Democracy and Compromise

September 13, 2016

Since Obama’s election, congressional Republicans and their Tea Party challengers made Obama’s defeat their overriding goal, and when they couldn’t do that, they did everything they could to make him seem like a total failure, an example of politics gone completely awry. To accomplish those goals, they refused to give him any victories – not on infrastructure, not on economic stimulus, not on judicial nominations and they tried to retract his success with the Affordable Care Act under a Democratic Congress.

The Republican decision that nothing could go forward without support of a majority of the Republicans in each house of Congress gave power to a majority of their caucus but a minority of Americans. Had dissenting Republicans been able to vote their conscience, some real negotiation would have been possible. The harsh stance driven by the Tea Party was a form of power play by a determined minority that got its hands on a way to block the congressional majority from even bringing bills to the floor.  It was not a prelude to negotiation and it was not an example of democracy at work.

On the other side of the political spectrum, many Sanders supporters argued that they could take nothing less than Sanders or a third party – even if it made a Trump victory more likely.

In this era of my-way-or-the-highway politics, it needs to be explained why democracy is and should be about compromise.

If a majority can do anything, or a majority of representatives, can do whatever they wish, then one portion of the population can be left with virtually nothing. That may be majority rule. But it has nothing to do with fairness or equality. Democracy gets its moral authority from taking everyone’s interests and needs into account. We routinely talk about the combination of majority rule and minority rights. Merely giving the majority the power to exercise power over everyone else is a definition of tyranny, not democracy. Where bargaining is possible, even small or unpopular groups can get some recognition of their needs. Where bargaining is possible, even permanent minorities can get some modicum of decent treatment. Without bargaining, permanent minorities can be stripped of virtually everything. Bargaining gives some meaning to the ideal of equality. The willingness to work things out has always been one of the things that had made America a leader of the free world.

The Founders of this country tried to force some degree of compromise by the different ways they constructed the Senate and the House of Representatives. Before the Civil War the struggle to reach compromises was all about slavery and freedom, the rare area where compromise ultimately became as impossible as it was immoral. After the war, a spirit of compromise reemerged so that America could deal with conflicts between rural and urban areas and other issues.

Sometimes compromise works better than others. Some of us remember within our own lifetimes when absolutely nothing could be done if it included any benefits for African-Americans, and the use of the filibuster to prevent any breach in the wall of segregation.

Many astute observers of democratic government point out that the system works best and most fairly when the needs of different groups of people overlap – disagreeing on some, agreeing on others. That gives groups an incentive to bargain so that everybody gets a fair shake. Even so-called nonnegotiable demands can sometimes be balanced against other similarly important demands of other groups.

Civil war becomes more likely when democracy becomes a contest over nonnegotiable demands that are beyond any form of bargaining. Democracy does not have to be a zero-sum game, where some win the brass ring and the rest merely polish the brass.

Americans need to relearn the art of compromise. Our democracy and our country will be better for it.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 13, 2016.

 


What is Limited Government Anyway?

January 26, 2016

With the presidential primaries underway, the media is choked with talk about getting the government off the people’s backs, restoring limited government, making government let the people alone. But the Koch brothers, the Tea Party, their candidates and supporters are actually saying something very different – they want government to support their definition of their rights and push everyone else out of their way, and most important they want the courts to decide in their favor when others complain that they are trespassing on public land or polluting the air, land and water in ways that injure and interfere with the lives of others. That’s government in their favor.

We lawyers talk about law as a seamless web. That sounds like an idiom but it’s actually very precise. Everything is governed by rules. Judges always decide that someone does or does not have a privilege or a right. Those are all decisions about what the law is. Law always favors someone and disfavors someone else. If someone has a privilege, then everyone else loses when that person does whatever he or she is privileged to do. The question is not, cannot be, whether there is law; the question we have to deal with is whether it is fair and whether it is good for the public. Government off the backs of some means government on everyone else’s back, often leaving you and me poor and defenseless.

