Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memorial Day

Fighting wars is hard. It is appropriate that we set aside one day each year to acknowledge the soldiers who fought our wars.
But the rhetoric of Memorial Day also frequently glorifies war and that is a terrible mistake. War is an unmitigated disaster.
Too many of the young men and women who discover this too late, have been misled by this patriotic rhetoric that glorified war and asserts that ours is a great nation because we can destroy and have destroyed the countries and the population of other nations.
We should refrain from this misguided glorification of violence.
Instead, after recognizing the service of our soldiers, we should also speak at length about the suffering we impose on other nations. UNESCO estimates that half a million Iraqi children died as an effect of US/UN imposed sanctions between the two Gulf Wars. We need to remember the grotesquely disabled children of parents exposed to Agent Orange during the Vietnam war. That war is over for most of us but is still a terrible reality in Vietnam.
Side by side with honoring veterans, Memorial Day should be the day to remember the shame of the leaders that pushed us into these terrible wars; We should turn away in shame from the names of Kennedy, McNamara, and Kissinger. We should loudly proclaim the dishonor of Wolfowitz and Cheney, of Ashcroft, and of Bush.
We should roundly criticize the legislators who are busily appropriating more and more money for weapons because they bring jobs to their districts.
And we should finally ask ourselves how it is possible that our vaunted economic system cannot find work for everyone even though a significant portion of the workforce produces weapons of mass destruction.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Does your Member of Congress represent you?
The English began experimenting in earnest with democracy during the 17th century, a time of civil war and of great upheaval in politics and in religion. Towards the end of that momentous century, John Locke wrote a book about democracy as Englishmen understood it at the time. He advocated a representative system. Some of what he said is still of very important.
  Locke observes that we can trust our representatives to legislate in our interests if they are going to be subject to the rules they make for us. An elected official represents me when the rules he makes for me also apply to her. If the representative's interests are the same as those of the voters and if the burdens the voters bear will also have to be borne by the representative, we can trust them to do in our stead what we would do ourselves, if it  were up to us to make laws.
That observation gives us a clear standard by which we can judge whether the person we elected represents us or is, instead, on his own parade and in pursuit of his private interests. Does your representative assume the burdens he imposes on you?
We have a clear answer to those questions and the answer is negative. Congress imposes burdens on us they do not impose on themselves.
Let's look at healthcare. Members of Congress, like the majority of all federal employees, may elect to enroll in the federal health care plan. They are entitled to continue under this health care plan after retirement – unlike most other employees in the United States. Once most of us retire, we lose health insurance. Federal employees tend to pay slightly more for their health insurance than employees in the private sector. However “approximately 3/4 of all workers in private industry had no choice in medical insurance plan, either because they were not offered a plan (30%) or because they were offered only one plan (44%) while many participants of the federal health insurance had a wide choice of different plans.”
Members of Congress have health insurance. Almost a third of their constituents do not. In the near future some of us may well lose our current health insurance, or lose benefits, or have to pay higher premiums. There are no prospects for such changes to the insurance of members of Congress.
When it comes to pensions, “Members of Congress are not eligible for a pension until they reach the age of 50, but only if they've completed 20 years of service. Members are eligible at any age after completing 25 years of service or after they reach the age of 62." Please also note that Members of Congress have to serve at least 5 years to even receive a pension. How many persons do you know who can work for 20 years and then retire at 50?
The amount of a congressperson's pension depends on the years of service and the average of the highest 3 years of his or her salary. By law, the starting amount of a Member's retirement annuity may not exceed 80% of his or her final salary.
According to the Congressional Research Service, "413 retired Members of Congress were receiving federal pensions based fully or in part on their congressional service as of Oct. 1, 2006. Of this number, 290 …were receiving an average annual pension of $60,972. A total of 123 Members who had retired received…an annual pension of $35,952 in 2006."
Not all Americans who work all their lives receive a pension at retirement or one that is as generous as those given to Congress persons.
Members of Congress do not get lavish benefits. But their benefits are better than that of many of their constituents. More seriously, they assure benefits for themselves while many of their constituents don't receive any.
They are not good representatives of the people that vote them into office.We should insist that when Congress cuts benefits to citizens, they also cut benefits for themselves. They should not vote themselves benefits that their fellow citizens do not have.

Friday, May 18, 2012

             Patriotism and Capitalism

Eduardo Savarin, native of Brazil, attended Harvard University where, as luck would have it, Mark Zuckerberg was his roommate. In this way he got to be involved in the gravy train that is Facebook. When Facebook goes public, the Brazilian stands to make more than a billion dollars from his 4% share of that company.

Savarin was a US citizen until recently and would owe Uncle Sam a good chunk of taxes on those billions. So  he decided to renounce his US citizenship and save himself a tidy amount of cash. This action has provoked enormous outrage. Patriots – including surprisingly The Nation magazine – have rebuked him for lacking patriotic spirit, for being ungrateful for all of the benefits he gained from being a US citizen.
But what did Savarin do that every other capitalist does not also do? It is well known that a number of the largest US corporations do not pay any income tax. They make use of “loopholes” that their lobbyists put in the tax laws in the first place. They certainly make use of any advantage they can get from being a corporation in the United States. But they also are not hampered by feelings of gratitude or patriotism when it comes to making more money.

These corporations do not hesitate to move jobs from the US to Asia. They gladly move  work from the 50 states to a maquiladora in  northern Mexico. Eighty Years ago both General Motors and Ford Motor Company built or bought  auto factories in Germany in order to build trucks and tanks for the German Army that Hitler was rebuilding. Neither General Motors nor Ford hesitated to build military equipment for the US and for Germany.

