Thursday, October 27, 2011

Asmaa Mahfouz: Democracy's Heroine

October 27, 2011, 5:40 p.m.

[Photo credit: "Moral Heroes"]
"Fear of the government, fear of kidnapping, fear of harassment and abuse. These fears had kept the [Egyptian] regime in power for three decades. . . . This all changed on January 18th, 2011 when Asmaa Mahfouz decided to face her fears and ask others to join her in protest. She posted a video of herself online . . . calling on others to join her at a protest in Tahrir Square on January 25." Moral Heroes. [more]
The rest, as they say, is history.

Amy Goodman's powerful and moving juxtaposition of that famous January 18 video with her own interview of 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz at the site of Occupy Wall Street, provided more than just a gentle reminder of this remarkable young woman's role in the news at the beginning of this year. It caused me to see her, what she did (and continues to do), what she stands for and represents, in a very much brighter, multi-faceted and awesome light.

Do watch this excerpt from Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now," of October 25, 2011. It runs from 12:00 minutes in, to 25:46:

From Tahrir to Wall Street: Egyptian Revolutionary Asmaa Mahfouz Speaks at Occupy Wall Street

(Actually, the cut begins 15 seconds before 12:00, with news from Occupy Oakland. And I apologize for not providing an embed here but, unlike YouTube (where the New York interview is not yet posted) it was not immediately clear how to embed the segment from Democracy Now into Blogger, other than the link it does provide for Blogger, above.)

The two videos that Amy Goodman has combined spark so many thoughts:

- This powerful, additional illustration of the insight I came to at least 35 years ago that I call "the natural superiority of women" (something Mahfouz demonstrates as well as espouses).

- I consider myself a feminist, in the dictionary sense of someone who is "advocating social, political, legal, and economic rights for women equal to those of men." As such, I think that men and women alike need to watch this video and reflect on what it represents.

- This young woman succeeded in shaming Egyptian men into joining in public protest: "If you think yourself a man, come with me on January 25th. Whoever says women shouldn't go to protests because they will get beaten, let him have some honor and manhood and come with me on January 25th. If you have honor and dignity as a man, come and protect me, and the other girls in the protest."

- I am just so proud of this young woman, whose eyes now look down upon me from my law school office wall, next to those of Dr. King, as inspiration and reminder of how little I have accomplished, how little I have sacrificed, in a life I profess to have committed to "the public interest," compared with what they have each done in far fewer years. Aside from an occasional assassination threat (usually drunken), all I ever did was to willingly "speak truth to power," and espouse positions, that I knew would prevent my ever being offered the most lucrative jobs in Washington -- because I felt that's what "public service" requires of one. But no one ever actually took a shot at me; I didn't have a lot of desire for what those jobs require you to do anyway; and I'd even written a book about the virtues of knowing the difference between "enough" and "more" (Test Pattern for Living).

- Both King and Mahfouz knowingly confronted death (and one was killed) for the causes in which they believed. Aside from our brave military men and women in combat, and the journalists who bring us their stories (such as Christiane Amanpour), most displays of what passes for male macho shrivels by comparison.

- Her historic launching of the 2011 "Arab Spring."

- How an idea like non-violent protest, and the the power of ordinary people in a democracy, can spread -- from Gandhi, to Dr. King, to Asmaa Mahfouz, who then brings it back again to America, to inspire and encourage us at Occupy Wall Street and throughout our country.

- There were (and are) many uses of cyberspace, the Internet, and social media in this year's global popular protests; but none with the drama and impact of Mahfouz' video on her Facebook page, copied to YouTube, inspiring millions of Egyptians to action, and now seen by probably hundreds of millions more.

- For those who mourn for our species' future, and especially those (such as parents and teachers) who work with, and hope for, the coming generation, Mahfouz is a beacon of possibility, a reminder that -- while there may be none exactly like her -- there are others coming along who have at least some of her smarts, her courage, her natural leadership qualities, her moral values, and her ability to articulate (in at least two languages) all of the above.

- The spark of hope that may be found in "the American fall" that has followed "the Arab spring;" our own, very much smaller and milder, "Occupy" movement. A spark that she reached out and helped to fan with her presence at Occupy Wall Street.

- And to think she doesn't even have a law degree! Just a B.A. in business from Cairo University. Amazing. :>)

Here's to you, Asmaa! Thank you.

# # #

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Public's Rights to Public Schools and Land

October 25, 2011, 8:50 a.m.

The Heavy Price of Profit Maximization

The ICCSD School Board and Superintendent have indicated in a variety of ways their inclination to demolish Iowa City's 80-year-old landmark, Roosevelt Elementary School, and sell off the land to the highest bidder, regardless of the winner's proposed use, adverse impact on the neighborhood, and loss of the benefits from this irreplaceable asset for the residents of Iowa City.

It's pretty much a done deal. But it's still worth getting your oar in this polluted water, so I'm going to ask you a favor. A meeting of the Iowa City Community School Board Facility Committee is being held this afternoon in the Central Administration Office, 509 South Dubuque Street (just south of the Post Office), at 4:00 p.m. If you're free, please attend. I'm teaching a class this afternoon until after 5:00, so I can't go. (Unfortunately, meetings on some of the most important Board matters tend to be held when most citizens can't attend.)

