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Happy 5th Birthday Myla Rose and Charlene Riva Federer - 23rd July 2014

"It’s an unbelievable time, so much more interesting than just winning a tournament or anything. With Myla and Charlene just being there and being with them, observing, just doing it all together, it’s so cool. I’m really looking forward to it all, and the future is beautiful. This is the best time of my life." - Roger Federer [x]

Syria and the Reality at Home in America

While all eyes are on Syria and America’s response, the real economy in which most Americans live is sputtering.

More than four years after the recession officially ended, 11.5 million Americans are unemployed, many of them for years.  Nearly 4 million have given up looking for work altogether. If they were actively looking, today’s unemployment rate would be 9.5 percent instead of 7.3 percent.

The share of the population working or seeking a job is the lowest in thirty-five years. The unemployment rate among high-school dropouts is 11 percent;  for blacks, 12.6 percent. More than one in five American children face hunger, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

And the median wage keeps dropping, adjusted for inflation. Incomes for all but the top 1 percent are below where they were at the start of the economic recovery in 2009.

A decent society would put people to work — even if this required more government spending on roads, bridges, ports, pipelines, parks and schools.

A decent society would lift the minimum wage, expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (a wage subsidy), and provide food stamps and housing assistance, so that no family with a full-time worker has to live in poverty.

We can afford this minimal level of decency.

Deficit hawks in both parties don’t want you to know this but the federal deficit as a proportion of the total economy is shrinking fast: It’s on track to be only 4 percent by the end of September, when the fiscal year ends. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office predicts it will be only 3.4 percent in the fiscal year starting October 1.

To put this into perspective, consider that the average ratio of the deficit to the GDP over the past 30 years has been 3.3 percent. So the deficit is barely a problem at all. (We’re still projected to have large deficits starting 10 years from now because of all the aging boomers needing health care.)

Yet while attention is focused on Syria, food stamps for the nation’s poor are being cut. House Republicans would eliminate food stamps for more than 800,000 Americans who now receive them but still do not get enough to eat or have only a barely adequate diet. 

Even if the Democrats prevent these draconian cuts, food stamp benefits will still be reduced in November, when a provision in the 2009 stimulus bill expires.

While attention is focused on Syria, funds for the nation’s poorest schools are being slashed. Teachers are still being let go. Classrooms are more crowded than ever. The sequester will drain even more funds after October 1.

While attention is focused on Syria, low-income housing is disappearing. Funding for housing vouchers has already been cut by $854 million this year, with the result that half of all public housing authorities have stopped issuing new vouchers — even though the percentage of households most in need of assistance has grown by 19 percent since 2009. The cuts scheduled to begin October 1 will be even more severe.

While attention is focused on Syria, America’s rich are growing even richer. A single year’s income of one of the ten richest Americans could buy housing for every homeless person in America for an entire year. (This calculation is based on a typical day last winter, when over 633,000 people were homeless, and the typical monthly rental cost of a unit with single room occupancy of $558 per month.)

But we are not talking about any of this. We are not debating what’s happening to our nation. We are not creating jobs for the long-term unemployed. We are not raising the minimum wage, expanding the EITC, or providing enough food stamps to feed America’s poor children or keep working Americans out of poverty. We are not improving the nation’s poorest schools or providing enough low-income housing to keep destitute families off the nation’s streets.

We are not reforming our tax code or making college more affordable or reforming our brutal immigration system. We are not addressing the widening gap between a few at the top who are doing better than ever and a larger number below who are sinking. We are not getting big money out of politics.

We are paralyzed at home — as we turn our attention to a potential quagmire abroad. This is the great tragedy of our time.

The Quiet Closing of Washington

Conservative Republicans in our nation’s capital have managed to accomplish something they only dreamed of when Tea Partiers streamed into Congress at the start of 2011: They’ve basically shut Congress down. Their refusal to compromise is working just as they hoped: No jobs agenda. No budget. No grand bargain on the deficit. No background checks on guns. Nothing on climate change. No tax reform. No hike in the minimum wage. Nothing so far on immigration reform.

It’s as if an entire branch of the federal  government — the branch that’s supposed to deal directly with the nation’s problems, not just execute the law or interpret the law but make the law — has gone out of business, leaving behind only a so-called “sequester” that’s cutting deeper and deeper into education, infrastructure, programs for the nation’s poor, and national defense.

The window of opportunity for the President to get anything done is closing rapidly. Even in less partisan times, new initiatives rarely occur after the first year of a second term, when a president inexorably slides toward lame duck status.

