Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Past That's Worth Remembering

by Rich Miles

Dec. 23, 2004

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

Remember that quote? I promise not to use it for every column I write, but it just seems to work for so many occasions. So here’s the scoop:

I have a rather extensive collection in book form of Doonesbury cartoons. They go all the way back to 1971, and in rare moments of leisure, I like to read them over again from time to time, just to see what was going on back then. Recently, I found a collection entitled “Doonesbury Dossier: The Reagan Years”, and since I had previously (before 2001) held the belief that Ronald Reagan was, by and large, the worst thing that had ever happened to this country, I thought it might be instructive to take a look at what Garry Trudeau thought of him when Reagan was a current issue. Trudeau is not what one would call an exhaustive source of historical accuracy, but he does have a gift for catching the gist of history in those four daily panels.

So anyway, guess what I found out? I discovered that the same sorts of things that George W. Bush is doing today, which is to say rolling back decades of social progress, plunging the nation into staggering levels of debt that will last for years if not decades, and an almost breathtaking ability to simply ignore reality and the will of the American people, were all hallmarks of that previous administration as well. In other words, we don’t remember history as recently as 20 or so years ago, and so we’re bloody well repeating it.

Now, if your reaction to the above was a resounding “Well, duh!”, then I am sorry to report that you have just wasted a minute or so reading material that was not intended for you. No, the people I am speaking to in the above paragraphs are those unrepentant and unbendable right-wing partisans who, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that their president is either a criminal or a nitwit or both, will still say that W is “a great man, a real American, our only hope for the future”, and blah blah blah. What does it take for you to see it? Does he, as Trudeau once posited about Nixon, have to knock over a bank before we will acknowledge that he and his minions are inexorably dismantling our country with the left hand, while the right hand waves a flag and the mouth says “terrorist threat” one more stinkin’ time?

I’m about to run out of words for this column, so let me give you the “button line” for next time: As I already copped to last week, I am indeed a liberal Democrat. If W were a fairly decent Republican president (an oxymoron to my way of thinking), I still probably wouldn’t like him, but I wouldn’t be this rabid about him. The genuine hideousness of this administration goes beyond partisan politics – and the whole point of this blog, for me, is to keep illustrating why.

Friday, December 17, 2004

The Robbery Continues

By Rich Miles

Dec. 17, 2004

Dear Bush Voters:

I have a question for you. It’s a sincere question, not meant to be a “wise-guy” remark, or anything like that. I really want to know this.

What is it going to take for you to recognize that George W. Bush and his cronies are embarked on the most profound redistribution of wealth in history, and that this redistribution is almost exclusively UPWARD?

I mean seriously – how much of your money, and your children’s money is he going to have to take away from you and give to people who are already obscenely wealthy before you start to notice? How long can he say, “It’s your money, not the government’s money” before you notice that he’s not talking to you, he’s talking to corporate CEO’s, and his friends in the oil business, and large Wall Street brokers, and other folks who already have most of our money anyway?

Bush has just completed a two-day economic summit at which he discussed ways to take even more of your money from you, while continuing to tell you that he’s doing this for your own good. In the Bush speeches which emanated from the summit, at least two major initiatives were outlined: so-called “tort reform”, and Social Security reform. So let’s look at those for a minute:

First, tort reform: in essence new laws that would eliminate large monetary awards for corporate and medical errors. Bush has said repeatedly that this is a necessary reform to help keep medical costs down. But large malpractice awards have been shown to contribute less than 1.5% to the record increases in the rise of medical costs in the past four years. So who benefits if these laws are put on the books?

Why, large corporations of course. The ones that run huge medical, or pharmaceutical, or any other corporate megaliths. The ones who are already obscenely wealthy and who under the first Bush administration have become more so. The people and companies who will no longer have to worry about multimillion dollar payments to people they’ve harmed. The people who will see the occasional $250,000 or so fine or jury award as simply a cost of doing business, but will do little or nothing to correct the error that caused the harm in the first place, because there’s no financial incentive to do so. And so the harm will continue.

Next, Social Security reform – the much-touted “private investment accounts”, which sound so attractive to us free-spirited, rugged individualist Americans, until we look closer and see who will benefit most from them: not us, who will be at the mercy of the markets for our retirement benefits, but two main groups: employers (large and small), who will pay less to the SocSec system, and stockbrokers, who will receive their commissions and account maintenance fees whether the market goes up or down. Do you really feel competent to run a stock trading account, on the success of which your life may literally depend one day?

But when these questions are asked, there are two more or less standard responses: first, the questioner is engaging in “partisan politics”, which generally means you disagree with anything Bush says, or you’re promoting “class warfare”, which generally means you care more about the poor, the sick, the old and the victims of corporate greed than you do about CEO’s and huge corporations. So the question never gets answered, and the robbery continues.

And let’s not even get into tax cuts for the wealthy, and massive federal deficits that will take decades to pay off, thus making them your children’s debts.

