For Valentines Day 2016

February 9, 2016

It’s the time of year to think about love. I used to think that if you hadn’t heard Cho Cho San sing in Madame Butterfly about that fine day when Lieutenant Pinkerton would return to her, one had never heard a love song. Musically, I still think so. But what it really communicates is longing. Is that love?

Much of what we hear as popular music, or art songs or operatic love songs are songs of longing, loss or jealousy. Where’s the love?

Contrast that with Billy Bigelow’s soliloquy in Carousel where he starts thinking of the child he and Julie are expecting. First he thinks about the things he’ll do with “my boy Bill” until he realizes that the son he is dreaming about could be a she, and then realizes the ways that he will have to provide for her. Of course he is sexist in the ways that he thinks about his son or daughter, but he is also realizing and warming to the responsibilities of a loving husband and parent. Billy comes to understand that love is about the ways he can make his family’s lives better, not merely about his own pleasure.

Billy makes a big mistake and pays with his life. But the soliloquy that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote for him says a great deal about what love is about, the ways it transcends longing and jealousy, the joys of giving, the humanity of caring. I think that says a lot about the love that many of us experience. We seek the responsibility, the opportunity as well as pleasures of truly caring about others.

For me, that includes the satisfaction of taking seriously the needs of other Americans, of all origins, faiths and colors, and openness and respect toward visitors and immigrants. Respect and concern for others is part of asking the same for oneself. Ours is a very diverse country and it will be moreso in coming years. We can teach new generations of Americans that success is just a process of stomping on others to gain advantage or we can communicate the values of mutual concern and respect – toward others, and toward ourselves. Ultimately, peace depends on how well we treat each other, and how confident others are that they can live in peace and harmony with us.

The modern world has upended some ancient accommodations among peoples. Jews lived at peace in the Muslim world for a millenium and lived precariously in the Christian world for much of the same period. Colonialism played a part in changing that for the Muslim world. The racism and classism of colonialism stirred the Muslim soul and some of that has come out as anger. That illustrates the importance, as well as the morality, of the Golden Rule, treating others as we would want to be treated. For me it also points to the satisfaction of truly caring about others.

May I end with the words of the ancient Rabbi Hillel:

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, who am I?
If not now, when?

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

 


What is Limited Government Anyway?

January 26, 2016

With the presidential primaries underway, the media is choked with talk about getting the government off the people’s backs, restoring limited government, making government let the people alone. But the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, their candidates and supporters are actually saying something very different – they want government to support their definition of their rights and push everyone else out of their way, and most important they want the courts to decide in their favor when others complain that they are trespassing on public land or polluting the air, land and water in ways that injure and interfere with the lives of others. That’s government in their favor.

We lawyers talk about law as a seamless web. That sounds like an idiom but it’s actually very precise. Everything is governed by rules. Judges always decide that someone does or does not have a privilege or a right. Those are all decisions about what the law is. Law always favors someone and disfavors someone else. If someone has a privilege, then everyone else loses when that person does whatever he or she is privileged to do. The question is not, cannot be, whether there is law; the question we have to deal with is whether it is fair and whether it is good for the public. Government off the backs of some means government on everyone else’s back, often leaving you and me poor and defenseless.

Limited government, regulation off people’s backs, are the tropes we hear when a government agency or legislature takes note of bad behavior – fraud, pollution or unconscionable business practices that cause decent people great loss. Unscrupulous companies, some very large and well known, as we discovered during the 2008 financial shock, want no regulations that would set a moral floor under their behavior, allowing more moral enterprises to compete instead of being bankrupted by cut-rate competition from the scandalous moguls. The only regulations that the unscrupulous like are regulations that keeps everyone else out of their way.

So when you hear that trope, look squarely at the privilege these anti-government claimants are defending. You hear it loudest when people are claiming the right to hurt the public. That’s not a claim of freedom that would have made any sense to the Founders of our country.

