Monday, February 28, 2011

Today’s Lesson

The current politico-economic situation of the United States is clearly and accurately described in the following story, provided by the Show Tunes Correspondent.

A CEO, a union worker, and a Tea Party member are sitting around a table  with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO takes 11 cookies, then turns to the Tea Party member and says,"Watch out for that union guy. He wants to take some of your cookie."

Paul Krugman can’t do it any better than that.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Crux of the Problem

This colorful little graphic shows what is the core of most of the trouble in the United States today.


The gist of what it means is simple. The top 20% of Americans control over 80% of the wealth. Most Americans don’t know this. They think—as the second graph shows—the top 20% controls almost 60% of the wealth, and they’re not real happy about that, as the third graph shows they think the top 20% should control about 30%. I’m not even going to discuss what the bottom 20% get. This is depressing enough. (For a set of graphs that explores this in more detail, see the article in Mother Jones.)

The rich have always controlled a disproportionate amount of the economy. That’s what makes them rich. There was a time when they had the smarts—or class—to keep it to themselves. Flaunting it in everyone else’s faces was considered to be poor form. We’ve all heard stories of families who had money during The Depression keeping their shades drawn much of the time so those less fortunate wouldn’t see the disparity. That could be hubris or sensitivity, depending on the family, but it’s not happening now.

People making $400,000 are distraught because they don’t make $600,000. They see their income figures and think they should be rich—and they are—then look at the guy across the way who makes a couple of million and feel deprived. Few look in the other direction and feel grateful for what they have.

And it’s still not enough. Tax cuts are proposed for the rich, though their rates have plummeted since the Eisenhower years. (See Mother Jones.) Union busting activity is worse than it’s ever been. True, there are armed confrontations, but now the government is actively against the unions. Witness Scott Walker’s power grab in Wisconsin, where he doesn’t just want to be the governor who busted the unions, he wants to be king. How else can you describe a governor who has promoted a bill that will allow him to sell off state property without soliciting bids, to whomever an official appointed by him deems worthy?

Public sector workers are being demonized to out of work private sector workers, when the people who are really hosing them make more in a year than any of them will make in their lives. The true enemy of an employed worker is not an employed government worker; it’s any unemployed worker, who is now competition for the job he needs.

This is bad, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better soon. Both parties share in the blame. Republicans for their ruthlessness, and Democrats for their fecklessness in ceding the battlefield. The real problem now is that, even if the pendulum swings back, it will take years to undo the damage that was done in a couple of elections, and there don’t appear to be enough people on the horizon willing to do much more than talk about it.

Monday, February 21, 2011


A lot of people would have you believe the current financial crises many states find themselves in are the fault of unions. Wisconsin and New Jersey have been the most aggressive in taking action, but anecdotal evidence abounds of men in the street blaming unions for everything from deficits to health care reform.

They forget that states operated under the same union contracts three to five years ago as they do now, and were rolling in money. It’s the financial crisis that put the states’ budgets in jeopardy; the unions are in the process of being scapegoated into picking up much of the tab.

Make no mistake: unions have brought much of this on themselves. They too often devote their energies protecting the least deserving. It can be virtually impossible to fire some people, as union contracts can make every employee’s faults the employer’s responsibility: drugs, alcohol, or sometimes just plain laziness. (It can also be pointed out here that employers signed none of these contracts at gunpoint.)
Unions also have traditionally taken too much of an adversarial position. When common sense argued for creating partnerships with management so that risks and rewards could be more equitably shared, too many unions chose to suck every dime out of a contract. Times changed, and now they find themselves in situations where management careers and fortunes can be made by firing workers, and it’s too late to strike the kinds of deals that could have prevented it.

In the midst of all this bashing, let’s not forget why we have unions in the first place. Do a little research into what working conditions were like a hundred years ago. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire happened exactly one hundred years ago on March 25. One hundred forty-seven garment workers died in a few minutes because the company locked the doors to the sweatshop and they couldn’t get out.

I’m 55 years old and remember a lot of men my grandfather’s age—including my paternal grandfather—who were missing fingers, many of them from industrial accidents. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. We’re all shocked at the safety violations that were ignored in West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine last April, but I’ll bet miners before the time of the Molly Maguires would have thought they’d won the lottery to work in such conditions. Skyscrapers and bridges used to have “expected casualties” built into the plans and budgets. No more. We expect no one will die building something today.

Unions helped to make that so, along with stopping many arbitrary firing practices that could deny a worker the pensions he’d earned just before he was able to collect it.

Of course, most pensions are gone; we have 401 ( k ) plans and companies can’t understand why employees show so little loyalty. Break the unions now, and the chances for unskilled and semi-skilled labor to retain company-provided health insurance drop to nothing. In times of high unemployment and a potentially interchangeable work force, why provide any more benefits than necessary beyond the lowest wage you can get away with?

Unions are easy targets, but they’re straw men. No surer way exists to cripple the melding of the middle and working classes that made this country the force it became in the middle part of the 20th Century than to break them. Let’s not forget, the American Exceptionalism conservatives so loudly proclaim was not ordained by God. It was the by-product of hard work and the coming together of historic forces. We undue them at at our own risk.

Friday, February 04, 2011

The Hobgoblin of Small Minds

Judgment and discretion are essential elements in any activity. Arbitrary limits and “zero tolerance” policies don’t accomplish anything except to give their perpetrators the appearance of toughness. Rarely is any good accomplished. rather, these policies are more often counterproductive.

Case in point: The King’s Speech and its R Rating by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language.”

The language in question is the word “fuck,” as it almost always is. Part of the king’s therapy is to break down the reservations that cause his stammer, leading to an outburst of several “fucks” in a row, in two separate scenes. The effect is pitch perfect: the first instance shows Lionel Logue’s methods; the second shows the king’s gradual acceptance of them. That’s as racy or violent as the movie gets.

This is from the MPAA’s web site:

More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.

Jesus Fucking Christ. Not only should children under the age of 13 not be discouraged from seeing the film, they should bring it into speech therapy classes for kids who stammer. It’s A Beautiful Mind for stammerers. Here, kids. Don’t be intimidated by your speech impediment. Even a king can stammer, and look how he overcame it. It’s not part of you; you can get past it.

The ever-vigilant MPAA doesn’t see it that way. In their zeal to protect these delicate psyches from the undue influence of dirty words, they have ensured that the kids who most need to see it will be barred. Enlightened parents will take these fucking outbursts in context, weigh their value, and take the kid, anyway. The children of less open-minded parents will not get the opportunity to hear such smut. They may be chided over their impediment as a way to toughen them up, which works approximately never.

Thanks to the MPAA, guardians of all that is decent and good, in their zeal to protect impressionable minds from “piss, shit, cunt, fuck, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.” Violence, cruelty, and dark content pass PG-13 muster (Spartacus, The Dark Knight, X-Men, Quantum of Solace, for examples), as well as the considerations involved in assisted suicide (Million Dollar Baby). They have no problem with unescorted minors in any of those movies.

Don’t cross the fuck threshold, though.