Friday, September 30, 2011

Tom Sawyer 2011

The regressives have largely succeeded in recruiting the wealthy to their ranks. They have now embarked on a campaign to convince the rest of us that we should accept a subservient rank in society and enroll ourselves in an underclass. They tell us that they should be able to bring the money they have been hiding overseas back into this country without paying any taxes on it, because that will enable them to create more jobs. They tell us that we should give them tax holidays and permanent low tax rates, so that they can create jobs. They tell us that if we give them everything they have and let them accumulate everything they want, they will let us work for them. Tom Sawyer couldn't have done better.

Who are the so-called “job creators” we keep hearing about? Certainly not the big corporations, which count the number of people they lay off the way a kid counts to ten in a game of hide-and-seek: one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. It would take too long to count each individual who is laid off. And it might make them recognizable as individuals, rather than as just nameless hash marks.

A lot of politicians are telling us that small businesses create most new jobs. But these days, small businesses are mostly growing smaller, not larger. New businesses create some jobs temporarily. But the vast majority of new businesses fail in just a couple of years. The jobs they create aren't really created from an expansion in commerce. They are just a transfer of money out of people's home equity and savings, because small businesses can't borrow money without their owners putting up personal guarantees. When the cash is exhausted, the companies fail, the employees are out of work again, and the banks foreclose on the ruined “entrepreneurs.”

The truth is that these days, there are no job creators. But the truth isn't what is important to the people who are promoting the phrase “job creators.” What is important is that, in addition to the super-rich whom we read about, there are lots of less rich but still well-off people all across America who aren't creating jobs but who like the label. Doctors, raking in lots of money from Medicare and health insurance companies, are a prime example of people who would like to think of themselves as job creators, rather than just as folks making money off of other people's misfortune and sitting on big bunches of cash and investments. These are the donors the Republican party relies on to pad their campaign coffers. These are the people who make it seem like there is support for regressive politics not just on Wall Street, but in every city and small town where doctors have offices.

For years, doctors said they weren't the reason health care costs kept rising faster than any other part of the economy. They blamed insurance companies and hospitals and layers of administrators and bureaucrats. But when they had a chance to eliminate all those middle men who they accused of soaking up health care dollars by supporting national health care, the vast majority of them, and their associations, sided with the very people and institutions they said were the problem. Because, in fact, they knew they were all in on the scheme together. The drug companies and doctors and all the rest realized that the only way they could continue to amass their fortunes was if they stuck together.

A variety of rich folks who aren't doctors also like the idea that they are job creators. People who spend their lives watching over their inherited wealth enjoy the idea that they are doing something more important than just spending money on themselves. Hedge fund managers who sit counting their millions like gamblers at a poker table like to think they are doing something that is really productive, and not just taking advantage of special tax breaks that only they benefit from. The Republican party realized that these folks would rather join a party that told them they had a right to hoard all their money than join a political party that told them they should share their wealth for the good of the entire society. The Republicans realized that these folks would prefer the title “job creator” than the title “greedy, selfish tax-dodger.” And the Republican party recognized that these people would contribute to the party that showed it would support their privileged place in the economy.

The monied elite are not job-creators. They are modern day feudal lords, expecting their serfs to accept subsistence wages for the privilege of working for them. They are modern day Maharajahs, promoting a class system with extreme concentration of wealth. What they seek is a return to a time when wealth, not votes, conferred power and when power, not rights, guaranteed fair treatment. They aim to turn America into the type of society that America was created as a remedy to.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shadowy Politics

No one is surprised that shadowy figures influence politics in Washington D.C. But few want to acknowledge such manipulation when it occurs at a more local level. Here in the northern suburbs, some very strange things have been happening. Established incumbents suddenly retiring. Fringe candidates getting mainstream support. Party leaders left in the dark. What's behind it?

To understand what is going on, you have to look at the history of the area. You have to know who has gotten used to having power, and who controls the money. You have to be willing to acknowledge that people who speak of very lofty goals may have very base objectives. You have to realize that some candidates are being promoted, and others are being used. You have to avoid becoming paranoid, but be prepared to see things as they really are.

There are patterns, and they have been emerging for a number of years. Republicans pretending to be independents. Conservatives pretending to be moderates. Democrats pretending to be progressive.

There are also players. A congressman. A senator. A mayor. And others – some from neighboring areas, some whose allegiance is far away from here.

A lot of very sincere people have been working very hard in this area for a number of years to bring about change. It looks like the decision has been made that this election is an opportunity to clear the boards of those people. Some Democrats thought that the redistricting would be their chance to consolidate power. Others see it differently. They are working very hard and very stealthily. They have vast resources and no scruples. And they have the advantage of surprise.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

More On Consolidation

My previous post supported the idea of consolidating special governmental units. Now, let's take a look at what should be considered when deciding how to restructure government. We should have some overriding principles, beyond just saving money. Saving money is a valid goal, but if that is all that we were trying to achieve, in the process of cutting costs we would risk eliminating some of the desirable functions that are being carried out by the existing governmental units. That is the mistake that the Tea Party has been making by focusing just on money and not on consequences.

For me, one goal should be to restructure in a way that allows us not just to do the same things we have been doing, but to do more. For example, there is little benefit to consolidating school districts if we don't end up doing a better job of teaching our children. To just teach them as well as we have been, for less money, isn't worth putting much effort into.

How could we improve education through consolidation? One way would be to expand the scope of consolidation in a way that would give our children a broader range of educational experiences. Why just combine the four districts in our little suburb? Our districts, and others in the area, could draw their district boundaries differently, so that kids would have more interactions in the classroom with kids of different income levels, and ethnic, cultural, and racial identities. The segregation of housing in the Chicago area makes this difficult, but some improvement could be made for at least some of the kids without burdening anyone with a longer bus or carpool ride.

By consolidating school districts we could also even out school funding, so that more equal amounts of money would be available to teach children than is available under the present system, under which the quality of education a child receives relies on property values in the vicinity of the child's home.

There are also improvements which could be made while consolidating and eliminating other special districts. It doesn't make much sense to have a lot of little governmental units with different capabilities in charge of treating waste water, which is all being discharged into the same watershed and which we all end up drinking. Nor does it seem sensible to have streets in one town cleared quickly after a snowfall when, a few blocks down, the same streets become impassable as soon as you drive into the next town.

