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Friday, November 25, 2011

Republicans - "The Party of the Rich"


A well researched, illuminating article in Rolling Stone Magazine, "The Party of the Rich", shows how lopsided the tax policies have become, thanks to a new mold of Republicans devoted to the wealthy since Newt's bunch swept in to Congress in 1994. Author, Tim Dickinson, lays out a tax-history since Eisenhower years (1952 - 60) that shows every Republican president until Bush II, raising taxes as a necessary revenue ingredient to pay the bills. While Republicans regularly battled Democrats on the level of spending for social programs, most did not question the logic of progressive taxes, or closing loopholes. Dickinson also equates chapters of national prosperity with progressive tax hikes, and equates recessions and wild stock market speculation with big tax cuts for the wealthy and their corporations.

The "supercommittee" that failed to come up with a bipartisan plan to cut the deficit by cutting spending and raising revenues - were looking at choices such as: keep the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest two per cent at a cost of $690 billion or cut $650 billion for special ed. student aid, and assistance to poor schools. Cut $100 billion for the Centers for Disease Control and the FDA, or get rid of $129 billion in subsidies for foreign profits. Cut $47 billion in energy grants to help poor families afford heat or remove $44 billion in subsidies for oil and gas companies.

"With 14 million Americans out of work, and with one in seven families turning to food stamps simply to feed their children, Republicans have responded to the worst economic crisis since the Great depression by slashing inheritance taxes, extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, and endorsing a tax amnesty for big corporations that have hidden billions in profits in offshore tax havens."

Rolling Stone Magazine continues to put out some of the best political reporting around.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Palo Alto Measure E

a photo I took at Bixby Park



It's the morning after Election Day and I'm thinking of Emily Renzel, the loser in a bitterly fought, divisive community battle pitting passionate environmentalists against each other. Emily, a septuagenarian, who has a local park named after her, is as passionate now as when she served as a city council member. She fought to save 10 acres of land that was supposed to be transformed from our landfill area into the adjoining Bixby park - near the bay. Peter Drekmeier, an equally passionate environmentalist and former mayor, (and good friend of mine) led the campaign to rezone the land for the construction of a composting and renewable energy facility. They are two leaders wearing 10 gallon white hats in my eyes - brought into an unlikely battle in large part because our community is so built out. Virtually any development from a homeless shelter to a childcare facility face huge opposition here (on top of "NIMBY-ism). Some years back, the Media Center where I work was stopped from putting a digital arts facility next to a high school - even though the district had agreed to let it take the place of some temporary portable buildings. But the vocal opposition prevailed because that land was supposed to one day become part of the school's playing fields area. This time the development won out over the promise of open land.

I think for many of us who voted for it, it was because global warming has become a game-changer. Global warming has generated an urgent call to action, even for unproven ventures such as one of the possible composter technologies to be considered for the new development.

My job is to produce the videotaped debates that we have before every election. I spent an afternoon with Emily and an afternoon with Peter, editing the visuals into their respective debate statements. I didn't want either one to lose. I didn't want either one to feel the way they did about the "other." They are both heroes who answer the call "think global, act local." Emily wears her heart on her sleeve and these ten acres were virtually sewn into her big, exposed heart. This was one vote I did not look forward to making.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Deborah Turns 60


Today is our celebration of Deborah's 60th birthday (Oct 27). It's hard to believe we are reaching this "stage", when I can picture us meeting 34 years ago as if it were yesterday. I guess we were "kids" then - 4 years younger than our own kids are today, merging our happy hippy selves into a wonderful journey that will undoubtedly unfold to the end of our days. People are frequently surprised that we, who divorced over 25 years ago, have this best-friend-ness, but it surprises me that it isn't the norm among those who were married. The things we saw in each other in that blaze of coming together were true. Who better to co-parent with and share my inner self with than one who I respect, admire, and who knows me inside-out? In the scheme of things, our marriage was a chapter in our journey.

This afternoon we'll tell stories. I have so many to choose from. I remember the New Year's Day, when she thought we should mark the day in the way we wanted the year to turn out. She got to work baking delicious and healthy muffins and it was my job to go out distribute them to homeless folks. The fly in the batter was that the Manhattan homeless of 1984 were quite wary of strangers bearing food. One after another turned me down, no matter where I went. We had to bring all the bags full of muffins to a shelter instead.

The rainy day in Seattle when I ran from the car into a store and came back to find Deborah in the back seat and an elderly woman in the passenger seat. She'd been waiting without an umbrella at a bus stop and Deborah offered her a ride. After 45 minutes of looking for her destination, it turned out she thought we were in Manchester, England.

