The War-Mongers' Lament

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      The growing turmoil in Iraq now provides the GOP with a marvelous opportunity to try to deflect the attention of a gullible American public from the war here at home that it is waging against ordinary Americans.   

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         Senator John McCain, who has never seen a war or a conflict that he does not think the United States should not fight, appeared on MSNC's "Morning Joe" today. Not surprisingly, he excoriated President Obama and called upon him to fire his entire national security team.


       McCain claimed that the U.S. had won the war in Iraq, but was now losing the very war that he claimed we had won because the U.S. refused to garrison a residual force in that country. McCain also warned that the scheduled U.S.withdrawal from Afghanistan would engender the same chaos there.


       Missing from McCain's incoherent narrative was any glint of recollection that it was he and the other hawks who endorsed Bush II's ill-fated invasion of that country or that it was Prime Minister Maliki - and not President Obama - who forced the precipitous withdrawal of all American troops because the Iraqi government refused to agree to a new status of forces agreement that would have protected American soldiers against prosecution under Iraqi laws. Apparently, the good senator believes that the U.S. should have refused to exit from that country, even if it meant that the U.S. became an occupying army.


       Not to be outdone, New York Times columnist David Brooks has now returned to his "neo-con" roots. Brooks, who was an original cheerleader for Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, wrote in his Weekly Standard column on March 24, 2003 that "The president has remained resolute. Momentum to liberate Iraq continues to build. The situation has clarified, and history will allow clear judgments about which leaders and which institutions were up to the challenge posed by Saddam and which were not."


      In an op ed column last week ("The Big Burn The Sunni-Shiite Conflict Explodes in Iraq") Brooks notes "When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, it effectively destroyed the Iraqi government.  Slowly learning from that mistake, the U.S. spent the next eight years in a costly round of state-building." According to Brooks, by 2011 the Iraqi Army was performing better and "American diplomats rode herd on Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to restrain his sectarian impulses. American generals would threaten to physically block Iraq troop movements if Maliki ordered any action that seemed likely to polarize the nation."


        And precisely who was responsible for this country's present failure to restrain Maliki's sectarian impulses? The answer is obvious. Brooks opines that "We'll never know if all this effort and progress could have led to a self-sustaining, stable Iraq. Before the country was close to ready, the Obama administration took off the training wheels by not seriously negotiating the NATO status of forces agreement that would have maintained some smaller American presence."


       In contrast to Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham, whom Brooks praises for their prescience, "President Obama adopted a cautious posture, arguing that the biggest harm to the nation comes when the U.S. overreaches. American power retrenched. The American people, on both left and right, decided they could hide from the world."


       McCain, Brooks and the gaggle of other discredited war-hawks who are now once again rearing their bellicose beaks inhabit a bizarre political world that can only be described as schizophrenic. As "conservatives" they fervently insist that the role of government in domestic affairs should be restrained. While advocating tax cuts and other welfare and incentives that solely benefit the 1%, they counsel against any policy initiatives that would address pressing domestic issues, such as growing economic inequality and joblessness, argue the virtues of limited government, and incessantly warn against the dangers of an "over-reaching" activist government.  

  

     By contrast, foreign policy seems to be an entirely different matter. McCain, Brooks and others of their persuasion seem to subscribe wholeheartedly to the myth of American omnipotence. In their view of the world beyond this country's borders, there are no limits to the projection of American military power, and if events turn out badly, it is solely because the occupant in the White House was incapable of controlling the outcome. 

 

     Absent from their analysis is any inkling that countries and civil societies evolve over time, that they are primarily responsible for own destinies, and that the process is often painful and messy. 


       Long become the U.S. became involved in a precipitous war in Iraq, the French and the British had already made a mess of that entire region. Thereafter, Bush I and Rumsfeld and Cheney stoked the fires of instability when they supported Saddam Hussein with billions of dollars in weapons and aide in his war against Iran in the 1980s.  And millennia before the U.S. became involved in Afghanistan, neither Alexander the Great nor later, all of Rome's legions could subdue the marauding tribes and fratricidal strife in that geographic region.


       Equally inexcusable, these armchair generals are utterly oblivious to the trillions of dollars of American treasure that was expended in this country's two ill-fated adventures, the military and civilian death toll,  and the enormous physical and psychological toll that the men and women who have served in this country's all volunteer military have had to bear. 


       Von Clausewitz observed that "war is the extension of politics by other means." Wars and military excursions should always be the option of last resort. American interests would be far better served through forging multinational efforts, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has recommended, with Iran and Turkey.


       Ill-considered U.S. policies have engendered enormous antipathy throughout the Middle East. For that reason, it would be wise to reduce our footprint there. A reckless, reflexive, "go-it- alone-cowboy policy" as urged by McCain, Brooks and the other foreign policy hawks will only serve to make matters worse. 


       Given their own abysmal track records, Senator McCain and David Brooks should at least have the common decency to shut-up.  

   

Can America's Downward Spiral Be Reversed?

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     A number of recent events have cast in stark relief the continued unraveling of the political system of the United States. These events raise concerns as to whether the majority of American citizens suffer from a kind of pervasive Attention Deficit Disorder that has rendered many of us unable to understand the implications of what we are seeing before our very eyes.

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         The Center for American Progress has reported that the federal government has spent $136 billion total from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2013 on disaster relief. That amount is the equivalent of an average of nearly $400 per household per year paid for by tax-payers. Yet, at a time when  large parts of the country are increasingly devastated by incidents of severe weather, including torrential  downpours, floods, hail, wild fires, drought and excessive heat, timid politicians on both sides of the aisle, fearful of offending corporate  interests and incurring the wrath of their Super PACS, continue to blithely ignore the unmistakable signs of severe climate.


       In response to mounting evidence of severe environmental damage caused fossil fuel emissions and human activity, almost all members of  GOP's Congressional Caucus and Democratic nay-sayers such as Senators Manchin and Mary Landrieu - who are  both wholly-owned captives of the coal and oil lobbies - have continued  to question the science behind climate change.


       Equally unsettling, within the past month, the country has witnessed horrific additional acts of gun violence acts. The other day, a fifteen year adolescent armed with an assault rifle entered an Oregon high school and opened fire in a gym locker room, fatally shooting a 14 year-old and wounding a teacher before he killed himself. This was the 74th shooting at an American school since the December 2012 massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School - and the 37th  this year - according to a statement issued by Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. The Violence Policy Center has reported that, as of 2010, more than one million Americans had died in firearms-related suicides, homicides and unintentional injuries since 1960.


       After the obligatory expressions of condolences from elected officials, and moments of silence observed by the Congress in the wake of these preventable tragedies, an overwhelming majority of GOP legislators and sizeable minority of timid Democratic legislators will still not dare to suggest publicly - for fear of antagonizing the NRA and the gun-manufacturers' lobby - that there is something fundamentally deranged about a political system in which any virtually lunatic, white supremacist, convicted convict, or potential terrorist can purchase unlimited numbers of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition anonymously at unregulated gun shows, over the internet, or in red states that have lax or virtually non-existent restrictions on the purchase of high-velocity assault weapons and armor-piercing ammunition.


