Monday, December 02, 2013

The Safety Net, Part II

Private, individual tax-deferred retirement savings are a failure — a noble one, perhaps, but they were sold as a replacement for defined-benefit pensions that brought a dignified retirement to an entire generation of American workers from the 1940s all the way up to and into the 1980s.
Let me show you something. This is a graph of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the late 19th century until 2009. Focus particularly on that big dip after October 1929:

Notice that the Dow Jones does not again reach its 1929 peak for about 25 years.

Now, imagine that you are 64 years old on Oct. 1, 1929, and had just about reached the point where your investments would provide you with a comfortable retirement. Four years later, your stocks are worth 1/10th of what they were in 1929, you are three years into retirement and those savings are dwindling away to nothing. You just have to wait another 22 years or so (when you’re 89) to get the retirement you were counting on.

That’s one reason 401(k)s are not an adequate substitute for a defined benefit pension. Leaving retirees at the mercy of Wall Street seems the height of cruelty.

There needs to be a new deal (as it were) between capital and labor: We workers will give you our best efforts and the best years of our lives, and capital will use part of the profits we provide them through our labor to provide us with an adequate retirement in return.

That seems a fair deal: both parties have rights, and both parties have responsibilities. This used to be seen as one of those “of course” things that barely merited discussion.

Putting more spending power into the hands of retirees would be a good thing for capital as well — more spending power equals more sales for American companies. And it would be good for the workers who would produce the things those retirees would buy.

It is ludicrous that in a country as wealthy as the United States, the possibility of cutting Social Security benefits comes up so regularly. We should be talking about making Social Security more generous, not less. Expanded benefits could be financed by eliminating the cap on the amount of income subject to the Social Security tax, perhaps supplemented with a Financial Transaction Tax, as has been proposed by former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and others.

I mentioned in Part I that our country’s military retirees could expect to receive 50 percent of their last active-duty paycheck if they retire after 20 years, and the amount escalates to 100 percent for retirees with 40 years of active service.

It is time we recognize that ordinary, non-military American workers also serve our country — sometimes in a very literal way, as in the case of wait staff. But what about the nurses who deliver our babies and care for us when we get sick, the people who stock the shelves in our supermarkets, the mechanics who fix our cars, the carpenters who build our homes and schools, the iron workers who construct safe bridges for us to cross? Is it too much to ask that they, too, should have the kind of retirement we give our military? Large American corporations have the means to provide this to their workers; they do not yet have a mandate to do so.

I believe providing a guaranteed income upon retirement is a responsibility of, and should be a legal requirement for, every sizeable corporation in America, and there should be government support to smaller companies so that they can do the same with their employees.

During this Holiday season, it is appropriate that we reflect on the many blessings we have in our lives, and turn our thoughts to providence. It is good that we do so — but I invite you also to give a thought today to how we might work together to thank one another for giving the best years of our lives serving one another in our economic needs.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Glory to God in the Lowest

I love the story of the loaves and fishes.

Jesus answers the doubts of his disciples with overflowing love – love not only from Him, but spread by and through each member of the crowd. There can be no limit to His generosity, and the more His followers shared it, the more comes pouring out.

The company I work for occasionally offers the opportunity to do a volunteer day feeding the homeless of San Francisco at Glide Memorial Church in the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood.
I have volunteered several times, and every time I do I’m moved beyond words.

There is something about giving food to the hungry that strips away whatever it is in me that resists seeing love in the world. There they stand, some neatly dressed, some in little more than street-grimed rags, and they silently ask me to feed them, and in their vulnerability and their wounds I see the Face  of Christ, and Him crucified.

I always think “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my Roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

I see an old man sitting at one of the tables,  missing his front teeth, and I see another old man offer him his soft dinner roll with a look of humble and saintly kindness, and  then I realize that those two old men are Christ, showing me the Way to Heaven.

I see a man softly ranting, at once incoherent and deeply convinced, and see the other diners at his table listen attentively, as if he were a professor discussing the classics in a graduate seminar, and there I see the most simple and beautiful mercy being made plain.

I see men and women pouring each other cups of water, and responding with simple gratitude, and it is the wedding at Cana, writ small.

The Kingdom is at hand.

Glory to God in the Lowest.

The Safety Net, Part I

THOSE WHO MAKE A CAREER OF SERVING OUR NATION in the armed forces know that they are earning a nice retirement as they do so. Men and women who serve 20 years can retire with half the rate of pay they were earning at the point they retired, for life — and if active-duty people get a raise, so do retirees. Those who serve 30 years receive 75 percent of their rate at retirement, and the few who actually put in 40 years of service receive their full pay at retirement for the rest of their lives.

These facts raise few eyebrows among taxpayers. People who wear the uniforms of our armed forces put their lives, bodies and sanity at risk for our nation, and providing a comfortable retirement for them and their families seems only fair.

In the years before the advent of 401(k) plans and other tax-deferred retirement savings plans, the majority of American workers had what were called “defined benefit” plans, so that retiring after years of service to one company would result in a guaranteed monthly income that was not subject to the ups and downs of Wall Street. This was part of an implicit deal between workers and management: You gave the company your prime years, and in return the company provided for your retirement.

401(k) plans were sold as a way to “give the worker the power to manage his own retirement” and thus get out from under the grip of paternalistic corporations. What it really was was a way for the management class to relieve itself of its responsibility for its workers, and as a bonus earn Wall Street hefty fees for managing all those new investments.

In an editorial on Nov. 17, the Washington Post editorial board posited the following:
(T)he poverty rate among the elderly is 9.1 percent, lower than the national rate of 15 percent — and much lower than the 21.8 percent rate among children.

“This suggests that Social Security is doing a good job of fighting poverty as is and that those gains could be preserved in any attempt to trim the program. … (I)f anyone has a claim on a greater share of federal resources, it would seem to be the young — and especially the poor young. Unchecked entitlement spending for the elderly crowds out spending on programs that might help them, as well as defense, research, infrastructure and law enforcement.

My new favorite Democrat, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, did not mince words on the floor of the Senate in her response to the editorial:

No retirement crisis? Tell that to the millions of Americans who are facing retirement without a pension. Tell that to the millions of Americans who have nothing to fall back on except Social Security. There is a $6.6 trillion gap between what Americans under 65 are currently saving and what they will need to maintain their current standard of living when they hit retirement. $6.6 trillion — and that assumes Social Security benefits aren’t cut. Make no mistake: This is a crisis.
The call to cut Social Security has an uglier side to it, too. The Washington Post framed the choice as more children in poverty versus more seniors in poverty. The suggestion that we have become a country where those living in poverty fight each other for a handful of crumbs tossed off the tables of the very wealthy is fundamentally wrong. This is about our values, and our values tell us that we don’t build a future by first deciding who among our most vulnerable will be left to starve.

Preach it, Elizabeth.

