HOW THE RICH GET RICHER #4

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The inability of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to enforce tax laws has resulted in a high level of tax evasion by wealthy individuals and corporations. Some experts estimate that as much as $1 billion a year in taxes owed are not paid.

As the country’s tax collector and tax enforcer, the IRS has never been a popular agency among the public or politicians. However, the importance of the IRS’s work in enforcing tax laws, maintaining a fair and functional tax system, and collecting the revenue the government needs to operate had been broadly respected.

This changed when Republicans gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Newt Gingrich became the House leader in 1994. Republicans began vilifying the IRS and using “abolish the IRS” as a sound bite. Republican presidential candidates, including Sen. Lugar in 1996 and Sen. Cruz in 2016, made abolishing the IRS a central policy proposal. In 1998, Republicans introduced a bill in Congress to repeal the Internal Revenue Code (the country’s tax laws) and abolish the IRS. [1]

The Republicans have held congressional hearings on alleged abuses by the IRS. Despite the fact that in most cases investigations by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and others have debunked the alleged abuses, the IRS’s reputation has been seriously undermined. This gave Republicans cover for passing laws weakening the IRS and its tax enforcement.

Beginning in 2010, Republicans in Congress undertook a multi-year initiative to cut the IRS’s budget and enforcement capacity. Since 2010 when its budget peaked at $14 billion, the IRS’s budget has been cut by about 20% (adjusted for inflation). Its staff has been cut by nearly one-quarter to 76,000 full-time employees and the number doing enforcement has fallen from 23,500 to 6,500, a 72% reduction. [2] It has the fewest auditors it has had since the 1940s and it has the oldest computer technology in the federal government.

The IRS recently announced a backlog of 35 million unprocessed tax returns, three times the number from a year ago and four times what it was in 2019. This means taxpayers have to wait longer for their refunds, payments from the Earned Income Tax Credit to low-income families will be delayed, and some transactions, like mortgage approvals, that require current income tax documentation will be delayed. It also revealed that only 3% of the calls to its most popular, toll-free hotline reach a real person. Despite its challenges, it has processed 137 million individual tax returns and sent refunds of more than $281 billion.

Tax obligations expire (i.e., become uncollectible) after ten years if the IRS doesn’t pursue them. In 2017, $8.3 billion of tax obligations expired, up from $482 million in 2010 (a 17-fold increase). Investigations of people who didn’t file a tax return have fallen from 2.4 million in 2011 to 362,000 in 2018 (down 85%). Similarly, collections from people who file but don’t pay have dropped dramatically. In 2017, the IRS conducted 675,000 fewer audits than in 2010, a 42% drop in the audit rate. The audit rate has dropped roughly 70% on those with incomes over $200,000 and but only about 40% for those with incomes under $200,000. This is a key contributor to increased tax evasion by the wealthy.

The impact of the IRS’s budget cuts has been exacerbated by substantial new responsibilities that it has been given under the Affordable Care Act and the response to the pandemic. In responding to the pandemic, the IRS has been tasked with distributing three rounds of relief payments, implementing changed rules on unemployment benefits and tax credits, and, most recently, sending out monthly checks to most families with children. With a significantly reduced budget and staff, it has been expected to do all of these things while trying to maintain its core business of processing tax returns. [3]

President Biden has proposed increasing the budget of the IRS by $40 billion over ten years to reduce tax evasion and generate revenue to help pay for infrastructure investments. He estimates that this increased IRS funding would raise government revenue by $140 billion over those ten years. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates added revenue of $103 billion and others have other estimates, but everyone agrees that increased enforcement would generate significant revenue. It would also make our tax system fairer by reducing tax evasion, which is largely done by wealthy individuals and corporations. However, it might well take five years to make the upgrades to the IRS’s computer systems and to hire and train the new staff needed to achieve these results.

Initially, the Republicans who were part of the bipartisan group of 21 Senators working on the infrastructure investment bill endorsed the increased funding for the IRS, but now they are backing away from it after hearing opposition from some of their wealthy backers.

Support for increased funding for the IRS has come from five former Secretaries of the Treasury, from both Republican and Democratic administrations. They state that increased funding for the IRS would “raise significant revenue and create a fairer, more efficient” tax system. [4]

The IRS and our income tax system depend, in large part, on the voluntary compliance and honesty of taxpayers. If taxpayers’ come to believe that the tax system is not fairly administered, voluntary and honest tax compliance is likely to decline. This could have dire implications for government revenue and for the IRS’s ability to do its job. It is important that the public believe that people pay the taxes the law says they owe. This encourages compliance with tax laws even if the overall perception is that the wealthy are not paying their fair share under our current tax laws. Then, the focus can be on making our tax laws fairer.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and to ask them to support additional funding for the IRS so it can effectively enforce our tax laws. You can find contact information for your U.S. Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and thank him for proposing increased funding for the IRS because this will mean it can more effectively implement our tax laws. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Kiel, P., & Eisinger, J., 12/11/18, “How the IRS was gutted,” ProPublica and The Atlantic (https://www.propublica.org/article/how-the-irs-was-gutted)

[2]      Puzzanghera, J., 7/5/21, “Aggressive IRS could help with roads bill,” The Boston Globe

[3]      Stein, J., 6/30/21, “IRS faces 35 million unprocessed tax returns as backlog swells, watchdog says,” The Washington Post

[4]      Puzzanghera, J., 7/5/21, see above

TODAY’S VOTER SUPPRESSION IS HISTORY REPEATING ITSELF

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

The efforts of states to suppress voting of Blacks (and other targeted groups that tend to vote for Democrats) are an historical repeat of what happened after the Civil War. These and other efforts that assert states’ power to restrict individuals’ rights are confronting the 14th Amendments’ provisions (from 1868) that give the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights in the face of state efforts to deny them. Historian Heather Cox Richardson’s daily blog puts these current events in the perspective of our history, which is a very valuable insight to have.

The Declaration of Independence, when it stated “that all men are created equal,” meant white men. Nonetheless, this was a radical concept at the time – that no man’s birthright made him better than any other man. The Civil War was fought, in effect, to maintain a system that elevated America’s white men above African Americans, Native Americans, other men of color, and even Irishmen. As in the mid-1800s, we are now facing efforts that reject the principle of the equality of all human beings and seek to recast America as a country where certain people are better than others. These efforts are being led by white men for the most part, and are empowered by a relatively small group of wealthy white men (and a few women). [1]

In 1865, the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution banned slavery in an important step toward equality. However, this did not stop white men in the South from working to establish systems that continued to make African Americans unequal and subservient to whites. These white men worked to deny African Americans the right to vote, to testify in court, and to sit on a jury. The infamous 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision furthered this effort by denying citizenship to African Americans. The contorted opinion for the 7 to 2 decision was poorly reasoned and written by Chief Justice Roger Taney. These steps to institutionalize inequality occurred despite the fact that the 1870 Census would count African Americans as whole persons for the first time. Ironically, this would give the southern states more representation and power in Congress and in the Electoral College. [2]

To counter efforts to keep African Americans subservient, in July 1868, the 14th Amendment was passed, declaring that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States … are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” It guaranteed all citizens due process and equal protection under the law. To counter white southern men’s and the Dred Scott case’s assertion of states’ rights to write laws that determined who could vote, among other things, the 14th Amendment gave the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights when state legislatures passed laws that were discriminatory and infringed on those rights.

Nonetheless, two months later in September 1868, the Georgia legislature voted to expel the 33 newly elected African American state legislators. In 1870, with African American voting reduced by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, African Americans were not elected. Similar events took place in other southern states. [3]

In response, the federal Department of Justice was created in 1870 with a primary mission of stopping the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its suppression of the rights and voting of African Americans. The KKK was a domestic terrorist group then as it is today.

In February 2021, Black legislators in Georgia opposed proposed voting restrictions noting that they reminded them of the 1870s when Jim Crow laws and lynching were used to deter African Americans from voting. Nonetheless, Georgia legislators passed the voting restrictions. Although the means have changed, they are still presented as supposedly race-blind restrictions. However, the fact that white men (for the most part) are rewriting the rules of our democracy to protect white power is unchanged. Similar actions are taking place in other states, not all of which are in the South.

There are striking similarities between the voting suppression efforts of the late 1800s and what’s happening today. For example, in 1890, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill empowering the federal government to oversee voter registration, voting, and ballot counting in the South. Then, Senate Democrats blocked its passage by staging the first of many southern-led filibusters that killed civil rights legislation.

The civil rights laws and court decisions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s are based on the 14th Amendment giving the federal government the power to protect individuals’ rights. For example, the Brown vs. Board of Education decision that outlawed public school segregation and separate but supposedly equal treatment of Blacks, and the Loving vs. Virginia decision legalizing inter-racial marriage, were possible because of the 14th Amendment.

Opponents of civil rights laws and decisions revived the post-Civil War states’ rights arguments in the 1960s and 1970s. They began advocating for “originalism” in interpreting the Constitution when making court decisions. “Originalism” asserts that the Constitution should be interpreted as its writers envisioned it at the time they wrote it and that this would mean much stronger state governments and a weaker federal government, including in the establishment and enforcement of individuals’ rights.

In 1987, President Reagan nominated an “originalist,” Robert Bork, to become a Supreme Court Justice. He was rejected on a bipartisan basis. Bork had advocated for a rollback of Supreme Court civil rights decisions and of federal protections of individuals’ rights under the 14th Amendment. As Senator Ted Kennedy pointed out, rolling back such protections would not only raise the specter of re-segregation, but also the reduction of women’s rights to reproductive health services, citizens’ protections from rogue police officers, the teaching of evolution in schools, protection from censorship, and other individual rights.

Nonetheless, today’s Supreme Court is dominated by “originalists” and the individual rights protections of the 14th Amendment for voting, women’s and LGBTQ people’s health services, and the teaching of factual material, for example, are again being challenged by state governments, led mostly by white men.

On July 1, 2021, by a 6 to 3 vote, the Supreme Court decided that the state of Arizona did not violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act or the 14th or 15th Amendments with voting restrictions that disproportionately affect non-white racial or ethnic groups. President Biden stated that this “decision by the Supreme Court undercuts voting rights in this country and makes it all the more crucial to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to restore and expand voting protections. … Our democracy depends on it.” [4] However, to pass these bills, which have already passed in the House, the Senate will have to either eliminate or limit the use of the filibuster to block them. The Republicans have made it clear that they have no intention of providing any support for these bills.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Senators and ask them to support the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, and to support eliminating or limiting the filibuster as the only way to pass these bills. The protections for voting rights in these bills are critically important to our democracy. You can find contact information for your U.S. Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

Please also contact President Biden and ask him to support eliminating or limiting the filibuster as the only way to pass these bills that he’s said our democracy depends on. You can email President Biden via http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments or you can call the White House comment line at 202-456-1111 or the switchboard at 202-456-1414.

[1]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/3/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-3-2020-bad)

[2]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/9/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-9-2021)

[3]      Berman, A., 6/2/21, “Jim Crow killed voting rights for generations. Now the GOP is repeating history,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/06/jim-crow-killed-voting-rights-for-generations-now-the-gop-is-repeating-history/)

[4]      Cox Richardson, H., 7/1/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/july-1-2021)

OPPOSITION TO “SOCIALISM” IS A DOG WHISTLE FOR RACISM

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

As I imagine you’ve heard, Republicans are attacking President Biden’s and Democrats’ policy proposals as “socialism.” I thought, naively, that Republicans were just trying foster opposition based on Cold War fears by conflating socialism with communism and identifying it as the existential threat to American democracy.

Heather Cox Richardson, with her historical perspective, has opened my eyes to the fact that the opposition to “socialism” has deeper roots in our history and is a dog whistle for racism. (If this use of the term dog whistle is new to you, please see this footnote. [1])

First, socialism is formally defined as an economic and political system where workers own the means of production (e.g., factories, farms, and organizations that provide services as well as the raw materials, machines, tools, and physical facilities used in producing goods and services). This is NOT, by any stretch of the truth, what Biden and Democrats are proposing. Socialism recognizes workers as the essential input to the economy and, therefore, posits that they should own the means of production and be the beneficiaries of the fruits of the economy.

Social democracy, on the other hand, is a political and economic system where a democratic government manages and regulates capitalism (i.e., private ownership of the means of production) to ensure social and economic justice. In our democracy, the government’s commitment to social and economic justice for all is stated in our founding documents – that all people are created equal, that all people should be guaranteed life, liberty, and the ability to pursue happiness, and that all people have the rights delineated in the Bill of Rights.

The explicit recognition that equal opportunity and true freedom require economic security was stated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his proposal for an economic bill of rights [2] and by Senator Bernie Sanders in his statements on what democratic socialism means to him (although technically speaking, he was describing social democracy and not democratic socialism). [3] [4] (See this footnote for a definition of democratic socialism and communism. [5])

Currently, Republicans are using “socialism” as a dog whistle to mean the use of government resources to promote racial equity and justice. Their dog whistle definition of “socialism” is the use of taxes paid by hardworking white men (and women) to benefit lazy people of color who are happy to live on government benefits. Today’s Republicans claim this “socialism” will undermine American democracy and freedom. The dog whistle is that these policies will undermine the “freedom” and privilege of white people.

This use of “socialism” goes back to 1871 when southern Democrats claimed they opposed voting by Blacks, not due to racism, but because Black voters would elect policy makers who would promote “socialism,” i.e., taxing white property owners to pay for roads, schools, and hospitals that would benefit Blacks. [6] They argued that Black voting would lead to “socialism” that would destroy America (namely the America of white supremacy). [7] [8]

After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, which found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the use of government resources to enforce desegregation and civil rights was attacked as “socialism” because the costs of implementing desegregation and civil rights (for “undeserving” Black people) would be paid for by taxes on hardworking white men (and women). In 1958, Republican Senator Barry Goldwater accused his own party’s President Eisenhower of succumbing to “the siren song of socialism” for his use of government resources (troops) to enforce desegregation of Little Rock, Arkansas, High School. The irony was that the Goldwater family had made its money from government funding for dam construction in Arizona. [9]

Republican attacks on government, on a public safety net, and on beneficiaries of public assistance (inaccurately stereotyped as people of color) took on new strength and significance with the election of President Reagan in 1980. Remember Reagan’s attack on the mythical “welfare queen” with her Cadillac and mink coat? The attacks on “socialism” as a dog whistle for racism have only escalated since then.

Today, Republicans are vigorously charging that President Biden and Democrats are working to bring “socialism” to America. They claim that a no-holds-barred fight is necessary to save American from “socialism.” They are even willing to dispense with a commitment to democracy to “save” America. This disregard for democracy dates to at least 1980 when Republican strategist Paul Weyrich stated, “I don’t want everybody to vote …our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” That’s why Republicans have been and are actively engaged in voter suppression efforts. (Weyrich was a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation, which today is deeply involved in promoting state voting suppression laws and with the “audit” of voting in Arizona and elsewhere.) In October 2020, Utah Senator Mike Lee tweeted, “Democracy is not the objective … liberty, peace, and prosperity are. … democracy can thwart that.” [10]

Republicans are claiming today, as white southern Democrats did after the Civil War, that keeping “socialism” from coming to America requires keeping Black and other likely Democratic voters from voting; democracy, our Constitution, and our founding principles (which make America exceptional) be damned. The racism of the post-Civil War white Democrats’ attacks on “socialism” was made clear by the brutal Jim Crow laws they implemented to keep Blacks in their place and to prevent them from voting.