       Sadly, this collective insanity has received by the imprimatur of the country's highest court. In District of Columbia v. Heller, 128 S. Ct. 2783 (2008), five linguistically-challenged, right-wing jurists, who enjoy life-tenure for good behavior, cavalierly disregarded the principle of stare decisis and set aside what had heretofore been the settled Second Amendment jurisprudence. In overturning United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939), Justice Scalia claimed to divine some kind of constitutional right on the part of individuals - as opposed to the collective requirement of a "well-regulated militia (i.e. today's National Guard) - to bear arms and he piously intoned, "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country, but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."( As an aside, it should be noted that the Supreme Court would never allow guns to be carried into the court lest they imperil the safety of the nine judges). 


       A third ominous example involves the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in elections, by which SuperPACs are determined, through the use of electronic media and negative ads, to control the election results and thus gain complete control of the machinery of government. Their efforts have again been sanctioned by the same five result-oriented jurists on the Supreme Courts who comprised the one-vote majority in the Heller case. In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U. S. 310(2010), and now in McCutcheon, et al. v.  Federal Election Commission, 572 U.S. ___ (2014), these same five ideologues have held that corporations are people within the meaning of the 14th Amendment and that, as such, expenditures of money by them to influence the outcomes of  political  elections were protected speech under the First Amendment and public restrictions upon such expenditures violate the free speech provisions of that amendment.


       As a result of the increasing concentration of power in our wealthy elite, their SuperPACs and their lobbies, the United States Senate yesterday rejected a bill proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) by a 56-38 vote - which was l vote short of the 60 needed. Her bill was designed to allow Americans who are increasingly burdened by student debts to refinance their student loans at lower rates. The cost of the bill would have been easily paid for out of the so-called Buffett Rule, which would have set minimum tax rates for people making over $1 million whose income is primarily derived from passive investments rather than from wages earned from work.


       Current data shoes that student loan debt has now exceeds $1 trillion and has emerged as a major brake on economic growth and the ability middle-class families across the country to purchase homes and plan for their futures.


       "With this vote we show the American people who we work for in the United States Senate: billionaires or students," Warren stated. "A vote on this legislation is a vote to give millions of young people a fair shot at building their future." 


       By contrast, Republicans claimed the bill wouldn't have done anything to lower education costs or reduce borrowing, and they accused Democrats of playing politics by highlighting an issue that was bound to fail. "The Senate Democrats' bill isn't really about students at all. It's really all about Senate Democrats," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "They want an issue to campaign on to save their own hides this November."


       The journalist Eric Schlosser has predicted that "The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the struggle against totalitarian systems of state power. The twenty-first will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power." In a similar vein, Harvard political philosopher John Rawls warned that, "In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are paralyzed."


        Schlosser's concerns and those of Rawls have been repeatedly echoed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I -VT). In public comments in 2011, he ruefully observed that, "So far this year, 26 billionaires have donated more than $61 million to SuperPACs, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. And, that's only what has been publicly disclosed. This $61 million does not include about $100 million that Sheldon Adelson has said that he is willing to spend to defeat President Obama; or the $400 million that the Koch brothers have pledged to spend during the 2012 election season. These 26 billionaires have a combined net worth of $146 billion, which is more than the bottom 42.5 percent of American households (equal to nearly 50 million families in the United States.)" 


       Sanders added, "What the Supreme Court did in Citizens United is to say to these same billionaires and the corporations they control: 'You own and control the economy, you own Wall Street, you own the coal companies, you own the oil companies. Now, for a very small percentage of your wealth, we're going to give you the opportunity to own the United States government.'"   


       This Fourth of July, as in so many years past, politicians, public figures, and the citizens at large will celebrate the independence of the United States from Great Britain, invoke the inspirational words of the Declaration of Independence, and laud the American experiment as the noblest yet conceived of by man. Yet underneath the platitudes, there is a growing sense of unease. Shrill partisanship and institutional gridlock, as well as intractable economic and social problems, suggest that the 18th century governmental machinery that has guided this country since the ratification of the constitution in 1787 is becoming increasingly sclerotic and unresponsive.


       We now exist in a twenty-first century world, but we are collectively boxed within an unresponsive eighteenth century construct from which there is virtually no escape, given the nearly insuperable obstacles that the Founders imposed in order to amend this no longer viable instrument.


       The Founders of the American Republic, inspired as they were by the politics of John Locke, shared his fear of concentrated power. Hence, they devised a constitutional system for the United States in which political power was distributed between the federal government and the individual states. The object, as James Madison commented, was to disperse political power: "The federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and particular to the State legislatures."


       Divided government, with its diffusion of power vertically and horizontally, has contributed to an appalling lack of transparency and accountability that enable the office-holders in each of the fifty states and in the three branches of the federal government to point accusing fingers at one another while refusing to accept responsibility for their own decision-making.


       The diffusion and distribution of political power within the political system of the United States has today resulted in something profoundly different than what they anticipated: The liberal consensus that gave birth to the American republic, emerged historically in England as a democratic force to challenge to feudal privilege and the tyranny of kings.


       But in the United States, where all who have been born are held to be equal before the law and where the Constitution expressly prohibits the granting of any titles of nobility, John Locke's politics has created its own antithesis: rule by oligarchs and corporate plutocrats in which the rights of the wealthy individuals and their corporations are accorded greater protections than the rights of ordinary individuals.


        Other vibrant democracies in the Western World have revisited and updated their constitutional schemes of government when the evidence showed that the governmental machinery no longer served the public interest. Why should we be any different?         


       The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain observed that "[T]he primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice....As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."


       History reminds us that social justice can never be realized in a political system that permits a culture of indifference and injustice to fester and metastasize. History also reveals, however, that, when the suffering of too many citizens remains pervasive and ignored, the bonds of civility begin to unravel, ineluctably, over time. At the precise moment when the body politic finally shreds, even those who are most privileged will be unable to find shelter from the resulting chaos.  

 

Memorial Day, 2014

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   Since the end of the Civil War, our country has chosen to set aside one day in particular to remember and to pay homage to those who have lost their lives in the service of this country. On this Memorial Day, however, we should also set aside some time to reflect upon, and to discuss with friends and families, the lost lives, destroyed hopes and dreams, and the enormous social and economic burdens that wars have inflicted upon this country and its citizens.
   

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    Since the founding of this Republic, more than 1,300,000 military have perished in all of the wars, here and abroad, in which the country has been involved. In addition, the lives of the loved ones and those who have been left behind were forever profoundly diminished and saddened.

