Mar 282011
Surplus Commodities Program. (53227(1770), 00/...

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First there was the New Deal, and then there came the Ordeal; now we need the Re-Deal.

For more than four decades after the Great Depression struck, programs based on progressive principles worked to ensure that all Americans shared in the prosperity of our great nation. The rich did get richer, but so did everyone else; fairness and empathy for our fellow man formed the moral foundation of our culture, and together we forged arguably the greatest nation in the history of the planet.

But all good things must come to an end, and that’s what started happening in the U.S. during the 1970s. The oil crisis of 1973, followed by a stock market crash and runaway inflation brought economic growth to a standstill. Productivity actually went backwards in 1974, shrinking by 1.5%, stagflation set in, the prime rate soared, and Americans were left desperate for change.

That change came in 1980. Ronald Reagan was elected in reaction to a stalled economy, the 444-day long Iran Hostage Crisis, and a general sense that America was losing its way. Reagan did bring change, by the boat load, and the short term results were impressive. In direct opposition to the austerity called for by Jimmy Carter, Reagan set in motion the wheels of a fiscally-expansive economic policy that would drop the 13.5% inflation rate of 1980 to just 3% by 1983.

Of course, most of the credit for the drop in inflation belongs to the monetary policies of then Federal Reserve chief, Paul Volcker, but it was Reagan’s combination of increased defense spending, coupled with massive tax cuts that would create a model for the future. Reagan would nearly double military spending during his time in office, while simultaneously ripping away the federal tax base. The result was a tripling of the federal debt, to $2.8 trillion, a dramatic shift that moved the U.S. from being the world’s largest international creditor to the world’s largest debtor nation.

Sadly, not only did Reagan plunge our nation into debt, but he did so as the reverse-Robin Hood in Chief. Establishing tax cuts very favorable to the rich, while cutting social programs and gutting the internal regulatory structure of the government, Reagan was the political godfather of movement conservatism. His policies, coupled with his suppression of union rights laid the foundation for the lopsided balance of prosperity we have today.

But as detrimental as Reagan’s policies were for working Americans, their harmful effects pale when compared to a single tenet that emanated from his bully pulpit — “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”

No more destructive words have ever been uttered by a U.S. president. With a single statement, the actor turned president both rationalized his dismantling of social programs and gutting of tax revenues and also disassociated a large portion of the American public from their only means to combat their own demise. As Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, once said in reference to movement conservatism, “Reagan taught the movement how to clothe elitist economic ideas in populist rhetoric.”

Once the American public bought into the notion of government-is-the-problem, the die was cast. The progressive ethics upon which modern America was built would soon be trampled time and again. Before long, the only Americans to reap any bounty would be the economic elite, who began to prosper as never before, doing so at the expense of everyone else.

The shift in public attitude was so strong that, in order to gain election, Democrats who once supported progressive principles embraced instead the Third Way. Combining conservative economic policy with a liberal position on social issues, Third Way Democrats are more Republican-light than truly Democratic. Bill Clinton presided in this manner, and as a result is responsible for such anti-worker legislation as NAFTA, as well as a heap of corporate wealthfare in the form of telecom “reform,” commodities treatment that opened the doors to the wild derivatives nightmare that nearly sunk the economy, and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which removed all remaining barriers preventing commercial banks from playing in the Wall St. casino.

To his credit, Clinton did at least balance the budget and turn over a surplus to his successor. But once George Bush took office, all stops were removed. Without a progressive bone in his body, the younger Bush wasn’t held back by any sense of fair play. He drastically cut taxes, especially for the rich, dismantled the regulatory structure, replacing all key posts with industry insiders, and spent federal money like a drunken sailor. Bush was asleep at the wheel when the Islamic terrorists attacked on 9/11, and again when the economic terrorists on Wall St. attacked in 2008. He opened a new prison for the former and rewarded the latter with a $700 billion bail-out.

President Barack Obama was then elected by campaigning on a platform of “Change we Need.” Obama rode the wave of anger directed at Republicans and Wall St. all the way into the Whitehouse and then quickly proceeded to surround himself with the very people who had orchestrated the collapse.

