Sunday, July 31, 2011

The "Entitlements" Folks

Now that it appears that Congress is getting ready to pass a compromise measure that allows for raising the debt ceiling, it's time to take a look at the fine print. The only problem is, the fine print seems to have been written in invisible ink.

The last piece of legislation that was passed in the kind of last minute frenzy we face right now was the USA Patriot Act, a bill that many members of Congress admit to never having read, and one that created the infrastructure for "homeland security" thereby increasing the federal deficit exponentially with a costly and abstract war on terror.

How many of those war on terror hawks back in 2001 would deny then-president, George W. Bush, the constitutional right to raise the debt ceiling? These same folks don't call Bush's wars, and frenetic military spending, "entitlements," but only grannie's prescription for reading glasses.

Okay, as the saying goes, don't shoot until you see the whites of their eyes. Well, we have seen the whites of their eyes, and we now have a good idea who's going to feel the gravest impact of any deficit reduction plan Congress pushes through at the last minute.

C-Span presented former House speaker, Nancy Pelosi's riveting speech to House last night in which she inveighed against Republicans, and a proposed plan to cut $2 trillion from the deficit by taking $1 trillion from spending programs. As Pelosi suggested, these cuts will result in the loss of Pell grants, and less opportunity for college for millions of young people. She's right. Education must not be on the table. That the House or the Senate should consider anything other than a clean bill requiring only that Congress sign off on raising the debt ceiling is in itself egregious.

Congressional deficit hawks who, with religious zeal, manage to confuse the need to raise the debt ceiling with a debate about deficit reduction are the ones who today are calling for spending cuts. Though Democrats in the House insist Social Security and Medicare aren't going to be touched, what other programs will be? Some say there will be more cuts to Defense, but how much, and starting when?

Even a cursory look at military contracts for 2010, as well as projected revenue from government contracts so far this year, shows not just gluttony, but the overreach of Defense.

One has only to look at the profit margins, and source of revenue for the ten top companies that have made billions of dollars from US government contracts over the past year alone to understand why there are still so many troops left both in both in Afghanistan, and Iraq.

CNBC's Web site lists the those ten companies. Northrop Gunman, which comes in at third place, had more than $16 billion in government contracts last year alone, and so far in 2011 more than $4 billion.

And, on finding out that the 2012 USAF budget includes cuts, Northrop Gunman increased the price of unmanned drones by more than 25% according to Bloomberg. There are now 77 aircraft costing $102 million each.

At the bottom of the top ten list, BAE, a British multinational defense contractor, was awarded $6.6 billion in defense contracts in 2010, which represents one sixth of its total 2010 revenue of nearly $37 billion. BAE has received more than $1.3 billion in defense contracts so far this year.

CNBC notes, too, that General Dynamics, a company squarely in the middle, in fifth place, was awarded nearly $15 billion in govenment contracts last year which accounts for nearly 50% of its total revenue for 2010. . GD manufactures arms, and tanks. This is one entitlement program that no one on the Hill wants to talk about seriously addressing, only Social Security, Education, and Medicare.

Even more of our taxpayer dollars were funneled to Raytheon, (RIN), headquartered in Waltham, Massachusetts. While they received roughly the same amount in 2010 defense contracts as General Dynamics, $15 billion, RIN has been awarded $4.3 billion so far in 2011, an increase of nearly 200% over the amount handed to Raytheon. Both Raytheon and General Dynamics get to boast that roughly half of their income for 2010 came from the Defense Department, and the US taxpayer. Let's hope, for their sake, their lobbyists in Washington aren't members of the choir calling for smaller government or they'll be out of work.

The contractors that made it to first and second place on CNBC's list of the ten companies that made billions off the US government are Boeing, of course, that is mainly known for manufacturing aircraft. In 2010, Boeing was awarded nearly $20 billion from Defense, and $6 billion so far this year, putting them in second place. In 2010, Boeing's total earnings came to $63.3 billion, with their Defense, Space, and Security Segment accounting for $63 billion.

Last but not least on the list and in first place is Lockheed Martin, a company that was given nearly $40 billion from Defense last year which accounts for more than 90% of its total 2010 revenue of a little less than $46 billion. This year so far, Lockheed Martin has received nearly $16 billion in contracts from the the US government, that's four times the amount Raython has gotten from Uncle Sam. Lockheed Martin, in Bethesda, Maryland, manufactures satellites, space vehicles, combat aircraft.

Crunching numbers: revenue strictly from government contracts in 2010 for the top ten companies combined totals $143.3 billion in 2010, and $42 billion in the first part of 2011.. Total revenue for these companies combined is nearly $360 billion. Yes, that's about a billion dollars a day for a year. Once again, in some instances, your tax dollars accounted for approximately half of all revenue these companies earned.

Yet, where is the public outrage over an entitlement program that lines the pockets of military contractors? Where are the deficit hawks, and why aren't they demanding an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, and any other country we're currently occupying, or in the process of occupying?

Oh, and yes, let's not forget Blackwater, now XE, and their mercenaries whose numbers are about equal to those of our troops. As Washington Technology reported back in 2007, XE was one of five companies to whom the Department of Defense's Counter-Narcotics Program awarded up to $15 billion in government contracts. Not surprisingly, some of the other companies included were Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Gunman.
The DoD gave Xe a $92 million contract just for air transport

In one year alone, 2011, the US government reportedly will spend close to $160 billion on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a whopping $107 billion on Afghanistan alone; And, as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz has suggested, the ultimate price tag for our combat operations may be somewhere around $3 trillion, but don't expect to see "austerity" measures to stop the hemorrhaging of taxpayer funds to this entitlement program.

But where are the calls in Congress to take some serious, and longterm measures to reduce defense spending? Savor the irony that some of those Democrats who now serve both in the House and in the Senate were likely college protestors against the war in Vietnam, but how many of them are standing up now, and demanding that the $1 trillion in spending cuts come from the Department of Defense? How many are speaking out about balancing our priorities instead of the budget, and eliminating the Department of Homeland Security, the NSA electronic surveillance marketeers, as well as investigating just who profits most from the prison-industrial complex we've now become?

