Sunday, December 19, 2010

For Firebaggers, When the Unicorn is Enough


One day, making tracks
In the prairie of Prax,
Came a North-Going Zax
And a South-Going Zax.
And it happened that both of them came to a place
Where they bumped.
There they stood.
Foot to foot.
Face to face.
"Look here, now!" the North-Going Zax said,
"I say! You are blocking my path.
You are right in my way.
I'm a North-Going Zax and I always go north.
Get out of my way, now, and let me go forth!"
"Who's in whose way?" snapped the South-Going Zax.
"I always go south, making south-going tracks.
So you're in MY way!
And I ask you to move And let me go south in my south-going groove."
Then the North-Going Zax puffed his chest up with pride.
"I never," he said, "take a step to one side.
And I'll prove to you that I won't change my ways
If I have to keep standing here fifty-nine days!"
"And I'll prove to YOU," yelled the South-Going Zax,
"That I can stand here in the prairie of Prax
For fifty-nine years!
For I live by a rule
That I learned as a boy back in South-Going School.
Never budge! That's my rule.
Never budge in the least!
Not an inch to the west!
Not an inch to the east!
I'll stay here, not budging!
I can and I will If it makes you and me and the whole world stand still!"

Well... Of course the world didn't stand still.
The world grew.
In a couple of years, the new highway came through
And they built it right over those two stubborn Zax
And left them there, standing un-budged in their tracks.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Fork in the Road

Flint, MI is a town of about 39 square miles, much of which is abandoned. In some suburban neighborhoods, one or two residents remain, surrounded by houses going to seed, harboring rats and criminals. The federal government's plan is to build new pocket communities around the best and most populated housing stock, in some cases moving people from isolated run down areas to where they can become part of a tighter, newer community. The rest of the structures will be razed and the land returned to nature.

Flint is particularly hard hit, but there are many towns across America that have suffered shrinkage. Flint is considered an experiment. If successful, other towns will be tackled this way.

If I'm a greedy corporate executive from a multi-industry conglomerate (let's say GE), what do I hear in this news story? Opportunity.

Federal government, I would say, show me one of these towns. Don't spend your resources destroying salvageable housing stock. Give us the whole town and let us reanimate it. It will be a grand experiment in total privatization. We will run the schools, utilities, parks, all the things that used to be public.

We will also employ people and give them a reason to live here and money to spend here. Our diverse line of businesses and the businesses that spring up to serve our employees will give whole families employment opportunities. Welcome back to the middle class. It will be in our corporate interest to keep this American town and its citizens thriving because its $gain is our $gain.

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

How does this play out? If you know the story of company towns of a hundred years ago, you have some idea. It's not just Jack Welch Community Park, though it's that, too.

All the businesses in an isolated company town enter the town and continue to exist there at the pleasure of the dominant employer/landowner and probably pay a fee to GE. This is not like taxes paid to a local government. A government is us, it exists to benefit everyone. GE does not.

GE directly determines your rent and cost of utilities and strongly influences your other costs. In old company towns, the company didn't allow any other businesses in, but today's model will have chain stores just like other towns. To pay fees to GE, stores raise their prices. As in the original company towns, average residents find that their money doesn't go very far. You may even go into debt just to keep up. Did you know that one of GE's most profitable companies has been the one offering credit?

The town is so isolated that it is impractical to rely on other towns for daily needs. Gas is expensive, too; many will give up their cars since they have short commutes, further restricting their options.

Homeownership is not an option since GE owns all the land. GE will build barracks for the minimum wage workers who serve the town executives.

School curriculum, local news, and TV service will all have an undercurrent supporting consumerism and corporatism.....oh, wait. Well, there's always the free and neutral internet.

GE will offer college scholarships to the brightest kids in return for a promise to work for GE after graduation. Few others will be able to afford college.

You will be required to have medical checkups as a condition of employment. This is perfectly legal. Basic medical services will be offered by company doctors, and there are no secrets. Failing health will be a reason for dismissal.

There will be no mayor, town council, or civic betterment groups. There will be only customer service. And a long wait. Unless you are an executive, your creature comforts are not a high priority. Be glad you have a job.

Nobody in this town sues GE or its top executives. No lawyer for miles would take the case. You've heard the expression "the company owns the law in this town." In this town, the company IS the local law.

Discharge from GE, whether by firing or retiring, means you are expected to leave town and everyone you know. Or if you run a supporting business, GE may evict you from your business premises. You will have no home equity, maybe no car. If you are lucky, you won't be in debt to GE, but you likely won't have a lot of savings.

You are an itinerant worker. You are like a knight or craftsman offering services to whichever feudal lord will have you. You don't have many choices in your life.

