Monday, October 17, 2011

Return on value

Okay, here's something else that really yanks my chain. The so-called "Values Voter Summit" that took place in Washington, DC a week and a-half ago is this wacko confab sponsored by groups like the Family Research Council, the American Family Association (both ranked as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center) and the Heritage Foundation. It's a required stop on the GOPper presidential trail, one where the candidates pitch their woo, hoping to win the hearts of the fringe of the fringe.

What really angers me about this is that they are called - not only by themselves but more importantly by much of the media - "values voters." That is, they are the ones who are "voting their values."

So what the hell are the rest of us voting? Are we voting our shoes? Our yard sale? Our yesterday's lunch? What the hell can they mean?

Moreover, the "values" they proclaim are sick. The ones they are best known for are being anti-choice and anti-gay rights - that is, against freedom of choice and against human rights (except, of course, for the choices and rights they would have for themselves). But it goes well beyond that.

The conference was a days-long cavalcade of bigotry, of racism, of homophobia, of xenophobia, of Islamaphobia, of hatred for the poor and the struggling - of hatred for anything and anyone different, of anything and anyone who is "other." It was a festival of celebrations of putrid paranoia and insouciant ignorance coupled with, as they often are in such people, appalling arrogance about their own moral superiority over anyone who is not them.

Just for the heck of it, I looked up the word "value" in an online dictionary. The first definition referred to "relative worth, merit, or importance." That is, to be of value, something must have some worth - but what these people offer is worthless. What they offer, what they hold, what they promote, are not values. They are crap, indeed such vile crap that it's like pond scum that mosquitoes wouldn’t deign to lay their eggs in.

Even as a political category, even in the purely political sense, they don’t deserve the title "values voters." Because, again, if they are “values voters,” what are the rest of us? What, does this mean we don’t have values?

Actually, they would respond, yes, that's exactly what it means: They have "values" and the rest of us don't. But as columnist Joel Connelly, who called the conference "a cacaphony of discord and false witness," wrote at
Others among us have values, too. My values leave me unsettled that wealth and power are, increasingly, concentrated in an elite. My values tell me that is wrong when there are no jobs and people are losing income, when ordinary Americans' homes are foreclosed while Vanity Fair showcases the monster houses of hedge-fund billionaires. My values recoil at the despoiling of God's earth, and changing its climate by recklessly burning fossil fuels.

Values of community, so essential to America, get trashed if we shut down homeless shelters, lay off thousands of teachers, and slash social programs for mothers and babies. The value of "life" does not begin at conception and end at birth.
And in fact those, not the bigotry and fear that fire up the fringe, are closer to the real values of the American people. Consider this: The 2004 presidential election was described in the media as the year of the "values voter," that it was "values voters" - understood then as now and even defined as the anti-choice homophobe crowd - who "put Bush over the top." But a post-election survey of actual voters undertaken by three liberal Christian groups found that moral values held by most Americans range far beyond the handful emphasized by the right wing and religious conservatives

In that survey, and remember this is a survey of people who actually voted,
- 33% said the nation's most urgent moral problem was "greed and materialism."
- 31% said it was "poverty and economic justice."
- Only 28% mentioned either abortion or same-sex marriage.

When they were asked what "moral issue" - and that was the term used in the question - most influenced their vote,
- 42% cited the war in Iraq.
- Only 22% referred to either abortion or same-sex marriage.

(And as a sidebar, I think it can safely be said that the vast majority of that 42% consisted of war opponents since it was and still is that camp, rather than war supporters, who were most likely to address the issue in moral terms.)

Getting back to the boiler room of bigotry, to give you an idea of how bad it was, one of the speakers - in fact, the one who followed Twit Romney - was one Bryan Fischer, who is the Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association. That is, he is a top honcho in one of the sponsoring organizations. Among the things he has said (not that he said these at the conference, but has in the past) are these:

- Muslims have no First Amendment rights. In fact, no non-Christian has First Amendment rights: "The purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the free exercise of the Christian religion."

