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  • October 2, 2015
    Studies: Raise Capital Gains Tax Rates to Lower Income Inequality

    On Monday, Donald Trump became just the latest Republican White House hopeful to propose a Treasury draining, tax cut windfall for the richest Americans. But while Trump calls for slashing the top marginal income tax rates at a time of record income inequality, a new study from the Brookings Institution argues that hiking those same rates will have little impact on the immense income gap in the United States.

    That finding from former Obama budget official Peter Orszag and his co-authors William Gale and Melissa Kearney may seem counter-intuitive. But it's not, for the simple reason that Orszag and company focused their attention on the wrong set of tax rates. As it turns out, historically low capital gains tax rates haven't fueled greater investment in the U.S. economy, but instead helped fuel the biggest income gap since 1929.

    Of course, you wouldn't know that from reading Peter Orszag:

    We modeled, among other scenarios, raising the top individual income tax rate to 50 percent from its current level of 39.6 percent. That would create significant revenue, no question. For households in the 95th to 99th percentiles of income, taxes would rise by an average of $6,464 a year. For the top 0.1 percent, the average yearly increase would be $568,617. But how much difference would this make for after-tax income inequality?

    To answer that, we calculated the Gini coefficient for after-tax income before and after the simulated tax change. (The Gini coefficient is an index that ranges from 0, if everyone has the same earnings, to 1, if a single person has all the earnings and everyone else has none.) Under the current tax schedule, we estimate the after-tax Gini coefficient to be .574. Raising the top marginal tax rate to 50 percent would reduce that only to .571.

    While conservatives predictably cheered the findings from Orszag et al, the analysis ignored one of the most important causes of the dramatic upward redistribution of wealth underway since the early 1980's. Simply put, the richest 1 percent of Americans make most of their money from investments. And the tax rates on their gains are now only about half the level when Ronald Reagan first took the oath office.

    In September 2011, the Washington Post illustrated how plummeting capital gains and dividend tax rates helped bring about an income gap and wealth concentration not seen since before the Great Depression.

    As part of the Post's series on the widening chasm between the super-rich and everyone else titled "Breaking Away," the Post concluded that "capital gains tax rates benefiting wealthy feed [the] growing gap between rich and poor." As the Post explained, for the very richest Americans the successive capital gains tax cuts from Presidents Clinton (from 28 to 20 percent in 1998) and Bush (from 20 to 15 percent in 2003) have been "better than any Christmas gift":

    While it's true that many middle-class Americans own stocks or bonds, they tend to stash them in tax-sheltered retirement accounts, where the capital gains rate does not apply. By contrast, the richest Americans reap huge benefits. Over the past 20 years, more than 80 percent of the capital gains income realized in the United States has gone to 5 percent of the people; about half of all the capital gains have gone to the wealthiest 0.1 percent.

    While the 2013 "fiscal cliff" tax deal boosted the top capitals gains tax rate back to 23.8 percent (the Affordable Care Act added a 3.8 percent tax for upper income earners on top of the new 20 percent top rate), the dynamic remains essentially unchanged. Not only are America's wealthy rapidly pulling away from the rest of their countrymen, the stratospherically rich are leaving the merely rich in the dust, too.

    (As University of California economist Emmanuel Saez showed in 2013, the rapid recovery and expansion of the stock market since the lows of the Great Recession allowed the top 1 percent to grow their incomes by 11 percent between 2009 and 2011, while the other 99 percent of American people continued to lose ground.)

    Reviewing another study by Saez and co-author Thomas Piketty, Ezra Klein explained the central role of low capital gains taxes in "how the ultra-rich are pulling away from the 'merely' rich." As Klein noted, "If you don't look at capital gains, the top 0.01 percent only captures 3.15 percent of income in the United States," adding "that's about a third smaller a share as when capital gains are included." All told, the top 10 percent account for almost half of total income in the United States, up from just over 30 percent in 1970.

    The impact of the nation's tax policies on income inequality has hardly been a secret on Capitol Hill. In December 2011, Thomas Hungerford of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) authored an analysis which concluded:

    Capital gains and dividends were a larger share of total income in 2006 than in 1996 (especially for high-income taxpayers) and were more unequally distributed in 2006 than in 1996. Changes in capital gains and dividends were the largest contributor to the increase in the overall income inequality. Taxes were less progressive in 2006 than in 1996, and consequently, tax policy also contributed to the increase in income inequality between 1996 and 2006.

    In January 2013, the CRS's Hungerford published another study which once again confirmed that historically low capital gains tax rates are "by far the largest contributor" to America's historically high income inequality. As ThinkProgress explained Hungerford's findings, the upward spiral of income inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) between 1991 and 2006 is mostly due to federal tax policy that slashed rates on capital gains and dividend income, income which flows almost exclusively to the rich:

    By far, the largest contributor to this increase was changes in income from capital gains and dividends. Changes in wages had an equalizing effect over this period as did changes in taxes. Most of the equalizing effect of taxes took place after the 1993 tax hike; most of the equalizing effect, however, was reversed after the 2001 and 2003 Bush-era tax cuts. [...]

    The large increase in the contribution of capital gains and dividends to the Gini coefficient, however, is due to the large increase in the share of after-tax income from capital gains and dividends, and to the increase in the correlation of this income source with after-tax income.

    Now, these levels of income inequality not seen since the Great Depression might be more tolerable if they served to produce faster economic growth and accelerated job creation. But as Jared Bernstein along with Troy Kravitz and Len Burman of the Urban Institute have shown, lower capitals gains tax rates (contrary to the claims of conservative mythmakers) haven't fueled increased investment in the America economy.

