Friday, December 19, 2014

The Lame Duck Walks

The term “lame duck” describes a person (or institution) just riding out their current position.  Marking time, not rocking the boat, avoiding major conflicts or initiatives.  Just waiting for the next changing of the guard.  Everyone knows that is the operative environment.  And so “everyone knows” effectively neuters the individual into powerlessness.  All involved are simply waiting for the next scene in the play to present itself.

The despised 113th Congress that just closed up shop after a wasted two-year record of non-accomplishment is a good example of this.  In January we will start over again with a revised Congressional cast of characters.  Everything supposedly will then be different – agenda, power centers, and “getting things done.”  Because a chastened President will be such a lame duck, a nuisance in the way of a newly profiled Congress and an upcoming 2016 presidential election race.  It sounds like a good story.  But apparently someone forgot to tell President Obama.

On the heels of Democratic congressional losses in November’s election, the President was presumed to now be on the defensive against aggressive new/old Republican initiatives.  So far it has not turned out that way.  First came a completely unexpected agreement with China on climate change that had secretly been in the works for months.  The world’s two biggest polluters voluntarily agreed to substantively cut their respective emissions over the next decades.  It was done as a simple “agreement” between the two leaders, not a formal diplomatic treaty.  Therefore it requires no Senate vote to approve it (leading to all the ridiculous theatrics that would certainly ensue).  Technically, future presidents could walk away from this agreement.  But historically presidential precedents loom large, and are not easily changed once in place.  Especially when they are interconnected internationally, as this one is.  Who wants to be the one to tell China “never mind,” that America’s word cannot be relied upon?

After catching everyone flat-footed on the climate topic, soon thereafter came a long-promised action on illegal immigrants.  After eight years (extending back into George W. Bush’s presidency) of constant noise from Congress promising to do something about this issue, with a track record of nothing done whatsoever, it has long been past time for action of some kind.  So President Obama took executive action while everyone else sat on the sidelines gawking, complaining or praising depending upon their constituent base.  There are three core elements to Obama’s declaration: 1) parents of children that are legal citizens by birth or are on valid immigration permits will not be deported for the foreseeable future; 2) future prosecutions and deportations will be focused on those immigrants committing serious crimes; 3) additional security resources will be redeployed to the border by realigning existing personnel and funding from multiple agencies.  There is NO amnesty being granted, and there is no “pathway to citizenship” that objectors vehemently protest so loudly.  There is simply a reprioritization of resources and focus to higher-level needs – just as police organizations have to do every day with their constrained resources.  Such reprioritizing is all perfectly legal within the realities of the administration of policing.  Republican leaders can scream all they want about Obama “poisoning the well” of future cooperation and working relationships, but that well has been long poisoned by six years of rhetorical pollution and confrontation.  Opponents of immigration reform have finally been called to task – put up or shut up – and have been found wanting, now boxed in by the political realities of a changing demographic electorate.  It is long past time to move beyond this.  Other needs demand our attention.

Now has come the latest grand announcement.  After 53 years of America’s ineffective trade embargo and political isolation of Cuba, diplomatic relations between the two countries will finally be restored.  The embargo and diplomatic break was begun in 1961 by President John Kennedy after Fidel Castro, once the romantic revolutionary celebrated by Americans for forcing out Cuba’s then-dictator, revealed himself to be a socialist at heart.  Cuba changed from being a free-wheeling playground for the American-Italian Mafia and big-corporate agriculture interests.  Instead, it turned into a state-owned and operated economic model friendly to Russia instead of the American good guys.  And Fidel himself turned out to be as dictatorial as his predecessor.  So like a suitor spurned, Americans turned on Fidel.  50+ years later, our political and economic embargo has changed Cuba hardly a twit except to cause economic suffering by its people.  Cuba’s government is unchanged; political prisoners are still in jail; families in America are still shut out of their home country, separated from their extended families.  But no politician has had the courage to risk the wrath of the Cuban-American exiles in south Florida to change this status quo stalemate.  Until now.

This is standoff long overdue for change.  Especially if we truly want to see a different Cuba in the future, because what we have been doing clearly would not achieve it.  The precedent for Obama’s action is America’s foolish role with Communist China from the 1940s-1970s.  After the Communists drove out the corrupt central government of China in 1949, we similarly spent the next 30 years ignoring the reality of what mainland China had become.  Instead, we only recognized and backed the tiny remnant of the overthrown regime then removed to the island of Taiwan.  Refusing to recognize the People’s Republic of China and isolating them from the community of nations, no matter how noxious to us philosophically, simply drove them into deeper alliance with our cold war nemesis Russia, and left us with no leverage over China’s decisions and actions.  (Witness the Korean War and the Viet Nam war.)  It took the courage of “[Richard] Nixon goes to China” to finally end our diplomatic fantasy of China’s reality.  China is still, and will continue to be, a thorn in America’s side.  But we now sit together at the table and periodically find ways to work together.  And China is a vastly different country today than in the 1970s, in no small part because we are there on the ground working with them.

Fidel Castro is in the hospital dying, out of the picture in the day-to-day running of Cuba.  His brother Raul, now in charge, is in his 80s.  A new generation of Cuban leaders will soon be forthcoming.  When they arrive, we need to be already there, in place, connected to that new emerging Cuban government and its changing population.  The reality is that you ultimately create real change from within, not from the outside.  This decision is perfect timing for a completely correct action.  After the usual knee-jerk criticism from those who have vested interests in continuing to exploit the current no-win situation (e.g. presumed presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio), this issue will finally move forward as it should.  And many now-vocal political critics will privately and silently be equally thrilled to finally be unchained from this dead weight.

Presidential lame duck?  Apparently not.  Those who have been complaining for years about a supposed “lack of presidential leadership” should remember to be careful what you ask for.  Sometimes real leadership – like we have watched these past weeks – may unexpectedly lead one where one did not intend to go.  But these are directions where we have needed to go.  There comes a time to stop the endless talking, stop doing nothing, break the endless loop.  Make a decision, take action, adjust from the new baseline.  DO something.  So thank you, Mr. President, for these actions.  Now, about Iran …

©   2014   Randy Bell             www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Monday, December 1, 2014

Everything Different, Nothing Changed

Election 2014 has now come and gone.  The votes have been counted.  The commentators have analyzed every minute data point and drawn whatever conclusions they likely set out to prove in the first place.  The political parties have claimed their victories or expressed their anguish as appropriate.

Numerically, the end result was a bigger Republican majority in the House, and a shifting of the majority in the Senate – a place where in fact the “majority” rarely actually rules.  All Senate committee chairs will change over, and a new Republican Majority Leader will manage what gets voted upon.  With additional major gains in state governorships and legislatures, the Republican Party rightly deserves congratulations for their numerous victories.  But amidst the declarations that “the people have spoken” also comes the question: can this political party, previously consigned to six years of nothing but blind, reflexive opposition, actually govern with an eye to all Americans versus just being a negative voice echoing the narrow base of their party?