The implications of today’s Republicans’ claims of needing to prevent “socialism” in America aren’t completely clear, but civil rights, police reform, and social and economic justice are definitely targets. However, the racism behind their attacks on “socialism” is clear and these attacks should no longer be a dog whistle; every American should hear the racism in their attacks on “socialism” loudly and clearly.

[1]      The term dog whistle here is a political adaptation of the fact that a dog whistle can’t be heard by humans but can be heard by dogs. In politics, it refers to language that will be heard as supporting white privilege and supremacy by those people attuned to such sentiments, but won’t be heard by many other people as being racist and where the politician opposing “socialism” – or using other dog whistles – can deny racist intent.

[2]      President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1/11/44, “The economic bill of rights,” retrieved from the Internet 5/22/21 at https://www.ushistory.org/documents/economic_bill_of_rights.htm

[3]    Senator Bernie Sanders, 11/19/15, “Senator Sanders on Democratic Socialism and Defeating ISIS,” retrieved from the Internet 5/22/21 at https://www.c-span.org/video/?400961-1/senator-bernie-sanders-address-democratic-socialism (Sanders begins speaking at 8 mins., defines socialism at 12 mins., and presents his and FDR’s vision at 30 mins. into this 1 hr. 40 min. video)

[4]    Golshan, T., 6/12/19, “Bernie Sanders defines his vision for democratic socialism in the United States,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/2019/6/12/18663217/bernie-sanders-democratic-socialism-speech-transcript)

[5]     Democratic socialism is socialism where both the economy and society are governed democratically, with decision making by citizens with a focus on economic and social justice. Democratic socialism is not compatible with capitalism, which is based on private ownership of the means of production and, therefore, where the benefits, economic and also social and political power, flow to the owners of capital, i.e., the owners of physical and monetary assets.

Communism is formally defined as an economic and political system where the workers own the means of production and that is dedicated to equality for all, implemented through an authoritarian government. The main difference between communism and socialism is that socialism is compatible with democracy and liberty, while communism requires authoritarianism and denies basic individual liberties.

[6]      Cox Richardson, H., 4/19/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/april-19-2021)

[7]      Cox Richardson, H., 5/14/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/may-14-2021)

[8]      Cox Richardson, H., 1/16/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/january-16-2021

[9]      Cox Richardson, H., 4/19/21, see above

[10]     Cox Richardson, H., 5/14/21, see above

SABOTAGE BY HOLDOVER TRUMP APPOINTEES

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Throughout his term, President Trump appointed some very political people to executive branch positions and worked to make them difficult for a successor to remove. He accelerated these efforts in his lame duck days in office after he’d lost the election. These appointments were across the whole executive branch from the Defense Department to the Justice Department, as well as in the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

In addition, in his final days in office, Trump did everything he could to sabotage President Biden and his administration. Some of Trump’s appointees continue this work to this day. Some of them and their actions have gotten a fair amount of attention and coverage in the media, notably some actions at Defense, Justice, and the Postal Service. However, many of these appointees and their sabotage have gotten little if any attention.

For example, Andrew Saul, Trump’s 2018 appointee for Commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), delayed the $1,400 American Rescue Plan pandemic checks to 30 million of the country’s poorest and neediest people. Saul refused to send information on recipients of Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to the IRS so checks could be sent to them. SSI recipients are people with disabilities or seniors with very low incomes. Two weeks after the Rescue Plan had passed, when many people had already received their $1,400 payments, Democratic Members of Congress wrote to Commissioner Saul demanding that he send the information to the IRS. He complied the next day. [1]

As another example, Commissioner Saul and his Trump appointed Deputy Commissioner David Black proposed a rule that would have required disabled SSI recipients to undergo more frequent and more stringent benefit eligibility reviews, which would have caused tens of thousands of people to lose benefits. This rule change was very similar to one enacted by the Reagan administration that led to a rash of suicides, among other harm, and was seen as so cruel that it was unanimously overturned by the Senate. In another example, Saul and Black tried to deny benefits for older and severely disabled non-English speakers that would have caused an estimated 100,000 people to lose $5 billion in benefits.

These are examples of Saul’s and Black’s consistent efforts to undermine the effective functioning of the SSA. They are emblematic of Republicans’ efforts to harm the credibility and effectiveness of government through sabotage from the inside. This makes their claims that government programs don’t work well and are a failure a self-fulling prophecy.

Saul and Black have terms that don’t expire until 2025. Many advocates for SSI recipients (and others) are calling on President Biden to fire them, but so far, he has not done so. If he does, Republicans will, of course, claim that partisanship is the reason rather than their failure to responsibly do their jobs. We’ve heard this before from Republicans and we will hear it again and again as Biden cleans house of Trump’s government saboteurs. Don’t fall for it. The politics and partisanship are on the Republican side in their work to undermine the functioning of our government.

In December, 88% of the members of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, who handle SSA disputes, voted no confidence in Saul and Black. Recently, the American Federation of Government Employees called on Biden to fire Saul and Black. It stated that they were sabotaging the SSA, undermining its mission, obstructing its operation, and asking employees to deny injured workers and veterans their rightful benefits, which would be a major ethical violation.

I urge you to contact President Biden and ask him to fire Commissioner Saul and Deputy Commissioner Black from the Social Security Administration. Tell him you support firing all the Trump appointees who are sabotaging the valuable work our government does. Contact President Biden at the White House at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.

[1]      Sammon, A., 3/26/21, “Trump appointees are sabotaging Biden’s stimulus checks,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/trump-appointees-sabotaging-bidens-stimulus-checks/)

PANDEMIC RELIEF, UNITY, AND BIPARTISANSHIP

Note: If you find my posts too long or too dense to read on occasion, please just read the bolded portions. They present the key points I’m making and the most important information I’m sharing.

Passage of the American Rescue Plan (ARP), i.e., the pandemic relief package, is a milestone for unity because it fosters economic recovery and fairness for all Americans. Although it was a great opportunity for bipartisanship, unfortunately it has only been another milestone in the continuing, now decades-long, hyper-partisanship of Republicans.

President Biden had Republicans to the White House to try to obtain bipartisan support. He compromised by cutting unemployment benefits and reducing the number of Americans who qualified for relief payments by 17 million to address Republicans’ and conservative Democrats’ concerns about the costs of the bill and the targeting of benefits to those most in need. Nonetheless, the Republicans did everything they could to delay the bill, including demanding that the whole 628-page bill be read aloud in the Senate. And then, not one single Republican voted for it despite its overwhelming, bipartisan support for it among Americans. Roughly 75% of Americans supported the bill, including about 60% of Republicans.

Many in the media reported inaccurately that the passage of the ARP was also the death of bipartisanship because no Republican voted for it. The truth is that Republicans killed bipartisanship in the 1990s with their impeachment of President Clinton and put another nail in its coffin in 2008 with their pledge to make President Obama fail and to block every one of his legislative initiatives.

The ARP will cut the number of children living in poverty by one half. Child poverty in the U.S. is significantly higher than any other wealthy country and is incredibly harmful to children. Children in poverty in the U.S. are, of course, disproportionately children of color. The ARP will cut the overall number of Americans in poverty by 1/3. By the way, the official poverty line in the U.S. is well below any minimally realistic standard of living in many parts of the country at $26,500 for a family of four, which can be a single parent with three children.

The ARP provides a huge boost to middle-income families, increasing their after-tax incomes by an average of 5.5%, or about $2,750 for a family with a $50,000 income and $5,500 for a family with a $100,000 income.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Republicans’ calls for unity seem to have disappeared in the shadow of their blatantly partisan actions on the ARP. They have made it clear that their primary goal is obstruction of any initiative proposed by President Biden and supported by Democrats, even if it would do tremendous good for the country, its people and small businesses, as the ARP will. The Republicans will even obstruct policies that have broad bipartisan support among the public if somehow they believe that doing so will help them politically, i.e., in retaining their power and elected positions.

Perhaps not surprisingly as well, some Republicans are already trying to take credit for the benefits of the ARP, making it sound like they supported it. For example, Senator Wicker (R-MS) tweeted positively about the bill the same day that it passed, noting that it would help small businesses and restaurants, and giving the false impression that he had voted for it.

Republicans’ obstructionism has extended to President Biden’s nominees for his Cabinet and other positions. The precedent is that every President should be allowed to have whomever he wishes in his Cabinet, regardless of political differences. Unqualified and inappropriate nominees have been smoothly confirmed for President Trump and other Republican Presidents. Nonetheless, Senate Republicans have been dragging their feet and opposing some of Biden’s nominees solely for political reasons. They are even opposing nominees because of their partisan social media activity – a standard that would have disqualified a number of Trump nominees.

Looking ahead a bit, the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act were recently passed by the House and would take strong steps to guarantee the right to vote for all, a key step toward unifying America. (See this previous post for more details.) These bills have the broad, bipartisan support of about 70% of Americans. However, the Republicans plan to block them in the Senate with the filibuster. Meanwhile, Republicans in many state legislatures and Governors’ offices are pushing bills that would suppress voting, particularly of people of color and those with low-incomes. (See this previous post for more details.) The House has also passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which will presumably be blocked by a filibuster by Senate Republicans. Clearly, most Republicans in Congress and those in many states across the country have no interest in bipartisanship and no interest in unifying America.

The hypocrisy of Republicans in Congress was just highlighted by their filing of a bill to repeal the estate tax. Over the next ten years, this would give $350 billion to 2,000 very wealthy people (i.e., those with estates of over $11 million for an individual or $22 million for a couple). Yet, the Republicans pushed to stop 17 million middle class Americans from receiving the $1,400 pandemic relief payments to save $24 billion (7% of the estate tax giveaway) and also to reduce weekly unemployment benefits by $100. So, Republicans support a big tax cut for some of the wealthiest people in America but oppose a little help for those in the middle class. This makes it clear that their purported concern about government spending and the deficit is hypocritical. Clearly, their calls for unity are hypocritical as well.

On a personal note, I’m dismayed to be writing so negatively about most Republicans and the Republican Party. I believe in political competition and an honest debate over policies. I grew up in New York State when Nelson Rockefeller, a Republican, was a well-respected Governor for 16 years. Up until the 1980s, I was a proud Independent voter, not registered in either party. My first significant political involvement was in 1980 when I worked hard for John Anderson for President, a Republican running as an independent against Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.

However, the 1980s made it clear to me that the Republicans had become wedded to an anti-government, anti-worker, anti-civil rights agenda. And their agenda has only gotten more extreme since then. In the 1990s, I became quite disillusioned with the national Democrats who adopted much of the Republican deregulation, pro-big business, pro-Wall Street agenda.

The Republican Party, for the most part, has now adopted an anti-democracy agenda that supports voter suppression, big corporations, and wealthy individuals without reservations. I hope President Biden can change the direction of the country and the Democratic national party while standing up to the radical revolutionaries of the Republican Party.

I urge you to contact the White House and let Biden know that you support his and the Democrats’ efforts to restore our democracy and its commitments to equal opportunity for all, the rule of law, and government of, by, and for ALL the people. You can contact the White House at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact.

UNITY MEANS VOTING FOR ALL: FEDERAL LEGISLATION

In a democracy built on the premise that all people are created equal and a commitment to one person, one vote, the electoral goal should be a guaranteed right to vote (which does not currently exist) and 100% voter participation. Work toward these goals would be a strong unifying force. Unfortunately, there are many Republicans who are working to restrict voting in ways that give them an electoral advantage. As my previous post documented, the good news is that at least 37 states are considering over 540 bills to expand or ease access to voting. This is almost three times as many such bills as had been introduced a year ago. The bad news is that 33 states are considering 165 bills that would restrict access to voting. This is almost five times as many such bills as were under consideration a year ago. [1]

There’s more good news at the federal level where there are  two important pieces of legislation that will protect and support every citizen’s right to vote: [2]

  • For the People Act (H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate) which addresses many issues related to making it easier to vote; promoting one person, one vote; controlling campaign spending; and enhancing ethical standards for public officials.
  • John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which focuses on eliminating racial discrimination in states’ electoral systems and addresses election oversight shortcomings that the Supreme Court created when it gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

The For the People Act was passed by the House in 2019 but ignored by Senate Republicans led by Senator McConnell (KY). It has been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate and would:

  • Improve access to voting by:
    • Streamlining voter registration
    • Expanding early voting and taking other steps to reduce waiting times at the polls
    • Expanding and simplifying voting by mail
    • Restoring voting rights to people who have completed their sentence for a felony
  • Promote one person, one vote, as well as voting integrity and security by:
    • Ending gerrymandering of districts
    • Regulating purges of voting rolls to prevent partisan voter suppression
    • Providing $1 billion for upgrading the security of state voting systems, including requiring auditable paper ballots
    • Increasing oversight of voting machine vendors
    • Restructuring the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to strengthen its enforcement of election laws
  • Increase disclosure of campaign spending by:
    • Requiring all organizations engaged in political activity to disclose large donors
    • Requiring disclosure of spending on on-line political ads
    • Eliminating the funneling of campaign spending through multiple entities in order to prevent donor identification
  • Enhance the value of small campaign donations and limit the influence of wealthy donors by:
    • Creating a 6 to 1 match for small donations to candidates who opt into a system that matches small donations with public funds (Note: This is a critically important strategy that is working in New York City and elsewhere to enlarge and diversify the pool of candidates who run, engage and amplify the voices of regular people, and limit the influence of wealthy donors. [3])
    • Raising the funds to match small donations through a surcharge on fines corporations pay for illegal activity and on tax cheating by the wealthy
    • Dramatically lowering the maximum campaign contribution limit for candidates who opt into the matching system
  • Enhance ethics laws governing public officials and strengthen their enforcement by:
    • Requiring Presidents to disclose their tax returns
    • Strengthening conflict of interest and financial divestment standards for public officials
    • Slowing the revolving door between related private and public sector jobs
    • Prohibiting Members of Congress from serving on corporate boards
    • Strengthening the Office of Government Ethics and its enforcement powers
    • Closing loopholes in the regulations governing lobbyists and foreign agents
    • Creating a code of ethics for Supreme Court Justices

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is designed to respond to the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, fixing what the Court said made the law unconstitutional. The implementation of voting restrictions accelerated sharply immediately after the Supreme Court’s decision, with Republicans using them to target non-white and other voters who tend to vote for Democrats. The bill would also address other issues related to racial discrimination in voting systems. This bill was passed by the House in 2019 but was ignored by Senate Republicans led by Senator McConnell (KY). It has been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate and would:

  • Establish new criteria for determining which states and political subdivisions must obtain preclearance before changing voting procedures. (Preclearance means receiving approval from the Department of Justice before making changes to voting procedures.)
    • The new criteria focus on particular practices that have been problematic in the past because they restricted access to voting, often in a discriminatory way. These practices include onerous vote ID requirements and the changing of district boundaries, voting locations, early and mail-in voting opportunities, and voter registration list maintenance procedures.
    • All jurisdictions (e.g., counties, cities, and towns) would be required to obtain preapproval for implementing more stringent requirements for documentation to vote (such as IDs) than those established by federal law for vote by-mail registration or than those present in state law.
  • Require appropriate notification to the public of changes in voting procedures.
  • Clarify the circumstances under which a court must immediately block changes to voting procedures that have been challenged.
  • Establish standards and procedures for deploying federal election observers when problems with voting access are identified, particularly a serious threat of racial discrimination.

