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Jack is a graduate of Rutgers University where he majored in history. His career in the life and health insurance industry involved medical risk selection and brokerage management. Retired in Florida for over two decades after many years in NJ and NY, he occasionally writes, paints, plays poker, participates in play readings and is catching up on Shakespeare, Melville and Joyce, etc.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Obama at Mid-Term, Sid Tells a Story, Chronic Unemployment

Barack Obama at Mid-Term

I doubt that President Obama will ever make it to Mount Rushmore
Though a supporter of the President, I am not an apologist for Barack Obama.  As is the case with most of our Presidents, he came into office with bold ideas.  He still has them.  His plans were to make America better by stimulating our faltering economy and bring about greater equality in our society by the creation of greater opportunity, using the resources of government to accomplish these goals where necessary.   

His determination to continue to strive for what he believes in was made clear by what he said in Tuesday evening's State of the Union address.  He will not tolerate attempts to retreat from the improvements in health care brought about by the Affordable Care Act, but he still managed to maintain a conciliatory tone toward Republicans, saying that if they can come up with something better than it (as opposed to mere criticism), he would want to see if their numbers "add up."  He  also said that he would veto threatened Congressional attempts to derail the discussions going on with Iran by restoring some of the economic sanctions which have been removed in exchange for some curtailment in Iran's nuclear program. Certainly, Obama did not retreat from his convictions.
But no President, however, can do whatever he wants to do without the agreement of Congress and the absence of objections from the Supreme Court, the two other bastions of power in our government’s separation of powers among executive, legislative and judicial branches.  And there is only so much that a President can accomplish by executive decree. Nevertheless, the President announced in his address that he would use those executive powers, bypassing Congress if necessary, to create greater economic opportunity in this country.  Despite these words, however, the President knows the limitations of that approach.  But the threat of using them very well might nudge the G.O.P. into a more cooperative mode.

It’s a rare President who has reliable support from Congress and the Court.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt did, but only because of the depth of the crisis brought about by the Great Depression, and even then, he met with some opposition in the Supreme Court.   Barack Obama’s presidency lacks such a rare confluence of favorable factors, and that, despite his ideals and his upbeat determination to do what is right for America, assures that his two terms in office will not be considered great ones.  

At some time in the future, history might take a different view, as it did with Harry Truman, but as for now the forty-fourth President will get no more than a B for his accomplishments. (The only “A” presidencies might be those of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt, but that is another topic entirely.)

Obama on Inauguration Day

Once in office, most Presidents put aside their grandiose dreams and go about dealing with the mechanics of running the nation’s operations, encompassing its domestic and foreign policies.  When the legislative and judicial branches are not going along with the President, he must try to compromise in these areas, usually resulting in a far different presidency from what was envisioned on Inauguration day. Sadly, President Obama has not really had anyone with whom to compromise because if any Republicans visibly stepped forward to do so, any resultant successes would add luster to the Obama presidency, an act of apostasy to the G.O.P.  Some Republicans actually want to accept the President's conciliatory attitude in regard to issues such as immigration, but are trying to figure out how to do so without appearing to work with him. 

In such an environment, if a President fights tenaciously for something in which he deeply believes, as he Barack Obama did for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it results in other areas not being given as much energy and attention as they might deserve.

It is clear to me where the President stands on gun control, increasing the minimum wage, immigration, improvements in the Federal economic safety net (food stamps, Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment benefits, etc.), global warming, environmental issues, family issues and education reform. He may have strong ideas in these areas but without a Senate, a House of Representatives and a Supreme Court in agreement with him, his options are relatively limited and therefore, his accomplishments in these areas will be similarly limited, even though he may attempt to use his executive powers as a tool.
While Obama is a social liberal, his economic policy is really more centrist.  He is not hated on Wall Street as FDR was, even though he has supported increased regulation of the financial and banking industries.  He has been an advocate of globalization, much to the consternation of organized labor which supported his election.  His accomplishments, including stimulus packages for struggling financial institutions and industries, have not aroused the same animosity which his social liberalism has, and hence, he has been able to make strides forward in energizing our economy, despite the continuing unemployment which I fear may be a permanent part of our economic picture.
As for foreign policy, which really should be a non-partisan area, the President has sought solutions in the Middle East and Asia, no easy task.  He has been ambivalent in regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and indecisive in Libya, Syria and Egypt, chiefly because it is very difficult to determine whom to support in these places where religion and politics are deeply intermingled.  He is trying to manage a breakthrough in relations with Iran, whose nuclear and geopolitical ambitions strain our alliances with the Gulf states and Israel.  And while assuring Israel of its long-standing friendship with and support by the United States, he has put a lot of effort into trying to negotiate an agreement with the Palestinians.  In all of these areas, he is trying to perform a difficult balancing act on a swaying tightrope.   Because Barack Obama’s ethnic background differs from any earlier President, he may be able to accomplish more in these areas than his predecessors were able to.

