Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Too Much

Today we bring you an article from TooMuch, an excellent online weekly that explores excess and inequality in the United States and throughout the world. We suggest you sign up to receive their weekly email on Monday’s, which you can do by clicking here.

This week’s email features, “The Right’s Pushback Against Taxing the Rich,” by Sam Pizzigati, which includes the great graphic below and covers the growing popularity of taxing the rich more. It also lays out the many and varied arguments coming from the wealthy and their advocates.

As you can see, even with proposed increase, the tax rate would still be far below what it has been in the past. Check the article out over at Too Much.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Enough Wealth?

In the midst of a horrendous earthquake and tsunami in Japan which has already claimed 11,000 people, a brutal crackdown on rebel forces in Libya and more subtle crackdown on dissent in Saudi Arabia, a complete selling out of any democratic values or process by the Republicans in Wisconsin, and the usual reports of war and famine all over the world, the business section of the San Francisco Chronicle (March 15, 2011) picked up a story written by Elizabeth Ody for Bloomberg News called “Not Feeling Wealthy?  Would $7.5 million make it better?”

And I read it because there is nothing like other people’s money to get your mind off other people’s problems.  According to this story, in a survey of 1,000 households with an average of $3.5 million in investable assets, 42% of respondents said they do not feel wealthy, feeling they would need about $7.5 million to feel rich.  In other words, these households who are in the top 5% of the US population, need more than twice as much as they already have in order to feel wealthy.  The 58% of respondents who already (and sensibly) do feel wealthy right now at $3.5 million, are by and large younger and have more time to earn even more money. 

Sanjiv Mirchandani, President of National Financial, commented kindly, “Wealth is relative, and to some extent the more you have the more you realize how much more you need.”  Someone else might have substituted “addictive” for “relative” and “how much more you can buy” for “how much more you need.” 

According to this same article, the 5.5 million US households with at least $1 million is assets, control 56% of the country’s wealth.  These same people planned on giving $38,000 to charity in 2010, up from $36,000 in 2009.  Of course, the $38,000 they plan to give will actually only cost them $23,000 because of the tax bracket they are in and the charitable tax deduction they will get. 

I admit my own hypocrisy in judging this top 5% of households.   I have also found money to be addictive.  The more I earn, the more I spend.  Ten years ago I felt good about earning $50,000 a year, and now I would find it hard to live on that, and it is not because of inflation or the rising cost of health care, although those are factors.  It is because I look around me and see how people of my age and station live and what they live on, and I compare myself to them.  What gets me passed that frame of reference is remembering that financial wealth is not real wealth. 

Rough social equity, the goal of a commons based society, requires a redefining of what it means to be wealthy.  This article focuses only on money:  perhaps in a different survey these same people might mention their health, their children, their sense of meaning and purpose as a source of wealth.  But no one asks about that or adds that up as part of our liquid assets.  Until we measure our common wealth (friends, leisure time, wilderness, history and culture, access to clean air and water, etc) as wealth, we will have neither a commons based society, nor,  ironically, actual wealth. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Commons and The Death Penalty

Today Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois abolished the death penalty in that state, joining three other states who have done so in as many years.   Much of the impetus behind getting rid of the death penalty has been the very fine work of Equal Justice USA, the Innocence Project, the many chapters of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and numerous other organizations.   I commend them all and I commend Patrick Quinn for doing the right thing.    

There are many criticisms of the death penalty.   The Death Penalty Information Center (www.deathpenaltyinfo.org) has excellent documentation on its website of the racist nature of its enforcement.  You are far more likely to get the death penalty if the person you killed is white than if they are Black or Latino.  If you kill someone, you are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are Black than if you are white.  

Another problem is how many people on death row have not committed murder, or may not have committed any crime at all.  Many who have been exonerated have led the charge to abolish the death penalty, but many did not live to see their names cleared.  

Another problem is the cost.    There are now 34 states that still have the death penalty.  One of them is my state, California, where almost 700 people wait for execution on death row, while the taxpayers of California pay $125 million a year more to keep them there than if their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment and they joined the rest of the inmate population.  

Other problems include how cruel are current methods of execution are, the fact that the death penalty does not deter other people from committing murder, the psychological toll the executions take on guards, chaplains and the doctors that oversee them, and the ultimate irony that the person who is punished in this way has no chance to redeem him or herself.  

From a commons point of view, each of the above is reason alone to abolish the death penalty.  But the biggest reason and one which I don’t see mentioned nearly often enough, is that it is simply wrong for the state to murder people.   I am horrified by the number of people who have been wrongly convicted and sit on death row innocent of the crime for which they will eventually be executed.  However does that mean if we could somehow guarantee that every person on death row was a cold blooded murderer, the death penalty would then be appropriate?  If we could insure a race neutral justice system, would the death penalty then be OK?  And if we could get the cost down, should we execute more people?  

We have become so practical that we even approach literal life and death issues with logistical or cost concerns.  But the question of the morality of the death penalty, the moral questions that surround our prison system, and the moral questions that should permeate our justice system are by and large unanswered because they are unasked.  

The questions we really need to dive into here are crime and punishment.  Should criminals be punished?  If yes, how, toward what end?  The word ‘penitentiary’ comes from a Latin word meaning  “I am sorry.”  The notion is that the Penitentiary lets people repent, be rehabilitated and be returned to their communities.  Perhaps there are some people that cannot be returned, and for the sake of the common good, must remain in prison.  But it is hard to imagine that this describes more than a tiny fraction of the people now in prison, whether for murder or for some lesser crime.  I hope that all of us who are promoting a commons view will raise the larger moral questions that need to be asked when we enter the conversations that will undoubtedly happen as a result of Gov. Quinn’s very correct decision. 

