Archive for March, 2011

Abbott’s admonition

March 13, 2011

If you don’t like the answer, you shouldn’t have asked the question.


Why we don’t say what we mean

March 12, 2011

Click on RSA Animate for more videos like this.

Wisconsin: Labor’s Waterloo – or Dunkirk?

March 11, 2011

Wisconsin’s public labor unions lost their legislative battle with Gov. Scott Walker.  He had the anti-labor provisions of the budget bill introduced as a separate bill.  As a non-budget bill, it didn’t require a quorum, so the state Senate was able to enact it despite the AWOL Democratic senators.  It also passed Wisconsin’s Assembly.

AFL-CiO President Richard Trumka said this is the spark that will bring organized workers together.

But labor historian Nelson Lichenstein said in an interview with Ezra Klein that the bill may be smart politics for Walker even though it is unpopular.  Politics is more than a matter of public opinion polls, he said; it is a matter of organization.  By dismantling public labor unions, the GOP destroys a structure by which working people can join together and form strategies for advancing their interest.


Why I call myself a liberal

March 10, 2011

A century and a half ago, there were three main political philosophies – the liberals, who said the most important thing was individual liberty; the socialists, which said the most important thing was equality; and the conservatives, which said the most important thing was to preserve the social order.

A century ago, there were progressives, who thought the most important thing is to create new good things, as distinguished from conservatives, who thought the most important thing is to preserve existing good things.

These distinctions were pretty clear until Franklin D. Roosevelt called himself a liberal, in order to distinguish himself from the progressives of an earlier era.  But Herbert Hoover and Robert A. Taft called themselves liberals, too.

By the standards of European countries, the vast majority of Americans are liberals.  Our self-described liberals are socialistic liberals and our self-described conservatives are conservative liberals.

My political philosophy is to strive for as much equality as is consistent with essential individual freedom, and as much individual freedom as is consistent with preserving the moral foundations of society.  I want to preserve existing good things and restore previous good things, most of which were the progressive goals of an earlier generation.


A note from a classroom teacher

March 9, 2011

This is circulating on the Internet.  A friend of mine was e-mailed a copy by his daughter who teaches school in California.

Dear Jerry,

I just wrote a letter to our new Governor, a Republican for whom I voted, by the way.

I explained to him that if I am to treat my classroom like a business and be rewarded or punished for my students’ performance, a few things would need to change.

I would want to interview each student (candidate), and choose the ones with whom I could work most effectively.

I would want to be able to fire them for lateness or excessive absence, lack of proper equipment, failure to complete work assignments, poor performance, insolence or disrespect toward me or anybody else, and of course sleeping on the job.

Or, don’t treat my classroom as a business.

These students are, after all, children.  As God is not finished with them and neither are we, most of us give them a fresh start every day, hoping to eventually bring out the very best in each child.

I’ve been teaching since 1972, and it took me a few years to realize that those misbehaviors were not necessarily directed at me, but were the result of multitudes of factors way beyond my control.

I would encourage those who are currently maligning teachers to spend a day or so unassisted in front of a classroom.



What’s at stake in Wisconsin

March 8, 2011

The protests against the anti-union drive in Wisconsin make me more hopeful than I’ve been in a long while.  The protesters may lose on the immediate issue; the odds are against them.  But I hope it will be the start of a grass-roots push-back against the corporate agenda.

The struggle in Wisconsin is not about the budget.  The public sector unions in Wisconsin have agreed to all the concessions asked by Gov. Scott Walker.

The struggle in Wisconsin is only partly about unions and their role.  Gov. Walker exempts unions representing police and other law enforcement workers from his proposed restrictions.

It is about an attempt to destroy one of the main sources of political power of the Democrats, the public sector union.  It is an example of the astute strategic thinking and disciplined execution of the core right-wing movement within the Republican Party.


Extreme talk and double standards

March 8, 2011

I disagree with Jack Hunter on issues, but he is dead right about his perspective about extreme talk.

Obviously Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin is not comparable to Stalin, Hitler and the Egyptian dictator Mubarak.  I doubt that any union protesters in Wisconsin really believe that he is.  Their signs are just a way of venting their anger.  I don’t think the signs are helpful, but I can understand the anger.

I am sure many self-identified conservatives feel the same about Tea Party signs depicting President Obama as Hitler, Stalin or Osama bin Laden.

