Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Social Security...and Generational Trust

The fear-talk about Social Security is: in retirement the 'baby boomers' are going to break the bank. There's so many of them. Who expected them to live so long? We've got to reform the system (the proposed solutions are endless) or: there will be generational war; why should the young wage earners have to pay for the now-old 'baby boomers' pension checks?

Suddenly I had a thought: why DO the young people have to pay for the boomer's retirement. Think logically: If there are so may baby boomers now, there must have been a hell of a lot of baby boomers then...all paying into the system all these years? Where did all that FICA money go? The answer of course is: the government spent it...on things other than social security...much like the corporations have underfunded (isn't that such a nicer word than spent or stole or 'dipped their hand in the "rainy day" money jar') the many now-defaulted corporate pension funds. The US government (I have this feeling it all started under Lyndon Johnson--the master of political and economic sleight of hand) wanted to keep on spending--Viet Nam War, the Great Society...). He could have, the electorate didn't want that; they could have spent the politicians and the people didn't want that; they could have increased the national debt even much more debt can more be without more being excessively, dangerously more? So they decided the path of least resistance (sneakiest path) was to mix all government funds, the yearly operational account and the FICA insurance account, i.e., co-mingle, steal from the Social Security Fund (oh, I'm sure they passed a law to make it all legal...i.e., to protect their collective asses) to pay the onslaught of everyday governmental bills...and in so doing THEY passed on the payback of the thus-borrowed FICA money to the future generations...which--from all the howling--I assume is now! It is time to pay the piper.

What are we going to do about it? Well, the kids could procreate more, like the Mormons, have more kids quickly: millions of new boomer babies to soon pay into this generations future retirement funds. (A Swiftian solution: knock off the aging baby boomers generation; put put poison into their beta blockers and Viagra.) Or break the social trust and just (legally, of laws will be passed) deny them their (some or all of their) payments. Of course then, a great many of this generation will have to take care of those aging, without-sufficient-social-security funds; or just see their parents join the homeless blocking the entrances to every young person's boutique in America. (Maybe that the real social war coming up in America: between people with children and people without? Oh, it's already happening in San Francisco? I'll have to subscribe--quick--to the SF Chronicle.)

As a member of the electorate for the last 50 years I guess it is my fault for letting our elected representatives ripped off with such ease the FICA Fund. I should pay, right? But...aren't the sins of the fathers supposed to be visited upon the sons?

To the sons and daughters of the baby boomers...those who are being asked to replace this generations ripped-off FICA insurance funds: I know you didn't ask to be born into this world, but a sad but all-too-true-fact...we didn't you into this world for your sakes, but for of which was to handle our shortsightedness in not knowing we were going to live this long. Sorry. The only consolation you can take is that you will probably replicate that birth-intent factor with your kids. Or even...maybe...heaven might enjoy us--our being around (longer)...even if we are expensive?!

Another way to look at the dilemma: Take advantage of our (baby boom) generations successes (no cold war, a still-great country, the Internet, ipods, etc...) and shrug: win some, lose some. Who knows what your kids--what are we up to now, generation triple X?--will inherit from you? Would you want them to break familial--or national--trust with you? A nation--or generations--without trust, is a nation without civility...or cohesion, or laws...or maybe without even the right to call itself a nation (a supposedly ongoing concept).

Win some; lose some. Birth is an inheritance and a legacy.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The Re-empowerment of Labor

In a recent article in the LA Times, "The Upside of Retiring Down Under", author Kelly Candaele was comparing the better retirement situation for workers in Australia as opposed to those in the US. In explaining the disparity, she said that, today, in America, "...organized labor...represents only 8% of the private sector workforce," implying that the US labor movement's decade long collapse--and the disintegration and undermining of its negotiated union pension plans--are in no small measure at the root of US aged's retirement dilemmas.

The US labor movement...unions...are now but a pale shadow of their former Twentieth Century self, both numerically (as a percentage of the working force) and in terms of their real social/economic power. Unions the that century were the primary income distribution vehicle in the whole America society. The US union movement could be credited in no small measure with the economic rise of the US Middle Class. Led by such labor leaders such as Samuel Gompers, John L. Lewis and Walter Reuther--and yes, even to Jimmy Hoffa--labor's tough negotiations in collective bargaining with its capital and business colleagues increased labor's share of the economic pie, and provided much of the impetus for higher wage raises, the establishment of pension funds and hospital/surgical insurance/benefits for workers.

US union power and influence peaked in the 1960s.

