Economy


The terrible water contamination disaster in West Virginia is not over yet. Even when all the faucets are on, the lessons learned are likely to be modest, given the grip of the coal industry on the state. One can hope, however, that the crisis might make a dent in the Republican “small government” ideology, with its war on regulations and regulators. The President of the West Virginia Senate said in a Washington Post interview January 14, “People always beat the drum about too much government regulation… My goodness, there are 300,000 people I guarantee wish they had a little more regulation.”

No one can still get their head around the fact the containers holding the MCHM chemical and arrayed along a bluff on the Elk River just upstream from the water intake pipe for Charlestown were last inspected in 1991, or the fact that an employee of the company that owned the facility tried to stop the leak with a concrete block. It was residents, smelling the distinctive licorice smell of the MCHM chemical, who raised the alarm, not the company. It does not take a Saturday Night Live comedian to wonder if the take away message here for the companies involved is that they need to work on making coal washing chemicals odorless, not safe.

However strong the crisis driven wish to regulate the safety of the water, finding out who to regulate or who to hold accountable isn’t so easy. The tank farm in question is owned by the company Etowah River Terminal, in turn owned by the Orwellian named Freedom Industries. The chief executive of Freedom Industries is being criticized for not communicating with authorities and has not been available for public comment beyond issuing a quick apology. In addition, the makers of the chemical, Eastman Chemical Company of Kingsport, Tennessee, declined to make studies of the chemical available, on the grounds that it was proprietary information.

It has been largely the Feds to the rescue. President Obama declared an emergency. The Federal Emergency Management Agency sent 370,000 gallons of potable water to Charleston. The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are testing the waters for safe levels of the contaminant. The US attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia is opening an investigation.

On the other hand, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection underestimated the 7,500 gallon spill by 2,500 gallons. The governor is “developing” plans to guide people in cleaning their plumbing systems and is giving residents a credit on their water bills! To be fair, at the federal level, the Environmental Protection Agency has apparently based its standard for a safe level of MCHM on one study that is challenged by the Environmental Defense Fund.

I am reminded of another crisis – Hurricane Irene. In that case Connecticut Light and Power fell down on its job, leaving 600,000 people without light or power for 10 days. But the state authorities in Connecticut had no address to send directives or information requests. Connecticut Light and Power was a subsidiary of another company, Northeast Utilities, incorporated in Maine. But how was state government of Connecticut to demand improved performance? There is no Northeast government to hold Northeast Utilities accountable.

In terms of confronting small government ideology it is relatively easy to point out how the confusion of jurisdictions works to the benefit of corporations wanting to evade oversight. But there is another factor and that is to look at our economy from the perspective of individual workers. Republican ideologues assume that tax money used to implement regulations somehow reduces employment, by presenting disincentives to business to employ more workers. They also mange to add the assumption that people working for the private sector are automatically better that people working for the public sector, even morally better, despite the word “service” in the phrase “public service.” On the contrary, employing individuals in the public sector – the inspectors and regulators – adds employment, adds consumer demand in the economy and provides public services, such as public safety, that are essential to economic growth. In addition, unlike these mysterious “Freedom Industries”, they are accountable to the people who are paying for them.

— Elizabeth Spiro Clark

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Our Moral Imperative
by Dan Rupli

Neckties have never made any sense to me. They serve no practical purpose whatsoever, and over the years, a good quality silk necktie can now cost about as much as I used to pay for my suits at J.C. Penny’s. That is why I have gotten into the habit of shopping for these hated neck chokers at the Goodwill Store, where, for a couple of bucks I can buy almost new looking all silk ties that would cost $75 bucks at Macy’s.

Last Friday I had picked out three really nice looking ties at the Goodwill Store, all with prestigious labels, and one made from no ordinary silk, but actual “Imported Italian Silk.” Nothing but the best for $6.97!

While waiting to pay, I was preceded in line by a middle aged lady who had purchased all of her family members’ Christmas presents (consisting of used clothing) at Goodwill, and she was fumbling through her purse to pay for her purchases. She brought forth carefully wrapped rolls of nickels, dimes, and pennies, and shook other loose change from her purse, coming up $3 dollars short of her total bill of $47 dollars. While she was rummaging through the clothing to decide which items not to buy, I quietly slipped the sales lady the extra 3 dollars. The lady making the purchase expressed her sincere gratitude, explaining to us that her husband was quite sick, and that her family was having a very hard time getting through this holiday season.

I have always considered myself blessed to have been born when I was, and where I was, with all of the advantages of being white, and growing up “suburban” in America. I have had the additional advantage of having traveled extensively in our magnificent Country, and throughout the far reaches of the world. I have witnessed both the extraordinary beauty and richness of our tiny planet, and the unspeakable pain and sadness of the impoverished people I met along the way.

