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Friday, October 29, 2010

Shakedown - The Fix Is In

"The budget should be balanced; the treasury should be refilled; public debt should be reduced; and the arrogance of public officials should be controlled." – Cicero. 106-43 B.C.

In the United States, since 2001, 49,400 manufacturing facilities were closed or relocated to another country. Seventy-five percent of these factories employed 500 or more people. This amounts to at least 18,562,500 manufacturing jobs in the United States.

In 2008 1.2 billion cell phones were produced and not one was manufactured in the United States.

Today China is cornering the market on rare earth metals. The use of rare earth elements in modern technology has increased dramatically over the past years. Rare earth elements are now incorporated into many technological devices, including superconductors, samarium-cobalt and neodymium-iron-boron high-flux rare-earth magnets, electronic polishers, refining catalysts, solar panels and hybrid car components (primarily batteries and magnets)

The Spanish attempted to institute a “green job” economy and discovered that for every green job created 2 jobs were lost. Today Spain has an unemployment rate in excess of 20%

The United States has an unemployment rate of 9.7% and California’s is 12.4% with Riverside County (where I live) at 15.3%. You can click here to view an interactive graph of the unemployment rate in the United States as of September. 2010.

Thomas Sowell writes in Investor’s Business Daily; “One of these brass oldies is the idea that the government can and must reduce unemployment by "creating jobs." Some people point to the history of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when unemployment peaked at 25%, as proof that the government cannot simply stand by and do nothing when so many millions of people are out of work.”

“If we are going to look back at history, we need to make sure the history we look at is accurate. First of all, unemployment never hit 25% until after — repeat, AFTER — the federal government intervened in the economy.”

“What was unemployment like when the federal government first intervened in the economy after the stock market crash of 1929? It was 6.3% when that first intervention took place in June 1930 — down from a peak of 9% in December 1929, two months after the stock market crash.”

“Unemployment never hit double digits in any of the 12 months following the stock market crash of 1929. But it hit double digits within six months after government intervention — and unemployment stayed in double digits for the entire remainder of the decade, as the government went in for one intervention after another.”

“The first federal intervention in June 1930 was the passage of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs by a Democratic Congress, a bill signed into law by Republican President Herbert Hoover. It was "bipartisan" — but bipartisan nonsense is still nonsense and a bipartisan disaster is still a disaster.”

In his new book “Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer” Steven Malanga of City Journal and the Manhattan Institute makes a case for how runaway spending and taxes, over the past three decade, have driven some states to the brink of bankruptcy. California, New York, Illinois, and New Jersey are the prime examples.

In vaulting from Chicago precinct and ward politics into the White House, President Obama represented the first appearance in a presidential race of a relatively new political type: the community organizer.

Obama's ascendance was no anomaly, but testament to the rise of a powerful political coalition in America made up of those who benefit from expanding government, including public-sector employees and their unions; activists at organizations that survive on government money; and recipients of government benefits.

Obama's election in 2008 was merely the clearest indicator of the extent to which this coalition has successfully amassed power in the last 50 years.

President Lyndon Johnson's ambitious plan to end poverty through massive federal spending fueled the creation of the coalition. Starting in the mid-1960s, the federal government directed billions of dollars to neighborhood groups, convinced that they knew better than Washington what their respective communities needed.

The New York Times reports; “In the four decades that the Census Bureau has been tracking household income, there has never before been a full decade in which median income failed to rise. (The previous record was seven years, ending in 1985.) Other Census data suggest that it also never happened between the late 1940s and the late 1960s”

When President Johnson announced the war on poverty had begun most Americans believed they (we) were taking the correct steps to conquer poverty in the United States. Of course the war in Vietnam was heating up at the time, but Johnson promised us “guns and butter”. He never told the American people he would get the butted by raiding the highway trust fund and social security or that we were taking the first steps towards bankruptcy – how could we know. After all we had “brilliant minds” in the executive and legislative branches of government. The era of big entitlements was about to begin.

Through backroom deals and legislation attached to big bills we weren’t aware of, the government began to grow as more and more bureaucrats were needed to administer these social programs. It didn’t take long for the politicians to realize that with the increase in the public payroll and community advocacy groups there was a growing voting block to be had. This was happening at all levels of government, but it began in earnest at the municipal level where tons of federal monies were being dumped upon cities to relive the poverty of their urban poor. What we were developing was a society where the providers and the recipients were working in tandem with the legislators to spend the money of the taxpayers. The era of the pig at the public trough was upon us.

Over time, the advocates became expert at turning the machinery of government in their favor. In 1977, Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act at the urging of advocacy groups that claimed banks were redlining – that is, refusing to do business in – many low-income neighborhoods.

