Thursday, September 23, 2010

156. Recovery won't come overnight

Even though 71 percent of the people still blame former President Bush for the economic recession, over next two months Republicans will drill the economy and the issue of job creation into the heads of the American public. We'll hear, "it's the economy, stupid," again and again.

Well, understandably, it is the economy that people care about. However, Americans need to have a realistic expectation or perspective of what a recovery not only might look like, but also how long it will take.

Unfortunately, Republicans plan to seize the impatience of our "immediate gratification" society to create unrealistic expectations as to how long it takes an economy, which nearly completely collapsed, to realize a quantifiable recovery.  

One interesting comparison is the Great Depression, which began in the late 1920s and did not fully recover until the late 1930s. There are some amazing parallels to this recession, such as the collapse of the stock market, high unemployment, bank failures and an intense concentration of wealth- where the richest one percent owned 40 percent of the nation's wealth.

Currently, the richest one percent owns about 34 percent of the nation's wealth and the top 20 percent own about 85 percent of the nation's wealth. The gap between the country's richest and poorest is at a modern high.

Equally interesting are the taxes levied on the nation's wealthiest. In the 1920s, which was the precursor of the Great Depression, the top tax rate went from 73 percent in 1921 to 25 percent in 1925. It was not until the end of the Great Depression that the top tax rate was back up to as high 94 percent. High taxes on the wealthiest remained consistent until the Regan era, who lowered taxes to as low as 28 percent.

So when President Obama speaks of "spreading the wealth" and letting the tax cuts expire, he has history on his side.  Unbelievably, Republicans don't want the tax cuts to expire-which would provide as much as three million dollars in tax savings to each of America's wealthiest families. Unbelievably, Republicans are able to sell tax cuts to the middle and lower classes-- who consistently vote against their own interests.  

Another area Republicans try to sell the tax burden is on corporations, under the guise that a lower tax would mean more jobs. Interestingly, many corporations are doing remarkably well. And, in fact, while pocketing record profits, some are actually laying off employees. Harley-Davidson is one recent example who plans to lay off another 1500 employees despite recognizing a profit of 71 million in the second quarter of this year. Other companies are following their lead, collectively recording corporate profits as high 1.2 trillion while 30 million employees remain laid off. Companies continue to use temporary employees or pay overtime because it is cheaper and they don't have to pay benefits. If this country is demanding job creation, it should start here-with American corporations.

Economic systems are complicated and certainly if they were easily managed there would never be a recession, let alone the need for a recovery.

The collapse of the housing market, for example, put a considerable strain on the economy and its trail is easy to hypothesize. The financial institutions and government made home loans available to people who were probably not in the positions to afford them-thus increasing the supply of homebuyers. This increase in supply of buyers created a demand for homes and new construction that increased prices (and it did not hurt that many homebuyers were approved for significantly more than they could afford).

This demand drove up housing prices, which created artificial wealth in the homes and both drove consumer confidence, and, much worse, made the equity in homes available for loans or the inspiration of home refinancing. This wealth was often put back into the economy as homeowners performed home improvements, took vacations or paid off credit cards.

But when the financial institutions were finished selling their souls and the economy could no longer support all the new mortgages (and other debt incurred), something had to give. Manufacturing fell, foreclosures skyrocketed, home prices collapsed and auto sales stalled.

The point is that with any economic recession, there are many factors to be considered. Some of that consideration is economic theory-such as how much of a nation's wealth should be tied up in the top percentage of its population. Other factors include the impact of tax rates, the responsibility of the private sector, and the consequences of financial irresponsibility.

More importantly is the realization that our economic system has been severely damaged. There are no magic wands, quick fixes or set recovery dates. Some are calling for a double dip recession, and I think they might be right. However, it is unrealistic to believe, and disingenuous to promote for political gain, that the country should have fully recovered by now. What a mistake it would be to change economic theories now-back to the theory that led to the crisis in the first place.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

155. Free speech has consequences

Most people have heard by now about Dr. Laura Schlessinger's recent use of the "n-word" on her radio show. Dr. Laura had been talking to a black female caller who asked about the racial problems she had experienced in being married to a white man when she used the n-word several times to explain the "hypersensitivity" of blacks in regards to that word and racial stereotypes.

From a social perspective, the exchange was very embarrassing. In essence, Dr. Laura ran out every cliché argument against the hypersensitivity of racism. She explained, in her first use of the word, that "black guys (and comedians) use it all the time." Then she admits, "I don't get it. If anybody without enough melanin says it, it's a horrible thing; but when black people say it, it's affectionate. It's very confusing."

What Dr. Laura apparently doesn't get is two-fold. First, comedians say lots and lots of things that are not socially acceptable in any context other than their performance of a comedy act. Secondly, and much more importantly, the word represents among the worst atrocities that one race has ever afflicted upon another. It's their word, for now and forever, to be used as they wish-- and inappropriate for whites to use. From my perceptive, at least, it's simply a matter or respect.

