Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Bailout: Sacrificing Justice for Temporary Stability

I've been thinking a lot about justice lately. Specifically, I've been thinking about how often people try to convince those seeking justice to set aside that desire. I've been thinking about how often we are told that holding people responsible for their actions would cause more suffering.

The economic disaster is a perfect example. Billions of dollars are being lost into the ether as we bail out the scoundrels who got us into this mess. We are told the vacuuming up of our present and future resources is necessary in order to mitigate short-term suffering and instability.

People are less and less inclined to believe bailout justifications, in large part because we see that those responsible are not suffering any consequences for their actions. After reading Matt Taibbi's recent article, it's hard not to believe that the bailout is just a scam to transfer our resources into the grubby hands of Goldman Sachs and friends. So long as our government shows no signs of bringing the people who caused this mess to justice, our distrust will grow.

Let's take this out of a financial context for a minute. This past weekend I watched The Reckoning. The film is about efforts to get the International Criminal Court (ICC) up and running. The film highlighted the situations in Uganda and Sudan, but it could easily apply to hundreds of other situations in the world. Whenever the leaders responsible for genocide, rape, and crimes against humanity faced prosecution; they used the threat of more suffering to defend themselves.

In Uganda, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) went on a campaign to convince Ugandans that the ICC warrants for LRA leaders' arrests were an obstacle to the peace process. (Never mind that there was no peace process before the warrants.) The LRA presented the people a choice between peace and justice. When a warrant was issued for the president of Sudan for human rights violations, he retaliated by kicking out humanitarian organizations and putting millions of Sudanese without the assistance they desperately need.

The case of Sudan is clear. There are people who will suffer in the short term because of the warrant issued. It's possible that the other cases, including our financial disaster, also present a choice between mitigating short term suffering and pursuing justice. But if we keep sacrificing justice for short term needs, won't we just ensure that we will keep dealing with the same problems over and over? If people without morals see that they can get away with abusing their power, why would they ever stop?

One final observation. When I was in Guatemala I was struck by how defeated the people seemed. Nobody believed in the system. Time and again powerful people got away with outrageous crimes. Military leaders responsible for mass atrocities don't just walk free, but run for president. Former presidents who absconded with the people's money live like royalty in other countries. The more people see impunity, the more hopeless the situation seems. The more hopeless the situation seems, the less agency they feel. The less they participate in political life, the more power the abusers have. It is a downward spiral and we can't afford to allow that to happen to us.

Justice is not an obstacle to stability and peace, it is a prerequisite. People who don't want to face justice are using our fear - fear of violence, fear of starvation, fear of financial collapse - but it is by caving in that we assure all of those things will go on forever.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How Are We A Christian Nation?

People may dispute that the United States is a "Christian nation," but nobody disputes that the majority of the people living here identify as Christian. When Columbus stumbled upon the Americas, there weren't any Christians here. So how did it happen that the most common religion in the country became Christianity?

On the west coast of what is now the United States, Spanish priests set up a string of missions. Natives were forcefully converted and used as slave labor. On the east coast, the Puritans had far less luck converting natives. Devastating European diseases, a constant influx of new Christians from Europe, and violent competition for land soon made the non-Christian, native populations tiny and powerless.

It wasn't just Europeans that wanted to come here. Asian immigrants also came in huge numbers to work on railroads, mining, and lumber. In 1852, about 10% of the population of California was of Chinese descent. The Chinese population decreased exponentially after California residents pushed for our first anti-immigrant law, The Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese were barred from coming here and ineligible to become citizens until the 1940s. Had it not been for that, we would have many more Taoists, Buddhists, and Confucians in our midst.

Jews were also a target of immigration laws. The Immigration Act of 1891 aimed to stem the tide of Russian and Eastern European Jews that had been coming to the U.S. in large numbers. The House of Representatives also tried to require literacy tests for any immigrants, mostly to restrict access to undereducated, Yiddish speaking Jews from Europe. Even when Jews were dying by the millions during World War II, the U.S. continued to block Jewish immigrants.

Until 1965, when President Johnson signed into law sweeping immigration reform, our immigration laws were intended to keep the United States as white and Christian as possible. If we are a nation of mostly Christians, it is because of systematic discrimination supported by the very un-Christian, Christians who designed U.S. laws.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

U.S. Government Kidnapped Japanese Latin Americans

During World War II, the United States government rounded up Americans of Japanese descent and put them in camps. Hopefully, this is not news to you. What you may not know is that some of the people imprisoned were actually residents of Latin American countries.

Apparently, someone in our government had the idea of trading these Latin Americans of Japanese descent in prisoner exchanges. According to the Campaign for Justice, 2,264 people were kidnapped from various countries in Latin America, forcibly taken to the United States, stripped of their passports, and imprisoned (with no legal recourse).

Some of these kidnapped Latin Americans were traded. Others were deported after the war. Since many of the Latin American countries refused to take them back, many were deported to Japan - a country devastated by war.

