Archive for January, 2014

Corporations don’t commit crimes

January 31, 2014

No, corporations do not commit crimes.  Corporate executives commit crimes.  There is a difference.

The U.S. Department of Justice charged JP Morgan Chase with various crimes, including fraudulent sale of mortgage-backed securities, covering up losses, rigging electricity prices and aiding and abetting Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.  Last September Attorney General Eric Holder announced a settlement of the case, in which JP Morgan Chase agreed to pay nearly $20 billion in fines.

The company responded by laying off 7,500 employees and freezing the pay of employees below the executive level.  But now the board of directors raised the pay of CEO Jamie Dimon, who had ultimate responsibility for the illegal actions, from $11.5 million a year to $20 million.

As Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone pointed out in a recent post on his web log.

Eric Holder and Barack Obama … decided last year to make a big show of punishing JP Morgan Chase as a symbol of bank corruption, then forgot to punish the actual persons who oversaw the bank’s misdeeds.  This is a little like reining in a school bully by halving his school’s budget.  It doesn’t work.  Crimes are committed by people, and justice has to target people, too.  Otherwise the whole thing is a joke.

But from the board of directors’ point of view, the fine is less than the $25 billion in TARP funds that Dimon got from the federal government when the company was on the verge of collapse.


Click on Jamie Dimon’s Raise Proves U.S. Regulatory Strategy Is a Joke for the whole article by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone.

Click on JP Morgan Chase, Penance and Fines for an account of JP Morgan Chase’s misdeeds by Christopher Brauchli for Huffington Post.

Click on Dimon Does Davos, and His Board Gives Him a Raise for more by Bill Black.

Fighting wars just to show US can win one

January 31, 2014

When I was a schoolboy, I was taught that the United States had never lost a war.  Reasonable people can differ over the War of 1812, but the United States not only defeated, but utterly crushed, its enemies in the Mexican War, the American Civil War, the Indian wars, the Spanish-American War, World War One and World War Two [1].


The Vietnam Conflict, on the other hand, was an unambiguous defeat — the first in American history.  The Nixon-Kissinger administration was the first, but not the last, U.S. administration whose objective was not victory, but to mask defeat in the guise of an “honorable” withdrawal.  The U.S. outcome is symbolized by the fact that our heroes in that conflict were defiant prisoners of war (and they really were heroes, I don’t question that) rather than triumphant conquerors.

Subsequent U.S. administrations did not seek to avoid military interventions.  Instead, starting with the Reagan administration, they sought to overcome the “Vietnam syndrome”, which was perceived as the American public’s cowardly refusal to support open-ended wars in far off lands.

This was weakness rather than strength.  Strong nations do not need to go to war merely to project an image of strength.


TPP ‘fast track’ is dead, for now

January 30, 2014

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday that he is opposed to “fast track” rules for enacting the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.   This is good news.  It means that the TPP and its companion proposal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (aka Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement) anytime soon.

hulk-tppThe problem with “fast track” is that it would require the Senate and House to debate these two complex agreements under tight deadlines and then vote them up or down without amendments.  Since the provisions of the two agreements won’t be known until they are introduced, there wouldn’t have been time to intelligently evaluate the agreements.

Leaked information indicates that both agreements would enact corporate wish lists into international law that couldn’t be changed by individual governments.  The worst are the “investor protection” provisions that allow corporations to ask unelected international tribunals to overturn national laws and regulations or order compensation for unjust loss of “expected profits.”

Blocking the TPP and the TTIP are a good first step.  The next will be to roll back or amend the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the World Trade Treaty and all other so-called trade agreements with “investor protection” provisions.

Pete Seeger, 1919-2014: Rest in Peace

January 29, 2014

Pete Seeger died Monday.  He was a great songwriter, musician and fighter for social justice, and a great example of a life of integrity.

He sang songs in support of the labor union movement in the 1940s.  During the 1950s,, he was blacklisted for his Communist sympathies and nearly went to prison for contempt of Congress after refusing to answer questions by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but made a comeback in the 1960s.

I think his illusions about Communism and the Soviet Union were a serious thing to have been mistaken about, but they matter less than his great songs and his example of courage in standing up for what he thought was right.

“Union Maid” was composed by Pete Seeger’s friend Woodie Guthrie in 1940 when the two of them were in Oklahoma, performing for the benefit of striking oil workers.

