Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Playing chicken

"We bombed Hiroshima, we bombed Nagasaki, and we nuked far more than the thousands in New York and the Pentagon, and we never batted an eye... and now we are indignant, because the stuff we have done overseas is now brought back into our own front yards. America's chickens are coming home to roost." I never understood why this quote from Rev. Jeremiah Wright was so controversial. With somewhere around 120,000 civilian deaths in Iraq; 16,000 in Afghanistan; hundreds more in drone strikes over Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia; and a total of over 10 million foreign deaths as a direct result of U.S. military and economic interventions since those nuclear blasts in Japan, it’s totally understandable that there could be people out there who want to kill us.

Certainly, many of these interventions may have been justifiable, and could well have prevented further loss of life; but when it’s your son, your daughter, your father, your husband, your brother, your sister, your wife or your mother that you bury, it’s mighty hard not to sense some desire for revenge. And 10 million deaths add up to a lot of repressed vengeance; sooner or later, some of it is bound to be released—or, as the Rev. Wright put it—some of our chickens are going to come home to roost.

It doesn’t make it right. But neither does our rationale make the death of other innocents right.

So how do we make it right? We can play a childish game of tit-for-tat all we like, but this is never going to stop until someone is big enough to admit they’ve done some wrong. If we’re big enough to take on the role of global police, then it could be that we’re big enough to take on the role of global peacemaker. If we don’t do it, who will?

But how? And how can we expect others to follow our lead? And won’t this make us look weak?

While answers to questions like these may be hard to find, one thing is certain: it won’t be easy. Others won’t follow our lead: the seeds of vengeance have already been planted and will continue to spread—for a while. Some may well see us as weak, while others will respect us for our resilience.

But how?

Here are just a few suggestions that could send the message we’re making an effort:

1.       Take the lead from 12-step programs. Acknowledge that we have an addiction to military muscle (we’re responsible for 39% of the world’s military spending—as much as the next 11 biggest spenders combined—which looks like an addiction from where I sit). Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Note the word ‘fearless’. Even if others don’t recognize the courage it takes to do this, we can. We don’t need to be apologists; we just need to be fearless. Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all. Ten million deaths, many more injuries, and everyone else affected by them, adds up to a lot of people, but we could at least identify groups of people. Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others (including ourselves, of course). This is where the hardest, richest and most rewarding work really begins. It worked with the Marshall Plan and the Japanese post-war economic miracle, so it can work again. Continue to take personal inventory, and when we are wrong, promptly admit it. Notice how counter these steps are to current diplomatic methods, or even to our instincts? Notice how much success A.A. and its sister programs have had? There could just be something to this.

2.       Close Guantánamo. This would be a huge statement. If reading Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel’s description of his experience in the hunger strike at Guantánamo doesn’t stir some sympathy in you, it’s probably time you asked yourself when you lost your humanity, and how that is serving you. In short, the torture hasn’t stopped. Even without the force-feeding and the beatings; 11 years of confinement without trial, with limited outside contact, and with no clear end in sight is torture enough. Try putting yourself in such a position. Even on death row, you know what’s coming and why you’re there. Two days after his inauguration—on January 22nd, 2009—President Obama signed an executive order to close Gitmo. More than four years later, it still holds over 160 prisoners, many of whom have been cleared for transfer. Certainly, there have been many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to doing this, but we need to find ways to overcome them. This one action alone would show that we’re making an effort to change the way we’re seen in the world.

3.       Stop profiling. The Muslim world could be forgiven for believing we are closet racists. While the abovementioned prisoners languish in suffocating conditions in Cuba as untried ‘enemy combatants’, we rarely, if ever, treat other terrorists the same way. Ted Kaczynski, Timothy McVeigh, Joe Stack, Eric Rudolph and Wade Michael Page all belong to an extensive list of domestic terrorists who were each responsible for at least as much destruction as the Tsarnaev brothers, and all were either tried in civilian courts or died before that option was possible. Yet the moment Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—a U.S. citizen—was identified as a foreign-born Muslim, many pundits and politicians were calling for him to be tried as—you guessed it—an enemy combatant. Meanwhile, former informant Craig Monteilh tells us the FBI’s anti-terrorism strategy “is all about entrapment”. While we maintain such double standards, we make ourselves look both fearful and xenophobic to the very types of people we target (read: Muslims). And while we target them, they will target us—and we happen to be a very big, stationary target—which makes us pretty easy to hit.

