This State of the Union's for You
President Obama gave his final State of the Union speech last week, in which he touted economic progress in his eight-year term and attempted to encourage the nation to be more optimistic while also acknowledging that there was still work necessary to ensure everyone had a chance for real economic opportunity:
My grandfather, a veteran of Patton's army, got the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. My grandmother, who worked on a bomber assembly line, was part of a workforce that turned out the best products on Earth.
The two of them shared the optimism of a nation that had triumphed over a depression and fascism. They understood they were part of something larger; that they were contributing to a story of success that every American had a chance to share - the basic American promise that if you worked hard, you could do well enough to raise a family, own a home, send your kids to college, and put a little away for retirement.
The defining issue of our time is how to keep that promise alive. No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules. What's at stake are not Democratic values or Republican values, but American values. We have to reclaim them.
Be sure to read this lengthy piece from Michael Grunwald in Politico that illustrates the breadth and depth of Obama's quiet legacy:
What he’s done is changing the way we produce and consume energy, the way doctors and hospitals treat us, the academic standards in our schools and the long-term fiscal trajectory of the nation. Gays can now serve openly in the military, insurers can no longer deny coverage because of pre-existing conditions, credit card companies can no longer impose hidden fees and markets no longer believe the biggest banks are too big to fail. Solar energy installations are up nearly 2,000 percent, and carbon emissions have dropped even though the economy is growing. Even Republicans like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who hope to succeed Obama and undo his achievements, have been complaining on the campaign trail that he’s accomplished most of his agenda.
Now for a cartoon from Cagletoons:
You also may be interested in this Politico snapshot of how all the states in the union are doing. Apparently, it is not all wine and roses. For all the optimism the president tried to convey, a palpable malaise in the American psyche exists. The Guardian's Stephen Marche looks at how this malaise is affecting the campaign trail on the Republican side:
As I drove through the outskirts of the ruins of Detroit, across the I-94, one of the ugliest highways in the United States, the old familiar lightness fluttered to my heart. I love America. America is not my mother. Canada is my mother. But America is an unbelievably gorgeous, surprisingly sweet rich lady who lives next door and appears to be falling apart. I cannot help myself from loving it.
For people who love to dwell in contradictions, the US is the greatest country in the world: the land of the free built on slavery, the country of law and order where everyone is entitled to a gun, a place of unimpeded progress where they cling to backwardness out of sheer stubbornness. And into this glorious morass, a new contradiction has recently announced itself: the white people, the privileged Americans, the ones who had the least to fear from the powers that be, the ones with the surest paths to brighter futures, the ones who are by every metric one of the most fortunate groups in the history of the world, were starting to die off in shocking numbers...
There were cars in the parking lot slathered with bumper stickers. “We the people are 100% FED UP!” “So if guns kills people, I guess pencils miss spell words [sic], cars drive drunk and spoons make people fat.” “I’m straight, conservative, Christian, and I own a gun. Is there anything else I can do to piss you off?” A picture of Obama with “Does this ass make my car look big?” The Republican style for 2016 is angry aphoristic humor. Behind comedy, absurd rage: America is the greatest country in the world but America is falling apart, government is the problem which is why government must solve it.
Finally, Tom Watson, in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, argues that the giving sector is on a collision course with the presidential campaign:
[I]t seems to me, as we start a national election year, that the growing debate over income inequality and the role of wealth in our society puts the nonprofit sector on a collision course with electoral politics. The year 2016 will be one of soul-searching in U.S. philanthropy, precisely because of the same forces and trends being debated by the candidates for president.
Eight years after the 2008 market crash and the onset of the Great Recession, voters will choose President Obama’s successor in an atmosphere of political standoff, economic stagnation for many, and outright anger, in many cases based on class, race, or gender. And although the U.S. economy has recovered from the depths that defined that last open national election and its aftermath, the middle class is shrinking while those in top tier of assets and income distribution have increased their share of overall wealth.
Philanthropy has followed along closely; overall giving has recovered, and we see new wealthy donors making their mark by giving away their fortunes.
In the NYTimes Dealbook, Andrew Ross Sorkin discusses what he characterizes as the restlessness of billionaires:
Welcome to the age — and whimsy — of the new billionaire class and the precariousness of vanity projects. With so much money sloshing around, and more and more of the superwealthy pushing into areas beyond their expertise, it is likely we will see more headlines about the failure of some of these fanciful investments and philanthropic experiments...as more billionaires are minted amid a ferocious debate about inequality, and the superwealthy continue to buy up trophy assets and seek to sway public policy, it has created a backlash and some are questioning whether they are amassing too much influence.
“The megarich increasingly use their foundations and their celebrity as philanthropists to mold public policy to an extent not possible for other citizens,” Joanne Barkan, who has long been a critic of big philanthropy, wrote in The Guardian.
Meanwhile, Jonah Goldberg over at the American Enterprise Institute says, never fear, democracy is still managing to get in the way of the wealthy class:
The simple fact is that almost everywhere you look, the super-rich are being stymied by democracy. In 2014, David Brat, an unknown academic, defeated the second-most-powerful Republican in Congress, then–House majority leader Eric Cantor, even though Cantor spent more money on steak dinners than Brat did on his whole campaign. The recent referendum on marijuana legalization in Ohio was lavishly funded — and failed. And just a reminder: Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney and his plutocrat pals.
