Political Dream Team

February 19, 2020

I keep hearing people who should know better, chattering about Democrats not having good candidates for the White House. Just the reverse, there are too many. In fact, each and every one is terrific. Except for primary rules that make them competitors, this would be the political Dream Team ready to wipe away all opposition as if it were the ‘92 Olympics.

 

Elizabeth Warren takes a deep dive into policy questions, driven to figure out what will do the most good for us. Bernie Sanders instinctively connects with young people and working people. Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar work the room, so to speak, talking and connecting with people to figure out what works. People like Klobuchar, Sanders and mayors Pete Buttigieg and Mike Bloomberg have administrative experience. Bloomberg and Steyer are used to crunching numbers. And all strike me as having their values and ethics in the right place. I’d have said good things about some of those who dropped out too. Truly the party has had an embarrassment of riches, white and black, men and women, from rich and poor backgrounds.

The team has experience in business, finance, working with poor and minority groups, factory workers, farmers, the middle class and those of us we’ve been calling ordinary Americans. It has people rolling up their sleeves to deal with some of the country’s major problems now, not waiting until they get elected.

The problem is the scoring. Instead of giving each voter a single choice, bouncing their preferences against one another, Democrats might have done much better with forms of voting in which voters could list, in order, the candidates they’d support, so their choices could be added together to get the most widely admired candidates.

The Iowa caucuses went part way. They got everyone’s initial preference when they walked in. Then discussions winnowed that down a little. We never saw what would have happened if they’d had to get to 50% plus 1.

I’m not sure that voters are grouping candidates by their place on a spectrum from centrist to liberal rather than whether candidates seem like people they’d be comfortable with. But whatever, we wouldn’t have to eliminate candidates because they didn’t get enough first place votes and we could instead search for agreement on candidates that most of us could be enthusiastic about. A campaign like that could give us candidates who would happily become the Dream Team in office.

To be fair, it is one of the ironies of democracy that every voting system has its flaws. It’s pretty obviously too late to change this year – we’d have chaos if we did. And we might decide to try ranked choice voting on local elections before trying it out on the presidential primaries. Other systems, like cumulative voting, are better suited to legislative elections. There’s room for experimentation.

My major point is that it would be useful if we all started to think about our second choices. I think most of us would find that there’s a lot to like. I’ve had a first choice from the beginning, a woman I’ve met, like and admire. But if you asked me about my second choice, wow, there are a lot of good people and we’d be blessed with any of them – or with them all on the New Democratic Administration Team in one position or another.

— This commentary was scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on February 18, 2020.


Too Liberal?

February 10, 2020

People claim Elizabeth and Bernie are too liberal, that their projects would beggar the country, so we can’t select them.

There must be something wrong with programs that have existed in Europe for decades. There must be something wrong and beyond our resources, with liberal programs, even though many corporate leaders support them.

Health care? The money is obviously there. People have been buying insurance forever. Employers have been paying for it for decades. And what they wouldn’t buy, the public has been paying for through emergency rooms. Let me explain the real difference. If employers pay their share through the tax system, they won’t have to worry about so-called employee benefits every time they hire someone. Even though corporations would pay about the same, the shift from a payroll expense to a public program would take the cost out of the calculus whenever business thinks about hiring someone. Or thinks about giving people a real job instead of a gig. Public programs help the economy flow. Many corporations understand that. Competition can be built in with a public option, for example. And small business would function much more easily. But false conservatives, playing on the fears of the public, don’t want to admit that they’re behind the logical eight ball.

Business could rarely get going if they had to build their own physical and social services. In fact business always wants the public to give them whatever they need. They don’t even want to build ballparks on their own dimes! But if they had to find and get water to their businesses and workers, or build their own electrical systems off the grid, or cut and pave their own roads, it would cost more and few could get started. They’d be stuck next to waterfalls like the old mills. But that’s what the fear mongers call socialism. And if they had to build all the physical and social infrastructure they need, they’d spend as little as possible and sacrifice the health of their employees. I’m not making that up – it’s the history of company towns that virtually enslaved employees, paying them in what was called company scrip. Complain and you lost your job, your home, and went into the world penniless, homeless and likely without your family as well.

