Friday, March 7, 2014

Pity the Poor Billionaire

A couple years back a hedge fund manager likened himself having to pay the standard income  tax rate for billionaires, instead of the capital gains rate which is less than half the former, with the Nazi invasion of Poland. Poor besieged fellow.
He’s a manager after all, not the owner of the resources, so why should he be entitled to the lower rate? And why is there a lower rate for capital gains? Why is income from sale of assets taxed at less than income from having a job? Or as Warren Buffet, one of the world’s richest people, has asked, Why do I pay a lower rate than my personal secretary? Simple answer: lots of money begets lots of power. Buffet would be glad to pay a higher rate, but he’s the rare exception.
Of course, they insist it’s good to shower billionaires with lots of public welfare because if they have lots of money they’ll make lots of jobs. It never works that way because when the 1% take all the economic gains of society, the rest don’t have enough money to buy things, thus no demand for labor to make things. They don’t call it corporate welfare, it’s called incentives. Give the big oil companies big tax breaks and they’ll drill for more oil. The largest, most profitable corporations in the world need welfare to do their job. If the government needs money you don’t end big oil subsidies, you cut food stamps, since ‘handouts’ sap poor people’s will to work. That goes all the way back to president Herbert Hoover who was aghast at the idea of feeding hungry Americans at the start of the Great Depression when unemployment stood at more than 30%. The fact that there weren’t enough jobs then or not enough now doesn’t register on the minds of regressives.
The point is that money to fund the government has to come from somewhere. If you don’t take it from the wealthy you have to take it from the lower and middle classes. All taxes are political, every one makes a political statement. There’s no such thing as a ‘neutral’ or ‘technocratic’ tax that doesn’t involve taking from one and giving to another. The conservative option is to cut government: You can save a lot of money by putting 50 kids in a classroom instead of 25.
At a time when income inequality is greater than it has been since 1929, the place to get the money is from the top, they are sitting on more money than they know how to spend. More than 90% of all the gains since the US started ‘growing’ again after the crash of 2008 has gone to the top 10%.
Just recently another long-suffering billionaire likened the anti-1% rhetoric sweeping the progressive side of politics to Kristalnacht – the night of broken glass – when shops owned by Jews all across Germany were trashed as a prelude to genocide. Asking the superwealthy to pay their fair share of society’s costs is just like the Holocaust. Poor fellow, he feels unloved by the 99%, the great unwashed masses, and evidently is afraid he’s about to be sent to the gas chambers.
He also thinks rich people should get a lot more votes. A filthy rich person like himself is a lot smarter than the sad sack who collects bottles and cans to earn a few bucks so why shouldn’t he get a few extra thousand votes? The elite of Thailand and Venezuela probably think that’s a great idea since in both cases they are demonstrating and trying to bring down fairly elected governments. They have repeatedly lost their respective elections to the populist parties in power but can’t stand to see peasants and commoners in control. The US began as a democracy, but you had to be a white, male, landowner to vote. Can we go back to those simpler times when everything was decided by a small elite?
I’m always baffled when people come to the defense of Bill Gates, one of the people I most love to hate. They think I’m angry at all superwealthy. Not at all, there’re quite a few who’ve gotten their money fairly and honestly, at least within the rules as established, and feel civic responsibility to use some of it for the betterment of the world. Gates does qualify for some of those kudos, but his craven machinations far outweigh his philanthropy. But before taking on Gates I’d like to take a step back and talk about his first partner at Microsoft, Paul Allen.
Allen owns (or did, I don’t keep up) one of the major league sports franchises in Seattle. He wanted the city build him a new stadium for $500 million, since new stadiums are designed to make more money for owners; lots of luxury boxes, et al., and threatened to take the team elsewhere if they weren’t willing to pay him tribute. Seattle said no, they couldn’t afford it. After all, ever since Reagan and the regressives started hacking away at taxes and government, there’s never enough for schools, infrastructure, etc. But he wasn’t ready to give up so he financed an initiative to get a measure on the Washington state ballot to have the whole state pay for it. He poured five million dollars of his own money into the election and got the people of the state to agree to pay for the new stadium. Here’s the rub: The guy had 20 billion dollars in the bank at the time. So add it up: $500m is 2.5% of $20b. $500m sounds like a lot of money to you and me and the people of Seattle but to him it was pocket change, a tiny part of his fortune. He could’ve gifted the stadium to the people without even noticing the change in his checkbook. He could’ve been considered a great benefactor, but instead extorted the money from the common people, including some who’re struggling to survive.
That’s the evil of wealth, no matter how much you have, you always want more and it’s not important how you get it or who gets hurt in the process. It’s all part of the game. Bill Gates is one of the worst; a large part of his fortune came from lying, cheating and flouting the law.
He started by purchasing IBM’s software division. IBM made one of the worst business decisions of all time when it sold off its software and Gates made one of the best. Now I’ll take another step back and bring Steve Jobs of Apple into the picture. Jobs’ business plan involved doing the whole process from manufacturing on down and producing a superior product that people would pay through the nose to have. Several friends urged me to go with Apple when I first got into computers in the early 90s, but I couldn’t see myself paying double for his products and having a much more difficult time getting service, since I was headed for Asia. Since he kept everything in-house and charged exorbitant prices, Apple could never get very big, but still he amassed a fortune of $6b. What did it get him? He still died young. He could’ve had a fairer pricing policy and died with only $2b or $3b in the bank. In fact, if his prices had been competitive, he might have sold twice as much and left the same fortune. But if you’re a real businessman, you’re not allowed to act that way, you’re supposed to charge whatever the market will bear even if it means soaking your loyal customers.
Gates’ business plan was just the opposite. He only cared about selling software so he opened up the hardware part to competition and soon cornered 90% of the software market. However, he wasn’t content making a lot of money, he wanted every penny he could get his grubby hands on so he engaged in serial scummy and illegal business practices. He was indicted, convicted and paid heavy fines three times in the US in the 1990s and early 2000s. In the last ten years Microsoft has paid about $2.2b in fines in Europe. The last, in March 2013 that cost the company $730m, was for repeatedly ignoring previous promises to reform. Well, it’s evidently more profitable to pay huge fines and promise to change than actually change your business practices. And for what? Gates already has $77b in the bank, richest man in the world, do you think maybe that ought to be enough to not need to resort to sleaziness to grab even more?