So, what prevents restructuring and consolidating in a way that would bring about better results for everyone? People who don't care about everyone. People who want their own kids to have the best education and are willing to ignore the inadequate education that other people's kids have. People who are satisfied if their libraries are well-stocked, even if the next town's library's shelves are bare.

The administrators who want to protect their own jobs and fiefdoms understand how people think. They know that all they have to do to prevent change is to encourage people to be concerned only with themselves. They know how to frighten people into thinking that they will lose control over their local schools and parks and streets if they expand jurisdictions so that other people will be served.

That is why any effort towards consolidation in the well-to-do suburbs like the one I live in must have goals that are broader than just saving money. Because as concerned as people are about money, they will quickly abandon the cause if it starts going in a direction that they perceive threatens their privileged position. It may seem odd, but the only way consolidation will gain any traction is if the people who want to consolidate districts in order to save money but who still want their kids educated, their water pure, and their streets plowed, realize that the only way they can achieve their goals is to spend some of their money on other people. At present, they are paying instead for the illusion that if they keep their money in their own little communities, served by a multitude of special taxing units, they can get everything they want. They are wasting a lot of money for this illusion.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Time To Reorganize

Illinois has thousands of units of local government – more than any other state. We have townships, park districts, mosquito districts, library districts, sewage districts, water districts, road districts, and who-knows-what-else districts. Each district is governed by some sort of board, mostly elected, and each spends money, mostly from property tax and other taxes.

My local township raises and spends a few million dollars each year. A large part of the money is spent on office staff. What do these people do? Almost nothing that some other unit of government either already does or easily could do. For example, you can apply for a passport at the township office. Or you can apply at any number of post offices. Or you can go to the passport office in downtown Chicago. If you apply at the township office, they don't actually issue the passport. They just mail it to the passport office.

What else does the township office staff do? They can tell you how to appeal your property taxes. Or you could get the same information at the county assessor's office a couple of miles away at the county courthouse in Skokie, where you can actually file your appeal. You can also get the information and file the appeal online. The township office doesn't decide the appeals. They just mail them for you to the county assessor if you want.

The township also plows a few miles of roads. That could also be done by the county, which plows a lot more roads in the area. The county's plow trucks drive right by the roads that the township plows. All they would have to do is lower their plows.

A well-meaning, diligent group of people are elected to run the township. They take their jobs seriously. But their jobs don't need to exist. They aren't the only ones we should be looking at. My town of less than 35,000 people has four elementary school districts and a high school district. Why? Historical happenstance, and now none of the administrators wants to give up their jobs, and few of the elected board members think anyone else could do as good a job as they do . As a result, one district is building new school buildings to accommodate a growing population within its boundaries while the district across the street has empty classrooms. One district has a budget surplus while the district across the street is having financial difficulties. If the districts were consolidated, these problems and disparities wouldn't exist.

Not only does having so many units of government create waste, it also creates confusion. Hardly any voters know what all these districts do, let alone who is running for them. That is part of the reason we have so many districts. They provide a lot of jobs that the political parties can dole out as rewards for their loyal supporters.

Having so many special districts also allows mayors and county officials to avoid responsibility for the things the other districts do. It's hard to blame the mayor if the library district raises taxes, even if the mayor appointed the library district board or had them slated. And a city's budget doesn't look as big as it would if it included all the things that have been shunted off onto the other districts. My village's spending would be twice as large if it included all the money the park district spends. Both the village and the park district serve and collect taxes from exactly the same people. When people complain that their property taxes are too high, both units of government can escape criticism by blaming the other.

Most of these special districts could be eliminated, and their work done better. The neighboring suburb of Highland Park, with about the same population as my town, consolidated several school districts a few years ago, and it has worked out fine.

It isn't easy to get rid of a governmental entity. The special district that was created to run a tuberculosis sanitarium in the suburbs wasn't dissolved until decades after it stopped being needed due to improvements in the medical treatment of TB patients.

You may wonder why I am writing about this issue. The answer is that just because some of us think we should stop making wars and should provide medical care for everyone and should preserve Social Security so that people will be able to live decently in old age and should educate all children and should do a lot of other things for the benefit of everyone doesn't mean we like to see our tax money wasted or our government poorly administered. But unlike the regressives in the Tea Party and Republican Party, we don't think that the only answer is to thoughtlessly eliminate government programs. A better solution is to implement changes that will create efficiencies without hurting people.

I don't claim that progressives thought up the idea of consolidation. It has come up now and then, and has been supported by people all over the political spectrum. Right now, it is an idea that I would like to see get broad support, and not just because of the improvements it would bring to the way our government runs. Maybe, if progressives and regressives worked on this issue together, we would learn that we have more in common than we sometimes think. Maybe we could even learn to get along a little better.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nothing To Say

Georgia executed a man whose guilt was in doubt. Most of the witnesses against him had realized they might have been mistaken, and had recanted their testimony. The Supreme Court of the United States, to no one's surprise, gave the OK to the execution.

There is so much to say about this. So much controversy. So many moral, religious, political, sociological, economic, and racial issues. But it has all already been said, many, many times over the years.

There just isn't anything new to say. But does that mean that nothing should be said? Or should I and others who continue to be disturbed by killings like this just keep harping on the same old arguments, hoping that someone who is new to the issue will be influenced, or that someone whose mind is already made up will see things in a new way?

One of the many commandments in the Torah says that Thou Shalt Not Be Indifferent. Does it necessarily mean that on issues like the death penalty, about which there seems to be a permanent divergence of opinion within our country, Thou art destined to be frustrated and ineffective? Does it mean that Thou art supposed to be concerned, but not necessarily required to do anything? Does it mean that Thou art required to try, but you don't have to feel bad if you don't succeed?

Rabbis have been reading and commenting on the same Torah for a long time. Over the course of every year, they read through the whole scroll. Leaders in other religions also go over the same teachings of their faiths yearly, or every couple of years. Is the notion that there is always something new to learn from the same old passages? Is there a more practical consideration, that many people don't attend services every week, so they are likely to miss lessons unless the lessons are repeated regularly? If so, why go over the same story of The Binding of Isaac every Rosh Hashanah or the Birth of Jesus every Christmas at the one service that most people do attend annually? Do they really need to hear the same thing over and over, or would it be better for them to learn some of the other stuff?

