Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

The material I post on this blog represents my views and mine alone. The material you post on this blog represents your views and yours alone.

Friday, December 19, 2008

If the shoe fits . . .

Given the fusillade of flying footwear aimed at our departing president in Baghdad, late night comedian Craig Ferguson wonders if a “second thrower” conspiracy theory is taking hold in the blogosphere. Plenty of bad jokes on those shoe missiles are filling the news, late night TV and circulating on the Internet.

You’ve heard more than a few by now. Do they make you feel better?

It’s all gallows humor. It’s Shakespeare’s Romeo attempting, unsuccessfully, to ease his dying friend’s pain. Mercutio knows better:

Romeo: "Courage, man; the hurt cannot be much."
Mercutio: "No, 'tis not so deep as a well, nor so wide as a church-door; but 'tis enough, 'twill serve: ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man."

Because Americans are afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder, we often miss the significance of events that swell beneath the surface. Bush adeptly ducks the shoes; we efficiently bob and weave our way to the next bizarre 30-second YouTube clip.

This all allows us to report to ourselves with escapist self-satisfaction: Well, didn’t I handle that with aplomb and a minimum of personal intellectual and emotional cost.

Back up a little and really think about what this celebrity of the moment, Iraqi journalist Muntather Zaidi, yelled out as he threw the first of his clodhoppers:

“This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is the farewell kiss, you dog!”

A few seconds later, Zaidi let fly with his other shoe, shouting:

“This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!”

Widows and orphans. Almost a dismissed cliche in American political oratory. The phrase means plenty in Iraq.

Here’s the estimated number of Iraqi deaths due to the U. S. led invasion of Iraq: 1,297,997.

The number is shocking and sobering. It’s based on studies published in the prestigious British medical journal, “The Lancet,” in 2006 and a British polling agency in September 2007, Opinion Research Business.

If you’re skeptical of this number, knock off a 100,000, or 200,000. Or cut it in half. Or slice it back to any number that manages to make you feel comfortable.

How low would your estimate go? How many widows and orphans would emerge from your figure? How many shoes would you feel like throwing if these deaths had happened to your family, in the neighborhoods of your home country? How long would you remember Muntather Zaidi’s flying shoes? How long would you remember his words and repeat them: “this is the farewell kiss, you dog!” And would you ever be able to get those widows, those orphans, out of your mind?

[from Terre Haute Tribune StarReader’s Forum," Dec. 28, 2008]

Friday, December 05, 2008

Let's Punish the Auto Workers and Ourselves

More news from the "Let's Punish the Auto Workers and Ourselves" front.

The Street
U.S. Stocks Tumble as Job Losses Accelerate
Mike Taylor
12/05/08 - 09:41 AM EST

Before the new session's trading commenced, the government reported that the unemployment rate reached a 15-year high of 6.7% in November, up from 6.5% in October but slightly below the 6.8% analysts had expected. Nonfarm payrolls showed a loss of 533,000 jobs, a much greater decline than the drop of 335,000 forecast by economists.

The September and October job-loss figures were also worse than previously thought. The September number was revised to 403,000 from 284,000, and October job losses were up to 320,000, up from an initial reading of 240,000.

The average workweek declined slightly to 33.5 hours, and hourly earnings were up 0.4%, compared with a 0.3% increase in October.

"This is almost indescribably terrible," wrote Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics, in an email. He said that total job losses in the past six months have now reached 1.55 million, a figure that matches the entire recession of 2001.

And now the rabid ideologues and union breakers are blindly panting to close down or bankrupt (which adds up to the same thing) the American auto industry. It’s goodbye to three million or so jobs dependent on that industry. Many of which made it possible for working class families to live and dream at a middle-class level for the first time in this nation’s history.

The UAW took out a full page ad in today’s New York Times. I wish it was in every paper in the United States. It’s a checkerboard of faces of people that look like you and me. And they are like you and me. Across their pictures is a banner headline reading: “WE ARE NOT BANKERS.”

And meanwhile, we get the usual pokes (all deserved) at the blind, inept and avaricious CEOs testifying before Congressional committees. It may be satisfying to see and hear the high and the mighty grovel, but a little of this goes a long way when the lives of millions of workers depend on intelligent solutions more than symbolic trips to the woodshed.

This account gets at two key points. The snowballing urgency of the problem and, far less recognized, conservatives short-sighted desire to destroy the union movement.

