Nel's New Day

September 10, 2014

Congress Returns to Take More Money from Poor

The peace of Congress’s long summer vacation of Congress is over, and legislators have straggled back into Washington, D.C. (“don’t care,” according to Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) opponent, Alison Grimes). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is highly incensed that his party supported a debate on overturning Citizens United. The vote was 79-18 to explore an amendment that would return the regulation of campaign funding to Congress. That’s 25 GOP senators who voted for debate. In his opposition, Cruz said that the measure would ban Saturday Night Live and throw Lorne Michaels into prison because of the program’s political satire. The bill, which has no connection to Cruz’s “reality,” is here.

Fights over government funding scheduled to begin tomorrow have been delayed because of President Obama’s speech and the rising issue about ISIL. It will have to be dealt with before the end of September, however, or the United States will face another government shutdown. As voters ponder on the wisdom of the GOP approach toward starving the United States, let us consider their history of profligate spending during the past few years:

  • $350,000: initial cost of suing the president for nothing with Baker Hostetler charging $500 per hour.
  • $1.3 million: 2011 delay in raising the debt ceiling causing the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence index to plunge from 59.2 in July to 45.2 in August.
  • $3 million: cost for House to defend ban on marriage equality that the Supreme Court overturned last summer.
  • $24 billion: loss in the U.S. economy because of the GOP 2013 government shutdown which doesn’t include shaving 0.6 percent off fourth-quarter GDP growth. During the shutdown, approximately 800,000 federal employees were indefinitely furloughed and another 1.3 million were required to report to work without known payment dates.
  • $1.5 billion per day for 15 days of shutdown: furlough of approximately 800,000 federal employees and another 1.3 million required to report to work without known payment dates; loss in government services, travel spending, National Parks, federal and contractor wages, small businesses suffering from frozen government contracts and stalled business loans, tourism suffering from closed national parks, and military families coping without childcare and other services.
  • $2 million: almost non-stop investigations on the Benghazi attack since September 2012 requiring approximately 50 congressional hearings, briefings, and interviews with the State Department. 
  • $5.65 million: newest “special committee” to reinvestigate Benghazi—larger than budgets for the committees on Veteran’s affairs, Intelligence and the budget itself.
  • $14 million: investigation into the IRS that required over 600,000 pages of documents, “none of which substantiate the GOP’s wild attempt from the get-go to tar the administration,” according to Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI).

Grand Total:  $25,025,300,000

Debates over government funding will result in the GOP’s self-righteous objections to these so-called entitlements for the bottom 90 percent:

  • $220 billion: just over 4 million teachers–an average of $54,750 per teacher.
  • $246 billion: about $100 billion coming from state and local governments with the remainder provided by employee contributions and investment earnings—an average of $27,333 per pensioner.
  • $398 billion: non-medical safety net including SNAP (aka food stamps), WIC (Women, Infants, Children), Child Nutrition, Earned Income Tax Credit, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Education & Training, and Housing—an average of $8,600 per recipient because huge corporations refuse to pay a higher minimum wage.
  • $863 billion: Social Security. (The GOP fails to recognize that the average two-earner couple making average wages–$14,600–receives less throughout their lifetimes than they pay in.)

Then there are the entitlements for the wealthy that the GOP supports:

  • $2.2 trillion: tax expenditures, tax underpayments, tax havens, and corporate nonpayment with two thirds of the breaks going to the top 20 percent of taxpayers—an average of $200,000 per individual in the top 1 percent.
  • $5 trillion since 2009: investment income, with 95 percent—an average of $500,000—taking 95 percent of this amount.

Congressional members have an excellent reason to retain the entitlements for the wealthy: they are some of the entitled ones, helped greatly by the stock market boom. More than half the members of Congress (268) had an average net worth of $1 million or more in 2012, up from 257 members the year before. The actual number could be much greater, however, because lawmakers report their assets in sizable ranges. That’s compared to median household net worth in the United States of $56,300. The median net worth for all House members was $896,000 and, for Senators, $2.5 million. You can check out your Congressional members here.

Even without any additional income, members of Congress make over $83 per hour—if they actually worked a standard 40-hour week. That’s something to think about when they object to raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10.

Former Rep. Eric Cantor (R-VA), who lost his primary after out-spending his opponent 10-1 with $5 million, is no longer jobless. As vice chairman, managing director, and member of the board of directors at “boutique investment bank” Moelis & Co., he gets a base salary of $400,000 each year for two years plus $1.4 million in bonuses for this year and $1.6 million in incentive compensation next year, about ten times the $174,000 salary for being in the House. As Elizabeth Warren said, corporate sell-out politicians like Cantor “head straight out into the industry, not because they bring great expertise and insight, but because they’re selling access back in to their former colleagues who are still writing policy, who are still making laws.” As Jon Stewart quipped on The Daily Show, Cantor is being paid for services previously rendered.

Between 2009 and 2011—the so-called recovery—the mean net worth of households in the top 7 percent grew by 28 percent while the remaining 93 percent of households lost 4 percent. This trend continues the one for the last three decades. The following chart shows how much has been lost by the majority of people since Ronald Reagan and his conservatives shifted the economy of the United States.chart 2Workers at almost all percentiles down from the 95th saw wage declines since 2010. The only wages that went up was at the 10th percentile—an increase from $8.36 an hour to $8.38. Two pennies. That’s $.80 a week and $4.04 for the year. The extra two cents came from minimum wage increases in 13 states last year. When workers can’t afford to spend money for goods and services, businesses don’t make enough money to hire which increases unemployment. The middle class continues to shrink.

In just one state, North Carolina, CEOs in the biggest companies got a 14-percent pay increase last year, to $4.1 million. The raise means that the median CEO pay is 129 times higher than that for the workers, up from 113 times the year before. The media wage for all North Carolina workers increased 1 percent last year to$31,850. The highest CEO pay in North Carolina last year came at Lowe’s; Robert Niblock got $18.7 million, up 54 percent from the year before. Of the 50 largest publicly traded companies in North Carolina last year, two CEOs were women, two were nonwhite, and none were blacks. Nationwide, median pay for CEOs at S&P 500 companies increased 9 percent to $10.5 million.

“Why when American corporation profits have skyrocketed to over $1,800,000,000,000, why are they only investing 9% of all those profits in expansion, in wages, in research and development? Ninety-one percent goes to CEO salaries and to stockholders. What’s wrong with this picture, folks?”—Joe Biden

Free-loading corporations have joined the wealthy in obtaining government entitlements. Technically, the tax rate for corporations is 35 percent; in reality it’s much, much less. They now pay about ten percent of all taxes, compared to the 33 percent in the early 1950s. Their contribution is 1.6 percent of the GDP, drastically down from 5.9 percent in 1952.

Of the 288 companies in the Fortune 500 that registered consistent profit every year from 2008 to 2012, 26 of these companies paid no federal income tax from 2008 to 2012. Another 93 paid less than ten percent in taxes. The overall average was 19.4 percent over these five years. Tax subsidies for just these 288 companies were $364 billion during that time with $174 billion going to just 25 of the companies.  Overall, each family in the nation annually pays an average $6,000 subsidy to corporations that have doubled their profits and cut their taxes in half in ten years.

The country is divided into the “makers” and the “takers,” as Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) claims, but the takers are the wealthy and the corporations. And the GOP is headed back into session to take more from the workers, the “makers,” at the bottom who lose money every year.

July 26, 2014

The American Dream Is Almost Dead

Back in the 1950s, people believed in the American Dream. Tax rates for the wealthy were at 90 percent, veterans had good benefits, and strong unions had created a healthy middle class. By the 1960s, even the Republicans voted for civil rights, and the country moved forward. Fifty years later, the American Dream is most likely dead. Two-thirds of the people in the United States think that the next generation will not be better off that their own.

An article in USA Today has directed attention toward the disappearance of the dream in the wealthiest nation in the world. According to an analysis of living expenses in the nation, the price tag for the American Dream is $130,357 a year for a family of four. Only 16 million U.S. households earned that much in 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means that only one out of 8 people in the U.S.—12 percent—achieve this goal.

