Thursday, January 31, 2013

Kerry's farewell talk in Worcester

Our dear Senator Kerry managed to give a great farewell speech as Senator, summing up all the wonderful things he did and the glories of a life of service and the tasks ahead for America, without once mentioning the words "jobs" or "unemployment". Not even when members of the audience held up signs saying "JOBS!!" 

When questioned about this after the speech, he insisted he had talked about jobs, when the talked about competitiveness. 

When challenged that jobs and unemployment are huge issues and not the same thing as competitiveness, he insisted they were and said "See my speech from yesterday." 

It's been many years since I've had the pleasure of talking to him face to face, and probably be many more until I do again. My impression is that as time goes by he gets ever more out of touch with the world of regular people, and that he either doesn't know or doesn't care that he's out of touch. 


Another interesting moment in Kerry's speech: he was talking to a roomful of freshly-scrubbed college students about the joys of public service.  He shared about how the high point of his work was when someone would call his office saying they had a problem they couldn't fix. How this place said it wasn't their job  and that place wouldn't answer a question, another place quoted some rule about what couldn't be done  and the other place kept losing the paperwork   They were at their wit's end, hitting stone walls and dead ends.  And Kerry was able to solve their problem for them!  What a wonderful feeling that is!

So what's wrong with that picture?

There are millions of us living in a world full of stone walls and dead ends, struggling to get what we need in a game that's rigged against us.  Most of us have experienced giving up in frustration.  Some of us have turned to Senators, Congressmen, State Reps and City Councillors for help.  Sometimes they can.  But does that really change anything?

What a high, to be able to reach down from the mountain top, solve somebody's problem and earn their gratitude for life.  But when the system is so messed up that it takes the intervention of a US Senator to solve what should be ordinary problems of life, wouldn't a better thing to be bragging about be how he intervened, got people doing their jobs right and removed obstacles and hurdles so that the next person won't have such a hard time?

That's not apparently how the lofty divine ones on Olympus see their role in the lives of us mere mortals.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Why the pause in Foreclosures?

Kat23 (Telegram Comments) has it right about the prospects, why new home sales aren't about to rebound. 

Foreclosures are off because the banks are taking a drubbing in the courts and legislatures and are trying to figure a new way forward. This is because their blatantly unlawful ways are catching up with them - and because homeowners are losing their fear of them and learning how to fight back! 

At every step of the way, from their part in creating the "housing bubble" all the way through to their management of properties post eviction they have been ignoring local, state and Federal laws. From their shady and deceptive practices in selling mortgages that are bound to fail (and then betting against them) to their violation of common sense, decency and legality in their loan modification negotiations, the banks have treated their borrowers as chumps, marks and victims. 

From the dubious legality of their securitization process and all the mortgage-backed securities they've foisted on gullible investors, the sloppy and illegal way they've separated the ownership of the principal from the claim on the income flow and the claim on the fees for servicing the mortgage, and their wholesale failure to follow state laws in transferring ownership from one bank to another, to to the illegal way in which they've prepared, filed and pursued foreclosures (think rob-signing,) they've trashed our entire system of real property and treated the investors as chumps. 

Even in the conduct of the foreclosure itself they've systematically flouted the law. Now we find they have completely, systematically ignored their commitments to the Attorney General in the recent settlement to end the robo-signing. 

Now that this is catching up with them they're pausing, perhaps trying to figure out how to use their control of the Federal Government to bypass our state and local courts and laws. 

In the meantime we should take courage and congratulate each other - those stats tell us we are winning for now! 

Spielberg's "Lincoln"

If "Lincoln" had been as rich in truth as it is in acting and sets, I suspect it could have been a winner.  But as it is, it deserves to fade back into obscurity because it is a repackaging of the old lie that freedom was a gift from the white man to the black man. I hope it's audience beyond the big screen is small.

I had thought that with the great and powerful movie "Glory" we had seen the beginning of a new era in which the Civil War and Emancipation would be represented as the revolution they were, with the slaves and former slaves at the center of the drama where they belong.  And I would never have expected Spielberg, so passionate about his own people's struggles for freedom and against tyranny, to have so deeply discounted those of others. Remembering his "Color Purple" however, which completely failed to place the drama in the context of the  struggles of the times, perhaps I should not have been so surprised.

The TV movie "Freedom Road" starring Muhammed Ali that came out shortly after could have helped carry this revolution in popular history forward. It's complete failure was a setback that has never been made up for. I can't find a copy of it anywhere.  Anyone curious about my comment should read the Howard Fast novel on which it was based.  I had many times imagined that novel as a movie.

Taxes - III

I can't take time today to reply at length to Proof Reader and others about taxes, but here's a start.

There are moral reasons, religious reasons, reasons based on the needs of the majority of the people, historical reasons and political reasons for solving this economic disaster by taking back the money of the very wealthy through some kind of massive redistribution. However, all of these reasons can be answered; they all depend on your perspective, what you care about, who you care about and what your values and beliefs are.

However there is another dimension of this argument - the consequences of the two views, and whether we are willing to live with them.

