Trying to Put Out the Bernie Fire

“Buffy the Bernie Slayer” — Poster in the Democratic Party of California campaign office, 2015

The corporate wing of the Democratic Party, which managed to lose the presidency, the Senate, the House, and numerous state governments in 2016, has pooled its names and its money with right-wing Republicans to try to take over the most progressive electoral district in the country.  This is the meaning of the candidacy of Buffy Wicks in California Assembly District 15.  Wicks, formerly a hippie and an antiwar activist, is trading off that ancient history to paint herself as a progressive.  She’s hoping voters will not see the company she’s been keeping in recent years and the sources of the money pouring into her campaign chest for this election.

The sheer gall of Wicks’ injection into this campaign is staggering.  Wicks has never held any elective office.  She’s been a party operative and lobbyist.  She has no local government experience whatsoever.  She parachuted in from Washington DC as Hillary Clinton’s California campaign coordinator, earning the nickname “Buffy the Bernie Slayer.”  If she genuinely wanted to advance a progressive agenda, she could have picked a swing district in California, taken on a Republican, and maybe been useful.  No, she targets the most progressive district in the state, a stronghold of Bernie Sanders backers, and the base of a long-established, hard-fighting progressive movement.  Her choice of political venues speaks volumes.

A recent article in The Intercept  looks hard at the company Wicks has been keeping and the money that’s been pouring into her campaign.   Go read it.  Wicks’ money comes from  people like William Oberdorf, a major Republican donor, from an heir to the Walmart fortune, the California Medical Association, major charter school advocates, Chevron lobbyist Eric Zell, and others.  The lawyers who registered and run the “Independent Expenditure” campaigns for Wicks include Bell, McAndrews & Hiltachk, a notorious right wing firm that has worked for the Trump campaign and for some of the most right-wing California Republicans, such as Darrell Issa and Dana Rohrabacher.  Another is Ashlee Titus, president of the Sacramento branch of the Federalist Society, an outspoken backer of the Kavanaugh nomination.  Corporate Democrats and Trump Republicans have joined hands to install Wicks, their handmaiden, in California’s most progressive district.

Kudos to Lee Fang and Leighton Akio Woodhouse, authors of The Intercept’s article.  Go read it.

A Plan B for Europe

Today’s New York Times Sunday Review section carries a piece entitled in the print edition “Europe Needs a Plan B” by Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference and past German ambassador to the United States.  His argument is simple.  Trump is restructuring the transatlantic alliance that has been the bedrock of the European side of the world order since the last world war.  The US is unwilling to keep playing the role of anchor, which all the western European states have taken for granted for more than half a century.  And so, Europe needs a Plan B.

When I was a tyke in Frankfurt, Germany, just after the war, my mother had the privilege of working for Eugen Kogon, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp.  Kogon wrote the standard treatise on the Nazi concentration camps and testified for the American prosecution in war crimes trials.  He was also a pioneer exponent of the concept of European economic and political unity.  He is considered today one of the main “Founders of Europe.”

At the time Kogon advanced his European unity manifestos, France was still bleeding from the German occupation.  Britain’s ruins from the German bombing were still smoldering.  No country in Europe was free of scars from the war launched by some European powers  against others.  The idea that these countries could unite and form one economic and political community appeared worse than utopian, it appeared insane.  It ran into strong headwinds of national revanchism, paranoia, and myopia.  Wasn’t this just a smokescreen for the re-establishment of German dominance of the subcontinent?

But the wounds of war also weighed in the argument.  Twice in the 20th century, millions of the young men of different countries marched to mutual slaughter.  States destroyed each other’s cities, wrecked each others’ infrastructure, unleashed bloodbaths on the civilian populations.  Thoughtful people asked themselves, do we really want to do that again?  Isn’t there a Plan B?  And so, European integration became a reality.  It’s under attack now, but I’ll come back to that.

The biggest bloodbath of the last war in the European theater occurred in the East, what the historian Timothy Snyder has called the bloodlandsMy own father, a draftee in the German army, was one of hundreds of thousands of young Germans who left their bones in Russia, or to be exact, in his case, in the Ukraine.  The Russian victims number in the millions.  Every other country, nationality, and ethnic minority in the region lost people in the slaughter. The statistics numb the mind.

Do we really want to do that again?

The strategists in the Pentagon — the same minds who gave us the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs, the invasion of Iraq, the endless war in Afghanistan, the Syrian bombing and many other equally brilliant campaigns — have  recruited Eastern European states newly uncoupled from the Soviet federation to join NATO.  They’ve sold them American arms, set up missile bases, and trained them for war.  They are planning for a rerun of the slaughter in the east.