When the Founders spoke and wrote about government, their central questions were what’s fair and what’s good for the public. Those was central in every aspect of their work from the definition of property rights to the rights the public retained and what the public could and should do for the benefit of the people. Concern for public welfare was central to the building of the Erie Canal that defined the path of commerce in the State of New York for a century and a half, even as the canal was replaced by roads and railroads to continue developing the path the canal had developed. Concern for public welfare was central to the establishment of schools which made Americans among the most educated people on the earth, education that was at the root of all the good things that have happened since.

The Founders believed in public spirit, not a spirit of what the public could do for one’s selfish needs, but a spirit about what each of us could contribute to the improvement of the community, the states and the nation. When President John F. Kennedy told the American people “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” he was channeling the spirit of the Founders.

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


No Justice for the Vulnerable

December 29, 2015

In this season of charity, I’d like to talk about the fate of the less fortunate to make clear how our politics has been turning a blind eye to the damage it does.

When we aren’t responsible for the costs imposed on others, we will continue to hurt them. Economists call that externalities. Businesses don’t have to pay for the effects on our environment so most businesses continue doing global damage just as much as if they were perfectly benign. Forcing businesses to pay for workers’ injuries, forced them to take account of ways they could save money by protecting their workers – not out of the goodness of their hearts but because the legal system said they had that responsibility. When costs are internalized, they result in better overall decisions.

In the law of eminent domain, cities have to pay for taking people’s property regardless of how wonderful their plans. They have to internalize the costs their plans will do to the owners of real property. When they did urban renewal, the cities didn’t have to pay for the businesses whose customer base was destroyed, and they didn’t have to pay for forcing people into much less safe or appealing housing or projects. So cities avoided taking high priced real estate but they freely wiped out the businesses of the most vulnerable. Those costs were externalized, imposed on other people who had no choice in the matter.

In fact our system makes scores if not hundreds of thousands of innocent victims with no thought of internalizing the damage and paying any form of compensation.

When an individual is wrongly imprisoned for a quarter century and is lucky enough for someone eventually to find a way to convince the courts to let him out, with DNA or other conclusive evidence, that individual has to prove that someone was not only derelict in his or her duty, but did not have one of the many privileges that the law gives people in the criminal justice system, or that the city or state was derelict in its duty of supervision and training, before that individual has any right to compensation. Everyone in government gets to smile and say justice was done while continuing to do the kind of careless investigation and sometimes deliberate withholding of evidence that kept people in prison. They aren’t made to internalize the costs of their misbehavior.

Would police departments be so happy to retain police officers if the department budget took a big hit every time a cop guessed wrong and shot an unarmed civilian? Or would the department institute practices to make that stop?

In fact our law makes the victim or survivors prove specifically what the city should have done in training or by regulation or what the officer should have done under the circumstances. Asking only whether the officer’s behavior was reasonable, the law doesn’t take account of the reasonableness of the victim’s actions. In other words, instead of making the officer and the city responsible for their mistakes, it puts the risk of police error on the individual.

Of course that is typical of American law – protect those who don’t need it but leave the vulnerable in the gutter with a sheet and a prayer. There’s little justice in America for the vulnerable.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 29, 2015.

 


Jobs and the “job creator” fairy tale

December 22, 2015

At this season in which charity is high on our agenda, I’d like to address some economic issues. I recently spoke with you about what the oligarchs are doing to American democracy. This time I’d like to talk with you about is happening to our jobs and wages. Jobs have recovered slowly from the 2008 crash; wages have flatlined for a decade. Candidates should be talking about jobs and wages.

