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.

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Freedom for the Boss; Drudgery for the Rest of Us

May 16, 2017

I keep looking for ways to talk with supporters of the Administration. President Carter started the deregulation frenzy. That has become half of the Republican cut-and-deregulate refrain ever since, consistently repeated by the current White House and the Republicans in Congress. I’d like to focus on the things that will affect those of us who are, financially speaking, ordinary, middle-class Americans.

Here are changes the Administration and congressional Republicans are considering that affect working conditions:

  • The White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has been postponing and considering cutting down a Labor Department rule that limits “workers’ exposure [to] toxic material, which can cause a deadly lung disease.”
  • The same White House Office is also “considering a proposal to roll back protections for workers in construction and shipbuilding.”
    • Those rules allow our employers to save cash by risking our health.
  • The Working Families Flexibility Act … would give employees a choice between taking time off or being paid time-and-a-half when they work more than 40 hours in a week.”
  • Either way, Republicans oppose changing overtime rules to raise eligibility for overtime above the current $23,660 per year.
    • Those rules allow our employers to save cash by shortchanging us.

Here are some that affect the health of financially ordinary Americans:

  • The Administraton has already taken steps to “roll back healthy school lunch standards”
  • The new head of the FDA “has invested in or consulted for dozens of healthcare companies” which suggests that the Food and Drug Administration won’t be much help in preventing unnecessary complications and expenses.
  • The House health care bill would eliminate Obamacare requirements that insurance plans cover prescriptions drugs and mental healthcare. Like all insurance, drug and mental health care coverage are intended to protect people from unplanned changes in the costs of survival.
  • Senate Republicans narrowly lost an effort to roll back a regulation that “limit[s] methane emissions from oil and natural gas drilling.” Methane is even more damaging to the climate than carbon.
    • Those rules risk our health for the sake of other people’s profits.

On savings for retirement:

  • “Trump’s Labor Department delayed the so-called fiduciary rule, ordering financial advisers to act in … [your] best interest[s] … [if you] are saving for retirement.”
  • The CHOICE Act would allow the banks that brought us the crash of 2008 to opt out of regulations adopted after the crash and intended to prevent another. And the bill renames the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and “reduces its power to enforce pre-existing consumer protection laws.”
    • Those rules risk our financial security for the sake of other people’s profits.

Meanwhile, Republicans on the Supreme Court show little respect for working men and women.

  • With Breyer’s help they have blessed “Professional debt collectors … [who] built a business out of buying stale debt, filing claims in bankruptcy proceedings to collect it, and hoping that no one notices that the debt is too old to be enforced by the courts.”
  • The Court continues to apply a 1925 statute intended for interstate business transactions to consumer contracts and the Court bars state regulation entirely.

What Republicans continue to give us is freedom for the boss and drudgery for the rest of us. As the old folk song has it, “same song, second verse, could get better but it’s gonna get worse.”

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 16, 2017.


Choose Life

February 28, 2017

I want to focus on a serious issue that is being ignored in favor of all kinds of fake news and grandstanding. In college, I took a course on demography. That means we were looking at the explosion of population in parts of the world, which then leveled off, but at much higher levels than before. Everything we are struggling with in this twenty-first century is related to that explosion of population.

The most significant advances in our longevity were the result of public health advances, precisely the things that people don’t want to spend on right now, on our water and sewer systems. I remember my dad asking every owner of places where we stopped for the night whether the water was potable, meaning it was drinking water from which we would not get sick. That was new in his lifetime. And by the way, my dad grew up in Brooklyn, in New York City, using an outhouse. Sure many of us have used outhouses at one time or another but they are not the best protection for public health in large communities – septic systems take lots of space.

After water and sewer systems, penicillin probably made the biggest difference – it’s probably why I’m talking with you today but never met my sister who died at the age of three before the discovery of penicillin. Those advances added decades to our lives by comparison to very short advances from modern medicine and surgery.

