Monthly Archives: December 2012

Teenagers: The lost generation?

Even as federal elected officials show a complete inability to work out immediate economic issues, larger ones loom on the horizon. Five years of recession and economic lethargy have resulted not just in short-term misery for millions of Americans, but long-term damage to their employability.

Teenagers consistently have had among the highest unemployment rates during the past five years, often above 20 percent. In November, despite a national unemployment rate of 7.7 percent, 23.5 percent of teenagers were actively but unsuccessfully seeking jobs.

Unemployed teens have not been receiving on-the-job training. Because Alabama and other states cut costs by reducing expenditures on two-year and four-year colleges, tuition keeps going up. Alabama has few effective tuition-assistance programs, and the mainstay of federal assistance — the Pell grant program — is increasingly restrictive.

The end result is that, even as the economy picks up, a large percentage of our young people will lack work skills.

A generation ago, a hard-working but unskilled laborer could make it into the middle class. He or she could make high enough wages to save money, creating opportunities for education or entrepreneurship. Globalization, technical advances in factories and the demise of unions have doomed most unskilled workers to jobs that barely exceed the poverty line and rarely offer health insurance. Many of those who graduated from high school in the past five years will find themselves in this grim category.

This is, of course, a disastrous problem for those stuck in low-paying jobs and deprived of the capital they need to advance themselves or their children. It’s also a societal problem.

It will cause a further shrinking of the middle class and erode the ability of consumers to lift the nation from cyclical recessions. It deprives employers of the skilled workforce they need to succeed in a global economy.

The solutions, while complex, are urgent. They include a renewed focus on providing access to post-secondary education and health care. Just as the children of wealthy families tend to remain wealthy, those who grow up in poverty tend to stay there. We cannot afford to allow the latest recession to add to the generational poverty that already weighs down our nation.


Leave a comment

Filed under education, Poverty, unemployment

Alabama struggles on Jesus’ wish list

For Christians, it’s a magical time of the year. We have just left a time of renewed focus on the birth and ministry of Jesus. New Year’s Day — while secular — cannot help but mingle with the echoes of Christmas. It is a time when Christians look at their failings and resolve to do better.

Last Sunday, my pastor described a verse as Jesus’ “wish list.” The words, recorded by Matthew, were those of Jesus to his disciples.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ ”

Jesus was speaking to a small group of followers, of course, not to an organized state. It’s nonetheless tough for Alabamians to avoid a sense of shame when hearing his words.

The separation between state and individual was immense when Jesus spoke the words. His followers had no input into the selection of their governmental leaders, nor in the policies dictated by their Roman emperor. The government was an external entity.

The relationship between individual and government is more complex in America. For good reason, we seek to maintain a separation between religion and state, but voting is personal. Eighty-four percent of Alabamians described themselves as Christians in the most recent census, so few state officials are elected or state policies implemented without the approval of Christians. Indeed, we typically elect leaders who are outspoken in their Christianity.

When it comes to some issues — mainly those that cost no money — we actively use the power of the state to further what we believe to be Christian causes. We pass laws limiting abortion, gambling, alcohol and drugs. In these categories, we are content to allow our personal voting decisions to reflect our understanding of the teachings of Jesus. We recognize that government is the most powerful organization of which we are a part, and we direct its power to ends we believe are consistent with our faith.

How are we doing on the “wish list,” though?

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.”

The state has little discretion over food stamps, but the politicians we elect attack the program relentlessly. Describing Barack Obama as the “food stamp president” — because so many people fell into poverty during the recession and thus became qualified for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — gained considerable traction in the state. U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, is a leader in the effort to limit availability of food stamps. Almost all Alabama elected officials voted against a stimulus plan that temporarily increased food-stamp levels by 14 percent.

Yet 75 percent of Alabama’s 914,000 food-stamp recipients are in families with children. Another 17 percent are either elderly or disabled. Of those Alabamians receiving food stamps, 88 percent are below the poverty line; 44 percent are in deep poverty, meaning they make $11,000 or less a year for a family of four.

