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Notes from the Take Back America Conference

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At the very least, the Take Back America (TBA) conference was an effective antidote to winter, the remnants of the flu, customary cynicism and a desperate desire to burrow into my flannel-sheeted haven and wait until the coast is clear. Mothers of a certain age will understand me perfectly when I say that I had finally hit that invisible wall which stands between that maddeningly endless lists of things to do and the last straw. Wham! “I’ve had it!” my body declared, and responded by shutting down for a bit, thus allowing me to take a much needed time out. Some days later, I emerged like a mole, blinking against the sudden light, winded but ready to jump back into the fray.

Last week, more than fifteen hundred progressives descended on the nation’s capital for TBA’s sixth annual get-together, my third. No longer a newbie, I navigated the route from lodgings to hotel with ease and was no longer paralyzed by rooms full of hundreds of unfamiliar faces. Nevertheless, there was a distinct sense of disappearing down a rabbit hole, a day at a time. Sessions started early and ended late, sunlight was a rare commodity, and the winding corridors and numerous stairways appearing at random further contributed to the image.

This year’s conference differed from the other two that I attended in that the emphasis was not on the candidates. A year ago, there was a full field and each and every one of them spoke before us. It was an efficient way to compare and contrast their style and content. This time, the sessions zeroed in on our goals for the near future and were characterized by a notable degree of passion and energy.

Articulate Economists

One pleasant surprise was that the economists presenting spoke so clearly that I understood exactly where we are and how we got there. It was partially a sign of their expertise, aided perhaps by how extremely grim our situation is. I’m going to spend a little time on those two sessions because I’m betting that at least some of you are like me, and your eyes glaze over when someone starts throwing figures and esoteric concepts at you, often in a pedantic and off-putting manner. My experience at TBA was entirely different and very refreshing. It was reassuring to learn that I am capable of understanding the principles of economics, if the expert takes the trouble to explain properly. The first session dealt with the housing bust. Dean Baker of the Center for Economic Policy Research excoriated Alan Greenspan as “Villain #1” in the debacle. Not only was the housing bubble’s bursting predictable, it was predicted. I actually know this to be true because the twenty-something son of friends of mine has a http://davidlereahwatch.blogspot.com/">blog on the subject and has been predicting the end for many months, if not years. His reporting was picked up by the mainstream media but apparently not by Greenspan, Bernacke and the rest of these so-called experts.

First, Baker laid out the arguments that Greenspan made in 2002 to convince us that we were not in a housing bubble. Then, Baker demonstrated their patent falseness with a simple look at statistics - purported population boom, income growth, and environmental restrictions. The economists followed guru Greenspan’s lead, urging the public to just “trust the experts.” The unwise nature of placing our trust in so called experts is now playing out with drastic ramifications. The $8 trillion loss of housing wealth nationwide is not a figure picked at random. It is based on an average of $110,000 per home owner.



No Bail Out!

Baker urged us not to reward those who led us off the cliff - making boatloads of moolah while the bubble lasted, and leaving us, like jilted lovers, with nothing but empty promises. He cited a similar situation in the UK - when the “Northern Rock” Bank went belly-up because of its speculation in sub prime mortgages. It was taken over by the British government, which kept the bank running but kicked management out. The neo-liberals in DC and Wall St. simply didn’t know what they were doing - and they shouldn’t be able to walk away unscathed while two million homeowners face foreclosure and family upheaval. That’s not radical; it sounds like common sense to me.

Baker encouraged us to see the falling dollar as a positive sign. No matter what, adjusting to this economic disaster is going to be painful, the only question how long it will take to bottom out. A falling dollar can get American manufacturing back on track making our goods more attractive to foreign buyers as well as bringing down our trade balance.

This bubble-bust-bubble-bust cycle which started with the dot coms, then the stock market, and now the home mortgages is an unhealthy economic syndrome. I now understand that what Baker calls “bubble-driven growth” is a no-no, because it allows speculators to make out like bandits while many individuals, families, union and state pension funds, and our entire economy suffer the consequences. Doing away with bank regulation over Clinton’s veto has been an unmitigated disaster for the country and this is but the latest evidence.