The point I'd like to register is that those making these decisions have a responsibility that goes beyond a "marketplace profit maximization" approach. Even if they personally owned this land, one would hope when disposing of it they'd give some weight to the Iowa City community's interests.

But they don't own it. The people do; this is public land. Taxpayers paid for it; stakeholders benefit from it. The Board members have no more moral right to exercise their whim in this matter than would a similar number of developers.

And what it looks like we're going to end up with is a cabal of both.

There are few remaining plots of land of this size and beauty, both west of the river and close to town. This is truly irreplaceable public land. And it should remain as such.

It need not remain a school. It need not be "owned" by the school district. There are many possible options for its maximum contribution to the community. A few of them have been spelled out in this morning's Press-Citizen by Lori Enloe, whose column is reproduced below.

If the Board wants to profit-maximize, it might want to consider a hog confinement, a smokestack industry, or using the beautiful nature trail through the ravine as a nuclear waste dump -- any one of which would benefit from easy access to the railroad, and would undoubtedly bring top dollar.

No; profit maximization, which sometimes works well in the for-profit, commercial sector of society, is inappropriate in this instance. This is not the Board members' land. It is the people's land. It has been for over 80 years. The Board has no need to curry favor with local developers. And this particular piece of property is not a "must have" for developers anyway. They're doing fine.

Now read Ms. Enloe's op ed column, and join with me in this eleventh hour effort to bring common sense and human decency to the Board's management of our land.

Consider Better Options for Roosevelt's School Building
Lori Enloe
Iowa City Press-Citizen
October 25, 2011, p. 7A

Imagine a place close to downtown Iowa City where the community can:

Gather for meetings and performances in a renovated historic building.

Participate in a community garden.

Play soccer and cricket.

Produce art and take classes for all ages.

The closing of Roosevelt Elementary has created this possibility.

In June 2009, the Iowa City Community School Board voted to close Roosevelt and repurpose the building. A repurposing committee (as a district administrative committee) met from October 2010 to February with the charge of making recommendations for viable solutions for repurposing Roosevelt.

Their ideas were placed in four categories:

Repurpose the property.

Sell to another public entity or nonprofit organization.

Sell to a private entity with stipulations.

Sell to a private entity with no stipulations.

After some consideration of the committee’s recommendations, Superintendent Steve Murley met with the Miller-Orchard neighborhood to discuss his findings and the neighborhood’s concerns Sept. 20. He suggested that he will recommend that the School Board sell the Roosevelt school property.

I encourage the School Board either to repurpose Roosevelt or to sell it to someone who will repurpose the building and property for the local neighborhood and community.

The School Board has a great opportunity to be visionary when it makes a decision about the Roosevelt property when the elementary closes next year. Roosevelt sits very close to the new Iowa City Riverfront Crossing Development and is close to the University of Iowa — making it a great location for creating space that would fit the diverse needs of all of Iowa City and the immediate neighborhood.

The board should consider the gathering spaces that individuals and groups have created in Iowa City and Johnson County — such as Uptown Bills Coffee Shop, Backyard Abundance, Taproot Nature Experience, New Pioneer Co-op Earth Source gardens, Summer of the Arts, community pianos and many other examples — that are important for the sustainability and livability of our community.

Let’s find a way to revitalize and to repurpose the Roosevelt property for our community. It could be a place for a magnet school, early childhood education or a combination of educational programs. Although not revenue neutral, these options could make use of innovative public/private collaboration to offset the cost of the project.

Alternatively, the district could carefully select a buyer who will create a multiuse nonprofit or for-profit community space that could include edible community gardens, a gym, art studios, performance studio and evening classes.

The possibilities are great if the school board invites proposals and provides a long enough time frame for an individual or group to create a proposal for this space and raise the money to purchase it.

Come and listen to the School Board and superintendent as they talk about Roosevelt at their Work Session and Facility Committee meeting at 4 p.m. today in the Central Administration Office, 509 S. Dubuque St.
Lori Enloe is past president of Roosevelt Parent Teacher Organization and parent of two children in the Iowa City Community School District.

To remove any possible suspicion, or curiosity, as to my direct, personal interest in this issue, (a) I did not attend Roosevelt Elementary (I went through the University's experimental schools, the University Elementary and High School ("U-Hi")), and (b) I neither live, nor own property, in the immediate neighborhood of Roosevelt; it is across the tracks and at the opposite end of Greenwood from me.

# # #

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Banks of Marble: Long History of Wall St. Protests

October 16, 2011, 10:00 p.m.

[And see the related,
"Occupy: When Will It Stop? It will not stop until . . .," Oct. 14, 2011
“Why ‘Occupy”? What Do ‘Those People’ Want?,” Oct. 10, 2011
“Those Kinds of Riots Here,” Sept. 18, 2011
"Economic Recovery? It's Simple and Obvious; Recovery Requires Consumers, and Consumers Require Jobs," Oct. 13, 2011
"Golden Rules and Revolutions: A Series - VIII," April 19, 2008 (with links to each in series)]

'Occupy' Only Latest in 230-Year-Long Protest

Pete Seeger started singing Les Rice's "The Banks Are Made of Marble" in 1950. It's a song that might have been written 50 years earlier, or 100 -- or today.