To recap:
GE offers to reclaim a dying town, takes over ownership of all the land at no cost, offers bare services to people who live there, runs the town to benefit itself, and takes no responsibility for people once they no longer work there.

Still sound good?

Now imagine a different scenario. I'm one in a network of rich community-minded philanthropists. Maybe I'm George Soros. Maybe I'm one of these people. What do I hear in the story of Flint? Opportunity.

Federal government, I would say, show us one of these towns. Don't spend your resources destroying salvageable housing stock. Give us the whole town and let us reanimate it. It will be a grand experiment in democracy. The community will run the schools, utilities, parks, libraries, city hall, and other public functions.

Democracy-minded companies will want to locate here for the quality of people it attracts and the quality of life that is possible for all employees. We will encourage and celebrate local entrepreneurship and innovation, encourage local ownership and exchanging ideas. In this community, we are all producers and all consumers. Welcome back to the middle class. It will be in our interest to keep this American town and its citizens thriving because its gain is our gain, not just in a material sense but also quality of life.

How does this play out? Quite differently. The town will be designed from the ground up to be livable, energy efficient, modern, economically integrated, and to encourage community interaction. There will be no gated communities.

Businesses in this town all agree to abide by rules of good corporate citizenship, including promoting green operation and local products. Large companies that want a subsidy to come into the town are turned away. Without big chain stores there are some inconveniences at first, but local residents step in to fill the gaps.

Utilities and other public services are priced based on cost, with extra cost charged for being inefficient and bonuses for superefficiency.

The town will use taxes to pay for operating expenses and a reserve, aka a rainy day/investment fund.

Because the town is isolated, the community will organize van pool trips to popular destinations. Riders will be charged a fee, which may be subsidized in whole or in part based on income.

A community bank will handle the gradual transfer of ownership of homes from the municipality to citizens. The profits from the sale of land will be used to modernize the town, put in parks, walking and riding paths, a community college and community hospital if new ones are needed, and anything else required. Low-cost housing will be scattered among other housing.

The community will offer college scholarships to deserving kids in return for a promise to work for the community after graduation. Everyone will be able to afford at least the community college.

Citizens will pay a flat fee for health care as part of their taxes. Doctors will work for the community hospital, and their records will be private.

There will be a mayor, town council, and school board elected from among residents, plus public police, fire, and judicial departments.

If you are unemployed and want to stay in town, you will be able to search a central community hiring board and post your resume there (if you still have a job and want to post your resume anonymously, you can do that too). In the meantime, you may choose a part-time volunteer job to get you out of the house. If you are unemployed or partially disabled, you can get a local business scholarship toward job retraining to get you into a new career. The community bank will temporarily reduce or freeze your mortgage with no penalty, and other subsidies will be available for living expenses if UI runs out.

There will be a neighborhood with a concentration of wheelchair-accessible homes, and there will be regular transportation and other services concentrated here. Anyone may live here, but preference will be given to people who will benefit most from these features.

You are a member of a community. You matter. Your community provides support for those who need it but mainly focuses on maintaining a good quality of life. This is not socialism, but if there is more government involvement than you want, don't live here. You have a choice.

To recap:
A democratic philanthropy offers to reclaim a dying town, takes over ownership of all the land at no cost, transitions it to the people who live there, uses the proceeds to build up community infrastructure, includes all kinds of people, even those not contributing economically, and supports local businesses.

This is the fork in the road, people. Which way are we going?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Why Is the GOP Acting Like Terrorists?

Part 2 in an ongoing effort to reclaim the narrative and put the GOP on the defensive.

President Obama and the Republicans in Congress just did some tough negotiating. When both sides were pushed to the wall, this is what they fought for the hardest:

Obama: extension of UI, tax cuts for poor and middle class, tax credits for job creation
Republicans: tax cuts for richest 2%, estate plan benefits for the richest 1/2 of 1% (not reducing the deficit, as they claim)

The public consistently does not want tax cuts for the rich, but the GOP clearly does not care what the public wants. Its true constituency is fatcats and no one else, and it is willing to hold every man, woman, and child in America and the financial health of America itself hostage to get even more money for fatcats. Even though they already have most of America's wealth and income, a gift from the tax code.

This is what was happening a week ago:

Dateline December 2010, America Held Hostage, Day 4

A band of 42 terrorists is shutting down the legislative branch of the federal government until taxpayers agree to pay a 700 billion dollar ransom in large, unmarked tax cuts to the few million wealthiest people in the country.

At stake include benefits to the poorest few million people-- the unemployed, children, and the elderly—and the START treaty.

