You can ignore the royal wedding, but not the overwhelming presence of celebrity culture

It all seems so trivial, the growing focus of our mass culture on the upcoming wedding of a young man of fairly middling accomplishments who represents one of the most odious ideas ever invented by humans-that some people are inherently better than others.  Yet so far, it’s been relatively easy to ignore the royal hubbub.   

Yes, there are a large number of TV new programs and entertainments dedicated to the royal wedding.  Yes, even the New York Times is increasing its coverage of the upcoming nuptials.  But we easily can skip over those articles, flip away when the nightly news starts to gush over Kate’s dress and bridesmaids, and completely ignore the specials.

But what is increasingly impossible to do is ignore celebrity culture, which seeps into every crack and corner of mass communications nowadays. 

My on-the-fly definition of celebrity culture is the preoccupation with the lives and activities of actors, popular singers, other entertainers, very rich people and those who happen to gain notoriety on TV or the Internet.  Reporting on celebrity culture drives out other news.  Charitable causes and social trends are advanced or retarded based on their relationship to celebrities; e.g., when Angelina Jolie gets involved in a cause, that cause suddenly becomes news.   And when a wide range of publications, including Parade, Cosmopolitan, AARP, People and even The Times and The Wall Street Journal cover a trend, cause or nonprofit organization, they often do so through the eyes of the celebrities who have become involved.

Key to understanding the pernicious influence of celebrity culture is to examine that part of celebrity lives that mass culture covers: the stories primarily show these people living the “jet set” life of what Thorsten Veblen once called conspicuous consumption.  We are not only are told to value the celebrity over the person who has actually accomplished something of worth, we are directed to what is most admirable about the celebrity-the fact that he or she is able and ready to spend so much more than we can on goods and services.

Perhaps one of the worst effects of celebrity culture is that it establishes celebrities—again, primarily entertainers, rich folk and lucky do-nothings such as characters on “Jersey Shore”—as the aspirational heroes and heroines of the culture, the people that we are teaching both our children and our adults to admire most, respect most and most want to emulate.  I don’t think I have to spend any time demonstrating that it’s bad for society when everyone wants to grow up to be Kim Kardashian or Charlie Sheen instead of the paleontologist Tim Flannery or Hikaru Nakamura, a 23-year-old who is currently the best U.S. chess player.

Today I want to explore one little cog in the celebrity culture machine—the list of birthdays that appear in the daily newspapers and elsewhere, and which a number of other periodicals use as filler at the front or back of publications or as regular features on websites.

Let’s start with AARP, the slick bi-monthly publication of the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons), which gives financial, relationship, legal and other advice to those who belong to the organization, all 40 million or so of whom are 50 years of age or older.

AARP has a feature on its last page called “The Big 5-Oh,” which displays a large photo of a famous person turning 50 in the next two months and some short comments that take up the top two-thirds of the page.  In the bottom third are 6 more photos with short blurbs or people turning 50, 60, 70, 80 and sometimes even 90.

Here is a list of the 21 people featured in the first three issues of AARP in 2011 in alphabetical order.  I have put in bold, italics and underlining to indicate all the non-celebrities.  In the non-celebrity group I include athletes (not because I think we should focus more on them, but because very few of them ever become part of “celebrity culture,” that is, followed not for their accomplishments but because of their celebrity):

Alley, Kirstie (60)

Ann-Margret (70)

Boyle, Susan (50)

Channing, Carol (90)

Clooney, George (50)

Etheridge, Melissa (50)

Gretsky, Wayne (50)

Jones, James Earl (80)

Lopez, George (50)

Louis-Dreyfus, Julia (50)

Mays, Willie (80)

Murphy, Eddie (50)

Nimoy, Leonard (80)

Nolte, Nick (70)

O’Neal, Ryan (70)

Reed, Ralph (50)

Ride, Sally (60)

Russell, Kurt (60)

Sullenberger, Chelsey (6)

Thomas, Richard (60)

Will, George (70)

Only 6 out of 21 (or about 29%) are not actors or entertainers, and of those 6, two are athletes.  Of the remaining four, two are modern heroes: a former astronaut and the pilot who belly-landed a plane on the Hudson River.  BTW, the two political figures,  Ralph Reed and George Will, are of the extreme right, which may suggest that AARP, long a proponent of a humanitarian social net for senior and others and a big backer of health care reform, may be tacking rightward.

Note that there are no scientists, no historians, no chess players, no film directors (who after all create the films in which actors merely play a role), no Directors of the Centers for Disease Control or the National Labor Relations Board, no governors, no literary authors.

The daily newspaper is no better.  For decades, most dailies have had lists of birthdays of the day, which is typically supplied by the Associated Press wire service. 

