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BEYOND OUTRAGE: THE GENERAL ELECTION OF 2012 STARTS TODAY

The general election of 2012 starts today. 

We need to do everything we can to make sure Barack Obama is reelected president. But we also need to mobilize for the long haul – beyond Election Day. We need to fuel a movement to take back our economy and our democracy.

Presidential elections can draw peoples’ attention to larger challenges facing our nation, but they can also be distracting. The media focus on the game – who’s up and who’s down, and which political strategies are winning or losing – rather than on the big issues. Campaigns are also geared to winning on Election Day, not to building long-term strategies and movements for fundamental change.

I’ve been involved in public life, off and on, for over forty years. I’ve served under three presidents. When not in office I’ve done my share of organizing and rabble-rousing, along with teaching, speaking, and writing about what I know and what I believe. I have never been as concerned as I am now about the future of our democracy, the corrupting effects of big money in our politics, the stridency and demagoguery of the regressive right, and the accumulation of wealth and power at the very top.

We are perilously close to losing an economy and a democracy that work for everyone, and replacing them with an economy and government that exist mainly for a few wealthy and powerful people.

That’s why I’ve written an ebook called “Beyond Outrage” (see the attached video). You have every reason to be outraged. Moral outrage is the prerequisite for social change. But you also need to move beyond outrage and take action. The regressive forces seeking to move our nation backwards must not be allowed to triumph.

The point of “Beyond Outrage” is to help you focus on what needs to be done and how you can do it, and to encourage you not to feel bound by what’s politically possible this year or next. You need to understand why the stakes are so high, and why your participation – now and in the future – is so important.

In my experience, nothing good happens in Washington unless good people outside Washington become mobilized, organized, and energized to make it happen. Nothing worth changing in America will actually change unless you and others like you are committed to achieving that change.

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>>FRIDAYFLICK | Beyond Outrage  [2013] - Stars: Toshiyuki NishidaTomokazu Miura & Takeshi Kitano.

As the police launch a full-scale crackdown on organized crime, it ignites a national yakuza struggle between the Sanno of the East and Hanabishi of the West.

+Directed by Takeshi Kitano

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How Did Mitt Make So Much Money And Pay So Little in Taxes?

Now that Mitt Romney is the presumed Republican candidate, it’s fair to ask how he made so much money ($21 million in 2010 alone) and paid such a low rate of taxes (only 13.9 percent).

Not only fair to ask, but instructive to know. Because the magic of private equity reveals a lot about how and why our economic system has become so distorted and lopsided – why all the gains are going to the very top while the rest of us aren’t going anywhere.

The magic of private equity isn’t really magic at all. It’s a magic trick – and it’s played on you and me.

Jake Kornbluth and I have made this 2 minute video that explains it all in eight simple steps. (Thanks to MoveOn.org for staking us.)

By the way, the “other people’s money” that private equity fund managers (as well as other so-called “hedge” fund managers) play with often comes from pension funds that contain the savings of millions of average Americans.

The pension fund managers who dole out our savings to private equity and hedge-fund guys also take a hefty slice in bonuses. And like the others, they bear no risk if their bets later turn bad. They get their bonuses regardless.

Nor are any of them – private-equity, hedge-fund, or pension-fund managers – personally liable for doing adequate due diligence. They can bet our money on the basis of no more information than what they had for breakfast.

But if these funds lose, you lose. That’s what happened in 2008 and 2009. Some of the losses are also shifted to the government’s Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation – which means taxpayers lose.

It’s a giant con game, and it continues to this day.

Here’s what has to be done to stop it:

1. End the “carried interest” loophole that allows private-equity managers like Mitt Romney to treat their income as capital gains, taxed at 15 percent, even though they don’t risk a dime of their own income. Their earnings should be treated as ordinary income.

2. Hold the managers of private-equity funds, hedge funds, and pension funds to a “due diligence” standard. So if the funds lose money and these managers didn’t exercise due diligence, the Pension Guaranty Corporation can claw back their bonuses.

3. Raise the capital-gains rate to match the tax rate on ordinary income – especially for short-term investments. Give a tax preference only to “patient capital” – that is, for investments held for, say, five years or more.

4. Resurrect Glass-Steagall.

Mitt and others like him won’t like any of these reforms. They’d eliminate the humongous profits they’ve enjoyed at the expense of the rest of us.

But these reforms are necessary if we’re to take back our economy.

