8 great bipartisan goals for Donald Trump


We are all witnesses to the inauguration of our 45th president. He wasn’t my first choice (for that matter, he was safely well outside of my “top 10”). In the Republican primary, I voted for John Kasich. When Donald Trump became the nominee, I opted to support Hillary Clinton because she seemed the opposite of Trump’s lack of seriousness, inadequate knowledge of history and policy, and simplistic conclusions about complex issues, all seemingly without introspection or retrospection. 

But here we are, contemplating the unknowns that such an unconventional — and so far, unsettling — administration portends. While many are focusing on Trump’s daily tweets and outrageous behaviors, and they seem to be legion, we instead should put this election behind us and work on the serious business of working together. Perhaps by being so unconventional, Trump can be the agent for real “out-of-the-box” change. In short, It’s time to get to work.

We all attest to want middle-class economic relief, a better health plan, more employment, tax reform, compassionate immigration policy and a stable world. Here is some advice to the new president in areas where bipartisanship might prevail, where Republicans and Democrats can work together to move the country forward. 

Immigration reform  

Mr. Trump, I think you know that a  wall between the United States and Mexico is unrealistic and ludicrously costly, but there are more sensible ways to secure our borders and reform our immigration system. Politicians from both parties support vigilantly protecting our borders and enhancing background checks. So go ahead and build a metaphorical wall — but, when it comes to undocumented people already living in this country, you also must demonstrate your humanity. You should promise the children of immigrants that they can remain and grant those who immigrated here illegally a pathway to citizenship. This is largely the plan devised by a bipartisan group of senators in 2013; let’s revisit it now.

Tax reform

Everybody wants to fix the inequities and complexities of the current system, but no one wants their own ox gored. Let’s shake up the tax code and get four things done quickly, most of which have the support of a majority of public opinion and Congress: a) Lower corporate tax rates, currently the highest among the 35 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, to the median of that organization; b) Roll back marginal tax rates by increasing the income level at which income taxes kick in, expanding the lowest brackets and rolling the highest bracket back to 35 percent; c) Phase out the home mortgage interest deduction, which has contributed to the accumulation of debt, exacerbated the global financial crisis and benefited owners at the expense of renters; and d) Eliminate some of the largest tax loopholes, starting with the carried interest deduction, the ethanol subsidy and the biggest corporate giveaways.

Fix Social Security  

As an interim measure, increase the income level below which Social Security taxes are charged from $118,500 to $200,000, raise the retirement age to 69 and eliminate Social Security payments at retirement for those who made in excess of $250,000 on average in the five years before retirement. Eventually, eliminate the Social Security and Medicare taxes and replace them with something more progressive and fairer than taxing labor and capital.

Fund infrastructure 

Identify infrastructure improvements and put people to work. Provide a mix of grants to states and low interest-rate loans to public-private partnerships willing to invest in needed improvements. There will be no better time for the government to borrow than in today’s low interest-rate environment. Many Democrats already have signaled their willingness to work with the president on this issue.

Reaffirm America’s support for its allies 

We must reaffirm our commitment to NATO and our neighbors to the north and south. Go ahead and try to improve NAFTA, but don’t scrap it — our auto industries and others depend on it. As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), you can try to make it tougher, but we can’t afford to provide a vacuum that China will fill, both in trade and geopolitics. Get the TPP done on terms you can declare acceptable.

Fix the Affordable Care Act 

A great health care system assures accessibility, affordability and quality of care. Let’s all acknowledge that the ACA (Obamacare) has increased accessibility. Yet it funded this accessibility with increased health care costs, the bulk of which were borne by the middle class — that very middle class you pledged to serve. So let’s fund this more sensibly, with user fees that moderate overuse of the system, elimination of the restrictions on insurance companies to sell across borders (I won’t be happy until health insurance ads are as ubiquitous and annoying as those Geico and Allstate ads for car insurance), and allowing people greater choice in their health care plans. Some of the funding can come from a value added tax (VAT), as discussed below.

Help Israel chart a course 

I believe Israel has been boxed into a corner. The world dictates terms but expects little in return. Let’s stipulate that the suburbs of Jerusalem, those clearly within the Israeli sphere under the Ehud Barak-Yasser Arafat negotiated borders and the Olmert plan, are Israeli. In return, Israel should dismantle the tiny enclaves whose original purpose was to make a contiguous Palestinian state impossible and expand none of the others. We should propound a set of principles that includes a solid contiguous Palestinian state, fewer checkpoints and the daily indignities to which Palestinians are subjected, and an Israel Defense Forces guarantee of security for Israel and the West Bank, and later for the Palestinian state, for a period of decades. Consider proposing an interim period of confederation, during which the West Bank can develop industry, infrastructure and institutions.

Start the discussion of a VAT 

This one doesn’t have bipartisan support — yet. Trump ran on a platform of strengthening American competitiveness. Let’s stop taxing American labor to fund Social Security and Medicare. It makes us less competitive. Plus, we should tax things other than labor and capital. We should tax consumption. A value added tax (VAT) has been accepted through much of the developed world. All consumption (excluding food, pharmaceuticals and other necessities) would be taxed. This would eliminate much of the current regressive system and would act as an indirect tax on wealth, rather than labor or capital.

Pie in the sky? Impossible to believe we can get things done? Trump already has achieved the improbable once. Let’s do it again — together.


Attorney Glenn Sonnenberg is president of Latitude Real Estate Investors and past president of Stephen Wise Temple. He sits on the boards of Bet Tzedek, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Para Los Ninos, USC Gould School of Law and Wise Freedom School Partners.

The drunken pigeons of Waiheke Island


There’s a bird native to New Zealand called the kereru, a larger than usual pigeon with a green-and-purple head, neck and wings, and a healthy-size white breast, that gets high on its own fumes. In warm weather, it gorges on berries till it can barely move, then sits in the sun to digest the fruit. The berries ferment to alcohol, and the kereru gets plastered. 

Which brings me to Bernie Sanders. 

No offense to the senator’s many devoted fans, but they seem to have gotten more than a bit intoxicated by whatever he’s been feeding them of late.

I had occasion to view a few kereru last week, on Waiheke Island, a short ferry ride from Auckland, and I can tell you they’re an entertaining bunch, quite boisterous and loud and limber, even acrobatic, when they first become inebriated, and getting more so the more soused they become, hanging upside down from tree branches and living dangerously as they fly head on into one another, white feathers hirsute like Bernie’s hair, wings flapping like the senator’s arms when he’s red-faced and excited and issuing commandments like they were on fire sale, giving away free college tuition, single-payer health care, the breaking up of the banks and more equitable distribution of wealth, not to mention 13 million new jobs, 12 weeks of paid family leave, universal child care and prekindergarten, all of which will be achieved by expanding government spending and making rich people pay their fair share of taxes 

Seriously? He says this with a straight face and takes Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to task for not leveling with the American people? 

Go to berniesanders.com, click on the “Issues” link at the top of the page, then scroll down to “How Bernie Pays for his Proposals.” Put simply, his economic plan relies on three fundamental assumptions. First, that if elected president, he can convince the United States Congress to agree to the greatest expansion of government spending since the New Deal. Second, that money for the government spending would be generated after he has persuaded Congress to raise taxes and close loopholes and make CEOs pay taxes at the same rate as their secretaries (free health care for all, for example, would require $1.4 trillion a year for the next 10 years, which Sanders plans to pay for by raising taxes and eliminating current deductions allowed to employers who provide health insurance for their workers). Finally, Sanders claims, this additional government spending will create new jobs and put more money in Americans’ pockets, which means higher tax revenue, which means more money available for government spending.

Never mind that most Democratic economists agree that Sanders has vastly underestimated the cost of his social spending and overestimated the amount of revenue he can raise through taxes and more spending. Never mind that most reasonable people may agree that getting these schemes through our divided Congress is unlikely at best. What Sanders doesn’t tell his voters is that his entire economic plan is based on the assumption that government spending for a limited length of time will indefinitely continue to generate income for the government. That is, 10 years of government spending will lead to infinite years of public spending. Let’s say that starting on Sanders’ first day in office, the government will hire currently unemployed people to work on a government-funded project — building new roads, for example. The newly employed will spend part of their income buying goods and services. This will then generate tax revenue for the government, which will in turn make more spending possible. 

But what happens when the government stops hiring people or infusing money into the economy? Sanders’ economic plan, summarized on his website, proposes up to 10 years of government spending. His assumption, which by far the majority of economists disagree with, is that people will continue to have jobs and to spend long after that decade of spending is over. In fact, the only way his plan would work is if unemployment remains permanently, drastically low — a little more than 3 percent. For context, this has happened in only six of the past 95 years. 

Honestly, people, I want some of the berries Sanders has been eating. 

Bernie Sanders started out as a likable guy with all the right leanings, the truth-telling, if a bit mad, professor who has spent a lifetime screaming from the sideline without really expecting to hear his own voice in the din. 

