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Work Until Dead: The Pension Crisis

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During Superbowl LII, on February 5, 2018, E-Trade ran a commercial that depicted elderly life guards, fire fighters and disc jockeys' struggling on the job and singing, "I'm 85 and I want to go home" to the tune of Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat."  The ad correctly noted that over one third of Americans aren't saving any money for retirement. 

Image result for Cartoons about the pension crisis

Roberta Gordon is a case in point. In an interview with The Atlantic, she stated that she never thought that she would still be alive at age 76 and, if she were, she didn't think that she would still be working. Now, she spends every Saturday at a grocery store and hands out samples for which she is paid $50 a day. She states that she needs the money. Throughout her life, Gordon worked dozens of odd jobs  -  as a house cleaner, a home health aide, a telemarketer, a librarian, a fund raiser. Often, however, she didn't have steady job with an employer that  paid into Social Security and she doesn't receive a pension. Gordon states that she earns $915 a month through Social Security and through Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a program for low-income seniors. Her rent is $1,040 a month and she's been forced to take on credit-card debt to cover the gap, and to pay for utilities, food, and other essentials. She often goes to a church food bank for supplies. 

  Ms. Gordon plight is typical of many Americans who have struggled throughout  their lives to make ends meet, but E-Trade's invitation to invest with it is no solution to their travail. 

From 1940 to 1960, the number of American workers in the private sector by traditional pension plans increased from 3.7 million to 19 million, or to nearly 30 percent of the labor force, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute, or EBRI, and by 1975, 103,346 plans covered 40 million people.  By the early 1970s, many of those retired workers in the United States who were the beneficiaries of traditional pension plans were able to enjoy a comfortable retirement for themselves and their spouses in contrast to the impoverished experiences of previous generations of retirees. Their pensions were supplemented by Social Security benefits that were enacted in the New Deal, and were greatly augmented  by the medical coverage provided by Medicare which was enacted as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society legislation.  

By 2014, only 15% of retired workers in the private sector were enrolled in defined benefit plans. By contrast, many of the defined contribution plans that the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 [ERISA} permitted employers to create provide retirees with benefits are based on the amount and investment performance of contributions made by the employee and/or employer over a number of years. Many of those401K plans make minimal contributions to their employees and opt to pay benefits in a  lump sum rather than as a lifetime pension. 

The key event that precipitated a clamor for pension reform occurred in 1963 when the pension plan of the South Bend, Indiana-based car manufacturer Studebaker Corporation  collapsed because of the company's bankruptcy. That event led in a 10-year Congressional effort to enact federal legislation to regulate pension plans. That effort - which was largely shaped by  the lobbying efforts of banks and money managers  -  culminated in the passage of , ERISA. ERISA, amended several times since, ostensibly requires companies to adequately fund their pension plans and mandates that workers vest their pension benefits after a minimum number of years.


Ostensibly, ERISA was enacted to create minimum national standards for pension plans in the private sector.  At the time it was enacted,  a majority of employees were enrolled in traditional pension plans - aka defined benefit  plans. Under those plans, many of which were joint union-employer pension plans, the trustees and administrators were held to a fiduciary duty to exercise prudent judgment to protect the assets invested on behalf of the covered employees.

At the behest of the financial industry, ERISA permitted the creation of defined contribution plans - individual  retirement plans - e.g. 401Ks, etc. Such plans are ultimately controlled by plan administrators and asset managers whom ERISA conveniently exempted from any fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the employees whose assets they managed.  As a result of ERISA, a majority of American companies abandoned traditional pension plans during the past five plus decades and opted to create defined contribution plans, most of which significantly reduced the employers' financial responsibilities to contribute to their employees retirement plans.  

Subsequent legislation amended ERISA and increased the responsibilities of Employee Benefits Security Administration ( EBSA), including the creation of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. In 2009, that agency guaranteed payment of basic pension benefits earned by 33.6 million workers and retirees participating in about 27,650 single-employer pension plans, according to the EBRI. And in 2010, the agency was paying benefits to 1.3 million workers from 4,140 terminated plans.

The overall effect of ERISA has been an unmitigated disaster for ordinary employees and their families. Historically,  long-term employees in the United States who retired after 30 or 40 years at a company received pensions with a guaranteed lifetime income stream.   By contrast, those who own 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts - defined contribution plans - are burdened by two impossible-to-control risks: stock market volatility and uncertainty about their own longevity.

As the 2018 E-Trade television commercial correctly noted, about one-third of Americans really don't have anything saved for retirement, according to a 2016 survey by the finance website GoBankingRates.  Other studies, such has one produced by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think-tank, have documented similar results. Prior to ERISA employer-sponsored pension plans, combined with Social Security benefits and, more recently, defined contribution plans, had truly turned retirement into the "golden years" for millions of 
workers. So until the past decade, workers didn't put much thought into saving for retirement, much less worrying about it.
Since the passage of  ERISA, corporate America has opting out of defined-benefit pensions for decades, and many experts agree that is a major cause of our retirement security crisis Jerry Gazelle, in an article for Workforce reported that, as of June 30, 2012, only 30 percent of Fortune 100 companies still offered a defined benefit plan to new salaried, a figure that was down from 33 percent at the end of 2011, 37 percent in 2010 and 43 percent in 2009.  Gazelle noted that, as recently as 1998, defined benefit plans were the norm among the nation's argest employers, at a time when 90 percent of those Fortune 100 companies offered traditional pension plans to new salaried employees.


By 2017, the future retirement benefits of employees held in union pension plans were at also at risk.  One financial analyst described as it as an "emerging financial crisis among multi employer pension plans in America. These plans are a subset of private sector defined benefit pensions covering 10 million workers and retirees. Most critical are the projected bankruptcies of the Teamsters Central States and the United Mineworkers of America plans, making front page news for the last several months. These plans and many others were undermined by two financial market crashes between 2000 and 2009, corporate bankruptcies, de-regulation, and over-regulation."

Whether even those few, long-term, unionized employees who remain in traditional defined benefit plans will enjoy then pensions for which they worked throughout their lives 
remains an open question. Increasing corporate debt and a lack of pension oversight have exacerbated the problem. 

Tops Super Market chain is one such sad example. In March, 2018, as reported by The New York Times, the chain was cutting prices even though it had filed for bankruptcy the previous month.  In March, 2018, the parent company of the Southern stores, Winn-Dixie and Bi-Lo, announced that it too would file for Chapter 11 protection by the end of that month, and would close 94 stores. 

The private equity firm Lone Star distributed  $980 million in dividends from Winn-Dixie's parent company since 2011, according to Moody's Investors Service. Most of the payments were made by taking out debt on the chain, leaving less money to invest in stores. Marsh Supermarkets, an Indianapolis regional grocer that had also been backed by private equity, laid off more than 1,500 workers and required a federal takeover of its pension plan in 2017.

