A modest proposal in case Congress won’t raise the debt ceiling and Obama doesn’t act unilaterally

As our befuddled and recalcitrant Congress and President move us ever closer to the abyss of default, we are beginning to hear the Administration’s payment plan if the debt ceiling is not raised by next Tuesday, August 2. 

All we know for sure as of this writing is that the Administration plans to pay bondholders before everyone else.  The mainstream news media is assuring us that no matter who does not get paid—employees, social security recipients, contractors—that that bond holders must be paid off. 

To be sure, if we don’t pay foreign holders of our debt such as the Chinese government, we will ruin our financial rating, interest rates will soar and our reputation across the globe will take the kind of hit associated with starting useless wars, as what happened in 2003 when we invaded Iraq for no real reason.

We need to keep in mind that one of the biggest holders of U.S. debt is the Social Security Trust Fund.  In a sense, the Trust fund holds bonds collectively for everyone who pays Social Security taxes, and not to pay this debt is no different from reneging on interest and principal payments on T-bills.  Besides putting millions of senior citizens at risk, not paying or postponing Social Security payments will likely have the same impact on credit ratings, interest rates and world markets, plus foment social unrest at home.

From the reports I’ve read, the Administration seems to be using a blunt instrument to chisel out a plan.  Perhaps it should consider taking a more surgical approach by not looking at classes of creditors, but instead going into each class and making rational priorities.  For example, some bondholders are foreign persons or entities and others are American.

Here then is my modest proposal for disbursing what government funds we will have available is the debt ceiling is not raised.  It’s going to be easier to list who should not be paid:

  • Do not pay the salaries of any federal government employee who makes more than $125,000 per year (or drop it to $100,000). 
  • Do not pay the salaries or benefits of any elected U.S. official, including president, vice president, congressional representatives and senators.
  • Do not pay any military contractor, but continue paying the salaries of soldiers (making less than $125,000 or $100,000).
  • Do not pay the interest or principal to any American citizen or company that holds bonds, or to any foreign entity that is controlled by Americans.  The idea here is that foreign creditors must take precedence to limit the damage to both the U.S. economy and global economy.
  • Do not pay agricultural subsidies.

This plan won’t stop the inevitable stock market plunge, and it won’t stop the leap in interest rates that’s going to occur.  But I think it will limit the human damage, and make sure that those who suffer the most are the ones who have been taking the most out of the system. 

Whatever the plan, not paying our obligations will plunge our economy into a death spiral that will be hard to stop or contain.  But Congress can’t seem to focus on that likely outcome, which should override any ideological imperative.

At this point, our best hope is that our President summons up the courage to declare a state of emergency and unilaterally raise the debt ceiling to a level that postpones the next debt ceiling crisis until after the election.  

Weekend deaths remind us that living in a celebrity culture means never having to think.

Let’s pretend that we’re the gods and goddesses of media coverage and we’re faced with the dilemma of deciding how much time and space to spend reporting on the deaths of two prominent people.  We know in advance that we will assign 5,715 Internet stories to the more significant death and 728 to the less significant one. 

It just so happens that one of candidates for major media coverage is male, the other female, which makes it easier to conceal their names until we complete the comparison of credentials: 

  • He led an organization of 2 million, which serves as the primary security force for another 300+ million.  She sold 1 million pop records and performed in front of maybe 1 million people.
  • He implemented a major but flawed policy change that gave gays greater career opportunities through a compromise and then repudiated the policy as too conservative a response to social change and the imperatives of equal rights.  She renewed a pop music style to make it one of the numerous musical genres that fragmented popular music in the first decade of the 21st century.
  • He was a role model for everyone—a refugee who rose in the ranks of the military of his adopted land.  She served as a negative role model through her self-destructive drug and alcohol abuse.
  • He was one of the most influential people in the world by virtue of having led the downsizing of military spending that with increases in federal taxes fueled the real economic growth of the Clinton years.  She had a wonderful singing voice.