The American Dream has always included owning a home. For a home that costs $275,000 (the median price) with 10 percent down and a 4-percent, 30-year mortgage, the family pays $17,062 a year. Groceries would run $12,659, and one car would cost $11,039. Those with other essentials take $58,491. The extras did include restaurant expenses, but only $70 per week—for four people. Taxes—federal, state, local, sales, and property—would run about 30 percent of the $130,000. The article also factored in $22,500 savings each year, $5,000 of that for the children’s college expenses.

Obviously, people could not save, spend less on entertainment and restaurants, and live in a cheaper house. But that’s not the American Dream, and that’s not the way that people lived in the 1950s. Also people live cheaper in places like Oklahoma City and Cleveland than in San Francisco and New York. To make an annual salary of $130,000, a person would require a $65 hourly wage, considered ridiculous. Yet the prices have gone up far faster than workers’ salaries.

With the median household income is $51,000, people are far below a living wage. Almost 50 million people in the country are below the poverty level, an almost 50 percent increase since George W. Bush became president.

Conservatives still promote the belief that people can achieve the American Dream if they just work hard enough. Studies show that they are wrong. A Johns Hopkins University study, documented in The Longest Shadow, followed almost 800 Baltimore schoolchildren for 25 years starting in the early 1980s. The poor stayed poor, and only four percent of urban disadvantaged youth graduated from a four-year college.

Karl Alexander, research professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University, said that upward mobility is much more limited in the U.S. than in other industrialized countries. In the United States, where people live is as much an indicator of success as how much they work. For example, people are better off in California than in South Carolina. Kids born into the bottom 20 percent of households, for example, have a 12.9 percent chance of reaching the top 20 percent if they live in San Jose (CA) but only a 4.4 percent chance if they live in Charlotte (NC).

SocialMobility

Factors influencing the differences in upward mobility:

  • Race: The larger the black population, the lower the upward mobility. That holds true for all races living in areas that are predominantly black.
  • Segregation: The greater the isolation, the less chance people have to get to good jobs and good schools. The more sprawl, the less willingness on the part of higher-income people to invest in solutions such as public transit.
  • Social Capital: Living near the middle class also brings better institutions with a better safety net and services. For example, Utah’s vast Mormon culture creates better upward mobility.
  • Inequality: The bigger the gap between the poor and rich (as compared to the super rich) the less of a chance that upward mobility can occur.  It’s easier to jump up from the bottom if the top isn’t as far away.
  • Family Structure: Top on the reasons for upward mobility is families. Children have the best chance in stable, two-parent homes.  Notice the word “stable.” That contradicts the conservative theory that women should marry just anyone in order to improve their personal finances.

 

For the past half century, far-right conservatives have worked to destroy unions so that the top 1 percent can get richer. Membership has gone from 25 percent in the private workforce of the 1940s to the current 6.7 percent—and the rate is still moving down.

In two months, United Airlines, the continent’s third largest airline, will outsource 630 of its gate agent jobs at 12 airports to private companies. The union workers who are making up to $50,000, the median wage, will be replaced by non-union workers who will make between $9 and $12.50 per hour. These people will become part of the working poor, needing government aid such as food stamps and Medicaid to survive. The airline makes the money, and the taxpayers fill in the gaps.

 

The fast-food industry already takes in $243 billion every year from taxpayers because the companies refuse to pay living wages. Wal-Mart costs taxpayers between $900,000 and $1.75 million per store so that it can make $35,000 profit every minute.

 

Even without unions, there are ways to stop companies from ripping off taxpayers, increase the economy, and move people upward toward the American Dream.

 

Raise the minimum wage: Of the 13 states (Arizona, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington) that raised their minimum wage in January, only one, New Jersey, saw a decrease in employment during the first half of this year. The other 12 saw speedier job growth in the first half of 2014 compared to 2013 than states that didn’t raise their wages.

 

Take away corporate tax benefits and breaks from all corporations that have even one full-time employee qualifying for food stamps or Medicaid: Instead of punishing people who get paid a poverty wage, shame the companies that keep their workers in poverty.

 

As for unions, repealing the Taft-Hartley Act would allow workers to unionize and keep taxpayers from having to pay part of workers’ wages through food stamps and Medicaid.

 

 

A new type of union, micro-unions, is growing in popularity, and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) is recognizing their formations. The first one was created in 2011 at the rehabilitation center Specialty Healthcare where nursing assistants wanted to organize. This week, the NLRB recognized a small group of Macy’s employees, much to the dismay of industry groups. They claim that chaos will result if companies are forced to bargain with multiple unions at the same work site, but the reason is that employees are finding a way to unionize. Their objection is to what they call “gerrymandering,” a practice satisfactory to conservatives in private education and political voting units.

 

We’ll hear more about micro-unions. In April and June, bills have been introduced in Congress to block micro-unions. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) plans to introduce an amendment to the appropriations bill to stop them on the premise that they hurt the American worker. Graham represents the state with extremely low economic mobility. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has already upheld NLRB’s earlier ruling for micro-unions. It’s the next fight against re-creating the middle class in the United States.

June 16, 2014

Decline of the U.S.: Brandeis, Warren, Reich

Louis Brandeis’ book, Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, was published 100 years ago, but it has a strong parallel to Elizabeth Warren’s latest book, A Fighting Chance, according to reviewer Jill Lepore. Brandeis contends “that the country was being run by plutocrats and, especially, by investment bankers, who, by combining, consolidating, and aggregating the functions of banks, trusts, and corporations, controlled both the nation’s credit and the majority of its resources—including the railroads—and yet had not the least accountability to the public or any sense that the functions they had adopted were essentially those of a public utility.” He wrote:

“The power and the growth of power of our financial oligarchs comes from wielding the savings and quick capital of others. The fetters which bind the people are forged from the people’s own gold.”

One hundred years ago, the Gilded Age plutocrats used savings in banks to build giant, monopolistic conglomerates controlled by the shareholders instead of the people who had deposited their money into bank accounts. Brandeis’ book originally appeared in Harper’s as essays. Its compilation of facts and figures shows the massive control that banks wielded:

J. P. Morgan and the First National and the National City Bank together held “341 directorships in 112 corporations having aggregate resources or capitalization of $22,245,000,000,” a sum that is “nearly three times the assessed value of all the real estate in the City of New York” and “more than the assessed value of all the property in the twenty-two states, north and south, lying west of the Mississippi River.”

When Brandeis republished Other People’s Money in 1933 at a cost of $.15, the book was designed to influence President Roosevelt’s administration. The result was a number of anti-trust reforms and financial-industry regulations that grew the middle class during the middle decades of the last century.

While Brandeis’ book deals with the banks’ use of savings, Warren’s A Fighting Chance shows how banks today use the massive debt of the middle class to make money and wield control. With the repeal of financial reforms starting in the 1980s and the loss of the wall between commercial and savings banks from investment banks came the fetters on people from excessively-high interest rates on credit cards and mortgages. People were lured into a sense of false security with “teaser” rates before they faced the shock of skyrocketing interest rates.

Warren first published about bankruptcy in a monograph with Teresa A. Sullivan and Jay Lawrence Westbrook, As We Forgive Our Debtors: Bankruptcy and Consumer Credit in America (1989). Studying 2,400 bankruptcy petitions filed in 1981, they discovered that many of them belonged to the middle class. Over half were homeowners, and many were women rearing children. In The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt, published six years later, Warren reported on personal-bankruptcy filings a decade after her first study. She found that between 1979 and 1997, the number of these filings had increased by 400 percent.

