This is the personal blog of Rick Staggenborg, MD. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the official positions of Take Back America for the People, an educational 501.c3 nonprofit established by Dr Staggenborg.

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Thursday, August 29, 2013


It’s great to see more Americans abandoning the false left-right dichotomy all the time. It is nothing but a construction of the corporate media to serve the interests of the wealthy power brokers who fund right-wing think tanks. They control the way Americans think about politics by controlling how it is discussed in the mainstream media and as a result, by most politicians. It is not a contradiction to refer to a “right wing” when arguing to abandon the artificial divide between Americans who consider themselves either liberal or conservative. I am using the term as it was understood by everyone when I was growing up: “Right-wing” at that time was generally recognized to refer to the economic and political elite of nations other than the US.  It is a term that used to be reserved for the ruling class of banana Republics who maintained power by terror alone.  Back then, no American politician would have wanted to claim membership in such a group.

It is useful to think of the spectrum of American political opinions as a circle rather than a line with two ends separated by a shifting middle.  In contrast, a circle is a symbol of continuity. It is a line curved upon itself, with no beginning and no end.  If America ever becomes a democracy, we certainly want it to stay one forever, after all who have died believing they were giving their lives to defend it.  A circle is also a symbol of universality.  In Venn diagrams, it represents the universe of all objects in a given class, such as all Americans or all humans.  That is a fitting symbol of a democratic society, where decisions are made by consensus and every citizen who wants to have a voice is included in the discussion. A circle is also symmetric. The two halves are complementary, like yin and yang.  Both are necessary to form the whole, and neither is entire of itself.  Without appreciating both, one cannot fully conceive of either.  Similarly, in a true democracy all views are considered and openly discussed in order to visualize all possible solutions in the process of achieving consensus on how to move forward together.

As the costs of allowing corporate interests to control the US government continue to multiply and to affect average Americans, the list of issues on which Americans can find common cause continues to grow. It is only a matter of time before pundits still arguing about political ideologies that are nothing more than convenient rhetorical devices realize that no one is listening. Instead, we will be having a real dialogue about practical solutions to issues affecting us. Members of Congress cannot continue to ignore this trend. If they don’t start facing critical issues of common concern to people who regard themselves as being at various points along the political spectrum, they will pay a price. Americans can decide for themselves who will represent them once they recognize and accept that both major parties are in the employ of the corporate interests that fund their campaigns, When they do, they will abandon the myth of the two-Party system and realize that solving the problems threatening the viability of the American experiment in democracy is more important than ideology.  How one wants to describe the system of government will be unimportant if we hand complete control of it to a police state that operates exclusively in the interest of the economic elite.

It was clear from the number of Ron Paul supporters who joined with Green Party partisans in Occupy encampments around the nation that people are seeing through the lies that are used to divide us and thereby keep us incapable of establishing a government of, by and for the People. The biggest issues then were outrage at government inaction against the banksters who destroyed the economy, the unchecked power of the Federal Reserve and the outrageous abuse of American military power to wage wars for corporate Empire that benefitted the rich at the cost of the lives of the poor and the wealth of the nation. While Occupy managed to avoid being coopted by any particular view point, it failed to address the fundamental ideological divide that separated the Libertarians from the socialists, although the progressive anarchists tried. It is time now to move beyond amorphous demands for redress of the problems we all agree exist and to the difficult work of having the national dialogue about what we can do to end them together.

Events are conspiring that seem to be leading inevitably to the kind of awakening among average Americans that we have been working for since it became obvious that the Anglo-American Empire is no longer afraid of public opinion in the US or anywhere else. Just as the power of the banks was revealed by the immunity for the crimes they committed that crashed the US and world economy, the threatened assault on Syria is leading to outrage throughout a broad swath of the American public. The lies are so transparent that even the Washington Post began to refer to the "alleged" use of chemical weapons by the Syrian military in a story about the decisive defeat in Parliament of a vote to support an illegal, non-UN sanctioned US attack. The same article describes members of Congress on both sides of the aisle asking questions no one asked Bush in 2001 or 2003.

