The middle class is shrinking. Those in power have run up enormous debts on public credit while shoveling most of the money into private pockets. The corporations that have benefitted from this borrowing binge, meanwhile, leverage the global trade system to transfer their profits beyond the reach of national governments.

Meanwhile, we have been told lies by Democrats and by Republicans, divided into artificial camps and led into debates that are either irrelevant or so dramatically scripted that we fail to realize every choice leads to the same result: the dismantling of the social framework that defined and sustained the opportunity of the last century. National mobilization of resources has given way to radical individualism under a narrative that, in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must always expect less.

In this tumultuous time, we search for a way forward - a new Square Deal for the American people.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Curious Case of Bowe Bergdahl

On March 16, 2006 -- at the height of the Iraqi insurgency -- five soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division's 502nd Infantry Regiment went to the home of Abeer Qassim Hamza al-Janabi. 

The five men were part of a six-man team manning the checkpoint.  They left the post with just one soldier remaining on duty, who did not report their absence.  They changed into civilian clothes.  When they arrived at Abeer's home, they separated her from her mother, father, and six-year old sister.  They shot the three family members and gang-raped Abeer, who was either a teenager or in her early 20s. 

When they were finished raping her, they shot her multiple times, poured kerosene on her bullet-riddled body, and set her body on fire.  They then returned to their checkpoint.  The fire alerted neighbors, who brought Iraqi troops to the scene.  The Iraqis alerted the Americans, including one of the soldiers who was responsible for what happened.  The Americans told the Iraqis it was the work of Sunni insurgents.

The U.S. military began investigating the matter on July 4, after the soldier who had stayed behind at the checkpoint told a friend about the murder and that friend revealed it during a counselling session.  Ultimately, all five men were convicted and given lengthy jail sentences -- but that came in August 2007, more than a year later.

I was outraged when the details of what happened were made public.  I was outraged when the perpetrators were brought back to the United States instead of being tried by a court-martial convened in Iraq.  I was outraged when they were sentenced to jail more than a year later, rather than being hanged in plain view so that the Iraqis could see we had dealt with the matter.

On June 16, 2006, a 101st Airborne checkpoint was overrun, and two soldiers were killed.  A group called the Mujahideen Shura Council released a video of the soldiers' bodies and claimed it was retribution for Abeer's rape and murder.  Further killings followed, including the downing of an Apache gunship, and all were attributed to Abeer's rape and murder.  The rape and murder of Abeer and her family drove a country already in turmoil into a frenzy, feeding the insurgency that was already costing American blood and treasure.  The long delay in bringing charges and holding a trial fed the sense that Americans who would shoot Iraqis on suspicion held themselves as being outside the scope of justice. 

The actions of these soldiers directly fueled the entire Iraqi insurgency and affected many American lives.   And for all of that, there was very, very little attention paid to the monstrous actions of these men by anyone I know.  I was the only one talking about it on Facebook.  News coverage was limited; political reaction was muted.  Several people responding to news articles chalked it up to "war is hell," as if this were somehow a military action rather than a crime.  No one was even interested in these troops' having abandoned their checkpoint and exposed other soldiers to greater risk.  It just wasn't interesting to anyone I encountered.



Fast forward to June 2014.  The nation is ablaze over the matter of the negotiated release of one Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who is believed to have walked away from his unit while out in the field in Afghanistan.  Bergdahl's absence did not endanger anyone; there are claims that soldiers may have died looking for him, but if they did, they were searching for him because he was missing, not because he was a deserter.  He apparently had wandered off before (and come back), and early reports that he left a letter saying he was deserting are not backed up by investigative records.  After being captured by the Taliban, Bergdahl also attempted to escape twice over the course of the five years that he was held by the Haqqani network in Pakistan.  (The second time, he made it to a border village...where the inhabitants turned him back over to the Haqqanis.)

SGT Bergdahl's freedom has now been secured.  There are questions regarding the manner in which the Obama administration traded the release of five Taliban prisoners held at Guantanamo for the release.  The questions, however, relate to a matter of public law: President Obama is obligated by law to tell Congress about any release of inmates from Guantanamo 30 days prior to the event, which he did not do, and which his administration has asserted he need not because of a signing statement he added to the bill when it became law in which he claimed "flexibility" on that provision. 

We need to look at the notion that the President can sign a bill into law (rather than vetoing it) while effectively exempting his administration from following that law.  We needed to look at it when President Bush used such a statement to exempt his administration from a law restricting use of torture.  Unfortunately, only Congress can hold the President to account.  When Bush began using his signing statements to expand executive power, Congress was controlled by his fellow Republicans, who tragically chose to put their being Republicans ahead of their being American legislators.  Their blatant lack of principle was a missed opportunity to rein in the executive branch. 

GOP success in stirring up the less astute among their supporters since 2008 to claim that virtually everything President Obama does is an affront deserving impeachment has exacerbated the problem: today, Republicans denounce everything Obama does as a crime.  Democrats have used that fact not only to rally their own less astute members but also to bolster the support of those in their ranks who are more informed and engaged.  Many people can see that the use of signing statements to exempt an administration from the law represents a threat to our republic, one that is frankly probably deserving of an impeachment trial.  That isn't going to happen, though, because Democrats are now content to put their own party affiliation ahead of being American legislators -- and they do so precisely because they know that, for Republicans, this is not about principle at all, and just about politics for the next election cycle.  No one in the Capitol is actually looking out for the long-term interest of the American people.

There's a little bit of discussion about all of this, of course.  It's a big deal, after all.  But there's not nearly as much discussion about the issue of Constitutional separation of powers as there is about SGT Bergdahl.  Among people who couldn't be bothered to care when five soldiers abandoned their checkpoint to execute a girl's family and gang-rape her before setting her corpse on fire, there's an absolute hysteria around the possibility that Bergdahl no longer believed in the Afghan War.  People on Facebook are saying that he is a traitor, that he should be executed, that he should have been left with the Taliban to rot and die.

