For People Who Think

October 26, 2011

When Things Are Rotten…by Dan Lynch

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 9:02 pm

We go back a long way — friends since we were 13. He just got back from Italy. He was jarred by what he saw there.

“In Florence,” he told me, “we got in the middle of an enormous protest – thousands of young people in red carrying red banners protesting the greed and corruption of Italian institutions. Cababimieri and politzei were out in full force.

“It wasn’t an anomaly,” he said. “Everywhere we went, 20-somethings were just wandering around like stray dogs … something big is about to happen to the world, and I saw and heard no plan for social order when it happens. I cannot describe the discontent other than it reminds me of a sweeping international remake of “Dr. Zhivago.’”

He might be right. At the moment, Italy’s unemployment rate is 7.9 per cent, way too high but considerably lower than our 9.1 per cent. Between 1983 and last year, however, Italy’s unemployment rate averaged 9 per cent. Since the true unemployment rate is really almost twice the official rate, that means that an entire generation of Italians came of age at a time when nearly one in five of them couldn’t find a decent job. They’re seriously annoyed at that.

We Americans now seem to have entered a comparable crisis. That’s what the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are all about. They’re about the recognition on the part of most people that something has gone horribly wrong with the American Dream. For too many people these days, the path to success is strewn with obstacles. And I say “most people” because that’s what the polls show us.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows that nearly half of all Americans think that the Occupy Wall Street movement reflects the views of most Americans. Two-thirds of Americans believe that our rotten economy will get even worse. Two out of three Americans believe that wealth should be distributed more evenly in this country. Seven in 10 Americans believe that the policies of Congressional Republicans favor the rich. Two-thirds object to tax cuts for corporations and want higher income taxes on millionaires
.
Nine in 10 Americans say they distrust government to do the right thing. Three in four say that the country is on the wrong track. About 85 per cent disapprove of Congress.

Meanwhile, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office just put out a report based on income tax filings and census data that tells us something that we all suspected – that the top 1 percent of earners more than doubled their share of the nation’s income over the last three decades. The study shows that average inflation-adjusted after-tax income grew by 275 percent for the 1 percent of the population with the highest incomes. For others in the top 20 percent of the population, average real after-tax household income grew by 65 percent. For the 60 per cent of U. S. households in the middle of the income scale, household income increased just under 40 percent. For the poorest fifth of the population, it rose 18 percent.

In short, the rich have never been richer, the poor never have been poorer in comparison to everybody else and working people are losing to an extent not seen by anybody in this society except the very, very old. Seven decades of broad-based American prosperity has been wiped out. And nobody can see even a glimmer of light at the end of this long, dark tunnel to nowhere.

The Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street people openly despise one another – interesting when you consider that each group recognizes similar problems. Each decries joblessness. Each places a good deal of blame on Wall Street for the worldwide financial crisis that hit in late 2007. Each denounces politicians who directed obscene sums in tax dollars to Wall Street to bail out the reckless financiers whose hubris contributed so heavily to the current disaster. Each sees the barons of Wall Street financial operations now growing ever richer while the masses strain to pay the electric bill.

Only one example: Jamie Dimon, boss of JP MorganChase. In 2009, after his firm took $25 billion or so from the feds, he was paid $1.3 million in 2009. Last year he got $20.8 million along with $17 million in stock and options. And just how did your income fare between 2009 and 2010?

But the Tea Partiers call the Occupy Wall Streeters communists, and the Occupy Wall Streeters call the Tea Party fascists – precisely the two groups who fought it out during the long, dismal period of German economic crisis between World War I and World War II, with the Nazis eventually winning out. If that parallel doesn’t frighten you, it should. Pick up a history book, do a little reading and you’ll end up even more frightened.

Are there solutions to this? Maybe, if the public can get together to the point where politicians are too terrified not to find solutions. But no solution will mean anything until and unless the politicians are willing to keep this from happening again – until they make certain that no business or financial entity remains too big to fail. And the people who make our laws have refused to do that because both political parties are bought-and-paid-for subsidiaries of the firms controlled by the Wall Street magnates.

I’ll soon offer some thoughts on what those solutions might be, but it won’t be here. I’ve enjoyed my renewed connection to the newspaper where I’d spent most of my career as a reporter, editor and columnist, but I’m now moving this blog to my own Web site, forpeoplewhothink.com. There, you’ll also have access to some of the documentary films and the books that I’ve been involved in creating.

I also plan to write more often for forpeoplewhothink.com than I’ve written here because we’re now living in perilous times that deserve more serious thought from all of us about how to get out of this mess.

