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A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ferguson: protests, progress and patience

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Aug. 25, 26 or 27

Not to dump an Ice Bucket Challenge on police and protestors alike in Ferguson, Mo., but racism remains and progress has happened.

It’s difficult, but patience is required.

That said, renowned playwright Franz Kafka once said, “All human errors are impatience, a premature breaking off of methodical procedure, an apparent fencing-in of what is apparently at issue.”

A few miles south of the grave of Dred Scott – the Missouri slave who sought his freedom but was denied by the Supreme Court because he was “not a citizen” – 18-year-old Michael Brown on August 9 was killed by white policeman Darren Wilson, who shot an apparently unarmed Brown six times. Unrest has rocked Ferguson since.

One recalls Los Angeles’ 1992 riots and subsequent reforms, and, decades earlier, the 1968 riots that resulted in recommendations from the Kerner Commission, chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner.

Macomb native Todd Purdum, now with Politico, in his new book, “An Idea Time Whose Time Has Come,” writes “When it came to Civil Rights, much of American was paralyzed in 1963.”

Paralysis seems back, yet progress has been real.

And real slow.

In 1900, mostly in the South, Black Americans were prevented from voting, riding on trains alongside whites, and using hospitals or schools with whites – besides being lynched.

Since then, advances include changes in attitudes about schools, housing, marriage and stereotypes, according to the study “The Real Record on Racial Attitudes,” by Maria Krysan of the University of Illinois and others. That work, in the 2012 book “Social Trends in American Life: Findings from the General Social Survey Since 1972,” found:

* in 1972 less than 15 percent of whites thought Black and white students should attend separate schools, but by 1985 so few embraced that segregationist belief that the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey dropped the question;

* in 1990, 10 percent of whites said they’d live in a neighborhood where most of the residents were Black, but by 2008, 25 percent said they would;

* the idea of an Black/white marriage, first polled in 1990, was opposed by 65 percent of whites, but by 2008, that number had fallen to about 25 percent;

* in 1990, between 60 and 65 percent of whites held negative stereotypes of African Americans’ intelligence and diligence, but by 2008 the percentages fell to between 24 and 41 percent.

“We’ve made extraordinary progress,” President Obama said August 18, “but we have not made enough progress.”

Indeed, conditions are still bad. Blacks are more likely to be searched if they’re pulled over on a traffic stop, given prison terms 10-percent longer than whites charged with the same offense, sentenced to death three times more often than whites when victims are white, are twice as likely to be jobless as whites, and twice as likely to be poor than whites.

Unsurprisingly, black Americans’ confidence in government has declined, according to Krysan’s analysis. Dr. Martin Luther King in 1966 said, “A lot of people have lost faith in the Establishment; they’ve lost faith in the democratic process,” and the following year the nation had some 150 riots.

Also, African-Americans’ and Latinos’ trust in law enforcement is low. Many African Americans fear the police; many police fear African Americans, too, but they’re well-armed and have the criminal justice system behind them.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, defended activating the National Guard by citing “deliberate, coordinated and intensifying violent acts” (which also describe local police, you could argue).

The FBI tracks police “justifiable homicides,” and records that about 400 occur annually – more than one a day. Also, media have distorted and even helped justify questionable uses of force, said a 2010 article in the journal Theoretical Criminology.

Further, racial profiling exists, according to a National Institute of Justice report. Victims arguably range from Rodney King and Amadou Diallo to Eric Garner and Ezell Ford.

However, police-citizen confrontations can stem from class bias as much as race, according to a 2003 paper, “Neighborhood Context and Police Use of Force,” which found that high-crime neighborhoods are the most likely sites for such violence.

“Officers are significantly more likely to use higher levels of force when encountering criminal suspects in high-crime areas and neighborhoods with high levels of concentrated disadvantage independent of suspect behavior,” wrote researchers Michael Reisig of Michigan State University and William Terrill of Northeastern. Police “label distressed socioeconomic neighborhoods as potential sources of conflict.”

