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Robert Bivona

Since my early teens in the 1960s, I have been aware of the advantages of having wealth in gaining more and the wealthy’s disproportionate influence on our political system. Each decade since then, economic inequality and our political system’s corruption by wealthy individuals and corporations have grown more grotesque.

Also since my teens, it seemed to me that a society where maximizing business profits motivates economic activity would inevitably be dysfunctional. In pursuit of maximum profits, private actors will too often ignore resulting public harm. The environmental contamination in the 1950s and 1960s made this defect obvious. Extremely polluted air harmed the health of tens of millions of Americans, and some toxic rivers ignited into flames. The profit motive and a political system corrupted by corporations and wealthy individuals resulted in these conditions.

Among the other characteristics of modern-day capitalism I  never felt I could comfortably conform to is one where people earn a living by subordinating themselves to “bosses.” Also in my early teens, I was aware of neighbors whose social contributions far exceeded others with much higher incomes. Since then, the disconnect between social contribution and rewards has grown more obvious and extreme. Its incongruous character I describe in my books with many examples.

Despite my long-term interest in developing policy responses to systemic defects creating increasingly severe social problems, several decades passed before I detailed some because in my teens and twenties I pursued a more intense interest in science and mathematics. Although not directly related to my later focus on economics and politics, my formal educational and professional background developed the analytical skills I needed to write The New Enlightenment and Amazon as Metaphor.

I was excited to study physics at the college level after being introduced to the subject in high school. But as the process proceeded, I found it stifling. Professors would give equations such as the Schrödinger equation and show how physical systems will behave using it with too little emphasis on the creative process that resulted in the equation. I was interested in solving the problems professors assigned on determining physical system’s behavior, but I was more interested in the creative process that led to the problem-solving techniques.

I did not proceed with my education in physics immediately after receiving my Bachelors’s degree in 1975. Instead, I found employment as a “Lab Coordinator” in a physics teaching lab of a university. It involved setting up and maintaining lab equipment and assisting lab instructors. It was a 20 hour per week job, so I established a math and physics tutoring service to supplement my income. My clients were mainly high school students whose parents paid for the tutoring sessions. After about a year as lab coordinator, I began taking graduate courses in physics part-time, a free benefit of employment.

After witnessing the energy crisis of 1979 and early 1980s—the second major oil crisis within a decade—cause major social disruption from long gas lines (in some cases five miles long) and skyrocketing prices, my interest grew in a career change. It seemed to me I could make the best use of my technical skills by gaining expertise in designing and performance predicting alternative energy systems and energy conservation measures for buildings. Further motivating this desire were the incorrect predictions of “pundits” that the world would likely run out of sufficient qualities of oil to continue using it as an energy source within a few decades. I viewed active and passive solar systems, photovoltaics, and energy conservation as solutions to the reported oil supply crisis. Their environmental advantages added to their appeal. (However, at the time, I did not fully understand the significance of fossil fuels’ use in global warming.)

Some engineering firms offered design and economic analysis services for building energy conservation and alternative energy measures; after taking a few classes in the subjects at local universities, I succeeded in gaining employment at one. I was relegated to a cubicle like most of the other engineers and given projects to work on, mostly in isolation.

I didn’t particularly appreciate working at the engineering company, and it made me aware I had too large a deficiency of knowledge in the field. So, I sought the best educational program in designing and analyzing building energy conservation and alternative energy measures and decided it was a graduate program at Arizona State University. I applied, was accepted, and left my birthplace, the New York state region, for the first time for the very different environment of Arizona. While in the program, oil prices dropped 40% from their highs, the supply shortage seemed to be resolved, and within a couple of years, prices declined 80% from their highs. As a result, work in the solar and energy conservation field was scarce.