Microsoft is adept at using tax shelters to avoid paying its fair share of government. That’s easy when most of your value is in intellectual property. You form a corporation that holds all of your patents in a country that has no corporate taxes. There’s one modest 6-story building in the Cayman Islands that’s headquarters to 18,000 corporations. Every time somebody buys a Microsoft product part of the profit goes to the shell-corporation owner of the intellectual property. Tax shelters are used by lots of corporations and are all very legal. They’re legal because corporations like Microsoft use a lot of their money and clout to make it happen so.
His house in Renton, Washington cost him $55m. It’s a marvel of technology but not a thought or a cent was expended on sustainability or renewable energy. He was taken aback when he got his first property tax bill - $600,000!!! He complained that it was too much. ‘Yes, the house cost me $55m but I couldn’t sell it for that much so I shouldn’t have to pay taxes on the full amount.’ $600,000 was a mere .0001% of his stash, but he couldn’t bring himself to pay the bill and finance local government without a fight.
What about all the money he’s put into his foundation, about $35b? Yes, he has tried to redeem himself by supporting good causes, but he’s also spent a lot of money financing causes which I personally consider detrimental to society; charter schools, genetically modified crops, for instance. Some of that should’ve been paid in taxes so that the people through their elected government got to choose how it’s spent.
The superwealthy are sitting on about $20t in assets, that’s trillion. A 5% wealth tax would bring in about $1t, enough to put every unemployed person in America to work building infrastructure and converting to a renewable energy economy. The rich wouldn’t even know the difference, they wouldn’t spend any differently than they do now, it wouldn’t affect any of their lifestyle choices to give up 5% of their fabulous wealth to help transform the American economy.
Finally, let me end by giving a thumbs up to Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon/Mobil for understanding the importance of a clean environment. He’s joined his neighbors in opposing the development of a fracking oil well near his estate. Something about hurting his property values.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Buying Votes - Democracy to the Test in Thailand and Cambodia

Thailand is in turmoil again and the divisions, once again, seem irreconcilable. At least not in any way consistent with democracy. This time it’s the yellow shirts who are on the warpath with the aim of shutting down the capital, Bangkok, until they achieve the ouster of the government of Yingluck Shinawatra, brother of the despised Taksin Shinawatra. The yellow shirts have the backing of the Bangkok elite and voters in the south. The principal political party they back – the Democrat Party – hasn’t won an election in more than 20 years. They consider any government affiliated with Taksin to be controlled by him from his self-imposed exile. At this point, they are as opposed to democracy as they are to Taksin. Their plan, once they bring down the government, is to install an appointed people’s council and, I surmise, change the electoral rules to prevent the majority from office.
Yingluck’s backing, the red shirts, is in the more populous north and northeast. Starting with Taksin’s win in 2001, he or parties affiliated with him have won every election and by wide margins. His first win was the first time any single party had won a parliamentary majority and their hold of the majority of Thailand’s people is rock solid. The snap election called by Yingluck for early February to try to ease tensions is certain, absent a military coup before then, to return her to power.
The yellows complain most about his corruption. On that score they’re correct, he’s an unmitigated sleazeball. This is best exemplified by they way he had the tax laws changed to exempt the $2 billion sale of his telecom empire from taxes just before the sale.
I consider him reprehensible on another account; that is, being responsible for mass murder. He promised in his first campaign to eradicate drugs within three months. Once elected he directed the police to kill lots of drug dealers. Within a few weeks about 2500 ‘drug dealers’ were summarily executed. In quotes because without access to fair trials and the ability to defend themselves, it’s absolutely certain that hundreds of innocent people were murdered. Maybe they were small-timers who sold only to supply their own needs. Others just happened to be on some police captain’s hit list. His mass murder campaign was supported by the vast majority of Thais, so you won’t hear the opposition complaining about that.
But they hate him most for the way he ‘bought’ poor people’s votes, you know, free health care, easy credit for the peasantry, development money for villages. That is rich coming from them since political parties in Thailand have a long history of actually using cash to buy votes on election day.
Step back for a minute. If an American politician proposed increasing Social Security, instituting true universal health care, making higher education more affordable, would you call that buying my vote? Yes, it would benefit me personally, but I also think those changes would be good for the country. Would I vote for a party that proposed to increase taxes on the poor so they could lower taxes on the wealthy? Hell no, that’s a vote for the greedy elite.
Whatever you think of Taksin, he’s the first Thai politician to ever consider the needs of the lower classes. Maybe you think he actually hates the peasantry and only bought their votes to gain power. Regardless, he’s the first to actually put money into Thailand’s majority. I spent a lot of time in the country in the early 1990s, including living and working there for most of 1993, and what I came away with was that the needs of the poor were totally neglected. It was always a government for the elite. For instance, When Bangkok’s skytrain, its first mass transit line, was completed in the late 90s a ride was priced at about $1. That was at a time when the minimum wage was about $90, so impossible for the poor to afford. The middle classes sped through town in air-con comfort while the poor spent hours in slow-as-molasses traffic sweltering in non-air-con discomfort. 
After Taksin was deposed, his party was still in power, so they chose another prime minister. He was ousted because of a conflict of interest: He earned $50 hosting a cooking show on TV. His replacement was kicked out by the Supreme Court on another technicality in the midst of the yellows shutting down the international airport and generally causing chaos. At that point a member of the opposition, Abbisit Vejijjiwa (forgive my spelling and minor discrepancies in my timeline) was put into power which in turn brought out the red shirt Taksin supporters. Their turn to shut down the city was broken up by the murder of 90 of their demonstrators. Meanwhile it was a forgone conclusion that the red shirts in the leadership of Yingluck would win the next election.
The country remained relatively calm for a few years until Yingluck proposed a blanket amnesty that would have included her brother as well as Abbisit and other elitists who are currently under indictment for the deaths of those 90 demonstrators. That sent the yellows into a state of apoplexy. Regardless of what it might have meant for their side, the idea that Taksin might be able to return set them into an artery-busting rage. Yingluck quickly removed the amnesty law from consideration, but the elitists were already fired up beyond reconciliation. So that’s where it stands now. They want to change the electoral laws to prevent the lower classes from gaining democratic power, thus abrogating the fundamental tenet of democracy; that of one person, one vote.  
