Saturday, June 24, 2017

On Death Taxes and Life Taxes

My friendly readers, this will be a quick post.  I have far too little time for much of anything this weekend except doing my duties -- to my “day” job, to my 501(c)(3), and to my mom. 

Sadly, my beloved mother is battling a serious setback in her health and I find myself unable to spend a day without seeing her.  She’s less than six weeks away from her 96th birthday and for the first time in her life, she’s becoming mentally docile.   That’s not my mother.   She’s a fighter.  But serious health setbacks at her age are a tough thing to fight.

My mom’s condition is forcing me to think about other people I’ve known with nonagenarian parents who don’t exactly live swimmingly until the day they die.  Year after year, they weaken -- sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually, but ever so naturally.  It can be difficult to watch, but it is also compelling, for there is nothing like seeing a great old soul laugh or smile.  And if that great old soul happens to be your mother and you’re able to spend time helping her remember things or making her beam, you know that for that one moment in the universe, you are where you belong.

This is a time when the nation is thinking about health care policy, or at least it ought to be.  If you’re not spending at least a little time these days focusing on the topic, you need to question whether you belong in a democracy like America.    I won’t bore you with my ruminations on “The Bill” – either its substance or its process.   I will instead simply share with you my perspective on a single health care issue, a perspective born from the fact that I am the only child of a woman who has lived to the age of nearly 96 ... and counting ... and who has for the past few years required health care assistance from a facility.

Frequently, I hear people object to estate taxes as being a so-called “death tax” that inappropriately taxes the same income not once (during the years the income is generated) but twice (when the patriarch or matriarch dies).   According to those who decry the “death tax,” double-taxing an estate of $10 million, $100 million, $1,000 million or even $10,000 million is morally wrong and “unfair” to all families that generated such wealth.

Well, let me say that I am not so privileged to be worried personally about death taxes affecting estates that large.  However, nor am I so cursed to be worried personally about losing my entire inheritance to health care providers who are caring for my mother.  Fortunately, she retired with a government pension, which covers the cost of much of her care.  By contrast, most Americans with mothers who live as long as mine and require long term health care are not so fortunate.  After their health bills are paid, they inherit absolutely zero.  Not a penny.    And what does that do but penalize the patriarch or matriarch for taking care of their body and living too long.   Call it a “life tax” – one that is imposed on many, many more families than would ever pay an estate tax.

I believe that every American is entitled to health care.  And that every American matriarch or patriarch who lives to a ripe old age and has retained at least a modicum of net assets is entitled to the dignity of passing on some of that wealth to the next generation.   We shouldn’t impose a tax on a long life.  That would be far less humane than telling a billionaire that his children or grandchildren won’t have quite as many tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to play with.  

Saturday, June 17, 2017

On Visions of Extreme Ugliness and Extreme Beauty

Driving down I-95 in Northern Maryland this past Monday, I was reflecting on what had surely been one of the best weekends of my life.   It mostly consisted of partying and praying, but there was also a little 2 ½ hour ceremony during which my daughter Hannah and 13 of her classmates were ordained as rabbis.  It was the culmination of five years of post-graduate schooling and a whole lot of soul searching.  Believe me, I was proud of Hannah’s entire class.  It thrills me that these freshly minted Reconstructionist rabbis are being thrust into the world to reinvigorate Judaism and become a “light unto the nations. “ 

Driving my jalopy with “Spinoza” license plates, I was feeling my oats.  I had just passed the beautiful Susquehanna River and Cal Ripken’s baseball stadium in Aberdeen, Maryland and was looking forward to going to a retirement party for one of the jewels of the U.S. Department of Justice (and one of my beloved mentors), Joyce Branda.   Life was good.  So I asked my wife’s permission to indulge one of my guilty pleasures – listening to right-wing talk radio with her in the car.  To my surprise, she said yes.  

Strangely, though, we couldn’t find any suitable stations – at least not until we crossed the Baltimore Harbor.  That’s when we began to hear WMAL, the powerful DC station that has graced us with such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin and, in this case, Chris Plante.  

My wife’s patience lasted all of five minutes.  During that time, Plante hurled just about every insult imaginable at Democrats and liberals.  You would have thought he was talking about cockroaches, except that Democrats and liberals are people, or at least I tell myself that we are.  That afternoon, I sounded less like a person than a laughing hyena.  That’s the only way I can cope with programs like Plante’s – by laughing hysterically at the sheer idiocy of his hate speech, speech directed at folks like me and everything I hold dear.  I feel compelled to listen to Plante because I need to know what America thinks, and Plante, Limbaugh, Levin and Company are the rabbis to roughly one third of this country.  

