Menu

An enduring question, 115 years later

Yes, Virginia

The most famous editorial that has ever been written is the one titled, "Is there a Santa Claus?"

It has been reproduced in every conceivable form, in every quarter of the globe, since it first appeared in the New York Sun in 1897.

T he question was raised in a letter to the Sun by 8-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon of New York City, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Philip F. O'Hanlon. The classic answer was written by Francis Pharcellus Church, an editorial writer at the Sun.

Church undertook the assignment with reluctance, the story goes, but his fine craftsmanship produced an article that has endured and will continue to endure as long as children ask: "Is there a Santa Claus?"

"Dear Editor:

"I am 8 years old.

"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.

"Papa says 'If you see it in The Sun it's so.'

"Please tell me the truth, is there a Santa Claus?

"Virginia O'Hanlon,
115 West 95th Street

"Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe unless they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus! It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

"Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders that are unseen and unseeable in the world.

"You tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernatural beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

"No Santa Claus! Thank God he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood."

Predictions for 2013

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center

Courts have determined that fortune-telling is protected as free speech, so let's freely indulge in some First Amendment-related predictions for 2013:

Given that there is no major lineup of First Amendment cases this term in the U.S. Supreme Court, the main focus here will be legislative.

On the national-security front, expect Congress and the nation to visit again the free-speech and free-press issues surrounding news sources and the leaking of secrets and classified documents. The major prompt: Army Pfc. Bradley Manning's military trial on charges of aiding the enemy for his massive "data dump" to WikiLeaks. The trial begins in mid-March unless it's preempted by a guilty plea on lesser charges.

Either way, such leaks will be back in the headlines. One immediate impact: It will be harder for advocates of a federal "shield law" to gain congressional approval to extend into federal courts a protection for the confidentiality of news sources, which now exists in most states. Another unresolved issue is who gets protection as a "journalist" in a way that excludes non-press outlets and people such as WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.

The Senate is expected to take action next year on the Intelligence Authorization Bill for 2013, approved months ago in the House. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has a "hold" on the bill pending resolution of questions over requiring the executive branch to notify Congress whenever classified information is disclosed. Freedom-of-information groups have raised concerns about the bill's provisions to give agency heads extraordinary authority to penalize employees who leak information, and also about proposed new limitations on who may speak to the public about classified matters.

Whistleblowers - sources who leak information about perceived government abuses or wrongdoing - received additional federal protections under a new law signed in November by President Barack Obama. But there remains the question of whether his Justice Department's vigorous investigation and prosecution of staffers thought to have leaked information will continue in Obama's second term.

A range of FOI experts expect the administration in 2013 to focus on improving the timeliness and content of responses to Freedom of Information Act requests.

Open-government advocates initially gave Obama positive marks for directing agencies to better respond to public inquiries. Many say access to government information has improved in the last four years. However, a report Dec. 18 by Bloomberg News showed Cabinet-level departments were the worst at responding to its FOI request for travel-expense data, and that across the federal government there was increased use of exemptions to block information requests. Earlier this year, a report by The Hill showed wide variance among agencies in disclosing the FOI requests they had received.

There is little doubt that the new Congress will revisit campaign-finance issues after record spending in the 2012 elections fueled by the new ability of corporations, unions and others to spend in direct support or opposition to federal candidates. The record levels were made possible by the Supreme Court's controversial 2010 Citizens United decision to strike down long-standing bans on such spending.

Though record amounts were spent, early assessments are that the estimated $6 billion in campaign spending was not as effective - or damaging, depending on your point of view - as critics had predicted. However, supporters of restoring limits or of public funding pledged soon after the Nov. 5 presidential election to push for legislative counters to the Court's decision.

The massacre in Newtown, Conn., has provoked talk-show and lawmaker criticism of violence in movies, on television and in video games. The discussions may breathe new life into congressional attempts to circumvent a 2011 Supreme Court decision that such video games have First Amendment free-speech protection.

One constant for 2013: The controversial Westboro Baptist Church members will continue their self-aggrandizing but legal protests in the wake of tragedies such as Newtown - and virtually everyone else will continue to be disgusted by such tactics. Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Is America ready for the Tea Party solution?

Another Perspective

By Dr. Harold Pease

What most people do not realize is that Dec. 31 is but the first fiscal cliff - the little one. Given the inability of both parties to deal with this little one, although they have known about it for almost two years, how can we have any faith in their ability to prevent the ultimate collapse of the economy if immediate and drastic changes are not made soon? Why not solve both now before options are more drastic later?