Obama also said, “We’re going to move forward together by trying to unite … and understand each other, … not simply divide ourselves from one another.”

But Kafka also remarked, “Because of impatience we were driven out of Eden, and because of impatience we cannot return.”

[PICTURED: A girl uses a rag to try to protect herself from tear gas police fired at protestors in Ferguson on August 11. Photo via rollingstone.com by Getty Images' Scott Olson, who was arrested there covering an August 18 demonstration.]

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Middle class needs a ‘Freedom Summer,’ too

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., August 21, 22 or 23

Fifty years ago, the historic Freedom Summer organized by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee sent activists to Mississippi, where the campaign registered voters, set up “Freedom Schools,” and created the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Progress was made on voting rights, but now the Right wants to restrict access to the ballot box by minorities, students and older Americans. Plus, looking back five decades, economic opportunity for working people of all races seems as limited as police-community understanding in Ferguson, Mo.

It’s been five years since the U.S. minimum wage was last raised, but recent attempts to raise it were blocked by the GOP. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ July jobs report noted that the official unemployment rate stayed about the same: 6.2 percent, so the number of jobless Americans remained about 6.2 million people, BLS said.

Once more, however, that widely reported jobless rate doesn’t include millions of folks who gave up seeking work out of despair. An adjusted figure, BLS’ U-6 data, takes them into account and includes unemployed people plus “all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part-time for economic reasons, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force.” That number: 12.2 percent. Since the civilian labor force is 156,023,000 people, that means that 19,034,806 people are jobless, work part-time for economic reasons, or want and are available for work and had sought a job sometime in the last year but weren’t counted as unemployed because they hadn’t actively sought work in the last month. That’s almost twice as many as the “official” jobless (9,673,426 people).

Elsewhere, the last Consumer Price Index report shows a 2-percent monthly hike in what Americans pay for goods and services (sparked by a 21.6-percent jump in fuels and utilities), and BLS’ July 24 report “Usual Weekly Earnings of Wage and Salary Workers” showed pay rising just 0.7 percent in the last year.

“The current struggle of low-wage workers across America echoes the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s,” said economist and ex-Labor Secretary Robert Reich (whose new film “Inequality for All,” is online). “As then, a group of Americans is denied the dignity of decent wages and working conditions. As then, powerful forces are threatening and intimidating vulnerable people for exercising their legal rights. Like 50 years ago, people who’ve been treated as voiceless and disposable are standing up and demanding change.”

For models, look to Stanley Nelson’s 113-minute documentary “Freedom Summer,” which mixes archival footage and current interviews to report on the volunteers who helped Mississippians fight segregation keeping them from voting, education or holding office, and to reflect on the violent resistance then and there.

Consider changes since 1964, from the Moon landing, AIDS and the Beatles and their legacy to the Internet, the birth control pill, and climate change’s extreme weather. If the minimum wage had kept up with inflation since 1964 (when it was $1.25/hour), it would now be $9.61, according to the BLS Inflation Calculator

And consider changes just since the minimum wage was raised (again, in 2009):

Inflation has eroded the minimum wage’s value. For example, in January 2009, the average price of gasoline was $1.84/gallon, now it's $3.59.

Workers’ better productivity didn’t help their pay. Between 1973 and 2013, worker productivity increased almost 65 percent; wages for those same workers went up just 8.2 percent.

The 1% has prospered. The average S&P 500 CEO received $11.7 million last year – some 774 times a full-time worker earning the federal minimum wage. As recently as 1983, the ratio of CEO pay to production and non-supervisory workers’ pay was 46 to 1; now it’s more than 330 to 1.

Working families turned to state and local governments for reform. This June, Delaware became the 22nd state (as well as the District of Columbia) to raise its minimum wage above the 2009 level. Why is that?

Republicans took control of the House in 2010 “and promptly did ... nothing,” wrote Kenneth Quinnell for AFL-CIO Now.

“Republicans proceeded to engage in obstructionism; this 113th Congress is on pace to go down as one of the least productive Congresses in history.”

