Jun 29, 2015

June 29, 2015: Tragical Michigan Tour, Deep Runs the Rot, Pure Mississippi

“Michigan is winning the ‘race to the bottom’, rapidly transforming itself into the Mississippi of the Midwest”.
                         -----from the “Quotations of Chairman Joe”

As noted in a previous post (1), according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, median household income in my old home state of Michigan fell by $13,278.00 between 2000 and 2013.  According to the report a truly ‘staggering drop”.   The rot runs deep permeating the old industrial heartland and now threatening the entire nation.
In an essay entitled “Michigan: A Magical Mystery Tour of American Austerity Politics”, first appearing on the website TomDispatch and republished by Bill Moyers on the website “Moyers and Company”,  Laura Gottesdiener and Eduardo García take us on a “Magical” or, more appropriately “Tragical” tour of my beloved Michigan revealing what has befallen the great State under nearly three decades of ‘benign neglect’.  The following is the article as it appeared in almost its entirety:

“Something is rotten in the state of Michigan.

One city neglected to inform its residents that its water supply was laced with cancerous chemicals. Another dissolved its public school district and replaced it with a charter school system, only to witness the for-profit management company it hired flee the scene after determining it couldn’t turn a profit. Numerous cities and school districts in the state are now run by single, state-appointed technocrats, as permitted under an emergency financial manager law pushed through by Rick Snyder, Michigan’s austerity-promoting governor. This legislation not only strips residents of their local voting rights, but gives Snyder’s appointee the power to do just about anything, including dissolving the city itself — all (no matter how disastrous) in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

If you’re thinking, “Who cares?” since what happens in Michigan stays in Michigan, think again. The state’s aggressive balance-the-books style of governance has already spread beyond its borders. In January, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie appointed bankruptcy lawyer and former Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr to be a “legal adviser” to Atlantic City. The Detroit Free Press described the move as “a state takeover similar to Gov. Rick Snyder’s state intervention in the Motor City.”

And this spring, amid the hullabaloo of Republicans entering the 2016 presidential race, Governor Snyder launched his own national tour to sell “the Michigan story to the rest of the country.” His trip was funded by a nonprofit (fed, naturally, by undisclosed donations) named “Making Government Accountable: The Michigan Story.”

To many Michiganders, this sounded as ridiculous as Jeb Bush launching a super PAC dubbed “Making Iraq Free: The Bush Family Story.” Except Snyder wasn’t planning to enter the presidential rat race. Instead, he was attempting to mainstream Michigan’s form of austerity politics and its signature emergency management legislation, which stripped more than half of the state’s African-American residents of their local voting rights in 2013 and 2014.

As the governor jaunted around the country, Ann Arbor-based photographer Eduardo García and I decided to set out on what we thought of as our own two-week Magical Michigan Tour. And while we weren’t driving a specially outfitted psychedelic tour bus — we spent most of the trip in my grandmother’s 2005 Prius — our journey was nevertheless remarkably surreal. From the southwest banks of Lake Michigan to the eastern tips of the peninsula, we crisscrossed the state visiting more than half a dozen cities to see if there was another side to the governor’s story and whether Michigan really was, as one Detroit resident put it, “a massive experiment in unraveling US democracy.”

Stop One: Water Wars in Flint

Just as we arrive, the march spills off the sidewalk in front of the city council building.

“Stop poisoning our children!” chants a little girl as the crowd tumbles down South Saginaw Street, the city’s main drag. We’re in Flint, Michigan, a place that hit the headlines last year for its brown, chemical-laced, possibly toxic water. A wispy white-haired woman waves a gallon jug filled with pee-colored liquid from her home tap. “They don’t care that they’re killing us!” she cries.

We catch up with Claire McClinton, the formidable if grandmotherly organizer of the Flint Democracy Defense League, as we approach the roiling Flint River. It’s been a longtime dumping ground for the Ford Motor Company’s riverfront factories and, as of one year ago today, the only source of the city’s drinking water. On April 25, 2014, on the instruction of the city’s emergency manager, Flint stopped buying its supplies from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and started drawing water directly from the river, which meant a budgetary savings of $12 million a year. The downside: people started getting sick.

Since then, tests have detected E. coli and fecal bacteria in the water, as well as high levels of trihalomethanes, a carcinogenic chemical cocktail known as THMs. For months, the city concealed the presence of THMs, which over years can lead to increased rates of cancer, kidney failure and birth defects. Still, it was obvious to local residents that something was up. Some of them were breaking out in mysterious rashes or experiencing bouts of severe diarrhea, while others watched as their eyelashes and hair began to fall out.

As we cross a small footbridge, McClinton recounts how the city council recently voted to “do all things necessary” to get Detroit’s water back. The emergency manager, however, immediately overrode their decision, terming it “incomprehensible.”

“This is a whole different model of control,” she comments drily and explains that she’s now working with other residents to file an injunction compelling the city to return to the use of Detroit’s water. One problem, though: it has to be filed in Ingham County, home to Lansing, the state capital, rather than in Flint’s Genesee County, because the decision of a state-appointed emergency manager is being challenged. “Under state rule, that’s where you go to redress grievances,” she says. “Just another undermining of our local authority.”

