Thursday, December 15, 2011

The End of Economic Progress

As we come to the end of 2011, I begin to think about 2012.  I like changing over from one year to the next:  I get a new calendar (I still use a paper calendar), I throw away or delete all the articles, newsletters and reports I was sent all year and thought I “should” read, but never did.  I clean out my closet and give away clothes I didn’t wear and donate books I didn’t read.  Anything that the word “should” is attached to (should read, should respond, should call, should look into) gets pitched. I make resolutions, but first I evaluate how well I did on the ones I made for the present year.  Then I contemplate all that has changed before resolving how the next year will be different. Each new year is a chance to reinvent my life, a least a little. 

This year I will use my process to create some commons resolutions.   The information I need to consider can, for the most part, be found in the research of Pickett and Wilkinson, particularly in their stunning conclusion: 

“Economic growth, for so long the great engine of progress, has, in the rich countries, largely finished its work. Further improvements in the quality of life now depend on community and how we relate to each other.” The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger

Pickett and Wilkinson looked at a number of serious social problems and asked why these problems were so much worse in some developed countries and not in others?  Put more directly:  why is the United States the leader in infant mortality, homicide, prison rates, teen pregnancy, obesity, substance abuse?  And the answer:  Because we are also the leader in income inequality.  (See Blog Post on Equality Trust for more details on their study). 

A recent Christian Science Monitor reports, “The standard of living for American has fallen longer and more steeply over the past three years than at any time since the US government began recording it five decades ago.”  They go on to say that real median income is down almost 10% since the start of the recession and inflation has eroded peoples’ buying power by 3.25% since mid 2008. 

To truly take in that economic progress has done its work requires sitting quietly for awhile and watching my thoughts swirl around.  This is not a small insight and acting on it will require retooling how I think.  For example, there is no real need for me to argue against capitalism—all the bad and all the good that it could produce, it has.  In the developed world, capitalism is largely over.  What this means is that there is no point for a wealthy person in the United States to become wealthier—she will not live longer, nor be less likely to be shot or die of a stress related illness or get divorced or suffer from alcoholism. The quality of life for everyone in the United States is going down and will continue to do so.  For poor people (which we have more of every day) a drop in the “quality of life” is disastrous or even fatal. 

As a person who makes her living in the nonprofit sector, I must ponder and discuss with others what programs we will create to promote rough social equity that are not about economic growth, what kind of wealth will we need to create in a post capitalist society, and how exactly will we pursue “a quality of life that depends on community and how we relate to each other.”

I intend to ponder this through the Winter Solstice and as the days begin (however incrementally) to grow longer, I will incrementally begin to think of resolutions that allow 2012 to make exponential changes in the direction of rough social equity.  The gap between rich and poor is so deep and profound that we must adopt the motto of the 1960’s Apollo 13 mission in our work to change it:  “Failure is not an option.”

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Irrational Thoughts

POP QUIZ:  Who said each of the following?: 

The USA is in serious danger of becoming "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists."

“Corporations are people, my friend.” 

“What I'm talking about is the order of deportation, the sequence of deportation. It is almost impossible to move 11 million illegal immigrants overnight. You do it in steps."

If you guessed, in this order:  Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney and Michelle Bachman, you are right.   (From MoveOn.Org, YouTube, the Nation, and the Washington Post.) 

I could have put equally crazy quotes in for all the Republicans running for office, most of whom have endorsed adding 2000 miles to the wall between the US and Mexico to the tune of $25 billion, some form of flat tax, and war with Iran.

Gingrich’s quote is the probably the least serious in terms of policy and law, but is the most indicative to me of a dangerous trend in our country, which is to say things in a serious tone of voice that make no sense.  He has put together two ridiculous, but also self-cancelling ideas and made them into one thought.

I know that it is possible to have contradictory or nonsensical thoughts—I do it all the time.  Just yesterday, I ate a bag of potato chips even though I am trying to lose weight.  I read the nutrition label and saw that these chips had 20% of my daily potassium and so told myself they were good for me.  I also think my cat understands me and that my dog does not.  Or, just last week I said I wanted to read more, but then spent a free evening watching sitcoms. 

The difference between me and the Republican front runners is that I don’t believe my irrational thoughts and behavior should be codified into public policy and I am not going to run for office on a Potato Chip platform. 

A commons frame calls for rational and respectful conversation amongst people who see each other as valuable and equal members of the human race.  To figure out what policies, laws, behaviors and customs will most promote the common good while insuring individual rights requires a lot of discussion.  A society based on a commons frame has many gray areas that must be worked out, and probably will have to be worked on for quite a long time. 

The current trend toward saying things that make no sense serves a very rational, if evil, purpose:  to stop discussion.  Who can enter a discussion with someone who thinks a corporation is a person?  Who can really talk with someone who thinks that the border between the US and Mexico should be electrified and have a sign on it that says, “This can kill you” as Herman Cain said recently?  Or that “compassionate conservatism” is a form of big government, as Rick Perry noted in one of his earliest interviews? 

So regular people cease to discuss politics, stop voting, and do not enter into the commons.  We must fight this trend by having as many conversations with as many people as we possibly can, and watching in ourselves for those times when we say or do things that are irrational.   It is through sharing our feelings, our history, our facts, that we together can create the policies, laws, structures and procedures that protect and promote everyone’s health and well being.  Promoting this kind of conversation is the best way to continue to work for the 99%. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving

Last Thursday, I celebrated my 58th birthday by going to a play called “How to Write A New Book for the Bible” by Bill Kain.  Kain is a Jesuit priest and a well known writer.  The premise is fairly simple:  a man moves in with his mother as she becomes too frail to take care of herself after the death of his father.  Over the course of the play, much is revealed about their family.  The mother dies, which is bittersweet for everyone because they loved her very much and will miss her, but didn’t want her to suffer, and also now the son can return to his life in New York City.  The premise is that the mother and father are as grand as any characters in the Bible and that the Bible is simply a very long story of a very big family.  Every family’s story could be added to the Bible. 

The idea that each family is of Biblical proportion is intriguing to me, and I think presents some suggestions of what “family” would be like in a fully commons society.  First, there would be no secrets and all would be known.   The Biblical heroes have serious shadow sides:  King David was an adulterer, Noah was a drunk, Jacob was a liar and a sneak, Moses did not want to help his people escape from Egypt, Abraham let the Pharoah think his wife, Sarah, was his sister and let Pharoah take her to his harem, and the list goes on and on.  Human beings doing their best, but only sometimes and other times acting pretty badly.  Having no secrets would help everyone feel more normal and would result in far fewer lies as there would be nothing to cover up.  We would know that love is constant, life saving, joyful but rarely unconditional.   Ironically, knowing that would allow us to forgive and move on much more easily.  We would, perhaps, find it easier to forgive ourselves and in so doing, create a world in which kindness was commonplace .  The cliché of the human family would begin to have real meaning as we looked at each other and saw everyone as a relative. 

This week we have possibly the largest family holiday in the USA—Thanksgiving.  It is one of biggest days for domestic violence programs, for drunk driving citations, accidents and travel delays.  A holiday of extremely dubious origin, it has become a time to simply have four days off in a row because unlike the birthdays of famous dead people, Thanksgiving can’t be moved to a Friday or a Monday.   

I am not a big fan of Thanksgiving, but have come to accept it as something that most non-Native American people celebrate and some even enjoy.  This Thanksgiving I will do my best to focus on being a member of a family that belongs in the Bible and use this holiday as a way to practice living a commons life as my current life.  I’ll let you know how it goes. 

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Voter Suppression

Today, we share some news from our friends over at Nonprofit Vote. They were highlighted in a recent article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy as a key resource for voter engagement in the nonprofit sector.

Read "Legal Efforts to Suppress Voting Should Draw More Concern From Charities." (PDF)

From the article: “Every other foundation and nonprofit, regardless of its mission, needs to understand and act on the threat to its ability to serve society when the basic premise of democracy in America is at risk.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Path Wanderers

After spending a fair amount of time at Occupy Oakland (“fair amount” being relative to me who almost never goes to demonstrations), I decided that I must do something entirely for the commons which would not be controversial.  I chose to join a work party this weekend with a wonderful all volunteer organization called Berkeley Path Wanderers.  Their membership dues of $5 per family insure that anyone can belong.  They create, expand, maintain and repair the 140 stairways and public paths that run throughout the city of Berkeley.   

I went to the designated site where we were installing stairs up a steep hill to connect one set of paths to another.  I learned how to clear the space for a three foot long railroad- tie style step, make sure it was level and the right distance from the next step.  It was harder than it looked and each step took about 25 minutes to install accurately.  Fortunately I had a great partner who had installed many stairs and was generally very handy. 

