Environmental Change and The Campaign Season

March 5, 2019

I’d like to start this campaign season by stating one of my primary objectives. Climate change is the rare major problem that has been warning us so that we could have had plenty of time to deal with it. Now in a film titled The Human Element, which is available on podcast, photographer James Balog shows global warming in time lapse photography.

But actually knowing what is going on seems to be a liability. Gore actually knew. He looked deeply into the issue of global warming and he understood. But the public reaction was horror – at Gore. He wasn’t like us. He knew stuff. In the first debate, Bush disposed of one of Gore’s points with a sneer, just calling it “fuzzy math.” I concluded on the spot that Bush was a bully. The American public apparently concluded that they couldn’t share a beer with someone who understood math. They judged sincerity as similarity – if he’s like us he’s sincere. So, if we didn’t study stuff, the president shouldn’t either. God. Try that for your choice of doctors. People got what they deserved except that they dumped it on the rest of us too.

Obama did know what he was talking about. Some of us loved him for it. Others were turned off because a Black man presumed to tell the rest of us what was going on – even if it was a loyal and dedicated Black man trying to save the rest of us from the hell we’re wandering into.

Hillary knew what she was talking about. She spent her life preparing for public office, not going to campaign methods and finance school but studying the public issues a president has to deal with for our sake. But her dedication to serving us, the people, was her apparent undoing. The guy or gal down the block doesn’t do that. So, she must be snooty because she knows stuff and proudly spent her life learning it for us. How bad is that?

Learned Hand, one of the great judges in our history wrote that elections are very hard to know enough about. I want presidents, senators, representatives and members of the Administration who have spent the time to know what they are talking about so that we don’t all fall off the cliff together, pulling our families off that cliff with us. This isn’t about my ego. It’s about survival.

Sincerity means to me that the candidate wants to take care of us, our health, our future, all of us.  Yes, experts disagree, and I spend some of my effort doing this commentary to distinguish between experts who have it right and those whose heads are screwed on backwards. But understanding issues is essential. Beyond what we can figure out ourselves, we have to be able to talk with experts who do understand. Lawyers have to do that all the time, from working with doctors to understand injuries to working with economists to understand how much money will have been lost. Expertise matters. Even to be able to talk with and explain the experts, one has to prepare. How better than by spending the time, energy and midnight oil to get things straight?

In this presidential campaign season, I want candidates who care enough to figure things out. Most important I want candidates who understand the urgency of dealing with climate change. And who build ways of dealing with the dislocations of capitalism by building their solutions onto the opportunities created by effective solutions to climate change.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 5, 2019.

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Beyond Channeling Money

August 9, 2016

This is the sixth and last in a series on Money in Politics

Money finds ways to influence the political system despite our efforts to prohibit or replace it. It’s like a balloon that bulges wherever it can, or water that finds any path to cause trouble. Limits on contribution and gifts matter. But prohibitions aren’t enough. They just force politicians to spend more time looking for money and find ways around the limits. Even public funding for election campaigns isn’t a magical solution that will banish every problem in a puff of public green.

There are many problems we can solve to improve the rules of self-government. Employees deserve some protections. Employers can and some do pressure workers, make them go to some candidates’ talks, or give them work to do in political campaigns. Employer requests are hard to resist for fear of demotion, or other damaging consequences. We restrict sexual invitations to workers to avoid subtle or not-so-subtle intimidation. For similar reasons, employees deserve political protection on the job.

Still, we need more than prohibitions and public money. Parties were once the people’s answer to the power of money. Without parties, the wealthy and well-connected would rule. Parties were promptly corrupted, so Americans adopted primaries. Primaries shifted power to individual candidates and their organizations, and shifted power from the center of the voting population to majorities of primary voters, who tend to be much more extreme. That offers what Barry Goldwater, in his losing 1964 presidential bid, called “a choice, not an echo.” But it can also polarize politics and create a politics that almost nobody wants.

Most important for the future is how we prepare ourselves. We’ve been telling each other since the Revolution that we need an educated public. Unfortunately, many schools no longer educate people in relevant ways. We graduate students who have little idea who or how government is run, what our history is, or any understanding of the economic and social issues of our time. We complain that immigrants will not respect our ways, but leave the majority of natural-born Americans ignorant of how America came to be America. We need to do better.

What I see as truly encouraging is that this election has drawn many people into politics out of a real sense of public duty. I remember earlier waves like those that Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, the civil rights and feminist movements drew into politics. I hope those of you whom Hillary, Bernie and Obama drew into politics will stay active and not become discouraged because all our dreams cannot be achieved quickly. I hope you’ll enjoy mixing with others door to door, in community meetings, house parties, barbeques, and otherwise staying in touch with the people.

I do think we can make life better. I don’t think we should expect a political heaven on earth. A large part of politics is about resolving differences of perspective, interests and needs – many of them legitimate on all sides. It’s not just about getting things done. It’s also about disagreement, conflict and compromise. Few of us ever get complete victories, and probably shouldn’t. But finding decent solutions to problems that divide people is also the challenge and one of the truly honorable tasks of democratic government.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 9, 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.


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