The people may have “spoken,” but the loudest voice was heard from those who never made it to the polling booths.  Less than 40% of eligible citizens voted on November 4th, a record low.  So any claims of victory or synchronicity with the American public ring quite hollow.  Public approval of Congress in general, and each political party, still hovers in the teens and low 20s percentage.  Which actually makes President Obama’s 40% approval rating –the central issue of the campaign for both parties – nevertheless look comparatively like a sweeping endorsement!  A majority of the minority governs America today.

Historically, the political party results simply followed past traditions.  In the sixth year, the incumbent president’s party virtually always loses ground in Congress.  And the party that gains always claims “a message from the people.”  There is a message, yes; but the politicians rarely hear it.  In truth, with so much expectation placed upon all presidents that can never be fulfilled, by year six the people are tired of the incumbent.  The original energy has waned, the expectations achieved are far less, and Americans’ short memory begins its habitual longing for “something new.”  Given that we have just borne witness to the worst case of Congressional obstructionism of a president since the post-Civil War Congress of 1865-1868 stripped President Andrew Johnson of much control over anything, high discontent with Obama’s perceived lack of outcomes was inevitable.

After several recent campaigns of Republican candidates infected with foot-in-mouth disease, this year the GOP: managed to avoid flawed, extreme candidates saying outright insulting and stupid things; brought forth no other real issue other than public dissatisfaction of Obama; avoided any real discussion of political/social issues or position-taking that would give the election substance; talked in “moderate” terms, hiding their true political positions; and drove home the public’s fear factors around illegal immigration (which will cost them politically long-term), Ebola (for the one death and half-dozen or so infections to date in America), and ISIL (which are still in Syria and Iraq at last check).  Tactically, their strategy worked.

Meanwhile, the Democrats retreated to the hills, unwilling to stand and defend their ground of legitimate accomplishments, avoided discussion of the fact of a significantly improved economy (voters’ #1 issue), sidelined their president, and thereby bumbled their way into surrender.  In the wilderness of the 2014 campaign, Democrats could never find a real message they could articulate that would connect effectively with the public.  The result: everything now looks different on its face.

So what comes next?  In the aftermath of the vote counting, Obama, McConnell and Boehner met together, ate lunch, and talked about “working together like the American people expect.”  That make-nice atmosphere lasted until about dinnertime.  Obama’s promise to “act where Congress won’t” led to accusations from McConnell about “poisoning the well” for the future and Boehner’s objection about “usurping Congress and the legislative process.”  It all ignored the reality that Congress has not accomplished much of anything the past six years following their dead-end “process” while it was encamped around a well that has been long-since poisoned.

So nothing has truly changed.  It will now be two more years of stalemate and inaction, precipice politics, even more nonsensical committee hearings strictly for public show, and continuing appeals not to the independent middle of the American citizenry, but to the hard edges.

Senate Democrats will stay tightly together, reversing roles to now be the minority effectively blocking the Republican majority.  Senate Republicans will still be a fractured party of go-it- my-own-way individuals jockeying for individual power while organizing their 2016 presidential campaigns.  House Republicans will still be held captive by their 40-50 extreme Tea Party members, limiting the Speaker’s ability to put forward any real substantive propositions meaningful to Middle Americans.  Lots of noise, overwhelming meaningful discussion; name-calling and accusations overwhelming meaningful action; current needs overwhelmed by the 2016 election.

2016 will not be the same political territory as 2014.  The voting numbers and demographics will change, pulled in by even further disgust with “those in Washington” and the potential attraction of a very enticing presidential race.  The contested seats in the Senate, highly favorable to the Republicans in 2014, will swing back in favor of the Democrats.  And if this new Republican Congress follows the path of previous Democrat and Republican Congresses over this past decade who mistakenly believed that their numerical majority endorsed them to go overboard with their sense of a “voter mandate,” the 2016 election will do what the past several elections have done: punish the overreach and yet again reverse the party in power.

So from time to time, each party can enjoy its day in the sun of winning the voters.  But “majority rules” all too often yields “majority fools.”  And so we go back and forth with one course correction after another.  Ultimately, favorable redistricting and new voter law hurdles will hide bad performance for only so long.  And there does not seem an assessment of any good performance much in evidence.  As the political pendulum continues its swing to the extremes of its arc, politicians should remember the destiny of the pendulum: from the one extreme end, it moves to the opposite polarity.  But each subsequent swing gradually over time moves the arc to its ultimate resting place – sitting quietly still in the middle.  It is in that middle that our political life awaits its resting place.

©  2014   Randy Bell              www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Election 2014 Mystery

Since starting this blog in 2007, I have offered up some thoughts and perspectives prior to each national election.  But when I sat down to do the same for this upcoming election, I found that my pen did not move.  No clear thoughts were forthcoming; no easy observations arose.

2014 is one of the strangest elections that I can recall.  What should be obvious is not.  What conclusions to draw are messy.  What trend line to follow wanders into the wilderness and disappears.  Lack of clarity seems to be the only clarity.

America, and Americans, seem stuck in a paralyzed state, unable to move decisively in any particular direction.  Numerous key senatorial and gubernatorial elections are judged “too close to call” only a week before the November 4th election.  Americans roam through most national issues continually split somewhere between 45-55% apart.  And even when they occasionally come together on some issue (e.g. 90% for expanded background checks for gun purchases), vested political and monied structures override and block any movement.  The Supreme Court still decides most significant issues on 5-4 votes, with seven of the nine justices voting as predictably consistently as entrenched members of Congressional political parties.

Americans notoriously suffer from short-term memories, but in 2014 we seem to have slipped into absolute amnesia.  In 2008, America fell off an economic cliff into the worst crisis second only to the Great Depression.  Unemployment over 10%; stock market values cut in half; housing market at a standstill with underwater mortgages and unending foreclosures; and the financial industry on the brink of collapse due to their own irresponsible (and illegal) mismanagement and greedy pursuit of profits.  Today, virtually every economic indicator is back to or better than pre-2008 – notwithstanding the negative words of many pundits.  It is the most successful recovery across the globe, yet people still incessantly criticize the progress that has occurred.  Are there continuing soft spots and vulnerabilities latent in the U.S. economic machine?  Yes.  But “problems remaining” should never obviate “progress made.”  Yet we are poised to potentially elect politicians who protect those economic terrorists who caused that crippling recession, with nary a “thanks” to the people who have been leading us out of it.

Remember the government shutdown?  It was only seven months ago.  A political game that was an economic train wreck that accomplished none of its supposed goals of governmental austerity while causing real pain to many citizens.  The most telling residual images of the whole affair were the immoral photo ops of legislators standing in front of national monuments decrying their closure – closures caused by those same hypocritical politicians.  Yet we are poised to potentially elect many of these same politicians with nary a reminder of that anti-people and anti-government fiasco.

Political tactics – winning and losing – is the order of the day, rather than solutions to real problems affecting real people.  Solutions that can help a wide swath of our diverse population, rather than benefiting only the few.  We oppose the President’s proposals just for the sake of opposing him, regardless of the merits or tangible effects for the citizenry.  And we turn back the clock on the expansion of democratic process and equality of rights by passing laws restricting access to the ballot box.  All in the name of phony protections against non-existent voter fraud, but with the real intent to defend political power.