In the meantime, many city residents remain frustrated and confused. A few weeks before the march, the city sent out two notices on the same day, packaged in the same envelope. One, printed in black-and-white, stated bluntly: “Our water system recently violated a drinking water standard.” The second, in flashy color, had this cheery message: “We are pleased to report that City of Flint water is safe and meets US Environmental Protection Agency guidelines… You can be confident that the water provided to you today meets all safety standards.” As one recipient of the notices commented, “I can only surmise that the point was to confuse us all.”

McClinton marches in silence for a few minutes as the crowd doubles back across the bridge and begins the ascent up Saginaw Street. Suddenly, a man jumps onto a life-size statue of a runner at the Riverfront Plaza and begins to cloak him in one of the group’s T-shirts.

“Honey, I don’t want you getting in any trouble!” his wife calls out to him.

He’s struggling to pull a sleeve over one of the cast-iron arms when the droning weeoo-weeooo-weeoo of a police siren blares, causing a brief frenzy until the man’s son realizes he’s mistakenly hit the siren feature on the megaphone he’s carrying.

After a few more tense moments, the crowd surges forward, leaving behind the statue, legs stretched in mid-stride, arms raised triumphantly and on his chest a new cotton T-shirt with the slogan: “Water You Fighting For?”

Stop Two: The Tri-Cities of Cancer 

The next afternoon, we barrel down Interstate 75 into an industrial hellscape of smoke stacks, flare offs and 18-wheelers, en route to another toxicity and accountability crisis. This one was caused by a massive tar sands refinery and dozens of other industrial polluters in southwest Detroit and neighboring River Rouge and Ecorse, cities which lie along the banks of the Detroit River.

Already with a slight headache from a haze of emissions, we meet photographer and community leader Emma Lockridge and her neighbor Anthony Parker in front of their homes, which sit right in the backyard of that tar sands refinery.

In 2006, the toxicity levels in their neighborhood, known simply by its zip code as “48217,” were 45 times higher than the state average. And that was before Detroit gave $175 million in tax breaks to the billion-dollar Marathon Petroleum Corporation to help it expand its refinery complex to process a surge of high-sulfur tar sands from Alberta, Canada.

“We’re a donor zip,” explains Lockridge as she settles into the driver’s seat of our car. “We have all the industry and a tax base, but we get nothing back.”

We set off on a whirlwind tour of their neighborhood, where schools have been torn down and parks closed due to the toxicity of the soil, while so many residents have died of cancer that it’s hard for their neighbors to keep track. “We used to play on the swings here,” says Lockridge, pointing to a rusted yellow swing set in a fenced-off lot where the soil has tested for high levels of lead, arsenic and other poisonous chemicals. “Jumping right into the lead.”

As in other regions of Michigan, people have been fleeing 48217 in droves. Here, however, the depopulation results not from deindustrialization, but from toxicity, thanks to an ever-expanding set of factories. These include a wastewater treatment complex, salt mines, asphalt factories, cement plants, a lime and stone foundry and a handful of steel mills all clustered in the tri-cities region.

As Lockridge and Parker explain, they have demanded that Marathon buy their homes. They have also implored the state to cap emission levels and have filed lawsuits against particularly toxic factories. In response, all they’ve seen are more factories given more breaks, while the residents of 48217 get none. Last spring, for example, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permitted the AK Steel plant, located close to the neighborhood, to increase its toxic emissions as much as 725 times. The approval, according to the Detroit Free Press, came after “Gov. Rick Snyder’s business-promoting agency worked for months behind the scenes” lobbying the Department of Environmental Quality.

“Look at this cute little tree out of nowhere over here!” Lockridge exclaims, slowing the car in front of a scrawny plant whose branches, in the midst of this industrial wasteland, bend under the weight of white blossoms.

“That tree ain’t gonna grow up,” Parker responds. “It’s dead already.”

“It’s trying,” Lockridge insists. “Aww, it’s kind of sad. It’s a Charlie Brown tree.”

The absurdity of life in such an environment is highlighted when we reach a half-mile stretch of sidewalk sandwiched between a massive steel mill and a coal-fired power plant that has been designated a “Wellness Walk.”

“Energize your Life!” implores the sign affixed to a chain-link fence surrounding the power plant. It’s an unlikely site for an exercise walk, given that the state’s health officials consider this strip and the nearby park “the epicenter of the state’s asthma burden.”

After a sad laugh, we head for Zug Island, a Homeland Security-patrolled area populated by what look to be giant black vacuum cleaners but are actually blast furnaces. The island was named for millionaire Samuel Zug, who built a lavish mansion there only to discover that it was sinking into swampland. It is now home to US Steel, the largest steel manufacturer in the nation.

On our way back, we make a final stop at Oakwood Heights, an almost entirely vacant and partially razed subdivision located on the other side of the Marathon plant. “This is the white area that was bought out,” says Lockridge. The scene is eerie: small residential streets lined by grassy fields and the occasional empty house. That Marathon paid residents to evacuate their homes in this predominantly white section of town, while refusing to do the same in the predominantly African-American 48217, which sits closer to the refinery, strikes neither Lockridge and Parker nor their neighbors as a coincidence.

We survey the remnants of the former neighborhood: bundles of ragged newspapers someone was once supposed to deliver, a stuffed teddy bear abandoned on a wooden porch and a childless triangle-shaped playground whose construction, a sign reads, was “made possible by generous donations from Marathon.”

As this particularly unmagical stop on our Michigan tour comes to an end, Parker says quietly, “I’ve got to get my family out of here.”

Lockridge agrees. “I just wish we had a refuge place we could go to while we’re fighting,” she says. “You see we’re surrounded.”

