March 26, 2011

Out of Equilibrium

In the March/April issue of Mother Jones there appears a series of charts under the heading It's the Inequality, Stupid, that go hand-in-hand with my post from last July, The Land of Greatly Diminished Opportunity.  (Please be sure to check out both articles.  In particular, there are extensive illustrations in the latter that do not appear below.)  Taken together, they provide a shocking picture of America as plutocracy, with enormous - and growing - wealth gaps between a very small class of the extremely rich and the rest of the work force not seen since the Gilded Age, ever-higher barriers to class mobility, and average hourly earnings that have only recently climbed back to where they were at the end of the Carter Administration.

This is, bluntly, bad for the country.  The U.S. economy is driven by consumer spending, and the less disposable income available among the masses, the less that will be produced to meet shrinking demand.  Likewise, these are the type of conditions that create and foment social unrest, and as the extreme political right seeks to put the capstone on their efforts to destroy the American labor movement, we are seeing the first signs of broad, popular resistance to the massive, sustained, three-decade flow of wealth from the bottom of the economic pyramid to the top. 

This is not an issue of favoring socialism over capitalism; as with most things, it is a question of balance.  There is an equilibrium that rewards the innovative, the hard-working and the industrious while still providing opportunity to the poor, the disenfranchised and the weakest among us, and that equilibrium does not exist today.  It is in the best interest of the wealthy, who have more to loose, to promote that kind of harmony, and to recognize the benefits of not only a stable society, but a robust market for the goods and services many of them help produce.  If we have not yet reached a tipping point, we are close to doing so.

Below are the charts from the Mother Jones article It's the Inequality, Stupid.

How Rich Are the Super-Rich?

A huge share of the nation's economic growth over the past 30 years has gone to the top one-hundredth of one percent, who now make an average of $27 million per household. The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.

Average Income by Family, distributed by income group.

The richest controls 2/3 of America's net worth
Note: The 2007 data (the most current) doesn't reflect the impact of the housing market crash. In 2007, the bottom 60% of Americans had 65% of their net worth tied up in their homes. The top 1%, in contrast, had just 10%. The housing crisis has no doubt further swelled the share of total net worth held by the super-rich.

Winners Take All

The super-rich have grabbed the bulk of the past three decades' gains.

Aevrage Household income before taxes.

Out of Balance

A Harvard business professor and a behavioral economist recently asked more than 5,000 Americans how they thought wealth is distributed in the United States. Most thought that it’s more balanced than it actually is. Asked to choose their ideal distribution of wealth, 92% picked one that was even more equitable.

Average Income by Family, distributed by income group.

Capitol Gain

Why Washington is closer to Wall Street than Main Street.

median net worth of american families, median net worth for mebers of congress, your odds of being a millionaire, member of congress's odds of being a millionaire
member max. est. net worth
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) $451.1 million
Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) $435.4 million
Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) $366.2 million
Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) $294.9 million
Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) $285.1 million
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) $283.1 million
Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wisc.) $231.2 million
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas) $201.5 million
Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) $136.2 million
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) $108.1 million
combined net worth: $2.8 billion

10 Richest Members of Congress 100% Voted to extend the cuts
Congressional data from 2009. Family net worth data from 2007. Sources: Center for Responsive Politics; US Census; Edward Wolff, Bard College.

Who's Winning?

For a healthy few, it's getting better all the time.

Gains and Losses in 2007-2009, Average CEO Pay vs. Average Worker Pay

A millionaire's atx rate, now and then. Share of Federal Tax revenue

Your Loss, Their Gain

How much income have you given up for the top 1 percent?

March 19, 2011

UPDATED: Crisis Averted!

Exit polling after the 2010 midterm elections revealed a very consistent story: Voters felt that Democrats had not done enough to repair the devastation caused by the financial meltdown in the closing days of George W. Bush's presidency, and their number one concern - by far - was job creation and the economic health of the country.  The ballot box confirmed that sentiment, returning the House of Representatives to Republican control, diminishing the Democratic majority in the Senate, and leading President Obama to admit his party had endured a "shellacking," for which he took responsibility.

Instead of taking their direction from this clear tide of voter frustration, however, the GOP has concentrated on - literally - pretty much anything but job creation and the economy, and so far, the 112th Congress has been the same old pandering, hypocrisy and legislated morality that has been the hallmark of modern movement conservatism for the past three decades.  Republican priorities since reclaiming the House have not been aimed at putting people back to work, but at rewarding their hardcore base and wallowing in social wedge issues.