The story reveals a profound confusion in the minds of most Americans. They think that being a patriot and being a good capitalist go hand in hand. But one has to be really blind to believe that. Being a patriot means that you are willing to make sacrifices for the sake of your country. Being a capitalist means that you are willing to make sacrifices only if you stand to make money by doing so. If you stand to make a good deal of money by not paying taxes to the country that provide security for you, that provides a financial system for you to profit from, that passes special laws that increase your profit, you will not pay those taxes even though that is clearly being ungrateful and, in fact, unpatriotic. If you can save a good deal of money by renouncing your US citizenship, you will, as a good capitalist, not hesitate to do so. If you can make money producing weapons for a potential enemy of your country you will of course do that. Can you imagine passing up a good opportunity for making a profit?

The lesson is important, especially for all the conservative politicians who believe that capitalism is next to Americanism and that a good patriotic American must be an ardent supporter of capitalism. But it now turns out that the opposite is true:  being a good capitalist may well prevent you from being a good citizen.

Karl Marx said “the working man has no country.” But he was mistaken about that. It is the capitalists that have no country.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

It's even worse than you thought

In an earlier blog I wrote about the suit of indigenous people in Ecuador against Texaco and Chevron. After 18 years they had won their court case against the oil companies who had destroyed their land while drilling for oil in the Amazon jungle. But then it turned out that a trade agreement between the US and Ecuador contained a clause that such court cases could be reviewed by a panel of three lawyers. In the case of the Ecuadorian indigenous people the panel decided that the oil companies did not have to pay anything. Three North American lawyers could invalidate the decision of Ecuadorian courts.
Now a column in Common Dreams explains the whole situation in more detail. It is even worse than we thought.

The United States has signed “bilateral investment treaties” with a lot of different countries. So have many other countries. Under those treaties global corporations are not only able to evade the court decisions in foreign countries, but they are allowed to sue other governments for losses sustained due to government regulations. Thus “last year, Ecuador was forced to pay fines of $78 million to the United States oil company Chevron, which claims that the country's efforts to protect the Amazon from pollution have negatively affected business.” Not only was the decision of Ecuadorian courts nullified, but the Ecuadorian government had to pay Chevron even though it was the oil company that had seriously polluted stretches of the Amazon.

These bilateral investment treaties exist not only between the United States and other countries. Germany is in danger of being sued by a Swedish company that manufactures nuclear power plants. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the Germans decided to phase out their nuclear plants. They cancelled contracts for new nuclear installations and now it looksas if they own the Swedish firm “more than €1 billion.”

Foreign investors may challenge, in an international arbitration process, any change in law and policy to protect the environment and public health, to promote social or cultural goals, or to grapple with financial or economic crises. Private global companies are clearly gaining the upper hand against governments who try to protect the environment, such as the government of Ecuador, or protect their citizens against nuclear disaster, such as the German government. Private pursuit of profit is gaining the upper hand over democratically elected governments.

No one voted for the management of these global corporations. But they now have power over elected governments. Corporate totalitarianism is the latest product of the “free” market.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

                     How we have changed.

A friend told me this story: “When my father was a student at the University of Michigan in the 1930s he lived in a cooperative house known as 'Socialism House.' 25 years later when I lived in the same house at the University of Michigan its name had been changed to `Michigan house'.” In the 1930s the word “socialism” was associated with persons who defended working people earning low wages and suffering grievously during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Socialists were in favor of greater equality and a decent standard of living for everyone. Today Republicans are making the Democrats look bad by accusing them of being socialists. “Socialist” has become a term of abuse.
This story reminded me of what has happened to the word “liberal.” Around 1990, Liberals were still the people who were defending freedom and equality for all. They were good guys. I remember my shock when the elder Bush during his campaign for the presidency started calling Democrats “liberals.” All of a sudden, the word “liberal” had become a serious insult.
Often words change their meaning by accident in the course of being used over and over. But what happened to both of these words is instructive. From being the name for people who were defending the most traditional of American values – equality, fairness, liberty – they are now being used for people who support an expansion of government activity. Why are liberals and socialists considered such a threat to us? The power of government, we are being told again and again, is an impediment to private enterprise, to the expansion of American business which will make all of us richer and richer.
Government actions most likely have been threats to some businesses for a long time. But where government stepped in to defend and expand equality and freedom, Americans have, in the past, been willing to pay a price for that.
In the past, socialism and liberalism, the defense of equality and freedom, may have has some undesirable side effects, but they were thought to be legitimate political projects because the pursuit of equality and freedom was thought to be extremely important. Today the dominant political perspective cares only about the health of our corporations, about their profitability. As soon as there is a hint that wage and hour legislation, worker protection, trade union organization, campaign finance reform, and other efforts to safeguard equality and liberty, large groups are up in arms because the defense of liberty and equality might have a negative effect on corporate profits. Equality and freedom count for very little; profits for a a great deal.
What I find truly alarming is the evidence that so many Americans are more seriously concerned about unfettered growth of business and very little concerned about equality, fairness and liberty. Who are the heroes today? Steve Job, Bill Gates – both people who have made huge sums of money and have been known to be unpleasant persons. What matters to Americans is making money. Their heroes are persons who make obscene amounts of money. There are no heroes today comparable to Rosa Parks or Dr. King.
Socialism and liberalism are seen only as threats to some businesses making a enormous amounts of money. Equality is of no interest. Neither is freedom. The public at large watches passively while our democracy is sold to the highest bidder.
The big businesses with their huge profits are selling us down the river and I'm afraid that we deserve every little bit of it. People who care more for money than for freedom and equality deserve what they get.