What Would Tony Merten Think About Our Situation Today?

Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo 1886
Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three warriors, 1886 (Wikipedia)

On Saturday, March 2, 1996, I was surprised to receive a large, padded envelope in the mail. The return address showed it had been sent from New Mexico by someone named Tony Merten. I didn’t know who that was until I opened the envelope and found a bright red t-shirt with a large black graphic on its front.  The image was a copy of the famous 1886 photo of the hostile Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three of his warriors, taken in Cañon de los Embudos in the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico during their peace talks with U.S. General George Crook. There was also some text surrounding the image on the t-shirt that read, “MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS.”

There wasn’t a note in the package, but the t-shirt reminded me that I’d met Tony at an environmental workshop on public lands grazing at Arizona State University a few weeks earlier, the first weekend of February. The event was sponsored by the Arizona Grazing Clearinghouse, a loose consortium of local public lands grazing activists. I was a founding member of that group and had been one of the featured speakers at the workshop. Prior to that event I’d never met or heard of Tony, but he came up to me after I finished my bit and introduced himself. He complimented me on my presentation and also said that he appreciated all the articles I’d written on the topic and was glad to finally meet me in person.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been recognized for my work. In 1993 I’d been  chosen by the National Wildlife Federation as Arizona’s representative to go to Washington, D.C., for several days as part of a campaign to lobby Congress for public lands range reform. And I was one of the local environmentalists selected to sit on the panel with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1994 when he visited Phoenix to discuss his Rangeland Reform ’94  proposals. But it was quite memorable to have a stranger seek you out at a crowded meeting to shake your hand and compliment you in person.

Several days after receiving the t-shirt I was shocked to learn that Tony had been found dead at his remote home in rural southern New Mexico from an apparent suicide. The news story said that Tony had been under suspicion by local authorities for shooting about a dozen cattle grazing on public land near his house, and that he’d recently sent letters to friends implying that he was going to kill himself. One of those folks had notified the Luna County Sheriff’s office and on February 28 they discovered Tony was sitting dead in the greenhouse behind his house with a pistol in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. He’d obviously been dead for several days. I realized that sending me the t-shirt was one of the last things he’d done, but more importantly, I couldn’t understand why he had killed himself. I decided to keep the t-shirt to remember him.

I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t understand why Tony had killed himself. One of his friends, Will Baker, was a writer. He was so puzzled by Tony’s suicide that he published a book about it in 2000 titled Tony and the Cows. The book included more details about the official investigation into Tony’s death. The effort to identify the killer of the cattle began on February 15 when their carcasses were discovered. Investigators visited the few homes in the area later that day to ask if anyone had seen or heard anything, and Tony’s house was one of them. Tony denied any knowledge of the shootings. The investigators found more evidence the next day and it seemed to point to Tony. They stopped at his place to talk to him again, and were soon joined by the rancher who had owned the cattle. Tony became defensive and the conversations ended.

The following day, February 17, Tony penned the letter to his friends wherein he wrote that humans were destroying the Earth’s ecosystem and he saw “no hope” for the planet. “It is better to check out now than sometime later,” he explained. “Tell everyone I loved them all.” Tony may have killed himself later that day, or another day afterwards, but the official date on his death certificate is February 27.

A few days ago I was cleaning out my dresser and at the bottom of one of the drawers I came across the t-shirt Tony had sent me. I noticed, for the first time, that it’s size was extra large, which made me think that Tony had probably worn it, as he had been a large, athletic man.

Finding the t-shirt also renewed my bewilderment about why Tony had killed himself. Baker suggested in his book that Tony had been very lonely because he lived out in the Chihuahuan Desert by himself and hadn’t had a girlfriend in more than a year. But I decided I would use modern information technology to search through public records online for more information about Tony.

