September 22, 2015

We were delighted when Kermit Hall, a friend since the early 80s, became president of the University at Albany. A week before he died, we had breakfast with Kermit at the President’s house. So I went to the memorial service at the University with a heavy heart. There was a woman standing in the crowd I didn’t recognize. She was just standing around quietly. My ability to recognize faces is poor, good enough for most things but it often fails me. She eventually made her way to the makeshift outdoor stage that had been organized for the memorial. Once the memorial got under way, she was introduced – as Senator Clinton. I don’t remember her reading anything. What I heard was a warm, heartfelt eulogy of my friend, a eulogy that flowed easily from her, filled with memories of their work together to strengthen the University in New York.

I know Hillary has a heart. I know she is a warm person with strong feelings. And I do not care in the least whether she would want to have a drink with me. I don’t care whether a president is spontaneous or funny when you get to know them.

I admired FDR enormously, not because of his dog, but his good sense. Thank heavens that he knew German well enough to understand how dangerous Hitler was before anyone else in America. I admired his wife and regret the pain it caused her that some women were sufficiently devoted to do anything for the president, but in the scheme of things, I have no ill feelings toward FDR for it. What mattered most was that he put his energies into turning this country around in the middle of the Great Depression, and preparing this country for what he knew was the inevitable battle with Hitler. He was the man we needed and thank the Lord for him. To heck with who his drinking buddies were.

I don’t want Hillary to be spontaneous so I could imagine enjoying her company or she mine. I want her to be thoughtful. I don’t want her to take us into foolish wars on wild hunches, or to come out with whatever thoughts she has in the moment. We don’t need a president whose calculations are as bankrupt as some of the companies he ran into bankruptcy. A president needs the mental equipment to calculate carefully. And a candidate needs to position herself or himself to win, lest we find ourselves with one of the clowns on the other side who compete for the privilege of exercising their free speech in the most vicious ways, arguing we should deprive friends and neighbors of their citizenship, breaking up families, and throwing as many people as possible behind bars in a collective orgy of prejudice.  That may be spontaneous but it’s also small-minded and stupid.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have long had my admiration and I support the message they have been taking to America. I want them to give Hillary cover to move leftward without losing the public in the process. But I think Democrats have been misevaluating Hillary. She has many of the qualities we need. She surprised many in both parties by just how good a senator she turned out to be. Democrats need to appreciate her toughness, experience and ability to navigate the challenges that confront presidents, not her ability to handle a stein of beer.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 22, 2015.


This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft

September 15, 2015

This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft.

The Republican candidates have been telling us who they want to keep out, and whom they don’t like or wouldn’t lift a finger for – Mexicans, Iran, Muslims, the poor, women, peaceniks. And they make it pretty obvious whom they do like – whites, “real men,” cops, soldiers, guns, the U.S., especially the U.S. before any of us were born, and Christians. It’s all stereotypes, of course. No group of people is all good or all bad – not even conservatives, a big stretch for me. There are always gradations – people need to be judged on their behavior. But that’s too much work. Simplification is so much easier.

Let’s talk about something else they don’t like – democracy. All their blather about the free market and government is little more than an attack on democracy. In fact polls reveal that, on average, conservatives are typically less supportive of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights – except the freedom to carry guns so that, if what they define as the need arrives, you can blow whomever away. Heaven forbid we should have to live together. I glory in walking out of Penn Station in New York – it seems like the whole world is right there and managing to get along; how wonderful in this increasingly contentious world.

Oh on the subject of New York City, that’s a stereotype right there – for much of America New York City is Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind that the City is actually composed of Americans from all over the country – their own relatives, friends and classmates – as well as a major first stop for immigrants, the same immigrant streams that composed the rest of the country. No, New York is heathen. I remember stopping downstairs for a haircut in a building where I had a temporary apartment in Ohio. The barber was a woman and as we chatted she told me that she was surprised that New Yorkers actually tried to help each other in the days after 9/11. Really – did she think we were coyotes?

It makes me nostalgic too – for the draft! There was actually a time when Americans from all over had to meet, interact, make friends, and did. They introduced each other to their eventual brides, formed business partnerships, learned to appreciate the best in each other’s backgrounds. The draft was truly the incubus of democracy. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[i] Got that right.