But, as Trump is making clear now, America won’t become great again by fighting that war itself.  No, the Europeans are supposed to fight it themselves, and pay America for the weapons to do it.  Plan A since Trump is, “Let’s you and him fight.  We’ll sell you the equipment.”

Yes, Europe needs a Plan B.  And there is a Plan B, a very obvious and logical one, if only we remove the blinders from our eyes.  Plan B is for Russia to join Europe.  Yes, for Russia to  become a member of the Common Market and the rest of the EEC economic and political structure.  The EEC, instead of a narrow confederation of peninsular republics with an almost marginal role in the world, can become a true continental power, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok.

A flood of objections arises the moment this idea is floated.   Won’t Russia dominate the new community?  What about Crimea and sanctions?  What about nuclear weapons?  What about the armies on all sides?  What about Putin and the oligarchs?  And so on.

Let me start with Putin and the oligarchs.  I am no fan of Putin and the oligarchs.  Already more than forty years ago, I condemned the Soviet Union’s turn toward capitalism and denounced its leaders.  I said then and I double down on it today that the average Russian worker and peasant had a better life under Stalin than they have today.  The Russian oligarchs have learned from and surpassed their Western mentors in looting the country’s assets and piling up obscene wealth abroad.  They operate with a degree of gangsterism that hasn’t been widely seen in Western democracies since Prohibition.  However, the EEC has rules about that.  In order to be accepted, Russia will have to clean up its act.  Putin, or whoever succeeds him — and we’re talking here about something that won’t happen overnight — will have to make some hard choices.

The armies and their weapons, including nuclear, present problems that can be solved.  France, Britain, Germany, Italy and others all had armies, or what was left of them, after World War II.  Given the new commitment not to deploy them against one another, the current instruments of hostility along with their framework, NATO, can be scaled back and retired.  The main objection will come from the U.S., which stands to lose much of its former European weapons market.

Crimea needs to be conceded.  In every negotiation there are concessions and this is not a thorny one.  Crimea has been part of Russia since 1783, and the large majority of its residents identify as Russian citizens.  The Russian move was a defensive reaction to the violent ultra-right wing takeover of the Ukrainian government, sponsored and supported by the CIA.  America cannot climb on a high horse about this issue.

Won’t Russia dominate the new, expanded European community?  Not likely.  In terms of land mass, Russia is huge.  But in terms of Gross Domestic Product, the more meaningful measure of economic weight, Russia currently ranks only eleventh in the world.  The Russian GDP is smaller than that of Germany, the UK, France, or Italy.  It is smaller than that of India, Brazil, or Canada.  Russia is not going to dominate the new expanded EEC.  Russia will be a good fit.  Most of the Western European economies are strong on manufacturing and services but poor in raw materials.  Russia is rich in raw materials but needs help in manufacturing and services.  Were it not for the ideological bitterness of the Cold War, these two economies would have formed closer and broader ties decades ago.

Under the legacy of Plan A, Russia today sees itself as confronted with a hostile European monolith, armed and remote-controlled by the USA.  In this scenario, it makes sense for Moscow to try to cultivate rifts in European ranks, in part by supporting racist, nationalist, anti-European parties and splinter groups.

But what if Europe, instead of hardening its military fronts against the East, were to offer Russia an open door to joining a united Europe?  The politics of Russia would undergo a tectonic shift toward the center and the left. The manifest advantages of membership in a united Europe would outshine the yields from the sordid game of covertly sowing divisions, at least in the European subcontinent, which is much  more resilient to manipulation than the American body politic and its president.

On the Western side, the issue of including Russia would give all European politics a compelling new  focus.  People will be motivated to rethink old conditioned reflexes.  What really are the grounds for hostility between Western Europe and Russia?  Isn’t it true that Russia has always been a European country?  Isn’t inclusion of Russia merely the completion of the original European unity project, delayed by the Cold War?

The inclusion of Russia, once achieved, will give European unity a new vigor and dynamism.  The merger of advanced manufacturing with abundant raw materials may generate a broad and deep economic boom. Europe with Russia in it will form a powerful independent counterweight to the American world influence.  It will make Europe great again, this time for something other than colonialism and the rape of the third world.

