Monday, October 31, 2011

Hobgoblins and Such

It's Halloween time and my random thoughts turn toward witches riding broomsticks and hobgoblins in the night causing mayhem and mischief through out the land. Hey, to my way of thinking we don't need All Hallows Eve to begin to be wary of happenings in our midst.

All we need to do is to look at the appalling accomplishments of the House of Representatives this year and listen to the Republican candidates debates to know that there is a parallel universe operating within our shores. Should you need more convincing, just watch the Republicans in the Senate defeat the jobs bills which could get our economy back on track. Surely, they cannot be living in the same reality I occupy.

Recently the House voted to order the Mint to create a commemorative coin to honor the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was an overwhelmingly endorsed piece of legislation with only three votes in dissent. (Far be it for me to point out that with the large numbers of unemployed in this country -- few actual working people will be able to afford commemorative coins, but we as Americans would not want to diminish the enjoyment of our national past time!)

I attended a "one year out rally" for the Obama campaign in Silver Spring at Blair HS this week and was happy to see a huge and enthusiastic turnout. They had a national headliner in DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz with locals Senator Ben Cardin as well as Reps. Elijah Cummings and Donna Edwards from Maryland. Chris Van Hollen was supposed to be there but he was tied up with the Super Committee. Speakers also included Maryland Governor O'Malley and Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett. The theme of the evening was getting the supporters prepared for the difficult race ahead as 2012 is expected to be a tough campaign against whoever is chosen on the other side, especially with the Citizens United decision.

Speaking of those on the Republican side -- those candidates who are living in that alternate reality -- have you heard them recently?
  • Romney has swiveled on so many sides of some issues, even he doesn't remember what was said before. You know Romney -- the man with hundreds of millions in investments, off-shore businesses, and multiple residences who claims he is in the middle class! I'm in the middle class. Would he trade places with me?
  • Perry unveiled his flat tax proposal, but it must have bored even him, as he veered off onto the birther issue. His embrace of the death penalty and the oil industry should send chills up the spines of voters.
  • Bachman lost her New Hampshire campaign staff and continues to make misstatements such as when she recently claimed many thousands of Yemeni and Syrian "terrorists" are crossing our porous borders. She is staking all on winning Iowa, but is polling poorly even there, despite her appeals to the religious right.
  • Cain, however, states he will take care of the illegal immigrant issue with his advocacy for an electrified fence along our southern border. His 9-9-9 tax proposal flounders under real scrutiny. His strange campaign ad has sparked You Tube fans but few actual voters. He still seems high in the polls despite having little staff or money nor knowledge of foreign policy. Definitely in a strange universe!
  • Gingrich -- still in single digits in the polls -- but supposedly creeping up, as Republicans are trying to find someone other than Romney. His spending habits, aberrant ideas, arrogance and multiple marriages cannot be overlooked by conservatives if the religious right accepts any of its own rhetoric.
  • Santorum reminds one of the child at the back of the class who always thinks he knows the answer, (teacher, teacher!) but once called upon cannot remember what he wanted to say. He is stuck on the fact that he was once a Senator and so should be heard. He is riding the anti-abortion route as the issue which will drive his campaign.
  • Paul, who recently said that the local communities and churches will take care of sick people (he refused to take any government payments when he practiced obstetrics), has said people should be allowed to die if they cannot afford care. He denies his Hippocratic oath by such words. According to the Daily Kos, his former campaign manager died heavily in debt and without health care.
  • Huntsman seemed to be making the most sense for a while, except when he said he might choose Cain as his Veep. He has given knowledgeable answers on foreign policy, but is getting no traction and has little money.
This is the cast of characters -- none has the least chance of being ready to run this country. Think of some of the Democratic candidates in 08 or 04: Obama, Clinton, Biden, Dodd, Edwards, Richardson & Kerry, Dean, Clark, Lieberman, Gephardt -- most were accomplished, well spoken and knowledgeable. Okay, due to later events, take Edwards out of this equation. Any could have been seen as a president able to walk onto the national scene and be ready for work on day one. One cannot say this about any of those in the list above.

So it seems as if the scary characters and their unreal worlds will not disappear after Halloween. We will have some of them still around, at least until Iowa and New Hampshire voters have spoken. What is your guess?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Home for the Holidays?

President Obama announced this week that all remaining American troops in Iraq would be brought home before the end of the year.

