Visiting DC

Your tax dollars at work!

Visiting Washington, DC, for me is mostly about spending time with my son who has lived there for many years.   He is a pretty good tour guide through the city.  Through the years I’ve seen a great portion of DC, certainly the main visitor attractions, such as the giant pandas at the National Zoo.

I’ve also visited a number of lesser known places, and occasionally have seen something that is only rarely open to the public (like the main reading room of the Library of Congress).   For visitors DC offers many attractions.  For the locals, DC is really about neighborhoods.  And at least from where I have been DC has some wonderful neighborhoods.    Cosmopolitanism is one element of city living I love – the diversity of people.  Every storefront virtually represents another country/culture.

There really are many national treasures in DC, all of which are worth seeing.  Visiting DC in different seasons is also worthwhile as  you see the changing beauty of nature in its parks and green areas.  The National Arboretum is an amazing park in the midst of a metropolitan area.   For me the national park system is federal money well spent.

Narcissus at the National Arboretum

New to me on this trip were visits to President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldier’s Home the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial, and the Congressional Cemetery.   The view of Georgetown from the bridge to Roosevelt Island (to me at least) has a European city feel to it.

DC is a marvelous city for museum lovers.  The Smithsonian Institutes museums are first rate.  Special for me this visit was a rare chance to peek inside the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building.

The Arts and Industries building was “mothballed” in 2006. It remains closed but is now undergoing renovations.

I had opportunity to join some Smithsonian volunteers on a tour of the rather amazing building.

There are thousands of people who have volunteered through time to help make the museum visitor friendly.  In the photo is one of the knowledgeable and hardworking volunteers who made it possible for me to see this building being renovated.

Here is looking into the East Hall of the Arts and Industries building (the people give you the sense of the size of the building):

Looking up at the central rotunda ceiling:

A now rare view of The Castle (The Smithsonian Institution Building) from within the Arts and Sciences building:

DC is also full of American symbols – natural ones as well as man made, animate and inanimate.

An American Bald Eagle at the National Zoo is one living reminder of our country.

You can find all my photos from this month’s trip to DC at Washington, DC April 2015 Photos.  Saw lots of things I don’t have time to mention in this blog.  Also visited several great restaurants.

You can find links to other photoblogs I’ve posted at Fr. Ted’s Photoblogs.

George & Martha Washington’s homestead at Mt. Vernon

 

Abraham Lincoln’s Rise to Greatness

Rise to GreatnessEach year around the American Independence Day holiday I read a book on American history just to remind myself of the great effort it has taken to create “America.”    This year while on vacation I read David Von Drehle’s Rise to Greatness: Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year.  A good summary of the book is found in the book’s epilogue where Drehle writes:

“The twelve tumultuous months of 1862 were the hinge of American history, the decisive moment at which the unsustainable compromises of the founding generations were ripped up in favor of a blueprint for a much stronger nation. In the process, millions of lives were transformed: the lives of the slaves who were to be freed, and of the slave owners who would be impoverished; the lives of the soldiers and their families who bore the suffering of the first all-out war of the Industrial Age; the lives of those who would profit from new inventions, longer railroads, and modern finance; the lives of students who would be educated in great public universities. The road taken in 1862 ultimately led to greater prosperity than anyone had ever imagined.”  (Kindle Loc. 6866-71)

Abraham Lincoln was a great man, and so a good book on a great man is a winning combination!   I really liked the book which traces the development in Abe Lincoln’s thinking during the course of 1862 on the issue of slavery, how to carry out the civil war militarily, and what it meant to preserve the union.  I felt while I was reading the book that I was inside Lincoln’s heart and head, listening to the opposing voices feuding, feeling the pressure rising as the decisions loomed ahead, and agonizing over how to hold the union together while at the same time resolving the very issue that made union impossible.  The varying, 0ppositional viewpoints and the building pressures on Lincoln were unrelenting.  Really, one wonders how he survived it all – the reports of his acquaintances were that it took a tremendous toll on him physically and emotionally.   How he worked to hold it altogether was amazing; somehow Lincoln guided the nation through very treacherous and tumultuous waters.  Lincoln who frequently offered pithy wisdom said:

“To steer a true course through violent seas, one must understand the wind and tides, despite being powerless to change them. So it was with Providence.”   (Kindle Loc. 4834-35)

Lincoln wrestled with issues of the divine will, the will of the people, idealism about what “America” meant and is.  There were countless forces over which he had no influence let alone control, and he mused over the nature of life frequently.

