Jan 212013

Divide-and-conquer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Divide et impera (divide and conquer), a maxim made famous by Julius Caesar, has served as an effective strategy of tyrants and dictators for all of time. Whether utilized in the political arena, as a military strategy, or even in economics, the principle is always the same: seize and maintain control by dividing any concentration of power larger than your own.

An obvious strategy? Most definitely. But as strange as it may seem, where military enemies and economic monopolies will always strive to maintain their concentration of power, populations are often prone to help feed the division, and as a result, subject themselves to the will of the tyrant.

Here in the good old USofA, that tyrant is an economic elite who have not only seized control of industry but have parlayed their wealth to purchase the reins of government as well. Through manipulation of regulation and taxation, they’ve managed to rig the economic game to where the richest 1% now claim 24% of all income and hold more financial wealth than 95% of Americans — all while the divided population has seen their median income actually decline.

Anthropologists in the distant future will undoubtedly look back at 21st Century America and marvel at how a democratic society, founded on the principles of equality, could have become the 5th worst nation in the world in terms of wealth inequality. But under further scrutiny, those students of history will most certainly recognize the successful implementation of divide and conquer, and the destructive impact of fostering distrust, enmity and division amongst the populace.

Make no mistake about it, the true division in America isn’t the artificial divide carved out between liberals and conservatives, between left and right. These groups have legitimate differences, but the vast majority of the population is grouped around a pragmatic center, where the common ground is fertile, and lasting solutions are only a cooperative dialog away. All it takes is a quick glance behind the curtain to reveal the truth about our great left/right divide —  born of divide et impera — it’s nothing but subterfuge designed to conceal the true chasm between those on the top and bottom of the economic pyramid.

Without doubt, much of the perceived divide amongst working Americans is the direct result of a long and deliberate campaign to misinform the electorate. Thomas Jefferson was crystal clear when he said, “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Sadly, instead of meeting Jefferson’s requirement for trust, our present day electorate fits better into a conundrum expressed by another great American, Mark Twain: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Literally millions of good hard-working people on the left seem to believe that their fellow Americans on the right are just a bunch of callous, self-indulgent, self-righteous, intolerant imbeciles, who value guns, war and money over everything else. But that’s okay, because those folk on the right don’t really care about the opinions of a pack of elitist intellectuals and the lazy, good-for-nothing, parasitical slugs they support living large off the public dole.

Who could ask for more substantive grounds for an all-out war of ideologies? The problem is, as Mark Twain would say — it just ain’t so!

Yes, there are some number of people who fill each and every one of these stereotypes, from the gun-toting anarchist to the lazy welfare mom, from the self-absorbed psychopath to the bleeding heart liberal, but these extremes do not define the American public. By and large, most Americans all want the same thing: the opportunity to live a decent life, provide for their loved ones, and enjoy some sense of security in both the present and future.

Most liberal Americans do support welfare spending, but the vast majority are as opposed to abuse of the system as the most staunch conservative. Most people on the right are acutely sensitive to the burden of taxation, but by an overwhelming majority, they also understand that we must, as a nation, invest in our infrastructure and in our people. The fact of the matter is that, when it comes to core values, We the People, regardless of race, creed, color or political affiliation, are of the same heart and mind. You wouldn’t know it by watching the political theater, but the vast majority of us agree on the vast majority of everything from gun control to taxation, on education, energy, abortion, military spending, gay rights, wealth distribution, free trade, the banks, Congress . . .

We can address the issues of our society, but we must first reject the artificial division that’s been imparted upon us by a self-serving minority seeking nothing but their own advantage. The solutions will not be found in heated debate and staunch advocacy — they will be found by listening as much as we speak, by doing our best to understand the concerns of all stakeholders. The liberal focused on the issues of climate change must come to recognize the legitimate concerns of the conservative whose job working in the coal or oil industry might be threatened . . . and vice-versa. The rightie who loves his guns and fears that the do-gooders on the left are coming after them, needs to understand that nobody wants his guns — they just want to feel safe.

Fed a constant media diet of sensationalism, We the People have been deliberately trained to fixate on our differences and ignore our common ground,  always pitted against one another, arguing about the 20% of details that keep us divided, effectively prevented from acting on the 80% on which we agree. None of our issues will ever be solved so long as we insist on taking sides and framing everything as a win/lose battle. The only people who win in that scenario are those who promote the kabuki theater that’s given us the deep polarization we see across our society today. They win by preventing the American people from ever coming together and promoting the common good, because only in division can We the People be exploited for the benefit of the few.