4.       Get out of other countries’ business. At least where we can. Drone strikes and similar operations—both overt and covert—do us few favors overseas. We can never hope to kill every last remaining potential terrorist, and our attempts to do so will only encourage more. If we know where these people are, we know how to keep an eye on them. Let’s trust our ability to do that, while investing more in diplomacy and nation building, and less in weapons of mass destruction. Give the insurgency inciters as little to feed on as possible.

5.       Wear it. While law enforcement does an excellent job at preventing the bulk of terrorist attacks on American soil, every now and then another Tsarnaev will slip through the net. It’s inevitable. When it does happen, we need to stand tall and respond without malice or fear, as has largely happened in the wake of the Boston bombing. The more we are able to do this, the easier it will be for the world to see that terrorism is one strategy that will never work on us.

6.       Talk. These incidents—no matter how misguided—happen for a reason. What is that reason? Stopping for a moment to ask is always a good idea. We may not like what we hear, but we can still listen and take in what is relevant. As Jane Goodall has said, “Change happens by listening and then starting a dialogue with the people who are doing something you don't believe is right.” At no point can we agree that people attacking us is right. At every point we should ask why.

I recall a bumper sticker that said we are making enemies faster than we can kill them. We can reverse that trend. The ideas here are not new, nor are they comprehensive. But we need to start somewhere, anywhere—for the sake of our peace of mind, for our country, for our children, and for the families and friends of all the people this country has touched for better or for worse—and in this increasingly global environment, that’s nearly everyone (and mostly for the better!).

Because, until we do take the lead on peacemaking, we’ll just be playing chicken.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Bangladesh & Mrs Jones

With over 300 people dead in a collapsed sweatshop in Bangladesh, plus a string of earlier incidents—including 111 in a fire in November—is it time we started asking what part we play in these accidents?

How could we play a part? We’re on the other side of the world.

What are you wearing? Do you know where it came from? Did you pay what it was worth? Or are you like me, a little strapped for cash and therefore looking out for a good deal? Even if you’re not short of moolah, you still know a good price when you see one. It’s human nature: bargains are hard to pass up.

It’s also a foundation of capitalism: the best price often wins.

But what about the hundreds of people who just died giving us great prices? Even before they died, they worked in terrible conditions for pay just above the squalor line. If this was your neighbor, would you allow it to happen? If it was a relative, what would you do to stop it? They’re so far removed from us, yet as this world becomes more globalized, we are all becoming neighbors. And whether you believe in Adam and Eve or Lucy, we are all somehow related. So where is the line? Three doors down and second cousin? Different nationality and different color? Somewhere in between? We all have a line, and that is the point at which our humanity is replaced by our self-interest.

Can this line be blurred? Can we wipe it out completely? Is there a way to see our place in the world differently? Every time a disaster of this magnitude comes to our attention, it gives us pause. We go to a place—if only for a moment—where we feel sympathy for a distant fellow human being. And then we get in our car and drive to Walmart and shop ourselves back into unconsciousness. It is so hard to connect their suffering to our behavior. We didn’t build the sweatshop. We didn’t negotiate the contract. We didn’t know what their working conditions were like. We didn’t do it. But boy, did we get a deal on that sweater.

There are many sides to every transaction. We see some of them (great price, how do they make a profit?) and are blinded to most of them. How do we open our eyes? How do we see the true cost of our actions? All we have to compare with are the people around us—the Joneses—and keeping up with them becomes a central focus of our reality. Immediacy trumps dissociation every time, and the only time Bangladeshi sweatshops emerge into immediacy is when disaster strikes and a pang of empathy erupts. Then, very quickly, Made in Bangladesh once again means only that it’s cheap.

