Beyond Channeling Money

August 9, 2016

This is the sixth and last in a series on Money in Politics

Money finds ways to influence the political system despite our efforts to prohibit or replace it. It’s like a balloon that bulges wherever it can, or water that finds any path to cause trouble. Limits on contribution and gifts matter. But prohibitions aren’t enough. They just force politicians to spend more time looking for money and find ways around the limits. Even public funding for election campaigns isn’t a magical solution that will banish every problem in a puff of public green.

There are many problems we can solve to improve the rules of self-government. Employees deserve some protections. Employers can and some do pressure workers, make them go to some candidates’ talks, or give them work to do in political campaigns. Employer requests are hard to resist for fear of demotion, or other damaging consequences. We restrict sexual invitations to workers to avoid subtle or not-so-subtle intimidation. For similar reasons, employees deserve political protection on the job.

Still, we need more than prohibitions and public money. Parties were once the people’s answer to the power of money. Without parties, the wealthy and well-connected would rule. Parties were promptly corrupted, so Americans adopted primaries. Primaries shifted power to individual candidates and their organizations, and shifted power from the center of the voting population to majorities of primary voters, who tend to be much more extreme. That offers what Barry Goldwater, in his losing 1964 presidential bid, called “a choice, not an echo.” But it can also polarize politics and create a politics that almost nobody wants.

Most important for the future is how we prepare ourselves. We’ve been telling each other since the Revolution that we need an educated public. Unfortunately, many schools no longer educate people in relevant ways. We graduate students who have little idea who or how government is run, what our history is, or any understanding of the economic and social issues of our time. We complain that immigrants will not respect our ways, but leave the majority of natural-born Americans ignorant of how America came to be America. We need to do better.

What I see as truly encouraging is that this election has drawn many people into politics out of a real sense of public duty. I remember earlier waves like those that Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the civil rights and feminist movements drew into politics. I hope those of you whom Hillary, Bernie and Obama drew into politics will stay active and not become discouraged because all our dreams cannot be achieved quickly. I hope you’ll enjoy mixing with others door to door, in community meetings, house parties, barbeques, and otherwise staying in touch with the people.

I do think we can make life better. I don’t think we should expect a political heaven on earth. A large part of politics is about resolving differences of perspective, interests and needs – many of them legitimate on all sides. It’s not just about getting things done. It’s also about disagreement, conflict and compromise. Few of us ever get complete victories, and probably shouldn’t. But finding decent solutions to problems that divide people is also the challenge and one of the truly honorable tasks of democratic government.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 9, 2016.

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Bernie and Ralph

May 24, 2016

Let’s talk about Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader. I have enormous respect for what both men have been trying to tell us. I also have enormous respect for Nader’s willingness to plow his earnings back into the effort to improve many aspects of life while he, Nader, lived on a shoestring.

Then came the 2000 election. Nader argued that there was no difference between the major parties so it didn’t matter which one won that election. On the economic issue he was close to right, although the 2008 meltdown should have made clear that there are important differences between Republicans and Democrats on handling the economy. On other issues, particularly the environment, and the War in Iraq, the parties were far apart. That election made an enormous difference.

And it almost killed Nader’s movement; it certainly killed his ability to be an effective advocate. The conversation after the 2000 election wasn’t about Nader’s message; it was about the damage Nader did.

Bernie has an important message, which he shares with people like Elizabeth Warren and Ralph Nader, that the American economy is organized to take advantage of the vulnerable and deliver its benefits to those who have much more than they need. But if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, what happens to Bernie’s message will depend on how he treats Hillary. It will be important for his message that he works for her election – and that his supporters do. If he and they work for the ticket, then his message has staying power because it becomes a shared message, his people are welcome and they broaden their own power within the Party. But if they sit it out or vote for the other side, their only message is that they aren’t important, reliable or helpful. It will stir resentments that will block their appeal going forward.

Nurturing Bernie’s message requires looking beyond this election, making friends and alliances for future elections. The way to create a lasting movement is to build on good feelings and organize for challenging down ballot in future federal, state and local elections much like what conservatives did to the Republican Party. Winning the top spot is a defective balloon, useless without down ballot organization. Bernie’s people have a chance to push the whole party, not just the White House, to the left. That’s the big prize. It doesn’t mean Bernie lost if he can’t catch Hillary; it means he and his supporters can do something much more powerful and sustainable.

