What Can One Man Do?

January 28, 2014

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a prophet. I believe he spoke with a moral clarity that rivaled the tradition of Old Testament prophets, and with the same effect. We recently celebrated MLK Day and, as I reflected on his life and accomplishments, I had mixed feelings but felt a certain inspiration.

At the end of his life, Dr. King was speaking more often about reforming our society not only in terms of racial justice, but more so in terms of economic justice. “Poverty” he said, “was the most insidious form of violence”. He condemned the moral bankruptcy of “a society that spends more on weapons of mass destruction that on programs of social uplift…” and predicted its demise. He condemned a government which ignored the needs of its citizens to serve the interests of a few.

Like many of the Old Testament prophets, he was killed because of his message. It’s difficult for me to identify who has since taken up his mantle, especially in government. Dr. King was instrumental in passing the Voting Rights Bill, instrumental in inspiring the War on Poverty, and the political end of the Viet Nam War.

By 2014, The Voting Rights Bill was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court, and laws suppressing voting rights are flourishing. Even more insidious, was that economic injustice – the violence done to the hopes and dreams of the next generation of Americans – is more profound than it is has ever been in our history. Our own children today face the prospect of being the first generation of Americans to grow up in a third world economy for them and their children.

These days it rare to hear anyone in Congress speaking about the problems we face in moral terms and proposing moral solutions. I am not talking about bigots such as those who invoke “God’s Law” as a reason to hate Gays or women. I mean a person who has the courage to speak out in defense of those who cannot do so for themselves.

Such a Congressman might indeed be a “voice in the wilderness”, but as the life and words of Dr. King proved, one man with moral authority can change a society.     

State of the Union

January 28, 2014

When President Obama delivers his fifth State of the Union address he is reported to be emphasizing the problem of economic injustice. At first glance, this would seem to be a good thing, since the extraordinary re-distribution of wealth to the top 1% has only accelerated in the past 4 years, and the ability of Americans to improve their financial situation has significantly declined.

I say “at first glance” because without a radical change of policy the Obama Administration will only continue to accelerate these trends. Maybe some of you remember Jim DeMint’s infamous “you lie” outburst during the first State of the Union address by Obama? Maybe it should have been held in reserve for this one. Let me explain why …

The fact is that 95% of the benefits of the “Obama Recovery” have gone to only the top 1% of the wealthiest Americans. The fact is that during the same Administration that has prosecuted more whistle-blowers than all other Presidents combined, prosecutions of white collar crime has virtually stopped. Journalists, Congress, academics … all agree that illegal activity by Wall Street bankers has escalated since the taxpayer bailouts, illegal activity that has robbed the taxpayers of countless billions SINCE the bailout. I think we all understand now that Congress has been beholden to Wall St. and billionaire donors for years, but “say it ain’t so Barak”! 

A few years back, March 27, 2009 to be exact, President Obama held a meeting with the Lords of Wall St. at the White House.  During that meeting he reportedly cut a deal to not criminally prosecute any of the bankers for the massive fraud that had nearly destroyed the economy. At the time, the President denied this leak, but facts speak for themselves. Prosecutions of white collar crimes has reached an all time low under the Obama Justice Department, even as more and more evidence of white collar crime is being unearthed. 

Many of the rich and their hired apologists in government and the media accuse economic justice advocates of simply being envious of the rich and desirous of a something for nothing society. The fact is that much of what has caused such an unjust distribution of wealth has been a rigged tax code and illegal activity by banks “too big to fail”. We simply want a fair playing field.

When President Obama talks about the need to “protect the middle class” and to “restore the ability of Americans to improve their financial opportunities”, realize that his policies have been designed by Wall St. to protect Wall St. and not our own well being.  Without a radical reversal of his own policies, it would be a false promise (a lie).    


The War on the Poor

January 14, 2014

I heard an interview of Ted Cruz recently when he said that it was time to “admit that the big government war on poverty has been a failure”. Lost in the discussion about income gaps between the rich and the rest of us exponentially growing , there has been the downward shift of people lapsing into poverty. Much of the increase in poverty is due to the large number of unemployed people, however there is a growing number of women and children in poverty. Cruz and his Tea Party conservatives want to claim that “big government” has failed, but once again reality is at odds with the conservative philosophy. 

Here are the facts. Until the Presidency of Reagan the rates of poverty steadily DECREASED from the advent of President  Johnson’s “Great Society”. Beginning with Reagan the rate of poverty remained the same and then suddenly began to decline during the Presidency of George W.  What happened during these Presidencies that would reverse a decades-long decline in poverty? Republican tax policies and social policies began to simultaneously change the tax rates to favor the ultra-rich and the social safety net (that got and kept people out of poverty) were dismantled.  In other words, the “war on poverty” was replaced by Republicans with a war on the poor. 

