What's All This Then?

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Let me see - the jobless rate in the U.S. is 9% or a little more according to the Department of Labor- or maybe 22% or more and maybe a lot more and the nation is running big deficits and individual states are in big fiscal trouble and can’t pay their bills. So how do we get out of this mess? According to Republicans in Congress and some - maybe all Republican Governors - the answer is simple. You put more people out of work. If you’re in Congress you do it by cutting funds for various programs that will result in job loss and as our newly elected speaker has said - if what we do causes some job losses "so be it." And if you’re a Governor, you simply demand that your state workers accept smaller pay and less benefits or there will be huge layoffs - or you just skip the middle part and lay off a bunch of state employees. To be fair, Republicans aren’t alone in this brilliant approach to repairing our economy. Many Democratic Governors and county executives see downsizing as an absolutely necessary to the restoration of fiscal health.

I am all for cutting out waste in governmental spending - particularly employees that aren’t needed or who are being paid high salaries for jobs for which they are not qualified - as happens in local governmental such as in Cook County, Illinois where wives and children and cousins and old school friends get on the payroll. But the rationale for achieving fiscal health by adding thousands more to the staggering numbers of those already unemployed escapes me. But of course I’m not an economist and I don’t have the kind of calculator or Ouija Board that allows economists to pronounce - as they did a few months ago - that our recession is not just over - it ended more than a year earlier. The New York Stock Exchange agreed and blissfully resume its climb to previous heights The only things missing were the millions of jobs that the millions of today’s unemployed once filled - and which are apparently unneeded to put an end to recessions.

Back in July of 2010 in commenting on our unemployment problems, I made the observation that we may be approaching a time when there simply won’t be enough jobs for people who want and need to work in order to be able to support themselves and their families and that we would have to restructure our society to accommodate such a phenomenon. That time may be closer than we think - but it isn’t here yet and we have to deal with conditions that exist and it seems to me that we are failing miserably - both in the public and private sector.

There are two factors that contribute to the loss of jobs in the private and public sectors. There are of course many legitimate and perhaps unavoidable reasons for people being laid off in the private sector, but one reason that may be legitimate from the viewpoint of large corporate employers is one that is very much avoidable and that is the ritual of committing human sacrifice on the altar of increased profits. In other words, to improve the bottom line by cutting payroll. For example, a few weeks ago, Abbott Laboratories announced that it was laying off 1900 workers world wide - of which about a thousand would be from its headquarters in Lake County, Illinois. Abbott is blaming "Obama Care" for the need to "streamline commercial and manufacturing operations, improve efficiencies and reduce costs." But there’s nothing wrong with Abbott’s profit margins. They’re doing O.K. thank you. But even in a year or any other period of time when profits back off somewhat - how many U.S. corporations would tell their stockholders that while profits weren’t as good as we’d like them to have been, we’re proud to say that we did not feel the need to lay off hundreds or thousands of our employees and cause them financial hardships in order to have improved out bottom line? I suspect you know the answer and I suspect that you’d expect this sort of thing to be inevitable because after all, a corporation is a soulless entity whose function is simply to provide profits for its stockholders. Except that the Supreme Court says that a corporation is a "person" - allowing it to act in a more humane fashion such as putting the welfare of its employees ahead of squeezing the last dime of profit out of them. Just don’t hold your breath

The public sector situation is more easy solvable because the only need for local governmental bodies is to avoid operating at a deficit. Governmental bodies of all sizes from States on down have been operating in the red - some for years - but most are now reaching a point where drastic action is needed to avoid bankruptcy - or at least to have their credit rating reduced to that of a bankrupt. Just about every governmental body in dire financial straits looks to sacrifices from public service employees as their initial effort to balance the books. I won’t try to discuss the debacle of under funded pension funds and all the talk about having to make radical changes in them, including reducing what has been promised to people who have worked for decades and are looking forward to retirement - other than to say that perhaps the idiots who made such promises and then ignored what had to be done to keep them -should be strung up in the middle of town squares from coast to coast for rotten egg target practice.