I think it is time to acknowledge the obvious: for the vast majority of workers, 401(k)s have been a failure. According to Forbes magazine:

Our national demographics, coupled with indisputable, glaringly insufficient retirement savings and human physiology, suggest that a catastrophic outcome for at least a significant percentage of our elderly population is inevitable. With the average 401(k) balance for 65 year olds estimated at $25,000 by independent experts — $100,000 if you believe the retirement planning industry — the decades many elders will spend in forced or elected ‘retirement’ will be grim.
It is often pointed out that Social Security was not designed to provide anything like a generous retirement, but more to prevent the abject poverty that used to be relatively ordinary among seniors.

Less often mentioned is that Social Security’s designers assumed the defined-benefit pensions I mentioned previously would do the heavy lifting of providing a comfortable retirement — and for decades they did. But since that is no longer the case, and since 401(k)s and other “defined contribution” plans have utterly failed to replace them, I think it is time to look at some alternative solutions.

I mentioned the military retirement system at the beginning of this column, where years of service determines how much you get; more service means more money. That might serve as a template for any adequate national pension system.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ruth and Jeremy

I HEAR COMMENTS SOMETIMES FROM MY CONTEMPORARIES that kids today don’t know the meaning of discipline, that there is currently an epidemic of parents spoiling their children, and so on.

While contemporary parenting probably falls short in some ways, it is worth understanding that older people have been lodging similar complaints about the supposedly easier lives of the Younger Generation since the earliest days of civilization — perhaps even before there existed lawns that kids needed to get off of — and it has always been anywhere from a wild exaggeration to complete nonsense.

About 20 years ago, I lived on the northern border of Oakland, in the Rockridge district. There was a place there called the Buttercup Café, which had food that was both pretty good and reasonably priced. I had very little money then, so I usually stopped in for a cup of soup — all I could usually afford — after work.

I was something of a regular there and got to know the waitresses pretty well. There was one waitress named Ruth, and we got to be pretty good friends, in the way waitresses and regulars sometimes do. On rainy winter nights when business was slow I would sit at the counter and we’d talk for hours about where we’d grown up and what we thought of the world.

She’d grown up hard and close to the bone, in a hardscrabble little Iron Range town somewhere in northeastern Minnesota. Her dad was a Jim Beam aficionado, and I got the sense in our conversations that his drinking was a sore subject with her. She never talked much about it, and I respected her too much to pry, but it was there in her eyes sometimes when she talked about back home.
Some people move to California for economic reasons, some for the climate. I got the sense from Ruth that Minnesota was a place from which she had fled.

We were talking one night about northern California and some of the cultural differences she’d noticed since she’d moved here from her small Midwestern town. “One thing,” she said, “is how parents treat their kids out here — they just let them run wild! No discipline at all. Back home, if you did wrong you got a beating — none of this ‘time out’ stuff.

“You’ve gotta keep kids in line. When I have kids, that’s how I’m going to raise them.”

Hearing her say that triggered an old memory. I stared out the window for a moment at the rain dripping off the awning, then turned back to her and said, “Ruth, let me tell you about Jeremy.”
When I was elementary school-aged in my old neighborhood in Richmond, I often attended a day camp run by the city in Wildcat Canyon, in the El Cerrito hills. On summer weekday mornings I would walk over to Cutting Boulevard and catch a yellow city school bus up the hill to the camp location.

Jeremy was about 7 years old, and he would always ride at the very back of the bus on the way to camp, sitting in the middle of the long bench seat so he could see everything going on in the bus during the daily ride up to Wildcat — almost as if he was afraid of missing something. He had striking eyes — light brown, inquisitive and filled with wonder. The world appeared to be endlessly fascinating to him, and he radiated a simple joy that I found very inspiring.

Each morning when I got on the bus I would look back at Jeremy — I felt a little protective of him. One day toward the end of the summer, I looked back as I boarded the bus and was immediately struck by a change in him.

He looked tired, weary, and the light in his eyes had gone out — like something important inside of him had broken.

I gave one of the counselors, a pretty blonde teenager, a look and motioned with my head toward the back of the bus. We walked back together and sat down across the aisle from each other, one row in front of Jeremy.

“What’s wrong, Jer’?” she asked.

He paused a moment, then pulled up the hem of the right leg of his short pants. On the front of his thigh was an angry purple bruise.

“What happened, Jeremy? Who did that to you?”

He looked up at us, his eyes filled with bewilderment and hurt, and said, “My daddy.”

When I finished telling this story to Ruth in the Buttercup Café, her eyes looked as if they were straining to hold back a river of tears.

“That’s … really sad,” she finally said.

“Yes, Ruth, it is.”

I moved to another town a short while later and lost touch with Ruth, but I hope she is married to a nice, sober guy — and I  hope they give their kids time outs when they misbehave.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Genius in Spray Paint

Most eloquent graffiti I ever saw, on a wall across the street from the military induction center in downtown Oakland in 1983: "Fuck yr attitude of feigned superiority"

Quote of the day

"War is just to those to whom war is necessary. "

- Titus Livius Patavinus

Monday, June 03, 2013

To Be Working and Poor in America

Darksyde at Daily Kos has a poignant post up about what it is to be the working poor in America. I have some personal experience with this, and can confirm that it sucks. I can also confirm that it is all too common in that situation to hear some variation of, "Why don't you just _________?" from people who have very little idea what it means to be barely scraping by in our economic system.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

It's a Spiritual Thing, Too

While much has been written (by the left, at least) of the economic consequences of wealth inequality in the United States, less often mentioned is the spiritual damage wrought by greed on both the Rich and the Rest.

If prodigal Wall Street could have walked with truly open eyes among their victims in those cities of cloth and nylon erected by the foreclosed-upon that sprang up outside many cities in the wake of the mortgage crisis, their hearts would have been broken. Not by the deprivation and primitive material circumstances, but by the realization that in a very real way, the people there had infinitely more riches than the Wall Streeters did.

The residents of those tent cities realized and enjoyed the fundamental mutuality that is the very essence of being children of God. They knew that they are truly brothers and sisters, and shared what they have with one another not by writing a check, but by making room at their camp stove for a stranger who had it worse than them.

It is worth mentioning that I have known people in my personal life who “came from money.” Some have been generous and warmhearted to a fault. But a story I keep hearing is of entire families where whole generations of children sit and wait for someone to die so they can come into their money. I hear of such circumstances and feel both revulsion and pity at the spiritual desolation this represents, and also a metaphysical dread for a society that considers this as unremarkable as the (related?) fact that millions of its children live in poverty.

I believe the spiritual desolation that is all too common in our rich, and the material deprivation of our poor, are inseparably related. They are both symptoms of greed — and not just at a personal level. They are deeply ingrained in the fabric of our society.

Lest anyone think I’m pointing fingers from some summit of wisdom and holiness, I’ll hasten to add that the greed and desolation I describe lives very much in me, too.

On many Wednesday evenings, I have fed the homeless of Berkeley at a Lutheran Church near the Cal campus. I started doing this a couple years ago when a friend of mine, who was then just back into Alcoholic Anonymous meetings and sobriety after many years out, recommended the experience.

