Monday, December 31, 2007

Your Final Warning

This gotta be my lucky day. At first I was really annoyed. First, I went to the store without my shopping list. Then, I found it impossible to find a trash can that is the right size for those white kitchen trash bags. When I finally had my shopping cart full, I faced many long check-out lines. I quickly looked to see if any lines were shorter, but soon faced the reality that whichever line I picked would turn out to be the slowest.

So here I am with at least twenty minutes to kill. There is only so much I can think of saying to the woman in front of me. We commiserated on the long lines and that was it. I started looking at the tabloids and magazines. I read about which celebrities are hooking up and those that are unhooking. I found out who is the father of Jamie Lynn Spear’s little bundle of joy. Or maybe not (he is denying the whole thing, or at least the pregnancy part. “How could she be pregnant? We only did it once and it didn’t take that long.”) I read about the water remedy for belly fat (I have been constantly drinking since I got home, but I still have to bend over to see my toes.) Then I saw it.

It was this week’s issue of the “Sun.” As I remember from the movie “Men in Black,” the Sun is one of the most reliable sources of news on the planet, so I really take it seriously. On the front page there was a large statue of Jesus with his arms raised. Then there was the big headline,

“2008—The Year All Final Prophesies Come True”


Then there was another headline, which read,

“Armageddon—Where The Final Battle Will Be Fought”

And another headline,

“Apocalypse—5 Signs The End Is Near”

And finally,

“Second Coming Is Sooner Than You Think”

And I thought this was just an ordinary day. I go to the store for some ordinary stuff and I come home with the bad (or good, if you're a fundamentalist) news that everything is nearly over. Now, I don’t have to worry about the Iowa Caucuses. I don’t care any more whether global warming is real (I can replace those mini-fluorescents with some REAL bulbs and see again). I don’t even have to worry that I will outlive all my ancestors and develop Alzheimer’s. Because, it ain't gonna last too much longer.

So dear friends, I am passing on this last notice to you. Do what you will with this knowledge. You might consider making New Year’s resolution that will not take a full year to fulfill. You also might want to get around to all those home maintenance chores that you’ve been putting off for "next week." Or, you might want to go to your local store, buy the Sun and read the other article highlighted on page 1:

“7 Miracle Foods to Add Years to Your Life”

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Something Is Rotten In The Old Dominion

I humbly apologize. I have a responsibility to keep you informed on critical issues and I let you down. Although I touched briefly on an alarming development in the Commonwealth in my “Shame” posts about the election campaign of soon-to-be Delegate Manoli Loupassi, as soon as the election was over I dropped the ball. Then I read an article in today’s (December 23) Washington Post that announced the formation of “Save the Old Dominion,” a new umbrella group organized to lobby our General Assembly to enact legislation to further marginalize illegal aliens in Virginia. What a burst to the Christmas spirit of good will toward man. Save the Old Dominion, and its rival Help Save Virginia (along with such local groups as Help Save Manasssas, Help Save Fairfax, Help Save Loudon, Help Save Hampton Roads, Help Protect Culpeper and Save Stafford) are making it clear that Christian love this season only applies to citizens and those who are in this country with permission.

All these “help save” groups have me wondering. Just what do Virginia, the Old Dominion and all the localities need to be saved from? What exactly is the terrible danger to peace, justice and the American way? I know that we have been in dire straights before. During the American Revolution, British troops invaded Virginia, occupied Richmond, and chased Governor Jefferson beyond Charlottesville. Those were dark days; everybody suffered; but we survived. During the 1860s, either because of a rash decision to secede from the Union or, if you prefer, because of a northern invasion, our fair Commonwealth was devastated. Those were even darker days; thousands died; our economic infrastructure was destroyed; but we survived. What is the calamity that faces Virginia now in the 21st Century? It must be terribly grave to cause this outburst of savior groups.

Here it is friends: We’ve been invaded by “them”—illegal aliens. And, they’re much more dangerous than were either the British or Yankee armies. We knew who the British were; they were dressed in red. We knew who the Yankees were; they were dressed in blue. How do you identify this new enemy? Because they have no army, they wear no uniforms. They could even be living right on your block and you wouldn’t know it. Fortunately, there is one tell-tale sign that enables us to identify them—the vast majority of them speak Spanish.

What exactly is it that “them” has done that makes them so dangerous? They may have violated section 1325 of title 8 of the United States Code by entering into the country at a time or place other than that designated by immigrations offers or by eluding examination or inspection by immigrations officers. (I say “may” because in our jurisprudence we have this inconvenient presumption that those accused of crime are presumed innocent until proven guilty). The Congress has shown how serious it considers this crime by designating a penalty of a fine and/or imprisonment of up to six months for a first offense. First time offenders are also subject to a civil penalty of between fifty and two hundred fifty dollars for each violation. In addition, of course, offenders are subject to deportation.

The crime of which our new “enemy” may be guilty is not exactly in the category of murder or rape or marketing drugs or espionage or treason or stuff like that. They have simply crossed our border without permission. Don’t get me wrong, I do not condone violation of the law. If our legislature, whether the Congress, the General Assembly or the Richmond City Council, prohibits certain behavior I expect the law to be enforced. When people “get away” with violating the law, the law is held in disrespect, which is very dangerous for our society. On the other hand we have to keep this illegal alien thing in perspective. Aliens who have entered our country illegally are not, for the most part, dangerous felons.

I have no objection to a group of people who press for enforcement of the federal law. I don’t even object to a group that lobbies, fairly, for legislation that its members believe will benefit all the residents of Virginia. However, the “help save” groups go dangerously far in their crusade to purge the Old Dominion of illegal aliens. Let’s start with their names. Just by using “Save Virginia” or “Save the Old Dominion” (or any of the other saves) these groups are strongly suggesting that civilized society is seriously jeopardized by the mere presence of illegal aliens. You don’t need to save something unless it is seriously threatened with destruction. Thus, the savior groups are making clear their belief that illegal aliens are a real menace that must be stopped.

Further, the language the “help save” groups use is inflammatory. It tends to build strong anger not only against illegal aliens but against all Spanish speakers. I quote to you from the December issue of “The Front Line,” the publication of Help Save Manassas (Parental discretion is advised):

“Through a misguided attempt to promote multi-cultural awareness, our wonderful American traditions now find themselves under assault. Recently, we witnessed such an assault right here in Manassas at the annual Christmas parade. Do your fond memories of childhood include having someone dressed up as the devil in a Mexican dance troupe lunge out and frighten you? Probably not. Do you remember seeing the Mexican Flag displayed during a parade, promoting the tribalism of national origin over the unity of our American heritage? Seeing the devil marching in a Christmas parade is bizarre enough. But injecting a Mexican harvest ritual into Manassas’ sixty-two-year-old, all-American, traditional celebration of the Christmas season, represents a not-so-subtle attempt to introduce a political agenda. This so-called diversity, which the few seek to impose on the many, is in reality a dis-unifying deed. It can lead nowhere but to tribalism, a Balkanization of our community and nation, where we no longer share a common heritage, but are simply members of various tribes, briefly coming together to compete for America’s bounty.
* * * *
“Will we defend our culture from those who seek to change it to suit the needs of the ‘tribe of the week?’ If not, we risk losing those traditions that bind us together as a community and as Americans. If we reach the point where being American is redefined and reduced into the meaningless oblivion of being a ‘world citizen,’ we will soon find ourselves wandering down the broken road which other nations have already traveled, squandering their unifying, commonly shared values and beliefs. At the end of that road, only civil strife and death await us.

“We are obliged to defend our embattled culture before we inexorably veer off onto that destructive path. But we fight on many fronts. Whether our battle is combating the ‘press one for English’ insanity, or preventing the pollution of our longstanding cultural traditions with pagan harvest rituals from Mexico in our Christmas celebrations, we must engage in the struggle.”

Another article in “The Front Line” reads,

Unfortunately, the illegal alien problem is dramatically diminishing the stability and security of the American neighborhood. Numerous homes once occupied by “known quantities,” fellow Americans we knew or could at least identify with on many levels, are now being re-placed en masse by foreigners, many of whom are here illegally. The quaint rambler next door once owned by Mr. and Mrs. Smith may now be bursting at the seams with day laborers or multiple families of questionable legal status. In many cases, the occupants do not even speak our native language. Who are they? Do they have a criminal record? Could there be sex offenders among them? Are they all here to work or are some escaping the law of their ‘home countries? We can no longer be sure, and our needed sense of security fades.

The Front Line” is filled with photographs supposedly showing how the undesirables have ruined countless neighborhoods by their intolerable life styles. The message is clear, if we don’t get rid of this scum, your house will be next.

In my November 3 post I stated, “Marginalizing people leads to considering them less than human. This can lead eventually to such nice things as internment camps and even genocide.” Yesterday I warned about the dangers of our inborn xenophobia that can lead any of us to carry out terrible actions against “the other” to protect “us.” Unfortunately, the hate preached by Help Save Manassas creates the potential for violence against those they declare to be undesirable.

Oh, come on, maven! You are exaggerating. This is a good Christian country and no matter what rhetoric is used we’re not going to do terrible things to people even if they are not part of “us”. In the words of Sinclair Lewis, “It Can’t Happen Here.”

How foolish of me. What was I thinking? Clearly we are not the people who kept African Americans in a state of bondage for nearly two hundred fifty years. We are also not the people who waged over two hundred years of genocidal war against the American Indians. Certainly, we are not the people who expelled American citizens of Japanese ancestry from their homes and kept them in concentration camps during World War II. We are Americans; we would NEVER treat our fellow humans so badly.

Hate is contagious. Once it spreads in a community, that community is in danger of breaking down. Today it’s the “help save” groups preaching hate against illegal aliens. Tomorrow the hate may be directed at others. The continued success of our Commonwealth requires that we not only tolerate but accept our differences. People like those who write “The Front Line” threaten the domestic tranquility of the Old Dominion. We cannot allow them to prevail.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Virginia Holocaust Museum at 10

The Richmond Times-Dispatch published my letter this morning. However, the editors made some changes that subtracted from the message I was trying to convey. Further, since there may be some people outside the publishing range of our great metropolitan daily who read my rantings, I shall exercise my editorial discretion and publish the whole thing.

"Thank you for your editorial today, “An Anniversary,” acknowledging the important work being done by the Virginia Holocaust Museum. However, by prefacing your congratulations with several paragraphs describing current instances of anti-Jewish sentiment in the world, you portray the Nazi Holocaust and the ten years of work by the Museum as exclusively Jewish issues. They are not.

"Certainly the event we call the Holocaust was a disaster of unprecedented proportions for the Jewish people. Approximately six million Jews, including more than one and a half million children, were murdered by the German Nazi regime and its allies. It is also alarming that today so many people still express such animosity toward Jews. However, the Holocaust was a disaster for others in Nazi-controlled Europe. Millions of other “undesirables”—Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, mentally or physically handicapped—were murdered by the Nazis.

"In addition to being a Jewish issue, the Holocaust is a Christian issue. It is an unfortunate fact that the many thousands who participated directly in the murders and the millions of bystanders who either watched without protest or cheered the elimination of the Jews from their area of Europe were born and raised as Christians. Christians today must still address the question of how worshippers of a God of Love could have acted with such hatred towards Jews and others.

"The Holocaust is still an ongoing issue for the whole world. It is another unfortunate fact that since the end of World War II millions of defenseless humans have been “eliminated” by various regimes throughout the world in the interest of racial or ethnic or religious or political purity. We need to recognize that either through evolution or by intelligent design we humans are a very violent species. We have been endowed by our creator, or by the accident of natural selection, with a very powerful sense of xenophobia. This allows us to carry out rather nasty acts against “them” in defense of “us.”

"Finally, the Holocaust is an issue for you and me. Another of those unfortunate facts is that most of the Nazi murderers were “normal” people. How is it that someone can machinegun or shove hundreds of people into execution chambers during the day and then go home and have a normal dinner that night? It is very comforting to think that only very evil people can commit such terrible crimes. However, history shows that under certain circumstances ordinary people like you and I can be persuaded to perpetrate acts of unspeakable cruelty against our fellow humans."

You may ask, why this waste of bits and bytes when anyone can read the edited letter in the TD? Maven, is your ego so big that you can’t tolerate a little editing?

I must confess that my ego often is too big for my own good. But, this is not just a matter of the pride of authorship. The TD version misses some important issues I was trying to address.

First, the TD left out the next-to-last paragraph, highlighted above. We, as humans, especially with the power and sophistication of our weapons systems, need to realize that we have been programmed to defend our own tribe against the “other.” Perhaps, hundreds of thousands of years ago, this trait helped our ancestors to survive. In the 20th and 21st centuries, however, this inborn xenophobia (Fear and hatred of foreigners—Webster’s English Dictionary), has led to the brutal murders of tens of millions of our fellow humans. We need to know that all of us have inherited this trait and must guard against demagogic leaders who exploit this trait by urging us to purge our society of this or that group of “undesirables.” This is the most important lesson we need to learn from the Holocaust. Unfortunately, since genocide continues unabated in the world, it is clear that this lesson has still not sunken in.

Second, the TD has made a few language changes that have affected the meaning of my original letter. In one sentence in the last paragraph I asked how someone could “machinegun or shove hundreds of people into execution chambers” and go home to a normal dinner at night. The TD took out my graphic description of what the Holocaust murderers actually did and substituted the word “execute.” This is not just a matter of using a euphemism. I have read diaries of Holocaust perpetrators and they often refer to the killings they did as “executions.” One of the definitions of “execute” in Webster’s English Dictionary is “to put to death in compliance with a legal sentence.” It may have given perpetrators comfort to think that they were merely carrying out government policy. However, the people they killed were murdered, not executed.

Finally, by leaving out the little word “however,” the TD editor weakened the concluding sentences of the letter. All of us assume that only certain “evil” people could perpetrate genocide. You and I know that we are basically good people and could “never” commit atrocities. By blaming genocide on evil people, we can avoid considering what we are capable of doing. The history that the Virginia Holocaust Museum teaches us, however, shows that it is possible for “ordinary” people, like you and me, to carry out terribly evil acts.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Deja Vous—Again?

Despite my diatribe yesterday, I do read the Richmond Times Dispatch every day. Without it, I couldn’t write this blog. Where else would I get my information? The local broadcast news only reports on four things—crime, accidents, weather and sports. So, for me, it’s the TD or nothing. (Well, not exactly; I occasionally find meaningful stories in Style Weekly or the Richmond Free Press.)

In case you’re interested (and even if you’re not) this is the way I read it. First I look at the cover to see what non-news item the editors have chosen to make the lead story. Then I immediately go to the editorial/op-ed pages where all the action is. I especially pay attention to the letters to the editor. Every once in a while I’ll find a gem of inanity that deserves my “most wonderful letter of the day” award. I also like to see the kind of letter that the editors deem worthy to be their Correspondent of the Day. (For the record, my maveness has won this award; I have not.)

Well, today, the lead story on page 1 was “Richmond jail forms mental-health unit.” I guess I’ll concede that is news. The editorials consisted of a tribute to my favorite local congressman for his opposition to taxes and some kind of religious piece about Jamie Lynn Spears (who has embarked on the family’s favorite activity, teen pregnancy.) If I hadn’t attacked the editorial yesterday, I’m sure I could have found something useful in these pieces. Oh, lest I forget, I was quite impressed with the editors’ observation that “[t]he slotting of six Democrats and six Republicans in next year’s presidential primaries suggests Virginia could be a battleground.” I can only guess at the logic behind that statement.

So, I looked at the Correspondent of the Day. It was a letter asserting that the founders intended the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms to apply to everybody, not just state militias. That sounded amazingly familiar. I got this eerie feeling that I had sat and read that letter before (but who knows where or when?) Counting from the time of conception, my brain is over 64 years old. And, during the dark times of the year, it only functions at about 37% capacity. So it was entirely possible that my gray matter was deceiving me. But the earlier letter seemed so real.

I went looking for an earlier TD. However, since our resident recycler allows papers to accumulate for only 36 hours in our home, I had to log onto the TD website. I looked through the letters for December 20; nothing. I looked through the letters for December 19; there it was! The Correspondent of the Day on December 19 (that’s about 48 hours ago for those of you who can count) was a letter asserting that the founders intended the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms to apply to everybody, not just state militias. Wait a second! Did they mistakenly print the same letter twice? Did they mistakenly print the same letter twice? Nope—different letter, different correspondent. I started hearing the familiar music and Rod Serling’s voice saying “There’s the signpost up ahead...”

But seriously, how can the same newspaper award the same award to virtually the same letter first on December 19 and then again on December 21? The Richmond Times-Dispatch is certainly entitled to its editorial policy, although you and I find it to be rather Neanderthal. If they want to rave about Nancy Pelosi, that is their right. But, I would expect that their editorial policy would not affect their choices of what letters to print and award each day. I don’t care if they feel a lot safer packing their Glocks, they need to be objective about the letters they print.

How I long for the Brooklyn Eagle!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Would George III Be A Strong Enough Mayor?

I went to the website of the Pulitzer Prize to make sure. Yes, the 1948 prize for “distinguished editorial writing” was awarded to TD Editor Virginius Dabney, not to the Richmond Times-Dispatch itself. So, I guess the Pulitzer committee cannot retroactively rescind the award based on the current quality of TD editorials.

What, you may ask, led me to check out the Pulitzer thing? I had just finished reading today’s (December 20, 2007) lead editorial “Charter Member,”, and I was baffled. Not that I think that today’s editorial was the worst I have read. Since I came to live in River City in 2004, I have read many TD editorials that have left me wondering whether it was me or the editors who had lost the power of reason. By comparison, today’s editorial was not that bad.

As were many Richmond citizens, the TD editorial was discussing our beloved mayor’s Tuesday speech to the Crusade for Voters. As I noted yesterday, Mr. Wilder’s remarks indicate that he is getting back into his imperial aggressive mode after a couple of months of playing mild-mannered Uncle Doug. The TD used His Excellency’s remarks to raise its repeated assertion that our city charter does not give to the mayor as much power as we the people wanted our mayor to have. In the words of the editorial,

“This summer many Richmonders learned the mayor's office was not so powerful as they may have suspected. The city has a strong personality in a relatively weak position.”

Excuse me, Mr. Editor. Are you saying that we Richmonders want a mayor who has the authority to ignore the law? Does the ruling by the District Court that Mr. Wilder cannot disregard an ordinance passed by City Council indicate that the office of mayor of Richmond is a weak position? The President of the United States governs subject to restrictions placed upon the position by the Constitution and laws enacted by the Congress. The Governor of Virginia rules subject to the Commonwealth’s constitution and the laws enacted by the General Assembly. Are you suggesting that the presidency and the governorship are weak positions?

The editorial goes on to say,

"Maybe it [Richmond’s citizenry] did not want a mayor who would have an impact on Richmond similar to the impact celebrated mayors such as Rudy Giuliani have had on the cities they are credited with reviving."

We need not examine Mr. Giuliani’s performance as mayor of New York City. There is plenty of time to do that should he win the presidential nomination of the Republican Party. I need to point out, however, that through no fault of my own I grew up in New York City and I know for a fact that mayors of the Big Apple govern subject to the constitution of the State of New York and also to laws enacted by the New York legislature and ordinances enacted by the City Council of New York City. If Mr. Giuliani did “revive” New York City, he did not do it by asserting that the law did not apply to him.

We citizens do desire a mayor and City Council that will work together to make Richmond the great city it can be. However, we do not want, nor did we intend to elect, a tyrant who claims powers we have denied to our executives since 1776.

As I indicated in my October 26 post, “It Ain’t Broke, It’s Just Badly Bent,” our city charter divides power between a legislature (the City Council) and an executive (the mayor). This is the model of government that has worked very well for us for over two hundred years. The division of power keeps both the executive and the legislative branches from gaining dictatorial powers.

The penultimate paragraph of the editorial is the strangest. It explains Mr. Wilder’s expressed intention to abandon his attempts to have the charter revised to “clarify” his power. In the words of the editorial,

"Wilder's decision regarding the charter reflects political reality, alas. The city's legislative delegation did not figure to be helpful; the Assembly would have been unlikely to embrace reforms that lacked the enthusiastic backing of senior Richmond legislators. This season suggests the aptness of one of the late Henry Howell's favorite aphorisms: There's more than Santa Claus running around in the dark."

That the editor quoted Henry Howell is strange enough. Considering its editorial policy, I don’t suppose the TD had much use for Mr. Howell when he was alive. But what is the editor driving at? What’s this stuff about Santa running around in the dark? If we look at what old Howlin’ Henry actually said, the editor’s meaning becomes clearer. Mr. Howell’s adage was “There's more going around in the dark than Santa Claus, and hanky-panky is its name! “ When read with the complete quote from Howell, it becomes clear that the editor is accusing the Richmond area’s General Assembly representatives of conspiring to keep the mayor from achieving the greater powers that he somehow deserves. If, in fact, our local delegates and senators oppose Mr. Wilder’s attempt to rewrite the charter in his image they deserve our gratitude. Rather than hanky-panky, they are merely responding to the Commonwealth’s motto, “Sic Semper Tyrannis.”

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Doug Wilder: Jekyll or Hyde

Watching Doug Wilder is so interesting because you never know which Wilder you’re going to get. Will it be the mild mannered benevolent Uncle Doug, who we all love? Or will it be the nasty dictatorial His Excellency, who drives many of us up the wall?

For a while, since the disastrous Friday night invasion of Richmond Public School offices, Mr. Wilder has been in the Uncle Doug mode. He appears to be nice to everybody. He schedules all these photo ops that show him smiling and shaking hands. He makes a brilliant appointment (Sheila Hill-Christian) for Chief Administrative Officer, replacing Harry Black who the City Council refused to confirm. He seems so anxious to let bygones be bygones and work productively with the City Council. However, based on Michael Martz’s front page article in today’s TD, it appears that Uncle Doug is on the way out and His Excellency is coming back.

In his article (, Mr. Martz points out that Mr. Wilder is no longer interested in working peacefully with City Council. Mr. Martz quotes Mr. Wilder as saying,
“I’ve extended all the olive branches I intend to extend. . . I’ve been told I’m supposed to be conciliatory—you’ve seen all you’re going to see of me being conciliatory.”
To prove his point, according to Mr. Martz, the mayor accused the City Council of turning back the clock on black political representation. He noted that the black majority on the council had been replaced by a white majority. Although Mr. Wilder found “nothing wrong” with a white majority, he accused the council of “turning back the clock” because the council’s only black male has a vote on only one council committee. (It’s appropriate that Mr. Wilder did not object to the white majority since he supported a white candidate running against a black incumbent in last year’s election). Martz’s article indicates that the mayor’s comments were aimed at City Council President Bill Pantele.

Am I mistaken, or is His Excellency the Mayor rolling out the race card in his renewed battle against the council? Those of you who were watching Mr. Wilder’s 1985 run for Lieutenant Governor or read “When Hell Freezes Over"(which tells the story of how a boy from Brooklyn was able to get a state senator from Richmond elected as the Commonwealth’s first African American Lieutenant Governor), know that the race issue is not new for Mr. Wilder. In the 1985 campaign Mr. Wilder frequently used his race and the accusation of racism to blunt attacks on him for having been disciplined by the Virginia Bar or for acting like a slum lord with respect to his rental properties in River City. No matter what issues were raised against him in that campaign, Mr. Wilder’s standard defense was that he was being accused only because he was black. By the end of the campaign, Mr. Wilder and his strategist Paul Goldman had convinced most Virginia voters that if they voted against him they would be perceived as racists. The result was that Doug Wilder won the election.

Can it be that His Mayorship is planning to run for reelection next year and is starting to use the race issue now just in case his opponent turns out be Mr. Pantele? Could Mr. Wilder be planning a campaign based on the entitlement of an African American majority in the city to an African American mayor? I would really hate to see this city suffering through a mayoral election in which race was a major issue.

On the other hand…

I just finished reading Mr. Wilder’s holiday message in this week’s Vision Newsletter ( It seems that Uncle Doug is back. Uncle Doug tells us about his unannounced visit to Fairfield Court Elementary School and how well he was treated by school principal Dr. Irene Williams. (This maven is not so egotistical to think that Mr. Wilder was following my advice to him on December 7 that he spend some of his time in Richmond’s public schools.) In talking of the school and Dr. Williams, Mr. Wilder says,
"This highly-motivated and selfless devotion to cause and to duty impressed me beyond measure. Here is a school in the shadow of public housing units portraying to all who would care that yes, these young people can learn. They can show that it doesn't matter where you were born or your economic status - you can achieve and overcome and become outstanding contributing citizens."
He concludes with
"The holiday season represents a time of love, joy, remembrance and reflection. Amid the food, decorations and festivities, it is also a time to look ahead and envision the means toward a brighter future for our community."

Just when I was getting really mad with Mr. Hyde, Uncle Doug uses his Dr. Jekyll to make me love him again (at least for the moment). Didn’t I tell you that Doug watching was so much fun?

The “Fair Fax” Just Ain’t Fair

Reading Jon Wakefield’s op-ed in Monday’s TD, “Tax Code Change Would Benefit All” ( might lead you to believe that he had discovered Nirvana. Mr. Wakefield has apparently become a true believer in the so-called “Fair Tax” proposal. In his article he spits back the arguments made by Americans For Fair Taxation on their website ( ). And it sure is a compelling argument. The Fair Tax proposal would repeal all federal income-based taxes and replace them with a 23% federal sales tax on all purchases made in the United States. It would eliminate everybody’s nemesis, the Internal Revenue Service, and would convert April 15 into just another beautiful spring day. No more loopholes, no more tax cheating, no more expensive tax lawyers or CPAs, no more H&R Block commercials all winter, no more anxiety-producing tax forms, no more keeping of receipts. It would truly be a taxpayer’s heaven. But, would it be fair?

A tax system should have only one purpose—raising revenue for the government to carry out the functions that the representatives of the citizens have assigned to it. In addition, under the theory that those who accumulate the most wealth derive the most benefit from the country or state, the tax system should be progressive. Those who earn the most should pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than do those who earn the least. Finally, a tax system must not only be fair, it must also be perceived as fair by the citizens.

Under these standards, our current tax system ranks low. First, rather than being only a mechanism for raising revenue, our current system is used continuously by the government as a mechanism for controlling the behavior of individuals and corporations in our society. When the government wishes to encourage certain activities it offers tax incentives to those who abide by those wishes. Likewise, when the government wishes to discourage certain behaviors it places tax costs on those behaviors. This management of our society by use of the tax code is probably as old as the code itself and has been used by both Republican and Democratic governments. It explains why the Internal Revenue Code is thousands of pages rather than only a few pages long.

Second, our tax system is unfair and is perceived by most citizens as unfair. It is set up as a yearly game between the citizens and the IRS. The objective of the IRS in this game is to maximize the amount of taxes each citizen pays. The objective of each citizen is to minimize the amount of taxes he, she or it pays. The rules of the game are tens of thousands of pages long, and those who can afford expensive CPAs or tax lawyers who have mastered those rules are going to play the game much better than those who can’t. A tax system in which the amount you pay depends on how clever you and your tax preparer are is not a fair system. And it cannot be perceived as fair. Many taxpayers get the feeling that somehow they are paying more than their fair share of taxes. They fear that their neighbor has discovered a hidden deduction that they don’t know about. Or they fear the dreaded audit in which the IRS will discover that they have claimed more in deductions than the law allows.

The unfairness of the system extends into its progressiveness. Although our tax system is, on its face, progressive, the presence of so many loopholes and deductions and credits and shelters reduces the tax burden on those with higher incomes. The result is that in many cases individuals with high incomes may be paying a lesser percentage of that income in taxes than do individuals with lower incomes.

Look, I would love to see our present system replaced with a fair tax system. I would love to see the IRS disappear. I would love to eliminate the anxiety I suffer every year in playing the 1040 game. However, I see no purpose in replacing one unfair system with another unfair one.

By their very nature sales taxes are not progressive. In a state with a 5% sales tax, everybody who makes a purchase in the state pays the same 5% tax regardless of their income. Further, since lower income families spend a far higher percentage of their incomes on subsistence items such as housing, clothing, food or fuel, the 5% percent tax they pay on each purchase is more onerous. The Fair Tax proponents are, of course, aware of this inequity. They have tried to deal with it by creating a mechanism called the “prebate”.

Under the Fair Tax prebate, the Social Security Administration (you read me right) would mail a check to every household in the United States each month. The purpose of this prebate would be to compensate each household, in advance, for the amount of sales tax it pays on subsistence. The Fair Taxers have established an “annual consumption allowance” for each household that varies with the number of persons residing in that household. For example, for 2007 had the Fair Tax been in effect, the consumption allowance for a single adult household with three children would have been $20,650. For a two adult household with one child the allowance would have been $23,900. The sales tax that would apply on the amount of this allowance is calculated and constitutes the annual prebate. One twelfth of this amount would be sent to the household each month--$396 for the first household above, $458 for the second household. (If this sounds complicated, blame the Fair Taxers, not me).

The Fair Tax proponents prepared a chart that demonstrates that with the addition of the prebate feature the federal sales tax would actually be progressive. There are two problems with the chart. The first is the assumption that a household’s annual income and its annual spending will be the same. The second is the calculation of the tax rate as a percentage of the amount the household spends rather than as a percentage of the household’s income. If we look at a hypothetical real world (how’s that for an oxymoron), however, things are not as fair as they seem.

Let’s look at some examples:

The Smiths have an annual income of $50,000. They would like to put away part of their income in a savings account. However, with the cost of living in their city being so high, they are unable to save and end up spending all their income. The 23% federal sales tax they pay on their $50,000 consumption amounts to $11,500. Based on the size of the Smith household, they receive a prebate of $5,497. Therefore, the actual federal tax they will have paid is $6,003. As a percentage of their income, they are paying a tax of about 12%.

At the other end (but not the far end) of the income spectrum are the Jones. The Jones household has an annual income of $1,000,000. Because the Jones are not conspicuous consumers they spend only $200,000 and are able to save or invest $800,000. The 23% federal tax they pay on their consumption amounts to $46,000. Like the Smiths, the Jones receive a prebate of $5,497. The actual federal tax paid by the Jones is therefore $40,503. As a percentage of the household’s annual income, the Jones are paying a tax of a whopping 4%.

Let’s review. Under the so-called Fair Tax, the Smiths with an income of $50,000 would pay a 12% tax. The fortunate Jones, however, with an income of $1,000,000, would pay a tax of only 4%. I don’t know about you, but to me this is not a fair tax.

Despite Mr. Wakefield’s assertion, the Fair Tax plan also has its loopholes. If our Jones household wishes to be less frugal they may choose to buy a $500,000 yacht with the amount of their income they don’t need to live on. If the Jones buy that yacht in Newport News, they will pay a federal sales tax of $115,000. However, if the Jones are smart (and I assume they are), they will buy their yacht from some boat yard in the Bahamas. They will then pay a federal sales tax of zero. And, this loophole does not only apply to the wealthy few. It is also available to those of us who live along the Canadian border. Why buy a $25,000 car in Detroit and pay $5,750 in federal tax on that purchase when you can go across the river to Windsor and buy your car without paying any federal tax.

I can discuss other unfairnesses that I have found in the “Fair Tax,” but this post is already much too long. When the Fair Taxers fix these inequities, I will be happy to support their proposal.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Best Use For Old Schools

I read with interest Olympia Meola’s lead story in the TD today, “Old School Buildings Go Unused.” I then turned to the Metro section and read Michael Paul Williams column on the fate of old school buildings. Well, it’s the dark time of the year and this maven’s mind is in hibernation mode. But it doesn’t take the fully functioning mind of a maven to figure out what to do with buildings that are no longer needed as schools.

Before I moved to River City, I lived in the far north of the Commonwealth. I even crossed the border on a regular basis into the Columbia District. I often saw old school buildings being used by school systems for other purposes. In the District, old buildings house school system administrative offices. I’ve seen the same in Fairfax County.

Now, I know that the Columbia District was the capital of Mr. Lincoln’s evil Union. I also know that Fairfax County was occupied by union troops during most of the War of Northern Aggression. So it is proper to suspect that those parts might be tinged by Yankee thinking. However, even the Yankees might have some ideas worth considering in the Old Dominion.

If my Swiss-Cheese brain serves me, I remember a time, not too long ago, when our fair city’s chief executive officer sent his minions on a guerrilla raid to cleanse City Hall of the administrative offices of Richmond Public Schools. His Excellency indicated that he had better uses for his precious City Hall than administering schools for our children. Then there was this nasty court battle and Mr. Wilder was told he had to let the schoolies stay. Now, as I said, I’m not thinking too well now, but wouldn’t it satisfy the needs of Mayor Doug and RPS to use unneeded school buildings to house the administrative offices of RPS?

Just this morning, I drove past the building that formerly housed Patrick Henry School and was used last year as shelter from the storm for students of A.V. Norell School. It is a beautiful building, and since it was used as a school as recently as last spring it has not traveled far down the road to dilapidation that Ms. Meola indicates the building and site of Whitcomb Court School have. Patrick Henry is located at the intersection of Forest Hill and Semmes avenues and is thus only about ten minutes from City Hall. It would make a fine home for those pesky RPS officials that Mayor Doug wants out of City Hall.

What would it cost to renovate Patrick Henry for office use? I don’t know, but I’m sure that city officials could find out rather quickly. If the cost is prohibitive, I’m sure that the city could enter into a sale-rent-purchase agreement with a private developer. Under such an agreement, title to the building would be transferred to the private developer. The developer would renovate the building and then lease it to RPS for a period of twenty or twenty-five years during which time the developer would recover its investment and a reasonable profit. At the end of the lease period title would revert back to the city and RPS would continue to use it.

Ms. Meola indicates in her article that city officials are considering other possible uses for vacant school buildings. However, since these building were built to serve the educational needs of our students, using them for the administrative needs of RPS makes the most sense.

Friday, December 07, 2007

An Open Letter to Mayor Wilder

Dear Uncle Doug,

That was a really great picture of you with the hard hat in Wednesday’s TD. But I knew right away when Michael Martz quoted you as saying, “This is a helluva atrium! I've never seen anything like it in my life!" you weren’t talking about the new learning courtyard at Westover Hills Elementary School. In case you missed it, that atrium for our kids was put together with the money and work from the Westover Hills School community and its business partners. It’ll be a great place for the kids to learn about nature and that kind of stuff.

Of course, the atrium you were talking about, at the new Hilton Garden Inn being built on the old Miller & Rhoads site, is probably a lot prettier than the one at Westover Hills. And the people who see it will probably be of a much better class than the students that go to our schools. I would imagine that many of our students will never see it at all. But, it was a great photo op.

I also like that one of you last week leaving your hand print to be hung on the wall at the new North Boulevard Cinema. It really has the homey touch. It takes the edge off of some of the bad press you’ve been getting lately. I wish that nasty Judge Spencer could just get to know you. Maybe then she wouldn’t be writing those decisions against you.

There are probably some people that will criticize you for all these photo ops. They might think they are a waste of time, especially when the city has so many problems. I really have to disagree with them. I understand fully you hanging out with the business men. I know that all the new business development will increase tax revenue for the city. I also know that once that revenue rolls in you’re going to make sure that the City Council appropriates it all for Richmond Public Schools. Those people who think you don’t care about the kids just because you insist on the School Board cutting $20 million from their budget before you’ll talk to them just don’t know the real Doug Wilder.

Uncle Doug, there is another thing you could do for the kids. You might consider spending an hour or so each week in one of our public schools reading to the kids or helping them learn to read better or to learn their math. As the Crupi report indicated last week, there are a lot of kids in our schools who can really use your help. If you choose to do it, and I really hope you do, I suggest that you don’t bring the photographers or reporters. Trying to make sure our kids succeed is not something you want to do with the camera running. It’s not a photo op. It’s just doing the right thing.

Take care.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Greater Richmond: First Create It, Then Save It

You may not have noticed it, but at the end of November, David Ress of the TD wrote an article entitled “Business leaders eager for input from public.” In the article Mr. Ress indicated that the very same business leaders who paid Dr. James A. Crupi to write his report, “Putting the Future Together,” have decided to implement Dr. Crupi’s recommendation that the business community take the lead in developing a plan for rescuing “Greater Richmond.” I guess this makes sense. If you’re going to lay out big bucks to hire a consultant to recommend that you become “Greater Richmond’s” superhero, you better be ready to don the mask and cape.

At first I was a bit upset. Where did these business leaders get the gall to appoint themselves our saviors? Is there some provision in the Constitution or laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia that says that when you’re not happy with the way things are going you can appoint yourself to fix them? Do we not have in the Commonwealth a General Assembly and a Governor that we elected to make and implement policy? Do we not have in the local jurisdictions boards of supervisors or city councils, not to mention Uncle Doug, that we elected to do exactly what the business community has appointed itself to do? What ever happened to the republic we fought so hard for only 230 or so years ago?

But then I started thinking. Who was I to complain about the business community? Aren’t I, as a maven, self appointed? Oh yes, I studied long and hard and struggled through six decades of life to qualify to be a maven. But I have to admit that nobody elected to me to this position. So, if I can self appoint myself maven, I have to concede that our business leaders can self appoint themselves regional saviors.

Which brings me, finally, to the point of this posting. Is there such a thing as “Greater Richmond?” I have studied my map of the Commonwealth long and hard and cannot find anything called “Greater Richmond.” I see the City of Richmond. I see various counties surrounding the city. But there is no “Greater Richmond.”

How can this be? If there is no “Greater Richmond,” how can there be such a thing as the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce? I went to the chamber’s website to find out about this “Greater Richmond.” On the page “About Us,” under “The Facts,” it says that the chamber is,

“Located in Richmond, Virginia and serving the City of Richmond, and the counties of Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico."

I guess that means that “Greater Richmond” means the city plus Chesterfield, Henrico and Hanover counties. That makes sense to me. The city and the counties do make a nice little compact area, except for Hanover, which is on the wrong side of the Chickahominy. But… in Dr. Crupi’s report he talks as if “Greater Richmond” also included Charles City, Goochland, New Kent, and Powhatan counties. He also sometimes uses the term “Metro Richmond.” Does Metro mean the same thing as Greater?

But, you may say, this is all semantics. I agree. The definition of “Greater” or “Metro” Richmond is not the major issue. In his report, Dr. Crupi sets out as one of the reasons there is little regional cooperation in the Richmond area, “[t]he inability or unwillingness of metro leaders or citizens to think of themselves as a region.” I think that what Dr. Crupi is saying is that there is no feeling of community in the area.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary has the following definitions for “community:”
1- a unified body of individuals;
2- the people with common interests living in an area;
3- an interacting of various kinds of individuals in a common location; or
4- a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society.
These definitions use word like unified or common or interacting or together. Unfortunately, none of these words currently apply to the people living in Greater or Metro Richmond.

Rather than being a single community, Greater Richmond is an amalgam of hundreds of small local communities. Aside from those places with historic names like Midlothian, Short Pump, Glen Allen, Bon Air, Mechanicsville, Highland Springs or Varina, there are all those named neighborhoods in Richmond City and the tons of developments built in the suburbs over the years. The unfortunate fact is that the vast majority of the people living in the counties surrounding Richmond do not consider themselves connected to the residents of the city.

Take a ride out Broad Street. Take a ride out Hull Street Road west of route 288. Take a ride out the many other suburban boulevards. What you see is mile after mile of commercial development. Our suburbs have been developed in a way that the residents have all their needs satisfied right near their homes. Need food, go to the local strip mall. Need gasoline, go to the local strip mall. Need medicine, go to the local strip mall. In addition, look at all the jobs that are located out on those suburban boulevards. The fact is that because of the way the suburbs have developed a majority of the people living there have no need to ever enter the City of Richmond. There is no feeling of unity or interdependence or togetherness or connectedness between the residents of the suburbs and the residents of the city.

(An aside: My daughter is a high school teacher in Henrico County. She told me that in one of her classes more that half the students stated they had NEVER been in the City of Richmond.)

Before our business leaders can became saviors of Greater Richmond, they need to create a community. They need to find a way for residents of the city to care about the problems of people living in the suburbs. They need to find a way for residents of the counties to care about the problems of people in the city. On page 28 of his report, Dr. Crupi listed the dismal statistics of poor people living in the city: 19% of the residents of the city live in poverty; 25% of the city’s children live in households with annual incomes of $20,650 or less; 74% of the students in Richmond Public Schools receive subsidized lunches; etc. The business leaders have to get the residents of the counties to care about the poverty in the city. Our business leaders need to find a way to deal with the attitude shown in a letter to the TD back in October:

“Does anyone really believe that suburban citizens will experience any improvement in their lives if such a [regional] government is adopted? Do the surrounding county residents want to see their current quality of life decline to the point that mediocrity and complacency are benchmarks? Should the county citizens be penalized for Richmond's failures?”

Or in this response to TD reporter Michael Paul Williams’ article last week about the inferior quality of school buildings in the city as compared with the counties:

"If the students and teachers can't take care of what they have, what makes it mandatory to give them more. The majority of suburban students, teachers and parents take pride and care in their educations and schools ... Problem is that the people that stay in Richmond don't care about the schools their kids go to."

I am sure there are equally negative attitudes held by city residents toward our suburban cousins.

So, our business saviors, the first thing you must do is convince us all that we live in a community all the time, not just when we suffer from a hurricane or a drying up of our beloved James. You must show us that what happens to one of us happens to all of us. You must convince us that we will sink or swim together.