The terrible day that my Mom was killed in a crash with a drunk driver; Deborah and I were living apart and she was traveling in Mexico. I was subletting a farmhouse in Sonoma. We hadn't spoken in a month. I left for St. Louis. Deborah had a weird feeling and called the house that day. It should have just rang and rang in the empty place, but for some unfathomable reason, a friend of the woman I was subletting from had stopped by and picked it up. He had heard from the neighbors what happened. In those days before answering machines and cell phones there was no way for Deborah to reach me from Mexico and nobody would be answering the phone in my Mom's empty apartment. She rode buses, a train, and a plane for two days and walked into the St. Louis funeral home minutes before the service began. Now THAT surprises me, so much more than our enduring bond.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

"Hardly Strictly Bluegrass" hardly imaginable

The free 3-day music festival, "Hardly Strictly Bluegrass" is such an amazing gift. Five or six simultaneous acts - each in their own meadow area in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.....folk rock, blues, and even bluegrass. Lots of iconic performers and lots of lesser knowns. A zillion food booths; 5,000 Grateful Dead t-shirts sort of covering bulging bellies; a few million tattoos; hula-hoopers; ganja cookie sellers; beautiful youngsters in ecstasy-fueled eyeball-to-eyeball embraces; lots of young parents with little ones on their shoulders or in little bonnets and earplugs on their blankets; a 100,000 dogs of every size and color, 20,000 barrels for compost, recyclables, and trash - that everyone - even the grungiest street-people amongst us seem to use conscientiously.

And somehow it happens without any entry gates; without anybody checking through the backpacks that most people carry in with them. And with close to a million people together in very close quarters over three days, I haven't heard of any violence. What would the normal crime rates be over three days in a city of several hundred thousand? Thank you Mr. Warren Hellman for making this happen the past 11 years.

This year Sally and I only went to acts we knew....Allison Brown, Gillian Welch, Ruthie Foster, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Civil Wars, Steve Earle, and Blind Boys of Alabama. All absolutely wonderful. I'll post photos on my flickr site before long.

While walking out of the park on Saturday night, a man asked desperately if any of us had seen a six year old red-headed boy with glasses. Immediately, about a dozen of us started calling out the boy's name, back-tracking or walking up ahead - determined to find him. The dad was holding the hand of the 8 year old sister who was crying her eyes out with worry. Within five minutes a young man approached and asked the man if he'd lost his little boy. The little boy had made it to Lincoln Street on the edge of the park and was looking up at the faces of all the adults leaving the park to find his dad. We all walked up toward the street and when the sister and brother saw each other, they both ran into each other's arms - hugging for dear life. It was so heartwarming.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tax the Millionaires

photo from the movie, "Wall Street"


It's been awhile, but in demanding new taxes on millionaires and an end to the Bush tax cuts for those earning over $250K, President Obama has stood up for something we can rally behind. If only he doesn't give in to the Republicans in the coming months. He can use his pulpit to dispel their hollow claims that taxes on the rich freeze economic and job growth.

If Obama and progressive Democrats speak honestly and forcefully about the lopsided distribution of wealth and income in the U.S., they may be wildly successful. In an article, "Wealth, Income, and Power", updated in July, 2011, G. William Domhoff points to a recent study (Norton & Ariely, 2010) that

"reveals that Americans have no idea that the wealth distribution is as concentrated as it is..... They did not come close on the amount of wealth held by the bottom 40% of the population. It's a number I haven't even mentioned so far, and it's shocking: the lowest two quintiles hold just 0.3% of the wealth in the United States.

Americans from all walks of life were also united in their vision of what the "ideal" wealth distribution would be, which may come as an even bigger surprise than their shared misinformation on the actual wealth distribution. They said that the ideal wealth distribution would be one in which the top 20% owned between 30 and 40 percent of the privately held wealth, which is a far cry from the 85 percent that the top 20% actually own. They also said that the bottom 40% -- that's 120 million Americans -- should have between 25% and 30%, not the mere 8% to 10% they thought this group had, and far above the 0.3% they actually had. In fact, there's no country in the world that has a wealth distribution close to what Americans think is ideal when it comes to fairness. So maybe Americans are much more egalitarian than most of them realize about each other, at least in principle and before the rat race begins"

Domhoff points to recent income studies that would knock the socks off most Americans if they knew......

"The rising concentration of income can be seen in a special New York Times analysis by David Cay Johnston of an Internal Revenue Service report on income in 2004. Although overall income had grown by 27% since 1979, 33% of the gains went to the top 1%. Meanwhile, the bottom 60% were making less: about 95 cents for each dollar they made in 1979. The next 20% - those between the 60th and 80th rungs of the income ladder -- made $1.02 for each dollar they earned in 1979. (Johnston, 2006).