The point is not what labor union members or Tea Party members put on their signs, but which has the better ideas.  I think the union protesters are right for the most part and the Tea Party protesters for the most part are confused, but I ought to be able to make my case for this based on the merits.


Wall Street is bigger than the real economy

March 7, 2011

The great economist John Maynard Keynes once said:

Speculators may do no harm as bubbles on a steady stream of enterprise. But the position is serious when enterprise becomes the bubble on a whirlpool of speculation. When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done.”

via John Maynard Keynes.

The chart shows how the volume of business done on Wall Street vastly exceeds the volume of business done in the real economy.  It is as if a public library had 43 book catalogs for every actual book, and spent more time and attention keeping track of the catalogs than the books.

A well-functioning stock market and a financial services industry are necessary to the functioning of a democratic capitalist economy.  Their job, as somebody once said, is to turn savings into capital.  The financial markets are supposed to provide the means by which existing wealth can be invested to generate new wealth for society.  Even speculators provide a useful service in smoothing out the fluctuations between gluts and shortages, provided they don’t become so big and powerful that they are able to corner the market.

What the chart shows is that the financial markets have become largely disconnected from the real economy.  Instead of putting the savings of individuals and institutions to work in helping business to grow, financiers – many of them – make these savings the chips in a high-stakes poker game among themselves.  There is nothing wrong with high-stakes poker, provided you gamble with your own money. When you gamble with the public’s money, you create the Too Big to Fail Problem – which, if things go on as they are – will become the Too Big to Save Problem.

It will be hard to dial things back so that Wall Street becomes the servant instead of the master of the real economy.  One frequent suggestion is to set a small tax on transactions – say 1/10th of a cent on every dollar traded.  This would be no burden on real investors, but would slow down the gamblers and predators who trade many times a day.  Opposition to this is so strong on Wall Street it is unlikely to pass anytime soon.

Click on Too Big to Fail? for a fuller explanation by Steve Roth, the chart’s creator, crossposted to the Asymptosis and Angry Bear web logs.

From Broadland to Richistan

March 6, 2011

I’ve written other posts about Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson.  But their book is so significant that I believe it is worth revisiting.

      The big story of the past 30 to 35 years, according to the two political scientists, is not just how income has been redistributed upward to the top 10 percent of income earners.  It is even more the story of the top 1 percent, the top 1/10th of 1 percent and the top 1/100th of 1 percent.

During the 30 or so years following World War Two, they say, the United States was what they call Broadland.  There was income inquality, but income rose for all groups, rich and poor, at roughly the same rate.  During the past 30 or so years, they say, the U.S. has been Richistan.  The top income groups have progressed, but the majority have stood still or, by some measures, fallen back.

Why?  They claim it is a result of government policy – not just reductions in tax rates for the top income earners, but policies which allowed corporate executives and financiers – managers of other people’s money – to milk the system for their own benefit, while holding down the wages and salaries of the middle class.

They say this has happened under Democratic and Republican administrations, and is going on today under the Obama administration.  The reason is that the leaders of the upper class have been able to organize in their own interests more effectively than the leaders of the working class and middle class. Corporate and Wall Street interests have become increasingly assertive and sophisticated in asserting their interests, moving the Republican Party to the right while neutralizing the Democrats.

Winner-Take-All Politics has brief sketches of the hard-charging Senator Gramm, the Texas Democrat-turned Republican, who pushed aggressively and successfully for deregulation of the financial markets, and of Senator Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat, who raises millions of dollars for his party from Wall Street, and has quietly derailed reforms, such as ending special tax breaks for hedge fund managers.

Labor unions, the only organized force that represents the economic interests of working people as a whole, have declined in power, partly as the result of laws such as the Taft-Hartley Act, the Landrum-Griffin Bill and state right-to-work laws.

Other organizations broadly representative of the middle class such as the American Legion (which was responsible for the G.I. Bill of Rights) and fraternal and civic organizations such as the Elks, Masons and Eagles.

How income has been redistributed upward

March 6, 2011

Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, in Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, point out how almost all the income gains in the United States have flowed to the top income earners.

Income gains are concentrated at the top

This divergence was much less outside the United States.


Gadarene swine law

March 6, 2011

Merely because the group is in formation does not mean the group is on the right course.

