Thursday, August 26, 2010

New New York Islamic Center and Mosque

I am not particularly knowledgeable about Islam, don't live in New York, and my blog for the most part focuses on national politics and significant public policy issues. People therefore have reason to wonder why I would want to dedicate any time or effort in discussing an Islamic building project in this city.

It's a fair question. Well, the project has recently become a national political and public policy issue for many different reasons. President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg have commented on it, and so have a number of other major political leaders. It's widely considered to be a very controversial project in the national media. Troubling information has come out about the project's main backer, 61 year old Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Furthermore, there is increasing concern about the project's funding. We're still fighting two costly wars and contending with terrorist threats across the globe against Islamic extremists, similar to the ones who attacked us on September 11, 2001. Terrorist group Hamas' official, Mahmoud al-Zahhar, has publicly come out in favor of the project.

As a reminder, Rauf and some unidentified Muslim supporters would like to build a $100 million 15 story Islamic community center and mosque two blocks from where the World Trade Center was destroyed about nine years ago, the area that became known as "Ground Zero". My understanding is that the property involved has already been purchased for $5 million. Mayor Bloomberg and local planning officials support the project as a freedom of religion and constitutional issue consistent with our basic values as Americans. President Obama expressed general support for similar reasons at a recent celebration of Ramadan meal. However, he seemingly backtracked a little bit the next day when he said in response to some media questions that he had not commented on the wisdom of building the project near Ground Zero.

Republican U. S. Senator David Vitter from Louisiana and Independent, formerly Democratic, U. S. Senator Joe Lieberman from Connecticut have come out against the project for moral and national security reasons.

What do I think and why? This is not a "no-brainer", but I think at best this project represents an insensitive and unnecessary provocation toward those who were directly affected by the 9/11 attacks and those who vehemently oppose the project as an insult to those who died or were injured on 9/11 or in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At worst it's an inappropriate project that should be stopped, depending on what more is found out about Rauf's motives for this specific location, his real beliefs about the rights of Islamic terrorists, and the expected sources of the funding for the project.

It's not a freedom of religion issue. Assuming the best case scenario, it's a social sensitivity issue, respecting the strong feelings of the majority of New Yorkers and residents of neighboring states opposing the project who lost 2,976 family members or close friends in the attacks.

As far as I know, the public doesn't know very much at this point about Rauf's real motives for choosing this particular location for his project, though he has apparently claimed it would be building a monument to tolerance. His supporters consider Rauf a visionary for peace and progressive Islam, someone who has worked for decades to build bridges between the U. S. and like-minded Muslims around the world. We've learned that he has represented the State Department in the Muslim world and has been given contracts to teach FBI agents about Islam. What troubles me is his apparent unwillingness, as evidenced by past statements, to unequivocally condemn suicide bombings, agree that recruiting children for suicide bombings is child abuse, and to consider Hamas as a terrorist organization.

One would have thought the State Department could have found a better Muslim to have represented us, if these Rauf statements are confirmed to be correct.

The planned funding of the project also gives me some concern. $100 million is a lot of money and it's not likely an American financial institution would provide a loan or, as I understand it, that it could be raised solely by donations from American Muslims. Most likely the bulk of it would be raised by donations from wealthy Muslim individuals, governments or non-profit organizations in the Middle East. Perhaps the most likely major source would be Wahhabi organizations in Saudi Arabia, the conservative Sunni sect which has been known to be active in funding mosques around the world, as well as terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah.

All this said, the officials in New York City and New York state should make the final decision, whether the project should be built or not. If Rauf and his sponsors comply with all the applicable construction and development regulations and ordinances, they should probably be allowed to proceed. However, I think the officials should inquire beforehand about Rauf's motives for this particular location and the source of the funding to determine if this should impact the decision. I also think Rauf should seriously consider a different, less sensitive location, more distant from Ground Zero, in an effort to get broader local support for the project.

While it shouldn't at all be factored into New York's decision, the radical Muslim extremists we are fighting in the Middle East, who maintain the U. S. is at war with Islam, will most likely consider it a "victory" for them whether the project is built or not.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Israel and Palestine Peace Agreement

Last Chance? In my two posts in January 2009 titled "Israel and Hamas' Military Conflict", I discussed much of the background, the great challenges, and the relatively poor odds involved in securing a long sought fair, balanced and sustainable peace agreement that would result in a viable two state solution with full independence for Palestine and adequate security for Israel. A ceasefire was agreed to in June 2008, after lengthy mediation by Egypt, but no peace agreement.