I discovered that his given name was George Anthony Merten. He was called Tony because his father’s first name was George too. He was born in 1952 in Los Angeles and grew up in West Covina, a suburb of LA. He had two brothers and three sisters, and was a star wrestler at West Covina’s Edgewood High School. He subsequently wrestled for the University of Redlands, in nearby San Bernardino County. My online research also discovered that Tony was divorced, and had no children.

Tony Merten
Tony Merten, May 1981 (Marce Guerrein)

On April 12, 1980, a  group of 37 people left San Francisco with the intent to backpack across the entire U.S. They traversed 13 states before finishing at Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park on May 27, 1981.  Tony was one of the hikers interviewed there by a newspaper reporter covering the event for the The Baltimore Sun.

“I wish it could go on forever,” he told her. He said that he’d left the U.S. Army, where he’d achieved the rank of lieutenant, in order to join the hike.* “I have achieved autonomy in my life,” he explained, and said that the hike had given him freedom from “boredom, routine, and authority.” Financial solvency was the key, he told her, and he explained he’d achieved it by saving most of his Army pay.

When Tony died he was a leader of the Southern New Mexico Group of the of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, and an active member of many other environmental groups. Perhaps environmental activism had become the most important thing in his life, and when it looked like it was going to be taken away from him, he decided to end it? But part of his decision to die obviously came from his belief that humans were irrevocably destroying the Earth’s ecosystem. So, in honor of Tony, let’s compare the current situation with the way things were back in 1996.

In regards to the specific issue of livestock grazing on Western public lands, today’s situation isn’t great, but it’s better than the bad old days, when public land managers routinely ignored environmental laws in favor of the ranchers. The fees ranchers pay to graze their cattle on public land were never increased to match the rates paid for private grazing land. But due to the steady pressure applied by local grazing activists, accompanied by lawsuits from conservation groups like Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, existing environmental laws were finally applied to many grazing allotment management plans – despite strong opposition from ranchers.

In Arizona, for example, many perennial streams on public land have been protected from livestock damage and forage utilization rates on numerous upland pastures have been limited to conservative levels. Public land managers have also started admitting that some areas, like hot deserts, aren’t suited for grazing. And conservation groups have “bought out” ranchers holding grazing permits for public lands that needed to be permanently retired from grazing.

But these days it’s costing the taxpayers more than ever to subsidize public lands ranchers because millions of dollars are now available to them through Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grants. And well-intentioned but misguided people are still promoting the junk science of Holistic Resource Management (HRM) grazing schemes. Furthermore, there’s a persistent, but small, number of right-wing kooks, like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, that are ideologically opposed to the concept of public lands, and think they should be turned over to the states or local governments.

Overall, however, there have been significant improvements in livestock grazing management on the nation’s public lands, especially those with sensitive resources. This was accomplished by a generation of dedicated Western environmentalists. Some of the major contributors, like Tom Lusting, Joe Feller, and Bob Ohmart, are already gone. Their achievements are significant because livestock grazing is the most pervasive use of our public lands, with about 27,000 permittees grazing livestock on about 270 million acres.

But these improvements in the management of livestock grazing on public lands are threatened, like so much other progress, by the anti-environmental agenda of the Donald Trump administration. Since he took office in 2017 some Forest Service staff in Arizona have arbitrarily classified controversial livestock management decisions as categorically exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public review process. And the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing a national pilot project that turns livestock management over to grazing permittees, without any public input, in order to give ranchers more “flexibility” because they know “better than anyone” what to do.

If Tony were alive today I presume he would want to oppose Trump’s regressive environmental policies. Maybe, however, he would think activism is entirely futile now because there’s no hope for the planet because human caused climate change from the burning of fossil fuels is accelerating in alarming ways that weren’t predicted. I wish he was still here though, so that we could try and convince him to help us fight.

* According to the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives, George Anthony Merten served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 06/24/77 to 06/23/80, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

Tony and the Cows: A True Story from the Range Wars (Paperback)


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A Christmas Story for 2017

The year 2017 was a tough one for the United States of America, and a little rough for me too. But I have a story that I think will cheer you up a bit.

