Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Plot to Kill Public Employee Pensions

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

In war and politics, if you pick your battlefield you win. The current pension fight in New Jersey is a classic example. Nearly everyone in the state sees it as a battle between a broken pension system and cash strapped citizens, but this is all just a setup.

Governor Chris Christie cut $1.5 billion in pension payments from the latest budget proposal while also cutting modest tax increases on the rich to pay for it.  When the unions squealed, he offered the public a false choice between tax hikes on the middle class or cuts to popular and essential programs.  His framing of the problem this way pits average citizens against civil servants and their unions.  This is the battlefield of choice for national conservatives.

This fight could have been between government solvency and any other public obligation of the state, but it's not.  It's against public employee unions because killing public sector unions and fix pension systems has been a conservative priority for decades.  This is a grand plan playing out in many other states.  Starving public pensions was always a choice, not a necessity.  If all those missed pension payments had been made the system would be awash in cash today given the huge growth in the investment markets over the past twenty years. 

But Gov. Christie almost blew this plan to destroy public employee pensions in New Jersey when he enacted pension reforms that might actually fix the system.  His reform plan could still fix it if implemented, but not without seriously upsetting his potential conservative backers.


In order to keep his presidential hopes alive Governor Christie had no choice but to sabotaged his own reforms and further degrade the state pension system by not paying what he promised.  A state judge has seen through his shallow plan and ordered him to restore the cuts, and he has appealed. I hope the New Jersey Supreme Court will uphold the lower court's decision.  

I hope everyone else in New Jersey sees though his sham and demand that that he stick to the pension reform plan he has been boasting about on his trips out of state.  And if the reader here happens to live in a conservative state with public pension woes, take a lesson from New Jersey.  Take a step back and look around to see in whose battlefield you may be standing.

See also: Civil Service Pensions - A Marker for What We've Lost

Monday, February 16, 2015

HERE IS WHY GEORGE WASHINGTON IS WORTH CELEBRATING



HERE IS WHY GEORGE WASHINGTON IS 
WORTH CELEBRATING




George Washington warned this Nation about political parties that,"alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities." He called political parties.."a frightful despotism."

He called plutocrats (wealthy, controlling capitalists) ,"powerful engines" of cunning and ambition that "subvert the power of the people and usurp, for themselves, the reins of government."

Because a democratic government is compelled to enact the will of the people he gave this advice: "Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge." He said, "In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened."

He denounced war that is coerced by "habitual hatred" and those who profit from it. He said "The nation, prompted by ill-will and resentment, sometimes impels to war the government, contrary to the best calculations of policy... The government... makes the animosity of the nation [towards war] subservient to projects of hostility instigated by pride, ambition and other sinister and pernicious motives."

And he made all of these comments in his Farewell Address, with the hope that we would still  be listening.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Best of Times, Worst of Times Economy

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

How is it possible that the investment economy is booming while the economy of ordinary citizens is still in such a slump? Stock prices are at an all time high and big time investors are getting high rates of returns while worker wages have declined and are just starting to rise. The raises in wages so far is still not keeping up with inflation. It seems like there are two separate economies not entirely connected to each other. Right?


To understand what's happening we have to begin by acknowledging that most of the richest billionaires today have gotten much of their wealth increases at the expense of lower wages for the rest of us. This trend is more than thirty years old now in the United States. There is plenty of evidence supporting this fact for those who care to look. And this wage suppression is a global phenomenon, not just a U.S. feature.

In order to increase consumer spending while wages remained flat we have had to make a series of changes, beginning with mothers entering the workforce, longer work hours followed by layaway plans, credit cards and then home equity loans to pay for spending beyond our means. These have run their course and the long hard pay down of personal debt (including college loans) means that consumer spending will be sluggish for the foreseeable future.

The impact on the economy of stagnant wages is ever slower consumption of goods and services over time. There isn't as much money to buy things. This slower rate of consumption suppresses demand. Lower demand means fewer jobs and even lower wages for the rest of us. This is the cycle were we find ourselves today.

