Posts Tagged ‘conservative’

No Atheists in Foxholes, No Libertarians in Crises

June 8, 2010

“Free market capitalism!”  Sounds sorta good, kind of liberating, all about freedom and all.  That’s where the libertarians got their name, apparently, as that’s what they advocate.  But wait, what exactly IS a free market?  Do they really exist, and if they do, are they a good thing or not so good?

Let’s concede there may be free markets in small isolated settings.  Think of a farmer’s market where the producer supplies directly to the consumer.  They agree over the price of the goods, full disclosure about the quality of the goods and each is free to walk away from the deal if they choose.  The price may be paid in money or barter.  And both parties to the transaction are known and accountable to the other.

But in modern America there are virtually no real free markets.  In our transactions today, one party or the other has the upper hand.  Markets must be defined, enabled and regulated to some extent by governments federal, state and local, for good reasons.  Some regulations are intended to protect consumers, i.e., human beings, and some protect the environment in which all living things reside.  And some regulation is intended to help businesses operate, to give good business owners guidance as to how to proceed with their chosen occupation.

In my working career, I managed a metropolitan food safety and inspection program.  The prime purpose of the regulations we enforced was to protect consumers from food- and water- borne illness.  What I learned from restaurateurs and food suppliers was that the good ones, the ones who sought to provide a safe and tasty product, didn’t resent our being there, looking over their shoulders, pointing out this or that to improve upon.  On the contrary, they knew that good sanitation brought customers in their door.  And they saw how quickly something like a food-borne illness outbreak could put them out of business. (This really happened to some fancy, up-scale restaurants.)

The “good guy” food purveyors asked of us at the health department these three things:  That the regulations be based on the science of food safety not on hunches or opinions; that we first educate them before enforcement; and that the regulations be applied equally to them as to their competitors.  We tried to live up to those standards and, for the most part, they held up their end of the bargain.  Those who fought regulation were the ones who wanted to be free to make money whether or not people suffered.

Notice how calls for free market capitalism are always couched in terms of personal, individual, human-being freedom.  That’s not what they’re talking about, however; it’s not about the freedom of individual persons to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  It’s not even so much about the economic freedom of individuals to purchase as they can and want.  The call for free market capitalism is a call to liberate businesses from control, to leave them free to make money at the expense of human beings.

In the libertarian topsy-turvy world, businesses have priority over people, over living, breathing human beings.  Does that match your reality?  Not mine.  Businesses are created by humans to help us go about our day, meet our needs, live our lives.  It’s “we, the people” who should be in control and are given priority under the US Constitution through which we empower our government to regulate businesses.  Despite the recent opinion of the capitalist-friendly US Supreme Court, businesses are not people.

Free market capitalism brought us the “great depression” of the early 20th Century. The stock market and capitalists took advantage to the detriment of our economy.  Perhaps someone didn’t remember, or it had just been too long ago, but in the 1980s deregulation and free market capitalism re infected public policy.  “Government was the problem, not the solution,” we were told and “Greed is good.”  We looked to the stock market to tell us how “the economy” was doing, instead of focusing on the real economy of creating and distributing goods and services.

In the quarter century since then, infection has turned virulent, and it seems all wounds are festering at once these days.  The lack of control over the health insurance industry resulted in millions excluded from coverage; thousands have died.  The stock market was left free to trade fake assets. The mortgage industry was allowed to rope people into debts they could not pay.  Banks were allowed to gamble with our invested dollars and credit card companies were free to inflate rates and add fees.  Corporations were free to outsource jobs to other countries.  Trade agreements gave advantage to capital over labor.  Unions were busted.  Heavy industries, especially energy, were allowed to cut corners on things like mine safety and oil drillers could write their own regulations.  And it’s a “mell of a hess” we’re in now, folks.  Thank a libertarian next time you see one.

Libertarian economic policy just does not work, and the reason it does not is because it ignores this simple principle any businessman knows:  The first purpose of a business is to make money.  I’m not putting that down as a bad thing; it’s entirely natural.  Furthermore, businesses also have other goals, such as helping people and making our communities better.  It’s just that, unless they meet their first purpose, they can’t serve any other purposes.