A couple of weeks ago I received a Christmas card and letter from one of my Burgess cousins which contained some news about his family, including the fact that he had a couple of grandchildren that I didn’t know about. After reading it I logged into my Ancestry.com account to add the new information to my online family tree.

Donald & Agnes Burgess
Donald & Agnes Burgess (Jeff Burgess)

While I was working on it I saw some notifications regarding new records the website had discovered about Donald Burgess, the grandfather I had in common with my cousin. I clicked on them and learned that our grandfather had been married to a woman named Nelle before he married our grandmother Agnes. This revelation was shocking to me because I’d never heard anything about it, and to my knowledge, neither had anybody else in our family.

I began digging around on the website and found more information. My grandfather had married Nelle in Michigan in March of 1925, but the public records also showed that Nelle had subsequently married another man there in January of 1926, so my grandfather and Nelle were together for just a few months. They additionally showed that Nelle gave birth to a son named Richard sometime in 1926. I wondered if my father had an uncle he’d never known about. But further research showed that Richard was her only child, and was born 11 months after Nelle had married her second husband. I also discovered that Richard was still alive and I was able to find his current living address in Michigan, with the help of Whitepages.com.

I sent Richard a letter last week asking him if he could tell me anything about my grandfather Donald, and why his mom and my grandfather split up. Richard is 90 years old so I was a little worried that my letter might cause a fatal shock if he wasn’t aware of his mom’s first marriage. But I wanted to know if my grandfather had been a bad guy, instead of the good guy I’d always thought him to be.

Yesterday I received an incoming phone call on my mobile phone from an unknown number in Michigan. I usually don’t answer unidentified numbers but this time I did and it was Richard responding to my letter. His mind was very sharp and he was eager to help me in any way he could. He told me that he didn’t know anything about my grandfather, other than his name. But he said that whenever my grandfather’s name came up in the presence of his grandmother she’d tell his mom that she should have stayed with my grandfather because “he was a nice guy” – unlike his father.

I then asked Richard about his father and he told me that he had never met him. He explained that his father had abandoned him and his mom when he was a baby, and that his mom had raised him on her own. He said that he only talked to his father once, when his father called him after he became an adult to ask him if he could meet his wife and see his children. He responded by telling his father to get screwed and that he didn’t want anything to do with him. Richard told me this in a practiced, businesslike manner, but I could tell there was deeply buried pain.

“So, you don’t know anything about your father?” I asked. No, he responded, other than his name, of course. But after some more prodding he recalled that he knew the first name of his dad’s father, and the town where his grandfather had raised his family.

We concluded our conversation by speculating about why my grandfather and his mother had split up. I told him that my grandfather had moved back to his hometown in Indiana in 1926 for a new job, and that by 1927 he had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for another job. I suggested that maybe they split up because his mother didn’t want to leave Michigan. He agreed that sounded like a strong possibility. I was glad that I could still consider my grandfather to be a good guy. I was 15 when he died and I have many fond memories of him, like when he snuck me my first taste of a cold beer.

I thanked Richard for calling me and he promised to let me know if he ever learned anything more about my grandfather. But after we said goodbye I couldn’t let go of his story. I wanted to know more about his dad. I logged back into Ancestry.com and began looking among the public records for his grandfather. He was relatively easy to find because he had unique name and had lived in a small town. As soon as I added Richard’s grandfather into my online family tree the website began notifying me of more records about him. They included accessible family trees for his family which had been built by other site users. I clicked on one of them and it included photos of his family members. I clicked on an icon of the photo of his grandfather and my browser loaded a scanned version of a high quality black and white close-up. The reality sank in that Richard had never known his grandfather, or seen this photo of him. And I wondered if his grandfather had ever know that Richard existed. (There was no mention of Richard in his family’s online trees.) Tears began to well up in my eyes. I kept digging in the family trees and came across another good photo of all of the family’s five children, taken when they were young adults, including Richard’s father.  Further research revealed that they had all passed. I realized that the photo could be the only thing Richard might ever have about his father, or the two aunts and two uncles he never knew.

