February 2013

The Right to Own a Gun       

Let me agree at the start that there is a constitutional right for individuals to own and possess guns.  What in the Constitution produces that right is a different story, one for another time and place.  This short piece will be about how to understand rights.

Having a right does not give one carte blanche freedom to exercise that right.  If a male is hired to do janitorial work at the high school and thus has as part of his job the right to enter the girls’ locker room to clean it, that does not give him the freedom to enter the locker room whenever he pleases.  We licensed drivers have the right to drive down the main street of our town but that does not enable us to exercise that right during the local 4th of July parade. 

A full-fledged right to gun ownership is perfectly compatible with all kinds of regulations designed to provide for public safety. 

One can, of course, lose a right: a person’s driver’s license can be taken away permanently and so the right to drive is lost.  On the other hand, being sent to prison for a crime does not take away the person’s right to liberty: it takes away their liberty for a period of time because of the commission of some offense.

Regulations on gun ownership do not take away the right to own a gun or even guns.  Like other rights, that constitutional right is, or can be, hedged about with restrictions designed to provide for public safety. 



310 Million Guns!

We hear a lot from supporters of the NRA about guns and self (or family) protection.  But if gun ownership were any guarantee of protection or safety, the United States would be the safest country in the world as Americans own 310,000,000 guns.  But, alas, we are the least safe of advanced countries.  It is time to ignore the NRA which is, after all, now essentially a lobby for the gun manufacturers.



The President on Education

In his Second Inaugural speech, President Obama gave a serious place to the subject of the education of Americans.  But, as typical, the conception of education informing his words was hardly suitable.  He thinks of education as proper training so that the student can get a job.  What he mentioned in the speech was science, math and technology.  There is not a hint of anything more for our educational system to aim at.

Having the skills to work is a necessary aim of how we educate ourselves.   But that aim must take its place amidst other aims.  We need to provide an education in what it is to be a citizen of a democratic nation.  We need to provide an education that shows students the possibilities of developing understanding of history and art and literature and philosophy. 

Given his personal attainment and his values, Obama’s conception of education is shockingly shallow – suitable for, say, George W. Bush.



Social Security Investments and Government Debt

Social Security (SS) taxes now total 15.3% from employer and employee combined – which produces only a safety net income for recipients. On the other hand, my combined L.A. County pension contribution was 14%, yet that lower number results in a comfortable retirement.   Why is there that difference?  Because SS money is invested in low-paying U.S. Treasury bonds, whereas my pension fund invests in a diversified portfolio of U.S. stocks, foreign stocks, bonds of all kinds, and a little real estate and commodities.  It earns twice as much on average as the SS trust fund.  If the SS fund were invested more prudently, SS could pay an adequate retirement without increasing the SS tax.  The SS fund’s investments minimize benefit to the beneficiaries.  Any pension board doing that would be in violation of its fiduciary responsibility.

Most public employee pensions are underfunded, because the contribution levels needed to fund the promised benefits were based on inaccurate earnings forecasts.  More realistic forecasts will result in either reduced benefits or increased contributions.  However, they will still be far better than SS.  A pension fund lives practically forever and can maintain the risk profile of a middle-aged person.

Unfortunately, President George W. Bush's proposal to privatize SS has poisoned the discussion.  Privatization would create excessive fees and would put individual beneficiaries (most are inexperienced investors) at great risk of loss in their personal SS accounts.  Because of this and also because of the Great Recession which eroded confidence in the markets, elected officials don't dare suggest investing the SS trust fund in Wall St.  However, public pension funds, college endowments and charitable foundations have succeeded in obtaining good returns on their investments with professional management and reasonable fees.  That, rather than privatized accounts or 100% Treasuries, is the best model.  It's a shame that this isn't even discussed.

If the SS trust fund would invest less in Treasuries and more in other assets, the interest rates which the government pays on its bonds would rise -- unless the Federal Reserve purchases enough Treasuries to make up the difference, which it can do.  The Federal Reserve pays its profits to the government, so the interest that the government pays the Fed will come back to the government.  SS beneficiaries will win, and the government won't lose.

By the way, this shows why the bogeyman of the national debt bankrupting the government is phony.  It's a cost to the government only if it pays interest to creditors other than the Fed.  If it's paying the Fed, the government is paying itself.



Small Businesses and the Affordable Health Care Act

As the next phase of the implementation of ‘Obamacare’ gets nearer, small businesses (very many at least) are crying about the difficulties of satisfying its requirements for providing their employees with health insurance.   But progressives can go only so far in feeling sorry for them.  For the organizations representing small businesses could have foreseen just these troubles and urged the Administration and Congress to support a far simpler and less burdensome to business means of providing health insurance, namely single-payer or ‘Medicare for All’.  Instead by electing to go with a scheme that enabled insurance companies to remain major players in providing health care (protecting capitalism and big bucks), they helped bring the deluge of new regulations upon themselves. 



Of Arms and the Man (Justice Kennedy to be precise)

In order to move forward on gun regulation, we progressives need to stop arguing that there is no Constitutional right to gun ownership.  Of course, we do not have to base that agreement on the 2nd amendment or to accept the very badly done decision by the Supreme Court in the District of Columbia v Heller case, a 5-4 vote with the majority opinion written by Justice Scalia that claims it is the 2nd amendment that gives that right.

As Constitutional scholars have argued, contrary to the NRA and to the Court majority, it is far more plausible to hold that it is the 9th amendment that provides a right to gun ownership.  The text of the 9th is “The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage other rights retained by the people.”  It can be held that the right to have a weapon for hunting and defense was a matter of fact in the frontier society that was America at the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  (It went without saying.)

In the oral arguments in the Heller case, Justice Kennedy kept referring to such things as “the concern of the remote settler to defend himself and his family against hostile Indian tribes and outlaws, wolves and bears and grizzlies and things like that” and “the interests that must have been foremost in the framers’ minds when they were concerned about guns being taken away from the people who needed them for their defense.” 

But as critics of the majority and Kennedy have pointed out, there is no evidence that those concerns had anything to do with the 2nd amendment but surely were what was in mind in writing the 9th: rights that were a matter of course in the American world at the founding and need not be mentioned specifically in the Constitution.  Yet Kennedy never turned his thoughts to the 9th amendment and ended up supporting an implausible reading of the 2nd amendment.


January 2013

Making Corporate Executives Accountable

If a corporation breaks the law, it pays a fine, but no executive goes to jail. If a court finds that it has financially damaged others, it pays the damages at the expense of its shareholders' equity, but no executive is held personally liable.  These practices confer immunity on executives -- a moral hazard which leads to illegal and predatory corporate behavior.  Prosecutors and plaintiffs can change this to some extent by choosing legal strategies which target decision-makers as well as organizations, and they should be encouraged to do so to the extent possible, but laws must also be changed to ensure accountability by those who are responsible for an organization's practices.


Too Good to Pass Up

Conservatives claim that they want to cut ‘entitlements’, i.e. programs that provide things that people have rights to, in order to save money, to cut the budget deficit.  They don’t want to ‘grow’ the economy to provide more revenue and in a decent period of time balance the budget (or more) – rather they want to take away things that we have argued and convinced the country at large that Americans have a right to. 

Since we are not going to give up on Medicare, as the right wants, they will nibble on it on the pretext that the nibbling will save money and help eradicate the deficit.  They propose to do that by lifting the eligibility age from 65 to 67. 

Now there are all sorts of reasons against doing that – a truly progressive recommendation would be that we lower the eligibility age, even to zero (Medicare for all.)  But the ostensible reason for raising the age, saving money, is not a good reason.  For the amount saved would be piddling in the face of our budget shortages.

Richard Eskow has proposed that conservatives, if they really want to save money, should emulate Jonathan Swift’s 18th century advice in his satiric ‘A Modest Proposal’.  To solve the problem of hunger in Ireland, he ‘recommended’ that the Irish should eat their year old children:  that would provide both a source of food and a lowering of the population allowing a greater share of other food for all.  Eskow notes that the greatest health costs are in the last years of life.  Hence if we removed Medicare coverage for those at the end of life we could both save the most money and even diminish the number eligible for coverage as people would die off faster.

Of course conservatives are not really interested in balancing the budget – they are interested in ridding ourselves of what the non-wealthy have a right to and to supply which requires that the wealthy must make significant contributions to.  Since they can’t eliminate that popular program they nibble at the fringes.



Running Deficits

The American economy depends on the stimulus of government deficit spending.  Throughout its history, recession or depression has followed every period of balanced federal budgets (see http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-kelton-fiscal-cliff-economy-20121221,0,2129176.story).  

The great economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930's advised that government deficit spending be utilized to stimulate a weak economy.  He also recommended that the government run a surplus when the economy is strong, in order to avoid building up the national debt indefinitely.  Unfortunately, since his time, our government has run deficits during good times as well as bad.  While this has reduced the frequency and severity of recessions, it has left our country with a large debt on which the growing interest payments gradually transfer an increasing proportion of tax revenues into the pockets of creditors -- affluent Americans, foreign investors and foreign governments.  Since these interest recipients spend less of their income on consumption here in the USA than the average American does, the effect of the interest payments is to reduce the stimulus that would otherwise occur from the deficit.

In the short term, 2013 is the wrong year to reduce the deficit, because the economy is still weak and has not yet fully recovered from the recent Great Recession.  Deficit reduction should await a major reduction of unemployment.

