"Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming"

ram·part (ram-pahrt) n. 1. A fortification consisting of an elevation or embankment, often provided with a parapet. 2. Anything that serves to protect or defend.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Robert Reich For President

In my last blog post, I argued for the importance of having a serious progressive independent candidate in the 2012 presidential race.  Now, allow me to be more specific.  I hereby nominate Robert Reich for the office of President of the United States.

Robert Reich is Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and chairman of Common Cause, a non-profit lobbying and advocacy organization dedicated to campaign finance reform and ethics in government.  He has served in both Republican and Democratic administrations under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton, the latter as Secretary of Labor.  In 2002, he ran for governor of Massachusetts and, despite having very little funding, still managed to come in a close second out of six candidates in the Democratic primary with 25% of the vote.  Reich has published thirteen books, including Reason: Why Liberals Will Win the Battle For America, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy, and Everyday Life, and Aftershock: The Next Economy and America’s Future.  In these books, and in a recent series of short videos distributed by, Reich demonstrates not only a mastery of his subject but a near uncanny ability to explain the most complex issues in terms even the most limited attention spans can grasp.

Reich is exactly what America needs.  He’s a committed liberal—not for doctrinaire reasons, but because he’s carefully researched and analyzed the significant problems facing our country and has found the solutions that benefit the most Americans are progressive ones.  His analysis of how our economy has collapsed and why we’re having so much difficulty reigniting it is thorough, incisive, and, quite frequently, brilliant.  He understands exactly where our country went off the tracks and how to get it back on.  And he’s somehow capable of explaining these highly complex issues in such a way that they’re comprehensible to absolutely anyone.  (I suspect Reich could successfully explain the finer points of buying credit default swaps on negative-amortizing subprime mortgage derivatives to a herring.)           

But could Reich, or any other independent candidate, actually win?  I don’t know, and neither does anyone else.  Certainly conventional wisdom has it that a third-party candidate can’t win the White House.  But not so long ago conventional wisdom had it that an African-American could never win the White House, at least not in our lifetimes.  Clearly, sometimes conventional wisdom is simply wrong.

Besides, we’re at a unique point in our nation’s history.  President Obama enters the race saddled with a persistent 16% real unemployment rate.  No president has been reelected with such a high rate of joblessness since World War II.  According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama’s disapproval rating has reaching an all-time high of 49%.  And it’s nearly matched by current Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich’s disapproval rating of 48%.  It seems certain that no mainstream candidate, Democrat or Republican, is going to generate much enthusiasm from voters over the next ten months.

And never has resentment of the two major parties and their corporate backers been stronger.  One of the reasons the Republicans have been so much more confident and sure-footed than the Democrats over the past thirty years is that Republicans are consistent—they accept huge corporate contributions and, in turn, they protect the interests of their corporate masters.  No conflict there.  Democrats, on the other hand, have seemed uncertain and adrift over the past few decades, in large part because they’re incongruent—trying to protect the American worker (or at least paying lip service to so doing) while simultaneously sucking at the corporate teat.  As the Washington Post recently reported, Obama and the Democratic National Committee have already accepted more campaign contributions from Wall Street banks than all the Republican candidates combined—more than $15.6 million.  And the awareness of the political influence that such money brings to politics has never been stronger.  If there was ever a time when an independent candidate—someone who doesn’t accept corporate contributions, someone who isn’t beholden to corporate interests—could break the two-party system’s monopoly on power, it’s now.

But suppose conventional wisdom is right.  Suppose no third-party candidate, including Robert Reich, could win the White House.  Would a Reich campaign still be good for America?  Yes, for two important reasons.

First, Democrats are in the habit of taking the liberal vote for granted.  They know progressives aren’t going to vote Republican, so the party doesn’t have to do anything to attract them.  For far too many years, the Democratic slogan seems to have been, “Vote for us because, heck, at least we’re not those bozos.”  All Democrats have had to do to keep the progressive vote is to stay two degrees to the left of Republicans.  But staying two degrees to the left of Newt Gingrich simply isn’t going to cut it anymore, not given the severity of the problems our country’s currently facing. 