“Lincoln now tried to discern a divine purpose behind the string of failures and betrayals that made the summer of 1862 so miserable. At his desk one day in September, “his mind … burdened with the weightiest question of his life”—of slavery, the survival of the Union, and the role of each in the war—Lincoln took out a fresh sheet of lightly ruled paper and began writing down his thoughts. “The will of God prevails,” he started, slowly and carefully. This was true by definition: if God exists, and God wills a result, then the result must come to pass. That is the nature of infinite power. Lincoln added a second proposition: “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God.” From these two ideas, Lincoln began methodically building his analysis, brick by brick, writing more quickly and fluidly as he went. “Both sides may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time,” he noted. “In the present civil war it is quite possible that God’s purpose is something different from the purpose of either party.” The Almighty might favor the North or the South—or neither side: Providence chooses its own goals. But the players in this great drama—the generals, whether effective or incompetent; the soldiers, brave or cowardly; the politicians and opinion makers, wise or foolish; indeed, all the “human instrumentalities” of the struggle, as Lincoln put it—must somehow perform the roles they had been given by the directing spirit of God. When John Pope met mutiny rather than triumph on the road to Richmond, it must be because God had something other than immediate Union victory in mind. All this flowed logically from the first proposition: that the will of God prevails. Now Lincoln inserted a hedge. “I am almost ready to say that this is probably true”—almost, probably—“that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” If one believed in a divinity shaping history, then it followed that God could have saved or destroyed the Union short of war, or ended the war already, without this painful seesaw struggle. “Yet the contest proceeds.” He put down his pen. Perhaps he was interrupted, or ran out of time, because he seems to have stopped abruptly. The final period at the end of his meditation was jabbed with such velocity that it looked more like a dash. Clearly, he wasn’t finished, because the last sentence led so obviously, so irresistibly, to the next question: Why? Toward what end was this uncontrollable force moving? Nicolay and Hay, who discovered this unfinished rumination long after the president had folded it in half, and half again, observed that it had not been intended for others; it was Lincoln’s way of ordering his own thoughts. Yet these few lines suggest a first draft of what would become Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In that magnificent speech, delivered two and a half years later, he completed the chain of his logic. The contest proceeds, the president declared then, because “American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove.” And because the offense was too large and too grave to be removed without suffering, God “gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came.” Slavery, Lincoln believed, was like a tumor on the neck of the American nation. Cutting it out might be fatal, but the patient would surely die if the cancer grew unchecked. Thus the president was led to conclude that God was prolonging and inflaming the war so that slavery could not survive the inferno. Providence had chosen to remove the cancer; Lincoln had no choice but to act accordingly.”   (Kindle Loc. 4839-67)

Such was the nature of the thinking of the man who held the presidency during this period of great trial for the United States.  Lincoln took diverse and irreconcilable  ideas and weighed them in his mind ever searching for what the right path was for the country.  He made choices in the most difficult of circumstances.  He was not always right but he labored hard and carefully through all of the issues put before him while also dealing with a number of personal failures in those around him.

An example of Lincoln wrestling with what is right and with the will of God:

The president had already told the delegates that he was accustomed to hearing from religious leaders on the topic of slavery, and he found it strange that while clergymen held every variety of opinion, all of them claimed to know “the Divine will.” Why, Lincoln now wondered, didn’t God take the forthright approach and reveal his intentions “directly to me, for, unless I am more deceived in myself than I often am, it is my earnest desire to know the will of Providence in this matter. And if I can learn what it is I will do it!” The attending stenographer did not record that a pause followed, but it is reasonable to assume that there was one. Then Lincoln continued on a less declarative note: “These are not, however, the days of miracles, and I suppose it will be granted that I am not to expect a direct revelation. I must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”   (Kindle Loc. 5134-41)

Lincoln had an awareness of the historical significance of the decisions he faced and the profound impact his decisions would have on the future of the country.  Facing the issue of the curse of slavery of the slaves, Lincoln weighed the issues for a long time and only very slowly and deliberately came to the conclusion that there was no choice but to emancipate the slaves as the only way forward to save the union.  Drehle writes that Lincoln

“… understood, more than many of his contemporaries, that his actions on the first day of 1863 would be far more significant than any earlier promise he had pledged and kept. As he would put it later, the Emancipation Proclamation was “the central act of my administration and the great event of the nineteenth century,” for it “knocked the bottom out of slavery.” Here was the “new birth of freedom” he would speak of so brilliantly at Gettysburg.”   (Kindle Loc. 6692-95)

It is rare to find a man with Lincoln’s depth of thought and power to weigh and analyze diverse opinions and to discern a path forward for the entire nation.   Today’s presidents face just as complicated issues and challenges, and are in need of the same powers to analyze and form decisions.  Lincoln was a giant among men.   Few other men have Lincoln’s gifts of deliberation and analysis, and few have the knack for bringing together rivals as advisors that he had.

Our presidents need Lincoln’s wisdom and understanding.   That is why they each also need our prayers.

A Prayer for our Nation’s Leaders

O our God, whose mercy is inscrutable:  Grant unto Your servants, our country’s rulers, the prosperity of Moses, the courage of David, and the wisdom of Solomon, so that they make give glory to Your Holy Name.

A Bright Week Visit to DC

Following the intense services of Holy Week and the exuberance of our Paschal celebration, I had scheduled a few days off to visit with my son in Washington, DC.

John like many DCers doesn’t own a car, so we got around on foot and by public transportation.  Probably just the small town Midwesterner in me, but the Metro appears at times futuristic to me.  Maybe it is significant since we often conceive the idea that the future of our country, if not liberty itself, is in the hands of the leadership in DC.

