Saturday, December 25, 2010

Let's Celebrate the Important Part of Jesus' Life

I marked Christmas Eve by watching the Christmas episode of TV Funhouse and the film Bad Santa. TV Funhouse was a parody of children’s programs, and the main characters are foul-mouthed cynical animal puppets. The Christmas episode lampoons Christmas in many ways, including the opening scene where the host, Doug, oscillates between singing a manic “Jing-jing-jingly time of year” and a solemn “Christ was born.” The brilliant claymation short “Tingles the Christmas Tension” can be seen on YouTube.

After a night-long orgy, high on “Cheer,” the animal characters go see the Christmas pageant starring the goose’s son. A light shines on the goose egg lying in the manger on the stage and a voice speaks “Unto us a child is born…”

Looking at that egg I thought, “the most holy day of the Christian calendar is not the day when Jesus attained enlightenment, or when he performed some meaningful miracle, it’s the day he was born. And the other major holiday is the day he died. Christians mark the beginning and the end of Jesus’ life—not what came in between. Christmas emphasizes the horrible theology that Jesus is the only son of God—Christmas is special because its the day when God came to Earth—Jesus is a special case. None of us can be like him because he’s the only son of God and we’re flawed evil creatures.

How different from Buddhism, where the tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment is a holy place; how different to believe that the founder of your religion “was a person just like you, who chose life undefiled,” to quote my husband’s song “Dream Messiah.”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

End the Tax Cuts for Everyone

In my post "Obama is Pathetic" I didn't mention what I think should happen with the Bush tax cuts: I think they should be allowed to expire for everyone. Of course this is unthinkable politically, but it is what makes sense. I remember "Shrub," by the late Molly Ivins, about George W. Bush's tenure as governor of Texas. Bush pushed through tax cuts that, in Ivins words, gave enough money to the average person to buy a hamburger, but in the aggregate impoverished Texas's public institutions. Texas ranks among the worst states in terms of education, health care coverage, and pollution. In return for an extra hamburger per week the people of Texas destroyed their public institutions.

When you look at the graph I mentioned in that post, and look at what retaining Bush's federal tax cuts would put into the average person's pocket, we're talking similar amounts. The median income in this country is somewhere around $50,000. A person making $50,000 would get a $1,000 a year tax break, which works out to $20 a week.

But the cost to that average person from these tax breaks in the aggregate--$3.1 trillion over 10 years--is going to hurt far more than the loss of that $20. We will do to our federal institutions what Texas did to theirs. In order to have that paltry extra sum our politicians will say they've been "forced" to cut Social Security, Medicare, education programs, health and human services, oversight of pollution and food safety, etc. We'll be poorer, sicker, and less educated. We'll continue to speed down the declining-empire-path that the election of George W. Bush set us on.

Of course blaming President Obama is foolish. Why didn't the Democrats handle this issue before the election when they had more power? Because they are beholden to the rich, just like the Republicans.

It's time for a revolution in this country. We need to throw off the stranglehold the two political parties have on our political system.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Obama is Pathetic

I was not a fan of Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries. Frankly I didn't like any of the Democratic front-runners, but I thought he was naive. If you think this is just an example of 20-20 hindsight, see my February 28, 2008 column called, "Just What Do We Mean By Change?"

But I never dreamed he would be such a weak president. What an immense disappointment, and this latest "compromise" on the Bush tax cuts is just plain disgusting. Ezra Klein has posted an excellent chart that makes the difference between the Democratic and Republican plans clear.

Klein writes, "The term 'tax cuts for the middle class,' which Democrats like to use, has misled. As you can see from the left side of the chart, the 'tax cuts for the middle class' also cut taxes on the rich. A family that makes $750,000 a year would pay lower taxes on the first $250,000 of their income. The question has never been whether only middle-class workers should get a tax cut. It's how much income the tax cut should cover."

The two plans give almost identical tax cuts for all income groups, until you get to the last two groups with the highest income. Under the Democratic plan, people in the highest categories-- $500,000 to $1 million, and over $1 million--would all receive a tax cut of around $6,700.

But the Republican plan would give those earning between $500,000 and $1 million a $17,400 tax cut, and a mind-boggling $103,800 tax cut to those earning over $1 million. And the Republicans say they care about the deficit--what an enormous con job they pulled on the American people this fall, the latest in a series.

And how pathetic is President Obama.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin

I saw a wonderful program on PBS a couple of nights ago, “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin” about the impact of The Beatles on the people of the Soviet Union. The director interviewed a lot of people, including a minister in Russia’s current government, all of whom had been fans in the 1960s when it was totally illegal. Many of them said that the Beatles’ influence was more profound in bringing about an end to the Soviet system than any thing else, including dissident writings.

There were amazing stories: people recorded tapes of Beatles songs off of Radio Luxembourg and stole used X-ray discs out of hospital trashcans; they took these to street recording booths (set up so soldiers could send audio recordings home) and made records. Bootleggers could roll the discs into a cylinder and slide them up their sleeve. People said they listened to their uncle’s ribs. Another story was of a man who made his own electric guitar just from looking at a photo of the Beatles with their instruments.

The Beatles’ music gave these people a feeling of liberation and opened their eyes to a world beyond the Soviet Union. No one mentioned the Rolling Stones and I thought it was telling that it was the positive music of the Beatles that made a difference, not the negative dark sounds of the Stones.

The film is really inspiring; not only does it show that the human spirit can never be extinguished no matter how authoritarian the political system, it’s also enlightening as to how change happens. We were all taught in our history classes that kings and presidents and wars were what were important in history. Maybe that was all wrong.

You can watch the entire hour-long program here.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Congress Doesn't Represent Ordinary People

Maybe one the reasons our country is in trouble is because the members of Congress do not represent ordinary people. According to the Federal Reserve website, the median net worth for families in the United States in 2007 was $120,000. This was before most people's main asset, their home, tanked in value, so the median net worth in 2010 is probably quite a bit lower. But the median wealth of our representatives is many times higher: five times higher in the House and ten times higher in the Senate. How can these wealthy people understand the needs of the average American? How can we trust them to vote appropriately and end the tax cuts on the wealthiest 2% of Americans, when they are part of that 2%?

The Washington Post blog The Fed Page reported a study done on the wealth of Congresspeople last week:

Times might be tough for most Americans but not for the well-heeled lawmakers in Congress.

The personal wealth of members of Congress collectively increased by 16 percent between 2008 and 2009, even as the economic downturn eliminated millions of jobs for ordinary Americans, according to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics released Wednesday.

In the House, the study found, the median wealth was $765,010, up from $645,503 in 2008. In the Senate, median wealth grew from $2.27 million in 2008 to $2.38 million in 2009.

The new data come as lawmakers consider whether to extend tax cuts for couples making $250,000 or more - a move that presumably would benefit many of the members. The Obama administration wants to confine the tax breaks to earnings under $250,000, although it has signaled it might be open to a compromise with Republicans on the issue.

Lawmakers are required only to list ranges of wealth in the personal financial disclosures they file each May. The center used averages between the minimum and maximum numbers to estimate each member's holdings; it used a median measurement for each chamber as a whole.

The researchers at CRP also identified 251 millionaires in Congress, including eight lawmakers worth $10 million or more.

The top three on the list were Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), with holdings exceeding $303.5 million; Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), with $293.4 million; and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) at $238.8 million.

"Few federal lawmakers must grapple with the financial ills - unemployment, loss of housing, wiped out savings - that have befallen millions of Americans," said Sheila Krumholz, the center's executive director.

Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed a few weeks ago calling the United States a banana-republic because of growing income inequality. He was strongly criticized, and he responded with another column, "A Hedge Fund Republic," making his original case even more strongly. His main question is spot-on:

What kind of a country do we aspire to be? Would we really want to be the kind of plutocracy where the richest 1 percent possesses more net worth than the bottom 90 percent?

Oops! That’s already us. The top 1 percent of Americans owns 34 percent of America’s private net worth, according to figures compiled by the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. The bottom 90 percent owns just 29 percent.

That also means that the top 10 percent controls more than 70 percent of Americans’ total net worth.

Emmanuel Saez, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who is one of the world’s leading experts on inequality, notes that for most of American history, income distribution was significantly more equal than today. And other capitalist countries do not suffer disparities as great as ours.

“There has been an increase in inequality in most industrialized countries, but not as extreme as in the U.S.,” Professor Saez said.

One of America’s greatest features has been its economic mobility, in contrast to Europe’s class system. This mobility may explain why many working-class Americans oppose inheritance taxes and high marginal tax rates. But researchers find that today this rags-to-riches intergenerational mobility is no more common in America than in Europe — and possibly less common.

I’m appalled by our growing wealth gaps because in my travels I see what happens in dysfunctional countries where the rich just don’t care about those below the decks. The result is nations without a social fabric or sense of national unity. Huge concentrations of wealth corrode the soul of any nation.