Here’s who is on the AP birthday list today: “Movie director-writer Paul Mazursky is 81. Songwriter Jerry Leiber (LEE’-buhr) is 78. Actor Al Pacino is 71. Rock musician Stu Cook (Creedence Clearwater Revival) is 66. Singer Bjorn Ulvaeus (ABBA) is 66. Actress Talia Shire is 65. Actor Jeffrey DeMunn is 64. Rock musician Michael Brown (The Left Banke) is 62. Rock musician Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) is 61. Country singer-songwriter Rob Crosby is 57. Actor Hank Azaria is 47. Rock singer Andy Bell (Erasure) is 47. Rock musician Eric Avery (Jane’s Addiction) is 46. Country musician Rory Feek (Joey + Rory) is 46. TV personality Jane Clayson is 44. Actress Renee Zellweger is 42. Actress Gina Torres is 42. Actor Jason Lee is 41. Actor Jason Wiles is 41. Actress Emily Bergl is 36. Actress Marguerite Moreau is 34. Singer Jacob Underwood is 31. Actress Sara Paxton is 23. Actress Allisyn Ashley Arm is 15.”

(I do admit that I got a little nostalgic twinge reading that it was the birthday of someone involved with the making of the 1966 pop hit, “Walk Away, Renee.”  After all, it is one of the dozen 45 RPM vinyl records that I still own.)

Of the 25 people on the list, the only non-actor, non-entertainer is the film director Paul Mazursky.  Among those left off AP’s list of April 25 birthdays were two other film directors, the former U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl , the horribly right-wing yet significant propagandist Dinesh D’Souza and Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn. 

This active crowding out of those who have real accomplishments is a small part of the larger imperatives of mass culture, which tell us to organize our emotional lives around commercial transactions, and not around achievement and service to others, and establishes as our role models those who are famous because they either represent or are extreme participants in mindless consumption.

Let’s change tax policy to favor only those capital gains going to productive ends.

A capital gain, according to Investopedia, is “an increase in the value of a capital asset (investment or real estate) that gives it a higher worth than the purchase price. The gain is not realized until the asset is sold.”  Investments in this context include stocks, bonds, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETF).

Capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than other income like salary, taxable benefits and interest income.  Capital gains are also exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes (also called FICA or payroll taxes). 

The federal government gives special tax treatment to capital gains to encourage people to take risks with their money by investing in ventures that could produce jobs and wealth for society.  The government distorts the marketplace by lowering the cost to invest.  It does so to help our society by encouraging the creation of jobs and wealth.

All well and good, but what does most of the buying of stocks and all of the trading in investment hedges like puts and calls have to do with creating jobs?

When you buy the stock of General Electric or a bond of Wells Fargo Bank you are not helping the company one bit, unless you buy it directly from the company.  But most stock is bought on secondary markets such as the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ.  In all trading of stocks and bonds and all hedging strategies, you buy from someone else or sell to someone else.  The company gets no additional money.

Now companies do from time to time issue stock or float bonds, and the people who buy them deserve a tax break for helping companies expand or develop new products, all of which create jobs and wealth and meet societal needs.  And even before a stock is public, people invest privately, usually buying shares or loaning money.  These people all deserve a tax break.  I have no problem with that.

For that reason, I propose that we change our tax law so that only when all the funds to buy the security go directly to the company (less fees to investment bankers, to be sure), will the investment qualify for the capital gains rate when the investment is sold. 

Many people are already paying taxes on capital gains at the rate of income taxes if they have traditional IRAs.  When you take money out of a traditional IRA (or exchange the IRA for a Roth IRA), you pay both the tax-deferred investment amounts and all capital gains as income, and not as capital gains.  I’m guessing that most people have all or almost all of their stocks, bonds, mutual funds and ETFs in IRAs and so don’t care much about the capital gains tax break.  But because there are strict limits on how much income you can shelter in an IRA, the wealthier you are, the more gains you will likely have that are currently getting the capital gains tax break. 

Some will say that this move will kill the stock market and therefore make it harder for companies to find financing.  My response: “Horse feathers!”  People have to do something with their money, and so will still buy bonds and stocks on the secondary markets.  They’ll just pay more of their profit in taxes, and why not?  That money did not really help to create any jobs.

If we want to tax rich folk less for creating jobs, let’s at least make sure that they’re actually creating jobs with the extra money they have; for example, the extra billions our government leaders recently gave the wealthy by extending temporary tax breaks for another two years.  You know, that $38.5 billion ripped from social service, educational, mass transit and other important job-creating programs in the latest federal budget.

The idea that tax breaks for wealthy create jobs is hooey; in fact it’s taxing the wealthy that creates jobs.

I’m a little late to mention it, but the usually estimable Charles M. Blow added to the massive evidence that lowering taxes on the wealthy does not create jobs, nor build additional wealth, but in fact destroys jobs and wealth.