Stop Three: The Great White North

Not all of Michigan’s problems are caused by emergency management, but this sweeping new power does lie at the heart of many local controversies. Later that night we meet with retired Detroit city worker, journalist and organizer Russ Bellant who has made himself something of an expert on the subject.

In 2011, he explains, Governor Snyder signed an emergency manager law known as Public Act 4. The impact of this law and its predecessor, Public Act 72, was dramatic. In the city of Pontiac, for instance, the number of public employees plummeted from 600 to 50. In Detroit, the emergency manager of the school district waged a six-year slash-and-burn campaign that, in the end, shuttered 95 schools. In Benton Harbor, the manager effectively dissolved the city government, declaring: “The fact of the matter is, the city manager is now gone. I am the city manager. I replace the financial director, so I’m the financial director and the city manager. I am the mayor and the commission. And I don’t need them.”

So in 2012, Bellant cancelled all his commitments in Detroit, packed his car full of chocolate pudding snacks, canned juices and fliers and headed north to support a statewide campaign to repeal the law through a ballot referendum in that fall’s general election. For two months, he crisscrossed the upper reaches of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the part of the state that people say looks like a hand, as well as the remote Upper Peninsula that borders Wisconsin and Canada.

“Seven or eight hours a day, I would just knock on doors,” he says.

In November, the efforts paid off and voters repealed the act, but the celebration was short-lived. Less than two months later, during a lame-duck session of the state legislature, Governor Snyder pushed through and signed Public Act 436, a broader version of the legislation that was referendum-proof. Since then, financial managers have continued to shut down fire departments, outsource police departments, sell off parking meters and public parks. In Flint, the manager even auctioned off the plastic Santa Claus that once adorned city hall, setting the initial bidding price at $5.

And here’s one fact of life in Michigan: emergency management is normally only imposed on majority-black cities. From 2013 to 2014, 52 percent of the African-American residents in the state lived under emergency management, compared to only 2 percent of white residents. And yet the repeal vote against the previous version of the act was a demographic landslide: 75 out of 83 counties voted to nix the legislation, including all of Michigan’s northern, overwhelmingly white, rural counties. “I think people just internalized that P.A. 4 was undemocratic,” Bellant says.

That next morning, we travel north to the city of Alpena, a 97 percent white lakeside town where Bellant knocked on doors and the recall was triumphant. The farther north we head, the more the landscape changes. We pass signs imploring residents to “Take Back America: Liberty Yes, Tyranny No.” Gas stations feature clay figurines of hillbillies drinking moonshine in bathtubs.

It’s almost evening when we arrive. We spend part of our visit at the Dry Dock, a dive bar overseen by a raspy-voiced bartender where all the political and demographic divides of the state — and, in many ways, the country — are on full display. Two masons are arguing about their union; the younger one likes the protections it provides, while his colleague ditched the local because he didn’t want to pay the dues. That move became possible only after Snyder signed controversial “right-to-work” legislation in 2012, allowing workers to opt-out of union dues and causing a sharp decline in union membership ever since.

Above their heads, the television screen projects intentionally terrifying images of the uprising in Baltimore in response to the police murder of Freddie Gray, an unarmed African-American man. “The Bloods, the Crips, and the Guerrillas are out for the National Guard,” comments a carpenter about the unarmed protesters, a sneer of distain in his voice. “Not that I like the f****** cops, either,” he adds.

Throughout our visit, people repeatedly told us that Alpena “isn’t Detroit or Flint” and that they have absolutely no fear of the state seizing control of their sleepy, white, touristy city. When we press the question with the owner of a bicycle shop, the hostility rises in his voice as he explains: “Things just run the way they should here” — by which he means, of course, that down in Detroit and Flint, residents don’t run things the way they should.

Yet, misconceptions notwithstanding, the county voted to repeal Public Act 4 with a staggering 63 percent of those who turned out opting to strike down the law.

Reflecting Bellant’s feeling that locals grasped the law’s undemocratic nature in some basic way, even if it would never affect them personally, one resident offered this explanation: “When you think about living in a democracy, then this is like financial martial law… I know they say these cities need help, but it didn’t feel like something that would help.”

Stop Four: The Fugitive Task Force

The next day, as 2,000 soldiers from the 175th Infantry Regiment of the National Guard fanned out across Baltimore, we head for Detroit’s west side where, only 24 hours earlier, a law enforcement officer shot and killed a 20-year-old man in his living room.

A crowd has already gathered near his house in the early summer heat, exchanging condolences, waving signs and jostling for position as news crews set up cameras and microphones for a press conference to come. Versions of what happened quickly spread: Terrance Kellom was fatally shot when officers swarmed his house to deliver an arrest warrant. The authorities claim that he grabbed a hammer, prompting the shooting; his father, Kevin, contends Terrance was unarmed and kneeling in front of him when he was shot several times, including once in the back.

Kellom is just one of the 489 people killed in 2015 in the United States by law enforcement officers. There is, however, a disturbing twist to Kellom’s case. He was not, in fact, killed by the police but by a federal agent working with a little known multi-jurisdictional interagency task force coordinated by the US Marshals.

Similar task forces are deployed across the country and they all share the same sordid history: the Marshals have been hunting people ever since the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act compelled the agency to capture slaves fleeing north for freedom. One 19th-century newspaper account, celebrating the use of bloodhounds in such hunts, wrote: “The Cuban dog would frequently pull down his game and tear the runaway to pieces before the officers could come up.”

