This article was last modified on March 13, 2010.


Letter to Steve Kagen, Spring 2010

March 13, 2010

Dr. Kagen,

Recently I received a “report” in the mail from your office. As it says it “was prepared, published and mailed at taxpayer expense”, I feel it is only right that I take the time to respond to you on the issues you raise in the report. After all, if I’m paying for it, I may as well have my views heard.

I would first like to say that I have been generally a fan of your voting record and your views. We have not always seen eye to eye, particularly on foreign policy, but in general you have served our district well. I cannot complain much in comparison to Rep. Mark Green, whom I thought was something of a monster. I did work for your campaign a few years ago, and am proud of that service, despite not always agreeing with the methods used. With regard to this report, I am going to assume that all the things stated within are factually correct. I simply do not have the time or motivation to double-check the bills and your votes on them.

BAILOUTS AND STIMULUS

First of all, I appreciate that you have opposed the bailouts and see them as “money wasted”. While I am not opposed to investing tax dollars if a return is guaranteed, handing out billions with no strings attached is no way to run a government. Why should “too big to fail” corporations get handouts when smaller businesses and the self-employed are stuck struggling in the same murky economy? You realize this, and I appreciate that.

Many people are lumping “bailout” money in with “stimulus” money. I don’t believe you see it that way, and I think that’s good. While the President has exaggerated the job growth from the stimulus, I do generally see it as an investment where the payout is greater than the initial cost. New jobs, particularly so-called “green jobs” are important, both for employment and the additional benefits that such jobs provide (such as reduced energy costs).

Two prominent Wisconsin writers, Professor Robert McChesney and journalist John Nichols, have further proposed an investment in the print media industry. I think there’s some value to this idea. As you are well aware, newspapers across the country are closing up shop, mergers are making papers less and less unique (you recall the Post-Crescent before the Gannett takeover), and even the ones remaining are getting so thin you can barely fill the bottom of the hamster cage. For government to work effectively, the people need to be informed. In a truly democratic society, that information comes from newspapers, or their equivalent.

Last year, the House passed the FAA Reauthorization bill. Some are calling part of this the “Brown Bailout” because they see this as helping UPS. According to one news source, “One provision would make it easier for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to organize FedEx employees who don’t require FAA certification, including package delivery drivers.” My understanding of this is that many FedEx employees already had the ability to form or join unions and didn’t. Regardless, I favor the existence of unions and if the FAA bill indirectly leads to FedEx having unionized drivers, much like UPS, I am in favor of this. If FedEx can’t compete on the same level as UPS, that’s their problem. This is in no way a “bailout” and it’s insulting that they would be pushing for it to be phrased in this way. Personally, I use the US Postal Service.

THE FINANCIAL SECTOR

You have passed bills that taxed Wall Street bonuses, broke up the banks, and helped bring down the debt (a nearly impossible task). And on this, I commend you. It’s repulsive that Wall Street gets our sympathy, coupled with millions of dollars in “golden parachutes”, while those on the verge of retirement now have to stay working because their 401(k) has been depleted.

Even stiffer regulations need to be put in place. You’re aware of the Glass-Steagal Act, and how it was gutted by Phil Gramm and others in 1999. We need that protection back. We cannot have our banks gambling with our money. Personally, I think it is foolish to invest in banks rather than credit unions. However, this does not mean that those who choose to use banks for their own needs must suffer because of others’ reckless choices.

Some radical ideas that would probably never fly, but should, include limiting the amount a CEO can earn. For example, ten times what the lowest employee earns. If an employee only gets $12 per hour, the CEO would get $120. I would be willing to be flexible on that, making it fifteen or twenty times. But in all fairness, if the boss cannot make ends meet with his salary, how can he expect his employees to with a mere fraction? The money should be invested back into the company or spent on the employees, not going into the hands of a small number of corporate suits.

