Economic Policy Institute, in an analysis of Federal Reserve data by
Sylvia Allegretto, issued a study in 2011 which noted that the
wealthiest 1 percent of Americans controlled 35.6 percent of the total
wealth of the country and that the top 10 percent controlled 75 percent
of the wealth of the United States. In September of 2013, Forbes
magazine reported that the 400 wealthiest Americans were worth slightly
more than $2 trillion, which was roughly equivalent to the GDP of
two reports underscore an increasing disconnect between the wealthy
elite and ordinary Americans. The vaunted private sector, in our
economy's collective race-to-the-bottom, has failed to create
well-paying jobs, has not rewarded workers' productivity with salary
increases, and continues to out-source jobs to the third world while it
disproportionately enriches corporate CEOs and those employed by
brokerage firms and hedge funds.
all of the evidence that shows an increasingly dysfunctional market
economy, with its mal-distribution of the benefits and burdens, the
wealthy remain largely unpersuaded. Through their armies of well-paid
lobbyists, propagandists, and political sycophants, they peddle a barely
disguised version of Social Darwinism that blames the poor and the
increasingly struggling middle class - the 47% moochers that Mitt Romney
decried - for their own travail and offers the myth of Horatio Alger as
a balm. Through their surrogates, the 1% repeatedly propagate their
recipe for economic bliss - that minimal regulation and less government,
low taxes, union-free workplaces, and free trade will, in the long run,
a growing chorus of critics, including Pope Francis, have condemned
"the idolatry of money" and "trickle-down" economic theory and urged
policies to remedy economic inequality,some members of
the elite have begun to complain that they feel besieged. A prominent
recent example is Tom Perkins, a founder of the Silicon Valley venture
capital firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal this
past January, Perkins compared criticism of the wealthy to the Nazis
persecution of the Jews. His indignation about the slights to which he
and his peers believe they have been subjected are as grounded in
reality as is Bill O'Reilly's annual lament about some imaginary war
being waged against Christmas.
In last Sunday's New York Times,
another courageous voice was raised in defense of the wealthy. Arthur
Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and a life-long
shill for the monied interests, cautioned against the dangers of
class-warfare. In an op ed column entitled, "The Downside of Inciting
Envy," Brooks invoked the names of U-2s Irish Singer Bono and Alexis
deTocqueville to support his argument that Americans have thrived
economically because they have embraced the wealthy as role-models and
sought to emulate their success.
contrast, Brooks observed, "Unsurprisingly, psychologists have found
that envy pushes down life satisfaction and depresses well-being. Envy
is positively correlated with depression and neuroticism, and the
hostility it breeds may actually make us sick."
insisted in his opinion piece that his own rigorous, impartial and
scholarly analysis "confirms a strong link between economic envy and
unhappiness" and he ominously warned that "a national shift toward envy
would be toxic for American culture."Next, Brooks
identified that the root cause of what he has diagnosed as the reason
for increasing envy of the wealthy by the rest of the U.S. population:
It stems from an apparently mistaken "belief that opportunity is in
then suggested a smörgåsbord of prescriptions that he claimed would
"break the back of envy and rebuild the optimism that made America the
marvel of the world." Not surprisingly, his proposed solutions included
the usual right-wing drivel and talking points that, one hundred and
thirty years ago, would have elicited enthusiastic endorsements from
Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner: "education reform that
empowers parents through choice, and rewards teachers for innovation";
"regulatory and tax reform tailored to spark hiring and entrepreneurship
at all levels, especially the bottom of the income scale";
"recalibrating the safety net to ensure that work always pays -- such as
an expansion of the earned-income tax credit -- while never disdaining
the so-called dead-end jobs that represent a crucial first step for many
concluded his homily with a burst of pious platitudes: "... we must
recognize that fomenting bitterness over income differences may be
powerful politics, but it injures our nation. We need aspirational
leaders willing to do the hard work of uniting Americans around an
optimistic vision in which anyone can earn his or her success. This will
never happen when we vilify the rich or give up on the poor. Only a
shared, joyful mission of freedom, opportunity and enterprise for all
will cure us of envy and remind us who we truly are."
In his analysis, Brooks
refuses to acknowledge that the U.S. economy has become dysfunctional,
nor will he admit that inequality and wage stagnation pose a threat to
this nation's well-being. In his worldview, any discussion of these
issues should be dismissed as a smokescreen for envy of the 1%. Instead
he recommends "happy talk" as a panacea.
the fantasy-land that Brooks and his fellow deniers inhabit, the answer
to the present inequitable, ill-performing economy - in which the
wealthy amass an ever greater-share of the wealth - is to return to the
19th century model of laissez-faire capitalism with one
important exception: His proposed expansion of the earned income tax
credit. That credit, first introduced during the Reagan administration,
represents a form of socialism for the wealthy since U.S. taxpayers,
rather than business owners and shareholders, subsidize the incomes of
hundreds of thousands of poorly paid employees who work for corporations
such as Wall-Mart and McDonalds.
idyllic vision would return us to a time when there was, in fact, no
public safety net. Further, there were no income taxes and there was no
regulatory oversight. Teachers were poorly paid, few had even attended
college, and public education beyond grammar school was the domain of
the few who did not need to depend upon the labor of their children to
help support their household.
In that era, because there were no corporate or income taxes and no antitrust laws,a mere handful of "robber barons"- Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller,J.P. Morgan, et al
- were able to amass extraordinary, unchecked wealth that enabled them
to effectively control much of the political and economic machinery of
the United States.
Arthur Brooks may view that era with nostalgia, those who have learned
the lessons of history and remember the struggles of their forebears
should be forgiven for their lack of enthusiasm.
other day Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, upon leaving a White House
meeting with other governors, accused President Obama of poor
stewardship of the economy. "What I worry about is that this president
and the White House seem to be waving the white flag of surrender after
five years under this administration," Jindal announced to reporters.
"The Obama economy is now the minimum wage economy. I think we can do
better than that. I think America can do better than that."
Jindal was not asked by any of the reporters present to explain
precisely what policies he believes that, in contrast to those of
President Obama, would improve the wages of American workers and spur
the growth of the economy.
is, in fact, an unrepentant member of the GOP's Neanderthal caucus, who
continues to insist, all evidence to the contrary, that a competitive
marketplace with minimal government regulation promotes economic growth
and personal freedom.
Ironically, Jindal is unable to reconcile this professed belief with
his unwavering support for Louisiana's "right-to-work" laws. Those laws -
which epitomize government inference in the most basic unit of economic
organization - the work place - impair the ability of employees to
organize unions and to bargain freely and collectively with management
over wages and working conditions. Those laws also make it virtually
impossible for agricultural workers - who are often among the most
vulnerable and exploited - to ever be able to improve their standard of
living through mutual, collective action.
Jindal is also unable to explain how, given his opposition to unions,
his refusal to support a state minimum wage - and Louisiana's continued
reliance upon the prevailing $7.25 the federal minimum - are
defensible? In what ways does that current minimum wage better address
the economic needs of thousands of low-wage workers in his state than
the proposed legislation by the President and Congressional Democrats to
increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10?
Jindal's documented hostility to the needs of ordinary Louisianans is not surprising. Hepresides over a state that is, by almost all measures, a rural, third-world, low-wage state. The economy ofLouisiana,
aside from tourism, some ship building and commercial fishing, is still
largely dominated by oil, gas and extractive mining interests-
i.e. the production of minerals, oil and natural gas, sulfur, lime,
salt, lignite; petroleum refining; chemical and petrochemical
manufacturing - and agriculture.
the U.S. Census Bureau data, Louisiana has fewer high school graduates
than almost all other states in the union, and the number of adults who
have earned a bachelor's degree or better is well below the national
average, as is the number of residents who have ever served in the Armed
Forces of the United States. In addition, between 2008-and 2012,
Louisiana's median household income lagged almost $10,000 below the
national median while the number of persons living in
poverty between 2008-2012 - 18.7% or almost one fifth of the states'
population - was the second largest recorded number among the 50 states.
A Gallup study reported in USA Today, February
27, 2014, descried Louisiana as the "tenth most miserable state" in the
union based upon its misery index. The report summarized its findings:
"Louisiana residents suffered from limited access to basic needs. Last
year, nearly 9% of those surveyed in the state noted they did not have
easy access to clean and safe drinking water, while nearly 12% of
residents lacked easy access to medicine, both among the worst rates in
the nation. Just 61.4% of respondents felt safe walking home alone at
night, the lowest rate in the U.S., and significantly lower than the
national rate of more than 70% who felt safe in the same circumstances.
