Thursday, September 29, 2011

Clarion Call of the People

The clarion call of the American people is increasingly clear, and politicians who fail to heed the warning do so at their peril. Either address our concerns or we will take our demands to the streets so you can’t continue to ignore us, which has been your preference.  The Democratic Party, with a few notable exceptions has lacked the spine to stand up for ordinary Americans being trampled upon by the Republican Party. The American people are fed up with appeasement as the official policy stance of the Democratic Party.  American people have been the recipients of class warfare for years.  They will show our leaders how to react to abuse heaped upon abuse of ordinary working Americans by the Republican Party.

Not since the Great Depression has a Republican assault on working and unemployed Americans reached its current unprecedented tipping point.  The Republican House and Senate as well as members of the US Supreme Court have blatantly acted on behalf of large corporations. They are attempting to destroy collective bargaining and emasculate the working middle class in America. They are attempting to privatize the US Postal Service as a means of controlling mail-in voting.  They are undermining voting rights of minorities, elderly, students and people with disabilities in 27 states, as well as undercutting women’s access to health care

Up until recently, President Obama has fantasized Republicans in Congress would be reasonable.  Apparently he also believed in the tooth fairy.  Republicans rejected nearly all of his proposals to improve the economy and employment over the past two years. Confronted by growling and snarling Republicans, the President and Democratic leaders have whimpered in submission, their tails between their legs.  The President has finally decided to stand up and be the leader that was elected in 2008 for which he deserves great credit.   But Barrack Obama is only one person, and others have to get behind him, like leaders in the House and Senate, and in state houses across the country. Like Shirley Chisolm said, You don't make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas.

During the Great Depression, eventually the people rose up to demand reform. Republican Herbert Hoover was voted out of office, aptly disdained by the American people. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators filled the streets of America.  Across the Midwest from Ohio, to Indiana, Minnesota and North Dakota there were Farmer Strikes.  New York City saw a Rent Strike by people who, like those in foreclosure today, found themselves losing their homes, and had nothing to lose. There were Food Marches in major cities and Tax Holidays declared by citizens.  In 1932, 15,000 unemployed and destitute veterans descended on Washington, constructing ramshackle camps, staying until their demands were met.  Mr. Obama and other Democrats face the prospect of a repeat of similar civil unrest on their watch if they persist in their present ineffective course. The American people have begun to express their grievances in Madison, Columbus and Indianapolis, joined by a “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York, and “Main Street” protests in Georgia, Idaho, Montana, Ohio and Tennessee. This is only the beginning.

The American people’s tolerance for inaction is teetering precariously. The bail out of Wall Street banks with no strings attached, and enabling outrageous salaries and benefits for bankers and fund managers, who nearly brought the country to financial collapse, is unconscionable. Every last one of them that wreaked havoc on America should be in jail instead of receiving a “Get Out of Jail Free” pass.

President Obama has been talking tough lately, and that’s great. But let’s hope that he doesn’t cave in to Republican demands when they huff and puff threatening to blow his house down, as he has done in the past.  He says major cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and other essential federal programs are “necessary concessions” of his Republican budget negotiations. Makes no sense when reversing the Bush tax cuts could solve the problem.  Continued give aways to the wealthiest Americans, and tax loopholes for the wealthiest corporations, will simply not be tolerated by the American people.  They amount to pouring gasoline on a fire.

The time is long overdue for President Obama and the Democratic leadership wakeup.  Once people take to the streets, the people doing the marching, carrying signs and shouting angry slogans will be your unemployed next-door neighbors, college students, elderly people and those with disabilities who face disastrous futures without major reform.  They will be ordinary middle class working people, union members, and unemployed people who have had enough.  It will take very little to trigger an Arab Spring in America, with massive numbers of regular people demonstrating to demand genuine reform.  No more platitudes, no more talk about bipartisanship and shared sacrifice.  It is time for strong leadership on behalf of ordinary Americans like that of FDR, Harry Truman or Hubert Humphrey.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Greed, Shame and Taxes

 In Arianna Huffigton’s book Pigs at the Trough, she explores “Pigs on Parade” and “The Bloodless Coup” of wealthy Americans draining the nation’s financial resources while the general public suffers, and also predicts that after the binge, there will be a reckoning.  Perhaps the reckoning is about to begin.

From Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “The pardoner’s Tale” in which greed is portrayed as the root of evil, to Ebeneezer Scrooge in Dickens’ The Christmas Carol, to George Elliott’s Silas Marner and Steinbeck’s The Pearl, the despicable nature of greed and the redemptive nature of generosity are portrayed as among the most fundamental human values, which have obviously eluded most of the Republican Party and a handful of Conservadems, like Ben Nelson.  Beneficence has especially eluded the so-called Tea Party (which in reality is an amalgam of the John Birch Society and the White Citizens’ Council).  The leading Republicans claim to be devout Christians or Conservative religious Jews, so one might think they would abide by their religions’ stated values and admonitions regarding greed. Not so, not at all.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that greed was "a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, in as much as man condemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things." In Dante's Purgatory, the avaracious penitents were bound and laid face down on the ground for having concentrated too much on earthly thoughts. Psalms10:3 states, "the greedy man curses and spurns God." In Judaism, charity is a major principle: "If there will be a poor man among you... you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand toward your poor brother; you shall open your hand to him and shall give him enough for his needs") and Lev. 25:35ff  ("If your brother becomes poor... you shall support him, stranger or settler, and he shall live with you….").   In Buddhism, Greed is one of the Three Poisons that lead to evil (akusala) and that bind us to suffering (dukkha). The Koran states, “Let those who hoard the wealth that God has given them never think that they will benefit from it.  It will bring them nothing but evil.  The riches that they have hoarded will be their chains on Judgment Day” 

The United States of America has become a nation governed by greedy people who exercise vastly disproportionate power to their actual numbers, and a large proportion of ordinary Americans are suffering dearly as a consequence.  According to the US Census Bureau data released Tuesday September 13th, 2011, the nation's poverty rate rose to 15.1% in 2010 to its highest level since 1993. In 2008 one in six Americans lived in absolute poverty. Among single parent families (basically women with one or more children) 30% of white and Hispanic, and 40% of African Americans live in poverty.  The overall percent in poverty has has doubled since 1970.  
 The top ten American banks are currently sitting on over $2 trillion dollars in assets that they are knowingly withholding, which could be turned into jobs and helping promote the American economy.  As long as they can earn income on their investments that basically goes untaxed, they feel no need to share their wealth with the rest of America. Let them eat cake, they say to Main Street.

Since 1954 when the tax rate for people earning over $250,000 per year was 91%, taxes for the wealthiest Americans steadily dropped to their lowest level in 1988 when Ronald Reagan was President to 28%, and are currently 35%, not taking into consideration the numerous tax loopholes enjoyed by the wealthy that are not available to middle and lower income Americans.  In practice, the average tax rate for wealthy Americans is about 15%, the same as a family of four with a family income of $60,000, though they may earn 50-100 times more per year.  Here are some examples of those tax loopholes.
Capital gains tax rates are lowered to "encourage investment." A capital gain is a profit that results from investments in stocks, bonds or real estate, which exceeds the purchase price. It is the difference between a higher selling price and a lower purchase price, resulting in a financial gain for the investor.  Their investments can easily be tailored to pay a maximum of a 15% federal tax rate. 

Many wealthy individuals obtain most of their income from capital gains (see graph below).  Many capital gains are invested in overseas ventures that involve employing foreign workers, not American workers, who of course are paid a pittance.  CEO's have most of their income paid in stock options, which with any planning will be taxed at the 15% rate.  Here’s another example, buy a painting for $10,000, hold it for a year or two, get a friendly appraiser to say it's worth $60,000, and you deduct that from your reported income. That saves more on taxes than the $10,000 you actually paid.  If you are an average schoolteacher, fireman or plumber, you probably don’t have $10,000 to buy the painting in the first place. Tough luck, the Republicans say that’s your problem.

