Archive for July, 2011

A Personal Story

Sunday, July 31st, 2011

Aug. 1, 2011

I’ve heard it said there is nothing like a toothache to concentrate your attention. One thing that concentrates it more is finding out that your wife has leukemia.

My wife Jane has had a problem with depression the past few months. A few weeks ago the doctors found that her white blood cell count was higher than normal but she did not have an infection. The eventual diagnosis was a rare form of cancer called Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML).

Fortunately CML can be treated effectively with a new drug called Gleevec and therein lies some interesting science and society tales.

Science first. Gleevec was discovered and developed in the late 1990s. It was the first of new wonder drugs that made the cover of Time Magazine in 2001 as a “magic bullet” to cure cancer. It has already saved the life of the famed basketball star, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and I am confident it will do the same for Jane.

Instead of killing all rapidly dividing cells indiscriminately as most chemo-cancer drugs do, Gleevec hones in on a specific molecule, an enzyme released from a defective chromosome. In the case of CML this is the Philadelphia chromosome (named for the city where it was discovered). For unknown reasons this chromosome is broken in CML people (mostly older people, it is not hereditary). The result of this broken chromosome is that one particular gene, the bcr-abl one, releases a cancer-causing enzyme that multiplies white blood cells and causes havoc in the blood streams of affected patients. Gleevec disables this enzyme without harming healthy cells.

Gleevec was discovered in an international search that relied heavily on new computer-based targeted methods by researchers at Novartis, Oregon Health and Science University, and biochemists in Italy, London and New York. It was developed, tested and brought to the market by the Swiss company, Novartis, the third largest pharmaceutical company in the world. The FDA approved it in 2001 based on its safety and effectiveness in controlling CML. Later it was found to be effective in treating other kinds of cancer.

The research that resulted in Gleevec was expensive. As a rule of thumb drugs like Gleevec run up bills of around a billion dollars before they can get approval for general distribution. CML is comparatively rare. Only a few thousand patients in the U.S. are diagnosed with this kind of cancer each year. Like all drug companies Novartis has a twenty-year patent that gives them the exclusive right to make and sell this limited-market drug. In its effort to recover the research costs, as our oncologist pointed out, Gleevec is “kind of pricey.”

Our first month’s supply of Gleevec cost over $5000. Which brings me to Part Two of this week’s personal story, the society part.

Our oncologist, with our support, called the tune. Who should pay the piper?

Fortunately for us we have Medicare, which will pay for 2/3 of the cost. This leaves us with a hefty monthly co-pay. Jane and I have a small nest egg so we could afford to pay for Gleevec for maybe a year before our nest egg disappears. You can buy Gleevec from Canadian sources. It is slightly cheaper there but you can’t get the Medicare subsidy. I tried to find out how national health care systems in Europe, the UK and Canada handle these expensive drugs for their citizens. So far as I can tell the UK does not pay for Gleevec (called Glivec there) but apparently Canada and France do.

This personal story makes you realize why this country and all Western democracies are in tough financial binds these days. It will only get worse as the baby boomers retire. Most of our ancestors died in their sixties or before. Health care is much better nowadays. It is also much more expensive.

I don’t have any magic solutions. One mitigating one might be to revise our FDA regulations so that companies only have to prove the safety of new drugs, not the efficiency (by far the most expensive part of drug certification). This would open the market to many smaller drug companies who could compete more easily with giants like Novartis. See an article by Michele Boldrin and Dr. S. Joshua Swamidass of Washington University for details.

If any of my readers have ideas, let me know. Let’s segue to the Part Three, the personal.

I don’t have any magic solutions here either. Growing old as they say is not for sissies. Unfortunately neither Jane nor I are especially brave. Here is a small sample of how we cope.

Most mornings I get up around six or so, while Jane sleeps a few hours more. We have a routine. Before I go down to breakfast I ask her for a word for the day. She comes up sometimes with an adjective—lugubrious or sparky; sometimes with an animal—butterfly or elephant; sometimes with a noun—wisdom or Internet; and sometimes with a verb—eat or die. Often I contribute an old song that pops into my head. Like Yankee Doodle Dandy, That Old Black Magic, or a Cole Porter classic.

