“In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.” ~ Confucius

“What happens to people living in a society where everyone in power is lying, stealing, cheating and killing, and in our hearts we all know this, but the consequences of facing all these lies are so monstrous, we keep on hoping that maybe the corporate government administration and media are on the level with us this time.

Americans remind me of survivors of domestic abuse. This is always the hope that this is the very, very, very last time one’s ribs get re-broken again.” ~ Inga Muscio

                    

A New Year’s Resolution for the Rich
by Sam Harris, author, neuroscientist
(Reposted from The Huffington Post; quotes and images added)

While the United States has suffered the worst recession in living memory, I find that I have very few financial concerns. Many of my friends are in the same position: Most of us attended private schools and good universities, and we will be able to provide these same opportunities to our own children. No one in my immediate circle has a family member serving in Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, the only sacrifice we were asked to make for our beloved country was to go shopping. Nearly a decade has passed, with our nation’s influence and infrastructure crumbling by the hour, and yet those of us who have been so fortunate as to actually live the American dream—rather than merely dream it–have been spared every inconvenience. Now we are told that we will soon receive a large tax cut for all our troubles. What is the word for the feeling this provokes in me? Imagine being safely seated in lifeboat, while countless others drown, only to learn that another lifeboat has been secured to take your luggage to shore…

Most Americans believe that a person should enjoy the full fruits of his or her labors, however abundant. In this light, taxation tends to be seen as an intrinsic evil. It is worth noting, however, that throughout the 1950’s–a decade for which American conservatives pretend to feel a harrowing sense of nostalgia—the marginal tax rate for the wealthy was over 90 percent. In fact, prior to the 1980’s it never dipped below 70 percent. Since 1982, however, it has come down by half. In the meantime, the average net worth of the richest 1 percent of Americans has doubled (to $18.5 million), while that of the poorest 40 percent has fallen by 63 percent (to $2,200). Thirty years ago, top U.S. executives made about 50 times the salary of their average employees. In 2007, the average worker would have had to toil for 1,100 years to earn what his CEO brought home between Christmas in Aspen and Christmas on St. Barthes.

We now live in a country in which the bottom 40 percent (120 million people) owns just 0.3 percent of the wealth. Data of this kind make one feel that one is participating in a vast psychological experiment: Just how much inequality can free people endure? Have you seen Ralph Lauren’s car collection? Yes, it is beautiful. It also cost hundreds of millions of dollars. “So what?” many people will say. “It’s his money. He earned it. He should be able to do whatever he wants with it.” In conservative circles, expressing any doubt on this point has long been synonymous with Marxism.

And yet over one million American children are now homeless. People on Medicare are being denied life-saving organ transplants that were routinely covered before the recession. Over one quarter of our nation’s bridges are structurally deficient. When might be a convenient time to ask the richest Americans to help solve problems of this kind? How about now?

It is easy to understand why even the most generous person might be averse to paying taxes: Our legislative process has been hostage to short-term political interests and other perverse incentives for as long as anyone can remember. Consequently, our government wastes an extraordinary amount of money. It also seems uncontroversial to say that whatever can be best accomplished in the private sector should be. Our tax code must also be reformed—and it might even be true that the income tax should be lowered on everyone, provided we find a better source of revenue to pay our bills. But I can’t imagine that anyone seriously believes that the current level of wealth inequality in the United States is good and worth maintaining, or that our government’s first priority should be to spare a privileged person like myself the slightest hardship as this once great nation falls into ruin.

And the ruination of the United States really does seem possible. It has been widely reported, for instance, that students in Shanghai far surpass our own in science, reading, and math. In fact, when compared to other countries, American students are now disconcertingly average (slightly below in math), where the average includes utopias like Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, Albania, Kazakhstan, and Indonesia. President Obama was right to recognize this as a “Sputnik moment.” But it is worse than that. This story was immediately followed by a report about giddy Creationists in the state of Kentucky being offered $40 million in tax subsidies to produce a full-scale model of Noah’s ark. More horrible still, this ludicrous use of public money is probably a wise investment, given that such a monument to scientific ignorance will be guaranteed to attract an ovine influx of Christian tourists from neighboring states. Seeing facts of this kind, juxtaposed without irony or remedy at this dire moment in history, it is hard not to feel that one is witnessing America’s irreversible decline. Needless to say, most Americans have no choice but to send their children to terrible schools—where they will learn the lesser part of nothing and emerge already beggared by a national debt now on course to reach $20 trillion. And yet Republicans in every state can successfully campaign on a promise to spend less on luxuries like education, while delivering tax cuts to people who, if asked to guess their own net worth, could not come within $10 million of the correct figure if their lives depended on it.

