Thursday, September 22, 2011

If This is Class Warfare, Who Started the War?

Republican Congressional leaders John Boehner and Mitch MConnell have criticized President Obama’s proposal to raise taxes on people earning over  $1 million per year and called it “class warfare.” The comment would be laughable, if the Republican leaders had not convinced themselves that they really believed millionaires were under siege. It would be laughable that stalwart defenders of free market capitalism are now calling upon a Marxist concept to defend the right of the wealthy not to bear their share of the burden for balancing the nation’s budget. However, it’s not laughable because these guys are serious, and they want us to buy their garbage.
Last week the U.S. Census reported that in 2010 the percentage of people in the United States living under the poverty line rose to 15.1%, the highest rate since 1983 when it was 15.3%. That number rose .8% from 2009 to 2010. Put another way a Northeastern University study estimated that 37% (more than 1 in 3) young families were living in poverty. That’s a family of four living under $22,314. At such a low arbitrary level that means millions more Americans currently live at a level that does not enable them to make ends meet for basic needs. As is always the case, these figures are much higher for African Americans (27% under the poverty line) and Hispanics (26% under the poverty line).

But that’s not the whole story because get this: at the same time more people were losing their homes and jobs and slipping into poverty, the wealthiest 1% of the population (those earning more than $620,00/year in 2008 dollars) increased their income by an average of 7.3% from 2009 to 2010. This group also had an average tax cut of $97,000! Over the last decade the average income of this top 1% group quadrupled from $347,000 to $1.3 million. (This data came from the Coalition for Human Needs )
Simple math doesn’t lie – while the masses at the bottom lost money, the top 1% were gaining money. How did that happen? Class Warfare.

However, it didn’t happen last week when Obama announced his jobs and tax plan, it started 30 years ago under President Reagan who espoused “supply side economics” and substantially cut the taxes of the wealthy with the idea that the riches at the top would trickle down to the masses in the form of jobs and benefits (interestingly the last big rise in poverty came during that time). Reagan also went after the unions, particularly the Air Controllers, and framed the issue that the working people wanting better wages – they were the problem; and so unions have continually gotten weaker ever since.
Then along came the first President Bush and Pres. Clinton who pushed through the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) which made it easier for companies to go to Mexico in search of cheaper labor and less restrictive regulations about workers’ safety and environmental standards. Not only did NAFTA undercut the right of people to advocate for living wages, but it created all sorts of problems for Mexicans which has led to the mass migration north across the border in search of jobs, even if they come under threat of arrest and deportation.

Then came the second President Bush, who pushed through tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in the promise that these tax cuts would create jobs. Oops – how is that jobs program coming? O yea we are up to 1983 levels of poverty and unemployment.
Then when Obama proposed universal health care the lobbyists and corporate interest groups flooded the congress with “influence” (read: lots of campaign money), so that the bill that passed (and they still criticize) was gutted of its most powerful provisions for health care for the needy.

At the same time the stock market crashed and the banks “too big to fail” almost did. People lost their homes to funky mortgages, and Presidents Bush and Obama bailed them out so they could help those folks restructure the mortgages, right? Oh no, the banks  gave their top execs those bonuses they had been so long denied for the great job they had done managing their and our money. At the same time along Goldman Sachs and their ilk were making bundles on our suffering and theirs.
Then in 2010, Republican governors like Scott Walker (WI), Tom Corbett (PA) and Chris Christie (NJ) (as well as many others) supported by ultra-right wing wealthy backers like the Koch brothers began slashing state budgets in the name of “fiscal responsibility). Interestingly they still couldn’t tax the rich or the corporations; they just cut public school budgets and social services for the poor and working class.

The really sad thing, is not only did both Republican and Democratic leaders systematically bilk the middle and working classes and pad the pockets of the wealthiest 5% of the population, but they got millions of middle class folks to think this problem was all due to “big government” “socialists and liberals" and “illegal immigrants.” So the Tea Party folks are marching and chanting for policies that literally will slash their incomes and undermine their financial security.
So Obama finally gets the courage to tax the rich, and Boehner and McConnell want to call it “class warfare?” Come on guys our “hope and change” President has finally had enough and he is calling your bluff. The war has been going on for a long time, and we are just getting around fighting back. And I hope we will. I hope we will take to the streets like the people of Cairo and Madison, Wisconsin, and say enough is enough. 