Many countries have electoral systems that favor one group or the other. In Japan, Malaysia, the US, for instance, rural voters have disproportionate power. In Malaysia the smallest population district has 9 times the voting power per person of the most populous one and the ruling party remained in power after the last election even though they lost the popular vote. But can you imagine what will happen to the country if new laws created at the behest of the minority attempt to permanently prevent the majority from power?
The yellows have lost touch with reality. The red shirt majority will never abide by being stripped from power without a fierce struggle. Personally, I can’t help feeling that the elite hate Taksin more because he gave the poor hope for the future than for his corruption. This is similar to the Repug party in America which can’t stand the thought that the government  actually should put public resources into helping people. Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, Medicare, whatever it is, if it’s designed to help anyone but the moneyed elite, they’re against it, since in their minds anyone who isn’t rich isn’t deserving of government largesse.
Cambodia, right next door is also in turmoil with the first mortalities from demonstrations happening at the beginning of the year. Sam Rainsy, leader of the opposition CNRP – Cambodian National Rescue Party – has kept his elected legislators out of parliament in protest of voting irregularities. Latest studies have shown that the areas with the greatest problems were where Hun Sen of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party did best. Still, as mentioned in a previous post, the manner in which the seats are allocated strongly favors the CPP and even if the CNRP had won the popular vote they still could’ve lost the election. The major problem for them now is the reform of election laws. There’s no sense in having new elections until the voting laws are reformed and I see no way for that to happen if they’re not in parliament.
The opposition has been holding daily demonstrations since December 15, blocking major thoroughfares and causing massive disruptions. The government had been showing tremendous restraint until military police were brought in who started bludgeoning at random, which in turn brought out the worst in the demonstrators who started throwing rocks and burning tires. In addition to being a flaming racist bigot, Sam Rainsy has been piggy-backing on the dissatisfaction of garment workers who’ve been demanding a doubling of their wages. The workers were not much of a force for that change until the opposition took up their cause.
As opposed to Taksin who could promise government largesse for the poor and deliver, since the Thai government clearly had the resources, Sam Rainsy is blowing wind. It’d be great for the workers to earn a minimum wage of $160 month, but that is not something a government can take lightly. Not only might it put the current 20% annual growth of the industry in jeopardy, but it would also likely distort the job market. A large percentage of garment workers, most of whom are women, send money home to their families even at the current $80 month. While that pittance provides only a very hardscrabble life, nearly all of them will say they are much better off earning the current minimum than they would be living in their villages where jobs are practically non-existent. They certainly can be and have been an unruly bunch in their fight for better conditions but having the backing of Sam Rainsy has emboldened them and brought them to join the opposition’s demonstrations. At the present time almost the entire industry has been shut down.
Hun Sen clearly has been shaken, he even rhetorically asked, ‘What have I done wrong’. His major problem is that he’s been in power too long, almost 30 years. No matter how good you are as a leader you are going to offend and anger a lot of people in that time. Moreover, you lose sight of your human fallibility and make things happen without a lot of consideration of their impact on ordinary people. His strong focus on development has propelled the               country to multiple years of high growth - 7.5% this year - but this has involved over the last decade the forcible relocation of hundreds of thousands of people in both urban shanty towns and rural villages.
All of the capital’s former shanty towns have been leveled and nearly all of its lakes and wetlands filled for development. In the filling of one large lake close to the center of town 4000 families were displaced. Some of those families are still demanding fair compensation three years after they were removed and have taken up demonstrating and blocking roads at the same time the other demos are happening, adding to the capital’s traffic woes. (The desire to concrete over park space is not unique to Cambodia; massive demonstrations took place in Turkey when the government announced plans to build on the last green space in central Istanbul.) When added to demonstrations by the opposition and garment workers and lately teachers demanding $250 per month, the PM is getting it from all sides.
Nearly 10% of the country’s land area has been granted to agro-industrial businesses. While this is an excellent development model in the World Bank view of things (but not mine; I think it’d be far better to divide the land up amongst many small holders then single large agribusinesses) it has involved large scale removal of villagers. And not just ordinary public land is being sold off – actually 99 year leases – but large parts of forested national parks and protected areas are also being leveled for sugar, rubber, acacia, oil palm and more. This all adds up to a disgruntled population and an easy target for Sam Rainsy who mostly focuses on Vietnamese concessions to further stoke racial tensions, even though they make up only a small part of the land sold off.
Hun Sen is often been portrayed in the international media as a dictator. That’s over the top in my opinion since true dictators only stay in power through intimidation and force, torture and incarceration of political opponents. He has no feared secret police. His party has consistently won elections. Though they aren’t perfect, it’s nothing like dictators who win with 99% of the vote. The fact that he only narrowly won the last election is proof enough that they are largely free and fair: not totally, but neither are elections in America.
Strongman, however does fit. In the past he has closed down whole businesses on a whim: Several years ago sports betting parlors employing thousands were closed down literally overnight when he gave the word. About three years ago he warned functionaries in the police and army that official license plates were not allowed for private vehicles – they get some free fuel and other perks. When the practice was not ended a year later, he gave them two months and threatened to impound any vehicle that still had official plates. They disappeared by the deadline, though they are now creeping back into use.
Until this latest election he talked about staying in power for another 20 years and back at the height of the Arab Spring, he smugly and confidently assured the people that it could never happen in Cambodia. I don’t think he’ll be ousted by street demonstrations, but he may be forced into new elections before his mandate ends.
The most unfortunate part of the whole mess is the total inadequacy of the opposition, especially the racism. Already Vietnamese businesses have been torched and destroyed. The way Sam Rainsy has played to the people’s prejudices, there can be no surprise if innocent Vietnamese citizens of Cambodia are attacked and even killed. He’s got many Cambodians thinking the biggest threat to their country is Vietnamese taking over even though they make up at best about 8% of the country’s population. According to him, illegal Vietnamese immigrants are a vanguard force that will eventually help the Viet government take over all of Cambodia. It’s total crap, but the people believe it. The greatest irony is that many of the young demonstrators screaming anti-Vietnamese epithets at police and CPP supporters and demanding Hun Sen’s ouster would not be alive today had Vietnam not intervened to stop the Khmer Rouge genocide which was taking tens of thousands of lives every month.
