Monthly Archives: April 2012

Will the bottle break?

Our nation is cluttered with problems that, while significant, create little threat to its survival. Most of these problems, though, are mere symptoms of two issues that — taken together — could cause disaster.
The dramatic and increasing polarization of U.S. wealth, combined with increasing corporate control over our political system, cannot end well.
The symptoms of wealth polarization are everywhere, and in a sad game of Whac-A-Mole the Alabama Legislature is trying to stamp them out.
This is especially evident in the controversy over charter schools. State legislators wants to fix education. Many public schools, they feel, are not providing an education that adequately prepares students for financial success. The solution of the day is tax-funded private schools.
There is no great mystery, though, to the underlying challenge to the state’s educational efforts. Almost one in three Alabama children live in households that are below the poverty level. They are worried about food and shelter; it is little wonder that they are not concentrating on academic success. Their chances of attending college are almost nil, so few have any expectation that their financial future will differ from that of their parents.
Our legislators are worried about divorce rates — proposing a “covenant marriage” law — yet financial pressure is the greatest stress on marriage and a major contributor to spousal abuse. They are concerned about abortions, yet a growing number of women are financially unable to raise a child.
We’re passing laws left and right blocking access to illicit drugs, but ignoring the financial despair that so often leads people either to seek solace in chemical oblivion or make money through illegal drug dealing.
The top 1 percent of our population holds 43 percent of the nation’s financial wealth. The next 19 percent holds 50 percent. The bottom 80 percent holds 7 percent of America’s financial wealth.
And the gap is growing.
Since 1979 the average pre-tax income for the bottom 90 percent of households has decreased by $900, while that of the top 1 percent increased by over $700,000. From 2009 to 2010, the top 1 percent collected $93 of every $100 in income growth.
By itself, wealth polarization is not a problem that threatens our system of government. It is inevitable that the American majority eventually will recognize that its economic interests are at odds with the minority who control capital. We saw early signs of this realization with the Occupy Wall Street protests.
The beauty of a democracy is that class conflict is not fatal to the political system. When a majority of Americans recognize that, whatever their differences, they all want a fair shot at capitalist success, they can make it happen. Unlike the people in countries overwhelmed by the Arab Spring, those in a functioning democracy need do nothing more dramatic than vote.
So on to problem No. 2: corporate control of Washington. Reported federal lobbying expenditures have more than tripled since 1998. Political contributions from the financial sector are 10 times higher than they were 20 years ago. They spend all this money because it works. The eight companies that spent the most on federal lobbying from 2007 to 2009 all saw their tax rates decrease from 2007 to 2010.
The ability of our political system to survive the combined problems of wealth polarization and corporate control depends in large part on perception.
Despite the grim evidence on wealth polarization, many Americans hold tight to their resolve that they have a shot at the good life. While income mobility is at historic lows, individual expectations of upward income mobility are slowing class consciousness. Racial and ethnic divisions also are an obstacle to the cohesion that could lead to widespread and organized protest.
Expecting millions of people with no ability to accumulate capital to remain oblivious to their common plight seems unrealistic. So far, though, class consciousness is not a controlling aspect of American culture.
The perception that Washington is under corporate control, however, is widespread. Suffice it to say that the Occupy Wall Street and tea party movements — opposed on most details — are united in their fury that Washington no longer answers to the people.
Wealth polarization is creating increasing pressure in the glass bottle that is our political system. Corporate control of Washington is the cork that prevents the pressure from easing. To keep the bottle from breaking, we need to ease the pressure or loosen the cork.
We have two problems, both major but neither cataclysmic. Add them together, though, and we have explosive potential. Class conflict is bad. Class conflict that cannot be resolved through the political process ends up in history books.
Contact Eric Fleischauer at eric@decaturdaily.com or http://www.mile304.com.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Class warfare, Poverty