The prospect of a Reich campaign scares the hell out of Democrats because his presence in the race would threaten to split the liberal vote, potentially losing Obama the election—just as some claim Ralph Nader cost Al Gore the election in 2000.  (Of course, Gore actually won that election; he just didn’t take office.  But that’s another story.)  And that’s good.  We need the Democrats to be scared.  It’s precisely that fear what will force the party to shift left in order to avoid losing the progressive vote.

Put another way, in his first term Obama has consistently embraced the political center.  But as the Republicans swing further and further to the right, that political center shifts right as well.  The presence of a Reich campaign would change the debate, shifting the national conversation to the left.  In order to stay centrist, Obama would be forced to lean left to accommodate it.

Which brings us to the second important reason for a Reich campaign.  With no challengers on the left, conservatives are going to dominate the news and the national conversation for the next ten months.  That’s right, we’re in for ten long months of absurd “trickle down” tax reform proposals, attacks on social programs, immigrants, and the poor, and jingoistic chest thumping.  And the media will be obliged to cover each of these ideas because, after all, the Republican race will be the only game in town.  As Reich himself put it in a recent blog post, “there’s no primary contest in the Democratic party.  So Republicans automatically get loads of free broadcast time to air their regressive nonsense while the Democrats get none.”  Exactly.  Unless, that is, Reich himself were to step into the fray, thereby redefining the debate and shifting the national conversation. 

And if Reich were to stay focused on the issues rather than making any direct attacks against the president, it would give him the option of dropping out of the race and throwing his support to Obama any time he chooses.  In the meantime, the campaign would still have given him a platform to explain to the American people the real reasons for our current economic crisis—and how we can resolve it.  In other words, Reich doesn’t actually have to win in order for his campaign to be a success.

In another recent blog post, Reich predicts that, given how uninspiring the current crop of candidates are, we may be in store for a tepid presidential campaign.  And he concludes, “a passionless presidential race may be dangerous for America.  The nation’s problems may not wait.  They require bold action, and soon.”

Once again, Professor Reich is correct.  If you agree, please sign the petition at the link below and forward to others.

Copyright 2011 by Ramparts

Monday, December 5, 2011

Obama's Not the One

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for a couple of weeks now and I keep putting it off, in no small part because I don’t like what I have to say.  And that’s part of the problem.  Nobody on the left wants to say it.  Nobody wants to hear it.  Although I think most progressives know on some level that it’s true, nobody wants to admit it.

Here it is: Even if he’s reelected, Barack Obama isn’t capable of getting us out of our current economic crisis.

Early in 2009, I saw a bumper sticker on some redneck’s pickup truck that read, “You Can’t Blame Bush Anymore.”  Of course, that was ridiculous.  Obama had only been in office for a few months at the time and the Bush administration had had eight years to screw up the economy—not to mention the environment, international relations, the Justice Department, the city of New Orleans, and anything else Bush and Cheney could get their hands on. 

But that was then, this is now.  Three years into the Obama administration, the job market is no better than it was when he took office.  The official unemployment rate has been stalled somewhere around 9 percent since 2008, and it’s only within the past few months, as his reelection campaign began, that the president has even begun to consistently address the issue.  And he still doesn’t seem to grasp the enormity of the country’s economic problems or the fundamental, systemic changes that are going to be necessary for us to recover.  At some point, if they’re honest with themselves, Democrats have to admit that this is Obama’s economy too.  He may not have been the one who wrecked it, but he needs to take at least some responsibility for the fact that it’s still broken. 

My pointing this out makes some progressives uncomfortable.  They’d like to continue kidding themselves that Obama’s their man.  But the truth is, Barack Obama is not a progressive.  He never was and never will be.  Barack Obama is a moderate, a centrist.  He is, above all, a compromiser.

In the opening chapter of his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, Obama presents liberalism and conservatism as two extremes that are equally out of touch with the problems of real Americans, and he seems to hold both political parties equally responsible for legislative gridlock and partisan bickering.  Here’s a representative passage:

And yet publicly it’s difficult to find much soul-searching or introspection on either side of the divide, or even the slightest admission of responsibility for the gridlock.  What we hear instead...are deflections of criticism and assignments of blame.  Depending on your tastes, our condition is the natural result of radical conservativism or perverse liberalism, Tom DeLay or Nancy Pelosi, big oil or greedy trial lawyers, religious zealots or gay activists, Fox News or the New York Times...  I won’t deny my preference for the story the Democrats tell, nor my belief that the arguments of liberals are more often grounded in reason and fact.  In distilled form, though, the explanations of both the right and the left have become mirror images of each other.

