A Time of Renewal

About this time every year, when spring sparks life all around, humankind gets busy as well. We are found celebrating, remembering, crusading – and taking it to the streets, as was the case Saturday, April 29, in Washington, DC. The People’s Climate March brought 200,000 activists to swelter in global warming-style heat in the swamp, where they called out the deniers and demanded action. The march originated in New York City in 2014, but carried a particular urgency this year.

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With the temperature at a record 91 degrees, 200,000 people marched in Washington on April 29. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Just last week we celebrated Earth Day, first observed in 1970, and thousands more filled the streets across the nation to “March for Science,” and specifically the science that helps us protect the planet that sustains us. Friday, April 28, was Arbor Day, celebrating trees, and these living reminders of our bond to the Earth. Through photosynthesis, the trees yield oxygen for us and absorb the carbon dioxide that otherwise would degrade our atmosphere, and threaten life.

We live in a Green House, and our life depends on it. We are reminded of its splendor each year at this time. The air is moist with the stuff of life. We breathe deep and find renewal in the rebirth of the Earth. We try to reach beyond the bonds that hold us to this fragile planet, as the Christians do with Easter, as the Jews do with Passover, as Muslim sufi mystics and early pagans did with rebirths like Ishtar, or the Egyptian Horas. The spring equinox has always been a time of spiritual, as well as physical, renewal.

Thus, it’s not surprising that the last Saturday in April is designated “World Tai Chi and Qigong Day,” also celebrated as “World Healing Day,” when people all over the world spend an hour or two in group energy transference, through Taoist meditation, internal martial arts, and therapeutic breathing exercises. There are natural hazards this time of year with these outdoor exercises, as deep breathing may be interrupted by an assault of pollen and a sneezing attack. But being mindful brings qi energy to absorb the pollen and restore inner balance.

Ah, spring. It is a season that inspired the now ritual “Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” the fourth Thursday of April, April 27 this year. The Ms Foundation for Women concocted the event – originally just for daughters – to empower girls to excel in their eventual workplaces. The first celebration was in 1993, and I remember how some feared that the labor movement’s embrace of the event would overshadow a seminal marker in labor’s history, Workers Memorial Day.

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The AFL-CIO designated April 28 as Workers Memorial Day in 1972, when unions also were successfully pushing Congress and the Nixon Administration to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Each year since, the federation has demonstrated the need for new standards to protect workers on the job, even as each year the business lobby successfully fended off new standards and regulations to protect workers’ safety and health.

In the early 1990s, with support from Robert Reich and the Clinton Labor Department, we were close to gaining new standards for ergonomic safety – providing medical relief and workplace redesign to prevent injuries from repetitive motion – chronic problems for some factory workers, cashiers, office staff and others. Journalists are particularly vulnerable to carpal tunnel syndrome, a crippling condition caused by repetitive motion on keyboards. During the Bush administration, the business lobby blew away the ergonomics standard, and it is even more empowered under Trump.

Nothing matters to our government today more than the bottom line of corporations and rich investors – and particularly those connected to Trump Inc. That’s why the most important celebration, remembrance and crusade of this time of man – May Day – is so important this year. It is the historic symbol of resistance to corporate greed and economic injustice.

May Day, May 1, has been observed around the world as International Workers Day since 1889, commemorating protestors killed at Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 1, 1886, as they demonstrated for the eight-hour day. It was the beginning of a revolution in attitudes, legal precedent and government policies about how workers are treated vis-à-vis business organizations, and it sparked a wave of worker self-organization in the United States and around the world.

Now, with the resurgence of the corporate code of greed, we need this revolution more than ever. But our time of greatest need corresponds with the greatest decline in labor numbers and influence. There is a strong correlation between the two trends, and you can see how it has been manipulated through corporate campaigns that created right-wing think tanks (from Heritage to Cato), the so-called National Right to Work Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Commission and Astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Billions of dollars in corporate campaigns by the Koch brothers and others, empowered by the nefarious Citizens United ruling, have overwhelmed us with images and noise – and the greatest distraction of all, a hotel and casino magnate running the show, shaking us down. We face an enormous challenge to restore and renew our democracy against this corporate onslaught, but we can draw on the courage and convictions of those women and men who stood up and fought for the rights and protections we have today, and dare not give up.

So, let’s take heart in the people in the streets this year – from the Million Women to the People’s Climate marches. It’s spring, when a free people’s fancy turns to rising again. Happy May Day!

 

The Big Fix to Income Inequality

Income inequality is the defining and dividing issue of our time, as President Obama has reminded us in a series of speeches over the past few months. The huge gap between the richest 1 percent and the rest of us has been the subject of much debate and even “occupy” demonstrations targeting Wall Street greed and government inaction. But little is done, even though we have a prescription to reverse inequality and restore the middle class to our economy.

