Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Curse of the Job Killers

Once upon a time, there was a group of people, Congressmen and business owners, who didn’t want government to be regulating business. They wanted companies, no matter whether mining, oil exploration, or financial, to be able to do whatever they wanted to do.

But they had a problem because years ago when business had that freedom, they abused it and paid no heed to the negative impact of their actions on the welfare of the general public or their workers. As a result laws and regulations were passed over the years that protected the general public and workers … things like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health act.

Then an economic crisis came upon the land. Unemployment was high and people were worried about their jobs. “Aha!” thought this business-friendly group, if we say that laws and regulations that impact business are job killers, the public will support our effort to do away with these rules, even though they are there for their protection.

And so they started calling all regulation, especially environmental regulation, job killers. And the people were afraid and said that they were against government regulation.

Unfortunately, this is not a fairy tale. This is actually happening. And what’s most amazing, no one … not anyone in Congress or any editorial writer … has to my knowledge called this Republican scam for the lie that it is.

Government regulations, as a general rule, are not job killers. They certainly often reduce corporate profits, but they are not job killers.  And that’s because all these companies will continue in business, regulations or no. No existing or contemplated regulation is so onerous that it would encourage a business to fold up shop.

Now if a mining company wants to remove a mountaintop to get at coal and is told, “no,” by the government, or if hydro-fracking would be prohibited, those would indeed be job killers in the sense that new jobs would not be created. But the public’s health cannot be held hostage to the need to create jobs. When something so endangers the public health, is so egregious, that it’s not a matter of regulating a business but actually prohibiting it, then that is the duty of government. It is the only protection we have.

All this hue and cry by the Republicans and by business interests is solely a matter of enabling businesses to maximize their profits. It has, with the narrow exceptions noted, nothing to do with jobs. Democrats must destroy this myth or we will all suffer the consequences.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Coming Democratic Landslide of 2012!

Contrary to all the gnashing of teeth in Democratic quarters about the bad outlook for 2012, I think it can be argued that the outlook looks great … at least if the campaigns are run well.

Republicans have been doing a good job of shooting themselves in the foot. They are so high on their ideological mission and bent on pleasing their Tea Party base that they seem to have forgotten that there are other voters out there who they need to be reelected. Perhaps that’s because at least some freshmen Republicans in the House have indicated that they have no interest in whether they get reelected; they’ve said they are there to do a job.

Recent polls have consistently shown that Republicans in Congress are held in even worse regard by voters than Democrats.  Even in strong Republican districts that elected Tea Party candidates in 2010, support for the Tea Party and for the Republican Party has fallen way off … to less than 50%. And then there’s the general anti-incumbent sentiment, which will fall more heavily on Republicans in 2012 since they have a clear majority in the House.

And what about Obama? Yes, the economy will be a challenge. If the Republicans nominated a strong moderate, I think an Obama win would be almost impossible under these conditions.  However, that is certainly not in the offing. Romney may in fact be a moderate Republican, but he has worked so hard to paint himself as a Tea Party conservative in the primary race that he will be an easy target for Obama in the election campaign. Gingrich is a moderate in many ways. But Gingrich comes with his own problems that make him an unlikely victor.

Given the disgust of the American public towards the failure of Congress to deal with recent major economic issues, and their placing primary blame for this failure on the Republicans, the Democrats have a real opportunity if they run a smart campaign. And what is a smart campaign?

A smart campaign is first running a very positive campaign that tells people clearly where Democrats see the country going and how they propose to get us there … a clear vision statement with legislative particulars, communicated in a way that the average voter will get. This must be the main thrust and the counter to Republican laissez faire policies.

But at the same time, Democrats cannot let the public forget who has kept our current economic problems from being solved; the public could care less at this point who caused the problems, but they do want them fixed. And Democrats must nail Republicans for being the hypocrites they are … they pose as the party of the people but really are the party of big business and the rich. Those are the interests they are protecting.

This election could be the biggest Democratic victory since Johnson v Goldwater in 1964. The question is whether Obama, the other Democratic candidates, and very importantly the consultants that fashion the campaign, have the right stuff.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Lords of Finance Are Today's Money-Changers in The Temple

At least since the time of Christ, there has been some degree of moral opprobrium in Western culture against making money solely from the use of money.  First he drove the money-changers from the temple (as well as other businesses, but the image remains a classic) and later he spoke against lending money at interest. This opprobrium was so strong that for centuries Christians were prohibited from lending money at interest. That task, so crucial to commercial life, was left to the infidel Jews, who were nevertheless frequently sanctioned for their practices.

In more modern times, the opprobrium has lapsed as we all know, but there remained both a moral opprobrium and a legal sanction against lending at usurious rates … such as the practice of loan sharks. Currently all states have laws against usury that set a maximum legal rate of interest and federal law criminalizes charging twice that amount and attempting to collect it. Making a reasonable profit from ones money was deemed respectable and moral; but making too much was beyond the pale.  In the latter case, one was thought to take advantage of people who were in difficulty.

After the stock market crash of 1929, Congressional hearings revealed that the mixing of commercial and investment banking activities during the 1920s had created conflicts of interest and fraud, which helped bring about the 1929 crash.  To prohibit such practices, Congress passed the Glass-Steagall Act in 1933.

Until its repeal in 1999 by a Republican Congress (and yes, unfortunately signed into law by President Clinton), commercial banks had been prohibited from engaging in speculative investment by being prohibited from owning other financial institutions, such as investment banks. The act basically limited commercial banks to helping individuals and businesses in every-day activities such as holding deposits and making loans.

After the repeal of Glass-Steagall, commercial and investment banking activities could again be combined (that’s how the “too big to fail” banks came into being) and banks were free to play the market for their own benefit.  And have they played! Both before the 2008 financial crisis and since, the large banks, such as the iconic Goldman Sachs, have made fortunes from playing the market … and not in the sense that the individual investor might play the market. They have acted unethically if not illegally.