In the intermediate term, a way must be found to ensure that our government will follow Keynes' prescription of deficits during a weak economy and surpluses during a strong economy.  A requirement for a balanced budget every year would be a disaster, because it would force the government to cut spending at the same time that individuals, businesses and nonprofits are doing so, thereby turning every recession into a depression.  Some European countries have a strong social safety net, which automatically spends more in bad times and less in good times, thereby automating and accelerating the budget adjustment by removing it from the hands of elected officials. The USA should do the same.  Our government should also identify infrastructure needs and set money aside for them during good times, spending it during bad times when it will boost the economy and when labor and materials will be in less demand and less costly.

In the long term, we need to invent a better economic system -- one in which consumers are paid enough money to buy what they produce, so that consumption won't have to be artificially supported by deficit spending and the creation of new money to pay for it.



Creating Jobs

George had developed a successful small business repairing widgets.  At the height of his success he employed 10 people in various capacities.  The Great Recession squeezed people’s desire to have their widgets repaired and so George had to lay off two of his employees. 

Listening to conservative politicians and pundits during the 2012 election, George heard them say that small businesses (not government) were what created jobs.  George was impressed by the claim that he was one of those responsible for job creation in the American economy.  Since job creation is desirable and since he was one of those whose role is produce new jobs and thus economic development, George decided (no doubt going off the rails) to perform this admirable role.  So he rehired people to fill the two positions he had had to eliminate – and wanting to be good at his newly realized function of job creation, he added three more positions and hired people to fill them.

Alas the market for widget repair had not improved much.  George, having to pay additional wages to 5 workers without any additional business, soon ran his once successful business into the ground.

The moral of course is that employers should not, do not, think of themselves as job creators:  they hire when the business is there, i.e. in response to consumer demand.  Without that, they do not create positions or if they so, as George, they are stupid in their line of work.

Of course, there are those employers such as Susan, who realize that there is an unfulfilled demand for what her company can provide and create jobs to satisfy it.  But the moral is the same:  the successful Susan is responding to demand.

Hence, whatever produces more demand for a good or service is what leads to job creation.  That is what we need to focus upon.  And that is what the government can do: create demand in times when it is weak.



Power to the Tides!

Under court order, the US government is reconsidering its rule permitting construction of more nuclear power plants.  They are expensive and are too risky for insurance companies to cover.  In addition, the radioactive waste is an unavoidable by-product which will probably outlast and eventually escape every means devised to contain it.

The only thing that makes sense is to build power plants which use inexhaustible, clean, natural (what we call alternative, although the terminology should be reversed) energy: wind, sun and ocean.  I would like to see more R&D especially on underwater ocean wave technology, since it is out of sight, doesn't occupy space which we can use for other purposes, doesn't interfere with birds and other animals, and is constant.  I've watched the seaweed forest sway back and forth under the water.  The power is there, and most heavily populated areas are coastal, so transmission lines to serve them won't be very long.



Conservatives on the Safety Net

There are two conservative positions on a society having a safety net.  The extreme position, the Randian version of libertarianism, is the death march:  those who need the safety net are the society’s (read ‘the economy’s’) losers and are completely expendable.  In effect the Randians favor Kim Il Jung’s version of Marie Antoinette: ‘Let them eat grass’.  The softer conservative line recognizes that not all those in need of a safety net are individually responsible for their plight.  Those are the deserving poor.  They should be given support while the undeserving poor might be supported out of compassion but only if any individuals are so inclined.

But who is to provide that support?  Some of the (few) tender-hearted (nearly bleeding-heart) conservatives think that the state might set up minimal mechanisms to get the deserving poor back on their feet for another go at grabbing the brass ring.  However, that is not the favorite line.  The typical conservative thinks that the solution is to do what people have traditionally done to assist the down and out:  it is not the state that should provide the help but rather families, churches (religious organizations) and even charities using funds given by whoever feels compassionate enough to contribute.

Liberals, progressives, social democrats reject that type of safety net.  Well, they don’t really reject it: we expect that families and charitable organizations should and will typically step up to help those in need.  It is, however, the welfare provided by the state, by all of us in a democratic society, that holds the moral high ground for those on the left.

Why?  Because we are excessively bleeding hearts?  Because we love playing nanny?  No.  It is rather a matter of respecting the dignity of those in need that we should provide provide community assistance, not through the whims of individuals or private organizations but through the state as a matter of right.  They are entitled to our help because they are part of our community.  By providing that assistance in that way, through state aid rather than by charity, we do not make them dependent upon particular individuals for what they need.  The right claims that we are producing dependent people by operating a state safety net – we on the other hand are working to free such people from dependency on the fluxuating good will of other people.



Not a Transformative Presidency

I received more than one appeal from White House staffers working to drum up public support for the attempt to keep almost all the Bush tax cuts from expiring at the end of the year.  The request was that I submit an account of how a rise in my income tax of $2200 would affect my family. 

I was strongly opposed to allowing the tax cuts to expire on the grounds of the harm that it would do to people and the economy.  But I refused to submit any such story to the White House for use in its campaign to accomplish what I was in favor of.

Why?  Because what was wanted was a story of how the rise in tax would affect ME.  And that is not how the end of those cuts for the 98% whose taxes would go up should be explained and defended.  What is needed instead are lines of thinking about how the tax change would affect others, how it would harm all of us, how it would help throw the US economy into recession. 

To treat the issue as one noticing how it affects oneself is to play into the conservatives’ hands.  That is their frame of reference:  the individual’s self-interest.  For them there is no such thing as the public good.  Thinking about other people is not part of their world.

The attempt of President Obama to obtain public support for a desirable policy by basing the argument on right-wing grounds might help carry the day in the short run.  But it otherwise retains the status quo, enabling Americans to continue thinking only of oneself.   Obama’s presidency will thus not be transformative, not change American political life and thought in any fundamental way.

Note:  I owe ideas and wording in the above to both Ricky Maslowski and Parkes Riley, good liberal thinkers both.



December 2012

The customer is the job creator

Billionaires own the largest percentage ever recorded of the world's assets. Employers -- especially major corporations -- are holding trillions of dollars on their balance sheets.  Nevertheless, hiring is weak.  The financial press repeatedly reminds us that the "job-creators" are waiting for an increase in their volume of business to justify more hiring.  Who, then, are the real "job-creators"?  The customers!

This is a vicious circle.  Employers won't hire without more business.  More business won't appear until customers (the rest of us) are spending more. We won't spend more until more of us are employed and those of us who are employed are earning more.  We who are employed won't earn more until there are fewer unemployed to drive down salaries and wages.  Finally, there won't be fewer unemployed until employers hire more.  Back to square one.

Employers aren't charitable organizations; they won't break the vicious circle, not if they want to remain competitive.  We consumers can't do it; whether employed, self-employed or unemployed, we're spending what we can afford.  State and local governments and nonprofits can't do it; their income is down.  The Federal Reserve's low-interest policy has been in effect for several years and isn't doing it.  Only the national government -- Congress and the President -- can do it by taking actions which put more money into the hands of those who will spend it:  the less our income, the more likely we are to spend every additional dollar.

Effective actions will include benefits to the unemployed (such as food stamps and unemployment compensation), infrastructure repair and construction (such as bridges, highways, dams, sea walls, water and sewer systems, a smart electrical grid, renewable energy, broadband networks and schools), an increase in the minimum wage, tax cuts for those in the lower brackets, and aid to states which are laying off police, firefighters and teachers.

These actions need not increase the government's debt.  They will generate economic growth now and into the future, which in return will generate more taxes.  They can also be balanced by cuts in subsidies for wealthy individuals and profitable businesses, which we have seen do not generate unneeded jobs.

Oh, lest we forget, these actions will also reduce hardship and improve life for us Americans, present and future.  After all, that's what the economy is all about, isn't it?


Fighting off the plutocracy

While analysts reflect on the recent election, there is one topic I have not seen discussed.   The election blocked, for the time being at least, a major attack on American democracy.  There were three components of that attempt to undermine the political character of the country.

First, political campaigns and governance always involve a tense relationship with truth.  But as many commentators have pointed out, no previous presidential candidate so fully refused to accept truth as a value in democratic leadership.  In this election, the Republican candidate rejected the importance of truth, of facts.   The aim was solely to attain power no matter what the facts.  A democracy cannot exist when its leaders, and would be leaders, have no regard for truth.

Second, the Republican party, through a variety of tactics in the service of ‘voter suppression’, tried to prevent voting (and to some extent succeeded) on the part of people who were presumed to be likely Democratic voters.  Studies have shown repeatedly that there is no significant amount of voter fraud in the country.   Moreover, in a democracy the presumption must be that it is better to allow some who are not eligible to vote than to create conditions in which genuine citizens are prevented from casting their ballots.

Third, the huge amount of money spent in the campaign, unleashed by the Supreme Court’s logically and historically unacceptable Citizens United decision, went (of course) overwhelmingly to Republican candidates.  Corporations and the very rich were enabled by the decision and their wealth to try to further replace our democratic system with a plutocracy.

Fortunately, the attack this time was blunted: lying, voter suppression and excessive money spent did not succeed in electing the party of the rich and powerful.  Only if we all become aware that this election was an onslaught by the wealthy against ordinary citizens and against our democratic values, can we hope to repel more class warfare in the future and also dislodge the gains it has already made while we slept.


Shall it be me or we?