So again, I really want to know: what is it going to take for you to realize that George W. Bush is robbing you? And what will you be willing to do about it when the light comes on?

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Tossing Around Big Numbers

By Rich Miles

Dec. 12, 2004

"A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you're talking real money."
- attributed (probably wrongly) to Sen. Everett Dirksen

The famous quote from the late Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Illinois), which as it turns out he probably didn't say, nevertheless illustrates something that the recent presidential campaign said about Americans: many of us aren’t very good at math.

During the campaign, President Bush said, on a tiresome number of occasions, that Senator Kerry’s proposals for new spending would cost more than $2 trillion, which, as he pointed out, “is a lot even for a liberal senator from Massachusetts”. The line always got applause.

However, the President repeatedly failed to mention that the same folks who made that estimate about Kerry’s proposals also pointed out that Bush’s new spending proposals, coupled with his tax cuts, would cost somewhere in the vicinity of $3 trillion. Kerry’s failure to make that point stick was one of the many reasons he lost the election, but that’s a discussion for another time.

But let’s look at the use of numbers in the public discourse for a minute, in a way that we “average Americans” can understand:

Let’s set the average annual income in America at $40,000. It’s not accurate, in fact is probably quite high, but just for the sake of argument, let’s use that round number.

A Stealth fighter/bomber plane – just one of them – costs about $60 million dollars (by Lockheed’s 1988 estimate). That’s 1500 annual salaries’ worth, per copy, and we bought at least 67 of them.

The recently-disclosed “secret” plan to launch a new spy satellite, one that most experts agree isn’t needed and in fact is useless except in cloudless daylight, is estimated at $9.5 billion dollars. That’s 237,500 salaries.

And the startup costs of the “privatization” of Social Security, lowball-estimated at $1 trillion, represents 25,000,000 average annual salaries. That’s 25 million, for those who don’t care to count the zeros.

One commentator, David Brooks in the New York Times, fired off, as the unsubstantiated potential Social Security shortfall over the next several decades, $11 trillion – or the entire average salaries, at our imagined $40,000 a year, of 275 million people! That’s not far short of the entire current population of the United States, including under-12-year-olds who contribute precious little to the tax base.

And the cost of George W. Bush’s FIVE tax cuts in the past 4 years (over 95% of them going to corporations and wealthy individuals) is just under $1 trillion over the next decade – another 25 million salaries.

So my question is, are your minds as boggled as mine is by the above numbers? If so, good, because that's what the guys who use these big numbers want to happen.

But let me give you some more numbers: in 1969, the year Sen. Dirksen died, total federal spending including Social Security was $187 billion dollars, and we were in a war in Vietnam. The federal budget showed a small surplus of $3.2 billion that year.

In 2003, total federal spending, NOT including Social Security, was $2.16 TRILLION. That’s an increase of 1174%, over a period of time when inflation added about 5% per year on average, or, if compounded, less than 200% to the overall cost of living. Democrats held the presidency for only twelve of those 34 years, and were a majority in Congress during the only five years of the 34 in which there were balanced or surplus budgets.

So now, two more questions: do we have a little clearer idea of how much money a trillion dollars is? And do we know who the party of “fiscal responsibility” is?

You do the math.

Friday, December 10, 2004

A Clarification for the Math-Challenged

by Rich Miles

Dec. 10, 2004

On Dec. 10, a letter writer took one of our local columnists to task for actually expressing an opinion in his opinion column of Dec. 7, saying that supporters of the Fairness Ordinance (and by extension, opponents of the anti-gay hate campaign locally and nationally) obviously hadn't "heard the voice of the electorate" on Nov. 2. Apparently, columnists are only allowed to express "warm and fuzzy" opinions, and when they get into saying what they believe about a controversial topic of importance to our city and country, some folk feel the need to try to cut him off at the knees. But that's not why I'm writing this - that columnist is a big guy, a REALLY big guy, and can defend himself.

What I want to say here is...well...I mean really...this "the people have spoken" and "Bush has a mandate" crap simply has to stop. Since it seems that a lot of people are merely repeating what they've heard elsewhere and don't actually understand what they're saying, let me offer some facts about this matter for the mathematically challenged:

The surface-noise word these days is that George W. Bush won the election by a popular-vote margin of 51-48% over John Kerry. However, the truth (as displayed by among other sources) is that Bush received 50.7%, and Kerry received 48.3% - a margin of 2.4%, not the 3% in the surface-level numbers. That's a significant 20% reduction in the margin between the two major party candidates.

However, even the most innumerate among us will note that these numbers do not add up to 100%. Third-party candidates nationwide represented a total of 1% of the vote. So in the final count, 49.3% of all Americans who voted for a presidential candidate voted AGAINST Bush. His final total was a margin of 1.4% of the popular vote, less than one-half of the 3% Republicans have been crowing about since the day after the election. This represents 1.8 million voters, not 3.7 million as stated after November 2, a reduction of 50% in that margin of victory. Add to this the fact that only about 60% of eligible voters actually bestirred themselves to vote, and the high rate of voting "irregularities" that remain unresolved nationwide, and it turns out that Bush got at most the votes of about 30% of voting-age Americans, and about 20% of all Americans of all ages.