There is strong bipartisan support for the provisions of these bills that move toward guaranteeing the right to vote and making it easy to do so, as well as protecting the integrity of our elections. It is particularly noteworthy that this level of support exists despite all the Republican attacks on many of these aspects of our voting systems, especially voting by mail. For example: [4]

  • 86% support working to prevent foreign interference; 7% are opposed.
  • 84% want enhanced election security; 8% are opposed.
  • 74% support non-partisan determination of electoral districts; 11% are opposed.
  • 68% want 15 days of early voting; 19% are opposed.
  • 60% support same day voter registration; 29% are opposed.
  • 59% support automatic voter registration; 29% are opposed.
  • 58% want to vote by mail; 35% are opposed.

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and urge them to support efforts to make it easier to vote, to encourage every citizen to vote, to end racial and partisan discrimination in states’ election systems, and to enhance the integrity and security of our elections.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/8/21, “Voting laws roundup 2021,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-2021-0)

[2]      Perez, M., & Lau, T., 1/28/21, “How to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-to-restore-and-strengthen-voting-rights-act)

[3]      Vandewalker, I., 2/4/21, “How to change incentives for both politicians and donors,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/analysis-opinion/how-change-incentives-both-politicians-and-donors)

[4]      Cox Richardson, H., 2/25/21, “Letters from an American blog,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/february-25-2021)

UNITY MEANS VOTING FOR ALL

In a democracy built on the promise of all people created equal and a commitment to one person, one vote, the electoral goal should be 100% voter turnout. Working toward this goal would be a strong unifying force and would provide a strong unifying message for the country. The states, which run our elections, and their election officials should work to make it easy to vote and to encourage people to register and vote.

Unfortunately, there are many Republicans who are working to restrict voting in ways that give them an electoral advantage. This is anything but unifying. A national law establishing election standards and overseeing states to ensure they live up to our democracy’s voting goals would make sense.

At the federal level, there are  two pieces of legislation (which I will describe in more detail in a future post) that will protect and support every citizen’s right to vote: [1]

  • For the People Act (H.R. 1 in the House and S. 1 in the Senate) which addresses many of the election oversight issues that the Supreme Court eliminated in its 2013 decision gutting the Voting Rights Act
  • John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act which focuses on racial discrimination in voting.

At the state level, the very high voter turnout in 2020, partially propelled by no-excuse mail-in voting and early voting implemented as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, is a great starting point to work toward further increasing voter participation. Indeed, to-date, 37 states are considering 541 bills to expand or ease access to voting. This is almost three times as many such bills as had been introduced in 29 states at this point a year ago. [2]

However, 33 states are considering 165 bills that would restrict access to voting. This is almost five times as many such bills as were under consideration in 15 states a year ago. In general, these restrictive bills have been introduced by Republicans in Republican-dominated legislatures, particularly in states where Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, lost. These efforts are not the way to unify America. [3]

The 541 bills to expand or ease access to voting have been introduced in a wide variety of states, from New York (87 bills) and New Jersey (38 bills) to Texas (67 bills), Mississippi (38 bills) and Missouri (26 bills). These bills primarily focus on:

  • Making it easy to vote by mail. Eleven states will consider bills allowing all voters to vote by mail without requiring a reason or “excuse” for needing an absentee ballot. Twelve states have bills that would give voters the opportunity to correct technical mistakes on their mailed-in ballots. Twelve states have bills that would allow or require drop boxes for returning mail ballots. Nine states might extend the postmark or delivery date deadline for mailed ballots. Fourteen states will consider allowing election officials to start processing mail ballots before election day, which would speed up the counting of votes and the availability of election results.
  • Expanding opportunities for early voting. Eighteen states will consider allowing early voting for the first time, lengthening the early voting period, and/or increasing the number of early voting sites.
  • Making it easier to register to vote. Fifteen states have bills that would allow same-day registration, i.e., registering to vote on the same day that one votes. Fifteen states will consider implementing automatic voter registration, e.g., registering people to vote when they get a driver’s license or have some other interaction with a state agency. Five states will consider adding on-line voter registration.
  • Restoring voting rights to those with criminal convictions. Nineteen states have bills to restore voting rights to or ease voting restrictions on people with a criminal conviction.

The 165 bills that would restrict or complicate access to voting are under consideration in 33 states, with Arizona (19 bills), Pennsylvania (14 bills), Georgia (11 bills), and New Hampshire (10 bills) having the most such bills. The rationale for these requirements is almost always the supposed danger of fraud, which is non-existent for all practical purposes. However, President Trump’s unrelenting but false assertion of voter fraud and a stolen election have fed this narrative. These bills primarily focus on:

  • Making it harder to vote by mail. Nine states will consider eliminating no-excuse voting by mail or tightening the excuse requirement. Seven states have bills to prevent the sending of a mail ballot to a voter unless they specifically request one, while four states might prohibit sending an application for a mail ballot without a request. Six states have bills that would reduce the ability of voters to register permanently for a mail ballot. Some states will consider bills that require witnesses or notarization for mail ballots or requests for mail ballots. Some states will consider restrictions on how mail ballots can be returned, including requiring an ID, prohibiting the use of drop boxes, and even prohibiting returning them by mail. Some states have bills proposing restrictions on the counting of mail ballots based on deadlines for postmark or receipt date, or through requiring signature matching.
  • Imposing stricter voter identification (ID) requirements. Eighteen states will consider imposing new or more stringent voter ID requirements for in-person or mail voting.
  • Making it harder to register to vote. Five states have bills that would eliminate same-day registration and ten more have bills that would cut back on same-day registration. Four states have bills that would require proof of citizenship to register to vote and four states have bills that would eliminate, prohibit, or suspend automatic voter registration.
  • Allowing more aggressive purges of registered voters. Twelve states have bills that would expand the purging of voters from the rolls of registered voters.

So, the good news is that there are more efforts in the states to expand and streamline access to voting than there are efforts to restrict voting. The bad news is that there are significant efforts to restrict voting plus there is much damage to be undone, given that Republicans have been engaged in successful efforts to restrict voting in ways that benefit them politically for at least ten years.

The efforts to and success in restricting voting accelerated after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Republicans have blocked efforts in Congress to replace parts of the Act that are clearly necessary to prevent states from engaging in targeted voting restrictions, often aimed at non-white voters (who tend to vote for Democrats).

Targeted voter suppression has been a successful strategy for the Republicans. For example, the 2018 Governor’s race in Georgia and the 2016 presidential race were almost certainly stolen by the Republicans due to the success of their voter suppression activities. The 2000 presidential race, Gore versus Bush, was also almost certainly stolen, not by the vote counting debacle, but by the permanent disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people with felony convictions in Florida (who are disproportionately Black and likely to vote for Democrats).

At the state level, I encourage you to contact your state officials – your Governor, State Senator, State Representative, and Secretary of State or whomever runs your state’s elections – and urge them to support efforts to make it easier to vote and to encourage every citizen to vote.

[1]      Perez, M., & Lau, T., 1/28/21, “How to restore and strengthen the Voting Rights Act,” The Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/how-to-restore-and-strengthen-voting-rights-act)

[2]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/8/21, “Voting laws roundup 2021,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/voting-laws-roundup-2021-0)

[3]      Wines, M., 1/31/21, “After record turnout, GOP tries to make it harder to vote,” The Boston Globe from the New York Times

POLICIES FOR UNIFYING AMERICA

Unifying America requires economic security and equal opportunity for all. If one’s choices in life (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) are constrained by an unfair criminal justice system or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education, the result will be anger, frustration, and divisiveness. The fear and stress of economic insecurity, especially the loss of economic security one thought one had, make people susceptible to demagoguery and manipulation.

Among the public, there is strong bipartisan support for policies that support the well-being of all Americans and of our democracy. Most Americans actually agree on the problems we face and the solutions for them, so long as politicians do not make them partisan issues. This can be seen in the strong support President Biden is getting for his executive actions and his push for a strong pandemic relief bill, which will support the general welfare, i.e., the well-being of all Americans. (See my previous post for more detail on these.) Beyond these immediate steps, there are other policies that are needed to unify Americans by moving toward the aspirations of our democracy for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

Unity requires fair and even-handed accountability based on the rule of law. Ignoring violations of the law and “moving on” without accountability is unfair and divisive because it means some people are not held to the same standard of accountability as others are. Unity is not achieved by turning a blind eye to sedition, insurrection, and domestic terrorism (see my earlier post on this topic) or to other criminal behavior. If accountability does not make clear what is unacceptable behavior in our society, lawlessness and anarchy will be the result. Pardons of criminal behavior by allies are antithetical to the rule of law and accountability.

Accountability for white collar crimes is an essential part of achieving unity. When employers’ violations of labor laws (e.g., on pay, union organizing, and safe working conditions), when insider trading and financial manipulation on Wall Street, when corporate pollution and unsafe products, when conflicts of interest and self-dealing by government officials, and so forth are not punished, our criminal justice system is unfair and will be viewed, accurately, as biased. Lax enforcement of the law for certain types of crimes or criminals creates disunity, not unity.

Unity in our democracy means allowing and encouraging every citizen to vote and giving each vote equal impact. The suppression of voting, particularly when targeted at certain groups, is antithetical to our democracy’s promise of equality for all. Voting should be easy and convenient in terms of the places and times for voting. Early voting and mail-in voting (including drop boxes for mail-in ballots) should be broadly and easily available. Efforts to restrict voting do not promote unity. Onerous identification requirements for voters are voter suppression; there is absolutely no evidence of any voter fraud, except very occasional, isolated, local incidents that ID requirements typically would not address. Gerrymandering of districts for state and federal offices reduces the impact of some voters’ votes and has no place in our democracy; it fosters divisiveness, not unity. The standard of one person, one vote, means that each vote should have as equal an impact as possible.

Unity requires acknowledgement and healing of the effects of the deep and long-standing racism in our country. Racism and white supremacy are key components of our current disunity and of the heightened focus on the Confederate flag and Confederate statues and symbols.

The failure to hold the leaders of the Confederacy accountable after the Civil War and the “moving on” that let them resume control of state and local governments in the South was devastating to African-Americans.  It resulted in Jim Crow laws and a racist criminal “justice” system that subjugated the supposedly emancipated African-Americans after the Civil War. This failure to demand accountability led directly to the racism in our society today. Racism has been used politically by the Republican Party since Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968 and it exploded with Donald Trump and his presidency and takeover of the Republican Party. Our society’s racism has been aided and abetted by many Democrats and non-partisans, as well, over many years.

In the late 1700s, equal opportunity and “all men are created equal” applied only to white men with property. Over the past 230 years, the United States has slowly and fitfully moved toward its aspirational vision of equal opportunity for all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, country of origin, gender and gender identity, religion, and other characteristics. But we still have a long way to go. Our democracy’s vision has been and is undermined by intolerant white men and other white people who fail to realize or accept that it requires extending rights and equality to everyone – liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for ALL. [1]

America needs a Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of what South Africa did to end apartheid and what Canada has done to address its treatment of its native populations. We must acknowledge the harm done and implement restorative justice for both Blacks and Native Americans. We need to act aggressively now to stop current discrimination, while pursuing a serious, in-depth examination of what has transpired and how to achieve justice.

On these issues and many others, unifying America requires that Congress, state legislators, and our political parties work together on policies that are in the public interest and support the well-being of all Americans. Obstructionism must end. It is anti-democratic and divisive. Ideas and policy proposals need to be considered based on whether they are fair and good for the general welfare, not whether they are Democratic or Republican. Decisions need to be made based on whether they move our society toward the aspirational vision of our democracy, not based on some politicizing label someone may try to attach to them or to a proposed solution.

Polling of the public can provide important guidance on what people want, but true leadership by our elected officials is also needed. There’s strong evidence from polling and elsewhere that people want:

  • Health care for all and reduced drug prices;
  • Serious actions to address climate change;
  • Steps to reduce gun violence;
  • Wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share of taxes and other steps to reduce economic inequality;
  • An end to special interest influence on policy making through campaign spending, lobbying, and the revolving door;
  • Actions to increase economic security, including increasing the minimum wage and addressing housing and food insecurity;
  • Improvements to our education systems: affordable higher education; affordable, universal, high quality early education and child care; and equity and quality in K-12 education; and
  • Strong enforcement of antitrust laws to reduce the monopolistic marketplace power of large corporations as well as the undemocratic concentration of economic and political power they hold.

President Biden is taking actions that are unifying America. He is making all Americans feel like the government is doing something good for them, for the good of our country, and not just for special interests and wealthy individuals and corporations. Biden has stated repeatedly that he will work for the good of all Americans whether they voted for him or not, and that he will reach out for sincere bipartisanship. This rhetoric and these actions are essential if we want unity.

People calling for unity are being hypocritical if they aren’t committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. Without such a commitment, both in action and in rhetoric, there can be no unity. Our aspirational principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional. To work toward unity and achieving our democracy’s goals, we and our elected leaders must undertake an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best to promote the general welfare via government of, by, and for all the people.

[1]      Baptiste, N., Jan.-Feb. 2021,  “Trump lost. But racism will probably win again,” Mother Jones  (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/12/trump-lost-but-racism-will-probably-win-again/)

PRESIDENT BIDEN: STAND UP FOR A STRONG PANDEMIC RELIEF BILL

I just sent the following message to President Biden about the pandemic relief bill that he is meeting with ten Republican Senators today to negotiate. I had to break it into two pieces because of the limit on how many words you can submit in their contact form.

I urge you to contact him at https://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/ with your thoughts about the  pandemic relief bill.

President Biden,

Please stand up firmly for a strong pandemic relief bill. Americans need economic security in the face of this pandemic. Many Americans need financial assistance, including direct payments and enhanced unemployment benefits. Over 1 million workers are still applying for unemployment each week. Millions of families are facing hunger and homelessness. Many small businesses need financial assistance too. Thousands of small businesses have gone out of business and thousands more are on the verge of doing so.

Funding for the COVID vaccination program and other steps to fight the pandemic are essential and should not be short-changed. This is a matter of life and death. It is also about reducing suffering by reducing the numbers of people that get COVID.  And it is essential to the recovery of the economy. If there’s an area where we should not worry about allocating more money than may eventually be needed, this is it.

Finally, state and local governments need financial assistance. They’ve seen their revenues fall dramatically and their costs increase with the pandemic. Without assistance, state and local governments have been laying off tens of thousands of workers which hurts the workers, the economy and its recovery, and the delivery of badly needed government services. Support for getting children back in schools is a critical component of this. We know from the Great Recession in 2008 how harmful cutbacks in state and local spending were.

While I support bipartisanship, please do not let the Republicans undermine support for working families, the COVID programs, small businesses, or state and local governments. Many Republicans’ concerns about the cost of the benefits and the deficit are hypocritical. Their concern about the deficit did not stop the bailout of large corporations nor the huge tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations back in 2017. If they are truly concerned about the deficit, ask them to support repealing the 2017 tax cuts.