If you were a Democrat or someone even remotely interested in social justice, you couldn’t help but like him and love his ideas. If you were still fuming, like I am, over the fact that the bankers and charlatans responsible for the financial meltdown have gone unpunished, even been rewarded, for their larceny, you couldn’t help but root for him. As long as he didn’t have a prayer at the presidency, or at being the Democratic candidate — as long as he served as the party’s conscience and shamed its bosses into remembering that they don’t actually work for Goldman Sachs — he could have been forgiven his indulgences in the art of the impossible. At best, he was setting goals the party should aspire to; at worst, he was wasting his breath.

Nowadays, though, he’s lying to his fans and they’re buying it. 

The kereru of Waiheke Island eat and drink and get stoned until they — literally — fall off tree branches onto the ground. When they come to, their brain is still so fogged up they can’t remember where they live or how to get back up on the tree. I don’t begrudge Bernie’s voters their moment of jubilation, or their apparent lack of healthy skepticism (by which I mean gullibility). I just hope that when this is over, we all have a softer landing than New Zealand’s alcoholic pigeons. 

GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”

Supermodel Bar Refaeli is under investigation for tax evasion in Israel


Supermodel Bar Refaeli is under investigation in her native Israel over allegations that she evaded paying local tax on earnings from her international career. 

Lawyers for the 30-year-old, who Israeli media have reported is worth up to $20 million, rejected the accusations. 

Her lawyers said the case centred on a long-running dispute with Israeli authorities over whether Refaeli, a former Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model, should be considered a resident of Israel for tax purposes.

The authorities' investigation of Refaeli was the worst-kept secret in Israel this week, although a gag order kept her name and face out of the media. 

That was lifted on Thursday, in tandem with a court hearing at which she was not required to appear.

Yair Rabinovich, a former Israeli national tax commissioner, said on Israel Radio that her residency classification depended on a combination of factors, including the number of days spent in the country and whether Israel was at “the centre of one's life”.

Court papers filed by tax investigators and released to the Israeli media said Refaeli had lived in luxury apartments in Tel Aviv in recent years but that her brother and mother had signed the leases to conceal her residency and evade potential tax bills on millions of dollars in foreign earnings.

Media reports said the authorities were also looking into whether tax should have been paid on “celebrity discounts” and perks such as cars that the model had received in Israel. 

Refaeli, a former host of the music talent show X-Factor Israel, was questioned for 12 hours by tax investigators on Wednesday. She was not taken into custody, but a Tel Aviv court ordered that she request approval from tax authorities and post a $65,000 bond before any future overseas travel.

Refaeli, who for a time dated Hollywood actor Leonardo DiCaprio, married an Israeli businessman in September at a wedding attended by more than 300 people.

Presidential candidate Carson pushes 15 percent flat tax, end to all deductions


Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said on Monday he favored a flat 15 percent tax rate and an end to all tax deductions, among other steps, in an effort to boost the U.S. economy and balance the budget.

Carson said he would also trim the federal government spending by between 2 percent and 3 percent while also increasing revenue by repatriating corporate income from abroad.

“I am in favor of a flat tax,” Carson told Fox Business Network. “Everybody should be hit exactly the same.”

Opinion polls show Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, is currently in the top tier of a crowded field of candidates vying to be the Republican nominee for the presidential election in November 2016.

“In order (to) have to, you know, remain revenue neutral, we would have to make that rate at about 15 percent, and eliminate all the deductions and all the loopholes,” he told the network, which is hosting a televised Republican debate on Tuesday.

Additionally, Carson said he would extend the 15 percent tax rate to capital gains, now taxed at 20 percent. Foreign income would also be taxed at 15 percent, he said, adding that he would take steps to encourage U.S. companies to declare cash now held overseas.

Multinational corporations with money parked abroad currently face a 35 percent tax rate if they reclassify it to the United States. 

Carson told Fox he “would declare a holiday on that tax” to bring such funds back but would require companies to invest 10 percent of that money into American communities to create U.S. jobs, although he gave no specific details. 

“It also gets business industry in the mind frame of, once again, investing in a community, which is something that we used to do at higher level before the government came in and said, we will take care of all that,” he added.

Carson's outline of his tax plan comes as he faces increased scrutiny from the media and rivals after a recent rise in opinion polls – where he and Donald Trump, a businessman and television personality, currently hold the top spots to be the Republican presidential nominee.

Carson also said he is relying heavily on the advice of George Mason University economics professor Tom Rustici.

Hamas imposed taxes create new hardships for Palestinians in Gaza


This story originally appeared on The Media Line.

The Islamist Hamas, which controls the densely populated Gaza Strip, has added another burden to the lives of residents of Gaza with the introduction of new import taxes on items considered non-essential. The announcement has local merchants fuming, with some threatening to cease imports into Gaza altogether.

Over 400 items will be affected, including a variety of crops, meat, fruits, vegetables, clothing and electronics. Most of the items are imports from Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

“The purpose of the law is to ease the suffering of the poor in the Gaza Strip,” said Ahmad Abu Halbiya, a member of Hamas’s parliamentary block who passed the new tax. “We’ll collapse as a society in Gaza if we do not impose these taxes. It’s not much but it will benefit the citizens of Gaza – especially the security police who need money for cars.” Abu Halbiya said that flour and medicines, as essential goods, would be exempt from the tax.

Abu Halbiya acknowledged that Hamas’s 40,000 employees will be the main recipients of the new tax revenue.

The new tax was drafted after members of parliament studied the basic needs of the people of Gaza, said Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesperson. Abu Zuhri justified the decision by saying that “The civil servants of Gaza haven’t received regular salaries in over a year. The Strip cannot function without civil servants, who are the pillar of every state.” The tax will be brought in gradually so as to not overly burden Gazans, starting at around 1% and eventually increasing to 10%.

The payment of civil servants in Gaza has been a controversy in the past with Hamas and Fatah, which controls the West Bank, disputing who should cover the cost of workers wages.

“The introduction of these types of taxes, is unacceptable to the Palestinian private sector, at this time,” Nabil Abu Meilq, President of the Palestinian Contractors in Gaza, told The Media Line. He explained that merchants and citizens should have been considered when this tax was proposed and that not enough time was spent discussing the effects that the new ruling will have. In the context of Gaza’s damaged economy, which has deteriorated since the fighting with Israel in 2014, this tax will make things worse as customers will simply buy less and this in turn will affect merchants, he said.

Dozens of merchants recently gathered in front of the Gazan legislative building to demand an abolition to the import taxes.

“Life here gets impossible, we can’t take it anymore,” Saleem Nazal, a merchant at the gathering told The Media Line. “Further decisions like this will lead to more families dying in the Mediterranean Sea, looking for a better life away from Gaza.” Nazal said that if the government decision were to go through then he would no longer be able to afford to import fruit and vegetables.

But not everybody was sympathetic to the merchants. Jamal Nassar, a Hamas member of parliament, said he could not understand the vendors’ rage.

“The [price] increase falls on the consumer, not on you,” he told a group of merchants, “so why this vicious attack? None of you is affected; it’s the citizen who are. If I am bad to the citizen, let him not vote for me.”

Nassar’s comments at a press conference provoked some Hamas parliamentarians, and members of the Popular Front Party (PFP), to publically distance themselves from the tax. Parliamentarians said that the taxation would lead to additional unemployment and poverty and that Nasser’s tone towards the electorate would cause people to turn on Hamas.

“Such laws will defeat Hamas from the inside,” Fathi El-Sheikh, a parliamentarian from the Islamic party, told The Media Line. “More limitations and the imposition of additional taxes on food and clothing will cause people to turn against Hamas for the first time.” Increased taxes and the existing limitations on the hours of electricity available in the Gaza Strip, with unemployment at 55%, risked creating an explosion which Hamas would not be able to control, said El-Sheikh.

Electricity supply in Gaza has long been intermittent with many homes receiving only a few hours of electricity a day.

El-Sheikh pointed to the humanitarian situation in Gaza as the cause of his concern. The United Nations declared a humanitarian emergency in Gaza last July – a crisis which has not dissipated with over 100,000 resident still displaced in January of this year. Gisha, a humanitarian NGO dealing primarily with the humanitarian situation in Gaza, said last month that over 70% of Gaza residents are in need of humanitarian assistance and that even prior to last summer’s fighting 57% of Gazans suffered from food insecurity.

Access and trade into Gaza has been limited since the imposition of a blockade by Israel in 2007, following the rise to power of the Hamas movement in the Gaza Strip. The blockade was increased in 2013 when the Egyptian government moved to cut off tunnels maintained by Hamas from Gaza into Sinai. 

Cartoon: A shining city on a hill


Nightclub owner Sam Nazarian gives up control of Las Vegas hotel


Sam Nazarian made his name and his billion-dollar fortune creating L.A. clubs and restaurants that attracted the hippest young celebrities.

He parlayed that fame into hotels in Beverly Hills and Miami's South Beach. This year, he looked to Las Vegas as the next step in a bold global expansion, opening the 1,600-room SLS Las Vegas hotel and casino in August.

