Monday, March 29, 2010

The Future of Food: A Documentary by Deborah Garcia

If he could look at our modern society, the thing would would strike the most terror in Thomas Jefferson's heart would be the takeover of the world's food supply by large international corporations. If American citizens are dependent upon distant business entities for their supply of food, they are not free citizens. A community that does not control its own food is a community that can be enslaved.

But the agribusiness corporations aren't stopping there. As this well-made 2005 documentary, The Future of Food, makes clear, the agribusiness corporations are busy genetically modifying their crops and using the power the courts to gradually strip away the ability of any farmer to control their own crops or even reusing seeds from their own plants. One day we will wake up and the only food we will be allowed to eat will have been legally patented by a corporation. It makes for disturbing viewing, but view it we must.

Watch the video below. I apologize for the unfortunate occasional corporate advertisment and advise the viewer to mute their computer when they come on.

What one learns from this film should have every 21st Century Jeffersonian up in arms.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thoughts of the Passage of the Healthcare Bill

The ferocious debate over the future of the American healthcare system, which has dominated the political landscape for well over a year, effectively ended Sunday night with the historic vote in the House of Representatives to approve the Democratic healthcare bill. The finalizing actions in the Senate are just a few leftover details. Whatever one's point of view, one cannot deny that this represents a tremendous victory for President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.

It's impossible to know what Thomas Jefferson would have thought about all this. On the one hand, he was always extremely suspicious of the federal government gaining too much power, and it might easily be thought that he would naturally oppose this bill because of the great power it delegates to the federal government. On the other hand, Jefferson was a ferocious enemy of moneyed interests that took advantage of ordinary citizens; he certainly would have cast modern health insurance companies into that category and sought to restrain their damaging activities by every means necessary, just as he did with the Hamiltonians.

The fact of the matter is that the notion of a "healthcare system" didn't even exist in Jefferson's time, and it would have been very alien to him. But he believed firmly in the Enlightenment ideal of progress made possible by human reason and rationality. He would have seen the advances of medical science as the common property of all humanity, and would have seen the denial of the benefits of medical science to poor people as a violation of their natural rights.

The healthcare bill that has now, at long last, become the law of the land, is very far from perfect. The Republicans choose not to behave as a responsible opposition party and therefore foolishly let the opportunity of playing a constructive role slip away from them. It fell to moderate Democrats to strip the bill of its more dangerous provisions, such as the now notorious public option and those parts of the bill that might have opened the way for federal funding of abortion.

But Jefferson would have smiled to know that all Americans, poor as well as rich, have now taken a giant step forward in the quest for equality, because equal access to medical care is such as basic human need that only the most cruel of people could claim that it was not a human right.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Five Simple Things You Can Do to Declare Independence from the Corporations

Thomas Jefferson would not consider modern American citizens to be truly free until they had fully decoupled themselves from the power that the transnational corporations have over their lives. As we often often pointed out on this blog, Jefferson would probably consider the modern corporation to be a greater threat to the liberties of the people than the federal government itself.

In previous entries, we have discussed the need to decouple our communities from the corporate economic system by supporting independent businesses and to restore community control over local food supplies by purchasing as much of our food as possible from local farmer's markets. These two general measures are perhaps the most important to help the American people get back on their feet and give them back control of their own destinies.

The Jeffersonian fight against corporate power will last for decades. In the meantime, here are five very simple and easy steps that everyone can immediately take as a first measure.

1. Drive at 55 miles per hour. Although most highway speed limits are 65 or 70 miles per hour, the optimum speed for conserving gasoline is actually around 55 miles per hour. In fact, a car travelling at 65 mph burns 10% more gasoline to travel the same distance as a car travelling at 55 mph, and a car travelling at 75 mph burns 10% more fuel than a car travelling at 65 mph.

By driving at a maximum speed of 55 mph, a person not only saves money for himself, but denies that money to the oil companies. To put it another way, every iota of speed above 55 mph results in the oil companies taking money out of your pocket and putting it in theirs. Therefore, drive at 55 mph in order to keep your money in your own pocket and out of the pocket of the enemy.