The announcement which had been expected to say that a modest contingent of some 5,000 - 10,000 troops would remain, came about due to an inability of the Iraqi government to permit immunity for any actions of the military forces left as a token presence.

This, coupled with Iraqi leaders' indecision and approach-avoidance discussion of the real issues of a nascent state, led to the matter of fact announcement from the President.

Yet, even though more than 100,000 military forces have already departed and less than 50,000 remain, there was little dancing in the streets by Americans. Possibly this is due to the fact that although one million have served in Iraq over the ten years of this long war, it has passed from the short attention span of most Americans. If it is not in the nightly news -- it must not be happening. With an all-volunteer force, our country is not as vested in this war as the country was in Vietnam or World War II. However there is rejoicing among families who are no longer facing a fifth tour of duty and who may soon stop worrying about suicide bombers and IEDs.

Recently I finished reading an excellent biography of the late Molly Ivins (Molly Ivins -- a Rebel Life by Bill Minutaglio & W. Michael Smith, Public Affairs Books, 2009). Molly died too soon, in early 2007 at the age of 62 from complications of a multi-year battle with breast cancer. I remember that then she was against the war and had supported Howard Dean early on. She thought little of George Bush and his excuses for starting and prolonging the war. Her final column went viral in the liberal blogosphere and included these words:
"We are the people who run this country. We are the deciders. And every single day every single one of us needs to step outside and take some action to help stop this war. Raise hell. Think of something to make the ridiculous look ridiculous.... We need people in the streets, banging pots and pans and demanding, 'Stop it now!' "
Ref.: (pg. 306) ... and on YouTube.

So now we can bang those pots and pans and watch our military members return home. Soon, I hope we may also see the forces fully return from Afghanistan. Obama said we can now turn our attention to re-building the neglected neighborhoods in our country. He has heard the voices from the streets, listened to the drummers in Wall Street, and seen the signs of growing support across the country from the 99% who are not fat cats.

He is listening to the real deciders, while the Republicans continue to listen to the Tea Party and continue to deny any job creation. While the Senate turned down jobs for teachers and first responders, the House was busy trying to deny emergent care to pregnant women who were miscarrying. Why are these people our representatives, if they cannot work for the people who elected them? The Senate Republicans threatened to filibuster. The vote was tied on whether debate could continue, so it failed. Personally, I say, make the Republicans stay there and filibuster, not just threaten to do so. Keep the Senate in session overnight if need be. Maybe they would finally tire and pass the jobs bill! Typically, the cast of characters running for President on the far right indicated the troop move would cause destabilization and harm the U.S. Romney and, of course, the neo-cons who started the whole war, spoke out against it. Meanwhile, Perry is beginning to discuss a flat tax, courtesy of Steve Forbes. What is next -- revitalization of the flat earth society?

What is your opinion of this anti-climactic end to the Iraq War? Share it here.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Americans Need To Get Their Dreams Back

Those words were spoken by Rahm Emmanuel on NBC’s Meet the Press today.

He was being asked what President Obama should do to get re-elected and how the financial markets should show responsibility and take a role in this needed recovery. During this interview he also commented on the Occupy Wall Street protestors and indicated that their voices needed to be heard and they are speaking from the real America -- those people in Chicago and Peoria who need to get their lives back. The financial markets, he said, caused this crisis and subsequent meltdown with reckless financial decisions and the American taxpayers stepped up and bailed them out. Now Wall Street and the big banks need to bail out Main Street. Emmanuel, it must be remembered, was an investor and a hedge fund manager who made millions, but he has apparently not lost his understanding of where the average person sits and how President Obama believes in assisting the middle class in creating jobs and the difficulty in achieving this goal without the help of business and Congress.

Instead as we have all seen, the big banks refuse to use the money allocated by Congress to help out those who are under water or nearing foreclosure, citing too much red tape and too little time to correct the mortgage mess. By making mortgages almost impossible to get now for the middle class, they are deepening the homeowner crisis. Many homes cannot be sold, people can no longer move to look for employment and neighborhoods become unkempt with deserted or foreclosed homes. A suggestion was made to allow people to stay in their homes and pay rent. Not to address old debts, but keep current with a modest payment and await better days in the market -- refinance and credit these rents. Does this meet all financial rules? No. However it does allow for some stability and time for the market to improve and home values to increase somewhat. It does allow for some dignity and hope for homeowners and neighborhoods. It allows for some cities to return to a more stable tax base with increased revenues. It does allow for some Americans to again dream again of the little house with the picket fence.