Then he ran into the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

READ MORE ON LATIMES.COM.

Hollywood accounting


We’re making major motion pictures, baby!

And TV shows too! That’s right, my fellow California taxpayers. You and I are now major investors in film and television productions. Our agent—or I should say our 120 agents in the state legislature—cut a five-year deal last week putting more than 1.5 billion of our hard-earned dollars into the production of on-screen entertainment.

Before we celebrate the fact that we are now all Hollywood players, we must admit to ourselves that, financially, our new investment isn’t such a good deal. We California taxpayers have broken the cardinal rule of Hollywood: Never use your own money.

The state’s own studies show that the tax credits being offered the industry won’t pay for themselves. That’s in part because Hollywood isn’t a particularly good business anymore. Since the beginning of this century, movie ticket sales are down more than 15 percent, TV audiences have splintered, and motion picture production has been stagnant, lagging the sluggish American economy.  

California’s previous generosity to Hollywood hasn’t slowed the migration of production crews to other shooting locales. The existing tax incentive program, at $100 million a year, didn’t work—so now we’re betting, as Hollywood so often does, that a more expensive sequel will do better.

Hollywood already gets plenty of other breaks from us. California has long exempted motion pictures from some sales and personal property taxes, and local governments are very generous; narcissistic San Francisco, always desperate to see itself on screen, refunds all fees and payroll taxes paid to the city by a production crew, up to $600,000 per film or TV episode.

Yes, I know there are provisions in the new deal for audits and penalties to guarantee that our investment in tax credits will produce more and better in-state entertainment jobs. But let’s not kid ourselves and forget whom we’re dealing with here. Hollywood executives are the Rembrandts of creative accounting, setting up each movie as a shell company guaranteed to lose money, so they can keep revenues for themselves. Most infamously, Return of the Jedi has never booked a profit by Hollywood’s accounting. But, please, lower your voices when you repeat this, so that folks in poorer places like Imperial and Kings counties don’t hear that their taxes are going to subsidize rich people in Los Angeles, where more than 90 percent of Hollywood jobs are located.

Still, it’s hard to be too outraged about this rotten deal. Other countries and states offer similar incentives to lure film production, often with the encouragement of the same Hollywood executives who have been saying how much they prefer to keep production in California. The fact that Hollywood incentives are a stupid game doesn’t reduce the incentive to play it.

Let’s remember, too, that investing in the movie business has never been primarily about making money. It’s about buying into glamour, coolness, and cache, about laundering money made in less noble or less sexy enterprises, and about giving older and richer people the chance to interact with the beautiful people who make movies.

That’s why our legislators were never going to turn down Hollywood’s insistent entreaties for this new public investment; it’s also why this new program is all but certain to get much bigger, as requests for these tax incentives are expected to far outstrip the $330 million a year in the new legislation. Hollywood is too cool, and makes too many political contributions, for flesh-and-blood politicians to resist.

All that said, there is one obvious flaw to the terms of our new Hollywood investment: You and I have been cut out of the Hollywood fun.

There is no reason for millions of Californians to blow our tax money on Hollywood if we’re not going to be treated like the major Hollywood investors we now are.

In Hollywood, providing 20 to 25 percent of the budget of a movie typically buys you certain considerations, the most important of which are financial. As investors, we should be getting paid back out of the grosses before the filmmakers themselves get their cut—particularly when you consider we’re talking about taxpayer money that would be better spent on schools or increasing physician reimbursement rates so that people on Medi-Cal could find doctors.

Our movie investments should be properly credited; an individual who covers a quarter of a film’s cost could expect to be listed as an executive producer. Given our level of investment, we deserve similar perks: We should get to meet the stars, visit the set, and get two tickets to the premiere of the movies we invest in. I’d also like to take this opportunity to request for myself another common perk for the Hollywood investor: my own director’s chair, with my name on the back.

It’s not feasible for a single movie to accommodate the millions of us taxpayer-investors, but a lottery could dole out some of these perks to the public. Hollywood, with this new level of public funding, is also going to have to be more public-minded. I’m not asking to see scripts, but would it hurt you to diversify casting to reflect the population of the state that funds you? And why not engage us directly by letting Californians vote online on which films should receive incentives? You also need to step up your philanthropy, especially here at home.

Hollywood needs Californians to be happy investors, because there is the real possibility of a public backlash against this new deal. Other industries are likely to press us taxpayers for their own incentive packages. In a few years, we’ll read stories about how the state lacks reliable economic data on revenues and jobs produced by our Hollywood investment. And there’s the possibility of controversy around how the state chooses to fund films; the governor’s office will be involved, making the process political.

The good news is that, even if our big investment goes terribly wrong, Californians will have Hollywood stories to tell—and will have learned some useful things, including the priceless lesson that it’s best to keep your distance from rich, cunning, and pretty people. I, for one, have always found it personally instructive that the quintessential film about Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, begins and ends with a newspaperman named Joe (who takes a tragic turn into Hollywood screenwriting) face down in a swimming pool, shot dead by a movie star.

Yes, we Californians are ready for our close-up. But let’s fasten our seatbelts—it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zocalo Public Square where this article was originally published.

IRS’ ‘return free’ bad for most vulnerable


As April 15 nears each year, American taxpayers take inventory of their income and expenses and hand over a year’s worth of detail to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Many of us utilize the expertise of accountants to prepare what will become a complex analysis of the many life happenings that impact the sum of the taxes we owe or our refund. Our financial lives are often inherently complex, and they become even more complex when they must be reported and evaluated according to federal and state tax codes.  Tuition payments for our children’s education, contributions we have made to various charities and the cost of caring for our elderly parents are just a few of the deductible expenses that we communicate to our tax preparer. These factors are particularly relevant to our Jewish communities, where education, tzedakah, and caring for the sick and elderly serve as religious and cultural imperatives.

I am deeply concerned to learn about the IRS’ latest fight in Congress. The same federal agency responsible for collecting our taxes and issuing our refunds wants to be responsible for processing our filing information. This means that instead of communicating the countless details of our annual economics to accountants, the IRS wants us to hand over that information directly to them and await their response in the form of a refund and/or a collection notice.  I devote several months to the process of filing my taxes. As a spouse, rabbi, homeowner and contributor to multiple charities, my tax-filing experience is loaded with nuance, and I count on the tremendous detail and accuracy of my preparer to assure that I pay what I owe according to law and not more or less than that. I cannot imagine a scenario where those specific factors become unimportant in a system so large and disorganized that it cannot possibly process my truly individual return.

As an ethicist, I look beyond my own experience and shudder at the impact this program will have on the most vulnerable people in American society. Lower-income, minority, senior, veteran and disabled people rely on their refunds more than anyone. I am blessed to be concerned about how my charitable contributions will be accurately processed, but there are folks across this city and our nation who rely on their tax refund to pay the mortgage, cover medical expenses, and even keep the electricity and water on at home.

The IRS’ proposed “Return Free” program proposes to experiment with its new concept on the lowest income bracket of our nation, guaranteeing that the fallout will impact those who need the most support. Many of the same individuals and families who will suffer as a result of being issued inaccurate refunds under this program are also the people who will encounter the most significant barriers in rectifying that unfairness. 

If Congress allows the IRS to go through with this plan, I will likely have to hire accountants and attorneys to revise what will be an inaccurate return and then to get the IRS to accept the revisions. I am fortunate enough to have the money and knowledge to do that, but there are so many Americans who will never be able to repair the mistakes of the IRS. Language barriers, mistrust of government and centuries of discrimination will make reparation impossible for the most targeted and at-risk victims of this proposal.

What is the motivation of a United States federal agency to pursue such a flagrant conflict of interest as making the tax collector also the tax preparer? Doing so will compromise the accuracy and integrity of the American tax system and will, according to the Government Accountability Office, open the doors to the most frightening economic and privacy issues the United States has ever faced.  As it stands, the IRS answers at least one in five tax-related questions incorrectly. As is stands, the IRS often returns error-ridden tax paperwork, with sensitive personal identification information, to the wrong address. With stakes as high as basic annual budgeting and the security of our private information, how could the IRS possibly imagine that they could handle the accurate processing of every single American tax return?

We need to contact our Congressional representatives to urge them to stop this IRS plan before it starts.


Rabbi Elliot Dorff is rector and professor of philosophy at American Jewish University.

Rabbis urge Congress to end tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent


More than 275 rabbis signed on to a letter to Congress urging the lawmakers to end tax cuts for those earning more than $250,000 a year.

As part of the ongoing campaign by Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, community advocacy events also will be held in homes and community centers throughout the United States.

Participants in the events will write and call their Congress member, recruit more supporters and create publicity materials. The efforts are designed to garner support for ending tax cuts for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, according to a statement from Bend the Arc.

“The time has come for the American Jewish community to have a conversation with our elected officials about our tax system and our budget,” said Alan van Capelle, CEO of Bend the Arc. “Just saying don’t cut the specific programs that we run and that serve our community is no longer enough. We have to talk about taxes and revenue, and Bend the Arc is not afraid to do so.”