But the increase in what is going to the few at the top did not level off, even with all that. As of 2007, income inequality in the United States was at an all-time high for the past 95 years, with the top 0.01% -- that's one-hundredth of one percent -- receiving 6% of all U.S. wages, which is double what it was for that tiny slice in 2000; the top 10% received 49.7%, the highest since 1917 (Saez, 2009). However, in an analysis of 2008 tax returns for the top 0.2% -- that is, those whose income tax returns reported $1,000,000 or more in income (mostly from individuals, but nearly a third from couples) -- it was found that they received 13% of all income, down slightly from 16.1% in 2007 due to the decline in payoffs from financial assets (Norris, 2010)."

Monday, September 19, 2011

How Do You Measure Progress?


a quote from Robert Kennedy that I read in Mark Kurlansky's book, "1968" that eloquently puts economic measurements in perspective....

"We will find neither national purpose nor personal satisfaction in a mere continuation of economic progress, in an endless amassing of worldly goods. We cannot measure national spirit by the Dow Jones Average, nor national achievement by the Gross National Product. For the Gross National Product includes air pollution, and ambulances to clear our highways from carnage, It counts special locks for our doors and jails for the people who break them. the Gross National Product includes the destruction of the redwoods and the death of Lake Superior. It grows with the production of napalm and missiles and nuclear warheads....

And if the Gross National Product includes all this, there is much that it does not comprehend. It does not allow for the health of our families, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It is indifferent to the decency of our factories and the safety of our streets alike. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.....the Gross National Product measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to country. It measures everything in short except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America - except whether we are proud to be Americans.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Protest Movement in Israel

Photo by TheeErin

My old friends Michael and Gayle just returned from a month in Israel. They lived there for 15 years in the 70's and 80's. Michael told me about the social uprising that has been going on all summer with tent encampments in the medians along busy streets and in parks. Many thousands are part of it, frequently going to work in the day and returning to the encampments for the nights. The mass protest is against the high cost of housing that make it difficult - especially for young people - to cover rent - even when they have jobs. They are protesting the huge gap between rich and poor in the country, and policies that favor the rich and raise the cost of living. Michael said it's common to make about $400/month but have rent of $1200 in Tel Aviv for a one bedroom apartment.

There are numerous encampments with particular demographics such as single mothers. There are performances, workshops and speakers who come to particular encampments for public events open to everyone. It sounds like the teach-ins and campus building takeovers of the late 60's and early '70's. Michael heard it began when a young woman who was fed up told her friends that she was going to camp out along a boulevard in Tel Aviv. Facebook helped fuel a mass movement and within weeks, there were tents everywhere, and in several cities. On July 30th a mass demonstration in Tel Aviv numbered at least 150,000 in a country of 7 million.

Photo from The Adovcacy Project

Michael said the protesters are purposely not discussing the Palestinian issue and relations with Arab neighboring countries as that would enable the powers that be to divide them against each other. For now they have some support in the government. The police have let them be. The mayor of Rosh Pinna, joined the protestors there. Several of Michael and Gayle's Israeli friends now have kids who are very involved in the tent cities - yet another opportunity for us to comment on how quickly the years have passed.

This uprising may fizzle as the school term begins again in the coming weeks, but it has been huge and inspiring. Maybe something transformative will come out of it. I was hardly aware of it. I went to YouTube and found a few videos that provide some visuals and context.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Eyl_r7Sz3Bw
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBYVo8raLbc&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCoRBHCZl6E&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sx0YCI-2qhA&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t8u8cjS-TiM&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTMfIuTCzSY&feature=related

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Richie Rich


Picked up "The Ultra Rich: How Much Is Too Much?" by Vance Packard – published in 1989. In my life that doesn't seem so far back, but in the modern history of U.S. wealth, it appears to be ancient history. He writes about the years just after Forbes Magazine started publishing their annual "Richest 400 Americans."

In 1982, there were 14 U.S. billionaires and five years later there were 49. I see that in this year's list, every single one of the richest 400 Americans had at least 1.3 billion dollars.

Packard writes that in 1983, the Joint Economic Committee of Congress did a study that estimated the top 1% of wealthy Americans had 34% of all the wealth. That meant one out of every 100 people feast on one third of the pie. It's closer to 43% of the pie when you subtract the value of people's homes and just look at their other wealth. The good news is that ratio has stayed relatively stable these 25 years, but it's so incredibly disproportionate to begin with.

