Monthly Archives: January 2014

THE WAR ON THE POOR

The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class …is getting poorer too. Long-time trends since the early 1980s show that middle class income has been steadily declining while the top 10% has seen a steady rise in their share of annual income and overall wealth. Today the top one percent has annual income of over $400,000, while the top 5 percent comes in at just under 200,000. It’s really not that much-especially if you live in a high-priced metropolitan area. But the overall wealth of families in the top 5% averages out at about $16 million, which is not too shabby. While families in the bottom 25% often barely make it from paycheck to paycheck, even with some government assistance.

On the other side of the ledger, the average family income in this country is now about $50,500, declining by over 5% over the last half-dozen years. Now $50,000 a year may afford you a half-way decent, no-frills, middle class life-style in places like Ames, Iowa, or Athens Georgia, but it doesn’t go very far if one lives in cities like San Francisco, Chicago, Houston or New York. As far as the poverty rate in the U.S. these days, it stands at around 15%, with those families earnings being in the neighborhood of $20,000 per year. So we have the top one percent earning over $400,000 a year, while the bottom 15% earn about $20,000 or less. Does that sound like income inequality to you? A subject that President Obama will likely dwell upon at some length in his state of the union address tonight. Or more precisely, how to remedy the continual growing economic inequality that is oozing over this country like a giant blob.

Of course, economic conditions in this country used to be worse. This prompted President Lyndon Johnson, exactly 50 years ago, to declare his famous “War on Poverty.” In 1964, the official poverty rate in this country was over 20%, and Johnson, after taking over the presidency from an assassinated John Kennedy, declared that this was unacceptable. There was, in effect 2 Americas. While some of the citizenry lived in opulent luxury, a vast number endured hardscrabble lives in the most deplorable squalor. So Johnson, with the help of Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress began his war on poverty which resulted in the enactment of major pieces of legislation such as Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, college loan programs and housing assistance. As a result, poverty rates, especially for seniors dropped significantly to about the 15% level. Under LBJ, the civil rights voting law, which enabled black minorities to freely vote in the South for the first time, also became a reality. Indeed, with such huge accomplishments under his belt, Lyndon Johnson could have been recognized as one of our greatest presidents, except for one thing. The war in Viet-Nam. While the rest of the country finally began to recognize this war as the hopeless fiasco it turned out to be, LBJ continued to pour more  and more troops and money into a lost cause. The country turned on him, as a result, and his presidency was destroyed. Richard Nixon, who followed Johnson, and who extracted us from Viet-Nam, also achieved major accomplishments, only to see his presidency destroyed by his paranoia over the Watergate scandal. I guess the seeds of one’s personal destruction lie buried within everyone’s soul, only to sprout forth under the most opportune and fertile circumstances.

In any event, government intervention to provide assistance to the most unfortunate members of our society, the poor, the sick and the elderly, became the accepted norm, at least until 1980 when Ronald Reagan was elected president. Reagan ran under the mantra of the government, instead of being the solution, was actually the problem. It was government interference in the free-market system that was causing all the economic hardships we were experiencing. Upon taking office, Reagan, therefore, set out to significantly slash social welfare and assistance programs, while also substantially cutting income tax rates, especially for the rich. So, instead of a war on poverty that Lyndon Johnson had undertaken, Reagan and the Republicans set out to make it a war on the poor. It was the 1980s, when “welfare queens” were blamed for draining the public coffers. Of course, everyone knew who the welfare queens were, since it was used as a racist subterfuge for black unwed mothers. One would think, however, that by slashing welfare programs, government spending would substantially decrease. Instead, Reagan increased government debt by over 300% during his 8 years in office, primarily through huge increases in Defense spending. You know, to defend against that Russian “evil empire” thingy. It turned out that Reagan and the Republicans weren’t against government spending per se. They were just against spending it on the most vulnerable of our people. When it came to spending on military hardware and troops, the sky was the limit. This combination of huge Defense spending coupled with sharp tax reductions for the wealthiest among us has mushroomed our public debt now to about $17 trillion. Republican policies regarding these spending and tax priorities have also pretty much stayed the same to this day, as when Reagan first enumerated them in the 1980s.

To be fair, the very nature of our capitalistic economic system will mandate a society where some individuals will possess the necessary talents and abilities to take full advantage and become very wealthy and powerful. Others will have extreme difficulty coping with competitive nature and meritocracy that capitalism demands, and they will usually wind up at the bottom of the totem pole. Most will fall somewhere in the middle. To paraphrase what Winston Churchill said about democracy-Capitalism is the worst form of economics, except for any other system that’s ever been tried.