American opposition to the “redistribution of wealth” has achieved the luster of a religious creed. And, as with all religions, one finds the faithful witlessly espousing doctrines that harm almost everyone, including their own children. For instance, while most Americans have no chance of earning or inheriting significant wealth, 68 percent want the estate tax eliminated (and 31 percent consider it to be the “worst” and “least fair” tax levied by the federal government). Most believe that limiting this tax, which affects only 0.2 percent of the population, should be the top priority of the current Congress.

The truth, however, is that everyone must favor the “redistribution of wealth” at some point. This relates directly to the issue of education: as the necessity of doing boring and dangerous work disappears—whether because we have built better machines and infrastructure, or shipped our least desirable jobs overseas—people need to be better educated so that they can apply themselves to more interesting work. Who will pay for this? There is only one group of people who can pay for anything at this point: the wealthy.

To make matters more difficult, Americans have made a religious fetish of something called “self-reliance.” Most seem to think that while a person may not be responsible for the opportunities he gets in life, each is entirely responsible for what he makes of these opportunities. This is, without question, a false view of the human condition. Consider the biography of any “self-made” American, from Benjamin Franklin on down, and you will find that his success was entirely dependent on background conditions that he did not make, and of which he was a mere beneficiary. There is not a person on earth who chose his genome, or the country of his birth, or the political and economic conditions that prevailed at moments crucial to his progress. Consequently, no one is responsible for his intelligence, range of talents, or ability to do productive work. If you have struggled to make the most of what Nature gave you, you must still admit that Nature also gave you the ability and inclination to struggle. How much credit do I deserve for not having Down syndrome or any other disorder that would make my current work impossible? None whatsoever. And yet devotees of self-reliance rail against those who would receive entitlements of various sorts—health care, education, etc.—while feeling unselfconsciously entitled to their relative good fortune. Yes, we must encourage people to work to the best of their abilities and discourage free riders wherever we can—but it seems only decent at this moment to admit how much luck is required to succeed at anything in this life. Those who have been especially lucky–the smart, well-connected, and rich–should count their blessings, and then share some of these blessings with the rest of society.

The wealthiest Americans often live as though they and their children had nothing to gain from investments in education, infrastructure, clean-energy, and scientific research. For instance, the billionaire Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, recently helped kill a proposition that would have created an income tax for the richest 1 percent in Washington (one of seven states that has no personal income tax). All of these funds would have gone to improve his state’s failing schools. What kind of society does Ballmer want to live in—one that is teeming with poor, uneducated people? Who does he expect to buy his products? Where will he find his next batch of software engineers? Perhaps Ballmer is simply worried that the government will spend his money badly—after all, we currently spend more than almost every other country on education, with abysmal results. Well, then he should say so—and rather than devote hundreds of thousands of dollars to stoking anti-tax paranoia in his state, he should direct some of his vast wealth toward improving education, like his colleague Bill Gates has begun to do.

There are, in fact, some signs that a new age of heroic philanthropy might be dawning. For instance, the two wealthiest men in America, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, recently invited their fellow billionaires to pledge the majority of their wealth to the public good. This is a wonderfully sane and long overdue initiative about which it is unforgivable to be even slightly cynical. But it is not sufficient. Most of this money will stay parked in trusts and endowments for decades, and much of it will go toward projects that are less than crucial to the future of our society. It seems to me, however, that Gates and Buffett could easily expand and target this effort: asking those who have pledged, along with the rest of the wealthiest Americans, to immediately donate a percentage of their net worth to a larger fund. This group of benefactors would include not only the super-rich, but people of far more modest means. I do not have 1/1000 the wealth of Steve Ballmer, but I certainly count myself among the people who should be asked to sacrifice for the future of this country. The combined wealth of the men and women on the Forbes 400 list is $1.37 trillion. By some estimates, there are at least another 1,500 billionaires in the United States. Something tells me that anyone with a billion dollars could safely part with 25 percent of his or her wealth—without being forced to sell any boats, planes, vacation homes, or art. As of 2009, there were 980,000 families with a net worth exceeding $5 million (not including their primary residence). Would a one-time donation of 5 percent really be too much to ask to rescue our society from the maw of history?