As this summer winds down, everyday Americans might learn Freedom Summer’s lessons, and follow young volunteers’ actions then to foster a new resolve against an old foe: a system that enriches itself and its hand-picked mouthpieces in Washington by dividing the nation along racial, class, gender, religious, age and other differences.

[PICTURED: Graphic from progressiverags.com]

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Tears of a clown

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Aug. 18, 19 or 20

Do we cry, “Nanu nanu!” or “Good morning, Vietnam!” when thinking of Robin Williams’ apparent suicide?

We cry, no matter what.

There’s a profound shock and lingering sadness when tragedies involving public personalities or public events stun us, from John Lennon’s murder to John Belushi or Philip Seymour Hoffman or Heath Ledger’s drug overdoses, from Tiananmen Square in 1989 to September 11 in 2001.

Williams, 63, was an Illinois boy who rose to worldwide stardom. He hanged himself at his Northern California home, investigators said.

Besides fans’ adoration, Williams earned people’s admiration and respect. Some called him a genuine mensch – a person of honor and integrity – which he showed repeatedly.

He donated his skills as a performer to Farm Aid fund raisers, and was a regular, well-received member of USO tours for U.S. troops abroad – some in combat zones.

Politically, he was progressive. He performed in a Chicago benefit for then-Illinois lawmaker Barack Obama’s 2004 campaign for the U.S. Senate, supported gay rights and marriage equality for years, and was an active union member, sometimes walking picket lines. During the 2007-2008 Writers Guild work stoppage, Williams protested with striking writers, demonstrating outside the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle in New York City.

Williams was especially engaged in helping to fight homelessness, both onstage through the non-profit Comic Relief TV benefits and by testifying before U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy’s Health and Humans Services panel in 1990 on behalf of legislation to help prevent homelessness.

(C-SPAN last week revived that two-hour Senate hearing featuring Williams, and says its Twitter post about Williams’ testimony has become its second-most re-tweeted item.)

Ken Howard, president of SAG-AFTRA (the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, an AFL-CIO union) said, “I am deeply saddened to hear of Robin Williams’ death. He was a performer of limitless versatility, equally adept at comedy and drama, whether scripted or improv. With his incomparable manic style, he could appeal to adult sensibilities in a stand-up comedy routine or elicit giggles from children as the voice of Genie in ‘Aladdin.’ Outside of his career, he used his considerable talents to raise money for charity. He was not only a talented man, but a true humanitarian. It’s such a tremendous loss.”

Williams spent 1973-76 at the prestigious Julliard School, where he was roommates with the late actor Christopher Reeve. Williams then honed his trade as an improvisational stand-up comic. His raw abilities and energy made him virtually unique. Plus, his intensity, intelligence and spontaneity eventually helped transform him from an actor tackling comedy and humorous roles into one sought for ambitious dramatic work.

His breakout in cinema, as a quirky Vietnam War-era disc jockey in 1987's “Good Morning, Vietnam,” established him as beloved and bankable. Remembered for his uncanny quickness, spot-on impressions and adaptable voice, Williams became a disciplined actor loved by generations, perhaps drawing on his appreciation to a few offbeat comedians, most notably Jonathan Winters and Charlie Chaplin – both of whom also transcended comedic and dramatic roles.
Williams won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1997's “Good Will Hunting.”

Called the "funniest man alive" by Entertainment Weekly magazine in 1997, Williams battled depression and substance abuse for decades, and recently, according to his wife, Parkinson’s disease.

He leaves behind his family, his devotion to progressive causes, an almost magical mania, and an impressive, touching body of work:

Mork and Garp; Popeye and Peter Pan, Alladin’s Genie and Patch Adams; Mrs. Doubtfire and “The Birdcage”; U.S. Presidents in “A Night at the Museum” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”; “The Fisher King” and “Moscow on the Hudson”; “Good Will Hunting” and “Dead Poets’ Society”; even villains in “One-Hour Photo” and “Insomnia”; and TV’s “The Crazy Ones” and PBS’ documentary series “Freedom: A History of Us.”

