Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Making Money or being a decent person?

Citing hard economic times, three Hyatt hotels in the Boston area fired about 100 housekeepers. These women who make the beds, clean the bathrooms and make sure that new guests will find their hotel rooms immaculate, had been working for Hyatt for 20 or more years. They earned $ 15.00 an hour, had health insurance and a 401k plan. (Their annual pay came to about $30,000.00 a year--not a lot of money if you live in a high rent, large city). Hyatt outsourced these housekeeping jobs to a firm that pays its employees $ 8.00 an hour and gives no benefits. By firing long term employees who, by all accounts, had done very good work, Hyatt halved its wage bill for housekeeping.
There has been a great outcry over the treatment of these long term employees. Even the governor of Massachusetts got involved when he threatened to withhold state trade from the hotel chain. But no one has asked what Hyatt did wrong. The task of a manager in our economic system is to make AS MUCH MONEY AS POSSIBLE over the long run. (Huge windfall profits that end in bankruptcy are not acceptable.) The Hyatt managers did just that: the recession has affected the hospitality business; profits are down. The managers cut costs any way they could even if that seriously damaged loyal long term employees. They may personally regret their callous treatment of their housekeepers but their job is to make money, any legal way they can.
The Hyatt affair does not tell us anything about the managers of Hyatt hotels. It tells us something about ourselves and our economic system. Making as much money as possible is more important than personal loyalty, than treating employees decently, than being kind and helpful to our fellow men and women. Making as much money as possible justifies being callous to others, justified treating others harshly.
Most Americans agree that making money takes precedence over treating others decently. The uproar over the Hyatt firings is hypocritical. Most of us support this economic system. (The governor of Massachusetts used to be a top executive at Coca Cola.) When, occasionally, the brutality of that system is exhibited clearly we all profess outrage. But the guilty party here is not the Hyatt management but all the people who think that it is right to pursue profit even if fellow human beings are made to suffer as a consequence. The guilty parties are all those who support our economic system.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Do Americans Love thgeir Children?

Do Americans love their children? Of course they do. Nothing is more certain than that.
But let's look at some facts:
13 million children in the US are either hungry or in danger of going hungry.
Almost half of all US kids, aged 6 to 13, are home alone for part of the day? In order to earn more, both father and mother go to work in many families. Children spend the afternoon after school at home--alone.
At the moment the national debt of the US stands at almost 12 TRILLION. That means that every man, woman and child in the US owes close to $ 39,000.00. Every child born today comes into the world owing $ 39,000.00. That number is going up, by the day. (Every day the US debt increases by almost $ 4 BILLION).
So our children and grandchildren will have to get a good education and work hard to earn that money. But school boards around the nation report shrinking budgets. That means only one thing: fewer teachers, larger classes, less help for everybody who needs it. In short, public education is suffering.
The US had 1 ½ million adults incarcerated. About half of these adults have one or more minor children. At least a million children grow up with a parent in prison. Is that any way to grow up? Well, you say, the parents should not have committed crimes. But is that the children's fault? Does anyone care about those children?
A final fact: Almost 30 percent of the nation's children are insured through Medicaid or through the state. As state revenues plummeted this year, many states were forced to cut Medicaid programs or cut back eligibility, which disrupted care for children. California, for example, nearly cut 450,000 children from Medicaid programs until lawmakers saved the program at the last minute.
Being a child in the US is frequently very hard. Do Americans love their children as much as they think?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

New Cluster Bombs

Textron Defense Systems announces a new cluster bomb, designed to spray 40 individual projectiles of molten copper destroying enemy tanks across a 30-acre swath of battlefield. Cluster bombs are vicious weapons that, upon impact, explode into clouds of small metal projectiles causing multiple injuries to many victims. Often the clusters do not explode immediately but cause terrible damage to children who find them and to farmers who stumble on them in their fields.
Not so this new type cluster bomb which Textron announces with great satisfaction will not threaten the health of civilians. Each of these new technological marvels costs close to $ 700,000.00. The US Defense Department has already committed several BILION dollars to purchase more than 4000 of these bombs.
With almost 50 million Americans without health insurance, with 36 million people, including 13 million children in the US at risk of going hungry, the Defense Department spends BILLIONS of dollars to buy these new weapons. They may not be a danger to civilians abroad. But they certainly are a danger to civilians at home. Our government prefers to spend billions on death dealing weapons instead of promoting life by feeding people.
Another question arises: Our military is fighting insurgencies against shadowy groups, armed most often with home made bombs, or with cars, trucks, even bicycles loaded with explosives; they are confronted by suicide bombers who die as they explode themselves. Cluster bombs to destroy tanks are useless in this fight. Clearly the Defense Department in purchasing this new weapon is looking ahead to more or less conventional warfare against an enemy army deployed with tanks and other conventional weapons. What are our defense planners preparing for?
Are they planning a war they are not telling us about?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Whom Should we Trust?

