Category Archives: Fiscal Cliff

It’s the end of the world (as we know it), let’s hope…

At the end of 2012

I’m disappointed by the failure of the world to end itself. Oh, there was a lot of build up and a large number of people sold everything they owned in an anticipation of the final days which turned out not to be any more final then you’re average glum Friday morning with a wintry weather mix. No grand explosions, no meteorites laying waste to major cities, no epics of disease nor war. Just another weekday with humanity ticking along (okay, a small hang out in the Pyrenees reputed to be the last safe place on Earth became a wee bit overcrowded), but that was it. Our doomsday clock’s minute hand still rests stoically at about five minutes ’til.

But, given our propensity for fouling things up, there’s still time to get it right next year. Here are a few things to watch out for:

Economic collapse. One thing the Mayans did predict accurately (kind of) was a world cast into economic turmoil about a year or so prior to 12/2012. The TARP bailout may have avoided the worst of that doomsday scenario, but by refusing to provide meaningful economic stimulus; that is, by not advancing projects and funding jobs to offset unemployment so that the people who actually need and spend the money that drives the economy—(as opposed to unregulated banks and quasi bank entities –like AIG — that simply sit on the cash or dole it out to upper management in the form of million dollar bonuses) we’ve guaranteed a long and painfully slow recovery. Still, despite all the media hoopla, in a moderately sane game of political calculation, one could navigate the upcoming fiscal cliff crisis without too much angst. If we could imagine basic sanity in the Republican House, we might assume that they would want to be re-elected and that, consequently, they’d be inclined to passing a bill which raises taxes on those making over half a million while maintaining the current low tax rates for the middle class—which is hugely popular and for which, among other things, Obama won reelection. Or, conversely, they would be willing to pass a tax cut for those who make less than say quarter of a million dollars a year—after the fiscal cliff was crossed. This last scenario is the one I had expected up to a few days ago. But there was something deeply unsettling about House Speaker Boehner’s failure to gain enough votes for even his own ‘Plan B’. Keep in mind, this was the option that allowed tax cuts to remain intact at the remarkably high income level of one million dollars. Of course, with a reasonably rational House, this should have passed no problem. It certainly was more generous than Obama’s top compromising position (which was up to about 400,000 or just under half a million). But Boehner couldn’t even get that through. This is disconcerting. In the game of chicken it’s important to keep in mind that crazy people behind the wheels of moving vehicles may, in fact, be crazy. If Boehner can’t get his caucus to pass something this simple and this favorable, is it possible that when we go over the fiscal cliff (a likely prospect) he won’t be able to muster the votes to pass a middle class tax cut –because it will be perceived as caving in to Obama? That would surely be a drag on our economy—this, in turn, could drag Europe’s economy down and that would make the 2008 banking crisis look like a walk in the park. Just a thought.

But onto cheerier prospects.

Our increasing security state: Within the space of a year (this one) we have seen some of the worst excesses of the Bush administration not only repeated, but effectively embraced and encoded in a way they hadn’t been before. Our guy did this, Obama. He wasn’t forced to — there was no overriding demand for an aggressive enforcement of whistle-blower laws, or the development of a drone kill list, not to mention the ugly assistance of the FBI in breaking up Occupy Wall Street encampments. This was all done in addition to the very ho-hum suspension of Habeas Corpus that we seem to take currently as standard operating procedure. Now the Democratic party has validated the Bush administration’s take on our ‘security’ state and managed to make it worse. Only a handful of progressive voices are raising a cry about it. Journalist Chris Hedges has sued the Obama administration over provisions passed in the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act)—particularly those that suspend a U.S. citizen’s right to due process and a trial by jury of their peers. Little or no press has been given to his efforts and Bradley Manning is still being held (over a year now) for the crime of dumping documents that revealed war crime activities in Iraq and elsewhere. I suppose now would be a good time to mention that Daniel Ellsberg was later lionized in the national press for the equivalent with his release of the Pentagon Papers four decades earlier. Times have changed, and not for better.

What else can we look forward to?

