To Heal the Pandemic Economy

November 23, 2020

I’d like to give thanks for those whose lives we can save and whose futures we can restore. To do that, there’s no choice between defeating the virus and rebuilding the economy; we’ve got to do both.

People protect themselves from Covid by staying home, not shopping or dining out. Those who’ve seen the virus up close and personal won’t be coaxed back easily. Those cautions crushed the economy. Companies went bankrupt, shut their doors, closed their books, eliminated brick and mortar stores. With those changes, there could be no snap back. There’s permanent damage.

The economic depression is deadly too. People without jobs are stressed. Tempers flare as they lose jobs, businesses, homes, cars, self-respect, even their families. Stress, violence and suicide kill.

Because they’re connected, we’ve got to deal with the virus and the economy, whenever we expect an effective vaccine to be available – the virus is killing and disabling far too many much too fast. To open the economy, people must cooperate with virus driven restrictions – a nuisance but a lifesaver. The map and data on the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center are eye-opening. There are a million new cases every week, all over the country. If people wait ‘til it hits their family, friends, town, or a vaccine’s available, it will be far too late for those infected and the economic disaster that follows.

If we cooperate to deal with the virus, there’ll be plenty we can do to restart the economy.

Government can provide emergency relief for people displaced by the depression.

Government can provide jobs by building and delivering essential public goods that private businesses can’t on their own

  • roads, bridges, clean air, water, flood relief, public health services;
  • postal service, electric and internet grids, and transit services that reach all corners of the country;
  • the education and training American workers need to better compete and attract investment here at home;
  • the basic science that made American farming, pharmaceuticals, the digital economy and industry lead the world.

We once called it a mixed economy where government and business each contributed what they could. That’s not socialism; it’s just smart. Plus projects can be targeted at areas that are hurting – if we work together as the U.S.A.

Government can target tax relief to strengthen the economy – tax relief to the bottom of the ladder where it drives markets, sales and business. Taxing the working classes to give tax relief to the wealthy doesn’t put food on the table and it doesn’t get the economy moving; it’s just a silly, corrupt bargain for campaign contributions.

Government can re-energize the economy by focusing on the welfare of American families, farmers, and workers. That’s the decent, humane way to drive demand and investment in America. To heal America we have to care about each other and develop the economy for us all.

In emergencies, Americans roll up our sleeves and help whoever’s been hurt, wherever they are. Helping each other now is crucial both to save each other from the pandemic and to rebuild the economy. That’s good old American teamwork and it’s essential.

If I were Biden, by the way, given Mitch McConnell’s intransigence, I’d follow president Truman’s example, run against the “do-nothing” Senate, and in these days of continuous campaigns, I’d start now.

 — This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on the WAMC Northeast Report, on November 24, 2020.

Blame and Public Safety

November 16, 2020

The Governor charged communities to re-examine their police departments, and several pieces in the local paper described the disproportionate treatment of African-Americans, ending up with the question whether police are racist. I like and respect the authors and there’s a lot of wisdom in those pieces but, to make progress, I question focusing on blame. Segregation was “inherently unequal” regardless of what the officials thought they were doing. Blame is about fault. I want improvement, not some Grand Inquisitor looking for purity. That makes everything harder.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Burger started out with a just-the-facts approach in 1971, saying even unintentional discrimination violated the law without a good reason for a rule that blocked African-Americans from advancing to better jobs. Unequal effects on different racial groups required strong, legitimate justification, regardless of what was in management’s heads or hearts. Congress backed that up in statutes requiring business necessity to justify practices creating a disparate impact among people based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. No one needs to be described as racist. They made an unjustified decision, and African-Americans deserved to be treated fairly.

But, starting in 1976, the Court defined denial of equal protection as intentional discrimination. Since then the Rehnquist and Roberts Courts found it easy to use supposedly good motives as a fig leaf covering egregious discrimination.

There’s no good reason to make the same mistake. Arguments about racism start with an accusation, and lead people, whose cooperation is needed, to circle their wagons and bring up their heavy guns, from police unions, to politicians’ simplistic descriptions in heated public debates. No one will break ranks and justice loses.

The answer must be objectives and metrics. What’s a policeman’s job? One piece is simple: “Dead or alive” is movie talk. Arrests are to bring people in alive so we can charge them appropriately, and determine guilt, innocence, and proper punishment, rather than content ourselves with a coroner’s report. People arrested are entitled to due process and a chance to defend themselves. It’s important to encourage police to take the role of peace officers. Whatever other claims we can argue about, the demand of Black Lives Matter that we bring people in alive, not dead, is clearly right. Dead people represent failure. It’s a tough job, but the job is to bring people in alive.