Part of Brandeis’ work led to abolishing child labor and establishing maximum-hour and minimum-wage laws. These laws lost the power to help the middle class, starting with insufficient increase in minimum-wage during the late 1900s. Warren’s work concluded that women holding jobs and raising children become more economically vulnerable, not less. “For middle-class families, the most important part of the safety net for generations has been the stay-at-home mother,” Warren and her daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi, wrote in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke (2003). As wages grew stagnant for the middle class in the early 1980s, married women, like Warren’s mother decades earlier, were forced to get a job to help the financial crisis. Once the family grew dependent on the second income, there was no cushion for wages that continued to be stagnant.

stagnant wages

The only answer for struggling families was to spend savings. Once those were gone, they took on huge debts. The final step was filing for bankruptcy. Financial crisis for a two-income family is the loss of one of these jobs. Warren and Tyagi reported, “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse.” Between 1981 and 2001, the number of women filing for bankruptcy rose more than six hundred per cent.

During the battle for Massachusetts senator in 2012, Scott Brown tried to paint Warren as an Ivy League elitist. A Fighting Chance shows a far different picture. The divorced Warren was a single mother when she worked to get her college degrees and a registered Republican until the mid-1990s. It was her study of bankruptcy that destroyed her faith in unfettered market systems and “crony capitalism.”

A parallel to Elizabeth Warren’s work is Robert Reich’s research that has been recently promoted in the documentary, Inequality for All based on his book Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.

Income-Inequality-Graph-from-Robert-Reichs-New-Film

A recurring visual during the film is a suspension bridge superimposed over a graph of wealth concentration of wealth during the 20th century. The two high points are 1928 and 2008 when equality peaked in the United States. Immediately following both these peaks were crashes—the Great Depression and the Great Recession. At both these high points, the top 1 percent took home over 23 percent of the national income. Currently, 400 people in the United States have more wealth than the bottom half of people in the U.S. That’s 400 people with over $2 trillion who have the same wealth as over 150 million people in the United States.

share in income 1

The Golden Age from 1945 to about 1975 disappeared with the anti-union legislation and rapid increase in college tuition. Taxes were also high during this period of time, as much as a 70-percent marginal rate, but they shrank rapidly starting with 1980. At the same time, taxes on the middle class such as sales taxes and payroll taxes (including Social Security) rose.

During the time shown by the suspension bridge, other trends parallel the suspension bridge concept in reverse. Wages grew during the middle of the 20th century as did union memberships. By the 1980s, wages stayed stagnant and union membership shrank.

In his work, Reich goes farther than Warren to show how the rigged system destroys not only the people but the corporations. When workers lose an adequate share of the nation’s income, they can’t buy anything. Lower consumption equals lower corporate earnings. In a vicious cycle, resulting layoffs causes even lower corporate earnings and more layoffs. In short, it is the majority of people who are the job creators, not the wealthy.

share in total income

A common perception among conservatives is that people are poor because they won’t work. As more and more people struggle, that perception is gradually changing. The following chart shows that during the past two decades, more and more people understand that people who work hard cannot climb out of poverty. By 2012, less than one-fourth of the people blame “not working” instead of “not earning enough.”

chart poor people in us

Reading A Fighting Chance and watching Inequality for All (http://inequalityforall.com/) provide a great background for the problems we face and the ways that we can move forward.

May 5, 2014

Piketty Highlights U.S. Oligarchy

A study released almost a month ago officially proclaimed the United States as an oligarchy, replete with fraud and wealthy people controlling the country. Since then, Thomas Piketty’s new book, Capital in the 21st Century, has sent shock waves throughout the country, continuing to pit conservatives against progressives.

Piketty has studied income equality since 1991 in both the U.S. and at least 30 other countries. His research shows how the climbing income share of richest U.S. households led to the top one percent taking 22.5 percent of total income, the highest figure since 1928. To Piketty, capital is anything that generates monetary return from real estate to patents and stocks.

In the 1950s, the average CEO salary was 20 times as  much as the typical employee. Last year CEOs made an average of 331 times as their workers. Apple’s Tim Cook made 6,258 times as much the wage of an average Apple employee in 2011.  The next year, Walmart’s CEO made 1,000 times the average Walmart worker. In terms of income generated by work, the level of inequality in the United States is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world,” Piketty writes.

In the 1950s, the rise of the income tax for the wealthiest to 90 percent and estate taxes to more than 70 percent on the largest land holdings meshed with minimum wages and encouragement of trade unions to produce far less wealth inequality. Spending heavily on infrastructure boosted GDP growth, and firms kept senior executive pay in check. Twenty years later, Ronald Reagan cut government expenditures, decimated the unions, and slashed tax rates on the wealthy. Now the bottom 40 percent is in debt while the top one percent owns more than 35 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Piketty’s solutions anger conservatives. He recommends a tax of over 80 percent on the wealthiest, those with annual incomes over $1 million. This tax would limit the destructive activities of Wall Street traders and investment bankers. He also suggests a one-percent levy on households worth between $1 million and $5 million, increasing the levy to over two percent for greater net worth.

GOP leader Rush Limbaugh referred to the author as “some French socialist, Marxist, communist economist.” Limbaugh missed the part in which Piketty, as a reasonable scholar, pointed out the fallacies of Marxist analysis.  Piketty argues that capitalism does not necessarily reduce inequality, as other economists and even the Pope have already said. The few accumulate capital when growth is slower than the rate of return on capital. The opposite movement results in “dis-accumulating.” Companies can replace workers with machines in times of slower growth, meaning that the owners will acquire a greater share of the income with unequal distribution of that capital.

Conservatives claim that a social safety net compensating workers with tragically low wages allotted by “markets” bolsters their income. This “transfer” system is much less in the United States than in other developed nations. Another conservative response is that redistribution in the U.S. is more difficult because of lower government revenues. If they believe that a better transfer system would help inequality, they need to put more money into the safety net. Nobody on the right, however, is arguing for this solution.

Another conservative argument is that consumption is equal between the bottom and the top fifths of households in the United States. It’s part of the “but they have cellphones” complaint from the right. The spending from the bottom fifth comes from debt, proving that wealth inequality is increasing: the poor go farther into debt, and the rich acquire more wealth. The recent increase in credit car debit comes from unemployment, children, declining home value, and lack of health insurance. The bottom 90 percent can’t save their incomes to establish a net worth.

saving rates comp. wealthy poor

Conservative economists such as Milton Friedman could afford to regard capitalism as an effective way to maintain income equality. Born in 1912, he did much of his work in the Golden Age of income and lived in the top 10 percent of income. The Reagan era built the coffin for a prosperous society. The following chart on shows the shifts in income inequality throughout the last century.

091113inequality-600x466

In the 1990s, President Clinton dropped the regulations on Wall Street, setting in motion the economic disaster excerbated by George W. Bush when he spent like a drunken sailor on wars and drastically reduced taxes for the rich. With almost no control on investment banks or regulations on borrowing, the country lacked resources to save itself from the Great Recession of 2008. The conservatives took over in 2010 and used their philosophy of not spending money to further reduce GDP growth. The solution to Bush’s disaster was increase spending and demand, but conservatives, especially the 2010 crop of Tea Party congressional legislators, depressed demand and thus depressed the recovery.

When the U.S. Supreme Court protects businesses against the rest of the population, they may be following the Constitution. In the early 1900s, historian Charles Beard wrote that the document’s authors wanted to favor wealthy merchants and plantation owners against laborers and small farmers. A primary author of the Constitution, James Madison, believed that government’s main goal is “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” With a philosophy that “the property of landed proprietors would be insecure if elections were open to all classes of people,” he controlled the number of voters to six percent of the U.S. population. The first chief justice of the US Supreme Court, John Jay, believed that “those who own the country ought to govern it.”

The current Roberts court has sided with business 71 percent of the time compared to the 43 percent during the time under former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger between 1981 and 1986 and in 56 percent of cases decided during William Rehnquist’s tenure as chief. Carefully managed elections give voters a choice of candidates chosen by the corporations and the billionaires. Nomi Prins, a former managing partner at Goldman Sachs writes:

“With so much power in the hands of an elite few, America operates more as a plutocracy on behalf of the upper caste than a democracy or a republic. Voters are caught in the crossfire of two political parties vying to run Washington in a manner that benefits the banking caste, regardless of whether a Democrat or Republican is sitting in the Oval.”