Some of the millionaire beneficiaries of this ransom have made a public appeal to the terrorists to give up this dangerous game. So far the terrorists have not budged except to go out to nice meals and home to their comfortable beds while the rest of the country waits."

What more do these terrorists want? The rest of us need government to tackle START, the debt ceiling, and try to undo the damage caused by years of sending money to the rich. What more will the terrorists want for the rich in return for allowing government to function?

Here's another thought: Where did the national debt come from? Where did it go? As the national debt grew, the wealth of the richest few grew. This is not a coincidence. The GOP likes to point out the direct disbursement of tax money to the poor and middle class in the form of UI and tax benefits, but look who has the money. Pennies thrown to the bottom is chicken feed next to the enormous wealth that has shifted to the top.

The only party really serious about reducing the national debt is Democratic. History has borne this out. The GOP has just shown, once again, that its number one allegiance is to the wealthy, and the rest of us are concessions they give to get what they want for the rich.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Stuck in the Middle

We look at China with its slave wages and rampant pollution and cheap products and wonder how we can compete and still avoid sinking to their level. We must, we think, only trade with countries who maintain the same high wage and environmental standards that we do. That way, cheap Chinese goods will not be a temptation (except via smuggling).

Well guess what? Over in the EU, they are already discussing us the way we discuss China--as a problem dragging them down.

This week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin went to Germany to propose that Russia and EU form a multi-continent free trade zone. This seems sensible for both the EU and Russia. Russia is the EU’s third-biggest trade partner. The EU is by far Russia's main trading partner, accounting for 52.3% of its overall trade turnover in 2008 Trade between the two economies was accelerating until the economic crash.

But a big appeal for everyone concerned and why Putin delivered his message in Germany, with whom we have a large trading deficit, is that forming a trade union would allow them to discard the US dollar as reserve currency.

Why should US currency be a big issue now? 600 billion reasons, namely the quantitative easing that will devalue the dollar and make our exports cheaper in Germany. Germany is not wild about that. Nor is China, but that was the point. Yet we can't affect one without affecting the other. We are stuck in the middle.

Here is another way we are stuck in the middle. We look at Asia and congratulate ourselves for our labor and environmental practices. But here is what the rest of the world sees when they look at our labor practices.

We give average workers no paid sick leave and no paid long-term illness leave. In other countries these are matters of right, as well as health care and more generous unemployment and retirement benefits. English media says more than our own media about how US workers have a raw deal and how our media enables our condition. But fewer benefits also gives the US a competitive advantage that Europe views much the way we view China's: they don't want to be dragged down to our level.

Right now we are stuck in the middle between prosperity and poverty, but the middle will not hold forever. We have to choose sides. Right now we still have a choice. And we can talk all we want about noble ideals, but the rest of the world is going to look at what we do, not at what we say. And as Vladimir Putin has shown, if we don't choose where we want to be, the rest of the world will choose for us.

By the way, my first source for the Putin news was not CNN or WaPo or even Rachel Maddow, but a blog called Check it out and follow @edwardnh on Twitter.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why Has the GOP Turned Unpatriotic?

Most liberal bloggers, including me, preach to the choir. We share information, but we don't have to explain the language of liberalism to each other. If we ever want true egalitarian democracy to grow beyond a niche, we have to learn how to make arguments that independents and misled conservatives will recognize and relate to before we can ever hope to win them over. We also have to stop being defensive and put the greedy SOB corporatists on the defensive--but again, in a way that is familiar to their base and can potentially put a wedge between them and their base. We have to change the narrative. Here is a start. I chose words and spin for specific impact:

It's not what Americans expect to see. Conventional wisdom is that the right is all about military, fiscal responsibility, and patriotism. But the right has turned into something alien that true conservatives don't recognize anymore.

Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell was willing to throw our troops under the bus for party political gain

Senior senator John McCain is still willing to undermine the military against the advice of top military leaders

Bryan Fischer criticized recent war heroes. Fischer is Director of Issues Analysis for the conservative American Family Association and spoke at the far-right Values Voter summit.

The military budget under the stewardship of the GOP has become a sticky web of corrupt contracts that do not benefit the nation or the troops. During the last decade, spending ballooned and defense contractors got rich while troops on the ground lacked basic protection.

The GOP favors hiring disreputable mercenaries who have hurt our image, our credibility, and our own troops overseas and overcharged us at home. We need soldiers who serve our country, not a thug squad for hire.

Glenn Beck, of right-wing Fox News, accused Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans for America, the nation's largest nonprofit, nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars of the past decade, of being communists and a political front group.

EACH of the GOP presidents of the last 30 years have added to the deficit more than Democrats Carter and Clinton.

