Friday, July 22, 2011

Columnist Opeyemi Parham on Return of Shuttle Atlantis

Space Shuttle AtlantisImage via Wikipedia

Atlantis: End of an Era

      Being a sci-fi child was unusual, in my family African-American  artistic family. My scientific temperament made me feel the black sheep much of the time.
     My geeky tendencies were nurtured outside of my family from an early age.  Max, my third grade science teacher introduced me to atomic theory. I saw a standard drawing of a nucleus, a proton and an electron  and had an epiphany. It represented EVERYTHING. Finding the language of math and science to explore this way of seeing the world was a given for me, from that day onward.
     Then there was  "A Wrinkle in Time", read aloud by my fourth grade teacher. This mythopoetic story of Meg (clumsy misfit struggling to find her place in the world, suddenly transported  into a great struggle to save Earth from Dark Forces) prepared me to believe in miracles, and in the power of love.
     It is with very mixed feelings that I have witnessed the end of America's space program. The return of the  shuttle Atlantis on July 21-- the same day "we" walked on the moon--IS the end of an era. It was an era that started on the wrong foot. A race AGAINST the Russians. The planting of a flag, CLAIMING the moon for "us".    
     A poem I wrote in 9th grade still reads true, all these many years later:

                               "I once heard a Navajo woman,
                                who was withered, 
                                Like the last leaf of Autumn
                               Upon hearing that man had reached the moon,
                               Very quietly,
                                Very softly,
                              'I don't think that man was meant to go to the moon'
                               And I knew that when she died
                               A small piece of humanity would die with her.
                               Because she still saw the moon
                               As luminous power  in a night sky,
                                As a Goddess, to be respected--
                               Not a rock on which to plant a flag
                               Or a dumpsite for discarded LEMs."

      Could the millions spent on the space program have been  better utilized? What were we humans exporting, anyway? How could we simply leave all our junk up there out in space? Was space becoming the new "away" for throwing things away?
     About two weeks ago, I was having a conversation with my geeky MIT grad buddy, the product of parents who are both engineers who work for NASA. His defense of a continued need for the space program boiled down to "having somewhere to do the dangerous experiments".
     Like exploding nuclear bombs? Or biologic warfare tests?
     It was not until 1992 that anyone looking like me went into space. Mae Jemison was a dancer, and a doctor, as well as an astronaut. She resigned from NASA in 1993. In 1996, she filed a police brutality report against a Texas police officer, following her arrest for a traffic violation.
      That incident alone enforces my belief that we have a lot more work to do  "down here" before our government gets back to space exploration.
     We'll get there; in the right time in the right way.
    With the REAL Right Stuff next time.

                       Opeyemi  413-336-1291
                        P.O. Box 264
                        Hadley, MA. 01035  (
         check out my essay in Hope Beneath Our Feet: Restoring Our Place in the Natural World  and my CHAPTER in Dancing on the Earth 

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Financial Markets Exacerbate Economic Problems

Why the Euro Is Not Worth Saving

This crisis has exposed the fact that – unlike the EU itself – the eurozone's monetary union was always a rightwing project

