Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bernie Sanders for President?

The Democratic nomination for President seems all locked up. Hillary Clinton has name recognition and donor appeal that nobody can come close to. What chance does a Jewish man from Vermont, who calls himself a democratic socialist and refuses to have a super PAC, have against the Clinton juggernaut?

You might think that Sanders would try to run away from the socialist label, but that would mistake two things: Sanders’ honesty and the real nature of American democratic socialism.

For decades, conservatives have used the idea of socialism as equivalent with Soviet-style communism to mislead Americans into voting against liberals. Every policy that President Obama, a liberal, advocates has been labeled “socialist”, and therefore presumably un-American, in the conservative media world. Obama-haters regularly call him a “Muslim socialist”, despite the inherent contradiction. A fine way to find out what American socialism is really about is to look at Sanders’ first political job as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for eight years, 1981-1989.

Although conservatives claim socialism is about big government, Sanders showed that American democratic socialism is about social ownership. His administration promoted locally owned small businesses, affordable housing, and community involvement in city planning. He fought a big developer’s vision of converting Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront into high-priced hotels and condos. Instead what used to be an industrial wasteland now has a community boathouse, a bike path, public beaches and parkland, and a science center.

The developer did not become an enemy, but a friend of Sanders, because both were committed to making Burlington a better place to live. Sanders promoted programs to give women an equal chance as entrepreneurs and workers. His administration passed an ordinance requiring that 10% of city-funded construction jobs be held by women. Corporations opened new facilities in Burlington, some of which are now owned by their employees. Burlington has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.

Despite decades of name-calling by the right, socialism is no longer the political curse word associated with Senator Joe McCarthy. According to a Pew Research Center poll in 2011, 31% of Americans had a positive reaction to the word socialism, while 60% had a negative reaction. But those responses are highly dependent on age. Americans over 50 were highly negative about socialism and positive about “capitalism”. Those 18-29 were more positive than negative about socialism (49% to 43%), and more negative about capitalism (47% to 46%).

Another poll from 2011 found that a majority of Americans agreed with Sanders’ basic platform. Both Republicans (53% to 41%) and Democrats (91% to 8%) said there is “too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations”. Both Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly said that our economy “unfairly favors the wealthy”. Inequality has suddenly emerged as a major media story, and a more recent poll less than a year ago showed that 46% of Americans say “the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem”.

Sanders’ specific proposals to shift economic power back toward the middle class are gaining wider public support. He wants to raise the minimum wage and increase Social Security payments. He wants to close the tax loopholes that benefit the wealthiest 1% and lower the taxes of the great majority of Americans. He says about the biggest banks, “if an institution is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.”

He won the Congressional Leadership Award of the Military Officers Association of America for trying to increase disability compensation for veterans and collaborating with Sen. John McCain to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Unlike Clinton and all the Republicans, Sanders does not have to explain away past votes. He voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He voted against the Patriot Act intrusions into our personal communications. In 2005, he proposed curtailing the government’s ability to look at our library and book-buying records. While Clinton and all the Republicans try to line up the support of billionaires, Sanders has refused to create a super PAC.

His real positions rather than right-wing caricatures have begun to turn people’s heads. His speeches attract increasing numbers of older Americans, the most reliable voting bloc. A straw poll of delegates to the Wisconsin Democratic party convention earlier this month showed Sanders catching up to Hillary Clinton, winning 40% of votes against her 49%. Many Republicans agree with some of Sanders’ fundamental positions about money playing too great a role in politics. Some are openly talking about voting for him.

It’s too early to say who will win the Democratic nomination. But it’s never too early to think about how we can win back our country from the billionaires and their political buddies.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 16, 2015

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What is China Like?

I just spent a week in Shanghai, the most modern and cosmopolitan city in China. Visiting Shanghai is more like seeing Chicago or New York than being in the vast reaches of rural China or most of the hundreds of large cities far from the coast and Western tourists. But it still provides a glimpse into a different society.

On the ride from the airport into the city, the exquisite highway landscaping is remarkable. Every inch of land on the median and on the sides of the highway is filled with plants, shrubs and trees, carefully arranged and flowering in late May. The beauty of the highway was created by intense labor. Labor is very cheap in China, allowing different kinds of investments and accomplishments.

The oversupply of labor is visible in the large number of people doing what seems to me to be unnecessary jobs. At my hotel, many young men and women stand near elevators to press the buttons or help guests into taxis. Where two will do, five are working. Men in uniform stand around on the streets with job titles sewn into the caps or shirts, but little to do: parking assistant, security, traffic assistant.

But relatively inexpensive labor does not mean a lack of advanced technology. The train to the airport goes over 250 miles per hour, as do a growing number of train lines linking major cities. As we neglect our own transportation system, China, along with other formerly less advanced nations, moves ahead with more efficient forms of mass transport.