Another proposal: safety levels on a 401(k) and similar accounts. Say, for example, an account reaches $20,000. That could be a safety level. Another could be at $35,000. So, once the account reaches $20,000 they are free to play with the money up until $35,000 but it cannot drop below $20,000. Then, once it reaches $35,000, it hits another level, and again at $50,000. This leaves a flexible $15,000 for the investors to play with at any given time, while making the risk to the employee relatively small. People would be much more at ease knowing once they’ve reach a certain level they have no risk of losing it all.

JOBS

You would like bailout money to be re-routed to firefighters, police officers and teachers. I agree with this. Particularly, I would like to see teachers compensated. Some people think they get paid too much, and that is not something I have an opinion on one way or the other. But I do think that it is never good when a school has to lay off a teacher or have a teacher be a coach at the same time. First of all, athletics should never be more important than academics (though we know, of course, that’s how it works). But second, if we believe that better education comes from smaller class sizes, every teacher counts when we are trying to create better students. As I type this, Appleton is considering laying off thirty-seven teachers. One or two is a tragedy, thirty-seven is a full-scale disaster.

However, there should be some level of accountability on the teachers, too. I have heard, and do not know this to be true, that teachers are required to take college classes. I absolutely support this. In high school, I had very gifted teachers and I had very mediocre teachers. The least anyone should expect from a teacher is that they are kept up to date on the subject of their teaching. Yes, even things like history and literature change, or can be expanded. When a student asks a question, the answer should never be “I don’t know”; at the very least, the teacher should know where to direct that student for answers. (My best learning in school came on my own time, but without decent interaction this, too, would have been stunted.)

I am not sure that much investment needs to be put in firefighting. In fact, I think many communities get by fine with a part-time or volunteer service. A good department is important, but a lean one may be all that’s needed. As for the police, that is something each community knows best. As you know from living in Appleton, our district’s primary concerns are traffic and drunken driving, relatively minor offenses. What sort of police force best handles this, I cannot say. In most cases, specialized fields may be best left to the county — if Kaukauna averages one homicide in five years, and in most cases the murderer is known, clearly a homicide detective would be extraneous on the city’s force.

Your plans to improve lending for small businesses are solid. You know about the billboard on US 41 suggesting that President Obama be impeached on the supposed grounds that small businesses are hurting. I don’t believe Obama has hurt small business, nor has he done anything making him impeachable. But the point is that someone, somewhere thinks small businesses need help, and they’re right. Start-ups don’t get the million dollar subsidies that other, larger corporations do. Frankly, I think “corporate welfare” should be done away with… screw Archer Daniels Midland. Not long ago, they swindled grocery stores (and by extension consumers) out of hundreds of millions of dollars… and they are still, to my knowledge, receiving subsidies. Why are we the taxpayer giving a company money so they can steal from us? But if the cancellation of subsidies is not going to happen, the least we can do is give the little guy a fair chance to compete.

ECONOMY AND ENERGY

I love that you’re supporting “green” ideas to improve the economy, particularly the economy in my wallet. Tax credits for businesses is great, as well as the incentives that you claim 1,700 homes in the 8th district have used. Yes, we all need to keep our tires inflated, our windows sealed and maybe paint our roof white if we cannot afford solar panels… and that’s just a start. Energy efficiency may not stop global climate change, but anything to lessen foreign dependency and reduce pollution — while saving families money — is a win-win that no one should object to.

What more can be done with solar? The average home may not be able to afford it, but many businesses can and the public facilities likely could, too. The beautiful thing about solar is this: not only does it reduce energy costs, but the more widespread solar becomes, the cheaper it becomes to implement (due to mass production). If built on a large enough scale, paneling could be as cheap as insulation… and it all starts with giving businesses that can afford it a little push (even if that push is a tax break).

One issue that’s been big around here lately is the development of a wind farm in the area of Hollandtown and Morrison. There have been some stink about possible “health concerns”. I have no idea what those concerns might be, because I have never been told of windmills causing any harm. I live five minutes from Hollandtown and have been there hundreds of times. I think it’s a great place for a wind farm, a good financial boon to the town, and has plenty of potential for energy. What can be done from your office to push for this and other wind farms? Unless there truly is a negative side I am not aware of, it seems to me that investment in this endeavor is about the most sensible idea to come along in years.