Never underestimate what human beings can do

March 5, 2011

Click on Chinese acrobats to see something I wouldn’t have thought was possible.

Why I don’t think public employees are overpaid

March 4, 2011

Opponents of public employee unions try to stir up resentment of public sector workers by private sector workers.  They claim that employees of state and local governments are overpaid, and should be leveled down so that they’re as bad off as everybody else.

But there is data to indicate that, if you make an apples to apples comparison, if you compare workers of equal qualifications, it is the public sector workers who are behind.

I don’t want to push this too hard.  It is hard to make valid comparisons of work in different kinds of occupations.  How do you compare, say, a librarian, who has to have a degree in library science, with a truck driver, who has less schooling but has to deal with danger and fatigue and has skills no less real?  I’ll just say I know of no evidence that public sector workers are overpaid, and some evidence to the contrary.

Historically public sector workers have made a tradeoff of accepting less pay in return for more job security and the satisfaction of serving the public.  But with the layoffs now going on in local and state governments, that job security is an illusion.


The recession is supposed to be over

March 4, 2011

Click to enlarge

If the recession ended in June, 2009, why does this 2008 cartoon from Dollars & Sense magazine seem so relevant?  Look for some answers below.


The argument from hypocrisy

March 3, 2011

It’s too bad so much political argument nowadays is based not on what’s true and what’s false, or what’s right and what’s wrong, but on the allegation of hypocrisy and consistency.

Al Gore lives in a big house that must use a lot of energy; therefore global warming is a myth.  Liberals exaggerated the rowdiness at Tea Party rallies; therefore complaints about Fox News mix-and-match footage are invalid.  Soviet generals participated in the Nuremberg trials; therefore there were no Nazi war crimes.  I am not making up any of these arguments.  What’s wrong with them?

First, almost everyone is open to that charge. Inconsistency and hypocrisy are universal human foibles.  Hardly anybody, certainly not me, has thought through their ideas thoroughly enough to be sure they are free from internal contradiction.  Hardly anybody, certainly not me, can claim that they live up to their best ideals all the time.

Second, such charges shift the basis of the argument from the real to the hypothetical.  Instead of saying, “X is true and I can prove it,” you say, “If your side says Y, my side is entitled to say X” or “Your side did Y in situation A, so you have no standing for criticize my side for doing X in situation B.”

Third, a person can be 100 percent consistent and 100 percent honest and be wrong 100 percent of the time, and someone else can be completely inconsistent and completely hypocritical and still be right 50 percent of the time.


Fox footage shows palm trees in Wisconsin

March 2, 2011

Fox News reporter Mike Tobin in this Feb. 28 newscast complains about Wisconsin protesters with signs saying “Fox News lies.”  But then at the end of the segment, Fox shows protesters pushing and shoving, against a background with palm trees.  Evidently they took some footage from a California protest to make the Madison, Wis., protesters, who so far have been orderly and law-abiding, appear more rowdy than they are.

Fast-forward to 1:40 if you just want to see the palm trees.

Tobin sees something suspicious in “professional-looking” signs – which anybody these days can have made up at a Kinko’s store or its equivalent.

The shock doctrine in Wisconsin

March 2, 2011

Naomi Klein in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine described how right-wing ideologues in control of lending institutions and governments took advantage of crises to enact policies that people never would accept in normal times – wage cuts, curtailment of public services, curtailment of worker and consumer protection and the sale of public assets.

This fits what Gov. Scott Walker is attempting in Wisconsin and other Republican governors are trying in their own states.  Here is a quote from Walker’s budget bill, the same bill that curtails the rights of public employee unions.

“Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).”

As I read it, the language of the bill gives Walker the power to sell off Wisconsin public assets at bargain prices to cronies or campaign contributors at next to nothing.  This is not conservatism, libertarianism nor laissez-faire capitalism in the historic meanings of those words. As Naomi Klein says, the proper name for this is corporatism.


The CEO, the Tea Partier and the union guy

March 1, 2011

Here’s a joke that’s making the rounds of the Internet.

A CEO, a Tea Partier and a union organizer sit down at a table, on which there is a dish of 12 cookies.

The CEO takes 11 of the cookies and says to the Tea Partier, “That union guy wants part of your cookie.”