Doing this has changed me. At first, it took some getting used to, in particular the smells of people who sleep rough in the streets, who have no dental care, no medical care, their faces and bodies begrimed by the doorways that are their pillows every night, and from some the odor of whatever chemical they use to ease the pain of being forgotten.

There are as many stories in the meal hall as there are diners.

One guy bought a house and, because he was naive, was cheated of thousands of dollars. In the end he had no house and had lost his job and was on the streets.
That’s the thing about dealing one on one with homeless people: You hear their stories, and they become just people.

They stop being a category — a mental abstraction, a “them” — and become richly complex individuals with stories as filled with vice and divine grace as my own.

When I started going to the meal hall in Berkeley, I thought I was bringing Christ’s compassion to the people there — but I realized as time went on that they were really bringing Christ to me. In those weary faces at the tables, I saw Christ staring back at me, asking me where I’d been all this time.
He had been out there, in doorways, shivering in cold rain and stumbling in rags, waiting for me to show up.

I feed Him in His homeless, and in return, in an act of astounding and tender mercy, He has shown me the depths of my own brokenness.

Most of all He has shown me that we need to somehow tear down the walls that separate us from one another.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

It is time for America to have an Industrial Policy

THERE IS A CONCEIT AMONG THE MANAGEMENT CLASS — particularly members of that class who style themselves as left-of-center — that if we just send millions of former workers from our devastated manufacturing sector to college so they can become website designers or something, that will make up for destroying the industries that formerly provided them a decent living. One of former President Clinton’s more annoying habits has been to harp on this particular hypothesis.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but that plan isn’t going to work — at least not in a place of the scale, history and complexity of the United States. Heck, I’ll go ahead and put a fine point on it: It’s a bunch of nonsense.

I mean, look: The Swiss are few enough that they can be the world’s bankers, and the Saudis can be the world’s oil company. But the United States, if it’s going to be a prosperous place, needs to be where the main engine of prosperity is taking raw materials, making something valuable out of them and then selling those valuable things at a profit.

We can’t be a first-tier economy by selling each other life insurance and software; we need to make things — physical, need-machine-tools-to-make-them things like cars, boats, clothing, machine tools and electronics. The Democratic Party’s leadership used to know this, and acted accordingly, with all kinds of support for (real, actual) industry and its (real, actual) workers. These days, however, Democrats seem to represent members of the management class who want to send line workers and former machinists to college so they can become computer programmers. It’s ridiculous.

There are millions of ex-manufacturing workers who used to make a good living by making things here in the U.S. The “Old Economy” offered them a way to use their skills and gifts and afford the basics of life, plus a little fun. But the “New Economy” has no real place for them. Those with less than a college degree have precious few ways to support a family in anything approaching comfort. And even these avenues are vanishing.

Here’s the thing: There are millions of folks who are, to be blunt, not smart enough, or at least temperamentally unsuited — or, increasingly, too poor — to go to college. Are they to be consigned to working at 7/11 and making $9 an hour for the rest of their lives? Don’t we as citizens have an obligation to see that they have something better to aspire to — work that allows them to support their families in a dignified way, and maybe even to put something away for college for the kids and themselves in their golden years?

These questions have not been asked of Americans in any public and consistent way for years — decades, even. The very phrase, “we, as citizens, are obligated to …” is, in the libertarian, Hobbesian world of economic mercilessness we’ve allowed to flourish a nonsensical phrase full of meaningless words. We are no longer “citizens,” active participants in the building of our civilization; we are now “consumers,” defined by our economic worth — mere cogs in the soul-impoverishing machinery of “wealth creation” and economic oligarchy. Our part is to passively keep the whole corrupt machine humming. Nothing is demanded of us but to CONSUME.

If we want a different future, we must address the needs of our workers to find meaningful and rewarding work. For that we need an official industrial policy. The U.S. is the only so-called First World nation without one, and it shows.

Did you ever wonder why Germany seems to be the go-to place for high-quality goods of every sort — cars, clocks, precision instruments, electronics, cameras and other optical equipment, and so on? A big reason is that the German government has decided that it wants an economy that produces those things, and has taken specific actions to achieve that goal.

Germany’s method of creating wealth is not hard to understand, and in principle would be simple to duplicate here in the United States:

1. They make it a national priority to produce a highly educated work force. And “education” doesn’t necessarily mean college — while the German higher education system is excellent, they also place a far greater emphasis on vocational training than the United States does. Most of the people who actually build BMW cars in Germany’s factories do not need a college education to do so, but they do need familiarity with precision, computerized machinery, plus deep and detailed  training in various materials-handling skills, and so on.

2. Germany then takes that highly educated work force and puts to work designing and manufacturing sophisticated, precision products for high wages.

3. It then exports those products at high prices and then re-invests the rewards back into their education system.

Germany is the second biggest exporter in the world despite having slightly less than a third of America’s population and about 7 percent of the largest exporter, China. The Germans realize they cannot beat either China or India based on cost. America can’t either: We could destroy all the remaining unions, get rid of the minimum wage and eliminate all social benefits and taxation and we would still lose jobs to low-wage nations. Germany avoided going down America’s road toward middle class ruin by investing public resources in training their workforce and in research.

Such an approach is possible in the United States, but to get there, we as citizens must realize — more than that, we must decide, and then act on the decision — that, to coin a phrase, the economy is made by and for us, and not us for the economy.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Someone Needs to Help the 80%

ONE IMPORTANT CONTRIBUTING FACTOR of the current American economic predicament is that median purchasing power — that is, the inflation-adjusted pay that the bottom 80 percent of workers get — has not appreciably increased in over 30 years. People not making enough money to keep the economy growing means the economy can’t grow.

Actually, that’s not quite true. The economy can still grow, but since wages aren’t increasing — except for a few people at the top, who, precisely because there aren’t very many of them, can’t make up for the shortfall in consumer spending — the only recourse for consumers is buying things on credit, i.e., growth financed through debt.

This is exactly what we’ve seen in the years since the median wage stopped growing: steadily increasing household debt.

The thing is, financing economic growth by increasing personal indebtedness is not a sustainable path. Eventually the credit cards are maxed out, and then everyone needs to pay down their debt before they can begin spending again.

While this is happening, the economy shrinks, since people are not spending on anything except essentials. The result is layoffs, which means some people can no longer keep up their debt payments — which results in bankruptcies, which result in the banks that are owed that money raising interest rates to cover the increased risk, which results in more bankruptcies, which means more trouble for banks, and so on in a downward spiral.

Eventually, confidence in the entire system begins to erode, which leads to a general panic and the entire financial system grinding to a halt. See October 1929 and September 2008 for an idea of what that looks and feels like.

History tells us these kinds of situations can either be reformed (see Teddy Roosevelt and the trust-busters, FDR and the New Deal, and so on), or, if the oligarchs have so tight a grip on the levers of power — including the means of mass communication — that they can prevent reform, then eventually the people will rise up.

