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Sunday, November 29, 2015

Global Warming, Terrorism & Inconvenient Truths

In late September 2015 your blog host had the privilege to receive the benefit of three days of training in Miami sponsored by the Climate Reality Project, of which former Vice-President Al Gore is the Chairman.  The training created another core grouping of those who would earn the title of Climate Reality Leader.

The purpose of the Climate Reality Project is to raise awareness of the effects and consequences of climate change occasioned by the phenomenon of global warming.  The purpose is also to educate ordinary citizens as to what we can do to stem the tide, mitigate the processes and reverse the destructive momentum.

The training effectively empowers Climate Reality Leaders to present a slide show which updates information initially brought to light in Al Gore’s 2006 Academy Award winning (2007) documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth.  In making the film, Mr. Gore was the subject of an Intergovernmental Panel on climate change of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

The fact is that the global climate has begun to warm appreciably, especially over the past 150 years coinciding with the onset of the Industrial Revolution.  While it may be true that the sun heats the earth, it is also true that carbon heats man.  Hence, the term “carbon man” enters the vernacular.  Coal had been the preferred fossil fuel, prior to oil, and its use is widely still prevalent at the nation’s large electricity generating power plants.  The phenomenon of fossil fuel burning on such a mass scale (coal burning in combination with oil) is what scientists attribute to the concept of global warming.

Scientists are in near unanimous agreement (97%) that climate change is the result of carbon-based fossil fuel emissions as a by-product of energy production mainly from oil, coal and naturally gas.  The film makes the powerful case that stewardship of the environment is not merely a convenience but, rather, a moral issue.

The statistics are sobering.  The US comprises less than 5% of the world’s population, yet consumes about 25% of the world’s energy.  Each and every ordinary American citizen uses about 3 gallons of oil per day, twice as much as people in other industrialized nations.  America is a throw away society, with dismal recycling rates, producing roughly twice as much garbage as Europe.  Until most recently, perhaps, the political parties have seemed content to put the idea of economic growth on one side of the spectrum and environmental protection on the other, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive.

But the wild card today remains oil.  The US consumes approximately 21 million barrels of oil per day, about 65% imported.  It is not an exaggeration then to say that US dependence on imported oil is a greater threat to national security than any threat from terrorism, real or perceived.  Perhaps at no time since the pre-Civil War South’s economic dependence on slavery can it again be said that the US reliance on oil is so acute as to constitute a life or death economic dependency.  The need is so alarming, so encompassing, and so pervasive, that any moral issue that may come up along the way, including human rights and/or the environment, can also be dismissed as secondary.  Which begs the question: Once the problem of terrorism is theoretically dispensed with, are we then “free” to heat the planet into oblivion?

The slide show presentation challenges audiences to ask themselves three basic yet provocative questions.  First, must we change?  Second, can we change?  And third, will we change?  As President Obama has stated, “We’re the first generation to feel the effects of climate change … and the last generation who will be able to do anything about it.”  As leaders get set to gather next week in Paris, France to attend the long awaited gathering on climate change, the stakes for our way of life --- including the survival of our planet as we know it --- can hardly seem greater.

-Michael D’Angelo

Monday, October 19, 2015

Our Great Unfinished Business

As civilizations become more inter-connected through the amazing technologies of the early 21st century, the third great crisis in our nation’s history celebrates a significant birthday.  The great crisis of wealth disparity as a result of unequal access to the field of opportunity --- first identified by Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 --- is now unfortunately more than 100-years-old!

For the ordinary citizen, the American Dream is at risk like at no other time in American history.  In response, many ordinary citizens are reaching for the pull chord and the alarm bell to stop the train.  Many others, however, believe that such matters lie in the natural order of things --- as a necessary byproduct of an every man for himself mentality of Social Darwinism --- and that everything will work itself out in the end.