  Amid the intense competition, the number of supermarkets around the country increased from 2010 to 2015, but the number of supermarket operators declined slightly.  The collapse of many retail supermarket chains implicates the fate of thousands of cashiers, cake decorators and meat cutters, many of whom belong to labor unions and are owed pensions when they retire. Tops, for example, employs more than 12,000 unionized employees at about 160 stores in New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont. 

  The international food giant Ahold acquired Tops in 2001. The company was sold to Morgan Stanley's private equity team six years later.  Under the firm's ownership, Tops loaded up on debt and paid out roughly $300 million in dividends to its investors, according to Moody's. Even though Morgan Stanley no longer owns the company, Tops never overcame the debt burden. And like other unionized supermarket chains, Tops has had to deal with steep pension expenses. 

When it filed for bankruptcy, Tops said it expected to operate "as normal'' throughout the bankruptcy, but union officials are bracing for closings. "I have never seen a bankruptcy that doesn't lead to closing stores," said Frank DeRiso, president of U.F.C.W. Local 1, which represents Tops workers in New York.

These changes have exacted a toll on unions. Membership in United Food and Commercial Workers, the largest grocery union, decreased by more than 9 percent between   2002 and 2016 to about 1.2 7million members, according to the Labor Department.  "The private equity owners try to drain every last ounce of blood from these companies," said John T. Niccollai, president of Local 464A of the U.F.C.W., which represents grocery workers in New York and New Jersey. "Their feeling is if it goes bankrupt, so be it." 

When Mr. Niccollai started working at the union in the late 1970s, the A & P grocery chain had about 7,000 stores. By the time A & P had filed for its second bankruptcy, in 2015, it was down to about 125. Mr. Niccollai found jobs elsewhere for 3,500 workers who had been displaced by the bankruptcy, but 1,500 of his members were out of work. He recently added membership by organizing some of the warehouse workers at the Peapod grocery delivery 
service, but it is challenging when the industry is increasingly dominated by nonunion employers like Walmart and Amazon."We are fighting hard," Mr. Niccollai added.
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Not surprisingly, financial planners and investors have waxed ecstatic about the impact of ERISA: "ERISA had an effect on traditional pension plans and killed some of them, but overall it was good legislation," according to James van Iwaarden, consulting actuary with Minneapolis-based Van Iwaarden Associates. "When defined contribution plans were first introduced in the late '70s, they were never intended to replace defined benefit plans, but to supplement them." Today, "Defined benefit plans are dead," says Bob Pearson, CEO of Pearson Partners International in Dallas. "No company I know offers them even as a means to attract senior executives."

As a result of the  demise of traditional pension plans, Wall Street financiers and their enablers have reaped billions of dollars in fees from "administering" and churning 401k plans since the passage of ERISA. The losers have been the ordinary people who work and live on Main Street. Equally indefensible has been the failure of federal oversight to ensure that traditional pension plans are adequately funded and that pensioners are paid before investors. Lastly, corporations should not be permitted to renege on their obligations to employees through the ruse of bankruptcy, the effect of which is to transfer many of the pension obligations to the Federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation which is subsidized by the taxpayers of the United States. These continuing abuses show that, in our current political and economic system, the concerns of ordinary citizens ring hollow while voices of the 1% sound loudly.   

The Myth of the Free Market

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The mythology of capitalism and the market economy that it has spawned have been successfully invoked by critics to emasculate unions and to compromise the ability of workers in the private and public sectors to demand higher wages and better working conditions. Yet that mythology continues to exert a bizarre intellectual stranglehold over so many Americans who should know better. 

The question that needs to be asked about this orthodoxy - as with all other orthodoxies - is, does it, in fact, explain existing social reality? If the markets for goods and services, absent public regulation, naturally seek to move into equilibrium, as advocates of unbridled market economics assert, why then have the annual median incomes of Americans, as of 2018, fallen precipitously since 1999?  

Why have "fair trade" policies, despite increasing levels of education in the U.S., caused a net migration of millions of U.S. jobs overseas during the past four decades, while the U.S. has continued to accumulate ever increasing balance of payments deficits caused by ever increasing purchases of foreign-made goods that were previously made and still could be made in this country?  

  Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher reported in the New York Times that nearly all of the 70 million iPhones, 30 million iPads and 59 million other assorted products sold by Apple sold in 2011 were manufactured overseas, primarily in China by third-party vendors with whom Apple contracted for services and products. Apple employs only 43,000 people in the United States and 20,000 overseas but, as a result of its exploitation of workers through third-party 
vendors, Apple made a profit of $400,000 per each of its actual employees, a sum greater than that made by Goldman Sachs, Exxon Mobil and Google. 

Despite the hyperbole, there is one question that is rarely asked in the popular media.  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.
 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 The New York Times on March 4, 2014.  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 characterization of 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.

Apple is only one example of why the United States is no longer a net-exporter of goods and services. U.S. trade and tax policies since the 1970s have incentivized the out-sourcing of goods and services. By the end of 2017, China's trade surplus with the United States rose to a record  $347 billion deficit. The U.S. trade deficit with Canada amounted to $11 billion; with Mexico, a $63 billion deficit; with Japan, a $69 billion deficit; and with Germany, there was a 
$65 billion deficit. The data showed that the U.S. imported $2.2 trillion. Automobiles, petroleum, and cell phones were the largest categories. 

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.

Inevitably, 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. In distinct contrast to their own employees, almost all of whom as at-will employees may be discharged from employment for no reason or any non-discriminatory reason at all, the shareholders' interests are protected by the boards of directors and, unlike employees, have a seat at the corporate table. To further protect the interests of shareholders,  the laws of the fifty 
states and the federal government  impose a fiduciary duty upon corporations to their  shareholders. 

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. 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 uninterested in 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.

Prayers Are Not the Answer

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This past Friday's mass shooting in Aurora, Illinois followed with a year and a day the massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School n Parkland, Florida. Every day, 342 people in the United States are victims of gun violence in murders, assaults, suicides and suicide attempts, unintentional shootings, and police intervention, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent  Gun Violence. 


Between  1968 and 2017, more than 1.5 million Americans have died in gun-related incidents, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This number exceeds the approximately 1.2 million service members who have been killed in every war in U.S. history, based upon estimates from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

        The emotional and economic losses caused by these gun deaths and injuries, as well as the emotional travail and suffering inflicted upon the families, friends and neighbors of the victims, are incalculable and the cumulative effects of this violence upon our entire society are pervasive. After the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 59 dead and hundreds wounded, CBS Moneywatch's Aimee Picchi wrote that, "gun violence in the U.S. also has an enormous financial cost, rippling through the economy in the form of lost wages, medical bills, higher taxes for law enforcement and lower property values, among other factors. Some estimates put the total annual tab of shootings at well over $100 billion, while others put it even higher." A senior staff attorney at Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Michael McLively, was quoted by Picchi, "The usual discussion is: There's a mass shooting, we talk about political inaction, and then everyone turns to the next thing that's happening or next disaster. The cost of gun violence goes undiscussed, and it's super important because it's silently affecting everyone." According to the    Law Center, researchers conservatively estimate that gun violence costs the American economy at least $229 billion every year, including $8.6 billion in direct expenses such as for emergency and medical care. 