Louisiana also ranked among the lowest in healthy behaviors because of
its residents' high smoking rate and limited healthy eating. As of 2010,
there were 229.4 deaths due to heart disease per 100,000 people in the
state, fourth-highest nationally. That same year, life expectancy at
birth in the state was just 75.7 years, one of the worst figures in the
report by Rebecca Catalanello in October 16, 2013 described a Kaiser
Family Foundation study that found that 242,150 poor people who
currently lacked health insurance would be denied access to insurance
provided for under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
because of Governor Jindal's refusal to accept the federal government's
proposed Medicaid expansion.
reporter, Bruce Alpert, in a December 05, 2013 dispatch, cited a study
by Commonwealth Fund that found that, as a result of its rejection of
federal funds under the Affordable Care Acts expansion of Medicaid,
Louisiana would lose $1.65 billion in 2022, or more than twice as much
as it is projected to receive in federal highway and transportation
Bobby Jindal rejected the Medicaid expansion because he claimed that
the proposal would be too expensive to the state and that, in addition,
an expansion of Medicaid was not an efficient way to improve access to
health care, although U.S. Census Bureau data showed that in 2011,
886,000 residents -or roughly 20% of the population - of Louisiana were
the corporate media in this country were less supine, Governor Jindal
would have been dismissed as clueless long ago, rather than extolled as a
potential candidate for President of the United States. The disconnect
between Jindal's rhetoric, his policy prescriptions, and his stewardship
of Louisiana's economy suggest that, despite his
formidable educational credentials, something is not quite right. It
prompts one to wonder whether the current state of what passes for
politics and civic discourse in the United States, particularly among
the GOP, is now so bizarre and dysfunctional that its study should
become the exclusive domain of mental health professionals.
The other day, David Brooks, one of the resident "neo-con" columnists for the New York Times,
wrote an opinion piece captioned "The Prodigal Sons" (February 18,
2014). In that column, Brooks attempted to elucidate the meaning of that
parable and apply its lesson to contemporary American society. The
question raised by Brooks' column is whether Brooks himself understood
the meaning of that parable and has properly applied it to today's
In The Gospel According to Luke, 15:11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son is narrated which the gospel's author attributes to Jesus:'There
was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father,
'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property
long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a
distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.After
he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole
country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to
a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He
longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but
no one gave him anything.
he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants
have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and
go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against
heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son;
make me like one of your hired servants.'So he got up and went to his father.
while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled
with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him
and kissed him. "The son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against
heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.'
the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it
on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.Bring
the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate. For
this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'
So they began to celebrate.
"Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing.So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on.'Your brother has come,' he replied, 'and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.'
"The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him.But
he answered his father, 'Look! All these years I've been slaving for
you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young
goat so I could celebrate with my friends.But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!'
"'My son,' the father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'"
father responded, 'You are always with me, and everything I have is
yours.' But he had to celebrate the younger one's return. The boy was
lost and now is found."
describing the parable in his column, Brooks asks whether, in welcoming
back the wayward son, "Did the father do the right thing? Is the father
the right model for authority today?"
then opines, "This is a story about mercy, the mercy of the father, and
not a story about distributing the inheritance fairly! ... It is about
repentance and contrition, confession of sins before God and man. The
father's critics say he was unjust. People who play by the rules should
see the rewards. Those who abandon the community, live according to
their own reckless desires should not get to come back and automatically
reap the bounty of others' hard work. If you reward the younger
brother, you signal that self-indulgence pays, while hard work gets
adds, "The father's example is especially pernicious now, the critics
continue. Jesus preached it at the time of the Pharisees, in an overly
rigid and rule-bound society. In those circumstances, a story of radical
forgiveness was a useful antidote to the prevailing legalism." Brooks,
however, emphasizes that we no longer "live in that kind of a society."
then casts his withering glance at the present and describes an
American society in which the many live lives of desperation trapped in
Hobbesian-kind of dystopia that they themselves have created by their
own self-indulgent behaviors, short-term horizons, and moralrelativism.
From Brooks' haughty perspective, our society is one in which "in which
moral standards are already fuzzy, in which people are already
encouraged to do their own thing. We live in a society with advanced
social decay -- with teens dropping out of high school, financiers
plundering companies and kids being raised without fathers. The father's
example in the parable reinforces loose self-indulgence at a time when
we need more rule-following, more social discipline and more
accountability, not less."
For its part the elite, the governing class of which Brooks counts himself as an influentialmember, out of some mistaken but well-intentioned sense of noblesse oblige, sometimes support policies that are toojudgmental:
"We live in a divided society in which many of us in the middle- and
upper-middle classes are like the older brother and many of the people
who drop out of school, commit crimes and abandon their children are
like the younger brother. In many cases, we have a governing class of
elder brothers legislating programs on behalf of the younger brothers.
The great danger in this situation is that we in the elder brother class
will end up self-righteously lecturing the poor: "You need to be more
like us: graduate from school, practice a little sexual discipline, work
correct response by the chosen elite to the moral and personal failings
of the poor and the working class among us, Brooks argues, is not to
moralize or to hector but to emulate the conduct of the father in the
parable as Brooks understands the father's behavior - i. e. to show the
wayward, by example, the errors of their chosen behavior: "The father
also understands that the younger brothers of the world will not be
reformed and re-bound if they feel they are being lectured to by
unpleasant people who consider themselves models of rectitude. Imagine
if the older brother had gone out to greet the prodigal son instead of
the father, giving him some patronizing lecture. Do we think the younger
son would have reformed his life to become a productive member of the
community? No. He would have gotten back up and found some bad-boy
counterculture he could join to reassert his dignity."
ultimate lesson that Brooks draws from the parable is not the central
importance of unconditional and uncritical love and acceptance by the
father, as was the lesson Jesus sought to explicate in the parable.
Rather, Brooks' understanding is that only through the penance of mutual
hard work and moral perseverance, will the poor, the undisciplined, the
unruly, the poorly educated, the dispossessed of Gods' Kingdom perhaps
yet atone for their past sins and become one of the chosen - the Elect:
"The father teaches that rebinding and reordering society requires an
aggressive assertion: You are accepted; you are accepted. It requires
mutual confession and then a mutual turning toward some common
project........The father offers each boy a precious gift. The younger
son gets to dedicate himself to work and self-discipline. The older son
gets to surpass the cold calculus of utility and ambition, and
experience the warming embrace of solidarity and companionship."
Among the shared common projects that Brooks recommend is national
service. One doubts, however, that Brooks is advocating universal,
compulsory military service for all, including the children who number
themselves among his elite.More likely, the shared common projects that Brooks has in mind are akin to the poor houses that Charles Dickens deplored.
Fortunately, David Brooks' column has elicited a number of critics.Michael Rolandobserved
in today's letters to the editor that Brooks' "perpetuates a stereotype
that continues to divide us: that those who haven't succeeded are
self-indulgent, undisciplined and unambitious. In fact, our country
abounds with tens of millions of hard-working and self-sacrificing
people who can't advance because of low wages and a lack of realistic
opportunity. They don't need lectures from fathers, elder brothers or
politicians. They do need economic justice, without which our experiment
in democracy will."
Ackerman's comment was equally incisive: ".... America's poor and
America's middle and upper-middle classes did not start out equal. Few
of America's poor had any inheritance to squander. This is why
redistributive taxation might be a better remedy for poverty in America
than bringing the poor and those more fortunate together 'for some third
goal' like national service."
reader, R. Alta Caro, replied: "Mr. Brooks probably meant well. But
when working 40 hours a week standing on your feet or digging a ditch at
minimum wage doesn't earn enough to meet the poverty line, when
attending college is too expensive to be within reach of many, and when
the most effective contraceptives are priced out of reach for many
married women who wish to remain in the work force, is it really fair to
equate "poor" with lazy, negligent or criminal?"
Finally, Sharon Aucoin's letter echoes the insights of R. H.Tawney
and Max Weber,"David Brooks's insidious analogy that the poor are like
the reckless prodigal son highlights a troubling and pervasive prejudice
against those not born with advantages. One could easily reverse the
analogy and charge that the wealthy are the rule breakers."
years ago, as the United States suffered from the corrosive
after-effects of our last era of crippling economic inequality, Franklin
Roosevelt collectively inspired a disheartened people. The New Deal
that he proclaimed showed that government was not the enemy, but that it
might be part of the solution - that it could be used as a positive
instrument for the public good to improve the lives of those who were
suffering and burdened by an ill-performing market economy.
