Economics 2009

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December 23

Infrastructure Neglect as Economic Policy

This post is a corollary to my 2 Fees and Fines as Economic Policy posts. A few days ago, there was short segment on the local news (from Los Angeles) which mentioned that California's roads are in such disrepair that they are estimated to cost the average California driver $2,500 per year. I knew the road situation was bad, but the $2,500 figure astounded me in a distressing way. I am not sure what group made that estimate, but I do know that there are many hidden costs of infrastructure neglect of all kinds, not just neglect of the condition of our roads. The report continued, saying that it would be cheaper to fix the roads than to continue to neglect them. We need those types of public works projects to get people back to work, anyway. I know my tires will be thankful if the roads are fixed. They always wear out more quickly than they are supposed to, thanks to our rough roads. Other, less obvious costs are worse. Lives are lost due to poor road conditions which cause accidents. Cars are totalled, engines wear out more quickly, and so on.

Recently, there has been a PBS special here in California called "Left Behind," about how our public K-12 schools have deteriorated along with the decrease in funding they have experienced over the years. I have touched upon this topic before. It all started when Ronald Reagan was Governor of California. He basically disrespected higher education, saying that he did not want his money to pay for college expenses of students who protested his policies. Thus, he created a system of tuition and fees for public college students in California. Prior to that, the public colleges were free. Once the college students began having to pay at least in part, for their educations, it was disgustingly easy for politicians to sell to the public that we did not need to spend so much money on K-12 public education. After all, they argued "It's your money. You should spend it however you want to" -- the constant conservative refrain which we have been hearing for so many years, which ignores the fact that incomes themselves are often very inequitable, as well as the fact that government ties us all together and can be used to accomplish things as a people that we cannot accomplish as individuals. Consequently, taxes in California were cut, especially property taxes with the passage of Proposition 13, which froze property taxes of home owners at a very low rate, so that they could not go up even as the values of their homes went up. Suddenly, there was a massive financing deficit for California's infrastucture, including its public schools. In terms of schools, the result was worse equipment, less repair and upkeep, larger class sizes with fewer teachers, who by and large were less qualified than the previous generation, and a general dingy, run down appearance to the schools which must be discouraging to students. Over time, student performance decreased, as should have been expected. More distressingly, parents in many districts have been asked to donate money to public schools, a fact I learned from the PBS program which I found very distressing. Parents were interviewed for the show, who said that helping to fund their children's education was the only way to ensure that they got a halfway decent public education. This is public education we are talking about; parents should not have to do that. That is what taxes are supposed to be for. Furthermore, as a result, wealthier districts in California now have much better schools than the poorer districts. From what I understand, this has been true not only in California, but across the nation, since property taxes which fund public schools are local; thus, wealthier areas have much more money to work with. But the lack of public funding in California has exacerbated this situation.

Aside from roads and schools, lack of public funding at both state and federal levels causes a variety of other deleterious effects. For example, there has been a rash of water main breaks in the Los Angeles area, as reported on the news. Basically, it seems to be a finger in the dike situation. Repair crews are hopping from one broken pipe to another. Meanwhile, some of the limited water supply of Los Angeles is being wasted, and other pipes are being ignored until they break, since there apparently is no systematic program to replace old pipes, due to lack of funding. Once again, replacing the old pipes with new, better constructed ones would probably save money in the long run. However, in our current state of perpetual financial crisis, and unwillingness to spend the necessary money for public infrastucture, "penny wise and pound foolish" practice predominates. A related problem in California is our dwindling water supply. More innovative solutions to having reliable water sources are needed, but funding for such programs are lacking. Water needs to be recycled better, and some progress in being made in that direction, but not enough to keep up with the pace of increased water demand, plus drought conditions over the past 3 years. Our newest reservoir in Southern California, the large Diamond Valley Reservoir not far from here, with its 3 dams which are supposed to enclose a 250 foot deep reservoir, is sadly depleted, probably 100 feet or more lower than it is supposed to be. The launch ramp for private boats was completely out of the water until a new one farther down was recently built. Diamond Valley was supposed to be a back up water supply. The water levels of other reservoirs in California is similarly low. The closest reservoir to where I live is called Perris Lake. Several years ago, it was drawn down supposedly to repair its dam. However, there has been no funding to do so. Therefore, the lake continues in its reduced state, and no work is being done to make the dam more safe.