It was a beautiful fall day and the people were very nice and welcoming.  But as for my wish that this would not be controversial, alas, no such luck.  The leader of the work party told those of us who were new that at some point, a woman at the top of the hill would come out on her balcony and yell at us.  She does not want this path installed near her house.  We were instructed to ignore her.  Many people have tried reasoning with her and every attempt to engage her makes her yell more.  Sure enough, about 20 minutes after we started she came out on her deck and said, “You are in violation of Berkeley City Code 92436.5” and then, for emphasis, “Point 5!”.  My stair partner said, “Point 5—that’s scary.  Point 4, not a big deal.”  We laughed.  I looked up just to see what she looked like and she screamed, “Didn’t your mother teach you any respect?  What about my privacy?  You are invading my privacy!”  I looked down quickly and got back to work. 

The fact is that we are not in violation of anything—in fact the city of Berkeley loves Path Wanderers because they do so much work and they pay for everything.  All the tools, the wood for the stairs, the storage shed where everything is kept between work parties—all paid for by volunteers who also do the work.  A cross section of the public is maintaining a certain kind of public space through private donations with the blessing and protection of local government.   To me, this in an ideal arrangement.  It is the totally appropriate use of private donations and volunteer energy.  The paths can be maintained by volunteer time and money for the sake of everyone in the community who likes to walk.  Many of the paths are wheelchair accessible and most have benches along the way so you don’t have to be a big hiker to benefit from this work.  Since they are throughout the city, there is almost no one who doesn’t live near a path. 

I asked if the work parties often had trouble with neighbors.  Not surprisingly the answer was no.  Most people are glad to have a path near the house and certainly glad to have an existing path maintained or upgraded.  However, sometimes people really object to the idea of the public being able to walk by their house and look in their yard or windows.  The tensions between private and public, and the width and depth of the liminal space between those is the topic of many commons discussions.  What belongs to me alone?  What must I share?  What must others share with me?  How much more do I have when I share?  Am I ever willing to have less so that others can have more?

After the work party, I walked by myself for awhile and enjoyed being alone.  We often say “less is more” and there are many instances in which that is true.  But also, “more is more.”  The more public space there is, the stronger the social safety net, the more engaged people are in their communities, the more we all have, both for each of us alone and for everyone. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Reflections on OCCUPY Oakland

By now if you are following the Occupy Wall Street movement you may be aware of the critical injury two-time Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen sustained two nights ago at a demonstration in Oakland.  Footage of the incident from one of the news organizations covering the demonstration has been re-posted on Move-on.org.

As I noted in last week’s blog, I have just returned to Oakland and had intended to go to Occupy Oakland, which is four blocks from my office on Tuesday.  My plans were thwarted when, to the shock of many people, the Oakland police moved in on the encampment at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.  In a press conference, the spokesperson for the police noted that they had mobilized 200 police for this action.  Protestors were given a choice of leaving immediately with their belongings or being arrested.  About 30 left and another 75 were arrested.  So, 200 cops in full riot gear cleared out maybe 105 protestors.  This, in a city that has no money, and a very progressive mayor, Jean Quan. 

The protestors were camped at Frank Ogawa Plaza, which is a beautiful and well-used public space in front of city hall, circled by restaurants and other small businesses.  Quite a few nonprofits including the East Bay Community Foundation have offices on or near this Plaza and it is a major BART (subway) stop.  As with many public spaces, even prior to Occupy Oakland, it was already “occupied” by a dozen homeless people who hung out during the day and slept in doorways and on benches at night. 

I went down Tuesday about noon.  Barricades had been set up around the Plaza.  Behind the barricades stood a phalanx of police in full riot gear.  Inside the barricades, city workers dismantled what remained of the encampment.  The police stood about two feet apart, their arms dangling above all the stuff they wear around their waist.  What remained of the protestors stood on the sidewalk yelling at each other, the police and passersby.  I was struck by the sight:  a disciplined line of  cops:  mixed race, almost equal numbers of men and women, facing an unruly but nonviolent crowd of mostly African American young men and women.   The 99% turned on each other while the corporate fat-cats we denounce go on about their business. 

I went again Wednesday night about 5:30.  By then many of the protestors were back, and the mood was somber.   Scott Olsen had been wounded.  Mayor Quan had shown herself capable of calling for military like intervention, to the shock of her supporters.  You could even catch the occasional fume of tear gas.  The protestors still trended young, but were majority white.  I was very dressed up because I had done a presentation earlier so I wandered around particularly near the TV people.  I hoped I would show up on Channel 5 because well dressed people at protests almost never do. (To my knowledge, I did not break that pattern.)   I talked with people, patted their dogs (of which there were quite a few) and met several dozen well-dressed older people in the crowd.  The Hare Krishnas were serving food and people were making new posters.   The police were not in sight, although two helicopters circling overhead drowned out a lot of the commentary.  

A little later I talked with a friend of mine who works for Jean Quan and asked what Jean was thinking.  She said the first problem with the Occupy encampment is that there is nothing the city can agree to in order to get them to disperse.  There are no demands to the city (to me, part of the genius of this movement).    Second, people had started to build fires at night for warmth and cooking and we are at the height of fire season.  If something had caught fire, the entire camp would have been up in flames in a few minutes and people would have been hurt and killed.  (Fire is a very real and scary prospect to Bay Area people who years ago witnessed 1000 homes go up in smoke in one evening).   Third, the numbers of people had overwhelmed the public bathrooms and port-a-potties.  Fourth, dozens more homeless people had moved to the plaza, drawn by regular hot food and better sleeping conditions.  Some fights had broken out.  The restaurants on the plaza (which have been largely supportive, even supplying some food and coffee) were beginning to wonder how long this would go on.   The Mayor’s office (the Mayor herself is in Washington DC trying to round up federal money for Oakland) thought something terrible could happen and sought to prevent it.  I had a glimmer of sympathy for the City officials.  I don’t know why the camping protestors weren’t simply asked not to have fires, and why the city didn’t provide more port-a-potties, or ask the campers to expand their clean up committee to the bathrooms.  But I do imagine that those people in charge of public health and public safety have very mixed feelings about any big gathering of angry people.  Ironically, though, the most damage was done by those most sworn to protect us: the police.   

The Occupy Wall Street movement has sought to have the 99% understand our common identity, but the reality is that in the 99% there are multiple and conflicting identities, motives and needs.  For this movement to move to have a more revolutionary impact, those conflicts will have to be explored.  Right now they are simply being exploited, and the one group that isn’t really suffering a great deal from OWS is the 1%.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Occupy Everywhere

I have been on a long business trip for the last two weeks and haven’t been able to attend any of the “We are the 99%” gatherings, which have sprung up everywhere.  The right wing clearly doesn’t know what to do with this movement and has resorted to using petty and cliché descriptions of the protestors as communists, lacking any demands, unfocused, and unsophisticated.  From time to time, the protests are taken seriously and the protestors are arrested en masse.  Clearly the powers-that-be have no idea what to do with this movement.   Their efforts to be dismissive have run aground as “occupy” camps and rallies are now literally arising in every town and hamlet.  No further proof of this is needed than the fact that next Saturday, Hendersonville, NC will have an “Occupy” movement made up mostly of retirees.  Hendersonville is a beautiful little town of 10,000 people about 22 miles from Asheville.  Like many towns in Western North Carolina, it has high unemployment and a high poverty rate, with pockets of affluence.  With about ¼ of its population over 65, it has the feel of a retirement community.  It is an unlikely place to find an “Occupy” protest. 

I am in Asheville as we speak.  Earlier today, I went by the Occupy Asheville site but it was pouring rain and really cold so I wished them well from my car rather than joining in.  I admit, with some embarrassment, to being a person who really does not like to attend demonstrations, rallies and protests.  When everyone is chanting, “What do we want?”  I want to respond, “To put my arm down” or “A cup of coffee.”  I have dragged myself to many demonstrations over the years but largely leave that part of movement building to others who seem to enjoy it.  I do love the Occupy Wall Street movement, though, and may just have to pitch my tent in downtown Oakland when I get back. 

Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute, Columbia University and author of, 'The Price of Civilization' captures the spluttering outrage of those who can’t believe the other 99% would ever dare say anything in his Huffington post op-ed,
“Here's a short note to the titans of Wall Street to help them understand what's happening.
Let me start with the Wall Street Journal, which seems to be the most confused of all. In its Friday edition, the Journal editorial board couldn't understand why the protestors would want to protest JP Morgan and hedge fund manager John Paulson. The Journal also couldn't understand why the protesters were failing to champion something as wonderful as the Keystone Pipeline, which the Journal assures us would create many jobs.