In his “charticle” (chart plus short article) titled “The Pirates of Capitol Hill,” first published in the New York Times of Saturday, August 16, Blow presents a chart that tracks the marginal tax rates on the highest incomes and gross domestic product (GDP) since 1913, a good start date for the modern industrial state in The United States.

The marginal tax rate, BTW, is the amount of tax paid on an additional dollar of income. The marginal tax rate is the highest rate, but people will only pay it on the amounts earned above the highest cut-off point, not on all their income.

In these past 98 years, whenever the marginal tax rate for the wealthy went up, so did GDP. Whenever marginal tax rates on the wealthy went down, so did GDP.  The only time that GDP has ever declined in this country coincides with the times that we have had the lowest marginal tax rates on the highest incomes. In other words, when the wealthy pay less in taxes, our rate of GDP growth takes a swan dive and we sometimes even get GDP shrinkage.

The explanation for the relationship between low taxes on the wealthy and poor economic performance is easy: For every dollar that the government spends, it will put 100% of it back into circulation, either as salary to its own employees, benefits to citizens or payments to its suppliers.  All this circulation of money back into the economy creates jobs either directly or indirectly.

But when someone who already is rich gets the money, that money is likely to exit the productive economy, because it will likely go into:

  • Traditional investments: The only time that buying a stock or bond significantly helps create jobs is when the bond or stock is a new issue, that is, when the money goes to the company to create the jobs.  When you buy existing stocks, no additional money goes to the companies whose stock it is, and therefore no additional jobs are created. 
  • Financial machinations, such as options and other hedging, which create no additional companies or jobs beyond a relatively few highly-paid financial whizzes.
  • Art work and other high-end goods for which the price of the object primarily represents non-productive added value that sits in the product rather than being circulated around the economy.  To put simply, when you buy a Picasso for $45 million it creates fewer jobs than when 4.5 million people pay $100 each for a nicely framed print of the painting. 

To those who say that the wealthy do in fact use a goodly portion of the additional money they have under low tax regimes, I respond in three ways:

  1. That’s not what the statistics say.
  2. But not as much as the government does, since the government spends 100% of what it takes in.
  3. Do they now? (Read with sarcasm!)  My analysis of 35 years of analyzing business news media has been that the wealthier one is, the more likely one will finance job-creating ventures with OPM—other people’s money.

Blow ends his article with “But the spurious argument that cutting taxes for the wealthy will somehow stimulate economic growth is not borne out by the data. A look at the year-over-year change in G.D.P. and changes in the historical top marginal tax rates show no such correlation. This isn’t about balancing budgets or fiscal discipline or prosperity-for-posterity stewardship. This is open piracy for plutocrats. This is about reshaping the government and economy to benefit the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor and powerless.

Amen, brother!


More from the speech I gave connecting the attack on public unions to 30 years of taking from everyone to give to the wealthy

More from the speech I gave two nights ago at the monthly meeting of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee (PAJC):

To belabor what is probably obvious, shrinking the percentage of the workforce covered by unions shifts money up the economic ladder because the non-unionized workers make less for the same or comparable jobs, leaving the difference for executives, owners and shareholders. It’s not a coincidence that the period in which the United States had the most equal distribution of wealth was the same age in which the economy was the strongest and that unions were also the strongest: after World War II through most of the 70s.  Unions turn low wage jobs into middle class jobs—they always have and they always will.

Here are some other trends that have helped to concentrate more of our income and wealth in relatively fewer hands:

  • Tax policy:  We can describe our tax policy since Ronald Reagan took office as “Reverse Robin Hood.”  In Reagan’s first year, Congress cut income taxes to historically low levels, that are nevertheless still higher than today.  A year later, Congress raised taxes, but the new increases fell heavy on the middle class and the poor. And for more than 30 years, that’s the way it’s gone:  tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy alternating with tax increases that primarily take more form the middle class. The Bush II cuts that have recently been extended have the highest incomes paying the lowest rates and the lowest percentage of total government revenues in the history of the modernized West.  But even as we have lowered taxes, we have borrowed more money, creating safe havens and investment opportunities in which the rich can stash the money they have saved in taxes.
  • The movement to privatize what have been traditional government services such as running prisons and educating our youth:  Whether for schools, prisons, or cooking and delivering meals to soldiers, when a private company does it, it intends to make profit for its key executives and shareholders.  As many studies have shown, low level government workers, many of whom are unionized, typically make more money than their peers in the private sector, most of whom aren’t unionized, whereas private sector presidents, officers and senior management make far more than department heads and other civil service executives.   Some government contracting makes sense, for example, to manufacture tents for soldiers or provide a special social service to an “at-risk” population; these functions have historically been outsourced.  But the new outsourcing of the recent past has usually not worked well for our citizens. Virtually all studies on charter school performance demonstrate that charter schools almost always fail to improve student performance and often worsen it. It is also well documented that the privatization of our prisons over the past 25 years has been a festering scandal of prisoner abuse and fraud. When the government loans money to students for college and career training, the terms have been significantly better than when the private sector was allowed to do so between the early 90’s and this year. And let me ask you this—did you prefer how our wars went when we used relatively few contractors as in World War I and II, or now that we’re making massive use of military contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan?   Again, keep in mind that when the government gives a contract out instead of doing it with its own workforce, it is taking money from lower paid employees, who tend to be middle class, and giving it to executives and investors, who tend to be wealthy.
  • Shrinking of social welfare programs: We don’t have to spend much time here.  It’s clear that a social welfare program, whether it’s food stamps, healthcare for poor children or support of state universities, represents a transfer payment down the economic ladder.  When we used to provide more money for these programs, we had a more equitable distribution of wealth than we do now.
  • The attack on social security: The first step in the 30-year attack on Social Security came when the administration of Ronald Reagan changed the government accounting system and rolled the Social Security Trust Fund into the general budget and then claimed that the Trust Fund was near bankruptcy when all it needed to remain strong was to get back the money that it had lent the federal government.  Since then, almost every “fix” that has been made to the system has taken benefits away, for example, by raising the age or retirement, or to collect more Social Security revenues by increasing the percentage of what people pay.  In the same time, the cap on wages to be assessed Social Security taxes has crept up very little when inflation is considered.  Because of the graying of the baby boom generation, we do face a minor shortfall in the Trust Fund in about 30 or so years, not a grave one, but our elected officials seem to avoid the obvious solution—to take the cap off the income which is assessed the Social Security tax.
  • For example, President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility & Reform proposes eventually raising the retirement age to 69 and raising the cap on income assessed by the Social Security tax only to $170,000.  The lawyers, accountants and writers in this room could work well into our 70’s or 80’s, but the age of 69 seems pretty old for retirement from most jobs: think of janitors, warehouse workers, retail clerks, factory workers, truck drivers, and most hospital staff.  Why couldn’t the National Commission have knocked a few years off that proposed retirement number and taken the cap off the income to be taxed for Social Security?
  • Its treatment of Social Security is one of just many ways that President Obama’s National Commission wants to accelerate the movement of income and wealth up the ladder.  Although not asked to mess with the tax system, the Commission gave a detailed recommendation for changing it.  Paul Krugman is just one of many economists who, upon analyzing the series of tax increases and decreases proposed by the commission, recognized that if the commission’s plan passed, the wealthy would be paying even fewer taxes.  Meanwhile, the National Commission proposed draconian cuts to social welfare and education programs, again taking money from the poor and middle class who benefit from these programs and giving it to the wealthy, who will get the benefit of the proposed tax breaks.
  • Right-wingers, primarily Republicans, are on the move in many states to take more away from the working and middle classes.  Republicans in Missouri, Michigan, Arkansas and Florida have all taken steps to cut the time that the unemployed can receive unemployment benefits. And nationally, the right-wing has begun a legislative assault on Medicare and Medicaid’s funding and fundamental structure.

Now that I have shown you how this massive net transfer of money—almost a heist, as it were—occurred, I want to close with two questions: why should we care and what can we do about it?

Why should we care?  I think most of us are fairly well off, and statistically speaking many of us would qualify as wealthy.  Many of us are among the ones who have done quite well over the past three decades.

But we should all care because one of the hard lessons of economic history is that nations in which equality of wealth increases over time always thrive economically whereas those in which the equality of wealth decreases tend to decline.  I first read of this idea from Fernand Braudel, usually considered the great historian of the 20th century after Toynbee, who brilliantly analyzes Spain’s decline during the 16th century because of the growing unequal distribution of wealth fueled by the growth of predatory tax policies that had the poor and middle classes paying more and the wealthy paying less. A positive historical example is Western Europe after the Black Plague, an age of rapid economic growth and the highest average wage compared to total wealth in western history. Closer to home, we can compare our nation’s condition from the end of World War II to the late 70’s to what it has become since, save for the Clinton boom, which also saw a temporary reversal of the trend towards greater wealth inequality. If we don’t reverse the trend, the economy and quality of life in the United States will decline quickly and permanently.

I want to pose and then give my answer to one other question: What to do to reverse the three decade trend of greater wealth inequality in the United States?  The following are some actions that I would submit we should demand from our elected officials and those who want our vote and support in primaries:

  • Raise taxes on the wealthiest five percent of incomes and use the funds to provide simple wealth-shifting programs such as lowering the cost of tuition at public universities or increasing food stamp payouts.
  • Remove the $106,800 cap on individual and employer payments to the Social Security Trust Fund (known sometimes as SSI or payroll taxes), so that everyone pays on all income but keep the cap on maximum benefits, which would secure the Social Security system well into the future.
  • Raise the minimum wage.
  • Foster unions by lowering barriers to unionization, ending “right to work” laws and requiring that charter school teachers join unions in areas in which the public school teachers are unionized.
  • End government outsourcing for ongoing non-manufacturing, non-research government functions such as operating prisons and public parking and providing military services.  Government pays lower paid workers more and higher paid workers less than the private sector does, so when the government does it, there is a more equitable distribution of wealth.