Many of you have already guessed that he is General John Shalikashvili, who succeeded General Colin Powell as chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs and served from 1993 until 1997 under President Clinton.  And I think many of you know that she is Amy Winehouse, who by dying at the age of 27 has joined the necrophilic’s pantheon of self-destructive pop stars such as Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain.

Even after writing for more than two decades about how celebrity culture makes us stupid, I am nevertheless shocked by the results of comparing the Internet coverage of these two deaths: 5,715 stories for the death of Amy Winehouse and a mere 728 for General Shalikashvili.  That’s almost 8 times more stories for Winehouse.  We’re not talking Michael Jackson, who had hits in three (or was it four?) decades. 

We would be wrong to blame the Internet for the celebrity mentality that proposes that as a society we should spend more time talking about the lessons to be learned from the life and death of a maybe-not-minor-but-certainly-not-major pop singer than of one of the most important peacetime generals in U.S. history.  The Internet merely reflects all the news media and in fact most Internet news sites have print or broadcast affiliates or borrow most of their news stories from print or broadcast news-gathering operations. It’s just easier to count Internet placements, thanks to advanced search engine technology.

If it’s not the Internet, then, why does the mass media encourage us to engage in celebrity-driven, consumption-focused and history-deficient intellectual lives? 

The answer comes, as is often the case, by following the money.  A very small number of large companies such as Rupert Murdoch’s multinational corporation (and Gannett, Bertelsmann, Clear Channel and a few others) control most of the daily newspapers, radio and television stations and Internet news-gatherers.  A very small number of people sit on the boards of directors of these organizations. 

These media titans may not make every individual decision that leads to the death of a Winehouse assuming greater significance than the death of a Shalikashvili.  But they set the policies that lead to a focus on celebrity culture as opposed to a focus on politics, economics, war and peace, social equity, civil rights and the other long-term issues that shape our lives.  These very wealthy and influential people want to keep the American people dumb and focused on consumption. 

Selecting between 3 plans to slash deficit/raise debt ceiling is like choosing between hamburger joints

As reported in today’s New York Times, we now have three plans to reduce the deficit as a condition of raising the debt ceiling: 1) The McConnell-Reid Outline; 2) “Gang of 6” Plan; and 3) The Tea Party Plan (AKA “cut, cap and balance.”).  

These three plans present us with the quintessential American consumer decision—choosing between three things that are the same thing. 

Think of having to choose between Wendy’s, McDonald’s and Burger King for dinner.  Think of that monumental decision between two cola-flavored, sugar-enhanced carbonated drinks, Coke or Pepsi.  Or think of the rows of souvenir and gift shops at destination malls that all sell the same mugs, little statues and tee-shirts that say, “I went to ___ and all I got was this ___ tee-shirt.”   Or try differentiating between the offerings of two Big Box stores that sell the same items.  Our selections in these cases typically come down to elements not central to the food or nutritional experience—branding, colors, location, family traditions, attraction to a jingle or to a commercialized character.  But the products are essentially the same.

In the same way, all of these deficit-reducing plans depend too much on cutting the budget and all minimize or neglect our pressing need to increase taxes.  None of these plans focus on creating jobs or building the economy.  None do a thing to stem the tide towards a nation of increasing wealth polarization.  One of the primary reasons that our wealthiest people now have a greater share of the entire wealth and salary pie than 30 years ago and everyone else has less is that we have suffered under a consistent regime of low taxes on the wealthy and the curtailment of government services and investment.  None of these plans change that trend.

But among the three plans, you can find minor differences that pundits and politicians can use to say that one or another is more left-leaning and another (the Tea Party plan) is more right-wing.  Thus, by selecting one plan or a combination of aspects of all three plans, we can say that:

  1. We have made a real choice
  2. We have achieved a compromise
  3. Everyone is moving towards the center.

But it’s all Orwellian constructs that mask the real truth: The decision will have been between three right-wing plans, none of which represents the will of the people to raise taxes on the wealthy and protect seniors and the unemployed (as reflected in numerous recent surveys).  

Do you want your Model T in blue or in green?