In the 1970's and 1980's the overall America economic pie was shrinking relative to its position in the world. In the early 1980s President Ronald Reagan and fellow conservatives, bolstered by the Chicago school of monetarists and free enterprisers, went on the attack: they exercised his Republican controlled Congress's muscle to weaken labor law--the first blow was struck in staring down and defeating the air controller union (in the latter's desire to use the strike as a bargaining tool). Reagan spoke forcefully in justification of, and proselytized for, the productive class--owners and capitalists and entrepreneurs--to be freed from the economic/demands/shackles of labor; primarily what he saw as labor's unfair ability to strike and cripple industry. The electorate listened, and through their representatives in Congress, acted. Labor Law was weakened.

The productive class did not stop there. They bolstered their attack on labor 'excesses' with another argument: the need for even lower labor costs. In order for American business to compete in a global economy, against countries who were not burdened with the higher labor costs, US workers had to learn to compete 'on a level playing field' for jobs with foreign low-waged workers (i.e., take less pay for the same work) or American business would locate overseas where the labor was cheaper and all US jobs would disappear. It was the 'take-less-wages-or-lose-the-job' argument.

Workers took less. They no longer had strong labor law to argue their side...a consequence of which workers gradually saw their wages diminish relative to the past. This led to another consequence: why join a union and pay dues when they can't do anything for you. Hence: only 8% of today's private workforce is unionized!!!

Lets look at where labor's relative position since Reagan and the 1980s (and I candidly admit I'm arguing correlation here, not coincidence.) Worker wages have flattened while corporate profits have risen. More and more households are peopled with two-worker families in order to support the same Twentieth Century middle class lifestyle. New worker pension plans are increasingly self-supporting or non-existent; and many of the ones that do exist are either defaulted by pro-business corporate bankruptcy laws, or pay increasingly less.

At the same time, management's share of the benefits of free enterprise has skyrocketed, exemplified by in managements salary-multiple of an average workers wage rate. What was once 40- to 50-to-1 management-to-worker ratio in the US, the ratio is often now 1000 to one, often more. Creating a furtherance of this wage disparity, the taxes on those managerial millionaires/billionaires has decreased! Not only are the rich getting richer in overall salary, they are able to keep more.

In spite of labor's belt-tightening, jobs are still fleeing overseas; or are being taken increasingly in the US by immigrants, legal and illegal, always eager to work for less. Little wonder why the mainstream Republican party, exemplified by President Bush, seem so lenient and tolerant toward immigrants (they are ready to establish guest worker programs at the drop of a dollar). Lower labor costs for business trump all other national considerations.

The country's wealth is back. The 'productive' class--capital, entrepreneurs, and management--freed from many labor constraints (modern workers might argue from even the constraints of fairness as well) have brought the country back with innovation and enhanced productivity. The overall pie is large size now--pizza size, in fact. Management has taken the first few slices, the hottest and the ones with the most cheese. Its time to pass the pizza plate around. Labor laws must be made stronger to that labor can secure its fair (larger) share of the (larger) American pie.

"Wait! Hold on!" business leaders would scream. We are still competing with low-wage countries. We still need to hold down labor costs. OK, the workers should say: hold down management costs, too. Aren't we all--labor and management--competing with these same foreign companies? Aren't stock options and salaries part of the competitive cost of a company's product? Hasn't American labor bee part of the citizenry/electorate that has voted and continues to vote for a political/economic climate so that business can flourish--so much so that the billion of Chinese dollars are investing in everyday. Has not that dedication to political freedom and legal democracy earned the electorate--which includes workers, in fact, as a majority-- a right to not only share the responsibilities of free enterprise competitiveness but also to reap some of the rewards. Isn't what's good for the goose good for the gander?

The entrepreneurial class might ask themselves: Is increasing economic disparity what's behind the Democratic Party resurgence in Congress; not just the war in Iraq?

True, the Republican administration has conducted some high-profile government lawsuits against the most egregious economic lawbreakers. But putting a few of the greediest capitalists--the CEOs of Enron, Worldcom, Adelphia--in jail, while these actions may prove a great symbolic move on behalf of the average worker against corporate executive greed, I would argue that re-empowering labor laws--and the workers bank accounts--would be a more substantive...and in the long run--smarter--move. A sullen, underpaid workforce will do as much damage to a company--and a national economy--as a sullen, underpaid CEO; perhaps in the long run, more.

Sunday, March 25, 2007


The Laws of Usury were an attempt in Middle Age Europe to neutralize the accumulation of wealth beyond the amount necessary for individual survival. In the event of an accumulators fortuitous circumstance, the accumulator class was felt that if they wanted to share their largess with others (those in need), they should do so without any attached a premium in repayment beyond the amount loaned. If they did demand additional recompense,, it was usury--breaking the law.