One other example of infrastructure difficulties which I can think of, is not about crumbling old infrastructure, but rather, a failure to create needed new infrastructure. Many nations have made high speed internet access readily available to all of its citizens, wherever they live in the country. However, this is not the case in the United States. In fact, in our climate of rampant corporatism, people have to pay especially for high speed internet service, except in a few communities, I understand. As I sit here, I am using a dial-up connection, because DSL is unavailable in the decidedly unflat area adjacent to some steep mountains, where I live in Moreno Valley, CA. We have cable connections built in by our home's previous owner (who went broke and lost the house), but using them would apparently require us to also get cable television and phone service from the same company, according to the advertisements we receive, and would cost far more monthly than we currently pay. It would be somewhat of a financial hardship for us to pay for all of that. Also, connecting the cables to our equipment in the beginning would probably be troublesome. We should have an infrastructure program in the U.S. which allows high speed internet access for everyone, at no extra expense. As it stands, it is still troublesome and expensive in many parts of the United States to get high speed internet, especially in rural areas.

I am sure that there are many other potential examples. Those mentioned in this blog post are simply the ones which I am aware of. I am not an infrastructure expert. Perhaps you can think of other examples. However, the fact that our knowledge regarding infrastructure is so limited is a symptom of the problem. Infrastructure is easy to ignore, to take for granted, until it malfunctions or is not there. That is why it is so easy for politicians to put off infrastructure funding, or foist it upon other people, as in the case of public education in California. We must remember that infrastructure is an investment in our future. The crumbling infrastructure we now witness is a result of many years of neglect. In order to have a bright future, it is high time we as a people need to build a new, environmentally friendly infrastucture using the best available, newer technologies. Such a public works project could not only improve our infrastructure, but put many people back to work, and help our long term environment and economy.

November 25

Fees and Fines as Economic Policy Part 2: My Red Light Camera Citation Nightmare

The absence of posts these past few days is due to a couple of very stressful problems I have had to take care of. (Fortunately, Eunice and Isabella are returning from Taiwan today; they should be on the flight at this moment, so there is good news, too.) My female cat Gorjilina has an injury (not visible) to her right rear foot, and was missing all weekend (something which has never happened before), but she is back and recovering. What I want to provide an update about today, is the "Red Light Camera" citation which I was expecting but never received.

On Saturday, while I was worried about Gorjilina already, I picked up the mail, and found a surprise letter from the DMV. I thought that perhaps it was the annual car registration notice. I couldn't think of what else it might be. However, when I opened it, I found a letter stating that my driver's license would be suspended on December 20, unless I corrected my "failure to appear and/or failure to pay a fine." The threatening tone continued on the next page with a request to mail my driver's license back to the California DMV. Of course, there is no way I was about to do that. Since it was Saturday, I had to wait until Monday to work on this problem. (I spent Sunday largely strategizing.) On Monday, which was Eunice's and my eighth anniversary, things went very well, although that is speaking in quite a relative tone. First, Gorjilina showed up running on 3 feet from the neighbor's yard. Then I called my auto insurance company. The person I spoke to said they had no notice of any citation, and they only handled actual claims, so they could not help. Here is a sarcastic "Thanks a Lot" to them. Next, I called the Superior Court of California's office in Riverside, where I had supposedly missed a court date, and to whom I was to pay any fines. After punching many buttons and listening to a variety of messages, which often repeated even after I selected another item on the menu, I found a way to pay my fine over the phone. I had two more obstacles at this point. One was that since I had never received a citation, I did not know my citation number. The other was that no fine amount was listed on the letter from the DMV, presumably because the court determines that. Fortunately, there was a docket number on my letter from the DMV, which turned out to be the same as the citation number. Also, when I offered to pay, an amount was given -- an exhorbitant amount, $745. I went ahead, and used my credit card to pay it. I actually felt much relieved at that point, expecially since my parents had offered to reimburse me. There's that socialist family stuff rearing its everloving head again. Out of that $745, $300 were a fine for failure to respond to my phantom citation. Thus, I had paid $745 in fines to the police, courts, or whoever gets it, without actually talking to any actual human being whatsoever regarding the case to that point. It's legal extortion. I find it especially ironic that this is being done to a public employee. It is as though the money is being swindled by the police, etc. from the community college system for which I work, or since my parents offered to pay, from my retired state employee father's retirement fund. Just to review the earlier post, all of this was for turning right on a red light without coming to a complete stop, with no other traffic in the area. Furthermore, Eunice and I were on the way back from my parents' house in Riverside at the time.