Imagine, if you will, leftists and rightists in a tug of war match.  The goal of tug of war is to pull your opponents over a line. You pull one way and the other side pulls the other way.  The line never moves.  But if you were to move the line, you would move the territory over which the match is fought.  What politicians, think tanks, policy groups and the news media have done over the past three decades is slowly but inexorably nudge the line ever more rightward.

Our leaders should offer us real choices instead of the equivalent of three versions of calorie-laden greasy hamburger covered in artificial goop with a side of greasy fries.

Of course, the farcical part of this debate over deficit-reduction programs is the very fact that it’s linked to raising the debt ceiling.  It’s as if we have an immediate need for a glass of water or to find a restroom, and someone is making us spend precious time deciding between burger joints for lunch.

Bachmann’s private life is fair game to media only when it reflects on her ability to do the job.

It must be “Get Michele Bachmann” Week, what with the succession of rumors, innuendos and news swirling about her over the past few days, including:

  • She believes that black farmers against whom the U.S. government practiced discrimination do not deserve compensatory payments.
  • Her husband’s Christian counseling clinics have therapies that try to “straighten out” gays.
  • People on her staff pushed around a reporter who was asking Michele tough questions.
  • She has debilitating migraine headaches
  • Her husband may be a closeted gay.

Someone or some group is clearly out to dampen the head of steam that Bachmann has built up in the early campaign for the Republican nomination for President.

The list I put together above is a kind of SAT question, because one of the items does not belong.  The common element among the others is that they all matter to an evaluation of Bachmann’s credentials as a candidate.

It’s the migraines that do not matter, and should never have been mentioned by responsible reporters.  What is particularly despicable about bringing up this minor health issue is that so much of the news media carried the story without attribution or source.

But yes, it matters that Bachmann is against righting an illegal policy of discrimination.  And yes it matters that her husband runs what is essentially an anti-gay program, because it reflects her own oft-stated antipathy towards GLBT persons.  And it matters (but maybe less than one might think) if she is using the same kind of goon tactics to enforce discipline at her rallies that Bush II used in 2000 and 2008 (and which I know for a fact that Robert Kennedy used in primary campaigns in 1968).

And because she and her husband are so publicly outspoken against gays and gay marriage, the fact that hubby may be a secret same-sexer is pertinent.  Let me be clear: I see nothing wrong with Mr. Bachmann being gay, nor with the Bachmanns’ hiding his sexual orientation while Mrs. B runs for office.  There is nothing wrong with private hypocrisy.  What I object to is their hurtful public hypocrisy. 

Of course, that is, if Marcus Bachmann really does have a sexual attraction to men.

So far, all the articles about Mr. B’s sexual proclivities focus on three things:

  • His apparent gay mannerisms, e.g., his vocal intonations, how he walks and how he dances.
  • The bantering by comedians John Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld about Mr. B’s possible gayness a week ago on Stewart’s show.
  • References to something called “gaydar,” which is a neologism of gay and radar and describes someone’s ability to sense if someone else is or is not gay.

In other words, no one has come out of the closet to say he is or was Marcus Bachmann’s secret lover.  Mr. B has not been caught with a wide stance or soliciting anyone.  There is no record of gay porno on his smart phone or laptop. 

All the news media are doing are repeating unfounded Twitter and Internet rumors and jokes from a late-night TV show.  The editors and publishers of the Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News, Daily Beast and other mainstream news media covering these rumors should be ashamed of themselves.  If any evidence emerges, by all means the Bachmanns’ past statements make hubby’s sexual orientation fair game.  But without evidence, just shut up!!

Make no mistake about it, Bachmann must be stopped: Not only is she unqualified, but she is a known liar.  Her policies would take even more from the poor and middle class to give to the wealthy, while dismantling social and civil freedoms that we Americans sometimes take for granted. 

But if we stop her by lying about her we stoop to her level and debase ourselves the same way that we as a country were debased when the Bush II administration stooped to the level of the terrorists by implementing a worldwide campaign of torture.

No-cost contraception will cut healthcare bills and abortion rates.

Hallelujah!  Finally some very good news: the Institute of Medicine, which advises the U.S. government on health issues, has recommended that healthcare plans provide contraception free to women, including the accident-erasing Plan B pill.  