The result is the Trans Pacific Partnership, a secretly negotiated trade agreement written by 600 corporate advisers; the attempt to do away with net neutrality and free transmission of data on the internet; and lack of criminal prosecutions for Wall Street regulation violations. Corporations like Monsanto defraud farmers and damage the health of people who suffer from their pesticides and GMOs. The Affordable Care Act, while helping many people, still enriches the insurance industry. The Keystone XL Pipeline comes ever nearer to completion so that wealthy companies can destroy the country’s resources in order to sell oil out of the country. The self-appointed militia is still terrorizing people in Nevada. And every minute the income inequality grows.

With the loss of income inequality comes the loss of rights—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, voting rights, access to the internet.

May 1, celebrated last week, has many different meanings. It was originally a pagan celebration of spring and then commemorated the working class. In 1884, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions declared that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.” Employers who refused could be faced with strikes and demonstrations. On that date, over 300,000 workers in 13,000 businesses walked off their jobs.

Frightened by a celebration of labor and bolstered by prejudice, the GOP declared May 1 as “Americanization Day” by 1921. In 1958, Eisenhower named May 1 as “Law Day,” and the Congress then changed “Americanization Day” to “Loyalty Day” when people are to affirm “loyalty to the United States.” The changes were meant to “suppress the celebration of May Day.” Adding to the multitude of “celebrations” this year is that the “National Day of Prayer,” designated on the first Thursday of May, also fell on May 1.

I live in one of the few towns that still celebrates “Loyalty Days” with a royal court, parade, and carnival. Last weekend I looked out my window at heavy wind and rain that may have ruined a bit of the “loyalty” fun and thought about the people who sacrificed their jobs and lives so that the middle class and the poor of the United States could have better lives. They deserved better from their efforts than the condition of the United States today. Thomas Piketty’s book on the growing income equality of the country may bring people closer to the tipping point where they refuse to accept the status quo of oligarchy.

April 23, 2014

U.S. Becomes Oligarchy

It’s official! Instead of a democracy, the United States is now an oligarchy, meaning profoundly corrupt, according to a study to appear this fall in the Perspectives on Politics:

“Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But [the country has] “the nearly total failure of ‘median voter’ and other Majoritarian Electoral Democracy theories [of America]. When the preferences of economic elites and the stands of organized interest groups are controlled for, the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

Authors Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page of “Testing Theories of American Politics” point out that the available data probably under-represents the super-rich control of the United States. This first-ever scientific study of whether the nation is a democracy tests the theoretical predications study in an examination of 1,779 policy issues. The study’s findings show that the United States now follows the pattern of Russia and other countries that claim to be “electoral” “democratic” countries.

The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The following shows a few of these ignored preferences in which the GOP House members ignore the will of the public:

  • 62% oppose the subsidies that the federal government gives to oil, gas and coal companies.
  • 67% believe there is solid evidence of climate change. [In the House, 56 percent of Republicans deny basic science behind climate change.]
  • 65% favor setting stricter emission limits on power plants in order to address climate change.
  • 80% believe that unauthorized immigrants who have been in the country for years and are employed, speak English, and would pay back taxes should be allowed to become citizens.
  • 33% support delaying, defunding, or repealing the Affordable Care Act. [This was almost a year ago as the House was in the midst of its 50 attempts to do this.]
  • 27% want Congress to drop long-term unemployment benefits. [Thus far, the House has followed the 27 percent.)
  • 73% want the minimum wage raised to $10.10.
  • 79% want background checks for all guns that are purchased.
  • 75% believe all politicians are “corrupted” by campaign donations and lobbyists.
  • 70% believe politicians use their political power to help their friends and hurt their enemies.

Although President Obama just signed a pet bill from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) that all the Democrats opposed, Cantor later accused the president of refusing to work with him. The new law provides $126 million for pediatric disease research named after one of Cantor’s constituents who died of a brain tumor.  Cantor’s complaint may have been about the Democrat’s refusal to pass their weak immigration reform bill that was tied to repealing the Affordable Care Act.

http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/koch-brothers-wealth-surges-past-100-billion-they-try-buy-senate?akid=11725.266883.UC6dt4&rd=1&src=newsletter982832&t=4  The Koch brothers, whose net worth just passed $100 billion, is an excellent example of the corruption in the falsehoods in their ads against the Affordable Care Act.

  • A leukemia patient said her policy was cancelled and she would die without medication.
  • A woman said her policy went up $700 a month because of Obamacare.
  • Residents in Louisiana open letters from health care companies telling about the evils of Obamacare.

An ad for a Stainmaster carpet, one of the Kochs’ many products, would require the ad to “conspicuously disclose that the persons in such advertisements are not actual consumers,” according to Hill columnist Mark Mellman. There were no cancellations that caused these problems, no letters sent out, and no residents—just paid actors. At this time, only 15 states require that political campaign ads cannot be false. A  Supreme Court case heard yesterday may allow all political ads to lie as much as they want. The government is arguing that lying in campaign ads is an important part of free speech on April 22 in the case Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus.

The protection of armed self-identified military members that kept rancher Cliven Bundy from obeying federal law and cheat the government out of money is another example of oligarchy. Wealthy right-wing billionaires manipulated Tea Part members and right-wing media fought for Bundy’s rights not to pay his 20-year debts. A millionaire gets to declare that the United States doesn’t exist so that he can keep fattening his cattle on land that taxpayers own and then sell them at a profit that he keeps for himself.

The Koch brothers will reap any wins from Bundy because they have vast investments in mineral and cattle industries. They just send out Americans for Prosperity to make themselves more prosperous, driving the country farther in oligarchy-land.

The United States of Oligarchy gave $1.2 trillion to the top Fortune 100 companies between 2000 and 2012. That amount doesn’t include the billions of dollars that housing, auto, and banking enterprises made in 2008 and 2009 nor does it include subsidies for ethanol. Open the Books found that the government military contracts with private firms brought billions of dollars, for example Lockheed Martin ($392 billion), General Dynamics ($170 billion), and United Technologies ($73 billion). Another $21.8 billion in direct subsidies went to corporate recipients, and giant oil companies got another $8.5 billion.

The recent Supreme Court ruling of McCutcheon v. FEC, giving the wealthy almost unlimited opportunities to buy lawmakers, ignored the rapidly increasing inequality in wealth. Since the 1960s, the richest 0.1 percent of U.S. households, each averaging over $20 million, have more than doubled their share of U.S. wealth from 10 to 20 percent. That 0.1 percent equals about 316,000 people. They get rich because the only way to add wealth is saving and investing. Wealthy people can do this so their net worth compounds while the rest of the people have to spend their income to provide food and shelter.

trickle down

Despite the vast wealth that these people have, they’re incensed by criticism. The top one percent got 95 percent of the nation’s income growth from 2009 to 2012, their income grew by 31 percent while the 99 percent got 0.4 percent, and they’re upset because some of the media points this out. They still pay taxes at a lower rate than the middle-class, and they accuse people of being jealous, comparing the populist threats to Hitler’s statements in Germany.

When Rep. Dave Camp (R-MI) suggested that the ten biggest Too Big to Fail Banks pay a tax as partial payment to taxpayers who bailed them out to give the wealthy more money, GOP leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner quashed any possibility of this even getting a vote. Goldman Sachs cancelled meetings with the RNC about fundraisers, and the bank lobby demanded that GOP renounce this heresy. Fifty-four GOP House members sent a letter to Camp about their deep concerns that the proposal would reduce access to credit and slow growth. Camp retired.

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, billionaire Tom Perkins compared the reaction of the “anti-rich radicals” toward the super-rich to Kristallnacht, Hitler’s pre-Holocaust attack on the Jews. He suggested that the number of votes from people should be equivalent to the amount of taxes that they pay. He refuses to belief that this situation already exists, thanks to the Supreme Court.