The protesters are annoyed with JP Morgan because it, like its fellow institutions on the street, helped to bring the world economy to its knees through unprincipled and illegal actions. The Journal editorial board apparently missed the news carried in the Journal's own business pages that JP Morgan recently paid $153.6 million in fines for violating securities laws in the lead-up to the 2008 financial collapse. JP Morgan, like other Wall Street institutions, connived with hedge funds to peddle toxic assets to unsuspecting investors, allowing the hedge funds to make a killing at the expense of their "mark," and the world economy.”
“Mr. Paulson actually made some extraordinary statements in the New York Times on Friday (hard even to believe the nonsensical quotations are correct, but there they are, in the paper of record). He too expressed befuddlement about the protests against his business dealings. Didn't the protestors know that he had created 100 high-paying jobs in NYC? 100?”
He goes on to say,
“What the protestors do know is that Mr. Paulson's success in shorting toxic assets bundled for gullible investors has netted him billions. In 2007, he reportedly took home $3.7 billion by betting against the U.S. mortgage market. And the protestors can also do their arithmetic. Paulson's take home pay was enough to cover not just 100 jobs at $50,000 per year but rather approximately 70,000 jobs at $50,000 per year. Nice try, Mr. Paulson, but the people in Liberty Plaza don't think your hedge-fund play is really worth the compensation of 70,000 people. Nor do they understand why hedge fund managers pay a top tax rate of 15% on their hedge-fund earnings.

The protestors are not envious of wealth, but sick of corporate lies, cheating, and unethical behavior. They are sick of corporate lobbying that led to the reckless deregulation of financial markets; they are sick of Wall Street and the Wall Street Journal asking for trillions of dollars of near-zero-interest loans and bailout money for the banks, but then fighting against unemployment insurance and health coverage for those drowning in the wake of the financial crisis; they are sick of absurdly low tax rates for hedge-fund managers; they are sick of Rupert Murdoch and his henchman David Koch trying to peddle the Canada-to-Gulf Keystone oil pipeline as an honest and environmentally sound business deal, when in fact it would unleash one of the world's dirtiest and most destructive energy sources, Canada's oil sands, so that Koch can profit while the world suffers. And they are sick of learning how many Republican politicians - the most recent news is about Herman Cain - are doing the bidding of the Koch brothers.

Here, then, Wall Street and Big Oil, is what it comes down to. The protesters are no longer giving you a free ride, in which you can set the regulations, set your mega-pay, hide your money in tax havens, enjoy sweet tax rates at the hands of ever-willing politicians, and await your bailouts as needed. The days of lawlessness and greed are coming to an end. Just as the Gilded Age turned into the Progressive Era, just as the Roaring Twenties and its excesses turned into the New Deal, be sure that the era of mega-greed is going to turn into an era of renewed accountability, lawfulness, modest compensation, honest taxation, and government by the people rather than by the banks.

That, in short, is why Wall Street is filled with protesters and why you should wake up, respect the law rather than try to write it, and pay your taxes to a government that is ruled by people rather than by corporate power.”

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Resources from IPS

Today we share the latest resources from our partners from the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies. Their research gives some background to what’s being pushed for down in New York City’s Zuccotti Park and around the world.
“No budget cuts until millionaires and corporate tax dodgers pay their fair share.”

Our message and program focus for the last five years has now become a national rallying cry, from Occupy Wall Street to the Halls of Congress. We are providing analysis, talking to legislators, and supporting “street heat” during this critical time.

Last week, a bill was introduced in the Senate to provide a “tax holiday” for companies that have parked over $1 trillion in offshore tax have havens after heavy lobbying from a coalition of Wall Street Companies and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. We’re pushing back in the news and on the streets. Call Congress today through the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121 and tell them “No Tax Holiday for Corporations That Destroy Jobs.”

We just released the report, “America Loses: Corporations That Take 'Tax Holidays' Slash Jobs" which shows that the 58 companies that got 70 percent of the tax breaks in 2004 destroyed almost 600,000 jobs.

Earlier this month, we released “The Massive CEO Rewards for Tax Dodging” exposing the ugly intersection of CEO pay and aggressive corporate tax avoidance. The report was covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News, and literally hundreds of other media outlets.

Watch this short video of media highlights.

IPS and our partner project, The Other 98 %, has been providing infrastructure support to US Uncut and the Occupy Wall Street protests, and Chuck Collins recently made these comments at the Occupy Washington DC rally to 2,000 people in front of the Chamber of Commerce.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Occupy Wall Street!

Today we share a guest post from Ann Holder, a friend of ours who celebrated Yom Kippur down on Wall Street and was touched by the commons spirit of the service and the crowds:

Easily 600 people celebrated the Kol Nidre in the plaza across from Zuccotti Park last night. I’m not a religious person, having already received a severe overdose of Christianity, and neither is my secular Jewish GF (who usually has a small identity crisis at the High Holy days).

But both of us were incredibly moved by this very public ritual of remembrance and atonement, the words of being born anew to move forward without the baggage of regrets or resentments from the past, in the context of this hopeful seizure of the Park, and the outpouring of both righteous anger and goodwill that have accompanied it.

The occupied park—as usual—had a host of activities going on: musicians jamming, people holding signs to be seen by the passing traffic and media, a group cooking, clusters of people talking. As seems to be the case in general, the Info Desk was very helpful and organized, directing traffic, needs, appeals in all directions. They sent us across the street to the Plaza, where five or six headlamp-wearing rabbis were surrounded by an enormous crowd.

Like the flavor of Occupy Wall Street itself, the Yom Kippur service was an immensely joyous and forgiving—if very talkative—circle of humanity. Surrounded by huge office buildings, no one complained about the noise, or the crowds, or the close quarters, or the occasional disruption as bursts of cheering wafted from the Park across the street. The Rabbis and Cantor competed with the roar of traffic, the rumble of generators from the food trucks that are now stationed next to the occupation 24/7. The occasional sound of a blender frothing a fruit drink, or the banging of massive garbage carts being used for Occupation Sanitation provided a fairly steady backdrop, along with the queries of passers-by who stopped to ask what was going on.

No amplification was allowed, so the entire service was done in a kind of call and response, with the inner circle shouting a repetition of rabbis’ words in unison so all could hear. Ritual phrases repeated by hundreds, echoed through the plaza, alternating with “Here’s what we’re going to do now,” or “Turn to page 32, 334 or 331,” the latter of course depending on the various versions of the machzor in use. People shared xeroxed copies, or dialed it up on IPads and smart phones.

The crowd was made up largely of PWC’s, people without children, which meant it was largely the very young adults and then elders like us. There were lots and lots of ‘older people,’ whatever that means these days, many who had brought their own chairs.

To our eyes, it looked like an exceptionally mainstream crowd considering that the Facebook invite had warned, “there may be disruptions and/or the possibility of police interference. Though it is highly unlikely, participants nonetheless risk the possibility of arrest. Please be prepared for that possibility.” It was largely white, though not entirely, and very, well, Jewish—as in lots of prayer shawls, yarmulkes, hardback copies of the service in tow.

The most interesting provocation was the public character of the event.

We left awed and wondering: What would it mean to do more of these kinds of things ‘in public’? Religious services, rituals, celebrations, classrooms—or even a variety of ordinary activities and conversations, all made available for respectful viewing or participating?

(And here I reference the number of people walking by, who had no idea what was going on, and seemed puzzled by the explanations, but who stayed to watch, and listen, with great interest and attention.)

It is this ‘new public’ that is one of the most hopeful and appealing aspects of the Occupation as it heads toward a fair weather weekend. The handmade signs continue to proliferate. Including, “Beware of Dogmatism.” There is now an informal sign gallery, where people leave their signs for display and re-use. Every kind of topic, lettering, color, idea, complaint—all different—mostly on brown cardboard.

Waiting in line at McDonalds, one of the only public bathrooms in the area, I met a young African-American woman carrying her sign. I asked if she was occupying. “Oh yes,” she said. I asked about staying over night. “No” she demurred, “I’m a high school student in Brooklyn. I come down here everyday after school, around 3:00.”

“How’s the homework going?” I asked.

She laughed and said, “pretty well,” adding, “Actually, that’s mostly what I do—sit and pull out my computer and write my homework.”

People are talking, learning to live in close quarters, in far from optimal conditions, to depend on each other, to enjoy the realm of the non-commercially social.

As we walked to the subway after the service, we passed a small group of young people talking excitedly and carrying their backpacks and bedrolls heading towards the park. With the warm weather, the growing crowds and the release of our regrets, anything seemed possible.

Unfortunately, the city/state/police will close this down as soon as they can figure out how. Note headline in the NY Times this morning: “Neighbors are Weary of Protest”

[Apparently the Park is privately owned by a developer who was mandated to build this sliver of ‘public space,’ and keep it open 24/7, as part of agreement with the city. The irony of this privately held public space offers a sanctuary of sorts.]

Wishes/Needs: We’d love to see a solidarity campaign emerge. A ‘Support Occupy Wall St. movement,’ with some strategizing about how to continue to maximize the PUBLIC character of this protest, and a mechanism for calling out a protective ring of civil disobedience when the moment comes for ‘clearing the square.’