The session on “Bushed: conservative failure and the danger the legacy lives on” featured another articulate economist, Jared Bernstein. His powerpoint graphs and charts offered clear proof that the conservative fiscal policy has not worked. YOYO economics (You’re On Your Own) have led to an economic stratification resembling 1929 right before the Crash and the Great Depression. At that time, the top 1% had 24% of national wealth; the rate is now pegged at an eerily similar 23%. Looking at other markers like hourly wage trends and job growth further illustrates how median family income has not recovered since 2000, making it the first economic recovery since the ‘40s where the middle class did not resume its former level of prosperity. This chart illustrates what the concentration of wealth in a thin upper crust looks like in simple numbers. Some 2007 data to contemplate:

$54,302             average income
$30,374             bottom 90% average income
$210,597           average income for the top 5%
$29,638,027      average income for the top .01%

”Unregulated markets derail.” A simple statement, this is not news. Here, Bernstein echoed Dean Baker at the earlier session. We learned this lesson from the Great Depression. Leaving all financial matters to a Wild West mentality is both inefficient and destructive. We must clean up the mess the lack of regulations has allowed. It’s like leaving a bunch of five year olds unsupervised and being surprised when they trash your house.

Bernstein recipe for recovery:

-Restore public faith in government by electing WITTs (We’re In This Together) rather than YOYOs (You’re On Your Own)
-Get our fiscal house in order by making major reforms, rather than trying to tinker around the edges
-Repeat pattern above as needed until shared prosperity is achieved

Other Progressive Issues

Other sessions dealt with global warming while using the crisis to create employment opportunities. While it is clear that the federal government needs to jump in with both feet and make this a clear priority, local communities, cities, states, and coalitions of states have not been standing around holding their collective breath. They have launched a series of ambitious and impressive initiatives, many of which can serve as models for replication on a grander scale. Majora Carter, South Bronx activist and recipient of the MacArthur genius award, has put her energy and imagination into revitalizing her blighted neighborhood, breaking the cycle where race and economic status determine quality of life, air, and the presence or absence of greenery. Her mentor, Oakland-based environmental leader Van Jones, has most recently been working with the Apollo Alliance to promote a nationwide “green-collar jobs” initiative that will benefit the most poverty stricken neighborhoods. He and Majora have joined forces and the combined energy and commitment that they bring to countering global warming while simultaneously solving social and economic inequities is as impressive as it is commendable.

Minority voters are courted and mobilized during election years, their participation often playing a large role in a candidate’s victory or loss. But, after the votes have been counted, recognition of their contribution and concerns customarily recedes until the next cycle begins. Attention is belatedly being paid to breaking that pattern - creating an enduring infrastructure that remains in place, that builds upon itself, that listens to voters’ needs and concerns and doesn’t take anyone for granted. Democrats, or at least this group of progressive Democrats, are getting more organized and becoming more inclusive in the process. This convention seemed to emphasize greater participation by people of color. Likewise, there was a tacit acknowledgment of the role the youth vote plays, with more sessions on this aspect of the political process than in the past.

Universal health care, kick starting the economy, rebuilding unions and the middle class, ending the war, achieving social and economic justice were once pretty much the exclusive province of the progressive movement. But activists pushed and talked and pushed some more and these are now mainstream values, absorbed by the more centrist candidates themselves.

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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. . . for reporting back for those of us who could... by Russ Wellen on Monday, Mar 24, 2008 at 9:18:11 AM
Joan--    Thanks for the detailed report... by Jonathan Simon on Monday, Mar 24, 2008 at 10:11:06 AM
I'm pretty sure there was one panel at TBA on ... by Rob Kall on Monday, Mar 24, 2008 at 10:50:36 AM
Rob, about the booth. OEN has been there for the e... by Rady Ananda on Monday, Mar 24, 2008 at 6:48:48 PM
Thanks for filling us in.  You sound like an ... by Rady Ananda on Monday, Mar 24, 2008 at 6:58:56 PM
EI was not ignored at TBA. There was one plenary, ... by Marta Steele on Monday, Mar 24, 2008 at 9:14:41 PM
What does it matter what the average income is for... by Ken Langston on Monday, Mar 24, 2008 at 10:16:04 PM