No doubt there are many problems to be solved before something like peaceful Russian integration into Europe can become a reality.  There were many problems to be overcome on the way to European integration in the first place.  But a continuation of Plan A leads ultimately to a replay of the unthinkable bloodletting that inundated the Eastern European soil in the 1940s, with the added modern threat of a nuclear confrontation.  Do we really want to go there?  Isn’t it time to think about Plan B?

 

 

 

IMAGINE: Emancipation of Health and Education

IMAGINE:  The Elephant Party and the Donkey Party have split and broken up.  The new Goat Party has won a landslide victory and I, its standard bearer, am installed in the White House.  Following two speeches on foreign policy, I turned to domestic policy issues.  The following is the fourth talk in the series about domestic issues.  

 

My fellow Americans:

Today I am going to talk about a subject we all cherish:  freedom.  We all have pictures in our minds of the opposite of freedom:  the oxen laboring under a heavy yoke, the slave with an  iron ball chained to his legs.  Just such a yoke today burdens our students in higher education.  Just such a ball and chain drags back our families faced with the need for medical care.

Education is supposed to set a young person free — free to pursue a career in their chosen field, free to start a family, buy a house, start a life of relative security and progress.  That’s the dream, isn’t it?  But what’s the reality?  Seven out of ten college graduates — 44 million people — are carrying student debt averaging nearly $40,000.  The total is $1.5 trillion.  Yes, trillion with a t.  And that’s rising every year.

What’s the result?  More and more potential students are turning away from higher education because of the debt burden.  Those who do graduate find that they can’t afford to buy a place to live because of their student debt.  Their life styles are pinched.  They’re postponing marriage, they’re not having children.   Our economy is being robbed of the educated young people we need.  Our markets, our family structure, our reproductive progress are warped.  We’ve got a higher ed system that’s open primarily to families of affluence, and increasingly shut off to the broad majority of Americans.

That’s intolerable.  It’s unAmerican.  And it’s going to end, right now.  I have this morning signed a bill sent to me by Congress entitled the Higher Education Debt Relief and Restructuring Act.  It could also be called the Student Emancipation Proclamation.  Point one of the bill is the immediate reduction of all outstanding student debt to one dollar per student.  That’s right, as soon as a student pays their lender one dollar, the student’s entire debt is forgiven, cancelled, gone.  Part two of the bill prevents the creation of new student debt at all public colleges, community colleges, and public universities.  Tuition, board, and fees for all students at public institutions will be reduced to one dollar per year.  That’s right, one dollar.  We do not believe that higher education should be free.  The student should have to pay something.  But the price must be right; it must be something absolutely everyone can pay.  One dollar is that right price.  Given the revenue boosting and cost-saving measures I announced previously, our federal government will pick up the costs that the state systems cannot carry, and cheerfully consider the expenditure an excellent investment.

An even heavier burden of debt crushes American families due to medical expenses.  More than 70 million people are struggling with medical debt, and this accounts for nearly three quarters of all bankruptcies.  The debt burden has only gotten worse during the previous administration, as it worked to wreck the modest measures included in the Affordable Care Act.  It’s painfully obvious that millions of Americans are avoiding medical treatment that they need, failing to fill prescriptions they rely on, and going short of food and other necessities in order to try to meet medical payment obligations.  As in education, the system is rigged so that the upper income minority can generally get top quality treatment whenever and wherever they want it, while the broad majority of Americans live on the edge.

Why do we put up with this state of affairs?  Are we afraid of bogey labels like “socialized medicine” and the like?  Yet perfectly capitalist countries, neighbors and allies, provide their citizens with greater medical security at less expense than we seem able to do.  There’s just no excuse for going on this way.  It’s going to stop, this afternoon.  I have on my desk and am about to sign the American Health Maintenance Act.  This bill is modeled on one of the most successful medical care institutions we have: the nonprofit Kaiser Permanente Health Maintenance Organization.  A member of the Kaiser HMO gets a plastic card, and this card, with a modest co-payment, entitles them to whatever medical services they need, from flu shots to cardiac surgery, all at one membership price.  The AHMA takes the Kaiser model, rolls it out nationwide with everyone a member, and with the federal government paying the membership fee.  Like the education bill. it cancels existing medical debts.  Unlike that bill, it doesn’t require a dollar payment.  Health care is a basic right, and health care should be free.

We realize that medical care is a complex subject. Too complex by far.  An octopus tangle of for-profit hospitals, for-profit doctors, pharmaceutical companies, and for-profit insurance companies have created an interlocking roadblock to progress.  We are still going to have affluent families who can afford the luxury of feeding all these bloodsuckers, but the mainstream American will never again have to deal with a for-profit medical insurance company, a for-profit hospital, or a for-profit physician.  We will most definitely bargain down pharmaceutical prices, and we will actively import quality medications from wherever in the world they are manufactured.  The days when Americans have to choose between meals or medicines, when illness or injury mean financial disaster, when America ranks near the bottom in world health rankings — those days are history.

