Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Obama Administration is Dead

The just-announced compromise between President Obama and gloating Republicans seems to be the final nail in the coffin of the Obama Administration. This guy, to put it simply, seems to have no stomach for a fight at all. Like some modern anti-hero, when the going gets rough, he caves. So today, as he’s been hinting all along, he announced that he would extend the Bush tax cuts for all Americans, including those making over $250,000/year or even $1 million a year (as Senator Schumer proposed.) No, Obama ate the whole poisoned meal, and tried to defend it to outraged colleagues. More than that, he added a couple of new wrinkles. First, he proposed to provide a year’s drop of 2% in the FICA or Social Security taxes that all Americans pay (progressives have proposed making wealthy Americans pay more by extending the amount of income subject to SS taxes, but Obama, predictably, went the other way). While Obama claims that this will put more money in the hands of working Americans (and it will, short term), other progressives have pointed out that it makes a start in a direction favored by the most rabid reactionaries, who have been trying to get rid of Social Security for 80 years. That is, by reducing the amount going into the Social Security Trust Fund (already raided for years by mainly Republican presidents to finance their shitty wars), the President’s action will add to the pressure to bankrupt Social Security to the point where it will be abandoned as too costly. After all, Americans need their military-industrial complex. But there’s another element to the plan as well, again a major cave-in to slavering Republicans and their millionaire constituency. The hated estate tax would be lowered, on estates worth more than $5 million, to 35%. Democrats, Obama’s party, wanted to make the tax 45% on all estates over $3.5 million (still a lowering from the 55% it had been), but again, the Republican plan won.

Sort of makes you wonder if perhaps Obama isn’t a closet Republican, doesn’t it?

Whatever he is—and it certainly is not progressive—it now seems clear that he has decided that his only hope for winning in 2012 is to follow Bill Clinton’s example, and turn to the right after a mid-tern ‘shellacking’. It is a bitter pill for progressives to swallow after the euphoria that greeted his election. It is also, unless I miss my guess, the death knell for his administration. Because the one thing Americans despise more than a loser is a president so weak he can’t even muster the courage to use his bully pulpit to fight for what he believes in. Instead, at every turn, Obama has caved in to conservative forces—whether it’s on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Health Care “reform”, or taxes on the rich. Perhaps he long ago concluded that as a black man, he had to present himself as a non-threatening, non-combative intellectual. But he’s done that, and it has backfired every time. According to Republican rhetoric, he’s a socialist, a communist, a Muslim and a Nazi all rolled into one. Why he thinks he can somehow ingratiate himself with them and their constituency now is a mystery no one seems able to solve. The only thing that appears certain to me, again, is that it—plus his continuing cowardice in confronting his enemies—will condemn him to one term. Given the lack of backbone he’s displayed thus far (and sadly, he has tons of company among his Democratic comrades in Congress), perhaps that’s a good thing.

Lawrence DiStasi

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Politics Uber Alles

Sail on O Ship of State
Unless it has become too late
To save us from plutocracy
In the name of our democracy
As we edge to immolation
And pick this mighty nation
Apart to little bits
While playing politics

I don’t know about each of you, but I feel that we have reached a point in our democratic republic when we need to reassess the mechanics of governing. For the past two years, The Democratic party has “enjoyed” sizable pluralities in the House and Senate as well as holding the bully pulpit of the White House. The majority did not rule. They were attacked constantly by a noisy minority that has used every technique available to delay, defer, deny or otherwise thwart the will of the people. And here is the rub. We need to protect the minority so that the majority does not simply trample on the rights and needs of a minority that may also have the interests of the nation at heart. The majority perhaps could have been more forceful or even more creative in framing the issues that are at stake, but, save a miracle, the outcome would not have been altered a whit because we are engaged in a partisan struggle of the powerful and wealthy versus the great but shrinking middle class people of our republic.

