Sunday, June 29, 2014

Issue 171 June 29, 2014- Money in America

It's All About the Benjamins. . .
Ask any American what our nation stands for and you will probably hear words like freedom, justice, equality and opportunity.  We like to believe that we are a country that always stands on the right side of history and that we as a people base our decisions on the highest of moral standards.  We wage war, make peace and create policies with the belief that we are in the right and that our values and interests are beyond reproach.  We are the "Leader of the Free World", the nation that has grown because of our "Manifest Destiny" to become the "Shining City on the Hill."  This America is a place where anyone can rise to the top, and where every individual, no matter their starting point, has an equal chance to succeed through hard work, perseverance and ingenuity.    

In many ways this narrative about America does contain some truths.  Our nation is a land with many opportunities.  It is a place where we have seen people rise to the top of the ladder from very challenging starting points.  American citizens have opportunities and enjoy a standard of living far above what many people around the world experience.  Our national identity is built on an ideology that speaks strongly about freedom and justice for all.  Yet, there is another side to this narrative of equality that tells a very different story.     

It is that disconnect between the ideas contained in documents like our Constitution, Declaration of Independence and other powerful sources of thinking and the reality of our past and present that frustrate so many of us.  The very words that shape American ideology, the idea that America exists as a land of opportunity for all, were written at a time when a significant majority of the population was excluded from the very things that we value and aspire to.  As we progress through our history we see that same disconnect continue.  We speak the words of freedom, justice and equality, we even export our ideas through commerce and conflict.  Yet, we continue to fall short of our ideals within our own borders for far too many of our citizens. 

Perhaps part of our problem is the mixing of different spheres of human thought and activity.  On one hand we offer a vision of equality that is based on rights and opportunity in terms of access to power and an ability to freely choose the paths we take in life.  We like to occupy the moral high ground and pretend that we see success defined on a philosophical or ideological level.  American democracy, our ideals and values, all come from some higher plane that exists above the messy and uncomfortable reality that we all live and work in.

This way of thinking ignores a basic reality, when we get to a true "bottom line" Americans define success in economic terms, not philosophical or ideological ones.  We use economic measures to identify strengths and weaknesses in our society.  We use economic measures to quantify things that really can't be measured economically.  Things like education and even the value of a human life are measured in dollars and cents.  We may want to talk about how the rights that we value so highly come from nature or God, but when push comes to shove, we ignore morality and put financial considerations at the center of our decision making processes.  In the end, economics influence all other aspects of our discussions politically, socially and morally.

This isn't a new phenomena.  From the very beginning we saw money and the ideal of a "free market" conflict with a sense of higher purpose.  The difference between the words "life, liberty and property" or "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are significant, and the writers of our Declaration of Independence chose pursuit of happiness over property.  Over time we may have chosen to view the idea that happiness is equivalent to property, but they don't have to be synonymous.  Time and time again we see the tension between the economic and the ideological, and as a nation we have tried to reconcile the two and make them one and the same.

It is interesting to note that one contentious claim that is often made about America is that we are a Christian nation.  Yet, when we place such an emphasis on economics we ignore a basic tenet of Christianity and the teachings that say we should separate economics from our core values.  If we are to divide our thinking and "render unto Caesar things that belong to Caesar, and render unto God things that belong to God", or if we are to live like the birds and lilies not worrying about our physical needs, then we must think carefully about whether our morality and sense of social justice can truly be placed on an economic playing field. 

As a society we have been grappling with the diversity of thought and the conflicts that occur between ideologies and beliefs throughout our history.  The idea that we should have basic freedoms of expression is a strength and a source of weakness at the same time.  We constantly grapple with the reality that one way of thinking and one set of beliefs won't work for a nation filled with many different spiritual and philosophical ideas.  Who should have rights?  What do these rights mean?  How do we navigate challenging issues in an ethical and equitable way?  All of these questions are difficult to answer in a diverse culture, and so we turn to a more concrete way of determining the correct path to take.      

Economics is a field that is easy to rely on for answers and solutions.  "It's the economy, stupid!" is a phrase that resonates with our culture and our way of thinking.  We may want to do the right thing, but we also want to succeed, and success means "Conspicuous Consumerism" and a well padded wallet.  Just look at who is valued in our society and who we defend in our public discourse.  The successful business leader, the famous entertainer, and the "job creators" are all given high praise, while public servants, educators and blue-collar laborers are degraded.    

Once again, these aren't new challenges that are unique to this period of time.  What makes things different in our present state of affairs is the dangerous combination of huge inequities in wealth, continuing struggles with inequities in opportunities and a backlash against efforts to advance social justice causes from those in power.  The ability to use financial capital to protect and even expand one's political, social and economic influence is truly troubling.   