Billionaires on both the left and right drown us in superficial negative attack ads, essentially cancelling each other out.  Politicians avoid citizen meetings and debates, and defect from their congressional responsibilities from August through the election, just to avoid real questions that expect real answers regarding their policies and governing principles.  Substantive debate and learning, leading us to creative solutions and outcomes, are lost in the clattering noise.  Yet we are poised to potentially elect many of these same politicians with nary a reminder of their lack of responsiveness.

“Fairness” legislation gets defeated while “corporate’ legislation dominates.  The progressive income tax is reversed so that, given the loopholes, special rules and exemptions, high-earners now de facto pay less percentage tax than middle-income earners.  Equal pay for equal jobs, regardless of gender, is defeated by a unanimous party-line vote.  Interest rates on student loans that cannot be refinanced are kept at above-market rates while banks thrive on 0% Federal Reserve lending rates and pay out microscopic interest income to their customers.  All in the name of protecting America’s “job creators,” even though corporate earnings and CEO pay are at record heights while middle-income wages are stagnant.  Yet we are poised to potentially elect many of these same politicians who have created this upside-down income economy, with nary a holding-to-account of their culpability.

The only rational explanation for this irrational American mindset is FEAR.  Most Americans live perfectly productive and secure lives.  But a fantasy world of doom seems to encircle us every day.  The Ebola disease dominates the news headlines, yet the number of Americans likely to catch it and die is infinitesimal.  A new terror organization called ISIS/ISIL threatens more chaos in the Middle East; our vigilance against such criminal thugs is required.  But boatloads of invading terrorists are not on our beaches.  Racial riots over police abuses continue to happen; shootings of schoolchildren seem to have become weekly stock footage.  These are troublesome issues that certainly need to be addressed by our society, but it will be a minority of people personally and directly harmed from these events.

Republican politicians are excelled at exploiting people’s real fears, inventing new unreal ones as needed, and turning the real history of their actions upside down – truths no longer recognizable.  Democrats cower on the sidelines seemingly incapable of counteracting these exploitations, trying their own clumsy versions of fear-scaring, running against their own President, afraid of their own message – if they could find one.  Both parties want to pretend that the last ten years did not happen.  Republicans reduce every issue to over-simplified bumper-sticker slogans; Democrats create thousand-page position papers that no one can comprehend.  The current political landscape is a discredit to both political parties.

Hence the overwhelmingly negative mood of the people.  Opinion poll after opinion poll reaffirms no confidence in any of our public institutions.  No confidence in our “leaders,” though rarely can we explain why in any detail or specificity.  No confidence in political platforms or proposals, because few are seen as having any chance of becoming reality.  No political party is winning this war of non-confidence.

The world seems scary, with all the threats we hear daily about events in every corner of America and the globe.  Events we have been insulated from in the past simply by distance and isolation.  Yet the reality for most of us is that our life is pretty good.  Challenges, yes.  Difficult choices to make, yes.  Lack of cooperation in getting things done, yes.  But that has always been somewhat the case.  America’s strength has been a cocky confidence in meeting and beating the hurdles that face us.  That is the confidence we seem to no longer have.  And that is what is driving Election 2014.  Striking back angrily at an America that feels lost, unsure, threatened and threatening, leaderless.

So this election result will yield a mixed, confused message that will baffle the pundits and be analyzed to death.  A result that will move us little beyond where we already are.  Nevertheless, the presidential election of 2016 will unofficially begin only two months later.  All while America waits desperately for true leaders, not more politicians.  Leaders who can make some sense out of the natural mood.  And then begin to lead us to a better place.  The better place that America used to be, now grown up into the 21st Century.  But we must await a later, better time.  That time is not now.

© 2014   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Friday, October 17, 2014

Social Change At Warp Speed

On Monday, October 6, 2014, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.  An appeal from several states opposing various appellate court rulings that had struck down their laws prohibiting same-sex marriage.  This non-decision was in fact a major decision – the death knell of all such bigoted laws.

In 2004, Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage, this through a state Supreme Court ruling striking down that state’s prohibitions.  It marked the first sliver of an opening in yet another equality door, another small fissure in the brick wall of American prejudice.  In spite of the desire and expectations of many Americans, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts did not split off and fall into the Atlantic Ocean.  Same-sex marriages were begun; traditional opposite-sex marriages continued to flourish unabated; people continued to go to church; children were raised without harm; crimes rates did not increase.  The American Republic – and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts – survived.

Nevertheless, state after state rushed to change their constitutions to make opposite-sex marriage the only permissible form of committed relationship between consenting adults.  And thereby, such “marriages” would be the only means possible to have unquestioned and comprehensive legal, property, custodial, benefit, taxation and survivor rights.  At that time, around 60% of the public was opposed to the idea of same-sex marriage.

Fast-forward ten years.  A single decade.  One by one, 19 states and the District of Columbia sanctioned same-sex marriage, either by the vote of its citizens, legislative approval, or state or federal court rulings.  Then, only one year ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled by 5-4 majority that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which prohibited federal agencies from recognizing any state-sanctioned marriage for the purpose of awarding federal rights and benefits, was unconstitutional.  The surprising ruling left many political and religious conservatives adrift at sea in uncharted waters.  If one had long argued that it was a state’s right and not federal government’s prerogative to define marriage, then how could a federal law deny rights and benefits to a couple a state said was legally married?  The Court ruling also opened the door for same-sex couples legally married in one state to protest their not being recognized in another state – given each state’s traditional reciprocal acceptance of the legal status of couples married in other states.  I.e. if a state’s laws required it to accept as “married” a couple legally married in Massachusetts before the advent of same-sex marriage, was it not now similarly obligated to accept Massachusetts’ definition of a married couple after same-sex marriage?

With the unconstitutionality of DOMA decided, and the reciprocity issue and constitutionality protests against same-sex marriage prohibition laws now banging on courtroom benches across the country, the equal-treatment door was now flung wide open.  State by state, constitutional prohibitions started falling, littering the legal landscape.  Public opinion on same-sex marriage – 60% opposed ten years ago before – now flipped to 60% in favor, even more so among younger generations.  The legal tide, the public opinion tide, had shifted and grown into a tsunami of social change.  All that was required was waiting for the “when.”  And the when was Monday, October 6th.  And since a decision to accept a case for a full Supreme Court hearing requires only four votes, and this appeal request failed, the “non-decision/decision” against same-sex marriage prohibitions was at least an implied 6-3 vote – more convincing than the close DOMA strike-down decision.  The public spoke; the lower courts spoke; the Supreme Court acknowledged the message.  And its inevitability.

It will still take a while to work this through all of the systems and into everyday life.  Cleaning out old, now-invalid pages in the law books; revising bureaucratic forms and application procedures across myriad topics; revising process manuals.  “Husband and wife” terminology will continue to be awkwardly problematic, just as “significant other” is for unmarried partners.  The various money machines and politicians who have thrived on this hate issue will gradually fade away into the background, though some will continue to try to exploit and milk it for fundraising, vote-getting, or attention-getting as long as they can.  Perhaps they should instead take their cue from Pope Francis, who recently called on the Catholic Church (a bastion of “traditional family values”) to find some way to welcome and accept gay people, and unmarried and divorced couples: “Gay people have gifts and qualities to offer the Church community.”