The explanations of the right and the left are mirror images of each other?  The New York Times is the mirror image of Fox News?  A gay person who wants the right to marry the person he or she loves is the mirror image of a religious zealot?  At least Obama doesn’t “deny [his] preference” for Democrats.  But coming from the man who would become the  leader of the Democratic party, that’s a pretty tepid endorsement.

He continues:

There are those who still champion the old-time religion, defending every New Deal and Great Society program from Republican encroachment, achieving ratings of 100 percent from the liberal interest groups. But those efforts seem exhausted, a constant game of defense, bereft of the energy and new ideas needed to address the changing circumstances of globalization or a stubbornly isolated inner city.

So Democrats shouldn’t try to defend social programs from Republican encroachment?  And those who do are somehow behind the times?  Obama goes on:

...I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we’re in...  For it’s precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us  from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country. 

In fact, the entire first chapter of Obama’s book is a thirty-page argument for liberal appeasement.  No wonder the first three years of the man’s presidency has played out the way it has.  Barack Obama can’t wait to make concessions to conservatives.  He’s ready to start compromising before the debate has even begun.

Here’s just a small sample of instances in which the president has capitulated to conservatives:
  • Obama extended the Bush tax cuts, which lowered taxes for the wealthiest Americans and increased the deficit by $1.35 trillion.
  • Obama supported the bailout of Wall Street banks with no strings attached and no accountability for how the banks would spend the money they were given.
  • Obama has taken no action to regulate the bond market, repeal the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, shake up the SEC, or anything else that might prevent the economic disaster of the past five years from happening again.
  • Obama didn’t fight for a single-payer health plan even though a majority of Americans wanted it (59 percent, according to a 2009 New York Times/CBS News poll).
  • Obama shelved EPA regulations on ground-level ozone, delaying their implementation until at least 2013.
 The list goes on and on.

Truthfully, I take no pleasure in pointing any of this out.  I greatly respect our president.  He’s a man of intelligence and integrity.  His commitment to being fair-minded and even-handed, his willingness to see both sides of an issue, his ability to see the value of any political position—these are admirable traits.  At a different time in our nation’s history, in a different political climate, he’d be a wonderful leader.  But not now.  Not in this political climate.  Not in the midst of this economic crisis.  Not when such fundamental changes must be made to our system in order for us to recover.  At this point in time, we don’t need a diplomat in the White House. 

We need a fighter.  We need someone who’s more committed to progressive values than to compromise.  We need someone who isn’t afraid to use the bully pulpit to rally the masses, someone who knows how to throw an elbow in a political skirmish, someone who’s willing to strong-arm his supporters and steamroll over his opponents.  We need a cross between FDR, Huey Long, John L. Lewis, and a pit bull.  And that is most definitely not Barack Obama.

Why are liberals supporting Obama’s reelection then?  Only because they think his being reelected would at least be better than electing a Republican.  Well, maybe.  If a Republican were elected, the country would have at least four years of counter-productive Republican economic policies rammed down its throat.  And if Obama is reelected—well, based on his first administration, the country would apparently have at least four more years of counter-productive Republican economic policies rammed down its throat.  So what’s the difference?

Okay, so there is a difference.  I admit, I’m being too glib here.  But I find it interesting that, in backing Obama, liberals are selling out progressive values in the same way that he does.  They’re settling for what they think they can get.  They’re ready to start compromising before the debate—or in this case, the election campaign—has even begun.
Why don’t progressives run a third-party candidate, someone who’s more committed to their values?  Only because conventional wisdom has it that a third-party candidate can’t win, that Obama is the only one who could beat the Republican nominee.  But is that true?  How intimidated should we be by any of the Republican candidates?  None of them is particularly impressive.  Heck, even the Republicans don’t seem to like their own candidates.  And, as long as we’re being pragmatic, Obama comes with some significant baggage that another candidate wouldn’t—no president has been reelected with such a high rate of unemployment since World War II.  Given the current political climate, the time may just be right for a truly independent candidate to step forward—someone outside the political mainstream, someone who doesn’t accept corporate contributions, someone who is in no way beholden to corporate interests.

