Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Obama continues mainstream post-WW II foreign policy by allowing arms sales to Viet Nam

By Marc Jampole

President Obama has issued a number of executive orders over the past two years that have overridden the obstructionist Congress to give Americans what they voted for: a left-looking centrist administration. Among other things, he has negotiated an historic treaty with Iran that stops nuclear proliferation, tried to end the stalemate over creating a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, issued new regulations that help address climate change, and extended overtime pay to millions of Americans.

But in foreign policy and national defense, it’s the same old same old that we’ve had since World War II. President Obama, someone who claims he’s seeking peace, is lifting sanctions on the sale of lethal arms to Vietnam. How could selling arms to yet another country help the cause of world peace?

The standard answer to that question for the past 70+ years has been that arming a nation serves as a deterrence to other nations. As applied to Vietnam, the argument goes something like so: China will be less willing to push its weight around the South China Sea and will draw Vietnam closer to the United States, both militarily and economically. The big issue in the mainstream media is not whether we should be selling arms, but if we extracted enough in return in terms of prodding Vietnam to increase press freedom and political expression.

On closer inspection, this argument makes no sense. How can arming a totalitarian government that allows no press freedom and little dissent make the region or the world more secure? And how does Vietnam fit into a strategy of military containment of the Chinese? What would such a strategy look like? Or are we building up the fire power for the next regional conflagration, between Vietnam and China or a Chinese ally serving as proxy?

The United States is the leading supplier of arms to the rest of the world and has been for many decades. We account for almost 53% of the $40.4 billion in total world trade in arms. In second place, with a mere 19.3% of world arms trade, is Russia. Our guns help keep the flames of conflict alive in many regional war zones. If Obama were interested in a real turn in American foreign policy, he would stop all sales of American arms to other countries. The objection that other countries would step into the vacuum and develop arms businesses of their own doesn’t hold water, because if their governments could afford to subsidize weapons industries the way the U.S. government does, they would have done so long ago.

Making and selling military grade weapons are a big business for a handful of American manufacturers who have had their claws into Congress and both political parties since World War I. Often the organization making military grade equipment is affiliated with a company that sells guns to U.S. consumers. By ending the arms embargo to Vietnam, President Obama is making the world safe—safe for American military businesses that is!

One could cynically interpret the Iran nuclear agreement as about opening Iranian markets to a wide range of U.S. goods and services. It could serve as the foundation for the two countries to move closer together, which always results in America supplying the former enemy turned friend with arms.

Even as the Obama Administration makes deals to benefit American arms manufacturers, it has also proposed spending a trillion dollars to create a new generation of smaller, more tactical nuclear weapons. The administration’s costly plan would rebuild the entire U.S. nuclear arsenal, including the warheads, and the missiles, planes and submarines that carry them. The Congressional Budget Office estimates these plans will cost $348 billion over the next 10 years, but the National Defense Panel, appointed by Congress, found that the price tag could reach $1 trillion.

I thought Obama wanted to end the use of all nuclear weapons. What easier, or less expensive way, to do so than to let our aging nuclear arsenal grow obsolete and not replace it? The sad and simple truth is that only a madman would use a nuclear weapon, because of the damage that it inflicts not just on the site that is bombed but on the rest of the world through raised levels of radiation leading to more cancers and other diseases. Some predict that the next generation of nuclear weapons will release less radiation, but the operative word here is “less,” which is not “none” or “less than five years’ worth of dental x-rays.” Remember, too, our military will be less reluctant to use weapons they think are “safer.”

What the President doesn’t seem to understand is that you end nuclear weapons by getting rid of them, not by developing new ones. And you end war not by supplying arms to other countries, but by stopping arms sales and encouraging negotiations.

The scary thing is that Obama and Hillary Clinton are relative doves when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. Led by presumptive nominee Donald Trump, all the Republicans are talking about increasing military budgets. All say they would be faster to send soldiers into foreign lands and slower to remove them once in. Obama merely wants to sell arms and develop new nuclear weapons to subsidize our military industries. The Republicans, under the leadership of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, were willing to start a war to help a broad range of military contractors, including suppliers of mercenary forces. Now Trump even said he would keep the option of a first-strike use of nuclear weapons on the table.