Is any such thing in the works? Anybody know? Any ideas?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Truthout: Targeting Dissent

The following article provides validation and analysis for those of us feeling that suppression of dissent is on the rise in some subtle and not too subtle ways.  I thought of reporting on it and pulling out sentences to quote, but I was quoting too much and finally thought, “why not just reprint it?” The following was posted on the Surveillance in the Homeland blog.  For full article links, please visit their website.

Targeting Dissent
Thursday 15 September 2011
by: Nancy Murray and Kade Crockford, Truthout and ACLU Massachusetts | Special Feature

Ten Years Later: Surveillance in the "Homeland" is a collaborative project with Truthout and ACLU Massachusetts.

How little - yet how much - has changed in the last 40 years. The COINTELPRO papers sound distinctly 21st century as they detail the monitoring of perceived threats to "national security" by the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency (NSA), Secret Service, and the military, as well as the intelligence bureaucracy's war on First Amendment protest activity. 

The Church Committee investigation concluded in 1976 that the "unexpressed major premise of the programs was that a law enforcement agency has the duty to do whatever is necessary to combat perceived threats to the existing social and political order." In addition to massive surveillance, assassinations and dirty tricks "by any means necessary" included the creation of NSA "watch lists" of Americans ranging "from members of radical political groups, to celebrities, to ordinary citizens involved in protests against their government," with names submitted by the FBI, Secret Service, military, CIA, and Defense Intelligence Agency. The secret lists, which included people whose activities "may result in civil disturbances or otherwise subvert the national security of the US," were used by the NSA to extract information of "intelligence value" from its stream of intercepted communications.

We learned that there was, apparently, no easy way to get off the FBI's "security index."  Even after the criteria for fitting the profile of a "subversive" were revised in the mid-1950's, the names of people who no longer fit the definition remained on IBM punchcards, and were retained in field offices as "potential threats." A card would only be destroyed "if the subject agreed to become an FBI source or informant" or in another way indicated a "complete defection from subversive groups."

By 1960, the FBI had compiled 432,000 files on "subversive" individuals and groups, and they were getting hard to handle. The following decade brought the promise of a technological fix. Under the guidance of the attorney general at the time, Ramsey Clark, the FBI explored the potential for "computerizing the master index." The goal of Clark's Interdivision Information Unit was to harness "automatic data processing" to put information about people collected from external and internal sources in a "quickly retrievable form."

Forty years later, the same "by any means necessary" mindset is harnessed to a national surveillance industrial complex that pumps out some 50,000 intelligence reports every day into the FBI's Terrorist Screening Database (which contains over a million names, including aliases). This error-ridden "master list" is not to be confused with the National Counterterrorism Center's Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE)system, which held 640,000 identities in March 2011. There are reported to be about a dozen terrorism watch lists or databases, and a single tip from a credible source is all it takes to get into one or more of them, while there is no reliable way to get out.

Given the legion of local, state and federal agents seeking out harbingers of "terrorist activity," the fact that espousing "radical" beliefs is grist for a Suspicious Activity Report (SAR) and the virtually unchecked ability of FBI operatives to spy on groups without suspicion of wrongdoing, it is not surprising that the same kind of groups that were infiltrated and spied on by the FBI, NSA, CIA, and Department of Defense (DoD) under COINTELPRO are featuring in Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) investigations and fusion center data banks. The secrecy shrouding "national security" matters and the blurred jurisdictions that turn FOIA requests into pieces in a "pass the buck" shell game have made it impossible to get a clear picture of the extent of spying on protected First Amendment activity. But leaks and oversight reports indicate that a 21st century Church Committee would find a mention of any group that challenges the status quo somewhere in the vast domestic surveillance labyrinth.

In his 2010 report, "A Review of the FBI's Investigation of Certain Domestic Advocacy Groups," Glenn Fine, the (now retired - and not replaced) inspector general of the Justice Department, concludes that the FBI had "little or no basis" for investigating many advocacy groups and individuals, and that it made false and misleading statements to the public and Congress to justify its surveillance of an antiwar rally organized by a peace and social justice organization, the Thomas Merton Center of Pennsylvania. Not only did it routinely classify actions involving nonviolent civil disobedience as "Acts of Terrorism matters," it also, "relied upon potential crimes that may not commonly be considered 'terrorism' (such as trespassing or vandalism)" to get people placed on watch lists and their travels and interactions tracked.

Around the country, databases have swelled with information about antiwar and other protests that are classified as "potential terrorist activity." Intelligence oversight reports indicate that the Pentagon, which defined protest in training materials as "low-level terrorism activity," monitored and shared intelligence on groups ranging from Alaskans for Peace and Justice to Planned Parenthood, and used Army signals intelligence in Louisiana to intercept civilian cell phone conversations. It was revealed late in 2005 that the DoD had a secret database called Threat and Local Observation Notice (TALON) maintained by its Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) unit. Among its 13,000 reports were dozens detailing antiwar activity, along with photos of protesters. Meetings were sometimes infiltrated and information widely shared among partner agencies. Events classified as "threats" included the gathering of activists at a Quaker meeting house in Lakewood, Florida, to plan a protest of military recruiting at the local high school, a Boston protest outside a military recruiting center and a peace march through the streets of Akron, Ohio, tailed by local police who had been tipped off by the Pentagon.

Although CIFA was disbanded after the extent of its spying was revealed, the TALON database has been preserved and is expected to be part of a new repository of information housed at the Pentagon's Defense Counterintelligence and Human Intelligence Center. A notice in the Federal Register for June 15, 2010, states that the new repository will have a broad domestic and homeland security mandate and will amass personal data, citizenship documentation, biometric data and "reports of investigation, collection, statements of individuals, affidavits, correspondence, and other documentation pertaining to investigative or analytical efforts by the DoD and other US agencies to identify or counter foreign intelligence and terrorist threats."

The Posse Comitatus Act's substantial limitations on the use of the military in domestic law enforcement appear to have all but vanished. Indeed, in Washington State, John Towery  - a member of Force Protection Service at Fort Lewis who infiltrated and spied on peace groups in Olympia and shared information with the Army, JTTF, the FBI, local police departments and the state fusion center - is being sued by groups claiming his undercover surveillance violated the Act. A document leaked by WikiLeaks outlines how a "fusion cell" in a military police garrison integrated with local, county, regional, state and federal law enforcement can avoid the usual constraints on military intelligence by operating "under the auspice and oversight of the police discipline and standards." In the words of former Olympia City Council member T.J. Johnson, who was one of the people spied on by Towery, "The militarization of domestic law enforcement is one of the more disturbing trends in recent years."

Leaks from fusion centers reveal that peace groups share a place on surveillance databases with environmental groups, animal rights groups, student groups, anti-death penalty organizations, Muslim organizations, conspiracy theorists, Ron Paul supporters, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Nation of Islam and "Black Extremists." The Virginia Fusion Center cited various historically black colleges and universities as potential "radicalization nodes" for terrorists. The Maryland State Police, which works with the FBI as part of a JTTF and shares information with the state's fusion center, infiltrated protest activity, kept error-ridden "terrorist" files on activists and was notified by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) about what groups should be monitored. Bette Hoover, a retired nurse who is a grandmother and Quaker antiwar activist, was surprised when documents came to light listing her as a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and direct action group The Ruckus Society - organizations she never belonged to - and placing her at demonstrations she had never attended. She now understands why she receives special scrutiny at airports.

Given the enormous dimensions of the secretive echo chamber in which flawed information is disseminated, it is difficult to see how the record can ever be set straight. Once a person is in a database, there seems to be no more inclination to delete all traces of that individual (assuming this is even possible) than to remove an IBM punch card from J. Edgar Hoover's security index. The FBI today wants to keep all Suspicious Activity Reports in its eGuardian database, on the grounds that even if there is no connection to terrorism or crime today, one may become clear tomorrow as it continues to add information to a person's profile and mine information about their associations.

In the age of the Total Information Awareness program, there appears to be no end to the appetite for data to be stored and mined, and all sorts of agencies want a share of the action. There was little attempt to rein in the NSA after whistleblowers Russell Tice and Thomas Tamm revealed an "overcollection" of data of staggering proportions through the Agency's access to the phone calls, text messages, faxes and emails affecting the communications of "all Americans" - including Bill Clinton.  Data captured through the NSA's warrantless surveillance program has reportedly been systematically archived for data mining purposes.

The US Joint Special Operations Command is meanwhile establishing a mega fusion center at a secret address near the Pentagon which will serve as "the offense end of counterterrorism, tracking and targeting terrorist threats that have surfaced in recent years" and advising domestic law enforcement "in dealing with suspected terrorists inside the US." It will feature a cloud-computing network combining "all elements of US national security, from the eavesdropping capabilities of the National Security Agency to Homeland Security's border-monitoring databases."

Not to be outdone, the FBI has erected a giant Investigative Data Warehouse (IDW) containing 1.5 billion records and counting - much of it classified - including information collected through nearly 300,000 National Security Letters, criminal records, financial records, intelligence reports, gang information, terrorist information, open source data and more. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) litigation has brought the data trove to light - the "future of the IDW is data mining" as the FBI uses "link analysis" and "pattern analysis" in the hunt for "pre-crime."