What I will argue is that the state of affairs we have reached now is caused by rapidly growing extreme inequality, which is unsustainable and has led inevitably to a massive economic crisis and meltdown, a crisis which is far from done. And that - whatever your beliefs and values - this path leads to disaster for us all.

After looking long and hard at the logic of this conclusion and the economic data supporting it, you may have to conclude that wealth redistribution is a practical necessity, and progressive taxation is the most orderly, least disruptive, least dangerous - and least revolutionary - way of accomplishing it.

This may require readjusting your values, beliefs and commitments.

Some of us, faced with a moment like this, retreat and take a "facts be d* * * *d" attitude. We humans however have a remarkable capacity for rationalizing necessity, so I remain hopeful. 

Taxes - Why Shifting the Burden Matters

Glenn, the key to understanding what Patrick's proposing lies in the concept of the "marginal propensity to save".

The core reason why the economy is not recovering is the lack of spending power of regular people. Unemployment is much worse than the government admits, as is inflation, and median wages are falling. The working poor spend our money right away on necessities. The very wealthy save and invest most of their income. In a healthy economy, much of this goes into job-creating investments. However, their purpose in investing is not creating jobs per se, but generating profits. If the people lack purchasing power, they will pursue investments that promise profits without the intermediate step of having to hire people to produce something and sell it.

Currently, most of the savings of the wealthy are going directly or indirectly into speculative investments - commodities, futures contracts, real estate, Federal Reserve paper, default swaps and other derivatives. These swell in value, but must inevitably collapse because they don't represent reasonable claims on the output of the real economy. In other words, they're bubbles.

In the middle are the professionals, highly skilled workers and the small business owners who have in recent years been producing most of the new jobs. Roughly, the 10%. The challenge of the tax designers and politicians is how to liberate the money the very wealthy are sitting on and put it back into circulation by contracting or direct hiring, or by putting it into the hands of people who will spend it, while as far as possible sparing those middle groups. This is complicated by our state constitutional prohibition on a progressive income tax and by the confusion being sown by the billionaire-owned media.

Patrick's proposal represents a good effort to find this balance.

By the way, thanks for putting your picture and name out there. Taking responsibility for what we write will raise the standard for these discussions. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Patrick's Tax Proposal

To my surprise, Governor Patrick's tax proposal is a major step in the right direction, and deserves our support.  To the extent that Tim Murray was responsible for this proposal we should thank him too.

The whole package, if passed together, would mark a major shift of the tax burden away from regular Mass. residents and toward those with the most money, and generate a very significant overall increase in revenue.  It would take money from those most likely to park it in speculative investments and put it in the hands of those most likely to immediately purchase goods and non-financial services.  Those in turn would generate more demand - and employment - and revenue!.  By spending the revenue back into circulation on major projects and non-financial services, to the extent that it can be channeled into local hiring, still more employment - and revenue - would be generated.

A back of the napkin calculation suggests that this tax initiative might generate - directly and indirectly - roughly 50,000 jobs, a significant dent in unemployment in a state where the real unemployment rate is at least 20%, or at least 600,000 unemployed.  

Of course if you believe the endlessly-repeated mantra that "Government Doesn't Create Jobs, only Private Industry Creates Jobs", then these couldn't be real legitimate jobs - we would have to count them as imaginary jobs - building imaginary roads?  Generating imaginary paychecks that will get spent on imaginary food, fuel and housing?

I can say with confidence that very few of the unemployed will see it that way.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

New Traffic lights on 146? Really?

The issue involving announced plans to improve the intersection of Route 146 and Boston Rd. is bigger than some intersection. It's 2013, the Interstate Highway System is nearly 60 years old, and there's still no Interstate-standard highway between Worcester and Providence? We're talking about the main connection between two important cities, the second and third largest in New England - at least one of which needs to take itself more seriously. 

Upgrading the Boston Road intersection in isolation is investing in keeping 146 it the way it is! Boston Rd. is the last traffic light on 146 between I-290 and Rhode Island, only one of two between Worcester and Providence, but that whole stretch of road, about 3 1/2 miles, needs straightening, leveling and a service road and some overpasses to eliminate driveways and intersections, and the Elm St. intersection needs rebuilding. Do it all at once or a piece at a time, but do it as part of a plan. 

While we're at it, how about rail service, or at least an express bus? How could two such cities have virtually no public transportation between them?* That cripples job seekers and separates families. Frequent bus service connecting Worcester with Providence Amtrak, Downtown Providence and TF Green Airport, with a few stops along 146 in Mass. and RI would be used by air and Amtrak travelers, commuters into both cities and the airport, job seekers and inter-city travelers. Mass., Rhode Island and TF Green could share in the cost. Worcester hotels could bid on the right to have it stop at their doors. 

There's no money you say? There's plenty of money, and plenty of folks who urgently need the work. The states and City need to step up to the plate and take that money from the people and corporations that are just sitting on it, just speculating with it. Take it and put it to work putting us to work. And do the job right! 

*There are currently two Bonanza busses daily between Worcester and a highway stop three miles outside of Providence. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Suggestions to City Council on "Panhandling" ordinance

Comment on "Pie and Coffee"    to a request by Mike Benedetti for suggestions to the City Council on "Panhandling".


