Monthly Archives: August 2011

Lessons from the Street

When the guy approached in the strip center parking lot early one Saturday morning and told me his story, I fell for it. He said he had driven all night from Ohio with his family, had no money and ran out of gas. We walked to his car, saw his family and the cynic in me, checked his license tag. He just needed $20 and he’d be able to buy gas and get home. I gave it to him. So did my wife later that day when she came to return what I’d bought. When we shared the stories, we felt like chumps.

Then there was that day when the visibly upset women approached my wife in another strip center early one evening. The woman told the story of leaving her husband who beat her. My wife walked with her to the old car and was introduced to the precious, poorly dressed children. She fell for it and gave her money. When she saw the same woman the next day and was approached again, she felt deeply betrayed.

Then there was that time when a homeless man came to our door and asked for help. We gave him money and food under the condition he never come to our house again. He returned the next day. And the next. He said he wanted to work for the money and food and offered to wash our car. My wife, in a moment of tough love and generosity, told him she’d give him $10 to wash our daughter’s car that had been parked for months and desperately needed it. He, of course, washed our car – the clean car. When he came back the next day, he said he was cold and I gave him one of my coats. The next morning he was at our doorstep again. This time, he said, “I really don’t like this coat. Do you have anything else?” He went on to say that he was ready to go to the shelter we had suggested and if we’d give him a ride to where the bus would take him, he’d go. Half way there, he said, “Damn. I left my cigarettes in your coat.” So, of course, we drove back to our home, retrieved the smokes that he could afford even though he couldn’t afford food and took him to the bus stop. As he was getting out, the man, well, passed gas. I said to my wife, “at least he left us a little something to remember him by.”

We all have stories. When someone needs help, and we can, most of us do. But are we really helping?

A few years ago, a friend had cards printed with addresses and phone numbers of shelters and organizations who help the homeless. He’d tape a MARTA token on it (MARTA no longer uses tokens and MARTA cards are expensive).

Another friend, Clay, kept a box of energy bars in his trunk to give to people who were hungry. He explained to me that helping the homeless should be left to professionals. That it was way too complicated, and potentially dangerous, for individuals to get involved.

When I first moved near Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, being the liberal do-gooder that I am, or pretend to be, I’d stop and engage each person that I thought was homeless. I got to know dozens of men (women don’t do well living in Piedmont Park). I began as a naïve missionary. Each day I’d go for my walks with a budgeted amount of money to hand out if asked and cards or literature on shelters and programs that teach men how to get off the street. One by one, I saw that these men who had asked for my money for transportation shelter or food, instead, spent it on beer. Each would eventually get arrested for public drinking or drunkenness. I don’t give money anymore.

For a while, I’d tell homeless men, if they were hungry, I’d feed them. My wife and I quickly turned into a short order cooks. I also stopped that idea – it was impossible to sustain. Though, and as result of the leftovers from LikeTheDew.com’s Deviled Egg Recipe Contest judging, they did ask me, “why did all those deviled eggs taste so different?” They also offered their votes, which were not included in the contest judging.

Over the years, some of the homeless men would come and never be seen again, but others seem to live in the park permanently. I gave them clothes when they needed them, until they started asking too often and I had to stop. Ditto on razors, soap, and dental supplies. Ditto sleeping bags, tarps, blankets, phone cards, MARTA cards and the like. And then, I met Donnie.

Donnie painting Tee ShirtsDonnie was special. He didn’t belong in the park. He was in his late twenties. He had worked as an artist and animator and lost his job. Got depressed and started drinking or doing drugs and lost his family. He was clean now and you could see it in his face. The guy had more charisma and charm than almost anyone I’d ever met. He didn’t ask for it, but one day I bought him a business: paints, brushes, a portable easel, a few dozen blank tee-shirts and a backpack to carry them. Donnie was like a kid at Christmas. He went to work painting the most incredible original art on shirts. He sold them in the park. I told him that when he ran out of shirts, I’d re-stock him and I did. Donnie sustained his life and saved some of the money he made to start over. Then one night, the inevitable happened. He was robbed. When I next saw Donnie, he didn’t ask me to buy him another art kit. He told me, instead that he had called his mother in Alabama and asked if he could come home. She wired him the money for bus fare. He just wanted to say thank you and good-bye. I still hear from him from time to time through his cousin. He now has a job, a place of his own and is still close to his mom and family.