Social investments protect our jobs and our freedom. Americans who know their history know that’s the world that President Franklin Roosevelt rescued us from with the New Deal by the end of the great depression. Some rich folk hated him for it because it gave most of us a chance at decent lives instead of slavery to corporate masters. Now that corporations are finding ways to take it back through the gig economy, outsourcing and union busting, we need to recreate the New Deal that gave us Social Security, unemployment insurance, the right to organize and that eventually led to Medicare. Far from being unsustainable, Americans had their best years since Roosevelt and the New Deal. And corporations too know that they can live with it because public programs give them the flexibility they want to add employees without the added expense of so-called benefits.

Too liberal? Don’t make me laugh through my tears at the ruin of the American worker.

— This commentary is scheduled for broadcast by WAMC Northeast Report, on February 11, 2020.


Time to Fight Fire With Fire

November 19, 2019

We’re in the middle of a campaign about whether Democrats should nominate a centrist and reject people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who understand who and what is hurting most people in America – citizens, middle class and struggling, guests, refugees, union members, farmers, and consumers – most of us. Elizabeth and Bernie are the reasonable ones while most others avert their eyes or hold their noses. Three cheers for reasonable, straight talking, clear-eyed candidates.

What should Congress do? Compromise isn’t possible. Republicans can’t even accept surrender if Democrats’ names are on it. Negotiation isn’t possible no matter how much Republicans blame their own intransigence on the Democrats.

Congressional Democrats need to take a page out of the Republican playbook to copy Gingrich, fight fire with fire and refuse to pass essential legislation, including the budget, unless it has everything Democrats stand for and need for the welfare of all of us. I’d insist on language that eliminates any and all judicial seats from the moment the holder dies or leaves – no more appointments for Trump no matter when the election, no more judges who refuse to deal with the unconscionable ways that corporations eviscerate the lives of honest, hard-working people. Unconscionable, by the way, is a legal term that judges refuse to use when ordinary people are being shafted.

What will it do in the presidential campaign? Energize the party. It’s time Democrats stopped gagging themselves to stay closer to the middle, allowing the so-called “middle of the road” to drift further to the wrong, further away from what reasonable, real people need.

We need to stand up for each other, for our friends and our neighbors, for people who care for America, who actually believe in the Declaration of Independence and in the ideology of America, not the weakened and destroyed America that Republicans at the racist, billionaire and Tea Party tables happily let crumble. It’s time to show we really care about the harm that Trump and his lackeys are doing and stop it. No compromise with hatred, racism and the corruption of a selfish official with an ego so weak that he can’t stand truth and resorts to calling everyone else fakers, from scientists to journalists.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are obscene – their tax rates are already a fraction of what they were in America’s most productive times. So-called entrepreneurs don’t stand on each other’s shoulders – they stand on the shoulders of a government that created or financed the most important advances of modern life, from medical discoveries to the internet and the GPS system before making it available to private firms. No, we cannot have a decent or fair country if wealthy egotists can’t stand the idea of paying for decent public education. Yes, we can provide health care for everyone like most of the free world. Yes, we can rebuild our country’s infrastructure before it crumbles and takes America down. No need to worry about the billionaires and their crocodile tears about misnamed “entrepreneurs” who don’t need the rest of us to take care of them and don’t use their tax breaks to create jobs.

It’s time to stand on principle. And let’s be clear – principle is attractive and inspiring. We can help everyone from farmers and miners to doctors, teachers, nurses, truckdrivers and food service workers. It’s time for all of us to stand up for each other and show the selfish rich and their enablers what decency and principle really look like, while we show them the door out of Washington and the state capitals and send them to places where they can live the lives of refugees.


