Saturday, March 31, 2007

March 31:


On March 31, 1889, the Eiffel Tower is dedicated in Paris in a
ceremony presided over by Gustave Eiffel, the tower's designer, and
attended by French Prime Minister Pierre Tirard, a handful of other
dignitaries, and 200 construction workers.

In 1889, to honor of the centenary of the French Revolution, the
French government planned an international exposition and announced a
design competition for a monument to be built on the Champ-de-Mars in
central Paris. Out of more than 100 designs submitted, the Centennial
Committee chose Eiffel's plan of an open-lattice wrought-iron tower
that would reach almost 1,000 feet above Paris and be the world's
tallest man-made structure. Eiffel, a noted bridge builder, was a
master of metal construction and designed the framework of the Statue
of Liberty that had recently been erected in New York Harbor.

Eiffel's tower was greeted with skepticism from critics who argued
that it would be structurally unsound, and indignation from others who
thought it would be an eyesore in the heart of Paris. Unperturbed,
Eiffel completed his great tower under budget in just two years. Only
one worker lost his life during construction, which at the time was a
remarkably low casualty number for a project of that magnitude. The
light, airy structure was by all accounts a technological wonder and
within a few decades came to be regarded as an architectural

The Eiffel Tower is 984 feet tall and consists of an iron framework
supported on four masonry piers, from which rise four columns that
unite to form a single vertical tower. Platforms, each with an
observation deck, are at three levels. Elevators ascend the piers on a
curve, and Eiffel contracted the Otis Elevator Company of the United
States to design the tower's famous glass-cage elevators.

The elevators were not completed by March 31, 1889, however, so
Gustave Eiffel ascended the tower's stairs with a few hardy companions
and raised an enormous French tricolor on the structure's flagpole.
Fireworks were then set off from the second platform. Eiffel and his
party descended, and the architect addressed the guests and about 200
workers. In early May, the Paris International Exposition opened, and
the tower served as the entrance gateway to the giant fair.

The Eiffel Tower remained the world's tallest man-made structure until
the completion of the Chrysler Building in New York in 1930.
Incredibly, the Eiffel Tower was almost demolished when the
International Exposition's 20-year lease on the land expired in 1909,
but its value as an antenna for radio transmission saved it. It
remains largely unchanged today and is one of the world's premier
tourist attractions.

House of (Debt) Cards

by Tula Connell, Mar 26, 2007

The crumbling house of cards spilling across the subprime mortgage loan industry is big news right now. There were signs these risky loans could cause problems as early as two years ago, but it takes awhile for the mainstream media to pick up on bad economic trends. As economist Tom Palley puts it, “the U.S. economy is showing signs of a potentially rapid deceleration.”

Source: Economic Policy Institute
Source: Economic Policy Institute

In particular, there is accumulating evidence that the housing sector slowdown may be becoming a meltdown. In many areas house prices are falling, house sales are down nationally, and mortgage delinquencies and foreclosures are rising—especially in the sub-prime market. This has caused tremors in broader financial markets. The only good news is employment and wages continue growing, but labor markets conditions are also widely viewed as a lagging indicator.

Of course, just as quickly as the media is finally getting the story, corporate apologists are trying to make the nation’s deep debt look like no big deal.

David Leonhardt’s Economix column in The New York Times this week is a case in point. Leonhardt makes the usual stabs at showing both sides, but, ultimately, comes down on the side of “don’t worry, be happy.” The trope he uses is a familiar one: Point out that our concern over Issue X has been going on for a long time. Then conclude that since Issue X wasn’t as bad as we thought the first time, it won’t be now. In this case, Leonhardt uses the re-release of a 1912 film, “The Usurer’s Grip,” to show how the nation long has worried over debt. He describes the film as

a cautionary tale about borrowed money that revolves around the Jenkses, a fictional middle-class family who need a $25 loan so their young daughter can be treated for consumption. After a loan shark tricks Mr. Jenks into borrowing at an interest rate of 180 percent, the family is brought to the brink of ruin.

And he ultimately concludes that a few new guidelines, “voluntary or government-imposed, will force lenders to be clearer about the terms they’re offering borrowers” and the mess will be solved.

But economist Stephen Roach at Morgan Stanley sees it this way:

To me, the real debate is about “spillovers”—whether the housing downturn will spread to the rest of the economy. In my view, the lessons of the dot-com shakeout are key in this instance. Seven years ago, the spillover effects played out with a vengeance in the corporate sector, where the dot-com mania had prompted an unsustainable binge in capital spending and hiring. The unwinding of that binge triggered the recession of 2000–01. Today, the spillover effects are likely to be concentrated in the much large consumer sector. And the loss of that pillar of support is perfectly capable of triggering yet another post-bubble recession.

And although household debt was big news a few years ago, the media seems to have become bored with the issue—even though total consumer credit debt, excluding mortgages, hit a record $2.4 trillion in September. Factoring in mortgages, outstanding household debt soars to about $12.3 trillion. Based on figures from the Federal Reserve, the Center for American Progress found that Americans for the first time owe more money than they make: The average family now is spending 14.4 percent of its disposable income on debt repayments—the largest share since the Fed began collecting such data in 1980.

Leonhardt briefly references how the enormous amount of foreign capital flowing into the nation has enabled the mortgage business to “become bigger, more competitive and more innovative.” A look at this foreign capital highlights the context missing from Leonhardt’s piece. In 1912, the United States was not a debtor nation. But in 2007, the world’s richest nation (that’s us) is borrowing from the world’s poorest nations to the tune of more than 6 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economic professor and former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, puts it this way:

This is not a normal state of affairs. And it’s certainly not something we expect to see from the world’s richest country. Back when Britain was on top they were lending money to the world, but we’re borrowing from the rest of the world. Our current account trade deficit is now more than our defense spending and incredibly we’ve been borrowing from the rest of the world like this for several years now. I think we’re going to reach a point where the rest of the world decides that they don’t want to lend to us. And that can be kind of traumatic.

Which brings us to another movie Leonhardt should take a look at. Rogoff discusses the nation’s debt crisis in the recently released documentary film, “TIME-BOMB: America’s Debt Crises, Causes, Consequences and Solutions.”

John Ince, a former reporter at Fortune magazine and the film’s producer/director, writes:

Recently the Chinese, holders of about $1 trillion in U.S. Treasuries, recently set up a new agency of their central bank to take a hard look at their investments overseas, and their continued financing of U.S. deficits may come under close scrutiny. If global investors were to begin to balk at picking up the tab for American excesses, it would be a monumental embarrassment to the United States.