The inability of this country's political and judicial institutions to address this problem has been exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008). Prior to the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in Heller, the Second Amendment had always been held by the federal courts to  grant to the people--and not to individuals--the right to keep and bear arms as members of a well-regulated militia (today's National Guard) as previously confirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court. See,  for example,  U.S. v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939). 

Sadly, the late Justice Scalia's tortured constitutional analysis and his inability to comprehend the grammatical interconnection between a subordinate clause in a sentence --"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State..."--and the main clause--"... the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed"--were an unfortunate consequence of the eighteenth-century ideological bias in which his legal analysis was mired.  In the name of an abstract right of the individual and his putative right to own a gun, Scalia denied the right of concrete human beings--who have died and will continue to die because of handgun violence--to be safe from harm: "We are aware of the problem of handgun violence in this country," Scalia piously intoned, "but the enshrinement of constitutional rights necessarily takes certain policy choices off the table."

          Scalia's unbridled defense of anti-social individualism has since given license to gun nuts and Second Amendment absolutists to thwart every rational effort to control the continuing slaughter of innocent citizens. While most GOP legislators at the federal, state and local levels have enthusiastically embraced the mantra of the NRA that "guns don't kill people, people do," too many Democratic legislators have been cowed into submission.

          How does one explain this insanity?  Part of the problem undoubtedly stems from the liberal ethos of the country in which the Founders intentionally constructed a constitutional system that emphasized the rights of solitary individuals over those of the community and, by means of checks and balances, separation of powers, and a diffusion of political power across a porous, largely unaccountable federal system, signaled a permanent distrust of government and its ability to act as an positive instrument for the public good.       
            
  Protecting the lives and safety of innocent citizens the paramount duty of any democratic government. The right of citizens to live meaningful and productive lives without the fear or threat of senseless violence perpetrated by sociopaths and the deranged is a basic human right that trumps any narrow, inflexible interpretation of the Second Amendment.   

  Unless the problem of gun violence is addressed honestly, openly and courageously by judges and politicians, the number and severity of incidents of senseless gun violence will continue to increase. Will this country then descend into the kind of dystopia described by Hobbes, in which the "life of man is poore, nasty, brutish and short?"  If  that dark, future world should come to pass, those jurists and politicians who now oppose all rational forms of gun control will ruefully be remembered as craven cowards who spawned a culture of dearth,

  As citizens of a putative democracy we, too, now have a solemn responsibility. We must demand  through collective action,that local officials, law enforcement, including police  departments and their unions, support sensible  gun control. In addition, we should support all legislative efforts by Democratic candidates for Congressional office and for President to increase the size of the U.S. Supreme Court to eleven or thirteen judges.  Such a change would help to ensure that the Heller decision is reversed and that the Supreme Court would become more responsive to the will of the American people rather than  than the right-wing ideological  agenda of the Federalist Society. 

The Decline of Literacy in the Media

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Ok, I'll confess that as a former English teacher and as a trial attorney, I have been accused of being pedantic. I plead guilty. I'll also admit that the English language, with its irregular verbs,  - i.e.   homonyms (air, heir; ale, ail;  patience; patients, etc) and homophones - i.e. lead (to go in front of)/lead (a metal); wind (to follow a course that is not straight)/wind (a gust of air); bass (low, deep sound)/bass (a type of fish) can be extremely confusing. There are also a litany of nouns that sound similar when pronounced aloud but mean very different things -  try to enunciate, for example, feudal and futile. 

I also admit that, in contrast to Spanish and German, languages in which most words are pronounced as they sound, many nouns in English are pronounced with silent letters and without memorization can not be properly spelled (or spelt, if you're British): as in knife, write, comb, castle, sword, know and hundreds of other words.  But the number of such words is significantly less than in French.

The German language, in contrast to English, has three different definite articles to distinguish the gender of male, female and neuter nouns - Der Soldat, Die Frau, Das Fraulein  -  and the definite articles change in the normative,  dative,  genitive and accusative cases. In addition, the placement of nouns and verbs change where subordinate construction is used as with auxiliary verbs and past participles - e. g. Ich glaube, dass  Ihre Aussage wahr ist. (I believe that your statement has been truthful),

    English, by contrast, does not differentiate gender among male, female and neuter nouns and, because of that, the form of the definite article "the" never changes, regardless of whether the nouns are used as direct objects, objects of prepositions, or in the dative or possessive cases. Further, the use of subordinate construction does not change the sequence of nouns and verbs in a sentence.   
I will also concede that there is a sound distinction to be made between informal English  and its relaxed grammatical rules and formal English. The former is perfectly fine for conversations among friends and in social circles, but the later is required in public speaking and in written commentary lest the speaker or author be dismissed as semi-literate. 

Not surprisingly, as a certified curmudgeon, I have a number of pet peeves. I refuse to excuse the inability of allegedly educated  writers to know the difference between the contraction "You're" and the possessive pronoun "Your. "  Equally inexcusable, is the inability to know when to properly use the comparative  adjectives "less" and "fewer."  And why do so many media commentators not understand know the difference between the prepositions "between" and "among"or  the need to use objective case pronouns as the objects of the prepositions --e. g.  such as "between you and me," not I, and "among the three or four of us," not we? 

But my indignation has been raised to new levels of agitation since the ascent of 24 hour cable television. In order to fill time, the services of endless panels of bloviators and talking heads have been hired as "analysts. " Hardly any are journalists who would know how to do independent  research and have little  to recommend themselves other than their opinions and political pedigrees. Sadly, a number of them seem unaware of the basic rule of subject and predicate agreement. On a number of occasions, I have heard commentators say "There is many sources." Is this too difficult a rule to get straight?

Perhaps as distressing, the repetitive use of objective case pronouns before the use of gerunds  -  where possessive pronouns are required  - has become ubiquitous. It is "his thinking"and "their deciding," not him thinking or them deciding. Is it asking too much of  MSNBC, CNN and Fox News that they require their highly paid panelists to familiarize themselves with the basic rules of English grammar before they embarrass themselves or cause us to cringe in disbelief.

Basic literacy and a commitment to report matters accurately and truthfully are under assault on a daily basis. Words are the vehicles by which we as sentient beings express our thoughts. The improper attention to the use of words and to the rules that govern their use are indicative of sloppy thinking. It behooves us all to try to use words - and the rules that govern their use - properly.  

