Our Other Civil War.

This past Labor Day should give us pause to consider its real meaning. More than a 3-day weekend, the unofficial end of summer and a shopping holiday, it’s a celebration of labor – the hard-working men and women who built this nation. In many ways, it also represent the end of our second civil war.

The war began in the late 1800’s when wealthy industrialists discovered they could exploit the flood of new immigrants by forcing them to work long hours in dangerous conditions, all the while paying them barely subsistence wages. The battlefields were in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Reading, San Francisco, and on Blair Mountain, West Virginia. The combatants were ordinary working people demanding living wages and safe working conditions who were often attacked by armies of security companies, law enforcement…even veterans from the American Legion.

The battles raged for decades until workers finally won the right to organize and negotiate with their employers. This collective bargaining, as it came to be called, eventually brought us the 5-day, 40-hour work week. It brought us paid holidays, paid sick leave, workers’ compensation insurance, and retirement benefits. Collective bargaining ended the practice of forcing men, women and children to work in dimly-lit, poorly-ventilated sweat shops. It ended company stores which were used to accumulate workers’ debt and hold workers captive from cradle to grave.

Even if you have never joined a labor union, you benefit from the efforts of those brave enough to fight the establishment.

Unfortunately, the exploitation only ended in the United States and other advanced nations. The descendants of the industrialists – the CEOs and directors of large, multi-national corporations – merely exported the exploitation elsewhere…to countries lacking collective bargaining. They simply moved their factories to China, to Bangladesh, to India, to Pakistan, to Indonesia, to Malaysia, to Viet Name and elsewhere. In those countries which have few government regulations and no labor unions, they are free to force workers to slave away in sweat shops, often paid by the piece and made to work seven days a week.

Of course, this is no longer called exploitation. It is now called globalization. And, whether or not we care to admit it, we all participate in this exploitation. US corporations get their products made at lower cost and American consumers benefit from lower prices. Corporate shareholders see dividends and higher profits. And while the corporations despoil the land, air and water of other countries, we can breathe more easily because the pollution is out of our sight and, therefore, out of our minds.

So what can you do to stop the exploitation? You can vow to purchase products that are humanely made and sustainably grown. You can divest your investment portfolio of the corporations that are the worst offenders. You can write letters to the leaders of those companies. You can boycott their products. And we can end the current war on collective bargaining began when Ronald Reagan, a former union leader himself, betrayed PATCO, the air traffic controllers’ union. You can support collective bargaining for teachers, first responders and government workers. And you can demand that your company have a representative of its workers on the Board of Directors as is the case in many European companies.

Then, and only then, will we be able to truly celebrate Labor Day.

Democracy Lost.

In recent years, much has been written about growing inequality. It is, indeed, one of the most important issues of our time. And the effects of big money on our democracy have been devastating.

Sure, you may still be able to vote to elect those who are supposed to represent you. But that, alone, does not constitute democracy. Not only are the choices of candidates limited to two individuals – the only two who were able to climb their way up the political ladder in order to receive their parties’ blessings and, more important, their campaign funds. All too often, those who are elected are promised large campaign donations by corporations and industries in exchange for political favors. It is not necessarily quid pro quo, but the expectation for a return on the investment is there. So, too is the pressure.

In reality, such high stakes lobbying has long been a part of politics. But, over the past 35 years, things have gotten even worse.

In the late seventies, large US corporations began to see their hold on the world economy slip. New, lower-priced, high-quality imports – many of them made with robotics – from Japan and Germany began to push aside American-made products. US corporations responded by relocating manufacturing – first to the South, then off-shore – in search of lower-priced labor.

Perhaps, the most destructive response was the move to tie CEO compensation to the value of the companies’ share prices. This ushered in an era of ever-increasing CEO salaries and even more lucrative stock options for CEOs – a legalized form of insider trading. The result was for US corporations to seek ever lower-priced labor in countries where there is no regulation and no employee benefits. At the same time corporate profits have soared, employee salaries and corporate investments in the future have diminished – almost guaranteeing that the future will belong to foreign-based corporations. But why would our CEOs care? They and their money will be long gone before it matters.

Our corporations have used the threat of off-shoring jobs to extort our state and city governments. In exchange for their extortion, those governments have assumed many of the risks of corporate relocation or expansion by paying for needed infrastructure, cutting regulations, and delaying or eliminating corporate taxes.

Now these corporations are attempting to extort the federal government.

