COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Apocalypse Now?

I write this before the election, but I believe that if the extremist party Mitt Romney represents takes office, we are in for a boatload of horrors. Far from the pragmatic Republican Party of earlier decades, which often worked with the Democrats to craft foreign and domestic policy for the good of the country, this one is composed of ideologues, given to continuous war abroad and privatization of nearly all public services at home. They set out, in the words of their chief propagandist, Rush Limbaugh, to “make Barack Obama fail,” hardly a patriotic agenda in time of national economic meltdown. This crisis had been engineered by 1920s style deregulated markets, reestablished in a cooperative effort of both parties.

But now Republicans refused to participate in stabilizing a plummeting stock market by helping to reinstate even the most basic regulation of banking.

During the largely prosperous second half of the twentieth century, the Glass Steagall Act, which kept commercial banks from engaging in speculative market investments on the order of brokerage houses, prevented the US from sliding into the boom/bust cycles which began in the early 1800’s and culminated in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Glass Steagall passed during FDR’s presidency with bipartisan support. But the Obama administration’s much less rigorous Dodd-Frank bill passed without a single Republican vote. To Romney and Ryan, it is a stifling encumbrance on business investment. They want, as do the Wall Street money barons who fill their campaign coffers, to return to the complete deregulation of markets and derivatives that triggered the wild subprime loan speculation which caused the 2008 crash.

But return to unregulated markets is only a part of the extremist Republican agenda. The billionaires who fund the Romney campaign share a mania for privatization. Following anti-tax ideologue, Grover Norquist, they would privatize Social Security, placing earned senior retirements in an unstable, deregulated stock market, and they would also privatize Medicare, opening the door to more costly and restrictive treatments. Present insurance company “managed care” is the most expensive and inefficient in the world, largely because it is run for profits reaped by insurance executives. Privatization of Medicare, the one element of medical service delivery that is partially publicly funded and regulated, would produce huge new profits for insurance companies, but higher costs and reduced availability of care for seniors. Today’s Republicans, who cater to America’s wealthiest while claiming to stand for all families, also aim to repeal Obamacare, which they have convinced many naïve citizens will cost them more, when in fact it delivers care to over thirty million Americans who previously could not afford our high priced private insurance with its many exclusions.

But the worst aspect of Republican extremism is its massive militarism. Here Republicans violate their own supposedly small government principles. Romney repeats endlessly in debates, ads and speeches the neocon mantra that it is a very dangerous world and we must have even more than the present half to three quarters of a trillion dollar “defense” allotments per year to counter our “enemies,” among whom, for the first time since the Cold War ended, he numbers Russia. He continuously mouths the neocon line that the prospect of Iran getting a nuclear weapon is a grave threat to peace. Why? Pakistan, which harbors more terrorists than Iran, got them, and we did not bomb them. In fact, we retained them as an ally, even though they gave nuclear secrets to the familial rogue dictatorship, North Korea, which they now use to threaten our ally, South Korea. During the Cold War, deterrence worked between the Soviet Union and the United States. And it is so far working between arch rivals India and Pakistan. Israel has hundreds of nuclear weapons, surely a deterrent to Iran. Yet Romney endorses Israeli leader Netanyahu’s intent to preemptively bomb Iran. Iran borders Russia and partners economically with Russia, China, Venezuela and Brazil. An Israeli/American attack on it would cause a major regional war, raising oil prices out of sight and triggering another recession. Such a war could set the great powers in conflict in what could escalate to a third world war. Should Obama be reelected, all these things would be less likely, but you can bet the Republicans would devote their full energies to “making him fail again.”

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

The Road to Oblivion

In the previous column, I discussed Mitt Romney’s closeness to the imperialist neocons and the likelihood that should he become president, the US and Israel would attack Iran. We might remember that when George W. Bush committed us to war, he simultaneously handed massive tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. And huge subsidies continued for such industries as big oil, which reaps many hundreds of billions in profits per year. Trillions to fight two wars were borrowed, thus bringing back the huge deficits erased during the Clinton administration. But Vice President Cheney reassured us that Ronald Reagan had taught us that deficits don’t matter. All that changed, of course, when a Democrat took over the White House, and then Republicans took the House after the Supreme Court handed control of our government to billionaires. Then Republicans, who had plunged the country into unparalleled war debt, suddenly became alarmed at Obama’s “wild spending.”

Romney takes his approach to domestic fiscal policy directly from the radical playbook of House Budget Committee chair, Paul Ryan. Ryan wants to privatize Medicare, an extreme move that would upend the medical care of many millions of seniors. Medicare is broadly acknowledged to be the most successful, fiscally efficient program we have in medical service delivery. But the Medicare drug benefit package recently added during the Bush administration has made it much more expensive. A boon to the pharmaceutical industry, a major player in congressional campaign financing, it eliminates competitive bidding, making prescription drugs far more expensive in the US than in neighboring Canada and in much of the world. There are many ways of streamlining Medicare, one of which is to eliminate the degree of expensive, mandated unnecessary tests, such as many MRI’s, but the medical services industry stands in the way of that. In addition, much of the cost of American medical service delivery goes to pay for executives who run the drug companies, hospitals and other care facilities. All this would get much worse under Ryan’s privatization of Medicare.

Ryan also wants to partially privatize Social Security, thereby handing trillions more dollars to big investment banks, which will securitize and sell them as derivatives, as they did with mortgages, thus conducting wild speculation with retirement incomes paid into by workers over the course of their entire career lives. Thus we will witness the Social Security bubble and bust, as we did the savings and loan, dotcom and subprime debacles, wreaking havoc with the economy and ultimately destroying the incomes of seniors throughout the country. Ryan’s plans of course take nothing from the bloated defense budget, which is greater than that of the rest of the world. Who is this terrible enemy that we have to spend so much “defending” ourselves against? It would seem to be those who would stand in the way of our plans to corner the world’s remaining oil supplies. And there are all those hungry defense contractors.

Ryan has been sharply criticized by the American Bishops Conference of his own Roman Catholic Church, as well as the faculty and administration of the Catholic Georgetown University in Washington, D. C. They accuse Ryan of seeking to “dismantle government programs and abandon the poor to their own devices.” Ryan’s budget plans also call for sharp cuts in the remaining programs that benefit the most at-risk populations. But Ryan doesn’t get his Social Darwinist ideas from any Catholic or other religious teaching. He gets them from the late novelist and erstwhile libertarian philosopher, Ayn Rand, requiring all his office staff to read her Atlas Shrugged. Rand admittedly romanticized the role of individual entrepreneurs in making America great, while disparaging unions and any government move to aid the poor and spur upward mobility. But Rand, an atheist who encouraged selfishness as a virtue, was idealizing inventors like Edison and Ford. Her fictional John Galt had invented a perpetual motion machine, the solution to all energy problems. Ryan’s capitalists are merely speculators with other people’s money, Wall Street casino gamblers. He would have us believe they are the “makers,” and the folks who paid into and are receiving Medicare and Social Security are the “takers.” Romney’s implementation of Ryan’s plan would further impoverish most Americans.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Return of the Neocons

Over his years as politician, Mitt Romney has tacked from a pragmatic center-right as governor of Massachusetts, when he signed a health care bill identical to Obama care, to a hard right position that has become necessary to get the Republican presidential nomination today. One standard credential of the American right has always been the willingness to wage war. Ever since Vietnam and the disastrous McGovern peace campaign of 1972, Republicans have successfully tarred Democrats as soft on foreign policy, and Democrats have become increasingly hawkish to prove they are just as tough. If being tough gains points in conservative circles, then why shouldn’t Romney embrace the toughest, the neoconservatives?