Ronald Reagan's Policies Are Still Killing Americans

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     Decades before Donald Trump became President, the GOP had already issued a declaration of war against the interests of ordinary Americans. A 2013 study released by the journal Health Affairs reported a decline in life expectancy for women in about 43 percent of the nation's counties. The research showed that women age 75 and younger were dying at higher rates than in previous years in nearly half of this country's counties. Most of these counties were located in rural areas throughout the South and the West.


    Historically, on average, the life expectancy for women has exceeded that of males in the United States by six years, but that disparity has been narrowing according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The reduction in life expectancy for some women appears to have begun in the late 1980s, although studies have begun to report upon it only during the past few years.

    The researchers, David Kindig and Erika Cheng of the University of Wisconsin, analyzed federal death data and other information for about 3,141 U.S. counties over the past 10 years. They calculated mortality rates for women aged 75 and younger. They found that nationwide, the rate of women who died younger than would be expected fell overall from 324 to 318 per 100,000 women. However, in 1,344 of the counties studied, the average premature death rate rose from 317 per 100,000
deaths to about 333 per 100,000.   A similar study led by the University of Washington's Dr. Christopher Murray surveyed county-level death rates. It also found that women were dying earlier than life, especially in the South.

    The two studies by Murray and Kindig underscore important regional differences. The Southern states have the highest numbers of people who still smoke. In addition, the proportion of women who did not graduate from high school is also highest in the South. Since the 1980s, the percentage of people living in poverty and those who also lack access to basic medical and dental care in the United States has soared exponentially. This increase is directly attributable to the policies of Ronald Reagan and the "trickle-down" economics that he espoused. 

    Equally a cause for concern, in June of 2018, the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a study which showed that, as of 2016, more non-Hispanic whites died than were born in twenty-six states; more than at any time in U.S. history. The study reported that about 179 million residents - or approximately 56 percent of the U.S. population - lived in those 26 states. By contrast, white deaths exceeded births in just four states in 2004 and seventeen as recently as 2014.

    As reported by the New York Times, many of the states in which these declines in birth have been documented are in rural states that voted for Donald Trump. For example, Martin County, in eastern North Carolina, first experienced the decline in white births in the late 1970s, a phenomenon that is now state-wide. The Times quoted Michael Brown, 66, a retired hospital maintenance worker in Robersonville whose two daughters went away to college and never moved back - a pattern typical for young people throughout the county, "There are just hardly any young people in the county anymore "We are the last generation who stayed with their parents," said Mr. Brown.   

    There is also more than anecdotal evidence that the opioid crises that continues to  decimate American communities is fueled by an increasing perception, endlessly reiterated by Reagan, that we should not look to our government to do for us what we can not do by ourselves. As one West Virginia academic  opined, " he opioid epidemic is merely a symptom of a much larger crisis, one we as Americans must learn to solve: the crisis of isolation, despair and hopelessness."
    
    Wheaton College economist John Miller observed that the economy grew much more slowly in the 1980s than during the 1960s, and that Reagan's tax policies especially harmed low income families.  Many of these families, especially white voters in the South and West, were among Reagan's most ardent supporters. By the end of Regan's administration in1988, the bottom 40% of households paid a larger share of their income in federal taxes in 1988 than they did in 1980. Miller noted that the increases in the payroll taxes that financed Social Security and Medicare were greater than the minuscule benefit these taxpayers received from lowered income tax rates.

    Not surprisingly, the richest 1% were the lottery winners as their effective federal tax rate was reduced from 34.6% to 29.7%, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Simultaneously, as Reagan increased the military budget, he slashed social spending. By 1988, domestic discretionary spending had declined from 4 .7% of GDP in 1980 to 3.1%. Miller reported that the most adversely affected were programs for vulnerable low-income Americans that experienced an extraordinary 54% reduction in federal spending from 1981 to 1988. After correcting for inflation, subsidized housing had lost 80.7% of its budget, training and employment services were cut by 68.3%, and housing assistance for the elderly suffered a 47.1% decrease.

    These programs, Miller concluded, never returned to their pre-Reagan spending levels. In the meantime, as taxes on corporations have declined precipitously since the 1950s, the growth of corporate welfare and tax loopholes has deprived the government of vital sources of additional revenue that could be used to expand essential public services for ordinary Americans.

     In a similar vein, Mary Williams Walsh and Louise Storey, report that as of 2013 corporations then enjoyed billions of dollars in tax-free financing because of a 1986 change in the tax code supported by Ronald Reagan. They report: "In all, more than $65 billion of these bonds have been issued by state and local governments on behalf of corporations since 2003, according to an analysis of Bloomberg bond data by The New York Times. During that period, the single biggest beneficiary of such securities was the Chevron Corporation, which issued bonds with a total face value of $2.6 billion, the analysis showed. Last year it reported a profit of $26 billion." And, "At a time when Washington is rent by the politics of taxes and deficits, select companies are enjoying a tax break normally reserved for public works. This style of financing, called 'qualified private activity bonds,' saves businesses money, because they can borrow at relatively low interest rates. But those savings come at the expense of American taxpayers, because the interest paid to bondholders is exempt from taxes."   
 
    In a paper first published in 2010, now released as a book,  Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson reported that one in ten people in Japan and Germany suffered from some form of mental illness, compared to one in four Americans. The explanation for this disparity, according to those researchers, is increasing U.S. inequality: As income distribution becomes increasingly
unequal, the society fabric is ripped apart, which adversely affects, to varying degrees,  the mental health  of everyone who lives within the society.

      The American Dream is being plundered before our open eyes while politicians and pundits ominously warn that "entitlements" must be severely reduced. But the only programs they propose to gut are the ones that have provided a measure of dignity and social justice for ordinary Americans since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. These are the 99% of the population who owe their misfortune to the poor political choices that we have collectively made as a Americans. 

    Politics has consequences. Those who choose not to become informed or involved do so at their peril.    

How Values Determine Public Policy

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In 2015 former New York Times food critic Mark Bittman wrote a column in which he asked "Why would you buy a processed food that tastes worse than what it was designed to replace, doesn't exist in nature, and helps kill you?" Bittman reminded readers that the Food and Drug Administration, an agency of the executive branch of the government, had finally decided to ban food containing trans fats, but only years after overwhelming evidence and litigation made the dangers of those substances clear beyond peradventure. He further noted that "partially hydrogenated oils have benefited no one except their manufacturers and the producers of the junk that includes them" but he lamented that "the three-year phase out means more deaths from people consuming a substance that should have been taken off the market at least a decade ago."

            "Why wait three years?" Bittman asked, "Why not get these heart-stopping products off the shelves now, as we do when food is contaminated with E. coli? If the evidence is that trans fats are more harmful than other fats, and other fats exist, why delay? Protecting Big Food's profits is the only possible answer."

