Monday, October 27, 2014


Inequality


In a recent blog I told the story of Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve Bank, who spoke about economic inequality without mentioning any of the problems in our economic system that produce and reinforce that inequality. There is a good deal of discussion of inequality these days but not many people are willing to look at the real causes of it.
A while ago, The Nation magazine reported some terribly distressing facts about one other source of economic inequality, the role that racism plays in the lives of children of color in this country.
The nation's report rested on government figures published by the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Here are some highlights from that report:
"Black students accounted for 18% of the country's pre-K enrollment, but made up 48% of preschoolers with multiple out-of-school suspensions.
Black students were expelled at three times the rate of white students.
Black girls were suspended at higher rates than all other girls and most boys.
A quarter of the schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students did not offer Algebra II.
A third of these schools did not offer chemistry.
Less than half of American Indian and native Alaskans high school students had access to the full range of math and science courses.
Black, Latino and Native American students attended schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers.
Black students were more than three times as likely to attend schools where fewer than 60% of teachers meet all state certifications and licensure requirements."
These stark facts help us understand the history of many young black men. In a recent book, On the Run, Alice Goffman reports that many of the young black men who are in serious difficulties with the law first ran afoul of the government when they were 10 or 11 or 12 years old. The fact that black children in preschool are already singled out for punishment and expulsion explains their early conflict with the police.
They clearly never had a chance.

Sunday, October 19, 2014


Don't believe everything they tell you.


The Federal Reserve Bank held a conference recently in Boston on economic opportunity and inequality. Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve Rank, addressed the meeting.
She frankly admitted that inequality has been increasing rapidly in recent years. Between 1989 and 2013 the income of the top 5% of households increased 38%. The incomes of the remaining 95% of households increased by 10% or less.
What to do? Yellen had all sorts of ideas to even out the increasing inequalities in our nation. Specifically she had three suggestions: "early childhood education, affordable higher education, and increased business ownership."
Most of these are all sensible suggestions. There exists a good deal of evidence that children's school trajectories are affected by their learning in the very first few years of life. More Head Start programs might produce a better educated workforce.
College education has become terribly expensive and is prohibitive for some people. Many other students need to work, some of them full-time, in order to afford college. If students have a full-time job and go to school full-time, the odds are that they are not going to learn a lot. There is not time or energy enough to assimilate what they read or hear in class.
I am less certain about the third suggestion that more people should go into business for themselves. That takes some money doesn't it?
But I was really struck by what chairman Yellen did not talk about. Her suggestions seem peripheral. She did not address the economic problems responsible for the growing inequality.
There is still a good deal of unemployment; many people are working part-time who would prefer to work full time.
Significant numbers of people work minimum wage jobs that do not bring in enough for people to live comfortably, let alone send their kids to college.
Since the early 1970s, working-class wages have been pretty stagnant. Employers have outsourced jobs to very low wage countries, thus setting up competition between American workers and those in different Asian countries with a much lower standard of living than ours. More and more people are not regarded as employees of the firms where they work; instead, they are 'independent contractors' or they work for subcontractors. Their employment is uncertain and intermittent. Their wages are held down by competition between subcontractors.
Continuing unemployment gives employers the upper hand when it comes to negotiating wages.
All of these assaults on working-class incomes were made possible by the concerted effort of business during the Reagan administration and thereafter to destroy the powers of labor unions. Fewer and fewer workers are represented by unions. Partly as a consequence of the unions' very precarious position, they can only offer limited protection to their members.
If we look at the society as it is, it is clear that there are some more central remedies for inequality than expanded Head Start programs: raise the minimum wage, abolish Right-to- work laws (anti-– union laws), encourage unionization, and put limits on temporary employment, subcontracting and other ways of increasing business profit and impoverishing working people.
All of this is well known. Janet Yellen, of course, knows all this a lot better than I do. Why did she not say so?
There are a number of possible reasons. If she were taking the side of the workers in the struggle between workers and employers, she would be in deep trouble with the people who have most of the power. People on the right of the political spectrum, rich corporate types, would make sure that she would soon be out of a job.
On the other hand, she does not want to agree with people on the left that so many working people are suffering because the economic system is skewed against them. As the head of an important federal agency, part of her job is to tell citizens that things are really alright and that the problems you have are open to easy fixes: combat inequality by expanding Head Start.
That is of course also what people on the right want her to do: tell everyone that it is not the fault of employers if workers's wages and incomes deteriorate every year. Our actually very serious economic problems are made to look benign if they can be fixed by expanding Head Start programs.
Here then is today's lesson: don't believe what high level bureaucrats tell you about the state of the economy and of our world. They are not to be trusted.
Don't let your employers exploit you and then tell you that it is all a problem of early childhood education.