If an inordinate percentage of African-Americans are stopped and arrested, it’s legitimate to ask the cops themselves what they can do to change it. If an inordinate percentage of 911 calls by African -Americans are ignored, it’s legitimate to ask police what they can do to change it. We need action, not blame. And we need peace officers to work with us. The issues are big but we have to cut through the hostility and get to cooperation.

We should hear them out about how they can help solve the problems, how they can help stop needless killing. The defensive answer that everything is fine and we should admire and trust police because they are brave isn’t a defense; it’s an indictment. Bravery has nothing to do with shooting people in the back or killing people already subdued. We can have a realistic discussion of what can be done to make things better only if they are willing to face the problem and agree to help solve it. Once people are doing the right thing, it will eventually seem normal and right.

Meanwhile, we have a right to see action.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on November 17, 2020.

The Study of The Collapse of Civilizations

November 10, 2020

Ben Ehrenreich, How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart? puts it all together. Is this country, or the world following in the steps of the Mayan and many other collapsed civilizations? Are we about to become refugees? It puts together many long-standing concerns. Ehrenreich doesn’t mention ZPG or global warming by name but describes what happens when societies lost the agility to deal with such things as overpopulation or climate change. If I may be personal, I wrote my last book naively thinking people would be concerned about loss of democratic government but he makes clear the systematic difference between the rulers and ruled in dealing with existential crises. Some of us once thought democracy was the answer to that. But then of course there are events like Citizens United. Obviously I highly recommend the article.

To Heal the Politics, Change the Primaries

November 9, 2020

Over the next few weeks, I’d like to address aspects of how we can heal from the damage of the Trump years. We’ll have to change the politics to communicate with each other, the economics to take care of the whole country, policies to protect the climate, gun rights to define where and when they belong, and we have to get to know each other better.

To start with the politics, Lowell Weicker was a moderate Republican senator from Connecticut who wanted independents to vote in the Republican primary so he could fend off extremists. My clients, Democratic political scientists, thought parties should be able to shape their own primary systems for the good of all of us. Some of my clients supported closed primaries, restricted to party members. Some supported open primaries in which people can choose which primary to vote in. There are arguments for each. But my clients came together for parties’ rights to shape their primaries to encourage what Barry Goldwater called a choice, not an echo, or to encourage a moderate position, claiming each could better realize common goals. The more open the primary, the less candidates would be talking only to their party’s extreme wings.

We took part as amicus curia, supporting the Republicans’ choice, focused on the implications for the way the country does politics. When the suit went to the U.S. Supreme Court, David Golub, lawyer for the plaintiff, the Republican Party of Connecticut, called me to try out his analysis. David expected Justice Thurgood Marshall would be concerned that allowing parties to shape their primaries could result in racial exclusion. Neither of us had the stomach for that to happen, but we had different ways of explaining why our position wouldn’t allow it. Convincing Marshall was crucial. David built his entire argument around it. He reasoned that Marshall could bring along his close friend, Justice William Brennan, and Brennan could bring along several of their colleagues.

As it happened, the most memorable moment in the argument was when Justice Marshall leaned his large frame over the bench saying you wouldn’t ask me, emphasizing “me,” to overrule the cases which had held that African-Americans could not be excluded from party primaries. The courtroom broke out in laughter. Chief Justice Rehnquist, then in his first term as Chief, didn’t bother to gavel the courtroom into silence. Everyone understood that those cases were part of Marshall’s legacy as the Civil Rights Movement’s top lawyer. When the decision came out, the majority opinion was by Marshall for a closely divided court. He didn’t mention my argument, though it played a major role in the opinions of the Court of Appeals below. But the Court gave the parties the latitude we wanted.

There are many ways to push candidates to take account of the whole electorate, not just the extremes of their own party. Open primaries and ranked choice voting are two such methods. There are times when those approaches are helpful.

Our most important goals now – handling climate change, workers’ rights, and racial equality, among others – will require getting the public behind the movement. Open primaries could bring the parties and the country together.

There’s a risk that candidates would water down what needs to be done. But, somehow, we have to get the nation behind what we’re trying to accomplish. Trump and McConnell forced us into battles just to avoid backsliding. Maybe we need to talk to each other.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on November 10, 2020.

Trump Hooligan’s Bridge Problem

November 2, 2020

Did you see the photo of a caravan of Trump supporters stopping traffic on the Mario Cuomo Bridge over the Tappan Zee? Shades of former New Jersey Governor Chris Christy’s bridge problem. Why do people think blocking traffic across a major bridge will win support? All it shows is the hooliganism of immature voters.