Everyone talks about how it is necessary for people to compromise if we are going to reach agreement on issues. Maybe we could all agree that there would be just one person executed each year. That way, once a year, Georgia and other states would have the same opportunity that religious leaders do to teach us a lesson. We could have a national execution day, when all the news outlets could call attention to the killing so it would have maximum exposure and impact, just like Christmas. We wouldn't have to be so concerned about whether the person was guilty or not. We could skip all the appeals, and just choose the person to be executed by lottery among all those who have been sentenced to die. I bet a lot of the people on death row would sign on for the deal.

Some people, reading the preceding paragraph, might think it was a reasonable compromise. Others would reject the very notion of compromising when people's lives are at stake. They read their Bibles as containing absolute commandments, not suggestions to be used as the basis of compromise. And therein lies the problem that keeps us from reaching agreement on the death penalty and other issues. We are caught between conflicting religious and moral teachings that are phrased as absolutes and a pluralistic society that depends upon compromise. There is no solution. So we keep arguing. Which may be what we are supposed to do. So long as we are arguing, we are not indifferent.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Gays In Uniform

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Officially, gay men and women can now serve in the military without concealing their sexual orientation. Realistically, it is going to be a long time before they can openly express themselves without fear that there will be consequences. People's attitudes don't change that fast, and the military is probably among the slowest institutions to change. Heck, the military still thinks that killing people is the way to settle disagreements.

There are a lot of reasons the military will change slowly. Among the biggest impediments to change will be the homosexuals who hold high rank. Some of them will now be afraid that their partners will talk about their own sexuality. They will worry that people will put two and two together and figure out why a particular general and a particular lieutenant spent so much time together.

Military recruiters will also resist the change. Until now, they were able to promote the idea that joining the Army or Navy or Marines was a good way to make people believe that you were a manly man. It was a good ruse for gays who weren't ready to come out of the closet. Now they will need a new beard.

Straights will also resist the change. What guy on leave wants the ladies to think that he has spent months at a time with no one to kiss him goodnight except one of the other fellas in his unit?

There have been gays in the military for as long as there has been a military. Surprise! But what happens if, now that soldiers and sailors can tell the truth, we find out that the military is actually more gay than the rest of society? What may happen is that it becomes ever more gay, as gays flock to be part of an organization where they know they will find people who are like them. That happened a long time ago in some parts of the country. There are cities with famously large gay populations, and neighborhoods in other cities where gays have elected to reside, and professions where gays were not kept out.

The repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell does more than just rescind a policy that sought to prevent gays from being interrogated about their personal lives. The military is implementing the new policy as a right of military personnel to identify themselves as gay. This protection is not given to people who work for private employers in a large part of the country. Most employers are still allowed to discriminate against gays. They can refuse to hire gays and fire them just for being gay.

So, the U.S. military is now one of the most gay-friendly employers in the country, and it has better benefits than many other employers. There will be resistance to change, but big changes may very well come anyway. Or maybe there won't really be any change at all, just a little more honesty about what has been going on all along.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

This Too Shall Pass

“This too shall pass.”

This phrase, recognizing that everything changes over time, is usually uttered by people who look forward to the end of their present unpleasant conditions. They can find comfort in the anticipation that some day they will have a better life, although the phrase also tells them that the better time would in turn be destined to give way to something else. But for those who see their present situation as unbearable, who think that things can only get better, there is solace in the hope for a better future.

Sometimes, however, it can seem that one's problems will never yield their grip. Hopelessness can replace the optimism that normally gets people through even the most difficult days. When that happens, people can act in all sorts of ways, many of them destructive to themselves and others.

It has been a challenge for a lot of people to understand why people of very modest means would support Republican politicians whose policies are intended to favor the very rich. It seems irrational, and it is. But to people who do not believe that a better day is to come, the irrationality of their view does not matter.

The middle class in the U.S. has taken a severe beating. Millions of workers have lost the sense of economic security they once had. They have gone back to school to learn new skills, only to find that the new jobs they were promised had been sent overseas while they were training for them. They have lost their savings and their homes. Their children have been priced out of the market for higher education. In so many ways, they have been beaten down, to the point that they no longer believe that a better day will come.

Years ago, when inner-city minorities burned the ghettos that they felt trapped in, some asked why they would destroy their own homes. Part of the answer was that they did not feel that the buildings were theirs. The rest of the answer was that they felt hopeless. Irrationality was not an unreasonable reaction.

Many of today's tea-partiers would be surprised to think that they were acting the same way that the arsonists of yesterday acted, and for the same reason. Tea-partiers, ever railing against entitlements and those who claim them, do not think they have much in common with a bunch of minorities who lived in the 1960s. But their economic condition, and their lack of hope for the future, make them the direct descendants of the rioters of a generation ago.

Politicians in both political parties have been accusing each other of fomenting class warfare. But we have not yet seen that struggle. All we have seen so far is the frustration and anger of the middle class as it sinks lower and lower into a growing underclass. We have not yet seen that anger directed towards the upper class, which holds the power and the money. We have not even seen much awareness among the tea-partiers that they have become part of the suffering-class. When and if the multitudes recognize the commonality of their condition, then class warfare may begin. The politicians won't have to tell us that a war is going on. We'll be able to see the smoke.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Full Disclosure

Instead of working to solve the nation's financial problems, Congress appointed a “super” committee to study the issue. Who did they put on the super committee? Super people, of course. Well, at least not ordinary people. They would have a hard time appointing ordinary people, because more than half of all congresspeople are worth at least a million dollars. Compare that to the wealth of an average American. Only about one percent of the U.S. population is worth that much. John Kerry, one of the members of the super committee, is worth, by his account, more than 167 million dollars. He may be the wealthiest member of the committee. Republican Senator Max Baucus claims that he isn't worth anything. It's a hard claim to dispute, but if it was true, he probably wouldn't be able to rent an apartment without putting up several month's rent in advance, which he wouldn't have.

The reports about congresspeople's incomes and assets are designed to allow them to give us very incomplete information. For example, although the reports are supposed to show what a congressperson's assets are, the congresspeople don't have to include the value of their homes. Since a personal residence is the largest asset that most people have, this is a very peculiar exclusion. It means that what are probably some congresspeople's biggest assets can be entirely ignored. And on top of that, congresspeople don't have to disclose the value of vacation homes if they have them. Or multiple vacation homes. There is no limit to how many properties a congressperson can own without having to disclose any of them.