Preeminent in the first George W. Bush administration, neocons have advocated an unabashed American imperialism. They led the preemptive war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as a first step in building a “democratic,” Americanized Middle East. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld argued that “shock and awe” tactics would make victory in Iraq an inexpensive “cakewalk.” But trillion dollar quagmires in both Iraq and Afghanistan led Bush to resume the less blatantly imperialistic policies which had become the common stock of both political parties. That is, a hawkish posture toward those deemed “adversaries,” always leaving war “on the table,” but engagement in other forms of persuasion, such as negotiation or sanctions. During his second administration, Bush replaced Rumsfeld with the more conciliatory Gates. He also sidelined Vice President Cheney, who had been central to policy making in the “Global War on Terror,” relying on the more traditional “realism” of Condoleezza Rice, whose views were similar to those of Clinton secretary of state, Madeline Albright.

But Romney, feeling the need to prove his tough minded conservative credentials, now embraces the neoconservatives. He draws his foreign policy views from the very people who once clustered under the name Project for the New American Century. This was the think tank that authored a pre 9/11 document entitled “Rebuilding our National Defenses,” which argued that the end of the Cold War should not see a peace dividend in the form of new domestic infrastructure and social spending. Instead, they argued, it was the destiny of “the one remaining superpower” to so dominate the world that no country could ever challenge its supremacy. To achieve this end they called for greatly augmented defense spending. But they acknowledged that for post Cold War Americans to accept such imperialism, they would need to experience national trauma on the level of “a new Pearl Harbor.” Their wish came true, and they got their unending war accompanied by relentless decline of civil liberties in a militarized state.

“King Con” John Bolton

Among the most bellicose of the neocons is John Bolton, who wholly embraces continuous preemptive warfare, eschewing all negotiation as weakness. So belligerent has been his position that when Bush attempted to appoint him as UN representative, the Senate refused to confirm him. Bolton has opposed all US nuclear arms reduction treaties, such as the one negotiated between Reagan and Gorbachev. And he vehemently opposes any further negotiation with Iran. Yet, Mitt Romney singles out John Bolton as one “whose wisdom, clarity and courage are qualities that should typify our foreign policy.” He has even spoken of him as a possible secretary of state in a Romney administration.

Even though Iran has the right to enrich uranium under international law and all our intelligence agencies have stated that she has abandoned seeking a nuclear weapon, Bolton agrees with Israeli president Netanyahu that we should cease negotiations and launch an air war against Iran as soon as possible. The vast majority of American military brass and world opinion regard bombing Iran as inviting catastrophe. Iran controls the Straits of Hormuz, where US carriers are sitting ducks. And Iran has sophisticated arms it has acquired from Russia. War with Iran will lead to a major regional war that could easily draw in the Great Powers. The US is joined to Israel at the hip, and Iran is aligned to Russia, with whom she shares a border, and also China. Our vital ally in Central Asia, Pakistan, has stated that if Israel or the US attacks Iran, she will support Iran. This is what we have to look forward to for starters in a Romney presidency.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Libertarianism, the Dictatorship of Wealth

Today’s libertarian movement, markedly characterized by Tea Party Republicans, stems from an anti-government revolt that exalts private property over any concept of the public good, as pursued by the people’s representatives in government. It is hostile to any government regulation of the use of private property in the public interest, as, for example, in protecting the environment which we all share. English common law, which American colonizers brought with them, posits a commonwealth or public sphere of interest that must be maintained, protected and enhanced by government. Having arisen from traditional ideals of the good of the whole, this is the truly conservative concept. In that important sense, modern libertarians are not conservatives at all, but free market anarchists. All the original colonial governments in British North America held to a concept of the common or public good and legislated to protect it. In Massachusetts, for example, this meant laws regulating the market by protecting the public from profiteering, or gouging customers on a necessary commodity.

But in contemporary radical libertarian parlance, private property, however it is held, and not the public good, is sacrosanct, and any governmental regulation of the use of property to preserve the public well being, is anathematized. For libertarians, government does not consist of duly elected people’s representatives making laws, through negotiation and compromise, to “promote”, as the Constitution puts it, “the general welfare.” For them, it exists to protect private property, which translates into giving it total license, as in the deregulation of banking, which led to unbridled speculation, crash and ensuing depression.

Earlier participants in modern libertarian pseudo-conservatism backed Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Unlike the mainstream moderates who dominated the Republican Party during the Eisenhower era, Goldwater boldly repudiated New Deal measures to ensure the common good by protection from poverty, as in the Social Security Act. He went on to oppose legislation coming out of the African American Civil Rights Movement, such as the 1964 Civil Rights, or Public Accommodations Act. This law prevented establishments that serve the public, such as hotels and restaurants, from practicing racial discrimination. Goldwater’s fellow Arizonan, “conservative” activist William Rehnquist, who would later gain tremendous power as chief justice of the Supreme Court, campaigned against passage of that act. His and Goldwater’s opposition to such civil rights legislation was based on their belief that property owners have an absolute right to do whatever they want with their property. And if that means excluding blacks or anyone else, for that matter, from one’s place of business, so be it.

In libertarianism, the bedrock rights are individual property rights, and a property owner has the right to dispose of property in any way he or she deems fit, or profitable. No social obligation exists. This was the sentiment that underlay the Jim Crow system that marginalized African Americans and other groups, while in effect making propertied white males America’s overlords. The unfinished succession of rights movements, based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and disability have sought and gained new federal protections bringing groups historically facing discrimination into the mainstream. These movements have strong parallels with the modern labor movement, wherein impoverished workers gained the right to collectively bargain with their employers for living wages and benefits. They first gained these rights in the National Labor Relations Act, passed during the New Deal.

The equal opportunity New Deal liberalism came to stand for in the thirties was soon challenged by the Liberty League funded by the DuPont’s, America’s wealthiest family. Their espousal of property rights over human rights led to the corporate funded libertarianism of today. Don’t kid yourself. Libertarianism has nothing to do with the traditional American promise of equal opportunity and everything to do with dictatorship of wealth. That is what the Citizens United case means in giving money control of our elections. Americans are awakening to the fact that libertarian “free market” anarchy gives domination to the one per cent and subjugation to the ninety-nine. That is what the Occupy movement is about.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Whose Entitlements?

In the midst of the senseless rhetoric that constitutes a presidential campaign season these days, one of the right’s favorite whipping boys is what it likes to call “entitlements.” One favorite object of attack is Social Security, enacted during the New Deal to keep dependence and poverty from being the common plight of the elderly. Social Security later added SSI, or insurance against permanent partial or total disability, commonly work related. And unemployment insurance has given one or more years of minimal support to workers cast off in times of economic slump like the present. Another favorite “entitlement” target of politicians on the right, like House Budget Committee Chair Paul Ryan, is Medicare, the government health insurance program enacted in 1965 to give low cost care, including often free hospitalization and surgery to persons over sixty-five. Both Social Security and Medicare never have been programs wherein government largesse is showered on undeserving freeloaders. They are federally run insurance programs that the vast majority of working Americans pay substantial portions of their paychecks into during the scope of their entire working lives. Hence, they are not “entitlements” in the pejorative sense the right likes to use in speaking of programs that benefit ordinary or at-risk Americans. Real entitlements, the true budget busters, are given to corporations, many of which now locate chiefly offshore.