In a subsistence economy, each (hopefully) produces what they (and their family) need to survive. No doubt that reality held sway though a vast majority of hunter/gatherer epochs of human history. Then, as time went on, with the manifold inventions brought to fruition by human ingenuity and luck, and those inventions flowed into increased human/economic productivity (including agriculture, the use of animal labor, etc.), some enterprising souls began to accumulate more than needed for their subsistence. All of which led to the question: what to do with it? (1) Store it for a rainy day. (Cave and silos and barns attest to that chosen option.) Another question arose: (2) After counting the average number of rainy days in any given year, was it cost-effective to build new barns and silos for rainy days that can that never possibly be? (3) Throw the accumulated excess away. (I suppose that led to bothersome foraging by those who lived below subsistence, but human-goats always have been and always will be: SEE flea markets.) (4) Give it away to those who are beneath subsistence level? (And religions, stressing the commonality of man, reinforcing such a solution. More than a few accumulators were promised heaven because of such personal largess in the face of their personal accumulation.)

Others argued another rationale (was it their greed rationalized?): that just by 'giving' wealth away it rewarded or encouraged sloth. Productivity, invention, the growth of knowledge would be severely de-incentivized by such undeserved generosity.

A compromise was established. Let the accumulators when so moved 'lend' it to others for a short period of time: the needy borrowers could then use these accumulated productive resources to start there own farms, hunt down their own animals to train, go to school to learn knowledge that would help them to move to and beyond subsistence...enabling them to survive and eventually to give back the borrowed amount to the original owner-accumulators.

However, in loaning people risks were recognized--what if the loan is never paid back? What if the borrower wasted the resources; was a lousy or unlucky farmer, a foolish or incapable trainer of animals, a lousy student? To mitigate against such unfortunate occurrences, the accumulator/loaner decided to attach a premium to the loan repayment: an interest rate, intended to cover and spread the risk of a loan default.

So far, so good. This method of dealing with accumulated goods and the dispensing of same all sounds rational...and fair...if one accepts that the initial accumulation of goods and services is the reward of personal effort and not mere luck. BUT...should an accumulator be rewarded if luck were the determining fact in the possibility of accumulation? What if the initial accumulation of wealth did not occur due to the efforts of meritocracy but were affected to some degree by only luck: such as, accidents of birth, geography, accidents of weather and climate; and if so, should the lucky accumulator be allowed to accumulate that portion of wealth based only on luck: while others--the unlucky--are left starving? And get an interest rate on top of it?

Religion--stressing the commonality of humankind--argued 'no'. Luck should be neutralized in the formula of success. Let the factor of luck--the fact that life contains uncontrollable and inherent risks or 'accidents', fortunate for some, unfortunate for others, be removed from the equation: luck should be balanced: why not allow the 'risks' attendant on birth be offset in some way by denying all accumulators additional recompense for their loaning?

In this formulation, interest rates become usurious; in that they unfairly protect the accumulating class against any overall (class) wealth-risk in loaning; while being blind to the risk factor of those (eventual borrowers) who enter life with more risk (measured by the lack of luck in birth, inheritance, geography and climate) in the overall economic arena.

The early Christian church's condemnation of interest rates--usury--was such an attempt at balancing this an unfair disparity in risk-acceptance, believing as it did (and still does, I assume) in the commonality in value and worth of all human beings (at least as it is enshrined in the US Declaration of Independence: each individual has an equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness).

Let us banish interest rates once again--usury--once and for all. Let the accumulators be generous because it feels good (the secular equivalent of 'going to heaven': reduces ulcers, colitis, and any anxiety about the 'underclass'). Or grant the loans to the unfortunate without interest because it prevents revolutions (the rationale behind Foreign Aid), or because the government is going to tax it all away if you don't (remember when there was a 90% tax rate on income over $200,000?). And remember: not all loans are defaulted. Only a percentage.

Do we really need interest rates? 'What goes round, comes round'. Let's return to kindergarten...where we all learned to share--without interest rates. What happened?

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Mountain Climbing

Climbing up a mountain is easy.

You face your rocky foe, hands at the ready, locked in proximate embrace with its rising challenge; you realize there is some danger ahead of you but you sense there is greater danger behind you, far below, behind, gratefully beyond your forward-looking focus. Steps are taken up and forward, careful, safely, slow. The moving pace of the ascent is measured. A welcome pause is always part of your periodic choice.