Some these days see Washington as a ‘sign’ of what is wrong with America.  I remember when John was a child and was really into GI JOE, and the nefarious enemy COBRA.  Lots of memory associations for me at the Hirshhorn Museum of Modern Art.  Art as a sign – of memories of a childhood, or political forces afoot in America, or maybe hopeful signs of the Chinese Zodiak and years to come.

Of course DC is not just about the present or future, but enshrines the past as well.  The Capitol Columns at the U.S. National Arboretum might be signs of lack of political foresight or that some things really do change in DC.  They may also be a sign that once the government does something, we have to deal with it for the rest of our lives as citizens.  The shadows cast by some of the Corinthian columns conjure up images of past DC figures who haunt or inspire leaders today – hooded specters or maybe heavenly watchers.

To keep things in perspective, the above Bonsai was in training since 1625  and is the oldest Bonsai in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum which is in the U.S. National Arboretum.  This Bonsai tree is considerably older than our nation, and has been “in training” for close to 400 years.  It should humble us Americans when we think about our traditions and appeal to the founding fathers.  This Bonsai was already 150 years in training before the Declaration of Independence was signed.  Our American sense of what is old shrivels before this one Bonsai.

The Glenn Dales at the U.S. National Arboretum are covered with Azeleas which happened to be in full, gorgeous blossom.

The Arboretum is a real treasure of our country, and one that doesn’t receive all the attention from DC visitors or residents that other sights around the city receive.  But for the nature lover and photographer it is a hidden gem.

Lacebark pine cone

There are many unusual and beautiful plants as well as Ikebana floral displays.  And the Arboretum is only one location for floral beauty, for the U.S. Botanic Garden also houses a wonderful collection of plants.

The Botanic Garden was featuring an Orchid show.  The orchid is probably my favorite flower to photograph.

Relatively speaking, I guess most visitors to DC don’t go there just to see the flora.  There is also the fauna at the National Zoo!  And you can get the picture that I didn’t go to DC just to see bricks, mortar and marble statues.

It is as true in DC as anywhere else that birds of a feather flock together – so too for donkeys and elephants!

You can find a set of my favorite photos from my visit to DC at 2012 DC Favorites or you can find all of the photos I took in sets at DC Collection.

A complete list with links to my photo blogs is at My Photo-Blogs.

Special thanks to John and Lauren for their hospitality.

Imagine living in that place in America where Washington’s Monument always looks over all.  There is an American ideal when we don’t lose sight of it.

The Economy: Could it get worse?

The economy is stalled, Obama’s approval ratings are sagging.  The Gallup organization is wondering whether it is going to have to use negative numbers to measure Congress’s approval ratings.

Could things get worse?

As the Pessimist says, “Things are never so bad as they can’t get worse.”

This Labor Day, I’ve labored to find some humor in our sad state of affairs.

So time for a comic moment of relief, and since we can’t blame him for conditions any more (or so political wisdom says), here is a quote from memory lane.  Just to remind us of where we were and why we’re here, a quote from President G W Bush, 24 February 2001:

“My plan reduces the national debt, and fast.  So fast, in fact, that economists worry that we’re going to run out of debt to retire.”

I guess that was just politically speaking – a little spin for the party faithful.

But maybe there is yet hope!    Maybe his plan hasn’t fully taken effect yet – I think Congress has kept the Bush tax cuts.  Maybe this is the year they’ll reduce the debt.

And just to add a little more humor, 3 days after promising to reduce the debt on 27 Februrary 2001 GW gave us this Bushism:

“My pan plays down an unprecedented amount of our national debt.”

Ah, those were the days and we thought they’d never end.  Playing down the national debt became a political pastime in America.  Now we are paying for all that pleasure.

So, if the economy has got you down, lighten up a bit, the politicians are promising they will fix it.

Happy Labor Day!

Redistribution of Income Revisited

In my blog The Redistribution of Wealth I made comments about the redistribution of wealth taking place in America, not as a result of taxes or liberal/socialist policies, but as a result of intentional economic policy which seemed to favor the wealthy to become wealthier.  The article in the Summer 2011 WILSON QUARTERLY, shows that from 1976 to 2007, the top 1% wealthiest Americans went from earning 9% of America’s total income to 24% – a sizable redistribution of income.  The article did note that simultaneously the American economic pie got bigger, so even those lower on the wealth scale benefited from the growing economy, but still the growth in income for the top 1% wealthiest Americans  was increasing very rapidly.

In the comments to that blog, Brian searched the Internet to check those facts and found a very different set of numbers which he listed in his comment.  His numbers look at the distribution of wealth between the top 1% wealthiest Americans and the 99% rest of Americans.  There it is obvious that the wealthiest 1% have historically and consistently owned a disproportionately large percentage of America’s total wealth, but then that is exactly what puts them in the wealthiest 1%!