Interestingly in the latest election, the interpretation of the votes has been made a measure of propagandistic effectiveness instead of fact or reflecting actual opinions and votes. When voters were questioned regarding continuing the tax break for the top 2%, their overwhelming opinion, regardless of party, was that the break for “millionaires and billionaires” should end. Republicans have claimed an entirely different message and have simultaneously called for extension of the tax break and also for reduction of the national debt that will be worsened by $700 Billion over the next ten years if the tax break is extended. So Democrats have used language indicating “millionaires and billionaires” when the actual line is $250,000 for joint returns. That was oversimplification. Millionaires and billionaires would get the break up to $250,000 as well as those who earn less, but Republicans ignored that subtle fact. That is careful word choice. Republicans say that this is not the time to increase taxes on the wealthy since the economy is in decline and that (here we go again) giving the tax breaks to the wealthy will trickle down to the ordinary people and create jobs.

The Bush tax breaks have been in place since 2001 and have not created jobs except in the government sector where about 1.2 million jobs were created and this by the party of smaller government. The private sector gained about 670,000 jobs before the recession. In other words, we proved again that trickle down does not work and that wealthy people do not spend their money where it gets multiplied in the marketplace. The estimate for the multiplication factor for tax breaks for the top 2% of earners is about 9% while the same action for the middle class is about 65% and still higher for folks on unemployment compensation. The claim that we need to rein in spending while splurging $700 Billion on people who don’t need help and who will not improve the job market seems hollow, especially for the additional millions of people who may lose their homes if the unemployment compensation is not immediately extended. There is a claim that small businesses that are not incorporated could be impacted if the Bush cuts are not extended to the highest 2% of income earners, but that, too, is highly suspect since only 1% of small businesses earn more than $250,000 per year. Just who or what is the “Bush break” aimed at? Let me present a theory that you are free to challenge. Republicans are acting as though wealthy people are somehow more worthy because they are wealthy or plutocrats. It is even more ironic that many of these plutocrats don’t pay taxes anyway because they have the wherewithal and tax attorneys to avoid them. The owners of the LA Dodgers, Frank and Jamie McCourt spend an average of $20 million per year and yet have paid pay no income taxes for the past ten years or so. Others may be more socially conscious, but their taxes are gracefully lower anyway. Hedge fund operators pay taxes “earned” at 15% despite huge profits. Surely you would agree that hedge fund investors are more worthy than engineers or schoolteachers or truck drivers, but would engineers, teachers and truck drivers?

Our current tax rates are the lowest since 1950, but in 1950, America's wealthiest 10% held only 30% of the wealth. Today, the top 1% holds about 40% of the wealth. In other words, the share of pie has increased about ten-fold for the truly wealthy. “Trickle down” has actually bubbled up and the only thing that the middle class feels trickle down is the sweat burning down their necks when they cannot pay their mortgages, or maybe a little pee down their legs when their kids go hungry. The middle class has shrunk as though all this were a zero sum game, but it does not have to be zero sum with more enlightened tax burdens. The top marginal tax bracket during WW II was essentially confiscatory at 94%, but citizens felt a need to support the nation at war. Even as late as 1980, the top rate was 70%. In the thirty years since then, the wealth of the richest few has skyrocketed while the income for middle class Americans who are wage earners and not major investors or inheritors, has barely kept up with inflation. Unfortunately, the bottom 10% have not even been able to keep up with inflation. The logic offered by many Republicans is that fairness means that everybody gets the same break. But the question remains, how do we measure equal breaks? Clearly, percentages have not done that job. Many taxes are absolutely regressive. The sales tax affects the poor far more than the wealthy. If your marginal income is at the poverty level and you need a tank of gas or disposable diapers, the local 8 or 9% sales tax may mean cutting down on food or other necessities. For the wealthy it means nothing, sometimes literally, if they have access to corporate sales tax exclusions for their personal use.