Election Night Rag

November 2, 2020

Depending on where you live, there are a few hours left to vote. If you haven’t, it would be an excellent use of your time.

The results of that vote, and whether it’s respected, will determine what we’ll talk about tomorrow. I’ve written letters and gotten on phone banks to encourage people to vote, some with nonpartisan organizations. Now what?

With so much on our minds, I feel like the clergyman who asked at a friend’s wedding whether anyone remembered what the preacher said at their weddings.  We need some cheer.

Wanda Fischer on Hudson River Sampler played two wonderful songs about voting: Schooner Fare’s We the people sings out good news: “We, the people, will be heard.” Then Wanda played Steve Goodman’s Election Year Rag which got you “Jump[ing] on that old bandwagon,” after stopping by “the Precinct Captain’s house … [to] scarf up some lame duck stew.” Oh my, do I love that lame duck stew!

To paraphrase one of my favorites: We’ve a ballot to hammer out justice, ring out freedom, and sing about the love between our brothers and our sisters, all over this land. The land,  as Woody Guthrie told us, is “your land, … my land, made for you and me.”

Let this be a night for singing the songs of freedom, of the people’s rights to vote, that celebrate America’s contribution to the freedom of people everywhere.

All I want is a government that does what we can’t do for ourselves. We can see a doctor but our doctor can’t stop the pandemic from spreading. To stop it for anyone, we must stop it for everyone, lest others, essential workers, minorities, other decent people, will continue spreading it because none of us is an island. We need a government that protects public health.

I want government to improve the economy for all of us. With decent jobs that support our families, we’re not at each other’s throats as some of us have been. If we’re all at work, life will be safer for everyone. And if we’re all at work, we’ll be sharing the work that makes life better for everyone.

I want government to take seriously the threat of foul air and water to our lungs, the climate, and the floods, droughts and forest fires many already struggle to survive.

I want a world where people of all backgrounds are perfectly safe when stopped by policemen, when the old movie mantra of bringing people in dead or alive is confined to the movies.

I want government to protect us from all terrorism, where white nationalist terrorism isn’t protected – we are.

I want government to protect us from all foreign threats, bounties on our soldiers, sabotage of our computers, fraud on the internet, or election disinformation.

I want government to honor and protect conscientious, nonpartisan employees who follow the law as servants of the public, not campaign staff for presidents of either party, and an attorney general who protects America against lawbreakers high and low.

I want a government which protects voters rights to vote, rather than tossing ballots from people who followed the law as it was when they voted, a government that respects bipartisan honesty and fairness of the election system.

I’m guessing you do too. The best thing you can do right now is to vote.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on November 3, 2020.

Will there be an electoral meltdown?

October 27, 2020

Linda Greenhouse describes a nightmare of electoral meltdown in Could It Be Bush v. Gore All Over Again? This Court has advantaged Republican over Democratic candidates in an unbroken string of decisions. Respect for this Court is poised to disappear. The Court will only have itself to blame.

The Lawbreakers Trump Loves

October 27, 2020
Nicholas Kristof

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristoff detailed how Trump “uses scare tactics about ‘law and order.’ But what distinguishes this White House is its ties to criminals.” The parallel to Hitler is frightening.

My feelings about this election

October 26, 2020

It’s hard to describe my feelings. The great founding documents of our country seemed like they’d always be with us. When we participated in the Civil Rights Movement we thought were working for a better America. We never believed it could all disappear. We were brought up reciting the Gettysburg Address. We knew parts of the Declaration of Independence by heart. Some of us knew deals with the devil of slavery underlay the creation of the Constitution but also knew it had given us a platform to make a better world for everyone. We took it all for granted. Until the White House tenant threatened to take it all away.

I was born in New York City. Before I was four years old I knew this country was fighting with everything at its disposal to defeat Hitler and his Nazi butchers, who were exterminating Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gays, Poles, Slavic peoples, political opponents, people with disabilities and those Hitler called “useless eatersin concentration camps. I felt safe in Brooklyn, and proud. I remember telling myself I lived in the greatest city in the greatest country in the world. How great is that. Kids are naïve but I believed in and loved this country. I thought I knew what it stood for and what it stood for was great, admirable, and indeed the world admired us for it.

Our country’s Founders understood that people in a democratic republic must learn to share and care about each other. John Dickinson signed our Constitution, paid a fine to free slaves and wrote, “By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall!” In 1782, Congress approved our national motto, e pluribus unum, out of many one, for the Great Seal of the United States.