Dn. Marty in another comment to the blog was able to locate the original article referred to in the WQ and reports the article is talking about income not wealth and so those statistics are quite different from what Brian quotes.  Thus is the world of facts and statistics – it isn’t so much a redistribution of the total wealth but the incomes of the top 1% are increasing at a fairly phenomenal and accelerating rate over the 31 year period from 1976-2007.

I think Dn. Marty’s comments solve the legitimate issue and questions raised by Brian.  The two sets of numbers are apples and oranges:  wealth vs. income.

The numbers Brian provided from 1922 to 2007 caught my attention in another way, which is more related to the original point I wanted to make: we see that the top 1% wealthiest Americans controlled a portion of America’s wealth ranging from a low point of 19.9% in 1976 up to a high of 44.2% in 1929.   I know I’ve read from several sources that in terms of American economics, the economy is strongest when a greater number of people share the wealth – this makes sense in an economy driven by consumer spending.  If only the elite few have a lot of disposable income, there won’t be much consumer spending.  When many/most people have income to spend – the economy benefits, and merchants and manufacturers are kept busy and prosperous.

So the numbers quoted by Brian  show (in my mind at least) a kind of Freakonomics thing about the economy.

In 1929, the top 1% wealthiest Americans possessed 44.2% of Americas wealth.  That is the all time high on the chart.   What happened in 1929?   The Great Depression.   The concentration of wealth in the hands of the few was bad for the economy as a whole.

In those same statistics, in 1976, the wealthiest 1% of Americans owned only 19.9% of Americas wealth, the lowest on the chart given.   This occurs in the years right before America went on an unabated 25 year period of economic growth; this was an unprecedented period of growth for the country.

But this growth was accompanied by the wealthiest 1% gaining possession over an ever increasing portion of America’s total wealth, peaking between 1995-1998 at just over 38% of America’s wealth.  In that same time period (1976-2007) the share of the nation’s income of the wealthiest 1% increased from 9-24%.    And then we come to 2007 when the wealthiest 1% controlled just over 34% of the nation’s wealth (and those numbers were on a annual upward trend) AND now earned 24% of the nation’s income.  Result again?  The Great Recession of the 21st Century.

There are so many factors that enter into this picture, many events outside the U.S., but still the notion that the economy does benefit when wealth is shared by a greater number of individuals seems to be in these statistics.   From 1976 to 1995, the top 1% wealthiest Americans doubled their  share of America’s wealth from 19% to 38%.  Remember the pie also got bigger so many people lower on the scale also owned “more” but relative to the whole pie, the bottom 99% had a much smaller share of the larger pie to divide up. (see also my blog American Ingenuity and Re-inventing of Government).

It is something to think about – a freakish co-incidence or Freakonomics?  When the total of America’s wealth or income gets concentrated in the top 1% of wealthiest Americans to the tune of 34-45%, is that a good predictor that the country is in for another great recession/depression?

If it is, then the question becomes, since the economy is totally human made, and we can recognize the warning signs that the economy is reaching a point where a great recession/depression is imminent, should we form policies that prevent this scenario from ever arising by insuring that wealth and income are spread over a greater portion of the population?

America became immensely wealthier through the years, but even that gargantuan increase in wealth/capital could not prevent the economic collapse/disaster which hit the country over the past few years.   Could better economic policies have helped by recognizing the signs that the system was getting out of balance?

The economy is a human made product.  Are there not ways that humans can help regulate it so that it better serves us all?   I know today government regulation has a bad name, but the economy is not mother nature, it is completely human made and responds to and is  shaped by human speculation, human fears, lack of confidence, human error, human greed, political gridlock, and world events.  And while many don’t trust government to do any better with the economy than investors or Wall Street or the banking industry, government of, by and for the people is a potential force to check other forces we’ve created.

American Ingenuity and Re-inventing our Government

This blog offers some concluding thoughts to my previous blog, Redistributing Wealth.

In analyzing the political partisanship and implacable ideologues Fareed Zakaria  writing in the 15 August 2011 issue of TIME offers some thoughts about why the American system of government is not able to solve our current fiscal problems:

“American parties now function like European parliamentary ones, ideologically pure and with tight discipline. But we don’t have a European system. In parliamentary systems, power is united so that when, for example, the British Prime Minister’s coalition takes office, it controls the legislative branch as well as the executive. The Prime Minister is, in effect, chief legislator as well as chief executive. The ruling party gets a chance to implement its agenda, and then the public can either re-elect it or throw the bums out. The U.S. system is one of shared and overlapping powers. No one person or party is fully in control; everyone is checked and balanced. People have to cooperate for anything to get done. That is why the Tea Party’s insistence on holding the debt ceiling hostage in order to force its policies on the country–the first time the debt ceiling has been used this way–was so deeply un-American.