The news should cheer three groups: women in general, those who oppose abortions and those who want to lower healthcare costs.

The figures cited by the study tell the whole story: Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended, and about 40 percent of unintended pregnancies end in abortion.  The study concludes that greater use of contraception would reduce the rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion.  

The Family Research Council, a Christian conservative lobbying group, immediately came out against the idea of mandating free birth-control coverage.  Its reasoning exudes the politics of selfishness: people who don’t support contraception shouldn’t have to subsidize its use by others.  

But don’t people who believe in negative population growth have to subsidize those with large families? And don’t nonsmokers subsidize smokers?  Don’t physically fit people subsidize the obese?  The decision to have a lot of kids, smoke cigarettes or eat your way into obesity are lifestyle and values decisions the medical costs of which are socialized.  Why should it be any different when it comes to contraception for women? And if you don’t think the decision not to get pregnant isn’t a medical matter, then spend some time in a maternity ward.

You can’t have health insurance without one group subsidizing another.  That’s what health insurance is about: the collectivization of risk to insure that everyone in the group gets what they need. 

One of the most important unknown trends in health care coverage in the recent past revisits one of Ben Franklin’s favorite expressions: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Insurers have been slowly making preventive care entirely free, with neither co-pay nor co-insurance.  The idea is that annual physicals, pap smears and mammograms enable physicians to catch ailments early and to counsel patients on lifestyle changes.  Offering free-of-charge birth control falls into the same category, because it prevents unwanted pregnancies and abortions, both of which cost the medical system much more and endanger women more than condoms, diaphragms or pills.

Let’s remember that the Institute for Medicine is not recommending that we require women to use contraceptives, only to make them more affordable. 

With one simple change to health insurance plans, then, we can give women more freedom to control their lives and their bodies; please groups who oppose abortion by cutting the numbers of this legal procedure significantly; and help to reduce future healthcare costs. 

It sounds like a win-win-win for everyone, except for those who want to regulate the sex lives of others for moral reasons (and those few illogical souls who equate contraception with abortion).  Fortunately for all of us, though, we live in an open society in which sexual matters are not—or at least should not be—subject to government interference except to protect the young or to prevent violence or coercion.

Turning from the circus in Washington to history: who was worse—Stalin, Hitler, the Brits?

My writing mind wants to escape for a little bit from the farcical circus in Washington, as our elected officials play chicken with our debt-fueled economy.  So come with me to the more refined world of historical assessment.

I read a lot of history, and one trend I have noticed since the turn of the century is the move towards considering Stalin to have been as bad as Hitler.  Writers of history as varied as Lubomyr Luciuk, Timothy Snyder, Adam Hochschild, Anne Applebaum and Miron Dolot all build the case against Stalin by illuminating the vast numbers that he had killed, executed by starvation, worked to death, tortured and imprisoned over 30 years.  Robert Conquest, a British academic historian, puts the estimate of total Stalin victims at 20 million; Timothy Snyder says Hitler killed 12 million, tops, but says that’s more than Stalin killed.  On the anecdotal side, I had a brief conversation on the subject with two of my many well-read friends recently, and both thought Stalin was at least as bad as Hitler.

This post is definitely not about rehabilitating Stalin’s reputation.  An attempt to decide whether Stalin or Hitler was a criminal of a higher, more horrific magnitude is the ghoulish equivalent of arguing about whether Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was a better baseball player.

What I want to do is make another comparison that may put a different light on the bloody history of the past century: I want to compare Stalin to the British Empire.  I’m going to steal the argument from Chris Harman, specifically pages 477-478 of his A People’s History of the World, which Howard Zinn said does for world history what Zinn himself did for U.S. history in A People’s History of the United States: give the story of the people, not of the ruling elite.