ImageThe remedy is presented by former Clinton Secretary of Labor and economics guru Robert Reich, who recently took us on a Mini Cooper spin through income inequality and what it means to our society. Reich is the impassioned lecturer-in-chief in “Inequality for All,” a smart and insightful documentary detailing the historic nature of the inequality problem, and how it has come to a head.

“Inequality for All” won a special award for documentary films at last year’s Sundance Film Festival but was ignored by the Academy of Motion Pictures.  The Oscar-nominated documentaries were more dramatic and visual than “Inequality for All,” I grant you, but perhaps none of them as important. Without a major commercial ad campaign, Reich nonetheless is able to push it relentlessly through his social media network – and I’m happily caught up in that loop.

The film is available via Netflix, Amazon and on-demand services. You will have to put up with the recurring lecture format to get to Reich’s keen insights and observations at the heart of the film, but you will be rewarded for your attention with a better understanding of a very serious problem in our nation. Fortunately, Reich uses humor and clever graphics to help tell the story:

The image of the suspension bridge frames the largest income gaps — between 1929, ahead of the Great Depression, and then again in 2007, just before the housing bubble burst and our extended Great Recession. We have reached a period not unlike that of FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, when we should be changing the rules of the game so that the destructive nature of income inequality doesn’t eat our middle class and collapse the social order.

But the political system is responding slowly, choked by influence peddlers with a vested interest in the status quo. The robber barons of today have a lot more resources at their disposal for influencing both public opinion and political alliances. The Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case, allowing unlimited spending on political campaigns, has further stalled political action.

In fact, since the beginning of the recovery from the 2007-09 recession, the top 1 percent has resumed its accelerated income gains while the bottom 99 percent has returned to stagnation and loss, according to the Economic Policy Institute, which has been tracking the trends in unshared prosperity since the 1970s. A state-by-state EPI study released Feb. 19, found that in 33 states the top 1 percent captured between half and all income growth from 2009-2011. This is continuing an alarming trend:

“The lopsided growth in U.S. incomes observed between 1979 and 2007 resulted in a rise in every state in the top 1 percent’s share of income,” EPI reported. “This rise in income inequality represents a sharp reversal of the patterns of income growth that prevailed in the half century following the beginning of the Great Depression; the share of income held by the top 1 percent declined in every state but one between 1928 and 1979.”

You can find out how your state ranks in income disparity with the EPI’s interactive feature linked to its report here: http://www.epi.org/publication/unequal-states/

Still, nearly seven in 10 Americans say the government should act to make sure the rich pay their fair share and more Americans share in economic prosperity, according to a CNN survey a few weeks back. And that view has held remarkably steady: in 1983, 68 percent of Americans favored government action to narrow the divide. Today, that number is 66 percent.

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So, what’s to be done? Part of the solution is to get the big money out of politics. Other laws and reforms are necessary. Here’s Reich’s prescription, which you can find at www.inequalityforall.com:

  • Raise the minimum wage. Many states have raised the minimum on their own, but it’s long past time for the United States to raise the federal minimum wage. We must ensure that fulltime jobs have wages and benefits that allow people to afford the basics.
  • Strengthen workers’ voices. Unless employees enjoy the fundamental right to form and join unions to bargain collectively with their employer, they will continue to be undervalued and disrespected in the workplace.
  • Invest in education, ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to a quality education, from early childhood to college.
  • Reform Wall Street. We must ensure the financial sector is working honestly and accountably to prevent it from taking over our economy.
  • Fix the tax system so that everyone is contributing a fair share. We must reverse the Ronald Reagan tax shift that benefited rich individuals and corporations and dumped on the rest of us.
  • Get big money out of politics. New laws are needed to overturn Citizens United so that corporations can’t spend unlimited amounts of money on campaigns and in return affect public policy and spending priorities.

As Reich notes in his documentary, solving the income inequality problem will require citizen action, making our voices heard over the thunder of the big-money influence peddlers. I like to think we can go back to basics, a la Dr. Seuss and the beloved Lorax:

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Still Keeping Time

Since my last post, I’ve been packing up and preparing to move during another ferocious heat wave scorching the nation. That is the big story from Arizona to Massachusetts. Mother Nature’s frenzy. And that’s another story.

We’re not moving far, but the process of parting with a home and memories accumulated over 22-plus years can be discombobulating, to say the least. I console myself with the fact that this is a new chapter, and there is much to build on. Time marches on, and with it go the flickering vignettes of life, the universe and everything.