Even an economist from JP Morgan doesn’t believe the bunk of “trickle-down” economics that supports the myth that giving the wealthy all the money will create wealth for the poor and middle classes. Michael Feroli broke this balloon when he stated that consumer spending is lagging by $1 trillion historically anticipated.

 

Since the end of the recession, households spend only 1.7 cents of each extra dollar earned as compared to 3.8 cents between 1952 to 2009. There does seem to be a limit to what the wealthy can buy, and the rest of the people don’t have the money to spend. Harvard Business Review blogger Andrew O’Connell wrote that the top 5 percent of U.S. earners increased spending by 17 percent compared to a one-percent increase for everyone else.

Another study published in the Political Research Quarterly found that only the rich are represented in the U.S. senate. A review of the voting records of senators in five Congresses found them consistently aligned with their wealthiest constituents. Lower-class constituents didn’t influence the Senators’ voting behavior.

This is only part of the picture. More later.

April 2, 2014

SCOTUS Puts ‘Citizens United’ on Steroids

scalia_for_saleAlthough the Hobby Lobby decision could be much more far-reaching than Citizens United, Windsor, and overturning the voting act, the case of McCutcheon v. FEC matches Hobby Lobby in impact. Through declaiming “free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court again put democracy up for sale. Its decision struck down the $123,000 two-year limit to campaign contribution limits, $48,600 to all federal candidates and $74,600 to all political committees. The aggregate limits that stopped money laundering schemes in which donors and political parties could evade the cap on donations to individual candidates has been erased.

Now people can donate the maximum per-candidate and per-party to as many sources as they want. One person can now donate $3.6 million directly to candidates and parties in a single election cycle and much more to “independent” groups like Super PACs because of Citizens United. Donated money can legally be redistributed to the races where it is likely to have the most impact.

Some of Citizens United affects:

  • The 32 top Super PAC donors who gave $9.9 million each matched the $313 million raised from small donors for both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney of under $200 from 3.7 million people.
  • Almost 60 percent of Super PAC funding came from 159 donors, and more than 93 percent of the Super PAC money came in contributions of at least $10,000 from only 3,318 people—0.0011 percent of people in the United States.
  • Shel Adelson’s $91.8 million donation is equivalent to the entire net worth of 322,000 average-earning U.S. families.

McCutcheon is worse.

The election cycle limits of $5,200 per candidate and $32,400 per party committee stand, but there is no longer any top limit. Wealthy donors no longer needs to pick and choose among campaigns: they can just fling money everywhere. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) targeted the problem: “I predict again, there will be major scandals in campaign finance contributions that will cause reform. There will be scandal. There’s too much money washing around.”

Reince Priebus, RNC chair, is cheering. House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) praised the Supreme Court. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that he wanted to erase all contribution limits.

The man who won big with the SCOTUS decision is Shaun McCutcheon, owner of Coalmont Electrical Development which makes industrial electrical equipment for coal mines. Fracking, green energy, and believers in the dangers of climate change are hurting his business. Despite the fact that 98 percent of climate scientists understand the dangers of fossil fuels in the changing planet, McCutcheon passed along words from deniers such as S. Fred Singer as his personal beliefs:

“The good news is that science evidence [sic] has made it quite clear that the human contribution to a possible global warming is minor; in fact it cannot even be identified in the data record.”

With more and more evidence against Singer’s position, McCutcheon needs to bribe more people to legislate in his favor, and SCOTUS just gave that ability to him. Each oil, coal, and gas industry executive can spend $312,455,200 in this election to buy lawmakers. That’s a 2,600 percent increase in their legal donations. And it’s a pittance to them. The $150 million that Shel Adelson and his wife donated to GOP PACs last year is the equivalent of $280 to a person worth $50,000. Adelson makes $32 million, more than twice the $150 million, each day for the entire year. 

In 1976, the Supreme Court ruled that the legal basis for upholding campaign finance regulations is to prevent corruption. The Roberts Court takes the position that there are no strings attached to the huge sums of money that wealthy people pay for lawmakers. The majority’s definition of the corrupting “quid pro quo” exists only if a specific result is purchased from a specific legislator—according to five members of the Supreme Court. As in Citizens United, the majority of the court fails to consider “the possibility that an individual who spends large sums may garner ‘influence over or access to’ elected officials or political parties. Once again, Roberts tells Congress that if they want good laws, then they should pass them—knowing full well that the GOP will never try to pass any controls on campaign contributions until it works against them.

J. Gerald Hebert, the executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and one of the nation’s foremost voting rights and campaign finance attorneys, described the ruling as arrogant:

 “The Court today abandoned any pretense of respecting Supreme Court precedent or Congressional expertise on matters of campaign finance when it struck down longstanding federal limits on aggregate contributions to candidates, parties and PACs. Once again, the Roberts Court exhibits its complete ignorance of political realities, or worse, chose to ignore those realities, in striking down laws written by Congress, which is intimately aware of the political corruption that will likely ensue in the wake of this decision.”

robertsAs Ari Berman wrote:

“In the past four years, under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the Supreme Court has made it far easier to buy an election and far harder to vote in one.

“The Court’s conservative majority believes that the First Amendment gives wealthy donors and powerful corporations the carte blanche right to buy an election but that the Fifteenth Amendment does not give Americans the right to vote free of racial discrimination.

“These are not unrelated issues – the same people, like the Koch brothers, who favor unlimited secret money in US elections – are the ones funding the effort to make it harder for people to vote. The net effect is an attempt to concentrate the power of the top 1 percent in the political process and to drown out the voices and votes of everyone else. […]

“A country that expands the rights of the powerful to dominate the political process but does not protect fundamental rights for all citizens doesn’t sound much like a functioning democracy to me.”

Roberts, whose court allowed all states to keep people from voting, will probably never appreciate the irony of his introduction to McCutcheon:  “[t]here is no right more basic in our democracy than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.” 

Media contributes to the dumbing down of people in the United States. Today’s Huffington Post shows how far downhill it has gone since it was sold. The “business” section starts with Starbucks resuming its selling sweetened bread by the slice. This announcement was before GM’s CEO, Mary Barra calling the failure of her company to recall defective cars that killed 303 people in the last 12 years as  “very disturbing.” Following that was the vital information from WSJ that Southwest Airlines is beginning to look just like all the others.

An article on two men saving puppies from a flood is followed by gratuitous celebrity reporting, including “Britney Spears news.” Under “Twitterati” is Justin Bieber’s sage comment, “Why does everyone look like my mom on twitter. lol.” Finish with “how long would you survive the zombie apocalypse,” and you have a diet of reports that can well compete for the most inane Internet entries for the day.

The people who claim that money has no benefit in rulings should consider this news. Wealthy Robert H. Richards IV, who lives off his trust fund, was convicted of raping his three-year-old daughter. After his conviction in 2009, his wife filed another lawsuit charging that he penetrated his daughter with his fingers while masturbating and then molested his infant son. Yet Judge Jan Jurden ruled that the great-grandson of du Pont family patriarch Irenee du Pont would have only probation because he “will not fare well” in prison. As Delaware Public Defender Brendan J. O’Neill said, it is “extremely rare” for someone to fare well in prison. A defense lawyer agreed with the public defender. Michael W. Modica said, “I’ve never heard of the judge saying in general that he is not going to do well. Who thrives in jail?”

This is the kind of money that bought five justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Today is National Walking Day, the day that the U.S. Supreme Court walked away from the U.S. Constitution—again.

February 3, 2014

Conservatives Need to Understand Income Inequality

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Two pieces in today’s newspaper caught my eye because they discussed the growing income inequality throughout the United States. One article described the disappearance of the middle class through the growth of high-end and fast-food restaurants. Those in the middle such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster (that belong to the same company) are losing customers.

John Maxwell, head of global retail and consumer practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers, explained, “You don’t want to be caught in the middle.” And the situation is getting worse. In 2012, the top 5 percent of earners did 38 percent of domestic consumption, up from 28 percent in 1995. That’s a rise of 30 percent in less than 20 years. Between 2009 and 2012, 90 percent of the increase of consumption came from the top 20 percent of households.

