Saturday, February 08, 2014

The Gap

I don't have explanations or theories about this, nor do I have a plan or even a suggestion to propose.  I only have an observation, and I can't get past how astonishing it is to me.

Let me begin where I started thinking about this lately, with some history that is clearly still relevant.  Since technology began to reshape the workplace after World War II, forward-looking economists and other social thinkers saw that what was soon called automation was probably going to lead to a social crisis.  Machines were going to put humans out of work.  Unemployment would rise, incomes would fall, the economy would suffer with fewer consumers, and poverty would grow, with its attendant social problems as well as human suffering.

In the mid 1960s an approach was developed that came to be called the Guaranteed Income (also called the Guaranteed Minimum Income and Guaranteed Annual Income.)  Economist Robert Theobald edited a book of essays on the subject in 1966 called The Guaranteed Income: Next Step in Economic Evolution? It advocated the idea from economic, political, institutional and psychological points of view. (Psychologist Eric Fromm called it the key to the transition from a pre-human to a fully human society.)  Other books explored the moral dimensions.  We're talking facts and figures, studies and complex arguments.

A guaranteed income was seen as an antidote to job losses through automation, but also as a way to attack poverty and its attendant problems more efficiently. In substituting for a grab bag of inefficient and dehumanizing programs, a guaranteed income would not even cost more than the programs it replaced.  Society would have to bear less financial burden for health, education and other problems that were rooted in poverty, in not having enough money.

These ideas were influential and persuasive enough that they informed proposals for laws and implementation. Martin Luther King (whose federal holiday birthday so many piously and cynically celebrate) supported one version as part of the proposed Freedom Budget. George McGovern was ridiculed for proposing his version in the 1972 presidential election, but something like a minimum income passed the House and almost passed the Senate during the Nixon administration, with White House support.

Today we are living in the world those people were worrying about.  It hasn't played out exactly as any of them foresaw but the basic situation is here: technology combined with other factors has created a permanent surplus work force, either permanently or often unemployed, underemployed or unemployable.

And we continue to have complex and dehumanizing social programs that really nobody likes, and they are insufficient.  So given how long ago these problems were anticipated, you'd think we'd be pretty smart about them now.

Instead, what do we have?  Not only aren't we progressing on this growing problem, we're falling back from where we were in the 1930s.  The U.S. Congress has once again failed to renew unemployment insurance which they let lapse just in time for Christmas.  Unemployment insurance is something that workers have paid into, and so the government took the premiums and refuses the insurance.  Sounds like the health insurance business before Obamacare.

Congress is balking at raising the pitiful minimum wage.  Republicans are busily trying to prevent people from getting health care.  Congress cut food stamps--food stamps! for the poor.  At best, damaging individual and national health and nutrition,  at worst telling poor people to please just starve.  At least, poor people in Democratic states (the cuts targeted 16 states and DC; 15 went Obama twice, 28 of their 32 Senators are Dems.)  

This of course comes at a time when the gap between the very wealthy few and everyone else is as extreme as it has been since at least World War II.  Such a huge proportion of money in the hands of a few helps to cripple the economy by keeping that money out of circulation.  But coupled with this, the public views of the very rich and their minions also have never been so extreme.

This was summed up in a recent dumbfounding story. When Oxfam released its report showing that the 85 richest people in the world hold more wealth than the 3.5 billion poorest (that's the collective wealth of 85 vs. the collective wealth of 3,500, 000, 000), an on-air apologist for the wealthy exclaimed that it was great news.

These extreme views of a handful of very wealthy men and women are so politically powerful that any semblance of democracy is threatened.  Some of these views are so outrageous that they seem surreal, but they aren't just the views of a few cranks (Josh Marshall has some penetrating thoughts on what they are.)

Whatever the psychology involved, it's a clear threat, especially when politics is more and more about money.  When the Koch brothers, through their tax exempt groups, spent more money in the 2012 election than all of the candidates combined in 2000, it's just a matter of time before that investment pays off.

 It clearly is paying off in Congress.  It's becoming clear now that the story isn't a sane Republican business class trying to control and manipulate the Tea Party rabble.  The rabid right as well as the Tea Party is the direct product of some of the wealthiest and most politically active right wing extremists.