There is a form to request the return of the $300 fine for failure to respond to the citation. I obtained it online, filled it out, printed it, and sent the letter to the court yesterday. Knowing what I do about the traffic court system, I guess my chances of having this $300 reimbursed are about 1%, if even that. However, psychologically, it is important for me to express my side of the story, to someone on their side. I also did manage to talk to a couple of people over the phone eventually regarding this case. This is the letter I sent.

Dear Superior Court,

The reason that I never responded to my citation was that I never received any citation. Neither have I received any warnings. Had I received any, I would have responded very quickly. The only correspondence which I did receive was a letter from some company in Phoenix, Arizona, which stated that a red light camera showed that I had made a right turn on a red light without coming to a full stop. I received this letter in late June, the incident in question having happened on June 14. I replied to this letter the day after I received it. This letter was not a citation, but rather, asked for the name and address of the driver. I gave the correct information, and awaited a reply. I waited and waited, but never received any reply. Thus, it was my impression that the decision was made not to pursue this case. If this case were being pursued, I thought that some attempt would have been made to contact me, but there was absolutely no such attempt as far as I could tell. According to the information I have seen this past day, I should have received a citation from the DMV, a letter from the court, and then another letter after the court date, but I received none of these. I have lived at the same address since 1993, and have never had trouble receiving mail before, that I know of.

Imagine how dumbfounded I was on Saturday when, out of the blue, I received a letter from the DMV threatening to remove my driving privileges unless I address this issue by December 20, all due to some citation which I did not know I ever had. Yes, I probably should have tried to check what was going on regarding this situation, but I thought that surely I would have received a letter, email or something from the DMV or court. I had no information about this case, since the only page I received from the company in Phoenix had to be sent back to them with my information. I was left with nothing but an envelope with an address in Phoenix on it. Citizens such as myself deserve much more than that before we are asked to pay large fines, or be threatened with the removal of driving privileges. Had I received a citation, I never intended to contest it, so there would have been no need for me to even go to court. I suppose I did not come to a stop on that occasion. In fact, I already paid the entire fine today, so the failure to pay is taken care of. The way I gave the citation number in order to pay it with my credit card was simply by guessing that the docket number was the same as the citation number, which fortunately turned out to be the case. Otherwise, I never would have known the citation number. However, what is happening to me now is unfair. I at least should have my civil assessment removed.

Sincerely Yours, M. Robert Warden, Jr.

Since I never received any citation or notifications other than the original one from the private company in Phoenix, which was not a citation, but should have received at least 3 separate communications, my guess is that they were all somehow sent to the wrong address. Otherwise, they apparently were never sent. I know that I gave the correct address, and the DMV and the company in Phoenix had my correct address. It is difficult to imagine that all 3 letters were lost in the mail. Once I did finally speak with a couple of lady employees about the case, there were some interesting developments. For one, when I called the DMV, I mentioned that the phone number for the Riverside Superior Court which was on their notice had been disconnected. I told them that I found the correct one in the phone book, and gave her the number. She seemed nonplussed, and thanked me for updating her with the correct phone number. Later, I called the Riverside Superior Court again to talk to someone just to make sure that the hold on my driver's license was lifted. She confirmed that was indeed the case, but asked me "Do you have a Florida driver's license?" I told her that I had never even been to Florida, to which she replied "That's strange. We have you listed as having a Florida driver's license." I told her my license was definitely a California one, and she seemed puzzled but said she would correct that. Hmm, I get the idea that there is a lot of official misinformation out there, and many public employees are not particularly bright when it comes to getting the correct facts. Perhaps the letters were sent to some address in Florida.