In FY [fiscal year] 2006, the current account trade deficit is on track to set yet another record, on the order of $700 billion. To put this in perspective, billionaire investor Warren Buffet points out that, “Fifteen years ago, the U.S. had no trade deficit with China. Now, it’s 200 billion dollars.” He says if the country does not change course, the rest of the world could end up owning $15 trillion worth of the United States. That’s equal to the value of all American stock.

Roach notes China’s export growth surged to 41.5 percent so far this year—“a dramatic acceleration from the still rapid 27 percent pace of 2006.” On this side of the Pacific, the United States accumulated a record $764 billion trade deficit, with the Bush administration’s flawed trade policy in large part behind this staggering debt. Current trade policy has cost the United States millions of good jobs by encouraging multinational corporations to move overseas with tax breaks, lopsided trade rules and an overvalued currency. (Check out the AFL-CIO recommendations on the nation’s trade policies here.)

So, the subprime mortgage loan collapse is not the only debt crisis of concern. It’s the bigger picture of the nation’s debt crisis—personal, national and trade—that’s tumbling across the nation like a fragile house of cards.

Ending Debt Slavery

Bob Edgar
March 26, 2007

Reverend Dr. Bob Edgar is the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.

Last week marked the 200th anniversary of the end of the transatlantic slave trade. Two centuries later, it is clear that one of history’s most towering evils, the enslavement of human beings, came to an end only when citizens challenged their governments to understand slavery as incompatible with basic laws of God and humanity.

Around the world today, citizen campaigners are leading their governments to understand that deadly poverty and crippling debt, slaveries of our own age, similarly are incompatible with the basic laws of human dignity.

Despite the international community’s new commitments to poverty eradication over the past seven years, particularly the adoption of the Millennium Development Goals , the basic inequities that fuel deadly poverty in our world are as pronounced as ever. Every day, 13 percent of the world’s population goes to bed hungry and nearly 15,000 people die of AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

The vision of the Jubilee that we find in scripture challenges us to address these realities as part our nation’s commitment to building a more prosperous, stable world for all people.

In the Hebrew Scriptures we find a vision of life in community that is liberating and just, governed by Sabbath cycles: the Sabbath Day, the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee Year. These cycles are a powerful reminder of God’s intent that all creatures enjoy fullness of life and partake in the abundance of God’s world. Sabbath Year observance requires that every seven years debts are canceled and those enslaved because of debts are freed, restoring equal relations among community members and preventing a situation of ongoing exploitation.

2007 is the Sabbath year, seven years after the historic Jubilee 2000 campaign for debt relief. The Sabbath year is an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the Jubilee campaign, and to address the unfinished agenda on international debt and global poverty. 2007 is also the halfway mark to the deadline to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, but we are far from halfway to achieving them.

We should celebrate progress: Thanks to debt relief commitments in 1999 and 2005, now more than 20 countries have seen 100% debt cancellation from the IMF, World Bank and African Development Bank. Resources freed up from debt relief are reaching those who need it in the form of greater access to health care, education and clean water.

But the abolitionists who challenged the inhumanity of the slave trade didn’t want to merely abolish slavery for some; they abolished slavery for all. The Sabbath year is a time to act on the unfinished agenda for international debt, to abolish debt slavery once and for all:

Too many countries—including Liberia, Haiti and the Democratic Republic of Congo—are caught up in the harmful economic strings of the international financial institutions' debt relief program and face deadly delays to receiving desperately needed full cancellation.
Many other low-income countries—such as Lesotho, Kenya, Nigeria and Sri Lanka—have been excluded from debt relief by the IMF/World Bank. Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom Gordon Brown has suggested that 67 low-income countries should be eligible to receive full debt cancellation to reach the Millennium Development Goals, assuming they meet good governance and other criteria.
Nations including Indonesia, South Africa and the Philippines clearly have unjust and odious debts which require further analysis and study.

Our faith and our convictions call us to support bold and prophetic measures which address this unfinished agenda to end the crisis of debt and deadly poverty. On March 25, 1807—almost exactly 200 years ago—the British Parliament voted to abolish the transatlantic slave trade. This year the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress have an opportunity to take a step towards the abolition of deadly poverty and crushing debt.

A Chance For Fair Elections

David Donnelly and Joan Mandle
March 26, 2007

David Donnelly is the National Campaigns Director of Public Campaign Action Fund. Joan Mandle is the Executive Director of Democracy Matters, and is the chair of the Public Campaign board of directors.

Last November, voters delivered an unmistakable mandate to Congress: Deal with the corruption and ethics scandals. The House and Senate both passed ethics and lobbying reforms as good first steps, but left untouched the broken campaign finance system that shuts out ordinary voters.

Into this vacuum stepped Senators Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Reps. John Tierney, D-Mass., Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Todd Platts, R-Pa.

On Tuesday, Senators Durbin and Specter introduced the bipartisan Fair Elections Now Act to level the financial playing field for all Senate candidates, and to get candidates off the never-ending fundraising treadmill. (At the same time, the House members filed similar legislation—the Clean Money, Clean Elections Act.)

The importance of this bipartisan legislation is underscored by the number of organizations that immediately got behind it. In addition to reform organizations, endorsers of the Fair Elections Now Act ranged from unions to business leaders, environmental groups to church-based organizations. With a combined membership of 60 million Americans, the coalition assembled is unlike any other federal effort on campaign finance reform. This reform effort is fundamentally different from those of the past.

Today, there is broad recognition that the current funding system is both unfair and unsustainable. Unfair because the few people in the country who can make sizable campaign donations get to influence our politicians and the political agenda in ways that ordinary citizens can’t hope to do. Unsustainable because campaign costs continue to soar. In 2002, the average winning candidate for Senate spent $5.4 million. Last fall, the average winner spent $9.7 million, an 80 percent increase. As the price tag on campaigns goes up, so does the time spent by members of Congress raising that money as well as the number of citizens who can no longer afford to run for office.

Furthermore, the scandals of Abramoff, DeLay, Cunningham and related outrages reveal that the system of private funding amounts to money scandals just waiting to happen. It adds up to a public that is shut out and turned off from politics awash with money.

