Trump and the Swamp

June 6, 2017

Trump promised to drain the swamp. We can agree that the swamp is the predominance of special interests over Americans of ordinary means. Bernie Sanders won many hearts and minds by refusing to take big money. Trump claimed independence from big money because he had so much. Clinton lost many votes because she accepted large speaking fees and contributions. A large populist wave by financially ordinary Americans swept the country.

People credited Trump’s promise to drain the swamp. With Trump in power, we’re entitled to look at his actions. Indeed we should.

Most Democrats long tried to take big money out of political campaigns. With some exceptions, like John McCain, Republicans worked to protect the use of money in politics. In the McCain-Feingold Act, Congress managed to compromise between their positions. But the Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, invalidated restrictions on campaign contributions, and held in Citizens United, that corporations could contribute funds straight from corporate treasuries. Heard anything lately from the White House about campaign finance regulation? I didn’t think so.

Trump wants to lower the tax and regulatory burdens on the wealthiest people and companies. He claims in justification that the extra costs harm American workers. I recognize the heated debates about those claims. I’ve repeatedly explained in this commentary that putting more money in the hands of the wealthiest people and corporations is unlikely to spur investment or improve the position of American workers. It won’t help American workers because corporations can and do spend extra money everywhere, including abroad. It won’t help American workers because extra wealth can be and is spent on nonproductive goods or investments. And it won’t improve the position of American workers because there is no shortage of capital in this country, so putting more in in wealthy or corporate pockets is like pouring mud into the Mississippi.

Eliminating regulations will also put money in wealthy and corporate hands but hurts everyone else. Unions have been big proponents of safety regulations because they protect the health and safety of workers, and, we should add, of consumers and citizens.

Trump’s proposed budget also pulls up the safety net and hands the savings to corporations and the wealthy. The safety net protects people when they fall on hard times, when illness drains their bank accounts and strains their budgets, when corporate decisions leave workers struggling to find new jobs and forced to feed families on minimum wage jobs. These have direct and indirect costs for all of us. Losing a job can be temporary but it can also be a fall into a rabbit hole that sucks out everything we’ve invested in our homes, our retirement, and stresses, even breaks up our families. In 2008 those factors spread and took a lot of us down. The safety net was intended in part to help slow or stop economic downturns. 2008 overwhelmed what was left of the safety net but Trump would make it worse.

And health care decisions don’t just affect the most vulnerable. None of us want people spreading serious or medicine-resistant strains of TB, Zika, MRSA and other communicable diseases. Effective strategies against communicable disease involve keeping the diseases out of the population to the extent possible.

In Trump’s budget, the savings from all these cuts go to the 1/10 of 1%, the wealthiest of the wealthy, the very people who should be giving back rather than sucking at the public til. Trump promised to drain the swamp. But Trump IS the swamp.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 6, 2017.


How Can We Protect American Workers

March 11, 2017

Trump’s power, and his policies on jobs, immigrants, religious and ethnic hatreds and the Alt-wrong are all related.

Scholars of intolerance tell us that threat breeds hate. I suspect that all we can say about why immigrants and Muslims are really good people only makes those who feel threatened feel more threatened, because instead of talking about their needs we’re praising someone else.

So I want to talk about the needs of Americans who feel threatened economically and what can be done regarding their economic losses, recognizing that the disfunction in American politics is partly due to the desperation of workers who’ve lost once good jobs.

Protecting American workers is crucial both because people suffer when they can’t find good jobs, and because desperate or threatened people take dangerous risks at the polls and elsewhere. We must protect workers both for their sakes and for ours; it’s much the same thing.

It’s our job because government fiscal, tax, programmatic and other policy decisions daily determine how many jobs there are. Some people can make their own opportunities, but, to be fair, most good, decent, hard-working people can’t.

What can we do about it? Sometimes it helps just to set out the options. Here are the choices I can see:

FDR created unemployment compensation and Nixon proposed a negative income tax – safety-net approaches based on direct income transfers. Many object, including those who benefit from handouts, tax loopholes, deductions, farm price supports, subsidies etc. – the tax code and the budget are replete with them. But direct financial transfers are one possibility.

A second approach is to pay for jobs indirectly through trade policies. All three presidential candidates talked about that. I understand the fear of foreign competition even though there are reasons to look for other solutions for American workers: limiting foreign imports hides the cost in the price of things we buy, and isolates the American economy from developments elsewhere. It also might not work; actual hiring decisions would rest on other people’s decisions. But we can’t overcome the fear if we can’t commit to other steps, and all the talk about the risk to Social Security fans that fear.

A third approach, the conservative free market approach, is not really a solution for the working person at all – it simply puts the monkey on workers’ backs to find jobs or starve.

A fourth approach is to create new jobs by government action – fiscal stimulus, infrastructure development, and investment in science and education, all of which call for construction, maintenance and technical jobs. That’s what Obama called for but Congress drastically whittled his effort down.

Why can’t government be employer of last resort? That would automatically support a minimum wage, create better communities, and make life better for all of us. It’s not the free lunch some people worry about; it’s a job. What’s so terrible about giving people what Tom Paxton called “a job of work to do”? There’s plenty to do if we were willing to invest in our people, our workers, our infrastructure, and our environment. Sometimes spending a little can make the community more attractive and the economy zing while providing a decent income to people who need a job.

Some countries use all of those methods and have quite robust economies.

Those are the alternatives I can see: the free marketeers’ defining it away as the workers’ problem, the safety net approach of income transfers, paying indirectly through trade policies or subsidies for the appearance of helping workers, or creating jobs through fiscal stimulus or hiring people to do needed work. My preference is to put people to work – that way protecting others is good for us all. One way or the other, standing up for each other is essential.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 7, 2017.


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.


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.


Sources of American Strength

February 21, 2012

Let’s talk about some basics – the sources of American economic power.

  • We were always an immigrant society, peopled with those who had the drive and courage to leave where they were, cross the ocean and begin again with nothing.
  • Initially we were agricultural. One innovation was small, “republican,” landownership by independent farmers. Their efficiency made everything else possible.
  • We were among the leaders in the banking revolution which simplified and facilitated commerce.
  • The transportation revolution began in England but it had an enormous impact on the American economy because of the sheer size of the country.
  • Our system of democratic schooling  – education for all, rich and poor, boys and girls, immigrants and natives – was revolutionary and made us an international leader.
  • England pioneered the scientific revolution. But America took advantage of the land grant colleges, and with the appreciation for learning that came with both the Christian and Jewish communities that relocated here, America became a major source of invention.
  • Americans led the revolution in manufacturing – inventing and perfecting the assembly line.

Now what? Everything we achieved is out there. Read the rest of this entry »


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