Finally, today, after a great deal of preparatory work, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and peace envoy for President Obama, George Mitchell, invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to meet in Washington for the first direct talks in nearly two years. Importantly, this critical meeting was arranged in coordination with the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

The right peace agreement should potentially be very beneficial to the great majority of individual Israelis and Palestinians, especially in the long run. It should also be a positive factor for the legacies of Abbas, 77, and Netanyahu, 60, which, like for most politicians, is very important to them. Additionally, this prospective foreign policy success could do a lot to help the Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections and assist President Obama improve his public opinion polls, his own legacy, and, possibly, his prospects in the 2012 elections. Also significant, the right agreement should greatly facilitate improved relations between the U. S. and the other Arab states in the Middle East.

However, despite the above points, there are several major reasons why the odds of success are not favorable:

1. There has been a long history of unsuccessful efforts.

2. The leader of Hamas, the terrorist organization that has ruled the Palestinian territory of Gaza since June 2008, Ismail Haniyeh, has already stated he would not abide by any agreement reached by Abbas and Netanyahu in Washington.

3. Hamas, funded by Iran and donations from Saudi Arabian "charitable" organizations, incredibly does still not recognize Israel's right to exist and its charter calls for Israel's obliteration or nullification.

4. Some of the right-wing leaders of recent Israeli settlements in the West Bank, especially some of those close to Jerusalem, are very anxious about the peace talks and what may result. They might also not abide by any agreement reached by Netanyahu.

5. Several of the compromises expected to be part of a fair and balanced agreement, including the status of Jerusalem, recent Israeli settlements, prospective new national borders and rights to return to Israel of Palestinians who earlier were forced to leave, are very sensitive issues unlikely to be well received by important factions on either or both sides.

6. No matter the specific outcome of the talks, countries like Iran, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and, very importantly, also Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are likely to be skeptical of its fairness, and may withhold their support, in part because of their long-time view that the U. S. is strongly biased toward favoring Israel, and this, they believe, will be reflected in how the U. S. brokers the negotiations.

This may well be the last chance for serious direct negotiations toward a peace agreement in a decade or more. The stakes are high, especially for Israel, the Palestinians, and the U. S. Our role is very delicate. We want to firmly encourage Abbas and Netanyahu to come to a clear agreement, but we don't want to put too much pressure on them. If we are perceived to be doing so and the talks don't succeed, we will be blamed, at least in the Arab world. Even if we don't put any undue pressure on them and the talks don't succeed, there is a significant chance we will be unfairly blamed.

I think there is a real possibility that Abbas and Netanyahu will come to a conditional agreement, but it will likely be subject to approval by their respective legislatures and, in the case of Palestine, possibly their primary allies and supporters, especially Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt. That approval will be much more difficult. Most Americans will be very pleased if an agreement is reached and finally approved and signed. That includes me, but I just hope it doesn't include a provision in one way or another committing the U. S. to a substantial aid package that will add unduly to our budget deficits and public debt.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Income Tax Rate Changes

As the majority of Americans who follow the news know, we're at a very critical and sensitive point in time right now when it comes to the country's economy and finances. We have record high national debt and a huge federal budget deficit, a slowly recovering but still struggling economy, slow economic growth, and a most disturbingly high 9.5% official unemployment rate, which in reality, when underemployment is counted, is actually close to if not over 16%!

At the same time we are still fighting two expensive wars with associated nation-building type programs in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing substantial costly aid of many different types to many other countries, including Pakistan and Haiti, and maintaining dozens of marginally needed military bases in still others. Expenses and investments for these activities are one reason for our high debt and budget deficits. Another important reason was because of the federal initiatives and interventions considered necessary by the Obama Administration to help the country recover from our deep recession from 2008 to the present.

A third important factor was the sizable tax cuts pushed by President Bush and approved by Congress in 2001 in the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act and other related legislation passed in 2003. The lowest income tier rate was reduced from 15% to 10%, the other tier rates were reduced by 2% each. The Act also reduced the capital gains tax, increased the child tax credit and reduced the so-called "marriage penalty". The stated purpose of the Act was to help us recover from the 2000 recession and stimulate economic growth. As most of us know, these tax cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of the year and revert to their former higher levels for 2011 and future years, unless Congress enacts legislation to prevent this.