So what do we do? Do we accept personal responsibility for this tragedy? Do we blame the importers? The retailers? The factory owners? The factory’s builder? The officials that watched it go up without a permit? Do we put it down to globalization? To capitalism? Every one of these is a factor in all this suffering: hundreds dead, hundreds wounded, hundreds of families experiencing loss with little compensation. And every one of us is in a position to deflect responsibility to one of the other parties.

Is that who we are? Is that what being human is all about? Can we simply be reduced to seven billion egocentric organisms? Or is there a way to see us as one organism with seven billion parts? If we are the latter, then we just received a stab wound from the sudden loss of 300 significant elements. How many more self-inflicted wounds do we need to subject ourselves to before we recognize that we’re suffering from a self-harming disorder?

According to the Credit Suisse Research Institute, global wealth is sitting at over USD 50,000 per adult. Surely that’s enough? There is enough to go around. But while I have the mentality that I need much more than I really do, and while I value my success more than someone else’s existence, there will never be enough for many. We are seeing this play out here in the US, as income inequality approaches the extremes of the ‘20s; those who are best at getting more for themselves are doing so at the expense of those who don’t have the same skills. And while this kind of thinking pervades economic rationale this will continue to happen—at least until the system implodes under its own weight as it did in 1929.

Our whole economic system depends on factories like that one in Bangladesh. It needs cheap labor and cheap means of production. It’s been happening since the Dickensian age. The industrial revolution required a minor revolution in thinking: the serfs who served nobility were now required to serve industry. Globalization just helps keep the serfs out of sight, out of mind, in collapsing factories in countries like Bangladesh, while we—the nobility—preoccupy ourselves with the Joneses and all the things we don’t yet have.

Until we’re ready for a real revolution in thinking, we’ll have blood on our hands every time we seek a bargain. But don’t worry, there’s always someone else to blame.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Minnesota Welfare Drug Testing Debate Prompts House Members To Vote For Testing Themselves

As drug testing bills aimed at the poor and jobless have entered several state legislatures this year, one group of lawmakers decided Monday to extend the idea to themselves.

The Associated Press reports that the Minnesota House was immersed in a long-winding debate on how to finance the state's upcoming health and human services budget. Among the 87 amendments on the table was drug testing for welfare recipients, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune adds.

According to the AP, after a Republican made that proposal, one Democrat suggested House members be part of that process, moving for salary and benefits to be tied to successful completion of a drug test. GOP members did not balk at that bet, with a House majority voting to add both measures to the larger $7 billion bill that was passed, 70-64.

"Bring on the cup," state Rep. Duane Quam (R-Byron) told the AP. "I have nothing to fear."

As of April 11, HuffPost reported that North Dakota, Wyoming, Maine, Washington, Virginia, New Hampshire, Kansas, Texas and Arkansas had all proposed various drug testing bills. Among the more successful efforts: Texas' state Senate passing legislation that called for welfare applicants to undergo screening, the AP reported. Arkansas' state Senate also moved forward a bill on April 8 that would institute drug testing for individuals seeking state unemployment benefits, Reuters reported.

Courtesy of The Huffington Post

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

'Manatee' grey, eh? Plus-size dress draws ire

Well, that is awkward. Imagine you are shopping online at Target (this is not hard to imagine, because if you are like most people who love comfy clothes and money, shopping online at Target is a regular activity). You spot a very breezy looking cotton maxi dress available in an array of colors. If you are a standard size, you may select this heavenly garment in "Dark Heather Grey." If you are plus-sized, your greyscale counterpart is labeled..."Manatee Grey."

Manatee. As in, sea cow. Cuddly marine mammal. Unfortunate, slow-moving boat fodder.

