Beggars, Soup Kitchens and the Poor

November 25, 2017

I’ve noticed a lot more beggars on the streets as our politics have become increasingly stingy. I’ve seen that before and once mentioned it to a candidate for dean. His response was that we could ban them. I was happy we didn’t hire him.

Recently I saw one of my former students at a charitable sale at our Temple. She told me she frequently works at a soup kitchen and has been doing it for some time. Bless her. I mentioned the people standing out in the cold. She commented that more people come for meals during the summer. She suggested several possible reasons but wasn’t sure why. A couple of days later, Chris Shaw, who has also been cooking for and organizing soup kitchens, told me the difference is the school lunch program. The kids are hungrier during the summer, without lunch at school.

Recently I flew to L.A. on business and arranged to see Mitch Tarighati, another former student. He asked me what I wanted to see or do. I told him I was curious and wanted to see Tehrangeles, an area of Los Angeles populated by Persian shops and restaurants. My friend is Iranian-American, Muslim, a lovely guy and doing well. After showing me around, he took me to another area, looking for the beggars to help out. He tried to do it anonymously so they would not be embarrassed by his generosity. Actually, I think the poor appreciate eye contact, but my friend’s motives were pure gold.

Nobody stands on a street corner for hours for their health, especially in this weather. I’m satisfied they are in need. Begging is an equal opportunity task – white, black, men, women, people recovering from tragedies, girls who ran away from home, veterans, the disabled.

It used to be that political parties took care of people. They’d call one of their people and say so-and-so needs a job. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, the Roosevelt Administration created programs to help the needy. But we’ve been taking that apart and little remains. Now it’s largely up to us, except that it’s beyond us.

That’s why I often discuss economic issues. We no longer talk about giving people jobs. It’s all about that impersonal force known as the economy. But the economy is heartless. And what we do for the economy doesn’t necessarily create jobs for the needy.

My family and I have been lucky. We’re celebrating 50 years of marriage. Our children are each doing what they enjoy. Our granddaughters are healthy. I’m conscious that those are blessings too many don’t enjoy. Luck doesn’t just come to the worthy nor tragedy to the evil.

I once commented in class that I understood that but for luck, or the grace of God, I could be in the position of the least among us. One student found that hard to accept. I think she was kind but naïve. My heart goes out to the less fortunate people out there struggling to keep body, soul and family together.

There are many ways to help. And we need to remember that the poor are with us all year.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 21, 2017.

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Taking care of each other

September 5, 2017

Americans have been celebrating the reaction to Hurricane Harvey as an example of Americans taking care of each other. There is much to celebrate. But we have also wrestled for centuries with the problem of taking care of each other – the out of work, the working poor and others struggling to stay afloat.

An economic reversal in the lives of many of us is just temporary. But it does permanent damage when it unravels peoples’ lives, leaves them with debts that spiral out of control so that they cannot hope to pay, or leaves them homeless, in broken families, or housed in barred cells. When people have little, events that would be a minor inconvenience for most of us can drop them over the cliff, unable to climb back. As the Founders recognized, all of us can expect some of our offspring to be poor. So what are the options?

Welfare has been cut back but some pieces of a social safety net remain, mostly funded by the federal government. One reason they are funded nationally is because some local governments don’t want to do anything about the problems of poverty. Another reason is that the problems fall unevenly on local governments. The process of creating suburbs and new communities is a process of seceding from the places where people have problems and therefore avoiding any responsibility under our laws about local government. By shifting the obligations upward to the feds we all share those problems at least to some degree.

We could provide jobs. Instead of just giving things and money out, we could take advantage of the time, labor and skills of people who are otherwise out of work, to get some useful things done. But the city can’t save the money that goes into the social safety net because that money isn’t city money. Albany’s Mayor Sheehan pointed that out at a house party before she was first elected. Fair point. But turning welfare money over to localities would invite them to divert the cash. Some form of cooperative federalism might be better for everyone.

Public services for everyone are also an option. We have created many sorts of services that all of us have rights to. Clean water fit to drink is a lot cheaper for everyone than buying it in bottles – provided that government isn’t asleep at the switch and doesn’t let the water supply fill with lead and other poisons. Sewage systems make everyone better off than a crazy quilt of individual efforts to deal with garbage, their own and their neighbors. And it saves a lot of money both because of economies of scale and because sewage can breed disease for all of us. Roads, bridges, sidewalks, other transportation amenities, libraries, postal services and regulated public utilities like phone and electrical service make life better for everyone. And all of them make life cheaper which is especially important for the impoverished.