Get #BeyondOutrage.

Obama has to Explain Why Fairness is Essential to Growth (and Why Some Democrats Have to Stop Believing Otherwise)

The Cory Booker imbroglio has ignited a silly but potentially pernicious debate in the Democratic Party between so-called “pro-growth centrists” who want the President to focus on how well he’s done getting the economy back on its feet after the Bush administration almost knocked it out, and “pro-fairness populists” who want him to focus on the nation’s widening inequality and Wall Street’s (and Romney’s) continuing role in generating profits for a few at the expense of almost everyone else.

According to the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar, for example:

Conversations with liberal activists and labor officials reveal an unmistakable hostility toward the pro-business, free-trade, free-market philosophy that was in vogue during the second half of the Clinton administration….. Moderate Democratic groups and officials, meanwhile, privately fret about the party’s leftward drift and the Obama campaign’s embrace of an aggressively populist message… [T]hey wish the administration’s focus was on growth over fairness.

This is pure bunk – or should be.

Fairness isn’t inconsistent with growth; it’s essential to it. The only way the economy can grow and create more jobs is if prosperity is more widely shared.

The key reason why the recovery is so anemic is so much income and wealth are now concentrated at the top is America’s the vast middle class no longer has the purchasing power necessary to boost the economy.

The richest 1 percent of Americans save about half their incomes, while most of the rest of us save between 6 and 10 percent. That shouldn’t be surprising. Being rich means you already have most of what you want and need. That second yacht isn’t nearly as exciting as was the first.

It follows that when, as now, the top 1 percent rakes in more than 20 percent of total income – at least twice the share it had 30 years ago – there’s insufficient demand for all the goods and services the economy is capable of producing at or near full employment. And without demand, the economy doesn’t grow or generate nearly enough jobs.

Wall Street is part of the problem because it’s responsible for so much of the concentration of income and wealth at the very top – and for much of the distress still felt in the rest of the economy after the Street nearly melted down in 2008.

The Street has turned a significant part of the economy into a giant casino involving mammoth bets with other peoples’ money. When the bets go well, the rich owners of the casino (Wall Street executives, traders, hedge-fund managers, private-equity managers) become even richer. When the bets go sour, the rest of us bear the costs.

The casino also requires continuous transfers of wealth from ordinary taxpayers. Some are built into the tax code. One is the preference of debt over equity (interest on debt is tax deductible), which awards Wall Street banks like JPMorgan for risky lending and awards private-equity firms like Bain Capital for piling debt on the firms it buys.

Another is the “carried interest” rule that, absurdly, allows private-equity managers (like Mitt Romney) to treat their income as capital gains even when they haven’t risked any of their money.

The biggest of all is the invisible guarantee that if the biggest banks get into trouble, taxpayers will bail them out. This subsidy reduces the big banks’ cost of capital relative to other banks and fuels even more risky lending.

None of this is fair. It’s also bad for economic growth and jobs – as we’ve so painfully witnessed.

Translated into presidential politics, all this means the President should be talking about fairness and growth and jobs, and explaining why we can’t have the latter without the former.

It also means he should be attacking Mitt Romney because Romney is part of the system of casino capitalism that has harmed America and held back growth – and Romney wants even less regulation of Wall Street (he’s vowed to repeal Dodd-Frank).

And because the budget Romney has put forth would gut public services vital to the middle class and poor, while cutting taxes on the rich and on corporations even more than they’ve already been cut.

In other words, Romney epitomizes the unfairness of the American economy in this new Gilded Age. For that same reason, Romney is the quintessence of an economic approach shown to be anti-growth and anti-jobs.

Memorial Day Thoughts on National Defense

We can best honor those who have given their lives for this nation in combat by making sure our military might is proportional to what America needs.

The United States spends more on our military than do China, Russia, Britain, France, Japan, and Germany put together.

With the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the cost of fighting wars is projected to drop – but the “base” defense budget (the annual cost of paying troops and buying planes, ships, and tanks – not including the costs of actually fighting wars) is scheduled to rise. The base budget is already about 25 percent higher than it was a decade ago, adjusted for inflation.

One big reason: It’s almost impossible to terminate large defense contracts. Defense contractors have cultivated sponsors on Capitol Hill and located their plants and facilities in politically important congressional districts. Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and others have made spending on national defense into America’s biggest jobs program.