Furthermore, the larger the business, the more divorced from the secondary missions the first purpose becomes.  It becomes more and more about money because more and more money is at stake.  Capitalists will fight harder against regulation than will local small businesses.  They’ll buy media outlets to influence public opinion and skew the information we get. They’ll spend millions every day, day after day, manipulating elections and elected officials.  And they will demonize anyone who would, through regulation, restrain their primary purpose by calling them socialists and communists and accusing them of taking over health care, being un-American, etc.  Sound familiar?

But notice that, come a crisis, libertarians will be quick to demand that the old evil government step in to make things right.  And this they do without even the grace to admit they caused the problem in the first place.  No wonder several economists have recently said words to the effect that “there are no atheists in foxholes and no libertarians in crises.”  Free market capitalism will certainly drive us into a ditch, as it has done once again, but it can’t get us out of it.

Does the ultra-right carry water for the ultra-rich?

May 7, 2010

To paraphrase the Wicked Witch of the West in the “Wizard of Oz,” “How ‘bout a little truth, scare mongers?”

In my last article, I debunked the myth that our tax dollars are taken against our will and given to lazy people who refuse to work. Nevertheless, up popped a letter repeating that we’re “immorally taxed against our will” which apparently has origins in libertarian doctrine.  A corollary myth is that the only true purpose for the government is to “protect our freedoms” presumably meaning the military and police.  These are a poor reading of American history and a distortion of the Constitution and the government it established.  Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion here, but we’re not entitled to invent facts.

For American revolutionaries, taxation was an issue, but it was not, as implied by current “tea partiers,” an issue of high taxes.  For the colonists, the issue was taxation without representation – paying taxes when they could not elect voting representatives.  Other economic issues, which led directly to the Boston Tea Party, were favorable treatment for the British East India Company and restriction on colonial trade with countries other than Britain.

The East India Company was perhaps an early capitalistic, multinational corporation.  It was granted monopoly status by Britain and given preferences to supply the only tea colonists were allowed.  So colonists smuggled in tea from other sources and refused to buy British tea (even though it was cheaper).  In 1773, they attempted to send tea back to Britain and, when that failed, dumped it in Boston harbor.  There was reaction from Britain, counter-reaction from the colonists, eventually the Declaration of Independence and war.

After throwing off one government, the Americans turned around and formed what?  Another government more to their liking. The Preamble to the US Constitution gives the overall mission statement, the purposes, for the government.  I’ve covered this in a previous article, but repeat that the mission to “promote the general welfare” includes a large number of activities that are appropriate, constitutional governmental roles.  Saving an economy in free-fall and aiding the least of us in our society – the sick, the poor, the elderly, the unemployed, the children – are entirely appropriate roles for government, as are financial, and environmental and safety regulation.  Over the years, we have demanded that these roles be fulfilled.  We love this most about our country: Here we care about each other.

American revolutionaries believed in government and accepted taxes set by elected representatives.  And that’s just what we have today.  Whether born here or becoming citizens or legal residents by choice, we enjoy the blessings of this society and we have obligations to follow the laws and pay taxes.  How is this coercion or taxing us against our will when we are free to live elsewhere? Without our government we would effectively have no income and our assets would have no legal standing or even a record.  Without government we may think we have individual rights, but there is nothing to assure them, no one to truly “protect our freedoms.”

With funding and misinformation from capitalistic, multi-national corporations, today’s tea partiers (about 80% are Republican), libertarians and ultra-conservatives, wrap themselves in the “patriot” flag.  However, ideologically they bear a stronger resemblance to the secessionist southerners than to American revolutionaries.  They even talk of states’ rights and secession. For the policies they advocate, they would be on the side of the British and the East India Company were we back in revolutionary days.  They support the anti-tax, anti-government policies that serve the mega-rich. They protest high taxes when they, themselves, just received a huge tax cut enacted as a stimulus to the economy. Income taxes in 2009 were at an historic low.

They claim, but have no evidence, that the government is intruding on their individual rights.  On the contrary, it is these extremists who pose the greatest risk to individual rights.  Where they have been able to gain power themselves, instead of solving real problems they have enacted laws that certainly do intrude on the constitutional rights of millions (e.g., Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, Oklahoma’s invasion of the doctor/patient relationship regarding abortion, and some state denials of equal protection under the law to all).