A Boston business owner has entered the primaries to fill the seat of the late Senator Kennedy. He believes himself particularly well-qualified because he is a successful business man.
Where has he been during the last year?
We are in the middle of the worst recession in eighty years; unemployment is inching up to 10%. Millions of families have lost their homes. Homelessness is up; more and more families must depend on food banks to feed their children. Governments at all levels are short of money because of falling tax revenues. Schools, fire and police departments all need to tighten their belt. The education of our children suffers and so does the security of all citizens.
We owe this catastrophe to business. The biggest banks, blinded by greed and misled by dubious morals and sheer incompetence made riskier and riskier investments until they faced bankruptcy. The tax payer--you and I--already buffeted by the economic crisis had to cough up a trillion dollars to keep the world financial system from collapsing.
The banks responded by giving lavish bonuses to the top bankers who had caused this crisis. Until business makes a real effort to clean house, until it stops treating us as gullible fools who are just waiting to be fleeced, we are not going to take a business career as a sign of trustworthiness.
Being a successful business man does to make someone a worthy successor to Senator Ted Kennedy.

Take Control

When critics call President Obama's health reform plans “socialist” they often worry about the overwhelming power of government. The Federal government is very powerful; the worry is justified. But if the same people then go on to say that health care should be in the hands of private business, they forget that private business also is often very large and even more powerful than the Feds. Do you remember that we had to shell out almost a trillion dollars in tax money only last year to save the largest insurance company in the world, as well as Bank of America and other banks because they are “too big to fail”? The goal of business is make money for the owners; the goal of the private insurance company is not to improve your health but its bottom line. Given a choice between a very powerful government, elected by us, and a very large company trying to enrich itself, surely the government is the better choice.
But not by much.
The enemy is neither government, nor business. The great threat comes from BIG government and from BIG business. The time has come for ordinary citizens to take back their lives. Many Americans have been doing this for years. It is time for more of us to turn our backs on the BIG companies to to take back a measure of control over our lives.
We owe the current sky rocketing rates of unemployment and home foreclosures, of poverty and homelessness to the big banks and investment houses who took crazy risks in pursuit of greater profits. But not all banks participated in this madness. The Credit Unions everywhere continued their previous conservative practices. They stayed away from risky mortgages and financial instruments they did not really understand. They continued to take the deposits of their members and to make home and car loans. What makes them different?
Commercial banks tout their service to customers but their real goal is to make as much money for their stockholders as they can. That's what makes them “commercial” banks--they are in it for their profits. Credit Unions are associations of members who put their money in the credit union. These are non-profit banks. They do not serve stock holders but their depositors. They are not run by stockholders in their interest but are run by their members to serve them. If a credit union does have a profit at the end of the year it is distributed back to the members. There are regular meetings of the members who determine the bank's policies.
Credit Unions are democratic organizations owned and controlled by their members, one member one vote, with equal opportunity for participation in setting policies and making decisions. Members are the owners. As such they contribute to, and democratically control, the capital of the cooperative. Credit unions, typically offer better rates, fees and service than for-profit financial institutions. Focusing on member needs, cooperatives work for the sustainable development of communities, including people of modest means, through policies developed and accepted by the members. Most importantly, belonging to a credit union you regain a bit of control over your money, by participating in control over a small business as opposed to being defenseless in front of the huge inter national banking empires.
Credit Unions are one kind of cooperatives. Co-ops enable us to get out from under big business and big government and take back control over our lives. I will write about other co-ops in future columns.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Why are People afraid of Socialism?