President Obama has for some time indicated that he wants to see the current rates extended into 2011 and beyond for all income tiers, except for those households earning $250,000 or more annually, believing that these high earners can more easily afford to pay more. Additionally, he is very cognizant of the need to work on reducing our deficit and demonstrate to our creditors, including the Chinese, that we're serious about stabilizing our finances. Most of the Republicans in Congress are opposed to any higher tax rates, feeling that it has a good chance to weaken our economic recovery and harm many small businesses who are key players in potentially hiring a lot of new employees when the economy gets a little better and credit becomes more readily available.

According to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, a typical middle-class family with a median income of $63,366 would pay $4,964 in taxes next year if the tax cuts expire, well above the estimated $3,423 the family would owe if the cuts were extended. So the difference is a little over $1,500, a fairly significant amount for a family in this position, having most likely limited savings and money to pay for any of their children's college education and their retirement. If all the tax cuts were allowed to expire through congressional inaction, something I consider highly unlikely, an estimated $3 billion would come to the U. S. Treasury over the next 10 years, an average of $300 billion annually. Considering that the federal budget deficit for the current fiscal year is projected by the White House to reach a record $1.47 trillion, and maybe a comparable level next year, it would certainly be tempting to let the cuts expire. But that won't happen.

Chances are good that President Obama will eventually either get his the bulk of his plan approved or will get a compromise approved, under which the reinstatement of the former higher rates for those earning over $250,000 would be phased in over two years. I also think there is a chance that tax rates for most of our middle class will go up a little from 25% to 26% or 27% in two more years, assuming the economy has largely recovered and the unemployment rate has declined to something like 7% or less. The most important index for Washington policies and public opinion polls in the next 18-24 months is the official unemployment rate. Tax rates will tend to stay relatively low, like now, if the unemployment rate stays above 8.5 or 9.0% and are more likely to increase if and when the rate approaches 7.0 or even 7.5% or goes even lower.

It is important to note that economists and other academics seem to be evenly divided between Obama's plan and that supported by most Republicans in the opposition. In my view, the major factors that will influence the outcome over the next 4-6 months, aside from changes in the unemployment rate include especially what happens in the November mid-term elections, new economic growth numbers, the latest developments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and revised numbers for the federal budget deficit.

I'm OK with what I understand of Obama's plan for the tax rates, given current economic and financial conditions, but, as mentioned in earlier posts, I also want to see comprehensive tax reform enacted next year where the entire tax system is greatly streamlined and simplified with reduced "administrative" costs for both the government and taxpayers. It will take a lot of time, in short supply bipartisan effort, and comprise to get what I support approved by Congress. Reform will definitely be opposed by tax lawyers and tax accountants, as well as other groups who are happy and make a good living with the status quo, but it is close to a no-brainer and will be good for America.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Political Identifications in America

It's widely accepted in America that at social gatherings one should preferably avoid initiating any conversations about politics and religion. You might offend someone or make them angry! Better to talk about the weather, sports, what people are doing these days, or about people's children and grandchildren. Right? This admonition also generally applies to one's political affiliation or leanings.

It is therefore interesting to note that in this country, except for in North Dakota, one has to register to be eligible to vote, and in all states except these six - Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, Wisconsin, and Washington - one is required to declare a political party affiliation. In some states the only choices are Democrat or Republican. In other states one has more choices, including Independent and "decline to state", among others.

We essentially have a two-party system in the U. S. dominated by Democrats and Republicans, and political scientists view it as inconceivable that any presidential administration would not be led by a Democrat or a Republican. However, almost everyone is very aware of the fact that blatant partisanship by many members of the Congress and the Obama Administration is hampering progress in solving many of our major problems. Our leading politicians are clearly not following the prudent advice of our first and one of the greatest of our presidents. In his farewell address given in 1796, George Washington noted that the first few sessions of the U. S. Congress were markedly nonpartisan, implicitly criticizing overt partisanship, and he warned against having political parties that he felt would jeopardize that pattern.

