Tag Archives: Occupy movement

SYNDICATED COLUMN: The Failure of Tahrir Square 2011

Not a Revolution, Just a Useless Protest

Two years ago, when I was in the Occupy movement, my comrades and I argued about revolution. Was revolution necessary? What is it? The split that destroyed our movement — as it did the Left during the Sixties — pitted revolutionaries against reformists. The most frustrating part of the debate, however, wasn’t ideological. It was linguistic.

Even on the Left, few Americans know what revolution is: the violent overthrow of the ruling classes. In a revolution, everything — beginning with the power structure — changes.

The Tahrir Square encampments that led to the ouster of Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak were a huge influence on Occupy. But we couldn’t agree about what they meant. Was Tahrir a “revolution”?

No doubt, the 2011 Arab Spring was a powerful mass movement. Everyone agreed about that. For reformists — people who want to fix the system rather than replace it — Tahrir Square was a perfect example to emulate: a peaceful people-power transition that changed things for the better without shedding blood. Cut-and-paste the same phenomenon from Cairo to the United States — convince millions of peaceful demonstrators to camp out in American cities to demand change — and you’d get similarly dramatic results, reformist Occupiers urged. “Egypt had a peaceful revolution,” they said.

Revolutionaries — people who want to get rid of the existing system and start from scratch — countered that the Arab Spring uprisings were not revolutions at all and were thus insufficent. “Tunisia and Egypt,” I said, “were merely personnel changes.” The system, the way society, politics and the economy are organized, remained unchanged.

As recent events prove, the resignation of a president does not a revolution make.

In all the ways that matter, post-Mubarak Egypt remains the same. Those who were rich before are still rich; the same-old poor are the brand-new poor. Egypt’s generals, awash in billions of barely-audited American taxdollars and high-tech military hardware, continue to call the shots.

Egypt’s military brass is a canny lot. Corrupt and autocratic, they tack left and right along with the winds on the dusty streets. When Tahrir got big, they called back their rapists of demonstrators and told Hosni it was time to take a powder. When Mohammed Morsi won the election, they golf-clapped — until Mo’s numbers fell. Then it was his turn to vanish into house arrest.

The crowds in Tahrir cheered as fighter jets streaked overhead. Applauding their own oppressors.

Fools.

The proles get their concession. The figurehead performer everyone thinks runs the show, the big star who plays Mr. President on TV, gets fired after he turns stale. Yet, no matter how chaotic the politics, regardless of how much blood flows (spilled by projectiles made in the U.S.A.), the real bosses — the military, their business cronies, the publishers and owners of state media outlets — remain in charge.

Which now is plain as day.

General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who overthrew Morsi in a coup that dare not speak its name (in Western countries, whose quaint 20th century human rights laws would otherwise require the severing of lucrative weapons contracts that benefit major campaign donors), has apparently gotten so caught up in the serious business of slaughtering members of the Muslim Brotherhood that he’s completely forgotten to pay lip service to restoring democracy.

In the ultimate symbol of restoration (or feeling so confident they feel free to tip their hand), the military’s old friend/employee Mubarak is out of prison and may soon be released.

As two visiting U.S. senators recently witnessed firsthand, power has gone to al-Sisi’s telegenic little head. This isn’t a crackdown, but rather an attempt to grind the Muslim Brotherhood into oblivion. Al-Sisi’s soldiers have arrested the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, on brazenly trumped-up charges. And his fellow coup leaders are gearing up for a fascist-style ban of the party — another return to the Mubarak era.

As usual, Western liberals are smart enough to foresee future blowback from the Egyptian junta’s brutal campaign. “Attempts to exclude a party with the level of support recently secured by the Muslim Brotherhood will simply prolong Egypt’s agony. That is a tragic lesson from the history of Algeria in the 1990s,” Douglas Alexander writes in The Guardian.

Also as usual, Western liberals are too stupid to push for a stronger remedy than wouldn’t-it-be-nice hoping things will magically feel guilty and stop mass murdering. “The Muslim Brotherhood needs the opportunity,” Alexander continues, “to ‘get out of the streets and into the voting booth.’ Yet to do so, its supporters must believe there is a viable democratic path.”

Which of course there isn’t.

Which brings us back to Tahrir Square 2011. What should Egypt’s proto-Occupiers have done instead?

