Wednesday, March 16, 2011

An Open Letter to President Obama

In addition to this post, I have also send this message directly to the White House.

Dear Mr. President,

As someone who has actively participated in the protests in Madison, WI, I am deeply disappointed in your response.

You have actively spoken out regarding protests and demonstrations overseas, but you have failed to make any strong statements or show any support for American workers who are fighting for their rights.

The claim across the country is that there is a budget crisis and that we need to all make sacrifices.  At the same time, taxes are being cut on the wealthiest individuals and on corporations, despite the fact that these two groups have consistently grown in wealth over the past 30 years.

If the solution to our economic woes is to give money to the rich, why are we even facing them?  It is ridiculous to claim that all of our problems relate to the fact that the rich don't have enough money.

Instead, by effectively stripping away education and social services, you are cutting the resources of the average working person.  As you should know from your work in Chicago's south side, the worst of poverty is not just a lack of wealth - it is a lack of opportunity.  What kinds of opportunities are we building for future generations?

People, including myself, voted for you because you promised change.  Now, though, you continue to advocate for companies and for the rich, asking the poor and diminishing middle class to make sacrifices. 

This is not the right kind of change.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Walker's Agenda, and Why It Must Stop

I think that I finally understand what Wisconsin governor Scott Walker is trying to do.  Before I throw out my speculation, though, let us review what we know for a fact.

First of all, we know that he thinks that we should privatize government agencies, from the zoo to the disastrous results of privatizing the courthouse security.  About a year ago, while he was still the Milwaukee county executive, he directly called for more privatization, claiming that it would help reduce costs.  Personally, I don't agree with his strategy, but I will talk more to that point later.  For now, though, the trend is clear, Mr. Walker clearly believes that we should privatize government, and he has carried through on these intentions in the past.

Right now, Madison is in an uproar over his proposed "budget repair bill."  Last Saturday, and the Saturday before that, over 70,000 people rallied to oppose the bill.  Although there are many aspects to this bill, the focal point of the demonstrations is over whether or not government employees can engage in collective bargaining.  In fact, as time passes and as the unions agree to the financial aspects of his bill, he continues to refuse to budge on this issue.  For whatever reason, it is clear that the provisions in this bill related to collective bargaining are very important to him.

As a third piece of evidence, we can turn to the recent prank call.  Given that this is a private conversation, we must take much of what is said with a grain of salt, but in the end, there is a tantalizing line from Mr. Walker.  He says, "Thanks for all the support and helping us move the cause forward. We appreciate it and we're doing the just and right thing for the right reasons and it's all about getting our freedoms back."  I have already written about how I've found this confusing, and although it is tough to say exactly what Mr. Walker meant by this, I think that we make some conclusions.  Specifically, from this statement, we see that he believes himself to be working on some larger vision and that he believes strongly in that vision.  What is that vision?  Based upon Mr. Walker's history of privatization and a response from Koch Industries,  the vision is one of a completely open free market, with a very minimal government. 

Today, yet another piece has clicked into place, his plan to cut $900 million to schools as part of the full budget.  If we read this article very, very carefully, we see that there is a clear connection in Mr. Walker's mind between the issue of collective bargaining and the budget.  Specifically, he sees that he is planning on cutting the government budget so extensively and so severely that the budget cuts will require changes that will be vehemently opposed by the state workers.  In other words, in order to handle the new budget, local governments will have to drastically alter things like working conditions, facilities, etc. -- areas that are currently covered with the collective bargaining agreements.

If we stretch this observation just a little bit further, the big picture starts to emerge.  Specifically, we see that Mr. Walker wants to cut the budgets so severely that it will not be possible for these state agencies to do the roles they are there to do.  Issues like working conditions, staffing, etc. are all key issues that tie directly to the ability of any person to be effective at their job.  By simultaneously cutting away the rights of workers to organize around these issues and cutting the funding to these government agencies, Mr. Walker will be effectively stripping them of their ability to function.

Combining these actions with Mr. Walker's past history of trying to privatize, all of these actions suddenly seem to be part of a coherent master plan.  Specifically, I am starting to think that he intends to systematically dismantle government agencies and replace them with private industries.

In other words, Mr. Walker is trying to very rapidly turn Wisconsin into a libertarian state.

Even if you support the vision of a libertarian state, this is not the way to get there.  Human beings are corrupt and all systems need some form of checks and balances in order to succeed.  Most people tend to act in short-term self-interest, and any libertarian state needs to come about gradually to avoid quick power grabs and to put in place a free market system to regulate itself.