    As Bernstein demonstrated with the chart above, there's no evidence to support the persistent GOP claim that a low tax rate on capital spurs more investment in the U.S. economy, and thus benefits all Americans. Bernstein found that the business cycle, not acts of Congress, drives investment in the U.S.

    Hard to see anything in the picture supporting the view that either the level or changes in cap gains taxes play a determinant role in investment decisions.

    Remember, the ostensible reason for the favoritism in tax treatment here is to incentivize more investment and faster productivity growth. But that's not in the data and the reason it's not in the data is because investors aren't nearly as elastic to cap gains rates as their lobbyists say they are (more precisely, they'll carefully time their realizations to maximize their gains around rate changes, but that's not real economic activity--that's tax planning).

    Reviewing other analyses in 2012, Brad Plumer of the Washington Post concurred with that assessment that low capital gains taxes don't necessarily jump-start investment in the economy:

    The top tax rate on investment income has bounced up and down over the past 80 years--from as high as 39.9 percent in 1977 to just 15 percent today--yet investment just appears to grow with the cycle, seemingly unaffected. ...

    Meanwhile, Troy Kravitz and Len Burman of the Urban Institute have shown that, over the past 50 years, there's no correlation between the top capital gains tax rate and U.S. economic growth--even if you allow for a lag of up to five years.

    Billionaire Warren Buffett, the inspiration for the "Buffett Rule" advocated by President Obama and his Democratic allies, couldn't agree more. As he told the New York Times in 2011:

    "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."

    That's right. Higher capital gains tax rates haven't scared off investors in the past. But despite their talk about income inequality, Republicans like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush want to cut capital gains taxes. Marco Rubio wants to eliminate them altogether. The only other reform that could impact intergenerational dynastic wealth as profoundly would be to eliminate the estate tax (and its $25 billion a year in revenue to Uncle Sam), a levy that impacts less than a quarter of one percent of the richest families in America. Unsurprisingly, pretty much all of the 2016 GOP presidential candidates support doing precisely that.

    At the end of the day, income tax rates on the well-to-do should go up to help fund the programs Americans of all political stripes say they want, not to reduce income inequality. To do that, Washington will need to address root causes, like The decline of post-World War II American economic dominance, the rise of new international competitors, the withering (and the smothering) of trade unions and accelerating globalization with its seamless transnational flow of capital, investment and automated production, all of factors which have choked off the supply of large numbers of good paying jobs for working Americans. But with the changing nature of the American workforce--and work itself--even that will not be enough to sufficiently narrow the income gap.

    That will require raising capital gains tax rates.

    Perrspective 10:50 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

    September 29, 2015
    John Boehner's Deal with the Devil

    House Speaker John Boehner shocked the political world last week when he announced his resignation less than 24 hours after hosting Pope Francis on Capitol Hill. As it turns out, his timing was altogether fitting. After all, Boehner's life had become a living hell precisely because he had a done a deal with the devil in his own Republican caucus. From the very beginning of his tenure as Speaker, John Boehner advanced many of the radical right's most extreme and obstructionist positions, kamikaze tactics he knew were not just misguided, but dangerous.

    Collage of pictures of John Boehner crying.

    Consider, for example, his role in the GOP's unprecedented debt-ceiling hostage taking. Increasing Uncle Sam's borrowing authority had been a routine, bipartisan occurrence, with over 40 debt ceiling hikes just since Ronald Reagan first took the oath of office. No party ever had the both the votes and the intent to block a debt ceiling increase. Just days after first picking up the Speaker's gavel in January 2011, John Boehner explained why:

    "That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on Election Day said, 'we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs.' And you can't create jobs if you default on the federal debt."

    Just days after his November 2010 midterm triumph, Boehner issued that same warning to the Tea Party extortionists who stormed into Washington with him:

    "I've made it pretty clear to them that as we get into next year, it's pretty clear that Congress is going to have to deal with this," Mr. Boehner, who is slated to become House speaker in January, told reporters.

    "We're going to have to deal with it as adults," he said, in what apparently are his most explicit comments to date. "Whether we like it or not, the federal government has obligations and we have obligations on our part."

    But Boehner also had made commitments to the hardline House conservatives who elevated him to Speaker. And as they clamored for draconian spending cuts and even the privatization of Medicare as the ransom for releasing their debt ceiling hostage in the spring of 2011, Speaker Boehner declared "there's no daylight between the Tea Party and me":

    House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), fresh off the budget talks, told donors this weekend that if Obama wants an up or down vote on the debt ceiling he's not going to get it.

    "The president says I want you to send me a clean bill," Boehner said. "Well guess what, Mr. President, not a chance you're going to get a clean bill."

    "There will not be an increase in the debt limit without something really, really big attached to it," he continued in a clip of his remarks at a fundraiser that was played during "Face the Nation."

    That was an amazing statement for Boehner to make, given that he, along with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) voted for all 7 debt ceiling hikes as President Bush nearly doubled the nation's red ink over the previous 8 years. (That included a "clean", $800 billion increase in 2004.) More amazing still, Speaker Boehner told a gathering of Buckeye state Tea Partiers that same April of 2011 that the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling must be raised --and not for the last time:

    The private April 25 meeting was convened by the Speaker of the House of Representatives at the request of Tea Party leaders, who were seething over recent Republican compromises, most notably on the 2011 budget.