With every passing day, we edge closer to our next economic catastrophe. The banks have become but casinos of mind-boggling proportion, investing in nothing productive. The ethic of “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” has become all but replaced with disingenuous nonsense about free-trade and globalization. The science of climate change is being largely ignored, as the fossil fuel industry plays from the same deck used by the deceitful tobacco companies who denied the heath hazards of cigarette smoking for more than 20 years. Healthcare costs continue to soar; energy is constantly wasted; bribing of politicians and the purchase of government has essentially been legalized; our war budget is virtually equal to that of the rest of the world combined . . . and still We the People refuse to unite against the only real enemy of peace and prosperity — greed, and the corporatists who embrace and magnify it.

Absent the deceptive rhetoric, the crucial truth is patently obvious to the most casual observer: the core problem with our economy stems from the very same source as our division — concentration of wealth. The truth is that any system that’s structured to provide huge rewards to a select few must be balanced with equivalently huge numbers of people who are forced to struggle with little or nothing. This dynamic eventually manifests in such accumulation by the economic elite that productive investment ceases, unemployment soars, wages stagnate, and in the end the economy collapses. This has led to the demise of every great society in human history.

Middle class wealth will not return until and unless working Americans have the money needed to increase demand without inflating another debt bubble. But don’t hold your breath, because the ONLY way that happens is through government policies that 1) directly invest in America: in infrastructure, education and energy; 2) protect America: through trade policy, tax policy and regulation; 3) heal America: with honest dialog about our problems leading to real corrective action to deal with the divisions in our society, both left/right cultural divisions and the vast top/bottom chasm.

It’s only through government that these changes will occur, but more importantly, only through a government of, by, and for the People. That government will never be delivered by political parties that ultimately lose their relevance, their very excuse for existing, in a truly united society. For more than 30 years, the best the politicians have been able to achieve is a slowing of the destruction of our democracy, yet We the People argue and debate and breed more of the enmity and distrust that facilitates our division and allows the very exploitation we seek to address.

Only the People can fix this problem, and only by retaking control of the government and embracing the values of our founding. United we will once again stand, or divided we will be conquered.

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Jan 142011

The story dominating American conversation this week is the tragedy in Tucson, Arizona. In shock, after a mentally troubled assassin named Jared Lee Loughner shoots a round from his 9mm Glock through the brain of beloved Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and then turns his weapon on the crowd and kills 6 bystanders while wounding 13 others — America mourns.

Giffords is alive today and fighting for her life, the extent of the damage caused by her wound still unknown. There are positive signs, and we can all be thankful for that. But there are 6 people who will never breathe another breath, amongst them a federal judge and a 9 year old girl named Christina Taylor Green.

President Obama, speaking at the memorial services held at the University of Arizona, attempted to call all Americans to a higher principle. He asked us to imagine our democracy through the eyes of a child, to recall the hope and awe it inspired in our own childhoods, to behold it as did Christina Green. The President spoke to the soul of America and shared his vision, “I want us to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as she imagined it.”

These were moving moments in the shadow of a national tragedy. The President was truly presidential, and for the most part, was recognized as such by pundits of all political persuasions. Even relentless Obama antagonist, Glenn Beck was moved by the speech, saying that “This is probably the best speech he has ever given, and with all sincerity, thank you Mr. President, for becoming the president of the United States of America last night.” But as well received as the President’s solemn call was, the reception was far from all positive.

Fox News contributor, Michelle Malkin, who live-blogged the memorial, called it a “bizarre pep rally.” Steve Doocy, of Fox and Friends, said the event “seemed like a political rally.” Both complained about the “Together We Thrive” branding that was labeled by the Red State blog as “the Marxist message behind the memorial.”

Many were the conservative voices who found fault with the President’s speech or were quick to cast him as a “political opportunist,” proving to some degree that it really doesn’t matter what the man does. But the pond scum moment from the right has to be Rush Limbaugh’s criticism of the President for suggesting that American “society is not all together what it should be” and that we have any “duty to live up to” the “dreams and expectations” of a “nine year old little girl who was snuffed out.”

Perhaps Limbaugh and others are to be forgiven for spinning this tragedy for their own gain while accusing the President of doing the same, because that is the way the game is played in 21st Century America. But the unanimity on the right in denying any potential influence born of the vitriolic rancor that pervades our political discourse is beyond comprehension.

The fact is that Sarah Palin published a map that had gun-sight crosshairs targeted at Gabrielle Giffords. The half-term Alaskan governor who’s famous for saying “Don’t Retreat: Reload,” the woman who announced the map as the “first salvo,” now wants us to believe the symbols were surveyor’ sights. Now, isn’t that just a bit suspicious?

Palin is a key voice in the divisive fear-mongering that plagues our nation. From her “death panel” rhetoric to her narcissistic response to the Tucson tragedy, she has proven repeatedly that she’s a one trick pony with a wafer-thin comprehension of anything beyond the art of whipping up emotions. For Palin or any of her fright-wing allies to deny any culpability whatsoever in events born of the atmosphere of hate and mistrust bred by their self-serving rain of incendiary lies and distortions is patently absurd. It’s akin to shouting fire in a crowded assembly and accepting no responsibility for the toll of the ensuing stampede.