Neither party really represents limited constitutional government and both are addicted to debt. It is like an addict prescribing his own detox program. Consequently Freedom Works, a Tea Party affiliate, selected 12 of their own members and through the Internet invited 150,000 members to make suggestions on what should be done. The Tea Party Debt Commission was formed to provide the federal government a solution. Its final report summarized the problem, "Our government is doing too many things it can't do well, or shouldn't do at all, with money it doesn't have. We are borrowing 43 cents of every dollar we spend…."

The Tea Party Plan cuts, caps, and balances federal spending. The budget is balanced in four years, without tax hikes, and remains balanced. Federal spending is reduced by $9.7 trillion over the next ten years. The plan shrinks the federal government from 24 % of GDP to about 16 %. Finally it stops the growth of the debt and begins paying it down. Within a generation there would be no national debt. Bold indeed!

How do they do this? First, stop duplication of services. They note that the "Government Accountability Office counted no fewer than 47 job training programs, 56 financial literacy programs, 80 economic development programs, 18 food assistance programs, 20 programs for the homeless, 82 teacher-quality programs spread across 10 agencies, and more than 2,100 data centers. All told, we have nearly 2,200 federal programs." Government is bloated, inefficient, and wasteful.

Second, repeal services that we can no longer afford and/or that are not authorized within the Constitution. These goals include repealing ObamaCare, eliminating four unconstitutional, costly, inefficient Cabinet agencies - Energy, Education, Commerce, and HUD-and reducing or privatizing many others, including EPA, TSA, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. Their report calls for ending farm subsidies, government student loans, and foreign aid to countries that don't support us - luxuries we can no longer afford.

Third entitlement programs must be incentivized to give donors more for their money. Boldly they opened the unfunded liabilities door-the door neither party dares to open as potentially it could destroy career politicians and political parties. They concluded that they could make Social Security "sustainable and actually improve benefits by harnessing the power of compound interest." They noted, "Three decades ago, Chile embarked on a bold transformation of its retirement security system. Today, that system [SMART Accounts] is the envy of the world, giving seniors far better benefits than the old, government-run system ever did."

Shortly thereafter three counties in Texas adopted the SMART Accounts program in favor of personal accounts and thus those retiring today do so "with much more money and have significantly more generous death and disability supplemental benefits than do Social Security participants." Moreover, they "face no long term unfunded pension liabilities." The Commission recommends that, "all state and local governments should have the option of opting into the 'Galveston model.' "

The Tea Party Debt Commission saw the Medicare program as outdated, inefficient, and corrupt and recommended six major changes that if followed would save, they predicted, $676,000,000 the first year and $2,030,843,000,000 in 10 years. These changes are first "let individuals opt out of Medicare under Senator Jim DeMint's 'Retirement Freedom Act."' Second, let all new Medicare beneficiaries enroll in the Federal Employees' Health Benefit Program (FEHBP) introduced by Senator Rand Paul as the "Congressional Health Care for Seniors Act." Third, reduce Medicare subsidies to actual cost of hospitals' graduate medical education. Fourth, maintain Medicare's physician payment rates at the 2011 level. Fifth, convert the open-ended Medicaid program into a capped block grant to the states. And six call on all states to reform their medical malpractice and product liability systems - tort reform.

Opting into the same Medicare program the members of Congress use, the second Tea Party change recommended, is much better for participants because it "relies on competing private insurers to provide benefits, and as a result has very little of the fraud and waste problems that plague today's outdated and poorly designed Medicare system." One wonders why Congress can make for themselves such a good system and leave us one with "between 10 and 20 percent of Medicare's $450 billion annual budget being attributable to waste, fraud, and abuse…." Moreover, it suspends pension contributions and COLAs for Members of Congress, whenever the budget is in deficit.

The new plan offers a rational transition to ownership of our own retirement and more control and choice over our health care. Why did the government fail to accomplish the same thing - even behind closed doors? Their first concern is to protect their jobs and party. Outsiders, without a personal stake in the outcome, can see much more and do much more without the inevitable political wrangling. Learn more and review the details of the Tea Party Debt Commission's recommendations by visiting FreedomWorks.org/the-tea-party-budget. Will Congress explore these changes with intent to make them? Not unless you demand that they do so.

Dr. Harold Pease is a self-defined expert on the United States Constitution. He has dedicated his career to studying the writings of the Founding Fathers and applying that knowledge to current events. He has taught history and political science from this perspective for over 25 years at Taft College. To read more of his articles, visit LibertyUnderFire.org.

Obama's 'New Deal' offers to cut Social Security

Common Dreams

By Jon Queally

Reports indicate that Obama has willingly affronted public opinion, sound economics, and his political base of supporters by agreeing to make significant cuts to Social Security, health programs, education, and other programs while at the same time making some of the most odious benefits for the nation's financial elite permanent.

