BP’s tree fell on my lawn – Roger Ebert’s Journal

Roger Ebert Blvd.

The following article is by famous writer, critic and teacher Roger Ebert.  Aside from being the first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize, Ebert was also recognized as the Webby Awards Person of the Year as well as a respectable Best Blog award.  Although I do not agree with all of Ebert’s film reviews, I believe he is still the best critic out there.  Ebert draws from his ability to make connections between great cinema and deeper societal issues on his website.  I think his social commentary and political insights engage and challenge the reader to think critically – as opposed to most mainstream media outlets that have successfully narrowed the political debate between Republican and Democratic ideology (a small spectrum that does not legitimately represent public opinion).

Please read the following article and continue to keep up with the ever-engaging Roger Ebert’s Journal!

By Roger Ebert on July 25, 2010 8:17 PM

via BP’s tree fell on my lawn – Roger Ebert’s Journal.

Help me out here. There’s something I’ve been spending a couple of months trying to get my head around. Why does BP enjoy such a peculiar immunity after having apparently been culpable in the Gulf oil spill? What is the nature of its invisible protective shield?

All I know is what you know. Like most other ordinary citizens, I try to keep up the best that I can with the news. I am not, as they say, walking in the corridors of power.

But you know, the more I read, the more I imagine those corridors smelling like those disinfectant cakes you see at the bottoms of urinals. Read more of this post

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ZCommunications | We’re In A One-and-a-half Dip Recession by Robert Reich | ZNet Article

ZCommunications | We’re In A One-and-a-half Dip Recession by Robert Reich | ZNet Article.

We’re not in a double-dip recession yet. We’re in a one and a half dip recession.

Consumer confidence is down. Retail sales are down. Home sales are down. Permits for single-family starts are down. The average work week is down. The only things not down are inventories – unsold stuff is piling up in warehouses and inventories of unsold homes are rising – and defaults on loans.

The 1.5 dip recession should be causing alarm bells to ring all over official Washington. It should cause deficit hawks to stop squawking about future debt, blue-dog Democrats to stop acting like Republicans, and mainstream Democrats to get some backbone.

The 1.5 dip recession should cause the President to demand a large-scale national jobs program including a new WPA that gets millions of Americans back to work even if government has to pay their wages directly.

Included would be zero-interest loans to strapped states and locales, so they didn’t have to cut vital services and raise taxes. They could repay when the economy picked up and revenues came in. The national jobs program would also include a one-year payroll tax holiday on the first $20,000 of income.

The President should stop talking and acting on anything else – not the deficit, not energy, not the environment, not immigration, not implementing the health care law, not education. He should make the whole upcoming mid-term election a national referendum on putting Americans back to work, and his jobs bill.

Are you for it or against it?

But none of this is happening. The hawks and blue dogs are still commanding the attention. Herbert Hoover’s ghost seems to have captured the nation’s capital. We’re back to 1932 (or 1937) and the prevailing sentiment is government can’t and mustn’t do anything but aim to reduce the deficit, even though the economy is going down.

It looks like there’ll be an extension of unemployment benefits. (If it weren’t for the human suffering involved, I wish the Republicans had been forced to filibuster that bill all summer and show the nation just how much they care about people without jobs.) But the fiscal stimulus resulting from this will be tiny. Jobless benefits are humane but they alone don’t get jobs back.

And what about the Fed? It’s the last game in town. The 1.5 dip recession should cause Ben Bernanke to revert to buying mortgage-backed securities, buying Treasury bills, buying anything that will get more money into circulation.

But the Fed chair continues to talk about pulling money out of the system and raising short-term rates as the economy improves. During Wednesday’s appearance before Congress he made it clear monetary policy won’t be loosened; it just won’t be tightened for a while. And he reiterated that deficits were “unsustainable.”

He admitted unemployment would probably remain high for a long time, and the likelihood of growth was “weighted to the downside,” which in Fed-Speak means we’re still in trouble. And he said the Fed still has the tools to do what’s needed if the economy needs more help.

