Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Rights vs. Opportunities: The Bell Tolls for Thee

I'm awake earlier than usual this morning, having been rudely awakened at 6:45 by what sounded like a gigantic swarm of bees on the attack. I got up, put on my glasses, and looked out the bedroom window to see a cloud of dust rising from the parking lot across the street as a crew broomed up the dirt left behind by a John Deere sweeper cleaning up the filth eft from the winter's snow plowing. Shortly after I awoke, Willie, our 3-year-old was crying, awakened, too, by this commercial activity.
Many would say that 7 a.m. is a late hour to be sleeping. But I often stay up late reading because I'm an insomniac. Willie is usually in bed by 10 p.m. and sleeps until 8 or 9 in the morning; he rarely takes afternoon naps as a result. This suits us quite well generally. Dianne gets up about 6:30 when 12-year-old Johnny has school. This week he has a school vacation, so he can sleep later, too, and thus, stay up a little later in the evening. Dianne takes her morning medicine, and sees Johnny off to school, and Willie and I get up later. Dianne often rests in the afternoon.
I bring this up not out of any malice or disagreement with others' lifestyles, but because it represents a certain rudeness that is a result of our fixation on work and business, which at this point transcends any other values. I don't really see any reason to have parking lots in Glens Falls cleaned at 7 a.m. This ain't New York City, and I don't live in a high-rise above the noises of labor and the business hurly-burly.
I understand most people are up by 7 a.m., getting ready for work, or are already at work. Does this mean that since my family and I are in a small minority, that we should have our lifestyle interfered with by the buzzings of commerce?
Apparently, yes.
Bob Herbert wrote a column in the New York Times on Monday in which he praised Franklin Roosevelt's 1945 fourth inaugural address for its visionary `second Bill of Rights.'' I use the Quotes from that address that Herbert used:
``The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.
``The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
``The right of every bfarmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
``The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home and abroad.
``The right of every family to a decent home.
``The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
``The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident and unemployment.
``The right to a good education.''
Today, Wednesday, reader letters respond to Herbert's column. I am struck by two letters by conservatives who don't agree with Roosevelt's vision of ``rights.'' One contends that Bush's conservatism has properly transformed these ``rights'' into ``opportunities.'' And this conservatism ``includes the right of every person, according to his or her abilities, to convert these opportunities into reality.''
A second flat out contends that these ``rights'' requires others to have to give up their rights: ``Moral intuition does not transform into legal rights.'' In fact, according to this writer, `The change in direction that began under President Ronald Reagan, the change that Bob Herbert so deplores, restored a measure of sanity after the breakdown of individual liberties brought about By Franklin D. Roosevelt's demagogy.''
In other words, according to these conservatives, the rights of business and market forces trump any vision of social fairness and justice. Social fairness is an infringement on the rights of others to eschew any obligation to humanity. As the latter of these two letter-writers puts it, ``Person A may argue that he has a right to food, or housing, or or employment, or health care ... But it does not follow that person B has an obligation to feed or employ him.'' So, we are left with what? Rights end at the rich man's door? If the wealthy have no obligation to the poor, what obligation do the poor have to the rich? Logically, the answer is none. If this is so, then the poor man with no job, no income or housing has the right to simply seize these things, by force if necessary. Survival must trump rights, according to this logical schema. But would those who embrace this ideal agree with this conclusion that logically grows out of their own reasoning? I think not. So where does this leave us?
I quote Hemingway's epigraph from John Donne to ``For Whom the Bell Tolls: ``No man is an Iland, intire of itself; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or thine owne were; any man's death diminshes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.''
Donne did not write that in the age of Reagan, or the age of Roosevelt. He was not a Marxist, but lived long before Marx was a fear in the bourgeousie's soul, in Puritan England, which I assume was not a conducive atmosphere for social concern, since the first Puritans came to New England to establish a theocracy of the elite. (Is there a connection between this economic determinism and the fundamentalist religious ideology? If one is to believe history, then there is.)
When I was young, corner stores and family owned businesses were the norm in the town I lived in. None of the proprietors of these establishments was rich, but they earned decent livings, the type of livings reflected in Roosevelt's address. And to the best of my knowledge, they were content with that. Some of them were more ostentatious in their lifestyles than their peers. But I don't remember a fixation on money, its accumulation and the prestige it brought. Sure, there was an undercurrent of resentment among some of the wealthier business boosters; it was that resentment that fueled Ronald Reagan's ascent to political power shilling for GE, speaking on the virtues of free enterprise and the evil of government encroachment into businessmen's affairs. What troubled them then is what troubled them now, and if they're honest, they'll admit it: they couldn't get richer and amass more of the power that goes with wealth. They believed, and still believe, that their wealth entitles them to deference, recognition of their superiority over other men.
Now that the politics has handed them the power, society is breaking down, and democracy is at risk. Lesser men can vote, but the money decides who the candidates for national office are because running for office costs so much money. Any efforts to counter this fact are decried as ``class warfare'' or an assault on liberty. This protection of liberty furthers liberty for a few. The beloved market forces are nothing more than an excuse for the setting of everything from employment levels to prices for most goods and services by an elite that feels entitled to this power by virtue of ``rights.'' Stock markets drive stock prices; investors, usually elites - for even the mutual fund holders rely on an elite of well-remunerated financial experts to pick the stocks in their funds - demand high returns in the form of dividends and rising stock prices. Employers determine wages; workers can refuse to accept those wages, but face economic hardship if they do so. These market forces are not, then, benign. But if they are in the nature of things, as their promoters insist, then it would seem that the conclusions drawn above about rights and obligations are irrevocable. If the wealthy have the inherent right to their wealth, then the poor have the inherent right to take it from them. And thus, we have the current capitalist jungle that is destroying American society. And we are all, each of us, alone and defenseless. ``Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.''