Another Third Way Democrat, Obama has promoted more aid for those in need than what occurred under the eight years of W’s rule, but he’s also bowed to conservative economic policy time after time. The Obama healthcare “reform” improved access to healthcare insurance, but did so without effectively addressing the related costs. The financial “reform” bill, ostensibly enacted to prevent another banking crash, was passed without provision to deal with Too-Big-Too-Fail or the derivative casino. Most recently, Obama signed legislation providing tax relief to average Americans but not without also extending the Bush cuts for the most wealthy.

The net result of more than 30 years of a federal government divorced from progressive principles is an America more reminiscent of that which created the Great Depression than the one that was created to ensure that it would never happen again. Concentration of wealth today is the worst since the Depression — so bad that the top 1% have leaped from 9% of overall income prior to Reagan, to 23.5% today, and now have more financial wealth than the bottom 95% of all Americans.

The richest 400 Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 50%, while a record number of our people live in poverty, including one in every five children. The robbery of wealth extracted through the subprime mortgage scheme took 30% of all middle class wealth and transferred it to the Wall St. thieves and disreputable brokers across the country. Homeowners by the millions are still facing foreclosure, and many who are not are paying underwater mortgages. Yet the banks are still paying out billions in bonuses, even after being bailed out with taxpayer money, and now account for more than 40% of all American corporate profits.

Meanwhile, the corporate share of federal tax revenues collected dropped from more than 30% during the progressive era to a mere 6.6% today. But even that low rate would present a huge increase for firms like G.E. that just filed its second return in a row where the IRS had to pay them money, in spite of billions in profits. Of course, American corporations responsible for shipping as many as 8 million jobs overseas need their tax savings in order to pay for their CEO salaries that skyrocketed from 24-to-1 in the late 1960s to a high of 431-to-1, before dropping after the banking crash to a mere 319-to-1.

Average Americans would likely cheer the prosperity of the elite, if only a bit of it was shared. But while the rich have been lining their pockets, median household income has now experienced its first decline since 1967, and job growth under Bush was the slowest since 1945. The U6 unemployment rate, which tracks the underemployed along with the unemployed, is still hovering near 17%, and overall participation in the labor force is at its lowest point since 1984.

Politicians say that corporations would start hiring but might need incentives, because their record profits, the highest ever at $1.659 trillion in the third quarter of 2010, just aren’t sufficient. But not to worry, because while the Congress may be in stalemate, the wave of new Republican governors in statehouses across the country are doing everything they can to cut taxes, along with social programs, while waging a war against public employees. Who says we can’t concentrate wealth still further?

We now have a national debt that exceeds $14 trillion, and the clarion call amongst politicians on both sides of the aisle is for austerity, for cuts to Social Security and Medicare and a draconian slashing of social programs of all types. We are in dire fiscal trouble they say, and there must be shared sacrifice — but the only sharing going on is a split where all benefits go to the wealthiest 1% and all sacrifice to the other 99% of us.

There is no excuse for this corrupted mess. The American People have allowed our country to be hijacked by a self-serving elite who deliberately drive wedges into the populace so that we’ll fight amongst ourselves while they bleed us all dry. Hard working people across the nation are struggling to make ends meet while the money changers struggle to find more ways to exploit them. Hard work should be rewarded above clever manipulation. In the words of one of our greatest presidents, a Republican named Abraham Lincoln, “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Another famous Republican, President Teddy Roosevelt, once said “A great democracy must be progressive or it will soon cease to be a great democracy.” Truer words were never said. Progressive principles demand that all citizens work together for the common good. They support entrepreneurialism and prohibit monopoly. They’re rooted in fairness and insist that prosperity be shared. They require that we invest in our infrastructure, and in our people, for such investments form the true strength of a nation.

Progressive principles are about progress, about building a better America. Progress isn’t a dirty word — unless you prefer that things stay exactly as they are. The America captured in the artwork of Norman Rockwell, the America for which so many of us are nostalgic, that was an America built on progressive principles. The Great Depression was that same nation ravaged by scorched earth policies like those in effect today.

Isn’t it time that all Americans ask themselves which America they prefer?

We can work together to end the Ordeal and demand a Re-Deal where all Americans get a fair deal. One nation, one people — we must unite against the evil that’s destroying us; that evil has a name — its name is Greed.

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Mar 202011
Smile & Frown

Image by Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

Is there any political issue upon which all Americans agree? If there is, it’s certainly not defense spending, social programs, taxation, campaign finance, healthcare, or abortion, nor is it energy, trade, marriage, foreign policy, guns, illegal immigration, unionization, or the national debt, the economy, the environment, education, civil rights, crime, or drugs . . . hell, we can’t even all agree on jobs and infrastructure!

