Monday, July 28, 2014

Greedy, self-serving billionaire thinks buying yacht is act of charity

By Marc Jampole 
Dennis M. Jones is a billionaire who claims that the $34 million he paid for his new yacht was a form of charity since the yacht creates jobs in the manufacturing, maintenance, cleaning, furnishing, decorating, cooking, and serving industries.
Funny, that’s the very same self-serving rationale that society matron Cornelia Martin gave to justify an egregiously ostentatious masked ball in New York in 1897—in the middle of a depression—in which one wealthy woman came wearing today’s equivalent of $6.4 million in jewelry sewn into her dress. Thus reports Sven Beckert on the very first page of his The Monied Metropolis, his history of the concentration of wealth into the hands of New York financiers, manufacturers and merchants during the Gilded Age (1850-1896).  The Gilded Age ranks second among American epochs in the flow of wealth upwards to a handful of very wealthy people. First place, of course, goes to the current era, which started in about 1980 and which I like to call the Age of Reagan.
If you wondered why rich folk can so glibly come up with convoluted excuse for why it’s great for the government to follow policies that take money from the middle class and poor and give it to them, now you know: They’ve been laying down the same line for decades.
Let’s take a look at two scenarios for an alternative use of Mr. Johnson’s $34 million and the untold millions he pays every year for upkeep of his metal-and-fiberglass leviathan.
The first scenario is a fantasy socialist utopia in which hundreds of families enjoy a weekend or week owning the yacht. The government pays for the cost to maintain the yacht and succession of temporary owners. Living on the yacht is open to everyone. At least everyone who likes that sort of thing. I’ll take the three-week trip with luxury accommodations across the old Silk Road instead!
Now a second, realistic scenario: The government spends the additional $34 million it collects from Johnson on teacher salaries, thereby shrinking the size of classrooms and providing an environment that’s more conducive to learning.  Or maybe, the government could fund $34 million in research into Alzheimer’s disease or cancer. $34 million would repair a lot of highways and feed a lot of hungry children. What about spending $34 million to subsidize consumer purchase of solar heating equipment.
Every single one of these uses for $34 million creates jobs. More importantly, they all improve our society and future economy more than does buying and operating a yacht for the gratification of a single individual.
But it’s Mr. Jones’ money! will shout those like George Will and the Roberts court who place property rights about human rights and social needs.
Yes, but in any other decade since we enacted the 16th Amendment in 1913, Mr. Jones would be paying a higher rate on the taxes from both his income and investments.
Moreover, no matter how hard Mr. Jones worked, he did not really earn that money by himself. The pharmaceutical company he sold 14 years ago for $3.4 billion used roads, bridges, sewers, airports and pipelines built with government money, all protected from both local and foreign threats by government organizations. His employees were mostly educated in public schools. They all made a ton less money than he did—and does—and none benefited the way he did from the company sale.
I couldn’t find a biography of Jones, but it doesn’t matter for my argument. He earned a billion in only one of two ways: Either he was already rich and connected or he was born with a talent which he may have burnished but which he did nothing to create. Either way, luck had at least as much to do with it as hard work. I’m sure that there are servants, boat engine maintenance specialists and cooks who work just as hard. 
In other words, Mr. Jones owes a lot to society and to luck. I’m not saying he shouldn’t earn—and spend—more than other people. Nor am I proposing a ceiling on wages and wealth.
What I am saying is that we have to return taxes to their levels before 1980 as long as there is still widespread poverty in the world, schools are overcrowded, our infrastructure is rapidly deteriorating, global warming is exacting severe penalties in lost lives and wealth, and people still suffer from debilitating ailments.
If that means Mr. Jones couldn’t afford to spend $34 million to buy a yacht and then untold millions to operate it, so be it. Life can be tough for billionaires.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Editorial: Let the Kids In / Defund the Gangs

Reports that approximately 60,000 children have made the trek north from danger-plagued barrios in Central America to the Texas border have really brought out the blatherskites north of the Rio Grande.

US House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in June blamed the administration for the flood of children immigrants from Central America. “We’re seeing a humanitarian disaster, one of the administration’s own making,” he said. “The administration’s actions only serve to encourage more illegal crossings. It’s another situation that appears to have caught the administration flat-footed.”