Then there was Terrell. Terrell was also special. When I met him, he was living with a girlfriend and was working in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant. Every few days, he’d prepare a meal, with ingredients donated by his restaurant, and serve it picnic style in the park to some of those, less fortunate. We admired his sharing nature and also contributed. I don’t know if was drugs or booze, but Terrell had a dramatic falling out with the restaurant. He also had one with his girlfriend and started calling the park his home.

Terrell was in his early thirties. Healthy. Smart. And motivated. The park was just temporary. He approached people who lived in the neighborhoods around the park and asked to do odd-jobs – yard work and the like. It worked for a while, but wasn’t enough to get him on his own. My wife and I befriended Terrell. We even broke the cardinal rule and invited him and his new girlfriend into our home. We got him a cell phone from the federal program. We helped him get an apartment with an organization that helped couples get off the street. The apartment deal was pretty straightforward: he was expected to work and pay $100 a month. He also was required to have regular drug testing. He made it on his own the first month. His girlfriend left him the second month and we helped out with the money he needed for rent. The third month he was back in the park. Terrell, we learned, couldn’t – and didn’t want to – pass the drug test. That was almost two years ago. Terrell has been arrested five or six times since then – three times in one month alone – stupid stuff – drinking on the bench near 10th Street and jaywalking. He’s lost about 50 pounds and his eyes are always glazed over.

We don’t have much to do with Terrell, but some months back, he approached me and told me a story. He said that he’d heard about a doctor who would diagnose him as bipolar and about a lawyer who could then get him disability. Disability, plus food stamps were his plan to get his life together. In exchange for a couple of hundred dollars a month, he would never be able to get a real job again – the price of disability. I begged him to reconsider and get help. I saw Terrell last week. He has been approved for disability.

Then there was last week. I met this kid standing near our little midtown grocery store. He was hungry and I walked him inside and bought him a sandwich. I’m sure you have seen him, too. Early twenties. Hair long and unkept. Sad and lonely expression on his face. Layers of dirty clothes with his shirts out. His pants were so low that at least six inches of his underwear was showing. I’m no snob. I’m all for individual expression – in fact, I am sure that many would suggest I have my own unique “style.” But I couldn’t help thinking while I was talking to this young man, “no one will ever get a good job with underwear showing.” (Note: I know that for some of you, this is straight line and there’s some joke that might suggest that is not true for the opposite gender – not PC.)

As strange as it sounds, I sometime fantasize about how to solve the homeless problem. I daydream of getting donated land and building a new form of inexpensive and efficient housing. I consider little things, like lockers to protect what they have. More public bathrooms. Utilizing some of the empty and bankrupt condo buildings. But each time my daydream comes around to one problem that I cannot figure out how to overcome: drugs and booze, which is connected to crime, which is connected to violence. How can it be solved?

Leave it to the professionals. Leave it and support those organizations that help large numbers of people survive, while each night having a zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol. Leave it and support those organizations that help one person at a time learn how to believe in themselves and society again. Google or Bing it, search terms: (your city) and homeless shelters. If you are in the Atlanta area, contact the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. They also have a 24-hour help line. Or the Atlanta Center for Self Sufficiency.

Or, at the very minimum, follow our friend Clay’s example and give them an energy bar.