And, consider this, the $1 trillion in spending cuts this deal would provide is over a ten year period, and is only a third of what these combined wars cost the treasury over the past decade.

Those who want to gut the safety net for the elderly, infirm, and poor are the same folks who put in place safety nut programs. It is they who pose the gravest risk to our national security, those who wish for the upper 2% to continue to prosper at the expense of 98% of the rest of us, those who call anything that does not belong to them an "entitlement."

We all know that any trimming of Defense in this bill will be largely cosmetic when compared with how much really needs to be cut. An article in the NYT notes that the deal in front of Congress today would cut $350 billion from defense over the next ten years, or $35 billion a year which is less than than Lockheed Martin got last year in government contracts.

Moreover, the deal nearing approval would give the Pentagon the option to decide how to implement the cuts. It is ludicrous to expect anything other than a gratuitous cut given our perpetual state of combat-readiness, so rather than making a serious effort to tackle spiralling costs, the bill currently before Congress essentially amounts to a giveaway to Republicans. Anything other than a clean bill to raise the debt ceiling without any strings attached is a capitulation, and unacceptable.

Friday, July 29, 2011

From Michael Winship

When the Super-Rich Cry, "Class Warfare!"
By Michael Winship

I ran into my friend Jeff Madrick a few weeks ago. Like a rabbit out of a hat, or so it seemed, he whipped from his coat a copy of his new book, Age of Greed.

He gave the book to me and I'm grateful. It's a compelling and worthy read. Jeff's an able journalist; an excellent and cogent storyteller in a field that often defies the straightforward plot or easy explanation -- economics.

The book's subtitle says it all: "The Triumph of Finance and the Decline of America, 1970 to the Present;" an ongoing saga of avarice told through profiles of the men who confidently strode forth and marched us smack into the middle of our current fiscal nightmare.

Milton Friedman, Richard Nixon, Ivan Boesky, Ronald Reagan, Michael Milken, Alan Greenspan, Ken Lay, Walter Wriston of Citicorp and Sandy Weill of Citigroup, Lehman Brothers' Richard Fuld -- they're all here and more, presidents and economists, CEO's and masters of the universe, a veritable Murderers' Row of the rich and frequently reckless.

As Jeff writes in the introduction, the first part of Age of Greed "is mostly a story of business pioneers who fought government regulation or, through innovation, escaped government oversight," building on fear from punishing inflation in the seventies and a new post-Watergate distrust of government, "all the while diminishing the power of government and reinforcing the changing national attitudes."

In the second part, "Once government was no longer a counterweight and a new political ideology cleared their path, financiers led the way... Debts more than innovation and technological progress became the economy's driving force. Financial businesses doubled in size compared to the economy and profits grew still faster. Hundreds of billions of precious American savings were wasted."

I thought of all this last week when I read a report headlined "Fly on the Wall," on the website

"Fifty of the most prized donors in national politics, including several hedge-fund billionaires who are among the richest people in the world, schlepped to a Manhattan office or hovered around speakerphones Tuesday afternoon as their host, venture capitalist Ken Langone, a co-founder of The Home Depot, implored New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to reconsider and seek the GOP presidential nomination."

Yikes. That prospect alone is enough to make sensible men and women weep. But wait, there's more.

Among those in attendance were at least three worthy of inclusion on Forbes' list of richest Americans -- Paul Tudor Jones (hedge funds; $3.3 billion), Stan Druckenmiller (hedge funds; $2.5 billion) and Bernie Marcus (Home Depot; $1.9 billion). According to Politico, "Several of them said: I'm Republican but I voted for President Obama, because I couldn't live with Sarah Palin. Many said they were severely disappointed in the president. The biggest complaint was what several called 'class warfare.' They said they didn't understand what they had done to deserve that: If you want to have a conversation about taxation, have a conversation. But a president shouldn't attack his constituents -- he's not the president of some people, he's president of all the people. Someone mentioned Huey Long populism."

Huey Long populism? Give me a break. Barack Obama's about as much like Huey Long as I am Huey Newton of the Black Panthers (or Huey Lewis and the News, come to that). And as for class warfare, give me a double break. Who the hell started it? "There's class warfare, all right," Warren Buffett told The New York Times two years before the 2008 crash, "but it's my class, the rich class, that's making war, and we're winning."

I'll say. Which makes the whining of the moneyed -- in addition to the winning -- all the more annoying. Especially after the Obama White House has bent over backwards for them -- simply remember the concessions on health care and financial reform, for two -- and all too often has vassaled itself to the knights of the Fortune 500, kowtowing all the way to the bank where they keep the big campaign contributions.

But I suppose in comparison to the Republicans' even lower groveling for the corporate table leavings, it's conceivable the President and his associates might seem to some of those residing in the economic stratosphere like wild-eyed populists. For one, that National Labor Relations Board of his is being too, too terribly annoying.

The NLRB has gone after Boeing, alleging that the aerospace giant decided to move an aircraft plant to South Carolina in retaliation against strikes by workers at its Puget Sound factory outside Seattle. And now the Teamsters have filed a charge with the labor board that the car company BMW of North America has failed to bargain in good faith, replacing union members by outsourcing a parts distribution center in Ontario, California. (The usual full disclosure: I'm president of a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO.)

In forty years of union representation, there has never been a labor stoppage at the center; in fact, its employers have received gold medals from BMW for efficiency. Average seniority is twenty years; five workers have been there thirty years or more.

As Michael Hiltzik wrote in the July 3 Los Angeles Times, "These employees exemplified the best qualities of the American worker. They devoted their working lives to BMW, at a time when it was building and solidifying its US beachhead. Their wages, with benefits, paid for a reasonable middle-class lifestyle if they managed it carefully. Throw in the job security they were encouraged to expect, and they had the confidence to make sacrifices and investments that contributed to the economy for the long term, like college education for the kids, an addition on the house, a new baby. Then one day they were handed a mass pink slip, effective in a matter of weeks."