The strength of the Tea Party is part of a broader phenomenon: the rise of small, intensely motivated groups that have been able to capture American politics. The causes are by now familiar. The redistricting of Congress creates safe seats, so the incentive is to pander to the extremes to fend off primary challenges, rather than to work toward the center. Narrowcast media amplify strong voices at the ends of the spectrum and make politicians pay a price for any deviation from dogma. A more open and transparent Congress has meant a Congress more easily pressured by small interest groups and lobbyists. Ironically, during this period, more and more Americans identify as independents. Registered independents are at an all-time high. But that doesn’t matter. The system in Congress reflects not rule by the majority but rule by the minority–fanatical, organized minorities.

These dysfunctions have reached crisis levels at the very time the U.S. faces intense pressures from an aging population, technological change and globalization. We need smart policies in every field. We need to pare spending in areas like health care and pensions but invest in others like research and development, infrastructure and education in order to grow. In an age of budgetary limits, money needs to be spent wisely and only on projects that are effective. But in area after area–energy, immigration, infrastructure–government policy is suboptimal, a sad mixture of political payoffs and ideological positioning. Countries from Canada to Australia to Singapore implement smart policies and copy best practices from around the world. We bicker and remain paralyzed.

Some of those best practices used to be American. The world once looked at America with awe as we built the interstate highway system, created the best public education in the world, put a man on the moon and invested in the frontiers of knowledge. That is not how the world sees America today. People watched what happened over the past month and could not comprehend it. We have taken something that the world never doubted–the credibility of the U.S.–and put it into question. From now on, every time the debt ceiling has to be debated, the world will wonder, Will America honor its commitments? Will it keep its word? Will the system break down? We have taken our most precious resource, the trust of the world, and gambled with it. If, as a result of these congressional antics, interest rates on America’s debt rise by 1% –in other words, if the world asks for just a little bit more interest to lend us money–the budget deficit will rise by $1.3 trillion over 10 years. That would more than wipe out the entire 10 years of cuts proposed in the debt deal. That’s the American system at work these days.

Old Senate Chamber

Maybe we can rethink what we are doing.  American ingenuity both invented and grew out of the changing political world of the 18th Century.  That same ingenuity if it is allowed to thrive rather than be throttled by ideologues can re-invent the government which helped make America great.

If it is the case that our political system is becoming polarized to the point of being paralyzed, a former congressman offered his opinion about how we got to this point.

Congressman Jim Cooper (D-TN) first elected to congress  in 1982 made observations about a big change that occurred in congress that contributed to the polarization in congress and inability to work together.   Cooper writing in BOSTON REVIEW (May-June 2011) as reported in the Summer 2011 WILSON QUARTERLY commented to the effect:

“Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) saw himself as leader of the entire House, not just the Democratic caucus.  O’Neill’s was a House intent on making policy, not partisan mischief,’  Cooper recalls.”

There even was a time when “a group of elite staffers known as the Democratic Study Group provided authoritative memos before each important vote listing the pros and cons of the bill.  The quality of these reports was so high that even some Republicanss subscribed.”

Cooper says the system changed a great deal  “under the leadership of Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.)”.  “Gingrich centralized power in the office of the Speaker and politicized the position.   Committee chairs, powerful under O’Neill, were ’emasculated, their authority redirected to the Speaker.”  It was in this time the Democratic Study Group mentioned above ceased to exist.

It is possible that Gingrich made these changes to correct what were perceived as problems of congressional dysfunction in his day.  Don’t know that story, but I’m just following Cooper’s line of thinking.

The changes that Cooper claims occurred are still in effect to this day, and it has not mattered whether Republicans or Democrats have been in power, they now follow the precedent set by Gingrich.   Cooper notes, “The truth is that the [Gingrich] model works … if you are only interested in partisan control of Congress.”

This of course gets back to Fareed Zakariah’s point above that the U.S. political system is not a European parliamentary system.   So those who are demanding that we return to the Constitution in determing how government is to operate, maybe we have to demand that we abandon the polarizing parliamentary European system and return to our democratic system where disagreeing politicians are forced to sit down together and work out a compromise that solves our problems.

Cooper’s “solution” is that our congressmen get “merit” pay based on their ability to co-operate to make the system work – including merit pay for those who eliminate obsolete laws  and who work to cut spending.  Not sure how that idea would work.

I want to also acknowledge that some think the rancorous process which we witnessed in dealing with the debt ceiling problem is nothing but democracy at work.  Charles Krauthammer (Washington Post, 12 August 2011) thinks the system is working fine and we should quit complaining.  He notes what is an obvious truth of American politics, voters do react against both ideas and politicians they don’t like.  Thus we see swings in voters moving left and right whenever they think politicians have gone too far.  He feels confident the system is doing what it is supposed to do and the results in the debt ceiling debate did what they could do.  He wrote: “It was a triumph of democratic politics – a powerful shift in popular will finding concrete political expression.”

There is no doubt since the time of the election of 1800 in which Thomas Jefferson using dirty tricks defeated incumbent President John Adams.  It was a rancorous campaign that caused Adams and Jefferson, two of the heroes of the revolution and founding fathers of our country,  to have a complete falling out and become bitter political rivals.    There have been major issues at stake that endangered the American political system soon after its birth.   It exploded in the election of 1860 when Lincoln became President and American became a divided nation at war.