They have created questionable financial instruments often only to then bet against their own clients who purchased these instruments. They have undermined the global financial system through their enabling countries, such as Greece, to assume huge debt levels off the books and then undermining those same countries by betting against them. They have manipulated the market to the detriment of individual investors, countries, and the general public and they have made fortunes in doing so.

This is an example of capitalism run amok. I think that everyone should be able to make a reasonable profit from the use of their assets. And if someone is producing something unique of value to society, then they should be able to make more than what might otherwise be considered a reasonable amount … such as is allowed by virtue of the patent laws.

But the money made by today’s large commercial investment banks and the way in which they make it add up, in my mind, to ill-begotten anti-social gains. They are beyond the pale. Not only should practices such as derivatives trading and credit default swaps be closely regulated for the safety of the broader economy … which the banks are fighting against tooth and nail … but those gains should at a minimum be taxed at a very high rate to discourage such activity and preferably be made illegal.

The modern-day lords of finance are a cancer on the structure of our economy and as such they need to be controlled with laser-like precision.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Hearse Horse Snickers Now for Doctors Too

Carl Sandburg wrote a poem expressing the public’s negative attitude towards lawyers that has the arresting line, “Why does the hearse horse snicker hauling a lawyer away?”  The poem was presented to us as first-year law school students to encourage us to be compassionate in our law practice, to help those who cannot afford to pay, to deal with our clients as people rather than just a source of billing hours, and to contribute our talents for the wellbeing of our community.  Back in 1965, we were in an indirect way told that lawyers should be more like doctors.

How times have changed.  While of course there continue to be compassionate doctors of the old school, the average contemporary doctor is a very different animal.  They are concerned mostly with how much money they make, which translates into seeing as many patients as possible in a given amount of time and finding ways to bill patients (and their insurance companies) for as many procedures, tests, and consultations as possible.

Doctors like to blame the federal government and insurance companies for this transformation.  They say they have so much paper work to do that they have little time left for doctoring, and that the fees they are paid are so inadequate that they have to charge as many billing items as possible just to get a decent financial return.

Nonsense.  While there is no question that there is lots of paper work today, the main culprit is that doctors have become capitalists.  Both in their practice groups and in most hospitals, the healing profession has become a for-profit corporate entity whose main concern is the bottom line.  As such, they find every conceivable way to milk money from their patients, just like one would expect from a corporation.  And the relationship between doctor and patient has been transformed accordingly.  Small wonder that some now refer to the Hippocratic Oath that all doctors take as the “hypocritic” oath.

Let me illustrate with a case in point.  Recently a friend of mine had to go to an eye-ear-nose-throat specialist to have the remains of a silicone earplug removed from his ear.  He has no insurance and so was informed by the receptionist that his bill could be “up to” $200.  The extraction of the plug took a minute or two.  The doctor spent a further couple of minutes “examining” his nose and throat, much to my friend’s bewilderment as there was no reason for the further exam.

When he went to pay his bill, he was told by the same receptionist that it was $254 … no apology, no explanation.  He was dumbfounded but paid it.  When he got home, he looked at the bill and found he had been charged $107 for the extraction and $147 for a “minor consult.”  He then wrote a letter to the doctor explaining his consternation. The letter the doctor wrote in response boldly displayed the mindset of the contemporary doctor.

The whole situation was blamed on the inadequate fees paid by the government for Medicare and Medicaid patients.  For that reason, he said, insured and self-pay patients had to be charged more. He neglected to mention that, as everyone knows, doctors only get paid a percentage, perhaps 50%, of what they bill insurance companies, which means that it is only the uninsured person who pays the full amount. 

He did not address the ethical issue that uninsured persons should be given a break, and especially not charged for sham services rendered, such as in this case the exam or “minor consult,” which are only conducted so as to be able to bill insurance for another service and thus get a reasonable payment, even at 50%.

Bottom line ... doctors and hospitals should not be profit centers.  That orientation is inimical to the ideals of medical practice and caring for patients.  By all means, doctors and others involved in the profession should make good livings because they provide a valuable service to people and society. But beyond that, to profit from ones patients should raise ethical questions.

Why does the hearse horse snicker when hauling a doctor away? Isn’t it obvious!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What the Catholic bishops seek is religious tyranny, not religious liberty

In perhaps one of their most deceitful efforts, the Conference of Roman Catholic Bishops yesterday sought to recast their opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage as a struggle for “religious liberty” against a government that is impinging on the church’s rights.  As reported in The New York Times today, they cited that Catholic agencies that receive state funding in Illinois and a few other states had been “forced” to stop providing adoption and foster care services because the state required them to provide the same services to same-sex couples as heterosexual couples.

Let’s talk about religious liberty.  The right protected by the Constitution is that the government can make no law prohibiting the free exercise ones religion or “respecting an establishment of religion.”

In their vocal opposition to abortion rights and same-sex marriage, not just as a moral issue but to get the government to prohibit women from getting abortions and prohibit same-sex civil marriage, the bishops are in fact seeking to impose their religious views on the rest of the nation through government action. That would violate both the rights of the members of other religions who do not believe that abortions should be prohibited to practice their religion, and it would thus in fact if not in language be a law respecting the establishment of religion by preferring one religious viewpoint over others. 

This is an example of religious tyranny, not religious liberty.  If Catholics were forced to have abortions or if the Catholic church were forced to perform same-sex marriages, that would be a violation of religious liberty.  But that is not what is involved here.  Even on the same-sex marriage issue, no one is suggesting that churches be forced to perform or recognize such marriages.  It is solely a civil government matter.

What about their argument that they are being “forced” to abandon adoption and foster care services? Again, this is simply not the case.  The church’s agencies are perfectly free to provide such services solely to heterosexuals and discriminate against same-sex couples. All laws regarding sexual orientation rights provide for exempting religious institutions who oppose homosexuality.

However, if they choose to apply for state aid for these services, then they must comply with state rules, both legislated and constitutional, regarding the use of state funds.  That in no way prohibits their religious liberty.  If they want to continue discriminating, they are free to do so … just without state aid.