Football coaches (and perhaps others too) are fond of reminding their players that there is no ‘i’ in ‘team’.

Ayn Rand hated the message behind that ostensible spelling lesson: for her the only thing we should consider in life is ‘i’ or rather I.

I remember from years ago when I read Atlas Shrugged (why didn’t it thrill me as it did Paul Ryan?) that a train wreck occurs in the novel and that one of the people who died, whose death Rand, at her most vicious, cheered, was a teacher who tried to teach her students the value of team work, of being a team player.

The problem is that there are, contrary to Rand, many occasions when it is to the good to subordinate one’s own personal interests to a larger view (taxes should be raised, my own included).  But it is also true that there are many times when it is not to the good to do so (voting for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities because I will get a plum committee assignment or more votes from my constituents.)

There is no single solution – neither ‘always’ or the Randian ‘never’ – to the problem of when we should subordinate our own personal interests to the well-being of others.  We all do know that.  We just happen to live in a time when a spasm of libertarianism is encouraging regard for nothing but self, the Ego.


We’re in this together

The libertarian right likes to contrast themselves with us, with liberals, progressives, social democrats and leftists generally as having an individualist opposed to a collectivist outlook.

We, of course, never call ourselves, even think of ourselves, as collectivists.  That word in this day calls to mind Stalinist collective farms and no one in their right mind thinks that we would like life to be lived like that.  The Randian may think that our principles inevitably lead to such an organization of life but that involves a complete misunderstanding of liberal views. 

The term we might use of ourselves is not ‘collectivist’ but ‘communitarian’:  for we do emphasize that we are connected to others, that we must recognize and appreciate that fact and might even wish to (freely) develop that aspect of our lives more fully.  (That sort of version of how we should live is most fully expressed in the Israeli kibbutz – no doubt a horror to the libertarian also.)

The term ‘collectivist’ is also quite useless in descriptive political theory for it has been created by the right precisely to lump together enormously different strands of political thought and then to label them with a pejorative derived from Soviet practices.  For as used by the right it covers both prescriptive totalitarian thought and views which only hold that we are in fact connected to one another.  It is a libertarian fantasy that each man is, contrary to John Donne, an island.

The liberal tradition is one that tries to find a way to make a place for both our lives together and individualism.  It rejects both the totalitarian idea that the group is superior to the individual and that hence individuals must sacrifice (that is the favorite notion of Ayn Rand) themselves for the greater good and also the hyper-individualism of libertarianism.  Working out the details of a satisfactory arrangement makes social democratic thought much more difficult than the simplistic certainties of either libertarianism or totalitarianism. 

Note:  shortly after I wrote this I saw the film Late Quartet (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christophere Walken, Catherine Keener.)  It is about a world class string quartet that has been together 25 years but is about to lose one of its members.  The film is a brilliant exploration of the contrary pulls of community (in this case the quartet) and individual desires.   It is an excellent reminder of the liberal attempt to take into account both sides of our nature, the need for co-operation and the search for one’s own way.



I read a conservative writer the other day arguing (as usual) that the U.S. government is too big – the reason he offered is that it is bigger (in terms of employment, etc) than the world’s largest corporation.

The argument reminded me of a friend who (many years ago now) was the biggest player, at 6’4”, on his high school basketball team.  Unfortunately, that meant he had to guard the opposing team’s center and his team had the misfortune of playing in the same league in Brooklyn as Power Memorial High School whose center was the young Lew Alcindor (later, of course, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.) 

It isn’t the absolute size as the conservatives think:  it is the size relative to the challenges to be faced.  And the case can easily be made that the challenges we face in this country may well require a bigger government still.  Although, if the military-industrial complex can be tamed and the correct challenges faced, the absolute size of the government might end up being smaller than today.   But of course, the conservative is not complaining of the size of our military.


November 2012


1960’s slogan:  Don’t trust anyone over 30
2010’s slogan:  Don’t trust anyone over $250K


Déjà Vu All Over Again: FDR 1936

“We have had to struggle with the old enemies of peace – business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.  They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs.  We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.”


What Liberalism Is

“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide for those who have too little.”  (FDR Memorial, from 1937 Inaugural Speech)


The Successful Life

It has been widely recognized for some time that Americans tend to measure success in life by success in making money.  That is probably an outgrowth of America’s Calvinistic streak from the Puritans – the more success in business the greater the sign that God has given you salvation.

In some ways, that American ideal is a version of the Aristotelian idea that there is but a single measure of human happiness or flourishing.  Of course Aristotle didn’t think that it was money made (or possessed) but he did hold that lives could be measured by a single (if complicated) standard.

The liberal tradition rejects that notion.  Each person must be understood as having, even if very vaguely defined, her or his own ‘life project’, what they want out of life.  In this view success in life means how well a given person has been able to satisfy their own goals and aims. (There are problems with making that the whole story but let those remain for another day.)

Now someone might have a life project of making as much money as possible – and if they acquire a fortune, then their life has been a success by their own lights.  But we have no right to hold to that standard for measuring another person’s life success if it was no part of their scheme of things. Nor is there any plausible argument that we ought to have making a large amount of money a necessary part of any acceptable life project.

It never crosses the mind of the overwhelming majority of people, even of Americans, that they should devote their lives to the making of money.

Conservatives do not manage to notice that their idea of what we should try to attain in life contradicts their basic emphasis on individual freedom. Liberalism does it much better.


Makers and Takers

The favorite new conservative terminology for dividing Americans is to distinguish between makers and takers: those who contribute to the economy and thus pay taxes and those who make no contribution and are parasites on those who do by taking safety net monies paid for by the work and taxes of the takers.

Liberal commentators have had a field day shooting down that conception of the takers, of the 47%.  There are at most a handful of people who satisfy the conservative idea of the taker, those who could be working but don’t because they are sponging.  Others of the 47 percenters do pay taxes (not income tax) and work hard or are otherwise entitled to support for various reasons (people in the military, the disabled.)  There is nothing of any significance left of the case for the conservative idea of the takers: many of those they so classify are themselves makers, people who work hard (typically very hard).  What they fail to make is sufficient money though they are economic makers.

The other side of the coin has not been so well discussed:  are those called ‘makers’ by the conservatives really makers?  People who take nothing from the public?  There is no such beast.  People who make things that have no redeeming social value?  There are plenty of those too.  

The really well-off ones have learned to game the system even better than the largely imaginary poor pure takers – even ignoring the total infrastructure within which they operate (what they didn’t build), so very many of them have acquired government handouts, have favorable tax breaks, produce objects not of social value (derivatives for example).  The odds of there being pure makers in the country are as slim as the odds of the pure takers. 

The conservative categories of makers and takers are useless for understanding what actually happens in the economic life of the country.


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2012 October


Politicians and people of the right frequently argue that states really ought to drop taxes, especially on businesses and the wealthy, in order to make their state more ‘business-friendly’.  If they don’t, the argument goes, businesses will up and move to those states that are business-friendly.

However, is what is measured by those rankings of business-friendliness all there is to an evaluation of the quality of life in a state?  Surely not.  

Compare what else is true of Texas which ranks number one in the nation in business-friendliness and very high up the list of low tax states.  The 2011 report ‘Texas on the Brink’ from the Legislative Study Group in the Texas legislature (Google it to see the entire report) compares Texas to all the other states in many categories of human well-being.  In earnings of manufacturing workers Texas ranks 38th; it is 46th in percentage of residents who see a dentist; lst in the number of executions; 50th in percentage of residents with a high school diploma; near last in SAT scores; 50th in air quality; 50th in water quality; 50th in percent of pregnant women who get prenatal care in the first trimester; 46th in percentage of children living in poverty; 49th in percentage of people with “food insecurity”.  
The account could go on and on.  (See Gail Collin’s recent As Texas Goes… for much more.)

Texas is, from the point of view of human flourishing, a failed state.  But are they ever business friendly!  Let’s have all the states become low-tax, low service state so that they can become competitive with Texas.



Banks loan long (up to 30 years) and borrow short (CD's 5 years or less, and accounts with no fixed term).  If they lend much when interest rates are low, they lose money when interest rates rise and they have to pay their depositors more.  Therefore, they're reluctant to lend much when rates are very low, unless they can dump the loans on investors (which creates other problems).  

The Federal Reserve is keeping rates low to facilitate mortgage refinancing and to encourage home buying, but as a result the banks are being tight-fisted, not only with refinancing, but also with other loans to homeowners and businesses.  Therefore, the Great Recession cannot be fought with monetary policy alone: fiscal stimulus is needed as well, e.g., job-saving aid to state and local governments and school districts, and job-creating expenditures for infrastructure repair and improvement and for renewable energy production.  

It's OK to spend when the economy and tax revenues are weak, because recovery will reduce the federal deficit by reducing the costs of the social safety net and by increasing tax revenues.  

In addition, the Fed should be authorized to make loans directly to the public as well as to banks, whenever banks are reluctant to lend, in order to ensure and accelerate recovery.  The Fed's cost of money is zero, so it will not lose money on these loans when it later increases interest rates.  Instead, to the extent that the loans create recovery, the Fed will be able to raise interest rates and collect more from its future loans to banks, thereby increasing its income.  Not incidentally, the people of the country will benefit from the availability of credit and from the recovery, and that's the goal.



