Saturday, January 23, 2010

Ever heard of

For those not aware of the grassroots movement,, I wanted to bring it to your attention. At the very least, their fundamental mission seems to address an interesting and seldom-discussed concern: as the Internet becomes a more and more influential force, who's laws govern the power of this influence? Google vs. China anyone?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Plutocracy, Complacency, and Taxes

I am growing ever more fearful of the plutocracy that is ravaging the spirit of my country and the pride of my people. Much like a cancer that has quietly metastasized undetected for so long that even chemotherapy is an unfeasible option (perhaps a lack of health insurance prevented preventative check-ups—God forbid they pay out of pocket in time to learn they cannot afford to pay for treatment!), I believe the governing system of America is so inflicted and full, not so much of corruption (although that is also true), as much as incoherent and therefore unenforceable rules and regulations, that it will inevitably implode and take the country--if not the world--with it. (Please note, as someone who has experienced the horror of watching a loved one succumb to cancer that went undetected until it reached stage-4, I am aware of the implications of this analogy.)

The intensity of economic inequality that has swept America and enslaved the ethos of its people is such that I no longer believe that a gradual structural revamping of the system is possible; the only way out of this mess is to hit the reset button or wait for nature to do it for us. What, exactly, it means to “hit the reset button” is surely a question worthy of significant attention and discussion, but suffice it for the purposes of this blog entry to say that some kind of major and immediate structural change—regulatory or not—resulting in a major redistribution of a significant portion of the wealth of the top 5% of Americans to the remaining 95% is necessary or we are doomed to suffer a civil war, another third world war, or both.

Before I enter into an endless filibuster with those who think they represent (or some day will)—and therefore feel the need to defend—the top 5%, permit me a few more moments of your time. First off, by the laws of probability, you most likely do not and never will represent the top 5%. Truly, one of the greatest illusions propagated by American plutocracy during the past 50 years, is the Reaganomatic three-class system. Apart from the fact that “upper class” sounds oh so much better than “rich” and “lower class” better than poor (albeit still a denigrating term), the fact of the matter is that socially, economically, and thus residentially, American society is divided and subdivided so completely and thoroughly that one can hardly maintain candid awareness of their place within it. I believe many individuals actually prefer it this way; as it is more palatable to trade away our consciousness than to accept that within the context of the actual, far more variegated, stratosphere in which we exist, the majority of us are really pretty damn far from the top, not “2nd best”, as our acceptance of “middle class” status would have us believe or even “upper-middle class.” There is plenty written on this subject so I defer to the Ackerman’s of the world for those that want to isolate discussion to Reaganomics. As for me, I am passed that as I think it is more pertinent to note that the average tax rate of the wealthiest 1% fell to its lowest level in at least 23 years in the year 2000 and has been maintained at such a level for 9 years. The group's share of the tax burden has risen, but only because its share of income has risen faster. This painful fact is only possible because over the past hundred years this group has had their taxes gradually lowered from 70% in the 1920’s to the current rate of 35% (I’m ignoring of course the Eisenhower time period in which they had a 90% tax rate because of the need to fund the war). [More on this topic can be found at: as well as the IRS's income-statistics website.] The compounding impact of the increased wealth of the top 1% (you can use 5% if you prefer) creates an increasingly unfair playing field as these extremely wealthy individuals are provided with much lower risk opportunities to multiply their free and available money that unlike the “middle class” is not being tied up by liabilities connected to basic necessities. Yet, our regulators have not only accommodated the wealthy (forget for a moment that many of them belong to this privileged group), they have actually made it exponentially easier to compound their wealth.

It is important to note here that the word “wealth” is often confused with “income.” As noted in Wikipedia: “These two terms describe different but related things. Wealth consists of those items of economic value that an individual owns, while income is an inflow of items of economic value. The relation between wealth, income, and expenses is:

change of wealth = income − expenses

A common mistake made by people embarking on a research project to determine the distribution of wealth is to use statistical data of income to describe the distribution of wealth. The distribution of income is substantially different from the distribution of wealth. According to the International Association for Research in Income and Wealth, "the world distribution of wealth is much more unequal than that of income.

Two important points need to be extracted and highlighted here: first, the wealthy do not grow wealth-y by spending their money, they do so by hording it or by having such a disproportionately large income compared to that of the rest of the individuals in society that they cannot spend it all without gratuitous effort; second, the more wealth an individual has sitting in appreciating assets, especially those that pay dividends, the more powerful the compounding effect of such wealth becomes, allowing such an individual to take from the economy without producing an equivalent worth of production.