Some thoughts on the news of the day, and yesterday:

ImageWho are braver than the firefighters who rush into the flames to save lives and property? They are our most important warriors today in this heat, with wildfires out of control throughout California, Arizona, Colorado, Montana and other states. The 19 firefighters who died fighting a blaze in Arizona this year were the best trained, the most dedicated, the most fearless. My hat is off to the International Association of Fire Fighters and President Harold Schaitberger, who speaks proudly and powerfully about firefighters’ dedication and organization in the public interest.

“The men we lost in those hills lived and served for others, for all of us,” Schaitberger said in tribute during the memorial service for the Arizona “Hotshot” crew. “They chose saving lives and protecting the citizens and country they loved, as their profession.”

They are my heroes. As the Boss says, may their love bring us love:

Perhaps the most outrageous outcome of the Trayvon Martin case, besides a jury of white women actually upholding vigilante injustice against a black teenager under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, is the pronouncement of shooter George Zimmerman after his acquittal that he felt “that it was all God’s plan.” What kind of God plans for the stalking and killing of an unarmed teenager? I am disappointed by the verdict but also dismayed by the sanctimony of those who would judge Trayvon Martin but not the acts of a wannabe cop who clearly initiated the confrontation and set it off. It is sad to think that American justice holds that profiling and prejudice are extenuating circumstances, and the perpetrator can walk.

Edward Snowden, the young consultant who walked away from his contract job with a laptop computer full of information about how the National Security Agency has routinely, and with impunity, collected telephone and email communications from Americans, is now holed up in the Moscow airport, although a deal may be underway to grant him temporary asylum in Russia. I have mixed feelings about his actions, which I think fall short of espionage but certainly should be prosecuted, if he can be apprehended. I’m not sure I want him to be apprehended, however. His target audience is the American people, not some foreign government – although foreign governments, friend and foe, must look askance at the U.S. propensity and ability to track any and all communications. The most important question to resolve: Do we trust our own government enough to allow what clearly is invasive prying into our private lives. We will have to revisit this very important issue later.

The selling of “Obamacare” is a bow to the same ugly dealing that got us this flawed health care “reform” in the first place. Delaying for one year the requirement that employers with 50 or more employees provide health care may help the Democrats weather another election season of Obamacare curses, but it sets back the effort to provide health care for every American. Meanwhile, some provisions of Obamacare actually penalize – and may put out of business – good “multi-employer” health care plans, which pool resources to provide good and affordable care. Eventually, this Obamacare system must grow a “public option” if we are to control costs.

Three cheers for the Economic Policy Institute in creating a new instructional website at http://inequality.is// about the dangerous trend toward economic inequality. It is a telling reminder about what we must do as a nation to fix a broken economic system that is seriously out of kilter. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s avatar provides a professorial tour through the brambles of an economy that was created to be unfair and is hurting not only families, but also the future of our nation. Check it out here:

Malala Yousufzai, the young girl shot in the head by Taliban terrorists last year to prevent her from promoting education for girls in her native Pakistan, made a moving and inspirational speech to the UN Youth Assembly on her 16th birthday. The world is fortunate that such a courageous young woman, wise beyond her years, will dare to challenge ignorance, hypocrisy and violence. Ignore the al Jazeera news crawl and watch her speech to the end:

The fight for Fairness at Patriot goes on in the face of a bankruptcy court ruling that gave Patriot Coal carte blanche to drastically cut benefits for retired and active coal miners, most of whom worked at Peabody and Arch Coal and never worked a day at Patriot. I was on hand to witness the nearly 5,000 miners and supporters who gathered in a football field in Fairmont, W.Va. on July 9 to protest the ruling and the corporate swindle authored by Peabody and Arch, which dumped their retiree obligations into a company, Patriot, created to fail. Police arrested 30 miners and supporters during the peaceful protest. The next rally is outside Arch Coal headquarters in St. Louis on July 30. It won’t stop there.

A recent Washington Post article nonchalantly laid out the Koch brothers’ media War Room, KochFacts.org, a media attack machine that challenges every report, and spins every issue their way. With the Koch brothers reportedly planning to buy some of America’s great newspapers as part of a deal with the Chicago Tribune Co., this commentary by Robert Reich is worth repeating: “Suppose a small group of extremely wealthy people sought to systematically destroy the U.S. government by (1) finding and bankrolling new candidates pledged to shrinking and dismembering it; (2) intimidating or bribing many current senators and representatives to block all proposed legislation, prevent the appointment of presidential nominees, eliminate funds to implement and enforce laws, and threaten to default on the nation’s debt; (3) taking over state governments in order to redistrict, gerrymander, require voter IDs, purge voter rolls, and otherwise suppress the votes of the majority in federal elections; (4) running a vast PR campaign designed to convince the American public of certain big lies, such as climate change isn’t occurring, and (5) buying up the media so the public cannot know the truth. Would you call this treason?”

koch-bros-voodoo-dollYes, I would call it treason. Nothing is more destructive to our democracy than the ability of the mega-rich to buy candidates and laws – not only through the well-heeled lobbying firms on Washington’s K Street, but also with slick model legislation writing at the state legislative level through ALEC, an anti-democratic organization funded by Koch and their billionaire ilk to subvert local lawmaking. As long as we have a Supreme Court that rules that corporations are people, and can spend whatever they want to influence public policy, we are at the mercy of Big Money. They are leviathans in the political arena and we are armed with little more than a slingshot. We must create new laws to protect ourselves against corporate tyranny.

