This Is What Labor Day Is

April 20, 1914 

The good news is that you have work. The bad news is that you work for Mr. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel & Iron Company in Ludlow, CO. You live in a tent on company land with your wife and two young sons. It’s hard, but the community of about 1,200 other mining families sticks together and you keep each other’s spirits up. You can’t help but worry lately. You’ve been on the front lines of a strike, because you’ve got to have something just a little better. You only get paid for the coal you dig out of the mountain, but the work you have to do before and after that – like digging tunnels and carting the coal out – you give the company for free. At first you thought maybe the company would listen to you and the other UMWA boys, but the past few days things have been getting kind of nasty.

If that was you, the next thing you would have seen is two companies of Colorado National Guardsmen installing machine guns on a ridge near your camp. You’d have spent the day trying to protect your family from a militia stirred up and paid by mine owners. By dark, the entire camp was on fire. Miners and their wives and children were slaughtered. At least four women and eleven children died in one pit under a burning tent. Because you and your co-workers thought it was reasonable to demand that you not be asked to work more than eight hours a day, and that you be paid for your work.

Today we call that the Ludlow Massacre. The land the camp was on is owned by the UMWA, and there’s a nice monument there.

March 25, 1911 

The early morning is still cold as you walk the few blocks from your parents’ apartment in a Greenwich Village tenement to the Asch Building. You’ll spend the day – Saturday – cutting fabric on the 9th floor, as you do every day. But today is payday! At 16 years old, the thought of putting that seven dollars in your pocket at the end of the day is exciting enough to get you through the day.

If you were that girl, late that afternoon you would have smelled smoke. You would have been part of a panicked crowd pushing for the doors – which the company kept locked to keep you keep you and your co-workers from stealing – and you and 146 other workers from the eighth, ninth and tenth floors would have been asphyxiatd, burned or fallen to your death.

May 4, 1886
You’re standing in Haymarket Square in Chicago chanting, “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay.” You’re tired of working until the bossman lets you go, and you’ve seen too many men die from the working conditions in the plant where you work. This British guy, Samuel Fielden, he’s making a lot of sense to you and the hundreds of other men who have showed up. You’re all pretty angry about what the police did to break the strike at the McCormick plant yesterday.

If you were that man, probably a German immigrant, around 10:30 that night you would have heard a homemade bomb go off, and then gunfire, lots of gunfire. Seven policemen and at least four of your worker brothers would be dead, although no one can honestly say how many strikers were wounded or died.

We celebrate “Labor Day”  in the United States not “in honor of the workingman”, as many will tell you. No, we have a day off because President Grover Cleveland needed to calm the Labor movement in the 1890’s. On this three-day weekend, take a moment to imagine what it was like to be the people described in the events above. They were not unique. Women, men and children all over America, and for decades, bled and died for your eight-hour workday. For your two and three day weekends. The very least we can do is honor their memories once a year.

Jimmy Carter Was A Great President


Very little about modern politics bothers me more than the ubiquitous phrase, “Jimmy Carter has been a great ex-president.”

Not that it isn’t true. He has been. It’s possible that no one will ever accomplish as much after leaving the White House as President Carter.

But you and I hear very well the intended but unspoken dig: “… but he sure was feckless as president!”

Let’s set some records straight, shall we?

James Earl Carter, Jr. was as much of an “outsider” as we’re ever likely to see in the Oval Office. Following Watergate, Vietnam and the Arab Oil Embargo (yes, that happened under Nixon, not Carter) America was ready for a different kind of leader. Or so we told ourselves.

The Beltway Media, never kind to outsiders, branded Carter’s team of non-beltway staff the “Georgia Mafia” almost immediately. I’m not sure I saw a single editorial cartoon for four years that didn’t go out of its way to depict the President – a Naval Academy graduate, successful businessman and former governor – as an ignorant hick. It was clear before he ever took the oath of office that whatever he accomplished would be diminished at every turn by the national press.

The day after his inauguration President Carter (again, a former Naval officer) issued a blanket pardon to all those who had “dodged” the military draft during the Vietnam era. He freed at least 200,000 Americans from the specter of prosection.

He established the Departments of Education and Energy.