One other event occured today which I feel compelled to mention. It turns out that I got a letter from the IRS in the mail today. When it rains, it pours, so the saying goes. At first, I was afraid that the IRS wanted to audit our taxes, although my taxes are simple and I don't try anything tricky, plus we don't have much money. (I figure the auditor would end up feeling sorry for us.) I just use a computer program to calculate our taxes, and we basically only have my teaching income, plus some bank account interest. Just the trouble of doing the audit would be bothersome. What the letter actually said was that the IRS thought we still owed $352 from 2007. The numbers they gave did not match up with mine, but it did mention something about $11,000 from some bank account on which no taxes had been paid. I remember we did start a CD in April of 2007, shortly after the last time Eunice came back from Taiwan. It is to pay for our next car, and some of the money was money that I had saved, but the rest of it, perhaps the $11,000, came from one of Eunice's accounts. Perhaps we need to pay tax on that, but I was unaware of that and received no income tax forms from the bank regarding that money. I guess it's "I owe, I owe, so off to work I go."

July 30

I have many more topics to discuss in my Love is Progressive series, but the reality of what is happening in my homestate, California, and how it affects me, compels me to write this post.

California's Budget Crunch Crunches My Family

It is often said that as California goes, so goes the nation, or even the world. Well, if that is true, we are going to hell in a handbasket.

I teach Psychology at a community college, Riverside Community College, Moreno Valley Campus. Last Thursday was my wife's birthday. It wasn't much of a celebration, anyway. Eunice was at her daughter's house, which is about a 45 minute drive from here, supervising home renovations on this old house, which were pretty much breaking us financially, anyway. When we got home that evening, there was a message on our answering machine from the secretary at school that there were some changes in my schedule. She was not specific, so I went to the school's website, and checked my schedule. It showed that one of my three classes for fall semester had been eliminated. On Monday, I called the secretary to tell her that I had figured out the schedule change. She replied that my assessment was somewhat accurate, except that I now only had 1 class instead of 3, due to the budget cuts. She went on to tell me that most of the fall semester classes had been eliminated, including 12 of the 21 scheduled Psychology classes, leaving only 9 Psychology classes remaining. What a nice birthday present for my wife! The reason for the timing of the class cuts was because the California State Budget, what little there is of it, had just been passed.

I thought, and still have hopes of, some of the classes being reinstated. However, I discussed some of these issues at the beginning of my class last night. One of my students mentioned that 600 teachers had been let go at one community college -- that is teachers, not students. Most likely, they are part-time instructors, but these are people with masters degrees and Ph. Ds such as myself, among our smartest and most learned citizens. When the class finished, she mentioned that she and her friend were driving around 45 minutes from another city to take my class, because they could not get into a class at their local community college. The reason was that about half of the summer session classes there had been cancelled. I guess this was the same school that had eliminated 600 instructors. They were ahead of the curve on this. Now, it is everybody else's turn.

I have two older brothers, Craig and Bruce, who also are paid in some way by the State of California. Craig is a geneticist who does research and teaches at U.C. Davis. Bruce is an environmental scientist who works for the California State Water Quality Control Board's office at South Lake Tahoe. Both of them, at the very least, have told me that they are being given a few days of unpaid leave per month. Both of these developments were before the latest budget was passed, so they may suffer further cutbacks in their work. Of course, the budget cuts affect all manner of employees who depend on funding from the State of California -- police, firepersons, health care providers, grade school teachers, and so forth, in addition to people who work for government agencies, and college and university employees. What we are seeing here is basically a domino effect. People will not be getting needed services, health care, or education, etc, in California, which will adversely affect everyone's quality of life, and lead to further unemployment and economic troubles. Interestingly, my father, an M.D. who retired from a job as a Medi-Cal Consultant about 3 years ago or so, continues to get his pension, which I believe is unaffected. Apparently, in the world of politics, pensions are sacred, but jobs are expendable. What is wrong with that picture is that in a situation such as this, money continues to be spent, but work goes undone.

And it all started with Ronald Reagan, damn him! Well, I don't believe in hell per se, but I suspect that special remedial treatment in the afterlife is reserved for people such as Ronald Reagan. No wonder his son Ron Reagan (whom I actually like) does not believe in hell; otherwise, Ron would have to believe that is where his father's soul is. Anyway, I hope Ronald Reagan is rolling in his stinking grave. And shame on the stupid voters who made him our Governor, then President. And shame on all the egotistical corporate conservatives who believe our nation, and our world, belongs to them, and the conservative thinkers at all the conservative think tanks and so forth, who provide the rationale to justify conservative ideology. What we are seeing now is the ultimate result of their each person for himself/herself, anti-government, pro-corporate ideology.