You can argue that BMW, world's largest manufacturer of luxury cars, has the legal right to outsource. Yet by the same token, Hiltzik noted, "American taxpayers had a perfect legal right to tell BMW to drop dead when the firm's credit arm asked the Federal Reserve for a low-interest $3.6-billion loan during the 2008 financial crisis. BMW got the money then because US policymakers saw a larger issue at stake: saving the economy from going over a cliff. Just as there's a larger issue involved at Ontario, which is saving the American middle class from going over the same cliff."

Last year, BMW posted profits of $4.7 billion and bumped up shareholder dividends by $950 million. This year, they're predicting a ten percent increase in revenues. Will they be sharing with their American workers? Don't bet on it. Will they come running to the government for help next time they're in trouble? Count on it.

And as if Congress hasn't done corporate America enough favors, next week House Republicans will try to pass an anti-NLRB bill that will, in the words of California Democratic Congressman George Miller, "eviscerate the rights of workers, help ship more jobs overseas, undermine job creation in this country and kill opportunity for people who are working hard and playing by the rules."

HR 2587 takes away the NLRB's authority, says AFL-CIO Government Affairs Director Bill Samuel “to restore workers to their jobs when companies simply eliminate work in order to eliminate workers who are pro-union or when companies eliminate work in order to avoid their legal obligation to bargain.

"[The bill] will have dire unintended consequences as well. It will make it easier to ship jobs overseas because it legalizes the most despicable form of outsourcing -- the illegal kind -- by keeping the NLRB from being able to stop it. The bill will remove one of the only tools preventing work from leaving the US."

And still big business will whine and complain, as per Politico, not understanding what they have done to cause criticism. Yet all the while, as Jeff Madrick writes in Age of Greed, they take our economy "along an unfortunate, tragic path for their own purposes from which it may not be possible to turn back."


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The House and Delay

House Republicans postponed the vote on raising the debt ceiling today.

Somebody ought to tell the freshman crop of Republicans in the House that DeLay no longer works in Washington.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Debt Ceiling Debate or War on the Working Class?

The debt ceiling debacle isn't about debt any more than all the talk about balancing the budget is about the deficit. There is absolutely no need to be in a crisis. The protracted stalemate has only reached crisis proportion because the president has allowed Congress to be diverted from raising the debt ceiling to a distinctly different discussion.

That the White House has permitted, indeed enabled, the conversation to shift, and to shift seismically, merely leads one to deduce that what's going on is nothing short of a coup d'etat on the part of corporations, in America, to ensure that their government subsidies, and institutionalized tax evasion continues.

What's happening now in Washington, D.C. in what looks like a tug of war between Congress and the White House is fundamentally a coup d'etat by the grassroots Tea Party on behalf of those white collar criminals who have quietly been running the show practically since our inception, and who now want to go public. And, ironically, on the backs of mostly blue collar enablers.

Ironically, the almost exclusively white, blue collar Tea Party joins forces with those who, since the New Deal launched, have been at war with the working class, a war that has only escalated since 9/11.

Yes, white collar criminals who run corporations like AIG, XE, and all the major banks, have been essentially legislating from the boardroom for years. They were behind the "Bush tax cuts" in the first place, as well as the "war on terror" which has essentially been a war on the working class.

What some might call entitlement programs for white collar criminals began when the Supreme Court stepped in, back in 2000, and fixed an election. George W. Bush, in turn, sent two more justices to the high court to virtually guarantee passage of Citizens United further empowering white collar criminals by granting them corporate personhood. Those personhood rights stop, of course, when it comes to being held liable for their bold faced fraud and predatory practices.

Over the past decade, too, as is widely known, a fraction of the U.S. population has amassed even more wealth while wages for working men and women have remained stagnant.

What baffles most is how working class folks, the ones who drive those bigs sports utility vehicles, who have been hurt the most by the price gouging oil companies, many of whom are no longer able to feed their families without food stamps, how is it that these folks would go to the polls, and elect more than 100 neo-conservative Republicans whose primary goal is to divest them not just of their medical insurance, but of every right working people have had since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

This mineature party within a Party has managed to hold even the Speaker of the House, a fellow Republican, hostage to their demands.

Are these not the same folks who masterminded stealing the 2000 election, and that of 2004, or their next of kin. How is they can pull it off again, or can they? And, what is this if not a coup?

Whose best interests are served by a "balanced budget amendment" which largely amounts to finalizing tax cuts for the rich while gutting Social Security, and Medicare? Those of the Tea Party? They are demographically much closer to 98% of Americans, not the 2% income bracket.

Moreover, whose interests are served when twice as much is allocated for Defense as Education in the 2011 budget? Who benefits? Surely not the children of working class parents.

When the president went before the American people on Monday night, he told the truth about one thing. He is not, repeat not, planning to raise taxes on 98% of us, but only let the Bush tax cuts for the upper 2% lapse. What kind of Kool-Aid does the Tea Party spike their punch with, so they can persuade their predominantly working class base that letting News Corp. screw the government out of billions in taxes benefits them?

As Mr. Obama was also quick to point out, most people want to see the rich pay their share, so where did this "tea party" contigent come from, and when can we ship them back?

Indeed, the neo-cons of the 90's must be proud to watch the nouveau radical right wing of the Republican Party manipulate leadership such that what is little more than a routine matter of allowing the government to make good on its unpaid bills has morphed into a contest of ego and political will.

Make no mistake, this is a doomsday scenario. If the impetus was to defeat the chances of a second Obama administration, what has happened instead is the defeat of any substantive economic mobility for the foreseaable future.

And, by allowing a simple congressional vote on raising the debt ceiling to become a referendum on empowering so-called "job creators," the president has himself enabled changing the subject which can only lead to a gradual erosion of a federal safety net, and subjugation of the many to the interests of the few.