Those evil corporations aren’t faring much better. We constantly hear about their vise grip on Washington, yet we still have the highest corporate tax rate in the developed world (not counting United Arab Emirates). Big corporations rightly want to be able to repatriate their profits earned overseas without being taxed on them again. (Most countries allow corporations to pay taxes on profits solely in the jurisdictions where they were earned.) And yet they can’t get it done. Even the dreaded Koch brothers, those supposed super-villains, have failed to buy the policies they prefer.
And yet, to listen to countless pundits and politicians, we live in an oligarchy now.
Speaking of billionaires, a few lucky folks almost made it into the class overnight, thanks to a record-breaking Powerball pot. So let's see a cartoon from Dave Granlund:
David Just, a Cornell economist, said his studies have shown that low-income players don't just play for entertainment. "It seems like they're really trying to play this to win," he said. His research has also found that as unemployment increases, unemployed people play the lottery more often.
George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, and other researchers found in one study that people made to feel poor bought more lottery tickets. The findings, he said, "suggest that lottery tickets provide an escape from the feeling of poverty."
Meanwhile, Paula Young Lee in Salon juxtaposes the lottery with themes from the Hunger Games and other dystopian stories:
In schools today, fifth-graders still read Shirley Jackson’s elegant, chilling short story “The Lottery,” about a fictitious lottery where the winner gets stoned to death. From there, a straight line can be drawn to Steven King’s short story “The Long Walk,” and thence to Suzanne’ Collins’ series “The Hunger Games.” Innumerable episodes of television, including “Hell Money,” from “The X-Files,” revolve around a lottery where the payoff promises to be worth the risk. What do all these real and fictional lotteries have in common? They exploit the desperation of the powerless, who feel themselves at the mercy of forces they neither control nor understand. But in every one of these stories, the lottery is a cheat. The promise of the payoff is false, as is the promise of a new and better life should you win. In every case, rather, the “winner” is worse off for having won, and in all the literary examples, the price of winning the lottery is your life.
Be sure to read Rick Cohen's last article for the Nonprofit Quarterly—the editor's note itself is poignant in pointing out the difficulty of editing after his passing. The article takes a look at Detroit and whether the grand bargain can revive the city:
In a way, that is the real challenge of Detroit’s recovery: the contrast between bold, innovative ideas that envision a very different Detroit from the prosperous manufacturing metropolis of half a century ago, and the conditions of longtime residents of the Motor City—a population that is in high majority black, mostly lower income, in many cases unemployed or underemployed, and at risk in the tens of thousands of displacement due to tax foreclosures, mortgage foreclosures, unpaid water bills, and—surprisingly for a city that has huge tracts of vacant, dilapidated buildings—pockets of upscale gentrification. How does Detroit come back from the verge of economic collapse and municipal bankruptcy to devise and implement a future for long-established Detroiters and new residents?...
“Democracy for whom?” might be the appropriate question. Nearly everyone involved one way or another with Detroit’s future echoes some of the concerns of the Reverend Charles Williams II of Detroit’s Historic King Solomon Baptist Church: that the poverty and unemployment of most longtime Detroiters may not be a high priority for many decision makers. For some, the issue isn’t poverty per se but the notion that long-term Detroiters do not feel that they have been beneficiaries of the putative revival of the city.
Will the Supreme Court hand another blow to the shrinking union class? A New York Times article discusses a case brought by California teachers:
In a closely watched case brought by 10 California teachers, the court’s conservative majority seemed ready to say that forcing public workers to support unions they have declined to join violates the First Amendment.
A ruling in the teachers’ favor would affect millions of government workers and culminate a political and legal campaign by a group of prominent conservative foundations aimed at weakening public-sector unions. Those unions stand to lose fees from both workers who object to the positions the unions take and those who simply choose not to join while benefiting from the unions’ efforts on their behalf.
A new Center for American Progress report says that union decline has had a tremendous impact on the middle class:
Our main findings are that the decline in union coverage accounts for 35 percent of the falling share of middle-class workers and that the combination of the shrinking share of union workers and the reduction in the union equality effect explains almost half of the decline in middle-class workers. To the extent that union-induced wage increases spill over from union to nonunion workers and that union advocacy produces economic and social policies that benefit the middle class, our results understate the impact of the weakening labor movement on the hollowing out of the U.S. middle class.
In other news, Walmart, arguably the largest private sector employer in the country, may be closing 200 stores and laying off as many as 10,000 U.S. workers, reports CNN Money. Still, the giant retailers is planning to open 60 new supercenters in the United States later this year. Also closing its doors is Al Jazeera America, which matters, says contributor Ari Paul in In These Times, to those who care about labor issues and inequality:
[I]f AJAM gave us one thing in its brief life in the United States, it was a dedication to covering economic inequality and the growing opposition to it in the wake of Occupy Wall Street. It seems contradictory that a news organization made possible almost entirely by a petrol monarchy would be the go-to source for economic progressives, but its editors, especially opinion editor David Johnson (formerly of the Boston Review), focused almost laser-like on a mission to promote stories about the widening wealth gap in the United States and the monopolistic grip American tycoons had on political power.
This gave it the ability to lift voices large and small, from former New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston and economist Dean Baker to labor reporters like Ned Resnikoff, who came from MSNBC, and Paul Abowd, an associate producer at AJAM’s show Fault Lines, who got his start at Labor Notes, the scrappy radical journal that reports from the perspective of rank-and-file workers demanding more militancy and democracy in their unions.
Also laying off workers is DuPont in anticipation of a merger with Dow Chemical. This lengthy piece in the New York Times looks at one man's fight against DuPont for alleged toxic pollution that is the blamed cause for cancer and other illnesses in a West Virginia community. The New York Times editorial board also weighed in on the need to strenthen the regulatory regime governing chemicals.