His attempt to buy garment workers’ votes by promising a doubling of the minimum wage would either unattainable if he was elected or if instituted could cause havoc in the economy with college grads earning less than garment workers. Much as I sympathize with their plight, those changes need to be more gradual, a condition which now seems impossible for the workers to accept after being stoked up by Sam Rainsy.
In latest news the government, using some violence, has cleared demonstrators from Freedom Park, a centrally located square capable of holding about 5000 people, and has temporarily prohibited further demos. The government had seemed to be showing a lot of tolerance towards the demos, but it’s not surprising they would crack down after violence resulting in casualties.
Finally, no matter how good a leader is, after 30 years in power it’s time for a change, except in this case the alternative would be worse.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Breaking Poorly

The big hit of the past TV season was Breaking Bad, so I’m told. This I only know second hand since I don’t do boob tube. In the past 50 years or so I’ve only lived with one for about 3 years. Even though I’ve never watched the show I can state with some confidence that it exemplifies the reasons why I can’t stand TV. It simply doesn’t know how to ring true or represent what’s actually happening in the real world. That’s in spite of the fact that it purports to be part of the new genre of ‘good’ TV.
The story revolves around a good guy who turns bad because of big financial problems. Being a chemistry teacher he uses his skills to cook meth to make up for going bankrupt, loosing his house and having a chronic disease, cancer I think. The entire premise of the show is unbelievable if not preposterous. While it is possible for a person to do meth on a regular basis and still retain their basic goodness, I might not believe it if I hadn’t personally known such a person, because speed freaks, not to mention meth cookers, tend to be on the bottom rung of low-lives. They’re tense, angry, nasty and short on basic humanity. Of all the illegal drugs, meth has the most damaging effect on personality and health.
In other words, if a ‘good’ guy goes into illegal drugs it wouldn’t be as a meth cooker, it’d be making LSD or Ecstasy or one of the other designer drugs or setting up an old fashioned marijuana grow operation. Back in the States recently talking to my 21-year-old grandson about the show I asked him if it was ever mentioned in the show how millions of people lost their homes because of the unconscionable greed of the banksters who crashed the economy while getting rich themselves. And how even as millions of common people were kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves, the banks and their CEOs got bailed out by the government. Needless to say, that was never spoken of since it’s not part of the corporate TV narrative. I expect the subject of foreclosures was dealt with as if people lose their houses all the time with no-one else to blame but themselves.
The other reason why Mr. Good guy turned Bad is a chronic illness so I queried my grandson further asking if the show ever mentioned that the US is the only wealthy country in the world that doesn’t provide universal health care, that doesn’t take care of all its citizens; thus the only rich country in which people go bankrupt because of health care costs. Of course not, that would be political, that would mean talking about the things that real people talk about. I’ve never seen a show in which the characters talked about the things I and my friends talk about. There’s never been a conversation on TV that reflected the feelings of real people, at least those who aren’t totally bought into the corporate program. It’s pap, time-filler, skim-the-surface thinking, meant to be clever while keeping watchers stupid, stupefied and uninformed. When asked if they approve of the Affordable Care Act, Americans say yes. When the same question is asked about Obamacare they say the opposite even though they are one and the same. People don’t get that clueless and stupid by accident. They have to be taught to be dunces.
It’s like during the recent government shut-down fiasco when corporate media framed the story as both sides not being willing to compromise as if both were at fault, when it was the Repugs trying to hold the government hostage to achieve their goals of repealing Obamacare when they were unable to do so through the ballot box, you know, democracy. For once, Obama found his guts and refused to go against the will of the people, who after all had just re-elected him. Too bad he didn’t bend to the common will when he designed Obamacare, his monumentally complicated gift to the insurance companies. All polling has consistently shown very large majorities for single-payer health care, Medicare for all Americans. (For you non-Americans, Medicare is socialized medicine for people over 65 and the disabled.) He was afraid if he didn’t get the insurance companies behind the plan he’d get nothing so in the end the American people got crap. The fact that it is significantly better than the extremely rotten system that came before in no way makes it less than crap.
For instance, people have a choice of plans that range from bronze to platinum. The bronze plan requires a 40% co-pay which, considering the extreme cost of all health care in America, is essentially worthless. It only makes sense when Medicaid, the subsidized health care for low income people is added. Those whose income is too high to qualify for Medicaid will still be forced into bankruptcy from co-pays. At the present time 60% of all health care related bankruptcies are from people who had health insurance.
Obamacare doesn’t do anything to tackle the high cost of medication. For instance, living in Cambodia where it’s almost always humid I invariably have a fungus growing between my toes and need a fungicide to keep it in check. Here I pay 62 cents for 10 grams of anti-fungal cream, which is manufactured in Malaysia, a middle income country. In the US, in a discount market, the same cream costs $6.30 for 1.5 grams: seventy times more. This is a common generic medication; there’s no research necessary and no patents involved and no reason other than greedy underhanded corporate dominance and high friends in government that can justify or explain, that discrepancy. Americans are getting ripped off, clear and simple.
For all his efforts to placate the insurance industry - Obamacare is modeled after a plan designed by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank - all he’s gotten is flack. For all the shit he’s had thrown at him, he should’ve done it right the first time and set up a single payer system. That could’ve included an opt-out provision for crazies who prefer private insurance to Medicare.
I had an opportunity while back in the States recently to use Medicare for the first time, and in fact got to use an Obamacare rule-change that only came into effect on October 1st this year. Now all insurance has to provide free preventative services and so I thought I ought to get a check up, since I don’t remember the last time. Previously, Medicare patients who didn’t pay $100 extra per month had to pay 20% of costs for everything including check-ups. Simple as it is, Medicare is more complicated than it should be. It should be free for everyone all the time.
Many people back there asked me about health care in Cambodia. If it has to do with medicine, it’s very cheap – a course of antibiotics is a dollar or two – and there’s no such thing as prescriptions. If they have it they’ll sell it to you with few exceptions. For instance, getting morphine isn’t always so easy unless you say, or they can see, that you are in terrible pain.
Treatment is also cheap enough, but also inferior. A friend broke his hand and had it put back together here in Kampot. It works, he can still play drums, but it’s offset sideways about a quarter-inch from where it should be. A serious fracture requires a trip to Vietnam or Thailand unless you want to come out all twisted out of shape.
