Monday, April 25, 2011

Stalingrad on Lake Michigan

"Benton Harbor, Michigan is like many rust-belt cities which have lost all of their manufacturing plants. Half the residents live below the poverty line and the town of 10,000 has lost population since that last census. Across Lake Michigan from Chicago, Benton Harbor is half of a "twin cities" combo with neighboring St. Joseph. The "twins" couldn't look more different, however. Benton Harbor is 92% African American and impoverished; St. Joseph is 90% white and affluent. While the nation's attention was on the war against public unions in Wisconsin, newly elected Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder has chosen Benton Harbor as the test case for his "financial martial law" bill. Snyder proposed that any municipality deemed economically unfit be taken over by a state appointed "emergency manager," with the power to dissolve contracts and replace or dismiss locally elected officials. The notion is laughably unconstitutional on its face, but the Michigan State Legislature passed the bill anyway and the Governor has already designated his first "manager," who has taken over the township of Benton Harbor. The decision-making power of the City Council has been suspended. Elected officials are allowed to hold meetings, only they are no longer allowed to govern. The state legislature cocked and loaded the gun and the governor pulled the trigger. He killed Democracy. If you thought the citizen protests in Wisconsin were impressive, wait until this load of neo-Republicanism hits the fan in Lansing.

Snyder is part of a cabal of new Republican governors, including Walker of Wisconsin, Kasich in Ohio, and Scott in Florida, who are waging war on the working class. Emboldened by a congressional majority and backed by the Tea Party, the neophyte governors entered political office with a greater desire to impose a political philosophy than to serve the people, and this bait and switch has caused their approval ratings to plummet. Yet they continue to serve their corporate masters and pass legislation punishing the poor. In the name of deficit reduction, Gov Snyder has proposed deep cuts in  school funding and favors eliminating the state's $600 per child tax credit. At the same time, he has called for tax cuts of 1.73 billion dollars for business. In hapless Benton Harbor, meanwhile, the Whirlpool corporate headquarters still provides executive positions for the few while the people have lost their plant. With no powerful voices to oppose it, the public lakefront has been privatized as part of a luxury golf development, backed by Whirlpool. Since the Michigan jobless rate stands at 10.7%, I'm certain they'll need some caddies.

Governor Snyder's previous job was founder and CEO of an Ann Arbor venture capital fund, which made him very wealthy. His choice for Benton Harbor's "emergency manager," was Joseph Harris, formerly Chief Financial Officer for the city of Detroit, a dubious distinction. Harris' decree, stripping power from elected officials in favor of his fiat, were reminiscent of an old Commissar sending a politburo apparatchik to tend to a provincial problem. The township takeover has caused sufficient uproar for the ACLU to file several Freedom of Information Act requests over the legality of the act and the governor's alleged collusion with lobbyists. The Michigan ACLU stated that 100 local governments were in a state of "fiscal watch," which has not slowed "manager" Joe Harris, who has added the Detroit School District to the state's list of distressed assets, enabling the governor to appoint an additional manager with the power to void any and all union contracts. This is the antithesis of the smaller, less intrusive government favored by real conservatives, yet you don't see any Tea Party or Fox News rallies protesting the elimination of representative democracy.

Although Governor Snyder has stated his focus will be on budget issues, the state legislature has joined with new Republican super-majorities elsewhere in an effort to restrict women's reproductive rights. Michigan legislators have proposed 17 bills since January concerning abortion or public funding for organizations like Planned Parenthood. This perfectly mirrors the federal government. While creating all those new jobs, the Republican House of Representatives has still managed to introduce an astounding 916 bills over a woman's right to control her own uterus. Those bills are going nowhere, but the Michigan statehouse has a two-thirds majority of radical Republicans, giving them the power to put any issue of their choosing on the ballot. The National Organization of Women has mobilized, as well as a group called Michigan Citizens United, which has started a Facebook page in their efforts to collect the sufficient number of signatures to petition for a recall of the governor. Snyder responded by adding the cities of Pontiac and Ecorse to the list of distressed places in need of an "emergency manager."

Ordinarily, I would enjoy watching the Republican Party self-immolate. Hell, I'd even bring the marshmallows. But this drastic overreach by a handful of ideological power zombies is not just a danger to working people or distressed municipalities, it's corrosively un-American. And it is happening in state legislatures across the country and done in stealth, lest the constant news gaze upon Washington, D.C. be diverted by actions on the periphery. The GOP majority Tennessee General Assembly just passed a bill prohibiting the use of the words "gay" or "homosexual" in elementary schools, but if the new Governor should send his man to Memphis to dissolve our elected city government, I might have to be up in the capital building in Nashville creating a ruckus. In Michigan, the people voted for a CEO-led government and they got a centralized body to make decisions for the state, a totalitarian figure-head for a leader, corporate lobbyists, anti-union propaganda, and political coercion from a radical majority. Back in the thirties, we used to have a name for that kind of governing: Fascism. Our parents and grandparents fought a war against it. Remember?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Budgetary Buffoonery

Does anyone believe that this latest political impasse that came within an hour of  padlocking the government actually had anything to do with the budget? If so, I have some shares of National Public Radio that I'd like to sell you. I know, it's not a private company. Yet. Just give them time. It's typical for the Republicans to begin eviscerating social programs when they assume power, but this Tea Party uprising is starting to resemble The Lord of the Flies, when the bullies victimize the weak until the grown-ups arrive. How else to explain the willingness to hold our soldiers' paychecks hostage to the government funding of Planned Parenthood?

