Wednesday, September 19, 2012

From One Pocket to Another - Redistributing Wealth

From One Pocket to Another - Redistributing Wealth

Wealth, the lack of it, and the shifting of it from one pocket to another seems to be quite the topic of conversation today.  It is also a subject I have thought about many times for many years.

There is one basic thing about income redistribution that everyone should understand. EVERY action of government shifts money from one pocket to another. We tend to think of taxes as the way money moves around, but it isn’t the only way government actions affect our individual assets. Every law moves money about.

Let me give you a personal example. My husband owned a small business supplying products for the American shoe industry.  We were able to live a comfortable middle class existence for many years.  In the early years of the Reagan administration, Congress passed and President Reagan signed a small bit of legislation that removed a tariff on shoes manufactured in China. With that act of government, our income disappeared as surely as it would have had a thief put his hand into our pockets.

My husband and I had worked hard, raised 6 wonderful children, given back to our church and our community. Yet, by no fault of our own, but by act of Congress, we would face the last of decade of our working lives suddenly terribly poor. Sadly, we weren’t alone. Most of the American shoe industry faded away at the same time.

Our money disappeared, but I recognized right away that it hadn’t disappeared totally, merely shifted to other pockets. The poor people in China suddenly had jobs. American importers saw their business options and their profits soar.  All Americans now had access to a wide variety of cheaper shoes. They could spend the money they saved on products of other companies.

While I was shivering in my cold house, I had to face the fact that the government action that was so devastating to us might actually have produced more benefit than loss. I was willing to accept that. But I also thought that the government had an obligation to notice that what they had done was very painful for us and many other long term workers in the American shoe industry. Fortunately for many workers there was unemployment to help ease a transition to other work, a government helping hand. Since my husband owned his own small business which had failed, he wasn’t entitled to such assistance. We were almost entirely on our own.

Still, the government funded other small projects, one of which actually did help us. It subsidized a program that gave money to small private companies to provide services to homebound senior citizens. So I was able to get a job cleaning homes and apartments for the needy elderly in my area. It was the only job I could get quickly, a government supported job, and I was grateful to have it.  But I didn’t make enough to restore us to the middle class.

So what did I learn from this painful experience? Government actions always transfer money from one pocket to another, they always have, and they always will. This principle applies as well to general legislation as it does to tax laws.

The key issue isn’t that government does this. Nothing we do can affect this reality. The key issue is who or what any law benefits and whether or not government actions help more citizens than they harm.  Surely, as a country, we should have some sympathy, and perhaps a helping hand for those the government decided to damage. 

For decades, government has been ignoring this vital principle in most of their actions. Leaders have listened to the interests of the few who are rich and powerful and ignored their obligations to the majority of Americans who are neither rich nor powerful.

This November, we can actually make  government listen to us. We must vote in overwhelming numbers, and we must vote only for candidates who understand their obligations to those without wealth or power. We must ensure that when government reaches into our pockets, they act only for the greater good.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Horrid Burden of Hate

The Horrid Burden of Hate

This week we have all witnessed hate exploding into violent action.  We have seen clenched fists, twisted faces, and rioting mobs. We have mourned its victims.

I learned about hate many years ago. As a child, I lived in a place where racial hate was sanctioned by government actions and by the silence of religious people who hated while they taught that hate was a sin. People could be hated, not because of their anger or their cruelty but because the essence of their beings came wrapped in a dark package.

During these early years, I only encountered black people on sidewalks and in busses, brief encounters that didn’t give time for hate to fester.  Besides, I knew that hate was a sin. But I was very much afraid of them, at least until I actually came to know one of them. One morning, I was shocked to find a young black woman in my house. Mary had come to clean, and would return every week from then on. Once I got over my fear, I found that Mary was kind, and patient with me. She smiled a lot as she worked away during our hot Maryland summers. No matter how hard she was working, she always had time to answer questions from this pesky child. She banished my fears, and I came to love her. As I could never hate Mary, I could never hate her sisters and brothers because they too were black.

But when I was starting seventh grade in the University Park School, I did learn to hate. For the first time in my life, I learned what a powerful feeling hate provoked in me.  That year a new student named Herbert arrived in my school, a tall dark haired boy, a smart student, but there was something odd about his manner. He smiled a lot, but there was no humor in him. He preferred to annoy the girls at recess than to play baseball with the boys. He projected a sense of superiority and entitlement.