In fact, it could have been written 230 years ago. Steve Fraser, "Wall Street protests: A long American tradition; The Occupy Wall Street movement is rooted in uprisings against policies that favor the financial elite over ordinary people," Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2011 -- with excerpts below.

If you didn't listen to Pete Seeger singing the song he made famous, above, and would prefer to just read the lyrics, here they are:

I've traveled round this country
From shore to shining shore
It really made me wonder
The things I heard and saw.

I saw the weary farmer
Plowing sod and loam
l heard the auction hammer
A knocking down his home

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the farmer sweated for

l saw the seaman standing
Idly by the shore
l heard the bosses saying
Got no work for you no more

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the seaman sweated for

I saw the weary miner
Scrubbing coal dust from his back
I heard his children cryin
Got no coal to heat the shack

But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miner sweated for

I've seen my brothers working
Throughout this mighty land
l prayed we'd get together
And together make a stand

Final Chorus
Then we'd own those banks of marble
With a guard at every door
And we'd share those vaults of silver
That we have sweated for
Les Rice, "The Banks are Made of Marble," Stormking Music (1950).

Now back to the centuries-old history of these bank protests, and excerpts from Steve Fraser's article:

The only thing really surprising about the Occupy Wall Street movement is that it didn't happen sooner. The United States has a long history of friction over policies that enable an elite to thrive at the expense of ordinary people.

The earliest tensions emerged soon after the Revolutionary War, when Jeffersonian democrats raised alarms about the "moneycrats" and their counter-revolutionary intrigues. . . .

In the first half of the 19th century, followers of Andrew Jackson inveighed against the Second Bank of the United States [and] feared the bank was part of a systematic monopolizing of financial resources by a politically privileged elite.

That tradition was embraced again just after the Civil War, when the Farmer-Labor and Greenback political parties were formed out of a determination to break the stranglehold on credit exercised by the big banks back East.

Later in the 19th century, Populists decried the overweening power of the Wall Street "devil fish." The tentacles of finance, they insisted, not only reached into every part of the economy but also corrupted churches, the press and institutions of higher learning, destroying the family and suborning public officials from the president on down. . . .

William Jennings Bryan . . . during his campaign for the presidency in 1896 . . . was taking aim at Wall Street, and everyone knew it.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the antitrust movement . . . worried most about . . . "the money trust" . . . skewered in court and in print by future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, subjected to withering congressional investigations, excoriated in the exposes of "muckraking" journalists and depicted by cartoonists as a cabal of prehensile Visigoths in death-heads.

[T]he new century . . . included reformers in statehouses and city halls, socialists in industrial cities, strikebound workers from coast to coast, working-class feminists and antiwar activists. Financial interests were blamed for . . . pillage and labor exploitation while practicing imperial adventuring abroad. As the movements made clear, everyone but Wall Street was suffering the consequences of a system of proliferating abuses perpetrated by "the Street."

[D]uring the [1930s] Depression . . . as now, there was no question in the minds of the "99%" that Wall Street was principally to blame for the country's crisis.

In addition to rallies and marches of the unemployed, there were hundreds of sit-down strikes . . ., foreclosures forestalled by infuriated neighbors and occupations — even seizures — of private property. There was a pervasive sense that the old order needed to be buried. . . . President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced his determination to unseat "economic royalists" who were growing rich off "other people's money" while the country suffered its worst trauma since the Civil War.
Steve Fraser, "Wall Street protests: A long American tradition; The Occupy Wall Street movement is rooted in uprisings against policies that favor the financial elite over ordinary people," Los Angeles Times, October 13, 2011.Want to know the data that explains why the protesters are protesting? Would you trust what comes from a business publication? OK, take a look at what CEO and Editor-in-Chief of Business Insider, Henry Blodget, has put together for you. Henry Blodget, "Here Are the Four Charts That Explain What the Protesters Are Angry About . . .," Business Insider, October 15, 2011. I won't fill this blog entry with the charts you can see at that link (with the exception of one, below); but here are the explanatory titles on each:

1. Unemployment is at the highest level since the Great Depression.

2. At the same time, corporate profits are at an all-time high, both in absolute dollars and as a share of the economy.

3. Wages as a percent of the economy are at an all-time low. In other words, corporate profits are at an all-time high, in part, because corporations are paying less of their revenue to employees than they ever have.

4. Income and wealth inequality in the US economy is near an all-time high: The owners of the country's assets (capital) are winning, everyone else (labor) is losing. Three charts illustrate this:

(1) The top earners are capturing a higher share of the national income than they have anytime since the 1920s. Top decile income share in France and the United States [20th Century; roughly equal until 1980; in 2003 about 43% in U.S., 32% France]

(2) CEO pay and dcorporate profits have skyrocketed in the past 20 years, "production worker" pay has risen 4%
(3) After adjusting for inflation, average earnings haven't increased in 50 years; Average Hourly Earnings, 1964-2008 (in 2008 dollars) [e.g., 1979: $18.76/hour; 2008: $18.52/hour]
By now, "Occupy Wall Street" has not only spread across America, it has gone global. As the New York Times reports, "Buoyed by the longevity of the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan, a wave of protests swept across Asia, the Americas and Europe over the weekend, with hundreds and in some cases thousands of people expressing discontent with the economic tides in marches, rallies and occasional clashes with the police." Clara Buckley and Rachel Donadio, "Buoyed by Wall St. Protests, Rallies Sweep the Globe," New York Times, October 16, 2011, p. A4.