Monday, March 28, 2005

Interest Rate Conundrum: Twilight for Supply Side?

I'm no economist. I studied economics in college as a minor, and I'm great at theory, terrible at number-crunching, and I think economic modeling is nothing more than a scientific patina to cover the idiocy of economic methodology and much of contemporary economic theory. This of course leaves my butt hanging in the wind when I write about economics, or criticize the current theoretical orthodoxy. But when I read an economist writing in the New York Times that the government should coerce people into saving money - as one whose name I don't recall did recently in the Business Day Thursday economics column - I usually find myself thinking that we should impose a tax on stupid economic ideas.
Here I go with my heresies again: The last economist who made an important and long-lasting contribution to economic understanding was John Maynard Keynes. Keynes originated the idea that government should intervene when economies flounder, and that government spending could be a powerful economic tool in times of hardship. His ideas came to the forefront during the '30s. (Although Keynes had been active for decades, and predicted after World War I that the Treaty of Versailles imposed such onerous terms on Germany that the settlement endangered the European economy. I don't think that later historical scholarship has successfully refuted Keynes' view.) And while I'll acknowledge that, historically, its hard to gauge the effect of the New Deal on the economy during Roosevelt's first two terms, its absolutely certain that the Keynesian stimulus of war spending in the third term certainly revived the nation's economy. But conversely, when economic conservatives brandishing Supply Side theory assert that Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs did the economy great harm with government stimulus, I maintain that that is also impossible to determine because the same Keynesian policies paid for the Vietnam War. Without the war, the Great Society may very well have been successful at combatting poverty without causing the inflation that racked the economy throughout the '70s. And Supply Side theory also ignores the impact oil price changes had in wrecking American living standards. In economist's terms, the '70s inflation was a cost push rather than a demand pull, which the conservatives reject; they assert demand was too high, forcing up price levels. Either way, the '70s opened the door for Supply Side theory, which basically holds that supply of capital is more important than consumption demand, and that increases in supply of capital stimulate investment and job creation, while higher demand only fuels inflation.
One idea that has never taken hold since Supply Side theory became dominant is that Supply Side is by definition an elitist theoretical construct. Or, to put it simply, the sector of society that benefits most from the policy implications of Supply Side theory is the upper class. Assertions to the contrary have consistently been dismissed as ``class warfare.'' But these denigrations of contrary economic theories by Supply Siders does not alter the fact that the largest concentrations of capital are held by wealthy people, and thus the policy benefits of Supply Side fall to the owners of capital. But something very interesting has been happening in the real economic world since George W. Bush - a pseudo-populist who claims to support the aspirations of working people while implementing policies that irreparably harm them - became president.
Tax cuts are central to Supply Side theory, because underlying the capital-formation core of Supply Side is a deep hostility to government intervention in the economy. Supply Side and anti-government ideas march hand in hand to the policy cure all of tax reduction. Since capital formation is more important than consumption, tax cuts should be targeted toward increasing capital formation. But is there a point where there is too much capital?
Lately, Greenspan has been musing about why long-term interest rates are not rising in conjunction with the short-term rates the Federal Reserve Board manipulates. Market forces, according to Supply Side orthodoxy, should force up long-term rates through the pressures on short-term rates. This conundrum, as Greenspan puts it, troubles him. But perhaps rates of return on capital are falling because demand for capital is declining - or at very least, softening. The New York Times' Floyd Norris actually started his column on Friday, March 25, with the statement ``There is too much capital in the world,'' and explains that yields on investment projects are declining. He attributes the increases in mangement compensation in recent years to the redirection of capital because returns on investment are so low. If we assume that Norris is right - that a surplus of capital can distort market values in executive compensation - can we also assume it distort markets that rely on capital for their expansion?
In some parts of the country, particularly in Florida and Southern California, real estate speculation is on the rise, with speculators buying two and three houses or condos hoping for increased valuations when they sell. Is it possible that real estate is an asset class that is increasingly overvalued? (The Federal Reserve has been reversing its low-interest rate policy, but I suspect that one of the factors causing Greenspan to lie awake at night is the effect of higher interest rates on housing. Holders of variable rate mortgages are going to face higher interest rates, and those on the overstretched margins of financial health could face foreclosures. It's going to be harder for bankruptcy filers to keep their homes in the wake of the new GOP bankruptcy laws. Conversely, lenders holding fixed-rate mortgages at low interest rates face declining returns on their holdings. Either way, the financial and housing markets face potential disaster. As, obviously, do the speculators.)
I have thought for some time that there was too much capital in the national economy. I came to this conclusion while watching the Japanese economy flounder despite Japan having real interest rates at zero or lower. The Japanese economy had been mired in recession for years, and the Japanese Central Bank had been reducing rates in hopes of stimulating economic activity. But it wasn't working. If rates can fall to nearly unprecedented levels and not stimulate an economy, is it fair to assume that manipulation of interest rates only stimulates an economy if they fall from a relatively high level, losing bang for the buck at lower levels?
It seems that the American experience in recent years parallels Japan's. Greenspan and the Fed consistently lowered rates after the Wall Street bubble in high-tech stocks burst at the end of 2000. But the economy has merely been treading water ever since. The low rates, coupled with the Republican Supply Side tax cuts, are now weakening the dollar, raising import prices, and inflation clouds are starting to loom. These are not supposed to be the results of Supply Side policy.
Supply Side policies were also in place while America's industrial base was gutted by corporate owners of capital searching for maximized returns on investment as lower wages attracted investment in foreign countries. American corporate capital subsidized both the movement of American jobs overseas and the creation of foreign-owned manufacturing start-ups. Recent reports reveal that textile manufacturers in both Latin America and Africa are falling victim to the Chinese textile juggernaut's textile import expansion - which was fueled by American capital. Thus American capital is now gutting the very industries it created a decade or so ago. American workers are facing a bigger and bigger crunch, as Detroit's automakers are at long last wringing health-care insurance concessions from the UAW. Job creation in America continues, but wages are still falling for most people outside the professional classes.
If Supply Side isn't working - and all the signs are that it isn't - then isn't it time to relegate it to Trotsky's ash-heap of history? Government needs to intervene. But this time it needs to take Keynes' views one step further and force the holders of capital to rebuild America's economic base rather than merely priming the pump. And with a revitalized industrial base, wages and living standards should rise. Dividends are years in the future, but if capital can't maximize rates of return anyway, what difference does that make? It seems to me that's better than watching the world's economy collapse. If nobody can afford to buy them, what difference does it make that the shirts are cheap?