In other words, making some things available for all of is good for us all and are also ways of helping the least among us. That used to be true of the health care system until we privatized it, demolished the many county, municipal and not-for-profit hospitals, only to try to restore some of the benefits of a public health system with Obamacare.

Republicans call measures like that socialism. I just call it smart, efficient and decent – Americans taking care of each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 5, 2017.


Trump and the Swamp

June 6, 2017

Trump promised to drain the swamp. We can agree that the swamp is the predominance of special interests over Americans of ordinary means. Bernie Sanders won many hearts and minds by refusing to take big money. Trump claimed independence from big money because he had so much. Clinton lost many votes because she accepted large speaking fees and contributions. A large populist wave by financially ordinary Americans swept the country.

People credited Trump’s promise to drain the swamp. With Trump in power, we’re entitled to look at his actions. Indeed we should.

Most Democrats long tried to take big money out of political campaigns. With some exceptions, like John McCain, Republicans worked to protect the use of money in politics. In the McCain-Feingold Act, Congress managed to compromise between their positions. But the Supreme Court, dominated by Republican appointees, invalidated restrictions on campaign contributions, and held in Citizens United, that corporations could contribute funds straight from corporate treasuries. Heard anything lately from the White House about campaign finance regulation? I didn’t think so.

Trump wants to lower the tax and regulatory burdens on the wealthiest people and companies. He claims in justification that the extra costs harm American workers. I recognize the heated debates about those claims. I’ve repeatedly explained in this commentary that putting more money in the hands of the wealthiest people and corporations is unlikely to spur investment or improve the position of American workers. It won’t help American workers because corporations can and do spend extra money everywhere, including abroad. It won’t help American workers because extra wealth can be and is spent on nonproductive goods or investments. And it won’t improve the position of American workers because there is no shortage of capital in this country, so putting more in in wealthy or corporate pockets is like pouring mud into the Mississippi.

Eliminating regulations will also put money in wealthy and corporate hands but hurts everyone else. Unions have been big proponents of safety regulations because they protect the health and safety of workers, and, we should add, of consumers and citizens.

Trump’s proposed budget also pulls up the safety net and hands the savings to corporations and the wealthy. The safety net protects people when they fall on hard times, when illness drains their bank accounts and strains their budgets, when corporate decisions leave workers struggling to find new jobs and forced to feed families on minimum wage jobs. These have direct and indirect costs for all of us. Losing a job can be temporary but it can also be a fall into a rabbit hole that sucks out everything we’ve invested in our homes, our retirement, and stresses, even breaks up our families. In 2008 those factors spread and took a lot of us down. The safety net was intended in part to help slow or stop economic downturns. 2008 overwhelmed what was left of the safety net but Trump would make it worse.

And health care decisions don’t just affect the most vulnerable. None of us want people spreading serious or medicine-resistant strains of TB, Zika, MRSA and other communicable diseases. Effective strategies against communicable disease involve keeping the diseases out of the population to the extent possible.

In Trump’s budget, the savings from all these cuts go to the 1/10 of 1%, the wealthiest of the wealthy, the very people who should be giving back rather than sucking at the public til. Trump promised to drain the swamp. But Trump IS the swamp.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, June 6, 2017.


How Can We Protect American Workers

March 11, 2017

Trump’s power, and his policies on jobs, immigrants, religious and ethnic hatreds and the Alt-wrong are all related.

Scholars of intolerance tell us that threat breeds hate. I suspect that all we can say about why immigrants and Muslims are really good people only makes those who feel threatened feel more threatened, because instead of talking about their needs we’re praising someone else.

So I want to talk about the needs of Americans who feel threatened economically and what can be done regarding their economic losses, recognizing that the disfunction in American politics is partly due to the desperation of workers who’ve lost once good jobs.

Protecting American workers is crucial both because people suffer when they can’t find good jobs, and because desperate or threatened people take dangerous risks at the polls and elsewhere. We must protect workers both for their sakes and for ours; it’s much the same thing.

It’s our job because government fiscal, tax, programmatic and other policy decisions daily determine how many jobs there are. Some people can make their own opportunities, but, to be fair, most good, decent, hard-working people can’t.