My fellow Americans, thank you for your confidence in the Goat Party.  The goat is a stubborn animal, independent minded, a lover of freedom.  In that spirit, we have today kicked away the heavy burdens that hold back education and health care, two of the core concerns of any society.  Freed from debt burden, our students will take wings.  Freed from the oppressive cost of health care, our families will straighten up, stride with confidence, and thrive.  This is all part of the real America, the America that shines a bright light in the world, the America we all honor and love.  Thank you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine: Energy as a Nonprofit Service

IMAGINE:  The Elephant Party and the Donkey Party have split and broken up.  The new Goat Party has won a landslide victory and I, its standard bearer, am installed in the White House.  Following two speeches on foreign policy, I turned to domestic policy issues.  The following is the third talk in the series about the domestic economy.  

 

My fellow Americans:

Tonight I want to talk to you about energy.  Many people know the impact of gasoline prices at the pump on our household budgets.  Energy is so important to other sectors of the economy that the price of energy can depress or run up the price of many other products in industry and agriculture.   Because energy is so important to us all, it’s just unwise management to leave control over energy to a handful of private owners whose only concern is their profit.  Yet that’s been the reality.  It’s got to change, and it’s going to change, starting today.

Toward that end, we have bought controlling interests in the major energy companies who have assets in this country, and we are going to consolidate them into a single firm, American Consolidated Energy Service, Inc.  ACES is going to be run as a nonprofit.  Its strategic objective will not be to maximize its owners’ profit, as before, but to provide a maximum of affordable energy services to the economy.  That’s right, ACES Inc. will be run as a nonprofit service company, similar in many ways to a public utility.

What, specifically, will change?

ACES will stabilize energy prices and make them predictable.  We are not so isolated from the world market that we can avoid all price changes, but we can certainly smooth them out over time.  Farmers, other industries, heating oil consumers, drivers, all energy buyers will be protected against budget-busting short-term energy price fluctuations.

ACES will be an energy company, not just an oil company.  It will include the old fossil fuels but it will also build and distribute renewables like solar, wind, thermal, and others, on a very large scale.  We will end the oil lobby’s cutthroat war against wind and solar.  We will end the totally unnecessary subsidies to the oil companies that we have paid for decades.  We will put fossil fuels and renewables on a level playing field for price.

Within twelve months, we will have a national conference on fracking.  With our new ownership, we finally have access to the full story about the chemicals and processes used in fracking, and the truth about the effects of fracking on water, soil, and ground stability.  All that will come out, and we will reach an informed and democratic decision about whether to continue fracking, limit fracking to certain places and certain conditions, or stop fracking altogether.

ACES will work to decentralize the energy grid and make it more resilient.  We will work to put solar on just about every rooftop, and storage batteries in just about every basement or closet.  Wherever possible, individual homes and neighborhoods will achieve something close to energy independence.  Large-scale brownouts or blackouts due to grid problems will be a thing of the past.  The grid will not be the primary energy source but a backup and an energy leveler.

In each and every energy decision we will look at the impact on air, water, soil, health, and the atmosphere.  In the pursuit of profit, the oil giants polluted the air, poisoned water and soil, impacted millions of people’s health, and loaded the atmosphere with greenhouse gases that have messed up the weather, brought an unending string of disasters, melted glaciers and ice fields north and south, warmed the ocean, and raised up flood levels. That has to stop, right now.  ACES is going to shift the center of gravity in our national energy balance toward renewables.  No worker is going to be unemployed by the shift in emphasis from oil to wind and solar.  On the contrary, wind and solar have a labor shortage even now, and every man and woman who wants to work in energy will get a well-paying job in energy that’s clean, inexhaustible, and good for the planet.  America will become the cleanest nation and set an example for the rest of the world.

ACES will install high-speed electric vehicle charging posts using a universal format at every location that now has a gas station, and in every public parking lot.  Americans will fall in love with electric vehicles once they put the seat of their pants inside one and feel the amazing acceleration.  American drivers love power.  They haven’t seen real power until they’ve driven electric.  True, many miss the roar of the engines.  Well, there’s a cure for that.  We’re going to have manufacturers offer pre-recorded gas engine noises from the race car of the driver’s choice as an option to play on the stereo, loud, as they step on the electric pedal.   Given 250-mile batteries, fast charging available everywhere, and comparable prices, EVs will take the American market by storm inside of one generation.  Our lungs, our skies, our atmosphere and oceans will be the better for it.