Military people generally aren't saying this, mind you.  Even several of the soldiers from his unit who do think he deserted are content to see him investigated on those charges, while General McChrystal -- who previously held command in Afghanistan and doesn't generally agree with President Obama on anything -- said that “We don’t leave Americans behind. That’s unequivocal.”

Politicians, meanwhile, can't spin it fast enough.  Republican Congressmen who initially tweeted "welcome home" messages deleted those tweets, and Senator John McCain is doing his best to explain why he told CNN in February that the administration should seriously consider an exchange but now says it was absolutely the wrong thing to do.  On the propaganda circuit, Bill O'Reilly repeatedly announced the Bergdahl's father "looked like a Muslim."



I understand why all of this is playing out the way it is.  It's June of 2014; there is an election only four short months away, and elections are all that we really care about in this country (though the party machines do their best to pretend it's all about substance). 

But we didn't care at all when five soldiers abandoned their checkpoint, shot a girl's family, gang-raped her, sprayed her with bullets, and set her body on fire with kerosene.  We just didn't care.  And now all of this outrage and vitriol for SGT Bergdahl being freed from captivity after five years?

It's so blatantly a political ploy that even CNN can see it.

Are the rest of us really, truly all that stupid?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Society's Train Wreck

Our national media is presently focused on the story of one Rachel Canning, who left her parents' home at 18 after refusing to break up with a boyfriend her parents had concluded was a bad influence and numerous conflicts over broken curfews, underage drinking, refusal to do chores, and other household infractions.

Rachel Canning
Were that all that happened, the tale of this 18-year old student still in her senior year at $12,700-a-year Morris Catholic High School would not even have gotten a mention. Young adults--and let us be clear about this: under American law, adulthood begins at 18, all of the protestations of people in their 40s and 50s to the contrary--often leave home when they find that their paths diverge from the paths that their parents want for them. Some partings go well, others poorly, and the outcomes of those decisions, like all decisions, may not be fully realized for many years. C'est la vie; c'est la liberté.

But Ms. Canning did not simply leave. She did not turn her back on what her parents have given her and chart her own course. Quite the opposite: she liked the course her parents had charted and financed for her so much that she went to court, filing a suit to insist that her parents, whose rules she flouted and whose home she had left, should still be responsible for paying her school tuition, room, board, transportation, and other expenses, and should be obligated to provide on her behalf money that they had previously earmarked for her college education, all while she continued to do whatever she liked.

This is a social train wreck, and it was entirely predictable. 

For decades, we have pulled our society in opposing directions with regards to the treatment of people relative to the society in which they live, and we have done so particularly with young people. American culutral norms have become consistently more accommodating of what young people want for themselves at the expense of what their parents or the broader society want for them, particularly on matters regarding sex, traditionally one of the defining characteristics of adulthood.

In American society, boys and girls are regarded as sexually autonomous when they reach a non-adult age of consent, and, while we have enacted very harsh penalties for any legal adult having a sexual relationship with a child below that age, we regard sexual behavior between children who are both below the age to be innocuous, making sexuality appropriate effectively as early as children choose to define themselves as sexually active. Because of our marketing and peer pressure, this definition can occur very early, and it has been exploited in too many instances to supply a ready population of underage prostitutes, sometimes kept in line by underage pimps. We also allow children virtually unfettered access to abortion to avoid interference in our student-to-worker production pipeline.

At the same time that we are busy granting children absolute sexual autonomy, however, we are also extending the umbrella of childhood far beyond its legally established boundary of 18 years. People who are 18, 21, or even in their late 20s are increasingly referred to as "kids," and society has accepted a shift under which young adult responsibility is questioned or even dismissed. Consumption of alcohol is not permitted until three years after reaching adulthood, and young adults who leave high school and marry, get jobs, or become soldiers--courses that in earlier generations collectively accounted for nearly all young adults--are today denounced as "too young" to make their own decisions.

That brings us back to Rachel Canning. At 18, she is a legal adult. She has asserted her independence by taking a firm stand that she will date whomever she wants, stay out as late as she wants, and (though it is not a liberty afforded her under our law for another three years), drink if she chooses to do so. Well and good for her. But Ms. Canning is not in court to demand that her independence be recognized. Instead, she is suing for a declaration of non-emancipation, asking a judge to establish that she is very much a dependent of her parents, unable to provide for herself and entitled to financial support up to and including the payment of expenses for her to attend the college of her preference. She claims for herself rights that we do not bestow to society as a whole--most people cannot afford college without taxpayer assistance--and does so with a straight face.

Ms. Canning has made other allegations--that her father was "inappropriately affectionate" and saw their relationship as "not one of a daughter, but more than that," that her mother emotionally abused her by calling her "fat"--, but we can safely dismiss those claims: Ms. Canning has filed no criminal complaints. She is using these sudden "revelations" in a misguided attempt to win public support, but the New Jersey Division of Child Protection already investigated her complaints and reported that Ms. Canning was merely "spoiled."

But she herself does not see this.  While she goes ahead with this lawsuit, underwritten by the cash reserves of the wealthy family of a friend with whom she is staying and levied against her own wealthy family, Ms. Canning not only fails to appreciate that she has put her face and her name out for the national media as someone no sane employer would ever, ever consider hiring but sees herself as entitled to do as she likes, exercising all of the privileges adulthood accords while absolved of the responsibility that adulthood demands.

No one meant for us to get here. No doubt, should a loophole in the law somehow be found such that Ms. Canning were to actually get what she is seeking, we will come together as a broad community of adults--remember, only people 18 and older can vote--to change those laws in every city, every state, and for the entire nation. Heck, I could see an enterprising politican seizing on this moment to push an amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

But we did end up here, and our ability to slap a patch on the hole we found should not make us blind to the problem we are facing. If we are going to promote a progressive, inclusive society that can deliver on the promises of the twenty-first century, there must be a hard line dividing the protection of childhood and the combination of privileges and responsibilities that define adulthood.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Trading wages for jobs is a dead end.