    One of the 25 or so leaders, all from Boehner's district, asked him if Republicans would raise America's $14.3 trillion debt limit.

    According to half a dozen attendees interviewed by Reuters, the most powerful Republican in Washington said "yes."

    "And we're going to have to raise it again in the future," he added. With the mass retirement of America's Baby Boomers, he explained, it would take 20 years to balance the U.S. budget and 30 years after that to erase the nation's huge fiscal deficit.

    Even as the August 2011 deadline approached to avert a sovereign default by the United States, Speaker Boehner continued to try to have it both ways. "Missing August 2nd could spook the market," he warned that July, "And you could have a real catastrophe. Nobody wants that to happen." But that's precisely what many of his Republican colleagues wanted to happen. And in late June, Boehner joined the "default deniers" claiming the Obama administration's warnings about that early August deadline were "scare tactics" and "outright blatant lies":

    "Dealing with this deficit problem is far more important than meeting some artificial date created by the Treasury secretary."

    Ultimately, the Budget Control Act of 2011--best known for its arbitrary "sequestration" process to chop discretionary spending by $1.2 trillion over a decade--averted the worldwide "financial disaster" Boehner himself darkly predicted. The Speaker's reaction?

    "I got 98 percent of what I wanted."

    But spending reductions weren't all he got. With the debt ceiling showdown, Boehner had created what Mitch McConnell would call "a new template" for "a hostage that's worth ransoming." Going forward, Congressional Republicans were empowered to threaten to shut down the government, block debt ceiling increases and trigger a global economic calamity over immigration rules, Obamacare funding, Planned Parenthood spending or just about any other blackmail du jour. (John Boehner's Catholic Church even got into the act in 2013, with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops demanding Congress refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless "unless religious employers were given a special right to deny birth control coverage to their employees.") It's no surprise that in 2011 and again in the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling showdowns of 2012, majorities of Americans came to believe that the debt ceiling shouldn't be raised at all.

    And Boehner got something else: a reduction in the U.S. credit rating in what many rightly called the Tea Party Downgrade:

    A Standard & Poor's director said for the first time Thursday that one reason the United States lost its triple-A credit rating was that several lawmakers expressed skepticism about the serious consequences of a credit default -- a position put forth by some Republicans. Without specifically mentioning Republicans, S&P senior director Joydeep Mukherji said the stability and effectiveness of American political institutions were undermined by the fact that "people in the political arena were even talking about a potential default," Mukherji said. "That a country even has such voices, albeit a minority, is something notable," he added. "This kind of rhetoric is not common amongst AAA sovereigns."

    That kind of rhetoric may not be common amongst countries with AAA credit ratings, but it was just another day in the office for John Boehner and his Tea Party allies. With tax revenues up thanks to the rebounding economy, by March 2013 even Speaker Boehner and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan had to admit "we have no immediate debt crisis." Nevertheless, the Speaker tried to stick to his "Boehner Rule," mandating a dollar in spending cuts for each dollar increase in the debt ceiling. And he continued to rule out tax increases as part of any path to deficit reduction.

    Ultimately, the "fiscal cliff" deal of January 2013 included an end to some of the Bush tax cuts sought by President Obama. But when Democrats urged that some or all of the sequester be rolled back to help accelerate the economic recovery, Speaker Boehner pretended that would have no positive impact on jobs. Asked if he had "a sense of how many jobs will be lost as a result of the sequester," the Speaker of the House said, "I do not." In March 2013, Boehner once again proclaimed his ignorance in an interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press:

    "I don't know whether it's going to hurt the economy or not. I don't think anyone quite understands how the sequester is really going to work."

    Of course, there were no shortage of dire, specific and nonpartisan warnings about the impact of the $85 billion in cuts to defense and discretionary spending in 2013 alone. And Speaker Boehner knows this, because over just the last three weeks he heard them directly from the heads of the Congressional Budget Office and the Federal Reserve. On February 13, 2013, CBO Director Douglas Elmendorf testified to the House Budget Committee about the economic blow from the first year of $1.2 trillion, decade-long sequester:

    "The sequester alone will reduce GDP growth this year by 0.6 percentage points, lowering GDP at the end of the year by that 0.6 percent. We think that would reduce the level of employment at the end of the year by about 750,000 jobs."

    And in his testimony to Congress that same month, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke echoed that warning:

    The CBO estimates that deficit-reduction policies in current law will slow the pace of real GDP growth by about 1-1/2 percentage points this year, relative to what it would have been otherwise.

    A significant portion of this effect is related to the automatic spending sequestration that is scheduled to begin on March 1, which, according to the CBO's estimates, will contribute about 0.6 percentage points to the fiscal drag on economic growth this year. Given the still-moderate underlying pace of economic growth, this additional near-term burden on the recovery is significant.

    Moreover, besides having adverse effects on jobs and incomes, a slower recovery would lead to less actual deficit reduction in the short run for any given set of fiscal actions.

    It's no wonder Bernanke lamented, "So it doesn't quite match to be doing tough policies today when the real problem is a somewhat longer-term problem."

    But Boehner's Republican kamikaze caucus wanted to squeeze the government no matter the disastrous impact and no matter the truth. And when it came to the truth about Barack Obama's citizenship and faith, House Speaker John Boehner wasn't about to challenge the Cannibal Conservatives he helped create.

    In his first month on the job, Speaker Boehner told David Gregory, "I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I'll take him at his word." But when Gregory pushed him to accept the "responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance," Boehner repeatedly refused.