To short-circuit such accusations from community groups, banks shoveled money into programs administered by community activists like the controversial Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). In 2000, a Senate subcommittee estimated that CRA-related deals between banks and community groups pumped nearly $10 billion into the nonprofit sector. This was one of the driving factors of the housing meltdown.

Gradually, the advocacy groups aligned with another rising player in the big-government coalition — public employee unions, whose path to power began slowly in the late 1950s.

The key moment occurred when the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) persuaded New York City mayor Robert Wagner, who saw the federation's members as potential political allies, to give municipal workers collective bargaining rights. Other states and cities quickly followed, as did the federal government in 1962. This malaise came to California in 1978 with the passage of Dill Act, (SB839 the State Employer-Employee Relations Act – SEERA) giving collective bargaining power to public employees.

These deals precipitated an era of turmoil resulting first in strikes and later in a concentrated effort by unions in state capitals and municipal council chambers, and in grassroots efforts in local elections, to select political leaders sympathetic to their aims. These unions were almost invariably advocates of bigger government and higher taxes, which swelled their union rolls and increased their power, and soon they joined forces with advocacy groups seeking the same kind of expanding government.

Those who spoke against the public sector unions put forth three major reasons  for their opposition: First, it would give government employees a monopoly on providing government required services; second, they were already protected by the civil service umbrella and, third they would have the power to elect their bosses. In 1919 President Coolidge warned of this when, as governor of Massachusetts he supported the mayor of Boston in his firing of the entire Boston police force, in his rebuke of Samuel Gompers.

One of the effects of growing prosperity is that it brings bigger government. As prosperity grows and brings a higher standard of living people demand more and more government services. They want more schools, fire stations, police stations, public transportation, more, frequent trash collection and more health services — after all we can afford. This in turn brings on more public employees, who are members of one of the public employee unions, with the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) being the largest at the state and municipal level.

Today this coalition of government-union-activist has created a culture of entitlement. This is dangerous as it is feed by big government and sets an expectation for the transfer of wealth. For years this was pervasive among the poor but now it has spread to the so called “middle class”. It has spread from basketball courts to the expectation of a free college education and from the right to own a home to the right for universal health care.

This has happened in Europe. When you talk about welfare in Europe you speak of the middle class. It is not the poor rioting in France, Greece, Spain and Portugal it is the middle class. Germany wants all foreign workers to go home and Great Britain is initiating draconian cuts in their social service and public work force with a proposal to cut 500,000 government jobs.

As the union-legislator coalition grows and ballot measures giving these unions more power — measures sponsored by legislators supported by the unions — are passed the unions gain more power and benefits as their monopoly grows. One day the citizens awake to a city or state that is in serious fiscal trouble due the unfunded liabilities they have voted for or have had thrust upon them by their legislators in Sacramento, Albany, Springfield or Trenton.

The other coalition is the one between the legislators, public service unions and the social advocacy groups — the community organizers. The war on poverty fueled this coalition. We had this naive idea if we could spend billions of dollars we would cure poverty. How wrong we were. Since 1950 our lowest poverty rate was during the late 50’s and early 60’s, a time when the nation was growing and business was expanding. After 1967 he rate began declining to where it is today. Nothing was cured and the disease got worse.

After the passage Johnson’s “Great Society” legislation the federal government didn’t know how to spend the money so they did two very stupid things. First they created agencies like the Housing and Urban Development Agency (HUD), the Department of Education (ED), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) all cabinet level agencies. Second is that they allowed these agencies to throw billions of unaccounted for dollars at state and local municipalities for any hair brained scheme someone with a high school education could put together a two page grant request for. These requests ran from community centers, basketball courts and drug rehab centers to university studies and job training centers. These sounded like good ideas but in almost all cases there were no metrics required to measure success. They were politically untouchables. These grants spawned thousands of community activists who then became part of the government-public sector union coalition. Again we had a partnership between the givers and the receivers at the expense of the taxpayer with no real accountability to anyone.

It was all done because we thought we had the money and we wanted to feel good. After all who wanted to deny the inner city youth a basketball court where they could gather after school and not run with the gangs or a job training center? The problem was that the basketball court became a gathering place for gangs and the job training center did not get people jobs. Their excuse was that if the only trained people who get jobs they would not be training the people they wanted to target. The dysfunctional metric they used was not to judge government programs by results but by the intentions of the program.

One of the worst offenders was the block grants, where billions were poured into communities with very little or no strings attached. They were subject to much graft and corruption and showed little success. When conservative groups began to expose the corruption and failure of these grants they were labeled as racists, bigots and worse. The government-union-activist coalition was gaining a new ally, the media.