These days, Detroit’s task force has grown particularly active as budget cuts have decimated the local police department. Made up of federal Immigration and Customs officers, police from half a dozen local departments and even employees of the Social Security Administration office, the Detroit Fugitive Apprehension Team has nabbed more than 15,000 people. Arrest rates have soared since 2012, the same year the local police budget was chopped by 20 percent. Even beyond the task force, the number of federal agents patrolling the city has risen as well. The Border Patrol, for example, has increased its presence in the region by tenfold over the last decade and just two weeks ago announced the launch of a new $14 million Detroit station.

Kevin Kellom approaches the barricade of microphones and begins speaking so quietly that the gathered newscasters crush into each other in an effort to catch what’s he’s saying. “They assassinated my son,” he whispers. “I want justice and I’m going to get justice.”

Yet today, six weeks after Terrance’s death, no charges have been brought against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent who fired the fatal shot. Other law enforcement officers who have killed Michigan residents in recent years have similarly escaped punishment. Detroit police officer Joseph Weekley was videotaped killing seven-year-old Aiyana Jones with a submachine gun during a SWAT team raid on her home in 2010. He remains a member of the department. Ann Arbor police officer David Reid is also back on duty after fatally shooting 40-year-old artist and mother Aura Rosser in November 2014. The Ann Arbor police department ruled that a “justifiable homicide” because Rosser was holding a small kitchen knife during the encounter — a ruling that Rosser’s family members and city residents are contesting with an ongoing campaign calling for an independent investigation into her death.

And such deadly incidents continue. Since Kellom’s death, law enforcement officers have fatally shot at least three more Michigan residents — one outside the city of Kalamazoo, another near Lansing, and a third in Battle Creek.

Stop Five: The Unprofitable All-Charter School District

Our final stop is Muskegon Heights, a small city on the banks of Lake Michigan, home to perhaps the most spectacular educational debacle in recent history. Here’s the SparkNotes version. In 2012, members of the Muskegon Heights public school board were given two options: dissolve the district entirely or succumb to an emergency manager’s rule. On arrival, the manager announced that he was dissolving the public school district and forming a new system to be run by the New York-based for-profit charter school management company Mosaica Education. Two years later, that company broke its five-year contract and fled because, according to the emergency manager, “the profit just simply wasn’t there.”

And here’s a grim footnote to this saga: in 2012, in preparation for the new charter school district, cryptically named the Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System, the emergency manager laid off every single school employee.

“We knew it was coming,” explained one of the city’s longtime elementary school teachers. She asked not to be identified, so I’ll call her Susan. “We received letters in the mail.”

Then, around 1 a.m. the night before the new charter school district was slated to open, she received a voicemail asking if she could teach the following morning. She agreed, arriving at Martin Luther King Elementary School for what would be the worst year in her more than two-decade career.

When we visit that school, a single-story brick building on the east side of town, the glass of the front door had been smashed and the halls were empty, save for two people removing air conditioning units. But in the fall of 2012, when Susan was summoned, Martin Luther King was still filled with students — and chaos. Schedules were in disarray. Student computers were broken. There were supply shortages of just about everything, even rolls of toilet paper. The district’s already barebones special education program had been further gutted. The “new,” non-unionized teaching staff — about 10 percent of whom initially did not have valid teaching certificates — were overwhelmingly young, inexperienced and white. (Approximately 75 percent of the town’s residents are African-American.)

“Everything was about money, I felt, and everyone else felt it, too,” Susan says.

With her salary slashed to less than $30,000, she picked up a second job at a nearby after-school program. Her health faltered. Instructed by the new administration never to sit down during class, a back condition worsened until surgery was required. The stress began to affect her short-term memory. Finally, in the spring, Susan sought medical leave and never came back.

She was part of a mass exodus. Advocates say that more than half the teachers were either fired, quit, or took medical leave before the 2012-2013 school year ended. Mosaica itself wasn’t far behind, breaking its contract at the end of the 2014 school year. The emergency manager said he understood the company’s financial assessment, comparing the school system to “a broke-down car.” That spring, Governor Snyder visited and called the district “a work in progress.”

Across the state, the education trend has been toward privatization and increased control over local districts by the governor’s office, with results that are, to say the least, underwhelming. This spring, a report from The Education Trust, an independent national education nonprofit, warned that the state’s system had gone “from bad to worse.”

“We’re now on track to perform lower than the nation’s lowest-performing states,” the report’s author, Amber Arellano, told the local news.

Later that afternoon, we visited the city’s James Jackson Museum of African-American History, where we sat with Dr. James Jackson, a family physician and longtime advocate of community-controlled public education in the city.

He explains that the city’s now-failing struggle for local control and quality education is part of a significantly longer history. Most of the town’s families originally arrived here in the first half of the 20th century from the Jim Crow South, where public schools for Black students were not only abysmally underfunded, but also thwarted by censorship and outside governance, as historian Carter Goodwin Woodson explained in his groundbreaking 1933 study, The Mis-Education of the Negro. Well into the 20th century, for example, the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were barred from grade-school textbooks for being too aspirational. “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions,” Woodson wrote back then.

More than eight decades later, Dr. Jackson offered similar thoughts about the Muskegon Heights takeover as he led us through the museum, his bright yellow T-shirt reminding us to “Honor Black History Every Day 24/7 — 365.”