The neverending hunger for data may be one reason why the FBI, in late 2010, raided the homes and seized computers, cell phones and files belonging to peace and justice activists in Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan. Twenty-three of them have been issued with grand jury subpoenas, some for allegedly giving "material support" to a foreign terrorist organization by meeting with groups in Colombia and Palestine. 

"We're conflating proper dissent and terrorism," warned former FBI agent and whistleblower Coleen Rowley:
A secretive, unaccountable, post 9/11 homeland security apparatus has increasingly turned inward on American citizens. The evidence includes everything from controversial airport body scanners to the FBI's raids last September on antiwar activists' homes ... Agents are now given a green light, for instance, to check off "statistical achievements" by sending well-paid manipulative informants into mosques and peace groups. Forgotten are worries about targeting and entrapping people not predisposed to violence.... The massive and largely irrelevant data collection now occurring only adds hay to the haystack, making it even harder to see patterns and anticipate events. "Top Secret America" needs to ask itself who is more guilty of furnishing "material aid to terrorism: - its own operatives, or the activists and protesters it so wrongheadedly targets.
Also See: September 11: A Day of Death and a Decade of Constitutional Crisis

Friday, September 16, 2011

Income and Poverty in the US

Where do people earn the Per Capita Income? More than one poor starving soul would like to know. In our countries, numbers live better than people. How many people prosper in times of prosperity? How many people find their lives developed by development?
Eduardo Galleano, “Those Little Numbers and People.”

The census has just released a report called “Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2010” (PDF) and all the media has picked up various aspects of the data and its meanings. It is pretty much all bad news as far as I can see. Basically more people became poor and the poor got poorer. Here are just some of the statistics from that report:
  • There are 46 million Americans -- about one in six -- living below the poverty line. That's the largest number on record. More Americans are impoverished than at any point in nearly five decades of record-keeping.
  • Since the recession began in 2007, median household income has fallen 6.4%, to $49,445.
  • Some 5.9 million people between ages 25 and 34 live with their parents, an increase of about 25% from 2007. About 45.3% of those young adults would be in poverty if they lived alone.
  • About 49.9 million Americans lacked health insurance, the report also said. That number has soared by 13.3 million since 2000.
This poverty is racialized. African Americans experienced the highest poverty rate at 27%, up from 25% in 2009, and Latinos rose to 26% from 25%. Just fewer than 10% of white people lived in poverty, up from 9.4% in 2009. Asians were unchanged at 12.1 percent. 40% of black children and 33% of Latino children now live in poverty, compared to 21.6% of children overall. The infant mortality rate for black infants is twice that of white infants. In most measures of income, of unemployment, of assets, people of color have fared far worse than white people, expanding an already disgraceful gap.

Further, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States has both the highest overall poverty rate and the highest childhood poverty rate of any major industrialized country on earth. This comes at a time when the U.S. also has the most unequal distribution of wealth and income of any major country on earth with the top 1 percent earning more than the bottom 50 percent.

According to the latest figures from the OECD (PDF), 21.6 percent of American children live in poverty. This compares to 3.7 percent in Denmark, 5 percent in Finland, 5.5 percent in Norway 6.9 percent in Slovenia, 7 percent in Sweden, 7.2 percent Hungary, 8.3 percent in Germany, 8.8 percent in the Czech Republic, 9.3 percent in France, 9.4 percent in Switzerland.

Given that the poverty line in 2010 for a family of four was $22,314, this numbers become even more stark. Try living with three other people on $22,000 a year anywhere in this country. It is next to impossible.

Of course, older people actually did not take nearly the hit of everyone else, in part because of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security—government programs that actually do their job of keeping people out of poverty.

What do you do with numbers like these? Read them and weep? I find myself wanting to eat salty fatty foods, like French fries, and tool around on the internet to learn how one emigrates to Norway. I sign petitions on-line, post articles on Facebook and tweet and retweet items of interest or excellent analysis.
My frustration is that two key solutions to our vast problems are not difficult to understand:
  1. Immediately create and implement a fair and just tax structure. Stop offshore tax havens, bring back higher top marginal tax rates, make corporations pay their fair share; and
  2. Create a federal jobs program and put people to work. Spend all the money you can on that.
Nothing new and unheard of is called for: simply a commitment to the common good. Langston Hughes wrote years ago, “American never was America to me. But I make this solemn vow: America will be.” I have to join him in believing that “America will be.” There aren’t many other choices that don’t require plunging into despair.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Where were you?

The “where were you when…?” questions often serve as a ways of getting to know someone, as a cultural reference point, and, as there are more of them, a way to mark how old you are. The ‘where were you when’ questions that mark my life are the assassination of John F. Kennedy (Nov 23, 1963) and Sept 11, 2001. Certainly there are other major events in my life: the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Nixon’s resignation, the Loma Prieta earthquake, the stock market crash of 1987. But they don’t stand out with the clarity of these two events, which I and many others could retell in minute detail.

I was in Montreal on Sept 11, 2011, in a meeting with two colleagues who are also dear friends. I was to leave for Washington DC later that day. One of my friends left the room to take a phone call from his daughter and came back to say “A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center—it has punched through it.” He has a quirky sense of humor and at first I thought ‘Is this a joke?” But his face told me it wasn’t. At first it was hard to imagine and then with the replaying of videos captured on cell phones, it was impossible to forget.

September 11 and the two or three weeks that followed were the only (and probably the last) time in my life that the United States had a chance to unite the world in a true effort for peace. The Congress under the “leadership” of George Bush, squandered that opportunity, voting at every turn for war, with only the voice of Barbara Lee begging ”Let us not to become the evil we deplore.” Taliban leaders offered to find and surrender Osama bin Laden to the World Court in The Hague, where he could have been tried. We could have taken the high road, and not met violence with violence. We could have treated this horrible tragedy as a crime and the perpetrators as criminals.

But there was no intention on the part of the war machine to have peace. Instead we invaded two countries that had done nothing to us, and now ten years, 6200 dead American soldiers, hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded Afghani and Iraqi soldiers and civilians, and almost a trillion dollars later, we have become one of the most hated and despised nations in the world. And in one of my ironies of this “war on terror” – when Osama bin Laden was assassinated, one of my students at the University of California asked, “Who was he again?” Of course, this young man was nine in 2001.

And so in the frenzy of memorials for 9/11, I will mourn the loss of life again, and relive again where I was and how I felt, and hear from others where they were and how they felt. Some of us will recall people we know who escaped or were killed in New York or DC, or marvel how we might have been on those planes or at the World Trade Center but weren’t.

But what we won’t talk about because it is too painful, is the fact that the vast majority of people in power then, and now, are not interested in peace. The PATRIOT Act is still in place, Obama makes tepid comments opposing Islamaphobia but continues the war, the economic downturn caused in part by a bloated military has driven the death and destruction half a world away to smaller and smaller articles every day and the “peace movement” is barely to be found.

From our grief must come a renewed determination to do all we can for world peace. The only fitting memorial to 9/11 is peace. The work required is overwhelming but as Che Guevara said, “Be realistic. Do the impossible.”

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Labor Day was no picnic for many

Labor Day came and went the same as most holidays that have lost their meaning. Some people may have gone to a picnic, parade or barbeque over the three-day weekend, but the “reason for the season” was mostly overshadowed by consumerism (taking advantage of back-to-school sales or going to see The Help … again). And since consumption is now the reason for holidays, lots of today’s laborers don’t get Labor Day off at all!

Labor Day became a national holiday in 1894, but the first Labor Day was celebrated in New York City in 1882 when the Central Labor Union organized a march of more than 20,000 union members and their families. Over the next few years, the nation’s unions spread the tradition to other cities and built a movement to get states and the federal government to honor the social and economic contributions made by the regular workers who kept the economy running.

Monday’s day off is part of the enduring legacy of the courageous and aggressive union organizing of the previous century that created the basics of modern life, like: the weekend, the middle-class, and the principle that kids should be in schools not factories. Today those things are taken for granted, but in 1882 – less than 20 years after slavery was abolished – society was organized around a few business owners and robber-barons squeezing everything they could out of millions of laborers working 12-hour shifts in inhumane conditions, but still left struggling to put food on the table.

Labor Day was initially about the struggle for economic and worker justice. But a century later, Labor Day has been so trivialized as to just dictate fashion choices. But today’s economy needs a Labor Day much more like the original march of “workingmen of all trades united in one organization.”

Today, there’s plenty for working people to unite around. Even though workers don’t routinely lose life and limb on the job anymore (though immigrants still face the worst working conditions), our society has sadly returned to many of the worst features of a century ago. Inequality is back at Great Depression levels, and the richest 400 people control more wealth than half of the country. The latest statistics are that 14 million people are officially unemployed (almost half have been unemployed for longer than 6 months). And many millions more are out of work or stringing together part-time jobs that don’t pay enough.