The consumption of goods produces the profits from which owners of capital collect returns on their investments. Lower demand due to suppressed wages would normally also lower returns on capital investments but for the factors that have kept consumption afloat. Now there are no hours left in a day, fewer household members available to work and no more capacity to borrow against future earnings. The impact of low wages has come home to roost and it means fewer sales and less profit to be made.

Before the 1970's this situation would right itself as owners shared a portion of their wealth by offering productivity raises to reward their workers. Productivity wages are based on growing productivity, hourly GDP, It is separate and apart from cost of living increases. Productivity raises, along with cost of living adjustments, allowed the labor/consumers to increase their spending thus boosting demand. Increased demand would spur on manufacturing and stimulate the whole economy.

But today's billionaires have found another way to profit without sharing their wealth with wage earning consumers. They spotted the growing ownership stake that many in the middle class have accumulated and they created opportunities to take it from them.

It is hard for most of us to see in our lifetime, but this is the first time in modern history that the middle class (upper-middle mostly) has accumulated a significant share in capital ownership. Prior to the vast destruction of property caused by the world wars in the last century, wealth was extremely concentrated at the top, and it's happening again today. Middle class gains in the 20th Century directly correspond to capital losses by the wealthiest owners during the two world wars. Now many of us have retirement accounts, money market funds, stock holdings, etc. People in the upper-middle class, such as doctors, lawyers and middle-managers, have become mini-investment capitalists.

Billionaire capitalists, the "true heirs" to wealth ownership, have responded to middle-class ownership of capital by creating a massive financial investment casino filled with elaborate new investment vehicles. The object is to entice new wealth owners to play in the billionaire's casinos. Mortgage backed securities and swaps are just two small examples that nearly bankrupted the economy in 2008.

These new and incomprehensible investment products has spawned a whole new class of hucksters, like Bernie Madoff, who use these bewildering new instruments to create slick ponzi schemes. But the bulk of these new investment opportunities are just big casino games in which the house (billionaire owners) always wins. Billionaires are quickly siphoning away middle class ownership stakes through high finance games of chance. In this way they boost their own return on investments and entertain themselves without having to share their wealth by offering higher wages.

Because these billionaire owners, who make up less than .01% of the population, control the investment odds, they are sure to win back all the capital their families lost in the war years of the last century.

This explains why the stock market and investment economy seem to be booming while the worker economy on Main Street slumps. Billionaire capitalists don't have to share wealth to make wealth like they use to. There are enough small investors with an ownership stake who are willing to gamble what little they have in this new investment casino. It is enough to keep billionaire fortunes growing faster than the economy as a whole.

If you, the reader, are still with me at this point let me assure you that the geometrically rising gains by the wealthiest owners of capital are not an inevitability. There are difficult but concrete steps we can take to bring capitalism back into balance for everyone. A discussion of these solutions, however, does require a much deeper understanding of problems that I can provide here. I firmly believe it is in everyone's best interest to acquire a better understanding of the forces creating our two economies; Forces that are threatening our democratic institutions. For a fuller understanding I recommend Thomas Piketty's excellent book, Capitalism in the 21st Century. I encourage you to strike up conversations with others and share your thoughts and questions.

_______________________________

Image Credit: (and recommended site) http://oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/is-doing-something-about-inequality-just-a-choice-between-bash-the-rich-v-tackling-poverty-some-thoughts-for-blog-action-day/#prettyPhoto-img/0/

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Brooklyn Police Murders Don't Erase Decades of Differential Justice

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Eleven cops were killed in 2013 at the hands of black minority alleged perpetrators. Sixteen cops were killed by white alleged perpetrators last year. Half of all cop murders that have take place in the last ten years happened in the Southern United States.  (See table below)

One problem with the FBI statistics is they don't distinguish between African-American vs. black Latino or other black skinned minorities. Even so, African-American's make up 13% of the population but make up 28% of all arrests nationally and 40% of all US prison inmates. In some communities a black person is more than 10 times as likely to be arrested than a white person in the same town.