Even conservatives are recognizing the inequality, as demonstrated by a column from far-right Robert Samuelson. His rationale for the gap, however, is not the gluttonous rich. “The poor are not poor because the rich are rich. The two conditions are generally unrelated.” According to Samuelson, people are wealthy because they run successful businesses or have professional careers. He argues against raising the minimum wage because the poor are “not in the labor force.”

Samuelson does confess that pretax incomes of the top 1 percent did increase 190 percent between 1980 and 2010. Since 2009, however, the top 1 percent grabbed 95 percent of the post-recession growth at a time when 90 percent of people in the United States grew poorer. Samuelson  blames the bottom 95 percent for borrowing during the 1980s when “income growth slowed.” Because “debt led to a consumption boom that was unsustainable,” people suffered—but it was their fault. Samuelson claims that the rich aren’t to blame for the income gap.

A recent Oxfam report, “Working for the Few,” on global wealth inequality shows the seriousness of the income inequality. Around the world, 85 people own as much as half the world’s population. That’s 3.5 billion people. The richest 1 percent in the world has $110 trillion, 65 times the total wealth of those 3.5 billion people who collectively own about $1.7 trillion—about 0.7 percent of the world’s wealth.

The U.S., with 5 percent of the world’s population and 30 percent of the wealth, is largely responsible for the disparity because the net worth of 30 people in this country equals that of half the U.S. population—157,000,000 people. China, India, and Africa combined have about half the world’s population and just 12% of the wealth.

With its 1.1 percent of the nation’s wealth, that same bottom half of people in the U.S. own a smaller percentage of the country’s wealth than almost all other countries and continents. In Asia, the poorest half of the country owns 1.3 percent of the wealth, in Africa 2.1 percent, in Latin America 3.2 percent, in India 4.5 percent, in the United Kingdom 7.6 percent, and in China 9.6 percent.

People in the United States also have much less chance of moving up to a higher level of income than in any other place in the world. Seven of ten in poverty will stay there. The conservative politicians who lowered the food stamps for the poor while maintaining farm subsidies for the wealthy (including themselves) keep arguing that people are poor because they aren’t willing to work hard. If that were true, many of the poor would climb up the ladder. The Global Wealth Databook reports:

“North America is…less mobile than other regions, especially over longer time horizons. Europe is next in line, followed by the middle group of Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Africa. The most mobile regions are China and India.”

Almost everyone in the United States suffers from the income inequality not seen in this country for almost 100 years. Income inequality is at its highest since 1928, the year before the Great Depression began. The U.S. media of $44,911 is only 15 percent of the $301,140 mean (greatly skewed by the richest 10 percent). That ratio is less than any other of the 27 developed countries in the Databook and far less than the average OECD ratio of 35 percent.

People in the United States do have a growing awareness of the increase in the income gap; 65 percent of them think that this gap has increased in the past 10 years. In the United States, 70 percent of the people want the government to reduce the gap; 43 percent of them say that the government should play a large role in doing this. Another 82 percent say that the government should do “a lot” or “some” to reduce poverty. The minimum wage should be raised to $10.10, according to 73 percent of respondents, and another 63 percent want the emergency unemployment insurance extended for another year. Even 54 percent of the people would raise taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

One effect of extreme income inequality is illness. During the past 30 years life expectancy of workers retiring at 65 increased by six years in the top half of income distribution but only 1.3 years in the bottom half. Because poorer communities have fewer health care providers and lack education about health care, people living there are much more likely to have chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Lack of safety is another issue with rising economic inequality. Homicide rates increased at the same rate as the income gap according to studies in 1999 and 2002. The National Bureau of Economic Research reported that “a twenty percent drop in wages leads to a 12 to 18 percent increase in youth crime.”

With higher inequality comes lower levels of representative democracy—and a higher probability of revolution. Poorer citizens believe—sometimes accurately—that government serves only the rich. According to the Huffington Post’s Paul Blumenthal, “The top 0.01 percent of campaign donors—one percent of the one percent–contributed more than 40 percent of all the money spent in the 2012 elections.” In 1980 the political contributions from the top 0.01 percent was under 15 percent. The 17 groups funded by the Koch brothers raised at least $407 million for the 2012 campaign, more than both major parties spend during the 2000 election. The influence from special interest groups causes greater income inequality.

On one winter day in 2012, over 633,000 people were homeless in the United States. Providing shelter at $558 per month, these people could have shelter for a little over $4 billion. Last year, the stock market grew by $4.7 trillion. A wealth tax of just one-tenth of 1 percent (one dollar per thousand) would provide this $4 billion. And the wealthiest people keep getting wealthier.

A huge problem with income inequality is the resulting difficulty to achieve long-term economic growth. The International Monetary Fund concluded that societies like the United States suffering from a huge gap between the wealthy and everyone else “are more vulnerable to both financial crises and political instability.” If hit by external shocks, these societies “often stumble into gridlock rather than agree to tough policies needed to keep growth alive.” It’s a circular situation: gridlock causes greater economic problems, and more economic problems causes more gridlock.

The indictment of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife symbolizes the cause of income inequality. Politicians sell out the people who elect them for personal wealth as millionaires and billionaires buy deals, policies, and laws. Tax breaks, bailing out Wall Street, refusal to regulate industrial chemicals that poison drinking water—all these are bought by the wealthy to benefit themselves and impoverish the rest of the population.

After World War II, legislation increased economic opportunity and decreased income inequality through high income and inheritance tax rates for the wealthy, support for labor unions to bargain for living wages, and a culture that does not support a CEO’s wage for an hour equaling a worker’s salary for an entire year. Three decades later, the success of the nation began to disintegrate, and a half century after the success of the mid-twentieth century, millionaire Mitt Romney pays a lower income tax rate than middle-class people.

The wealthy are the cause of the income gap. The question is whether they will change the country’s culture before the bottom 90 percent declares a revolution.

January 20, 2014

Honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beliefs

Today the United States honored Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., born on January 15, 1929, and assassinated on April 4, 1968. The history books accent King as a civil rights leader, but he also championed issues of poverty and income inequality while being a strong critic of U.S. foreign policy and the Vietnam War. Forgetting that the leading Republicans in the United States opposed honoring him with a paid “holiday” for over 30 years, a county GOP organization co-opted his name for a fund-raising project.

greek orthodox churchThe GOP party of Multnomah County (OR), a small red enclave in strongly blue surroundings, got the attention it wanted when it announced its raffle for an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to honor—get this?—“two great Republicans,” Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Originally, the group planned to announce the raffle winner at a Lincoln Day dinner on Feb. 15 at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Cathedral in northeast Portland. Church leaders pulled their offer to rent space to the GOP for the party after protests such as this one by United Church of Christ minister Chuck Currie: 

“You don’t honor a minister who preached non-violence by auctioning off the same kind of weapon used in the mass killings of children [at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CN.]”

The GOP organization is still making its money. All 500 tickets were sold for $10 each, very possibly because of all the publicity. Yet they are suffering ridicule. Lincoln’s form of Republicanism was anti-slavery and anti-secession while promoting economic growth through high tariffs and high wages and providing generous pensions to Union veterans. The opposing party at that time, Democrats, followed the same policies as today’s GOP. King wasn’t even a Republican: he refused to endorse either party.

Anne Marie Gurney, the county party’s vice-chair, said that county party leaders didn’t even think about the fact that both Lincoln and King were killed by guns; they just remembered that both of them are celebrated at this time of the year.

A few Republicans weren’t quite as clueless as party leaders. Bruce McCain, a Portland attorney and conservative blogger, said.  “Why would you tie that to an assassinated president and an assassinated civil rights leader?” He added that the party may make a few thousand dollars but will turn off urban voters already sour on the GOP that comprises only 15 percent of the county’s registered voters.

