A Bridge Between Us

June 27, 2021

by Steve Stofka

We are social creatures, our brains wired for comparing our situation with those around us. Children look only at the height of liquid in a glass and reason that the higher level is “more.” We understand tall and big and a lot. As our brains mature, our primitive understanding of equity evolves – a little. This week, a coalition of Senators reached an agreement in principle to spend money on infrastructure, a solution that has frustrated several presidents before Biden.

In 2007 the I-35W bridge in Minnesota collapsed. In March 2009, at the lowest point in the financial crisis, the American Society of Civil Engineers released their quadrennial report card on the nation’s infrastructure (2009). During the decade, infrastructure had slipped from a ‘D+’ to a ‘D.’ With millions out of work, the public and then President Obama hoped that the Congress could assemble an infrastructure bill. Couldn’t the government give money on a per capita basis to each state and let them spend the money on needed repairs and building projects? Less populous states argued against that idea. In the end, nothing happened.

In 1985, Congressman James Howard and Colorado Senator Gary Hart introduced versions of a National Infrastructure Act that died in the Committee on Environment and Public Works. In the decade from 1971-81, Howard noted that spending on infrastructure had declined by 50% (1985). Republicans held the Senate and Presidency; Democrats held the House. Other infrastructure bills have died in that same committee.

The U.S. built the nation’s interstate highways to deploy weapon systems in case of an attack from Soviet Russia. Without that direct threat, our elected representatives have been unable to coordinate unified action. Our federalist system promotes impotence, an antiquated political structure that will cause the U.S. to take a back seat on the global stage, according to China’s leader Xi Jinping. After fifty years of ineptitude, will the U.S. Congress and White House prove Xi wrong?


Photo by Manny Ribera on Unsplash

American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). (2009). 2009 report card for America’s infrastructure. doi:10.1061/9780784410370

Howard, J. (1985, January 01). The national infrastructure act. Retrieved June 26, 2021, from https://cedb.asce.org/CEDBsearch/record.jsp?dockey=0043747

Bring Back Earmarks

June 20, 2021

by Steve Stofka

For the past decade gridlock in the Congress has often led the news, each side of the political aisle holding those in the other party responsible for the lack of bipartisanship. This week the two parties came together to make Juneteenth a holiday. In the House, a number of Republicans joined with Democrats to vote on a bill which would rein in the oligopoly reach of some tech giants like Google and Amazon. The public has become so accustomed to entrenched party positions that such collaborations grab headlines. How can the two parties reintroduce more bipartisanship? Reengage a practice that was formally but not actually discontinued a decade ago – earmarks for House and Senate members. Two powerful Democrats in the House and Senate have pledged to formally readopt the practice in 2022. House Republicans have agreed, but Senate Republicans have not committed to the renewal of earmarks (CAGW, 2021, p. 1).

Earmarks are persuaders, spending items inserted in a bill to gain crucial votes in the House or Senate. It helps incumbent representatives who compromise on  legislation resist a primary challenge from the more extreme wings of their party. With the gain of a spending earmark for their district, an incumbent appears as a smart political trader, not an unprincipled compromiser. For most of American history, earmarks were the bread and butter of practical politics.

Scandals surrounding earmarks contributed to the Democrats losing the House in the 1994 election. During their 40-year control of the House from 1954-1994, Democrats had used earmarks to hold the disparate elements of their party together. In the early 1990s, an investigation into Dan Rostenkowski, the powerful Democrat chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, brought too much attention to the political bargaining that took place in Washington. At the conclusion of the investigation into what was known as the Post Office Scandal, Mr. Rostenkowski was sentenced to almost two years in prison. Holding aloft his Contract with America and promising greater fiscal responsibility, firebrand Republican Newt Gingrich used the scandal to wrest control of the House from the Democrats in the 1994 election.