He established a national energy policy  – focused on conservation and alternative energy sources – that his successors dust-binned. Nearly every day I wonder how much better-off America and all of humanity would be right now if we had kept the solar panels on the White House and our foot off the gas pedal. Of course, having the unmitigated gall to ask Americans to conserve energy never ends well.

Remember when Israel and Egypt used to be at war all the time? Not if you were born after the Carter administration you don’t. Because President Carter brought Begin and Sadat to Camp David and ended that. It was kind of a big deal.

He began, ever so slowly, to dismantle creeping American imperialism by turning over the Panama Canal to … Panama.  And in response to growing Soviet imperialism following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan (remember when invading Afghanistan was bad?), Carter made the principled choice to keep America out of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow.

Have you heard of superfund sites? The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) was a Carter intiative to help communities clean up the environmental messes left behind by corporate ineptitude. My community is still using superfund money for that purpose thirty-five years later.

It’s true that the national debt did increase under Carter – by 43%. Which was less than the 47% his predecessor (Ford) increased it by in a term of fewer than three years. And his successor? The “fiscally responsible” Ronald Reagan? Yeah, he increased the national debt by 186%. But it did take him two terms to do it.

It’s true that President Carter inherited a dismal financial situation in 1977. What you won’t often read about Carter is that in the four years before he took office, US GDP grew at an average rate of 9.84%. In the four years following his term it grew at 8.53%. During the Carter administration US GDP grew at 11.49%. No president since has managed that kind of growth.

Jimmy Carter wasn’t a perfect president. A number of America’s prior mistakes came home to roost during his term, and he didn’t handle them all well. Compare his actual record to that of other modern presidents and draw your own conclusions.

Perhaps the most important thing you should remember about the Carter administration is this: “We kept our country at peace. We never went to war. We never dropped a bomb. We never fired a bullet. But still we achieved our international goals. We brought peace to other people …”

That may not mean a thing to you. If that’s the case, you may walk away from this blog post thinking nothing more than, “Jimmy Carter has been a great ex-president.”

But it means something to me. I hope the next time someone starts to tell you about what a great ex-president Jimmy Carter has been you’ll correct them in-kind.

For further reading on the same topic, please reference this piece from the New York Times.

I Know A Great Shortcut …


I like to drive. The roar of a great big engine on the open road is one of my favorite things.

But here’s something I’ve come to understand: Just because I like it doesn’t mean I – or you – get to do it.

You see, we can’t afford all those big open roads here in America anymore. Not if we want a reasonable standard of living otherwise, that is.

I’m not saying we all need to turn in our car keys. America is a car culture. I get that. But it’s time for governments – from Congress to your local city hall – to start decommissioning roads and shelving new road projects. Paving a mile of four-lane highway can cost upwards of a half a million dollars. There are counties around the nation with road repair backlogs in the billions (yes, with a “b”) of dollars.

The picture at the top of this article is of a county road near me that’s about two miles long. It’s basically a shortcut between a heavily-traveled state highway and another county road. On both sides of this stretch there is nothing but swamp. No homes, no businesses, just snakes, gators, grass and trees. I love to drive it – slowly, for the sake of my car – because I love the scenery. Of course, it’s paralleled by a bike path about 100 feet away, so if I really want to get a good look, I can walk or cycle.

Nature is already decommissioning this road for us. But we’re eventually going to take hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars away from better internet service, from feeding and housing homeless children, from public safety, from education, etc. … to rebuild this road.

That’s a bad idea. But who’s going to be the elected official who recommends shutting down roads?

Get off the interstate and drive a four-lane rural highway near you sometime. Try two or three and you’re bound to find at least one pristine, state-of-the-art road with no one else on it. Why? Becuase some congressperson or state legislator “brought home the bacon” and made her constituents happy by growing some new lanes on the local back-road.

Unfortunately, if those same elected officials decided to fight for money for your local bus system or bike path they’d be the target of a well-funded PAC complaining that they were throwing tax money away on uneccesary projects.


This picture is one of my favorites. It’s a state road – paid for by the good people of Florida – and there’s clearly meant to be more of it but somehow the “more” didn’t make it out of the woods. That’s tens of thousands of dollars you’re looking at right there.