The United States today is saddled with an enormous number of economic,
political and social problems that have been exacerbated by the growing
chasm between the few and the many. In the past decade, there have been
many thoughtfulproposals - including those advanced by
economists such as Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and by politicians
such as Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders - that, if adopted,
would ameliorate the suffering of so many of our neighbors.
French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, ever faithful to the
gospels and to teachings of Thomas Aquinas, urges us to return to first
principles: "The primary reason for which men, united in political
society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand,
social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the
primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."
Brooks' enthusiastic endorsement of John Calvin's moral philosophy is
the antithesis of the kind of commitment to social justice that Maritain
prescribes. Because Calvin's worldview is rooted in a firm belief that poverty, crime, misfortune and misbehavior areevidence
of serious moral failings on the part of each individual person - i.e.
sin - no amount of collective action - beyond the public opprobrium and
punishment that Brooks' decries - will ever cure the ills that Brooks
The Calvinism that Brooks has embraced is a convenient rationalization
for the preservation of the status quo. It also serves as an implicit
rebuke to everyone who believes that the gospels challenge us to do more
- to take care of one another. The central message of the gospels, in
stark contrast to the misplaced focus upon the self that Brooks shares
with Calvin, is one of our interconnectedness - that we are not alone.
It is perhaps best summed up by the words of the priest and poet, John
No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main....
in Athens, as practiced in the 5th century B.C., was far from perfect.
Aristotle and Thucydides were both keen observers of the Athenian
democracy and understood that the city's politics were in fact run by a
small elite of wealthy males, who were able to deliberate and vote on
important matters because of the vast numbers of the poor, called
Sixth-Parts-tenants, who labored daily in the fields as virtual slaves
on behalf of the elite. In addition, slaves, non-citizens and women were
denied the right to participate in the Athenian model of democracy.
is one aspect of Athenian democracy, however, that is worthy of
emulation. Every Athenian citizen had a voice in the highest forum of
the nation, the ecclesia or assembly, thatmet
four times each month. On major occasions, when important issues were to
be decided, as many as 5000 citizens were known to have attended. Any
citizen was permitted to answer the herald's question "Who wishes to
speak?" After everyone who wished to speak had been heard, the matter
before the assembly was then put to a binding vote and became the
government's official policy.
the present, a somewhat similar kind of open, deliberative debate
process still survives in New England Town meetings: one in which
publicly identified citizens express their opinions on matters of policy
and town budgets, and are supported or challenged by other publicly
identified citizens who debate the issues at hand.After
the conclusion of debate, the proposed policies are then put of a vote
in which each participant has an equal stake in the outcome and equal
are, of course, important differences in the town meeting model. Unlike
Athenian democracy, the number of those eligible to participate in the
process is significantly larger, given the enactment of the 13th and the
19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution. In addition, the
time for debate is more abbreviated. Further, as the economic and time
pressures upon voting age men and women have increased, and overall
civic engagement has declined, participation in town meetings has
continued to decrease. Thus, the continued vitality of these town
meetings is now in question.
Thismodel of open, participatory democracy is also increasingly under challenge as a result of the Supreme Court's decision inCitizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010) and the decision of the D.C. Court of Appeals inSpeechNow.org v. Federal Election Commission,599 F.3d 686 (D.C. Cir. 2010) . Since those two infamous court rulings, a plethora of 501(c)(3) and (4) PACs and Super PACshave
emerged which threaten to further undermine this country's democratic
pretenses. If not curbed, this ominous development will solidify the
transformation of the United States into a plutocracy dominated by a
small elite who, as a result of the vast wealth, have the ability to
control the outcome of events through the funneling of hundreds of
millions of dollars through anonymous entities with patriotic sounding
The Wall Street Journal
reports that Super PACs alone spent $567,498,628 was in 2012 to
influence the outcomes of the Congressional and Presidential elections.
Predictions are that the sums of money spent by PACs and Super PACs will
continue to increase exponentially in each successive election cycle.To cite just one example, OpenSecrets.org has reported 1,310 registered PACs had raised $828,224,595 as of July 2013.
A New York Times
editorial on February 15, 2014 noted that Federal law currently limits
individual contributions to a candidate for federal office to $2,600 per
person. The editors observed that the easiest way to get around that
limit "is to give the money to the candidate's 'super PAC,' where no
limits apply, to pay for attack ads against the candidate's opponent."
added, "That's the path chosen by John Childs, a private-equity
investor, who gave $250,000 to Senator Mitch McConnell's super PAC,
Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. (Could it have anything to do with
Mr. McConnell's staunch opposition to a tax increase on hedge fund
managers, favored by President Obama and Democrats?) Joseph Craft, a
billionaire coal executive, gave $100,000, and Donald Trump gave $50,000
to the same group."
disturbing, although Super PACs are required to ultimately disclose the
identities of their contributors, under current rules their identities
can be shielded from public scrutiny by creating a string of entities
within entities within entities, including LLCs upon LLCs. Gail Ablow in
Moyers & Company ("On the Money: The Koch Brothers' Dark Money Network Keeps Growing," January 7, 2014) describes aninvestigation bythe
nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics that found 17 interconnected
groups backed by the Koch brothers and other conservative donors was
able to raise $407 million in an effort to influence the 2012 campaign.
Ablow quotes Mattea Gold of The Washington Post:"Its
funders remain largely unknown. The coalition was carefully constructed
with extensive legal barriers to shield its donors." Ablow concludes
that "This opaque network is in gear again to attack the new health care
law, kill environmental regulations, and impact the 2014 midterm
Is there any way to reverse this trend?While
the signs are ominous, the Athenian model of transparent, public
disclosure by actors may yet provide part of a possible remedy.
is no provision in the First Amendment that prevents the Federal
Communications Commission, the Federal Election Commission, and the
Internal Revenue Service from requiring, as part of their administrative
rule-making, three things of every 501(c )(3) or (4) entity: (1) that
all PACs and Super PACs must provide, as part of the registration
process, and with monthly updates to each such agency, a complete list
of all human beings (as opposed to non-natural or artificial legal
persons) who directly or indirectly, with labor or money, have
contributed to that entity; (2) that all such registered entities, at
the time they release any studies, policy papers or political
advertising, must also disclose as a part of that release, the names of
each and every human being who has contributeddirectly or
indirectly to that effort; (3) and that the names and addresses of all
such human beings simultaneously be made available in a searchable
database on each agency's website.
Private media, including social media, can also strike a blow for open, deliberative democracy.Nothing,
other than investor's jitters, prevents existing media sites, including
social media, from requiring that every responder or blogger, as a
condition of participation, must include, as a part of any
communication, a link that accurately identifies the person and provides
a brief biography.
Anonymity in all of its forms is the enemy of democracy; transparency, identificationand accountabilityadvance
the public good. When individuals are permitted to influence political
discussions and elections anonymously, whether through PACS or on blogs,
democracy suffers as the public discourse inevitably becomes more
shrill, more caustic, more negative, more mean-spirited. Civility in
public discourse is more likely to be assured when every participant
knows the real identity of every other person who is engaged in a
In 2001, Volkswagen announced that it intended to open an assembly plant in the United States.A
gaggle of low-wage, "right-to-work" Southern states competed for the
honor by showering the German corporation with promises of taxpayer
emerged the winner after it agreed to provide the richest incentives -
more than $570 Million in tax incentives and aid. According to dispatch
in The Times Free Press (Andy She, "Chattanooga: VW incentives
largest in state," July 24 2008), the state's chief business recruiter
defended the tax breaks and government t assistance because of the
alleged benefits that he claimed the state would come from VW's
$1 billion assembly million. Matt Kisber, Tennessee's commissioner for
economic and community development, stated that "The Volkswagen
investment in this community is going to have a tremendous economic gain
for the entire region....I'm confident we're going to have a very
reasonable incentive package when you look at the initial costs of what
is being offered compared with a much bigger long-term return."
VW plant, which began production in April, 2011, presently employs
about 2,0000 and anticipates an annual production of 150,000 cars
beginning with a version of the 2012 Passat, tailored to the US market.Located
near Chattanooga, Tenn., the non-union plant pays starting workers
about $27 an hour in wages and benefits. That hourly rate is about half
the $52 an hour cost of labor incurred by Ford, GM and Chrysler at their
plants, where employees are represented by United Automobile Workers.
