Activism in the Great Recession Workshop Summary

Japanese American Activism and the Great Recession

Japanese Americans are also addressing larger societal issues, such as the impacts of the deepest economic downturn since the 1930’s.  This workshop explored their work and opportunities for the Japanese American community to be involved.

Albert Quach, a UCLA student and Mark Masaoka, of the Asian Pacific Policy & Planning Council facilitated the workshop.  Edited comments follow:

Roots of the economic crisis: Professor Richard Kamei, Chair of the Sociology Dept. at Glendale College, opened the workshop.

“To me the very essence of being Japanese American and the experience of being Japanese American causes us to be activists.  In fact, from a very young age we are taught values such as justice and fairness.  And we are taught to be altruistic and work for the common good.  I think that everyone in this room has been taught the story of Momotaro.  I will be very brief here, but Momotaro was Peach Boy and he got together with his animal friends—the monkey, the pheasant, and the dog.  And, what he did was, he basically went after the greedy demons that had stolen the wealth from the people.  And, he defeats these demons, ties up the leader, brings him back and redistributes the wealth to the people.” (Kamei)

Unemployment for California is at 12%, when you include those who have given up looking for work or part-time workers seeking full time work, the rate is 20%. One in seven Americans is living in poverty.  Many worry about being able to eat. Public college tuitions have tripled in the last decade leading to a student loan bubble. Few jobs requiring their talents are available to new graduates.

It is true that public spending is out of control.  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have cost over $3 trillion. California spends $8 billion annually on our prison-industrial complex.  We spend more than any other industrialized nation on health care, yet our statistics are worse.  Yet the share of taxes by corporations and top income earners has dramatically dropped primarily to the Bush tax cuts.  California is also the only state without an oil extraction tax.

Capitalism depends on the constant accumulation of capital and increasing profits to survive.  In order to achieve this, production costs must be lowered primarily through the use of technology and the exploitation of labor.  Low wages, combined with limited markets, can lead to a crisis in overproduction. To create demand for products, corporations spend billions to convince Americans that that happiness is found in consuming products.  The credit-card industrial complex and the housing debt bubble were created to maintain the economy.

“In 2008, we hit a new annual debt interest record at $451 billion. The interest we pay on our debt is devastating for our economy. And, we continue to cut more of our social and public programs, such as education.” (Kamei)

Short-term solutions involved stricter regulation of financial institutions and focusing on job creation rather than deficits.  Long-term solutions must address the contradictions of capitalism that the economy and society do not depend on constant accumulation and exploitation of labor and natural resources.

The huge hikes in public university tuitions and spiraling student debt: presented by Kelly Osajama, UCLA Students Co-Campus Organizing Director:

The California Master Plan for Higher Education was established in 1960 under then Gov. Pat Brown. The Plan had specific roles for the University of California, California State Colleges (now California State Universities) and the community college system. It began being tuition-free and went on to create world-renowned institutions of higher education.

We are at a crossroads where the entire system is undergoing a radical transformation that could shut out future generations from college.  Already student enrollments are declining.  CSU annual tuition that was about $1,000 in 2002 (using 2010 dollars) has gone up to $4,884 today.  UC tuitions were $4,287 in 2002 are now $13,218 today. And future hikes are projected.

This has had devastating consequences to affordability, access and quality.

The California legislature is trying to fill an $8.2 billion deficit and cutting services.

One of the reasons for California’s fiscal crisis is that wealth is being increasingly concentrated in the wealthy, who are now paying lower tax rates than before. As the economy globalized, the richest investors invested in countries with weak labor laws and by investing in financial instruments instead of productive enterprises.  Industries and their unionized workers declined. And by promoting the idea that all government is big and can’t be trusted, the richest 1% had their taxes lowered.

California student organizations are taking the lead at remedies that can generate additional tax revenues and stop future tuition hikes and cuts to basic services.  One of the proposals is reforming Prop. 13, which requires a 2/3 vote in the California Assembly and Senate to increase taxes.  This has allowed a small minority to block necessary increases.  Also, reforming Prop. 13 could enable commercial property assessments to rise to their current values, increasing revenue. (http://ucsa.org/section/view/get_involved)

Jared Nakwatase, a registered nurse and leader in the California Nurses Assn. spoke about the health care crisis, the high numbers of uninsured, and the need to increase public revenues to insure people are not without care.

Jared spoke about his experiences working in a hospital in Long Beach.  There are tremendous responsibilities and duties placed on nurses and health care workers, and often there is inadequate staffing.

The California Nurses Association and its national affiliate are working on a Heal America—Tax Wall Street campaign.  They have led the effort to place a very small tax on financial transactions such as stock purchases, currency transactions. A tiny percentage tax could bring in tens of billions of dollars by taxing the trillions of dollars in financial transactions.  This could raise new revenue to insure that people would not go without health care, and boost local economies. (www.nationalnursesunited.org)

The discussion after lunch focused on what we can do. Many commented on how Occupy Wall Street had reshaped the national conversation about the economy away from the Tea Party and back to the tens of millions of people left behind in the Great Recession. Several reported their experiences in visiting and showing support at the Occupy Wall Street/Los Angeles movement, camped out in tents at City Hall.

Action:  the group expressed interest in going down as a Japanese American contingent to visit and show support to the Occupiers; this was later carried out as part of an Asian American delegation.

Action:  the group signed post cards and petitions for reforming Prop. 13, and support for a ballot initiative to accomplish that.

Action:  the group expressed interest in the financial transactions tax; many had heard about this for the first time, and will continue to follow this effort.

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