    David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people...Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't -- it's not my job to tell them.

    Apparently, that job belongs to the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump. Which is why, four and a half years later, a recent PPP poll found that "Trump Supporters Think Obama is A Muslim Born in Another Country":

    Our new poll finds that Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump's supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he's a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was...

    Trump's beliefs represent the consensus among the GOP electorate. 51% overall want to eliminate birthright citizenship. 54% think President Obama is a Muslim. And only 29% grant that President Obama was born in the United States. That's less than the 40% who think Canadian born Ted Cruz was born in the United States.

    Now as he prepares to depart the stage, Democrats and some Republicans are lamenting Boehner's fate. President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid praised John Boehner as a "patriot" and a "good friend." While Republican Lindsey Graham warned a Congressional "meltdown" in Boehner's wake, the liberal ThinkProgress warned, "John Boehner may have been the only thing standing between America and madness." Looking at Boehner's efforts to avoid the Ted Cruz-led government shutdown in the fall of 2013, Ian Millhiser wrote Friday:

    For four years, Boehner's been caught between hardline conservatives who insist on pressing the Republican Party's agenda by any means necessary, and his own understanding that perpetual shutdowns are a road to economic ruin and political oblivion.

    Better the devil you know, apparently, than the devil you don't.

    But E.J. Dionne and Paul Krugman offered more honest and accurate assessments of Boehner's tenure. "Boehner was happy to ride the tea party to the speakership," Dionne explained, "but to keep the job, he often had to appease the tiger." Krugman only needed his first paragraph to get the job done:

    John Boehner was a terrible, very bad, no good speaker of the House. Under his leadership, Republicans pursued an unprecedented strategy of scorched-earth obstructionism, which did immense damage to the economy and undermined America's credibility around the world.

    On Face the Nation Sunday, John Boehner himself warned his Republican Party and the nation about the those in the GOP who made almost any compromise with the Obama administration impossible:

    "The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done."

    But John Boehner sold his soul to those false prophets years ago. It was only a time before they came to collect it.

    Perrspective 2:00 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

    September 22, 2015
    Five Dispensations Americans Need from Pope Francis

    Millions of Americans--Catholic and non-Catholic alike (myself included)--are eagerly awaiting next week's visit to the United States by Pope Francis. There's no mystery as to why. In word and in deed, the humble yet audacious Pontiff has reawakened Americans to the Church's teachings on social justice. But his challenge that "the excluded are still waiting" is not limited to the rich and the powerful. His influential encyclical Laudato Si (On Care for Our Common Home) demands the engagement of all people and their institutions as stewards of the earth, warning that "the present ecological crisis is one small sign of the ethical, cultural and spiritual crisis of modernity" and reminding us that "our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God."

    But when Francis becomes the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, author Paul Vallely predicts, "America's political leaders should expect some discomforting talk." Despite his warning to his American church not to be "obsessed" about abortion, gay marriage and contraception, social liberals should not expect the Pope to alter church doctrine on any of those topics. As for conservatives who have already denounced Francis' emphases on climate change, poverty and inequality as "kind of liberal," "pure Marxism," "neo-socialism" or "communist" and protested, "I don't get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope," Bergoglio's speech won't change many minds in the media, on Capitol Hill or on the campaign trail.

    Pope Francis probably won't change any minds among the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (UCCSB), either. Increasingly out-of-touch both with their Pope and their own parishioners, the bishops nevertheless have an outsized influence not just on the nation's 68 million Catholics, but on all 320 million Americans. Their heavy hand weighs on public policies large and small, in ways seen and unseen. For our sake and arguably for his, Pope Francis needs to loosen their grasp.

    Here are five areas where America and Americans need a dispensation from His Holiness.

    1. Please Tell the Bishops to Stop Holding the Economy Hostage

    In 2013, the Holy Father proclaimed, "The current financial crisis can make us overlook the fact that it originated in a profound human crisis: the denial of the primacy of the human person!" Yet that same year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops nearly created the next financial crisis by demanding that Congress shut down the federal government and trigger a global economic calamity by refusing to raise the debt ceiling "unless religious employers were given a special right to deny birth control coverage to their employees."

    In their September 26th letter to House members, Archbishop of Baltimore William E. Lori and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston added theirs to the GOP's ever-growing list of ransom demands. They opened their "Dear Representative" letter:

    We are writing once again, as Chairmen of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities and Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, on an increasingly grave concern to our Church and many others: Preserving religious freedom and the right of conscience for all who take part in our health care system.

    We have already urged you to enact the Health Care Conscience Rights Act (H.R. 940/S. 1204). As Congress considers a Continuing Resolution and debt ceiling bill in the days to come, we reaffirm the vital importance of incorporating the policy of this bill into such "must-pass" legislation.

    The two were "writing once again" just in case members of Congress forgot their earlier blackmail threat. That March, Terence Jeffrey of CNS explained how the bishops' planned to extort the President of the United States:

    If the Republican-controlled House were to agree to the request of the Catholic bishops and move this week to include H.R. 940 in the "must-pass" CR, the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama would have a choice to make. They could choose to preserve the administration's power to force Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith, reject the House-passed CR, and thus risk a shut down of the federal government...