The sympathies of President Obama appear to rest in part with the former group.  On August 28, 2013 the president gave a speech on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s march on Washington.  Almost five years into his presidential term, he reminded the ordinary citizen that his eye remains on the ball, as he strives to mold America to a purpose he boldly envisions:

In some ways, though, the securing of civil rights, voting rights, the eradication of legalized discrimination --- the very significance of these victories may have obscured a second goal of the march, for the men and women who gathered 50 years ago were not there in search of some abstract idea. They were there seeking jobs as well as justice -- not just the absence of oppression but the presence of economic opportunity. For what does it profit a man, Dr. King would ask, to sit at an integrated lunch counter if he can’t afford the meal?

This idea that --- that one’s liberty is linked to one’s livelihood, that the pursuit of happiness requires the dignity of work, the skills to find work, decent pay, some measure of material security -- this idea was not new.
Dr. King explained that the goals of African-Americans were identical to working people of all races: decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old age security, health and welfare measures -- conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.

What King was describing has been the dream of every American. It’s what’s lured for centuries new arrivals to our shores. And it’s along this second dimension of economic opportunity, the chance through honest toil to advance one’s station in life, that the goals of 50 years ago have fallen most short.

The president continued:

... the measure of progress for those who marched 50 years ago was not merely how many blacks had joined the ranks of millionaires; it was whether this country would admit all people who were willing to work hard, regardless of race, into the ranks of a middle-class life. The test was not and never has been whether the doors of opportunity are cracked a bit wider for a few. It was whether our economic system provides a fair shot for the many ... . To win that battle, to answer that call -- this remains our great unfinished business.

Why does our great unfinished business hearken back the name of Benjamin Franklin?  When he returned home after participating in the secret deliberations to draft the US Constitution, Franklin was said to have had an inquisitive exchange with a Philadelphia woman:

“What have you made for us, Dr. Franklin?” the woman had wanted to know.

“A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” was his infamous reply.
Franklin understood that democracy was not forever assured --- that active, informed citizenship would be required not only to keep but also to help it evolve.  As the jurist Louis Brandeis once observed, We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both.

The challenge of ordinary citizenship, then, is to promote progressive ideas towards the improvement of our democratic ideal, regardless of the politics, regardless of the political party.  That means solving the crisis of achieving meaningful equality of opportunity for all citizens --- and completing our nation's great unfinished business --- once and for all.

-Michael D’Angelo

Friday, September 18, 2015

Pope Francis: Unfettered Capitalism Is "a New Tyranny"

(Editor’s note:  Pope Francis makes his first papal visit to the US in a swing through the Northeast --- Washington, DC, New York City & Philadelphia --- September 22-27, 2015.  Upon his arrival, he is greeted at the airport by President Obama, in a change of protocol which typically rolls out the red carpet only at the White House.) … 

In March 2013 Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected as the new Pope of Christianity’s Roman Catholic Church, at the age of 76. Francis is a pope of many firsts. He is the first pope from the order of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits), the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere and the first non-European pope in almost 1,300 years.

On the night of his election, Francis reportedly took the bus back to his hotel with the cardinals, rather than be driven in the papal car, in a style that news coverage has referred to as "no frills." He told journalists that he had chosen the name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, out of special concern for the well-being of the poor. He had previously expressed his admiration for St. Francis, explaining that "He brought to Christianity an idea of poverty against the luxury, pride, vanity of the civil and ecclesiastical powers of the time. He changed history."

Francis quickly served notice that he was to be a new kind of pope. He chose not to live in the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace, but to remain in the Vatican guest house, in a suite in which he can receive visitors and hold meetings. He is the first pope since Pope Pius X (1903-1914) to live outside the papal apartments.

At the outset of his papacy, in a hopeful and encouraging sign for ordinary citizens, Francis set out a platform for his papacy in an 84-page document known as an apostolic exhortation. In it he attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny,” calling for an overhaul of the financial system and warning that economic inequality and unequal distribution of wealth inevitably leads to violence. Absent a solution to that problem, Francis said, “no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems.” Francis attacked the “idolatry of money,” urging politicians to “attack the structural causes of inequality” and strive to provide work, healthcare and education to all citizens.

Francis also called upon the affluent to share their wealth:

Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality.  Such an economy kills.

“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure,” the pope asked, “but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?”