Pete Seeger composed “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” in 1967, and was invited to perform it on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, along with songs of the Revolutionary War, Civil War and World War One.  CBS management perceived the political implications and scissored out the song.  Seeger fans, including the Smothers Brothers themselves, protested and Seeger was invited back to perform the song in 1968.

In this appearance by Pete Seeger on the Johnny Cash Show in 1970, it is clear that Cash regards Seeger as the master and himself as the student.


The flag of Lincoln’s party

January 29, 2014


Hat tip to jobsanger.

U.S. rich guy sees self as like Jew under Hitler

January 28, 2014


Tom Perkins, co-founder of the venture capital firm of Kleiner-Perkins, has caught a lot of flak for writing a letter saying that attacks on the the upper 1 percent of U.S. income earners [actually the upper 0.1 percent or maybe 0.01 percent] make him fear that America’s super-rich will suffer a Kristallnacht, like the Nazis systematic attack on the Jews of Germany on the night of Nov. 9, 1938.

He has since apologized for choosing this particular analogy.  In my opinion, a more relevant comparison would be with the French aristocracy prior to the French Revolution.  But the United States is a long way from anything comparable to the storming of the Bastille.  Instead they’re being forced to pay taxes at Clinton-era rates and submit to a modest degree of financial regulation.

The question is why so many U.S. millionaires and billionaires feel so threatened, even by the slightest criticism or the mildest expression of concern about income inequality.

Top Silicon Valley CEOs accused of wage theft

January 28, 2014

I’d guess that if I interviewed a typical Silicon Valley CEO, he’d say he opposed labor unions because wages should be set by the law of supply and demand.  This is conjecture, because I don’t know the views of individual CEOs, but I’d bet it was true.

I’d also bet that many of them buy into the view of certain economists that growing inequality in wages is due to the fact that the most talented workers command more of a premium over average workers than they did in an earlier era.

Be that as it may, Silicon Valley’s top companies – Apple Computer, Google, Abobe, Pixar, Intuit and Intel – are the targets of a class action lawsuit, and Hewlett-Packard in a separate suit, alleging that their CEOs conspired to limit the salaries of their most talented employees.

They allegedly agreed among themselves to refrain from recruiting each others’ employees, to share wage information and to punish companies that wouldn’t co-operate. All this is illegal, of course


American exceptionalism in health care

January 28, 2014

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Jon Perr explained for Daily Kos why Obamacare does not fix the dysfunctional U.S. health insurance system.

On January 1, 2014, the Affordable Care Act went fully into effect.  But for all of the furious fighting over the law these past five years, Obamacare was always an evolutionary reform grafted onto the existing American health care system.  The Medicaid public insurance program has been extended to roughly four million lower income Americans so far.  About two million more people have purchased private insurance, many of them aided by subsidies from Uncle Sam.

And while many (though not all) of the worst abuses that let insurers pad their profits by denying or dropping care for the sick have been banned, the edifice of private insurance remains largely intact.

Far from a “government takeover of health care,” Obamacare preserves all of the hallmarks—private insurance companies, private hospitals, private doctors, and the patchwork of different systems for veterans, seniors, workers, and the poor—that define the American model of health care provision.

Click on Why the U.S. should treat health care like a utility, not a market to read Perr’s full article.  Hat tip for to Bill Elwell for the link, which is the source of the charts.


Mondragon and the future of worker co-ops

January 27, 2014

Gar Alperovitz gave an interesting interview on the Real News Network on Spain’s worker-owned Mondragon Corp. and the future of worker-owned co-op businesses in a capitalist economy.

He advocated a 30-year effort to build up worker co-ops to the point where they can become a dominant force in the economy.  I think his ideas are good, but I don’t think that either the United States or the rest of the world can afford to wait 30 years before changing direction.

Why can’t world’s biggest military win wars?

January 27, 2014


The United States has far and away the largest armed forces in the world.  We Americans spent more on our military than the 10 runner-up countries combined; we spend almost as much as the whole rest of the world.  The U.S. Navy rules the seas.  The U.S. Air Force has controlled the air in every U.S. war in the past 50 years.  Our armed forces have boots on the ground in 177 of the world’s 195 countries.  U.S. military commands encompass the whole world.

