The System Subverts Our Values

May 4, 2020

This virus has been bringing out how much we depend on each other, rich and poor, black and white, men and women, immigrant and native. We used to talk about brotherhood and I’ve never found a good substitute for the vision of mutual concern and respect that people in my generation meant by brotherhood. Now two people who shouldn’t be named claim that Blue states don’t deserve help though we do a lot for the rest of the country, through our taxes, the business we generate and by repeatedly jumping to the aid of people all over this country when they suffer from natural disasters. What they’re really saying is that they feel no responsibility for those among us who need help, especially if they don’t have the skin color and ancestry that they honor.

I want to expand on how bad that is. When Mayor Sheehan was campaigning for her first term, I asked her about what the City could do for its poor. She pointed out that the City’s tax base was largely from property taxes. That meant that mayors inevitably had to focus on property values. She didn’t use the term but the implication was that Albany had to gentrify regardless of need and regardless of our values as human beings. Property taxes fund the schools and just about everything else the city does. So mayors have to function like developers.

It goes further. Suburbia contributes to the problems. Separately incorporated suburbs have no legal responsibility for city services. People there still work in the City, benefit from it, hire its workers, use all of the goods and services that are attracted to the area because of the City population. But they don’t share the legal responsibility.

The way this country has organized its laws is that only the federal government has responsibility for everyone in every part of the country and in communities at every level of the income scale and regardless of where its residents came from. When the federal government caters to the selfish instincts of those who are unwilling to help anyone else or who are only willing to help people who look like them and come from the same parts of the world, disaster is the result. You know the song:

Once I built a railroad, I made it run

Made it race against time

Once I built a railroad, now it’s done

Brother, can you spare a dime?

Just about everyone recorded it. But apparently America still has trouble sparing a dime for the people who built it and make it run. We’ve built that into the tax system and still it isn’t good enough for people who don’t want to accept responsibility for fellow Americans. On top of all the advantages they’ve given themselves they still cry about the crumbs that might fall off their tables because they might go to Blue states.

The unnamable man in the White House, the Majority Leader of the Senate and their enablers are doubling down on all the bastions of indecency they’ve already built into American law. But though they don’t understand it – and they don’t understand much – they will be bitten by the snake they’ve let loose because when the virus is free in any of the states, the people they cherish in Red states will end up in the hospital, the morgue and the graveyard. Pandemics don’t stop at political borders. We all suffer when we refuse to take care of each other.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on May 5, 2020.


No Time to be Stingy

April 27, 2020

There’s no good time to be stingy about public health. It costs more, and kills our own.

The Center for Disease Control budget was stripped for years. Congress treated whatever we couldn’t enjoy tomorrow as a waste and political pariah. That’s also true of our infrastructure, needed improvements to the electrical grid and the internet system. All have the capacity to be deadly when left without repairs and upgrades.

Cuomo’s father had a Commissioner of Health on our son’s paper route. Our sons were in the same scout troop. But what I really liked about David Axelrod was that he made NY healthier. You could smell the difference when you traveled. NY had smoke free rooms, hotels, and buildings before it caught on elsewhere. I also knew the lawyer suing Cuomo over the cigarette rules. His clients apparently thought heaven should forbid anyone or any companies from having to change their behavior for the public good. But David made our lives better.

Stingy politicians who stripped public health agencies of money and authority caused many of our troubles. Public health agencies should have power to take poison out of the air and water — but no, we have to convince legislators first. Public health agencies ought to have power to protect forests that remove carbon from the air — but, no, that’s a big political issue because some people would have to change their behavior for the public good.

A big issue a few years ago was that some state coastal commissions wanted to block building on the dunes in order to minimize flood damage. But the Rehnquist Court said no. Some people might have to change their behavior for the public good.

How expensive is the new corona virus? We’re going into a major national depression because of it. All of us will pay, not by pulling green bills out of our pockets, but because green bills won’t be in our pockets, bank accounts or credit cards to pull out. This is going to be very expensive.

But pandemics will happen again because we live too close to natural habitats. They will happen again because a warming climate will nurse new pathogens. And they will happen again because manufacturers, agribusinesses, oil companies and other extractive industries don’t want to take account of nature, the environment or the implications of their behavior on our health. If what we mean by freedom is the freedom to sicken everyone because we are too busy making short term profits, then we have freedom to die – not with dignity, but freedom to die young, sick and quarantined from everyone we love.