Twenty years ago the Berlin wall came down and Soviet communism collapsed. Chinese communism has morphed into an authoritatian capitalism that destroys the environment and mercilessly exploits working people. Except for the tiny island of Cuba, communism or socialism appear to be dead. Why then the continuing fear of socialism? In the recent debates about health care, the president's program was regularly attacked as “socialist.” Why is the specter of socialism still haunting the apparently triumphant capitalist system?
Capitalism won the battle but it has returned from the wars bloodied and limping. While the papers tell us every day that the economy is recovering after almost collapsing, the small print tells us that unemployment is going to rise in the near future and employment will recover very slowly. With the national unemployment rate at close to 10% – one out of every 10 persons looking for work will not be able to find any – that is a serious failure of the system. Yes, Goldman Sachs and the Bank of America may be making a profit again, but ordinary Americans are still suffering from tremendous job insecurity. Many hard-working Americans still are losing their homes. More and more schoolchildren have no homes to go back to when the school day is over. Poverty is on the rise; more and more families have to go to food banks in order to feed their children.
All this is well known. Less well known is the fact that this betrayal of ordinary working Americans by the capitalist economic system has been going on for many years. For a long time now capitalism has not been good for most Americans. Between the end of World War II and the 1970s, real wages for most working people went up. People earned more, they could buy more. Life was good. Since then, real wages – what the money you earn can actually buy—have been going down steadily. Working families responded by converting themselves into two wage-earner families. More and more women are also working paid jobs. One result was that more and more children come home from school to empty houses or apartments, and more of them get into trouble. It is good that women have greater job equality. It is not good that parents have to work so hard they cannot take care of their children.
But even having both husband and wife working still did not bring in enough money. A large number of working families carry consumer debt they will never be able to repay. It is not uncommon for families earning $60,000 a year to owe more than $100,000 on their credit cards. Real wages were so low that even with all adults in the family working they could not bring in enough money. Families took on serious debt for consumer purchasers and for housing.
At the same time, it became possible to move manufacturing jobs offshore and still make a profit. Steel, autos, tires and electronic gadgets are now manufactured elsewhere. Look at the labels in your clothing; chances are they are made in China. Big business earned more; ordinary Americans were left with worse jobs and lower pay.
In the same period, health care costs exploded. The American healthcare system is the most expensive one in the world; our outcomes are definitely second rate. Life expectancy in Japan is higher than in the US; the cost of the Japanese health care system is half of ours. The US health care system is the most expensive in the world but the Infant mortality rate in the US is just a tad better than in Poland, Croatia, Estonia and Hungary.
The outlook for the future is very grim. The rate of obesity in America is shooting up. Soon there will be millions and millions more suffering from diabetes and other illnesses connected with being overweight. More and more people will have bad knees and bad backs because they are too heavy. This is caused, as Michael Pollin has recently argued, by our economic system that produces food that is cheap but also very bad for us: fast food, soda, greasy snacks. Healthy food such as vegetables and fruits are more and more expensive and out of the reach of many people. Many Americans do not earn enough to feed themselves and their families healthfully. Our economic system yields fewer jobs for ordinary working people, falling wages, second rate health care and unhealthful food.
A well-known Yale University economist, Robert E. Lane, has asked whether people are happier today than at the end of World War II. His answer is :”no” People work harder than ever before; they have less time to visit with friends and family. A certain amount of their earnings go to buy gadgets that further isolate them: MP3 players, smart phones that allow you to play games or text others instead of talking to your friends. But happiness requires that we share, that we maintain our important relationships. Texting is not a substitute for friendship.
As the current crisis shows, the system produces terrible insecurity for many working people. Economists today admit that this insecurity is built into the credit system. Crises are bound to recur at regular intervals. When there is a crisis, as today, lenders are cautious. But then the economy recovers, most banks and financial institutions make money and investors think that the good times will never end. (Barely a year after the economic meltdown there are already signs of banks making risky loans.) They take excessive risks and the economy will collapse once again. Ordinary workers pay billions of dollars-- as we did in the last year-- to bail out the big financial institutions and then loose their jobs and their homes on top of that.
Those financial institutions bring in enormous profits for the investors. Capitalism is good for them. But often it is not good for ordinary people.
Socialism is the opposite of capitalism. While not a real threat, many Americans fear it. It is their way of putting into words their anxiety that capitalism is ailing. Its many failures force us to move away from a system of private enterprise and free markets. Firmly committed to capitalism, many Americans nevertheless see the many signs of its inadequacies. In calling attempts to remedy some of those socialism, they acknowledge in a backhanded way that their favorite system, capitalism, is an idol with feet of clay.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How useful are sex offender registries?

The California case of Philip Garrido has once again aroused great anxiety about child sexual abuse. He is accused of having kidnapped an 11 year old girl 18 years ago, keeping her a virtual prisoner and fathering two children with her. How can we protect our children against such outrages?