The administration actually followed the requirements of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, which was passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush. The law provides a process to consider asylum applications of young refugees from nations that are not contiguous to the United States — such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Xenophobic protesters in the United States claimed the Central American kids are not our responsibility but, in their defense, many of the protesters are imbeciles who are as unfamiliar with the history of US-Central American relations as they are with the history of Jesus Christ, who started out life as a refugee and who admonished His followers that they would be judged on how they treated the poor, the sick, prisoners and foreigners (see Matthew 25:31-46).

The children making the perilous journey north from Central America to the Texas border do not appear to be motivated by economic opportunity. They appear to be fleeing for their lives. They are running from gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha (a.k.a. MS-13) and Calle 18, who gave the kids the choice of submitting to the gangs or risking the dangers on the road to Texas, with dodgy smugglers, sex traffickers and corrupt officials along the way.

These children are not illegal immigrants. They are refugees from dysfunctional nations that US foreign policy helped to wreck. And the kids aren’t actually doing anything illegal. They cross the border into the USA, then they turn themselves in to the Border Patrol, seeking asylum. They are not much different from Cubans who, if they manage to set foot on the USA and claim they face persecution at home, usually are allowed to stay.

David Bacon notes at that the tide of migration from Central America dates back to the wars that the US promoted in the 1980s, “in which we armed the forces, governments or contras, who were most opposed to progressive social change. Many hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans came to the US during the late 1970s and 80s, to say nothing of Guatemalans and Nicaraguans. Whole families migrated, but so did parts of families, leaving loved ones behind with the hope that some day they’d be reunited.”

As young people from Central America arrived in Los Angeles and other US cities in the 1980s and ‘90s, many were recruited into gangs. Among the gangs that developed in Los Angeles were MS-13 and Calle 18. When US law enforcement and immigration authorities deported the gang members back to their homelands, many of the young deportees were incarcerated almost as soon as they arrived; prisons became schools for gang recruitment.

The Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), signed in 2004, further uprooted farm workers and small business owners who were swamped by imports from the US, unsettled these nations’ workforces.

The children who made their way north this year are not gangbangers. Instead they have showed extraordinary courage in coming to the United States in the belief that they would find a safe refuge here. The least we can do is give them a hearing.

But Republican congressional leaders proposed an ex post facto bill that would take those legal procedures away from these Central American refugees, and the White House indicated the President might go along with it. Democrats should block this backward step. These refugees should be given humanitarian consideration under the 2008 law that was in effect when they entered the country.

While Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) has ordered 1,000 Texas National Guard troops to deploy to the border, despite complaints from sheriffs along the border that the “help,” which will cost $12 million a month and pull the Guards away from their regular jobs, is not needed, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) eloquently defended the refugees and offered to provide temporary shelter for up to 1,000 of them, despite local protests. Patrick cited America’s history of giving “sanctuary to desperate children for centuries” and the “blight on our national reputation” when US authorities refused to accept Jewish children fleeing the Nazis in 1939. He added that his Christian faith “teaches that ‘if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him but rather love him as yourself’.” He added, “”The point is that this good nation is great when we open our doors and our hearts to needy children, and diminished when we don’t.”

We agree with Gov. Patrick. If we fulfill the faith that these kids have in the United States — and the parents who sent them north in the desperate hope that they’d find a refuge — we think they’ll be a credit to their new homeland, as succeeding generations of immigrants have proven, when given that opportunity.

Defund the Gangs

If the United States wants to improve conditions in Mexico and these Central American countries so these children might safely return, the first step should be to legalize marijuana to help defund the gangs and criminal cartels. The Washington Post reported in May that since 21 states legalized marijuana for medical use and Colorado and Washington state for recreational use, pot farmers in the Sinaloa region of Mexico have stopped planting marijuana due to a massive drop in wholesale prices, from $100 per kilo down to only $25. One farmer told the Post: “It’s not worth it anymore. I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.”

Retired federal agent Terry Nelson, who worked to prevent drugs from crossing the southern border, told VICE News that before medical marijuana and state legalization in Washington and Colorado, about 10 million pounds of pot were grown in the US every year. But 40 million pounds came from Mexico, and marijuana accounts for as much as 40% of income for the drug cartels, which operate throughout Mexico and Central America.

While the DEA’s chief of operations, James Capra, told senators in January that legalization “scares us” and is “reckless and irresponsible,” former DEA intelligence specialist Sean Dunagan told VICE News that, although it’s too early to verify the numbers: “Anything to establish a regulated legal market will necessarily cut into those profits. And it won’t be a viable business for the Mexican cartels — the same way bootleggers disappeared after prohibition fell.”