Limited government, regulation off people’s backs, are the tropes we hear when a government agency or legislature takes note of bad behavior – fraud, pollution or unconscionable business practices that cause decent people great loss. Unscrupulous companies, some very large and well known, as we discovered during the 2008 financial shock, want no regulations that would set a moral floor under their behavior, allowing more moral enterprises to compete instead of being bankrupted by cut-rate competition from the scandalous moguls. The only regulations that the unscrupulous like are regulations that keeps everyone else out of their way.

So when you hear that trope, look squarely at the privilege these anti-government claimants are defending. You hear it loudest when people are claiming the right to hurt the public. That’s not a claim of freedom that would have made any sense to the Founders of our country.

When the Founders spoke and wrote about government, their central questions were what’s fair and what’s good for the public. Those was central in every aspect of their work from the definition of property rights to the rights the public retained and what the public could and should do for the benefit of the people. Concern for public welfare was central to the building of the Erie Canal that defined the path of commerce in the State of New York for a century and a half, even as the canal was replaced by roads and railroads to continue developing the path the canal had developed. Concern for public welfare was central to the establishment of schools which made Americans among the most educated people on the earth, education that was at the root of all the good things that have happened since.

The Founders believed in public spirit, not a spirit of what the public could do for one’s selfish needs, but a spirit about what each of us could contribute to the improvement of the community, the states and the nation. When President John F. Kennedy told the American people “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” he was channeling the spirit of the Founders.

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


How America Would Handle Greece

July 14, 2015

What are the lessons from the Greek crisis? Their economy had major problems. People with plenty of money weren’t bothering to pay taxes. And the Greek government provided benefits beyond its means and beyond the pace of investment to maintain. So the EU was certainly correct that Greece had problems that Greece has to deal with. But that’s not the whole story. Greece needed multiple remedies, to cure its mistakes but also to stimulate its economy.

Think about what we do in America. Periodically states are bankrupt or depressed. We don’t offer secession or a sale to Mexico. We didn’t ignore problems in Appalachia, Arkansas and other struggling states. Within states, we don’t ignore depressed areas. Sometimes we put communities in receivership, but that’s not our only tool. Although Tea Party Republicans don’t want to recognize it, we do have another American strategy – we invest. The Cuomo Administration is investing in areas around colleges and universities, spread throughout the state. We’ve had business empowerment zones. Military bases have been used for economic purposes. And we build infrastructure or housing or convention centers. Some investments are unwise wishful thinking. But the instinct is shared, American, and, used intelligently, it works. Conservatives don’t like to admit the Keynesian economics behind it, but they use these techniques wherever they are in control. They just call it good business.

States are barred by the Constitution from printing money. If Greece exited the Eurozone, it could issue currency or pay its employees with i.o.u.s for use as currency. Either way a devalued currency could make Greek goods and services worth buying.

Greece’s finance minister accurately explained that austerity deepens recession. The EU has responded with the same economic strategies that had been discredited before the Great Depression of the ‘30s. If the economy shrinks in response to austerity, nothing is left to pay debts, much less to invest. For an economy in trouble austerity alone is the wrong prescription at the wrong time for the wrong disease. It works only if the desired outcome is to kill the patient. Unfortunately, the EU hasn’t used other tools needed to deal with the recession.

The lesson here is the contrast. Cutting expenses cannot be the only tool. Investment works. Infrastructure, science and educational investments work. Congressional conservatives are too skittish about investing in America. They need to do what their own state governors do – invest in economic development. There is plenty of room in the U.S. for investment that will contribute to the American economy. Intelligent public investment can yield multiple rewards: the immediate reward of assisting people get back on their feet, the return of some of that money as taxes, and the longer term rewards of facilitating business. That is the virtuous cycle that every good economy needs.