Yet, as Andrew J. Bacevich, Tom Englehardt and Ian Welsh have recently pointed out, we Americans can’t seem to win wars.

Why not?

The U.S. armed forces are well able to defend the United States and fulfill U.S. treaty obligations.  Few if any nations are capable of withstanding a U.S. attack.   But U.S. forces have consistently failed in what we call nation-building.  They have not been able to suppress insurrections in defeated nations against the governments that we put in power.

The Viet Cong, the Taliban, al Qaeda did not represent the forces of righteousness, any more than did the Ku Klux Klan in the American South following the Civil War, to mention an early failed attempt at nation-building.   That is not the point.

U.S. forces could have stayed in Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan, or, for that matter, the Reconstruction South, as long as we Americans were willing to pay the price.  They were, and are, highly skilled at exercising lethal force.  If they time came, they would, I am sure, exercise these skills with courage and professionalism in defense of their country.

What they couldn’t do, didn’t know how to do and still don’t know how to do, is to make the Vietnamese, Iraqis or Afghans submit to their rule.  It is not their fault.  It is the fault of those who send them into harm’s way with instructions to accomplish the impossible.


Liberals who fear the libertarian temptation

January 26, 2014

Every now and then I come across some liberal commentator who is mildly critical of abuses of power under the Obama administration, but warns against making too much of them, because you thereby create distrust of government and play into the hands of libertarians.

The reasoning is that if you make too much of an issue of preventive detention, undeclared wars, assassination lists and warrant-less surveillance, you’ll lead cause people to focus on abuses of power by government and forget about abuses of power by big corporations.  Never mind that corporate power is so closely linked to government power these days that this is a distinction without a difference.

As an example of this kind of thinking, click on Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald and Assange If You Knew What They Really Think? by Sean Wilentz for The New Republic.   He does not rebut anything that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald or Julian Assange have actually asserted.  Rather he speculates on their underlying philosophy based on thin evidence, and warns against playing into the hands of corporations and libertarians.

For a good response to Wilentz, click on The Liberal Surveillance State by Henry Farrell on the Crooked Timber web log.  For some more examples of strained reasoning,  scroll down through the comments section.

I am not a libertarian.   But I am a civil libertarian, and it is a fact that right now, many self-described libertarians are better defenders of basic civil liberties than pro-Obama liberals.

A recent study shows the pitfalls of thinking that you have to either be on Team Blue or Team Red.  Click The Depressing Psychological Theory That Explains Washington for a report on the study by Ezra Klein for the Washington Post’s Wonkblog.  It tells how people were for (or against) a set of proposals when told it was a liberal program, and against (or for) the same set of proposals when told it was a conservative program.

If what somebody says is factually correct and morally right, you shouldn’t worry about whose hands it will “play into.”

Are great geniuses above morality?

January 26, 2014

I recently posted a review of a biography of Steve Jobs, the founder Apple Computer, who was a brilliant entrepreneur and industrial designer, but who was a self-centered person who showed no consideration for anyone else, including his closest family, except to the degree that they helped him achieve his purposes.

Recently I finished reading a historical novel about the great German writer and thinker, Wolfgang von Goethe, another selfish genius who achieved great things, but treated other people only as means to his fulfillment as a creator of great works of literature.

Jobs and Goethe, through the force of their intellects and personalities, were able to create a circle of admirers to accepted that they were above the rules that bind ordinary people.

Is this true?  Do great genius or great achievement justify wrongdoing?  Many philosophers have thought so.  The great German philosopher Hegel, for example, thought that “world-historical” figures such as Napoleon set their own rules.

I don’t agree.  I don’t think that being born with great talents creates an entitlement to break laws and treat people badly, any more than does being born to great wealth.

I think great achievers deserve to be honored for their achievements, even though their personal behavior is reprehensible, but that does not excuse bad personal behavior.  I think, for example, that the filmmaker Roman Polanski deserves to be honored for making great movies such as “The Pianist,” but I don’t think his achievements as a filmmaker give him immunity for having committed rape. [1]

I don’t think there is any contradiction between being a genius and being a good person.  But very few people are geniuses, and genuinely good human beings (as opposed to “nice people) are not all that common, so it shouldn’t be surprising that there aren’t many who have both qualities.