President Biden,

Please stand up firmly for a strong pandemic relief bill. Do not let Republicans give the cold shoulder to working Americans and small businesses after they very generously – and successfully – provided financial assistance to large corporations. The financial assistance to large corporations has their stocks at record high prices and their executives and large shareholders taking in billions of dollars.

I urge you to approach the negotiations with Republicans with caution. There are multiple examples where Republicans have not negotiated in good faith. They have pushed for compromises, then pushed for more compromises, and then have failed to support the final, compromise legislation. The Affordable Care Act is a classic example of this. Their supposed negotiations on pandemic relief bills that never passed this summer were similar. They demanded poison pills, moved the goal posts, and added new demands at the last minute. Their threat that failing to meet their demands will poison the well of bipartisanship rings very hollow; their lack of bipartisanship and bad faith negotiations through the Trump presidency and the whole Obama administration poisoned the well of bipartisanship long ago.

Please do not let your commitment to bipartisanship blind you to the Republicans’ disingenuous and divisive partisan tactics over the last 12 years and beyond. Their tactics had nothing to do with unity and everything to do with dividing and conquering or delaying and killing legislation.

Unity means providing economic security and equal opportunity for all Americans. Calling for unity is hypocritical without a commitment to honestly work toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. In the face of the pandemic, Americans need you to act boldly to move toward that vision. The danger is not in doing too much, it’s in doing too little.

POLICIES FOR UNITY, i.e., FOR LIBERTY, JUSTICE, AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY FOR ALL

What unites all truly patriotic Americans are the promises of our democracy: liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all. These aspirational principles and ideals are what make our democratic republic exceptional. (See my previous post for more detail.) To work toward unity and achieving our democracy’s goals, we and our elected leaders must undertake an honest search for the common good, common ground, and how to best promote the general welfare via government of, by, and for all the people.

Unity requires economic security and equal opportunity for all, so one’s choices in life (i.e., one’s liberty and freedom) are not constrained by economic deprivation or unaffordable necessities of life such as food, shelter, health care, and education. Unity means equal opportunity for all, particularly for every child. This is what valuing families or “family values” should mean to all of us.

We can’t have unity when a million people a week are requesting unemployment benefits and millions are struggling to put food on the table and avoid eviction, while 660 billionaires have added $1.1 trillion (an average of $1.7 billion each) to their wealth since March.

Unity requires adherence to facts and a commitment to seeking and promoting truth. Without this, there is no common ground on which to formulate policies and make decisions. Unity requires acknowledging the results of the 2020 election and stating that they were legitimate and fair. The media must stop promoting false equivalencies – of truth with untruth and alternative “facts” (which aren’t facts, of course) – and either ignore or prominently label false narratives and statements as such. A return to the Fairness Doctrine governing broadcast media (TV and radio), which was repealed in 1987, should be considered to require those using the public airwaves (which requires a public license) to present information on issues of public importance and to do so honestly, equitably, and in a balanced manner. Similar regulation of social and cable media should also be explored.

Unity requires a fair and unbiased application of the rule of law. Everyone must be held accountable to the same set of legal standards or a society cannot function; it would be riven with divisiveness and fighting among factions. Violent protesters of all stripes need to face equal justice and those who aided and abetted violent protests must be held accountable under the law as well. There needs to be acknowledgement of racial bias and harm. Then, there needs to be restorative justice if unity is to be achieved.

Unity requires our elected officials to work together in good faith to promote the general welfare. Certainly, there will be differences of opinion, but they must be resolved through good faith negotiations and compromise. Obstructionism is antithetical to unity.

Hypocrisy is also antithetical to unity. Different standards or principles cannot be applied in the same or similar situations. There are too many examples of this in our politics and society today to do justice to them all, but examples include:

  • Condemning violence against police that occurs in demonstrations for racial justice but not when it occurs in an insurrection targeted at stopping the democratic transition of power.
  • Blocking the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice nine months before the end of a Democratic president’s term but confirming a Republican President’s nominee on short notice just three months before the end of his term.
  • Opposing deficit spending when proposed by Democrats to help working Americans but not when proposed by Republicans to cut taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.

Here are some specific, largely short-term, actions and policies our elected leaders must embrace if they truly wish to strive for unity:

  • President Biden’s appointees must be approved in a timely fashion, with appropriate oversight of course. This applies to Cabinet members, other executive branch positions, and to judges.
  • Financial assistance must be provided to working Americans. Over 1 million workers are still applying for unemployment each week. The economy has not rebounded to the point where emergency assistance is no longer needed; millions of families are facing hunger and homelessness. Additional direct financial assistance is needed, as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, among many others, has stated. Furthermore, unemployment benefits need to be extended and enhanced and the minimum wage needs to be raised – for those who have jobs and those re-entering the workforce.
  • For workers doing face-to-face work, their safety must be assured. Strong, enforceable and enforced safety standards are a necessity.
  • Financial assistance must be provided to small businesses. Thousands of small businesses have gone out of business and thousands more are on the verge of doing so. Financial supports for large corporations through Federal Reserve and Treasury programs that operate largely out of the public eye have been very generous (trillions of dollars) and very successful. This is evidenced by the fact that the stock markets are at all-time highs, believe it or not, despite the struggles of small businesses and working Americans.
  • Funding is needed for COVID vaccinations. Money is needed for distribution of the vaccines and to help financially strapped states and communities implement vaccination programs. The quicker and more effective the rollout of vaccinations, the greater the number of lives that will be saved and of illnesses that will be prevented. The Federal Reserve and others have also noted the importance of vaccinations to the recovery of the economy.
  • Financial assistance is needed for state and local governments, as they have seen their revenue fall dramatically and their costs increase with the pandemic. Without this assistance, state and local governments have been laying off tens of thousands of workers which hurts the workers, the economy and its recovery, and the delivery of badly needed government services.
  • Criminal justice system reform must be undertaken aggressively. Racism needs to be eliminated from all components of the system. Police need strong national standards and oversight on the use of force and racism. The school (and even preschool) to prison pipeline needs to be ended and more appropriate interventions and discipline instituted. Mental health services need to be made available to children, youth, and adults instead of throwing these problems to the criminal justice system. Prosecution and sentencing need to fair and the use of restorative justice needs to be expanded. Rehabilitation and successful re-entry to society need to be the focus of imprisonment, probation, and parole.

President Biden’s Executive Orders are beginning to address many of these issues. They are promoting unity (despite claims otherwise by some Republicans) because they are implementing policies that most Americans support, but which haven’t made it through Congress due to partisanship. For example, 83% of Americans support a ban on workplace discrimination based on sexual identification, 77% want the government to promote racial equity, 75% support the government requiring masks on federal property, and 68% support the continued suspension of federal student loan repayments. A majority of Americans support rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accords. [1]

People calling for unity are hypocrites unless they are committed to honestly working toward the vision of our democracy and our Constitution for liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all or, in other words, for promotion of the general welfare. Without such a commitment, there can be no unity.

My next post will highlight more specific and longer-term policies that will promote unity and our shared vision of liberty, justice, and equal opportunity for all.

[1]      Richardson, H.C., 1/29/21, Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/january-29-2021)

BIDEN’S OPPORTUNITY TO IMPROVE ECONOMIC SECURITY WITH PROGRESSIVE POLICIES

Looking ahead to 2021, many challenges face the country and President-elect Biden. Most of them have negatively affected the economic well-being of many Americans,  including the pandemic, the lack of racial justice, and the economic recession. All of them and others (e.g., climate change) can and should be addressed in a way that will improve the economic security of working and middle-class Americans. This would also go a long way toward restoring their faith in government and their belief that government can and is working for their benefit and not just for the benefit of big businesses and the wealthy.

Since the 1990s, the Democratic Party has joined the Republican Party in aligning itself with large corporations and the wealthy elites that run and own them through deregulation, trade deals, and tax policies that work to their benefit. As a result, the middle class has been decimated and blue collar, often unionized, workers have lost their economic security; 90% of Americans have lost ground economically over the last 30 years. Income and wealth inequality have spiraled to levels unseen since the 1920s and the economy of the 1950s and 1960s that lifted all boats has disappeared. [1]

Abandoned by the Democratic Party, which traditionally had stood up for them, white, blue collar workers and their families have been convinced to support demagogues, including Trump, who promote divisive, anti-immigrant, racist, reactionary, and undemocratic policies.

To address mainstream Americans’ loss of economic security, Biden must implement  progressive policies that will enhance their economic well-being. The public strongly supports such policies as poll after poll shows. For example, polls find that: [2]

  • 68% believe our tax system should require the wealthy to pay more,
  • 75% support paying higher income taxes to support health care, education, welfare, and infrastructure, and
  • 92% say they would rather live in a country with a low level of income inequality than one with high inequality.

There also was plenty of evidence of support for progressive policies and candidates in the 2020 election results. (See my previous post on this topic for some details.)

A key factor contributing to economic insecurity and inequality, and one Americans clearly understand, is that large corporations and their executives and lobbyists have undue influence on U.S. policies. By margins of more than two-to-one they don’t want President Biden appointing corporate executives or lobbyists to positions in his administration. Roughly 75% of poll respondents say that an administration official overseeing or regulating an industry they have a connection to is a “big problem” and about 90% say it is at least “a little bit of a problem.” The public knows that the so-called “revolving door” between positions in large corporations and ones in government lead to policies that benefit the corporations and their wealthy executives and investors. Sixty-seven percent of respondents, including 60% of Republicans, say that this revolving door is “corrupt and dangerous.” [3]

In government, personnel is policy. In other words, the personnel in key positions in the Biden administration will strongly influence who benefits from policies and their implementation – the working and middle-class or the upper class and big businesses. Therefore, it is important that Biden select people for his administration who are committed to working for the good of the people and not for the economic elites, many of whom are big campaign donors.

President Biden has two main avenues for creating needed policy changes: executive actions and legislation. These two are complementary and should both be used. Getting progressive legislation passed by Congress will be difficult even if Senate control is nominally with the Democrats (i.e., with a 50-50 split among Senators if Democrats win the two Georgia runoffs). But Senator Warren and others have shown that bipartisan legislation is possible even in the current contentious and polarized environment in Congress. Her successes include making hearing aids more affordable, enhancing consumer protection in various financial transactions, strengthening oversight and regulation of the financial industry, expanding access to affordable housing, and reining in abuses in housing financing. (I will write a post about this in the near future.)

There are also literally hundreds of executive actions that a Biden administration could take that are well within its existing authority. As many as 277 such actions have been enumerated by the writers at the American Prospect magazine and the document produced by the Biden-Sanders unity taskforce at the end of the Democratic primary last summer. They include steps to make our tax system fairer, to strengthen the safety net (including unemployment benefits and housing and food assistance), to expand access to health care and lower drug prices, to increase pay and benefits for employees of federal contractors, and to make it easier for workers to bargain collectively for better pay, benefits, and working conditions. (I will write a post about possible executive actions in the near future.)

I encourage you to contact your U.S. Senators and Representative to express your support for issues you would like to see them address in 2021, including policies such as the examples above that would improve the economic security of mainstream Americans. You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

You can get information and sign-up for updates from the Biden-Harris transition at https://buildbackbetter.gov/.

[1]      Lemann, N., 10/19/20, “Losing ground: the crisis of the two-party system,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/let-them-eat-tweets-the-system-never-trump/)

[2]      Hightower, J., Nov. 2020, “Timeless truths for trying times,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/timeless-truths-for-trying-times/)

[3]      Demand Progress, Dec., 2020, “Americans want a progressive Biden administration,” (https://s3.amazonaws.com/demandprogress/reports/Americans_Want_A_Corporate-Free_Biden_Administration.pdf)

PROGRESSIVE PROGRESS IN THE 2020 ELECTIONS

Despite the mixed messages of the 2020 elections, there were significant progressive gains and the public continues to strongly support many progressive policies. Despite the claims of some centrist or corporate Democrats that progressive candidates and messages undermined some Democratic candidates, the four most visible progressives in the U.S. House (the so-called Squad) all got re-elected with between 64% and 87% of the vote: Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Omar (MN), Pressley (MA), and Tlaib (MI). In addition, five new, similarly progressive candidates were elected to the House, three of whom beat conservative Democratic incumbents in their primary races: Newman (IL), Bush (MO), Leger Fernandez (NM), Bowman (NY), and Jones (NY). [1] Furthermore, the grassroots organizing and energizing of Representatives Omar and Tlaib were significant factors in Biden’s wins in Minnesota and Michigan. In Omar’s district, her extensive grassroots efforts resulted in 88% turnout, compared to 67% nationally. [2]

Of the 93 sponsors of the Green New Deal in the U.S. House, 92 won re-election. All the congressional candidates running for re-election who supported Medicare for All won. [3] A recent poll found that 72% of the public support “transitioning to a government-run healthcare plan.”

In addition to the U.S. House, progressive candidates are running and winning in state and local races all over the country. Some of these candidates are in places and races you wouldn’t expect, such as an openly lesbian woman running and winning for sheriff in southwestern Ohio  (70% of the vote against the incumbent). [4] In Maine, Chloe Maxmin upset the Republican leader of the state Senate in a rural, Republican district. A one-term Representative, she had introduced Green New Deal legislation and campaigned on progressive issues such as broadband access and public transportation. [5] She won with 51% of the vote. Eight of nine state Senate candidates endorsed by the progressive Maine People’s Alliance, including Maxmin, won. In addition,  nine members of a progressive group of former teachers running for the Maine legislature won their races. [6]

Many progressive ballot initiatives were passed across the country in November: [7]

  • Arizona: Increased its income tax rate by 3.5% on those making over $250,000 to increase funding for public education.
  • Colorado: Provided 12 weeks of paid family leave.
  • Colorado: Joined the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact to bypass the Electoral College.
  • Florida: Increased its minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026.
  • Mississippi: Required a run-off election in statewide office races if the winner doesn’t receive 50% of the vote.
  • Oregon: Limited campaign contributions and spending, as well as required disclosure of contributions, expenditures, and sponsors of political ads.
  • Virginia: Established an independent redistricting commission to draw electoral district lines rather than letting the legislature do so.

The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care), which provides free health insurance to low-income families and individuals, continues to enjoy broad public support, including by two-thirds of the adults in the 12 states that have not taken advantage of this federal program. In 2020, Missouri (in August) and Oklahoma (in June) used ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid when their state legislators refused to do so. Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah had done this in 2018 and Maine did it in 2017. An estimated 650,000 essential, front-line workers would get health insurance if the remaining 12 states adopted Medicaid expansion. In states that have expanded Medicaid, only 17% of workers are uninsured compared to 30% in states that haven’t done so. [8]

Finally, without the voter suppression tactics of the Republicans, the November election would have been an overwhelming landslide for Biden. In nineteen states, Republicans have implemented needlessly strict voter ID requirements that keep disproportionately Democratic voters from voting. It is estimated that 25 million citizens do not have a government-issued ID that is required to vote. With reasonable voter ID requirements, Biden would most probably have won Texas and Ohio and the Georgia result wouldn’t have been close. In Florida, the Republicans most probably stole the election from Biden by defying a successful ballot initiative that restored the voting rights of people who had been convicted of a felony and had completed their prison sentences. Republicans’ voter suppression efforts also included limiting the number of drop-off boxes for early voters’ ballots and closing polling locations in multiple states, making it more difficult for voters to vote and leading to long waiting lines to vote. No one knows how many voters were unable to vote or were discouraged from voting by these tactics. [9]

The debacle President Trump and his Postmaster General DeJoy created at the U.S. Postal Service resulted in hundreds of thousands of ballots not being counted. The exact number is unknown but some ballots were simply not delivered and many were delivered after the deadlines for counting them; 30 states do not count ballots that arrive after election day and the others require them to be postmarked by election day and set various deadlines for their receipt. [10]

So, for all of you who are supporters of progressive policies as I am, we’re making progress. Let’s keep organizing, lobbying, and working for our progressive goals of economic and social justice and a democracy that works. Poll after poll shows that the American public supports progressive policies. We need to get our elected officials to act on behalf of all of us rather than on behalf of their wealthy campaign contributors.