Big business and big government have now become indistinguishable. If the Tea Party wants smaller government then, by default, they're asking for less of a corporate stake in governing.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Bach to the Future

Just think, if Michele Bachmann becomes president and outlaws masturbation
two-thirds of Americans will go to jail and the other third will go back to sleep.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Great Piece by Michael Winship

Corporate America's Sunshine Patriots
By Michael Winship

We went to Mount Vernon in Virginia a few weeks ago. It was the first time I'd been to George Washington's family estate since a whirlwind day tour of Washington, DC, when I was a high school freshman. Our guide then was a fast-talking cabdriver who interlaced his rapid-fire wisecracks with an impressive command of facts and figures, many of which may even have been correct.

Today, the Washington plantation, once in sorry shape, has been beautifully restored, from mansion to slave quarters. At two, state-of-the-art visitor and education centers, sightseers can learn all about the great man's life and times, including a sound and light presentation on battles of the American Revolution that features howling wind and falling "snowflakes" -- tiny bits of soapsuds pumped into the theater -- when Washington crosses the Delaware.

The whole thing isn't run by the National Park Service, as you might have expected, but by a private, nonprofit organization, the genteelly named Mount Vernon Ladies' Association (MVLA), which raises money from ticket sales, food, souvenirs and money from individuals, foundations and corporations.

A lot of money. According to the MVLA's most recent annual report, "In 2010, 47,242 individuals, corporations, and foundations contributed more than $17 million to the Mount Vernon cause." With George Washington a favored Founding Father of the American right, no small amount of those funds have come from such conservative contributors as the Heritage Foundation, the F.M. Kirby Foundation, the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation, the Mars family of candy bar fame, and newspaper publisher Richard Mellon Scaife.

Conservative screenwriter Lionel Chetwynd scripted the introductory film at the site's orientation center. And during her recent bus tour, Sarah Palin had paid a visit just a couple of weeks before our arrival, writing on her website that daughter Piper mentioned to her how hard Washington must have worked "to keep that farm going." Stephen Colbert responded, "It's true. I cannot imagine how hard he worked, with no help other than his African volunteers."

A quick perusal of Mt. Vernon's annual report reveals that its many corporate funders include the Ford Motor Company, Toyota, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, Altria (formerly Philip Morris), Coca Cola, the American Gas Association, PricewaterhouseCoopers, M&T Bank, Stanley Black & Decker and BAE Systems -- the massive, British-based defense contractor that last year pled guilty to criminal charges related to bribery allegations and paid almost $450 million in penalties to the United States and Great Britain. (Wonder what the George Washington of slaughtered cherry tree and "I cannot tell a lie" fame would make of that?)

In fairness, they all have helped preserve a beautiful historic landmark, but as I looked at their names, I couldn't help but think that they and their big business colleagues could perform an even greater patriotic service to America by working to create more jobs.

Naive? Not really. After all, as of last week, as per the website Zero Hedge and data analysts Capital IQ, 29 public companies -- including Bank of America, JP Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, GE and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway -- each have more cash on hand than the US Treasury. And as Citigroup's Peter Orzag, former director of Obama's Office of Management and Budget wrote on July 13, we need to be "as bold as we can." Says he, "The right policy response is a combination of more aggressive attention to bolster the job market now and much more deficit reduction enacted now to take effect in a few years."

So why not make a sacrifice bigger than a nice hefty grant to Mount Vernon or the historic location of your choice and commit instead to finding employment for at least some of the 14.1 million out of work? After all, the Republicans keep telling us these corporations and their rich executives and stockholders need every last one of their outlandish tax breaks -- because they're job creators!

Yeah, right. In May, when Fortune magazine released this year's list of America's top 500 companies, its editors wrote, "The Fortune 500 generated nearly $10.8 trillion in total revenues last year, up 10.5%. Total profits soared 81%. But guess who didn't benefit much from this giant wave of cash? Millions of U.S. workers stuck mired in a stagnant job market... we've rarely seen such a stark gulf between the fortunes of the 500 and those of ordinary Americans."

In June, a report from Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies found that since the economic recovery began two years ago, "Corporate profits captured 88 percent of the growth in real national income while aggregate wages and salaries accounted for only slightly more than one percent." It goes on to declare, "The absence of any positive share of national income growth due to wages and salaries received by American workers during the current economic recovery is historically unprecedented. The lack of any net job growth in the current recovery combined with stagnant real hourly and weekly wages is responsible for this unique, devastating outcome."

The report concludes that in this jobless, wageless recovery, "The only major beneficiaries of the recovery have been corporate profits and the stock market and its shareholders."

A new study conducted for The New York Times by the executive compensation data firm Equilar found that the median pay for top executives at "200 big companies" last year was $10.8 million: "That works out to a 23 percent gain from 2009." The richest one percent makes almost 25 percent of the nation's income. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that the United States has the worst income inequality of the 24 industrialized nations that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- more horrendous, in fact, than Pakistan and Ethiopia.

And yet a recent headline on CNBC's website reads, "Firms Have Record $800 Billion of Cash But Still Won't Hire." Maybe they've never heard the Bible's exhortation that to whom much is given, much is expected, a sentiment well understood by George Washington, who gave up the life of a gentleman farmer -- twice -- to come to the aid of his fledgling nation.

Just a couple of days before Washington crossed the Delaware during that bleak Christmas of 1776, with real ice, wind and snow -- no soap suds -- Thomas Paine famously predicted that "The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country." Today's corporate giants, blinded by greed, oblivious to the despair around them, are doing much the same. That can't last.

By the way, all those complaints about corporate tax rates and hanging on to their precious loopholes, subsidies and Bush tax cuts? The Center for Tax Justice, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, finds "the U.S. is already one of the least taxed countries for corporations in the developed world" -- as a percentage of GDP second only to, wait for it, Iceland. Up the revolution.