Saturday, March 19, 2005

``As If to Breathe Were Life''

``How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As if to breathe were life ...''

Tennyson wrote those lines imagining the aged Ulysses contemplating age, and the infirmities that accompany it. But not one to give in to these heralds of death, Ulysses, at poem's end, launches himself and those who followed him from the war at Troy through temptation and travail to return to their homes in Greece, sets out ``to seek a newer world.''
``As if to breathe were life.''
I wonder how all the pro-life people would feel if they had to endure the travails of Terry Schiavo and her family. She has been on a feeding tube for 15 years in a vegetative state. ``As if to breathe were life.'' Michael Schiavo has spent a decade trying to find a way to move on with his life - and their children's lives - and allowing his wife dignity. On the verge of reaching some level of closure, fundamentalist religious fanatics and Congressional opportunists decide to insert themselves into what is probably the most agonizing decision any human being could make. But these people, certain of their own self-righteousness, need now to insert themselves in here, while the political leaders they think they single-handedly elect, jump aboard the train to support them, with Tom DeLay, one of the greatest hypocrites in the history of American politics, signing on with calls to prayer on Palm Sunday to defend Terry Schiavo's life. ``As if to breathe were life.''
My wife has an occassionally debilitating illness. We have no idea where this illness will take us. She has told me she never wants to have artificial life support keep her alive. One of my closest friends has an illness that leaves him debilitated much of the time. If he reaches a point where he can no longer do anything, I am sure he would not want these people deciding his future, but would rather leave that up to his wife and children. As it should be. I had to decide whether I wanted my Alzheimer's afflicted parents to be placed on artificial life support, and signed a Do Not Rescusitate order to, in my view, protect them. They have now passed on, and would these people come to me and tell me I made the wrong choice?
Abortion politics, as Jeffrey Toobin noted on CNN Friday, is the real driving force behind all this. We need to promote a ``culture of life,'' the right-wing fundamentalists assert. And tossing their religious views into all this makes unassailable. They are right, and know God's will. Anyone who has other ideas is automatically atheistic and anti-Christian. So any views they hold are irrelevant. Euthanasia and abortion are therefore evil. God wills this.
I knew a man who is a Baptist minister, and we developed a friendship while working together at my former place of employment. We discussed many political issues over lunch, among them abortion. I said to him that I personally would counsel against abortion in most cases, but I was intelligent and wise enough to know that abortions were performed in this country before Roe vs. Wade made them legal. Wealthy women had them performed quietly and in safety while poor women had them performed in back alleys with caustic soda and coathangers, and women, as well as fetuses died, and I needed someone to explain to me what was gained by all that. He listened and thought about what I was saying. I doubt very seriously I changed his mind, but I am certain he understood my point. But Richard was a thoughtful man and I know that, whatever his own views were, he kept an open mind. His final day at work, he told me that when he first saw me, he knew I was a thoughtful man who had many ideas to offer. I graciously and gratefully accepted his compliment.
I wonder what he would make of all this. I've lost tough with him now, but I miss hearing his ideas on many things. Thought is something the soldiers of fundamentalism have eschewed in favor of self-righteousness and the certainty it affords them. But my irritation with them over this issue makes me doubt whether any of them have Richard's humane ability to compassionately explore other's values and ideas.
To these self-righteous hypocrites, who claim they are pro-life but have no compunction about raining bombs and bullets down upon Iraqis, who feel capital punishment is God-sanctioned and have no qualms whatsoever about denying taxpayer aid to poor women who would accept their counsel to give birth rather than abort, and believe that Jesus sanctions their pursuit of mammon's dollars, I say to them in these complex cases like Schiavo's: Go, if you are certain that God is on your side, and perform the miracle that would give this woman back her life. This would also prove indeed that God is on their side and pave the way for a change in people's ways of thinking that would perhaps create the righteous society that God demands they work to create. If they cannot work the miracle, then they should go away and leave these poor people to wrestle with their consciences and God, praying they have made the right choice. (But of course failure to work the miracle would destroy their political foundation, and perhaps, even their faith. Some of them would surely tell me that I blaspheme even making such a suggestion. And perhaps I do blaspheme, but that's between me and God, and does not concern them at all.)
And poor Terry Schiavo, whose husband and parents, who oppose Michael Schiavo's efforts to take her off artificial life-support for religious reasons, battle for her future, is not even aware of the circus that surrounds her twilight existence. Perhaps God has put this circus in place to further His ends. But I doubt God is that cynical. And that lacking in compassion for his Creation, who wrestle with the moral issues life presents us all, and who fervently hope that they do the right thing, but know that uncertainty will dog them all their days.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Is This America or What?

``There is no Form of Government but what may be a Blessing to the People if well administered; and I believe farther that this is likely to be well administered for a Course of Years, and can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.''