Across the street from this road to/from nowhere is a park and ride lot. Normally I love park and ride lots. They make it easier to use public transportation, right? Except that this one (again, funded with the taxes of the people of Florida) is about ten miles from the reaches of the nearest public transportation. And no, there are no plans to run buses out there anytime soon.

But you can bet the state rep who shepherded that project through the state budget process has been lauded for bringing home the bacon.

If we’re serious about using taxpayer funds responsibly, we have to talk about our addiction to roads. We need to think about what we could have done with the money we used to build a two-mile shortcut and a road to nowhere. And we need to remember that it’s our money and our responsibility to see that it’s used wisely. Tell your local, state and federal elected officials you’re ready to take the long way home and to spend that road money on something that matters.

The Flyover

Sometimes air travel makes me think. Seeing America from thirty or forty thousand feet in the air occasionally triggers an “a-ha” moment if I let it.

This past week I flew up the east coast from Jacksonville to NYC and back to Florida via Atlanta. On the way north I realized, for the first time, just how hard it’s going to be to get America off the oil standard.

Beginning just north of Maryland, the coast is dotted with dozens – probably hundreds – of enormous cylindrical, white petroleum tanks. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen those tanks many times. I know, intellectually, that every one of those tanks represents jobs. It just never sunk in with me until this past week the impact of changing our energy focus will have on those jobs.

Depending on whether you believe the oil industry or the Bureau of Labor Statistics, somewhere between two and nine million people in the US work in the petroleum industry. Those are real, actual Americans working the rigs, watching the pipelines or the tracks, turning the oil into gasoline and trucking it out to the Kwik-E-Mart on your corner.

That includes everyone from the minimum wage worker at your local station to the CEO of Exxon/Mobil and everyone in-between.

Furthermore, nearly everyone with any securities investments has some money in the oil industry. That includes everyone from Donald Trump and Michael Bloomberg to the guy patching potholes for your local city.

That’s the bad news.

But there’s good news as well. On the way home, I noticed something else entirely. Surrounding every urban core in America are concentric rings of suburbs layered and sprinkled with acres and acres of shopping malls, big-box stores and warehouses. That’s a detail you can’t miss from the air.

Every one of those malls, big-boxes and warehouses has great big flat roof. Which you could, if you were so-inclined, think of as a solar farm waiting to be planted. Millions of acres of solar farms. Waiting for American workers to install and maintain solar panels and all that entails through the energy chain.

As of 2013, the best estimate was that a thousand homes only need about 32 acres of solar installation to be fully-powered. That includes plugging in the electric cars we’ll all end up driving. The efficiency of solar panels is increasing consistently, shrinking the necessary acreage.

To be sure, breaking out of the oil standard is going to be expensive. People are going to have to learn how to do new things, and that’s going to be painful. But it’s necessary. Oil, as you know, is not only nasty, it’s limited. We will eventually run out of it. We’re going to have to get off the oil standard.

But it’s possible. An open mind – and a jetliner’s eye view – will convince you.

A Tragedy in Three Parts

Part I

My friend had been fighting a heart condition as long as I had known him, and that was a long time.

Most people had no idea. For most of the thirty years I knew him he was under treatment, and it worked just fine and kept him healthy.

My friend was an officer in the US Navy, a computer engineer, an MBA and a PhD economist. An officer in his college fraternity and a huge fan of Florida football. He worked for Procter and Gamble in the US and Europe, and taught at colleges here and there as well. My friend had two young kids, an ex-wife, supportive extended family and friends – real, honest-to-goodness friends – across the globe.

This was no average schmoe.

But that cardiac problem, it kept creeping up on him. Most people don’t know it but that’s what made him leave the Navy. My guess is that it had a (big) hand in his divorce and in several academic positions that didn’t work out as well as they should have.

We like to think modern medicine has a firm grasp on problems like these. But with a condition like his – a constantly ticking bomb – there were things he just couldn’t do.

To make things worse, some of the places he lived didn’t take the condition seriously and he had a hard time finding the right kind of specialists to help him stay safe. Not to make this political, but for the last few months of his life he couldn’t get health insurance and he couldn’t afford private-pay care.

Without regular medical care the ticking got louder. Sometimes when I talked to him or read his emails I could hear it from a thousand miles away.