2. Don't drink bottled water. This one is surprisingly simple, but a sophisticated public relations campaign in favor of bottled water obscures the reality. The truth is that bottled water is no more healthy to drink than the tap water that comes out of virtually every faucet in America. Indeed, despite the multi-million dollar ad campaign attempted to create the impression that bottled water comes from pristine mountain sources, it is mostly just regular tap water in a bottle. As a matter of fact, bottled water may actually be less healthy than tap water, due to toxic contamination of the water from the materials used in manufacturing the plastic bottle itself.

Tap water is virtually free, costing less than a penny for the equivalent of a bottle of bottled water. The same amount of bottled water, by contrast, costs around two dollars. In other words, drinking bottled water costs more than two hundred times the amount of drinking tap water, even though tap water is very likely to be healthier than bottled water. It scarcely needs to be pointed out that throwing away the bottles themselves damages the environment.

Bottled water is a corporate scam designed to separate you from your money to line their own pockets. Don't drink it.

3. Walk for thirty minutes a day. Of all the corporate entities trying to rob us of our freedom, perhaps the health service and pharmaceutical corporations are the most insidious. One can see their advertisements for products on the television, and feel their tentacles whenever we fill out an administrative form before going in to see the doctor.

The abuses the health services corporations have inflicted upon the American people are well known. They want us to be sick, because it is only when we are sick that they can reach their claws into our pocketbooks and steal our money. Therefore, the best thing we can do to thwart them is to stay as healthy as possible.

Nothing can better contribute to a person's health than a good dose of regular exercise, and nothing can achieve this better than a brisk thirty minute walk every day. Every time one does this, he or she puts himself slightly more out of reach of the tentacles of the health services corporations, who would rather have us being perpetual in ill health so that they could rob us blind.

4. Reduce your electricity usage. The majority of electricity in the United States is produced from coal, and the lobbying power of the coal industry is bent on hindering efforts to develop energy sources that would combat global climate change and create more democratic distributed energy networks (such as the Austin-based Pecan Street Project). The less energy w use in our homes, the less power the coal industry has over our lives.

The ways to do this are well known. Use more energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs (especially compact fluorescent light bulbs). Wrap your water heater with a water heater blanket. Use water-saving shower heads in your shower. Let the dishes in your dishwasher air dry rather than heat dry. Make sure your air filters are up-to-date. Make sure your windows are fully secure.

All these very basic steps keep money in your pocket and out of the pocket of the coal industry.

5. Avoid credit card debt. This is perhaps the most fundamental measure of all. In our consumer-driven society, when we are constantly bombarded by expertly-produced advertisements attempting to convince us that it is absolutely imperative that we purchase the latest gadget or gimmick, it may is often hard for some to resist the urge to spend money they do not have on the hyped-up product they do not need.

Don't do it. Making profits through charging interest on credit card debt is the most Hamiltonian activity that the big corporations engage in, and they delight in trapping vulnerable people into debt cycles from which it is extremely difficult to escape. The best way to fight back against the corporations is to live within our means, be as self-sufficient as possible, and avoid the debt trap at all costs.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Eight Reasons the Iraq War was a Mistake

Today marks the seventh anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, and as such it's as good a time as any to examine the controversial conflict through the eyes of 21st Century Jeffersonianism.

During his tenure as President, which ran from 1801 to 1809, the central tenant of Thomas Jefferson's foreign policy was the need to avoid war. Like any rational human being, Jefferson had an abhorrence of war and all the death and destruction it causes. Even when faced with massive provocation by Great Britain in 1807, including the impressment of American sailors and a bloody and unprovoked attack on an American warship, Jefferson successfully avoided war and sought to resolve the disputes between the two countries by diplomacy and economic measures rather than by force.

Had he lived to see the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Jefferson would have been horrified by the decision of President George W. Bush to launch America into an unnecessary war of choice, as opposed to a war of necessity. Our country is still suffering the consequences.

Here are eight reasons that 21st Century Jeffersonians should consider the Iraq War to be an unmitigated disaster which never should have happened, and why we should strive to make sure that nothing like it ever happens again.