It is shameful that the bishops have cloaked their attempt at religious tyranny and their desire to use state funds to discriminate under the banner of religious liberty.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Democrats Better Pay Attention To The Needs of The Middle Class

Why are Tea Party people so angry and fearful? Yes, right-wing demagogues aided by right-wing funders like the Koch brothers have stoked their fears and anger to a fever pitch, but why were they angry to begin with?  Why are they and many in the broader population so receptive to the lies and fear-mongering?

President Jimmy Carter posited that their fear is of a changed social order evidenced by the election of a black president. While I’m sure that is part of the answer, is it really so simple as the color of Obama’s skin and his progressive policies? No, the answer lies elsewhere.

Feeding this fear of a changed social order, racism, and the Tea Party’s resonance has been a sea change in the wellbeing of America’s middle class. The middle class is made up mostly of nonprofessionals … people with only a high school degree. As manufacturing and other middle class jobs have disappeared over the past 30 years, their standard of living and the quality of their lives has been drifting downward.

The recent recession only exacerbated the trend. In March 2011, 12 percent of those with only a high-school diploma were unemployed compared to 4.5 percept of those with college degrees and 2 percent for those with professional degrees. The greatest impact has been on men … in 1967, 97 percent of men 30-50 years old in this cohort were employed; in 2010, just 76 percent were.

Not only has this resulted in economic problems for these men and their families, these pressures have brought about greater interpersonal stress, with a resulting increase in divorce rates and other examples of social dysfunction. The greater income inequality that developed during this period has also resulted in heightened actual and felt lifestyle differences between the middle class and those with more income and education.  (All data from, Don Peck, “Can the Middle Class Be Saved,” The Atlantic, September 2011)

The world as the middle class knew it since WWII has been turned upside down.  Small wonder they are scared, angry, and alienated. Yet this important shift in the American social fabric is never discussed. Politicians talk vaguely about the need to protect the middle class, but the evisceration that has already occurred is not mentioned.

If the Democratic Party wants to win in 2012, it must clearly let the middle class know that it is aware of their pain, that it feels their pain, and that it proposes a series of interrelated policies to restore the lot of the middle class. It's a complex economic and social engineering question that will require the attention of our best and brightest. Obama and the other candidates must share their vision for where they want the country to go and how they propose getting there.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Strengthening America by Changing from a Consumer Economy to a Nation-Building Economy

While our culture of consumerism has been a boon to corporate America, it has been bad for our citizens, bad for our economy and bad for our nation. 

Psychologically, mass marketing images have led to a nation of individuals who are constantly dissatisfied with their lives ... whether it’s how they look, the job they have, the amount of money they make, the home they live in, etc.  There is not a single aspect of our lives that escapes this need of ours … not to be better individuals in some meaningful way but to project success or power/popularity, mostly through the acquisition of material things.  And we always want more; it’s never enough.

You won’t find evidence of this in polls because our culture places a premium on having fun, being happy.  Since people feel that they’re supposed to be having fun and be happy, that that state is valued by our culture, people put on that façade … not knowingly but in an act of self-deception. 

While I know of no studies that document what I am about to posit, I believe that the huge increase in the extent of depression in this country stems not from more awareness of the problem as has often been thought but results from this constant dissatisfaction that people feel about themselves.  Indeed, it is not uncommon when people are feeling down to get a “fix” by going out and buying something.

Our economy has also become addicted to consumerism.  70% of our GDP is derived from consumer spending. But consumerism is a very unproductive use of the nation’s wealth.   It does not move our country forward.   And since much of what we consume is no longer produced here but overseas, it doesn’t even help employment like it used to, just the revenues of American global corporations.

Meanwhile, the United States is falling behind other countries and entering a dangerous period because we cannot afford to do what needs to be done to keep this country strong … and I don’t mean military spending.   I mean spending on infrastructure … both maintenance and new.  I mean spending on education.  I mean spending on cutting edge research and development, investment in new industries that will drive our economy in the future. When measurement is taken of national and individual wellbeing, the United States typically finds itself towards the back of the pack of developed countries.  Not in front as we like to believe.

In order to find the money to invest in our country’s wellbeing, we must switch our economy from one that is primarily based on consumerism, to one that is based primarily on building our country.  This involves changing the components of our GDP but not lessening it or our growth.  Actually, because it mostly would involve projects that must by their very nature be accomplished in the geographic United States, it means a greater bang for the buck when it comes to job creation.

To get from the consumer economy to the nation-building economy, we will need to wean ourselves from the need to constantly buy things to be happy.  And instead of using discretionary income for self-gratification, we will need to learn to be comfortable with that money going to the government in the form of taxes to be used for projects that will benefit the nation, and thus ultimately ourselves.

Many will howl at this suggestion, but we must remember that the United States has by far the lowest tax rate of any developed country.  Yet, and this bears repeating, the people of these other countries nevertheless prosper and have a higher level of wellbeing … whether it’s their health, education, or other measures … than we do.

Making such a change in our culture will take principled leadership and preferably a united political front.  This must be approached like a war used to be … all hands on deck and united.  And everyone must be prepared to sacrifice. At this point in our history, that concept … a united political front … seems impossible to imagine.  And yet we must strive toward that end if America is once again to regain its global strength and provide its citizens with a secure and high standard of living.

Monday, October 31, 2011

What it means to be a citizen

Man is by nature concerned solely with his and his family's wellbeing. That is his biological imperative.  Socially, however, man has evolved into being a member, a citizen, of a larger society. And so, from the most primitive communities to contemporary societies, that driving instinct has been reigned in for the greater good of the community. 

In primitive societies and in many Asian societies, a collective culture developed that enforced working for the good of the group largely through strong social pressure; the individual was of lesser importance. In the West, where the concept of individualism took root, societies have instead depended upon laws to control the relationship between man's individual liberties and rights and his part in the larger society.

There are thousands of laws that control the right of an individual to do what he might want to do.  Whether it's the criminal law, traffic laws, building codes and zoning laws, or product liability law, laws have been developed that balance the individual’s rights against the greater public good; they tell the individual what the limits are of his freedom to act.  Without such laws we would have anarchy.