So uttered Benjamin Franklin on September 17, 1787, as the original constitutional convention concluded its work. Have Franklin's words proven prophetic 228 years later?
I was taught by my parents - who died poor as the proverbial churchmice, so according to contemporary ideology should have no attention paid to their teachings because if they had been wise and virtuous, they would have died rich - that we should share, and that doing the right thing was its own reward.
The Republican Senate is threatening to change Senate rules to eliminate filibusters on Bush's judicial nominees. Which is probably the first step toward eliminating filibusters altogether, so the Democrats have no ability to stifle Republican legislation. Debate and maneuvering continue on Medicaid reform - less money for health care for the poor - Social Security privatization, oil exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, and a bankruptcy reform act has been passed which makes it more difficult for people of modest incomes to escape debt because, as the G(reedy) O(ld) P(rigs) prattle about the sacredness of contracts and honoring reponsibility to pay back money borrowed from bankers who loan in good faith with the expectation that borrowers are honorable people who honor responsibility.
As these disputes drag on, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay rakes bucks into a legal defense fund that will help pay his legal bills as he faces a possible indictment from a ``partisan'' Democrat attorney general of Texas who is investigating alleged violations by DeLay of illegally funneling campaign contributions into efforts to redraw Texas legislative districts in favor of Republicans. The House Ethics Committee has been hamstrung by rule changes that prevent a deadlocked committee from investigating ethics violations. (The old rules automatically launched investigations if the three Democrats and three Republicans on the committee deadlocked.)
Meanwhile, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the Bush administration has had to acknowledge that a gay gigolo who posed naked for a Web site promoting his business activities was given a press pass to White House news conferences as a ``reporter'' for a Web site run by Bush supporters. This ``reporter'' was a plant that asked Bush and his press staff softball questions phrased to show Bush and his initiatives in the best possible light and cast opposition as obstructionist. Armstrong Williams, it was revealed earlier, had been paid more than $200,000 to promote administration education initiatives in his columns and on his radio show. Special Prosecutor Peter Fitzgerald, meanwhile, gets federal judges to rule that a Time reporter and a New York Times reporter will face prison terms if they don't reveal sources to the prosecutor, who is supposed to be investigating who leaked CIA agent Valerie Plame's name to Robert Novak - that irritaing old Republican hatchet-man hack - after her husband published a piece in the New York Times which blew the whistle on one aspect of the Bush administration's disinformation campaign to launch the Iraq war. Novak himself has apprently never been grilled by the prosecutor's team. I suppose I'm simply being cynical if I ask whether this whole prosecutorial charade wasn't contrived to punish reporters who were unfriendly to the Bush administration.
Topping even this, a report in this past Sunday's Times explores in great detail how the news divisions at local television stations around the country uncritically aired administration video press releases masquerading as news reports. One syndicated agricultural news show, ``AgDay'' actually modified one of these reports, eliminating the reporters acknowledgement that he was ``reporting'' for the Agriculture Department. Obviously, the Fox News-loving White House has arrived at the conclusion that journalism is nothing more than a propaganda organ for the adminstration.
And in my own hometown, a local artist, Esmond Lyons, was paid $3500 for a mural installed in a local school. Among other aspects of the community's history depicted in the work is a demonstrator holding a sign in front of the city's Civil War monument that says ``Blessed Are the Peacemakers Who make Peace.'' Ever since the war in Iraq commenced, a local Vietnam veteran has stood in front of the Civil War monument at a major downtown intersection holding a large sign that says, among other things, ``Support Our Troops. Thank You for Our Freedom.'' The leaders of the school's PTA objected to the artist's creative license which changed the message of the sign, stirring a minor brouhaha. Lyons responded to the demands he change the mural to reflect the actual sign's words, he offered to give the school's money back if it would destroy the entire mural. Some in the community rose to Lyons' support, and the issue is unresolved as of this writing.
I also learned when I was young that a free press and free expression were essential to a free society and that the 1st Amendment quaranteed these liberties. My historical studies tell me that totalitarian states undermine opposition by attacking artists, writers, intellectuals and the press to enhance or enforce totalitarian rule. It seems these assaults on the Democratic opposition by Republicans in the Senate leadership; the attacks on reporters; the dissemination of government approved ``information''; and the assault by small-town PTA women on an artist's right to expression are all of a piece. And deliberately or not, a conspiracy or not, these efforts undermine our democracy. And the motives for these attacks are to silence opposition to government policies and also to silence ideas some find unwelcome. These are steps toward despotism. And once would-be despots begin to get their way, and as opposition to them begins to cave, they stop at nothing. When I read that half of high-school students think that the press should not be free to publish unpopular ideas, as a recent poll revealed, I begin to fear the jackboots.
Another thing my father taught me was that America's Hitler would ride down the streets in a limousine to cheers.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

