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The Nation

All About Paris

Senator Bill Frist has promised a vote to repeal the estate tax soon after Memorial Day and the spin on this issue is as egregious as it is outrageous. So let's get one thing straight: it's not a "Death Tax" and it has absolutely nothing to do with the Family Farm.

Here are the facts: the estate tax is levied only on estates worth over $2 million ($4 million for couples), which means approximately one-fourth of one percent of all estates on America will pay it in 2006. Over 99 percent of all Americans will pass their estates on to their heirs completely tax free – and there is no tax whatsoever on assets left to a spouse no matter the amount.

The anti-estate tax American Farm Bureau Federation could not find a single case of a family farm lost due to the tax. (Moreover, if there were any evidence of such problems down the road one could easily protect family farms and small businesses by raising the exemption level.)

This is simply not a tax on death. If anything, it is a tax on Paris Hilton.

And let's not fall for the argument that Paris will be the victim of "double-taxation" either. First of all, everyone pays taxes any number of times as money cycles through the economy. Workers pay income, payroll and sales tax. The truth is that more than half of the value of large estates consists of unrealized capital gains that would never be taxed without the estate tax.

What about the costs of repealing this tax? How about $1 trillion in lost revenues and increased interest payments on the national debt over the first 10 years. And the Congressional Budget Office estimates an annual loss of $13 to $25 billion in the charitable sector – where donations are encouraged through their estate tax-exempt status.

So why all of this confusion about what the estate tax really is and whom it impacts?

One reason is a 10-year, multimillion dollar lobbying and public relations campaign led by 18 families worth a total of $185.5 billion. A repeal would net them $71.6 billion, and supporters of the PR effort include the families behind Wal-Mart, Gallo wine, Campbell's Soup, and Mars Inc.; the richest family in Alabama; and the world's largest retailer.

But Americans are beginning to see through the lies and deceit. A recent national poll shows that 57 percent of American voters prefer keeping the tax or reforming it to abolishing it outright. And when respondents receive the facts about the tax, that number rises to 68 percent. Only 23 percent favor a repeal.

United for a Fair Economy and its Responsible Wealth project offer a just proposal for estate tax reform, including: indexing the $2 million individual exemption and the $4 million exemption for couples to account for inflation; simplifying and liberalizing provisions to ease the transfer of the few closely held businesses subject to the tax; and retaining the ability of businesses and farms to pay the tax over a 14 year period.

It should also be noted that while the Bush Budget looks to repeal the estate tax, it would concurrently end the $255 social security death benefit that many impoverished citizens rely on for funeral arrangements. Seriously. One can't make this stuff up – Mike Meyers could have used this material for his portrayal of Dr. Evil.

Perhaps Sheldon Cohen, former Commissioner of the IRS put it best when he said, "The estate tax has been with us for 90 years, brings in fairly large amounts of revenue at fairly low cost, and affects less than one-third of one percent of the population. Why would we change this?"

Why, indeed. Add to that the lunacy that the Bush administration has already played fast and loose with our fiscal future by cutting taxes for millionaires and billionaires at a time of war for the first time in our nation's history.

The United States is now the most unequal society in the industrialized world. Don't be bamboozled into making things worse through an estate tax repeal. Click here to let your senators know how you feel today: forget about the family farm – this is all about Paris.

A Failing Policy's Last Argument

Having lost all positive reasons for the Iraq War, the Bush administration and its allies have fallen back on the last argument of a failing policy: We can't afford to lose in Iraq. But as the stories about U.S. troops executing innocent Iraqi children emerge other questions come to mind: What if we have already failed? What if our continued presence only makes the situation worse not better?

According to recent reports, what's happening in Iraq is worse than a civil war; it's sectarian cleansing. And not only are American troops training the soldiers who are executing innocent civilians, but they are actually participating. They were given an impossible mission and this is the result.

And for what? The Iraqi Parliament can't decide who should run the Defense or Interior ministries but they want to spend $50 million to buy themselves armored cars.

Bush claims the only mistakes he can think of were rhetorical, but this whole war was a mistake. It's time to stop asking our young men and women to continue to die for a mistake.

A Time to Mourn

The wisdom of wars can be debated on any day, and this column has not hesitated to question the thinking -- or, to be more precise, the lack of thinking -- that has led the United States to the current quagmire in Iraq.

But on Memorial Day, it is well to pause from the debate to remember those whose lives have been lost, not merely to the fool's mission of the contemporary moment but to all those battles – noble and ignoble – that have claimed the sons and daughters of this and every land.