Sitting back, or communicating that it’s my way or the highway infuriates the public. Republicans are learning the costs of that strategy, and even if Donnie wins, he may have no coattails or ability to govern. One of the crucial features of a democratic culture is the ability to be a good sport. Moderates usually win in the general election because that’s where the public is, so compromise must join principle in a successful strategy. Movements build over time. The best way to limit a movement’s prospects is to look like a sore loser.

I hope that message gets across to Bernie and his supporters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 24, 2016.


Universalism vs. the What-About-Mes

May 10, 2016

This primary season has made plain Americans’ dissatisfaction with American politics – dissatisfaction because someone else seems to be getting all the goodies and concern. The right wing thinks the poor are the government’s favorites. The left wing sees its wages and taxes mostly benefitting the super wealthy. Both Sanders and Trump mined the political backlash from special interest politics. Trump’s apparent nomination increases the urgency for both parties to respond to this problem.

And for anyone who wants to argue that impoverished or minority Americans are being short changed, one runs a minefield of envy, and the “what-about-mes.” The same weighs down discussion of the advantages of international trade agreements. If we don’t all share, the biggest issue is me. Similarly, for too many people the environment never seems to be about themselves but someone else, people on islands, lowlands, the next generations, but not themselves. That makes all our problems tougher to deal with.

When he wanted to establish a program for the elderly and the injured, the genius of President Franklin Roosevelt was to make it seem universal. Social security insurance applied to all kinds of people and most kinds of jobs.[1] We pay into the system long before we know whether and how much we’ll need. Many get social security who would be excluded by any need based program. But that’s the point. There is no stigma to social security. FDR did it as an insurance program; most of us contribute and collect. Roosevelt wanted to make it simple – you did your social security business at the post office. And when some politicians wanted to tamper with it for ideological reasons, they found that social security was a third rail of politics. FDR had hit that nail on the head.

Now, however, simple, universal programs like medical insurance have become a political football, and the very possibility of the government pursuing the general welfare is under attack from the not-with-my-money crowd. But because it is under attack, because we cannot count on government even to pull us out of a recession that would involve spending tax dollars, no matter how good the investment, the very possibility of economic changes are much more threatening than they should be.

Investment in infrastructure should be an investment in the general welfare, full of benefits for everyone, putting people to work building it, making jobs and businesses easier to reach, and creating benefits for all of us, from clean water and more reliable utilities to better education and internet services. The best way to protect people from unemployment is to provide jobs that provide benefits for the public. Infrastructure can pay dividends, in jobs and services that make everyone better off, and that only government can build.

Unfortunately politicians prefer big showy projects, dramatic new bridges and buildings rather than maintenance, repair and cost effective options. They prefer projects targeted for their contributors, Or they prefer to get on their soapboxes and try to get us to tear down the very government that made this country a great one. The cost of political behavior that breeds distrust of American government is enormous. Good government, self-government was the signal contribution of America to the world and we are allowing our political infrastructure to crumble along with the water, utility, transportation and electrical infrastructure.

It’s not just who we tax; it’s also what we do. Government matters; it does things for the public that no one else will take care of. We need good government, fair government, government for all of us, but government – strong, effective government – and the confidence that comes from doing it right.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 10, 2016.

[1] On the original exclusions, see Larry DeWitt, The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 70, No. 4, 2010, https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v70n4/v70n4p49.html, but he is less convincing regarding motivation. For summaries of current exemptions, see Intuit Inc. (U.S.) at https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tools/tax-tips/General-Tax-Tips/Who-Is-Exempt-from-Paying-Social-Security-Tax-/INF19965.html or http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/013015/who-exempt-paying-social-security-taxes.asp.


The Outdated Economics of Conservative Ideologues

April 26, 2016

Some of you may have been following Shankar Vedantam on NPR or the discoveries of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist on the Princeton faculty, and their demonstration of the irrational ways that people very naturally and ordinarily reach decisions. Indeed, for quite a long time it’s been apparent that rational decision making often demands too much of people. As Cornell’s Vicki Bogan said in a talk in Albany, the rational choice model of economics assumes that people:

  • Think like Albert Einstein
  • Can store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue
  • Can exercise the will power of Mahatma Gandhi
  • … [and] make unbiased forecasts

Nobel Prizes have been awarded to psychologists and economists who have been studying human decision making, showing that people literally can’t do what conservative economic theory expects them to. The rational man doesn’t exist, and for that reason, markets often don’t protect us. For both businessmen and consumers, rational choice is often impossible; it’s just too hard. Sometimes things aren’t currently knowable. Sometimes they’re beyond the capacity of individuals, even if institutions can figure it out.