News Roundup Follies and Gambles

Again, I've had a long hiatus here. But with wife and three-year-old resting, I've got a few minutes.
So here's what's catching my attention.
I suspected that all the right-wing triumphalist crowing about Iraqi elections, Beirut demonstrations, Mubarak's recognition that Egyptian politics weren't monolithic, regional elections in Saudi Arabia (from which women are excluded - we don't want to upset the Wahabbis too much) - were premature at best. Now that Hezbollah hit the streets with pro-Syrian demonstrators and its 20,000 man militia, Bush and Condie backpedalled fast, recognizing that, terrorist group or not, Hezbollah must be dealt with. Once these guys hit the streets, the Lebanese Parliament decided to put the pro-Syrian prime minister back in. Better Syria than civil war? Stay tuned. But democracy in the Middle East is far from a done deal, even in the most cosmopolitan of the Middle Eastern countries, let alone an American-occupied Iraq. Anyone wanna bet that Bashar al-Assad ain't goin' nowhere? Nor the House of Saud? Nor Mubarak? Nor the Iraqi insurgents?
Bush, with his great mandate, seems to be hitting a rutty, pothole-filled highway to Social Security reform and ``permanent'' tax cuts. The moderates in the Senate are heeding that GOP hack Greenspan's long overdue warnings that the deficits are a problem. Hello! A falling dollar is symptom enough that something's wrong in the international financial markets. The trade deficit, soon to be widened further by higher-priced oil imports and more Chinese knit shirts, now that the 1993 WTO deals are allowing an unchecked flow of Chinese imports, is just another brick in the cobbled road to American economic collapse. Can we expect a currency crisis by mid-summer? I wouldn't bet against it. But old Alan still is heeded as the great oracle of the markets. Oh, Great Seer, tell us what is on the horizon? ``I think its a storm, but perhaps the sun will shine if we can use some new smoke-and-mirrors to convince everyone that we're serious about our economic problems. And after all, ignorant MBA's will buy anything as long as it fits the theories we have taught them to have faith in.''
When is someone going to say point-blank that the only thing we need to do to head off disaster is to stop treating the well-heeled rich as an oppressed minority and make them pay their damned taxes! And let's hit the corporations as well. Despite the fact that they hate the very concept of social responsibility, social responsibility still exists.
Hark! I hear pro-Social Security privatization ads proclaiming the looming insolvency of Social Security. When Social Security was implemented, the narrator unctuously intones, there were 16 workers to support every retiree. Now there are only three. Soon, there will be only two. Oh, horrors! The system is going broke! Hey, Chicken Little, where'd all the workers go? To paraphrase the chorus of ``Where Have All the Flowers Gone?':' They've gone to Mexico, and India and China, everyone. ``Oh, when will they ever learn'' indeed. Time to remove the income cap on FICA tax. But it's not fair, I can hear the whining now. I've gone into this before. Let's move along.
Michael Jackson has had to show up for court or he faces a bench warrant. So he arrives in pajamas and slippers, shambling along like some old man, complaining his back hurts. It seems a symbol of the tawdry 80s is now facing his Gotterdammerung. Let's hope that whole spiritually empty, intellectually vacant and morally bankrupt era is, too. Didn't it ever occur to anyone in Entertainment World that there was something wrong with this guy back when he claimed Billie Jean was not his lover? I'm not going to speculate on the motivations of Priscilla Presley and the other bimbo who was dumb enough - or wacko enough - to marry him. But come on!
Pray for Bill Clinton. See ya later.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Ideas, Anyone?

Bush was just on announcing that John Negroponte, Rusmfeld's Baghdad hatchet man with a long history of dirty deeds, will be the new coordinator of intelligence - or whatever bureaucratic double-speak name these guys have come up with to oversee intelligence gathering.
But the question remains: Is there intelligent life in the Republcan Party?
