Though my business life is based in Portland, Oregon, my home is in Washington State, in the beautiful and dramatic Columbia Gorge. The river frontage area of the gorge is primarily filled with wineries, fruit orchards, and tourists. Hood River, Oregon offers a very upscale experience, and world-class wind surfing. But go inland into the Gorge on the Washington side a mile or two and you will see a completely different population; second or third generation loggers cast aside by the new economy, government regulation, spotted owls, a stalled construction industry, and foreign competition.
My wife and I have been able to carve a little bit of heaven out of this relatively remote area, but many of our neighbors have not been so fortunate. The area where we live, Skamania County, was once a vibrant county with a flourishing timber trade, but that was two decades ago. Now many small towns are literally boarded up. The population is largely older and often unemployed. And with unemployment and the declining economic base comes a difficult new demographic; a new generation that is often highlighted by drug addiction and social welfare. Those that remember the good old days are often bitter against a society they often feel has left them behind. They also are frustrated by others in their community that takes advantage of welfare and other social handouts. In the wake of this recession, schools are being downsized or closed. This is perfect feeding ground for conservative agendas and the Tea Party.
Yesterday I ventured out to meet my Congresswoman that represents this troubled area, Jaime Herrera Beutler. Beutler was sponsoring a “get to know your Congresswoman coffee” in the little town of Stevenson, Washington. A freshman, at 31 she is the youngest female member of Congress. Aside from stints as a legislative intern and aide I could find nothing in her past work or life experience that would suggest suitability to help lead the country, but I went to meet her with an open mind.
The Venus Café was full, and given my age I was shocked to see that I was probably the youngest person in the room. It was an old and grizzled crowd, and given my liberal bent I felt I was probably in enemy territory. Buetler was right on time; bubbly, enthusiastic, and attractive, a young combination of Palin and Bachmann. She greeted the crowd, and immediately began reading from the conservative playbook.
“I know all of you are concerned about what is going on in Congress, and the budget ceiling thing”, she smiled. “But here’s the deal. Government has to start living like we all do and not spending more than we make. That’s what we are doing”. She then made a couple cracks about Nancy Pelosi, and began what would become her theme of the day. “Obama just wants to raise taxes. That is his only agenda, and we need to stop him.”
She took a few questions before it was my turn. “Did you sign the Grover Nordquist pledge not to raise taxes”, I asked. Probably anticipating I was in favor of the document, she smiled widely. “Yes I did. I am proud to say I was one of the first to sign it.”
“Why are you against raising taxes on multi-millionaires, and closing corporate loopholes that major corporations are using against us”, I followed up. “And how do you react to the fact that most economists agree it will be impossible to balance the budget without tax increases?”
Shocked that someone in this room could be pro-tax, she flashed a strange little smile. “Well, we have economists that disagree with those economists. And most importantly, these tax increases would hit everyone in this room. Not just rich people”.
“How do you figure that”, I asked. “Do you think a lot of people in this room make over $250,000 a year?”
“Well, the truth is Obama wants to raise taxes on everyone”, she countered as she ignored the question, and then launched into the classic politicians story about someone they met the day before. “I was talking to some businessmen in Camas yesterday”, she said, “and they thanked me for not voting for the tax increase. You see, even though the taxes are aimed at rich people, it would have impacted these guys because of the way they do their taxes. One guy told me he would have to lay off 15 people if the tax increase had gone through, because even though he doesn’t take home $250,000 a year, it looks like he does and he would get taxed.”
“So the gentlemen probably has an LLC structure to his company, but I find it hard to believe that a few percentage points on the top end of his taxes would make him have to lay off 15 people”, I commented. “That doesn’t even make sense. Perhaps he needs a new accountant. But what about bankers and hedge fund billionaires that are enjoying the lowest taxes in sixty years. Why are you against taxing them?”
“Well we just can’t do it”, she answered. “I would like to tax them, but there is no way to do it without taxing everyone”, she smiled.