One of the weakest arguments against same-sex marriage might be called the ‘Antiquity and Ubiquity’ argument.  It holds that everywhere in space and time marriage has always been between one man and one woman.  It of course doesn’t follow that we really ought to be lemmings and do the same.  But then it isn’t even true that marriage has everywhere been an arrangement with between one of each. Anthropologists (and others) have recorded marriages consisting of one male with plural wives (strictly called polygyny but most often referred to as polygamy) as well as marriage between one woman and multiple males (polyandry).

If as a result of those facts the original argument is defended by agreeing that the original premise was exaggerated but by claiming that everywhere and always within OUR tradition, marriage has been two people of the opposite sex, then the same result occurs.  Supposing that our tradition is our Judeo-Christian heritage, then it is again false that that is what marriage has always consisted of.  The Bible is replete with references to polygamous arrangements.  (Check it out – try Google.)

It is very odd to see a Mormon defending the one man – one woman view of marriage given the polygamist history of the Mormon Church. Mormons dropped polygamy not in principle (the justification of the arrangement came from God after all) but in practice:  it was abandoned simply because of the power of the Federal government and the hostility of the American public and not for reasons of principle.

In rejecting all the poly-forms of marriage, one might think that advocates of same-sex marriage would be praised for their acceptance of monogamy. 



Libertarians, Texans (Governor Rick Perry named one of his boots ‘Freedom’ and the other ‘Liberty’) and Tea Partiers are wild about independence – of course it is their (not your) independence that they have in mind.  But listen to the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Richard Ford on kind of independence they have in mind.

“It’s this whole spurious idea of independence.  The American practice of independence is premised on the notion of ‘get away from me, because I’m better off when I’m here by myself…’; or ‘my independence or my worth is more easily proven when I’m not somehow diluted by you…’.  The whole way in which Western expansion or manifest destiny was lived out in American history is just the story of that:  get away.  Don’t tread on me, or for that matter even get very close to me.  Most of us have it in our make up; maybe it’s human nature – Native Americans probably have it too, but it’s particularly rife in the White American landscape.  That’s what my book Independence Day is about: the eventual sterility of cutting yourself off from liaisons with other people, from attachments, affinities, affiliations with other people.  Finally the end of the line for independence is sterility.” (Conversations with Richard Ford, edited by Huey Guagliardo)



Conservatives worry that too much equality will kill incentive.  But too much inequality will do the same.  If the children of the rich have the game sewed up from the starting point, then there’s no use competing with them.  Everyone will simply inherit his/her parent’ socio-economic status as in the Middle Ages.



Samuel Butler’s 1872 satirical utopian novel Erewhon (an anagram of Nowhere) lays out (with tongue-in-cheek) the conception that the wealthy, both then and now, have of themselves.  (You can also find this same conception in Ayn Rand and her libertarian offshoots.)

Erewhon:  “This is the true philanthropy.  He who makes a colossal fortune in a trade…and by his energy has succeeded in reducing the price of woolen goods by a thousandth part of a penny in the pound, this man is worth ten professional philanthropists.  So strongly are the Erewhonians impressed with this, that if a man has made a fortune…they exempt him from all taxation, considering him a work of art, and too precious to be meddled with…saying ‘How very much he must have done for society before society could have been prevailed upon to give him so much money.’”



2012 July 1


Are private property rights necessary for freedom?  Libertarians and conservatives say that it is.  We say not.  

The greatest freedom is experienced by those who live where there is no ownership, no property at all: for example on the early American frontier.  In the wilderness, a person is free to walk on any land, cut any tree, build a cabin anywhere, grow or trap or fish or hunt food anywhere, and so on.  

What is ignored why those who assert that only property ownership provides freedom is that property confers power and hence freedom on some but it limits the freedom of others.  If you own the land, another person cannot walk on it, cut the trees, and so on.

Property rights are fine for those who have property.  The northern merchants and southern plantation owners who founded the United States owned property.  They used populist rhetoric to attract the non-propertied to their cause, and they created a set of rules which limited voting and therefore political power to the their propertied fellows.  However, their populist rhetoric backfired and resulted in extension of the voting franchise and thereby of some political power to the non-propertied.   

Property owners are still trying to reverse that outcome, rather successfully in the last few decades.  The freedom of those who own much property, now in the form of income-producing assets, to do whatever they want to the rest of us is expanding, while the freedom of the rest of us to earn a living wage, buy a home, afford health care or save enough for a dignified retirement is contracting.




In 2011 the median CEO salary in the U.S.  was $9.587 million: a minimum wage worker in the U.S. would have to work 636 years to make that much  - although a person making the national average salary would have to work only 244 years to achieve equality.

For more statistics about the wonders of our present system see:




As a retired employee of a California county, I will have to pay state income tax on my pension, no matter where I live, because the source is California.  A similar rule should apply to anyone who renounces his U.S. citizenship and moves out of the country, or who moves his money to a tax-shelter country, or who is a foreign citizen investing in U.S. securities or other assets: if the source of your income is the U.S., you pay U.S. tax on that income. 

It is ridiculous that someone who receives (say) a billion dollars in an Initial Public Offering (IPO) can avoid paying appropriate taxes on income whose source is American economic activity because he or she has moved out of the country.  Prohibiting such a person from returning to the U.S., as some have proposed, is a puny response: with a billion dollars, he can live high on the hog anywhere in the world.

[Note:  Eduardo Savarin, a founder of Facebook, made approximately $3.8 billion on the Facebook IPO and seems to have chosen to live in Singapore so that he would not have to pay capital gains taxes on his take.]




I was amused the other day when reading a well-known (American) libertarian philosopher who tries to provide a moral defense of capitalism by talking of the glories of a market economy.  Astonishingly he shares with the typical American the propaganda-induced idea that a market economy and capitalism are one and the same.

I own a home in New Mexico and receive my electricity from an electric co-operative.  There is a market in electricity in the area and I chose to acquire mine from a non-profit consumer co-op rather than from the competing large for-profit, i.e. capitalist, corporation. 

Anyone who thinks that markets and capitalism are identical should immediately trot down to their local credit union.




2012 June 1 

Do They Really Want Small Government?

Conservatives say, loudly and frequently, that the chief object of their heart’s desire is ‘small government’.  That simply isn’t so.

What about their support of huge military-industrial complex?  Of electronic surveillance of our communications and drone surveillance of our movements?  Of open-ended detention of suspects without due process and without a trial by peers?  Of government control of who we can marry, whether we bear children, and what reproductive health care is available?  Of huge federal budget deficits during the Reagan and Bush II presidencies? Aren't these "big government"?  Yet they are all supported without qualm by the right.

Conservatives don’t want small government.  They want a government that does not tax the wealthy - whose income is from capital gains, dividends and outrageous salaries - more than it taxes you and me.  A small government for them would not rein in the military-industrial complex, but it would eliminate the safety net for those of us who need one because of personal tragedies or nationwide economic crises.  In their eyes small government would not protect our health from polluters and from denial of care by greedy insurers.  Nor would a really small government for the conservative protect our homes and investments from frauds and economic crises caused by crooks in the mortgage industry and on Wall Street  - though it would enable the corrupting influence of big money on our elections and law-making. 


Gay Marriage and The Religious Right

There are no secular objections to contraception and to abortion.  Are all the objections to gay marriage also religious?  If a gay couple has children, however acquired, then I think there might be some secular worry about the effect on the children of not having parents of different sexes in the family.  (I think that the evidence shows, on the contrary, that there is not a significant effect on the children of same sex parents.) 

But that problem arises not about the marriage per se but about children.  Is there then any secular objection to the marriage status of same sex couples itself?  No. 

So once again all the flap about gay marriage arises only from a segment of the population – and it is not the religious segment as that is divided on the issue – which holds some ancient prescriptions about human sexuality.  Progressives, religious and secular, need to keep pointing that out since the media seems not to catch on.


Keep Them in Their Place!

Some who have the audacity to call themselves conservatives accuse liberals of wanting to keep the poor in a state of perpetual dependency.  Actually, it's the reverse.

Conservative opponents of programs to help the poor are trying to keep the poor in their place.  They prefer private charity, which keeps the poor dependent on the largesse of the more affluent.  They block efforts to increase the minimum wage or make it easier for employees to unionize, both of which reduce poverty among working people.  They fight against affordable housing outside of poor ghettos and against public transit to commute outside, both of which enable low-income people to access jobs.

They push school boards to prioritize college preparation, leaving the non-college-bound unprepared for work.  They steer college admission criteria and scholarships toward those with alumni parents, advanced high school credits and the highest SAT scores, i.e. to those who are usually those from affluent schools and families.  They would rather increase college costs than raise taxes on the wealthy and the affluent.  They even create obstacles to voting which disproportionately disadvantage low-income people.

Liberals, on the other hand, favor government policies which improve the lives, opportunities and political clout of the poorest members of our society. They want to lift up the poor so they won't continue to be dependent on the economic and political largesse of others.

Martin Luther King once said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara said: "When I feed the poor, they call me a saint, but when I ask why the poor are hungry, they call me acommunist."


The Undeserving Rich

Stretching back into Victorian times, the right has made a distinction between (what they call) the deserving poor and the undeserving poor.   What those phrases mean is not what they look to mean on the surface – the deserving poor are not the poor who deserve to be poor but are rather the poor who deserve outside assistance (charity is the chief means desired by the right) because their poverty is no fault of their own (think orphaned children left without family support.)  The undeserving poor are those who do not deserve help either by welfare assistance (poor relief as it used to be called) or even by charity: their poverty is their own fault (with very generous fault lines.)