We might start with fossil fuels industries, led by big oil, which is given billions of dollars per year in subsidies. Subsidies for startup industries are not a bad idea. The US gave them to railroads when they established the first nationwide transportation and freight networks. And they began giving them to oil in the early days of exploration, as a new source of energy was being developed. But we are far beyond those days today. Railroads, now in bad disrepair, could actually use public subsidy again, to relieve congestion and pollution and offer economically stressed Americans a thrifty alternative to the automobile. Instead we subsidize the oil driven industries that have made freeway gridlock and suburban sprawl a common fact of life. This condition contributes to climate change, wetlands depletion and species extinction. But the political class, bought by fossil fuels industries, is only too happy to sweep these issues under the rug. Thus tax dollars fund oil company propaganda that alternately denies global warming’s existence, minimizes its effects, or claims it is not human caused. Let big oil pay for its own disinformation, since it’s now richer than most countries, and not in need of subsidy.

War, or “defense,” is the source of our most subsidized industries. The US now spends close to half its federal budget on defense. China, to whom we are deep in public debt, spends six per cent. When the second president Bush began the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz predicted they would run well over three trillions, and thus they have. Much of this blood money has gone to enrich weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, or war service providers such as Halliburton and Kellogg, Brown and Root. Our wars have also greatly enriched people like Erik Prince, CEO of the private army formerly known as Blackwater. Enriching private parties through war contracts would likely have constituted illegal war profiteering in the World Wars, but not in these days of permanent resource wars, waged to ensure Western oil companies’ access to whatever petroleum remains in places like the Middle East and Central Asia.

We could go on and on enumerating the billions in taxpayer dollars given to corporations. For example, Wal Mart, the world’s biggest corporation, regularly receives public subsidies to alter vast acreage and gain the rights of way necessary to build their merchandizing behemoths notorious for low wages, poor benefits and destruction of local businesses. But as five Supreme Court plutocrats have now guaranteed, only the Big Money deserves public largesse. Real flesh and blood citizens, especially the increasing numbers of poor, do not. Whatever meager help they get is disparaged as “entitlements” and slated by the likes of Paul Ryan and his enabler, would-be -President Mitt Romney, for deep budget cuts.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

The United States of Amnesia

Gore Vidal, one of our few remaining public intellectuals, dubbed us the United States of Amnesia because it is as if we have lost our collective memory. Our leaders keep telling us, for example, that we fight our endless foreign wars, presently in oil related regions, to bring democracy to some benighted country, and we keep on believing them. The fact that we prop up some of the most antidemocratic regimes, e.g. Saudi Arabia, makes no difference. We are always for democracy, as we were when we fought Hitler.

The late communications theorist, Neil Postman, pointed out in his landmark Amusing Ourselves to Death, that generations raised since the advent of television in the late 1940s do not receive a coherent view of events or the world as a whole. Generations who grew up staring at the idiot box became used to an absurd juxtaposition of images in a world of: “Now this.” Television news, which became the template for most other formats, consists of unrelated events ripped out of context: a bombing here, a hurricane there, a coup somewhere else, and a celebrity wedding in Hollywood. As is not true in history, nothing, or at least nothing complex, actually causes anything else. Events are all decontextualized. For example, if residents of Gaza are lobbing rockets into Israel, it is simply because they are “terrorists.” The history of Gaza and the Palestinian people’s displacement since 1948 and conditions that make Gaza the world’s largest open air prison camp are thoroughly ignored. In television land, Gaza is simply run by Hamas, and Hamas equals terrorists. This is the kind of oversimplification that constitutes television’s world view.

In television land the picture typically changes every three seconds, “stories” last a minute or two, and a big story may last five to seven, while all the time unrelated juxtaposed stories are continuously interrupted by the overheated chatter of corporate advertizing. This format distorts the way we see the world by destroying all continuity. It makes a jumble of events, bombards us with a welter of images usually attached to “sound bites,” or short catch phrases or epithets. Most people “learn what is happening in the world” from television, that is to say they don’t learn at all. They receive propaganda, an image, a word, a phrase calculated to elicit an emotional response, not a painstaking analysis which would endeavor to dig beneath the surface and look into the causes of a given event. Think of the continuous bombardment of the public’s senses on September 11th and its aftermath with the images of planes hitting the Twin Towers and the sound bites about Osama Bin Laden and “Islamic worldwide terrorism.” They were designed to emblazon a simplistic association on a collective public mind and elicit an emotional response, and with most people, lacking any framework for careful analysis, that is exactly what they achieved.

This brings us to similar media propaganda calculated to confuse the public during a presidential election year. In television induced amnesia, we forget that just four years ago, in the previous presidential election year, gas prices suddenly shot up on their way to five dollars a gallon, just as they are doing now, and that was the last time they did so. But those of us who remember and look deeper see that the fossil fuels industry, which benefits from deregulation and non-competition with alternative clean energies, is trying to lay the blame for a new round of soaring fuel costs on a Democratic president, whose patrons do not smell quite as oily as do those of the Republicans. The narrative they want you to believe is that Obama’s sensitivity to environmental criticism of, for example, the XL Pipeline, is making us more dependent on an unstable Middle East. Never mind that large commodities traders can spark increased speculation in oil, which drives the price up at the pump. But John Q. Public thinks, “Damned Obama and his environmentalist Democrats. If they’d stop holding up the pipeline and let them drill, drill, drill, we’d be fine.” Television never tells him that fossil fuels cause Chicago to be eighty degrees in March and kill the oceans by loading them with carbonic acid.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

The Iran Fixation

Since the advent of the oil based economy, the US and its European allies have sought control of Middle Eastern oil fields.  The Ottoman Turks lost hegemony in the Middle East to the British and French as a result of World War One. And after the Second World War, European powers joined the US to form NATO and corner the Middle Eastern oil fields. At that time the US could rely on its own reserves for domestic use, but it formed NATO to counter supposed Soviet expansionism in Europe and elsewhere.  In reality, the Soviet Union had communized the countries at its Western border after World War Two to create a buffer against the West.  The USSR had been invaded by Western powers twice since its formation in 1917 and had lost some twenty million of its population in World War Two.  Yet our Cold War ideology held the Soviets to be the expansionist power, and expansionist American policy was always justified as countering Soviet communist internationalism, as our present empire is justified as countering Islamic “terrorism.”

In 1953, when British and American agents surreptitiously upended a democratically elected Iranian socialist government that had nationalized oil, they claimed their purpose was to counter Soviet influence.  The Shah was placed back on the throne, and Iran’s vast oil reserves were placed at the behest of Western oil corporations.  Twenty-five years later, the Islamist Iranian revolution renationalized oil. Oil rich states, Arab and otherwise, have long been aware that the only way to use their oil for their own good and not become an economic colony of America and the West is to nationalize their precious commodity.  Thus Saddam Hussein’s secular Baathist regime in Iraq also did so.  After the US passed peak oil production and its own resources began to decline sharply in the seventies, the free flow of oil became a priority not only to supply our European allies, but also ourselves. Hence we see what Hampshire College Peace Studies professor Michael Klare has predicted: continuous twenty-first century resource wars.

The overriding truth is that our two immensely destructive wars against Iraq, and our sanctions and increasing bellicosity towards Iran have nothing to do with these countries’ development of nuclear arms or other “weapons of mass destruction.” Though who could blame these oil rich countries in an era of rapidly depleting oil reserves for seeking to defend themselves from inevitable Western invasion by developing such weapons?  It is also true that just as Saddam Hussein had no “weapons of mass destruction,” neither can it be proven that  Iran’s uranium enrichment program has anything but the purpose their leaders articulate:  development of an energy source.