The euro is crashing to record lows against the Swiss franc, and interest rates on Italian and Spanish bonds have hit record highs. This latest episode in the eurozone crisis is a result of fears that the contagion is now hitting Italy. With a $2tn economy and $2.45tn in debt, Italy is too big to fail and the European authorities are worried.
Although there is currently little basis for the concern that Italy's interest rates could rise high enough to put its solvency in jeopardy, financial markets are acting irrationally and elevating both the fear and the prospects of a self-fulfilling prophesy. The fact that the European authorities cannot even agree on how to handle the debt of Greece – an economy less than one sixth the size of Italy – does not inspire confidence in their capacity to manage a bigger crisis.
The weaker eurozone economies – Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Spain – are already facing the prospect of years of economic punishment, including extremely high levels of unemployment (16%, 12%, 14% and 21%, respectively). Since the point of all this self-inflicted misery is to save the euro, it is worth asking whether the euro is worth saving. And it is worth asking this question from the point of view of the majority of Europeans who work for a living – that is, from a progressive point of view.
It is often argued that the monetary union, which now includes 17 countries, must be maintained for the sake of the European project. This includes such worthy ideals as European solidarity, building common standards for human rights and social inclusion, keeping rightwing nationalism in check and, of course, the economic and political integration that underlies such progress.
But this confuses the monetary union, or eurozone, with the European Union itself.
Denmark, Sweden and the UK, for example, are part of the EU but not part of the monetary union. There is no reason that the European project cannot proceed, and the EU prosper, without the euro.
And there are good reasons to hope that this may happen. The problem is that the monetary union, unlike the EU itself, is an unambiguously rightwing project. If this has not been clear from its inception, it should be painfully clear now, as the weaker eurozone economies are being subjected to punishment that had previously been reserved for low- and middle-income countries caught in the grip of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its G7 governors. Instead of trying to get out of recession through fiscal and/or monetary stimulus, as most of the world's governments did in 2009, these governments are being forced to do the opposite, at enormous social cost.
Insults have been added to the injury: the privatisations in Greece or "labour market reform" in Spain; the regressive effects of the measures taken on the distribution of income and wealth; and the shrinking and weakening of the welfare state, while banks are bailed out at taxpayer expense – all this advertises the clear rightwing agenda of the European authorities, as well as their attempt to take advantage of the crisis to institute rightwing political changes.
The rightwing nature of the monetary union had been institutionalised from the beginning. The rules limiting public debt to 60% of GDP and annual budget deficits to 3% of GDP, while violated in practice, are unnecessarily restrictive in times of recession and high unemployment. The European Central Bank's mandate to care only about inflation, and not at all about employment, is another ugly indicator. The US Federal Reserve, for example, is a conservative institution but it is, at least, required by law to concern itself with employment as well as inflation.
And the Fed – for all its incompetence in failing to recognise an $8tn housing bubble that crashed the US economy – has proved to be flexible in the face of recession and a weak recovery, creating more than $2tn as part of an expansionary monetary policy. By comparison, the extremists running the European Central Bank have been raising interest rates since April, despite depression-level unemployment in the weaker eurozone economies.
Some economists and political observers argue that the eurozone needs a fiscal union, with greater co-ordination of budgetary policies, in order to make it work. But rightwing fiscal policy is counter-productive, as we are witnessing, even if it were better co-ordinated. Other economists – including this one – have argued that the large differences in productivity among the member economies present serious difficulties for a monetary union. But even if these problems could be overcome, the eurozone would not be worth the effort if it is a rightwing project.
European economic integration prior to the eurozone was of a different nature. Unlike the "race-to-the-bottom" approach of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) – which displaced hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers while contributing to reduced wages and manufacturing employment in the US and Canada – the European Union made some efforts to pull the lower-income economies upward and protect the vulnerable. But the European authorities have proved to be ruthless in their monetary union.
The idea that the euro must be saved for the sake of European solidarity also plays on an oversimplified notion of the resistance that taxpayers in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Finland have demonstrated to "bailing out" Greece. While it is undeniable that some of this resistance is based on nationalist prejudice – often inflamed by the mass media – that is not the whole story. Many Europeans don't like to pay the bill for bailing out European banks that made bad loans. And the EU authorities are not "helping" Greece, any more than the US and Nato are "helping" Afghanistan – to take a somewhat analogous debate where those who oppose destructive policies are labeled "backward" and "isolationist".
It appears that much of the European left does not understand the rightwing nature of the institutions, authorities and especially macroeconomic policies, which they are facing in the eurozone. This is part of a more general problem with the public misunderstanding of macroeconomic policy worldwide, which has allowed rightwing central banks to implement destructive policies, sometimes even under leftwing governments. These misunderstandings, along with the lack of democratic input, might help explain the paradox that Europe currently has more rightwing macroeconomic policies than the United States, despite having much stronger labour unions and other institutional bases for more progressive economic policy.

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Monday, July 11, 2011

Reagan Beacon of Economic Destruction

Reagan Mythology is Leading US Off a Cliff

During Reagan's presidency, the US went from a creditor to debtor nation and marked a take-off for financial inequality.

