Monday, February 23, 2015

How the Koch Brothers Hijacked the Middle Class Revolt and How To Take It Back

I often have asked myself why, given the huge income inequality that exists in the US, the wage stagnation that has left most middle-class workers with a much lower standard of living than they had 40 years ago, the increased unemployment among middle-age, middle-class men since the recession, the foreclosure crisis, and a host of other economic-related problems … why hasn’t the American middle class risen up in revolt, either by taking their anger to the streets, to the ballot box, or through some other means.

Recently though I realized that they have revolted, just not in the direction I would have thought given their issues and problems.  Instead of rising up against the financial and big business interests that control our government and society, and that caused the recent recession, they have instead risen up against government and Democrats.

Why?  Because they have been convinced by slick Tea Party propaganda that the government is controlled by liberals (e.g. Democrats) and has no interest in their welfare.  That the government is spending too much money helping the poor rather than helping them.  And who has largely financed the Tea Party movement?  The Koch brothers.  

So the Koch Brothers, the ultimate conservative, corporate, environmental and economic aggressors, who represent almost everything that is wrong with American society and politics today, have convinced the victims of their actions and philosophy that the cause of the victims’ woe are the very forces that actually seek to protect the middle class at least to some extent, but which are the foe of the Koch brothers and which they seek to destroy.  If ever there was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, they are it.

I would agree in many ways that the force the middle class should protest against is government.  But not for the reasons put forth by the Tea Party.  The problem is not that the government is too liberal, the problem is that the government and the political parties, both Republican and Democratic, are controlled by the money and forces of industry and finance.  And so, most of what is done by government either directly benefits these forces rather than the average American, or limits the impact on these forces of measures meant to protect the average American and the public good.

The purpose of government, according to the Declaration of Independence, is to enable citizens to fulfill their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  It is not to make a privileged group rich.  Lincoln’s motto was “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” not “government of the people, by industry, and for industry.”

President Eisenhower, a Republican, warned in his farewell speech that “ we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”  That proved to be a wise and unfortunately unheeded warning.  If he were to give that speech today, he would certainly add the financial sector to his list.

So what should the middle class do to improve their economic situation?  At a minimum, they should vote Democratic and not Republican.  While Democrats are also too beholden to the money of industry and finance, they at least push measures that help the middle class, the average American, and the public good.  

However, I would argue that the middle class should go further.  They should protest in the most visible way, en masse, the influence that the big business and finance sectors have on government, both in the legislative and executive branches.  

President Obama when he campaigned in 2008, said he would limit the power and access of corporate lobbyists.  That didn’t happen.  In staffing his economic team to deal with the recession and see that its causes were fixed, he brought in finance insiders who were present before and during the financial collapse and did nothing to prevent it.  He has pushed for authority to enter into more free trade area agreements of the type that have increased globalization and brought its negative impact squarely down on the shoulders of the middle class while benefitting primarily multinational corporate owners.  He has done nothing to push federal financing of campaigns.

This is not an area where one can seek a middle ground and expect to come out with anything meaningful.  Big business and finance interests should know without question that they are and will continue to be considered of vital importance to the health of the American economy and the welfare of the American people.   And government should support them as appropriate. 

But they must also know that in the future, those very two interests … what I would refer to as the public good … will always trump the narrow financial interests of the corporation and its shareholders.  Corporations are creations of the law and they should be allowed to exist primarily because of the benefit they provide to the greater good, not to their own interests.

Somehow, the Democrats need to find a way to get the middle class to understand that they are the party who has the interests of the middle class more at heart; that Republicans only protect the interests of  big business and the finance sector, both of which are major donors to their campaigns.

But beyond that, some leadership needs to rise up from within the middle class to arouse their compatriots to engage in a united, visible, powerful, and ongoing protest against the influence of the big business and financial sectors.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Guiding Children from Ghetto Poverty to Stable Adulthood

It does not, or certainly should not, need to be said that it is very difficult for any individual to lift themselves out of poverty, let alone lift themselves out of the often-degrading lifestyle of poverty in the ghetto.  Republicans are constantly saying that if you’re poor and unsuccessful it’s your fault.  As though we lived in a land of great and equal opportunity.  But that is not the case.

Nevertheless, examples do exist.  Life stories I have read show that it is possible and suggest what the conditions are for it to happen.  I will be referring to people’s lives documented in two books:  Rosa Lee and The Tragic Life of Robert Peace.

Rosa Lee was a woman of the ghetto with many of the dysfunctions often associated with the ghetto lifestyle … drugs, shoplifting, prostitution, etc.  She had eight children, most of whom followed in her footsteps.  However, two of the boys did not.  Indeed they never participated in drugs or other dysfunctional activity and became upstanding adults with steady jobs.