Despite his rhetoric Mr. Gingrich understood the role of earmarks. Like axle grease they were ugly and messy but reduced friction in the electoral machinery of Congress. They helped members fend off primary challenges, which were becoming more frequent after the Federal Communications Commission ended the Fairness Doctrine in 1987. Without the constraint to present balanced opinions, new media outlets gained attention and audience by taking strong positions on the topics of the day. The most successful of these was Rush Limbaugh who launched his show the year after the Fairness Doctrine was ended. People who wanted moderate voices could tune into traditional outlets. Those with strong conservative views  tuned into Limbaugh and other hosts who courted controversial opinions. Mr. Gingrich had played to these extreme elements in his bid to take the House but understood that earmarks were essential tools in governing a political coalition.

When John Boehner became the Republican majority leader in 2005, he pledged to curb the practice of trading earmarks for votes but they continued in the appropriations committees. In the eleven years since Republicans had taken control of the House, earmarks had grown tenfold (Bogie, 2018, p. 3). Two recent scandals involving members of the Republican Party had drawn public attention to the tawdry side of pork barrel politics. Mr. Boehner’s show of principle was calculated to help the Republicans retain their image as fiscal conservatives and continue their control of the House in the 2006 election. The public was tired of Republican missteps and profligate war spending and Democrats regained control of the House in 2007.

Under Nancy Pelosi’s Speakership, earmarks fell by half, but the financial bailout and the threat of big government spending under Obamacare sparked a Tea Party movement that helped Republicans take back the House in the 2010 election. Responding to public sentiment, Mr. Boehner announced a formal moratorium on earmarks and for two of the four years of his Speakership there were no earmarks (Bogie, 2018, p. 3). After his retirement in 2015, the earmarks continued. Hoping to bolster their chances in the 2020 elections, Republican Senators formally adopted a resolution against earmarks in 2019. In two crucial elections in Georgia, they lost control of the Senate anyway.

An argument for a reduction in earmarks has been prudent management of the public’s money. Good intentions, bad results. Instead of spending relatively small amounts to bolster an incumbent’s chance of re-election, a reduction in earmarks has contributed to an explosion in the deficit. In addition, the reduction has contributed to the polarization in Congress. The success of primary challengers rests on principle. The longevity of incumbents rests on pork, “bringing home the bacon” to their constituents.

Earmarks help those in the center hold the center. Without earmarks, the center has collapsed. Is it time to hold our noses and admit that a principled stand against earmarks has not stood the test of history? Can Democratic Senator Leahy and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro overcome the bad optics of restoring earmarks? In the front room, politicians espouse grand principles. In the back room the ugly art of bargaining begins. Halos in the front room, horns in the back.  Like cleaning out sewer lines, politics is a dirty job. It’s about time someone unplugged the sewer lines in Congress.  


Photo by McGill Library on Unsplash

Bogie, J. (n.d.). Earmarks Won’t Fix the Broken Budget and Appropriations Process (Backgrounder, Publication No. 3353). Heritage Foundation. doi:https://www.heritage.org/sites/default/files/2018-09/BG3353.pdf

CAGW. (2021, April 14). 2021 congressional Pig Book. Retrieved June 19, 2021, from https://www.cagw.org/reporting/pig-book

Safety Net or Trap?

June 13, 2021

by Steve Stofka

It has been 200 years since the cloth mills in Massachusetts instituted the “Lowell system,” employing young women and taking half of their pay for company provided room and board (Taylor, 2021, p. 234). 100 years ago, the states ratified the 16th Amendment, permitting the federal government to tax all income, including worker’s wages and salaries. 70 years ago, the government instituted payroll withholding. Today 145 million American workers receive salaries or wages, of which 30% is withheld by employers and sent to the federal government (Bird, 2021). Have we all effectively become government employees leased out to employers?

“Shan gao, huangdi yuan” is an ancient Chinese saying that reflected the attitude of many Chinese toward a central authority: “The mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.” Until the enactment of the 16th Amendment in 1913, most Americans felt the same. In Article 1, Section 8, the framers of the Constitution built a corral around the power of the federal government. The ink was barely dry on the document when Federalists like Hamilton argued for an interpretation of the Constitutional language that would give the federal government more power. In the next two decades, the Supreme Court headed by John Marshall, an appointee of Federalist President John Adams, did just that (Taylor, p. 54). During his 35-year tenure as Chief Justice, the decisions of the Marshall court effectively restated the Constitution.