And then I see members of Congress in my own country who argue that it would be financially reckless to extend unemployment benefits during a terrible recession, yet they insist on granting $370,000 tax breaks to the richest Americans. I don’t know if that makes us a banana republic or a hedge fund republic, but it’s not healthy in any republic.
If you'd like to see a visual demonstration of the income and wealth disparity in this country, watch this episode of my TV show "A Question of Meaning."

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Slash Defense Spending

Eugene Robinson's column in today's Washington Post, "Trimming a Bloated Defense Budget," advocates just what I did in yesterday's post: we can go a long way towards solving the federal deficit problem by reducing the size of our military.

Mr. Robinson provides some interesting figures that put our military spending into perspective:

The United States accounts for 46.5 percent of the world's total defense spending, according to a widely accepted recent estimate. The next-biggest spender is China, which has undertaken an immense buildup to become a military as well as economic superpower - yet accounts for just 6.6 percent of the world's total.

And while the debt-ridden U.S. government shells out for nearly half of all global defense expenditures, our most loyal, stalwart, shoulder-to-shoulder allies - Britain and France - pitch in just 3.8 percent and 4.2 percent, respectively, of the world total.
What would the world look like if we cut our military spending? Maybe it would be more peaceful.

Monday, November 15, 2010

You Fix the Federal Budget

It didn't take long for the deficit commission chairmen's proposals to be criticized from every section of the political spectrum. I personally think their ideas were too slanted against ordinary people--just the choice of Erskine Bowles, Clinton's chief of staff, as the "liberal" made it obvious this was going to be a joke from the progressive point of view.

But how hard is it to balance the federal budget? The Congressional battles make it seem like it is a Herculean task requiring unbearable sacrifice. The New York Times has a fun feature this week that allows you to play budget czar. Budget Puzzle: You Fix the Budget, published on November 13, is an interactive feature that lets you choose from an assortment of budget cuts and tax increases to balance the federal budget.

And it was easy to balance the budget! I selected all the military cuts available (relatively minor force adjustments), taxes return to Clinton-era levels, a carbon tax (because that makes good sense in terms of converting us to a sustainable energy policy) and NOTHING ELSE, and the budget for 2015 is almost balanced. Adding a few other tax increases can balance the budget in 2030--without cutting any other federal spending or cutting Social Security and Medicare.

The reason I picked so many military cuts is because the military is obscenely bloated. The military--incredibly--accounts for 54% of the federal budget. We spend more on our "defense" than the next 28 countries put together, and most of those 28 countries are our allies! See my article "Reduce the Federal Deficit by Cutting the Military Budget" (April 27).

Clearly if we had grown-ups in Washington who cared about the best interests of the nation, we could solve our country's problems relatively easily.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Morning After

Republicans hate government, they say. Conservative Grover Norquist famously said he wanted to shrink government so small it could be drowned in a bathtub.

The Tea Party wants to slash federal taxes and government programs--Department of Education, the FDA, and other "useless" agencies. They profess to believe that the only function of government is national defense.
Imagine the Tea Party taking power. Does anybody wonder what would happen the morning after? The recent Republican "Pledge to America" gave some hint of what they'd like to see: other than the military budget, Social Security, and Medicare, they advocate sharp cuts in every other area of government spending. But as Paul Krugman points out in "Downhill with the GOP," there is actually very little money in those discretionary areas:

So what’s left? Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has done the math. As he points out, the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won’t cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: “No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H. No more Medicaid (one-third of its budget pays for long-term care for our parents and others with disabilities). No more child health or child nutrition programs. No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress.”

When liberals get angry at the GOP for being so obstructionist in Congress, I think, "but that's because they don't think Congress should do anything. They think government is the problem, not the solution so they don't want to pass legislation to deal with the nation's problems."

The only problem with this is that when they are in power, they really don't act on their supposed convictions. In the first half of this decade when the GOP had the presidency and both houses of Congress did they really try and pull back the scope of the federal government? No of course they didn't. They deregulated some things, but federal spending increased, and the GOP sponsored a huge expansion of Medicare without ensuring that it be funded.

In other words, they mean their fiscal promises just as much as they mean their morality promises (e.g. banning abortion)--in other words not at all. It's just empty rhetoric.

What they want is power. They don't care about governing, they just want to hold power by being in government.

The Democrats aren't much better. They also want power, but they do seem to have some interest in creating policies to improve life for the average American. There's an interesting graph accompanying the excellent article about income inequality in the U.S. in Slate, by Timothy Noah, "The Great Divergence." The graph is entitled "Income Growth Rates 1948-2005" and it compares the increase in income for the five income quintiles (top 20%, next 20%, etc.) for presidents of the two political parties. Under Democratic administrations, the income gains are almost equal across all quintiles, with a slightly higher rate for the poorest, but under Republican presidents the increase in badly skewed towards, you guessed it, the rich, while the porr gain almost nothing. The accompanying text reads:

Did the United States grow more unequal while Republicans were in power? It sounds crude, but Princeton political scientist Larry Bartels has gone a long way toward proving it. Bartels looked up income growth rates for families at various income percentiles for the years 1948 to 2005, then cross-checked these with whether the president was a Republican or a Democrat. He found two distinct and opposite trends. Under Democrats, the biggest income gains were for people in the bottom 20th income percentile (2.6 percent). The income gains grew progressively smaller further up the income scale (2.5 percent for the 40th and 60th percentiles, 2.4 percent for the 80th percentile, and so on). But under Republicans, the biggest income gains were for people in the 95th percentile (1.9 percent). The income gains grew progressively smaller further down the income scale (1.4 percent for the 80th percentile, 1.1 for the 60th percentile, etc.).

Two other observations are worth making:

1) In all income categories except the 95th percentile, income growth rates under Democratic presidents exceeded income growth rates under Republican ones. That suggests greater income equality can coexist with (or even help create) greater prosperity.

2) The 95th percentile fared about the same under Democrats and Republicans. (This chart shows it doing slightly better under Democrats, but the margin of error erases the Democrats' advantage.) Bartels' party-based interpretation of income inequality can't address the Great Divergence, Part 2—the stratospheric rise in incomes at the very top—because for this group, it doesn't matter much whether a Democrat or a Republican inhabits the White House. Political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, of Yale and Berkeley, respectively, argue that the apparently nonpartisan solicitude Democrats and Republicans express toward the rich is the result of a massive increase in Washington's corporate lobbying sector since the 1970s—and that the growing power of big business in Washington has been a major contributor to the Great Divergence.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Bill for Iraq

The latest talking point for the right-wing is that the total cost for the war in Iraq was$750 billion, less than we spent on the stimulus last year. This figure is a complete fabrication. It doesn't even come close to covering everything; it's just what Congress appropriated specifically for the war. There are a lot of costs of the Iraq war not contained in that figure, most importantly,the costs of caring for wounded vets.

Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes have been working on establishing a more accurate figure for the cost of the war. In early 2008 they published articles that asserted the true cost will be $3 trillion. In this weekend's Washington Post they published an update, in which they state that further investigation has persuaded theythat the cost will be even higher.

The new analysis includes these costs: we're still embroiled in Afghanistan which probably would not be so if we hadn't diverted our attention to Iraq; the wars were accompanied by tax cuts which caused a sharp rise in the federal debt which means higher interest payments; the price of oil jumped after the invasion of Iraq which slowed the world economy; and the global financial crisis was worse than it would have been and we had fewer options to combat it.

When the United States went to war in Iraq, the price of oil was less than $25 a barrel, and futures markets expected it to remain around that level. With the war, prices started to soar, reaching $140 a barrel by 2008. We believe that the war and its impact on the Middle East, the largest supplier of oil in the world, were major factors. Not only was Iraqi production interrupted, but the instability the war brought to the Middle East dampened investment in the region.

In calculating our $3 trillion estimate two years ago, we blamed the war for a $5-per-barrel oil price increase. We now believe that a more realistic (if still conservative) estimate of the war's impact on prices works out to at least $10 per barrel. That would add at least $250 billion in direct costs to our original assessment of the war's price tag. But the cost of this increase doesn't stop there: Higher oil prices had a devastating effect on the economy.

There is no question that the Iraq war added substantially to the federal debt. This was the first time in American history that the government cut taxes as it went to war. The result: a war completely funded by borrowing. U.S. debt soared from $6.4 trillion in March 2003 to $10 trillion in 2008 (before the financial crisis); at least a quarter of that increase is directly attributable to the war. And that doesn't include future health care and disability payments for veterans, which will add another half-trillion dollars to the debt.

The global financial crisis was due, at least in part, to the war. Higher oil prices meant that money spent buying oil abroad was money not being spent at home. Meanwhile, war spending provided less of an economic boost than other forms of spending would have. Paying foreign contractors working in Iraq was neither an effective short-term stimulus (not compared with spending on education, infrastructure or technology) nor a basis for long-term growth.