Why the difference in the two outcomes?  There were two major factors.  Even as young children, Eric and Alvin, the two boys who “made it,” were for different reasons extremely embarrassed and even repulsed by their mother’s lifestyle and swore that they would make a different life for themselves.  Alvin was struck by shame and humiliation about living on welfare.  Eric felt anger and disgust about his mother’s shoplifting.  Both reactions heightened by taunts, actual and feared, from other children.

The second factor was that because there was something different about them, both attracted the attention of an adult who became an important mentor, a teacher in one case, a social worker in the other.  These mentors showed the boys that they believed in them, and that a different life was open to them if they applied themselves.  Although both became teenage fathers and dropped out of school, they entered the military and afterwards held down solid, primarily government, jobs.

The other example is the life of Robert Peace.  Peace was also a child of the ghetto.  While his mother was a strong and positive influence in his life, which resulted in him achieving academic and career success, his father was a negative influence, teaching Robert the ways and lures of the ghetto drug culture, which Robert soaked up like a receptive sponge.

Robert’s hard work in school earned him a full scholarship to Yale, where he continued to excel.  After graduating he went home to teach at the high school he’d attended.  However, at the same time as he attained this success, he remained deeply enmeshed in the ghetto’s drug culture and became a dealer  He was murdered at age 30 in a drug-related shooting.

While these are only two examples, I think that they offer some important lessons for those trying to improve the lot of ghetto children.  First, if children, either because of the influence a parent or some other mentor or due to some experience of their own, apply themselves to their studies, their natural intelligence will be watered and they will succeed in their studies  and gain self-confidence.  

Having written the previous sentence, it sounds like a real “duh!” statement.  And yet it isn’t.  The vast majority of children living in poverty, not just the ghetto, don’t have either a positive parent influence, a positive teacher/mentor influence, or some life experience that makes them determined to get out of the ghetto though an education.

How sad!  But you can’t blame parents living in poverty because they are who they are.  They are a creation of the social circumstances in which they were born and grew up.  Without strong programs to bring parents into the education process … and there have been successes … this just isn’t going to happen.  

The successful programs prove though that with sufficient public/government will and the resulting funding, it is possible.  But such government programs almost always lack funding.  The money is there; it’s just a matter of priorities.  Personally, I think the nation would be better served if the cost of several new fighter jet for the military …$412M for a single F-22 or $100M for a single F-35 … were diverted instead to such programs.

We all know what a sad state most urban ghetto schools are in, not just physically but more importantly in the utter lack of motivation provided.  The vast majority either don’t know how, or just don’t try, to transform the raw material that comes through their doors from children who have no interest in education, to children who seek it out and thrive on it.  

Again, though, there are schools that have been successful in achieving this transformation.  So we know it is not the child’s intelligence or background that is the insurmountable barrier … although the ghetto background is certainly something to be overcome.  It is first and foremost the attitude of educators and teachers, and secondly their abilities, that are the real obstacles and that need to be transformed.  This has to be a priority of federal, state, and local government.  The nation’s future is its children.

But if we look at the contrasting examples of Rosa Lee’s two children, Eric and Alvin, and Robert Peace, we see that providing a child with a good education is not enough,  There is a saying that you can take the child out of the ghetto, but you can’t take the ghetto out of the child.  In the case of Robert Peace, that certainly proved to be the case.  But not with Eric and Alvin.

Robert Peace was addicted (not in the literal sense) to the ghetto drug culture.  Rosa Lee’s other children were literally addicted.  Eric and Alvin, on the other hand, were repulsed and embarrassed by all the various social dysfunctions they encountered growing up with Rosa Lee.  What does one do, what does a society do, with this lesson.?

I guess the first question is how atypical is the Robert Peace experience?  If one looks at others who have come out of the ghetto background and established successful careers, how many continue to be caught in the harmful elements of ghetto culture as Peace was?  I don’t know the answer.  But my guess is that for most it is not a problem.  It is probably the rare person who is both caught up in something like the drug trade and also has a parent influence who pushes the value of education.

But even assuming that his story is atypical and that most do not get pulled under by those forces, it would still make sense for the children and society if schools placed appropriate emphasis on taking the ghetto out of the child.  Show the child not just that education is exciting and that the child is capable, but that a change in lifestyle is also necessary to free themselves from the dysfunctional aspects of the ghetto, all the while remembering that it’s not all negative.  The point should be that they need to show themselves self-respect by removing the degrading elements of the lifestyle from their lives.  Operation Push tried to do this, I think.  I’m sure there have been other programs.  But it needs to be part of the school program.