Employers if you want a tax break – create jobs. Rich folks, don’t hide behind the line “it will hurt small business;” we can create tax credits for small business employers. Provide support and incentives for green jobs and local businesses to flourish. Stop giving tax breaks to the Exxons of the world, and let the rich folks man up like Warren Buffett, and say, you know, $97,000 in tax cuts, that’s not needed. Let them show that they care about the financial state of the country. Let them show they want to part of the solution to the debt crisis. Let them bear their part of the financial burden.
Class warfare – yea it’s been going on for 30 years. Let’s just keep in mind who started the war.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A Beginning and New Era for a Troubled School

On Tuesday, September 6 I attended the opening ceremonies for the new West Philadelphia High School (WPHS), best known to most folks as the alma materof actor-singer Will Smith. However, the school has had long and, more recently, a troubled history characterized by violence, revolving door leadership, and persistently low test scores. At the same time it has been nationally recognized for its innovative Auto Mechanics academy, and the Urban Leadership academy, which involves students in addressing local community issues such as vacant lots and abandoned buildings. Despite these positives the public image of WPHS has been persistently negative. However, as one who has met students and teachers, I have come to know it as place where committed teachers and students have struggled to provide a quality education amidst of environment of political rancor and declining resources.
For the past four years I have been part of the West Philadelphia Community Partners (WPCP), a collection of parents, community members and other interested persons advocating and working to assure that the students of WPHS get the quality education they need and deserve. While the opening ceremonies featured political luminaries such as Mayor Michael Nutter, Councilwoman Jamie Blackwell  State Senator Vincent Hughes, and acting superintendent Leo Nunnery, the real heroes were the students, alumni, parents and community members of WPCP who had labored for years to get the new state of the art school built.

The Community Partners came together nearly ten years ago when then-superintendent Paul Vallas announced plans to construct of new school buildings throughout the city, including WPHS. Through the organizing efforts of the Philadelphia Student Union and support from the Philadelphia Education Fund, WPCP met monthly to propose plans for a small school model for the new school that would have 3-4 smaller learning communities in the large building. We proposed a particular architectural design to fit this proposal in consultation with Concordia LLC, an architectural firms specializing in innovative school design. Along with several others I attended a meeting with then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman to advocate for our design and the small schools approach. When Dr. Ackerman announced that WPHS would be part of her Promise Academy program, the WPCP advocated for a partnership with John Hopkins University. While in the end all of the specific suggestions and proposals put forth by the WPCP were rejected, we continued to be a voice of the community advocating on behalf of students and parents for quality urban education.
I joined WPCP about four years ago after reading about several highly publicized incidents of violence between students and teachers. While I do not live in the community, I am a member of West Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship, which meets just a few blocks from the school. As a representative of our church, I helped organize a breakfast of local faith community leaders in support of the WPCP’s efforts. I offered my expertise and input when necessary, but mostly I simply “showed up” in what some have called a “ministry of presence.” Currently, I am a member of the School Advisory Council, a group of community people who work closely with the new principal, Mary Dean, to keep the lines of communication between the school and the community open.

At the opening ceremonies I sat next to a woman whose 11th grade son was transferring from a private school to West Philadelphia High School She sounded so proud as she told me that he had joined the football team and was excited to be in a new state-of-the-art school building. As the students filed into the gym with their new uniforms and took their places in the bleachers, she beamed with joy. In that gym there was a feeling of hope and sense that a new chapter in the 100 year old school’s history was about to begin. I felt privileged and excited to be part of the process that helped put a glow on that mother’s face. I continue to serve in this way seeking to come alongside those folks so long denied privileges I can too easily take for granted (like a quality public education) by joining with them in seeking the justice they deserve.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

The Gun Industry - Making Bundles of Money at Our Expense

I continue my discussion of the church's response to the gun violence movement by now looking at the gun industry. Simply stated the gun manufacturing industry has avested interest in selling as many firearms as possible, regardless of the social costs due to firearm injuries and deaths. Guns are big business and this section I try to illustrate just how extensive this business is

Gun Manufacturers
It is tempting for many people concerned about gun violence to attribute the grim statistics on gun-related violence solely to the social and psychological conditions. However, there is entire industry of gun manufacturers and gun dealers whose financial success depends on a continually expanding market of gun dealers and gun users. Additionally, there are numerous trade journals and the media outlets that are integral to the promotion of the gun industry. Thus, this huge economic force contributing to gun violence also must be examined if one is to fully appreciate the magnitude of the challenge facing gun violence prevention forces. Diaz (1999) describes the firearms industry, including the manufacturers, distributers, dealers, and promoters, as “a little money making machine” (p. 85). 