Conservative rhetoric and policy-making these days tends to ignore the (so-called) deserving poor: every recipient of welfare assistance is a welfare queen, someone who is scamming the system.

There is a hole in our vocabulary:  the deserving rich and the undeserving rich are not categories we employ in public discourse.  Of course, were such terms to come into use they would not parallel the terms about the poor:  for the deserving rich would not be those in need of welfare assistance (though compare Tom Frank’s Pity the Poor Billionaires.)  Rather the conservative today talks as if all the rich deserve all their money while liberals have the suspicion that all the rich may be undeserving of that much of our economic resources.


Is the Government Stealing from the Economy?

Anti-government ideologues sometimes claim that money paid to the government in taxes and fees is being taken out of the private economy.  That's not true, because government spends what it receives and spends it here.  It doesn't invest much of it outside of the country: our foreign aid is around 1% of the Federal budget, and much of that is for foreign militaries to buy weapons we manufacture.  Our domestic budget and even most of our military budget are spent to buy equipment and supplies and to pay employees (in the case of the troops, most of it goes to their families at home).  This money enters our domestic economy the moment it's paid.

The money that’s really taken out of our economy consists of our trade deficit and foreign investments by American businesses and individuals.


Tax Cons Run by the 1% on the 99%

On this see a good piece by Paul Buchheit: http://www.commondreams.org/paul-buchheit



2012 May 1 

Working Less?

In the 1930’s, British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote an essay in which he advocated a shorter work-week, more holidays and longer vacations – thereby reducing the hours worked per year by each person – in order to spread the work around, eliminate unemployment, eliminate support of the unemployed by the employed, and those who have jobs more free time.

Why not?

We don’t live to work; we work to live.

Of course, that doesn’t deal with the issues of immigrant and imported labor, or of seniors who keep working because they can’t pay their bills from their Social Security and meager retirement, both of which occupy some of the available jobs.  Should we keep shortening the annual work-hours as the citizen and non-citizen workforce increases?  I don’t recall whether he said that employees’ annual pay could remain the same.  But we certainly can’t tolerate millions of unemployed and underemployed even during the statistically prosperous segment of the economic cycle.  Perhaps a lower consumption lifestyle throughout our life spans is necessary economically as well as environmentally, in order to facilitate full employment while spending less of our lives working.



It has been one of my themes here that a pair of American ideals are captured at the end of what all of us learn as children, the Pledge of Allegiance: “with liberty and justice for all”.  However, just because they are ideals doesn’t mean that they and we are in for smooth sailing: for often enough they (like other ideals) come into conflict.

And frequently enough we have to limit freedom in specific ways because some free acts do harm, are unfair, to another.  Your freedom to take my apple is blocked because of the unfairness to me of your doing so no matter what your size or income.

In their first speeches when it became clear who the two American presidential candidates would be, each appealed to one of those ideals.  One talked about freedom over and over, citing instances when the present administration encroached on freedom.  Of course, what was ignored was whether those limits placed on liberty were justified restraints in the interests of justice.  The current president talked about fairness, about giving everyone a fair shot.  He of course did not talk about how some people’s freedom to do as they wish must therefor be blocked in certain situations in order to ensure justice for all.

It would be wonderful to have this presidential campaign have an as explicit theme those American ideals and how and when they come into conflict.  It isn’t to be expected though.



The flap over whether hospitals owned and operated by religions, including those that oppose birth control, should be required to offer contraception services as part of the medical insurance for their employees reveals much incomprehension on the part of the religious institutions, the media and the broader public. 

For an example of that failure to grasp the issues see the following remarks from Father Paul Scalia, a parish priest in Virginia and son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.  Fr Scalia thinks that the analogy between the HSS requirement  and the case of Thomas More in the 16th century is “striking and instructive”: More was put to death by Henry VII for refusing to accept the King as head of the church in England.  The present American administration did not propose, not even remotely suggest, that it is head of the church. Again Scalia: “The crisis now before us between the bishops and the administration turns on the rights of the Church and the rights of man: the Church’s right of self-governance and the rights of individual conscience. Since the mandate is imposed not only on Catholic institutions, but on all providers of employee health insurance, the individual Catholic as private citizen will suffer the injustice of this law. Just as Thomas More was not left unoppressed, neither will the individual Catholic be today. He too can be made to violate his conscience by conformity to this ruling.”  That is a cousin of and as misguided as the idea that regulation of business activity is socialism. The possibility of a fine for failing to provide the contraception provision in insurance is said by Fr Scalia to be “In effect, a fee to be Catholic.”  Hogwash!

Fr Scalia, the protesting religious institutions and their friends fail (refuse?) to see that churches, by putting themselves in the marketplace by operating public hospitals, are removing themselves from the religious arena in which their religious views are protected speech and thought.  If those hospitals hire people not of their own religious persuasion, then they are engaging in market behavior and are to be governed by rules of the market-place.  And the rules are that there must be no discrimination on the basis of religious orientation – which is what denial of contraception coverage for their employees outside their religion amounts to. 

Moreover, as with all hospitals today those hospitals receive federal monies.  That makes them subject immediately to federal regulations.  To receive federal funds and yet to claim exemption from public rules on the grounds of religious belief would be to violate the principle of the separation of church and state.

To claim, as was so often done, that requiring the coverage would be an attack on religion shows a complete lack of comprehension of the nature of our system.  Of course, it might simply show that you can try to get away with whatever you can get away with without regard to political and moral principles.



We chuckle when Garrison Keillor tells us that all the children in Lake Wobegon are above average.  However, we fail to recognize the similar ridiculousness when we are told that all the teachers in our public schools should be great.  No one plans for an educational system in which the teachers are average.

Of course, an increase in salary and status (in this country those are nearly but not quite the same thing) would raise the average quality of teachers.  But then those who urge having only above average teachers don’t want to indulge in that straight-forward piece of improvement.  Of course, if that were done, teaching staffs would still mainly consist of average teachers.


2012 Apr 1 

Even if Science is Wrong About Global Warming

Those who oppose taking action to avoid or at least reduce global climate change fail to admit the advantages of doing so whether it’s necessary or not. 
Switching to clean renewable energy sources will reduce pollution of our air and water; this will reduce our expenditures for health care and – most important – will improve our health.  Reducing our use of oil enough to end our oil imports will reduce our vulnerability to unrest and anti-Americanism in the Middle East, Central Asia and other parts of the world.  We’ll be able to reduce our military presence there, save American lives, and use the financial savings to reduce the national budget deficit and to repair and upgrade our crumbling infrastructure.  Deepwater drilling and the eventual oil spills -- which ruin ecosystems, fishing and tourism -- will no longer be necessary.  Energy sources such as wind, sun, tides and waves are free fuel.  Once we convert, we won’t have to keep buying fuel.  In addition, their supply is inexhaustible and doesn’t become ever more difficult to reach, which can’t be said of oil or natural gas.  So even if the scientific consensus is wrong that climate change is occurring and that we’re contributing to it, we’ll still benefit from acting as if the consensus is right.
On the other hand, if we keep using fossil fuels and they add to climate change, we’ll be in really big trouble.  Rising ocean levels will inundate low-lying coastal areas in the USA and elsewhere.  Property will be lost; millions of refugees will need to be relocated.  Storms which are more violent and more frequent will destroy property and lives.  Changing weather patterns will disrupt farming, so farmers will be ruined, and food will become more scarce and more expensive.  More people will suffer from malnutrition and starvation.  Diseases and harmful species previously known only in tropical areas will become more widespread.  The reduction in mountain snowfall will reduce the supply of fresh water in many areas, such as here in California.  Fracking to unlock deposits of oil and natural gas will make tap water unusable in more places.  And we’ll continue to have the respiratory and other health problems which cost money and cause suffering and death.
We would be foolish not to act as if we believe that climate change is occurring, because we can’t afford to be wrong if it occurs.

Ayn Rand and Ethical Egoism

The great popular heroine of the libertarian movement Ayn Rand espoused a doctrine called Ethical Egoism. It is not to be confused with Psychological Egoism which is the idea that we humans do, as a matter of our nature, act only for our own self-interest. Ethical Egoism finds, along with many others, that of course we can do things not generated by self-interest – but it insists that what we are morally required to do is only what is good for ourselves. Other people don’t count morally. They of course may help or hinder us in our self-centered projects and so must be taken into account but not as having any moral standing themselves.

To call the doctrine ‘Ethical’ is madly mistaken. Egoism is to be contrasted with morality – the moral perspective requires that it is the good of others that must be taken into account when working out the right thing to do. The name ‘Ethical Egoism’ is an attempt to claim the moral high ground when in fact it is a denial of morality. It is not the moral ‘should’ in the thesis that we should pay attention only to number 1 – it is like the ‘should’ in ‘The shortstop should be playing more to his left’: the shortstop who does not position himself to his left is not failing morally but is failing to be effective. To claim that people should act only in their own self-interest is to urge people only to be more effective as egoistic agents.


Deep Confusion About ‘Government Handouts’

Susan Mettler (Cornell University) has conducted a study that reveals how confused the American public is about what a government program is.  It turns out that 44 percent of Social Security recipients report that they “have not used a government program”.  So too say 43 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits and 40 percent of those on Medicare.