Congresspeople are also allowed to exclude almost everything else that they own other than investments. They can have antiques, art collections, even vaults filled with jewels and gold bullion, and nobody ever finds out about it.

Even if the reports were complete, they wouldn't be of much use, because almost no effort is made to insure that the reports are accurate. The congresspeople aren't required to file any proof that the figures they put on the reports are true, and once the reports are filed by the congresspeople, they are never verified, checked, or audited. They are just filed away and that's that. If you try to open a checking account, you have to give more complete information than the congresspeople have to, and if the information can't be verified, the bank won't open the account and you'll have to pay your bills with coins and paper money. Oh, I forgot, you won't have any bills, because no one will let you charge anything until you disclose your financial situation and pass a credit check.

The personal financial disclosures that congresspeople make are, like the information that congresspeople have to provide about their campaign contributors, not as informative as they are supposed to appear to be. Did you ever wonder why so many of the big contributors to campaigns are listed simply as “housewife” or “retired?”

Of course, none of this matters much. The Supreme Court has destroyed campaign finance limitations, and people have grown numb to the influence of money on elections. Dick Cheney got away with funneling billions to his own company. Obama got elected despite revelations about his shady real estate deals. The slimy, sleazy connections between money and politics are accepted as “just the way things are.”

If anyone expects the super committee to come up with solutions to our financial problems, they ought to consider that the solution these congresspeople came up with for their own problems was to let money flow into their pockets without any meaningful scrutiny. Super.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Economic Forecast

While the stock market keeps fluctuating up and down, the economic situation just keeps going downhill for a huge segment of the U.S. population. More people are in poverty now than at any time since the Census Bureau started keeping track, 52 years ago. A larger percentage of the population is living in poverty than at any time in the past eighteen years. Median household income, adjusted for inflation, has declined to the point that people are now making less than they did 13 years ago. Unemployment continues to be high, especially among minorities. Forty eight million people didn't work a single week last year. Nearly 50 million people now have no health insurance. More than a quarter of the country was uninsured for at least part of the year. The number of people living on less than half the income that is considered poverty has increased. More people are moving in with relatives because they can't afford to live on their own. The rate of poverty in the suburbs is at the highest level since 1967. Twenty-two percent of all children in the U.S. now live in poverty.

That's the bad news. There is good news – corporate profits are still healthy. Oh, and the rich still don't have to pay much in taxes. And rich people and corporations will be able to contribute unlimited amounts of money to elect candidates who will continue to do what they want them to do. Good news, for some. For a while. Until the whole society disintegrates. Until violence wells up among the desperate. Until the upper tier finds out it can't live the way it is accustomed to if the underclass refuses to wait on them or is too exhausted to do their bidding. Until the vision of suffering becomes painful to the eyes of those who can no longer look away. Until the awakening of conscience brings into consciousness that which has been too easy to ignore.

Economists are reluctant to even guess how long this state of affairs will continue, but they shouldn't be. The precise date when things will change for the better can be predicted with 100 percent certainty. Things will change when we make them change, and not a day sooner.

Who are the “we” who will bring about the change? This is not a question, really. It is an indictment. An accusation of negligence. A charge that demands an answer. “We” have a warrant out for us. “We” will be judged. “We” the people, the document says, established this union. Not “they” of long ago. We signed the Constitution. We committed ourselves to a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. We are our country. We are our present and our future. We are the only ones who can make change happen. Or we can let this country and all its promise fall apart and disappear.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Seniors Without Security

Some of the figures in a recent Census Bureau report got a lot of attention in the media. The figures showed that the average family's income has declined in recent years, that more people are living in poverty, that more people don't have health insurance, and that more people are unemployed. These figures paint a fairly coherent picture of a society in decline, but they don't tell the whole story.

Since there is a national debate going on right now about Social Security, let's take a look at how much money senior citizens are making. According to the Census Bureau, a person aged 65 or older is living in poverty if that person has $10,452 or less in annual income. If two seniors, such as a husband and wife, live together and make less than $13,180 a year, the Census Bureau considers that they are living in poverty. Let's not quibble about whether these numbers really define poverty, or whether two people can live on just $2728 more than one person can. I think we can agree that in most parts of the country, you can't live very well on that kind of money. Once you pay rent, heat, electricity, water, phone, taxes, groceries, health-insurance premiums, deductibles and co-pays, medicine, basic transportation, and a few other necessities, you wouldn't have much left over – if you can make your income stretch that far at all.

Most retirement-age people in this country have almost nothing saved, so they live entirely off of their Social Security checks, plus a little bit of money they earn. People don't really retire at 65. So, how much money do those people have to live on? According to the Social Security Administration, the average Social Security recipient gets $14,179.20 a year in benefits. That is just $3727.20 more than the poverty level for one person. (Because some spouses collect a spousal Social Security check and some don't, it's more complicated to compare the figures for couples living on Social Security.) In other words, most people in this country who retire on just Social Security live just above the poverty line.

According to these figures, if Social Security is eliminated, most actual retirees will be thrown into poverty. If Social Security benefits are reduced even a little bit, the result is the same. Many other seniors, who still work, will have their standard of livings drastically reduced. The median income for a household with seniors who still work is $31,408, and that is the median for families of all sizes.

What the figures really show is that a huge number of Americans are living in a very narrow income range. The median income for a single worker is $29,730. The median for all households including families of all sizes is $49,445. Poverty for a family of four is $22,113. So, the difference between living in poverty and living on what most people live on, using any of the above income figures, is less than $30,000. Americans who are not living in poverty are living on not much more than poverty-level incomes – maybe twice the poverty level. Or, to put it another way, the loss of one income in a family with more than one wage earner can be all that it takes to plunge an entire family into poverty. The loss of income for a retiree puts one right on the edge.

The big picture is that half our country is either living in poverty or living not far from poverty, and poverty is dangerously close for those who have escaped it so far. The rest of the picture is that half of the country is living in a much broader range of incomes, reaching into the millions and billions. Most of those fortunate people in the upper half are a lot closer to the bottom than to the top of the income distribution. Only a tiny number of people in this country make anywhere near what the top earners do.