After the bloodiest and most divisive of America's wars, the poet Walt Whitman offered a dirge for two soldiers of the opposing armies -- Civil War veterans, buried side by side. His poem is an apt reminder that, when the fighting is done, those who warred against one another often find themselves in the same place. It is appropriate that we should garland each grave, understanding on this day above all others that wars are conceived by presidents and prime ministers, not soldiers.

It is appropriate, as well, and perhaps a bit soothing, to recall Whitman's wise words:

The last sunbeam

Lightly falls from the finish'd Sabbath,

On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking,

Down a new-made double grave.

.

Lo, the moon ascending,

Up from the east the silvery round moon,

Beautiful over the house-tops, ghastly, phantom moon,

Immense and silent moon.

.

I see a sad procession,

And I hear the sound of coming full-key'd bugles,

All the channels of the city streets they are flooding,

As with voices and with tears.

.

I hear the great drums pounding,

And the small drums steady whirring

And every blow of the great convulsive drums,

Strikes me through and through.

.

For the son is brought with the father,

(In the foremost ranks of the fierce assault they fell,

Two veterans son and father dropt together,

And the double grave awaits them.)

.

And nearer blow the bugles,

And the drums strike more convulsive,

And the daylight o'er the pavement quite has faded,

And the strong dead-march enwraps me.

.

In the eastern sky up-buoying,

The sorrowful vast phantom moves illumin'd,

('Tis some mother's large transparent face,

In heaven brighter growing.)

.

O strong dead-march you please me!

O moon immense with your silvery face you soothe me!

O my soldiers twain! O my veterans passing to burial!

What I have I also give you.

.

The moon gives you light,

And the bugles and the drums give you music,

And my heart, O my soldiers, my veterans,

My heart gives you love.

Suffering in Haditha

Just over a week ago, Rep. John Murtha stated that a military investigation will confirm that over a dozen Iraqi civilians were murdered in Haditha by U.S.Marines.

Today, a New York Times cover story reveals far worse: the military report finds that 24 Iraqi civilians were "killed during a sustained sweep by a small group of marines that lasted three to five hours…." Murder charges are a possible outcome.

The victims include women and children killed in two houses, as well as 5 men standing near a taxi at a checkpoint.

A separate military investigation is determining whether a deliberate cover-up led to initial false reports that the victims were killed by a makeshift bomb or caught in the crossfire between marines and insurgents.

Congressional, military, and Pentagon officials all spoke under the condition of anonymity.

John Sifton of Human Rights Watch put it plainly, "Here we have two dozen civilians being killed--apparently intentionally. This isn't a gray area. This is a massacre."

According to the Times, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Michael Hagee, flew to Iraq to lecture the troops on adhering to the Geneva Conventions and rules of engagement.

But why would the troops respect the rules of engagement when the President, Vice President, and Secretary of Defense are hell-bent on reserving the right to torture? When the Attorney General refers to the Geneva Conventions as "quaint"? When the Administration recklessly asserts that it can do whatever it wants to do so long as--in its opinion--it is acting to protect the American people?

What we see unfolding before our eyes, sadly, is exactly what Nation Institute Fellow Chris Hedges writes happens all too often in war: "One of the frustrating things for those of us who have spent so much time in war zones is to come back and see how those who are guiltiest – those who pushed the country into war, who told the lies that perpetuated the war – are never held accountable. And those who suffer the most, those who endure the trauma and have to live with the memories for the rest of their lives, are blamed unjustly."

The New York Times called those allegedly involved in the killings "a small number of marines." But just because those who sit-on high didn't pull the trigger, it doesn't make them any less guilty. In fact, they aren't the ones facing the unfathomable stress of war made worse by their own poor planning and poor allocation of resources.

They just sit in judgment of the soldiers who will end up paying the price for it. And tell the families of slain Iraqis that we are bettering their lives.

Bush and Blair's Joint (Defense) Press Conference

On Thursday night, George W. Bush and Tony Blair conducted a joint press briefing--which was a joint defense of their decision to invade Iraq. It seemed like Bush's advisers crafted his remarks to show that Bush is in touch with reality, for he acknowledged that things haven't gone entirely as expected in Iraq. Still, he repeatedly said "we're making progress," and his comments included assertions that were indeed reality-challenged. Here's a brief annotation of a portion of his statement.

The decision to remove Saddam Hussein from power was controversial. We did not find the weapons of mass destruction that we all believed were there -- and that's raised questions about whether the sacrifice in Iraq has been worth it.