The problem with that kind of call for sacrifice is that it isn’t a shared sacrifice. Public service workers aren’t the cause of Governmental red ink - but most Governors and other elected officials are reluctant to take the next logical step because they are elected officials and want to keep in getting elected. It’s that word that is like a fork on a plate to Republicans and that they try to convince a gullible public that we can live without. Taxes. The answer to the red ink of states and other governmental bodies is to eliminate every cost that can be eliminated - perhaps even eliminatingJOBSthat are not really needed and to look to an increase in taxes to make up the difference. An increase in income tax was signed into law last month in my home state of Illinois - currently host to thirteen Wisconsin State Senators - and the collective hands of the local media - and of course Republican legislators - have been raised in horror. Their dismay may well be justified if the state continues to repeat the financial mismanagement of the past and so far, there has been little evidence that things are going to change -but if it does - if the required financial streamlining takes place - even Republican politicians may have to face up to the realities of the real world. Nations, States, Counties, Towns and Villages cannot exist without the support of needed tax revenues.

Aside from an obvious coordinated effort by the right wing elements in this country to take apart organized labor, I have no doubt that the Governor of Wisconsin was emboldened by the surrender of President Obama to Republican demands to renew the tax breaks to the wealthy that were due to expire at the end of last year. Actually, demands isn’t quite the right word. It was blackmail. Renew those low rates or the unemployed can go fish for any more benefits. It’s the Republican mantra that we will no doubt will see attempted in state after state with GOP Governors in charge. The state’s financial problems will be balanced on the backs of those who can least afford it - middle class state employees. And an increase in or enacting of any new taxes will be the last thing that will be considered - if at all.

I doubt that you’ll find too many Americans who enjoy paying taxes. We seem to have an aversion to the very idea of taxation. Maybe it dates back to the Boston Tea Party days. But the fact is that we pay lower taxes than just about every other industrial nation. We need to accept the fact that Government is not a business. There are no profits to be earned. And belt tightening doesn’t produce revenue. It just reduces expenditures. Taxes need to be gathered from those who are earning money. Firing people as a way of tightening the public belt just reduces the number of people who can pay the needed taxes and contributes only to the creation of a vicious circle of sameness. I’ll be happy if Governor Quinn and the state legislature can find a way to solve Illinois’ fiscal problems without imposing any additional taxes,but if comes to a choice between hand wringing and finger pointing and raising enough to pay our bills and get us out of debt, I’m prepared to pay my fair share and so should the rest of us in every state in the same kind of trouble. And the last thing we need to hear and watch or put up with is the kind of political posturing to which the nation is being subjected by the Governor of Wisconsin.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It’s been an interesting three weeks to say the least. I have been tempted to join the countless pundits and politicians who have been filling the airways and the Internet with their observations and opinions about what has been happening in Egypt, but I have resisted, preferring to watch events unfold and to listen to those actually involved in the struggle and to the observations in the Mideast On Target news letter that I receive from time to time.

I was impressed with the wall to wall coverage of CNN and MSNBC. The reporting seemed honest and void of any opinion that clashed with the pictures and voices being beamed into our homes. Not quite the same on Fox New to which I switched from time to time. On the first couple of visits to that cable station, I was greeted with discussions of what was going on at C-PAC followed by O’Reilly talking endlessly about and playing clips of his pre-Super Bowl interview of the President, which I’m given to understand he continues to do on his nightly show. Sean Hannity’s program however was indeed concerned with little else but the events unfolding in Egypt except rather than reporting on the day to and hour to hour story of the uprising, it was filled with warnings of impending disaster. We heard about the Muslim Brotherhood and how "X" many Egyptians favored Sharia Law and cutting off the hands of thieves and how many supported Al Qaeda and were against peace with Israel and men and women working together and on and on. In other words, according to Hannity and perhaps Fox News, there was nothing to celebrate about the ousting of Hosni Mubarak and the possibility, however slim, that true democracy might come to that ancient land.

