Thursday, August 4, 2011

And The Beat Goes On…

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, August 4, 2011.

Let me tell you about my uncle. He’s usually a pretty good guy, always lending a hand to those in need. He doesn’t like to see people suffer, so he has a tendency to overextend himself from time to time. In fact, he has become so “compassionate” toward others that his own children and family have suffered. After spending all his savings, he has been forced to travel far and wide seeking lenders and creditors. Each time he promises a quick repayment, but then he sees another needy soul or another grand project and back to the creditors he goes.

The people to whom he gives so much assistance, however, have become so accustomed to my uncle’s charitable ways that they scream and whine whenever he tries to scale back his gifts or if he asks them to accept some personal responsibility for their own needs.

Now my uncle is so deep in debt that he really needs an intervention. That is why some concerned members of his family and I got together last year and introduced him to some people who would tell him the hard truths about financial security. They met with him and told him he would have to slow down his spending habits, restore his credit rating and to think of his children and grandchildren who would be saddled with his debt.

Of course, my uncle, like so many others who have addictive personalities, doesn’t like the idea of limiting his spending. He seems to think he can just go and find another source of revenue and then everything will be okay. He says he will spend less and be more responsible - if he just gets a little bit more to spend. He seems to think he can spend his way back to a good credit rating if he can only find another lender (China) to borrow a little more or ask for more money (confiscate) from some wealthy people in the neighborhood.

Now, we all know this uncle is our dear old Uncle Sam, and we are all suffering as his children when he doesn’t see the error of his ways. Our current debt – over 14.3 TRILLION DOLLARS, weighing over 315 MILLION POUNDS in $100 bills – is like an anchor on the ship of our economy. She can’t float with that kind of a burden dragging along the bottom of the ocean.

We MUST do something about the debt. Merely raising the ceiling without reinforcing the floor doesn’t make the house fit for the elephant. We need to remodel the house. That means making tough choices and facing hard facts.

Fact number one was raised by former Republican Senator from New Hampshire, John Sununu, writing in the August 8, 2011 issue of Time magazine (pg. 27). He revealed that an alarming 47% of all Americans are receiving at least one Federal benefit. Our uncle is supporting, in one or way another, almost half of us!

People, we have met the enemy and he is us!

This budget problem will not go away – even if the debt ceiling is raised (at the time of this writing, Saturday – 7/30, no deal had been made to raise it by Tuesday) – it will have to be raised again and again, unless and until we get serious about limiting our spending.

This means we (at least 47% of us) have to stop asking our uncle to do things for us we can and should do for ourselves. We have over 24 different job training programs, for example, that are wasteful and redundant. We subsidize everything from Alpaca farmers to Mohair producers to Ethanol blenders to Oil drillers and yet we wonder why our uncle can’t pay his bills.
The time is ripe for a revolution in our way of dealing with our uncle. We need to intervene. Just as we did in November of 2010, we need to tell him the hard truth. He is out of his own money and he just cannot afford to give away other people’s money.
In closing, let me quote a speech I heard recently:

“America, this is our moment. This is our time. Our time to turn the page on the policies of the past. Our time to bring new energy and new ideas to the challenges we face. Our time to offer a new direction for the country we love.

The journey will be difficult. The road will be long. I face this challenge with profound humility, and knowledge of my own limitations. But I also face it with limitless faith in the capacity of the American people. Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began…”

Again, I must give credit where credit is due. The above speech was delivered by Barack Obama on the night he won the primary campaign in June, 2008. I agree. This is our moment. Let’s turn the page on the past and slow down the spending!

A Dysfunctional Household

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, August 4, 2011.

There has been a trend of late, on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum, to make comparisons between the national debt and budgetary concerns and the average household. The justification is typically that it makes it easier for folks to grasp a concept because they can get their heads around how their own finances work and can apply those principles to the government in terms of spending and revenue. It would make sense, too, if it weren’t for the fact that government budgets don’t work like our home budgets and the resources available for spending and saving models are quite different.

Of course, there are reasons of expediency that prompt us to use these analogies. For instance, it is easier to paint a picture of this household with a crazy uncle spending his money frivolously on those in need at the peril of his own, than it is to look at the painful truth and ask the difficult questions. Why is it that 47% of Americans require some federal benefit? The quaint Uncle Sam scenario ignores the fact that decades of lopsided policy, which favors the wealthy and corporations over the average citizen, has nearly eliminated the middle class, decimated the working poor and created an insurmountable wealth gap.