Since Arizona adjoined a state I had wanted to see for most of my life, California, I visited, and the beauty and climate (including cultural) of the northern California coast caused me to cancel my plans to return to New York and relocate to Marin County, CA, a suburb of San Fransisco. I established a tutoring service and soon also found work as a part-time consultant to a company that helped architects and contractors meet the California energy conservation code. The company paid me $20 per hour and charged clients $60 per hour for my work (this was the mid-1980s), so I started my own company providing the same services to architects and contractors directly. Also, I assisted a company in performing detailed comparative energy performance analyses of various energy conservation measures for large commercial buildings using a sophisticated computer program (DOE-2) that I learned how to use at ASU.

Eventually I longed for involvement with physics again in an academic setting and found employment as a lab manager at a major university. I supervised a staff of six part-time students in setting up equipment for the undergraduate physics teaching labs and lecture demonstrations, repaired or supervised the repair of the equipment, and assisted lab instructors. I wrote chapters of revised lab manuals, designed some equipment instructors used in the labs and lecture demonstrations, and managed a major expansion and move of the labs to a new building.

From 2010 through 2016, I devoted myself full-time to the research for and writing of 2017 released book, The New Enlightenment. I was highly motivated to write it. Our economic and political systems have been widening the chasm between our professed ideals of democracy, liberty, and justice for all and our reality for decades. Ignorance of significant facts, faulty ideas, and corruption among political and economics professionals contributed to the widening.  I viewed our social decline trends as inevitably leading to social disintegration without a social movement dedicated to creating a fundamentally more democratic, egalitarian, and just society based on some new, unconventional ideas.

In 2019, I began work on the research for and writing of my book, Amazon as Metaphor that I finished in 2023. My visions of the societal advancements we needed (and need) were clear, and I felt compelled to express them. My two books detail fundamental economic and political system reforms and why we need them. If instituted, they would create a far more just and better-functioning society.

                              Robert Bivona

Let’s “assemble with all the coolness of philosophers, and set [our Constitution] to rights.”

Our Constitution has been inadequate as a foundation of a well-functioning representative democracy. And Supreme Court decisions over the last few decades have turned its First Amendment into a kind of powerful weapon against the majority of Americans by equating money with speech and corporations with people. As a result, we have a government even more extremely serving a wealthy elite at the expense of the majority than it had in prior years.

The words “democracy” or “democratic” do not appear in the Constitution, and it tolerated slavery. Amendments since then have improved the Constitution but amending it is overly burdensome and much needs amending. When we amended it, we had a diverse media, which allowed and helped motivate the amendments. We now have a highly concentrated, elite-dominated mass media stifling public debate and widespread exposure to public policy reforms that would greatly benefit the majority. Mass media has been essential to enabling grotesque inequalities to grow. (The media system reforms I detail in The New Enlightenment, if instituted, would robustly solve this problem.)

A constitution should ensure political equality among all citizens, and it should foster consensus building and promote effective problem-solving. Instead, ours results in exactly what Madison warned against; it has “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” It is past due for us to take an honest look at the deficiencies of our Constitution and create one that best serves our citizenry.

The fundamental political and economic system advancements I detail in The New Enlightenment and Amazon as Metaphor, if instituted, would significantly advance us toward a well-functioning democracy and just society.

Base on an analysis of about 2000 public policies instituted over three decades, Princeton University researchers found: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact on public policy…Policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans.”

In 2018, HUD public housing operating expenses for 1.1 million units were $4.37 billion or $331 per month per unit, including repair, maintenance, and all other operating expenses. However, HUD’s massive repair cost backlog on public housing indicates insufficient budgeting for regular repairs and maintenance.

According to a National Apartment Association “Survey of Operating Income & Expenses in Rental Apartment(s),” private sector apartments spend on average $0.54 per sq. ft. per year for repairs and maintenance.  Since an itemized accounting of HUDs repair and maintenance expentiures was not available, I assume HUD spent half this amount and add half to estimate operating expenditures for well-maintained buildings. For the 850 sq. ft. average apartment, this adds $19.19 to HUDs $331 prior cost per month per unit, totaling $350.19.  