The benefit we begrudge these people is hardly extravagant. On average, they receive $1.41 per meal.
Alabamians do have discretion over how much they tax the poor on food. Alabama is one of two states that offer no tax breaks on groceries.

“I was a stranger and you invited me in.”

Alabama is an international icon in its aggressive rejection of strangers. We elected a Decatur representative who sponsored legislation he promised would attack “every aspect of an illegal alien’s life,” and it did. We elected a federal representative from Huntsville who promised to “do anything short of shooting” undocumented immigrants to get them to leave the state. Alabama’s overwhelmingly Christian population found itself in a battle with a secular federal government, and it was Alabama arguing that strangers should be sent away.

“I was sick and you looked after me.”

Here again, Alabama finds itself at war with a secular federal government. Alabama’s Christian population is arguing against looking after the sick. The Affordable Care Act would provide coverage to more than 300,000 Alabamians who have almost no access to health care. After losing one court battle, Gov. Robert Bentley is preparing for another. Alabamians overwhelmingly applaud his goal of denying preventive care to the poor, perpetuating one of the nation’s highest infant mortality rates by blocking the poor from prenatal care and of preventing effective treatment for the mentally ill.

Unlike the Roman Empire in Jesus’ lifetime, our government is not external. Ours is a government of the people and by the people, and it reflects our beliefs. Brimming with self-described Christians, Alabama finds itself in the uncomfortable position of aggressively pushing policies that conflict with the words of Jesus.
As 2012 comes to a close, Alabamians can look at Jesus’ “wish list” with shame. We talk a lot about Jesus, but out self-governance shows little regard for his requests.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alabama politics, Health care, immigration, Poverty, Religion

Bork on Second Amendment

Every mass shooting in America raises the question of whether the nation adequately limits guns. The Dec. 14 massacre of young children in Newtown, Conn., however, resonated in a way that previous attacks have not.
As usual, opponents of gun control point to the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as creating a broad right to bear arms.
The issue of gun control is complex, and the effectiveness of state or federal controls is subject to legitimate debate. It is worth looking, however, at the limited scope of the Second Amendment. The full text:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
One of the most conservative jurists in the United States died last week. His thoughts on the Second Amendment are instructive.
“I’m not an expert on the Second Amendment,” Judge Robert Bork said in 1989, “but its intent was to guarantee the right of states to form militia, not for individuals to bear arms.”
In 1991, Bork noted the weak support the gun lobby has in the Second Amendment.
“The National Rifle Association is always arguing that the Second Amendment determines the right to bear arms,” Bork said. “But I think it really is people’s right to bear arms in a militia. The NRA thinks that it protects their right to have Teflon-coated bullets. But that’s not the original understanding.”
In a 1997 book, Bork took further exception to efforts to expand the narrow words of the Second Amendment.
“The Second Amendment was designed to allow states to defend themselves against a possibly tyrannical national government,” Bork wrote. “Now that the federal government has stealth bombers and nuclear weapons, it is hard to imagine what people would need to keep in the garage to serve that purpose.”
The Second Amendment is relevant to the overdue debate on gun control, but not conclusive. Common sense should be the primary guide as Americans seek a solution that protects the reasonable concerns of gun owners, but reduces the frequency of tragedies like the one in Newtown.