But would he use the tools now? No. “We need to look at them carefully to make sure we’re comfortable with any steps that we take.” This is like the captain of the Titanic looking carefully at his lifeboats to make sure he’s comfortable with using them as the ship starts sinking.

WikiLeaks releases documents, White House and media responds predictably

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Wikileaks, the famous whistleblower organization and website, just released documents leaked from the U.S. military and NATO on the War in Afghanistan.  Over 90,000 documents were released, and three media organizations – The New York Times, The Guardian (U.K.) and Der Spiegel (Germany) – were given the documents from WikiLeaks on the promise that they would not publish anything until July 25th.

I was skimming through the information Sunday night while feeding my online news binge.  Oddly enough, it was Der Spiegel’s website that I stumbled on first.  After browsing through its online news database, I searched for the War Logs story in the New York Times and began to scan the report.  After browsing through the Times sections, I was pleased with the in-depth coverage and the map database.  The reader can get a more realistic experience of the war itself by reading actual military reports and seeing the geographic location where a battle or altercation took place at any given time during the nine year long war.

After reading through details of these documents as presented by the Guardian and the Times, I was eager to see how the mainstream media would respond to the leaks.  If you have been too busy to read some of the reporting from either one of the three media sources, and/or have yet to browse through the documents on the WikiLeaks website, I will post a commentary on the War Logs in the near future.

For now, here are some highlights from all three media outlets that were privy to having the documents several weeks ahead of the WikiLeaks release date:

  1. Elements of the Pakistani military spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, may be working with Al-Qaeda and other Afghani insurgents.  It is believed that the ISI is playing both sides, appeasing U.S. forces on one hand and plotting against U.S. interests on the other hand.  Instances include the suicide bombing of the Indian embassy in Kabul and assassination plots against Hamid Karzai.  According to the Guardian, “More than 180 intelligence files in the war logs, most of which cannot be confirmed, detail accusations that Pakistan’s premier spy agency has been supplying, arming and training the insurgency since at least 2004.”
  2. Although the Taliban and others (labeled insurgents) kill more civilians than U.S. and coalition forces, civilian casualties are fairly common (at least 144 have been reported so far) and the Taliban have successfully recruited new members by exploiting these civilian casualties.
  3. The use of Reaper drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan is increasing.  While drone attacks have been successful at times, there have also been substantial civilian casualties.  According to the reports, drones have a tendency to crash due to system errors and computer glitches.  At least 38 drones have crashed so far, and these drones cost between $3.7 to $5 million.  Insurgents have also captured U.S. drones, prompting risky missions to recover the weaponry before the insurgents can use it against U.S. forces.  Predator and Reaper drones are unmanned aircraft controlled via remote in U.S. facilities (Nevada and Virginia).
  4. The Taliban and other insurgents are increasingly relying on roadside explosives, or IEDs, which have caused the death of over 2,000 civilians and led to an increase in the amount of U.S. casualties in the last two years.

In fact, since 2005, U.S. and coalition casualties have steadily increased more than the previous year.  This year the number is all ready on pace to eclipse U.S. losses in 2009.  The German magazine Der Spiegel has a startling graph depicting the ever-growing number of fatalities from year to year.  If anything, these documents reveal that the war is getting more violent and, quite possibly, the insurgents are even stronger than they were at the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Many news commentators on the major networks focused mainly on:

  1. The fact that these documents were leaked in the first place, not on the details of the leaked documents;
  2. The dangers that the WikiLeaks release poses to national security, not the dangers that our foreign policy poses to national security;
  3. The actions the government is going to take towards those responsible for the leaks as well as the messenger (WikiLeaks), not the actions the government should take in reviewing the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether these policies are truly beneficial to Americans hurting from the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

The response from the Obama administration was fairly predictable.  On Monday, July 26th, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs took questions from journalists – questions that many major news commentators failed to ask.  Here are a few excerpts from the Press Briefing:

Q    Does the White House believe that the documents raise doubts about whether Pakistan is a reliable partner in fighting terrorism?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, let’s understand a few things about the documents.  Based on what we’ve seen, I don’t think that what is being reported hasn’t in many ways been publicly discussed either by you all or by representatives of the U.S. government for quite some time.  We have certainly known about safe havens in Pakistan; we have been concerned about civilian casualties for quite some time — and on both of those aspects we’ve taken steps to make improvements.