But the nation’s work doesn’t stop even if Washington does. By default, more and more of it is shifting to the states, which are far less gridlocked than Washington. Last November’s elections resulted in one-party control of both the legislatures and governor’s offices in all but 13 states — the most single-party dominance in decades.

This means many blue states are moving further left, while red states are heading rightward. In effect, America is splitting apart without going through all the trouble of a civil war.

Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, for example, now controls both legislative chambers and the governor’s office for the first time in more than two decades. The legislative session that ended a few weeks ago resulted in a hike in the top income tax rate to 9.85%, an increased cigarette tax, and the elimination of several corporate tax loopholes. The added revenues will be used to expand early-childhood education, freeze tuitions at state universities, fund jobs and economic development, and reduce the state budget deficit. Along the way, Minnesota also legalized same-sex marriage and expanded the power of trade unions to organize.

California and Maryland passed similar tax hikes on top earners last year. The governor of Colorado has just signed legislation boosting taxes by $925 million for early-childhood education and K-12 (the tax hike will go into effect only if residents agree, in a vote is likely in November).

On the other hand, the biggest controversy in Kansas is between Governor Sam Brownback, who wants to shift taxes away from the wealthy and onto the middle class and poor by repealing the state’s income tax and substituting an increase in the sales tax, and Kansas legislators who want to cut the sales tax as well, thereby reducing the state’s already paltry spending for basic services. Kansas recently cut its budget for higher education by almost 5 percent.


Other rightward-moving states are heading in the same direction. North Carolina millionaires are on the verge of saving $12,500 a year, on average, from a pending income-tax cut even as sales taxes are raised on the electricity and services that lower-income depend residents depend on. Missouri’s transportation budget is half what it was five years ago, but lawmakers refuse to raise taxes to pay for improvements.


The states are splitting as dramatically on social issues. Gay marriages are now recognized in twelve states and the District of Columbia. Colorado and Washington state permit the sale of marijuana, even for non-medical uses. California is expanding a pilot program to allow nurse practitioners to perform abortions.


Meanwhile, other states are enacting laws restricting access to abortions so tightly as to arguably violate the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade. In Alabama, the mandated waiting period for an abortion is longer than it is for buying a gun.


Speaking of which, gun laws are moving in opposite directions as well. Connecticut, California, and New York are making it harder to buy guns. Yet if you want to use a gun to kill someone who’s, say, spray-painting a highway underpass at night, you might want to go to Texas, where it’s legal to shoot someone who’s committing a “public nuisance” under the cover of dark. Or you might want to live in Kansas, which recently enacted a law allowing anyone to carry a concealed firearm onto a college campus.


The states are diverging sharply on almost every issue you can imagine. If you’re an undocumented young person, you’re eligible for in-state tuition at public universities in fourteen states (including Texas). But you might want to avoid driving in Arizona, where state police are allowed to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspect is here illegally.
And if you’re poor and lack health insurance you might want to avoid a state like Wisconsin that’s refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, even though the federal government will be picking up almost the entire tab.


Federalism is as old as the Republic, but not since the real Civil War have we witnessed such a clear divide between the states on central issues affecting Americans.


Some might say this is a good thing. It allows more of us to live under governments and laws we approve of. And it permits experimentation: Better to learn that a policy doesn’t work at the state level, where it’s affected only a fraction of the population, than after it’s harmed the entire nation. As the jurist Louis Brandies once said, our states are “laboratories of democracy.”


But the trend raises three troubling issues.


First, it leads to a race to bottom. Over time, middle-class citizens of states with more generous safety nets and higher taxes on the wealthy will become disproportionately burdened as the wealthy move out and the poor move in, forcing such states to reverse course. If the idea of “one nation” means anything, it stands for us widely sharing the burdens and responsibilities of citizenship.


Second, it doesn’t take account of spillovers — positive as well as negative. Semi-automatic pistols purchased without background checks in one state can easily find their way easily to another state where gun purchases are restricted. By the same token, a young person who receives an excellent public education courtesy of the citizens of one states is likely to move to another state where job opportunity are better. We are interdependent. No single state can easily contain or limit the benefits or problems it creates for other states.


Finally, it can reduce the power of minorities. For more than a century “states rights” has been a euphemism for the efforts of some whites to repress or deny the votes of black Americans. Now that minorities are gaining substantial political strength nationally, devolution of government to the states could play into the hands of modern-day white supremacists. 