Here's my (long) response to your request, posted also to PieAndCoffee:

My detailed comments and recommendations to City Council on the so-called Panhandling Resolutions:
First, "Panhandler" is a pejorative term. It implies scammer, professional beggar. I have not heard one “panhandler” use that term. Many refer to themselves as “signers”. I will use “sign-holder” because “signer” is already claimed by users of sign language.
Second: even the ones who take professional pride in their conduct, their relationships with motorists and the police, the way they help regulate who gets which corner when, are quick to say how much they hate having to do this. Not a formal denial. They’re speaking from their hearts. A few out of 35 I’ve talked to showed clear signs of addiction, incoherence, alcohol breath. One was known to behave aggressively and I saw an instance of that. (His spot is near Evo’s Restauran, btw.  I'm just saying.) The rest of the sign-holders were clear and lucid about why they were doing this, their stories, their feelings and experiences, and took pride in talking about the dignified way they conducted themselves. Pretty much, regular folk in a bad situation.  
As our fearless Social Services outreach worker pointed out, many have a diagnosis of one sort or another.  No surprise there. Providing a medical-sounding diagnosis for people's problems is one of the main products of our social service industry!  This then is used to excuse the failures of the system and dismiss the victims as beyond normal help.
Third: The sign-holders mostly don’t get much for their efforts. There are stories of sign-holders who are making a lot of money, but their story is that they have to stand and ask for hours to get the $30 or $40 they need. (One reason they give for not coming even to a meeting with food is they can’t afford to take the time away from sign-holding.)  One of the most experienced at a very good corner claims being able to average $8-10 an hour sometimes – but that’s rare. Watch them a while and see how often they collect something – usually a dollar or change. Result supports their claims of it being a hard way to get a meager living.
Fourth: If you ask sign-holders about their circumstances, ask them how much they get a month! Many are collecting SSI or SSDI, and not receiving enough to pay the rent. Many have been waiting, some for over a year, to get on SSI or SSDI. Others are unable to find work due to arrest records, age or child-care duties.
Fifth: The most common reason given for why they do this: it's the only way they can find to get enough money to pay rent, stay off the street out of the shelters and out of a tent.  So these aren't the very poorest of the poor - and sign-holding is how they are clinging to their very last finger-hold on that bottom rung of the ladder!
Sixth: Things are getting worse for the sign-holders since this campaign began.  When I first started talking with sign-holders many talked about their good relationships with the Worcester Police, how police would talk to them, even bring them sandwiches, caution them on not interfering with traffic, - some would make them move on, most not. And the few who would get out of line and harass motorists, the police would come pick them up. Now the stories of police harassment have increased a lot. Donations are down, abusive comments, threats and thrown objects from passing motorists are way up.  
The infamous young woman on Lincoln St. who was pregnant, then not pregnant, accused of being a fake pregnancy, of abusing her child by panhandling, then crippled, now walking without crutches - possibly the most hated person in Worcester - has how had her baby taken away by Child Services. Her husband was staying at home with the baby, because - hated or not - she was able to collect more money. I haven’t spoken to her since this happened.  She is by the way a very sweet, straightforward young woman with a strong will to survive.  I'm sure she's devastated.
My suggestion:
1. The Worcester City Council should commend the Worcester Police for keeping order with soliciters on sidewalks and traffic islands, encourage them to continue building relationships with signers and get tough on the ones who cause disturbances, hazards or intimidation.   Then pass no further ordinances.
2. The City Council calls a joint meeting of the appropriate Committees to determine what has happened with promises to address availability of low income no-deposit housing and getting homeless into rooms, and report back very soon with proposals for how to move this forward.
3. Included in the housing discusion should be the matter of shelter beds for people who can’t prove they’ve been Worcester residents for at least two years. Homeless and unemployed people move around looking for jobs. That doesn’t make them invaders. Out there in the cities of America and around the world are thousands of unemployed sons and daughters of Worcester wandering in search of finding a job, a home, a chance at a real life. How do we want them treated? Should they all come back to Worcester?
4. The City Council should call hearings, to which our State and US Reps are to be invited and encouraged to attend, concerning the delays and level of payments for SSI and SSDI claimants, and to produce recommendations for City, State and Federal actions to raise payments to a true subsistence level and help people survive the waiting period for their claims.

5.  Final suggestion: City Council to hold hearings, with State and US legislators invted, on General Relief, cash payments to any job seeker who has exhausted or was never able to collect. Right now for childless able-bodied individuals there is no cash assistance at all once their benefits run out.
I’m amazed frankly at how few sign-holders there are, given how many people I meet with no income at all. Nationally there are perhaps 40 million unemployed or underemployed. In Worcester proper there are easily 20,000 unemployed and involuntary part time workers, more likely 25,000. They are everywhere and they are invisible and increasingly desperate and hopeless. The sign-holders are the tip of a very large iceberg. The good leaders of our fair City need to be dealing with the iceberg.
When you remove the tip of an iceberg, more often than not it will roll over to expose a new tip, swamping anyone trying to stay on top!