George W. Bush continued to irresponsibly overspend when the economy was good instead of setting reserves aside for a rainy day. When the rainy day came, we were already deep in debt.

A high GOP priority continues to be tax cuts for the wealthy, which raise the deficit by $700 billion and have not helped the economy. Put another way, if you told a farmer downstream that a dam upstream would give him more water, he'd look around for what you hit your head on.

Under GOP urging, the military budget has nearly tripled since 1997. Our military is larger than the next 11 countries combined, including China. (Got enough dynamite, there, Butch?) Part of why Europe enjoys a more leisurely lifestyle is that we are guarding it.

The GOP lied about the financial effects of the health care bill. The bill that passed actually reduces the budget deficit. Both the public option and single payer plans would have reduced the deficit even more.

The Bush administration (likely Karl Rove) deliberately compromised an active undercover member of the CIA, resulting in lives lost.

Senator Jim De Mint traveled abroad and urged foreign leaders not to deal in good faith with the United States government.

The right used to tell us to trust government beyond what was reasonable given human nature. Today, opinion leaders on the right from bloggers up to senators say we must never trust the government. Both extremes are impractical, but never trusting the government prevents the government from serving the people.

George W. Bush ordered inferior (and illegal) interrogation methods that damaged our anti-terrorist efforts.

There was a day when Republicans would have led the charge to try people like this for treason. Who will stand up for America today?

From other sources:

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Grow Up Already

I am so sick of hearing:

I don't have kids. Why should I pay for schools when I get no benefit?
I didn't get the carpet dirty. Why should I vacuum it?
Why should I pay for museums I don't go to?
Why do I have to go?
I don't want biodegradable chip bags! They're too noisy!
Because the trash can is way over therrrre!
Why do I have to subsidize sick, disabled, and unemployed people?
Why do I have to be around old people? They smell funny.
Taxes are tyranny!
I have to use my own money????

My two kids are in high school. At one time or another, each one has said (whined) the things in blue. They wouldn't dare say any of those things today. They know better. We have taught them the principles of taking care of themselves, paying their own way, and helping those less fortunate.

We don't have any greater "sense of community" in our lives than other suburbanites--probably less because we don't attend church. And yet my teens are already better citizens than the greedy and immature people whose miserly sense of worthiness stops at their own front gate.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Open Letter to President Obama

Dear Mr. President:

You are a brilliant and disciplined man, and I'm glad you are president. However, I'm concerned about how you see your role in the current economic fight between a wealthy few and the rest of the nation.

Your insistence on bipartisanship and compromise that is not reciprocated hark back to the passive protests of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. You seem to want to be a role model of peace and persistence. They were great men, but you are not called upon to play that role.

Dignity and passive resistance was an effective tool for civil rights in the 1960s because there were powerful people in the government (Harry Truman, JFK, LBJ, the Supreme Court) willing to stand up for the oppressed. As President, you need to step up and be the champion that the middle class has been waiting for.

You have already moved some wealth through the Stimulus and extensions of unemployment, but the wealth redistribution was positioned as other things. Health care was also helpful, but it did not change the fundamental problem. Wealth distribution is an ideological and moral issue--in this it is like Civil Rights--and in our current state of inequality, redistribution is a worthy end in itself. You need to change your language to reflect this.

Studies show that average people think our wealth distribution is closer to Sweden's than what it really is. As Champion, you must bust that myth and decry the economic inequality that exists here today (and do it frequently). You must take advantage of the easy opportunities to put things right and build momentum.

1. Let the tax cuts for the rich expire. The public supports this, and even favors letting all Bush tax cuts expire.

2. Add a greed tax to the large bonuses given to bank employees and the incomes of hedge fund managers. Hedge fund managers have wangled a capped tax that has to go.

3. Don't be afraid to shame Congressmen. Who in Congress would stand up for banker perks if they knew they would be publicly branded for it? I know the media is not your friend, and you have found clever ways to deal with this, but some of them are only after a juicy story. If you can give it to them, they'll switch sides easily enough.

There is one fundamental difference between Civil Rights and the current economic fight. Granting the same human rights to everyone lifts everyone. In contrast, there is only so much money to go around. Giving it to some means taking it from others. More wealth equality does lift the whole economy, but greedy people will never see it that way.

But not everyone is greedy. Warren Buffett has already spoken out against the unfairness of his own low tax rate. There are more millionaires who would be willing to say the same. Use them to spread the word.

It is not enough to stand against something. You need to stand for something the way you stood for health care. You have the power to change how we talk about wealth distribution in this country and to start to undo 30 years of propaganda by conservatives.

Start by refusing to extend tax cuts to the wealthy. This is not negotiable. Bail on this, and you signal that the wealthy own you.