But just as it was useful for the US and its NATO allies to drum up a basis for invading Iraq in order to gain control of its oil, so has it been useful to do so as regards Iran.  And with this in mind Western and Israeli propaganda relentlessly portray Iran as a world threat.  Israel, never short on hyperbole, calls Iran an “existential threat,” citing its president, Ahmadinajad’s hostility to Zionism and penchant for Holocaust denial. But the Western press is forever silent concerning Israel’s own nuclear arsenal of over two hundred missiles. Israel is in fact one of the best armed countries in the world.  And its Mossad has been conducting a secret war inside Iran, including the killing of at least five nuclear scientists, as well as other Iranian civilians, by means of explosive devices.  Can you imagine how the US or Israel would react if Iran were doing such things within their borders?

We have been through all the sanctions and demonizing before in the run-up to the second invasion of Iraq. While the Obama administration lacks the ultra-imperialist Neocons to beat their war drums, they refuse to take military action “off the table,” they conduct no high level, let alone summit negotiations with Iran, and as with Iraq, they sponsor more and more brutal sanctions.

Modern Iran has never started an aggressive war. In the past twenty years alone, the US invaded Iraq twice and Afghanistan over a decade ago, where we still fight to secure a pipeline outlet for Caspian oil to the Indian Ocean. Who then is most likely to start the next catastrophic war in the Middle East?

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

A Dickensian Christmas

By the time this is in print, the holidays will be over, but the Dickensian nature of today’s world will not be. Charles Dickens portrayed the savage inequalities produced by the classical free trade liberalism of his time. American reform writers of Dickens’s era were generally more concerned with the horrors of slavery than industrialism, though Melville described “satanic mills” of the 1850s where young women toiled long hours in squalid conditions. And Thoreau famously chose wild nature over the coming industrial order. Later writers like Edward Bellamy and Upton Sinclair described the ruthlessness of unbridled capitalism and campaigned for its reform or replacement by a system with greater concern for the common good. In both Europe and the US, egalitarian reform movements did much to lessen inequality during much of the last century.

But with capitalism’s recent deregulation and liberalization of world markets we see global poverty worse than Dickens’s East end of London. We now have statistics showing that most of the world’s wealth is controlled by a tiny elite, while over half of its seven billion people live in desperate straits on less than two dollars a day. Small farmers in lesser developed countries cannot compete with low priced corn and other commodities produced by giant agribusiness firms like Monsanto, Cargill and ADM flooding into their countries in consequence of free trade. These farmers are driven from their land and end up in trash huts in toxic conditions on the edge of cities. They live by gathering scrap metal or other such marginal work. And they are chronically malnourished and sick.

In the US, we have experienced de-industrialization, loss of unions, and the predominance of a low wage economy wherein ever larger numbers work at less than family wages with no benefits, often at two or three jobs for fifty, sixty or more hours per week. People work at more than one job in part because they don’t get enough pay or hours from one. The reason employers limit workers’ hours is to keep them part-time so the company will not have to pay into their health care or retirements. If we had nationalized care, as do most countries, and augmented Social Security, employers would not be so burdened. But the US keeps expensive corporate health care, because insurance and drug companies buy the politicians to maintain it. Most costs are not medical but administrative, paid to managed care bureaucracies and their super rich top executives. And the corporate order reaps greater dividends spending taxpayers’ money on weapons, war and empire than securing a good life for all Americans.

In the globalized Neoliberal economy, the only good is the material benefit of the corporation and its shareholder elites. Shareholders make more money when the corporate stock goes up. And to drive corporate stock up, costs are ruthlessly cut. Hence, if workers in China or Bangladesh can make computers or clothing for pennies an hour with no environmental regulations, then jobs are sent there. Of course, the workers in those countries are treated as wage slaves. They have virtually no free time, live in filthy conditions, and cannot afford even basic necessities. But their exploitation enables the corporation they work under, like Wal-Mart, Gap, or Apple, to cut costs and maximize profits so as to drive up the price of its stock. In the Neoliberal world order only return on shareholder investment, not the worker’s or society’s well being, is considered.

One way transnational corporations get their hands on the resources of less developed countries is through loans made by the US controlled International Monetary Fund. Poor countries are cajoled into taking out big loans to develop infrastructure, like big dams, that will only benefit a wealthy few, while displacing whole farming communities. When these countries inevitably fail to pay off their debt they are saddled with structural adjustment programs, which compel them to sell off natural resources to transnational corporations which mine or drill for oil, thus destroying rain forests with ecosystems that sustained indigenous people and provided them with herbal medicines for thousands of years. The corporate order trumps even survival of life itself, as heavy industry extinguishes hundreds of species a day. So it goes, because vested interests, whose well heeled feet never touch the earth, would lose some of their wealth if they considered the common good.


Thrown Under the Bus

Thrown Under the Bus
This month’s extended column by Stephen Berk addresses the recent personnel cuts at Clatsop Community College.

I write this piece as a concerned citizen who has spent most of his life connected with higher education, now as board member at Clatsop College. In that capacity, I have gotten a close look at the conditions that have now forced severe retrenchment on our local college just after we rebuilt our campus, celebrated our fiftieth anniversary and looked forward to an expansive future. As a board member I need to say that the argument and opinion I put forth here speaks only for me and not the Clatsop Community College Board as a whole.

On Wednesday, November 2, I awoke to a phone call from a friend who teaches at the College calling my attention to an email stating that fifteen full-time instructors would be laid off and listing who they were to be. Clatsop College is a tiny school compared to the community colleges in the I-5 corridor, where most of the state’s population resides. Like all the state’s rural community colleges, it is in a relatively isolated environment marked by small population. Clatsop is in many respects a unique school, having, for example, at its MERTS campus, one of the few maritime academies in the country. We are also well known for our outstanding nursing school and high quality art department reflective of the large number of accomplished artists who have migrated to this picturesque corner of Oregon.

But Clatsop College works at constant disadvantage and has frequently had to do without or dismiss important areas of study and the faculty representing them because of two main issues. One is an odd, rather technical arrangement which goes by an Orwellian name called the “equalization formula.” During times of economic downturn, such as the current Great Recession, community college student populations have traditionally grown, because out-of-work or underemployed people tend to return to school to learn new skills that may be in greater demand. This indeed has happened at Clatsop College, whose student population has grown by more than ten per cent since the recession began. Despite this impressive growth, it does not compare to that of the more urban areas in the state such as Portland and Eugene, where colleges have seen much greater percentage increases due to their much greater populations. The “equalization” formula says you give the lion’s share of the state’s rapidly shrinking community college budget to the bigger schools that are growing at a faster pace. That wouldn’t be so bad if our appropriation at Clatsop College remained the same. But in effect the money given the urban schools is subtracted from the rural ones.

Clatsop College’s high point of full-time faculty since I taught Western Civilization there in 2006-07 has been thirty-eight. By anyone’s standards, in a college that supports a substantial variety of vocational training programs and a general education curriculum sufficient for one to earn an associate of arts suitable for transfer to a university, this is a barely adequate sized faculty. However, Clatsop has been able to thrive partly because of the very excellence of that faculty. As one who spent my career at a large university, I have grown to have deep respect for the breadth of subject matter and availability to students that our hard working community college instructors provide. They are required to be master generalists, mentors, and counselors to a much greater extent than the more specialized and research oriented university professors need to be. Yet, even with the tremendous demand on them to be on campus and available to students and to do five class preparations per ten week term, a sizable number of instructors at Clatsop College manage to fit research and writing into their crowded schedule and have published scholarly books and articles and read papers at academic conferences.