If it gets bad enough, you have the situation famously described by John Steinbeck:
There is a crime here that goes beyond denunciation. There is a sorrow here that weeping cannot symbolize. There is a failure here that topples all our success. The fertile earth, the straight tree rows, the sturdy trunks, and the ripe fruit. And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates — died of malnutrition — because the food must rot, must be forced to rot. The people come with nets to fish for potatoes in the river, and the guards hold them back; they come in rattling cars to get the dumped oranges, but the kerosene is sprayed. And they stand still and watch the potatoes float by, listen to the screaming pigs being killed in a ditch and covered with quicklime, watch the mountains of oranges slop down to a putrefying ooze; and in the eyes of the people there is the failure; and in the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.
Growth through debt leads eventually to systemic crisis. The merest, cursory reading of economic history demonstrates this. History also provides ample evidence that economic growth from rising incomes leads to sustainable and widely shared prosperity.

Going forward, one new aim of national economic policy should be to get the real median wage growing on a consistent basis, and to restrain the tendency of capitalism to concentrate wealth at the top of the income scale.

How? Here are some proven, sensible liberal ideas.

1. Give workers a bigger voice in how profits are distributed. A great way to do that is by encouraging union membership. Let me put this bluntly: The government ought to do everything it can to encourage unionization across all economic sectors. A good start would be repealing the Taft-Hartley act, and passing the Employee Free Choice Act.

2. Use the tax system to discourage out-sized payouts for corporate executives and banksters. Restore the tax brackets (adjusted for inflation) to what they were in 1955. Top marginal tax rate: 91.5 percent. This will discourage the obscene paychecks the One Percenters currently award themselves, and might even encourage them (through deductions) to do economically beneficial things with the money.

3. Re-regulate the financial sector. Restore and strengthen the Glass-Steagall Act. Break up the big banks to the point that the insolvency of one won’t threaten the economy. (While I’m at it: impose a retroactive tax of 100 percent on all non-salary compensation of every executive of every financial institution that received federal bailout money. It might not prevail in the ensuing litigation, but it would be amusing to watch them squirm.)

4. Raise the minimum wage to a living wage, and tie future increases to the rate of productivity growth. This will put subtle upward pressure from below on the wages of other workers.

All this would, of course, cause keening howls of outrage on Wall Street and in the executive suites of America’s corporate headquarters, and confusion and alarm among the Wall Street worshipers on CNBC. But the thing is, economic growth that is widely shared will make everyone — corporate elites included — richer in the long run.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Locust Capitalism

SINCE THE ELECTION OF RONALD REAGAN IN 1980, Democrats passed NAFTA, neglected the Employee Free Choice Act and all but abandoned progressive taxation of incomes. They have, more or less, abandoned the idea that an important function of government is to balance society by keeping the gap between rich and poor from becoming too great.

They have forgotten that the income tax system, support for labor and wealth redistribution have proven to be the most effective ways to accomplish these objectives. These sins of omission and commission, in tandem with the destruction inflicted by Republican Party economic policies, have devastated the working class.

During his administration, President Clinton made some pious noise about sending all those former assembly line workers from our devastated manufacturing sector to college so they could be “knowledge workers,” or something to that effect, which sounds nice but is actually kind of ridiculous. But for the most part the Democratic Party has stood by for the last 30-plus years and barely raised their voices to help the middle and working classes.

Someone once asked Sherrod Brown, the Ohio senator, why people in economically ravaged southeastern Ohio had begun voting for Republicans. His answer: “Because the Democrats stopped talking to them.” I think the problem is more that the Democratic Party, when it bothers to cast a glance their way at all, offers words (often tinged with condescension) but precious little else. And the Republican Party uses the resentment of the people abandoned by Democrats to push an agenda whose real purpose is to increase the power and wealth of the people who’ve been doing most of the prospering in the last 30 years.

The policy focus of the center-left in this country — its animating passion in those times when it has been most ascendant — has been economic in character. Every day on my television, I see ginned-up, phony controversies as economic royalists on the Republican “right” and social libertarians on the Democratic “left” pretend to care about the legal status of fetuses and gay people, and gee, sorry, there never seems to be any time left after discussing those issues to talk about how the economic lives of ordinary working people are getting steadily worse, under both Democrats and Republicans.
Almost 25 percent of American children are on food stamps. The combined number of un- and underemployment, even after four years of “recovery,” is still almost 16 percent. Half of all Americans struggle to feed themselves. People whose collars are blue and whose hands are callused are staring every day into a continuing economic abyss that is killing their friends and making their neighbors homeless.

But the thing is, even people who have jobs are staring into that abyss. People’s jobs (including, these days, those of so-called white-collar workers) are being offshored by companies whose only agenda is making sure stockholders are happy with the next quarterly report. From a long-term perspective, this is an almost comically stupid thing to do at the macro level. If every company did this, eventually no one in the U.S. could afford to buy their products except a few thousand people in upper management or those lucky few who have inherited wealth.

In short, the elitism of global capital destroys the golden goose — it deprives the economy of customers. But then, given the ruthless character of the world’s globalized capitalists, from their perspective this may not be a problem: After all, there’s a billion Chinese to make a buck off of. (Until they, too, are used up in a few decades, and then these global magnates can decamp for the next populations to exploit and bleed dry … )

I’ve got a new name for this trend: Locust Capitalism.

The only way to halt the debasement of this country’s (and the world’s) non-rich by the rich is to intervene; to stop it. History suggests that the only entity big enough to do that is the United States government — but our government will only do it if we citizens insist in unmistakable terms that it do so. And it will only do so if there is a governing majority of people who agree that a core function of government is defending the interests of working people.

The most important question to ask of any political party is not what it stands for, it is WHO it stands WITH.

The people who have prospered under the rightist economic regime of the last 30 years have been the top 20 percent of earners. These people are who the Republicans stand with.
Everyone else has either stood still or actually gotten worse off — and inexcusably, the Democratic Party has let it happen, largely by forgetting who they’re supposed to stand with: the other 80 percent of earners.

What does all this mean? Where do we go from here? The way forward is not easy, but it is simple in concept: The Democratic Party needs to commit itself to undoing the damage done by 30 years of laissez-faire neglect.

The Democrats need a clear and public “to-do” list of specific, concrete ways to help that neglected 80 percent (more on that in a future column), and their only task should be selling and implementing that agenda. Undoing the damage done to Americans by capitalism run amok will be the foundation of a powerful governing majority.

Of course, if the Democratic Party is at all successful in this effort, it will result in unending howls of protest from the usual suspects on the right — and if it gets bad enough, maybe even ridiculous, badly written polemical novels featuring wooden prose and characters named John Galt.

History suggests that failing to get it done, on the other hand, will result eventually in social unrest, and if it gets bad enough, armed revolution — and don’t ever think the United States is exempted by history from such events.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Summer's (Unofficially) here... have some Bossa Nova. I'll mix the Caipirinhas.