And yet the bankers -- along with most elected officials and candidates -- still refuse to take it seriously, or understand what it's all about.

Publicly, bankers say they understand the anger at Wall Street — but believe they are misunderstood by the protesters camped on their doorstep.

But when they speak privately, it is often a different story.

"Most people view it as a ragtag group looking for sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll," said one top hedge fund manager.
Nelson D. Schwartz and Eric Dash, "In Private, Wall St. Bankers Dismiss Protesters As Unsophisticated," New York Times, October 15, 2011, p. B1.

Iowa's own Senator Charles Grassley's reaction is illustrative and consistent with the Times' report: "I assume that it’s a lot of unemployed young people looking for some dates.” Quoted from KCCI-TV in Graham Gillette, "One Helping of Irony s Now Being Served," Des Moines Register, October 16, 2011, p. OP 3.

As he so often does, "Tom Tomorrow" captures the Establishment's response to the Business Insider's statistics, above:

# # #

Friday, October 14, 2011

Occupy: When Will It Stop?

October 14, 2011, 8:15 a.m.

[And see the related,
“Why ‘Occupy”? What Do ‘Those People’ Want?,”
“Those Kinds of Riots Here,”
"Economic Recovery? It's Simple and Obvious; Recovery Requires Consumers, and Consumers Require Jobs"]

It will not stop until . . .

It will not stop until there is an end to the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children, those being slaughtered in our imperial wars and tortured in our black sites. It will not stop until foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students no longer have to go into debt to be educated, and families no longer have to plunge into bankruptcy to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the ecosystem stops, and our relationships with each other and the planet are radically reconfigured. And that is why the elites, and the rotted and degenerate system of corporate power they sustain, are in trouble. That is why they keep asking what the demands are. They don’t understand what is happening. They are deaf, dumb and blind.
Excerpt from, Chris Hedges, "Why the Elites Are in Trouble,", October 10, 2011.

[Photo credit: The Guardian.]

Freedom, justice, dignity and equity have seldom, if ever, been beneficently granted. They have almost always required a struggle, and too often required bloodshed. And they take time. It took us awhile, and the Civil War, to begin the process of releasing African-Americans from the bonds of slavery -- longer still to grant women the right to vote, and provide African-Americans the benefits of the Civil Rights, Voting Rights, and Public Accommodations Acts. There are gains, and there are setbacks. There are swells of popular participation, and retreats into apathy, resignation, despair and depression.

No one can know, can predict, where Occupy will go and when. It could fizzle. It could grow into marching millions. It could become a third party.

And, of course, there is always the possibility that not every participant will always react to police and national guard tanks, excessive brutality, pepper spray, tasers -- or Kent-State-style shootings and deaths -- with the near-universal non-violence we have seen from Occupy participants so far.

[John Filo's iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway, kneeling in anguish over the body of Jeffrey Miller minutes after he was shot by the Ohio National Guard; from Wikipedia "Kent State Shootings" link, above.]

How likely is violence?

As Chris Hedges has written elsewhere,
The death of liberal institutions that once made incremental and piecemeal reform possible, which once could respond to the suffering of the poor, the unemployed and working men and women, which once sought to protect the Earth on which we depend for life, means the last thin hope for reform is embodied in acts of civil disobedience. There are no established institutions that will help us. The press ignores the cries of the underclass and the poor. The labor movement is atrophied and dying. Public education is degraded and being rapidly dismantled. Our religious institutions no longer engage in the core issues of justice. And the Democratic Party is on its knees before Wall Street. The most basic government services designed to ameliorate the pain, including Head Start and Social Security, are targeted by our corporate overlords for destruction. The Kyoto Protocol, which was not nearly ambitious enough to prevent environmental collapse, has been gutted so companies like Exxon Mobil can continue to amass the largest profits in history. . . .

Those of us who demand a return to the rule of law and remain steadfast to nonviolence will find ourselves cast aside—the useful idiots Lenin so despised. I watched this happen in the social and political implosions in El Salvador, Guatemala, the Palestinian territories, Algeria, Bosnia and Kosovo. I watched the same cocktail of despair, economic collapse and callousness from a corrupt power elite mix itself into potent brews of civil strife. I watched the same untiring efforts by those who detested the violence and cruelty of the state, and the nascent violence and intolerance of the radical opposition. I covered as a reporter the disintegration that tore these societies apart. Those who held fast to moral imperatives, including Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador and Ibrahim Rugova in Kosovo, were thrust aside and replaced with killers on both sides of the divide who embraced violence.
Chris Hedges, "Ralph Nader is Tired of Running for President,", July 4, 2011.