“The Jewish community’s prophetic voices are speaking up,” said Hadar Susskind, director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action and Bend the Arc Jewish Action PAC. “Hundreds of rabbis and thousands of others have made clear that ending these tax cuts is the moral thing to do and a priority for American Jews.”

The letter from the rabbis speaks of a just society where everyone can share opportunity.

Prominent rabbis from all movements of Judaism signed the letter, including Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, David Saperstein, Jack Moline, Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus and Sydney Mintz.

“Whatever the President and Congress do regarding the tax cuts will have enormous effects on individuals and families across the nation,” the letter concludes.

ZOA loses tax-exempt status


The Zionist Organization of America lost its tax-exempt status due to a late filing of tax returns. The organization did not file returns for three consecutive years, The Forward reported Sept. 11.

Morton Klein, the ZOA’s president, confirmed that the organization has not been tax exempt since March. Since then, he said, the organization has filed the returns and is now seeking reinstatement.

“We have hired a top tax attorney and he has every confidence we will be reinstated,” Klein said, adding that he hoped for reinstatement before the end of the year.

He said the organization had sought extensions for the three years it did not file because a school in Ashkelon, Israel, run under its auspices, was not providing correct information, and the ZOA was seeking to clarify the matter.

The Internal Revenue Service rescission came after the ZOA missed a deadline for seeking an extension based on what Klein said was incorrect advice from a tax accountant. Klein said the ZOA was under the impression it had until November 2011 to request an extension; the deadline had passed in May of that year. The IRS notified the group of the rescission in February this year.

The ZOA has continued to fundraise, directing donations to a separate tax-exempt entity that will hold the funds until ZOA’s status is restored, Klein said.

Maarat Ayin: Eduardo Saverin’s decision to renounce his U.S. citizenship


By now everyone has heard that Eduardo Saverin, one of the co-founders of Facebook, filed legal papers in September 2011 to formally renounce his American citizenship. Brazilian by birth, Saverin became an American citizen in 1998. Born in Sao Paulo, Saverin’s father was, according to press accounts, a wealthy Jewish industrialist with varied interests in clothing, shipping, real estate and commercial exports.

Many of the press reports are focused on the financial implications of this move. Jim Cramer, appearing on “Meet the Press” last weekend, called the Facebook IPO a total fiasco, “one of the worst-handled things I’ve ever seen” because the stock only climbed just over 0.6 percent in its opening. Others disagreed, arguing that the successful launch of a stock that is now just starting to be publicly traded is not determined by how much the stock rises in the first few days but by how it does over the long term. As a rabbi, I am not equipped to discuss the pros and cons of what constitutes a successful IPO.

What I am qualified to comment on is how we should act in various given situations. Religion is not just something that we should do in synagogue. It is not even something that we should do primarily in our homes. Rather, Judaism should guide us in our actions every moment of every day. This is a difficult concept to implement, especially for Reform Jews such as myself who do not see the halachah as binding. Without rules that we need to follow, how are we to put this concept into practice?

Much of our ethical teachings may seem visionary and inspiring, but frequently are theoretical and not easy to apply in many of the situations that we are most likely to face. The historical precedents that we can draw upon are also not always helpful because the historical circumstances that our ancestors faced — even as recently as 50 years ago — were in such a different context that they seem antiquarian.

That is why Saverin’s decision to renounce his U.S. citizenship is an opportunity to look at how we might — and perhaps should — behave under a given set of circumstances. Granted, we are unlikely to face this particular set of circumstances. Saverin was one of the four co-founders of Facebook along with Mark Zuckerberg, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes. Although he owns slightly less than 5 percent of Facebook, his net worth is still about $2 billion. But while we are not likely to be in his exact financial situation, the principle involved is universally applicable.

What loyalty do we, as Jews, owe to our country? Saverin — full name Eduardo Luiz Saverin — was not born in the United States. In the 1990s, again according to press accounts, Saverin’s family discovered that their son Eduardo was on a list of potential kidnapping victims. During this period, gangs throughout Central and South America were kidnapping the children of rich families for ransom. The Saverins, not wishing to risk their son’s life, moved to Miami. Shortly thereafter, Saverin became an American citizen.

It may be necessary to remind ourselves that the concept of giving citizenship to Jews is a relatively new idea. In the Renaissance period, Jews were forced to live in a particular area, which was called a ghetto. The term was originally used in Venice to describe where the Jews were forced to live in that city. Jews in various parts of Europe were not granted citizenship and were only allowed to reside in a given city or region on the agreement of the local nobility. This agreement could, however be rescinded at any moment, and it was, with Jews being expelled from England in 1290, France in 1306 and again in 1394, and various other localities with depressing regularity.

In 1781, Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, a German political writer who was influenced by Moses Mendelsson, wrote a three-volume work titled, “On the Civil Improvement of the Jews,” which argued for Jewish political and civil rights on humanitarian grounds. This began a debate, which sometimes became quite bitter, over whether the Jews deserved to be emancipated. In 1791, France became the first Western nation to emancipate its Jews. When Napoleon conquered other European countries, he brought emancipation with him, literally breaking down ghetto walls.

Unfortunately, when France withdrew, this new legal status was withdrawn as well. Central European Jews had to struggle for many decades to try to achieve the civil and political status that we take for granted today. Which brings us back to the admittedly unusual case of Eduardo Luiz Saverin. A Jewish boy from a foreign country, he arrives in our country to escape physical threats and the possibility of being murdered. He attends a top, private school in South Florida and is accepted into Harvard University, one of the finest institutions of higher learning in the United States.

After studying and working in our country for a number of years as a citizen, he makes a fortune and, according to press reports, moves to Singapore in 2009. Two years later, he files the papers to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Possibly his accountant advised him to do so. Maybe he felt that since he was not living in the United States anyway, holding American citizenship was a financial liability that would not serve his interests. Is he not free to act in his own best interests, financial or otherwise?

I would argue that while he is capable of doing so, renouncing his U.S. citizenship is contrary to his obligations as an American Jew. We need to be loyal to our country and we also need to give the appearance of being loyal to our country. While it is wonderful that anti-Semitism has declined to such low levels that identifiable Jews can do terrible things without generating any discernible hostility toward us a group, that does not excuse us from our obligation to be loyal citizens to the country that we are either born in or that we embrace. Saverin voluntarily accepted our citizenship, and he should not abandon it just because it is convenient to do so.

While we Jews tend to be rather cosmopolitan, meaning that we feel at home in many different parts of the world, we need to balance that characteristic with a rooted loyalty to our host country. Taking and returning citizenships like greeting cards is, at the very least, a form of maarat ayim — the appearance of impropriety. This concept, infrequently mentioned outside of Orthodox circles, is the concept that we should avoid doing things that may look like we are doing something wrong, whether or not we are actually doing something wrong.

When Mark Cuban Tweets that “This pisses me off: Just in Time For A Facebook IPO Tax Break, Eduardo Saverin Renounces U.S. Citizenship,” Ilyse Hogue titles her commentary on this issue “Lessons in Disloyalty,” and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) calls it “outrageous,” Saverin should have realized this is a step that is not good for his personal reputation and not good for the potential influence that it may have on others, particularly young people. As Jews, we have an obligation to try to set a good example. This means not only trying not to do bad things but also trying to avoid doing things that might be perceived that way.

OPINION: Keep down the rates of student loans


Education is the key to success—a “silver bullet” for changing lives in all segments of society. An affordable, quality college education must be available to all, not just the wealthy.

Horace Mann, the renowned innovator in public education, said that “Education … beyond all other devices of human origin is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.”

This is why, as educators, we must do all we can to convince lawmakers in Washington that they must not allow the interest rate on millions of so-called Stafford loans to double from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. That will happen automatically on July 1 if Congress fails to act. It would affect 7 million students nationwide—400,000 in New York alone—and raise costs by an average of $1,000 each, the White House says. Doubling loan rates would cost New York students and their families an estimated $419.7 million.

Student loan debt is among the vital issues facing young Americans today. It has reached more than $1 trillion—higher than the debt on credit cards and car loans. The average balance nationally is about $23,000.

President Obama is urging Congress to keep the interest rates low; his presumptive Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, agrees. The political fight in Congress seems to be over how to pay for it.

This crushing debt comes on top of tuition increases. Tuition and related expenses increased 400 percent in the 30 years between 1980 and 2010, while median family income rose just 150 percent in the same period.

As a college president, I know firsthand how important it is that something be worked out. We must educate our young people in order to have a productive workforce. Hampering higher education will ultimately lead to the decline of America as a world power. We cannot survive as a nation in the global marketplace without student loans at a reasonable rate.

A recent CBS/New York Times poll found that two-thirds of Americans feel there is too much disparity between the haves and have-nots in our country. In considering ways to narrow the income gap, one constant factor is the strong relationship between education and lifetime income.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that median weekly earnings for college graduates for the third quarter of 2011 was $1,152 per week, compared to $636 for high school graduates and $459 for those without a high school diploma. So one of the most important goals of higher education ought to be to provide our young people with a high-quality education based on merit rather than means.

