THE BLOG
03/05/2013 11:38 am ET Updated May 05, 2013

Are We There Yet?

OK, Sequester Armageddon has occurred. And the sun continues to rise in the East and set in the West; clocks, watches, buses, trains and airplanes are still running throughout the nation. Congress, as usual, in the midst of an urgent domestic fiscal crisis works a short week, adjourning for the weekend.

Sometimes, it good to travel outside the United States and talk to people in other countries and listen to what they say about what they think is going on in our country.

Last month I had the opportunity to travel to Kiev, Ukraine to conduct a series of lectures to the international diplomatic community and undergraduate and graduate university students. The subject of my lectures was the meaning and significance of "Black History Month" in the United States 150 years after our Emancipation Proclamation, during the 50th Anniversary year of Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech and during the second term of America's first African-American president. I was interviewed on Kiev radio and television and by local print media.

But, more on this in another blog.

I returned to the United States to watch in utter amazement the sequester and the ironic confluence of what would otherwise appear to be disparate events: Supreme Court Justice Antonio Scalia's comments during oral argument about the need to continue the "preclearance" requirement of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is that part of the Act specifically directed toward several Southern states where the most egregious interference with African Americans' right to vote is a matter of documented history.

Justice Scalia suggested that renewing Section 5, indeed the entire Act itself, would today be a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." The Act, including Section 5, was unanimously renewed in 2006. Scalia, however, even questioned the authenticity of that unanimous Senate vote, notwithstanding similar unanimous votes confirmed his own appointment to the Court. Go figure.

The Supreme Court is only a short distance from the Capital Rotunda. Scalia's remarks occurred almost at the same time that a statue of Rosa Parks was being unveiled in the Rotunda. The statue had been authorized pursuant to a Congressional resolution authored by former Chicago Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr. Jackson recently resigned his seat and is awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to illegally using election campaign funds for his personal use. Although his father was present when President Obama "unveiled" the statue, his son was poignantly absent.

The utter depravity of Justice Scalia's remark was in contrast to this weekend's commemoration of Bloody Sunday, March 7th, 1965. As the New York Times noted in its Sunday editorial: "That day, the voting rights movement was transformed into a national cause" when the marchers were stopped by Alabama State troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as they left Selma.

MSNBC commentator and author Rachel Madow was in the Supreme Court when Scalia spoke about perpetuating "racial entitlement." Later, on The Daily Show she called Justice Scalia a "troll."

Don't Supreme Court Justices read newspapers and magazines about current political events? It is hard to believe that Justice Scalia doesn't -- he is reportedly influenced by and committed to the "original" intent of the Constitution. A casual reading of the Congressional record of discussion of the 13th and 15th Amendments and the 1965 Congress that enacted the Voting Rights Act would indicate quickly that neither the Act nor Section 5 seeks to enact or perpetuate any "racial entitlement" for African-Americans. The issue was and is not entitlement but parity and equality of treatment under laws guaranteeing the right to vote. Nothing more, nothing less.

This made me think. What term is appropriate for Congressional Republicans who are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the "fairness basis" of President Obama's proposal for a possible "grand bargain" with Speaker John Boehner for reducing spending and raising revenues? Repeatedly, the president has argued for modest increases in taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers.

In the absence of empirical objective evidence and data about income and wealth disparity in America, one might contend that Republicans, as reasonable people, can differ with the president on his call for fairness. This would be so, if the proposal of the president were based on equivocal, uncertain or unsubstantiated economic data about the financial capacity of the wealthy in our society to contribute a greater share of tax revenues needed to reduce or close our budget deficit. But such is not the case.

Thus, I began to think of Congressional Republicans and Justice Scalia not as "trolls" but as "troglodytes" -- except, to do so, would defame the legacy of troglodytes.

The OECD Report in 2012 indicated that:

"The U.S. has among the highest income inequality and relative poverty among the 34 countries that make up the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development."