In any event, no matter what President Obama proposes tonight regarding income inequality, don’t look for our piece of crap Congress to take any meaningful action on any proposal. Politicians these days are bought and paid for by billionaires who have their own agendas, and they hardly include helping to raise the lower classes out of poverty. Once elected, a politician’s primary objective is to get re-elected; and to do that, he or she has to make  the billionaires who put him or her in office happy so these billionaires will keep pouring money into their campaigns. That’s what our so-called democratic system has devolved to, why no meaningful legislation is ever enacted, and why the entire system has pretty much become a farce.

 

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COINCIDENCE OR DIVINE INTERVENTION

When you’ve lived as long as I have, and have so many more years behind you than in front, you begin to dwell on what the future might hold. In other words, is there really an afterlife, or is our short time on this planet all she wrote. And what a short time it is. Even if you make it to 100, (less than a quarter of one percent of the world’s population does), it’s still like throwing a thimble-full of water into the ocean. The universe is estimated by astro-physicists to be 14 billion years old. But that’s  just when it’s believed that matter first appeared on the scene.  Actually, since both space and time are infinite, the universe always was and always will be with us. In any event, when you live in a seniors community as I do, where people seem to pop off like fruit-flies, you begin to muse about what life after death might look like-assuming, of course, there is such a thing. It would be nice if Skype could extend its technology to the next dimension so we can get a glimpse of what to expect, but apparently, that’s still not doable. Thus we have to look for clues elsewhere.

One place that might give us some info would be examining the lives and deaths of certain U.S. presidents. For example, our second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. At a time (over 2 centuries ago) when most people didn’t make it past their forties, these 2 men lived extraordinarily long lives-Jefferson made it until 80, and Adams all the way to 91. But the unique aspect of their deaths was that they both occurred on exactly the same day. And that day was July 4, 1826- EXACTLY 50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. (Actually, that infamous document was signed by various delegates to the convention hall in Philadelphia throughout the entire summer of 1776; but July Fourth was settled on as the official date of independence.) Jefferson died first, in the morning hours. Shortly thereafter, Adams, lying on his death bed, supposedly uttered the words-“Jefferson lives.” Was he seeing a vision of Jefferson crossing over into the next dimension? Now what are the odds of these 2 figures, so prominent in the American Revolution, both dying on the same day, and that day being exactly 50 years from our first Independence Day. The odds would have to be in the gazillions. One would need a super computer to calculate all the variables. To make this scenario even creepier, our fifth president, James Monroe, died exactly five years after that, on July 4, 1831. Was all this just coincidence, or as the religionists might say, there was a divine intervention playing out.

For those of you going with the gazillions to one theory that extreme coincidences do occasionally occur, lets take a peek at the lives and deaths of two more U.S. presidents, namely Abe Lincoln and John Kennedy.  Lincoln was elected president in 1860 and Kennedy in 1960, exactly 100 years later. Both men were assassinated while in office with gun shot wounds to the back of the head. Lincoln was shot while attending a play at Ford’s theater, while Kennedy was shot while riding in a Lincoln town car manufactured by Ford. Both men had wives that lost a child while in the White House. Lincoln was advised not to go to Ford’s theater that fatal night by an aide named Kennedy, while Kennedy was advised not to travel to Dallas by his secretary named Lincoln. Both men were succeeded in office by their southern vice-presidents named Johnson who were born exactly 100 years apart. Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln was born in 1808 while Lyndon Johnson who succeeded Kennedy was born in 1908. Amazing how these “coincidences” just keep piling up.

So what should we make of all this. Are these just a series of random events occurring in an empty universe, or is there a larger force at work. And if there is a spiritual force pulling the strings behind the curtain, what message exactly is being sent. No one really knows. The religionists would say that one must rely on his or her faith in God and leave it at that. Belief in the invisible man, as the late comedian George Carlin put it. But here in this seniors community where I live, and where Death, with his black shroud and scythe, who is seen constantly flitting among the bushes or peaking out from behind a tree, and who has taken up permanent residence, such questions continue to percolate.

The strange incidences I discussed above, plus the after-life experiences of some people who were clinically dead for several minutes before being revived, would seem to indicate that something larger is at play beyond our brief stay on this planet. Of course, there are those scientists who claim that those near-death-experiences were just the colorful fireworks of a dying brain. But I think that it’s likely that our brief lifetimes here are to prepare us for the road ahead for the rest of eternity in another dimension.I believe that life on this planet is pretty much the way Shakespeare portrayed it in Macbeth, as follows: “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It’s a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

 

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NEW YEAR, SAME OLD HATREDS

A recent Gallop poll showed that close to two-thirds of all Americans considered 2013 to be a bummer. A year in which their fortunes or circumstances not only did not improve, but mostly worsened. So, as the festivities surrounding the artificial demarcation of the calendar have now ended, it might be useful to view where the world stands and what we can expect in 2014. A good place to start might be the Mid-East where centuries of embedded hatreds have come bubbling to the surface with a vengeance, resulting in the slaughter of thousands of people. Besides the hatreds between Palestinian Moslems and Israeli Jews, there are the larger hatreds between the primary two factions of Islam-the Shiites and the Sunnis. Both factions pray to Allah; both observe nearly identical religious rites, and yet both despise the very existence of each other’s lives. Never underestimate man’s capacity to revel in the depths of hatred and thirst for vengeance, which is like a bottomless pit.