Increasing the interest rate on student loans will only serve to make it more difficult for low- and middle-income students to receive a high-quality education that will ensure upward mobility.

It is the responsibility of those in leadership positions to help provide access to a good education for all sectors of our nation. We must help nurture the next generation of entrepreneurs, thinkers, innovators and business leaders who one day will make their mark in the global marketplace and fortify our country’s status as a world power.

Making college affordable is one way to do this. Holding down the interest rate on student loans is another.

Dr. Alan Kadish is the president and CEO of Touro College and University System.

Palestinians to raise taxes, cut costs to curb deficit


The Palestinian Authority will have to raise income tax and cut costs in 2012 to counter lower-than-expected foreign aid donations, Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has said.

The authority’s growing financial difficulties coincide with a period of high political uncertainty for the Palestinians, with long-running attempts to end a feud between rival factions in the West Bank and Gaza floundering.

The Western-backed Fayyad had promised to stand down to help reconcile the two Palestinian Territories. But with no agreement in sight, he has drawn up 2012 budget plans and warned that sacrifices will be needed to bolster already battered accounts.

“We have prepared a package of measures aimed at reducing the deficit … and reduce the likelihood of the crisis continuing in 2012,” he said late on Sunday.

Fayyad said income tax rates for high earners would have to double to 30 percent from 15 percent, while more entities would have to pay tax on their operations.

Government spending would also be cut and some of the PA’s 153,000 public sector workers might be forced into early retirement.

The Palestinian Workers Union immediately threatened to fight such measures.

After running up a $350-million-deficit in 2010, the PA – which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – plunged $1.1 billion into the red in 2011. Fayyad said his plan would reduce the 2012 deficit to $750 million.

The Palestinians had planned for foreign aid of about $1 billion in 2011, but Fayyad said just under $750 million had arrived. Financial support from the United States, the European Union and Arab states allows the PA to pay the salaries of the public workers, including teachers and security forces.

However, the United States abruptly cut off funding last year after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas went against the will of both Washington and Israel by demanding recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.

Officials say more than $150 million of U.S. aid is frozen.

The U.N. statehood bid has ground to a halt, with the Palestinians failing to get enough backing to secure a vote in the Security Council.

Unexpectedly, after a break of 15 months, Palestinian negotiators met their Israeli counterparts face-to-face in Jordan last week to resume initial contacts over peace talks.

The Palestinians had previously demanded a halt to Jewish settlement building in the West Bank before holding more talks.

The Israelis have refused to accept this pre-condition and some Palestinians have openly questioned whether their leadership has agreed to return to the negotiating table in return for international assurances of economic support.

PA officials have denied any such link.

Fayyad said his government owed private sector contractors, including medical suppliers, about $400 million. It also owed $1.1 billion to local banks, and could not borrow any more, he said.

In a report issued last September, the World Bank said progress made by the Palestinians in building institutions for statehood could be undermined by their budget crisis.

It said the PA had made substantial progress towards implementing the objectives of a two-year plan to prepare for full independence, but said the growing cash shortage could jeopardise its efforts.

Fayyad, appointed by Abbas in 2007, is credited with revitalising the economy. But the Islamist group Hamas, which controls Gaza, accuses him of helping Israel to blockade their coastal territory and have never recognised him. (Writing by Jihan Abdalla; editing by Crispian Balmer and David Stamp)

Israel releases PA funds


Israel released $100 million in tax funds it had withheld from the Palestinian Authority.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Wednesday the handover of the money, the transfer of which had been frozen on Nov. 1 in response to the Palestinians’ recognition as a state by UNESCO, the United Nations cultural and scientific agency.

Israel, which collects tax and customs on behalf of the Palestinian Authority under interim peace accords from the 1990s, has been troubled by the PA’s lobbying for full U.N. membership as bilateral negotiations remain stalled.

Netanyahu’s office said in a statement that the decision to free the cash, a month’s worth of levies that the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority depends on to pay its civil servants, “followed the cessation of unilateral steps on the part of the Palestinian Authority.”

“In the event of the Palestinian Authority resuming unilateral steps, the money transfer will again be reviewed,” the statement said.

Among those opposed to relinquishing the cash was Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who noted that PA President Mahmoud Abbas has feted terrorists freed by Israel as part of last month’s prisoner swap with Hamas.

But Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party is a junior party to Netanyahu’s Likud in the conservative coalition, said Monday that he would not quit the government in protest at a restoration of the PA funds.

Occupy L.A. raises more questions than it answers


From the very beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement, people wanted to know why.

Why did a group of protesters calling themselves “the 99 percent” take up residence in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 17?

Why were so many people galvanized by the Occupy Wall Street protest, and why have similar encampments since sprung up in more than 100 cities across the country?

And now that authorities in some cities have begun forcibly removing the protesters, why are the Occupy Los Angeles protesters so determined to hold their ground in the park surrounding Los Angeles City Hall — especially considering that they haven’t yet agreed on what they wish to achieve?

Last week, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa hinted that the end of Occupy L.A. might be near, telling the Los Angeles Times that the protest “cannot continue indefinitely.” But as of press time on Nov. 1, the encampment was still very much in operation.

And even if authorities somehow do clear the park of the hundreds of protesters and their scores of tents, basic questions about this still-evolving movement likely will remain unanswered for many.

Who are these local occupiers? What drove them to take up residence in the tent city downtown? And could the Occupy Wall Street movement really impact the future of the country?

For the perplexed, or the simply curious, here are a few observations.

Occupy L.A., like the Occupy Wall Street movement as a whole, is most clear in its generalized outrage at the inequitable distribution of wealth in the country.

Every evening at 7:30 p.m., Occupy L.A. holds a General Assembly (G.A.) meeting. A recent one began with a call and response:

“Who are we?” a young man asked.

“The 99 percent!” the occupiers responded.

The inchoate frustration of the vast majority of the American population at the current economic troubles is what drives the Occupy movement, and the occupiers — the “99 percenters,” as they call themselves — are united in opposition to the excess gains in wealth of America’s super-elite, the top 1 percent.

These days, statistical evidence of the yawning gap between the super-rich and everyone else is easy to come by. A Congressional Budget Office report released on Oct. 26 showed that over the past 30 years, the incomes of the top 1 percent of Americans grew by 275 percent, while everyone else experienced growth of just 65 percent.

The evidence of economic hardship is also easy to see among the occupiers, many of whom are unemployed. Emilio Arreola, 25, has been involved in Occupy L.A. since its beginning in late September at Pershing Square downtown. Arreola has been unemployed since leaving the Navy two years ago. His tent is his only residence.

“I went out and got all five of my forklift licenses, I’m working on my CDL [Commercial Driver License], and it’s just so horribly hard to get a job,” Arreola said.

Beyond their dissatisfaction with the current economic system, it is hard to discern what the Occupy Wall Street movement is trying to achieve — because the members of this leaderless movement themselves have not yet decided on goals.

Like the protests that swept through the Arab world this spring, the movement proudly proclaims itself a leaderless uprising. But unlike, say, the protests that toppled former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the Occupy Wall Street movement has not yet targeted a single agreed-upon villain or united behind any clear goals.

Death and Taxes


Balancing the budget: Making the weak pay


Sylvia Mnuchen has spent her life fighting.

First it was cancer that attacked her skin, then her breast. More recently it has been an ailment that has kept her in a wheelchair, her feet swollen, her legs wrapped tight like a mummy.

But as a loyal Jewish Democrat and longtime advocate of social justice, she never thought she would find herself fighting Jerry Brown, a man she voted for three times for governor. Yet the 94-year-old is suddenly on the wrong side of Brown’s proposed budget cuts that would slash state spending by $12.5 billion, ripping a hole in numerous social service programs and eliminating others entirely.

Payouts for Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, would be reduced by $1.7 billion. The welfare-to-work program CalWORKs would be cut by $1.5 billion. Other programs assisting the elderly and disabled would be affected, too.

Legislators are working on a budget agreement with the governor and expect it to be ready for a vote early this month.

Brown has called it “a tough budget for tough times.” To Mnuchen and other social service advocates in the Jewish community, though, it would only make tough times tougher.

“It’s a terrible situation,” she said.

A former travel agent who lives in an apartment in Beverly Hills on $986 per month, she uses the state’s In-Home Supportive Services Program (IHSS), which pays for personal care assistance. She needs someone to help her get out of bed, wash herself, make her meals and prepare her many medications.

“What are they trying to do? Kill us all?” she asked. “I can’t manage. I can’t manage because I can’t be without a caretaker.”

Mnuchen’s concern is that cost-cutting measures — on top of a 3.6 percent reduction in IHSS hours enacted by the previous administration — would endanger her well-being as well as that of her caregiver, who makes only $9 an hour. Fewer hours will mean less money and tougher times for such providers.

“How can a person live on that kind of money? And then take more money from them?” Mnuchen said.

No one disagrees about the root of the controversy: a state budget gap that has spun out of control to more than $25 billion.

