A Democratic Town Hall meeting in the Deep South

I attended a Town Hall meeting last Thursday, from 3–4 p.m., in Statesboro, Georgia, sponsored and conducted by our Democratic US Representative John Barrow. He is a blue dog Democrat, a lawyer in his forties or fifties, who votes and talks like a Republican.

Forty or so of us attendees sat in a large meeting room in a local agriculture center with our chairs moved around in a haphazard semi-circle. Barrow sat in the middle of the straight side of the semi-circle, a few feet into the group, in a chair just like we sat in, wearing blue jeans like most of us; and in about 15 minutes he gave a summary of what he had been up to in Washington, giving his take on the fiscal cliff and other matters.

After pointing out a young man in his twenties or early thirties in the back of the room hired by Republicans to record and videotape the meeting, hoping to capture something Republicans could use against him, Barrow then said he was open to hearing our opinions and answering questions.

Most of us were European American; six or so were African American. Most of us were male; fifteen or so were female. Most of us were over 60 years old.

The first hand that went up wanted to know how Barrow felt about guns. Barrow essentially replied he had no intentions of voting for an assault weapons ban, asserting such a ban had been tried and it didn’t work. Most attendees seemed to agree with this. One attendee said Barrow was right since you could pull off ten rounds at a time reloading ten times about as fast as you could pull off 100 rounds at one time with an assault weapon.

The discussion then moved to topics such as Obamacare. Barrow did not vote for Obamacare and seemingly most of the attendees agreed this was a wise decision. Someone asked him if it were constitutional to require people to buy health insurance. Barrow said, yes it is since the US Supreme Court had recently decided it was. One attendee said she thought this was wrong since many people were healthy and did not need health insurance. Barrow was concerned about controlling overall health care costs. He seemed obsessed with the fact that about 30 percent of all Medicare and Medicaid expenses were Type II diabetes related, implying all we had to do reduce overall medical costs was to consume less fat and sugar.

Someone asked what he thought about the federal debt. Barrow basically said the best thing to do was lower taxes even more and raise revenue by closing loopholes. Impolitely interrupting him as he attempted to move on to another topic, I strongly disagreed with this, telling him there was no way Congress could close loopholes any time soon if you caint even pass a farm bill, and the best way to raise revenue ASAP is to fund infrastructure jobs to increase employment was to increase tax rates on large corporations and the elite rich back to where they were in 1980 when Ronald Reagan got elected to Washington.

Barrow then proceeded to tell the group that Reagan proved that cutting taxes produced growth and we did not need to increase the taxes of the rich, asserting that was unfair. I asked him how did he know taxes were not fair in 1980 before Reagan lowered them? He had no answer for this and let the discussion go elsewhere. Someone said flat taxes were the answer. Barrow did not agree with this, saying he believed in progressive taxes. What were progressive taxes someone wanted to know? Barrow attempted to define them. Why is that fair she wanted to know? Why not tax everybody the same? Why is it forty percent of all Americans pay no tax at all? Barrow said many of them were on Social Security, etc.

I told him Ronald Reagan had tripled the federal debt during his eight years in office, proving his tax policies did not work. Barrow disagreed. He said Reagan proved the Laffer Curve did not work but Reagan proved during his second term that cutting taxes spurs growth. I said you mean you think all of that debt increase during the Reagan administration was due to spending? He did not answer, but an aide sitting in the back of the semi-circle, apparently a fact checker or verifier of some sort, wearing a dark goatee, the only such facial hair displayed in the group, said Reagan’s spending resulted in a debt increase as a percent of GDP less than that of most presidents. I replied based on debt accumulation relative to starting debt, Ronald Reagan was the worst president we ever had. After I said this I saw I had struck a nerve, that Reagan was a demigod to some of these people, and their beady-eyed glares and clenched jaws told me I was treading on thin ice.

In retrospect the rebuttal about Reagan’s debt increase as a percent of GNP was a red herring but it was remotely relevant. Although I had no opportunity to rebut this directly in the Town Hall meeting with the following information, not in fact remembering the details until I looked them up with a Google search writing this article, the truth is Reagan increased debt relative to GNP more than most other presidents, from about 26 percent to about 41 percent over eight years, during times not requiring massive tax cuts and spending increases, unlike what Obama faced after 2008, a time requiring massive stimulation to avoid a banking system collapse and a depression, resulting in a debt to GNP increase from about 75 percent to 100 percent or so now.