Friday, October 3, 2014


Bombing ISIL: defense of or attack on democracy?


In a democracy citizens share equal power in determining government policy and/or who is going to be in the government.
Now ISIL a group we did not know about three months ago, rampages thought Iraq and parts of Syria, killing innocents, beheading hostages. President Obama decides to start bombing them.
The President refuses to consult Congrees because he says, they are only bombing, there are no soldiers involved in the fighting. So it is not a war. In actual fact we are sending soldiers to Iraq to train the Iraqi army. “Well,” the White House says. “They are not shooting at anyone.” Suppose they get shot at? And anyway is training soldiers not participating in a war?
The White House is not only threatening democracy by not asking citizens, it is treating us a utter idiots. And, yes, if citizens are idiots then democracy may not be such a good idea.
You'd have to be a lawyer to take the claim that we are not starting another war seriously. Can you imagine the people on the ground saying, as the bombs rain down on them, “Thank God, this is not a war”?
The President starts an air war unilaterally. His legal staff assures him that he does not have to consult Congress.
But that is surely an insult to our democracy. It says that the President can get us involved in one more war and the people are not to be consulted, neither are their representatives.
Congress is not doing much better. Leaders of both parties have suggested Congress not talk about this latest war before the elections. Their first priority is to win the upcoming elections. But why are they so eager to get elected or reelected? They are not eager to formulate national policy on this all important issue of war or peace. They are certainly not interested in representing voters. Many people are concerned about this new war. But Congress says: “let's not talk about it.” That is hardly the ideal choice of those who want to be the peoples' representatives.
Being in Congress must be a nice job even if you don't do what people elect you for.
With the November elections looming, I get frequent messages from my Congressman asking me for money. I have not heard any questions about the new air war. The congressman wants me to help him get reelected so that he can represent me. While he is running for reelection, he cannot interest himself in what I and other constituents think on this terribly important question of war and peace. He is an exceptional Congressman and I support him gladly. But it reflects on the terrible distortions of our democracy that election campaigns are ever longer—look at Hilary running for President—and are all consuming so that our representatives cannot do the job we elect them for.
What a sorry state of affairs! This new war shows clearly the extent to which ordinary citizens have been disenfranchised.

Bombing ISIL: defense of or attack on democracy?


Democracy is generally considered to be a political system in which citizens share equal power in determining government policy and/or who is going to be in the government.
Now ISIL a group we did not know about three months ago, rampages thought Iraq and parts of Syria, killing innocents, beheading hostages. President Obama decides to start bombing them.
The President refuses to consult Congrees because he says, they are only bombing, there are no soldiers involved in the fighting. So it is not a war. In actual fact we are sending soldiers to Iraq to train the Iraqi army. “Well,” the White House says. “They are not shooting at anyone.” Suppose they get shot at? And anyway is training soldiers not participating in a war?
The White House is not only threatening democracy by not asking citizens, it is treating us a utter idiots. And, yes, if citizens are idiots then democracy may not be such a good idea.
You'd have to be a lawyer to take the claim that we are not starting another war seriously. Can you imagine the people on the ground saying, as the bombs rain down on them, “Thank God, this is not a war”?
The President starts an air war unilaterally. His legal staff assures him that he does not have to consult Congress.
But that is surely an insult to our democracy. It says that the President can get us involved in one more war and the people are not to be consulted, neither are their representatives.
Congress is not doing much better. Leaders of both parties have suggested Congress not talk about this latest war before the elections. Their first priority is to win the upcoming elections. But why are they so eager to get elected or reelected? They are not eager to formulate national policy on this all important issue of war or peace. They are certainly not interested in representing voters. Many people are concerned about this new war. But Congress says: “let's not talk about it.” That is hardly the ideal choice of those who want to be the peoples' representatives.
Being in Congress must be a nice job even if you don't do what people elect you for.
With the November elections looming, I get frequent messages from my Congressman asking me for money. I have not heard any questions about the new air war. The congressman wants me to help him get reelected so that he can represent me. While he is running for reelection, he cannot interest himself in what I and other constituents think on this terribly important question of war and peace. He is an exceptional Congressman and I support him gladly. But it reflects on the terrible distortions of our democracy that election campaigns are ever longer—look at Hilary running for President—and are all consuming so that our representatives cannot do the job we elect them for.
What a sorry state of affairs! This new war shows clearly the extent to which ordinary citizens have been disenfranchised.