By Wednesday morning, I was back to the rhythm of a normal workweek as the highs of last weekend had begun to fade.   Listening to the morning news, I was shocked to learn about a different form of hate speech.  This time, the speaker communicated not with words but with bullets.  He opened fire on a group of Republican Congressmen and staffers who were targeted solely because of their political views.  It was reminiscent of the January 2011 attack in Tucson, except that this week’s shooting involved a so-called “progressive” hunting down conservatives.   Immediately, my fellow liberals tended to write off the shooting simply as the product of mental illness – a lone lunatic running amuck.   But for me, that excuse is overly glib.  We’re dealing now with an ever-deepening internal conflict in America that is reaching dangerous levels.  Not only are we seeing its outgrowth in politically-motivated homicides but also in terms of policies that reflect utter contempt for large swaths of Americans.  Think about it – how else can we explain why Senators are holding secret meetings to determine how to strip millions of Americans of healthcare insurance if they didn’t think their political base holds the uninsured (i.e., working class Americans) in complete disregard? 

Yesterday, the New York Times led with an article entitled “Partisan Relations Sink from Cold to Deep Freeze: Democrats and Republicans Have Lowest Regard of Each Other in Decades.”  The article featured a graph showing that Democrats’ attitudes about Republicans has largely paralleled Republicans’ attitudes about Democrats throughout the period from 1980 to the present.  The graph also showed that while those numbers had dropped gradually from 1980 to 2000, they’ve dropped precipitously ever since.   Less than a quarter of us now view the “other” favorably – down from 40 percent at the turn of the millennium.  Whoever coined the motto “e pluribus unum” is surely turning in his grave. 

After the terrible shooting in Alexandria, there has been talk of the need for unity.   I’m not feeling it though.  I think this nation is hopelessly polarized at the moment.  I see things getting worse before they get better.   But last weekend, I did see the antidote – on that stage in suburban Philadelphia, where the 14 graduates of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College Class of 5777 were assembled.   There, in that tiny class, I saw white people, black people, men, women, openly gay, openly straight, openly trans.   I saw the faces of love, not of hatred.  Of hope, not of fear.  Of anonymity, not of celebrity.  Of self-effacing service, not of grandstanding hubris.  Of singing and praying, not shouting and demeaning.

I had a vision in which humble, hard-working and committed people like the RRC Class of 5777 stopped deferring to the politicians and media personalities who have collectively driven our national car into the ditch.  In my vision, these young men and women would then take responsibility for identifying leaders from their own generation who wouldn’t suck up to the Chris Plantes or the Rush Limbaughs – or, for that matter, to the snide, liberal analogues who similarly spew hate from the other side of the aisle.   They will take to heart the Jewish precept that “lashon hara” -- speech that is disparaging, even if true – is truly evil and difficult to forgive.   They will, in short, teach my fellow Baby Boomers that it is time to back off and let a gentler, smarter and more humane generation lead us out of the wilderness.

As the Class of 5777 can tell you, our Biblical ancestors wandered in that wilderness for 40 years and never did enter the Promised Land.  Sadly, it has been nearly 40 years since 1980 – when we started turning our political rivals into true enemies.   My sense is that things are going to get worse before they get better.  But maybe, just maybe, in a few years, the spirit of the Class of 5777 will turn things around.  At least that’s my dream.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

One Sad Week


That’s how President Trump frequently ends his tweets.   And if this past week could be summarized in a tweet, we’d surely end it with that same word – thanks, in large part, to President Trump himself.   

Admittedly, my view of this week is colored by my personal life.  The family matriarch, who is now 95 years and 10 months old, suffered major blows to her health.   Every day after work, I’ve made a bee-line to either a hospital or a rehab facility and watched her fight to recover.   It’s inspiring to be the son of such a tough resilient woman.  But it’s also gut-wrenching to see a loved one labor to perform basic functions – like trying to sit up, stand up, and walk a few feet. 

One of the things I like to do with my mom is turn on the TV and watch the news.  The poor woman must be convinced that she’s totally losing it, because the reports have been truly unbelievable -- and not just impossible to believe, but incredibly sad. 

First, we had the sorry spectacle of Tiger Woods, an athlete I’ve supported passionately ever since he left Stanford and joined the PGA Tour.  Just last week, we read that his back surgery gave him “instant nerve relief” and saw him say that “I haven’t felt this good in years.”  But this past Monday, he was found asleep at the wheel, unable to walk a straight line, and slurring his speech.  He blamed it on a cocktail of pain killers and, indeed, the tests showed that he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol.  But it’s difficult to believe that he wasn’t bullshitting fans like me when he raved about how well he was feeling last week.  Once again, Tiger has proven himself to be someone you can never trust when he speaks to his fan base.  Leaving aside whatever mess he has made of his physical or psychological health, his consistent lack of honesty has been worthy of a politician.