All of this was annoying, but no more. Irritation began to grow into a much more intense and dangerous feeling the minute Miss Burdett moved Herbert to the seat behind me. Immediately, the harassment began. First it was nasty and scornful comments whispered in my ear. Then the attacks became physical. Herbert delighted in pulling my braids so hard that my head would be yanked violently in an unexpected direction and my scalp would hurt. I didn’t dare report this to Miss Burdett as it was clear to all of us that she didn’t want to hear anything bad about Herbert.

I hated Herbert. I recognized this new feeling for what it was, but I didn’t know how to deal with this overwhelming new emotion. It was as strong in me as love. It came with me wherever I went. It even brought me pleasure. I enjoyed thinking of all the bad things I would do to Herbert or accidents that would make him suffer.

For a while, hate seemed like fun, a way to exact revenge. But slowly I realized that the other pleasures of my life, my puzzles, my books, my piano, could be ruined by a passing thought of Herbert or something that reminded me of the sound of his voice, or a word he frequently used. Finally, I realized that my hate for Herbert had given him control over my life, my joys. Hate was becoming a horrid burden. The only way I could get my life back was to give up my hate. I knew that banishing hate would take hard work, that it would require me to use my brain to subdue this emotion. But if I succeeded I would be free of Herbert’s power. This would be my ultimate victory.

This experience took place may autumns ago. But, as you can see, I have never forgotten Herbert.  How could I forget the critical lesson that I learned from the time we spent together. I hated Herbert for his cruelty and meanness. Others in our class hated Herbert not for his skin color but for his religion, the same sort of hatred that has been on display this week. 

But hatred for skin color is still on display as well. We have but to look at the hatred directed toward our black president. Haters now are more subtle than they were during my childhood. Now they excuse their hatred on the grounds that it isn’t based on his race, but on what is inside him, on what is the character of his heart. He is a cheater who lied his way to power; he is a traitor who loves and supports our enemies; he is a weak and stupid leader for these hard times.

Most Americans know that this portrait of President Obama is a fictitious invention, designed to give the gullible permission to hate him. But lying about President Obama is a useful tactic. By rousing such an intense emotion, people can to motivated to act from passion rather than careful thought. The people of our country can be divided into hostile groups. Then, leaders lacking an ethical or moral core can rise to positions of power.

Now is the time for all of us to cast aside the horrid hate, be it religious or racial, that is flowing across our country. I know it is possible to push hate away. I learned that in elementary school when I met Herbert. I know all of you who carry the burden of hate can do so as well. We can do nothing else that will be more personally liberating or beneficial for our country.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Beloved Politician

A Beloved Politician

I have been thinking a lot about John Martin today. This day marks the passage of 200 years since he took his first breaths in a small Irish cottage in the townland of Loughorne in County Down. John was the much desired heir of a prosperous Presbyterian family.

While this might be interesting information for those of us who share parts of his family tree, this anniversary would seem to be of little interest to the general public. But the terrible years through which he lived and how he conducted himself provide clear lessons for us in our painful times.

Let me explain how he deserved the title of “Beloved Politician” that I have given him as well as the title by which he was known during his life, “Honest John Martin.”  If it hadn’t been for the Irish Famine that devastated Ireland when he was a young man, he would have remained a private small landowner, much loved and admired by his friends, neighbors and tenants for his kindness and generosity. When he saw his nation’s need, he gave up all he cherished to help.

John was a man of strong principles that governed his life, principles that are useful to remember today.

He believed in doing the right thing, not just when doing so was easy, but especially when doing so was very hard, when the price for doing so very high. Ireland was ruled by the English Parliament, and the laws to deal with the Famine were passed in London with little influence from the Irish. First John protested, then John joined those who were actively resisting British laws. The English government considered him a great threat, had him arrested and charged with treason. He was convicted in a rigged trial and sent off to exile in Tasmania.  This injustice did not make him bitter. He knew he had done his best to do the right thing for his country. He only regretted that he hadn’t succeeded.

John believed in the obligations of citizenship. He was first a landlord with responsibilities to the tenants who worked his farm. He would not allow them to starve during the Famine though paying for their food forced him to mortgage his land, reducing him from financial comfort to financial distress the rest of his life. 