Let us, please, do more than just hope and pray this will not become America's path. Let us act to assure it. For although Occupy's ranks may decline and grow again, perhaps even with a different name and generation of participants, it will not stop. Ultimately, the legitimate grievances born of greed will be addressed, whether with brutality and bullets, or compassion and creativity.

Each of us can choose our favored option; ultimately, each of us will have to. The question we must answer, as the old labor song put it is, "Which side are you on?"

# # #

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Economic Recovery? It's Simple and Obvious

October 13, 2011, 1:45 p.m.

Recovery Requires Consumers, and Consumers Require Jobs

Yesterday [Oct. 12, 2011] the Senate refused to even debate, let alone pass, President Obama's jobs bill. As the New York Times editorialized:

[Photo credit: Pete Souza, White House.]

It was all predicted, but the unanimous decision by Senate Republicans on Tuesday to filibuster and thus kill President Obama’s jobs bill was still a breathtaking act of economic vandalism. There are 14 million people out of work, wages are falling, poverty is rising, and a second recession may be blowing in, but not a single Republican would even allow debate on a sound plan to cut middle-class taxes and increase public-works spending.
Editorial, "No Jobs Bill, and No Ideas," New York Times, October 13, 2011, p. A28.

For at least the past three years I have been repeatedly blogging here on a similar theme, for example:
You can't improve business (profits, returns to shareholders, executive compensation) without improving retail sales; you can't improve retail sales without putting money in the hands, and confidence in the heads, of potential consumers; and unemployed consumers don't have money unless they are provided either unemployment compensation or wages from a public sector job (in an economy with a shrinking private sector).

Given our rotting, unattended, infrastructure (roads, bridges, pipelines, schools) resulting from the last 30 years of "tax cuts" it seems to me, given the same amount of money, that using it to create "jobs" makes more sense than providing it for "unemployment compensation."

But either makes more sense than trying to turn an economy around with "trickle down" -- whether tax cuts for the rich, or bailouts for the rich.
"Jobs, Not Unemployment, Key to Recovery," November 8, 2008.

I may be naive, and I claim no credentials as an economist, but to me the solution to our economic doldrums has always seemed quite simple and obvious.

My son, Gregory, when providing computer consulting service, likes to respond to customers' frustration and confusion with, "There are three steps," which he then proceeds to set forth.

I'm not sure I can keep this to a three-step analytical progression, but it's not much more complex than that.

1. We have an economy that is driven -- for good or for ill, in boom times and bad -- overwhelmingly (say, 70% or more) by consumer spending.

2. We now have 25% or more of the workforce that is unemployed, significantly underemployed, or has given up trying to find work (for African-American, male, high school dropouts, between 18 and 25, it's well over 50%). Those who are in the workforce are, understandably, concerned that they might become unemployed. At best they are, again understandably, confused and worried about the future of our global economy, and America's role in it.

3. As a result, and as a variation on "the tragedy of the commons," while we would all be better off as members of an inter-dependent community if we would all spend more, the most rational thing for every individual to do, as an individual, is to save more and spend less.

4. Similarly, providing cash, tax breaks, and other incentives to business to increase hiring, and banks to increase lending, has not worked and will never work. Why? Because a corporate CEO would be nuts, and deserve being fired, if he or she were to borrow more money, to hire more workers, to increase production, at a time when their company is unable to sell what it already has in warehouses, on the shelves, or in showrooms. As evidence, we are told that business is now sitting on something like $2 trillion in cash. Clearly, it is a lack of demand, not a lack of capital, that is the problem. The private sector has repeatedly, and again recently, made clear that it is incapable of turning around a plummeting economy all by itself.

5. So what do I think is so "simple and obvious"?

We have a short term, immediate problem, and a longer range problem.

Longer range, to become globally competitive during the 21st Century we need to provide more education and training to more people, and provide incentives for entrepreneurial activity. (As someone has said, "There has never been a more difficult time to find a job; and never been an easier time to create a job.")

But short term, the way to bring ourselves out of the economic doldrums, to give a boost to our economy, to increase consumer spending, is to create more consumers, with greater confidence in their future prospects for employment. That means a full-employment economy; jobs for all; provided by the private sector when it's rational for business to do so, and provided by the federal government when it is not.

Don't start by talking about private sector jobs, or even "infrastructure." Start by talking about full employment -- or as near "full" as practicable.

In January of 2009, had we taken all the money we lavished on the banks, auto and insurance industries, and other large corporations, and used it for wages for all, our economy would have turned around by the fall of 2009 at the latest, and be humming along right now.

With the increase in consumer spending would have come the confidence of business. Once there is the prospect of continuing, dependable demand, smart business people are perfectly capable of providing the supply. And as the economy continued to spiral up, the federal payrolls would have contracted as better paying jobs would be created -- rationally created -- in the private sector marketplace.

Our unwillingness to take that path has hurt us all -- up to and including that "1%."

Can I put this in three steps?

1. If you have a downward spiraling economy, 70% of which represents consumer spending, you need to increase consumer spending.

2. If you have excessive unemployment and underemployment, you increase consumer spending by creating more consumers, with more money to spend.

3. If the private sector cannot create the jobs that create additional consumers, you must either (a) have the federal government become the "employer of last resort," or (b) resign yourself to the unnecessary prolonging of a grossly under-performing economy -- which has been our choice.