In a prior column, Mark Bittman presciently identified the source of the problems that afflict our political system: our values. As Bittman observed, "It's clear to most everyone, regardless of politics, that the big issues -- labor, race, food, immigration, education and so on -- must be "fixed," and that fixing any one of these will help with the others. But this kind of change must begin with an agreement about principles, specifically principles of human rights and well-being rather than principles of making a favorable business climate....Shouldn't adequate shelter, clothing, food and health care be universal? Isn't everyone owed a society that orks toward guaranteeing the well-being of its citizens? Shouldn't we prioritize avoiding self-destruction?"  

Bittman went on to observe that, "Defining goals that matter to people is critical, because the most powerful way to change a complex, soft system is to change its purpose. For example, if we had a national agreement that food is not just a commodity, a way to make money, but instead a way to nourish people and the planet and a means to safeguard our future, we could begin to reconfigure the system for that purpose. More generally, if we agreed that human well-being was a priority, creating more jobs would not ring so hollow. .... Increasingly, it's corporations and not governments that are determining how the world works. As unrepresentative as government might seem right now, there is at least a chance of improving it, whereas corporations will always act in their own interests."  

Bittman concluded that "more than minor tweaks are needed to improve life for most people...The big ideas are not a set of rules handed down from on high. To develop them for now and the future is a major challenge, and we - progressives and our allies -have to work harder at it. No one is going to figure it out for us."  

  Bittman is right. In large part, the values that we hold - our worldviews - determine the politicians we endorse, and the public policies that we support or oppose. Unlike religious dogmas, however, political philosophies are neither true nor false per se. Rather, political philosophies reflect the values that govern our public discourse and define our views about the proper role of government, including its responsibility to address economic issues and social needs. 

Our political philosophies also help us to define our understanding of ourselves as political beings. As the expression and embodiment of our social and moral values, they epitomize who we think we are and what we think we can or cannot achieve as citizens through participation in the political process. As Michael Gerson has observed. "Democracy is not merely a set of procedures. The values we celebrate or stigmatize eventually influence  the character of our people and polity. Democracy does not insist on perfect virtue from its leaders. But there is a set of values that lends authority to power: empathy, honesty, integrity, and self restraint." A political philosophy inevitably suggests specific programs and policies. For that reason, the political, economic and ethical effects of the policies and programs that are enacted based upon that philosophy can be measured, scrutinized and evaluated. Once implemented as public policy, over time, they enable us to see whether the effects are beneficial or inimical to the health and vitality of civil society as well as who benefits and who loses.

  Equally important, as Bittman suggests, ignoring the problem of root values inevitably leads to unproductive and frustrating political discussions. Whether, for example, one believes that access to quality publicly-funded health care is a human right, as opposed to a commodity that should be sold by private insurers and purchased in the marketplace, will prompt the proponents of these two diametrically opposed perspectives to endorse entirely different public policy proposals. Unless the underlying root value can be identified and challenged through rational discussion, it will remain impossible to effectively address the issue of health care reform.  

Similarly with foreign trade, the rights of workers to organize and to bargain collectively, and the issue of climate change, a belief that the values of the marketplace - the desire to maximize profits - should control, will lead to one set of policy proposals that endorses a minimalist view of government. On the other hand, those who believe that the public interest should control will advocate specific policies to protect workers and to ensure safety and protect against environmental degradation through rigorous public regulations. In addition, values that we not do share or which are absent from our worldviews and political vocabulary also help to define us; they rule out  a universe of other possibilities that remain unknown or alien to us; and they constrain our ability to imagine other alternatives. 

Conversely, the absence of specific policies and proposals that are designed to address specific public needs help to unmask pious rhetoric as little more than cant or hypocrisy. This last observation is useful when the discussion turns to a discussion of this country's well-documented and exponentially increasing economic and political inequality. Although Americans of every persuasion claim to profess as a bedrock principle, a commitment to some kind of equal opportunity or equality of opportunity, there has been little serious public debate about how we can give substance to our ideals.   

  The question of values becomes one of singular significance in the wake of Donald Trump's election as president of the United States. A few weeks before his election, Trump   proclaimed, "We are cutting the regulations at a tremendous clip. I would say 70 percent of regulations can go." One week later, he went one step further, suggesting perhaps 80 percent of existing government regulations could be eliminated during his administration. Left unsaid by President Trump is an acknowledgment that regulations are the vehicles through which government protects all of us, including the most vulnerable, from predatory and unscrupulous business practices, ensures public safety and protects against health and environmental hazards. 

When Economists Become Theologians

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The University of Paris economist Thomas Piketty has marshaled a wealth of impressive data in his book Capital in the 21st Century. From an historical  perspective, the data shows that the market-based economies in the Western World - save for the brief, unique period caused by the economic disruptions of two world wars - have spawned increasing economic inequality.

Piketty also predicts that, without vigorous public intervention in the marketplace - as the rate of return on investments continues to exceed the rate of economic growth - economic inequality will continue to accelerate. Not surprisingly, Piketty has been denounced on the right as a neo-Marxist or a dangerous social democrat because he has had the audacity to suggest, as a basic proposition of democratic governance, that economic policy should be subordinate to political policy.  

Simultaneously, Piketty's colleague and collaborator at the London School of Economics, Gabriel Zucman, has reported in one of his many studies, Tax Evasion on Offshore Profits and Wealth, that U.S. corporations now declare 20% of their profits in tax  havens - a  tenfold increase since the 1980s - and that tax avoidance policies have reduced corporate tax revenues by up to a third.  At the global level, Zucman argues that 8% of the world's personal financial wealth is now being held offshore, costing more than $200 billion to governments annually and that decisions to shift to tax havens and offshore wealth havens are increasing.

  In the current economic debate, Piketty and Zucman - along with a few other prominent exceptions such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz - remain the outliers in a profession that is overwhelmingly dominated by defenders of the status quo and conventional economic wisdom.

One such pathetic example of the latter is Tyler Cowan, an economist at George Mason University. Cowan enthusiastically cited a study which noted that, although economic inequality was rising in countries such as the U.S., "the economic surges of China, India and some other nations have been among the most egalitarian developments in history."
      
  Cowan piously concluded that "the true egalitarian should follow the economist's inclination to seek wealth-maximizing policies, and that means less worrying about inequality within the nation... [C]apitalism and economic growth are continuing their historic roles as the greatest and most effective equalizers the world has ever known."   
     
   In a prior book, Average is Over, Cowan extolled the rise of what he chronicles as the "big earners" in the emerging meritocracy that he foresees. He also argues that, rather than expand the safety net, governments should curtail spending.
  
      As an alternative and to maintain civic peace, Cowan suggests that local governments might offer engaging distractions to those whom he has identified in his Darwinian dystopia as the "big losers" and the "zero marginal product" workers. These "big losers" and "zero marginal product" workers presumably include the 162,000 U.S. architects and engineers whose jobs were shipped to third-world counties between 2000 and 2009, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the 180,000 computer IT and programming professionals who, according to Yale University's Jacob Hacker, lost their jobs between 2000 and 2004.
   