Enjoying the Quiet of the Library

And though this is nothing new, I personally don’t find the process to be to my liking at all.   But there is little doubt that the pitfalls of a bickering democracy are preferable to the dictatorship of a one party system.   I silence the negative campaign cacophony by living TV and commercial radio free.  I noticed that even a couple of my sons have basically quit watching TV and don’t have cable subscriptions.   There is hope for America!

It seems to me that since both political parties seem to think they have to play to the extremes of their constituencies in a circus media driven political culture,  most of what we receive from the partisan leadership is all heat and no light.  Maybe that is the only way politicians can get anything done public accusations but behind the scenes some effort to reach a solution.   But I know I would prefer hearing reasoned proposals rather than partisan rhetoric.

At one time some of the leaders of the two parties did agree that $4 Trillion in debt reduction was the goal.  That was a huge step forward.  But the resulting agreement was only about half that, which means we are going to have to listen to the rancor twice, and probably twice as much before they will come up with a package that will convince the world that the US is a safe place to invest your money because it is backed by the full faith and credit of the US government.

Next:  The Redistribution of Income Revisited

The Redistribution of Wealth

[My note – there is a discrepancy in facts between an article I mention, and some facts that are quoted in the comments from Brian attached to this blog.   The discrepancy as explained in the comment from Dn. Marty appears to be that the original article refers to income, not wealth, while the charts Brian refers to are talking about wealth not income.   The difference is significant and certainly which statistics one is looking at changes the conclusion one can make.  I have edited my original comments to better reflect the facts being offered in the original article.  Probably need to retitle this blog to “The Redistribution of Income.”   Thanks to Brian and Dn. Marty for their comments.]

In the ears of a number of Americans, “the redistribution of wealth” is an idea which is associated with notions of socialism, or the political left or the tax and spend folk of Washington, D.C.   These fears seems also to feed the anti-tax political movements in America.

Apparently the thinking is that if only the tax rates would go down, more Americans would be or become wealthier.   Statistics analyzed in the book PRESIMETRICS claim however from the time of Presidents Eisenhower to GW Bush that there is no statistical evidence to show “that lower taxes result in higher incomes” and amazingly enough “it is pretty evident” in that same time period that “higher taxes were not hurting people’s pocketbooks” as measured in real median income or net disposable income.   Lower taxes did not yield the higher economic growth some predict and lower taxes “at least by themselves– are not the way to increase economic growth.”   (You can analyze their statistics, pp 116-130 of the book:  Some say numbers don’t lie, others that statistics can be interpreted to mean anything.)

What is perhaps more notable economically, is an article by A. Atkinson, T. Piketty, and E. Saez in the March 2011 issue of JOURNAL OF ECONOMIC LITERATURE  (as reported in the Summer 2011 WILSON QUARTERLY).   According to this article, in the United States, “The top one percent of earners more than doubled their share of income between 1976 and 2007, from nine to 24 percent.”   [The discrepancy is in that the statistics in the comments below show in the increase in wealth going from 19% to 24%,  while the article is claiming “their share of income” increased from 9-24%.  That certainly changes the basis of my comments.]   This means that in this time period the 1% wealthiest Americans  in 30 years had their share of the nation’s income increase from  9%  to 24%.   The top 1% of the wealthiest now own almost 1/4 of  the income generated in America.  This is a redistribution of wealth not engineered by socialism, but certainly the direct result of American economic policies and capitalism as we practice it.

The article goes on to say,  “For the top 0.1 percent of earners, the concentration was even more extreme: They quadrupled their share, from three to 12 percent.”

The rich have been getting richer faster!   America, claimed to be the richest nation on earth, has an ever growing portion of its wealth controlled by one percent of its population.

So a redistribution of wealth actually does take place in America, one that is not the result of leftest policies or of increasing taxes: wealth is moving toward and pooling in the bank accounts of the wealthiest Americans.   Some may say that is just the nature of things, but this doesn’t happen “naturally”, it is purely manmade:  it happens as a result of the intentional economic policies to which we choose to adhere.  It is, I suppose, a form of economic Darwinism:  the strong not only survive, they thrive in the economic world they create and control.   It is a human-made selection that favors those who have created the conditions which determine who thrives.

Now to be fair to the entire picture, in that same time period, the 99% of Americans not in that wealthiest 1% saw their income rise 18% as well. (By comparison, in that same 99% of French citizens, their income rose 26% in that same time period).   So there was an overall income increase in America across the board, but an even faster growth in the income of the wealthiest American 1%.  (The statistics show worldwide the rate of concentration of wealth in the wealthiest few occurred much more in America than in Europe or Japan).

I have not been convinced that the US can reduce its deficit and debt by spending cuts alon; rather I think we actually will need tax revenue increases to pay down the debt.  It seems that also was the concern of S & P in lowering the credit rating of the U.S.:  budget cuts alone are not going to be able to get the U.S. to balance its budget and eliminate its massive debt.  Thus maybe the next impasse is going to be between the Tea Party adherents verse the Credit rating agencies and Wall Street.

