Thursday, May 26, 2016

                           Slavery and the Holocaust

Twenty-four states in the US have Holocaust museums. In many of these 24 states there is more than one Holocaust Memorial. A Museum of American slavery is just about to open in Louisiana. It is the first one.

It is tempting to respond to this fact by comparing the suffering of slaves and the death toll of slavery to the suffering and deaths of the victims of Nazi genocide. But it is inhumane to enter into a debate as to which  group has suffered more.

Instead we need to recognize why memorials to slavery are so rare and of recent origin even though the parallels between slavery, between genocide of Native Americans and the Holocaust have been a familiar trope for quite a while. Book titles such as  American Holocaust are familiar.

But Americans are understandably reluctant to explore the terrific suffering imposed on slaves because white Americans imposed those sufferings. Whites alive today often refuse to have anything to do with slavery. They complain about affirmative action programs by saying that they, after all, did not own slaves. Slavery has nothing to do with them and, by implication, the aftermath of slavery, which is still very much with us, has nothing to do with them either.

Others, a large majority, simply do not pay any attention to slavery and to the centuries-old struggle of African-Americans for recognition of their humanity--a struggle that is still very much ongoing.

Liberals often acknowledge that slavery did exist for 300 years (if we include, as we should, the regime of Jim Crow between the end of the Civil War and the 1960s, 100 years later.) and propose some wildly inappropriate remedy. Harvard University has placed a plaque on one of its buildings with the names of four slaves owned by a previous president of the University. Names or images referring to slavery and oppression are being changed.

But such acts have more to do with public relations than anything else. The incredible suffering imposed on slaves when they were sold away from their families, from wives,  from husbands and children, from fathers and mothers, the blatant brutality of enforcing quotas of pounds of cotton picked per day, the merciless flogging of those who did not meet their quotas, the rape of slave women by their owners or their families, the shame of being examined naked in the slave market, the denigration as savage when law prohibited teaching slaves to read and write--none of those are addressed by plaques and changed logos. Such public relation moves only trivialize the suffering of slaves.

This orgy of brutality produced immense wealth from the triangular trade to the cotton plantations in southern states. American wealth, the astonishing productivity of American capitalism owe their origin to the misery, to the ceaseless hard physical labor of generations of African-American slaves.

After centuries of repeated resistance in slave uprisings and in small acts of sabotage, in  national demonstrations and in quiet assertions of their dignity, some African Americans have gained good work and a middle-class incomes. But the majority is still struggling to get a decent education, to get decent work and to be accorded respect as human beings.
We probably need more museums of slavery. More importantly, we need a widespread recognition on the part of Whites in America that they are indebted for their high standard of living to the African-Americans who often do not share that standard of living. Whites in America owe a great debt. That debt is not paid by installing a plaque on a Harvard University building or by changing the logo of a university.

It is true that the present generation of white Americans does not own slaves. But it is also true that they are inheriting the wealth produced by slavery and are  for that reason under a heavy obligation to repay the descendants of slaves.

Reparations have been discussed for a long time. Obviously it involves money. One suggestion is that the gap in property ownership between whites and blacks--prominently the gap in home ownership-- be removed through payments to Blacks. There are many other proposals. For a number of years, Rep. Conyers has tried to introduce a bill in Congress to appoint a commission to study  reparations. Congress has never taken up that bill. The predominantly white Congress does not even want to think about reparations.

Congress does not want to consider reparations, even to study and debate, because they understand that “more than recompense for past injustices—more than a handout, a payoff, hush money, or a reluctant bribe . . .  [reparations involve] . . . a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal. Reparations would mean the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage. Reparations would mean the end of yelling “patriotism” while waving a Confederate flag. Reparations would mean a revolution of the American consciousness, a reconciling of our self-image as the great democratizer with the facts of our history. (

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Corporate welfare

The term "corporate welfare" was coined by Ralph Nader in 1956 and has since become a standard criticism of government support for corporations and for the very rich.
Recently a new website has appeared called "Subsidy Tracker/Good Jobs First" that tracks in admirable detail what corporate entities receive by way of support from the federal and from state and local governments. At the same time the website shows that the idea of corporate welfare is more complicated than is often thought.

The website lists the corporations that receive the largest subsidies from the federal government. At the top of the list is a Spanish Corporation, Iberola, that owns many wind power installations in the United States. Since 2000 that company received 2.2 billion in subsidies. The Federal Government has adopted a policy of supporting alternative energy installations. So far, wind power is more expensive than electricity generated by fossil fuels. If we want to increase the proportion of electricity generated by wind power, the government needs to subsidize those installations. This is not an example of "corporate welfare."

