Week In Review

A Weekly Column by Bill Onasch
April 24, 2012

An Age Old Problem
A subhead on a Los Angeles Times article reads,

“A dire forecast by trustees of Social Security and Medicare adds urgency to calls on Washington to do something soon as baby boomers begin retiring.”

Commenting on the same Trustee reports, the AFL-CIO Blog cites Fed president Rich Trumka’s view,

“The report shows that without any congressional action, Social Security will be able to pay full benefits through 2033, despite lower-than-expected wage and economic growth and unexpected increases in the cost of living. But Trumka warns that Wall Street bankers and lawmakers intent on cutting Social Security will use today’s report to push cuts to the program again.”

One of those Wall Street bankers is Obama’s Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, a Social Security Trustee and principal source for the LAT article.

Once again, there is a discrepancy in perception and position between the White House and union officials. Which–if either–is correct?

First off, full disclosure: my sole regular income is from Social Security and I am enrolled in Medicare. I have a vested interest in these programs–as do all workers. I don’t accept with good grace being cast as the problem, a burden on younger generations. While I may show signs of a cantankerous attitude so often associated with my age group my memory recall is still adequate enough to resent the lies about these programs repeated as Gospel by politicians of both parties and the mass media–and I have answered them on numerous occasions in this column.

There are two main ways to not only assure the solvency of Social Security but also provide a much needed boost in benefit payments. One is easy, the other more challenging.

The easy fix is to remove the cap on income subject to the dedicated Social Security tax–currently 110,100 dollars. If the rich paid their full fair share, as most workers do, the fund would be flush.

More challenging is to put to work those more than 23 million who want a full-time job and can’t find one. That would be a perhaps even bigger help in long-term stabilization and enhancement of retirement security for all generations.

The problems of Medicare can’t be separated from the overall health care crisis. There’s nothing complicated about a fix for those problems either. Most other industrialized countries have long provided better health outcomes, at much lower cost, to all. We could realize immediate progress by adopting a plan similar to that of our northern neighbors–Single Payer.

Those politicians and talking heads who say the problem can only be fixed by cutting benefits, or privatization, or working until 70 and beyond, are our enemies. We don’t have an old age problem; we have an age old problem–the rule of the bosses and bankers over the people who do or did the work of society.

Go North Young Person
Like the USA, most of Canada’s population has been based on immigrants and their progeny. But, except for a slight bump by young men seeking to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war, few of those relocating to Canada have come from their southern neighbor. Global warming may change that.

A study of warming’s effect on corn yields by environmental scientists, published in Nature Climate Change, concludes the U.S. corn belt will be moving steadily, and relatively quickly north. A scientist at Stanford said,

“By the time today's elementary schoolers graduate from college, the US corn belt could be forced to move to the Canadian border to escape devastating heat waves brought on by rising global temperatures.”

While Canada is a big place there’s not enough room to expand grain cultivation to pick up the slack left by loss of what’s grown in the U.S.–unless you fell an awful lot of trees. That, of course, would release carbon stored in the forests in to the atmosphere–boosting global warming even higher and faster.

This gloomy prognosis comes as the corn market has been greatly expanded. In addition to the people and livestock food industry, corn ethanol is the “biofuel” of choice in North America, increasingly used as a gasoline additive or substitute. That’s not only swollen corn prices but also those of wheat and soy beans too as less of those crops are produced because farmers switched to more corn.

That’s the single biggest factor in runaway inflation at the grocery store. Grain is a big part of the cost of meat, poultry, egg, dairy, and a variety of processed food and beverages as well as canned and frozen corn, and grain based snack and breakfast foods. But we haven’t seen the worst yet by any means. The study expects that one consequence of shrinking corn production over the next decade or two will be quadrupled consumer price hikes.

This scenario is based on the assumption warming will level off at an historical 3.6 F increase in global average temperature since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. That was formerly the cap hoped for by governments and scientists. Going beyond that means climate change likely becomes irreversible climate damage.