This reform effort is also different because of the Fair Elections policy itself. Based on successful laws in Arizona, Maine, North Carolina and elsewhere, the proposal turns the current system on its head. Recent analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics reveals that a tiny fraction of Americans truly matter in financing elections: just one-quarter of one percent of all Americans make a donation of $200 or more to a federal candidate. Instead of depending on the narrow slice of America who can afford to make a large donation, the bill requires that participating candidates raise a large number of small donations from people back home. Importantly, after qualifying through these small donations, candidates agree to limit their spending to what they receive from a public fund.

In Arizona and Maine, similar clean elections laws have breathed new life into politics. Eighty-four percent of Maine state legislators were elected under the system. In Arizona, nine of the 11 statewide elected officials—including the governor—were elected without raising special-interest money. Candidates are no longer dependent on private money from wealthy special interests. Instead, they can focus on the needs of their constituents.

A broad and diverse set of groups and individuals support fair elections because it expands who can actively participate in politics, and deepens democracy by offering a workable alternative to the current unfair funding system. For a full list of endorsers of the Senate bill, visit Senator Durbin’s website.

We know that it will take a huge outpouring of citizen pressure to pass this legislation. Only organized, sustained citizen pressure can successfully make the case that the time has come for real change in campaign funding. National organizations and individuals are gearing up to tell their elected officials that they want to take back democracy from the special interests. Public Campaign has already launched a “Citizen Co-Sponsor” petition. Democracy Matters is organizing students on campuses to build support for fair elections. And many of the endorsing groups are planning a national day of action in the fall.

Because our democracy belongs to all of us—not just to elected officials, wealthy donors and lobbyists—it is all of America that must fight for it.

Think Fast

Bob Novak writes, “With nearly two years remaining in his presidency, George W. Bush is alone. In half a century, I have not seen a president so isolated from his own party in Congress. … The saving grace that some Republicans find in the dispute over U.S. attorneys is that, at least temporarily, it draws attention away from debate over an unpopular war.”

Despite President Bush’s recent change in rhetoric, top White House economic officials stilll don’t consider today’s income inequality “an inherently bad thing. … The administration hasn’t yet offered any sweeping proposals to resist the market forces producing inequality — and probably won’t.”

Five U.S. soldiers were killed Sunday in roadside bombings, four of them in the Diyala province east of the capital — a religiously-mixed area where insurgents fleeing the Baghdad crackdown are believed to have sought refuge. Diyala has seen “fierce fighting in recent months.”

Lawyers for New York City are rejecting calls to release police records of spying activities conducted on progressive activist groups in the lead-up to the 2004 Republican National Convention. The lawyers say “the documents should remain secret because the news media will ‘fixate upon and sensationalize them.’”

Former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) said last night during an interview on 60 Minutes, “There’s not a single person in America that should vote for me because Elizabeth has cancer… Do not vote for us because you feel some sympathy or compassion for us. That would be an enormous mistake.”

Is CNN building bridges to the longtime Fox News-friendly Bush administration?hosting top Bush adviser Karl Rove, as well as Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” That’s the message one could take from CNN’s guests at the Radio and TV Correspondents Dinner at the Washington Hilton this Wednesday. CNN is

The LA Times writes, “[N]early all the major 2008 presidential candidates — both announced and presumed — are wrestling with the technology that has made such successes of MySpace, Facebook, MeetUp and other social networking sites.” To see which tools the candidates are using and how they stack up to one another, check out NetTrends ‘08.

“The senior American envoy in Iraq, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, held talks last year with men he believed represented major insurgent groups in a drive to bring militant Sunni Arabs into politics,” the New York Times repots. “He is the first American official to publicly acknowledge holding such talks.”

And finally: Get your tickets early. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) “is getting into the documentary filmmaking business and he’s out to tell "the other side of the story." Santorum said last week “that he is planning two film projects in part to counter what he characterized as the stream of left-wing documentaries coming from Hollywood and independent filmmakers.”

The Progress Report:

The Most Loyal 'Loyal Bushie'

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is not fit to be the nation's chief law enforcement officer. Since President Bush swore him in on Feb. 3, 2005, Gonzales has steadily politicized the Justice Department, putting partisan administration priorities above the best interests of the American people. His involvement in the Bush administration's prosecutor purge demonstrated his willingness to abuse his position and exploit the agency, whose mission is to "ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans." He has not only fired qualified U.S. attorneys, but driven away respected civil rights officials and replaced them with political appointees, pushed laws that discriminate against minorities, and overseen the erosion of Americans' civil liberties. Now, both liberal and conservative lawmakers, pundits, members of the media, and the American public are pushing for Gonzales's resignation. As the New York Times recently wrote, Gonzales "has never stopped being consigliere to Mr. Bush's imperial presidency. If anyone, outside Mr. Bush's rapidly shrinking circle of enablers, still had doubts about that, the events of last week should have erased them."

LYING UNDER OATH: On March 12, Gonzales assured the nation that he did not participate in the administration's dismissal of eight well-respected U.S. attorneys: "I was not involved in seeing any memos, was not involved in any discussions about what was going on." But e-mails released over the weekend show that the attorney general "was told of the dismissal plan on at least two occasions, in 2005 when the plan was devised and again in late 2006 shortly before the firings were carried out." On Nov. 27, 2006, Gonzales met with at least five top Justice Department officials and developed a "five-step plan for carrying out the firings of the prosecutors." This inconsistency is just the latest from the attorney general on the prosecutor purge. On Jan. 18, Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee, under oath, that the Bush administration never intended to take advantage of a Patriot Act provision that allows the President to appoint "interim" U.S. attorneys for an indefinite period of time, without Senate confirmation. But e-mails from Dec. 2006 show that Gonzales's then-chief of staff Kyle Sampson intended to use this provision to make an end-run around the Senate, writing, "There is some risk that we'll lose the authority, but if we don't ever exercise it then what's the point of having it?" Gonzales also told the Senate, "I would never, ever make a change in a United States attorney for political reasons or if it would in any way jeopardize an ongoing serious investigation. I just would not do it." This claim has turned out to be false too, raising the possibility that Gonzales lied under oath. The Justice Department has admitted that it fired the U.S. attorney in Arkansas, Bud Cummins, for political reasons -- to install a Karl Rove-protege. Evidence continues to mount that multiple attorneys were pushed out because they weren't "loyal Bushies."