For him, citizenship meant more than a call to serve his friends, and neighbors. It was an obligation to country as well, to serve his country, not fight for power. There came a time late in his life when he was the most powerful and most respected man in Ireland. For a few months, he enjoyed the acclamation of his countrymen. But when others stepped forward, he stepped back. But he didn’t step away. He continued to explain the Irish point of view in the English Parliament of which he was then a member.

Finally, John believed in the obligation to lead a moral and ethical life. No one could ever provide a better example. Like many others, he was an active member of his Presbyterian church, but he always went the extra mile. When the church needed land to build a manse for their minister, John gave them the land. He followed his religion’s call to serve the needy, using his medical training to provide free medical care for the poor.

This belief guided his political career as well. He would never participate in any project that wasn’t ethical. So people recognized that whatever project John Martin participated in was a worthy one. He never hated his opponents, even those who had attacked and belittled him. When he ran for a seat in Parliament, elections were bought by the powerful. John required his supporters to run a totally honest election, no bribery, no intimidation of voters, no slandering of his opponent. His victory shocked England, Ireland and America.

I often think about the leaders of today, and how much better we would all be if they followed John Martin’s pathway, leaders who did the right thing, leaders who believed in the obligations of citizenship, and who always strove to lead moral and ethical lives.

So Happy Birthday John. How I wish I could have spent an hour in your presence. How I wish that I could have given you just one hug. On this special day, as we remember you, I make you a promise. Those who so admire you will never allow you and your exemplary life to be forgotten.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Jobs, the Romney Plan

Romney has promised to create millions of good jobs if he is elected. Wonderful news.

But how will he do that? If creating jobs were that easy, surely the Democrats would have created them themselves.

From the little information that Romney has provided, the Romney plan is the son of the Bush plan, and the grandson of the Reagan plan. It has three parts, reduce taxes on the rich “job creators”, free them from intrusive regulations, and increase military spending. Oh, and they will cut away government programs to end the budget deficit.

Reagan followed this same plan. There weren’t millions of new jobs then. Even though he signed tax increase legislation, which no Republican would do now, the national debt increased dramatically.

Twenty years later, George Bush was elected president on the same platform. And he came through as promised. He gave huge tax reductions to the “job creators.” He let them roam unfettered in their economic world. And he fought two wars, one without cause. So military spending went up hugely.  And so did the deficit.

So now Romney is promising to return to the good old days of Reagan and Bush. The problem he has to face is that we know how these plans turned out. There weren’t millions of new jobs, only trillions of dollars of new debt and a huge financial crisis. It turns out that the “job creators” weren’t careful managers of any finances but their own.

There is one different element this time. Romney and the GOP now promise they are very concerned about the debt they created. Now they really promise to carry out their three economic ideas and reduce the budget deficit at the same time.  If they actually carry out their plans, the cuts they would have to make to just dent the deficit would be disastrous for most of us. The last time this plan was implemented in 2001, we were in a very different place with a balanced budget and many years of surplus revenue awaiting. Now with Americans still suffering from the huge financial loses we experienced in the great financial collapse, this might not be a good time for a third try.

You don’t have to take my word about the dangers and pitfalls of the Romney plan. We have but to look to Europe to see how the old plan works in our new situation. Countries there piloted the GOP austerity plans Not surprisingly, jobs have decreased and the economic options have shrunk. Unemployment has increased to double digits.  Even worse, their economies are again in recession.

Copying Europe as the Romney job plan intends to do would produce similar results here. More government jobs would be cut to reduce government red ink. Services that provide a lifeline for the newly unemployed teachers, police, food inspectors, highway workers would have to be cut away to make up for reduced federal revenue and reduced federal spending.

Those people made richer by the Romney plan are already wealthy. They could already be investing in new businesses that would create jobs. But they recognize that there are too few middle class customers to make new businesses a wise investment. The Romney plan would reduce the number of middle class jobs, and so reduce the pool of available customers.  

Despite conflicting evidence, the Romney plan expects the private sector to create jobs, so it will drastically reduce the role that government plays in job creation or in helping those already suffering. We would be left to sink or swim as we are. This hands off approach would actually increase unemployment almost immediately and would push a return to prosperity many years into the future.

This is the Republican plan, the Romney plan. It sounds to me rather like standing about, waiting for a forest fire to burn itself out.

Now the Democratic Convention is getting underway. I’m most interested to see what their job program for the next four years will look like.

We’ll talk again after the last gavel falls in the Democratic convention.