Last year, the first when we were hit with the dire effects of the recession, mostly staff and administration absorbed the cuts, with one key administrative position, the dean of learning eliminated. But we also lost a talented young instructor in social science. This year we are slated to lose fifteen instructors, forty per cent of our full-time positions. This almost indescribable hit reduces social science to one full-time instructor, a psychologist. We will lose, among others, an accomplished historian, a creative young chemist, the only automotive instructor, a renowned ceramicist, our full-time business instructors, a popular, gifted Spanish instructor and our sole criminal justice instructor. Last year our head librarian was laid off, and this year we will now subtract the remaining professional librarian. The only way we will continue to have a librarian associated with the College is if we make the highly unusual move of merging with the Astoria City Library.

Why has this extreme situation been forced upon us just as we were starting to fill out much needed positions and after we had rebuilt our campus so that students had become proud to say they came here? The problem does not come, as some in the community think, from campus mismanagement, or from spending too much on our physical renovations. Our books are open to the public and have been regularly audited by impartial accounting firms. We also passed a rigorous accreditation procedure conducted last year by distinguished representatives of the Northwest Regional Accreditation Association. The rebuilding of our campus to meet seismic standards, to make it accessible for people with disabilities, and to replace antiquated facilities with modern ones was demanded of the College in the previous accreditation report.

PrisonThe second reason why we have just been decimated lies in larger political priorities in Salem, as in other state capitals, and in Washington. For the past thirty years, our statewide and national politics have been dominated by an anti-tax fervor. Along with this trend we have seen a mania for incarceration, characterized by “mandatory minimums” often passed in voters’ initiatives. The result has been augmented state expenditures on imprisonment and shrinking ones for education. Reflexive imprisonment throughout the country mostly for nonviolent drug related crimes largely among society’s lower orders has now led to over two and a half million Americans being imprisoned. This is a higher percentage than in any other country in the world, including authoritarian China and brutal dictatorships like the one in Myanmar (Burma). These two overriding policies, cutting taxes and locking up offenders, have worked together to vastly decrease opportunity for a majority of Americans and to turn us into a society domestically devoted to punishment and diminishment of opportunity.

If we simply consider costs, without even thinking about the quality of life we seek to create, our state and national policies are cockeyed. It costs anywhere between thirty and fifty thousand public dollars to incarcerate a person for a year, while it generally costs between two and five thousand to educate one. Even if you spend thousands more per student, as some localities do, with very beneficial effects, supporting public schooling pays off by producing an educated, resourceful public, who can adapt better to rapidly changing needs in a smaller world beset with ever larger problems such as climate change, pollution, overpopulation, mass poverty and disease. And there are much cheaper, more effective ways of dealing with offenders than costly imprisonment. We can spend public money on rehabilitative programs for drug offenders, and we can require varieties of community service – building, planting, and restoring infrastructure – whereby offenders can learn useful occupational and people relating skills. Organizations like the Western Prison Project have been researching, writing and agitating on this issue for many years. Supervised outside programs for offenders, carefully monitored by highly sophisticated tracking technology, are a lot cheaper and more constructive than creating gang ridden prisons mostly composed of people from poorer backgrounds, many of them African American and Latino. Rich criminals, like the bankers who bought the politicians who deregulated banking and legalized the theft and usury that characterized the subprime lending debacle, don’t do time for their crimes, because they paid to make what they do legal. Yet, they did a great deal more damage than the street criminal who gets twenty-five to life.

The anti-tax fervor that has accompanied massive spending on incarceration has squeezed all public education, from grade school through universities. This is part of a long time conservative movement to shrink taxes with particular attention to the ones that are used to help the lesser privileged gain greater equality of opportunity. The movement to privatize education and compel people to pay dearly for services governments have previously provided free or at very low cost for the public at large has been sponsored by billionaire funded propaganda mills with euphemistic names like Americans for Tax Justice, Americans for Prosperity, and the Club for Growth. In their fixation with punishment, and with national power projection in relentless militarism, these wealthy conservatives have gradually closed off opportunity to the masses by drying up support for education, the basis of social enlightenment.

In Oregon, a powerful anti-tax lobby now keeps emergency funding from being proposed for higher education. We have a lopsided tax structure in this state that relies on county property taxes and timber revenue to finance public education. In 2000, the “kicker,” which rebates surplus revenues above budget to voters, became part of the Oregon Constitution. Governors Kitzhaber and Kulongoski have tried to no avail to get the kicker transformed into an emergency fund to be used in recessions. But conservatives would have none of it. Instead, we now get the state holding back three and a half per cent of this year’s operative budget to apply to next year’s expected shortfall. This is what put Clatsop College from minimal to maximal layoff mode. The state now assists our community colleges at the level of sixteen per cent, down from thirty-three. Resistance to tapping new sources of revenue prevents consideration of measures such as a temporary limited sales tax, renewable yearly, and earmarked for the public education institutions most affected by the recession. The lack of any sales tax has long deprived Oregon from reaping tax benefits from its burgeoning tourist industry.

I believe Clatsop College will eventually find the means to recover. In the mean time we have some well seasoned professionals who can stand in the gap as part timers. But this bloodletting did not need to happen. The larger truth is that a generation which refuses to invest in its young, instead burdening them with debt, low wage jobs, and irreparable war injury is a generation that has lost its vision. And as the biblical proverb states, “Without a vision the people perish.”

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Power to the People

The spontaneous uprisings characterized by the Greek General Strike, as well as the “Occupy” movement that began with Occupy Wall Street and has spread virtually everywhere indicate that a true crisis is now occurring in the neoliberal world order.  This is the free trade, race to the bottom regimen imposed on the world over the past thirty years by elite countries led by the US.  It began in earnest in the Reagan/Thatcher eighties, when massive deregulation, de-unionization, and privatization were imposed on formerly welfare state economies.  These economies had previously regulated banking to keep the kinds of wild speculation that had led to the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression from recurring.  They also had strong unions protecting family wage jobs, partly through tariffs to prevent unfair competition from cheaply made foreign goods.  The regulated capitalism that made the West prosperous after the Second World War and was gradually spreading to lesser developed countries was jettisoned, as the ideas of Milton Friedman, dean of “Chicago School” economics took over.

We now live with the fruit of that world order, a new robber baron economy dominated by what the Populists of 1896 called “the money power.”  Trade liberalization and deregulated banking have brought about a predatory system wherein CEO’s of transnational corporations and titans of international finance have become multi-billionaires, while the world majority has been relegated to industrial or agrarian peonage or begging.  The once robust US industrial economy has been hollowed out, as cheap goods from China and other economies where workers make pennies an hour, flood our market.  Few Americans work in industry any more, as most work in the low wage, largely nonunionized service economy.  American consumers are now as up to their ears in debt as were the farmers victimized by big banks and railroads in the hungry 1890s. And so, like their forebears of that era, they are rising up.  The problem now, as then, is unregulated capitalism, which creates vast inequalities.

The Tea Party movement, largely funded by billionaires like media giant, Rupert Murdoch, blames government, chiefly the Obama administration, for bailing out the big banks.  In fact the bail-out began under Bush.  But the real point is that the Tea Party, echoing the modern libertarian movement, likes to pretend that all bad flows from government, and all good from the private sector.  Libertarians are blind to the ever closer connection between government at all levels and transnational banks and corporations.  In case there might be the slightest doubt, a conservative and libertarian controlled Supreme Court issued the Citizens United decision in 2010, which guaranteed control of our political institutions by big capital.

What Occupy Wall Street and like movements around the world see, which the Tea Party won’t, is that the top one per cent has bought up our political system.  Thus Occupiers don’t march on Congress, nor do they petition state legislatures, because they know that the politicians there represent the one per cent, not the ninety-nine.  The Tea Party, on the other hand, has not only been closely connected to Congress and the state legislatures, but upon gaining power in 2010, having campaigned as faux populists, they immediately got to work making sure the one per cent has it all.  They de-legitimized public unions in a number of states, passed legislation making it harder for students, the working poor and unemployed to vote, and they stand in the way of federal jobs legislation that would compel the wealthiest to pay their fair share.

