The Desk Lamp Is On (But Nobody’s There)

Jamie Dimon is the Chairman of the Board, President and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, one of the largest US banks. Today he testified before the Senate Banking Committee. At issue was the bank’s loss of more than 2 billion dollars stemming from bad investments. Over the past few months, the Senate has made much of this loss, using it as an example of the need for more and stronger regulation of the banking industry.

JPMorgan Chase has a business plan, operating procedures, a budget, and accountability to their shareholders. Yes, they lost dollars based on high risk investments. Notice I said they lost dollars, not that they lost money.

In spite of the dollars lost on bad investments, the bank lost no depositor money and was in fact profitable in Q1 of 2012, with a net income of $5.4 billion (vs $5.6 Billion in Q1 of 2011). Earnings per share were $1.31 vs $1.28 for the previous year, so the shareholders saw gains. The bank has instituted internal policy changes to avoid a repeat of the problem. As of this writing, JPMorgan Chase shares are up on the day as well.

The federal government, on the other hand, ran a deficit of roughly $120 Billion for the month of May alone. That’s a deficit of almost $4 billion per day. If Mr. Dimon testifies for the full day, We The People will have lost twice what the bank did just during the brief period of his testimony.

I’ve worked for a few big companies over my lifetime. I once worked with a man who would walk around the plant carrying a clipboard (yes, I said clipboard, and yes I’m that old). Whenever it looked as though someone was approaching to ask him what he was doing, he’d raise the clipboard and pretend to be making notes. The challenger usually turned away.

Another former coworker would come to work in the morning, turn on his desk lamp, hang his sweater over the back of the chair, and no one would see him for the rest of the day. I’m not sure that he ever did anything, but his light was on and his sweater was there, so he got credit for showing up.

Over the course of the last few years, these two have come to represent our Congress in my mind. As they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle”.

In my humble opinion, Congress, especially the Senate, has no standing when it comes to dictating financial operations. The Senate hasn’t passed a budget in three years, and Congress as a whole has allowed the deficit and the national debt to spiral out of control.

The banking committee investigation of JPMorgan Chase is just smoke. It’s a distraction from the real issue, which is the financial health of this country, and Congress is behaving like the two posers described above.

In the past month, voters in areas of the country long thought to be hopelessly entrenched in spending programs have flown in the face of conventional wisdom, voting instead to get spending under control with an understanding of the attendant sacrifices involved.

If Congress and the Administration were really in touch with public sentiment, they’d recognize that now is the time to grow a spine and take forceful action regarding our national debt.

As citizens, we need to grow a spine and take forceful action regarding our government this November.

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Going Green Or Turning Green?

“Green” jobs. They evoke a certain image in our minds. It’s a sort of utopian vision of a world where our energy needs are silently and safely derived from the sun, wind, waves and more, with no significant environmental impact.

Reading the current administrations estimates of the “green” jobs they have created, one might assume that we’re well on the road to realizing this dream.

The stimulus package included $90 billion for the development of green energy efforts. As a candidate, Barack Obama spoke of an investment of $150 billion which would create over 5 million “green” jobs over 10 years.

Just before taking office, he predicted that half a million new “green” jobs would be added under his administration. Less than a year later, Vice President Biden revised that estimate up to a fairly specific 722,000. In November of 2010, the White House claimed to have created 225,000 jobs, and that they would create 827,000 job/years (or about 200,000 jobs per year) during their first administration. This is the number that they stand by today.

Government attempts to drive private industry and to drive public demand never end well. The green energy initiative appears to be a classic example. While the pursuit of green energy is a noble cause, there needs to be public demand for the attendant technologies before the green industry can meet with economic success. Public demand comes as a result of new technologies providing greater efficiencies and economic benefits to the consumer. Green energy has yet to evolve to this level.

In my humble opinion, the green energy investment from the stimulus package was ill-advised, but the on-going attempts to justify this spending through misleading statistics are disingenuous, if not worse.

What are these “green” jobs, exactly?