My fellow Americans:  American history is wrapped up with energy.  Now it’s time to move that history forward.  The American Consolidated Energy Service company will create a broad, solid, economical, and progressive energy foundation for the American future.

 

 

Imagine: Appalachia and the Rust Belt

IMAGINE:  The Elephant Party and the Donkey Party have split and broken up.  The new Goat Party has won a landslide victory and I, its standard bearer, am installed in the White House.  Following my speeches on Korea and the Mideast, I turned to domestic policy issues. After announcing a New American Spring, I took up the subject of income taxes.  After a detour outlining an innovation in consumer technology, I now return to the larger economic picture.

My fellow Americans:

The United States of America today  is a backward country.  I say “backward” deliberately to shock people out of the smug belief that we’re the the best, the most modern, the most advanced in the world in everything.  True, we lead the world in some narrow branches of technology.  But in broad areas of economic life, our country needs a lot of work.

Look at Appalachia.  In this beautiful and historic region, we have mountaintops ripped off, valleys filled with rubble, streams running with poison chemicals, and whole communities out of work, hooked on drugs and choosing suicide.

What about our Rust Belt cities?  The name says it all.  Cities and towns that once buzzed with industry now feature avenues of boarded up houses, empty storefronts, more people on Medicaid than on assembly lines.

Check out almost any city and you’ll see homeless people by the thousands.   And the homes where people still live, many of them badly need work.  Roofs, foundations, windows, insulation, plumbing, all the rest, in bad repair.

Not only homes, but the streets and highways that connect them.  Rutted, potholed.  Bridges, too many of them ready to fail.  The drinking water, in too many places not drinkable.  Sewers clogged, broken, missing.  The electrical grid, ancient, fragile, overloaded.  Irrigation systems, dams, levies, reservoirs crumbling.  Train tracks and the rolling stock on them, antiques.  Our digital networks, among the slowest in the world.

Did I mention that our schools, on the average, don’t rank very well internationally?  That we have more people in prison than any other country?  That our infant mortality rate is like a third world country?  That we have children and adults going hungry?

I could go on.  But everybody that’s been paying attention already knows all this, and more.  The point is not to make a list of our problems, but to start on the solutions.

Let’s start with Appalachia.  This morning I signed a bill creating the Appalachian Conservation Authority.  We have bought controlling shares in each of the coal and related mineral companies that have assets in the region.  They were cheap.  We will liquidate each of these companies and transfer their assets to the ACA.  The ACA will determine which coal mining operations need to continue because they involve specialty coal needed by industry.  All other coal mining operations will be retired.  The ACA will immediately begin a major Appalachian conservation project.  It will hire tens of thousands of local men and women to reforest skinned mountaintops, build state parks over landfilled valleys, clean up poisoned streams and ponds, convert selected underground mines into tourist attractions, rebuild damaged infrastructure, and generally clean up the area, restock it with fish and game, and make it beautiful again.  The ACA will do whatever it takes to restore some part of the land to the Cherokee and other Native Americans who were driven out in the Trail of Tears, and who wish to return. This will take a decade or more, a decade when there will be zero unemployment in Appalachia.  Coal miners won’t miss the darkness and the black dust so much once they get a steady taste of well-paid conservation work in the outdoors.  People will have a purpose, a community, and a future.  They’ll lose interest in drugs.  The suicide rate will drop.  The birthrate will rise.  Appalachia will become a thriving, prosperous part of America again — a place that Americans and foreigners will love to visit.

Now the Rust Belt.  The sickness of the Rust Belt cities comes from the profit fever.  One after another, the owners of the mills and factories where millions of workers made a good-enough living for a quarter century after the War saw a way to make more money by transferring the work abroad to countries where factory pay was lower.  The runaway shop is not the fault of Mexico or China or similar countries.  It is the fault of the very rich Americans who shut down their American plants and moved production abroad in order to get even richer.  In this, as our economic metrics have shown over the past forty years, they “richly” succeeded.  That’s going to stop.

How do we fix it?  We need to understand first that merely putting up barriers to imports isn’t going to get us very far.  We should and we will put up a wall against products made with child labor, prison labor, labor in hazardous  conditions, and similar evil practices.  We can and should vigorously promote movements for better working conditions and higher wages in countries that export to us.  But these practices by themselves aren’t going to put a lot of people to work here at home.  They may even hurt the average working person by making necessities like clothing and electronics more expensive.  That’s not a solution.