I started to write ``in Washington,'' but since they lost the election, it seems that the Democrats have decided they no longer have anything to lose. ``The president proposes, the Congress disposes.'' And unless the free market gods can pull off a major propaganda coup, the Social Security privatization plan is dead in the Senate, since Republican moderates broke ranks with the president over the issue. And as Bill Maher put it in an interview with Larry King Monday night, there is no crisis over a system that faces financial problems 37 years from now. And the easy and obvious fix is to make everyone - even right-wing, tax-hating corporate CEOs - pay the same percentage of total income as everyone else. If somebody making $30,000 can pay 6.5 percent, why can't those making $30 million? ``But we won't have incentives! Success is being punished!'' Or: ``We'll never get that money back!!'' Well, if you make $30 million, you don't need a government pension insurance policy. And you can have a party with statues that piss vodka for decorations instead.
And while I'm being tastelessly obstreperous, let's talk about income taxes. There's a simple solution to the tax issue for Democrats, too. Simply eliminate income taxes for people who make less than $50,ooo a year, and not even withhold anything other than FICA from their wages, while their employers still report their wages to the IRS. After this act of economic largess to people who really need ``tax relief,'' why not begin to re-progressivize the tax structure, charging 5 percent on incomes between $50,000 and $100,000, 10 percent on $100,000 to $250,000, 20 percent on $250,000 to $1 million, and 25 percent on incomes above $1 million?
Then tax corporate profits at 25 percent? Treat all income - wages, capital gains and small-business profits accruing to small-business owners - the same? And eliminate all deductions and tax credits except personal exemptions and those for home-mortgage interest on homes valued less than $150,000? And if this isn't ``revenue neutral,'' slap an excise tax on luxury cars, jewelry, yachts and vodka-pissing statues? Tax simplification that helps the working man, crimps accountants and tax lawyers and keeps the government running! How's that for thinking outside the box? Democrats where are you?
Howard Dean ought to be able to turn this into campaign cash from working people who can't contribute to political parties, but now ought to be able to toss a few sawbucks the Dems way. It seems to me the Republicans couldn't oppose such a plan without revealing their true plutocratic instincts.
In other news, Iran and Syria announced that they would work together to oppose any efforts by the U.S. to undermine their sovereignty. The Russians apparently support them in this coalition. Expanded Middle Eastern War anyone?
And, according to the New York Times, Bush is showing signs of compromise on his holy tax cuts as Greenspan scrambles to reassure bullet-sweating foreign central bankers that the U.S. is serious about deficit reduction, since the European Central Bank lost $625 million in value on treasury securities and other dollar holdings as our-market loving government lets the dollar fall in currency markets. On top of this, the Japanese Central Bank - which holds the largest stash of dollar-denominated investments in the world - paarently lost $1.3 billion. (Figures from New York Times editorial on Monday, February 14.)
One of the more interesting currency-market phenomenons in recent years was currency traders turning to Japanese banks to borrow yen at negative real-interest rates and trading the borrowed yen for higher-valued currencies, repaying the yen and keeping the interest-rate differential as profit. A similar strategy could leverage central banks and arbitageurs out of dollars, forcing the U.S. to pay up or shut up on all that foreign debt. This would raise U.S. interest rates, prices of imports - and since we don't make anything in this country any more since corporate America, in its infinite wisdom, genuflecting at the altar of high profits and low wages, decided to gut our industrial base - that means prices on nearly everything, from clothes to food to gas to high-tech electronics. Double-digit inflation, anyone? And worse, yet, massive mortgage defaults, a crash in the U.S. housing market and a collapse of the banking system?
Those tax-cuts for millionaires sure did help our economy, didn't they?
As for John Negroponte, he is personally responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in Nicaragua, Honduras, Chile and Latin America generally as a former hatchet man for the Reagan war on wicked commie peasants who wouldn't bow before the millionaires and their American corporate string-pullers. Now that we are at war with the disobedient towelheads, he's just the guy to cook our intelligence so we can continue fighting all evil-doing poor people who think it better to die on their feet than live on their knees.
Intelligence, anyone?