Still, the federal government’s reach was limited enough that it took an amendment to that Constitution to permit the federal government to tax U.S. citizens directly. Richard Byrd, a delegate from Virginia and an opponent of the 16th Amendment, warned that “A hand from Washington will be stretched out and placed upon every man’s business; the eye of the Federal inspector will be in every man’s counting house . .” (Tax Analysts, 2021). He warned that the new amendment would feed the growth of a Washington bureaucracy remote from the interests of ordinary people. Many of those living today have great-great grandparents who voted for that amendment. Why did they consent?

When the 16th amendment to the constitution was ratified more than a century ago, the IRS enacted a system of withholding. Employers complained and the withholding provision was repealed a few years later in 1917 (Higgs, 2007). Most people who did owe taxes paid only 1% in quarterly installments the year after they incurred the tax burden. During WW2, the federal government wanted more revenue to support the massive wartime spending, and instituted withholding for income taxes.

The federal government employs almost 9 million workers (Hill, 2020), about 6% of the total workforce, but its effective reach is so enormous that employers today only borrow workers from the federal government. Each employer must abide by so many employment regulations that even a small business has to dedicate at least one person to administering regulations. The hiring of an employee initiates an implicit contract not between the employer and employee, but between the employer and the federal government. The employer faces stiff penalties for violating any provisions of that implicit contract. How has the tentacled reach of the federal government affected employees?

Like the young women at the Lowell mills, workers are not allowed to touch their pay until taxes, insurance and fees have been withdrawn. Some taxes are silent, withdrawn by lowering gross pay. After state and local taxes and the employee portion of health insurance is deducted, a worker today may be left with only half their pay. Unlike the women at the Lowell mills, the federal government does not provide room and board for most workers. As Richard Byrd warned a century ago, a federal government is only remotely concerned about those needs. Instead, it takes from the worker in the now and gives back to the worker in the future after forty years or more of work – a pension and medical care after retirement.

In addition to future needs, a worker’s taxes feed a bureaucracy that safeguards the security, wealth and needs of the upper 20%, and selected regional interests. Like the Chinese emperor, the $1 trillion spent on current military needs and past military promises seems far away from the daily security needs of most Americans. That spending  supports local economies in some regions and may be the key economic base in some rural communities who strongly support military spending to maintain a global empire. After all, their local economic security depends on such spending.

Larger than Amazon’s football sized warehouses is the largest warehouse in the nation run by the federal government. It is bounded not by walls but by a web zealously tended by lawyers and regulators, and inescapable for most employees and employers. The restrictions and harsh working conditions of the Lowell mills strike us today as paternalistic exploitation. The parents of the young women welcomed the discipline and extra money that their daughters earned. The hard work instilled moral character in the women before they returned home to marry a local lad.

Many of us today welcome the paternal oversight of the federal government as a safety net. The children of our children 200 years from now will certainly regard this age differently. Will they see the complex net of laws that bind employees and employers as a safety net or a trap?


Photo by Fikri Rasyid on Unsplash

Bird, B. (2021, May 26). How much does the average American pay in taxes? Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.thebalance.com/what-the-average-american-pays-in-taxes-4768594.

Higgs, R. (2007). Wartime Origins of Modern Income-Tax Withholding. The Freeman, (November). Retrieved from https://admin.fee.org/files/doclib/1107higgs.pdf. Also, see IRS history Timeline (2021) and LOC (2012).

Hill, F. (2020, November 05). Public service and the federal government. Retrieved June 11, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/policy2020/votervital/public-service-and-the-federal-government/

IRS. (2021). IRS history Timeline. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from https://www.irs.gov/irs-history-timeline

Library of Congress (LOC). (2012). History of the US income tax. Retrieved June 10, 2021, from https://www.loc.gov/rr/business/hottopic/irs_history.html

Tax Analysts. (2021a). The Income Tax Arrives. Retrieved from http://www.taxhistory.org/www/website.nsf/Web/THM1901?OpenDocument. For PDFs of original tax forms that your great-great-grandparents might have filed, see

 U.S. 1040 Tax Forms, 1913 to 2006. Retrieved from http://www.taxhistory.org/www/website.nsf/Web/1040TaxForms?OpenDocument