There clearly is differential policing in this country, but not in every community. There clearly are areas where police departments exhibit racial bias, but not everywhere, in every case by every officer.

Since the 1970's there is a significant decline in police fatalities, yet, with less than half of all law enforcement agencies reporting, there are about 400 civilian deaths caused by police each year. These are deaths considered to be justifiable police homicides. That number could be well over 1,000 per year if national reporting was mandatory for law enforcement. (see this petition)

I am horrified at the brutal murders of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in New York City. I am fully supportive of police and sympathize with their families. This is a sacrifice they should not have to bear.

The killer in this case appears to be mentally ill, having shot his ex-girlfriend before coming to NYC to kill some cops before killing himself. He wasn't one of the recent police protesters nor was he connected with any nefarious organizations that might considered "anti-law enforcement." (For the most part those organizations are far rightwing in their politics and Ismaaiyl Brinsley doesn't fit that profile) . The police are rightfully investigating this possibility as I write, but so far Brinsley seems to have acted alone.

The evidence so far suggests that this terrible killing was the result of mental illness and an anti-social personality disorder, not revenge. It should not be politicized in any way or used by the police or law enforcement officials as a reason to alter policing tactics towards those people who are lawfully protesting policing policies. blatantly unequal application of justice against minorities over the past 4 decades is a well documented fact. This incident should not be used by police departments across the country as a reason not to challenge them to change.


Friday, December 5, 2014

Is Rachel Maddow a News Anchor?

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

Here is what a bias news watch organization has to say. I've added my comments. What's yours? Please feel free to comment here.
Over the past several years, MSNBC has run a series of “Lean Forward” ads promoting its various liberal hosts’ television shows as well as the network's numerous liberal causes. While many of them have been downright ridiculous...
NEWSBUSTERS.ORG
http://newsbusters.org/blogs/jeffrey-meyer/2014/12/04/msnbc-thinks-rachel-maddow-news-anchor

I think of her more as a news commentator, or news synthesizer, who occasionally breaks important stories that are ignored by the mainstream news media. She and her producers report conventional news items, but they also search the internet for local news stories that should be of national interest, stories that are too often ignored. They do their fact checking and they develop their own news gathering contributions to these stories. They serve as both a filter and amplifier. The choice of stories they pursue does reveals a liberal bias which they take pains not to hide. But most importantly, they almost always get their facts right. They don't make stuff up to fit a biased political narrative as happens on the Fox News network
.
But if you criticize Dr. Maddow for not being a serious news anchor, than what must we say about the utterly silly and insignificant news that serious "news anchors" toss out to their fickle public every day? Doesn't this low information drivel make them illegitimate news anchors as well?

I no longer watch the "legitimate" news shows because these outlets are not providing me with the critical information I need every day to understand what's really happening in our world. Too often they report as news the bias statements of people in power. They fail to connect the dots when local stories form national patterns. This latter problem is what allowed ALEC to fly so long under the radar of the main stream press,

Corporate national news outlets have their own agenda, and it is usually about market share and advertising dollars, not reporting news that might anger key market segments. If viewer share on the Rachael Maddow Show grew significantly, so would the pressure to conform to standards that would not risk loosing those viewers.

Monday, December 1, 2014

More Evidence Organically Grown Food is Healthier

by Brian T. Lynch, MSW

More and more people are looking to purchase organic foods in the belief that organically grown food is healthier. There has been growing concern about possible health impacts from the agrochemicals used in traditional crop production. These chemicals have included pesticides growth regulators and various petrochemical fertilizers. Many of these synthetic chemicals are not permitted in organically grown food. This often requires organic farmers to adopt different methods of crop production including mechanical weeding and different schedules of crop rotation. The question has been whether the absence of agrochemicals and the differing methods of food production actually produce safer or more nutritious crops.