Unfortunately, this possible advantage has been turned against him by his political opponents, many of whom do not hesitate to use any weapon available to attack a presidency they announced they would undermine the very day he took office. 

Sunset over the White House.  

Considering what is on his plate, and the forces arrayed against him, in my opinion President Obama has done pretty well in his term and a half in office.  Twenty-three months remain in his final term, during which he will certainly try to continue his efforts to achieve what he campaigned for in 2008 and 2012.  The manner in which he proceeds to do this, of course, will be affected by the Congressional elections later this year.  And that is another matter to be discussed.
Jack Lippman

Dealing with Chronic Unemployment

Unemployment may go down a bit from month to month, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that unemployed people are getting jobs and going back to work.  The number of new jobs “created” each month has been consistently less than the number needed to reflect a drop in the unemployment rate.  The usual explanation is that each month a number of long-term unemployed just stop looking for work.  When they give up, they are no longer counted as unemployed and voila, the unemployment rate goes down.

I heard a much more realistic figure the other day which illustrates the depth of our unemployment problem.  Of males in the 25 to 54 age range, one in six is without a job!  Some are still being counted as being among the unemployed and many are among the “no longer looking.”  These are their prime working years.  These are not just kids freshly out of school starting a career or flipping burgers somewhere nor older workers approaching retirement.  They are people who should be working!


The jobs these 16% held have been either outsourced to countries with inexpensive labor resources or rendered obsolete by new technologies and marketing methods and no longer exist in the United States.  This age range comprises the years when families are raised, children educated, homes purchased and retirement savings accumulated, and the opportunity to do these things has been severely compromised for one in six males in that crucial 25 to 54 age bracket.

Meanwhile, some of them have settled on the alternatives of going back to school, becoming “stay-at-home” dads or applying for disability benefits.  But in all cases, their money is running out, they are disillusioned and desperately want a real job with a future.  The lucky ones have a working spouse or family resources to which they can turn, including moving their family back with their parents.

  Unemployed Stay at Home Dad

When you call your cable TV provider about service or a bill, you usually speak to someone in what was once (but no longer is) called the "third world."  When many purchase a new electric appliance, they do it “on line” where the selection is greater than in a brick and mortar store.  The only areas of traditional retail business which are flourishing are groceries and designer clothing stores or apparel departments in otherwise empty department stores.  But even there, automation at the checkout line has reduced the number of jobs.  Even the fisherman who caught the tilapia you bought in the grocery probably lives in Asia, where the TV set you watch was made.

FedEx delivers what you bought on line

New jobs have been created in the operations of Amazon.com, for example, and in Fedex’s and UPS’s delivery systems, but not in sufficient numbers to replace those one in six missing jobs.  And it will not get better.  It will get worse, as the number of employees needed to run our economy becomes less and less.  Even the salesman doesn’t have to travel his territory any more because computer systems handle the dissemination of the products he used to have to sell. There are fewer and fewer "Willie Lomans" around because Apple and Microsoft have made obsolete that wonderful song sung by a chorus of traveling salesmen in "The Music Man," "You gotta know the territory!" 

Lee J. Cobb Lee J. Cobb played Willie Loman in the original Broadway production of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."   He "knew the territory" and was "well-liked" but it didn't make any difference for him then and wouldn't today if he were still around.

You can invest, purchase insurance, do your banking, and never ever see or talk to an employe of the firm with which you are dealing.  And if you insist on doing so, there are fewer of them than there used to be.  So prepare to wait, or stand on line.

Sure, you can still speak to a person in a bank, but you'll have to wait on line.

The answer to this problem, as I see it, is the rationing of the available work in this country among the labor force.  We can have true full employment if retirement at age 55 were made mandatory and making it a crime for anyone to work more than 30 hours a week. This would require the Federal government to step in to juice up the Social Security system and make individual savings for retirement such as 401K plans mandatory with substantial minimum contribution requirements.

Watching to clock to make sure your work-week doesn't exceed 30 hours, which would subject you to prosecution for the crime of stealing an employment opportunity from someone else.

This would result in full employment for those up to age 55, but the thirty hour week would reduce income, probably necessitating some kind of government subsidy.   