This is an important point. Not every government subsidy to private industry should be condemned as corporate welfare. There are industries which we want to encourage and subsidizing them does not go against our national interest. Wind generated electricity is a fine example of that. 

The expression "corporate welfare" applies to government subsidies given to industries contrary to public policy. The government gives subsidies to oil companies at the same time as it is trying to move our power generation away from fossil fuels. Oil companies are reimbursed by the government for the oil they pump out of the ground. Since any oil company has limited oil available to it, they argue that they need to be reimbursed for reducing the total oil available to them. All of us, exhaust the total amount of energy available to us as we work. Over the years we loose strength, we tend to move more slowly, our memory becomes less reliable, and our competence is reduced in some areas. We loose the physical attractiveness of youth.  But older workers do not receive subsidies from the government for a exhausting their limited resources. Such payments are only given to oil companies. That is  not only an unfair subsidy but it is subsidizing an industry which we actually do not want to encourage.

Tax breaks are another form of corporate welfare  that are not given to ordinary citizens. Corporations do not have to pay taxes on profits they make outside the United States. If ordinary citizens are paid for work they do abroad, the taxman still wants his cut. Exempting foreign income of corporations from US taxation is clearly giving corporations an unfair boost.

Hedge fund managers are taxed at a 20% rate on their income which is considerably less than other people in the same income bracket have to pay. If there were some reason for encouraging hedge funds that sort of subsidy might not be problematic. But this much lower income tax rate for hedge fund managers is generally regarded as a completely unfair government subsidy for a specific financial industry. Hedge funds have contributed to financial instability. It is not clear that they are desirable and should receive special supported by the government. 

 Walmart and fast food enterprises like McDonald's pay their employees so poorly that they need to go on food stamps in order to be able to feed themselves and their children.  Programs like food stamps make it possible for employers like Walmart and McDonald's to pay extremely low wages to their employees. Food stamps are a subsidy to the very large companies who can raise their profit margins by underpaying their employees. Ordinary citizens who hire roofers or plumbers or someone to plow their driveway in the winter do not receive government subsidies to help them pay these contractors. Subsidies are only for very large and very profitable corporations.

The military is regularly being accused of wasting significant amounts of government money. A great deal of work in war zones is done by a civilian contractors such as Halliburton. These contractors increase their profit margin by hiring workers from Asia or Africa who are paid considerably less than the government allows the contractor for wages. The differential  goes into the contractor's pocket. Contractors often deliver shoddy work or no work at all but the Pentagon pays the contractor anyway.

In recent years there has been a major increase in the number of Americans incarcerated. Publicly owned and run prisons have not been able to house all these prisoners. Private prisons have become a new and rather profitable industry. Their lobbyists are found in state legislatures everywhere to encourage legislators to increase punishments for crimes, to impose mandatory sentences, to pass three strikes laws where someone convicted for three crimes is subject to many years in prison even if one or more of these three crimes is of minor importance. State legislatures subsidize the private prison industry in this way at the expense of people who run afoul of the law and of course at the expense of the taxpayer who has to pay for all these additional prisoners housed in private facilities.

A good deal of information is available about specific government programs, subsidies, reduced taxation for specific industries. Each accusation of corporate welfare is rebutted by the industry lobbyists who claim that the monies paid to specific industries are in the national interest. The accusation of corporate welfare is always open to argument although often those arguments are pretty threadbare.

Given that each individual example of corporate welfare is subject to  argument, it is very difficult to arrive at a rough figure of how much of the national budget is devoted to enriching corporations in ways that are not benefiting Americans at large but are only benefiting owners of companies or their stockholders. At the same time the examples cited here are only a small number of the corporations that are rendered profitable by favorite government action. Ours is indeed a welfare state which keeps the poor, the sick and the elderly on very short rations but is much more generous when it comes to welfare for corporations and the rich.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

You Gotta be Rich

An article in this morning's paper seems to be telling to unrelated stories, but the stories did have the same message: if you want a good life in these United States, you had better be rich.

The first story talks about the building boom for drug detox institutions. Two  are being built near where I live. Both will be functioning in the early fall of this year. In the last year more than 1500 people died in the state from drug overdoses. The epidemic continues and perhaps even increases. Investors are blissful: "Everybody is chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of the opioid issue. ” said one investor. “There is an epidemic of opioid abuse, so there is a tremendous demand.”  There is nothing like a building boom to make a good profit. Investors are thankful for the epidemic of overdoses.

