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                        A Congratulatory Salute to Rachel Maddow            

                               An Open Letter to the American People


Congratulations on your success with The Rachel Maddow Show and the positive impact you are having in the world.  It is refreshing and illuminating to see such an intelligent woman in a prominent place on television, and to hear your passionate, articulate, and progressive voice on the airwaves.  I salute your excellence, Ms. Doctor of Philosophy, and your charm and good sense of humor, as well.

You also deserve congratulations for having been awarded the meaningful John Steinbeck Award, which you received in a ceremony at San Jose State University in February 2012.  This award by the prestigious Steinbeck Center honored your contributions for helping advance the values and themes found in John Steinbeck’s writings.  These include his great empathy and understanding, his belief in the dignity of people who by circumstance are pushed to the fringes, his commitment to democratic values, his concern for common folks, his critiques of the disparities between the fortunes and well-being of the rich and the poor, and his concern for the environment.  This award is also known as the “In the Souls of the People Award”, a rubric that conveys the touchingly vital importance of this honorable recognition.

In connection with this Steinbeck Center honor, John Steinbeck’s son Thomas Steinbeck expressed his own appreciation of your work in a letter to national newspapers.  The feelings he expressed are high praise, and worthy of considering closely.  Here is what he wrote:

"John Steinbeck, my father, would have been absolutely fascinated and intrigued by Rachel Maddow and her role as a first-class observer and commentator of the political agendas that now embroil our country in such a morass of ill will, cultural dislocation and partisan infighting.  He once portrayed his friend and mentor, CBS newsman Walter Cronkite, as a man who could inevitably winnow the kernels of empirical truth from the chaff of private political ambition, misdirection and cultural manipulation, and do so with such good humor and honest concern for his fellow Americans that he never made enemies, even among those of different political persuasions.  It was because of these qualities that he became the most trusted man in the country.”

“It is my honest opinion that Rachel Maddow possesses many of these same critical characteristics, and they stand, for all intents and purposes, on a pedestal of individual and professional integrity, which makes all the difference when navigating the turbulent tides of modern political conflict and financial instability and social insecurity.”

“With full knowledge of my father's unique instincts, tastes and preferences in such matters, I believe John Steinbeck would, if he were still among us, personally present Rachel Maddow with any award he could lay his hands on just for the opportunity to meet and talk with her.  My father once declared that he would crew any ship Walter Cronkite chose to command.  I heartily echo that sentiment with regard to Rachel Maddow, and I sincerely bless all who sail with her."

                                                       --- Thomas Steinbeck

Bravo! Anyone interested in a high-level summary of the visionary and humane ideas of John Steinbeck, and of his well-articulated understandings, should read my Tall Tales, Provocative Parables, Luminous Clarity and Evocative Truths: A Modern Log from the Sea of Cortez.  John Steinbeck and his great friend ‘Doc’ Ed Ricketts engaged in a process they called ‘speculative metaphysics’, and they realized many provocative insights on their voyage afloat in the Gulf of California that they share with readers in John Steinbeck’s 1941 book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez.  The two brilliant minds of Steinbeck and Ricketts delved into the nature of the world we live in -- and the human traits that most profoundly influence our world -- so they give readers plenty of food for thought and help us to better understand. 

Rewards and recognition are given to many people every year, but the John Steinbeck Award resides in the highest echelons of respectability and importance.  This is because it honors writers, artists, thinkers and activists who are wise and ethical and dedicated to positive visions.  It commemorates those whose character and commitments coincide with vital precepts like the ones found in the Noble Eightfold Path that Buddha set forth.  These precepts include right seeing, right intention, and right action.