So if I’m honest with myself, I have to say it wasn’t a complete shock when his sister called to tell me the ticking had stopped and his great big heart had finally burst.
Part II

I haven’t been entirely honest with you.  He didn’t have a heart condition.

It’s true my friend was all of the things I told you. It’s true he had trouble getting the medical care that almost certainly would have saved his life. It’s true we were like brothers for more than three decades. He was the best man at my wedding and godfather to my oldest child.

What killed him wasn’t a heart condition, it was a head condition. His heart didn’t burst, he killed himself. He was alone and afraid and so very sad that he just couldn’t be here any longer.

And now you think of him in an entirely different way than you did when you believed he died of a heart attack.

Of course you do.

Because here in twenty-first century America we still draw a bright line between physical illness and mental illness. A middle-aged man walking around with a heart condition needs care, observation and the best medicine science can provide, right?

But a middle-aged man walking around in a deep-blue funk just needs to cheer up, right? Got the occasional delusion? You just need a good night’s sleep and some perspective. You’ll be fine.

If the electrical impulses that make your heart beat on schedule go haywire everybody knows you need to get to the ER, stat! But if the electrical impulses between your ears skip a beat, well, you’ll need good insurance, several referrals and a fair bit of experimentation with an array of meds before you get even a little relief.

We all – most of us, at least – know intellectually that mental illness, in addition to being a miserable set of ailments, is dangerous. That it kills. We know it ruins lives and families. But insurance companies know it tends to be chronic and hard to treat and is therefore expensive. And because it’s expensive it’s easier to keep it in the same shadows it’s been in for most of human history.

I’d like to think we’re better than that. That the twenty-first century is more progressive and that we’re not so cheap as a society that for all intents and purposes we leave people to tough it out or die trying.

I’d like to believe that, but I know that what killed my friend almost certainly could have been treated if the world thought about severe depression the way it thinks about heart disease.

Part III

In a world full of friends and family who would have done anything to help him, my friend couldn’t be helped when he needed it most.

I’m angry about that. Here it is, the middle of the strangest Florida football season I remember, and I don’t have my friend to commiserate with. His nephews are leaving college and stepping out into the working world and nobody could give them better advice than he could have. His son and daughter, they’re growing up without the funniest, most brilliant and caring dad a kid could have. And I’m angry about that.

I could go on and on about my friend. We were going to be old men sitting on a front porch, solving the world’s problems over a glass of bourbon. Now, we’re not.

This is the part where I tell you that if things are bad for you, if you can’t see a way out, you need to call a friend or a family member. You know the drill, and it’s all true. There are people out there who need you and value you. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Etc.

But that’s not the sermon I’m going to preach today. My friend – and too many other people in my life – have taught me that telling you all the things you have to live for isn’t going to help.

So my message isn’t for you. It’s for those who still think mental and physical illness are different. They aren’t. They can both be treated and they both must be treated.

My message today is for everyone who has someone close to you who is struggling right now. It’s your responsibility to advocate for them in the world. Yes, be there for them, listen, encourage them to stay on their meds if they have them, but you also have a bigger, louder job.

You have to tell their story. You have to break open the doors and lead mental illness out of the shadows. You have to speak up. You have to lobby. You have to work for the people you care about. You have to fight for them. Because they are fighting an entirely different battle that you can’t see.

Fight for them.

Fight for my friend.

2014 Gainesville Spirit of Pride Community Awards Dinner Keynote Address

Recently I had the honor of being asked to give the keynote address at the Gainesville Spirit of Pride Community Awards Dinner. The Pride Community Center of North Central Florida is a marvelous organization doing amazing and important work.

A friend asked that I post the speech online, and the Everblog seemed like a perfect venue.

2014 Gainesville Spirit of Pride Community Awards Dinner Keynote Address
Thank you Pegeen. Terry, thank you for inviting me. I’m honored to be a part of this gathering. When Terry called to ask me to do this I turned to my wife Gillian and said, “Terry Fleming needs me to give a speech. Do you think I can talk for ten or fifteen minutes?” She rolled her eyes and said, “The question is, can you ONLY talk for ten or fifteen minutes?” She did later assure me that it was entirely possible I could be moderately entertaining and engaging for a solid ten minutes.

