Monday, January 18, 2016

Bernie Sanders and the Debt Class

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made the central issue of his campaign the idea that our government has abandoned its responsibilities to the middle class. I would go a step farther and argue that we don't have a "middle class" at all. What we have is a "debt class" masquerading as a middle class. Debt has become an acceptable concept for politicians and ordinary citizens alike, and actively encouraged by financial institutions that reap huge profits at our collective expense. We're propped up as local, state, and federal governments, and family budgets. We are not solvent in the least.

Not only are we encouraged to borrow, we are punished for saving money by horrendously low interest rates. I still cannot understand why there cannot be separate interest rates for borrowing and saving, but that is the current situation and it is intolerable. One should earn more than (less than) pennies on the dollar for their personal or family emergency fund.

How do we accomplish changes to the status quo? Goals must be set in both legislation and personal consumer choices. We need to resist the temptation to borrow, to "keep up with the Jones'" lifestyle. Service, sharing, and generosity should be our personal governing concepts, not the accumulation of material wealth. We can do that without a government mandate. Those admirable ideals can, however, be enhanced by policies that reward those behaviors, and reward work rather than inherited wealth and corporate excess.

One of the quickest roads to bankruptcy in the U.S.A. is a health catastrophe. When even one hospital visit can put your bank account in arrears, and/or force you to beg on GoFundMe, we have a societal issue. So, addressing healthcare is paramount to turning around the personal debt crisis. A single-payer system ("Medicare for All"), as Sanders advocates, would be a great next step for the Affordable Care Act.

Student loans are another source of debt, and if we could at least make an effort at reducing college costs, if not making higher education free as many other developed nations have, then that would put many people on a more level playing field. When you consider the current minimum wage against cost of living and student debt, it is a wonder any young person can afford housing and a car, let alone a family.

Raising the minimum wage to at least fifteen dollars an hour is doable, with tax credits for small businesses. We should be actively encouraging more small businesses, so reward them as employers and entrepreneurs, and do not demand them to play by the same rules as multinational corporations.

Collect taxes from corporations currently avoiding taxation. End bailouts, subsidies, and other forms of corporate welfare. The revenue from this alone would likely reduce some individual tax rates, as well as reducing the federal deficit.

Meanwhile, we have to take some personal responsibility. We should start saving in spite of the poor returns at the present time. Cut up the credit cards. Flee big banks and put our money in accounts at credit unions where customers come first and there are no shareholders. Stop patronizing payday loan and rent-to-own enterprises that prey on our desire for instant cash or merchandise. Live frugally for ourselves, generously for others. Demand that the media stop obsessing over the wealthy.

What was it Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said? Something about "the content of their character." He was denouncing racism, but I suspect that today he would add that we shouldn't be judging the self-worth of others by the content of their bank accounts, either. That should most definitely not be the measure of any man (or woman) today.

Ok, so maybe we can do some of this. What would be the result? Were I a gambling man, I would bet that you would see some or all of the following result from increased wages, reduced debt, and overall fiscal responsibility: Alcoholism and drug abuse would decrease because of decreased stress from debt and poverty. Theft, illegal gambling, and related crimes would decrease with rising income. Frivolous litigation would decrease because currently lawsuits are viewed in part as a way to make up for low wage income. Employment would increase because one person wouldn't need three jobs to make ends meet. Dependence on welfare programs would begin declining. Volunteerism would increase because people would have more time free from wage-earning.

Bernie Sanders has, unfortunately, failed to articulate these connections between wealth disparity and the negative behaviors that result from it, let alone the potential benefits of reforming income inequality. Still, he is endorsed by virtually every economist in the land. We have at hand an unprecedented opportunity to begin reversing trends that, left to continue, will be the ruin of our society. I urge you only to think very carefully about both your vote at the booth, and how you vote with your hard-earned dollars in the marketplace.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Good Guys Without Guns (or Lawyers)

The police came knocking on our door the other day. Turns out that another neighbor had called in a disturbing the peace report on our next-door neighbors who routinely argue if not worse. As I answered the policeman's questions, I began to feel guilty that I hadn't been the one to make the call myself. Then it occurred to me that my behavior had changed over recent history in part because personal intervention in neighborhood incidents is a lot more risky now. This is one of the unspoken consequences of the proliferation of guns in our American society: Unarmed good guys won't help you now.

I lived in a very ugly neighborhood in Cincinnati in the 1990s, and domestic violence and youth gangs were essentially weekly problems I faced in my apartment building. I had zero tolerance for either, and regularly spoke my mind to those doing the offending. Granted, now I have a spouse who's welfare I must consider as a higher priority than even my own, but there are plenty of reasons I rarely intervene in loud squabbles anymore. The biggest one is that I don't know what weapons they may bring to the fight. Logic and a good vocabulary don't seem to go very far these days.

Even aside from the potential for lethal force is the potential of legal force. Everyone is armed and litigation-happy. I better make sure that if I confront someone now, that it is on neutral territory. We have a homeowner's association here in our townhouse complex, so I'm not even sure where the boundaries are. I can't afford to open us up to a lawsuit from anybody.