Life will go on.  Opposite-gender marriage will still vastly predominate.  Same-sex marriages will learn and experience the same painful frailties that have long existed with opposite-sex marriages.  People will still associate with whom they choose.  America’s commitment to personal freedom and equality, however difficult sometimes in the specifics, is reaffirmed.

In the end, this whole fight reflects the issue written about previously on this blog site (“Gay and Lesbian Marrage,”12/15/2008).  Until the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, black couples were not allowed to marry at all.  Until the 1960s, laws existed in several states prohibiting mixed-race marriages.  These prohibitions all ultimately fell as being incompatible with the American value of “equal treatment” – as well as the value of “minding our own business.”  And a recognition that the legal rights of citizens cannot be tempered by the mixed, and often contradictory, rules and rituals of our many diverse religions.  Each religion, denomination, church and congregation should be free to decide what it chooses about its spiritual vision and relationship with its congregants.  That is one of our most cherished and protected freedoms.  But that deserved freedom cannot then be used to dictate the legal visions of our secular lives.

Given the normal slowness in which social change occurs, the speed of this legalization of same-sex marriage is almost dizzying.  Who could have seen it coming this fast?  Perhaps almost too fast for any society to absorb.  But if you were a homosexual any time in the last perhaps 5000 years; if you were in Greenwich Village in New York City at the Stonewall Inn riot in 1969; if you were an early same-sex pioneer in San Francisco watching one of your own shot and killed; if you have been one of the many bullied, beaten, or left out because of “who you are”; then perhaps this “social change at warp speed” was not so quick at all.  Maybe it was simply a long time in finally coming.

All I know is that my life is, and will be, unchanged by this change in marriage definition.  I suspect so yours will be unchanged also.  Unless you happen to be one of these new kinds of happy newlyweds.  Congratulations.

© 2014   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Job Creators

“Don’t tax the Job Creators.”  So the bumper-sticker rallying cry emerges whenever there is a discussion  about increasing the taxes paid by the wealthier among us.  The anti-government conservative Congresspersons  who advocate this posture for their wealthy donors would have us believe that, by paying more of their income in taxes, the rich will not be able to create more jobs in the American economy.  Jobs that are needed by many of our citizens.  The argument presumes that the wealthy are on a noble mission to employ the middle and lower economic classes, and such a mission would be unwisely threatened by the punitive specter of higher taxes.  And it plays upon the fears of those in our middle and lower economic classes that their future success, indeed their very survival, would thereby be jeopardized.  Such understandable fears can potentially cause us to support some very counter-intuitive proposals to secure our well-being.

It is all, of course, pure nonsense.  There are few new or existing jobs in jeopardy due to any increased tax payments by the wealthy.  Virtually every responsible economist acknowledges that our American economy is driven by “consumer spending.”  Around 70% of our economy, to be somewhat more precise.  And jobs come from a strong and growing economy, not the supposed social benevolence of the wealthy person.  So if “the wealthy” easily constitute less than 5% of our distribution of income (depending upon your definitions), how much are they likely to contribute to that 70% consumer spending?

One might be tempted to argue that, given the margin of their “excess income” over basic survival necessities, the wealthy have far more consumer dollars to spend.  But that argument falls apart because the wealthy do not buy in volume proportional to their wealth.  Instead, they generally buy small quantities of high cost items – which generates only a few specialized jobs.  The Kardashian sisters may spend enormous sums of money on their status toys, but it results in the creation of very few jobs.  Wal-Mart, Target, and Lowes employ thousands of workers, who then support millions of customers.  But the wealthy do not shop in those venues.  So who contributes more to our economy, and thereby to our national employment: the 500 Chevrolet buyers paying $20,000 per car, or the 150 BMW buyers paying $70,000 each?  A first-class plane ticket can cost perhaps four times or more than an economy seat.  Does the airline hire any more pilots or flight attendants because of those 12 expensive seats versus the 100-200 economy seats?  It is millions of units of washing machines, sofas, chain restaurant meals, summer vacation trips, and electronic gadgets and smartphones that drive our economy and jobs.  It is in the middle and lower economic classes where you find those millions of needed buyers.

The whole social framework of “living wealthy” is to live differently than the average American.  I.e. buying goods and services that are an exception to the average purchasing.  Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is spending $2B to buy the Los Angeles Clippers NBA team, which the disgraced Donald Sterling bought 30 years ago for $12M.  This will certainly make Mr. Sterling very, very rich.  But this purchase certainly will not reduce the cost of courtside seat tickets for a family of four; instead, higher ticket prices are inevitable for the same basketball performance on the court.  In the end, Ballmer’s $2B purchase will create hardly a single new job.

Perhaps one might assume that it is from their investment money, not consumer spending habits, that the wealthy will create jobs.  As officers in major business and financial organizations, the decisions of the wealthy will no doubt affect employment offerings.  But rarely anymore is a wealthy person’s personal fortune at stake in those business decisions, just company money – i.e. someone else’s money (stockholders).  Over history, for most company officers jobs – and their attached salaries – are just another cost line item.  And profit is very much about reducing costs.  This is why corporate America has largely been sitting on so much cash profit these past several years: extracting more “labor efficiencies” from its existing workforce through more time and output for the same (or less) pay, while waiting for more customer demand to show up before hiring more workers.  Such a strategy ignores the reality that more demand comes from more people working and more employee disposable income to spend.  (Which is why Henry Ford designed and priced his Model T to be affordable by each of his assembly-line workers.)  Hence the stalemate catch-22 that inhibits job growth.  A stalemate unlikely to be broken by those supposed Job Creators.

This is not about “bashing the rich” or “soaking the wealthy.”  Americans have often stood on that dangerous precipice; such a stressful we-versus-them internal conflict will never be in our best interest.  Rather, our objection should be the shameful attempt by some politicians to throw extra caviar to the one group that has done well economically over the past five years of extreme recession.  And then trying to justify it by ennobling them with the entirely undeserved and untrue mantle of economic saviors.  Even if we set aside the longstanding American taxation principle of graduated income tax rates – the American tradition of “giving back” by those who have done well under America’s promise and opportunity – we need not reverse that tradition and say that the wealthy should not only not give back, but should keep even more!

In this debate, I would be happy if these wealthy individuals, and John Boehner and Barack Obama and all Senators and Representatives, would simply pay the same effective tax rate as I pay.  Without all of the exemptions, exclusions, schemes, and special set-asides that decimate our tax code.  Increasing the taxes on the rich is not about treating them unfairly.  It is not about stifling the creation of fictional jobs that they are not going to create.  It is in fact about treating them the same as everyone else – the fundamental American principle that justice does not vary due to wealth.  Afterwards, there will still be plenty of money left over for all those expensive toys waiting to be bought.

Creativity, inventiveness, and entrepreneurship are all fundamental components of the American Promise, and we should all celebrate each time that that Promise is realized.  But Fairness is the real American tradition, in some regards even more so than Equality.  It is about earning wealth, not buying wealth.  Earning it under the same rules applicable to all.  And then enjoying the success of the wealth you have earned.  Wealth that has been bought is not admirable.  That kind of wealth creates no jobs.  So let us not protect the mythical “Job Creators” for what they do not create.