“We have to control our own education,” Jackson said, as we passed sepia newspaper clippings of civil rights marches and an 1825 bill of sale for Peggy and her son Jonathan, purchased for $371 by James Aiken of Warren County, Georgia. “Until we control our own school system, we can’t be properly educated.”

As we leave, we stop a moment to take in an electronic sign hanging in the museum’s window that, between announcements about upcoming book club meetings and the establishment’s hours, flashed this refrain in red letters:

The education of
Muskegon Heights
Belongs to the People
Not the governor

The following day, we finally arrived back in Detroit, our notebooks and iPhone audio records and camera memory cards filled to the brim, heads spinning from everything we had seen, our aging Prius-turned-tour-bus in serious need of an oil change.

While we had been bumping along on our Magical Michigan Tour, the national landscape had, in some ways, grown even more surreal. Bernie Sanders, the independent socialist senator from Vermont, announced that he was challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic ticket. Detroit neuroscientist Dr. Ben Carson — famous for declaring that Obamacare was “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery” — entered the Republican circus. And amid the turmoil, Governor Snyder’s style continued to attract attention, including from the editors of Bloomberg View, who touted his experience with “urban revitalization,” concluding: “His brand of politics deserves a wider audience.”

So buckle your seat belts and watch out. In some “revitalized” Bloombergian future, you, too, could flee your school district like the students and teachers of Muskegon Heights, or drink contaminated water under the mandate of a state-appointed manager like the residents of Flint, or be guaranteed toxic fumes to breathe like the neighbors of 48217, or get shot like Terrance Kellom by federal agents in your own living room. All you have to do is let Rick Snyder’s yellow submarine cruise into your neighborhood.” (2)

These five ‘vignettes’, are snapshots if you will, of contemporary life in what was once the industrial heartland of America.  A compelling portrait of how deep runs the rot.  Once a Mecca for millions of Southern Whites, Blacks, Latinos and others in their quest to get a purchase on the middle class Michigan has become, in the hands of men like John Engler and Rick Snyder, a ‘hollowed out’ dumping ground (3), with rapidly deteriorating standards of living, tax base, education and infrastructure where truly the conservative ideal has become the community’s nightmare; a ‘Bell Weather’ example of where the American Dream goes to die.

In my early 50’s I left the state of Michigan for points south in search of employment, a journey with mixed results, for I had learned early in life that what happens to me happens to my community, what happens to my community happens to my state, and what happens to my state happens to my country.  Indeed Snyder and his fellow Rescumlicans, waving flags of ‘freedom’, have a cruise waiting for you.


(1)  See  March 23, 2015: Malignancy of Swine, Turning of the Screws, Marrow of the Republic

(2)  http://billmoyers.com/2015/06/12/michigan-a-magical-mystery-tour-of-american-austerity-politics/

(3)  Former Michigan Governor John Engler is best remembered for allowing Canada to use Michigan as a dumping ground, importing waste from Ontario.  It was under his administration that the State began to go ‘south’, transforming Michigan into the Louisiana if not the Mississippi of the midwest.













Jun 25, 2015

June 25, 2015: Measuring the Middle Class, Race to the Bottom, Assault on the Republic

“Without a Middle Class, there can be no republic”
                                ----from “The Quotations of Chairman Joe”

Sam Becker, writing in an article published online, has given us a few of the emerging statistics cataloguing the decline of America’s Middle Class and, perhaps, the United States itself.  In an article entitled “5 States Where the Middle Class Is Being Destroyed”, Becker cites a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts published through its Stateline blog.  The study found that the middle class has, between 2000 and 2013, shrunk in every single state concluding “that there was truly nowhere to hide from the economic downturn that began in late 2008.” Additionally, the “fall in middle class ranks was also accompanied by drops in median income in most states as well” (1)

Measuring the “Middle Class” as being those households making “between 67% and 200% of the state’s median income” Becker reports that Nevada and Vermont lost 5% of its middle class; with North Dakota 5.1% and Ohio reporting a 5.2% decline of the middle class as a percentage of their populations.  The state hardest hit was Wisconsin losing 5.7% of its middle class, where median income had dropped by $9000.00 annually.   Nevada had been hit hard by mortgage foreclosures and the collapse of the real estate market; Vermont’s woes are attributed to the number of senior citizens that make up the population and their reliance on fixed incomes.  The oil boom in North Dakota has fueled inflation and the prosperity, such as it is, has not been shared.  In Ohio, the exporting of good paying manufacturing jobs has devastated the middle class with adjusted median incomes (adjusted for inflation) falling from $56,400 in 2000 to “only $48,000” by 2013. (1). 
In the ‘race to the bottom, Wisconsin, however, was our clear winner, losing 5.7% of its standing in the population and roughly $9,000.00 in annual household purchasing power.  The state’s response has been to ‘gut’ the unions and further erode wage and living standards portending a long recovery or, perhaps, no possible recovery at all.

The causes are many and varied and decades in the making.  To be sure the country has been hit unevenly, as is always the case during any upheaval.  Normally change brings with it a mixed result featuring pockets of prosperity and despair.  What has characterized this recession is the near universal experience now threatening the very existence of America’s middle class, portending not only a decline in purchasing power but in political power as well.  Nevada has seen its middle class decline from a majority of 53.6, to a minority of 48.8% of the population.  Vermont likewise has a minority Middle Class with 47.4% of the population, now so numbered.  North Dakota too now numbers its Middle Class in the minority at 47.5.  None of these developments are healthy for either the economy or the republic.