    If, instead, the Republican-controlled House fulfilled the Catholic bishops' request by including H.R. 940 in a bill to lift the debt limit, the Democrat-controlled Senate and President Obama would face a similar choice. In this case, it would be between preserving the administration's regulation forcing Catholics and other Christians to act against their faith and preserving the administration's authority to continue borrowing money to pay the expenses the government is now running in excess of its revenues.

    Such a scenario would not only have been unprecedented, it would have been catastrophic. That warning wasn't issued by the Obama administration but came from House Speaker and noted Catholic John Boehner. As he put it just after picking up the Speaker's gavel:

    "That would be a financial disaster, not only for our country but for the worldwide economy. Remember, the American people on Election Day said, 'we want to cut spending and we want to create jobs.' And you can't create jobs if you default on the federal debt."

    "The Pope has the duty, in Christ's name," Pope Francis said, "to remind the rich to help the poor, to respect them, to promote them." He didn't say anything about creating more of them.

    2. Please Urge Your Followers to Stop Blaming Victims of Clergy Sex Abuse

    In December, the Pope lectured the top church bureaucrats in Rome, listing 15 "spiritual diseases" from which the Curia suffers, including self-importance, lust for power, and lack of empathy for others. Among those pathologies, Francis warned, was the "disease of closeness":

    "This disease also begins from good intentions, but with the passing of time enslaves its members, becoming a cancer which threatens the harmony of the body and causes a lot of evil and scandal, especially towards our small brothers and sisters."

    That disease impacting thousands of "our small brothers and sisters" in the United States, was the decades-long scandal of clergy sex abuse. But according to some of the Church's staunchest American defenders, the villains are the real victims.

    Take, for example, former Pennsylvania Senator and two-time GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. In a July 2002 guest op-ed for Catholic Online, Senator Santorum laid the blame for the clergy sex scandal not on the pedophiles and rapists so long protected by his Church, but on the broader permissive liberal culture:

    The most obvious change must occur within American seminaries, many of which demonstrate the same brand of cultural liberalism plaguing our secular universities...It is startling that those in the media and academia appear most disturbed by this aberrant behavior, since they have zealously promoted moral relativism by sanctioning "private" moral matters such as alternative lifestyles. Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture. When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm.

    In 2009, Catholic League President Bill Donahue protested the media portrayal of the scandal in Ireland. The New York Times coverage of the 2,600 page report explained that "tens of thousands of Irish children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused by nuns, priests and others over 60 years in a network of church-run residential schools meant to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unwanted." The report concluded that sexual abuse, particularly at the boys' schools, was "endemic." In its headline, Reuters simply reported, "Irish priests beat, raped children: report." All of that was too much for Donahue, who issued a press release titled, "Hysteria Over Irish Clergy Abuse":

    Regarding sexual abuse, "kissing," and "non-contact including voyeurism" (e.g., what it labels as "inappropriate sexual talk") make the grade as constituting sexual abuse. Moreover, one-third of the cases involved "inappropriate fondling and contact." None of this is defensible, but none of it qualifies as rape. Rape, on the other hand, constituted 12 percent of the cases. As for the charge that "Irish Priests" were responsible, some of the abuse was carried out by lay persons, much of it was done by Brothers, and about 12 percent of the abusers were priests (most of whom were not rapists).

    "By cheapening rape," Donohue protested, "the report demeans the big victims."

    Just this week, many Catholics in the Syracuse, New York area were horrified to hear their bishop describe who was and wasn't a victim in cases of clergy sex abuse there:

    Bishop Robert Cunningham testified in a 2011 deposition in response to a federal lawsuit filed by a man who said a priest in the Syracuse diocese sexually abused him as a child.

    The man's lawyer asked Cunningham whether, in the eyes of the church, a child molested by a priest has committed a sin.

    "The boy is culpable," Cunningham said Oct. 14, 2011, according to a transcript of the deposition.

    Cunningham insisted in a letter to parishioners this week that "victims of abuse are never at fault!" That probably won't be sufficient to those like Joelle Casteix. An abuse victim and longtime victims' advocate, Casteix suggested a path to moral clarity for the Argentine Pope:

    "Pope Francis could say that if you've ever abused a child, you're out. If you've ever covered up for child sexual abuse, you're out. Everyone reports to the civil authorities, no matter what."

    3. Please Stop the Stonewalling on Victim Payouts and Perpetrator Disclosure

    Earlier this month, Pope Francis urged Europe's 120,000 Catholic parishes to play a major role in helping care for the flood of Syrian refugees pouring into the Continent. "May every parish, every religious community, every monastery, every sanctuary in Europe host a family." That guidance is in keeping with his 2013 message to the Italian Church about the 100,000 structures it owns--holdings valued at $10 billion.

    "Some religious orders say 'No, now that the convent is empty we are going to make a hotel and we can have guests, and support ourselves that way, or make money.' Well, if that is what you want to do, then pay taxes! A religious school is tax-exempt because it is religious, but if it is functioning as a hotel, then it should pay taxes just like its neighbor. Otherwise it is not fair business."

    The bishops and cardinals here in the United States might want to take Francis' admonition to heart. As Dan Ogrodowski, sexually assaulted as a child by a priest while attending St. Augustine of Hippo in Milwaukee, pleaded this week:

    "Pope Francis said these beautiful words about reparations and weeping for us. How could he watch us be pummeled for years?"