1. 4,400 Americans have been killed in the Iraq War. While some may point out that these losses are small in comparison to previous American wars (nearly 7,000 Americans died in the Battle of Iwo Jima alone), this doesn't change the fact that each one of these 4,400 lives was the totality of existence for the person in question, and that their loss was a source of infinite sorrow for their loved ones. And the loss of each one of these 4,400 American lives robbed the country of a person with as limitless a potential as any citizen. What might they have done with their lives, and how much might our country have gained. had they not been sacrificed?

And we would be remiss if we forgot the hundreds of British, Italian, Australian, and other troops who have died in Iraq since the commencement of the war.

2. At least 100,000 Iraqis, and possibly many more, have been killed as a direct result of the American invasion. Reread the above statement, and multiple it many times over.

3. The Iraq War has cost American taxpayers around $700 billion. While the financial cost of the war cannot be compared to the human cost, neither can it be ignored. Every single dollar poured into the conflict is taken from the pocket of a hard-working American, either alive today or yet to be born. The financial cost of the war is a significant contributing factor in the disastrous fiscal situation our country finds itself in. And when we factor in the cost America will continue paying for many decades in order to properly care for the tens of thousands of wounded soldiers, the financial price of the Iraq War will increase enormously.

4. The war was illegal under both American and international law. In 1945, the United States signed the Charter of the United Nations, perhaps the most important treaty in the history of international relations. Article 2 of the treaty clearly states that signatories are forbidden from taking military action against other nations except in self-defense, and Article 6 of the Constitution declares international treaties to which the United States is party are part of the supreme law of the land. By invading Iraq, which had not attacked the United States and had no plans to do so, our country was betraying the rule of law on which it was founded.

5. The war badly damaged the international standing of the United States. It may not matter much is the "usual suspects" in the Arab world or China are angry at the United States, but when we lose the respect of the people in countries like France, Germany, Japan, and Canada, we obviously have a very big problem. While President Obama is to be commended for his hard work at rebuilding America's international standing (his greatest achievement in office, from a Jeffersonian point of view), it is clear that the international standing of our nation is still much worse today than it was in the aftermath of 9/11. Unilaterally invading other nations is not the behavior of civilized nations.

6. The Iraq War distracted from the campaign in Afghanistan. The campaign in Afghanistan was undertaken in self-defense in response to a direct attack, and the need to eliminate the Taliban and Al-Qaeda was clear. But the invasion of Iraq robbed the campaign in Afghanistan of the necessary troops and resources required the finish the job there. As a result, American soldiers are still dying in the mountains of Afghanistan and Osama bin Laden still remains at large.

7. The Iraq War inflamed Muslim public opinion against the United States. Undertaken ostensibly to help rid the world of terrorism, the Iraq War only made it worse. Episodes like the prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib and the occasional killings of civilians by American servicemen certainly don't reflect the U.S. military as a whole, but try telling that to the Iraqis and the rest of the Muslim world. And even under the best of circumstances, a foreign occupation of one's country is a humiliating and angering trauma. Every eight-year-old boy who was awoken in the middle of the night by American soldiers breaking down his door and dragging off his father or older brother is a potential suicide bomber in the coming years.

8. There was simply no reason to invade Iraq. The claims of weapons of mass destruction, which the Bush administration trotted out using words like "proof" and "certainty", was revealed to be absolutely false, showing them to be either complete fools or deliberate liars. After all, Iraq had let the U.N. weapons inspectors back into the country months before the invasion, and they were still at work when forced to leave when it became clear that the United States was going to attack anyway.

And assertions that Saddam Hussein was simply a brutal dictator who needed to be removed from power certainly raise eyebrows in view of the fact that the world is filled with such people: Saudi Arabia, China, Belarus, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Cuba, and others (many of them, we must shamefully admit, our allies). Shall we cover the world in blood by trying to invade and overthrow them all? As John Quincy Adams said in 1821, the United States "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

It is far too soon for history to judge President George W. Bush. But if Thomas Jefferson could have watched his presidency unfold, he would certainly have shaken his head in shame at the Iraq War. 21st Century Jeffersonians must hold their elected leaders accountable and make sure that nothing of this sort ever happens again.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Book Recommendation: Free Lunch, by David Cay Johnston

David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter for the New York Times who specializes in tax policy. He has made a name for himself for his in-depth reporting on shady government deals that involve using public money to benefit the extremely rich.