Instead, loose monetary policy and lax regulations kept the economy going -- right up until the housing bubble burst, bringing on the economic freefall.
Saying what might have been is always difficult, especially with something as complex as the global financial crisis, which had many contributing factors. Perhaps the crisis would have happened in any case. But almost surely, with more spending at home, and without the need for such low interest rates and such soft regulation to keep the economy going in its absence, the bubble would have been smaller, and the consequences of its breaking therefore less severe. To put it more bluntly: The war contributed indirectly to disastrous monetary policy and regulations.

The Iraq war didn't just contribute to the severity of the financial crisis, though; it also kept us from responding to it effectively. Increased indebtedness meant that the government had far less room to maneuver than it otherwise would have had. More specifically, worries about the (war-inflated) debt and deficit constrained the size of the stimulus, and they continue to hamper our ability to respond to the recession.

With the unemployment rate remaining stubbornly high, the country needs a second stimulus. But mounting government debt means support for this is low. The result is that the recession will be longer, output lower, unemployment higher and deficits larger than they would have been absent the war.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Time for a Liberal People's Movement

Robert Reich has a very interesting op-ed in the New York Times this Labor Day weekend, "How to End the Great Recession." His basic point is that widespread prosperity is the only way to pull us out of the economic hole we are in. The Great Depression ended because of the New Deal programs that took money away from the rich and gave it to the rest of us. When money is concentrated in the wealthy as it is today, the result is a stagnant economy.

Reich states something that I have thought for some time now: our economists have become too adept at manipulating the economy and they fixed the 2008 meltdown too easily--which precluded the real reforms we needed from happening.

This time around, policymakers had knowledge their counterparts didn’t have in 1929; they knew they could avoid immediate financial calamity by flooding the economy with money. But, paradoxically, averting another Great Depression-like calamity removed political pressure for more fundamental reform. We’re left instead with a long and seemingly endless Great Jobs Recession.
THE Great Depression and its aftermath demonstrate that there is only one way back to full recovery: through more widely shared prosperity. In the 1930s, the American economy was completely restructured. New Deal measures — Social Security, a 40-hour work week with time-and-a-half overtime, unemployment insurance, the right to form unions and bargain collectively, the minimum wage — leveled the playing field.
In the decades after World War II, legislation like the G.I. Bill, a vast expansion of public higher education and civil rights and voting rights laws further reduced economic inequality. Much of this was paid for with a 70 percent to 90 percent marginal income tax on the highest incomes. And as America’s middle class shared more of the economy’s gains, it was able to buy more of the goods and services the economy could provide. The result: rapid growth and more jobs.
By contrast, little has been done since 2008 to widen the circle of prosperity.

Reich provides some ideas to achieve this widened prosperity, like a carbon tax replacing income tax for a large chunk of the middle class and free public universities. He hints at raising the income tax on the wealthy back to the levels it was in the 50's: 70-90%.

This is really what is meant by socialism: we all do better when we are all doing well. When only a tiny few are doing well the majority suffer.

This weekend I also saw an article about the Democrats trying to becoming more like Ronald Reagan and advocating austerity in a desperate attempt to win this fall I think in the Washington Post). Barack Obama will perhaps be remembered for being the person who proved that the Democratic Party is not liberal, and that if liberals want our ideas to be represented in our government we are going to have to start a movement analogous to the Tea Party and create a new, liberal, political party.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Take Back Our Country From Whom, Exactly?

The Tea Party rallying cry is "Take Back Our Country!" But exactly who are they wanting to take it back from? The average tea partier would probably say, in their ignorance, "From the people trying to make America a socialist country." Many of course would privately think, "From all those minorities who are taking over our country--we want to make America a white country again."

The history of the United States is the story of the people of this country taking power away from the elite and spreading it more equitably.

One way power has been taken is political; through the widening of citizenship. When the Constitution was first implemented the only people who could vote were white male property owners. In other words, all political power was held by a minority--the white property-owning class. And "white" meant northern European: Asians and southern Europeans like Spaniards and Italians were all considered "non-white" by our Founding Fathers. The history of the United States is a story of ever greater inclusiveness. We the people have taken our country and made it ours in a very profound sense.

Another way power has been taken from the elite is economic. The irony is most of these tea partiers are beneficiaries of the "socialist" policies of the last 70 years. Social Security, the 40-hour workweek, unemployment insurance, workmen's compensation, and Medicare lifted countless millions out of poverty and created a large middle-class.

And the tea partiers are mostly ignorant of the way they are being manipulated by some very wealthy people. Jane Mayer, in the August 30 edition of the New Yorker ("Covert Operations"), has published a chilling expose of the Koch brothers, two billionaires who are major financiers of the tea party movement.

The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry—especially environmental regulation. These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a “kingpin of climate science denial.” The report showed that, from 2005 to 2008, the Kochs vastly outdid ExxonMobil in giving money to organizations fighting legislation related to climate change, underwriting a huge network of foundations, think tanks, and political front groups. Indeed, the brothers have funded opposition campaigns against so many Obama Administration policies—from health-care reform to the economic-stimulus program—that, in political circles, their ideological network is known as the Kochtopus.

The Kochs advocate the elimination of federal taxes and federal regulation. They hate Social Security, minimum-wage laws and most agencies of the federal government. You can imagine why a billionaire owner of a corporation would advocate eliminating federal taxes and regulation; they cut into his profits.

Harder to understand is why the average middle-class American is falling for this. The policies advocated by the Tea Party will hurt those of us who aren't billionaires.

I met an early tea partier in the summer of 2009; she was protesting alone at a Fourth of July picnic. Her main focus was on the federal deficit, she claimed we couldn't afford Obamacare and all the other Democratic policies. But when I asked her what she knew about the history of the federal debt her ignorance was profound. She knew nothing about the federal debt quadrupling during Reagan's tenure, or even how it doubled during George W. Bush's time. As far as she knew Obama and the Democrats had invented the deficit. Everything that came out of her mouth was straight from talk radio and FOX news. She really thought she was a patriot and that she was advocating freedom, not realizing she was a pawn of the elite who were using her to maintain their control over her life.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Deny Citizenship to Who?

Until today it had never occurred to me that the soldiers of the Confederacy had renounced their citizenship of the United States and that after the Civil War was over there was a question of whether they could regain their citizenship--they were traitors after all.

This subject came up in Harold Meyerson's column today in the Washington Post. He was discussing the latest wacko idea from the right: denial of citizenship rights to people just because they are born here. In effect, repealing the 14th Amendment. What Meyerson was saying is the 14th Amendment was just as much about bringing the Confederates back into the Union as it was bestowing citizenship on the former slaves.

Of course the reason Republicans are talking this way is because they know the demographics of this country are working against them. As Meyerson puts it, "they are trying to preserve their political prospects as a white folks' party in an increasingly multicolored land."

Meyerson concludes that the GOP has decided that to keep their base happy they have to keep attacking the Hispanics, so the only solution to the demographic problem is to deny them citizenship:

By pushing for repeal of the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause, the GOP appears to have concluded: If you can't win them over -- indeed, if you're doing everything in your power to make their lives miserable -- revoke their citizenship.

On this page last week, my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. rightly noted that by attacking the amendment, Republicans seek to undo one of their party's greatest and most inclusionary achievements. Civil War- and Reconstruction-era Republicans took pains to ensure the citizenship not only of freed slaves and their children. They -- in particular, Abraham Lincoln -- also decided not to permanently keep millions of Confederate soldiers and sympathizers from regaining their citizenship.

The Confederates had renounced all allegiance to the United States. They made war on the United States -- the Constitution's definition of treason -- and, in an effort to keep 4 million Americans enslaved, killed more of our soldiers than any foreign army ever did.

Yet Lincoln was determined to make it easy for Confederates to regain their citizenship. By taking an oath to support the United States and its Constitution, Confederates were made Americans again.

Suppose, though, that Lincoln had been filled with the spirit of today's Republicans. The crimes that Republicans ascribe to today's illegal immigrants pale next to those of Confederate leaders and supporters (chiefly, treason). A Lindsey Graham-like Lincoln would never have let the Confederates regain citizenship. Moreover, he would have denied citizenship to their children and their children's children. A large share of the nation, certainly of the white South, would have drifted endlessly in a legal limbo. The current Republican Party, anchored as it is in the white South, would scarcely exist.

So, the question for Lindsey Graham is: Are you serious about revoking the citizenship of 4 million children, their children and their children's children? How about a package deal: Stripping their citizenship in return for stripping the citizenship of Confederate descendants. A sort of Missouri Compromise for our times. Bipartisanship in action.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Presidents and Daughters

Has anyone else noticed that the United States tends to elect men to be President who have only daughters? I've not heard anyone comment on this but the trend became clear to me during George W. Bush's tenure and our latest president just confirmed it. I've been reminded of the subject with Chelsea Clinton's wedding this weekend.