Environmental collapse: The sky isn’t falling, but our world is overheating – which may be worse. At the same time that the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ has garnered countless media cycles, the latest climate conference was being held in Doha, Qatar with ne’er a peep from our major media outlets. It was a dismal affair to be sure, with no commitment made toward carbon limits or carbon sequestration, and, in fact, original signers to the Kyoto protocol have pulled back with only a cursory promise made for future talks. The hard decisions were kicked down the road again, promising increasing carbon levels and—consequently– increasingly catastrophic weather incidents like Super Storm Sandy. The poor countries will likely bear the brunt of this neglect, while the rich countries hunker down in their SUVs.

So, given this, is there anything hopeful in 2013?

Two incidents from 2012 offer promise. The first, I’ve already mentioned—Super Storm Sandy. Paradoxically, Sandy’s wrath announced the arrival and reality of climate change in a way that climate deniers could no longer deny. Despite millions of dollars from the likes of Exxon seeded throughout conservative think tanks and front groups, something about having the Jersey shore wiped off the map makes pseudo-intellectual talking points much less convincing. Never mind that the majority of climate skeptics or deniers never saw the inside of a peer-reviewed journal, now they have to deal with folks whose million dollar homes have been wiped out by an inexplicable –once in a century—Atlantic ball buster. Only, it’s not once in a century—these storms are becoming more and more frequent, once a month, if not weekly phenomena and people are catching on. Climate change is real. And it’s deadly. And Michael Bloomberg said so. And yeah, we really ought to do something about it.

The other promising incident, perversely, was the national reaction to the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut which has reintroduced gun control into the national debate, despite millions being spent by the NRA to prevent such a discussion. Again, people are seeing the fruits of bad policy. Guns do kill people—and quite effectively. Especially assault weapons with huge magazine clips. Notwithstanding the millions of dollars gun manufacturers have paid the National Rifle Association to deny this fact. There was a bit of luck in this too—Wayne La Pierre’s paranoid response to the incident has made the NRA’s position ridiculous to almost anyone with half a brain who doesn’t own an AR15. The important point that ties these two incidents together? Despite all the money spent by Exxon or the gun manufacturers, or the NRA, despite all the effort by very powerful entities to disguise and distort the debate, people still recognize the underlying problem, the fundamental reality, and are willing to act on it. Money can’t obviate everything. The banks colluded with the FBI and homeland security to break up the Occupy Wall Street encampments, but they could not dismantle the disparate organization itself—nor the spirit it represented. The same holds true for our electoral process where, thanks to the Citizens United decision, we saw corporate sponsors and outside ‘Super PAC’ groups flood the campaign coffers of tea party candidates and conservatives. Despite billions of dollars poured into campaigns across the nation by Cross Roads GPS and the Koch brothers, Democrats retained the Senate handily, increased their numbers in the House (and would have likely won a majority had it not been for extensive Republican gerrymandering) and, of course, re-elected Barack Obama.

But maybe the most hopeful sign in 2012 –almost entirely unreported –and relatively small on the national scale — was the reemergence of Occupy Wall Street in their Rolling Jubilee. Despite, official harassment from the Department of Homeland Security to the local beat cop, Occupy emerged a few months ago with a plan to buy back bad debt from lenders (like Bank of America, etc…) who would normally sell it to collection agencies that in turn would ruthlessly pursue the unlucky debt holder to his or her grave for pennies on the dollar. The average ‘purchase’ of such debt is about a 20 to 1 ratio. As an example, ten dollars would buy you about two hundred dollars worth of debt. Typically, the debt was incurred through no fault of the debtor, came about through a medical problem or some other crisis that our broken system did not work to alleviate. Occupy set up a telethon structure to ‘buy up’ the bad debt, and simply forgive it. They called it the Rolling Jubilee—a sly reference to the biblical Jubilee of Leviticus, where, every seventh, seven-year cycle all debt was forgiven. Coined ‘a bailout of the people, by the people’, their efforts have netted over 522,000 dollars (as of this writing) ‘liberating’ over 10 million dollars of bad debt. Occupy was active on another front too—though again there has been very little press. They were among the first responders offering on the ground assistance in the wake of Super Storm Sandy. They galvanized volunteers from across the state (and nation) and worked hand in hand with local firemen and police to help those most in need. Responding, I might add, more quickly than the Red Cross or other more ‘official’ aid organizations.