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets,” the pope wrote, “rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

In June 2015, the pope followed up his papacy directive with a 184-page encyclical, termed Laudato Si, calling for sweeping action around the globe to combat environmental degradation and climate change that he said was due mostly to fossil fuels and human activity.

Anita McBride, executive in residence at the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University's School of Public Affairs, says the excitement surrounding this papal visit to Washington is a "sharp contrast" to the last one, in April 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI huddled with President George W. Bush. McBride should know. Previously, she served as chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush. White House aides at the time feared the pontiff might make sharp public comments about America's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although he did not.

It appears that the times finally may be changing, Pope Francis sounding --- and acting --- very much like progressive leaders in the US who are aligned with President Obama. This bodes well --- not only for the poor --- but also for the spirits of millions of ordinary American citizens and people in developing nations throughout the world.

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Purchase System

A force of immense power and remarkable quality.  Experience of victory without equal demonstrated in the world time and again.  Seasoned veterans of economic and great world conflict.  An elite group full of pride and confidence and arrogance, and it has much to be arrogant about.

As a social institution, it is a study in paradox.  Unique coats of arms honor family accolades which recall an era of bygone royalty.  A creature entirely of lawmakers, its traditions are cherished.  The common people take pride in its achievements, but at the same time its power is deeply feared and kept in check. 

More paradox.  Its individuals are highly and professionally skilled.  They go about their business as both a science and career.  But they cultivate high society with a casual air.  And in most cases they acquire their status by purchase at a high cost, the higher the title the greater the cost.

Over the generations, this “purchase system” is condemned as “organized incompetence and institutionalized corruption.”  But its purpose ensures that those of status have a “stake in their society and are not dangerous to its institutions.”  The purchase system keeps the social institution “firmly in the hands of an aristocratic governing elite, who control most of the wealth and power of the nation.”

Structurally, a final paradox lies in the fact that this social institution is “both bureaucratized and decentralized.”  For that reason, there can never be a coup in the land of America’s mother country.  The British military proves itself time and again in the twenty plus years preceding the 1776 American Revolutionary War, fighting on five continents and defeating every power that stands against it.  All in all, it’s an impressive, efficient set-up.

And as with many of its other time-tested institutions, America adopts the economic component, if not the military structure, of the British purchase system.  America’s wealthy class seems to be firmly in the hands of an aristocratic governing elite, controlling most of the nation’s wealth.  And with wealth in the purchase system comes power (see cartoon).

The good news?  Thankfully, the wealthy class has, thanks to the purchase system, a critical stake in its society and consequently is not seen to be dangerous to its other institutions.  A revolution from above seems unlikely.

But there is bad news, too.  The startling graphic is that the 400 richest Americans possess more wealth than the bottom half (150 million) combined.  At the same time, wealth disparity which is already at record historical levels continues to widen.  Equality of opportunity for the masses of the unknown upon whom the strength of the nation derives --- essential to keeping the American Dream alive --- continues its decline in lock step with the shrinking middle class.

Newcomers, especially, are perhaps hit the hardest, their opportunity to achieve a realistic level of prosperity by any reasonable measure effectively foreclosed.  The 2016 US presidential election is still more than one year away.  But the issue of wealth disparity frames the coming debate, as the third great crisis in our nation’s history comes into full view.

A campaign ad for one of the political candidates strikes a chord of provocation in direct terms:

Which side are you on?  Are you on the side of ordinary people struggling to put food on the table, send their kids to college, live with some dignity --- or are you on the side of millionaires and billionaires whose greed has no end?

Sometimes --- in real life --- we are left with little alternative but to make choices and take sides.

-Michael D’Angelo

Friday, July 17, 2015

Steer or Drift? (Part Two)

(Editor’s note: This is the second and final segment in this two part series.  The first segment explained how the founding fathers provided the ship (our federal government) with a precise yet sophisticated steering mechanism.  Given a record level of wealth disparity in society today, the problem devolves to one main consideration: whether to steer the ship --- or simply to drift.)

In the present context, the promise of economic freedom and prosperity has exhausted its supply of natural opportunities.  Its redemption, attempted unsuccessfully by T.R. in 1912, fully 100 years ago, may prove to be beyond the patience, the power and the wisdom of the American people and their leaders.  But if the promise is not kept, democracy, as it familiar to us, will no longer exist.

