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Census data: Half of U.S. poor or low income December 16, 2011

December 15, 2011

by legitgov


Census data: Half of U.S. poor or low income 15 Dec 2011 Squeezed by rising living costs, a record number of Americans – nearly 1 in 2 – have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income. The latest census data depict a middle class that’s shrinking as unemployment stays high and the government’s safety net frays [thanks to the GOP, Obusha, and sycophantic DemocRATs]. The new numbers follow years of stagnating wages for the middle class that have hurt millions of workers and families.

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The school of Jay-Z studies | Mychal Denzel Smith December 14, 2011

Judging by the amount of fuss he caused, one would think Georgetown University Professor Michael Eric Dyson had floated the idea of abolishing child labor laws. In reality, all he had done was announce that this semester he would be teaching a course entitled “Sociology of Hip-Hop – Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z.” And it was Glastonbury all over again.

The outrage flew from all directions. A SPIN headline referred to “Georgetown’s Semi-Ridiculous Jay-Z Class”, while the main article nonchalantly mentions that tuition at the university is $40,920, attaching the price to a particularly inarticulate quote from a college sophomore. Gawker was still more ruthless in its takedown, declaring: “One notable thing about Michael Eric Dyson is that although he is very good at being an academic celebrity, he doesn’t know shit about hip-hop.”

Perhaps the most incisive and disparaging critique came from Stephen Wu, a junior at Georgetown, who, writing for the Hoya student newspaper, said, “The proposition that Jay-Z is in the same galaxy as – much less the heir to – the preeminent epic poet [Homer] of human history represents a basic misapprehension of either Jay-Z’s importance or the development of western thought and literature over 2,500 years.” Ouch.

But a controversy isn’t a controversy without at least two diverging points of view. Zack O’Malley Greenburg, author of Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went From Street Corner to Corner Office took to Forbes to defend the class that had invited him to be a guest speaker. Responding directly to Wu’s argument, Greenburg counters, “I’m not disputing Homer’s impact on western civilisation, but this sort of small-minded statement ignores the entire body of socially conscious hip-hop (yes, parts of it contributed by Jay-Z), not to mention some of the most prominent themes present throughout Homer’s works.”

Point well received. But the notion that this class needs to be defended is preposterous on its face. Jay-Z doesn’t need to be Homer. Or Shakespeare. Or Mark Twain, Beethoven or Wagner. He’s Jay-Z: arguably, the most important figure to come out of the biggest cultural movement of the past 30 years. The merits of the case – for serious intellectual course work focused on the man and his lyrics – stand on their own, without feeble comparisons to more “respectable” members of the academic canon.

In the 30 years since 20/20 aired its special report that declared “rap is likely to influence popular music for years to come … it has tremendous staying power,” hip-hop hasn’t only fulfilled that prophecy; it has surpassed it in ways not imagined at the time. It is such an integral and ubiquitous part of American culture that hip-hop is used to sell everything from light beer to digital cameras, while influencing electoral politics and agitating presidents. There is no denying the cultural legitimacy of hip-hop.

And try as some might, there is little denying Jay-Z’s position as hip-hop’s preeminent voice. Over the course of his 15-year career, Jay-Z has proven himself to be not only one of the most prolific artists that the culture has produced, but a quintessential American businessman (or business, man).

His particular genius lies in his ability to take the misunderstood worldview of a dispossessed group and make it palatable to a diverse audience. Through him, people from all different backgrounds have access to the unique and sometimes flawed philosophies of black men in the post-civil rights/black power generation. He perfectly embodies both the brilliant potential and unfortunate consequences of hip-hop’s global reach.

Jay’s life and music are fertile ground for investigating issues of poverty, criminalisation, misogyny, performances of black masculinity, capitalism, linguistics, black political identity and much more. “Hip-hop basically is simply this starting point for these broader questions about life and philosophy and worldview,” says Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University. Neal visited the class earlier this year to discuss his own work on Jay-Z, and engaged the students on a range of issues, from intellectual property law to cosmopolitan identity. This goes far beyond a study of “big pimpin’” or “swag”. Courses such as these produce the type of critical thinking needed to fuel real societal change.

This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, class on hip-hop to make its way into the halls of higher education (there are over 300, in any case). It is conceivable that, one day, major universities will award major degrees in the study of hip-hop. No, it isn’t organic chemistry or engineering, but that doesn’t diminish its value.

The critics will find themselves on the wrong side of history. Everyone else will brush their shoulders off.

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Russians Look Ahead to Mass Protest, Presidential Election December 13, 2011

Is Russia’s middle class on the march? People are angry, and are speaking out for clean elections and democracy.

Two days after Russia’s largest democracy demonstration in a generation, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev responded with a few lines in Facebook.

He wrote, “I agree neither with the slogans, nor the statements voiced at the protests.”

Within minutes, readers demanded, which slogans? Did he object to the central one, “Clean elections?”

Within 24 hours, more than 12,000 Russians put their names on the line with such comments as, “Shame” and “Pathetic.”

Suddenly, middle class Russians are saying they are fed up, in public.

Mikhail Morozov, a sales manager, is one of them. He said last week’s voting was a waste of time because the Kremlin had decided the results in advance.

Last weekend, protests were held in 95 cities across Russia.

Evgeniya Chesnikova, a 30-year-old chess teacher, came to Moscow’s protest with flowers, symbolizing her hope the protest movement will remain peaceful. “I came here today because this autocratic regime of Putin, it can’t stay anymore. It’s all of criminals and corruption,” he said.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wants to extend his rule of Russia for six more years by winning the presidential election in March.

On Monday, a planned Constitution Day rally next to the Kremlin walls was turned into a pro-Putin pep rally for several thousand supporters.

A few blocks away, Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third richest man and owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team in the U.S., held a press conference.

The billionaire bachelor announced he is running for president.

Masha Lipman, an analyst at Carnegie Center Moscow, says Mr. Putin could be in trouble. His popularity has been dropping since he announced a job switch with President Dmitry Medvedev three months ago. “The trend is negative for Putin. People are angry and in the same time are invigorated by the success of their collective action. Putin’s rating is on decline, has been on decline for quite some time now,” he said.

Lipman says Mr. Putin is gambling on riding out the protest storm until Christmas and New Year’s, when Russians take a two-week winter break. “Maybe the calculation of the government is let them let off steam. Soon, we are going to have a long holiday in Russia,” he said.

But with new presidential candidates positioning themselves, Russia’s powerful church chiding the Kremlin to hold clean elections, and Internet activists working to organize a new wave of protests for December 24, Russia’s political future is now clouded by a large question mark.

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David Montgomery obituary December 12, 2011

David Montgomery, who has died aged 84 of a brain haemorrhage, was one of the most prominent historians in the US and the model of a scholar-activist. Along with the late Herbert Gutman, he was the most influential practitioner of the “new labour history“, which moved the study of workers away from the institutional history of unions to the workplace struggles, political ideologies and cultural values of the diverse groups who make up the American working class. Before entering academia, he spent several years as a shop-floor organiser for the Communist party, working with the United Electrical Workers, International Association of Machinists and Teamsters union, an experience rare among modern academics.

Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Montgomery served in the Army Corps of Engineers during the second world war, including a stint at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the atomic bomb was developed. After leaving the army he attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. In the 1950s, Montgomery devoted himself to factory organising. Hounded by the FBI, he was dismissed from several industrial jobs. He left the Communist party in 1957 in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and, as he later recalled in an interview with the Radical History Review, because of the party’s “stifling” intellectual atmosphere.

But he remained deeply influenced by two aspects of his communist experience – Marxist analysis and a commitment to racial equality. Class remained his key category of historical analysis, although he was keenly aware of the multiracial, multi-ethnic nature of the American labour force. He saw class consciousness not as adherence to a particular ideology but as workers’ day-to-day activities in opposition to their employers. Unions, whatever their political outlook, were for Montgomery places of human solidarity, their very existence a rebuke and challenge to the dog-eat-dog competitiveness of market society.

What he witnessed on the shop floor convinced him that “most of what was written in academic literature about the inherent conservatism of American workers … was simply untrue.” He decided to set the record straight. Montgomery received his doctorate in history from the University of Minnesota in 1962. He taught labour history for 14 years at the University of Pittsburgh, then moved to Yale University as the professor of history. A powerful, charismatic speaker, he attracted legions of students to his classes.

Montgomery’s writings reconceptualised the history of American workers during the 19th and early 20th centuries. His first book, Beyond Equality (1967), altered historians’ understanding of the era of reconstruction that followed the American civil war by focusing on the labour question in the northern states rather than the fate of the emancipated slaves. The war, a disaster for northern workers because of rampant inflation, spawned the emergence of the nation’s first mass-labour movement, whose demands challenged the adequacy of the ideal of legal equality promoted by the radical republicans.

The book’s title suggested that beyond legal equality – a momentous achievement for the former slaves – lay issues of economic justice that the political system proved incapable of addressing. On the submerged rock of class conflict, he argued, the radical project foundered.

Montgomery then turned his attention to the rise and fall of labour militancy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In Workers’ Control in America (1979), he highlighted how groups of skilled industrial workers – iron puddlers, miners, and others – “controlled” the nature and pace of work, and how their shopfloor power was eventually eroded by mechanisation and the introduction of bureaucratised systems of factory management.