Unanimous agreement on any of these issues is extremely rare, even on a historical scale. World War II may have brought us to statistical unanimity on defense spending, and back in 1789, there were few voices of dissent offered against the general provisions of the Second Amendment. Yes, true consensus seldom occurs, but the degree of division found today is equally uncommon.

Last year’s debate surrounding healthcare is an excellent example of not only how wide the chasm between liberal and conservative voter opinion, but also of the nature of the divide. From the onset, Republicans spared no effort to cast the healthcare bill in the most negative light possible; labeled “Obamacare,” it was a “government takeover” of healthcare; it was being “forced down the throats” of voters and would result in bringing “death panels” to destroy the “best healthcare system in the world.”

The result of this unrelenting slander campaign was to completely pollute public opinion amongst conservatives. Voters rallied against the bill, believing the hyperbole to be fact, and stood in stringent opposition. Conservative opinion became so stacked, that the repeal of “Obamacare” became a vital element of the Republican election campaign of 2010.

But then, as the din of election rhetoric started to subside, the campaign dust began to settle, and another dynamic soon emerged. Preposterous claims of “death panels” were replaced by a slow seeping of factual information regarding what the healthcare bill actually contained. This soon led to liberals and conservatives alike arriving at more well-developed positions, and public opinion on repeal quickly began to tilt.

Once the equation changed from “do you want to repeal the government takeover of healthcare” to “do you believe that insurance companies should be able to refuse coverage because of preexisting conditions,” people were suddenly empowered with real knowledge of the issues, and were soon to adopt a position that actually reflected their personal values.

Many voters previously in favor of repeal found that they actually supported certain aspects of the bill, like allowances to help Medicare recipients cover out-of-pocket prescription costs, parents being able to include children up to age 26 on their plans, and the prohibition on denial for preexisting conditions. Once armed with facts in place of manipulative hyperbole, support for complete repeal dropped to only one in four voters.

If this were an isolated story, it may be dismissible as an aberration in an otherwise healthy political process. But the sad truth is that this sort of deception and manipulation is the rule, not the exception, and the process in question is not only unhealthy but exceedingly destructive.

The real story about healthcare or jobs or the deficit, or whatever specific issue you choose, is that the Republican spin machine has become so expert at political theater that no matter what the underlying facts, they’re able to develop a script for each issue that portrays the conservative position as pro-American and patriotic. They’ve actually become so adept at this manipulation that conservative voters accept their contrived plots, and willingly suspend reality, without question, most often to their own demise.

Regardless of political views, any observer of this dynamic has to be in awe of its power. The spinmeister’s craft is dedicated to beguiling the unwitting victim by playing on emotions of fear, pride, and fairness. By evoking the emotional response, the skilled spinmeister obscures the facts, avoids troubling questions about substance and effectively uses distraction to open his victims to exploitation.

Who isn’t against “government takeovers” — of any kind? The government is supposed to represent the people, not rule over them. And “death panels” or having anything “rammed down your throat?” What American wouldn’t be repulsed by such imagery?

The truth is that these characterizations have nothing to do with the underlying issues. They’re offered for the sole purpose of poisoning the well in order to drive opinion without any real evaluation of substance.

In reality, when all the extraneous bullshit is stripped away, all Americans care about the same things: about the wellbeing of their family and friends, and about the values upon which they base their lives. These core values may vary from person to person in terms of what they might hold as most important in a given situation, but they are, at the same time, universal. All people care about fairness and reciprocity, and they also care about protecting others from harm, about loyalty and respect and the sanctity of life. These values form the moral foundation of our culture.

Sadly, the Republican spin machine has succeeded in co-opting this basic set of American values, casting them as unique unto itself, and has in the process managed to artificially split the nation. They’ve created an alternate reality where they alone are held to believe in hard work, where fairness is dictated by the market (instead of by people), and where corporations are entitled to more rights than the citizens of our nation. Amazing? Absolutely, but the truly inconceivable part is that something approaching half of all Americans buy into this nonsense.

The truth of the matter is that what divides Americans is much less about a split in values and much more about the split in valuables. If left to discuss and debate our values without self-serving provocation by manipulative elites, the vast majority of Americans would be able to find common ground on which to build consensus and develop workable solutions. But such interaction would not serve the goals of those who seek to keep us divided, so they do everything they can to drive the wedge as deep and often as possible.