Some examples of corporate tax loopholes: graduated corporate income taxes, exempts the first $50,000 in profit from taxes. Companies (and individuals) do not pay federal income tax on interest earned from their investments in state and municipal bonds. What’s more, private companies can in some cases issue tax-free bonds of their own for projects that benefit the public, such as construction of an airport, stadium or hospital.  Why do you think they lobby so hard in the legislature for funding for a new stadium?  Another allows companies to deduct for all of the depreciation of a piece of equipment at once (as opposed to over the, say, 10 or 20 years it actually takes the item to depreciate). This is the equivalent of the U.S. government giving the company an up-front, interest free loan.  Multinational companies can defer paying U.S. income taxes until they transfer overseas profits back to the United States, under this law. Bush gave them a pass on paying their taxes when they brought their profits into the US, and they have simply repeated this greedy practice and are asking for the same hand-out again.   Among the American corporations that pay ALMOST NO TAXES are Boeing, Amazon, Host Hotels & Resorts, Five major energy corporations (such as Xcel Energy), Pfizer pharmaceuticals and Carnival Corporation (Cruise lines).  Major oil companies pay federal taxes at a much lower rate than most working class individuals though their income goes into the multi-billions of dollars.

There is very little evidence that tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals or corporations generates jobs for working class Americans. It is plain and simple gluttony, Robinhood in reverse, stealing from the poor and giving to the rich.  If tax cuts for the wealthy generated jobs, Bush’s profligacy wouldn’t have lead to the Great Recession.  The effluvia emanating from the Republicans about "class warfare" can treated with the disdain it deserves. 

What happened to a sense of shame?  “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? no, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush,” Jeremiah 8:12.

As conservative favorite Phyllis Schlafly wrote, Bite us once, shame on the dog; bite us repeatedly, shame on us for allowing it.”   It’s about time the Republican Dog is broken of its bad habits.  Barack Obama’s proposed “Buffett Rule” is better than a sharp stick in the eye, but not much. Give him credit for a step in the right direction.  Much, much more needs to be done to reform the tax code to level the playing field for working class Americans.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Another Self-Serving Vaccine Scare

Michelle Bachman’s recent misstatement of fact regarding alleged risks of the Human Papilloma Virus vaccine has created another unwarranted ruckus among parents, this time of Moms and Dads of teen-aged girls.  

There are about 6 million new cases of genital HPV in the United States each year. It’s estimated that 74% of them occur in 15- to 24-year-olds. The vaccine prevents cervical cancer and has been clinically tested since 2006. GARDASIL vaccine is the only human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine that helps protect against 4 types of HPV. In girls and young women ages 9 to 26, GARDASIL helps protect against 2 types of HPV that cause about 75% of cervical cancer cases, and 2 more types that cause 90% of genital warts cases. In boys and young men ages 9 to 26, GARDASIL helps protect against 90% of genital warts cases. There have been relatively few reports of adverse effect, the vast majority (92%) of which following vaccination have included fainting, pain, and swelling at the injection site (the arm), headache, nausea, and fever. Serious effects have included Guillain-Barré Syndrome (1-2 cases per 100,000) and blood clots, primarily in young women taking oral contraceptives (the birth control pill), who smoke and are obese.  There have been no reports of neurological damage or intellectual disability associated with the vaccine

Parents of youngsters with autism have been burned by the 1989 Andrew Wakefield autism vaccine scare.  A recent article by Dennis K. Flaherty and immunology expert, refers to this as The alleged autism-vaccine connection is, perhaps, the most damaging medical hoax of the last 100 years.”  Hopefully most parents have learned their lesson by now, that they should seek information from responsible medical resources, such as the Center of Disease Control or the Food and Drug Administration, starting with their child’s pediatrician, not an unethical politician willing to use any means to score a few points with ill-informed voters, including making unfounded statements terrifying then about their daughters' health care. 