In a prior post, I pointed out that calling the people who control businesses "job creators" is largely incorrect, and that it is ordinary people like you and me who are the job creators of the economy.  Today, with all of the furor surrounding the CBO report on potential impacts of raising the minimum wage, I think that the subject bears additional discussion.
 
Most of the jobs that get created in a business are created because the customers of the business demand additional services.  The cost of such jobs is borne directly by what they produce for the business.  Far from making a sacrifice in hiring such a person, the business owner is profiting from the arrangement.  The people we call “job creators” get the credit for having the forethought to take our money in exchange for things we want.

To be sure, business owners are not necessarily irrelevant to the process.  Entrepreneurs start businesses because they either see existing unmet demand or believe that they can create demand.  In doing that, they are setting the stage for the creation of jobs, and that—if not precisely the same thing as creating jobs—is an important part of the process. 

Not all business owners, however, are entrepreneurs.  Many large companies, in particular, are run by a professional class of executives.  These people flit from one company to another, aided and abetted by the boards of directors they populate with their friends and predecessors.  Sometimes, they grow revenues at the companies that they run, but their true value (to the extent that there is any) comes from improving profitability by reducing cost.  The single biggest cost that can be cut in most companies is labor, and that is where executives shine: they eliminate jobs, inflate share prices for the moment, and pay themselves bonuses for their brilliance. 

When things go south, and that always do, the executives are “fired” under terms that most workers would regard as payment of more bonuses, and they move through the revolving doors to their next companies, whose directors scoop them up to benefit from their “experience”—or, if the political climate is right, they are invited to express their patriotism and head government agencies.

But sometimes, business owners do create jobs.  When a small-business owner realizes one day that he or she needs someone to do the books and hires a bookkeeper, that business owner has created a job.  That job was created, however, not because of supply but because of demand—the demand that the business owner had for a bookkeeper, the same sort of demand that causes you or I to hire a babysitter or a maid service.  We either need or want the services of others in order to make our lives work (or work more easily). 

A person will obtain at any cost the services that he or she needs, because that is what it means to “need” something.  When it comes to the services that a person wants, it is certainly true that the cost of satisfying a whim plays a role.  The business owner is no different from the ordinary individual in this regard, but it is self-evident that a business owner will shy away from hiring someone he or she would like to have, but does not need to have, if that person costs more than the business owner can justify spending.  That behavior, which is normal and obvious, is what drives the reduction in jobs associated with a rise in the minimum wage.

But here’s the thing: everyone who is unemployed depends on the generosity of others (whether the others be individuals or the general public), and anyone who works for wages that are too low to provide self-sufficiency is left in the same position.  When the public embraces policies like a non-indexed minimum wage that is too low to support a person or a family, what the public is actually doing is subsidizing business owners’ ability to indulge their whims by shifting the true cost of having servants onto the public expense.  That is what happens when someone working full time is nonetheless earning so little as to qualify for supplemental nutrition (“food stamps”) and other income-based benefits: we are all paying for some business owner to have the ego trip of an employee whose services are not self-sufficient to the business (in which case the hiring would occur regardless of wage) but whose services are desirable to the person making the hiring decision.  Trading wages for jobs is a dead end.

We spend far too much time jockeying for the privilege of being servants to the folks who have bought up our democracy, and the dirty little secret is that we don’t have to do that, because, conspiracy theories aside, we actually do have the power to change our public policy.  The reason that the wealthy devote so much effort to buying off the people we put into power is that our votes actually do get counted—for now.  We have every right, and indeed have the obligation, to use that power to bring about changes that are in the public interest.

Don’t buy into the “controversy” over the minimum wage.  A dozen developed nations that have indexed minimum wages, heavily unionized labor, strong environmental protections, and every other boogeyman that the “job creators” tell you will “kill jobs” also have higher employment than we have in America, comparable standards of living, and measurably greater degrees of happiness.  The only controversy over whether it makes sense to trade 500,000 publically subsidized servants to the wealthy for a million people being lifted out of poverty (and off of subsidies) is the notion that We The People have the power to set policy in our own interest despite the preferences of the self-proclaimed optimates of our nation. 

To the people at the top, that is very controversial indeed.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Wages are a Moral Issue

Earlier in the day, I posted an observation that one can quickly estimate the annual salary equivalent of a wage by knowing that each $5 per hour is approximately equal to $10,000 per year in income for a full-time worker.  (Actually, knowing that $1 per hour equals approximately $2000 per year is arguably better, since it allows greater precision.  But I digress.)

The ability to equate hourly wages to annual salary has long interested me, because very few people seem to be able to do it.  I have known more than a few people who live in the D.C. metropolitan area with me who say that living on $60,000 is basically impossible, yet these same people will casually dismiss calls for a higher minimum wage with self-assurance than $8 an hour is "plenty."  If they had my handy formula, they would know that $8 an hour equates to less than $20,000 per year, or less than one-third of an amount on which they consider it impossible to live.  I assume that they do not know my formula.

In any event, having posted this handy formula and a brief comment to the effect of what I just said above, I saw as my first reply a comment that, "If there's a problem with minimum age, let congress fix it. Stop blaming the employer who is within his right to pay whatever."

This argument is seriously flawed.

It is correct that an employer is free and able to pay any wage that meets or exceeds the minimums established by law.  With that claim, I take no issue.  However, the idea that I or anyone else should not blame that person for doing so -- that I relinquish my own moral authority and judgment because of that person's legal rights -- flies in the face of individual liberty and social judgment, two things that have a long history in the United States.

This idea that things that people are allowed to do by law must be embraced as morally and socially acceptable is one that has been creeping into our society over at least the last forty years.  It began as a liberal concept -- indeed, it is foundational to liberalism, and represents a distinction between the liberal ideal and that of the progressives who came earlier -- and was denounced by conservatives.  Yet just as today's liberals find themselves talking in terms that assume market capitalism, so too do today's conservatives find themselves embracing the liberal worldview that, if someone may do something, it is therefore proper that he or she do it.
 