     Perhaps taking an unconscious cue from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Cowan proposes a palliative that he suggests would enable the 49% mooching class that Mitt Romney decried to live contented lives, albeit with reduced means and with substantially reduced expectations: "What if someone proposed that in a few parts of the United States, in warmer states, some city neighborhoods would be set aside for cheap living? We would build some 'tiny homes' [that]...might be about 400 square feet and cost in the range of $20,000 to $40,000. We would build some very modest dwellings there, as we used to build in the 1920s. We would also build some makeshift structures there, similar to the better dwellings you might find in a Rio de Janeiro favela.  The quality of the water and electrical standards might be low by American standards, but we could supplement the neighborhood with free municipal wireless..."  

        Cowan's paen to globalization and the onward march of capitalism blithely ignores the systematic, well-documented failures of the capitalist system he extols. His apologia offers small solace to the millions of Americans whose jobs have been lost to out-sourcing and the de-industrialization of the U.S.; his soothing entreaty that, in the long run, everything will work out nicely - some fine day - ignores Keynes's sage observation that "In the long run, we will all be dead."  One also suspects that Cowan would be less sanguine about the economic landscape he surveys if he were informed that his tenured  position at George Mason University were about to be converted into an adjunct faculty position.  

  All of the empirical evidence, Cowan and other apologists notwithstanding, suggests that out-sourcing, deregulation, austerity, the commitment to the myth of "free-trade," -i.e. "laissez-faire" in trade policies - and reduced government regulation have been major contributing factors to the loss of manufacturing, stagnating wages and the growing impoverishment of the former middle class.

  The net effect of current economic policies - sadly endorsed by Democrats as well as Republicans-  has been an extraordinary concentration of wealth and power into the hands of financiers and other moneyed interests who have become the winners in this game of  economic Russian roulette. As a result, the decisions and predilections of fewer and fewer individuals now determine the outcomes in the American economy, while the overwhelming majority of Americans have little ability to influence macro-economic trends or economic and political policies.

         The contrast between "private affluence" and "pubic squalor" in America has only grown worse in the subsequent decades since Galbraith first used those terms to describe what he foresaw as evolution of inequality in the U.S. economy. The disparity between the few who are wealthy and the many who are poor has widened alarmingly in the United States since the advent of the Reagan era and the kind of "trickle-down" economics to which he and his advisers subscribed.
         In his General Theory, Keynes observed that "the ideas of economists and philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the salves of some defunct economist....But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests which are dangerous for good or evil." 

           The classical liberal paradigm of the market economy has long since ceased to explain present day economic reality, but the intellectual chains of that received wisdom from long since dead economists continue to control the public narrative. Unfettered competition, based upon allegedly free market decisions made by solitary actors in which goods and services are sold to the most willing buyers, is a myth that does not create individual opportunity for the vast majority of Americans, nor has it maximized business opportunities. 

         Ultimately, the entire process is self-defeating and creates a negative-sum game: As entrepreneurs seek to maximize their profits by paying the lowest possible costs for labor and materials, the middle class is hollowed out. As the income of the middle class contracts, aggregate demand is reduced. As domestic spending contracts, the purchase of goods and services contract. Without the intervention of the government into market economies, as Hyman Minsky has argued, the buyers and sellers of goods and services become locked in mutually destructive death throes.

In addition, given a shared mind-set that sincerely believes that the pursuit of self-interest is somehow a public good, the defenders of the economic status-quo remain oblivious to the adverse effects of poverty, the lack of health care, pollution, climate change and to basic principles of social justice.  Further,  the insecurities of the marketplace persuade those who are successful to institutionalize their advantages. Monopolies and plutocracy are the inevitable result and, as the Forbes 400 list shows, economic inequality becomes more pronounced.

Market economies are affected by the frailties and the foibles of human actors. Although many of these actors are motivated by selfish, short-sighted concerns, the consequences of their actions harm everyone else. It is for that reason that regulation in the public interest and investment in public goods by the government - as the agent of the people 
in a democracy - are essential antidotes to the temper the excesses of capitalism and to create the foundations for a truly just society.

Prayers Will Never Be The Answer

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photograph of the justices, cropped to show Ju...

photograph of the justices, cropped to show Justice Scalia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John Lott's self-serving critique of gun registration laws in Tuesday's New York Times [ "Background Checks Are Not the Answer to Gun Violence"] needs to be juxtaposed to yesterday's episode of gun violence in the Parkland, Florida high school. Why should it matter if a few people are inconvenienced by gun registration laws or if their identities are confused with others when balanced against the human toll caused by gun violence? Why should mentally-challenged, violence prone or ill-equipped persons, who are neither part of the military or the police, be given an unfettered right to own and carry guns of every conceivable type and caliber? Isn't the first duty of the government to ensure the safety and protection of its citizens? Why should the possession of these instruments of destruction be elevated to an alleged constitutional right?


Every other Western democracy that has confronted these very questions have arrived at better, safer answers: Restrict guns, require registration, comprehensive background checks, continuing education, and require that all licensed weapons be securely locked in sealed containers.

Professional police forces were created in this country because citizens correctly concluded that they did not want to b e subject to subject to vigilante violence. Given that history, why are the police associations and chiefs of police reluctant to take on the gun lobby even through they, too, are often the victims of gun violence?

Prayers are not the answer to gun violence; legislation is. It is time for every American concerned about this country's endless orgy of gun violence to demand action and to punish every legislator who panders to the NRA. A country that embraces a culture of gun ownership, given the attendant violence it spawns, and elevates it to a constitutional principle is one that is on the verge of implosion. Requiscat in pace, Antonin Scalia.


Pope Francis Confronts Right-Wing Politicians

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                  (Chapter 25 of Private Affluence and Public Squalor: Social Injustice and Economic Misery In America)

   Pope Francis presents a challenge not just to self-styled GOP Catholics who describe themselves as "conservatives" but to the entire Republican establishment and its supporters and enablers. In February of 2017, for example, the Pope, while ostensibly rebuking Myanmar for its mistreatment of the minority Rohinga population, exhorted Christians "to not raise walls but bridges, to not respond to evil with evil, to overcome evil with good." The pope continued, "A Christian can never say "I'll make you pay for that.' Never! That is not a Christian gesture.'"




    Shortly thereafter, Pope Francis sent a letter of encouragement to the U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, California. In his letter, the Pope reaffirmed the church's commitment to social justice and deplored tyranny amid the "gutting of democracies." He also condemned leaders who preyed upon "fear, insecurity, quarrels, and even justified indignation, in order to shift the responsibility for all these ills on to a 'non-neighbor" 

     The Pope's challenge is likely to become even more formidable and divisive as the Trump administration announces its effort to dismantle the existing meager social safety net that Americans currently enjoy and the environmental, safety and health policies that were adopted to protect the planet and our collective well-being. The Pope's refusal to embrace waht passes for  conventional wisdom in the U.S. underscores the  chasm between the market values - that have accelerated the growth of inequality and public squalor - and the inability of classical liberal doctrine to address the misery created by its own policy prescriptions.
   