I didn’t tell Richard about my online discoveries, but I downloaded the photo files and printed them off, along with copies of the obituaries for his grandparents. I couldn’t find an obituary for Richard’s father, but I learned that he eventually married another woman. They didn’t have any children but the marriage lasted so I printed a copy of his step-mother’s obituary too. This morning I sent them to Richard by Priority Mail. They’re supposed to get there this Saturday, the 23rd. On Sunday the 24th it will be his 91st birthday, and Monday is Christmas Day.

Update

On Christmas Day, 12/25/17, I received an email from Richard wherein he thanked me and said that he “greatly appreciated” the information I sent him about his father. His email had an attachment that was a scanned photo of his mother Nelle, taken when she was the young woman my grandfather had known.

Will Corporate Tax Cuts Really Reduce the U.S. Budget Deficit?

Mick Mulvaney
Mick Mulvaney (Wikipedia)

President Donald Trump and the Republican-led Congress are trying to pass federal tax reform legislation that could increase the U.S. government’s burgeoning debt by trillions of dollars. The federal government already owes more than $20 trillion, which is about $1 trillion more than the current annual U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). And the $666 billion budget deficit for the federal fiscal year that concluded in October was the sixth highest on record.

Most economists say the best way to reduce the budget deficit without hurting the economy is by gradually implementing a combination of carefully crafted spending cuts and tax increases. But Trump’s Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), former Congressman Mick Mulvaney, says there’s no political will in Congress to make spending cuts, so the only way to reduce the deficit is to increase tax revenue by stimulating annual economic growth to at least 3% through tax cuts.

A reduction in corporate taxes is at the core of the Republican tax reform strategy. They claim that the U.S. economy is at an international competitive disadvantage because the 35% federal corporate tax rate that’s been in effect since 1933 is among the highest in the world. They say that lowering it would increase economic growth because corporations would repatriate some earnings from foreign countries and conduct more business in the U.S.

But there is little evidence that the proposed tax cuts will generate enough compensatory growth to pay for themselves. For example, if 25% of U.S. income goes to towards taxes, every $1 of tax cuts would have to generate more than $5 of increased economic activity. And history shows that previous Republican tax cuts failed to produce promised increases in tax revenue. During the Reagan administration in the 1980s the Republicans gave tax cuts to the wealthy that were supposed to generate growth and income that would “trickle down” to the middle and lower classes. Instead, their supply-side strategy significantly increased the national debt, shrank the middle class, increased unemployment, and accelerated income inequality. In other words, the wealthy people just kept most of the money. More recently, Arizona’s Republican Gov. Doug Ducey pushed state corporate tax cuts that have resulted in a $24 million shortfall in the state’s FY2018 budget which will likely grow to $80 million for FY2019, according to the state’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Furthermore, while the statutory U.S. corporate tax rate is high, corporations can take expense deductions that make their effective tax rates lower. According to a 2017 Congressional Budget Office report, the U.S. effective corporate tax rate was only 18.6% in 2012. Also, corporations consider many factors when they make business decisions. A tax rate would be the deciding factor only if all other things were equal. And few corporations are willing to pass up the profitable privilege of doing business in the U.S., the world’s largest economy.

Some corporations, of course, would use the money they’d save from a reduction in corporate tax rates to invest in new production. But many would simply inflate their stock values by buying back stock, increasing dividend payments to their stockholders, or  they would pay of their executive officers to even more outrageous amounts. These things would contribute little to economic growth, as most stock dividends don’t go to middle or lower income class consumers, and wealthier CEOs would just accelerate growing income inequality.