The Gainesville community offers almost as many award dinners and events as there are weekends to host them, but the Pride Awards Dinner is easily and consistently among the most positive, welcoming and fun events on the calendar. I was here last year as a candidate for county commission. Running for office is a remarkable experience. It teaches you things about yourself and the people close to you. It brings you closer to the community.

I would recommend running for office to anyone.

I would not recommend LOSING, but running? Yeah, that’s something you should all experience.

When you run for office people say all sorts of odd things to you. People who are otherwise calm and well-mannered will say the strangest things just to see how you react. A person cornered me one night after I gave a talk about the virtues of progressive politics and said to me, “You people – and you always know it’s going to be fun when the sentence begins with “YOU PEOPLE” – You people talk a lot about being “progressive.” What progress have y’all actually made?”

I mumbled through some unsatisfying response about how being progressive is better than being regressive or something like that.

I WISH my response had been, “Yeah, we DO talk about progress a lot. Let me tell you about the progress we’ve made.”

Since I didn’t think quickly enough that night, let me share my idea of progress with you all here tonight. When you’re standing in the middle of progress it’s hard to see it sometimes. So let’s take a bird’s eye view of what progress looks like right here in Alachua County. Before we start, I want to be clear that in each of the areas I’m going to talk about we have a loooong way to go, but people just like us have made a lot of progress already. It’s important that we celebrate just how far we’ve come in a relatively short time.

First let’s talk about women’s rights. Last year I did some research and read a few old family tax records. A hundred years ago my great grandmother was raising six children as a widowed single mom. For more than a decade she ran a farm out near Orange Heights, brought produce to market here in Gainesville, paid her taxes – she was a classic “job creator.” But you know what she couldn’t do for most of that time? Vote.

The official government signature on all the tax forms and other documents she kept – and she kept a lot of them – was always a man’s signature.

If you’ve heard me speak before, you know I can’t go more than a few minutes without talking about my three sprightly daughters. They’re growing up in an entirely different world than my great grandmother lived in. Not only will they be able to vote in a few years, but the Supervisor of Elections who will register them to vote is a woman. In their short lives they’ve known a woman Mayor. Women on the county commission, women in the legislature, the congress. Their mother chairs a department at UF. Their priest, their doctor, the principal at their school, all women. Almost all their authority figures are women. I’m not entirely sure they see me as an authority figure.

That’s what progress looks like.

But let me tell you another way my daughters are not like my great grandmother: If any of my daughters has six children, it will be because she CHOOSES to have six children. Their lives belong to them. THAT is what progress looks like.

Let’s talk about the rights of African Americans. My generation is the first in Alachua County that did not experience segregation. The first. Ever. In history. We gloss over that too easily and too often.

Have you ever tried to explain segregation? I’ve had those conversations with my kids, and it’s nothing less than surreal. Segregation doesn’t just mean you go to a different school on different bus than the kid who lives on the other side of Waldo Road. It means the law says he can’t sit down at a table with you in a restaurant. It means you get to use the good restroom – the one inside the gas station – and he has to use the outhouse. It means your family gets to stop at a motel – any motel – on your vacation – but his family had better plan to drive all night, straight through.

It’s nearly impossible to explain that or to wrap your head around it today, but it wasn’t that long ago. How did we – AMERICANS – ever think this was “normal” or any sort of “OK?”

But you know what? In the Gainesville Sun this morning I saw a picture of the president of the United States. Turns out, he’s black. The congressional representative and the state representative for the districts where we had dinner tonight? they’re black.

Again, we’re just a few years removed from a time when black children and white children had to attend different schools … but the guy in the big office across the street, the new superintendent of Alachua County schools? He’s black.

That, my friends, is what progress looks like.

Now let’s talk about the kind of progress that brings us together tonight. Stop for a moment and try to imagine an event like this one tonight happening in the 1970’s.

Good luck with that.

There’s no one in this room tonight who doesn’t understand that progress for LGBT rights is just getting started. The painful thing about the struggle faced by this community is that it is at once the least obvious and the most basic of all human rights struggles. The idea that anyone could be penalized for being themselves and for finding someone to love seems like the most un-American thing I can imagine. After all, our founding document talks about “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

How was it possible that the American people and our government could turn a blind eye to a modern plague for so long only because it was a “gay disease?” How is it possible that it was alright for police in so many cities to regularly beat and abuse men and women for having the audacity to be themselves?