    After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama, borrowing a phrase from Hegel, wrote a book entitled The End of History and the Last Man. The work became a cause célèbre among those who are often described in the popular media as "neo-conservatives."

     Fukuyama postulated that the emergence of Western liberal democracy, with its emphasis upon individual rights, limited government and market capitalism, potentially represented  the apogee in the evolution of Western  political philosophy: "What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

    Fukuyama's myopia with respect to the breadth and depth of Western political thought also left him oblivious to the older, still vibrant school of Western political discourse - the conservative tradition, as exemplified in Catholic social teaching. That tradition, harkening back to the Greeks and Romans, continues to insist that individuals realize their potential and humanity to the extent to which they participate as full members of a political society - as citizens. The notion of citizenship, based upon mutual obligations and reciprocal rights, remains central to that political philosophy.

     Equally emphatic is the Catholic Church's rejection of those economic doctrines that have elevated the primacy of the markets and capitalism over basic human need. In his encyclical, Mater et Magister, Pope John XXIII emphasized the central role of the state in promoting social justice: "As for the State, its whole raison d'etre is the realization of the common good in the temporal order. It cannot, therefore, hold aloof from economic matters. On the contrary, it must do all in its power to promote the production of a sufficient supply of material goods, 'the use of which is necessary for the practice of virtue.' It has also the duty to protect the rights of all its people, and particularly of its weaker members, the workers, women
and children. It can never be right for the State to shirk its obligation of working actively for the betterment of the condition of the workingman."


    Historically, Catholic social thought has insisted that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as libertarians and classical liberals would have it, to serve only the needs of the individual. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument, designed merely to protect private property or to protect rights, but that it imposes reciprocal obligations upon each citizen as a member of a political community.

    Thomas Aquinas taught that, because God endowed each man in his own image and likeness, man has become the steward for the earth, and for all of its creatures and its bounty. It is for that reason that Catholic social philosophy to the present remains deeply skeptical about arguments for an unregulated market economy dominated by the profit motive and the accumulation of wealth. 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 ..." Historically , Catholic social doctrine has condemned, in theory if not in practice, aggrandizement and selfishness. Avaritia (greed) and luxuria (extravagance) are counted as two of the Seven Deadly Sins.

     Catholic social thought is essentially communitarian, in contrast to the political philosophy of Speaker Paul Ryan and other eighteenth century liberals who contend that society and the state are abstractions and that only the individual is real. Catholic social thought emphasizes that the state exists to serve the needs of civil society; not as libertarians and classical liberals would have it, to serve only the needs of the individual. As such, the state should not be viewed as a passive instrument, designed merely to protect private property or to protect rights,  but imposes reciprocal obligations upon each citizen as a member of a political community.

     The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, echoing the tradition of Catholic social thought and epistemology, countered that the self is the abstraction. He rejected the argument that one's ability to reason and the quality of that reasoning are unique attributes that belong to the solitary self as opposed to the social self. Because of the self's ephemeral nature, the knowledge, customs and habits contained within a given political culture are essential guideposts to properly orient the self to its social self and to other social selves. Which then is the abstraction: the self or society?

    Centuries earlier, it was Edmund Burke, a Catholic sympathizer and an alleged favorite of William Buckley, who observed that political society exists as an historical project into which individuals enter and depart while sharing a common destiny: "...society is indeed, a contract....It is to be looked on with reverence; because it is not a partnership in things...It is a partnership in all science, a partnership in all art, a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born..."

    The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, long before Jorge Mario Bergoglio became pope, issued a guide entitled Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions. The bishops insisted that "...[T]he economy must serve people, not the other way around. All workers have a right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, and to safe working conditions. They also have a fundamental right to organize and join unions. People have a right to economic initiative and private property, but these rights have limits. No one is allowed to amass excessive wealth when others lack the basic necessities of life."

    Because the conservative and socialist tradition share somewhat similar critiques about the limitations and deficiencies of liberal political ideology, the hysteria and discomfit of Rush Limbaugh, the Wall Street Journal, Human Events, Forbes, a legion of right-wing Catholic thinkers who defend market capitalism such as Michael Novak to Pope Francis' comments are understandable.


     In his inaugural address on January 30, 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke of the "millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day...I see one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished." Seventy-six years later, Roosevelt's message should still reverberate among all but the most indifferent.

    In October of 2013, the lingering effects of the Great Recession continued to be felt across the country. According to the U.S. Bureau Labor Statistics, the number of unemployed persons, at 11.3 million, and the  unemployment rate, at 7.3 percent, showed little improvement. The number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was 4.1 million and 8.1 million individuals were working part time because their hours had been cut back or because they were unable to find a full-time job while another 2.3 million persons were described to be marginally attached to the labor force."

    Equally distressing, according to the Census Bureau as of September, 2014, 15.4 percent of people lacked health insurance, which, while down from 15.7 percent in 2011, at 48 million, was not statistically significant. A US Department of Housing and Urban Development report noted there were 663,0000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless nationwide on a single night in January in 2013. Further, the US Department of Agriculture reported last month that 17.4 million U.S. households struggled to get enough food to eat because money and that in more than a third of those households - around one in eight US homes - at least one person did not get enough to eat at some time during the year. Lastly, as of the end of 2012, 46.5 million Americans (15.0 percent of the population) were reported to be still living in poverty. These statistics reflect what Michael Harrington described in the 1960s as, "The Other America."

    What has caused the misery index in the United States to increase so exponentially? The public policies of the Reagan administration and the successor administrations of Bush 41 and Bush 43 expressed the three verities of classical liberal economic orthodoxy (or, at very least, its libertarian strand): deregulation of business, tax cuts for the wealthy, and free trade that would enable businesses to seek the lowest costs for labor and to pay lowest prices for the purchase of goods and commodities anywhere in the world. Each of these policies was sold to a gullible American public on the basis of sonorous platitudes such as "A rising tide lifts all boats." They are the very policies that Pope Francis has identified as the among the root causes of misery throughout the Western world. The net effect of these callous and harmful policies has been to unravel the safety net stitched together by Franklin Roosevelt,  Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

    An equally important and baffling question is why so many Americans appear to be indifferent to the suffering of their neighbors?  Pope Francis' call for social justice is profoundly conservative, but to the tone deaf, it sounds far too radical. He has reminded all of us that the status quo is no longer acceptable because it is incompatible with human dignity. Those who seek to know the truth of the human condition will acknowledge this basic proposition. By contrast, the clamor and indignation on the right is solely calculated to vindicate the status-quo irrespective of the suffering and misery it has spawned.   


Shall We Corporatize Public Education Too?