- The US should have "no more mosques, period," because "every single mosque is a potential terror training center." Muslims are to be barred from immigrating and ones here should be deported.

- Oh, and in case you're wondering: No, Mormons are not Christians, which means they have no First Amendment rights, either.

- The US should impose "legal sanctions for homosexual behavior" including sending gays and lesbians to prison for "therapy." "Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews." What's more, Hitler used gay soldiers because they "had no limits to the savagery and brutality they were willing to inflict on whomever Hitler sent them after."

- Even Native American get the treatment: "In all the discussions about the European settlement of the New World, one feature has been conspicuously absent: the role that the superstition, savagery and sexual immorality of Native Americans played in making them morally disqualified from sovereign control of American soil."

That is the heart of the American Family Association, laid bare.

Why do people swallow this sort of bilge? Why do they not only swallow it but enjoy the taste? It can't be that the whole audience was as bad as the speakers. Consider, for example, that a coalition of atheist groups set up a table outside the hall where the conference took place and reported having had "mostly respectful" discussions with attendees.

So why do they swallow it? Why do they cling to - the phrase is used deliberately - their narrow-minded views? I say it's because they’re scared. They find the world as it is confusing, overwhelming, their place in it uncertain; they see it changing in ways they can't understand and can't control. (I've addressed this in several guises before, including considering the effect of the constant economic stress of the past decades in ways I'm not including here.) They can’t deal with the world as it is and so they embrace what one psychologist called "a black-and-white certitude" and fasten on to an image of how - or, more correctly, how they imagine - it "used to be."

The truth of the matter is that on the whole, conservatives are far more nostalgic for a dimly-remembered but still shining past than the most cliched gray-haired hippie in sandals and love beads.

I've maintained for some time that the great emotional attraction of conservatism in all its forms is its certainty: You don't have to decide if something is fair or unfair, right or wrong, good or bad. You just have to know what someone else told you. It's already been decided. The doubt, the fear, the questions, the responsibility are all gone.

On the other hand, those on the left, particularly the more radical parts of the left, have most often at some point in their lives experienced what for lack of a better term I'm going to call a crisis of confidence. A moment when what you had believed no longer seemed sure and (and this is the important point here) you had to make your own way through to a set of values - ethical, moral values - that made sense, that worked for you.

Bluntly, this is why being on the left is a more emotionally mature position than being on the right and why the left is more moral than the right: Because we have had to think it through for ourselves and so deal with changes in the world rather than simply absorbing ancient prejudices. As a direct result, it's the left, not the right, that declares the existence, the importance, of community, of people having a mutual responsibility each to the other for their welfare.

The fact is, it's the right that says "I," the left that says "we." It's the right that says "gimme," the left that says "we'll give." It's the right that says "compete," the left that says "cooperate."

Where the left says "us together," the right says "me first." Where the left says "hope," the right says "fear." Where the left says "you can come for help," the right says "you can go to hell."

Barring violent insurrection, minority political movements gain political power in one of two ways: either by speaking the truth (as least as best as they understand it) over and over again, trying/hoping to convince enough people with facts, logic, evidence, and moral persuasion of the correctness of their position - or by playing to people's prejudices, telling them what they want to hear, and giving the truth a twist (and sometimes a wrench) that works to their immediate advantage. When political issues arise, which side is it, the left or the right, that will challenge the prejudices and widely-shared assumptions of the audience and which side is it that plays to them? (Speaking of the "Values Voters" Summit....)

The simple truth is, the advances we've seen over the last century that have benefitted the poor, the elderly, women, blacks, working men and women, and on and on have come at instigation of the left over resistance of the right. Even now-familiar things like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, child labor laws, anti-monopoly legislation, civil rights laws, and more were all originally regarded as the wild-eyed ravings of a lunatic left out to destroy the "American Way of Life." Just a few decades ago, even something as obviously and universally-beneficial as environmental regulation was being denounced by corporations as a communist plot intended to destroy our economy. It has been the left, not the right, that has been on the side of morality in all these cases.

Another way of judging this same same question is to ask: Who benefits?