Furthermore, dismantling a public institution is not a means to building a private one.  If Mr. Walker really wants to turn Wisconsin into a libertarian state, I would suggest that go into private industry and to build us an alternative.  Tearing something down without a replacement is a recipe for chaos, and this is why I will continue to speak out against Mr. Walker's policies and to continue to engage in the peaceful protests against his very dangerous plan.

UPDATE: I just found out that shortly before all of this went down, Walker made the father of two of the Republican legislators the head of the state patrol shortly before all of this went down.  In other words, it sounds as if he is trying to protect himself in case of fallout.  I have also heard a rumor that he is taking steps to be able to appoint the person in charge of ethics violations, but I am looking for a citation on that (If anyone has a citation, please post in the comments).  If that is true, the picture of a calculated, undemocratic power grab becomes much more clear.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Really, what IS the agenda?

Today, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was the victim of a prank phone call.  By and large, this conversation reveals exactly what Walker is claiming publicly, and most of the conversation is simply a confirmation of his strategy.  In the end, though, there is a little phrase that he throws out:
"Thanks for all the support and helping us move the cause forward. We appreciate it and we're doing the just and right thing for the right reasons and it's all about getting our freedoms back."
This, in a nutshell, is the heart of what I don't understand about his agenda.  Even while he is talking a bill that has provisions opposed by 61% of people, he is still firm in his belief that not only is he on the side of the good guys, he is also fighting to reclaim lost freedoms.

Is there somebody out there that can explain these freedoms?

Seriously.  From where I'm sitting, I fail to see how his "budget repair bill" is related to reclaiming personal freedoms.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hidden Corporate Agendas in JR1SB-11

We have all been reading the uproar over the issues around labor, but it seems that there may be further, hidden agendas in this bill.  I call to your attention the following section of the bill:

SECTION 44. 16.896 of the statutes is created to read:
16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification
of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).

In other words, the government can sell any power plant to anybody for any amount that they wish.  This is a direct line to privatization.  Do you think Walker may have someone in mind?  We can certainly find that there are ties between Walker and the Koch brothers, as reported by Mother Jones:

According to Wisconsin campaign finance filings, Walker's gubernatorial campaign received $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC during the 2010 election. That donation was his campaign's second-highest, behind $43,125 in contributions from housing and realtor groups in Wisconsin. The Koch's PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used politicial maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker's opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly.

Lastly, we see that these two brothers could benefit enormously from owning a few power plants.  Current holdings, as reported on their own website
  • Flint Hills Resources, LLC, through its subsidiaries, is a leading refining and chemicals company. Its subsidiaries market products such as gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, ethanol, olefins, polymers and intermediate chemicals, as well as base oils and asphalt. A subsidiary distributes refined fuel through its strategically located pipelines and terminals in Junction City, Waupun, Madison and Milwaukee. Another subsidiary manufactures asphalt that is distributed to terminals in Green Bay and Stevens Point.
  • Koch Pipeline Company, L.P. operates a pipeline system that crosses Wisconsin, part of the nearly 4,000 miles of pipelines owned or operated by the company.
  • The C. Reiss Coal Company is a leading supplier of coal used to generate power. The company has locations in Green Bay, Manitowoc, Ashland and Sheboygan.
I'm usually not one for conspiracy theories, but this is rather suspicious.  It makes me wonder what other hidden agendas lie in this bill.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

You need a union

I've always thought that unions were generally good things, but suddenly, I get unions.

  • Did your boss just give himself a raise and cut your benefits?  -- You need a union.
  • Fed up with unpaid overtime? -- You need a union.
  • Upset that the boss drives a compnay BMW, but you don't  get dental insurance? -- You need a union.
  • Tired of watching on the managers get raises?  -- You need a union
  • Do you think that they unfairly fired you?  --- You needed a union
  • Fired for showing up late, just once?  --- You need a union
  • Did the CEO get a golden parachute while you're still waiting for a raise?  -- You need a union
  • Got fired for tacking a guy with a gun?  --- You need a union
  • Not paid fairly for your skills?  --- You need a union
  • Can't find a job?  --- You need a union
  • Need to find relevant job training?  --- You need a union 
  • Need to keep updated on new technology in your field?  --- You need a union
  • Got fired from WalMart for stopping a gunman?   --- You need a union
  • Lost your job because of an argument with your boss?  --- You need a union
  • The machine is getting dangerously out of maintenance, but no one cares.  --- You need a union
  • Working hours being forced longer and longer?  --- You need a union
  • Lost your job because you had to pick up your kid?  --- You need a union
  • Miss relaxing on weekends:  --- You need a union
  • Terminated without notice or severance? --- You need a union
  • Lost your job because of an argument with your boss?  --- You need a union
Those with corporate control have been able to drive unions out of the private sector.  Since then, wages have failed to rise for the workers, despite record profits and record salaries given to some of the highest paid people in the country.  Eventually, the worker is out of money and only starts buying the necessities.  Now, with people buying less, the economy starts to stagnate.