Martin Luther King Jr. on prophetically said that a nation that spends more on weapons to destroy than programs of social uplift was morally bankrupt and doomed. Conservatives have been gifted at convincing middle-class Americans that the money spent on anti-poverty programs was coming out of their pockets, even as they were constructing a massive welfare system for the rich. Big government was WINNING the war on poverty, until Conservatives began their war on the poor. 

Many Americans could not care less about the poor, until they become poor. I think most Americans are caring and simply need to understand that in terms of poverty and unemployment, Government IS the solution, not the problem. At some point the rhetoric of the Right will have to bow to reality. Until then…     


Class Warfare – The War is Over

January 14, 2014

Very few people realized it at the time, but the Clinton engineered destruction of the Glass-Steagull Act (GS) was the Pearl Harbor of the American Dream.  The Act, put in place after the previous Great Depression, prevented banks from gambling with our money. It worked for decades, preventing another stock market collapse. It is true that when President Clinton approved revoking the Act that it lead to unprecedented growth in the stock market with a many people seeing 10%-12% gains in their retirement stocks and a few people seeing 10,000% gains in their wealth. The gains for most Americans were short-lived as bankers manipulated stocks to increase their wealth. It also directly contributed to the worst stock market collapse since the Depression and caused the current “Great Recession”. Since the Act was dissolved, regulation of Wall St. was been virtually destroyed. The result has been that wealth has consolidated into very few hands, and most of us have seen our own finances shrink and the prospects from upward mobility greatly reduced. These are facts. Wealth is more unequal than at any time in our history, and the ability of Americans to improve their condition economically is virtually non-existent (except for the occasional lottery winner). 

The reason why I am thinking about this issue today is that Congress is in the process of passing a budget that essentially is an unconditional surrender to the forces of greed and corruption. Class warfare is over and the super-rich have won. Too bad for you and your children, unless we do something radical and immediate.

The current budget reduces funding for bank regulators at a time when many informed observers say that the current markets are even more corrupt than the one which led to the real-estate bubble burst. Congress passed a few laws to regulate Wall St. after they nearly caused the collapse of the economy, then reduced and restricted the regulators. It is a shell game orchestrated by Wall St. 

The budget reduces the already shredded social safety net, even as more and more people are slipping into poverty. The budget eviscerates funding for scientific and medical research, laying the groundwork for our demise as an economic super-power and further reducing prospects for our children. 

As far as I can tell, the Senators and Congressmen from Michigan have joined the winning team against us. Senator Levin likes the budget and is about to retire to what is likely to be a very lucrative retirement, and Sen. Stabenow is likely to continue her support for a budget that codifies the destruction of the American Dream. Only Senator Warren, like a prophetess in the desert, is telling the truth about what is happening. 

Where are the people we have elected to Congress to represent us in Michigan. 


“I am not a crook … I mean bully”

January 14, 2014

Following the Christie scandal in New Jersey is to experience déjà vu. A powerful politician recently wins a re-election by a wide margin faces a minor scandal involving people peripheral to his administration. The press investigates and lo and behold … 

Nixon had his Halderman and Erlichman, close aides who orchestrated the “plumbers” – a group of loyal thugs who were willing to punish people on Nixon’s enemies list. The Watergate break-in pre-election was meant to help assure Nixon’s re-election – an election that was already virtually assured. But the Nixon people were arrogant, and they were bullies. The cover-up of the act was as damaging as the crime. Nixon was held ultimately responsible because he was discovered to have known about, and participated in the cover-up. However, many argued that Nixon’s grandiose, paranoid character created a culture among close aides that translated directly into bullying, and even criminal behavior among loyal aides. For a President who has incredible power, these character flaws can prove to be dangerous. The Nixon White House culture and arrogance was at least as much a concern to Congress as the break-in. Nixon’s repeated denials and defense of his aides never broke until secret recordings revealed the truth. 

Now Cristie (“I am not a bully”) appears to be a man cut from the same cloth as Nixon. His early denials of the scandal were arrogant and dismissive. As the scandal got closer to his house, he fired a few people but still denied any wrongdoing. Then the secret e-mails broke and the man who claimed to be in charge now claims he was totally in the dark. The fact is that Christie created a close-knit cadre of loyal and like-minded aides, and a culture of arrogance. As his mentor, former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean, pointedly asked if we really want a president with those qualities he put his finger on the essential issue. Investigations should continue, and my money is on the announcement of impeachment proceedings in the future. A man that much in control could not be so clueless. 




Proposed Offsets for Unemployment Benefits

January 11, 2014

The latest attempt by the GOP to block unemployment benefits is to finally agree to reinstitute/extend benefits, but only if the costs could be offset by reductions elsewhere in the budget. What a wonderful opportunity for Progressives. To restore benefits would require approximately $26 billion. 

Where, oh where could we find that kind of money? 