So for today’s laborers – especially people working in the service industry – Labor Day wasn’t a day off. And for the millions unemployed it was just another day spent worrying about how to get bills paid. Let’s all hope that next Labor Day’s headlines focus more on the movement for jobs and economic justice.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

From CAP: Lowering taxes doesn’t lead to job growth

As we await the President’s job speech this week – and in light of the spending cuts the Super Committee is beginning to devise – I’d like to share an article written this past June by Michael Linden at the Center for American Progress. “Rich People’s Taxes Have Little to Do with Job Creation” reminds us that cutting taxes for the wealthy doesn’t have the economic impact we’re often promised it will.


To quote the article: “When the marginal tax rate was 50 percent or above, annual employment growth averaged 2.3 percent, and when the rate was under 50, growth was half that. In fact, if you ranked each year since 1950 by overall job growth, the top five years would all boast marginal tax rates at 70 percent or higher. The top 10 years would share marginal tax rates at 50 percent or higher.”

Friday, September 2, 2011

Our State, Our Budget

I want to share with readers a wonderful video made by Joshua Busch (staffer for the Community Coalition of LA) which gently pokes fun at the way some nonprofit staff have reacted to news of tax cuts. We are using this video to promote our project, Nonprofits Talking Taxes:



Even if you are not from California, your state is probably cutting services and not raising taxes on corporations or wealthy people, even those, like Warren Buffett, who have offered to pay more and advocated for higher taxes for wealthy people. Please feel free to share this video and the resources on our website with friends and colleagues. Our goal is to make the common good a common topic of common conversation.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Inequality by the Numbers

I wanted to share with you today a graph that came from this week’s edition of one of our past featured partners, Too Much, illustrating the type of revenue that could be raised if certain changes were made to the tax code.


Along with this, the newsletter this week also featured a great piece on a memo that Justice Powell wrote in 1971 (back before he was a Supreme Court judge) for the Chamber of Commerce that outlined what they could do to “jumpstart a crusade to save free enterprise”. The article notes that even though the memo blasts left-wing “extremists,” the drastic inequality that has resulted from the past four decades of deregulation and decreasing tax rates on the wealthy would most likely trouble Powell. He “saw business as a champion for prosperity for all. He considered unions and collective bargaining ‘essential’ to the freedom Americans enjoy. Today’s U.S. Chamber of Commerce, by contrast, acts as the lobbying ringleader against any and all legislation that seeks to help workers organize and bargain.”

Free enterprise run amok.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

What’s in a Title?

I am consulting with a small social justice organization which is about to hire a “CEO” and I have been giving a lot of thought to issues of titles.  Maybe I feel bad because I have never been a Chief Executive Officer, although I have worked in and around nonprofits for 35 years and have been the head person at several.  Long ago, before we knew the power of titles, the director of a nonprofit was simply called the “director.”   Later that title seemed too lightweight and nonprofits started using “executive director.”  I have been a Director and an Executive Director and I did make more money when I was the Executive Director.  Some organizations then began use the word “President” which meant that we could no longer call the President of the Board “President” so that person became a “Chair.” Somehow it seems a little bit of a demotion to go from “President” to “Chair”, but perhaps it is better than becoming the “Table”, which is often what the Chair did: tabled the motion, or put something on the table. Some friends of mine have held the title, “President and Executive Director” and now I know people who are the “President and CEO.”

These titles are all borrowed from the corporate world.  If I were to borrow titles, I would have probably used titles from a monarchy which are a lot more fun:  Duke, Knight, Princess, King and Queen, or from the big gorilla of nonprofits-- the Church --with their Bishops, Cardinals, Right Reverends, Monsignors and so on.  Or we could borrow from the military and be generals, admirals, colonels and the like. But nonprofits are not like the military, the church or the monarchy: we are like corporations and we name ourselves after them.

The organization I’ve been working with decided to use “CEO” instead of Executive Director because they thought they would attract more qualified people.  Whether this is the case remains to be seen, but they now grapple with the fact the people who want to be “CEOs” want the pay that comes with that title, and they may not be able to afford such a person.

What is the harm in calling someone a CEO?  In the larger scheme of things, perhaps there is none.  However, if the nonprofit sector, particularly the social justice subset of that, takes seriously our job which is to raise issues of the common good, and to promote rough social equity, we have to think seriously about where we are getting our ideas.  With all this title inflation, you would think we would see a commensurate decrease in poverty and oppression, but this is not the case, and that may be a clue that modeling ourselves after corporations will simply move us to a more and more corporate controlled society.   We name our children very carefully—should we not name the jobs we do to build a healthy society for them to be raised in just as carefully? 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Test your Tax Know-how

We’ve talked a lot about taxes on this blog, but how much do we really know about taxes? Test your knowledge with this quiz, created by our own Kim Klein and Jan Masaoka from Blue Avocado.

Let us know how you do!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The "Budget Control Act"

I have been racking my brain about what to say about the debt ceiling “crisis” and the “compromise” that was reached to solve it.  A cartoon in our local paper summarized it very neatly:  Obama says to Boehner, “You can have everything you want as long as you are willing to say this is a bipartisan agreement. “  Boehner says, “YOU got it, Mr. President.”

The following is from Citizens for Tax Justice and is an excellent summary of what happened and why:
CTJ Statement on the Debt Ceiling Deal: President Obama Breaks His Promise on Taxes Again

The so-called “Budget Control Act” that President Obama signed into law today to increase the federal debt ceiling and reduce the federal budget deficit marks the second time the Obama administration has capitulated on tax policy to the most extreme elements in Congress, those who are least in touch with the American people and most willing to risk economic disaster to get their way.

While our political leaders should be doing all they can to boost consumer demand and create jobs, the administration and Congress have instead agreed to slash public services without guaranteeing any increase in revenue.

To be sure, a revenue increase could result from the process established under this deal, despite Republicans’ claims to the contrary. But anti-tax lawmakers have already demonstrated that they will risk everything — including economic catastrophe — to block any and all revenue increases. As a result, we believe the only hope for a balanced approach depends on President Obama finding the courage (which he has lacked so far) to allow all of the Bush tax cuts to expire at the end of 2012.
Read the full statement. (PDF)

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Corporate Accountability International

This week’s featured partner is Corporate Accountability International, which has run campaigns to challenge corporate abuse for more than 30 years. Of particular interest is their work on water, which includes supporting community water rights, while protecting against privatization.

They provide resources and tools to be used on a number of levels, including for government, on campuses, in establishments, in communities, and in faith groups. This is a great resource for getting a lay of the land when it comes to water campaigns, and other aspects of efforts to counter privatization of public space and goods.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

smartMeme

This week’s featured partner is smartMEME, a group dedicated to magnifying the impact of movement building by changing the dominant narratives at work in society today. Using the concept of a “meme,” they provide tools and support to grassroots organizations in order to accomplish this. A “meme” is a piece of the culture that carries meaning (i.e. a custom, slogan, or ritual) and spreads that meaning virally, so by starting small, huge change can be accomplished.

In their own words:

The smartMeme Strategy & Training Project is a nonprofit collective that works to apply meme theory and a narrative analysis of power to strengthen social change efforts. We use a story-based strategy approach to change the world by changing the stories used to understand an issue or situation. We work as trainers and consultants with a host of organizations from coast-to-cost providing strategy, training, graphic design, and communications support to groups working for human rights, democracy, peace, justice and ecology. SmartMeme is also home to a thriving youth network called STORY (Strategy Training and Organizing Resources for Youth), our program to train young activists in story-based strategy.

Check out their site to find out more about the wonderful examples of change they’re seeing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Public/Private Funding and What Shouldn’t Exist at all

Two news items crossed my e-mail today, and I have to share them:
I. In Blacksburg, Va., a City Councilwoman last week suggested that citizens donate toward the projected $125 million cost of building three new schools, thus offsetting the need for a tax increase, which would amount to a property tax increase of “10 cents or more.”

II. Build the Border Fence: The Official Border Fence Donation Website for the State of Arizona: This website encourages donations from citizens (and they mean this in the strictest sense) to complete the wall between Arizona and Mexico. The website explains:

“One of the gravest threats facing America today is the lack of security and enforcement along the U.S. and Mexican border. The consequences of this lack of security have yielded an unparalleled invasion of drug cartels, violent gangs, an estimated 20 million illegal aliens, and even terrorists.