All of these actions will raise wages and redistribute wealth down the economic ladder.  The experience of Western Europe suggests that these moves would not threaten our competitiveness in global markets.

We won’t be able to fix in one election, or even in one decade the grave harm which three decades of taking from the middle class and poor and giving to the wealthy has inflicted on our society.  But if we don’t get started now we will continue along the same sorry path that in 50 short years turned Spain from the most powerful nation in the world into Europe’s backwater for four long and hard centuries.


The speech I gave last night connected the attack on public unions to 30 years of taking from everyone to give to wealthy

I gave the following remarks yesterday evening at the monthly meeting of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee (PAJC). My topic was “putting the Attack on Public Unions in Perspective.”  I spoke after Sam Williamson, Associate Manager of the Pennsylvania Joint Board of Workers United, SEIU, spoke on the significance of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

In this speech I pull together a number of ideas that have populated by blog over the past 18 months, so I thought I would publish it on the blog for my readers. It’s pretty long, so I’ll split it up over two days:

Over the next 15 minutes, I’m going to put the current attempt in many states to reduce pensions and curtail the collective bargaining rights of unionized public employees into two broad contexts: one—the 30-year war against labor unions and, two—the role that war has played in the broader movement of income and wealth up the ladder from the middle class and the poor to the wealthy, also a phenomenon of the last 30 years.

My interest in these matters began when I was a television news reporter working for the national news program, “Business Today” and covered the air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981.  During that time I was the first mass media journalist to report about the impact of the graying of the baby boom generation on the economy and society, and also the first to report on our development into a nation of rich and poor.  Today, among other things, I write the blog, OpEdge, which has investigated and analyzed the right-wing war against unions as one of its continuing themes.

Let’s get started, because we’re talking about class warfare, which as Betty Davis might have said, is always a bumpy ride.

The attempt of Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislators to end important collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin is the tip of the iceberg of what is an all-out assault on public workers occurring before our very eyes.  Here are some other examples that have not received as much ink nationally:

  • In Indiana, Democrats legislators also walked off the job to slow down Republican efforts to ram through laws that weaken Indiana’s prevailing wage and collective bargaining laws.
  • In Florida, there are three bills moving through the legislature that weaken the teacher’s union, restrict political activity by public unions and reduce benefits to state workers.
  • Republicans in Iowa, New Jersey, Maine and Ohio are all trying to restrict collective bargaining rights of state employees
  • Meanwhile, the governor of Ohio wants to exempt universities from a requirement that they pay union-level wages on construction projects.
  • Even Democrats are getting into the “attack the unions” game.  Connecticut’s new Democratic Governor is demanding $2 billion in public union concessions over two years.
  • Let’s cap this review of anti-union activity across the country with a little Alice in Wonderland thinking that many have been doing, including the New York Times this past January.  It seems as if certain policy makers are considering ways to enable states to enter bankruptcy in a new and as yet illegal way that would allow the states to keep paying municipal bond holders while breaking all union contracts.

If you think all this activity against public unions sprang up overnight as a collective expression of the anger or frustration of a country riddled with economic problems, then you haven’t been paying attention.  Right-wingers, primarily from the Republican Party, have been aggressively trying to curtail unionism and union political activity since the ascension to the presidency of the patron saint of union-busting, Ronald Reagan:

  • Symbolically, the 30-year war against unions began when President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers—85% of all air traffic controllers—because they did not return to work as ordered during a strike in August of 1981.  Reagan also banned the fired employees from all future federal work, a move that the Clinton Administration rescinded in 1993.
  • Reagan packed the National Labor Relations Board with management representatives. Prior NLRB boards settled only one third of all cases in favor of employers, even under Nixon.  Reagan’s NLRB settled three-quarters of all complaints in favor of employers.  The NLRB under Reagan also took more time to settle union complaints, which made it harder to organize and easier for management to pursue decertification campaigns.
  • Both Reagan and Bush II’s Labor Departments were anti-union.  Reagan’s Labor Department, for example, declined to ask union-busting consultants and the companies that hired them for the financial disclosure statements the law demands, but it did ask unions to provide this documentation. Though the Labor Department cut its overall budget by more than 10 percent, it increased the budget for investigating union finances by almost 40 percent.
  • Under Bush II, the budget was again eviscerated, with funding stripped from every enforcement operation: workplace health and safety, minimum wage, fair hours, and even child labor.  But no surprise, funding for investigations of labor unions increased.
  • Now we come to that odd confection called charter schools.  Although many well-intentioned people now support charter schools, make no bones about it—the inception of the charter school movement and the continued advocacy by the right-wing has from the start derived from anti-union motives. For the most part, charter schools replace unionized teachers with non-unionized ones, who, of course, make less money, a necessity if the charter school is going to make a profit for its organizers.  The list of long-time financial supporters of the charter school movement reads like a who’s who of union haters, including the Walton family and the Koch brothers.  And supporting charter schools is part of the anti-union panoply of policy recommendations by such anti-union think tanks as the Heritage Foundation, the Pacific Research Foundation and the Goldwater Institute. By the way, virtually all studies of the matter show that the charter school movement has yielded disappointing results in the area of student performance both in school and on standardized tests.