So, we still have a middle class. But the middle is a lot closer to the bottom than we like to think.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Building The Dream

I watched a couple of movies about immigrants coming to America. One was from the perspective of a European Jew, the other from an Irish Catholic viewpoint. Both movies were set in the times when there were massive migrations from Europe, both were based on true stories, and both told of the hope that America held out to people facing hardship in their native lands. Both movies ended with the now cliché scene of the Statue of Liberty viewed from an arriving boat. Since the movies ended before their protagonists set foot on our shores, they leave it to our conjecture whether America turned out to be what they had dreamed of, or something else.

There is a lot of talk these days about the American dream and whether it is still alive. This seems as good a time as any to start thinking about what the modern American dream should be. The world has changed, both in the lands we attract people from and here in America. The dream should probably change with the times.

Running water. Indoor plumbing. Central heat. Relatively non-corrupt police. Opportunity to choose one's work, and to earn advancement. A chance to accumulate wealth. Freedom to worship or not. Freedom to travel. An absence of restrictions on the basis of caste or class or sex. These are facets of the old American dream. They are commonly viewed almost entirely in terms of what the dreamers can get for themselves, and for the dreamers' children. It has not been, for the most part, a dream that has been dreamed for the benefit of other Americans, and certainly not for the advancement of the rest of the world. It has been a selfish dream.

At times, a more socially oriented dream has been proposed, by reformers and labor unions and religious leaders and visionaries. Philanthropy and taxes and charity and sacrifice have helped that dream along. We have built schools, bridges, dams, highways, canals, railways, airports, waterworks, museums, concert halls, post offices, parks, and libraries to benefit the masses. But in this difficult economy, these sorts of expenditures are not so much advanced for the public good that the projects will provide as for the temporary jobs they will create while they are being built.

When we think about public works projects which are being proposed as a stimulus to the economy, whether the public good is viewed as the focus of the American dream, or just a byproduct of job-creation will make a big difference in what kind of country we end up building.

Monday, September 12, 2011


If you don't like the stuff a store is trying to sell to you, you can walk out without buying anything. But what if you don't like the candidates you have to choose from in an election?

A lot of people feel like walking away from Obama. They feel he just isn't good enough. He hasn't done what he said he would. Obama supporters say he's better than any of the Republicans, but who wants to accept shoddy merchandise just because someone else's merchandise is even worse? As Americans we are told we have a history of striving for excellence, not settling for the inadequate. Obama supporters say he has tried, but the Republicans wouldn't let him accomplish what he wanted to. The truth is that on most of the key issues, he hasn't even tried. His policies were Republican polices. Obama supporters point to a list of his achievements, but the list is awfully short and the achievements pretty insignificant.

Obama ran on a promise of hope and change. Now we are being told not to hope for so much change. What are people to do?

We could back a third party candidate, and many of us would, if a credible candidate would emerge. But no one has thrown a hat into the ring yet. We could sit the election out, let Obama lose, and watch the Republicans spend the next four years continuing to do what they have been doing despite Obama's ineffective opposition, and often with his cooperation. Maybe the Democratic opposition in Congress would become more energetic if it didn't feel it had to go along with the Republicans every time Obama told them they had to pull together as a party and support him as he capitulated. We could vote for Obama and hope he would win and that after the election we could persuade him that he should repay us by actually standing up to the Republicans and promoting a progressive agenda, but that didn't happen the first time we elected him. He turned his back on the people who put him in office.

The frustrating truth is that we don't have any good options at the moment. But there is another way to look at it. We are free to do whatever we want. We don't owe Obama anything. We gave him a chance, and he blew it. We don't owe the Democratic party anything. It didn't hold Obama to his promises, and for the most part, Democrats in Congress sided with Obama as he accepted Republican proposals. We don't have to buy the junk the Democratic party is selling. We may end up without much after the election, but no one is offering us much anyway, and at least when it is over, we won't feel like we have been swindled.

The best option may be to start working for third party candidates, not so much because they will win this time, but so that they will have a foundation to build upon in the next election. The problem with that strategy is that until third parties win more seats, it is very difficult for them to gain any influence or sustain people's interest from one election to the next.

If progressives don't support Obama and he loses, we will be called spoilers, and the Democrats will blame their failures on us. This shouldn't deter us. We have been called all sorts of names before, and it didn't stop us from doing what we thought was right. And come the next election, the Democrats will still ask us for money.

Maybe forming a spoiler coalition is the way to go. The Republicans probably won't field any candidates that we would support, but we would be able to say to the Democratic party, “You can start acting like progressives and, with our support, win elections. Or you can keep doing what you are doing and not get our support and lose.” Maybe they'd get the message.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Obama's Resignation

The one word that sums up President Obama's speech last evening is resignation. The President has given up any hope that he will be able to get the Congress to pass any measures that would help the average American who wants to work. Obama has given up on trying to get really progressive measures through the Congress. He has given up on anything that might in any way be thought of as a Democratic initiative. He has given up on putting his own ideas forward. He knows he is beat. He knows, after more than two and a half years of trying to work with Republicans, that they don't want him to succeed and that they have the votes to make sure he doesn't. All he is proposing is old legislation that he repeatedly told us the Republicans have supported in the past, and it was obvious that he knows that now that he is supporting it, they won't even vote for that.

All that Obama has left is the hope that if the economy doesn't significantly improve before the next election, the Republicans will be blamed for having stood in the way of reform and progress, which is the same as saying that he has given up on the idea of reform and progress. All he is left with is politics. What he still doesn't grasp is that the voters are sick to death of politics, and since that is all that he is offering to them, they aren't going to put him back in office for another term.

The biggest miscalculation that Obama made is that he forgot that the one thing Americans have no use for is a quitter. No matter how hopeless his efforts may look in the face of Republican obstructionism, the people want their President to keep fighting, and as their situation gets more desperate, they want him to fight even harder than he has before. But instead of showing the voters that he will work for them just as hard as they are struggling themselves, last evening Obama quit.

What should he have said? That for two and a half years he has tried, as a gentleman, to work with Republicans, but that for two and a half years, they have refused to budge. They have behaved selfishly and obstinately, putting their own interests and the interests of their wealthy contributors above the interests of the country. They have distorted every statement he made and torpedoed every innovation he has put forward. They have refused to confirm his nominees, making it impossible for the government to accomplish what it needs to accomplish in these desperate times. They have politicized the courts. They have used their power and money to confuse the people rather than illuminate the issues. They have done everything they could to make sure that he would fail, and in the process they have set the country on a downward course from which it may never recover. And if they think it is proper for him to say “God Bless America” at the end of his speeches, they better be ready to hear him say “God Damn those who stand in the way of their own country's recovery.”