“I think everybody who does advocacy on their agency’s issues understands there is a shortage of dollars. It’s just that simple,” said Adine Forman, director of government affairs and special projects for Jewish Vocational Service (JVS). “The government’s short money, and it has to take it from somewhere.”

Somewhere, it turns out, could be far reaching. The governor’s proposed reductions to CalWORKs, for example, would add up to $450 million in Los Angeles County, causing tens of thousands of families to lose their benefits.

The program, known in the county as GAIN, or Greater Avenues for Independence, is administered by JVS at three sites: Palmdale, Chatsworth and Santa Clarita. It helps provide child care, case management, transportation, counseling and more, all with the goal of returning people — often single moms — to work and helping them regain self-sufficiency.

Anne Kagiri can testify to the importance of that. The mother of two moved here from Michigan to live with her sister after she lost her job and separated from her husband. Even though she had a master’s degree in human resources, she couldn’t find a job quickly and left one son in the care of her mother back in Kenya.

“I never thought I would be on welfare,” said Kagiri, 35.

But it worked. Now she has a full-time job as a case manager for JVS, has her own house, and she was able to bring her other child to live with her.

“I’m completely independent,” she said.

Brown’s budget would trim grants and cap participation in the program at four years instead of five over the course of a person’s lifetime.

JVS officials say it’s their job in this time of financial crisis to examine how the programs can be scaled back with the least damage to those they serve. Still, they worry about the stress the governor’s proposals would have on county resources as former CalWORKs participants end up on general relief. Other worries plague their minds, too.

“I think you have the potential to have a highly elevated homeless count because of it,” Forman said. “There are a lot of people that are hanging on by a thread that are on CalWORKs and living on bare bones to try and make it work.”

It may seem hard to think of number crunching and state budgets as a matter of life and death, but that’s how Paul Castro sees it. The chief executive officer of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) fears that some proposed reductions could leave frail elderly populations with a deadly choice: Stay at home and die or be institutionalized.

Consider the Multipurpose Senior Services Program (MSSP), operated locally by JFS and earmarked by the governor for elimination. It provides skilled health care professionals to give case management and supplemental services to poor, at-risk seniors who are living at home. If axed altogether, it would cost JFS $2.9 million and affect more than 650 of its clients who might otherwise be in nursing homes, Castro said.

While ending the program would trim $20 million from the budget, Castro said the state should consider the full implication of its actions. Not only are California’s dollars matched by federal contributions, the eventual cost to the state of at-risk seniors moving into nursing homes would be much greater, he said.

“The math doesn’t work,” he said. “The question becomes: Have they calculated the cost yet?”

And not just the cost in dollars. Castro said he’s concerned about people who would do anything to stay in their homes, even without the program. He sees them missing doctor appointments and meals, not taking their medications regularly and ending up in emergency rooms.

A January policy note by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research supports his concerns about the impact of possible budget cuts to this and other initiatives, stating, “Recipients of these programs are already in precarious situations and … undermining their care networks will place them at risk of worsened health and institutionalization.”

Castro takes it a step further: “Some are just going to stay home and die because they won’t have any support system.”

It’s an argument that many lawmakers have found persuasive. Jewish State Sen. Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) said he understands the role such programs play in keeping people alive.

“Somehow, we have to keep as much of the safety net in place as we can,” he said. “Right now, we’re trying to do the least amount of harm, but it’s still terrible.”

Lowenthal is a member of the State Senate’s Budget Committee and the conference committee charged with reconciling differences between the Assembly and Senate. Legislators in both chambers have indicated they will try to protect — partially or in full — various iniatives that serve the aging, poor and disabled, including MSSP.

Netanyahu posts pay slip on Facebook


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes about $12,300 a month before taxes, he informed the public on Facebook. 

Netanyahu posted a copy of his monthly pay slip Monday on the Prime Minister of Israel’s page on the social networking site.

The prime minister earns a gross salary of about $12,300 a month, but takes home just $4,200 after taxes and other deductions.

According to his pay slip, Netanyahu is paid for a 42-hour work week, which is defined as full-time.

In his position as prime minister, Netanyahu receives free housing, but money is deducted from his salary for his cell phone, transportation, four daily newspapers and health insurance.

“Following online requests, the Prime Minister has decided to provide total transparency concerning his monthly pay slip,” read the status posted with the image of the pay slip.

Netanyahu’s salary is less than half that of President Obama, who makes an annual salary of $400,000.

A Democrat’s lament, and a glimmer of hope


There is a sick feeling of demoralization settling over Democrats, like drizzle on a cloudy day. It’s not because of losses in the midterm elections; it’s the unnerving realization that we are on our own.

When Barack Obama came to Washington, he promised to change the town. I thought that was a pretty cool idea.

Since Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980, Washington has been a toxic city for Democrats. The Sunday talk shows are dominated by Republicans, no matter who wins elections. Democratic senators who hold up needed legislation because “it goes too far” or simply because they wish to ponder it deeply, are held up as great statesmen. Austerity is in, as long as it is for middle- and working-class Americans only.

This town makes it too easy for Democratic presidents to cut themselves off from their base and their party and to abandon their fighting spirit. And there are always political advisers on hand to edge a Democratic president in that direction.

Obama was the first Democrat in my lifetime to have an actual movement of people behind him, ready to march at the first sign of leadership. The party was tingling with excitement all the way down to the grass roots in red states, where for bleak decades Democrats had barely hung on by their fingernails.

I dared to dream that once Obama got to Washington, he would use his movement to reshape the Democratic Party in his image and make it once again a confident, effective vehicle for fairness and justice. But it was not to be. As early as 2009, it was clear that the great army of Obama was being quietly mothballed, and that Obama had only limited interest in his party. He was going to do it on his own.

Obama had fixed his mind not on building the confidence of his own party but on healing partisan conflict itself. Obama’s legendary outreach to Republicans survived even their most egregious attacks on him. And the Democrats became bit players in the drama.

The irony of Obama’s sincere plan to “change” Washington is that his approach matched and even bolstered the Capitol’s conventional wisdom that Democrats, especially liberal ones, really don’t count. It made it difficult for Democrats to win popular acclaim for their considerable accomplishments. This dynamic reached its apotheosis with the president’s compromise on taxes reached this week with the Republican leadership.

A president elected by a movement who has accomplished more with the help of his party in Congress than any president since Lyndon Johnson has ended up demoralizing his movement and party. Go figure.

There are times when compromise is the right thing to do. Credible political leadership earns the flexibility to make deals. A brave leader who fights for things has lots of room to compromise — to, as Ronald Reagan used to say, accept half a loaf. “Nixon goes to China” only made sense because Nixon had spent a lifetime opposing communism.

But when you have only a distant connection to a base of support and no clear principles to stand on, every compromise seems like a betrayal. George H.W. Bush used to grouse that Reagan raised taxes bunches of times and held his party’s support, while Bush lost his for one itty-bitty tax hike. But Reagan had a base that he had carefully and durably nurtured, while Bush did not. Reagan made it good to be a Republican, and the base has stayed loyal to this day.

Obama’s latest deal to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in exchange for a series of much-desired tax breaks for working Americans may yet turn out to be a better bargain than Democrats initially thought. I like to think that he simply could not imagine letting millions of Americans lose their unemployment insurance and was willing to pay blackmailers in order to prevent that from happening. It may turn out to be one of those awful compromises that had to happen, or it may not. But he will pay a tremendous political price within his own party, where there is little belief in his willingness to draw the right line in the sand. Two years of seeking the mythical center at the cost of his actual base are now coming home to roost.

Yet, if Democrats feel depressed and leaderless in Washington, they are jubilant in Sacramento. In the red wave of 2010, California went very blue, as all statewide races went to the Democrats. Added to that, Proposition 25 will allow the legislature to pass a budget on a majority vote (but not raise taxes, which still requires two thirds). Democrats can produce a budget without Republican votes.

Now California Democrats must show that government can work. Much of the so-called “ungovernability” of California has been due to late budgets. Most other states have budget messes, some with bigger shares of their budget in the red than ours (such as Texas), but only California fails to pass any kind of budget when it is supposed to.

Democrats now should have one overriding short-term goal: pass a state budget on time.  It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to resolve every unmet need.

A Democratic governor and legislature will have their problems. There will be many saying that Jerry Brown needs to pick a fight with his party. Hopefully, he won’t make Obama’s mistake and try to go it alone without a base of support.  Schwarzenegger’s governorship showed that it is hard to govern without a party base.

Gray Davis, the last Democrat to have party control, alienated Democratic legislators by publicly stating that their sole purpose was to carry out his vision.

The older and wiser Brown can lead his party without being owned by it. He has the full veto and the item veto if he needs them. He has the bully pulpit. If he stakes out principled positions, he will be very formidable.

Democrats in the legislature must realize that in the middle of the ongoing budget crisis, winning this kind of power is not a blank check. The first compromises will be between liberal and moderate Democrats. But a confident and united Democratic majority might have numerous opportunities to cooperate with Republicans.