They complain that the deficit is too large yet said nothing when most of the deficit grew by tax cuts for the wealthy and two unfunded wars.  The portion of the deficit caused by recent spending was essential to turn around this deep recession caused by, you guessed it, the mega-rich. They don’t see that we can more quickly pay down the deficit if we rebuild middle America and return to fair taxes for the wealthy than if we destroy the safety nets just to keep top tax rates low. Despite ample evidence that the stimulus did work to prevent economic free fall, they call it a failure.

They want to “take back” a country that they haven’t even lost. Many are proud of their faith, some even proclaiming this is a Christian nation.  How is it, then, immoral for us to be taxed but perfectly moral to eliminate our social programs that fulfill the “Golden Rule?”

Middle and low income Americans have every reason to be angry these days.  They have been dealt a raw deal – an unprecedented reduction in their economic wellbeing.  But some are directing their ire in the wrong direction.  It’s not the government, workers, immigrants, or minority group members who have harmed us.  It’s the banksters, the Wall Street stalkers and “free-market” capitalists.  Yet those same capitalists use their billions now to feed back to the uninformed all the talking points of the ultra right.  Their purpose is have us detest the government because that is the only force that can stand up to their unbridled greed.  They want us to repudiate the mission of the government to care for the least among us just so they can avoid their fair share in taxes.  And their vision for America’s future is…. what?  Future?  What’s that?  If it’s beyond their next quarterly earnings, it doesn’t matter.

Income Inequality and Societal Health

March 29, 2010

Recently, we’ve heard and read demands from some that our tax dollars not be taken “against our will” and given to “those who refuse to produce anything.”  How do these folks know their money is going to “people who refuse to produce anything?”  There’s no evidence of this.  Where are these slackards and ne’r-do-wells?

The fact is most tax dollars go to businesses and organizations to provide services and to state and local governments which in turn provide other services through businesses and organizations.  Their employees are recipients of the money but only in a context of working to earn it.  Employees, in turn, buy goods and services from businesses.  Our entire workforce is not a bunch of non-producers.  They’re taxpayers too!

And what about the case of the government paying for health care for those who cannot pay, such as Medicaid and SCHIP?  That money never crosses the palms of the patients.  It goes directly to the providers of health care and their WORKING employees. The patient gets the benefit of treatment, which may enable them to work rather than sit at home sick or die.  It improves their quality of life and enhances their future, but they can’t “bum a living” off health care assistance.  The same applies to the food stamp program which pays in food and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) which is, as its name, “temporary.”  So, there are few refusing non-producers under those rugs either.

Also, strike from the pack of non-producers those 18 and under who are not yet of “producing” age and the retirees who already “produced” for many years.  And strike those in higher ed or technical schools who are still learning how to “produce.”  Then there are those with debilitating illness that are unable to work.

About 10% of the working age population has applied for unemployment assistance – this generates our official unemployment rate.  Since seeking a job is a necessary condition for obtaining assistance, unemployment recipients are actively trying to return to “producing” something.  The unavoidable conclusion is that there can’t be many “people who refuse to produce anything” receiving government assistance.  They may be out there, but they’re not living on your tax dollars.

This reminds me of the phantom “welfare Cadillac” that conservatives claimed a woman – of course a woman of color – drove, back in the day.  Supposedly the Caddy, that strangely could never be located, was funded by the taxpayers.

Why are some of us so irrationally distrustful of our fellow human beings?  Why did a “tea party” crowd verbally assault a man with Parkinson’s Disease who sat at a rally with a sign saying he needed health care coverage and they might too some day. They called him a communist, threw money at him and taunted that he was just looking for a handout. It was sickening to see someone abused in that way. (One of his tormentors has now come forward to apologize, expressing shame for his behavior.)  And now, why are our elected representatives who supported health insurance reform being subjected to threats of violence, racial and ethnic slurs, and acts of vandalism?  All they have done is extend to all Americans the access to health care enjoyed by people in all the other advanced nations of the world.

