The Middle Class and the Poor

December 19, 2017

This is a season in which many of us make donations to help those with less than we do. But in the larger context, we need a better understanding of the poor.

For years now, politicians have been talking about the middle class. Being in the middle class doesn’t mean that one has it made. There are unfulfilled hopes and potential financial shocks that could knock almost any of us down and out. We know that and many of us are rightly concerned about it. The market has no feelings. It dispenses with people like so much trash. That should leave all of us concerned.

But when politicians talk about the middle class, I hear something else. I hear them telling us that no one else counts, especially not the poor. Many people treat the poor like trash. We even have names for it. A lawyer working for me once described his own family as poor white trash. He was nothing of the sort of course and his family couldn’t have been either – they brought up a very decent young man.

Tom Paxton wrote a song in which he says “If the poor don’t matter, then neither do I.” I had the pleasure of telling him after one of his concerts that song was very meaningful to me. I spent about ten years as a poverty lawyer in various positions in three different states. My clients weren’t trash and they did matter. They were decent, hardworking people who had suffered some reversal. Often, just as hard as the loss of income was the blow to their pride when they were out of work. The poor don’t have a financial cushion when things go bad. They can’t retire and rely on the pensions they don’t have. I remember working to get one of my clients who did have a right to a pension – it was thirty dollars a month.

With no money coming in, they spend most of their time trying to find things cheap enough to squeeze into their meager budgets. When people are poor, they are also very vulnerable not only to emergencies but also to fraud – they have little time or capacity to compare or investigate. Everything looks like an opportunity, even though too many offers are a mirage, squeezing out what little people have left.

We in the middle class are also linked to the poor because the worse they are treated, the worse we can be treated. That’s hardly a new observation. Free laborers in the pre-Civil War north objected to the way slavery lowered what they were paid for their labor. We are all affected by everyone’s wages. When the minimum wage goes up, so do lots of other peoples’ wages as well. When wages are set or negotiated it is always done with an eye to what other people are being paid.

The poor matter in another way. It’s very damaging to all of us to treat people like trash. Treat people like trash and train them to behave like it, and train ourselves to misbehave. George Mason spoke from experience when he told the Constitutional Convention that slavery made tyrants of the slaveholders. Civilization and civility require civilized behavior from all of us.

It’s also political. For all our fussing about corruption, Commonwealth United, respect for people of all backgrounds, and other issues of concern to those of us who feel like we are in more comfortable circumstances than the poor, who are our allies? And if we want allies, are we theirs?

Tom Paxton was right, if the poor don’t matter then neither do I.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 19, 2017.

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What’s to blame for our divided nation? The cause can also be the cure

May 10, 2017

My views of the legal contribution to American polarization and what can be done about it have now come out as

“What’s to blame for our divided nation? The cause can also be the cure” [click here] on TheHill.com. Enjoy.


Democratic Decay

October 10, 2016

I wish it weren’t so, but the anti-democratic elements in this US election, and the Trump campaign, are making the dangers identified in my book seem like a near-term prediction – the well-justified revolt of the economically forgotten leading them to trust a bankrupt businessman and TV star who recycles empty promises, stereotypes and prejudices to gain their votes, the courting of the gun-toters coupled with thinly veiled threats and violence, the racist and male-chauvinist language, religious bigotry and xenophobia proposals, a candidate clearly out of control by the party he nominally represents, a demagogue repeating empty slogans until they start to seem believable, are all dangerous. Worse it seems to be a world-wide trend, Tom Gerald Daly, Time to View Democratic Decay as a Unified Research Field?, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Sept. 30, 2016, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2016/09/time-to-view-democratic-decay-as-a-unified-research-field. This clearly needs to stop.


I don’t get it

November 11, 2014

I don’t get it. Political scientists tell us that the advantage of democracy is that the elected officials have to act for the benefit of most of the people. And if they don’t, they lose.

So the Republican Administration of George Bush delivered war, torture and economic disaster – and the Republicans then lost the White House. But then the Republicans calculated that if they could prevent Obama from delivering any benefits, they could take over. They went on the campaign trail saying that Obama failed because he hadn’t forced them to pass what he wanted, and at the same time telling the public that he had done a great deal of damage by doing everything he wanted to do. Never mind the contradiction.

But lots of people seem to have bought it. So how’s democracy supposed to work?

All over the political spectrum people seem to be voting against their own interests, convinced by nonsense that what hurts, helps them. Hard-working people who don’t make a lot of money vote for tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. Businessmen vote against investment in critical infrastructure they use daily.

The electoral process looks tribal to me. Science, expertise, experience, all get reinterpreted by who’s who supporting what. If Princeton economists support policies that help the poor, then those policies must be bad and must not support “me” – because my interests differ from the interests of the poor. Remember I’m middle-class. I couldn’t share the interests of the poor. Increase in the minimum wage? Forget it; I’m on salary. By the way who’d you say buys my stuff? Couldn’t be we’re all in this together!