    According to a recent report prepared by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation,  the United States today spends more on defense than the next 8 countries combined. "Defense spending accounts for about 20 percent of all federal spending -- nearly as much as Social Security, or the combined spending for Medicare and Medicaid. The sheer size of the defense budget suggests that it should be part of any serious effort to address America's long-term fiscal challenges." The report quotes Admiral Mike Mullen, the past Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff:: "The single greatest threat to our national security is our debt."

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     As of August 2013, despite the end of involvement in Iraq and the winding down of the of U.S. military presence in Afghanistan , there were approximately 1.43 million active-duty military personnel in the  armed forces of the U.S. States and more than 850,000 in the active duty reserves of all branches.

     For the fiscal year 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense and military-related budget is $756.4 billion. This sum includes $495.6 billion for the base budget of the Department of Defense ; $85.4 billion for Overseas Contingency Funds for the wind-down of the War in Afghanistan;  $175.4 billion for defense-related agencies and functions; $65.3 for the Veterans Administration ; $42.6 billion for the State Department; 38.2 billion for  Homeland Security; $17.6 billion for FBI and Cybersecurity in the Department of Justice ; and $11.7 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration in the Department of Energy .

     Further, the most recent "Base Structure Report" of the Department of Defense states that "the Department's physical assets consist of As one of the Federal government's larger holders of real estate, the DOD manages a global real property portfolio hat consists of more than 557,000facilities (buildings, structures, and linear structures), located on over 5,000 sites worldwide and covering over 27.7 million acres." Most of these locations listed are within the continental United States, but 96 of them are situated in U.S. territories around the globe, and 702 of them are in foreign countries.

     Currently also, the United States has active duty personnel stationed in more than 150 countries. While many of these deployments involve assignments to American embassies and special training projects overseas, the presence of U.S. active duty military personnel in Europe, Japan and Korea remains significant, sixty-nine years after the end of World War II and sixty-one years after an armistice was declared in Korea.

     More than 100,000 active-duty American military are currently assigned to these three countries, the cost of which is still largely borne by U.S. taxpayers. These three countries have been able, as a result of American military shield, to invest in the modernization of their manufacturing sectors and to increase the number of their exports to the United States at a time when American manufacturing has been increasingly our-sourced to third world countries. Japan and Korea, in particular, have adopted onerous, restrictive trade policies that make it almost impossible for American automobile companies and heavy equipment manufacturers to compete successfully in those countries.

     In response to the protests engendered by the Vietnam War, the United States Congress abolished military conscription. With advent of an "all-volunteer" military, this country's wars and foreign adventures have become, for most Americans, video diversions far removed from their daily experiences.

    The enlisted personnel for these wars have been largely drawn from the ranks of poor whites, blacks and Latinos who have been given few other opportunities in the current American economy; many of the officer corps are increasingly drawn from the families of professional soldiers and military academy graduates who are, by temperament and acculturation, right-wing, pro-defense Christians who strongly support the continued projection of American power abroad. As our professional officer corps has increasingly become composed of the children of previous officers, and the ranks of enlisted soldiers increasingly beckon to men and women to whom our country has extended few other options, the concept of the citizen-soldier has  begun to recede from the consciousness of most Americans.

     After the children of the affluent were sheltered from the shared sacrifice of conscription, the Pentagon and the defense contractors that depend upon government subsidies for their existence were able to vastly increase their share of the US. Budget. "Out-of sight, out-of- mind" has meant that the military-industrial complex about which Dwight Eisenhower warned, and worst fears of the Founding Fathers about entangling alliances and the dangers caused by a standing army, have become the American reality.

     Anyone who doubts the stranglehold that the military-industrial complex now exerts needs only to be reminded of the F-35 airplane that, notwithstanding even the Defense Department's efforts to eliminate the project as unneeded and redundant, continues to be funded by tax-payers because a craven Congress is unable to resist the lobbying power of defense contractors. Many of these same Congressional supporters decried the Obama administration's bail-out of the American automobile industry as a waste of money and have refused to vote extend unemployment benefits to those who have been unemployed more than ninety-nine weeks.

    Simultaneously, we are all paying the price for two misbegotten wars in which we were viewed as the invaders and in which we had little prospect of ending easily or of achieving "favorable outcomes." In addition to the thousands of soldiers lost, physically injured or traumatized, hundreds of thousands of innocents have been killed and maimed. Columbia University professor and Nobel Laureate Economist Joseph Stiglitz has predicted that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will ultimately cost the U.S. taxpayers more than $4 trillion dollars when all costs, including long-term veterans care and disability payments are calculated.

     The welfare-through-warfare mentality that continues to dominate Washington groupthink threatens, if not challenged, to metastasize our republic into a garrison state perpetually at war, as Andrew Bacevich in his book Washington Rules has warned. As a nation, we will increasingly impoverish ourselves while our pandering political and economic elites, and their media surrogates, will continue to argue that this country no longer has the resources to address pressing needs here at home. And, of course, our cemeteries and veterans' hospitals will continue to fill with the dead and traumatized whom we, by our indifference, will have allowed to be dispatched into harm's way.

    The Roman Republic, over time, was transformed and subverted by corruption and apathy. Its citizen-soldiers were ultimately out-numbered by legions of mercenaries recruited from abroad to fight its wars and to guard its borders. When the Roman Empire collapsed, it no longer had the resources to bring its legions home; thousands of its soldiers were abandoned throughout the vast reaches of the former empire.

     War exacts a terrible toll on its perpetrators as well as its victims. We are all diminished as citizens and as human beings because of our indifference in the face of such horror. The best pledge that we can make to one another on this Memorial  Day is to demand an end to our "welfare- through-warfare" economy. We need to bring our troops home and to support international institutions that will promote ways to create a more peaceful future for all of God's children.
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The GOP's Assault upon Reason

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          On Sunday, May 11, 2014, Senator Mark Rubio told ABC News, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it." Senator Rubio also denied the efficacy of concerted action to confront the growing danger of climate change. He opined that "I do not believe that the laws that they propose we pass will do anything about it, except it will destroy our economy."

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             Rubio claimed that scientists exaggerated the danger with a dismissive statement that "our climate is always changing," and that "I don't know of any era in world history where the climate has been stable."  Rubio's remarks were made a few days after he told CNN that President Obama wasn't really qualified to speak on climate change since he was "not a meteorologist."


             Rubio's skepticism about whether climate change is occurring and whether human activity is an agent of climate change is widely shared among GOP legislators, party members and right-wing institutions across the United States. The mere fact that the population of the earth has increased from an estimated 620 million humans in 1700 A.D. to the current estimate of 7.2 billion plus today is, from their perspective, utterly irrelevant as is the evidence presented by NOAA and the overwhelming majority of scientists who have seriously studied the issue of climate change. 