Here are the similarities that Harman finds between how Stalin used murder and terror to advance the Soviet economy in imitation of what the British did over a timeframe lasting some 250 years; some of the examples are mine:

  • The British industrial system drove peasants from the land through enclosing it and clearing them off, thus freeing large landowners to collect more property; Stalin smashed peasant control of the land through “collectivization.”
  • British capitalism accumulated wealth through slavery; Stalin herded millions of people into slave camps.
  • Britain pillaged Ireland, India and Africa; Stalin deported entire peoples thousands of miles and committed genocide against the Ukrainians.
  • The British industrial revolution denied workers the most elementary rights and made people work 14-16 hours a day; Stalin abolished independent unions and shot down strikers.

In theory, then, the only difference between Stalin and the Brits is that it took Britain 250 or more years to become a fully industrialized nation (or as Harman states, “complete its primitive accumulation”), whereas Stalin did it in two decades.  The “brutality and barbarity was more concentrated,” as Harman puts it.

But what about the body count? How could the land of celebrity princesses and the Beatles have killed as many people as that butcher Stalin?  We start our British body count with the 3 million who died in the Bengal famine of 1943, caused by British war-time policies and the 10 million Africans that the British enslaved and brought to the new world before 1820.  We haven’t even mentioned oppression of its own peasants and striking workers, the little nastiness in Ireland, its 19th century version of the Afghanistan War, the opium wars and trade in China, and the 150-year Raj regime in the Indian subcontinent.

We could be so bold as to ask: what reflects more poorly on mankind—a nation succumbing to a totalitarian nutcase for 30 years or generations of a ruling elite committing and condoning atrocities for more than two and a half centuries?  This British ruling elite was predisposed to these atrocities by its belief that the victims were inferior, an easy supposition after a millennium of believing that certain people, i.e., the royalty and nobility, were inherently better than others.  Of course, we in the anti-royalist United States also built our capitalist empire on the blood and backs of people we thought were inferior to us.

Comparing Stalin to Hitler fits cozily into the unfettered free market, capitalist ideology of the current age.  We can point to Stalin and conclude that communism, and by implication, socialism, do not work and lead to violence against masses of people.

But when you compare the Soviets to the British, you should quickly recognize that what Stalin implemented was a state-directed totalitarian capitalism.  Our current capitalist ideology demands that we call what Stalin did socialism, but that’s just name-calling. 

The big take-way from our reading of history should be that any economic or political system can be used to oppress one group of people for the benefit of a lucky few, and that that oppression often involves mass murder, torture and slavery. That fact doesn’t in and of itself make for a wholesale indictment of either representative capitalism or democratic socialism.

Those who claim that every social welfare program is a move towards socialism hope to instill the fear of Stalin into us with every medical program for children or extension of unemployment benefits.  These free market purists forget (or are too ignorant to know) that capitalist systems have matched Soviet atrocities. 

They also don’t realize that they are proposing to follow the same pattern as the British and Stalin did, which, to review, is to accumulate capital by taking it away from a lot of little people and giving it to a few people to use, control or to pocket, as is the case of the current U.S. regime of historically low taxes for the wealthy while government benefits to the poor, aged, disabled and needy are cut to shreds.

A case history of relative deprivation: Netflix raises its prices and people complain.

Transport yourself back in time about 10 years, and assume you have some kind of a decent job.  With the price of movie tickets pushing eight-nine bucks and pay TV offering a disappointing selection of movies, wouldn’t you have paid $16 a month for unlimited movies over your computer and one DVD at a time delivered to your home, no muss, no fuss?

Most people would have jumped on it like flies on honey. 

But now, when Netflix is unbundling streaming movies from delivering DVDs by mail, lots of people, goaded by the news media, are bitching about the new Netflix prices.

The media is trying to whip up protests against Netflix and thereby are exaggerating both the nature and the impact of the price increase. The media is completely absurd to dwell on the 60% increase in price.  In absolute terms, it’s only a few bucks more for something that’s dirt cheap to begin with.  I’m certain that the extra six bucks (which you don’t have to pay, by the way, if you select to receive either streaming or DVD but not both) will hurt some financially pressed families, but when six bucks a month is the straw that breaks the financial back, Netflix is the least of your worries.