What can we do about it? Sometimes it helps just to set out the options. Here are the choices I can see:

FDR created unemployment compensation and Nixon proposed a negative income tax – safety-net approaches based on direct income transfers. Many object, including those who benefit from handouts, tax loopholes, deductions, farm price supports, subsidies etc. – the tax code and the budget are replete with them. But direct financial transfers are one possibility.

A second approach is to pay for jobs indirectly through trade policies. All three presidential candidates talked about that. I understand the fear of foreign competition even though there are reasons to look for other solutions for American workers: limiting foreign imports hides the cost in the price of things we buy, and isolates the American economy from developments elsewhere. It also might not work; actual hiring decisions would rest on other people’s decisions. But we can’t overcome the fear if we can’t commit to other steps, and all the talk about the risk to Social Security fans that fear.

A third approach, the conservative free market approach, is not really a solution for the working person at all – it simply puts the monkey on workers’ backs to find jobs or starve.

A fourth approach is to create new jobs by government action – fiscal stimulus, infrastructure development, and investment in science and education, all of which call for construction, maintenance and technical jobs. That’s what Obama called for but Congress drastically whittled his effort down.

Why can’t government be employer of last resort? That would automatically support a minimum wage, create better communities, and make life better for all of us. It’s not the free lunch some people worry about; it’s a job. What’s so terrible about giving people what Tom Paxton called “a job of work to do”? There’s plenty to do if we were willing to invest in our people, our workers, our infrastructure, and our environment. Sometimes spending a little can make the community more attractive and the economy zing while providing a decent income to people who need a job.

Some countries use all of those methods and have quite robust economies.

Those are the alternatives I can see: the free marketeers’ defining it away as the workers’ problem, the safety net approach of income transfers, paying indirectly through trade policies or subsidies for the appearance of helping workers, or creating jobs through fiscal stimulus or hiring people to do needed work. My preference is to put people to work – that way protecting others is good for us all. One way or the other, standing up for each other is essential.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, March 7, 2017.


Refugees and the Impact of Immigration

April 5, 2016

Let’s talk about immigration in this current frenzy about keeping Syrian refugees out.

DAESH (ISIS) or al Qaeda used EU citizens to damage Paris. They will try to use Americans here. Some Americans have gone over to the dark side, trained abroad, could return and blend in here. That is a similar problem with deporting those undocumented people who have spent most of their lives here – in their countries of origin many have no ties, job history, knowledge of the culture or the environment. Deported, they are valuable to smugglers who use them to get contraband across our borders. Allowed to stay, they could be productive members of society. For Americans and immigrants alike, keeping people working at decent jobs is the best way to keep everyone out of trouble.

Population also affects national power, what we can produce, and the power we project. That is important in an increasingly dangerous world. Adding to the workforce and as consumers, immigrants increase the size and health of our economy, and instead of straining our budget, they help to sustain our social safety net, as many aging countries have been finding out.

Immigration is not without costs, however. China and India now each have over a billion people. India’s population has tripled since I was young. These are population explosions. Chinese authorities understood that China could not sustain population growth and slowed it precipitously.

Moving people from places where they live in fear to an America where they can live in peace and prosperity is neutral with respect to worldwide population. But it may do environmental damage if it means changing to an environmentally more destructive lifestyle. That makes it doubly important to control, limit and reduce environmental damage. It means that we should, must, continue to invest in ways to reduce our use of fossil fuels, and increase our use of solar and wind energy and passive solar heating. We must control our overuse of water, and invest in better ways to use it. We need to rethink our national land-use policies – it makes little sense to irrigate deserts for farmland and build suburbs on productive lands. We are shifting farmland from places that have plenty of water to those that don’t. That is not only wasteful, it also leads to drought, salinization of the land, and makes other settled places unlivable, save at the enormous cost of desalinization of seawater.

Ultimately both our goals for immigration and our goals for America, our children and grandchildren must be driven by concern for the people who will inhabit it. That means care and concern for the immigrants themselves, and care for everyone, those we are strongly attached to and all the people of the earth, expressed through environmental policies that can keep the earth habitable. In that effort we all have to be willing to share and accept effective regulation. There is no other way.

And yes, protecting the lives of our children and grandchildren requires some sacrifice. But aren’t the sacrifices we make for those we deeply care about one of the most satisfying things we get to do? All our faiths confirm those duties and affirm the joy of giving and caring. It’s hard to think of people as deserving who are unwilling to share in the general sacrifices for their and our offspring.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 5, 2016.

 


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