Here are the presidents of my lifetime and their children at the time of their election:

John F. Kennedy----- 1 daughter -----(1 son was born after election)
Lyndon Johnson------2 daughters
Richard Nixon --------2 daughters
Jimmy Carter---------1 daughter
Ronald Reagan--------3 daughters & 1 son ---(and adopted 1 son)
George HW Bush -----2 daughters & 4 sons
Bill Clinton -----------1 daughter
George W. Bush------ 2 daughters
Barack Obama -------2 daughters

I skipped Gerald Ford because he was appointed, not elected.

I don't know if this means anything at all but I find it interesting!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Cowboys and Tea Parties

Americans worship the individual. The ideal of the self-sufficient man is embodied in Westerns. In countless films a lone cowboy rides into town to save the townspeople from some menace. Once the job is done, the cowboy then rides back out into the wilderness alone. He has only disdain for the townspeople’s rules and social order.

It occurred to me one day that we should instead revere the townspeople who did the hard work of building a functional society out on the frontier. They figured out how to work together, how to build schools and roads, and how to govern themselves. Being an individual is easy. Building a community is hard.

Modern America is a long way from the frontier, yet many Americans still hold the image of themselves as that lone cowboy, not dependent upon the social order.

Societies exist on a continuum between extreme collectivism and extreme individualism. China is an example of the former, and the U.S. is an example of the latter. Other countries such as European nations and Canada exist somewhere in between those two extremes. They have a much stronger sense of the society-as-a-whole, an entity that is greater than just the sum of its parts.

This worship of the individual is why we don’t have universal health care and all the other social safety nets common in other developed countries. Most Americans think people should be responsible for themselves, not dependent upon the government to help them out.

Last week there was a very interesting blog post in the New York Times by J.M. Bernstein, University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research, “The Very Angry Tea Party.”

My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.

The implicit bargain that many Americans struck with the state institutions supporting modern life is that they would be politically acceptable only to the degree to which they remained invisible, and that for all intents and purposes each citizen could continue to believe that she was sovereign over her life; she would, of course, pay taxes, use the roads and schools, receive Medicare and Social Security, but only so long as these could be perceived not as radical dependencies, but simply as the conditions for leading an autonomous and self-sufficient life. Recent events have left that bargain in tatters.

…Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions.

…This is the rage and anger I hear in the Tea Party movement; it is the sound of jilted lovers furious that the other — the anonymous blob called simply “government” — has suddenly let them down, suddenly made clear that they are dependent and limited beings, suddenly revealed them as vulnerable. And just as in love, the one-sided reminder of dependence is experienced as an injury. All the rhetoric of self-sufficiency, all the grand talk of wanting to be left alone is just the hollow insistence of the bereft lover that she can and will survive without her beloved. However, in political life, unlike love, there are no second marriages; we have only the one partner, and although we can rework our relationship, nothing can remove the actuality of dependence.

In politics, the idea of divorce is the idea of revolution. The Tea Party rhetoric of taking back the country is no accident: since they repudiate the conditions of dependency that have made their and our lives possible, they can only imagine freedom as a new beginning, starting from scratch. About this imaginary, Mark Lilla was right: it corresponds to no political vision, no political reality. The great and inspiring metaphysical fantasy of independence and freedom is simply a fantasy of destruction.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Socialized Risk, Privatized Reward

William Cohan, in his New York Times blog makes the same connection I did in my blog entry "Time For a Progressive Leader" below, and in particular the destructive effects of the structure of corporations. No personal liability, no concerns: "The problem is that the corporate veil protects the decision makers from the consequences of their decisions and, accordingly, they are encouraged to take asymmetrical risks — huge paydays for them if everything works out; huge consequences for us if they don’t."

What these two disasters — one financial, the other environmental — prove beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the right incentives no longer exist to get corporate executives to do what they should want to do, and what they must do, to prevent such calamities from happening. The “corporation,” as a legal entity, is very good at attracting capital, providing jobs, maintaining a focus on profitability, creating wealth for the people who work there (especially at the top). It is also very good at shielding executives and boards of directors from liability for their poor own decision-making.

What these two crises reveal is that some corporations and their leaders aren’t very good at making decisions that take full account of the risks they and their companies are taking. It is a truism that human beings do what they are rewarded to do. But the corporate structure these days rewards bad behavior. The problem is that the corporate veil protects the decision makers from the consequences of their decisions and, accordingly, they are encouraged to take asymmetrical risks — huge paydays for them if everything works out; huge consequences for us if they don’t. As Senator Christopher Dodd correctly said in April 2008, during the first Senate hearing about the unfolding financial crisis, “We’ve socialized risk and we’ve privatized reward.”

Unfortunately, the financial reform legislation that Senator Dodd and his colleagues are working so hard on to make law does nothing to change that dynamic. Nowhere in the approximately 1,500 pages of the proposed bill is there anything about making Wall Street executives financially and legally liable for their decisions, as they once were when Wall Street was a series of private partnerships and a partner’s entire net worth was on the line every day. Talk about accountability! But that ethic was lost 40 years ago when Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette went public and the rest of Wall Street followed soon thereafter.

As a result, our financial crises come fast and furious these days, since Wall Street bankers and traders get rewarded for selling, and generating revenue, not for worrying about what they create. The time has come for actions to have consequences. You can be sure that if Jimmy Cayne, the former C.E.O. of Bear Stearns, or Dick Fuld, the former C.E.O. of Lehman Brothers, had their entire net-worth on the line every day instead of being able to gamble with the house’s money, they would have been much more focused on the risks their firms were taking.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Time for a Progressive Leader

Last Thursday I watched Rachel Maddow’s show (she has gotten more serious and watchable lately). She has been doing some interesting and detailed coverage of the BP oil spill diaster. This night she commented how the 1989 Valdez accident didn’t break ExxonMobil—in fact in 2009 Exxon was the most profitable company ever. In 2009 the 5 most profitable countries in the world were all oil companies.

Eighteen months after the disaster the financial industry created they are back to staggeringly huge profits and bonuses.

Just as the bankers cared nothing about ordinary people and their retirement accounts and mortgages, thinking only of their profits, so the oil companies care nothing about safety or the environment but only about their profits.

Is this a connection that could be made in people’s minds, of the unthinking impersonal nature of the corporate business model that is incredibly destructive? This seems to me a perfect time for a progressive leader to emerge who could speak of a new way, a new model that has humanity as its central focus, not profit. Why are all the loudest voices the regressive teapartiers?
The next day (6/4/10) I read Tom Toles' blog and he made the same connection:
So Eric Holder has announced both civil and CRIMINAL investigations regarding the oil spill. They'll be looking into FALSE STATEMENTS! CONSPIRACY! These things are apparently ILLEGAL NOW! Criminally so! So if you are picturing a crazed cartoonist perched atop a bookshelf (and you should be) ready to pounce on why these same things are “perfectly legal” when done by the financial sector, well here I go.

The pipeline of crude that Wall Street built ran right through America’s family room. Newly jobless mom and dad staggered out, covered in goo, just in time to watch their house slide into foreclosure. The wizards of finance didn’t even have the wherewithal to try a top kill or a junk shot or siphon hose or robot sub. THEIR top hats came off their heads and were held out directly to the government. But haven’t they paid their debt back? AS IF! Oil companies are expected to CLEAN UP and PAY DAMAGES. How many jobs were lost in the financial meltdown? Businesses ruined? Families devastated? Oh, but profits are BACK at the BANKS! Time for some BONUSES!

Don’t TELL me no laws were broken. I say it’s time for some prosecutorial work that is one-tenth as creative as the financial instruments the wizards devised.
Frank Rich made the same connection in his New York Times column a couple of days later, “Don’t Get Mad, Mr. President. Get Even.”
Americans are still seething at the bonus-grabbing titans of the bubble and at the public and private institutions that failed to police them. But rather than embrace a unifying vision that could ignite his presidency, Obama shies away from connecting the dots as forcefully and relentlessly as the facts and Americans’ anger demand.

BP’s recklessness is just the latest variation on a story we know by heart. The company’s heedless disregard of risk and lack of safeguards at Deepwater Horizon are all too reminiscent of the failures at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and A.I.G., where the richly rewarded top executives often didn’t even understand the toxic financial products that would pollute and nearly topple the nation’s economy. BP’s reliance on bought-off politicians and lax, industry-captured regulators at the M.M.S. mirrors Wall Street’s cozy relationship with its indulgent overseers at the S.E.C., Federal Reserve and New York Fed — not to mention Massey Energy’s dependence on somnolent supervision from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Given Toyota’s recent game of Russian roulette with Americans’ safety and Anthem Blue Cross’s unconscionable insurance-rate increases in California, Obama shouldn’t have any problem riveting the country’s attention to this sorry saga. He has the field to himself, thanks to a political opposition whose hottest new star, Rand Paul, and most beloved gulf-state governor, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, both leapt to BP’s defense right after the rig exploded…

This all adds up to a Teddy Roosevelt pivot-point for Obama, who shares many of that president’s moral and intellectual convictions. But Obama can’t embrace his inner T.R. as long as he’s too in thrall to the supposed wisdom of the nation’s meritocracy, too willing to settle for incremental pragmatism as a goal, and too inhibited by the fine points of Washington policy debates to embrace bold words and bold action. If he is to wield the big stick of reform against BP and the other powerful interests that have ripped us off, he will have to tell the big story with no holds barred.
Obama is never going to make that pivot point. We need someone else to be that progressive leader.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Obama administration continuing to issue drilling permits

The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is NOT halting off-shore oil drilling, that not only is it still issuing permits, some of the permits are for even deeper wells than the one now gushing millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

In the days since President Obama announced a moratorium on permits for drilling
new offshore oil wells and a halt to a controversial type of environmental
waiver that was given to the Deepwater Horizon rig, at least seven new permits
for various types of drilling and five environmental waivers have been granted,
according to records.