It’s our choice – either we agree to live by healthy business and manufacturing rules or we die by unhealthy ones. And one extra step – all changes have winners and losers. We have to be willing to find or create jobs and educational opportunities like we did with the GI bill for those who are disadvantaged by the changes. Our shelter-in-place rules for dealing with the current virus has winners and losers. We are all in this together and we have to be willing to bring everyone along somehow. That’s not charity; it’s necessary and it’s just plain fair.

And let’s be clear, taking care of public health, taking care of each other, is crucial for all of us, for our economy, for our standing and our leverage in the world. Public health is part of national security. It’s not optional.

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on April 28, 2020.


What Lessons Will We Learn?

April 13, 2020

I’d like to look beyond this epidemic, beyond the people telecomputing and those taking bicycles to work instead of busses, beyond our fears of going to meetings to see and greet each other and work together, beyond elbow bumps at funerals as I had to recently, and think ahead to a better future.

What will we learn from this epidemic? We’ve faced horrible situations before and managed to improve ourselves based on those experiences. We don’t seem to have retained much of the lessons of 1918 but we’ve bettered ourselves in the face of other disasters.

In the Great Depression of 1929 through the 30s, many of us learned that being out of work is out of control for many of us. As the economy contracts there are fewer jobs, and people are forced to join lines to soup kitchens. We learned a degree of solidarity and learned to put compassion above blame. We learned supporting each other we could make a better world for all of us.

Others saw the mistreatment of workers. The so-called settlement houses of the early 20th century were largely efforts to improve the lives of immigrant workers. I took a college course from Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, who witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which killed 146 workers, and then dedicated herself in a succession of positions to make work safer. President Franklin Roosevelt brought her to Washington where she became the soul of the New Deal.

Out of those experiences came Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and labor laws that substituted collective bargaining for lockouts and strikes.

Then just as we began to recover from the Great Depression, we were tossed into the unimaginable horror of World War II – a struggle which took 60 million lives around the globe. Then too we responded with love and compassion to our veterans coming home, without regard to their where they came from or how they prayed. United, we had the political will to pass the GI Bill that put many veterans through schools they could not have afforded before. The progress we saw as a result was not an accident – we soon had the world’s best trained workforce and it showed in the accomplishments of our people. We had invested in the people of America, invested in each other, and together we reaped the harvest of good jobs, good incomes, real education and better health and housing.

Internationally we need to learn that everyone’s welfare matters: China and Iran affect our health here, freedom and democracy are indivisible. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the effort to draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights. We’ve had nothing to fear from countries that adopted freedom and democracy.

I spent a decade providing legal services to the poor and met a lot of wonderful people in the process. Recently I’ve been working with a different organization that helps the needy and, again, I’ve been impressed by people working as hard as they could to support themselves, their families and their communities. Climbing out of poverty is hard as people don’t have the resources to deal with problems that are almost inevitable – unexpected bills, illness, economic changes.

What lesson will we learn now? Will we learn the lesson that everyone’s health matters, that our ability to work and play depends on everyone else’s health too? Will we remind ourselves that unemployment and poor working conditions are problems we share, not just someone else’s problems?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 14, 2020.


Worth Fussing About in this Pandemic

March 24, 2020

I don’t want to talk about topic no. 1. I thought talking about politics might provide comic relief. But what’s funny about that? Politics is deadly serious, precisely because people’s lives depend on how elected officials take care of the rest of us, or whether they’re focused only on optics.

Doctors and nurses are being forced to make tragic choices about priorities for medical equipment and facilities in short supply. In this kind of situation there’s always a risk of decisions being corrupted by unexamined prejudices, and that needs to be avoided. But I know that if I get the coronavirus, my treatment will depend on how overwhelmed the facilities are. The usual question is how many lives can be saved. Wherever that would put me on line is reasonable.

But this country, which constantly boasts about being the best, deserves criticism for losing a full two months by comparison to many other countries dealing with the virus. That delay meant we’ll face many more cases and lose many more people than we should have. We refused the World Health Organization’s offer of a test used across much of the globe, while the White House boaster-in-chief treated the pandemic as a hoax. That, and the fact that our health care system still doesn’t take care of everyone, even when everyone’s health depends on everyone else’s, justifies deep disappointment.

Trump repeatedly minimized and mocked the pandemic, describing it as a Democratic “hoax.” It took Fox News host Tucker Carlson to go to a party at Mar-O-Lago and tell Trump this was a serious pandemic before Trump paid attention. It took Sen. Schumer to tell Trump to activate the Defense Production Act when the man in the White House hadn’t bothered.

Now of course he’s playing catch-up, bragging constantly while the governors, mayors, and the professionals at the National Institutes of Health and the Center for Disease Control are doing the real work, as he well knows.