Not everyone believed that significant and threatening amounts of WMDs were in Iraq. UN inspectors said they were concerned that previous weapons and weapons-related materials had not been fully accounted for, but they noted that did not mean that stockpiles of WMDs existed. The State Department's intelligence bureau did not believe that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons program. Biological weapons experts were skeptical of the claim that Iraq had developed mobile bioweapons labs. Department of Energy experts disagreed with the Bush administration's contention that Iraq had purchased aluminum tubes for a centrifuge that would produce enriched uranium for nuclear weapons. Practically every individual claim that the administration put forward before the war in making its WMD case was challenged before the war.

Despite setbacks and missteps, I strongly believe we did and are doing the right thing. Saddam Hussein was a menace to his people; he was a state sponsor of terror; he invaded his neighbors.

None of these were the primary reasons Bush gave for invading Iraq.

Investigations proved he was systematically gaming the oil-for-food program in an effort to undermine sanctions, with the intent of restarting his weapons programs once the sanctions collapsed and the world looked away.

The oil-for-food program was corrupt. But at the time of the invasion, the world was not looking away from Saddam. Thanks to Bush's bellicose posturing, the UN had passed a resolution that led to the return of inspectors to Iraq. Saddam's weapons programs--as minimal as they were at this point--were even more restricted (due to the inspections and the world's attention) than they had been in years. The UN process was working--in terms of checking Saddam's power and ability to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. The world was hardly ignoring Saddam's potential threat when Bush ordered the invasion.

If Saddam Hussein were in power today, his regime would be richer, more dangerous and a bigger threat to the region and the civilized world. The decision to remove Saddam Hussein was right.

Given the inspections that were underway in March 2003--and given the potential that existed then to hinder Iraq further with more intrusive inspections and more severe restrictions--there is no telling if Saddam would have been more "dangerous" today had Bush not invaded.

But not everything since liberation has turned out as the way we had expected or hoped. We've learned from our mistakes, adjusted our methods, and have built on our successes. From changing the way we train the Iraqi security forces to rethinking the way we do reconstruction, our commanders and our diplomats in Iraq are constantly adapting to the realities on the ground.

Is that why the military and police forces of Iraq are now thoroughly infiltrated by sectarian militias? Or why the Bush administration has cut off new money for reconstruction in Iraq? The learning curve seems to be not steep but a flat line.

....With the emergence of this government, something fundamental changed in Iraq last weekend.

We can only hope. But after all this, should one have any faith in Bush's assessment of reality in Iraq?

What Do Laura and Barbara Bush Know About AIDS?

This week the UN will hold a high level meeting on AIDS to review what -- if any -- progress has been made since the UN General Assembly Special Session on HIV/AIDS (UNGASS) in 2001. I'll be writing more about UNGASS +5 in the days to come, but advance reports are not promising.

Heading the U.S. delegation will be First Lady Laura Bush, who's been making the rounds in Africa lately on behalf of her husband's controversial AIDS plan (PEPFAR). Joining her will be first twin Barbs, who's apparently taking a break from partying hard at Bungalow 8 with socialite Fabian Basabe to pursue her secondary interest: global AIDS. Yes, post-Yale, post-campaign, post-hangover, Barbs has been working with Baylor College of Medicine's International Pediatrics AIDS Initiative. Her volunteer work last year at a clinic in Cape Town was so shrouded in mystery that newspapers could only report at the time, "Bush daughter is said to volunteer" in South Africa. And lest Barbs get bored, she's dragging along party pal Maggie Betts (daughter of Bush "pioneer" Roland Betts); both are official members of the 47-person delegation. Thankfully, Jenna is nowhere in sight.

The ideological heavy-lifting, however, will be executed by stalwart Christian conservatives. As Esther Kaplan reports, the U.S. delegation includes abstinence pusher Anita Smith (Co-chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS), Melissa Pardue (a former policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation who promotes abstinence-only education) and Baptist minister Herb Lusk (who advises Bush on faith-based community development). (Kaplan also notes a spike in Uganda's HIV infection rate, which has doubled over the past two years as it implemented Bush's prevention plan.)

None of this bodes well for UNGASS +5. While much will be decided in the days to come, according to Naina Dhingra, Director of Public Policy for Advocates for Youth, "the U.S. is sending a signal that it is not taking the meeting as seriously as it should by putting a non-political person at the head of the delegation and by filling it with people with no experience in HIV/AIDS or who don't agree with the goals of the 2001 UNGASS declaration."

Rise and Fall of the Enron Boys

Normally, I am a "bleeding heart" when it comes to long prison terms,but an appropriate sentence for the Enron boys might be six trillion years. Kenneth Lay with hismillion-dollar smile and Jeffrey Skilling with the cold, confident eyesof a viper made their company into the symbol and showpiece for aglorious era. It was the hyper-modern and market-efficient "neweconomy," in which the concept of wealth falling out of the sky becamebriefly hip and widely believed in respectable circles.