The records also indicate that since the April 20
explosion on the rig, federal regulators have granted at least 19 environmental
waivers for gulf drilling projects and at least 17 drilling permits, most of
which were for types of work like that on the Deepwater Horizon shortly before
it exploded, pouring a ceaseless current of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Asked about the permits and waivers, officials at the Department of the
Interior and the Minerals Management Service, which regulates drilling, pointed
to public statements by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, reiterating that the
agency had no intention of stopping all new oil and gas production in the gulf.

...these waivers have been especially troublesome to environmentalists
because they were granted through a special legal provision that is supposed to
be limited to projects that present minimal or no risk to the environment.

At least six of the drilling projects that have been given waivers in
the past four weeks are for waters that are deeper — and therefore more
difficult and dangerous — than where Deepwater Horizon was operating. While that
rig, which was drilling at a depth just shy of 5,000 feet, was classified as a
deep-water operation, many of the wells in the six projects are classified as
“ultra” deep water, including four new wells at over 9,100 feet.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The only political issue that counts

I believe the only political issue that counts is removing money from elections. Until our elected officials are free from the need to solicit bribes—that is, campaign contributions—our country’s policies are going to be skewed towards the interests of large business. The interest of the average American will not count.

Two articles in today’s New York Times made the connection between Congress and business explicit.

In “Debit Fee Cut is Rare Loss for Big Banks,” about an amendment by Senator Richard Durbin to financial legislation that would regulate fees paid by retailers to banks for the use of debit cards, “Lobbyists for the wounded but formidable banking industry made clear to some senators that this decision would affect future campaign donations, according to people who participated in those conversations.” In other words, vote in favor of this amendment at your peril.

The other article describes President Obama’s speech on Friday about the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “Obama Vows End to ‘Cozy’ Oversight of Oil Industry.”

Mr. Obama reiterated that he intended to break up the beleaguered federal Minerals Management Service, which oversees offshore drilling, “so that the part of the agency which permits oil and gas drilling and collects royalties will be separate from the part of the agency in charge of inspecting oil rigs and platforms and enforcing the law.” That way, Mr. Obama said, “there’s no conflict of interest, real or perceived.”

David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration, said that Mr. Obama was trying to walk a fine line between capitalizing on populist anger over the oil spill and alienating the business community, which he needs for his jobs agenda.

“I think one of the risks associated with his rhetoric on the spill is that it hardens the divide between the Democratic Party and the business community,” Mr. Rothkopf said. “And that’s something that while it seems to be in the spirit of the moment now, could have serious ramifications come election time.”

That, he said, could result in money from corporate America going to the Republican Party.
For some reason the conservative Washington Post editorial page has allowed Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor and publisher of The Nation, to publish a weekly op-ed column. Last week she wrote about this issue, and about another bill sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin which would radically change our electoral system. "How to turn Congress Inc. back to just Congress."

What is the biggest scandal of 2010 so far?

Allegations of fraudulent misrepresentation from Goldman Sachs? An oil spill that poses a threat to our environment and economy for generations? Mining operators freely ignoring safety violations and treating workers as disposable?

Each of these is bad. But perhaps the biggest political scandal is the one that aids and abets these others -- the pay-to-play system that buys up Congress, pollutes our political system with special-interest cash and deep-sixes the kind of bold reform agenda that we voted for and need.

The health-care industry has contributed more than $200 million to congressional candidates in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Is it any wonder that there was no public option in the final bill, or that Medicare isn't able to negotiate lower drug prices for seniors the same way the Veterans Administration does for veterans?

This legislation, the Fair Elections Now Act, would sever ties between big-money campaign contributors and members of Congress, who, in the Senate, must raise an average of $27,000 every week they are in office in order to run competitive races. The bill would bar participating congressional candidates from accepting contributions larger than $100 and allow them to run honest campaigns with a blend of small donations and public matching funds.

Sponsored by Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the bill has 18 Senate co-sponsors (12 of whom signed on since the Citizens United decision) and 149 bipartisan cosponsors in the House. Activists are hopeful there will be a House vote as soon as this summer, and Durbin reportedly will push for the Senate to take it up after the House does.

Fighting for this bill is good policy and good politics. A recent Greenberg/MarkMcKinnon found that voters support the Fair Elections Now Act by a 2-1 margin, 62 percent to 31 percent. Independents support it 67 percent to 30 percent. Is there a candidate in the country who wouldn't gain votes by saying, “I want a political system in which someone who doesn't take more than $100 from anybody can run a competitive race for Congress. I want a political process that makes Congress listen to their constituents and allows them to ignore the lobbyists with fat checks in hand”?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tom Toles: the Difference between Liberals and Conservatives

Not only is Tom Toles a brilliant editorial cartoonist, he is an intriguing and funny writer. He has started a blog to accompany his daily cartoons on the Washington Post website, and today he had a wonderful statement about the difference between liberals and conservatives:

Everybody thinks I'm a liberal and I don't argue the point, but here's what the term means to me and always has. A liberal is someone who looks at a problem and is willing to consider trying a solution other than traditional ones. There. Can we all be liberal now?

And what of conservatism? It has become an irreconcilable pairing of the longing for past forms of Americana and devotion to the free market, which is even more ruthless in destroying those beloved forms than liberals are. Throw in pretending to want to cut spending, but habitually not proposing specific things to cut. So, can we all stop pretending to be conservative now?

No? Not until liberals are willing to check back on their efforts and see what actually works and readdress what doesn't? Okay, it's a deal! That was pretty easy, now wasn't it?

I wrote a column a little over a year ago discussing the difference between liberals and conservatives; I've copied it here.

The Giving Spirit (published Dec. 23, 2008)

Christmas is known as the “season of giving.” While pondering the difference between liberals and conservatives recently it occurred to me that perhaps one way to look at the difference is in terms of giving. I think this is the motivation of liberal philosophy: To give. To give opportunity to all people. To give all people a decent life.

If you look up the two words in the dictionary, besides their political meaning they have other meanings; “liberal” means “given freely or abundantly, generous” and “characterized by willingness to give in large amounts: a liberal portion” while “conservative” means “restrained” and “cautiously moderate or purposefully low: a conservative estimate.”

Just to be clear from the start: this doesn’t mean I think people who are politically conservative are personally ungenerous. This is manifestly untrue in my experience.

Some conservatives might point to studies that “show” conservatives are more personally generous than liberals, but a close look at these studies demonstrate that it is religion that makes the difference in giving, not political beliefs. Religious people give more to charity, and religious liberals give as much as religious conservatives.

What I mean is that liberalism has a more generous outlook towards sharing the fruits of freedom and prosperity.

Liberals have pushed for the inclusion of everyone, the extension of freedom to all, equality of rights for all. One hundred and fifty years ago liberals—at the time their party was called Republican—fought for the rights of people of color. One hundred years ago liberals fought for the rights of women. Sixty years ago liberals fought again to give equal rights to black people. Now liberals are fighting for the equal treatment of homosexuals.

Conservatives have resisted every one of these fights for freedom. A conservative who is a strict constructionist would, I guess, want to restrict voting to wealthy white men again.

Liberals want to broaden the number of people sharing in the prosperity of our nation. Liberals have promoted such innovations as the minimum wage, the forty-hour workweek, and Social Security which helped to create the middle-class. Liberals have supported the labor unions, which were a major component of the great American prosperous decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Conservatives have fought every one of these tooth and nail. Do you remember the bitter struggle to get the Republican Congress to raise the minimum wage during the booming 1990s? If you’ve forgotten the trade-busting tactics of conservative hero Ronald Reagan, watch a film by Barbara Kopple, “American Dream,” a documentary about the strike at a Hormel meat-packing plant in the mid-1980s.

Liberals advocate giving everyone an equal opportunity. Liberals have created programs such as Head Start, free school lunches, and welfare to help the poor better their children’s lives. They’ve created mandates for such things as handicap access to make sure no one is left out of participating in life.

Once again, conservatives hate these programs. Remember Reagan suggesting the school lunch program could save money by labeling ketchup a vegetable? Or describing the welfare queen with her Cadillac?