The history of abuse of the LGBT community is only now becoming a part of our national dialogue. Most of America has no idea of this history at all.

But that’s changing.

Forty-five years ago if you said “Stonewall” in Gainesville people would assume you were talking about the Civil War. Twenty years ago if you used the phrase “LGBT” in regular conversation someone might have assumed you had some sort of speech impediment.

But here we are together this evening, gay and straight, enjoying dinner and conversation. Publicly. Proudly. That’s what progress looks like.

You know, I love weddings. I almost always tear up a little. I really like being married and I heartily endorse the institution. And I can’t WAIT to start getting wedding invitations from a whole lot of people in this room. THAT is what I mean when I talk about “progress.”

Now. As I said earlier, I fully realize that while we have all made progress, we are a long way from any mountaintop:

Women still only earn about three-quarters as much as men who do the same work;

Young black men are targeted and threatened more often than they are protected and served;

My LGBT sisters and brothers can still be fired and denied housing in many places just for being themselves.

Here’s the thing about progress: Frederick Douglass said more than a century and a half ago, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Power. Concedes. Nothing.

And that’s what progress is. It is the methodical removal of power, inch by bloody inch, from a small old guard and the redistribution of that power to We The People.

All the progress I’ve talked about happened because people who came before us – and some of us – demanded concessions. Any progress we will make together in the future will only happen as we DEMAND concessions.

And make no mistake, that “old guard” is working hard to take its power back. Most of the progress we take for granted can disappear in only a few election cycles. There are people right now fighting – and in many cases succeeding – to drastically reduce access to abortion and contraception. There are people making it harder for African Americans to vote. We have an attorney general in this state who loves the sanctity of marriage so much that she’s tried it three times, and she’s doing everything she can to keep people in this room from trying it once.

I know this is not a political event. I’m not going to make anyone uncomfortable by suggesting who you should or should not vote for.

I WANT TO REMIND YOU THAT THIS GUY DOES NOT HAVE TO BE YOUR GOVERNOR! 1779669_745011048903573_8363399820649633166_n

I want to remind you that progress depends on YOU taking great care with YOUR ballot. I want to remind you that you have options, from the governor’s mansion to the county commission chambers. You can choose progress or you can choose to empower the old guard to take back everything progressives have been sweating and bleeding for your whole life.

I trust the people in this room to make good choices.

It’s always a pleasure to be with you all, and it’s been my honor to speak to you this evening.

The prepared comments above are pretty close to what actually happened. Here’s an iPhone record of the events as they transpired.  It’s not a professional recording, so don’t expect it to be 🙂

Thanks for reading, as always!

Pondering The American Dream, Part I

More often than not in this space on Sundays we talk about poverty, or at the very least, economic inequality.  In this brief post, let’s think about the difference between income and wealth.

It’s easy to mistake income inequality for wealth inequality.  The traditional media conflates the two regularly, and for most of us who aren’t financial managers, we often don’t make the distinction.  That’s a serious error on our part. Let’s be clear on terms and then we’ll talk about why they matter.

“Income” is how much money an individual – let’s say, you, earn.  For kicks, let’s say in a year.  Income is, for most of America, a paycheck.  Maybe you have some investments that earn you a little passive income, but more than likely, your income is that what you deposit in the bank on Friday.  It’s also where most of your taxes come from, because that’s what we’ve decided as a nation (for some reason) is the most necessary thing to tax.

“Wealth” is what you have if you manage to put some of that income aside to grow.  It’s what happens if you’re lucky enough to not be “upside-down” on a home mortgage and can build equity in your home.  It’s your 401K, etc.  It’s what happens when your Uncle Scrooge McDuck dies and names you in his will.  It’s what we mean when we talk about what someone is “worth.” As in, “Alice Walton is worth seven-gazillion dollars.”

Here’s where it gets tricky:  There are folks in America who are “worth” many hundreds of times what you are, but can tell you with a straight face that they relate to you because they aren’t making much either.  The “I’m retired and on a fixed income” people who still manage to own (and use) two vacation homes.  Through a variety of tax tricks (some of which are depressingly straightforward) they’re actually paying lower taxes (and certainly at a lower rate) than you.