But let me pull back from the current details. For years we eliminated “surplus” hospital beds, everything not in regular use. This president continued, cutting “extras,” like those at the CDC whose jobs were to plan ahead to prevent epidemics, or the office at the Security Council meant to coordinate responses to global pandemics. With such efficiencies, nothing’s left when we need it now.

This country has long been so focused on efficiency and not crossing so-called bridges before we get there, that we refuse to plan ahead, and wait for problems to become crises. We’ve turned the notion of freedom into a justification for selfishness instead of an opportunity to push politicians to behave like statesmen pursuing the public interest. We’ve reached a point where civil servants, people who have spent their lives and careers on our behalf, can be maligned as the “deep state,” instead of thanking them for their service. We’ve lost a notion of the public interest and a notion that teamwork has been a great virtue of American economic and political culture. We need a balance of teamwork and independence. The combination defines the moral fiber that we have been losing and paying dearly for.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, on March 24, 2020.


The Pandemic

March 17, 2020

We’ve all been affected by this pandemic. People are telecomputing, taking bicycles to work instead of busses, and avoiding meetings to see and greet each other and work together. Things have been canceled that I was very much looking forward to. Virtually every step we take invites a calculation of how to do it safely. I found myself in Boston recently at a funeral for a nephew with people I really care about, everybody calculating whom to hug and whom to elbow bump. Many of us have been making frantic trips to the grocery and the drug store for needed supplies we think may go out of stock or just trying to buy things before the virus spreads any more widely.

I understand that the U.S. refused an offer of a test for the virus from the World Health Organization that has been used in a number of countries, and I gather others are annoyed that we apparently offered to buy a company that was preparing another test to make available worldwide. We used to be the leaders of the free world but the free world is a bit put out with us now. Unfortunately, there no longer seems to be a good solution to the health care crisis.

I completely understand the logic behind closing the schools. Children often become carriers of disease. They gather in large numbers in school where they pick it up and bring it out to parents and others. Shutting down schools like shutting down theaters can help slow the spread of disease.

But few of us are hermits or live on subsistence farms that can operate without contact with the outside world. Closing the schools leaves teenagers to their own devices, leaves homeless children on the streets, and leaves health care workers with no good places to leave their children.

It’s easy to think that we can take care of ourselves if only we keep everyone else off the street. But we aren’t islands. With schools closed lots of children will be on the streets unsupervised. Many parents will have to work anyway. Even if cities figure out how to care for the children of essential workers with a new system instead of the schools, aggravating an economic disaster on top of a health care disaster creates problems of its own. We need the groceries and drug stores and many other essential services. How many will our governments classify as essential and how quickly can they get it done?

We also need to take care of everyone else so their illness doesn’t threaten us. This illustrates why it’s mutually important that everyone have a right to health care and access to it. And it’s an example of why childcare and senior care have become fundamental. None of us are islands unconnected to the rest of society. My dentist just rescheduled for a month later. What do I do for exercise? Cabin fever isn’t fun.

By the way, this epidemic has not been infecting the poor and saving the rich. It turns out that the rich depend on the poor but are just as likely to infect them as the reverse. The only way to fight this epidemic is to defend and protect each other. None of us is an island alone by ourselves.

I wish you and yours all come out of this well.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on March 17, 2020.

 

 


Democracy Needs Generosity

January 22, 2019

What’s wrong with our politics is its too common don’t-tread-on-me selfishness.

“What’s-in-it-for-me” politics in the early republic held up roads, canals and other internal improvements for decades until we learned to share. Democracy needs some generosity.

After 9/11, Congress passed appropriations for local safety and security. I spoke with a former congressman from this area about New York City’s share. He responded about his district’s various rural areas. I pointed out that the people in his district had important ties to New York City – family or friends there for jobs or schools. Others with close business ties. He responded that he hadn’t thought of that. Frankly that’s what’s wrong with our politics. We need to think about what binds us together instead of what splits us apart. And yes, even the subways New York City depends on. If we starve the subways because it’s there, not here, we starve ourselves; and vice versa.

The same connections are true of our ethnic, racial, religious and gender groups. Some hate paying for anyone else’s schooling. Yet it’s even costlier to clean up after or imprison people who’ve never been given the tools to pull their weight in society.

Should God forbid equalizers like Social Security or Obamacare, though they’re cheaper than the costs imposed by inequality?

The alt-atrocious white supremacists would give us a war of all against all, which makes only corpses and refugees, leaving no one safe – not supremacists, minorities, family, men, women or children.