  

             The refusal to acknowledge the existence of climate change is rooted in the shared worldview of so many GOP adherents who are unable able to grasp the conceptual distinctions  between a scientific theory and an economic or a political theory and who consistently conflate  personal opinions and beliefs with facts and data.

 

             Simple ignorance by hard scrabble,low-information citizens is only part of the explanation. Paranoia also plays a part. Religious lunatics and fundamentalists, increasingly fearful of creeping secularization and the ascendancy of science as a challenge to many of their cherished myths and fables, have also joined the ranks of the deniers and have now become the functional equivalent of a Christian Taliban.


             This point was recently highlighted in a recent New York Times' article by Alan Blinder ("Bryan College Is Torn: Can Darwin and Eden Coexist?", May 20, 2014). The small, self-described  "Christian liberal arts college" that was named after William Jennings Bryan has, since its founding in 1930, insisted that faculty sign a statement of belief as a part of their employment contracts. The statement of belief expresses the institution's beliefs about creation and evolution, and includes an assertion that: "The origin of man was by fiat of God."  In February of this year, however, college officials decided that faculty members also had to agree to an additional statement that declared that Adam and Eve "are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms."


             The president of Bryan College, Dr. Livesay, was quoted as having said, "We want to remain faithful to the historical charter of the school and what we have always practiced through the years. There has never been a need, up until today, to truly clarify and make explicit what has been part of the school for 84 years. We want to make certain that we view culture through the eyes of faith, that we don't view our faith through the eyes of culture. I don't think you have to believe the Bryan way in order to be a strong evangelical. But this is Bryan College, and this is something that's important to us. It's in our DNA. It's who we are."


             This reaction against modernity has increasingly become the right-wing's narrative. Aside from the true believers, the movement has been funded by corporate interests and an array of privately-funded "think-tanks" that have commercial stakes in the current debates about public policy, education, and the role that evidence-based research should play in the formulation of environmental and economic regulations. Another New York Times by Motoko Richmay ("Science Standards Divide a State Built on Coal and Oil," May 18, 3104) explains why the even the Common Core Standards have now become the subject of increasing attacks on the right.


             Richmay quotes  Susan Gore, the founder of the Wyoming Liberty Group, to the effect that the new national science standards for schools were a form of "coercion," and "I don't think government should have anything to do with education."  Ms. Gore, who is the daughter of the founder of the company that makes Gore-Tex waterproof fabric, expressed her convictions a few weeks after the Republican-controlled legislature in Wyoming, where coal and oil interests are the paramount players in the state's economy, became the first state to reject the standards, which include lessons about the human impact on global warming.


             Matt Teeters, a GOP State Representative from Lingle, was also reported in the article to have complained to The Casper Star-Tribune that the standards "handle global warming as settled science" and that "There's all kind of social implications involved in that, that I don't think would be good for Wyoming." Teeters argued that such teaching could wreck the economy of Wyoming, which is the country's largest energy exporter. His objections to the new science standards were seconded by Ron Micheli, chairman of the State Board of Education, who claimed that the standard was "very prejudiced, in my opinion, against fossil fuel development."


             The existence of this unholy alliance among GOP legislators, science deniers, religious zealots, and a number of well-documented corporate interests should be a source of concern to every sentient citizen. When facts no longer matter, and anyone's delusions and fantasies are treated as the equivalent of facts, citizens and their elected officials become unable to make the kind of critical, nuanced and insightful distinctions that are essential predicates for informed decision-making. 


             Public policies that are based upon careful research and evidence-based facts are increasingly threatened with inundation by the sea of propaganda that the deniers of reason and their corporate sponsors are able to undam. If not resisted vigorously now, one may discover that, over time, the very idea of democracy has become submerged along with our physical environment.

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Should Private Interests Trump the Public Interest?

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The debate between public and private interests has long been a part of the discourse in American politics. The contretemps over Cliven Bundy in Nevada illustrates how profoundly this discussion has become debased by the purveyors of privacy whose agenda is now being mindlessly propagated by the rightwing noise machine and the lunatic fringe.

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    Chris Swangsgard observes in an op ed column in the Salt Lake Tribune ("Cliven Bundy is a food-stamp cowboy," April 25 2014), that the controversy stems from Bundy's refusal to pay the Federal Bureau of Land Management the $1.35 per month per cow fee that the Bureau  assesses for grazing rights on public land administered by it on behalf of the citizens of the United States. The Bureau has issued some 18,000 permits at this fee which almost all ranchers pay.

    The Government Accountability Office reports that in a typical year, ranchers paid $21 million for grazing permits on the public lands it administers. By contrast, the average grazing fee on private land in the West is $16.80 per month according to the Congressional Research Service and the fees range between $2.28 and $150 on state lands in the region.  

          Bundy, who now owes the U.S. taxpayers a sum in excess of $1,000,000 for refusing to pay for permits and for illegally grazing his cattle on public lands, defended his behavior by insisting that he does not recognize the sovereignty of the United States government. In November 1998, Bundy made the same nutty argument in the U.S. District Court for Nevada.

    The court decisively rejected that argument and held "...the public lands in Nevada are the property of the United States because the United States has held title to those public lands since 1848, when Mexico ceded the land to the United States" under Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War which was 16 years before the State of Nevada even existed. In the light of the Union's victory over the advocates of state sovereignty in the Civil War and the unambiguous text of Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, only the historically illiterate would be surprised that the court also rejected Bundy's claim that Nevada law in some mysterious way should trump federal law.

      As a result of that litigation, the court ordered Bundy to remove any non-permitted cattle from BLM land by the end of November 1989 and the presiding judge issued a judgment that provided that, in the event of any future violations of the court's orders, Bundy would be fined $200 per day for each cow without a permit that he refused to remove from federal public lands.

    Since 1998, Bundy has willfully violated the court's orders and he expanded his illegal grazing onto additional acreage of BLM land. In 2013, the court gave Bundy 45 days to remove his cattle and authorized the Bureau of Land Management to impound any cattle Bundy failed to remove. The confrontation reached a crescendo when armed "militia" gathered on Bundy's ranch and aimed semi-automatic weapons at Bureau of Land management agents from a bridge overpass.

    Until Bundy's overtly racist remarks became an additional source of controversy, his expansive perception of his private rights - as opposed to his duties as a citizen - were enthusiastically endorsed by the Neanderthal caucus of the GOP.

    Kentucky Senator Rand Paul excused Bundy's theft of public property and, in a brazen act of demagoguery, accused the federal government of heavy-handedness and proclaimed that the "federal government shouldn't violate the law." Previously, in a 2002 letter to the Bowling Green Daily News, Paul had made a similar ludicrous argument about the U.S. Fair Housing Act when he insisted that it "ignores the distinction between private and public property," and that "Decisions concerning private property and associations should in a free society be unhindered. As a consequence, some associations will discriminate."