There is increasing likelihood that the banks will try to wait out the Presidential election next year. There appears to be a concerted effort on Wall Street, along with the Republicans in Congress, and the biggest Corporations to stall, keep the economy in the doldrums, and try to defeat Obama. They are not bashful about saying so. Reporter Lynn Neary aired an interview on NPR last week in which she spoke with a venture capitalist named Bill Frezza who is based in Boston and who is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which "advocates for limited government and free markets." He has indicated that jobs are a necessary evil in the quest to make money. He is quoted as saying that: (paraphrased here) "nobody ... wants to increase their payroll because it is good for the American economy ... they want to have the highest quality at the lowest cost and jobs, rent and raw materials are input. Products and services are output." Read a transcript here.

This interview is chilling in his stark disinterest in improving the nation's economy. Businesses are sitting on billions in cash and not spending it. When asked about President Obama's statement that workers cannot wait 14 months until the next election to find a job, he indicated that business can and would wait. He wanted to move toward less regulation and saw no need to hire. As he indicated, businesses are run for the benefit of their shareholders and owners, not the country. Job creation is a consequence, not a goal. He felt that businesses do not have a responsibility to produce jobs. He indicated that Republicans are worried about the job creators (translate -- business owners) not job creation (that means workers). He indicates that the Democrats are using small businesses as whipping boys and raising their taxes needlessly. Want to read more in his own words? This is his blog.

So stop and think. Is this man on the same planet as we are? Do we really live in a nation where one group or class of people can care so little about the rest of us? Have we really so many people who have no moral sense of duty or responsibility? Do we owe it to ourselves to make it as difficult for these people to prosper as we can? Think of what Elizabeth Warren said recently -- do we as taxpayers pay for the roads that businesses move their goods on, pay for the police to keep their offices safe and schools to educate their workers? Do we not have a moral contract where each helps the other succeed?

That is the way it has been and should be -- we are no longer a nation of robber barons. Let's find good employers to stand behind and good companies to support, so that people who think as this man does will no longer be successful. Can you offer any nominations for good companies out there to share?

Do share your thoughts on this. Send suggestions for future blog topics. If you have a good idea, it might get shared here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Who Should Occupy Wall Street?

Have you been following the recent protests in New York City in the Wall Street area? Have you seen notices of similar demonstrations in other cities such as Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago? Some, such as Mayor Bloomberg in New York, have called the mostly young groups misguided, while others such as Independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont have called for them to expand their protests further to DC. The protesters who call themselves variously, "anarchists, Socialists and the other 99%" have stirred up nascent societal discontent, however. They have been rather vague on demands, but seem to be trying to raise awareness of vast cultural disparities in our nation.

In recent days they have been joined by groups of airline pilots, and members of unions, such as SEIU, the Federation of Teachers, and the Transport workers have promised support. Troupes of gray hair elderly members have joined with the marchers in lower Manhattan. Celebrities such as Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon have stopped by to show support. MSNBC and Jon Stewart have run footage of alleged police brutality with mace and pepper sprays used on peaceful protestors or helpless restrained young women. Saturday, as they occupied the Brooklyn Bridge, more arrests were made at the bridge which was closed, while the protestors were forcibly removed.

Are these mostly young and heavily unemployed twenty-somethings speaking to and for the rest of us? What do you think? Many who came of age in the turbulent 60s as I did, see parallels to the anti-war and civil rights protests of that era. Then, young people -- mostly college students -- spoke out against the war, rallied against the draft, demonstrated for equal rights and against government regulations which were seen as too restrictive. Then, many could neither vote nor legally drink until age 21, but they could be drafted and go to war and die in Vietnam. Thousands joined in marches in the South to integrate lunch counters, schools, parks and public places, while others endured deprivation after trying to register to vote. Some were killed or beaten in these efforts. Are the times today as turbulent and as disruptive as those were some fifty years ago? No they are not -- at least not right now. But some signs are seen as disturbing. Then we were seen as living in separate worlds of black and white, rich and poor. The seventies and the eighties saw many of those divisions start to blur as the middle class expanded and racial boundaries decreased. Prosperity reached many and poverty and hunger became less of a problem. The Great Society brought us Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and food stamps -- all of which raised vast numbers into healthier more productive lives.