Some readers will point out that I am free to donate to the treasury even now. But such solitary sacrifice would be utterly ineffectual, and I am no more eager than anyone else is to fill the pork barrels of corrupt politicians. However, if Gates and Buffett created a mechanism that bypassed the current dysfunction of government, earmarking the money for unambiguously worthy projects, I suspect that there are millions of people like myself who would not hesitate to invest in the future of America.

Imagine that Gates and Buffett raised a trillion dollars this way: what should we spend it on? The first thing to acknowledge is that almost any use of this money would be better than just letting it sit. Mindlessly repairing every bridge, tunnel, runway, harbor, reservoir, and recreation area in the United States would be an improvement over what are currently doing. However, here are the two areas of investment that strike me as most promising:

Education: It is difficult to think of anything more important than providing the best education possible for our children. They will develop the next technologies, medical cures, and global industries, while mitigating their unintended effects, or they will fail to do these things and consign us all to oblivion. The future of this country will be entirely shaped by boys and girls who are just now learning to think. What are we teaching them? Are we equipping them to create a world worth living in? It doesn’t seem so. Our public school system is an international disgrace. Even the most advantaged children in the United States do not learn as much as children in other countries do. Yes, the inefficiencies in our current system could be remedied, and must be, and these savings can then be put to good use—but there is no question that a true breakthrough in education will require an immense investment of further resources. Here’s an expensive place to start: make college free for anyone who can’t afford it.

Clean Energy: As Thomas Friedman and many others have pointed out, our dependence on nonrenewable sources of energy is not only bad for our economy and the environment, it is obliges us to subsidize both sides of the clash of civilizations. Much of the money we spend on oil is used to export the lunatic ideology of conservative Islam—building mosques and madrassas by the tens of thousands, recruiting jihadists, and funding terrorist atrocities. We should have devoted ourselves to a clean-energy Manhattan Project thirty years ago. Success on this front would still yield enormous wealth in this country, while simultaneously bankrupting the Middle Eastern states that only pretend to be our allies. Our failure to rise to this challenge already counts as one of the greatest instances of masochistic stupidity in human history. Why prolong it?

I am aware that a proposal of this kind is bound to seem quixotic. But what’s to stop the wealthiest Americans from sponsoring a 21st Century Renaissance? What politician would object to our immediately spending a trillion dollars on improvements in education and energy security? Perhaps there are even better targets for this money. Let Gates and Buffett convene a team of brilliant people to lay out the priorities. But again, we should remember that they could scarcely fail to improve our situation. Simply repaving our roads, the dilapidation of which causes $54 billion in damage to our cars every year, would be better than doing nothing.

                   

Think of the American economy as a large apartment block,” says the softly spoken professor. “A century ago—even 30 years ago—it was the object of envy. But in the last generation its character has changed. The penthouses at the top keep getting larger and larger. The apartments in the middle are feeling more and more squeezed and the basement has flooded. To round it off, the elevator is no longer working. That broken elevator is what gets people down the most. ~ Larry Katz, Harvard Economist 

More later. Peace.

Music by Soulsavers, “Kingdoms of Rain”

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Why We Need This Recovery Plan: An Op-Ed Piece

The Action Americans Need

By Barack Obama

Thursday, February 5, 2009; Page A17

By now, it’s clear to everyone that we have inherited an economic crisis as deep and dire as any since the days of the Great Depression. Millions of jobs that Americans relied on just a year ago are gone; millions more of the nest eggs families worked so hard to build have vanished. People everywhere are worried about what tomorrow will bring.

What Americans expect from Washington is action that matches the urgency they feel in their daily lives — action that’s swift, bold and wise enough for us to climb out of this crisis.