SUPPRESSING MINORITY VOTERS: The Justice Department has attempted to cover-up the partisan firings by accusing several of the ousted U.S. attorneys of failing to aggressively pursue charges of voter fraud. Like the administration's efforts to push out the lead prosecutor2002, the more recent firings suggest that the White House allowed politics to govern the administration of justice. Republican leaders, such as the New Mexico GOP chairman, complained to Karl Rove that the former prosecutor David Iglesias didn't go after voter fraud aggressively enough. Former U.S. attorney in Washington John McKay upset White House officials and state GOP leaders when he refused to convene a federal grand jury to investigate voter fraud in the hotly contested 2004 gubernatorial election, which had been certified in favor of the Democratic candidate. But McKay says his office thoroughly reviewed every allegation of voter fraud in the 2004 election and "concurred with the state trial court judge that there was no evidence -- and let me just emphasize, zero evidence -- of election voter fraud in that election." Iglesias, who was called "inattentive" to voter fraud by New Mexico GOP officials, had actually been "heralded for his expertise in that area [voter fraud] by the Justice Department, which twice selected him to train other federal prosecutors to pursue election crimes." As the New York Times notes, "In partisan Republican circles, the pursuit of voter fraud is code for suppressing the votes of minorities and poor people. By resisting pressure to crack down on 'fraud,' the fired United States attorneys actually appear to have been standing up for the integrity of the election system."

POLITICIZING CIVIL RIGHTS: The push to find voter fraud where there is no evidence is part of Gonzales's politicization of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. "Nearly 20 percent of the division's lawyers left in fiscal 2005, in part because of a buyout program that some lawyers believe was aimed at pushing out those who did not share the administration's conservative views on civil rights laws. Longtime litigators complain that political appointees have cut them out of hiring and major policy decisions, including approvals of controversial GOP redistricting plans in Mississippi and Texas." A Boston Globe report in June 2006 concluded that Gonzales was "filling the permanent ranks [at the Justice Department] with lawyers who have strong conservative credentials but little experience in civil rights." Just 42 percent of the lawyers hired since 2003 have strong civil rights backgrounds, compared to 77 percent in 2001-2002. In 2004, high-ranking Justice political appointees overruled the department's attorneys and analysts who "recommended rejecting" Georgia's voter ID law "because it was likely to discriminate against black voters."

ERODING CIVIL LIBERTIES: Politics has trumped civil liberties during Gonzales's tenure at the Justice Department. Gonzales advised the President to shut down "a Justice Department inquiry regarding the administration's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program," when he "learned that his own conduct would likely be a focus of the investigation." Last week, Sharon Y. Eubanks, the "leader of the Justice Department team that prosecuted a landmark lawsuit against tobacco companies," said that "Bush loyalists" in Gonzales's office "repeatedly ordered her to take steps that weakened the government's racketeering case." "The political people were pushing the buttons and ordering us to say what we said," Eubanks said. "And because of that, we failed to zealously represent the interests of the American public." More recently, Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded that FBI agents often demanded Americans' personal data "without official authorization, and in other cases improperly obtained telephone records in non-emergency circumstances." The administration's abuses of requirements imposed by Congress were "precisely the provisions which President Bush expressly proclaimed he could ignore when he issued a 'signing statement' as part of the enactment of the Patriot Act's renewal into law."

Going AWOL vs. Going to Iraq

Going AWOL vs. Going to Iraq

By Mary Wiltenburg, Der Spiegel. Posted March 26, 2007.

As criticism of the Iraq war grows at home, some US soldiers abroad increasingly are rejecting Bush's mission. On military bases across Germany, many are now seeking a way out through desertion or early discharge.

Editor's Note:

American and British soldiers are increasingly taking drastic action to avoid deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. As recently reported in the press, the Pentagon has "revised" the number of military desertions in 2006 upward to 3,196 active-duty soldiers -- 853 more than the Pentagon previously announced. And in a article released today, the British Independent newspaper reports that the UK Ministry of Defense "estimates there have been 10,000 AWOL incidents since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and 1,100 servicemen are currently 'on the run' from the Army." The article excerpted below, from the German magazine Der Spiegel, illustrates the difficult alternatives that soldiers who don't want to be deployed are facing.


US Soldiers Against Iraq War Seeking Way Out
Casualties of Conscience
by Mary Wiltenburg

When he goes underground, he won't tell his mom. "John," a rangy young soldier with arresting eyebrows, has planned each step carefully. He will spend his leave from an Army base in Germany at home in the northeastern United States, snowboarding, visiting friends, and hanging out with his teenage siblings. Then he'll disappear. When the military police call his mother and stepfather, the hard-line Bush supporters will be able to say honestly that they don't know where their son is.

Shortly before his return to the States, John let Der Spiegel in on his plan over cocoa and ham sandwiches in a Berlin cafe. He is one of a growing number of American service members now going AWOL (absent without leave) from units stationed overseas. Though the US Department of Defense does not keep figures on such cases, a strong indication of their frequency is the number who receive "Chapter 11" discharges through Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and Fort Knox, Kentucky, the main processing centers for those who go missing overseas and turn themselves in, or are arrested, back home.

Between October 2002 and September 2005, the two made an annual average of 1,546 such discharges. Last year the number grew to 1,988, or more than five per day. John didn't start out a quitter. When he joined the military, he loved the idea of seeing the world. Family members were thrilled by his choice. His stepfather works for an oil company, his uncle for a weapons manufacturer. In training, though, he had serious qualms. From inside, the Army struck John as brutal, controlling, "like a slavery contract."

Iraq, his first war zone, did nothing to quiet his doubts. The communications specialist was sent to a base near Baghdad to repair a phone and Internet hookup that allowed communication between US facilities. John found himself holding a faulty fiberoptic cable labeled "Abu Ghraib." "I really felt like part of something bad at that point," he says. "I didn't directly have blood on my hands, but I was part of it."

Officially, punishment for military desertion can range from an "other than honorable" discharge -- a bureaucratic slap on the wrist that may involve a cut in benefits -- to death by firing squad. In practice, many soldiers who go AWOL overseas follow the advice of the Army's deserter hotline and quietly turn themselves in to Ft. Sill or Ft. Knox. Ft. Knox spokeswoman Gini Sinclair says most of the 14,000-plus troops who have been processed through the two centers since the invasion of Afghanistan were discharged within two weeks.

Court-martial in Germany

But there are no guarantees. Deserters can also fare like Agustin Aguayo. For three years the Army medic has struggled to be recognized as a "conscientious objector" (CO), someone whose beliefs prevent him from taking part in war. In the meantime, the Mexican American spent a year treating broken comrades and bloody civilians in Saddam Hussein's home town of Tikrit -- without a loaded weapon, even on dangerous patrols. Now Aguayo, 35, sits in a military prison; on March 6 he will stand before a court-martial in Würzburg. His case comes at a time when American public opinion has turned sharply against the war. President George W. Bush's call to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq is not only providing ammunition to his political opponents; it is fueling doubts among those doing the fighting.