The United Negro College Fund has as their motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”  How true.  Yet even in the 21st century, the vast majority of urban ghetto children’s minds are wasted, both to their detriment and the detriment of our nation.  Which is not to say that many other children’s minds aren’t wasted!  A top priority of government and our society has to be to end this waste.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Rescuing American Democracy

A healthy democracy depends on a large percentage of the electorate voting and on the voting outcome being the result of a debate on issues and policies.  Our democracy is far from healthy on both these fronts. (I know there are other problems, but those are not within the purview of this post.  See, for example, "The Value of Differing Opinions," 1/4/13.)

In the US, voter turnout is notoriously low even in presidential election years compared with other developed countries.  (The US rate was recently 62%, well below the average of 70% and the top country, Australia, with 95%.)  Certainly, some eligible citizens choose not to get registered and vote.  But much of the low voter turnout results not from choice but from obstacles to voting, which belie the principle of “one man, one vote” and dilutes the participatory nature of our democracy.

A major obstacle in the U.S. is the day selected for elections.  In most countries, election day is on a Sunday, making it easier for people to vote.  In those countries that vote on a weekday, many declare election day a national holiday in order to make it easier for people to vote.  

In the US, of course, voting is on a Tuesday; it is not a national holiday; and voter turnout is shamefully low.  There is thus a nascent movement afoot to have federal elections on the first weekend in November.  As stated in a New York Times op ed piece, “Our current system penalizes single parents, people working two jobs, and those who have to choose between getting a paycheck and casting a ballot. Two weekend days of voting means those working families would have a greater chance of making it to the polls.”

But short of making such a change, it has been generally accepted for several decades that voting should be encouraged by making it as easy as possible to both register and vote.  These efforts have recognized that many people need expanded hours and early voting to have effective access to the polls because of their jobs.  

Recent efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict early voting and expanded hours thus attack the principle of “one man, one vote.”  The same is true of laws that require photo IDs.  Both of these efforts make voting more difficult, especially for the working poor.  Voting is an essential right of citizenship; no unnecessary obstacle should be placed on that right.  

The primary concept behind the Constitutional right of free speech and its importance to the functioning of our democracy is the concept of a “marketplace of ideas.”  For this marketplace to function properly, the consumer’s choices should be made based on the quality of the competing ideas not on the marketing effect caused by unequal funding of campaigns.

Since we have never had public financing of campaigns, the unequal impact of money on the marketing effect has always been problematic.  But in recent years, the Supreme Court has struck down even the meagre laws we had attempting to restrict the amount of money given to campaigns by an individual and the amount of money corporations can spend on campaign and issue ads on the basis that such laws are an unconstitutional abridgment of the right to free speech.  

These rulings have resulted in exactly what was feared … an avalanche of corporate and big donor (and thus primarily conservative) dollars in an attempt to influence the outcome of elections, not by virtue of the quality of their ideas but the overwhelming volume of marketing.  This makes the marketplace of ideas totally dysfunctional.

It also dilutes the concept of “one man, one vote.”  If one takes the concept seriously, it necessitates not just that no person’s actual vote counts more than another’s, it means that no person’s voice counts more than another’s …  at least not because of the amount of money a person has.  Because if it does, if money talks in elections, then a relatively small body of people and corporations have a much greater voice in the election and thus often the outcome of an election than the general voting populace.  Obviously, money doesn’t always ensure winning.  But it sure helps.  This is contrary to the egalitarian nature of our democratic principles.

For this reason, we should have public financing of elections with all candidates having the same amount of money to spend and with all outside advertising, whether on issues or candidates, prohibited within a certain time period of elections.

But the proper functioning of the marketplace of ideas requires more than equal time (a concept in broadcasting which unfortunately has been discarded).  It requires the absence of lies and deceit.  

I know the theory is that lies will be exposed in the give and take of the marketplace and so will not give the perpetrator an advantage.  However, in our viral instant communication age, the fact is that a falsehood once cleverly spoken attains so much currency that it is virtually impossible for the victim to recover, to effectively counter the lie and render it harmless.

What we therefore need is a “Truth in Political Advertising” law.  See my very first post, “Truth in Politics: De-Frauding American Politics,” 2/1/11.

There is nothing more important to the continued healthy functioning of our democracy than that we have an informed electorate, that a large percentage of the electorate votes, and that no one has a greater voice in the outcome of an election by virtue of the amount of money he (or a corporation) spends.  Laws need to be passed to protect and improve the process.