By contrast, the average VW auto worker in Germany is paid $67.14 per
hour in salary in benefits
the Tennessee plant opened, Volkswagen has been pressured by IG Metall,
the German union with seats and influence in VW's boardroom, to
introduce its model of a German-style works council (Betriebsrat)
in Chattanooga. In addition, IG Metall supports the UAW's bid to
organize the U.S. plant. The worker's council would help set work rules
for white- and blue-collar workers, at its only U.S. plant.
the Nation Labor Relations Act, Volkswagen cannot institute a works
council in Tennessee unless the employees are first represented for
collective bargaining purposes by an independent labor union since
company-sponsored unions are treated as illegal shams.
is now feeling increasing pressure from its powerful German union to
allow the UAW to organize its plant in Tennessee. For that reason,
Volkswagen has not mounted a vigorous campaign to defeat the union drive
and some of the company's senior executives have intimated that they
might even prefer having a union. After the U.A.W. formally asked VW for
union recognition, and announced that a majority of the plant's 1,600
assembly workers had signed cards seeking union representation, the
chorus of fear-mongers and anti-union zealots became increasingly
Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times ("Outsiders,
Not Auto Plant, Battle U.A.W. in Tennessee," January 28, 2014) has
reported that the push-back from the right-wing, anti-union politicians
and vested business interests in Tennessee and elsewhere around the
country has been furious. Defenders of the prevailing anti-union
environment have chosen to invoke the specter of John Foster Dulles's
discredited Cold War domino theory, to warn that if the U.A.W. is
allowed to succeed in Chattanooga, that would provide momentum to
unionize the two other German-owned plants in the South -the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama and the BMW plant in South Carolina.
a result, the Center for Worker Freedom - a misnomered subsidiary of
Grover Nordquist's Americans for Tax Reform, has mounted an anti-union
campaign. In addition, Governor Bill Haslam and Senator Bob Corker, a
former mayor of Chattanooga, have repeatedly expressed fears that a
U.A.W. victory would hurt the plant's competitiveness and undermine the
state's business climate.
also reports that a business-backed group put up a billboard declaring,
"Auto Unions Ate Detroit. Next Meal: Chattanooga," and that the
National Right to Work Committee, has entered the fray in which it filed
a complaint with the NLRB, falsely claiming that VW officials
improperly pressured workers to support hte U.A.W. drive to unionize the
plant. Lastly,Grover Nordquist has set up a group calledthe
Center for Worker Freedom to fight the U.A.W. and to prevent the
election of Democratic office holders who would support the right of
workers to organize and to bargain collectively for better wages and
quotes Daniel B. Cornfield, a labor expert at Vanderbilt University to
the effect that, "It's unusual how national groups have really gotten
interested in this," said. "It seems that both the business community
and labor are seeing what's happening at VW as a pivotal moment in the
Southern automotive business and labor history."
to Greenhouse, Governor Haslam and Senator Corker have both urged VW
not to recognize the U.A.W. based on card signatures, but rather that it
demand a secret-ballot election. Senator Corker is reported to have
insisted that "While I care about Volkswagen, what I care most about is
our community and about our households being able to progress and have a
great standard of living," and "I'm concerned about the impact of the
U.A.W. on the future efforts to recruit business to our community."
Corker added, "The work rules and other things that typically come with
the UA.W. would drive up costs. It would make the facility less
Senator Corker's professed concern for community and for "households being able to progress and have a great standard of living"
is pious rhetoric, divorced from logic and from the historical
evidence. Tennessee is a low-wage state. It is one of five states that
has refused to enact its own minimum wage. As of 2012, the state ranked
number 39 in median family household, at $ $42,764, and its per capita
income was $23,692.00, well below the national average. Further,
according to a U.S. Census Bureau report, the state's poverty rate in
2012 was nearly 18 percent, making Tennessee the 12th poorest state in
the nation. If Senator Corker possessed a scintilla of intellectual
integrity, he would admit that trickle-down economics does little other
than to exacerbate income inequality, lower the wages of workers,
hollow-out the middle class, and exponentially increase the wealth of
Michael Walzer, in his book Spheres of Justice, argues
"Certainly, plutocracy is less frightening than tyranny; resistance is
less dangerous. The chief reason is that money can buy office,
education, honor... It corrupts distributions without transforming them;
and the corrupt distributions coexist with legitimate ones, like
prostitution alongside married love. But this is tyranny still, and can
make for harsh forms of domination. And if resistance is less heroic
than in totalitarian states, it is hardly less important."
third and final iteration of the Kant's categorical imperative states,
"Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person
or in that of another, always at the same time as an end and never
merely as a means."An economic system that continues to
treat employees as merely a disposable means to a more important end -
profits, and for that reason, justifies low wages and imposes
restrictions upon the rights of employees to better their conditions of
employment, violates all norms of social justice and is incompatible
with the evolution of democratic principles of fairness and equal
their statements and actions, Nordquist, Corker and Haslam have
repeatedly proven their uncritical obeisance to the interests of the
wealthy and the powerful. In equal measure, they have shown how little
regard or concern they have for the best long-term interests of
Tennessee's citizens or for every American who must work to eke out a
On the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson's speech to the
Congress in which he committed his administration to a "War on Poverty,"
Florida GOP Senator Marco Rubio challenged President Johnson's vision
and the policy initiatives that his administration introduced to reduce
poverty. These initiatives included the Social Security Act 1965 that
created Medicare and Medicaid, the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Economic
Opportunity Act of 1964 that created the Community Action Program, Job
Corps and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and the Elementary
and Secondary Education Act.
In his speech, Rubio acknowledged that, during the period between1980
and 2005, the top1% of the work force earned more than 80% of the total
increase in income. Senator Rubio also conceded that upward mobility in
the United States had declined in comparison to other countries and that
"our modern day economy has wiped out many of the low-skill jobs that
once provided millions with a middle class living."
Rubio's response to these widely documented, systemic economic problems
was to blame the federal government, urge less government regulation,
lower taxes and reduced public spending to address the growing national
debt. In his address, Rubio took aim not only at Johnson's War on
Poverty, but also at the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) that was
introduced during the Roosevelt administration to ensure that American
workers are paid a minimum wage for every hour they work.
Rubio insisted that, if economic problems were addressed at the state,
rather than the national level, economic inequality would be reduced and
that America's middle class would once again expand and thrive. As
such, Rubio proposed to dismantle existing federal welfare programs and
turn the money used to fund all such programs over to the states with
flexible block grants. "Innovations are difficult to pursue because
Washington controls the money," he stated, "But I know from my time in
the Florida legislature that if states were given the flexibility, they
would design and pursue innovative and effective ways to help those
trapped in poverty."
Rubio's website describes three immediate concerns that he argues show
the need to devolve political power and decision-making to the states.
His first is the issue of healthcare. Rubio claims that "Floridians
everywhere have expressed their concern about health care costs
spiraling out-of-control. The President's new health care law will drive
costs up, bankrupt the country and create bureaucratic red tape when it
comes to everyday health care decisions. Lowering health care costs is
essential to growing our economy and creating jobs in our country."
Rubio's answer to the health care crisis is to unleash the purported
power of the free market: "We should propose common sense, free-market
ideas to make health care more accessible and affordable. Senator Rubio
will focus on three goals: repealing and replacing Obamacare; allowing
individuals to control their own health care choices; and returning
control of health policy to the states."
It is impossible to square Senator Rubio's rhetoric about returning
control of health care policy to the states and to the private sector
with the magnitude of the health care crisis that exists in Florida. For
example, according to an August report by the U.S. Census Bureau, 24.8
percent of Florida residents under age 65 were without health insurance
in 2011. As a result, Florida now has the country's second highest
number of residents without health insurance after Texas. In addition,
the recent census data shows that 30 percent of full-time workers in
Florida and 60 percent of part-time employees don't receive insurance
through their jobs.
Senator Rubio's website describes federal spending as his second major
concern. Rubio contends that "Floridians are concerned about the
out-of-control spending in Washington that is piling up debt. Today, the
Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says the 'federal budget is on an
unsustainable path.' Right now, forty cents of every dollar the federal
government spends is being borrowed from future generations...a $14
trillion debt is unsustainable. We need a government that stops spending
more money than it takes."
To address his concern, Senator Rubio recycles the usual right-wing
austerity agenda peddled by the Cato Institute and the Heritage
Foundation: freeze non-defense, non-veterans spending at 2008 spending
levels, cut the budgets of the White House and Congress by 10%, and
reduce the size of the federal bureaucracy. Rubio also opposes raising
taxes, proposes an automatic sunset to government programs and a
presidential line-item veto, and supports a constitutional amendment to
require a balanced budget.