Taylor, A. (2021). American republics: A continental history of the United States, 1783-1850. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

Being Left-Handed

June 6, 2021

by Steve Stofka

This past week we recognized the 100-year anniversary of the massacre and destruction of an entire black neighborhood in Tulsa. We struggle to talk constructively about racial hatred and injustice, willing to look back in history but not look at those same forces in our current circumstances. Ongoing practices and attitudes favor some at the disadvantage of others, an ugliness of human nature that we want to keep imprisoned and invisible. Given that reluctance, I thought I would approach the subject from a different angle, one that readers can better tolerate.

Left-handers live in a right-handed world. Approximately 1 in 10 people are left-handed,  outnumbered by a majority of right-handers who make the design rules. If lefties cannot use scissors properly, they are clumsy. Here, let me show you how to do it, a righty says. China, the global leader in manufacturing, does not make left-handed scissors. All children are taught how to use right-handed scissors. In many Asian countries, people perceive lefties as aberrant so that left-handedness goes underreported (Kushner, 2013).  

Designed for right-handers, safety guards on cutting tools do not adequately protect left-handed operators and result in more injuries (Flatt, 2008). This reinforces the notion that there is something wrong with left-handers. They are not mindful. It is their fault, not a peculiarity of the machine’s design. Surgeons who are left-handed require a longer learning curve to adapt to right-handed stents, forceps and cutting instruments. Even those learning to shoot a rifle must make some adaptations that right-handers take for granted.

Lefty loosey, righty tighty seems like an easy mnemonic to a right hander, but difficult for a left hander who watches and mirrors a right-hander open or close a jar lid. At a family gathering, the family seats the kid with the left-handed arm at the corner of the dining table, away from the center of conversation. American teachers would force left-handers to write with their paper turned the same way as right-handers, forcing many left-handers to curl their wrist into the shape of an ‘f’ in order to keep their letters on the line. Left-handers are systemically marginalized and righties are blissfully unaware of the practice (Coren, 1993). Paul McCartney, one of the Beatles, played a left-handed bass. Who knew they existed? Most lefties were taught how to play a guitar the “proper” way, which was right-handed of course.

Decades ago, parents and educators in western European countries thought that a child’s handedness could be repatterned. Take the spoon out of the child’s left hand and put it in their right hand. When they use a play hammer to tap in wooden shapes, take it out of their left hand and put it in their right hand. Don’t let them salute the flag with their left arm. Make them do it with their right. A left-hander who could not retool their brain was regarded as stubborn or subversive.

The majority in a community feels an entitlement to have it their way, but especially so in a democracy where everyone gets a vote. The majority dominates and even persecutes the minority. Charles Darwin noticed that finches drive out those born with a different beak or plumage, the majority acting to preserve key distinguishing qualities. Humans use skin color, language, political and religious beliefs to separate “us” from “them.” Beliefs can change but skin color is hereditary and language or accent is embedded in us as children.

“Look, this is a right-handed world,” say the righties to the lefties. If the majority can be discriminative against left-handers, imagine how much worse it is for those with other hereditary traits. Like Darwin’s finches, the majority white population excludes black people from living in certain neighborhoods and treated black families with hostility when they were traveling on vacation (Burton, 2012). The majority withholds resources – credit and job opportunities – from black people because they have the wrong “plumage” or their “beaks” are  too large. Our brains have grown large but our primitive behaviors emerge from our bird brains. We must evolve and become human.


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Burton, Ph.D., N. (2012, July 12). How Did Blacks Travel During Segregation? Retrieved June 04, 2021, from https://cobb.typepad.com/files/root_green_book-1.pdf

Coren, S. (1993). The left-hander syndrome: The causes and consequences of left-handedness. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Flatt, A. E. (2008). Is being left-handed a handicap? The short and useless answer is “yes and no.”. Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings, 21(3), 304-307. doi:10.1080/08998280.2008.11928414. Caution: some photos of hand injuries may be disturbing.

Kushner, H. I. (2013). Why are there (almost) NO Left-handers in China? Endeavour, 37(2), 71-81. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2012.12.003