Williams was one of us, in our better selves.

As the extraterrestrial Mork, he marveled at human crying.

As we weep, we touch our tears and recall Mork’s line, “My eyes are leaking.”

[PICTURED: At top, Robin Williams (with bagels) and actor David Duchovny join the picket line of striking writers outside the Time Warner Center in New York in 2007. Photo by Tina Fineberg/Moyers & Co. Above, Williams visit with friend Jonathan Winters in 1990. Photo by Terry Miller/Pasadena Independent.]

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ex-Im Bank debate creating strange bedfellows

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., August 14, 15 or 16

Illinois corporations such as Caterpillar, John Deere, Motorola and Boeing are among the Fortune 500 companies that benefit from the Export-Import Bank, which is being criticized by conservatives and progressives alike in the current debate about its reauthorization.

“I think Ex-Im Bank is … something government does not have to be involved in,” said conservative U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), the new House Majority Leader. “The private sector can do it.”

Progressive U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has blasted the Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im) for years. A dozen years ago, Sanders railed on Capitol Hill, asking why U.S. taxpayers would pay for “huge subsidies and loans to the largest multinational corporations in the world.”

The Export-Import Bank was set up as a chartered government corporation by an Executive Order from Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, when its assignment was to facilitate overseas buyers for U.S. products by making loans to influential borrowers at below-market interest rates. Ex-Im borrows billions of dollars from the U.S. Treasury to make direct loans or credit lines to foreign buyers of U.S. products; guarantee loans to banks that lend to foreign buyers and to U.S. exporters; and insure against losses made by U.S. exporters and banks on loans to foreign buyers.

Last year, Ex-Im borrowed and loaned more than $37 billion.

Congress’ role is just advisory, but it re-authorizes it every three years.

Supporters say Ex-Im’s assistance to companies would be difficult for them to secure on the private market and helps make trade deals that can boost hiring. Past support has ranged from Bill Clinton to Ronald Reagan. Throughout the bank's history, 14 of 16 re-authorizations have passed by unanimous consent or voice vote in at least one chamber of Congress, according to Business Insider.

Last year, Ex-Im reported its loan guarantees included $7.9 billion to Boeing and $1.3 billion to Caterpillar, and direct loans of $291 million to Boeing and $495 million to Komatsu America Corp.

"There's a sense of urgency," Kathryn Karel, Caterpillar's vice president of law and public policy, told the Wall Street Journal about the September 30 expiration of Ex-Im’s authority. "We need to get some information in front of [Congress] to educate them on the trickle-down effects.”

McCarthy reversed from the course planned by his predecessor, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who lost in the primary to a Tea Party challenger, and now backs Ex-Im’s expiration. That’s echoed by Tea Party Congressman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), chair of the House Financial Services Committee, who called Ex-Im’s activities “corporate cronyism.”

Meanwhile, prominent Democrats including U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) are joining with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to push for re-authorization.

In June, however, 41 Republican House members signed a letter endorsing reauthorization. U.S. Rep. Aaron Schock (R-Peoria), now a Senior Deputy Majority Whip in the House, removed his name, although he later voiced support for renewal.

Libertarian interests such as the Cato Institute criticize Ex-Im for essentially picking winners and losers in the global economy (a charge shared by Boeing competitors such as Delta).

Progressive economist Dean Baker said below-market loans “raise the cost of capital to other firms.”

Foes also doubt that such industrial giants cannot get financing elsewhere.

But supporters say Ex-Im’s demise would jeopardize U.S. exports, defending the loans as investments in business, large and small. They say that 80 percent of its lending activity is with small businesses.

Baker says that’s “garbage. What matters is the percent of the money, not the percent of the loans.”

Indeed, Ex-Im’s own records show that the top three beneficiaries – Boeing, General Electric and KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown and Root, a U.S. engineering, construction and military contractor) together receive 72 percent of all loan guarantees.