Actually the military has been working on that problem since the country was formed. Contrary to what many people think, Americans at the founding spoke many languages and have continued to speak many languages. The military struggled with whipping those disparate forces into a unified fighting team. They tried separate local units and units recruited by leaders like Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” but they tossed all that aside and put people into those military tents without regard to their origins.

The racial divide forced the military to think again about the problem. It turned out that mixed race units in World War II came back positive about the possibilities of integration. But Vietnam was hard, a stalemate in the swamps in the middle of turmoil back home. But the military responded by making it a part of every officer’s responsibility not only to achieve racial peace and cooperation, but to make sure that soldiers of all races developed appropriately, got training and took on responsibilities leading to promotions.

As a youth I feared the draft; I knew my own physical weaknesses. For me the Peace Corps was a good choice, one that helped me develop as a human being. And there were problems with the way the draft was handled. But I miss it nonetheless. Truly national service is a very good idea for a democratic country.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 15, 2015.

[i] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America From the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).

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.

Grateful on the Fourth of July

July 7, 2015

As we celebrated the Fourth of July I found myself thinking back to a trip my wife and I made to visit friends on Long Island by way of the Ferry. We knew that there was a ceremony taking place at my alma mater, Yale Law School, for the swearing in of Judge Calabresi to take his seat on the federal Court of Appeals. Justice Souter was coming to perform the ceremony. And one of my classmates was already on the Court and would be there. So it would be a great party.

Judge Calabresi had been one of my teachers. His appointment to the Court was the occasion for his resigning as Dean of the Law School, a position he’d held for a decade. When it was his turn to speak, Judge Calabresi described how he and his family had left Italy in the early days of World War II when he was young. Calabresi is one of the most gifted and eloquent speakers I know and he described how America had been ready to give people like him – an immigrant and a Jew – an opportunity when they arrived. And he spoke about how he hoped to continue that tradition as a Judge, to be able to extend the benefits America had to offer to others, whether new to our shores or people we have been calling minorities.

My father and I were lucky to be born here but my mother and my grandparents were not. Looking around, the world could only impress me with the great good fortune of being born an American, in an age when America was prepared to extend opportunities to people like me as it did for Calabresi. Looking around now, we have visions of genocide on several continents. The sanctuary of America is such a special blessing. It is no wonder that so many want to come.

Like Calabresi, though not nearly as eloquent a spokesman, I grew up wanting to share and extend those blessings. I grew up understanding instinctively the blessing of what before the feminist revolution we used to call brotherhood – I keep looking for a good successor to the warmth and humanity of that term. The understanding that we are all God’s children, that none of us is an island, that the world we want for ourselves depends on extending the benefits of that world to others, is our heritage, our glory and our security.

But those glories have been hard won and have never been secure. In our own generations we have struggled to extend the benefits of America to African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Asian-Americans and immigrants from the various struggles of Eastern Europe and the Middle East. After the Supreme Court declared segregation inherently unequal and unconstitutional, cities all over the country, tore down the areas where minorities lived, destroyed their communities, declared them unworthy of investment, and the federal government financed white, but not black movement to the new suburbs, a move that took the jobs too, leaving in their wake poor, dysfunctional communities where once decent, striving, and thankful communities had once stood.

America has been good to me. I do not take it for granted. I want to recognize, encourage and support decent people of all colors and languages. Truly they add to the strength and the glory of this country, and brotherhood adds to the security of all of us.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 7, 2015.

The Court’s attack on the “ever-normal granary”

June 30, 2015

I’ve been celebrating like many of you over the marriage equality and Obamacare decisions last Thursday and Friday. But my own celebrations are tempered by the realization that these two cases don’t symbolize any shift on the Court. Kennedy’s libertarian philosophy has paid dividends in the gay rights controversy for years. But the decision last November to hear the case challenging whether federal health exchanges could provide subsidies to those without the money to buy a health plan unassisted, turned into a trap.[1] The scale of damage that would have been done by blocking the subsidies made it impossible even for opponents of the program to shut it down. Nothing in the decision suggests that Kennedy had a change of heart about having wanted to declare it unconstitutional, and nothing suggests that Roberts had a change of heart about narrowing the commerce power, even though he had approved the individual mandate in the statute as a tax. Twenty years ago, Thomas wrote he would consider going back to the Court’s very restrictive definition of federal powers before 1937 when President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointments changed the Court’s philosophy. Apparently Scalia and Alito are on Board with him.