Creeping Abstraction, Part II

IN PART ONE, I TALKED ABOUT what I called the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability — the tendency since the Industrial Revolution for accountability in our economic relations to become ever more abstracted from anything resembling personal responsibility. I used as my examples an imaginary (but also reasonably typical) village named “Sylvan” in the year 1800, versus Benicia (and pretty much everywhere else in America) in the present day.

In Sylvan, it would be an absurdity to write to a company 2,000 miles away if you had a problem with a chair, since the person who made it would probably be personally known to you, and you would likely be no more than a few minutes’ walk from the location of its manufacture. If you wanted, you could easily arrange to watch it being made, along with practically everything else you owned — milk, butter, the shoes for your horse, the shoes you wore, and so on.

It is probably still possible to live your life that way — eating only agricultural products from local farmers, using only locally made furniture, clothing and shoes, and so forth — but it is nowhere near the typical experience. The very structure of our civilization would have been nearly unimaginable to the residents of Sylvan, and probably somewhat terrifying if they did imagine it.

The desk and the keyboard on which I’m typing this was made in China by people I’ll never meet, as was the cup holding the cocoa I’m sipping. The car I drive was made somewhere in the U.S.; my shirt in Indonesia; my jeans in the U.S. (again, I have no idea where, exactly). There is virtually no possibility of my ever meeting the people who made most of the stuff I use every day.

To be sure, there are many advantages to living in the present industrial world. I like being able to take BART to work. Altogether, getting to work and getting around in general is much easier than it used to be — in 1800, America’s larger cities reeked of horse dung, and the bloated, putrefying remains of work-to-death draft animals used to be a common sight in the streets of places like New York and Philadelphia.

Smokestacks constantly belched black smoke. I really, really would not want to give up modern dentistry. I like being able to eat a more-or-less fresh orange in New York City in, say, February.
But the price of the material abundance made possible by the Industrial Revolution is that we are deeply, structurally alienated from one another in our economic relations.

When I read some of the arguments put forth by my opponents on the political right, it seems that the remedies they propose are more suited for the problems of the world inhabited by my Sylvanians in 1800 than to the challenges of the scale and complexity of American civilization in 2013. A large, powerful national government in 1800 would have been an intrusive absurdity – there was no need for it. To the extent that economic regulation was needed, it could easily be handled at the local level, since that was the scale of virtually any problems that arose.

New Deal-type liberals like myself think there is a critical role to be played by a large, powerful central government in the present United States — not because we think governments ought, always and everywhere, to be big, but because Big Government is the only potential counter-balance to the power of Big Business. And big business, in the present world, has enormous power and influence. ExxonMobil made more in after-tax profits last year than many U.S. state governments took in in total revenue.

Now, some might be surprised to hear me say this, but I don’t think there is anything innately wrong with business in general, nor even with big business, per se. My father retired from Chevron after 33 years, and worked with many fine people, including people who became old family friends. I worked for a major imaging company for several years and have fond memories of my co-workers and supervisors from my time there.

The benefits of industrialization — primarily a great variety and abundance of stuff — are great, too. But the costs need to be addressed.

For all the complaints about how environmental regulations cost U.S. companies efficiency, I appreciate the fact that as a result of their existence I can be reasonably certain that I will not be poisoned by toxic waste as I go about my day. I also like the fact that my food has been inspected, and that the facilities in which it is produced are subject to all kinds of regulations regarding sanitation and the humane treatment of animals.

I like the fact that gold mining companies can no longer blithely contaminate rivers, the Bay and Pacific Ocean with mercury like they used to. I like the fact that our coal mines kill fewer workers in a year than were killed in them each month before safety regulations were imposed. I like the fact that, thanks to child labor laws, 9-year-olds no longer have their arms torn off working in mills. I like the fact that unions can no longer be crushed by company-hired thugs for the simple act of banding together and asking for fair treatment and wages.

The world of Sylvan was in many ways better than the world in which we live out our lives today — but that pastoral, courtly world is well and truly gone. New citizens, and new circumstances, require new laws.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Creeping Abstraction, Part I

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, THERE WAS A well-publicized incident in which the brother of then-presidential candidate John McCain called 9-1-1 in the Washington, D.C. area to complain about some construction on a bridge that was taking place during rush hour. The call was played during reports on the incident in the news media.

McCain’s brother was (rightly) ridiculed at the time for doing something so clueless. The 9-1-1 system was set up to report emergencies, and using it to complain about a traffic problem was an abuse of the system, one that might have delayed help for someone in a life-threatening emergency.

In the aftermath of the incident, I had a recurring thought I couldn’t shake: Despite his poor judgment, I could understand what Joseph McCain was hoping to do. What he really wanted was to speak to The Guy Who Made the Decision. He wanted to hold someone accountable for making the idiotic decision to conduct traffic-clogging construction work on a busy bridge during rush hour.

This brings me to one consequence of industrial civilization — its mass production, specialization of skills and so on — that I call the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability.

Think about what life, and especially economic life, was like in a typical village in America in the time before mass industrialization. For fun, let’s name this hypothetical little town “Sylvan,” and we’ll say the year is 1800.

In Sylvan, accountability in economic relations was pervasive — inescapable, even. If you were a typical citizen of such a town, you knew who made your clothing, pots and pans, furniture, shoes, lamps, soap, window glass; you knew who built your carriage or wagon, and so on. And not just in an abstract way— you likely knew personally the makers of those things, and could thus hold them accountable if there was a problem. If the furniture-maker’s apprentice delivered a three-legged chair to your house, you could walk over to his shop with the chair, hold it up and ask (perhaps wryly), “Yea, Thomas? Wert thou just back from yon tavern when ye forgot this missing leg?” and expect  poor, hungover Thomas to groan a sheepish apology, and promise to correct the situation without delay. Similarly, if your skillet handle broke, you could march off to the local tinker’s shop and demand an explanation, and you would expect to receive one on the spot.

In short, you actually could in fact speak to The Guy Who Made the Decision, and this state of affairs obtained from roughly before the American Civil War, all the way back to the dimly known beginnings of civilization when the first farmer planted the first crop.

Now, let’s return to the year 2013 in a typical American community.

I called my bank a couple months back because my checking account was inexplicably overdrawn. I use their bill payment service, and I had specified that the “pay date” of my rent payment should be the first of the month, yet they had deducted the payment on the 23rd of the previous month, overdrafting my account. When I called, a customer service representative said that the payment can come out that early so that the check has time to reach the payee. I apologized for misunderstanding, thanked her for the information, and hung up.

When I changed the pay date to the 7th of the next month to account for this new information, my landlord charged me a late fee because the rent check arrived on the 15th. I called the bank, and they said that it had been mailed on the 7th. When I said I was confused by this, given the information I received on my previous call, the rep explained that sometimes the money comes out on the pay date, and sometimes it comes out when the check arrives at the bank after being deposited by the payee, and they could not tell me in advance which of those two possibilities would happen each month. When I pointed out that this makes planning rather difficult, the rep told me that this was just how their (third-party) payment processor worked.