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ambiguity in America

We live in a time of unrelenting ambiguity, in which the meaning of important words have changed, or at least it appears they are rapidly changing, such as what it means “to know,” “what is moral,” “what is real,” and “what does evidence mean.”  We ponder the world map and wonder if people living in that area of the world over there, are still our friends, or as some say, they are now our enemies, and those other people over there, the ones in that other irregularly shaped piece of the earth with a Google Map line around it are now our friends, even though we used to have our nuclear missels pointed at them.  We hear a politician say he plans to “save” Medicare by eliminating it and “increase the financial well being” of unemployed and working people by giving our tax money to the wealthiest people who will spend it on yachts and more mansions. Some politicians and their partisan followers don’t realize it, but they are paraphrasing George Orwell’s Animal Farm: “All animals are equal but some are more equal than others.”  They probably aren’t aware of it since few of them seem to read.   If you find this all confusing, welcome to Ambiguity in America.

These trends have invited anxiety among some and rejoicing among others who have elected to use such words in any way they choose, like Humpty Dumpty: “"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."   

Apparently in 2011 in America, one can do just that, or at least some people attempt to do that, and are no longer questioned by members of the press, who seem to have forgotten Orwell’s warning in 1984 about the complicity of the press and official propaganda. I suppose most of the press knows on which side their bread is buttered.

 The philosopher Theodore Adorno remarked, “Intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of the authoritarian personality,” which is most apparent in the flourishing of far Right Wing ideologies.  They seek refuge in the absolute certainty of absurd, autocratic, repressive policies they hope, pray and believe will set everything right, each in its own moral box, falling within straight, tightly circumscribed undemocratic lines, excluding all views that make them the least uncomfortable, like those of poor people, people of color, or older Americans, immigrants, people with disabilities or college students.  They might be willing to consider the views of some white non-union working class Americans.

The tradition within the sciences has been to attempt to cut the world’s unwieldy ambiguity down to size by observing, specifying, measuring, abstracting and simplifying, such as dating the age of the earth, tracking the course of evolution and climate change, the causes of cancer and heart disease, and the consequences of pouring billions of gallons of toxins into the Gulf of Mexico.  This process is called scientific explanation, and actually works quite well for many things, a great many things actually, and has clearly made the world a better place and is the basis for much of our economy, though some of those seeking power don’t seem to understand that.

There are some things, like moral judgments that can’t be entirely resolved this way, which requires a combined approach.  Using the information provided by science in conjunction with a generally agreed upon “ought’ value system, such as that provided by the United States Constitution.  If one wants, she or he could look to the 282 stipulations in Hammurabi’s Code for additional specificity, but that would probably not be necessary for most of us who have similar codes of our own.  This approach draws upon traditions from the arts and humanities, in which, according to Joyce Carol Oates,  “The ideal art, the noblest of art: working with the complexities of life, refusing to simplify, to "overcome" doubt."  Inability to tolerate doubt or ambiguity is the hallmark of neurosis, according to Sigmund Freud, i.e. we face the worst of too worlds in America…. neurotic authoritarianism.

The citizens of the United States are going to have to address these issues directly without guidance from the three branches of our government, which are clearly in a severe political crisis driven by unbridled greed.  At one time, the Supreme Court could be counted on as the last resort in such matters, but five of the nine members are now directly controlled by the same financial constituencies that determine the election of the majority of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate due to failure of electoral reform.  Mechanisms to begin creating forums for democratically resolving these issues need to be developed as part of civil society. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Tea Party and National Socialist German Workers' Party

The Tea Party, with its dangerously radical unyielding agenda, reminds me of an exchange between my Father-in-Law, Erich Leyens and Sigmund Freud.  In 1923, Erich Leyens wrote to Freud complaining about the growth of German anti-semitism in Germany.  Freud replied, "Mass psychoses are impervious to arguments. The Germans in particular would have had every reason to learn this during the (First) World War.  But they do not seem capable of it.  Let us leave them alone." (Library of Congress, Sigmund Freud Collection, General Correspondence, 1871-96:).