The Fall of the House of Labor (1987) expanded his compass to include not only these privileged workers, but machine operatives in factories and the unskilled manual labourers who built the era’s railroads, subways and sewer systems. In the early 20th century, management, with the assistance of the national state, launched a ferocious assault on workers’ prerogatives. By the 1920s, Montgomery wrote, “modern America had been created over its workers’ protests”.

The theme of political repression was further pursued in Citizen Worker (1993), which addressed the paradox that 19th-century American workers enjoyed extensive democratic rights, yet confronted a national state that acted “to police the people for the free market”.

Montgomery was the opposite of the ivory-tower academic. At Yale, he organised faculty support for clerical workers who engaged in a bitter strike against the university demanding union recognition. When the workers at the Colt firearms company in New Haven (where Yale is located) launched a prolonged strike, Montgomery joined the picket line. In 2000, as president of the Organisation of American Historians, he moved the sessions of the annual meeting in St Louis from the headquarters hotel to a local university, as an act of solidarity with black litigants who were suing the hotel chain for discriminatory practices.

Montgomery had a longstanding connection with Britain. From 1967 until 1969, he taught at the University of Warwick, where, with EP Thompson, he helped to establish the Centre for the Study of Social History, and from 1986 until 1987 was professor of American history at Oxford University.

In his interview with the Radical History Review, Montgomery remarked: “Although my speciality is working-class history, the subject I am trying to get at is the history of capitalism.” In all his works, he tried to describe workers’ experiences within the broadest political and economic context. Today in the US, labour history has become a much more marginal field than in Montgomery’s heyday – a reflection of shifting intellectual interests and the decline of the labour movement itself. Those interested in labour now study it as part of a newly prominent paradigm – the history of American capitalism. In other words, they are coming back to David Montgomery.

He is survived by his wife, Martel (when they wed in 1952, their interracial marriage was illegal in many US states), two sons, Edward and Claude, and five grandchildren.

David Montgomery, historian, born 1 December 1927; died 2 December 2011

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Obama speech declares ‘make-or-break moment for the middle class’ December 7, 2011

Barack Obama’s Kansas speech targets ‘fend for yourself’ stance of Republicans and corporations. Link to this video

Barack Obama blasted his Republican foes and Wall Street as he portrayed himself as a champion of the middle class and laid out in the starkest terms yet the populist themes of his 2012 re-election bid.

In a speech meant to echo a historic address given by the former US president Theodore Roosevelt in the same Kansas town more than 100 years ago, Obama railed against “gaping” economic inequality and pressed the case for policies he insisted would help ordinary Americans get through hard times.

He seized the opportunity to step up pressure on congressional Republicans to extend payroll tax cuts that independent economists say are vital to economic recovery, and vowed new legislation to punish Wall Street fraud.

But Obama’s broader message was a sweeping call for the working class to get a “fair shot” and a “fair share” as he pushed for wealthier Americans to pay higher taxes and demanded that big corporate interests play by the rules.

“This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class,” Obama told a cheering crowd in a high school gymnasium in Osawatomie, Kansas.

“At stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement.”

With the election due in 11 months, Obama’s speech was part of a strategy to cast the Republicans as the party beholden to the rich and blame them for obstructing his efforts to boost the fragile economy and slash high unemployment – issues considered crucial to his re-election chances.

“Their philosophy is simple: we are better off when everyone is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules. Well, I’m here to say they are wrong,” he said.

Republicans said it was another attempt to distract from what they see as Obama’s failed economic record. The Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, accused the president and his fellow Democrats of resorting to “cheap political theatre”.

The Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, in an interview on CNBC, said Obama’s policies made him the “finest food stamp president in American history” because more people would end up getting government aid than new jobs.

Obama’s attempt to lay out the ideological foundations of his re-election campaign marked a shift from recent speeches that have concentrated on small-scale executive actions or campaign-style harangues against Republicans to stop stalling his $447bn jobs plan.

This time Obama sought to channel Roosevelt, a Republican who provoked deep anger within his party with his landmark “new nationalism” speech in 1910 that hailed the government’s role in promoting social justice and warned against abuses by rich business interests. Roosevelt lost the 1912 presidential election running as a third-party candidate.

Obama sharpened his tone against Wall Street, reflecting what aides see as a message that increasingly resonates with working-class voters whose taxes have gone to business bailouts while their own incomes have flatlined. He was also seeking to revitalise his liberal base amid fears that an “enthusiasm gap” could cut into Democratic turnout and cost him a second term.

Obama sounded themes of economic inequality and corporate greed that have driven the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, which was spawned in New York and has spread to other major cities and countries.

“President Obama is attempting to energise Democrats for the campaign, define himself as something more than a passive president and take populism back from the Tea Party,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University political historian.

The risk for Obama is that tougher rhetoric against big business could turn off some of the centrist voters he needs to win re-election. After his Democrats suffered major losses in the November 2010 congressional elections, he launched an outreach to the business community to try to mend fences.

Obama used his speech to accuse Republicans of suffering from “collective amnesia” about the recent financial crisis, and he strongly defended his Wall Street regulatory overhaul that many Republicans opposed and want to roll back.

He said he would call for legislation to toughen penalties against Wall Street companies that break anti-fraud rules.

“Too often we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender. No more,” Obama said.

He again prodded Republican lawmakers to extend the expiring payroll tax cut beyond this year.

Many Republican lawmakers are sceptical that it will spur job creation, but party leaders, fearing a possible backlash from voters in 2012, have expressed a willingness to find a way to prevent the tax cut from lapsing. They remain at odds with Democrats on how to fund it.

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Full text of Barack Obama’s speech in Osawatomie, Kansas

Well, I want to start by thanking a few folks who’ve joined us today. We’ve got the mayor of Osawatomie, Phil Dudley is here. We have your superintendent Gary French in the house. And we have the principal of Osawatomie High, Doug Chisam. And I have brought your former governor, who is doing now an outstanding job as secretary of health and human services – Kathleen Sebelius is in the house. We love Kathleen.

Well, it is great to be back in the state of Tex – [laughter] – state of Kansas. I was giving Bill Self a hard time, he was here a while back.

As many of you know, I have roots here. I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Obamas of Osawatomie. Actually, I like to say that I got my name from my father, but I got my accent – and my values – from my mother. She was born in Wichita. Her mother grew up in Augusta. Her father was from El Dorado. So my Kansas roots run deep.

My grandparents served during World War II. He was a soldier in Patton’s army; she was a worker on a bomber assembly line. And together, they shared the optimism of a nation that triumphed over the Great Depression and over fascism. They believed in an America where hard work paid off, and responsibility was rewarded, and anyone could make it if they tried – no matter who you were, no matter where you came from, no matter how you started out.

And these values gave rise to the largest middle class and the strongest economy that the world has ever known. It was here in America that the most productive workers, the most innovative companies turned out the best products on Earth. And you know what? Every American shared in that pride and in that success – from those in the executive suites to those in middle management to those on the factory floor. So you could have some confidence that if you gave it your all, you’d take enough home to raise your family and send your kids to school and have your health care covered, put a little away for retirement.

Today, we’re still home to the world’s most productive workers. We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments – wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paycheques that weren’t – and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.

Now, for many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over this harsh reality. But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We all know the story by now: mortgages sold to people who couldn’t afford them, or even sometimes understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets – and huge bonuses – made with other people’s money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.

It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system. And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we’re still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs and the homes and the basic security of millions of people – innocent, hardworking Americans who had met their responsibilities but were still left holding the bag.
And ever since, there’s been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity, restore balance, restore fairness. Throughout the country, it’s sparked protests and political movements – from the Tea Party to the people who’ve been occupying the streets of New York and other cities. It’s left Washington in a near-constant state of gridlock. It’s been the topic of heated and sometimes colorful discussion among the men and women running for president.

But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what’s at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement. Now, in the midst of this debate, there are some who seem to be suffering from a kind of collective amnesia. After all that’s happened, after the worst economic crisis, the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, they want to return to the same practices that got us into this mess. In fact, they want to go back to the same policies that stacked the deck against middle-class Americans for way too many years. And their philosophy is simple: We are better off when everybody is left to fend for themselves and play by their own rules.

I am here to say they are wrong. I’m here in Kansas to reaffirm my deep conviction that we’re greater together than we are on our own. I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules. These aren’t Democratic values or Republican values. These aren’t 1% values or 99% values. They’re American values. And we have to reclaim them.
You see, this isn’t the first time America has faced this choice. At the turn of the last century, when a nation of farmers was transitioning to become the world’s industrial giant, we had to decide: Would we settle for a country where most of the new railroads and factories were being controlled by a few giant monopolies that kept prices high and wages low? Would we allow our citisens and even our children to work ungodly hours in conditions that were unsafe and unsanitary? Would we restrict education to the privileged few? Because there were people who thought massive inequality and exploitation of people was just the price you pay for progress.

Theodore Roosevelt disagreed. He was the Republican son of a wealthy family. He praised what the titans of industry had done to create jobs and grow the economy. He believed then what we know is true today, that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history. It’s led to a prosperity and a standard of living unmatched by the rest of the world.
But Roosevelt also knew that the free market has never been a free licence to take whatever you can from whomever you can. He understood the free market only works when there are rules of the road that ensure competition is fair and open and honest. And so he busted up monopolies, forcing those companies to compete for consumers with better services and better prices. And today, they still must. He fought to make sure businesses couldn’t profit by exploiting children or selling food or medicine that wasn’t safe. And today, they still can’t.