Because the truth is, Barack Obama is not the one who’s going to lead us out of this economic crisis.  I wish he were.  But he’s not.

What America needs is a truly committed progressive in the White House.  What America needs is a serious independent candidate for president.

Copyright 2011 by Ramparts

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Eat the Rich

Aerosmith from 1993.  Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Job Creators and Job Destroyers

In the continuing debate over how to repair our wrecked economy, Republicans have held a consistent position—cut taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals even lower than they are now.  This is entirely predictable, as Republicans apparently believe there’s no problem that can’t be solved by giving more money to rich people.  The justification for the Republican position is that corporate CEOs are “Job Creators.”  And if we give them lots of tax breaks, let them keep as much money as possible, and treat them really, really nice, then maybe—just maybe—they’ll actually create some jobs.

But CEOs are not Job Creators.  How do we know this?  Simple—they’re not creating jobs.  Which is pretty much the only qualification for being a Job Creator.

And the reason they’re not creating jobs isn’t because they can’t afford to do so.  In July, corporate giants such as 3M, Caterpillar, Goodyear, Microsoft, and Apple all reported their highest quarterly revenues ever.  Dow Chemical announced a 73.4% rise in quarterly profits.  And of the companies in the S&P 500 list of large-cap firms that have reported their earnings so far this quarter, a staggering 72% have beaten analysts’ forecasts.  If the current trend continues, these companies are also poised to have their most profitable quarters ever.  At the end of 2010, the total cash held by U.S. non-financial corporations stood at $1.2 trillion—up 11.2% from the year before.  Overall, corporate profits are up 22% since 2007—even higher than they were before the global economic meltdown.

And yet, the jobs forecast remains grim, with real unemployment (including the underemployed and people who are so discouraged that they’ve given up looking for work) stalled at around 16%.  Approximately 14 million Americans are currently unable to find work.  What’s going on here?  If the corporate coffers are so full, why aren’t the so-called Job Creators creating jobs?

Because the Republicans have it all wrong.  Corporate CEOs are not Job Creators.  They are Job Destroyers.

How have these companies managed to achieve such record profits?  They’ve done it mostly by slashing costs and cutting spending in order to boost profit margins.  In other words, they’re profitable because they’ve been downsizing—laying off workers and eliminating jobs.  Job Destroying.  It’s downright Orwellian for Republicans to keep referring to CEOs as Job Creators when, in fact, the activity they’ve been most engaged in is eliminating jobs.

Republicans are naïve when they claim that, if only the U.S. government were to cut corporate taxes even more and give CEOs even more money, those CEOs would create jobs.  It simply doesn’t work that way.  Companies clearly don’t hire when their coffers are full; they hire when they need to, when they have absolutely no other choice but to do so.  Then and only then will CEOs start creating jobs.

And right now, companies have no incentive to hire.  Their profits are up.  Their coffers are full.  And the jobs picture is just fine with them.  Because make no mistake, corporate America loves high unemployment.  Absolutely loves it.  High unemployment eliminates the bargaining power of workers, destroying any leverage they might otherwise have and reducing  the cost of labor.  Simply put, if lots of people are clamoring for jobs, companies don’t have to pay them as much or give them as many (or even any) benefits.  High unemployment also enables companies to push their workers harder, often requiring each employee to do the work of two people or more (what The Wall Street Journal recently referred to as a “superjob”).  And if anyone complains...well, there’s the door.  There’s a line of people waiting outside, looking for any work they can get.  Mother Jones calls the phenomenon “the great speedup”—an employer’s demand for extra hours and extra work without increased pay.  That’s why worker “productivity” has surged—doubling from 2008 to 2009, then doubling again from 2009 to 2010—while income and wages remained flat. 

So corporations won’t create jobs no matter how much money they have because they don’t hire when they have money, but when they have need.  The Republican theory that if only we gave even bigger tax breaks to the wealthy it would somehow “trickle down” to the rest of us has never been borne out by reality.  Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush instituted massive tax cuts for the rich and the median hourly wage declined.  Even George Bush Sr., back in 1980, referred to this “trickle down” theory of wealth as “voodoo economics.”   