The truth of the matter is that there are consequences of our actions — all of our actions. You can’t shout fire and insulate yourself from the results, neither can you label the opposition as the “enemy,” replete of any redeeming quality and expect to incite anything but hatred. When people like Rush Limbaugh cast all liberals as evil, when the Sharron Angles of our country speak of Second Amendment remedies, when even a clarion call from President Obama for unity in the face of tragedy is labeled “socialist,” a line has been crossed. When people are cast in the same light as the most despicable of villains, charged with “government takeovers” that threaten to bring about Armageddon, when they are washed in hate and labeled with every epithet of the worst of humankind — there are consequences.

Our nation has lost its ability to deal with issues in an intelligent manner because of the polarization brought about by rhetoric so heated that the eventual outcome was guaranteed. The question has long been when, not if, violence would occur. The writing has been on the wall for quite some time, as evidenced by Gabrielle Giffords’ prediction of her own tragic shooting when Palin’s target map first appeared.

Nobody has accused Sarah Palin of causing the shooting in Tucson, and no responsible person would do so. Responsibility for that crime lies with a deranged murderer who sits in an Arizona jail. But Palin, Limbaugh, Bachmann, Beck and all the other voices of division, fear and hatred are responsible for creating an environment where such tragedies are much more likely to occur. There’s really no legitimate debate on the topic. The only real question is will they continue, and if they do, when will the next calamity strike.

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Dec 022010
Economic growth for the 2001 to 2005 business ...
Image via Wikipedia

Article first published as Why Don’t the Facts Seem to Matter Anymore? on Technorati.

How do Americans make up their minds on political issues? Some, I’m sure, simply echo the positions of trusted friends. There are people who are persuaded by specific arguments that just seem to personally resonate and still others who simply adhere to strict party lines. Such practices are understandable in the fast paced world of 21st Century America. But understandable or not, one has to wonder if a more deliberate approach might be warranted.

Take for instance the current debate over the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Most polls previously showed that the majority of voters support extending the cuts for only the middle class. But the margins were remarkably thin and continue to shrink.

The most recent Gallup poll shows only 44% of participants in favor of extensions depending upon income level and tallied 40% in support of cuts regardless of income. An Associated Press poll of 1,000 people, taken just before Thanksgiving, showed a slightly larger margin, with 50% in favor of cuts for income up to $250,000 and only 34% favoring cuts for all income.

Division of this sort is typical on political issues, but what’s interesting about these results is that, while only 2% of Americans would benefit directly from cuts on income above $250,000, a third or more of those polled consistently support those very cuts. This is an atypical disparity that surely must have some explanation.

One possible motivation could be that people are concerned about jobs. According to that same AP poll, 82% of participants cited unemployment as an “extremely” or “very” important issue. Perhaps these people believe that extending tax cuts to the wealthy will result in job creation. After all, anyone who’s listened to the media has heard this argument. It’s a favorite of congressional Republicans, who regularly cast any tax increase as “job killing.”

But the fallacy of such a premise is immediately evident in even the briefest moment of serious contemplation. The fact is that employers simply don’t hire based on their personal income tax treatment. The formula for staffing is strictly limited to the number of employees required to produce the product or provide the services necessary to meet demand while maintaining a profit — period. Profits must be made before taxes even come into play. The fundamental rule is that, if demand goes up, businesses must hire more people, and if demand wanes, there will be layoffs.

I’m afraid that while the don’t-tax-the-job-creators line seems to have some legitimacy on the surface, nobody who’s actually studied the issue believes it. Economists are all forced to agree with Cornell University’s Robert Frank, who sums up the present situation with “Businesses aren’t investing because they can already produce more than people want to buy.” Indeed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produced a report on the matter and concluded that, of the top 12 suggestions for spurring job creation, income tax cuts was the least effective option.

So, maybe jobs aren’t the primary concern. Could it be that people are moved to support tax cuts, even for millionaires and billionaires, out of a general concern over the economy? The economy was the highest priority issue amongst those voting in the AP poll. A full 90% of participants ranked it at one of the two highest levels of importance.

There has certainly been enough rhetoric flying around about the detrimental effects of raising taxes on anyone to give ample cause for alarm. Republicans are unified on the topic. The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, voiced this conservative wisdom in an interview last August, “You cannot get the economy going again by raising taxes on those people who we expect to create jobs in America.” It sure sounds good, but once again there’s no evidence and only rare opinion to support the conclusion.