And they are a large part of the problem of global warming. There are lots more of us burning things, driving cars, using electricity, getting what we need for business or pleasure from the furthest corners of the world. That takes energy. Energy has been produced by burning things. And so the world gets hotter, the oceans expand, tropical diseases proliferate, and life threatens to get nasty, brutish and short once again. And efforts to mitigate that will be overtaken if population continues to expand – worldwide it’s doubled in my lifetime.

So when I hear about advances in medical science, like the possible elimination of malaria, I think how wonderful for the likely victims, and then I wonder about the global impact. There is no free lunch. We can make lots of advances. But the world has its limits. More people will put more stress on the environment. And stress on the environment is already heading us toward the next major extinction – us, human beings, our children and grandchildren.

And so I think there is a trade-off between our health and our numbers. There is no human life after we are extinguished – only death and tears. So let’s be clear, I am very pro-life, but to be pro-life demands support for birth control, especially the kinds that prevent conception.

There is no so-called pro-life position that is not also a position about death. It seems to me that The Church and all houses of worship, must rethink their positions about death and destruction along with their positions about conception. The two are intertwined by laws well-beyond our ability to control. Yes the Bible says choose life, all our bibles say that in some form. But are we choosing life if we ignore the reality of death, destruction, and extinction?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, Feb. 28, 2017.


The Legacy of Barack Obama

January 3, 2017

Barack Obama has been one of our most decent and intelligent presidents. I’ll miss him. Instead of simplification and slogans, Obama explained the complexities of everything from medical treatment to foreign policy. Instead of shooting from the hip, he studied problems carefully and reached mature, intelligent decisions.

But what will stick?

Starting with foreign affairs, Obama got most of the boots off Muslim lands. When Obama took office in 2008 we had close to 200,000 soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now we have about 15,000 troops, combined, there and in Syria.

ISIS seems to have refocused on Europe but that’s still a problem for us. Europeans’ objectives are compatible with our own, so they are crucial allies, unlike the Russians. But Europe confronts many times more refugees than we do, with backlash and threats to democracy in several countries. American action in Syria added to the refugee flow, but much resulted from revolutions independent of us. More American militarization in the Arab world would inflame the refugee crisis and increase the terrorism directed at us.

Terrorists are fueled by militarization; nations are much more vulnerable to our military – that’s the difference between defeating Saddam Hussein, having him executed and trying to remain there. Trump may talk tough, but will he be fool enough to wade back into those trouble waters?

In Guantanamo, fewer than 60 prisoners remain of the nearly 800 who were imprisoned there.

Republicans dislike the Iran nuclear deal but so far they’ve nothing to show for their fears. Objections from the other signatories may prevent Trump from disavowing it. This may be the first real test of whether Trump has any grip on reality.

At home, Republicans have been yelling for years that they will tear Obamacare down the first chance they get. But their friends in the insurance industry will howl if they do, especially if Republicans leave features Americans like – a guarantee that you can get insurance, coverage for pre-existing conditions, tax credits for small businesses, etc. So it’s not clear what they’ll actually do. Obama took his health care plan from Mitt Romney’s Republican plan. I can think of improvements to the left of Obamacare, but not any that are more consistent with Republican free-market philosophy. Republicans are in a pickle.

Obama got a small stimulus soon after taking office. Terrified it might actually work, Republicans fought to keep it small. Obama’s stimulus worked, slowly, satisfying the cynicism of Congressional Republicans willing to hurt the country in order to make Obama look bad.

Dodd-Frank financial regulation still stands, reigning in a financial system that gambled with everyone else’s money and made a large number of us much worse off.

Obama nominated Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court. One has become the conscience of the Court, the other quieter and more conciliatory. Together, they’ve made a the Court much more fair. The future depends on how long Ginsburg lives and how long Trump is in office. The difference Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kagan made could disappear in a heartbeat.

So, there’s a lot to celebrate in what Obama did or tried to accomplish. But I have real fears of what could be done in the effort to discredit him instead of making things better for the people of America.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 3, 2017.


Suckers for Trump

May 31, 2016

Let me begin by reminding you of Trump’s claims,[1] and end with some questions.