Obama should have said that while America has no innate right to succeed when other countries fail, neither does it have an obligation to fail when others are succeeding. He correctly pointed out that China and Korea are building high-speed railroads while America's efforts to modernize its transportation system have been unable to gain governmental support. What he forgot to mention was that he had worked to get such support, but that the Republicans had only passed a small portion of the programs he asked for, and they later cut those programs back to the bone. He should have laid the failure right on the doormat of the Republicans in Congress, in no uncertain terms. “Do you want us to become a second class nation?” he should have asked, “If not, why do you keep giving our country second class solutions?”

Our President told us he was proposing cutting back on Medicare benefits so that Medicare would be there in the future, which is almost word for word what the Republicans have been telling him he should do. Instead of making their case for them, he should have told the truth, which is that every cut in Medicare hurts someone. Every person who can't start on Medicare at age 65 but has to wait until age 67 will face the very real possibility that they will not be able to buy insurance for those two non-covered years. He should have explained that if they can buy the insurance, they will still have unmanageable deductibles and co-pays, and that if they can't buy insurance they will likely either use up their savings or will go without medical care. He should have explained that every dollar in savings to the Medicare system costs people who don't qualify for Medicare two dollars, because they pay more for their health care than Medicare pays with its huge purchasing power.

And without stopping for breath, he should have told them that every person who goes without medical care from age 65 to 67 should curse the Republicans, because the Republicans are the ones who are needlessly causing the suffering. He should have reminded everyone that nearly every other advanced nation in the world pays much less for their medical care and gets care that is at least as good as what we get, and often better, and that in the rest of the world everyone gets medical care, not just those who can afford it. Then he should have asked why we can't do what every other country can. And it shouldn't have been a rhetorical question. He should have singled out a Republican congressman and said, “You there in the fourth row. You tell me, right now, why we can't do what every other country can.”

He should have reminded us that President Harry Truman tried to get health coverage for everyone under a Medicare style government sponsored program, and that President Clinton tried, and that he tried, but that each time the insurance companies and drug companies and for-profit hospitals and middle men descended on Washington with suitcases full of money and made sure that things would stay the way they were, so that men and women, children and old people, working people and the unemployed would suffer, and even die.

He should have told them that he now realizes he made a mistake when he sat down and tried to negotiate a compromise on the issue of health care. It was a mistake because the other side never intended to compromise. He should admit that pushing for the watered down “ObamaCare” that he finally got was a terrible mistake, because it isn't good enough for the American people. What they really need and what they deserve is real universal health care, real government sponsored health care, and that he was going to renew his efforts to get the people exactly that, so the Republicans can go ahead with their lawsuits and try to stop ObamaCare, because he now realizes it isn't worthy of his name. What he wants now, and what the American people need, is real reform. And he should apologize for having tried to convince them otherwise.

Obama should have told the American people that he went back and re-read the speech he gave at the Democratic Convention in 2004 that brought him to the attention of the nation, and he knows that he has failed to stand firm on the ideals he promoted and the promises he made. And he should look the people in the eye and tell us that we can call it a new deal or a new start or a new Obama or whatever we want, but he is going to do things differently starting right now. He is going to insist that Congress start doing what needs to be done, and that they shouldn't worry about Tea Partiers who insist that the government can't do anything that wasn't in the Constitution in 1791, because that Constitution says Congress shall have the power to make laws that are necessary and proper and that's what Congress has always done and it is what they are darn well going to continue to do.

Instead of saying he was going to continue to cut the payroll taxes like he did last year, he should have said he was going to restore those taxes to their prior level, because every dollar that doesn't go into Social Security through those payroll taxes helps to bankrupt that essential program that provides for the retirement of nearly every American.

Obama should have said that, while we are on the subject of taxes, we should have a major increase in taxes on millionaires and billionaires, because they can afford to pay the taxes and the government can't afford for them not to. He should point out that these ultra-rich people are only the tiniest sliver of the population, but like kings of old, they own an enormously disproportionate share of the wealth of the entire country. And he should have given us the numbers that prove that the CEOs of big corporations, taking in millions of dollars a year, each make more than one hundred of the people who work for those same companies. “Could a person who makes three million dollars pay an extra fifty thousand in taxes? You bet they could, without even noticing it.” That's what Obama should have said.

And instead of assuring us that all his programs would be paid for, but not telling us how, our President should have told us that he was going to pay for his programs by stopping the foolhardy wars we are fighting, and that there would be money left over. It wouldn't have been a bad idea for him to remind us that part of the reason we started the war in Iraq was because the Republican president and his Republican friends thought that if we kept generating government surpluses as we had been doing under the prior president, a Democrat, we would be able to take better care of people who were disabled or out of work or otherwise needed our help. The Republicans wanted to get rid of some of that extra money so that it wouldn't be used for social welfare, so they cut taxes on the wealthy and started some wars. The wars were a great way to divert government surpluses away from social programs and into the pockets of military contractors. “By golly,” Obama should have said, “The tax cuts and the wars are crippling our government and our country and I'm not going to stand for it anymore because it is shameful for us to deliberately neglect people when we have the ability to help them.”

Obama talked about the economic theory of job creation, but he should have been talking reality. “Go home to your districts,” he should have told the Congresspeople, “and ask them if they are happy that kids who are graduating college can't find jobs. Ask them if the parents of those kids enjoy seeing the disillusioned looks in their kids' faces. Ask the kids, and their parents, what they are going to do about the mountains of debt the kids have that they can't pay back. And then ask them whether they appreciated that you spent weeks arguing about a debt ceiling, or if they would have preferred that you do something to help make college more affordable and jobs more available. I know what you will hear. You will hear what I hear every day.”

No one can say for certain what will or will not create jobs, but everyone knows that if you don't have a job and Congress cuts off your unemployment compensation and you can't find a job, you're in trouble. So it would have been easy for Obama to say that until all the economists can agree on a policy, we sure shouldn't stop sending those unemployment checks out, or people aren't going to have anything to eat.