How will this crisis end? It is my hope, and expectation, that more progressive policies will eventually prevail -- exactly when, it is difficult to say. I think new technology, particularly green technology and the resulting greener economy, as well as high-tech industries, aided by government policies, will help pull California out of their current Republican Depression. The same may be said of the United States as a whole, and to some extent, the rest of the world. We also desperately need to raise taxes, which politicians have been conditioned to treat as a cancer. Furthermore, we need greater protections for basic public needs such as education and health care, and for the jobs of those who provide these needs. Basically, what we need is to go in the direction of Socialist Democracy. And here is a "wanted ad" for you: Wanted, Politicians with an actual backbone, ones who are actual public servants, not corporate servants.

Meanwhile, we Californians are learning to get by on the few crumbs allowed us by corporate america.

July 13

The Money and Media Exponent

Well, it's official; according to Eunice, we are out of money, due to her project to renovate Isabella's house. Fortunately, we do have a CD account which will mature 10 days from now and other money reserves which can be used, but all readily available money has apparently been spoken for. This brings me to today's blog post topic.

Something has always seemed fundamentally wrong about the way that money works. A similar problem pertains to the media and celebrity. The basic problem is that we live in a spherical world, but have created institutions of money, media, and celebrity which work exponentially. The exponential quality of these things puts the world -- not just a limited part of the world, but the entire thing -- out of balance. In order for our world to work properly and productively, there must be a sort of balance. Everything must hang together in an intricate, coordinated dance of life. Yet money breeds more money, and those with the money use it to prevent this exponential process from stopping. Media acts as a great magnifying glass, which exaggerates the importance of everything it puts its spotlight on, including celebrities, who use their celebrity to create more celebrity. This is not the way that the world should work. In fact, I would say, it is anti-American, and anti-progressive, at least as I see it.

Meanwhile, "ordinary people" such as myself and my family are left to our own devices, finding ourselves on a constant upill slog just to avoid the silent rising tide of debt which pervades the world. It's global warming and rising sea levels in an economic sense, which is drowning more and more "ordinary people" in debt. According to our government, big businesses are too big to fail, but "little people" are not. This is patently wrong. Celebrities generally don't have to worry their pretty or handsome little heads about such things; all they need to do is act in some lousy movie, do a concert tour, give a few speeches, or write some mediocre book, if they need more funds. If they wish to go into politics, they have a leg up on the rest of us. Those who wish to influence public opinion have a ready-made audience. They are the new royalty, which I repeat, is anti-American and anti-progressive. What is American and progressive, as I see it, is working to create a just society in which success is based proportionately -- not exponentially -- upon merit, and the welfare of society is based on productive work, caring and compassion -- not the total amount of wealth created by the free market.

It may seem as though I am confounding these three issues, money, media, and celebrity, but I combine them intentionally, because they are indeed conflated. Wealth is used to create more wealth, beginning with the banking system, which rewards people for having money by giving them more "interest" the more money they have. Wealth is used to gain power, influencing politics through lobbying or even getting wealthy people elected to public office, but also, wealth is used to influence the media, not only through advertising but through control of media outlets. And of course, it is the media which creates and annoints celebrity. Finally, celebrities use their exalted status to create more power and wealth, as well as to reinforce their own status as celebrities. The entire kit-and-kaboodle is one humongous, conflated mess. Of course, there are many (not all, but many) business moguls and celebrities who are talented and good people with merit; the point of this post is not to present a jealous rant against these people. The point is that their status, power and influence have gotten out of control, and created a dangerous imbalance in the world.

This brings me to two questions. Where did this process start? How can we keep it under control? Considering the first question, leads me to conclude that a couple of factors were involved in creating this system. The first factor is a religious-political world view that allows imbalance to occur. The egocentric, human-centered point of view advocated by the traditional monotheistic religions, teaches people that we as humans own the world and everything in it, and that God takes care of the faithful, giving them more of what they need or want -- more food, more land, more wealth, more attention, victory over their foes, etc. -- without limit. After all, God is in control, all knowing and all powerful, according to this world view. The second factor is basically greed. To be greedy may be part of human nature to some extent. When our ancestors were struggling to survive, those who managed to acquire the most resources were presumably the most likely to survive. Now, we basically have the run of the planet, but the more greedy, fortunate and privileged among us continue to horde far more than their share of resources, and under their rule, the situation has only worsened.