As our society became more civilized and enlightened, the concept of man's pro-active responsibilities to the larger society developed.  Man not only has rights that are given by the laws of the community, he has concomitant shared responsibilities for the community that go beyond the responsibility not to harm others. This is the basis for the American social contract.

In the current political context, there is a huge uproar on the Right regarding three fundamental aspects of the relationship between government, individual rights, and the greater public good that came to define the American social contract in the 20th century.  The first is the regulation of business.  The second is progressive taxation.  The third is the government's responsibilities towards those less fortunate.

The primary interest of any business is self-interest ... that is its nature as much as it's man's nature.  As we saw during the industrial revolution and the early decades of the 20th century, if business is not regulated, it will show no concern for either its workers or the greater public good.  Indeed, it is because of man's unbridled greed that most of the laws and regulations we have on the books today exist.

It goes without saying that no man or business likes being regulated.  It hampers his freedom to do as he thinks is best and it often costs him money.   This is no different in concept from his desire to drive faster than the speed limit allows.  And so business tries to find a way around regulation, often with the collaboration of the very people hired to enforce regulations.

That is what happened with oil drilling in the Gulf, which resulted in the BP disaster.  That is what happened with the financial industry, which resulted in the 2008 recession and the current economic malaise of a large proportion of our citizens.

Most taxes, likes sales taxes, are regressive … the lower a person’s income, the larger the share of their income that goes to paying taxes.  (With regard to the sales tax, that’s because lower income people spend a larger share of their income on the purchase of necessities and other goods, accounting for the tax taking a larger share of their income.) 

As the United States developed into a more progressive society, it realized that regressive taxes posed an unfair burden on the poor.  A socially fair tax would work in the opposite way … the higher ones income, the greater the share of that income that would be paid in taxes because such people have much more discretionary income and therefore a higher tax would not pose any hardship.  And so when the income tax was instituted, that’s how it was designed … as a progressive tax.

In 1932, the income tax for the top bracket was 63% of income over $1,000,000.  In 1950, it was 91% of income over $400,000.  As recently as 1980, the rate was 70% of income over $212,000.  Today, the rate is 35% of income over $380,000. The rich are paying a smaller portion of their income as taxes to support the greater public good now than at any time since the income tax was instituted.

Over the course of the past 100 years, again as society has become more civilized and enlightened, government has taken a greater hand in both directly providing for those in need as well as ensuring in various ways that they have the opportunity to better their position in life. This was a fuller implementation of the role of government stated in the Declaration of Independence … “to secure” the right to life, liberty, and happiness. Programs that were once considered radical or socialist by Republicans, such as Social Security and Medicare, which they fought tooth and nail at the time, are now accepted by most as necessary programs ... not without their problems, but vital to the wellbeing of a large proportion of our citizens and thus the stability of our economy.

In all these areas, the current radical brand of Republican conservatives, egged on by the energy and anger of the Tea Party, have argued that the government’s role should be reduced or eliminated.  Business should not be regulated.  The wealthy should not pay more taxes.  Everyone should have to fend for themselves … if you don’t success, it’s your fault.

Each of these positions is against the balance that our nation has historically struck between private rights, the public good, and the role of government.  These positions violate an enlightened concept of the rights and responsibilities of a citizen.

The Tea Party wishes to take us back to an era where individualism ran rampant and success was limited to the few.  America’s strength in the 20th century evolved by broadening the base of prosperity among its citizens and creating a more vibrant, intelligent workforce through the intervention of government programs and regulation.

That is where we need to continue heading in the 21st century to ensure America’s continued strength.  The Tea Party and their Republican captives need to be recognized for what they are … a shill for big business and the rich.  They are not responsible citizens of this great republic.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Why Tax the Rich When You Can Tax the Poor?

As reported in USA Today, states across the country are increasing existing tolls on roads/bridges/
tunnels as well as charging tolls for the first time on roads that have always been free.  A toll is a tax and one that falls disproportionately on the middle class and poor.   It is a very regressive tax.

I understand that states and localities are strapped for money and that they need to raise revenues somehow in order not to have even deeper cuts in services.  But to raise revenues in a very regressive manner … hitting lower income people harder than upper income … is socially unfair and contrary to progressive principles.

This is especially egregious when the tax is on something that is a necessity for many.  For people commuting for work within large metropolitan areas, public transportation is not generally a very realistic alternative.  It either just doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t take you where you need to go. 

For many people in the lower-middle income categories, a raise in tolls could mean that commuting to work is no longer financially reasonable.  If they have to quit their jobs that means higher unemployment with greater strain on local government services.  Regardless how you look at it, it’s bad government policy.  Other examples of bad taxes to raise would be sales taxes and gasoline taxes, both of which are regressive and impact the ability to acquire necessities.

And there are alternatives that are not regressive.  The one is obviously to raise income taxes on the wealthy.   It’s anathema to the Republicans, but it’s the right thing to do.  The tax rate for the richest Americans is lower than it has been since before the Depression.  Another option would be to place or raise a sales tax surcharge on luxury items.

Then there are alternatives that, while regressive, do not impact necessities … although granted that’s all in the eye of the beholder.  I’m referring to sin taxes … taxes on alcohol and cigarettes. While these definitely hit lower income people disproportionately, cigarettes and alcohol are not necessities and in quantity are actually bad for people. So if a state has a clear social policy of discouraging the use of cigarettes and alcohol, I could support such a tax increase.  But only then,

We live in a culture where the rich and big business have access to the people who hold the levers of power in government.  The middle class and poor have no such access.  As a result, the rich and big business are catered to; the rest are mostly given lip service.  It is unjust.  It is against the American social contract.  It is un-American.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Is It Class Warfare or Is It a Cry for Justice?

Over the past three decades this country has experienced rapid growth in income inequality.  While the incomes of those in the top 5% have increased exponentially, especially during the past decade, the inflation-adjusted income of production and non-supervisory workers has actually decreased.  The 2010 census found the number of Americans living in poverty to be higher than at any time in the past 51 years that records have been kept; the poverty rate … 1 in 7 Americans … was higher than it’s been since 1994.  The rich have indeed gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer.  The middle class has been eviscerated.