These people must think that ‘government programs’ are directed to people other than themselves, specifically to the idle and undeserving poor.  Disliking such programs, they then condemn government generally ignoring the fact that they themselves are the beneficiaries of our social conscience. Through their confusion they put themselves in the pocket of the wealthy (the 1%) who have other (self-interested) reasons for condemning government.

Below is a graph of Mettler’s findings.


Mettler chart



2012 Mar 5 

Some memorable stats on Super PAC contributions:
In the previous two years a little less than 200 very rich people (think 1%) contributed about $90 million to Super PACs. Were you one of them?   
93% of itemized contributions to those Super PACs were in amounts of $10,000 or more. Can you afford that?  Can you even conceive of that? 
37 people gave $500,000 or more.  I suspect that you weren’t one of those 37 people.
Sheldon Adelson and wife by themselves gave $10,000,000 to a single Super PAC.
See: <http://www.demos.org/publication/auctioning-democracy-rise-super-pacs-and-2012-electionand <http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-01-25/adelson-s-10-million-pac-bet-gives-gingrich-boost-for-southern-primaries.html>


College admission practices include affirmative action for children of alumni, of major donors, and of parents who are affluent enough to pay for an SAT prep course or to live in an above-average school district.  Conservatives don’t object to these forms of affirmative action.  However, they object strenuously to affirmative action which finally gives a break to hard-working and capable children who have been denied equal opportunity all of their lives.  They even try to eliminate financial need as a pivotal criterion in awarding scholarships.  In college admissions, as in the economy, conservatives want to give more to those who already have more and block those who have less from getting more.  This is the basic attitude which underlies conservative positions on most issues.  It violates the moral teachings of every known religion.

A few issues ago I proposed that the Tea Party people think of themselves as William Wallace as depicted by Mel Gibson in Braveheart:  dying at the hands of the political authorities while shouting ‘Freedom!’.  My guess has been confirmed.  It turns out that during the end-of-the-year House debate on the deficit, several of the right-wing representatives fired themselves up by watching Braveheart in a conference room.  It was their equivalent of a locker room speech, a ‘Win one for the Gipper’ moment.  Of course they, like Wallace’s Scots, were slaughtered – but it was by vote not by sword.  See the Dana Milbank piece in the Washington Post:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/braveheart-republicans-or-false-hearted/2011/12/20/gIQA2Rxz7O_story.html

Nouriel Roubini -- who was the only one who predicted the current economic crisis -- and two of his colleagues representing different areas of expertise have prepared an in-depth analysis of its causes and a set of recommendations for resolving the mess in the short, intermediate and long term.  It's long but worth reading.  Since it's a pdf, you can easily save it and read it in sections if you wish.  See: http://growth.newamerica.net/sites/newamerica.net/files/policydocs/NAF--The_Way_Forward--Alpert_Hockett_Roubini.pdf

In the still developing response to the evils of the Citizen’s United decision most of the criticism has focused on the Corporations are Persons and the Money is Speech principles used by the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 vote) to justify its decision making unlimited money available to subvert democracy.  But recently much more attention has been paid to another aspect of the decision: the claim by the majority of the Court that a corporation that spends millions and millions of dollars to elect a candidate will not be a corrupting influence on the office-holder’s political positions.  The Five presented exactly no factual evidence to support that thesis: and common sense says that it is plainly false.


2012 Feb 4 


The terms "liberal" and "conservative" are no longer usefully descriptive in American politics, largely because self-defined conservatives are more liberal toward big business and wealthy individuals than so-called liberals are, and because liberals are trying to conserve nature and existing institutions that serve the 99% more than the so-called conservatives are.

"Progressive" and "regressive" are more accurate terms to characterize our major American political views.

Human progress has been marked by two interdependent trends: an increase in the standard of living and quality of life for the 99%, and their greater share in political power.  Persons who value these trends and want them to continue are progressives.  Those who want to stop or even reverse these trends are regressives: they support the re-concentration of wealth and power, a return to not long absent past.

Almost all of the differences in policy preferences between the left and right in US politics are related to this fundamental difference in values.



The formula Money is Speech is jargon that enables and encourages sloppy thinking.  In a money economy, money is a means to all kinds of things (even if not everything), including speech - one has to spend money to buy a stamp to mail a letter to the editor of the newspaper in order to exercise the right to speech.

The crucial thing is that the slogan has a corollary that is the root of the problem with the Supreme Court decision.  If Money is Speech, then it follows that the more Money you have the more Speech you are entitled to.  That is not the principle of a democracy but of a plutocracy:  the rich are entitled to more speech than the rest of us (and we, simply in virtue of our wealth, are entitled to more speech than the guy living in the LA Mission.)  Now it may be that as a matter of fact in a society marked by inequality of monetary resources, those with more will have greater opportunities to speak than those with less.  But that is a factual matter.  What the Supreme Court has done is to erect as a matter of principle the foundation of a plutocratic political order.  Those of us committed to democracy, and that includes the Constitution, will find the Court’s principle abhorrent. 



There are those who say they support the exercise of the free speech rights of the Occupy folks, but they cannot support the encampments.   These supporters of free speech are either blind or hypocritical.  The key point is that it is called the “Occupy” movement precisely because they are NOT simply marching in a demonstration with signs and speeches, but are making a political statement by the act of staying 24/7 and occupying the space in this on-going manner. It is precisely this act of “occupying” that is the political expression of the seriousness of their concerns and commitment.

The Boston Tea Party is remembered not because it was a demonstration, but because of the political act of throwing the tea into the harbor.  During the Vietnam anti-war protests, it was the political act of burning the American flag that was the form of political speech that expressed the degree of outrage felt by the demonstrators: the Supreme Court understood and upheld their right to burn the flag as a form of political speech. This time, it is precisely the act of erecting tents and staying in one place 24/7, giving up their daily routines to stay, eat, sleep and talk to people that IS the form of political speech.

To say that one upholds their right to free speech, and to then deny them the form they have chosen for that speech is in fact to deny their right to that speech.  

Does anyone doubt that it is precisely this form of speech, the very act of “occupying” that caught the attention of the American public, the media and the political system – and that spread from Wall Street to more than 1400 cities across this nation, and to many other nations as well?  The “occupation”, the encampment itself, is the act of free speech.



Those around the country who assiduously watch Fox News are echoing the recent statements by Republican candidates for President, claiming that the 99% - 1% rhetoric and the demands for higher taxes on the rich and more regulation of corporations and banks are all simply expressions of envy and evidence of lazy self-indulgence by the middle class and the poor in not becoming rich themselves.  

Aside from the patent absurdity of this position, it must be pointed out that many of the rich got rich by bribing (some call it lobbying and making campaign contributions) members of government to secure unfair advantages in the form of discriminatory low tax rates and tax breaks, and to secure or avoid regulations that allow them to gain their riches by damaging the interests of the 99%.  They also got rich in part by using the infrastructure, the roads, bridges, airports, courts, schools and universities that the 99% paid to build, establish and maintain.

We in the 99% are not envious of the 1%’s wealth, and are not seeking the end of capitalism.  We are objecting to the corruption of the political and of the economic processes that too many in the 1% and too many banks and corporations regularly use to attain their wealth and power – and to prevent others from moving up the economic ladder. To attempt to trivialize our objections by talking about it as simply envy is to attempt to preserve a system that has now resulted in the U.S. having less equality of opportunity and less possibility of upward mobility than many other nations – according to a whole series of recent studies.  These 1%ers and corporations, and their defenders and supporters, are the ones who are destroying the fabric of American society and its goal, not of equal distribution of wealth, but of equal opportunity – which once was, but no longer is, the hallmark of America.



Talk of creative destruction is flying around these days in the wake of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign.  His firm, Bain Capital, engaged in creative destruction and he is proud of it.

I suspect that he and those who are chiming in on the side of creative destruction do not realize that the notion was Marx’s (we progressive’s, however, will not thereby call them Marxists as they would were the shoe on the other foot).  It was Joseph Schumpeter who invented the term while working out Marx’s notion – and Schumpeter, like Marx, thought that it indulging in it would lead to the demise of capitalism.  It is to be expected that those on the right do not attend to that feature of Schumpeter’s argument.



2012 Jan 4 


Try this:  imagine writing an intelligent letter on some topic of current interest to your elected representative; then imagine writing a letter expressing somewhat more crudely a contrary view but enclosing a $5000 check designated for the representative’s campaign fund.  Ask:  which of the two will have the most impact, which is the more powerful speech from the representative’s point of view?  Money is not speech: it is (among other things) a means of getting attention to speech.



Having epiphanies is not a frequent occurrence so it should be reported that Naomi Klein’s piece on global warming in The Nation (a precursor to a book) has had that effect on me.  For long I have simply said that the conservative denial of global warming is plain irrational.  But Klein made me see that their view is an (partly) intelligible mixture of reason and madness.  She holds that what the conservatives see, more clearly than progressives, is that if the earth is warming as the scientists and liberals say it is and if we must therefore act to slow it (or whatever is possible), one of the rational consequences is that the very ideology of  contemporary conservativism must go out the window.  Acting to stop/slow global warming will requite a massive revision of our economic system and a corresponding large increase in government intervention in our economic lives.  The conservative is thus caught between the case for global warming and their entire outlook. The irrationality comes in because they choose the ideology and thus are forced to deny the undeniable, the facts.