Slowly, perhaps, we are learning to trust and count on ourselves; and maybe that’s the beginning of a true, local democracy movement, where we learn by doing for ourselves. In the process we exercise civic skills and experience what democracy means at the local day-to-day level of human interaction. If we do it right, we could begin in vulnerability and end in empowerment–a great promise for any year.

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Click here for updates and more information about The Rolling Jubilee, and here for more on the biblical Jubilee of Leviticus : And on the Seventh Day, God said CONSERVE!.

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‘Death’ and the Austerity plan

Death Of A Salesman, Opening Set Rendering by Jo Mielziner, 1949(Death Of A Salesman, Opening Set Rendering by Jo Mielziner, 1949)

Last night I saw the Richmond’s Fire House Theatre production of Death of a Salesman—a riveting performance by a nearly flawless caste. This morning I woke to news that the ‘Washington consensus’ was forming around a compromise for the so-called fiscal cliff that will involve raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67.

That means while the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans will have to pay a bit more from their slush funds, millions of Americans will be required to work an extra two years in order to retire without fear of losing their savings or home because of an unanticipated illness. They could have retired at 65, using early retirement, but without affordable healthcare how is that feasible? Where does a person turn if they are 65 years of age and Medicare eligibility age is 67?

Perhaps for those with desk jobs or a relatively untaxing work life, those extra two years won’t mean that much, but for many Americans, this is an extra two years of hard labor, arbitrarily tacked onto a lifetime of sweat and struggle—and an extra two years can amount to a life sentence when you’re over sixty. Ask Willy Loman.

In the political calculus, let’s not forget him. Our Willy Lomans are still out there. Hammering in nails, petitioning on the street corners, working in the grocery stores and fast food restaurants, waking up sore with headaches from the night before, not sleeping well, worried about their children’s future, worried about their own. Many are not salesmen in the traditional sense any longer. The jobs and the demographics have changed since Arthur Miller’s play debuted nearly 70 years ago. Today our Willy Lomans are poor parents, single fathers or single mothers (in fact, females make up the majority of Medicare recipients), stretching to make ends meet when the car breaks down and they have to use their grocery money for repairs. Shall we make them work an extra two years so that a millionaire may preserve a bit more of his on hand cash?

Many others are immigrants who work all day landscaping our corporate scenery or toil in our fields to bring us cheap lettuce, tomatoes and grapes. They sweat under the sun, survive in crowded corners of our cities, or further out in dirty shacks provided for day laborers, stacked one on top of the other, far from our eyes and our thinking. Those are our Willy Lomans, too. With this deal, we’re telling them to work another two years in the sun, digging ditches, pounding nails, living like animals so that our millionaire congress can ‘save face’… That’s fair, right?

At the heart of Miller’s play is the cry of the dispossessed, of those who do not ‘make it’. Willy goes to his manager, exhausted beyond words, tells his young boss—who he helped name as an infant—that he just can’t continue traveling anymore. But there’s no place in the system for a Willy Loman who doesn’t travel 700 miles in a day, wearing holes in his shoes, lugging his valise. The young boss blows him off at first, and then finally fires him. The moment breaks Willy’s heart, and ultimately his mind. The question Miller asks is still with us: what do we do with our used up citizens, our jobless, our elderly, our permanently poor who will be shunted aside and ignored once again, our perennially homeless? They will find no new hope in this deal. Rather, what little help they might have received will be bartered away on the altar of an ill-timed austerity fix. Hundreds of thousands are still without work, millions who work must take jobs they find both demeaning and demoralizing because their chosen career path is no longer viable. Yet we will require two more years of their service; and no extra help for anyone who can not manage to be so lucky. That’s fair, right?

Death was the only escape Willy saw out of the cruel necessities of the system in which he was immersed. “What’s the secret Ben,” he asks his brother plaintively in one of his dream locutions before the end of the play. Ben, ever the adventurer, answers with a non-answer, “You go into the jungle and you come out rich. You go into the night, Willy and you come out with diamonds.”