Downstairs I work on my next week’s Hawkhill News. A few months ago I worked finishing my just published book (see below). In both cases Jane edits my work (after the morning puzzle, crossword and Sudoku).

Jane has her good days and her bad days. I am encouraging her to write memoirs for publication in the new Gilman Street Press. She is a fine writer as well as a good editor, and has written stories in the past of her many intriguing experiences with animals in the house from squirrels to raccoons and possums, from crows to blue jays and bats. As well as her time as a Marine private in WW2, an avid tap dancer and a successful field hockey coach.

As for wisdom about old age and prospects of death you will have to look elsewhere. Like the Irish writer Samuel Beckett. In his play Waiting for Godot the first act ends when a young boy comes on stage to ask:

“What shall I tell Mr. Godot, sir?”

Didi says, “Tell him you saw us. (long pause) You did see us, didn’t you?”

I used this quote on the first page of my new book. Also the last verse of Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on Snowy Evening.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep

But I have promises to keep

And miles to go before I sleep

And miles to go before I sleep.”

If these are too gloomy we have the story told about St. Francis of Assisi. He was out hoeing his garden beans when a monk tried to test him. “Francis, what would you do if you knew for certain that you were going to die in the next hour?” Francis answered, “I’d keep hoeing my beans.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more on the science side of this story you might want to check out our current DVD catalog on www.hawkhill.com. None of them get directly into the Gleevec story but the following DVDs give relevant instruction on new research in drugs and biotechnology. Stem Cells, The Human Genome Project, The Gene, Gene Guns, Genetic Engineering, Cloning: How and Why, and Biotechnology on Earth.

P.P.S. For more on science/society problems see our popular programs Science and Society: Global Issues of the 21st Century. See also Resources, Populations and Climate Change, and my just published new book, The Road to a Tea Party: a Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. You can also find all of the above on www.amazon.com.

Wealth—what is it?

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

July 25, 2011

“Got no checkbook, got no yacht

Still I’m happy with what I got

I got the sun the morning and the moon at night

And I’m all right.”

Two weeks ago my friend Michael took over this column and among other things objected to my defense of rich people.

According to the standard economic definition, wealth is marketable assets minus liabilities. Add up what you can sell and subtract what you owe and that is your net worth.

On that basis, Michael is right. The rich in this country have greater net worth than the middle class or the poor. His conclusions about this are misleading though. If we confiscated all the net worth of that top 400 families it would bring about 1.27 trillion into the U.S. Treasury. That would pay for the recent stimulus package, or it would pay for the current year’s deficit. It would also mean the government would now own the companies (like Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, Exxon/Mobil, Monsanto, etc.) that are the wealth of these top 400 families. This means we would lose future taxes. It also means the government would run the companies less efficiently and as non-profit enterprises. This would mean less research, less innovation and fewer jobs.

Today the top one percent pays 38% of all income taxes and the bottom 49% pay no income tax. In future years the only way to make up for the loss of revenue if you confiscate or significantly reduce the wealth of the rich would be to significantly raise taxes on the middle classes and the poor.

Michael claims this inequality of wealth today in the U.S. is unfair and destructive to our democracy. I question that judgment. For one thing, the standard economic definition of wealth as net worth is defective. Wealth is far more than net worth (or annual income).

Family, friends, kindness, good humor, intelligence, wisdom and good health are far more desirable than net worth. (All things considered if you can add a dollop of net worth to the above, all the better.)

As the song goes, you don’t need a bank account or a yacht to get the same benefits the rich get from the “sun in the morning and the moon at night.” That is true for many other things. In this country you don’t need a bank account or a yacht to have drinkable water, good roads, high-speed highways, well-appointed airports—and a healthy environment. Hundreds of thousands of beautiful city, state, county and national parks come free of charge. You don’t need a bank account or a yacht to get protection from foreign tyrants, demagogues and terrorists. Or homegrown thieves, murderers and arsonists. In short, you don’t need a bank account or a yacht to get “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” These benefits of wealth come free to all.

Often unmentioned in the debates about rich and poor is the contribution private businesses have made to wealth for all citizens by producing quality goods and services at prices that, in the long run, decrease year to year—especially when we have effective free-trade agreements with countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The resulting lower prices for so many goods and services are real wealth for all.