The fact that members of both parties were involved in the attempt to ram through a war no sane American wants to see makes it obvious that the Iraq lies were not a partisan problem solved by putting a Democrat in the White House. The rot of corruption goes much deeper, and people are starting to see that.  Articles on conservative blogs are attacking the President and his party less often and the issues more, while blogs that often serve as a forum for Democratic apologists are publishing criticism of policies that more often than not come out of the same playbook as his Republican predecessor, such as a blog in the Daily Kos detailing the Congressional demands for consultation and an article in the Huffington Post that points out how deeply unpopular the proposed attack on Syria is.

It is becoming easier to help newly alert citizens to connect the dots that have been obvious to some of us for some time. The furious reaction to the revelations of NSA spying have interrupted the ongoing partisan nonsense of pundits representing the two sides of the corporate Duopoly long enough for them to agree that the abridgement of civil liberties has gone on long enough, prompting even Congress to act. The furor resulted in the near-passage on a bipartisan vote of the Amash amendment that would have restricted NSA spying . Such resistance to Presidential overreach of authority to strip Americans of basic constitutional rights would have been unthinkable even six months ago. It is only a matter of time before Americans collectively grasp the idea that war abroad, economic disaster and suspension of civil liberties at home are all symptoms of the same problem: corporate control of the US government. When they do, they will be ready for the solution.

There is no doubt that corruption of the US government by corporations and wealthy individuals is at the root of the problem. There are many proposals to do something about it, but the one with legs is the movement to pass a constitutional amendment to effectively reform campaign finance and abolish corporate personhood. When America has the discussion about why we need such an amendment and what form it should take, we will be ready to elect representatives who are willing to cosponsor and vote for it. If we make our votes conditional on such support irrespective of party, we can make our votes count by electing a Congress that will pass it. This is not going to end corruption in and of itself, but in electing a Congress willing to cut off the corrupting special interest money in elections we will have taken the first step to address the other sources by which they corrupt government.

It is not hard to see that the mood of the country is shifting away from helpless acceptance at the theft of what they have assumed is our democracy. Surely a politician as brilliant as Obama can see it. That raises the interesting question. Is it possible that he knows that we will not “be the change” he told us we have to be in 2008 unless things get so bad that we finally have no choice but to act? Is that why he seems to be doing nothing to counter the trend toward fascism in America? We can always hope that those we have accused of blind faith might have been right in claiming that Obama is playing three-dimensional chess with a bunch of checker players. Only time will tell, and only if the movement to take back America for the People continues to grow.

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Matt Taibbi recently wrote an  article  in  Rolling Stone  outlining the way that student loans have been manipulated by both the US government and banks to maximize profits at the expense of students and the entire system of higher education. While he did a great job explaining the problem, his free market "solution" would worsen the more fundamental problem of access to higher education. His proposed fix fails to address the full effects of this disgraceful bipartisan failure to deal with the problem. We have to understand the larger issues to devise a permanent solution that will not only deal with the immediate crisis but strengthen rather than destroy the system of higher education on which the hope of democracy depends.     

A trillion dollars in student debt threatens the futures of a generation of young Americans. It also endangers an American economy that depends on a thriving middle class, one already under siege by corporate interests with too much power in Washington. The recent bipartisan "victory" avoids an immediate doubling of student loan interest rates by tying increases to Treasury rates. However, this comes at the cost of future increases estimated to reach nearly 8% in five years. In a depressingly familiar pattern, Congress is patting itself on the back for kicking the problem down the road while the economic consequences of delay mount.  

Jefferson would have considered the idea that education should be treated like a commodity outrageous. He was so convinced that education was the key to maintaining democracy that he insisted that the only honor to be inscribed on his tombstone was "Founder and first President of Virginia University," the first public college in the United States. He realized that if Americans ever forgot how to think for themselves, they would be easily persuaded into following foolish arguments designed to appeal to their self-interest. As usual, he was prescient.