The business owner has the right to pay his wages; I have the right to denounce those wages.  His action is a form of speech; mine is also speech.  He may do as he likes, but he may not do so without consequence.  Should I gather large numbers of like-minded people who choose to exercise their individual liberty to denounce the business owner, perhaps boycotting his or her business as a form of protest, then this, too, is our freedom of speech.  Nothing can be more American.

Certainly, Congress can change the minimum wage.  It should, too: either the minimum wage should be raised and indexed to inflation, removing it from the dangling promises of Democrats and the Republicans whose business masters hope to gradually return workers to the status of serfs, or it should be abolished.  Why the diametrically opposed choice?  It's actually not so far apart. 

Indexed, the minimum wage guarantees a living wage; we do that for retirees, and they aren't even producing value, so it's bizarre that we don't do it for the productive people of society.  Without indexing, however, the minimum wage serves as a validation stamp that says, "I'm doing what society expects of me."  Even an altruistic person can hardly be blamed for thinking that paying a few dollars above the minimum wage is generous, when that same person, were there no minimum wage to serve as a goal post, would independently determine what a living wage is and then be as generous as he or she might choose in addition to that minimum.  Put another way, were there no minimum wage to be a benchmark, it would not occur to most business owners that paying a non-living wage was possible, nor would workers assume that it was fair.

That brings me back to my Facebook discussion.  Wages are a moral issue.  The minimum wage clouds that fact by making them seem like a regulatory concept, but paying someone wages on which he or she cannot support even him or herself -- wages whose deficits are made up by taxpayer-funded social services -- is a moral failing. We need to stop fawning over the so-called "job creators" and call them out for their bad behavior.

Monday, November 25, 2013

We are the Job Creators

Over the last several years, we have heard a great deal about "job creators," a Republican euphemism that takes the place of "the rich."  It is not surprising that the GOP has gone to great lengths to redefine the language used in discussions about taxes and spending: typical non-rich Americans have little regard for "the rich," but we do like "job creators," because we like "jobs."

Do you remember the Simpsons clip in which a future President Lisa promotes her planned tax increase as a "refund adjustment?"  Same idea, and it has worked before.  Remember all that talk about how we needed to "strengthen" Social Security, paired with discussions about higher retirement ages and lower benefits?  Or "strengthening" Medicare by transforming it into a voucher program?  These semantic games get played because they work.  "Job creators" is just the latest in a long line of gaming semantics.

What you may not realize is that many people -- perhaps including you -- are job creators.  Unlike the rich, who we assume create jobs simply because their money is going to some investment that we assume is putting people to work, many of us create jobs directly.  The reason that we may not think about it is that our creation is fractional, which is to say that any one of us does not create a whole job but rather some portion of a job that, when collected with other portions, provides full-time employment.

This first occurred to me in the context of child care.  There are many large child care centers, but many people arrange for child care through small, in-home providers.  Such providers, who are licensed and subject to state and local regulations, typically can have up to five children in their care at any given time.  The cost for one child might be $200 per week, which is too little to qualify for full-time employment, so enrolling a single child does not employ the provider.  Five children, on the other hand, deliver to the provider a total of $1000 weekly revenue, which, after subtracting expenses and taking into account tax benefits, delivers a weekly wage to the provider that is well above $15 an hour.  The parents of these children, by pooling their resources in a manner that is not coordinated or centrally planned, create a full-time job supported by their own earnings.

This phenomenon happens all over our economy, with maids and shoe-repairmen, carpenters and plumbers, and a whole host of other self-employed careers.  There is no central company paying these people; they are paying themselves out of the money they get directly from their customers, and we are their customers.  We create their jobs.

The distinction might seem minor until one stops to consider that it is this sort of job that actually underpins our economy.  "Employment" in the W-2 sense is actually a lesser form of market economy than 1099 contracting.  Our efforts are the driving force of capitalism, the engine of true business creation.  Those "job creators" we are told to venerate?  They are the ones buying up established businesses long after our involvement built them, and orchestrating layoffs and wage reductions to boost profitability for themselves.

To be sure, there is nothing particularly wrong with being rich.  So long as private property exists and people are free to spend or save as they choose, it would be foolish to begrudge those who build for themselves even vast fortunes.  But do not fall for the line that we owe the rich our livelihoods, or our respect as a class action.  Wealth is a side-effect, and far too often, those who have it in twenty-first century America were either born to it or obtained it through a series of manipulations orchestrated by a detached, minimally useful managerial class that has usurped the mantle of capitalism to cloak economically unproductive profiteering.

Cheer or jeer the rich as you like.  When you look for the "job creators," look in the mirror.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Are zombie movies a sign that progressive ideals are coming back?

Each generation gravitates towards a particular apocalypse because it captures what we really fear.  The popularity of zombies suggests that we may be working back towards a realization that our outcomes are better when we work together - which is different from trusting the government to handle it.

I just got back from seeing World War Z. 

The movie bears little resemblance to the book; its primary message might be paraphrased as "Gerry Lang loves his family."  He sets out to save the world, not because he feels inclined to do so, but because he is told in no uncertain terms that, if he does not, he and they will be put on a helicopter and dumped back in overrun Philadelphia to fend for themselves.

That, I concede, is not a particularly progressive message.

Keep in mind, however, that "progressive" is not merely a synonym for "liberal."  America's progressive era goes back to the start of the twentieth century, and I think it's safe to say that it was over by the start of the Reagan administration in 1980.

I make the point not to confuse "progressive" with "liberal" because, while the latter is primarily concerned with individuals -- a trait that it shares with conservatism, even though its preferred way for catering to individuals is through government programs while conservatism prefers to deregulate and let the powerful dominate the world -- progressivism is focused on the good of society.  Many progressive achievements, from the Food and Drug Administration to Social Security to Medicare, were established as government programs, but so were the means to pay for them: both the FICA tax and the income tax were established under progressive administrations. 