We have seen societies in history that were essentially plutocracies and they were often unstable or ruled with an iron fist. The health of a nation is related to the wealth of a nation, but only insofar as the wealth is distributed well enough to avoid great pain or obvious un-merited inequity. As long as we have inequity of regressive taxation on necessities then the income tax needs to be realistic as well as a balancing factor for the perception of fairness. The obvious endpoint of the current trend is a banana republic where a few families control the fates of the remaining families. We can avoid that and can look to addressing inequities by addressing the factors that create the widening gap. Fairness can be measured partly on the ability to pay. Fairness can be measured by reining in costs for things like education that drive innovation and growth for the entire nation. It is in the best interest of the nation to encourage education and to avoid additional regressive burdens such as the newly proposed elimination or reduction of the mortgage exemption or we will quickly shift into a landlord class of great control that will mimic Dicken’s England. It is ironic that this very day, we are celebrating the highest corporate profits ever and yet we have a national average unemployment of 9.8%. We have had constant and consistent productivity growth over the past 30 years and yet fairness in sharing those productivity gains has escaped the workers in both manufacturing and service industries.

Americans are essentially fair-minded. Statesmanship demands fairness and not temporary political advantage. Politics in absence of fairness is not only temporary, it is folly that risks our basic structure. We need to reward those who create jobs that stay in the US and stop using labor costs as a trump card to eliminate good jobs. Incidentally, just look at Boeing. They decided that cheaper labor would save their market for the 787 “Dreamliner.” Boeing is 3 years behind schedule and counting. Cheap overseas labor was no solution and is no solution. Instead of a “Dreamliner,” they got a nightmareliner that will not go away. Obama: use your veto. Travesty will surely follow the right wing capture of the House of Representatives. Class warfare has progressed and the Middle Class is losing.

George Giacoppe
05 December 2010

Wikileaks: An Inside Job?

The news has been alive with alarms about the catastrophe that could result from the latest Wikileaks revelations—over 250,000 cables from the U.S. State Department that could compromise U.S. diplomacy and diplomatic relations for years. Hilary Clinton expressed grave concern about the damage not only to the United States but to the world. The Justice Department announced it would be doing all in its power to prosecute those responsible—chiefly, it seems, Private Bradley Manning, now in custody as the lead, and only suspect in the investigation.

But the real hysteria has centered on those two remaining members of the ‘Axis of Evil,’ Iran and North Korea. Of course, it’s understandable that pooh bahs would be alarmed about North Korea, what with its two recent attacks on the South ratcheting up fears of a renewed all-out war (hard to believe that there has never really been an end to the 1950s Korea “conflict,” isn’t it). Still, the major alarums and trial balloons have concerned Iran. In England’s Guardian, the Nov. 28 headline read: “Saudi Arabia urges US attack on Iran to Stop Nuclear Programme.” The very first sentence adds that “other Arab allies have agitated for military action against Tehran.” These “other allies” include such democratic stalwarts as Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt. All see Iran as a “threat”, as “evil,” or as a “snake.” “Cut off the head of the snake,” Saudi King Abdullah is quoted as urging.

All this was, of course, real music to the Israelis. As prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu was quoted by the Washington Post on Monday Nov. 29, "More and more states, governments and leaders in the Middle East and the wider region and the world believe this is the fundamental threat." Netanyahu went on to expose what he called the “gap” between what Arab leaders say privately and publicly, their public “script” alleging that the “greatest threat is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” while “in reality, leaders understand that this narrative is bankrupt. There is a new understanding,” i.e. the malignancy of a nuclear Iran.