    Texas Gov. Rick Perry appeared on "CBS This Morning," and when asked about Bundy's comments, replied. "I don't know what he said but the fact is Cliven Bundy is a side issue here compared to what we're looking at in the state of Texas. He is an individual - deal with his issues as you may. What we have in the state of Texas, I don't get distracted about, is the federal government is coming in and attempting, from our perspective, to take over private property. And you must -- if this country's to stay the land of freedom and liberty, private property rights must be respected."

    Not to be outdone, Texas Senator Ted Cruz stated that the ongoing standoff between Bundy and the executive and judicial branches of federal government exemplified the Obama Administration's "jackboot of authoritarianism." In a separate interview on Texas radio, Cruz expressed uncritical support for the heavily-armed thugs who had threatened federal agents and whom Nevada Senator Harry Reid had correctly denounced as domestic terrorists.

     The alleged grievances that stoke the ire of Cliven Bundy and the GOP's rightwing stem from a shared mythology that views society as merely an aggregation of private interests that are relentlessly and enthusiastically competing against one another in a glorious quest to acquire ever more private property  - or stuff in the immortal words of George Carlin. Government - to the extent to which  it seeks to curb the excesses caused by that mindset and impose restraints - thus becomes the enemy. 

    This worldview draws its values from a narrow and uniquely American understanding of the tradition of classical liberalism that emerged after the Protestant Reformation. That tradition was inspired by the writings Thomas Hobbes, and, most importantly, John Locke and his intellectual disciples, David Hume and Adam Smith. 

     Locke's politics then became the template upon which the Founding Fathers encoded the constitutional machinery of the United States. Because it became embedded into popular consciousness, the gospel of selfishness had already found a receptive and enthusiastic audience long before Ayn Rand's "Objectivism" was touted by libertarians such as Congressmen Paul Ryan and Senator Paul as something new and profound.
 
    Locke argued - as almost all GOP leaders today would agree - that the individual is the only concrete realty, that society is a phantasm, and that "government is an artificial construct created solely by contract."  Locke thus sought to asserted that the role of government to that of a passive arbiter - an umpire - and claimed that "The great and chief end of men uniting into commonwealth and putting themselves under government is the preservation of their property."

    Locke's labor theory of value, based upon an absurd and intellectually indefensible historic fiction, has nonetheless become the conventional justification for private ownership of property in Anglo-American common law: "The 'labour' of his body and the 'work' of his hands, we may say, are his property. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joining to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property."

    Of course, the current defenders of unlimited private property rights fail to remember that here in the U.S. the land was already occupied by an indigenous people  - the  Indians - who harbored a quaint belief that the Great Spirit had given the land to everyone in common. What distinguished their concept of ownership from the European settlers wasn't Locke's theory of private property but, rather, the latter's literacy skills.

    Upon their arrival in colonies, the Europeans immediately devised written titles to the land they occupied and early on created Registries of Deeds to document and protect their ownership interests. The land grab was completed with the American Revolution, after which the last vestiges of the crown' titles and the properties of the vanquished Loyalists were expropriated by the victorious Patriots.  

     Proudhon and Marx were not the first to question whether property was a social or a private right. Centuries before Locke, Thomas Aquinas taught that, since God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man had become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. As Aquinas observed, "It is lawful for a man to hold private property" but "Man should not consider his outward possessions as his own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need ..."

     For that reason Catholic social philosophy to the present - epitomized by Pope Francis' recent apostolic  exhortation  Joy of the Gospel -  remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth.

    In contrast to the ideology of radical ant-social individualism espoused by Cliven Bundy and so many others on the American right, Aquinas also taught that, with respect to relations among one another, human beings are obliged to seek as the summum bonum  - the highest good - which is synonymous with  justice. As the primary object of all human aspiration, true justice is something that can be achieved only through the law acting as an instrument of the social order. Aquinas quoted Isodore, "Laws are enacted for no private profit, but for the common benefit of citizens." Further, "A law properly speaking, regards first and foremost the order of the common good..."  

    In addition, Aquinas insisted that justice is based upon a notion of proportionality: "Justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will" and "Just as love of God includes love of one's neighbor,...so is the service of God rendering to each one his due." Finally, Aquinas invokes Cicero to the effect that "...'the object of justice is to keep men together in society and mutual intercourse.' Now this implies a relationship of one man to another. Therefore justice is concerned only about our dealings with others."

    Catholic social thought to the present emphasizes that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as classical liberals would have it, the needs of individuals. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument designed solely to protect private property or to protect rights, as distinguished from obligations.

     Instead, consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas of Aquinas, the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain reminds us that "...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."

    In his insightful book What Money Can't Buy, Harvard Government Professor Michael Sandel warns that market values have begun to displace all other values in civil society. As the power of the market economy and its arbiters, through their ability to influence discourse in the public square, increasingly call the tunes to which our political leaders feel obliged to dance, human relationships, the legal system, science, and even knowledge itself have become subordinate to short-term economic concerns and pre-occupations. It is only in the context of such a twisted and deformed culture that a Cliven Bundy could emerge as the avatar of a victimized American.  
    
    As an early observer of the newly-created republic, Alexis deToucqueville was prescient about the deleterious effects that an individualism run amok could have upon the American project. As he noted, "Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness. Selfishness is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another; individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of condition."
 
    Cliven Bundy and his militia of armed, maniacal supporters are low-information, internet-driven anarchists who are unable to grasp the implications of  their profoundly anti-social and illegal behavior. Can the same be said for those self-appointed spokesmen for the GOP who should know better?   

     Let's all hope it's not too late for sanity to prevail.

    

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The Irrational Politics of Senators Cruz and Paul

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  Nothing illustrates the impoverishment of political discourse in the United States today than the emergence of U.S. Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul as potential GOP presidential candidates, both of whom have expressed support for libertarian political ideas.
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    As a political movement, libertarianism in the United States traces its ancestry to  the writings of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, and Milton Friedman who urged a return to the ideas of classical liberalism with its emphasis upon extreme anti-social individualism, negative freedom, individual  rights,  protection of private property, the inviolability of contacts, minimal  government and laissez-faire economics.  In its American expression, classical liberalism owes its inspiration to an extremely selective emphasis upon a number of ideas expressed in the writings of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume and David Ricardo, as their ideas were extrapolated and applied to the American  political experience by Jefferson, Madsion, Adams and others.

    When Ted Cruz first ran for the United States Senate, he professed to be an advocate of limited government, states' rights, an expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, and hostility to government regulation of the economy. Cruz's support for libertarian ideas and his antipathy to government regulation of the economy date back to his early adolescence when, reportedly at the age of thirteen, his father enrolled him in an entity called "the Free Market Education Foundation." In that study group, which apparently was organized in manner somewhat similar to early twentieth century Marxist indoctrination groups, Cruz was schooled in the  "free-market" ideologies  of economic philosophers such as Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises.