"Since Bush's speech, we've been swamped with new calls," says Michael Sharp, director of the Military Counseling Network, a non-profit organisation near Heidelberg that helps American soldiers who are considering leaving the service. Last month the group took on 30 new clients, three times its previous average. Service members say it stands to reason that many people desert overseas. A foreign posting -- 65,000 troops are now stationed in Germany -- is often a major reality-check for soldiers. Many are abroad for the first time, and being far from family, in a country that opposes the war, and halfway to the battlefield "forces you to think about things a lot closer," says former Army Sgt. DeShawn Reed.

In the US, too, groups like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace are growing. Nearly 1,600 enlisted soldiers have signed an appeal to the US Congress that reads: "Staying in Iraq will not work and is not worth the price." And in Seattle, Lt. Ehren Watada, 29, is now grabbing headlines as the first American officer to be court-martialed for refusing to serve in Iraq. The Japanese American has called the conflict "an illegal and unjust war ... for profit and imperialistic domination."

There are other ways to break a military contract. Some enlistments end in felonies: drunk driving, illegal drugs. Other service members are discharged for illness, injury, or homosexuality. (Gays and lesbians may not legally disclose their sexual orientation if they wish to serve in the US military.) Still others go the way Aguayo did, against the laws of the country for which they once volunteered to fight. ...

Germany an education

... On or off the battlefield, soldiers can be casualties. DeShawn Reed knows. For the California native, Germany was more than a posting; it was an education. After high school, Reed, now 27, served the Army in Kaiserslautern for five years as a human resources specialist. In his spare time he studied the language, moved downtown, made good German friends, and traveled with them throughout Europe. The soft spoken African American started taking college courses, and in European History it hit him: every war leads to another. Reed began to see fighting as senseless, and contrary to the teachings of a God who bade him respect his fellow man.

So without ever seeing combat, Reed began the process of applying for a conscientious objector discharge. He wrote essays and letters. A chaplain evaluated the sincerity of his faith, a psychiatrist judged his sanity, an investigator rummaged through his past. One interviewer asked Reed if he would really have refused to fight against Adolf Hitler's Germany. Reed argued that America's entry into World War II wasn't a selfless act to "spread democracy" or free the Jews; it was a response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

"American history is just as cynical as German history," he says -- just look at Iraq. Reed's application was narrowly approved, and he returned to Reno, Nevada, where he now works for a local school district. He was married last fall. These days, Reed's main contact with the Iraq war is through news reports. Watching the destruction, he says, he is sorry he didn't become a CO sooner. But "it means the world to me that I stood against the war. I'm proud of that." For Agustin Aguayo, it is too soon to talk about pride.

The future is uncertain; the past year, a blur. In September the self-described pacifist escaped orders to return to Iraq by leaping out the back window of his Schweinfurt home. He left behind his wife and 11-year old twin daughters, hopped a train to Munich, hid there with a family, secured a Mexican passport and a plane ticket to Guadalajara, flew by way of Spain, crossed the US border, caught a ride home to Los Angeles, and turned himself in to a local Army base -- all in 24 days.

He was returned to Germany in handcuffs, charged with "missing movement" for not going to Iraq with his unit and "short-form desertion" for his time on the run. ...

To read the full Der Spiegel article, click here.


Tagged as: iraq, desertion, germany, us army

New Rule: Traitors [Bush & Cheney et al] don’t get to question my patriotism [VIDEO]

Posted by Evan Derkacz at 6:56 PM on March 25, 2007.

Rated R rant on the miscreant failures in the White House from Bill Maher


Bill Maher laid into the White House and its mushy rhetoric on his HBO program recently, giving a tour of the scandal overflow with a special focus on the outing of Valerie Plame: That's not treason anymore, outing a spy? Did I mention it was one of our spies?

Video and transcript courtesy of right wing watch dogs and administration kiss-ups.

New Rule - Traitors don't get to question my patriotism. What could be less patriotic than constantly screwing things up for America? You know, it's literally hard to keep up with the sheer volume of scandals in the Bush administration. Which is why I like to download the latest scandals right onto my IPod. That way, I can catch up on this week's giant f**k up on my drive into work.

In fact, Bush has so many scandals he could open a chain of "Bush Scandal and F**k Up" theme restaurants. Hmmm, should I get the Harriet Miers Meatloaf, or the Katrina Crabcakes?

You know, not to generalize, but the 29 percent of people who still support President Bush are the ones who love to pronounce themselves more patriotic than the rest of us. But just saying you're patriotic is like saying you have a...

... big c**k. If you have to say it, chances are it's not true. And indeed, the Party that flatters itself that they protect America better is the Party that has exhausted the military, left the ports wide open, and purposely outed a CIA agent, Valerie Plame. That's not treason anymore, outing a spy? Did I mention it was one of our spies?

And how despicable that Bush's lackeys attempted to diminish this crime by belittling her service like she was just some chick who hung around the CIA. An intern really. Groupie if you want to be mean about it. No. Big lie. Valerie Plame was the CIA's operational officer in charge of counter-proliferation. Which means she tracked loose nukes. So, when Bush said, as he once did, that his absolute, number one priority was preventing terrorists from getting loose nukes, okay, that's what she worked on. That's what she devoted her life to. Staying undercover for 20 years. Maintaining two identities every God-damned day. This is extraordinary service to your country. Valerie Plame was the kind of real life secret agent George Bush dreams of being when he's not too busy pretending to be a cowboy or a fighter pilot.

CIA agents are troops. This was a military assassination of one of our own done through the press, ordered by Karl Rove. He said of Valerie Plame, quote, "She's fair game," and then Cheney shot her.

George Bush likes to claim that he doesn't question his critics' patriotism, just their judgment. Well, let me be the first of your critics, Mr. President, to question your judgment and your patriotism. Because let's not forget why they did it to her. Because Valerie Plame was married to this guy Joe Wilson who the Bush people hated because he busted them on one of their bulls**t reasons for invading Iraq. He was sent to the African country of Niger to see if Niger was selling nuclear fuel to Iraq. They weren't. It was bulls**t. And he said so. In fact, his report was called, "Niger, Please."