Sure, some unions are corrupt.  Why wouldn't they be? EVERY human organization has corruption and abuse of power.  It is time not to bust unions but to rethink them.  There needs to be a functional system of checks and balances within the the power structure inside of a union.  With fairly paid workers, we can spend money and get the economy rolling again.

Right now, the wealth is trickling to the top because we have found ourselves in a world where those who make the decisions on pay have decided that they are worth the most.  If you ask anybody who works in management, they will say that this is okay, because their job is essential.  The funny thing is, EVERYBODY's job there is essential.  What would any high-end CEO be worth without the help of his administrative assistant?  Would the CEO even have a salary if workers weren't making something?

This University of CA study describes the inequal distribution of wealth:
In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.6% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one's home), the top 1% of households had an even greater share: 42.7%. Table 1 and Figure 1 present further details drawn from the careful work of economist Edward N. Wolff at New York University (2010).
Also, for those think that everything is smoothly and cleanly run in the private sector, I heartily encourage you to start reading Dilbert, and keep in mind that most of the material is sent in by real people.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Report from the front lines

All week, in Madison, Wisconsin, tens of thousands of people have been protesting against the recently elected governor's new "budget repair bill."  Today, members of the Tea Party rallied to show their support.  Although I have read several accounts in the news of this event, I do not think that most of the them accurately reflect my experiences.
First of all, there is the issue of numbers.  I have no training in counting crowds, so I won't provide any numbers of my own.  At the same time, I know where the crowds were gathered.  The Tea Party group was largely based near one of eastern entrance to the capitol, packing the sidewalk directly leading to the entrance pretty well.  The protesters against the bill filled the building and filled the streets surrounding the building.  As I said, I won't try to estimate numbers, but it was clear that this group vastly outnumbered the Tea Party.

As for signs.  Mostly, in the opposition, I saw people advocating worker's rights and the fair treatment of labor, plus signs advocating against Scott Walker.  On the other side, there were signs advocating for fiscal responsibility and signs that showed support for the governor.

I met one woman from Muscoda, WI, who has been out of work for over a year.  She has been coming to the square daily to show her opposition.  According to her, the Tea Party members spat on her.   Other than that, I personally witnessed no conflicts and heard of no physical confrontation between the two groups.  Instead, there were large numbers of signs advocating peaceful protest.

In talking with people opposing the bill, there is ample recognition that there is a budget issue with the state.  On this point, there is no argument.  The grievance comes with the specific solutions proposed by the governor.

I did not speak directly with the Tea Party group.

Overall, the mood was fairly joyous.  Although people felt a lot of passion about the issue at hand, the protests were done with a positive spirit.

I did not get a good enough look at the Tea Party group to comment on demographics, but in the group opposing the bill, I saw signs of university faculty, iron workers, construction workers, teachers, fire fighters, police, electricians, and other unions whose acronyms I didn't recognize.  Many people had traveled from all over the state to be there.  There were relatively few people of color, but that is typical of anything that ever happens in Wisconsin.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

To the governor of Wisconsin

It is a very interesting time for democracy in the world.  Less than a week ago, the people of Egypt managed, through civil protests, to remove a 30-year dictator from power.

This week,  there are massive protests across the Arab world, as countries from Iran to Libya to Yemen to Bahrain erupt in massive civil protests.  Suddenly, the illusion of the all-powerful state and the illusion of the masses subjected by a single, central force is crumbling.

In the US, a showdown is happening in Wisconsin.  There, the recently elected governor has decided that in order to balance the budget of the state, it is necessary to cut the spending for all government employees.  I whole-heatedly believe that he is acting out of the best intentions.  Certainly, if he honestly thought that he was doing damage to the state, he would not take these actions.  With that insight, we must take the time to seriously examine the main issue here - the state is spending more money than it is taking in.