That brings me to raisins.

Horne v. Department of Agriculture,[2] looks like the Supreme Court is maneuvering to get us back to the era when it throttled government economic policy. Horne held unconstitutional a program to keep the supply of raisins on an even keel.

Roosevelt’s New Deal Administration had the dream of an “ever normal granary” for farmers. Their prices were spiking in both directions, making farming very difficult especially for family farmers whose resources to endure periods of low prices were limited. The statute was passed in 1937 to create the “ever-normal granary,” in order to deal with the effects of the great depression, stabilize prices, preserve supplies against shortages from drought or other natural causes and to protect farmers against “disastrous lows” from bumper crops.[3]

The result was a program to store portions of crops in government facilities when supply exceeded demand and release them in periods when yields were too low. It was a program designed by farmers for farmers.

The Horne decision used the takings clause to overrule part of that nearly eighty year old statute which had been designed to help pull the country out of the great depression of the ‘30s.

If one simply reads the words of this Roberts Court decision, it looks easy to get around. Government could use a regulation or a tax. And there are other ways to make this decision seem appropriate and unthreatening.

But I don’t believe it. This case has been part of a decade long set of challenges looking for a way to take down federal agricultural marketing policies. The attorney for the Hornes was a well-known conservative activist, professor and former judge. I doubt he handled this case just because he sympathized with the Hornes.

Similarly, when the Rehnquist Court decided United States v. Lopez in 1995 on federalism grounds all the constitutional scholars said it was insignificant, a shot across the bow but portending nothing. Within a few years it was clear they were wrong. The Court started declaring civil rights statutes unconstitutional as violations of principles of federalism that are nowhere in the language of the Constitution.

This case is not a one off. The Court has been developing takings doctrine so that it can be used to block federal regulation of the economy and the environment. The conservative faction on the Roberts Court is trying to develop legal tools to return the U.S. to a period in which we are a congerie of 50 small states instead of a single proud country. And if that happens, family farmers especially may be sorry to be free of federal regulation.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 30, 2015.

[1] Linda Greenhouse, The Supreme Court’s Reality Check, NY Times blogs, June 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/26/opinion/the-roberts-courts-reality-check.html?rref=collection%2Fcolumn%2Flinda-greenhouse

[2] Horne v. Dep’t of Agric., 2015 U.S. LEXIS 4064 (2015).

[3] Mordecai Ezekiel, Farm Aid-Fourth Stage, The Nation, February 26, 1938, Vol. 146, No. 9, p. 236-238, available at http://newdeal.feri.org/nation/na38146p236.htm.

Democracy’s Future in America

June 2, 2015

The Court has now decided that states can stop judges but only judges from personally asking for campaign contributions. It left all the rest of its protections of economic privilege in place.[1] Corporations can use treasury funds to flood the airwaves with political ads. Donors can hide their contributions behind a variety of specialized corporate entities. The one-tenth of one percent of the wealthiest Americans can dominate American politics directly and through their domination of corporate treasuries.

As I explained last week, inequality in the United States is making democracy increasingly unsustainable. When the wealthy and powerful take control of the whole shebang – political money, jobs, the media – the mass of the public is left with few resources to control their government, while the wealthy and powerful have enormous resources at their disposal to control the people.

In addition, democracy is fairly explicitly under attack. Conservatives attack the voting rights of any who might vote against them. Corporations use arbitration clauses in consumer contracts and international treaties to sidestep democratic decisions and make it easier for them to tear down environmental, labor and any other regulation that the people want but the corporations dislike. Their argument against regulation of markets is a euphemism for rules that favor whatever they want to do. But their point is that democracy has no right to interfere. And they hide their contempt for democracy behind Reagan’s claim that government, democratic government, is the problem.

Both these direct attacks and the distortions of wealth on the political process create a real threat that this government of, by and for the people could perish from the earth, undermined by control over speech, press and politics and squeezed out by untouchable markets and the exclusion of democratic decision-making from anything corporations care about.