When the left argues for national health care and the right proclaims the glories of "free choice," who benefits from having their side of the argument prevail? Whose motives appear the more selfish? When the left argues for housing for the homeless and the right spins tales about "voluntarily" living on the streets, who benefits from having their side of the argument prevail? When the left pushes for more social spending and the right pushes for cuts in welfare and taxes, who benefits? When the left demands action on global warming and the rights screeches "hoax" and wails about "unwarranted government intrusions into the economy," who benefits?

Time after time after time, the left argues for choices that primarily benefit the needy. Time after time after time, the right argues for choices that primarily benefit the needless.

Time after time after time, when folks on the left benefit from their proposals it's because they're part of a broader community. Time after time after time, when folks on the right benefit from their proposals it's because they're part of a narrow clique.

So yes and yes again, the left is more moral and more emotionally mature than the right. Because it is the left, not the right, that knows that the real answer to Cain's question is "Yes."

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Mailing it in

I was going to write this post about the troubles facing the US Postal Service before I became computerless, but it didn't get done in time. Happily for me, the National Association of Letter Carriers just announced it is hiring its own financial consultants to consider the longer-term finances of the agency, giving me a hook to post this now.

You may well have heard about the problems of the mail service and if you have, you know that, as per usual for media accounts of such things, it has been described in apocalyptic terms.

The Postal Service is going broke! is the cry. It can’t make a required payment coming due! By the end of winter, it won’t be able to put gas in its trucks, much less pay its employees! In the words of our supposed “paper of record,” the New York Times,
[t]he United States Postal Service has long lived on the financial edge, but it has never been as close to the precipice as it is today.
Edge? Precipice? Omigosh, this is serious! We have to do something! We have to save the postal service!

And what is the first option that springs to mind, the first option that always seems to spring to mind in cases like this?

Cut services and fire workers.

That’s it: The proposals advanced by Postmaster Patrick Donahoe involve ending Saturday mail deliveries, closing hundreds of mail-processing facilities, and laying off, that is, firing (Remember when “layoffs” were called that because they were supposed to be temporary? I do.) some 120,000 people, a full fifth of the entire work force.

This is a “solution” that even its advocates admit will result in less service, fewer deliveries, and slower deliveries (because the loss of those processing facilities will cause it to take longer for mail to get from A to B).

The “logic” of this escapes me. Suppose you had a mechanic you went to when you needed work on your car. The place was open on Saturdays so you could bring the car in on your day off. One day, the owner says to you that what with the economy and all, the shop will no longer be open on Saturday - so you’ll have to bring you car in on a work day - and there will be fewer mechanics, so it will take longer to get the work done. Fewer options, slower service. This, you’re told, is how they intend to keep your business.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, then neither should the proposed “solutions” to the problems of the USPS.

So why is the postal service in trouble? Two reasons are usually given: One is email. “No one writes letters any more! It’s all email! Who still uses [sneer] snail mail?”

The other claimed reason, it should be no surprise, is labor unions. “Yeah, those greedy, lazy, good-for-nothings! Selfish layabouts! Overpaid feather-bedders! It’s all their fault!”

Well, the claims are bogus. The economic crisis faced by the system is quite real, but its causes, as is often true in these matters, are far removed from the claims.

Email first. The Postal Service has been around 236 years now. In all that time, the busiest year, the year with biggest volume of mail, the greatest number of pieces of mail handled, was in 2006. The second busiest year was 2005; the third busiest year was 2007. The popularity of email clearly predates that, one indication being that while the term "snail mail" has been around in various guises for some time, its use to denigrate regular mail as opposed to email dates as far back as 1981.

The naysayers respond by pointing to the drop-off in mail traffic since the peak five years ago. And it’s true, there has been a rather significant decline. But what they don’t mention is that the real decline began in 2008 - that is, when the economy tanked. When that happened, there was a large scale drop in business mail, which makes up a considerable part of the total volume of mail. So of course the total dropped. Blaming that drop on email is crap.