While often the gun industry seeks to defend itself against gun control advocates by talking about constitutional rights and the preservation of basic American values, essentially the gun industry is in business to make money. As Diaz (1999) writes: “The ultimate fact is that the gun industry is simply a business and nothing more." It is neither a national trust nor a repository of American values. … [People who make, sell or import guns] are businessmen. They are in the game because they want to make money and as much of it as possible” (p.3). Yet, unlike industries such as the auto or pharmaceutical industries, the firearms industry is relatively unregulated and operates without accountability and public scrutiny.

Gun manufacturing has been operating in the United States since 1836 when Samuel Colt won a U.S. patent for his Colt revolver (Diaz, 1999). (2011) reports that currently there are approximately 300 gun manufacturers operating in the U.S. who earn a combined profit of $5 billion. Additionally, there are a number of foreign-based companies that sell firearms in the lucrative U.S. market and include some of the more well-known and profitable companies, such as Smith & Wesson (England), Beretta (Italy), Browning (Japan) and Glock (Austria). However, the distinction gets blurred because foreign based companies set up U.S. subsidiaries to get around import restrictions. Moreover, gaining information on these companies is difficult  because all but one major gun manufacturer – Sturm, Ruger  & Company – are privately owned, and conceal information that is required of publicly traded corporations (Diaz, 1999).

Like all industries the gun industry has had cycles of success and downturn. The most recent upturn for the gun industry occurred in the 1980’s when gun executives recognized that the market for hunting rifles was in decline, that the legal gun market was saturated, and that few new markets were opening up. To address this declining trend, the gun industry began introducing handguns to the market, and promoting various “innovations” that increased the accuracy and firepower of handguns. Playing on the theme of fear and the need for self-defense, the gun industry promoted the idea of guns for one’s safety, and began propagating the idea that gun ownership was a constitutional right.  The rise of the survivalist and militia movements in the 1980’s coincided with the introduction of assault rifles into gun marketplace. Thus, what had previously been focused on hunting and sport shooting increasingly became focused on producing and marketing guns whose primary purpose was to inflict injury on other human beings. At the same time these same kinds of guns began appearing on the lists produced by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) as those weapons most frequently used in crimes (Diaz, 1999).

Gun Dealers

Working closely in concert with the manufacturers are the dealers who sell the guns. Diaz (1999) writes: “The retail sale of firearms in the United States is for all intents and purposes unregulated” (p. 36).  Anyone who is 21, has a place of business and does not have a criminal record can receive a federal license (under the Gun Control Act (GCA) of 1968) to import and sell guns (BATFE, 2011). State regulations vary widely from state to state, but the vast majority of states (with a few notable exceptions such as New Jersey, Massachusetts, and New York) impose only minor additional restrictions. In order to purchase a gun in most states, a potential buyer simply needs to fill out an application and go through a cursory background check that only takes a few minutes. However, many sellers and buyers of guns can skirt even these minimal restrictions by doing business at public gun shows where most if not all of these restrictions are not applied (Diaz, 1999). Moreover, a majority of states allow ordinary citizens to carry concealed weapons in public and the recent trend has been toward increasingly permissive laws in this area (LCAV, 2008).

While all gun dealers are required by ATF to keep and provide records of sale, these data do not reveal the extensive illegal gun market being fed by the process of straw purchasing. Straw purchasing occurs when someone buys guns, usually in bulk on behalf of someone who has a criminal record and cannot pass the minimum requirements for a criminal background check.  The straw purchaser buys the guns legally and then turns them over (usually for a small fee) to the street dealer and the guns become untraceable. If a gun is used in a crime and traced back to the straw purchaser, he or she can simply say the gun was lost or stolen, and there are not further legal ramifications. (Bascunan & Pearce, 2007 ). Gun dealers can easily see what is going on when a person buys multiple guns, but can hide behind the cloak of legality, saying the buyer who entered his or her store bought the guns legally. As one former straw purchaser confided to a reporter, he could often visit gun shops a couple times a week buying multiple guns. Some gun dealers would even contact him when they had a new shipment of handguns (Thompson, 2010). Thus, for some gun dealers (but certainly not all) the illegal gun market has become another reliable stream of revenue.


Bascunan, R. & Pearce, C. (2007). Enter the Babylon system: Unpacking gun culture from Samuel Colt to 50 Cent. Toronto: Random House Canada.

Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Fireams and Explosives (BATFE) (2011). Frequently asked questions: General questions. Retrieved on January 25, 2011 at
Diaz, T. (1999).Making a Killing: the Business of Guns in America. New York: the New Press.

Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV) (2008). Carrying concealed weapons. Regulating Guns in America: An evaluation and comparative analysis of Federal, State and selected local gun laws. January 25, 2011 at