The good Senator conveniently ignores the fact that Florida is a
"taker" - a moocher state - that receives $1.39 from the federal
government for every tax dollar that it remits to the U.S. Treasury. His
critique of the size of the size of the federal bureaucracy is also not
fact-based. Data compiled by the Federal Office of Personnel Management
documents that the number of civilians employed by the executive
agencies of the federal government has declined from a peak of 3,040,000
employees in 1969 to 2,756,000 employees by 2011, notwithstanding the
fact that the population of the United States has doubled during that
same time period. Third, although a lawyer, Rubio, sadly, appears to be
unaware that the United States Supreme Court, in Clinton v. New York, 524
U.S. 417 (1998), declared that the Line Item Veto Act enacted by the
Republican-controlled Congress in 1996 was unconstitutional.
Lastly, Senator Rubio's support for a constitutional amendment that
requires a balanced budget would, if adopted, threaten the country's
well-being. Without deficit-spending - i.e. borrowing - the United
States government could not have prosecuted World War I or II. Further,
without an increase in taxes - that Rubio says he also opposes - the
federal government would be unable to provide emergency disaster relief
and flood insurance to residents of Florida and other states when
unforeseen disasters have exhausted federal budget allocations for
emergency relief.A May, 2011 study by FEMA - captioned as a
"Strategic foresight initiative" - observed that federal disaster
relief exploded after September 11, rising from an average of $2.7
billion between 1991 and 2000 to an average of $11.4 billion between
2001 and 2009.
As part of his second major concern, Rubio also invokes the current
favorite fantasy of the Republican noise machine that "Social Security,
Medicare and Medicaid are going broke and will bankrupt our country.
Benefits for those currently receiving them or those approaching
retirement should not and will not change. But for those who are
younger, the programs will need to change or they will no longer exist
when they themselves approach retirement age."
The existing data shows that residents of Florida are heavily dependent
upon existing federal entitlement programs. At the end of 2013, 2.89
million Floridians were on Medicaid, as reported by the Florida
Department of Children and Families, while the Henry J. Kaiser Family
Foundation reported that 3,527,830 residents of Florida received
Medicare benefits in 2012, out of a total population of 19.32 million.
Further, a study by AARP noted that nearly a third of Florida's nearly 3
million retirees, 65 and older, rely entirely on Social Security.
It is doubtful that without a carefully-regulated, European-style
single-payer or single-provider system, the exploding costs of our
existing insurance-brokered, fee-for-service medical system - which also
drives up the costs ofMedicaid and Medicare - will be
reduced. Without structural improvements in the economy - including an
increase in the minimum wage and a commitment to full employment
policies as mandated under existing federal law - Senator Rubio's
support for an increase in the age before which benefits for Medicare
and Social Security could be received would exacerbate the poverty of
millions Florida residents because they would be left without medical
care or a source of income when needed most. Senator Rubio's proposal
also smacks of class bias: those who are privileged to do the kind of
"work" that he does are able to defer retirement far longer than those
who work in physically demanding jobs, such as construction, or in
emotionally demanding jobs, such as public school teaching or policing.
Senator Rubio's third professed concern is the economy. His website announces that he"believes
we need to permanently extend the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts that will
sunset in two years, cut corporate taxes, permanently end the Death Tax,
end double taxation, reform the Alternative Minimum Tax and ensure that
we do not pass a value-added tax. His website also notes that he
"opposes Democrat efforts to pass a cap-and-trade plan... and opposes
efforts to strip away workers' rights to a secret ballot, will work to
halt regulations that are hurting job creation, and supports free trade
agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea that will promote
economic and job growth."
If Florida is an exemplar of the kind of state-based, economic
decision-making that Rubio urges, what kind of "innovative and
effective" programs have its Republican governor and GOP-controlled
legislature designed to improve the state's economy and "to help those
trapped in poverty?" The most current Census Bureau data shows that
Florida still suffers from a high poverty rate. As of 2012, 12.4 percent
of families were reported to be living below the federal poverty line,
and that 17 percent of all individuals in Florida, or more than
3,410,000 of its residents, were classified as poor.
Karen Cyphers, a public policy researcher, reports in an August 19, 2013 post on St Petersblog that
Florida provides fewer welfare benefits today than 45 other states, and
that the total value of welfare benefits for Floridians, in1995, on
average, was $26,092. As of 2013, adjusted for inflation after using1995
as the base year, the total value of welfare benefits decreased by
$7,971 to $18,121. In addition, the Fiscal 2013 budget signed into law
by Governor Scott eliminated 4,400 public sector jobs, cut Medicaid
payments to hospitals by 7.5 percent, and froze the pay of state workers
for the sixth straight year.
According to the Census ACS 1-year survey, the median household income
for Florida was $45,040 in 2012. Compared to the median US household
income of $51,371, Florida's median household income was $6,331.00
lower. In fact, Florida's median household income has lagged well below
the median U.S. household income for every year from 2005 to 2012.
How then does one explain Marco Rubio's politics? Since his formal
education suggests that he is not a stupid man, there are only two
possible explanations. The first is that Senator Rubio actually knows
better, but that he has chosen to pander to the lunatic base that
supports him so enthusiastically. As such, Senator Rubio is a demagogue
who, much like the fictional Senator Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip in
Sinclair Lewis's novel It Can't Happen Here, will say and do almost anything that is politically expedient to promote himself politically.
The second, equally unsettling explanation is that Senator Rubio is, in
fact, unable to distinguish between social reality and what he believes
is social reality. Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
has described how the paradigms in which individuals live and work -
what phenomenologists refer to as a "shared field of meaning" - continue
to control the beliefs and behaviors of individuals long after the
anomalies have overwhelmed the paradigm and long after the paradigms
have ceased to explain what is actually happening in the real world.
This holds true whether the issue at hand involves a scientific
hypothesis or an economic theorem.
As individuals and societies hold fast to beliefs that no longer
explain or inform social reality, fear, anxiety and anger mount and
cause what social scientists describe as cognitive dissonance. As a
result, the death-throes of those ideas is all too often resisted with a
ferocity that overwhelms civility and rational political discourse.
Rubio's critique of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty is reminiscent of Ronald Reagan,who proclaimed that government was not the solution but, rather, the problem, but neitherSenator
Rubio nor President Reagan appear to have studied the lessons of
history. The historic record shows that during the late 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th
century, as Western European countries responded to the misery and
inequality spawned by the Industrial Revolution by dramatically
expanding their social safety nets, poverty and inequality declined
dramatically in Western Europe. By contrast, until Franklin Roosevelt's
New Deal, the United Sates remained the outlier among Western
The more recent record shows that because of the Great Society's
initiatives, poverty in the United States, especially among the elderly,
has been significantly reduced. Sadly thereafter, however, as a direct
result of the "Reagan Revolution," the economy began a measurable march
backwards - as the middle class was hollowed-out, upward mobility
declined, and wage stagnation and economic inequality increased
exponentially. Rather than having stimulated competition and created a
level-playing field, the policies endorsed by Reagan and by successor
Republican and Democratic administrations - including the lack of
anti-trust enforcement - have, instead, promoted dangerous economic
concentration and led to the emergence of oligopolies.
belief in vastly smaller federal government and his insistence that the
mythical free market, if left to its own devices, will in some
mysterious, magical way uplift everyone's standard of living raise
profound questions about the legitimacy of political power and upon
whose behalf such power should be exercised in a democracy. Impairing
the authority of a national government to regulate an increasingly
dysfunctional market economy, or to try to ensure through legislation a
minimum basic standard of living for all of its citizens, improperly
transfers the power to make decisions about the public interest from
elected officials, who are legally and ethically accountable to the
people, to the private sector where that power will be exercised by
private actors. Because they are not elected, they do not have a duty to
serve the public interest, nor a duty to account for their actions.
The present economic crisis that Rubio claims to deplore was caused by
too little government intervention in the economy, not too much. Without
a robust, well-regulated economy, a progressive tax system, and
significant public investment in job creation, job training,
infrastructure investments, family assistance, education, nutrition and
public health programs, the gap between the 1% who now live lives of
opulence, and the 47% of Americans whom Mitt Romney castigated as the
takers will only grow wider.
Rubio's political and economic agenda should be profoundly
disconcerting to every sentient American. His single-minded zeal to
adopt the discredited Social Darwinism of William Graham Sumner is
inexplicable since it would shackle the ability of policy-makers to
respond to emerging economic crises. Rubio's efforts to undue the modest
successes of the New Deal and the Great Society are, in equal parts,
callous and reprehensible. His efforts serve only the short-term
interests of the 1% upon whom Rubio and Tea Party continue to rely for
their financial support.