The US total debt remained about the same from 1945 to Ronald Reagan’s time in 1980, when it significantly increased, from about $2 trillion to about $5.5 trillion over eight years. The debt increased more slowly under Bush I; and Clinton-Gore balanced the budget and reduced the debt in 1999, the only administration to do so since 1980. The debt then resumed its upward climb at a greatly accelerated pace under Bush II and Obama. Bush II faced a minor recession in 2001 and Obama faced a potential depression in 2009. The total debt is now about $16.4 trillion and the yearly deficit is about $1 trillion. We are in perilous economic and political times.

I cannot prove how much extra spending was actually required after 2008 to bail out failed banks and stimulate the economy or how much the serious recession of 2008 reduced tax revenues causing the deficit and debt increase, or how much of the deficit increase was due to increases in welfare spending, but at least the US has not yet fallen into a major depression. There is no doubt that spending decreases and revenue increases will be necessary in the future to avert debt defaults and other calamitous consequences.

On the other hand, austerity now could cause a depression, and more stimulation is needed to create jobs. Standard Keynesian economics says to exit depressions a country needs to use both monetary and fiscal policy to stimulate economic activity, meaning policy-makers should lower interest rates, increase government spending, and decrease taxes. Well, interest rates for some time have been about as low as they can go, government spending has been elevated for decades, starting with Reagan, and taxes were lowered dramatically for large corporations and for all classes of society by Reagan and Bush II. And here we are today still not stimulated back to full employment.

Although Keynes did not say this to my knowledge, it seems to me raising tax rates for large corporations and the elite rich back to 1980 levels in these times, under these conditions, will not significantly decrease aggregate demand in the domestic economy since the elite rich have so much money they can buy all the consumer goods they need and might want if their taxes are raised by what would be a minuscule percentage of their disposable funds; and raising the tax rates of large corporations will not cause them to invest less for new plant and equipment since aggregate demand is already too low in the consumer economy to sell new goods and services new plant and equipment would produce. Therefore raising taxes on the elite rich and large corporations, without decreasing spending, to fund infrastructure jobs is the best option for further stimulating the economy ASAP to get out of the depression-like conditions were are in now.

By some estimates 30 or so million people in the US are out of work, counting the long-term unemployed who have given up looking for jobs. What to do in the long run is another matter. Sure, this is kicking the can down the road a little further, but it seems to me it’s our best shot for getting out of this mess.

Admittedly, it’s debatable whether raising tax rates for large corporations and the elite rich back to 1980 levels is fair. I would argue it is fair since large corporations and the elite rich would be giving back the tax savings they were unfairly granted by Reagan after 1980 and Bush II after 2000. On the other hand, most Republicans, and some Democrats, would probably argue our ancestors had unfairly set the tax rates of large corporations and the elite rich too high before 1980, and Ronald Reagan, and Bush II, in their wisdom, fairly lowered them to where they should have been all along, correcting the mistakes of our ancestors.

Congressman Barrow pointed out the Hastert Rule, a rule now being used by House Speaker Boehner to prevent a vote on the new farm bill in the House, a rule that requires the majority party to have a guaranteed passing vote in its caucus before the party leader will allow a bipartisan vote on the House floor, plus the filibuster rule in the Senate, plus gerrymanding of districts in favor of majority party candidates, is seriously subverting and sabotaging the functioning of democracy in Washington.

He said only about six federal congressional districts of some 435 in the US are truly competitive between Democratic and Republican candidates. In all the rest whoever wins the primary inevitably wins the election and heads for Washington, and most of them have safe seats in subsequent elections.

I told Barrow this was absurd and we need a new constitutional amendment to outlaw this sort of thing. He said you couldn’t do that because politicians in the House and Senate make their own rules.

It’s disastrous that politicians have passed rules to get themselves elected and reelected that are making it well nigh impossible for the legislative branch of the US to get anything done to solve threatening problems facing the whole country, such as the budget problem and unemployment.