However, there is an even more important side of human nature than greed, a caring social side which is governed by cooperation, compassion and love. That leads me to the best answer I can presently give to the second question. We need to restructure society so that we are governed by cooperation, compassion, and love, not by greed and celebrity. We need to make our voices heard, not in an angry, greedy way, but in a caring, persistent way. We also need to appeal to the caring side of our leaders, and even celebrities, to help this process go forward. Of course, in practical terms, these reforms start with regulation of business practices, such as enforcing the Sherman Antitrust Act, and limiting lobbying, advertising, and corporate ownership of media outlets. We need campaign finance reform, such as public financing, in order to keep wealth from unduly influencing the political process. We need to interact as a people, using all possible outlets such as the internet to work together as a people toward this common goal. That is why maintaining internet neutrality is so important. We also need to create a "Green Economy." This means regulating businesses so that they work in such a way that resources are not wasted, and environmentally sustainable practices are used whenever possible. Businesses and government, must be made resonsible for the waste that they create, and we must recycle everything that we can. Finally, we need to rethink our view of human nature and celebrity. The "Great Man" (or "Great Person") view of humanity is appealing but misleading. We need to abandon it. Remember, society progresses in a logical sequence; everything and everyone, builds upon what has come before. No one achieves anything independently; rather, everything which any of us achieve as an individual, is dependent upon the help of others. That includes the wealthy and the famous. They would just be ordinary people if not for us. Remember, we live in a spherical world, and everything hangs together.

June 30

Fees and Fines as Economic Policy

Last year, I wrote a post about how banged up cars seem more numerous when the economy is poor. While in my opinion, that remains true, I recently was reminded of a more financially damaging effect of poor economic conditions and politicians' unwillingness to directly confront the issues that face them.

The first day that we were home from our trip, there were two nasty surprises in the mail. The worst was a traffic citation by mail that I received for not coming to a complete stop while making a right turn on a red light. Apparently, the Riverside, California police have set up cameras and video cameras at this intersection, which are used to fine drivers and give them citations whenever they need some extra cash. According to the letter I was sent, which had my name wrong, and came from Phoenix, Arizona, I was going 15 miles per hour as I turned the corner. I suppose I had not come to a complete stop, but I am certain that I was not going that fast. If you want to check what I mean, just try going 15 miles per hour while making a right turn sometime. On second thought, you had better not; you will probably get a ticket from some hidden police camera. This whole scheme reminds me of what a guest on the Thom Hartmann show said about mainland China, as well as my personal knowledge of China. There is an appearance of great ethical standards there, because the rules are very strict in general. In fact, the rules are so strict, that virtually no one can completely comply with them. Actually, the real reason for the strict standards is in order to control people and exact vengeance on those who manage to run afoul of the powers that be. Since no one can properly obey the law, the government, and police, can choose to prosecute whoever opposes them. Thus, selective enforcement of the law occurs. Although what has happened in my case only mildly resembles the selective prosecution which happens in China, I suspect that such selective prosecution is far more common in the United States than the great majority of the public is willing to admit. For example, under the Bush administration, 6 times as many Democrats as Republicans were prosecuted by federal attorneys. That certainly seems like selective enforcement to me, as does racial profiling, and in a sense, the use of techniques such as cameras in order to generate traffic tickets. Once, there was a traffic officer who was a student in my class. He mentioned one time that he took a politician for a ride along, and showed him how easy it was to give traffic citations. For example, they stopped and watched 10 people at a stop sign, and found that only 1 of the 10 actually came to a complete stop. Of course, the driver who consistently drives under the speed limit is rare, even in the proximity of police. Who among us can say they never break the traffic rules?

The most disturbing thing about my case, to me, is that I was driving safely. I would not have turned had there been any traffic approaching the intersection. It seems clear to me that a ticket such as this is designed to generate revenue for the police department and city, not to prevent unsafe driving. If they were only interested in preventing unsafe driving, such cameras would only give tickets to unsafe drivers such as people who drive straight through red lights, drive excessively fast, make unsafe lane changes, follow other cars too closely, or turn into traffic. One additional disturbing fact about this ticket is that I was coming home with Eunice from having dinner with my parents prior to going on our trip to my brother's house at South Lake Tahoe. I guess the Riverside Police Department wishes to discourage adult children from visiting their parents.