Another friend had a serious hernia, size of an orange was how he described it. He didn’t trust Cambodia so went to a Thai border town. At first he went to a branch of a hospital chain that caters to foreigners. They wanted $3500. He decided that was too much and wandered around till he found a hospital for locals. Three nights in the hospital, doctors and all expenses included, cost $380. In America, probably 100 times as much, though there they’d probably kick him out of the hospital after one night and it’d only cost ten or twenty grand. I have a hernia issue myself. It’s a small bubble and if my guts start to pop out I can shove them back in – makes a strange squishy sound when I do that. Considering my friend’s experience, I can probably get mine fixed as an outpatient here for far less than the 20% share I’d have to pay on basic Medicare back in the states.
I know guys back in the States who, seemingly strong and healthy, had minor heart attacks. I’m not sure how that would get taken care of here, though there is a new teaching hospital started by a western doctor near the city. Would I get there in time to avoid complications? I don’t think about it much… whatever happens. I’ve been to see a doctor maybe 5 times in the past 50 years, take only recreational drugs and get plenty of exercise. I’m certainly getting creaky in places, but I’m not going to obsess or worry about it, just try to take care of it naturally. For instance, my toes tend to cramp up. When I asked a nurse friend about it five years ago, she said calcium deficiency. So now I drink milk – not all that much but for decades previously I only used it in coffee – and almost every time I cook I include a dark green vegetable which is the local equivalent of spinach and when I remember I take calcium supplements. My toes still seize up occasionally but nothing like before.
I can just imagine how decrepit I’d be if I didn’t exercise and eat healthy. My cholesterol is excellent and my liver and kidneys are working just fine. My blood pressure is higher than it should be, but still not in the problem area, and my lung capacity is a bit short, which is not surprising considering I’ve been smoking one thing or another for the last 60 years... I can still play sax, so it can’t be that bad. So, all in all still kicking at 72.
But like with my friends, health problems can hit you quite suddenly, so who knows what can happen? Worst comes to worst, I’d have to make a trip back there into the hands of Medicare and Medicaid and try to survive on $680 per month. Wow, that would be an awful fate.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Misplaced Displaced Outrage

Lately, I often seem to come across people who, though they may not see themselves as regressives, still dutifully parrot the wingnut party line in regards to slamming the ‘takers’, ‘moochers’, ‘freeloaders’,  ‘lazy welfare cheats’ who live off of the taxes paid by hard working people like themselves. Now that burns me, not because there aren’t lots of common people who’re gaming or trying to game the system, but rather because they find it so easy to pick on the little guy while being blind to the really big rip-off sleazeballs whose gaming not only involves billions, but often also crashes the whole system when their games don’t work out.
In the latest iteration a friend of a friend on facebook was snidely pointing out that individuals who’re about to lose $36 of their $657 monthly food stamp allotment will just have to get by with less beer and cigs. I had to point out that the figure he quoted was for a family of 4, not an individual. A big part of the problem is that many of these people have their information so wrong they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about, not to mention that they’re so out of touch with reality, they actually believe the crap that comes out of their mouths. Anybody who thinks the government gives individuals more than six hundred dollars a month in food stamps might as well be living on a parallel universe.
Five billion dollars is being cut from the food stamp program to satisfy the Repugs new found crusade to reduce the deficit. New found because they love deficits and debt when they’re in power. Besides they’ve never come across a program that helps the bottom rung of society that they didn’t hate and it’s been that way since the first social programs were enacted in the 1930s Great Depression. Herbert Hoover, president when the depression began in 1929, was adamantly opposed to feeding the poor since it would ruin their self-reliance. Better to starve than depend on government handouts. The Dumbocrats are hardly blameless, since they love to capitulate to every petty demand of the Repugs.
47 million people are on food stamps; not surprising considering that unemployment is still very high and a lot of the new jobs being created pay so little that even many full time workers, such as those working for Mall*Wart and the fast food chains, qualify for benefits. McDonald’s website has a page devoted to helping its employees in their budgeting. One item is get a second job. Another is apply for food stamps. Another allocates $20 per month for health care.
But lets put that $5b food stamp cut into a little perspective. General Electric, one of the world’s largest, richest corporations, earned $14b last year. It not only didn’t pay any taxes but got a $3.5b refund from the IRS. The difference between what they should have paid at 35% and what actually happened was $8b. So, in essence, 47 million people take a hit so one corporation can enjoy just 60% of its corporate subsidy. Or how about the special tax breaks for Big Oil of another $8b per year. Exxon Mobile before 47 million Americans? Obviously top priority for the US government. Clearly doesn’t impact their self-reliance. They’re already so rich, the paltry $8b we throw at them doesn’t even amount to all that much when you consider just one of them has profits up around $50b annually.
Another much more egregious example of misunderstanding and/or manipulation and/or just plain ignorance, was a screed forwarded by a friend, in which the writer railed against the situation in New Orleans, in which welfare mothers receive $1500 per month per child. He then went on to tally up what a single mom with 9 kids would get; something like $16,000 per month. Now I’ve heard that places like New Zealand and the UK are quite generous with the dole, but the idea that anyone in their right mind could think that welfare pays that much in the US is hideously, ludicrously out of touch. And further, the idea that anyone with half a brain could think that that happens in Louisiana, probably the stingiest, meanest state in the country regarding welfare, is almost beyond comprehension; nobody could be that stupid or misinformed. Deceitful yes, but not that innocent of reality.
The family-values radical conservatives who pride themselves on their welfare stinginess think staying home and taking care of the babies is only valuable or important for middle class women. The single parents dependent on welfare are supposed to get a job, even though affordable child-care is rare and the jobs they might be qualified for don’t pay enough to live on. Nevertheless, they are the lazy takers sucking on the government’s tits whose only goal is to scam the system so they can live high and drive Cadillacs. $16,000 a month for nine kids, pretty good deal, huh?
A while back another government hater went on about how BART – Bay Area Rapid Transit – paid its drivers $100,000 per year. As it happens, not long ago the BART drivers held a strike action and according to the news reports, drivers earn $60,000 not $100,000. Besides BART is not really a government, at best it’s a quasi-government, charged only with running the trains. At any rate the median house price in the San Francisco Bay Area is now about $550,000. Even the meanest, cheapest run-down shack is likely to cost in excess of $300,000 and with mortgage, taxes and insurance, not to mention upkeep, that ultimate fixer-upper will cost a minimum $3000 per month. Compare that to driver’s pay which is $5000 per month before taxes. $60,000 sounds like a lot of money to me, but in the Bay Area, it’s just barely getting by.