Until now, all of the discussions abut reducing the Federal deficit by raising revenue have focused on taxing incomes and maybe financial transactions, but not about taxing wealth.  It shouldn’t be off the table.  When we tax real estate at the state and local level, we are taxing one type of wealth.  Other types shouldn’t be exempt.  Real estate taxes pay for the services which presumably benefit the owners of those properties. Well, the owners of businesses and of financial assets benefit from many public services, too, such as national defense, law enforcement, education, infrastructure, and laws which protect property ownership and contractual obligations. Therefore, it’s perfectly legitimate to have a property tax on forms of wealth other than real estate.  Actually, the fact that real property is taxed while most other forms of property aren’t is a leftover from earlier times in which real property was the primary form of wealth and source of production.  That ended with the industrial revolution.  Now it's the ownership of businesses and financial assets.  The system of taxaion needs to catch up with economic realities.



"There is absolutely nothing to be said for government by a plutocracy, for government by men very powerful in certain lines and gifted with 'a money touch,' but with ideals which in their essence are merely those of so many glorified pawnbrokers:"

TR  (The TR)


2011 Dec 4 


In the 1960’s a colleague of mine gave a student’s paper in an introductory philosophy class an F.  The student came in to protest the grade.  His justification for why the paper did not deserve an F:  the thoughts were his.  It had not crossed his mind that the grade was to be based on the quality of the ideas, arguments and presentation.  Authenticity ruled!

Our current tea-baggers are the descendants of that student, of the spirit of the ‘60’s (as much as they would hate to see those students as their ancestors.)  Their protests are fervent, heart-felt.  They are being authentic in what they say and feel and admire political figures (Bachmann, Cain, Perry) who say what looks to be authentically their own.  The idea that thought, effort, and self-criticism are necessary to produce good political ideas has not crossed their minds.

Moreover, the thoughts really aren’t their own.  They fail to see that the movement is bankrolled by very very wealthy people who have been spreading these supposedly new ideas since the FDR era.  The money-bags of the movement do not care a fig about the well-being of those shouting most loudly.  They, in their drive for authenticity and lack of interest in thought, are being taken for a ride by an economic elite who are interested only in a political system that furthers their own well-being. 

Again in the ‘60’s, my department had a holiday party at which a graduate student slipped in, then out and left a dish of brownies – spiked of course with pot. The ensuing antics at the party were to say the least disjointed.  The tea-party movement is not like a typical tea-party but rather like what happened to the unsuspecting pot-consuming party-goers:  incoherent thought produced not by themselves but by someone who stayed well away from the mischief.



During the Great Depression President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put young people to work.  Let's have a new CCC to install solar and wind generators all over the country -- on homes, offices and factories as well as in wind and solar farms -- and to upgrade the grid to manage it.

This will create jobs, train young people in practical and transferable skills, reduce utility bills, avoid fossil fuel pollution of our water table, reduce illnesses and health care costs and global warming due to emissions, cut or eliminate our oil imports, reduce our trade deficit, enable us to extricate our country from military involvement in foreign oil producing countries and (from all of this) rescue our economy now and fight climate change which can destroy our economy in the future.

George Lakoff says that we progressives need a "narrative" to counter the supposedly conservative narrative that demonizes government and taxes.  This proposal hangs together as a complete story, not a collection of disparate and seemingly unrelated bits.  The public will understand it and approve of it, and the benefits will be enormous.

Our government should sell special "Recovery Bonds" to fund this effort.  Financial institutions, individual investors and others who support the plan or simply want a safe investment will buy those bonds.



It is often said that one of the beauties of capitalism is that moral considerations (are to) play no part in the decisions of the firm (nor for those of the consumer.)  But that is precisely what makes it imperative that businesses be subject to regulations.  Without regulations, capitalist firms are like a sociopath in the body social. 



An economy needs both capital and consumption, but not too much or too little of either.  With not enough capital in proportion to consumption, there will be shortages and price inflation, plus failure to increase productivity and to introduce new inventions.  With too much capital vis-a-vis consumption, ordinary commerce will not produce good enough profits, and capital will seek better returns in speculation, leading to bubbles and crashes, which destroy jobs as well as savings.  An excess of capital self-corrects only through crashes that destroy some of that capital but also reduce consumption; thus they are ineffective in restoring a balanced and vibrant economy.  An excess of consumption, however, self-corrects by increasing business revenues and profits, which provide new capital.  The new capital is then available to increase and improve the provision of goods and services, thus possibly restoring the balance without doing further harm, as long as the additional capital is put to work creating jobs (admittedly a big "if" when jobs are being offshored).  We should fear an economy in which the capitalists receive too large a piece of the pie, but not one in which they receive too small a piece.  The former will not self-correct in a benign manner, but the latter can.



2011 Oct 30 


During a recent interview, when asked about the Supreme Court's recent decision that campaign expenditures are speech, retired Justice John Paul Stevens said: "Campaign expenditures pay for all kinds of things that are not speech, like polls and travel.  By that theory, the Watergate burglary was a campaign expenditure and therefore was speech. That example exposes how the argument is flawed.

L.A. Times, October 9, 2011


Elizabeth Warren – mark that name; she is already being touted as the prime Democratic candidate for 2016 - vigorously set out a fundamental piece of progressive outlook  and did so in a memorable fashion. What she had to say is a litmus test for being a progressive.

“I hear all this, you know, ‘Well, this is class warfare, this is whatever. No. There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.
“You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.
“Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

She clearly hit a nerve.  For speaking the truth she has been vilified by major conservative pundits:  Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Jonah Goldberg.  For an excellent critical analysis of Will’s attack on her and thus on the progressive outlook see E.J. Dionne’s Refuting Straw Liberals.



Those living near our southern border are likely to have encountered the welcoming saying ‘Mi casa es su casa’ (to those without simple Spanish ‘My house is your house’.)  The motto has a place in our politics, even if its authors and promoters do not notice it.  Liberals apply ‘Mi casa es su casa’ to all Americans (not so enthusiastically to the rich among us) and even more broadly to those who have made their way into our lives (and often into our actual casas) without benefit of legal recognition:  see support for the Dream Act.  Conservatives are appalled by that.  Their chief fear is that the poor of the earth have listened to the liberals and adopted a variant of the slogan, namely ‘Su casa es mi casa’.  So the conservative hangs outside his political door the plaque ‘Mi casa is MI casa’.



Today’s conservative simply does not understand what people want. The protesters on Wall Street, to the conservative imagination, have no interest in the well-being of the country, are not motivated by the recognition that the high-flyers on Wall Street deeply damaged not just the US economy but the world’s and did so out of greed, seeking nothing more than their own personal (monetary) interest.   Not being able to see someone with motives other than their own, they attribute that outlook to the protesters.  They are protesting out of greed, the desire to have what the banksters have.  So Herman Cain:  the OWS crowd are “jealous Americans”, people who have not succeeded in the Great American Game and so are “playing the victim card” and, get this, people who want to “take somebody else’s Cadillac”!

For the right, the protest is founded on nothing more than the principle: Su Cadillac es mi Cadillac.

(See  http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-cain-occupy-wall-street-20111009,0,972806.story )



We Americans have often proclaimed that the purpose of government is to protect "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", as first stated in our Declaration of Independence.  Studies have shown that poverty decreases happiness, but that wealth beyond what's necessary to provide comfort does not increase happiness.  We may reasonably conclude that the pursuit of happiness requires using the powers of government to prevent poverty rather than to promote the accumulation of wealth.  In fact, the possession of wealth is an obstacle to the pursuit of happiness when it exists side-by-side with poverty and when a reduction of the imbalance would decrease poverty.



2011 Sept 23 


The right-wing is always complaining of government ‘handouts’.  The phrase conjures up the picture of slipping a dime (or a buck on generous days) into the hand of the guy on the corner.  The conservative, though, slips the word and the picture into criticism of the government for handing out (his) money to the undeserving (poor).

However where do the big time government handouts go?  The Pentagon is the handout king – and favored companies and corporations (down at the heels fellows, struggling to get by) are the recipients. 

Any Goodman:  “Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s use of no-bid contracts has tripled since the United States was attacked on 9/11, in spite of promises to reform the controversial practice.  According to a new investigative report from the Center for Public Integrity, no-bid spending has ballooned from $50 billion in 2003 to $140- billion in 2011.”  Now that’s really handing it out, slipping the undeserving the odd billion.

For much more on the practice see:  http://www.democracynow.org/2011/9/2/


Jered Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels recently signed a five year contract extension for $85 million.  He could have got a lot more by going into free agency and taking what the market would give him.  (Neo-classical economics of course rates him as irrational for that decision.) 

Part of his reason is worth noting:  “If $85 million is not enough to take care of my family and other generations of families [note that] then I’m pretty stupid [i.e. irrational], but how much money do you really need in life?”

Would that the Wall Streeters learn to ask themselves how much they really need in life! 

If they can’t ask that and decide properly, i.e. within the bounds of common sense, then it is up to the rest of us, though government action and tax policy, to see that the question is correctly answered.

On the other hand, even if he poses the right question, Weaver will after all be getting $85 million over those 5 years – most people have to do with a very great deal less over the course of their entire lives.  How much do they really need?


When I reached the age of puberty, I discovered that I was attracted to females.  I didn’t decide; I discovered.

When gays and lesbians say that they “discovered” who they are – meaning who is attractive to them – I believe them, because that’s the way it works for heterosexuals as well.

This isn’t a lifestyle choice; it’s an inherent (God-given, if you’re a believer) trait.