This country opened its arms to Christians, Jews and Muslims. Universities, founded on sectarian lines, gradually widened their welcome. The Founders repeatedly described the need for immigration. The public school movement intentionally brought rich and poor together. The 19th century Army, recruited on ethnic and linguistic lines, needed an integrated fighting force. Teddy Roosevelt told us that “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.” By the end of the 2nd World War the Army played a large part in breaking down ethnic and religious barriers among us. Soldiers formed friendships with men all over the country, introduced each other to their families, often to future brides.

Corporations broke down barriers among employees so they could work together. Integration preceded Brown by centuries – race was just the latest barrier to break down. It was breaking down before World War II, when African-American stars like Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson were wildly popular with national audiences on stage, screen, radio and opera. The world was changing before Jackie Robinson stepped onto Ebbets Field. National polls revealed that the public supported Brown. Martin Luther King would say, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

It’s pretty personal for me. I married a North Carolina girl, whose ancestry traces to the British isles, and always felt welcomed by her family.

So when Trump encourages people who celebrate Hitler and display their guns to scare and intimidate public officials, suggests they use their Second Amendment rights to lock up candidates, that there are good people among those who spawn hate crimes, and threatens not to accept the election results, he cuts the very guts out of the country I love. I don’t know how to express how sad, depressed and anxious I feel. Alan Paton wrote a book about South Africa he called Cry the Beloved Country. I stop myself from crying while there is still a chance to save it.

We all need to vote.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on October 27, 2020.

For the Left Wing of the Party

October 19, 2020

Did you feel safer in the Biden-Trump debate with Joe, who spoke like a caring uncle, or Donald with the demeanor of a raging bull? We know enough about Trump’s admiration for Hitler, his bringing extremists into Republican politics, to realize that his coy remarks  about what his supporters could do with their “Second Amendment rights,” his calls to “Liberate Michigan”, “Liberate Minnesota,” “Liberate Virginia,” and to “go into the polls and watch very carefully” while intended to protect deniability, were in fact aimed at the extremists among his supporters, the Klan, Proud Boys, Nazis, white supremacists, and gun toting extremists, inviting them to keep Black and Brown people and others likely to vote Democratic away from the polls or at least prevent their votes from counting. That world’s not safe for any of us.

Defeating the bully in the White House isn’t all people like me want from elections. We want environmental action, action to bring police and prosecutors under control, nominations to bring the courts back to the side of justice for all. We want tax policy that doesn’t make you and I pay more taxes than billionaires like Donald Trump (who claims to be a billionaire) or Warren Buffet. Buffet had the grace to object.

Joe won’t get me all I want – no one could. I’ve been working for equal rights since I graduated from law school, walked into the office of the NAACP in New York City and worked as a full-time, unpaid volunteer on their legal staff. Joe wasn’t my candidate in the primaries but the American people weren’t ready for her, which means we have work to do. That’s about building support within the party and the public, not about tearing the house down around us. Go for it in the primaries: educate, explain, build. But building for the future in the general election requires grace, teamwork and joining with other party members in expressions of mutual respect.

We could seek purity if we had a parliamentary system which includes minority voices, and doesn’t force compromise candidates. But Big Donald makes clear the dangers of the presidency by concentrating power in his hands.

Our system has other ways to take account of minorities except where voters are so polarized that they shun candidates who merely try to take account of everybody’s needs. In such states, prejudice against Black and Brown Americans can leave them with zero influence in the legislature and every harm done to minorities wins applause, leading to the most hateful policies. That, thank God, is not the way it’s supposed to be. When lawyers could prove polarized voting, they often got courts to redesign voting districts so that minorities could elect candidates and get into legislatures. We’re not in heaven and have made mistakes but, yes, we’ve made progress.

I respect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and others like them but they’re supporting Joe. There is no path to success by way of Donald Trump.

Obama never got the free hand that Mitch McConnell gave Trump with the help of white supremacists, gun-toting militias, Proud Boys, and the Nazis who rose from defeat by American soldiers in World War II.

No movement that could consistently defeat opposition candidates in primaries has taken over the Democrats. So Democratic leaders have to function as coalition builders. Those of us who want more should build and prepare to flex some muscle in future primaries. But electing the bully will cut off democratic alternatives. He and his supporters have no respect for democracy and will do their best to close it off. They want to rule like slave-owners and tyrants.

Parties respect and cater to people they can get to the polls. Sitting elections out doesn’t convey protest. Politicians read no-shows as apathy, lack of interest, people they don’t need to worry about. Let me make the point another way – the most extreme and violent people in the Republican Party are terrified the people will elect Biden and depose Trump. There’s a reason for that.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on October 20, 2020. I posted an earlier version on Sept. 30 under the title “Uncle Joe or Donald the Bully” without waiting to put it on WAMC.

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