1 Comment

Filed under Gun control

Mass shootings: Solving the problems we can

The classic rebuttal to calls for gun control — repeated by many even in the wake of Friday’s Newtown, Conn., massacre of children — is that “guns don’t kill people; people kill people.”
Americans’ response should be a collective, “Duh.”
Our society is deeply broken. We see it in mass murders. We see it in the less-publicized but daily shootings on the street. We see it in bomb threats and domestic terrorist plots. We see it in broken families. And we saw it in Newtown and Aurora; in Tucson, Blacksburg and Columbine.
No question, guns would be little threat in a society that was not so riddled with evil.
But this is the society we’ve got. If there are solutions to the root problem, they are long-term and complex.
So yes, the best solution would be to fix our society. The fact that we can’t figure out how to do so is not a reason to ignore other problems that contribute to mass murders.
One of those is the ready availability of guns.
Even that solution is not simple. A disturbing percentage of Americans feel their inability to purchase a rifle that shoots 30 rounds as fast as the trigger finger can twitch is an unacceptable abridgment of their liberty.
Gun manufacturers are so determined to profit that they share their proceeds with the National Rifle Association, which uses the money to influence politicians. Honest political debate is impossible in Washington because so many kowtow to NRA voting scorecards.
So it’s a difficult solution, but one we know can work. The United States has the most lenient gun laws among developed nations, as well as the greatest number of mass killings. Australia, in 1996, reacted to a mass shooting that killed 20 by banning semi-automatic rifles, imposing other gun controls and buying back guns. Mass shootings, as frequent there as in America before 1996, immediately dropped to zero.
The people of most developed nations have concluded unrestricted freedom to own guns is less important than the freedom to live without fear of them.
Removing every possible barrier to treatment of the mentally ill is another solution that, while difficult, is doable. The Affordable Care Act would expand treatment of the mentally ill, both through conventional insurance and Medicaid. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is trying to block the reforms. He also closed two mental hospitals.
Yes, we live in a broken society. Yes, the fundamental problem is not guns but people who want to kill people.
Given that we can’t solve those problems, it is time we found the political will to tackle the problems we can.


Filed under Government regulation, Gun control

Death of the middle class

In a surprise move, the Michigan Legislature last week passed a “right-to-work” law that could end unions as a significant presence in the state.

It was bad news for Alabama, which — especially in the automotive sector — has enjoyed the comparative advantage of being one of a handful of states that prevented unions or employers from requiring non-union members to pay dues. Michigan is the 24th state to pass a right-to-work law, so Alabama’s advantage is fading.

Labor unions have brought on many of their own difficulties. While they spurred major advances that benefit all workers, they also have engaged in thuggish behavior. Boring negotiations do not make the news, but violent strikes do. They often have been guilty of overreach, bankrupting their golden-goose employer while grasping for the extra egg.

The gradual disappearance of unions, though, is not something the middle class should celebrate. They were one of the few tools available to solve one of the nation’s greatest threats: The death of the middle class.

Wages for Americans in most income brackets have been falling for the past three decades, and there is no mystery where that income is going. Since 1979, the income of the top 1 percent has almost tripled. Income of the top 0.01 percent increased more than 600 percent in the same time period.

Capital income — gains on investment — have more than tripled for the top 1 percent during three decades, while shrinking dramatically for most Americans. Through 1979, increases in productivity provided roughly equal benefits to workers and owners. Since then, essentially all the revenue from increased productivity has gone to the pockets of the corporate owner.

Labor-replacing technology and globalization are among the developments that — by reducing their bargaining position — have undermined the ability of middle-class workers to maintain a livable wage. There are of course many generous employers, but the trend is unmistakable.

A steady erosion

Labor has lost its ability to secure a share of the profits. There are still employers that pay employees based on their value to the corporation, but most pay as little as possible to keep them.

That does not mean the employers are bad people; it means they are good businessmen. The purpose of business is to generate profit for the owner. The goal of an efficient capitalist is to pay as little as possible for labor and other production costs.

The social cost of the resulting erosion of the middle class is high. Among the developed nations, the United States has the greatest level of income and wealth inequality. It also has one of the lowest levels of income mobility. The poor and middle class are getting poorer while the rich get richer.

Snapshot inequality is not disturbing. Inequality is critical to a functioning capitalist system. The U.S. trend of increasing generational inequality, however, is frightening. Social upheaval is inevitable when a huge swath of the population is struggling to survive, has no ability to increase its income and shares space with a tiny percentage whose inherited wealth begets more wealth.

The weakening of unions is one factor in the steady erosion of the middle class. The question becomes whether the nation has other tools to increase economic mobility and decrease entrenched inequality.

The obvious answer in a democracy is government. Some capitalists recognize the threat government poses to cheap labor and growing profits, and they have gone to great lengths to control it. Through taxation, government can force the wealthy to pay the cost of providing opportunity — in the form of health care, education and transportation — to the poor. The attack on unions has been critical to the goal of capitalist-friendly governance, because unions represented the most organized resistance.