Here is what Speaker of the House John Boehner and his team have been working on with their mandate to  kick-start the economy and foster job creation:
In short, Republican leadership is apparently operating under the impression that they made such significant gains in the last ballot because the public was unsatisfied with Democratic efforts to forge ahead with empty legislative gestures, draconian social policies, several flavors of bigotry and discimination, and the expenditure of federal dollars on defense no matter the cost to employment.  To be blunt, they are wrong.

A recent Ipsos/Reuters poll found that 51% of Americans would prefer to cut spending for defense before taking the ax to either Medicare/Medicaid or Social Security, compared to 28% who would exclusively target Medicare/Medicaid and just 18% who would focus on Social Security.  Likewise, a new ABC News/Washington Post survey determined that 64% of Americans prefer a combination of tax increases and expenditure reductions to reduce the deficit to spending cuts alone.

At this rate, it's no wonder the approval rating for Congress took only two months to plunge back below 20%, where it was when the Republicans took back the House of Representatives.  While there was a certain inevitability that people like John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Michele Bachmann would work dilligently to display the trademark incompetence they've exhibited for some time now, any pleasure that might be derived from watching their foolishness at full boil is vastly outweighed by the stark human costs of their legislative masturbation and ridiculous posturing.

There are twenty months between now and the 2012 elections.  It looks like they're going to be very long ones.

Congressman Anthony Weiner of New York provides some much-needed perspective on the priority attached to defunding NPR:

UPDATE: The "New Rules" segment from last night's Real Time with Bill Maher lampooned the propensity of the GOP to focus on fantasy problems rather than real issues (language not safe for work):

March 13, 2011

Obama Embraces His Inner George W. Bush

Last week was an important milestone in the ongoing, decade-long betrayal of the rule of law in the United States of America. Together, President Barack Obama and the United States Congress legitimized the largest officially-sanctioned human rights sinkhole of George W. Bush's administration by effectively giving bipartisan approval to the continued operation of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay.  We are now officially a country that is not only willing to hold people against their will without genuine legal recourse and without the  real possibility of release, but one that has cravenly accepted the increased likelihood for future civil liberties abuses, as well as the damage this wreaks on our national character and our reputation abroad.

On Monday, the president signed an executive order that both keeps the national blight that is Guantanamo Bay operational, and re-affirms the kangaroo court system of military commissions, the sole purpose of which is to bypass the higher standards of evidence required for prosecution in civilian court, and to side-step fruit of the poison tree arguments about confessions, testimony and evidence gathered through the torture of foreign nationals by American personnel.*

And before anyone tries to defend Mr. Obama's executive order by comparing it to the policies of the Bush White House, stop.

Just... stop.

The supposed legal protections included in the order are a joke, and using George W. Bush as the standard for anything doesn't raise the bar high enough to see daylight between it and the ground.  This is nothing but a continuation - an enshrinement, in fact - of Bush Administration policies, as infallibly indicated by the gleeful approval of that most wretched bastion of hardcore neoconservatism, the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal:
No one has done more to revive the reputation of Bush-era antiterror policies than the Obama Administration. In its latest policy reversal, yesterday Mr. Obama said the U.S. would resume the military tribunals for Guantanamo terrorists that he unilaterally suspended two years ago, and he may even begin referring new charges to military commissions within days or weeks.
On a conference call yesterday, senior Administration officials tried to sell their military commissions process as more "credible" than Mr. Bush's, but their policy changes are de minimis
The White House yesterday also stressed its commitment to civilian terror prosecutions going forward, but that also doesn't mean much. Last year the Democratic Congress barred funding for transferring enemy combatants from Gitmo to the U.S., and that won't change with a Republican House.

The real news here is the final repudiation of Attorney General Eric Holder's attempt to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other 9/11 plotters as criminal defendants on U.S. soil. The killers at Guantanamo will now be brought to justice via a process that the President once depicted as akin to the Ministry of Love in "1984." On the campaign trail in 2008, Mr. Obama claimed that Mr. Bush "runs prisons which lock people away without ever telling them why they're there or what they're charged with."