After WWII a grateful nation gave a generation of young American servicemen access to higher education fully paid for by taxes, including tuition, fees and living expenses. A period of unprecedented prosperity followed, as well-trained citizens were able to fill the wide demand for their talent in a booming economy.

While prosperity was in large part due to pent-up demand for goods and a wartime industrial base easily converted to peacetime manufacturing, the same benefits could be achieved if the economy were redesigned to meet the needs of a faltering middle class. Instead, they are increasingly falling into poverty because of the effects of crony capitalism, most evident in the crash of 2008 caused by bankers who walked away with billions and who remain at large, free to continue to commit their economic crimes and to serve as economic advisers in the current administration.

The purpose of higher education is not merely to make money. Even if it were, it would fail to meet that objective under the current system. The typical student graduates with $27,000 in debt and enters a job market so dismal that he or she will likely remain in debt for decades. Average wages have fallen. Despite increasing numbers of mostly poorly paying jobs, estimates of real unemployment remain at Depression-era levels.

Democrats and Republicans are negotiating to minimize what both argue are "necessary" cuts in a social safety net that is needed more than ever. Neither seem to realize it is the fig leaf covering the real extent of the economic devastation facing the next generations of Americans, whose taxes are supposed to support Baby Boomers in their senescence. Most young people are not yet aware of what they are facing, or they would be swelling the ranks of protesters.

Despite a failing economy and the publicity surrounding the debt crisis, the myth that students can just take a job and pay for college persists. With government funding to higher education slashed and costs rising at 2-3 times the rate of the Consumer Price Index, it is nearly impossible to find work that will pay tuition and fees. These costs have risen 300% since 1990 and now consume 11% of average family income. Wages at McDonalds, where workers are counseled to take second jobs to make ends meet, have not risen accordingly. In a sick irony, despite record profits that corporation wants to pay workers with debit cards that have high fees attached to them, mimicking a common scheme for ripping off students whose educational loans are distributed the same way.

An even more dangerous myth is the idea that the 20% rate of defaults on college loans is due to people attending college in pursuit of careers that will not produce income sufficient to pay their debts. Those who accept this argument believe that it is the popularity of majors in underwater basket weaving that is at fault. Using their logic, no responsible student would enter college except to study business. Haven't they figured out yet that it is the MBAs who got us into this mess? It seems that the study of ethics might have more practical implications for the country as a whole. To make matters worse, increasing numbers of employers are treating college as the  new high school diploma , the minimum requirement for even an entry-level job. Soon, young people will be left with a choice between poverty, getting an education at a cost that will likely make them lifelong debtors or joining the military to  risk their lives for an education.
It is time to consider what kind of future we want to leave posterity, and to begin to redesign the educational system to meet its demands. To do so, we must insist that politicians 
challenge the expectations of the economic elite for ever-increasing wealth. Do we want to continue to treat education as a commodity, as we do health care?
People are waking up to the fact that the health care system will collapse without a transformation into a universal one funded by government taxes, as even Harry Reid recently admitted.  The same could become true of higher education. Experience in France, where those who benefit most from government infrastructure pay a corresponding share of taxes, shows that both universal, publicly funded higher education and health care can be achieved in an economy that  withstood the banking crisis better than did the US .

The answer is not to be found in market-based fixes like limiting government backing of student loans to promote efficiency in containing costs while increasing competition for tuition rates. In also making college less accessible for the middle class and those who aspire to it, the  solution would be worse than the problem. Instead of trying to correct the market for education, we should be taking it out of the marketplace and making it part of the commons.
The damage done to the economy by the banks will not be repaired without fundamental changes in the way they operate as well as in the overall structure of business in America. If the government took the money now wasted on subsidizing corporate welfare and put it into education, green jobs, infrastructure repair and financing cooperatives where the wealth is fairly shared by worker-owners, we could counter the pernicious effects of globalization.

In the process, we could build a sustainable economy capable of meeting the needs of all its citizens rather than just a privileged few. We would also be building a far richer society in which people were encourage to develop their talents and interests while acquiring the knowledge to become responsible citizens.
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