Turnabout is fair play

January 25, 2014

When the Democrats were out of power, they condemned warrant-less surveillance by the Bush administration.  But the Obama administration doubled down on these abuses, so now it is the Republicans’ turn to be advocates of civil liberties and the Fourth Amendment..

Democrats will doubtless accuse the Republican National Committee of inconsistency and hypocrisy.  But it is better to change one’s mind than to stick to a wrong position for the sake of consistency.

There is nothing in the Republican resolution that is inconsistent with basic conservative principles, which include the rule of law and the limitation of governmental power.  But even if it is just a political ploy, turnabout is fair play.


NSA domestic surveillance condemned in Republican party resolution by Dan Roberts for The Guardian.

Democrats Have Just Handed Republicans a Huge Win; Stopping NSA Spying Now a Republican Position by Washington’s Blog.

How big money keeps populism at bay

January 24, 2014

The Democratic Party is in deep trouble going into the 2014 elections, and it’s not solely due, or even mainly due, to gerrymandering, voter suppression or other dirty tricks by Republicans.

Thomas Ferguson

Thomas Ferguson

Their main problem is that the Obama administration is five years old, and there has been no economic recovery for the vast majority of Americans.  While Democrats can justly claim that the economic crash is due to the policies of the Bush administration, voters have a right to expect that by now, the Obama administration would have offered an alternative.

Recognizing the problem, President Obama has started talking about income inequality, and trying to re-energize the Democratic base of support — union members, working women, Hispanic-Americans and African-Americans.   The problem for the President and for Democrats generally is how to do this without jeopardizing their support from big-money donors whose contributions they need to win.

This is a tightrope that Obama has been able to walk so far.  The question is how long he can get away with it.

Political scientist Thomas Ferguson, who is known for his “investment theory” of political parties, and fellow academics Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen recently published an analysis which concluded that the 2012 elections were basically a contest between different factions of the upper 1 percent of income earners.

Nearly two-thirds of itemized contributions to the Obama campaign and more than 70 percent of itemized contributions to the Romney campaign came from donors who contributed $10,000 or more.  Roughly the same breakdowns held for the proportions of total contributions in amounts of $500 or more.  Obama received more small donations than Romney, but both got the bulk of their funds from big donors.

That’s not to say nothing was at stake.  Republican candidates tend to get the support of the oil and gas industry; Democrats the telecommunications and computer industry.  Wall Street shifts back and forth between the two parties, but exercises strong influence over both.

The 2014 congressional elections will be the same, only worse, Ferguson, Jorgensen and Chen predicted, since recent court decisions have removed the last vestiges of restrictions on campaign contributions.

Thomas Frank wrote an eloquent article recently in Harper’s magazine, indicting college-educated progressive Democrats for their passivity and their disconnect from the concerns of working people.  He wrote that they are waiting for the Republican Party to be destroyed by the Tea Party movement, just as in earlier eras they waited for the GOP to be destroyed by George W. Bush, Newt Gingrich, supply-side economics, Watergate and Barry Goldwater.

The Democrats’ problem is not just the power of money.  It is that, for many Democrats, the power of money is not an issue.


What Hillary Clinton would do for women

January 24, 2014

Ready for HillaryWhat's Not Happening In Hillary's MeetingsClick on Huge ‘Super PAC’ Is Moving Early to Back Clinton for background by Nicholas Confessore in the New York Times.

Click on How Big Money Keeps Populism at Bay for more background by Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen and Jie Chen on AlterNet.

Click on Ted Rall’s Rallblog for more cartoons.

Steve Jobs was a real-life Ayn Rand hero

January 23, 2014


Steve Jobs comes as close as anyone I know to being an Ayn Rand hero in real life.  As depicted by Walter Isaacson in Steve Jobs, a semi-authorized biography, Jobs was utterly selfish and had no consideration of anyone or anything except his personal vision and obsessions.  At the same time he was a genius who created a great company and transformed the personal computer, digital animation, the telephone, photography and much else.

Many Occupy Wall Street protestors, who hated most of the “1 percent”, nevertheless mourned the death of Steve Jobs because, unlike crooked Wall Street financiers, he actually accomplished something.   Walter Isaacson wrote he was the most important American industrialist since Henry Ford and Thomas Edison.

I find it easy to mock those who, as Ann Richards, the former governor of Texas, once put it, were born on third base and thought they’d hit a triple.  A great many of our so-called meritocracy contribute little or nothing or mainly harmful things to society.  But it is more difficult to decide what I think a total egotist who accomplished great things.