In a new deal - though certainly out of step with "the New Deal" - offered by the White House late Monday, President Obama showed that he'd rather cut health and social service programs for the nation's poor and elderly than allow tax rates for some of the nation's wealthiest individuals to go up.

Long holding that tax rates should go back to previous and modestly higher rates for all individuals making $250,000 or more, Obama has now given that popular promise away by offering to make the Bush tax cuts permanent for all those making $400,000 or less in exchange for a deal with Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.

In addition, reports the Washington Post's Ezra Klein in his review of what may be in the final agreement, he says, the payroll tax cut, which middle class workers have enjoyed during the current economic down turn - and what Klein classifies as "one of the most stimulative policies" - will be allowed to lapse. Klein called it "perverse" to do such a thing.

To make up for this loss of revenue, Obama has put cuts to Social Security benefits on the table by changing the way cost-of-living adjustments are calculated. The change, known as the "chained CPI" which would alter the way payments are calculated, is a cynical ploy by the White House, say most critics, because politicians likely feel they can get away by calling it an "adjustment" rather than a "cut."

But make no mistake, say economists and experts, it's a cut. And, over the long-term, a significant one. As a recent brief by the Center for Economic and Policy Research explains:

Over time, changing to the Chained CPI would result in significant cuts to Social Security benefits: a cut of roughly 3 percent after 10 years, about 6 percent after 20 years, and close to 9 percent after 30 years. In addition, lower-income retirees would lose much larger proportions of their income than wealthy ones.

Progressives were rightly outraged by Monday's announced offer.

"Using the debt ceiling to hold the country hostage to exact otherwise unacceptable cuts in education and other vital domestic programs is disreputable policy and politics," said Campaign for America's Future co-directors Robert Borosage and Roger Hickey.

Their clear message to the Obama and other Democrats considering accepting this kind of economic plan: "No deal."

Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, which opposes cuts to the program, told the Huffington Post that moving to the chained CPI is terrible and painful policy. "Almost every elected official just spent an entire election season saying they wouldn't cut the benefits of those 55 and older. The truth is the chained CPI hits everyone's benefits on day one," he said. "It hits the oldest of the old and disabled veterans the hardest. If it wasn't being bandied about as being 'on the table,' I would guess that it was created as an office joke to see who could create the most noxious and offensive policy possible."

And as Richard Eskow, also from the Campaign for America's Future Blog, writes: "The deal being floated uses the sneaky 'chained CPI' to cut Social Security benefits - a lot - for current and future recipients. This supposed 'correction' in calculating annual cost-of-living increases makes an already-inadequate formula even less fair to the elderly and disabled."

It's a drastic cut, too: a 3.7 percent cut for the average 75 year old, a 6.5 percent cut for 85 year olds, and a 9.2 percent cut for 95 year olds.

As Rep. Keith Ellison noted in a press release, this backdoor benefit cut would result in a "$6,000 loss for retirees in the first fifteen years of retirement and adds up to a $16,000 loss over twenty-five years."

That's draconian, especially for a program that's not in immediate crisis and doesn't contribute to the deficit. And as we've written elsewhere, the "chained CPI" targets women, minorities, the very elderly, and the poor. It also his veterans and their families hard.

It's stunning that it's even being discussed.

And the Social Security cut is just a sample of what else the President included in what will be widely viewed as unnecessary concessions to the Republicans.

As the Huffington Post reports: Obama's offer would allow the payroll tax holiday to expire, meaning middle class workers will see smaller paychecks in 2013. Economists have warned that the recovery is too fragile to risk a broad tax hike on workers. It would also gradually reduce Social Security, pension and Medicare benefits seniors are due to receive, taking a small bite up front, but building up to much larger cuts over time.

Obama's concession to Republicans is opposed by a majority of Americans, according to a HuffPost/YouGov poll. Fifty-two percent of survey respondents said the payroll tax cut should be extended to avoid raising taxes on the middle class, while 22 percent said that it should be allowed to expire to help pay down the debt. Extending the payroll tax cut received bipartisan support: 64 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of Republicans in the survey said they supported the extension.

Despite widespread opposition not only within his base, but among many Republicans and independent voters, a deal along these lines looks very close to being reached.

As the The New York Times reports: "The two sides are now dickering over price, not philosophical differences, and the numbers are very close."

Eskow, for his part, a deal with this kind of outline sends the exact wrong kind of message by giving legitimacy to "right-wing myths" and repeatedly debunked economic talking points. He writes:

A deal like this would also distract the nation from the real sources of our economic difficulties - like wealth inequity, a shortage of good middle-class jobs, and the misdeeds of under-regulated banks and corporations.