Unwilling to pay US income taxes on profits made off-shore, these corporations are stashing cash in foreign banks until the federal government agrees to “repatriate” the money at a greatly reduced tax rate. Of course, they’re justifying the extortion by saying that “repatriation” will lead to greater investments and more jobs in the US – the great “trickle down” fraud.

In reality, the money is more likely to be doled out to CEOs and other executives in the form of bonuses (as a reward for robbing ordinary taxpayers) and stock options.

In the meantime, corporations and billionaires have been working to rig the system. Realizing that buying Congress and our state legislatures is cheaper than paying lobbyists, people like the Koch brothers have stuffed the pockets of candidates willing to do their bidding. To pave the way, they pushed conservatives to stack the Supreme Court with ideologues such as Alito, Roberts, Scalia and Thomas. That inevitably led to favorable court rulings giving corporations the rights of people and all but eliminating limitations on political donations. They got the IRS to change its rules allowing “non-profits” to fund political campaigns. When they won control of legislatures, they gerrymandered congressional districts making it all but impossible for anyone but “their people” to win office. And they introduced Voter ID laws to suppress the votes of minorities and the poor.

In 2014, their efforts finally came to fruition. Having already bought the House in 2010, they now own the Senate. It’s no coincidence that the first bills to reach the House and Senate floors were to repeal “Obamacare” and to build the Koch…er…Keystone XL Pipeline. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also made it clear that issues such as raising the minimum wage, equal pay for equal work, unemployment insurance and student loan costs will be pushed aside in favor of gutting regulations on health care and financial services and eviscerating the EPA.

If you’re still worried about the effects of so-called “dark money” on our democracy, don’t. Last year, our democracy officially became an oligarchy.

Many Problems, One Cause.

Every single day, I receive emails and letters from dozens of organizations seeking help: The Sierra Club, World Wildlife Fund, Oceana, Greenpeace, Walk Free, UNICEF, Care, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Mercy Corps, No Kid Hungry, Food and Water Watch, Organic Consumers Association, ACLU, Everytown for Gun Safety…the list goes on and on.

While each of these organizations are focused on meeting separate and specific needs, they all have one thing in common. The problems they have been created to solve are all caused by greed…the greed of large corporations, the greed of politicians, the greed for power and profits.

For example, 80 percent of all antibiotics are used by factory farms to ensure they don’t lose their investment in poultry, hogs and beef cattle. Our rivers and oceans are polluted by the run-off of chemicals from corporate farms. Bee colonies are being destroyed by the makers of pesticides. Our beaches and oceans are polluted by off-shore oil drilling. Our fresh water aquifers are polluted from the fracking of oil and gas companies. Our forests are being denuded by large lumber companies. Entire mountains have been decapitated by coal companies. Our reefs are being destroyed by cruise ships and large corporate fishing factories. Natural grain crops are being replaced by genetically modified “Frankenfoods” created by chemical companies. Our air is polluted by factories and carbon-burning power plants. Our streets are filled with people carrying guns pushed by the NRA and gun manufacturers. Our skyrocketing poverty is caused by greedy corporations paying below-subsistence wages. Our governments run deficits as the result of corporate giveaways and tax write-offs. All of these things are enabled by a Congress with politicians elected by large sums of money from billionaires hoping to avoid taxes and corporations hoping to avoid regulation. And the issues are under-reported by corporate media conglomerates that are more intent on advertising revenue than telling the truth.

The result of our runaway corporate society is a planet in dire trouble. Hundreds of species of animals and plants are plummeting toward extinction. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are causing new, untreatable infections. Pollutants in our air, water and food are causing chronic diseases such as asthma, autism, and birth deformities. Oil profits and weapons exports have led to a perpetual state of war. Increased gun sales and weakened laws have led to unsafe streets and mass shootings. And carbon pollution is changing our weather, melting our ice caps and increasing our sea levels.

There is only one way to solve our growing collection of problems. We must elect politicians who understand the cause of our problems; who are not financed by corporations and billionaires; who are more interested in solving problems than getting elected.

How can you tell the difference between one politician versus another? Look at their lists of donors and endorsements. (If their websites don’t list the donors, call their campaign office and ask.) Look at the disclaimers at the end of the commercials. If the ads aren’t paid for by the candidate’s campaign committee or political party, vote for the opponent. Or failing all of that, vote for the candidate who slings the least mud.

Let’s Try To Become The Nation Our Founders Imagined.

In reading The Untold History Of The United States by Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick (a gut-wrenching, powerful and well-documented book), it’s clear that, contrary to what we were taught in history classes, the US has long been a cruel and greedy empire.