Yet in Congress the Republicans, who say they speak on behalf of the average American, instead fight any efforts to regulate the financial industry excesses that brought about the recent/current recession, resist any tax increases on wealthy Americans (although current tax rates are lower than at any time since before the Depression), and in general continue to support government subsidization of industry while seeking savage budget cuts in programs that support middle income Americans and the poor.  All in the name of reigning in the deficit.

This is the context in which Mitt Romney and other Republicans are crying “class warfare” at the protests taking place against the financial industry and at Obama’s call for the rich to pay a minimum tax at least equal to the taxes paid by middle income Americans.

Call it mendacity; call it hypocritical.  But beyond deceit, as Rick Perry so aptly stated when criticizing his fellow Republicans for their stand on immigration, these people have no heart.  Not only have they no heart, they have forgotten the American social contract which has benefited them greatly and under which they have an obligation to support the government’s efforts to help those less fortunate.

It is not class warfare to ask that the rich pay their fair share to support the government.  It is not class warfare to ask that industry be regulated so that the public good is protected.  These demands are a cry for social justice.  They are consistent with the balance that our nation has historically struck between private right, the public good, and government. 

The Republicans seek to fundamentally alter that balance.  They are making war on the American social contract and on the middle class, the poor, and the environment.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Pastors want to have their cake and eat it too

The New York Times has reported that there is a movement afoot by evangelical and other pastors to flout the IRS rule that prohibits churches, as tax-exempt organizations, from campaigning in elections.  They are going so far as to send the IRS tapes of their sermons.  

Clearly they wish the IRS to take action so that they can then sue the IRS.   As the Rev. James Garlow was reported in The New York Times as saying, “There should be no government intrusion in the pulpit.  The freedom of speech and the freedom of religion means pastors have full authority to say what they want to say.”

Of course … and they do have the right to say what they want to say.   There’s only one problem.  They have sought to be exempt from taxes by filing with the IRS as 501c(3) non-profit organizations.  One of the many rules for being entitled to this status and its exemption from taxes is that organizations cannot speak out for or against a candidate in an election … in effect, no campaigning.

It is important to note that the IRS provision does not prohibit all political speech.  Churches can be involved in educating their members on the issues in a non-partisan manner and individual members, even pastors, can speak out directly for or against a candidate if they do not do so using the church’s financial resources, facilities, or personnel and make clear they are speaking on their own behalf, not the church’s.

This rule applies to all 501c(3) organizations … not just churches.  It has nothing to do with freedom of religion.  If pastors want to be free to campaign from the pulpit and get their church involved in campaigns, then they just have to withdraw their churches from 501c(3) status.  The choice is theirs.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

House Republicans Abdicate Governing Role

With the Republicans having a majority in the House of Representatives, they have a critical constitutional role to play in the governance of this country.   What transpired this past Friday, however, shows without any question that the Republicans have abdicated their responsibility.

Friday was showdown time.  House Speaker Boehner had not been able to secure enough votes from the most conservative Republican (Tea Party) representatives in his caucus to pass his debt ceiling legislation.   At this point he had two options. 

The first was to work with House Democrats to craft a bill that could pass both the House and the Senate.  This would have required attracting at least some support (around 30 votes) from his caucus, but given the stakes and his leadership that was certainly not an unrealistic scenario. 

This would probably, however, have set the Speaker up for a leadership fight from his disgruntled Tea Party colleagues.   Given their numbers and proven willingness to flex their muscles, his leadership position would have been in serious doubt.

The second option was to cave in to this most radically conservative element in his caucus, which is what he did by adding a requirement that in order for the second stage of debt ceiling relief to be implemented, Congress would have to pass a balanced budget amendment.  Given that a 2/3 vote in favor is required for a constitutional amendment, there is no chance that such an amendment would pass even the House, let alone the Senate. 

Thus his revised bill basically told everyone, no more debt ceiling relief.  His bill would have set the country up for a very serious economic crisis.

Now some readers might ask, what’s the problem with a balanced budget amendment?   It sounds so reasonable.   The problem is that even the most fiscally responsible government cannot always have a balanced budget. 

For example, if such an amendment had been in place at the time of the 2008 economic crisis, none of the actions taken by the Bush and Obama administrations to avoid a full-fledged depression would have been possible.  Or they would have only been possible at the cost of cutting a huge amount of government spending in other areas, which would have meant either directly or indirectly cutting millions of jobs, thus countering the impact of any stimulus.  A balanced budget amendment at that time would have held the country hostage and we would have descended into an economic nightmare that would have made the current recession or recovery look like a walk through that park.

The majority party’s responsibility is to govern by passing necessary legislation.   If the party cannot do so because of the recalcitrance of its own members, then it has an obligation to act in a bipartisan manner. 

House Speaker Boehner should resign his post.  He has abdicated his responsibility and thereby jeopardized the economic stability of the country.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Arise America – Take To the Streets and Let Your Voice Be Heard!

I have not written a post for many months.   The reason being that I found I was talking about the same small set of issues over and over again because that’s where we were stuck as a nation.  Having nothing new to say, I said nothing.

But now the time has come for the current silent American majority … centrists and liberals … to be silent no more. It is time to take to the streets and peacefully protest against the actions and goals of radical Republicans.  This is a cause no less important than ending the Vietnam War was in another era.  We need to use the social networking media that worked so effectively in the Arab world to generate a massive protest movement.  The time is now!  The need is urgent!

Republicans, both in state legislatures across the country and in Congress, are trying to destroy almost everything progressive that our national and state governments have done over the course of the 20th century.  During that time, government was transformed from one that protected business interests almost exclusively to one which recognized the need to stand behind those in our society who had no voice and no power … the middle class, the working class, and the poor.