I understand the focus that progressives have placed on economic issues this election cycle, especially in support of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. But even as we continue to move Hillary Clinton and mainstream Democrats further left on economic and social issues, we can’t forget that under both Democrats and Republicans, we have long had an anti-democratic, immoral and ineffective foreign policy that helps no one but large international corporations and military contractors.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Trump reveals American contradiction: Democracy needs informed citizens; consumerism demands self-centered dolts

By Marc Jampole

That a failed developer turned reality TV star and brand marketer could win enough votes in Republican primaries to become the presumptive GOP nominee confirms the essential contradiction of a consumerist capitalist society organized as a representative democracy.  Democracy requires well-informed, well-read, well-adjusted and well-educated citizens, whereas consumer capitalism demands consumers who are dumb and uninquisitive, with a short attention span, a high degree of gullibility and a constant undefined dissatisfaction, assuaged only by purchasing some thing or service.

The pinnacle of consumer capitalism is celebrity culture. Consumer capitalism glorifies the celebrity, because the celebrity has been detached from accomplishment or merit and merely represents what one does with the riches, which in America is to spend large sums of money on garish luxury items and experiences. Celebrity culture created Donald Trump, the language he uses and the cultural ideals he embodies.

We remember Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for playing ball, and not for spending the money they made—although Mantle did get some bad publicity for witnessing a few night club fights. But Kim Kardashian is famous only for being famous. When we think of her, we think of what she does as a consumer, not as a productive member of society. What we see her do always involves spending large sums of money. The celebrity sets the standard for consumption in a consumeristic society.  It doesn’t matter whether the society has done nothing like Kardashian or has failed, like the failed real estate developer Donald Trump.

Instead of judging Trump by his many failed businesses and multiple bankruptcies, the average American—trained by the mass media to accept anecdote overs statistics—evaluates what they see on a show that they only vaguely understand is scripted. Trump’s qualifications twist an old joke, “I’m not a successful businessman, but I play one on TV.”  For many Americans, especially those without the benefit of a college education, Trump really is a successful businessman, as qualified to run for president as Wendell Willkie was.

Celebrity culture not only produced Donald Trump, it also warped mass media coverage of elections to the point that the rhetoric of a reality star resonated with major parts of the electorate. It wasn’t his odious comments that many followers have found most appealing, but the means with which he delivered his poisonous messages: Direct, without caveats or conditions. Conversational. In blunt language. Vulgar insults of others. Trump centers every issue and statement on himself, which TV viewers learn from reality TV is the central trait of all great people.  He uses the rhetoric of celebrity culture, something that prior performers such as Ronald Reagan, Sonny Bono and Al Franken never did. Quite the contrary, former performers and celebrities turned politicians assiduously used the rhetoric of politics to convince us they belonged. But that was before the mass media infused election coverage completely with celebrity concerns such as who made a verbal error, who insulted whom, who is ahead in the polls, who is raising more money, who is more likeable and other issues of celebrity, not government.

Then there is the issue of aspirations. Trump is not a true conservative, but he appeals to groups tutored by conservatives for the past thirty years to distrust liberals and blame their problems on the “other”—minorities and immigrants—and big government. The angry, disenfranchised-feeling white males relate not just to Trump’s vile, racist opinions, but also identify with his Laddie Boy Rat Pack lifestyle, which reality TV and three generations of beer and car commercials have held up as the traditional right of the white male, a right being lost along with good paying jobs to the multi-cultural and feminist agendas.   

The increasing dominance of the mass media by celebrity news and programming glorifying celebrity culture created most of the conditions for the emergence of a failed businessman with fascist leanings and a possibly pathological narcissism as a major party candidate. But it was an important decision of the Reagan Administration 30 years ago that created a key element of the Trump phenomenon: the train of Big Lies, one after another, often generated on the spot and kept alive long after being disproven.  In Reagan’s second term his Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ended the Fairness Doctrine, which required the holders of television or radio broadcast licenses to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner the FCC deemed honest, equitable, and balanced. By ending the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan enabled radio and television stations to broadcast partisan ideologues such as Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity without having to air opposing views. Right-wing billionaires bought up stations, created networks and created the many voices who made and still make the same false statements about unions being bad, taxes being too high, crime being up and the nation being overrun by immoral and unreligious outsiders (recently to include the President himself!).  The Republicans supported, and benefitted from, the many lies of the right-wing news media. They deserve what they have in Donald Trump.

Those who look at American popular culture and its emphasis on turning all human interactions into opportunities for commercial transaction and conspicuous consumption may conclude that America, too, deserves Donald Trump. 