Dr. Laura then starts with the "we elected a black president so racism is over" argument, shortly before defending the conversation by saying, "Don't double N -- NAACP me." The only argument that Dr. Laura forgot was the, "I have a black friend" argument. Oh, wait . . . she went there too, saying, "My bodyguard and my dear friend is a black man." All in all, it was a shallow exchange-- even if some of it was taken out of context.

However, what was interesting is what happened after the show. At first, Dr. Laura apologized, saying, ". . . after the call, I was terribly upset about it and after that hour of the program concluded, I pulled myself off the air for the rest of the show." She admitted it was a hurtful word and that she should not have used it even if she was trying to make a point.

Fair enough, and had the story ended there, I probably wouldn't be writing about it.

However, at this point, Sarah Palin decides that she has an opinion on the situation-advising that Dr. Laura, "don't retreat . . .reload!" Palin then suggests that her First Amendment rights have been taken from her by activists. Of course, Palin has more to say-this time incorporating a slave reference-tweeting, "Dr. Laura=even more powerful & effective w/out the shackles, so watch out Constitutional obstructionist. And b thankful 4 her voice, America."

Later, Dr. Laura, apparently rejuvenated from the support decided she was leaving the show so that her "First Amendment rights would be restored."

Dr. Laura and Sarah Palin might to do well to understand that the freedom of speech does not mean that one has the right to speak without consequence. While the legal concept is complicated and has its interpretations and limitations, the freedom of speech as an ideology evolved as a fundamental right to the exchange of ideas-particularly political speech without the fear of government censorship or imprisonment. In other words, it evolved to permit criticism of the government-- to permit dissension and, in essence, democracy.

The freedom of speech did not evolve and does not permit people to say whatever they want, to whomever they want, whenever they want. In addition to slander, some forms of pornography and restrictions on time, place and manner, the freedom of speech does not protect against the natural consequences of one's non-governmental speech. Thus, while you can offer an offensive verbal attack on your boss without the fear of the government sending you to jail, the freedom of speech would not protect you from an impending termination. And like Don Imus, who was forced off of the air temporarily for offensive speech made on his radio show, a socially (or business) consciousness media corporation may terminate those that speak inappropriately according to the station's standards. Finally, one's speech may be offensive to listeners, who could also impose consequences by simply changing the station.

The controversy for Dr. Laura and Sarah Palin is neither their first nor likely their last. The former has said she will retire from her show, but still remain publically active. The latter, unfortunately, will not be leaving us anytime soon-- she has been leading and misleading millions of Americans ever since she was undeservingly thrust onto the public stage. Either way, let's hope that in the future they not only choose their words more carefully, but also take time to really understand the First Amendment that protects those words.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

154. Research issues for yourselves

My wife and I recently visited Colonial Williamsburg, traveling back into time to one of the many places where a new nation was born. We enjoyed the reenactments, which included the patriotic tide that eventually swung toward independence. We also enjoyed the old capital building and governor's mansion, which still portrayed reminiscences of English royalty.

One of our favorite speakers was Thomas Jefferson, who eloquently spoke of our constitutional history. He spoke at length about the rights of man, the many immigrants that found asylum in this country, the notion of religious liberty and the controversial topic of slavery.

While listening, I remember thinking how this forty-five minute reenactment provided more constitutional law than three months worth of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. Here we were, hearing from the "horse's mouth" the thoughts and arguments of Thomas Jefferson. Gone were the political spin and cherry picking-here he was speaking directly from a compilation of his own writings.

While I was sitting there, I knew what had been bothering me recently-it was encompassed in the simple words, "his own writings." It seems that we've lost our dedication to research for ourselves-to read and discover for ourselves, to decide for ourselves. We've become too dependent on others-those with a partisan perspective, or economic interest, or social agenda. We have a whole political movement based on propaganda and emotion and entertainers.

While I admire the political activism of the Tea Party, as would some of our Founding Fathers, there remains a significant distinction-the Founding Fathers based their passion on intellect. Our Founding Fathers were highly educated and based their political perspectives on philosophy, history and law. They studied and wrote and debated. They were, dare we say, progressives-they had the ability to think forward, to break away from the "traditional" social and political norms of Royal England.

It remains a fact today that many Americans are not well educated in philosophy, history, economics, law or literature. Americans have an opinion about everything, but how much time do we spend reading and studying the writings of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Locke, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin or John Marshall? If not from the source, where do these opinions come from?

Unfortunately, leading the charge and subscribing to the idea that if people hear it often enough they will start to believe it are the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Glen Beck and Sean Hannity-the Fox Entertainment group. These opinions are often slanted, spun, cherry-picked, exaggerated and geared to appeal to the emotions of conservatives. Unfortunately, the reception of these opinions is analogous to church goers who think they understand religion without ever reading The Bible and studying other faiths.

As a Newsweek article highlighted, we live in a time when sometimes people simply believe what they want to believe. According to the article, almost 20 percent believe that Obama is a Muslim, 61 percent do not believe in the theory of evolution, 25 percent believe in astrology, 41 percent believe that Saddam Hussein was involved in September 11, barely half knew that Judaism is older than Christianity, 25 percent could not name two Supreme Court justices, 60 percent could not identify the three branches of government, and, finally, get this, 40 percent still believe that the Health Reform Act creates Death Panels.