One report says that 30,000 people have made negative comments on the Netflix Facebook page, which has 1.5 million Facebook followers; Netflix has about 23 million members overall.  Last time I checked, the protesters amounted to two percent of the Facebook followers and a little more than one-tenth of one percent of all members, hardly a groundswell of discontent.  Of course, the media is used to overestimating the impact of minorities, as demonstrated by its incessant Tea party coverage in the last election cycle.

But even if we discount the media feeding frenzy, it’s clear that a lot of people are pissed at Netflix, despite the fact that the product is still very cheap, especially for the frequent user.

The Netflix incident represents a perfect example of the concept of relative deprivation.  Here’s how Wikipedia defines relative deprivation: “Relative deprivation is the experience of being deprived of something to which one believes oneself to be entitled to have. It refers to the discontent people feel when they compare their positions to others and realize that they have less than them. Schaefer defines it as ‘the conscious experience of a negative discrepancy between legitimate expectations and present actualities.’ It is a term used in social sciences to describe feelings or measures of economic, political or social deprivation that are relative rather than absolute.”

Some perhaps not-so-hypothetical examples:

  • You’re willing to take a new job for $55,000 a year until you hear that they offered someone else who turned it down at $67,000.  You therefore balk at accepting their offer to you of $62,000.
  • You’re used to paying $2.00 for a gallon of gasoline, even though you know Europeans are paying $4.50.  Now you’re angry because you have to pay $3.90 a gallon.
  • Five months after buying your first smartphone, you find yourself complaining because the Internet downloads are slower when you’re driving through a tunnel.

Relative deprivation can make us resent a good situation or get us so used to a certain standard of living that we take unwarranted risks rather than cut back.  Relative deprivation is what happens when luxuries become necessities.

To the savvy consumer Netflix has offered an opportunity to save two dollars a month (or 20% using the media’s hyped up numerology).  In the unbundling, the cost for getting one DVD at a time or for unlimited streaming fell to $8 a month each.  Consumers who primarily use one or the other service can cut their costs, and also cut their footprint of overall consumption. 

That’s what we intended to do…but then…

We started to switch to DVDs only, since more than 85% of the movies watched in our household are not currently stream-able.  But then we saw that we could now get two DVDs at a time for just $12, so that’s what we did.  I’m guessing we’ll watch about 10-12 movies a month, all of which we’ll actually want to see, at a cost of around a dollar a movie.

Somehow I don’t feel deprived, relatively, absolutely or in any other way.

The Republicans’ way out of the debt ceiling impasse is to give more power to the President

The Republicans have painted themselves into a corner on the debt ceiling limit by linking Congressional approval to raise the ceiling to a strict program of spending cuts with no tax increases.

Let’s set aside for one instant the fact that only through tax increases to fund greater spending will we start creating jobs again because, as recent history shows, when rich folk have more money from lower taxes, they keep it for themselves, whereas the government either gives it to people to spend or invests it in infrastructure.  And let’s set aside the fact that we now have the lowest taxes in the history of the industrialized West and that lowering taxes these past 30+ years has led to a transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the wealthy.  And let’s ignore for the time being that lower taxes have led to the increase in borrowing, which creates safe investment harbors for the rich folk who have the extra money because their taxes are too low.  

Let’s focus instead on the sheer lunacy of linking a procedural issue—raising the debt ceiling—with a discussion about the future direction of the country.

The Republicans in Congress have tied themselves so closely to the radically right-wing views of the Tea-partiers that they simply cannot vote to raise taxes or to take on more debt, lest they risk looking like Judas-inspired hypocrites.

So the Republicans have this untenable position of having to choose between the firing squad of taking responsibility for an unnecessary default that would lead to economic chaos and the deep plunge into the sea attached to a 600-pound lead anchor of voting for more debt and maybe higher taxes.  

The current way out for Republicans, as expressed yesterday by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, is for Congress to abdicate its responsibility for raising the debt limit to the President.  With McConnell’s plan, Congress will have the theoretical ability to overrule a Presidential decision to raise the debt limit, but it’ll be about as easy to do as herding 500 unleashed cats through a forest.