    Despite his own pleas for forgiveness and acceptance of resignations from three bishops in the Diocese of Kansas City and the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Francis will have to face American followers for whom that is still not enough. As the New York Times detailed this week:

    Francis is likely to meet privately with victims of abuse during his visit, as Pope Benedict XVI did during his 2008 trip to the United States, according to church officials. But Mr. Ogrodowski and many other survivors of abuse say the church has yet to live up to its promise of reconciliation. They want Francis to stop the church from spending millions of dollars to fight sexual abuse lawsuits and keeping sealed the names of thousands of accused priests, as well as the outcomes of some disciplinary cases sent to the Vatican.

    Instead of moving to compensate the estimated 100,000 victims of roughly 4,300 clergy members, Reuters reports, "Bishops' lobbying groups are fighting efforts to extend the statute of limitations in the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Iowa." The Archdiocese of Milwaukee, the 12th to seek bankruptcy protection, reached a $21 million settlement with abuse victims, a dollar total apparently made lower by Cardinal Timothy Dolan's efforts to shield assets there prior to his elevation in New York. While the Church "has already been dealt a heavy financial blow by settlement payments and other costs totaling around $3 billion," Marci Hamilton, a professor at the Cardozo School of Law in New York who studies statutes of limitations, explained that bite is no excuse for avoiding the reckoning justice requires:

    "It is the bishops who have blocked any kind of meaningful reform. The bishops and the pope have a lot of explaining to do as to why it would be in their mission to keep all of these victims from seeking justice."

    Barbara Blaine, the president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), is going to be hosting events in a dozen cities to make that point to the Holy Father during his American travels. "I think the time for lofty words has kind of passed," Blaine lamented, adding:

    "He's going to be addressing the man-made problems that contribute to global warming and the destruction of the earth. What about the man-made problem of destroying the innocence and the lives of so many?"

    4. Please Tell Catholic Hospitals to Find an Accommodation for Women's Health

    In September 2013, Pope Francis compared the role of his Church to a military field hospital:

    I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.

    But in the United States, the Catholic Church runs actual hospitals--lots of them. And in them, there are lots of things you can't talk about, virtually all of them involving women's reproductive health. And as I documented in May 2013 in "Catholic Hospital Mergers Put Women's Health at Risk":

    But it's not just Kansas, North Dakota, Mississippi and other reddest of the red states that are making a mockery of the very idea of the "health of the mother." Outside of the statehouses, governors' mansions and courtrooms, another disturbing trend is fast making access to abortion and other reproductive services a thing of the past across large swaths of the country. In Washington, Oregon, Illinois and other strongly pro-choice states, the rapid consolidation of smaller, rural and even teaching hospitals by expanding Catholic chains is putting women's reproductive health--and sometimes their lives--at risk. Thanks to these mergers, acquisitions and strategic partnerships, decisions about contraception, abortion, sterilization and live-saving care aren't being made by patients and their doctors, but by bishops.

    Catholic hospitals account for up to a third of admissions nationally.

    For over a hundred years, Catholic hospitals have been one of the cornerstones of the U.S. health system, providing care to tens of millions of Americans of all faiths, races and ethnicities. In 2012, the New Republic's Jonathan Cohn explained just how big a role they play and the public support they enjoy in return:

    Today, Catholic hospitals supply 15 percent of the nation's hospital beds, and Catholic hospital systems own 12 percent of the nation's community hospitals, which means, according to one popularly cited estimate, that about one in six Americans get treatment at a Catholic hospital at some point each year. We now depend upon Catholic hospitals to provide vital services--not just direct care of patients, but also the training of new doctors and assistance to the needy. In exchange, these institutions receive considerable public funding. In addition to the tax breaks to which all nonprofit institutions are entitled, Catholic hospitals also receive taxpayer dollars via public insurance programs like Medicare and Medicaid, as well as myriad federal programs that provide extra subsidies for such things as indigent care and medical research. (Older institutions also benefited from the 1946 Hill-Burton Act, which financed hospital construction for several decades.)

    A recent report jointly prepared by MergerWatch and the ACLU added up the taxpayer dollars now flowing into Catholic hospitals. Ten of the top 25 largest health care systems are now Catholic-affiliated, generating $213 billion in revenue in 2011. That year, federal Medicare and Medicaid programs provided $115 billion of "gross patient revenues" billed by the Church-affiliated institutions and $27 billion of "net patient revenue" actually received.

    But increasingly, TNR's Cohn cautioned, "the dual mandates of these institutions--to heal the body and to nurture the spirit, to perform public functions but maintain private identities--are difficult to reconcile." For many communities, a Catholic facility is already the only choice; the federal government already identifies 30 Catholic hospitals as "sole community providers." And with the accelerating trend of hospital mergers and partnerships, policies forbidding contraception, abortion and sterilization are becoming the norm at formerly public hospitals. In cities around America, the result is growing confusion for physicians and greater risk for their patients.

    Catholic hospital chains are among the nation's largest.

    For example, when Seton Healthcare Family in Texas, a unit of Ascension Health, began operating Austin's public Breckenridge hospital in 1995, it curbed reproductive health care services available to its patients:

    In that case, Mr. [Charles] Barnett [of Ascension Health] says the system never agreed to provide services like elective abortions and sterilizations, and public officials and hospital administrators initially struggled to find a compromise. Although another system eventually offered sterilizations on a separate floor of the hospital, complete with a separate elevator, another hospital now provides those services.

    Increasingly, the clashing requirements of the Catholic hospitals public mission and religious tenets are putting lives on the line. In 2007, physician Ramesh Raghavan wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association of his wife's experience. As Cohn explained the horrifying episode:

    [Raghavan's wife], a woman, also pregnant with twins, whose pregnancy was failing, threatening infection that could jeopardize her ability to have future children and perhaps her life. Distraught, she and her husband decided to terminate the pregnancy--only to learn the Catholic hospital would not perform the procedure.

