resigned from the U.S. Senate in 2009 upon his inauguration as Vice President.

No one who observed Vice President Biden during his and President Obama's recent second inauguration can doubt his interest in at least keeping all his options open for 2016. Stepping out of the motorcade from the Capitol to the White House, the Vice President literally ran to shake as many hands of spectators as he could reach. In contrast, President Obama, who does not expect to ever be a candidate again, made no such exertions during the walking parts of the motorcade.

President Obama's "private" swearing-in on Sunday was attended only by his family and the press. In contrast, Vice President Biden's "private" swearing-in the same day was attended by more than a hundred invited guests, including many from early primary states like New Hampshire, Iowa, and South Carolina, and others who will be "superdelegates" at the Democratic nominating convention in 2016.

Both the Vice President's age and the ambitions of Hillary Clinton will be factors affecting his viability as a presidential candidate in 2016. If elected President in 2016, Joe Biden would by 74 on Inauguration Day 2017, and the oldest President ever elected and inaugurated. Ronald Reagan, America's oldest president, was 69 when inaugurated in 1981 and 73 at his second inauguration in 1985. Soon after leaving office, President Reagan was afflicted with Alzheimer's disease, and in retrospect, some observers thought that there were symptoms of the disease during his second term. The incidence of that disease and others obviously increases with age.

Hillary Clinton would be only 69 on Inauguration Day 2017, the same age as Reagan at his first inauguration. If Hillary Clinton decides to seek the presidency in 2016, she will have the advantage of being a "first", which proved to be a net plus factor for Barack Obama in 2008.

Joe Biden also has a reputation for gaffes and loquaciousness. Some might argue that's part of his working class charm which helps to humanize him. No one can deny his apparent comfort and common touch as a campaigner.

But the biggest factor affecting Joe Biden's political prospects in 2016 will be President Obama's success or lack thereof during his second term. A successful second term which leaves voters wishing for a third would be good news for any vice president. Conversely, an unsuccessful second term that leaves voters looking for a change would be an invitation to candidates other than an incumbent vice president.

Vice President Biden has promised to do whatever he can to help President Obama achieve success in their second term. He certainly has every reason to do so.

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Can Obama overcome these NRA shibboleths?

My dictionary defines a "shibboleth" as a "saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning." In response to the latest mass gun murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has trotted out its usual shibboleths.

First divert attention from guns onto something else. NRA executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said on December 21, "There exists in this country a callous, corrupt and corrupting shadow industry that sells, and sows, violence against its own people." Sounds like he's describing the American gun manufacturing and sales business, but actually he's trying to blame the video game and movie industries, and American culture in general, including music videos which he says "portray life as a joke".

But the whole world watches American movies and American television and plays American video games. So how can our movies, video games, and music videos explain America's high gun-related death rate, the highest among all developed nations?

By the way, the NRA has been caught glorifying the particular guns used in violent movies and videos, and has removed those links from its website since the Sandy Hook massacre.

Second, Wayne LaPierre also condemned "our nation's refusal to create an active national database of the mentally ill". And in response to President Obama's gun control proposals, LaPierre on January 16 more broadly proposed "fixing our broken mental health system".

Actually, most states already authorize or require consideration of mental health records in background checks for firearms, and most authorize or require reporting mental health records to the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System, known as "NICS".

But states and mental health experts do not agree on which mental health records should be maintained and shared by governments. The number of Americans who experience some degree of mental illness is large, but the number who constitute a physical threat to others is small, and difficult to identify.

Nothing wrong with paying more attention to the challenges of the mentally ill, but the NRA's concern is clearly more focused on turning attention away from guns.

A third distraction of the NRA is its bold assertion that more guns make us safer, that "the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun", and that the proper solution to the Sandy Hook massacre is to put more guns in schools. But if more guns make a society safer from gun violence, as the NRA asserts, the United States would have the lowest level of gun violence in the developed world instead of the highest.

On the same day as the Sandy Hook massacre, there was an attack on elementary school children in Chengping, a city in Henan province, China. A deranged attacker stabbed 22 school children. But here's the difference: All those children survived. The difference was the available weapon, a knife instead of a gun.

If President Obama's gun control initiatives are to gain any traction, the NRA shibboleths must be refuted, and our concern over gun violence properly focused on the accessibility of guns.

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