Thus, without voluntarily giving back, or being compelled to give back (via taxes for instance) an amount of that money proportional to the amount of energy that created it, the said wealthy person is essentially sucking net value and currency flow from the economy, thus defeating the two purposes of using a currency system in lieu of a bartering system, which was intended to facilitate the transfer of value (and individuals net production to society) over space and time. Does that mean that we should get rid of interest rates and capitalism? Absolutely not! I have a retirement account and I completely agree that those who have the prudence and gumption to endure short-term pain for long-term gain (my definition of “investing”) should be rewarded. What that individual is giving up (and it is not merely the unit value of the money, but the comforts that such money could have provided) allows for multiplied production. At some point, however, an individual’s wealth is so great that he endures no pain whatsoever, and hence could not possibly buy any further reasonable comforts, yet he is rewarded as if he has given up an incredible amount for the good of society.

Apart from forcing the wealthy individual to give back, what else can be done to return balance to the economy? We could cut expenses. Certainly excessive and unnecessary public spending should be avoided as it ultimately causes the same concern as the previously described super wealthy individual, the money controlled by the government is granted to them under the pretense that if combined it will be able to provide a quality of life enhancement that in general is greater than the pain caused by taking it from the individuals for whom it belonged.

I can already hear someone in the back of the room yelling, that’s exactly why the wealthiest 5% should not have to pay their money into the pot since they do not utilize public resources. Such a skewed perspective is how we got to this point to begin with. Lloyd Blankfein may never need to use the Metrorail system, but 95% of the persons that are somehow connected to the success of the company he runs do (think pension funds) and will continue to depend on public investment. Out of sight out of mind, I guess.

We live in a society in which everyone is convinced of two seemingly connected but really very separate things: one can achieve anything in this world if one wants it badly enough; and the wealth that one has is the result of one's hard work--hence, you’ve earned it. One does not magically result in the other, especially when one thinks of, say, Paris Hilton. Such ideologies allow the wealthy to feel like they are entitled to the disproportionately easy living they have and the un-wealthy believe that the energy they are transferring to the wealthy is just part of the due-diligence process at the end of which they will some day enjoy the benefits of a role reversal. The misdirection lies in the fact that very, very, seldom, if ever, will roles actually be reversed. Sure, it is quite likely that our un-wealthy worker will one day meet another hardworking individual with even less wealth than he, but that does not mean that roles have been reversed. The flow of real wealth, the flow of real power and of economic value in America is for the most part unidirectional and exponential. Furthermore, since it is customary to inherit one’s family wealth, it is not at all obligatory for an individual to produce their wealth’s worth of production.

Continued denial of the state of disequilibrium in our country will only bring us to an ever more painful inevitability. What happens when the masses stop believing? Worse, what happens when those who stop believing begin to mobilize? A friend of mine recently told me that he does not believe in recessions, that they are merely the result of people resting on their laurels after a period of time in which things came to easy. He went on to say how he was at Target and was waiting in line for so long (because there weren't enough employees) that he just put his stuff down and left. He said, on the way out he saw a "we're hiring sign" on the door and continued with a smugness that made me question if he was the same person I played t-ball with as a kid 25 years ago. All I could think to say to him was "the other possibility is that the cost of living has increased so quickly relative to wages that in the end it's not worth working at all." He was disgusted with my response, and as someone who has held multiple simultaneous jobs for most of my life, I wasn't sure I believed the words coming out of my own mouth. Then my 23-year old brother called me to tell me he had quit his job because after subtracting the cost of commute (two hours a day), taxes, and other basic job-related expenses he was working for $4.90 an hour. How can anyone believe in the "American Dream" when they work their ass off for $4.90/hr during one of the worst recessions in history while the front page of the newspaper reads: Goldman Sachs’ profit and remuneration soars?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Haiti in Context: History

Note: This is a Partner Post to Haiti in Context: Voices. Please check out both. They represent some of the best information I've seen on Haiti that's emerged over the past few days.

It has been a tough 4 days for Haiti and its Diaspora but from struggle emerges strength. I first want to say I am every renewed by the way I've seen folks in my own personal network and internationally begin to pull together for Haiti. I am clear that what we are doing now is small and late, but there is nothing like watching community form before your eyes and working together. Political differences become supplanted in the midst of crisis and when heavy lifting is occurring. A number of people have reached out to me regarding Haiti and the context surrounding the country that would allow an earthquake to do so much damage. In reality, like most "natural disasters" there are very human causes that lead to such catastrophic consequences. I have assembled some of the best writing I've seen on the context and figured I'd let you read the experts words moreso than mine.