For Elizabeth Warren

May 21, 2019

We’ve all been told the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, and pass it on with pride and pleasure. Although the actual events probably differed in some respects from the story we’re told, it speaks well of us that we remember her bravery and the love and marriage of Pocahontas and John Rolfe. They had a son, Thomas, who was brought up by English relatives after Pocahontas died there. I’ve often wondered how they described his heritage and hope they remembered his Native American mother with pride and pleasure. Children were born from similar marriages through much of the American frontier. I hope their descendants think of their native ancestors with the same warmth. In that vein, I was happy to discover that Senator Warren’s family took pleasure in knowing that a native union was blended into their family story, and that Senator Warren grew up thinking about it with pleasure. Some have pummeled her for it, but I think her attitude says more about her kindness and decency.

I met Warren years ago when she came to Albany Law to give a pair of talks, one over lunch to the faculty and another to the wider law school community. Many of us got to talk with her informally. She was fighting changes to the bankruptcy code that would make it even harsher and crueler.

I will never forget the way that she showed us all how legal rules were compounding the damage to people who had just suffered unforeseen events, like an illness. She showed us with great clarity that they weren’t deadbeats. They’d had a piece of bad luck and the rules made things worse, not better. Many women filed for bankruptcy after a divorce. Many tried to go to work, finish schooling or start a business but were squeezed too tightly to make it work. The bankruptcy code was supposed to give people a second chance. But the changes being proposed, and passed about a decade later, made it even harder for people, other than the president and his friends, to get that second chance.

The woman I met that day was a warm human being, who cared about people with ordinary incomes. That’s what I want to see in a representative for any office – someone whose heart is in the right place, whose head gives them the tools to straighten things out, and who is prepared to devote her energy toward getting things right. It couldn’t be clearer to me that that’s Elizabeth Warren.

On the national stage since I had the pleasure of meeting and breaking bread with her, she has fought for rules that would protect the great majority of us, and she has fought against those who have raped the rest of us of our savings, our homes and our livelihoods. Some people, with the resources to take the rest of us for a ride, opposed letting her run anything in Washington, but that only confirmed my judgment that she is the right person to lead us to a stronger, better, more just, America. I would feel blessed and honored to have Elizabeth Warren as my president.

Let me add that her being a woman has never made any difference to me. I’ve worked for men and women, people of color and people whose skin looks like mine. I’ve worked for wonderful, memorable people in every category. Elizabeth Warren is one of the wonderful ones.

Incidentally, I didn’t realize it at the time, but her daughter and I both gave talks a year or so ago at a meeting run by an organization her daughter heads. Senator Warren obviously passed her values and intelligence on to the next generation. I also happen to know Senator Warren’s husband, Bruce Mann. He’s been active in a professional association of legal historians of which I am also a member. Bruce and I have chatted occasionally. In this case, I should make it clear, and whatever your feelings about puns, I’m not only rooting for Elizabeth Warren to become our president, I’m also rooting for her husband, Bruce Mann, to be first Mann in the White House.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 21, 2019.

 


Bernie and Ralph

May 24, 2016

Let’s talk about Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader. I have enormous respect for what both men have been trying to tell us. I also have enormous respect for Nader’s willingness to plow his earnings back into the effort to improve many aspects of life while he, Nader, lived on a shoestring.

Then came the 2000 election. Nader argued that there was no difference between the major parties so it didn’t matter which one won that election. On the economic issue he was close to right, although the 2008 meltdown should have made clear that there are important differences between Republicans and Democrats on handling the economy. On other issues, particularly the environment, and the War in Iraq, the parties were far apart. That election made an enormous difference.

And it almost killed Nader’s movement; it certainly killed his ability to be an effective advocate. The conversation after the 2000 election wasn’t about Nader’s message; it was about the damage Nader did.