Some want to turn money over to what they call the “job creators” – fabulous, fairy tale language. When taxes were cut to the 1%, the great bulk of that money didn’t finance jobs, or even trickle down to the rest of us. The 1% used it for finance, to jack up asset prices, buy and sell companies, close factories and outsource jobs abroad, or build McMansions, everything but better lives for American workers, who put in long hours at multiple jobs, with little to show for it but worry about the future. Creating jobs by lowering taxes hasn’t worked for decades because we already did it decades ago; now it’s become a fairy tale told for the gullible. It’s amazing the demonstrable nonsense that people can convince themselves of.

Our society insists it’s everyone’s personal responsibility to find work. As a legal aid lawyer, I worked closely with unemployed, mostly African-American clients. I felt like I was watching them die. Losing a job left them feeling worthless; nothing was more deeply hurtful or more threatening. With little to tide them over, they lived where they could afford housing, far from jobs, without cars to get to interviews or available work, or any network of employed friends to point them to possible jobs. On-the-job training left them few transferable skills, and parents struggled to find affordable day care. The more they needed work, the harder it was to find a job.

We had a fellow do odd jobs, yard work, pick up bottles and cans for the deposit, after losing his last job for lack of transportation. A lawsuit for unrelated injuries got him enough to buy a car. Instantly he was working, steadily.

The stuff called tough love isn’t love but it is dumb. People without assets or work become vulnerable to doing anything just to stay alive. That affects all of us.

The unemployed cost us money, for unemployment insurance, because of the dislocation that unemployment generates, and for lots of police because we fear the jobless. They cost us money because of the decrease in property values, the poor prospects of their children and those who live in areas of high unemployment. We pay in the fear of going out at night or stepping on to the wrong street; and we lose the multi-generational workforce we want for our own programs and projects.

Any responsible business person would include all the costs to individuals and our communities in their balance sheet for deciding whether to support a job program. To evaluate the cost to each of us individually in taxes, compare it to the taxes we have to pay for not putting people to work, as well as the value of the work they could do.

The notion that all taxes are bad for us, is sloppy economics. Justice, fairness and safety are not trade-offs but different sides of the same coin. I’d put people to work rebuilding and improving the infrastructure and other needed projects. There are a lot of things we can do to boost the economy and provide jobs if we are not bamboozled by fairy tale language about what the princes would do for us if only they had even more money.

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

 


The party with a better economic record

November 3, 2015

Paul Krugman makes it very clear that the economy regularly and systematically does better under Democrats than Republicans even though Republicans keep claiming a better record:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/02/opinion/partisan-growth-gaps.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad

He’s spot on about Republican hypocrisy – they need to encourage belief that the economy will do better under Republicans to convince people that their favors to the wealthy are useful. The more they tell that story the more the voters seem ready to believe them regardless of reality. The rest of us need to better inform the voters.


Who We Work to Support

September 29, 2015

We’ve all seen bumper stickers that complain, “I work so welfare queens don’t have to” and other complaints about taking care of people in need. Conservatives, Republicans, Tea Partiers all tell us the problem is “entitlements.” And people are mad. They do not want to work to pay for other people’s entitlements.

Except it is impossible. The richest 1 percent in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.[i]  And the top 20% of American households, whose average income was around a quarter million dollars get the majority of Americans’ yearly income from all sources.[ii] So, yes, we work for others, but not for the people who are poor, unemployed or disabled. We work to support the wealth of the people who get all the money. They claim not to need our help, but only because they already took our money.

They want us to believe that’s just “natural,” that they have that money because they sold us such useful things, and whatever the market does is perfectly proper. But actually it’s because of all the tax benefits they have, so that Warren Buffet properly pointed out that his secretary pays a larger percent of her earnings than he does. As Buffet understood, that’s not natural. It’s the kleptomania of the rich, the people who control the lobbyists for themselves and their businesses and who finance the political campaigns of the lackeys we call congressmen and senators.

Their forms of income are protected – the top tax rate is no longer high but they still get a break for capital gains, deductions for all the lobbyists and accountants they pay to make sure they don’t pay their share of the tax burden, and the privilege of moving their money to tax havens. Of course they will lend back to government, at interest, the money they aren’t investing in job creating activities, the money they have protected themselves from having to pay as taxes like the rest of us.