So we keep spending billions on Cold War weapons systems like nuclear attack submarines, aircraft carriers, and manned combat fighters that pump up the bottom lines of defense contractors but have nothing to do with 21st-century combat.

For example, the Pentagon says it wants to buy fewer F-35 joint strike fighter planes than had been planned – the single-engine fighter has been plagued by cost overruns and technical glitches – but the contractors and their friends on Capitol Hill promise a fight.

The absence of a budget deal on Capitol Hill is supposed to trigger an automatic across-the-board ten-year cut in the defense budget of nearly $500 billion, starting January.

But Republicans have vowed to restore the cuts. The House Republican budget cuts everything else – yet brings defense spending back up. Mitt Romney’s proposed budget does the same.

Yet even if the scheduled cuts occur, the Pentagon is still projected to spend over $2.7 trillion over the next ten years.

At the very least, hundreds of billions could be saved without jeopardizing the nation’s security by ending weapons systems designed for an age of conventional warfare. We should shrink the F-35 fleet of stealth fighters. Cut the number of deployed strategic nuclear weapons, ballistic missile submarines and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And take a cleaver to the Navy and Air Force budgets. (Most of the action is with the Army, Marines and Special Forces.) 

At a time when Medicare, Medicaid, and non-defense discretionary spending (including most programs for the poor, as well as infrastructure and basic R&D) are in serious jeopardy, Obama and the Democrats should be calling for even more defense cuts.

A reasonable and rational defense budget would be a fitting memorial to those who have given their lives so we may remain free. 

Why the Buffett Rule Sets the Bar Too Low

Next Monday most Americans will be filing their income taxes for tax year 2011. This year, though, tax day has special significance. If there’s one clear policy contrast between Democrats and Republicans in the 2012 election, it’s whether America’s richest citizens should be paying more.

Senate Democrats have scheduled a vote Monday on a minimum 30 percent overall federal tax rate for everyone earning more than $1 million a year. It’s nicknamed the “Buffett Rule” in honor of billionaire Warren Buffett who has publicly complained that he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary.

No one in Washington believes the Buffett Rule has any hope of passage this year. It’s largely symbolic. The vote will mark a sharp contrast with Republican Paul Ryan’s plan (enthusiastically endorsed by Mitt Romney) to cut the tax rate on the super rich from 35 percent to 25 percent – rewarding millionaires with a tax cut of at least $150,000 a year. The vote will also serve to highlight that Romney himself paid less than 14 percent on a 2010 income of $21.7 million because so much of his income was in capital gains, taxed at 15 percent. 

Hopefully in the weeks and months ahead the White House and the Democrats will emphasize three key realities:

1. The richest 1 percent of Americans are now taking in over 20 percent of total national income, and so far have raked in almost all the gains from this recovery. Thirty years ago, the richest 1 percent got 9 percent of total income. Income and wealth are now more concentrated at the top than they’ve been since the 1920s. 

2. The richest 1 percent are paying a lower tax rate than they’ve paid since 1980. For three decades after World War II, their tax rate never dropped below 70 percent. Even considering all deductions and tax credits, they paid close to 55 percent. Under Eisenhower, the top rate was 91 percent and the effective rate was 58 percent.

3. Right now the nation faces two yawning deficits – an investment deficit and a federal budget deficit. The investment deficit includes deferred maintenance on America’s infrastructure – roads, bridges, public transit, water and sewer systems that are all crumbling – and an educational system that’s being starved for resources (the federal government pays for 8 percent of K-12 education and about 5 percent of public higher education, but could do much more). The federal budget deficit is projected to mushroom to $6.4 trillion over the next ten years, mostly because of aging boomers and soaring healthcare costs.

Any serious person looking at these three realities would conclude that the rich should be paying far more. It’s not just a matter of fairness; it’s also a matter of patriotism. 

In fact, given these realities, the Buffett Rule sets the bar too low. For most Americans, wages and benefits are declining (adjusted for inflation), net worth has been plummeting (their only asset is their homes), and the public services they rely on have been disappearing. For the top, it’s just the opposite: Their incomes are rising, their stock-market portfolios have been growing, and a growing portion of their earnings has been subject to a capital-gains tax of just 15 percent. 

The Buffett Rule would generate only about $47 billion in extra revenues over the next decade, according to congressional estimates. Why not restore top rates to what they were before 1980, and match the capital-gains rate to the income-tax rate?  