I have discussed, in these columns, the importance of a strong, vibrant, and all-encompassing middle class.(2)  A republic cannot function without such a Middle Class.  A Middle Class is a prerequisite for the very creation of a republic, the very foundation upon which it stands.  Without it the “republic” will either fail to come into being or it will degenerate into either an Oligopoly or a military dictatorship; a mere “Banana Republic”, a hollow mockery, a cruel hoax.  The Middle Class is under assault and so, by extension, is the foundation of the very republic itself. 
(1). http://www.cheatsheet.com/business/5-states-where-the-middle-class-is-being-bulldozed.html/?a=viewall

(2).  See January 13, 2008: Banana Republic, Transcendental Meditation







Jun 24, 2015

June 24, 2015: Another Tragedy, Confronting Revisionism, Get Over It

“No one - no matter where he lives or what he does - can be certain who will suffer from some senseless act of bloodshed. And yet it goes on and on and on in this country of ours.”

                         ---Senator Robert F. Kennedy April 5, 1968

 It’s the same old story, another tragedy involving guns in America, this time with a hefty dose of overt racism.  Last week a deranged little punk sat in a prayer meeting in a black church in Charleston South Carolina.  As the meeting was drawing to a close, he stood up, pulled out a revolver and shot and killed 9 people, including the pastor and state legislator. The NRA, with its usual knee-jerk justifications said through a spokesman that the fault lay with the dead pastor and legislator who voted against allowing citizens to carry guns in public places, including church services. 
The young man said he wanted to kill some black people and start a revolution.  What he started was a revulsion in which the country recoiled at yet another senseless act of violence; in this instance a racial hate crime.  In the aftermath, calls have gone out to take down the confederate flag from public buildings, a reaction I’m sure the psychopath had not anticipated.  Not only the Southern Law Center, but the Republican Governor of South Carolina and the Republican Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives have called for the removal of what has become a symbol of hatred, racism, and oppression.

I’ve been following developments as they take their usual course.  Faux News, pandering as usual to the unwashed and the racists in this country has accused liberals of using the tragedy to further an agenda, some denying that the crime was racially motivated.  While Mitt Romney has called for the removal of the ‘stars and bars’ others, including most of the candidates for president in the Republican field, have moved to defend the symbol of racism. Still others have chosen to remain, for the time being, silent. 
On the internet one encounters the usual palaver regarding the use of the old confederate standard.  Here is one such post:

“You liberals just look for people's lives to mess up don't you? Why not let everyone live how they want too and accept us southerners and our passion our our heritage? This is so heartbreaking and a is a blatant attack on one group of people because of their beliefs. Why can't you just let us live in peace”.

To which I replied:

“To be against the slave republic is not liberal or conservative. These swine have been the only people to mount an armed rebellion against the republic of the United States in our entire history and as such should have been tried as traitors not 'honored' as patriots. In fact, if you study the lead up to the civil war you will discover that it was largely through gerrymandering that states like Virginia and North Carolina seceded from the Union. The residents in the mountain regions of Virginia in fact seceded from the state in outrage over the rigging of the vote to secede. Every state in the confederacy had a military contingent in the union army except South Carolina. Instead of celebrating the morally indefensible 'heritage' you claim, admit defeat. You lost, it was in all the papers, get over it.”

Not content to leave it there, he issued a summary clarification:

“Joseph, I take it that you have not read the Confederate constitution. They outright prohibited foreign slave trade in an attempt to lower the enslaved population (eventually to zero). The war was not over slavery. Abraham Lincoln said it himself when he was interviewed in a newspaper article, simply saying, "If I could have preserved the union and freed all the slaves, I would have done it. If I could have preserved the union and freed some and left others alone, I would have done it. If I could have preserved the union without freeing one single slave, then I would have done it."

The war for the north was about preserving the union, and the war for the south was about protecting their states from an overly powerful government.

Also, the Confederacy did not invade the United states. It was not an armed rebellion, but a peaceful session until the union invaded the Confederacy.

And may I remind you that the only flag that flew over slave ships as they were imported to America was the American flag. America itself was the "slave republic" and somehow gets away with it. I still love America and honor both sides who died in thar war. I love the history and I love where my heritage came from. What about the black people now who are protesting across the country and flying the Panafrican flag, a country who still practices slavery?”

To which I responded:

“There is no doubt that the war was about slavery. Why else did the south secede? It was because the country elected a president committed to preventing the spread of the 'peculiar' institution into the newly acquired territories taken from Mexico. In fact both Lincoln and Alexander Stevens (vice-president of the confederacy) opposed Polk's war precisely because they feared that conflict over the issue of slavery as it pertained to any newly acquired territories would threaten the 'balance' of slave vs free states and tear the union apart. The fact is that the South, when confronted with election returns that they didn't agree with chose to revolt.


 It was Steven Douglas' idea of 'popular sovereignty’ that is opening up the question of whether a state would be free or a slave state that rekindled the conflict and brought Lincoln back into politics.


 I have read the confederate constitution and there is no provisions in it for, as you suggest, lowering the slave population. Limiting or ending the slave trade was a fait accompli by 1860 since the British, headed by Wilberforce, had outlawed the trade, as had the United States by that time. There were about 4 million enslaved in the U.S. in 1860, more than enough to sustain population growth. In addition more money was invested in slaves than all the industry, banking, and railroads of the north. To suggest a speedy end to slavery under a regime established and committed to the institution is defy both history and logic.