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

This Is No Time to Negotiate

President Obama is making a huge mistake by trying to build consensus between the two parties. This is no time for negotiating nor is this any time to be talking about taking down the national debt.

This talk of making a "deal" with his opposition as a sign of leadership is ridiculous. The president doesn't have to make deals to lead. Oh, sure,
Lyndon B. Johnson was known as the consummate deal maker when he was in the Senate, but when it came to his war on poverty, he drew a line in the sand.

It's time for Barack Obama to draw a line in the sand, and mean it. So-called consensus building with the current Republican cabal in Congress is like trying to play Monopoly with Napoleon. It just isn't going to happen.

And, where was all the concern for trimming the deficit by rank and file Republicans when George W. Bush, a president who added trillions to the national debt, was in office?

When faced with similar concerns about the deficit, another president, John F. Kennedy, recognized that deficit reduction at the expense of working families is a bad idea. To amend the Constitution so that balancing the books is a federal imperative means permanent austerity programs for the poor, and working class of this country.

There can be no compromise when it comes to those values that have traditionally distinguished New Deal Democrats from trickle-down Republicans.

As another former president, Bill Clinton, suggests, Mr. Obama may exercise his constitutional prerogative and raise the debt ceiling without congressional approval. That this country should enter into default for even a day will be a symbolic tragedy of far greater proportions than even a temporary increase.

Clearly, this effort to politicize a fundamental principle of this republic, the principle of making good on our financial obligations, sets a precedent that is not merely dangerous, but deadly.

Congressional Democrats must stand up to Paul Ryan, and Ryanomonics, now, and stop it in its tracks for this isn't just about Republican desire to keep the Bush tax cuts for the rich, but a deeper restructuring of society such that the federal government itself will be privatized, and the Treasury in the pocket of the banks, and big business.

Should the country go into default on the August 2nd deadline which is, by the way, just around the corner, the FDIC will be in jeopardy as will everyone who has a bank account in this country.

This is no time for consensus building, Mr. President. Stand firm. Once a scalpel is taken to Social Security and Medicare, there's no turning back. You've opened Pandora's Box. Any cut, any cut at all, to either program represents a threat to both programs down the road.

The time to be concerned about reducing the deficit, and paying down the national debt, is when the nation has recovered from the catastrophic economic collapse it experienced as a result of the reckless, and misplaced allegiance of those Republicans who call the upper 1% of the population "job creators." They aren't job creators, but gross consumers.

The president would be well-advised to remember Thomas Jefferson's words, "I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies," and not turn over control to the same forces of which Jefferson warned.

What's left of our credibility as a nation is at stake here not just who wins the next presidential race. This is no time to negotiate. This is a time to show future generations, and the rest of the world, what we stand for which is not putting the needs of big business over those of the working man.

It's time for this president to take a principled stand. Wall Street brokers make deals. Legislators and chief executives make public policy.

One way Mr. Obama can ensure that this is Cantor's last stand is if he takes the wheel, signs off on raising the debt ceiling, and stops trying to appease those who have wanted to decimate the New Deal ever since it passed.

He should forget about pleasing those bankers, oil barons, and heads of Fortune 500 companies who also elected him, and think instead of the rest of us, yes, 98%, whose so-called entitlements will be cut should they prevail. Economic justice doesn't begin in the boardroom. It ends there

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Thinking of Artie

It was my childhood dream to meet second cousin, Artie Shaw, who was for me the ultimate outlaw.

I'm fortunate to have had that dream come true, and had several meetings with Artie in his Newbury Park home before he passed.

He is missed. He is remembered. With his music, he is with us still.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

From Michael Winship

Get Mad at Judges, Not Juries!
By Michael Winship

Last week, an HBO film crew was in my Manhattan neighborhood shooting a movie about legendary record producer Phil Spector, now serving nineteen years to life for the 2003 shooting death of actress Lana Clarkson.

The film, starring Al Pacino, already has stirred controversy because its writer-director, David Mamet, recently said he believes Spector wasn't guilty. "I definitely think there is reasonable doubt," he told the Financial Times. "...They should never have sent him away. Whether he did it or not, we'll never know but if he'd just been a regular citizen, they never would have indicted him."

His remarks generated an outraged letter from a group calling itself the Friends of Lana Clarkson that began, "This film may be a valentine for a convicted murderer and 40-year gun abuser." It continued, "We are requesting that Mr. Mamet have the good sense and courtesy to write a factual and entertaining film concerning the facts. He does not need to rewrite history so soon. It will backfire on him."

Of course, their anger can't hold a patch to the rage of those millions furious over the not guilty verdict in the trial of Casey Anthony for the murder of her baby daughter Caylee. But whether you believe Spector didn't do it or Casey Anthony did, the bottom line is the same: it's your opinion, you're welcome to it, and that's as far as it goes. Rather than yield to passions whipped up by media and mob hysteria, it finally was up to a jury of men and women to presume innocence until otherwise proven beyond reasonable doubt -- to hear the testimony, look at the evidence or lack thereof -- and then make a decision.

In the matter of Casey Anthony's acquittal, "Some credit a wily defense team," the superb Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson wrote. "Others blame prosecutors for miscues real and imagined. Or maybe jurors simply took their job seriously and refused to make the extra-legal leap of faith demanded by those in the bleacher seats."

Admittedly, I didn't follow the Anthony trial that closely (or the Spector case for that matter) until the very end. But I do know that jurors who sit for the length of a trial usually have a more thorough perspective than any outside observer, no matter how expert or camera ready. I've served on juries, grand and otherwise, including, several years ago, one that heard a medical malpractice suit. It went on for weeks. What was fascinating about the process was that at the beginning of the trial, all of us were completely convinced that the doctor in the case was guilty as hell. By the end, after all the evidence and witnesses had been presented, and the arguments made, we had completely changed our minds and the jurors (I was an alternate and could not vote) cleared him of all charges.