Valerie Plame's husband told the truth about their lies, so they were willing to jeopardize an entire network of spies to ruin her life. Wow. Even the mob doesn't go after your family.

Mark Twain said, "Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it." And I say Valerie Plame is a patriot because she spent her life serving her country. Scooter Libby is not because he spent his life serving Dick Cheney. Valerie Plame kept her secrets. The Bush administration leaked like the plumbing at Walter Reed.

In the year 2008, I really think that Hillary Clinton should run for president on a platform of restoring honor and integrity to the Oval Office.


Tagged as: bush, plame, iraq, bill maher, comedy

Evan Derkacz is an AlterNet editor. He writes and edits PEEK, the blog of blogs.

Who's Gorging and Who's Getting Roasted in the Economic Barbecue?

By James M. Cypher, Dollars and Sense. Posted March 26, 2007.

Not since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century has America witnessed such a rapid shift in the distribution of economic wealth as it has in the past 30 years.

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Economic inequality has been on the rise in the United States for 30-odd years. Not since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century -- during what Mark Twain referred to as "the Great Barbeque" -- has the country witnessed such a rapid shift in the distribution of economic resources.

Still, most mainstream economists do not pay too much attention to the distribution of income and wealth -- that is, how the value of current production (income) and past accumulated assets (wealth) is divided up among U.S. households. Some economists focus their attention on theory for theory's sake and do not work much with empirical data of any kind. Others who are interested in these on-the-ground data simply assume that each individual or group gets what it deserves from a capitalist economy. In their view, if the share of income going to wage earners goes up, that must mean that wage earners are more productive and thus deserve a larger slice of the nation's total income -- and vice versa if that share goes down.

Heterodox economists, however, frequently look upon the distribution of income and wealth as among the most important shorthand guides to the overall state of a society and its economy. Some are interested in economic justice; others may or may not be, but nonetheless are convinced that changes in income distribution signal underlying societal trends and perhaps important points of political tension. And the general public appears to be paying increasing attention to income and wealth inequality. Consider the strong support voters have given to recent ballot questions raising state minimum wages and the extensive coverage of economic inequality that has suddenly begun to appear in mainstream news outlets like the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal, all of which published lengthy article series on the topic in the past few years. Just last month, news outlets around the country spotlighted the extravagant bonuses paid out by investment firm Goldman Sachs, including a $53.4 million bonus to the firm's CEO.

By now, economists and others who do pay attention to the issue are aware that income and wealth inequality in the United States rose steadily during the last three decades of the 20th century. But now that we are several years into the 21st, what do we know about income and wealth distribution today? Has the trend toward inequality continued, or are there signs of a reversal? And what can an understanding of the entire post-World War II era tell us about how to move again toward greater economic equality?

The short answers are: (1) Income distribution is even more unequal that we thought; (2) The newest data suggest the trend toward greater inequality continues, with no signs of a reversal; (3) We all do better when we all do better. During the 30 or so years after World War II the economy boomed and every stratum of society did better -- pretty much at the same rate. When the era of shared growth ended, so too did much of the growth: the U.S. economy slowed down and recessions were deeper, more frequent, and harder to overcome. Growth spurts that did occur left most people out: the bottom 60% of U.S. households earned only 95 cents in 2004 for every dollar they made in 1979. A quarter century of falling incomes for the vast majority, even though average household income rose by 27% in real terms. Whew!

The classless society

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, sociologists preached that the United States was an essentially "classless" society in which everyone belonged to the middle class. A new "mass market" society with an essentially affluent, economically homogeneous population, they claimed, had emerged. Exaggerated as these claims were in the 1950s, there was some reason for their popular acceptance. Union membership reached its peak share of the privatesector labor force in the early 1950s; unions were able to force corporations of the day to share the benefits of strong economic growth. The union wage created a target for nonunion workers as well, pulling up all but the lowest of wages as workers sought to match the union wage and employers often granted it as a tactic for keeping unions out. Under these circumstances, millions of families entered the lower middle class and saw their standard of living rise markedly. All of this made the distribution of income more equal for decades until the late 1970s. Of course there were outliers -- some millions of poor, disproportionately blacks, and the rich family here and there.

Something serious must have happened in the 1970s as the trend toward greater economic equality rapidly reversed. Here are the numbers. The share of income received by the bottom 90% of the population was a modest 67% in 1970, but by 2000 this had shrunk to a mere 52%, according to a detailed study of U.S. income distribution conducted by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, published by the prestigious National Bureau of Economic Research in 2002. Put another way, the top 10% increased their overall share of the nation's total income by 15 percentage points from 1970 to 2000. This is a rather astonishing jump -- the gain of the top 10% in these years was equivalent to more than the total income received annually by the bottom 40% of households. To get on the bottom rung of the top 10% of households in 2000, it would have been necessary to have an adjusted gross income of $104,000 a year. The real money, though, starts on the 99th rung of the income ladder -- the top 1% received an unbelievable 21.7% of all income in 2000. To get a handhold on the very bottom of this top rung took more than $384,000.

The Piketty-Saez study (and subsequent updates), which included in its measure of annual household income some data, such as income from capital gains, that generally are not factored in, verified a rising trend in income inequality which had been widely noted by others, and a degree of inequality which was far beyond most current estimates. The Internal Revenue Service has essentially duplicated the Piketty-Saez study. They find that in 2003, the share of total income going to the "bottom" four-fifths of households (that's 80% of the population!) was only slightly above 40%. Both of these studies show much higher levels of inequality than were previously thought to exist based on widely referenced Census Bureau studies. The Census studies still attribute 50% of total income to the top fifth for 2003, but this number appears to understate what the top fifth now receives -- nearly 60%, according to the IRS.

A brave new globalized world for workers

Why the big change from 1970 to 2000? That is too long a story to tell here in full. But briefly, we can say that beginning in the early 1970s, U.S. corporations and the wealthy individuals who largely own them had the means, the motive, and the opportunity to garner a larger share of the nation's income -- and they did so.

Let's start with the motive. The 1970s saw a significant slowdown in U.S. economic growth, which made corporations and stockholders anxious to stop sharing the benefits of growth to the degree they had in the immediate postwar era.