An open letter to Jim Demint

Jim DemintDear Jim:

I know that you and I haven’t been exactly close since you had your personal, life-changing experience – discovering your one true god of campaign money and power. I know that even before that you seldom sought my advice, nor have I offered it,  but you crossed another line today by stating:

We saw within a few days that this President was going to be heavy-handed, he was going to implement his agenda and pay back his political allies, and it just went on from there to ObamaCare and then to Dodd-Frank. It has been the most anti-business and I consider anti-American administration in my lifetime. Things that are just so anathema to the principles of freedom, and everything he has come up with centralizes more power in Washington, creates more socialist-style, collectivist policies. This president is doing something that’s so far out of the realm of anything Republicans ever did wrong, it’s hard to even imagine.

Jim, I realize that you have had little recent experience interacting with people outside your clan to allow you to understand that Americans could vote differently than you, but they did. Our president, yours and mine, was democratically elected by a majority of Americans – even the Republican justices of the Supreme Court have said so – just as you were in South Carolina, at least the first time. By the way, I’ve been meaning to write and tell you that I thought what you did in the last election by getting your supporters to get Alvin Greene on the ballot was down right Machiavellian. I always believed you had it in you.

But, don’t you think it was just a wee bit hypocritical to say in 2007 that what Romney did in passing medical care for all in Massachusetts was “something that I think we should do for the whole country” and now that it has been passed, today you characterize President ObamaCare as “anti-business… socialist-style, collectivist policies”?

And, Jim, just what is your problem with Dodd-Frank? Is it just pandering to your donor base? Is your homophobia bothering you again? Or did you forget what happened under George W. Bush on Wall Street? Do you not remember that those abuses led to the worst recession in our nation in 80 years? Aren’t any of your friends or constituents among the 10-25 million under or unemployed? Did you forget that you are in Washington to fix things that are broken – and that Wall Street was and is broken? For god’s sake, Jim, are you suggesting that nothing should have been done? That no changes should have been made? Dodd-Frank is not “anti-business,” at its very best, it is sort of, pro-people, but not really. The rules for, which you have work so hard to undermine. I’m all for faith in religion, but faith-based regulation of greed has undermined the full faith and credit of the United States Government – you say it is an “anathema to the principles of freedom.” I suggest we can’t have freedom without it. And what’s this whole thing about tying it to President Obama? He didn’t write it. He just signed it. Dodd-Frank was written the way all bills are in Washington, by Congressional aids, with input from both parties’ most favored lobbyists.

Jim, presidents signing bills isn’t “heavy-handed” or “pay back.”  Signing bills is what presidents do. In eight years, W only vetoed bills about children’s health insurance (twice), water conservation, veterans’ care, defense appropriations, Katrina recovery, education funding, stem care research (twice) – by the way, did you happen to see the big break through using t-cells, which are derived from stem cells, that cured chronic lymphocytic leukemia and may soon be used for ovarian cancer? Makes you think, doesn’t it?

“This president is doing something that’s so far out of the realm of anything Republicans ever did wrong.” Come on Jim, surely, you do not mean to characterize the providing a little medical insurance and a little financial regulation for those without it, with Bush’s sins of lying to go to war, kidnapping, torture and subverting the Constitution? As you say, “it’s hard to even imagine.”

But to the main point, at least the main spin from your statement, in which you say that you consider President Obama’s the most “anti-American administration in my lifetime.” Jim, your statement is more anti-American than anything you suggest. We are at war. At least three wars.  Our President is proudly saluted as Commander-in-Chief by more than a million brave men and women in uniform. You defame them by your attack. You, who deferred out of the draft during Vietnam, should be ashamed.

Jim, your statements today are just plain stupid. I know you were talking to your base, but I also know you are not stupid. It does make me wonder, however, what your motives could be? Why would you say something so stupid? Could it be… was it because… Jim, are you still trying to get attention? Did you feel that you were being upstaged by the Iowa debate? Listen, we all know that your brother was the popular one and that you have always tried to be like him. But your brother isn’t popular because he says stupid, outrageous things, mean-spirited, un-American things. Your brother is popular because he likes people. Try it, it might work for you, too. You might start right there in South Carolina. There are people who need help and things that need being done that only the government can do. We are in trouble in this country. We need leaders who can and will help.