And in 1910, Teddy Roosevelt came here to Osawatomie and he laid out his vision for what he called a New Nationalism. “Our country,” he said, “means nothing unless it means the triumph of a real democracy … of an economic system under which each man shall be guaranteed the opportunity to show the best that there is in him.”

Now, for this, Roosevelt was called a radical. He was called a socialist – even a communist. But today, we are a richer nation and a stronger democracy because of what he fought for in his last campaign: an eight-hour work day and a minimum wage for women, insurance for the unemployed and for the elderly, and those with disabilities; political reform and a progressive income tax.

Today, over 100 years later, our economy has gone through another transformation. Over the last few decades, huge advances in technology have allowed businesses to do more with less, and it’s made it easier for them to set up shop and hire workers anywhere they want in the world. And many of you know firsthand the painful disruptions this has caused for a lot of Americans.

Factories where people thought they would retire suddenly picked up and went overseas, where workers were cheaper. Steel mills that needed 100 – or 1,000 employees are now able to do the same work with 100 employees, so layoffs too often became permanent, not just a temporary part of the business cycle. And these changes didn’t just affect blue-collar workers. If you were a bank teller or a phone operator or a travel agent, you saw many in your profession replaced by ATMs and the internet.

Today, even higher-skilled jobs, like accountants and middle management can be outsourced to countries like China or India. And if you’re somebody whose job can be done cheaper by a computer or someone in another country, you don’t have a lot of leverage with your employer when it comes to asking for better wages or better benefits, especially since fewer Americans today are part of a union.

Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. “The market will take care of everything,” they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes – especially for the wealthy – our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty.
Now, it’s a simple theory. And we have to admit, it’s one that speaks to our rugged individualism and our healthy skepticism of too much government. That’s in America’s DNA. And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the 50s and 60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade. I mean, understand, it’s not as if we haven’t tried this theory.

Remember in those years, in 2001 and 2003, Congress passed two of the most expensive tax cuts for the wealthy in history. And what did it get us? The slowest job growth in half a century. Massive deficits that have made it much harder to pay for the investments that built this country and provided the basic security that helped millions of Americans reach and stay in the middle class – things like education and infrastructure, science and technology, Medicare and social security.

Remember that in those same years, thanks to some of the same folks who are now running Congress, we had weak regulation, we had little oversight, and what did it get us? Insurance companies that jacked up people’s premiums with impunity and denied care to patients who were sick, mortgage lenders that tricked families into buying homes they couldn’t afford, a financial sector where irresponsibility and lack of basic oversight nearly destroyed our entire economy.

We simply cannot return to this brand of “you’re on your own” economics if we’re serious about rebuilding the middle class in this country. We know that it doesn’t result in a strong economy. It results in an economy that invests too little in its people and in its future. We know it doesn’t result in a prosperity that trickles down. It results in a prosperity that’s enjoyed by fewer and fewer of our citisens.

Look at the statistics. In the last few decades, the average income of the top 1% has gone up by more than 25% to $1.2m per year. I’m not talking about millionaires, people who have a million dollars. I’m saying people who make a million dollars every single year. For the top one hundredth of 1%, the average income is now $27m per year. The typical CEO who used to earn about 30 times more than his or her worker now earns 110 times more. And yet, over the last decade the incomes of most Americans have actually fallen by about 6%.

Now, this kind of inequality – a level that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression – hurts us all. When middle-class families can no longer afford to buy the goods and services that businesses are selling, when people are slipping out of the middle class, it drags down the entire economy from top to bottom. America was built on the idea of broad-based prosperity, of strong consumers all across the country. That’s why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so that they could buy the cars he made. It’s also why a recent study showed that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run.
Inequality also distorts our democracy. It gives an outsised voice to the few who can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions, and it runs the risk of selling out our democracy to the highest bidder. It leaves everyone else rightly suspicious that the system in Washington is rigged against them, that our elected representatives aren’t looking out for the interests of most Americans.

But there’s an even more fundamental issue at stake. This kind of gaping inequality gives lie to the promise that’s at the very heart of America: that this is a place where you can make it if you try. We tell people – we tell our kids – that in this country, even if you’re born with nothing, work hard and you can get into the middle class. We tell them that your children will have a chance to do even better than you do. That’s why immigrants from around the world historically have flocked to our shores.

And yet, over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk. You know, a few years after World War II, a child who was born into poverty had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of becoming middle class as an adult. By 1980, that chance had fallen to around 40%. And if the trend of rising inequality over the last few decades continues, it’s estimated that a child born today will only have a one-in-three chance of making it to the middle class – 33%.

It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It is wrong. It flies in the face of everything that we stand for.

Now, fortunately, that’s not a future that we have to accept, because there’s another view about how we build a strong middle class in this country – a view that’s truer to our history, a vision that’s been embraced in the past by people of both parties for more than 200 years. It’s not a view that we should somehow turn back technology or put up walls around America. It’s not a view that says we should punish profit or success or pretend that government knows how to fix all of society’s problems. It is a view that says in America we are greater together – when everyone engages in fair play and everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share.

So what does that mean for restoring middle-class security in today’s economy? Well, it starts by making sure that everyone in America gets a fair shot at success. The truth is we’ll never be able to compete with other countries when it comes to who’s best at letting their businesses pay the lowest wages, who’s best at busting unions, who’s best at letting companies pollute as much as they want. That’s a race to the bottom that we can’t win, and we shouldn’t want to win that race. Those countries don’t have a strong middle class. They don’t have our standard of living.

The race we want to win, the race we can win is a race to the top – the race for good jobs that pay well and offer middle-class security. Businesses will create those jobs in countries with the highest-skilled, highest-educated workers, the most advanced transportation and communication, the strongest commitment to research and technology.

The world is shifting to an innovation economy and nobody does innovation better than America. Nobody does it better. No one has better colleges. Nobody has better universities. Nobody has a greater diversity of talent and ingenuity. No one’s workers or entrepreneurs are more driven or more daring. The things that have always been our strengths match up perfectly with the demands of the moment.

But we need to meet the moment. We’ve got to up our game. We need to remember that we can only do that together. It starts by making education a national mission – a national mission. Government and businesses, parents and citisens. In this economy, a higher education is the surest route to the middle class. The unemployment rate for Americans with a college degree or more is about half the national average. And their incomes are twice as high as those who don’t have a high school diploma. Which means we shouldn’t be laying off good teachers right now – we should be hiring them. We shouldn’t be expecting less of our schools –- we should be demanding more. We shouldn’t be making it harder to afford college – we should be a country where everyone has a chance to go and doesn’t rack up $100,000 of debt just because they went.

In today’s innovation economy, we also need a world-class commitment to science and research, the next generation of high-tech manufacturing. Our factories and our workers shouldn’t be idle. We should be giving people the chance to get new skills and training at community colleges so they can learn how to make wind turbines and semiconductors and high-powered batteries. And by the way, if we don’t have an economy that’s built on bubbles and financial speculation, our best and brightest won’t all gravitate towards careers in banking and finance. Because if we want an economy that’s built to last, we need more of those young people in science and engineering. This country should not be known for bad debt and phony profits. We should be known for creating and selling products all around the world that are stamped with three proud words: Made in America.

Today, manufacturers and other companies are setting up shop in the places with the best infrastructure to ship their products, move their workers, communicate with the rest of the world. And that’s why the over 1 million construction workers who lost their jobs when the housing market collapsed, they shouldn’t be sitting at home with nothing to do. They should be rebuilding our roads and our bridges, laying down faster railroads and broadband, modernizing our schools – all the things other countries are already doing to attract good jobs and businesses to their shores.

Yes, business, and not government, will always be the primary generator of good jobs with incomes that lift people into the middle class and keep them there. But as a nation, we’ve always come together, through our government, to help create the conditions where both workers and businesses can succeed. And historically, that hasn’t been a partisan idea. Franklin Roosevelt worked with Democrats and Republicans to give veterans of World War II – including my grandfather, Stanley Dunham – the chance to go to college on the GI Bill. It was a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, a proud son of Kansas who started the interstate highway system, and doubled down on science and research to stay ahead of the Soviets.

Of course, those productive investments cost money. They’re not free. And so we’ve also paid for these investments by asking everybody to do their fair share. Look, if we had unlimited resources, no one would ever have to pay any taxes and we would never have to cut any spending. But we don’t have unlimited resources. And so we have to set priorities. If we want a strong middle class, then our tax code must reflect our values. We have to make choices.

Today that choice is very clear. To reduce our deficit, I’ve already signed nearly $1tn of spending cuts into law and I’ve proposed trillions more, including reforms that would lower the cost of Medicare and Medicaid.

But in order to structurally close the deficit, get our fiscal house in order, we have to decide what our priorities are. Now, most immediately, short term, we need to extend a payroll tax cut that’s set to expire at the end of this month. If we don’t do that, 160 million Americans, including most of the people here, will see their taxes go up by an average of $1,000 starting in January and it would badly weaken our recovery. That’s the short term.