The question now of course - the question being asked by every serious reporter and sober observer is - what happens next? While not echoing Hannity’s apocalyptic views of a future Egypt, other voices are urging caution in our approval of what appears to be a popular, secular movement. In a Mideat on Target newsletter written before Mubarak resigned, Israeli commentator Yisrael Ne’eman wrote
"Essentially in the Arab world there are two forms of rule, neither democratic. We are either speaking of a form of secular military dictatorship as we see in Egypt, and let's remember that Mubarak was commander of Egypt's air force before entering politics, or rule by Islamists. One might counter that monarchies exist such as in Jordan and Morocco, but here too they are dependent on the military and an assortment of police forces, secret or otherwise." And "The call for democracy may be bantered about, but the only solidified deep rooted ideological understandings are those of Islam, or in this case the Muslim Brotherhood, begun in Egypt in 1928 under Sheikh Hassan al-Banna. Liberal democracy is not a realistic option, as much as the West wants it to be. It is understood to clash with Islam and is often condemned as paganism or idolatry. "Islam is the Answer" is a well known slogan. Islam is not only a religion but an entire lifestyle and value system. Humans are responsible for liberal democracy while Islam is ordained by Allah. There is no comparison especially if one did not grow up in reverence of rational thinking and individual human rights."
I don’t have any special knowledge of how big an influence Islam has on Egyptian life and what role it might play in Egypt’s political future, but there were some pictures during the eighteen day uprising that gave some hints. There was a popular revolution unfolding before our eyes when suddenly everything was put on hold as though in response to a secret signal and thousands of people stopped protesting and prostrated themselves on the ground in prayer. And for the planned demonstration that was to take place on a Friday - that took place "after prayers." It would seem that Islam has a very definite influence on how people behave in Egypt.

In the country where I spent my youth, there is actually an "official" religion and one of the Queen’s titles is "Defender of the Faith." But while everything might stop for tea in England - a pleasant and partially true myth - there is never any obvious sign of the nation’s "official" Christian faith to be seen in the street or any place else outside of churches. Surprisingly, the religion that one does see on the streets of London and other British cities is - Islam. I can’t testify how it is in other countries where there is a substantial Islam minority, but in England it is an "in your face" religion. Not long ago, newly elected Prime Minister David Cameron, addressed that phenomenon with a speech in Munich, Germany in which he condemned the nation’s long standing policy of multiculturalism as a failure He was speaking of the nation’s Muslims whose first loyalty is to their religion rather than to their country.

Other leaders have since echoed the same sentiment, including Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. If the leaders of England, France and Germany recognize the dangerous disconnect between loyalty to Islam and the obligations of citizenship under secular governance - one wonders what kind of secular democracy can exists with an overwhelming Muslim society.

The nation most concerned with what kind of government will eventually arise in Egypt - nonsensical comments by some American pundits about the danger of us "losing" Egypt notwithstanding - is Israel. Oddly enough, it is Israel that could provide a model that the Egyptians could follow as they struggle to achieve a kind of society that they have never known. Israel has its own version of religious extremism in the form of ultra orthodox Jews who almost form a society within a society.. Yet they participate politically and have representation in the Knesset and are able to exert a certain amount of influence on governmental policy. The last time I looked, Israel was a thriving democracy, able to deal with the ultra religious in their midst.

Of course there is an great deal of difference between orthodox Judaism and Islam, but each presents a problem to the health of a democratic society. Israel has many problems with its orthodox Jews - but in the 62 years of its existence, has managed to maintain a balance between the secular and religious aspects of its society and remain democratic. Whether or not an Arab nation that has never known democracy and where adherence to the dictates of the Koran is widespread can actually achieve what those crowds in Tahrir Square seemed to be saying they were willing to sacrifice their lives for remains to be seen. But whatever they do, it will be without the advice and opinion of pundits from outside the country - and fortunately for them, they don’t give a damn what Sean Hannity or Glen Beck say about what’s likely to happen or what their uprising really means.