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.