I think just the last time General Petreaus testified in front of the Senate there was a fairly robust discussion about the historical relationships that have been had between the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence services.

Members of Congress, such as Senator Jack Reed and Carl Levin, believe Pakistan is aiding insurgent groups.  Despite this, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently declared to aid Pakistan to the tune of $500 million, calling the U.S. and nuclear-armed Pakistan, “partners joined in common cause.”

The trouble is that if elements of Pakistan’s military or intelligence agency are helping the Afghani insurgent resistance, then we are funding the very enemy that we are fighting.  Could our government be funding both sides of this war?  That thought alone is troubling.

A short time later, another reporter called out Press Secretary Gibbs’ seemingly contradictory statements about the effect of the leaked documents:

Q    Robert back on WikiLeaks.  A couple of times now, you’ve said in the last couple of moments that a lot of this information is not really new, that named U.S. government officials have said some of this same information publicly.

MR. GIBBS:  Well, I’m not saying it’s — yes, I said there weren’t any new revelations in the material.

Q    So how does it harm national security if we’ve known this already?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, because you’ve got — it’s not the content as much as it is their names, their operations, there’s logistics, there are sources — all of that information out in a public way has the potential, Ed, to do harm.  If somebody is cooperating with the federal government and their name is listed in an action report, I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that that could potentially put a group or an individual at great personal risk.

Q    But is part of the concern as well that this is going to embarrass government officials because maybe the war in Afghanistan is a lot worse off than this administration and the previous administration let on?

MR. GIBBS:  Well, again, Ed, that’s why I would go back to my first point, which is in terms of broad revelations, there aren’t any that we see in these documents.  And let’s understand this — when you talk about the way the war is going in Afghanistan, the documents purportedly cover from I think January of 2004 to December 2009.

Finally, after discussing the changes in policy that Obama made after a comprehensive review of the war in Afghanistan, the questions began focusing on whether or not the policy itself is flawed and unachievable:

Q    But even after that painstaking review, these documents are suggesting that the Pakistani government has representatives of its spy agency essentially meeting representatives of the Taliban, plotting to attack American soldiers and Afghan officials.

MR. GIBBS:  Let me just make sure —

Q    How can that suggest the war is going well?

MR. GIBBS:  No, no — you’re conflating about seven issues into one question.  But let’s be clear, Ed.  I don’t think — let me finish, let me finish —

Q    If Pakistani officials are working with the Taliban, how can the war be going well?  That’s one question.

MR. GIBBS:  Again, Ed, I’m saying that the war — the direction of our relationship with Pakistan, based on steps that we’ve asked them to take, has improved that relationship — right?

Q    Okay, because last week Secretary Clinton said that the U.S. and Pakistan are “partners joined in common cause.”

MR. GIBBS:  Yes.

Q    Despite these documents, the U.S. and Pakistan are joined in common cause?

At a time when the only thing coming out of the mouths of Republicans are concerns about the deficit (thank you Bush!) and at a time when the Democratic White House is failing to make a case for our continued occupation in the Middle East, it is evident that both political parties have no idea what constitutes a threat to our national security.

So, Mr. Gibbs, I have a question to ask. In looking at the negative impact of Bush’s legacy, as measured by his costly foreign policy decisions and alleged human rights abuses, is following his neoconservative foreign policy wise?  Or, to put it another way, does our government believe that carrying out a misguided war is more important than saving the jobs of teachers, police officers and fire fighters, or creating new jobs to pull us out of this recession?

