Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Loser Generation: Part Four

What matters to you?

Do you care about the shrinking middle class? The environment? Immigration? Gay marriage? Prison overcrowding and marijuana legalization? Farmer’s rights? Internet piracy, freedom and copyright laws? Traditional schooling? Religion’s role in society?

It doesn’t matter.

Why that is is complex, but comes down to how our country works these days. Whatever you are interested in, there are three basic ways you could invest your time and resources. The first is through non-profits, local organizations, and grassroots movements. The second is through corporations and the market. The third is through government.

The first two means of advocating, supporting, or getting involved are subject to the third. Non-profits and local organizations are subject to local and federal laws, as are corporations. If Congress or the Supreme Court is able to regulate, change, outlaw, or give tax credits to your nonprofit or corporation they clearly hold the greatest sway of the three.

Let’s say your pet interest is in rebuilding Detroit and New Orleans after the past decade treated them so poorly. You could join a local group, such as Rebuilding Together or Habitat for Humanity. Or you could use your wallet and buy items from or take a vacation this year to New Orleans to finally go and see Mardi Gras. These sorts of activities seem to have little connection to any government interference.

A closer look will reveal a greater role of the government policy. The top ten employers in Detroit are:

Detroit Public Schools
U Michigan
U Michigan Health System
US Government
Henry Ford Health System
St. John Health System

They comprised 240,000 local jobs in 2007. Anyone who has followed the recent discussions about whether the government should bail out the American car industry, or the role of government in providing health care, can’t help but notice the biggest factor for recovery in Detroit is going to be Washington.

This may seem cherry-picked. Detroit and New Orleans are both cities, and that’s different from other causes as it’s perhaps more directly tied to government. Since that’s fair we’ll look at each of those other causes mentioned above in turn.

The shrinking middle class.

What are some of the main reasons for this? The middle class is 70% of the economy, but they can no longer borrow in the ways they could before the Great Recession. Had Washington’s bailout been structured differently, this current state of the middle class would be different as well. Robert Reich gives a quick summary:

“Starting around 1980, globalization and automation began exerting downward pressure on median wages. Employers broke unions in order to make more profits. And increasingly deregulated financial markets began taking over the real economy.

“The result was painfully slow wage growth for most households. Women surged into paid work in order to prop up family incomes. When that stopped working, families went deep into debt, using the rising values of their homes as collateral. Then the housing bubble popped.”

While government can’t control some forces (globalization and automation) they most certainly can support and play a vital role for others (maintaining strong unions, regulating financial markets).

The environment.

A recent example of the role of active government regards the Keystone XL pipeline. The National Wildlife Federation, Sierra Club, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network and others joined together to pressure Congress into not putting through the work. Millions of signatures were collected. Non-profits and individuals here teamed up to get something accomplished. A number of Representatives signed a statement against the pipeline project, based on the pressures of their constituents.

On the flip side recall the BP spill of 2010. The decisions of who, and how we get our energy in this country comes directly from Washington. They have the final say in who gets to drill, what percentage of our energy will be from coal, what tax breaks certain energy sources are granted. They own the land, and ultimately if the administration insists on regulating safety measures the companies have no choice but to comply. These basic facts – the land belongs to the government and they can regulate business practices – makes Washington the critical player in most environmental concerns, from habitat loss to ozone depletion.


Last week the Supreme Court upheld Arizona’s state law which allowed police to ask for documentation papers of suspected illegal immigrants. Obama’s administration has changed course and now pledges to no longer prosecute young illegal immigrants. State and local interests, such as the Arizona law and other border state concerns, are eventually privy to federal government’s rulings and choices. Immigration is entirely decided by government.

Gay Marriage.

You can join a group that supports it. You can get a bumper sticker that advocates for traditional families being defined in the constitution. Regardless, the decision will be made on the state and someday possibly federal level as to what is legal. Currently state government has ruled in six states (Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa) and D.C. with two pending (Washington and Maryland) that it is legal, while half the states have a state constitutional ban. The armed services have just repealed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’, and Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act is currently being disputed, having been found to be unconstitutional at least for California. To say that marriage is not an issue for government is false.

Prisons, Drugs.