This is nothing in Isaacson’s book to indicate that Steve Jobs ever read the works of Ayn Rand or gave a thought about her philosophy.  His intellectual interests, such as they were, were in Zen Buddhism, New Age teaching and rock and roll.

Buddhism contributed to his keen aesthetic sense, based on simplicity and elegance.  But he evidently did not take to heart the Buddhist teaching that the ego is an illusion and you should not make yourself unhappy if you don’t get your way.  Quite the contrary.

Steve Jobs’ great talent was in industrial design.   He brought art and technology together.  As has often been pointed out, all the basic features of the Macintosh computer – the mouse, clickable icons and so on – were developed at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Laboratory, and hijacked by Jobs.  But it was Jobs, not Xerox management, who understood what to do with these concepts.  The Macintosh was historic.  Xerox’s own Star computer is forgotten.

As an artist, he was a perfectionist.  He made big changes at the last minute rather than allow a flawed (in his eyes) product go on the market.  I can easily imagine him, like Ayn Rand’s fictional architect Howard Roark, destroying something he created rather than let someone else spoil it.

He was not easy to work with.  He had no patience with the merely adequate.  He was quick to classify people as geniuses or bozos, based on hasty impressions.  But at the same time he respected people who stood up to him—provided they proved to be right.  He was a charismatic personality, famous for his “reality distortion field,” who was able to impose his ideas on other people almost in spite of themselves.  His insistence on getting his own way drove his people to achieve more than they ever thought they could.

stevejobs.reincarnationI use Apple products and I enjoy Pixar animation (which he did not create but fostered).  At the same time I am glad that I never met Steve Jobs, and I do not recommend him as a role model.  He treated those closest to him badly, including his loving and self-sacrificial foster parents, the mother of his first child and his loyal friend Steve Wozniak.  He cared little for anyone he did not regard as a fellow genius.  He did not practice nor believe in economic democracy.  When a visitor asked about working conditions in Apple factories, his reaction was anger and contempt.

I’m glad Steve Jobs lived.  I respect his achievement, and the passion that fueled his achievement.  I would not subtract anything from his wealth or honors.  At the same time I would not want to live in a society dominated by people like Steve Jobs or, worse still, people with Steve Jobs’ attitude toward life but not his talent.   The world benefits from obsessive hard-driving geniuses, but that does not mean that ordinary people, who do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, count for nothing.


For more, click on Steve Jobs: An Inspiration or a Cautionary Tale by Ben Austen for Wired.

American exceptionalism in perspective

January 22, 2014


I first came across the phrase “American exceptionalism” when I studied American history in college in the 1950s.  It referred to a historical fact—that the United States had taken a different direction than most other countries of the Western world.

I think that the United States is exceptional in some ways that are good, which I have written about in previous posts.

I think there are ways in which the United States once was exceptional and no longer is, either because we have changed or the rest of the world has changed.   Abraham Lincoln referred to the United States as “the last, best hope of earth” because, in his time, the USA was the only broadly-based democracy [1] in the world, and the survival of the Union was regarded as a test case as to whether democracy was a viable form of government.  This is no longer true.  Democracy now has many homes, not just one.

Unfortunately the United States is an outlier in bad ways as well as good.  We Americans pay more for medical care and have worse health than the people of any other advanced nation.  We are exceptional in the number of deaths by violent crime, in lack of knowledge of foreign languages and in our government’s willingness to go to war.\.

Nowadays some Americans speak of having “faith” in American exceptionalism, as if it were a religious doctrine or a definition of patriotism.   For me, love of country is like love of family.  I love my country because it is mine, not because other countries are unworthy of being loved by their patriots.

Many foreigners take the phrase “American exceptionalism” to mean that Americans arrogantly deny that we are bound by the same laws and moral rules as other peoples’.  Unfortunately this is all-too-true, and it is a way in which we are not exceptional at all.  The arrogance of power is common to all powerful nations in all periods of history.

If we Americans think of ourselves as exceptionally dedicated to the cause of human liberty, this does not exempt us from the standards of law and morality that government other nations.  Rather it obligates us to live up to a high standard regardless of what other peoples do.


Is there a path to economic democracy?