Meanwhile the spiral continues downward.  A new report confirms that nearly half of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck.  These include the new lower middle class, mostly two-parent, two-job families with at least one college education--yet they still struggle.  It seems that everybody sees the growing wealth gap, and can't agree on anything else.

Meanwhile the suffering continues and grows, and so far mostly in silence.  If there isn't a hell I hereby authorize Sister Editha to design one, just for that billionaire who said that he's rich because he works harder than people who aren't rich.  Here's just one story about the lives of people who work harder than that asshole can even imagine, and are still in a world of pain.

It's not completely bleak.  President Obama keeps shining a light on all this, and much to my surprise, there's a Pope now who is more than mouthing platitudes.  Some like Robert Reich call for a new WPA (some guaranteed income proposals call for community service and public works), stating the same basic economic point: "The real job creators are the vast middle class and the poor — when they have enough money in their pockets." There are even corporate leaders who are aware of the dangers of the growing gap.  And even versions of the guaranteed income or negative income tax are being discussed--in Europe.  

 Another variation getting some attention is the "Citizen's Dividend."And as eye-rolling as otherworldly academia can be, it's worth mentioning that in its precincts, the guaranteed income remains alive and well.  Now it's called the Basic Income Guarantee--" an unconditional, government-insured guarantee that all citizens will have enough income to meet their basic needs."  There's a U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network with a website, academic papers and an annual Congress.  The 12th was last May in New York (a joint project of Basic Income Canada Network and the U.S. network.) The 13th joint confab is scheduled for June in Montreal, perhaps to prepare an actual proposal for Canada.

Still, the state of the U.S. political zeitgeist is clear.  At a time when most everyone agrees the income or wealth gap is so extreme (and the numbers clearly show it is), we are at the extreme edge of not dealing with it--of actually penalizing the people who suffer the most instead of coming up with the best ways to help them, and to help this economy and this democracy get better, instead of sliding into decadence and despair.  And it is the most wealthy--the greatest beneficiaries of the political system, including efforts by the Obama administration--who are the most publicly aggrieved.  It seems the gap between political perception and reality is just as enormous.

And it reminds me a little too much of the political zeitgeist in regard to the climate crisis.  You could essentially write the same story.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Rain, We Don't Mind

It's churlish to complain about our weather, considering the winter storms that continue to wreak havoc from the Midwest to the East Coast.  So let's just call this a report.

Now officially in serious drought, we're having an eerie winter. Lots of sun in the rainy season has made people oddly nervous. So far it has been warmer than usual in the daytimes (mostly due to that sunshine) but colder than normal at night, often hovering around freezing, which usually happens a few times but not so often or steadily.

  But in just the past few days the pattern started to revert towards "normal", with fairly steady temperatures( 50s/40s) and a series of rain-bearing storms. That's good.  Only so far the rain here in northern Humboldt has been minimal, and it looks like it will continue that way.  The rain is mostly falling north and south of here (with snow to the east).  Even San Francisco will probably get more rain out of the system coming through tonight than we will.

It's good for the state, for the snowpack in the Sierras, and probably good for our water supply from the north.  But locally, our rivers and so on, not so much.  Nor for our plants and trees.  In a drought you start to see how things are connected.  The dairy farms, food prices, potential conflicts and problems for our cash economy--whatever kind of grass, it takes water to grow it.  Farmers vs. fishermen/wildlife (salmon) vs. "growers" vs. townspeople etc. for what water there is.   (However, southern Humboldt--where the "growers" mostly are-- is expected to get decent rain from this system.)

 So despite the reassuring sounds outside, I'll continue to be nervous until I see a few inches of rain have come down from one storm.

About the only good thing to come out of this drought so far however is increased pressure on the Brown administration in Sacramento to not approve fracking in the state, which uses millions of gallons of water.  A protest march in Sacramento to make that point is scheduled for March 15.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Long Ball, Long Life

Hearing about big league baseball as a child, Ralph Kiner was probably the first name I knew.  His rookie year was mine--he joined the Pittsburgh Pirates the year I was born.  The late 40s and early 50s were not great ones for the Pirates; Kiner was their biggest and sometimes only star.