©  2014   Randy Bell              www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Through A Different Lens

Have you ever stood on a city sidewalk, waving your arms frantically, trying to hail a taxicab, only to have empty cab after cab rush right past you as if you were invisible?  Have you ever walked into an upscale hotel, dressed in fully professional business attire, and been stopped by a hotel staff member inquiring as to “and what is your business here today?” while your colleague in tattered jeans and T-shirt passes right through unimpeded?  Have you ever gone shopping in an expensive store, only to notice that a sales clerk was following and watching your every move, however seemingly “discreetly”?  Have you ever been stopped by a police officer while driving your car, and immediately had to reach back and remember all of those life training lessons from your parents: don’t talk back; don’t move suddenly; never reach into your pockets or jacket unless instructed to do so; do whatever you are told?  Have you ever sent out your resume countless times with no answer, and then dropped the “s” from your first name (“José”) to Anglicize it (“Joe”), only to then be flooded with responses and interview offers?  And what is the common link in each of these situations, and no doubt many others?  In each instance, the individual in question is African-American.  These are the shared experiences that virtually every Black American, especially males, has experienced in some form or another.

This fall, millions of White high schoolers will experience a familiar rite of passage: submitting application packages to colleges.  Unsure of what school(s) to choose; anguishing over whether they will be accepted.  All following a path that is assumed to be “normal and expected” for their age group.  Millions of Black and other minority students will not be making these assumptions.  The thought of going to college is not even on their radar, a possibility so remote that it invites little serious thought.  Just getting through high school is an admirable enough accomplishment.  But first in the family to go on to college?  Unlikely.  What family role model even exists to guide and stimulate that student, show her the ropes, help with her finances, help her believe?  For these millions, their circumstances create a far different rite of passage.

Michael Brown, of Ferguson, MO, may not prove to be the most ideal face for the cause of racial justice in America.  That judgment awaits the results of various in-depth investigations in process by multiple agencies.  It should certainly not be determined by the wild posturing of many news organizations covering the case, or the self-promoting individuals attaching themselves to his death.  Whatever Michael Brown’s personal character turns out to be, it likely did not warrant multiple bullets into his unarmed body.  From a police department that is the complete racial opposite of the population it serves.  In the year 2014.

50 years after Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act, liberal and conservative White Americans still do not understand the perceptions, experiences, and everyday realities of Black (and other minority) Americans.  The divide is still there.  And the misunderstandings run both ways.  As a whole, White Americans will never condone, much less support, violent rioting no matter what the perceived cause or justification.  Black Americans experience such violence as a pressure valve that can no longer hold back the pent-up fury over unceasing separate and negative treatment, the failure of genuine social and legal colorblindness.  White Americans decry the pattern of Black rioters taking out their vengeance on Black neighborhoods and fellow Blacks – stupidly ignoring the fact that Black neighborhoods are where the Black people are!  Anger – pushed to violence – is a non-logical and emotional reaction that reaches out where you are, immediately in the moment.  (Which is why domestic violence against loved ones inexplicitly happens as it does.)

Many participants and observers in Ferguson have decried the military-styled presence brought in to “restore law and order.”  Heavy-duty weapons, armored vehicles, and guarded checkpoints to control access, most often enforced by young adults with minimal training for such a tense environment.  “How can this happen in America?” is the anguished, questioning plea.  Yet for those of us who grew up in the beginnings of modern civil rights violence, the scene in Ferguson was all too familiar.  Detroit, Los Angeles, Selma, Little Rock – and even more names from earlier battles, now lost to the archives of old newspaper headlines.

If we are going to denounce the violence of the protesters, then let us also denounce the violence of the unjust treatment that perpetuates it.  If we insist on faulting Black Americans for not “acting like White Americans” or not “thinking as White Americans think,” then let us start treating Black Americans the same way as we treat White Americans.  Colorblind treatment yields colorblind outcomes.  But poor schools produce poor adult workers; poor households create future poor families; home without books create undereducated readers.  Hostility and discrimination create imitated hostility and discrimination to others yet again.  The repeated cycle never stops.

In the past 60 years, we have made great progress towards the goal to end racial discrimination in America.  Progress that should neither be ignored nor diminished.  The world of equality and opportunity is very different than from where we started in 1950s Little Rock.  Perhaps amazingly so, given the usual time it takes to change people’s hearts and their society.  Even doing “the obvious right thing” sometimes takes much effort and many years.

We are not at the endpoint of our goal yet.  Getting to that place requires that we see differently than we see today.  If we want other people to act like the people in our neighborhood, then we have to let them live with us in our neighborhood.  Both our physical neighborhood and our social/economic neighborhood.  Until we have a common perspective and experience, or at least a shared understanding of our differences, we will never have common outcomes.  It is a shared commonality among our peoples that we still have yet to achieve.  Until the “haves” of White America truly understand the wholly different thinking of the “have nots” of minority America, our shared commonality and mutual relationships will remain elusive.  And the promise of American opportunity for all will similarly remain elusive.

This is not an “apologist” point of view that condones violence and blames “society” for individual ills.  We are each charged with responsibility for how we respond to our circumstances and the events that come our way.  And there are countless examples of those who, with hard work and opportunity, have successfully transcended extremely adverse circumstances and events.  But we should be slow to criticize what we have minimal understanding of.  We are obligated to get the knowledge first, to take the time to be able to appreciate what has led each of us to this circumstance in our life and to this perspective in our thinking.  Only from such knowledge and appreciation can we then offer effective alternatives and solutions that come from genuine, informed insight.

©  2014   Randy Bell                          www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Humanity's Inhumanity

A friend recently pushed a book into my hands with a directed instruction to “read this.”  “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand (author of the best-selling book – and subsequent movie – “Seabiscuit”) is the powerful, moving, disturbing, and inspiring biography of Louis Zamperini (1917-2014).  A boyhood product of the Depression era, Louis was an incorrigible rebel who turned his life around as a teenager and became an internationally-known distance runner in college and the 1936 Olympics.  World War II ended his athletic ambitions, drawing him into the South Pacific as a bombardier in the war with Japan.  Following his plane’s crash into the water, he and his pilot friend drifted a record-breaking 47 days on a barren rubber life raft, only to be captured by the enemy Japanese.  Given up as “killed in action,” what followed was two years as a POW, suffering through the most unimaginable cruelty and torture – physical and mental – that human beings can inflict on one another.  The triumph of his physical survival was trumped by his post-war descent into PTSD – a national celebrity transformed into alcoholism, rage, poverty, near-divorce – until he finally made peace with his torment and his tormentors.

This biographical narrative is really two stores inside one cover binding.  On the one hand, it is a testament to human beings’ strength of Will and ability to survive against the depths of the most acute cruelty.  When that Will triumphs, our respect for the human spirit leaps forward, and the human species advances to yet another level.  But we are also reminded that, after thousands of years of human development, growth, knowledge and rationality, human beings can also operate as one of the lowliest species on earth.  Able to attack and kill other beings simply for the sake of doing it, rather than out of genuine need for survival.