Liberals want to give everyone the right to express themselves; they are tolerant of others. This is why the great urban centers of our country are far more liberal than the rural areas, because when you live around millions of people you have to learn to get along with people who are different.

If you spend an hour listening to conservative talk radio or Fox television, you will become acutely aware of the extreme lack of tolerance on the part of today’s conservatives for any point of view other than their own.

Maybe most important, liberals offer hope for a better future. Liberals are also called progressives because they believe in progress, evolution, improvement, change for the better.

I’ll quote from an authoritative source—William F. Buckley (from his book Up From Liberalism)—for what conservatives believe: “Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgement that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before.”

What a dismal philosophy! All the good times are passed and gone, to quote the old folk song. What a repudiation of the natural world, where all is growth—even death and decay is growth in another form. I can’t imagine not believing that the human race continues to grow as it progresses through time, that we learn and evolve in our cultural and psychological expressions (not to mention our technology), that we have great unimagined experiences ahead of us every bit as important as any in the past, and that we have fantastic adventures lying in store for us as the human race learns to live together on this small planet.

Sure liberals have made mistakes. Sure some of their programs have had unintended consequences, such as welfare contributing to the breakdown of the black family, or efforts to promote tolerance devolving into political correctness. But…….the reason liberals are called “bleeding-hearts” is because they have a heart for giving.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Reduce the Federal Deficit by Cutting the Military Budget

I can't believe it but someone in the federal government actually has the guts to discuss cutting the military budget! Not surprisingly, that brave someone is Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.). Frank has put together his own commission to recommend steps to reduce the federal deficit, and the group will look at specific ways to cut military spending. Frank estimates that $100 billion a year could be trimmed easily.

Have you ever looked at graphs of where your federal tax dollars go? It is astonishing how little money goes to departments such as Education or Health and Human Services, and how much goes to the military. Most information you see about the federal budget includes the moneys spent on Social Security and Medicare which is completely misleading; these are in actuality separate from the federal budget, completely financed through payroll taxes.

The War Resisters League has a pie chart that will shock you: according to their calculations, 54% of our tax dollars go to military spending, both past and present.

‘Current military’ spending amounts to $965 billion (2009 budget), which includes Dept. of Defense ($653 billion), the military portion from other departments such as the nuclear weapons program of the Department of Energy ($150 billion), and an additional $162 billion to supplement the "misleading and vast underestimate" for the ‘war on terror’ of only $38 billion. ‘Past military’ represents veterans’ benefits plus 80% of the interest on the debt. [If the government does not have enough money to finance a war (or spending for its hefty military budgets), they borrow through loans, savings bonds, and so forth. This borrowing (done heavily during World War II and the Vietnam War) comes back in later years as ‘hidden’ military spending through interest payments on the national debt.

The story about Rep. Frank's commission was reported by Dan Froomkin in the Huffington Post, "Deficit Group formed by Barney Frank Looks Where Others Dare Not—At Defense Budget":

Defense cuts seems to be politically off-limits these days, but the group convened by the outspoken liberal congressman from Massachusetts shares a belief that America is "overextended and overcommitted" and that there should be a "substantial reduction in the reach of American military commitments," Frank told HuffPost.

He expects the group to propose reducing the number of overseas bases, especially in the rich countries of Western Europe and Japan. "There's a big debate right now about where 3,000 Marines in Okinawa should go. My suggestion is Nebraska," he said. And he expects it will propose cutting weapons systems that don't meet any plausible need.. "No matter how good a weapon is technically, we shouldn't buy it unless it has an enemy," he said.

Frank despairs that the deficit-reduction debate plays out in Washington as if there are only two choices: raise taxes or cut entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare.

Even President Obama's proposed freeze on discretionary spending explicitly rules out any defense cuts, which Frank describes as "my biggest difference" with the president since he came into office.

...[S]pending has increased completely out of proportion with the need, he said. "During the Cold War, 26 percent of military spending in the world was American; now it's 41 percent. So we have fewer enemies and we're spending more money."

The key to defense budget cutting, Frank said, is to attack the notion that the U.S. military needs to be everywhere in the world militarily. "If you let them insist that there is a need for worldwide military engagement, we will be at a disadvantage when we fight the specific fights" to cut programs, he said.

Once you drop that notion, he said, "I believe we would save over $100 billion a year over what's been proposed."

The F-35 fighter program alone may end up costing $338 billion or more. And according to author Chalmers Johnson, the U.S. military currently spends as much as $250 billion a year maintaining approximately 865 facilities in more than 40 countries and overseas U.S. territories.

Frank is particularly critical of the proposed missile defense shield in Eastern Europe -- a Bush idea that Obama has adopted. "Defending Poland, the Czech Republic and I think it's Bulgaria against Iranian missile attack? I think what happened is the software from a video game escaped" and got into the Pentagon's computers, he said.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Wall Street Makes Stealing an Art

This week Citigroup announced that it had earned a profit of $4.4 billion in the first quarter of this year, joining Bank of America ($3.2 billion) and JPMorgan Chase ($3.3 billion) in bouncing back quite spectacularly from the catastrophic crash of 2008.

How is it possible that with the economy still so abysmal for most Americans, Wall Street and the bankers are back to rolling in the dough?

One explanation is that the Federal Reserve is giving the bankers a continuing bailout by keeping interest rates at rock-bottom levels. In a New York Times blog (“You’re Welcome, Wall Street”), William Cohan writes that these current profits are obscene:

Mostly, though, Wall Street is making money by taking advantage of its rock-bottom cost of capital, provided courtesy of the Federal Reserve — now that the big Wall Street firms are all bank holding companies — and then turning around and lending it at much higher rates.

The easiest and most profitable risk-adjusted trade available for the banks is to borrow billions from the Fed — at a cost of around half a percentage point — and then to lend the money back to the U.S. Treasury at yields of around 3 percent, or higher, a moment later. The imbedded profit — of some 2.5 percentage points — is an outright and ongoing gift from American taxpayers to Wall Street.

You’re welcome.

And now for the truly obscene part. By keeping interest rates so stubbornly low — and by remaining committed to doing so — the Fed is crushing the rest of us, especially senior citizens on fixed incomes and those who have rediscovered saving in order to have some peace of mind.

For instance, despite my bank calling it a “premier platinum savings” account, I am getting a measly 0.15 percent interest rate. On my “premier platinum checking” account, the interest rate is 0.01 percent. In an essay in The Wall Street Journal recently, Charles Schwab pointed out that there is more than $7.5 trillion in American household wealth stored in short-term, interest-bearing checking, savings and CD accounts. (The average interest rate for a one-year CD is 1.3 percent.)

Our savings is another source of virtually free capital for banks to use to lend out at much higher rates.

But Wall Street is stealing from us in so many other ways. In his column in today’s Washington Post, Harold Meyerson discusses the improving prospects of financial reform now that the Republicans have realized that they can’t play the party of No on this issue. Maybe what was most encouraging was the fact that large businesses are demanding reform of derivatives because the Wall Street casino is hurting their bottom line.

On Tuesday, leaders of industries that actually need to lock in prices on real commodities -- in particular, oil -- went to the Senate to endorse Lincoln's bill. "In 2008," said James May, president of the Air Transport Association of America, "we burned the same amount of fuel we burned in 2003, but we paid $42 billion more." The difference, he said, was the result of the vast increase in oil speculation carried on through derivatives. Over the past half-decade, for instance, the largest holder of home heating oil often has not been an energy company but, rather, Morgan Stanley. Such speculation, estimated Sean Cota of the Petroleum Marketers Association of America, has increased the cost of gas at the pump by about a dollar a gallon.

"We need predictability in prices," Cota said Tuesday. "The banks want volatility. . . . Old-fashioned bonds built Hoover Dam, but they were paid off over many years. The banks are only interested in trades that pay off in the next 30 seconds. . . . They have no concern for the future of the larger economy."

Friday, April 16, 2010

Krugman uses Fire Department Analogy

A couple of posts down while discussing socialism I use fire departments as an example of socialism in action. In today's New York Times column, "The Fire Next Time," Paul Krugman brings in fire departments to skewer Mitch McConnell's position on financial reform:

On Tuesday, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, called for the abolition of municipal fire departments.

Firefighters, he declared, “won’t solve the problems that led to recent fires. They will make them worse.” The existence of fire departments, he went on, “not only allows for taxpayer-funded bailouts of burning buildings; it institutionalizes them.” He concluded, “The way to solve this problem is to let the people who make the mistakes that lead to fires pay for them. We won’t solve this problem until the biggest buildings are allowed to burn.”

O.K., I fibbed a bit. Mr. McConnell said almost everything I attributed to him, but he was talking about financial reform, not fire reform. In particular, he was objecting not to the existence of fire departments, but to legislation that would give the government the power to seize and restructure failing financial institutions.

But it amounts to the same thing.