In an August 2007 speech that his advisers touted at the time, Mr. Obama promised to repeal this "legal framework that does not work." He even claimed that Bush policies undermined "our Constitution and our freedom" and that the Bush Administration had pressed a "false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand," a line he recycled in his Inaugural Address. He went out of his way to vote against the Military Commissions Act.

So much for all that. Yesterday the senior Administration officials even praised the "bipartisan effort" that produced that law...
There is enormous peril associated with rolling back the rule of law so that the president - any president - has the authority to imprison indefinitely.  Once one chief executive is permitted to do so, the cat is out of the bag, and it is immeasurably harder to reclaim the territory of acceptable behavior from his successors than it would have been to defend it from initial attack. President Obama's executive order on indefinite detention represents not a temporary measure taken to address extraordinary circumstance, but a fundamental redefinition of American justice to allow for imprisonment by decree.

If that sounds like an overstatement, it is most assuredly not.  In fact, we are seeing the ripple effect of this fundamental change with regard to U.S. citizens at this very moment. Private Bradley Manning, the young man accused of delivering an enormous trove of classified documents to WikiLeaks - and who now faces additional charges that carry the death penalty or life imprisonment with conviction -  has been held under unusually harsh conditions for months, since being detained in the matter.  Things have gotten bad enough, in fact, that Amnesty International has written to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to protest the conditions of his detention. 

Private Manning is currently awaiting a pre-trial hearing - in other words, he has not been convicted of anything - and should be presumed innocent until proven otherwise.  With the assent of the Obama Administration, however, he is in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement; prohibited from exercising in his cell; under suicide watch restrictions imposed over multiple recommendations from brig psychiatrists; and subject to prolonged, forced nudity intended to humiliate and degrade.  Representative Dennis Kucinich, a member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, requested that he be able to visit Private Manning, but has been stonewalled by the Department of Defense.  In the congressman's opinion, "It appears they're trying to break him.  This is not defensible. There is no way, stretch of the imagination that this could be allowed, or that this should be happening in America."

In point of fact, this has happened before in America - and recently - with the case of Jose Padilla (about whom I wrote extensively), a man accused of involvement in a terrorist "dirty bomb" plot who was held without judicial review for years by the Bush Administration.  The torture and extremely harsh conditions Mr. Padilla endured essentially left him a shell of a man, and while he was convicted of some hastily-introduced, last-minute charges that landed him in prison, he was never put on trial for any of the reasons he was originally arrested.

This DOES happen in America, and we, the people are entirely complicit in allowing it to happen by accepting it.  It doesn't matter whether the person doing it is "our guy," or if he is, overall, a significant improvement over his predecessor; if he is black or if he's white; Republican or Democrat.  What we see with the continued operation of the legal abyss that is the Guantanamo Bay prison camp - and cases like Bradley Manning's, which are informed by the indefinite detention policies at work there - is simply, flatly, starkly wrong.  Barack Obama has done some good things since he won the Oval Office, but embracing and codifying the thoroughly un-American approach to human rights and civil liberties that characterized the administration of George W. Bush isn't one of them.

* I'm not going to re-hash the reasons why the argument waterboarding isn't torture is irredeemibly false, or once again refute the claim that somehow the Constitution doesn't apply to foreign nationals, or restate the irrefutable reasons why the Geneva Conventions are, in fact, U.S. law. I have done so extensively in numerous posts, and bluntly, those contentions are complete and utter nonsense,  no more than spineless attempts to provide cover for actions that are both morally and legally bankrupt. If, however, you'd like a recent and very concise example of the hypocrisy involved in supporting things like waterboarding, please be sure to see Glenn Greenwald's succint and unerring exposure of the New York Times' preposterous cowardice with regard to the use of the word "torture".

Jon Stewart makes some cutting observations about the implications that policies of indefinite detention have with regard to the importance of such pillars of judicial review as evidence.

Dylan Ratigan points out that, while progressive activists are making noise about the treatment of Bradley Manning, so-called establishment liberals like Harry Reid and Nancy Pilosi have remained painfully silent.

March 9, 2011

Getting Back To It

Thank you to everyone who has been so supportive during the past couple of weeks; it means a great deal to have such wonderful family and friends on whom to lean. Dad's got some significant recovery to manage, but he left the hospital yesterday and is beginning rehab, so he's out of immediate danger. I'm hoping he's on the long term mend, and I'll be posting to Sensen No Sen again soon!