John Steinbeck regarded Americans as his people, regardless of their position in society.  His last book, America and Americans (1966) expressed his enduring love for a democratic nation.  He wrote:

“From our beginning, in hindsight at least, our social direction is clear.  We have moved to become one people out of many.  (E pluribus unum!)  At intervals, men or groups, through fear of people or the desire to use them, have tried to change our direction, to arrest our growth, or to stampede the Americans.  This will happen again and again.  The impulses that for a time enforced the Alien and Sedition Laws, which have used fear and illicit emotion to interfere with and put a stop to our continuing revolution, will rise again, and they will serve us in the future as they have in the past to clarify and to strengthen our process.  We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back -- never.”

As the year 2016 unfolds, fifty years have passed since John Steinbeck wrote those words, and the risks of the USA taking a giant step backwards have never been greater.  D.J. Trump has just been anointed the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, after an ugly primary campaign and a dark, contentious and caustic Republican National Convention, and these words by Steinbeck reverberate with a clarion call to reject Trump's audacious bid for domineering power.

Vote your conscience!  Renounce D.J. Trump's greed-driven, self-interested regressive tax plans and his trade war proposals, and his belligerent nationalism and authoritarian impulses, and his manipulative fear-mongering tactics and divisive scapegoating and outrageously toxic bigotry.  Simultaneously, the American people should choose to elect more honorable progressives in the Senate and the House of Representatives in the upcoming November elections.

The Rachel Maddow Show has given unflinching evaluations of the social and economic issues that have driven the Republican Party farther to the extreme right, especially on issues that are important to women.  As they have gained more power through the corrupting influence of Big Money, they seem to be committed to driving our nation further from the progressive ideals espoused by John Steinbeck.

Previous recipients of the Steinbeck Award include Bruce Springsteen, Arthur Miller, Jackson Browne, Sean Penn, Studs Terkel, Garrison Keillor, Michael Moore and Joan Baez.  This is great company!  Your national exposure on MSNBC likely contributes a greater impact than many of these recipients, Rachel.  Yay for you!  (After Rachel Maddow was presented this award in 2012, filmmaker Ken Burns was honored with it in 2013 and novelist Khaled Hosseini received it in 2014.)

A "Curse of Knowledge" can gum up a salubrious sticky factor in written communications, so I have relegated the remainder of my Congratulatory Salute to Rachel Maddow containing a riff regarding budgets and proper priorities to a postscript, and conclude right here.

Thanks for giving consideration to these thoughts!


      Dr. Tiffany B. Twain

        August 1, 2016

An Aside on California Politics and Economics 

       (May 1, 2015)

You are a California girl, Rachel, so you probably share a special concern for the political and financial travails in your home state.  The Great Recession that began in 2008 caused a series of budget shortfalls in California that required emergency fixes.  In February 2009, $42 billion in spending cuts and tax increases and budget gimmicks were enacted to plug the 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 budget shortfalls.  This action included a ‘lottery securitization’ gambit that would have relied on borrowing against future proceeds from the State lottery.  This initiative was one way that Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed to balance the budget.  It would have involved borrowing money from State-sanctioned gambling, and since lotteries primarily appeal to middle class people and poor people, this revenue basically would have come from people who are least able to afford it.  The voters of California rejected this provision not long after the legislature had approved it. 

Then in July 2010, budget fixes to deal with another $26 billion in budget shortfalls were tentatively approved by legislative leaders and Governor Schwarzenegger.  That budget proposal consisted of cuts in spending for education, prisons and programs for the poor (58% of it), and borrowings from county governments (15%), and more accounting gimmicks (19%).  No increases in revenues were proposed due to the staunch opposition by Republicans to any tax increases at all.

One of the most important aspects of a civilized society is its investment in good quality public education.  Deep cuts in education budgets are shortsighted.  More than 300 of the nation’s most noted scientists from all nine campuses of the University of California warned in 2010 that the State’s budget cuts would make California less competitive.  They also indicated that it could result in a detrimental “brain drain” if professors are lured away by other States that are better managed.  It would be much wiser, as you probably would wholeheartedly agree, Rachel, to invest in forward-thinking investments like a well-educated work force in order to compete successfully in the global economy.  Likewise, it would be smart to make bold investments in green energy initiatives and needed infrastructure.