Another piece of mail on Monday was a bank statement, which had a three dollar charge for including cashed checks in it. This charge had never occurred before. We called customer service for Bank of America, one of the banks partially responsible for the current economic crisis which is receiving bail out funds. The representative told us that the fee was new this month. She said that if we did not want checks included in future statements, she could change our account specifications. Naturally, we opted not to have the checks included in the future. However, I do not think she cancelled the three dollar fee for this month.

My next problem later that same day came when I went to school to buy a parking permit, since this was the first day of the summer session. (As a college instructor, I am in the unfortunate position of having to pay for parking. What other profession makes people pay for parking? Well, perhaps some in crowded cities, but those are much more lucrative jobs, generally, and offer additional bonuses and benefits which instructors do not get.) As I was walking toward the administration building, I noticed the parking attendant in her little golf cart perusing my automobile suspiciously. Hmm, "I had better turn around and explain to her that I am there to get a parking permit," I thought. By the time I had reached her, there was another instructor already having a heated conversation with her. This man with an African accent had already gotten a ticket, and was giving the parking lady an earful. He had already contacted the Police Department, I heard him say, and also perhaps, his attorney and Representative in the state legislature. I sort of lost track of all the people he had spoken to after listening for a moment. As for me, I remember hearing the following words come from my mouth. "What am I supposed to do -- have myself lowered down from a helicopter so I can buy a parking permit?" Fortunately for me, the lady said that if I had an old permit from the spring session, I could still park without getting a parking citation for the first week. Apparently, the other fellow was a new instructor, so he did not have the spring permit. In the past, other instructors and I have gotten parking citations during the first week of a session before, which ended up being cancelled, but only after becoming a major hassle. It seems that this problem had occurred often enough that the policy was changed. This spring session, even, I got a warning (but no citation) because I could find no parking on the first day of class, so I wound up parking in an unauthorized spot.

All of these problems, I feel, are emblematic of the direction that our society, politically and economically, has been taken these past several decades as it has been hijacked -- at least in my view -- by conservative, corporate forces. The idea of raising taxes has become anathema to politicians. Instead, they raise fees and fines which are borne primarily by citizens of modest means. Of course, the pressures for governments and companies to generate money become much greater when the economy is poor, but it continues even during good economic times. Ronald Reagan began this process when he was Governor of California, by making the families of students pay for college. (My two brothers and myself have all gone to state university, for which we had to pay.) He continued such tactics as President, so that the process of adding fees and fines to the economic equation has only worsened to this day. Thus, all of society suffers, and the middle class shrinks. They get dinged and dimed to death. With the eager consent of wealthy politicians, lead by Republicans but aided by many Democrats as well, corporations have free reign to do the same to customers. Fairness is not part of their equation. Rather, the concept of a so-called "free market" essentially means that the money is in charge. It is a "money rules" philosophy. Corporations are treated as though they are persons. Even money is given honorary personhood -- to whit, a series of recent auto insurance advertisements. In fact, the way I see it, the only entity which has freedom in a "free market" is the money, which has no true capacity to experience freedom. Those who control the money are duty bound to generate more of it, making them economic slaves to the money, while the rest of us are economic slaves to those who have the money.

We must redefine freedom as not being synonymous with economic freedom. The right to choose the way in which one makes a living is an important freedom, but there are other aspects of freedom which are even more important -- the freedoms to think, feel and act according to one's preferences and conscience, and choose to do what one wishes when not working, chief among these. To use China as an example again, the world's most populous nation has considerable economic freedom, although their government attempts to suppress other freedoms. (The capacity of government to limit people's thoughts and feelings, and even their actions, is limited, as the estimated 8,000 anti-government riots per year in China, which go unreported by the corporate media, indicate. People are the primary agents in limiting their own freedom. Other agents of freedom restriction which are more powerful than government are culture and religion.) Certainly, few people would consider China to be a particularly free society. Nor is freedom synonymous with democracy. If it were, politicians, especially on the conservative side of the political spectrum, would not be constantly plotting ways to steal elections which they actually have lost, as Republicans do, or planning to create a permanent majority in government, all the while talking about exporting their form of democracy to other nations. True democracy fosters freedoms in that it allows citizens to express themselves and be themselves, and empowers people by allowing them to take part in government and help in the finding and implementation of solutions to our problems. However, democracy can easily become a sham when money and monopolies are allowed to rule, as has largely happened in our society.