Ex-Im allocates funds “in ways that serve to obvious economic purpose,” Baker adds.

But liberal economist Paul Krugman defends Ex-Im on the basis of increased government spending, which he advocates as spurring economic growth and hiring. And some Democrats add that it’s necessary to maintain Ex-Im since other countries have similar programs.

Elsewhere, Ex-Im is viewed as a “wasteful and unnecessary behemoth,” said Eric Peterman of FreedomWorks, a conservative group tied to the Tea Party, “antithetical to free-market capitalism.”

Speaking of the concept of free enterprise, Baker said, “It is just one more example of how the rich and powerful have no interest in the free market when circumventing how the market works to their benefit.

“It is still striking to see how the Establishment types are willing to throw out all their rules and principles in order to secure re-authorization,” he continued. “Given their power, they will almost certainly win, but the rest of us should at least enjoy the show.”

[PICTURED: Glenn Foden cartoon from heritage.org via camellarry.com]

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The ‘forgotten’ workers

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Aug. 11, 12 or 13

When Wall Street and the Democratic Party join to celebrate something, it’s not unreasonable to politely hoist a toast, then retreat to a quiet corner to read the fine print.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) on August 1 released its July jobs report, which noted that employers said they’d added 209,000 new jobs, between public-sector and private-sector positions.
By the end of trading on Monday – with the weekend to dive into the data – the Dow Jones Industrial Average finished up 75.91, to 16569.28, and the S&P finished up 13.84, to 1938.99, both after the previous down week.

So Wall Street was pleased.

“Huzzah!”

The official unemployment rate stayed about the same last month: 6.2 percent, BLS added, so the number of jobless Americans remained about 6.2 million people, delighting Dems.

“Hooray!”

And, “However …”

The official jobless rate doesn’t include millions of folks who left the job search out of hopelessness.

They don’t count, the government says.

At least, they don’t count in that 6.2 percent figure.

An adjusted unemployment figure, one taking into account other fellow workers, is more revealing.

BLS’ seasonally adjusted “U-6” data shows a fuller picture.

The bureau’s U-6 tally includes total unemployed citizens plus “all persons marginally attached to the labor force, plus total employed part-time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force, plus all persons marginally attached to the labor force.”

The U-6 number for July was 12.2 percent. Since the civilian labor force is 156,023,000 people, the expanded and adjusted percentage means that 19,034,806 are jobless, work part-time for financial reasons, and people “marginally attached to the labor force” – those who wanted and were available for work and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months but weren’t counted as unemployed because they hadn’t actively sought work in the last month.

Oh.

Uh-oh.

That’s almost twice as many as the “officially” jobless (9,673,426 people).

Of course, an ardent Obama advocate could legitimately find good news: The 12.1 percent is down 1.7 percent from July of last year.

But even there, economist and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich warns that two-thirds of the new jobs are part-time.

True, there have been hundreds of thousands of working people who have voluntarily started working part-time, according to economist Dean Baker from the Center for Economic Policy and Research. He sees that phenomenon as occasionally a positive – reflecting an opportunity to go part-time if it’s an option enabled by the Affordable Care Act (because workers no longer need to have health insurance provided as part of their employment compensation).

In other words, maybe some folks don’t need to stay full-time just for the insurance, want more hours for themselves and their families, and can afford the change, Baker said.

Nevertheless, last month, Fortune magazine finance reporter Chris Matthews wrote that the number of people working part-time who’d prefer to work full-time went up by 275,000.

Also, the number of formerly “discouraged” workers (defined by the BLS as folks not currently looking for work specifically because they believed no jobs were available for them or there were none for which they would qualify) may be dwindling, Matthews said.

However the jobs-report merriment proceeds, millions of our neighbors still aren’t finding the full-time work they want, or they’ve given up on a job search.

Some of that is probably due to lagging progress in some sectors, such as construction, which is still not rebounding as much as the busy summer building season would seem to warrant; to fewer Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and ’64) retiring or retiring early; or to the terrible experience of unsuccessfully seeking a job for months or even years and just surrendering.