Because each day we wait to begin the work of turning our economy around, more people lose their jobs, their savings and their homes. And if nothing is done, this recession might linger for years. Our economy will lose 5 million more jobs. Unemployment will approach double digits. Our nation will sink deeper into a crisis that, at some point, we may not be able to reverse.

That’s why I feel such a sense of urgency about the recovery plan before Congress. With it, we will create or save more than 3 million jobs over the next two years, provide immediate tax relief to 95 percent of American workers, ignite spending by businesses and consumers alike, and take steps to strengthen our country for years to come.

This plan is more than a prescription for short-term spending — it’s a strategy for America’s long-term growth and opportunity in areas such as renewable energy, health care and education. And it’s a strategy that will be implemented with unprecedented transparency and accountability, so Americans know where their tax dollars are going and how they are being spent.

In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis — the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can meet our enormous tests with half-steps and piecemeal measures; that we can ignore fundamental challenges such as energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

I reject these theories, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. They know that we have tried it those ways for too long. And because we have, our health-care costs still rise faster than inflation. Our dependence on foreign oil still threatens our economy and our security. Our children still study in schools that put them at a disadvantage. We’ve seen the tragic consequences when our bridges crumble and our levees fail.

Every day, our economy gets sicker — and the time for a remedy that puts Americans back to work, jump-starts our economy and invests in lasting growth is now.

Now is the time to protect health insurance for the more than 8 million Americans at risk of losing their coverage and to computerize the health-care records of every American within five years, saving billions of dollars and countless lives in the process.

Now is the time to save billions by making 2 million homes and 75 percent of federal buildings more energy-efficient, and to double our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy within three years.

Now is the time to give our children every advantage they need to compete by upgrading 10,000 schools with state-of-the-art classrooms, libraries and labs; by training our teachers in math and science; and by bringing the dream of a college education within reach for millions of Americans.

And now is the time to create the jobs that remake America for the 21st century by rebuilding aging roads, bridges and levees; designing a smart electrical grid; and connecting every corner of the country to the information superhighway.

These are the actions Americans expect us to take without delay. They’re patient enough to know that our economic recovery will be measured in years, not months. But they have no patience for the same old partisan gridlock that stands in the way of action while our economy continues to slide.

So we have a choice to make. We can once again let Washington’s bad habits stand in the way of progress. Or we can pull together and say that in America, our destiny isn’t written for us but by us. We can place good ideas ahead of old ideological battles, and a sense of purpose above the same narrow partisanship. We can act boldly to turn crisis into opportunity and, together, write the next great chapter in our history and meet the test of our time.

The writer is president of the United States.

Source: washingtonpost.com

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/04/AR2009020403174.html?hpid=opinionsbox1

“A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery Inside an Enigma”

What to Do About the American Auto Industry

recessionjobhunters

 

Job Hunters During Great Depression

I’m of two minds . . .

Very bad news for November: highest unemployment rate, 533,000 jobs. One in ten homeowners are behind in their mortgages by at least one month. And by the way, the country is officially in a recession, has been for at least a year. Woo hoo. Glad to know that it’s official. I never would have known if someone in charge hadn’t told me. Thanks.

Corey and I were talking, and we realized that this is the first time that we have officially been in a recession. I mean, in the last one, we were both employed, so while we felt its effects peripherally, as in higher prices, we didn’t feel its effects directly, as in unemployment and higher prices and late mortgage payments. Have to tell you, I like it much better the other way. When you are just hearing about this stuff on the radio on your way to work, you can empathize. When you pay more at the pump and at the grocery store, you can bitch and moan, but you still have that paycheck, and it doesn’t really occur to you just how bad it can be on the opposite side.

Well, now we’re on the opposite side, and I have to tell you that every time I read a new article about the recession and Congress and the bailout and their plans for helping main street, I start to do a slow boil. I mean, I’m sitting here on main street, and so far, that $700 billion hasn’t found its way to my door yet. And what’s worse, they aren’t even sure where some of it went.

Excuse me? You lost track of some of the $700 billion bailout money, Mr. Paulson? How does one do that exactly? Is the money located in some ultra secret location that you forgot to close the door to, and someone just came in and took out a few billion? Did you just happen to leave a million or two on the table and go to lunch? I mean really, how do you lose track of a few hundred billion? BILLION?