Alternet covers the emergence of Haiti and the deep connections between the United States, Haiti and the globe:
However, more than two centuries ago, Haiti represented one of the most important neighbors of the new American Republic and played a central role in enabling the United States to expand westward. If not for Haiti, the course of U.S. history could have been very different, with the United States possibly never expanding much beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
Read More

The Socialist Worker has a good article on the policies that helped produces deep issues of political and economic infrastructure.
"The media coverage of the earthquake is marked by an almost complete divorce of the disaster from the social and political history of Haiti," Canadian Haiti solidarity activist Yves Engler said in an interview. "They repeatedly state that the government was completely unprepared to deal with the crisis. This is true. But they left out why."

To understand these facts, we have to look at a second fault line--U.S. imperial policy toward Haiti. The U.S. government, the UN, and other powers have aided the Haitian elite in subjecting the country to neoliberal economic plans that have impoverished the masses, deforested the land, wrecked the infrastructure and incapacitated the government.
Read More

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Help Haiti Now

I write this post with a heavy heart for the people of Haiti and its Diaspora. As you likely well know by now Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital was hit with a 7.0 earthquake and many sizable aftershocks. Given that Haiti is the most impoverished nation in the Western Hemisphere, the consequences of this "natural disaster" are far beyond what many of us can conceive. I see this as a time for us to join in support in spiritual, emotional, physical and economic ways.

Beneath I have included some immediate ways that you can donate and offer aid from abroad. I have opted for donating with AmeriCares because of their long standing relationship with relief work in Haiti, their four star ranking from charity navigator, and their expertise/infrastructure in similar crises. In times of crisis, relief is needed and after watching the American Red Cross stumble, squander and misappropriate funds from Katrina Relief I decided to exercise a greater degree of caution with my donations. No matter where you chose to donate, God willing, some help will be given. So please give freely so that we can help our dear brothers and sisters of Haiti.

Partners in Health (comes highly recommended)
Doctors without Borders
Yele (Wyclef's Organization - this is a smaller org and has been getting a lot of hits and is struggling with their website and possibly other matters)
American Red Cross

An additional list of options here and a great post with options from South Side Scholar here.

While I am not Haitian (the francophone name L'Heureux is just a given name from my mother) I feel a special kindredness with our brothers and sisters there. While the poverty and squalor are often concentrated on, Haiti remains our first liberated republic which was won through struggle. Now is the time to practice what Dr. John Henrik-Clarke preached, "PanAfricanism or Perish." Let's move from ideology and voyeurism to activism and engagement.

Special thanks to @alone_cuzzo @aisha1908 @saigrundy @Ssidescholar

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Double Standards: How Our Lawlessness Strengthens Our Enemies

We have failed to even investigate torturers, yet we have prosecuted and imprisoned millions for lesser offenses. And we allow mass murderers the benefit of constitutional rights that we deny detainees at Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere. Until policymakers examine and fix these double standards, they will continue to undermine our foreign policy, as well as our domestic criminal justice system.

We now know that the Bush administration's torture policies proved horrendously counterproductive, in more ways than one: they eroded our allies' trust, undermined the ability of our non-state supporters to credibly defend our goodwill, generated bad intelligence in the form of forced—and predictably false—confessions, and undermined the morale of the professional interrogators who resisted their illegal (and idiotic) orders.

Worse yet, torture drove recruits into the arms of our enemies. According to veteran interrogators from multiple armed services, as well as the FBI, the number one reason militants flocked to Iraq was U.S. torture of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Bagram Air Force Base, CIA black sites, and the various foreign countries to which we continue to outsource torture through the extraordinary rendition program.

It was galling enough when, last year, all three branches of the federal government colluded to sweep evidence of torture under the rug. Confronted by thousands of abusive acts depicted in photos—some as severe as outright rape—DC united to protect its own. Acting at the behest of the CIA's discredited leadership, the administration lobbied Congress to amend a federal statute to grant the Defense Department an extraordinary authority to hide specific evidence of its own criminal trail, and the Supreme Court signed off on the deal.

Now, the double standard has come full circle...twice.