Johnston's book Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You With the Bill) was published in 2007. It is an enlightening if disturbing investigation of various government programs that transfer taxpayer money to politically well-connected people. In essence, it reverses the dictum of Robin Hood by stealing money from the poor and middle class and giving it to the already rich and powerful.

Johnston presents several case studies that collectively describe a sinister system, in which the free market ideas of Adam Smith have been replaced by a rigged game. He describes how big-box retailers like Wal-Mart and Cabela's effectively blackmail local governments into giving them massive public subsidies, wickedly forcing their small business competitors to pay taxes to support the very big box stores that are driving them out of business. He describes how municipalities subtly adjust park financing policy to ensure that parks in well-to-do areas are fully-funded and well-maintained, while those in poorer neighborhoods are starved of money and eventually become crime-ridden cesspools. Each chapter lays out yet another boondoggle in which the taxes paid by hard-working American citizens are diverted into the pockets of the already rich and powerful.

One particularly interesting chapter of the book deals with George W. Bush during his business career, before he entered politics. Johnston reveals how he used his father's political and business connections to persuade the city of Arlington, outside of Dallas, to use taxpayer money to finance the construction of a new stadium for the Texas Rangers, after using the power of eminent domain to seize the surrounding property and turn it over to a group of investors he put together. Considering his later calls for small government and low taxes, this episode in Bush's life is ironic, to say the least.

This book should be required reading for anyone who cares about the future of America, and for 21st Century Jeffersonians in particular.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Dividend Income Should Be Taxed As Regular Income

Thomas Jefferson was the ultimate enemy of aristocracy. He believed that the danger of an artifical class of elites, based on wealth and birth rather than virtue and talent, entrenching itself in the American republic was one of the greatest threats to the continued survival of the nation. His time in France, where he saw a nobility that paid no taxes while the mass of the people starved, only deepened his hostility. As he said in a letter to John Adams, "The artificial aristocracy is a mischievious ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendancy."

Sadly, Jefferson's worst fears about aristocracy have been realized. To quote the New York Times investigative report David Johnston, in his book Free Lunch, "[I]n 2005, the 300,000 men, women, and children who comprised the top tenth of 1 percent had nearly as much income as all 150 million Americans who make up the economic lower half of our population. Add the income the rich are not required to report and those 300,000 made more than the 150 million."

America likes to think of itself as the great land of opportunity, a true meritocracy where one's prosperity depends entirely on one's abilities and their willingness to work hard. This may have been true at the time of the nation's founding, and perhaps event for some time thereafter. But in the early 21st Century, the American economy has undeniably become rigged in favor of the rich and powerful. And it's not just because the rich and powerful have more access to politicians, can obtain better lawyers and more easily get into the elite schools. It's also because the American tax system is also rigged in favor of the rich at the expense of the poor and the middle-class.

This can most clearly be seen when looking at the dividend tax. The rich earn a much greater share of their wealth from dividends on investments than do the poor (who usually have no investments at all) and the middle-class. Indeed, for many rich people in America, dividends on their investments are their primary source of income. Under the federal tax code, income from investment dividends is taxed at a significantly lower rate than regular income. The tax rate on dividend income is currently 15%, whereas the tax rate for regular income is usually between 25% and 35%, depending on the level of income.

If you look at the federal income tax alone, it has the appearance of being progressive, in that people who earn more pay a higher percentage of their income as taxes. But if you look at regular income and dividend income together, the picture quickly changes. The more a person earns from dividend income, the lower their overall tax rate. As a result, the average Wall Street executive pays a lower tax rate on his total income than does the average public school janitor.

As an example, take the world's richest man, Warren Buffet. Curious about the tax burden of the rich vis-a-vis the middle class, he asked the few dozen people in his office to calculate the percentage of their total tax bracket so that he could compare it with his own. It turned out that Buffet paid only 17.7% of his total income in taxes, while his employees paid 32.9% on average.

The rationale for a lower tax rate on dividends is that it encourages investment, which is good for the American economy. On some abstract level, this might make a certain amount of sense. But when the vast majority of the nation's wealth is in the hands of the super-rich, what difference can it possibly make to the ordinary citizens who actually do the work that makes the country function? The fact that the hard-working teachers, police officers, janitors, and other ordinary citizens (the people who actually do the work, in other words) pay a higher percentage of their income than do the super-rich is an utter outrage that shouldn't be tolerated.

