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.

 


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.

On Corporate Privilege – Have They No Shame?

April 21, 2015

In a legal system which holds corporations responsible for virtually nothing, corporate power, hypocrisy and the wall of corporate shame keep growing.

Corporations put clauses in consumer contracts that make suing them useless and impossible. They make us sign those contracts for most of what we buy from the modern economy. The Supreme Court says OK on the fiction that we don’t have to sign the so-called agreements. As far as the Court is concerned, all we have to do is opt out of the economy and then no corporation can bother us.[1] If a dispute ever gets to a hearing, it is heard by arbitrators chosen by the corporate sellers.

Industry groups repeatedly argue that they have to put such abusive provisions in their contracts or they couldn’t give us a good deal. In other words, when people are down, their mortgages underwater, corporations should just keep kicking – they’re really just doing it for us.

That’s bad enough for people who are just trying to be treated fairly. But corporations have been getting the privilege of trashing rules protecting us from toxins and pollutants in favorably disposed forums. These are so-called investor-to-state dispute settlement or ISDS clauses in international trade agreements. Corporations can attack any rules that will cost them money, which of course means all regulation is vulnerable. Like the domestic arbitration clauses that the U.S. Supreme Court has blessed, “These challenges are not heard in a normal court but instead before a tribunal of private lawyers,” as the Alliance for Justice and many prominent attorneys have told Congress.[2]

There’s already an ISDS clause in the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.[3] Corporations are trying to keep the ISDS mechanism in trans-atlantic agreements that multi-nationals will use against food and environmental laws here and in Europe, claiming they restrict free commerce.[4] Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Union’s trade commissioner, responded “We want the rule of law, not the rule of lawyers.”[5]

Describing the terms of the 12-nation trade accord for a Trans-Pacific Partnership for which Congress is considering fast track authority for President Obama, Jonathan Weisman wrote in the Times that it would “allow foreign corporations to sue the United States government for actions that undermine their investment ‘expectations’ and hurt their business,” using the business friendly ISDS procedure.[6] Once again that is poised to protect multinational corporations from food, health and environmental regulation.

In D.C., the coal industry is trying to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to block the Environmental Protection Agency from going ahead with procedures for strengthening rules preventing toxic emissions of mercury.[7]

Here at home, toy industry groups are suing against efforts of Albany County to ban the sale of toxic toys, with such poisons as lead, mercury and arsenic, claiming it’s a violation of the Constitution and federal statutes.[8]

Business repeatedly claims regulation isn’t necessary because they are honorable and we can trust them and the economy. But their choice of legal targets make clear what they really believe.

No one has the right or privilege to put toxins in us, in our air, water, or our kids’ toys. Have they no shame? It’s time we had a government, all of whose branches respected the rights of the rest of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 21, 2015.

[1] See American Express Company v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S. Ct. 2304, 2313 (2013) (Kagan, dissenting); Buckeye Check Cashing, Inc. v. Cardegna, 546 U.S. 440 (2006).

[2] Letter over the signature of many well-known law professors and sent by the Alliance for Justice to congressional leadership, available at http://org2.salsalabs.com/o/6539/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=19342.

[3] NAFTA ch. 11.

[4] REUTERS, EU Seeks Solution to Keep Arbitration in U.S. Trade Deal, March 18, 2015, 12:22 P.M., http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/03/18/business/18reuters-eu-usa-trade.html.

[5] Id.

[6] Jonathan Weisman, Trade Pact Seen as Door for Suits Against U.S. New York Times, March 26, 2015, at B1, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/26/business/trans-pacific-partnership-seen-as-door-for-foreign-suits-against-us.html.

[7] Editorial, Dirty Coal at the Supreme Court, New York Times, March 23, 2015, at A20, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/23/opinion/clean-air-act-and-dirty-coal-at-the-supreme-court.html?emc=edit_tnt_20150323&nlid=47098180&tntemail0=y.

[8] Matthew Hamilton, Industry contests toxic toys ban, Albany Times Union, April 17, 2015 at A1.


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.


Regionalism vs. the Environment

August 26, 2014

There’s been news recently about a decline in gas prices. Hallelujah? Or oh my God! Decline in prices means more people will build energy inefficient homes and invest in gas guzzling machinery or businesses. Some will benefit, but the world will suffer. How do we accommodate those inconsistent objectives? Read the rest of this entry »


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 274 other followers