In the long term, we have to rethink our tax system more fundamentally. We have to ask ourselves: Do we want to make the investments we need in things like education and research and high-tech manufacturing – all those things that helped make us an economic superpower? Or do we want to keep in place the tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans in our country? Because we can’t afford to do both. That is not politics. That’s just math.

Now, so far, most of my Republican friends in Washington have refused under any circumstance to ask the wealthiest Americans to go to the same tax rate they were paying when Bill Clinton was president. So let’s just do a trip down memory lane here.

Keep in mind, when President Clinton first proposed these tax increases, folks in Congress predicted they would kill jobs and lead to another recession. Instead, our economy created nearly 23 million jobs and we eliminated the deficit. Today, the wealthiest Americans are paying the lowest taxes in over half a century. This isn’t like in the early 50s, when the top tax rate was over 90%. This isn’t even like the early 80s, when the top tax rate was about 70%. Under President Clinton, the top rate was only about 39%. Today, thanks to loopholes and shelters, a quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of you, millions of middle-class families. Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1%. One percent.

That is the height of unfairness. It is wrong. It’s wrong that in the United States of America, a teacher or a nurse or a construction worker, maybe earns $50,000 a year, should pay a higher tax rate than somebody raking in $50m. It’s wrong for Warren Buffett’s secretary to pay a higher tax rate than Warren Buffett. And by the way, Warren Buffett agrees with me. So do most Americans – Democrats, independents and Republicans. And I know that many of our wealthiest citisens would agree to contribute a little more if it meant reducing the deficit and strengthening the economy that made their success possible.

This isn’t about class warfare. This is about the nation’s welfare. It’s about making choices that benefit not just the people who’ve done fantastically well over the last few decades, but that benefits the middle class, and those fighting to get into the middle class, and the economy as a whole.
Finally, a strong middle class can only exist in an economy where everyone plays by the same rules, from Wall Street to Main Street. As infuriating as it was for all of us, we rescued our major banks from collapse, not only because a full-blown financial meltdown would have sent us into a second Depression, but because we need a strong, healthy financial sector in this country.
But part of the deal was that we wouldn’t go back to business as usual. And that’s why last year we put in place new rules of the road that refocus the financial sector on what should be their core purpose: getting capital to the entrepreneurs with the best ideas, and financing millions of families who want to buy a home or send their kids to college.

Now, we’re not all the way there yet, and the banks are fighting us every inch of the way. But already, some of these reforms are being implemented.
If you’re a big bank or risky financial institution, you now have to write out a “living will” that details exactly how you’ll pay the bills if you fail, so that taxpayers are never again on the hook for Wall Street’s mistakes. There are also limits on the sise of banks and new abilities for regulators to dismantle a firm that is going under. The new law bans banks from making risky bets with their customers’ deposits, and it takes away big bonuses and paydays from failed CEOs, while giving shareholders a say on executive salaries.
This is the law that we passed. We are in the process of implementing it now. All of this is being put in place as we speak. Now, unless you’re a financial institution whose business model is built on breaking the law, cheating consumers and making risky bets that could damage the entire economy, you should have nothing to fear from these new rules.

Some of you may know, my grandmother worked as a banker for most of her life – worked her way up, started as a secretary, ended up being a vice president of a bank. And I know from her, and I know from all the people that I’ve come in contact with, that the vast majority of bankers and financial service professionals, they want to do right by their customers. They want to have rules in place that don’t put them at a disadvantage for doing the right thing. And yet, Republicans in Congress are fighting as hard as they can to make sure that these rules aren’t enforced.

I’ll give you a specific example. For the first time in history, the reforms that we passed put in place a consumer watchdog who is charged with protecting everyday Americans from being taken advantage of by mortgage lenders or payday lenders or debt collectors. And the man we nominated for the post, Richard Cordray, is a former attorney general of Ohio who has the support of most attorney generals, both Democrat and Republican, throughout the country. Nobody claims he’s not qualified.

But the Republicans in the Senate refuse to confirm him for the job; they refuse to let him do his job. Why? Does anybody here think that the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors?

Audience: No!

Obama: Of course not. Every day we go without a consumer watchdog is another day when a student, or a senior citisen, or a member of our Armed Forces – because they are very vulnerable to some of this stuff – could be tricked into a loan that they can’t afford – something that happens all the time. And the fact is that financial institutions have plenty of lobbyists looking out for their interests. Consumers deserve to have someone whose job it is to look out for them. And I intend to make sure they do. And I want you to hear me, Kansas: I will veto any effort to delay or defund or dismantle the new rules that we put in place.

We shouldn’t be weakening oversight and accountability. We should be strengthening oversight and accountability. I’ll give you another example. Too often, we’ve seen Wall Street firms violating major anti-fraud laws because the penalties are too weak and there’s no price for being a repeat offender. No more. I’ll be calling for legislation that makes those penalties count so that firms don’t see punishment for breaking the law as just the price of doing business.

The fact is this crisis has left a huge deficit of trust between Main Street and Wall Street. And major banks that were rescued by the taxpayers have an obligation to go the extra mile in helping to close that deficit of trust. At minimum, they should be remedying past mortgage abuses that led to the financial crisis. They should be working to keep responsible homeowners in their home. We’re going to keep pushing them to provide more time for unemployed homeowners to look for work without having to worry about immediately losing their house.

The big banks should increase access to refinancing opportunities to borrowers who haven’t yet benefited from historically low interest rates. And the big banks should recognise that precisely because these steps are in the interest of middle-class families and the broader economy, it will also be in the banks’ own long-term financial interest. What will be good for consumers over the long term will be good for the banks.

Investing in things like education that give everybody a chance to succeed. A tax code that makes sure everybody pays their fair share. And laws that make sure everybody follows the rules. That’s what will transform our economy. That’s what will grow our middle class again. In the end, rebuilding this economy based on fair play, a fair shot, and a fair share will require all of us to see that we have a stake in each other’s success. And it will require all of us to take some responsibility.

It will require parents to get more involved in their children’s education. It will require students to study harder. It will require some workers to start studying all over again. It will require greater responsibility from homeowners not to take out mortgages they can’t afford. They need to remember that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

It will require those of us in public service to make government more efficient and more effective, more consumer-friendly, more responsive to people’s needs. That’s why we’re cutting programs that we don’t need to pay for those we do. That’s why we’ve made hundreds of regulatory reforms that will save businesses billions of dollars. That’s why we’re not just throwing money at education, we’re challenging schools to come up with the most innovative reforms and the best results.

And it will require American business leaders to understand that their obligations don’t just end with their shareholders. Andy Grove, the legendary former CEO of Intel, put it best. He said, “There is another obligation I feel personally, given that everything I’ve achieved in my career, and a lot of what Intel has achieved…were made possible by a climate of democracy, an economic climate and investment climate provided by the United States.”

This broader obligation can take many forms. At a time when the cost of hiring workers in China is rising rapidly, it should mean more CEOs deciding that it’s time to bring jobs back to the United States, not just because it’s good for business, but because it’s good for the country that made their business and their personal success possible.

I think about the Big Three auto companies who, during recent negotiations, agreed to create more jobs and cars here in America, and then decided to give bonuses not just to their executives, but to all their employees, so that everyone was invested in the company’s success.

I think about a company based in Warroad, Minnesota. It’s called Marvin Windows and Doors. During the recession, Marvin’s competitors closed dozens of plants, let hundreds of workers go. But Marvin’s did not lay off a single one of their 4,000 or so employees – not one. In fact, they’ve only laid off workers once in over a hundred years. Mr. Marvin’s grandfather even kept his eight employees during the Great Depression.

Now, at Marvin’s when times get tough, the workers agree to give up some perks and some pay, and so do the owners. As one owner said, “You can’t grow if you’re cutting your lifeblood – and that’s the skills and experience your workforce delivers.” For the CEO of Marvin’s, it’s about the community. He said, “These are people we went to school with. We go to church with them. We see them in the same restaurants. Indeed, a lot of us have married local girls and boys. We could be anywhere, but we are in Warroad.”

That’s how America was built. That’s why we’re the greatest nation on Earth. That’s what our greatest companies understand. Our success has never just been about survival of the fittest. It’s about building a nation where we’re all better off. We pull together. We pitch in. We do our part. We believe that hard work will pay off, that responsibility will be rewarded, and that our children will inherit a nation where those values live on.

And it is that belief that rallied thousands of Americans to Osawatomie – maybe even some of your ancestors – on a rain-soaked day more than a century ago. By train, by wagon, on buggy, bicycle, on foot, they came to hear the vision of a man who loved this country and was determined to perfect it.
“We are all Americans,” Teddy Roosevelt told them that day. “Our common interests are as broad as the continent.” In the final years of his life, Roosevelt took that same message all across this country, from tiny Osawatomie to the heart of New York City, believing that no matter where he went, no matter who he was talking to, everybody would benefit from a country in which everyone gets a fair chance.

And well into our third century as a nation, we have grown and we’ve changed in many ways since Roosevelt’s time. The world is faster and the playing field is larger and the challenges are more complex. But what hasn’t changed – what can never change – are the values that got us this far. We still have a stake in each other’s success. We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try. And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, “The fundamental rule of our national life,” he said, “the rule which underlies all others – is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together.” And I believe America is on the way up.

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Obama: Economic Fairness is ‘The Defining Issue of Our Time’

President Barack Obama says restoring America’s prosperity and economic fairness is the defining issue of our time. The president went to the Midwestern state of Kansas Tuesday to restate his economic goals.