If their goal was actual change rather than new window-dressing, the protesters at Tahrir shouldn’t have settled for a personnel change at the pseudo-top. Mubarak’s departure wasn’t enough.

If you want to eliminate oppression, you must eliminate the oppressors. In Egypt, that would have meant rounding up every major official in the military as well as the government, and seizing control of the nation’s economy. Everyone who was anyone, rich and/or powerful, should have been imprisoned.

This would, of course, have required violence.

Revolution isn’t pretty. But as we’re seeing now in Egypt, neither is the alternative.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. Go there to join the Ted Rall Subscription Service and receive all of Ted’s cartoons and columns by email.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: The New Generation Gap: Gen X vs. Gen Y

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The Gen X-Millennial Generation Gap

Every 20 years ago, Time depicts people in their 20s as “lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow.” This time the target is the Millennial generation (Americans born between roughly 1980 and 2000, with Baby Boomer parents). According to (cough cough) the Boomer-run media, twentysomethings/Gen Y/Millennials are narcissists.

Whatever.

Back in 1990, Time was smearing Gen X as shallow, apolitical, unambitious shoe-gazers.

“[Gen Xers] have trouble making decisions. They would rather hike in the Himalayas than climb a corporate ladder. They have few heroes, no anthems, no style to call their own. They crave entertainment, but their attention span is as short as one zap of a TV dial. They hate yuppies, hippies and druggies. They postpone marriage because they dread divorce. They sneer at Range Rovers, Rolexes and red suspenders. What they hold dear are family life, local activism, national parks, penny loafers and mountain bikes.” (Penny loafers? Really?)

Back then we Gen Xers defended our collective honor by alternating between the “we do not suck, at least not in the way you say we suck” and “anyway, if we do suck, it’s your fault, old farts” arguments. Gen Y is manning its rhetorical ramparts the same way.

Here we go again.

Sort of.

You know what’s wrong with young people today?

Not much. Not according to me or my friends. We’re fine with younger people.

Which is weird.

Gen Xers get along well with people in their 20s and 30s — certainly a lot better than those in their 40s did with us when we were young.

We like Gen Y. We respect them. We don’t chafe, for example, at working under a younger boss. We ask them advice. OK, mostly about tech stuff. I learned about WordPress and Hootsuite and Gawker and Wii from 20ish friends. Mostly, we like the same music and movies. (But they download stuff. Don’t they worry about ephemerality?)

Maybe the Millennials secretly hate us — you’d have to ask them — but if they do, they’re doing an excellent job of hiding it. We hang out. It’s good.

Sometimes, though — it’s not like it comes up a lot, just now and then — my Gen Xer cohorts let slip a complaint about our younger friends and colleagues:

Why are Millennials, um…well, there’s no other way to say it: kind of boring?

Young people today! So obedient. They believe politicians. What’s with that? Millennials go along to get along in corporate America. When they get laid off, they don’t get angry (like we did) — they adapt. They reinvent themselves. Gen Y music, movies, even their clothes: so conservative!

The Generation Gap of the 1960s and 1970s referred to the inability/refusal of “tune in, turn on, drop out” Baby Boomers to relate to their stodgy “we survived the Depression and won World War II so turn down that goddamn rock ‘n’ roll” Parents. Though decried at the time as sad and alienating, the dynamic of that demographic divide was as natural as could be. The young were loud, obnoxious, demanding and politically radical. The old were reserved, quiet and conservative, even reactionary. Kids were kids; parents were parents.

William Howe and Neil Strauss’ landmark book “Generations,” which traces the identities of American generation through popular culture and politics back to the colonial era, depicts dozens of epic clashes between old codgers vs. youthful insurgents. The young fight to be heard. The old yell at them to shut up. The old get older and quieter, the young mature and gain influence and replace them.

That’s how it was 200 years, and 20 years, ago. Just as their parents looked down on them, Boomers looked down on us Xers.

The Gen X/Y divide breaks this pattern.

We’re middle-aged and cynical and our tastes run to smart and sarcastic and anti-PC and antiauthoritarian, Tarantino/postpunk. We voted Green Party and never looked back, or for Obama but never expected much. Millennials are old and naïve and earnest and retro.