Opportunity appeared in the form of an accelerating globalization of economic activity. Beginning in the 1970s, more and more U.S.-based corporations began to set up production operations overseas. The trend has only accelerated since, in part because international communication and transportation costs have fallen dramatically. Until the 1970s, it was very difficult -- essentially unprofitable -- for giants like General Electric or General Motors to operate plants offshore and then import their foreign-made products into the United States. So from the 1940s to the 1970s, U.S. workers had a geographic lever, one they have now almost entirely lost. This erosion in workers' bargaining power has undermined the middle class and decimated the unions that once managed to assure the working class a generally comfortable economic existence. And today, of course, the tendency to send jobs offshore is affecting many highly trained professionals such as engineers. So this process of gutting the middle class has not run its course.

Given the opportunity presented by globalization, companies took a two-pronged approach to strengthening their hand vis-à-vis workers: (1) a frontal assault on unions, with decertification elections and get-tough tactics during unionization attempts, and (2) a debilitating war of nerves whereby corporations threatened to move offshore unless workers scaled back their demands or agreed to givebacks of prior gains in wage and benefit levels or working conditions.

A succession of U.S. governments that pursued conservative -- or pro-corporate -- economic policies provided the means. Since the 1970s, both Republican and Democratic administrations have tailored their economic policies to benefit corporations and shareholders over workers. The laundry list of such policies includes:

  • new trade agreements, such as NAFTA, that allow companies to cement favorable deals to move offshore to host nations such as Mexico;

  • tax cuts for corporations and for the wealthiest households, along with hikes in the payroll taxes that represent the largest share of the tax burden on the working and middle classes;

  • lax enforcement of labor laws that are supposed to protect the right to organize unions and bargain collectively.

Exploding millionairism

Given these shifts in the political economy of the United States, it is not surprising that economic inequality in 2000 was higher than in 1970. But at this point, careful readers may well ask whether it is misleading to use data for the year 2000, as the studies reported above do, to demonstrate rising inequality. After all, wasn't 2000 the year the NASDAQ peaked, the year the dot-com bubble reached its maximum volume? So if the wealthiest households received an especially large slice of the nation's total income that year, doesn't that just reflect a bubble about to burst rather than an underlying trend?

To begin to answer this question, we need to look at the trends in income and wealth distribution since 2000. And it turns out that after a slight pause in 2000-2001, inequality has continued to rise. Look at household income, for example. According to the standard indicators, the U.S. economy saw a brief recession in 2000-2001 and has been in a recovery ever since. But the median household income has failed to recover.* In 2000 the median household had an annual income of $49,133; by 2005, after adjusting for inflation, the figure stood at $46,242. This 6% drop in median household income occurred while the inflation-adjusted Gross Domestic Product expanded by 14.4%. When the Census Bureau released these data, it noted that median household income had gone up slightly between 2004 and 2005. This point was seized upon by Bush administration officials to bolster their claim that times are good for American workers. A closer look at the data, however, revealed a rather astounding fact: Only 23 million households moved ahead in 2005, most headed by someone aged 65 or above. In other words, subtracting out the cost-of-living increase in Social Security benefits and increases in investment income (such as profits, dividends, interest, capital gains, and rents) to the over-65 group, workers again suffered a decline in income in 2005.

Another bit of evidence is the number of millionaire households -- those with net worth of $1 million or more excluding the value of a primary residence and any IRAs. In 1999, just before the bubbles burst, there were 7.1 million millionaire households in the United States. In 2005, there were 8.9 million, a record number. Ordinary workers may not have recovered from the 2000-2001 rough patch yet, but evidently the wealthiest households have!

Many economists pay scant attention to income distribution patterns on the assumption that those shifts merely reflect trends in the productivity of labor or the return to risk-taking. But worker productivity rose in the 2000-2005 period, by 27.1%. At the same time, from 2003 to 2005 average hourly pay fell by 1.2%. (Total compensation, including all forms of benefits, rose by 7.2% between 2000 and 2005. Most of the higher compensation spending merely reflects rapid increases in the health insurance premiums that employers have to pay just to maintain the same levels of coverage. But even if benefits are counted as part of workers' pay -- a common and questionable practice -- productivity growth outpaced this elastic definition of "pay" by 50% between 1972 and 2005.)

And at the macro level, recent data released by the Commerce Department demonstrate that the share of the country's GDP going to wages and salaries sank to its lowest postwar level, 45.4%, in the third quarter of 2006. And this figure actually overstates how well ordinary workers are doing. The "Wage & Salary" share includes all income of this type, not just production workers' pay. Corporate executives' increasingly munificent salaries are included as well. Workers got roughly 65% of total wage and salary income in 2005, according to survey data from the U.S. Department of Labor; the other 35% went to salaried professionals -- medical doctors and technicians, managers, and lawyers -- who comprised only 15.6% of the sample.

Moreover, the "Wage & Salary" share shown in the National Income and Product Accounts includes bonuses, overtime, and other forms of payment not included in the Labor Department survey. If this income were factored in, the share going to nonprofessional, nonmanagerial workers would be even smaller. Bonuses and other forms of income to top employees can be many times base pay in important areas such as law and banking. Goldman Sachs's notorious 2006 bonuses are a case in point; the typical managing director on Wall Street garnered a bonus ranging between $1 and $3 million.

So, labor's share of the nation's income is falling, as Figure 3 shows, but it is actually falling much faster than these data suggest. Profits, meanwhile, are at their highest level as a share of GDP since the booming 1960s.

These numbers should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the paper: story after story illustrates how corporations are continuing to squeeze workers. For instance, workers at the giant auto parts manufacturer Delphi have been told to prepare for a drop in wages from $27.50 an hour in 2006 to $16.50 an hour in 2007. In order to keep some of Caterpillar's manufacturing work in the United States, the union was cornered into accepting a contract in 2006 that limits new workers to a maximum salary of $27,000 a year -- no matter how long they work there -- compared to the $38,000 or more that long-time Caterpillar workers make today. More generally, for young women with a high school diploma, average entry-level pay fell to only $9.08 an hour in 2005, down by 4.9% just since 2001. For male college graduates, starter-job pay fell by 7.3% over the same period.

Aiding and abetting

And the federal government is continuing to play its part, facilitating the transfer of an ever-larger share of the nation's income to its wealthiest households. George W. Bush once joked that his constituency was "the haves and the have-mores" -- this may have been one of the few instances in which he was actually leveling with his audience. Consider aspects of the four tax cuts for individuals that Bush has implemented since taking office. The first two cut the top nominal tax rate from 39.6% to 35%. Then, in 2003, the third cut benefited solely those who hold wealth, reducing taxes on dividends from 39.6% to 15% and on capital gains from 20% to 15%. ( Bush's fourth tax cut -- in 2006 -- is expected to drop taxes by 4.8% percent for the top one tenth of one percent of all households, while the median household will luxuriate with an extra nickel per day.)