In a nearly hour-long speech, President Obama stressed the importance of reforming the nation’s economy to give middle class Americans what he called a “fair shot.” “This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and all those who are fighting to get into the middle class because at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home and secure their retirement,” he said.

The president spoke in the small town of Osawatomie, Kansas, where President Theodore Roosevelt called for similar economic reforms in 1910.

Mr. Obama talked about finding ways to help middle class workers and restore fairness to America’s economic system, points, analysts say, he will likely make again in his reelection campaign.

The president criticized Republicans in Congress for opposing greater regulation of financial markets and higher taxes on wealthy Americans.  He repeated calls for reforms in the nation’s economic system, although he offered few details about how he would implement them.

Mr. Obama also called for reform of the U.S. tax code, in which he said tax rates for the wealthiest citizens have dropped dramatically in recent decades. “A quarter of all millionaires now pay lower tax rates than millions of you, millions of middle class families.  Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as one percent.  One percent.  That is the height of unfairness,” he said.

Mr. Obama noted that the average corporate chief executive officer earns about 110 times more than his or her workers.

The president again called on Congress to pass an extension of the payroll tax cut that is set to expire at the end of the month.  He also said regulation of Wall Street banks and financial institutions needs to be strengthened. “Does anybody here think that the problem that led to our financial crisis was too much oversight of mortgage lenders or debt collectors?  Of course not,” he said.

Congressional Republicans say excessive government regulation is costly to businesses and keeps them from hiring more people.

In addition, Mr. Obama repeated his call for a greater emphasis on education, science, research and high-technology manufacturing.

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Tolerance may be harder to spread than Tony Blair and John Kerry imagine | Andrew Brown December 5, 2011

Tony Blair and John Kerry gave a joint session on Friday to a class at Yale as part of Blair’s Faith Foundation work, which was livestreamed across the internet to an audience that fluctuated between 50 and 70. The 6,999,999,930 of you who didn’t listen in missed something valuable.

Seven years ago, they were among the most powerful people on the planet. They’re still very good politicians. They’re smart, but not intellectuals: they are interested in changing the world rather than understanding it, and it is as practical men trying to change the world that they have come to the conclusion that religion matters, won’t go away, and will matter more and more.

Their programme of informed tolerance between the major world religions is obviously a good thing in itself. The problem is that it rests on some huge and wobbly assumptions.

Some Muslims believe that everyone in the world is born a Muslim, but unfortunate billions are confused by their parents into believing that they are Christians, Hindus, or atheists. And what struck me, listening to Blair and Kerry talking about the Arab spring, was that they really believe that every child in the world is born a little democrat: it’s just that billions are brought up to believe that they are really autocrats, or fundamentalists, or even communists instead.

At the end of the lecture, there were calls invited from listening journalists, so I asked if they did really believe that everyone who thought the question through must be a democrat.

Kerry thought for a moment I meant “Democrat”, as in the political party, as opposed to “believer in democracy”. After we had got over that little hurdle, it turned out that, yes, they do pretty much believe that deep inside, everyone is a democrat but some benighted people don’t understand this about themselves. Blair said that “Democracy … is basically what people, when they are free to choose, choose in the end. Once they have it, they don’t tend to give it up.”

Kerry was less quotable, but it’s pretty clear he thinks that democracy is one of those social inventions, like money, that doesn’t have to be imposed on anyone. The advantages are so obvious that it must spread. The process may take years: “This is a long struggle, which is not going to be resolved in my lifetime,” but the end is clear. “If people are fully educated” they will choose democracy.

So, I asked, what if they’re wrong. “If we’re wrong, we’re wrong” said Blair. It’s a good pragmatist’s answer which helps show why he is an effective politician. I don’t think Kerry took the possibility seriously at all.

I hope they’re right but this is faith-based reasoning. It’s hardly eccentric to believe that if democracy can’t deliver peace and prosperity it is endangered and can be abandoned. It happened in Europe between 1930 and 1945. It seems to be happening in Russia today. Iranian women gained the right to vote in 1963 – and lost it in 1979.

And this does make a real difficulty for those of us who hold universalist and secular values. We believe that democracy and human rights answer universal and justified demands for justice and dignity. But in much of the world, perhaps most of it, these demands are to be answered by religion. How is tolerance to be practised or discovered between we who see these as political problems, and those who see them as religious ones?

The question can be answered between people who agree how to divide it into what is properly understood as political and what is properly religious. They’ll sign up for Blair and Kerry, and a good thing too. But I don’t see any basis for tolerance between nations who differ about what is self-evident and absolutely true.

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US Senators Spar Over Key Tax Cut December 4, 2011

The White House and congressional Democrats continue to press for a federal-tax-cut extension that would benefit nearly all wage and salary earners, but especially the middle class.  Paying for the extension remains a sticking point on Capitol Hill, where Republicans object to a proposed surcharge on millionaires.  

Position reversal

It is a rare reversal of partisan and ideological positions: Democrats fighting to sustain a tax cut and Republicans raising objections.

Last year, it was Republicans who insisted that lower tax rates enacted under former President George W. Bush be extended for all income levels, and Democrats who said the top tax rate paid by the richest Americans should rise.  In the end, all Bush-era tax cuts were extended, without any corresponding tax hikes or spending cuts to offset the fiscal impact.

At issue today are taxes collected to fund the federal program that provides income to retirees, known as Social Security.  For 2011, those taxes were reduced by about a third to give Americans bigger paychecks and, it was hoped, stimulate economic growth.

Economic impact

Unless Congress acts, full Social Security taxes will be collected once again in 2012.  Democratic Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota says that would be disastrous for America’s fragile economic recovery.

“What the country needs right now is additional lift for the economy,” he said. “We still have one-in-six Americans either unemployed or underemployed.  We should not have a tax increase on the middle class.  That just makes no sense.”

Conrad spoke on the U.S. television program Fox News Sunday.

Last week, Senate Republicans defeated a Democratic proposal to pay for a Social Security tax cut extension by tax hike on millionaires.  Senate Democrats defeated a Republican proposal for a similar tax cut offset by federal spending reductions.

Also appearing on Fox was Republican Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who argued that fixing the massive federal deficit requires fiscal discipline.

“The question the American people ought to ask is, ‘Where is the backbone in Washington to actually pay for these extensions?’  All we see coming out of Washington is a promise about collecting revenue in the future to pay for expenditures today.  We ought to pay for that by decreasing spending now in other low-priority areas,” he said.

Tax cuts for the wealthy

Democrats argue the Republican position shows they are only interested in preserving tax cuts for the wealthy.  Republicans fire back that Democrats are fundamentally unwilling to reduce the size and scope of government in the U.S. economy.

President Barack Obama has suggested Congress remain in session until the Social Security tax cut is extended, even if that means keeping the legislature open through the upcoming Christmas holiday period.  Kent Conrad announced on Fox that the Senate’s top Democrat, Majority Leader Harry Reid, is working on a compromise proposal to be unveiled this week.   

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Food insecurity spreading in America November 23, 2011

New York (CNN) — Students gathered as the chef sliced tomatoes with a plastic knife in a Brooklyn public school cafeteria. Their eyes followed as she held up a slender green cylinder before the crowd of parents and kids in plastic aprons and hairnets.

“What’s that?” kids shouted.

“It’s a scallion. But don’t eat it now,” warned Leigh Armstrong, a culinary student and volunteer chef. “It doesn’t taste like celery.”

Armstrong was helping at Cooking Matters, a free, six-week class that teaches parents and kids how to shop for and prepare healthy, inexpensive meals. The program launched 20 years ago through the nonprofit Share our Strength, and it now serves more than 11,000 families across the country.

Most participants use or have used food stamps, free or reduced-price school lunches or food pantries to cover their nutritional needs, and almost all are still looking for ways to stretch a few ingredients into meals.

The number of families that struggle to get enough food has increased in recent years.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that in 2010, 14.5% of households in the United States — about 17.2 million — lacked the resources to provide enough food for everybody. Among those, about 6.4 million households saw normal eating patterns disrupted or reduced because there wasn’t enough food.

Food insecurity — uncertainty about where the next meal will come from — is particularly hard on one group: children.

The nonprofit Feeding America, a network of more than 200 food banks around the United States, reports one in five children are at risk of hunger. For children in African-American or Latino households, it’s closer to one in three.

They’re likely to have trouble focusing in school. They might experience illness or poor health as a result. They’re also likely to struggle with stress at home or in class. While many are eligible for free or reduced-price food at school, those programs don’t provide food at night, on weekends or during breaks from school.

Hunger is still a more frequent problem for homes headed by single parents and for homes below the federal poverty line, the USDA reports, but it has also crept into homes that have never experienced it before.

“It’s invasive and real,” said Paula Thornton-Greear, a Feeding America spokeswoman. “It’s a time of record need, a time when you’re seeing people from all walks of life needing to turn to assistance to meet their food needs.”

For adults, the most important step might be talking about it, Thornton-Greear said — reaching out to friends and family who can help and learning what government and nonprofit food programs are available.

“At some point, we’re all in need of something,” she said. “It’s reflective of a society experiencing a huge downturn. It’s not reflective on one individual.”

For kids, it might mean getting adults more engaged in teaching nutrition and stopping hunger before it starts.