    A few years later, New Hampshire waitress Kathleen Prieskorn went to her doctor's office after a miscarriage--her second--began while she was three months pregnant. She quickly learned that her emergency was not one for which treatment would be available from her hospital's new operators:

    Physicians at the hospital, which had recently merged with a Catholic health care system, told her they could not end the miscarriage with a uterine evacuation--the standard procedure--because the fetus still had a heartbeat. She had no insurance and no way to get to another hospital, so a doctor gave her $400 and put her in a cab to the closest available hospital, about 80 miles away. "During that trip, which seemed endless, I was not only devastated but terrified," Prieskorn told Ms. "I knew that, if there were complications, I could lose my uterus--and maybe even my life."

    Perhaps the most notorious case, as both the Times and the New Republic reported, involved Catholic Health West and one its hospitals in Phoenix. A 27-year old woman, 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from "right heart failure" came to St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center. What happened next may be a frightening omen of things to come:

    Physicians concluded that, if she continued with the pregnancy, her chances of mortality were "close to 100 percent." An administrator, Sister Margaret McBride, approved an abortion, citing a church directive allowing termination when the mother's life is at risk. Afterward, however, the local bishop, Thomas Olmsted, said the abortion had not been absolutely necessary. He excommunicated the nun and severed ties with the hospital, although the nun subsequently won reinstatement when she agreed to confess her sin to a priest.

    And the list of health care sins is a long one. As Nina Martin documented for Pro Publica,

    Those teachings -- along with the guidelines on mergers and partnerships --are laid out in a document called the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, which governs every Catholic hospital, clinic, nursing home, and health-care business in the country. The 72 directives ban elective abortion, sterilization, and birth control. They also restrict fertility treatments, genetic testing, and end-of-life options.

    In November, the UCCSB, which now oversees 1 out of 6 hospital beds nationally, voted by 213-2 to make those guidelines even more invasive to follow Vatican guidelines "to ensure that Catholic healthcare institutions neither cooperate immorally with the unacceptable procedures conducted in other healthcare entities with which they may be connected nor cause scandal as a result of their collaboration with such other entities."

    Of course, the real scandals have already begun and show no signs of letting up. In August, Mercy Medical Center in Redding, California, backed down from its initial refusal to perform a tubal ligation on Rachel Miller following her final birth. That reversal came only after the ACLU threatened to sue the Dignity Health facility for sex discrimination under California law. While that victory meant that Miller would not have to travel 160 miles to Davis to have a second procedure performed and covered by insurance, 33 year-old Michigan resident Jessica Mann may not be so lucky. As the Washington Post reported last week, "because of a dangerous tumor in her brain, her doctor gently suggested that she take steps to make sure that she could not get pregnant again." When she asked to have her tubes tied (as 600,00 American women do each year), the Catholic Genesys Regional Medical Center said no on religious grounds.

    Whether or not Jessica Mann is successful in her lawsuit, she and millions of other American women shouldn't expect any help from Pope Francis. Barbra Mann Wall, a nursing professor and historian of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, said the bishops are feeling "emboldened" after their victory in the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby case. At Martin noted:

    She says that Pope Francis' apparent openness on issues such as divorce and greater acceptance of gays and lesbians probably does not extend to the questions that the Vatican office and the bishops are grappling with. "These are basic issues of Catholic doctrine ... I don't think [Francis is] going to be more liberal on this."

    5. Please Keep the Naked Political Partisanship to a Minimum

    Speaking of liberals, President Barack Obama won't just host His Holiness at the White House, but will travel to Andrew Air Force Base to welcome Pope Francis after his journey to Cuba. By all indications, the leader of the free world and the leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics have established a warm relationship.

    But you'd never know that judging from the vitriol coming from some of the hardline American bishops and their amen corner in the conservative media. Despite winning the Catholic vote in both 2008 and 2012, Obama was assailed for a mythical "war on Catholics" from the moment he first took the oath of office. When the usual suspects on the right denounced Obama's 2009 commencement address at Notre Dame, the President exposed what Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire decried as the "religious vigilantism" of the "uber-guardians of a belief system we can hardly recognize." As liberal Catholic columnist E.J. Dionne summed it up:

    By facing their arguments head-on and by demonstrating his attentiveness to Catholic concerns, Obama strengthened moderate and liberal forces inside the church itself. He also struck a forceful blow against those who would keep the nation mired in culture-war politics without end. Obama's opponents on the Catholic right placed a large bet on his Notre Dame visit. And they lost.

    Four years later, Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley refused to attend the Boston College commencement address of Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny. Kenny's offense? His support for legislation allowing Irish physicians to perform emergency abortion procedures only in those dire circumstances in which the life of the mother is in immediate jeopardy. (That bill arose after the 2012 case of Savita Halappanavar, who needlessly died in agony after doctors refused her pleas to terminate her already miscarried pregnancy.)

    In a statement Friday, O'Malley said abortion is "a crime against humanity" and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has asked Catholic institutions not to honor officials who promote it. Kenny is set to receive an honorary degree from BC at the May 20 commencement.

    O'Malley said that since Boston College hasn't withdrawn its invitation, and Kenny hasn't declined it, "I shall not attend the graduation."