January 21, 2014

alpervitz.coverIf you, like me, think our present corporate capitalist system is not working, and if you, like me, thinks state socialism and central planned economies are proven failures, what is the alternative?

Economist Gar Alperovitz, in a flawed but thought-provoking new book, What Then Must We Do? says the answer is economic democracy – worker-owned businesses and cooperatives.  Unlike the giant for-profit corporation, the worker co-op would operate for the benefit of the employees instead absentee stockholders.  Unlike with nationalized industry under central planning, the worker-owners would be deciding for themselves and not trying to rule over other people.

I think so, too, and so do other people, whose books I’ve reviewed on this web log.  Alperovitz’s book represents an advance over David Graeber’s The Democracy Project in that he suggests some practical ways in which this ideal can be advanced.   Alperovitz’s blind spot, compared to Graeber, is his failure to see the magnitude of the opposition that would have to be overcome.

Alperovitz pointed out that there already are quite a number of worker-owned businesses and cooperatives.  In Cleveland, there’s a worker-owned Evergreen Cooperative Laundry, which is powered by solar panels bought from the worker-owned Evergreen Energy Solutions.  In Madison, Wisconsin, there is the worker-owned Isthmus Engineering and Manufacturing Co., which makes precision machines and robots.  He has a long list covering much of the country.

Local governments spend a lot of money subsidizing private businesses.   Instead of providing economic incentives to bring in a big box retail store, which is likely to put established retail merchants out of business, or a manufacturing plant, which is likely to relocated in 10 or 15 years in search of low wages and new economic incentives, why not help the worker-owned businesses in your own community?

Executives of big corporations (except for family-run companies such as Corning Inc. or Wegmans Food Markets) have no tie to any community or, indeed, to any country.  Workers, along with small-business owners, are the ones who are committed to living in a community and building it up.

Along with worker-owned businesses, there are credit unions, electric power co-operatives, businesses with employee stock ownership plans – all with more democratic forms of organization than corporations listed on the New York Stock Exchange.  There is something called a “B” corporation, whose charter says it is organized for public benefit rather than maximizing shareholder value.  All these provide something to build on and expand.  One simple reform, Alperovitz noted, is to allow owners of stock under ESOP plans to vote their own shares rather than giving their proxies to a trustee.

He advocated public banks, such as the Bank of North Dakota, as a way of serving local communities and providing a safe haven for depositors.  He said states such as Vermont. which is working on a single-payer, universal health insurance plan, could show the way for health care reform.  In the next financial crash, the federal government is likely to take over some failed corporations, as it did AIG and General Motors, and the next time around it should ask for reforms to make these companies serve workers and the community.

In time, over a period of decades, Alperovitz thinks that worker-owned and public enterprises could gain constituencies and crowd out the dysfunctional corporate system that we have down.  Such an approach offers more hope, he wrote, than supporting the declining labor movement or progressive political action.  In this I think he is naive.  The corporatist elite that have worked for decades to crush organized labor and thwart progressive politics is not going to stand idly by and let themselves be threatened by worker co-operatives.


“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right”

January 20, 2014



Taxes, welfare and Alan Greenspan

January 17, 2014


Alan Greenspan, the former chair of the Federal Reserve Board, believed that the key to increasing a nation’s wealth is investment.  Every dollar that was collected in taxes on rich people and corporations and spent on unemployment compensation, food stamps and free health care was, in his view, one less dollar available for investment.  So he favored lower taxes on the rich and less spending on the poor.  We now know how this worked out.

American corporations are stuffed with cash, and the Federal Reserve System has pumped trillions more in cash into the big banks through its “quantitative easing” program.  But the U.S. economy, and to some extent the world economy is stalled, because of the lack of buying power of the American middle class.  That buying power was sustained in earlier eras by rising earnings, and then by rising participation in the work force and rising debt.  But all of these have run their course.  No rational business will increase production unless there is a good market for the product.

Click on Alan Greenspan’s ‘The Map and the Territory’ review by Robert Solow for a more in-depth discussion of this issue.


Secrets in trade: the Trans-Pacific Partnership

January 16, 2014

The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership agreement, involving the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Japan and seven smaller Pacific nations, and the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Area (aka as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), involving the US and the European Union, are a threat to democracy.

Negotiations have been conducted in secret, but enough has leaked out to reveal the intent of these agreements.  (What they would do is to enact corporate wish lists into international law, which would be virtually impossible to repeal or amend without all the signatories acting in concert.