This is why neighbors don't know each other anymore. We don't trust each other, we assume the worst, we value "privacy" above all else, and we don't participate in neighborhood events. This is certainly true of younger people for the most part. We have an annual neighborhood association meeting and it is attended by less than one dozen people.

Our neighborhood is also largely "minority." We don't know how to talk to each other even if we did want to. I am not saying ethnic diversity is a bad thing. Far from it, but everyone sticks with their own kind and it is at the least awkward to try and change that. The last time I spoke to any neighbor was because the postman had delivered their mail to our address.

I have no idea how to change any of this, and frankly my will to try has become mired in the inertia of the status quo. I would sooner run for public office than a leadership role in my own HOA. There is something more appealing about serving anonymous citizens than dealing with the pot-head across the walkway.

The bottom line is that I am embarrassed by the person I have become. I have maintained empathy and respect for the vulnerable among us, but have ceased to intervene out of fear and the "hassle" that often comes from doing so. Still, I will not give in to the point of purchasing a gun myself, or putting a lawyer on retainer. What to do instead of that remains the challenge.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Malheur Incident

Imagine my dismay to learn, while trying to spend quality time with my spouse's family, that one of my favorite places on the planet is being occupied by an armed militia in apparent retaliation for a perceived unjust jury sentence for ranchers convicted of arson. There is so much conflicting information, and such visceral reaction to this incident, that it is difficult to know where to start. I can only speak for myself, so here it goes.

© Bev Wigney

I have visited the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge a handful of times. It is located in extreme southeast Oregon, and is so remote that it is a long haul from anywhere. The Center Patrol Road is just about guaranteed to give you a flat tire every time you drive it. Still, it is worth the effort and trouble to go. The birds and other wildlife are astounding in their diversity and abundance.

Malheur NWR hosts a wide variety of birds like White-faced Ibis and Great Egret
© Bev Wigney

My gut-level reaction to hearing of the takeover of the (at the time vacant) headquarters building was "Get the hell off of my refuge!" It is, of course, your refuge, too, but thanks to this "protest," the refuge is closed until further notice. You are being deprived of your right to visit a public facility paid for with your tax dollars.

Refuge headquarters contains instructive dioramas like this one....
© Bev Wigney

That, I believe, is the essence of this whole conflict. The protest is selfishly motivated, hostile, and pits private interests against the public good. This is not what I would classify as domestic terrorism, yet, but there are better ways to publicly appeal a court verdict, if that is what this is really about, and certainly better venues. This is only the tip of the iceberg, though.

....and fragile, historically important collections like these eggs
© Bev Wigney

The uneasy truce between the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, and other federal agencies and private landowners is our current American model for averting what is known as the "tragedy of the commons." This principle dates back perhaps to Aristotle, but certainly to English economist William Forster Lloyd in 1833. His pamphlet was the genesis of the recognition of the potential for abuse of common resources. It was ecologist Garrett Hardin who popularized the term "tragedy of the commons" in 1968 in his essay of that title in the journal Science.

The gist of the argument is that when access to a common resource, such as a cattle pasture, is granted to several stakeholders, each person will act in their own best, short-term interests, such as increasing the number of their own herd. This leads inexorably to the deterioration of that resource.

It can be argued that the leasing of federal lands to ranchers for cattle grazing has prevented irreparable damage to rangeland as a whole by expanding the acreage available for grazing. This is not without consequence, naturally, and success hinges on the cooperation of lessees in the proper, agreed-upon management of the resource.

Violation of laws regarding burning of invasive plants led to the charge of arson when a burn on private land expanded into public land. That much seems to be acknowledged by both parties involved here. What happened in the aftermath is debatable. Here is one side's argument. I would hesitate to call the occupation of refuge headquarters "civil disobedience." It is anything but civil, especially when guns are involved.

It should be noted that your taxes dollars also subsidize the grazing of privately-owned cattle on public land....and at a fraction of the cost a private landowner would charge for grazing. See this story for more about the great deals ranchers get as part of our "socialist" government practices.

The folks holed up in the refuge headquarters building are not terrorists. They are mostly whining cry-babies with guns who think they are getting a raw deal when in fact the feds bend over backwards to appease them. They are hopelessly confusing their "rights" with the privilege of using federal lands for private gain. Yes, ranching is a risky business, but a minority of ranchers do not wish to assume any risk. It is telling that not one of the local communities near the refuge has come out in unanimous support of what is happening. Those engaged in this misguided occupation are clearly extremists.

© Bev Wigney

Do governments have all the answers when it comes to managing resources like rangeland? Of course not. But this kind of behavior threatens to backfire. I can see a day when an incident like this results in the revocation of grazing permits for individuals who participate in unlawful protests; repossession of equipment purchased with government loans; and even more "aggressive" government expansion of public lands as these protestors accuse the feds of doing already. Frankly, at this point, I'd be all for it.