That’s especially true because, as others have pointed out, if you buy something online - from, from eBay, from a catalog, whatever, and you choose to have it shipped to you by the cheapest means (which almost invariably will be regular mail) your use of on-line commerce will actually have served to increase the volume of mail the USPS handles. As union official Chuck Zlatkin noted, “I’ve yet to see anyone figure out how to email a shirt.”

Email has had an impact, yes, but it’s biggest impact has been in personal letters, the kinds of things one individual would send to another. The point is that the impact is not nearly as severe as is claimed and does not account for the problems the USPS faces.

So what does have an impact?

The impacts start with the observation that the USPS is a quasi-governmental agency, run independently but still subject to certain legal restrictions set down by Congress.

(At this point it’s important to point out that those ads you may have seen claiming that the USPS gets no taxpayer money are true. The Postal Service is entirely self-funded through the sale of postage and gets not a penny in public funds.)

One restriction the agency faces under the law is that it cannot raise postage fees faster than inflation. This creates a problem in raising additional revenue. In basic capitalist economics, a business has two ways to increase revenue: Increase the amount of business you do or raise the price of each unit of that total business. The idea is that a business will keep tweaking those two - price per unit vs. number of units - to find the combination that maximizes income.

But the Postal Service, by law, cannot use one of those options. Which means the only way it can increase its real revenue (and actually improve and expand service) is to increase its volume of business - even do it even as a variety of voices now are talking about changes that would very likely decrease that volume.

Face it: Mail is a bargain. You can mail a letter anywhere is the US, you could send one from Key West to Point Barrow, for 44¢ - an amount that otherwise might get you half a candy bar.

And when I say anywhere, I do mean anywhere. The USPS is legally required to provide universal service and it makes deliveries to 150 million individual addresses nationwide every week. It has to make mail service available to everywhere - you may have to travel a bit to get to a post box or to where a whole group of mailboxes stand at the end of some rural byway, but mail must be available to everyone. Even if you are way out in the country, even if you are in some neighborhood deemed "too dangerous" for services like taxis, the mail still must be available. That is a requirement which does not exist for the Postal Service's private competitors like UPS and FedEx. They don’t have to do that: They think your address is too inconvenient or otherwise not profitable, they just don't do it.

Which means, in turn, that there are millions and millions of people who need, who rely on, the USPS's services, including poorer people, folks in rural areas outside the usual delivery areas, people who use post offices boxes, and many more, including some small-scale entrepreneurs who often find - as I noted above - that the USPS is the cheapest way to ship goods. Which means in its own turn that the people who do not depend on the USPS tend to be the rich, the powerful, the connected: people who for their own selfish reasons often are more concerned - despite their smiling assurances to the contrary - with bringing the system down than with preserving it.

One solid basis for that assertion is the federal Postal Accountability Enhancement Act, passed in 2006. That bill, among other things, mandated that the Postal Service fully fund retiree health benefits for future retirees out to 75 years in the future. That is, Congress was requiring universal health care coverage - and yes, I do note the let's be polite and call it irony here - for all Postal Service retirees for the next 75 years. And what's more, the agency had to establish the fund to do that within 10 years. Put another way, Congress was requiring of the USPS that within 10 years it be able to fully fund health care benefits for future retirees who hadn't even been born yet. That is a requirement of, a task taken on by, no other agency, corporation, or organization in or out of government in the US.

The cost of that requirement is running to $5.5 billion a year, a major part of the $8 billion projected shortfall.

So is the talk now about relieving the USPS of that idiotic requirement? Nope. It's about cutting services and firing workers.

That’s one solid basis; here’s another: It was recently realized that by some serious accounting screw-up, the USPS has been overpaying into worker pension funds. The Postal Service's Office of Inspector General estimated that the overpayments now total about $75 billion; the independent Postal Regulatory Commission came up with a figure of $50 billion in overpayments. Even accepting the lower figure makes the projected shortfall in the agency's budget look like chump change.

So is the talk now of letting the USPS recover those overpayments or at least move them from one account to another to cover the health care pre-funding requirements? Of course not - it's about cutting services and firing workers.