VETERANS AND HEALTH CARE

I applaud your commitment to our veterans. I know at least one who took advantage of the home loans, and is very much ahead of his peers because of it. I also think the VA center in Green Bay will be wonderful. The estimated 20,000 veterans who will use it likewise surely appreciate it.

But talk of veterans’ health care only draws attention to the elephant in the room, and I don’t mean John Boehner. Health care for non-veterans is equally important. In fact, I think it’s a safe assumption that fewer and fewer of our citizens are joining the military than ever before. As the World War II and Vietnam generation fades, there will not be as big of a need for veterans services. (This is not to say they’re not important.)

Health care reform is failing. It’s pretty obvious. It’s been dragging on, with amendments and talk of reconciliation, and so on… and it’s been over a year. I would love to see a public option, or single payer, or universal, or any large-scale overhaul. But it’s pretty clear at this point that such a thing simply is not politically viable. Either the people don’t want it, they don’t know they want it, or the powers that be refuse to grant it. Regardless of the reason, it’s dead. We’ve waited fifty years, we might be waiting fifty more.

What I would love to see is a new approach: breaking up bills into dozens of smaller bills. We hear all the time about bills that are hundreds of pages long and do not actually get read by the Congress (the PATRIOT Act comes to mind, but the health care bill is no exception). If there is a large bill, it’s no surprise that just about everyone will find something wrong with it. How can we expect it to pass if not one person likes all of it? Instead, if the fifty proposals were written as fifty bills, it seems more like that at least thirty could pass. These are hypothetical numbers, but the bottom line is that a 60% improvement on health care is better than 0% when the current one dies.

I also wish that Congress did not have the power to add amendments on existing bills. My understanding is that amendments can be denied on the grounds that they are frivolous, but the truth is that such things should not be allowed in the first place. Along with the idea of breaking up bills, why allow people to make them even more complicated? Especially when it’s well-known that this only exists to bog down a bill in debate.

FOREIGN POLICY

First, I would like to say that we should end our involvement in all existing wars: Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and any covert actions. I’m not stupid enough to think this will happen, but I want my voice on record.

Next, I would ask that some steps be made to close our military bases around the world. As I understand it, we have bases in over one hundred countries. As near as I can tell, there is not one good reason for these bases to exist. (If there is, please enlighten me.) I can think of many good reasons for them not to exist, however. They divert troops and funds away from our primary forces (such as in Afghanistan) on inconsequential police actions. They have the potential to breed new terrorism — bin Laden explicitly stated that one of his concerns was American forces in Saudi Arabia. Assuming this is true (and it’s very plausible), why not close extraneous bases? The prevention of one 9/11 is worth whatever we are gaining from these bases. And also, if we do not have foreign bases here, what right do we have to police other nations? As Rafael Correa, the head of Ecuador, pointed out, there is no reason to have an American base in Ecuador if they cannot have one in Miami.

Most importantly, I wish to express my great displeasure with the use of drones in Pakistan. The Pakistani police and military are fully capable of tracking terrorists on their own, or with our most basic assistance. By using drones, you create a situation where the bulk of people killed will be civilians. How can you justify one civilian death? And even in the case of suspected terrorists, how can we be responsible for killing someone on a suspicion without evidence or trial? This is a new version of the Red Scare, only now the suspects get death rather than merely blacklisted. What right does the president have to sent drones into Pakistan? We are not at war with them, at least not officially. Only Congress can declare war, and you, Dr. Kagen, are Congress. Did you declare war on Pakistan? If not, your only position should be in opposition to this undeclared attack on a country that for the most part is not involved in anti-American activities.

I know this letter is long, and I am also fairly aware that you will not personally read it. But if one idea in here hits home for whoever does read it, I will feel I have made a difference.

Thank you,

Gavin Schmitt

Also try another article under Letters to ...
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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