The war on unions is just part of a larger trend over the last 30 years to transfer both income and wealth up the economic ladder.  This period has seen incomes and overall wealth of the middle class and poor stagnate while those for the upper 5% and 1% grow steadily.

Before I lay out some of the key events in this transfer of income and wealth up the economic ladder, let me first convince you that it has occurred.  Most of my facts were supplied by Professor William Domhoff, author of Who Rules America Now and The Powers that Be:

  • The top 1% now owns 34% of all the wealth in the United States, compared to only 20.5% in 1979, for a gain of almost 70% in the past 30 years!
  • Income of the top 1% was only about 13% of total income in 1982 and today  it’s about 21.5%—a gain of two-thirds!
  • The chief executive officers and presidents of companies now make many more times the money than their average full-time worker does.  In 1980, CEOs made about 42 times what the average worked was paid; CEOs now make 475 times the income of the average worker in the United States.  By the way, in Europe and Japan, it’s anywhere from only eleven times as much to 22 times as much
  • The top 1% of U.S. households owns nearly twice as much of America’s corporate wealth as they did just 15 years ago.
  • And only the top 5 percent of U.S. households have earned additional income to match the rise in housing costs since 1975.

I think it’s reasonable to say that all ideology and philosophy aside, the past 30 years have seen the rich taking more of the pie and leaving less for everyone else.


The President’s opening volley in the budget deficit battle is a surrender to the right-wing.

After President Obama’s capitulation to the right-wing in the budget deficit plan he presented yesterday, I thought it might be in order to review what progressives got when we hoped Barack Obama would make a more effective president than his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. 

  • We’re in three wars now, instead of two.
  • The prison-cum-torture-chamber at Guantanamo is still open and the accused terrorists are getting military trials.
  • We just witnessed a $39 billion dollar transfer of wealth from the middle class and poor, who are losing government benefits because of budget cuts, up the ladder to the wealthy, who saw their temporary Bush II tax break extended another two years and counting.
  • And those among us who are concerned by the impact that humans are having on the environment, consider this: one of the biggest losers in the budget deal announced over the past weekend was high-speed inter-city rail transit.

And now we get President Obama’s idea of a fair way to close the deficit, which is large only because the wealthy have enjoyed 30 years of the lowest income tax rates in the history of the industrialized West: Obama echoes his National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in proposing that for every one dollar that taxes are raised we cut three dollars from the federal budget. 

That’s less money for mass transit.  Less money to repair roads, bridges and tunnels. Less money to research ways to clean up the environment and make industrial processes less polluting. Less money for research into alternative fuels and power generation. Less money for community health centers and nutritional programs for disadvantaged children.  Less money to help poor people get the education they need to improve their lives. 

I’d like to write “less money for wars and weaponry,” but that’s not guaranteed.  The brokers of the budget deal found $10 billion extra for the military, and we know that our Iraqi and Afghanistan wars are considered “off budget,” which means they don’t even count in budget computations.

There is, however, one large unspoken “more” in the president’s proposal: more of our nation’s wealth in the hands of those who already have too much.  The President’s plan means that the wealthiest will continue to enjoy a low-tax regime which has enabled them to hoard more and more of the nation’s wealth over the past three decades.

The only good thing about the President’s proposal is that it’s less unfair than the Republican’s plan, which includes draconian cuts to Medicare/Medicaid.  But that’s damning with almost no praise.  It’s like saying that the 1962 Mets, a long-time icon of futility, looked good next to the last place team of a Municipal D softball league

Some are saying that what the President laid out is his negotiating position.  But it sounds to me as if he has already given away the store and the only term to negotiate is who will pay to ship everything to the new owners. . The New York Times says Obama’s plan retains “core Democratic values,” but to me it looks like a full surrender to the right wing.

If President Obama were politically vertebrate, he would have called for the deficit to be eliminated over time by a series of gradual tax increases falling primarily on those who have enjoyed such low taxes for so long.  He might have even proposed the French custom of assessing an annual tax on wealth for those with more than a certain amount, say $5 million. 