The federal funds, eventually supplemented by state and local tax dollars, helped conjure a universe of government-funded community groups that ran everything from job-training programs to voter-registration drives to subsidized housing programs to mortgage counseling efforts.

Leaders of these social-services groups became advocates, unsurprisingly, for government-funded solutions to social problems. To defend and expand their turf, organizers began heading into the political arena, wielding the influence they had accumulated in neighborhoods to build bases of political support.

Soon, in cities from New York to Chicago to Cleveland to Los Angeles, the road to electoral success increasingly ran through the government-funded social-services sector.

"The nonprofit service sector has never been richer, more powerful," former welfare recipient Theresa Funiciello wrote in her 1993 book "Tyranny of Kindness". "Except to the poor, poverty is a mega-business."

Nowhere is this government-union-activist coalition more evident than in California. In June 2009 an official of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), California's largest public employees' union, sitting in a legislative chamber and speaking into a microphone said. "We helped to get you into office, and we got a good memory," she says to the elected officials outside the shot. "Come November, if you don't back our program, we'll get you out of office." Click here for the video and article

The video has become a sensation among California taxpayer groups for its vivid depiction of the audacious power that public-sector unions wield in their state. The unions' political triumphs have molded a California in which government workers thrive.

The state's public school teachers are the highest-paid in the nation. Its prison guards can easily earn six-figure salaries. State workers can retire at 55 with pensions higher than their base pay for most of their working life.

Meanwhile, what was once the most prosperous state now suffers from an unemployment rate far steeper than the nation's and a flood of firms and jobs fleeing high taxes and stifling regulations. This toxic combination — high public-sector employee costs and sagging economic fortunes – has produced recurring budget crises in Sacramento and in virtually every municipality in the state.

How public employees became members of the elite class in a declining California offers a cautionary tale to the rest of the country. And the rise in California of SEIU, the nation's fastest growing union, illustrates how modern labor's victories take place in courts and in back rooms, not on picket lines.

In the late 1980s, to take one example, the SEIU began eyeing a big jackpot: tens of thousands of home-health-care workers being paid by California's county-run Medicaid programs. The SEIU initiated a long legal effort to have those workers, who were independent contractors, declared government employees.

When the courts finally agreed, the union then persuaded county supervisors to allow it to organize its workers--an easy task because governments rarely contest organizing campaigns, not wanting to seem anti-worker.

The SEIU's biggest victory was winning representation for 74,000 home-health-care workers in Los Angeles County, the largest single organizing drive since the United Auto Workers unionized General Motors in 1937. Taxpayers paid a steep price: Home-health-care costs became the fastest-growing part of the Los Angeles County budget after the SEIU bargained for higher wages and benefits for these new recruits.

Today, the SEIU represents 700,000 California workers – more than a third of its nationwide membership. Of those, 350,000 are government employees and you wonder what Jerry Brown is leading in the polls for the California governor’s race.

The SEIU's California numbers have given it extraordinary resources to pour into political campaigns. The union's major locals contributed a hefty $20 million in 2005 to defeat a series of initiatives to cap government growth and rein in union power.

The SEIU has also spent millions over the years on initiatives to increase taxes, sometimes failing but on other occasions succeeding, as with a 2004 measure to impose a millionaires' tax to finance more mental-health spending.

In the past, California could always rely on a rebounding economy to save it from its budgetary excesses. But few still view the state as the land of opportunity. More and more California taxpayers are realizing how stacked the system is against them. They are also coming to understand that reform will come slowly, if it comes at all.

Elected in 2008 as our first community activist president backed by a big government coalition that also included muscular public sector unions, Obama has taken their agenda nationwide. He left little doubt early in his first term when he funneled hundreds of billions of dollars of federal stimulus money to states and cities to preserve government jobs.

The Obama administration also went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that stimulus money was used to help its big government allies. When California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to lay off state workers during the state's 2009 budget crisis, Obama officials, at the behest of the powerful Service Employees International Union, informed the state that it would forfeit hundreds of millions of stimulus dollars if it reduced its workforce.

The sharp public reaction against the cynical nature of such deals, evident in the rapid drop in Obama's popularity, reveals the growing pains that the big government coalition of public-sector unions and social advocacy groups is now experiencing as it goes national. But the coalition has adapted many times before and it has tremendous resources at its disposal.

In California we may have dug ourselves a hole so deep we cannot get out of it. It will take a powerful governor with a spine of steel like, Chris Christie of New Jersey, to lead the charge. I can’t see that happening anytime soon. I think we will have to go into bankruptcy and endure more pain before we can change the direction of this state. We voted ourselves into this mess and I hope we can vote ourselves out.

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