And that's what, to me, seems "simple and obvious."

# # #

Monday, October 10, 2011

Why 'Occupy'?

October 10, 2011, 7:30 a.m.

[And see also, "Those Kinds of Riots Here," September 18, 2011.]

What Do "Those People" Want?

[Photo credit: Elvira Bakalbasic.]

There was a lot of newspaper commentary about the "Occupy" movement once the local media finally recognized that the story could no longer be ignored. (The New York City version of "Occupy Wall Street" quickly morphed into "Occupy" places all across the country, including Iowa and Iowa City -- plus Des Moines, Mason City, and Fairfield, among other cities in Iowa.)

Many of those reader comments were critical of Occupy, from wild rants and charges of "Communist!" to critiques regarding the lack of specific demands and leadership. (This from critics who failed to recognize that the existence of movement "leaders" and "specific demands" in a movement's beginning often contribute to its downfall.)

Senator Grassley elaborated on Donald Trump's line, saying these protesters are "just a bunch of unemployed college students looking for dates" -- a disparagement he may come to regret.
[Arrests at Occupy Des Moines; thanks to]

A common question, seemingly reflecting genuine bewilderment on the part of the relatively well off, was a variant of "What do these people want?"

My response, in newspaper comments, was a variation on "if you have to ask you haven't been paying attention":
More and more Americans over the past 30 years have come to the realization that, as the "silent majority" bumper sticker had it, "The Majority is not Silent, the Government is Deaf." They come from all regions of the country, slices of the political spectrum, religions (and no religions), ages, and occupations.

There is a perception that when corporations and the ultra rich are not getting away with violating the law it is because they have written the law, that the ever-escalating gap in income between the 1% and the 99% is at least in part the result of money in politics (not just differences in enterprise, intellectual and entrepreneurial ability), and that ours has become a "government of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" -- a government that has for the most part rebuffed and ignored our polite requests.

Historically, when those perceptions begin to register with the people, they take to the streets. That's how our nation began -- as the Declaration of Independence put it, "The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations . . .." It's how women got the right to vote, and African-Americans got civil rights. It's what it took to get the right to unionize, and bring the Viet Nam war to an end.

"This is what democracy looks like." Get used to it. Support it. Nothing could be more "American."

See, "Those Kinds of Riots Here," September 18, 2011,
So I was especially pleased to see the New York Times' editorial yesterday striking a similar theme. [I am taking the unusual step of reproducing here the entire editorial. I encourage you to subscribe to the Times, as I do:; they offer a special deal on a combination Sunday edition in Iowa City plus unlimited online access. But if they would like me to remove the editorial from this blog entry, along with my personal endorsement, I am quite willing to do so.]

Editorial: Protesters Against Wall Street
New York Times
October 9, 2011, p. SR 10
As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread from Lower Manhattan to Washington and other cities, the chattering classes keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions. The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening.

At this point, protest is the message: income inequality is grinding down that middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people. On one level, the protesters, most of them young, are giving voice to a generation of lost opportunity.

The jobless rate for college graduates under age 25 has averaged 9.6 percent over the past year; for young high school graduates, the average is 21.6 percent. Those figures do not reflect graduates who are working but in low-paying jobs that do not even require diplomas. Such poor prospects in the early years of a career portend a lifetime of diminished prospects and lower earnings — the very definition of downward mobility.

The protests, though, are more than a youth uprising. The protesters’ own problems are only one illustration of the ways in which the economy is not working for most Americans. They are exactly right when they say that the financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. As the bad times have endured, Americans have also lost their belief in redress and recovery.

The initial outrage has been compounded by bailouts and by elected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street, a toxic combination that has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer.

Extreme inequality is the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.

When the protesters say they represent 99 percent of Americans, they are referring to the concentration of income in today’s deeply unequal society. Before the recession, the share of income held by those in the top 1 percent of households was 23.5 percent, the highest since 1928 and more than double the 10 percent level of the late 1970s.

That share declined slightly as financial markets tanked in 2008, and updated data is not yet available, but inequality has almost certainly resurged. In the last few years, for instance, corporate profits (which flow largely to the wealthy) have reached their highest level as a share of the economy since 1950, while worker pay as a share of the economy is at its lowest point since the mid-1950s.

Income gains at the top would not be as worrisome as they are if the middle class and the poor were also gaining. But working-age households saw their real income decline in the first decade of this century. The recession and its aftermath have only accelerated the decline.

Research shows that such extreme inequality correlates to a host of ills, including lower levels of educational attainment, poorer health and less public investment. It also skews political power, because policy almost invariably reflects the views of upper-income Americans versus those of lower-income Americans.

No wonder then that Occupy Wall Street has become a magnet for discontent. There are plenty of policy goals to address the grievances of the protesters — including lasting foreclosure relief, a financial transactions tax, greater legal protection for workers’ rights, and more progressive taxation. The country needs a shift in the emphasis of public policy from protecting the banks to fostering full employment, including public spending for job creation and development of a strong, long-term strategy to increase domestic manufacturing.

It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That’s the job of the nation’s leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies. Because they have not, the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.
# # #

Saturday, October 01, 2011

The True Price of TIFs

October 1, 2011, 7:20 a.m.