Those are some heavy issues weighing on my brow this month, and I’m sure many of these and more have crossed your mind. But we’re up against enormous personal challenges every day, and it’s not easy to focus on things that are once removed from our personal sphere, things we care about in principle, but not necessarily in action. That’s another issue for another day.

Today’s bon mot: Don’t overexert yourself. And drink plenty of water.

We Need Robin Hood

A new report underlines the basic problem with the post-Great Recession American economy: the rich are getting richer while everyone else is falling further behind.

The study by the Pew Research Center finds that the average net worth of the top 7 percent of the U.S. population increased 28 percent in the first two years of the recovery.  The wealth of the other 93 percent declined.

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From 2009 to 2011, the average net worth of the richest 8 million households jumped from an estimated $2.7 million to $3.2 million, according to The Washington Post report on the Pew study. For the 111 million households that make up the bottom 93 percent, average net worth fell 4 percent, from $140,000 to an estimated $134,000.

Sadly, this is not a recent phenomenon. The divide between the rich and the poor has been yawning progressively – or should we say, regressively – since the early 1970s.  A study last September by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington noted that the median annual earnings of a full-time, male worker in the United States in 2011, at $48,202, were smaller than in 1973.

Between 1983 and 2010, 74 percent of the gains in wealth in the United States went to the richest 5 percent, while the bottom 60 percent suffered a decline, the EPI calculated. Any way you figure it, the middle class is getting screwed.

Robert Reich, the former Labor Secretary under Bill Clinton, offers a concise six-point plan to reverse the slide of the middle class and to build shared prosperity for the entire nation. It is not a soft scrub, by any means:

  • Award tax cuts to companies that link the pay of their hourly workers to profits and productivity, and that keep the total pay of their top 5 executives within 20 times the pay of their median worker. And impose higher taxes on companies that don’t.
  • Raise the minimum wage to half the average wage.
  • Increase public investment in education, including early-childhood — especially in the poor and middle-class communities that now lack decent schools.
  • Eliminate college loans and allow all students to repay the cost of their higher education with a 10 percent surcharge on the first 10 years of income from full-time employment.
  • Expand the Earned Income Tax Credit.
  • Add tax brackets at the top of the income tax scale, increasing the top marginal tax rate to what it was before 1981 – at least 70 percent.

The first and last of these proposals are key. We must use the progressive income tax system to level the playing field, to give the 93 percent a chance to get back in the game. The rich must pay more. But the rich have means, so we must beware. We must recognize the vicious nature of the reactionary campaign by corporate forces already underway. Consider this fractured fairy tale:

It should be simple math: the 99 percent should prevail against the 1 percent in a democracy, right? But our democracy is skewed by big money; corporations have bought politicians for years, with few fingerprints. Not just the inside-game glad-handing and lobbying, but also with well-funded public relations campaigns, trying to shape the message to hide the greedy corporate agenda.

The Koch brothers, authors of much of the disinformation during the last election cycles, reportedly now may buy the Tribune Company to help push their right-wing agenda – adding to the noise of Rupert Murdoch’s Faux News and Wall Street Journal editorial page.

While we fight this uphill battle against the anti-democratic forces that grease the palms of too many political leaders in the United States today, we can be cheered by an ongoing global campaign to rectify the inequality through a “Robin Hood Tax,” a levy on transactions of stocks, bonds and derivatives first proposed by the National Nurses Union and their international allies.

ImageWith 1,000 demonstrators calling for reform in the streets outside the International Monetary Fund meeting in Washington last weekend, finance ministers from the EU were reporting on their negotiations to impose a financial transaction tax. The proposal: a tiny 0.1 percent tax on stock and bond trades and 0.01 percent tax on derivatives trades. The return would be  an estimated $750 million to $1 billion over 10 years to plow back into their economies and create jobs through public works and other stimulus programs.

A Robin Hood Tax on transactions would be a small price to pay by the global financial giants that created the Great Recession in the first place with their risky speculation schemes. But it’s just a beginning.

Perhaps we cannot resurrect Robin and his merry men to shake up the power brokers in Washington, where money rules most ignominiously. But we can recreate the spirit of appropriating from the greedy, of which there are many nowadays. Let’s insist on policies and reforms that close the great divide between the rich and the rest of us.