No deal is acceptable that undermines our social contract - our common agreement to work together and help each other - as this one would. They've made us strong and prosperous and they must be protected.

To economic progressives, like Demos senior fellow Robert Kuttner, the reported offer from Obama fulfills the fears and worst-possible outcomes that they repeatedly warned against. That is, would Obama fall for victim, again, to Republican hostage-taking and make a terrible deal, caked in poor economics, simply to look like he was being "bi-partisan" and willing to compromise.

As Kuttner wrote just weeks ago, when Obama seemed to taking a firmer negotiating stance: The budget deal of 2011 - the one that created the automatic sequesters - has already taken $1.7 trillion out of domestic spending over a decade. There is almost nothing left to cut on the spending side of the equation, except Social Security and Medicare-which are not the prime drivers of the current deficit and which do not belong in this debate at all.

As Obama points out in his moments of resolve, we just had an election to decide whether to raise taxes on the rich, or to cut Social Security and Medicare. He won. The party that would favor the wealthy and sock the middle class yet again lost.

As the bargaining gets serious, the president has a very strong hand. But he needs to play it a lot better than he has been doing.

In that piece, Kuttner wondered if Obama could be "saved from his own impulses to cave in for the sake of splendid bipartisanship (and needlessly appeasing Wall Street)."

It looks like we have the answer. No.

Jon Queally is a staff writer for commondreams.org.

One nation, on its knees

In Other Words

By Donald Kaul

My favorite part of the budget negotiations is when a glum-looking John Boehner - backed by the vulpine Eric Cantor, eyes blazing - steps in from of the cameras and accuses Barack Obama of "not negotiating in good faith." And he does it with a straight face.

Apparently, good faith negotiation to a Republican consists of demanding unconditional surrender and an apology for disagreeing in the first place. This qualifies as theater of the absurd. Republicans can't even negotiate in good faith with each other, for crying out loud, let alone with the president of the United States.

I had high hopes. I admit it. The economy was starting to revive, we had beaten the barbarians back from the gates of the city in the election and Mr. Obama seemed informed by a new resolve.

I was encouraged by Obama's tough talk at the onset of the budget negotiations. He was prepared to cut the size of government and gradually reduce Social Security benefits through a complicated formula, yes. But he was also going to let tax rates rise by a few percentage points on income of more than $250,000 to even things out.

That wasn't good enough for the Republicans. They kept holding out for no rate hikes on the rich, instead leaning heavily on taking money and benefits from the sick and the disabled to balance the budget.

Then Obama offered to raise the tax threshold to incomes of $400,000 or more.

"Oh no," I said to myself. "He's starting to negotiate with himself again. He always does that and he always loses."

Talk Radio News Service/Flickr.

But then John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of House, started to negotiate with himself too. He offered to accept a tax rise for incomes of $1 million or more.

This, of course, was unacceptable to Democrats but, as it turned out, the Republican knuckle-draggers in the House wouldn't go along either.

So, at this writing, there we are, on the very edge of the fiscal cliff with no easy way back. (Republican conservatives have an ancient Greek warrior streaking them. They stake out a position, then burn the boats they came in.)

One thing the Republicans were able to agree on was to cut out the cuts in military spending that were coming as part of the cliff deal and apply them to other spending in the budget - frills like subsidies for higher education, public housing for the poor, the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

As New York Times columnist Eduardo Porter put it: "Without such spending, the government becomes little more than a heavily armed pension plan with a health insurer on the side." And not a very good insurer at that.

Every once in a while, the question arises of whether the United States of America constitutes "the greatest country in the world." Most Americans, say: "Sure we are."

Really?/p>

II've always had my doubts about that. Whenever international rankings of nations come out - categories like infant mortality, educational achievement, even overall "quality of life" - the U.S. seldom cracks the top ten.

The one place where we have absolute, undisputed supremacy is the percentage of our people who are locked up. With just 5 percent of the world's population, we've got 25 percent of the planet's prisoners. We rank No. 1 in this regard, well ahead of the much-larger China, which also happens to be a police state, and Russia, where they put singers in jail for making fun of Vladimir Putin.

Those just don't seem like the kind of statistics the greatest country on earth should generate.

Nor would it put up with a political system where a determined group of informationally challenged zealots could bring the nation to its knees on any pretext that struck its fancy.

We're a pretty good country - don't misunderstand me. I'm glad I live here. But the greatest on earth?

I'd like a second opinion./p>

OOtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This is his first column since late July, the month he had a heart attack and decided to take a break.