A recent meta-analysis of 343 peer reviewed studies was published in the British Journal of Nutrition. This analysis uncovered that there are indeed significant differences between organically grown and traditionally grown crops. It was found that organically grown crops have higher antioxidants and lower concentrations of trace metals such as cadmium. I higher intake of antioxidants, such as those found in organic foods in this study, have been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and certain types of cancer such as colon cancer. Antioxidants have also been linked to a lower risk of certain degenerative neurological conditions.  Low dose, long-term exposure to cadmium can be damaging to the kidneys and can lead to the formation of kidney stones.[http://www.epa.gov/osw/hazard/wastemin/minimize/factshts/cadmium.pdf]

For more detailed information on this study the abstract has been appended below along with a link to the original study.

News that organically grown food is richer in antioxidants is especially encouraging news since there continues to be little evidence that antioxidant supplements have a beneficial effect on health. it appears that not all substances with antioxidant properties have beneficial effects, and in some cases the effects of certain anti-oxidant chemicals can be harmful. What seems to be important for receiving health benefits from antioxidant substances is to obtain them through fresh fruits and vegetables rather than through supplements.

The school of Public health at Harvard has published a good review of the benefits of antioxidants, the just of which reads:

Free radicals contribute to chronic diseases from cancer to heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease to vision loss. This doesn’t automatically mean that substances with antioxidant properties will fix the problem, especially not when they are taken out of their natural context. The studies so far are inconclusive, but generally don’t provide strong evidence that antioxidant supplements have a substantial impact on disease. But keep in mind that most of the trials conducted up to now have had fundamental limitations due to their relatively short duration and having been conducted in persons with existing disease. That a benefit of beta-carotene on cognitive function was seen in the Physicians’ Health Follow-up Study only after 18 years of follow-up is sobering, since no other trial has continued for so long. At the same time, abundant evidence suggests that eating whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—all rich in networks of antioxidants and their helper molecules—provides protection against many of these scourges of aging. [ http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/antioxidants/ ]


British Journal of Nutrition


Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence
of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature
review and meta-analyses

Abstract;

Demand for organic foods is partially driven by consumers’ perceptions that they are more nutritious. However, scientific opinion is divided on whether there are significant nutritional differences between organic and non-organic foods, and two recent reviews have concluded that there are no differences. 
In the present study, we carried out meta-analyses based on 343 peer-reviewed publications that indicate statistically significant and meaningful differences in composition between organic and non-organic crops/crop-based foods.
Most importantly, the concentrations of a range of antioxidants such as polyphenolics were found to be substantially higher in organic crops/crop-based foods, with those of phenolic acids, flavanones, stilbenes, flavones, flavonols and anthocyanins being an estimated 19 (95 % CI 5, 33) %, 69 (95 % CI 13, 125) %, 28 (95 % CI 12, 44) %, 26 (95 % CI 3, 48) %, 50 (95 % CI 28, 72) % and 51 (95 % CI 17, 86) % higher, respectively.
Many of these compounds have previously been linked to a reduced risk of chronic diseases, including CVD and neurodegenerative diseases and certain cancers, in dietary intervention and epidemiological studies. Additionally, the frequency of occurrence of pesticide residues was found to be four times higher in conventional crops, which also contained significantly higher concentrations of the toxic metal Cd.
Significant differences were also detected for some other (e.g. minerals and vitamins) compounds. There is evidence that higher antioxidant concentrations and lower Cd concentrations are linked to specific agronomic practices (e.g. non-use of mineral N and P fertilisers, respectively) prescribed in organic farming systems. In conclusion, organic crops, on average, have higher concentrations of antioxidants, lower concentrations of Cd and a lower incidence of pesticide residues than the non-organic comparators across regions and production seasons.
[ http://csanr.wsu.edu/m2m/papers/organic_meta_analysis/bjn_2014_full_paper.pdf ]
The Authors 2014. The online version of this article is published within an Open Access environment subject to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution licence http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/
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Image credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2f/Culinary_fruits_front_view.jpg