Well most of us. See “I’m” on the side of the billionaires, even though they make infinitely more than me and won’t share a penny – that’s why they pay for so many lobbyists to squeeze the last penny out of the government, and stiff me all the way. That isn’t supposed to happen in a democracy.

Except that the plutocrats – ok that’s the old name – the super-rich, the 1/10 of 1%, or fewer, the oligarchs – cut the bottom out of the voting booths by making it harder and more expensive to vote, and by splashing money at the media and the commentators ‘til it sticks or just confuses people so they stay home – so our oligarchs can control the political system for themselves.

Will the people fight back? The damage is all over the legal spectrum. Patent and copyright law? Forget the artists and inventors. Minimum wages? Forget the workers. Infrastructure? Forget the people who drive or ride – the super-rich fly private jets or live abroad. Forget the small business that benefits from infrastructure – the super-rich got their breaks for businesses so big they don’t need to worry about regular folk – they own the markets. Taxes – guess who gets tax relief while the rest of us are left with the bill while the super-rich make noise about deficits? Wonder why we have those!

Are we letting democracy sink that low? Sounds like the dictator’s game – shrink the electorate and lavish huge benefits on your supporters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 11, 2014.


Economics, Lawyers and the Risk to American Democracy

April 1, 2014

Ever notice that I frequently talk about economics. What’s a lawyer doing talking about economics? I did read and study economics but there are other reasons why economic issues are dear to this heart.

Lawyers do lots of different things. But for many of us, law is a helping profession. We work with people who are headed for bankruptcy and other events that will turn their lives upside down. We do our best to help them avoid personal tragedies – or pick up the pieces. We don’t think of clients as numbers but as people, most of whom we like and respect. We learn not to think of financial reverses as a judgment about their character, decency or personal value. It happens for all sorts of reasons, often beyond our clients’ control. When it is a mistake, it is often a part of learning how to do business or operate in this world. Some of the world’s most successful people have been through bankruptcy. Up close and personal, we care.

So the national recession wasn’t just a set of numbers for me. It was a catastrophe in the lives of many people. They were passengers on the national ship on a foggy night when the captain  crashed into another vessel. Millions of people went overboard, leaving their jobs and belongings behind. Rescuing people isn’t a choice; it’s an obligation just as it was not optional whether to pick our friends up from the wreck of the Achille Lauro. An S.O.S. has a clear and obligatory meaning.

But there is another reason. One could trace it to a famous French aristocrat who visited and wrote about the U.S. in the 1830s but statistical studies beginning after World War II keep making the point that poverty and inequality are both hostile to the survival of democracy. Historians studied the failure of democracies on multiple continents and reached the same conclusion. Others with different methodologies keep reaching similar conclusions.

It’s not a surprising conclusion. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, many were worried that we would lose our system of self-government, and some advised President Roosevelt to take dictatorial powers, but he refused. Now science has come to support common sense. Poverty can be dangerous, not only to individuals but to society. It makes people desperate and when they are, all bets are off.

With that knowledge, it is painful to me to watch Congress leave the victims of corporate shenanigans in the dirt as if they were so much trash. And as an attorney, it is particularly painful to me to watch the U.S. Supreme Court under Chief Justice Roberts doing everything in its power to play the role of the Sheriff of Nottingham, robbing from the poor to pay the rich. Many of those decisions are complex legally as well as economically but their effect on the fairness of the contracts we sign daily and on the lives of many people are extensive and often tragic. To me, the Roberts Court is threatening our democratic patrimony.

The personal suffering would be enough. The risk to our country is hard to bear.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 1, 2014.


Sources of American Strength

February 21, 2012

Let’s talk about some basics – the sources of American economic power.

  • We were always an immigrant society, peopled with those who had the drive and courage to leave where they were, cross the ocean and begin again with nothing.
  • Initially we were agricultural. One innovation was small, “republican,” landownership by independent farmers. Their efficiency made everything else possible.
  • We were among the leaders in the banking revolution which simplified and facilitated commerce.
  • The transportation revolution began in England but it had an enormous impact on the American economy because of the sheer size of the country.
  • Our system of democratic schooling  – education for all, rich and poor, boys and girls, immigrants and natives – was revolutionary and made us an international leader.
  • England pioneered the scientific revolution. But America took advantage of the land grant colleges, and with the appreciation for learning that came with both the Christian and Jewish communities that relocated here, America became a major source of invention.
  • Americans led the revolution in manufacturing – inventing and perfecting the assembly line.

Now what? Everything we achieved is out there. Read the rest of this entry »


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