And the talk of firing workers persists despite the fact that there is a no-firing clause in the union contract. But the determination to go that route is so strong that Donahoe even asked Congress to write a new law voiding the contract to empower him to dispose of people at his own whim.

And it is here where we come to the crux of it all: the workers. The USPS has a strong union which is also one of the largest unions in the US, with something approaching 600,000 members. So let's be clear here: That's what the attacks on the Postal Service are about. They are about destroying the union.

All the usual claims about the supposedly evil union are being thrown about, with the usual idea that if enough tar gets slung, some will stick. Oh, they have such high pay! Oh, they have such high benefits! Oh, they get so much more than others! Oh, they are so demanding, so selfish!

Well, bluntly, postal workers do have good pay, they do get good benefits, and they do have good job protection.

Good! That’s what unions are for, dammit!

I am just flaming sick to death of hearing people gripe about how union workers, especially public employee union workers, "have so much." I am flaming sick to death of people who have swallowed the corporate line. Get a clue, people! The issue here is not why they - union members - have "so much," it’s why you have so little. This threatens to become a leitmotif here, but I will say it again: Make sure you are angry at the right target! And unions are not your enemy.

But that, ultimately, remains what all the attacks on the USPS are about: breaking the union and undermining idea of government services whose primary beneficiaries are not, again, the rich, the powerful, the connected.

How bad is it? Rep. Stephen Lynch has sponsored a bill to allow the USPS to shift the overpayments in the pension fund into the fund for future retiree health benefits, relieving the agency of the yearly burden of filling the latter and thus eliminating the need to terminate Saturday mail delivery or to close down mail processing centers while saving the jobs of 120,000 workers. In response, Darrell Issa, the GOPper who, unhappily, chairs the House Oversight Committee, called the proposal "a bailout" - a bizarre claim even for him, considering that it would not involve the expenditure of a single public penny - and has used the current (and quite possibly temporary) financial crunch as an excuse to introduce a bill to create an "emergency oversight board" which would have to authority to slash services and tear up any union contracts.

Now, even if it passed the House, Issa’s plan would face opposition in the Senate, including from some GOPpers who understand how popular the mail service is among their rural constituents. But still, the bottom line here is that while the problems of the Postal Service are real, the focus of the right wing and its corporate cronies (with the expected cooperation of a compliant media) is not on solving the problems (even when easy solutions are staring them in the face) but on destroying the service.

Then again, that should be no surprise: As Allison Kilkenny wrote at Truthout:
So, here we have a service that caters primarily to the economically disadvantaged and employs over 574,000 union members.
And, I would add, a successful government service and a popular government service. No wonder the reactionaries want to destroy it.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Touching base

This is just to let folks know that I have been away for a bit and will be away for a bit longer still.

I was actually working on three posts, hoping to get at least one of them finished before I am computerless again, but no such luck.

But just to give the flavor and to indicate I have not completely abandoned things here:

- One was on the financial problems facing the USPS and how they are not, contrary to claims, caused by a mass switch to email and are decidedly not caused by "selfish unions." Rather, they are rooted in unrealistic fiscal demands placed on the agency, demands that seemed more aimed at undermining it than securing it.

- A second was on the latest attempts by the wingnuts in Congress to attack the science of global warming, this by accusations of a "shadow organization" within NOAA.

- The third was on the Wall Street protests and their expansion to other places in the US and the crappy media coverage they've gotten - along with some thoughts on a philosophical common ground shared among recent protests faced by at least nominally democratic governments around the world: Despite the surface differences in the issues addressed, the protesters here, just as those protesting in Spain, in Greece, in Israel, in India, express a loss of faith in government. Not in the ability of government to deal with problems, but in the desire of government to do so. Not in the ability of government to respond to the needs of the mass of the populace, but in the desire of government to do so. And what are the implications of that (and noting that the natural response among a lot of us of "Well, duh" is wholly inadequate to the task at hand).

To those of you who still check this thing out from time to time: Bear with me, please. I will be back, I promise.
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