If their “income” is coming from something that can be classified as long-term capital gains, for instance, they’re only paying a tax rate of 15% … no matter what their income is.  And they’re not paying a Social Security contribution.  I probably don’t need to tell you that your paycheck is taking a bigger hit than 15%.

So right up front, you can see that we have chosen to value wealth as more important than work as a nation (because, after all, our tax code does not lie about our national will – it is an honest reflection of our priorities).

With that understanding under our belts, I submit that we stop talking about “income inequality.”  It’s not a relevant issue.  Alice Walton and her army of accountants could easily decide she has no “income” in any given year, and if we use income as a relevant gauge of personal economics, you and I would be better off than Alice Walton.

Let’s keep the focus on wealth inequality.

In Part II next week, we’ll talk about that wealth gap and why it is killing the dream and growing poverty in America.

I Want a New War

Here’s a repost of an important piece from the misty past of Everblog.  Still unfortunately relevant.

Let’s talk about poverty.  I know, it’s hard.  Unpleasant, even.  Maybe that’s why our political leadership hasn’t talked about it for decades.

In fairness to President Obama and his recent predecessors, none of us want to talk about poverty.  Somehow we’ve managed to disappear the lower economic class from popular culture.  On the screen, poor people still manage to look pretty healthy, have awesome apartments, wear swank clothes and hang out with all the coolest people.

If you didn’t know better, you could convince yourself the only poor people in America are the guys you occasionally glimpse panhandling downtown.  And if those guys weren’t so damn lazy we wouldn’t even have to deal with them, right?

It hasn’t always been this way.  John Steinbeck wrote his way to a Nobel Prize talking to America about what it’s like to be poor.  Henry Fonda was nominated for an Academy Award for living in Tom Joad’s skin.

Those “wars” our leaders like to declare against inanimate objects like drugs and terror?  Those started with the successful war Lyndon Johnson declared on poverty in 1964.  You know what he did?  He went before Congress, in his first State of the Union address and said,

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort. It will not be a short or easy struggle, no single weapon or strategy will suffice, but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

Know what happened a few months later?  He won an election in a landslide.  Under his leadership (that’s kind of a key word, “leadership”) the American people started providing and enjoying the benefits of Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, head start, public television, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Just to name a few.

And it worked.  We were winning the War on Poverty.

This Washington Post piece makes the clear case that those strategies – or something mighty coincidental – made life (a lot) better for people like Tom Joad and his descendents.  Before his speech that night, one in five Americans – 20% – lived below the poverty level.  Ten years later the percentage of Americans living in poverty had dropped to 11%.

Then something happened.  I wish I could tell you what it was.  Sometime in the 1970’s our national interest in doing something to fix domestic poverty drifted away.

Maybe as we started feeling the pinch of the energy crisis and other economic troubles we started to re-think how much we could actually accomplish.  And then in 1980 we elected a guy who told us how important it was, to borrow a phrase, to “grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.” A few years later, in 1987, Michael Douglas wasn’t just nominated for a Best Actor Award like Henry Fonda, he won the damn thing for being Gordon Gecko.

We haven’t looked back since.  Sure, we get token words from a president every now and then but nothing like what LBJ had to say.

We don’t like to think about the sick, strange fact that one child out of every five – right here in the richest nation in human history – lives below the poverty line.  Nearly three million of those children live in households that would exist on less than two dollars a day if the government did not provide some minimal benefits for them.  Just FYI, that number is twice what it was in the mid 1990’s.

According to the Census Bureau, in 2012 more than 16% of America lived in poverty.

We on the Left talk quite a lot about civil rights.  Who has them, who doesn’t, who’s violating them, what to do about it.

I submit that if you don’t know where you’re going to lay your head tonight, marriage equality doesn’t matter much to you.

If you don’t know how you will feed your children tomorrow, online privacy isn’t a priority for you.

If you can’t afford bus fare to get to the interview, the bigotry of the potential employer is irrelevant as far as you are concerned.

Watch this space.  I’m determined to use it to change how you think about what it means to be poor.  What it looks like in 2013.  Where you’ll find it.  What we can do, now, about it.