For more than 200 years, we have engaged in wars of choice with no other purpose than to capture territory and extract resources. We have brutally murdered, tortured and subjugated indigenous peoples, all the while patting ourselves on the back for bringing them “Christianity” and “civilization.” We perfected mass murder and water boarding in the Philippines. We forced China, Japan and Korea to bow to our wishes for trade. We exerted our will in the Caribbean and South America in order to claim their resources and protect the interests of our corporations.

We occupied Cuba, Dominica, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama and the Philippines. After World War II, we occupied Germany, Italy and Japan. We have sent our troops to every corner of the Earth and have long ruled the air and the seas. According to Stone and Kuznick, “by 2002, we had some form of military presence in 132 of the UN’s then 190 member nations.” And, by my best estimates, we have been at war for all but 33 years of our history.

Why? It mostly has to do with business.

We forced our will upon nations in order to control their gold, silver, copper, aluminum, rubber, sugar, fruit, land, even drugs. More recently, on behalf of our industries, we have pursued oil in the Middle East. We helped to overthrow democratically-elected governments in Chile, Iran, Iraq and elsewhere. We supported and trained death squads in El Salvador and Nicaragua. And we have bullied almost everyone else.

All the while, we celebrated our victories along with our good intentions.

Is it any wonder, then, that our people have long admired the Romans? In reality, we are them; a power-hungry nation of avarice and cruelty. Like the Romans, we believed that the gods or, in our case, God was on our side. We called it Manifest Destiny; the God-given right and responsibility to govern all those people we considered incapable of governing themselves. Of course, “those people” just happened to be people of color.

We have become the kind of empire our forefathers fought to escape. The Founding Fathers had high ideals; that all people are equal and have a right to life, liberty and happiness. Yes, many held slaves, but many wrestled with that fact and sought a way to end slavery while holding the states together. For example, although he was a slave holder, Thomas Jefferson wanted to bring slavery to an end. In recognition of the complex politics of the issue, he likened slavery “to having a wolf by the ears. You can neither hang on nor let go.”

We can’t change the past, but we can change the future. We must strive to be better; to lift people the world over out of poverty; to support and restore freedom; to end hunger; to rein in greed; to help educate children; to create jobs; to increase the sustainability of our all-too-fragile planet.

We may never be able to end wars, but we should make them increasingly rare. We should have a strong defense, but we cannot and should not be the self-appointed police of the planet. That was never the intention of the Framers. Rather, they believed that we should be an example to others; a model of liberty and justice for all.

We haven’t been, but we still can be.

A Nation Of Crises.

Every day I receive dozens of emails and letters asking me to help save the oceans, save the environment, save children, save wildlife, save food stamps, increase the minimum wage, stop voter suppression, stop global warming, stop the pipeline, stop racism, stop the attacks on women’s rights, stop the attacks on education, stop the attacks on science, demand gun control, end hunger, end poverty, etc., etc., etc…

It’s all very depressing.

Of course, these are all very real and serious issues, and the organizations asking for help are well-run and well-intentioned. They deserve our support. But I finally realized that all of the issues are related. They are all the result of corporate greed and ideological candidates supported by billionaires and big business.

Our oceans are being destroyed by greedy oil companies and by large, commercial fishing operations. Our air and water are being polluted by corporations who would rather dump toxins into the environment than sacrifice a portion of their profits to clean up after themselves. Poverty and hunger are the result of corporations who are more intent on rewarding investors and executives with large bonuses than paying workers a livable wage. Global warming is the result of corporate-backed congressmen who prioritize subsidies for oil companies over subsidies for alternative energy sources.

Many chronic health issues and diseases are the result of corporate farming practices and food processing companies that intentionally poison our food in order to increase profits. The attacks on science, education and voter rights are designed and paid for by large corporations in order to maintain control of our government. The lack of funding for social safety nets such as food stamps, Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are the result of corporate fraud and abuse, as well as tax loopholes that allow corporations and the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.

Almost every one of our problems is the result of large, multinational corporations and the billionaires who run them treating the Earth as a source of commercial resources and people as commodities.

Since I can’t afford to donate to every good cause, I’ve decided to donate to candidates who place people above corporations.

I will vote against candidates who support corporations that pay employees a minimum wage while paying CEOs millions; that damage our environment and our food supply. I will vote against those who accept large donations from such corporations regardless of which party they represent. I will not spend another dime to purchase products and services from corporations that harm our citizens, our nation and our environment.

If corporations only care about money, I will deny them the thing they want most. I hope you will consider doing the same.