Only the Tea Party seems prepared to rebel and their exclusionary politics adds to the problem. The gun rights folk will, if anything, protect the current distribution of wealth, enforcing their prejudices. Liberals – race liberals, economic liberals, big money liberals – are hardly united.

Under domination from powerful corporate interests, we could hope at best for the crumbs off their tables. Welcome to the many so-called democracies in Central and South America, Asia and Africa, where hirelings and sycophants help control the public for the benefit of their wealthy patrons.

We could try to pull the Supreme Court off the ramparts of privilege and regain control over the use of money in politics. We could fight back by supporting independent radio stations like WAMC. Or we could hope for the best ‘til Brutus assassinates Caesar – though that could lead to the consolidation of tyranny as it did for the Romans and is now doing in the Middle East.

Can we rally to save the planet and save democracy before we have lost them both? As we used to say in Brooklyn, before the Dodgers finally won the Series, “ya gotta b’lieve.”

Next week, the primaries.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 2, 2015.

[1] Williams-Yulee v. Fla. Bar, 2015 U.S. LEXIS 2983 (U.S. Apr. 29, 2015).

Money in Politics

May 26, 2015

For decades before the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, political scientists concluded that more money helped our democracy by increasing competition. They had also concluded that it did not disadvantage Democrats, who would hold their own in fundraising. Even after Citizens United, those conclusions still seem true. But those scholars did not address other ways that money changes politics.

I’m still angry with Ralph Nader for his part in the 2000 election. His claim that there was no difference between the parties seems way off the mark. It’s hard to imagine Al Gore would have made the same mistakes George Bush did. But Nader was onto something else. Every candidate, from Gore to Hilary and Bush to Romney, has sought support from the financial industry and other tycoons and multinationals. Some regulatory proposals looked different when first made but all were whittled down. Obama supported Elizabeth Warren for a new agency but relented to the opposition. Money matters.

That’s fiendishly difficult to measure. Most scientific work is based on comparisons. When everybody’s doing it, there are no satisfactory comparisons.

But the consequences are huge. The cost of campaigns is increasing fast, doubling since 2000. More than a fifth of the expense of Senate races, and more than a third of the cost of House races came from PACs in 2014. Outside organizations now spend more than 20% of campaign expenses, increasingly from undisclosed sources. Of the rest, less than a third of 1% of the adult population of the U.S. provides two thirds of all individual contributions to federal candidates, PACs and Parties.[i]

What do they get for that? From 2007 to 2012, according to the Sunlight Foundation, “America’s most politically active corporations spent a combined $5.8 billion on federal lobbying and campaign contributions.” The Foundation concluded that, in return, those same corporations got “$4.4 trillion in federal business and support,” more than the government paid all Social Security recipients, and two-thirds of all the money that all of us together as “individual taxpayers paid into the federal treasury.” Kevin Phillips had described the power of such political investment as many thousands to one?[ii] Sunlight Foundation calculated that “for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government,” a seventy-six thousand percent return.[iii] Contributions coupled with lobbying work exceedingly well at those levels.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and his colleagues elaborated the impact of what they call the “selectorate,” the people who dominate the choice of political leadership.[iv] As the selectorate shrinks, politicians direct ever increasing public benefits toward that shrinking group and fund them on the backs of everyone else, paving a path to the collapse of democratic government. Here, that one tenth of one percent of Americans, who bring home the great majority of America’s wealth, dominate our politics as they do our wallets.

Political scientists urge public funding as the best available solution. Just take money out of the equation. The public doesn’t like funding politicians they may not agree with, and we don’t much like paying their salaries either. But to get a politics which takes account of the welfare of the entire American population, it appears to be the most likely path. And a very good investment.

Next week, the risks.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 26, 2015.

[i] The Center for Responsive Politics keeps track of the data at OpenSecrets.org. See https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/index.php, https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/cost.php and https://www.opensecrets.org/overview/donordemographics.php [visited May 12, 2015] for the information presented.

[ii] Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy (Random House 2002).

[iii] https://sunlightfoundation.com/blog/2014/11/17/fixed-fortunes-biggest-corporate-political-interests-spend-billions-get-trillions/.

[iv] Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith, The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2011); Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow, The Logic of Political Survival (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003).


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