The truth is that money never trickles down.  It always trickles up.  When the middle class has money, it buys things.  Then companies have to produce more in order to keep up with demand.  Eventually, in order to keep up the pace of production, those companies have no choice but to hire more workers.  And then those workers have money, which they spend.  The worker is the consumer, the consumer is the worker, and it’s an endless cycle.  And that’s how a healthy economy is supposed to work.

So who are the real potential Job Creators?  That’s right, it’s us—the American people.  When we have money we spend it, thereby stimulating the economy and, ultimately, forcing companies to create jobs. 

Viewed in that light, what Republicans want is to give even more tax breaks to wealthy Job Destroyers.  And meanwhile, there are millions of potential Job Creators who are just itching to stimulate the economy and create jobs—if only they weren’t broke.

Copyright 2011 by Ramparts

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Deficit Is the New Iraq

On September 11, 2001, the United States fell victim to a series of coordinated terrorist attacks, resulting in thousands of deaths.  Over the next few days, the details of the attacks became clear—the terrorists were mostly from Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally, and had been trained in Afghanistan by Al-Qaeda, a terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden, member of a wealthy Saudi family, with the apparent blessing of the Taliban, the Islamist group that ruled large parts of Afghanistan.  In response to the attacks, then-President George W. Bush launched the so-called “war on terror” and, on October 7th, the United States invaded Afghanistan.  

A year later, relations between the U.S. and oil-rich Saudi Arabia were, of course, just as they’d been before the attacks.  Further, the fighting in Afghanistan was slogging on, bin Laden was still at large, and Al-Queda was still operating throughout the world.  Although the Taliban had been toppled and the majority of its members driven into Pakistan, most of the objectives of the Afghan invasion hadn’t been met.  It appeared the Bush administration was staring into the face of a major defeat.

And then, the Bush administration did something smart—or at least as close to smart as they ever got.

They changed the subject.

By fall of 2002, one would have been hard-pressed to find even a reference to Osama bin Laden in U.S. newspapers.  Instead, the headlines were full of speculation about the newest target in the war on terror—Iraq, a  country that had had nothing whatsoever to do with the 9/11 attacks.  Was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in league with Al-Queda?  (He wasn’t.)  Was Iraq trying to obtain yellowcake uranium?  (It wasn’t.)  Did Saddam already possess so-called “weapons of mass destruction?”  (He didn’t.)  And most importantly, was Bush going to launch an invasion?  (He did.) 

Mind you, I’m not saying this is why the U.S. invaded Iraq, only that Iraq gave the Bush administration a convenient excuse for not dealing with uncomfortable questions about the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, and its failure to capture bin Laden, to destroy Al-Queda, or to prevent the attacks in the first place.  The Bush administration changed the national conversation, shifting the focus from bin Laden and Afghanistan to Saddam and Iraq.  Of course, at no point did Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or anyone else in the administration actually suggest that Iraq had played a part in the attacks of 9/11.  That would have been ludicrous, as no evidence existed to suggest such a connection.  Still, the implication hung conveniently in the air.  After all, Afghanistan and Iraq were both countries in the Middle East, and bin Laden and Saddam were both “evil Muslims” who hated America.  In the minds of many geography-challenged Americans, they were interchangeable.  So without actually having to connect the dots (because the dots couldn’t have been connected), Saddam Hussein and Iraq were somehow implicated in the “war on terror” and the attacks of 9/11.  Guilty by innuendo.

And remarkably, not only Republicans but the media and many Democrats fell right in line.  As noted, bin Laden and Afghanistan dropped from the headlines.  And when the Iraq War Resolution passed the U.S. Congress in October 2002, more Democratic senators had voted for it than against it.  Instead of keeping its focus on the real problems—capturing those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and improving our nation’s security by, for example, securing our ports—America had allowed itself to be diverted by what was, in essence, a non-sequitur. 

Why dredge up all this ancient history?  Because in 2011, it happened again.  Republicans hijacked the national conversation, shifting our attention from the real problems we need to address and distracting the country with an irrelevant diversion.  And once again, Democrats and the media fell right in line.  Only this time it wasn’t about the war on terror.  It was about the economy.

