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.

 

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Our love affair with capitalism

February 25, 2019

Bernie reopened a national debate about capitalism and socialism. I think we need to understand that no economic system carried to the limit produces justice. We’ve been most successful using mixed systems to gain the advantages and smooth the problems created by both capitalism and socialism.

Actually socialism is hiding in plain sight: the post office, libraries, public schools, the water supply, fire and police protection, highways, roads and streets. We buy our capitalist cell phones on an internet system that government created for military and academic use before turning it over to private systems.

Capitalism has a fraught relationship with workers. It can and often does enlarge the total economy, the whole pie. But it doesn’t distribute that pie among the workers. It distributes the pie to those who make the decisions, and they keep what they can for themselves.

Workers and farmers have every right to be dissatisfied with the impact of capitalism on their lives. Capitalism makes farm prices unpredictable. I’m convinced the programs could be tweaked for the benefit of both the environment and of family farmers, but government programs nevertheless make prices for farm produce sufficiently predictable for farmers to stay in business.

The crumbling safety net leaves workers at the whim of other people’s investment decisions. The disruptions capitalism causes are well illustrated by the argument over the Amazon plant in Queens. There were several appropriate solutions, but the problems were clear – capitalism was preparing to push people out and their fate depended on government. Unemployment insurance and the social safety net were never enough or well attuned to the needs of families who work for others for their living. And the social safety net has been weakened considerably in the last decades along with weakening the legal position of unions. So, government has a job to do.

That doesn’t mean that we should abandon capitalism, but it does mean that capitalism is not the answer to every problem, and it’s not a sufficient answer to our economic problems. Nor are incentives for decision makers adequate answers. Capitalism is well described by the board game Monopoly. It’s so familiar, I wonder if you realized it was created to teach people what capitalism does. As its name implies, the effective object of capitalism is monopoly. Even though the holders of that monopoly change in real-world capitalism as we experience it, ordinary folks are constantly squeezed out. If our objective is the welfare of the people, capitalism is not a sufficient answer. We cannot and must not be ideological purists. Our country has been most successful when we have implemented a mixed system – capitalism as an essential disruptor, and public planning to smooth the impact for workers and communities.

There is a huge difference between saying that capitalism is valuable and the conclusion that socialism is useless, and vice versa. The truth is that both are useful, and we have to be ready, willing and able to reap the advantages of both without losing sight of their limitations.

It was my pleasure, years ago, to meet Robert A. Dahl, one of the intellectual giants of our era. He and Charles E. Lindblom teamed up to prepare a wonderful book, Politics, Economics and Welfare, to show us the different advantages of public and private action. Those of you who frequently listen to my commentary know that I often try to break the ideological mindset that only private action solves problems.

So, I’m looking for candidates this year whose answers are not ideological knee jerks for one system or the other, but who are pragmatically open to the best solutions from whatever source. Bernie is certainly right that some socialist solutions are necessary and important. Some candidates are staying clear of the word but nevertheless get the point. Any candidate who doesn’t get that point deserves a reeducation at public expense beginning with kindergarten where they might finally learn to share.

—  This commentary is scheduled for broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 26, 2019.

 

 


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