Jim Cramer, the host of "Mad Money" on CNBC, appeared last week on MSNC's "Morning Joe" to tout his new book, Get Rich Carefully.
In a fawning, congratulatory interview, Cramer was praised for his
financial acumen by that show's host, Joe Scarborough. Not a word of
criticism was uttered about Cramer's past adulation for CDOs,
securitized derivatives, default swaps, "puts" and the variety of other
exotic Wall Street financial instruments that contributed to the recent
meltdown of the U.S. economy.
Scarborough was the perfect shill for Cramer. A former Congressman
from Florida, Scarborough now proclaims himself to be a "moderate"
Republican. However, when he served in Congress, Scarborough endorsed
Newt Gingrich's ill-advised "Contract with America;" supported
legislation to eliminate the Departments of Commerce, Education, Energy
and Housing and Urban Development; sponsored a bill to force the U.S. to
withdraw from the United Nations after a four-year transition; voted to
defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; and voted against the
"Small Business Job Protection Act" of 1996 that increased raised the
minimum wage to a pitiful $5.15 per hour.
Cramer, the consummate huckster and exuberant proponent of the carpe diem
school of investing, is perhaps the personification of everything that
has gone awry in the U.S. economy since the 1970s. His present acclaim
demonstrates the extent to which the power wielded by the barons of the
electronic media and their surrogate celebrities, because of their
command of the airwaves, are able to reshape perceptions of economic
reality, redefine the historical narrative and rehabilitate tarnished
Just before its collapse, Cramer sought to
assuage those concerned about the financial well-being of Bear Stearns.
In his March 11, 2008 show a viewer submitted a question "Should I be
worried about Bear Stearns in terms of liquidity and get my money out of
there?" Cramer responded "No! No! No! Bear Stearns is not in trouble.
"Don't move your money from Bear! That's just being silly! Don't be
silly!" Cramer and CNBC subsequently defended his statements, arguing
that Cramer's assertions on the bank were a reference to a viewer's
question on Bear Stearns' liquidity, not its stock prices.
Long before Jon Stewart reduced him to an object of ridicule, Cramer
had demonstrated a propensity to overstate his expertise and to bestow
the mantle of credibility upon the utterly disreputable. On September
15th, 2008, to cite one egregious example, Cramer welcomed the CEO of
Wachovia, Robert Steel, onto his program. Cramer enthusiastically
recommended the stock after Steel failed to disclose a pending sale of
his company. Two weeks, Citibank announced that it had acquired
Wachovia. That acquisition caused the value of the stock to drop from
$10 to less than $1 between on September 26th and September 29th.
Cramer apologized to his gullible viewers because he had "let them
An article by Alan Roth in Money Watch ( "A
statistical look at Jim Cramer's predictive skills," May 27, 2013)
documents that Cramer's predictive skills have not improved since the
financial meltdown. Nevertheless, CNBC continues to praise his financial
insights. Roth quotes Roger Ehrenberg, the managing partner of IA
Capital Partners in New York to the effect, "He [Cramer] kind of puts
himself forward as the champion of retail investors, but had they
listened to him on the [Bear Stearns] call, they would have lost a lot
of money.... He empowers people to feel confident about buying and
selling individual stocks, when in fact most people are ill-qualified to
invest in that manner." Roth also reported that Ehrenberg and others
believe that Cramer's show may encourage small investors to make
frequent trades when it is really in their interest to invest in mutual
funds and hold them for long periods of time.
adulation for Wall Street needs to be viewed in the context of the
lingering Great Recession, which was fueled in large part by the
rollback of economic and financial regulations that began in the Reagan
administration and continued through the administrations of Bush 1, Bill
Clinton and Bush 2. Although he cautioned against "irrational
exuberance,"Alan Greenspan, a former disciple of Ayn Rand and an
advocate of Milton Friedman's monetarism, in his capacity as chairman of
the Federal Reserve, became the cheerleader for the retreat from fiscal
sanity. His gushing endorsement of laissez-faire economics and his blessing of Wall's Street's excesses were quickly echoed by Cramer and others.
The economic data shows that, as a result of poor public regulation
and oversight of the financial markets, between June, 2007 and November,
2008, Americans lost more than a quarter of their net worth. By early
November 2008, the S&P 500 had, declined 45 % from its 2007 high.
Housing prices dropped 20% from their 2006 peak and total home equity in
the United States - which was valued at in 2006 at $13 trillion -
declined to $8.8 trillion by mid-2008.In addition, the total of
retirement assets held by Americans declined by 22 %, from $10.3
trillion in 2006 to $8 trillion in mid-2008. During the same period of
time, non-retirement savings and investments lost $1.2 trillion and
pension assets lost $1.3 trillion. The consequences to ordinary
Americans were staggering as the net worth of U.S. households and
non-profit organizations declined by 22% or $15 trillion.
Sadly, while the Tea Party emerged ostensibly in response to the
excesses of Wall Street and the government's bail-out, the anger of its
members was quickly deflected by the right-wing noise machine to oppose
any form of government regulation in the public interest, including
further financial regulations. Hence, Wall Street and Jim Cramer won
The historical record provides an invaluable insight
as to what has gone wrong gone with the U.S. economy after World War II.
According to Federal Reserve data in 1947, the U.S. financial industry
accounted for about 10% of the total non-farm business profits but, by
2010, the financial sector accounted for 50% of the total of all
non-farm profits. Equally disturbing, while in 1946, the US financial
sector was reported to owe $3 billion of this country's debt, or 1.35%
of GDP, by 2009, its debt had increased to $15.6 trillion, or 109.5% of
GDP. By all accounts, the financial sector of the U.S. economy has now
become the tail that wags the dog.
The exponential growth of
the financial sector and its distortion of American economic priorities
is exemplified by the passage of the Employee Retirement Income
Security Act of 1974, which has had a number of pernicious effects.
Under ERISA, minimum funding requirements were established for defined
benefit plans - traditional employer pension plans. As the promulgation
of complex reporting rules and compliance requirements became more
onerous, increasing numbers of employers chose to abandon pension plans
and instead opted to offer their employees defined contribution plans -
e.g. , 401K plans - the portfolios of which are managed by financial
advisors and investment companies. The effect has been to dramatically
place the burdens and risks of retirement investments upon ordinary
employees who often have little knowledge of the vagaries of investing
while simultaneously guaranteeing enormous fees to the managers of those
portfolios. The enactment of the Pension Protection Act of 2006
(PPA) during Bush II further contributed to the demise of traditional pension plans.
Jerry Geisel, in an article for WorkForce
("Fewer Employers Offering Defined Benefit Pension Plans to New
Salaried Employees," October 3, 2012), reported that, as of June 30,
2012, only 30 percent of Fortune 100 companies still offered a defined
benefit plan to new salaried, a figure that was down from 33 percent at
the end of 2011, 37 percent in 2010 and 43 percent in 2009. Geisel noted
that, as recently as 1998, defined benefit plans were the norm among
the nation's largest employers, at a time when 90 percent of those
Fortune 100 companies offered traditional pension plans to new salaried
The repeal of Glass-Steagall Act during the
Clinton administration was a further blow to the public oversight, as it
removed any existing restrictions of the commercial banks and their
bank affiliates from engaging in speculation in securities. As a result,
investment decision-making and liabilities became more opaque, as the
stock market became ever more volatile and less accountable to
Simultaneously, as Wall Street became
the center of hyper-frenetic activity, critical segments of the American
economy - most notably manufacturing- were out-sourced or subjected to
leveraged buy-outs by equity firms as wages stagnated or declined.
Equally a source for concern, as taxes on the wealthy and their
investment income have been significantly reduced, investment in basic
R&D, infrastructure and other essential public goods has declined
The mutation of the American economy into an
investment bazaar dominated by Wall Street has contributed to rise of
what Kevin Phillips has described as the "new indentured servitude." At
the same time, the growth of plutocracy has largely been met with
silence on the part of most members of the economic elite and grudging
acquiescence by Spiro Agnew's "Silent Majority." The most likely
explanation is the tenacity of the myth of the self-made man. Most
Americans still cling to this fantasy - which is a resilient exemplar of
the powerful influence that the liberal ideology of individualism
continues to exert in the consciousness of Americans to the present.