October 21, 2011

Here’s Looking at You…. by Dan Lynch

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 8:33 pm

Here’s Looking at You …

October 19, 2011 at 10:32

The first person I thought of when I heard about the flap between Elizabeth Warren and George Will was Rick Blaine.

Warren, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the Massachusetts Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy, said that people who make big bucks in business in this country owe much of that success to the government’s contributions in the form of schooling, public utilities, police and fire protection. That, she said, is what makes progressive taxation fair, especially at a time when less fortunate people are suffering so conspicuously.

George F. Will, conservative thinker and columnist, responded that Warren’s “collectivist” view is “antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government – including such public goods as roads, schools and police – is instituted to faciliate individual striving, a.k.a., the pursuit of happiness.”

All I could of was, “How would Rick react to all that?”

One of American cinema’s most memorable characters is Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in “Casablanca.” World-weary and proudly cynical as war looms between the United States and Hitler’s Germany, saloon owner Blaine early in the film describes his nationality as “drunkard.” The only cause that interests him, he proclaims early in the movie, is him.

By film’s end, though, Rick has undergone a striking change of heart. At Casablanca’s airport, he tells his girlfriend, Ilsa, that she must go off with her Czech freedom fighter husband and support him in his noble task of battling the Nazis. She can’t run off with Rick and spend the rest of her life with him, as they’d planned. Rick, too, plans to fight the Nazis.

Ilsa is shocked at Rick’s sudden flip-flop. She says, “But what about us? …I said I would never leave you.”

Rick then tells her, “And you never will. But I’ve got a job to do, too. Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of. Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world…”

The America of 1942, a nation of rugged individualists if ever there was one, loved that movie. It got the Oscar. Its theme was self-sacrifice – the subjugation of individual self-interest to the welfare of the larger community in time of crisis. Yeah, sure, everybody understood and sympathized with Rick’s early self-focus in a difficult, dangerous and treacherous world, but that film hit the screen during an era when Americans, regardless of their political views, understood that in time of national crisis we’re all in this together – and that we all need one another for most of us to succeed in the long run.

That, ultimately, is what civilization is about. That’s why human beings got together in the first place. That’s essentially Elizabeth Warren’s point when she maintains that people who succeed conspicuously in this society owe a big portion of that success to the benefits that civilized society provides. George Will condemns that view as an example of “the collectivist agenda.” I don’t know if he would similarly characterize public sewerage systems, but that’s the logical extension of his point of view.

Will’s argument is that government’s sole purpose is to “facilitate individual striving.” That’s certainly one purpose of the government created by Madison, Franklin, et al, but hardly the only purpose. The best indication of what the Framers had in mind as government’s proper role is to be found in what they wrote about that role.

The purpose of the federal government, they wrote in the Constitution’s preamble, is to “… establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty …”

Justice is like beauty; it exists in the eye of the beholder. That whole domestic tranquility thing suffered a bit of a setback in 1861. It’s clear, however, that the Framers were at least as concerned with the general welfare as they were with individual liberty. Quite clearly, what they were after was a fair and rational balancing of those interests when they come into conflict, as will often occur in discussions of taxation and government power.

It’s absurd, however, for anybody to argue seriously that the creators of this nation did not expect some sacrifice on the part of some citizens for the benefit of all citizens. The Framers were exceedingly smart guys. If that’s what they’d meant, that’s what they would have written; they didn’t.

That doesn’t mean that the general citizenry should enjoy a bottomless entitlement to the wealth accumulated by productive people, and only a tiny percentage of Americans believe that it should. It also does not mean that productive people can claim all the credit for their success for themselves. Herman Cain, who proclaimed the other day that if you’re not rich it’s your own fault, is a classic example. He’s clearly a bright, purposeful, energetic guy, but would Herman Cain have become Herman Cain without the Civil Rights Act, without the Voting Rights Act, without the actions taken by the federal government to clear the path to success for African Americans?

The fact is that Herman Cain might well have become Herman Cain without those government actions, but the odds would have been longer for him – considerably longer, actually. It says something not terribly complimentary about Herman Cain that he lacks either the character or the self-awareness to acknowledge that.

This battle over what America really stands for has raged on since long before I drew my first breath. It’s essentially a battle between people who respect the obligation of membership in a larger community and people whose general mindset is, “Screw everybody but me.”

That’s why the Americans of 1942 fell in love with Rick Blaine’s epiphany that life in the real world involved something more than his own desires. At the time, Americans faced a common enemy whose danger to all was obvious even to the most dim-witted among us.

Today, this country has 25 million people looking for fulltime jobs – one out of five of us in the workforce. Yet a disturbingly high number of the four out of five people who still have jobs and income don’t grasp how that situation can adversely affect them.