The Occupiers, for their part, have no specific legislative program.  They occupy public space to bear witness for the ninety-nine per cent of people the world over who are being robbed by an order run by financial and corporate oligarchs.  They set up alternative forms, a committee of the whole, or General Assembly, and do acts of mutual caring.  “This is what democracy looks like,” they chant, thereby giving the lie to our bought politics. They give new life and hope to a rallying cry of the oppressed I often heard in my youth: “Power to the People!”

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Boomers, Unite!

As anyone with the slightest familiarity with American demography knows, the generation born between 1946 and 1963, also known as the “baby boom generation,” is the largest in U. S. history. This generation can include those born during World War Two, of which I am one, since our life experiences share much the same framework as the later boomers. The enlarged boomer generation, who came of age between the early sixties and late seventies, as diverse as we are, shares a broadly similar experience of life in America. We are the generation that matured before Reaganism began a sustained shift in the tax structure so as to greatly lessen the burden on corporate and individual wealth and thereby create profound economic inequality. Our America offered an ever broader spectrum of citizens a way up, while the one remade by conservatives offers diminishing expectations for all but the coddled rich.

Reaganism and neoliberal economics carried on by subsequent administrations reversed over thirty previous years of work to restructure American life so as to give everyone a chance at upward mobility. That noble effort, from the New Deal to the Great Society, put in place the means of educational and occupational advancement and a social safety net that effectively made postwar America a prosperous society with an expanding middle class and a shrinking poverty statistic. When I was growing up, there was virtually no such thing as homelessness. But as conservatives began their remaking of America in the “prosperous” Reagan eighties, homeless people and “Will Work for Food” signs began to appear on city streets. Today millions live in cars, tents, what’s left of the woods, and under bridges.

While strong unions produced family wage factory jobs in the fifties and sixties, most Americans were aware that greater opportunity came with more education. Hence, in those years the US greatly expanded public higher education, adding many state universities across the country and building another more vocationally oriented tier of two year community colleges. These schools became stepping stones to university education or avenues into thriving trade and technical occupations. All levels of education received large amounts of federal and state aid. The common assumption was, no matter where you were on the political spectrum, you supported investment in public education, because it meant a decent life for your children.

Federal and state investment in higher education made it inexpensive for much of the baby boom generation. My master’s and doctoral education were at state universities, which charged nominal tuitions which I didn’t have to pay because I had teaching assistantships. I’ve never had any student loans to deal with, and neither did anyone I knew, and I knew many coming from very modest economic backgrounds. With no debt, it was easy for me to buy a house when I got my teaching job, which then paid just under $10,000 a year.

Today’s public disinvestment has created a harsher world. Tuitions are sky high even in many community colleges, and most students carry many thousands in unforgiveable debt which follows them around during much of their ensuing lives. They also lack the opportunities to gain jobs with growth potential that were a fact of life when I came of age. This is the result of a new economic order run by a corporate and political oligarchy that has simply deserted the American citizenry’s common needs. The chief spokespersons in Congress for the continuous downsizing of the American Dream are people like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor, who grew up in the Reagan era and are imbued with its self enclosed ethics. But the fact remains there are more of us boomers than there are of them. Many of us raised a lot of hell over an Asian war in our youth. It ended up dividing us. But now with Ryan and Cantor going after our Social Security and Medicare, social insurance we spent our working lives paying into, we have an issue that can finally bring us together. Boomers unite! Fight for our benefits, and reclaim the American Dream for the next generations!

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

The Road to Serfdom

The above phrase is the title of the best known work of economist Friedrich von Hayek, mentor to Milton Friedman, and with him creator of the Chicago school of economics, neoliberalism. This view, reigning economic orthodoxy for over thirty years, has recreated the boom/bust cycles of classical nineteenth century liberalism, and it has also spread unimpeded markets around the globe, unleashed a frenzy of development, and made some people immensely wealthy and others sickeningly poor. Chicago orthodoxy regards unregulated markets as godlike entities, not to be tampered with by governments. If left alone, so the dogma goes, they will eventually make everyone prosperous and free. Hayek wrote his book following American and European institution of government regulation first to combat the dire effects of the Great Depression and then to fight the Second World War. He argued that prevailing statist economics was in fact “the road to serfdom,” wherein the West would end up looking like Stalin’s Soviet Union. This was a nervy thing to say when US government money was rebuilding Europe in the heady days of the Marshall Plan.

The system developed by British economist John Maynard Keynes, which featured strict government controls over market speculation, put in place a number of safeguards to prevent the kind of wild speculation that had brought on the crash of 1929 and the Depression. The Keynesian system was based on the idea that a healthy capitalism demanded a constantly growing middle class. In order for that to come about, the state needed to create upward mobility. One of the ways to do so was to finance public education from kindergarten through graduate school. The US never went this far, but many of the European countries did. Social Security, which is actually based on forced savings from earnings, became the basis in the US of old age pensions, unemployment and disability insurance. The Keynesian “developmental” model, wherever it was introduced, included a large measure of government aid to impoverished or otherwise marginalized groups to open opportunity to as many as possible, thus creating an ever expanding middle class with the ability to consume and thereby further continuous prosperity. The money to finance government aid on such a large scale came from taxation, including a steeply graduated income tax.

Welfare statism, the product of the Keynesian system, did create much more equalitarian societies where it was used most extensively, as in Northern Europe. Those countries saw poverty, crime and imprisonment decline appreciably. The US, with its background in frontier individualism, never went nearly so far in welfare statism as the European countries. But by the sixties and seventies, with many marginalized groups being brought into the mainstream through compensatory legislation, and with increased federal aid to education, and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (abolished in 1996), poverty did begin to decline, and market regulation lessened the extremes of boom and bust that characterized unregulated capitalism.

Many of the well-to-do resented paying high taxes, even though taxation did not greatly diminish their wealth. They viewed state supervised redistribution as un-American, and they preached the nostrum that prosperity comes from low taxes and unregulated markets. In the wake of the social upheavals of the sixties, people of wealth began to organize to reclaim control of the economy. In doing so, they followed the neoliberalism of the Chicago school. The deregulation of banking began in the late seventies, with the junk bond frenzy that marked the Savings and Loan crash coming ten years later. Twenty-first century neoliberalism has brought us the bust and the subprime mortgage debacle in quick succession, replete with unparalleled disparities of wealth. The ultra-rich few live rarified lives insulated from the masses, while college graduates face massive debt and low wage jobs as far as the eye can see. Millions are unemployed, millions homeless, 2.3 million, mostly from poorer classes, are in prison. And the best our politicians can offer is not a hand up, but cuts in Social Security and Medicare. Judge for yourself which is the road to serfdom: Keynesian statism, or Hayek’s neoliberalism.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

The Poison of Extremism

FOLLOWING THE Democratic victory in 2008, Republicans listened to their most ideological spokespersons and instead of moving toward the center, started the Tea Party movement and moved further to the right. Media propagandist Rush Limbaugh told them that they had lost because they had not been conservative enough. Anti-tax ideologue, Grover Norquist, together with Fox News, played key roles in birthing the Tea Party movement. Their propaganda succeeded in convincing a plurality of intellectually undernourished Americans that Obama’s health care program was a socialist plot, even though it is a bonanza for insurance corporations. Fear works politically, and so far right Republicans, who think government exists to advance militarism and corporate rule, took over the House as well as many state governments in 2010.