Next time, save us the charade about WikiLeaks threatening our national security.  The real threat to our national security is our government’s misguided policies, both at home and abroad.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s State of the Union

Franklin D. Roosevelt's "Fireside Chats&q...

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President Roosevelt – Economic Bill of Rights

On January 11, 1944, in the midst of World War II, President Roosevelt spoke forcefully and eloquently about the greater meaning and higher purpose of American security in a post-war America. The principles and ideas conveyed by FDR’s words matter as much now as they did over sixty years ago, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt American Heritage Center is proud to reprint a selection of FDR’s vision for the security and economic liberty of the American people in war and peace.

Excerpt from 11 January 1944 message to the United States Congress on the State of the Union

It is our duty now to begin to lay the plans and determine the strategy for the winning of a lasting peace and the establishment of an American standard of living higher than ever before known. We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our people—whether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenth—is ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.

This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness. Read more of this post

Pew Research Center – The Great Recession

This report shows the effects of the Great Recession as presented by the Pew Research Center.

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How the Great Recession Has Changed Life in America

The War – A Trillion Can Be Cheap – NYTimes.com

The War – A Trillion Can Be Cheap – NYTimes.com.

By Elisabeth Bumiller, The New York Times: Published July 24, 2010.

Click on the above link to open the story in a new browser window.

WASHINGTON — Like everything else, war is a lot more expensive than it used to be.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost Americans a staggering $1 trillion to date, second only in inflation-adjusted dollars to the $4 trillion price tag for World War II, when the United States put 16 million men and women into uniform and fought on three continents.

Sticker shock is the inevitable first reaction to the latest statistics on the costs of all major United States wars since the American Revolution, compiled by the Congressional Research Service and released late last month, and the figures promise to play into intensifying political and economic pressures to restrain the Pentagon budget.

Still, 21st-century technology is an obvious explanation for why two relatively small (although long) wars in developing societies like Iraq and Afghanistan are so expensive. As Stephen Daggett, a specialist in defense policy and budgets, writes in the Congressional Research Service report, in the Revolutionary War “the most sophisticated weaponry was a 36-gun frigate that is hardly comparable to a modern $3.5 billion destroyer.”

A second look at the numbers shows another story underneath. In 2008, the peak year so far of war spending for Iraq and Afghanistan, the costs amounted to only 1.2 percent of America’s gross domestic product. During the peak year of spending on World War II, 1945, the costs came to nearly 36 percent of G.D.P.

The reason is the immense growth, and seemingly limitless credit, of the United States economy over the last 65 years, as compared to the sacrifice and unity required to wring $4 trillion from a much smaller economy to wage the earlier war. To some historians, the difference is troubling.

“The army is at war, but the country is not,” said David M. Kennedy, the Stanford University historian. “We have managed to create and field an armed force that can engage in very, very lethal warfare without the society in whose name it fights breaking a sweat.” The result, he said, is “a moral hazard for the political leadership to resort to force in the knowledge that civil society will not be deeply disturbed.”

A corollary is that taxes have not been raised to pay for Iraq and Afghanistan — the first time that has happened in an American war since the Revolution, when there was not yet a country to impose them. Rightly or wrongly, that has further cut American civilians off from the two wars on the opposite side of the world.

Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, “Americans were called upon by their leaders to pay higher taxes during a war, and grumbling or not grumbling, they did it,” said Robert D. Hormats, the under secretary of state for economic, energy and agricultural affairs and the author of “The Price of Liberty: Paying for America’s Wars.”

In terms of costs per warrior, the current wars appear to be the most expensive ever, according to Todd Harrison, a senior fellow for defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Working independently of the Pentagon and of the Congressional study, and using computations based on the number of troops committed to the actual conduct of war at any one time, he estimates that the annual cost today is $1.1 million per man or woman in uniform in Afghanistan versus an adjusted $67,000 per year for troops in World War II and $132,000 in Vietnam.