It’s all part of the drive on the part of conservatives to demonize public servants. They have it too easy, they’re living high off the public hog. Even while Wisconsin’s Repug governor was giving a $200m tax break for corporations he insisted it was important to reduce civil workers pay and strip them of any worker rights. Teachers earn about $50,000 in Wisconsin. Doable but hardly luxurious. Back in the 1950s and 60s, teacher pay was so low that only certain people could do that job. It was either those who were so dedicated to teaching they were willing to sacrifice their economic well-being to do something they loved, or the losers, people who couldn’t make it in the commercial world. They were decent enough people, but, for a variety of reasons, they happened to be lousy teachers. They were quirky or nervous or too strange to make in a corporation, but they passed the civil service test and had the qualifications and so got the jobs and besides the schools had no choice, the potentially good people didn’t want to make the personal sacrifice.
At that point the public realized how important is was to raise pay so that quality teachers would be attracted to the profession. One of the most important tasks a society has is to educate its children. Lately, plying the 1% with generous tax benefits, giving the banks $85b per month of free money, letting the corporations create offshore tax havens and other tax dodges so they don’t have to support the US government, leaving stock transactions untaxed so the big banks can play with their lighting fast trading schemes that have no social purpose whatever and are destructive besides, all those are (seemingly) more important than education, health and social welfare in the eyes of conservatives and their Dumbocrat enablers.
A recent study tried to gauge the happiness of the people of different nations. The high-tax welfare states of Scandinavia all came out on top. They are all highly productive, very wealthy countries so, evidently, sky-high taxes don’t necessarily stymie innovation and growth, but they do provide the security and benefits that let people enjoy life. They work fewer hours than Americans and are guaranteed a minimum 4 weeks vacation per year by the EU. I met a Dutch couple high up on a mountain in Nepal some years ago, both of whom worked in a bank. They got 7 weeks of vacation a year and said some of their co-workers thought that wasn’t enough. Americans are lucky to get 3 weeks after working the same job for 10 years.
When the rollout of automation in the 60s started reducing the need for workers many people believed or proposed that it could lead to shorter work hours and greater leisure time for workers. The industrialists hated that idea since it would lead to people earning and consuming less, so instead of working less Americans are now working more (those who have jobs at least). Amongst the benefits of a shorter work week, aside from the obvious spreading the work around, is that it would substantially reduce peak hour traffic. Whether it’s 6 hours 5 days a week or 8 hours 4 days a week traffic would ease up by about 20%. At any rate, that’s not where the US is headed.
Finally, you’ve heard that the US economy is growing, lately about 2.5% annually, and jobs are being created. Unfortunately, 95% of the income gains since 2009 have gone to the top 1%, at least partly as a result of the FED printing free money for the banks and partly because most of the new jobs being created offer dismal pay. It wasn’t an accident. Maybe the policymakers who created the current conditions where almost everything goes to the top, didn’t realize that would happen, but nonetheless it was their policies that did it. Just as it was no accident, it’s also not inevitable, not engraved in stone, not dictated by the ‘free market’. In a democracy that truly represented the people rather than the elite that would not be happening. Meanwhile the fact that congress could hit on the bottom rung of Americans who’re getting food stamps for a measly $5b while keeping the position of the privileged sacrosanct, says we are a long way from fairness and decency… Mean-spiritedness Lives.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

NAFTA on Steroids

Maybe you’ve heard of the Trans Pacific Partnership. It’s a supersized trade pact that includes the US, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Peru and Chile. It probably doesn’t get much play in the corporate media. The negotiations have been in secret with the expectation that a finished product will be dealt to the participating countries who will be expected to ratify the treaty very quickly and without amendments – referred to as fast-tracking. Makes sense in a way, if everybody were allowed to offer lots of amendments, the negotiations might take forever.
Fast-tracking wouldn’t be quite as bad if the citizenry knew what was going on and had a voice in the preparation of the treaty. The only way we the people have caught a glimpse of the negotiations is through a leaker. The talks are so secret not even the US congress has been privy to their directions except for a few individual cases. The only people allowed at the table are the trade representatives from each country and 600 corporate lobbyists. Labor? Environment? Civil Society? No, impossible, just get in the way.
The main thrust of the talks is not lower tariffs, they’re already very low, it’s protection of corporate profits; that is, the ability to sue governments when its rules or regulations impact corporate profit potential. If the government where you decide to put your toxic waste dump says no way, you sue them and they either let you go ahead with your plans or they pay for your lost profits. That’s exactly what happened to a Mexican town near the border. It cost them $28 million to keep Metalclad corporation’s hazardous waste dump out of their town.
The tribunal that decides on these matters meets in secret and is made up entirely of corporate hacks; they decided against the environment the first 48 times such a matter was brought before them. In essence, in theory, I’m in favor of free trade, but what we usually get is unfair trade. For instance, when NAFTA came into effect Mexico was flooded with subsidized US corn which resulted in millions of poor Mexican farmers being driven off their land. Might’ve been acceptable in my mind had the US corn not been subsidized, but that’s not how it works.
Obama campaigned on a promise to renegotiate NAFTA; he is, in fact, renegotiating except it’s designed to make it worse for you and I, even smoother sailing for the corps.

The following is quoted from an article in

“For corporations, the TPP is a convenient back-door means of undermining public interest policies that they oppose but are not able to undermine through domestic legislation. If enacted, all existing and future US law would have to comply with the treaty, or the US could face trade sanctions. Environmental, health, food safety, human rights and Internet freedom protections could all be limited by the TPP. The deal could derail attempts to rein in Wall Street, making it impossible to regulate risky financial products, implement a “Robin Hood” tax on financial transactions or enforce size limits on big banks and capital controls.
Corporations, meanwhile, would gain vastly expanded privileges over federal, state and local government. A draft chapter leaked last year detailed the inclusion of a legal structure, called an investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, that would essentially allow multinationals to sue a government if they believe a policy infringes on their rights. A tribunal unaccountable to any electorate would decide the case and the damages owed, with no option for appeal. Similar investor-state rules have been included in a number of other free-trade deals, including NAFTA, and cases are surging, as are the damages awarded. Last year corporations won 70 percent of disputes.”