Regardless, that should sober up stockbrokers and Obama allies with blinders on.

[PICTURED: Cartoon by John Darkow.]

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Public services can’t come from corporations

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., August 7, 8 or 9

Everyday transactions’ typical frustrations can happen despite helpful cashiers and clerks. But while conservative extremists sing the tired Ronald Reagan 1981 refrain, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” one wonders, “Oh? Then what?

Service, anyone?

While an absence of incompetence is appealing, the lack of accountability is not. Whether Tea Party Republicans or hard-core Libertarians, the notion of no government can conjure visions of a utopia built on anarchy’s philosophical concept of “voluntary association” or an “only the strong survive” chaos like TV’s “Walking Dead” with a different sort of cannibalism.

Or…

“America, Inc.”

That would be corporate control and authoritarian bureaucracy instead of elected government trying to balance social resources and community needs.

Corporatism’s idea of “serve” is like TV’s old “Twilight Zone” episode in which extraterrestrials’ book “To Serve Man” is ultimately revealed to be … a cookbook.

Teacher, journalist and novelist/screenwriter Leo Rosten said, “The purpose of life is not to be happy at all. It is to be useful, to be honorable. It is to be compassionate. It is to matter, to have it make some difference that you lived."

A purposeful life is to serve, not sell.

Increasingly, regular Americans must cope with corporate priorities different from our own, or corporate meddling, ineptitude or inertia. Anyone who ever had to deal with pre-Obamacare health insurance, or cable or other utility companies, or banks or busy big-box stores, knows that the Corporate Way is not always useful.

It’s not designed to serve the public interest.

Rosten – who was born in Poland but grew up in a union household in Chicago and worked his way through the University of Chicago and the London School of Economics – was a progressive Renaissance Man. A prolific writer, he wrote books, articles and movies, from “The Washington Correspondents” (1937) and “Hollywood: The Movie Colony The Movie Makers” (1941) to pieces for The New Yorker magazine and The New Republic to “All Through the Night” with Humphrey Bogart, “Captain Newman, M.D.” with Gregory Peck and “They Got Me Covered” with Bob Hope.

Decades after this George Polk Award-winner’s career – he died in 1997 at the age of 88 – Rosten might be appreciated for his insight as well as his wit. (Rosten once remarked, “A conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they’re dead.”)

For now, those who hate government but receive food stamps, Social Security or Medicare may consider: If they have a problem with a driver’s license, veterans’ benefits or a parking ticket, they can still appeal to a state legislator’s office, a Congressman or an alderman to intervene on their behalf, ideally. (Sure, it must be conceded, too many elected officials are more beholden to campaign contributors or the Power Elite, but representative government is at least supposed to represent citizens.)

In contrast, if there are problems with an insurer over an accident or injury claim, or a warranty from a national chain store, or an unsafe or fraudulent product or service, victims could go to corporate offices and demonstrate, but it’s likely they’d be removed, or detained and maybe charged with criminal trespassing, or threatened with a civil lawsuit – a sinister SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation).

Despite flawed Supreme Court reasoning that corporations are people, corporations are artificial constructs responsive to upper management and shareholders (at least, a majority of those owning stock, like hedge funds). Corporations care about ordinary people only as consumers, and only maybe as vendors or neighbors.

Founder of the nonprofit RAND Corporation’s Social Sciences division, Rosten was a humanist as well as a humorist, and he offered lessons that echo today. One was that corporations stress what benefits them and ignore all else. Although he was writing about the motion picture industry, Rosten’s following passage could apply to Big Banks, Big Pharma or ’Net Neutrality-gobbling media conglomerates: “The dazzling spotlight which Hollywood turns upon its personalities throws into shadow the thousands who work in the movie studios – technicians and craftsmen, musicians and sound engineers, painters, carpenters, laboratory workers.”

Corporations exist to serve themselves. Absolutely.

Governments run by elected representatives exist to serve constituents.