Climbing down is much, much harder. Leaning back, while moving forward into undefined space, there is no solid rock handles to grip, while the mind is working to retain memories of prior mountaintop glories, successes; only to find them fading in the reality of gravity's present inexorable pull. You find there is little time to think, to reflect, to rest; a misstep will send you plunging tumbling forward, face first to your doom. Doom is always present, and always within gaze: as the future is inexorably forward, only too real in its gravitational pull. Rest is only somewhat possible; without hands to grip a tangible rock, balance is left up to the legs, toes. No sure grip there: ten dwarfed appendages, not supple like friendlier, more familiar fingers. Descent is rapid, always fast, faster than one would desire: an unfulfilled desire to succeed, to end; to reach a final destiny, to settle in a plot of flat earth that says: "I'm done; you're done; it's done...What mountain?"

Youth's slow climb is always much more preferable to age's quick descent.

Monday, March 19, 2007


I have lived in one home, one street, one city for many years.

Too many?

Driving though familiar streets, I thought yesterday: the horror of living too long in one place is I cannot pass another street, a house, another section on my city, without remembering. Forty years of ghosts follow me everywhere: In the house on that corner I remember Chuck Hansen and his wood carvings. ...At that intersection I remember buying foot long hot dogs...Under that tree I watched my old now-dead dog Taffy squat among moistened the flowers...

Memories...they flood in. They overwhelm me, I struggle to breathe between the onslaught of the waves. Memories define my age too severely; they create too many vivid benchmarks to make too specific my brief journey of time. They render foolish my delusions of still being young.
I remember when Malcolm was alive, when we argued politics at Izzy's, when Mishi was six in that very park chasing squirrels, when Eric and I walked holing hands down that path...Too many ghosts, all made too vivid by familiarity.

I must move. A new place will render me new experiences. My life will be fresh again, a smooth face to write my newest world upon. I will be young again. If I move, all those cloying ghosts will be banished. I will move to a place I have never been before, I will erase specific sensory facts to build a remembrance from. Yes; I will move; I want to be young again. I will shatter the mirrors of an aging face that the ghostly old specifics engender. ghosts...they give me comfort. They are and were my friends. We grew old together. They are my continuity; they remind me daily that I was and am alive. I don't want to forget them. Forget Malcolm? Forget the park Mishi played in, the street that Eric accompanied my down? Chuck Hansen and his wood? Foot-ling hot dogs? If I forget them, do I forget myself? Who am I but the accumulation of my ghosts. If I forget them, can I be sure I was real? Without a mirror, who are we? Life is ghosts.

I will not move.

Monday, March 12, 2007

An Irish Lullaby

If Robert Frost had been Irish he might have written: "...and pubs to go before I sleep; and pubs to go before I sleep."

Sunday, March 11, 2007


The future of Israel lies to the East, not to the West.

Although the nation was granted its place in the sun by colonial Western powers (due in great measure by the horrible history of the Holocaust, as well as its own subsequent terrorist intifada against Britain), Israel must learn to project itself as an integrated Middle Eastern country. It must forgo its economic ties to the West: reparations, age old monetary claims, American governmental and private $$$ and other economic incentives, and say to its neighbors (Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia the UAR and Iran): "How can we help you? You have oil; we have a history of educational and technical achievements. Let us work together to make our Middle East great."

Jews (which is what the Israelis are by design and desire) have a long history of relatively respectful accommodation with Arabs (and for that matter, Islam). This present period of poisonous tension between them most recently began with the national desires of Zionism promulgated in its modern incantation in the late nineteenth century and culminating with Israel's birth in 1948. Also, the Arabs themselves only recently developed a notion of a modern nation-state; so their desires for fixed and secure geographic entities is somewhat youthful and not fully defined yet itself.

Israel must turn to its neighbors and say: "Let us have a Jewish state; let us have this territory defined by religious affiliation; it is a long-honored concept in this part of the world. Some of you are crying for an Islamic state; why can't we have a Judaic state? Mosques and synagogues have operated side by side next door to each other before. We can be neighbors helping each other in all other things."

If Israel would start to look East rather than West, it would undermine the Middle Eastern argument of Israel as a "modern Crusader state"; in some ways a valid argumnent as a colonial outpost of Western imperialism and intelligence gathering. The Arabs will see Israel instead as a regional partner, not a Trojan horse, a contributing ally in its inevitable confrontation (oil and economic) vis-a-vis Europe and America...not to mention China and Russia.

Let's face it: Its no fun living in any neighborhood where your neighbors hate you. Israel must become a 'good neighbor'...or eventually they will have to leave the neighborhood...for their own sake. Mutual destruction of a neighborhood cannot be considered a viable option. Masada (group/national suicide)--especially in a nuclear world--cannot be repeated.