On TV, a new “Sesame Street” puppet, Lily, is talking about food insecurity from the perspective of a 7-year-old who doesn’t always have enough to eat.

CNN Hero: Bruno Serato

In Orange County, California, chef and restaurateur Bruno Serato feeds pasta to about 300 children every night.

Serato, one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2011, began cooking for kids when his mother visited from Italy and saw a child eating potato chips for dinner. The boy, like dozens of others near his restaurant in Anaheim, lived in a motel, where his family had limited access to food and cooking space.

“‘Bruno, you must feed them pasta,’” he recalled her saying. Serato continued the nightly pasta feast throughout the recession, even as his restaurant struggled.

“They’re customers,” he told CNN earlier this year. “My favorite customers.”

And back in Brooklyn, it means teaching parents to shop and cook with kids in tow. The Cooking Matters curriculum includes taking families to grocery stores and then getting them into kitchens at schools, community centers or even housing units.

Today’s menu: breakfast burritos with eggs, cheese and homemade salsa. The cost: less than $2 a serving.

At Saprina Gressman’s first Cooking Matters class this month, the 25-year-old mother of three said her kids first told her about the class.

“I’m hoping to learn a lot,” she said, as she helped her 4-year-old daughter, Kiara, cut a tomato to make salsa. “I’m hoping to learn to cook with my children, because you need patience.”

While parents will usually be the ones to budget, buy and cook food, getting kids excited about preparing and eating homemade meals can keep everyone engaged in healthier choices and smart shopping.

Aliyah Rowe, the Cooking Matters program coordinator for City Harvest in New York, said some members of the class rely on food stamps, but it’s designed for anyone with food insecurity — people who recently lost jobs and have to rethink their food budgets, or families that occasionally seek assistance from food banks.

It also gets parents and kids spending time together and talking about the food the fuels them.

“I remember baking with my grandmother, but that doesn’t happen anymore,” Rowe said. “The reality is parents are busy; you have some that work two jobs. But the kids come here and they are so excited, and they go home excited. And that inspires parents to cook with their children.”

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‘Class warfare in America’: remarks made at the Mario Savio Memorial Lecture | Robert Reich November 17, 2011

Robert Reich’s Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, 15 November 2011. Video: YouTube/CalTV News

I will believe that corporations are people when Georgia and Texas execute them.

– Robert Reich, speaking during his 2011 Mario Savio Memorial Lecture, “Class warfare in America”

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Blair Mountain and labor’s living history | Clancy Sigal November 12, 2011

My first time in Westminister Abbey, London, I was taken inside by a coal miner friend who was down from South Wales for a brief London holiday. Suitably awed, we gawked at Poets’ Corner, the Coronation Throne, the tombs and effigies of prelates, admirals, generals and prime ministers – England in all its majesty and pageantry. Gazing at the Gothic Revival columns, transepts and amazing fan-vaulted ceiling, my friend said, “Impressive, isn’t it? Of course, it’s their culture not ours.”

Our culture – class conscious, bolshie, renegade – rarely lay in plaques and statues, hardly ever in school texts, but mainly in orally transmitted memories passed down generation to generation, in songs and stories. “Labor history” has become a province of passionately committed specialists and working-class autodidacts, keepers of the flame of a human drama at least as fascinating and blood-stirring as the dead royal souls in the Abbey. It belongs to all of us who claim it.

I’m lucky because my family’s secular religion is union. They include cousin Charlie (shipbuilders), cousin Davie (electrical workers), cousin Bernie (printers), my mother (ladies’ garment) and father (butchers and barbers), and cousin Fred (San Quentin prisoners). Establishment history may have its Battle of Trafalgar and Gallipoli; we have Haymarket Square, Ludlow, Centralia and Cripple Creek: labor’s battle sites, more often slaughtering defeats than victories.

Until recently, a lot of this history casually disappeared down Orwell’s “memory hole”, forgotten, censored or ignored. But with the spectacular emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and fight-backs in states like Wisconsin and Ohio, young people especially seem to be regaining and reinvigorating a living history. Memory stirs.

This contest for memory is a class struggle by other means.

Half our story – the half where unions created the modern middle class – is written in the pedestrian language of contracts, negotiations, wages and hours laws … the nuts and bolts of deals. After all, unions exist to make a deal.

But the other half is inscribed in the whizzing bullets, shootouts and pistol duels of out-and-out combat. Labor has its own Lexington and Gettysburg. And none more bloodily inscribed than in the hills and hollows of the West Virginia coal fields.

The 1921 five-day Battle of Blair Mountain was the largest domestic insurrection in the nation’s post-Civil War history, pitting 15,000 armed “redneck” miners, with their fierce and family passions, against an army of imported gun-thugs, strikebreakers, federal troops and even a US army bomber, hired by the coal companies who owned the state and federal governments and believed they owned the human beings who dug the raw coal. 

The Blair Mountain shootout had been preceded and provoked by the “Matewan massacre” when a local sheriff and his deputies, sympathetic to the young miners’ union, took on the coal company’s hired gorillas who were evicting pro-union miners and their families from their shanties. (See John Sayles’s film, Matewan.) Enraged miners marched on to Blair Mountain in the next county.

When the smoke cleared over Blair mountain, along an eight-mile front reminiscent of Flanders trenches, a hundred on both sides had been killed with many more wounded. Outgunned and under a presidential order, the miners, led by the fabulously named Bill Blizzard, took their squirrel-hunting rifles and went home – to face indictments for treason and murder, drawn up by the coal owners and their bought judges. Sympathetic juries freed most of them. (For further interest: Bill Blizzard’s son, the late William C, has a book, When Miners March.)

The beautiful, heartbreaking thing is that today the Battle of Blair Mountain goes on. With protest hikes, films and pamphlets, the campaign to save the mountain – again – sets local miners and their families and friends, including archaeologists and historians, against West Virginia coal owners like notorious Massey Energy, still being investigated by the FBI for possible criminal negligence in the deaths of 29 miners in the Upper Big Branch disaster of 2010.

A billion dollars of undug coal inside the mountain is at stake. The world is in the middle of a coal rush. Dynamite is cheaper than people. Incorrigible companies like Massey aim to blow up Blair, via “mountaintop removal” (aka “strip mining on steroids”), to get at the coal and, while they’re at it, destroy the people’s battleground, the ecology and any inheritance of resistance.

It is a fight over memory and honor, with very practical consequences for the coal valleys, its displaced families, poisoned rivers, contaminated communities. For a while, it looked as if the miners and their union had won a great victory by getting Blair Mountain on the National Register of Historic Places. But with a Democratic state governor and a Democratic president refusing to take sides, the coal owners – who still control West Virginia – at the last minute suddenly found some landowners to object. With the connivance of Obama’s departments of interior and environment and the Park Service, Blair Mountain was de-registered and thrown open to the pillagers.

Coal mining is where open class warfare is often at its sharpest, most visible and violent. Something about the job underground, and the shrewd tactical skills it takes not to get yourself killed by roof falls and methane gas explosions, binds miner to miner in what the military likes to call “unit cohesion”. Historically, miners worldwide have been in the advance guard of social progress. It’s one reason why coal companies in America, and Mrs Thatcher in Britain, always despised the miners and became obsessed with breaking their union.

Labor does not have its Westminister Abbey and probably shouldn’t. Museums are no substitute for “talking union”.

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President Obama Urges Congress to Act on Jobs Bill October 29, 2011

President Barack Obama says a new report that says the rich are getting richer while the middle class struggles shows Republicans in Congress are not paying attention to the economic situation in the United States.

Obama said in his weekly address Saturday that while wealth and success are encouraged and celebrated, America is better off when not just the top income earners increase their personal wealth.

Obama says his jobs proposal asks people earning more than $1 million to pay more taxes while middle income earners and small businesses would pay less.

He said although Republicans backed a similar proposal in the past, they are now playing politics.

In the Republican weekly response, Congressman Bobby Schilling of Illinois said politics will not get the economy back on track.  He appealed to President Obama to urge Senate Democrats adopt a jobs proposal put forth by Republicans.

Schilling says the Republican’s “Plan for America’s Job Creation” generates jobs by cutting taxes.  He says it also changes the tax code, closes loopholes and helps pay down the country’s debt.

Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.

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Occupy Wall Street brings homelessness into the open | Barbara Ehrenreich October 25, 2011

As anyone knows who has ever had to set up a military encampment or build a village from the ground up, occupations pose staggering logistical problems. Large numbers of people must be fed and kept reasonably warm and dry. Trash has to be removed, and medical care and rudimentary security provided – to which ends a dozen or more committees may toil night and day. But for the individual occupier, one problem often overshadows everything else, including job loss, the destruction of the middle class and the reign of the 1%. And that is the single question: where am I going to pee?

Some of the Occupy Wall Street encampments now spreading across the US have access to portable toilets (in Freedom Plaza in Washington, DC) or, better yet, restrooms with sinks and running water (in Fort Wayne, Indiana). Others require their residents to forage on their own. At Zuccotti Park, just blocks from Wall Street, this means long waits for the restroom at a nearby Burger King or somewhat shorter ones at a Starbucks a block away. At McPherson Square in DC, a twenty-something occupier showed me the pizza parlour where she can cop a pee during the hours it’s open, as well as the alley where she crouches late at night. Anyone with restroom-related issues – arising from age, pregnancy, prostate problems or irritable bowel syndrome – should prepare to join the revolution in diapers.