In 2008, the U.S. economy collapsed.  The reasons were many, but certainly included the deregulation of the banking industry, the lack of regulation of the bond market, and the inadequacy of government oversight of the financial industry.  As a result, by November 2009, the unemployment rate had risen to 9.9%.  Today, it remains stalled at about 9.0%, a figure representing approximately 14 million Americans.  But that still doesn’t describe the real scope of the problem.  The real unemployment rate is closer to 16%, including people who are underemployed, people who want full-time work but can only find part-time jobs, and people who are so disheartened that they’ve simply given up looking for work altogether.  Further, even that 16% doesn’t include the many workers who are technically “fully employed” but are being paid wages far below what they made prior to 2008 and, in many cases, far below what they need to support themselves and their families.

And in truth, the economy is no closer to recovery than it was three years ago.  Again, the reasons are many, but principally it’s because the super-rich now controls 40% of the nation’s wealth and, thus, the middle class lacks the purchasing power necessary to revive the economy.  That situation came about because the super-rich are also the ones who finance political campaigns and, thereby, are able to influence elected officials to pass legislation that benefits it over the middle class, stacking the deck in its favor.

So the American people are clamoring for jobs.  But Republicans can’t really address that issue nor any of the underlying causes of high unemployment.  To do so would challenge their own socioeconomic policies of the past thirty years and possibly even threaten their buddies on Wall Street.  What on earth is a poor Republican to do?  If only there were some creative distraction available, some convenient red herring to which the Republicans could shift the nation’s attention.  Something like the economic equivalent of Iraq.  Something like the new Republican boogeyman—the deficit.

Between 1945 and 1980, the national debt had been steadily declining year after year.  Then Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 and increased it by $1.9 trillion.  (Reagan cut taxes for the wealthy and massively increased military spending, so this outcome was easily predictable by anyone with a grasp of arithmetic.)  Then George Bush Sr. brought that up to $3.4 trillion.  Yet during all that time, nobody seemed too concerned about the deficit, least of all Republicans.  Yes, periodically someone would point out that we were paying interest on this debt and that it wasn’t good for the economy.  But then just about everyone inside the beltway, Republicans included, would shrug and go about their business.  The deficit fell under Clinton, then shot up again during the George W. Bush administration.  Again, Republicans didn’t seem to care very much.

Until now.  Suddenly, the deficit is the most important issue in the world to Republicans.  And instead of focusing on the very real problem facing Americans—unemployment—Congress has shifted its attention to the deficit—an issue that has nothing whatsoever to do with jobs.

The deficit gives Republicans a convenient excuse to avoid uncomfortable questions about campaign financing, deregulation, their failed economic policies of the past thirty years, and their complicity in the economic meltdown.  Republicans in Congress simply changed the conversation, shifting the focus from jobs to the deficit.  Of course, at no point has even the staunchest conservative suggested that reducing the deficit would reduce unemployment.  That would be ludicrous, as no such correlation has ever been shown.  Still, the implication hangs conveniently in the air.  After all, employment is an economic issue and so is the deficit, and the causes for both may be difficult for us math-challenged Americans to understand, and besides the Republicans are supposed to be the fiscally responsible ones so they must know what they’re talking about.  So without having to connect the dots (because, once again, the dots can’t be connected), Republicans successfully managed to tie the deficit to the collapse of our economy and the subsequent high unemployment rate.  Except that they’re not connected.  Any more than Iraq was connected to the attacks of 9/11.       
And once again, Democrats and the mainstream media fell right in line.  Democrats immediately scrambled to placate Republicans and now every proposal in Washington apparently must include a provision to lower, or at least not raise, the deficit.  I’ve yet to hear a single Democrat challenge Republicans on this issue.  I don’t mean debating over how to cut the deficit—I mean whether we should even be having that debate in the first place.  I’m still waiting to hear someone stand up on the floor of Congress and proclaim, “I don’t give a damn about the deficit.  We shouldn’t even be having this debate.  It’s the wrong issue at the wrong time.  The only thing that matters right now are jobs—and there’s no correlation between cutting the deficit and cutting unemployment.”

Mind you, I’m not arguing in favor of the U.S. carrying a massive deficit.  Having a deficit is like having termites gnawing at the foundation of your house.  Any homeowner who ignores termites would be a fool.  Unless, of course, your house has caught fire.  In which case, choosing that very moment to worry about your thirty-year-old termite problem is ridiculous.  Your house is on fire, for God’s sake.  To hell with the termites.  Grab a bucket.