All this has shaped my political ethic and beliefs. I am a man “of the left” who is completely devoted in his seventh decade of life to resetting the human table so there is a place at that table for every breathing child of God on this earth. I have concluded that we live in a kind of glorious global cornucopia, where there is plenty enough of everything-food, fuel, fiber, shelter, basic services and facilities so that there is no longer any valid excuse whatsoever for poverty. Anywhere! Especially here! Period!

I am finished making political arguments against the completely selfish and self absorbed corporate cretins of the right and their pimp-like lobbyists. You can never win an argument for equitable redistribution of resources when the deck is so stacked against ordinary citizens, and where the national media is owned and controlled by the very same people who are snuffing the life out of the middle class, and standing on the necks of the poor. My own mother was a child of poverty in rural Kansas in the 1920’s. My young Filipino wife held her 12 year old sister in her arms as she died of starvation in 2000, and her father failed by 90 days in 2002 to fulfill his goal of living to be 50 because of tuberculosis, so poverty is a very personal thing with me.

The only arguments that can win the day are completely moral in nature, and the profound impact of recent positions forcefully advanced by Pope Francis regarding the twin evils of trickle down economics and income inequality is rapidly gaining traction throughout the World. And none too soon.

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Sherrod Brown, and others in the Senate are leading the political argument against the “one percent” who own and control such a hideously disproportionate amount of the nation’s wealth. And our President is coming out stronger on this issue as well, enjoying the moral “cover” that the Pope is providing.

Now it is time for our Country’s clergy, philosophers, poets, historians, artists, students, and teachers (and lawyers, even)to weigh in loudly and forcefully on the leading moral outrage of our time-the corporate elitist takeover of capital, wealth, and the very institutions that were intended to protect us from all of this. They need to confront on moral, ethical, and religious grounds in the pulpits, in the class rooms, in the courts, and in the streets those issues of social and economic justice that are tearing us asunder. The so called “Christian right” needs to be smoked out regarding their religious hypocrisy, and confronted directly regarding their perversion of Christian dogma, whose basic underpinnings revolve around caring for the poor and the powerless.

If we can approach the New Year making the issue of economic justice a powerful moral cause like we did with the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the political solutions will naturally follow, and, as my early hero and inspiration, Martin Luther King, Jr. taught me and my generation “Justice will roll down like a mighty stream.”

My best to all of you in the coming year, and especially to that lady in the Goodwill Store with the rolled up coins and the sick husband.

Dan Rupli
Member, Board of Governors, WNDC

The Republicans have invented the idea that the election was bought by gifts from the government to “urban” voters― that 47 percent of the population who are “takers” as opposed to Republicans, who are the “makers” of jobs and goods, the wealth creators. For Republicans the reality that tax breaks for the rich don’t create trickle-down economic growth is just another deniable piece of objective evidence invented by the liberal press, just like the polls that said Obama was going to win the election.  But in “reality” it is the rich who are the real takers of gifts. By some alchemy they get to turn their income artificially into capital gains and thereby save fortunes from significantly lower taxes.

The “makers” obviously don’t see it this way. They may think they didn’t get a gift from the government, but rather as good businessmen incurred a business expense, buying this, that, or the other lawmaker. They paid for their tax gifts. They also paid for state legislators to redistrict their states or to pass voter suppression laws to artificially raise the number of Republicans in Congress.

Despite the dismal return on their money in November’s election, Republicans don’t appear to be giving these ideas up. So rather than turning our heads in embarrassment, we need to chase these ideas down every drain pipe until they are flushed out of our system.

We could start with the drains in Sea Gate, a gated community on Coney Island.  The community is asking for government help to rebuild after super storm Sandy.  Sea Gate started out as a retreat for Vanderbilts and Morgans in the 19th century. Current residents are described as middle class. According to a NYT report (11/27/12), whether middle class or super rich, they have chosen to live apart from their neighbor communities―with a vengeance.  They have ringed themselves with barbed wire and armed security check points. Sea Gate and other private communities can apply to get their streets taken off city maps (demapping), at which point such streets become privately owned, the communities assuming responsibilities for infrastructure, including roads, sewers, parks, and even policing.  This is the price for being left alone. Post-Sandy, however, Sea Gate has decided it cannot afford the infrastructure rebuilding costs, so it is asking for city, state, and federal assistance.

 

Sea Gate should get the help it is asking for. NYC’s deputy for operations is probably correct to say, “It’s in everyone’s interest to get these communities back.  If they’re successful, the city is successful.” Maybe some members of Sea Gate are embarrassed they are letting the Romney/Ryan team down by accepting government gifts.  If I were them, I would be more embarrassed by the barbed wire.