The parallels between the emergence of the Tea Party and the Nazi National Socialist Party in Germany are disturbing. In August 2009 screaming people attempted to assault others and people carried posters at rallies depicting the American President as Hitler, Stalin or an African Witch Doctor with a bone in his nose, and likened his proposed health care reform to the Holocaust, with placards blazoned with images of piles of bodies at Auschwitz.  Paid agitators disrupted town hall meetings with Congress members and senators, some carrying loaded weapons, behaving indistinguishably from Hitler’s Brown Shirted SA paramilitary thugs with pseudo-military titles in Germany during the run up to Kristalnacht, the “night of broken glass.” In August and September 2009, windows were shot out of black elected officials’ offices and other African American politicians were spat upon.  Though clearly less severe, the parallel with Krystalnacht was unmistakable. 

Just as Nazism was not a monolithic movement, neither is the Tea Party, but instead a combination of various ideologies and groups with a loose collection of ideas and positions, distinguished largely by what they opposed, rather than what they favored. They favored ethnic nationalism, but opposed democratic government.  They were racists, anti-semites, anti-communists, and opposed political and economic liberalism. They favored deportation and discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities and gay and lesbian people. They had no concept of human rights (See Marian Kaplan’s, Between Dignity and Despair and Bob Moore’s Victims and Survivors). Their invocation of small government and lower taxes is a ruse to deflect attention from their real agenda.

I’m not sure leaving them alone, as Freud suggested of Germany’s Nazis is such a good idea, as European Jews and the rest of the World discovered after 1939 when the Holocaust went into full force, and Hitler killed six million Jews and attempted to take over all of Europe. One of the main lessons of the Holocaust was that political malevolence is often insidious.  It is often a creeping, metastasizing cancer expanding and growing into places of least resistance, which unless strenuously opposed in its early in its stages, eventually overwhelms later attempts to react to its destructiveness.  By the time the severity of the Nazi threat was recognized in Germany and the rest of Europe, the disease had multiplied; metastases were spread throughout Europe, in every city, town and village; in every city hall and business, on every street and gravel road, and beneath every lamppost.   No one was free any longer to raise objection, for it was too late.  They were spied upon by neighbors and were crushed at the least sign of resistance.

Joseph Goebels, Hitler’s Director of Propaganda, issued a set of propaganda principles, which are difficult to distinguish from the Tea Party’s strategy.  Among his main principles were (1) propaganda must evoke the interest of an audience and must be transmitted through an attention-getting communications medium (i.e. Fox News, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin), (2) its effectiveness alone must determine whether propaganda output should be true or false, including claiming the polar opposite of what is true, (3) A propaganda theme must be repeated, again and again. If repeated enough times it will be believed. (4) Propaganda must reinforce anxiety, (5) Propaganda must facilitate the displacement of aggression by specifying the targets for hatred. [see Goebbels' Principles of Propaganda by Leonard W. Doob, published in Public Opinion and Propaganda; A Book of Readings edited for The Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues.]

No doubt most in the Tea Party will take offence at comparing their movement with the National Socialist Party in Nazi Germany.  So be it.  If the shoe fits, wear it.  The above image from the 567 Blog speaks for itself.  Hitler and Goebels complained bitterly and shed crocodile tears about the World’s rejection of the Nazi movement as the cattle cars continued to carry Jews to their death at Auschwitz and Treblinka.  If the Tea Party wishes to be perceived differently, they have a choice.  Stop inviting such comparisons.