In 1987, the Forbes #1 was Sam Walton of Wal-Mart with an estimated 8.7 billion. In the 2011 Forbes list the Walton wealth has passed on to the Walton "children" and their collective wealth is $90 Billion Dollars. An increase of 81 billion dollars in 24 years! Packard quotes billionaire, Edgar Bronfman, "To turn $100 into $110 is work. To turn $100 million into $110 million is inevitable."

In 2010, the combined wealth of the Forbes 400 was 1.27 TRILLION dollars. That's more than the combined wealth of the lower 60% of Americans ($1.22 trillion for the lower 60%, according to a March 2010 study by Edward Wolff, an economist at New York University). My guess is that most Americans would be shocked to know that the lower 40% of U.S. citizens - 120 million people - account for only 3/10's of one percent of the country's wealth. (Source: Norton & Ariely, 2010.)

According to Forbes, nearly half of the 45 new members in the 2011 class, made their fortunes in hedge funds and private equity. I still can't fathom how much harder they work than a passionate high school teacher, or a doctor in an emergency room, to merit all that reward.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Serpico and Social Change Recipe

The great movie director, Sidney Lumet, died a couple of days ago. I remember how inspired I felt after seeing "Serpico", the story of a cop who refuses to go along with the corruption in the department, suffering heavy consequences along the way to a total reformation of the NYPD. I remember calling my favorite professor to recommend the movie to him. (I was a senior at UCSB.) He was unimpressed and said it was typical of Hollywood to write stories of change as though only one heroic person made it happen. He taught a class in "social movements" and was definitely a scholar on institutional change. Leaders on the left (and probably the right too) have always emphasized the importance of organizing and setting up an infrastructure to catalyze and shape change. They would point out that you can have a Martin Luther King Jr. but without the Southern Leadership Conference and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee you don't get a civil rights movement.

A couple of blogs back, I wondered what the secret ingredient is in all the social upheavals going on since February throughout the Middle East. Some folks rightly pointed out that Facebook and social media online is what made the demonstrations go viral. Others pointed out that with very high youth unemployment and highly repressive governments, that the boiling point was finally reached. It does appear however, that the one Tunisian man who immolated himself in protest, was way more the catalyst for what happened in the streets, than any organized opposition organizations.

I think that individual heroes, Internet communications vehicles, a shared social/political frustration, and even opposition organizations all work in concert, but most people have to feel there's a large scale happening underway - before getting involved. Somehow, the risks of getting tear-gassed, arrested, or shot are acceptable if people feel there's a mass movement going on. For many, it may be the draw of the "happening" itself. (I think that dynamic was at play when I think back to our student anti-war demonstrations at Northwestern.)

People will live, beaten down for many years and decades, even knowing there are some people protesting - and getting arrested - maybe tortured - for doing so. When the idea takes hold that there is really going to be a mass uprising, then suddenly thousands can turn out in the street and a movement is underway. I'm still unclear how that perfect storm occurs.

There's another thing my professor said that I haven't forgotten. He was one of the earliest members of Students for a Democratic Society. He traveled to a national convention after reading a number of articles by Tom Hayden who wrote about a mass movement growing quickly at campuses throughout the country. When my professor got to the meeting, much to his surprise, there were only a few dozen people there. Apparently, Hayden was writing the articles with smoke and mirrors in order to help get a movement started. Maybe that's another essential ingredient in the mix.

What do you think is still missing from the recipe?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Flawless Bat Mitzvah

We were so proud of Viva Rose on her Bat Mitzvah this weekend. She led the Hebrew prayers, then sang the Torah portion, and gave a speech. It was one of those Torah portions that highlights the worst of the ancient texts and the Orthodox who still adhere to them as eternal truths. Viva's chapter dealt with the impurities of women during their menstrual cycle and after they give birth. According to the bible verses when women gave birth to a girl they had a double-shot of impurity and and had to bring a bigger sacrifice to the priests. Viva spoke out forcefully against those old standards and drew parallels to how women were forbidden from holding prayer minyans at the Western Wall until recently after much struggle and after a Supreme Court decision initially upheld the Orthodox restrictions.

It makes me wonder how long Viva will stick with a religion that has such sexism and intolerance built into its sacred texts - still read out in synagogues today. I remember my own decision to walk away over 40 years ago after struggling with it during my years in a Yeshiva high school (seminary).

On the other hand the Reform service had a lot of beautiful prayers and songs, led by a very dynamic, high energy Rabbi and cantor - both women. The congregation imparted a sense of community and acceptance. Indeed, Viva is the child of two Moms and the other Bat Mitzvah girl (it was a double Bat Mitzvah) was the daughter of an Asian Mom and Jewish born Dad. The congregation demonstrates that it's possible to make a meaningful service and sustain a loving, spiritual community, even while acknowledging dated, flawed texts. It doesn't have to be all or nothing as the Orthodox would have it as well as many of us "Orthodox refugees."