Mitch gives everyone what they want:  We avoid a major economic explosion and the Republicans don’t have to vote to raise taxes or the debt ceiling.  Everyone can go back to bickering about trivialities while our nation slowly declines into a society of haves and have-nots.

It’s a standard Republican answer that Democrats also tend to favor, especially in foreign affairs: Let the executive branch do it.  But if Congress keeps abdicating rights and privileges to the President, pretty soon our legislative branch will have no ability to counteract the desires of the executive and we’ll have a dictatorship in which the dictator is elected every four years from a small circle of those wealthy and connected enough to raise the hundreds of millions of dollars it takes to mince out an endless stream of 9-second and 30-second messages.

The truly distressing note in this opera buffa is the one sung by the general public.  According to the latest survey by the Pew Research Center, the country is almost equally divided among those who worry more about the debt ceiling not being raised (42%) and those who worry more about the possibility that raising the debt limit will lead to more spending and bigger debt (47%).  (FYI, nothing to worry about there: it will happen!)

The trouble with the survey, like so many, is that it never asks an explicit question, such as, “Do you think the debt ceiling should be raised or do you think the country will be better off risking default?”  If asked explicitly, a lot of people might come to the conclusion that Mitch McConnell did:  Let’s raise it, but don’t blame me.

The survey does show that many more people are worried about raising the debt ceiling than a few months ago.  But still, it’s clear that many Americans are surprisingly ignorant of basic business principles.  When you can’t borrow money and you have frequent cash flow needs or are temporarily spending more than you make, then you go out of business or you reorganize in bankruptcy.  Bankruptcy stains a company’s, and a country’s, reputation, makes it harder to do business and means you have to pay more to borrow money in the future. 

Now maybe you can’t keep spending more than you make, but until you have a plan in place to take in more revenues and/or cut spending, you have to keep surviving as a business and as a country.

So we have to raise the debt ceiling now, regardless of what we do later.  That many of us are not aware of that obvious fact results at least in part from the lies and distortions that Republicans have been spewing about the economy for decades.

Disparate impact of recession on Blacks shows that institutional racism still exists

If anyone had any doubt about the racial bias of the current recession, the Associated Press article that came out this past weekend should be an epiphany, a revelation or the nail in the coffin.  There can be no doubt: African-Americans are being hurt worse than others in our current economic turmoil.   

This paragraph from the AP story says it all:

Economists say the Great Recession lasted from 2007 to 2009. In 2004, the median net worth of white households was $134,280, compared with $13,450 for black households, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the Economic Policy Institute. By 2009, the median net worth for white households had fallen 24 percent to $97,860; the median black net worth had fallen 83 percent to $2,170, according to the EPI.

The article reports that since the end of the recession, the overall unemployment rate has fallen from 9.4 to 9.1 percent, while the black unemployment rate has risen from 14.7 to 16.2 percent.

The polite lawyer might call it disparate impact.  I prefer an expression I first heard years ago in the stacks of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee library at 3:00 am while planning a demonstration for the next day: institutional racism.

Disparate impact is when a negative impact, predicted or unforeseen, is not planned, such as when a last-hired-first-fired policy leads to a layoff primarily affecting African-Americans and other minorities.  Institutional racism means racism that is built into the system. 

The question is not what to do to help African-Americans come back from the recession.

We know what will work: greater support of public education; funneling more students into vocational and technical high schools; making sure all children have adequate nutrition and medical care; increased spending on job-creating infrastructure improvements. 

The real question is, how do we elect leaders who will do these things, instead of the current bunch who seem more interested in protecting the vested interests of the entrenched moneyed classes?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, now: we have to get the poor, minorities, those under 30 and the unemployed to vote, and to vote for progressive candidates. 

Another study reported over the past weekend proves the obvious: that most unemployed people don’t vote.  It’s obvious because the unemployed tend to be the poor, minorities and young people, all groups that traditionally don’t vote. 