The Democratic Party was essentially founded by Thomas Jefferson in the late 1700's, but didn't become known as that until Andrew Jackson became president in 1828. The Republican Party was first organized in 1854, growing out of a coalition of Whigs and what were called "Free Soil Democrats". The Whigs were one of the two major political parties (the Democratic Party being the other) from the early 1800's until 1856. They were anti-slavery, supported the supremacy of Congress over the Executive Branch, and economic protectionism. The Free Soil Democrats were against expansion of slavery into the western U. S. territories and free land for settlers in these areas. On the key issue at the time of slavery, the Democrats concluded at their convention in 1860 that each state had the right to prohibit or recognize slavery.

At the very historical presidential election in 1860, a prominent U. S. Senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas, the nominee of the Northern Democratic Party, lost out to the renowned nominee of the Republican Party, who, though born in Kentucky, also lived in Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.

Labels for political affiliations and leanings have greatly expanded in recent years, and it's getting more difficult to keep straight what each typically stand for. Conservatives are most often known as Republicans, but they might also be referred to as "on the right", "right-wingers", "Tea Partyists", and "Libertarians", among other names. Liberals are most often known as Democrats, but they are also referred to as "leftists", left-wingers", "progressives" and "socialists", among other names. However, both Republicans and Democrats can also view themselves as "Independents" and "Moderates", with many of their positions on major issues being close to the center of the political spectrum.

As is well known, Conservatives' most noteworthy political positions include beliefs in limited government, low taxes, limited government regulations, balanced budgets, free business markets, strong military, pro-life on the abortion issue, and limited controls on guns. Liberals' most noteworthy positions, on the other hand, include a larger role for government (especially the federal government), willingness to pay more in taxes for a higher level of social services, pro-environment, pro labor unions, greater gun control, and pro-choice on abortions.

At our most recent presidential and congressional election in 2008, 169 million or 71% of voting age Americans were registered to vote. Of these 50.8% registered as Democrats and 32.5% as Republicans. The actual voting participation rate was just 62.4% of the voting age citizens. Despite this 83.3% domination by Democrats and Republicans, at about the same time fully one-third of all voters reportedly considered themselves as Independent or unaffiliated and roughly 15% identified themselves as Libertarian, though some of these must have registered as Republican.

However, according to a June 2009 Gallup Poll, 40% of Americans interviewed in a national poll described their views as conservative, 35% as moderate, and only 21% as liberal, representing at the time a slight increase for conservatism since 2008. The 21% for liberals was apparently in line with what Gallup found in 2000. It would appear that many voters switched from Democrat or Liberal to Moderate or Independent between 2008 and 2009, likely due to concern with the financial crisis and some of President Obama's policy initiatives. With respect to the upcoming mid-term elections, the keys for party success will likely again include the size of the turnout as well as how Moderates and Independents vote. It looks like the Republicans and Conservatives have reasons to be optimistic, but a lot can still happen between now and November to affect the outlook.

My conclusions from all this?

1. We need to find ways to motivate a greater percentage of American citizens to vote regularly and get informed on major issues and candidates. This might include simplifying or eliminating registration requirements. Another important step would be our federal and state governments earning higher approval ratings from the public as evidenced by credible opinion polls, in order to minimize the significant public apathy and cynicism towards government and our politicians that currently exists.

2. We need to put more pressure on our elected representatives, and request support from the media, to minimize the present high level of blatant partisanship we are experiencing in our government which is hindering effective governance, fair and balanced solutions to major problems, and appropriate and productive use of taxpayer dollars.

3. We need to get approval in Congress for major campaign finance reform that will reduce the importance of money in campaigns, lessen the influence of special interests and well-heeled individuals and organizations, and allow candidates to spend less time on fundraising and more time meeting voters and explaining what they stand for and why they should be elected. With enactment of this type of reform, there is a high probability that we will see better candidates run for office. This is close to a no-brainer, despite constitutional hurdles!

4. Following the lead of George Washington back in 1796, we should work towards reducing the role and power of our political parties and voters should be encouraged to be less ideological and more pragmatic in making voting decisions. It would also be a positive development if voters could be encouraged to really think about why they are liberal, conservative or independent and prioritize what candidate elections and issues are most important to them and best for the country as a whole.

I am not so naive as to think all this will happen, certainly not in the next few years. However, I do think these needs and changes would lead to a better government and a better America with a more engaged and content population.