Beaten down to glory

The Alabama that awoke to an ugly morning one year ago today was beaten down and weary.
Her unemployment rate was 9.3 percent, and close to 20 percent of her residents were underemployed. Many of her factories had closed and more were at risk.
Because her people struggled to find work, she was almost broke.
She was, most of all, conflicted. Financial pressures meant she had to reduce her expenses, but her people were deeply divided on what she should cut. She was divided by immigration and religion and race and politics. She was the subject of derision from other states and nations, a weary spectacle.
The Alabama that awoke to rain and wind on April 27, 2011, was tired. Her robe was tattered and her slippers threadbare. Her simple hope was to make it through another day.
And what a day it was.
The stooped lady, already on the ropes, was pummelled. Sixty-two tornadoes slammed her, from Choctaw County in the southwest to Jackson County in the northeast. They wiped out homes and businesses and factories. They destroyed entire towns.
The punches flew all day, from 4 in the morning to 10 at night. They killed 248 of her people and injured far more. They devastated Hackleburg and Phil Campbell and Mount Hope. They exploded through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. They pounded Lawrence and Limestone counties.
The tired lady could do nothing but cling to the ropes, bloodied. As the world watched, all that seemed to hold her upright was the force of the blows.
The beating ended and everyone waited for her collapse: for her gnarled hands to release the ropes, for her weathered face to hit the mat.
But something happened to that weary lady as she absorbed the blows.
Maybe she remembered she had survived worse in her 192 years. Maybe the suffering awoke her compassion. Maybe she realized what bound her people together was greater then what divided them. Maybe she found strength in God.
Or maybe she was just too ornery to give up.
Whatever happened, the lady who stepped from the ropes the night of April 27 was not the same one that limped out of bed that morning.
She was strong, possessed with a staying power that tornadoes leaving a 130-mile path could not match. She was loving, cradling her people and healing their wounds. She was single-minded. She was proud.
For all of us, this one-year anniversary brings terrible memories. For some, it brings new waves of mourning and grief.
But it should also bring joy. As a people, we prevailed. We took one of the worst beatings any state has endured and we refused to go down.
Engraved beneath a memorial to little Edgar Mojica at Phil Campbell elementary school’s new playground are words intended to sum up his spirit. They also describe the spirit of a state that found forgotten strength in the midst of the onslaught:
“The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”

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Why not tax the other minority?

The state needs more revenue.
The governor knows it. The House, despite passing a reckless budget that would imperil the lives of many on Medicaid and risk federal funding, knows it.
So the Senate, left to do the hard work of governance without assistance, is beginning to talk publicly about the need for a tax increase. The issue is what segment of the population will shoulder the burden.
The obvious solution is one that legislators are steadfastly refusing to mention.
The state’s tax burden on the poor is heavier than that of any other state. Residents at poverty level pay the same income-tax rate as those with million-dollar paychecks. The poor and middle class pay a much greater percentage of their income on sales taxes for groceries than do the wealthy.
The wealthy in Alabama pay lower taxes than in other states. The same flat income tax that disproportionately burdens the poor is a benefit to the rich.
The state has the lowest property taxes in the nation, a fact that provides no benefit to the growing class of Alabamians who own no property.
The state is one of three that offers a full deduction on taxes paid in federal income tax. The deduction provides little benefit to the poor and middle class, but a huge benefit to those with the highest incomes.
The segment of our population that is least burdened by state taxes is also the segment with the best ability to pay them: the wealthy.
The obvious answer, therefore, is to give the people an opportunity to vote on whether to increase taxes on the wealthy. Not recklessly, as they are valuable members of our state, but to a reasonable rate that brings their tax burden to a level that is on par with other low-taxing states.
Instead, though, legislators are talking about increasing taxes on cigarettes.
This is not an inherently bad idea. Cigarette smoking is bad for those who do it and burdens the health system. As a solution to the state’s chronic budgetary woes, though, it is a cop-out.
Most smokers are poor or middle class. A study in Georgia found the bottom 20 percent of income earners pay 18 times more in tobacco taxes, as a percentage of their income, than the top 20 percent.
Cigarette taxes are a way to wring more money from the segment of our population that already carries the greatest tax burden.
Conveniently, cigarette smokers are a minority. Increasing their taxes carries little political risk.
The question, though, is why legislators will not increase taxes on another minority: wealthy Alabamians.
The answer speaks volumes on what is wrong with our state government.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Tax reform

The real school problem

Alabamians want the problem with education to be a flaw in our schools, because such a problem would be relatively easy to fix.
Local legislators have embraced a grading system for all public schools, effectively placing more emphasis on standardized tests. They support tax-funded charter schools, hoping private companies can find different solutions. They attack tenure and teacher pay, trying to convince themselves that the educators must be to blame.
As the professionals who deal with our children on a daily basis can attest, however, problems in educational outcome have less to do with the schools than with the lives of the children they teach.
A recent report of the Southern Regional Education Board showed Alabama with the fourth highest childhood poverty rate in the nation. In 2010, 28 percent of our children lived in households that were below the poverty level.
Since 2005, the number of Alabama children living in poverty increased by 36,000.
No Legislature-crafted educational gimmicks can overcome the obstacles faced by impoverished children. Asking a child to prepare for her math class — when she is worried about whether she will eat, where she will sleep, and whether her parents can obtain medical care — is asking too much.
Children raised in poverty are less likely to graduate from high school, and far less likely to attend or graduate from college.
Blaming public schools is easy. What is not so easy is recognizing and addressing the underlying problem.
Teachers do the best they can with the students who enter the classroom every morning, but an increasing number of those children are overwhelmed with the stress of poverty. It’s a far more difficult problem to tackle, but the future of our state depends on it.