The US Congress was not designed to create a class of privileged career politicians or a club where elected representatives entertain and enrich themselves. Congress was supposed to be composed of citizen representatives who would consent to go to Congress for a few years to represent their fellow citizens and then go back home to resume doing their real jobs. Mark Twain in his day said, “There is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” How much would this apply today to the 113th Congress?

I wanted to say in the Town Hall meeting the root cause that motivates politicians to gerrymand districts is voters who rarely change their minds about political parties, cemented in a fixed institutionalized system of legitimized bias and prejudice, brainwashed throughout their lives never to change their minds about their political party, come hell or high water, making it possible for computers to locate where Democrats and Republicans live and draw congressional district lines in such a way the district contains a majority of one party or another. The way to solve this problem is for someone or some group or computers to find a way to educate and train voters to understand the causes and consequences of problems and issues who will vote for politicians who will vote to solve problems of the country, not to increase or preserve their personal political power, or the power of their sacred political party, however flawed, obtuse and corrupt it might be.

The problem of term limits was mentioned and some attendees seemed to agree terms of office for senators and representatives should be limited. On the other hand, Barrow said someone in Congress was attempting to get a vote on a bill to eliminate the Twenty-Second Amendment that set term limits for the president, which would make it possible for a president to stay in power indefinitely. It was obvious some people in this group thought this idea, the dumbest idea I ever heard of, was a good idea. It seems some US citizens would like to see the US become a dictatorship.

Around and around and back and forth it went until one of Barrow’s aides standing up by the back wall told us we only had about two more minutes before our hour was up and then the congressman had to move on to another town for another Town Hall meeting to complete his tour of his district. I think the meeting stimulated most attendees and most enjoyed it, hating to see it end, including me.

The poor understanding of economic history and taxation of the attendees speaking up surprised me; but I thought Congressman Barrow, whom I have voted for twice, did a good job conducting the meeting and making everyone feel welcome, being careful not to hurt anyone’s feelings regardless of what they said, including me, the only person there who seriously argued with him about any issue. In two of my arguments he ended up telling the group I was right. I hope I didn’t hurt his feelings or the feelings of anyone in the group by what I said, or how I said it.

It was a good Town Hall meeting. I suspect we covered more relevant issues in more detail than most Town Hall meetings, although there was no mention of global warming, climate change, Afghanistan, bringing the troops home, Israel, Iran, Syria, China or anything outside the US.

Irrespective of human feelings, here is an outside the box idea for theoretically solving some political problems by attacking root causes.

It seems to me the only hope is to vote all Washington incumbent politicians out, and the only way to do that is to take them on one party at a time, starting with Republicans, since they are the worst offenders. Vote for nothing but Democrats for a few years until all sitting Republicans have been sent home, then vote for nothing but Greens, Independents, and so forth until all sitting Democrats have been sent home. Then, presuming the Republican and Democratic parties have learned their lessons, start voting for individual politicians based on what you think about their personal characteristics, abilities, knowledge, wisdom, character and intentions.

Following is a quote from page 645 of the last edition of my book, Business Voyages, written in 2005, published in 2011.

“I am not a Democrat, or a Liberal, and for sure I am not a Republican, or a Conservative. I am a member of the FFPP party, my own creation, the Freedom, Fairness, and Progress Party. If you would like to join this party, send no money, but act in such a way as to encourage all people to act in a truly free, fair, and progressive manner. Most Democratic congress people on television seem about as devoid of workable solutions for real problems in today’s world as the two Republicans mentioned above, although I will say I think Democratic politicians in Washington in general have been more Christian-like than Republican politicians in Washington since 1980. At least they did not take from the poor and give to the rich. Most Republican and Democratic politicians have done little in the last 25 years but slavishly vote for their party line, as they were told to do by their party bosses, to conserve their chances of getting help from their party bosses in their next election.”

Congressman Barrow is an exception to this rule; and I think all eligible US voters should consider joining the Freedom, Fairness and Progress Party.

Richard John Stapleton is an emeritus professor of business policy, ethics and entrepreneurship who writes on business and politics at www.effectivelearning.net. He is the author of “Recommendations for Waking Up From The American Nightmare.”

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