One Twitter user called out this puzzling discrepancy:
It isn't hard to assume the worst here. In the cruel world of free association, perhaps labeling a plus-sized dress as "manatee grey" does not evoke the very best image.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time this innocuous shade has become a fire starter. Bees buzzed in bonnets when actress Melissa McCarthy's Academy Awards dress was described as "elephant grey" by The Boston Globe (get it? Because she is a full-figured actress and elephants are full-figured mammals and never the twain shall meet in real life or fashion descriptions).

Never mind that the dress was grey. Like an elephant.

Target swiftly mitigated the growing ire with an apology, and as of now, you can't buy the Mossimo Women's Plus-Size Kimono Maxi Dress in ANY shade of grey. Boo. Friar Plum, Frolic Pink and Orange Flash will have to do.
The whole thing leaves us with a few questions. What was the "unintentional oversight?" Are "Dark Heather Grey" and "Manatee Grey" the same color? Are manatees dark-heather-grey-colored? Are we being too sensitive about the random naming of things, or should Target and other clothing chains know better?

Courtesy of HLN

Monday, April 15, 2013

Federal Income Tax Receipt

 Some people think the federal government should give them a receipt for their income taxes to show where all that money went. While you may not get a receipt from the IRS any time soon, National Priorities Project went ahead and wrote one up. This receipt shows where your $50,000.00 in Federal Income Taxes was spent by the government in fiscal year 2012.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Tunnel People That Live Under The Streets Of America

Deeper underground: Steven and Kathryn live in a 400sq ft 'bungalow' under Las Vegas which they have lovingly furnished with other people's castoffs
Did you know that there are thousands upon thousands of homeless people that are living underground beneath the streets of major U.S. cities?  It is happening in Las Vegas, it is happening in New York City and it is even happening in Kansas City.  As the economy crumbles, poverty in the United States is absolutely exploding and so is homelessness.  In addition to the thousands of “tunnel people” living under the streets of America, there are also thousands that are living in tent cities, there are tens of thousands that are living in their vehicles and there are more than a million public school children that do not have a home to go back to at night.  The federal government tells us that the recession “is over” and that “things are getting better”, and yet poverty and homelessness in this country continue to rise with no end in sight.  So what in the world are things going to look like when the next economic crisis hits?

One man's junk... Tunnel residents have created wardrobes for their clothes and salvaged furniture to make the subterranean world more homely. However, there is little they can do about the water on the floor

House proud: Steven and Kathryn have also compiled their own library - and constructed shelves to house it
When I heard that there were homeless people living in a network of underground tunnels beneath the streets of Kansas City, I was absolutely stunned.  I have relatives that live in that area.  I never thought of Kansas City as one of the more troubled cities in the United States.

But according to the Daily Mail, police recently discovered a network of tunnels under the city that people had been living in…
Below the streets of Kansas City, there are deep underground tunnels where a group of vagrant homeless people lived in camps.
These so-called homeless camps have now been uncovered by the Kansas City Police, who then evicted the residents because of the unsafe environment.
Authorities said these people were living in squalor, with piles of garbage and dirty diapers left around wooded areas.
The saddest part is the fact that authorities found dirty diapers in the areas near these tunnels.  That must mean that babies were being raised in that kind of an environment.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing is happening all over the nation.  In recent years, the tunnel people of Las Vegas have received quite a bit of publicity all over the world.  It has been estimated that more than 1,000 people live in the massive network of flood tunnels under the city…
Deep beneath Vegas’s glittering lights lies a sinister labyrinth inhabited by poisonous spiders and a man nicknamed The Troll who wields an iron bar.
But astonishingly, the 200 miles of flood tunnels are also home to 1,000 people who eke out a living in the strip’s dark underbelly.
Some, like Steven and his girlfriend Kathryn, have furnished their home with considerable care – their 400sq ft ‘bungalow’ boasts a double bed, a wardrobe and even a bookshelf.

Could you imagine living like that?  Sadly, for an increasing number of Americans a “normal lifestyle” is no longer an option.  Either they have to go to the homeless shelters or they have to try to eke out an existence on their own any way that they can.