World War II seems almost as ancient history to many of us, but it occurred only 70 years ago.  One lifetime.  My lifetime.  To younger Americans, it is simply one chapter in their school history book, important to memorize but of little relevance to today’s life.  When most Americans think of WWII, thoughts are generally of Nazi Germany and the European war, more predominately perpetuated in the films and literature of post-war America.  The Pacific war is typically skipped over.  But the unfathomable crimes against POWs and civilian populations across Asia were as horrific in their own way as the carnage perpetrated in Europe.  And in both theaters of war, racial arrogance was the parent of that comprehensive carnage.

Nazi Germany was the supposed “superman” of human development, the Aryan (White) perfection of the human race.  From that thinking, the elimination of the lesser elements of the human race – by war and by mass executions in the Holocaust – was an easy step.  Similarly, the arrogance of the Japanese military ruling class and their self-view of racial perfection over all other Asians – notably the Chinese and Koreans – allowed them to treat those lesser beings as mere props supporting their dominance.  Conscience and humanity towards others disappeared from the social fabric.  But there was one marked difference between Germany’s and Japan’s arrogance: Japan extended its captured POWs and enslaved labor no mutuality of wartime respect.  1% of American POWs in German captivity died; 37% of American POWs in Japanese captivity died.  Louis Zamperini managed to survive that grim statistic, even if only in body and not in mind.

So what does a horror of cruelty “so long ago” have to do with our lives today?  Simple.  Not much has changed since then.  Yes, war in Europe, a constant state for 1000 years, has been virtually eradicated.  No small accomplishment.  Yet the violence of war continues elsewhere.  But beyond war itself is the continuing inhumanity of cruelty, the wanton killing, the killing for intimidation to create power.  It is the killing from generations of handed-down hatred whose original source has long been rendered irrelevant.  So we have the attempted “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia; the carpet-bombings and “Agent Orange” in Viet Nam; the various ethnic slaughters across Africa; the perpetual state of recurring killing between Palestinians and Israelis; the fratricidal conflicts within Islam in post-Saddam Iraq; the indiscriminate killings in the Syrian revolution; and now the wholesale slaughter of anyone in its conquering path by ISIS in the old Middle East Crescent.  These are deaths not from “normal” war casualties, but from an abject indifference to the value of human life.  A state of mind less than those supposedly “inferior” animal minds that live in the jungles of the wild.

Why human beings are in such a rush to not just kill each other, but to do so in as painful and indiscriminate way possible, is near impossible to understand.  Are we still, after all of these centuries, still that afraid of each other?  Afraid of different opinions, religious beliefs, cultural practices, ancestral history, personal lifestyles, and genders?  Still trying to dominate others to mitigate our fear of them rather than coexisting with them?  Still killing each other over long-dead disagreements and birthrights originally fought hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago?  Does each party to this inhumanity still think it is the true victim, the aggrieved party, who therefore must now be committed to ever-lasting revenge?  Who really struck the first blow?

By October, 1949, Louis Zamperini had reached the depths of descent from national war hero and celebrity to alcoholic, his marriage in shambles with divorce papers in process.  Somehow, his wife nevertheless convinced him to go hear some unknown preacher then in town conducting open-air services under a big tent.  Louis went, but bolted out panicked before the end of the service.  She convinced him to return again another night, and he started to race out once again before the end.  But just before reaching the exit, a quiet voice inside of him echoed his words said during those many desperate days in his life raft, floating day-after-day seemingly to nowhere on the ocean currents, when he prayed out loud: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.”  In that instant of remembrance, Louie recognized that part one was done – he had been saved.  Now it was payback time, because his life had become anything but “serving.”  Instead of leaving, he turned around and walked to the front of the tent, the tent where Billy Graham’s now-famous Los Angeles religious crusade first created national headlines and made Graham a lifetime religious celebrity.  In that instant, Louis Zamperini forgave his tormentors, turned loose his hatred, ended his nightmares of POW torture, gave up his thirst for revenge, and moved into the lifetime of positive service he had promised to his faith.

In the midst of continual inhumanity, we can still find our humanity.  Sometimes it is in the most unlikely places, at the most unlikely time.  It is only in this facing, and acknowledging, of our own inhumanity that we can thereby then find our own humanity, and let the past be past.  At the personal level; at the collective, national level.  One person at a time, one step at a time, one lifetime at a time.  And so civilization glacially crawls forward, moving inches in the continuous days after days.  In times such as these, discouragement at the human condition can be understandable.  The Louis Zamperinis remind us why we hold on to hope.  And why we continue to keep stubbornly inching our way forward.  One painful, beautiful step at a time.

©  2014   Randy Bell              www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Friday, August 8, 2014

Demonizing The Poor

What is it about poor people that makes us so uncomfortable?  Or perhaps, even, outright angry or hostile?  We walk past the homeless person on the street, barely seeing or acknowledging his existence.  We resent the mother in the supermarket paying for her groceries with food stamps.  We object to providing our tax money to fund the welfare check that goes out to the family below “the poverty line.”  We resent our having to work while the government supports the unemployed who are not working.  We take a wide roller brush and paint all welfare recipients as deadbeats living on the dole; people receiving unemployment benefits as lazy bums defrauding the system; the homeless as morally irresponsible who have given up on their responsibilities to society; and gangs of inner-city youths as drug dealers and criminals.

Truth is, there are individuals in each of these groups that fit these stereotypical profiles.  As there are always given individuals that fit any kind of racial, religious, gender, sexual, economic, geographic, or other life-style stereotype.  Just as there are also many individuals in these groups who defy the stereotype, who operate independently of the circumstances that surround them.  The parent working 2-3 jobs who nevertheless still lives below the poverty level.  The inner-city youth going nights to community college to train for a job and thereby have a way out of the gang.  The homeless mother living in her car with her children, trying to hold the family together however possible.  The business professional still sending out resumes, attending job fairs, going in for interviews, who has not given up in spite of depleted savings accounts.  As any social or charity worker can tell us, for every story of fraud and failure, there are other stories of human determination and perseverance, of courage overcoming adversity.

Yet we live comfortably in our painting from our broad brush.  Or we make ourselves comfortable with leaving the reality of poor people to the responsibility of social service and charity workers, thankfully out of our sight.  Where does our blindness come from?  Is it that knowing “there but for the grace of God go I” makes us so insecure?  Does a part of us intuitively know that the fairy tale of our life that we have worked so hard to construct could so easily collapse upon the smallest turn of Life?  Does disparaging “the poor” allow us to mask an underlying prejudice of yet another, far less acceptable kind?  Is it that the arrogance of our success, and the effort we have put into achieving it, makes us forget how “lucky” we in fact have been, and how much help we had in achieving that success?  (Three or four “big star actors” may have drawn us into the movie theater, but the list of “credits” at the end of the movie goes on seemingly continuously.)