Additionally, progressives sought to leverage the market through limited intervention, accepting that it could deliver wealth but looking for ways to ensure a meritocracy; "trustbusting" and increasing true competition were hallmarks of the progressive era.

Skeptical readers should not be surprised by these claims.  Consider what was happening at the dawn of the twentieth century.  Wealth was heavily concentrated.  Life was very hard.  And against that backdrop, there was a drumbeat for something profoundly different.  Many who took to the streets called for the seizure of power, by force if necessary, and the nationalization of industries.  The progressive argument was a counterpoint to this perspective, an argument that capitalism could be improved rather than abolished. 

The progressives were certainly opposed to the conservative robber-barons, but the outcome of that fight was no surprise.  They were also the opponents of the socialists -- and that fight was not so easily predictable.

In contrast to today's liberal views, which generally focus on what one should be given or deserves, progressives tended to focus on what was earned.  They argued first and foremost for a level playing field.  Within that argument, they looked for what could be done together to make people in general better off.  They did not shy away from imposing regulations or taxes, but they just as likely imposed them on themselves (like FICA and the income tax) as they did on "the rich." 

They also abandoned ideas that did not work, something that today's liberals seem to have a very difficult time doing.  From looking at programs like Head Start, one can derive that liberals believe that a failed program is "better than nothing," where progressives would more likely have viewed a failed program as a diversion of resources that could have been used to make a successful program.  (They generally did not have to address the conservative perspective that the goal itself was unworthy; fear of socialism kept that attitude in greater check back then.)


AMC's The Walking Dead
This "we're all in it together" attitude, more focused on outcomes than approaches, and not
particularly given to belief in the government but very much about belief in ourselves as a society, is what I see reflected in today's zombie movies and television shows.  The government, clearly, cannot protect us -- but things hardly go well for the gun-toting individualist who thinks he's going to wait it out in his apartment or on his farm.  The zombies themselves are, in effect, individualistic, betraying those around them for their immediate and personal desire for flesh, and they do not tire or lose interest.  The loner runs out of bullets, out of food, or out of time, and he or she is finished. 

But the group goes on.  Facing hardship, facing losses, they pull together, back from the brink.  They keep moving.  Despite it all, they find a way.

That we see this message played out time and again in zombie movies is significant because the zombie movie for this generation is what the nuclear-war movies were for the last generation, an unlikely but peripherally believable path to the end of the world.  We are being told that the end of the world is the result of individual desire, and that the ultimate folly is to believe in individual strength.  Judging by the ticket sales and the ratings, it is a message that we find favorable.

Again, we should perhaps not be surprised.  American politics is a pendulum, swinging left and right.  In recent decades, we have encountered perhaps the worst of both worlds, deregulation at the hands of a generation who were the last to enjoy the full spectrum of progressive achievements and who kept pulling the ladder up behind them so that those who came after could not follow them to prosperity, combined with a rampant drive towards individualized values.  As a result, we are more segregated according to ideals and incomes today than we were by the laws that existed before the Civil Rights marches.

There is a lot wrong with our society, and younger people are chafing at the news from their elders that they can expect neither living wages nor healthcare but must be expected, under a mountain of crippling debt, to toil away indefinitely so that those who dismantled their opportunities in exchange for short-term gains can be taken care of "in their golden years."  (Perhaps we are also starting to wonder why, if pension plans "just don't work," the same math would be expected to deliver suitable earnings in the form of a 401(k) plan?)

Really, it's almost as if we are being overrun by a wave of zombies, each representing a different focus and chomping its teeth while chanting "Me! Me! Me!"  But the movies and shows show us the way out. 

Give it a try.  Are you angry that the Supreme Court struck down a central provision of the Voting Rights Act because you're worried that voter ID laws will disenfranchise minorities?  Forget about the ruling and organize an ID drive in your town or city.  Everyone needs an ID anyway, and, if you start now, you can help a lot of people get them before the next election.

Upset that American Express just got a ruling that will make it virtually impossible to take credit card companies to court instead of relying on the arbitration mechanisms that those same companies already control?  Forget about the ruling and move away from using their cards; don't be bought so cheaply by "rewards" that are really paid for using your own money anyway (in the form of interest).  Live within your means whenever possible, and look to bank loans and peer-to-peer lending for special purpose borrowing.  When you have to justify why you need the money, you'll find you don't need it as often anyway.

We really are all in this together, and we really can do things by working with each other.  We just need to do it.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Broken System of Teacher Licensure

By law, teachers who want to teach in public schools must be licensed* in the states where they want to teach.  Licensure requirements vary by state, but they typically look something like this:
  1. The teacher must be qualified, meaning that he or she must:
    1. Have completed an approved in-state teacher preparation program; OR
    2. Have completed an out-of-state teacher preparation program substantially similar to the in-state program and submit coursework for review; OR
    3. Hold a current teaching license with no restrictions issued by another state with which the current state has a reciprocity agreement; OR
    4. Have substantially relevent coursework and experience sufficient as to substitute for a traditional teacher preparation program AND pass appropriate licensure exams;
  2. AND - the teacher must pass appropriate background checks, generally including:
    1. Full criminal history; and
    2. Health screening (usually a current tuberculosis test).
These are generally good requirements.  What is amazing about the process is that the offices responsible for issuign teaching licenses generally take 6-8 weeks to turn around an application.  This timeframe is amazing when one considers that the packages submitted typically must contain everything required or else will be returned as ineligible.  It's not that the people reviewing the packages actually do any investigation; they're just checking off boxes: graduated from teaching program, met test score threshold, no criminal record.

Nor is this preposterous turnaround time limited to the issuance of new licenses.  States afford themselves just as much time to do something like add a teaching endorsement -- that is, a new area of specialization -- even in cases where there is nothing required beyond the submission of a test score.  One score.  Check the box and print a new license; 6-8 weeks.