That service makes some difference.

[PICTURED: Carol Siimpson cartoon from CartoonWork.com]

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Voices in finance, religion warn of income inequality

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Aug. 4, 5 or 6


Last month, the Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 17000 for the first time, closing 14 percent higher than a year earlier, and the S&P finished that week at 1985.44 – its 25th record high in 2014.

However, changes in pay have been disappointing (despite last week’s odd announcement that a 0.6 percent in the second quarter was a positive signal). On July 22, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported continued lousy news for earnings.

“Real average weekly earnings declined 0.1 percent over the month due to the decrease in real average hourly earnings combined with an unchanged average work week,” the BLS said.

Factoring in inflation since 1982-84, the real average weekly earnings for all non-farm employees is $354.88, down a value of 40 cents from a year ago.

That’s not right. Nor smart.

The economy needs consumers, who need decent wages to be able to spend.

“Wages for working people, not the wealth of the rich, corporate income, or banking profits are what both drive and sustain an economy,” wrote Thom Hartmann, author of “The Crash of 2016.”

“As long as those wages remain stagnant or falling,” he continued, “there will not be sufficient demand to keep an economy from collapsing under the weight of its own high-end gamblers and the growing debt of its young and working-class people just trying to get by.”

That’s noticed by savvy businesspeople and perceptive faith leaders, who increasingly advocate for reforms to save commerce by making the economy work for more people, and to restore governments to responsive systems.

For years, billionaire Warren Buffett has expressed such concerns, saying, “There has been class warfare waged, and my class has won.”

That opinion is echoed in other board rooms.

Pimco founder and CIO William Gross told Yahoo Finance writer Lauren Lyster, "Labor and capital have to share in the rewards of a productive economy and for the past 25 years labor has gotten the short end of the stick."

Indeed, economist Robert Reich, whose new film is “Inequality for All,” says the “self-made” American, symbol of our meritocracy, is vanishing.

“Six of today’s 10 wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes,” Reich writes. “Six Walmart heirs have more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of Americans.

“Both political parties have encouraged this great wealth transfer, as beneficiaries provide a growing share of campaign contributions,” he continued. “It’s dangerous to our democracy. Dynastic wealth inevitably accumulates political influence.”

Nobel Prize-winning former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz said, “It is not the inexorable laws of economics that have led to America’s great divide, [but] our policies and our politics.

“Economic inequality translates into political inequality, and political inequality yields increasing economic inequality,” he continued, offering examples:

“Corporate welfare increases as we curtail welfare for the poor. Congress maintains subsidies for rich farmers as we cut back on nutritional support for the needy. Drug companies have been given hundreds of billions of dollars as we limit Medicaid benefits. The banks that brought on the global financial crisis got billions while a pittance went to the homeowners and victims of the same banks.”

Income inequality is “responsible for the divisions in the country,” said Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein. “Too much of the Gross Domestic Product over the last generation has gone to too few of the people.”

Everyday people’s frustrations while enduring income inequality can lead to unhelpful distractions such as blaming other victims, like immigrants, minorities or women, creating social tension.

“There is an unrest in democracy today because the world economy took world politics [hostage],” said Catholic Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga. “Now, politics are subservient to money and not the common good.”

Rabbi Joshua Chasan of the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vt., said, “As the power of wealth in our country is concentrated in the hands of a very few, democracy is falling apart.”

In New York City, a Protestant pastor agreed.

“Many people like to boast that job growth has returned to peak levels prior to the start of the Great Recession six years ago,” said the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, with New York’s Riverside Church, “but a recent report from the National Employment Law Project (NELP) found the ‘new’ jobs are largely in low-paying industries. Low-wage industries accounted for 44 percent of job growth, but made up just 22 percent of the losses in the recession.

“In a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis just days before he was assassinated, Dr. Martin Luther King said, ‘...it is criminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income’,” Forbes added. “It was criminal then. It is criminal today.”

[PICTURED: Poster from economist Robert Reich's critically praised film "Inequality for All."]