[1]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 12/12/20, “United States House of Representatives elections, 2020,” (https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections,_2020)

[2]      Stancil, K., 11/5/20, “Omar and Tlaib credited as ‘major factors’ in securing Biden victories in Minnesota and Michigan,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/05/omar-and-tlaib-credited-major-factors-securing-biden-victories-minnesota-and)

[3]      Stancil, K., 11/9/20, “99% of Green New Deal co-sponsors won their races this cycle: analysis,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/09/99-green-new-deal-co-sponsors-won-their-races-cycle-analysis)

[4]      Hightower, J., October 2020, “ ‘Good trouble’ candidates are winning – and rebuilding politics from the ground up,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/good-trouble-candidates-are-winning-and-rebuilding-politics-from-the-ground-up/)

[5]      Conley, J., 11/6/20, “ ‘I mostly listen’: Offering blueprint for Democrats, Green New Deal champion Chloe Maxmin unseats powerful GOP incumbent in rural Maine,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/06/i-mostly-listen-offering-blueprint-democrats-green-new-deal-champion-chloe-maxmin)

[6]      McFadden, A., 11/4/20, “Maxmin topples Dow as Democrats keep majorities in Maine Legislature,” Maine Beacon (https://mainebeacon.com/maxmin-topples-dow-as-democrats-hold-onto-majorities-in-maine-legislature/)

[7]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 12/12/20, “2020 ballot measures,” (https://ballotpedia.org/2020_ballot_measures#Notable_topics_and_unique_measures_in_2020)

[8]      Covert, B., 10/21/20, “The pandemic sent Americans’ health care coverage into free fall,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/society/covid-healthcare-unemployment/)

[9]      Kuttner, R., 11/4/20, “The shadow election you didn’t see,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/shadow-election-you-didnt-see-voter-suppression/)

[10]     Editorial, 11/7/20, “Louis DeJoy must be investigated,” The Boston Globe

REPUBLICANS ARE ALREADY UNDERMINING BIDEN’S PRESIDENCY

Republicans, led by President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell (KY), are already  undermining Senator Biden’s presidency. This is all about politics. They want the Biden presidency and the Democrats to be unable to do much to help working people and the economy because that will make it easier for them to win seats in Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. This is the same reason that Sen. McConnell said at the beginning of each of Obama’s terms as president that his goal was to keep Obama from passing any legislation.

Trump and McConnell are working to ensure that Biden begins his presidency with crises to face: a high number of COVID cases; an economy in a shambles; a safety net with as many holes in it as possible; angry divisions in the country over election results, racism, and immigration; and international crises with Iran and China and in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Moreover, Trump and McConnell are trying to limit the resources and flexibility that President Biden has to tackle these crises. They are undermining efforts to control the pandemic and provide economic relief by:

  • Letting the coronavirus spread with no effort from the federal government to slow it,
  • Retracting funding Congress has appropriated for pandemic relief from the Federal Reserve and perhaps other agencies or programs, and
  • Refusing to pass any significant pandemic relief and predicating any relief on the elimination of employer and business liability for workers or customers who get COVID.

Normally, the outgoing president defers important decisions to the incoming president and refrains from making personnel changes in his lame duck period. George W. Bush did so after Obama was elected and Obama did so for Trump. However, Trump is doing just the opposite. He is aggressively replacing personnel at the Defense Department and elsewhere. He is issuing executive orders and making personnel policy changes that will make it hard for President Biden to undo his actions. He is appointing partisan loyalists to scientific and advisory panels, weakening environmental regulations, and repealing health care regulations. He is carrying out executions, giving out oil drilling leases on public lands, and withdrawing troops from Somalia and Afghanistan. He is inflaming tensions with Iran, which will make it harder for President Biden to re-engage Iran in a treaty to block its ability to build a nuclear bomb. (Iran now has twelve times as much enriched uranium as it would have had if Trump hadn’t abrogated the Iran nuclear accord.) Some of Trump’s advisors have been upfront in stating that their actions are meant to limit President Biden’s policy options. [1]

Treasury Secretary Mnuchin is taking multiple actions that will prevent President Biden from having the flexibility to quickly use remaining resources from the March relief bill to respond to economic hardship. Mnuchin announced that on December 31 he will suspend the Treasury Department’s lending program that supports businesses and local governments. He is also requiring the Federal Reserve to return about $250 billion that was appropriated for pandemic relief and putting $455 billion into a fund that will require congressional authorization before Biden can spend it. [2] Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the lobbying arm of big corporations, objected to Mnuchin’s actions and called for Congress to pass additional pandemic relief to support the economy. David Wilcox, a former chief economist for the Federal Reserve, said, “The most obvious interpretation is that the Trump administration is seeking to debilitate the economic recovery as much as possible on the way out of the door.” [3] [4]

Senator McConnell has refused to act on a $3 trillion pandemic relief bill the House passed in May, despite a call from 125 bipartisan economists for a relief package to address the economic crisis, which includes quickly escalating poverty as the benefits of the March relief bill expire. (Just about the only business McConnell has the Senate doing is approving right-wing federal judges.) As poverty and hunger are surging across the country, key components of a relief bill are enhanced unemployment benefits, aid to state and local governments, and increased food assistance. Some sustained relief will be needed until the pandemic is under control and the economy has recovered. [5]

Aid to state and local governments is critical because, faced with plunging tax revenue, they have cut 1.3 million jobs since February. There is no more effective, tried and true way of reducing unemployment and supporting economic recovery than providing aid to state and local governments; we know this from the 2008 recession. If families don’t have jobs and income, if parents can’t work because schools and child care are closed, local economies suffer. Every dollar of assistance to state and local governments boosts local economies by $1.70 due to the spending and re-spending of that dollar as it cycles through local workers and businesses. [6]

Senator McConnell appears to be more focused on limiting the liability of corporations when workers or customers get COVID than providing relief to workers, such as unemployment benefits for the 12 million workers whose benefits will run out before the end of December. He is also talking about imposing austerity on the federal government by focusing on cutting the deficit during Biden’s presidency. He wasn’t concerned about the deficit when President Trump increased it to levels not seen since World War II or when he cut taxes in 2017 for wealthy individuals and corporations, which increased the deficit by over one hundred billion dollars a year. Furthermore, austerity, i.e., cutting federal spending, will weaken and slow the economic recovery, hurting all Americans other than the wealthy, as we know from the aftermath of the 2008 recession. [7]

Despite the good news that vaccines will be ready for distribution soon, Republicans in Congress and the White House are not even talking about providing the funding needed to distribute the vaccines, which is estimated to be $30 billion. It also appears that there’s no or little planning happening in the Trump administration for vaccine distribution. With over a thousand people dying daily of COVID, one would think this would be a bipartisan priority, but Republican politics appear to trump even this essential public health initiative. [8]

Trump, McConnell, and many other Republicans are putting politics ahead of the best interests of the country and its people. This is sabotage and treasonous. We must all speak up against this unprecedented, corrupt behavior. I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and ask them to take action to provide necessary relief in the face of this pandemic and to ensure a smooth and respectful transition to the Biden presidency.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Shear, M. D., 11/22/20, “Trump using last days to lock in policies and make Biden’s task more difficult,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]      Mohsin, S., 11/25/20, “Mnuchin to put $455 billion in funds out of Yellen’s easy reach,” The Boston Globe from Bloomberg News

[3]      Richardson, H. C., 11/24/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/november-24-2020

[4]      Smialek, J., & Rappeport, A., 11/20/20, “Mnuchin to end some emergency Fed programs,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[5]      Johnson, J., 11/24/20, “ ‘Go big, and stay big’: Economists call for $3 trillion Covid relief package to stop nation’s descent into ruin,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/11/24/go-big-and-stay-big-economists-call-3-trillion-covid-relief-package-stop-nations)

[6]      Tahmincioglu, E., 8/25/20, “The way out through state and local aid,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/state-and-local-aid-bipartisan-economists-video/)

[7]      Johnson, J., 12/2/20, “Critics smell ‘economic sabotage’ as McConnell unveils Covid plan with $0 for unemployment boost, direct payments,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/12/02/critics-smell-economic-sabotage-mcconnell-unveils-covid-plan-0-unemployment-boost)

[8]      Dayen, D., 11/30/20, “Unsanitized: The COVID-19 Report for Nov. 30, 2020,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/coronavirus/unsanitized-vaccine-distribution-gaps-transparency-funding/)

FACEBOOK KNOWINGLY PROMOTES DISINFORMATION

Facebook (FB) facilitates an accelerating spread of disinformation; this is widely recognized and well-documented. (See my previous post on this.) Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread unchecked on its monopolistic platform. This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases its revenue. [1]

Recently, damning evidence has come to light of Facebook’s manipulation of its News Feed to favor right-wing sources that are known to be deceptive over trustworthy news sources.

In late 2017, Facebook was in the process of making significant changes in the computer programming code or algorithm it uses to determine which of the overwhelming plethora of sources each of us is shown in our Facebook News Feed. It claimed it was working to bring people together and to prioritize trusted and informative news sources.

It was uncovered recently that FB ran experiments with its first iteration of a revised News Feed algorithm that revealed it would dramatically curtail the dissemination of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites, such as Breitbart, the Daily Wire, and the Daily Caller. FB’s software engineers were told to modify the algorithm to reduce the negative effects on these right-wing sites.

A second iteration of the new algorithm was ready in January 2018 and its effects were presented to senior executives at FB. The data showed that it reversed the curtailment of right-wing, less-than-trustworthy sites and instead curtailed distribution of progressive-leaning, credible news sources. The presentation included bar charts showing the impact on a dozen or so specific news sources.

This second iteration of the new News Feed algorithm was, nonetheless, put into use, based in part on support from FB’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, Joel Kaplan, and right-wing-leaning employees working for him. (Kaplan would later loudly support his friend Brett Kavanaugh during Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.) This was not the first time Kaplan had acted to promote right-wing disinformation. For example, in December 2016, when an internal investigation found that a group of FB accounts, mostly based overseas, were behind a lot of the promotion of right-wing disinformation, Kaplan objected to disabling these accounts because “it will disproportionately affect conservatives.” He also has defended and protected right-wing sites that violated FB policies, opposing sanctions on them. [2]

The new News Feed algorithm expanded dissemination of content from the right-wing Daily Wire that routinely shares false content and spreads malicious stories such as ones describing being transgendered as a “delusion,”  calling abortion providers “assassins,” and labeling progressive members of Congress as not “loyal to America.” On the other hand, the new algorithm reduced dissemination of content from left-leaning Mother Jones magazine that provides rigorously fact-checked reporting and investigative journalism that has won it numerous journalism awards, including seven National Magazine Awards (three times for General Excellence). It has also been a National Magazine Award finalist 24 other times. In 2017, it won the Magazine of the Year award from the American Society of Magazine Editors.

In the six months after implementation of the changes in Facebook’s News Feed algorithm, FB traffic to trustworthy, left-leaning Mother Jones articles declined 37% from the previous six months. This means that the over one million Mother Jones followers and others on FB saw fewer of its articles in their News Feeds. On the other hand, over the summer of 2020, the deceptive right-wing Daily Wire had more Facebook engagement (i.e., likes, comments, and shares) than any other English-language publisher in the world. [3]

These data belie Zuckerberg’s claim when he announced the News Feed changes in January 2018 that the goals were “bringing people closer together” and fighting “sensationalism, misinformation and polarization.” He didn’t mention that he and FB were tipping the scales to favor less-than-factual right-wing sources.

Why did this happen? Facebook was tweaking its News Feed algorithm because user engagement was falling, which threatened its revenue and stock price. Zuckerberg and FB may also have wanted to avoid antagonizing Trump and the right-wing Republicans in power in the federal government, thereby reducing the likelihood that they would attack FB either verbally or through government investigations and regulations. Right-wing and “conservative” politicians had been criticizing FB for “liberal” bias (without evidence). A former Facebook employee said that it was made clear  that changes to the News Feed algorithm could not hurt Breitbart, Trump-advisor Steve Bannon’s mouthpiece.

Facebook uses its monopolistic power to determine which publishers’ content the public sees. This power of selective partial censorship and propaganda promotion is Big Brother-type power that we all should be concerned about and fear. Free speech in today’s America  is relative; it is based on how much money one has to broadcast one’s voice or on how FB treats you. Zuckerberg’s claim that he supports unfettered free speech is disingenuous given that FB tips the scales to favor certain sources and disfavor others.

FB’s marketplace power and dissemination of harmful disinformation need to be addressed by government policies and regulations. Slowing the spread of  misinformation and malicious content from a handful of the most active and therefore most harmful sites would have a dramatic effect.

Facebook should be held accountable for disseminating false, misleading, or inflammatory content. Regulation is one way to do this and competition is another. As a monopolistic platform lacking competition, FB has no incentive to do anything but pursue profits and/or Zuckerberg’s personal agenda. FB should be regulated like a monopolistic utility as the phone company once was or as private electricity and gas utilities are. Anti-trust laws should be used to stop FB’s anti-competitive practices and its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp should be reversed. Competition should be facilitated, for example, by creating a not-for-profit, free to users, Internet platform for responsible information sharing and journalism akin to public radio and TV.

I’m not a heavy FB user so my expertise on its on-the-ground operation is limited. Therefore, I welcome your suggestions on how we can send a message to Facebook and Zuckerberg that will be heard loudly and clearly on the issue of the quality of content in its News Feed as well as other issues such as its repeated violations of users’ privacy. Would a one-day boycott where we don’t log into FB be effective? Or would a week where we never click on a FB ad be more meaningful? What else can we do? In addition, of course, to lobbying our elected officials to rein in Facebook and Zuckerberg with regulations and anti-trust laws.

[1]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, “Facebook manipulated the news you see to appease Republicans, insiders say,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/media/2020/10/facebook-mother-jones/)

[3]      Bauerlein, M., & Jeffrey, C., 10/21/20, see above

FACEBOOK’S DISSEMINATION OF DISINFORMATION ACCELERATES

 Facebook’s (FB) spreading of disinformation is accelerating, despite any claims to the contrary. Its CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, repeatedly says that he does not want FB to be an arbiter of free speech, but it is the arbiter of what information or speech FB users see.

Zuckerberg also asserts that the best way to fight offensive bad speech is with good speech. [1] However, this is a false equivalency as good speech that tries to counter bad speech has to mention the bad speech which furthers its presence in our public discourse. This has been shown by research to further embed the bad or false speech in people’s minds. For example, reporting on Trump’s tweets and stating they are false or misleading, still puts Trump’s tweets in front of the viewing or reading audience.