What a wage earner needs, and what the interests of a democratic society require, is a constantly higher standard of living.  If it is to earn the wage earner’s loyalty, a democracy must recognize the legitimacy of his demand, and make the satisfaction of it the essence of its public policy.

Many say we have passed the point of critical mass where the drift of indiscriminate individualism requires the increasing control of property in the public interest.  A more scrupulous attention to federal responsibility naturally follows the concentration of corporate and individual wealth, dedicated only to the further proposition of perpetuating its gains.

Unless American independence emancipates itself from its traditional illusions, its spirit vanishes.  Perhaps the American people understood this if only instinctively by the 2008 election, choosing to seat a leader who has begun a new chapter in the process of steering once again.

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be either all steer or all drift.  The two principles can and should peaceably co-exist, working together if not always in perfect harmony.  Each, however, must make a legitimate concession to the other.  Both the individual and national interest must sacrifice their extreme elements for the joint benefit of individual distinction and social improvement.  The two principles must become subordinate to the higher principle of human welfare.

However, it can be expected that the privileged classes will be hospitable only to those reforms which spare their privileges.  But their privileges cannot be spared, to the extent that rational ideas may achieve any decisive influence in their political life.  The consequences would be the cultivation of contempt for intelligence, the excessive worship of tradition and complacent social subserviency.

It would be intriguing to view the vexing problem of inequality of opportunity through the lens of human welfare ahead of any other legitimate interest.  The goal would secure the benefits of the existing organization, while casting the net of opportunity over a larger social area.

Conservative principles, traditions and national history require only the gradual alteration of adverse social conditions in the name of progress.  Perhaps a people can best exhibit its common sense so clearly as to be contemporary without breaking the ties of historical anchorage.  To move too suddenly by uprooting any essential element of the national tradition would come at a severe penalty, as ordinary citizens discovered when they decided to cut slavery out of their national composition.

It is assumed the people wish to escape the need to regain their health by means of another surgical
operation.  They must then consider carefully how much of a reorganization of traditional
institutions, policies and ideas are necessary to achieve a new, more stable national balance.  They must also consider that any disloyalty to democracy by way of national policy will in the end be fatal to national unity.  In steering the ship toward meaningful equality of opportunity to complete our great unfinished business, seldom has so much been at stake.

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Steer or Drift? (Part One)

(Editor’s note: This is the first article in a two part series on how we resolve complex problems here in America under our democratic system.)

How do we keep our American core values in a continuous state of progress?  Is it prudent to charge ahead proactively?  Or should we delay and react passively to conditions?

Fortunately, the founding fathers provided the ship (our federal government) with a precise yet sophisticated system of navigation.  Over the succeeding generations, the problem of forming a more perfect union came to be simplified to one main consideration: whether and when to steer the ship (Hamilton) --- or simply to drift (Jefferson).

The stated goal has never varied much, an equality of opportunity for all citizens, regardless of status, with special privileges to none.  When that equality was at risk, it was time to steer.  Once achieved, it was time to leave it alone and drift.  The aim was “a better quality of human nature effected by a higher type of human association.”  Its foundation was “mutual confidence and fair dealing.”

But some say Hamilton was guilty of over-steering, to the extent that his capitalist system is dogged by the ill effects of preferred status, unscrupulous competition and selfish materialism.  Others say Jefferson’s fundamental principle gave rise to an indiscriminate individualism, fatal “to both the essential individual and the essential social interest.”  Over-drift was akin to abandoning ship.

Yet liberty and equality of opportunity, each a desirable principle, are often at odds.  Insofar as equal rights are freely exercised, they are bound to result in inequalities, made to be perpetual.  The “marriage,” which the free exercise of equal rights is designed to consecrate between liberty and equality, “gives birth to unnatural children, whose nature it is to devour one or the other of its parents.”

Consequently, the principle of equality of opportunity cannot be “confined to the merely negative task of keeping individual rights from becoming in any way privileged.”  It must go further.  The nation’s task in its collective capacity must progress to a selection among the “various prevailing ways of exercising individual rights” those which contribute to national and individual integrity.”