Salon, 12/5.2008
Detroit revs up its bailout begging
By Mike Madden

Actually, the CEOs were less alarmist than some of the other witnesses. chief economist Mark Zandi told the panel that the costs of not bailing out the car companies -- and letting them go bankrupt -- would be far, far more than $34 billion. "It's not even in the same universe," he said. United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger said there wasn't much time to dither: "I believe that we could lose General Motors at the end of this month." And if Detroit goes under, the witnesses agreed, the rest of the country won't be in such good shape itself -- suppliers could also fail, whole local economies could fall apart, the government could find itself handling warranty claims on all the Jeep Cherokees out there. . . .

. . . People in Tennessee "have a tough time thinking about us loaning money to companies that are paying way, way above industry standards to workers," said Sen. Bob Corker. Of course, the UAW already announced that it would let automakers suspend payments into a healthcare fund for retirees, killed a program that paid laid-off workers most of their salary, and agreed to let management reopen negotiations on a contract signed just last year. Still, with Congress already girding for a fight over "card check" legislation that would let workers organize without a secret vote, expect to see Republicans try to lay down some markers about labor during the bailout debate.

Unions aside, it was pretty easy to see what the popular move for GOP lawmakers will be. "The strength of the American economic system is that it allows us to take risks, to create, to innovate, to grow, to succeed and sometimes to fail," said Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama (which happens to be the home of Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes plants, making Shelby a little less worried about the Big Three's viability). . . .
Yeah, Joseph Schumpeter’s concept of “creative destruction” is all the rage today among the Republican ideologues who helped bring this totally unplanned economic destruction down on our heads. Conservatives set fire to the economy with deregulation and regressive taxes and now they pat themselves on the back as visionaries who are predicting a new and improved America rising out of the ashes of their failed policies. As we kick through the ashes of this destruction, you’ll see the bones of the union movement. And unions have always been one of the few buffers between working people and the total power of the profits-at-any-price few at the top.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

"Creative Destruction" -- Whose creation? Whose destruction?

Too Big Not To Fail
We need to stop using the bailouts to rebuild gigantic financial institutions.

The great irony is that our new place in the global economy is a direct consequence of our grand victory over the past 60 years. We have, indeed, converted virtually the entire world into one integrated capitalist economy, and we must now bear the brunt of serious and vigorous competition. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the United States was essentially the only nation with financial capital, intellectual capital, skilled labor, a growing middle class generating consumer demand, and a rule of law permitting safe investment. Now we are one of many nations with these critical advantages.

This long-term change frames the question we should be asking ourselves: What are we getting for the trillions of dollars in rescue funds? If we are merely extending a fatally flawed status quo, we should invest those dollars elsewhere. Nobody disputes that radical action was needed to forestall total collapse. But we are creating the significant systemic risk not just of rewarding imprudent behavior by private actors but of preventing, through bailouts and subsidies, the process of creative destruction that capitalism depends on. . . .

It is time we permitted the market to work: This means true competition with winners and losers; companies that disappear; shareholders and CEOs who can lose as well as win; and government investment in the long-range competitiveness of our nation, not in a failed business model of financial concentration and failed risk management that holds nobody accountable.

I hate it when I have to dig out well reasoned arguments in opposition to the policies I support. But I do like the historical analysis of the first paragraph. This is what made the U. S. smug and satisfied. And now we all pay the price for that smugness and self-satisfaction. My problem is in that “all” blanket punishment thing.

Do you notice one thing about this analysis that is missing? Where are the working class types that went along for the ride? That last paragraph about “It is time we permitted the market to work” has nary a mention of the workers who regularly punched the clock, did the jobs they were told to do, and tried to make the best world possible for their families. The winners and losers mentioned here are companies, shareholders and CEOs–plenty of responsibility there.

But where are the real “Joe the Plumbers,” not the McCain-Palin inflatable doll type Joes, in all of this? Missing, forgotten, unimportant, not worthy of consideration or help?

I never fail to be saddened by working class people who take out their frustrations with “the system” on other working class people–neighbors and relatives who have about as much to do with the failings and greedy excesses of “the system” as a passenger sitting in the back of the plane has to do with the course chosen by the pilot or bringing that plane down to a safe landing.

Criticize CEO pay packages or tax cuts for the rich and conservative neon billboards are immediately switched on: CLASS WARFARE! LOSER ENVY! is the glaring response. Attempt to save the comparative pittance of wages, benefits, dignity and respect built up over a life time of work and union organizing and the UAW is attacked as some kind of gangster cartel. Now that’s what I call LOSER ENVY. Too bad so many of the losers live on the same block as those who had the smarts and the guts to join unions.

If you find the analysis in the excerpt above to your liking, the entire column is HERE .

By the way, the author of this thought provoking piece is Elliott Spitzer. Please note for future reference how Spitzer's personal life was not dragged out in order to put his argument in an irrelevant shadow.