This supposed attempt at reducing the federal deficit was a congressional comedy from beginning to end, starring John Boehner as the substitute teacher in a juvenile corrections facility. The stated intent was to create jobs and strengthen the economy, but the Tea Party novices muscled away the wheel of the bus and turned the discussion into all abortion, all the time. The insane crusade against Planned Parenthood in the midst of a budget crisis revealed the Tea Party Republicans as the zealots for their social and moral agenda that they are. Civically challenged Indiana Rep. Mike Pence took to the House floor to declare that Republicans were willing to shut down the government if the Democrats didn't "respect our values," while outside, Tea Party activists chanted, "Cut it or shut it." Arizona Sen. John Kyl addressed the rally saying, "If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that's well over 90% of what (they) do." In truth, 96% of the organizations' activities consist of cancer screenings, STD or STI testing, contraception, counselling, pregnancy testing and pre-natal care. Abortions are referred to medical professionals since the Hyde Amendment already forbids public funds for that purpose. Republicans lied, Democrats enabled them, and Margaret Sanger just rolled over in her grave.

It's difficult to imagine that a scant 11 years ago, the U.S. had a balanced budget and a federal surplus of $230 billion. "But 9/11 changed everything," the argument goes. It certainly did. 19 homicidal men, armed with nothing more than sharp objects and an audacious plan, attacked landmarks of finance and government with hi-jacked domestic airliners, and caused this nation to go berserk. The Pentagon budget soared, our military invaded and occupied two countries, and our president told the nation to go shopping while Wall Street looted the treasury. That's why we run a $12 trillion deficit for which China is holding the marker. I'm no economist, but it seems the logical thing to do is extract ourselves from the entire, misguided fiscal and military morass we find ourselves in and disassemble the failed Bush policies that put us there. And that first means ending the two shooting wars we are currently fighting and bringing home our troops, not just from Afghanistan and Iraq, but from Germany, Japan, and Korea as well. The U.S. spends as much on defense as the rest of the world combined. The Bipartisan Poling Center recommends the reduction of our armed forces by 275,000 troops, and a Barney Frank/Ron Paul led congressional committee found that reducing our military presence in Europe and Asia by 1/3, would save $347 billion. Currently, we spend seven times as much as China, which is in second place.

The budget battle was like a bantamweight preliminary to the main event; the next budget. Both parties are sniping over earmarks and government funding, while their proposed reductions to the deficit is the equivalent of removing two M&Ms from the deluxe-size bag. I would like to recommend some large cuts that no one has yet addressed, beginning with restoring the tax code to Clinton era levels when nobody was complaining. This includes closing the loopholes for American corporations who make their profits here and park their money in overseas tax havens like the Cayman Islands. Conglomerates like General Electric would no longer be able to pay zero taxes whatsoever, which just happened. And a company like Transocean, responsible for the BP Oil disaster, would pay more in taxes and less in bonuses to executives for the year's "outstanding safety performance." A non-partisan study estimated $1 trillion in annual revenue if the government taxed corporate earnings channelled overseas. So, what cuts do they want to make to balance out the absence of corporate funds; the Environmental Protection Agency, HUD, financing for high-speed rail, heating subsidies for the elderly, and school lunches for poor children. Why not dismantle the whole Bush-era, Germanic sounding, Department of Homeland Security, instead?

As for Medicare, anyone who watches TV sees fraud roll by everyday, especially in the ads for electric scooters for the elderly. Alongside the Hoveround and the Scooter Store, there are numerous companies offering their guarantees of mobility "at little or no cost to you." This means with the right doctor's note, you too could be doing wheelies on the lip of the Grand Canyon. I might enjoy a free scooter too, but I don't think the country can afford to give one to everybody. Maybe a wheelchair, but you would still have to push. It's a Medicare scam, pure and simple, and the doctors get a little taste too. Same with the automatic stairs, and specialty home medical equipment, and the excessive testing of well insured patients in clinics and hospitals. All you need to end it is honest oversight of the agency. And wouldn't it be an altruistic gesture if billionaires donated their Social Security checks to the truly needy?  Before horse-whipping the poor, these blinkered budget hawks should remember that our Afghan adventure is costing us $10 billion a month, and the military budget is greater than federal spending on education, Medicare, or interest on the debt, combined. Without the expense of empire and a remade military for the 21st century, this nation can find the way to escape from this dark economic period in the same way we have time and again; prosper out of it.