Enron led the way. Lay and Skilling showed us how it's done. And whenEnron fell, the great national delusion turned to catastrophe.Unwitting investors lost $6 trillion overall. Millions of innocentbystanders lost much more in terms of their lives. So let Skilling andLay now serve as symbol for the shame of modern American capitalism.Let these guys do the time for all those others, the corporate titansand financial con men, who got away.

Justice sometimes proceeds in strange ways. I am opposed to publichangings and other forms of scapegoating, but perhaps this time we needa spectacular ritual sacrifice to amplify the point made by that swift,sure conviction in Texas. These men in the good suits arecriminals--criminals!--who must be made to set an example forall ambitious people who toil in business and finance.

These two thugs looted pension funds and destroyed the personal savingsof families. They stole money from the rest of us, not to mention fromgovernment and other non-glamorous business enterprises. They riggedenergy markets to drive up prices and bilk defenseless consumers (anold-fashioned swindle borrowed from nineteenth-century robber baronsand newly decriminalized by deregulation). They swallowed viable,productive companies and wrecked them, especially wrecking thelivelihoods of their employees. And, worst of all, they were best palswith politicians and political leaders as well as the most prestigiousnames in banking and finance--connections the Mafia would die for!

Sorry, am I shouting? My exuberance over this verdict is amixture of joyous fulfillment and lingering doubts about the impact.Since the meltdown of the stock market in 2001 and the avalanche ofscandalous revelations that followed from hundreds of corporations, Ihave thought the political system and the financial system and even thepublic at large did not sufficiently get the message. The pervasive rotin American capitalism is much deeper than acknowledged. The variousforms of fraud by which millions of people are separated from theirmoney continue in practice, often blessed by law itself.

Still flourishing, likewise, are the leading Wall Streetfirms--Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, JPMorgan Chase, to name a few--thatshowed Lay and Skilling how to do the fancy financial footwork,converting "debt" into "revenue," so that stock analysts could toutEnron's rising "profit". This was fraud too, but nobody from the bankswent to prison (they paid millions, even billions, for no-guiltsettlements with government and injured investors). Message to America:Don't rob the Seven Eleven with a six-gun. Rob the general public withpen and computer.

Congress, meanwhile, claimed to "toughen" financial laws, but they didnot get reform halfway done. Now the Chamber of Commerce and otherfront groups are back in Washington insisting that the rather mildreform measures be scrapped too. They may very well succeed, if thepublic is not aroused. The media can take care of that. They will bedescribing this verdict as "an end of the era."

Wrong again. Thet era of corporate corruption, financial swindling and blue-sky illusions is not over. The players are merely paused, waiting for the marks to re-enter the casino. Perhaps Kenny Boy's conviction will remind people that the game is still fixed and those guys in good suits are the dealers.

Ken Lay--Guilty. George Bush--Guilty.

The man who paid many of the biggest bills for George Bush's political ascent, Enron founder Kenneth Lay, has been found guilty of conspiracy and fraud almost five years after his dirty dealings created the greatest corporate scandal in what will be remembered as an era of corporate crime.

On the sixth day of deliberations following the conclusion of a long-delayed federal trial, a Houston jury found Lay guilty on six counts of fraud and conspiracy. In a separate decision, US District Judge Sim Lake ruled that Lay was guilty of four counts of fraud and making false statements.

The same jury that convicted Lay found Enron's former chief executive, Jeffrey Skilling, guilty on 19 counts of fraud, conspiracy, making false statements and engaging in insider trading.

Lay, who President Bush affectionately referred to as "Kenny-boy" when the two forged an alliance in the 1990s to advance Bush's political ambitions and Lay's business prospects, contributed $122,500 to Bush's gubernatorial campaigns in Texas. Lay would later explain to a PBS "Frontline" interviewer that, though he had worked closely with former Texas Governor Ann Richards, the Democrat incumbent who Bush challenged in 1994, he backed the Republican because "I was very close to George W."

Needless to say, once Bush became governor, Lay got his phone calls returned. A report issued by Public Citizen in February, 2001, months before the Enron scandal broke, identified Lay as "a long-time Bush family friend and an architect of Bush's policies on electricity deregulation, taxes and tort reform while Bush was Texas governor."

No wonder Lay had Enron give $50,000 to pay for Bush's second inaugural party in Austin in 1999 -- a showcase event that was organized by Karl Rove and others to help the Texas governor step onto the national political stage.

After Bush gave Enron exactly what it wanted in 1999, by signing legislation that deregulated the state's electrical markets, Lay knew he had found his candidate for president.