Budgets are, in a sense, blueprints for the future.  They reflect our collective priorities, and as such, budgets are moral documents, so they should correspond closely with our shared values.  Instead, spending and tax policies are determined by special interests that cater to rich people, CEOs, giant corporations and public employee labor unions, all of which wield enormous power.  The goals of these categories of people are narrow and distinctly self-interested.  Money, benefits and special perks are their overriding concern, so they do not give adequate concern to common good goals.  The very smart economist and political commentator Robert Reich makes this compelling point in his excellent book Supercapitalism.  My essay The Common Good, Properly Understood expansively clarifies these ideas.

The accounting gimmicks in California budgets were absurd approaches to “solving” budget problems.  The representatives of the people in our democracy are apparently not courageous enough to make more of the bold and smart decisions and trade-offs that would be best for the greater good.

Here is a proposal that would help solve budget impasses like these.  This proposal would also help galvanize solutions to looming deficit-spending problems at the national level.  Read on!  We need long-term-oriented solutions to our budgetary problems, so our priorities should be shifted to fairer, more socially responsible and more sustainable plans.  And we should stop perpetuating increases in inequities, shortsighted expediencies, accounting gimmicks, Ponzi schemes and obedience to the dysfunctional status quo.

The federal government has been running unprecedented budget deficits ever since George W. Bush took office.  Almost all state governments have experienced relatively dire fiscal challenges in the past eight years due to a combination of high levels of spending and declines in tax revenues that have been associated with the 2008 recession.  Simultaneously, the substantial majority of people are living hand-to-mouth, or they are suffering serious financial insecurity due to high costs of healthcare and high rates of unemployment, under-employment, home foreclosures or reduced asset values of their homes or investments.  Many small businesses are also hurting, which is bad news because they help create many jobs in our economy.  As a result of these trends, governments and most citizens and small businesses are not in a position to invest more money in the vital needs of our nation.

There is only one obvious good source of funds to be invested in our societies to ensure that they have high quality educational systems and a robust physical infrastructure and sustainable economies.  That source is a more steeply graduated tax plan that ensures that the people and corporations that are prospering the most under the current system are required to pay more money. 

We should tap into this source of funding.  Instead of kowtowing to the powerful influence of wealthy people and giant corporations, we should make our tax system more progressive.  Taxes should be lower for small businesses and the majority of people, and higher for those who can most easily afford to pay more to improve our states and the nation.  We should change the structure of our tax system to reduce taxes for those people and entities that are struggling the most to stay afloat, and we should assess higher rates of taxes on incremental earnings at the highest levels.  This restructuring would make our tax system more progressive, and preserve the fair principle of assessing every person the exact same amount of tax on every dollar earned. 

This plan would have the great additional advantage of helping reduce the stark and growing levels of income and wealth inequality in our society, which is creating dangerously destabilizing strife between the wealthiest few and all others.

Consider California taxes rates.  Every married person filing jointly in 2011, for instance, was required to pay taxes on their ‘Taxable Income’ (earnings after deductions and exemptions) according to the following Tax Rate Schedule:

  1.0% on all earnings up to $14,632.

  2.0% on all earnings between $14,632 and $34,692.

  4.0% on all earnings between $34,692 and $54,754.

  6.0% on all earnings between $54,754 and $76,008.

  8.0% on all earnings between $76,008 and $96,058.

  9.3% on all earnings above $96,058.

Recognize what this means in the Big Picture.  Every person pays the exact same amount of tax as every other person on every dollar they earn.  Those who make more money than other people pay a higher rate on higher levels of earnings, as reflected in this Tax Rate Schedule.