A trip to the grocery store helps make the point clear. Even though much of the information exists, I can’t know enough about all the ingredients of the goods I buy, and their impact on my body, and still take the time to do my work and have a life to live. I have to trust someone or something else. But consumer ignorance shapes what businessmen have to do to survive. Those who cater only to the most informed, cater to small markets and often go under.

One consequence is that the market doesn’t protect us. That’s why workers’ compensation was started many decades ago – workers couldn’t figure out the odds of injury and didn’t have the ability to protect themselves as cheaply and effectively as informed employers could. Government stepped in to move that burden of knowing and choosing from the employee to the employer.

Those are examples. The broader impact of what is now called behavioral economics is that the economic theory of market ideologues is thoroughly discredited nonsense. It doesn’t work. A couple of decades ago there was a big debate about the efficient market theory which claimed that the market had it right even though individuals could be wrong. But they couldn’t tell me whether the market had it right the day before or the day after the crash. In other words it was nonsense on stilts.

That’s one of the reasons the public, all of us, have to get out of the glare of the outdated economics coming from conservative ideologues. It’s one of the reasons why it has been so important that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have moved the Democratic Party to the left. That shift also clears the way for Hilary Clinton to return to the roots of the modern Democratic Party in the Great Depression, in Roosevelt’s New Deal, in being a party with heart.

Hilary and Bernie both have a lot to offer, but just as big a key to progress will be the Senate and the House of Representatives, which have blocked Obama’s efforts to push this country toward better, more caring solutions at every turn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 26, 2016.


It’s Government’s Job to Make Work Available

April 19, 2016

Bernie and Hilary argue about trade pacts. We know trade pacts cost some jobs and open up others. That’s not a satisfying trade-off if your skill is suddenly unmarketable and you’ve become unemployed or underemployed. An effective response is crucial.

But protecting specific jobs will ultimately hold America back, diminish our competitiveness, and damage our ability to develop in new directions. Government should not protect specific, unsustainable jobs or avoid trade pacts that promote economic progress, national security or other international objectives.

But – and it’s a very important but – government should make sure that we can all work to support ourselves and our families. That’s why Republican insistence on scaling back Obama’s stimulus package in 2009 and then blocking more investment in infrastructure was very much the wrong move. It shirked our responsibility to each other and made moving forward politically more difficult.

The way government can make jobs available is to hire people to do what we should be doing and building. Once people are working, business and investors will take advantage of the extra income flowing and build their businesses and inventory to satisfy the demand.

But businesses don’t invest in order to create demand. Individual businesses can’t assume their investments will change the economic picture significantly, certainly not enough to repay their investments. Individual businesses can’t assume that they will reap the benefits of having created more jobs – people spend their paychecks in many places only a fraction of which will come back to the company.

That’s just one of the reasons pouring more money into the hands of what Republicans like to call job-creators is worthless, like a Rube Goldberg invention in its totally confused complexity. Business invests to meet demand or to create a product they think will sell – they don’t invest just because they have money. And since in fact they have lots of money on hand, many have been engaging in various forms of financial manipulation, buying back stock, sending money abroad, anything but job-creating investment or investments here.

That means that both Bernie and Hilary are hitting the nail of economic doldrums for the many people who can’t find decent jobs right on the head. It’s a problem that needs government to work for us.

Putting people to work solves many problems at once. Putting people to work supplies the person-power to re-build, update and renovate infrastructure. Putting people to work, pushes the wage scale for the best of reasons – not just a legal minimum wage pegged to an arbitrary number, marketplace pressure for employees raises the payscale. Putting people to work improves the business outlook. And infrastructure improvements improves the feasibility of successful investment for everyone – not just the favored projects of a few but improved access for all of us means that people with a good idea will have the opportunity to get the resources they need and access to the customers they want.

Of course whether government can pay for doing the right thing depends on whether government can actually impose taxes on the people and companies who have money. Arguing about protecting the so-called job-creators bv reducing their taxes is actually a way of starving government so that those so-called job creators can squeeze workers who are uprotected because government can’t afford to do anything about it. A successful modern economy requires a government with the resources to play its part.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 19, 2016.