Yesterday, Representative Darrell Issa was questioning Bureau of Labor Statistics Acting Commissioner Josh Galvin on that very topic. Based on Mr. Galvin’s testimony, here are a few specific examples of what the bureau counts as “green” jobs.

sweeping the floor in a solar panel facility

driving a hybrid bus — public transportation

a college professor teaching classes about environmental studies

just any school bus driver

the guy who puts gas in the school bus

employees at a bicycle shop

a clerk at the bicycle repair shop

someone who works in an antique dealer

someone who works at the Salvation Army in their clothing recycling and furniture

people who sell rare books and manuscripts —  they’re rare because they’re old so they’re used

workers at a consignment shop

the teenage kid who works full time at a used record shop

half of the jobs associated with building trains

garbage men

oil lobbyists, if they are engaged in advocacy related to environmental issues

Even with these “loose” interpretations of “green” jobs, the numbers have fallen short of the promises made. Who can look at these job descriptions and honestly equate them to the development of “green energy? If you can’t make that connection, then you might want to question the integrity of those who create and promote the associated statistics.

Here’s one you probably won’t hear much about, but it speaks to the way that public demand, not government-driven programs drive the economy. Based on Labor Department statistics, the oil industry has added 75,000 jobs during the Obama Administration. The wind industry has shed 10,000 jobs over the same period.

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Beachheads of Leadership

Today is the 68th anniversary of D-Day. On this day in 1944, Allied troops stormed French beaches. The Allies were exposed as they hit the beaches and climbed the seaside cliffs in an effort to reach the entrenched positions that the Germans held on the high ground. Gunfire and grenades rained down on them, littering the beaches with dead and wounded. So severe was the assault that to this day there is no casualty count recognized as accurate. Estimates of American casualties alone range from roughly 2500 to as many as 6000. Remember, we’re talking about a day. Twenty five hundred to six thousand American men fell in a day. Even now, some 68 years later, construction in the area often turns up the bones of missing soldiers.

Imagine the courage it took to jump from a landing craft waist deep into the rolling surf as bullets land all around and your fellow soldiers fall at your feet. These men didn’t hold back in the water. They didn’t crawl into holes in the sand to wait for an end to the battle. They moved to the cliffs and began to climb. When one fell, another would take his place, until finally they topped the cliffs and gained a foothold on the European continent.

Imagine the bravery, the conviction, and the commitment to our way of life that was required of and displayed by these men, and ask yourself what it was that drove them.

In my humble opinion, these men were driven by the simple fact that they were Americans. Many of them, as recent immigrants or the children of recent immigrants, still felt the pain of ordeals suffered in their countries of origin. They recognized the value of the American experience and were willing to put their lives on the line to preserve it.

Others grew up in this country surrounded by reminders of American ideals and American values. As children, they said the pledge of allegiance every day in school. They were taught to appreciate that this country offered freedom and opportunity like no other country on earth, and that such freedoms needed to be earned. They learned early on that, in order to preserve the American dream, they needed a willingness to protect the American dream.

Dwight Eisenhower was the Commander of the Allied Forces at the time of the D-Day invasion. Later, as President, he spoke often of the level of courage and commitment required of us as Americans.

John Kennedy spoke eloquently of our obligation as citizens to our country.

Ronald Reagan, speaking at Pointe Du Hoc in Normandy, France on the 40th anniversary of D-Day said the following:

“The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead, or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One’s country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it’s the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.”

Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan; they understood leadership and the need to uphold the vision of a great country in order to keep a country great.

Today, on the 68th anniversary of D-Day, President Obama held two fund-raisers in San Francisco and two more in Beverly Hills. Regarding the anniversary of D-Day, he was quoted as  saying — well —- nothing.

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Dues And Don’ts In Wisconsin

Much is being made of the Wisconsin recall elections being held today. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, upon taking office, implemented his plan to restore the state’s financial condition to an acceptable level. Included in the Walker plan were spending cuts, contract re-negotiations, legislation to disallow collective bargaining in public service unions, and regulatory changes designed to attract and promote growth in private industry.

The changes affecting unions in Wisconsin caused both pro and anti-union supporters from outside the state to get involved in the recall election. Money has poured into the state in support of both positions, and the outcome of today’s vote is being held up as a bellwether event for the future economic policies of the nation at large. Will the citizens of Wisconsin support the cuts associated with the Walker plan, or will they reject austerity measures and demand a different solution?