Would such Federal “intervention” be less in dollars than is presently being paid out in unemployment compensation and other “safety net” benefits?   Would taxes have to go up to support such a plan?  I wonder if an economist on a campus somewhere is working on how a “model” of this would work.  We need to know and we need to know it quickly because that 16% of our male population between ages 25 and 54 cannot wait very much longer for an answer.
In another century, they might have heeded Horace Greeley’s famous advice to “Go West, Young Man, Go West,” but the frontier has been closed for well over a century now and the economic frontier, sadly, is on the other side of the Pacific.


Sid's Corner 


From the Archives of Sid Bolotin

He was tall, gaunt, and clean-shaven with bright blue eyes that sparkled like diamonds against his deeply bronzed skin. His almost lipless mouth turned slightly downward at its corners to give his face a grim, sad appearance. I guessed that he was, maybe ten years older than my own age of 60.

As I looked into his eyes, I thought saw a hint of coldness deep within as he asked, “May I share your table, sir? All the other seats are taken.”

My glance around the cafeteria in Boston’s Logan Airport proved him correct, so I gestured to the chair across from me, inviting him to be seated.

As he lowered his tray to the table, his muffin rolled off onto my tray. When he recovered it, he insisted on sharing half of it with me.

As I munched on a piece of it, I noted that he was dressed in a tailored, black, business suit, white shirt, and red tie. I remembered being taught that this was the “dress-for-success” look when I was in marketing. “Your attire makes you stand out in this day and age of casual dress for travel”, I said. “Most people travel nowadays in rumpled, comfortable, hanging-out getups.”

Without answering he folded his six foot frame into the seat directly across from me, and I could now see the lines, the wrinkles extending from his eyes and mouth, the classic weathered look of an outdoorsman, yet totally out of keeping with his business-like, polished attire. I then caught sight of his solid white, full-bodied, fairly long pony-tail cascading below his shoulder blades.

“My name’s Brad,” I announced as I extended my hand.

“Mine’s Running Stag,” he responded as he gripped my hand firmly in his over-sized, gnarled, long-fingered hand.

My puzzlement increased as I felt his worn calluses rub into my palm; another incongruity. Who was he? What was he?  I thought.

Apparently sensing my confusion, his steely eyes shifted to a twinkle, and the corners of his mouth curled slightly upward. “I’m a collection of paradoxes, aren’t I?” he asked. “Old, weathered codger with a pony tail and an Indian name doesn’t quite match up with the business suit, does it?”

“Well, now that you’ve acknowledged my own assessment, would you please explain?”
 I responded with a slight chuckle.

“Once upon a time,” he began with a wry smile, “I was born on the Cherokee Reservation near Laramie, Wyoming. My mother was a full-bloodied Cherokee who at sixteen was gang-raped by a bunch of drunken, teenage townies who had found her walking near town one night. All eight of them violated her repeatedly. She had been so traumatized that she wasn’t able to identify them with any certainty to the police. So they never were arrested or brought to trial. Because she defied the tribal elders by refusing to have an abortion when she became pregnant, she was ostracized by the women, and raised me by herself.”

As Running Stag spoke of his mother’s ordeal, his blue eyes glinted like chrome steel, and his lipless mouth hardened into a slit of bloodless lips, and I felt a chill of recognition tremble across my shoulders. I had eavesdropped this story over the years when my father’s cronies had gathered at our house for a night of rowdy, drunken poker or sports TV.

Noting the trace of recognition appear in my eyes Running Stag smiled sardonically and hissed, “That’s right, Brad, your father was one of the eight bastards that pounded unmercifully into my mother. I could be your half brother. Hi, Bro! They all went on to marry and raise families, oblivious to the pain they had inflicted, even though they saw Mom and me around town from time to time. They never once acknowledged her or me with a word or a gesture let alone any financial help. I grew up wrangling horses on the nearby ranches, and one of the owners took me under his wing. He wound up sponsoring me to college and leaving his spread to me when he died. With help from my Indian brothers and a friendly legislature, I was able to put a casino on a portion of the land. As you can see, it’s been very, very profitable. However, none of my good fortune erased the hate that my mother had nurtured in me, nor the promises of revenge that she made me swear to.”

As a cold sweat drenched my body, the man before me took the next thirty minutes to list the details of his life-long search for the eight thugs and their children. “And so, Brad, I tracked them all down as only a good, very rich Indian can, and killed each and every one of them. You’re the last. Before I came here, your father croaked his last words telling me where to find you. Feeling your throat constrict? That’s the poison in the muffin I shared with you.     


You can’t yell or move. You can only suffer through in horrific silence just as she did. Goodbye, Brad. By the time people realize that you’re dead, I’ll be back at the casino in Wyoming. Complete revenge is so, so sweet, Bro.”



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Jack Lippman