March 2014 Archives

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.

    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.

            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?

       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.


                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.

          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."

            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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