I know that it is not very politically correct to propose, but this suggests that a good 20-40 percent of the American population is utterly clueless.

It might not be realistic to expect that Americans devote a couple of hours a day to the study of history or philosophy. However, I do think that it is fair to suggest that if you are going to take the time to attend a Tea Party rally with a sign depicting President Obama as the devil, which labels him a socialist or adds a Hitler mustache to his photograph that you know exactly what you are protesting. There are some ideological principles to the Tea Party which I respect-even if the libertarian aspect appears somewhat selfish-but the anger and name calling is quite unbecoming.

When our Thomas Jefferson completed his reenactment, he took questions from the audience. Immediately, an obvious member of the Tea Party stood up and apologized for the state of our country. In his apology, he said that the schools no longer teach the Constitution. While I am not sure that is true (and I bet he meant The Bible), Jefferson's response was classic and typical of the times, he said, "Well, pull out the Constitution and read it, how difficult is that?"

Thursday, September 2, 2010

153. Humane treatment is long overdue

In a stunning turn of events, those that support the ethical treatment of farm animals claimed a small victory when the Ohio Farmer's Bureau recently agreed to make some improvements in the way animals are raised on their farms. The deal was brokered by Governor Strickland, which immediately suggests the deal was more political than ethical. In fact, the deal was only made after the group Ohioans for Humane Farms had collected enough signatures to put the initiative on the November ballot as a constitutional amendment.

The ballot initiative would have instilled ethical standards similar to those passed by voters in other states across the country. If you recall, farmers feared these changes were coming and tried to circumvent the process by passing Issue 2 last year as an amendment to the Ohio State Constitution. Issue 2, which created the so-called "Standards Board," was largely supported by the Governor and Ohio Legislature, including Representative Boose, a member of the Huron Farmer's Bureau who consistently misrepresented the issue, and Senator Morano, who proudly notes her endorsement by the Ohio Farmer's Bureau and is on the agriculture committee.

The changes do not do enough for animal welfare, and take years to be implemented, but it is an improvement to Ohio laws, which were largely considered among the weakest in the country. The deal includes the banning of veal crates by 2017, a ban on new gestation crates starting in 2011, and a ban on the strangulation of farm animals.

When a written standard is needed to stop the strangulation of farm animals, it suggests that it is not like factory farmers across the state suddenly got a conscience and decided to treat animals better. Farmers had just spent millions last year in an attempt to preserve their ability to set their own farming standards by passing Issue 2, and even though their leadership tried to spin the agreement, the responses left on Ohio Famer's Bureau website by members expressed their rage.

The agreement also comes on the heels of video released by Mercy for Animals of an Ohio dairy farm, which received national attention because of the graphic abuse. In addition, the award-winning documentary "Peaceable Kingdom" recently premiered in Cleveland. The film presents a powerful moral and ethical look into the world of factory farming-told by the famers themselves. In one moving scene, a farm owner tearfully stated, "I am not worthy of forgiveness." When this film is available, I hope that anyone who is concerned about the ethical treatment of his or her food will watch it.

As I emphatically tried to communicate with voters last year, there is a misconception among the general public when it comes to farming in this country. Many share a traditional view of a farm, where animals live long lives on acres of pasture. In fact, factory farms are defined as Concentrated (or Confined) Animals Feeding Operations (CAFO). On these farms, more so than the local farms, animals live short, confined, force-fed lives where they are injected with hormones and antibiotics to grow as quickly as possible to return as much profit as possible. While it may provide affordable meat, it comes at an ethical cost-as well as health considerations.

Unfortunately, dairy farms are just as unpleasant, and many people do not realize that in order for a cow to produce milk, she must be lactating from the birth of a calf. The calf is immediately taken from her (the males are often sold as veal) and the milk is collected from the grieving mother cow. This happens repeatedly until the mother cow is sent to slaughter. I am not sure why this tradition of drinking cow milk survives-it's cruel and unnatural.

Finally, when it comes to eggs, another documentary "Foul Play," has been released detailing the egg industry and may soon be available on Netflix. Many do not realize that male chicks on egg farms are immediately suffocated or otherwise killed because they are of no use as a rooster (chick culling).

The governor made a gentlemen's agreement, and Ohioans for Humane Farms can use the signatures collected this year in next year's election if the agreement is breached. The proposal will soon be heading to the Standards Board for approval and I hope the governor keeps his word. In the meantime, consumers can demand the ethical treatment of farm animals with their spending-by becoming educated and choosing meat and dairy products from local farms.

Some of video from "Peaceable Kingdom" literally shocked the crowd, leaving them horrified and in tears. It is inexcusable that in 2010 sentient animals are treated with such disregard. While it might be unreasonable to ask people to go vegetarian or vegan, it is not too much to ask that they act responsibly. Maybe we can even start with our legislatures; after all, it is their job to be informed.