    In a similar vein, Rand Paul, son of the former Republican Congressman and Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ron Paul describes himself as a libertarian. As a U.S. Senator, he has expressed support for term limits for Congress, a balanced budget amendment, and extensive reductions in federal taxation, and spending, especially as the latter relates to helping the poorest among us.  

    As one example, in 2012, Senator Paul advocated substantially reducing the food stamp program because of the various wastes and fraudulent activities that have been perpetrated by some of its users. "We do not have an endless supply of money. I think that Americans would be just flabbergasted at the amount of money and some of these programs are duplicative so people getting food stamps for a meal are also getting a free lunch at school. Some of these programs were actually advertising for applicants," he said. "In my hometown they advertised to try to promote to get people to come in and eat the free lunch during the summer time.  It's not that we won't help people, we just need to be conscious of how much money we have and can we help only those who cannot help themselves?"

    There are important questions that need to be asked of both of these Senators and of libertarians in general, but that are rarely, if ever, raised in the mainstream media. Are their ideas   desirable or workable? Would families in the United States be better or worse off  government regulation, including environmental and safety laws, food and drug laws, anti-discrimination and public accommodation laws, and labor laws, all already weak by European standards, were  further relaxed and government taxation and regulation of businesses and corporations was substantially  curtailed?

    The evidence of the last forty plus years in which government regulation of the economy has been rolled back, while the wages of employees have continued to decline and as the U.S.  became a net debtor, service economy in which corporations, in the name of freed trade, outsourced almost all of this country's manufacturing capacity, suggests otherwise.  

    All of the grim economic news that continues to hobble the U.S. economy confirms one of the central paradoxes of libertarian political philosophy as it plays out in the liberal democracy of the United States: the inability of that ideology to reconcile the tension between the pursuit of self-interest and equality. If self-interest, as expressed in the pursuit and acquisition of property, is a natural right since, as Locke put it, "God gave it to the use of the industrious and the rational (and labour was to be his title to it)" and the primary role of government is the protection of that property, isn't it inevitable that, over the span of generations, because of the complicity in not protecting such inheritances, and because of social and genetic distinctions among "the industrious and the rational" and those who are not, inequality will increase?

    The magnitude and the duration of the existing economic crisis raises other questions that libertarians and classical liberal ideology --and the latter's economic expression, market capitalism--cannot answer. Of what value is the meaning of individualism to most individuals if, in the competitive roulette of "survival of the fittest," the fit and the victors increasingly number only a few, while a significant number of the population are vanquished or declared to be unfit? 

    Isn't the pursuit of self-interest by individuals, each of whom is in competition with all others, self-defeating? Doesn't unfettered competition often have deleterious effects upon the public interest? Isn't it an economic fact of life that, in a market economy, individual actors--whether human beings, corporations or governmental units--seek to maximize their advantages and to minimize their risks in a capitalist economy?     Isn't it also true that, when each actor "hunkers down" during an economic crisis, the self-replicating behavior--as reflected in job losses, withdrawal of investment and the collapse of consumer demand--ripples through the economy to the detriment of all but the few, most fortunate? Doesn't that behavior then exacerbate the very problems that individual actors seek to inoculate themselves against, the public consequences of their behavior be damned? At that point, doesn't Garrett Hardin's Tragedy of the Commons become rather than a parable, an empirical reality?

    Doesn't even Locke's concept of negative freedom--because it does not provide for an economic underpinning--become, especially in times of economic misery, a platitude or a meaningless abstraction?

    The historian Thomas Franks has expressed his suspicions about the reasons why  libertarian ideas have been able to insinuate themselves so prominently into the public square, "Libertarianism," he argues, "helps  conservatives pass off a patently probusiness political agenda as a noble bid for human freedom. Whatever we may think of libertarianism as a set of ideas, practically speaking, it is a doctrine that owes its visibility to the obvious charms it holds for the wealthy and the powerful. The reason we have so many well-funded libertarians in American these days is not because libertarianism suddenly acquired an enormous grassroots following, but because it appeals to those who are able to fund ideas. Like social Darwinism and Christian Science before it, libertarianism flatters the successful and rationalizes their core beliefs about the world. They warm to the libertarian idea that taxation is theft because they themselves don't like to pay taxes. They fancy the libertarian notion that regulation is communist because they themselves find regulation intrusive and annoying."

    Franks' suspicion that, aside from protecting and promoting economic self-interests, libertarians are not really concerned about freedom for ordinary people is exemplified by Rand Paul's unqualified endorsement of government intrusion into the bedrooms of Americans and his support for the micro-regulation of every woman's uterus.  His website proudly proclaims, "I am 100% pro-life. I believe life begins at conception and that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being. It is the duty of our government to protect this life as a right guaranteed under the Constitution. For this reason, I introduced S. 583, the Life at Conception Act on March 14, 2013. This bill would extend the Constitutional protection of life to the unborn from the time of conception."   

    Ted Cruz insists that he, too, is "pro-life," and that the only exception to abortion that he would allow is when a pregnancy endangers the mother's life; and he opposes same-sex marriage, professing his belief that marriage is "between one man and one woman."

    The late Christopher Hitchens once observed, "I have always found it quaint and rather touching that there is a movement [Libertarians] in the US that thinks Americans are not yet selfish enough."

    The irony is that self-proclaimed libertarians such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have entered into Faustian bargains with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in which they have agreed to support the most selfish agendas of the economic elite, no matter how short-sighted, destructive or harmful such policies may be to the immediate and long-term best interests of the constituents they claim to actually represent or to the public interest. Their hypocrisy and illogic speak volumes about their qualifications for public office and are a sad commentary on the intelligence of the voters of Kentucky and Texas to whom they pandered so successfully.  
 

 

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The GOP's Descent into Minimalism

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            Once upon a time, the Republican Party was a progressive political party with big ideas about the future of the United States. Its leaders endorsed a broad vision of policies and programs designed to promote the general welfare. 

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            President Abraham Lincoln defeated the forces of disunion and persuaded the country to abolish slavery and to guarantee equal rights to all male citizens with the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.  Despite the demands imposed upon him by the Civil War, Lincoln signed into law the Homestead Act in 1862 that made available millions of acres of government-owned land in the West for purchase by settlers at substantially reduced costs. That same year, he also signed into law the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, which provided government grants for creation of agricultural colleges in every state in the union. The Pacific  Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 provided federal support for the construction of the United States' First Transcontinental Railroad which, upon its completion in 1869, linked all the United States from coast to coast.


During the First Gilded Age, Theodore Roosevelt pursued policies designed to curb the excessive economic power wielded by the Robber Barons and their trusts, condemned predatory practices by corporations, and spoke out in support of organized labor.  Theodore Roosevelt successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Meat Inspection Act of 1906 and The Pure Food and Drug Act. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment was the expansion of the national park system and the subsequent transfer of the administration of the park system from the Agriculture Department t to the Department of the Interior.  As his successor, Republican President Howard Taft continued Roosevelt's progressive domestic policies and vigorously enforced antitrust legislation.