Despite the fact that they were brought to the U.S. against their will, these prisoners were treated as illegal entrants. So when Japanese Americans received compensation for what they went through, Latin Americans of Japanese descent were ineligible.

There are currently two bills making their way through congress (H.R. 42 and S. 69) which call for an investigation into this truly repugnant time in U.S. history. I'll be following this one.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Time for a Maximum Wage

We've been having the wrong argument.

Liberals have been arguing that we should tax the rich more (as we used to). Conservatives say that taxes (any taxes) retard growth and remove incentives.

I say they are both wrong.

The conservative argument is based on the idea that only the possibility of obscene amounts of money is an incentive for work and creativity. Bull. Ask most nonprofit employees, nuns, or fire fighters if their primary incentive is cash.

What if the entire world worked on the principle of politicians, Wall Street brokers, and CEOs? We would be screwed. As far as I'm concerned, if owning a gold plated yacht is the only thing that motivates you, you need to do some serious soul searching.

Meanwhile the liberals operate from an equally objectionable principle. Suggesting that we just increase taxes on the rich requires an acceptance of the glaring income inequality behind all this mess.

The Tax Justice Network has a fascinating and disturbing quote from former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers:

If the income distribution in the United States were the same today as it was in 1979, the bottom 80 percent of the population would have about $670 billion more, or about $8,000 per family. And the top one percent would have about $670 billion less, or about $500,000 per family.
$8,000 per family! How much more comfortable would your life be with an extra $8,000 a year?

Does anyone really need to make $54 million a year? How can we accept a society where some Wall Street schmuck makes $54 million while your average teaching assistant makes $22,820? The person who grows your food is lucky to bring in $22,640. The person who serves your food makes $16,700. The person who takes care of your child brings in $19,670.

We need to close that gap.

I'm not suggesting that we give everyone the same amount of income. People should receive extra compensation for long years of education, for extra responsibility, for doing the kinds of jobs that other people don't want to do, and for doing the kinds of jobs most essential to our survival. And people should receive compensation for outstanding efforts. But that doesn't mean that the difference has to be as vast as it is.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Greedy Whiners and Misleading Statistics

The March 7th issue of the National Journal asks the question:

President Obama has announced plans to raise income taxes on the wealthy and curb various tax breaks for upper-income Americans. What percentage of income taxes is now being paid by this group, compared with 1986?
According to them, the percentage of income taxes paid by the top 1 percent of earners jumped from 25.75% to 39.4%. The percentage of income taxes paid by the top 25 percent jumped from 76% to 86%. When you put it like that, it sounds like the rich have had some serious tax hikes in the last couple decades.

Before you start sending sympathy cards to Donald Trump, let's take a look at those figures a little more closely.

Tax is a percentage of your income. More income means more tax. And the richest Americans have been taking a larger slice of the income pie. In 1986, the richest one percent earned only 11% of all income. By 2005 they were earning 21% of all income. The top 25% went from collecting 59% of all income to collecting 67.5% of all income.

Let's break that down into numbers that a person like me can wrap their heads around. Let's say that America consisted of 100 people and the gross income pie was 1 million dollars for both years. What would that have looked like in 1986 and 2005?

In 1986
  • 1 person would have earned $110,000 for the year
  • 24 people would have received about $20,000 each
  • 75 people would have received about $5,466.67 each
In 2005
  • 1 person would have earned $210,000 for the year
  • 24 people would have received about $19,375 each
  • 75 people would have received about $4,333.33 each
In this (admittedly over-simplified) example, in 1986 one person lived well on $110,000 a year while 75 people scraped by on $5,466.67. By 2005, that one wealthy person nearly doubled their income by skimming a little off the top of those who could least afford it.

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Why Are We Afraid of Mobs?

There is a fascinating article in the February 28th issue of The Economist. The article describes a research project by Lancaster university social psychologist Mark Levine.

Levine is trying to understand how a crowd may effect whether or not situations become violent. His research has shown that larger crowds actually may decrease the chance of violence. Apparently, the larger the crowd, the more people may intervene to keep the peace.

The article goes on to say

His work could have practical consequences, since police generally aim to break crowds up. If he is right, that approach may unintentionally lead to more fights. It sounds counter-intuitive, but many of the best ideas are.
But is it "counter-intuitive"? Why do we assume that more people means more danger? And why do we assume that the police tactics are meant to decrease violence?

The real issue here is control. When police break up a large group of people it is not about preventing violence, it is about crowd control. Police methods for crowd control are often incredibly violent.

The worst atrocities are not those committed by unruly crowds, but those committed by organized, authoritarian structures. Nazis did what they did under the full force and protection of the law and of German authority, not in a disorganized frenzy.

According to the etymology dictionary, the word mob is "slang shortening of mobile, mobility 'common people, populace, rabble.'" One of the meanings for mob is still just a group of people, but we most often use it to mean a group that is out of control or violent - a product of certain people associating all of us "common people" with scary chaos.

So who do you trust, your fellow rabble or the people who want to control you?

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