In 1930 the average household in the U.S. spent 24.2% of their income on food. By 2009 that had come down to 9.8% and the food was safer, more nutritious, and in greater variety. The government helped but it was our farmers, grocers, chemists, truck drivers, oil companies, bankers, biologists, tractor makers, marketing executives, supermarket clerks, steel workers, oil drillers, fertilizer companies, pesticide and herbicide scientists, genetic engineers, corporate executives, accountants, airplane pilots, computer nerds and who knows how many other private sector workers, who did the hard pulling that makes this feat possible.

Most of the goods and services provided by private companies and individuals are cheaper and of higher quality than they were twenty, thirty, fifty years ago. A Ford Model T automobile in 1920 cost more than two years of factory wages. A Ford Taurus today costs eight months of factory wages. Air travel of 1000 miles cost 221 hours in 1919. Today it costs 11 hours. Housing, clothes, refrigerators, furniture, TV sets, air conditioners, etc. etc. All these and more tell the same story—higher quality for less cost.

One final way that Michael’s statistics are misleading.

Both my wife and I are in our 80s. At our ages most of our ancestors had been dead for twenty years. Right now Jane and I are among the great mass of middle class Americans with a pitifully small net worth. But—due to social security and Medicare (not to mention all of the above wealth that is not counted in the statistics Michael likes to quote) we are in fact, millionaires. John Cogan, professor of Public Policy at Stanford did the mathematics and found that “starting next year, the typical couple, receiving the average benefit … will begin receiving monthly checks that will, on average, total about $550,000 after inflation. They will receive health-care services that, on average, will total another $450,000 after inflation.” Both amounts are far more than we put in during our working days.

Two apparent exceptions to this good news about things getting both cheaper and higher quality are health care and education. Health care is more expensive now than it was when I was young. It is also more effective. Education is also more expensive. In the long run it is also more effective.

I don’t need to convince you about the health care example. Education is controversial. Critics point out that even though we have spent more on education in the last few decades, test scores do not show much progress. Like the argument about net worth vs. real wealth, this criticism is misleading. There has been a large expansion in the numbers of students who benefit by schools compared to the days when I was a student and a teacher. And a large expansion in the skills and knowledge needed to excel today. Despite the faults and failures of our schools and our society, consider what we have accomplished in this country since I was in college in the late 1940s.

An enormous expansion of real wealth for three times as many people—unprecedented in human history; helping to rebuild Europe after the devastation of WW2; winning the Cold War against the most despicable tyranny of the 20th century that once controlled almost half the human species; leading the way today to an Enlightenment in the Islamic world that is on-going and sometimes bloody (as the “Cold” war was, as well as the 16th and 17th century Christian Reformation and Enlightenment); adding to our world leadership in science and technology; eliminating the injustice of Jim Crow in spirit as well as law; liberating and massively expanding opportunities for minorities in this country (including women); and in general leading the world in humane, liberal and democratic ways.

All of these achievements took a lot of skill, wisdom and moxy in an awful lot of people. Our educational system, faulty though it may be, can take a lot of credit for developing these skills, wisdom and moxy in an awful lot of people. How else could those farmers, grocers, chemists, truck drivers, oil companies, bankers, biologists, tractor makers, marketing executives, supermarket clerks, steel workers, oil drillers, fertilizer companies, pesticide and herbicide scientists, genetic engineers, corporate executives, accountants, airplane pilots, computer nerds and who knows how many other private sector workers have made our food supply today so plentiful and so cheap?

How else could the legislators, soldiers, sailors and marines, police and fire workers, business men and women, educators, media producers, and leaders and ordinary citizens of all occupations and all degrees of wealth have managed to make such progress in conquering prejudice, enhancing wealth, defeating tyrants, and leading this amazing world?

To all our educators—thank you.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more details see my new book, The Road to a Tea Party: a Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. Available now on Amazon.com, Hawkhill.com and in selected bookstores.

“why aren’t they working?”

Saturday, July 16th, 2011

July 18, 2011

Garrison Keillor told a story on the Prairie Home Companion about an old farmer in Minnesota who came to St. Paul to see a doctor. On the way to the doctor’s office his young niece took him on a tour of the city and he noticed many joggers. He asked, “Why aren’t they working?”