Of course, political protesters do not face the challenges of urban camping alone. Homeless people confront the same issues every day: how to scrape together meals, keep warm at night by covering themselves with cardboard or tarp, and relieve themselves without committing a crime. Public restrooms are sparse in American cities – “as if the need to go to the bathroom does not exist”, travel expert Arthur Frommer once observed. And yet to yield to bladder pressure is to risk arrest. A report entitled Criminalising Crisis, to be released later this month by the National Law Centre on Homelessness and Poverty, recounts the following story from Wenatchee, Washington:

“Toward the end of 2010, a family of two parents and three children that had been experiencing homelessness for a year and a half applied for a two-bedroom apartment. The day before a scheduled meeting with the apartment manager during the final stages of acquiring the lease, the father of the family was arrested for public urination. The arrest occurred at an hour when no public restrooms were available for use. Due to the arrest, the father was unable to make the appointment with the apartment manager and the property was rented out to another person. As of March 2011, the family was still homeless and searching for housing.”

What the Occupy Wall Streeters are beginning to discover, and homeless people have known all along, is that most ordinary, biologically necessary activities are illegal when performed in American streets – not just peeing, but sitting, lying down and sleeping. While the laws vary from city to city, one of the harshest is in Sarasota, Florida, which passed an ordinance in 2005 that makes it illegal to “engage in digging or earth-breaking activities” – that is, to build a latrine – cook, make a fire, or be asleep and “when awakened state that he or she has no other place to live”.

It is illegal, in other words, to be homeless or to live outdoors for any other reason. It should be noted, though, that there are no laws requiring cities to provide food, shelter or restrooms for their indigent citizens.

The current prohibition on homelessness began to take shape in the 1980s, along with the ferocious growth of the financial industry (Wall Street and all its tributaries throughout the nation). That was also the era in which we stopped being a nation that manufactured much beyond weightless, invisible “financial products”, leaving the old industrial working class to carve out a livelihood at places such as Wal-Mart.

As it turned out, the captains of the new “casino economy”, the stockbrokers and investment bankers, were highly sensitive – one might say finicky – individuals, easily offended by having to step over the homeless in the streets or bypass them in commuter train stations. In an economy where a centimillionaire could turn into a billionaire overnight, the poor and unwashed were a major buzzkill. Starting with Mayor Rudy Giuliani in New York, city after city passed “broken windows” or “quality of life” ordinances making it dangerous for the homeless to loiter, or, in some cases, even look “indigent”, in public spaces.

No one has yet tallied all the suffering occasioned by this crackdown – the deaths from cold and exposure – but Criminalising Crisis offers this story about a homeless pregnant woman in Columbia, South Carolina:

“During daytime hours, when she could not be inside of a shelter, she attempted to spend time in a museum and was told to leave. She then attempted to sit on a bench outside the museum and was again told to relocate. In several other instances, still during her pregnancy, the woman was told that she could not sit in a local park during the day because she would be ‘squatting’. In early 2011, about six months into her pregnancy, the homeless woman began to feel unwell, went to a hospital, and delivered a stillborn child.”

Well before Tahrir Square was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and even before the recent recession, homeless Americans had begun to act in their own defence, creating organised encampments, usually tent cities, in vacant lots or wooded areas. These communities often feature various elementary forms of self-governance: food from local charities has to be distributed, latrines dug, rules – such as no drugs, weapons, or violence – enforced. With all due credit to the Egyptian democracy movement, the Spanish indignados and rebels all over the world, tent cities are the domestic progenitors of the American occupation movement.

There is nothing “political” about these settlements of the homeless – no signs denouncing greed or visits from leftwing luminaries – but they have been treated with far less official forbearance than the occupation encampments of the “American autumn”. LA’s Skid Row endures constant police harassment, for example, but, when it rained, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had ponchos distributed to the nearby Occupy LA.

All over the country, in the past few years, police have moved in on the tent cities of the homeless, one by one, from Seattle to Wooster, Sacramento to Providence, in raids that often leave the former occupants without even their minimal possessions. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, last summer, a charity outreach worker explained the forcible dispersion of a local tent city by saying, “The city will not tolerate a tent city. That’s been made very clear to us. The camps have to be out of sight.”

What occupiers from all walks of life are discovering, at least every time they contemplate taking a leak, is that to be homeless in America is to live like a fugitive. The destitute are our own native-born “illegals”, facing prohibitions on the most basic activities of survival. They are not supposed to soil public space with their urine, their faeces or their exhausted bodies. Nor are they supposed to spoil the landscape with their unusual wardrobe choices or body odours. They are, in fact, supposed to die, and preferably to do so without leaving a corpse for the dwindling public sector to transport, process and burn.

But the occupiers are not from all walks of life, just from those walks that slope downwards – from debt, joblessness and foreclosure – leading eventually to pauperism and the streets. Some of the present occupiers were homeless to start with, attracted to the occupation encampments by the prospect of free food and at least temporary shelter from police harassment. Many others are drawn from the borderline-homeless “nouveau poor”, and normally camp on friends’ couches or parents’ folding beds.

In Portland, Austin and Philadelphia, the Occupy Wall Street movement is taking up the cause of the homeless as its own, which of course it is. Homelessness is not a side issue unconnected to plutocracy and greed. It’s where we’re all eventually headed – the 99%, or at least the 70%, of us, every debt-loaded college graduate, out-of-work school teacher and impoverished senior citizen – unless this revolution succeeds.

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Occupy Wall Street protests: ‘The rich get richer’ October 6, 2011

The Occupy Wall Street protests continue with hundreds of union members joining the march at Zuccotti Park as students walk out over rising tuition fees and levels of student debt. One assistant professor criticises former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney’s description of the protests as “class warfare” while New York mayor Michael Bloomberg says demonstrators must consider those who don’t want to protest

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Wall Street protests about accountability October 4, 2011

Editor’s note: Are you participating in the protests? Share your photos and video with CNN iReport.

(CNN) — Hero Vincent has a dream: to see the titans of Wall Street trade their palatial office suites for a row of dank prison cells.

The crime? Theft. Stealing billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded bailouts. Getting rich on your dime while you struggle to make ends meet.

And if you’re tired of standing by while the rich get richer and the middle class crumbles, he has a suggestion: Take it to the streets.

Vincent, 21 and unemployed, has suddenly become one of several unofficial spokesmen for Occupy Wall Street, a leaderless protest movement made largely of twenty-somethings upset with the state of the economy, the state of the war in Afghanistan, the state of the environment, and the state of America and the world in general.

If that sounds vague, it’s meant to be. In less than three weeks, the movement has become a magnet for countless disaffected Americans. And at a time when an overwhelming majority of Americans say the country’s on the wrong track, there’s no shortage of new potential recruits.

On Saturday, more than 700 protesters were arrested for blocking the Brooklyn Bridge. A splinter group called Occupy Chicago touted a “huge afternoon march.” In Boston, 34 groups — unions and other organizations focused on everything from foreclosure prevention to climate change — marched for “an economy that works for all of us,” according to one website.

Over on the West Coast, Occupy Los Angeles kicked off with a march to City Hall. In Seattle, demonstrators touted “a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors (and) genders.”

Wall Street protests just inconvenience?

‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests spread

On Monday, a live video feed from Occupy Wall Street was featured at the start of a three-day conference of progressive leaders in Washington.

What does it all mean?

“We’re here for different reasons,” said Vincent, whose father is also unemployed and recently went through a home foreclosure. “But at the end of the day, it all boils down to one thing, and that’s accountability. We want accountability for the connection between Wall Street and the politicians.”

“Something has to change,” he told CNN. “We’re out here because we’re tired of what’s been going on.”

Giles Clarke, a 46-year-old freelance photographer and father of two, echoes Vincent’s call for greater accountability.

“People have simply had enough,” Clarke said. “We’re living in an age where the inequality between high-end Wall Street and the (rest of us) is simply a gap that has become too big. Millions of people have lost their jobs. Millions of people have lost their homes.”

There’s been, Clarke said, “way too much cloak-and-dagger activity within the corridors of Wall Street” in recent years. “This is about raising awareness and a change of political discourse.”

The average person, according to Vincent, “is just fed up because there’s no more middle class. The margin between us and the employers is so great now. Where will we be in a couple of years?”

Does he actually want to occupy Wall Street and shut it down?

“We want to educate people,” Vincent said. But “if Wall Street actually shuts down, we’ll be happy about it.”

The movement “feels like something that will ultimately spread like the Arab spring,” said Egberto Willies, a CNN iReporter in Washington. “I call it the American autumn.”

Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have clear strains of liberal economic populism — a powerful force in U.S. history during various times characterized by growing economic stress. That said, it could be a mistake to label or tie the movement to a specific agenda, said Susan Olzak, a Stanford University sociology professor.

“It’s difficult to classify a social protest movement early on in its history,” Olzak told CNN. “Clearer goals could eventually emerge, but there’s no guarantee.”

“Many movements fizzle out. Others become more organized,” she said. But “I think we run a risk (by) taking a snapshot at any one point in time, and trying to categorize the movement in any one way based on that snapshot. The only way to study these protest movements is to follow them over time.”