Because of the Federal Government's failure to stop this invasion, the State of Arizona signed into law SB 1406. Part of this important legislation established this website for the purpose of raising funds through donations from private citizens, businesses, and corporations across the country in an effort to finance and finish building our border fence. One hundred percent of the funds raised will be held in a trust fund account in the Arizona State Treasurer's Office. The bill also created the Joint Border Security Advisory Committee for oversight and accountability of these funds. Additionally, in an effort to contain costs, inmate labor will be utilized in building the border fence.”
The second item is the most immediately disturbing to me. I wrote about this wall in my Nov 23, 2010 blog post when I crossed it for the first time on a trip to Nogales. It is a WALL, and not a fence, which has a much friendlier connotation. It is 8-12 feet high. In some places it is covered with barbed wire, and in other places, there are two walls running parallel to each other in case someone should get over the first one. Sunk deep into the ground, it stops both people and animals. Aside from its racist and xenophobic meanings, it is also wreaking enormous environmental havoc on a very fragile ecosystem and will probably be the final cause of the extinction of the Mexican jaguar, a magnificent nomadic cat.

This website does (probably unintentionally) have a very funny moment where donors are reassured that their money will be used wisely and go a long way because “inmate labor will be used in building the border fence.” Inmates are apparently cheaper and more controllable than undocumented laborers, although some of these inmates could be undocumented people being held in Arizona’s various private prisons. Private donations are being sought to help enforce public policy and the ability to do that is created by public officials.

The first item is even more blurring of public and private. A public official offers citizens the choice between paying more taxes or just donating money in order to build public schools.

Public officials are now in the fundraising business and are active participants in the privatizing of public structures.

A final fact must be introduced now - $1,216,539,560,417 or, written out: one trillion, two hundred and sixteen billion, five hundred and thirty nine million, five hundred and sixty thousand, four hundred and seventeen dollars. This is the total cost, and rising, of what America has spent on war in the past decade.

The cost of war is still firmly in the public sphere. But in all the negotiations about raising the debt ceiling and on whose backs to balance the budget, we have yet to hear loud enough voices asking to dismantle our war machine.

We must have nationwide discussion amongst all our communities about what should be funded publicly, what should be funded privately and what shouldn’t exist at all, if we are ever to really move to a country that works for everyone. Try introducing any of these stories into conversation today. Just by doing so you will be a part of a fundamental change.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dr. Pop

This week’s featured partner is Dr. Pop, an excellent website started buy Gilda Hass. Dr. Pop is a popular education website that helps people become better story-tellers and strategic thinkers by explaining complicated things in simple ways. The main areas of focus for the site are the economy, urban planning, and democracy, and how they all work. “The economy is much too important to leave to the economists,” is one of the great lines on the site that gets at the heart of what they do.

You’ll find great resources and tools specifically for organizers, educators, and students, but useful for nonprofit organizations and community members who are working to bring about change.

Overall, the site focuses on fairness and equity and how we can create a better world in which we take care of each other – all cornerstones of a healthy commons.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Marriage Vow

Kendra Marr, writing in Politico reports, “In a year when pledges have become all the rage for Republican presidential primary candidates, The Family Leader's ‘Marriage Vow’ seems to be falling flat.  The 14-point vow asks candidates to pledge ‘personal fidelity’ to their spouses, remove female soldiers from combat roles and recognize that ‘robust childbearing and reproduction’ maintains America's health and security. It calls for acknowledgment that ‘children raised by a mother and a father experience better learning, less addiction, less legal trouble and less extramarital pregnancy.’ Plus, it requires those who sign to fight prostitution, pornography and Sharia law.”

For a short time, the pledge said that children born into slavery were better off than children born now, but that caused such an outcry that the Iowa-based Family Leader organization removed it with a nuanced apology saying they were sorry the phrase had been misunderstood.  Michele Bachman and Rick Santorum have signed this pledge (while the slavery part was still in it) but so far the other Republicans have refused. 

A quick look at the website of the Family Leader shows it to be an organization profoundly committed to heterosexual marriage.  They ask pastors to sign a four point statement including these two rather odd points:
II. Homosexual behavior is defined by the Bible as immoral and sinful. (Lev. 18:22) It is harmful both to the individuals who choose to participate in it and the society that chooses to accept it. (Romans 1:18-26) Given that understanding, the only truly loving response to the current debate over marriage is to reaffirm the only definition of marriage in Iowa Code – one man and one woman. Keeping in mind that the concept of fairness is subjective, it should never be used as a mechanism to overturn the plain truth of the Scriptures. The laws of Iowa can never be “fair” to everyone, but instead ought to be designed to promote justice. (My italics)

IV. Freedom of conscience is not the issue. We acknowledge that everyone has a right to their own beliefs. The issue is whether or not certain citizens have the right to use their beliefs to redefine that which God has already defined, and then force the rest of society to accept that redefinition. We submit that they do not.
Theirs is an interesting frame:  laws which promote justice cannot be fair to everyone.  And everyone has the right to their own beliefs, but there is no real point in expressing them unless they are completely in agreement with God’s beliefs.  And who knew that God had beliefs?  I would think that one of the advantages of being GOD is that you already know everything, having, for the most part, created it.  Does God believe in God? (OK—that is an old seminary joke which is only funny if you have been drinking Jack Daniels.) 

I am reminded of a woman I knew once who wanted to marry a man who was a quadriplegic.  They were Catholic and their priest refused to marry them, saying that the main function of marriage was procreation and this man’s condition precluded that.   They were shocked and went to another priest.  They told him the story and he said, “I don’t know if the other priest is right, but I will marry you.  Because one thing I do know is that I am to be loving and God is the judge.  I am not the judge.” 

Being loving is a lot harder than being judgmental:  take it from someone who has tried both.  And I like judging just as much as the next hypocrite, but I do remind myself of this priest from time to time and recommit to doing my job.  I am not the judge. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Jose Antonio Vargas

I have just finished reading “OUTLAW:  My life in America as an Undocumented Immigrant” by Jose Antonio Vargas in the NYT magazine, June 26 edition.  Many people will recognize Vargas’ by-line from years of excellent reporting for a variety of newspapers and blogs, and from his work on HIV/AIDS which culminated in a documentary called “The Other City.” 

This is a personal memoir about living as an acclaimed journalist devoted to truth while hiding his undocumented status.  Vargas was sent to the United States from the Philippines at the age of 12 and only discovered he was undocumented when he applied for a driver’s license when he was 16.  This article details the lengths he went to both to become an American citizen, which was impossible, and then to hide his undocumented status.  Moved by the courage of the many undocumented students who testified on behalf of the DREAM ACT, Vargas joins a growing chorus of people willing to risk being deported to countries they have not lived in for years (many since they were infants) in order to protest our country’s  unfair and racist laws governing immigration.  

Vargas risks not only deportation but loss of his career.  He says that he recently managed to get his driver’s license renewed which “offered me five more years of acceptable identification—but also five more years of fear, of lying to people I respect and institutions that trusted me, of running away from who I am. “

He continues, “I’m done running.  I’m exhausted.  I don’t want that life anymore.”  

I read this article on the heels of a trip to East Palestine, OH with my cousins, mother and sister.  There we visited the house my mother grew up in, saw the schools she went to, and paid our respects to our grandparents and great grandparents, and a variety of other relatives buried nearby.  Our family thrives on stories and we have a lot of them about our long dead relatives.  But we have no stories about how they got documented or whether they had to live in the USA illegally for any period of time.  And why?  They came from England and Germany a long time ago and they were welcomed here.  Their lives were not easy, but their struggles were not compounded by having to hide their immigration status. 

Most people I respect support the DREAM ACT and other elements of immigration reform.   Many of my colleagues work in organizations for which immigrants rights is a main program area.  I am sure reading Vargas’ article will cause us to increase our efforts.   But what I hope will come from Vargas’ coming out is that people who may have mixed feelings about immigration will see the very human toll that these laws and attitudes take.   There are approximately eleven million undocumented people living in the United States today.  Multiply his experience times 11 million and you get a sense of suffering that is almost unimaginable in a country which has as its most iconic symbol, the Statue of Liberty.  Vargas has put a human face on all these numbers.   Now it is up to all of us to change our immigration laws—to work on doing so a little bit every day.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Blue Avocado

In honor of Independence Day, this Tuesday’s featured partner is Blue Avocado, a nonprofit online magazine for community nonprofits. While not necessarily focused on the commons, this publication is fearless in raising issues of concern to nonprofits, and the role they should play. For example, back in April, they took on the issue of the charitable tax deduction (with our very own Kim Klein).

Led by a steering committee, including Jan Masaoka, they publish every third Tuesday through an HTML newsletter delivered free to more than 50,000 subscribers. In their own words, “Blue Avocado aspires to be a new kind of online magazine.” Find out how by visiting their website and signing up, which you can do by entering your email in the box on the right-hand side of the page.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A New Protection Pledge

In the last post, I talked about the “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” which Grover Norquist has placed in front of all incumbents and candidates for office, and gotten quite a few to sign.

In England, there is a move toward a different type of pledge coming from a similar inequality being experienced there as here.  The Equality Trust (profiled earlier in this blog) has asked all members of Parliament to sign an “Equality Pledge” which reads as follows:

"Compelling new evidence presented by The Equality Trust shows that more equal societies - those with a narrower gap between rich and poor - are more cohesive, healthier, suffer fewer social problems and are more environmentally sustainable. In view of these findings I am committed to making the UK a more equal society as the most effective means of building a better society.  I will therefore actively support the case for policies designed to narrow the gap between rich and poor; and engage with the debate on which measures should be implemented to achieve that aim."

