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.


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.


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.

How America Would Handle Greece

July 14, 2015

What are the lessons from the Greek crisis? Their economy had major problems. People with plenty of money weren’t bothering to pay taxes. And the Greek government provided benefits beyond its means and beyond the pace of investment to maintain. So the EU was certainly correct that Greece had problems that Greece has to deal with. But that’s not the whole story. Greece needed multiple remedies, to cure its mistakes but also to stimulate its economy.

Think about what we do in America. Periodically states are bankrupt or depressed. We don’t offer secession or a sale to Mexico. We didn’t ignore problems in Appalachia, Arkansas and other struggling states. Within states, we don’t ignore depressed areas. Sometimes we put communities in receivership, but that’s not our only tool. Although Tea Party Republicans don’t want to recognize it, we do have another American strategy – we invest. The Cuomo Administration is investing in areas around colleges and universities, spread throughout the state. We’ve had business empowerment zones. Military bases have been used for economic purposes. And we build infrastructure or housing or convention centers. Some investments are unwise wishful thinking. But the instinct is shared, American, and, used intelligently, it works. Conservatives don’t like to admit the Keynesian economics behind it, but they use these techniques wherever they are in control. They just call it good business.

States are barred by the Constitution from printing money. If Greece exited the Eurozone, it could issue currency or pay its employees with i.o.u.s for use as currency. Either way a devalued currency could make Greek goods and services worth buying.

Greece’s finance minister accurately explained that austerity deepens recession. The EU has responded with the same economic strategies that had been discredited before the Great Depression of the ‘30s. If the economy shrinks in response to austerity, nothing is left to pay debts, much less to invest. For an economy in trouble austerity alone is the wrong prescription at the wrong time for the wrong disease. It works only if the desired outcome is to kill the patient. Unfortunately, the EU hasn’t used other tools needed to deal with the recession.

The lesson here is the contrast. Cutting expenses cannot be the only tool. Investment works. Infrastructure, science and educational investments work. Congressional conservatives are too skittish about investing in America. They need to do what their own state governors do – invest in economic development. There is plenty of room in the U.S. for investment that will contribute to the American economy. Intelligent public investment can yield multiple rewards: the immediate reward of assisting people get back on their feet, the return of some of that money as taxes, and the longer term rewards of facilitating business. That is the virtuous cycle that every good economy needs.

Neither taxes nor tax cuts automatically yield economic benefits. Cutting business taxes will probably not raise the chances of business investment if they are already sitting on money. Cutting personal taxes won’t put us on the road to recovery to the extent that consumers buy abroad. The devil is in the details. But the visceral objection to all investment by government because it is government needs to give way to a more intelligent discussion of the investment we need and the investment that will pay dividends for years.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 14, 2015.

Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.

%d bloggers like this: