Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 14th, 2013

This is why the Right loves vouchers for education

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So they can spend taxpayer money on shit like this.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2013 at 2:36 pm

Posted in Education, Religion

Weird doin’s in Detroit

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David Sirota has three simple questions in his column at CommonDreams.org:

Though they are important, let’s be honest: Municipal budget figures can be mind-numbingly boring. Even in high-profile, high-stakes dramas like Detroit’s bankruptcy, the sheer flood of numbers can encourage people to simply tune it all out for fear of being further confused.

Thus, in the interest of not putting you to sleep or further perplexing you, here are three painfully simple questions about Detroit’s bankruptcy. Though these questions have mostly been ignored, continuing to ask them can at least highlight the fact that something nefarious is happening right now in the Motor City.

1. Why are Detroit officials simultaneously moving to cut municipal workers’ pensions while spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a new professional hockey stadium?

Gov. Rick Snyder, R-Mich., and his appointed emergency manager Kevyn Orr are pleading poverty to justify cuts to the average Detroit municipal worker’s $19,000-a-year pension. Yet, they are also saying they have plenty of money available to continue a planned $285 million taxpayer subsidy for the construction of a new hockey stadium for the Red Wings. Economic data over the years suggest that that paying pension benefits is often a far more powerful tool for economic stimulus than financing stadium subsidies. That’s because pensions reliably pump resources into a local economy while stadium subsidies often end up a net loss for taxpayers. So why is Detroit prioritizing stadiums over pensions?

2. Why are municipal employees being blamed for Detroit’s woes when data prove they had little to do with the city’s fiscal problems?

In an extensive report for the think tank Demos, former Goldman Sachs investment banker Wallace Turbeville shows that Detroit officials’ current “focus on cutting retiree benefits and reducing the city’s long-term liabilities to address the crisis (is) inappropriate and, in important ways, not rooted in fact.” That’s because, as Turbeville documents, “Detroit’s bankruptcy was primarily caused by a severe decline in revenue and exacerbated by complicated Wall Street deals that put its ability to pay its expenses at greater risk.” Yet, despite these facts, Detroit’s municipal employees are primarily being blamed by politicians and pundits for causing the crisis.

Why?

3. If Michigan is so strapped for cash, . . .

Continue reading.

Sounds like some lootin’s going on. And read this AlterNet article by Frank Joyce:

On December 3, United States Bankruptcy Judge Stephen A. Rhodes—to the surprise of no one—formally ruled that Detroit is “eligible” for bankruptcy. In other words, creditors will now wrangle over Detroit’s government assets with Rhodes as the referee.

It is important to understand that at no point has Detroit declared or requested bankruptcy. Indeed Detroiters and others in Michigan have resisted as best they could, only to be overpowered at every turn. As Judge Rhodes explains below, bankruptcy has been orchestrated from Lansing (the state capitol) with a lot of help from Wall Street banks and other financial players.

Taking power away from Detroiters began decades ago. As the city’s African American population grew, so did the forces trying to deprive it of democracy and assets. A tangled web of bipartisan power grabs steadily shifted revenue and decision making to the suburbs, state government and predatory lenders. Far from helping the city—although onlookers wouldn’t know it based on loud, public proclamations to the contrary—the end result crippled Detroit and ushered in its fall.

Starting in 1999 Lansing’s state government decided it was in their bailiwick to manage the Detroit Public Schools, a task historically overseen by elected officials. The result? School performance worsened, which resulted in the departure of more residents. Combined, these two factors only sped up the area’s decline.

That colossal failure notwithstanding, from the day he took office in January of 2011, Governor Rick Snyder maneuvered to take even more power and resources away from Michigan’s predominately African American cities. The more he succeeded in doing so, the more difficult life became for residents of those cities.

So far, efforts to put the brakes on this process have failed. Most dramatically, the voters of Michigan repealed Governor Snyder’s emergency manager law (P.A. 4) in a statewide referendum held last November. His lame duck super majority co-conspirators in the Michigan legislature promptly enacted a still worse version. State courts repeatedly found ways to support the Governor’s take-over powers.

Now, a federal judge has also ruled in favor of continuing the very same dynamic.

If you think about the historic moment unfolding before us with the rationale that Detroit is an unfortunate outlier on the scale of thriving, solvent versus sad, “dysfunctional” U.S. cities—with Detroit falling squarely in the latter category—think again. Every public sector worker’s retirement security in the form of a pension is seriously imperiled. This is only compounded by the fact that Judge Rhodes’s decision greatly expands the leverage of those who want to reduce or eliminate them.

The entire process of taking over the governments of Detroit and other cities is also deeply disturbing if you believe that ordinary people ought to have at least some means to balance the interests of the one percent.

Finally, the point here is not to endorse Judge Rhodes’s version of the opposition to the bankruptcy. Ultimately, his theory of “bad faith” is a straw man characterization designed to help justify his commandeering of the city’s future. It completely ignores decades of white racism and other social and economic factors in favor of a simple conspiracy theory.

That said, it is still a revealing insight into how Rhodes—himself an agent of the one-percent—perceives the behavior of his own allies.

Below is a verbatim excerpt from two sections of Judge Rhodes’s 140-page opinion: . . .

Continue reading. It’s lengthy.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2013 at 2:23 pm

By cracking cellphone code, NSA has capacity for decoding private conversations

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A long excerpt from Andrew O’Hehir’s excellent column in Salon:

. . . But chaos and stagnation unmistakably have their benefits. For one thing, the suburban boredom of the ‘70s attracted young dissidents into the hollowed-out cities, and produced an artistic, musical and literary revolution with long-lasting and ambiguous effects. That subject has produced its own sociological discipline (e.g., Richard Lloyd’s outstanding “Neo-Bohemia: Art and Commerce in the Post-Industrial City”), but as “American Hustle” should remind us, the political chaos of the ‘70s also drew back the curtain, for a moment or two, on the hidden machineries of American life. Coming shortly after Watergate and the reports of the Church Committee, the Abscam scandal fictionalized in Russell’s movie completed the disillusioning portrait of a government and system that seemed to have become entirely corrupt and cynical. We paid attention, for a little while, and then we didn’t want to anymore. One of the most important lessons to draw from that decade is that we were warned about the corrosive force of money in politics, and about the creation of a national-security state that would be turned against its own citizens, and we actively decided to ignore it.

Watergate showed us a president and his inner circle brought down by their bathetic attempts to cover up what was, in fact, a minor, amateurish and nearly routine act of political subterfuge. Abscam began as a small-scale FBI investigation into white-collar crime on Long Island and then accidentally metastasized into an elaborate undercover sting operation that brought down six congressmen, a U.S. senator and a dozen or so local elected officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. (I’ve found no better summary of the whole arcane Abscam saga than Matt Birkbeck’s marvelously detailed article for al-Jazeera America.) No doubt it’s hyperbolic to suggest that Abscam threatened to expose the entire legislative process as a corrupt con, but it kind of felt that way at the time. Most people who go see “American Hustle” will probably never have heard of the scandal before, but it marked the beginning of the widespread contempt for Congress that plays such a big role in public life today.

It was New York con artist Mel Weinberg (the basis for Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld in the movie) who cooked up the idiot-genius notion of using a phony Arab sheik, purportedly from one of the newly rich Gulf states, as a method of funneling briefcases full of cash to politicians, in videotaped meetings, in exchange for various favors: U.S. residency or citizenship, Atlantic City gaming licenses and so on. (In the movie, the FBI dresses up a Mexican-American man as the sheik — which leads to a tense standoff when a mobster questions his authenticity — but in real life it wasn’t quite that bad. They found an agent of Lebanese ancestry who spoke some Arabic.) Almost every politician they approached, from the Philadelphia City Council up to the U.S. Senate, took the bribes. As Rep. Ozzie Myers, a legendary South Philadelphia machine Democrat, put it while he was stuffing $50,000 into his blazer, “In this town, money talks and bullshit walks.”

One of the few who declined the money, Sen. Larry Pressler, R-S.D., was described by Walter Cronkite as a hero and observed, “What have we come to if turning down a bribe is heroic?” To this day, right-wing partisans often characterize Abscam as exclusively a Northeastern and/or Democratic scandal (only one of the seven convicted members of Congress, Florida’s Richard Kelly, was a Republican), and cite Pressler as an avatar of GOP rectitude. But given how avidly the entire congressional hierarchy of both parties tried to limit the Abscam damage and portray the FBI as an agency out of control that had hired a convicted swindler to entrap hardworking lawmakers, it seems likelier that most Capitol Hill insiders saw Pressler as a prairie rube who didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut and failed to appreciate the deep wisdom of the Ozzie Myers koan. Birkbeck quotes former FBI assistant director Bud Mullen, explaining that he was new to the world of Washington politics at the time: “I naively thought Congress wanted to get rid of the bad apples. Boy, was I wrong.”

Curiously enough, Congress was able to counterattack so effectively against Abscam and the FBI, and insist on new Department of Justice guidelines that made it much more difficult to investigate official corruption, because of a different set of revelations about official evil. I refer to the 14 reports published in 1975 and 1976 — the immediate aftermath of Watergate — by Sen. Frank Church’s Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations With Respect to Intelligence Activities, which amount to a nearly unique sunshine moment in the history of representative democracy. Could anything akin to the Church Committee’s investigation happen today, in the era of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden? Let’s put it this way: It’s about as likely as Idaho, one of the reddest states in the nation, repeatedly electing a progressive, environmentalist Democrat like Frank Church.

In fact, when you look at the 11 senators on the Church Committee, at least nine of them would be considered left-wingers by the Beltway standards of the 21st century. (The one actual conservative was Sen. John Tower of Texas, who was pro-choice and would only barely count as a Republican today. I don’t know how to count Barry Goldwater, who was midway through his journey from right-wing demigod to libertarian.) I’m not sure whether it’s better or worse, for narrative purposes, that no one involved with the Church Committee was implicated in Abscam. The committee was formed after former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Christopher Pyle revealed the existence of a broad-based domestic spy program focused on American dissidents, and after investigative journalist Seymour Hersh began to explore the CIA’s overseas covert action programs. Its eventual reports, many of which were originally classified, amount to more than 50,000 pages of the most serious and far-reaching attempt to make sense of the origins, operation and abuses of the various U.S. government intelligence agencies.

At the time, the Church Committee reports were most famous for their explosive revelations about the CIA’s efforts to assassinate various foreign leaders, including Fidel Castro, Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo and others. [As we were recently reminded, the CIA was directly responsible for the capture of Nelson Mandela by the South African apartheid government. They went out of their way to get him captured: a gratuitous gesture of which I’m sure to this day they are quite proud. – LG]  (The CIA had also authorized the recent coup against Chilean president Salvador Allende, of course, but that did not become clear until later.) But from four decades’ distance, those scurrilous enterprises look like bits and pieces of Cold War skulduggery, much less important than the committee’s tantalizing hints about the National Security Agency, which was then an entity so shadowy and secretive that almost no Americans had ever heard of it. In August of 1975, Church himself went on “Meet the Press” and talked about the nefarious potential of the NSA, without ever, like the enemies of Voldemort, daring to utter its name:

In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air … We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything — telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

So it’s no good claiming we weren’t warned. Noted intelligence expert Bing Crosby described the committee’s activities as anti-American and pro-Communist at the time, and in the wake of 9/11, security-state advocates have repeatedly blamed the committee and the reforms it sparked for “crippling” American intelligence. As the Guardianreported earlier this year, Church himself, along with Republican committee member Howard Baker, was among the 1,650 American citizens targeted by Operation Minaret, a clandestine and illegal NSA surveillance program. When the secret police showed us, almost entirely by accident, that Congress was a bunch of crooks, we looked the other way. When Congress had a rare moment of bravery and showed us that the secret police had acquired a terrifying and unprecedented level of technological mastery, we looked the other way. Now we’re stuck with the crooks and the spooks, and have no place left to look except the mirror.

That really hits home with the Washington Post’s lead headline today:

By cracking cellphone code, NSA has capacity for decoding private conversations

I’m sure that if you ask whether the NSA actually eavesdrops on private calls between Americans, the answer would be a James-Clapper “No.”

Read the story. Business and government: one hand washes the other.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2013 at 2:14 pm

Posted in NSA

Once more Big Business gets off, thanks to Holder’s DoJ

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David Uhlmann writes a good op-ed in the NY Times:

 THE Justice Department is reportedly about to enter into a $2 billion deferred prosecution agreement with JPMorgan Chase over its role in Bernard L. Madoff’s Ponzi scandal, the latest example of the government’s troubling reluctance to bring criminal charges against major corporations.

The use of deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements, which began during the George W. Bush administration and has increased under President Obama, allows companies to avoid criminal charges if they pay substantial penalties, improve their compliance programs and cooperate with authorities. The companies do not plead guilty. They are not convicted of any crimes. They do not receive criminal sentences.

From 2004 through 2012, the Justice Department entered into 242 deferred prosecution and nonprosecution agreements with corporations; there had been just 26 in the preceding 12 years. The department’s criminal division now uses “noncriminal alternatives” in most of its settlements with corporations. From 2010 to 2012, the division reached twice as many deferred prosecution and nonprosecution agreements with corporations as there were plea agreements.

We’re not talking about small cases involving technical violations of the law. Prosecutors agreed to a deferred prosecution with HSBC in 2012 even though the bank was involved in nearly a trillion dollars’ worth of money laundering, much of it from drug trafficking. In another recent case, the department struck a nonprosecution agreement in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster of 2010 that left 29 miners dead in West Virginia. Massey, the mine owner, had concealed over 300 safety law violations from government inspectors.

The failure to prosecute the likes of JPMorgan, HSBC and Massey minimizes their culpability and raises doubts about the government’s commitment to fighting corporate crime. The Justice Department would never allow individuals who committed such serious crimes to escape prosecution. Why is there a double standard for corporate defendants? And why has the Obama administration continued the questionable corporate crime policies of the Bush administration?

The government has offered various explanations for this lenient approach. In the case of JPMorgan, prosecutors reportedly were worried that a prosecution could imperil the company and its employees, just as charges against the accounting firm Arthur Andersen in 2002 for its role in the Enron scandal led to the collapse of the company, and thousands of job losses. But Andersen was exceptional; it could not survive as an accounting firm after its conviction for accounting fraud. Studies have shown that criminal prosecution is rarely a death penalty for a corporation.

Defenders of deferred prosecution agreements call them a middle ground. But there is already a middle ground — civil enforcement — in areas like antitrust, environmental crimes, securities fraud and tax evasion, as exemplified by the $13 billion civil settlement reached last month with JPMorgan over its role in the mortgage crisis.

The government still brings criminal charges in some high-profile cases, notably against BP and Transocean for the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the current case against SAC Capital Advisors for insider trading.

But these examples are increasingly rare. Perhaps the government believes that corporate prosecution serves little purpose because companies cannot go to jail. The better view is that criminal prosecution holds companies responsible and expresses societal condemnation in ways that lesser sanctions cannot. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2013 at 1:43 pm

GOP sabotage gets serious

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The GOP has not hesitated in recent years to sabotage government programs—programs already passed and approved—by trying to sabotage those programs. In order to substantiate their position that the government doesn’t work, they go to some lengths to make sure that it cannot work by actively undermining programs—denying funds, pulling people away from the job they’re doing, and so on. Darrell Issa is much given to this, and Christopher Butterfield in ThinkProgress points out Issa’s next move:

Republicans in Congress have used potential security shortcomings in the Healthcare.gov website to advocate for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but Congressman Darrell Issa (R-CA) may be the site’s biggest security concern.

Issa — the Chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee — has issued a subpoena of documents that, if made public, could leave the Healthcare.gov website and its visitors vulnerable to hackers. The subpoena calls for the MITRE Corporation, which conducted security reviews of the website for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), to turn over documents that include code and security breaches. MITRE has resisted the subpoena, warning in letters to Issa that handing over physical copies would compromise their “obligation to protect sensitive information which could pose a threat to the confidentiality of personal citizens’ information if disclosed.”

HHS has also refused to turn over the sensitive documents to the Chairman, citing their lack of trust that Issa will keep secure documents that could give a “roadmap” to hackers attempting to infiltrate the system. In an October hearing on the consular attack in Benghazi, Chairman Issa leaked the names of Libyans working with the United States, putting their lives at risk. The congressman also presided over a TSA hearing in 2011 that resulted in the release of documents that publicly exposed airport security breaches.

Issa and his staffers have already seen the documents in question, after MITRE produced unredacted copies for committee staff to review, but not keep. The committee’s Ranking Member, Elijah Cummings (D-MD), questioned the necessity of risking another leak by demanding physical copies. “The Committee has already obtained the information at issue,” Cummings wrote in a letter to the Chairman urging him to drop the subpoena. “Both Republican and Democratic Committee staff have reviewed these documents in their full unredacted form, and HHS has offered to make them available for review by all Members of the Committee at their convenience.”

If the Chairman is successful in obtaining the sensitive documents, Cummings has insisted that the Chairman “abide by the House Rules and not release these documents to anyone who is not a Member of the Committee or a member of its staff until the Committee has an opportunity to vote on their appropriate handling.”

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2013 at 1:40 pm

Posted in Congress, GOP, Government

Good point on why the GOP attacks their own healthcare proposals

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Again, Paul Krugman:

Ezra Klein is puzzled (or at least says he is; I suspect he understands it perfectly) by Republican hypocrisy on health care. For many years the GOP has advocated things that are supposed to bring the magic of the marketplace and individual incentives to health care: higher deductibles to give people “skin in the game”, competition among private insurers via exchanges — competition that would include reducing costs by limiting networks — and, of course, for cuts in Medicare. Now the GOP complains bitterly that some Obamacare policies have high deductibles, that it relies on the horror of exchanges, that some networks are limited, and that there are cuts in Medicare.

Klein suggests that Republicans are really upset by other aspects of Obamacare, but are going after the easy targets even though they’re attacking their own ideas. In a sense he’s right, but as I said, I suspect that he knows that the issue is both bigger and simpler than he says.

What underlies what Jonathan Chait calls the Heritage uncertainty principle? He describes it thus:

Conservative health-care-policy ideas reside in an uncertain state of quasi-existence. You can describe the policies in the abstract, sometimes even in detail, but any attempt to reproduce them in physical form will cause such proposals to disappear instantly. It’s not so much an issue of “hypocrisy,” as Klein frames it, as a deeper metaphysical question of whether conservative health-care policies actually exist.

The question should be posed to better-trained philosophical minds than my own. I would posit that conservative health-care policies do not exist in any real form. Call it the “Heritage Uncertainty Principle.”

Well, actually it’s pretty simple. The purpose of most health care reform is to help the unfortunate — people with pre-existing conditions, people who don’t get insurance through their jobs, people who just don’t earn enough to afford insurance. Cost control is also part of the picture, but not the dominant part. And what we’re seeing right now, in any case, seems to confirm a point some of us have been making for a long time: controlling costs and expanding access are complementary targets, because you can’t sell things like cost-saving measures for Medicaid and limits on deductibility of premiums unless they’re part of a larger scheme to make the system fairer and more comprehensive.

And here’s the thing: Republicans don’t want to help the unfortunate. They’ll propound health-care ideas that will, they claim, help those with preexisting conditions and so on — but those aren’t really proposals, they’re diversionary tactics designed to stall real health reform. Chait finds Newt Gingrich more or less explicitly admitting this.

Hence the rage of the right. Here they were, with a whole raft of ideas they could throw out, like chaff thrown out to confuse enemy radar, to divert and confuse any attempt to actually provide insurance to the uninsured. And those dastardly Democrats have gone ahead and actually incorporated those ideas into real reform.

Once you realize this, you also realize that people who warn that by opposing Obamacare Republicans are undermining their own proposals are missing the point. Yes, the Ryan plan to privatize Medicare looks a lot like Obamacare — but Ryan comes to Medicare not to save it, but to bury it, so the question of whether his plan could work is irrelevant.

There’s no mystery here; it’s just top-down class warfare as usual.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2013 at 1:36 pm

Posted in GOP, Healthcare

Is economic inequality really a big problem?

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Paul Krugman thinks so:

It has taken an amazingly long time, but inequality is finally surfacing as a significant unifying issue for progressives — including the president. And there is, inevitably, a backlash, or actually a couple of backlashes.

One comes from groups like Third Way; Josh Marshall, I think, characterized that kind of position best:

That captures a lot of what the ‘Third Way’ is about: a sort of fossilized throwback to a period in the late 20th century when there was a market for groups trying to pull the Democrats ‘back to the center and away from the ideological extreme’ in an era when Democrats are the fairly non-ideological party and have a pretty decent record of winning elections in which most people vote.

But there’s also an intellectual backlash, with people like Ezra Klein arguing that inequality, while an issue, doesn’t rate being described as “the defining challenge of our time”. This in turn infuriates others, with Steve Randy Waldman going medieval on Klein.

Well, I’m not infuriated, but I would argue that Ezra has gotten this one wrong. And yes, I’ve expressed skepticism about the simple argument that inequality accounts for our slow recovery; the evidence surveyed in Jared Bernstein’s excellent new paper on the subject eases my skepticism somewhat, but it’s not entirely gone.

The key point, however, is that the case for regarding inequality as a major, indeed defining challenge — and as something that should be at the center of progressive concerns — rests on multiple pillars. Taken together, the reasons to focus on inequality are overwhelmingly convincing, even if you can be skeptical about particular arguments.

Let me make four points.

First, in sheer quantitative terms, rising inequality is what Joe Biden would call a Big Something Deal. Take the Piketty-Saez data on income shares; these show that the share of the bottom 90 percent in income excluding capital gains fell from 54.7 percent in 2000 to 50.4 percent in 2012. This means that the income of the bottom 90 is about 8 percent lower than it would have been if inequality had remained stable. Meanwhile, estimates of the output gap — the extent to which our economy is operating below capacity — are generally less than 6 percent. So in raw numerical terms, rising inequality has done more than the slump to depress middle-class incomes.

You can argue that the damage done by unemployment is greater than the mere income loss, and I’d agree. Still, it’s hard to look at this kind of calculation and dismiss inequality as a secondary issue.

Second, there is a reasonable case for assigning at least partial blame for the economic crisis to rising inequality. The best story involves something like this: high saving by the 1 percent, with demand sustained only by rapidly rising debt further down the scale — and with this borrowing itself partly driven by inequality, which leads to expenditure cascades and so on. Is this a slam-dunk case? No — but it’s serious, and reinforces the rest of the argument.

Third, . . .

Continue reading.

One of the comments on the column:

From Sam Kia:

A series of mandatory cadillac taxes would not only help this problem but would be very politically difficult to block. An earlier commenter suggested additional income taxes on salaries (has to be combined total income) greater than 20x the minimum wage. An excellent start.

Expand that to education: any education which costs >2x the public average (price per student in the relevant public institution) loses all tax exemption and is actively taxed. You can give institutional exemptions for any private institution whose average out of pocket is at parity with public schools (thereby causing them to be incented to provide more scholarships.)

Any home over 2x the average selling price.

Any car over 2x, etc.

Basically, greatly expand the existing luxury taxes.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 December 2013 at 1:34 pm

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