In New York City, authorities are constantly trying to root out the people that live in the tunnels under the city and yet they never seem to be able to find them all.  The following is from a New York Post articleabout the “Mole People” that live underneath New York City…
The homeless people who live down here are called Mole People. They do not, as many believe, exist in a separate, organized underground society. It’s more of a solitary existence and loose-knit community of secretive, hard-luck individuals.
The New York Post followed one homeless man known as “John Travolta” on a tour through the underground world.  What they discovered was a world that is very much different from what most New Yorkers experience…
In the tunnels, their world is one of malt liquor, tight spaces, schizophrenic neighbors, hunger and spells of heat and cold. Travolta and the others eat fairly well, living on a regimented schedule ofrestaurant leftovers, dumped each night at different times around the neighborhood above his foreboding home.
Even as the Dow hits record high after record high, poverty in New York City continues to rise at a very frightening pace.  Incredibly, the number of homeless people sleeping in the homeless shelters of New York City has increased by a whopping 19 percent over the past year.

In many of our major cities, the homeless shelters are already at maximum capacity and are absolutely packed night after night.  Large numbers of homeless people are often left to fend for themselves.

That is one reason why we have seen the rise of so many tent cities.

Yes, the tent cities are still there, they just aren’t getting as much attention these days because they do not fit in with the “economic recovery” narrative that the mainstream media is currently pushing.

In fact, many of the tent cities are larger than ever.  For example, you can check out a Reuters video about a growing tent city in New Jersey that was posted on YouTube at the end of March right here.  A lot of these tent cities have now become permanent fixtures, and unfortunately they will probably become much larger when the next major economic crisis strikes.

But perhaps the saddest part of all of this is the massive number of children that are suffering night after night.

For the first time ever, more than a million public school children in the United States are homeless.  That number has risen by 57 percent since the 2006-2007 school year.

So if things are really “getting better”, then why in the world do we have more than a million public school children without homes?

These days a lot of families that have lost their homes have ended up living in their vehicles.  The following is an excerpt from a 60 Minutes interview with one family that is living in their truck…
This is the home of the Metzger family. Arielle,15. Her brother Austin, 13. Their mother died when they were very young. Their dad, Tom, is a carpenter. And, he’s been looking for work ever since Florida’s construction industry collapsed. When foreclosure took their house, he bought the truck on Craigslist with his last thousand dollars. Tom’s a little camera shy – thought we ought to talk to the kids – and it didn’t take long to see why.
Pelley: How long have you been living in this truck?
Arielle Metzger: About five months.
Pelley: What’s that like?
Arielle Metzger: It’s an adventure.
Austin Metzger: That’s how we see it.
Pelley: When kids at school ask you where you live, what do you tell ‘em?
Austin Metzger: When they see the truck they ask me if I live in it, and when I hesitate they kinda realize. And they say they won’t tell anybody.
Arielle Metzger: Yeah it’s not really that much an embarrassment. I mean, it’s only life. You do what you need to do, right?
But after watching a news report or reading something on the Internet about these people we rapidly forget about them because they are not a part of “our world”.

Another place where a lot of poor people end up is in prison.  In a previous article, I detailed how the prison population in the United States has been booming in recent years.  If you can believe it, the United States now has approximately 25 percent of the entire global prison population even though it only has about 5 percent of the total global population.

And these days it is not just violent criminals that get thrown into prison.  If you lose your job and get behind on your bills, you could be thrown into prison as well.  The following is from a recent CBS News article…
Roughly a third of U.S. states today jail people for not paying off their debts, from court-related fines and fees to credit card and car loans, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. Such practices contravene a 1983 United States Supreme Court ruling that they violate the Constitutions’s Equal Protection Clause.