Unions pushed for legislation and elected officials who were friendly to labor. The destruction of unions has been a primary goal of some politically active capitalists. Their success has changed the political landscape, as unions are an increasingly anemic political force.

Politically powerful alliances along racial lines also were a threat. Wealthy politicos have invested heavily in state-elected officials willing to change voting rules in ways designed to reduce the black and Hispanic vote.

Recognizing common interest

Two solutions seem possible. One is that American voters recognize the commonality created by their falling incomes. It’s never happened before, but America is more unequal than it has ever been.

The other possibility is that capitalists themselves recognize the existential threat created by growing inequality. Aside from the possibility of social upheaval, there is the business problem of a major segment of the population having too little income to drive the economy. The recession resulted from a steep drop in consumer demand, coupled with a loss of the meager assets — in homes and stock — compiled by the middle class.

America’s inability to shake the effects of the recession has much to do with a population pummeled by decades of dropping wages. Once the bulwark of the economy, the middle class has become its weakest link. The primary victims are the poor and middle class, but it’s a condition that also harms the capitalist.

Leave a comment

Filed under Capitalism, Income inequality, Poverty, wages

How gullible are we?

A friend in Alabama — retired from a union job — emailed me about his frustration with Michigan’s adoption of a “right-to-work” law. Here’s my intemperate response.

Michigan is depressing. More so because it’s Alabama’s fault. We’re getting all the auto manufacturers because we’re a right-to-work state. Michigan has little choice but to follow suit. As usual, voters are pushing themselves out of the middle class. Corporate shareholders love it. They sit back saying, “Unions are the enemy,” or “Government is the enemy,” or “Hispanics are the enemy,” and we fall for it every time. And as we yell at all our make-believe enemies, our wages drop, our pensions disappear and the shareholders get even wealthier. Wisely, the shareholders (aka “job creators”) make sure they invest a portion of their profits into docile politicians who are good at making sure we blame everyone but the culprits.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Leave a comment

Filed under Unions, wages

Raising top tax rate makes sense

The fundamental debate that has Washington in turmoil is whether the top marginal rate of the highest-income Americans should rise from 35 to 39.6 percent.

No one can doubt the pressure on some in Congress to oppose the increase. Many elected representatives would personally be affected, and even more are receiving contributions from donors who would lose money if the rate goes up.
Political contributions increasingly are an investment, and a common purpose of the investment is to avoid taxes.
It is not politically wise for a congressman to say the reason for opposing a tax increase — that has no impact on 97 percent of his constituents — is to protect contributors who are among the 3 percent who would pay a little more.
Such an explanation would be especially unwise for Alabama politicians. With a median per-capita income of $22,711, an increase in the top marginal tax rate is an annoyance that will never have any relevance to the vast majority of Alabamians.
One way for politicians to oppose the increase is to proclaim it as socialism. The label seems to resonate in Alabama, but it makes no historical sense. From 1932 to 1987, the top marginal rate never fell below 50 percent. During most of those years it was at least 70 percent, and for many it was over 90 percent.
Moreover, some of America’s greatest boom times have been at times when top tax rates were far higher than 35 percent. The United States had a surplus — and economic growth — from 1998 through 2001, when the top marginal rate was 39.6 percent. It had a surplus in 1969, when the top rate was 70 percent. It had surpluses in 1956 and 1957, when the top rate was 91 percent.
Since 1940, the United States has had a surplus in 12 years. In seven of those years, the top marginal rate was 91 percent; in one it was 70 percent; and in four it was 39.6 percent.
The point is not that the high rates created the economic growth, but obviously they did not prevent it. And partly because of the high rates, economic activity created a surplus and curbed debt.
A slight tax increase on Americans who have benefited most from the U.S. economy should not be a partisan issue. Excessive taxes can inhibit growth, but a top marginal rate of 39.6 percent is well within the zone of safety.

1 Comment

Filed under Fiscal cliff, Socialism, Tax reform