How about taxing money invested in foreign banks to avoid taxes? Foreign tax havens exist to cheat Americans out of paying a fair share of income. An estimated MINIMUM of $21 TRILLION is deposited by individuals and U.S. corporations into the banks of countries who create tax havens. Let’s say we impose a tax of 20 percent on these tax cheats. That would create $4.2 trillion, which would pay for unemployment benefits and the ENTIRE deficit. 

How about defunding weapons programs for weapons the Pentagon doesn’t want or need? Defunding the MEADS air defense system, the engines for F-35 and C-17 planes and 13 other weapon systems that the Pentagon says do not work, or are unneeded would save approximately $640 billion. 

There are probably many examples of where the offsets from restoring unemployment benefits could come from that would not only be moral, but also much more cost-effective.

How much do you want to bet that the money will come from a program in the social safety net?

How much do you want to bet that Democrats will, on the whole, agree to cutting more benefits to the poor?  


Future Thoughts

January 9, 2014

A recent national poll indicated that 54 percent of Americans have a gloomy outlook for the future. It’s easy to see why, but I remain an optimist. One reason why I am optimistic about the future is that the dysfunctional momentum of the past 30 years in our public arena seem to have reached a crescendo.

I guess this is a sort of an “it’s always darkest before the dawn” rationale, but I sense that it has gotten so bad in D.C. that the weight of the dysfunction has finally broken through our collective sense of denial. When Reagan issued his famous declaration that “the problem IS the government” it began a very destructive slide into irrelevancy (or at least ineffectiveness) for government.

The Clinton Presidency was an illusory relief to the hard years of Reagan and the Bushes. I say illusory because the brief prosperity of the Clinton years came at the cost of losing social mobility for most Americans. Big banks were given free reign when Clinton abandoned regulation, and we all know the result.

Since that malignant conservative notion took root in electoral politics, virtually every important problem facing society has been ignored and gotten worse. Gun violence, poverty, shrinking incomes, unemployment, access to education, crumbling infrastructure, climate change … the list of worsening problems can go on for a while.

The lesson I derive from our recent experiment with conservatism is that Government (good governance) is the ONLY solution to the problems we have. The government is the only social structure that has enough resources to respond on the scale we need to in order to improve our society (see FDR and the “New Deal”).

In this sense, I think the rumblings of discontent are an omen of good things to come. Historically, massive social change usually only occurs after the discontent of the masses reaches a critical point and forces institutions to change or be destroyed. Maybe Congress is facing that choice now.


Dumb Dynasty

January 9, 2014

It happened with mind-boggling speed, a media thermo-nuclear blast of controversy – cable news was shocked … shocked that an uneducated, self described “bible-thumping” redneck from backwoods Louisiana would condemn homosexuality and claim that blacks were happy and singing before the civil rights era. Sara Palin and the sub-cortical right immediately jumped to the defense of the “gospel”, conveniently leaving out the commentary on civil rights (after all, didn’t St. Paul tell slaves to “obey” their masters?).

I was fascinated by the fact that Thomas Jefferson edited his own Bible to include only those quotes attributed to Jesus. Read what Jesus actually said in the bible and there is nothing there about gay marriage, or slavery as an institution (He does point out the slavery of hatred).  Thus we were subjected to a panoply of hypocrites like serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, and Sarah Palin (remember Glenn Rice?) defending hate speech in yet another manufactured crisis and corporate marketing opportunity. We are living in the dumb dynasty of cable news.

Time to turn off the TV. As for me, I am glad I am unburdened by hatred of anyone.


Snowden and Snow Jobs

January 9, 2014

People have very diverse opinions on Eric Snowden, ranging from hero to traitor. However it is undeniable that he revealed extensive abuses by the NSA and those revelations are causing us to look hard at the kind of country we want to live in. A cascade of Congressional hearings, an Executive Review and even more revelations of abuses by our security agencies has created some momentum to challenge what we have been told since 9/11: we need to forfeit freedom for security.

The NSA has reported that no terrorist operation has ever been disrupted as the result of the widespread monitoring of every American citizen and their electronic and phone contacts. In other words, the massive amount of personal data that the NSA collected from secretly (and probably illegally) spying on you and me has proven irrelevant to the so-called “War on Terror.”

Meanwhile the Snowden incident has proven how easily anyone with access to the data can use it for whatever purpose they want.  Even though the massive, multi-billion dollar spying on us has not prevented one terrorist attack, Senators such as Diane Feinstein and Carl Levin defend the illegal spying as necessary to protect us (proving that there is really no degree of difference from Bush/Cheney).

The CIA is also being rocked by revelations of employees contracting with freelance spies without authorization and lying to Congress about those operations. Another report on an internal review of the CIA reveals that no meaningful information was ever gathered by their torturing (i.e. harsh interrogations) of captured human beings. Torture was another violation of our laws and values that was justified by the need to stop terrorism.

I have been talking with you all for years now about the use of fear to erode our liberties. I guess the other foot has dropped insofar as it looks like we sold our freedom for a false security.