Monday, November 24, 2014

Declaring War on the Poor

Brian T. Lynch

Thom Tillis is now Senator elect from North Carolina, having beaten Democratic incumbent Kay Hagan in the 2014 election. During his campaign Tillis berated the poor and suggested that those people who can't help being poor, like the truly disabled, should rise up and opposed welfare for the unworthy poor. What he actually said was:
“What we have to do is find a way to divide and conquer the people who are on assistance,” 
North Carolina has 1.1 million poor. That's 13.1% of its population. If these folks voted it would be hard to imagine Tillis getting elected, but Hagan and the Democrats have abandoned the poor and working class in this country as well. Now the poor are under attacks like this:
“We have to show respect for that woman who has cerebral palsy and had no choice, in her condition, that needs help and that we should help. And we need to get those folks to look down at these people who choose to get into a condition that makes them dependent on the government and say at some point, ‘You’re on your own. We may end up taking care of those babies, but we’re not going to take care of you.’ And we've got to start having that serious discussion.” - Thom Tillis
Watch for the U.S. Senate to put Tillis on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to replace Kay Hagan. He is destine to become the chair of the Children and Families Sub-committee with his attitudes. His appointment would amount to a declaration of war on the poor.

So how should sensible people respond to divisive attacks like this on the poor and vulnerable? Should we begin making similar distinctions between the worthy and unworthy rich? Should we affirm those who earned their great wealth and provide social benefit but rescind all advantages given to those who use their inherited wealth to squeeze the people and their government for still more?
How we respond to these questions will define who we are as a nation.

Monday, November 10, 2014

How Free is "Free Will"

by Brian T. Lynch
This is purely my opinion, but my understanding of "Free Will" is very narrow compared to most people I talk to about it. I see it as something that emerges gradually along a continuum from actions that are totally coercive to purely rational and independent. It isn't an all or nothing phenomenon, as some see it. I exclude all impulsive actions taken due to internal urges from my definition since urges aren't rational and follow from completely different pathways in the brain. Also, actions that spring from emotions may or may not involve free will in my view. It is here that the gradual blossoming of free will is most evident. 
When ever we act to satisfy urges or emotions we really cannot distinguish "free will" from the actions taken since acting on a urge feels identical to acting by choice.. That is why people don't even know they are addicted to something until they discover they can't simply choose to stop. Addiction in insidious that way. No one can say for sure that they smoke by choice after that first cigarette because even six months later the brain can trigger powerful urges for another cigarette.
The same holds true, by degree, with our emotions. We can't know for certain if we are acting on free will when we acquiesce to our feelings since emotions can also overpower free will. We even say we are "acting on our emotions" to explain certain behaviors, but it still feels exactly like a choice, even if we can't help it. So inwardly speaking, we can only no for sure that we are acting on free will when our actions are contrary to both our urges and our feelings. It is only when we place them in check that we can know for sure we are acting on our own free will.
That said, what about free will in circumstances when our only available options for action are proscribed by others, or by circumstances out of our control? If we have no choice but to act, do we have free will? If we have only bad choices, are we exercising free will by making that bad choice? Was Socrates exercising free will when he choose to drink hemlock rather than face a public execution? It so, and I believe he was exercising free will, then a limited form of free will must exist even under extreme forms of coercion.
How we define "free will" has enormous social and political implications because it thereby defines how responsible individuals are for their actions. It is here we see the continuum of emerging free will run its course. Some folks believe everyone is 100% responsible for their actions. They might then blame the poor for being poor, or the sick for being sick (live style choices) and would probably not accept an insanity defense for crimes committed by the insane. Speaking of justice, we see the role "free will" plays in our action played being calculated in criminal sentencing hearings when mitigating and aggravating circumstances are used to determine appropriate punishment. We punish people for criminal intent but not acquit them, or lighten their punishment if they were not in control of their actions.

These are just examples. In fact, we use these sort of calculations everyday with each other or our children in judging their actions and in modulating our responses. So the idea that free will is an all or nothing phenomenon just isn't born out in our every day experience.
Anyway, here is an interesting article on the subject.
It has become fashionable to say that people have no free will. Many scientists cannot imagine how the idea of free will could be reconciled with the laws of physics and chemistry. Brain researchers say that the brain is just a bunch of nerve cells...
SLATE.COM

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