I have read before that the U.S. and world economies have tended to fall into the hardest times when a disproportional amount of wealth gets concentrated in the few.  The economy works far better when wealth is widely distributed over a greater number of people.  So the current redistribution of the wealth toward the wealthiest few does not bode well for future economics in the U.S.   Fareed Zakaria  writing in the 15 August 2011 issue of TIME, said:

So far, the national debate has been built around the fantasy that we do not have to choose between big government and low taxes–that we can get both by cutting waste, fraud and abuse. But the money is in the big middle-class items, from Medicare to the mortgage-interest deduction. With federal taxes at 15% of GDP, a historic low, and spending at 24% of GDP, there is really no conceivable way to close the gap without increasing taxes–either raising rates or eliminating deductions and loopholes. And Republicans might find to their dismay that when forced to choose, Americans will decide that they like their government programs after all. Polls show that the public would rather raise taxes than, for example, cut Medicare. (In fact, we would have to do both.) The public may hate government in theory, but it has warm feelings about most individual government programs, from the space shuttle to Head Start to Pell Grants.

Whatever agreement our politicians cobbled together to increase the debt ceiling, they still neither solved the deficit and debt crisis facing the U.S., nor did they show enough good old American ingenuity in how to bring people together to solve a problem.   They were not able enough or bold enough to take on the size of the problem facing us.

Americans often were viewed in the past by the rest of the world with amusement and admiration for their can-do attitudes toward problem solving and our belief in the power of negotiation to create compromise solutions that bring some benefits to all parties.   Time will tell whether we still have that American spirit to solve our problems today.

Next:  American Ingenuity and Re-Inventing our Government

Representing Public Opinion or the Public?

Rutgers University Professor David Greenberg wrote an article about President Teddy Roosevelt, “Beyond the Bully Pulpit”, in the Summer 2011 issue of THE WILSON QUARTERLY.  Greenberg credits (or blames!) TR with being the president who made “spin” “a fundamental part of the American presidency.”   The article is a worthy read.

In our current political crisis of dealing with the US budget deficit and the growing national debt and the need to raise the debt ceiling, we can watch our politicians spinning the events every which way as part of the blame game.   They more often seem to have their eyes on the next election and what is good for their political party (what appeals to their party’s base) rather than on what is needed for America.  Greenberg writes about President T Roosevelt:

“Unlike most of his predecessors, Roosevelt saw himself as an instrument not of the party that elected him or of the coalition of blocs, but of the will of the people at large.  Deriving his power from the general public, however, did not mean slavishly following mass sentiment; TR, like Wilson after him, wanted to discern with his own judgment which policies would truly serve the electorate as a whole.  ‘I do not represent public opinion,’ he wrote to the journalist Ray Stannard Baker.  ‘I represent the public.  There is a wide difference between the two, between the real interests of the public and the public’s opinion of these interests.’  He spoke of the common good as if such a unitary thing were not hard to identify, at least for him.

Modern politicians are finely tuned to public opinion.   This certainly makes it seem that they place their own re-elections and the interests of their political parties ahead of what is needed and good and right for the country as a whole.  They too narrowly focus on things that have an immediate impact because that can help (or hurt) in the upcoming election, whereas long term solutions may be of no immediate help to their immediate re-election needs nor to their party’s gaining power now.  No doubt that is why we have the national debt problems we have – short term popular decisions are made with no regard to their long term consequences to the nation.

Our current debt crisis demands long term solutions, some of which may not benefit either major political party now and in fact might be so unpopular as to hurt both or either party now.  Voters want as many entitlements as they can get (and this includes wealthier voters who get all kinds of tax break entitlements and other benefits) and want all kinds of government benefits without having to pay for them or to bear the burden of the cost of them.  (Founding Father James Madison, for example, argued that the cost of all wars should be born by the generation that called for the war and these costs should not be postponed and then laid on future generations).   As a result of these wishes, public opinion often demands more from the government while simultaneously expecting less taxes.  The end result is politicians finely attuned to public opinion who find it easy to approve more government programs while simultaneously reducing the tax burden (This certainly was the formula followed by GW Bush and continued to this present day).

I’m still hoping to see our elected officials do the hard thing – adopt a 4 trillion dollar budget, deficit and debt reducing plan that has long term implications rather than a short term “fix”.  

To our congressman I say:  Serve the public interest not the fickleness of public opinion.  Be willing to sacrifice your re-election by making the hard decisions that must be made today for the US to have a stronger financial tomorrow.

America & Capitalism: Dr. Frankenstein’s Demonic Lesson

I tend to see the economy as something I’m on the outside of looking in.  I know that is not the reality, like everyone I’m part of the economy, but it is governed by factors, forces and a logic that are beyond my understanding.  I feel the same way about the universe in general which leads me to believe there is a God – there is some kind of logic at work, I just can’t explain, describe or control it.  With the economy however I tend to lower my view of what governs it – it is far more humanly determined than divinely ordained.