We’ve allowed the politicians and media to cast the debate as “big government” versus “small government,” when we all know that what we really need is “effective government.” We argue over raising or cutting taxes without first discussing the services We the People deem appropriate and how best to fund them. We accept that we’re divided over energy and defense and abortion and all manner of social and economic issues, but instead of engaging in dialogue and attempting to find real solutions, we just accept the winner-take-all, zero sum game of American politics that’s been defined for us.

This is not the way our democracy was intended to work. The Founding Fathers established a republic designed to ensure that the interests of all citizens would be taken into account. But in spite of their sage efforts, our representative government increasingly represents only the interests of a very small, very wealthy, and very powerful minority.

The real division in America has nothing to do with left and right. This is an artificial construct designed to keep the masses in perpetual tension — to keep us divided. Today’s public is presented with one fraudulent dichotomy after another, all stemming from complex political positions built on heaping assumptions with questionable logic. It is this complexity that prevents solution, because it ensures that the public never engages in meaningful discourse at a level low enough to find our common ground — the level of our core values.

There is no issue on the social landscape upon which a majority of Americans cannot find a suitable compromise. All that’s needed is an earnest discussion at the most basic level. Americans are decent people with a true sense of fairness, who have proven time and again that they’re capable of working together for the common good. All they need is leadership willing to speak the truth and stop beating the drums of division long enough to foster real dialogue.

Unfortunately, politicians want us all to believe that our differences are irreconcilable, that the other side is the enemy, unpatriotic and incapable of coming together and agreeing upon workable solutions. This is a fallacy, but it’s kept alive by constantly reintroducing issues that are recirculated and debated over and again, whenever The People threaten to expose the truth — that the only real divide in America is top and bottom, between the haves and have-nots, and that divide is widening with every passing year.

It is up to We the People to reject yet another season of the Kabuki Theater that is left/right politics in America. We must demand an end to the deceptive practices of both major parties, equally to Republican fear-mongering and Democratic lip-service, for it is their dance that’s taken us to the edge of destruction. We must come together as a people and insist on a real conversation, or else continue to be exploited by our nation’s economic elite and their servants in public office.

The People only win when we unite.

If interested in a look at how your personal values fit with your politics, pay a visit to Your

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Mar 132011
Vice President Henry Wallace.

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“They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesman for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Sound like anyone you know?

The quote is actually from FDR’s Vice President, Henry Wallace — in 1944. He was talking about the rising tide of fascism in America.

Fascism was defined most succinctly in the 1983 American Heritage Dictionary as: “a system of government that exercises a dictatorship of the extreme right, typically through the merging of state and business leadership, together with belligerent nationalism.”

It’s no accident that this all has the ring of vague familiarity. The parallels between recent events in the U.S. and the international rise of fascism that led to the Second World War are inescapable.

People will likely accuse me of stepping too far, as we Americans seem to abide by an unwritten law that forbids any analogy between the state of our politics and those of Nazi Germany. But while I wouldn’t equate for a nanosecond any comparison between the horrors of the Holocaust and anything occurring in 21st Century America, I am compelled to shine a light on the similarity of events and sound a warning about the threat of fascism in America today.

The fact of the matter is that Hitler came to power in Germany without winning the majority vote. He was appointed, not elected. Shortly after taking control, he used the burning of the German parliament building, allegedly by a Dutch communist, to declare a “war on terrorism.” Within two weeks of the terrorist attack, a prison for terrorists was constructed; within 4 weeks he pushed through legislation that, in the name of fighting terror, suspended constitutional guarantees of free speech, privacy and habeas corpus, and allowed police to access personal mail, wiretap, and imprison suspected terrorists without warrants.

Hitler then focused on a debt-financed military buildup that nearly sent the German economy into bankruptcy. He continued his buildup against stringent opposition but gained increased power by consistently casting all opponents as weak against the communist terrorists. He eventually managed to crush all opposition through aggressive attacks on trade unions, and then claimed for himself total power by disregarding the constitutional requirement to elect a new president when Hindenburg died and instead declaring himself Fuhrer.