We exhort the unemployed to “just get a job,” yet most major corporate employers choose to cut jobs as their first solution to threatened profits.  We tell young people to “get an education,” yet state and local governments are cutting educational funding at every opportunity.  We tell the welfare mother to get out of the house and act responsibly for her children, yet we cut food stamp spending, prevent access to affordable health care insurance, and cut funding for child care support.  We need not reward indolence, but we should not punish acts of responsibility, if not courage.  For all the hard work we may feel we have done to arrive at where we have come, there are many poor who are working as hard in their circumstances just to maintain where they have managed to come.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney was taped rabble-rousing a millionaire’s gathering about “the 49%” of Americans living on the public dole, expecting to be taken care of by government handout.  It played well to an audience hungry to believe that divisive electioneering.  Only later was the question raised as to WHO these 49% actually are.  And it turned out to include such people as retirees otherwise solely dependent upon their social security to survive.  Children unable to provide for themselves.  Military families struggling with low pay for extraordinary services rendered.  Disabled Americans struggling to get through the day while facing limited access.  Interestingly, the 49% did NOT include, for example, government contractors selling overpriced and/or unneeded products and services in the name of “saving jobs” (i.e. saving profits by corporate welfare); college professors living off of questionable research grants; state/local governments with palms constantly extended pleading for funding awards; or CEOs receiving hidden tax credits for their company’s special benefit (while tax credits for the poor are being cut).

Certainly punish the individual defrauders and abusers with the full force of the legal system.  But let us not slander all of a group for the callous, despicable actions of the individuals.  Lest all of us who are fortunate to live outside of poverty get painted with a similar broad brush.  (Witness the abuse of 300 doctors arrested last year for Medicare fraud and for supplying drug dealers with pills for illegal resale.  Or the financiers and mortgage lenders who defrauded the home-owning public and wiped out significant portions of the American economy.)  We should react to real individual people, not group labels.

Before we demonize the “Medicaid dependent,” let us think about the working poor paid a wage we ourselves would never accept.  Before we demonize the “unemployed bums,” let us think about the desperate breadwinner with the battered self-esteem from countless interview rejections because she is over 50.  Before we demonize the “food stamps recipient,” let us think about the military wife or the senior citizen who cannot afford the inflated grocery prices created by the “big Agri” food producers.  Before we demonize “the welfare mom,” let us think about all the dependent children, older parents, and others who she may be caring for in her home.

Each of the three great Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – exhorts us to look out for “the widow, the orphans, and the poor.”  We all share in that responsibility, and other responsibilities in situations where help is needed.  We meet that responsibility through our individual actions, our religious and charitable affiliations, and – when scale or efficiency deems it appropriate – through the mechanisms of our shared government.  But our actions are preceded and guided by what we think.  So it is by what we think, more than our actions, that we will ultimately be tested and judged.  Hopefully we will not be found as poor in our thoughts as the economically poor we excoriate.

© 2014  Randy Bell                www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Immigrants Unwelcome

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.  The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.  Send these, the homeless, the tempest tossed.  I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”  (Inscription on our Statue of Liberty)

America has always been built on its cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity.  All of us here today are derived from “outsiders” who came here to start a different kind of life than they previously had.  Some groups have immigrated in slow but steady movement over time; other groups have come in concentrated waves.  While we have been welcoming on the one hand, we have also been restrictive by instituting immigration quotas.  These have often been tailored and directed at particular groups favored or unflavored, reflecting then-current racial or cultural prejudices.  Our immigration history is not always a flattering picture, in spite of Lady Liberty’s inspiring words and our preferred self-image.

For the past 20 years, we have struggled with Mexicans (and more recently, masses of unaccompanied Central American children) illegally crossing our border to seek a better life for themselves and their families.  Some of these immigrants are bad characters living crime-infused lives who need to be dealt with accordingly.  But many have settled into quiet, productive, self-supportive lives, pursuing the American Dream and raising their children as any other responsible American does.  Except that they are not legal citizens due to their illegal entry.  And that is the crux of this unresolved problem hopelessly lost in petty politics for a generation as politicians on the left and right look for reelection votes from their hardcore constituencies.

By some estimates, there are over 10M illegal immigrants in America.  They live in a never-never land of ambiguity, unable to pay for the services they receive because they live a denied existence.  Those who are social or criminal misfits should be prosecuted accordingly and then deported.  That is the easy part.  But for the majority of illegals conducting themselves responsibly, there is simply no way America is going to round them up, pack them into trailer trucks, and drive them back across the border.  Those who advocate for that course need to get over any expectation of that happening.  Instead, we need to buck up, quit complaining, quit the partisan blame-game and finger-pointing, and move forward with the best solutions possible.  The only practical recourse for us now is to assimilate these people into American society.  End their “illegal” status, bring them out of the shadows, and properly enroll them onto the employed tax rolls to pay for their government benefits.  For this, we need a new “green card” kind of status similar to that available to many other employed non-citizens.  Thereby, end the threat of prosecution that keeps these people living in fear and uncertainty in the shadowed underbelly of our society.

But permission to live and work in America is not citizenship.  Those who protest against a full pardon and a “pathway to citizenship” are correct: these immigrants broke the law by the manner in which they came.  So forgiveness without prosecution – yes; pardon – no.  Green card to work – yes; citizenship – no.  For full citizenship rights, it is reasonable to get back in line, wait your turn, and retroactively complete the standard legal process.  Just like everyone else.  This is a fair compromise for all.

In the meantime, we need to revise our immigration rules to reflect today’s workforce needs.  We have high-tech, talented foreign graduates educated in our colleges with much to offer the American economy – graduates that we force to leave America and take their talents back home.  This is absurd, stupid and self-defeating.  Also, we have jobs going begging in certain industries (e.g. factory production, agriculture, construction) which illegal immigrants are already partially filling.  Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and major labor unions have actually agreed on how to solve this need.  Frankly, the employers and everyday citizens among us who are employing these immigrants are as culpable for our immigration problem as the immigrants themselves.  If we are looking to deport the illegal immigrant, let us also jail their employers.

The children of these illegal immigrants are a special case.  When a parent robs a store of food for his children, we put him in jail.  We do not pass on “the sins of the father” to his children; we do not put his children in jail for eating the food.  The children of these immigrants know only America as their home.  We need to welcome them home without further pseudo-indignant grandstanding.  For this piece of the problem, this is the compassionate America we claim to be.

That said, the current tidal wave of Central American children coming across the border is a different case.  Certainly by all reports these children are highly at-risk in their home country.  The 2008 law enacted near-unanimously by Congress and President Bush mandating placing such children with available relatives or adoption needs to be our first choice – it is the law.  But where no such option exists, the remaining children need to be sent back home.  They are in no position to be self-supporting here, and America is simply not capable of absorbing and providing custodial support to this volume of inflow – no matter how compassionate we may try to be.  Treat these innocents well while they are temporarily in our care.  But we have to send the strong message to families and governments back home that America cannot be the world’s foster home for the maltreated.  America needs to have an open door; but it does need a door.

Once we make headway at ameliorating our current mess, we need to avoid a future repetition.  Correcting our immigration rules and quotas is one step on that direction.  Strengthening our border protections is another: fences, other physical barriers, radar detection, manpower and enforcement.  These are things that need to be done.  But the $40B appropriation passed by the Senate in order to get a Democratic and Republican compromise is absurd.  To claim that reducing Washington’s budget is a top priority, while cutting long-standing services with a meat-ax, and then trying to justify this dollar amount to field a border police force bigger than the armies of more than a few countries behind a modern-day “iron curtain,” is no solution.  Budgets are not just about total dollars; they are also about line-item priorities.  In these tight times, the scale of this proposal does not justify breaking the government’s bank.