Not only is our crazy uncle more schizophrenic than Sybil, the entire family is dysfunctional. It’s bad enough that they eschew compromise like a plague and can’t come to agreement on important decisions. They also can’t think clearly about issues because their own habits have them feeding the corporate junky, or off on some reckless ideological binge. Republican House Speaker John Boehner is torn between pragmatic moderates, the Tea Party minority among Congressional Republicans, and an unrealistic anti-tax pledge he signed at the behest of powerful lobbyist Grover Norquist. Add this to the fact that he is clinging desperately to his leadership position in the House as Republic Majority Leader Eric Canter strives to undermine him and steal his job.

The Tea Party representatives seem incapable of grasping the potential damage of debt default or a downgrade of economic ranking. They appear publicly either denying the impact or downplaying it significantly. And as the nation heads toward a cliff of uncertain peril, they are trying to exploit a crisis to ram through an amendment to the U.S. Constitution — dangerous legislation, which should only be the result of careful and protracted debate.

Democrats, for their part, make a show at protecting programs that are of vital need (especially in a weak economy), only to slowly cave to political pressure. Meanwhile, real people are worrying over a future that discounts their existence and increases their burdens.

My brother Gordon’s personification of the spendthrift Uncle Sam has real flaws. When American households fall on hard times, they cut out frills; they take fewer vacations; they limit their trips around town and carpool; they keep that older car; they avoid large purchases. They don’t stop feeding Grandma. They don’t tell her to choose between medication and other daily needs. And they don’t write off their niece with breast cancer simply because she’s had the misfortune to be downsized by the company for which she used to work. Oh, by the way, these people receiving the help of “compassionate” Uncle Sam aren’t outsiders. They’re all members of the same American family.

Real American wage earners don’t turn down raises in income out of some sense of loyalty to a corporation. Republicans continue to protect the wealthiest two percent in the nation from any form of shared sacrifice, even as they scream about the deficit and national debt. No, raising the tax rate at the highest brackets a few percentage points won’t close the deficit gap, but turning down income in the face of rising debt is irresponsible.

And I’m tired of an insistence that the wealthy already pay their fair share. Yes, a majority of the tax burden falls on the wealthy. The wealth gap they helped to widen created that imbalance. More Americans than ever before don’t earn enough to pay income taxes. Consequently, the burden falls to those with the means and the healthy paychecks.

Pompous Libertarian Nick Gillespie appeared on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher recently. Regarding shared sacrifice, he said, “I believe in shared sacrifice. I just believe it should be a choice.” Are the poor, sick and elderly given a choice over the sacrifice that is soon to be imposed upon them?

Corporations are also favorites in the personification game. In fact, they enjoy all the rights of personhood bestowed upon them by their kindly Uncle Sam. Unfortunately, the responsibilities of personhood don’t fully apply. Our friends on the conservative right keep insisting that lower taxes for the wealthy and corporations manifest themselves in the form of jobs. Unfortunately, it’s not true and we can apply a household model to get us partway to the reason why.

The principle behind tax breaks at the corporate level is that if operating costs are lower and therefore profits are higher, there will be incentive to invest in the form of jobs. First, look at the household model. If we have more disposable income we might aspire to shop at local merchants and pay a bit more for goods and services that help the community and common good. The reality is that our addiction to “low, low prices” keeps us sheepishly shopping at Wal-Mart.

The same holds for corporations, only with an added consideration. Corporations are legally bound to the interests of shareholders. Therefore, any additional profit or savings in operating costs are absorbed as part of the unsustainable continual growth curve that corporations strive for to satisfy boards and investors. So, any investment in jobs, facilities or other expenditure that benefit the common good are made from the top down. And since corporations are addicted to Wal-Mart-priced jobs, they will continue to create their jobs overseas.

I am certain that by the time you read this column, the debt ceiling will have been raised and the immediate crisis averted. However, the family will still be as dysfunctional and the partisan wrangling over spending and taxes will rage on. Like Gordon, I think the nation needs a revolutionary intervention. His vision continues to favor the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Mine seeks to eliminate the codependency between corporate power and political leadership.