Thank You Press-Citizen and Emily Schettler . . . but that's not all

With two stories about TIFs in Saturday's paper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, and its reporter, Emily Schettler, have made a significant contribution to the people of Iowa in general, and Johnson County in particular. This is reporting in the best spirit of "civic journalism." Emily Schettler, "The Many Faces of TIF; Districts Offer Incentives as Well as Drawbacks," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 1, 2011, p. A1; Emily Schettler, "What Impact Do TIFs Have on County, Schools?" Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 1, 2011, p. A1.

There are 13 categories of reasons why TIFs are usually, if not always, a bad idea that do significant harm to business, government, elected public officials -- and, of course, taxpayers. [Photo credit: Benjamin Roberts/Iowa City Press-Citizen]

One of those categories is the subject of this two-story presentation: how TIFs can tie the hands of the governmental unit that creates them (and otherwise exact high "opportunity costs"), lower its credit rating for government bonds, deprive neighboring governmental units of needed tax revenues, and related consequences.

Here is a summary presentation of another 12 categories of reasons why they should be avoided:
TIFs are not necessary for Iowa City and surrounding communities. We're not exactly going through a depression, with store fronts boarded up, unemployment around 40%, or other justifications for early New Deal-type programs.

Their "opportunity costs" are enormous for local property taxpayers and local governments. County Supervisor Rod Sullivan estimates they are currently taking some $700 million worth of business property off the tax rolls. That means both more taxes for the rest of us and cuts in needed programs.

TIFs tilt the playing field, are unfair to business, and cause imbalance in the free market. Why the business community doesn't rise up in righteous wrath over TIFs has always amazed me. It's tough enough out there in that free market jungle, what with competition from the likes of Wal-Mart and comparably advantaged businesses, government regulations that sometimes seem a wee bit irrational, and the unforeseeable challenges. It just seems so fundamentally unfair that, on top of all that, a business person should have to compete with someone who is handed the kind of competitive advantage represented by a TIF or other government subsidy. Talk about a "level playing field"! TIFs really upset a smoothly working free market -- and to no one's real advantage except for the lucky recipient of the taxpayers' largess.

There's no evidence that Iowa City's economy and development won't continue to expand at a satisfactory rate driven by nothing more than the forces of the marketplace -- entrepreneurs, investors, venture capitalists, banks and other loaning institutions.

TIFs (and other shifts of taxpayers' money to for-profit enterprises) don't work. Governor Vilsack offered Maytag $100 million in taxpayers' money not to leave Newton. It went to Michigan anyway. Should he have offered $200 million? I don't think so.

Business comes to an area for other reasons than TIFs: available skilled workforce, transportation, communications, and other infrastructure elements -- plus "quality of life" assets such as schools, parks, libraries, theaters, trails, entertainment venues, restaurants, and natural settings such as mountains, beaches, woods, rivers and lakes. (A business that came to an Iowa Mississippi River town recently explained that it didn't choose the location because of state subsidies, it chose the location because it needed access to barge transportation on the river.)

Transferring taxpayers' money to for-profit ventures in the name of "free private enterprise" carries so much hypocrisy that City Councilors who talk that way ought to hide in the shadows with their shame. Where's the ideological purity of these "greed is good," privatization, "let the marketplace do it all" pro-business advocates when they're holding out (or filling) a tin cup? Business proposals that make sense have no trouble getting funding; owners, investors, venture capitalists, and creditors are looking for places to put their money and will respond to well-crafted business plans. Free private enterprise ventures can make sense for a community. So can socialist ventures such as roads, schools, libraries and parks. However, the more they are kept distinct the better it is for both.

If free private enterprise can't fund a project with private sector money, that just might be a sign that it's not a very good place to be putting the public's money either.

How can one possibly judge with accuracy whether, if the TIF were not available, the project would not go ahead? When free public money is available to a for-profit venture the temptation to become a tough negotiator, and to just slightly misrepresent the facts, is overwhelming. And there's virtually no way to test the blackmail.

The TIF-granters' record ain't great. For the most part, the public officials handing out our tax dollars to the wealthy are more professionally skilled at keeping constituents (and campaign contributors) happy, getting re-elected, and moving up to higher office, than they are at evaluating business proposals. There is a long list of TIFed (or otherwise publicly subsidized) private projects that have gone belly up, or failed to meet their promised construction schedules, or goals for new employees at designated pay levels.

Will we lose some businesses if we don't offer TIFs? Maybe. Let other towns give away their taxpayers' money. We don't need to play their game. As one of the top-rated towns in the nation by any one of a number of measures we'll get our share of new businesses without offering TIFs. Have a little self-confidence. Vilsack's $100 million couldn't keep Maytag here. A firm that likes San Diego's climate, or port access to the Pacific Ocean, probably isn't going to come to Iowa City for a TIF. A firm that believes it needs a location giving it rapid access to the O'Hare airport in Chicago (whether for moving persons or cargo) probably can't be talked into using the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids "Eastern Iowa Airport" no matter how big the TIF.