Monday, September 29, 2014


The US campaign to defeat dictators and other brutal regimes.


The war against ISIS is gathering force in Iraq and inside Syria. Once again our government has mounted its white steed and is riding into the fray to battle for civilization and human rights.
Since the end of the Cold War we have become militant proponents of democracy. Wherever you look our president, whoever that happens to be at the moment, is the vigorously denouncing the brutality of various dictators. We went to war to topple Saddam Hussein. We went to war against Qaddafi in Libya; we are now engaged and have been in trying to topple al-Assad in Syria. The campaign against ISIS is presented to us as a campaign against brutal militants. In each case we are fighting cruelty, inhumanity. We present ourselves to ourselves and to the world as the champions of nonviolent political institutions, of democracy where everybody has equal legal rights and equal protections. We are pure, when compared to all these dictators.
Sad to say that this propaganda. The events in Ferguson have brought to the fore the constant and uninterrupted brutalization of communities of color and the outright war of police against young men of color and, more generally, against all young men. An article in the Tampa Bay Times a few weeks ago asserted that "every 28 hours an unarmed black person is shot by a cop." A Los Angeles website, Laist reports the research done by the Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition.”They found that police killed 589 people in the line of duty between January 1, 2000 and August 31, 2014. That's about 43 people each year or one person every eight days.” The majority of them were young black men.
One in three black men is imprisoned in the course of their life. According to some figures, about half of black men are under supervision of parole authorities. With a sharp increase of persons imprisoned, state governments have farmed out prisons to private companies. They manage to turn a profit by keeping prisoners under utterly inhumane conditions. Often lights, toilets,water do not function. Sick prisoners have no access to health care. Prison guards fail to protect prisoners against the assaults by others.
Once again men of color are the prime victims.
These are terrible facts. If we added up all the young black men brutalized by police and by the prison system we might well find that our government is as brutal as the dictators we have opposed in the last 10 or so years.
But the precise numbers are not important. What matters is that we are systematically being fed a view of the world designed to conceal the enormous failures of our so-called democratic system. According to the official story, the US is the country that is democratic at home, where all are equal, and we come to the aid of many abroad. A columnist for the Boston Globe, Stephen Kinzer, observed recently that American media are fascinated with World War II stories because our role in that war was decent. The many other wars in which we took the side of dictators for the sake of procuring raw materials for our corporations do not yield plots for movies, tv series or fodder for pundits. They have been forgotten.
Day in day out our attention is drawn to the brutalities of other dictators or other governments. It takes the month-long demonstrations not only in this country but all around the world in response to the killing of Michael Brown, to lift a corner of the shroud that covers the murderous activities of our own police forces, and of the federal government that supports those police forces with more lethal weapons and equipment.
The good news is that more and more Americans are waking up to this gross malfunction of our government spite of all the propaganda. This morning's paper reports an opinion poll in which almost 2/3 of persons asked allowed as how black people do not receive just treatment from our judicial system. The truth is slowly leaking out.
But before we, the citizens, and the government take actions, nothing will change.

Monday, September 22, 2014


Why vote?


The election season is becoming more intense. Maybe this is a good time to ask yourself: when you go to vote, what are you doing? Why vote?
Everyone knows the official story that we learn in school: In a democracy the people have the power. When they vote, citizens select the person whom they will allow to wield that power on their behalf for a limited period of time.
But it does not take much thought to see that description for the sheer propaganda it is. When you are called into the taxman's office to go over your income tax returns, when you get a parking ticket, or when your complaints about potholes are ignored by the people in City Hall, you experience your reality that you have no power at all against the various representatives of the government.
When the police kill citizens as in Ferguson, MO (and many other places) and courts absolve the Zimmerman's of this world, where is the citizen power? When responsible adults are paid less than $ 9.00 an hour, where is their power?
The reality is that most Americans feel quite unable to affect the role that the government plays in their lives. That sense of powerlessness is so intense that most citizens do not bother to vote. “What's the use?” they say.
They are right: voting is an exercise in futility. Once your candidate has come into office, you will hear from them periodically when they ask you for money. If you feel strongly about something and sit down to write them a letter, the odds are that you will receive a form letter that has only the faintest, if any, connection with the concern your letter expressed.
Why vote?
By sheer accident this morning's paper provides one answer.
The City Council of Fergsuon, MO established a citizen's review board for the police and made various other moves to placate the voters in the town. Two thirds of the citizens of Ferguson are African-Americans. The police force of 53 officers has three black members. The City Council is all white. To judge by pictures of demonstrations after the killing of Michael Brown, many whites as well as blacks objected to Ferguson police conduct.
The City Council is elected. Their re-election depends on staying on the good side of the voters. By itself that does not explain this effort of the City Council to placate voters. There have been nightly, often violent demonstrations in Ferguson. The case focussed national attention on this previously unknown suburb of St. Louis. Being elected, the city councillors could not ignore a national outbreak of hostility to them, their town and its police force.
Elected officials often turn a blind eye to the wishes of their constituents. But if there are major demonstrations for an extended period, if their actions become the topic for a national conversation, elected officials cannot ignore the criticisms.
If Ferguson, MO were governed by a military dictatorship, demonstration would not need to be attended to. The suppression of popular opposition would only be much more violent than it was in fact. But when officials are elected, they are more responsive to public pressure.
So voting matters. It is important that some of our government officials are elected and voters if they get sufficiently upset can kick them out of office. At the same time, the experience of the last few weeks shows that voting alone accomplishes very little. It takes many brave people out in the streets again and again for an extended period to remind elected officials that they are not gods or judges with life-time tenure, but that they are supposed to represent the people.
So go and vote but be prepared to demonstrate actively and patiently.