The primary lesson from the failure of supply-side economics is that not all tax cuts are the same, and that real economic stimulus comes from reducing taxes for the U.S. economy’s primary consumers – the lower and middle income classes. Subsequently, supporters of the Republican tax reform effort, including President Trump, are selling it as a tax cut for the middle class. But the middle class tax cuts included among the various features in their reform proposals are very modest, and in the Senate’s version of the bill they would expire at the end of 2025.

The reason they are set expire is because Senate Republicans passed a budget resolution in October to protect their tax reform bill from a Democratic filibuster. As long as the bill doesn’t add more than $1.5 trillion to the deficit over the next ten years, Republicans will only need 51 votes to pass it in the Senate. In other words, they know that their proposed tax cuts will significantly increase the national debt, and they’d rather eliminate tax cuts to the middle class than corporate tax cuts to avoid exceeding their self-imposed arbitrary limit on the inevitable debt increase.

Another indicator that they don’t really believe their proposed tax cuts will pay for themselves is that Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) has insisted that the final version of the bill contain a “trigger” that forces reconsideration of the tax cuts if it appears they are creating a big increase in the federal budget deficit.

The truth is that the Republican fixation on implementing tax cuts is a long-held political objective, not a proven economic tool. This if further revealed by House’s version of the bill which includes a provision to eliminate the estate tax, which would cost more than $172 billion in lost tax revenue over the next 10 years in order to benefit a relative handful of ultra rich families.

The proven Keynesian strategies of creating economic stimulus by lowering interest rates and increasing government spending aren’t available because they’re already exhausted. Interest rates have been at historically low levels for years in response to the Great Recession, and the federal debt has already reached historical highs.  So, instead of doing the hard work of compromising with Democrats to make sound budget deals, Republicans are trying to sell this tax reform bill as a magical panacea. They know that if it doesn’t work, their wealthy dark money campaign donors will still be happy with their lower taxes. Also, it will make it easier for them to cut funding for popular programs they don’t like, such as Social Security and Medicare.

In the meantime, the U.S. economy is doing quite well, and an argument can be made that there’s no immediate need for any tax cuts. The minimum economic growth rate that the Trump administration claims is necessary to shrink the budget deficit has already been achieved. The economy grew by 3.1% in the second quarter, and by 3% in the third quarter of this year. At the same time, unemployment was down to 4.1% in October, the lowest its been in more than 10 years. There are still some stubborn pockets of unemployment, but they are mostly the result of technological advances that have rendered some jobs obsolete, and the laid off workers don’t have the necessary skills to succeed in the new economy. And, by the way, recent corporate profits are at all-time historical highs.

The bottom line is that the Republican tax reform proposals look an awful lot like the failed supply-side “voodoo economics” of the Reagan administration. If Republicans really want to improve the economy, they should find a way to focus tax cuts on the middle and lower income classes, while investing in education, healthcare, public transportation, and affordable daycare. This strategy could increase the federal budge deficit too, if it isn’t accompanied by fair spending cuts combined with the elimination of tax loopholes and unnecessary subsidies. But it would have a much better chance of success. It would help Americans work themselves up from the bottom, instead of giving them false hope that some crumbs might trickle down from above.

Updates

On November 30, 2017, the Senate’s parliamentarian declared that the inclusion of the “trigger” provision demanded by Republican Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) would violate the special budget resolution rules the Republicans want to use to pass the tax bill without any Democratic support.

Late in the evening of December 1, 2017, Senate Republicans finally succeeded in passing their version of a tax reform bill. A conference committee must reconcile it with the version that was previously passed by the House before a final version can be sent to President Trump for his signature.

On December 22, 2017, President Donald Trump signed the $1.5 trillion tax cut bill, named the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. It became effective January 1, 2018.

In July, 2018, the U.S. Treasury Department reported that the federal government recorded a $74.9 billion deficit in June, a month when the government often runs a surplus, as corporate taxes dropped sharply compared to a year ago. The government had a budget surplus in June in 52 of the past 64 years.

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