As a threshold matter, whether and when to steer the ship demands a national consensus.  But when does an issue become national, requiring centralized action?  To be sure, there were those in the 19th century who believed that human bondage was merely a local issue which failed to meet the threshold.  Others in the 20th century believed similarly in the throes of economic depression.  When is the line crossed wherein action in one’s own best interest is in fact unreasonable?

Such is the suspicion of reasonable men to subject themselves to the corruptive and abusive effects of political power unacceptably concentrated.  Better to stall and prostrate the legitimate legislative function with a jammed circuit board of competing economic special interests.  Better yet to neuter the executive function, while decrying the judiciary to stick to legal interpretation and refrain from activist law making.

Perhaps human nature is such that there will be those who deem the ship to be in a safe port, sheltered from
the storm, where steering is not necessary.  Just as soon as there will be others who, with a sense of alarm, see the same ship as careening toward a direct confrontation with rocky shoals or the Titanic’s iceberg.  Perhaps there can be no effective reconciliation between these contrasting visions.

All the while, the pendulum swings back and forth.  We steer, then drift.  The process repeats itself.  Each cycle brings us arguably closer to a more perfect union.

(Editor’s note: The second and final part in this two part series contemplates how our society can steer its way back to good health, given a record level of wealth disparity.  By moving too suddenly, the danger of uprooting any essential element of the national tradition would come at a severe penalty, as ordinary citizens discovered when they decided to cut slavery out of their national composition.)

-Michael D'Angelo

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Baltimore Riots and the Kerner Report

Spring 2015 witnesses riot and civil unrest engulfing the streets of Baltimore over the tragic death of an unarmed black man while in police custody. Thorny issues relating to law enforcement priorities and practices, racial profiling, due process and fundamental fairness under the law bubble to the surface once again.

For those old enough to remember, scenes from Baltimore conjure up images from the 1960s, standard-bearer for racial unrest in the modern civil rights era. Were the Baltimore riots (and events perhaps yet to come) the result of the mistreatment of just one man? Or is there more involved? As the national economy ebbs and flows, prosperity in this age of acquisitive individualism appears to have bypassed Baltimore’s inner city neighborhoods, which remain largely unchanged in 50 years.

Why did they riot in Baltimore? Why did they riot in the 1960s? Are events related?

The 1960s riots took place in the Watts section of Los Angeles, as well as several other major northern US cities, including Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Washington, D.C. and Newark.  The riots were not confined to the US, however.  Great Britain and South Africa also experienced race riots during this time.

The riots had begun in 1965, due to mounting civil unrest, and continued for three successive summers.  President Lyndon Johnson appointed a federal commission on July 28, 1967, while rioting was still in progress.  He determined to learn the cause of the race riots and unrest.  Upon signing the order establishing the commission, the president asked for answers to three basic questions about the riots: “What happened?  Why did it happen?  What can be done to prevent it from happening again and again?”

The commission’s final report, named the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, or Kerner Report, was released on February 29, 1968, after seven months of investigation.   The 426-page document became an instant best-seller, with over two million Americans purchasing copies.  Its basic finding was that the riots resulted from black frustration at lack of economic opportunity.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. critiqued the report a “physician’s warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”

One of the commission’s core findings was that the federal government had engaged in unfair and discriminatory loan practices.  For example, in important matters of employment, education and housing especially, federal low interest loans under the GI Bill were made available to World War II and Korean war veterans who were white, as an incentive to flee to the “safety” of the suburbs, where a better quality of life awaited.  Black veterans were illegally denied equal treatment under the law.

The Kerner Report’s most infamous passage warned, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white --- separate and unequal.”  The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social service policies, also aiming some of its sharpest criticism at the mainstream media: “The press has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.”

The federal commission concluded that the riots were the result of poverty, police brutality, poor schools, poor housing, attributed to “white racism” and its heritage of discrimination and exclusion.  The equation was a simple one: no education, no job, no housing and no political power equaled no hope.