The solution to the Rust Belt problem is actually staring us in the face.  It’s the rust.   It’s the rusting infrastructure, the decayed housing stock, everything else that’s falling apart.  That’s where the jobs are.  Tomorrow I will sign a bill to create the American Reconstruction Authority.  With an initial budget of $5 trillion, the ARA will have a broad mandate to undo the rust in the American economy.  One part of this will be a set of construction and reconstruction projects for roads, bridges, waterways, sewers, rails, transmission lines, and other big items.  Another part will involve new housing construction, along with a people-driven block-by-block housing rehab and upgrade campaign.  We’ll train, equip, and pay neighbors to help neighbors to bring their homes up to grade.  Some nonprofits now do this successfully as a charity.  We’ll do it on a large scale as a national policy.   To make the ARA project work, we will need hundreds of thousands new construction workers in all the trades.  We are starting ten huge  training campuses to supply the skilled labor force necessary.   Note that ARA jobs are jobs where we work on America in America.  These jobs cannot be exported!

The ARA project will do more than upgrade our physical environment.  It will fabulously invigorate our economic life.  The main drag on progress during the past forty years  has been the lockdown on worker wages.  No improvement for almost half a century!  The sons and daughters no better off — often worse off — than their parents!  That’s intolerable, not only for the people involved, but for the economy.  It means consumer demand, the driving force of economic expansion, is in the doldrums.  That’s going to change now.  With the stimulus that the ARA — and other projects that I’ll introduce later — will pump into the economy, wages and consumer demand will rise in a big way.  That, in turn, will create incentives for the revival of American manufacturing.  Factories will open that make products in America at American wages that American workers can afford to buy.  We’re going to push the Rust Belt era into history.   America will be backward no more.  Our land and its people will shine again.

I’ll have more to say about the economy in another talk.  Meanwhile, my fellow Americans, be of good cheer.  Help is on the way.

 

 

 

 

IMAGINE: A QR Code to Reveal the Birth of Things

A QR code

IMAGINE:  The Elephant Party and the Donkey Party have split and broken up.  The new Goat Party has won a landslide victory and I, its standard bearer, am installed in the White House.  Following my speeches on Korea and the Mideast, I turned to domestic policy issues. After announcing a New American Spring, I took up the subject of income taxes. Before moving on to related issues, I was invited to give a guest keynote at the big consumer electronics show.  Here is a transcript.  

Some time ago I read an article about city kids who did not know that milk came from cows, or that apples grew on trees in the countryside. If they thought about it at all, they assumed that these things were made by machines.

We shake our heads at these examples of ignorance about where things come from. Yet all of us here live in a comparable state of darkness about many of the products we use every day. Do we have any idea how or where and by whom a common pencil is made? What about the shirt we’re wearing? The phone we use?  The car we drive?

Economic theory since Adam Smith has rested on the assumption that market participants such as consumers have full information about the commodities that producers put on sale. Yet you’ve only to ask a few basic questions to realize that much of the time, maybe almost all the time, consumers haven’t a clue about where, how, and by whose effort the thing they are eyeballing came into existence. For all we can tell, the thing just dropped from the sky, as if the stork brought it.    

In Adam Smith’s day, and until very recently, providing the consumer with anything like the full birth story of a commodity ran into insurmountable transaction costs. The origin story of a simple pencil would have required at least a pamphlet. Anything more complex might need a book, or a multi-volume encyclopedia. Luckily, that’s history. Wikipedia replaced volumes. Google gets us instant answers to questions that might take hours in a library. YouTube holds billions of videos.  Facebook connects billions of people worldwide.

Yet very little of this immense capability is invested in providing transparency about the birth story of the items that crowd the marketplaces.

Here’s a proposal to fix that.  Every product on a shelf or a sales floor will carry a new QR code.  I, the consumer, hold my phone to the code, and up comes a page with videos and links that show how, where, when, and by whom the thing was put together. And I’m not talking here about a company promo.