Obama appropriately said that if America is going to be an industrial powerhouse in the future, it needs to educate its population and train them for jobs. He correctly said that now is not the time to be cutting back on the number of teachers in our schools. But at the same time, he said we should enter into yet another trade agreement that, if it is like the other trade agreements we have entered into in recent years, will ship even more jobs out of our country and send them abroad. “Not one more job overseas, until we see some jobs coming back here,” is what he should have said. Even the Republicans, who made a point of barely applauding anything Obama said, would have had a hard time not rising to cheer that sentiment.

Obama told us, as all Presidents do, that ours is a great country. But he should have gone farther and told us that the multinational corporations which have been dictating our national policy, don't care about our country. He should have explained that these corporations are happy having their goods manufactured in China if it is cheaper than having them manufactured here, and that they don't really care if all the U.S. jobs move overseas. All these corporations care about is their profits, and they have been making huge profits even though American workers are stretched as tight as the skin on a drum.

And he should have kept talking all night if he needed to. “Go ahead and watch football, Mr. Boehner,” he should have said, “I've got a lot to talk to the American people about and I'm not stopping until I've said what I came to say.” He should have gone farther in standing up for unions. He should have reminded us that if it weren't for unions, a lot more American workers' fingers would be chopped off each year by unsafe machinery, and a lot more women would be sexually assaulted at work, a lot more kids would die doing unsafe work that they were pressured into, and a lot more middle aged workers would be fired, and replaced by younger workers who would be paid less. He should have told us that without unions, pensions would be plundered by companies even worse than they have been, and people would be afraid to complain about being forced to work with poisonous chemicals without any protection. “Visit a rehabilitation center and talk with someone who has been maimed at work and then come back here and tell me that government shouldn't regulate workplace safety because it interferes with the entrepreneurial spirit. I dare you!” is what Obama should have said.

A half-hour into his speech, Obama finally got energetic, but he never got as angry as he needed to. He needed to get as angry as vast numbers of middle class people are getting, seeing their retirement approaching while their houses decline in value, their property taxes increase, their 401-ks languish, and their Social Security threatened by the very representatives whom they count on to protect them. He needed to get as angry as the mass of middle-aged workers who are afraid that if they lose their jobs they will never recover financially. He needed to get as angry as the millions of people who are working part time but who need full-time jobs, the millions who can't find any jobs, the millions who hate their jobs but have nowhere else to go.

But Obama never got that angry. He stayed in control. He was cool and calm. He never really connected with the people, because he doesn't know how. He stayed on script, reading carefully crafted words from his prompter, when he should have been pounding the lectern, pointing fingers at his nemesis, staring down the people who have been thwarting his policies and calling them out by name. He delivered a speech when what he needed to do was light a fire.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bachmann Overboard

Michele Bachmann had to know the Republican Party wouldn't nominate her to be President of the United States. She's a woman. That's all she needed to know.

The Republican Party is looking for another Ronald Reagan, with broad shoulders, thick dark hair, and an adoring woman on his formally-dressed arm. They are still trying to get his image carved into stone at Mount Rushmore. They still want his image struck into metal on our coins. Today's Republicans are in love with the image of Reagan, and they will nominate the candidate who does the best job of impersonating him.

Prove it for yourself. Find an old photo of Ron and petite Nancy walking into a state dinner. Black out their faces with a marker. Look at the photo of the tuxedo and red dress and ask yourself which of the people in the picture today's Republicans would nominate for President, even knowing, as they do now, that while Ron had Alzheimer's, Nancy was calling the shots.

Want more proof? Take a look at a photo of the eight Republican candidates who were on stage at the debate (which was held at the Reagan library). Pick the two with the broadest shoulders and most rugged features and you will find a guy from the manly state of Texas and another from the original Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Bachmann got as far as she did by running as a conservative Christian who believes that women should submit to their husbands. She ran as a leader of the Tea Party, which has had absolutely nothing to say about women's rights, because all they want to talk about is money. She could hardly be surprised that Ed Rollins, who ran Ronald Reagan's political operation, would abandon her on the eve of an important debate because he thought the contest had narrowed down to Romney vs. Perry.

It was useful to have Michele in the race, so that Republicans who want to eliminate women's rights to have abortions could claim that they were not against women. It was handy to have Michele take up space in the news that might otherwise have gone to Sarah Palin, who is seen by Republican regular power brokers as a dangerous maverick and by many more as just a kook.

But alas, today's Republican voters, like beauty contest judges, and like today's Democrats, have a hard time looking deeper than the appearance of their candidates. Which is why the people who really control the Republican party have to make sure they give the voters a candidate who looks the part they will be called upon to play, but who is also at his core philosophically aligned with their plutocratic vision and entirely controllable. The Republican voters may have a woman candidate for Vice-President, but in 2012 they are not likely to get a woman as a presidential candidate. That job will go to a man. A tall, white, muscular, virile-looking, tough-talking, man. With nice teeth.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

More About Obama

Yesterday I wrote about President Obama's failure to act. Today let's take a look at who else isn't doing all that they could. I'll skip over Sarah Palin, who stepped down from elected office so that she could make speeches. It's hard to say whether her involvement in either of those endeavors would accomplish anything, but she seems to think she has made the correct choice.

I'll skip over the entire U.S. Congress, too. No need to talk any more about whether they are doing all that they could for the country or are too preoccupied with raising money for their next campaigns. Let's talk about you and me. We are the folks who read and write about politics, current events, the economy, and other pressing topics. Some of us are also the ones who from time to time attend demonstrations and lend our presence to the causes we believe in. Some of us may even be the ones who organize the actions. Are we doing all that we could?

Of course not. I could do more. So could you. So, would Obama be within his rights to write a blogpost about us, complaining that we aren't doing enough? He could, but it's hard to imagine anything that would get a politician in hotter water than complaining that the voters aren't doing enough to fix the country's problems.

The voters expect their elected officials to fix things. This is a representative democracy, right? We don't have the time or the expertise or the resources or the connections or the power to fix things ourselves. That's what we pay elected officials to do. And if they don't get everything fixed fast enough, we fire them by electing someone new.

The American people seem to be expecting the President to fix the economy, even though the President doesn't run the economy. We expect our government to guarantee us that we will be able to live with dignity in our old ages, even though we don't want to pay the taxes that the government would need in order to fulfill this guaranty. We want our government to make sure our water is drinkable and air is breathable, but we don't want the government to interfere with our lives or impose burdensome regulations on companies that would pollute the air and water.