    As the picture above shows, O'Malley felt differently in 2006 when the pro-choice Republican Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke to the BC graduates. (Ironically, Rice previously addressed Notre Dame's graduates as well.)

    Now, no one expects Pope Francis to become a pro-choice, marriage equality supporting Vicar of Christ. But millions of Americans, among them Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, atheists and those of almost every faith tradition are ready to stand with Francis in helping "the least of these." All they ask is that the U.S. church might spend more time atoning for its sins, and stop distorting American politics and the economy over what it believes are ours. Cardinal Dolan might think the Supreme Court's ruling legalizing gay marriage was a "tragic error." Most Americans wouldn't be so kind in describing his role in Milwaukee. Judge not lest ye be judged. As for Cardinal O'Malley, the Holy Father should tell him to stop trying to sabotage the U.S. economy over birth control and Planned Parenthood.

    They can talk about it on their way back from Cuba.

    Perrspective 10:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

    September 21, 2015
    Republicans Were Silent as Romney Played the Birther Card

    The 2016 Republican presidential field is shocked--shocked!--that frontrunner Donald Trump refused to correct a questioner insisting President Obama is a Muslim foreigner. Recalling one of the finest moments for the GOP's 2008 nominee, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) revealing explained, "This happens to all of us. It happened to John McCain. You have to push back."

    But in 2012, none of the GOP's best and brightest pushed back when their man Mitt Romney casually played the Birther card.

    As a quick backwards glance shows, it wasn't just Romney surrogates like John Sununu wishing "this president would learn how to be an American." On July 17, 2012, Mitt got in on the act, too, telling listeners that "his course is extraordinarily foreign." Two days later, Romney repeated the charge in response to the growing outcry about his mystery tax returns, shockingly low tax rate and private equity parasitism:

    "This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful, is so foreign to us we simply can't understand it."

    When Governor Romney wasn't accusing the President of the United States of being "extraordinarily foreign," he was providing aid and comfort to conservative fabulists claiming they could prove it. After all, Mitt Romney didn't just refuse to repudiate his Obama birth certificate fraud Donald Trump. Truth be damned, Romney suggested, instead arguing that cobbling together a majority--any majority--was what his candidacy was all about:

    "You know, I don't agree with all the people who support me and my guess is they don't all agree with everything I believe in," Romney said. "But I need to get 50.1% or more and I'm appreciative to have the help of a lot of good people."

    Among those "good people" were Romney's five sons, the same ones Mitt boasted in 2007 said "showing support for our nation" by "helping me get elected because they think I'd be a great president." The Five Brothers also regurgitated the Birther lies vomited forth by the likes of Limbaugh, Trump and Romney campaign traveling companion Jerome Corsi. When Tagg Romney wasn't joking about "taking a swing" at President Obama, his brother Matt got laughs from New Hampshire Republicans when he brushed off requests for his father's secret tax returns this way:

    "I heard someone suggest the other day that as soon as President Obama releases his grades and birth certificate ...then maybe he'll do it."

    While he later apologized on Twitter ("my bad"), there was no need for Matt to say sorry to dad. After all, in August 2012 Mitt Romney himself told an audience in Michigan:

    "Now I love being home in this place where Ann and I were raised, where both of us were born," the GOP hopeful told the crowd. "Ann was born in Henry Ford Hospital. I was born at Harper Hospital. No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate, they know that this is the place that we were born and raised."

    Those Michigan Republicans laughed and cheered. They certainly weren't going to be set straight by the GOP's leadership in Congress.

    On January 23, 2011, the new House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) told Meet the Press host David Gregory he would not speak out against those "who think that his birth certificate is inauthentic."

    GREGORY: Will you call that what it is, which is crazy talk?

    CANTOR: [laughs] David, you know, a lot of that has been an issue sort of generated by not only the media but others in the country. Most Americans really are beyond that and they want us to focus -

    GREGORY: Is somebody who brings that up engaging in crazy talk?

    CANTOR: David I don't think it's nice to call anyone crazy, OK?

    While Cantor ultimately acknowledged, "I think the president is a citizen of the United States," his boss John Boehner (R-OH) followed the same formula. Three weeks later, the new Speaker of the House told David Gregory, "I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian, I'll take him at his word." But when Gregory pushed him to accept the "responsibility to stand up to that kind of ignorance," Boehner repeatedly refused.

    David, it's not my job to tell the American people what to think. Our job in Washington is to listen to the American people...Listen, the American people have the right to think what they want to think. I can't -- it's not my job to tell them.

    Apparently, that job belongs to the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump. Which is why a recent PPP poll found that "Trump Supporters Think Obama is A Muslim Born in Another Country":

    Our new poll finds that Trump is benefiting from a GOP electorate that thinks Barack Obama is a Muslim and was born in another country, and that immigrant children should be deported. 66% of Trump's supporters believe that Obama is a Muslim to just 12% that grant he's a Christian. 61% think Obama was not born in the United States to only 21% who accept that he was...

    Trump's beliefs represent the consensus among the GOP electorate. 51% overall want to eliminate birthright citizenship. 54% think President Obama is a Muslim. And only 29% grant that President Obama was born in the United States. That's less than the 40% who think Canadian born Ted Cruz was born in the United States.

    These numbers have only increased since Barack Hussein Obama first took the oath of office. But the Republicans who said nothing when Mitt Romney trafficked in typical Tea Party race-baiting. The change came about not because the GOP's White House rivals look down on Donald Trump, but precisely because they are looking up at him.

    Perrspective 12:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | Share

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