So what is China like? What facts should I use to answer that question? Here are a few significant measures which provide an outline of Chinese life.

China’s economy is very large, just a bit bigger than the US, which had held first place for 140 years.
But its population is 4 times ours, so the size of the economy per person makes a better comparison. The per capita GDP of the US is thus 4 times as large as China’s, and the average private sector worker earns only quarter of the American yearly average.

But these are just statistical averages. They tell us just a little bit about what it’s like to live in China. Here’s a less precise bit of data, but it says more – most people in Shanghai whom I saw got around on mopeds, scooters, bicycles propelled by tiny engines, or bicycles under human power. There were lots of cars, but only one in ten Chinese families own a car, while eight of ten do in the US.

Life expectancy is a good measure of a population’s health: while average expectancy for men and women is slightly higher in the US than in China, that lead is shrinking fast. The difference was about 30 years in 1950,
over 5 years in 2010, but now is only 4. By that measure, the US ranks only 34th in the world.

I was able to go into one person’s apartment, a dank and cramped space between concrete walls, where a family squeezed into a couple of tiny rooms. I don’t know where that person fit into the social structure, but it was clear that such apartments were common. Yet the per capita living space for urban Chinese tripled from 1988 to 2008, and continues to expand. I saw dozens of high-rise apartment buildings going up across Shanghai.

Food consumption is a very important indicator of the quality of life. Meat consumption per person in China is perhaps half of the US, but again that measure is growing much faster in China, multiplying by seven over the past 40 years.

China is becoming a bilingual nation. Although I can only say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Chinese, I could get along fine in the big city, because nearly every sign is in Chinese and English. Cash register receipts, hotel room instructions, and countless other documents are in both languages. Although older people might speak just a few words of English, young Chinese are more likely to be partly fluent, because English is taught beginning in elementary school.

The message is clear – life is much richer in material goods in the US, but China is catching up. That is happening under an undemocratic political system. Ultimate power is held by one party which picks leaders from the top. Those leaders are afraid of their population having too much freedom to make political protests. We often read about Chinese advocates for democratic reform being silenced by house arrest or even prison.

They also worry about too much information. The most frustrating aspect of my visit was the difficulty of using the internet. The Chinese government blocks many websites, including Google, and thus gmail.

Getting people more food, more living space, and more modern conveniences contributes mightily to national satisfaction. I saw a country where the lack of democracy was barely visible, but economic growth was everywhere. For the people whose country was among the poorest in the world no so long ago, that might seem an acceptable trade-off.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 9, 2015

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Who’s Crazy?

I have a friend I talk politics with occasionally. I’ll call him Dan. He told me the other day that our country is run by an invisible government of bankers and other rich people. Obama and Reagan, and presumably most other politicians, are their puppets.

Dan is a good businessman. He owns my favorite diner, fighting off the big boys in our small town, the billion-dollar corporations who have surrounded him with industrial food products. Dan loves my articles about politics and he tells me every time I go there.

So was that crazy talk from Dan?

Other people do offer crazy theories about who is really in charge. No amount of evidence or logic could dissuade those who claim that the US, or maybe the world, is run by Jews, or the Illuminati, or the Trilateral Commission, or liberal fascists. They don’t like facts which contradict their pet beliefs, formed out of paranoia and prejudice. Their wacko ideas are encouraged by politicians and media pundits who see an advantage in slyly promoting the irrational passions of their most extreme followers.

But Dan’s theory is backed up by lots of evidence, and I’m not saying that so I’ll get better service the next time I go out for breakfast. I get great service anyway.

The power of giant global banks over our daily lives is enormous. We don’t think about how much power when we use their credit cards every day. We only hear about their ability to manipulate entire economies when they screw up and get caught. Big European banks manipulated world currency trading for their own profit. Big American banks played risky games with millions of our homes and caused a recession when millions of people lost their jobs.

Gigantic sums of money flowed up the economic pyramid to them and their friends, a small part of which was paid in fines, and the leaders of the corporations are right where they were before.

The influence of banks and other giant corporations on the political process has never been greater. Their armies of lobbyists influence, and sometimes even write legislation which is supposed to regulate their activities. They escape any personal responsibility for illegal actions, even when they are caught red-handed. Now the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has removed the limits from their contributions to political campaigns.

I don’t think this makes our politicians puppets of the bankers. American politicians are independent actors. But they are remarkably dependent on rich contributors for their electoral success, and while in office they share the lifestyle of first-class travel, sumptuous meals, and luxurious perks. Even if they can’t get rich in office, after their political careers, they join the economic elite.

