Archive | Ron Scherer

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LA Occupy

Posted on 02 December 2011 by John Johnson

You Can Arrest an Idea

by Robert Scheer

The bankers slept well. Their homes in Beverly Hills were not spotlighted by a noisy swarm of police helicopters, searchlights burning through the sanctity of the night, harassing the forlorn City Hall encampment of those who dared protest the banks’ seizure of our government. I live within sight of the iconic Los Angeles City Hall, and at first I thought it was being used once again as a movie location, given the massive police presence, as if an alien invasion was being thwarted.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, right, and Police Chief Charlie Beck survey the park after members of Occupy Lose Angeles were successfully cleared out their camp by more than 1,400 police officers in riot gear at City Hall early Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011.Not eager to test the resilience of my new heart valve, I hesitated until the first crack of dawn to visit the place where former Labor Secretary Robert Reich and I had spoken weeks before at a teach-in on the origins of the economic crisis. I described the scene back then as a Jeffersonian moment, exactly the kind of peaceful assembly to redress grievances that the Founders of our nation enshrined in the Bill of Rights. But at 5 a.m. Wednesday there was only a graveyard of democratic hope. The protesters were gone, 200 arrested for exercising their constitutional rights, and only the television crews stayed to pick over the carcass of tents, books and posters, including one I pulled from the debris that read “99% you can’t arrest an idea.” Actually, you can, and the bankers have, as a result, been able to reoccupy Los Angeles’ City Hall and every other contested outpost of power throughout the nation.

The liberal Democratic mayor, a past president of the Southern California ACLU, was pleased with the efficiency of the “community policing” approach of his police department. “I said that here in L.A. we’d chart a different path, and we did,” Antonio Villaraigosa boasted. However, the result was the same as elsewhere; the bankers were protected from the scorn they so richly deserve and there will no longer be a visible monument to the pain that they have caused. To ensure a pristine, amoral town square, huge concrete-anchored fences were quickly installed to prevent further access to the public space surrounding City Hall.

Of course the traditional cardboard encampments of the homeless three blocks away, a sprawling and constant feature of life in downtown Los Angeles, remained undisturbed. Sanitation and safety issues are of no concern as long as such manifestations of deep societal inequality are so far from the corridors of power as to be, in effect, invisible.

Such profound contradictions in the application of state power seemed not at all to bother the first wave of government workers arriving at the various local, state and federal office buildings. I lined up with some of the early birds at the employee entrance to City Hall—the closed public entrance had a forbidding police presence—and told the guard that I was there with a literary offering for the mayor, whom I have long known.

My gesture was quite pathetic. I brought him a copy of my book “The Great American Stickup,” which he had once claimed to have read and admired, to remind him that he should be arresting the real criminals rather than the victims of their financial swindles. For a confirmation of that point, I also intended to present the mayor with the transcript of U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff’s ruling this week rejecting the sweetheart deal between the SEC and Citigroup. The settlement, one of dozens like it offered to the banks, would have let Citigroup off the hook for a pittance in fines in return for closing cases involving immense corruption on the part of the bankers, who would not have to admit guilt for their crimes.

And crimes they clearly are, far beyond the scope of pitching a tent in a public park. As Judge Rakoff stated, the Securities and Exchange Commission has charged Citigroup with “a substantial securities fraud” in the sale of a billion dollars’ worth of toxic securities that were designed to fail and which the bank had bet against. Rakoff, who has handled a number of these cases, complained that Citigroup, like the other major banks, is a recidivist. Citigroup had already paid fines for four similar scams. The judge observed that “although this would appear tantamount to an allegation of knowing and fraudulent intent, the SEC, for reasons of its own, chose to charge Citigroup only with negligence” despite the far more serious charges called for in securities law.

The failure of the SEC or any other government agency to hold the banks accountable provides the essential justification for citizen action of the sort the Occupy movement has offered. In his concluding summary, Rakoff stated: “Finally, in any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth. In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers. Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found.”

Count the liberal mayor of Los Angeles, a man I have respected and voted for, as one of those apologists for suppressing truth in the name of civic order. As I meekly allowed myself to be ordered about by the police clearing the area so that the concrete barriers could be installed, I wondered whether I had not been reduced to the status of a fearful whisperer.

© 2011 Robert Scheer

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Poverty Increasing

Posted on 01 December 2010 by John Johnson

Poverty Increasing

US adds 3.8 million more to ranks of the poor as poverty rate jumps.

US poverty rate hit 14.3 percent last year, up from 13.2 percent in 2008. The jump bring the number of the poor to its highest level since 1959, five years before the Johnson-era War on Poverty.

By Ron Scherer

The deepest recession in modern times has sharply increased the ranks of the poor during the past year, with 1 in 7 people in America officially counted as living in poverty.

The news from a US Census Bureau report released Thursday underscores how deeply the Great Recession has affected the nation’s standard of living. The key findings of report, which compared income, poverty rate, and health-care insurance coverage in 2009 with 2008 numbers, include the following.

1) Some 43.6 million people were living in poverty last year – the highest number since 1959, five years before President Lyndon Johnson declared his War on Poverty. The poverty rate was 14.3 percent, up from 13.2 percent in 2008 and the highest level since 1994. Hispanic households took the hardest hit: Their poverty rate rose 2.1 percent from 2008’s level, compared with a 1.1 percent jump in the rate for blacks and whites. (The US government considers an annual income of $21,756 to be the poverty line for a family of four.)

2) A record number of Americans, 50.7 million, were not covered by health-care insurance in 2009. At the same time the survey was being taken, Congress passed President Obama’s contentious health-care reform law.

3) The median household income was $49,800 last year, about the same as in 2008. This “hold steady” figure for income may reflect the fact that many people were helped by the government safety net, such as unemployment insurance Congress repeatedly extended and which kept some 3.3 million people out of poverty, according to the Census data.

The data, contained in a statistic-thick 87-page report, are likely to have widespread implications for policymakers, say economists and analysts. Here is how some of them interpret the numbers.

• The poverty rate is likely to rise further, predicts Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, in a new analysis. The rate will approach 16 percent and stay high for most of this decade, she says. The recession will add some 10 million people, including 6 million children, to the poverty rolls.

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, writes in an analysis that in the past three recessions the poverty rate has not fallen until a year after the unemployement rate to fall.

• Some advocates for the poor hope the new data spur Congress to ameliorate the situation for the needy. One way would be to renew the Emergency Contingency Fund (ECF), part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which expires at the end of this month. The fund, targeted to low-income individuals, pays employers to take on workers.

“It helps pay for the cost of bringing a new person on,” says Rachel Gragg, federal policy director at the National Skills Coalition, which is lobbying Congress to extend the program for another year at a cost of $2.5 billion. “Most states say they will have to stop their existing programs if it’s not extended,” she says.

Another program designed to help low-income people, the Earned Income Tax Credit (or Making Work Pay program), is set to expire, too, on Dec. 31. “With this report, extending that could be a discussion item,” says economist Richard DeKaser of Woodley Park Research in Washington. “With poverty at its highest level, you could argue the least fortunate should be shielded from a tax burden.”

• Congress may want to delve deeper into safety net programs such as TANF and Medicaid, suggests Ron Haskins, a fellow at the Brookings Institution. Lawmakers are likely to find that Medicaid has “expanded like mad” because fewer Americans now have private health-care coverage. “It’s functioning like a good safety net program,” he says, adding that the same can be said for food stamps. But, he says, Congress might want to examine TANF, which replaced welfare, to examine why the program hasn’t grown, even with higher poverty. “No one knows why,” he says.

• After the November election though the plight of the poor seems worst than ever.

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