Millennial hipsters (who don’t dress hip — their hipsters are dorks) are militant nostalgists. They’ve revived the ancient traditions of our grandparents: martinis, old-fashioned cocktails like grasshoppers and mint juleps and, well, old fashioneds. They golf. They wear clothes from the 1930s. They watch go-go dancers. (Feminist radical lesbian ones.) They grow beards — not hippie beards, but retrosexual Civil War ones, paired with handlebar mustaches. They open restaurants — really good restaurants — whose menus and aesthetics harken back to the 19th century, staffed by waiters who take everything very seriously. You can elicit a dry chuckle. Not a bellylaugh. Certainly not a snide Xer sneer.

Steampunk could never have been a big Gen X thing. We’re scrappy and stripped down. They’re baroque.

Millennials didn’t just expect real Hope and Change. Four years later, they still do. When they got radical, they came up with the blink-and-you-missed it Occupy movement, which had as its centerpiece calls to reenact the Glass-Steagal Act.

Millennial pop culture is about flat affect: mumblecore movies and all-attitude-no-plot TV shows like “Arrested Development,” emo-influenced music, giant dollops of special nostalgia sauce everywhere, every member of every band dressed like they’re showing up to roof your house (but with Taliban beards). Opening concert greeting: “Hey.”

Graphic novels where it takes six pages for a leaf to fall off a tree.

Prose novels about nothing, printed preciously and packaged beautifully, thanks to the influential McSweeney’s empire.

Gentle, chatty movies and TV shows, not a series of scenes, but rather riffs of tone and mood.

Even their taste in cars is boring. And kind of dumb.

Boomers’ countless faults aside, let’s give them this: they knew what they wanted. They loved. They hated. They wanted revolution. Which was one of the things Xers hated about Boomers (Xers hate a lot): they came so close to revolution and they friggin’ gave up. Gen Y revolution? It’s hard to imagine such an — oblivious? unaccountably satisfied? — generation shooting anyone or blowing anything up. That, I think, gets close to the mystery of the Millennials. They’ve been horribly screwed — even more than us Gen Xers, and make no mistake, we were hosed big time.

Millennials are mired in student loan debt.

They will never make much money or get any government benefits or get much of anything out of the system.

After decades of warnings, the planet is finally, really, irreversibly, ruined. Their planet.

Why aren’t they pissed off?

(We need them to be. We’re too busy holding down four jobs.)

Parents, they say, shouldn’t have to bury their own children. It ain’t natural. Know what else is wrong? For the old to see the young as uptight codgers.

Not that Xers blame Yers for being uncool. Gen Xers, a self-deprecating generation from the beginning (what do you expect? society, politics, even the movies hated us — remember all those evil child horror movies like The Omen and It’s Alive?)

Writing in The New York Observer, Peter Hyman argues that Gen X and Gen Y shouldn’t be as cozy as they are. That it’s our (X’s) fault that Y hasn’t made its own mark:

“The old generational identities that once defined us have broken down, and the net result is a messy temporal mashup in which fortysomethings act like skateboarders, twentysomethings dress like the grandfather from My Three Sons, tweens attend rock concerts with their parents and toddlers are exposed to the ethos of hardcore punk.”

And it’s up to Gen X to fix it (like everything else, apparently):

“I know guys whose style of dress and off-duty interests haven’t changed a lick since college. They devote their free time to movies about comic-book heroes, to video games and to fantasy football. No, they aren’t hurting anybody. But perhaps what we really need to do is put on suits and take our wives out for expensive dinners, like our dads before us.”

That burns. I’m wearing skinny black jeans and a (vintage! from back in the day!) Dead Kennedys T-shirt as I write this. But I can’t afford a suit or an expensive dinner, thank you very much, Boomer scum.

Anyway, I don’t buy Hyman’s argument that passing the torch of our old cool (the Ramones, Beastie Boys) to the young “shortchanges” the young and “infantilizes” us oldsters. My fogie parents prosthelytized about Benny Goodman and Benny Hill and the Four Tops and guess what? It didn’t take.

One problem with writing about generational politics is that it requires sweeping generalizations. You can point to million exceptions. And of course there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it. These things simply are (if you believe, many many do not).  Another is that you risk pissing people off…people you like.

To be clear, we Xers think you Millennials are awesome. We just wish you’d act your age.

Like, young.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

Ted Rall

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Lose Your House, Collect $300

Why Aren’t Rioters Burning Down the Banks?