The article also points out that the cost of staying in one of these detox institutions is considerably higher than what insurance will pay for detox services. If you  need to avail yourself of the services of these clinics you need to pay significant amounts out of pocket. Your health insurance will not pay enough for you to try and deal with your addiction. You have to be rich, or at least quite well to do, to attend these clinics. Your chance of beating your addiction, of leading an ordinary life, with a job, a family, children and happy retirement years, depends on how rich you are. If you are poor or lower middle class and have only your insurance payments, detox is not for you. Your chances of beating your addiction are considerably worse.

The second story seems quite unrelated. It appears that the US immigration service has a complex menu of different visa's. One of them, EB 5, makes it possible for foreigners, for instance foreign students, to remain in the United States after they finish their studies. They also receive a green card which allows them to work and have a regular job. After five years they can apply for citizenship and then become regular Americans.

All they need to do for receiving this EB 5 visa is to invest $1 million (you read that right: $1 MILLION) in such a way that it creates at least 10 permanent jobs. The article tells the story of a Chinese businesswoman whose daughter is a student in this country. The mother gives her daughter $1 million. The daughter invests it in a detox clinic and before you know it, after five years, she is an American citizen just like you and I. In the meantime the detox clinic brings a good return to the investors. She is not only an American citizen. She is a well-todo American citizen.

We need to rewrite the inscription on the statue of liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor,  your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free" and add something like "especially if they have at least $1 million to invest."

A short while ago someone asked the speaker of the House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress , Paul Ryan, whether we should not accept more Syrian refugees. The speaker rejected that suggestion out of hand saying that it was too dangerous. Among those refugees there might be agents ISIS. You look in vain for worries about terrorism when we offer green cards to people investing $1 million.
We also need to rewrite the pledge of allegiance. The line that says "and liberty and justice for all" also need an added phrase, something like "if they are really rich."

It is difficult not to be thoroughly ashamed of our government.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

                            Democracy at home and abroad.

Together with untold destruction and suffering, we did bring democracy to Iraq. To be sure their elected parliament has not been able to legislate or to govern because they have been too busy yelling at each other, pelting each other with water bottles, or even getting into fist fights. They have democracy but it does not work.

But that is for us only too familiar a phenomenon. Members of our Congress have not gotten into fist fights but they also have been unable to legislate. They are too busy bickering. They have been unable to ascertain how the government is working. Congressional hearings  have become public relation events in which each party is trying to blacken the name of the other.

What is worse there are now two kinds of citizens: citizens with money and citizens without. The former have influence on the government. The latter are pretty much left out in the cold.

Citizens--the kind without money--have however rallied and during several days during the middle of April significant numbers of protesters sat in in front of the capital in Washington, DC. 400 citizens, practicing civil disobedience, were arrested on one day. Not only does  everyone know  of the blatant corruption of our democracy but there are many citizens who are not willing to put up with that. 

They are asserting their democratic rights by protesting, by committing civil disobedience, by getting arrested.

In a democracy the people rule. When the democratic system works smoothly, everyone has a say, everyone is heard, and all work together to govern themselves. When the democratic system does not work, as is the case in the US as well as in the Iraq, ordinary people need to come to the seat of government to claim their rights as autonomous citizens of the democracy.

This is what has been happening in the United States. Today's news reports that it is now also happening in Iraq. Ordinary folks in Baghdad invaded the Green zone and the parliament building and the elected legislators either ran away or hid in small rooms in the parliament building making a rather disgraceful spectacle of themselves.

That, of course, is excellent news. People in Iraq are learning the real lesson that democracy does not consist of having periodic elections, often paid for by rich citizens or corporations, but that when the government is not functioning, the people have a duty to take back their power and demand that their elected representatives either do their job with integrity, or leave town and go back to where they came from.

The Iraqi protests made the front page of the Sunday paper. The protests in Washington DC were barely mentioned in the media. The free press, which is an essential ingredient in any democratic system, is in the pay of billionaires and chooses what news is suitable for their readers to hear and what news is better hidden from them.

When, after living in the United States for five years as an immigrant, I became a citizen, the judge in the downtown Chicago courthouse insisted on reading the entire Declaration of Independence to all the new citizens before him. In his final comments he urged us to never forget that the United States was born in a revolution. It is not periodic elections that makes our republic remarkable. It is the revolutionary spirit in which citizens are willing to go to great lengths to assert their rights to govern themselves and not to be governed by corporate managers.

We are indebted to the protesters in Baghdad, in Washington DC, and many other US cities for remembering the revolutionary history of democracy and for remembering that that history has not yet come to an end. The revolutionary impulse remains the soul of democracy.