With Proposition 25 in place, the pain of budget cuts will be spread everywhere, not just among poor and working-class communities. That may even help change the dynamics of the revenue debate.

California in Democratic hands will be a huge asset to Obama. Building on Schwarzenegger’s support of global warming legislation and health care exchanges, Democrats can demonstrate the value of Obama’s imperiled initiatives. With other states trying to break the administration’s momentum, California can have Obama’s back, whether or not he appreciates this bunch of Democrats coming to his aid.

Maybe the Obama people will be watching and will notice that in politics, peace comes from strength, not weakness, from a unified block of support that has your back. Wouldn’t it be something if Democrats in the nation’s largest state showed their overmatched peers in Washington how it’s done?

I hear you knocking


Fiscal conservative ISO tax and spend liberal


Accountability


As usual, it started out with questions.

“Where do you work? What do you do? Have you been on any trips lately?”

I was all for talking about myself, what I do, where I’ve been, where I’m going. But then it got personal.

“Are you renting? How much do you pay per month?”

Real estate is a touchy subject. But it’s one that anyone in any major city discusses. I used to feel guilty about renting a place, what with everyone and their mother owning property, but now with the subprime mortgage rates and the housing market crash, I feel smugly superior that I didn’t fall prey to the greed. Yes, I rent! Isn’t that great?

And then it got really personal.

“And are you still single?”

It was that one word that really got to me. Still Single. Still. As if I hadn’t accomplished anything in the last year. As if I hadn’t published articles, essays — been on NPR, for God’s sake! — influenced people with my writing. As if I hadn’t started teaching at a university, traveled around the world, lost 10 pounds, learned how to surf, counseled countless friends and family members through countless crises. It all had been erased to nothing — nothing! — with that one question: “Are you still single?”

OK, so what if it was my accountant who was doing the asking?

For the last six years I’ve been doing my taxes with this seemingly sweet older lady. She is tall, white-haired and stooped over, with blue eyes that might be described as kindly if you’ve never sat down with her for a tax interview. If you had, you might say her eyes were steely blue and her demeanor hawkish. The woman, God help her, will ferret out any and every possible deduction known to mankind. Especially if you’re an artist, which many of her clients are. Why, then every activity you do, from reading newspapers to traveling, to meeting with people to anything that might have a direct influence on your art is fair game.

(But, Mr. I.R.S., if you’re reading this, she and her firm are totally and completely legal. Case in point, many of my seemingly “social” interactions are part of my writing. Most of them are, since I write about myself.)

But deductions are not the point. The point is that when she asks me if I’m still single — she has to ask me, it’s part of her job — it chafes. It brings up a lot of issues for me. Am I still single? Am I in the same job as last year? The same house? The very same life? What have I done with the last 12 months of my life that we can tell the I.R.S.?

I imagine my accountant saying, “They’re going to audit you because everything in your life sounds suspiciously similar to last year and beyond!”

Mind you, she asks, “Are you still single?” in the same tone she asks, “Are you still driving a Volkswagen?” and “Are you still subscribing to The New York Times? And The New York Review of Books? (I let the latter lapse because it was just too dense, and there’s no one in L.A. bars to discuss it with.)

But as I answer, “Yes, still single. Same job. Same car, same house,” in my mind I picture others who file with her from year to year, making dozens of changes and updates to their files: Change of name (married), change of residence (bought a house), change of mortgage (paid in full), sale of stocks (to pay for house), number of dependents (one, two, three).

Look, it’s not necessarily any cheaper to file as a married person than as a single person.

But we’re not talking about money here (Mr. I.R.S., I definitely am talking about lots of money from you!). We’re talking more than financial accountability. We’re talking life accountability.

I know in Judaism we review our year on Rosh Hashanah, and we tally up our good deeds and bad deeds before Yom Kippur. For our superficial — or more worldly — deeds, we use the Gregorian New Year to make resolutions. On our birthdays, we take stock, using the number of years as a measuring stick.

But on all those occasions it’s possible to fudge a bit. To make things look better than they are (“OK, so I wasn’t such a bad Jew this year — even though this is my first time in synagogue, I did give tzedakah to every homeless person who asked …”). In the run-up to April 15, though, it’s hard to lie. (Actually, it’s criminal.) It’s all laid out there in front of you in stacks of paper that you’ve finally separated, organized, catalogued and filed.

Still writing. Still renting. Still driving a VW. And yes, still, ahem, single.

It’s all naked and exposed before my accountant. But that’s what frustrates me so. There is so much beyond those cut-and-dried numbers. There’s poetry behind the columns. “Romeo and Juliet” can’t be summed up as, “Both Capulet and Montague family have one less dependent this year.”

And neither can my life. I may not be married yet, but I’ve met dozens of wonderful people — men and women — this year. I’ve deepened my relationships to dozens I’ve already known, been to fabulous places and, most importantly, learned so many new life lessons: on how to love, how to be loved, whom to love, whom to leave and to whom to give a second chance.

And these things can’t be measured on paper. No matter who — my accountant, my parents, my relatives, my so-called friends — is asking.

Mayor Stumbles to Left on Immigration


Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s recent handling of protests by pro-illegal immigration crowds showed a man awkwardly straddling opposing sides of a political chasm that divides Angelenos who have all supported him. And his lack of deftness leaves doubt about whether he can bridge this gap as well as whether he can keep some of his most fundamental and important promises.

One year ago, Villaraigosa was busy wooing the business community to back him for mayor. At the time, he told me — and other journalists — that he intended to be a mayor who “pays attention to the middle class.”

His pledge made sense on a pragmatic level, since the ability to fight Los Angeles’ drift toward unlivability relies almost entirely on wooing those who buy the homes, rebuild the business strips and invest in the schools.

It also made good political sense to pay attention to the middle class, because Villaraigosa trounced incumbent Mayor James Hahn after Hahn largely abandoned his middle- and business-class base, spending too much time wooing labor unions and identity politics groups Hahn believed could assure his re-election.

And for months after his election, Villaraigosa appeared to be as advertised. He said the right things about municipal belt-tightening, appeared in person to calm parental fears about race trouble in the schools, and recently jumped into the high-stakes business battle to win NFL football back to Los Angeles.

But lately, Villaraigosa has stumbled in the face of pressure to take sides over a proposed guest worker program for illegal immigrants now before Congress.

First, he gave a troubling speech — one that I will always remember as his “us versus them” moment — using jarringly divisive language before a cheering, pro-illegal immigrant crowd to declare that “… we clean your toilets.”

Villaraigosa could not have handed his critics more powerful evidence for them to argue that his loyalties are not with Los Angeles’ middle class core at all. The negative reaction was so intense that one talk radio station caused a sell-out of cheap toilet-bowl brushes on eBay, after directing angry Los Angeles residents to buy a brush and mail it to Villaraigosa to show their anger toward his divisive language.

But a poor choice of words from Villaraigosa is not all that’s putting the middle class on edge. The city has pursued a fat increase in trash pickup fees aimed directly at middle-class homeowners, even as media outlets publish seemingly endless stories on excessive overtime or excessive workers compensation paid to spoiled city workers.

Voters, business owners and middle-class families — the core city taxpayers — have also been unsettled by a nasty criminal trial in which private PR agents working for the Department of Water and Power stand accused of grossly padding their DWP billings — without anybody at City Hall even noticing.

The PR scandal predates Villaraigosa’s election, and was used by Villaraigosa to devastating effect against Hahn. But the trial acts as a constant reminder that you can allegedly bilk a Los Angeles City department for hundreds of thousands of dollars, yet nobody even spots the waste.

Further putting out the middle-class, Villaraigosa’s recent State of the City speech came freighted with all the verbal precursors to calling for more tax increases on the middle class.

Then, this week, Villaraigosa reminded us through his words and actions that he is very awkwardly straddling his labor union/minority rights past and his pro-business/mayor-for-the-middle future.

In a hurriedly explained change of plans during the final two days of April, Villaraigosa abruptly cancelled his May 1 NFL meeting out of state, telling one print journalist that he was concerned that violence or other troubles could erupt at the big May 1 protests demanding amnesty for illegal immigrants.

While some media outlets seemed unaware of his change in plans, and continued to report on Monday that Villaraigosa was out of town to meet with the NFL, I heard him interviewed by KFWB news radio that morning, during which he confirmed that he had suddenly delayed his NFL meeting.

The KFWB reporter had done his homework, and asked the mayor — who had been insisting he opposed the boycotts and rallies — if it was true he had already told the Spanish-language media that he intended to give a speech at the afternoon protest.

What followed was the sort of strained spin, too frequently heard in politics, that almost makes you uncomfortable. Yes, Villaraigosa admitted, he had told Spanish-language journalists he would be speaking at the afternoon rally — but, he offered, his only concern was to ensure the safety of the citizenry.

Suddenly, the job of mayor, less than a year into his tenure, isn’t looking so easy.

Later that day, a different radio station reported that, as Villaraigosa prepared to give his speech to the massive afternoon protest crowd, he waited until after his aides managed to find for him “a big enough American flag” to wave onstage.