Like it or not, that's how we proceed in a democracy and for the most part it's worked pretty well. In the words of attorney and journalist Jami Floyd, "Our constitution balances the tension between the public's desire for retribution against the greater societal goal of justice. The trial is the defendant shield against the societal sword of revenge."

If you have a better system, kindly tell the rest of us. "Facts are stubborn things," John Adams famously argued when he successfully defended the British soldiers accused in the 1770 Boston Massacre, "and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

And yet on "Fox News Sunday" this week, there was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who should know better, using the Anthony case as an example of why terrorists should not be tried by civilian courts. "We just found with the Caylee Anthony case how difficult it is to get a conviction in a US court," he declared.

Never mind that the Anthony trial was a state case in Florida and terrorists are tried in federal courts, nor that, as the website Talking Points Memo pointed out, "According to the federal data, federal prosecutors had an overall 93 percent conviction rate in fiscal year 2010." McConnell simply was pandering to a base increasingly distrustful of civilian government and pissed off about pretty much everything else as well.

When aimed at juries, that anger is especially misdirected. Don't be mad at the jurors -- they did their job. Better and perhaps even more productive to level your roiled ire at judges whose objectivity increasingly is compromised by ideology, politics and cash.

On the state level, with more than eighty percent of judges in this country elected and money, much of it corporate donations pouring into their campaigns -- $200.4 million in the last decade -- jurists, whether they admit it or not, are under constant pressure to favor their benefactors.

And on the federal level, take a look, for one, at the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, covering Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, described by the progressive website ThinkProgress as "probably the most conservative court in the country."

Among its sixteen active judges, "Emilio Garza and Edith Clement were both on President George W. Bush's 'short list' of potential Supreme Court nominees, and Clement serves on the board of the leading organization providing industry-funded junkets for judges. Garza, who recently suggested that undocumented immigrants have no right to be free from illegal searches and seizures, is best known as one of five Fifth Circuit judges who held that a death row defendant whose lawyer slept through much of his trial was not denied his constitutional right to counsel... [Judge] Priscilla Owen took thousands of dollars worth of campaign contributions from Enron and then wrote a key opinion reducing Enron's taxes by $15 million when she sat on the Texas Supreme Court."

These, by the way, are the three who ruled last year that a high school cheerleader had no case against her school when it required that she cheer for her alleged rapist and then ordered her to pay the school district's more than $40,000 in legal fees.

It was also last year, ThinkProgress reports, that the Fifth Circuit "had to dismiss a case brought by Katrina victims against the energy industry because so many judges were required to recuse themselves that there weren't enough judges left to hear an appeal. More recently, two Fifth Circuit judges, Jerry Smith and Eugene Davis, ruled in favor of the oil industry in a major drilling moratorium case, despite the fact that they both attended expense-paid 'junkets for judges' sponsored by an oil-industry funded organization. As of last year, a majority of the court's active judges had oil investments, even though their court is frequently called upon to resolve questions involving the oil industry." (One subsequently divested herself of up to $15,000 n BP stock, several weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster.)

In May, none of this gave House Republicans the slightest pause when they included in the "Putting the Gulf Back to Work Act" a provision requiring that civil lawsuits arising from drilling in the Gulf must be heard in, you guessed it, the Fifth Circuit.

But at least federal judges are supposed to bound by a code of conduct. On the United States Supreme Court, adherence to the code is merely voluntary, flouted by Justice Clarence Thomas, whose conflicts of interest, along with his wife's, have been widely reported; and Justices Scalia and Alioto, who have shown up at political events.

"The court cannot maintain its legitimacy as guardian of the rule of law when justices behave like politicians," the July 1 New York Times editorialized. "Yet, in several instances, justices acted in ways that weakened the court's reputation for being independent and impartial...

"Among the court's 82 rulings this term, 16 were 5-to-4 decisions. Of those, 10 were split along ideological lines, with Justice Anthony Kennedy supplying the fifth conservative vote. These rulings reveal the court's fundamental inclination to the right, with the conservative majority further expanding the ability of the wealthy to prevail in electoral politics and the prerogatives of businesses against the interests of consumers and workers."

Stanford Law professor Jeffrey L. Fisher told the Times, "This is a court that is, oddly enough, very suspicious of the courts as a place to vindicate rights. The hostility is amped up when it's a civil-rights-type claim."

Next session, many say, could be "the term of the century." With possible major decisions on affirmative action, same-sex marriage, immigration and health care reform, the devastating impact of this right-leaning, ideological court may only get worse.

So if you want to get mad about something, get mad about that.

Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East and former senior writer at Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

There's More than One Way to Steal an Election

Remember that fellow named Chad from back in 2000? Well, we no longer have to wait for chads, even hanging chads, any more than for the ballot box.

There's more than one way to steal an election.

The party started when Republicans manufactured a deficit crisis, and continues now with the drama over raising the debt ceiling. Ronald Reagan presided over one of the greatest budget deficits in the modern era, yet not a peep was heard from members of his party, and George W. Bush reportedly raised the debt ceiling seven times, and added $4 trillion to the national debt, much of it coming from tax cuts to the rich, as well as federal subsidies, and tax loopholes for big business. Again, without a peep from the mullahs of his own party. So, why all the drama now? Because a Democratic president wants to let tax cuts for the rich lapse, and is making noises about corporate America paying its fair share.

Yes, at this point, that's what it is, making noises, but even speculation about addressing the egregious disparity between rich and poor is enough to make many on the Hill run with their hands over their private parts, then proclaim the virtues of privatization. When anyone in Washington talks about the need to cut "entitlements," they're talking about your entitlements not theirs.

And, one doesn't have to be a rocket science to come up with an answer to this either. The effort to paint what has been a lackluster recovery as the fault of the current administration does little to camouflage the simple truth that every jobs initiative, and economic incentive program the Obama administration has put forth, over the past three years, has been met with a stealth bombing campaign by his opposition.