Many people today ask that in a different context. Why do we have so many people out of work? Why aren’t they working?

In pioneer days unemployment was not a problem. Everybody worked on the farm. Everyone was a consumer and a producer. For ten thousand years before that (the Agricultural Age on earth) there was always full employment. Expect for a tiny minority of lords, ladies and clergy who had choices, everyone else had a secure permanent job as a serf, peasant or slave.

It’s not like that today. In modern free-market democratic societies, citizens do have choices and full employment is not possible. (A command-economy “people’s democracy” like Cuba or North Korea does have full employment. Work is mandatory and there is no income inequality. Everyone is equally poor.)

Today, in free-market liberal democratic countries, large classes of citizens are consumers, but not producers. Retired people, for instance, are living longer than ever before—as consumers but not as producers.

Children, adolescents and young adults in school—avid consumers, but they don’t produce much.

Some people are disabled. They consume, but produce few goods or services.

Finally, some adults are able to work, but do not, and this group is growing. Why aren’t they working?

The easy answer is they can’t find a job. But this is misleading. They can’t find a job that pays enough, or one appropriate to their educational and skill qualifications. If they were willing to take a job at McDonald’s or Starbucks, as a cabdriver or a dishwasher, or picking vegetables or fruits—jobs are plentiful. This is one reason we get so many illegal immigrants.

In our welfare-state mixed economy we expect the government to help out when we can’t work, won’t work, or can’t find a job to our liking. An engineer, a management executive, a history or philosophy graduate doesn’t want to work flipping hamburgers, serving cappuccino or picking lettuce. So we provide generous unemployment or welfare benefits to tide them over until they can get a job they want. Until that happens they remain unemployed.

Minimum wage laws contribute to unemployment. In a free-trade society transactions are only wealth-creating if both sides win. When a worker has too few skills to justify paying him or her the minimum wage, he or she remains unemployed.

Many government regulations add to the ranks of unemployed. The government demands automobiles meet mileage, safety and environmental standards. This raises the price of new cars, which decreases sales and results in fewer jobs making the cars. The government demands stricter controls on mining, energy, pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and oil production. The result is fewer jobs in mining, energy, pharmaceuticals, agricultural chemicals and oil production, and higher prices for steel, energy, medicines, food and gasoline. The regulations may have merit but increasing employment opportunities is not one of them.

Union demands often have the same result. Boeing, our largest exporter and one of our largest job creators, builds a factory in South Carolina to take advantage of lower wage rates and right-to-work rules. The unions bring suit and the government demands they build the new factory in Washington instead of South Carolina. The loss of assets (in this case, the plant in South Carolina is already built) and the resulting higher wage rates and strike threats make it less competitive with aerospace companies in Europe and Brazil. This means fewer export sales, and more unemployment in the aircraft industry in Washington, in South Carolina and in its many suppliers all over the country.

Union opposition to free trade agreements also contributes to unemployment by reducing import and export transactions that would increase wealth and employment at home and abroad. Free trade also leads to lower prices here and abroad, which is an excellent way to increase wealth, more and better goods and services at less cost.

In most large cities, there is especially high unemployment in the inner city. There is also a high demand for skilled labor. The unemployed in the inner city don’t have the skills needed to take advantage of that demand. More and better apprenticeship programs, more and better education at local public schools and technical colleges could make for better matches and bring more wealth to all parties. Unemployed young people in the inner city often do not have the personal discipline habits to fill lower-level unskilled jobs either. Better parenting would make a difference here. No one has yet figured out how to get that.

Green activists also contribute to the unemployment problem. They demand regulations to control the last parts per trillion of pollution, to limit automobile traffic, to control suburban spread, to slow industrial growth, to slow or stop mining, to ban oil and gas drilling, to promote fair trade instead of free trade, to favor vegetarian and locavores over imported food and carnivores, to cut back on travel, to tear down dams, to recycle instead of buy new, to live in smaller houses, to live simpler lives. All these demands may have merits, but reducing unemployment is not one of them.