Neither taxes nor tax cuts automatically yield economic benefits. Cutting business taxes will probably not raise the chances of business investment if they are already sitting on money. Cutting personal taxes won’t put us on the road to recovery to the extent that consumers buy abroad. The devil is in the details. But the visceral objection to all investment by government because it is government needs to give way to a more intelligent discussion of the investment we need and the investment that will pay dividends for years.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, July 14, 2015.


Libertarians on and off the Court

December 2, 2014

Most Supreme Court justices are libertarians in some sense. But what kind and for whom varies widely.

We all believe we have rights to decide lots of things for ourselves. But what are the limits? The more “conservative” the justices and others are, the closer to the Tea Party, the only limits they recognize are force and fraud. Various conservative philosophers have been very plain about that. Regulations, almost all regulations, interfere with that freedom of action.

People sign contracts every day that have draconian consequences for them, but, say the far right, you agreed to that. You signed a contract for which the only remedy is a stacked deck, arbitration in front of an arbitrator arranged by the company, and you have no right to unite with other people in the same situation to fight expensive battles together and share the costs – that’s called a class action, and the Court’s conservatives forbid it in arbitration, won’t allow the states to try to protect consumers from such restrictions on their rights. That protects the company’s liberty. And of course you had the liberty not to sign – if you read and understood the contract and had a realistic choice.

You signed a mortgage with a lender and it had all sorts of hidden costs, fees, rates and traps that put a lot of people underwater and helped to build and then break the housing bubble, and with it the economy. But, tough, you signed, say the conservatives.

Most states used to forbid usury, interest rates that no one could reasonably pay but that piled up so quickly bankruptcy was inevitable. Not any more – the Supreme Court made sure states could no longer forbid usury.

And where the conservatives on the Supreme Court couldn’t block federal law, like the antitrust laws which were intended to give us the benefit of competition and protect us from monopoly, they made it impossible to prove.

There are an endless set of examples. The company gets the liberty and you get the shaft.

But when you get the shaft, that doesn’t just affect the liberty that judges and legislatures say you have. Getting the shaft affects your real liberty – liberty to make wholesome life choices for yourselves and your families. Most of us think our liberty is limited by the effect on other people’s liberty. Giving people the shaft deprives people, ourselves and lots of others, of our very real liberty.

Most states tried to limit legal liberty to do things that harm others. There should be no liberty to foul the water we drink or the air we breathe. There should be no liberty to bury costs in fine print legalese, or propose terms that the company knows will do damage. There should be no liberty to put people into unsafe working conditions when the company could have saved their lives, saved people from collapses and explosions in coal mines, oil rigs, and similar disasters. It doesn’t matter that the workers agreed, signed a contract, took the job – the company knew and we should be able to stop it.

We too believe in liberty, but it is liberty bounded by what’s good for everyone. We have a choice between freedom for those who have the money and power to exercise it, or freedom for everyone based on some realism about what’s going to happen.

Do we care? The protectors of corporate legal liberties on the Court have a child’s idea of liberty – without responsibility. Children throwing tantrums at civilization have no place on the Court.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 2, 2014.


Our Stake in Each Other’s Welfare

October 8, 2013

Do we have a stake in each other’s future or only in our own? That is a central question of American politics. The Tea Party’s tossing of the entire American budget into the sea over the issue of Obamacare is an effort to say no, we have no stake in each other’s welfare. To claim a stake in each other’s welfare is socialism. Although the political waters warrant silence from many elected officials about it, that same cry has been leveled and is being leveled against other American efforts to help each other. Social security, socialism. Medicare and Medicaid, socialism. Indeed, there is no logical reason to draw the line there and many don’t. National parks, socialism. Veterans’ benefits, socialism. Head start, socialism. Why stop there? Public schools, socialism. Public hospitals, government health departments and laboratories, socialism. It’s all socialism in the heads of the true believers. So let me repeat that question – do we have a stake in each other’s future or only our own? Read the rest of this entry »


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