Facebook’s current stated standard is that posts that are not calling for harm or violence, however offensive, should be protected as free speech. Its new policy announced in October will finally ban posts that deny or distort the Holocaust. This is a very small and belated step forward against some of the worst and most obviously harmful disinformation that FB has spread. Almost a quarter of Americans between ages 18 and 39 say they believe the Holocaust either didn’t happen or was exaggerated. It may be difficult to link this directly to FB or to harm or violence but it’s hard to believe there is no linkage. [2]

Facebook allows toxic speech and dangerous misinformation to spread largely unchecked on its monopolistic platform. Engagement with FB posts (i.e., liking, sharing, or commenting on them) that are from sources that routinely publish misleading or false content tripled from 2016 to 2020, exceeding the rate of increase for outlets that uphold traditional journalistic standards.

This affects and infects our public discourse and knowledge base, undermining the health of our democracy. However, stopping it runs counter to Facebook’s economic interests because increased activity, regardless of its content, is what increases FB’s revenue. [3]

Over the summer and early fall of 2020, the Digital New Deal (DND) project examined engagement with posts on FB and analyzed the reliability of the posts’ sources. It partnered with NewsGuard, a non-partisan service that rates news and information sources for their accuracy. (See note on its methodology at the end of this post.) The DND project focused on 721 deceptive information sources and compared them with a selected group of non-deceptive sources. It categorized the sources into three types:

  1. False Content Producers: repeatedly publish verifiably false content (396 sources)
  2. Manipulators: fail to gather and present information responsibly (325 sources)
  3. Trustworthy Outlets (46 selected sources for comparison)

Engagement with posts from type 1 and 2 sources (referred to as deceptive sources) has grown 242% since 2016. Engagement with posts from Manipulators (type 2 sources) represents 84% of all deceptive source engagement and has grown from 390 million engagement actions in the 3rd quarter of 2016 to 1,520 million in the 3rd quarter of 2020 (almost fourfold). The deceptive sources with the most engagement on FB, including the top five in each of types 1 and 2, promote right-wing or “conservative” politics.

These deceptive sources, masquerading as news outlets, are spreading false information, manipulative messaging, and concocted conspiracies that degrade democratic discourse. This harms the health of our democracy because it undermines informed participation by citizens and voters. [4]

The top ten deceptive sources are all of the Manipulator type and account for 62% of FB engagement interactions with deceptive sources, while the other 711 deceptive sites are responsible for 38% of these interactions. Fox was the most frequent source in the Manipulator category. It is rated more positively by NewsGuard than many other deceptive sources because it sometimes does correct errors, avoids deceptive headlines, labels advertising, and discloses its ownership and financing. Other examples of Manipulators are the Daily Wire, Breitbart, and The Blaze.

My next post will provide even more damning evidence that FB’s goal is not to bring people together, to provide accurate information, or to fight sensationalism, misinformation, and polarization as Zuckerberg has said, but rather to maximize user engagement and profits, and perhaps to promote right-wing politics and curry favor with those in power in Washington, D.C. The post will highlight FB’s 2018 changes to its News Feed algorithm that determines what information or disinformation is presented to FB users. It will also present some ways to address FB’s monopolistic power and its dissemination of false and harmful content.

Note on the methodology for rating information sources used in the DND study summarized above: NewsGuard rates online news outlets based on nine criteria of responsible journalism including:

  • Does not repeatedly publish false content (22 points)
  • Gathers and presents information responsibly (18 points)
  • Regularly corrects or clarifies errors (12.5 points)
  • Handles the difference between news and opinion responsibly (12.5 points)
  • Avoids deceptive headlines (10 points)
  • Website discloses ownership and financing (7.5 points)
  • Clearly labels advertising (7.5 points)
  • Reveals who is in charge, including any possible conflicts of interest (5 points)
  • The site provides the names of content creators, along with either contact or biographical information (5 points)

Outlets receive points for passing a given criteria or they receive zero for failing. A total score of less than 60 merits a Red rating, meaning the site fails to adhere to basic journalistic standards.

[1]      The Associated Press, 10/12/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial, distortion posts”

[2]      Frenkel, S., 10/13/20, “Facebook bans Holocaust denial content,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[3]      Alba, D., 10/13/20, “False info thriving on social media,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[4]      Kornbluh, K., Goldstein, A., & Weiner, E., 10/12/20, “New study by Digital New Deal finds engagement with deceptive outlets higher on Facebook today than run-up to 2016 election,” Digital New Deal, German Marshall Fund of the United States (https://www.gmfus.org/blog/2020/10/12/new-study-digital-new-deal-finds-engagement-deceptive-outlets-higher-facebook-today)

OUR FEDERAL COURTS HAVE BEEN PACKED WITH RIGHT-WING JUDGES

Republicans are rushing confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, which is emblematic of their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges. [1] (See my previous post for more details.) Rushing through the confirmation of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court – and to some extent the whole federal judiciary – by making it clear that the federal court system is not an  impartial arbiter of the law, but a fully politicized institution.

Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office (including over 100 that were carried over from the Obama administration due to Republican blocking of confirmations) and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [2] Right-wing Republicans have used a Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [3]

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing jurists, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer because their right-wing judicial philosophy favors corporations and the wealthy over workers, consumers, and the middle and lower classes.

These right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed judges typically claim to support “originalism,” a legal philosophy that claims the original intent and meaning of the Constitution, written in 1787, should determine judicial decisions. “Originalists” claim that government cannot constitutionally do anything that is not explicitly provided for in the Constitution. This legal philosophy has been very effective in driving right-wing legal politics, although the appropriateness of applying the meaning of the words of the Constitution to today’s technology strains credulity; its writers couldn’t have dreamed of our current medical and health care capabilities, our transportation and communications systems, our financial instruments and guns, or our huge, multi-national corporations.

An alternative legal interpretation of the Constitution, as a living document that requires interpretation in the context of current times, was prevalent from the late 1930s into the 1980s. In the late 1930s, during the recovery from the Depression, judges interpreted the law and the Constitution to allow American democracy to live up to its principles. Right-wing politicians and legal theorists labeled this “judicial activism” or “legislating from the bench.”

The “originalist” legal philosophy was developed by right-wing scholars in the 1970s and 1980s in reaction to laws and judicial support for economic and civil rights. The New Deal worked to level the economic playing field, to regulate business, to provide voice and a balance of power for workers through unions, and to provide a social safety net. After World War II, these efforts continued with more of a focus on leveling the social playing field and treating all people as equals before law, by ending segregation and discrimination, protecting the rights of prisoners and those accused of breaking the law, and providing access to contraception and abortion. The judicial-established principle of one person, one vote and the Voting Rights Act worked to level the political playing field. Judicial decisions supporting economic and civil rights, many of them made by the Supreme Court under Republican Chief Justices Earl Warren and Warren Burger between 1953 and 1986, were, at the time, largely viewed as non-partisan. They reflected a belief that the Bill of Rights applies to state laws and governments, as well as at the federal level. [4] This dramatically expanded civil rights and overturned the “states’ rights” doctrine that had allowed states to, among other things, engage in discrimination, particularly against Black Americans.

“Originalist” judges have ignored and will continue to ignore precedents and are reversing 80 years of legislation and legal decisions on individual and civil rights, as the hearings on the latest Supreme Court nominees and recent Supreme Court decisions have made clear. While the attention of these hearings has been focused on social and religious issues, from abortion to affirmative action and discrimination to LGBTQ rights, the often-overlooked issues about our economy and capitalism, such as the balance of power between employers and workers, the ability to earn a living wage, and the availability of an economic safety net, are critically important as well.

Under “originalist” legal theory, the federal government has little power and much of what it currently does should be left to state governments. Under “originalism,” the federal government does not have the power to regulate corporations or the wealthy, including restricting their use of their money in our elections, as the spending of money is viewed as exercising free speech. Decisions by the federal judiciary at all levels make it clear that “originalist” theory favors private interests over public interests, corporations and employers over consumers and workers, law enforcement over defendants’ rights, and gun rights over voting rights. Such decisions deprive employees and other vulnerable populations of their civil rights. [5] [6]

Moreover, the “originalist” judges assert that the rights of the Bill of Rights, such as freedom of speech, are rights that belong to corporations as well as to natural human beings. I find it hard to believe that this was the intent of the writers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They clearly were focused on the rights of individual human beings. Furthermore, corporations, in anything approaching their current form, were unknown in those times.

Americans for Prosperity and other pro-business groups, many of them backed by billionaire, fossil-fuel businessman Charles Koch (and his deceased brother), have spent tens of millions of dollars on campaigns to pressure Senators to back controversial, right-wing judicial nominations, often using “dark money” (whose donors are hidden from the public).

The weak federal government response to the coronavirus pandemic is emblematic of “originalist” thinking. Some in the Trump administration simply didn’t believe it was the role of the federal government or within the legitimate powers of the federal government to respond, and, therefore, the response should be left to the states and the private sector.

President Trump and the Republicans in the Senate have packed the federal court system from top to bottom with hundreds of right-wing, Federalist Society-endorsed, “originalist” judges who are on the fringe of what was previously considered appropriate for a federal judge. If our Founding Fathers had intended an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, I have to believe they would have realized frequent amendments would be required and they would have made it much easier to amend it. I believe that “originalism” is a rationalization for public relations purposes developed by wealthy corporations and individuals as a way to “justify” laws and court decisions that work to their benefit. This is just like their claim of non-existent voter fraud as the public relations rationale for voter suppression tactics.

Our federal court system is currently unbalanced and biased in favor of corporations and the wealthy. Right-wing judges will skew court decisions and harm the well-being of everyday Americans for the next 20 to 30 years unless Democrats are elected and actively work to rebalance the federal courts toward mainstream legal philosophy and historical precedent. This will not be easy given how skewed the system currently is.

Dramatic steps will need to be taken, including expanding the number of judges in the federal court system, possibly including the number of justices on the Supreme Court, given that removing judges is basically impossible. This is the only way to return to laws and government programs that protect and support a fair and just society with civil, political, and economic rights for all, women able to make decisions about their reproductive health, workers able to support their families and have safe working conditions, consumers able to use products and services safely, and a safety net that protects people when they hit hard times.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[3]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

[4]      Richardson, H. C., 10/23/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-23-2020)

[5]      Richardson, H. C., 10/14/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-14-2020)

[6]      Dayen, D., 10/13/20, “Judge Barrett’s record: Siding with businesses over workers,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/judge-barretts-record-siding-with-businesses-over-workers/)

WHO’S FOR PACKING OUR FEDERAL COURTS?

As Republicans are ramming through a Supreme Court nominee just before the election, they are also attacking Democratic presidential nominee Senator Biden for not saying whether he will “pack the court.”  The irony of this seems to be lost on them, many in the media, and most of the public.

Republicans are claiming that increasing the size of the Supreme Court (aka “packing the court”) would be “the absolute biggest power grab in the history of our country,” when in fact their packing of the federal courts at all levels with right-wing judges for the last four years and beyond is a far bigger power grab. [1]

Rushing through the nomination of Judge Barrett threatens to complete the delegitimization of the Supreme Court, making it clear it is not an impartial arbitrator of the law, but a fully politicized institution. Senator McConnell and his Republican colleagues in the Senate blocked the appointment of a centrist judge nominated by President Obama, Merrick Garland, for ten months, solely for political purposes. Now, they are ramming through an extreme, right-wing nominee in a matter of weeks, solely for political purposes. And closer to an election than has ever been done before.

If Barrett is confirmed, 15 of the last 19 Supreme Court appointments will have been made by Republican Presidents. Furthermore, five of the nine justices will have been appointed by Presidents who lost the popular vote and they will also have been confirmed by the votes of Senators who represent less than half of the American population. [2]

The Supreme Court has had nine justices since 1869, but its size is not specified in the Constitution. Republicans changed the size of the Court three times between 1863 and 1869 to give appointments to their Presidents and deny them to the opposition. [3] Furthermore, Republicans announced in 2016 that they would not fill any Supreme Court seats with nominees of Hillary Clinton (if she were elected), thereby effectively shrinking the size of the Court. Moreover, in 2013, Republicans proposed shrinking the number of justices on the D.C. Appellate Court, the second most important appellate court in the country, from 11 to 8 to lock in a conservative majority and prevent President Obama from appointing judges to the court. [4]

The packing-the-court issue is far bigger than just the Supreme Court. Senator McConnell and the Senate Republicans blocked dozens of Obama’s nominees to other courts, so that there were over 100 vacancies for federal judges when Trump took office. Over 200 federal judges have been confirmed since Trump took office and basically all of them are proponents of the extreme right-wing legal philosophy of the Federalist Society. [5] (More on this is my next post.) Right-wing Republicans have used Federalist Society endorsement as a litmus test for nominees while ignoring input from the American Bar Association, which always used to provide an independent analysis of the qualifications of nominees. [6] Republicans have also intentionally been installing young judges so their lifetime tenures and influence will last as long as possible.

This packing of the federal courts with right-wing justices, which is the result of McConnell and the Republicans breaking the norms of our democratic processes, will benefit Republicans and their wealthy, corporatist backers for a generation or longer. The only remedy for this political corruption, the only way to keep its perpetrators from realizing on-going benefits, is to increase the size of the federal courts, including the Supreme Court. New judges, appointed by Democrats, will rebalance the courts to reflect the interests and well-being of the American public. Furthermore, the federal district and appellate courts have not been enlarged since the late 1970s, despite a 40% growth in population.

It is important for the Democrats to stand up and make it clear that Republicans can’t steal two Supreme Court seats (and dozens of seats on other federal courts) and get away with it. They should couple an increase in the size of the Supreme Court with a proposal for a Constitutional Amendment to set term limits and/or a mandatory retirement age for Supreme Court justices.

By rebalancing the federal courts, Democrats would demonstrate a needed commitment to America’s democratic principles and promises, as well as to economic and social justice.

My next post will discuss the right-wing judicial philosophy called “originalism” to which these Republican judges typically adhere and its implications for economic and social justice.

[1]      Richardson, H. C., 10/11/20, “Letters from an American blog post,” (https://heathercoxrichardson.substack.com/p/october-11-2020)

[2]      Richardson, H, C., 10/11/20, see above

[3]      Starr, P., 9/23/20, “How to rebalance the Supreme Court,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/justice/how-to-rebalance-the-supreme-court/)

[4]      Kuttner, R., 10/13/20, “Biden needs to give a major speech on court expansion,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/biden-speech-supreme-court-expansion-court-packing/)

[5]      The Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, most frequently called the Federalist Society, is an organization of conservatives and libertarians that advocates for a textualist and originalist interpretation of the United States Constitution. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federalist_Society)

[6]      Heer, J., 10/14/20, “Barrett’s evasions show why expanding the Court is necessary,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/politics/barrett-confirmation-court-packing/)

THE U.S. IS AT A HISTORICALLY SIGNIFICANT FORK IN THE ROAD

Bob Kuttner has written another one of his eloquent, incredibly insightful and provocative articles. This one analyzes the historically significant fork in the road the U.S. is facing, puts this inflection point in historical and political perspective, and offers his views on where we should go and what it will take to get there. [1] He doesn’t mince words and is not afraid to speak truth to political and economic power. I will summarize the article here, but I encourage you to read the whole article at the link in the footnote as I cannot do it justice. The article is relatively short, under 2,000 words; it’s only two pages in The American Prospect magazine.