Despite efforts by the Republicans to make permanent the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy, the 15% tax rate on investment dividends is scheduled to expire at the end of this year. Starting in 2011, dividend income will be taxed at the same level as regular income. This is a development that all 21st Century Jeffersonians should applaud. But it is likely that this process will be challenged in Congress, so we must remain on our guard.

If Jefferson could see the modern American tax system, he would probably call for its complete scrapping and replacement with something completely different. He saw taxation as a necessary evil, and would have recognized the byzantine complexities of the current tax code as a Hamiltonian plot to rob ordinary Americans of their hard-earned money while giving the rich and the powerful enough loopholes (Cayman Islands, anyone?) to avoid paying anywhere near their fair share. The fact that most of the revenue raised by current federal taxation is used to fund dubious and probably unnecessary government programs would have upset Jefferson all the more.

But Jefferson would have seen the blatant inequality in the current tax system as an even greater problem. Believing as he did that "all men are created equal", the unfair advantages given to the rich and powerful by the current American tax system would have shocked and angered him, and he would have rightly considered them a gross violation of the principles of the American Revolution.

In the long-term, we need to shrink the size of the federal government significantly, so as to get the absurd federal budget deficit under control and eventually bring the tax burden down. But the first step in reforming our tax system must be to level the playing field and make sure that all citizens pay an equal share and that no one gets special treatment. And a first step to achieve this is to tax dividend income at the same rate as regular income.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Proportional Representation: An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Elections to the United States Congress and to the various state legislatures are very simple. The states are divided into contiguous geographic districts, voters within each district cast their ballots for the one candidate they support, and whichever candidate gets the most votes wins. While simple, the winner-take-all system is also very undemocratic.

The idea behind a representative republic is that the men and women sent to represent the people in the legislative bodies are chosen by the people. But the winner-take-all system doesn't achieve this, for it only ensures that the representatives are chosen by at least half of the people; those who voted against the winner, in effect, do not get a representative and are therefore denied effective representation in the legislature.

Take, for example, the 2006 election in the 2nd Congressional District of Connecticut, where Democrat Joe Courtney faced off against Republican Rob Simmons. There were a total of 242,410 votes cast in the election, with Courtney getting 121,252 and Simmons getting 121,158. The margin of Courtney's victory was a mere 81 votes, yet his supporters got 100% of the representation. The almost equally large number of people who voted for Simmons were out of luck. Indeed, it was effectively as if they hadn't voted at all.

However, there is an alternative to the winner-take-all system: proportional representation.

Under proportional representation, voters cast their ballots in large, multi-member districts rather than small, single-member districts. Political parties draw up lists up preferred candidates, equal to the number of representatives the district is allowed to elect. As near as is possible, each party wins as many representatives as their share of the vote percentage indicates. In most systems, provisions also exist to allow independent candidates to run as well.

As a thought experiment, imagine a district which elects ten representatives. Then imagine that the vote in the district emerges as follows: 60% Republican, 30% Democratic, 10% Libertarian, and 10% Green. In such a case, the district would elect 6 Republicans, 3 Democrats, 1 Libertarian, and 1 Green. It would ensure that almost everyone earns some measure of representation, while keeping the majority rule intact.

Such systems of proportional representation are already operating successfully in many other Western countries, including Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden. Some other countries use a modified form of proportional representation called a mixed-member system, with overlapping single-member and multi-member districts. This kind of system is used in Germany and New Zealand, as well as the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales. Whilenot without inevitable hiccups, the use of proportional representation in these countries has generally been a great success.

Implementing proportional representation for congressional and state legislative elections would give the stagnant American electoral system a much-needed shakeup and help ensure true representation for all citizens. In addition, proportional representation would help break the stranglehold of the two party system and give those with alternative views a more level playing field.

The powers-that-bewill oppose any effort to move towards proportional representation, because the current winner-take-all system is extremely useful to them in maintaining their political power, especially when it is combined with partisan redistricting of legislative districts. But we won't have a true representative democracy until we have proportional representative. Let's roll up our sleeves and get started.