Bear in mind that while many may view this president's efforts at defending the working, and middle class of this country as anemic, Mr. Obama presided over the biggest tax break to working families in more than a generation.

Bear in mind, too, that Japan and Germany would pretty much own the auto industry were it not for Mr. Obama's leadership.

Not to mention, by having appointed two women to the Supreme Court, the president has taken a seismic step toward ensuring that neither Roe v. Wade nor affirmative action will be overturned anytime soon.

Still, that's not enough for the liberals of his own party; myself included. We all want an end to war, and we want it now. We want economic justice, and we want in now.

Even Karl Marx wasn't idealistic enough to believe in instant revolution.

While he may have lost his appeal to Independents whose attitude toward any Democrat, for the most part, always comes down to two simple words: "prove it," the president has a long way to go before losing support from those under 30, as well as men and women of color.

Without support from young people, minorities, and women, Barack Obama will doubtless be a one-term president, so it should come as no surprise, as McClatchy reports, more than seven states have already implemented, and others proposed, laws that will require people to produce identification before casting their ballots.

As McClatchy says, Rhode Island is now the most recent casualty to a law that requires photo ID's of anyone who wishes to vote, thereby disenfranchising many students who are old enough to vote but who may not possess state driver's licenses. Anyone who has ever been young, been a parent, or educator knows that overcoming obstacles isn't among the first things one posts on one's resume.

Those who support voter I.D. legislation contend that it helps prevent "voter fraud," a claim which is ludicrous in light of identity theft.

Another former president, Bill Clinton, thinks this new voter ID legislation is designed to diffuse voter turnout among young people, and minorities, both of whom were largely responsible for President Obama's 2008 victory.

The mainstream media, and broadcast news, have been so preoccupied with
the dramatic deadlock over the budget deficit, and now the question of default, not to mention the Casey Anthony trial that, a dozen
years after the first, an election will again be stolen in this country.

For those who think the consequences of this won't be grave, it might be a good idea to brush up on early Barry Goldwater, then move on to the "Contract for America." It wouldn't hurt to remember what the aviation industry has been like ever since President Reagan strangled the air traffic controller's union.

The battle for collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, earlier this year, was just a warm-up exercise for what lies ahead if Republicans find their way back to the White House anytime soon. It's time to shift the spotlight away from spectacles that produce greater circulation, higher ratings, and sell more advertising space to where it belongs, on an agenda that is invested in obstructionism at the expense of every working man and woman in this country.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

"Bachmann Flunks..."

Bachmann Flunks Canadian History, Too
By Michael Winship

Travel, they say, improves the mind, a notion once rightly castigated in song by the late, great Noel Coward. It's "an irritating platitude," he wrote, "which frankly, entre nous, is far from ever true."

And yet there is some truth to it, although sailing on a celebratory birthday cruise up the Canadian Maritimes and along the St. Lawrence River, as I have been with friends these last few days, had the potential to confirm Sartre's belief that hell is other people.

Add to that qualms instilled by my girlfriend Pat's semi-serious theory that frequent outbreaks of food poisoning on cruise ships actually may be the result of chemical and biological warfare testing by the government. Think about it -- boat passengers are the perfect research targets, confined in a relatively small space, unsuspecting, isolated from the rest of the population. Why not lob a little concentrated E. coli in their direction and see what happens?

In truth, it may rank close to the belief that tornadoes would cease to exist if there were no trailer parks for them to tear up, but so be it. Throughout our voyage, company remained unhellish and untouched by gastroenteritis -- or worse.

In any case, one of the mind-broadening advantages of travel is to read the local papers -- if you can find them these days -- and learn what's on the mind of people in the places you land on. Sometimes their interests are highly parochial; sometimes they strongly reflect our own. On Canada's Prince Edward Island (PEI), locals were obsessing over the imminent visit to the island of Prince William and Kate Middleton. In the brief time we were there, townspeople of the provincial capital Charlottetown frantically repainted crosswalks, mowed lawns, clipped hedges and polished anything that didn't move, all in anticipation of the royal arrival.

Canada's national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, even reported that in advance of the visit a fishery museum not too far from Charlottetown had gotten hold of two rare blue lobsters. "We were going to name [one lobster] Blue Boy, but then we got thinking why not honor these special guests coming to PEI," a local known around the island as the Bearded Skipper told the paper. "Not everyone can see the royal couple but they can come to the museum and touch Will and Kate." Curtsying, no doubt, as they approach with bibs and bowls of melted butter.

Other news was more serious and familiar. Discrimination against Muslims in Toronto. Flooding in the province of Manitoba out west mirrored flooding of the Missouri River in the American Midwest. Canada's declining postal service was back in action after several rotating job actions by labor across the country were followed by a lockout -- a conservative government going after unionized civil service workers, just like home. Unemployment was at its lowest in more than two years...

Say that again? The US rate rose to 9.1 percent in May from 9.0 percent in April, with release of the June numbers due this Friday. But as per a June 10 dispatch from Reuters, "The unemployment rate in Canada fell to the lowest level since January 2009 in May as the number of jobs increased by 22,300, an island of healthy data in a sea of recent figures showing tepid North American economic growth.

"Statistics Canada reported on Friday that the jobless rate dropped from 7.6 percent in April to 7.4 percent in May, a number last seen when Canada was falling into recession at the start of 2009."

Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann celebrated the news with a tweet: "Lesson in economic recovery: Consider Canada. No stimulus & unemployment is 20% lower than US."

But Rep. Bachmann misinterprets Canada's history as thoroughly as she mangles America's. Eric Kleefeld of the progressive website Talking Points Memo wrote, "The absolute fact of the matter is that Canada undertook a thorough stimulus program under Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party -- one that was relatively smaller than the one here, but given the apples and oranges situation of having different economic needs, it was still a very considerable one."