The world of surveillance, private and public

January 16, 2014

Senator Jay Rockefeller is rightly indignant that somebody has compiled lists of rape victims, which are sold to marketing companies for who-knows-what purpose.

But the fact is that we all provide information to private businesses that, when shared, enables them to know all about us. Short of never using a store discount card, never buying anything over the Internet and never using a credit card, there is no realistic way to get around it.

What I worry about is not so much what people in these companies know, or think they know, as what they do with the information. If the information is used by marketing companies to guess what products I might buy, this may be annoying, but it does me no great harm.

If it is turned over to lenders or employers and affects my chances of getting credit or a job, this would be a serious problem.  If it is turned over to government agencies to determine whether I am a potential terrorist or even a troublemaker, this would be an even more serious problem.

Knowledge is power, and there is a lack of balance of power. These people know, or think they know, a lot about me. I ought to be able to know who they are and what they know, or think they know, about me. If my life is an open book to them, I ought to be able to read that book.

So long as the information that companies and agencies have about me is secret, there is no penalty for wrongful derogatory information about me, and no incentive to double-check to make sure it is correct. All the incentives are to err on the side of suspicion.

The right to privacy only extends to individuals. Organizations and institutions should be transparent. (more…)

Medicaid isn’t all that great a system

January 16, 2014

My preferred alternative to the present system and to the complexities of Obamacare has long been expansion of Medicare and Medicaid.  But after reading on the Corrente web site about one person’s experience in the Medicaid system, I have my doubgts.  Experience shows that any service that is means-tested to serve only poor people will be a bad system.  The best answer is Medicare for all.


The problem with a new “war on poverty”

January 16, 2014

It is very difficult to teach poor people the skills and attitudes they would need to rise into the middle class when there may not be a middle class left for them to rise into.

American exceptionalism: Church and state

January 15, 2014

One of the ways in which we Americans are exceptional in a good way is our separation of church and state.  The United States is a country that is friendly toward religion, yet the government neither subsidizes religion nor takes orders from a religious authority.

In virtually every other country of which I know, the government either taxes the public for the support of religion, or is actively hostile toward religion.  The U.S. government is neither.  Perhaps for this reason, church attendance and religious belief are stronger in the USA than in the countries of western Europe.

We have storefront churches in poor neighborhoods here in Rochester, NY, with more worshipers on a Sunday than some of the empty cathedrals of Europe, or so I am told by friends who have toured Europe.

I think the reason for this is in our history.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain’s North American colonies provided refuge to religious dissenters not only from Britain itself, but from all over Europe.  Being persecuted doesn’t necessarily make people tolerant, but the colonies became home to so many different kinds of dissenting religious groups that tolerance become a necessity.

Voltaire is supposed to have said that the best thing for a country is to have many religious sects, and the worst thing is to have just two.  The religious diversity of the United States is a safeguard of religious freedom, because no one denomination is in a position to take over..

I admit the United States has not been free of religious hatred.  The worst was the anti-Catholic riots and persecutions in the 1830s and 1840s.  As late as 1960, there were still Protestants who questioned whether a Catholic could be trusted to occupy the White House.  I do not think these attitudes were justified, but there is an explanation for them.

The Papacy in the 19th century aligned itself with European monarchs and was hostile to democratic movements and to religious tolerance.  It was mistaken, but not crazy, to think of Roman Catholicism as incompatible with American freedom and democracy.  Indeed, I might well have thought that way myself, if I had not had Catholic friends and realized that all these 19th century encyclicals were irrelevant to the way my Catholic friends and neighbors actually thought.

The same is true today of Islam.  The fear of Islam is not so much intolerance of difference as the fear of being subject to the religious law of someone else’s religion.  I think this fear is far-fetched, but if I had never met any American Muslims and nor had any Muslim friends, I would feel the same way about them as my 19th century forebears thought about Catholics.

We have a lot of controversies in the United States about separation of church and state.  Most are about trivialities—whether a local government meeting can begin with a prayer, and, if so, what kind of prayer.   I don’t care either way.  Whatever is decided, nobody is denied the right to practice their religion nor compelled to practice someone else’s religion.  This is as it should be.  Religion that is practiced out of compulsion is meaningless.