Why "We're on the Right Track" Isn't Enough, and What Obama's Plan Should Be For Boosting the Economy

President Obama’s electoral strategy can best be summed up as: “We’re on the right track, my economic policies are working, we still have a long way to go but stick with me and you’ll be fine.”

That’s not good enough. This recovery is too anemic, and the chance of an economic stall between now and Election Day far too high.

Even now, Mitt Romney’s empty “I’ll to it better” refrain is attracting as many voters as Obama’s “we’re on the right track.” Each man is gathering 46 percent of voter support, according to the latest New York Times/CBS poll. Only 33 percent of the public thinks the economy is improving while 40 percent say they’re still falling behind financially – an 11 point increase from 2008. Nearly two-thirds are concerned about paying for housing, and one in five with mortgages say they’re underwater.

If the economy stalls, Romney’s empty promise will look even better. And I’d put the odds of a stall at 50-50. That puts the odds of a Romney presidency far too high for comfort. Need I remind you that Romney enthusiastically supports Paul Ryan’s wildly regressive budget, and as president would be able to make at least one or possibly two Supreme Court appointments, and control the EPA and every other federal agency and department? 

The Obama White House should face it: “We’re on the right track” isn’t sufficient. The President has to offer the nation a clear, bold strategy for boosting the economy. It should be the economic mandate for his second term. 

It should consist of four points:  

First, Obama should demand that the nation’s banks modify mortgages of homeowners still struggling in the wake of Wall Street’s housing bubble – threatening that if the banks fail to do so he’ll fight to resurrect the Glass-Steagall Act and break up Wall Street’s biggest banks (as the Dallas Fed recently recommended). 

Second, he should condemn oil speculators for keeping gas prices high – demanding that the oil companies allow the Commodity Futures Trading Corporation to set limits on such speculation and instructing the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute oil price manipulation.

Third, he should stand ready to make further job-creating investments in the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, and renew his call for an infastructure bank. And while he understands the need to reduce the nation’s long-term budget deficit, he won’t allow austerity economics to take precedence over job creation. He’ll veto budget cuts until unemployment is down to 5 percent.

Finally, he should make clear the underlying problem is widening inequality. With so much of the nation’s disposable income and wealth going to the top, the vast middle class doesn’t have the purchasing power it needs to fire up the economy. That’s why the Buffett rule, setting a minimum tax rate for millionaires, is just a first step for ensuring that the gains from growth are widely shared.

The President can still say we’re on the right track. But he should also say he’s not content with the pace of the recovery and will do everything in his power to quicken it. And he should ask the American people for a mandate in his second term to make the economy work for everyone, not just those at the top.

Such a mandate can be put into effect only with a Congress that’s committed to better jobs and wages for all Americans. He should remind voters that congressional Republicans prevented him from doing all that was needed in the first term, and they must not be allowed to do so again. 

How to Avoid the Austerity Trap But Still Deal With the Budget Deficit

We now know austerity economics is bad for weak economies facing large budget deficits. Much of Europe is in recession because of budget cuts demanded by Germany. And as Europe’s economies shrink, their debts become proportionally larger, making a bad situation worse.

The way to avoid this austerity trap is to get growth and jobs back first, and only then tackle budget deficits.

The U.S. hasn’t yet fallen into the trap, but it could soon. Last week the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office warned we’ll be in recession early next year if the Bush tax cuts end as scheduled on January 1, and if more than $100 billion is automatically cut from federal spending, as required by Congress’s failure last August to reach a budget deal.

Predictably, Capitol Hill is deadlocked. Democrats refuse to extend the Bush tax cuts for high earners and Republicans refuse to delay the budget cuts.

If recent history is any guide, a deal will be struck at the last moment – during a lame-duck Congress, some time in late December. And it will only be to remove the January 1 trigger. Keep everything as it is, the Bush tax cuts as well as current spending, and kick the can down the road into 2013 and beyond.

Which means no plan for reducing the budget deficit.

I’ve got a better idea – a different kind of trigger. Instead of a specific date, make it the rate of growth and employment we should reach before embarking on deficit reduction.

Say 3 percent growth and 5 percent unemployment. At that point the Bush tax cuts automatically expire, the wealthy pay a higher rate, and $2 trillion in spending cuts begin.

This way we avoid the austerity trap that Europe has fallen into. And we get on with the long-term job of taming the budget deficit when the economy is healthy enough to do so.