Saturday, September 22, 2012

It's Not 1980 Anymore

I recently came across some very disturbing data about how America has changed in the past thirty years.  You've heard the gist of it:  the wealthiest Americans have made great gains while the middle class has shrunk.  The disparity between CEOs and workers has grown.  But consider the following:

How did we get here?  Several forces have been at work.

  1. Beginning under President Reagan, anti-monopoly legislation championed by President Teddy Roosevelt a century ago was dismantled.  Mergers and acquisitions enriched a mighty few while local businesses disappeared. 
  2. Maximizing profit by cutting expenses became a greater focus of business.   Considerable effort was devoted to ways of trimming the workforce (reducing jobs) and outsourcing work that could be done more cheaply elsewhere.
  3. Tariffs that protected American businesses and workers were systematically dismantled, particularly under the Bush and Clinton administrations.  The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades (GATT) began just after World War II but the number of countries participating has ballooned from the original 23 to now 141.  GATT is now the World Trade Organization (WTO). It's because of the loosening of trade barriers that American companies can more cheaply close factories here, build them in China or elsewhere and import their products for sale to the same workers whose jobs were outsourced.
  4. Tax laws and deregulation have been enacted to benefit those who support politicians' reelection.  Consider that in 2004, 95% of House races and 91% of Senate races were won by the candidate who spent the most money.  According to an MIT study, in 2002 80% of ALL political campaign donations came from businesses.  Labor, individuals and non-profit interest groups barely mattered.  Politicians must reciprocate to their donors or be bounced out on the next election.
  5. The primary access point for those in the middle and struggling classes to move ahead has historically been education.  Subsidies for college have eroded while prices have climbed. A four year degree at any of the prestigious University of California campuses in 1980 would have cost a few hundred dollars.  Today that same degree would cost over $50,000. 
  6. Labor unions have all but disappeared from private sector employment.  Less than 12% of Americans belong to unions today, compared to 21% in 1980.  Only 7% of private sector workers are unionized today.  Workers have lost bargaining clout, pension and medical benefits and job security.  Many industries have chosen to shift their workforce to part-time workers to reduce benefit costs.
The current situation is not sustainable, not for the poor, the middle or even the wealthiest.  Their wealth depends on an underlying system of consumers, infrastructure supports and a skilled workforce.  Unfortunately though, few Americans -- and fewer still in the high profit sectors -- think beyond immediate gains to long term sustainability.

It's election season.  I'd be mightily impressed if even one of the candidates spoke seriously about this national disgrace and how he would reverse it.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How Not to Choose a President

We're up to our eyebrows in the presidential campaigns.  Some of us are loving it, following every new wrinkle, every gaffe, every applause line.  Others are already sick of it all, tired of the negativity, the half-truths and daily polls.  This one's up, now that one.

We all know it's incredibly important that we elect the best person for the job.  After all, the President of the US is the world's most powerful man.  His actions not only affect every American but every other citizen of the world as well.  But only we -- lucky we -- get to decide who gets the job.

So far, I've heard the following assumptions for how Americans choose our President:
  • The one who seems most like us.
  • The one with the biggest campaign warchest, able to dominate the airwaves with campaign ads.
  • The one we'd like to sit down and have a beer with.
  • The one with the most appealing family.
  • The best looking.
  • In time of war, the Commander in Chief.
  • If the economy is strong, the incumbent.  If it's weak, the challenger.
  • The one our friends and family support.
  • The one who "connects" with people.
  • The one we're least afraid of.

A rather pathetic list, isn't it.

  • Let's not choose Obama because he's most like us.  
  • Let's not choose Romney because he dominates the airwaves.  
  • Let's not choose Bush Jr. again because we wanted a beer with him.  
  • Let's look past both darling families.  
  • Let's ignore Ryan's and Romney's good looks.  
  • Let's neither support nor reject Obama based simply on the fact the country is at war.  
  • Let's evaluate the economy only in connection with the president's actions (and inaction) related to it. 
  • Let's not choose Obama because he connects better than Romney.  
  • Let's ignore those on the right who warn (like Chuck Norris did in a recent ad) that the world will end if Obama gets a second term.  Let's also ignore those on the left who predict doomsday if Romney wins.

What if, instead, we looked at a combination of the candidates' education and experience (not just the resume, but what kind of choices were made), their positions on the issues, their potential effectiveness, who they might choose to advise them and questions of character -- e.g. Do they tell the truth? Do they have solid principles that don't waiver?  Do they consider consequences of their choices?  How do they hold up under pressure?

How many voters do you suppose are basing their decisions on those factors?  I hope many will.  But I know from our previous track record, we will feel compelled to cast a ballot regardless of whether we really know or care about any of the qualities that truly matter.  We'll "like" one of them, like we "like" someone's Facebook post.  We will believe everything bad about the other and everything good about our choice.

If this is how we make choices, how can we complain about the quality of candidates we get?  How dare we whine that the campaigns pander to us, promising us everything and telling us whatever we want to hear.

As the French observer of America, Alexis de Tocqueville, wrote almost 200 years ago, "We get the government we deserve."