Even the favorite of many activists, more government programs to stimulate the economy and put the unemployed to work often backfire. Make-work, as in depression WPA or CCC brigades, sometimes results in infrastructure improvements, but more often than not it ends up a win-lose transaction, or even a lose-lose one. The worker wins by getting a job. But society at large loses because of the inevitable inefficiency on state-sponsored make-work jobs. Bridges to nowhere. Agricultural, industrial, environmental, and banking subsidies that encourage overproduction, inefficiency, booms to be followed by busts. These government jobs and subsidies typically increase prices, decrease imports and exports, and distort markets.

Many left-leaning pundits think the answer to all this is simple—soak the rich. (See Michael’s riffs on this in last week’s column. I plan to answer in more detail next week.)

Our free-market system does lead to income inequality. Central to the free-market capitalist system is free trade where both sides win. The resulting profits, for both sides, are the lifeblood of civilization’s progress and have been for the last two hundred years.

The more you restrict or tax the profits, the more you add to unemployment by discouraging efficient win-win private sector jobs. (As some wag remarked, “I never had a poor person offer me a job.”) This is especially true when the regulations and taxes fall heavily on small companies and entrepreneurs, where most new jobs come from. You can demand that politicians use the profits (raise taxes on the rich for instance) to increase government employment and subsidies. Due to inefficiency, higher salaries, early retirement and excessive pension and health benefits, this typically increases public debt as well. These profit-taken outlays also make it all the more difficult for the government to invest in needed infrastructure and education programs that, in the long run, could be win-win transactions. They also make desirable entitlement programs (which always increase consumption, but not production) like social security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc. almost impossible to fund.

No profits, no pensions. No profits, no health-care. No profits, no entitlements. No profits. No progress.

We could return to an agricultural age as some organic purists recommend. This would solve unemployment. In that trade-off we would have to give up electricity, air conditioning, travel, elevators, medical care, restaurants, schools, iPhones, books, supermarkets, pain pills, heated homes, computers, and so forth (including not having your children die at an early age of polio, smallpox, dysentery or typhoid.)

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For corroboration on the points made above, see my new book, The Road to a Tea Party: a Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy. You can find it now on amazon.com and on hawkhill.com.

Guest column from Mike

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

I’m taking the week off. Last week my News featured what my friend Mike considered an attack. He wanted to respond. Here is his undedited response:

“That’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen … the gut.

Did you know that you have more nerve endings in your stomach than your head?

Look it up.  Now, somebody’s gonna say, ‘I did look that up and it’s wrong.’  Well Mister, that’s

because you looked it up in a book.  Next time, try looking it up in your gut. I did.  And my

gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works.”  Steven Colbert, The Colbert Report

The lovely Jane and the dogged Bill have been our social friends for years and years. We don’t see eye to eye on political questions.  When Bill started sending me his Hawkhill Blog, I wondered where to start in responding to his political views.  The very first difficulty I had was with his claim to write about science and society in the blog.  I saw a very definite political agenda that in many ways was antithetical to the concept of science as I understand it.  Certainly it was his agenda and it was his blog, but I thought it a bit disingenous to represent it as a blog about science.

The blog seemed to me to be a bit data averse.   More than once he responded that he was too old to spend his time looking through studies.  From time to time I complained that his “facts” were simply assertions, that his science was more akin to Aristotle than to Galileo, and that I hoped that he might climb a tower or two and drop a couple of balls of different weights.  If he couldn’t climb the towers, he could at least quote the experience of those who had.

So we settled into our little dance.  I became the yin to his yang and it became a bit testy.  In my view he was often much too enamored with fringe science.  As I saw it, his critque of global warming neglected the broad consensus of researchers and scientists across the world, that it conflicted with clear data from the field and that the rejection of this well documented science was in line with a specific political and ideological agenda.

It appeared to me that in economics he was entranced with the early 20th century economists of the Austrian School.  He cleaved to the ideas made famous by von Mises and Hayek even though they wrote extensively about a very different time with very different challenges.  Some people on the right are quite taken with these theories, but today these theories are well out of the mainstream.  Out of his love for all things Reagan, Bill became infatuated with the “Lafer Curve” and  ”supply side” economics.  Even as I pointed out that Reagan’s high priest, David Stockman, repented this hearsay, Bill remained cleaved.   The theory was essential to his political agenda.