Although technology is the driving factor, along with the logistical expense of moving equipment over the treacherous and landlocked Afghan terrain, costs per soldier have also risen because of the price of maintaining a better-trained and higher-paid force. “We’re not just pulling random guys off the street and sending them off to war like we did in the past,” Mr. Harrison said.

A last story in the numbers: A quick calculation shows that the United States has been at war for 47 of its 230 years, or 20 percent of its history. Put another way, Americans have been at war one year out of every five.

“You know, it’s a surprise to me that it’s that high,” said Mr. Daggett, who has focused on the cost, not length, of wars. “You think of war as not being the usual state.”

Pentagon Papers Reporter: What the WikiLeaks War Logs Tell Us

As reported on ProPublica by Marian Wang July 26, 2010

Americans who—like me—weren’t alive when the Pentagon Papers story was first leaked to The New York Times are likely still familiar with the end conclusion: The American people found out what a disaster the Vietnam War had been. And in a landmark case for press freedom, when the federal government tried to stop the Times and the Post from publishing that confidential record of the war and the lead-up to it, the Supreme Court ruled on the side of the press, in favor of “no prior restraint” or censorship from the government.

But some of the details may be hazy, and especially as so many have begun comparing the revelations in the Afghanistan War Logs—released by WikiLeaks and reported out by The New York Times, the Guardian, and Der Speigel—it’s worth revisiting some of that history to better inform our perspective on the present.

So I rang up Neil Sheehan, the former New York Times reporter to whom the Pentagon Papers were first leaked by military analyst and whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg in 1971—stories for which the Times later won the Pulitzer Prize. (Ellsberg, it is worth noting, has also chimed in on the latest leaks. He told The Wall Street Journal that he felt an affinity for the leaker in this case.)

Sheehan proceeded to share—in the brief time we were able to speak—what the Pentagon Papers told us about Vietnam, and what the latest leaks say about Afghanistan. Here’s what he had to say, edited slightly for clarity:

On the War Logs vs. Pentagon Papers comparison:

The Pentagon Papers dealt with more years. From 1944—World War II—through 1968. You had a vast time span. It was an archive of much of the war itself. It was for most of the war and covered the French-IndoChina war. The Pentagon Paper’s revelations were of the highest level of decision-making. Decision-making by the president, the secretary of state., secretaries of defense, heads of the CIA, commanding generals. The highest level—and those were the most exciting revelations—the extent to which the government had deliberately deceived the American public about events in Vietnam or deluded themselves.

They came at the end of a long war that divided this country more than any war since the Civil War. This is coming during a war that’s an unpopular war, but the revelations aren’t at that level. As far as I can make out, the Wikileaks logs cover a number of years. But it’s nitty-gritty stuff. Low-level stuff.

It doesn’t mean it’s not very revelatory. It is. It shows the extent to which the Bush Administration abandoned the war in Afghanistan and what repercussions that has had. These young men and women were treated in a shabby fashion. They weren’t given the support they should’ve been given. They didn’t expect to get that support until Obama came in, and it takes time for that shift to happen.

On what the Afghanistan war logs have added to what we know:

They show how difficult the war in Afghanistan is. It’s a very complicated situation. You’ve got a government in Kabul which is corrupt and untrustworthy. You’ve got Pakistani allies which are not necessarily always your allies. You’ve got a Taliban movement which is resurgent, but also isn’t unified. It has its own factions, but it’s a resilient movement .

The WikiLeak revelations are very valuable, I think. They show how hard it is going to be to reach the objective the U.S. wants to reach, which is basically pacifying the country. Coming up with a sort of agreement which will pacify the country and end the insurgency. It shows how difficult it is to deal with your own allies.

It gives you a good insight into the war, the kind of war Americans are faced with. It shows the extent to which the Bush Administration neglected Afghanistan and wasted resources in Iraq on a war that wasn’t necessary, and ignored a war that was necessary in Afghanistan. The situation has worsened markedly as a result of that neglect.