Think about the maximum 9.3% tax rate for all earnings above $96,058 of married people, filing jointly.  Think about it at the same time that you consider the following fact:  More than forty percent of all the wealth in the U.S. is owned by 1% of the people.  The top 1% of Americans are super-rich!  At a time we are in dire fiscal straits, desperately looking for some way to finance our government commitments, here is an obvious clue pointing the way to a ‘common good’ solution.  Here is the proverbial elephant in the room.  We would be wise to extend the progressive nature of our tax system, as reflected above, to higher levels of earnings.

Here is a simple proposal:  Replace the “9.3% on all earnings above $96,058” with:

     9% of all earnings between $   96,058 and $   250,000.  This is a slightly lower rate for everyone

                                                                                               who earns more that $96,058.                                                                                  

   10% of all earnings between $  250,000 and $   500,000.

   11% of all earnings between $   500,000 and $ 1,000,000.

   12% of all earnings between $1,000,000 and $ 2,500,000.

   13% of all earnings between $2,500,000 and $ 5,000,000.

   14% of all earnings between $5,000,000 and $10,000,000.

   15% of all earnings above $10,000,000.

In a true democracy, 98% of the people would support this idea, because 98% of all taxpayers would either pay the same amount of tax or a little less, and ALL would benefit from the improvements afforded by the higher revenues collected from the top 2% of taxpayers.  The fact that ideas like this proposal are not even on the negotiating table prove that our form of government is not a true democracy, but instead a plutocracy dominated by the undue influence of the rich. 

NOTE:  California tax rates were, in fact, made more steeply graduated in 2012 in accordance with a voter-approved reform.  The top rate was increased to 12.3% on all earnings over $1 million.  By June 2014, this change had a very positive effect on California’s financial situation.

The best way to implement a more progressive tax structure would be at the national level, for a number of reasons, including the fact that higher taxes in a single state like California would probably provoke more tax evasion strategies by people and businesses.  There are already many shrewd people who buy a vacation home in Nevada on the shores of beautiful Lake Tahoe and pretend to live there for more than 6 months of the year so that they do not have to pay California income taxes. 

Capital gains taxes should also be assessed according to a progressive graduated schedule.  Similarly, taxes on the inheritances of kids with rich parents, which are assessed by the federal government on estates of rich people after they die, should likewise be more steeply graduated.  And the threshold at which any inheritance taxes must be paid -- which was $500,000 before G.W. Bush took office and has been increased to $5 million today -- should be rolled back from the current excessively generous level to a more reasonable level like $2.5 million.

Accordingly, a national Fair Taxation Initiative is proposed in One Dozen Big Initiatives to Positively Transform Our Societies.  Some of the revenues generated by more steeply graduated federal tax plans should be given to States in the exact proportion of the additional revenues received from people in the various States.  A portion of the funds should be applied to reduce the federal deficit, because deficit spending is a shortsighted expediency that contains significant risks and inequities, and we have run up the national debt to a risky level that is approaching $20 trillion.

Rich people get richer partially because our economic system is established to be beneficial to those with the most money and assets.  The reason for this, of course, is that our political system is largely controlled by those with the most money.  Giant corporations and rich investors can afford to give large sums of money to politicians in campaign contributions, and to hire many lobbyists.  This legal institutional corruption gives undue power to small groups of people to cheat others, and to skew our political and economic systems to their great advantage.  The result is a severe undermining of the basic principles of fair representation and economic fairness in our democracy. 

Instead of reforming the tax structure to make it more steeply graduated, federal tax policies were made significantly more regressive by Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.  Reagan cut the federal marginal tax rate (the rate on the highest categories of income) from 70% in 1980 to 28% by 1988.  This was a radical reduction that has been a huge factor in creating a more unequal America.  George W. Bush also implemented federal tax cuts that were significantly skewed to benefit the super-rich.  He did this in an expedient and shortsighted way by borrowing money from future generations to finance this government largesse.  This is an extremely unfair gambit, and it is foolish because it represents a hardship and detrimental legacy for our children, grandchildren and their descendants in future generations.