The amount was $40 billion, Canadian. Adjusting for conversion, relative purchasing power, per-capita GDP, and the much larger population of the United States -- we have almost ten times as many people -- this was roughly equivalent to a stimulus of over US $360 billion -- less than half the Obama stimulus, but the recession did not hit Canada as badly as it crippled the US.

Why? Resurgence in demand for Canadian gas, oil and other minerals, for one thing (including asbestos -- Canada just blocked again the listing of chrysotile asbestos fibers as a hazardous chemical under the UN's Rotterdam Convention). But also, as Kleefeld notes, "One reason for Canada's resilience was having years of strict banking regulations, which fostered a more stable financial system."

He cites an Economist article from May 2010: "Jim Flaherty, the finance minister, attributes Canada's strong performance to its 'boring' financial system. Prodded by tight regulation, the banks were much more conservative in their lending than their American counterparts. Those that did dabble in subprime loans were able to withdraw quickly. This prudence kept a lid on house prices while those in America were soaring, but it paid off when the bust hit."

Note that the banking regulations predate the rule of conservative Prime Minister Harper and that last year the six biggest Canadian banks still managed to rake in $20 billion in profits. This may come as a bit of a shock to Bachmann, who has included complete repeal of our barely year-old, Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act as part of her presidential campaign platform.

In her capacity as a representative from Minnesota, one assumes that Rep. Bachmann has traveled more than once to our northern neighbor. Still, a return visit might not only improve the mind but also help her brush up on Canadian history. On the other hand, the shock of finding out that Canada has a single payer, government-run health care program might cause her to implode.


Michael Winship is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former senior writer of Bill Moyers Journal on PBS.

Monday, July 04, 2011

General Petraeus and the CIA

Am I the only one who's scared that the current commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan,and former commanding general in Iraq, David Petraeus, has been confirmed as the new head of the Central Intelligence Agency?

It's not uncommon for intelligence officers to go from the CIA to the Department of Defense, Robert Gates is one example. Likewise, it's not unusual for someone in the CIA to move on to the executive branch, witness former president George H.W. Bush.

But, especially at a time when the commitment of troops in a region is being revisited as is the case both in Iraq, and Afghanistan, for a general whose position runs 360 degrees in the opposite direction of that of his president, and commander-in-chief, run intelligence raises serious questions about the foreign policy objectives of this administration.

And, on the anniversary of the day he was sworn in as commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, one year ago today, the General made a little trip to Kandahar, according to Associated Press, how grateful he is to more than two hundred troops for re-enlisting as "much work remains" unfinished in Afghanistan.

What General Petraeus neglected to mention though was, as McClatchy reports, June was "the deadliest month" in Afghanistan, and Iraq in almost a year. Is this any way to phase out military operations in the region by raising the number of casualties both as a result of combat and non-combat incidents?

While Petraeus won't be in uniform while serving as the head of the CIA, clearly his view that enlistment, and re-enlistment in the armed forces, as the AP also notes, "is the most meaningful display of patriotism possible" will inform any special operations decisions he makes, as well as any interrogation methods used on his watch.

You'll recall that Petraeus replaced Stanley McChrystal as charge d'affaires in Afghanistan. Importantly, General Petraeus was to McChrystal's mentor, and one has only to take a quick peek at Stanley McChrystal's background in special ops for an indication of the direction Petraeus might take as head of the CIA.

General McChrystal ran Joint Special Operations Command, so-called "black ops," covert operations that resulted in the capture of Saddam Hussein, and that targeted al-Zarqawi. McChrystal was at the helm of JSOC when "enhanced alternative" interrogation methods were at their zenith, and it was McChrystal who tried to keep the friendly fire death of Pat Tilson quiet. Notably, too, General McChrystal was asked to step down by Obama who said his conduct "undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the very core of our democratic system."

For a president to appoint the mentor of a commanding general who is believed to have "undermined civilian control of the military" as head of the CIA is, in effect, to hand over the reins of the intelligence arm of government to the Pentagon.

Remember, too, that July, 2011 was supposed to be an important date for starting the phased withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, and not one in which an outgoing commander invites his troops to pledge to return until they get the job done.

And, more importantly, one must heed the words of another former president, Harry Truman, in a Washington Post editorial back in December, 1963, when he says that the main reason he created the CIA was that intelligence reports from various agencies: "reached the President all too frequently in conflicting conclusions. At times, the intelligence reports tended to be slanted to conform to established positions of a given department. This becomes confusing and what's worse, such intelligence is of little use to a President in reaching the right decisions...

But the most important thing about this move was to guard against the chance of intelligence being used to influence or to lead the President into unwise decisions... Since the responsibility for decision making was his—then he had to be sure that no information is kept from him for whatever reason at the discretion of any one department or agency, or that unpleasant facts be kept from him."

Were he to have known about the false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first place, one can only deduce that Harry Truman would have been outraged and indeed he might be concerned that, as was revealed by the Downing Street Memo, the facts would be "fixed around the policy," a policy that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Did Somebody Order Fireworks?

A homeless guy on
the train
called me classy
last night
the landlord raised
my rent 8%
he must think I’m classy, too.
my insurance company calls me
a “long distance driver”
though I drive
less than 5,000 miles a year and
the ATM says “no funds are
available at this time.”
whose idea of Independence
Day is this anyway?
even the birds are chirping on
a vendor in front of
Bank of America swears
he’s smoking J. Edgar Hoover’s
ashes, but where are the fireworks?
no fireworks either when
billions disappear from state
coffers in Iraq and
trillions from the Federal Reserve
where are the fireworks
when one in five children
goes to bed hungry?
the Domino’s pizza guy
says they’re out of
deep dish
by the time he shows up
I have no appetite.
heat rises under my feet like
the universe is having hot flashes.
A mechanic vows to find me
new shocks, ones that
can hold up to all these potholes.
I want to believe him.

(c) Jayne Lyn Stahl

July 4, 2011
(all rights reserved)

To be published in the upcoming online PEN Oakland anthology, "Fightin' Words."