Jeremy Rifkin described a Newsweek poll of 750 American adults
conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates on June 24 and 25,
1999. Fifty-five percent of all of the respondents under age thirty who
were asked whether they believed that they would become rich, answered
yes. When asked, as a follow-up question, however, how they would get
rich, 71 percent of the same respondents, all of whom were employed, did
not believe that there was a chance that they would become rich from
their current employment. Seventy-six percent of them believed that
Americans were "not willing to work as hard at their jobs to get ahead
as they were in the past." This belief persists to the present, despite
all of the data compiled by the O.E.C.D. which shows that American
workers are at least as productive but work longer hours with fewer
benefits and vacation time than their European comparators.
Since the advent of the Protestant Reformation, as R.H. Tawney and Max
Weber have chronicled, there has existed a pronounced link between the
dour predestination of Calvinism and a work ethic which has emphasized
material success: The accumulation of wealth was incontrovertible
evidence that Providence had blessed the successful and marked each as
one of those as chosen for redemption. In the United States, an entire
cottage industry of books from Horatio Alger to Norman Vincent Peale and
his successors have extolled the power of "positive-thinking" as the
key to personal advancement.
As opportunities for a secure
retirement as well as financial success in the workplace have vanished
for many Americans during the later part of the twentieth century and in
the first thirteen years of this century, no one should be surprised
to discover that rampant speculation, get-rich schemes, real-estate
"flipping," day-trading, the purchase of lottery tickets, and gambling
became the substitute vehicles for this pursuit of success. They
continue to fuel the fantasies in which ordinary citizens invest their
dreams and hard-earned money.
Given the current economic
malaise, Jim Cramer performs a pivotal role as the high priest and
celebrant of dysfunctional capitalism. In an increasingly secular
culture, the likelihood of some future heavenly reward is discounted by
growing numbers of Americans. But in an increasingly unequal and
mean-spirited economy that promises to reduce millions of citizens to
"road kill, Cramer offers a gospel of prosperity and economic salvation
to all of those who choose to close their eyes and to imagine immediate
financial independence if only they can successfully pick the right
stocks - before rumors, hunches and the algorithms of computerized
trading depress their value. To the extent to which Cramer's gospel of
prosperity is embraced by ordinary Americans, the likelihood of any
serious discussion about the need for real structural change in our
economy becomes even more remote.
2013 was a difficult year for anyone who tries to remain an
optimist. Here at home, gun violence continued unabated, environmental
degradation remained unaddressed, and the social safety net, with the
acquiescence of millions of poorly educated, "low information"
non-participants in the political process contracted further.
Meanwhile, as social mobility has declined, the gap between the 1% of
those who own more than 40% of the nation's wealth - or $54 trillion -
and the bottom 80 % - who own a meager 7 percent of the wealth - has
grown even wider. As reported by Forbes Magazine in October of
2013, the wealthiest 400 Americans have now amassed a combined wealth
that equals that of the nation's poorest - more than 150 million people -
or slightly less than half of the population of the United States.
As this country struggles with basic issues of social justice, our
political system is dominated on the right by rigid ideologues who are
unwilling to permit their essentially theological convictions to be
tested by empirical evidence. What passes on the left of the spectrum
for political discourse - with a handful of notable exceptions such as
U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and mayor-elect Bill
de Blasio in New York - is largely monopolized by craven, calculating
politicians who are concerned lest they ruffle the feathers of the
wealthy contributors who profit from the status quo.
Bill Clinton's "third way" has now redefined, much more narrowly, the
limits of what is possible in American politics. It has become a
pathetic rationalization for incrementalism and inaction by those who
claim to be progressives, and it has enabled those who claim to be
conservatives to define the very outer limits of an acceptable political
agenda by those on the left. In fact, it was in large part because of
Clinton's pandering that President Obama and his Democratic colleagues
in the Congress were too apprehensive to entertain a single-payer heath
care system, let alone a single provider system such as exists in the
U.K. and in Spain.
In place of a bold, progressive vision for
the future that would address this country's unmet needs, we are
saddled with political minimalists who insist that we cannot and should
not do better. There are even some Lilliputians, such as Senator Rand
Paul, who complain that we have already done too much and created a
sub-culture of those who are, unlike himself, are addicted to far too
generous government benefits.
In his Second Inaugural
address, Franklin Roosevelt sought to inspire a beleaguered people who
had been beaten down by the Great Depression: "I see millions of
families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family
disaster hangs over them day by day.
"I see millions
whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled
indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.
"I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.
"I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and
factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many
other millions. I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad,
"But it is not in despair that I paint you
that picture. I paint it for you in hope--because the nation, seeing and
understanding the injustice in it, proposes to paint it out. We are
determined to make every American citizen the subject of his country's
interest and concern; and we will never regard any faithful law-abiding
group within our borders as superfluous. The test of our progress is not
whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is
whether we provide enough for those who have too little.
know aught of the spirit and purpose of our Nation, we will not listen
to comfort, opportunism, and timidity. We will carry on."
dint of his personality and his forceful advocacy, President Roosevelt
was able to rally a skeptical and weary population to support his New
Deal. In stark contrast, the vacuum of leadership today and the
corruption our political and economic systems by wealthy special
interests have contributed to a political culture that is now dominated
by fear, resignation, apathy, suspicion and self-dealing. The
pervasiveness of these attitudes is antithetical to a vibrant,
Those who insecure are too often
unwilling to speak out - or to stand-up and be counted - lest they
become victims of reprisals, real or imagined. In a culture is which the
present is venerated, history is too often the first casualty. The
courageous examples of the slave rebellions before the Civil War or of
the UAW sit-down strikes in Flint, Michigan during throes of the Great
Depression have been conveniently erased from the memories of all but a
But that timidity has its consequences. The
Colombian novelist and Noble Prize winner, Gabriel García Márquez,
reminds us, "It is not true that people stop pursuing dreams because
they grow old, they grow old because they stop pursuing dreams."
Michael Harrington, at the conclusion of his book, Socialism,
describes the potential harm done by those who are unable to divest
themselves of shop-worn orthodoxies that can no longer explain or
address current human needs. He cautioned that "mankind has now lived
for several millennia in the desert. Our minds and emotions are
conditioned by that bitter experience; we do not dare to think that
things could be otherwise....There are some who are loathe to leave
behind the consolation of familiar brutalities; there are others who in
one way on another would impose the law of the desert upon the Promised
As we confront the challenges of the new year,
Harrington's words stand as a challenge to all of those who seek to
defend that which has become increasingly indefensible.
In Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Scrooge asked the two visitors to his office, "'Are there no prisons?"
"'Plenty of prisons,' said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
"'And the Union workhouses?' demanded Scrooge. ''Are they still in operation?'
"'They are. Still,' returned the gentleman, 'I wish I could say they were not.'
"'The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?' said Scrooge.
"'Both very busy, sir.'
"'Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had
occurred to stop them in their useful course,' said Scrooge. 'I'm very
glad to hear it.'
"'Under the impression that they scarcely
furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,' returned the
gentleman, 'a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor
some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because
it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance
rejoices. What shall I put you down for?'
"'Nothing!' Scrooge replied.
"'You wish to be anonymous?'
'''I wish to be left alone,'said Scrooge.
"'Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don't
make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people
merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost
enough: and those who are badly off must go there.'
"'Many can't go there; and many would rather die.'
"'If they would rather die," said Scrooge, 'they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."
A reminder of Scrooge's indifference and insensitivity to the plight
of those less fortunate than he seems especially pertinent this
Christmas season, as the GOP members of Congress have continued their
relentless assault upon the poor and middle class in this country.
Wedded firmly to an unthinking and counter-productive belief in
austerity economics, they have insisted upon reducing the number of
impoverished American families eligible to receive to receive food
stamps and short- term nutrition programs, voted to cut back on Head
Start and other anti-poverty programs, and permitted unemployment
benefits for millions of long-term unemployed to expire on December 27,
At the same time, these highly-compensated "public
servants" - who are paid $174,000 annually but have been in session
for only 126 days this calendar year - have continued to support fiscal
and economic policies that the evidence shoes overwhelmingly benefit the
1% and further exacerbate growing economic inequality.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who was named after that infamous apostle of
selfishness, Ayn Rand, nicely illustrates the GOP's collective
worldview. In a National Review Online op ed entitled, " Is
poverty a death sentence?" (September 21, 2011), Senator Paul took issue
with the comments of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the sole socialist
serving in either branch of the United States Congress.