In these states, they are driving democracy into a ditch, as they do the bidding of right wing industrialists. Outlawing public employee unions, replacing city governments with politically appointed czars, passing voter identification laws that make it extremely difficult for the poor, the old, and low wage workers to vote, and gerrymandering districts so as to forestall public attempts to recall governors and legislatures that pass these unpopular measures, are now common goings on in states run by the Tea Party right.

On the congressional level, Tea Party House Republicans take marching orders from the likes of Norquist, as well as the high flying one per cent of Americans who now account for some ninety per cent of the nation’s income. As I write, House Majority leader, Eric Cantor, and Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, refuse to budge on their dogma never to raise taxes on those who benefit most in a corporate dominated America. Early in the year, they bludgeoned the president into retaining the Bush tax cuts for the richest among us by threatening not to extend unemployment benefits and thus throw millions into dire poverty. Anti-tax extremists now seek to extract concessions from the president on “entitlement,” programs, that is federal legislation that helps older Americans retain their health and retire in dignity and gives others a leg up. An ever conciliatory Obama states his willingness to make cuts in these programs in exchange for closing some glaring tax loopholes for the rich, such as the one that enables billionaires to get taxed at a lower rate than their chauffeurs. That occurs because the wealthiest among us get most of their income from investments taxed at the capital gains rate of fifteen per cent, ten per cent lower than the rate paid by most working Americans. But even this “compromise” is insufficient to placate anti-tax extremists, who threaten to block raising the debt ceiling, thus causing the US to default on its debt, provoking economic meltdown, rather than vote for anything that would increase the share paid by billionaires and multimillionaires.

Since the Reagan years, anti-tax propagandists have succeeded in convincing a sizable portion of the American public that all taxation is bad, particularly at the federal level. This is a nihilistic position that would have appalled American statesmen from Franklin, Jefferson and Hamilton to Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt. Taxation is the price we pay for a civil order with individual advancement. Taxes pay for roads, education, public parks, libraries, the electrical grid, and the whole gamut of projects to build and improve a complex, up-to-date national infrastructure. Graduated taxation, wherein the wealthy pay their fair share and are thus taxed at a higher rate, has in the past facilitated the creation of innumerable American jobs. To limit tax liability, wealthy industrialists poured money back into their American based businesses, thus expanding the labor force, or into non-profit entities, like museums, that enrich our national culture. But anti-tax nihilists would have a society where all public services are privatized so that only those who can pay may use them. Their ideology supports not a civil society with upward mobility, but an order of vast inequalities, where the few monopolize opportunity while the overworked, impoverished multitudes struggle to survive.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Undermining Education

DURING GEORGE W. BUSH’s first term, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. Like so many “improvement” acts of the Bush years, No Child Left Behind did pretty much the opposite of what it claimed to be doing.  It was an unfunded mandate, an onerous burden put on the states requiring continuous batteries of standardized testing of school children without appropriating the money to do it.  Conservatives and educational technocrats have been obsessed for decades with the need for public school and particularly teacher accountability.  We never hear of tests for congressional accountability to the voters, but teachers and school administrators frequently get blamed for poor student performance and general public ignorance. Subjection of students to continuous testing would provide the government with numbers by which they could judge school performance.  And those schools that couldn’t cut the mustard would be shut down, their teachers and administrators joining the unemployment lines.

Standardized testing as a measurement of knowledge is riddled with problems too numerous to go into here.  Suffice it to say, it is simplistic, and the very weight carried by these new tests would skew the whole educational process.  Teachers inevitably ended up teaching to the tests instead of engaging the students in the learning process, which involves a good measure of spontaneity and free inquiry.  Also the impact of crucial environmental factors on learning was conveniently ignored. This is particularly disastrous for children and school personnel in the many festering slums caused largely by deindustrialization and unemployment. Since the country’s right turn, government’s chief means of dealing with inner city blight has been the War on Drugs and mass incarceration of the poor, generally minority inhabitants of these areas.  The effect has been to make them even less livable sinkholes, but these places like New York’s South Bronx, with crumbling school buildings and bad underfunding, were now supposed to turn their students around and make them all fast learners through the magic of tests.

Some who supported NCLB sincerely believed that its testing regimen combined with the looming threat of closure aimed at schools whose children continued testing poorly would produce positive results. Tests would somehow motivate study and learning. But malnourished children crowded into wretched little apartments, or even living homeless, don’t perform well at school.  Many libertarian conservatives like the punitive aspect of NCLB, because they dislike “government schools” and want them to fail, so they can privatize the whole educational process, either through the charter school movement, which usually eliminates unruly, costly teachers’ unions, or even more radically, by introduction of voucher systems on the state level that would enable parents to use government education funds to pay for private or home schooling.  Vouchers would cripple funding for and thus kill universal public education, one of America’s oldest democratic institutions.

The Obama administration has tried much harder than its predecessor to get money appropriated for schools and for increasingly expensive higher education.  In its first two years, with a Democratic Congress, they increased Pell Grants to college students and pumped billions into the stimulus bill to save teachers’ jobs.  But when arch conservatives took over the House, they stopped government aid to education in its tracks.  The President and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, are anxious to aid struggling schools nationwide, even retaining some of the NCLB strictures, but a nihilistic House stands in the way. With little money in the pipeline now, many see foundation aided semi-private charter schools as the panacea.  I am more than a little skeptical. Charters have leeway to specialize.  They don’t have to take everybody, as public schools do.  And many on the right support them as a way to get rid of teachers’ unions. Unions made teaching a middle class profession by gaining decent wages and retirement benefits, and unions pressured for increased government spending on habitually underfunded public schools. But under the new corporate order, teachers aren’t entitled to a living wage or a decent retirement, are they?

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

What Are We Fighting For?

Shortly after Osama Bin Laden was killed, Spc. William Baxter, a parachute rigger with the 101st Sustainment Brigade, was quoted as saying, “OK, he’s dead, can we go home?”  Much as the “Global War on Terror” has been billed as much more than merely killing its leader, Baxter’s remark struck a responsive chord around a war weary country.  Well over sixty per cent now want out of Afghanistan.  And while the assassination of the terrorist mastermind was supposed to burnish the oft doubted warrior credentials of the president, it was not supposed to ignite congressional antiwar sentiment.  But that is in fact what it has done.

The prevailing wisdom in the Democratic Party for over a generation has been that the Vietnam era antiwar movement, drawing strong congressional support from Democratic doves, created a patriotic backlash that eventually led to the ascendancy of Republican conservatism.  But as the collective memory of Vietnam fades, people have grown increasingly impatient with the social and financial costs of today’s smaller but more costly, interminable wars.  Liberal hawks, including President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, now find themselves on the defensive, as they try to maintain national commitment to relentless counterinsurgency against a shadowy, stateless enemy.  Thus once the terrorist symbol was at last eliminated, smoldering antiwar sentiment in Congress and around the country suddenly broke into the open.

The Obama administration, which in 2009 sharply escalated the war in Afghanistan, following the Bush surge model in Iraq, had postponed any significant draw down of troops there to 2014.  And that is obviously contingent upon the president’s reelection.  But now an odd combination of progressive Democrats with a smaller number of determined conservative Republicans mustered 204 votes in the House for an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act calling for speeded up withdrawal from Afghanistan. Its authors were long time Massachusetts antiwar Democrat Jim McGovern and a North Carolina conservative Republican, Walter Jones. Jones now regrets his vote authorizing the Iraq War, and while maintaining the need to intervene in Afghanistan in 2001, he now believes that the war there has long outlived its purpose and is serving only to prop up a hopelessly corrupt government.  Deeply religious, Jones recently converted from his family’s warrior Baptist tradition to Roman Catholicism, whose popes have increasingly opposed resort to war as a means to settle international and civil disputes.

