Beggars, Soup Kitchens and the Poor

November 25, 2017

I’ve noticed a lot more beggars on the streets as our politics have become increasingly stingy. I’ve seen that before and once mentioned it to a candidate for dean. His response was that we could ban them. I was happy we didn’t hire him.

Recently I saw one of my former students at a charitable sale at our Temple. She told me she frequently works at a soup kitchen and has been doing it for some time. Bless her. I mentioned the people standing out in the cold. She commented that more people come for meals during the summer. She suggested several possible reasons but wasn’t sure why. A couple of days later, Chris Shaw, who has also been cooking for and organizing soup kitchens, told me the difference is the school lunch program. The kids are hungrier during the summer, without lunch at school.

Recently I flew to L.A. on business and arranged to see Mitch Tarighati, another former student. He asked me what I wanted to see or do. I told him I was curious and wanted to see Tehrangeles, an area of Los Angeles populated by Persian shops and restaurants. My friend is Iranian-American, Muslim, a lovely guy and doing well. After showing me around, he took me to another area, looking for the beggars to help out. He tried to do it anonymously so they would not be embarrassed by his generosity. Actually, I think the poor appreciate eye contact, but my friend’s motives were pure gold.

Nobody stands on a street corner for hours for their health, especially in this weather. I’m satisfied they are in need. Begging is an equal opportunity task – white, black, men, women, people recovering from tragedies, girls who ran away from home, veterans, the disabled.

It used to be that political parties took care of people. They’d call one of their people and say so-and-so needs a job. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created programs to help the needy. But we’ve been taking that apart and little remains. Now it’s largely up to us, except that it’s beyond us.

That’s why I often discuss economic issues. We no longer talk about giving people jobs. It’s all about that impersonal force known as the economy. But the economy is heartless. And what we do for the economy doesn’t necessarily create jobs for the needy.

My family and I have been lucky. We’re celebrating 50 years of marriage. Our children are each doing what they enjoy. Our granddaughters are healthy. I’m conscious that those are blessings too many don’t enjoy. Luck doesn’t just come to the worthy nor tragedy to the evil.

I once commented in class that I understood that but for luck, or the grace of God, I could be in the position of the least among us. One student found that hard to accept. I think she was kind but naïve. My heart goes out to the less fortunate people out there struggling to keep body, soul and family together.

There are many ways to help. And we need to remember that the poor are with us all year.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 21, 2017.

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Capitalism gone wrong: Too many left behind in our divisive economy

September 19, 2017

My latest piece for The Hill discusses the set of unacceptable choices we’ve been stuck with: thinking only of national economic growth and ignoring the local fallout, maintaining industries that do national damage for the sake of local workers, leaving the workers to fend for themselves when industry departs their communities, or moving able workers to better jobs but leaving the rest in dying towns. Each of those choices is both morally and politically unacceptable. Liberals must find more compassionate solutions.

 


Taking care of each other

September 5, 2017

Americans have been celebrating the reaction to Hurricane Harvey as an example of Americans taking care of each other. There is much to celebrate. But we have also wrestled for centuries with the problem of taking care of each other – the out of work, the working poor and others struggling to stay afloat.

An economic reversal in the lives of many of us is just temporary. But it does permanent damage when it unravels peoples’ lives, leaves them with debts that spiral out of control so that they cannot hope to pay, or leaves them homeless, in broken families, or housed in barred cells. When people have little, events that would be a minor inconvenience for most of us can drop them over the cliff, unable to climb back. As the Founders recognized, all of us can expect some of our offspring to be poor. So what are the options?

Welfare has been cut back but some pieces of a social safety net remain, mostly funded by the federal government. One reason they are funded nationally is because some local governments don’t want to do anything about the problems of poverty. Another reason is that the problems fall unevenly on local governments. The process of creating suburbs and new communities is a process of seceding from the places where people have problems and therefore avoiding any responsibility under our laws about local government. By shifting the obligations upward to the feds we all share those problems at least to some degree.