A great nation requires a great, or at least functional, national government. The Tea Partiers and other government-haters who have caused Washington to all but close because they refuse to compromise are threatening all that we aspire to be together.






A Story for May Day: The Fed, Apple, and Trickle-Down Economics

The Fed’s policy of keeping interest rates near zero is another form of trickle-down economics. 

For evidence, look no further than Apple’s decision to borrow a whopping $17 billion and turn it over to its investors in the form of dividends and stock buy-backs. 

Apple is already sitting on $145 billion. But with interest rates so low, it’s cheaper to borrow. This also lets Apple avoid U.S. taxes on its cash horde socked away overseas where taxes are lower. 

Other big companies are doing much the same on a smaller scale. 

Who gains from all this? The richest 10 percent of Americans who own 90 percent of all shares of stock. 

But little or nothing is trickling down. The average American can’t borrow at nearly the low rates Apple or any other big company can. Most Americans no longer have a credit rating that allows them to borrow much of anything. 

It would be one thing if Apple and other giant companies were borrowing in order to expand operations and create new jobs. But that’s not what’s going on. Apple, remember, is still sitting on $145 billion.

The reason big companies aren’t creating more jobs is consumers aren’t buying enough to justify the expansion. And government is cutting back on spending. 

Big corporations are borrowing simply in order to push stock prices up and reward their investors. 

It’s a sump pump with the Fed on one end buying up bonds to keep interest rates low, and shareholders on the other end raking in the returns. 

Get it? Easy money from the Fed can’t get the economy out of first gear when the rest of government is in reverse. 

Trickle-down economics is the first cousin of austerity economics. Austerity is nuts when so many millions are out of work. And as we’ve learned before, trickle-down is a fraud. Nothing ever trickles down. 

U.S. law enforcement authorities have shut down Silk Road, the web marketplace for illegal drugs like heroin and cocaine as well as criminal activities including murder for hire, and arrested its alleged owner, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said on Wednesday.

The FBI arrested Silk Road owner Ross William Ulbricht, 29, known as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” in San Francisco on Tuesday, according to court filings.

Federal prosecutors in New York charged Ulbricht with one count each of narcotics trafficking conspiracy, computer hacking conspiracy and money laundering conspiracy, according to the filing.

The tennis parent comes in all shapes and sizes and levels of appropriate behavior. First, you have the Federers, the ideal sports mom and pop. They sit back in the player’s box, watch their son play his matches and cheer him on in a manner that never goes overboard on the enthusiasm. Then there’s the Djokovics, the embarrassing kind of parents. They wear their loyalty on the front of T-shirts, cheer loudly and often against their son’s opponents, and basically support in that obnoxious way that takes all the fun out of sport.The worst kind of parent, of course, is the abusive kind. This one seems to be mostly found on the WTA and gets banned for the player’s safety. And then we have Oracene Price, who’s in a class all by herself.

Republican Crazy Talk About the Debt Ceiling

"I would dispel the rumor that is going around that you hear on every newscast, that if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we will default on our debt," says Sen.Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “We won’t. We’ll continue to pay our interest.”

This is crazy talk. While the Treasury Department could prioritize interest payments after October 17 – the day the Treasury Department says it no longer has legal authority to pay the nation’s debts – and not pay Social Security and Medicare, this would buy a few days at most.

Meanwhile, interest rates will soar, stock prices will plummet, the global economy will begin spiraling downward, and millions of Americans wouldn’t receive their Social Security and Medicare.

So why are Republicans talking like this? Because they want to sound as if they’re willing to blow up the economy if they don’t get their way. A crazy person with a bomb is much scarier than someone holding a bomb who looks and acts reasonable. Sounding crazy is part of the Republican bargaining strategy.

But the President and the Democrats must not give in.

If we get to October 17th and the Republicans are still holding the nation hostage, the President has only one option: He must ignore the debt ceiling and order the Treasury to continue to pay all the nation’s bills.

He should rely on Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which says the “validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law … shall not be questioned.” The debt itself is clearly “authorized by law” because it’s the direct result of laws authorizing the U.S. to spend and to tax. The showdown over the debt ceiling is over payment of the debt, not the legality of the debt itself. Arguably, what the Constitution requires trumps any law governing the debt-ceiling. 

If Republicans disagree, let them try to impeach the President. Their polls are already dropping. The latest Washington Post-ABC poll shows 70 percent of the public disapproving of their tactics (65 percent disapproved before the shutdown), while the President’s disapproval remains at 51 percent. An attempted impeachment would reveal to the public just how crazy Republicans have become.