In addition to writing here at Everblog, Harvey Ward writes about his efforts to live healthier and better at SkippingDessert.Com.  You can also find him on Twitter @hlward.

Ask Not …

On January 20, 1961, a young(ish) man stood before the world and laid down a challenge for every American.  Not that Americans of 1961 weren’t used  to being challenged – two World Wars and a variety of other conflicts were fresh in their minds – but this was different.  This guy asked America to prepare to take the reins of world leadership and look so far forward that we’d never be able to look back.

“… My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.  My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

We seem to have forgotten how that works. Forty years later a president told us the best we could do for America – for the world – in the face of terror and tragedy was to go shopping.

Here in 2013, most of us have quite a list of demands for America, many of them perfectly reasonable and altruistic, but demands from our country nonetheless. What are we prepared to do for our country today?

Hmmm … most of us are willing to pay taxes, as long as they’re not too high.  Some of us are willing to show up to vote now and again.  Maybe serve on the PTA if we’re pushed.  Read our favorite news sites on the internet, argue with the talking heads on cable news shows.


Is that who we are today?

What should we be doing instead?

I’m glad you asked.  Right now, in your community – in every  community – you are needed.  You don’t have to be willing to risk your life, your fortune or your sacred honor.  How about starting with serving on a municipal board?  Maybe getting involved with an actual, real-life political advocacy group (as opposed to “liking” a cause on Facebook)?  Perhaps you could even step so far outside your comfort zone as to run for office.

Yes, you.  Your community needs you.  Your country needs you.  If you feel the need to critique your local elected official (And don’t we all?), maybe it’s time for you to step up and challenge that official.  Offer yourself for leadership.  Maybe that’s too much.  Not everybody is ready for that, and who could blame you?  It’s a buzz-saw of criticism.  But there’s something you can offer.  Something more noble than shopping.

Dear Dr. King and President Johnson:

I’m sorry.  I’m so very sorry.  Back in 1965 when you and so many other brave Americans managed, after years of struggle, to pass the Voting Rights Act, it seemed like our nation had finally begun to turn a corner on the ever-present spectre of Race.  It was a gift you gave future generations assuming we would treasure it, or at the very least, keep it.

I wonder if Clarence Thomas, he of Pin Point, GA, had been born a few years earlier and been denied the vote if he would taken beter care of your great work?  I note that by the time he was old enough to vote, Section 4 was in full swing.

Buffalo, NY native John Roberts, who came of age well-after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, tells us “Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional.”  I wonder if Justice Roberts has ever been denied anything, much less his right to vote.

I could go down the list of the other over-privileged white men who voted with the five-justice majority to gut your outstanding legislation, but suffice to say they were all appointed by Republican presidents.  The four who still think the (whole) Voting Rights Act is a good idea?  Yes sirs, they were all appointed by Democratic presidents.  That won’t surprise you.

You would be proud of Justice Ginsberg.  As a Jewish woman of a certain age, I’m pretty sure she knows what bigotry looks like.  Maybe that has nothing to do with it, however.  Maybe she’s just smart enough to know to stick with a good idea: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet,” she wrote.

Part of me wonders why, after nearly fifty years, suddenly Section 4 is “unconstitutional” according to Justice Roberts.  But I know why, and so do you gentlemen.  Roberts also tells us, “Our country has changed,” and that’s true in many ways.  America’s demographics have changed.  They’ve changed almost to the point that if those of traditional privilege do not derail the rules you put in place back in the 1960’s, there will be fewer and fewer old white men running the show.  I think that scares Justice Robert and his ilk.

The sad truth is that it took Texas – a state where the demographics are changing faster than anywhere else – less than a day to capitalize on the Court’s shameful work.  Texas won’t be the last.

So I apologize, Dr. King and President Johnson.  I’m sorry that we weren’t tough enough to keep the freedoms you guaranteed for us.  We got lazy.  Some of us thought that even if a few Republicans were elected, and even if they managed to get a majority of their appointees to the Supreme Court, no decent Justice would do such a fool thing as to take the teeth out of the Voting Rights Act.

We were wrong.  We’ll try to do better.

Everblog’s Deborah Ludwig wrote a fine explanation of the issue when the Court considered it earlier this year.  You’d be well served to read her article here.