Today we have many who saw this 70s era as one of profligate spending with money we did not have on bounty we neither needed nor deserved. They saw society as rewarding those who worked hard but not those who may have tried but not succeeded. They treated the corporation as a person of merit worthy of high honor and low taxes. They viewed few services as moral imperatives and did not believe that health care is a right to be provided to all, despite the fact that we are the only major industrialized "civilized nation" not to offer health care for all in some way. The corporations, many of which once hired employees for a life time with a gold watch and a pension after 40 years, now treat employees as disposable, and still off shores their jobs, despite entreaties from states. Still other states brag of stealing plants from other locales, with promises of tax breaks and no-union shops. Is the dollar so powerful that fair wages, decent working conditions and loyalty between employers and employees no longer are meaningful? Was this the climate that inspired anarchy eons ago?

Yet some are doing very well as Wall Street continues to pay out millions in bonuses, the big banks continue to become bigger as they merge and gobble up smaller ones. Although hedge fund managers see continued boosts in income, most of the country cannot share in their bounty. 25 top hedge fund managers made over a billion dollars as the saw their economy bounce back. Wall Street is a target due to the unrealistic world people there appear to live in. The New York Times asked recently -- are there no consequences for failure? Do we not see those who caused the crises of 2008, still in charge? Did any agency head get fired, whether at (Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC) or Moody’s or S & P for allowing false valuations to persist in portfolios? Did we not see the large financial groups bailed out by our government attempt to pay out bonuses with our tax dollars, until they were made to stop by the Administration? Who pays a price for failure at the corporate level? We have seen the head of UBS whose bank was swindled out of billions of dollars resign and receive promised millions in bonuses. The head of Hewlett Packard was forced out for incompetence after almost running the company into the ground in less than a year, yet he receives compensation worth more than $15 million dollars.

Yet who bails out the homeowners, now under water on their loans, whose lender will not refinance? Where are these funds when a homeowner cannot get a lowered interest rate or reduced house payment on a home loan worth only a few hundred thousand dollars. But with large numbers of young and mature people unemployed and college graduates often under-employed, are we heading in the direction seen in the sixties? People of color have unemployment rates at least twice that of the national average. With foreclosure rates continuing to increase and banks appearing to refuse to renegotiate, even with available federal funds, more people are losing their homes and becoming more desperate. Savings accounts are paying little interest and individual retirement accounts (those replacements for the pensions of yesteryear) remain shadows of their once healthy balances. The stable middle class, as a group, is shrinking while incomes flatten, home values plummet and living costs continue to rise (see table for Household income for States.) Only a handful of states, mostly along the Eastern seaboard, noted household incomes in excess of $60,000. Sixteen states, mostly in the South and Midwest indicated median incomes of around $45,000, while the US median sat at just about $50,000. Students graduating from college face huge multi-year loans they cannot repay because their job -- if they have one -- pays too little. States, which once welcomed immigrant workers and seldom questioned their arrival papers, now are passing questionably legal limitations on free movement and education for those of foreign origin, no matter what their work status might be. The job pie has gotten smaller. Who gets the rights to enter this smaller market?

The Wall Street protesters refer to themselves as the other 99%, meaning the vast majority who are not the super rich. The 1% who own most of the wealth in this country and who are continuing to get richer pay proportionately little in taxes. The top 1% take home 24 percent of the income in the US. The average CEO earns more than 500 times the income of his (and they are mostly male – sad to say) employees. At a time when we need to add jobs in this country, is it really too much to add taxes to these disproportionate earnings?

When we have unemployment, underemployment and rising numbers of homeless families, shouldn't there be a moral imperative to help the needy? If our country continues to move into increasingly divisive haves and have-nots, as more and more families continue to live on the edge of survival incomes, and Congress continues to fiddle while the country figuratively burns, we may well see the "99%ers" rise up in towns and cities through out the land. Choices need to be made. We can either solve this crisis, creating jobs and providing services, or look sadly back in shame at missed opportunities.

What do you suggest we as a country should do now? We have it pretty good in the Metro area. What about the rest of the country where lives are more difficult, how should we help those areas? Do you think the protesters will raise awareness or just be dismissed as meaningless? Do you support them?