In the early decades of the twentieth century also, Wisconsin Governor and later U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette, Sr. enjoyed the loyal support of unionized workers and farmers as a populist. An elected Republican office-holder, he condemned laissez-faire and emphasized the need for government to serve as an advocate for ordinary citizens, as opposed to corporations and other moneyed interests. He later challenged Teddy Roosevelt unsuccessfully for leadership of the Progressive Party and thereafter founded the Farm-Labor Party of Wisconsin.


            Former Congressman and New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia burnished his credentials as a reform politician and as a progressive who, appalled by the excesses of the 1920s and the misery caused by the Great Depression, championed the policies of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. At the beginning of the Roosevelt administration, he and Nebraska Republican Senator George Norris successfully co-sponsored the Norris-LaGuardia Act. That act declared yellow-dog contracts illegal, forbade the federal courts from issuing injunctions against unions in non-violent labor disputes, and prohibited interference by employers against workers trying to organize trade unions.      

   

             The success of Franklin Roosevelt and New Deal subsequently changed the direction of the GOP. Beginning with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, the GOP, prodded by reactionary interests committed to undoing the legacy of the New Deal, became increasingly hostile to unions and supportive of business interests and Wall Street.    


             After the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a new Republican agenda was cobbled together. Nixon's cynical and craven decision to adopt a Southern strategy required that the GOP abandon its historic commitment to civil rights to attract the support of hard-scrabble, disaffected white Southerners who felt threatened by the elimination of Jim Crow.


             The rest is history. Within a decade, the "Solid South" became the preserve of the GOP, whose rank and file members, despite their increasingly straigtened circumstances, have become unabashedly anti-intellectual, anti-science, and hostile to unions, minorities, women, public sector employees, and to the idea that government should  be used as a positive instrument to promote the public good.  


             Ronald Reagan delivered the coup de grâce. He successfully refined a winning political strategy for the GOP by intentionally appealing to the basest instincts of Americans. With his attacks on welfare queens and "'strapping young bucks' using public assistance to buy T-Bone steaks," Reagan further stirred the pot of racial animosity. His insistence that government was the problem, not the solution, and his endorsement of trickle-down economics was a repudiation of the GOP's venerable heritage as an opponent of Social Darwinism and was at loggerheads with the observation Republican jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. that "Taxes are what we pay for civilized society."


             Lee Atwater, who was Reagan's campaign strategist, described how and why this strategy worked:  "In the 1980s campaign, we were able to make the establishment, in so far as it is bad, the government, in other words, big government was the enemy, not big business. If the people think the problem is that taxes are too high, and government interferes too much, then we are doing our job. But, if they get to the point where they say that the real problem is that rich people aren't paying taxes...then the Democrats are going to be in good shape. Traditionally, the Republican Party has been elitist, but one of the things that has happened is that the Democratic Party has become a party of [rival] elites."


            Reagan's divisive rhetoric, which appealed to an increasingly distracted, unsophisticated base of white males, enabled him to attract "Reagan Democrats" and other low-information voters who did not understand that the policies that he set in motion - the destruction of traditional  pension plans, and the privatization of pension risks through the creation of defined contribution plans -aka 401K plans - with the enactment of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) - and the out-sourcing of jibs were inimical to their own best interests. Reagan also successfully waged war against public unions with his destruction of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATC) during their strike in 1981.  


            Since the Reagan era, the template has remained the same. But, with the advent  of Roger Ailes and Izvestia-like propaganda outlets such Fox News, as well as the onslaught  of private, undisclosed 501C interests unleashed by Justice Scalia's 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case, the GOP strategists have become vastly more sophisticated and cynical.


         The cascade of unaccounted and unidentified money has crippled the ability of the government - at the federal, state and local level - to gather data, to promote the general welfare, to regulate in the public interest, and to fulfill its duties with adequate funding. Grover Norquist's oft repeated desire to reduce the size of government so that it could be drowned in a bathtub now resonates as craven Democratic officeholders, equally beholden to business interests and concerned about their own political futures are, with precious few exceptions, afraid to challenge the GOP's absurdities head on.    


          The success of the GOP's wedge politics has been replicated throughout the South as GOP Governors and Republican-controlled legislatures have prevented the extension of Medicaid to the uninsured,  eliminated or substantially reduced taxes on businesses, gutted the public sectors of their states, and imposed every conceivable obstacle to dissuade students, minorities and the poor from voting solely because they tend to vote Democratic.

   

           In Northern states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kansas, and Indiana, GOP Governors and their legislatures have uniformly supported legislation to emasculate the rights of employees to unionize and to bargain collectively, and they have successfully demonized public employees and attacked their pension benefits while simultaneously transferring control of many public goods - such as the prisons, roads, and schools - to private, for-profit entrepreneurs.  


            This past week, in an extremely low turnout, off-year Congressional election in Florida's 13th Congressional district, a majority of eligible voters, possibly overwhelmed and confused by the tsunami of negative advertisements, failed to vote, while large numbers of older white voters, concerned that Obamacare threatened their Medicare benefits, voted for the GOP candidate David Jolly, a former Washington lobbyist. The Huffington Post quoted Irene Wilcox, a 78-year-old retired waitress and Republican from Largo who voted for Jolly, "No more big government. We've got to stop."


            Ms. Wilcox's comment underscores the reasons for the GOP's singular success. It has been able to persuade large numbers of poorly-informed voters that, rather than protect or uplift their standards of living, the primary role of government should be to empower the private sector and to promote its interests, irrespective of the adverse effects that such policies may have upon the environment, the nation's infrastructure, the social safety net, or the country's past commitments to the ideas of progressive taxation and equality of opportunity for all citizens.


            According to Mitt Romney, Rand Paul and other GOP illuminati, the problem is not increasing economic misery in the United States or wage stagnation. Rather, there are too many takers and moochers who are getting too much "free stuff" from the government. In the words of Congressman Paul Ryan, Americans need to relearn the discipline acquired through of hard work.


           It is in that context also, the GOP's incessant criticisms school lunch programs, food stamps, unemployment benefits, minimum wage and the litany of other "entitlements" should be understood. They are intentionally calculated to distract attention from the increasingly wealthier elite and poor performance of the U.S. economy by appealing to the envy and resentment of voters: "You would be better off if it were not for these free-loaders."     


           The late British philosopher and former Labor Party advisor A.D. Lindsay proposed a vision of government that was inspired by the wisdom of the ancients and is one which stands in stark contrast to the GOP's minimalism. In The Modern Democratic State, Lindsay argued that the purpose of the state was to ensure conditions for the full development of human potentialities: "That the end of all state activity is the development of human personality can never be sufficiently emphasized. This is to assert the moral basis of the state....Personality develops in a fellowship or a common life and if men are to be treated as persons, they must be enabled to share in a common life." The purpose of the state "is to serve the community and in that service to make it more of a community."