Whether it’s the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the entitlement programs … Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security … the right of workers to organize, progressive taxation, or countless other programs, these Republicans seek to use the looming deficit to cut everything that they detest from the role of government and leave people to fend for themselves.  Well, not quite all people. Despite all their talk of the need to cut deficits, Republican support for business and the rich remains undiminished

I fully agree that the deficit needs to be cut drastically.  It is the Republicans' lack of balance in who shares the burden, the lack of fairness, that is so egregious.

The most galling example of this is Republicans’ refusal to raise taxes on the wealthy, or in the Federal case let the tax cuts expire so the rates would return to what they were before.  The canard they trot out is that it would be irresponsible to raise taxes during a time of economic crisis.  

Despite the fact that this “trickle down” theory, or what some call “voodoo economics”, has been irrefutably shown to be without any basis through our actual experience during both the Reagan and Bush II years, they continue to argue that the rich use their money in a way which will help the economy.  Yet at the same time, they have no compunction about cutting billions of dollars of federal spending and aid to the states that will both directly and indirectly result in millions more people losing their jobs and truly stall our shaky economic recovery.

It is amazing to me that, with the exception of the demonstrations in Wisconsin against the busting of state worker unions, Americans have basically been silent in the face of this relentless Republican onslaught.  Polls show clearly and consistently that the Tea Party does not speak for most Americans.  While most Americans think the deficit is a problem and needs to be cut, they are for increasing taxes on the wealthy and are against cuts that would harm our economic recovery.

They are also against any cuts that impact them directly … such as Medicare or Social Security.  To put our country back on the road to fiscal health, however, some adjustments to these benefits are most likely inescapable,.  But those most vulnerable and least able to afford such cuts need to be protected from such pain by spreading the impact of deficit reduction measures across all segments of society, with those being most able to afford it shouldering the greatest burden.

Every old-fashioned conservative, centrist, and liberal American should contact their friends, contact the organizations both secular and religious that they belong to, and create a groundswell of action that shows the Republicans that they do not have the support of the American people.  In addition to taking to the streets in protest, inundating Republican legislators with email and phone calls would be very productive.

Do not let this moment slip by.  Do not let the foundation that has made America great and strong be destroyed by the radical Republican ideological purists.  In this sense, the current batch of radical Republicans have more in common with their Islamist enemies then they would care to acknowledge.  They are as untrue to the historical underpinnings of the Republican Party as Islamist extremists are to the Koran.

Arise America!   Arise!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Demonizing Hamas Is a No-Win Policy

The United States’ initial reaction to the announcement of a deal between Fatah and Hamas to form a temporary transitional unity government prior to elections next year shows once again, as I have oft noted, that our foreign policy is clearly in the hands of the establishment with little of the progressive influence promised by President Obama. 

The reaction was, the United States “considered Hamas a terrorist organization that would not be a reliable partner in peace talks with Israel.”  This echoed the statement of Israel’s P.M., Benjamin Netanyahu.

There is no question that Hamas is a terrorist organization that historically and now calls for the destruction of the State of Israel.  That much said, it must be remembered that it was the elections foisted on the Palestinians by the Bush administration, against both Fatah’s and Israel’s wishes, that provided Hamas with its legistimacy.  There can also be no doubt that there can never be peace between Israel and the Palestinians unless it is with a government that speaks for all Palestinians and unless the new state includes both the West Bank and Gaza.

But during the period since those elections and the later expulsion of Fatah from Gaza, the United States and Israel have acted like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand.  They have been pursing a divide and conquer fantasy.   Thinking that somehow there could be peace without Hamas and without Gaza.  Wishful thinking is never a good perspective in developing foreign policy.  Better to be a realist.

Netanyahu even had the chutzpah to say to Fatah that they had to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas; that both were not possible.  Given that Netanyahu has shown absolutely no sincere interest in a viable peace with the Palestinians and has only thrown up obstacles, it is no surprise that Fatah has finally decided that the existing route to peace with Israel was not going to work.

The question, of course, is how to turn Hamas into a peaceful actor that recognizes the State of Israel.  I do not presume to suggest what the answer is.   The only thing one can say for sure is that the strategy followed to date … to force Hamas to submit by strangling Gaza … is not working and will not work.  Instead, it has played very much into Hamas’ hands on the international stage.

Had Obama stuck to his guns on the settlement issue with the Israelis in the U.N., we may have had more credibility in brokering something with Hamas.  As it stands, we have none.

Obama should direct the staff of the Naitonal Security Council and the State Department to put their thinking caps on and come up with a plan to transform Hamas into an entity that we and Israel can work with.  I have no doubt that if they have that as a charge that they can pull it off.  Perhaps even the road to peace lies through Hamas.  Stranger things have happened.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Republican's Hubris

Forget about the social inequities of the Republican budget plan ... how in typical Republican fashion it takes from the poor and the worker, and this time even the elderly, and gives to the rich ... what I find mind-boggling is the House passage of their budget blueprint with no committee hearings and virtually no debate.   

This is one of the most important legislative documents in many years.   In its details it will go nowhere.   But in the scope of its bottom line insistence on restoring the country to fiscal sanity and soundness, it most definitely sets the target for deficit reduction that any other plan will be held up to.  No wimpish effort will be acceptable.

Without the Republican's throwing down the gauntlet, it's quite possible that no political force would have risen to tackle this most serious national problem.  Certainly President Obama was not forthcoming on the issue when he prepared his 2012 budget, being more concerned with his re-election campaign.   As I said in a previous post, his lack of leadership on this issue has been very disappointing.  

But now that the Republicans have given him political cover, he has come up with his own plan, which it's reported borrows heavily from the recommendations of the bipartisan commission he appointed on cutting the deficit.  Members of the Senate are reportedly also busy devising their own plan.

Commendable as their effort may thus be from this perspective, the process they have followed makes a mockery of considered government.  The Republicans of 2011 are no different than the Gingrich Republicans of 1995 ... they are consumed by a hubris that will result in their graceless defeat at the hands of the very voters that lifted them to power.  In that respect, I am grateful for their hubris.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Do Workers, Children, and the Poor Get Stuck With the Bill?