On the criticism by some who point out that the latest leaks don’t bring to light much new information:

They may not contain a lot of new information, but they get public attention. That’s important, that the American public understand what’s going on. I’m not saying it’s necessary that they quit Afghanistan, but that the public understands the price being paid.

One value from these logs is it shows things are much more difficult on the ground than what you get from high-level briefings where they talk about counterinsurgency and use all these terms. When you get down to nitty-gritty here, these guys are trying to deal with a village that’s divided against itself. You don’t know who to trust, because people in the village don’t know who to trust.

On whether it should come as a surprise that the official picture is rosier than reality:

That’s almost always the case. There’s a lot of pressure to succeed on senior people. They put that on the people below them. It’s self-generated. The army term is ‘can-do spirit.’ There’s the can-do spirit. No general wants to admit he can’t accomplish something, so you’re bound to get a rosier picture.

On how having the documents makes the realities of war more tangible:

In a very important way, these records make the war more tangible. There’s something tangible now. People can understand that.

The New York Times has a picture of the Taliban in a Ford truck given to the Afghan Army by the United States. That happened in Vietnam. We armed the Viet Cong guerrillas. When I first went to Vietnam, a Viet Cong battalion would be lucky to have one machine gun. Within one year, you had two or three per battalion—one per company at least. Their firepower increased enormously. That was from us.

There’s a problem in fighting an insurgency and that is that when you pour resources into a country like that, into a society that has conflict within itself, the side with the most motivation tends to obtain those resources one way or another.

On other differences people should keep in mind:

The American Army in this war is totally different than army in Vietnam. The American army in Afghanistan is an army of volunteers. They’re young men and women who’ve signed up for the military because they think they’ll survive, they’ll be able to get a college education, or they really wanted to be a soldier or marine.

That wasn’t true in Vietnam. They were drafted or volunteers, and even the volunteers figured they’d eventually get drafted and thought, ‘I should just get it over with.’ They weren’t really volunteers. When they saw how senseless the war was, many of them turned against it.

None of that seems to exist in Afghanistan. The Army and the Marines don’t seem to lack for volunteers. Young men and women are signing up knowing what they’re facing. They accept the danger. They sign up thinking they’ll live through it.

The US Army was destroyed in Vietnam. 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. That’s a hell of a lot of people. I don’t know the exact figure in Afghanistan, but it’s nowhere near that.

Note: The Associated Press tallies 1785 deaths of U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan since 2001, through June 2010. That number, of course, doesn’t include the hundreds of contractors—not to mention Afghan civilians—who have also died in the Afghan war.

In Disclosing Secret Documents, WikiLeaks Seeks ‘Transparency’ – NYTimes.com

In Disclosing Secret Documents, WikiLeaks Seeks ‘Transparency’ – NYTimes.com.

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Martin Luther King Jr. – Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence

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Delivered 4 April 1967, at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned at Riverside Church in New York City

Martin Luther King Jr., Beyond Vietnam

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:

I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here tonight, and how very delighted I am to see you expressing your concern about the issues that will be discussed tonight by turning out in such large numbers. I also want to say that I consider it a great honor to share this program with Dr. Bennett, Dr. Commager, and Rabbi Heschel, and some of the distinguished leaders and personalities of our nation. And of course it’s always good to come back to Riverside Church. Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege of preaching here almost every year in that period, and it is always a rich and rewarding experience to come to this great church and this great pulpit.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexed as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on. Read more of this post

Congressman Sanders’ “No to Oligarchy”

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

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The American people are hurting. As a result of the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, homes, life savings and their ability to get a higher education. Today, some 22 percent of our children live in poverty, and millions more have become dependent on food stamps for their food.