So, if you make your money by the sweat of your brow and you earned $200,000 in 2003, you paid an effective tax rate of 21%. If you earned a bit more, say another $60,500, you paid an effective tax rate of 35% on the additional income. But if, with a flick of the wrist on your laptop, you flipped some stock you had held for six months and cleared $60,500 on the transaction, you paid the IRS an effective tax rate of only 15%. What difference does it make? Well, in 2003 the 6,126 households with incomes over $10 million saw their taxes go down by an average of $521,905 from this one tax cut alone.

These tax cuts represent only one of the many Bush administration policies that have abetted the ongoing shift of income away from most households and toward the wealthiest ones. And what do these top-tier households do with all this newfound money? For one thing, they save. This is in sharp contrast to most households. While the top fifth of households by income has a savings rate of 23%, the bottom 80% as a group dissave -- in other words, they go into debt, spending more than they earn. Households headed by a person under 35 currently show a negative savings rate of 16% of income. Today overall savings -- the savings of the top fifth minus the dis-savings of the bottom four-fifths -- are slightly negative, for the first time since the Great Depression.

Here we find the crucial link between income and wealth accumulation. Able to save nearly a quarter of their income, the rich search out financial assets (and sometimes real assets such as houses and businesses) to pour their vast funds into. In many instances, sometimes with inside information, they are able to generate considerable future income from their invested savings. Like a snowball rolling downhill, savings for the rich can have a turbo effect -- more savings generates more income, which then accumulates as wealth.

Lifestyles of the rich

Make the rich even richer and the creative forces of market capitalism will be unleashed, resulting in more savings and consequently more capital investment, raising productivity and creating abundance for all. At any rate, that's the supply-side/neoliberal theory. However -- and reminiscent of the false boom that defined the Japanese economy in the late 1980s -- the big money has not gone into productive investments in the United States. Stripping out the money pumped into the residential real estate bubble, inflation-adjusted investment in machinery, equipment, technology, and structures increased only 1.4% from 1999 through 2005 -- an average of 0.23% per year. Essentially, productive investment has stagnated since the close of the dot-com boom.

Instead, the money has poured into high-risk hedge funds. These are vast pools of unregulated funds that are now generating 40% to 50% of the trades in the New York Stock Exchange and account for very large portions of trading in many U.S. and foreign credit and debt markets.

And where is the income from these investments going? Last fall media mogul David Geffen sold two paintings at record prices, a Jasper Johns ($80 million) and a Willem de Kooning ($63.5 million), to two of "today's crop of hedge-fund billionaires" whose cash is making the art market "red-hot," according to the New York Times.

Other forms of conspicuous consumption have their allure as well. Boeing and Lufthansa are expecting brisk business for the newly introduced 787 airplane. The commercial version of the new Boeing jet will seat 330, but the VIP version offered by Lufthansa Technik (for a mere $240 million) will have seating for 35 or fewer, leaving room for master bedrooms, a bar, and the transport of racehorses or Rolls Royces. And if you lose your auto assembly job? It should be easy to find work as a dog walker: High-end pet care services are booming, with sales more than doubling between 2000 and 2004. Opened in 2001, Just Dogs Gourmet expects to have 45 franchises in place by the end of 2006 selling hand-decorated doggie treats. And then there is Camp Bow Wow, which offers piped-in classical music for the dogs (oops, "guests") and a live Camper Cam for their owners. Started only three years ago, the company already has 140 franchises up and running.

According to David Butler, the manager of a premiere auto dealership outside of Detroit, sales of Bentleys, at $180,000 a pop, are brisk. But not many $300,000 Rolls Royces are selling. "It's not that they can't afford it," Butler told the New York Times, "it's because of the image it would give." Just what is the image problem in Detroit? Well, maybe it has something to do with those Delphi workers facing a 40% pay cut. Michigan's economy is one of the hardest-hit in the nation. GM, long a symbol of U.S. manufacturing prowess, is staggering, with rumors of possible bankruptcy rife. The best union in terms of delivering the goods for the U.S. working class, the United Auto Workers, is facing an implosion. Thousands of Michigan workers at Delphi, GM, and Ford will be out on the streets very soon. (The top three domestic car makers are determined to permanently lay off three-quarters of their U.S. assembly-line workers -- nearly 200,000 hourly employees. If they do, then the number of autoworkers employed by the Big Three -- Ford, Chrysler, and GM -- will have shrunk by a staggering 900,000 since 1978.) So, this might not be the time to buy a Rolls. But a mere $180,000 Bentley -- why not?

Had enough of the “haves”?

In the era Twain decried as the "great barbeque," the outrageous concentration of income and wealth eventually sparked a reaction and a vast reform movement. But it was not until the onset of the Great Depression, decades later, that massive labor/social unrest and economic collapse forced the country's political elite to check the growing concentration of income and wealth.

Today, it does not appear that there are, as yet, any viable forces at work to put the brakes on the current runaway process of rising inequality. Nor does it appear that this era's power elite is ready to accept any new social compact. In a recent report on the "new king of Wall Street" (a co-founder of the hedge fund/private-equity buyout corporation Blackstone Group) that seemed to typify elite perspectives on today's inequality, the New York Times gushed that "a crashing wave of capital is minting new billionaires each year." Naturally, the Times was too discreet to mention is that those same "crashing waves" have flattened the middle class. And their backwash has turned the working class every-which-way while pulling it down, down, down.

But perhaps those who decry the trend can find at least symbolic hope in the new boom in yet another luxury good. Private mausoleums, in vogue during that earlier Gilded Age, are back. For $650,000, one was recently constructed at Daytona Memorial Park in Florida -- with matching $4,000 Medjool date palms for shade. Another, complete with granite patio, meditation room, and doors of hand cast bronze, went up in the same cemetery. Business is booming, apparently, with 2,000 private mausoleums sold in 2005, up from a single-year peak of 65 in the 1980s. Some cost "well into the millions," according to one the nation's largest makers of cemetery monuments. Who knows: maybe the mausoleum boom portends the ultimate (dead) end for the neo-Gilded Age.


Tagged as: inequality, wealth

James M. Cypher is profesor-investigador, Programa de Doctorado en Estudios del Desarrollo, Universidad Autónoma de Zacatecas, Mexico, and a Dollars & Sense associate.