There's really no excuse for this delay, or for a dozen other things wrong with the process.  Why, for instance, does each school district need to get its own copy of FBI fingerprint results when the state already checked those results?  What is the point in the District of Columbia system, in particular, of requiring FBI background checks when the results of those checks are submitted by the applicants themselves (and thus completely untrustworthy)?  Why require a background check to add an endorsement when another background check will be needed to obtain a teaching position?  And on, and on.

All of this would doubtless have been swept away a long time ago and replaced with a streamlined system except for one thing: the complexity and delays inherent in the system serve as gatekeepers for the entrenched teachers.  Holding up licenses cuts down on competition for hiring and creates illusionary teacher shortages, while the people in the back office get to indulge their paper-pushing traditions instead of being forced into the twenty-first century.  (Hard-hitting former Chancellor of Schools Michelle Rhee commented regarding her tenure in D.C. that it was much harder to reform the bureaucracy than the schools themselves.)

We need to fix this system, nationwide.  The delays are hurting our schools, our children, and our future.

* Many people say "certified," and even some states use this term in their materials.  Strictly speaking, a certification is an optional enhancement, while a license is an absolute requirement without which work may not be done, so "licensed" is the proper term.  Licensing applies only to traditional public schools; private schools and public charter schools make their own rules and decide individually whether or not to require teaching licenses for their staff.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

What's wrong with prostitution?

Many people see prostitution as a victimless crime.

These people generally do not deny that human trafficking exists, mind you, nor are they generally forgiving of exploitation.  Many opinions that I've seen defending prostitution are in fact sharply opposed to "pimping," whether it takes the form of direct exploitation or simply extracts from prostitutes a high portion of earnings while delivering few if any benefits (as is the case with the legal brothels in Nevada, where the de facto pimps who operate the brothels take up to 50% of all earnings even though the prostitutes are contractors who are responsible for their own healthcare arrangements and expenses).

No, the majority of opinions I have seen regarding prostitution consider exploitation by a third party a genuine problem and want to see it stamped out.  (I trust most if not all of us can agree with that.)  Where the defenders rally is when the prostitute is truly self-employed, in which case the transaction is predicated on the notion of a willing buyer and willing seller. 

I used to support this position.  To me, there was little justification for society treating prostitution as a criminal offense when promiscuity was not -- that is, when choosing anyone at any time as a sex partner is free choice, but offering cash in exchange for that pairing leads to a criminal record (potentially for both people involved).

Recently, however, I have come to see this matter quite differently.  I now oppose prostitution, not necessarily as a matter of criminalization but certainly as a matter of moral behavior.

And, it should be noted, I generally do not take issue with promiscuity.

The issue lies in the nature of sexual relationships as an exercise of power.  Since the dawn of our species, humans have been drawn to mate in diverse patterns that promote the spread of our genes in new and different combinations.  Fascinating research into this matter has examined everything from the nature of human fertility to the shape of human sex organs (distinct from those of primates) and even the peculiar human male "sleep reflex" just after mating, all as features of our behavior that promote this genetic diversification.

So, not only are we (like all animals) designed to reproduce, but humans are specifically suited to diversified mating.  I don't expect or request that everyone engage in such behavior today, mind you; there are now quite a few humans on Earth, far more than was true when humans set out on their quest to be fruitful and multiply.  But the point is that diversified mating is normal.

The thing is, diversified mating is supposed to follow from attraction, and attraction is not random.  Every one of us may have millions of possible mates to whom we'd be attracted, but only some of those mates would be attracted to us.  That leaves us lots and lots of possible willing sex partners, but the criteria remain biological.  Everything from how someone looks to how we react when we kiss tells us whether a particular pairing is a "good" one, and in this regard, the sexual pairings that follow from nightclubs, bars, and parties are perfectly normal.  Even if someone has a different sex partner every day, the behavior is biologically sensible (inference like disease notwithstanding) if each is a partner with whom mutual attraction is shared; this is a feature that allows humans to repopulate from limited stock, and it is a trait to be appreciated if not always embraced.

Prostitution is very different. Prostitution allows those with money to spare to short-circuit the need to measure up by offering money in lieu of having to be a good sexual match.  In our world, however, money is a negative force, not a positive one: we value it not because it allows us to do things but because its absence denies us things that we want and usually need, like food and shelter. Someone seeking to trade sex for money is therefore generally seeking subsistence rather than gain, and someone negotiating the price for the transaction is not so much offering payment as threatening to withhold the ability to live (i.e. "You give me sex or you won't be able to pay rent").  That the prostitute can seek another client is of no importance, because the choice with that client will be the same as long as the driving factor is payment.

Sex is a gift, among the most significant gifts humans can offer one another, and it is its own reward.  We should never condone its definition as a commodity, to be bid down to the lowest price that desperate people will accept as a means of surviving in a debt-driven and exploitive society.  Prostitution, overtly exploitive or not, is an affront to the basic value of humans to one another, and that's why it is wrong.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Counter-Progressive Era

We are living in a counter-progressive era.

Upon reading this pronouncement, many people will want to argue the point.  That's fine.  Drawing out opinions is as much the purpose of this blog as is informing them.  Before you disagree, however, let me make sure we're on the same page.

To both the conservatives who view the word "progressive" as a stand-in for the word "liberal" and the liberals who view it the same way, be aware that when I say "progressive," I do not mean "liberal."

For one thing, I would never claim that we are living in a "counter-liberal" era.  What would that mean when, propaganda from the founder of The American Spectator aside, liberal ideology is reflected in so many of our policy discussions, debates, and candidates?

No, I mean very precisely that we are living in a counter-progressive era.  To explain, let's talk for a moment about what it means to be progressive.

Progressive Thinking in Practice

Conservatives view government as something to be feared and liberals see it as something to be celebrated, but both behave as if government is eternal.  This makes the question is who will control it, with the corresponding goals of either containing it from or enabling it to do what it does.  A conservative success is dealing with government, for instance, is one that prevents "it" from "stealing" people's money or "infringing" on their liberties.