And while the Great Wall Street Recession has devastated the middle class, the truth is that working families have been experiencing a decline for decades. During the Bush years alone, from 2000-2008, median family income dropped by nearly $2,200 and millions lost their health insurance. Today, because of stagnating wages and higher costs for basic necessities, the average two-wage-earner family has less disposable income than a one-wage-earner family did a generation ago. The average American today is underpaid, overworked and stressed out as to what the future will bring for his or her children. For many, the American dream has become a nightmare.

But, not everybody is hurting. While the middle class disappears and poverty increases the wealthiest people in our country are not only doing extremely well, they are using their wealth and political power to protect and expand their very privileged status at the expense of everyone else. This upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country.

The 400 richest families in America, who saw their wealth increase by some $400 billion during the Bush years, have now accumulated $1.27 trillion in wealth. Four hundred families! During the last 15 years, while these enormously rich people became much richer their effective tax rates were slashed almost in half. While the highest paid 400 Americans had an average income of $345 million in 2007, as a result of Bush tax policy they now pay an effective tax rate of 16.6 percent, the lowest on record.

Last year, the top 25 hedge fund managers made a combined $25 billion but because of tax policy their lobbyists helped write, they pay a lower effective tax rate than many teachers, nurses, and police officers. As a result of tax havens in the Cayman Islands, Bermuda and elsewhere, the wealthy and large corporations are evading some $100 billion a year in U.S. taxes. Warren Buffett, one of the richest people on earth, has often commented that he pays a lower effective tax rate than his secretary.

But it’s not just wealthy individuals who grotesquely manipulate the system for their benefit. It’s the multi-national corporations they own and control. In 2009, Exxon Mobil, the most profitable corporation in history made $19 billion in profits and not only paid no federal income tax — they actually received a $156 million refund from the government. In 2005, one out of every four large corporations in the United States paid no federal income taxes while earning $1.1 trillion in revenue.

But, perhaps the most outrageous tax break given to multi-millionaires and billionaires happened this January when the estate tax, established in 1916, was repealed for one year as a result of President Bush’s 2001 tax legislation. This tax applies only to the wealthiest three-tenths of 1 percent of our population. This is what Teddy Roosevelt, a leading proponent of the estate tax, said in 1910. “The absence of effective state, and, especially, national restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power. The prime need is to change the conditions which enable these men to accumulate power which is not for the general welfare that they should hold or exercise…. Therefore, I believe in a … graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes, properly safeguarded against evasion and increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.” And that’s what we’ve had for the last 95 years — until 2010.

Today, not content with huge tax breaks on their income; not content with massive corporate tax loopholes; not content with trade laws enabling them to outsource the jobs of millions of American workers to low-wage countries and not content with tax havens around the world, the ruling elite and their lobbyists are working feverishly to either eliminate the estate tax or substantially lower it. If they are successful at wiping out the estate tax, as they came close to doing in 2006 with every Republican but two voting to do, it would increase the national debt by over $1 trillion during a 10-year period. At a time when we already have a $13 trillion debt, enormous unmet needs and the highest level of wealth inequality in the industrialized world, it is simply obscene to provide more tax breaks to multi-millionaires and billionaires.

That is why I have introduced the Responsible Estate Tax Act (S.3533). This legislation would raise $318 billion over the next decade by establishing a graduated inheritance tax on estates over $3.5 million retroactive to this year. This bill ensures that the wealthiest 0.3 percent of Americans pays their fair share of estate taxes, while making sure that 99.7 percent of Americans never have to pay a dime when they lose a loved one. It also makes certain that the overwhelming majority of family farmers and small businesses never have to pay an estate tax.

This legislation must be passed because, with a $13 trillion national debt and huge unmet needs, we cannot afford more tax breaks for millionaire and billionaire families. But even more importantly, it must be passed because the United States must not become an oligarchy in which a handful of wealthy and powerful families control the destiny of our nation. Too many people, from the inception of this country, have struggled and died to maintain our democratic vision. We owe it to them and to our children to maintain it.

Bernie Sanders is the Independent US Senator from Vermont.

Bernie Sanders, “No to Oligarchy”