The answer to “why?” rests, in part, in purposefully ramped up mob behavior.  However, another more significant part of the answer can be found in a book I recently read: “The Health of Nations:  Why Inequality is Harmful to Your Health” by Ichiro Kawachi and Bruce P. Kennedy.  This book is a real eye-opener for those who would see.  Their prescience, in 2002, of the recent economic collapse is astounding.  Years before it occurred, they touched on all aspects of the collapse – the housing boom, the deregulation, the power of corporations, the media, consumerism, income inequality, credit debt and even the derivative trading on Wall Street!

The book is not based upon hunches and opinions, but on solid research – comparisons of countries and of states within the US regarding economic measures and indicators of societal health.  The economic measures were things like personal income, taxation, employment, GNP, ownership, savings, hours of work and wages.  The measures of societal health were things like life expectancy, infant mortality, child abuse, suicide, mental health, school dropouts, divorce, teenage pregnancy, crime, alcohol and drug abuse, participation in community organizations, voter participation, attitudes toward government and personal expressions of cooperation, happiness and trust/distrust for others.

Note the last item.  Some of this research specifically examined feelings of trust/distrust for other people. Typical research questions asked if people felt that “most people can’t be trusted” or that “most people would try to take advantage of you if they got the chance.” In a 1999 study, more than HALF (!) of Texan research subjects agreed that most people can’t be trusted and ALL of the states in which more than half agreed with that statement were southern US states!  It’s sad that so many viewed their fellow beings so harshly.  There’s no way it’s the truth; it’s irrational.

Where does it come from and why is distrust so much more common in the US and in southern US states?  Those who favor laissez-faire capitalism and elimination of social programs are not gonna like the findings of this research.  While I’m sure it was not intentional, conservative/libertarian political and social policies of laissez-faire capitalism and disinvestment in social programs have resulted in a large and growing gap in disposable income between the wealthy and the rest of us.  And greater income inequality has led directly to downward trends in virtually all measures of societal health.

In “The Health of Nations” the authors report that “Between 1947 and 1973, American families at every step of the economic ladder enjoyed income growth – and the poorest families had the highest growth rate of all.  But, beginning in 1973, the economy began registering sharp increases in both earnings and income inequality.”  Between 1977 and 1999, the income of the wealthiest 1% rose 115% while the income of the poorest 20% actually dropped by 9%.  The authors reported that in 2002, “Forty percent of American families are either no better off or worse off today in real terms than they were back in 1977.”  That was in 2002; it’s gotten measurably worse since then.

Among advanced nations of the world, the United States is the richest, but has the 2nd highest income inequality (Singapore is 1st) and has far more health and social problems than any other country.  Among US states, southern states, including Texas, are among the highest in income inequality and have the highest frequency of health and social problems.  And in the US, especially in the southern states of the US, conservative economic and social policy has held sway for the last three decades.

Tax cuts for the rich have been paired with a suppression of earnings for the rest of us.  Anti-government actions such as tax and budget freezes have eroded our social capital and infrastructure.  We basically dismantled welfare for the poor, but the “welfare for the rich” continued apace, reaching its most egregious level in the recent bailout of the financial system.  In search of illusory “free markets,” deregulation of businesses and free trade agreements sent US jobs packing and corporate profits soaring.  The promotion of consumerism has urged everyone to “keep up with the Joneses” while doing so has become harder.

People are hurting, and in societies with greater income inequality, even the rich suffer a diminished quality of life.  Everyone has increased anxiety, greater alcohol and drug use, lower feelings of cooperation and happiness, and increased distrust both of other people and of social institutions.  We become the “me” society, not the “we” society, comparing ourselves to everyone else instead of seeing ourselves in everyone else.  Prejudice against “others” is heightened as we look around in anger and distrust, for someone to blame.

If medical researchers announced a treatment that would cure a serious disease or that a currently used treatment was found to be ineffective or even damaging to our health, would we not use the curative treatment or stop using the ineffective or dangerous treatment?  Rational people would do so and most of us are rational.  Most of us, even those who formerly advocated conservative public policy, are seeing that it has not worked for our society.  They’re able to see that the pendulum needs to swing back to re center our society.

We recently saw that, if health insurers are taking advantage of health care consumers, we can change that.  If our extreme income inequality, the worst in the world, is harming our society and causing us to have the largest frequency of social problems, we can change that as well.  We just need to raise our rational heads above the rhetoric, expose the misinformation, avoid the buzzwords, reject the politics of hatred and mistrust and focus on doing what works.