And of course, the American media ran with this as the major story of the Wikileaks revelations. Both the PBS News Hour, with its pundits seriously discussing how bad the Iranian situation is, how unstable its leader, how worried the Arab states are about threats to their own regimes from a rising Iran; and Charlie Rose, where other pundits reviewed the “real” threat of a nuclear Iran (still, by the way, without even a hint of a nuclear weapon, though that no longer matters to the alarmists), and the “consensus” in the Arab states about this (the consensus of the Arab monarchies, at least, most of whom quietly sided with Israel against the Palestinians in the original war in 1948; though Hosni Mubarak of Egypt only jumped on the “throw Palestine to the wolves” bandwagon much later, to maintain U.S. aid and save his dictatorial ass increasingly threatened by popular revolt); in both arenas the ‘experts’ shook their heads gravely as they observed that the time is getting short for someone—Israel or the Obama administration—to do something. And the something was clear to all: someone has to bomb Iran’s still peaceful nuclear facilities.

It was amazing really. Out of 250,000 cables released or soon to be released, the big story was Iran: bomb bomb bomb Iran. No wonder Ahmedinejad, Iran’s president, scornfully dismissed the leaks as U.S. propaganda. But even that was taken as a sign that the man is as totally divorced from reality as his unstable nation.

Until, that is, on November 30, we heard from Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to George W. Bush’s first Secretary of State, Colin Powell. Speaking on KPFA’s “Letters to Washington” show, Wilkerson had some fascinating things to say about Wikileak’s latest revelations. First, he said that all the worry about the leaks threatening U.S. diplomatic relations was a “tempest in a teapot.” Diplomats, according to Wilkerson, know that harsh words often get said in private, that governments all try to spy on each other, and that everyone understands the game. What he was really concerned about, he said, was the lack of capability, not to mention supervision of the alleged leaker, Pvt. Bradley Manning. “I have serious difficulty,” the Colonel said, “accepting the fact that this private downloaded what appears to be over a million documents and then gave them to others…Where was his chain of command when he was doing this? when he was downloading thousands of documents?” And then the Colonel came to the real nub of it:

This looks increasingly like (and I’m not a conspiracy theorist) someone is either jumping on top of this, opportunistically, to take advantage of it, or perhaps they were involved in it all along. And why is the information contained in these latest leaks in particular so proof positive of so many things that the United States, or certain parts of the United States, are trying to get across to the public—not least of which is Israel’s threatened position, that an existential threat exists to Israel and Iran is that threat. ‘Look how perilous, look how dangerous this situation is.’ That comes out of these leaks. (emphasis added)

Remember: this is not some ‘expert’ who may or may not have a private agenda with regard to the leaks or the substance of the leaks; nor, as he says, a conspiracy theorist. This is an army colonel, former chief of staff to the previous Secretary of State. This is a man who knows how Washington works, how diplomacy works, how the world of statecraft works. And his chief concern is not the alleged “damage” to the nation’s diplomacy posed by the leaks; it is the twin questions: 1) how did the United States allow this to happen? and 2) was someone taking the opportunity (either by leaping on what was leaked, or actually facilitating the leaks in the first place) to plant disinformation to affirm things they want affirmed?

And what do they want to affirm? It appears that the main objective is to provide further ammunition undergirding the administration’s—driven mainly by Israel and its U.S. lobbies—position that Iran constitutes the greatest threat to world peace since the Soviets, and the increasing justification for a military mission to take that threat out. As Zeid Rifai, the president of the Jordanian senate is quoted as telling a US official: “Bomb Iran, or live with an Iranian bomb. Sanctions, carrots, incentives won’t matter.” Or, as Major General Amos Yadlin, Israel’s military intelligence chief, warned last year: “Israel is not in a position to underestimate Iran and be surprised like the US was on 11 September 2001.”

I have to admit, it never crossed my mind that the Wikileaks cables could be part of a disinformation campaign. Perhaps it takes someone with inside knowledge of how such things work, like Colonel Wilkerson, to get it. But there it is. And my guess is that increasingly, especially as Obama is further harried by Republican zealots howling for his head, the refrain is going to get louder: Bomb Iran now, or suffer another 9/11.

Will the American public go for it? Normally I’d say no. But given what they’ve swallowed recently, and given the fear in this nation, can anyone be sure?

Lawrence DiStasi