Bill enjoyed quoting from the experience of the early and middle 20th century.  It seemed to me no matter how irrelevant to present conditions, he loved to erect straw men out of the detritus of communism, socialism, Lenin, Marx, Stalin, and Mao.   Now it is Chomsky and Zinn.

Of course on the 4th he began waxing on about the concept of America’s “exceptionalism,” again.  I have tried to convince him that the every country believes that it is exceptional.  If you are British, Chinese, Egyptian, how could you not?  That was not satisfactory to my friend and he responded that America is the exception in history.  I countered, “What of the British in their long struggle for individual freedom and democracy, their exploitation of half of the world?  Isn’t that ‘exceptional’?”  To paraphrase Tolstoy, “Exceptional countries are all alike; every exceptional country is exceptional in its own way.”  As Americans we had an exceptional journey toward individual freedom, justice and democracy.  We were able to use our exceptional natural wealth and position as a force that could oppose tyranny in the world.  We opened our borders to the world; we dragged people here from another continent in chains, and we were fairly successful in destroying a whole people and their culture.  As with all countries, we were exceptional.

As of late, I have attempted to encourage him to consider the questions surrounding the disparity of wealth in the country. These questions seem to produce a bit of agitation with our friend, as you saw in last week’s blog he spiraled off into his  ”soak the rich” rhetoric.  My response was to have a little fun with the concept.

So I wrote, “… such incredibly loaded language …. I like it. Try these out! ”

Lighthearted: The rich are filthy rich; let’s give them a bath and “soak the rich.”

Benevolent: Oh, the poor rich, they are so smelly and so filthy rich. Let’s draw a nice warm bubble bath and slowly and gently soak them.

Economically: The rich have been so saturated with wealth that they will have to be demonetized with a thorough soaking so that the money can be returned to circulation.

Domestically: Think of the rich as tea bags as we dip them again and again in the water of our economy soaking out the wealth for a richer, more sustaining tea for the country.

Religiously:  Since it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, it is incumbent on all Bible believing Christians to soak and shrink rich people to the size that would allow them to pass through a needle for their own sakes.

Philosophically:  If a rich man is soaked in the woods, does anyone hear him squeal like a little baby?

Most of the time I try to respond to his defense of the position of the rich in the country by pointing out some of the data.

I share with him

—that the wealth of the top 400 families in this country equals that of the bottom 50% of the population, that is 155,000,000 people.

—that in 2007 the richest 10% controlled 2/3s of the nation’s net worth.  Note: the bottom 60% of Americans had 65% of their net worth tied up in their homes, so I wonder what those figures might be in 2011.

— that in 2008 families in the top .01% of the population averaged 875 times as much income as the bottom 90%  ($27,342,212 to $31,244.)

—that in the last three decades the share of this income pie has declined for the bottom 80%,  risen about 25% for the top 25%, and skyrocketed 130% for the top 1%.

—in 2009 the average CEO made 185 times what the average worker made.

—that from 2007 to 2009 Wall Street profits went up a whopping 720 %, that the unemployment rate rose 102 %, and Americans’ home equity dropped 35%.—

—that in 1972 the average hourly wage in 2008 dollars was $20.26, and by 2011 it was down to $17.12.

—that in the 1940s the chance of moving up was in the 12% range and moving down in the 4% range.  In this decade both indices are stuck at around 3.5%.

— (when normalized to 1979) the top 1% has seen its share of American’s income more than double, while the bottom 90% has shrunk.

Sources include: Economist, CBO, NBER,  Institute for Policy Studies, Economic Policy Institute, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Business Insider, Norton, Harvard Business School

Often Bill’s response includes “who cares” or “they earned it” or “more power to them” or this is “simple-soak the rich.”

I  think that this is a very disturbing trend in our history and a real threat to our democracy,  We cannot depend on some kind of “trickle down,” “magic hand of the market” or  ”the kindness of strangers.”  The concentration of wealth and its concomitant power in fewer and fewer hands is something that ought to concern every American.