Senator Paul claimed that, "To the extent that poverty impacts health,
much of it can be attributed to behavioral factors. Over 30 percent of
those living below the poverty smoke, compared with 19 percent of the
rest of the population. Obesity rates are significantly higher among the
poor than the general population, an unimaginable problem for those
starving in North Korea or Somalia."
He further insisted that
"One example of how cultural factors impact health among the poor is
known as the 'Hispanic health paradox.' According to a National
Institutes of Health study, 'despite higher poverty rates, less
education, and worse access to health care, health outcomes of many
Hispanics living in the United States today are equal to, or better
than, those of non-Hispanic whites.' Researchers believe the strong
family unit in Hispanic culture, not genetics, explains the paradox."
Paul continued, "This context does not negate the fact that there are
truly needy Americans. But with a national debt of $14.3 trillion and
increasing structural deficits, we must be more precise in both how we
talk about poverty in America and whom we decide to target with scarce
federal resources.... If poverty is in any way a death sentence, it is
big government that has acted as the judge and jury - conscripting poor
Americans into a lifetime of dependence on a broken and ineffective
Senator Paul, invoking the ghost of
Ronald Reagan, concluded that, "In the half-century since LBJ's 'War on
Poverty' began, we have spent $16 trillion to fight poverty. We now
spend over $900 billion a year on over 70 means-tested welfare programs
under 13 government agencies. Yet, thanks or no thanks to the federal
government, we now have more poverty as measured by government than we
did in the 1970s. An all-time high of 40 million Americans depend on
food stamps, and 64 million are enrolled in Medicaid. Government is the
problem, not the solution."
Missing from Senator Paul's
analysis was any recognition that obesity rates among the poor in the
United States might in any way be linked to the ubiquity of inexpensive,
starch-filed, non-nutritional junk food that politicians of his
mind-set will not allow the FDA to regulate, or that poverty in the
United States has increased dramatically in the United States precisely
because of the "Reagan revolution."
Those who do not suffer
from historical amnesia will recall that Reagan enjoyed electoral
success because he was able to successfully pander to white Southern
bigots and the fears of older voters by expressing umbrage about
"welfare queens" and "young, strapping bucks" gaming the system, while
he simultaneously capitulated to the entreaties of Wall Street. Reagan
endorsed cutbacks on government assistance programs to the poor, and he
set in motion a series of economic programs that have proven to be
inimical to ordinary Americans.
Reagan's policies - with
the assent of craven Democrats in Congress and subsequent Republican and
Democratic administrations - have to the present crippled the ability
of employees to join unions and to bargain collectively, destroyed
company sponsored pension plans and replaced them with Wall-Street-
friendly 401k plans, and supported trade policies that have led to the
out-sourcing of millions of Americans jobs to the Third World. The net
result has been to convert the once vibrant American economy into a
low-wage service economy that depends upon a flood of cheap foreign
goods to satisfy clueless consumers.
rediscovery of the joys of Social Darwinism has now been challenged by a
moral voice from abroad. In his apostolic exhortation, "Joy of The Gospel,"
Pope Francis criticized "trickle-down economic theories" that placed a
"crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic
power." The pope warned that we have created "new idols" based upon
worship of money and the markets by which "human beings are themselves
considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded." The result, he
lamented, is "a globalization of indifference" in which the poor are
marginalized and denied their basic human dignity.
Aquinas was faithful to the message of the Gospels when he stated, "I
would rather feel compassion than know the meaning of it." Even Adam
Smith, whose free-market theories Senator Paul would otherwise
recommend, observed in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, "Though
our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at ease, our
senses will never inform us of what he suffers. They never did and never
can carry us beyond our own persons, and it is by the imagination only
that we form any conception of what are his sensations...His agonies,
when they are thus brought home to ourselves, when we have this adopted
and made them our own, begin at last to affect us, and we then tremble
and shudder at the thought of what he feels."
Senator Paul appears to be unable to grasp the essence of what it means
to be compassionate. He conjures up a discredited ideology with his
brain, but he is unable to feel with his heart. Unlike Scrooge, there is
no evidence that the lack of empathy that he shares with his GOP
colleagues can ever be cured.
past Saturday the first anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook
Elementary School was commemorated. Despite the solemn observances in
Newtown, in Washington and in many other cities and towns across the
country, the undeniable fact is that Congress of the United States has
failed to do anything to prevent a repetition of that tragedy from
continuing to occur time and time again.
sad reality was driven home the day before at Arapaho High School in
Centennial, Colorado. The high school is only 13.7 milesfrom the Century Movie Theater in Aurora, Colorado, where on July 20, 2012, during a midnight screening of the film The Dark Knight Rises,James
Eagan Holmes, dressed in tactical clothing, set off tear gas grenades
and shot into the audience with multiple firearms, killed 12 people and
injured 70 others. The incident at Arapaho High School also called to
mind the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 in which two senior
students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, armed with two 9 mm firearms
and two 12-gauge shotguns, murdered 12 students and one teacher, injured
24 other students, caused three other people to be injured while
attempting to escape the school, and then committed suicide.
A year after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a billboard near theMassachusetts
Turnpike outside of Fenway Park in Boston now depicts the extent of
this country's indifference to the problem of gun violence in our
culture. The billboard reports that, since the Newtown massacre,
approximately 32,833 Americans have been killed by guns.
In an article in TheBoston Globe ("Pike antigun billboard tracks gun deaths post-Newtown," December 14, 2013), Peter Schworm reported that John Rosenthal, the founder of Stop Handgun Violence -the
group that sponsors the billboard -stated that the total numbers will
rise by 83 every day based upon national estimates of gun-related deaths
and that, of that number, eight of the daily deaths from gun violence
For those Americans who have not yet become
insouciant or overwhelmed by the magnitude of this senseless and
indefensible violence, the numbers need to be viewed in historical
perspective. In December 2012, The Tampa Bay Times, in its "PolitiFact.Com" series, citing a studypublished
by the Congressional Research Service on February 26, 2010, which it
supplemented with data for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan taken fromthe website icasualties.org. It reported that 1,171,177 Americans had been killed in all of the country's conflicts fromthe
Revolutionary War to U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and
that "another 362 deaths resulted from other conflicts since 1980, such
as interventions in Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Somalia and Haiti..."
contrast, the newspaper observed, based upon data from The Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention and FBI figures for 2011, that 1,384,171
Americans had died as a result of gun violence including homicides,
suicides and gun accidents.Of that total, the Violence
Policy Center, in a 2012 study, found that "Firearms are the second
leading cause of traumatic death related to a consumer product in the
United States and are the second most frequent cause of death overall
for Americans ages 15 to 24. And homicide, usually involving a gun, is
the leading cause of death for black teens and young adults ages 15 to
because they are compilations of dry data, cannot convey the depth of
the misery and travail behind the numbers. For every victim of gun
violence, the survivors - family, loved ones, friends and neighbors -
will continue to suffer from the lingering effects. The sadness,
anguish, anxiety, distrust of others and fear that gun violence
engenders will remain with them all throughout their lives.
from the devastating and harmful personal consequences, there is more
than anecdotal evidence that the magnitude of the daily slaughter has
caused ordinary Americans to lose confidence in the ability of this
country's political institutions to address this epidemic of gun
violence; and that the fear and distrust that is sown by gun violence
has contaminated our public square and impaired our capacity to engage
in rational and civil political discourse.
timid, fearful people are a people who are collectively too cowed to
imagine or to demand rational answers to an irrational policy. They thus
become prey to the fear mongers and demagogues who profit from the
status-quo. When children are thevictims or witnesses to the carnage caused by senseless gun violence,the
consequences are perhaps even more profound: if, as future citizens and
leaders, they are too traumatized or inured to the violence around
them, the violence will become even more pervasive and accepted. At that
point, he United States would devolve into the dystopia depicted by Anthony Burgess in his gruesome novel, A Clockword Orange.
InDistrict of Columbia v. Heller, 554
U.S. 570 (2008), Justice Scalia, in his concluding remarks in a 5 to 4
decision, piously proclaimed, "We are aware of the problem of handgun
violence in this country, and we take seriously the concerns raised by
the many amici who believe that prohibition of handgun ownership is a
solution. The Constitution leaves the District of Columbia a variety of
tools for combating that problem, including some measures regulating
handguns..... But the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily
takes certain policy choices off the table."
Sadly, Justice Scalia failed to remember
that the most fundamental duty of any government is its duty to protect
and defend its citizens against harm. A judiciary and a political
system that have elevated an abstract right of the few to possess
weapons that kill and maim innocent citizens is one that has issued a
declaration of war of against its own children and its future.