So even the bank I was speaking to could not tell me when the payment would be deducted. But worse than that, I wasn’t really speaking to “The Bank” at all — I was speaking to a rep wearing a headset in a call center in Arizona or Iowa or wherever, and she had virtually no power to change the way the bank did business (the first rep I spoke to did refund the overdraft fee, which was nice). The way the bank’s payment processor does payments was probably designed in a series of meetings involving a shifting bunch of personnel from their legal, marketing and accounting departments, and the policy’s ultimate purpose could undoubtedly be summarized as: “Make as much money as possible for the company, in a way that is unlikely to get us successfully sued.”

Thus, our current world is a mirror image of Sylvan: In our world, accountability in economic relations is abstracted, nearly to the point of meaninglessness. Who made the shirt you’re wearing? What were the wages and working conditions for the people who made it? What about the chair you’re sitting in? Or computer on which you may be reading this post? Or the cell phone in your pocket? If you have concerns about those things, to whom do you turn for accountability?

There is no immediate, human accountability for many problems that arise from the production of most of the stuff we use every day. This is the Creeping Abstraction of Accountability.

This has had profound implications not just for economics, but for how we discuss politics. More in part two.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Some Thoughts on a Big, Scary Word

ONE OF MY CORE BELIEFS AS A NEW DEAL DEMOCRAT is that an important role of government is to act as a counterbalance to the power of big business. History provides ample evidence that, absent some mechanism to prevent it, corporate enterprises will create a civilization divided between Capital, which will get ever-richer, and Labor, which will toil for starvation wages and be treated as replaceable cogs in the machinery of wealth-creation.

It is a sign of how far right the economic ideology of the United States has drifted that the above paragraph — which until recently was treated as the sensible, middle-of-the-road liberal view that it is — is now routinely described by Republicans and their supporters as “socialism,” which it isn’t.

Speaking of socialism, I notice that word gets thrown around a lot, especially by the present-day American political right, and there is usually not much attempt to define the word itself. So my question is, what are the defining features of socialism? Is it one ideology, or are there many disparate ideologies calling themselves “socialists” even though they might be anywhere from uncomfortable with, to sworn mortal enemies of, each other?

Since I have never been able to get an ideological opponent to actually define “socialism” with any sort of clarity, let me take a guess as to its meaning for the American right. Their definition usually alludes to something resembling the Brezhnev-era Soviet system: The government controls all the means of production, all decisions in the economy come out of a gigantic, centralized government bureaucracy, private property is outlawed, and so on.

In other words, a system that bears virtually no meaningful resemblance to the present-day U.S.

The rejoinder is usually that the kind of proposals I make are a “step toward” socialism, and I guess one can come up with a lawyerly, Jesuitical sense in which this is “true,” but it is still a strange claim.

Let me put it this way: Some governmental restraint of the power of corporations, modest wealth redistribution and a moderately progressive income tax are “steps toward” socialism in the same sense that having a police department is a “step toward” the creation of a Gestapo.

In traditional rules of logic going back to Aristotle and Socrates, this is described as the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle, or the False Dilemma. The extremes are: 1. The government doing absolutely nothing (see the desolate philosophy and wooden writing of Ayn Rand); and 2. The government doing absolutely everything (see the previously mentioned 1970s-era Soviet Union). The great, big, wide, diverse land between these two extremes has lots and lots and lots of stuff in it that is not “socialism.”

My political hero, FDR, was accused in his day of being a socialist, and called a “traitor to his class” (the elites were more honest about their elitism in those days). But he came not to destroy capitalism, but to save it.

Capitalism has certain built-in, self-destructive structural problems. The biggest problem is the concentration of wealth at the top, which eventually makes economic growth impossible — stagnant wages mean capitalists’ customers don’t have the money to keep the economy growing — and leads to crisis. FDR understood this. His speech to the 1936 Democratic convention can be seen as the animating idea of the New Dealers:

“An old English judge once said: ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ Liberty requires opportunity to make a living — a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.
“For too many of us, the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives. For too many of us life was no longer free; liberty no longer real; men could no longer follow the pursuit of happiness.
“Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of government. The collapse of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it. Under that mandate it is being ended.
“The royalists of the economic order have conceded that political freedom was the business of the government, but they have maintained that economic slavery was nobody’s business. They granted that the government could protect the citizen in his right to vote, but they denied that the government could do anything to protect the citizen in his right to work and his right to live.
“Today we stand committed to the proposition that freedom is no half-and-half affair. If the average citizen is guaranteed equal opportunity in the polling place, he must have equal opportunity in the market place.
“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America. What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power. Our allegiance to American institutions requires the overthrow of this kind of power. In vain they seek to hide behind the flag and the Constitution. In their blindness they forget what the flag and the Constitution stand for. Now, as always, they stand for democracy, not tyranny; for freedom, not subjection; and against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike.”
I had some hope that the current president would follow in the footsteps of FDR, since the situation he inherited from his predecessor was a less-severe copy of the Great Depression, with the same causes — wealth concentrated at the top combined with economic growth that was unsustainable because it was financed by increasing consumer debt rather than rising wages — but with more remedies already in place, thanks to FDR: unemployment insurance, food stamps, and other public assistance, so that the current episode is nowhere near as bad as the Great Depression.

Obama, though, has turned out to be almost as much a servant of the oligarchs as any economic royalist in the other party. In his economic policies, he’s a more-fiscally-responsible Ronald Reagan.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

It's Still a Problem

I WATCHED THE OCCUPY PROTESTS A COUPLE YEARS AGO WITH INTEREST, and for a while I was extremely gratified at their success. They succeeded in changing the subject from “we must cut the deficit immediately and at all costs” (which is economic idiocy — the short-term problem is a lack of demand; the long-term problem is debt) to “what are we going to do about unemployment and Robber Baron Era levels of wealth inequality?”

Finally, the national conversation was beginning to be about inequality and its beneficiaries — an unaccountable, reckless and arrogant oligarchy — which is the root cause of the financial and economic crisis consuming the West.

Dr. Robert Reich, secretary of Labor during the Clinton administration, has noted correctly that the root cause of our economic malaise is a “larger and larger share of total income going to the very top while the vast middle class continues to lose ground.

“And as long as this trend continues, we can’t get out of the shadow of the Great Recession. When most of the gains from economic growth go to a small sliver of Americans at the top, the rest don’t have enough purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing.

“America’s median wage, adjusted for inflation, has barely budged for decades. Between 2000 and 2007 it actually dropped. Under these circumstances the only way the middle class could boost its purchasing power was to borrow, as it did with gusto. As housing prices rose, Americans turned their homes into ATMs. But such borrowing has its limits. When the debt bubble finally burst, vast numbers of people couldn’t pay their bills, and banks couldn’t collect.

“Each of America’s two biggest economic downturns over the last century has followed the same pattern. Consider: in 1928 the richest 1 percent of Americans received 23.9 percent of the nation’s total income. After that, the share going to the richest 1 percent steadily declined. New Deal reforms, followed by World War II, the GI Bill and the Great Society, expanded the circle of prosperity. By the late 1970s the top 1 percent raked in only 8 to 9 percent of America’s total annual income. But after that, inequality began to widen again, and income reconcentrated at the top. By 2007 the richest 1 percent were back to where they were in 1928 — with 23.5 percent of the total.”