(Note: Kuttner is the most knowledgeable, thoughtful, eloquent, and insightful progressive policy analyst I know of. The breadth of his knowledge across policy topics and history leaves me in awe. He is the co-founder and co-editor of The American Prospect magazine, which is my go-to source for progressive policy analysis and proposals. He is a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School, where I got my Ph.D. in Social Policy with a focus on early childhood policies and programs.)

Kuttner starts the article with this statement: “We will soon know whether America will surmount its worst catastrophe since the Civil War. We have every reason to worry.” He goes on to note that “We Americans grow up learning our history as a chronicle of near disasters that narrowly come out right.” He cites the following examples of other historical inflection points where the U.S. surmounted significant challenges and put itself on a positive path for the future:

  • The Revolutionary War
  • The writing of the Constitution in 1787
  • The Civil War and the ending of slavery
  • The Great Depression
  • World War II

He states that “Now, we are at another inflection point where history could go disastrously wrong. … Things have already occurred that were inconceivable to most Americans.” He cites examples of the inconceivable that include:

  • The undermining of the U.S. Postal Service (at least in part to rig the election),
  • The failure to combat Russian interference in our elections,
  • The President stating he might not abide by the election’s results, and
  • The Attorney General failing to stand up for the rule of law.

Kuttner excoriates Republicans in Congress, governors’ offices, and state legislatures who have violated the fundamental principles of the historical Republican Party and our democracy to benefit their wealthy benefactors and maintain their political power.

He states that “America’s corporate and financial elite, given a corrupt, incompetent dictator who serves their economic interests, will choose the dictator over a democracy that might trim their billions. This is full-on fascism — the alliance of the business class with a tyrant who confuses the masses with appeals to jingoism and racism, while the plutocrats steal working people blind.”

His analysis concludes that “Trump is the logical extreme of a long downward spiral. … Trump merely makes flagrant what was tacit.” He states that in addition to Republican presidents, Presidents Clinton and Obama allowed a continuation of the 40-year slide where “money relentlessly crowded out citizenship, while economic concentration and political concentration [of power] fed on each other.” The concentration of economic power has occurred due to the emergence of huge corporations with monopolistic power in numerous industries due to the lack of enforcement of anti-trust laws. This economic concentration has led to great wealth in the hands of a small number of investors and corporate executives. They have used that wealth to gain great political power, which has led to policies that benefit them and their businesses. This self-reinforcing cycle has been a spiral leading to great inequality in income, wealth, personal well-being, and opportunity.

Kuttner states that reversing this long, downward spiral will be difficult and will require repairing damage to essential institutions in government, society, and the economy. These include facilitating voting rather suppressing it, using anti-trust laws to break up monopolistic corporations, reversing growing economic inequality, and supporting workers through higher wages, job security, and the right to bargain collectively with employers. Public agencies that have been hollowed out need to be rebuilt, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and more.

He notes that there are two serious obstacles to accomplishing this revival even if Democrats win the White House and control of the U.S. Senate. First, the Republicans in Congress and President Trump (but also Republican presidents before him) have packed the federal court system at all levels with right-wing judges. Kuttner states that “Reclaiming democracy will require reclaiming an honest judiciary. … Republicans have been so relentless in their blockage of Obama appointees and their ramming through of far-right judges that the very legitimacy of the judicial system is in question.”  Kuttner makes a case for adding judges and expanding the federal courts at all levels as the only way to achieve balance and avoid judicial blockages of needed policy changes.

The second serious obstacle to revival of the American promise is the immense influence of corporate power brokers and the many corporate-leaning Democrats for whom current economic policies are the conventional wisdom. Kuttner believes that absent massive grassroots pressure the likelihood is that a Biden administration will not seriously challenge economic power and concentration, particularly in the financial and high-tech industries. The concentration of market and political leverage in huge corporations and in their executives and large investors has led to dramatic economic inequality, job insecurity, and hardship for American workers.

Kuttner proposes that the trillions of dollars the Federal Reserve has pumped into large corporations to bail them out in the current financial crisis should instead be focused on rebuilding infrastructure, addressing climate change, and ending racism, including paying reparations.

Kuttner closes by stating that if the U.S. returns to the path laid out by its core principles through the results of the November elections and subsequent actions that “it will be the narrowest of great escapes ever.”


[1]      Kuttner, R., 9/17/20, “The terror of the unforeseen,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/the-terror-of-the-unforeseen/)

OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED Part 2

Our elections are indeed rigged – by Republicans and the country’s wealthy capitalists to skew results to their benefit. One of their strategies is to reduce voting by those who are not part of their primary constituency of well-off, white voters. [1] My previous post describes the four main barriers to voting that states have been imposing. Studies show they disproportionately disenfranchise non-white, low-income, student, and/or elderly voters, groups who tend to vote for Democrats:

  • Imposing voter identification requirements
  • Reducing places and times for voting
  • Purging eligible voters from voter registration lists
  • Denying people with a felony conviction the right to vote

There are a variety of strategies that are being used to suppress voter participation in general and participation by likely Democratic voters in particular, in addition to the four above. In some states, Republican gerrymandering of state legislative districts has given Republicans undeserved power to enact barriers to voting. In Wisconsin, for example, in 2018, Democrats won a majority of the statewide vote for the state legislature (52%) but got only 36 of 99 seats in the legislature (36%).

Voter suppression strategies being used in various places across the country include:

  • Impeding voter registration: While some states are making it easier to register to vote, for example through election day registration and automatic voter registration at motor vehicle offices and other state agencies, many Republican-controlled states are making it harder to register. For example, some states have made the process for conducting voter registration drives so onerous that the effect has been to ban them. In Georgia, in 2018, the Secretary of State (who oversees elections and was a white male running against a Black woman for Governor) was charged with blocking the registration of 50,000 voters (80% of whom were non-white) due to minor discrepancies in the spelling or spacing of their names. [2]
  • Failing to update voter registration systems with address changes: Without up-to-date addresses for people who move frequently, e.g., young people, students, and low-income workers, these voters (who tend to vote for Democrats) do not receive ballots or voting information, and hence are less able and likely to vote.
  • Undermining confidence in our elections: Spreading lies about the existence of voter fraud and the validity and honesty of our elections creates skepticism about the importance of voting. Failure to combat foreign efforts to affect the outcome of our elections and to undermine faith in their credibility also damages voters’ enthusiasm for voting. Calling ballots that are counted after election day fraudulent (for example, mailed-in ballots that were postmarked on time) contributes to the false perception that our elections are dishonest. All of these techniques and other related ones undermine voters’ motivation to turnout to vote.
  • Providing misinformation about voting and registering to vote: This is a classic “dirty trick” used to confuse voters and keep them from registering to vote and from voting.
  • Creating barriers to or doubts about mail-in or absentee ballots: The President and some Republican-led states are erecting barriers to mail-in voting because it has been shown to increase voter participation, which does not work to their benefit. In addition, the President, in particular, is trying to sow doubt about the validity and effectiveness of mail-in voting despite its very successful use in many states, including as the sole method of voting in Oregon since 1998. Some states are making it complicated to correctly complete a mail ballot. In Alabama, for example, the signature on an absentee ballot must have two witnesses or a notarization. [3] A complicated process increases the likelihood that ballots can be disqualified due to a technical error in completing them and most states do not have a process for remedying a minor technical error; the ballot is simply not counted. Some states are setting strict deadlines for receipt of mail ballots (e.g., they must be received by election day not just postmarked by election day). In one county in Florida, 1,200 ballots were not counted for being too late despite being postmarked on time. And, as I imagine you’ve heard, the Trump administration is working to harm the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to process mail in a timely fashion. Finally, some states prohibit the opening of mail ballots until election day or even until the polls have closed. This delays the finalization of election results and gives Republicans the opportunity to assert that the late counting of ballots is indicative of fraud, as they did in Florida in the 2000 presidential election.
  • Intimidating voters: In Pennsylvania, the Republicans have sued all 67 counties to allow Republican-hired, outside “poll watchers” at the polls. Poll watchers such as these have typically been used to harass, challenge, and intimidate targeted voters, namely those who are likely to be voting for Democrats. They do this by, for example, demanding proof of eligibility to vote. They are typically deployed in low-income, non-white neighborhoods and sometimes wear uniforms and carry badges, cameras, and guns. This kind of intimidation was so bad back in 1982 that a federal judge imposed restrictions on activities that might intimidate voters. However, in 2018, with the Trump campaign’s support, these restrictions were lifted. [4]
  • Refusing to give workers time to vote: In most states, election day is not a holiday and most employers do not give workers time off (let alone paid time off) to vote, although this may be starting to change.
  • Negative campaigning: Negative messages and nasty campaigning create disillusionment with candidates (whether the information is true or not) and with voting in general. The result is lower voting participation both in general and for the targeted candidate.

Republicans have amassed a $20 million fund to bring lawsuits aimed at reducing voting and blocking the counting of ballots, such as provisional ballots cast by people whose voter registration was purged or blocked by voter suppression techniques. In Florida, for example, Republicans have sued to prevent postage-paid return envelopes from being sent with mail-in ballots, hoping to reduce the rate at which they are returned. In Nevada, they have sued to prevent the state from sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters.

President Lyndon Johnson called voting “the first duty of democracy”. However, President Trump and Republicans in Congress and in the states have been doing everything they can to denigrate that duty and to make it as hard as possible for those likely to vote for Democrats to fulfill their duty to vote. [5] This is stunningly unpatriotic and in violation of our Constitution and the founding principles of this country. Democracy’s foundational principle is that all citizens have a right and duty to vote. Undermining the ability to vote and the importance of voting are antithetical to democracy.

There are steps we can take to increase voter participation and, thereby, improve the health of our democracy. Steps to make it easy to vote and to block strategies inhibiting voting are occurring in the courts and in some states. The battle over allowing voting by those convicted of felonies in Florida has gone through three levels of courts already and is on-going, although it appears likely that 775,000 of them will not be able to vote this fall. In Virginia, where Democrats gained control of the state government in the 2019 election, they have repealed the state’s voter ID law, made election day a state holiday, expanded the early voting period to 45 days, and implemented automatic voter registration for people using services from the Department of Motor Vehicles. Mail-in ballots will have pre-paid postage and drop boxes for returning them will be installed throughout the state. Voters will be able to fix technical errors on mail-in ballots, while absentee ballots will no longer require a witness’s signature. [6] In North Carolina, a Democratic Governor, a state Board of Elections with a non-partisan leader, and court orders have reversed the tide in a state that was one of the leaders in voter suppression in 2016. [7]

The ultimate solution is a national one, namely reinstituting the protections that were in place under the Voting Rights Act before the Supreme Court disingenuously eviscerated it in 2013. To this end, I encourage you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators and let them know you support the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which passed the House in December 2019 but has not been acted on by the Senate. In addition, our election systems need extra financial support to operate safely, effectively, and accurately during the current pandemic. To this end, I also urge you to let your Members of Congress know you support the VoteSafe Act and the funding for election systems in the House-passed HEROES Act. [8] Given that the Republicans in control of the Senate are not likely to act on these bills this year, in the meantime, encourage your state and local election officials to make it as easy as possible for all eligible voters to register and vote.

To live up to our principles, every citizen needs to be readily able to fulfill that first duty of democracy – to vote.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, “Six ways the Right is shredding the right to vote,” Common Dreams from The Hightower Lowdown (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/01/six-ways-right-shredding-vote)

[2]      Durkin, E., 10/19/18, “GOP candidate improperly purged 340,000 from Georgia voter rolls, investigation claims,” The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/19/georgia-governor-race-voter-suppression-brian-kemp)

[3]      Bidgood, J., 9/20/20, “Alabama: ‘They’re doing everything to stop us from voting’,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, see above

[5]      Graham, R., 9/14/20, “Vote!” The Boston Globe

[6]      Gibson, B., 9/14/20, “How Virginia made voting easier and fairer,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/how-virginia-made-voting-easier-and-fairer/)

[7]      Kuttner, R., 9/16/20, “Election night could be smoother for Senate races,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/election-night-could-be-smoother-for-senate-races/)

[8]      Fudge, M., 9/21/20, “The struggle to vote continues,” The Boston Globe

OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED

Our elections are indeed rigged, but not in the direction or way President Trump claims. For decades now, Republicans and the country’s wealthy capitalists have been working to skew election results to their benefit by reducing voter participation. As Republican campaign strategist Paul Weyrich said in 1980, “I don’t want everybody to vote. … Our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” [1]

Low participation in elections works to the advantage of corporations, wealthy individuals, and Republicans. They know that their constituency – white, well-off voters – will continue to vote but that others can be prevented or discouraged from voting by barriers to voting and by spreading doubts about candidates and our elections.

Since the 1980s, Republicans and their wealthy donors have engaged in an escalating, coordinated, well-funded, multi-pronged effort to prevent targeted people from voting and to suppress voting in general. It now seems that no holds are barred; serious distortions of candidates’ positions, beliefs, and experiences and blatant lies are commonplace. One prong of their effort was getting “conservative” judges appointed to courts at all levels including the U.S. Supreme Court. This culminated in the Supreme Court’s ruling in 2013 that key portions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) were unconstitutional because discriminatory voting practices were (supposedly) no longer a significant issue. This was essential to the escalation of Republicans’ targeted voter suppression efforts.

The states have proved the Supreme Court wrong; every one of the nine states that had been subject to Voting Rights Act oversight (which occurs because of past discriminatory practices) has implemented new discriminatory barriers to voting. All told, over half of the 50 states have enacted hundreds of barriers to voting in the seven years since the Supreme Court’s decision, some literally within days of the decision.