  • I want to see and listen to the actual voices of the men and women who made the thing, up and down the line. I want to see how they live.
  • Hyperlinks will take me to related stories about the raw materials embodied in the product, and the people who dug them out and processed them.
  • Other links take me to the machines used to make the product, and the pictures and voices of the men and women who built the machines, and the points of engineering and design that went into the machines, with the pictures and voices of the engineers and designers.
  • Where sales and promotion are important to getting the product to market, videos will describe the sales and promotion effort, and show the faces and voices of the people who did that.
  • Always included will be videos about the transportation chain, with images of the ships, planes, trains, trucks, warehouses, and the faces and voices of the people who did the work. .
  • The narrative will have a page of links where I can email the various people who made the thing and have a conversation with them, if I should so desire.  
  • A separate track takes me to a spreadsheet that shows the costs in labor and materials at each stage of production, including the profits realized, if any, at a given final sales price.

If I want to know, for example, the origin of a toaster, up pops a Google Earth map with pins showing each location were the item and its parts were made and sourced, right down to the tungsten used in the heating elements and the petrochemicals used in the plastic handle.  At each pin, a click brings up videos and spreadsheets showing who and how and how much.

As I follow the links and watch the videos, the vague notion that this item just dropped from the sky gives way to a vivid, three-dimensional understanding that people in many places made it for me.  Well, they didn’t have me in mind, specifically, but they had a vague idea of somebody somewhere using it.  And then I have the opportunity to email some of the makers, and replace their vague picture with a vivid image of a real person using the thing that they made. The Adam Smith ideal of producers and consumers connected by perfect mutual knowledge — the basic assumption of a free market economy — will finally come somewhere near to reality.  

All of this is perfectly doable with today’s technology. There are scores of examples of documentary footage and literature that traces the origin of a commodity. For a very special product, the Steinway piano, there is a lengthy documentary where you meet the people who make the thing. For more ordinary industrial objects, the photographer Edward Burtynsky provided exemplary studies in his movie, Manufactured Landscapes.  This film deserves credit also for attention to the other end of the product cycle, the end of its useful life and its disposition. Just as things don’t drop from the sky when we get them, they don’t “go away” when we discard them.  There is a massive educational project remaining to be done on the death of commodities, as on their birth. .  

We can do all of this. We have the technology. It isn’t being done now largely because the privately owned operations in every field prefer to run behind a veil of commercial privacy. The preservation of genuine trade secrets has a legitimate but very small part in this concealment.  The larger motive is shame  The captains of industry are convinced that the optics of their production, if revealed, would be bad PR. To the extent that is true, the case for product QR codes, and for the revelations to which they are a gateway, becomes more compelling.

It will be immediately obvious that implementing the new commodity QR code will require some changes.  To begin with, we’ll need a small army of video reporters and editors.  They’ll go into every place of work and interview everybody on video.  There’ll have to be rules. Companies will have the right to make a case to protect trade secrets.  Individual workers will have a right to opt out for privacy reasons.  There’ll have to be a way to screen out self-serving company videos, to allow room for alternative statements, to prevent retaliation for critical comments, and other issues. Companies will get incentives for placing QR codes with compliant documentation chains on their products, and disincentives for failing to do so. All this will take time to work out.  But it will be worth it.  

There are greater benefits to a transparent industrial environment than the basic educational goal that kids should know that milk comes from cows and apples grow on trees. When we click on the QR code on the milk carton or on the bag of apples, we realize that we only knew half the story.  Actually, milk comes from the people who work on dairy farms, and apples come from farmworkers. Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the people who make the things we rely on brings us closer to them and helps us see them as distant friends we rely on.  

Knowledge can also be a game changer.  Sunlight is an effective cure for rotten working conditions. Fewer people will buy a product that is made by child labor, in a poisonous environment, for slave wages, or otherwise tainted by unacceptable practices.  More people will buy products with a clean bill of manufacture. That’s how competition is supposed to benefit the better producer. That’s how a free market is supposed to work.

 

Imagine: A Different Tax Idea

IMAGINE:  The Elephant Party and the Donkey Party have split and broken up.  The new Goat Party has won a landslide victory and I, its standard bearer, am installed in the White House.  Following my speeches on Korea, and the Mideast, I have turned to domestic policy issues. After announcing a New American Spring, I now take up the subject of personal income taxes.

My fellow Americans,

We have much work to do to bring our country up to par in the areas of roads, bridges, sewers, grids, rails, housing, environment, healthcare, education, science and the arts, among other areas.  We’ve fallen far behind. We need to catch up and move ahead to a leading position in the world.  To do that is going to take a great deal of dedicated, passionate work by many, many people.  And it is going to take money.  Lots of it. Where are we going to get it?