As Fuhrer, Hitler became commander-in-chief of the military. He positioned himself as the protector of Germany and the German people’s savior from communism, Judeo-Bolshevism, and other undesirable minorities. He then launched an unrelenting campaign of German exceptionalism that would lead to a war that would drain the country’s economy and end in complete collapse.

I’ll leave it to you to decide what American president this may sound like, but regardless of that particular comparison, it’s impossible to dismiss the parallels between the march to fascist rule in Germany and what’s going on in America today.

As described in Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous statement, “First they came . . . ,” the rise to fascist power came by dividing the people and attacking them group-by-group. In Germany it was first the communists, and then the unions and finally the Jews. In the good old U.S., it’s Muslims, anyone who can possibly be cast as a socialist, and now —public employees. Henry Wallace warned of fascists, that “always and everywhere they can be identified by their appeal to prejudice and by the desire to play upon the fears and vanities of different groups in order to gain power.”

Make no mistake about it, as Pastor Niemoller’s statement concluded, the rise of fascism will spare nobody. It’s public employees who are under attack today. They’ve been demonized as the cause of the current economic woes that were actually created by the thieves on Wall St. and the multinational corporations who shipped millions of jobs overseas. Teachers, police, nurses, janitors, firefighters — they’re all being cast as fat-cats, as the “haves,” the “others” with whom other working Americans should take issue.

But public employees are just a stepping stone for the neo-fascists. The wave of Republican governors elected to office in 2010 is engaged in a full frontal attack on working Americans of all stripes. From Rick Scott in Florida to John Kasich in Ohio, from Rick Snyder in Michigan to Scott Walker in Wisconsin, backed by newly elected right-wing legislatures, these wannabe tyrants are all talking about “shared sacrifice” while cutting taxes for the wealthy and then attempting to balance their budgets with spending cuts that impact everyone else.

Rick Scott’s attempts at unilateral action have been so drastic that he’s even run afoul of Florida Republicans. John Kasich’s battle against the working class has succeeded in crippling collective bargaining in Ohio. These men are fascists. They care not about America or Americans. They are the people of whom Henry Wallace spoke when warning that “another danger is represented by those who, paying lip service to democracy and the common welfare, in their insatiable greed for money and the power which money gives, do not hesitate surreptitiously to evade the laws designed to safeguard the public from monopolistic extortion.”

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin too is a fascist. He may not identify himself as such, but the record of his tactics and objectives leave him without defense. Aligned perfectly with Wallace’s description of American fascists, where they “are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact,” Walker claimed not to be a union buster and then presided over the corrupt action of Wisconsin Republicans to end collective bargaining. In order to side-step the requirement that Democrats be present to form a quorum on any legislation with fiscal impact, the Senate Republicans split off the portion of their “budget repair” bill that ended collective bargaining and passed it alone. It never had anything to do with balancing the budget and was always about the fascist drive to strike a death blow to unions.

Unions are anathema to fascists. Fascists believe in authoritarian rule and place the value of money and power far above the welfare of human beings. They are all corporatists who readily accept the illegitimate doctrine of corporate personhood, and resoundingly reject any and all egalitarian values. Fascism is dedicated to establishing a ruling class by devaluing that which all people have to contribute — their labor — and instead concentrating all wealth and power within a small economic elite.

Because American fascists must convince large numbers of Americans to vote against their own best interests, they all must follow a playbook of deceit. Again, writing about fascists in the 1940s, Wallace described them this way: “His method is to poison the channels of public information. With a fascist the problem is never how best to present the truth to the public but how best to use the news to deceive the public into giving the fascist and his group more money or more power.”

Fascism is a disease that’s spreading with increased speed in America, and the only known antidote is public awareness. Fortunately, the symptoms are pretty easy to detect — if politicians complain of budget deficits but argue to cut taxes on the rich, if they fight to break unions, even after all economic concessions have been accepted, if they advocate for harsh penalties on crime but strive to protect fraudulent bankers from prosecution, if they argue that corporations should have the same rights as real people, if all of their arguments are heavy on hyperbole and devoid of substance, if they always seek to divide instead of unite the people — you have a very good bet that they’re also likely fascist.

There’s nothing really new here. We fought a World War to end the spread of fascism across the globe. And FDR, Henry Wallace and many other patriotic Americans struggled to ensure that fascism was snubbed out here at home. The fascist’s bag of tricks is the same as it was 70 years ago. All we have to do is learn from history, otherwise, as they say, we are doomed to repeat it.


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