Please remember me to Debbie and your mom.

Regards,

Lee Leslie

 

Fixing the Ecomony #1

Open the Federal Reserve discount window to states and local government. This initiative uses no taxpayer money, requires no action from Congress, could be implemented immediately and should save state and local governments, as much as $80-$100 billion, each year while providing badly needed economic stimulus or tax relief. In DC, this would be spun, “a trillion dollar stimulus over ten years.”

We already give access to the Fed’s discount window to banks – even non-member foreign banks (yes, among many others, Gaddafi-controlled, Central Bank of Libya-owned, Arab Banking Corp.); Wall Street and insurers of Wall Street including Goldman-Sachs, Morgan Stanley and AIG; and pseudo-banks/auto lenders including GMAC. Why not allow access for our sovereign state governments that are bound by balanced budget amendments –  many of whom now have higher credit ratings than the US government?

Can we do that? Sure. The Federal Reserve has long held the authority to lend to anyone or anything during unusual and exigent circumstances – and the Fed defines the circumstances. Under the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act, the Fed’s authority of extending credit has been changed from “specific individuals, partnerships and corporations” to also give access to “any program or facility with broad-based eligibility.”* Further, the Fed has authority to buy state and municipal securities directly (known as: quantitative easing).

Even without the emergency authority or the expanded authority, states have long been able to simply set up publicly-owned banks** for the specific purpose of Fed discount window access.

The Fed currently lends money from .015% to 1.25%. States and local government now have more than $2.8 trillion in bond debt*** – used to build roads, hospital, schools and universities, football stadiums for NFL teams, the infrequent mass transit project (liberal areas, only), infrastructure projects, attract industry, and other purposes. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that these bonds cost 4-5% of annual expenditures and recently, typical rates are from 4%-6%.

The potential for fixing the economy, however, doesn’t stop there. Individual states would have authority to use its access to the Fed discount window to finance utility construction and lower costs for consumers (according to the AJC, those in Georgia who will be subject to a $9 a month financing charge for the expansion at Plant Vogtle are ideal beneficiaries). Each state could use lower rate access to provide businesses with capital to expand and create jobs, financing to consumers for environmental improvement, offer lower cost student loans to its citizens, financing for non-profits and a host of other initiatives.

Is it inflationary? Sure, but when growth is at 1%, no worries.

Does it compete with the private sector financing? Yes, but to consider that bad, one should consider that most private financing is done with access to the Fed window and one would also have to answer why taxpayers should pay more?

Will it take a chunk of most lusted-after income out of the pockets of the greedy “masters of the universe” Wall Street investment bankers and hedge funders? Sure, and wouldn’t that be great?

As a by-product, wouldn’t it increase state and federal tax revenues, since so many wealthy investors use municipal bonds to make tax free income? Yep.

Wouldn’t former mayors, council people, senators and legislators who go into the lucrative bond business leveraging their former patronage to call in favors have to find another way to fleece taxpayers after they get out of office? Yes, that, too.

Wouldn’t it help Democrats more than Republicans? I doubt it. The Fed is not political and there are an awful lot of Republican governors who’d jump at the chance to have a little more room in their budgets. Most of those helped would be in the jobs it would save and the new jobs that could be created – jobs regardless of party affiliation.

Author’s note: This is first in a series of commonsense things we can do to fix our economy during this time when the House and Senate can agree on nothing. I invite your comment and suggestions.

Update: The article was updated on 8/8/11 at 1:42 PM.

___________

* Whatever the hell this could possibly mean will eventually be known when Congress approves the 4,000 rules to govern implementation of this bill. Until then, it is anyone’s guess.