It’s a nice thought, a romantic thought, probing the heart of the American dream, but in the end it’s the idea whose dissolution dooms Willy—and millions of Americans  like Willy every day. The question is: do we as a society soften the lives of those who will never find diamonds in the jungle? Or do we tack two more years onto their already hard existence in the name of a meretricious austerity that benefits no one but the very wealthy? It’s an important question that defines us as a society. Attention must be paid.

~ Jack Johnson

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Of Billionaires and Deficit Scolds

faces_of_class_warfare

People are lying to us. Very wealthy and very powerful individuals have decided as a first recourse to lie. Not as a last recourse, but as a first, right out the door. They begin with the lie. “Social Security is an entitlement”. That’s a lie. We pay for it; each of our paychecks pay for it. It’s ours, not there’s, not the treasury’s, ours. But that’s just one of their lies. They are lying about the nature of our economic situation; about who is responsible for our current debt, and about who is most able to pay for it. They are not deluded nor are they dumb: They are just lying.

Who are these people? They are represented by an organization entitled ‘Fix the Debt’ whose business is anything but. They are a bipartisan pack of CEOs, organized around principles of ‘austerity’ for everyone but themselves and their political hacks and funded in part by former private equity magnate Peter G. Peterson’s foundation. They have pledged to push for austerity during the lame duck congressional session, and beyond. Peterson (buddy of Erskine Bowles (D) and Alan Simpson (R)—our courageous ‘bi-partisan’ cat food commission leaders ) has spent nearly half a billion dollars in recent years pushing his austerity agenda. The man is no slouch when it comes to lobbying to starve the poor and enrich the rich: a reverse robin hood for the ages.

According to the Institute of Policy Studies the ‘Fix the Debt’ organization is made up of “71 CEOs who lead publicly held companies….[These CEOs] have amassed an average of $9 million in their company retirement funds. A dozen have more than $20 million in their accounts. If each of them converted their assets to an annuity when they turned 65, they would receive a monthly check for at least $110,000 for life. The Fix the Debt CEO with the largest pension fund is Honeywell’s David Cote, a long-time advocate of Social Security cuts. His $78 million nest egg is enough to provide a $428,000 check every month after he turns 65. Forty-one of the 71 companies offer employee pension funds. Of these, only two have sufficient assets in their funds to meet expected obligations. The rest have combined deficits of $103 billion, or about $2.5 billion on average. General Electric has the largest deficit in its worker pension fund, with $22 billion.”

I want to repeat something that you might miss in that paragraph. Of the 71 companies represented only forty-one offer any type of pension fund to their employees—the rest presumably get to receive the unregulated munificence of ‘the market’—meaning their skimpy 401Ks—if they even have one. Of these forty-one (41) who offer some type of pension plan ONLY TWO (2) have sufficient assets in their funds to meet their expected obligations. These clowns—these fiscally irresponsible yahoos—who have now allocated millions for themselves while refusing to fund their own obligations to their own workers are the deficit scolds telling us how to put our house in order? Really? These are the megalomaniacs who are arguing that Social Security benefits are ‘too generous’ and are cautioning us about our ‘fiscal’ health? The very people who have NOT paid into retirement funds for their own workers?

As the report concludes, “as the debate heats up over whether to cut Medicare, Social Security or Medicaid in order to maintain federal spending and corporate tax breaks, companies with well-compensated CEOs who preside over underfunded employee pension funds invite a new round of questions about the motives, and methods, of the CEOs pressuring Congress and the White House to cut programs for the middle class.”

You think?

Sadly, this is nothing new. Though it seems more obvious than ever, if you pay attention.

The nation’s largest creditor is not China. It is the working people of America and their employers who collectively have amassed Social Security’s huge surplus through the weekly FICA contributions required by law. This wealth is the nest egg that will pay for swelling benefits as the baby-boom generation retires. Far from being broke or “sucking” billions from the Treasury, the Social Security trust fund will continue to accumulate larger and larger surpluses during the next ten years, reaching $3.7 trillion by 2022, according to the system’s trustees.

Jack Johnson