Over the past four decades federal and state governments have poured over $1 trillion down the rathole that is the War on Drugs. The current cost is more than $51 billion per year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The number of people behind bars for drug law violations has grown from 41,000 in 1980 to more than half a million in 2011, with 406,000 in state prisons and local jails, the Sentencing Project reported. Money funneled into drug enforcement is diverted from addressing serious crime as well as health, education, social services and public safety programs. It is no coincidence that funding for higher education has dropped during the same period that the War on Drugs has sucked up those resources. A 2010 study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron found that not only would the US save tremendous amounts of money were it to end drug prohibition, legalizing could bring in an additional $46.7 billion in yearly tax revenue.

And after years of denial by federal authorities that marijuana has any valid medical use, now that medical marijuana is legal, it is being used for a variety of recognized clinical applications, including relief of pain, nausea, glaucoma and movement disorders, as well as appetite stimulation for patients suffering from HIV/AIDS and dementia. Research indicates it also may have use in protecting against malignant tumors. And if it gives somebody a pleasant buzz as a side effect, well, that is an acceptable risk. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, August 15, 2014
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Selections from the August 15, 2014 issue

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fill in the blank: Americans are living in the land of the____. My answer: guns

What comes first to mind when you think of the United States?

High standard of living? Beacon of representational democracy? The melting pot? Consumer society?  Fast food and blockbuster movies?

Land of the free? Home of the brave?

Not me.

When I think of the United States, the first image that comes to my mind is a gun.

We are a society awash in weaponry with an economy in large part based on weaponry.

Let’s start with the fact that we sell three quarters of all the arms exported around the world. That means of every dollar’s worth of bombs, tanks, jet fighters, ammo and machine guns sold around the world, 75 cents of it goes to a U.S. company. 

Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Egypt, the Congo and Israel are among the many countries receiving arms from the Unites States, often purchased with funds borrowed from the U.S. government.

It’s a good thing the mainstream media doesn’t give much attention to the harm that’s done from the guns we sell abroad. Based on the space given in the media recently to condemning Russia for giving or selling to Ukraine rebels a rocket that the rebels used to down a commercial jetliner, coverage of the people killed with U.S. weaponry would crowd out all other news every day of the week.

At more than $660 billion a year, we dedicate more money to military spending than the next nine largest military spenders combined. We spend more than three times as much as number two on the list, China, even though the population of China is more than four times what ours is.  Let’s do the math: The autocratic Chinese spend about $139 per person per year on their military. The United States spends about $2,032 per person.  (I’m using 2013 figures from the Stockholm International Peace Institute, which I first found in a Wikipedia article).

The United States thus bears the major responsibility for the flood of weapons that help national and regional problems turn violent all over the world.

The violence doesn’t stop at our borders. Our militarism abroad runs parallel to our dedication to guns at home. The United States has the largest number of privately held guns per capita of any nation, almost one per person. Just as with military spending and weapons exports, our private ownership of guns far surpasses that of any other country in the world. We have 97 private guns per 100 people; no other nation has as many as 60 guns per 100 people.

More guns lead to more deaths and injuries from gunfire in the United States than in any other industrialized countries. Only countries at war see more of their people killed and injured by guns than the United States does.

It seems as if we worship guns and gun ownership. State legislatures and dubious court decisions have loosened gun control laws over the past two decades. After every bloody mass murder, more states pass laws to make it easier to own and carry a gun than toughen gun laws. Every week, the media covers protests of gun owners who think their rights have been squeezed or want to assert new rights to tote guns: sometimes they march into a fast food joint, sometimes on a university campus.  Very few politicians—and virtually none in the South—will come out against gun control for fear that the gun lobby will pour money into the opponent’s campaign.

The funny thing is, our reverence for the weapon both inside and outside the boundaries of our country plays to a stridently vocal minority. Only about 40% of the population has a gun in the home. Many surveys show that the number of gun owners is falling—but that each owner has more guns in his or her possession.  Our gun sales abroad primarily benefit the gun-makers, who are delighted to get the subsidies that U.S. loans to support arms sales represent.

What we have then is a society dedicated to guns and an economy in which making and selling guns play an outsized role.   Instead of singing “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” we might more accurately end the “Star Spangled Banner” with “the land of the gun…and the home of the gun sale.”