Last year the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that stated California’s prisons were overcrowded, and needed to be reduced. We have incarcerated 3% of our population – a global record, not statistically but certainly in raw numbers: 2,353,727 adults and juvenile offenders. According to the Bureau of Justice: “In 2004, 17% of state prisoners and 18% of federal inmates said they committed their current offense to obtain money for drugs.” That’s a specific drug-related reason, though. If you broaden it to all drug-related crimes you get the following:

108,000 federal prisoners (of 211,455 as of April 2010)
280,000 state prisoners (of 1,395,916 as of 2007)

These are older statistics from the more current numbers above, but they still provide a good glimpse that half of federal inmates, and one in five state-held inmates are drug-related offenders. With a black American population of 39 million (13% of the total), for whom there’s a 1 in 3 likelihood of going to prison, issues of incarceration are important – not for personal concerns but the effect of this skewed system on the community and the continual stereotypes and harmful perceptions in American society. For all Americans the issue of prison reform, in the hands of the federal government, is a concern. Likewise more Americans support the legalization of soft drugs than ever before in our history, and the interplay between federally illegal drugs and state legality is certainly going to play out in the upcoming years.

Farmer’s rights.

This ties in again with the environment and land. Monsanto is responsible for most of our food – and fifty superfund sites. As a corporate entity they make sure to get what they want, contributing over $300,000 in 2010 to specific candidates, and $8.8 million in lobbying. Government can regulate them, fine them, give them tax breaks, appoint their board members to the cabinet, or throw their CEOs in jail. With a handful of other companies to consider the near entirety of our food comes from few sources. How it reaches us, if it’s healthy, if it’s affordable, and its effect on the land are all determined by Washington.

As for farmer’s rights, these are increasingly threatened in the heartland, with these large, loosely regulated companies taking away rights and securities, forcing certain practices regardless of the farmer’s ethics or concerns for health and safety. Without oversight Monsanto and others can do what they like to the farmers and dare them to survive on their own. Not surprisingly this has led to numerous lawsuits against these giants from farmers to other companies across the globe, worth many hundreds of millions.

Incidentally Monsanto first rose to prominence, with Dow, creating Agent Orange – used in Vietnam. Not surprisingly Monsanto has been sued not just by farmers but by veterans as well.

Internet piracy, freedom and copyright laws.

SOPA and PIPA. The internet was enflamed by these federal measures to play a greater role in the internet’s governance. Ever since the Bush years email has not really been any more private than wiretapped telephones. Copyright laws were first written up in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, established: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

This is controlled by our government. We’ve long since done away with the “limited Times” bowing down to corporate demands to keep their property and ideas out of the public domain and in private hands for personal profit. We could reverse this, but instead have created many laws to help it along. In 2008 The Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act was passed, and others are being debated and begun, such as the ‘Six Strikes Plan’ to encroach further still. Trade agreements with other countries also reinforce copyright and patent strictness, such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, ACTA, which requires criminal prosecution. Since 95% of all music downloaded online, at least as of 2008, is done so illegally these laws are noteworthy.

Software lawsuits, claims, and opportunistic litigation has led the loss of half a trillion dollars. Whatever fascinates, inspires, or drives you – think of what your pet interest could have done with $500,000,000,000 to spend. This actually segues nicely into the next section.

Traditional schooling.

Federal funding for higher education in the country has been increasing since No Child Left Behind was passed. Most funding, of course, comes from local government, with specific tax laws differing state to state. Yet in 2012 the estimated federal spending on education is $77.3 billion, a not inconsiderable amount.

As we attempt to improve student performance NCLB laws are changing to better suit needs, with the current administration’s initial Race to the Top initiative and now the voucher system to bypass the least effective parts of No Child Left Behind, which, from an educator’s point of view, has been a statistical failure.

Important Washington legislation in particular for the Loser Generation’s point of view has shifted college loan debt – for those who graduated after 2008. Nationally this will have a huge effect.

Religion’s role in society.

In 2005 the Supreme Court ruled in McCreary vs. ACLU that a portrayal of the Ten Commandments outside a federal courthouse was unconstitutional, due to separation of church and state.

In April of this year a man was arrested for bombing an abortion clinic in Wisconsin. A similar attack happened in January of this year in Florida. Both men were convicted.

State to state Intelligent Design is being taught or barred from schools. As of 2005 the highest ruling on the subject comes from Pennsylvania, and states that Intelligent Design “is not science, and moreover that I.D. cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious antecedents.”

One in six Americans thinks, incorrectly, that Obama is a Muslim, as of May of this year. As of last fall 47% of Americans feel as though Muslims’ values are at odds with American values.

As you can see the topic of religion in American society is still a hotbed, and still intertwined with government.

This, then, is why I said it didn’t matter what matters to you. In the end no matter what you care about, what makes you joyful or steam at the ears, it all comes back to the critical role government plays in our lives. If government is so important, then it is critical that it works at peak efficiency. The next step in this investigation of how to fix the Loser Generation will require a study of how this much needed efficiency has been lost.

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