One in ten Americans take such antidepressants as Prozac and Paxil. Among those in their 40s and 50s, it’s 23%. Maybe that’s why we’re so passive.

Like the blissed-out soma-sucking drones of Huxley’s “Brave New World,” we must be too drugged to feel, much less express, rage. How else to explain that furious mobs haven’t burned the banks to the ground?

Last week, as the media ginned up empty speculation about Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects, and wallowed in nuclear cognitive dissonance — Iran, which doesn’t have nukes and says it doesn’t want them, is repeatedly called a grave threat worth going to war over, while North Korea, which does have them and won’t stop threatening to turn the West Coast of the U.S. into a “sea of fire,” is dismissed as empty bluster, nothing to worry about — the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Reserve released the details of the settlement between the Obama Administration and the big banks over the illegal foreclosure scandal.

Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and other major home mortgage lenders foreclosed upon and evicted millions of homeowners between the start of the housing collapse in 2007 and 2011. Millions of families became homeless, including 2.3 million children. The vast majority of these Americans are still struggling; many fell into poverty from which they will never escape.

Disgusting, amazing, yet true: the banks had no legal right to evict these people. In many cases, the banks didn’t have basic paperwork, like the original deed to the house. They resorted to “robo-signing” boiler room operations to churn out falsified and forged eviction papers. In others cases, people could have kept their homes if they’d been allowed to refinance — their right under federal law — but the banks illegally refused, giving them the runaround, repeatedly asking for the same paperwork they’d already sent in. Soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, protected from foreclosure under U.S. law, came home to find their homes resold at auction. In other cases, banks even repossessed homes where the homeowner had never missed a mortgage payment.

The foreclosure scandal helped spark the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Promising justice and compensation for the victims, President Obama’s Justice Department joined lawsuits filed by the attorneys general of several states.

Last year, Obama announced that the government had concluded a “landmark settlement” with the banks that would “deliver some measure of justice for those families that have been victims of their abusive practices.” The Politico newspaper called the $26 billion deal “a big win for the White House.” $26 billion. Sounds impressive, right?

So…the envelope, please.

How much will the banks have to pay? What will people whose homes were stolen — there is no other word — receive? Now we know the details.

Remember what we’re talking about. Your house is your biggest asset. You own tens of thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity. One morning the sheriff comes. He throws you and your family out on the street. Your possessions are dumped on the lawn. You have nowhere to go. Your kids are crying. If you were struggling before, now you’re completely screwed. And the bank that did it had no legal basis whatsoever to do what they did.

They took your house, sold it, and pocketed the profits.

What would happen to you if you walked into Tiffany’s and stole a $200,000 necklace?

The details:

  • Even though they qualified for federal loan modifications, the banks seized 1.1 million homes, making 1.1 million families homeless after they were approved for refinancing. Since the average foreclosed home was worth $191,000, the banks stole $210 billion in homes. Under the “landmark settlement,” these wrongfully evicted Americans will receive $300 or $500 each, the value of a modest night out at a nice restaurant in Manhattan (two tenths of one percent of their loss).
  • 900,000 borrowers who were entitled under Obama’s Make Home Affordable program to refinancing were denied help and lost their homes. They get $300 or $600.
  • 420,000 homeowners who lost their homes while the banks intentionally dithered and “lost” their paperwork get $400 or $800.
  • 28,000 families who were entitled to protection against foreclosure under federal bankruptcy law, but got thrown out of their homes anyway, get $3,750 to $62,500.
  • 1,100 soldiers entitled to protection against foreclosure because of their military status get $125,000.
  • 53 families who weren’t late on their mortgages, never missed a payment, but got thrown out anyway, get $125,000.

So we’ve got more than 2.4 million families — that’s 5 million people — whose homes got bogarted by scumbag banksters. They’re getting a thousand bucks each on average. A thousand bucks for a two hundred thousand dollar theft! Not to mention the heartbreak and stress they suffered.

Why aren’t those five million people stringing up bank execs from telephone poles? It’s gotta be the Paxil.

But what really gets me is the 53 families who are getting $125,000 payouts for losing homes they were 100% up to date on.

Even if you’re a heartless right-winger, you’ve got to have a problem with a bank taking your house when you never missed a payment. Sorry, but these are multinational, multibillion dollar banks. They should pay these families tens of millions of dollars each.

Those 53 families should own Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo.