Some states apply “poverty penalties,” such as late fees, payment plan fees and interest, when people are unable to pay all their debts at once. Alabama charges a 30 percent collection fee, for instance, while Florida allows private debt collectors to add a 40 percent surcharge on the original debt. Some Florida counties also use so-called collection courts, where debtors can be jailed but have no right to a public defender. In North Carolina, people are charged for using a public defender, so poor defendants who can’t afford such costs may be forced to forgo legal counsel.
The high rates of unemployment and government fiscal shortfalls that followed the housing crash have increased the use of debtors’ prisons, as states look for ways to replenish their coffers. Said Chettiar, “It’s like drawing blood from a stone. States are trying to increase their revenue on the backs of the poor.”
If you are poor, the United States can be an incredibly cold and cruel place.  Mercy and compassion are in very short supply.

The middle class continues to shrink and poverty continues to grow with each passing year.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately one out of every six Americans is now living in poverty.  And if you throw in those that are considered to be “near poverty”, that number becomes much larger.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 146 million Americans are either “poor” or “low income”.

For many more facts about the rapid increase of poverty in this country, please see my previous article entitled “21 Statistics About The Explosive Growth Of Poverty In America That Everyone Should Know“.

But even as poverty grows, it seems like the hearts of those that still do have money are getting colder.  Just check out what happened recently at a grocery store that was in the process of closing down in Augusta, Georgia…
Residents filled the parking lot with bags and baskets hoping to get some of the baby food, canned goods, noodles and other non-perishables. But a local church never came to pick up the food, as the storeowner prior to the eviction said they had arranged. By the time the people showed up for the food, what was left inside the premises—as with any eviction—came into the ownership of the property holder, SunTrust Bank.
The bank ordered the food to be loaded into dumpsters and hauled to a landfill instead of distributed. The people that gathered had to be restrained by police as they saw perfectly good food destroyed. Local Sheriff Richard Roundtree told the news “a potential for a riot was extremely high.”
Can you imagine watching that happen?

But of course handouts and charity are only temporary solutions.  What the poor in this country really need are jobs, and unfortunately there has not been a jobs recovery in the United States since the recession ended.

In fact, the employment crisis looks like it is starting to take another turn for the worse.  The number of layoffs in the month of March was 30 percent higher than the same time a year ago.

Meanwhile, small businesses are indicating that hiring is about to slow down significantly.  According to a recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, small businesses in the United States are extremely pessimistic right now.  The following is what Goldman Sachs had to say about this survey…
Components of the survey were consistent with the decline in headline optimism, as the net percent of respondents planning to hire fell to 0% (from +4%), those expecting higher sales fell to -4% (from +1%), and those reporting that it is a good time to expand ticked down to +4% (from +5%). The net percent of respondents expecting the economy to improve was unchanged at -28%, a very depressed level. However, on the positive side, +25% of respondents plan increased capital spending [ZH: With Alcoa CapEx spending at a 2 year low]. Small business owners continue to place poor sales, taxes, and red tape at the top of their list of business problems, as they have for the past several years.
So why aren’t our politicians doing anything to fix this?

For example, why in the world don’t they stop millions of our jobs from being sent out of the country?

Well, the truth is that they don’t think we have a problem.  In fact, U.S. Senator Ron Johnson recently said that U.S. trade deficits “don’t matter”.

He apparently does not seem alarmed that more than 56,000 manufacturing facilities have been shut down in the United States since 2001.

And since the last election, the White House has seemed to have gone into permanent party mode.

On Tuesday, another extravagant party will be held at the White House.  It is being called “In Performance at the White House: Memphis Soul”, and it is going to include some of the biggest names in the music industry…
As the White House has previously announced, Justin Timberlake (who will be making his White House debut), Al Green, Ben Harper, Queen Latifah, Cyndi Lauper, Joshua Ledet, Sam Moore, Charlie Musselwhite, Mavis Staples, and others will be performing at the exclusive event.
And so who will be paying for all of this?

You and I will be.  Even as the Obamas cry about all of the other “spending cuts” that are happening, they continue to blow millions of taxpayer dollars on wildly extravagant parties and vacations.

Overall, U.S. taxpayers will spend well over a billion dollars on the Obamas this year.

I wonder what the tunnel people that live under the streets of America think about that.