As a people, we need to take charge of our economy, and our society, by going (back or forward, or both, as the case may be) to a system of fair taxes, rates and regulations, not arbitrary fees and fines. Ultimately, the politicians in a democracy must listen to their constituents. Let us ensure that our special nation remains a true democracy by making sure that our voices are heard.

January 13

Thriftiness is a Virtue, and Now, it is a Necessity

Ever since moving to Moreno Valley in 1993, Eunice and I have noticed that this area is a good place to shop. There are frequent going out of business sales, as well as regular sales. This is a big part of how we manage to get by on my small salary, with money to spare for Eunice's contributions to various charities, as well as sponsoring four (soon to be five) foreign children. Eunice has been writing about her thriftiness techniques, which I have been editing and putting on Dolly-Verse recently. Soon, I plan to help Eunice get started in a humorous manner on some social networking site, hopefully with some success.

In the past several months, however, life in Moreno Valley has become even thriftier. With two adjacent houses being abandoned due to foreclosure, Eunice has discovered numerous unwanted items left abandoned by our neighbors. Since we know them, she did ask whether she could have them. They are not in very good condition, but the "treasures" are numerous. We have inherited an outdoor ceramic fireplace (basically a huge pot), a dilapidated swing, a plastic swimming pool (which we just recycled yesterday), a large bench which needs repainting, numerous toys and potted plants. Our front and back yards are now festooned with such items. Exactly what Eunice ultimately plans to do with all of these, I am not sure, but some she plans to fix such as repainting the bench, or putting a new canopy over the swing. Others, such as the toys, she will probably give away, if she can find anyone who wants them. The potted plants are in our greenhouse. The huge pot appears to be a decoration. The point for Eunice is, that she is doing her best to make some use of these items. Yes, her collecting habits are a bit eccentric, but that is typical of Eunice.

Meanwhile, the going out of business sales have become more numerous in Moreno Valley. It is definitely a sad sign of the times, but for Eunice, it also represents new shopping opportunities. The current economic situation behooves much of the population to become more thrifty. Thrift stores are thriving while other stores go out of business. Fast food restaurants are doing well, while luxury restaurants are struggling to bring in customers. Lottery sales in most states have increased in recent months. Apparently, a great many people have given up on getting rich through work, opting to rest their hopes of affluence on the slim chance of winning a large lottery payout. The number of damaged cars seen on the road has also increased, which I interpret as a sign of tough economic times. (I wrote about this in an earlier post.)

Thriftiness may make some people, such as Eunice, feel good about their money-saving and waste-reduction efforts, but the need to be so thrifty results in a psychological burden. People who are living "hand-to-mouth" or seeing their savings wiped out after losing their jobs, bear the pschological burden of not knowing how they will get by month-to-month, or even day-to-day. This psychological burden, which can result in violence or psychopathology in some people, as well as theft rates, can only be lifted on the majority of our citizens by restructuring society to help rebuild a strong middle class. Raising the minimum wage, socializing heath care, regulating businesses, developing productive industries such as alternative fuel and recycling industries, and doing everything within our power to create greater economic fairness while reducing non-productive costs such as out-of-control military spending, all are needed to reverse this burdensome trend. In other words, we need to reverse the Reagan Revolution. We need to undo the damage done by the trajectory Ronald Reagan and his cronies put our nation on in 1980. Until we do so, the United States will continue to slide toward third world status, with a very small core of obscenely rich people ruling over an increasingly economically and psychologically stressed populace. Fortunately, the public has spoken by electing Barack Obama to be our President, so the prospect of improving our economic situation is very good. However, our nation has been so trashed by conservative politics these past twenty-eight years, that fully recovering will take many years and a great deal of work. We must not forget that, and must keep pushing the government to provide sound economic and foreign policies, patterning our policies after succesful policies of other nations if need be. Otherwise, we might eventually find Americans scavenging trash heaps, like the sad pictures seen from some countries, while what we really should be doing is further developing our recycling and waste management industries so that we no longer need landfills.

Meanwhile, being thrifty is always a good idea. Perhaps we should teach that in schools. My dear wife Eunice would make an excellent thriftiness teacher.