Step up to the plate councilors and business community. If City Council members, or members of the business community, think we need more economic growth and development than the marketplace can provide on its own there's nothing to stop them taking up a collection or offering personal economic incentives to new businesses. Iowa City's banks could offer new businesses, or proposals for business expansion, reduced-rate loans. The business community could create its own venture capital fund to invest in, or loan to, business developments they thought worthy. And I'm sure they'd be more than happy to accept every dollar from a City councilor who would like to help out.
Excerpt from "The Terrible TIFs," July 26, 2011. And see also, "Brother, Can You Spare a TIF?" April 25, 2011; "Understanding TIFs," October 5, 2006.

And see especially the 41 citizen comments (as of now) on yesterday's Press-Citizen story, Josh O'Leary, "Hampton Inn eyes I.C. spot; Hotel could be first piece of Riverfront Crossings," Iowa City Press-Citizen, September 30, 2011.

Reconsidering the Proposition That "All TIFs Are Evil"

Is it possible that describing all TIFs as "evil" is a bit of a stretch -- depending on your sense of evil? Would "all TIFs are outrageous" be a little more restrained?

Is it even possible, like being "just a little bit pregnant," that there are some very modest, or at least very precise, uses of TIFs that make sense for everyone?

Never before has that possibility come from my lips. But recent conversations with experienced and knowledgeable, independent individuals whose wisdom and judgment I value -- and who are opposed to TIFs in general -- have caused me to rethink it. I'm not convinced, mind you; I don't yet have enough information to even reject the idea, let alone accept it; all I'm saying is that my mind is open to considering the possibility.

So far, the conversations have been relatively superficial (only because we haven't had the time to pursue the issue in greater depth).

The general idea, if I understand it, is that TIFs can sometimes produce a public benefit in a for-profit venture that, but for the TIF, would not exist. I haven't yet been given specific examples, but my guess would be this might include such things as a greater set-back creating more open, green space, or intermixed low income housing, or more parking spaces.

The theory might be that this is but piggybacking a public goal on top of a private undertaking -- a public goal that would otherwise require the governmental unit to undertake the entire cost of the project. This would thus be somewhat akin to the government contracting with a private trash pickup service, or a private road builder to fill potholes -- public money may be going to help enrich a for-profit business, but that money is purchasing a public benefit that would otherwise have cost more.

(Note the emphasis on public benefit. Public schools, libraries, parks, and trails may help attract business to a community; after the business arrives, its employees will benefit. The point is, so will everyone else in the community. On the other hand, providing TIFs and subsidies, water and sewer lines to a new manufacturing plant -- or roads traveled almost exclusively only by the plant's employees -- do not have as direct a benefit to every taxpayer and citizen in the community.)

My first reaction to this argument is one of the 12 categories above: "How can one possibly judge with accuracy whether, if the TIF were not available, the project would not go ahead?" It may be no government intervention of any kind is required to get the benefit.

Second, if there were a way of definitively proving that is not the case, state, county and municipal governments have rather substantial regulatory power in the form of statutes, ordinances, agency regulations, fire and building codes, and zoning. So far as I know, it is not common for governments to subsidize, or provide tax breaks, to gain the public good of building materials and electric wiring less likely to burst into flame, restaurants' kitchens less likely to house rats and cockroaches, or rental housing fit for healthy living.

At a minimum, when governments are in pursuit of the public good in for-profit enterprise, I would like to see them totally exhaust all other possibilities for bringing about the end they desire before paying for it with taxpayers' money in the form of TIFs, other tax forgiveness, subsidies, and cash payments.

One of my trusted advisers tells me that, while my rule would certainly be preferable, it is often impossible to get the votes of legislators or city council members for that approach. I am quite willing to have conversations about political reality and corruption, but it does not seem to me that such considerations bear upon the inherent virtues and vices of TIFs as such. And I'd like to get the theoretical understanding of TIFs straight first, before getting into debate about necessary political compromises.

Third, so if (a) a desirable public benefit can be identified that is viewed by the public as a top priority, and (b) it can somehow be proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the marketplace won't create it without taxpayer money, and (c) the governmental unit has no legislative or regulatory way to insist on the benefit without paying for it, and (d) it doesn't make sense for the governmental unit to undertake the entire benefit-producing project on its own (government planned, constructed, managed and operated), then (d) before pledging any public money to the project (TIF or other tax forgiveness, subsidy or cash) what I am looking for is some predictable, analytical,check list of questions, benefit-cost, structured way to evaluate which projects clearly do, and do not, qualify for public financing, and why.

A somewhat analogous approach, in an entirely different context, is what's called "the Powell doctrine," the questions one needs to address before concluding that involving the military in a matter of our foreign relations will be more constructive than destructive of our national interests. See, e.g., "War in Libya, the Unanswered Questions," March 23, 2011.

So that's it for now. I've yet to see a TIF I thought made sense, a TIF for which none of the 13 categories of objections was applicable. I am impressed with the overwhelming majority of my fellow citizens (who have expressed views in comments on the Press-Citizen stories and other TIF projects earlier) who seem to share not only my general conclusions, but the precise arguments (categories) I have put forth. My mind is open to considering data and arguments regarding a small category of exceptions. But I have yet to see the standards that would be used to qualify those applications.

# # #