Michael

Happy 4th of July

Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

July 4, 2011

I have a friend here in Madison who is a dedicated progressive liberal. He disagrees with most of my political ideas and historical claims. He is especially indignant about any claim that the U.S. is “exceptional.” Along with his progressive colleagues on web sites like Common Dreams, Mother Jones, and AlterNet, he follows the lead of scholars like Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky who routinely denounce this country as greedy, imperialist and fascist. They don’t fly the flag because to them it is a symbol of plutocracy. They claim the only way the U.S. is exceptional is as the leader in raping and pillaging countries around the world. He thinks that the solution to most of our current national problems is relatively simple—soak the rich. I disagree with these sentiments. Here is my most recent email to Michael writ on the 4th of July weekend.

Hi MIke,

Just came back from the Farmer’s Market this 4th of July weekend. Didn’t see many flags–this is Madison. A few on the arms of VFW vets and their wives and a flag-tie on a young African-American musician. Probably one of your plutocrats eh?

Thinking about some of your recent comments about plutocracy I decided not to bother looking up statistics. I am 84 years old and have been poor and have been rich. Rich is better. I have known quite a few people richer than me, but have never known a super-rich plutocrat. The richest people I know today are you and Avis along with a golf buddy who is also retired from a state job. I don’t think much about the super rich. I do know from long experience that the majority of people in this country are much better off today than they were when I was in college back in the late 40s.

I have travelled widely in this country and Canada and to other continents—Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. I have seen how people live here and in other countries and I know from personal observation how much better things are today than they were thirty, forty, fifty years ago. I also know how much better off the world’s population is than it was two hundred years ago. Or two thousand years ago. And there are a whole lot more of us! How can we explain that enormous advance in human population and human prosperity?

Here comes the differences. I give great and full credit to reformers like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, the freedom riders, the abolitionists and the brave women who are struggling today to achieve equal rights and equal opportunities. I also give credit to our democratic government that led the way in combatting prejudice, building infrastructures and in sponsoring scientific breakthroughs. But the most important engine powering the advance in worldwide population and economic wealth is without a doubt, freedom—especially economic freedom. Pioneered in this country and now spreading throughout the world. And economically this means the ascendancy of free-market capitalism. Before you go into a conniption fit, let me explain. (See my new book below for a fuller explanation.)

In a way I agree with you that we have always been a “plutocracy” if you define that as leadership by well-to-do people. More power to them. It has worked. I have been to countries that tried to bypass that by making the “people” more powerful and distributing the “plutocrats” wealth to the people. It never worked. I spent time in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Cuba, South Africa, Mali and Tanzania. I have been in countries in South America like Venezuela and Ecuador where command-economies are beginning to rule again. It doesn’t work.

I have also been in China and India. For many centuries both countries were desperately poor and subject to terrible famines and almost unbelievable poverty, Also to massacres and other put-downs by those in power, monarchs or communist bureaucrats. Once China and India gave the green light to market forces about twenty years ago things have improved. Not a little. A whole lot. I was in both countries and saw the progress.

As for this country, you pick the statistics. Compare how the average person or family lives today compared to twenty, fifty, a hundred, or two hundred years ago. We didn’t get that way by divvying up the wealth of the founding fathers or of the robber barons. We got that way by the power of free markets and free societies.

To me the Tea Party is committed to many of the principles that brought this about: limited government, free trade, karma, freedom from government and clerical restraint, promotion of producers and entrepreneurs, less dependency on government, encouragement of science and technology, etc. Yes, the same ideas our founding fathers promoted in 1787.

I am ambivalent about the religious beliefs of some Tea Party leaders today. I much prefer the hands-off religious views of the founding fathers. I certainly don’t approve of racial bigotry. I have not experienced that in my modest experience with the present Tea Party. At the one Tea Party rally I attended in Madison, it was the opposite. A young black man was trying to give a speech in favor of the Tea Party principles and it was the union protesters who were trying to shout him down with nasty epithets. In the long run I want to help lead the way to A Tea Party, not to necessarily support THE Tea Party.

Maybe one of our main differences is temperament. You delight in finding faults in our republic. I delight in finding virtues. Since it is obvious that the virtues outweigh the faults by a substantial margin, I am right and you are wrong.

Happy 4th of July.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. The new book, The Road to a Tea Party: a Fresh Look at the Cold War, 9/11 and the Future of Free-Market Liberal Democracy is now available on Amazon.com and on Hawkhill.com.