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Filed under Alabama politics, education, Poverty

Earth Day quickly forgotten

It is Earth Day.
Two years ago on Earth Day, oil was gushing into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate of 53,000 barrels per day after the April 20 explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon well.
The precise causes remain in litigation, but the environmental disaster had its roots in the elevation of profit over environment by the corporations involved and by a lack of effective government oversight.
The Earth continues to pay the price of the corporate and governmental misdeeds. Scientists and fishermen are still discovering huge numbers of fish with gashes, ulcers and parasites symptomatic of environmental contamination. Coral reefs are dead and dying. The spill is suspected in mass dolphin deaths.
Americans were horrified. They vilified BP and successfully demanded an overhaul of the regulatory agency charged with overseeing underwater drilling. They were, for a few days, adamant that something had to change, that we had to be better stewards of the Earth.
And then, with no acknowledgement of the inconsistency, Americans returned to their political hobby of bashing the federal government for excessive regulations.
Within weeks of the disaster, Americans were complaining about a short-term moratorium that prevented deep-water drilling until officials could figure out went wrong.
Our elected representatives spent last week trying to push through approval of a 1,700-mile pipeline with inadequate environmental oversight, even as officials were assessing the damage from a pipeline break that poured 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. We don’t learn.
The benefit of capitalism — that it inspires corporations to pursue profit with single-minded resolve — is also its detriment. Asking corporations to police themselves on matters that do not directly affect their bottom line has never worked. Even environmentally concerned CEOs must answer to a board and shareholders for expenditures. The economy developed around the goal of maximizing revenue and minimizing cost. Americans are naive to be surprised that environmental tragedy occasionally results.
If we both desire the benefits of capitalism and value our environment, we must demand effective regulation. Regulations serve as the only fire wall between reckless profiteering and environmental disaster.

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Filed under Conservatism, Environment, Government regulation

ACA will benefit Alabama

State Attorney General Luther Strange is complaining about the Affordable Care Act to anyone who will listen.
It is a huge piece of legislation that was the result of multiple compromises, so it will need some revisions. Some problems already have been fixed administratively; others will need Congressional action.
The decision on whether the act will be fully implemented in 2014, of course, has nothing to do with Strange. It lies solely with the U.S. Supreme Court. His continued complaints are a political tactic.
Strange’s main gripe is a common one.
“If the federal government can mandate what we have to spend money on, then the federal government can make us buy something even if we are morally opposed to it,” Strange wrote.
Both the state and federal government, however, routinely tell us what we must spend money on.
The state forces us to pay taxes and fees, even though many of us are morally opposed to the fact that those taxes are being used to finance litigation that would prevent the poorest Alabamians from accessing health care. The state requires us to buy liability insurance if we own a car, a necessity for many Alabamians.
The federal government requires participation in the Social Security system. It forces its citizens to pay taxes to finance morally questionable wars that kill people, whereas the Affordable Care Act mandates expenditures that would save lives.
Strange and other opponents of the law suggest such mandates would be abhorrent to the Founding Fathers. Yet in 1792, Congress required all able-bodied citizens to obtain firearms. In 1798, Congress required seamen to pay the government for hospitalization benefits.
The law is not perfect, but in Alabama especially we should pay attention to its benefits. Because of limited access to health care, Alabama has the third highest infant mortality rate in the nation. One in five Alabamians has no health insurance and essentially no access to preventive care, a number that is growing as more employers drop health insurance as a benefit.
Is it a perfect law? No. In Alabama more than most states, though, it’s a step in the right direction.

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Filed under Alabama politics, Health care, Obamacare

Another shackle on public schools

A bill that mandates the start date of public schools goes to a state Senate committee today. The committee, chaired by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, should reject the bill.
The contentious debate in Montgomery over charter schools has revealed a surprising area of complete agreement: State laws have limited public schools in their ability to offer innovative solutions. Legislators, school boards, teachers and parents recognize that in session after session, the Legislature has shackled teachers and school systems in their ability to tailor education to the needs of the students.
Senate Bill 517 prevents schools from starting classes more than two weeks before Labor Day or ending them after Memorial Day. Many students and parents like this idea, and all elected school boards have the ability to implement such a calendar. Some have and some have not, based on the unique needs and goals of each school district.
SB 517 once again removes flexibility from local school systems. It imposes a top-down solution that prevents those closest to the situation from addressing the needs of their students.

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Filed under Alabama politics, charter schools, education, Government regulation