 


Hillary

September 22, 2015

We were delighted when Kermit Hall, a friend since the early 80s, became president of the University at Albany. A week before he died, we had breakfast with Kermit at the President’s house. So I went to the memorial service at the University with a heavy heart. There was a woman standing in the crowd I didn’t recognize. She was just standing around quietly. My ability to recognize faces is poor, good enough for most things but it often fails me. She eventually made her way to the makeshift outdoor stage that had been organized for the memorial. Once the memorial got under way, she was introduced – as Senator Clinton. I don’t remember her reading anything. What I heard was a warm, heartfelt eulogy of my friend, a eulogy that flowed easily from her, filled with memories of their work together to strengthen the University in New York.

I know Hillary has a heart. I know she is a warm person with strong feelings. And I do not care in the least whether she would want to have a drink with me. I don’t care whether a president is spontaneous or funny when you get to know them.

I admired FDR enormously, not because of his dog, but his good sense. Thank heavens that he knew German well enough to understand how dangerous Hitler was before anyone else in America. I admired his wife and regret the pain it caused her that some women were sufficiently devoted to do anything for the president, but in the scheme of things, I have no ill feelings toward FDR for it. What mattered most was that he put his energies into turning this country around in the middle of the Great Depression, and preparing this country for what he knew was the inevitable battle with Hitler. He was the man we needed and thank the Lord for him. To heck with who his drinking buddies were.

I don’t want Hillary to be spontaneous so I could imagine enjoying her company or she mine. I want her to be thoughtful. I don’t want her to take us into foolish wars on wild hunches, or to come out with whatever thoughts she has in the moment. We don’t need a president whose calculations are as bankrupt as some of the companies he ran into bankruptcy. A president needs the mental equipment to calculate carefully. And a candidate needs to position herself or himself to win, lest we find ourselves with one of the clowns on the other side who compete for the privilege of exercising their free speech in the most vicious ways, arguing we should deprive friends and neighbors of their citizenship, breaking up families, and throwing as many people as possible behind bars in a collective orgy of prejudice.  That may be spontaneous but it’s also small-minded and stupid.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have long had my admiration and I support the message they have been taking to America. I want them to give Hillary cover to move leftward without losing the public in the process. But I think Democrats have been misevaluating Hillary. She has many of the qualities we need. She surprised many in both parties by just how good a senator she turned out to be. Democrats need to appreciate her toughness, experience and ability to navigate the challenges that confront presidents, not her ability to handle a stein of beer.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 22, 2015.

 


Bernie

June 9, 2015

I have been an admirer of Senator Elizabeth Warren for many years, ever since she spoke here at Albany Law School some time back in the 90s. But I respected her decision not to enter the primaries to contest the nomination of Hillary Clinton. Obviously I never had to decide whether I would choose to vote for Warren or Clinton, but I came to the conclusion long ago that the candidates I liked best had no real chance of winning. So I have tried to keep my picks within the realm of the people I thought could win.

But Bernie Sanders is forcing me to rethink what to do. Simply put, the Democrats have lost much of the constituency for real, liberal, politics, politics for Americans with average incomes, politics for people who are being given the shaft by business as usual. Those folk have been part of the constituency of the Democratic Party for years. But many of them have been staying home and not voting. Or deserting.

The Occupy movement showed that there is still some life in that constituency. And it showed that American politics and Democratic Party politics can be rejuvenated. Except that it collapsed – not for lack of support but because it was never organized for the long haul.

Bernie gives hope to those of us who care about giving people real opportunity and a fair shake. He gives us a symbol we can rally around. Putting it in the political process is very different from opening a tent on Wall Street. Bernie is trolling for votes. His success will measure the possibility of returning to an America that is fair to all.

Years ago a congressman by the name of William Fitz Ryan represented a liberal district in Manhattan. His brother served on the Board of Directors of the program I worked for and commented that for Congressman Ryan, pushing Congress from the left, created opportunities for his fellow legislators to shift the battleground.

I think Bernie is in that tradition. If he can arouse the mass of us who care about each other’s fate, and arouse the many whose lives are crushed by the disinterest and hostility of those who have power and money, then Bernie can shift American politics from the rut it’s been rattling around in for several decades.

In that way, Bernie is more than a candidate. He represents a cause. He can be the beginning of a movement and an organization. The crucial thing we have to do is to take advantage of his candidacy, win, lose or draw, and build on it toward a stronger, fairer politics, and a stronger America, whose future is not limited to what may be good for a few big donors but is premised on the ways that investing in our country and its people can make a stronger, wealthier, more successful America for all of us.

Go Bernie. And may the rest of us come along, to push the campaign cart, organize for a long push, and celebrate a greater America.


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