Today’s New York Times carried an article indicating that many states were trying to partially solve their budget crises by cutting back on direct aid to major cities and local government.  This of course will result in one of several things … decreased local services to people who need services, increased layoffs/unemployment, or, less likely, increased property taxes.

So at the Federal level, Republicans want to cut the budget by slashing domestic programs which are supplying needed services to the American worker, the poor and their families.  The states are cutting their budgets by also cutting needed services, reducing salaries and benefits for public service workers, and cutting aid to local government, which will have the impact noted above.

The cumulative impact of this method of addressing admittedly serious budget problems at the federal, state, and local levels will be to exacerbate the effects of poverty, to harm children, and to increase unemployment, which will in turn hurt the economic recovery.  This is not a rational response by government.   But then, rarely have so many of the people with power in government (of course I’m referring to Republicans) been less rational and more ideological.

If anyone, including President Obama, had any guts and true leadership ability, the federal government would have followed some version of the recommendations made by the several nonpartisan/bipartisan commissions on reducing the deficit.  While they differed in details, they all had these points in common.  Given the size of the budget reduction needed, cuts need to be made in all areas of government, including defense, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid and appropriate taxes needed to be raised. 

Only through this combination of austerity measures will the pain be shared by all.   This approach would also allow the application of a “needs” test, resulting in those who can afford more contributing more to the budget reduction.  The weakest members of our society should not have to bear the brunt of the load.

Under the American social contract, all citizens are in this boat together, and each is responsible for contributing to the cause according to his ability … with rights and riches comes a concomitant responsibility.  That is why the income tax is a progressive tax, with higher incomes paying a higher percentage. 

That basic tenet, which was developed under both Republican and Democratic progressive administrations in the early years of the 20th century, seems to have been relegated to the dustbin of history by the current Republican anti-government credo and by the new power elite who seem to have no sense of social obligation towards their fellow citizens.

William Jennings Bryan once famously said, “You shall not crucify labor upon a cross of gold.”  I would paraphrase that and say, “You shall not crucify the poor, children, and workers upon a cross of subsidies for business and tax breaks for the rich.”

Monday, March 21, 2011

Crimes Against Nature … Specifically Monkeys

I’m referring to a recent report about the Oregon National Primate Research Center’s experiments with obese monkeys.  Basically, they have created couch-potato obese monkeys on which to test various products and procedures designed to fight obesity in humans.

Now, I am not categorically against using animals for research purposes.   There are instances where the issue is important enough and there is no other possible research tool.  While the rising rate of obesity in our culture is certainly an important issue, there is no excuse for subjecting these monkeys to the horrible life that they lead.  These monkeys are kept in individual cages for “months or years,” compared with other monkeys at the facility that have more zoo-like living conditions.

Before continuing, however, let me first address a basic issue concerning animal rights.  As has been proven in study after study, and as should be quite apparent to anyone who observes animals closely … be they dogs, monkeys, chickens, or whatever … animals are feeling, sentient beings. 

The typical rationale for using monkeys and other animals for research is that while sharing many physiological and psychological traits with humans, thus making them ideal for research purposes, they are of a “lower order” and thus can be used for research.   They are animals, after all, not humans.

The arrogance of such a view while not surprising for a people who until recently viewed people of color or “primitives” as lower orders of humans is nevertheless abominable. In this view of the universe, man … as the premiere thinking being … has both the power and the right to subject all other creatures and forms of nature to his will.  But human beings are also animals, and in a far more basic sense than most humans would care to acknowledge.

But back to the case in point … research concerning obesity.  There is no mystery as to why the obesity rate is so much higher now than it has been in the past.   How much any particular activity … be it eating fatty or sugary junk food or sitting for hours before the television and computer … impacts obesity may not be known, but the constellation of factors certainly is. 

Likewise, the answer to the obesity problem is just as clear.  People in our culture need to change their diet and their habits.  They need to eat healthy and exercise more.   It’s as simple as that.   Granted it may not be simple to get people to do those things, but that’s because of the messages constantly being sent by our culture and its marketing apparatus. I’m sure that if there were a profit motive, the marketing gurus could certainly come up with an effective ad campaign that would turn these bad habits around.

But instead of upsetting the course of our culture … a kudo by the way to Michelle Obama for taking on this cultural phenomenon in the right way … Americans as usual are looking for the “easy” way … a pill they can take, or a procedure they can have done.  Federal funding for this research should stop.

Human beings need to understand that while they may be at the top of the animal food chain … that is as long as they aren’t put in a cage with a lion or similar animal … that we all … humans, animals, plants, and minerals … share this planet and have an appropriate place in its ecosystem. 

Man, with his intelligence and power, is the only actor that has the ability to destroy the planet’s ecosystem and thus ultimately himself.  It is thus critically important, not just because of the climate change issue but for a host of reasons, for man to learn his place in the larger scheme of things and act accordingly.

Friday, March 11, 2011

American Exceptionalism, Bullying and Mean Girls – An Excess of Self-Esteem Or Just the Opposite

As much as I respect and admire David Brooks, he got it wrong this time.  In his March 10 op-ed piece, “The Modesty Manifesto,” he notes how we have turned into a culture of self-aggrandizement.  How we have become a society of individuals who think they are special and that they are entitled to things, rather than having to earn it.

While I would agree with Brooks’ observation, he is mistaken when he equates this common bravado for an increase in Americans’ self-esteem.  On the contrary, it is yet further evidence of how insecure and hollow Americans’ lives have become.

It is a well-known psychological fact that having a huge ego is typically a façade, a coping mechanism for deep feelings of insecurity and anxiety.  And the size of the ego and extent of aggression is directly related to the amount of insecurity.

Brooks sites several writers who point out that the generation of people now in their 20s grew up bathed in praise and messages that they are special.  While it may well be that such action on the part of parents was meant to increase self-esteem, in fact it increases insecurity.  When a child is told he is special, but knows deep down that he is not and that the praise is not grounded on anything specific, he feels he is being told that he is expected to be special and thus feels under pressure to indeed be special, creating huge insecurities.