Right now the world’s economy (or economies) seems to be under the sway of the gods of capitalism.  My rather limited understanding of capitalism is that its goal and purpose is to increase capital (money, wealth).   Capitalism is not naturally egalitarian – the distribution of this capital is not its main concern, and so it can happen that a few can gain disproportionate control of the vast majority of the capital  (the wealthiest 1% of Americans owns 38.3% of the stock market, the wealthiest 10% owns 81.2% of the stock market according to the Motley Fool.).

The U.S. in general has supported capitalism, and American leaders of all kinds (business, political, economic) believe that America controls capitalism or at least that America can harness capitalism for the good of America or that capitalism and America have the same goals, vision and purpose.  Recently, some very conservative political people have commented on how capitalism actually works for and serves its own purposes: it is most influenced and controlled by international bankers, financiers, and investors, not by American political (or perhaps even economic) interests.  The captains of capitalism may have at times an interest in America, but ultimately their real interest is in increasing capital:  if that parallels American interests OK, but if not they will pursue their goal anyway.  This is the effect of globalization on capitalism; investors, wherever they come from and whatever their interests, now push the worldwide capitalism.

Globalization has challenged the notion that capitalism and America are coterminous with each other.  Though many outside of America refer to globalization as “Americanization”, globalization is showing that it has a life and mind of its own.  Capitalism continues to pursue increasing capital and is quite willing to focus its attention on any part of the world where that can happen best or fastest.  Thus the rise of China, India or Brazil in world economics.

Rana Foroohar in the 20 June 2011 issue of TIME, What U.S. Economic Recovery?  Five Destructive Myths, wrote some ideas that caught my attention.

There is a fundamental disconnect between the fortunes of American companies, which are doing quite well, and American workers, most of whom are earning a lower hourly wage now than they did during the recession. The thing is, companies make plenty of money; they just don’t spend it on workers here.

Half of Americans say they couldn’t come up with $2,000 in 30 days without selling some of their possessions. Meanwhile, companies are flush: American firms generated $1.68 trillion in profit in the last quarter of 2010 alone. But many firms would think twice before putting their next factory or R&D center in the U.S. when they could put it in Brazil, China or India. These emerging-market nations are churning out 70 million new middle-class workers and consumers every year. That’s one reason unemployment is high and wages are constrained here at home. This was true well before the recession and even before Obama arrived in office. From 2000 to 2007, the U.S. saw its weakest period of job creation since the Great Depression.

Nobel laureate Michael Spence, author of The Next Convergence, has looked at which American companies created jobs at home from 1990 to 2008, a period of extreme globalization. The results are startling. The companies that did business in global markets, including manufacturers, banks, exporters, energy firms and financial services, contributed almost nothing to overall American job growth. The firms that did contribute were those operating mostly in the U.S. market, immune to global competition — health care companies, government agencies, retailers and hotels. Sadly, jobs in these sectors are lower paid and lower skilled than those that were outsourced.

In some ways what may be happening in world economics is that America has viewed Capitalism as its adoring child, but as Dr. Frankenstein discovered, his “demon” (a term he uses for his “invention”) had a mind of its own.  Dr. Frankenstein’s invention goes off into the world with the poor doctor pursuing his invention rather than controlling it.  It may be that the US is actually in pursuit of capitalism rather than controlling it.  Capitalism is turning its attention to emerging markets where there is more capital to be grown rather than focusing on America, where growth may be possible, but it will be limited growth as compared to these emerging markets.

This of course means that politicians who think they can revive the US economy to the growth levels of the late 20th Century by tax cuts which will lure capitalist interests back to the US may far underestimate what the real situation of the world economy is.  It is possible that America is just not able to produce the kind of capital growth which emerging markets can.  Capitalism’s interest is in growing capital: where its treasure is, so its heart will follow.  That is going to happen no matter how pro-business American politics become.   Investors want ever greater returns, and those are apparently found in emerging markets/economies.   It is not a matter that America’s tax structure are anti-business, the real issue is capitalism will go where it can increase capital the most quickly.

For those who feel that “big government” is the real problem for the American economy, distributist economist John Medaille (TOWARD A TRULY FREE MARKET) points out that between 1853 and 1940, the pre-Big Government era, the US economy was in recession or depression 40% of the time.  Since the age of big government, the US economy has been in recession 15% of the time.  He says for those who fantasize that there was some golden age before big government where the economy just hummed along without impediment, they had better study history and live in reality rather than in some fictional legend.

I have no solutions for the American economy, as I said at the beginning this is not my area of expertise, and so I’m much more the spectator.  I am also naturally skeptical, and am not at all convinced that politicians of any stripe have the fix for what ails our economy (though I did think The National Commission of Fiscal Responsibility and Reform took the problem seriously and recommends some of the hard decisions which most politicians want to avoid) .  I think some politicians simply underestimate the role globalization has had on capitalist interests, and some overestimate how much their policies can determine capitalism’s interest in the US.  Or maybe politicians just don’t like to acknowledge that there are forces in the world over which they have no control.  More hard realities voters don’t want to face.