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Nostalgia: surf music for Midwesterners

Bill Knight column for Thurs., Fri., or Sat., July 31, Aug. 1 or 2

Years ago, rock ’n’ roll reminded most Illinois adolescents that summer meant not just sun and fun, but surf and hot rods.

If only.

Like most guys too young to drive then, I suffered from not just longing to drive, but Beach Envy.

It’s something you never fully get over.

So this week, the anniversary of so many Beach Boys songs’ summer releases, I’m tempted to plan on a trip to the Bureau County Fair in Princeton for the Beach Boys’ concert there Aug. 21.

I still recall burning my feet as I sprinted across blistering sand at Wakonda State Park south of Keokuk, Iowa, and feeling disappointed that the ice-cold water could never make up for baked toes, an absence of sun-tanned bronze beauties, and no waves.

Of course, I came to love Illinois’ own “waves” – of wheat and corn and beans on flatland as beautiful as the ocean (and almost as pretty as those idealized, bronzed women of pop culture and my youth).

The Beach Boys’ ballad “Surfer Girl” came out on Aug. 3, 1963. I was friends with a knockout blond named Ann who could’ve made Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson do a triple take, but there was no beach besides funky, muddy Mississippi River frontage more appropriate for fishing than surfing.

Unrequited romance.

The Beach Boys’ “Surf’s Up” was released on July 25, 1971, a melancholy modernization of their sound and style, and it was critically praised but mostly not heard on car radios.

The group’s plaintive “God Only Knows” – Beatle Paul McCartney’s favorite Brian Wilson number, he said later – came out on Aug. 6, 1966, a heartbreaking celebration of teen-age angst I occasionally felt in my own heart.

And the band’s “California Girls” was released July 24, 1965, an accidental affront to the Heartland as it sang, “The Midwest farmers’ daughters really make you feel alright.”

Surely, they meant to solidify their base by including all regions of the nation, but I felt it patronized the Midwest and maybe even insults the thousands of female who were not daughters of farmers.

Nevertheless, the Beach Boys songs struck chords with many of us. The upbeat tunes “I Get Around,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B”; “All Summer Long,” “Surfin’ Safari” and “I Can Hear Music.” The relatively glum numbers: “In My Room,” “Sail On Sailor,” and “The Warmth of the Sun.”

Today’s reconstituted Beach Boys – really, just singer Mike Love and late-comer Bruce Johnston fronting a five-piece band – are just back from six shows in England and Spain without Al Jardine, David Marks and Brian Wilson from the triumphant 50th anniversary tour. Dennis Wilson and superb guitarist Carl Wilson passed away, but their musical contributions will be mimicked, and the music is sure to rekindle emotions and longings from decades ago.

Apart from the 2102 reunion tour, Brian has gone on to do some exceptional music, but the old Beach Boys music gets played a lot. In my car.

There were times when I drove for hours to hear the Beach Boys live – like a 1981 Illinois State Fair appearance where Brian came out and played piano for a few minutes before retreating offstage, like a fine show at Western Illinois University’s gymnasium, like a July 4 concert in Washington, D.C., in 1984.

Every time, the crowd sang along with “Surfin’ USA,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” and the rest of their Americana songbook.

There were other surf stars, too, of course, from the somehow lame Jan & Dean to Johnston’s first foray as a sun-and-sand dude, 1964’s “Summer Means Fun,” recorded as Bruce and Terry with musical partner Terry Melcher, to The Rip Chords’ “Hey Little Cobra” hit from a year earlier, to the Inconceivables’ 1966 hit “Hamburger Patti” – a romp perfect to blast from the dashboard as you waited for your order at an A&W or Dog N Suds drive-in joint.

Summers seemed as endless as the horizons, as the possibilities before us. The youth market was there – most of my buddies and I had jobs and money to spend – and beach movies with Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon catered to the consumers, the culture and the dreams.

Ah.

“Gotta keep those lovin' good vibrations a-happenin' …”