So allow me to say it.  I don’t give a damn about the deficit.  We shouldn’t even be having this debate.  It’s the wrong issue at the wrong time.  The only thing that matters right now are jobs—and there’s no correlation between cutting the deficit and cutting unemployment.

Before we start worrying about the termites, let’s put out the damn fire.

Next: Job Creators and Job Destroyers

Copyright 2011 by Ramparts

Monday, October 31, 2011

Occupy Wall Street—The Missing Manual

A few years ago, a publisher of technical books launched a series called The Missing Manual.  As software manufacturers increasingly discontinued the practice of including a user’s manual in the box with their product, the publishing company thought it would step in and fill the gap, providing users with “the missing manual.”  It occurs to me that perhaps political movements could use such a service as well. 

Six weeks since the Occupy Wall Street movement began (and about three weeks since the mainstream media finally pulled its head out of its ass and began covering the story), many still don’t seem to understand what the movement is about nor what the protesters want.  Even well-intentioned but misguided observers such as former President Bill Clinton chide the movement for its lack of clarity and suggest that perhaps the protesters should be investing their collective energy in supporting President Obama’s jobs plan instead.

But attacking the Occupy Wall Street movement for having poorly articulated aims is not a fair criticism.  For one thing, OWS is a grass-roots movement.  Sure, if this were a slick, well-financed campaign launched by a mainstream political candidate or an advertising agency trying to peddle the latest brand of laxative or potato chips, it would doubtless come complete with a carefully crafted list of prefabricated, bite-sized talking points, tailor-made for television and those with limited attention spans.  But that’s not what the OWS movement is.  Rather, this is a grass-roots movement that arose organically from the struggle, frustration, and pain of millions of Americans.  So critics will just have to forgive the protesters if they don’t have a slick television ad or a  polished sales pitch.

Secondly, as with all grass-roots movements, different people are drawn to the cause for different reasons.  This is one of the problems with asking the already clichéd question, “But what do the protestors want?”  The question itself is based on a misconception—that  everyone participating in the protests is of one mind, as if the entire movement is a monolithic entity.  In actuality, different protesters have different primary concerns—from the students who are unable to pay back their college loans to the homeowners unable to pay their mortgages to the retirees who find they can’t afford to retire after all.  To expect such a movement to speak with one voice and to express a singular point of view is unrealistic.  Rather, different protestors have different pains and different primary concerns.  What binds them together is the source of that pain. 

Perhaps some of the confusion can be attributed to the association between the Occupy Wall Street movement and, well, Wall Street.  As a story on National Public Radio recently pointed out, Wall Street now hosts more condominiums than banks, and the protesters are actually occupying Zuccotti Park, which is around the corner.  Of course, while all that may be true, it’s wholly irrelevant.  As diverse a group as the OWS protesters may be, I’m absolutely certain none of them gives a tinker’s damn about the slab of asphalt and concrete that happens to lie between Broadway and South Street in New York City.  The Occupy Wall Street movement has nothing to do with Wall Street—the eight-block stretch of real estate in lower Manhattan.  It has everything to do with “Wall Street”—the American financial industry, the United States economy, and the bankers and CEOs who are unfairly profiting from other people’s suffering.

Those bankers and CEOs aren’t even the real target of the protests.  It’s doubtful any OWS protester is so naïve as to think a Wall Street banker’s going to look out the window, see the crowd, and say, “Gosh, I think I’ll give up that $50 million bonus.”  No, the real target of OWS lies far beyond Wall Street.  The goal is to raise the consciousness of the American people and, ultimately, to put pressure on our elected officials to take action. 

What action specifically?  Well, despite critics’ claims that OWS protestors haven’t made any specific demands, that isn’t so.  Even a casual perusal of web blogs and interviews with protestors reveals that there are certain core issues on which all them seem to agree. 

And so, if I may be so bold (and it’s my damn blog, so I bloody well will), here are my interpretations of the three central demands of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

1.      The Justice Department must prosecute the Wall Street bankers, hedge fund managers, mortgage brokers, and ratings agency representatives who defrauded the American public and helped bring about the 2008 global economic crisis.