If Vincent, Willies and Clarke have their way, there will be plenty of time for this movement to continue to grow and evolve. Some observers question if it could become a liberal counterweight to the conservative populism of the tea party.

For his part, Clarke predicts the movement will go international in the next few months.

“Let’s get talking,” he urged. “Let’s have some of these issues looked at.”

CNN’s Greg Botelho and Maggie Lake contributed to this report.

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CSC class action October 3, 2011

US shareholders’ class action against CSC over the NHS software upgrade

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7 Ways to Slip Through the Sophomore Slump October 1, 2011

In the first year of college, there’s so much to learn about, adjust to, and fall in love with. Your campus is brand new; you’re learning how to manage your time; you’re getting used to college classes; you’re meeting new people; and you’re living on your own for the first time. But by sophomore year, is there anything new?

It’s not uncommon for college sophomores to experience something called the Sophomore Slump: feelings of boredom and apathy because the newness of college has worn off. You might find yourself enjoying college less than your first year and your grades might even drop a bit. There just doesn’t seem to be as much to be excited about as there was when you first arrived. Here are some ways to ensure the Sophomore Slump doesn’t ruin all you worked for during your first year: 

1. Join a new club: Since you’ve already been at your school for one year, you undoubtedly know how active clubs are on campus. Find one that you weren’t a part of last year so that you’ll get re-energized and involved in a new part of your campus scene. And, of course, if you have an interest but there’s no club on campus for it, you can always start your own. 

[See which schools have the highest percentage of students in fraternities and sororities.] 

2. Join a new academic club: Your first year, you likely were so busy orienting yourself that you didn’t have the time to really narrow your academic interests. Consider joining a club that caters to your major or your career plans. Check out a creative writing club where you can share your poetry or short stories with other creative students. Drop into a pre-med club meeting if you’re considering going to medical school. Lots of academic clubs are a healthy combination between intellectual and social. 

3. Take a class just for fun: While you may need to decide your major soon, see if you can slip in a course on something you’re interested in, well, just because it’s interesting. Why not get credit for something that also helps you get re-excited about how fun classes can be? If you’re worried about having too many credits or too big of a workload, you can also consider auditing a class that seems particularly appealing. 

[Learn more about when to choose a major.]

4. Take up an instrument: College can be a great place to learn how to play a new instrument. You can sign up for Introduction to Piano, Introduction to Guitar, or any other class that allows you to explore an instrument you’ve always been curious about but too shy to explore before. 

5. Plan to study abroad: Most college students study abroad their junior or senior year—meaning you have to prepare and apply the year before. Stop by the Study Abroad Office for some information on where to go and what you’ll need to do to make it happen. After all, what better way to motive yourself than to dream about how, next year at this time, you just might be strolling the streets of Paris or Tokyo? (Added benefit: many study abroad programs require a certain GPA, which can be good motivation to keep your grades up, too.) 

[Get more advice on studying abroad.] 

6. Volunteer: One of the best ways to keep your focus and perspective in college is to remind yourself how fortunate you are to be getting a college education in the first place. Consider volunteer at a local shelter, religious organization, political group, or any other institution that works for a cause you care about. You can give back to your community while also getting recharged and feeling rewarded. 

7. Join an intramural sports team: Besides the exercise, camaraderie, and new friends, you just might find something that makes your weekends and evenings much more fun. The nice thing about college intramurals, too, is that you often don’t need any experience to join. Ultimate Frisbee, anyone? 

Did you make it through the Sophomore Slump? Are you in it right now and needing some motivation? Connect with others in similar situations by contributing to the comments.

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The Social Contract September 30, 2011

It was, of course, nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it’s people like Mr. Ryan, who want to exempt the very rich from bearing any of the burden of making our finances sustainable, who are waging class war.

As background, it helps to know what has been happening to incomes over the past three decades. Detailed estimates from the Congressional Budget Office — which only go up to 2005, but the basic picture surely hasn’t changed — show that between 1979 and 2005 the inflation-adjusted income of families in the middle of the income distribution rose 21 percent. That’s growth, but it’s slow, especially compared with the 100 percent rise in median income over a generation after World War II.

Meanwhile, over the same period, the income of the very rich, the top 100th of 1 percent of the income distribution, rose by 480 percent. No, that isn’t a misprint. In 2005 dollars, the average annual income of that group rose from $4.2 million to $24.3 million.

So do the wealthy look to you like the victims of class warfare?

To be fair, there is argument about the extent to which government policy was responsible for the spectacular disparity in income growth. What we know for sure, however, is that policy has consistently tilted to the advantage of the wealthy as opposed to the middle class.

Some of the most important aspects of that tilt involved such things as the sustained attack on organized labor and financial deregulation, which created huge fortunes even as it paved the way for economic disaster. For today, however, let’s focus just on taxes.

The budget office’s numbers show that the federal tax burden has fallen for all income classes, which itself runs counter to the rhetoric you hear from the usual suspects. But that burden has fallen much more, as a percentage of income, for the wealthy. Partly this reflects big cuts in top income tax rates, but, beyond that, there has been a major shift of taxation away from wealth and toward work: tax rates on corporate profits, capital gains and dividends have all fallen, while the payroll tax — the main tax paid by most workers — has gone up.

And one consequence of the shift of taxation away from wealth and toward work is the creation of many situations in which — just as Warren Buffett and Mr. Obama say — people with multimillion-dollar incomes, who typically derive much of that income from capital gains and other sources that face low taxes, end up paying a lower overall tax rate than middle-class workers. And we’re not talking about a few exceptional cases.

According to new estimates by the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, one-fourth of those with incomes of more than $1 million a year pay income and payroll tax of 12.6 percent of their income or less, putting their tax burden below that of many in the middle class.

Now, I know how the right will respond to these facts: with misleading statistics and dubious moral claims.

On one side, we have the claim that the rising share of taxes paid by the rich shows that their burden is rising, not falling. To point out the obvious, the rich are paying more taxes because they’re much richer than they used to be. When middle-class incomes barely grow while the incomes of the wealthiest rise by a factor of six, how could the tax share of the rich not go up, even if their tax rate is falling?

On the other side, we have the claim that the rich have the right to keep their money — which misses the point that all of us live in and benefit from being part of a larger society.

Elizabeth Warren, the financial reformer who is now running for the United States Senate in Massachusetts, recently made some eloquent remarks to this effect that are, rightly, getting a lot of attention. “There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody,” she declared, pointing out that the rich can only get rich thanks to the “social contract” that provides a decent, functioning society in which they can prosper.

Which brings us back to those cries of “class warfare.”

Republicans claim to be deeply worried by budget deficits. Indeed, Mr. Ryan has called the deficit an “existential threat” to America. Yet they are insisting that the wealthy — who presumably have as much of a stake as everyone else in the nation’s future — should not be called upon to play any role in warding off that existential threat.

Well, that amounts to a demand that a small number of very lucky people be exempted from the social contract that applies to everyone else. And that, in case you’re wondering, is what real class warfare looks like.

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Note to GOP 2012 Front-Runners: Be Yourself September 29, 2011

Most of us who survived adolescence remember that maddening thing our parents always told us as we ventured to a party or date or class: “Be yourself.” Sure, our insecure teenage selves thought: Like that’s going to impress people.

But it was good advice, and so it’s baffling why people running for president haven’t learned it yet. We all have our personality quirks and odd characteristics; that’s part of what makes us human, and makes us individuals. People can handle those eccentricities. In some cases, they can become endearing. It’s when candidates try to be someone they’re not that they get into trouble.

[See photos of 2012 GOP hopefuls on the campaign trail.]

Rick Perry, for example, has certainly established a solid rep as a blunt-speaking, brash conservative. In true-to-form directness, he said it was “heartless” to punish the children of illegal immigrants by denying them college tuition breaks. That’s a legitimate view, and one that might be appreciated by Latinos whose votes are still very gettable by some Republican candidates. But Perry was slammed by the right wing of his party for the comments, so he walked back from them. He should have stood by them; people are probably not going to reject him for his view on the college tuition issue alone, but he might lose the votes of people who won’t trust him to stick by what he says.

And Mitt Romney? Not funny. And that’s just fine. We don’t need a court jester in the White House. But someone must have told the straight-laced former Massachusetts governor that he needs to be more approachable or relaxed, so Romney’s been trying to be someone he’s not. Jokingly suggesting that a woman getting her picture taken with you is trying to grab your behind? Not funny. And especially, not funny when coming from Romney. It just seems bizarre. And answering the criticisms of primary opponents during the GOP debate by saying “nice try”? Also not funny, and not even logical. “Nice try” is what you say when you’re trying to let your foes know you are aware of their attempts to manipulate or provoke you. Why not just take apart their criticisms by stating your own record and views?

[Read: Romney's in No Position to Criticize Perry on Immigration]

Michele Bachmann may be facts-challenged, Ron Paul may seem a little doctrinaire in his libertarian views, and Herman Cain may seem just a tad paranoid when he suggests that African-Americans have been “brainwashed” to vote Democratic. But there is something very real, and very genuine, about these candidates. You know exactly who they are, and they are clearly very comfortable with who they are. Voters may not end up being comfortable enough with them to nominate any of them, but if they lose, they’ll at least know that they were rejected for the right reasons, not because some high-paid adviser’s directions were wrong.

So, candidates, just be yourselves. After all, you’ve got a head start.

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