Following the riots of the 1960s, America’s suburbs continued a trend of becoming more white and its cities more black.  This phenomenon occurred as much in the North and on the West Coast (Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Trenton, Camden, Cleveland, Oakland and Los Angeles) as in the South (Atlanta and Charlotte).

The Johnson administration had the report analyzed but dismissed its recommendations, however, on budgetary grounds.  Soon the Great Society would be sidetracked anyway by external events in a far away place called Vietnam.  The War on Poverty would be swallowed up and replaced by the Nixon administration’s War on Drugs, with all the attendant shortcomings of that campaign.  Some argue persuasively that the resulting discriminatory enforcement of these laws was by design --- and is alive and well to the present day.

Is this some of what's going on --- and not going on --- in Baltimore?

-Michael D'Angelo

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Democracy and Self-Determination

Imagine the world in 1776. Rather than the history we have come to know, a foreign country imposes arbitrary boundaries around a fledgling conception of the United States of America to serve its own purposes. The European white settlers, imported African slaves and indigenous local native American Indian population are not consulted. They are thrown together in a haphazard arrangement of mercantile expediency, told they are a nation and admonished to get along as equals.

Democracy is self-rule, freedom in its purest collective sense. Self-determination is a process by which a country determines its own statehood and forms its own allegiances and government. Individually, it is a process by which a person controls their own life.

If only democracy were to be so simple.  Perhaps once upon a time it was simple.  But, today, when one nation’s economic “foreign policy” interests clash with a people’s right to self-determination in some other place, near or far, it gets complicated.

A New York Times editorial flashes across the screen with the nebulous title, Iraq’s Cycles of Revenge. Laying out the peoples and interests which comprise present day Iraq, the piece paints a worrisome picture of chronic behavior which is difficult to modify. Unfortunately, the piece merely scratches the surface of what may really be going on there.

For a better view, one need go back at least a hundred years. If it were only to be about democracy and self-determination, as President Wilson had envisioned at the Palace of Versailles peace table, to settle the differences which remained (among Western powers) at the end of World War I.

Long planned by Great Britain and France from the early days of World War I, the balance of the former Ottoman Empire was “partitioned.” Though not completed at Versailles, the partitioning facilitated the creation of the modern Arab World. The League of Nations then-governing world body granted the United Kingdom mandates over Mesopotamia and Palestine and Jordan. Out of the former, the nation of Iraq was conceived.

The British navy’s conversion to oil during World War I had provided the critical military advantage over its German rival, which was still using coal.  Consequently, absent its own domestic source of oil, Great Britain’s “Mandate for Iraq” was, purely and simply, a plan to implement a foreign policy initiative whose goal was to secure a safe, abundant domestic oil supply.  First and foremost, the oil would be used to power the royal navy in continued military domination of world shipping lanes.

The administration of the plan facilitated a secure supply of Arabian oil over land to Western EuropeBritain identified the lines of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers as the most favorable supply routes from the cities of Mosul and BasraBritain then struck upon a set of arbitrary lines around the physical arrangement, through which it could administer both efficiently and productively, and called it “Iraq.”

Suffice to say the local inhabitants were not consulted.  Consequently, it mattered little to Britain that the new nation would have a Shiite Muslim population in the south and east, Sunni Muslims in the west, and the nomadic Kurds in the north.  The latter group also had a significant population north of the arbitrary border, in southern Turkey.  As between the Shiites and the Sunnis, the Sunnis (Saddam Hussein’s people) were the decided minority, so Britain decided to arm and provide them with the local ruling authority under the mandate.  Some called it “nation building 101.”

These three disparate groups had little in common otherwise, with claims of Holy War made as early as 1920, when Muslim leaders began to organize an insurgent effort.  A fatwa (religious ruling) was then issued, which pointed out that it was against Islamic law for Muslims to countenance being ruled by non-Muslims.  Muslim leaders thereafter called for a jihad (holy war) against the British.  Following World War II, with the torch of leadership of Western Civilization effectively passing from the British to the Americans, the phenomenon of Iraq officially became “our” problem.

In the aftermath following the toppling of its former dictator in 2003, the idea of an “Iraqi revolution” seems absurd, given the arbitrary nature of Iraq.  Let’s face reality: The indigenous population is no more “Iraqi” than we Americans are from Mars.