That’s the most concise summary of our economic predicament as I’ve seen.

You can't have the wealth inequality numbers we have, and also have sustainable economic growth. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Remember Who You Represent, Democrats

THOMAS FRANK, AUTHOR OF THE LANDMARK 2004 BOOK, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” has said that, for a purportedly rightist party, Republicans talk an awful lot about class resentment — but in a strangely inverted way, defining elites in terms of cultural preferences: “Volvo-driving, Latte-sipping, liberal snobs in their big cities, looking down their noses at the humble, hard-working common folk out in ‘flyover country.’” Frank rightly points out that one thing never mentioned by Republicans is the role of economics in the class structure.

The reason Republicans get away with this is because Democrats moved away from grounding their policies in economic fairness. As Republicans started defining themselves as champions of working people — a definition that, if you look at their economic policies, is ludicrous — Democrats went along with defining themselves more along cultural lines.

One of the most disheartening things about the Democratic Party’s haplessness is that it has allowed Republicans to incrementally weaken the New Deal, their longstanding goal. Why? Because the New Deal cost the plutocrats power — and plutocrats are whose interests they represent.

Plutocrats hated New Deal-style policies when they were first enacted, and have hated them ever since, because what they desire is a frightened, submissive and, most of all, low-wage workforce that will allow them to make more money and thus have more power.

This is why single-payer health care represents such a threat to Republicans’ real constituency, the oligarchy, and why it was demagogued to death. Fear of losing medical benefits was very effective in keeping people from stepping out of line and demanding better wages or working conditions.

This is why Our Reptilian Corporate Masters absolutely love crippling student loan debt: it is a potent tool to hold over folks to keep them from threatening the system. They want a population that is “educated” along the lines of vocational training (the knowledge that one is incurring a large debt tends to focus one’s mind on the income potential of one’s major) rather than what used to be considered an “education” before the rise of corporate capitalism in the late 19th century.

And that is why raising taxes, and especially making our tax system more progressive (i.e., raising the tax rates as one goes up the income scale) is That Which Must Not Be Done according to Republican rhetoric.

The thing is, Democrats, too, deserve a share of the blame for failing to restrain the oligarchy.
If you’re a Democrat and you really want your heart broken some time, read FDR’s first or second inaugural addresses or virtually any utterance of Harry S Truman (the ones about economics, anyway), and then compare and contrast with the current Thing That Used To Be Liberalism.

“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.”
I suspect a lot of the haplessness of the current Democratic Party can be traced to the way the left split in the late 1960s over Vietnam and, to a lesser extent, the civil rights movement — blue collar and union guys versus “New Left” college radicals. That split has consistently and only served one particular group of folks: the rich.

But the consensus American left position, the set of beliefs that really distinguished you as “left,” used to be very simple, and widely shared across that end of the spectrum, and went like this:

It is legitimate and necessary to use the power of the central government — through progressive taxation, modest income redistribution and support for labor — to restrain the tendency of big business to concentrate wealth in the hands of an elite few, and thus provide social and economic stability.

See? Simple.

Everything else needs to flow from that crucial, central, distinctive-to-the-left premise — and when it does, suddenly the national conversation starts to change.

When the Republican Party says we need tax cuts to stimulate the economy, I’d love it if Democrats countered by pointing out that Republicans have been trying that for years with no discernible effect on the economic health of the country, and really just want to give more money to their rich friends and weaken the government’s ability to stick up for working folks. They might also say that we Democrats want to pass a big jobs bill to give our constituency, ordinary Joes and Janes, a chance to practice their legendary work ethic and provide a future for their children.

The last sentence of that FDR quote — “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men” — is a more or less perfect description of the disdain with which Wall Street and the banking industry was held by a large fraction of the country in early 2009.

In short, I and many others on the populist left have been calling for the Democratic Party to take the golden opportunity of the current crisis to break out the economic populist rhetoric in order to sell economic populist policies.

This would seem to be an obvious and winning strategy that could plausibly lead to a couple generations of electoral and ideological dominance — which is precisely what happened the last time Democrats went all-in for the American worker.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Guns, Part II

IN PART ONE of this series, I began my discussion of gun control by saying that I have some real ambivalence about the issue, based in part on the makeup of my extended family — how it is divided between mostly rural folks on my Mom’s side and Dad’s far more urban side of the family.

As someone who has feet in both camps, I see an awful lot of mythologizing about guns from both the pro- and anti-control sides of the debate. A gun, in and of itself, is intrinsically neither a Destroyer of the Innocent nor a Magical Totem of Manly Power. It is a machine — receiver, firing pin and primer, all working together to push a bullet down the barrel at high velocity. So, I don’t think the problem has merely to do with the existence of guns.

I do, however, think that some reasonable controls are necessary and wise. It is worth mentioning that there are already gun control measures in place, and (aside from a few fringe militia types and assorted other gun fetishists) these controls are relatively uncontroversial and supported by a consensus of citizens across the political spectrum.

For example, it is illegal for most people to own a machine gun in the United States, and I and most other people think that’s a very good thing. Machine guns are designed to do one thing: kill large numbers of people or threaten them with death. I can’t think of a good reason for a civilian to have one. No one needs that much firepower for personal defense, and if anyone does then it can reasonably be said that he probably needs to work on his people skills. And no one needs a machine gun for hunting — if you need to spray the woods with hundreds of rounds to get a buck, then I think you need to hit the firing range more often.

More to the point, a machine gun in the wrong hands can very quickly produce casualties on an industrial scale – the prospect of an Adam Lanza (the Sandy Hook gunman) with full-auto weaponry is more than any reasonable person can bear to contemplate. So there is a consensus that weaponry explicitly designed for military use ought not to be generally available.

This principle needs to be expanded beyond the obvious: The only place I’ve ever needed a 30-round magazine was for the M-16 I was issued by the Army. I’ve never needed one for hunting or target shooting. The day I need 30 rounds to get a deer is the day my rifle will become a conversation piece rather than a tool for hunting. I can’t think of any valid reason for ordinary citizens to have a magazine holding more than five rounds. I also can’t think of a valid reason to oppose mandatory background checks for gun purchasers, nor can I come up with a reason a mentally unstable person should have a right to possess a gun.

But for me, there is another factor in play here, a factor not often mentioned in debates over gun control. I’m speaking of the situation on the ground in places like Richmond and East Oakland. It has been said that a nation can be judged best by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens; I would say that the people in our poorer neighborhoods are our most vulnerable population, and the daily existence of people in the Flats in Richmond is beset by violence and the desolating grief it causes.

The cheapness and plenitude of guns has been a large contributing factor to this situation. I’ve talked to many people in my old neighborhood and in other places like it, and a story I keep hearing from older people there is how the violence has escalated in the last 30 or 40 years. Gangs have existed in one form or another probably since cities have existed, but within living memory of some old-timers, those gangs settled differences with their fists and — when everyone’s arms eventually grew tired of throwing punches — from negotiations between factions.