Some perspective:

Citigroup CEO Vikram Pandit received $260 million in pay between 2007 and 2012, the height of the foreclosure scandal.

In 2011 alone, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was given $23 million. In 2012, the company’s board of directors “punished” him for a $6 billion loss in derivatives trading by paying him “merely” $18.7 million.

In 2012 alone, Bank of America paid CEO Brian Moynihan $12 million; Wells Fargo paid $23 million to CEO John Stumpf.

Not bad for some of the worst criminals in history.

That’s how things work in the United States: the criminals get the big payouts. The people whose lives they destroy get $300.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

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Los Angeles Times Cartoon: Save the Parks

I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times about issues related to California and the Southland (metro Los Angeles).

This week: A coalition of community groups, labor unions and conservationists is trying to protect funding for Los Angeles city parks, which have been hit hard by budget cuts. Here are some alternatives.

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Occupy the Cheesecake Factory

Democrats and Democratic front groups like MoveOn.org are trying to channel the Occupy movement back into the system with such “Astroturf” actions as “Occupy the Ballotbox” and “Occupy the Primaries.” What bizarre co-option schemes can we look forward to next?

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Handicapped

Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong. It’s Romney’s To Lose.

Catching Barack Obama in a rare moment of candor, an open mic found the president confiding to his Russian counterpart that he expects to win this fall. “This is my last election,” he told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Last, yes. But I wouldn’t bet on Obama winning.

The corporate pundit class has largely conceded the general election to Obama, already looking ahead to 2016. The mainstreamers have their reasons. Their analysis is based on good, solid, reasonable (inside the box) logic. All things considered, however, I would (and have) put my money on Mitt Romney this fall.

This isn’t wishful thinking. I voted for Obama last time and wanted him to succeed. He failed. His accomplishments have been few and have amounted to sellouts to the right. Even so, the prospect of watching Mitt Romney move into the White House fills me with as much joy as an appointment for a colonoscopy. And I think he’s going to win.

For me, the D vs. R horserace is a parlor game with minor ramifications for our daily lives. Whichever corporate party wins, unemployment and underemployment will continue to worsen, income disparity will widen, and most of our taxes will fund the worst approach to international affairs since a former Austrian corporal blew out his brains out in a bunker under Berlin.

Thanks to the Occupy movement, real politics is back where it belongs—in the streets. That’s what I’ll be watching and working. With a lot of luck (and even more pepper spray) this will be a year of revolution rather than more electoral devolution.

Revolution is inevitable. But we don’t know when it’s coming. So the 2012 campaign may still matter. Besides, handicapping elections is a game I enjoy and am good at. During 17 years of syndication my pick to win has only lost once (for the 2004 Democratic nomination). So, on the off chance that you’re one of those who still cares about our husk of a democracy, who hangs on every meaningless development of a political process devoid of politics—or you’re just a betting person, here’s my thinking.

Barring an assassination or a scandal, Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee.

Obama currently leads Romney by about four to five points. But that’s not nearly enough of a lead to carry him to November. History shows that Republican nominees steadily increase in popularity throughout the summer and fall of an election year.

In April 2004, for example, John Kerry led George W. Bush by eight points. But Swift Boating erased that lead, and then some.

In order to win, a successful Democratic nominee has to begin with a big margin. That early lead must be large enough to wind up in the black, after months of being whittled away, when the votes get counted in November. I can’t see Obama pulling far enough ahead soon.

Incumbency is a huge advantage. If the election were held tomorrow, Obama would prevail. But the election is not being held tomorrow. It’s being held in November.

By the time they head to the polls this fall, voters’ brains will be drowning in months of hundreds of millions of dollars of slick, demographically targeted, pro-Romney attack ads. Republican campaigns are more effective at this sort of thing, and as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum can attest, Romney’s consultants pull no punches. Obama’s current lead will be a faded memory.

Every political campaign comes down to a contest of narratives. In 2008 Obama developed an effective sales pitch: Hope and Change for a nation exhausted by eight years of Bush, 9/11, war, taking off your shoes at the airport, and a full-fledged global economic crisis to boot. Obama’s advisers turned his biggest weaknesses—his inexperience, race, unusual name and foreign background—into assets. Here was a new kind of president. Just the guy to lead us out of the Bad Old Days into something better. McCain-Palin’s narrative—a cranky old ex-POW paired with a zany housewife-gone-wild—didn’t stand a chance.