At this point, we must step back a bit to ask a very basic question - what is the role of any government?  This is a huge question, and for the sake of brevity, I only wish to skim the very surface of this question.  Even the most staunchly libertarian among us will make the claim that the government exists to protect the safety and the security of the people.  Phrased in such a way, it is easy to see how the government includes things like police and national defense, but I argue that in order for true liberty and true security of personal expression, there must also be some basic accommodation of material needs.

After all, we all need food and shelter, and we all want to be able to provide comfort to those we love.  In an ideal society, all member who are willing to contribute should be eligible to receive some benefit of that society.

Going back to the current situation in Wisconsin, we face a serious issue.  The state is spending more money that it is currently taking in.  Let us be clear here - this is an issue of money.  At the heart of this issue, we are facing the basic question of how we want to distribute money within out society.  If we choose to believe that the role of any government is to protect the safety and security of its citizens, we must also recognize that the most stable societies are the ones with the most equitable distribution of wealth. 

At the same time, a key component of personal freedom is that any individual, regardless of their origin, must have the potential to rise to the most important positions in that society.

In one sense, these two principals seem to be at odds.  On the one hand, you have the idea that society should be equal, which implies that there should be an even distribution of wealth, handed out among all people.  On the other hand, you see the idea that if a person works towards a goal, that person should be able to rise up to key positions in that society and to improve his/her own life.

With a more careful examination, though, we see that these are two separate issues.  In talking about the distribution of wealth, we are talking about the physical world.  Here, the issue is one of the physical trappings of the wold.  We are talking about the need to avoid a world where some people live in palaces while some people struggle to find their next meal.

On the other hand, we see the need for class mobility.  Here, although we are talking the ability to acquire wealth, the most important aspect is that with hard work and determination, people should be able to improve their own situations.  This is the motivation to contribute.  The observation is that through hard work, anybody should be able to advance themselves in that society.  Although in many ways, this is a reflection of the potential to acquire wealth, it is not about wealth in and off it self - the issue is about the ability to improve ones own situation.

So how does this relate back to the issues in Wisconsin?  As I said before, the issue is one of money.  Here, the government, which exists to serve the majority of the people, is facing financial difficulties.  Certainly, the money that the government spends could be spent more efficiently.  I have never seen a single human institution that is perfectly efficient.  Even the most smoothly run company has its issues.

So, yes, we must admit that the government is not efficient, and it is only sensible to figure out how to the make things more efficient, which is a very difficult task that must be addressed first with a comprehensive audit of where the money goes, which can then be turned into a plan to improve the financial situation.  This is a long process.

Right now, though, the Wisconsin government is facing a budget issue, and action must be taken to bring in more money.  This is the motivation for the hard actions taken by the governor, and if we choose to oppose his actions, we must offer an alternative.  Here is my suggestion:

If government exists to serve the majority of people, we must find a financial situation that is only a burden on a minority of the people.  At the same time, any issue that relates to money must first look for the largest concentration of money.

In the US, as is true for most of the world, the majority of wealth is controlled by a minority of the people.  If we take the statements in the above paragraph to be true, the logical solution is one that involves using the money held by the minority of the people to provide services and to built the society for the majority of the people.

This is the fundamental theory behind the imposition of taxes.  In order for any person to be rich, there must be a society around that person.  A rich person will pay others to cook meals, grow food, sew clothes, build houses, drive cars, etc., etc.  In the absence of this society wealth is meaningless.  In fact, as I have discussed in a previous post, a stable society is required to produce wealth.

So, to the governor if Wisconsin, I say this - if you are truly interested in a stable society, raise the tax on the wealthiest among us.  There are those who claim that this will stifle growth, but I personally find it really hard to believe that the problems in society come from the richest people not having enough money.  Instead, it seems to make more sense that those who have benefited the most from living in society should be asked to give the most back to society.

This principle does not threaten mobility.  If a person person works hard and earns more, that person will pay more to society, but that person will also be able to have more wealth of their own.  There is no tax system that is contrary to this principle.

In the end, we must keep in mind a vision of the society where we wish to live and always strive towards that society.  If we want peace and happiness for all, we must make sure that every action we take is directly working out of compassion and respect for all members of that society.  Whenever a proposal is so upsetting as to cause thousands of people to come out and protest, we must rethink our strategy.