For some Americans, the illegal immigration problem is clearly a cover for racially prejudiced immigration such as we have demonstrated in the past.  But for many other Americans, this is a vexing problem pitting a genuine desire to be welcoming to new arrivals against a conflict of conscience regarding how these immigrants came here.  We should not demonize those struggling with this legitimate conflict.  This immigration problem can be solved.  But it requires Americans to face our reality.  And it requires men and women in Congress to forgo their usual political egos and step to the plate, committed to resolving this issue rather than winning points from divided voters.  Give a little; get a lot.  As long as it is a game focused only on speechmaking and winning, on an all or nothing basis, a bad problem will continue to get immorally worse.

There are wins to be had for all by making an invisible community fully employed in jobs needing to be filled, thereby becoming taxpayers for services received on a non-citizenship status.  So far it has been easier to sit back, righteously complain about the problem, and do nothing.  It is time to stop the grandiose but ineffective rhetoric, accept responsibility for our Conservative-Independent-Liberal collective failure, apply a Statute of Limitations to this immigration crime such as we use for far more serious infractions, and all move on with our lives.  Once upon a time America used to solve problems instead of whine about them.  When are we going to solve this one?

©  2014   Randy Bell
 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Unpaid Debt To Veterans

In the 1770s-1780s, thirteen individual colonies came together to fight a revolution for their independence from England.  To fight that revolution, America’s first national army was created under George Washington, supplementing the thirteen individual state militias.  From their brave actions, independence was achieved, and a (weak) form of national government for “The United States Of America” was first instituted under the Articles of Confederation.

As a show of thanks for the dedication and courage of the soldiers, promises were made.  Many of the soldiers had purchased the promissory securities issued by the states and the Confederation Congress to help finance the war, and were looking to be paid for their show of faith.  In addition, pensions were promised to officers, and bonuses to enlisted men.  And many were given land bounties in government-owned properties as signup bonuses.

All well-intentioned, except that the Confederation Congress had no money, and no power of taxation to raise funds, to make good on these various promises.  Pensions were not funded until 1818, 35 years after the Revolutionary War formally ended, and even then the eligibility criteria were narrowed within the dwindling pool of remaining veterans.  The bonuses never materialized.  And the debt securities and land bounties held by the veterans?  Most veterans sold them off at a discount to financial speculators, believing that they had become worthless.  Those speculators in turn colluded with Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary, to have these shaky debts taken over by the new federal government and paid off at full face value.  The veterans got pennies on the dollar; the speculators got dollars on the dollar at a good profit.

And so was established the pattern: after all of the speeches and parades were over, the promises made to those who sacrificed life or body in service to our country would find those promises reneged on the chopping block of “the budget.”

The pattern has continued ever since.  In the boom times of 1924, Congress passed a $500 bonus to our World War I veterans, but not payable until 1945.  After the Great Depression hit, in 1932 thousands of these veterans descended on Washington demanding an earlier payment to help offset their severe economic loss of property and income.  They lived in make-shift shanty encampments around Washington, similar to the many “Hoovervilles” of destitute homeless people springing up around the country.  When Congress refused the payments, President Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to destroy the veteran camps, which he enthusiastically did – active soldiers using tanks and cavalry attacking their unarmed brother veterans.  This bloody incident contributed to Hoover’s massive defeat for reelection four months later.

Franklin Roosevelt, intent on avoiding another “Bonus Army” debacle, worked with Congress in 1944 to pass the G.I. Bill for the forthcoming veterans of World War II.  The bill called for major federal assistance in preferential hiring, educational grants, home mortgage assistance, and continual health care.  This G.I. Bill contributed mightily to America’s 20-year post-war economic boom.  They are programs that continue to this day for the new generations of veterans.

Nevertheless, veterans still have had to fight against institutional resistance to treating the effects of Agent Orange exposures and PTSD in Viet Nam.  Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are having to fight for assistance for more severe cases of PTSD, debilitating long-term injuries that would have meant death in previous wars, and potential diseases and contaminations that have not yet fully surfaced.  But instead of needed health care, what they more commonly get is a bureaucratic runaround, a nightmare of indifference, a callous disregard for these special human beings.  All in the real motivation to protect some administrator’s job and/or some politician’s personal power base.

The only thing “new” about this obscenity are the many claims from all quarters that “we didn’t know there was a problem.”  Living veterans back to WWII, Korea, Viet Nam and forward, can all tell their horror stories with consistency, commonality and regularity.  Stories of a lack of effective service delivery, drowning in paperwork and forms, emphasis on procedure over end result, and priority given to “the system” and the politicians who fund it instead of priority to the veterans.  The scope of problems transcends time and political party and any one leader.

It is easy for one to snap to attention, whip out a snappy salute, say “thank you for your service” while patting an active soldier or veteran on the back, or make a Memorial Day speech at the local National Cemetery.  It is not as easy to put substance into these token images.  Many of the people spreading this rhetorical imagery are the very same people who defend (in hidden background) current Veterans Administration personnel, and vote against the funding needed to fulfill the promises made.  Negative votes because the government supposedly “can’t afford it.”  Such rationalization conveniently forgets that America has NEVER paid cash for any war that it has fought.  Starting with our Revolution, our wars have always been funded by debt.  The entire Iraq/Afghanistan wars were funded “off the books” as “special appropriations” to hide their explosive expansion of our federal budget deficit and national debt.  That failure, and the massive and deliberate failure to correctly project the true cost of these wars – in dollars, time, and human casualties – led to the current over-demand on VA services.  It should not have been that hard to foresee, IF the welfare of veterans was truly on the radar of the military establishment, VA administrators, and Congress.

We can, and should, yell at government officials from over the past twelve years for ignoring our commitments and for being a hurdle to needed services.  But let us avoid the easy political finger-pointing that “Bush did that,” or “it’s all Obama’s fault”; that rhetoric will cause no real action to get done.  Responsibility for such near-criminal conduct is spread all over Washington, to past and present occupants.  Such failure is unfortunately part of our historical tradition.  So let us stop the hypocrisy of patriotic grandstanding versus substantive action.  Do not tell a veteran that we were fine with borrowing money to buy the planes and the tanks and the rifles, but the People who fired those rifles are not worth the same IOUs.  The armaments of war make many people very wealthy.  Fitting a prosthetic onto the stump of a leg does not put much cash into the bank account of either a veteran or his/her VA doctor.

We can argue all we want about lower tax rates, reduced spending, and smaller government.  But the veterans who have made any government possible gave anything but a small commitment.  Follow-up support for our veterans is as much a true “war cost” as was the fighter plane.  We need to step up to the plate, America.  It is a proper bill to be paid that is way past due.

“The Veterans Administration will be modernized … as soon as possible, but I can’t do it immediately.”  (President Harry Truman, May 15, 1945)
 
©  2014   Randy Bell