It is the nature of our political system that it is easier to borrow-and-spend than to make difficult decisions to more fairly and sensibly control spending and require policies to be “pay-as-you-go”.  We obviously need to find a way to change this expedient nature of our political system.  Serious campaign finance reform and Clean Money initiatives seem to me to be a good idea to accomplish this worthy goal.  Campaign contribution limits that were overturned by the corruption-enabling Citizens United decision and the subsequent McCutcheon ruling should be put in place by our representatives in Congress.

Our national policies should serve to mitigate the adverse effects of natural trends in capitalist economies toward increases in disparities of wealth and power between the rich and the vast majority of all other Americans.  Egregious extremes in the distribution of wealth are a danger to the stability of a society.  So are great disparities between the privileges and prerogatives of rich people and everyone else. Too much economic insecurity for the masses poses dangers for all, especially when combined with growing disparities in wealth.  Policies that are ever-more advantageous to the rich are not acceptable in a democracy, for they represent corruption in our governance.  They also make our form of government a plutocracy and a corporatocracy driven by corporate and investor prerogatives rather than common good goals.

One of the most ominous lessons of history is that violent revolutions are often caused by too much social injustice.  One of the costs of social insurance to prevent revolution and violence against the rich is a reasonable modicum of investments in social fairness financed by higher taxes on the highest levels of income.  The so-called ‘social contract’ between the citizens of a society mandates that those who have the greatest advantages and the most wealth must agree to allow less fortunate people to have enough social justice to prevent them from rebelling and killing the rich or expropriating their wealth. 

All manner of stubbornly ideological arguments are adduced to prevent progressive reforms from being made in our economies and governmental institutions. These arguments are often narrow-minded and greedily shortsighted.  Fiscal conservatives and other economic fundamentalists say that lower marginal tax rates stimulate investment. They say that estate taxes on the inheritances of rich kids are wrong.  I say that the current inegalitarian system, with 40% of all assets being owned by the 1% of Americans who are super-rich, is wrong.  Who is right?

Contempt for government is popular these days, and often for some good reasons.  Government is susceptible to corruption, fraud, waste, exploitation, pork barrel spending, perversions of the military-industrial complex, job featherbedding, public pension ‘spiking’, extremes of bureaucratic red tape, invasions of the privacy of citizens and other abuses of power, and by emotional hijackings that self-serving vested interest groups use to corrupt our national decision making.  We must find ways to do a much better job of controlling government spending and making government less intrusive in people’s lives.

Simultaneously, full-cost pricing of all products should be implemented so that all real costs are included in the price of every product and service.  By reforming our economic systems along these lines, large corporations will not be able to externalize so many costs onto society and future generations.  Annie Leonard has created compelling online films that convincingly articulate this point of view.  They include The Story of Stuff and The Story of Broke.  Check them out online!

Thanks, Rachel, for your consideration of these ideas.  Please note that an extensive body of ideas awaits discovery in the Earth Manifesto.  They include the visionary Common Sense Revival and three compendiums of common sense plans that would be highly beneficial for the common good:  (1) One Dozen Big Initiatives to Positively Transform Our Societies;  (2) Radically Simple Ways to Make America Fairer, and to Fix Both Social Security and Health Care So We Can Move On to Address Much Bigger Issues; and (3) a Progressive Agenda for a More Sane Humanity.  These ideas could make our world a far better and more sustainable place.

I would love it, Rachel, if you could help expose the American people to the compelling ideas in the Earth Manifesto.  They are cogently and provocatively set forth, and are evocatively clothed in prose and poetry, and suffused with detailed analysis and holistic synthesis, so they have the potential of becoming some of the most influential ideas of the twenty-first century.

           Truly yours,

              Dr. Tiffany B. Twain

                May 1, 2015 (Begun in August 2009 and updated occasionally thereafter)