"In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2010, the top 1 percent of households (the upper class) owned 35.4 percent of all privately held wealth, and the next 19 percent (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 53.5 percent, which means that just 20 percent of the people owned a remarkable 89 percent, leaving only 11 percent of the wealth for the bottom 80 percent (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one's home), the top 1 percent of households had an even greater share: 42.1 percent."

Additionally, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in a Report of 2011, reported that:

"Income of households in the top 1 percent of earners grew by 275%, compared to 65% for the next 19 percent, just under 40 percent for the next 60 percent, 18 percent for the bottom fifth of households. As a result of that uneven income growth, the report noted, the share of total after-tax income received by the 1 percent of the population in households with the highest income more than doubled between 1979 and 2007, whereas the share received by low- and middle-income households declined... "

It is clear that customary political nomenclature no longer is relevant or applicable. Between President Obama and Congressional Republicans, it not a question of who is liberal, conservative, progressive or independent. The only issue is who, in our government, in Washington, DC, across the nation, lives in a fact-based world of existential evidence or only an opinion based world, totally devoid of reality.

Thus, there are people today who deny the objective environmental factors, which have materially affected the pattern of climate across the world. Similarly, Congressional Republicans know factually that on the basis of statistical economic evidence the wealthy can afford to contribute more to the reduction of the budget deficit than other less wealthy people in America versus reducing Social Security entitlements. And, in any case, the president appears to understand and be willing to reduce some of the operating costs of entitlements in contrast to their benefits as part of his "balanced approach." Progressives shouldn't have a negative knee jerk reaction to this part of the president's "grand bargain."

On the pending major issue of reforming of gun use in our country independent non-political independent efforts are emerging in response to the daily deaths by guns in our country. No longer is the issue primarily an issue between the power of the National Rifle Association and the federal government efforts to regulate the acquisition and use of guns. A third way has been proposed. It was the subject of a recent op-ed by Joe Nocera in this past Friday's New York Times.

He wrote about Jon and Rebecca Bond, people I recently met in NY. He reports that they want to create an anti-violence organization -- a 'brand,' they call it -- that will appeal to gun owners and nongun owners alike. 'When you talk to gun owners, if your purpose is to make them feel bad, they will push back,' said Jon, 'and you will lose them.'"

"But," chimed in Rebecca, "when you reframe the issue as 'how can we save lives?' the conversation shifts. Responsible gun owners and nongun owners both want to save lives. They have that in common. The end goal is to save lives."

Nocera commented:

"Whatever happens in Washington is not likely to change the behavior of gun owners. New laws, for instance, are unlikely to force gun owners to keep their guns under lock and key, so that children can't have access to them. The only thing that can really change such behavior is a cultural shift. The Bonds want to help bring about such a shift."

In my conversations with the Bonds I reminded them that Martin Luther King, Jr was America's Apostle of Non-Violence. To him, the moral choice is non-violence or non-existence.

Nocera and the Bonds are right, no cultural shift will take place on the issue on deaths from gun violence until gun owners and non-gun owners see that the issue is not about infringing on gun owners rights under our Second Amendment but of effecting a cultural shift on responsible ownership and use of guns in our country.

The real underlying issue however that few are talking about publicly is the issue of violence in our country being a social disease. In 1992, a landmark issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) addressed violence as a public health issue. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the surgeon general recognized violence as a social disease. The disease of violence does not just present a social cost -- violence extracts an economic impact as well.

The report notes that in the public health approach to prevention, "one of the first questions to be answered concerns the burden of suffering -- the economic costs to society of violence." The surgeon general's report in 2000 estimated the costs of violence in the United States:

"$425 billion in direct and indirect costs each year. Of these costs, approximately $90 billion is spent on the criminal justice system, $65 billion on security, $5 billion on the treatment of victims, and $170 billion or lost productivity and quality of life."

Against this background the non-partisan effort of the bonds through their initiative described as EVOLVE appears to be an endeavor deserving of our support. Check it out here and on Twitter.

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