Monday, 21 March 2011

Will wackiness win out or self-destruct?

Two events occurred last week—a congressional committee vote and dispatch of a letter—that raise the question of whether the biped colony centered in North America is stampeding toward Buffalo Jump or has merely allowed its most infirm and disoriented members to satisfy their desire to graze on locoweed. Snotty contempt aside, you have to wonder how far the nutjobs will go before the reality-based community starts to have second thoughts.

First, all Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee—that is, every single, last mother’s son of ‘em—voted against an amendment recognizing the existence of global warming. Not to do anything about it, mind you, just that it is. Rejected unanimously. As the Scientific American’s John Rennie quipped, the action recalls the grand lawmaking tradition of the Indiana state legislature’s 1897 vote to redefine the value of pi.

It’s marvelous that our empowered freshman class of Republican zealots have discovered what to do about annoying aspects of our physical universe: you simply prohibit them. Democrat Edward Markey, using traditional congressional debate language, said that he planned to ‘rise in opposition’ to the bill but would not do so because he feared ‘Republicans will overturn the law of gravity, sending us floating’.

Meanwhile, the Florida delegation to that same august body distinguished itself in an entirely different way, and this time it was a bipartisan show of bloody-mindedness with a strong whiff of old-fashioned corruption. It seems that the IRS is proposing new regulations for bank accounts in the United States that would require greater transparency, exactly as we are demanding from the notoriously opaque Swiss.

Despite our resentment at Switzerland, almost all foreigners can bank secretly in the United States today and evade taxes due to their home governments. The new regs would force them to pay what they owe instead of stashing their dubious lucre here scot-free. Sounds like a no-brainer, but our Florida solons objected in a letter to Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner:

Because of the privacy laws of the United States’, they wrote, ‘nonresident aliens are estimated to have deposited over $3 trillion in U.S. financial institutions’. This has occurred, the letter continues, because the United States has ‘refrained from taxing the interest earned by them or requiring their reporting’.

Think about it—we are sitting on huge piles of money that got here from who knows where, but no one should ask too many questions about its provenance or (heaven forbid) tax the interest because otherwise, it will leave! Three guesses where this Mount Everest of cash is sitting and who owns most of it? Well, lo and behold, it’s Latin Americans who have deposited their hoards in. . . Florida, of all places. What a coincidence! I’m also confident that the entire $3 trillion was legitimately earned through legal business endeavors. But I digress.

Nicholas Shaxson, author of the book Treasure Islands on offshore tax haven scams, estimates that this Fort Knox of secret dough would generate twice the total U.S. foreign development assistance budget if proper taxes were paid on it. The IRS went after UBS bank and the Swiss for hiding North Americans’ secret stashes just as the Florida banks are hiding the South Americans’, but by contrast Mexico and Peru have no clout and have to lump it.

As mentioned above, the Florida delegation is comprised of members from both parties, and every single one of them signed on to the whiny letter to Geithner asking for the IRS regulation to be strangled in its crib. So there we have it: outlaw global warming and facilitate secret Swiss-style bank accounts in Pompano Beach for Latin American billionaires. Now there’s a forward-looking program.

Have things always been this venal and backward? Has unbridled selfishness always ruled the land? Perhaps, but Greed now seems out of its golden closet and covered in rhinestones. It is as if our rulers sneer at the idea of requiring, or even asking for, our consent.

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