It’s also because they convince their lackeys that their companies shouldn’t be regulated either; they should be allowed to monopolize markets so we’d fill their pockets faster, and they should get government help for the very financial vehicles they used to wreck the economy, instead of helping the people that they took advantage of in scams called derivatives, credit-default swaps and subprime mortgages. It’s all rigged and it isn’t you and me that are taking advantage of the system.

But their lackeys say they’re the job creators – indeed even while they are sitting on money they don’t think it worth their while to spend. That’s called chutzpah!

What’s worse, this is a vicious cycle – the rich control the politics so they can get wealthier and control the system ever more tightly. When does it reach a point when we no longer have a democracy? Indeed, what kind of democracy is it if all the candidates have to get the blessing of the enemies of the people.  Is that the democracy we fought for? And can we get it back?

— commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 29, 2015.

[i] Nicholas Kristof, An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, NY Times, July 23, 2014. See also Tom Kertscher and Greg Borowski (March 10, 2011). “The Truth-O-Meter Says: True- Michael Moore says 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined”. PolitiFact.
[ii] The Distribution of Household Income and Federal Taxes, 2011, Congressional Budget Office Report, November 12, 2014, https://www.cbo.gov/publication/49440.

Amtrak Subsidy

August 25, 2015

I’d like to talk about an issue that has been below the surface of the news but reflects a constant disagreement in our politics. Economic conservatives would displace almost everything in favor of the marketplace. But when you decide what to pay for, what are you including or excluding from the transaction?

Perhaps you’ve been following the arguments about subsidizing Amtrak, for example.[1] The details are more complex but I want to set out the basic issue. Passenger trains and commuter rails and busses tend to be subsidized by government. If they depended on the marketplace alone, they would fail. When any of us decide whether to take Amtrak or a city bus, or the subway in New York City or Washington, we are thinking of the personal costs and benefits. I’ve calculated, for example, that when I go to New York City, unless my wife is going down with me, it is cheaper to take Amtrak than to travel alone by car.

But if Amtrak failed, the trip to New York City would impose much greater burdens on me than just the cost. Given that this corridor is one of the busiest passenger rail corridors in the country, that would put a lot of people on the highway. It could make the trip slower, the likelihood of accidents on a more crowded highway greater, and, of course, unlike an Amtrak trip, I couldn’t read or work on the road.

Notice, though, that those burdens of extra traffic on the highway don’t just affect me. They affect everyone on the road. And my Amtrak bill does not reflect those benefits of mass transit. There isn’t any calculation on any bill that identifies the costs to me and to all of us if Amtrak were allowed to fail.

And of course I haven’t listed all the costs. The pollution costs of taking the car are much more than the pollution attributed to train travel. Highways take a great deal of land that we could have enjoyed for other purposes – their land use is much less efficient. They are expensive to police, expensive to clear for winter travel, and expensive because of the damage from salt splashed on the underbodies of our cars and washed into our rivers and streams.

Nor do those calculations take into account the impact on global warming. It isn’t possible to be precise about the cost for global warming. But it will be large and should be accounted for. Many things can’t be put into numbers. What’s love or freedom or life itself worth in dollars? As a common ad says, “priceless.”

So to see if subsidizing Amtrak is justified, we have to add all those shared benefits to ourselves and each other that can’t be part of the ticket price. Social benefits have to be paid for by the whole society. None of us alone can buy the benefits of less climate change or less congested highways.

So yes, I believe in subsidizing mass transit and helping it grow. I think it is valuable for those who don’t take it too. More generally, the marketplace doesn’t handle every problem well.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 25, 2015.

[1] See http://www.cbo.gov/budget-options/2013/44782 for the Congressional Budget Office discussion. Individual routes raise additional considerations but even those decisions impact the entire system.


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