We could provide jobs. Instead of just giving things and money out, we could take advantage of the time, labor and skills of people who are otherwise out of work, to get some useful things done. But the city can’t save the money that goes into the social safety net because that money isn’t city money. Albany’s Mayor Sheehan pointed that out at a house party before she was first elected. Fair point. But turning welfare money over to localities would invite them to divert the cash. Some form of cooperative federalism might be better for everyone.

Public services for everyone are also an option. We have created many sorts of services that all of us have rights to. Clean water fit to drink is a lot cheaper for everyone than buying it in bottles – provided that government isn’t asleep at the switch and doesn’t let the water supply fill with lead and other poisons. Sewage systems make everyone better off than a crazy quilt of individual efforts to deal with garbage, their own and their neighbors. And it saves a lot of money both because of economies of scale and because sewage can breed disease for all of us. Roads, bridges, sidewalks, other transportation amenities, libraries, postal services and regulated public utilities like phone and electrical service make life better for everyone. And all of them make life cheaper which is especially important for the impoverished.

In other words, making some things available for all of is good for us all and are also ways of helping the least among us. That used to be true of the health care system until we privatized it, demolished the many county, municipal and not-for-profit hospitals, only to try to restore some of the benefits of a public health system with Obamacare.

Republicans call measures like that socialism. I just call it smart, efficient and decent – Americans taking care of each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 5, 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.


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.


Refugees and the Impact of Immigration

April 5, 2016

Let’s talk about immigration in this current frenzy about keeping Syrian refugees out.

DAESH (ISIS) or al Qaeda used EU citizens to damage Paris. They will try to use Americans here. Some Americans have gone over to the dark side, trained abroad, could return and blend in here. That is a similar problem with deporting those undocumented people who have spent most of their lives here – in their countries of origin many have no ties, job history, knowledge of the culture or the environment. Deported, they are valuable to smugglers who use them to get contraband across our borders. Allowed to stay, they could be productive members of society. For Americans and immigrants alike, keeping people working at decent jobs is the best way to keep everyone out of trouble.

Population also affects national power, what we can produce, and the power we project. That is important in an increasingly dangerous world. Adding to the workforce and as consumers, immigrants increase the size and health of our economy, and instead of straining our budget, they help to sustain our social safety net, as many aging countries have been finding out.

Immigration is not without costs, however. China and India now each have over a billion people. India’s population has tripled since I was young. These are population explosions. Chinese authorities understood that China could not sustain population growth and slowed it precipitously.

Moving people from places where they live in fear to an America where they can live in peace and prosperity is neutral with respect to worldwide population. But it may do environmental damage if it means changing to an environmentally more destructive lifestyle. That makes it doubly important to control, limit and reduce environmental damage. It means that we should, must, continue to invest in ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and increase our use of solar and wind energy and passive solar heating. We must control our overuse of water, and invest in better ways to use it. We need to rethink our national land-use policies – it makes little sense to irrigate deserts for farmland and build suburbs on productive lands. We are shifting farmland from places that have plenty of water to those that don’t. That is not only wasteful, it also leads to drought, salinization of the land, and makes other settled places unlivable, save at the enormous cost of desalinization of seawater.

Ultimately both our goals for immigration and our goals for America, our children and grandchildren must be driven by concern for the people who will inhabit it. That means care and concern for the immigrants themselves, and care for everyone, those we are strongly attached to and all the people of the earth, expressed through environmental policies that can keep the earth habitable. In that effort we all have to be willing to share and accept effective regulation. There is no other way.

And yes, protecting the lives of our children and grandchildren requires some sacrifice. But aren’t the sacrifices we make for those we deeply care about one of the most satisfying things we get to do? All our faiths confirm those duties and affirm the joy of giving and caring. It’s hard to think of people as deserving who are unwilling to share in the general sacrifices for their and our offspring.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 5, 2016.

 


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.

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