If it is about American core values of democracy and promoting human rights, what part do national energy security and our economic dependence on the commodity of oil play?  Are stewardship of the environment and the common duty to pay forward for future generations primary considerations?  How vital are American core values of equal protection of the laws coupled with freedom of worship as against thorny moral issues of race, color, creed and gender distinctions?  What is the relative importance of countering extremism, regardless of cause?

Above all, what part is to be played by ordinary citizens?  Who is to serve as our guide?

-Michael D’Angelo

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Union as a Positive Force

Unions are a positive force for good in American society.  They have been largely responsible for important initiatives that perhaps the ordinary citizen sometimes takes for granted.

Progressive reforms which unions have consistently advocated include safe working conditions, increasing the minimum wage (known also as the “living wage”), a limitation on hours, the elimination of sweatshops, employer paid health care in case of accident or injury, paid time off for maternity and profit sharing.  They also exist as a necessary reminder to an increasingly hostile management structure which otherwise would have little problem keeping for itself all the profits of labor’s sweat.

One of our national political parties (i.e. - Democrats) in our two-party system remains decidedly pro-union.  Those who seek reminder need merely reference the recent bailout of the Detroit auto industry in the midst of the Great Recession of 2008.  Roots trace to passage of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), one of the twin pillars of FDR’s New Deal social safety net, which delivered the right of every worker to join a union of his or her own choosing and the corresponding obligation of employers to bargain collectively with that union in good faith.

Through the idea of bargaining collectively, a union is able to obtain benefits for its workers which an individual worker would simply be unable to obtain for himself.  It’s what unions do.  It’s why they exist.  An ordinary citizen need look back no further than to see that life was not very pretty for the individual worker prior to collective bargaining.  And it’s why a majority of ordinary citizens seem to prefer a world which contains unions as opposed to one which does not.  With collective bargaining removed under the equation, also removed presumably under the new law is the state’s corresponding obligation to act and bargain reasonably and in good faith.

The other of our national political parties (i.e. - Republicans) seeks to do away with a union’s right to collective bargaining, the friend of the middle class for more than 75 years, especially in the public employee sector.  It does this under the facade of a smaller, “cuts only” government approach which exposes an underlying agenda to dismantle the social safety net.  Ironically, as one new component of the social safety net (the popular Obamacare) begins to take hold and gain traction, another (collective bargaining) stands to be eviscerated.  Most recently, Wisconsin became the 25th state to pass so called “right-to-work” legislation, achieving a half way point among the 50 states on rolling over once powerful union foes.

Of ominous note, while popular “individual” rights may have asserted themselves on the federal union shop floor, statistics show that wealth disparity between rich and poor has increased to a record level --- as union membership has decreased.  And so it may come as little surprise to some that income inequality has worsened at a time when union membership has fallen to levels not seen since the 1920s --- immediately preceding the Great Depression.

Bill Kraus, a moderate who worked on his first Wisconsin Republican U.S. Senate campaign in 1952 and later ran the campaign and office of GOP Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, called the right-to-work shift the deepest change in state politics since Progressive leader “Fighting Bob” La Follette rose to prominence during the Progressive Era nearly a century ago.

Kraus describes himself now as a politically “homeless” man without the shelter of his former partisan affiliation. “A lot of settled things have become unsettled,” he said.  “It's very radical and the question we don't know is whether it's a reflection of a changed Wisconsin or a group in power that have misread their mandate and are more lucky and blessed than right.”

Blessed by whom?  The dark image is of the purchased politician, a Theodore Roosevelt hot button, whose advocacy reflects neither morality nor ethics but rather a symmetry with money flow and the oligarchs who empower him.  The blessing of a benign creator is merely self-serving --- but necessary --- propaganda.  “Blessed is he,” it is said by so called Republican Jesus, “who lets the market decide for him what is moral.”

Human welfare --- the constitutional delegation of federal power to the general welfare to promote sustainable capitalism and environmental stewardship in the pursuit of happiness --- be damned.