Detroit Is Merely The Canary In The Coal Mine.

It’s popular for conservatives to blame the bankruptcy of the City of Detroit on a history of Democratic leadership. Indeed, the conservative commentators seem to revel in the city’s troubles. And since Detroit has a high percentage of African-Americans, the problems also conveniently fit their racist narrative.

The wingnuts believe that this simply couldn’t happen to a government run by white conservatives.

Hmmm…What about California? Following a government led by Ronald Reagan and, more recently, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state was teetering on the abyss. But after a return to Democratic leadership, California is regaining economic health and running surpluses. The same can be said for Minnesota.

Detroit’s problems aren’t merely the fault of city leadership. The state of Michigan has failed to deliver the aid it promised. But the real problems are the result of national and international politics. As part of globalization, greedy corporations shipped Detroit’s manufacturing jobs out of state and out of country in order to avoid paying for employee health care and pensions. In addition, many of the city’s mostly white executives fled to the suburbs leaving the poor and the unemployed to pick up the tab for their excesses.

Given the many factors contributing to the city’s financial problems, it would have been virtually impossible for Detroit to overcome them by itself. Detroit didn’t create the problems on its own. It shouldn’t have to face them alone.

Moreover, Detroit may be just the first large city to declare bankruptcy. Other cities that were once home to large manufacturing plants are facing many of the same difficulties. And, depending on what happens in Detroit, they may follow its lead.

Sadly, the situation in Detroit reminds me of the aftermath of natural disasters. When the Midwest was devastated in the nineties by floods, many on the East Coast objected to paying for disaster relief. Many across the nation objected to paying to help New York City after 9/11. Many objected to the cost of rebuilding New Orleans after Katrina. And congressional representatives and senators from other states voted against funding to New Jersey and New York to pay for relief from Hurricane Sandy.

Far too many Americans lack compassion for their fellow Americans. Instead of looking for ways to help, they are more intent on affixing blame. They assume that they are so smart that such a disaster could never happen to them. Invariably, they are wrong.

Subsidizing Millionaires And Billionaires.

For years, large corporations have whined that US corporate income taxes are “the highest in the world.” While it’s true that our maximum corporate tax RATE is the highest in the world, the EFFECTIVE tax rate paid by US-based multinational corporations is much, much lower.

In fact, as a percentage of GDP, US corporations pay the second lowest taxes in the developed world! And that doesn’t even include the many ways US taxpayers subsidize large corporations through the creation of specialized infrastructure, tax incentives, relocation incentives, government research grants and sweetheart rates on loans.

Those are just the direct subsidies. Indirect subsidies are often even more costly!

Consider the study recently released by Congressional Democrats which found that a single Walmart Supercenter in Wisconsin could cost taxpayers up to $900,000 a year as a result of Walmart’s notoriously low wages and minimal benefits. According to the study, most of Walmart’s employees qualify for food stamps, Medicaid, low-income housing assistance, energy assistance, and other forms of public assistance.

The authors of the study summarize the findings this way, “When low wages leave Walmart workers unable to afford the necessities of life, taxpayers pick up the tab.”

Of course, Walmart responds by saying that its policies benefit all Americans through lower prices. But Costco, another big box chain that competes with Walmart, offers low prices. It also offers full benefits to its employees and pays them an average annual salary of $45,000. There are millions of Americans like myself who try to never set foot in a Walmart store. So why should we be forced to subsidize Walmart’s bad behavior? What is the benefit to us?

There are approximately 4,000 Walmart stores in the US. If each of those cost taxpayers $900,000 a year, Walmart is costing US taxpayers a total of more than $3.6 billion per year!

And that doesn’t include other indirect costs such as the company’s impact on the environment, the impact on independent small businesses that are forced to compete with Walmart, lost revenue in personal income taxes from those forced to accept Walmart’s low wages…the costs are many. There’s also a moral and ethical cost created by Walmart relying on sweatshops in undeveloped countries like Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, the Walton family that owns Walmart enjoys undeserved profits through taxpayer subsidies. For 2011, the company’s net income was $15.4 billion.

Walmart is not alone in unfairly profiting from subsidies and loopholes. A recent study found that 18 of America’s largest corporations, including Abbott, Apple, Citigroup, GE, Google, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Microsoft, Nike and Pfizer, have stashed profits in off-shore tax shelters in order to avoid paying $92 billion in US income taxes!

We should demand more of corporations. We should demand that they pay all of the costs associated with doing business. We should stop the subsidies. We should require that they pay employees a living wage. And we should require them to pay their fair share of taxes.