Bernie has an important message, which he shares with people like Elizabeth Warren and Ralph Nader, that the American economy is organized to take advantage of the vulnerable and deliver its benefits to those who have much more than they need. But if Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, what happens to Bernie’s message will depend on how he treats Hillary. It will be important for his message that he works for her election – and that his supporters do. If he and they work for the ticket, then his message has staying power because it becomes a shared message, his people are welcome and they broaden their own power within the Party. But if they sit it out or vote for the other side, their only message is that they aren’t important, reliable or helpful. It will stir resentments that will block their appeal going forward.

Nurturing Bernie’s message requires looking beyond this election, making friends and alliances for future elections. The way to create a lasting movement is to build on good feelings and organize for challenging down ballot in future federal, state and local elections much like what conservatives did to the Republican Party. Winning the top spot is a defective balloon, useless without down ballot organization. Bernie’s people have a chance to push the whole party, not just the White House, to the left. That’s the big prize. It doesn’t mean Bernie lost if he can’t catch Hillary; it means he and his supporters can do something much more powerful and sustainable.

Sitting back, or communicating that it’s my way or the highway infuriates the public. Republicans are learning the costs of that strategy, and even if Donnie wins, he may have no coattails or ability to govern. One of the crucial features of a democratic culture is the ability to be a good sport. Moderates usually win in the general election because that’s where the public is, so compromise must join principle in a successful strategy. Movements build over time. The best way to limit a movement’s prospects is to look like a sore loser.

I hope that message gets across to Bernie and his supporters.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 24, 2016.


The Outdated Economics of Conservative Ideologues

April 26, 2016

Some of you may have been following Shankar Vedantam on NPR or the discoveries of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist on the Princeton faculty, and their demonstration of the irrational ways that people very naturally and ordinarily reach decisions. Indeed, for quite a long time it’s been apparent that rational decision making often demands too much of people. As Cornell’s Vicki Bogan said in a talk in Albany, the rational choice model of economics assumes that people:

  • Think like Albert Einstein
  • Can store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue
  • Can exercise the will power of Mahatma Gandhi
  • … [and] make unbiased forecasts

Nobel Prizes have been awarded to psychologists and economists who have been studying human decision making, showing that people literally can’t do what conservative economic theory expects them to. The rational man doesn’t exist, and for that reason, markets often don’t protect us. For both businessmen and consumers, rational choice is often impossible; it’s just too hard. Sometimes things aren’t currently knowable. Sometimes they’re beyond the capacity of individuals, even if institutions can figure it out.

A trip to the grocery store helps make the point clear. Even though much of the information exists, I can’t know enough about all the ingredients of the goods I buy, and their impact on my body, and still take the time to do my work and have a life to live. I have to trust someone or something else. But consumer ignorance shapes what businessmen have to do to survive. Those who cater only to the most informed, cater to small markets and often go under.

One consequence is that the market doesn’t protect us. That’s why workers’ compensation was started many decades ago – workers couldn’t figure out the odds of injury and didn’t have the ability to protect themselves as cheaply and effectively as informed employers could. Government stepped in to move that burden of knowing and choosing from the employee to the employer.

Those are examples. The broader impact of what is now called behavioral economics is that the economic theory of market ideologues is thoroughly discredited nonsense. It doesn’t work. A couple of decades ago there was a big debate about the efficient market theory which claimed that the market had it right even though individuals could be wrong. But they couldn’t tell me whether the market had it right the day before or the day after the crash. In other words it was nonsense on stilts.

That’s one of the reasons the public, all of us, have to get out of the glare of the outdated economics coming from conservative ideologues. It’s one of the reasons why it has been so important that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have moved the Democratic Party to the left. That shift also clears the way for Hilary Clinton to return to the roots of the modern Democratic Party in the Great Depression, in Roosevelt’s New Deal, in being a party with heart.

Hilary and Bernie both have a lot to offer, but just as big a key to progress will be the Senate and the House of Representatives, which have blocked Obama’s efforts to push this country toward better, more caring solutions at every turn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 26, 2016.


Hillary

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.

 


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