Without the brave actions of another leaker, we would have no idea what’s being discussed. A recent article about the TPP in our local newspaper here in Cambodia, reprinted from a Japanese paper makes no mention of the disastrous impact the TPP could have on participating countries. Just another trade pact. Not to worry. Trust us, we have your best interest at heart.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Manning, Snowden, Assange for Nobel Peace Prize

After the disastrous and altogether premature decision to award Obama the peace prize in 2010 the Nobel committee owes us one. Who better than the above three brave people who’ve chosen to sacrifice their normal lives, not to mention the loss or possible loss of their freedom, and subject themselves to the potential of abuse and maniacal harassment, all for the sake of unveiling to the people of the world the web of secrecy, hypocrisy and deceit that surrounds the US and, as we’ve seen lately, the UK governments.
As a poignant indicator of how debased the US government has become in the eyes of the world, Eric Holder, America’s chief law enforcement officer, in his plea to Russia to have Snowden returned for prosecution, felt it necessary to assure Putin that Snowden would neither be tortured or abused and given a fair trial. After the government’s disgraceful treatment of Manning, his assurances beggar belief.
Thirty-five years in prison for embarrassing the US government. In spite of the constant hype, there’s not been a single incident in which actual harm was done to an individual in government by Manning’s leaks. He did, however, release diplomatic cables which provided information which helped to solidify the opposition to Abedine Ben-Ali of Tunisia and led to his ouster, amongst other important revelations. He also opened the world to US duplicity and hypocrisy. The American servicemen who recorded themselves murdering 14 innocent people including women, children and two Reuters journalists from their helicopter, seemingly just for fun, served no time, Manning who exposed their bloodlust, gets 35 years.
Manning couldn’t have known the degree of vengeance Obama would take out on him, including treatment tantamount to torture according to the UN, but Snowden certainly had that in mind before he outed the PRISM mass spying program. He reportedly knew about PRISM and agonized over blowing the whistle for five years before he took the plunge. He was under no illusions and knew that he would be hounded to the ends of the earth by the wounded-tiger US government. In an act of arrogance, hubris, chutzpah and bullying unparalleled in the modern world, a plane carrying Evo Morales, president of Bolivia, was forced to land in Austria because several European countries denied the plane the right to fly over their territory at the behest of the US because it was suspected that it might be carrying Snowden. Treated like a common criminal or drug mule, Morales, leader of a sovereign country, was forced to cool his heels for 12 hours while the plane was inspected for traces of Snowden.
If the shoes were on the other feet and a similar incident happened to Obama, it would be considered an act of war. But America is the exceptional and indispensable country and is so inherently good and righteous with intentions so pure and goals of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ so important to the world that it gets to play by its own rules. It can do no wrong. Paraphrasing Nixon when asked if a plan of his was constitutional, responded, if the president of the US does it, it must be legal, constitutional, wholesome and important. By extension, it’s okay for the US to kill ‘suspected’ terrorists; that is, people who were never convicted of a crime or given a chance to defend themselves, because the US can’t take a chance on people who ‘might’ cause it harm. And if innocents become collateral damage, that’s the price to pay for (our) freedom and security.
In Manning’s defense at the sentencing phase of his (for now, considering he/she still has all his man parts, I’m going to call him/her a he) trial, he groveled a bit. I don’t blame him at all for trying to minimize his time behind bars. After spending only a few days in jail (on a marijuana cultivation charge) I became a model of contrition: No your honor, I’ll never do that again. Yes your honor, I’ve learned my lesson. At any rate what he said was he had no intention of harming the US government and it was foolish to think a small person like himself could change the world. Yet he undoubtedly, unquestionably, did change the world. An ordinary person of such little physical stature, only 5’2”- 157cm, has become a moral giant. After the execrable treatment he received at the hands of the US military in the three years prior to his trial, essentially toughening up his moral resolve, the 11 or so years he’ll wind up serving, assuming time off for good behavior, will be a piece of cake: relatively speaking, that is, not even an hour behind bars is easy to do.
Julian Assange, head of Wikileaks who helped disseminate Manning’s leaks, now holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than a year, is wanted for questioning related to a sexual harassment charge in Sweden. As I understand it, he did the deed without using a condom, against her wishes, in otherwise consensual sex. For that he too has been hounded. He’s not been indicted or charged, only wanted for questioning. He offered to be questioned in England. Somehow, though Sweden has questioned people outside its country in the past on much more serious charges, in this case Assange has to be in its grips for proper questioning. Assange offered to go to Sweden if that country made a commitment not to extradite him to the US, but they refused. Police business as usual? Hardly, the US is a vindictive bastard that’ll go to any length to snare prey it considers insolent and disobedient.
 Glenn Greenwald, reporter for the Guardian newspaper, has been the go-to guy for the Snowden leaks. In the latest iteration of security insanity, the UK held his partner David Miranda for nearly 9 hours – the legal limit without charging someone – under a terrorism statute and confiscated his computer equipment. He was en route in the UK, heading back to Rio where the two live, carrying hard drives and such pertaining to Edward Snowden’s leaks. The editor of the Guardian has recently revealed that two months earlier, the UKs version of the NSA came by to physically destroy – you know, using hammers – hard drives, etc., containing leaked info. Unfortunately for the security state, this isn’t 1954 anymore, and there undoubtedly are multiple copies of that data situated around the world. Snowden has made it clear that if anything happens to him an avalanche of leaks will hit the cybersphere. He has a right to be concerned for his safety. At this point the US is livid about his leaks and I wouldn’t put it past the CIA to give him the Bin Laden treatment – murdered on the spot and then his body dumped in the ocean - if they ever got their hands on him. Think of the friend of the Boston bombers who died while being questioned by the Feds. Somehow after several hours of questioning with as many as five agents in attendance, he suddenly became so dangerous they had to kill him.
 On a related topic, the CIA, in response to a Freedom of Information request, has finally admitted it had a role in ousting Mohammed Mosadegh, elected leader of Iran in 1953. Though it’s been common knowledge for decades, it’s good to hear it from the source and to see in unequivocal terms that it was his intention to nationalize Iran’s oil industry that spelled his doom. Not any fancy talk about freedom and democracy - he was after all Iran’s first popularly elected leader - but raw, cold and callous protection of corporate profits. The blowback is still blowing hurricane strength as Iranian leaders point out with regularity the CIAs role in his deposing. As for the Shah, his US authorized replacement, a picture reflecting his evil is seared into my memory: it showed a gathering of about 50 people with a man holding up his toddler son who’d had his arms cut off by the Shah’s police as punishment for the father’s transgressions.