This year the narratives favor Romney.

Romney is already pointing to the biggest issue on people’s minds, the economy, and claiming that his background as a turnaround artist qualifies him to fix what ails us. His prescriptions are Republican boilerplate, vague and counterproductive, but at least he’s doing something Obama hasn’t—talking a lot about creating jobs. Voters prefer useless attentiveness to calm, steady golfing (Obama’s approach). And—despite its illogic—they like the run-government-like-a-business narrative (c.f. Ross Perot, the Bushes).

Obama is boxed in by three-plus years of inaction on, well, pretty much everything. He’ll argue that he’ll be able to “finish the job” during a second term, but that’s a tough sell when you haven’t tried to start the job—in 2009, when Democrats had huge majorities in both houses of Congress. His single signature accomplishment, healthcare reform, is disliked by two-thirds of the electorate. The recent “good news” on the economy has been either insignificant (net positive job creation of 100,000 per month for two months, less than one-tenth of one percent of the 25 million jobs needed) or falsified (discouraged workers no longer counted as unemployed).

Despite what Obama tells them, Americans know things are still getting worse. Similarly, Obama’s recent, feeble, impotent rhetorical attempts to shore up his support among his Democratic Party’s disappointed liberal base will probably not generate enough enthusiasm to counter other factors that favor Romney.

You can’t vote for the first African-American president twice. Unless he picks a woman as vice president, a vote for Obama will be a vote for the same-old, same-old. The history-making thrill is gone.

At this writing the Republican Party appears to be in disarray. No doubt, Romney is emerging from the primaries battered and bruised. His awkward and demented soundbite stylings (“corporations are people,” “the trees are the right height”) will provide fodder for countless YouTube parodies. But Romney hasn’t been damaged as much as the official political class seems to think.

Republicans are a remarkably loyal bunch. United by their many hatreds (liberals, blacks, gays, poor people, Mexicans, Muslims, foreigners, etc.), they will set aside their comparatively low simmer of anti-Mormon bigotry this fall. Picking a standard-issue white Anglo Christianist thug as veep will cinch the deal.

The GOP enjoys a huge fundraising advantage, especially via the new-fangled SuperPACs. Romney has raised $74 million against $151 million for Obama, but look for that ratio to flip after he locks up the nomination. Cue those vicious, potent ads mentioned above.

About the only major factor working for Obama is the presidential debates. Romney doesn’t stand a chance against the cool, articulate Obama.

Of course, it’s a long way to November. A lot can happen. It’s very possible for Obama to win. But that’s not how it looks now.

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)

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SYNDICATED COLUMN: Want More Wars? Raise Taxes on the Rich

Tax Fairness Won’t Reduce Inequality

Reacting to and attempting to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street movement, President Obama used his 2012 State of the Union address to discuss what he now calls “the defining issue of our time”—the growing gap between rich and poor.

“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,” Obama said. “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.”

No doubt, the long-term trend toward income inequality is a major flaw of the capitalist system. From 1980 to 2005 more than 80 percent in the gain in Americans’ incomes went to the top one percent. This staggering disparity between the haves and have-nots has created a permanent underclass of underemployed, undereducated and alienated people who often turn to crime for survival and social status. Aggregation of wealth into fewer hands has shrunk the size of the U.S. market for consumer goods, prolonging and deepening the depression.

How can we make the system fairer?

Liberals are calling for a more progressive income tax: i.e., raise taxes on the rich. Obama says he’d like to slap a minimum federal income tax of 30 percent on individuals earning more than $1 million a year.

Soaking the rich would obviously be fair. GOP frontrunner/corporate layoff sleazebag Mitt Romney earned $59,500 a day in 2010—and paid half the effective tax rate (13.9 percent) of that paid by a family of four earning $59,500 a year.

Fair, sure. But would it work? Would increasing taxes on the wealthy do much to close the gap between rich and poor—to level the economic playing field?

Probably not.

From FDR through Jimmy Carter it was an article of faith among liberals that higher taxes on the rich would result in lower taxes on the poor and working class. This was because the Republican Party consistently pushed for a balanced budget. Tax income was tied to expenditures, which were more or less fixed—and thus a zero-sum game.

