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.


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.

 


Why Neither Party Can Back Down on Garland

April 12, 2016

Why is blocking the Garland nomination to the Supreme Court so important to them that most Republicans won’t even meet with him let alone agree to hold a vote? Many probably think it is about gay rights and abortion. But there is much more at stake for both parties.

After the Civil War, a very different Republican Party was anxious to secure voting rights for African-Americans. They explicitly addressed the voting rights of the former slaves in both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and addressed it by implication in several other clauses as well. Those Republicans, committed to freedom and equality, understood that if the states of the former Confederacy could exclude African-Americans from voting, the former secessionists could retake southern government. Even more important, southern control of the House of Representatives would be strengthened, because the former slaves would count as full and equal human beings in the census and therefore in the apportionment of seats in the House. If that greater southern representation could be controlled by the white secessionists without Black votes to contend with, the former secessionists would control Congress.

Republicans have now switched positions. They still want to control Congress by controlling who can vote, but now by excluding everyone except white voters and undercounting everyone except Republicans. The Court has given them the power to do that. First, the Court chose George Bush for President, stopping the count of the actual votes in Florida. It refused to subject gerrymandering to any legal standard, even though there is now a very precise formula defining the extent of gerrymandering. It has taken the lid off every measure that descendants of the former Confederacy can impose to prevent African-Americans from voting, opening the polls only when it is difficult for them to get there, moving polling places to make them harder to reach, and requiring documents for registration that are costly in both time and money to obtain. That’s the dictator’s game where the officials choose the voters instead of the voters choosing the officials. It shreds democracy. It seems it is all the Republicans have left. And if choosing their voters turns out to be insufficient, the Court has unleashed the flood of corporate treasuries on politics and undercut labor’s ability to survive as a counterweight.

Choosing their voters, and controlling political money to favor Republicans are their biggest motives for wanting to control the Court – it protects their seats and their control of states and Congress. But there are other motives. The Court has shredded the protections of ordinary citizens in product liability, fraud and breach of contract cases. It has shredded the responsibility of Republicans’ corporate friends in antitrust liability and responsibility for securities fraud. The Court has become the major enabler of corruption, a giant kickback to friends of Republicans.

If one adds Republican preference for the conservative justices’ attack on abortion and gay rights, and their defense of school segregation, the Court has defined virtually the entire Republican agenda, its social agenda, its attempt to subordinate democracy to their dominance, and its cozy relationship with corporate America. It gives the rest of us very strong reasons to stop them and to get the Court back in support of democratic government, especially taking back the Court’s blessing for legally converting a vocal minority into national rulers. It’s time to stop them in the name of democracy.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 12, 2016.

 

People bear the cost for rulers’ misbehavior

March 29, 2016

In a still unpublished manuscript on the way conservative economics has failed us, my friend Eric Zuesse remarked, “The ‘Greek debt’ is really not a debt of the Greek people.” He goes on to identify the “institutional creditors  … Euro-banks … high risk kleptocrats, oligarchs and bankers who siphoned most of the euros into overseas Swiss accounts …. [and other foreign investments] devoid of any capacity to generate income to pay back the debt.”

Eric’s statement is profound, pointing to the ways that those in power play with our lives and then displace the responsibility to their innocent victims. While I’m sure that some will argue that elections gave the Greek people some complicity, Eric accurately points to the ability of those primarily responsible to displace the costs of their own misbehavior.

I think we can see that pattern all over modern public affairs. What responsibility did the refugees in Syria or Iraq have for the wars that took their lives, homes and livelihoods? What responsibility did unemployed Americans have for the depression that was engineered by banks too big to fail, banks which traded worthless securities in an enormous Ponzi scheme for which they have not been prosecuted? The Supreme Court has cleared the manufacturers of failed medical devices for rupturing in our bodies but why is it somehow the responsibility of the victims to absorb the injuries and the costs? This is a pattern – the rich and powerful do the damage and outsource the costs to the rest of us.

Terrorists take advantage of that. They attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11. But the people of Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East have paid the price of our response, innocent men, women and children, polarizing regions and sweeping us into the worldwind. Our failure to calibrate the response had much wider repercussions.

The British, French, Germans and Spanish have suffered similar terrorist attacks, actually over many decades from many different groups, but they have managed to restrain their responses. England fought in the so-called “troubles” of Northern Ireland but finally learned that their response was devastating the wrong people and making the problem worse. The Spanish restrained their response to the Basques. All restrained their response to leftist terror. They responded with police work, ultimately capturing and trying many of the terrorists.

For many Americans anything but an all-out response seems unacceptable. Politicians attack restraint as weakness, not strength. And of course ordinary Americans pay the price. We pay it in the deficit, in taxes, in the lives of our loved ones in foreign wars, and in civil liberties at home. But those who benefit are immune. Major suppliers of paramilitary forces abroad like Blackwater and Halliburton get more contracts while they supply deniability to American leadership for their violations of human rights.

These are bad bargains. Will we have leadership capable of leading, capable of explaining to the American people and standing strong in the face of hotheads for whom an indiscriminate overreaction is the only so-called “manly” response. Will we have leadership capable of zeroing in on the perpetrators of economic collapse, mortgage failure, and malfunctioning products?

Isn’t it time to stop blaming the people for the misbehavior of the oligarchs? Or will the rulers, paraphrasing Thomas Hardy’s conclusion to Tess of the d’Urbervilles, end their sport with us?

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

 


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