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Back Again - Hoo Boy!

After a three week or so hiatus, I'm back.
Explanation: Anyone who thinks taking care of a family isn't time consuming work has never done it.
I'm not complaining, mind you, but two boys and a wife with health problems take up a lot of time.
I admit I got drunk with a pal and watched the Super Bowl - as usual, I rooted for the loser - and read a bit, but sometimes, self-indulgence is a virtue, no matter what Republican Scrooges have to say about work, work, work. But have you ever noticed how dull most of these work, work, work people are? Their singular focus leaves them without a frame of reference to anything but work. As Churchill noted, they have all the virtues and none of the redeeming vices.
Local politics has also taken a bit of my time, through my association with Democracy for America. The elections in Glens Falls aren't until fall, but the local Democracy for America organization has already endorsed a city council candidate. The issue in town clearly is going to be economic development, and there is fertile ground for progressives to sow. There's has been a long standing love among certain elements here in city government for outside consultants to investigate potential avenues of development, and the latest development ideas include traffic rotators - two of them in a block, for God's sake - to keep traffic flowing. Developers are enamored of the idea that growing high-tech development 50 and 60 miles south of here is going to create a demand for new homes and businesses up here, as workers moving into the Albany area's ``tech valley'' are going to live up here and commute. Perhaps. But coupled with this idea is a desire to bring new businesses to the quarter-mile commercial strip downtown, where the city fathers propose to build the traffic rotators to facilitate efficient traffic flow. I thought businesses needed foot traffic in a downtown, aand foot traffic needs to cross streets. Two contradictory ideas make a marriage in Hades, both ideas promoted by developers and consultants who live out of town, and both embraced by current local political leaders.
I think myself that if development is the idea, then the people who live in the community need to have more say in the direction of that development. Thus, the groundwork for progressive politics is opened. I think the impulse to turn to consultants for advice and then embracing their ideas is part and parcel with the MBA mentality that always wants to reach ``concensus'' to avoid individual responsibility and accountability. ``It didn't work? Well, it wasn't all my idea.'' And the idea that business takes precdence over every other consideration is eroding social responsibility. We see evidence of this throughout American life today.
I haven't kept close tabs on a lot of the news lately. Nothing really new has broken out, so we're left with idiotic debates about Social Security privatization - a red herring tossed out by the promoters of drowning big government in the bathtub while looting the national treasury - and national security has suddenly hinged on the Iraqi election, which apparently, if one is to believe the neocons, has demonstrated a thirst for liberty all over the world, with ``tyranny'' on the run. I think one needs to decide what liberty is and what having liberty means. Orlando Patterson, in a trenchant essay in the New York Times, considered what freedom and liberty mean to different people in different parts of the world. In Patterson's view, what he terms as the ``radical privatization'' of liberty in America, in which liberty and freedom are viewed as means to acquire personal power and wealth, are viewed as hypocrisy by much of the world. And Patterson has a point: If liberty is nothing more than acquisition in the pursuit of self-aggrandizement, then liberty loses its meaning for those who lack the means to indulge in such a solipsistic pursuit, and becomes nothing more than a rationale for selfishness. Thus, the neocons' shallow thinking becomes ever more apparent to any thoughful person. Ayn Rand, the pseudophilospher of the solipisism the neocons so revere is exposed as a thinker without a conscience. I personally found ``Atlas Shrugged'' to be one of the most turgidly written, preposterous novels I ever tried to read, giving up in disgust as the plot - such as it was - took a protagonist through a desolate Great Plains to an abandoned factory in the middle of nowhere, whose owner beset by government - i.e. beaureaucratic - interference and taxation closed it down rather than endure the unfair burdens placed upon him by the little people who lacked his vision and talent. Poor Atlas! Poor John Galt, the novel's hero! Poor, poor rich people of great virtue burdened by the demands of inferior slobs who want everything handed to them instead of working and earning it!