** “In North Dakota, the publicly owned Bank of North Dakota (BND) acts as a “mini-Fed” for the state. Like the Federal Reserve of the 1930s and 1940s, the BND makes loans to local businesses and participates in loans made by local banks. The BND has helped North Dakota escape the credit crisis. In 2009, when other states were teetering on bankruptcy, North Dakota sported the largest surplus it had ever had. Other states, prompted by their own budget crises to explore alternatives, are now looking to North Dakota for inspiration.” – ZeroHedge.com

*** General obligation bonds (GOs), Revenue bonds, Conduit bonds, Insured bonds, Original Issue Discount bonds, Taxable bonds, Zero coupon bonds, Pre-Refunded bonds, Escrowed-to-Maturity (ETM) bonds, Housing bonds, Municipal Notes. Current total outstanding is a very difficult figure to come up with. The figure of $2.8 trillion is from Wall Street investment company estimates. The US Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract was last updated for state and local government debt in 2007 (totaling almost $2.5 trillion), but does not include many types of municipal debt. Dependent upon the purpose, these instruments may or may not be tax free.

US to Shed 1.5 Million Jobs to Create New Recession

Right Wing Raising the DebtUpdate: 08.09.2011, 4:00 PM. President Obama has now signed the legislation to raise the debt ceiling and avert default. The bill immediately raises the debt ceiling by $400 billion. The additional steps that our country will have to endure to raise the debt ceiling for the balance of next year are described below. “Enough talk about the debt. We have to talk about jobs,” said Democratic Minority Leader, Nancy Peloisi.

Only two days remain in this season’s final episode of the made-for-cable-news mega-series drama, “The Right Wing – Raising the Debt Ceiling”*. The whole world is watching. Whose jobs will be lost? Whose fortunes, real, imagined, hedge, shorted or political, will be wiped out? Who will blink or tear up? Will the T-Party take to the streets or is just too damn hot? Will the golf partners stick to their “deal” for an entire news cycle? What will Sarah tweet? Will a deminted Senator sabotage it all with a last minute filibuster? Can Pelosi be turned to the dark side? Will S&P downgrade the credit rating anyway leading to higher interest and a need for even greater cuts? Will we do this again before Christmas?

The stranger-than-fictional leaders of our government have leaked elements of their surprising planned finale where they use this totally made-up crisis to solve the nation’s, and the world’s, great problems. The markets have already rallied in anticipation. As has the dollar. As have oil prices. The pundits, blogmeisters, and spin doctors have already picked the winners and losers. The bottles of sparkling tea have been chilled.

The drama couldn’t have been cast with a more exciting backdrop:

  • Two official wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), one official unofficial war (Libya), two well-known secret wars (Yemen and Pakistan), revolutions underway or being brutally suppressed in Syria, Egypt, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, on-going and potential conflicts in Palestine, Iran and North Korea, and chaos, famine and human tragedy in Somalia and the Horn of Africa;
  • An earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan that will continue for a hundred thousand years;
  • A massacre of white people by a white, right-wing Christian anti-muslim lunatic;
  • Worldwide recession with grave concern for the Euro zone, specifically Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Ireland;
  • A dismal 1.3% US GDP growth last quarter after only .04% first quarter growth;
  • The lowest percentage of Americans working in almost 30 years with 9.2% unemployment (20+% black unemployment) and at least 18.5% overall underemployment – more than 25 million Americans are out of work and glued to their TV sets;
  • More than 50 million Americans without health insurance;
  • 28% of US homeowners are behind on their mortgage, a backlog of six million US homes in foreclosure with more than three million homes already seized, and home prices continuing to decline;
  • Executive pay has risen 23% this year, plus, record earnings continue to be announced by our largest corporations – US companies have now accumulated and horded, depending upon who counts, $20-30 trillion in cash, while spending millions on lobbyists to whine about regulation, taxes and certainty;
  • The wealth gap continues to widen with whites now averaging 20 times the wealth of blacks, 18 times the wealth of Hispanics;
  • US worker productivity is at an all time high, yet real wages are lower than they have been in 41 years;
  • Federal, state and local taxes are the lowest per capita since 1954;
  • The number of government workers has gone down more than 500,000 since Obama took office;
  • And, it is hot, though not officially from global climate change even though the northern hemisphere is trying to endure a record-breaking heat wave.