In my humble opinion, with the focus on the economic policy debate, another bellwether event is being largely overlooked in Wisconsin.

The outside money and influence that led to the Walker recall vote came largely from labor unions and the supporters of labor unions. The reason for this is clear, if under-reported. When the public serviced unions lost collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, they also lost the right to automatically deduct union dues from public service employees. This meant that those employees, should they choose to continue their union membership, would be responsible for the voluntary payment of their dues.

Since collective bargaining reform took effect, membership in the AFSCME Council 24 representing Wisconsin state workers has fallen from over 23,000 to roughly 7000. That would seem to be a pretty strong message about the state’s employees’ perceived value of their union membership.

It’s easy to see why unions nationwide would find this troubling and seek to overturn the steps Wisconsin has taken. Unions have tremendous legislative influence in this country. One need only look to the fact that the most frequent visitor to the Oval Office at the start of the current administration was Andy Stern, head of the SEIU.

If the recall in Wisconsin fails, I believe that the message regarding the future of unions in this country will prove to be every bit as significant as the message regarding the public’s willingness to trust and support austerity programs.

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Mitt’s Second Term

My big brother asked today if I thought Mitt Romney, if elected, would be a one term president. The question was a good one, as it forces consideration of a picture broader than a single presidential election.

Why was Barack Obama so successful at driving generally unpopular legislation through Congress at the start of his first term? It was because his party held both houses of the Congress, and with a significant enough majority to overcome resistance from the opposition party. Following the mid-term elections, the President lost the House majority, and he has had little success since.

Highlighting this turnaround was the vote on the presidential budget. The House voted down the President’s budget proposal by a vote of 0-414. Even Nancy Pelosi couldn’t bring herself to vote in favor. In contrast, the Paul Ryan “throw Grandma off the cliff” budget passed in the House by a vote of 228-191. Ten Republicans and all Democrats voted against the Ryan budget. Given all of the negative publicity (throw Grandma off the cliff commercial and more), by my count the Ryan budget was more than twice as palatable as the Obama budget. It seems clear to me which budget represents the better starting point for negotiation.

Further, during the period of contentious debate surrounding the health care program, the President remained in the background (I’m sure he’d frame it as “above the fray”) until the dust had more or less settled. He only took real ownership of the legislation some months after it was passed, when he accepted the term “Obamacare” as accurate when referring to the Affordable Health Care Act. This was one of multiple examples of the President “leading from behind”.

In my humble opinion, the decline of President Obama’s effectiveness in spite of his continued popularity highlights the importance of having both houses of congress on the side of the president if major legislation is being presented — especially controversial legislation. I maintain that, had President Obama led forcefully through the contentious early part of his first term, he’d have earned enough credibility as a leader to allow him to overcome much of the current legislative stalemate. By hedging his bets, he has lost his mojo.

Should Romney be elected, he’ll need the support of both houses in order to accomplish his stated goals. Further, he’ll need to take ownership of issues like his proposed repeal of Obamacare, the institution of tax reform, and cuts in spending aimed at a balanced budget.

The battle over economic policy in Wisconsin, in the form of a recall election to challenge Governor Scott Walker, will serve as an early indicator of public willingness to tolerate cuts in the interest of sound fiscal policy. Walker’s early actions drove his popularity down to the point where his opponents were able to initiate a recall, but more recently the state’s economy has begun to turn around, and it appears that Walker will prevail in the recall election.

If Walker prevails, it should send two messages to Romney. First, the public can embrace or at least tolerate an austerity program provided they see results. Second, if the results don’t happen quickly enough, the negative public sentiment reflects directly back on the person in charge and further progress is unlikely.

In summary, success for a President Romney will require that his party retain the majority in the House, that they gain the majority in the Senate, and then he’ll need to get his agenda moved through Congress quickly enough so that any positive results show up within the first three years. He’ll further need to be visibly in front of his programs so that the good will from positive results accrues to him.

If he can do that in his first term, I’d be willing to bet that he’d get another. Without the support of both houses, significant accomplishment is unlikely, and a second term would be doubtful.