The fact of the matter is that the American economy is driven by consumer spending. To put that in perspective, around 70% of our GDP is generated thusly. So, it’s actually lack of demand that’s the key issue with the American economy today. Too many people are either without jobs and unable to spend or holding onto what money they have because they’re worried about the future. Businesses are flush with cash but aren’t investing for the same reason. They’re not refraining from hiring because they may have to pay more in taxes. They’re not hiring because there’s insufficient demand.

Tax cuts for the top 2% will stimulate the economy, but the sad truth is that pretty much any other practical option would be more effective. Numerous studies have been completed, and virtually all agree that general tax cuts are the least effective form of stimulus, and those applied to the very rich are the worst of the worst. The CBO study mentioned above again rates tax cuts at the bottom of the heap with regard to impact on the GDP, with a best case of returning $0.40 for every dollar invested. Compare that to $1.90 for increasing unemployment aid, and you might glimpse the insanity of the conservative argument.

Although concern over the deficit is also high on everyone’s list, it’s difficult to see how anyone can argue that extending tax cuts that would trim $700 billion from federal revenue could help the deficit. So, if it’s not jobs, and it’s not the economy, what is the explanation for as much as 38% of Americans supporting tax policy from which they will not personally benefit?

There is one other possibility. It could just be that good old American sense of fair play. When asked how they felt the spending cuts and tax increases needed to address the deficit should be applied, the majority (54%) of participants in the AP poll thought they should “Be spread out so that all Americans share evenly in the costs.” A truly admirable position to take.

But then, just what is it that constitutes an even share? It’s hard to believe that there’s any such equity in extending tax cuts that already provided 52.5% of the benefit to the top 5% of taxpayers. The stark truth is that you cannot achieve an “even share” by extending that which is, by design, extremely uneven.

The facts about the Bush tax cuts are dramatic. They were touted to create jobs and stimulate the economy, yet they did neither. With regard to the economy, the Bush era netted the slowest average annual growth since World War II, averaging only 2.39% per year. And that doesn’t even take into account the economic crash of 2008. The next worst period was 1971 to 1980 at 3.21%. On the job front, the results were even worse, with the Bush era producing the slowest rate of average job growth of any cycle since 1945.

In the final analysis, the Bush tax cuts served but one purpose — to accelerate the concentration of wealth in America. Things have now become so lopsided that the top 1% of Americans now have more financial wealth than the bottom 95%. When the portion of wealth held in home equity is discounted, the top 1% holds 48.4 percent of the wealth compared to 20 percent retained by the bottom 95% — and that gap is growing at an alarming rate.

By 2001, the share of financial wealth had already grown to a 39.7% – 32.5% split, but ramped sharply upward under the policies of George W. Bush. The fact is that the wealth of the very rich is being extracted by squeezing the overwhelming majority of Americans to the point of collapse. The situation is so bad today that 23.5% of overall income belongs to that top 1%.

According to Bloomberg, during the period that followed the first of the Bush cuts, up until the financial meltdown, the average annual income of the top 1% grew from $1.08 million to $1.87 million, an increase of 73%. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bush economic cycle was the first since tracking of the data began in 1967 to produce a decline in median household income — focusing specifically on working-age household data, real incomes dropped by a whopping $2,176.

This is a sad and unethical story, and it’s not representative of the America that most Americans have grown up to love and respect. Our nation was founded on the principles of equality, of shared prosperity and shared burden — principles to which the policies of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich that have dominated the political landscape for the past 30 years are diametrically opposed.

There’s no guesswork here; we already know the outcome of the Bush policies. If the tax cuts are allowed to be extended intact, we will maintain the present trajectory. Poverty will continue to climb; the rich will get much richer, and any balance achieved will be on the backs of the middle class. Make no mistake about it; this is unfair, unethical, immoral, and completely un-American.

Welcome to the real-life tragedy of the commons in America, where the very wealthy have chosen to bleed the country dry, because regardless of the eventual outcome — they will already have their riches. It’s a game of squeeze-all-that-you-can while the squeezing is still possible; it is in essence the great national Ponzi scheme.

America’s economic elite have no interest in reforming the system to achieve sustainability. Our nation, its people and natural resources are nothing more than fodder for the mill of exploitation. And as with any Ponzi scheme, the sustainment of the system matters only to those who have not yet reaped their reward from the extraction.

The American people are the proverbial frogs in the kettle: they continue to support their own demise because they fail to recognize that the heat is still being turned up. If the American middle class is going survive, we will need a 21st Century awakening. And that awakening must begin with people rejecting the self-serving sound bites of those with their hands on the thermostat.

In the end, the inescapable truth is that, whether the American people choose to recognize the facts or not — the facts do matter. We are presently in a race to the bottom for the vast majority of Americans — and that’s a fact. We can continue this march into oblivion or we can stop the hemorrhaging and restore some semblance of shared prosperity — and that too is a fact. The choice lies with the American people, and the future of our nation depends upon which way they choose — and that’s the most important fact of all.

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