For those who may have missed an episode, ignore the backdrop (above) – the crisis in America is clearly our deficit. With total government revenues, as a percentage of our economy, at their lowest level in more than 60 years, obviously, the only answer is to cut government spending.

The announced plans include an immediate $400 billion debt limit increase (whew) and $900 billion in spending cuts over the next 10 years. These cuts will be from the annual appropriations of the day-to-day operations of Cabinet agencies (specific cuts will be determined by the Appropriations Committee after annual lobbying and whining by each agency and their related lobbyists), but largely the cuts will be from capping projected inflation-adjusted increases. These cuts do not include Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

Another $500 billion debt limit increase would be allowed later this fall, which Congress could only disapprove, which President Obama could veto, which Congress could overturn by a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate (I’m not making this up).

A third installment of debt limit increase of between $1.2 and $1.5 trillion would be available after enactment of the recommendations on November 23, 2011 by a 12-member super Congress (also to be announced) of three members from each party and each chamber.

The super Congress’s report to the mortal Congress could include tax code changes, maybe even revenues, and changes in any other program – including Social Security, Medicare, Pentagon spending. All dependent upon an up or down, no amendments allowed, vote in Congress on December 23, 2011.

Should super Congress not agree (how likely is that?) or the mortal Congress does not act on the recommendations, we’ll face the poison pill of across the board spending cuts to be implemented by the White House including cuts to the Pentagon, domestic agency budgets and farm subsidies… beginning in 2013, after the next Presidential election. However, Social Security, Medicaid, veterans benefits and military pay would not be subject to cuts.

Oh, yeah, the House and Senate are also required to vote, but not pass, which they won’t, a balanced budget amendment to our Constitution. The bill will establish at a cost of $1 billion, a “program integrity” initiative in an attempt to stem abuses in Social Security and federal health care programs. This bill will also preserve Pell Grant funding for 2012-2013 by cutting student loan subsidies. Go figure.

This is one terrific plan.

“The result would be the lowest level of annual domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was President,” said President Obama in announcing the deal. “Now, this process has been messy; it’s taken far too long… We’re not done yet.”

“I know this agreement won’t make every Republican happy. It certainly won’t make every Democrat happy,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.

“Now listen, this isn’t the greatest deal in the world. But it shows how much we’ve changed the terms of the debate in this town… There is nothing in this framework that violates our principles. It’s all spending cuts. The White House bid to raise taxes has been shut down. And as I vowed back in May – when everyone thought I was crazy for saying it,” said Speaker of House John Boehner (R-Oh.).

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said, “I would say … that symbolically, that agreement is moving us to the point where we are having the final interment of John Maynard Keynes… So here we are in the horns of a dilemma. In order to avoid the disaster that would occur August 2 if the United States defaulted for the first time in its history, we are being told we have to cut back on government spending and by cutting back on spending, we may also have a negative impact on our economy.”

The head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, (D-Mo.) called it “a sugar-coated Satan sandwich.”

Over time, the combined cuts should add about 1.25 million to our unemployment rolls, and could bump unemployment over 10%. The cuts in spending will almost certainly turn our anemic GDP growth into negative numbers putting us back into official recession – this time, an official bipartisan recession. But don’t be fooled that the impact will stop there. The cuts will have dramatic impact on every state. Those laid off will be teachers, law enforcement and regulators. Food and medical care will be cut for our poorest children and their families. Transportation and infrastructure spending will also be cut.

When the series continues, we’ll get to watch who is to blame. How gerrymandered districts will make things even more partisan? How the T-party will get revenge on Boehner? How Obama will seek to mend fences with his base? And how all, but a few of us, will continue suffering and electing these fools? I wish I could change the channel.

 

*A sequel to the popular series, “The West Wing.”

Note: This story was updated at 5:45PM, August 1, 2011 to correct details once the bill was announced.