As I pointed out the last time I spoke, in my talk on the New American Spring, we are winning significant amounts of money by seizing the ill-gotten gains of the corrupt coterie of elite billionaires and mega-millionaires who have been looting the nation’s wealth. We are also saving major amounts of money by ending two dead wars and by moving toward peaceful resolution of world hotspots. But that won’t be enough.

Fortunately, there is an enormous pool of money sitting idle and unused in our country’s banks, and abroad.  So much that some banks are charging the depositors rent for storing their money, instead of paying interest on the deposits. The total sum sitting idle is estimated at north of 10 trillion dollars.  Even more sits concealed in banks abroad, but we know where it is.  This money consists mostly of corporation profits that the corporations do not know what to do with. They have armies of advisors constantly hunting for opportunities to invest this money at a juicy profit, but few such exist, outside of speculation, mergers, and acquisitions, and so the money sits idle.

Idle money, especially in large amounts, is a luxury our country can ill afford. Idle money means idle investors not creating jobs and it means idle workers. Idle money is a vice worse than sin, an illness worse than addiction, a rot on the body worse than gangrene.  Corporate profit is the fruit of many people’s labor, and in a healthy economy it is constantly reinvested to create jobs and build projects. It flows and circulates. But we do not have a healthy economy.  With us, the money sits and festers and swells up like a gigantic boil. We need to lance that boil and restore a healthy circulation.  Toward that end, we are going to impose, effective immediately, the Idle Profits Excise Tax.

The Idle Profits Excise Tax, In a nutshell, will tax away liquid assets sitting for longer than twelve months without being invested in new plant, equipment, or other productive facilities that will create jobs. The rich men who control these idle dollars frankly don’t know what to do with them, but we do.  We will invest in roads, bridges, sewers, grids, rails, housing, environment, healthcare, education, science and the arts, among other areas. We will set millions of people to work doing useful things and making good money. We can do that.  The IPET, along with other measures to be announced, will make it possible.

The IPET is only one part of a comprehensive tax reform package that my administration is moving forward. The second part is called the Back to Prosperity income tax schedule.  It draws its inspiration from the years when American prosperity and American productivity were at all-time highs, namely the closing years of World War II and the postwar boom.

The income tax rates of that period were a matter of bipartisan consensus.  President Truman, the Democrat, and President Eisenhower, the Republican, signed the necessary legislation.  The personal income tax rate on high incomes in 1944 was 94 percent; it was 91 and 92 percent in 1951-1954.  This was a period of unparalleled growth not only for business, but also for the average wages and incomes of working people. Those high rates enabled us to win a world war and then to build a massive interstate highway system and other projects of great public importance.

America started to go downhill just about the time that the tax rate on high incomes was lowered. We’re going to correct that and return to the prosperous times. We are now moving forward on a new tax bill that will bring the tax on high income earners to 90 percent for individual incomes of more than $100,000, and 100 per cent for incomes over $500,000.  We see no public purpose being served by individuals taking home more than half a million dollars a year.

This measure will clear the deck for the third element of our tax reform package, namely the elimination of all taxes on individual incomes below $100,000.  If you earn less than $100,000, you will receive an email, a text, or a postcard from the IRS asking you to verify that, in truth, you made less than this ceiling.  If true, you will answer “true.”  With that, your tax obligation is finished. There is no withholding, no payroll tax, nothing else to file. You owe nothing.  Done.

We sometimes hear the objection that low income people who don’t pay much in taxes are not contributing to society, that they’re parasites, and similar terms of contempt.  This is not a well informed argument. Our Gross National Product is the product of working people. Its value is currently around $20 trillion per year. Yet the share that these same working people get in the form of wages and salaries comes to a fraction of the value they produce.

More than half, on the average, is taken away. In some industries, such as mining, technology, and some others, and also in most low wage occupations, around eighty percent of the value that working people produce goes into hands other than theirs. We don’t call this a tax for the technical reason that the people who collect it are private owners and not the government.  But what really is the difference?

It is perverse to ask the working people to pay a tax to the government on top of the enormous de facto tax that they already pay to the people who own the means of production. So if we are going to speak of parasites, we need to look first and foremost at the people who do no work but amass wealth in the many millions and billions.  That is where the tax burden must fall.

In conclusion, my fellow Americans, these are the three main points of the individual tax package that is moving forward as we speak:  the Idle Profits Excise Tax or IPET, the Back to Prosperity tax rates on high income, and the abolition of all taxes on incomes less than $100,000. These are modest and prudent measures, with a strong moral content and ample precedent in our history.  In a future address, I’ll talk about the measures we will undertake to get our economy moving again.