That period from 1933 to 1980 was also the era of the New Deal, Fair Deal and Great Society social and anti-poverty programs, such as Social Security, the G.I. Bill, college grants and welfare. These government handouts helped mitigate hard times, gave life-changing educational opportunities that allowed class mobility, closing the gap between despair and hope for tens of millions of Americans. As the list of social programs grew, so did the tax rate—mostly on the rich. The practical effect was to redistribute income from top to bottom.

Democrats think it still works that way. It doesn’t.

The political landscape has shifted dramatically under Reagan, Clinton and the two Bushes. Budget cuts slashed spending on student financial aid, food stamps, Medicaid, school lunch programs, veterans hospitals, aid to single mothers. The social safety net is shredded. Most federal tax dollars flow directly into the Pentagon and defense contractors such as Halliburton.

As the economy continues to tank, there’s only one category to cut: social programs. “Eugene Steuerle worked on tax and budget issues in the Reagan Treasury Department and is now with the Urban Institute,” NPR reported a year ago. “He says one reason no one talks about preserving the social safety net today is that lawmakers have given themselves little choice but to cut it. They’ve taken taxes and entitlements, such as Social Security and Medicare, off the budget-cutting table, so there’s not much left.”

Meanwhile, effective tax rates on the wealthy have been greatly reduced. Which isn’t fair—but not in the way you might think.

Taxes on middle-class families are at their lowest level in 50 years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal thinktank.

What’s going on?

On the revenue side of the budget equation, the poor and middle-class have received tiny tax cuts. The rich and super rich have gotten huge tax cuts. Everyone is paying less.

On the expense side, social programs have been pretty much destroyed. If you grow up poor there’s no way to attend college without going into debt. If you lose your job you’ll get 99 weeks of tiny, taxable (thanks to Reagan) unemployment checks before burning through your savings and winding up on the street.

Military spending, on the other hand, has soared, accounting for 54 percent of federal spending.

In short, we’re running up massive deficits in order to finance wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and so on, and so rich job-killers can pay the lowest tax rates in the developed world.

I’m all for higher taxes on the rich. I’m for abolishing the right to be wealthy.

But liberals who think progressive taxation will mitigate or reverse income inequality are trapped in the 1960s, fighting the last (budget) war in a reality that no longer exists. The U.S. government’s top priority is invading Muslim countries and bombing their citizens. Without big social programs, invading Muslim countries and bombing their citizens is exactly where every extra taxdollar collected from the likes of Mitt Romney would go.

The only way progressive taxation can address income inequality is if higher taxes on the rich are coupled with an array of new anti-poverty and other social programs designed to put money and new job skills directly into the pockets of the 99 percent of Americans who have seen no improvement in their lives since 1980.

You have to rebuild the safety net. Otherwise higher taxes will swirl down the Pentagon’s $800 toilets.

If you’re serious about inequality, income redistribution through the tax system is only a start. Whether through stronger unions or worker advocacy through federal agencies, government must require higher minimum wages. It should set a maximum wage, too. A nation that allows its richest citizen to earn ten times more than its poorest would still be horribly unfair—yet it would be a big improvement over today. Shipping jobs overseas must be banned. Most free trade agreements should be torn up. Companies must no longer be allowed to layoff employees before eliminating salaries and benefits for their top-paid managers—CEOs, etc.

And a layoff should mean just that—a layoff. First fired should be first rehired—at equal or greater pay—if and when business improves.

Once a battery of spending programs targeted to the 99 percent is in place—permanent unemployment benefits, subsidized public housing, full college grants, etc.—the tax code ought to be radically revamped. For example, nothing gives the lie to the myth of America as a land of equal opportunity than inheritance. Aristocratic societies pass wealth and status from generation to generation. In a democracy, no one has the right to be born into wealth.

Because everyone deserves an equal chance, the national inheritance tax should be 100 percent. While we’re at it, why should people who inherited wealth but have low incomes get off scot-free? Slap the bastards with a European-style tax on wealth as well as the appearance of wealth.

Now you’re probably laughing. Even Obama’s lame call for taxing the rich—so the U.S. can buy more drone planes—stands no chance of passing the Republican Congress. They’re empty words meant for election-year consumption. Taking income inequality seriously? That’s so off the table it isn’t even funny.

Which is why we shouldn’t be looking to corporate machine politicians like Obama for answers.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is tedrall.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2012 TED RALL

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