 Lastly, I would suggest you read the works of John C. Calhoun and his leadership during the 'nullification' crisis of 1832. The conflict was long in the making, threats of nullification and secession longstanding, and finally came to a head when the south was presented with an electoral outcome that threatened their 'peculiar' institution.” (1)

I left it to others to point out that ‘Panafrican’ is not a country and has no national flag, it is a twentieth century political movement attempting to unite the continent much as the European Union is working to unite Europe but with less success.

My point here is that in nearly every political discourse one confronts a version of ‘revisionism’, in this case that the civil war was about anything other than slavery and that somehow the slave system was either ‘on its way out’ or somehow benign.  None of these points are valid.

To be against the display of the old ‘stars and bars’ is neither liberal nor conservative; it is, simply, patriotic.  To oppose the symbol of the only armed rebellion against the duly constituted authority of this government is patriotism by definition.  In fact a true ‘conservative’—defender of established institutions-- would abhor the very thought of armed insurrection.







Jun 22, 2015

June 21, 2015: American Psychosis, Cruel Hoax, Strangling the American Dream

The American belief that we are the most ‘blessed’ nation, and that we are number one by virtually any measure has been for some time now, complete nonsense.  Over the past three decades the cumulative effect of the disinvestment in our infrastructure, our workers, our education, has had an increasingly negative impact on the quality of life in these United States.  The full-throated cry of “We’re No. 1!” one hears at every campaign rally and sees at every political convention as well as the conservative movement’s blind assertions of ‘American Exceptionalism’ betray a growing psychosis in the American psyche.  A psychosis illustrated by the growing disparity between who we so steadfastly proclaim to be and who we actually are.  Increasingly, the ‘shining city upon a hill’, and the ‘land of opportunity’, is becoming mere illusion.  The promise that was once America has become a hollow echo, a cruel hoax.

Consider the numbers: Nicolas Kristof, writing in the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, We in the United States grow up celebrating ourselves as the world’s most powerful nation, the world’s richest nation, the world’s freest and most blessed nation.”  It is a delusion from which we need to disabuse ourselves.

In fact, according to Kristof, we rank 16th among developed nations in “livability”, 70th in health, and 39th in basic education; 34th in access to water, and sanitation and, thanks to the terrorist organization that is the NRA, 31st in personal safety. “Even in access to cell phones and the Internet, the United States ranks a disappointing 23rd, partly because one American in five lacks Internet access.” 

“The Social Progress Index is a brainchild of Michael E. Porter, the eminent Harvard business professor who earlier helped develop the Global Competitiveness Report. Porter is a Republican whose work, until now, has focused on economic metrics.

“This is kind of a journey for me,” Porter told me. He said that he became increasingly aware that social factors support economic growth: tax policy and regulations affect economic prospects, but so do schooling, health and a society’s inclusiveness.

So Porter and a team of experts spent two years developing this index, based on a vast amount of data reflecting suicide, property rights, school attendance, attitudes toward immigrants and minorities, opportunity for women, religious freedom, nutrition, electrification and much more.

Many who back proposed Republican cuts in Medicaid, food stamps and public services believe that such trims would boost America’s competitiveness. Looking at this report, it seems that the opposite is true.

Ireland, from which so many people fled in the 19th century to find opportunity in the United States, now ranks 15th. That’s a notch ahead of the United States, and Ireland is also ahead of America in the category of “opportunity.”

Canada came in seventh, the best among the nations in the G-7. Germany is 12th, Britain 13th and Japan 14th.” (1)
Moreover, the distribution of wealth within each country produces some surprising results.  Comparatively, the United States in recent decades has not fared so well.  

“Overall, the United States’ economy outperformed France’s between 1975 and 2006. But 99 percent of the French population actually enjoyed more gains in that period than 99 percent of the American population. Exclude the top 1 percent, and the average French citizen did better than the average American. This lack of shared prosperity and opportunity has stunted our social progress” (1)
Clearly, it is long past time that we Americans reevaluate our estimation of ourselves, and reassess our position in the world; for we are no longer the champions of anything.  We are the world’s most powerful nation, but it is a hollow boast for our military power no longer rests on the world’s largest economic engine, but instead upon a growing mountain of debt.   It is also becoming increasingly clear that we are no longer that ‘shining city upon a hill’, that noble example beckoning the world to follow, but instead a humdrum run-of-the-mill contemporary society, struggling to adjust to the ‘new world order’.  To boldly declare that ‘we are number 1’ is to not only shout our ignorance from the ramparts and to display our confusions for all the world to see, but to betray a deep and growing psychosis wherein our collective self-image diverges and is increasing at variance with demonstrable reality.  Increasingly as the Friedmanesque conservative ideological imperative strangles the ‘American Dream”, it is imperative that the rest of the world does not follow. It is a rat-hole from which there may be no escape.  Look at the numbers.  
(1).  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/03/opinion/were-not-no-1-were-not-no-1.html?_r=1

Jun 19, 2015

June 18, 2015: The Great Boar, Losing His Squeal, Better for It

Rush Limbaugh, the greatest ‘boar’ on talk radio, has been haranguing audiences for well over a quarter century parlaying vituperation into millions of dollars.  In so doing he has not only given ‘honor’ to ignorance but has transformed himself into the mouthpiece of a generation.  He has become the very squeal of the swine.