Yesterday, Manhattan’s Middle Collegiate Church honored King by transforming a gun into a mattock. The Bible verse in Isaiah 2:4 states: “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” Colorado Springs resident Mike Martin, 31, began converting guns into useful objects after the shootings at Newtown (CN). He lives about an hour away from Aurora where a man shot and killed 12 people in 2012.

Every day people with guns kill an average of 32 people. Martin said, “It’s like a Newtown is happening every day, it’s just scattered across the country.” A schoolchild is fatally shot every three days, making each month the equivalent of the Newtown massacre.

david sarasohnLong-time columnist David Sarasohn cut to the center of the issue. When referring to the disappointment about the church canceling a venue for the GOP dinner, he wrote: “The Multnomah GOP no doubt has lots of other big events to come. It’s a little terrifying to imagine how they plan to mark Easter. Or even Passover.” Or the 176th celebration of John Wilkes Booth on May 10. In commenting on Gurney’s assertion that no one thought about both Lincoln and King being assassinated with guns, Sarasohn wrote, “This is a little bit like talking about Vietnam and forgetting it had a war.”

Sarasohn hit the bull’s eye when he pointed out that “the basic goal of a political party is not to conduct successful raffles, but to win elections….  In Multnomah, Republicans are approaching third-party status, awkward when there isn’t a second party. With their repeated rifle raffle approach, Multnomah Republicans are counting on the success of a strategy because it’s loud and gets attention. That actually works some days; just not Election Day. Maybe not Martin Luther King Day, either.”

Gun legislation protesters also try to persuade people that King was in favor of no gun legislation. He did apply for a permit to carry a concealed handgun in 1956 after his house was bombed. Police found him “unsuitable” because he was black and denied him the right. Bayard Rustin Rev. Glenn Smiley both tried to convince King that the guns lying around his house were inappropriate, and King soon agreed with them. Three years later he traveled to India to study Gandhi’s form of non-violence. 

In September 1962, when a 200-pound white man, the 24-year-old American Nazi Party member Roy James, attacked King during a speech, King dropped his hands and spoke calmly to his attacker, making no effort to protect himself.

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy almost six years before his own death, King said:

“Our late President was assassinated by a morally inclement climate. It is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence. It is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder. It is the same climate that murdered Medgar Evers in Mississippi and six innocent Negro children in Birmingham, Alabama.

“So in a sense we are all participants in that horrible act that tarnished the image of our nation. By our silence, by our willingness to compromise principle, by our constant attempt to cure the cancer of racial injustice with the Vaseline of gradualism, by our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”

As King said in his speech, the Second Amendment is like all the other amendments: it does not give unrestricted rights to people.

Today honors the birth of Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow marks the fourth anniversary of Citizens United, the Supreme Court decision that gave far more control of the government to the wealthy and the big corporations through allowing them unfettered donations to campaigns. Both these anniversaries concern racial and economic inequality because justice for minorities depends on economic opportunities. Conversely, racial anxiety produces hostility toward broad distribution of wealth as shown by the tax breaks, deregulation, and reduced social spending that benefits only the wealthy.

MLKvaluesRemembering Martin Luther King, Jr. also means remembering his words:

“What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee? … What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?”

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the well-being of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.”

“An individual has not started living until he can rise above trhe narrow confines of his individualist concerns to the broader concerns of humanity.”

It’s time for all the people who vote only for people and laws that will further themselves consider that without caring for others, all humanity will dissolve.

December 1, 2013

Religion at War

How can we attack President Obama? Let me count the ways.

Rev. James David Manning, birther pastor of Atlah World Missionary Church, has presented another conspiracy theory surrounding President Obama. Miriam Carey, the mentally ill woman shot and killed after she tried to ram her car into a barrier outside the White House during the October government shutdown, was the mother of President Obama’s illegitimate child. People will know the truth by giving Carey’s child a DNA test. Also Michelle Obama is biologically male—according to Manning.

More reasonable people—at least when compared to Manning—have other conspiracy theories about the president. The Washington Post started the most recent religious kerfuffle one in this report about the U.S. embassy’s move from the Vatican:

“The Obama administration, in what’s been called an egregious slap in the face to the Vatican, has moved to shut down the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See–a free-standing facility–and relocate offices onto the grounds of the larger American Embassy in Italy.”

The Breitbart blog, which lives on long after its namesake’s death, changed the story from “moving” to “shutting it down.” Fox Nation loved the change and used its top story to declare that President Obama intends to “close” the embassy to the Holy See.

Rep. Michael Grimm (R-NY) called the action a “slap in the face” to the nation’s Roman Catholics, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched a petition drive to protest the move, calling it “the latest anti-religion pursuit” of the Obama administration and a decision that “weakens America’s position as a global leader.”

Even Jeb Bush, who holds no elected office at this time, decided that the issue would provide fodder for a possible presidential run in 2016 and called the move a “retribution for Catholic organizations opposing Obamacare.” In reality, his brother started the re-location: George W. Bush’s administration bought buildings for a new embassy location that is one-tenth of a mile closer to the Vatican. There is no reduction in staff or activities. The new location is part of the larger U.S. compound in Rome which houses the U.S. Embassy to Italy and the U.S. mission to the U.N. offices in Rome. The move increases security and saves up to $1.4 million a year.

There is wide-spread Catholic support for the Affordable Care Act. The Catholic Hospital Association (CHA), a trade group of Catholic hospitals, endorsed health care reform and in July of this year announced that it is also satisfied with the administration’s contraception rule. A majority of U.S. Catholics also agree that religiously affiliated groups should comply with the mandate.

Pope Francis himself caused a kerfuffle this week after he released the first major document as head of the Catholic Church. In the Evangelii Gadium, or Joy of the Gospel, he condemned “trickle-down” economic policies, calling rampant capitalism “a new tyranny. The pope also compared the obsession with wealth to a “new and ruthless” form of worshiping a false idol and argued it reduces humans to creatures of consumption. He may have been referring to a permanent “Black Friday” mentality.

“In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.”

Francis also called on the rich to share their wealth, arguing that there should be a commandment that guides humans to be inclusive of all people and eliminate economic inequality from society.

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

Most of his 224-page document, an “apostolic exhortation” that lays out the pope’s platform for his rule, was a concern regarding economic inequality. The pope has thus far led by example, using a Ford Focus for travel instead of the traditional luxury vehicles for Pope Benedict XVI and living in a guest house rather than the palatial papal apartments.

Calling for an overhaul of the financial system, the pope warned that the inequity of wealth will inevitably lead to violence.

“As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.”

The action that the pope wants will go “beyond a simple welfare mentality.” He wrote, “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.”

The pope’s position directly opposed Ronald Reagan’s signature economic theory, which continues to be the ideology worshipped by conservative Republicans. Francis’ lament that people had “calmly accepted (the) dominion” of money over themselves and society, expressed in the recent financial crisis and the continuing promotion of consumer-based economies, was not well-taken by far-right wingnuts.

Stuart Varney, Fox Business host, lectured the pope on the U.S. system that gave 40 percent of the country’s wealth to four people:

“Capitalism, in my opinion, is a liberator. The free choice of millions of people is the essence of freedom. In my opinion, society benefits most when people are free to pursue their own self-interest. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it is not.”

Fox is big on mixing religion and business, but Varney thinks that the pope shouldn’t do this—at least when the pope disagrees with Varney:

“I go to church to save my soul. It’s got nothing to do with my vote. Pope Francis has linked the two. He has offered direct criticism of a specific political system. He has characterized negatively that system. I think he wants to influence my politics.”

Varney never criticized the former Pope John Paul II, who really liked private property and hated communism. That religious leader never tried to make rich people who had too much feel bad because millions of people had too little.

Cliff Kinkaid, director of the misnamed Accuracy in Media, went farther when he spread a video on the Internet to explain that Marxists have infiltrated the Catholic Church. He insisted:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not here to beat up on the pope. That’s not my job. But I can read. I can read this document. I can see what he is saying, and I can tell you right now that this is a very, very disappointing document, and it makes me wonder about the future of the Roman Catholic Church in this world and what they’re heading towards.”