Since Revolutionary America, colleges kept inviting broader, more diverse groups of students in order to sustain themselves. Industry learned production required people working together regardless of language or faith. Commercial firms learned that lesson to sell their products. The military learned that successful missions required soldiers to support each other regardless of color, origin, language, faith or sexual orientation. Whenever diversity looked problematic, it ended by strengthening American institutions.

America IS great, not in spite of diversity but because of it. Our ideals have led Americans to work well together. The lesson of brotherhood has been our great strength.

Meeting and introducing my classmates to an African-American Olympic champion who won four medals in front of a fuming Hitler did me no harm. Befriending fellow law students from every faith and continent hurt none of us! Just the contrary as we became comfortable with and learned from each other. Perhaps the biggest lesson we all learned is that both lovely and nasty people come in all colors, cultures and tongues.

Climate change, terrorism, threats of war, and economic collapse truly threaten to embitter our lives. Pulling together will be essential to combatting them. Prejudice is a distraction and an obstacle. No children should be left behind. We all have to take care of each other. From federal workers to the homeless, we all have to take care of each other.

Remember President Kennedy’s call: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” Some of what we do has to benefit others. Without sharing the gains, there may be no gains to share.

The second President Bush turned Kennedy on his head. He wanted us to counter terrorism by shopping. Bush’s vision was victory without blood, sweat, tears, money or sacrifice. After all we’re number 1. But that’s a fantasy. People unwilling to take pains for the benefit of America and its democratic inheritance cannot enjoy its gains.

It’s broader than that. We must care about the welfare of the European Union, Mexicans, Hondurans and each other, or reap the whirlwind.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 22, 2019.


Threats to Democracy – The Shadow Knows How to Divide and Conquer

January 16, 2018

Right after Trump won, a cousin offered to send me some anti-Hillary literature that she thought I’d find convincing. I responded that if Hillary had won, she and I would be safe. But Trump’s victory emboldened those who would be perfectly happy exercising what Trump euphemistically called their Second Amendment rights, getting rid of people who don’t fit their racial and religious criteria. They were already on the streets. That left neither of us safe.

Nor is the problem just what some of his supporters believe and do. His campaign and rhetoric were about who should not be here. He continually appeals to his most extreme supporters, people who barely conceal their admiration for Hitler.

Many of us have been talking about how polarized our politics have become. Polarized politics is dangerous because it is a predicate for autocracy. If people become convinced that they can’t live with the other side’s victory, that life is too dangerous, democracy becomes unsustainable. When a live and let live attitude is gone, democracy can’t be trusted.

Trump can’t be trusted. Trump stands for exactly the kind of politics that makes democracy feel more dangerous than valuable. During the campaign, he told his supporters to express their “second Amendment rights” at the polls, sending chills down the spines of loyal Americans. When neo-Fascists showed up to demonstrate in Charlottesville fully armed to sow fear and intimidation, and one of their sympathizers murdered a peaceful and unarmed woman in the crowd, Trump blamed their opponents for the carnage. To Trump and his white supremacist supporters, evil is racial – Hispanic, immigrant, Puerto Rican, or Muslim, Blacks, Jews, minorities and women. When he tried to export his racist friends to the Brits, they told him to stay out of Britain. Bless the Brits. They get what this country used to stand for – we are [quote] “one nation … indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Liberty and democracy are “indivisible”; they are and must be for ALL.

A descent into racism, Nazi or otherwise, would not make America great again. It would destroy our country. One of the things I found fascinating in the papers of the UN Commission on Human Rights which produced the UN Declaration of Human Rights, was that human rights was not an American idea foisted on the world. Hatred of the Nazis came from across the globe, all continents, all its peoples. What they saw, regardless of economic or political system or religious or ethnic heritage was that the Nazis were a threat to everyone. All countries worked with the single-minded goal that there should be no more Hitlers, no more Nazi control of any country. The world had defeated the Nazis and they weren’t about to have to do it again.

Trump doesn’t get or care that democracy depends on our agreement that all Americans are legitimate Americans, all Americans need to be respected and cared about, and all Americans need to feel safe here, or he is wielding the demonization of some of us precisely to end self-government.

When I was a kid, there was a radio program that some of you will remember. It’s tag line, voiced by actor Frank Readick Jr., was “what evil lurks in the hearts of men, the Shadow knows.” I make no claim to knowing what evil does or doesn’t lurk in the heart of Trump. But threatening America from the inside, he is the biggest threat to the survival of America since our Civil War.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 16, 2018.

 

 


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