A noted political scientist Sam Bowles (The Santa Fe Institute) has estimated that one third of employed Americans are working to protect private property and that means, inevitably, of the very richest Americans. June 12 the New York Times (“For Executives with Everything…”) reported just how arcane and extreme this protection business can get. Harrison Prather trains very high end guard dogs, so high end that top price can go to $230,000, which is what Julia, one of his German shepherds, sold for. Julia is now guarding John Johnson in his Minneapolis and Arizona homes (he has five other protection dogs). Johnson was, until recently, the CEO of the Northland Group, a debt collection company in Minneapolis. Julia now has a part time trainer, Jeremy Norton. Norton, also works as a firefighter, and ruefully admits Julia cost half the value of his house.

If he were alive, Charles Dickens would no doubt have rubbed his hands in glee at the idea of “Mr. Johnson” for a novel: just how well you could make out with a business built on squeezing those poor, or the about to be poor; just how to teach government employees like firefighters know how little they count for their public service. Training killer dogs, yes, saving people, no.

Also on June 12, the Times Magazine carried an article on the extreme upscale Las Vegas mall, “Crystals”, and on its eerie emptiness, the reporter being one of three humans in a 23,000 square foot Prada store (the other two being a security guard and a saleswoman). The reporter was assured that the fact that the store was empty didn’t mean no one was buying. Personal shoppers for the very rich were sent before the store hours to scoop up, say, a $21,500 chinchilla bolero shrug. The saleswoman shows off some $8,000 gowns to the reporter: “The casino owners buy (them) for their wives”.

In his research and writing Bowles concludes reducing inequality does not compromise efficiency or economic growth. Also against conventional wisdom, the religion of self interested action does reduce the altruism of the individual which Bowles says, on the contrary, must be harnessed and recognized. We don’t know whether Sam Bowles has done research on the gaming industry as a percentage of GDP. But we would not be willing to bet against the chinchilla shrug. The empowered rich show every sign of bidding up the guard dogs.

Democrats use the phase “paying their fair share” to justify rolling back Bush tax cuts on the wealthiest Americans and bringing in significant revenue to set against deficit reduction. This is the wrong sales pitch because it implies that the wealthy should be encouraged to decide on their own that it is “fair” to “give” money to help with the deficit, rather as they make decisions on charitable contributions.

Recall that early in the first Bush Administration then Senate majority leader Trent Lott claimed that taking away more than 30% of an individual’s income for public purposes through taxes was “immoral.” In Lott’s and Republicans’ worldview, the individual has a moral right to keep what he gets, and the moral right to make the decision, as a free choice, to use what he gets for “doing good”. Liberty is the highest value for Republicans for moral reasons.

The Republican ideal is not so much small government as “exclusionary” government. What is excluded out – at least ideally – is any area of public policy where individuals are to be treated equally, any degree of redistribution whether through tax policy, welfare, health or even education spending. The social Darwinism ethos is challenged any time an individual who cannot afford a particular benefit lays claim to it as an entitlement. In right wing ideology, that individual case must be located in a sector where help cannot be presented as a claim, but rather as an appeal to another individual’s or private institution’s inclination (or not) to help out. It is key that the giving be a matter of private choice.

No one has an absolute right to wealth they earned because getting it is so dependent on preexisting institutions and norms, which in a democracy have theoretically been created with the participation of the citizenry as a whole, in many areas with moral justifications. This is precisely the idea of government the Republicans seek to constrict and delegitimize and that Democrats must support. So let’s not appeal to the Republicans sense of “fairness”. Just roll back the tax cuts. Remember, according to a Washington Post poll, 72% of the public support raising taxes on people who make $250,000 or more.

When President Obama announced a freeze on the salaries of federal government employees, he said that Americans should understand that everyone was going to have to make sacrifices. Clearly he wasn’t serious about the “everyone.” The federal employee in the Social Security Administration or the Passport Office is going to see their $60,000 salary frozen (and remember that the income of the middle class has been going down for decades) but the hedge fund manager whose after tax income is $100,000,000 (it’s important to look at the number of zeros) income isn’t going to be frozen. It is a sick joke to talk about “shared sacrificed.”

Answering to no constituents, 85% of the projected 2015 shortfall and 44% of the 2030 projectd shortfall would be eliminated by rolling taxes back to the Clinton rates, adding a 5.4% on income above $1 million and subjecting some income above $106k to payroll tax.

Eliminating farm subsidies, reducing the federal workforce by 10%, reducing spending on nuclear arsenal, taking the military to pre-Iraq size, reducing our military presence in Europe, and Asia, delaying some weapons programs, and noncombat overhead more than eliminates the 2015 shortfall and cuts the 2030 projected shortfall by 71%.

Increasing the Social Security and Medicare eligibility age to 68, and reducing Social Security benefits for those with higher incomes, tightening eligibility for disability and using some undisclosed alternate measure for inflation for calculating Social Security benefit cost of living increases, eliminating loopholes and having banks pay into a fund to offset their size and risk taking turns the projected shortfall into a surplus.