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Feminism and the Commons

Today was the 100th International Women's Day. So it seemed appropriate to reflect on how feminism is woven into a commons-based perspective.

Feminist critiques of economics have not just focused on the way that caregiving is gendered, generally unpaid and devalued even when it is paid. Feminist economists have also emphasized the importance of measuring economic progress in terms of well-being, not just private accumulation and wealth. Ecofeminists have made the case that the same mentality that justifies the oppression and domination of women similarly leads to the exploitation of the natural resources we should all hold in common. It sure leads me to wonder how much more nurturing, environmentally stable, equitable, and just commons-based our society would be if feminist views and analyses were the rule, rather than exception, in our economic and social relations.

None of this is a fresh insight but I thought this quote from an article titled "Macho Economics Still Rules the Agenda" summed this up perfectly.

We need to value our communalities, the quality of relationships, communities and the care and nurture of others, to put a good society in front of a growth economy.

We need to work with men who are equally sick of being just moneymakers. Maybe then we can solve future difficult issues collaboratively rather than destroying ourselves competitively.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Commons View of Free Speech

The Supreme Court issued a very important ruling about free speech yesterday, stating that the First Amendment protects hateful protests at military funerals. The case arose from a protest at the funeral of a Marine who had died in Iraq, Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder. As they had at hundreds of other funerals, members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., appeared with signs bearing messages like “America is Doomed” and “God Hates Fags.” The church contends that God is punishing the United States for its tolerance of homosexuality.

The 8-1 decision reflected an interesting alliance of conservative and liberal judges against the minority opinion of another conservative judge, Justice Alito. 

Many will decry this ruling and many others will celebrate it as a victory for free speech.  Certainly what has to be kept in mind is that the law is tested in its ability to protect people who are not at all likeable and who do horrible things to other people. 

This most recent ruling in favor the Westboro Baptist Church is reminiscent to the 1977 decision to allow members of the Nazi Party of America to march in Skokie, IL, a suburb of Chicago which at the time was predominantly Jewish and was home to more than 5,000 Holocaust survivors. The plan was for the marchers to wear uniforms similar to those worn by the members of Hitler's Nazi Party, including swastika armbands, and to carry a party banner bearing a large swastika. The residents of Skokie sought an injunction against the marchers on the grounds that the march would incite violence.  The ACLU defended the Nazis (which cost them hundreds of donors, including many major donors) and won.  (Ultimately the Nazi party did not march in Skokie, but instead marched in downtown Chicago.) 

The right to remain silent and the obligation of the police to “Mirandize” suspects comes from a ruling in a case of Ernesto Miranda.  1963, Miranda was arrested for the armed robbery of a bank worker.  While in custody of police, Miranda -- who had a record for armed robbery, attempted rape, assault and burglary -- signed a written confession to the armed robbery. He also confessed to kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old girl 11 days prior to the robbery.  Miranda was convicted of the armed robbery, but his attorneys appealed the case on the grounds that Miranda did not understand that he had the right against self-incrimination.  When the Supreme Court made its landmark Miranda ruling in 1966, Ernesto Miranda's conviction was overturned. Prosecutors later retried the case, using evidence other than his confession, and he was convicted again and served 11 years in prison. (Ironically, Miranda was killed in a bar fight in 1976 at the age of 34.  A suspect was arrested, invoked his right to remain silent, and was later released without being charged. )

As any school child knows, there are limits to free speech.  You cannot say something that has a predictable result, such as yelling “fire” in a crowded theater.  You cannot threaten to kill the President.  But for the most part people and organizations are free to say what they want in public places. 

It is too easy to say that in a commons based society we wouldn’t have rapists, murderers and vitriolic hate-mongers.  Certainly Scandinavian countries are dealing with frightening and racist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim organizations and individuals.  Figuring out a commons approach to free speech is a vigorous conversation about what it is, so that we all understand the Court’s decision.   Then we need another conversation about the increase in hate speech and hate mongering that is happening in our public spaces – including on the internet and in video games – and what we are going to do about it.

In the meantime, though, as Justice Louis Brandeis once explained, the Framers of our First Amendment knew "that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones."

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


Yesterday a friend of mine sent me her political joke of the day, with the message “Might be too true to be funny”:
A unionized public employee, a teabagger and a CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle of the table is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches across and takes 11 cookies, looks at the teabagger and says, "watch out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie.”
As states around the country prepare to go head to head with workers’ unions, I’ve heard many differing viewpoints, the most confusing of which is the complaint that unions are stealing from the middle class. I continue to be shocked that the link between budget deficits and corporate tax cuts (or dwindling tax revenue) is not the major argument that I’m hearing.

But what I find more surprising when I view this through a commons lens, is that we continue to let the argument be one of scarcity. That in order for me to get mine, you have to give up some of yours. We are like the public employee and the teabagger fighting over one cookie while the CEO’s get full. In an abundant society, resources – as well as hardshipsare shared by all. Another way to think of this comes from an article David Bollier wrote back in 2007: “competition may work reasonably well when resources are abundant, but cooperation may be more successful when resources are scarce.”

As we continue to move through this recession/depression, it’s heartening to know that there is a way to not turn on each other. We can support each other without seeing it as a loss for ourselves.