The average percent increase per year in the number of households over the last decade, now about 130 million, was roughly 1%. 1,040,000 is 80% of the 1,300,000 new households expected next year. 1,040,000 is a desirable number more than needed for new households in the bottom 20% wanting an apartment to gradually satisfy pre-existing bottom 20% demand. Eventually we will satisfy this demand enabling opening the program to the second from the bottom income quintile households.

 

The 350,000 units purchased are about 20% of the multifamily units sold per year. These buys will moderate multifamily units price declines due to the newly built low-priced apartments added to the market per year, which will lower private sector rents. (Multifamily unit sales are about $175 billion per year. Assuming a $100,000 per unit yields 1.75 million units total; 20% is 350,000.)

The Decline of Small Businesses

Over about two decades, the number of small businesses has fallen dramatically. For example: (source)

IndustryDecline in Number
Small construction firms15,000
Small manufacturers> 70,000
LocaL retailers108,000 (40% decline)
Community banks, credit unions13,000 (50% decline)

Between 1997 and 2012, the share of total business revenue going to firms with fewer than 100 employees fell by nearly one-fifth. One study found in over half of the 26 industries analyzed that two corporations now control over half the market. In many industries, the top two firms gained over 20% of their market from the early 2000s to 2018. Over the last two decades, over 75% of U.S. industries have experienced an increase in concentration, while United States public markets have lost almost 50% of their publicly traded firms. The Fortune 500 corporations captured 73% of our economy in 2013.

The Black-White Wealth Gap

In the first six decades of the 19th century, more than half of the nation’s exports consisted of raw cotton, almost all grown by slaves. Wealth created as a result passed on and appreciated over subsequent generations of White families instead of the Black families that generated it. Then when slaves were freed, the promise made to them of 40 acres in land grants went unmet—while many White Americans were typically provided 160-acre “hand outs”  of land in the west. This “free equity” translated into greater economic security and wealth accumulation over subsequent generations.  

In the 20th century, a major contributor to Black wealth denial was racist home ownership policies, which reduced rates of Black homeownership and associated wealth appreciation. In the late 1940s, the GI Bill’s home loans overwhelmingly benefited White veterans. By the time GI Bill ended in 1956, nearly 8 million World War II veterans had received 4.3 million home loans worth $33 billion. But relatively few loans went to Black veterans. For example, in Mississippi only two returning Black veterans received home buying benefits from the GI Bill. In the north, Blacks did not fare much better; in New York and northern New Jersey, fewer than 100 of the 67,000 mortgages backed by the GI Bill supported non-whites.

The GI Bill’s college education benefits also went overwhelmingly to White veterans. Twenty-eight percent of white veterans went to college on the G.I. Bill, while only 12 percent of black veterans did so. And the colleges Blacks were allowed to attend tended to be of lower quality.

Devastating Economic System Dysfunction

In 1968, the minimum wage was $11.60 per hour (in inflation-adjusted 2019 dollars), the highest in U.S. history. Productivity grew from 1968 through 2019 by a factor of 2.5.  If workers’ pay grew proportionately with the value they produced over this period, as it did over prior decades, the 1968 minimum wage could have been $29 in 2019; instead, it was and is $7.25 per hour. Also, the 1968 median annual household income of $55,738 in 2019 dollars would have been $139,345 in 2019; instead, it was $68,700

All Americans could be living prosperous and stable lives. Instead, our economic system’s dysfunction has 78% of Americans in a condition where they can’t pay all their bills if they miss one paycheck. 40% cannot pay a $400 emergency expense without borrowing money or selling something. Tens of millions are food insecure, or housing insecure, or can’t receive medical care when they need it. The economic hardships of many tens of millions of Americans result from systems (economic and political) that have allowed a small elite to capture almost all the benefits of productivity gains.

From 1968 through 2019, the income of the average household in the top 1% grew by 158%, from $789,200 to $2,034,300. The top 1%’s share of post-tax national income increased by 66%, from 8.7% to 14.4%.