This is a relatively new movement and is being organized from the ground up.  Citizens are asked to place the Equality Pledge in front of candidates or incumbents so that by the time the politician signs it, he or she is reasonably confident that his or her constituency is aware of the issues that give rise to this pledge. So far, 75 of the 659 Members of Parliament have signed it and the number is growing every day.  This pledge is much more low-key than the Taxpayer Protection Pledge.  The Equality Pledge commits the signer to support the “case for policies” and to “engage with the debate” without holding them hostage to any particular policy or proposal.  It does put signers on records as agreeing with the proposition that more equal societies do better than less equal ones.  

Given our historical inability to approve even the very mild language of the Equal Rights Amendment or CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women) and the struggles to approve the Voting Rights Act, it seems unlikely that very many in Congress would sign an equality pledge. 

But what if we decided to sign it, just in the privacy of our homes, with no hoopla, no announcement on Facebook or Twitter?  Just a commitment to raise issues of equity and equality whenever and wherever we can and to engage in deep, meaningful and honest conversation with ourselves, friends, family and co-workers on just what kind of society we want, and what are the policies that get us there? 

I pledge to start this weekend:  the anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution which begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”    It seems like a good time to raise the questions and to finally acknowledge that these truths are not self-evident at all, but must be made evident through debate, discussion, and made meaningful through very profound changes in the way we all do business

Friday, June 24, 2011

Raising Taxes

“I don’t think there’s any conceivable way, under current circumstances, that any Republican would vote for any kind of tax increase whatsoever.”  Bruce Bartlett, former economic adviser to President Reagan

This interesting sentence appears in the April 2011 issue of the Christian Science Monitor, in an excellent article called “Budget Stalemate: Why America Won’t Raise Taxes” by Liz Marlantes.  The sentence does not meet standards of good writing, but does, in its repetitiveness, make a stronger point than if it were the more succinct, “No Republican will vote for any tax increase.” 

Let’s parse it and see what we find:

“any conceivable way”:  could this mean that some moderate Republicans would like to conceive a way to vote for revenue as one solution to our deficit?

“under current circumstances:”  which are what?  What could call for tax increases: more than a trillion dollar deficit, double digit unemployment,  60% of seniors living on Social Security alone, 30% of Americans with no health insurance,  25% of children living below the poverty line, and so on?  There are apparently other circumstances that pressure Congress and none of them seem to have anything to do with the common good.

“any Republican:”  because they are all of one mind?  Or are they one mind divided amongst the whole GOP?  Or is this is another remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”?

“any kind of tax increase:”  Republicans are even willing to reject regressive and unfair tax increases, such as a federal sales tax?  This is a new day, indeed. 

“whatsoever:”  This wonderful old English word in the King James Version of the Bible begins the Golden Rule, “Whatsoever ye would that others should do to you,  do ye even so to them.”  This word is now the final word summarizing complete abrogation of any commitment to the public good. 

The source of the word “any” in this context is an unelected powerhouse named Grover Norquist who runs an organization with the moderate sending name, “Americans for Tax Reform.”  Since 1986, Norquist has asked every incumbent and every candidate for office to sign a document called “The Taxpayer Protection Pledge.”  The pledge says, “I promise to the people of my state that I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes.”  Again, we see the emphasis “oppose and vote against” or “any and all” because to do one and not the other is not sufficient.

In 1986, Norquist was able to get 100 members of the House and 20 Senators to sign it.  Today 40 out of 47 Republicans in the Senate have signed it, along with one Democrat and one Independent, and 235 out of 242 Republicans in the House have signed it, along with two Democrats.  (For a full list of signers and a look at the actual pledge, see the Americans for Tax Reform’s site.)

People sign this because it comes with money and help with campaigning, and not signing – or signing and then not following through – is met with swift punishment.  The goal of having  bi-partisan dialogue on how to create fair and just tax policy that pulls our country out of this recession and helps everyone have a better quality of life is stopped at the starting gate when so many people have basically said, “Let’s talk, but I have already decided what I am going to do.”  

Norquist, who has never run for and so obviously never held public office, is not on the staff of the Republican National Committee nor has he been appointed to any public position.  Yet he has amassed the power and money to control how most Republicans vote on tax policy.  The only thing he cannot really amass is all the votes of the American people, and this is the good news in the tax debate.  The Center on Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland presented voters with a simplified but realistic version of what the budget might be in 2015 and let them make their own tax and spending choices.  They weren’t told they had to balance the budget or to bring down the deficit.  Those decisions were up to them.   The study showed that on average, voters reduced the deficit by about $400 billion, with Democrats cutting more in spending than Republicans.  91% of respondents, including 77% of Republicans and 66% of self-identified tea partyers, chose to raise taxes by an average of $292 billion. 

Our Congress is far more opposed to taxes than the people they are supposed to represent.  We, who are those people, must make it clear that we believe that taxes are a fundamental tool to creating a working democracy.  We call for accountability in spending, a tax structure that calls on everyone (including the corporations who are now people) to pay their share, vigorous and informed debate on what constitutes ‘fairness’. We pledge to vote for people who will return “whatsoever” to the front of our sentences, for example, “Whatsoever is best for the common good should drive any and all public policy."

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wealth for the Common Good

This Tuesday’s featured partner is Wealth for the Common Good, who along with The Agenda Project are co-sponsors of the Patriotic Millionaires Campaign (which we covered on this blog in April), to increase millionaire tax rates. Wealth for the Common Good is a network of business and civic leaders, wealthy individuals and partners, promoting fair and adequate taxation to support public investment in a healthy economy.

This month they released a video directed to John Boehner and members of Congress entitled “Tax Me”. It’s worth checking out:



And if you haven’t done so already, sign their petition and check out who else is on board.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Death and Taxes

Recently I stayed in a small house near a cemetery.  The cemetery was huge, with a nice walking path encircling it, and so I walked around it.  I am fascinated by graveyards and will often stop to visit old ones when I am driving through communities that have them.  The old gravestones often have epitaphs which tell cryptic stories for which I fill in the details.  In this one, a husband’s tombstone listed his name, birth and death dates, then “Goodbye.”  The wife has a tombstone next to him, but she either isn’t buried there or isn’t dead yet (her birth year is 1915.)  Why “Goodbye” and not “Goodbye my love” or “Gone but not forgotten” or “Till we meet again” which can be found on several of the other tombstones?  Of course I fill in that this guy was a complete jerk, probably a cheater, perhaps abusive and everyone was happy to say “Goodbye, you *#*!”  

Another seems more poignant:   “Gone too soon.” But the person lived from 1905-2000.  Dying at 95 does not seem too soon in the sense I first read it.  I fill in the story:  the person died before her only living relative, a distant cousin, could get there and find out where she buried the silver or kept the key to the safe deposit box.  “You should have visited more often, you self absorbed creep” I admonish this made up deadbeat relative. 

Many of the gravestones had flags on them, probably placed there on Memorial Day.  Many of the men in this cemetery were veterans; most from World War I or II, but several from Viet Nam or Korea.  Most of the veterans had lived through the war and died as old men, but a few had been killed in action.  There are two very recent graves; these with tombstones that are flat on the ground to make mowing easier.  They have flags and their tombstones indicate that they were killed in Afghanistan. 

I fill in their story.  Because I am staying in an economically depressed area, with high unemployment I imagine these young men deciding to join the army, get an education, and see some parts of the world they have only read about.  Like many young people, they will not really believe that they can be killed or maimed:  that fate is for others.  Off they go, and back they come in a body bag. 

As I keep walking in the cemetery I think how different our world would be today if we had taken the route of reason after Sept 11, 2001.  For almost a week, or maybe more, every country in the world felt sorry for the USA.   Even countries traditionally critical of our imperialism and arrogance felt that the loss of innocent life was wrong.  Shortly after 9/11, the Taliban offered to capture Osama bin Laden and take him to The Hague, to be tried in World Court.  The United States squandered an opportunity of a lifetime when we turned them down and decided instead to attack Iraq based on a web of lies.  Proof that most of us have learned nothing from that experience could be seen in the chanting “USA, USA!” which followed the announcement of the assassination of bin Laden. 

A cemetery is a wonderful quasi commons.  Although the gravesites belong to individuals, and the maintenance is generally done through a private society, most cemeteries are open to the public and are quiet places for contemplation.  

Death and taxes are named as the two things no one can avoid. But must so much of our tax dollar pay for death?  Our military budget is larger than it has ever been in history, factoring in inflation.  I imagine someday someone generations from now walking through this cemetery and marveling at how many of the really old gravestones are of people who served in wars.   “Thank goodness that is behind us,” she will muse.   “What were they thinking in those days?”