“I’m totally pro-choice” he declared and then took it back: “I’m pro-life” and told MSNBC that “there has to be some form of punishment” for a woman who has an abortion, later modified that only the doctor should be responsible. Plus he supported Planned Parenthood, and defunding them.

Remember the poor woman in Providence whose house was taken under eminent domain? “Eminent domain is wonderful” he told Fox News, and within a month told another outlet, “I don’t like eminent domain.”

He told CNN “I’m an environmentalist,” but tweeted “Global warming is a total, and very expensive, hoax!”

He once “support[ed] the ban on assault weapons and … a slightly longer waiting period to purchase a gun.” but “I don’t support it anymore.” Now he says he’s “the strongest person running in favor of the Second Amendment.”

In 2000 he said “We must have universal health care” but his campaign website read “It is not enough to simply repeal this terrible legislation,” and says he’d substitute “free market principles” on health care.

On taxes, in 2015 he described his tax plan as “a big tax reduction, including for the upper income.” On May 5 he told CNBC “I am not necessarily a huge fan of” cutting taxes for billionaires.

It’s not clear who Trump likes as people. First he refused to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and other white nationalists supporting him. Under fire he reversed course but many white supremacists, including David Duke, continue to support Trump. He’s blown hot and cold on refugees: “on a humanitarian basis, he said, “you have to” take in Syrian refugees. But now he wouldn’t. “I love Hispanics!” he tweeted on Cinco de Mayo, pictured with a taco bowl. Except of course that he wants to build a wall and send them all back to Mexico.

Donald thinks military policy is a cinch, “It would take an hour and a half to learn everything there is to learn about missiles. … I think I know most of it anyway.” He waffles on whether he would trust the Russians or not. He liked NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which unites Europe and the U.S. militarily. “I see NATO as a good thing” he said recently but six days later decided “NATO is obsolete.”

The Middle East befuddles him. He supported invading Iraq. and crowed that “It looks like a tremendous success” but four days after that said, “The war’s a mess.”

He supported fighting in Libya: “Qadhafi in Libya is killing thousands of people, nobody knows how bad it is, and we’re sitting around, we have soldiers, all over the Middle East, and we’re not bringing ‘em in to stop this horrible carnage. … We should go in, we should stop this guy, which would be very easy and very quick.” But he said later, “I never discussed that subject.… We would be so much better off if Qadhafi were in charge right now.”

What are we supposed to make of Trump’s contradictions and about-faces? Does the adjective he uses endlessly to describe Hillary fit Trump better? Does he know what he’s talking about? I’m more interested in how we decide what he’s for? He’s inviting people to buy their own dreams. Whatever you’re for, he wants you to think he is too. Selling people their own dreams is a great sales tactic. It’s natural to believe others think like us. But if we guess wrong, who wants to be Donald’s sucker?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 31, 2016.

[1] Clips collected on http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2016/05/donald-trump-2016-contradictions-213869;  Michael P. Lynch, Truth, “Politics and the Power of Contradiction,” New York Times, May 8, 2016, at SR2, available as Michael P. Lynch, Trump, Truth, and the Power of Contradiction, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/trump-truth-and-the-power-of-contradiction.html?_r=0; “A Trump Sampler: His Changing Views,” New York Times, May 8, 2016, on page SR2, available at http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/05/08/sunday-review/a-trump-sampler-his-changing-views.html.


Government and Our Trip South

August 1, 2015

Many people in this country believe that the Founding Fathers established our Constitution to get government off of people’s backs. My wife and I just traveled to North Carolina where that idea is big. They expect people to take care of themselves without the help of the nanny state. We are all expected to earn and pay our own way.

We were on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, in Nags Head, and traveled to Ocracoke Island by ferry. It is a lengthy ferry ride, about ten miles as it winds around shoals that would stop and probably destroy the boat. I chatted with one of the crew, an employee of the State of North Carolina, and told him that I hadn’t yet been told how much the trip would cost me. Nothing, he replied. It’s free. We were certainly prepared to pay our way. That’s quite a gift from the State of North Carolina.