The easy availability of guns has destroyed the old order, mostly because guns can bring a terrible (but illusory) finality to conflicts, but also because killing someone raises the stakes for everyone involved. Getting a beating will usually result in humiliation at worst; the prospect of being killed means everyone is fighting not just for abstractions like honor and respect, but for their very survival. It also means that the cycle of retaliation can have no real end. Mohandas Gandhi said that “an eye for an eye soon leaves everyone blind.” Answering death with death brings only more death.

I think asking, “How do we find a compromise that will be acceptable to both hunters and the professoriate?” is not enough; I think we also need to ask, “What can we do to deal with the terrible situation in our poor neighborhoods?” The answer to that question is very complex, but I think removing guns from the equation is an essential ingredient so we can buy time to de-escalate conflicts and address the deeper issues that afflict our most vulnerable citizens.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Why we have a constitution

Because the alternative can get very bad very quickly.

Some Preliminary Thoughts on Gun Control

GUN CONTROL HAS BEEN MUCH IN THE NEWS LATELY, and I thought I’d share some thoughts about it. If this post seems a bit muddled or indecisive, it’s not an accident — it reflects some real ambivalence I have about this.

Some of that ambivalence comes from the makeup of my extended family. Mom’s side of the family is primarily rural. Mom grew up in a small agricultural town, Arroyo Grande, on California’s Central Coast, in the 1930s. On Mom’s side of the family, a significant fraction of my aunts, uncles and cousins are farmers, dairymen, ranchers and so on; thus, on Mom’s side of the family, gunfire has benign associations — my Aunt Virginia and Uncle Leonard raised seven children; their three boys went deer hunting with their father at an early age, and they all remember fondly when they got their first buck. For people in their community (and in similar rural communities all across the United States) the opening day of deer season is a de facto holiday, with local shops closed and school out, since practically everyone in town heads into the hills with a rifle early that morning.

In short, when people in Mom’s and Aunt Virginia’s and Uncle Leonard’s community hear gunfire, it might provoke a smile and perhaps curiosity about whether the neighbor kid finally managed to bag a deer after a couple of luckless seasons.

My Dad’s side of the family is much more urban. Dad grew up in Chicago; his father was an immigrant from Ireland who worked his way up from a welder in the Chicago shipyards to being chief welding estimator by the time he retired in the 1960s. Gunfire was nowhere near as common as people think in Chicago in the 1930s (contra the impression created by a million gangster movies like “The Untouchables”), but if you did hear gunfire, it usually meant Something Had Gone Terribly Wrong. It meant murder — either attempted or accomplished.

 I know that feeling. I’ve mentioned before that I spent my formative years in Richmond, so I feel a deep connection to that city. In the last 10 years, Richmond has suffered anywhere from 18 to almost 50 murders a year, the vast majority of which involved firearms of one sort or another. (By comparison, in the last 10 years, London, England in its worst year had 200 murders — four times Richmond’s worst year in the same time period. But London has approximately 80 times the population.) I never personally witnessed a murder when I lived in Richmond, but dear friends I had there have been claimed by that horrible crime, and I have comforted the survivors of those and other murders. So, in urban areas, guns and gunfire have very different associations and meanings than they do in more rural places.

And I think the urban/rural divide explains the bitter divisions that characterize the gun control debate in the United States. And what has become abundantly clear in recent weeks — if it wasn’t already — is that there is no easy solution.

 The urban/rural divide goes back a long way in this country — all the way back to our founding, in fact. It was a factor in how the founders structured the government. The House of Representatives was heavily tilted in favor of the more populous states, since the number of representatives each state has is determined by that state’s population; California, for example, has more votes in Congress than all the other states from the Rockies to the Pacific combined. The Senate, however, is where rural states even the playing field: Every state gets two senators, whether its population numbers in the millions or it is small enough that its two senators played against each other in a high school championship game. My family background has members on both sides of the urban/rural divide, and that background has shown me that both sides in this debate are often talking past each other, with no attempt by either side to truly understand the position of the other.

All that said, let me say this: I think, on balance, this is one battle in which justice favors the urban states, but what I’m going to propose needs to take account of the needs and (reasonable) fears of both sides.

Speaking of fears, allow me a quick aside to address something I keep hearing from a certain small but significant subset of the pro-gun folks: that an armed citizenry is our best defense in the event our government becomes tyrannical. Let me to put this as succinctly and clearly as I can — and I say this as someone who served four years in the United States Army in a combat arms role and got a good, close look at the glittering array of death-dealing machinery that our tax dollars have bought huge piles of: If the people I see on TV talking about the “Tree of Liberty being watered with the blood of tyrants” were to (yes, this is ridiculous, but stay with me...) actually succeed in beginning the Great Birther and Anti-Kenyan Rebellion of 2013, and the U.S. military were given free rein to use all that previously mentioned hardware to suppress the uprising, the result is beyond doubt. The rebels would be absolutely annihilated. I mean, seriously, guys. Your duck guns and deer rifles — heck, even .50 caliber Barrett sniper rifles and home-made pipe bombs — would be up against the 82nd Airborne Division, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Air Force, armored divisions, cluster bombs, artillery, predator drones, B-52 raids, and so on. Capisce?

It’s time for all of us to learn: The best defense against tyranny is not an armed citizenry. It is an educated citizenry.

Anyway, back to my position on gun control: I think this is one where the rural states need to agree to some reasonable controls, for the benefit of their fellow citizens who suffer not just more or less regular massacres like Sandy Hook and Columbine, but also the less-talked-about but in its way more heartbreaking violence in places like Richmond and South-Central Los Angeles. I’ll have more on this in the second part of this series.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Last Thoughts on Sandy Hook

It is hard to be objective about such a crime, such a violation of the innocence of children.

My first reaction was that moral depravity on this scale is impossible to make sense of, because it is truly senseless. But, what if it is true that I just don’t want to attempt to make sense of it, because of where such an attempt might lead?

Don’t you and I owe it to those children to at least try?

What do these children’s deaths say to us?

Maybe it is the case that we are immersed in evil, and by failing to speak and act against it, we failed to protect these children.

 Perhaps we all share in some way in the culpability for this event. Our civilization is saturated with propaganda blaring that Violence Solves Problems. Movies, television shows, popular novels and video games affirm this principle again and again and again, to the point that this glorification of violence is, in an odd way, invisible.

 Maybe events like this, and the many other massacres that happen regularly in the United States, are trying to tell us to repent of empire, and the attendant violence by which it and all other empires throughout history have survived. I believe that a line – a fairly direct one – can be drawn from a civilization that glorifies and affirms the use of violence, and a disturbed individual that makes use of that glorification in a way not affirmed by that civilization.

 “But how can you blame me for this horrible crime? I didn’t do anything,” you and I might object. That is precisely the problem. You and I didn’t do anything.