How any of this, even the largest of the above numbers, amounts to a mandate is a logical leap that simply boggles the mind.

In truth, far from receiving a mandate, he barely squeaked by, and there are some indications that he didn't really even do as well as he seems to have done. However, barring a miracle, it appears we're going to inaugurate him again anyway.

But if people like that letter writer think that Americans who disagree with Bush and his policies are just going to lay down and die because he and they keep shouting "Mandate! The people have spoken!", they've got a major surprise in store. We still think he's wrong whether he won the election or not, and we're still going to do all we can to thwart him in his misguided attempts to dismantle the America we know and love. So get off your high horse. We're not buying.

And besides, vox populi was never vox dei, and most assuredly isn't now.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Other, Our Enemy

The Other, Our Enemy

By Richard Hauenstein
Dec. 7, 2004

The people must believe that they are not manipulated in order for them to be manipulated effectively.
- Winston Smith, “1984”

You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!

- Jack Nicholson, “A Few Good Men”

As I write this, it’s Pearl Harbor Day - the sixty-third commemoration of what used to be the worst sneak attack ever perpetrated on American military forces and civilians. That is, until those bloodthirsty, freedom-hating, anti-American, non-Christian Al Qaeda fanatics turned a beautiful late summer day into the rallying point for our national hatred of all things Muslim, Arab or Middle Eastern. But we’ve always had someone to hate, haven’t we? It’s part of our national make-up, in fact it’s part of being human.

Back in 1990, around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, I read an article by a sociologist on the topic of “the universal other”. He (I think it was a he ) said that every society had to have a common enemy that could be used by that society’s leaders to keep the people under control – to distract the people from what the leaders were doing by making them fear the “other”. He went down a long list, all the way back to the Pharaohs of Egypt and their use of the Israelites for this purpose. If the Egyptians could hate a common enemy, they would be less likely to notice that the Pharaohs were robbing the common people of their substance, and living a life that the people couldn’t even aspire to.

The author included as examples of his theme the Romans and their subjugation of “barbarians”, Napoleon’s dream of world conquest, the British Empire’s appeal to King and country in subjugating people of color all over the world, Hitler’s use of the Jews (again) as the source of all post-WWI ills in Germany; and the author expressed concern that, since the Soviet Union could no longer be used to frighten children in the West, a new “Other” would have to be found to keep us in line. And he surmised that this new enemy would be – the Arabs.

As history shows us, less than a year later, the Gulf War (now called the First Gulf War – how sad that we continue to number our wars) initiated America’s overt war against the Arab nation of Iraq. As opposed to the West’s extremely long covert war in the same region.

In fact, history shows us something else as well: in the 228 years of the Republic, America has almost never been without an Other, to hate and fear, to unite us as a nation, and to use as a distraction from what has happened and is happening to our country from within.

In the beginning, the Other was England. Then, Indians became bloody savages who tried to keep us from fulfilling our manifest destiny, even before the term was invented. Then, with some overlap, it was African slaves, southern rebels, Indians again, Germany in two world wars, Japan in one, a long stint with the Soviet Union, and Vietnam and Red China thrown in for good measure.

And now, it’s the Arabs again, as we spread freedom throughout the Middle East one Iraqi corpse at a time.

Now, it’s true that many of these Others attacked us, though if the truth be known, only one of the above did so unprovoked – Japan, 63 years ago today. While I am in no way defending what was done to America on Sept. 11, a dispassionate reader of history would have to say that it was not an unprovoked attack from any but the shortest of short-term perspectives.

And if one can in fact do such an unemotional read, an interesting, almost counter-intuitive fact emerges from the welter of information: from 1991, when the Soviet Union fell and the First Gulf War ended, until Sept. 11, 2001, the world was not in perfect apple-pie order, I don’t mean to suggest any such ludicrous thing – but what is almost unarguable is that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, and before the rise of Islamic terror in its current form, we had no discernible common enemy against which to unite. In fact, on many levels our former enemies of the last half of the 20th century, Russia and Japan and Germany, became our friends and trading partners.

The overall net result of this unprecedented era of agreement between major nations was one of the most prosperous times in the history of mankind, at least for the Western nations. America built up unprecedented budget surpluses, the stock market went to all-time highs, the global economy came into being and began to flourish, and it looked like the national debt was going to approach zero some time in the near future. We had enemies, of course – but we didn’t live under a daily cloud of fear that, even in the heartland of the country, we could be attacked at any minute. Based on results, this relatively fear-free atmosphere was a positive influence on America.

And so, to bring this short history lesson to a close, I pose two questions for your consideration: Do we really need an “Other” to unite us in hatred? And will we ever be grown up enough as a nation, or as a species, to live without one?