The first has plagued the Obama administration throughout its first year in office, and undermined the legitimacy of both its foreign policy, as well as our criminal justice system. On the one hand, people whose criminality stands hidden in plain sight—the former officials who unapologetically authorized torture, like Cheney, Addington, Bybee, and Yoo—remain free of even investigation, let alone prosecution. On the other hand, people of color face relentless prosecution and vicious penalties for non-violent offenses like drug possession, gambling, or even moving violations.

The second double standard is more recent, equally troubling, and potentially more problematic going forward. On the one hand, charges facing mercenaries apparently guilty of senselessly murdering nearly 20 Iraqis (in a bloody incident that touched off one of the most violent episodes of our six-year occupation) were dismissed by a federal district court on Thursday because the prosecution relied on statements given under promises of immunity, and thereby violated the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

On the other hand, the kangaroo courts at Guantanamo Bay we call "military commissions" don't even pretend to honor such rights, or others that are far more fundamental. Mercenaries who commit mass murder with profound international consequences were afforded robust constitutional protections barring the use of statements made under promises of immunity. Meanwhile, detainees held by the U.S.—who have included humanitarian workers and tourists swept up with "the worst of the worse" in the race to find scapegoats—held no right to exclude statements coerced by outright torture until last fall. Nor have they (for the most part) enjoyed the opportunity to assert any rights in impartial courts.

Rather than federal courts defending the rights of the accused against potentially arbitrary imprisonment, detainees plead their cases before biased military commissions seeking pre-ordained outcomes. Rather than exclude "compelled statements" like those of the exonerated Blackwater contractors, the military commissions operating in Guantanamo Bay (and those proposed by some policy analysts as a model for an even broader scheme to operate within the U.S. after the facility in Cuba has closed) invite unreliable evidence routinely rejected by federal courts.

The U.S. military commander in Iraq attempted to explain Thursday's decision with the lame and inaccurate assertion that it offered "a lesson in the rule of law." What the dismissal of the Blackwater contractors' charges actually demonstrates is quite the opposite: law requires consistency, whereas our approach to accountability for war crimes smacks of opportunism.

The imperatives to defend our nation's historical legacy, or the universal moral principles condemning torture, or the international legal system and its bedrock prohibition on torture, have apparently proven too quiet for the deaf ear of Washington institutions. No one seems to care that although torture is an international crime, officials complicit in it remain highly rewarded and occupy prestigious positions in government and the private sector.

But these double standards carry a price, well beyond the reputation and moral standing our nation has already lost.

We wage, in the war on terror, a battle for hearts and minds. And there is no surer way to lose that battle than to violate the rights of detainees, while vindicating those of mercenaries--or to prosecute politically powerless people for innocuous behavior, while praising officials who violate our species' most fundamental shared commitments. Such blatant inconsistency is lost neither on our enemies, nor the billions of individuals targeted by their recruitment efforts.

Officials increasingly wring their heads over a supposed threat of domestic radicalization. It is ephemeral in the first instance, but the concern points to a generally legitimate fear: people of any kind who grow alienated could eventually turn violent.

Some Muslims in America may indeed be growing increasingly alienated—which may seem understandable in the face of policies like "special registration" round-ups, guilt by association, pervasive surveillance, the infiltration of religious institutions and entrapment by ex-convicts paid handsomely by taxpayers, intrusive interrogations and searches, private sector employment and housing discrimination, hate crimes, bullying, and racial and religious profiling by law enforcement authorities. But as a group, we have not renounced the social compact by taking up arms, to any greater extent than former servicemembers could be said to have been categorically radicalized by virtue of some supporting right-wing militia groups like the Aryan Nation.

But while Muslim Americans remain loyal to the U.S., people in other countries have no compact with us to renounce. And they have no reason to accept our military presence except the principles we purport to the same time that we overtly violate them without apology.

The strategy that could most effectively hamstring violent extremism abroad is the same one that would most effectively stop disaffected youth in America from turning to violence: applying our principles equally and with consistency. Honestly investigating our nation's record, and prosecuting those individuals responsible for international crimes, would go a long way to reassure observers that we take justice seriously. And allowing the rights and laws in which we have long taken pride to also govern the trials of those we militarily detain would relieve concerns about U.S. human rights abuses, both among international critics and domestic observers targeted by militant propagandists.

At the moment, we continue to fail on each front. Despite the President's pretty words in Cairo last fall, we Americans committed to rule of law and the Constitution remain waiting for that "change [we] can believe in." And it's not just us: the world—and the people over whose hearts and minds we struggle—are watching, too.

This article was originally published by Huffington Post.