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Fighting Terrorist with Bombs?


The US has been intermittently bombing Iraq since the 1991 First Iraq War. We have just resumed bombing once again.
If you do something for 25 years and it still has not solved your problem is it not time to ask whether a different tactic might be more promising?
If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again” makes little sense. One should learn from failures, not repeat them endlessly. Moreover, we need to think about the immense damage our bombing of Iraq has done.
We feel entitled to wage war in the Middle East because of the almost 3000 people killed 13 years ago on 9/11. But we have killed easily a hundred times as many innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been chillingly callous about the damages we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Pakistan and elsewhere. (Libya also needs to be mentioned here.)
We see the result of our bloody policies in the ISIS. That army has been strengthened by thousands streaming to its ranks from everywhere. We have ravaged that part of the world and made many, many enemies.
If we killed them all, would that solve the problem of terrorist threats? No one, who thinks at all, believes that. We would only be hated by that many more people who would be willing to fight us anywhere, with any weapons they could find or invent.
A “war” on terrorism is a really stupid idea. Terrorists hate us. Making war on them only makes them hate us more.
The only way to reduce the terrorist threat is reduce the world-wide animosity against us. Dropping bombs, sending American soldiers, is not the most promising way to improve our reputation as good and valuable neighbors in the world.
ISIS appears to be dangerous and brutal. Perhaps a short term, immediate military reaction is needed. But such military responses are no more than a stop gap measures, that are really undesirable and should only be considered as a last resort.
But the Obama White House seems to have no other ideas about blunting the terrorist threat over the long haul.
Here are some things the US needs to do.
1. Stop being so incredibly arrogant.
Our Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry, travel around the globe telling people to govern themselves democratically. “Be like us”they tell them. How would we feel if government leaders of other countries offered advice to us on how to deal with racist police in Ferguson and elsewhere, or with the massive failures of the VA? Exactly. That's how others feel about us.
More generally, we continuously tell others what to do. When is the last time that we have gone to another people and asked them a question, or asked for information or for their opinions. We act as if we could not learn from anyone.
2. Stop being ignorant.
Americans travel around the world speaking English. They expect everyone to speak our tongue. We make little effort to learn the languages of others. That does not win us many friends.
The public debate leading up to the attack on Iraq was shamefully ill-informed. Parading our ignorance we nevertheless insist that we are the leading country on the globe. That is not likely to raise our popularity.
3. Pick our friends thoughtfully.
Israelis and Palestinians have been at war with each other since the 1920s, long before there was a State of Israel. Theirs is a bitter and intractable conflict. But it is not our fight. There is no reason for the US government to act as if Israel was the 51st state of the union. If we want to work towards more amicable relations with the peoples of the Mid-East we need to distance ourselves from Israel.
During the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, we sometimes sided with and supported Iraq and then turned abut to support Iran. The nations in the Mid-East learned that we were not to be trusted.
In Syria we have opposed the government of Bashar al-Assad—until two days ago when we decided his bomb his enemies, ISIS. Suddenly we are supporting Bashar al-Assad. Our policy shifts unpredictably. That does not make us good allies.
There are many other ways in which we have attracted a great deal of enmity in the Mid-East.
If we are to reduce the terrorist threat, we need to change our ways and persuade our enemies that we have changed. We need to prove ourselves to be good neighbors instead of arrogant, ill-informed, bullies.
Both of those will be very difficult and take time, but nothing else will do.