   From its earliest beginnings in a 1647, when the Massachusetts General Court required every  town in the colony with a population of more than  fifty people to found, operate and fund schools, public education in the United States today has grown to encompass more than 15,000 separate school districts across the United States. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are now 98,817 public schools. The U.S. Department of Education reports that the country currently spends over $500 billion a year on public elementary and secondary education, K-12, and that, on average, school districts spend $10,591.00 per pupil.
public-schools-bleak-future
    Lately, much has appeared in the print media about the malaise of public education in the United States. Numerous reforms have been proposed, many of which involve empowering school administrators, testing students regularly, eliminating collective bargaining rights and tenure for teachers, holding teachers accountable for student performance, and creating more charter schools.

    Some of the more extreme measures proposed would dismantle public education entirely but use taxpayer funds to replace it with a system of vouchers for use in private schools and for-profit schools. Today, "private school choice" programs, as these vouchers are called by the  Alliance for School Choice, have been enacted in 13 states and the District of Columbia. Last year, during a time when states across the nation drastically slashed spending for public education budgets, 41 states introduced 145 pieces of private school choice legislation. The net effect of the more extreme proposals would be to remove education from public oversight and regulation, and permit unlicensed, poorly-paid and poorly-educated individuals to teach creationism, others forms of pseudo-science, extremist religious doctrines, and right-wing politics, history and economics without fear of censure and without any accountability whatsoever.

    A number of the reforms that have gained cachet in the mainstream media have been touted by President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and former D.C. Superintendent of Schools, Michelle Rhee, among others. Interestingly, none of these proponents of public school reform have ever taught in a public school or have any direct experience in trying to challenge students, particularly students under stress, to  learn. The larger question, however, is: will any of their proposed reforms actually improve public education in the United States or will they further undermine it?

       The October edition of Atlantic magazine, Nicole Allen documents the travails of American public education. Students in the United States ranks 21st among counties in Science; 14th  in reading skills, and 30th in Mathematics skills, according to the International Student Assessment for 2009. By contrast, students in Finland rank 2nd in Science, 3rd in reading sills, and 6th in Mathematics skills.

    Many might argue that any comparison between Finland and the U.S. is meaningless, given the size of the population and racial diversity of the U.S. in contrast to Finland. But is it possible that the example of Finland can still instruct, and if so, how?   

    First, Finland has created uniformly high standards for all of its students and those standards are supported and insured throughout the entire country. This is in stark contrast to the U.S. where the federal government and the states impose, at best, minimal requirements upon local school districts.

    Secondly, only 7% of the applicants to the University of Helsinki's teacher programs are accepted. Upon completion of their education and practicum, teachers in Finland are paid more than 80% of the average of full-time earnings of college-educated adults in that country. By contrast, in the United States, teachers are uniformly poorly paid and are often recruited  from the bottom quartile of college graduates. As the Atlantic data shows, even in more selective education programs such as those at Johns Hopkins School of Education and at Columbia University's Teachers College, 53% and 56% of the applicants respectively are accepted.

       Third, teachers in Finland, as recognized and valued professionals  - all of whom are also unionized - are given great latitude in their methods of teaching; and collegiality, rather than a top-down management model, governs decision-making in the schools. By contrast, here in the United States, the GE management model of public execution and intimidation  - exemplified by the likes of Michelle Rhee - controls educational discourse.

    Lastly, and most importantly, Finland's education system succeeds because its students are ready and prepared to learn. As a social democracy, Finland has perhaps the Western world's most extensive safety net. The country has universal medical care, strong family-support, child welfare, and nutritional programs, minimal poverty and its population would never tolerate the kind of extreme economic inequality that is currently fashionable in the United States .

    Here in the United States, the evidence shows that the problems caused by a decentralized, unequally-funded system of local public education are compounded by the existence and tolerance of widespread economic and social inequality which also explains, in large part, the uneven outcomes in America's decentralized education system and the dismal performance of so many of the children who are enrolled.

    In a report released in March 2009, David Berliner, Regents Professor at Arizona State University, analyzed those "out-of-school factors" (OSFs) which "play a powerful role in generating existing achievement gaps" that continue to undermine the purpose of the federal "No Child Left Behind" act. Berliner, in a wide-ranging review of the existing data and summary of the educational literature, identified six significant factors among poor children that adversely affected their health and learning opportunities and which therefore "limit what schools can accomplish on their own: (1) low birth weight and non- genetic prenatal influences on children; (2) inadequate medical, dental, and vision care, often a result of inadequate or no medical insurance; (3) food insecurity; (4) environmental pollutants; (5) family relations and family stress; and (6) neighborhood characteristics."

         These six factors, Berliner concluded, "are related to a host of poverty- induced physical, sociological and psychological problems that children often bring to school, ranging from neurological damage and attention disorders to excessive absenteeism, linguistic under-development, and oppositional behavior." Berliner further observed that, "Because America's schools are so highly segregated by income, race, and ethnicity, problems related to poverty occur simultaneously, with greater frequency, and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities. These schools therefore face significantly greater challenges than schools serving wealthier communities, and their limited resources are often overwhelmed."

    The data which Berliner cites showed that, in 2006-2007, the average white student attended a public school in which about 30 percent of the students were classified as low-income. By contrast, the average black or Hispanic student attended a school in which nearly 60 percent of the students were classified as low-income, while the average American Indian was enrolled in a school where more than half of the students were poor. "These schools," Berliner concluded, "are often dominated by the many dimensions of intense, concentrated, and isolated poverty that shape the lives of students and families."

    Horace Mann believed that education had the potential to become  "the great equalizer in the conditions of men." For that reason, he became an early advocate of the importance of public education for all citizens. Later, John Dewey insisted that "Since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest; these can be created only by education."   

    The continued de-funding and fragmentation of American public education- as exemplified by the growth of charter school movement - coupled with the relentless, continuing assault upon teachers, the imposition of management models dawn from the private sector, the continued dumbing down of curricula, and proposals to turn public education over to entrepreneurs and for-profit business are precisely the wrong direction for American public education. Sadly also, these proposals show how far this country has strayed from the grand visions of Horace Mann and John Dewey.

       In his important book, What Money Can't Buy, Harvard University political philosopher Michael Sandel warns against the continued creep of the values of market economy into the public square,  the end result of which he fears will be the creation of a market society in which everyone and everything is for sale. Decades earlier, the Marxist philosopher and social critic, Herbert Marcuse argued that "An economic system that encourages its young men and women to tailor their educations to the needs of the marketplace, irrespective of their hopes and ambitions, is an economic system that should be roundly condemned. A nation that discourages the study of art, music and the Humanities is a nation that will inevitably find itself populated by unthinking dolts and automatons."

    Everyone who is concerned about the future of this fragile democracy and about the education of our children and grandchildren must hope that it is not too late to reverse the trend toward the continued corporatization of American public education.

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