The differences between the policies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are enormous, but both the conservative Reagan and the liberal Obama allowed the giant banks to run the American economy in their own interests. Neither one made big bankers who broke the laws, thereby taking money illegally out of Americans’ pockets, pay personal penalties.

Our system of taxation which allows rich people to pay a much lower rate on money they earn by investing, not working, while wage-earners pay a higher rate, was set up and supported by Republicans and Democrats.

Politicians aren’t puppets, but they are the friends of the rich, not the poor, and lately not the middle class.

I could be picky about what Dan said. I think he made a complex situation too simple, seeing politics only in black and white. Don’t we all do that in conversation?

He’s not any crazier than the rest of us. Allowing our democracy to be hijacked by the wealthiest Americans, watching the gains from our economy trickle up, and then voting for the same people over and over again, expecting some different result. Isn’t that the definition of crazy?

In fact, Dan has drawn the logical conclusion. He likes Bernie Sanders. Sanders is obviously not in the pocket of big bankers or big anybodies. He doesn’t go around giving million-dollar speeches in front of the economic elite, stroking their impression that they are the most important Americans. He has been uncompromising in his efforts to rein in the power of billionaires and give it back to ordinary Americans, and he promises to continue that as Senator or President. Neither Hillary Clinton nor certainly any of the dozens of Republicans running for President have said anything like that.

Annoyed at the way our economy is steeply tilted toward the rich, but planning to vote for the same old candidates? So who’s crazy?

Steve Hochstadt
Shanghai, China
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 2, 2015

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Killing is Fun – Try It

Turn on the TV and you’ll see an ad for the latest Mad Max film, “Fury Road”. It looks exciting in the trailer – lots of explosions and impossible stunts. The trailer has been edited for family viewing, so nobody dies.

But the film itself is filled with death. The simplest way to create drama is to threaten death, and Hollywood usually goes for simple. To keep up the tension for 120 minutes, the threat of death must be constant, which means lots of killing.

I didn’t see the earlier Mad Max films, because I think that Mel Gibson is a creep, and I won’t see this one. I’m not a big fan of killing as entertainment, and that puts me out of the current mainstream. The movie reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Colin Covert, loved “Fury Road”. He said something about the film that surprised me – all that killing was “playful fun”. Although the plot is based on “knocking off supporting characters by the hundreds” and “endless carnage”, it’s “uproariously funny”. Colvert is not alone. The reviewer for the New York Times, A. O. Scott, was slightly more critical of “Fury Road”, but he gave the film 5 stars out of a possible 5, applauded the “enormous pleasure” of watching the mayhem, and ended by saying, “It’s all great fun.” Seeing people die onscreen is a good time.

Mass killing in movies is not new. Just the other day I saw the first spaghetti western with Clint Eastwood, “A Fistful of Dollars”, from 1964. I like westerns and I like Eastwood’s laconic and nameless character. Dozens of men are killed before our eyes. One scene shows the bad guy machine-gunning a whole company of Mexican soldiers, and we see them die one by one. Later he and his henchmen shoot their rivals as they emerge from their burning home, one a time even more slowly, perhaps twenty of them. The bad guys laugh, but they’re Mexicans, a bit of racism that was acceptable in 1964. Although Clint himself shot about a dozen people, he always let them draw first.

Fifty years later, killing is fun for everyone. Buy some popcorn, say the reviewers, watch a lot of people die, and have a great time.

I know the rate of violent crime in the US has been falling. But I can’t help thinking that we are systematically anesthetizing ourselves, especially our young, to the real horror of death. Video games, which began with colorful little men running around on screen, now feature eternal warfare. Make a kill, get a thrill, do it again a hundred times.

Back when Clint Eastwood was shooting Mexicans, our media and government said our culture was superior, because, for example, Asians didn’t value life as we did. Our methods of warfare in Vietnam demonstrated the irony of that claim. Now we don’t even pretend to value life.

I haven’t lived everywhere, but I have seen no other culture where killing people is so ubiquitously presented as entertainment.

Turn on the news and there’s more killing. Reporters put on serious faces, but they and their media bosses pounce on any murder, any time, any place, to splash all over our screens. This televised taste for blood assures any potential killer that he’ll get his 15 minutes of fame or more. The dominance of crime stories over all other types of news was already documented in studies in the 1990s. Since then murder has come to dominate nearly all types of TV programming.

In 1993, the group National Organization of Parents of Murdered Children launched an attempt to “alert society to its insensitivity towards murder”, using the acronym MINE, Murder Is Not Entertainment. That effort has been a dismal failure. Marketing murder makes millions. I can’t predict the long-term effects to our society of the ubiquity of murder on screen. But they can’t be good.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, May 19, 2015