Appearances are important in politics. Once he made the decision to speak at a rally he previously claimed to oppose, I don’t begrudge him wanting to have the star-and-stripes at his side.

But promises are even more important than appearances. Former Mayor Hahn, who broke several of his promises to the city’s middle- and business-class in his fight to woo the powerful labor unions, can attest to that.

Villaraigosa promised to be a mayor for the entire city. That includes illegal immigrants, as well as everybody else. But he also promised to make a special effort to shore up, retain and attract middle-class families, without whom the city cannot remain livable.

Yet in recent weeks, that is not what we have seen. With new middle-class taxes probably on the way, with his divisive us-versus-them language, and with his strained explanation for wanting to appear at a rally he said he opposed, Villaraigosa is making the fundamental promise of his mayoralty look extremely difficult to keep.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Charming? Not the Word for Politics


Plato described democracy as “a charming form of
government.” Well, perhaps in ancient Greece there wasn’t much else to charm
away the days. But on the eve of Israel’s elections and President
Bush’s State of the Union, “charming” is hardly the word that comes first to
mind in assessing democracy’s attractions. In fact, “democracy’s attractions”
this week approach the oxymoronic.

The president in his message, to be delivered just one day
after the report of the U.N. inspectors is due, will doubtless tell us yet
again, and then once more, why we must make war against Iraq. But if past is
prologue, his argument will be more notable for its enthusiasm than for its
logic.

The soldiers, their families, all of us deserve better;
George W. Bush is commander in chief, not cheerleader in chief. Unless Bush
offers new facts to support the imminence of an Iraqi threat, his case will
rest on evidence so vague that it does not even rise to the level of
circumstantial.

More: Whether or not Iraq has weapons of mass destruction,
there is no persuasive reason to believe that it has any intention of using
them, much less of passing them over to terrorist groups. Saddam Hussein may be
a psychopath, but he is a crafty psychopath and not at all suicidal. (For a
learned articulation of that position, see the thoughtful article by John J.
Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt in the current issue of Foreign Policy magazine.)
As against the still flimsy case for war, there remains the entirely plausible
prospect that once unleashed, this was will not soon be ended or be contained.

And Bush will likely speak about the economy. In President
Clinton’s days, the slogan was, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

President Bush apparently believes that “stupid” is the
right word to describe the electorate, for how else has he the nerve to propose
the economic program he has proposed, a program that even many Republicans see
as wrong-headed and wrong-hearted? The administration complains about a Proctor
& Gamble commercial that shows a forest ranger pouring Metamucil (a
laxative) into Old Faithful, but sees nothing wrong with pouring tax-free
dividends into the pockets of the already wealthy.

What the president will not tell us in his State of the
Union message is why his administration is dropping nonservice-related health
care for 146,000 veterans, limiting emergency room care for millions of people
on Medicaid, defining old wagon trails in our national parks as “roadways”
(hence making it possible to widen and pave them) and so forth. Charming?
Hardly.

Meanwhile, in Israel, land of the prophets, the most recent
predictions are that Labor will be the big loser, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
the small winner. If that turns out to be so, then we may expect Labor to
implode after the elections, with one faction (under former Defense Minister
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer) entering a Sharon government and the other, in due
course, merging with Meretz.

In the long term, such a realignment may make good sense; in
the short term, it means more of the same, and the same includes what is
arguably the worst performance of any prime minister in Israel’s history. We
may hope the optimists are right when they say that this leopard, who, like all
cats, turns out to have nine lives, will now change his spots. That is to say
we may hope that the optimists are optimists and not fabulists. For it does
seem a stretch worthy of Plastic Man to suppose that a prime minister with
Ariel Sharon’s dismal record on both domestic and foreign affairs, who has
until now been entirely comfortable encouraging the most revanchist elements of
the right and who has been entirely indifferent to the corruptions of the
ultra-Orthodox, will now suddenly be transformed into a secular peace-making
centrist.

But we may grumblingly hope those who purvey this apparent
nonsense are in fact correct and that those of us who remain skeptical (to put
it mildly) will find ourselves happily eating crow.

The Israeli system itself is, as is always the case at
election time, widely criticized for its encouragement of fragmentation. To
that high cost must now be added significant corruption and the imminent
election to the Knesset of a cohort so disreputable as to render Israel’s
embattled democracy dangerously diseased. A system of proportional
representation that made sense in 1948 is plainly dysfunctional in 2003.

No other nation operates with the peculiar rules that govern
Israel’s decidedly noncharming democracy. But it is hardly necessary to add
that a Knesset whose members hold office by virtue (or vice) of the current
system are unlikely in the extreme to endorse its reform.

At times such as these, it is well, if discouraging, to
remember Kafka: “Only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of
the day of judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual
session.” But lest by these words I add to our burden of gloom, also remember
the word’s of Lincoln, who once suggested that few words are more comforting in
affliction and more true and appropriate in all situations than, “And this,
too, shall pass away.”


Leonard Fein, the founder of Moment Magazine, MAZON: The Jewish Response to Hunger and the National Jewish Coalition for Literacy, will speak at the New Israel Fund’s “On the Eve of the Israeli Elections,” Jan. 27 at UCLA Hillel, 574 Hilgard Ave., Westwood. For reservations, call (310) 282-0300.

It’s the Economy Again, Stupid


Will the religious right dominate the Washington agenda as a Republican president, backed by a mostly GOP Congress, takes the reins of government?

That scenario is on the minds of many Jewish leaders who worry that abortion, school prayer, vouchers and other issues championed by Christian conservatives will be the engine behind the 107th Congress.

Conservatives on Capitol Hill, led by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas), have reinforced their fears by promising to press their partisan advantage to advance a wide range of conservative domestic issues.

Jewish leaders would do better to focus on Bill Clinton’s memorable 1992 campaign theme: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

For a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the bitter end to this year’s presidential election, the top issues of groups such as the Christian Coalition may not be front and center as the new Congress and administration try to find a way to govern amid political gridlock on Capitol Hill.

Instead, the administration is likely to focus at first on the economic changes it would like to implement — changes that are likely to garner bipartisan support but which could prove troublesome for Jewish organizations.

The social agenda of the religious right will enjoy only limited success when the new Congress gets to work.

School prayer amendments will be dead on arrival. School voucher plans may do better, thanks to support from some Democrats. Several voucher demonstration projects were passed in recent years but vetoed by President Bill Clinton; Bush supports vouchers, so the veto threat will disappear.

Some abortion restrictions may move through, but the evenly divided Senate will remain a major obstacle to any sweeping changes.

But the Bush administration can wreak considerable havoc on abortion rights through executive order. And the wild card remains the Supreme Court; a vacancy or two during the Bush administration would likely tip the balance on the Court on abortion.

New gun control legislation is unlikely, but so is any major pullback from laws already on the books; again, the Senate will be the major stumbling block.

Gary Bauer, the former leader of the Family Research Council whose bid for the Republican nomination was spurned by GOP primary voters, urged Bush this week not to give an inch on the conservative domestic agenda.

Bush is hearing much the same message from Republican leaders on the Hill. And his soon-to-be vice president, Richard Cheney, promised over the weekend that their administration will not abandon the interests of its core supporters.

But Bush is also being told that if he focuses on a narrow conservative agenda, the result will be bitter stalemate — not a political plus for a president whose margin of victory was thin to nonexistent.

If he does try to govern from the center, GOP moderates say, he will do better with some of his core economic issues.

But some of those issues could have much more immediate consequences for the Jewish community than the nexus of social issues pushed by the Christian right.

Bush’s campaign platform called for a $1.3 trillion tax cut, a demand Cheney recently called nonnegotiable. Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are divided; some support the huge, 10-year cut, others want to press for a series of smaller tax cuts.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will be looking for high-profile actions they can take that have a chance of bipartisan support, and tax cuts, supported by a significant number of Democrats, could top the list.

Most Jewish groups do not have official positions on the issue. At the same time, many Jewish leaders privately fear that anything more than token cuts could be a time bomb tossed into the middle of the nation’s social safety net.

Today, the federal treasury is flush, thanks to the record economic boom and the run-up in the stock market.

But the surplus will evaporate with astonishing speed if the economy skids.

Tax cuts in the coming year, many worry, will lead to a ballooning of the budget deficit when the economy slows. And that, in turn, could produce intense pressure to cut discretionary spending programs.

The programs most at risk are precisely those that the Jewish community successfully provides across the country, using government dollars along with philanthropic money: health and housing programs for the elderly, services for children and teens, vocational services, services for immigrants.

Big cuts could also jeopardize important foreign policy priorities of the Jewish community, starting with foreign aid to Israel.

Bush’s economic thinkers say the cuts will spur the economy and preserve the boom. But it’s a gamble; if they’re wrong, the government will quickly face a new deficit crisis and ferocious new pressure to cut vulnerable programs.

That, and not the religious right “values” agenda, is where the real action is likely to be for Jewish groups in 2001.