The progressives grasped the fundamental truth that government is not eternal, and that in a democracy it is not only a construct but specifically our construct.  There is no government but what we ourselves create, and the government is us.  Therefore, anything that "it" wants to do or does is a function of what we want to do, and -- this is important -- we can do anything.

The first half of the 20th Century was dominated by progressive ideas, and examples of this can-do approach abound.  No progressive rejected the claim that an income tax was unconstitutional, but that did not impress them.  Government is of, by, and for the people; they wanted to enact the tax, so they amended the Constitution to reflect their will.

And they did it often.

With what amounted to a national show of hands, progressives destroyed foundational principles on which American government was established by transferring election of senators from state governments to the voting public and then seven years later including women alongside men as members of the voting public. 

Furious with the giant wealth transfer mechanism of liquor peddled to exhausted workers who in turn traded back to company stores the very earnings for which they had given their liberty, progressives established in no uncertain terms that the sale, possession and consumption of "intoxicating beverages" was illegal -- then decided sixteen years later that they had been wrong, and by another show of hands undid what they had done.

Beyond the Constitution, the Progressive Era of the 20th Century saw the dismantling of cronyism in favor of a professionalized civil service, the establishment of systemic and scientific means of assessing food and drug purity and safety, and the oversight and regulation of the banking system. 

It also featured the establishment of the Selective Service, the "draft" process by which American citizens were conscripted to fill the armies of the nation during time of war.  Far from being the attempt to shuffle wars onto the poor that it had become by the time of Vietnam, the draft was first enacted for precisely the opposite reason: among the most zealous and idealistic of Americans with the students and children of the wealthy, and as it became clear that these were leaving to join British and French forces in prosecuting the First World War even with American neutrality still in effect, lawmakers rushed to find a way to field troops that would ensure that America did not lose an entire educated generation in an instant.

Were the actions taken by progressive governments infringements on individual liberty?  Of course they were.  But those individuals who felt their liberty infringed were members of a society that had banded together for the purpose of protecting it.  That protection was not magical but a function of the effort of everyone made to keep America free.  Thus, progressive thinking reasoned (and progressives were very big on reason over ideology; this was a scientific age), American freedom itself was a function of American will, and could be "protected" only insofar as the American people themselves defined it.

The same reasoning applied to business.  Confronted with anti-trust claims, financier J.P. Morgan suggested that Theodore Roosevelt should "have his man see my man and fix it."  Morgan missed the central tenet of progressive thinking and therefore did not anticipate Roosevelt's response -- that as President of the United States, his demands were the demands of the American people and could in no way be compared to or negotiated against the preferences of even the great banking magnate.  (The government won.)

Progressive ideals fueled American mobilization and victory in the Second World War, the rebuilding of Europe, resolve in the face of Soviet aggression (e.g. the Berlin Airlift), the establishment of the social safety net including the health programs of the Johnson years, and the long campaign to dismantle segregation and confront racism that today we call the Civil Rights Movement. 

Progressives did not necessarily agree with one another as to particular outcomes.  What they did believe was that they could accomplish their goals through government, which was more a function than it was an establishment or entity.  The act of government, the exercise of power by the American people, was by definition acceptable and proper whenever it occurred; the government could not "overstep" because the actions were taken by us rather than it.

But do you hear that language today?  What happened?

Reversals and the Changed Mindset of Today

To be sure, there are still progressives.  Some would be astonished to know that these exist on both the political left and right, but let's be clear: many people on the left have outlooks that are rather counter-progressive. 

The vast majority of Americans today see government as something that is, an existing entity that can be taken over and leveraged but whose limits are fixed by something.  On the right, for instance, it is common to hear the Constitution discussed as if it were the Ten Commandments, carved in stone by God and handed down in as-is form.  That many of the key provisions were changed, or even that some of the most sacred of their beliefs (such as the right to bear arms) were only introduced as amendments, somehow does not impact this view of the world.

Where the progressives saw our system as purely representative, we have come to see it as immutable.  We see no way out of the gridlock of current politics -- even though we could with a national show of hands scrap the filibuster or scrap an entire house of Congress.  We feel doomed by a national debt that is utterly meaningless, denominated in a currency purely of our own making and as uncollectable as a pledge to turn over all of the air on Earth.  (In all of the fearmongering about China and debt collection, have you ever wondered how one collects a debt from a debtor holding a thousand nuclear bombs?)

This sense that the government is an alien partner or oppressor than than a manifestion of our own power and will in turn robs of us our imagination.  Barack Obama infamously "spent" $800 billion trying to stimulate the economy -- but what did that money really do?  Half of it went out in tax cuts (little mention of that from Republicans, mind you) because tax cuts were easy to do.  More than another third was handed to state and local governments to pay current bills. 

Somewhere in the mix, a few billion was floated for high-speed rail pilot projects.  But have you noticed that we are, $800 billion later, still talking about our "crumbling roads and bridges," and the high rate of unemployment? 

There are more than 15 million work-eligible Americans out of work today.  $800 billion was enough to overtly pay each of them a $50,000 salary for a year and utterly eliminate unemployment -- and that idea was never, ever discussed.

Americans today exist in a state of idolization of market forces and so-called "job creators."  We don't ask ourselves why it is that in a country where enough food exists to feed every person virtually anything he or she might want to consume on a given day, we still cling to a model of price-rationing that guarantees hunger to so many.  We point to the past and say that people always worked for their food, missing that for virtually all of the past food was actually scarce rather than abundant and always sidestepping that we employ a vast and thoroughly abused underclass of people whose sole function is to grow and deliver that endless bounty.  Surely, these are not the ones benefitting from the price-rationing.

What is wrong with a nation whose people look at an unemployed physicist and ask why he hasn't taken a job as a janitor so he can be "working" -- as if the societal value of work were irrelevant compared to the paycheck that the act of working delivers?  But this is how we think.