Krugman then goes on to claim that McConnell is "pretending to stand up for taxpayers against Wall Street while in fact doing just the opposite."

The financial industry is going to pull out all the stops to avoid regulation, and the Republicans are their willing lapdogs. The Democrats aren't much better, unfortunately. We'll get some lukewarm reforms that will give the Democrats something to brag about in this fall's election, but in a few years we'll be suffering from the next market failure.

[T]he financial industry wants to avoid serious regulation; it wants to be left free to engage in the same behavior that created this crisis. It’s worth remembering that between the 1930s and the 1980s, there weren’t any really big financial bailouts, because strong regulation kept most banks out of trouble. It was only with Reagan-era deregulation that big bank disasters re-emerged. In fact, relative to the size of the economy, the taxpayer costs of the savings and loan disaster, which unfolded in the Reagan years, were much higher than anything likely to happen under President Obama.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

On the Subject of Whiteness

One of my earliest posts in this blog was on the subject of race and the U.S. Census; that had to do with the controversy about the inclusion of the word “negro” in the question about race. My recommendation was that everyone choose “other” for their race and write in “human.” (The Census information page warns you that if you write in “human” your race will not be counted; I ended up marking “white”).

When I got my census form I was amazed at the number of categories for people of Asian and Pacific Island extraction—Korean, Filipino, and Samoan all had individual categories—but there were no individualizing categories for “White.”

What does “white” mean anyway? The absence of any trace of all the other categories? Some kind of negative race, where everything else is subtracted out?

The April 12, 2010 issue of The New Yorker has a review by Kelefa Sanneh (“Beyond the Pale”) of some recent books about race and in particular, the White race. I capitalize it, even though that seems strange to me, after reading some articles in a Black women’s magazine I picked up at a doctor’s office—it had never occurred to me before seeing it there that White should be capitalized like Black or Hispanic.

The article quotes labor historian David Roediger’s 1994 book “Towards the Abolition of Whiteness”: “Whiteness describes, from Little Big Horn to Simi Valley, not a culture but precisely the absence of culture. It is the empty and therefore terrifying attempt to build an identity based on what one isn’t and on whom one can hold back.”

The United States was founded on the one-drop rule—if there is the slightest amount of “colored” blood in a person they cannot be considered white. Our current President proves that rule is still in effect—why is he called Black when he is half White? (see my article “Dreaming of a Post-Racial Future”)

The New Yorker article chronicles the history of whiteness and shows that the definition has shifted over the years. In eighteenth century America, “white” meant Anglo-Saxons from Great Britain. Eastern and Southern Europeans—Poles, Russians, Italians—were not included in the category of “white.” White indicated the people who could have political power. To be white meant you were part of the dominant culture.

Over time, as more and more immigrants from many nations landed on these shores, the definition of whiteness grew to include more Europeans. However, as Sanneh writes, “There remains something particularly fraught about the whiteness of Italian-Americans, which has been contested for centuries. Roediger notes that ‘Guineas,’ an old marker for African-Americans originally signaling their origins on the West African slaving coast, came to be applied widely and pejoratively to Italian-Americans.”

And now the question is being asked, are Hispanics White? The 2010 Census asks about Hispanic origin in the question before the race question, as if the designers of the Census were confused. Yesterday I saw a protest by Latinos over racial profiling, and they were yelling out, “Hispanics are white, and brown, and black, and yellow.” They were advocating the end of the concept of races.

Sanneh ends the article by encouraging the idea of a “white” people and culture, which seems odd to me. “But,” he concludes, “if the old race theory was brutally reductive, there is something reductive, too, about the idea that whiteness, for all its paradoxes, isn’t real. The history of human culture is the history of forgeries that become genuine, categories that people make and cannot simply unmake. So we should probably stop thinking of whiteness as an error, and start thinking of it, instead, as a work in progress. Historians have sometimes framed the treacherous history of whiteness as the slow death of an idea. Perhaps it’s time we start viewing it, instead, as the slow birth of a people.”

It’s too bad Sanneh hadn’t heard of Martin Mull’s hilarious spoof on whiteness, called “The History of White People in America” (published 1985). Mull’s book portrays whiteness as the middle-class WASP America of the 1950s. One of the memorable chapters is about a White Thanksgiving, with the turkey so dry from overcooking it requires one tureen of gravy per diner, served alongside the jello salad.

I think American life has gotten much more interesting and exciting as the whiteness of our culture has declined. Let’s do away with this politically-motivated racial construct.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Karl Marx Will Have the Last Laugh

Recently I watched Michael Moore's latest film “Capitalism: A Love Story.” I think it was his best film; the only one that compares is his first, “Roger and Me.” In particular he did a good job laying out the history of the last 75 years, how the regulations and policies of the New Deal era brought about a golden era of middle-class prosperity which was then eviscerated by Reagan-era (and later) deregulation.

In one of the special features Moore speculates about what economic system will follow capitalism. I have often pondered that myself, and my conclusion is that Karl Marx had it right: socialism will succeed capitalism, and then communism will replace socialism.

I think Marx has been greatly misunderstood, including by people like Lenin and Stalin. Marx’s theory held that socialist revolutions would occur only in the most advanced capitalist countries; he envisioned it happening first in his home country of Germany. Russia would have been one of the last countries Marx would have thought ready for socialism: at the time of their 1917 revolution they had barely progressed past feudalism. Russia was not the capitalist, industrialized nation that Marx theorized was required for the advance to socialism.

Lately I have been thinking that Karl Marx will ultimately have the last laugh. In the 1990’s it must have been very difficult for Marxist scholars as triumphant conservatives proclaimed the “end of history”: supposedly capitalist democracy had triumphed over evil totalitarian socialism.

But now the financial crisis of 2008 showed the inherent weakness in unregulated capitalism. The financial system required a huge influx of government money to keep it from collapsing. What most of us don’t know is that similar government rescues have happened many times since the late 1970s, when the dismantling of New-Deal-era financial industry regulations began. I’ve just read Robert Kuttner’s “The Squandering of America,” published before this latest crisis in 2007, and he wrote: “In fact, the Federal Reserve System since the early 1980s, under Volcker and Greenspan, aggressively intervened in the economy more than a dozen times to countermand catastrophic market-driven disasters that could have caused repeats of the Great Depression.”

In his book Kuttner advocates a managed form of capitalism as a way to bring wide-spread prosperity.

What do I mean when I use the word “socialism”? An aggressively managed capitalism. One of the misconceptions about socialism is people think it equates with Marxism, and the “ownership of the means of production by the proletariat.” That is incorrect. The word “socialism” was coined in the early 1800s, before Marx, to describe the ideas of many early critics of industrial capitalism.

The American Heritage New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy defines socialism as “An economic system in which the production and distribution of goods are controlled substantially by the government rather than by private enterprise, and in which cooperation rather than competition guides economic activity.”

In the United States today we have a system in which there is quite a bit of “government control of the production of goods.” The minimum wage, health and safety laws, and pollution regulations are all examples of the way our government controls the way goods are produced in this country.

There was a period of time in this country when capitalism was much more unrestrained; it was known as the Gilded Age. This was the latter half of the nineteenth century. If you’d like to know a little about what life looked like under this rawer form of capitalism, read The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair (life without worker protections), or Terrors of the Table: The Curious History of Nutrition, by Walter Gratzer (life without food inspections).

One chapter of Gratzer’s book is entitled “Cheats and Poisoners,” and I recommend it to anyone who doesn’t believe in government regulation, because here is portrayed what the food supply looked like in those happy days before government started meddling in business. One example: watering-down of milk was extremely common, and something had to be done to conceal the dilution: “So flour, sugar, chalk, plaster of Paris, or ground rice, or a mixture of several of these, could be added, and a little pulped calves’ brains were found highly effective, especially to simulate cream. Another repellant stratagem was to throw snails into watered milk to thicken it with their mucous and lend an attractive froth.” Who needs the FDA, right?

A great example of socialism that we all participate in is insurance: many people pool their money to cover the few who suffer disasters.

We pool our resources when we pay taxes, and purchase such items as police and fire protection which protect everyone in the society (ideally). Your house may never burn down, and you may never have need of the police department, but do you begrudge them your tax dollars?

A free market fundamentalist would actually argue against the existence of these socialist protections. Fire-extinguishing could be a lucrative private business—why not have every householder contract with a private business for fire protection? Actually, this was how it was done for most of history. One of the richest men who ever lived was a Roman general and politician named Marcus Licinius Crassus. He owned much of Rome, and he built this empire through fire. When a fire had broken out Crassus would travel to the scene and purchase the burning building and the imperiled surrounding buildings at a steep discount. His small army of slaves would then put out the fire and rebuild.

Another form of socialism is the protection of the well-being of citizens: Social Security, Medicaid, and unemployment insurance for example. Of course the United States lags behind most advanced industrialized nations in this area, but the point remains, the United States does currently have socialist programs.