If we were to search for a poster child for this American feeling of exceptionalism, we would have to look no further than George W. Bush.  While I have no idea how he was raised, he certainly would have had the burden of feeling that he was supposed to be special because of his family’s history. 

Instead, he knew he was a nothing and failed at one thing after another.   But he did find the gift of gab; of giving the impression that he was very sure of himself.  As President, he certainly displayed great bravado and certainty … he was “the Decider” … but it was such a pathetic façade.  One just had to look into his eyes, and watch his facial expressions to know that here was a man who felt totally insecure and out of his element.

Brooks is correct when he wonders whether this phenomenon is connected to the “social and political problems we have observed over the past few years.”   But the cause is our increased insecurity, not an increase in our self-esteem.

Which brings me to an article that I had just completed yesterday before I read David Brooks’ piece:

"The Societal Cost of Low Self-Esteem"

If you look at all the suffering in the world, at the people who do bad things to their fellow man and environment as well as to themselves, you will find a person who has low self-esteem. 

Whether it’s the bully on the school playground, the mean girls in the classroom, the drug addict, the father who verbally abuses or just isn’t there for his children, the business manager who is a tyrant in the office, the politician or commentator who is a demagogue, spewing hatred against those who do not think as he does and not believing in the American social contract, or even the terrorist … all of these people suffer from low self-esteem.

“Now wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “these are people who often exhibit huge egos.  Where does he get off saying that these people have low self-esteem?” 

Having a huge ego is typically a façade, a coping mechanism for deep feelings of insecurity and anxiety.  This is a well-known psychological fact, with the size of the ego and extent of aggression being directly related to the amount of insecurity.

I make this point because we live in a world with so much suffering at so many levels … not just now but throughout history.  These problems seem overwhelming and not susceptible to easy or even hard and costly solutions.  Certainly force, whether military or societal, is not an answer.

Is there a way to apply our knowledge regarding the effect of low self-esteem to address this large societal issue?  As a Buddhist, I believe that there is.

First let me state, briefly, the Buddhist perspective on suffering.   We are all born essentially perfect with the true Buddha nature inside us.  What happens after birth is that we are exposed to numerous environmental factors, first from our immediate family and then our peers and the broader society, that cause us to put labels on both ourselves and everything in our lives. 

These labels create conflict and stress, they are the causes of our neuroses.  Over the years, these layers of learned experience form an almost impenetrable barrier between us and our true Buddha nature … and between us and the world around us.  They are the clouds that keep us from seeing the blue sky that is always there.  We come to think of ourselves as being our ego.

The Buddha taught that the way to end suffering is to first be aware that we suffer, then understand the causes of suffering, realize that there is a path to stop our suffering, and finally follow that path.  Central to this process is understanding the impermanence of all things and the illusory nature of all perceptions, because they are all dependent on our learned experience. 

When we experience something, we see and feel it as filtered through our mind.  A key part of Buddhist training is to become able to experience things directly as they really are without the intervention of thought.

I need to note here that while Buddhist philosophy is not inconsistent with Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism, it is at odds with the concept of original sin in Christianity, under which man is seen as being born into a general condition of sinfulness.

But regardless of that doctrinal difference, all would agree that no child anywhere in the world, no matter what culture they are born into, are born with low self-esteem.  For that curse we have to thank the impact of their families, their peers, and their culture on their development.

Now don’t misunderstand me.  I am fully aware that people are born subject to all sorts of things … their socio-economic status, IQ, physical or mental condition, etc.   But none of these is inherently a source of low self-esteem.   It is how either the family, peers, or culture react to those conditions and what the child learns from that experience that cause low self-esteem.

So if our families, peers, and culture cause low self-esteem, then those same forces have the ability to not cause low self-esteem.   The question, however, is, since one is not starting with a clean slate where to begin to break the vicious cycle that we are in?

Because the older we are, the more invested our psyches are in our ego-driven low self-esteem, creating more of a challenge both to be aware of our suffering and to free ourselves of it, it makes sense starting to break the cycle with the newly born and young children.

The key to self-esteem for the newly- born and toddlers lies with parents.  Unfortunately, parents receive no training in being a parent, other than their own experience as a child, which rarely provides a good role model. And they are usually not well equipped to deal with the stresses of child rearing because of their own self-esteem and psychological stresses.  This is true even for those parents who read child-rearing books assiduously, because the implementation of any recommendations depends on their own mental state.

So the first step is to educate parents, both regarding the importance of childhood self-esteem, but also to boost their own self-esteem.  This can happen at various junctures.  One is when they apply for a marriage license.  All prospective parents should be required to undergo a course in parenting skills.  Another juncture is secondary education.  All seniors should take a course regarding functioning in an adult world, part of which would include lessons on parenting skills.  In both these instances, the process should include building up the individual’s own self-esteem.

Regarding young children, the forum for improving self-esteem needs to shift primarily to the school system because that is where the greatest chance for affecting change lies.  There is no shortage of stories about teachers who expect nothing of their students, berate them, and treat them like they were stupid.  But, there are also models of schools that have no tolerance for that type of teacher behavior and that foster positive self-esteem among their pupils.  To date, this has primarily been looked at from the perspective of how to improve student performance.  Equally important is how good self-esteem will impact their interaction within their future families, with colleagues, and with the world at large.

To the extent possible, parents of these children need to be brought into the self-esteem program through parent-teacher conferences and other mechanisms. This will increase the likelihood that the children will benefit meaningfully from the program.

Some conservative critics may say that this is an example of government stepping in where it has no business.   I would strongly disagree and say that government has few tasks more urgent than ensuring that children grow up to become good productive citizens.  And increasing self-esteem is an essential part of that process.

It will take generations to affect such a change in our psychological health across all age groups.  But if we want to achieve anything even approximating peace in the family, peace in schools, peace in the workplace, peace among citizens, and peace in the world, then we have no choice.  If we continue as we have for generations, nothing will change.  The path is clear.  We have but to embrace it whole-heartedly and with dedication.