When Bush opened his campaign, Lay opened the cash spigots.

As a "Bush Pioneer" in the run-up to the 2000 presidential election, Lay was a key member of the Bush campaign's fund-raising inner circle.Under Lay's leadership, Enron ultimately gave Bush $550,025, making the corporation the Texan's No. 1 career patron at the time the 2000 election campaign began, according to the Center for Public Integrity. Lay personally pumped almost $400,000 into Republican hard- and soft-money funds, while Enron slipped another $1.5 million into the GOP's soft-money cesspool.

But that was just the beginning. Lay sent a letter to Enron executives urging them to contribute to Bush's campaign. More than 100 of them -- including Skilling, a major Bush giver since 1993, when he cut his first $5,000 check to GW's gubernatorial campaign -- did just that. Dozens of spouses wrote, including "homemaker" and frequent $10,000 donor Linda Lay, gave as well, making the Enron "family" a prime source of the money that gave Bush his early advantage over Republican rivals such as Arizona Senator John McCain.

All told, it is estimated that, over the years prior the company's bankruptcy, Lay, his company and its employees contributed close to $2 million to fund George W. Bush's political rise.

Lay found other ways to help, as well. He put Enron's corporate jets at the disposal of the Bush campaign in 2000. He kicked in $5,000 to pay for the Florida recount fight, while a top Enron "consultant," former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, ran the Republican's recount effort. He even paid for his own bookkeeping, chipping in $1,000 to help the Bush-Cheney campaign comply with campaign-finance laws. And Lay and Enron gave $300,000 to underwrite the Bush-Cheney inauguration festivities in 2001.

Did all that giving pay off? You bet!

Lay cashed in even before Bush was sworn in as president, entering into the inner circles of the new administration and using the access he had paid for to craft its agenda on the issues that mattered most to Enron.

Bush took good care of his contributor-in-chief, appointing the Enron founder as one of five members of the elite "Energy Department Transition Team," which set the stage for the Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force and administration policies designed to benefit corporations such as Enron. A report on "Bush Administration Contacts with Enron," compiled at the request of Congressman Henry Waxman, D-California, by the minority staff of the Special Investigations Division of the House Committee on Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, found evidence of at least 112 contacts between Enron and White House or other Administration officials during the month prior to the corporation's very-public collapse in late 2001. At least 40 of those contacts involved top White House officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, presidential advisor Karl Rove, White House economic advisor Lawrence Lindsey, White House personnel director Clay Johnson III, and White House energy task force director Andrew D. Lundquist.

As Waxman explained in a 2001 interview, "The fact of the matter is that Enron and Ken Lay, who was the Chief Executive Officer of Enron, had an extraordinary amount of influence and access to the Bush Administration. Lay was called a close friend by both the President and the Vice President. When the Vice President chaired an Energy Task Force, Ken Lay had an opportunity to meet privately with the Vice President and to have a great deal of influence in their recommendations."

Bush and his aides have worked hard since the Enron scandal broke to suggest that Lay was just another generous Texan. But the attempts to deny linkages to the now-convicted corporate criminal never cut water with Lone Star-state watchdog Craig McDonald, the director of Texans for Public Justice.

"President Bush's explanation of his relationship with Enron is at best a half truth," McDonald said after Bush first tried to distance himself from Lay and other Enron executives. "He was in bed with Enron before he ever held a political office."

As governor and president, Bush maintained that intimate relationship.

Now that his strange bedmate have been convicted of fraud, isn't it time for the president to end the fraud of claiming that he was ever anything less than a political partner of Lay and the Enron team?

Jefferson's Curse

As John wrote a few days back, William Jefferson was one of the worst Democrats in the House even before he started hiding bribes in the freezer. Now he's a drag on his party and a disgrace to his district--which happens to represent much of storm-ravaged New Orleans.

Yesterday, Nancy Pelosi rightly asked Jefferson to resign from his seat on the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee. Jefferson refused, writing: "I will not give up a committee assignment that is so vital to New Orleans at this crucial time for any uncertain political strategy."

What an absurd defense. If Jefferson cared about adequately representing the residents of New Orleans, he wouldn't have taken bribes to enrich himself and crooked politicians in Nigeria. As the government's case against him intensifies, how can he possibly represent his constituents effectively? Isn't helping to rebuild New Orleans enough of a full time job?

As John Maginnis, editor of the Louisiana Political Fax Weekly, told the Washington Post: "It's not a very good reflection on the state to have your congressman accused of taking bribes at the same time Louisianans are trying to get money out of the federal government."

Now, more than ever, New Orleans deserves better.