In short, we are the terrible bosses that we all complain about all the time. We expect our employees (the President and other elected officials) to do the impossible, do it immediately, do it without the money or support they need, and to give themselves pay cuts. We are constantly criticizing our employees behind their backs, insulting them to their faces, and threatening to replace them with new employees. We are pitting one employee against another, giving them conflicting orders that change on a daily basis, undermining their authority, and then giving them poor marks on their evaluations. We are the bosses from Hell.

What do employees usually do when their bosses turn out to be jerks? They stop trying to do their jobs as well as they could, and instead they put their efforts into trying to fool their bosses into thinking they are doing more than they really are. They build empires to insulate themselves from criticism and responsibility. They figure out ways to get as much for themselves as they can, rather than trying to promote the business they are working for. They spend time looking for their next jobs, so they can leave the ones they have, or so they can have somewhere to go when they are fired, which they are constantly afraid will happen because they have no feeling of being appreciated or having job security.

Our politicians, it turns out, are doing exactly what the people they represent do in their own jobs, in part because we, the people they represent, are treating them just as badly as we feel we are being treated by our own bosses, whom we resent, and dislike, and for whom we have no respect. We feel like our employers don't deserve our loyalty because they have shown us no loyalty. And when we are in the position to act as the bosses, in the electoral system, we follow the same self-destructive patterns that we have learned as employees.

We are stuck on a carousel, shouting at the guy on the horse in front of us, and he is shouting at us, and we are all going in circles. Someone is going to have to get off and show some leadership.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Commander In Chief

Every couple of days, I get an email from Obama's campaign or run across an article by one of his supporters trying to convince me that he really is doing a good job. The reason he hasn't accomplished more, they say, is because the Republicans won't let him. The criticism he has been getting for having no spine and caving in at every chance is unfair, they say.

I agree that the Republicans have been deliberately hampering Obama. They announced a long time ago that they were going to. They didn't want him to succeed, and they have been eager to let the country suffer so that they could encourage the voters to blame Obama for the nation's troubles. That's politics in this country right now. It's a sad state of affairs, but it isn't anything new. We only have two parties, which for a long time has meant that failure by the party in power helps the fortunes of the party that is out of power.

What the President's apologists ignore, in blaming the Republicans in Congress, is that there are some things the President can do all by himself, without even asking Congress. One of those things is leading the military. Our Constitution says that the President is the commander in chief of the military. He can tell the military to do whatever he wants without having to get the consent of the Senate. One of the only real limitations on the President's power to command the military is that Congress, not the President, has the power to declare war, although that provision has been ignored for a long time. Also, the money to pay for the military must be appropriated by Congress, but once the money is appropriated, the president can send the military where he wants.

Most importantly, the President has the power to send the military home. He has the power to do what he promised to do when he was campaigning, which is to stop the wars. The Republicans, no matter how determined they might be to thwart the President for their own political purposes, and no matter how large a majority they might have in Congress, could not stop the President from stopping the wars. It's his call. Congress never declared the wars we are now waging, so it can't complain if he ends the wars. Congress may have appropriated money for the military, but it can't make the President spend it to continue the fighting.

I am sure Obama is frustrated by the way the Republicans – with the aid of a lot of Democrats – are acting. The whole country is frustrated with Congress. But Obama has no excuse for not doing what he can do on his own. Unless perhaps Obama is no longer capable of commanding the military because there has been a military coup and the military is commanding itself without Presidential interference. If that has happened, he should at least tell us.

Being in command of the military is an important part of the job of a president. It is on a very short list of powers that the Constitution delegates to the president. If Obama's supporters want the American people to think he is doing a good job of being president so that we will reelect him, they're going to have to explain why he isn't even doing one of the most important parts of his job. Or if they maintain that he really is in charge of the military, they are going to have to explain why he has ordered the military to do exactly what he told us he wouldn't have them do. So far we haven't heard that explanation.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Military Waste

A recent report showed that the U.S. military paid nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars in late fees because it didn't return leased shipping containers on time. Anyone who has scolded themselves for not getting a book back to the library in time to avoid paying a dime should be able to relate to this story, but very few people will sympathize. Three-quarters of a billion dollars is a lot of money to pay for being careless.

Another report made the shipping container waste look like small potatoes. The Commission on Wartime Contracting, which was created by Congress, just reported that in just the past ten years, in Iraq and Afghanistan alone, the military has wasted between thirty and sixty billion dollars. The commission couldn't be sure of the figure, because the military does such a sloppy job of keeping track of the money it spends. Which in itself is remarkable, since the military spends more tax money than any other part of government.

As upsetting as these reports may be, they missed the mark. In fact, military waste is much larger. The truth is that almost all U.S. military spending is a waste. In the past ten years or so, military spending has approximately doubled. The increases were mostly for weapons we didn't need and for a couple of wars we shouldn't have started. So, about half of what we are now spending on the military is a waste. We could have kept military spending at the level it was at ten years ago.

Looking back just a few more years, the biggest increases in military spending were for the Viet Nam war, which we didn't need to fight, and for more weapons we never needed. Take out those increases, and our military spending would be a small fraction of what it is now. Remove our nuclear arsenal, which is useless, and we see that military spending could be even less.

So, we could drastically reduce our military expenditures simply by getting rid of these unnecessary items. But wait, there's more. Our entire military structure is built around the assumption that we should always be prepared to start, fight, and win at least two major wars at once. We should have realized by now the foolishness of such a goal. We are in two major wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and several smaller skirmishes, and it is pretty obvious we would be better off if we weren't. The simple truth is that if we hadn't been so prepared to fight, we wouldn't have been so quick to start the fights. Being less prepared is a better policy than being prepared.

Even being prepared to fight one major war is a foolhardy policy. Not so many years ago, that wasn't the central assumption of our military. We used to keep a relatively small standing military, and gear up in case of conflict. It worked fine. We won World War II that way.

Unless we look at the big picture, we will never make any progress in curtailing waste in the military. Every part of government and every private business has some waste. Waste is unavoidable, and although it can be managed, it can't be entirely eliminated. Estimates are that military waste is somewhere less than ten percent of the whole military budget. When you are looking at the trillions the military spends, even a percent or two is a lot of money, but it is still just a percent or two. Real savings can only be obtained by looking at the ninety-plus percent of the budget that isn't usually thought of as waste, but that should be. That's where the money is, and cutting there is the only way to really make a difference.