Unfortunately, Obama is the Democratic president that we have and we’re stuck with him, and the Republican alternatives are so frightening, we hope to be stuck with him through 2016.  But I can’t stop asking myself: what mass hysteria persuaded progressives that an Illinois unknown would be a more effective Democratic president than the accomplished, articulate and steely Hillary Clinton?


By selecting the criteria, Investopedia influences retirees to conclude that the south and the suburbs are best.

A great example of fixing the game before the game starts can be seen in “5 Things to Consider When Choosing Where to Retire,” which Investopedia distributed to Yahoo! Finance and other portals aggregating articles on personal finance over the past week.

In the article, writer Stephanie Christensen, gives us the five following factors that we should consider when considering where to live in retirement:

  • Taxes
  • Climate
  • Work opportunities and recreation
  • Cost of living
  • Housing market

Note that Ms. Christensen never mentions the following factors to consider when planning a retirement location:

  • Cultural activities
  • Mass transit
  • Access to tertiary medical facilities (regional hospitals)
  • Services for seniors

Christensen has consciously decided to list the criteria for which the south and suburban areas have advantages, while ignoring those criteria for which cities, and in particular older northern cities like Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, are noted.  The most obvious example is to mention recreation like “national parks, historical sites, military parks, campgrounds, and state parks,” while completely ignoring cultural activities like symphonies, concerts, theatre, museums, major universities, historic buildings and libraries.

More subtle, though, is the mention of taxes as a consideration:  It is true that taxes can potentially be devastating for senior citizens since they are typically on fixed incomes, but only potentially so.  Keep in mind that only seniors who are wealthy will end up paying significant taxes and that many municipalities and states protect retirees from increases in property taxes.

The writer never poses the question, what do you get for your taxes.  For example, the residents of New York City and Boston get far more for their taxes in the way of mass transit, senior programs and public spaces than do people in virtually any city in the south and all suburban sprawl-opolises.

The selection of criteria is completely ideological, whether on a conscious or an unconscious level.  Warm weather leads you south; recreation leads you either south or to smaller, exurban areas. Taxes lead you away from the blue-state north and west coast to the red-state south.  Cost-of-living as an absolute (without considering services) leads you south and away from cities. 

Thus, without saying that life is better in the automobile-dependent suburbs (and south) of shopping malls, chain restaurants and sparse public space and services, Christensen drives us to considering these places first when thinking about retirement.

A writer sincerely interested in giving useful advice to those considering a change of address in retirement would have listed all the criteria and then discussed how some of the criteria can act against others—better mass transit may mean more taxes, but it may be worth it to many seniors.  To others, golfing and hiking may be of less interest than checking out the exhibit of Yuan dynasty masterpieces at the Met or attending that cheap Thursday rehearsal of the Pittsburgh Symphony. 

Christensen could have closed such an article by saying that the first thing to do is to decide which criteria are most important.  That would have helped people organize their minds to consider where they really want to spend their golden years.   Instead, she prefers to force-feed us a car-dependent lifestyle in which the options are driving to a nearby national park for a hike or shopping for more stuff at the mall.

My final point is that when reading any how-to or advice column in the mass media—newspapers, magazines, websites—the first thing you have to ask yourself is, what is the writer selling?

Cuts to needed programs in budget compromise avoidable by letting temporary tax cuts for the wealthy expire.

Everyone in Washington looks as happy as cherrystone clams at high tide this morning after the budget compromise that prevented a shutdown of the federal government.

“Today Americans of different beliefs came together again,” said President Barack Obama.

“We made history instead of repeating it,” said Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Republican Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, he who wants to eviscerate Medicare/Medicaid, called the budget plan “good news.”

All this patriotic and chest-swelling bipartisan pride is about what may be the biggest heist in history.  In this unarmed robbery, the rich stole from everyone else, and in particular the poor.

Obama’s delight in compromise ignored the sad fact that the $38.5 billion in cuts serving as centerpiece of the compromise will mean decreases in spending in the following crucial areas:

  • Head Start, which prepares poor and disadvantaged children for school.
  • WIC, which gives federal grants to states for supplemental foods, health care referrals, and nutrition education for low-income mothers, and to infants and children up to age five who are found to be at nutritional risk.
  • Infrastructure projects and programs to improve roads, bridges and mass transit
  • A program that provides international aid that directly and literally saves lives from pandemic diseases
  • Proven work and income supports that lift families out of poverty
  • Support for education, especially in low-income communities

It doesn’t take an Aristotle to see that these cuts will hurt people already suffering and postpone repairs and improvements to the infrastructure that could boost our economy.

And none of it would have been necessary if the Democrats and Obama had not compromised with Republicans last December to extend temporary tax cuts for the wealthy  and instead allowed them to expire.  Remember that at the time, they controlled both houses of Congress.  If the Dems had forced the issue during the campaign season, they might have had an issue that appealed to voters and done better in last November’s election.

