Tuesday 23 October 2012

Democracy and the Zen of Voting

So you’re sick of the whole political process? A pity about you! The real question is – are you going to vote?

I sure as hell am, if only because I don’t want my long-interred grandfather hovering over my bed the night of November 6th.

“People died for your right to cast a vote,” he used to say. “If you hate them all equally, then vote for the most harmless.”

Not bad advice in the current political environment.

Amazingly only 57% of the voting age population exercised this sacred right in the 2008 presidential election but, at least, that trumped the 49% of 1996. The highest modern turnout was in 1960, not coincidentally the year of the first televised debate, when 63% chose between Jack Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

The greatest turnout was a staggering 81% in 1860 when Abraham Lincoln defeated Douglas, Breckenridge and Bell. But as my granny would say, “Sure where would you get another Lincoln?”

Nor does the future look so promising. Despite all the ballyhoo in 2008 when 18-24 year olds were supposed to have swamped the polls, only 49% of those eligible actually cast a vote, compared to 47% in 2004.

They did, however, vote in large numbers for Barack Obama which might not augur well for the president since he’s generating much less enthusiasm among Generation Y of late. Of course, if voting could be done by text or tweet Gov. Romney might as well stay home in San Diego and design a couple of new garage elevators.

On the face of it adapting social media tools to vote might seem like a crazy idea but democracy is ever evolving: the 1860 election was one of the first where ownership of property wasn’t an essential qualification for voting.

Women didn’t even get a vote until 1920; while there have been repeated attempts of late to deny the poor and uneducated the right to vote - all in the name of protection against voter fraud. If only people were lining up to vote twice – hardly the case since voting once seems to be beyond so many Americans.

Then again, democracy is about much more than just having a vote. To stay healthy and vibrant it should also provide an avenue for economic advancement. With the rich getting richer the great American middle class is being squeezed ever tighter. The figures say it all: 1% of the population now owns over 40% of the country’s wealth compared to the 33% they controlled in 1987.

Is there a solution? Sure, vote for candidates eager to change the tax code’s preferential treatment of income from investments – that would help level the economic playing field. Such candidates, however, tend to be hard to identify in election years when they’re busy shaking down well-heeled donors.

Oh my, democracy can be exhausting – especially in a sound-bite age where you can pop on your television and get all the news that’s fit to yell in tasty little morsels.

Voting against candidates who wish to scrap the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act would be a shot in the arm for both democracy and economic equilibrium. This pesky piece of legislation gives nightmares to those in the financial industry who almost drove the country into the ground four years ago – and will do so again unless stringently regulated.

The greatest threat to US economic democracy, however, may have already arrived in the form of High Frequency Trading (HFT). Upwards of 60% of all transactions on the US stock markets are now being made by unregulated HFT cowboys who trade stocks amongst themselves at warp speed and reap billions annually.

Nice work if you can get it, says you! Unfortunately, your 401(k), pension funds and savings are being buffeted by this ongoing gale-force financial onslaught. Can a crisis of major proportions be far away?

Democracy must grapple with such issues on a daily basis. That’s why it’s so important that you vote, especially for the odd visionary who might help the system adapt so that it can deal with the many obvious threats and, just as importantly, those we’ve yet to imagine.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Judy Blue Eyes

Stephen Stills called her Judy Blue Eyes. The color is still vivid but the first thing you notice is the fierce intelligence that informs those eyes.

There’s a wariness too, common to those who have spent long years in the public eye. But that dissipates at the first mention of her father, Charles Collins, a legendary radio host in Denver where Judy spent much of her formative years.

Chuck Collins was a larger than life figure – he never let the fact that he was blind hold him back from anything, including, apparently, driving a car. However, it was his identification with his Irish roots and his love of music that was to give Ms. Collins a foundation that would stand to her through a vaunted career.

As likely to burst into song around the house as in the radio studio, he gave her Danny Boy, Kerry Dancers and countless other ballads – all of them a link to a homeland he never visited though its soul was ever restless within him.

He provided her with the DNA of the song that would introduce me to her back in McCullough Pigott’s music store in Dublin. In those days you could take a private listen in a booth before buying an album.

The voice that emerged from the muffled speakers was clear and cool as a mountain stream flush with melted snow. Her delivery may have been calm and controlled but there was no doubting the deep well of feeling from which it sprang.