-Michael D’Angelo

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Elizabeth Warren: "The Game Is Rigged"

“The game is rigged.”  To the student of US History, the ring of this provocative statement should sound more than just vaguely familiar.  We should permit a digression before returning to this theme.

Does the statement sound more authoritative, echoing as it does from the US Senate floor of the nation’s capitol?  Its present day author is US Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), progressive champion and Consumer Financial Protection Bureau architect.  If one did not know better, one would think she’s itching for a fight.  She wouldn’t be the first.

Sen. Warren, populist advocate, laments that consumers, families and the poor have been “chipped, squeezed and hammered."  At the 2012 Democratic National Convention she states that “Republicans say they don't believe in government. Sure they do. They believe in government to help themselves and their powerful friends.”  She continues: “After all, Mitt Romney’s the guy who said corporations are people.” Republican Mitt Romney would reinforce that rigged system, she said, while President Obama would continue his work to dismantle it.  Warren adds “No, Gov. Romney, corporations are not people.  People have hearts, they have kids, they get jobs, they get sick, they cry, they dance.  They live, they love, and they die.  And that matters.”

Sen. Warren’s new book is called A Fighting Chance (Metropolitan Books, 2014).  It spells out in detail how the game is rigged.  A typical passage follows:

“Here’s what I see out of this.  Washington works --- for those who can hire an army of lobbyists and lawyers.  It just doesn’t work so well for families.  I saw it with the big banks.  They cheated American families, crashed the economy, got bailed out, and now the five biggest financial institutions in America are 38% bigger than they were during the crash.  They still swagger through Washington blocking reforms and pushing around agencies.  They break the law.  And no banker even faces the inconvenience of a trial, much less a little jail time.  The game is rigged.”

In July 2014 Sen. Warren travels to Detroit, speaking out in support of her book’s ideas:

“Today, many powerful companies look for every possible way they can to boost their profits and to boost their CEO bonuses.  They try to run more efficient companies.  They try to grow faster.  They try to beat out the competition.  But many of them have another plan.  They use their money and their connections to try to capture Washington and rig the rules in their favor.  From tax policy to retirement security, those with power fight to make sure that every rule tilts in their favor.  Everyone else just gets left behind.  That’s what we’re up against.  That’s what democracy is up against.”

And for the grand finale: “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail.  But a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested.  The game is rigged.  And it isn’t right.  It’s rigged.”

There’s an awful lot of substance weaved in here.  A former Harvard professor, Sen. Warren is by all accounts an extremely intelligent woman.  The War on Drugs swallows up the ideal if not the cause of the War on Poverty --- and just beneath the surface there lies the continued control and subjugation of the black race and people of color more generally.  And today, poverty is not restricted to people of color --- many whites share the tattered cloak.

The catchphrase ‘The game is rigged’ is, of course, bespoken of frustration.  But here’s the interesting part.  Sen. Warren knows that the game has been planned this way all along.  The frustration dates back more than 200 years.  It is Thomas Jefferson’s frustration, as well.

The new constitution for the young country with the fledgling democracy does not endorse a particular economic system.  Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposes the economic system of capitalism on the successful British model. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson objects.  As with most issues he faces down, President Washington is unable to fall back on precedent. 

Jefferson says that Hamilton’s system flows “from principles adverse to liberty, and was calculated to undermine and demolish the republic.”  It does this by creating an artificial class of wealth with certain inherent privileges to certain of its benefactors, which were not the privileges of all citizens.  These benefactors, not by coincidence, are the system’s creators and protectors --- they are members of the US Congress.  Hamilton’s plan, a class system favoring money, would violate the unfettered freedom of the individual to pursue happiness.  It sounds as if Jefferson’s saying that the game is rigged.

Taking Jefferson's arguments into account, before ultimately rejecting them, President Washington’s fateful decision in favor of Hamilton’s plan envisions the greatest good for the greatest number.  Its success by almost any reasonable measure is beyond question.  And so, when Sen. Warren says ‘the game is rigged’ and this is what democracy is up against, isn’t she asking ordinary citizens to question the wisdom of George Washington?

On any legitimate scorecard, it’s a mighty tall order. 

-Michael D’Angelo