Put the two compromises together and you have a net transfer of wealth of $38.5 billion and counting, all of it going up the economic ladder from the middle class and poor to the wealthy, who already were doing well, having improved their share of all of America’s wealth by 70% and their share of total income by about 66% over the past 30 years.

Most of the media coverage of the compromise this morning reported on the drama of negotiation and the exuberance of avoiding a shutdown.  Very few reporters bothered to list the cuts.  Nothing devious there—it’s just the standard media preference for focusing on personalities and the drama of struggle over considering the details of issues.


But I did find it interesting that in all the “sound and fury” and “cries and whispers” reported in the media leading up to and immediately following the budget compromise, there has been virtually no mention of the fact that the Pentagon’s budget is being increased by $10 billion.   That means that instead of dedicating $10 billion to helping people in need, we are going to buy more guns, bullets and planes and shoot up Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya and wherever else we are making a muck of things.

New Republican majorities try to curtail a woman’s right to an abortion in many states.

While the war on public unions is getting most of the ink, new Republican majorities in state legislatures are quietly also moving to curtail the rights of women to have abortions in a large number of states.

Arizona just became the first state to outlaw abortions for reasons of race or sex, which, as many have observed, is an invasion of privacy.  Kansas Republicans want to license abortion clinics in that state, while Florida, Iowa and Ohio legislatures are all considering bills that would place more restrictions on women seeking abortions, make them jump through more hoops and make it harder to pay for abortions.

Indiana may take the cake for nutty legislative proposals:  One proposed new Indiana law bans taxpayer-paid abortions in cases of incest or rape.  Another requires physicians to tell women seeking abortions that having an abortion has been linked to a higher prevalence of breast cancer, a scurrilous lie parading as theory but disproved by scientific research long ago.  

Coming to a position on abortion is not easy, unlike the other key issues on the right-wing social agenda.  Unlike abortion, we can easily disprove every other right-wing stand on the major social and political issues of the day:

  • Scientists have proved that man-induced rapid global warming is occurring and beginning to leave negative marks on nature and mankind.
  • The overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports the theory of evolution.
  • Research has demonstrated time and again that capital punishment is not a deterrent to crime and that torture does not yield additional information from suspects.
  • Research also shows that when more people own guns, more people are killed and injured by guns, both legal and illegal ones.
  • Spending more does improve the performance of children in the classroom and on standardized tests, but only if the money is spent on smaller classes with more qualified teachers.
  • The claims that gay marriage harms “responsible procreation” and endangers other marriages and families have been disproved.
  • The United States has a substandard and expensive medical system when compared to other Western nations, all of which have nationalized systems.

Facts will disprove all the right-wing nonsense, except when it comes to abortion (and the related issue of stem cell research).

In truth, defining when life begins really is a matter of belief, since no one can really say.  Does life begins at inception, viability or someplace else?  And what does viability really mean, since a new-born thrown into the woods or even put in the street can not survive on its own, and so is not really all that viable.

So what’s the answer? Everyone’s stand on abortion is a matter of belief, no matter how reasoned the arguments made or the graphic photographs flashed.

So whereas we can demonstrate beyond the doubt of any truly rational and open-minded person that appropriate public policy and legislative change should favor gun control, greater emissions controls and more educational aid targeted on the classroom, it is impossible to make such a confident assertion regarding abortion.

But there must be public policy.  There must be laws.

What to do?

The way into the dilemma—belief—is also the way out.  From atheist to Hassid, belief is always a matter of faith, which of course belongs to the universe of religion.  And religion has no place in our political system and should have no power to influence our laws.  Our Deist forefathers wrote religious freedom—freedom of belief—into the Constitution.  They believed that something that is a matter of faith is rightfully a personal concern of our private lives.  And today I think most right-wingers, centrists and left-wingers agree that the government for the most part should stay out of our private lives.   Of course, they make define that term differently, to be sure.

As a matter of public policy, then, we should and must allow women the right to an abortion.  To do anything else would represent a tearing of the thick steel wall that is supposed to separate the state from any and all religions or religious belief in the United States.

We certainly have the right to set sensible medical ground rules, such as limiting late-term, and influencing people not to use abortion as a means of birth control by promoting other methods such as condoms and the morning after pill.  But we should in no way slow down the process, once the woman makes the decision to investigate the abortion option.  And we should recognize that any rule we lay down regarding late term abortions must have room for medical exceptions. 

Finally, we should not have legislation that promulgates the idea that abortions are inherently wrong or immoral.  Those are religious judgments, and government is not supposed to make those, except when it involves saving human lives. 

And that starts us full circle, as it begs the question, when does life begin? But again it’s a circle of belief.   And in our culture, government butts out of those discussions.