Still the good people of North Carolina, and certainly their elected representatives, know that government is nothing but a problem in the way of the people. So imagine our surprise when we stopped at the Ocracoke lighthouse to discover that the feds, those doggoned feds, built the light house in the eighteenth century, before the ink on the Constitution had much time to dry, and rebuilt a sturdier one in 1825 that is still working today to keep ships off the rocks and shoals.

Then we mailed a couple of cards to our granddaughters. You guessed it – we relied on the Postal Service that the feds set up and ran since Ben Franklin, that old self-reliant founding patriot, ran the thing even before the Constitution was written. The old Founders, they certainly knew how to use the government to benefit the people. Guess no one told them they weren’t supposed to.

Daily we checked NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the federal agency that includes the weather service. Perhaps you didn’t realize it, but all those private meterologists on every television and radio station are basing their forecasts on weather data collected, analyzed and distributed by the federal weather service. Lawyers by the way, contact the weather service for information about the weather at the time of events being litigated – there’s no need to replicate Lincoln and his famous use of an almanac to get an acquittal for his client. Weather service data are recognized and relied on as authoritative virtually universally.

We drove back on U.S. highways, both in North Carolina and between there and Albany. Yes roads the government built. In good shape too. In fact some of the first roads in the United States were postal roads, built by Uncle Sam.

We had some great dinners. But I sure hope the health department was checking up on those places – it’s pretty darn hard for a traveler to know much about what’s going on in the kitchen. And we have sometimes had some pretty bad experiences despite our best efforts.

I expect MORE from our government, not less.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 11, 2015.


Yipes – taxes for the New Year??? !!!

December 30, 2014

Some years ago I called Phil Shrag whom I knew from law school. He’d run the National Organization for the Rights of the Indigent for the NAACP and worked for the New York City Commissioner of Consumer Affairs. Phil was and is a very public spirited person. At the time he was teaching at Columbia. I don’t remember what I called him about but at some point in the conversation we made small talk. I asked him what he was teaching. Tax. That was a surprising answer since none of the things Phil had done suggested significant involvement with the tax code. But he pointed out that every public policy runs through the tax code. So it made a lot of sense.

Phil of course was right. Global warming? The tax code determines how cheap it is to buy carbon based fuels that warm the globe. And it determines whether the producers or somebody else has to pay for the cleanups, the environmental damage, dealing with the warming planet. And it determines what the carbon hawkers have to pay for threatening to obliterate our descendants and end human life on this planet. No tax – go ahead and choke the globe.

Antibiotic resistant disease? The tax code determines what cheap methods are OK to raise and sell animals and animal products. Jam animals together for “efficient” processing and they need antibiotics. The tax is on the land, not the antibiotics. Voila, it’s cheap to feed antibiotics to animals and ship them to us with resistant diseases. Of course we’ll pay the price with illness, doctors, and grieving for our dear ones – but, hey, the milk was cheap.

Landfills? Who pays for those? Do you get a break for composting, sorting, recycling or not buying so much? Nope – we all pay for garbage. But the tax could be shifted to producers and off our shoulders. Things would instantly get less wasteful.

Ever since the elder George said “Read my lips; no new taxes,” taxes have become the third rail of politics – instant suicide for any politician even to bring it up. But health, wealth and survival are right there in the tax code. We need smart taxes, that shape us the way we ought to be. The freedom to corrupt our country and our world with garbage, poison and heat isn’t legitimate freedom – that’s one person’s “freedom” to mess with another’s life, or the lives of many. That’s not freedom, not what our forefathers’ fought for, not patriotic, sensible or constructive. We need smart taxes. Now. Taxes that will make our world a better place.

So last week I wished for peace, health and good government – figuring I was on mostly safe ground. So now I’m blowing it – wishing for new, I’d rather say better, taxes. TAXES for the New Year! That Gottlieb character must be crazy.  Like a fox? Naahhh. Just nuts.  Republicans won’t allow it anyway.

Oh, devilishly inspired by Paul and Anne Ehrlich, how about a tax on more than two children per family – NO, don’t throw tomatoes, they stain. I’m out o’ here! Happy New Year everyone.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 30, 2014.


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