The truth is, our country has been moving away from capitalism in the direction of socialism for more than a hundred years now, and, no matter how loud the teabaggers yell, there is no turning back.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Inalienable Right to Property

In the post below about happiness I mention how glad I am that the writers of the Declaration of Independence decided not to include property as an inalienable right. The Declaration of Rights of the First Continental Congress in 1774 said that man is entitled to "life, liberty and property."

What is an inalienable right? "Inalienable" is defined as "not transferable to another or capable of being repudiated; inviolable, absolute, unassailable, inherent." The Declaration of Indepedence authors meant that the inalienable rights listed were bestowed upon us by God and could not be taken from us. I can understand how my life is not transferable to another and is inherent, or how my liberty is not capable of being repudiated, is unassailable, but how could property be considered in this way? Property is transferable, able to be repudiated, not an inherent part of a person, etc.

In the current New Yorker there is a letter by a professor of history at California State University, East Bay, Dee Andrews, stating that the issue of property rights is what defines the Republican Party.
The main political issue of our time isn’t whether markets are always right but whether they are always good. Adam Smith, in "The Wealth of Nations," advocated free trade based on his theory that the market’s invisible hand would provide for the greater wealth of nations across the social spectrum. This moral vision was long ago abandoned by free marketers in favor of another theory from the founding era: the inviolability of property rights...This is the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats tend to believe that, in the light of our long experience with [capitalism's cycles of] boom and bust, fiscal policy should provide social and economic equity for the American people. Republicans seem to believe that fiscal policy should protect acquisition of wealth, however skewed the distribution of wealth may become and however small the number of citizens protected. The difference is abundantly apparent in California today, where the Democratic legacy of equitable distribution of wealth, through public education especially, but also in many other areas, was long ago sacrificed on the altar of property rights in Proposition 13.
This worship of property rights explains so many positions of the right-wing, in particular taxation and deregulation. Don't make me share what is mine. This is why they seem to consider "socialism" to be the greatest evil that could befall this nation.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Politics of Happiness

The Declaration of Independence famously proclaims that we have an inalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (thankfully the people who wanted "property" instead of "pursuit of happiness" were voted down). In the last few years there has been a lot of research into what happiness really means.

The current New Yorker (March 22), contains a review by Elizabeth Kolbert of some new books about this research. Many of the findings are counterintuitive; for example she starts by describing a study that shows that winners of the lottery were no happier than paralyzed victims of car accidents. In addition, people are often wrong about what they think will bring them happiness.

Most of us think that becoming wealthy would make us very happy. While the research shows that rich people are happier than poor people on average across all countries, it also shows that as a country gets wealthier, the average level of happiness does not increase. In the United States over the last thirty years per-capita income has risen, the average house size has increased, and everyone now owns electronic gadgets that weren't even dreamed in 1980, yet there is no difference in the percentage of people who describe themselves as "happy."

International research also shows that the link between income and happiness is not clear-cut: "Take the case of Nigeria," Ms. Kolbert writes. "The country’s per-capita G.D.P. last year was about fourteen hundred dollars. Yet the proportion of Nigerians who rate themselves happy is as high as the proportion of Japanese, whose per-capita G.D.P. is almost twenty-five times as great."

One of the books Ms. Kolbert discusses is Derek Bok's “The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being.” The basic presumption of our federal government's economic policies seems to be that happiness is tied to material prosperity: everyone benefits as the Gross Domestic Product increases.

Mr. Bok, a former president of Harvard, argues, if “rising incomes have failed to make Americans happier over the last fifty years, what is the point of working such long hours and risking environmental disaster in order to keep on doubling and redoubling our GDP?” Ms. Kolbert then goes on to discuss some of Mr. Bok's policy ideas, some of which are odd: since increased material well-being doesn't make people happier we shouldn't worry about rising income inequality.

Other countries have started taking these ideas seriously:

Two years ago, the President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, appointed a commission
to look into ways to improve the measurement of government performance. When the commission, headed by Amartya Sen and another Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, issued its final report, last fall, it was critical of the current reliance on G.D.P., which, it argued, is a poor proxy for social progress: “For example, traffic jams may increase G.D.P. as a result of the increased use of gasoline, but obviously not the quality of life.” The group recommended that a wide variety of new statistical tools be developed, including ones that measure income distribution, natural-resource depletion, and Happiness.

I waited in vain for some mention of Eric Weiner's best-selling "The Geography of Bliss," a travelogue exploring why certain countries' people are happier on average than the rest of the world, or of the Kingdom of Bhutan, which invented the concept of Gross Domestic Happiness as an economic measure, since both of these fit in perfectly with the premise of her article, which is the policy implications of happiness research.

In April of 2008 I wrote about Weiner's book and Bhutan. The following is from "Gross Domestic Happiness":

How do we measure our national prosperity? One of the main measuring devices is something called the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the sum of all economic activity in the country. The concept of GDP was first developed in the early 1930’s, and it is understandable that in the depths of the Depression prosperity would have been defined in a purely materialistic way. But seventy-five years later is this a good measure of the health of our economy?

Now that most of us no longer struggle to feed our families, what is it that makes us feel prosperous? Is it a few more electronic gadgets, or is it leisure time to enjoy our families and explore our interests? When is the last time you lay on the ground and watched the clouds go by? What is the value of that? Does prosperity just mean more jobs and industry regardless of the environmental cost or does it also require clean air and water?

I think the problem with GDP as an economic measure is that it is devoid of all value except one: money. GDP measures how much you produce, but not what you produce, or how you produce it.

Eric Weiner, in "Geography of Bliss," writes that “GDP is simply the sum of all goods and services a nation produces over a given time. The sale of an assault rifle and the sale of an antibiotic both contribute equally to the national tally…It’s as if we tracked our caloric intake but cared not one whit what kind of calories we consumed…GDP does not take into account unpaid work, the so-called compassionate economy. An elderly person who lives in a nursing home is contributing to GDP, while one cared for by relatives at home is not. Indeed, he may even be guilty of reducing GDP if his caregivers are forced to take unpaid leave from work. You have to give economists credit. They have taken a vice—selfishness—and converted it into a virtue.”

Another example of the perversity of the GDP: imagine you have high-blood pressure and are taking medicine to lower it. But then you go to a new doctor who encourages you to change your diet and exercise so that you lose weight and no longer need the pills. You’re not only lowering your blood pressure, you’re lowering the nation’s GDP because you’re no longer buying pharmaceutical products—your good health is bad for an economy based solely on consumption.

Third-world countries have encountered major problems by using GDP as their standard of progress. For example, by exploiting their natural resources they
can appear prosperous, but once those resources are exhausted, the “prosperity” is revealed to be illusory. Haiti’s lumber export companies inflated the country’s GDP until the last of the trees were cut, leaving a denuded landscape and desperately poor people.

In 1972, aware of the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan’s newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to base his nation’s economy not on GDP but on GNH: gross national happiness. King Wangchuck was also concerned about the social conditions of wealthier countries, as summarized in a study conducted by the Centre for Bhutan Studies: “Empirical evidence strongly suggests that modern economic development has not increased subjective wellbeing in high-income countries, despite manifold increases of incomes over just a couple of decades. In many countries, people even experience a deterioration of their quality of life as competitive forces grow along with incomes. Stress at the work place, longer work weeks and less sleep, inequality-induced discrimination and poverty are just a few examples. Rising depression and suicide rates, high incidence of obesity and large-scale environmental destruction are also typical side effects of the pursuit of economic growth.” (Center for Bhutan

The four pillars of Gross Domestic Happiness are: equitable socio-economic development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good

I found Ms. Kolbert's conclusion dissatisfying. She concluded that happiness isn't everything and, besides, dissatisfaction is a good thing. (She writes, “'It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied' is John Stuart Mill’s famous formulation.")

The subtitle of her article is "What can policymakers learn from happiness research?" and it seems her conclusion is "nothing--policy makers shouldn't try to make their people happier."

But it seems to me the sole purpose of government policies should be to create the best lives possible for citizens, and if our current economic policies aren't improving people's sense of happiness maybe we should try something else. I personally think that a great source of unhappiness in this country is the level of anxiety caused by our fraying social safety-net. I think this explains the finding that rich people are happier--they have a financial cushion. Stuff doesn't buy happiness, but lack of anxiety about the ability to provide for basic human needs does.

Many of Mr. Wiener's happy countries were in Europe, with strong social programs of job protection, health care, and pensions. In this country a great majority of us live on the edge of financial ruin--you often hear people are just a few paychecks away from an empty checking acoount, a serious illness has bankrupted millions, etc. This anxiety is always eating away at us subconsciously.

As I concluded in "Gross Domestic Happiness":

Modern economics seems to be built on the premise that growth can continue
indefinitely. In fact, it seems to require constant expansion. This makes me
think of cancer and viruses, which grow until they destroy the host body and

We need a new economics, one that is based on sustainability and on human
values such as love, respect, compassion, and equality.