Thursday, May 19, 2016

New overtime reg is another small step the Obama Administration is taking towards greater wealth equity

It was to be expected that conservative politicians and business organizations would complain about the U.S. Labor Department’s new overtime regulation, which mandates that anyone making under $47,476 a year automatically qualifies for time-and-a-half pay for any hours worked over 40 per week.  For example, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan criticized the new rule that enables 4.2 million more Americans to receive overtime pay, saying the regulation “hurts the very people it alleges to help.” Business organizations such as the American Bankers Association, the National Retail Federation, the Society of Human Resource Management and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have all bemoaned the new regulation, focusing exclusively on the problems it will cause for small business and the employees receiving the overtime wage boost. The mainstream news media, of course, has quoted many small business owners complaining about the new reg.

One main argument against paying people extra money when they work more than the normal week sounds just like what business interests say about raising the minimum wage: that it will lead to employers hiring fewer people. This old saw is complete BS, as I have demonstrated before. Virtually all businesses only hire the minimum number of people needed to do the job, as they always seek to maximize profit. The result of increasing the number of people to whom companies must pay time-and-a-half will certainly be to raise the cost of labor, unless employers try to avoid the additional expense by hiring additional people at the regular rate to work the hours that they will no longer give to existing employees. The choice then is that current employees make more money or the company hires more employees. That sounds like a win-win for labor.

Here is some more nonsense the news media has published about the impact of making employers pay time-and-half to lower-paid employees who work more than 40 hours a week:
·         Employees won’t want to keep track of exact hours: Many, if not an overwhelming majority, of employees already keep precise track of their hours with time cards and time sheets.
·         People work harder for a salary: Whether or not this gratuitous insult of the working stiff is true matters not in discussing the validity of applying this blanket statement to the issue of overtime pay. Any good employer develops quantifiable measurements of job performance. If someone starts to fall below the performance standards of the job, a supervisor will talk to the employee, no matter what the reason. It’s easy and legal to fire an employee who continues to perform below standard when the only reason is because he or she is trying to work the system to get time-and-a-half.
·         It will make it harder to give employees flexibility in hours: A ridiculous claim! As long as an employee is keeping accurate track of hours, who cares if they came in at 5:00 am so they could leave for their daughter’s chess tournament at 3:00 pm or if they worked the hours at home or at the office or took off Thursday and worked Saturday of the same week.
·         Employers will turn full-time employees into part-timers. Employers who want to save money by only hiring part-timers don’t need the incentive of time-and-a-half to do so. As discussed above, while employers may hire more people to work straight time, cutting hours back below 40 (as opposed to exactly 40) won’t reduce the cost of the new regulation.

The rationales for paying people extra money for overtime are simple:
1.      The extra time puts a burden on meeting other, i.e., family, responsibilities and enjoying an outside life.
2.      It’s harder on the mind and body to work long hours, and employees should therefore get additional compensation.

I have asked employees to work very few overtime hours over the 27 years I have owned an advertising and public relations agency, because I believe that work performance degrades after eight hours a day and 40 hours a week and I also believe that people are better employees when they have a full and active personal life than when they dedicate themselves solely to the job. There have been times when the temporary demands of the job have forced people to work extra hours. We have often given comp time to those working overtime, something that the new regulation does not allow for employees making less than $47,476. Thus, my costs will go up a little bit, which means my profit margin will decline slightly. I’m not too worried about it, and I’m happy to pay time-and-a-half instead of straight time (which you pay whether directly or through comp time) for the occasional overtime hour of lower-paid employees. I know I’m still making additional profit from the overtime, since the same office, administrative and healthcare costs are being spread over more hours. Those (immoral) companies that have built extra profitability into the system by making employees regularly work overtime for nothing or straight time may have a greater challenge.

I’m disturbed by the number of legal scams that the Wall Street Journal and other media are reporting that employers have already devised to avoid paying time-and-a-half or any overtime pay. Some companies say they will reduce the base rate of employees who routinely work overtime, meaning that for the employees to maintain their current income they will always have to work the extra hours. Other employers or industry representatives say they will raise the salaries of employees to over the threshold above which they don’t have to pay overtime and reduce bonuses to compensate. Let’s hope the Department of Labor adjusts their regulations accordingly and go after these scofflaws.

Let’s face it. One of the two major reasons that the wealthy—meaning business owners, executives and highly-paid specialists—have taken virtually all of the additional wealth and income over the past 36 years is that salaries for all but the very top wage-earners have stagnated until quite recently. The other reason, BTW, is that the government has taxed the wealthy less and provided fewer services to the poor and middle class. Like increasing the minimum wage, mandating overtime pay for more employees and setting it at one-and-a-half times base hourly wages goes a little way to restoring wealth equity.