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Martyrs of the Race Course

It was the First of May, 1865. The black community in Charleston, SC gathered to commemorate the nearly 260 Civil War dead who had been buried in unmarked graves at the Charleston Race Course.

The group worked to make the area presentable, and nearly 10 thousand people attended the memorial service. Many brought flowers to decorate the graves, and a commemorative arch was raised. The arch was labeled “Martyrs of the Race Course”. This “Decoration Day”, as it later became known, is generally recognized as the first Memorial Day, but was not the event the developed into the national holiday we celebrate today.

Under separate circumstances, a group called the “Lost Cause” existed in the South. This group worked to foster the acceptance of certain defeat in the Civil War, and to frame the defeat in such a way that the men and women of the South would view the defeat with dignity. The “Ladies Memorial Association” was a significant driving force in the establishment of a Confederate “Memorial Day”.

In 1865 the federal government undertook the creation of national cemeteries for the Union soldiers killed in the war, and a process of re-interment was begun. The most famous of these cemeteries is Arlington.

The “Grand Army of the Republic” was an organization of Union Civil War veterans. In 1868, John Logan, the Commander in Chief of the “Grand Army” proclaimed the “Decoration Day” should be celebrated throughout the country. He chose May 30 as the date specifically because no battles were fought on that date. Logan’s proclamation was quickly adopted throughout the North. It’s widely believed that Logan modeled “Decoration Day” after the Confederate Memorial Day.

By the late 1870’s the May 30 celebrations recognized the bravery and sacrifice of both Union and Confederate soldiers, granting them equal reverence, and the stage was set for the unified celebration that we observe today.

If you’re raising your flag today, here’s the protocol:

Raise it all the way, and then lower it to half mast. This is to honor the dead. At noon, raise your flag back to full height for the rest of the day. This is to honor the living, who pledge to preserve the liberty and justice for which the honored dead fought.

In my humble opinion, Memorial Day has become a time for outdoor fun and relaxation, and that’s a good thing.  I hope that everyone gets a chance to spend time with friends and family on this day, but please, just pause for a few moments to reflect on the freedoms that we enjoy, and the men and women who have sacrificed throughout the history of this country to provide those freedoms.

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Fortunately Madoff Wasn’t Available

Speaking in New Hampshire today, Vice President Biden said “Making money for your investors, which Romney did very well, is not the president’s job. When you’re president, your job is to see to it that companies can make a profit — but not at everyone’s expense. It’s not the same job requirement. So it’s totally legitimate for the president to point this out.”

Romney contends that his experience gives him the tools to turn the economy around, and it would seem to be a credible argument. He was successful at Bain, and he was successful at turning around the Olympics.

President Obama brought community organizing experience to the office, along with experience as a university senior lecturer. After more than three years his lack of experience is reflected in our economic doldrums. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that, if tax and spending issues aren’t resolved before the end of the year we’re headed for another recession. I guess that means we’re imagining the current one.

The Vice President, early on, outlined the solution for the lack of financial acumen in the Obama administration. Once again, I’ll quote the Vice President:

“You know what we were doing? We were on the phone calling Jon Corzine — literally. I literally picked up the phone and called Jon Corzine, and said, ‘Jon, what do you think we should do?’

“The reason why we called Jon was because we knew he knew about the economy, about world markets, about how we had to respond, unlike almost anyone we knew … we trusted his judgment.”

In my humble opinion, the issue of the lost (and then found) $1.6 billion dollars at MF Global pales when compared to the reason behind the downfall of MF Global itself.

Under Corzines’ leadership, MF Global bet more than $6 billion on European government bonds. In case you’ve missed it, Europe has had a little financial trouble lately. Since MF Global (unlike the federal government) can’t print money, the company borrowed from itself to finance these investments. Apparently the President and Vice President not only called Corzine; it would seem that they took his advice. We printed and borrowed money in an effort to spend our way out of trouble, and the results are all around us in the form of a de-valued dollar, crushing debt and a sinking economy.

Mitt Romney can’t fix the economy alone. No one can. What he can do is rely on his proven economic understanding to recognize and implement sound strategies.