My father always promised us that we would live in France
We’d go boating on the Seine and I would learn to dance
We lived in Ohio then, he worked in the mines
On his dreams like boats we knew we would sail in time…

Amazingly it was only the fourth song she ever wrote. Pain, regret, hope, optimism, and many other high and low water marks of the human condition surfaced in those magical five minutes.

Her father never heard it. She finished it four days before his death. She didn’t make a big deal of this; in a life of tumult and creativity such things happen. Mark them and move on, for as much as she’s experienced, there’s always a new song to write, a new performance to be given.

That’s why the Irish American Writers & Artists bestowed the fourth annual Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award on Judy Collins on October 15. It was given as much in recognition of the promise that lies ahead as for the trailblazing life of achievement she’s led.

As befits the honoree of an organization set up to pursue progressive goals shortly before the 2008 Presidential election, Judy Collins has long stood for civil rights and an ongoing insistence that every woman, man and child on this planet deserves to be treated with human dignity.

Perhaps her finest quality is her generosity to other artists – despite being a master songwriter she has never stopped championing the talents of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Jacques Brel, Randy Newman and perhaps, most famously, Leonard Cohen.

Had she not persuaded a reluctant Mr. Cohen to perform for the first time at Town Hall in 1967 and then insisted that he return after he fled the spotlight with an extreme bout of stage fright, we would all have been the poorer.

But that’s Judy Collins for you. The tales of her intuitive kindness are legendary. No doubt her friend, Tom Paxton, will expound on this and others of her sterling qualities on Monday night. Or he could just play us her version of his classic, The Last Thing On My Mind.

Dry-eyed and cool as a prairie winter she breathes new life into this tale of regret and sends the turbulent years reeling away. At such moments you can trace the graceful woman back to the girl in the Colorado kitchen listening to her Irish father sing the songs of a country he never set foot in but knew so well.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Here We Go Again

Well, we’ve hit the final furlong and, as a Mets fan, I ain’t talking baseball! We’ve entered the rundown for the Presidential, and just as importantly, the congressional elections.

I’ve been keeping my powder dry, partly because of the degeneration of the race into a money-grubbing disgrace, but also on account of the abject failure of Gov. Romney to come up with any credible economic platform. His old company, Bain Capital, wouldn’t give his national business plan a second look.

According to a friend none of that matters. She feels that this election will be settled on social matters – that women will think long and hard before handing over power to a party that’s being fueled by a misogynist Christian Right.

I wonder? Personally, I think that two numbers will decide the election – should the national average for gas remain under $4 a gallon and the Dow above 13,000, President Obama will be entertaining Malia’s high school boyfriends in the White House over the next four years.

Awful though it may seem, Americans have become somewhat inured to the 8% unemployment figure. Not that they’re being heartless but most are just plain relieved that they’re not on the bread line themselves.

If the unemployed were to feel that they would get a better deal under Gov. Romney, then the president would soon be updating his resume; but given some of his recent “victim” statements one gathers the Republican candidate is not a fan of unemployment insurance.

Gov. Romney talks about creating 12 million jobs. Where did he get the figure from – the 12 apostles? Might as well have said 47 million and given Black 47 the credit.

He’s obviously pulling figures from a hat – a common Republican economic practice ever since President Bush, in his wisdom, cut taxes while fighting two wars.

Now despite his bellicose tirades about Iran, Gov. Romney is hardly crazy enough to bomb the ayatollahs, yet he’s reciting the same old failed Bush economic cant – lower taxes and abolish regulations.

Oddly enough, over the last 25 years economic growth has closely followed tax increases, while there’s been a corresponding economic decline in the wake of tax cuts. Go figure!

Amazingly, bad as things have been, more private sector jobs have been created in the three plus years of the Obama regime than in either term of the George W. Bush administration. And yet we’re being asked to place our faith in Gov. Romney, a man who hails from the world of venture capitalism where the lure of profit usually trumps any thought of job creation.

As for his running mate, I wonder if he’s using a pseudonym? I’ve known many Ryans and, to a person, they all call it as they see it. The gentleman from Janesville, WI has no problem doing the calling, but is either not very good at arithmetic or is a born optimist.