Eric Boehlert, writing in “Salon”, comments on the impending demise of the reigning conservative oracle:


“Limbaugh’s ongoing major market woes can be traced to his 2012 on-air meltdown over Sandra Fluke, where he castigated and insulted the graduate student for three days on his program, calling her a “slut” and suggesting she post videos of herself having sex on the Internet. (Fluke’s sin in the eyes of Limbaugh was testifying before Congress in favor of contraception mandates for health care insurance.)

The astonishing Limbaugh monologues sparked an unprecedented advertiser exodus, which means selling his show has become a major lift for the affiliate stations that pay a hefty fee for the right to carry his program. The Wall Street Journal has reported on the millions of dollars in advertising revenue that Limbaugh’s host stations lose because of the talker’s stigma on Madison Avenue.” (1)

He’s lost KLN in Nebraska (2), his spot on Indianapolis’ flagship talk radio station, WLS in Chicago and his premier place in the Boston radio markets.   The great boar is losing his squeal not simply because of disgraceful on-air commentary, but because the Boomers are getting older and, it appears, increasingly irrelevant.
Jason Easley, in an essay appearing in “Politicususa” has given other reasons why the full-throated squeal is being reduced to a mere whimper: The advertiser boycott touched off by Limbaugh’s unseemly assault on Sandra Fluke brought public attention to the sewer that conservative talk radio has become.

“[B]ut as Republican Daryl Parks wrote when rumors of Limbaugh getting moved to a smaller station in Chicago surfaced, radio station executives don’t want Limbaugh, but literally can’t give him away, “The Chicago rumors come as no surprise to me, as three different Cumulus executives have told me on different occasions they wish they could get rid of Limbaugh’s show and they can’t sell it.” ‘(3)

“Parks also explained why these stations are stuck with Limbaugh, “Premiere Networks and its owner Clear Channel Media + Entertainment iHeart Media has crammed down Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck on its talk stations, not allowing local stations to make needed changes to their programming, changes that could provide some hope of staying relevant. It was a great business model…in the 20th century! In business speak it’s called “vertical integration.” The company produces the product and then uses its distribution arm, its radio stations, to broadcast the shows. Guaranteed clearance, plus in Limbaugh’s case and some of Hannity’s stations, the local stations have to pay a “rights fee” in addition to the barter commercial inventory they broadcast from the network. There was no negotiation whether to broadcast the show or what fee was to be paid. Here’s the number you pay was the only conversation during the budget process. This, as you can imagine, affected cash flow and coupled with the increasing demands for talk stations to generate more profit, it forced local stations to lay-off other talk hosts, producers and gut news departments. Talented people left the radio business and the death spiral for talk radio began. It began years ago.”

“The radio stations don’t get a choice. They are being forced to carry Limbaugh while paying for the privilege of giving three hours of airtime to a host whose audience is even older than those who watch Fox News.” (3)

Rush Limbaugh and Conservative talk radio have become the bane of the industry in nearly all the major markets.  The Sandra Fluke scandal, of course, sparked a national outcry with groups like “Flush Rush” working to organize an effective national boycott of his sponsors. 
But this is only half the story.  There is another, more significant, reason that Conservative Talk has fallen beneath Sports and Limbaugh now has a smaller audience in New York and Los Angeles than Spanish radio stations (3).  His audience is getting older and, increasingly, irrelevant.  

“Younger people across the political spectrum don’t listen to talk radio. Stations that carry Limbaugh are losing both listeners and money.” (3)

 When Indianapolis’ flagship station WIBC announced it was dropping Limbaugh, Charlie Morgan, executive of Emmis Communications acknowledged the damage resulting from the Fluke Scandal and the departure of national advertisers.  But he also said the decision was about “the long-term direction” of the station. (4)  With similar demographics, conservative talk-radio is selling at roughly half the income of conventional music formats. (4). 
As Limbaugh’s empire unravels the remaining stations in his broadcast network will be looking to dump him as soon as their contracts expire with few eager step in (1).  Meanwhile he is being moved from flagship stations, as in the case of his Boston affiliate, to a station that has .06 percentage of the market share; the cellar-dwelling outpost of WKOX. 

These are welcome events, demonstrating not only the power of grass-roots organization and protest, but the loss of audience and impending demise of the most egregious mouthpiece of the generation of swine. Both radio and the republic will be the better for it. 

(1).  See Boehlert, Eric. “Rush Limbaugh’s downward spiral continues: Another demotion, another step toward irrelevancy” http://www.salon.com/2015/06/18/rush_limbaughs_downward_spiral_continues_another_demotion_another_step_to_irrelevancy_partner/

(2) See Salzillo, Leslie. “Rush Limbaugh Plagued With Deserting Radio Stations, Sponsors, And Now - Dead Air?” http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/08/27/1324916/-Rush-Limbaugh-Plagued-With-Deserting-Radio-Stations-And-Now-Dead-Air#

(3).  See Easley, Jason. “Rush Limbaugh’s Ratings Are So Bad That Radio Stations No Longer Want His Show” http://www.politicususa.com/2015/04/27/rush-limbaughs-ratings-bad-radio-stations-longer-show.html

(4). See Carusone, Angelo.  Rush Limbaugh Dropped By Longtime Indianapolis Station” http://mediamatters.org/blog/2015/04/13/rush-limbaugh-dropped-by-longtime-indianapolis/203265