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Here’s Looking At You

In Cherry Hill, New Jersey a dad wired his autistic son when the dad began to suspect the child was being abused at school. Before attempting the recording, the dad had made numerous visits to the school, expressing his concern that something was wrong. His recording captured inappropriate behavior from the teachers in the classroom as well as verbal abuse directed at his son.

In North Carolina, a student captured his teachers biased and factually inaccurate rant when the student made a reference to an unflattering incident involving President Obama. Not only was the student correct in his reference; he in fact derived his information from the President’s own book. His recording has so far resulted in the suspension (with pay) of the teacher.

There have been several incidents around the country in which police have arrested citizens who have videotaped officers in the performance of their duty. Some of these videos have highlighted police misconduct and some have not, but police around the country have been quick to condemn the practice, and in some cases those who did the videotaping have been arrested and charged.

In my humble opinion, the videotaping of public employees in the performance of their duties and in a public arena seems reasonable, especially if there is some expectation or suspicion of improper conduct.

The proliferation of video cameras on every corner captures and records the movements of all of us on a day-to-day basis. Law enforcement seeks to prohibit the public from using as a defense the same tool that they employ in prosecution. That seems inequitable and unreasonable.

While the First Circuit Court in Boston recently ruled in favor of a citizen’s right to tape law enforcement activities, it’s far from settled law throughout the country. If efforts to prevent citizen’s from taping continue, how long will it be before videocams and cell phones are banned in public schools and other public service locations for the “protection” of those public service employees?

The argument in favor of the ever-increasing erosion of our privacy is that “if you’re not doing anything wrong you’ve got nothing to worry about” and “it makes us safer”. If you buy into that argument, then shouldn’t it work both ways?

One way glass may be all right for interrogation rooms, but in the public domain it doesn’t seem right.

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Power Plays and Piglets

The candidate promised a dramatic reduction in the deficit, and to move aggressively toward a balanced budget. He promised to preserve the strength of the currency “at all hazards”.  He promised to get the government out of the way of private enterprise. He promised an end to his predecessors “extravagant” programs.

His first 100 days in office were marked by declarations of crisis, and he called for swift congressional action and greater executive powers.  He demonized the banks and blamed them for the depressed financial condition of the country, while turning a blind eye to the role that the federal government had played in the downturn.

So dramatic was the contrast between the Candidates’ promises and his actions once elected that Lewis W. Douglas, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, resigned at the end of his first year. Douglas expressed his dismay in the following quote:

“Will we choose to subject ourselves — this great country — to the despotism of bureaucracy, controlling our every act, destroying what equality we have attained, reducing us eventually to the condition of impoverished slaves of the state? Or will we cling to the liberties for which man has struggled for more than a thousand years? It is important to understand the magnitude of the issue before us. … If we do not elect to have a tyrannical, oppressive bureaucracy controlling our lives, destroying progress, depressing the standard of living … then should it not be the function of the Federal government under a democracy to limit its activities to those which a democracy may adequately deal, such for example as national defense, maintaining law and order, protecting life and property, preventing dishonesty, and … guarding the public against … vested special interests?”

The candidate and eventual President described above was FDR.

In my humble opinion, the maxim that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it is playing out in spades today.

In 1933, the federal government bought 6 million pigs and destroyed them in an effort to pump up farm prices. The wholesale slaughter of pigs was just one act of agricultural destruction wrought by the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which empowered the federal bureaucracy to destroy livestock and crops in the interest of raising prices by lowering supply.

Sen. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan protested the out of control growth of government regulation and those appointed to enforce the new regulatory environment, referring to “the congressional surrender to alphabet commissars who deeply believe the American people need to be regimented by powerful overlords in order to be saved.” They were Commissars then and they’re Czars now. In the end they’re the same.

In 1933, the pig slaughter was one singular failed act among many of government intervention into the free market. In March of 2009, the loan guarantee to Solyndra was another singular failed act among many representing government meddling into the free market. We don’t seem to learn where to draw the line. The pigs and Solyndra are equivalent acts of poor judgment. The pig slaughter sounds worse because, let’s face it, solar panels just aren’t as cute as piglets.

FDR’s strategies caused the US to be the last major economy to recover from the Great Depression. President Obama’s emulation of FDR’s strategies has added $5 trillion to the national debt in his first term with negligible results, and he’s signaling more to come. Quick – hide the pigs.

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Dancing for the Fed

Imagine that you worked for Facebook. For the last few years, part of your compensation has been stock-related. Yesterday’s Facebook IPO must have been pretty exciting for you. Opening (and closing) in the area of $38 per share made a lot of people pretty rich, and that’s what American entrepreneurs are supposed to do. Imagine the economic impact of thousands of new millionaires (and more than a few billionaires).

As a new Facebook millionaire, you do face one big problem. It’s called an RSU (registered stock unit). A few years ago Facebook made a decision to stop granting stock options in favor of RSU’s. That’s because RSU’s don’t count as outstanding shares of stock, but rather just as a placeholder for post-IPO shares. It also created two problems; one for the employee / shareholder and one for the company itself.

According to federal regulation, when a company has 500 shareholders it has to begin public disclosure. Facebook wanted to continue to operate strictly on its own terms right up until the IPO, so they converted from stock options to RSU’s. In short, they switched from stocks incentives to promises of stock incentives in order to be able to continue to run their company without outside interference.

As the holder of RSU’s, a clock started ticking yesterday for both you and the company. Six months from the IPO, you can convert your RSU’s to stock. Here’s the rub for you. On that November day when you convert your RSU’s to stock, you’ll have one day (that’s right —- one day) to pay income tax on your stock. So, since you’re about to get a million dollars in shares, be sure to bring a check for $450,000 made out to the government when you convert. You say you don’t have $450,000 lying around? No problem. Just sell your stock. Makes sense, but by solving your personal problem, you’ve created one for the company.

Here’s the rub for the company. It’s not just you who will be doing the conversion dance in November. There are close to $380 million outstanding RSU’s, representing nearly 15% of the company. If every RSU holder only sold enough shares to cover the taxes they incurred during the conversion, it would amount to more than 170 million shares sold at the same time in November. At todays share price of $38, that would amount to a more than $6.4 billion selloff.

Wishing to avoid that selloff, and since the company is responsible for withholding, the Facebook plan is to hold back shares equal to the value of your tax obligation and to pay the IRS themselves. In order to do this for everyone involved, Facebook had to borrow $5 billion.

In another tax-related Facebook story, Eduardo Saverin, one of the Facebook co-founders, has renounced his American citizenship and plans to leave the country. It’s pretty clear that the move is motivated by tax issues. Here’s a guy that helped created not just thousands of American jobs, but thousands of American millionaires as well, and our taxation is driving him away.

In my humble opinion, these are just two of the many examples of taxation and regulation policies that stifle both business and creativity.

In the case of the RSU’s, the whole problem was created in an effort to retain control of the company by those who had created and grown it. Rather than smooth the way for growth, our taxes and regulations created speed bumps if not stumbling blocks for Facebook, and forced them to assume the financial burden of a $5 billion loan right out of the gate.

In the case of Eduardo Saverin, were the Buffet rule to pass, he’d be looking at paying something in the area of $600 million in taxes to the government that built the obstructions his company dealt with on the way to success.

Something tells me that Eduardo can make more effective use of $600 million than can Senator Chuck Schumer, who has proposed legislation called the Ex-Patriot Act. This legislation would hit Saverin with a 30% tax on his way out the door and prevent him from ever returning to the United States.

Senator Schumer’s response is indicative of this administration’s small-minded and vindictive philosophy toward business. Rather than stepping aside to allow job creators a smooth path for creating thousands of new taxpayers, they make a short-term cash grab. In the case of someone like Eduardo, rather than tell him that he, his money and his job-creation skills are welcome back any time, they slam the door on him in a fit of pique, grabbing for his wallet on the way out.

If we’re to have any hope of resolving our country’s financial problems, we need a Congress that supports economic growth rather than squashing it. A Senator that views a sound personal decision as a personal affront doesn’t fit that bill. Senator Schumer’s view of our free country reminds me of the Hotel California in the Eagles tune of the same name; “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

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