 He was a home run hitter in a baseball park--Forbes Field--that wasn't built for the long ball.  But his 54 homers in 1949 was about as close as any hitter got to Babe Ruth's 60 home run record for a long time, and is still a record for the Pirates.  He hit 51 in 1947, just his second year.  (By the way, Babe Ruth hit the last two homers of his career at Forbes Field, both in the same game.)  Kiner led the National League in homers for every full season he played for the Pirates--7 in a row.

Kiner also hit over .300 twice, and knocked in more than 100 runs six times.   Given the rest of the Pirates lineup and Forbes Field, his run of RBIs from 1947 to 1953 was phenomenal: 127, 123, 127, 118, 109.

He was traded to the Cubs and then to Cleveland.  I'm pretty sure I was aware of him as a Pirate but I probably got his baseball card when he was with one of those two teams.  I remember reading his stats with awe.  He retired after the 1955 season, and was later elected to the baseball Hall of Fame.

But the bulk of his life in baseball was ahead of him.  He became an announcer and interviewer for the New York Mets from their first season in 1961, and did some play by play as recently as last year.  His death at the age of 91 was announced today.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Noise Equals Money

Poli scientist Jonathan Bernstein has moved from his "Plain Blog" blogspot to the big time at Bloomberg.  When those of us who were regulars in the comments section at the old place learned this, there were congratulations but also regret that our little community of sanity was likely to be broken up.

That seems to have happened.  Since many commented anonymously it's impossible to know how many have continued commenting at Bloomberg,  but I don't recognize but a few of those voices.  Instead there are the predictably extreme, dismissive, hate-filled comments that mock the idea of an exchange of information and views in a comments thread.

My routine these days has me checking JB late in the day if not the night, so I notice two things: I've arrived after the clamors of the day have ended, so the whole futile pattern emerges, and secondly,  if I comment it is often the last one and so it sits there nicely at the top, apart from the carnage below it.

Still, it's not as much fun as it used to be.  However I occasionally write something there that's worth repeating here, as in the following comment to JB's post on partisan media.  The topic got current I think because of a recent survey showing that a much higher percentage of those surveyed got their news primarily from FOX (almost half the total) and the usual candidate for its leftward counterpart, MSNBC, was close to the bottom.

Here's what I said:

Partisan media hype emotions, which as advertisers know, motivates buying i.e. contributing to candidates and parties. Though they operate differently--right wing media distorts or makes up facts, progressive media is more factually careful but still spends excessive time highlighting the emotionally potent outrages committed by the other side--they both have become important politically. Outrage as well as other more personal factors motivates people to clot comment threads with their often hate-filled shouting. Anything in this fast, increasingly connected and easily panicked information system can bend the debate and influence the terms of it. Any bit can be amplified by repetition as it moves up the aggregation chain. Otherwise the effect is cumulative--in supporting affiliations it gets tribal, and in information it adds to the noise that overwhelms the signal. That's probably why people are paid to make incendiary comments at places like this, although not everyone needs that kind of encouragement.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Dreaming Up Daily Weekly Quote

"Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships--the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt
in his last speech, as World War II was ending, while the atomic age was gestating, and decades before the Climate Crisis showed signs of becoming the ultimate test of human civilization.

Super Seattle

Back in 2005 when the Seattle Seahawks had the misfortune of playing the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, a Seattle journalist traveled to Pittsburgh and was amazed.  In Seattle she said, there wasn't much buzz about the Seahawks.  But in Pittsburgh, from the moment she landed, everybody talked about the Steelers.

In 2013 it seems that just about everybody in Seattle was going to see the Seahawks.  The fans there became internationally famous as the "12th man" in home games.  Their thundering feet registered on nearby seismographs.

As the 2014 Super Bowl approached, Denver quarterback Peyton Manning was perhaps the most famous player in the NFL.  But the jersey of the relatively "unknown" Seattle quarterback was outselling Manning's.

The Seattle defense dominated the Super Bowl,  the special teams had their moments, and the offense produced enough error-free football to wipe out the slightly favored Denver Broncos.

Congratulations then to Seattle and its fans.  We're glad you learned something from playing the Steelers.