Mosadegh was a progressive populist leader. Iranians are a highly educated people with a very long and proud history. Who’s to say where Iran would be today if the US hadn’t interfered in its affairs. When people see their democratic choices cretinously and illegally thwarted, they sometimes take up arms, bringing on revolutions. What other avenue do they have for obtaining justice and fairness?
The blood spilled at the hands of or as a result of US intervention for corporate control and profits is legion, not to mention demoralizing and disgusting. If anyone wants to delve deeply into the machinations of the CIA, I highly recommend a novel by Norman Mailer titled Harlot’s Ghost. It’s a novel but has an extensive bibliography. It’s also a very long book, about 1200 pages, but worth every minute of it.
Courageous people like Manning, Snowden and Assange who’ve sacrificed their personal well-being for the sake of exposing the duplicity and criminality of the US government deserve the highest praise, not decades in prison. In contrast to the terrible mistake of awarding the prize to Obama, the Nobel committee has often chosen dissidents, including people like Aung San Sue Kyi and Liu Xiaobo who weren’t allowed to receive their prizes because of opposition from their governments. Now it’s time for the committee to stand up to the USA and honor true peacemakers, the whistleblowers.

Monday, July 8, 2013

I've Got Nothing to Hide

I’m not concerned about PRISM, the massive illegal, unconstitutional secret spying program carried out by the NSA, because I have nothing to hide. I know the national security establishment sees environmentalists as threats and often places agents provocateurs amongst their midst, but I don’t care, I never attend environmental protests or demonstrations or sign petitions or do Facebook likes for those kinds of groups. Besides I trust that the government and corporations working together will always do their best to protect the environment.
Ditto with anti-war protesting. Since America’s $700b annual war budget is almost exclusively oriented towards the War on Terror (there are no state enemies of the US) it stands to reason that anti-warriors are also anti-America and unpatriotic. So why bother offering a target to the anti-terrorism police.
I don’t picket in solidarity with union strikers since there are always plainclothes cops taking pictures of everybody who attends. I don’t sign petitions proposing marijuana be legalized because even in states whose people have voted in favor of legal pot, the feds are out trying to bust people. Obama, America’s first president who has openly admitted to smoking pot and who stated clearly that he’s not going after potheads because he has ‘bigger fish to fry’, doesn’t seem to be able or willing to control the DEA. Hmmm, maybe I do have something to hide, but I’m a white, normal-looking geezer and cops never go after people like myself and maybe the whole War on Drugs paradigm will change before I get busted. I’ll just have to watch what I say and who I talk to and always be cryptic in my messages. Anyway that’s a small thing.
Of course, mistakes do happen, as in the case of Mahar Arar, a telecoms engineer who was returning home to Canada from a vacation in Tunis. He was detained en route in New York on false intelligence that he was connected to terrorism, held in isolation in NY for two weeks without access to a lawyer and then rendered to Syria where he was beaten and tortured for ten months until Syria realized he really didn’t have anything to hide. Our US government insists he was deported, not rendered but wouldn’t ship him forward to Canada whose passport he was traveling on and where he’d lived for the previous 15 years, but to Syria where he hadn’t set foot since he’d left 15 years earlier (He has a dual Canadian/Syrian citizenship only because Syria doesn’t allow people to renounce citizenship). After all, Canada wasn’t going to try to torture a confession out of him, so what good would that have been?
Mistakes do happen but that’s a small price to pay to keep America safe and not a good enough reason to honor basic human rights first declared in the 13th century Magna Carta and further enunciated in the US Constitution and the Geneva Conventions. Habeas Corpus, the requirement that government actually charge a person they wish to detain, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment; right to counsel, unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause, due process: all, paraphrasing the Bush administration: quaint relics of the past in an age where the specter of terrorism haunts every government action.
Maher Arar was told he didn’t have a right to a lawyer because he wasn’t an American citizen. That’s because other people don’t deserve the same rights as American citizens; that is, when we can even honor rights for Americans. You see, the War on Terrorism is so important that nobody can be afforded rights that might hold back our heroic efforts. That’s why our president must have the right to use drones to kill anybody, anywhere - US citizens included – who we suspect may be bad guys. We don’t have to be sure because that might let bad guys escape to do their nefarious deeds. Needless to say, Obama loses a lot of sleep over who goes on his kill list every time he makes that choice and he feels especially bad when large numbers of innocents are obliterated, as when whole wedding parties are bombed to smithereens, but they should know by now that gathering in large groups is suspicious activity and our government can’t take a chance in that situation. He also agonizes over incidents when first responders rushing to a bomb site with the idea of helping the injured are bombed in turn. But who, after all, is going to be there to help the bad guys except other bad guys?  Due process? Once again a quaint relic of a simpler past when our country is in such immediate danger.
The cost of the War on Terror may be great, but think of the 4000 or so Americans who’ve died at the hands of those bad guys over the last 20 years. Besides, if we don’t get every last one, something really bad might happen. So what if it costs $80 billion? – or some big amount anyway, it’s hard to know exactly with all the necessary secrecy which surrounds our efforts.
I know some people will question the wisdom of spending so much on anti-terror when only $565 million is spent on preventing industrial accidents which each year in the U.S. take the lives of 55,000 people and make sick or injure an additional 4 million or so, but that’s the breaks, you can’t really have a dynamic, healthy economy when there are too many regulations and there is too much surveillance. Moreover, workers don’t have to take those dangerous jobs, they can just work elsewhere. Anyway terror is a lot more frightening and galvanizing so it’s just natural it would garner hundreds of times the funding.
I know a lot of you will vehemently oppose what I’ve had to say and you’ve every right to express your opinions, but just between you and me, I’d hesitate to express those views anywhere on the internet or on telephone or anywhere in a public building or in proximity to a spy cam or whatever… you never know, you just never know.
Meanwhile, I have nothing to hide, or not much, and besides I trust the government will always be fair and reasonable and only use the information it’s gathering for good ends. Even if they make a mistake now and then and target and harass and torture or even kill a poor hapless innocent, I won’t hold it against them because it’s all for an important patriotic cause.