The most common answer to this question consists of a complex system of mandatory registration of convicted sex offenders. The requirements differ from state to state of who must register and how the obligation to register is determined in each case. In 19 states the legislature determines classifications. In other jurisdictions, courts, or special boards make determination. In some states, professionals trained in assessment of sex offenders are asked to make a determination for each individual case. In some, the offender is given an opportunity to appeal the decision by presenting expert witnesses and other evidence; in others that right does not exist or is, in practice, not respected.

In some states, some sex offenders must register as long as they live, in others the obligation to register ends after ten years. Each state has a web page listing names, faces, address and offense of registered sex offenders. In many localities, laws limit where sex offenders may live.
In many localities the local police will notify neighbors within a thousand feet of where a sex offender lives.

Sex offender registries have widespread public support.

But there are clearly problems: Professionals well acquainted with the problems of sexual offense fear that the registration requirement forces sexual offenders underground. As a consequence they may well find themselves more isolated, less likely to get support from family members, friends or acquaintances. They will also face serious economic problems because they cannot hold a regular job. The registration requirement may well put them in economic and social jeopardy--all pressures that may encourage re-offense. In this perspective, the sex offender registrations laws may well serve to increase the threat from sexual offenders instead of making us, and especially our children, more secure.

A second set of doubts points out that the number of registered sex offenders is only a small percentage of the the perpetrators of sexual offenses. According to students of the topic “Approximately 15% to 25% of women and 5% to 15% of men were sexually abused when they were children. Most sexual abuse offenders are acquainted with their victims; approximately 30% are relatives of the child, most often brothers, fathers, uncles or cousins; around 60% are other acquaintances such as friends of the family, babysitters, or neighbors; strangers are the offenders in approximately 10% of child sexual abuse cases. “ (Wikipedia) Perpetrators are often family members, or trusted persons like family priests, sports coaches, troop leaders in the Scouts, baby sitters. Families are often unwilling to believe their children's complaints about sexual abuse from adults in the family. Even if the children's stories are taken seriously, adults will not call the police to arrest a family member. The grandfather of a friend of mine molested all grandchildren--boys and girls. The children's mother refused to believe their complaints because she could not believe that her father would molest her children. Sex offender registries of convicted sex offenders do not protect children in that situation because only one out of three sexual offenses is reported to the authorities.

Families must try to protect their children against sexual abuse by alerting them early to the dangers. That requires that parents talk about sex to their children when they are still quite young but parents are often reluctant to do that. ( Since our culture exposes children very early to references to sexuality on TV or in the movies this should be easier than it once was.) It requires that sex and sexual abuse be a legitimate topic in school class rooms. It requires that families be alert to possible problems within the immediate family and in churches, sports teams, scouts and other places.

The legal mechanisms produce a false sense of security. They conceal the responsibility of family and neighbors. For many years children were subject to abuse from members of the clergy. It is difficult to believe that parents or other adults in the different parishes had no inkling of that. While the Church hierarchy was seriously remiss in dealing with this problem so were parents and other members of the local communities. The exclusive reliance on sex offender registration and notification mechanisms tends to obscure that everyone is responsible for the safety of children.

Americans take pride in their freedoms and institutions that respect and protect individual rights. But these individual rights often come into conflicts with our security and many Americans are willing to sacrifice individual rights (of others) in order to enhance their own security. Many Americans support the death penalty even though there are significant number of cases of innocent persons being put to death. Many Americans support torture of terror suspects even though many of them will prove to be innocent. Many Americans support the registration of sex offenders, and public notification of their address even though a significant number of them will not re-offend. In many states offenders are not given a chance to challenge their classification. In many states the requirement for registration will not be re-examined after an ex-offender has been trouble free for a significant number of years. Various courts have acknowledged that being mistakenly classified as a dangerous sex-offender will seriously affect a person's life, their possibility for work or a normal social life. We should not jeopardize the rights of our fellow citizens for the sake of measures that do not actually assure greater safety for most of our children. The individual rights of sex offenders must be taken as seriously as those of any other group.

In this connection one must consider the unfairness of sex-offender registries. We do not have similar registration and notification requirements for murderers, for drunk drivers, for arsonists. Drug dealers or con artists who cheat old people out of their hard earned life savings do not have to register. Neither do men who father children they do not take responsibility for. There are many ways in which some people damage the lives of others but only sex-offenders must register.

Sexual abuse, especially of children is a very scary subject. But that is all the more reason for thinking very hard about what are the best ways of protecting our children. It is not clear that sex offender registries will contribute to their safety.