The ad, which recently started in the Madison market, is part of a campaign to counter attacks by Democrats ahead of the mid-term elections.|By Lee Enterprises

The more we rely solely on economics as a measure of personal and societal success the farther away from the philosophical ideals that our founders espoused we go.  While we can argue about the true motivations of the leaders of the American Rebellion (and to be sure there were significant financial motivations for their revolt) the words that they used are ones that provide hope for all citizens, if applied liberally and with a sense of justice.  Yet, modern Americans are falling victim to a marketing campaign that seeks to gloss over inequities and ignore both historical and current realities.  

But this notion is completely at odds with the data.

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We blame those who aren't "succeeding" without giving them respect, or tools to succeed.  In a society where equity and opportunity are supposed to be the norm, we forget that there are more barriers to success and achievement than simple financial ones. 

The daily strain of poverty taxes cognitive functions, akin to mentally ‘pulling an all-nighter,’ a study finds. 

In this first installment of a KPCC series, we look at new research that...|By Annie Gilbertson

In a capitalistic, democratic society there should be multiple, clear opportunities for achieving success (however that is measured).  Two of the most important of these pathways are a voice in decision making, and access to training and education.  It should come as no surprise that we are seeing these areas coming under attack more and more in recent days. 

Education has long been seen as a way to improve ones social, political and economic status.  Data shows that the more education one receives the higher one's income, the more active politically one is, and the higher social status one has.  We have a system of public education in place that should be able to provide equal opportunities for all citizens, yet we fail to do so for a variety of reasons.  We may want to blame our educators or our students.  We may want to blame families and social conditions.  What we aren't hearing often enough are the real reasons behind the struggles of our public schools and the students who attend them.      

Bush's No Child Left Behind Act and Obama's Race to the Top grant...

The dean of Howard University's School of Education takes a provocative look at what urban school reform is all about. It's not about schools and kids, she says.
Washington Post

To truly improve education in Milwaukee, we must start with the assumption that poor children are no less deserving of a quality education than rich children. As such, the schools that privileged suburban parents demand for their children should be the yardstick we use to measure the adequacy of edu…
Economic Policy Institute

Barriers exist even for those who are able to navigate the system and move on to higher educational opportunities.  With our current, significant student debt issue who suffers the most, the wealthy or the poor? 

Misleading Brookings study latest attempt to bury student debt crisis

Even the foundations of democracy, the simple idea that one person equals one vote is challenged in our modern society.  In a culture where money is speech, inequity will reign.    

They want to eradicate fundraising restrictions—even if it costs the...

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Did Scott Walker allegedly violate campaign finance laws because they're stupid? Or because he is?

If we are ever going to achieve the real success that our founding documents and national rhetoric proclaim, we the people will need to provide a counter force to correct the damage that vast wealth has done to our nation.  When talking about improving conditions and opportunities for all citizens it shouldn't be an us vs. them situation.  We all need to rally together to work for what is best for our nation as a whole, not for any particular individual.  As we approach the 4th of July weekend we need to remember the promises that were made in 1776 still hold true today, and the dangers of that time period are just as real now as well.   

Memo: From Nick HanauerTo: My Fellow ZillionairesYou probably don’t know me, but like you I am one of those .01%ers, a proud and unapologetic capitalist. I have founded, co-founded and funded more than 30 companies...

The Good, The Bad and
The Ugly. . .
The Good . . . We should never forget that we have a voice and shouldn't be afraid or hesitant to use it.

Reports of email's death in advocacy have been greatly exaggerated....

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We need to celebrate every victory and build off of our successes. 

Valentina (Val) Flores, a career educator, won a surprising and decisive victory for a seat on the state board of education in Colorado. Flores won by a margin of 59-41, beating a candidate who was...
Diane Ravitch's blog

The Bad . . . We often look attribute more significance to historical events (like the Great Depression), however, it is important to recognize the significance of current events.  The recession that we are currently recovering from is a current event that will get more recognition for its severity in the future.  The recession was obviously felt economically, but also had social and political ramifications.  Scott Walker and many other conservatives owe their jobs to the economic struggles of so many people, and are still working to profit from them. 

The U.S. in May finally recovered all the jobs lost in the recession, but most states still are short of...|By Ben Leubsdorf

The Ugly . . . Voter fraud does exist!!  Interestingly enough it just happens to have been committed by a Republican voting for Walker, and wouldn't have been prevented by our voter ID laws. 

Robert D. Monroe, 50, used addresses in Shorewood, Milwaukee and Indiana, according to the complaint, and cast some votes in the names of his son and his girlfriend’s son.
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Maybe the real reason Scott Walker and Reince Preibus think their state...
As we get closer to the election we need to make sure that the public understands the reality of our financial situation here in Wisconsin. 

A Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance report says state is spending more than...|By Lee Enterprises

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