Getting non-voters to the polls takes three basic tactics:

  1. Educate non-voters in simple, slogan-like messages about the progressive stands on Social Security, Medicare/Medicaid, public schools, unemployment benefits, and unions, and let them know which candidates are supporting progressive positions.
  2. Fight for open voting rights: motor voter, expanded absentee possibilities, no ID, restored rights to ex-cons, paper ballots, same-day registration.
  3. Rent vans—lots of them—and take potential nonvoters to the polls on election day.  Send fleets of vans into inner cities and onto college campuses and take the voters to their voting polls.

It’s like déjà vu: carmakers want to weasel out of higher MPG standards like they wanted to weasel out of airbags

One of the themes in the news this week has been the haggling over higher miles-per-gallon standards between the Obama Administration and U.S. automakers.  The most comprehensive reports have been in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

As usual, the Obama Administration proposal is mild and industry-friendly.  Raising the U.S. fleet average to 56.2 MPG by 2025 makes us slackers when we compared to the 60 MPG that European countries intend to reach by 2020.  But getting five more years to underachieve Europe by more than 6% isn’t good enough for U.S. carmakers, at least in their U.S. markets.  Remember that Ford, GM and Chrysler will certainly reach the European standard for the cars they sell in Europe rather than exit those markets.

Carmakers are making the ridiculous claim that consumers won’t purchase what will be smaller and more expensive cars.  The claim is ridiculous, because if high fuel efficiency autos are all that’s available, then that’s what people will buy.  Additionally, with the price of gasoline going up, consumers are already trending towards smaller vehicles.  Finally, let’s not forget that larger vehicles can also become more fuel efficient, although never as fuel efficient as a smaller car using the same set of technologies.

According to the Times article, there are already indications that the Administration will back down.  Evidently an anonymous inside source is saying that 56.2 MPG is a negotiating position only. 

As Cassandra Peterson, AKA Elvira Mistress of the Dark, would say, “Hello, it’s like déjà vu.”

In 1977, Jimmy Carter’s Department of Transportation mandated airbags (or automatic seatbelts) by 1983.  Carmakers protested, saying that consumers wouldn’t pay the extra money for extra safety.  Industry-supported propaganda proposed the truly absurd notion that airbags weren’t so safe.  The Reagan Administration reversed its direction on the issue several times and it wasn’t until deep into the Clinton Administration in 1994 that all cars sold in the United States had to have airbags, on the driver’s side.

It sure seems as if history is repeating itself, doesn’t it?

Buttressing the carmakers’ position are 15 governors, 14 of them Republicans, who recently sent a letter to the Administration asking it to slow down the transition to more fuel efficient vehicles.  Let’s take a look at their two main arguments; my refutations are in italics:

  1. The governors say that Americans need their big gas-guzzlers to transport cargo such as “skis, farm equipment and children’s car seats.” How are they managing in Europe, where I understand some farming is done and lots of people ski?  It’s because a) the car companies there are developing technologies that cut fuel consumption; and b) Europeans are used to driving smaller cars, something Americans will have to get used to doing if we want to address the challenge of man-induced global warming.
  2. The governors also worry that consumers will postpone new car purchases so they can keep their gas guzzlers, thus threatening automotive manufacturing jobs and postponing compliance.   Maybe it was in a dream, but didn’t this same group of 15 oppose the ending of tax subsidies for buggy whip makers 130 years ago because it threatened jobs? (LOL)  Seriously folks, any loss of jobs will be temporary, because sooner or later, all cars wear down. The argument that tougher standards will take longer to meet is also a red herring, since some consumers will postpone new purchases no matter what the standard.  With a lower standard, the actual energy savings will undoubtedly be lower, just as 75% of 90 is less than 75% of 100. 

Let’s face it, the auto industry and its political lackeys don’t like change.  You make a lot more money making superficial changes to your products and selling them year after year than you do when you have to invest in developing new technologies and retooling production lines.  In other words, carmakers think they’ll make more money if they don’t have to abide by a higher standard.

But the higher MPG standard is absolutely necessarily, and the sooner the better.  Car emissions are the second most significant cause of environmental degradation and global warming (burning fuel for electricity is number one).  If we continue to burn gasoline as if it were water or air, the result is going to be a horror story so frightening that not even Elvira will want to want to watch it.