As things stand today, the US is hurtling toward a budget showdown in less than a month. Either President Obama will once again capitulate to extreme Republican budget-slashing demands, making Democrats seem as much of a threat to Medicare as Republicans, and virtually ensuring a GOP electoral sweep in 2012, or the US will default on its debt for the first time in its history, most likely plunging the world economy back into another five-continent recession, also costing Democrats the 2012 elections. These are the options left for a president and a political class completely divorced both from reality, and its own history of how one of the three greatest US presidents of all time steered the country from the brink of collapse eight decades ago
Corporate CowboyEntirely forgetting the real history of how Franklin D Roosevelt used activist government to save American capitalism from itself, the entire US political establishment is instead hypnotized by the false history woven around its most over-hyped president of all time: Ronald Reagan. Idolatry of Reagan's supposed tax-cutting wonders propels the now widespread economic belief that up is down, that cutting government spending is the way out of - rather than into - a severe recession. At the same time, idolatry of Reagan's supposed political wonders propels GOP extremists to ignore all other considerations.
Because of this hypnotism, America's political establishment has barely even begun to notice two unconventional possible ways out that remain, neither of which require anything from Congress, but both of which need bold presidential leadershipala FDR.
The first is to ignore the debt ceiling, relying directly on the 14th Amendment's statement that: "the validity of the public debt of the United States … shall not be questioned". The second is a proposal from maverick Republican Ron Paul to have the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds that it currently holds, which progressive economist Dean Baker recently wrote, "actually makes a great deal of sense". It might take some arm-twisting on Obama's part, but Congress has no say over the Fed, and central bankers have no great love of spreading financial panic.
In anything close to a sane world, either one of these two bold strokes would be widely hailed for avoiding a reckless threat to the still-fragile world economy. But we do not live in a sane world, and the idolatry of Ronald Reagan is one of the principle reasons why. This is why it behooves us to review some of the principle lies involved with Ronald Reagan's record, focusing specifically on the economy. What follows is but a brief rundown.
The idea that Reagan produced a uniquely booming economy is false
First, Reagan's record on the economy was not just exaggerated by his boosters, it's almost exactly the opposite of what they claim. It was a fairly ordinary time by the most common measurements of economic growth, looking good only in comparison with a selective time-slice of the 1970s. But once you start looking beneath the surface even the tiniest bit, the picture turns very dark indeed.
In terms of the most basic measure of economic growth - increase in gross domestic product (GDP) - the vaunted "Reagan boom" was an unremarkable period of time. If we look at Reagan's eight years, and compare them with Clinton's and JFK/LBJ's, Reagan comes in dead last, with 31.7 per cent compared with Clinton's 33.1 per cent and JFK/LBJ's 47.1 per cent. Only Nixon/Ford's eight years make Reagan look good, with a mere 26.2 per cent growth.
The idea that Reagan brought prosperity is true only for those at the top, not for average American workers
If we examine incomes, we discover that Reagan's eight years marked a real take-off for inequality, while average incomes stagnated. The income growth of the top once per cent was ten times that of everyone else during his term: 61.5 per cent versus 6.15 per cent. Under JFK/LBJ, the bottom 99 per cent actually did better: gaining 30.9 per cent compared with 26.9 per cent for the top once per cent. And while inequality continued to rise under Clinton, the bottom 99 per cent did more than twice as well as they did under Reagan, gaining 16.7 per cent compared with 56.6 per cent for the wealthiest one per cent.
The idea that Reagan was good for the American economy in general is false
Reagan was a disaster for the American economy in at least four fundamental ways:

Debtor Nation Status: Under Ronald Reagan, the US went from being the world's largest creditor nation to the largest debtor nation in just a few years - and we have remained the largest debtor nation ever since. In 1981, Reagan's first year in office, the US was a net creditor to the tune of $140.9bn. By 1984, that had shrunk to just $3.3bn - and the next year, the US shifted from being a creditor nation to a debtor nation for the first time in almost 70 years. By 1987, the US was a net debtor by $378.3bn - the largest debtor nation in the world. The figure rose to $532.5bn by the end of 1988, when Reagan left office.
De-Industrialization: While the percentage of industrial jobs in the economy had been declining since the 1950s, with the growth of the service sector, the raw number of industrial jobs continued to increase right up through 1979, just before the 1980/1982 double-dip recession. From that year onward, the number of industrial jobs began declining, with a smattering of years when the number would increase. In addition to the raw number of jobs declining, the number of unionized jobs and the number of jobs with American companies declined even further.
Personal indebtedness: The income stagnation that began under Reagan has had a devastating impact on personal savings. While it fluctuated considerably, the personal savings rate had more than doubled between 1949 and 1982, from 5.0 per cent up to 11.2 per cent. Ironically, one of the main stated purposes of the Kemp-Roth tax cuts, the basis for Reagan's 1981 tax cut bill, was to boost personal savings. Instead, they plunged precipitously, falling all the way down into negative territory by 2006.
Government Indebtedness: The idea that Reagan was "fiscally conservative" is false. The story of government indebtedness was even more bleak. Before Reagan, debt really wasn't a problem for America. From World War II to 1981, every president had reduced the debt as a percentage of GDP, except for the divided term of Nixon-Ford, which saw a tiny 0.2 per cent increase.
The debt-to-GDP ratio is much more significant than the debt alone, since the GDP represents the nation's total capacity to pay off the debt. And from WWII to 1981, the debt-to-GDP ratio fell from almost 120 per cent down to just down to just 32.5 per cent. The sharpest drop came early on, but even during the supposed "big government" heyday of the Kennedy/Johnson years, the ratio fell by over 16 per cent in eight years. Conservatives then might have complained about the debt - and they certainly did - but no one knowledgeable about economics took them seriously, because the debt grew significantly slower than our ability to repay it.
During Reagan's term, this changed dramatically. The ratio rose by over 20 per cent, and it rose another 13 per cent under his successor, George Bush Sr. It took a Democrat, Bill Clinton, to get the ratio headed down again - by almost 10 per cent during his two terms, before Bush Jr sent it skyrocketing again - by almost 28 per cent. It's rising fast under Obama as well - but that's to be expected as a result of the worst recession since the 1930s.
The idea that Ronald Reagan consistently opposed tax increases is false
The idea that Ronald Reagan always opposed tax increases is completely untrue. He raised taxes dramatically as Governor of California in 1967 - by a whopping 30 per cent. But he also raised them as president - 11 times. Sure, his 1981 tax increase, along with three smaller increases, was much larger than his total tax cuts. But his willingness to raise as well as lower taxes would have made him at least somewhat compatible with President Obama, and totally unacceptable to movement conservatives today, especially Tea Partiers.
Bruce Bartlett was a leading supply-side economist in the 1970s, who helped draft the Kemp-Roth tax bill as a staff economist for Congressman Jack Kemp. He went on to serve in both the Reagan and Bush I administrations. In an April 2010 blog post, listing Reagan's 11 presidential tax hikes and four tax cuts, Bartlett wrote: "It may come as a surprise to some people that, once upon a time in the not-too-distant past, Republicans actually cared enough about budget deficits that they thought raising taxes was necessary to bring them down. Today, Republicans believe that deficits are nothing more than something to ignore when they are in power and to bludgeon Democrats with when they are out of power."
Bartlett was obviously overstating his case, given how the debt skyrocketed under Reagan. But things would have clearly been much, much worse if Reagan had never raised taxes. And if Reagan were around today, he would no doubt be denounced as a "socialist" for all the tax increases he signed onto.
The idea that Reagan's tax cuts spurred job creation is false
As noted in Bartlett's table of tax cuts and increases, Reagan followed up his 1981 tax cuts with increases in 1982 and 1983. And for good reason: The unemployment rate - already high when Reagan took office - continued to skyrocket after his tax cuts were passed - peaking at 11.2 percent in 1983, when the jobless rate finally started to come down. The exact mixture of cause and effect over such an extended period may be subject to debate. But one thing is certain: Reagan's 1981 tax cuts did not magically result in job creation in anything like the way that conservatives nowadays mindlessly claim.
The idea that Reagan changed America's mind about taxes and the role of government is false
Political scientist James Stimson, author of Public Opinion in America: Moods, Cycles, and Swings, has constructed an index of economic liberalism based on hundreds of public opinion questions asked repeatedly over the years. This index reached a low-point in 1980 and rose dramatically for the next seven years, reaching a plateau at levels not seen since Nixon's first term, as if Reagan's rhetoric were convincing more and more people of the exactly the opposite of what he was saying.
This rise was reflected, for example, in four questions asked in the General Social Survey, the most-cited data source for social scientists after the US Census. Between 1980 and 1990, the number of people saying the government was spending "too little" nationally increased 27.4 per cent on health care, 32.9 per cent on education, 67.8 per cent on welfare and 46.7 per cent on the environment. The questions all reminded people that increased taxes might be required if more was spent.
What's more, 20 years after Reagan's election, in 2000, federal tax receipts as a percent of GDP were up 8.4 per cent over what they had been the year Reagan was elected, indisputable proof that government's role had ultimately not decreased across that time-span.
Why Obama ♥ ReaganTIME Magazine Cover: Why Obama ♥ Reagan. Feb. 7, 2011The idea that Reagan was a singularly popular president is false
Reagan was quite fortunate in getting re-elected in 1984 when his popularity was particularly high, but that was not true of his record in general. According to Gallup, Reagan's overall average approval rating was only 52.8 per cent, lower than John F Kennedy (70.1 per cent), Dwight Eisenhower (65 per cent), GHW Bush (60.1 per cent), Bill Clinton (55.1 per cent), and Lyndon Johnson (55.1 percent). It's only modestly higher than George W Bush (49.4 per cent) and Richard Nixon (49.1 per cent).
Summing Up
Surveying all these lies in a single panorama, it should be clear that neither Reagan's economic record nor his political one should provide any case at all for embracing conservative economics. Quite the opposite: They clearly point to failure on both counts. What's more, the only reason his mythology is possible at all is because he significantly backtracked by raising taxes, when doing otherwise would have completely exposed the failure of his principal economic intentions.
President Obama is as drunk on Reagan's kool-aid as anyone else in Washington today. It will be difficult indeed for him to break the spell in time to save the country - and himself - from repeating the economic disaster that conservative policies led to just before he was elected.
One thing about Reagan is true, however: His wife did play a significant role in saving him from following ideologues into dangerous folly on a number of occasions. Perhaps Michelle Obama is America's last best hope. Perhaps she can see what her husband thus far cannot.

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