The next spectacle to chronicle was provided to us by the boisterous, self-obsessed comedienne, Kathy Griffin.  Somehow, she decided it was funny to depict the President of the United States as a severed head covered with blood.  Funny?  No.  Juvenile, disgusting, contemptuous, and creepy?  Clearly.  Unlike Tiger Woods, who can aptly be called a golfing genius, Kathy Griffin lacks any discernable talent – other than the ability to self-promote.  Fortunately, it looks like Griffin’s 15 minutes are just about up.  Even for a comedienne, she crossed the line.  And if you don’t agree, just imagine what you would think of a conservative “comic” who turned the first black president, Barack Obama, into a severed, bloody head.  Griffen has stooped to a lower level than even the worst of Obama’s most racist critics.  And that, indeed, is sad.

True to her narcissism, Kathy Griffin isn’t leaving the scene easily.  She’s blaming other people for her self-inflicted wound.  According to Griffin, “there’s a bunch of old white guys trying to silence me and I’m just here to say that it’s wrong.”  Actually, what is “wrong” is when a person doesn’t have the class to say “I screwed up big time” and leave it at that.  That’s called taking responsibility.   It’s a lesson that Hillary Clinton could also use a little help in.  If Monday belonged to Tiger and Tuesday belonged to Griffin, Wednesday belonged to Hillary.  Speaking at Recode’s Code Conference in California, Clinton said that "I take responsibility for every decision I make -- but that's not why I lost" She then went on to say that “I'm now the nominee of the Democratic Party. I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party," Clinton said. "It was bankrupt, it was on the verge of insolvency, its data was mediocre to poor, non-existent, wrong. I had to inject money into it -- the DNC -- to keep it going."

Personally, I’m getting dizzy trying to figure out exactly who Hillary wants us to blame for her inability to defeat a reality TV star with a record-low approval rating.  I thought the fault belonged to Comey.  Or Russia.  Or the media. Now it’s the DNC.  She apparently believes that everyone is at fault other than the candidate who, in a change election, never explained what she felt compelled to change, and who was so cocky about winning the upper Midwest that she barely bothered to campaign there.

If Hillary’s latest outburst wasn’t sad enough, when CNN interviewed the chair of the DNC and invited him to respond to Hillary’s attacks, he repeatedly refused to do so.  Essentially, he gave the interviewer the old Washington Dodge -- something to the effect of, “I want to focus on the future, not look at the past.”  So, my friends, the new Democratic Party is going to look a lot like the old one – big on smiles, small on candor.  Kind of like a Tiger Woods press conference. 

And that brings me to Thursday.  That’s the day when President Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Accords.  It’s also the day when Vice President Pence said, on Fox News, that “for some reason or another, this issue of climate change has emerged as a paramount issue for the left in this country and around the world."

How can I respond to that?   Is this really just an issue for those on the “left”?   Well, perhaps it is.  After all, in 2012, in his Democratic National Convention speech, President Obama devoted only about 20 seconds to the issue. Lord knows that the media hasn’t seemed to be terribly interested in climate change.  It isn’t nearly as sexy as topics such as terrorism, police killings or plane crashes.  But let’s not kid ourselves – according to people with PhDs, climate change is easily the gravest source of danger on planet Earth, and I’m not just talking about environmental dangers.  What this country did on Thursday isn’t just sad – it’s devastating.  And now it’s time for those of us on the “left” -- and the center -- to figure out a way to make the powers-that-be care about this issue once and for all.  We owe it to Mother Nature, to our children, and to our own legacies.

So, my friends, this has been one depressing week.  But things had better get better, and I mean quickly.  Next week, the Empathic Rationalist will be on vacation as I head up to Philadelphia for my older daughter Hannah’s rabbinical ordination.  None of this, even my beloved mother’s health setback, can get in my way of enjoying Hannah’s incredible accomplishment.  So ... I pray that this week, happy stories will replace the sad stories of this last week.  Maybe we’ll see some amazing feats of athleticism in the French Open or in the NBA Finals.  Maybe we’ll see a politician or Hollywood star actually assume some responsibility, rather than blaming others or dodging questions.  Or maybe we’ll just see a slow news week during which we can relax and re-charge our batteries.  Come to think of it, that wouldn’t be so bad.  In fact, after this past week, anything would be an improvement.