The New York Times reported on Super Bowl weekend that newly minted celebrities were handing a business boon to International Harvester by buying five-ton pickup trucks to tool around in; Hummer limousines that held 18 were being chartered to haul rich football fans to the Super Bowl. And woe betide anyone who dares criticize this conspicuous consumption or dares to suggest that if these Atlases can afford this self-indulgence, then they can afford higher taxes to help their society. It's all about me, after all. And this is what all people everywhere should aspire to. Well pardon me if I don't. I read Camus and embraced his existential responsibility rather than Rand's solipsism. Rand may have escaped Soviet Russia, and therefore, in some eyes, this gave her a moral credibility that Camus lacked, but Camus lived through the devastation of World War II and saw firsthand, the sense of personal degradation colonialism and military conquest instilled in subject peoples, unlike Rand, who avoided gulags and subjugation by fleeing to America where her books made her rich and could justify her riches. There is more than a little element of rationalization and self-serving hypocrisy behind all this shallow guff. I contend there's no such thing as a conservative intellectual, only wordsmiths who wish to take on the trappings of intellectualism without the scholarly rigor or humane concern.
I admit my self-indulgence; these people refuse to admit their shenanigans are self-indulgences, and are instead, they insist, just desserts for their morally virtuous selfishness and greed. A society of 300 million people all chasing self-aggrandizement in an endless ``scuffle with the crowd to get their share,'' as Jackson Browne put it in his song ``The Pretender,'' recorded in 1976 as the idealism of the baby-boomers gave way to disillusionment, can hardly be called a virtuous society. It's more like barely controlled chaos. And the rage so many people who consistently vote Republican to express their social, cultural and spiritual dislocation, plays into the hands of the Atlases who oppress them in the name of freedom while handing them an imaginary conspiracy of elites who take away their cultural and economic autonomy. Someday, the light will come on and the anger of these peoples will end up directed at their true oppresors.
When I visited Washington a decade ago now, I eschewed the tours of the White House and the Capital and the Smithsonian and spent nearly a whole day in the National Gallery of Art. More visitors to Washington should take the time to explore this marvelous treasure, which holds as much history, in its own way, as the other attractions. Much of the collection was bequeathed to the country by the Mellon family. (I can hear the neocons screaming now about my hypocrisy in wanting to tax the rich, for without them, this national treasure would not even exist.) At the National Gallery is a large collection of 18th century French portraiture. Naturally, as befitting an aristocratic age, these portraits were of the nobility and the rising bourgeousie who were gaining a foothold in the society of France. And as I looked at the smug, well-stuffed faces in these paintings, I thought, ``Little did they know that the society they were part of was about to be washed away, and many of them were to face the quillotine.''
I may be a hypocrite in admiring and enjoying this monument to the tastes of the wealthy, but I would suggest those who might accuse me ponder the faces in these masterpieces, and the fate that awaited them - a Karmic blowback upon their self-indulgence - and ask themselves whether they or their heirs might not one day face a similar fate.
Which brings me back to development in my hometown. If this development is not supported by a community which feels isolated from the processes which brought it about, then it is all for naught. Some developers may laugh until they piss their pants, but such waste and failure can't help but disillusion the community's people, and fuel more dislocation and outrage.
Could it be that business, not government, is our problem?