A good example of this is current-day Iraq. Remember Iraq; the place that used to be ruled by the tyrant Saddam Hussein. Remember back in 2003 when President George W. Bush stated that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weaponry. How the world could not allow such a blood thirsty butcher as Saddam to possess these WMDs. How we had to go to war with Iraq in March 2003 in order to depose Saddam and rid Iraq of these WMDs. And how, after we easily won that war, we found that, lo and behold, there were actually no WMDs in Iraq whatsoever. Oops. A slight miscalculation in our intelligence community. We finally extracted our forces out of Iraq after nearly 10 years of on-going bloodshed, after the deaths of over 6000 U.S military personnel and civilian contractors, the expenditure of nearly a trillion dollars, and the slaughter of close to 200,000 Iraqis. What’s left now, however, is an Iraqi nation in shambles with Shiite and Sunni factions, along with the emerging presence of Al-Qaida, murdering each other by the thousands.

In 2013, almost 9000 Iraqis were killed in suicide terrorist attacks. When Saddam was in charge, he had led his minority Sunni people to rule over the majority Shiite population. With Saddam gone, and with no U.S. presence to mediate between both Islamic factions, the majority Shiites have taken control of the government led by Prime Minister Maleki who has moved harshly against the Sunnis; including handing out death sentences against Sunni political leaders. As a result, old hatreds have come to the forefront with Sunnis going on a killing spree against Shiites to avenge the oppression they’re experiencing.  Al-Qaida, ever vigilant for new opportunities to spread their unique brand of terrorism, has stepped into the fray by aligning themselves with the Sunni minority. But in reality, Al-Qaeda is just out for themselves, and has now taken control of a significant chunk of Iraqi territory; including the city of Fallujah, where so many U.S. lives were lost. As the beat goes on, old hatreds keep on bubbling to the surface as Iraq continues to degenerate or devolve into never-ending tribal warfare.

I’ve written extensively before, about the 3 year-old civil war going on in Syria, which has now claimed about 125,000 lives with hundreds more lost on an almost daily basis; so I won’t repeat the details here. Except to note that Al-Qaida also has a growing presence in that debacle as well; with the goal of uniting with Al-Qaeda in Iraq so as to control a huge area of land and population from which they can indulge in their terrorist fascism with impunity. The rest of the Mid-East is a similar basket case. Libya, which commendably overthrew its own bloody tyrant, has now degenerated into a conglomeration of tribes that are constantly at war with each other. Tiny Lebanon, has the unfortunate circumstance of having a major terrorist organization within its borders thanks to funding and support from Iran. It’s part of Iran’s scheme of one day destroying Israel. And speaking of Iran, 2014 should be the year that it is allowed to, at last, come into possession of nuclear weaponry. While this country, and the rest of the world, sits by and lets it happen. Sort of the way the world watched Hitler and Nazism rise to power in the 1930s, and did nothing about it until it was too late.

Which brings us to the most intractable of all Mid-East hatreds-that, of course, being between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Both sides have been in a kind of constant state of war, hot or cold, since Israel was granted statehood in 1948. The problem is that both sides seek to be the dominant force in a relatively small geographical space that is, apparently, not big enough for the both of them. As a result, both sides are trapped in a never-ending cycle of terrorist attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians, resulting in a series of harsh reprisals and segregation of the Palestinians by the Israelis, countered by cries for vengeance and and destruction of Israel by the Palestinians, etc., resulting in a never-ending merry-go-round of bitterness, dysfunction, and revenge. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, is engaging in almost super-human effort to bring both sides to the negotiating table to find a peaceful resolution of this on-going mess. Remember John Kerry? He ran for President in 2004, and lost by whisker to George Bush, when Ohio tipped into Bush’s column. Now, he’s making it his life’s mission to forge a Palestinian state alongside an Israeli state, where both parties can live in peace and harmony. He deserves an A for effort; but the prospects for success remain quite poor. The reason-its not easy for people or nations to give up on their centuries old hatreds or lusts for vengeance.

And so this is the way the world spins in 2014, or at least that part of the world I’ve discussed in this entry. Doesn’t look very appetizing does it? But, we have almost an entire year to see how all this plays out, before we once again, engage in the rites and rituals surrounding the artificial turnover of the calendar that occurs during every winter solstice.

 

 

 

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