Saturday, March 26, 2011

State of Emergency repression

The San Francisco Chronicle (3/24) reported in the wake of popular demonstrations in Syria – initially met by army gunfire, that "the all-powerful Baath party would study ending a state of emergency that it put in place after taking power in 1963."

That's an astounding 48 years! And now there willing to "study" it??! Although a state of emergency is often declared after a natural disaster, a number of countries like Syria use it to quash dissent and target particular groups. The article said that Syria's state of emergency "allows people to be arrested without warrants and imprisoned without trial. It goes on to say that there are detention centers known for torture, that hold prisoners for many years without trials.

It made me wonder how many other countries have imposed this type of "state of emergency" or outright martial law on their own citizens for long periods of time. Below are the infamous record-holders as I was able to glean from Wikipedia. I don't know how many of the countries actively used their extra-judicial powers on a regular basis to contain dissent, but if I'm a citizen in any of these countries, I'd prefer these arbitrary powers be taken off the books.

I hope that in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Libya, Bahrain, etc. a shift toward democracy actually succeeds, but even an end to these "states of emergency" will be an important step forward. Notably, since the demonstrations began in February, there are new "states of emergency" in Yemen, Bahrain, and Tunisia.

Israel - 63 years (since the War of Independence; not including martial law in the occupied areas)
Egypt - 44 years 1967 - 2011 (with an 18 month break)
Taiwan - 39 years 1948 - 1987
Turkey - 24 years 1978 - 2002
Algeria - 19 years 1992 - 2011
Pakistan -11 years 1977 - 1988 (and working on a new one begun in 2007)
Phillipines -9 years 1972 - 1981 (under Marcos)

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Why Isn't Wall Street In Jail"

A very good article in Rolling Stone, March 3rd issue, about how only one person (Bernie Madoff) is serving any jail time after the Wall Street meltdown fueled by the greed and deception of so many huge firms. For the most part, the very wealthy execs at Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, WAMU, and JP Morgan Chase, got off scott-free, though a few fines were levied. For example two execs at Goldman Sachs were fined a total of $180K, a small fraction of their bonuses for even one year. The article documents the cozy, ongoing relationship between regulators and Wall Street.

Here's a quote from the piece by Matt Taibbi:
"In the past few years the administration has allocated massive amounts of federal resources to catching wrongdoers - of a certain type. Last year, the government deported 393,000 people.......So there you have it. Illegal immigrants: 393,000...Bankers: zero. The math makes sense only because the politics are so obvious. You want to win elections, you bang on the jailable class. You build prisons and fill them with people for selling dime bags and stealing CD players. But for stealing a billion dollars? For fraud that puts a million people into foreclosure? Pass. It's not a crime....let's just give them a piece of paper with a government stamp on it, officially clearing them of the need to apologize, and make them pay a fine instead. But don't make them pay it out of their own pockets, and don't ask them to give back the money they stole. In fact, let them profit from their collective crimes to the tune of a record $135 billion in pay and benefits last year."

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Egypt; Secret Ingredient for Mass Uprising

photo by Floris Van Cauwelaert


What is the magic elixir that transforms a whole nation of people into social activists, risking life and limb to oust a government? How does it work that in one week's time a whole country can fundamentally change itself after decades of seeming complacency? All eyes are on what's happening in Egypt right now, but we've seen it happen just before in Tunisia and years ago throughout Eastern Europe, and in the Phillipines. It almost succeeded in Thailand recently, and in Iran.

I'm sure that in all these places, for many years, there were opposition parties that spoke out as they could, recruited members, held demonstrations, published writings, and had some leaders imprisoned or even killed. But why did they have so little impact and how can it all happen in an instant like a match to gasoline? As though it were waiting to explode. As though everyone was a government watchdog all along. But what is the spark that sets everything in motion? Is there any connection at all between the years of opposition activities or speeches and writings and the sudden mass uprisings we are witnessing today in Egypt and in the aforementioned countries?

Did these massive protests in Egypt and Tunisia - literally spark from the young, unemployed Tunisian who immolated himself? Were there not other publicized tragedies before? Certainly the conditions of widespread poverty and the unfair divisions between rich and poor, the corrupt government officials - were there for years. Is the spark from a rash of sudden price increases or government subsidy pullbacks? What is it?

I'm sure there are thousands of dissidents and activists fighting for change and justice, in many corners of the globe, scratching their heads and wondering what the secret ingredient is in Egypt this week, that is usually missing from civic recipes for decades at a time.