And social issues are no different.  Court decisions can be important catalysts and sustaining fuel for ongoing popular campaigns, because they strike at existing laws and bring them to national attention, but the real victory of the Civil Rights era was the Civil Rights Act, not Brown v. Board.  The Fifteenth Amendment guaranteed black Americans the right to vote in 1869 but was uniformly ignored in the wake of the Hayes Compromise until the Voter Rights Act was passed a century later.  Writing something down doesn't make it powerful; it becomes powerful when people stand behind it.

But on the social issues of today, where are we?  The push for redefinition of marriage is being waged primarily in a series of court cases, and we have already seen the outcomes: when courts establish rights that voters have not agreed to back, they often move to amend constitutions to eliminate those rights. 

Are advocates of so-called gay marriage hopeful that the U.S. Supreme Court will find for them a Constitutional implication of their right to marry?  This would be utterly unnecessary if a broader effort were made to positively provide for the redefinition of marriage at the Federal level, something possible with broad popular support.  Absent that support -- absent progressive action -- a court decree may well prompt a backlash, leading to a Constitutional amendment that explicitly defines marriage in paired heterosexual terms ("one man and one woman").  To prevent that, redefinition advocates need win over just twelve states, which would make ratification impossible.  But if a court end-run inflames popular passions against them, those advocates may find that they have not only lost everything for a moment but now need thirty-nine states to pass a new amendment repealing the first.

Everywhere, there are walls being erected.  The leftists in the Occupy movement consume commericial bottled water instead of demanding repair and improvements of the world's most envious public water system.  On the right, people fawn over deference to our men and women in uniform while urging their own sons and daughters to avoid military service, now an optional profession rather than the national duty it was in the Progressive Era.  We argue over which agencies to cut and which to fund whether asking what it is that they provide and whether that is being done well, saying we can't afford it instead of asking whether we need it.

Conclusion

No society that has built a wall has thrived because of it.  The transition from can-do expansionism to an effort aimed at maintaining the status quo (particularly as it relates to one's own society's accomplishments) stands out in history as the point at which societal decline sets in.  People seek to safeguard themselves because they believe some are inevitably lost; they build private toll roads because they have given up on the notion of a generally accessible and sufficient network for public travel.

In a counter-progressive climate, where everything becomes more and more about onesself and less about the society in which we live and our duty to that society, we enter a paradoxical spiral: the more we cling to what we have, the more we must consume to stay where we are as the people around us fail to keep up.  Economies and social networks are both circulative.  Clinging to your money may leave you with a high-tallied bank account on a street of foreclosed homes, populated by dangerous people who have each laid claim to a weapon and have their sights set on your family.

Forget about the debt.  Is this hopeless, docile world the one that we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?

And if we can't break the cycle of how we think about government, does it really matter which party is overseeing the gridlock in Washington?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why do we borrow so much? Simple.

Borrowing in America is practically a national hobby.

Unlike the moralizers on Web forums who go on and on about how they made it through life with no debt, the vast majority of Americans are deeply in debt.  (By the way, there are some people who do start off with relatively little and yet continue to live debt-free, but statistics on how few of these there are suggest that most of the folks on the forums are lying.)

Why do we borrow? 

As Households

Housing is generally a household's biggest expense.  For those who "own" (a term that I place in quotes because true ownership comes only when clear title is delivered), that means a mortgage.  Renters don't have mortgages but do pay rent, and in either case, a large chunk of household income goes to paying cost of housing.

With what's left of our incomes after housing, we then have to provide a whole lot of things for our families, including food, clothing, medicine (healthcare), transportation, education, childcare, and entertainment.(1)

Of course, even before all of that, we have money withheld for taxes.  America's largest expenditures are for Social Security and Medicare, two programs that ironically don't do anything for the vast majority of the people who are in positions to actually pay for them.  That's because both programs are primarily for retirees, people who are no longer working.

Between the money that goes to taxes and the money that goes to housing, a lot of us don't have enough left to meet our expenses.  Since we generally start off earning relatively little, borrowing allows us to get the things that we need and repay the cost later, when we make more money.  Of course, because every bit borrowed takes an ongoing slice out of our income, we typically find that the raises we get over time only barely keep pace with the rising costs of servicing our debts.

As a Country

The choices that we have made as individuals explain why we keep accumulating debt at the national level. 

As mentioned earlier, Social Security and Medicare are our biggest expenses, and they are paid for by people who don't actually collect their benefits.  Because populations grow, the best way to sustain the benefits promised by these programs is to have a growing population of workers paying into them; given enough workers, tax rates stay the same, and there's no need to borrow.

Increasing the workforce, however, requires a growing population.  America is among a very few developed nations that actually has an adequate birthrate for this purpose but consistently pursues policies that undermine it:
  • Social conservatives tout the merits of women staying home to raise children, an approach that regardless of merit (because childcare is very expensive; it tallies next after housing for most families) has the effect of removing large numbers of people from the workforce.
  • Fiscal conservatives rail against the costs of public childcare and social services, creating behavioral problems that lead to less stable youth populations and more crime.
  • Militarized police forces and harsh sentencing for non-violent offenders grow the ranks of felon-zombies who can't get most of the jobs that pay well enough to matter in terms of taxes.
Through it all, seniors—who vote more consistently than anyone else in the country—continue to demand their promised benefits (which they promised to themselves when they were younger), and because they are strapped with debt that they can barely afford as it is, they work diligently to block any notion of increasing taxes (which would put their personal finances in precarious positions).


Try any path through the maze; they all lead to the same outcome.

The costs of Social Security and Medicare therefore continue to rise without being abated by either higher rates or larger workforces, so we do what any household facing too little income to meet immediate needs does: we borrow the difference.  There's nothing surprising about that. 

What should surprise all of us are the extent to which we debt-strapped Americans keep envisioning ourselves as debt-free paragons of virtue, and the extent to which policy makers keep squandering the benefits of a growing population—a rare gift in the developed world.

1 Some people balk at the idea that households without adequate income think of entertainment at all.  This is nonsense.  Certainly, there are limits, but when one says "entertainment," he or she may not be referring to expensive pursuits.  However, entertainment has been a necessary part of life for as long as humans have existed.  It can't be discarded.