But we’re at 1.4F now–and accelerating rapidly. More than half of the rise has taken place just since 1979. Since 1980 there’s been an average increase of 0.4F per decade. At the present clip our kids, or at least our grandchildren, will live to see the 3.6F barrier broken. The temperate zones that are now home to the majority of the planet’s population, that have historically been abundant producers of grain and livestock, will largely become hot and arid, yields diminishing. Even Canada will no longer be able to sustain today’s living standards–and there’s nothing north of Canada.

Most climate scientists believe unless exceptional measures are soon implemented the rise will continue to 5.4F–maybe even more–by the end of the century. Any corn yield still surviving then would likely be in the range of the truffle yield today. That will mean the end of human civilization as we know it.

In contrast to the latest grim report on corn there were a couple of hopeful signs for mobilizing a movement for action to slow and reverse the climate change threat.

First is a change in the American public perception of global warming. Justin Gillis wrote in the New York Times,

“A poll.... shows that a large majority of Americans believe that this year’s unusually warm winter, last year’s blistering summer and some other weather disasters were probably made worse by global warming. And by a 2-to-1 margin, the public says the weather has been getting worse, rather than better, in recent years.

“The survey, the most detailed to date on the public response to weather extremes, comes atop other polling showing a recent uptick in concern about climate change. Read together, the polls suggest that direct experience of erratic weather may be convincing some people that the problem is no longer just a vague and distant threat.”

Another encouraging development was a statement by the Emergency Labor Network in their Key Issues series entitled Sustainable Jobs in a Healthy Environment. The ELN came out of an Emergency Labor Meeting held in Cleveland March, 2011 and has accumulated an e-mail list in the thousands. The statement concludes with these words,

“The mammoth mobilization needed to tackle climate change requires direction from a government serving the interests of the working class majority. We don’t get such a government by our unions contributing hundreds of millions of dollars, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers, to reelect the pro-boss status quo. To leave an acceptable heritage for future generations, as well as meeting today’s pressing needs, we believe the labor movement should organize a discussion on the need to build an independent labor party. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of humanity may depend on this working class initiative. It is a prerequisite to stopping corporate generated climate change before it becomes irreversibly inhospitable for our species.”

That’s a welcome breath of fresh air in an otherwise toxic pollution of American labor politics.

In Brief...
¶ From AP, “A weak labor market already has left half of young college graduates either jobless or underemployed in positions that don't fully use their skills and knowledge. Young adults with bachelor's degrees are increasingly scraping by in lower-wage jobs - waiter or waitress, bartender, retail clerk or receptionist, for example - and that's confounding their hopes a degree would pay off despite higher tuition and mounting student loans.”
¶ Reuters reported, “More than half of local and state employees continue to work under pay freezes, while others are accelerating their retirements or facing the prospects of layoffs as the effects of the recession linger on the public sector.”
¶ Some 4500 NNU RNs at eight Sutter Health hospitals in the San Francisco Bay Area will, in the best spirit of May Day, conduct a one-day strike next Tuesday. The company is demanding elimination of sick leave and give-backs in working conditions that would compromise patient care.

Regrettably, I have to announce the passing of one of the most remarkable persons I have ever known, my long time friend and comrade Gerry Foley. While available details are still sketchy Gerry apparently died of natural causes while moving in to a new residence in Mexico. Attracted by the victory of the Cuban Revolution while a student at Indiana University in the early Sixties, Gerry made a life-time commitment to the socialist movement which he fulfilled with honor. An incredible linguist–fluent in at least a dozen languages and able to read dozens more–he put his talent to good use in analyzing and promoting working class struggles around the world. Until his retirement last year, he had long been international editor of Socialist Action. While meeting every definition of a true scholar, he nevertheless wrote clearly and concisely, easily absorbed by the average worker. I already missed his monthly articles. It’s harder still to accept that I can’t sit down with him at a decent meal to probe his encyclopedic knowledge or get a fleeting glimpse of great passion behind his stoic demeanor. As more details of his life, and plans for memorial meetings, become available I will post them on the site.

That’s all for this week.

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