They lack the knowledge of history to understand how corrosive and universally devastating large-scale, long-term unemployment can be to a society. They don’t grasp the dangers of immense disparities in wealth – of people at the top of the heap getting richer and richer over decades while the masses grow ever poorer, day by grinding day.

They know nothing about the forces that gave birth to the French Revolution or to the Nazis a century and a half later. They simply don’t see how somebody else’s enormous economic problem is their problem, too.

So, while loudly annunciating their fervent love of country, they hide behind utterly false interpretations of this nation’s founding principles. They ignore words meticulously chosen by the Framers, and they cling to the totally fallacious view that success involves only effort, drive and individual commitment. To them, there’s no such thing as luck, no such thing as disadvantage, no virtue in community, no universal benefit to be derived from a public support system designed with the goal of giving everybody an equal chance.

“Casablanca” was fiction – great fiction that celebrated the concepts of altruism and mutual obligation. The mindset that I’ve just described is also fiction.

But it’s hardly reassuring as a window on human nature.

October 13, 2011

PIETY and the POOR

Filed under: Uncategorized — 4peoplewhothink @ 3:04 pm

October 12, 2011 at 5:19 pm by Dan Lynch

As a kid growing up in a small city in upstate New York, I was raised in a world divided into Catholics, Protestants and Jews.

I knew why the Jews weren’t Catholics, like my family. They didn’t buy the story that Jesus was the son of God. I wasn’t sure why all those Protestants weren’t Catholics, like normal people. They came in a perplexing variety of flavors – Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, Quakers, Assembly of God, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and a whole bunch of other sects whose belief systems were utterly mysterious to me.

There also was a brick building near my elementary school with a sign proclaiming it to be the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. My parents told me that the people who went to church there were called Mormons and that they were Protestants, too. To me, that just meant that they didn’t have to smear their foreheads with ashes once a year, as I did.

So, imagine my surprise the other day when I discovered that Mormons aren’t Christians. I learned that when I turned on the TV and saw this minister from Texas, Robert Jeffress, saying that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, is part of a “cult” and that, “I just do not believe that we as conservative Christians can expect him to stand strong for the issues that are important to us.”

Jeffress added that even though the U.S. Constitution says explicitly that there should be no religious test for pubic office, “I do not think evangelical voters are going to be motivated to go out and vote for Mitt Romney … Private citizens can impose all kinds of religious tests.”

Well, he’s certainly right about that. You can vote for or against somebody for any reason – because he’s bald or fat, because he’s a jerk, because he goes to the wrong church or goes to no church at all. You can vote against him because he’s a her, or would like to be, or because he’s the wrong color. Hey, this is America. Believe what you want and vote accordingly.

But all this stuff about religion and politics confuses me, frankly. Herman Cain is a perfect example of what I mean. He’s an associate minister at Antioch Baptist Church North in the Atlanta suburbs. The other day a CNN reporter asked him about all these demonstrations against the Wall Street people, and he said, “… If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself … it is someone’s fault if they failed.”

Growing up Catholic, I never saw much of the Bible as a kid. The Church never encouraged us to read it. That’s what priests were for. Nonetheless, I found myself curious about how Jesus might react to that view of poor people expressed by a man who takes religion seriously enough to become a minister. So, I looked up some of what the Bible says about poor people. Here’s what I found:

Proverbs 14:21
He who despises his neighbor sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy.

Proverbs 14:31
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

Proverbs 19:17
He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and He will reward him for what he has done.

Proverbs 21:13
If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.

Proverbs 22:9
A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor.

Proverbs 28:27
He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses.

Proverbs 31:8-9
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

Isaiah 58:6-7;10
…if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday.

Ezekiel 16:49
Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.

And that’s just the Old Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John express the same sentiments.

Luke 14:13 & 14 reads, “ … when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Matthew 19:21 reads, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Matthew also quotes Jesus as saying, “Love your neighbor as yourself. [Matthew 22:39]

So in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you. [Matthew 7:12.]

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. [Matthew 19:21].

I also read that Rev. Jeffress supposedly operates a megachurch in Dallas, with many thousands of people praying there regularly. I wondered what Jesus might think of an operation like that, so I looked up what Jesus had to say on the topic.

In Matthew 6:6 & 7, Jesus said, “And when thou pray, thou shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou pray, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret …”

So, the whole business can be fairly confusing, I think. And maybe, when we talk about politics, it might be a good idea to leave religion out of it. Apparently, at least some of the people who are deeply into both religion and politics haven’t read the Bible all that closely.

I have a strong hunch that the guy who said that we should render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s would prefer that we handle our democracy that way.

Blog at WordPress.com.