A long time ago, left-handed people were considered immoral.  “Sinister” is the Latin word for left.  Lefties are a small minority, as are homosexuals.

Some people are ambidextrous: they favor both hands.  That’s analogous to being bisexual in the gender preference context.  These are an even smaller minority.

Hand preference and gender preference are traits with which people are born.  They should not suffer discrimination because of these birth characteristics, any more than because of gender, race or ethnicity


The conservatives’ response to Warren Buffett’s reminder that he and the other rich (especially the super-rich) are being under-taxed:  well then, freely send the IRS the money you think you should be paying in taxes.

Once again conservatives fail to engage the progressive view of taxes and consequently of living in a modern democracy.   In a democracy, the willingness to pay taxes is a recognition of being a member of a civilized social order.  To (only) make charitable contributions to government would be to treat oneself as the a completely self-contained being who has no moral and social responsibilities to anyone other than oneself.

The narcissism of the conservative view is astounding.


2011 Aug 23 

Unemployment Insurance: Who Should Pay?
The funding mechanism for our unemployment insurance system may have made sense before the economy became globalized, but it's self-defeating now.

When companies lay off American employees, they are charged for the unemployment benefits that those former employees then receive. Because of the boom-and-bust economic cycle, companies that use American employees but have to reduce staffing during recessions cannot avoid this charge at just the time when their finances are usually at low ebb. However, we don't charge companies for hiring foreign workers in lieu of American workers, although they thereby contribute to unemployment ongoing. This system penalizes companies for hiring Americans.

It would be better to change the system so that companies -- both US and foreign -- which offshore their production pay into the unemployment insurance fund. Perhaps base the payment on the difference between their revenue in the US and their American payroll, including their current payments for employees' health insurance and retirement benefits.

I'm not an economic nationalist, seeking to benefit the US economically at the expense of foreign countries. Instead, I expect that impoverishing American workers will harm not only Americans but also the foreigners who depend on America's appetite for imported goods. If American consumers decline economically faster than the poor countries' consumers can replace our demand, the whole house of cards will collapse. However, if Americans remain prosperous, we can continue to buy from the rest of the world and lift others out of poverty. The creation of jobs in poor countries may be slower than if we eliminated more of those jobs in America, but it will be more certain and will last longer.

Liberty and Justice
We Americans all have learned the Pledge of Allegiance with its rousing final words “with liberty and justice for all”. Focusing on those words is one, only one, way of understanding the nature of the current tea party outburst.

For the tea party folk and their organizational and individual fellow travelers, those words from the Pledge should be rewritten to say only “with liberty for all.” If you listen carefully enough – and sometimes not much care is needed – you will hear that the only value the TP bunch has is liberty, freedom. They like to imagine themselves as William Wallace at the end of Braveheart as he is disemboweled by the English: shouting ‘Freedom! Freedom!’ Hear their speeches and read their writings: the old American ideal of justice for all is never mentioned.

Are we being had?
Electoral politics is important in the natural order, but when winning the next election become more important than the safety and well being of the nation, politics will have driven us over the cliff’s edge. And that is where we may be today. When John Boehner says that the most important agenda for the Republican Party is to insure that Obama is a one term President, political skullduggery has trumped the economic survival of the nation.

Perhaps the major reasons why the current manufactured debt cap debacle is not being solved is because the Republicans do not want it solved, and will do anything possible to see it stays unresolved. It is to their advantage to see that the argument is reignited a year from now–prior to the 2012 election. This paired with a lack of serious interest in getting us through the economic pit which has us bogged down, makes the chances of a Republican victory next Fall very likely. Solving either problem may be a death wish to Boehner’s goal.

If solving the current problems is good for the country it may be bad for the Republicans. The strategy therefore, seems to be to let these critical issues drags on, crippling even further the economy and providing an additional weapon to use against the President. If the GOP won’t let it be solved, that means they have ammunition to use against an Administration that cannot solve it without their serious negotiated support. Here may be one of the most cynical political ploys in all American history. I wonder what it will take for the American people to wake up and realize we have been had?

You the Master
As you read the following from Ludwig von Mises, that unbending advocate of the free market, seriously ask yourself whether you feel that you have the power and the mastery that he ascribes to us as consumers.

“In [a market economy] the entrepreneurs and capitalists are the servants of the consumers. The consumers are the masters, to whose whims the entrepreneurs and capitalists must adjust their investments and methods of production. “ (von Mises, Omnipotent Government, pp. 49-50)

Forget the Koch brothers and other billionaires: take a somewhat smaller target. When you walk into your bank, say Bank of America, you do act, think and feel as if that branch of the B of A is your servant, that your whims will cause them to bend to your will? Or take something even less grand, say your local shoe repair store: does it cater to your every desire? Does the owner promise you everything and wake up in an anxious sweat if it looks as if the promise might not be fulfilled?

The libertarian free-marketeer defends a piece of propaganda in the slogan ‘The consumer is king’. It is generated by sliding from a bit of economic theory (applicable to an economy where the capitalists are small scale and have no power) to a description in terms of human life. The libertarian loves the theory – progressives think of what life is actually like.


2011 June 25 

It is difficult to contradict oneself within the space of two sentences but Grover Norquist, in his best known remark, has done so.   "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”  If one wants to drown government in the tub that certainly seems to be getting rid of it.  However, that contradicts his first sentence where he says he doesn’t want to rid us of the ‘evil’.

Marx, Engels and Lenin spoke of “the withering of the state”.   When the proletariat were well entrenched in power and the slogan ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his need’ was fully operational, the state would fade from existence.  Norquist, a hero to the right, cannot wait for the state to wither in some fuzzily distant future:  it must be put out of its miserable existence pronto.

The World Turned Topsy-Turvy
There is an American myth that says wealth is generated by hard work. Of course some is.  But the larger truth is that most big wealth is generated, not by hard work, but by already existing big wealth.  Money breeds money!  If work did it, coal miners would be rich and bond holders and hedge fund operators would be insisting on a raise in the nation’s minimum wage.

Requiring Health Insurance
In 1994 Kentucky (in those pre-Rand Paul days that state must have had some sense) required insurance companies to insure anyone without regard to pre-existing conditions, as our new Health Care Act does.  But the Kentucky law did not require anyone to purchase insurance (the ‘mandate’).  As a consequence, many Kentuckians waited until they needed medical treatment, then purchased insurance – a variant form of free riding.  As a result, insurance costs rose so much that insurers dropped out of the Kentucky market and the state was forced to repeal the law.  

Massachusetts on the other hand (good ole Mitt Romney) instituted both the provision that everyone in Massachusetts is insurable no matter what their antecedent medical condition and the mandate.   As a consequence, insurance premiums there have dropped 40% at the same time as the national average has gone up 14%.  
Huge cheers for the mandate.

The Washington Taliban
The Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited some of that country’s cultural treasures, the enormous 6th century Buddhas carved from the cliffs in the Bamiyan valley. 

The conservative contingent in the current House of Representatives is the American Taliban:  they want to destroy (among other things) NPR and PBS, American cultural treasures.  They don’t use dynamite:  eliminating federal funding is their preferred method.

Fundamentalists world-wide are alike.

2011 May 14 

Cost of Free Riding
Health care free riders do not have insurance and use emergency rooms for service.  Since hospitals must treat people who appear on their doorstep but get only about 10% reimbursement for what it costs them to treat the uninsured, the rest of us pick up the tab for the treatment in higher taxes and/or in higher fees for our own medical treatment.
So much has long been known.  However, there is now a more precise and memorable number for how much medical free riders cost the rest of us.  The Congressional Budget Office   has estimated that in 2008 the uninsured shifted $43,000,000,000 (that is, $43 billion) worth of treatment costs to the insured.
Those who are calling for the repeal of the Health Care Act are either free riders or idiots defending free riding.  

The 2011 Budget
The House of Representatives has made a timid effort to peel an infinitesimal slice of skin from the whale-sized problem in its 2011 spending bill.  But behind the unpaid for wars, what are they continuing to budget each year without a blink?
11 billion  Estate taxes for millionaires.
9 billion    Mortgage interest for vacation homes.
6 billion    The cost of estate planning.
4 billion    Tax breaks for offshore operation of US companies.
2 billion    Write-offs for oil companies in drilling subsidies.
2 billion    Ethanol fuel tax subsidies.
2 billion    Tax loopholes for hedge fund managers.
And the list goes on.
And what do they want to cut?
11 billion  Early childhood development.
9 billion    Low income housing programs.
7 billion    Nutrition for low-income families including (WIC).
6 Billion    Teacher training and afterschool programs.
4 billion    Job training for the unemployed.
2 billion    Energy assistance for the poor.
2 billion    Community health centers.
2 billion    Homeless assistance grants.
And the list goes on.
Congress is playing around with peanuts when the huge reasons for the debt come from unpaid war expenses and a healthcare system whose costs are far in excess of those nations with fiscally responsible universal programs.  Sanity, not the scoring of political points, is a path unlikely to be taken by a House of Representative knee deep in tea bags.

Two Birds with One Stone
As our nation's founders protected firearms ownership in order to have well-regulated militias, all persons who possess firearms should be required by law to join the local troop of their state's National Guard and comply with its rules.  Since this would fill the ranks quite easily, there would be no need to pay more than a nominal amount for attendance. Most of them would belong to the political faction which would happily patrol the border with Mexico.  That would get them and their guns off our streets.