First companies such as Countrywide and Citibank issued subprime mortgages to people whom they knew had no realistic chance of ever paying them back.  Then investment banks bought the worthless mortgages, bundled them together, and essentially paid ratings agencies such as Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s to classify this crap as gold.  Traders at companies such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs made billions by peddling these worthless derivatives to their customers, some of them while simultaneously shorting these same securities because they knew they were really worthless.  While all this was happening, the SEC apparently stood around with its thumb up its ass.  Then, when those same companies veered towards bankruptcy, the U.S. government decided they were “too big to fail” and gave them a huge handout. 

Everyone who profited from defrauding the public during this colossal shit storm of greed must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  This would, admittedly, be a purely symbolic victory for the middle class, but it would at least begin to restore the public’s trust in government.  And hell, author Michael Lewis (The Big Short) has already done half the necessary investigative work. 

2.      Congress must pass a constitutional amendment making it clear that corporations do not have the same rights as individuals and prohibiting those corporations from financing election campaigns.

Mitt Romney to the contrary, corporations are not people.  Corporations are collections of legal documents.  They’re not moral agents and they can’t make ethical choices; only people can do that.  But treating corporations as individuals allows CEOs and senior executives to hide behind their corporations, divesting themselves of ethical responsibility for their actions. 

But more to the point, corporations should not be accorded the same freedom of speech as individuals.  At present, corporations essentially sponsor candidates in national elections.  Once elected, those candidates are beholden to the corporations that paid for their campaign and assure that legislation maximizes the corporations’ profits at the expense of the middle class.  This is a vicious cycle that has been getting increasingly worse over the past thirty years, undermining democracy.

The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission held that the First Amendment prohibits government from censoring political broadcasts in candidate elections when those broadcasts are funded by corporations.  Essentially, the decision guarantees that corporations can spend as much as they want on elections without even having to disclose how much they’re contributing or to whom.  The decision exacerbated what was already a horrible situation.  In February of 2010, Senator Chris Dodd announced that he would introduce a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's ruling.  This amendment must be passed.    

3.      Congress must pass legislation instituting progressive income tax reform with the specific goal of redistributing wealth from the super-rich to the middle class.

That’s right.  I said it.  Redistributing wealth.  Because nothing less is going to save our economy.

As economist Robert Reich has pointed out, the economy has doubled since 1980, but real wages of the middle class have remained essentially flat.  Where did all the money go?  Almost all the gains went to the super-rich, who now have 40% of the nation’s wealth.  And that’s why the U.S. economy is dead—the middle class simply doesn’t have the purchasing power to get the economy going again. 

Imagine that you had a massive blood clot in your right leg.  Your leg would become red and swollen, while blood circulation throughout the rest of your body would be slowed or blocked, depriving your cells of oxygen.  Left untreated, the condition could be life-threatening.  This is what’s happening to our economy.  The lifeblood is no longer circulating because it’s accumulated in the pockets of the super-rich.  The average CEO makes a hundred times what the average worker makes—five hundred times including benefits and stock options.  The richest 1% of Americans has more than the bottom 90% put together.  There’s simply too much wealth in the hands of too few people.  The economy can’t recover because the average consumer can’t afford to spend. 

You can label this socialism or a return to an earlier, saner version of capitalism.  It doesn’t make any difference what you call it.  You may be a dyed-in-the-wool Marxist or you may have a picture of Milton Friedman tattooed on your ass.  It doesn’t matter.  This isn’t about political ideology.  This is strictly pragmatic.  Our economy is permanently stuck in neutral and sooner or later we have to face the fact that this is the only way to save it.  No economy can thrive with such a small percentage of people controlling such a large percentage of wealth.  A stimulus here or a jobs bill there may bring a temporary respite, but will not address the underlying problem.  You can’t break up a blood clot with a Band-aid.  Wealth must be redistributed or our economy simply can’t survive.  

That’s it—my interpretation of the three major demands of the OWS movement.  Yes, there are other proposals being floated by various protestors related to student loans, forgiving mortgages, repealing the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, etc.  Each of those proposals has validity, in my opinion.  But the three I’ve outlined above seem to be the central tenets, the ones all the protestors seem to agree on.

Some politicians warn that the OWS movement is trying to start a class war.  In truth, class war has always existed.  But usually there’s only one side fighting, while the other side is suffering and nobody’s paying attention.  It’s only when the middle class begins speaking up that suddenly politicians begin worrying about class war. 

Apparently it’s only class war when the working class finally starts fighting back.

Copyright 2011 by Ramparts