Kinkaid found an evil commie plot in the Roman Catholic Church supporting one world government. According to him, Pope Francis uses “flowery language” to camouflage this sinister plot, or  “what we might euphemistically call a new world order, a new world economic order.”

Pam Geller, Islamophobic blogger/activist, is upset because the pope doesn’t want to destroy all Muslims:

“At a time when Christianity worldwide is under siege by Islamic jihadists, the leader of the Catholic Church claims that the quran teaches non-violence. As Christians across the Muslim world live in abject terror and fear kidnapping, rape and slaughter to the bloodcurdling cries of ‘Allahu akbar,’ the pope gives papal sanction to the savage.”

Pope Francis offended Geller by comparing “violent fundamentalism” with “authentic Islam.” The latter, he wrote, was “opposed to every form of violence.” Geller asked when the pope became an imam, a requirement to read the Koran, although she too has quote passages from the Islam holy book.

Bryan Fischer, the director of issue analysis for government and public policy at the American Family Association (AFA), is as anti-Islam as Geller. This week he told his followers that the Constitution allows U.S. officials to “make Islam illegal” and “prohibit the building of mosques.” Because the First Amendment, that protects freedom of religion, begins with the word “Congress,” it only applies to the federal government and not the states until the 14th Amendment was passed in 1868.

The argument makes no sense, but far-right evangelicals never concern themselves with reason. After all, this is the same person who claims that the Bible requires an orca at SeaWorld to be stoned to death because the animal caused the death of its trainer.

The last piece of craziness in this week’s column comes from Southern Baptist leader Richard Land who wrote that “the best option” for unmarried mothers is giving up their children for adoption. “A single mother who keeps her baby is quite often denying that baby the father that God wants for that baby, and every baby, to have,” Land argued. He said he knew there are 100,000 children waiting for adoption in the U.S. but still wants 11 million single mothers to give up their 20 million children.

September 9, 2013

Samuelson Turns Left, Odell Keeps Far Right

While eating out at my favorite breakfast place this morning and looking out at the sun over the ocean, I started, as usual, to read the newspaper. Frequently, I skip Robert Samuelson’s column because it tends to be such far-right twaddle. The headline, however, was intriguing: “What’s Stunting a Slow Recovery.” Curious about what myths the conservatives want to perpetrate, I checked out the first paragraph:

“In the struggle between capital and labor, capital is winning — and that’s hurting the feeble economic recovery. To simplify slightly: Labor (wage-earners and consumers) can’t spend; and capital (businesses and shareholders) won’t spend. Without a powerful growth engine, the economy advances haltingly. I wrote about this last week from labor’s perspective, but the subject deserves deeper treatment.”

Stunned by such a reasonable answer, I continued reading. He actually said that he had reported last week (missed that column!) that “labor’s share has plunged in the past decade. In 2013, it’s 57 percent. This shifts about $750 billion annually from labor to capital.”

And he kept on in a mildly progressive tone: “The shift worsens economic inequality, because capital income — dominated by profits — is skewed toward the wealthy. But the explanation is not a simple story of unbridled greed and undue influence.” Samuelson said that he didn’t know why. I could explain the reason, but he’s already come a long way.

According to Samuelson, the loss in labor’s share is global: “in 22 other advance countries … labor’s share fell from 73 percent in 1980 to 65 percent in 2011. The trend also occurs in poorer countries, including China, Turkey and Mexico, reports Timothy Taylor, managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives.”

Samuelson’s rationale is pure progressive:

“Labor’s shrinking share curbs consumer spending. The economy will then falter if the recipients of capital income don’t offset the weakness with increased spending on buildings, equipment, research and new products. Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to be happening. Corporate America is husbanding its profits. It invests mainly in the safest projects…. A well-functioning economy is a circular process by which one person’s spending becomes another person’s income, which is then spent again. Today, there’s a damaging disconnect between capital’s rising share and its subsequent spending. So the economy sputters.”

His answer is the same as real economists:

“What would improve the odds is more exuberance from the custodians of capital. CEOs seem content to sit on their profits and invest only when the needs and the returns are indisputable. Careless capital, which fostered the financial crisis, has given way to ultracautious capital, which is making a lackluster economy self-fulfilling.”

On the same page of the newspaper was a guest column from Oregon attorney Jill Gibson Odell, part of the Gibson Law Firm in conservative Washington County (OR), in support of a proposed “right to work” petition. Oregon has a system of initiatives: enough signatures can put anything on the ballot. In this case it’s temporarily called Public Employee Choice Act and would give public workers the right to not join a union if they wish. Odell touts “freedom,” becoming incensed when Gov. John Kitzhaber said, “A right-to-work state means you have a right to be exploited and ripped off and work at unsafe jobs and low wages and no benefits.”

Odell thinks that people should have the right to choose membership in a union in the same way that they want to choose abortions, assisted suicide, and marriage equality. She failed to point out whether she agreed with all these choices. According to Odell, “being pro-choice means that you believe in a person’s right to make his or her own life decisions, even if you don’t agree with those decisions.”

What Odell ignores about the “choice” to join a union is that unions are obligated under federal law to represent workers in their bargaining units, whether they are dues-paying members or not. Therefore all people get the same benefits even if they don’t pay for them, and the paying members have to pay for these non-paying users. They can be compared to people who think that they deserve all government benefits even if they “choose” to not pay any taxes although their level of income requires it.

States with “right to work for less” laws typically have worse economies. Because salaries are lower in those states, people pay less taxes. Even libertarians oppose right to work laws as shown by an editorial in Reason magazine late last year about the new law in Michigan:

“I consider the restrictions right-to-work laws impose on bargaining between unions and businesses to violate freedom of contract and association….  I’m disappointed that the state has, once again, inserted itself into the marketplace to place its thumb on the scale in the never-ending game of playing business and labor off against one another.”

Census data revealed that a 10-percent increase in union membership would boost the average annual income for middle-class households by $1,501 a year. In 2011 the five states with the lowest unionization rates—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Arkansas, and Louisiana—all had middle classes with below-average strength, defined as the share of income going to the middle 60 percent of households. Four out of the five states with the highest unionization rates—Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, and Michigan—all had middle classes with above-average strength.

Without unions, people would not have weekends, employee-provided health coverage (such as it is), and the Family and Medical Leave Act,   Without unions, the country would have child labor. In the prosperous 1950s, almost one in three workers in the United States belonged to a union; now we have no unions and no prosperity—except for the very top few percent of people. The following chart shows the correlation between middle class income and union membership.

unionincomeWisconsin is an excellent example of what can happen with the “right to work” law that Odell wants in Oregon. Gov. Scott Walker claimed that he would save the state by creating 250,000 jobs. Instead, this past June the state came in 49th in a monthly state-by-state index of leading economic growth indicators. Only four other states in the nation are in contraction—Alaska, Louisiana, North Dakota, and Wyoming—projected to decrease growth. Wisconsin is second from the bottom; all five states have GOP governors who are associated with lower rates of growth.

Two months earlier, Wisconsin came in as the fifth worst in terms of the erosion in private-sector wages. Forbes named Wisconsin one of the “worst states” for business in December of 2012. The governor led the state to the bottom of short term job growth from September 2010 and November 2012. That’s where Odell wants to take Oregon.

Wisconsin’s economic recovery started this summer, but, as blogger John Peterson pointed out, it’s not difficult to improve when you’re at the bottom. Even with the growth in average wage, it’s still 12 percent lower than the national norm, and income is 5.1 percent lower than the U.S. average.  The GOP pledged never to raise taxes, meaning that their only choice to fund transportation projects is through borrowing. Studies show that the states’ roads are rapidly worsening. Wisconsin companies received $34.23 per worker in venture capital, a five-year increase of 6.5 percent but far below the national average of $200.94.

I’m grateful to a conservative columnist like Samuelson who understands the serious issue of economic inequality in the United States and the importance of labor. Those of us who live in Oregon can only hope that we won’t follow Wisconsin because of people like Jill Gibson Odell.

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