“Sure there is”, I said. “You just have to write the legislation properly. What about closing tax loopholes for the oil companies?”
“Well I would be open to closing loopholes if we could figure out a way”, she said.
“Good”, I said. “And closing the loopholes wouldn’t violate your no tax pledge”, I asked.
She looked confused. “No, I don’t think so. The pledge covers overall tax rates, so I could close loopholes as long as overall tax rates don’t go up”.
“So you could raise taxes on the really rich, as long as it didn’t impact the overall rate”, I asked.
She looked even more confused and didn’t answer.
“Ok”, I said, “what is your position on the Simpson-Bowles plan”?
“I’ll get back to that one”, she said, “but I want to take some other questions first”, and for the next hour she refused to address Simpson-Bowles, a bi-partisan plan that would actually fix the deficit issue through spending cuts and selective tax increases.
The crowd was much less concerned with the tax situation than they were local forestry policies and other local issues, and for much of the remaining time Beutler railed against government regulations. And then there was a very interesting discussion that I often see occur among my neighbors. While the crowd supported her “cut spending to the bone” agenda, they spent a lot of time complaining about spending cuts. They complained about the Forestry Departments cutbacks that don’t allow them to maintain forest roads. They complained about their various lack of coverage in Medicare and Medicaid. While the idea of the government living within its means appealed to them on one level, where they were personally concerned they wanted major government funding and intervention.
During her presentation Buetler also quite amazingly referred to the Bush tax cuts for the rich as the “Bush Obama” tax cuts, reasoning that because he did not take a hard line on repealing them that somehow Obama supported the tax cuts he repeatedly rails against. While her intonation suggested she was against these tax cuts, she also said she was against any tax hikes. Weird logic.
I came away with my “coffee with the Congresswoman” with a better understanding of what our politician’s face. My observations –
1. Even though we understand we have to curb government spending, we want spending cuts “for the other guy”, not us. Not surprisingly, 47% of Americans receive some kind of government subsidy, so this will probably remain a huge issue.
2. Americans are largely ignorant and simply respond to sound bites. Several times during the coffee the attendees referred to something they had heard on Fox News as if it were fact. Basing your attitudes on something you hear on Fox News, or The Daily Show, or from reading this blog is just wrong. All of us are biased, and everyone needs to dig into the real facts.
3. There are many inexperienced people making major decisions. While I welcome a citizen government, I also love having experienced people guiding the country. I applaud Beutler’s zest for public service, but the fact is that like many of our new politicians, she does not have the experience base to be running a country. Instead, the neophytes become easy extensions of those manipulating the system for their own gain.
4. Our politicians are also taking an incredibly limited view of complex problems. While I believe Buetler has the very best of intentions, she simply read back Republican sound bites and offered no critical thinking. We are not in a time and space when our leaders can draw lines in the sand. The idea that legislation cannot be crafted that would tax those that really need taxing is absurd.
The truth is the political intelligentsia knows what needs to be done. The Simpson-Bowles plan offends everyone a little bit, which is ultimately what needs to be done. Entitlements need to be cut. The defense budget needs to come down. Retirement age needs to be raised. And taxes need to increase.
As a businessman, I understand that during bad times I may need to cut expenses, but I would never run my business based on solely cutting back; that would be throwing in the towel and accepting a mediocre future. I build my business by managing expenses while increasing revenues. The government receives revenues in the form of taxes, and they need to observe a balancing act between collecting sufficient revenue while not inhibiting growth that would ultimately lead to even more revenue.
As I pointed out to my Congresswoman, if you read the specifics of our bond downgrade the problem is not necessarily our ability to repay. Rather, it is our divisive political climate and our inability to realistically deal with our debt. The money many of us lost in the recent stock market crash far exceeds what we would pay in reasonable tax increases.
But unfortunately this message is lost on my Congresswoman, who can only repeat the mantra “Obama wants to spend all our money and raise everyone’s taxes”.