He wishes to redraw income taxes into two brackets 25% and 10% and slash corporate taxes. This would, of course, knock the bottom out of government revenues; quite conveniently, he neglects to mention the spending cuts necessary to make up the shortfall.

The most obvious cut is the mortgage-interest deduction. Try explaining that to homeowners, not to mention that it could really put the boot into a housing market that is finally showing signs of revival. No wonder the Republican ticket tiptoes through the tulips whenever this sensitive subject is broached.

What else could be pared down? Defense, hell no! And have all those poor arms contractors go belly-up? It’s far more likely that infrastructure renewal, education, medical and scientific research would get a severe haircut; whereas investment in each of these sectors is far more likely to spur economic growth than tax cuts. So where does that leave us?

One could quote Democratic president, William Jefferson Clinton and complain of Gov. Romney’s grasp of basic arithmetic, but in the interests of bipartisanship, I defer to that most revered Republican president, Ronald Wilson Reagan, and instead declaim, “there you go again!”

Monday 1 October 2012

Working Class Hero

One can always tell the economic, if not spiritual, health of Ireland by the regard in which James Connolly is held.

Had he sprung from his quicklimed grave during the Celtic Tiger he would barely have raised an eyebrow. In the current economic malaise, however, his policies and warnings have been gaining renewed traction.

American Labor has no such influential theoretician, even giants the like of Big Bill Haywood and Mother Jones barely merit footnotes nowadays. Indeed, if Americans even think of labor leaders, Jimmy Hoffa is probably the first to spring to mind.

Connolly continues to have influence because of his prescience. Over 100 years ago he warned of the threat international big business would pose to the financial wellbeing of workers and their families. Between outsourcing, union busting, and a well-financed media assault, oh Mr. Connolly, how right you were!

One has only to look at that darling of corporate America, Apple Inc. On the face of it, I’m an admirer. I’m typing this column on a Mac Book Pro, my iPhone is within grasp; chances are, if Apple got into the booze business, I’d probably jettison my beloved Sierra Nevada for iPaleAle.

And yet this titan of innovation that turned a profit of $26 billion last year pays its iGenius staff just over 11 bucks an hour. Why? Because it doesn’t allow unionization! In fact store managers undergo “union awareness” training.

It seems those awfully outdated institutions, labor unions, tend to put a dent in corporate profits with such petty demands as a decent living wage. Unions even go so far as to frown on exporting jobs to Chinese sweatshops.

Come to think of it, Apple’s investors could use a union of their own since this fabulously profitable company has only paid one dividend in the last 17 years. Talk about corporate dictatorship!

Now there is no denying that in the past unions have made bull-headed calls that have led to the closure of businesses; but this has hardly been the case of late. Even the mighty UAW compromised and settled for an entry-level $14 per hour last year - hardly a wage that promises a white picket fence, let alone a house within.

Add to that the fact that jobs in the $12-$21 per hour class are fast disappearing and being replaced by those in the $7-11 field. You will be happy to learn that jobs in the $22-50 per hour stratum are holding steady.

This trend will eventually lead to a vast underclass with little hope of social mobility; relatively speaking, the same situation that James Connolly faced a century ago. My, oh my, what progress we’ve made.

To make matters worse most of this new peon class has little or no representation and thus barely any political clout. Of course, there is the possibility that through hard work some can leapfrog to the $20 plus per hour club. However, because of inequality of educational opportunity that chasm is increasingly hard to bridge.

Labor and professional unions are the only hope now – not only for a decent wage but for any kind of job security. Look around you! Someone you know has been afraid to ask for a raise of late even as their standard of living is plummeting in this era of zooming corporate profits.

With a few exceptions corporate loyalty, a.k.a. job security is now a joke. In fact, the recent recession has provided a smoke screen that allows corporations to make a naked grab for power; this has led to a re-alignment in the balance between board room/management and both white/blue-collar workers.

Not only has boardroom/management won the battle of public perception – unions are now seen as the root of the problem rather than as an active partner in protecting the rights of workers who want a decent standard of living and an eventual dignified retirement.

It’s time to turn the tide and salute our labor unions rather than to continue vilifying and humiliating them. You may feel you don’t need them now but, chances are, you will in the near future.