Failing passage by only six votes, the McGovern-Jones amendment must give pause to the Obama administration’s war planners. It drew support from a broad cross section of the president’s own party with no less than former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader Steny Hoyer, known for his center right positions, signing on. Another sign that antiwar sentiment has been heating up follows the administration’s lack of consultation with Congress prior to its decision to back the rebels and bomb Kaddafi’s positions in Libya, thus placing us in a third protracted war.  Rep. Dennis Kucinich, arguably the most antiwar person in Congress, now teams up with the same Walter Jones, to author a bill disputing the constitutionality of the administration’s Libyan bombing and invoking the War Powers Act, requiring authorization from Congress to continue that intervention.

Administration policy in the wake of Arab Spring, the popular uprisings against Middle Eastern dictators, has been to ride the crest of the pro-democracy wave.  This is complicated by long established US policy of strong support for many of those very dictators, particularly Hosni Mubarak, who went along with US support of Israel. Post-Mubarak Egypt is already altering this by opening its border with Gaza in support of blockaded, suffering Palestinians there.  The Obama administration now finds itself caught between growing domestic antiwar sentiment and the need to support new forces rising to power in the Middle East. They would do well to turn toward diplomacy, beginning with the Taliban.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Spiked Tea Party Hangovers

Stephen BerkLast fall a corporate funded noise machine succeeded in motivating a minority of the electorate to vote in Tea Party Republican extremists, and now the sleeping giant, American voters-at-large, is awakening to the ugly results.  With unemployment well into double digits in most parts of the country, media and politicians in thrall to Wall Street now worry chiefly about national and state debt.  The same politicians unconcerned with saddling future generations with mammoth costs of ignored climate change and ever mounting education and mortgage debt, now proclaim their deep concern for runaway federal spending that will burden their grandchildren.  The lead role played by spending to further the interests of empire is of course never mentioned.  And Bush’s tax cuts for the richest among us are continued by the Obama “compromise.”

Austerity, not jobs, is Wall Street’s mantra, and cuts must come chiefly from domestic programs that benefit those most at-risk.  Contrary to policies of the New Deal era, those most able to pay are now largely exempted while those least able are made to shoulder the main burden.  We can see this in state budgets being submitted by many Democratic as well as Republican governors.  Andrew Cuomo of New York proposes deep cuts to social welfare, while maintaining major tax breaks for the wealthiest.  This is also true in the supposedly liberal administration of Washington’s Governor Christine Gregoire.
The most flagrant abuses are being visited upon those asleep at the wheel in the Midwest, who allowed their governorships and state legislatures to be taken over by Tea Party ideologues.  As Lyndon Johnson once tried to amend the New Deal with his War on Poverty, the Tea Party Republicans are setting out to further their patron saint Ronald Reagan’s dismantling of New Deal equalitarianism.  Its centerpiece was the National Labor Relations Act, which granted all workers the right to join a union and collectively bargain with their employers. This effectively brought workers in the big industries into the middle class and undergirded the prosperity of the postwar period.  On the other hand, the Tea Party’s centerpiece is to be the end of labor’s bill of rights.  Corporate elites have whittled away at labor rights for generations, and an economically conservative consensus of the past thirty years has seen both parties use globalization to outsource factories to poor countries abroad and thereby de-industrialize and de-unionize the American labor force. The results have been a low wage economy and spiraling consumer debt. In 1981, Ronald Reagan threw down the gauntlet at public employee wages and benefits by busting PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union.

It is in Reagan’s union busting tradition that new extremist governors of states like Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio have gone on the attack against public employee, chiefly teachers’ unions.  A public spellbound by media spin ever touting the virtues of turning every sphere of life over to the almighty “free market” is starting to question that reigning dogma.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin’s attempt to bust teachers’ unions and claim dictatorial powers over the state’s economy roused demonstrations in Madison not seen since the Vietnam era.  And in these demonstrations, police and fire fighters stood shoulder to shoulder with teachers, students and university teaching assistants. Realizing that they have gotten something much different from what they expected in last fall’s elections, Wisconsinites are now busily seeking the recall of Republican legislators and ultimately Governor Walker.

In neighboring Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder has aroused tremendous public ire by ramming a bill through the Republican legislature that gives him the power to declare a financial emergency in any locality and appoint a financial czar to replace the local government.  This has already been done in the town of Benton Harbor, much to the consternation of its residents.  Are political ideologues, pawns of moguls like the fossil fuel industry’s Koch brothers, at last overreaching and provoking real populist resistance?  I hope so, since our very democratic process is under assault from armies of corporate feudalists.

COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Our Warped Priorities

Stephen BerkDURING the “age of enterprise,” which saw the development of the United States as a leading industrial power, ruling ideas made the market king and the laws of supply and demand sacrosanct. Practitioners of “the dismal science” warned government to keep its hands off as successive boom and bust cycles enriched the few at the expense of the many.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, family farmers, fed up with bankers and railroad barons who enriched themselves at their expense, began what became known as the Populist revolt. They formed a People’s Party which began to reassert the ancient notion that accumulation of wealth should be regulated in the public interest. In supporting a graduated income tax, the Populists even reasserted the economic heresy but solid biblical ideal that great aggregates of financial wealth should be broken up and opportunity for advancement opened up for the toiling masses, whether in field or factory.

During the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, government programs like Social Security and Aid to Families with Dependent Children gave the elderly, the unemployed and impoverished a hand up. The Constitution’s dictum of promoting the general welfare also gave organized labor the right to collectively bargain with their employers to obtain a living wage. After the Second World War, a steeply graduated income tax induced industrialists to plow profits back into their businesses, thus expanding production and giving employment to greater numbers. The fifties and sixties saw a general rise in prosperity and accompanying decline in poverty, as more Americans were able to take advantage of expanding opportunity.

But a number of factors converged to bring an end to this prosperous period and the progressive economic values that undergirded it and return the country to the ideas of classical business dominated economics, now rechristened “neo-liberalism,” with its booms and busts and bloated fortunes accompanied by spiraling poverty and homelessness. First, other countries like India, China and Indonesia, created industrial economies with very low labor costs, inducing American corporations to outsource factory production to those low cost venues. This was accompanied by intensive lobbying for a free trade regimen which would ultimately make it impossible for American based industry to compete with more cheaply made foreign goods. Thus we witness the rapid de-industrialization of America. In some respects we are returning to what we were as a group of colonies, a provider of raw materials, like timber, to other economies that manufacture finished items they sell back to Americans.

But the majority of Americans no longer have the industrial jobs that pay them a living wage and enable them to enjoy a higher standard of living. They no longer have the ability to consume on postwar levels. At the same time, goods are becoming more expensive with the rise of the cost of scarcer fossil fuels. Education, the greatest means of personal advancement, has become more and more expensive as government has withdrawn support for it. Also medical costs, due to expensive high tech treatments, are skyrocketing, and government does little to provide relief. Yet the federal budget is at an all time high, because we insist on spending over seven hundred billion dollars a year on wars and militarism.

Having emerged from World War Two at the apex of world power, the U. S. succumbed to the temptations of imperialism. While we try unsuccessfully to police the world in the interests of oil and weapons corporations, we plunge into ever deeper debt, our infrastructure crumbles, and we cannot afford to educate our citizens or provide for their common good. An international investor class, represented by Wall Street, now controls our politics courtesy of the Supreme Court. Media mogul Rupert Murdoch, its chief propagandist, is an Australian living in China. If Americans cannot rediscover the political will to reverse such concentration of wealth and power, as the Populists once did, the USA will soon join the USSR on history’s ash heap.