           By contrast, the GOP's vision is utterly pessimistic. It insists that we are all on our own, and that government can and should do nothing - except to protect the rights and prerogatives of those who already have and their descendants. To the extent that the GOP's vision controls the public discourse in the United States today, our capacity to care for one another is eroded as is our collective belief that, as citizens in a democracy, we have the ability to improve social conditions through concerted government action. We are all diminished as a result.

 

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Apple's Obscene Win-Lose Game

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        Is Apple, Inc. a model of corporate efficiency and success that should be praised and emulated in business schools throughout the U.S., or is it a corporate pariah that should be roundly condemned and criticized for its unconscionable greed?

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            At a White House dinner in February of 2011, President Obama reminded the late and much heralded Apple CEO Steve Jobs that, once upon a time, Apple boasted that its products were made in America and he asked, "Why can't that work come home? Mr. Jobs's reply, according to other guests present, was terse. "Those jobs aren't coming back," he replied.

            At the time of that dinner, almost all of the 70 million iPhones, its 30 million iPads and 59 million other products that Apple sold were manufactured overseas. The company employed only 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas. However, through a network of third-party, low-wage contractors in China, Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia, it utilized the services of  an additional 700,000 people to engineer, build and assemble all of its iPads, iPhones and its other accessories and  products. 

              That same year, Apple earned in excess of $400,000 in profit per employee - a sum that was vastly greater than the per employee profits of Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil or Google.

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                In March of 2013, Apple announced that it held $40.4 billion in untaxed earnings outside of the United States as of September 29, 2012, and should it repatriate that cash, the company estimated it would owe $13.8 billion in taxes, or slightly under the federal 35 percent tax rate.

              The company also disclosed a worldwide annual revenue in 2013 in the amount of  $171 billion. In addition, during the five quarters prior to March 1, 2014, Apple officially reported total acquisition investments of $11.12 billion, in addition to the $1.02 billion in cash "business acquisition" payments.

            All of these grim statistics were called to mind again in the light of a fawning and uncritical article by Rebecca Ruiz that appeared in the Business Section of today's New York Times. The purported news story informed readers that Peter Oppenheimer, Apple's senior vice president and chief financial officer, announced his plans to retire this coming in September, after an 18-year career with Apple.

             Ruiz's article was effusive in her comments about Oppenheimer's performance as senior vice-president of Apple. She noted that "As chief financial officer for the last decade, Mr. Oppenheimer, who started in 1996 as controller for the Americas, helped oversee a shrewd global financial strategy, with Apple garnering record profit and building a significant pile of cash."

            Ruiz also found it a sign of Oppenheimer's business acumen that "As part of the strategy, Apple set up a web of subsidiaries around the world, allowing the company to legally avoid billions of dollars of taxes in the United States. In 2013, Apple raised $17 billion to fund a shareholder payout, a move that potentially helped the company save on taxes."

            Ruiz quoted Lawrence Isaac Balter, chief market strategist at Oracle Investment Research, who stated that Oppenheimer's "done a fantastic job building the war chest," and repeated a statement by Timothy D. Cook, Apple's current chief executive, who credited Mr. Oppenheimer with "managing the company's finances during a period of significant international expansion and revenue growth."

            At the end of Ruiz's column, we discovered that in fiscal year 2012, Mr. Oppenheimer was lavishly rewarded for his success in having helped to devise Apple's multifarious and ingenious schemes for corporate tax-evasion, and in his having enabled Apple to garner obscene profits for its shareholders on the backs of an exploited third work-force: Oppenheimer earned $68.6 million in total compensation package.

             Not surprisingly, Mr. Oppenheimer stated "I love Apple and the people I have had the privilege to work with and after 18 years here, it is time for me to take time for myself and my family," and it was announced that he had been named to the board of Goldman Sachs.

            Ruiz's celebration of Oppenheimer's success and the generally enthusiastic press that Apple receives in the media and in corporate culture should be a source of significant worry and concern to everyone who claims to value the model of a market economy.

    The U.S. is a consumption-driven economy. For that reason, in the long run, the migration of jobs to China and other third-world countries will prove to be self-defeating: An increasingly impoverished middle class here in the U.S. will eventually be unable to purchase the high-end goods that out-sourced manufacturers such as Apple and other U.S. based corporations import and try to sell to domestic consumers.

    Over time, as economic inequality continues to grow and purchasing power erodes, the life-styles of perhaps a majority of Americans will be reduced to that of most Chinese and Indians today.

            The problem is that, by and large, entrepreneurs and the boards of directors of corporations don't care about the long-run consequences of their behaviors, no matter how ill-advised or self-defeating. Perhaps they have accepted too blithely, as a corporate credo, John Maynard Keynes' observation that, in the long-run we will all be dead.

            The sole goal of most corporations is to maximize profits to please their shareholders. Given a mindset that sincerely believes that the pursuit of self-interest is somehow a public good, entrepreneurs and the other vaunted Masters of the Universe remain utterly oblivious to problems such as poverty and pollution, and they have no idea of how to reconcile basic principles of social justice with their desire to make a living.

            Left to their own devices, entrepreneurs and corporations too often engage in practices - such as Apple's well-documented tax-avoidance and its refusal to invest in creating a productive U.S. workforce - that have harmful consequences to the public. This occurs despite the fact that their activities of these corporations are heavily subsidized by taxpayers- e.g. through  roads, trains, airports, intangible  infrastructure such as employee training and R&D, favorable tax policies, legal standing, and legal protection of trade secrets and intellectual property. Corporations are also permitted under our laws, should they be unable to escape the consequences of their poor decisions, to petition for bankruptcy and re-emerge as a new corporate persona.

            An increasing body of evidence suggests that the traditional model of the market economy no longer behaves in the way that its most ardent proponents have predicted. As competition has given way to consolidation, and equal opportunity to plutocracy, the anomalies have now begun to overwhelm the paradigm.

           Whatever comes next, more of the same is not the answer.

 
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Does Discussing Inequality Promote Envy?

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        The 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 Russia.

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            Those 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.   


             Despite 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, uplift everyone.


             As 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.


             By 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."


             Brooks 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 decline." 


             Brooks 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 marginalized people."


               Brooks 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.


             In 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.


             Brooks' 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.


             Although 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.


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Bobby Jindal and the Triumph of Lunacy

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        The 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." 

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            Inexcusably, 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.   

   

             Jindal 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. He presides over a state that is, by almost all measures, a rural, third-world, low-wage state. The economy of  Louisiana, 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.  

             According 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 nation."


             A Times-Picayune 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.


             Another Times-Picayune 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 funds.


             Gov. 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 uninsured.


             If 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. 


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