And then when the Big Three auto makers come asking for some help, you treat them like proverbial ca ca, like something you stepped on and can’t quite identify and send them off with their tails between their collective legs. Granted, their method of arriving was a bit ostentatious: The private jets didn’t quite jibe with the hats in hands. However, a bailout of the Big Three seems a bit more reasonable and practical than the bailout of Wall Street. And I have to wonder about the very different way in which the two requests were treated.

In the first case, we had flashy suits asking for money with no strings attached; AIG execs took spa days after receiving a bailout; many of said execs are still going to receive their bonuses, bonuses that are far beyond anything the average UAW earns in one year, and there has been little to no oversight of that big $700 billion price tag. No one is sure yet what the money from the first bailout is going to be used for or how or when, which leaves me just a teensy bit concerned.

In the second case, when the Big Three came calling, they were treated like Oliver Twist asking for another bowl of gruel: “Please sir, may I have some more.” They were told to go away and come back with a game plan, a revised strategy on exactly how they would use the money they were requesting, how it would help to save the auto industry from going under, how they would compete with the foreign market.

Ford Dearborn Assembly Plant
Ford Skyliner Assembly Line

Why the discrepancy? After all, if the auto industry goes down, America loses the ability to manufacture on a big scale, and then there is that small consequence of three million jobs lost, that’s million. After November’s jobless numbers, can we really afford to have that many more people out of work? And while the UAW certainly isn’t blameless in this mess, neither is it completely to blame. Auto workers do not make as much as the suits on Wall Street. When they do, then you can start to complain to me about auto workers’ salaries. Sure, there are problems with unions, always have been, always will be. Does it make sense that a pallet will sit unloaded while a union worker sits nearby doing nothing because it’s not his/her job to unload it? No. Should things be better? Yes. Is this whole mess because of the UAW. Absolutely not.

Granted, there is a lot wrong with the American auto industry. Let’s put mismanagement right up there at the top. How about lack of foresight in there somewhere? Designs are not keeping pace with foreign auto makers as far as producing cars that are more fuel efficient. We are behind in electric and hybrid designs. Drive train design hasn’t kept pace, nor have basic things like what kinds of warranties American care companies offer in comparison to their foreign competitors. And then just small things, for example, compare the ergonomics of a Toyota with a Ford; there is a noticeable difference. Unfortunate but true.

President-elect Obama is taking office on the promise to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. He has named this as a priority in his administration. Until the big three can begin to make cars that can live up to that promise, do we have an obligation to help them restructure or should we let them fall? This is one of those rare times in which I am actually truly torn. Part of me is sick to death of bailouts. After all, the bottom line is that the bottom line belongs to us, the taxpayers, and I don’t know about you, but my checkbook is way past being able to support any more bailing out of anyone other than myself.

On the other hand, part of me feels that if we bail out anyone, it should be the American auto industry, that they should have gotten a piece of the pie well before AIG or some of the other greedy bastards who received bailout money without any preconditions. After all, people who work in the auto industry, for the most part, are not millionaires (I’m ignoring the upper echelon who deserved the spanking that they received for flying in on private jets).

On the other hand, this is a free economy system. Those who cannot make the grade should be allowed to fall, which is why we shouldn’t have bailed out some of those banks in the first place. If Chrysler falls, and it probably will even with a bailout, then we should let it. Lee Iacocca was able to turn it around a few decades ago, but I don’t think that an Iacocca is in Chrysler’s future this time, and since it didn’t learn its lesson after the first time, it deserves to go down. As to the other two, maybe they should file for bankruptcy, restructure, start all over, renegotiate with the UAW so that American union workers are more like their foreign counterparts: the wages and benefits are essentially the same; the big difference is in how the jobs are handled. With the foreign unions, jobs aren’t pigeon-holed.

Of course, one of the things that a lot of people keep forgetting to mention is the trickle down effect of the failure of this industry: how many smaller industries will fail, and subsequently American workers will lose their jobs as a result of the Big Three going under? There is no easy answer to this one. It is a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (Winston Churchill).

For once, I think that I am actually at a loss for words. Hmm. A liberal Democrat who doesn’t know what to say? Mark it on your calendars people because this doesn’t happen often. There will, of course, be more later. Peace.