The four main barriers to voting that states have imposed are:

  • Implementing voter identification laws: Eleven states had strict voter ID laws in 2016, where without the required ID a vote will not be counted unless the voter quickly takes the steps required to validate the provisional ballot they are allowed to cast. These strict voter ID laws first appeared in 2006. In 2000, only 14 states had any ID requirement and all of them allowed a voter to cast a ballot that would be counted through a relatively simple, on-the-spot process. By 2016, 33 states had an ID requirement. [2] For example, in Alabama, a state that had been subject to VRA oversight, a strict voter ID requirement was enacted the year after the Supreme Court’s decision. Motor vehicle offices were where most people would go to get the required photo ID. However, soon after enactment of the voter ID requirement many of these offices in predominantly Black communities were closed, although some of them were later reopened. [3] In Iowa, a very strict voter ID law was enacted in 2017, which it is estimated will keep 260,000 people from voting this fall. Studies have shown that voter ID laws disproportionately disenfranchise non-white, low-income, and elderly voters. There is no evidence of voter fraud, however, it is, nonetheless, given as the rationale for voter ID laws. Moreover, voter ID requirements would NOT prevent the kind of voter fraud Republicans claim is happening. [4]
  • Reducing places and times for voting: A number of states have reduced the number of polling places. The nine states subject to the Voting Rights Act before its evisceration by the Supreme Court in 2013 have closed 1,688 polling places, typically in areas with high proportions of Black voters. Some states have reduced the number of days of early voting and Alabama, for example, does not allow early voting.
  • Purging eligible voters: While election officials do need to clean up voting registration lists (e.g., to remove people who’ve died or moved out of the jurisdiction), Republicans have turned the updating of voting lists into a technique for purging likely Democratic voters. Nationally, an unusually high number of voters (17 million) have been removed from voting lists since the 2016 election. The purges often target people who move frequently (e.g., young people, students, low-income workers, and non-white voters). These groups also happen to tend to vote Democratic. Often a postcard is mailed to the targeted voters (but not forwarded) and if it isn’t returned, they are removed from the voting rolls. Sometimes voters who haven’t voted in a couple of elections are summarily removed from voting lists. Georgia, for example, purged more than 534,000 voters from its voting rolls in 2016 and 2017. However, a study found that 340,000 of them were valid voters, predominantly non-white, and still living at the addresses on their voter registration information. [5]
  • Denying people with a felony conviction the right to vote: Forty-eight states deny those convicted of a felony the right to vote while they are incarcerated. Eleven states deny them the right to vote even after they have completed their sentences (including any probation or parole), although there typically is, in theory, a process for regaining their voting rights. [6] These laws denying voting rights reflect the racism of Jim Crow laws, where whites were looking for ways they could legally keep Blacks from voting (among other things). Laws were written and selectively enforced so that Black males were convicted of felonies at a high rate and therefore prevented from voting. (Women couldn’t vote at that time.) In 2016, there were over 4.7 million citizens out of prison but disenfranchised by their criminal record. One-third of them are Black. [7] In recent years, there has been a trend toward reinstating their right to vote often with some conditions. For example, in Florida in 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question to repeal the law preventing those who had been convicted of a felony from voting after completing their sentences (except for those convicted of murder or a sex crime). However, the Republican Governor and legislature have gone out of their way to thwart the will of the people. As it currently stands, those who have completed their sentences, now also have to pay all restitution, fines, fees, and court costs before they are allowed to vote. This is effectively a new kind of poll tax and will keep an estimated 775,000 people, who are predominantly Black men, from voting this fall.

My next post will cover some of the secondary techniques for suppressing voting and steps we can take to increase voter participation and, thereby, the health of our democracy.

[1]      Hightower, J., 9/1/20, “Six ways the Right is shredding the right to vote,” Common Dreams from The Hightower Lowdown (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2020/09/01/six-ways-right-shredding-vote)

[2]      National Conference of State Legislatures, retrieved 9/20/20, “History of voter ID,” (https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/voter-id-history.aspx)

[3]      Bidgood, J., 9/20/20, “Alabama: ‘They’re doing everything to stop us from voting’,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Gibson, B., 9/14/20, “How Virginia made voting easier and fairer,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/politics/how-virginia-made-voting-easier-and-fairer/)

[5]      Durkin, E., 10/19/18, “GOP candidate improperly purged 340,000 from Georgia voter rolls, investigation claims,” The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/oct/19/georgia-governor-race-voter-suppression-brian-kemp)

[6]      National Conference of State Legislatures, retrieved 9/21/20, “Felon voting rights,” (https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/felon-voting-rights.aspx)

[7]      Wood, E., 2016, “Florida: An outlier in denying voting rights,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/publications/Florida_Voting_Rights_Outlier.pdf)

MAKE THE POST OFFICE GREAT AGAIN

The scandalous behavior of Louis DeJoy, the Trump administration’s new Postmaster General for the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), has gotten quite a bit of attention in the mainstream media; my previous two posts presented at least some of the rest of the USPS story. (My last post described the efforts to undermine and privatize the USPS, and, on the other hand, growing interest in reviving postal banking. My previous post described DeJoy’s Friday night massacre of personnel and the role of Treasury Secretary Mnuchin in the USPS shenanigans.)

In case you missed it, two new scandals have emerged involving the Trump administration’s leaders at the USPS. First, Postmaster General DeJoy faces multiple allegations that he pressured employees of his private business to make political contributions and rewarded employees if they did so with bonuses or raises. If true, this is a blatant violation of campaign finance laws. [1] Second, Robert Duncan, the chairman of the USPS Board of Governors (which formally appointed DeJoy), is a long-time major Republican fundraiser (as DeJoy is). Duncan recently was identified as one of three directors of a Republican Super PAC that has already spent nearly $18 million supporting Senate Republican candidates in the 2020 elections. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell basically controls this Super PAC. Duncan’s long-time relationship with McConnell and his role with the Super PAC are coming under scrutiny as concerns are growing about political manipulation of the USPS. [2]

Here are a number of actions and policy changes that Congress should initiate to restore and strengthen the USPS and its ability to deliver quality services, which would make the USPS great again. After all, it is a public good that connects us with each other and supports our democracy and our economy. [3]

  • Investigate Postmaster General DeJoy and ultimately remove and replace him with a qualified, non-partisan leader.
  • End the Treasury Department’s and Secretary Mnuchin’s control over and involvement with the USPS.
  • Repeal the provisions of the 2006 Postal Accountability and Enforcement Act that require the USPS to pre-fund its retiree benefits and instead allow the USPS to account for its retiree benefits and present its finances using Generally Accepted Accounting Principles.
  • Repeal the provisions of the 1970 Postal Reorganization Act that require the USPS to be considered a private business and instead treat it like a public agency and a public service.
  • Rescind restrictions on the USPS’s operations and, for example, allow it to pursue postal banking to provide a valuable service to unbanked Americans and others poorly served by private, for-profit financial corporations.
  • Remove the requirement that the USPS invest its retiree benefits funds solely in Treasury Bonds; no private retirement fund would do this and it negatively affects investment returns and, therefore, increases costs for the USPS.
  • Explore the possibility of enrolling retirees in Medicare to more efficiently provide retiree health benefits.

These steps would allow the USPS to provide efficient, quality, universal service, while providing good jobs for its workers. They would stabilize and normalize the finances of the USPS and benefit the public.

DeJoy, Mnuchin, and Trump are engaged in sabotage of the USPS, plain and simple. They want to discredit it as a public agency, undermine its union workers, and shift its revenue to private companies (namely their friends and campaign contributors).

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and Senators to tell them that you support the U.S. Postal Service and oppose efforts to undermine it. Please also ask them to support postal banking to provide affordable and convenient basic financial services to the public, particularly low-income households. Private banks have failed to provide such services to many Americans and payday lenders have emerge to fill this gap but are taking advantage of desperate low-income workers.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Queally, J., 9/6/20, “ ‘This is against the law and DeJoy must be fired’: Postmaster General accused of criminal violation of campaign laws,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/09/06/against-law-and-dejoy-must-be-fired-postmaster-general-accused-criminal-violation)

[2]      Johnson, J., 9/1/20, “ ‘The corruption is bottomless’: Documents reveal chair of postal service board is Director of McConnell-allied Super PAC,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/09/01/corruption-bottomless-documents-reveal-chair-postal-service-board-director-mcconnell)

[3]      Anderson, S., Klinger, S., & Wakamo, B., 7/15/19, “How Congress manufactured a postal crisis – and how to fix it,” Institute for Policy Studies (https://ips-dc.org/how-congress-manufactured-a-postal-crisis-and-how-to-fix-it/)

BIG BUSINESS HAS FAILED US IN THE PANDEMIC

Big businesses and their executives have failed us in the coronavirus pandemic, but nonetheless they are standing at the public trough getting more bailout money than anyone else. This sounds just like what happened in 2008.

Big corporations and their so smart executives didn’t see the business opportunity and respond to the pandemic when it appeared in late 2019 in China. They could and should have seen what was coming and increased the production of ventilators and personal protection equipment (PPE). This was a great opportunity for them to make a profit and garner good publicity but with their short-term, finance-focused mentality, they totally missed the opportunity.

Corporate executives have failed to push back on the Trump administration and the right-wing movement in their disdain for science and expertise. At times, they have promoted it, for example in climate change denial. In the case of the coronavirus, shortly before Trump made his dangerous call for the country to get back to normal by Easter, he had been on a conference call with financial executives who apparently told him that ending social distancing would be good for the financial markets.

Corporate executives – supposedly leaders – have failed to stand up for rational policies and preparedness. In doing so, they have aided and abetted the right-wing anti-government, anti-knowledge, anti-truth movement. By doing everything they can to avoid paying taxes, corporate executives have undermined government capacity to respond to public health crises, among other things.

Lessons that were learned during the Ebola outbreak in 2014 have been ignored and undermined by the Trump administration and its enablers in Congress. They have weakened our public health system and undermined our global health security, including eliminating the key position that coordinates U.S. global health efforts. [1] The Trump administration ignored the plans the Obama administration gave them, developed based on the Ebola outbreak, on how to respond to a public health crisis.

The right-wing movement reflexively opposes government policies and programs, both because it wants unbridled, unregulated opportunities to make profits at any cost to the public good, and because they don’t want to take the chance that any government action would appear to be valuable or successful. They don’t want voters to ever get the sense that government does important things that serve the public interest. [2]

Deregulation, particularly of the financial industry and financial standards, has undermined the financial stability of multiple corporations and industries. There are many financially unstable corporations in the U.S. that are likely to be in or on the brink of bankruptcy without government assistance in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. This is the result of big banks making high-risk loans, vulture capitalists’ leverage buyouts (with high-risk loans), and corporations using virtually all their profits and even borrowed money to buy back stock and pay dividends (which enriches executives and wealthy shareholders). The systematic weakening of the regulation of the big banks since the 2008 crash, including the undermining of the Dodd-Frank law’s financial safeguards put in place after that crash, have contributed significantly to this dangerous situation. [3]

For example, over the last decade the airline industry has spent 96% of the cash generated by profits to buy back its own shares of stock. Therefore, it failed to build a reserve against tough times and is now standing at the public trough asking for a bailout of $50 billion. Coincidentally, the six biggest U.S. airlines spent $47 billion over the last ten years buying their own stock, endangering the financial stability and future of the corporations. [4]

A corporation buying its own stock boosts the price of its shares, which enriches big stockholders and executives. In 2012, for example, the 500 highest paid executives at public U.S. corporations received, on average, $30 million each in compensation with 83% of it based on stock options and stock awards. Therefore, a boost in the price of the corporation’s stock enriches these executives substantially. [5]

Over five decades, corporate executives have outsourced their supply chains to foreign countries, notably China, while ignoring the risks and hidden costs of being dependent on global trade. They did so to increase profits by dramatically reducing labor costs. The coronavirus pandemic has brought the risks and hidden costs of globalization home to roost. Manufacturing operations in China and other countries have shut down due to the pandemic, which has also made the shipping of goods problematic. Foreign governments, especially authoritarian ones like China, are controlling exports, including of critically needed supplies to respond to the pandemic. As a result, corporations dependent on global operations to produce goods for export to and sale in the U.S., don’t have products to sell and consumers can’t get things they need, including critical health care supplies and drugs.

The risks of global supply chains shouldn’t have come as a surprise to smart corporate executives. In the 1930s, when dealing with the Great Depression, economist John Maynard Keynes argued for the globalization of ideas and arts, but the retention at home of the manufacturing of goods. [6]

The bottom line is that corporate executives exacerbated the coronavirus pandemic by:

  • Failing to respond to the emergence of the coronavirus in a timely and effective manner,
  • Failing to support preparedness for a public health crisis and a knowledge-based response when the coronavirus hit,
  • Supporting deregulation of finances that have made their own corporations and our economy more vulnerable to economic stress, and
  • Outsourcing global supply lines making their own corporations and all of us more vulnerable to disruptions in global trade.

[1]      Warren, E., retrieved from the Internet 4/5/20, “Preventing, containing, and treating infectious disease outbreaks at home and abroad,” https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/combating-infectious-disease-outbreaks

[2]      Krugman, P., 3/28/20, “COVID-19 brings out all the usual zombies,” The New York Times

[3]      Warren, E., retrieved from the Internet on 4/5/20, “My updated plan to address the coronavirus crisis,” https://elizabethwarren.com/plans/updated-plan-address-coronavirus

[4]      Van Doorn, P., 3/22/20, “Airlines and Boeing want a bailout – but look how much they’ve spent on stock buybacks,” MarketWatch (https://www.marketwatch.com/story/airlines-and-boeing-want-a-bailout-but-look-how-much-theyve-spent-on-stock-buybacks-2020-03-18)

[5]      Lazonick, W., Sept. 2014, “Profits without prosperity,” Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2014/09/profits-without-prosperity)

[6]      Prestowitz, C., & Ferry, J., 3/30/20, “The end of the global supply chain,” The Boston Globe

THE LEGACY OF WARREN’S RUN FOR PRESIDENT

As a policy wonk and someone who believes governments have an important role to play in addressing issues in our economy and society, I’m disappointed to see Sen. Elizabeth Warren drop out of the Democratic presidential race. Her highlighting of the work we need to do on social and economic justice will have a lasting legacy.

Warren has more clearly and specifically laid out a progressive vision for this country than anyone since President Franklin D. Roosevelt. She spelled out not only what that vision looked like but how to achieve it. She focused attention on the role of government, who it is supposed to work for in a democracy, and how those with wealth and power have undermined the basic principles and promise of our democracy. [1]

The detailed roadmap Warren put forth of how to solve problems in our society and economy, and to return to government of, by, and for the people will, fortunately, long outlive her presidential campaign. In February 2019, she put forth the first of her numerous plans to address our problems with a proposal to make affordable, high quality child care available for all children under school age. And she put forth her proposal for a wealth tax on ultra-millionaires as the way to pay for it and a number of her other plans.

Warren next presented a plan to break up and regulate the Big Tech corporations that are engaging in monopolistic practices and abusing the personal information they gather from all of us. She followed this up with a proposal to reverse decades of racist housing policies implemented by governments at all levels along with private sector lenders and the real estate industry. She followed up with plans to tackle the cost of higher education and student debt, a detailed plan to pay for health care for all, and policies to lessen the influence of big corporations and wealthy individuals in our policy making process.

Warren’s meticulous policy proposals set the agenda for the Democratic race for the presidential nomination. Hopefully, they will set the agenda for the final presidential race and future policy debates in Congress and governments at all levels.

Her proposals and arguments on the campaign trail hammered home the message that America’s problems are not inevitable but are the results of choices reflected in government policies. Warren highlighted how these decisions have been driven by the power of wealthy individuals and corporations, and how they have put their profits, power, and personal gain ahead of the common good.

Warren’s abilities as a storyteller made our problems and her solutions resonate with many Americans, as she wove her personal life story and America’s history into a clear, understandable, and persuasive narrative.

In keeping with her message that government needs to better serve the broad public, she raised the majority of her campaign’s $92 million (which, sadly, is necessary to run a competitive campaign these days) from small donors giving $200 or less. She refused to hold big ticket fundraisers where attendees make contributions in the thousands of dollars. She received more than half of her fundraising total from women, which is highly unusual if not unprecedented. This all demonstrated, as Sen. Sanders has as well, that a viable presidential campaign can be run without relying on large sums of money from wealthy individuals (who have vested, special interests). [2]

Warren has changed the way many Americans view our society and economy. Many people have learned about a wealth tax and the racial wealth gap for the first time, for example.

I believe she has changed the course of our country. Only time will tell how quickly and extensively her vision will affect the policies of our governments and the characteristics of our economy and society.

[1]      Voght, K., 3/5/20, “What Elizabeth Warren taught us,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/03/what-elizabeth-warren-taught-us/)

[2]      Hasan, I., & Monnay, T., 3/5/20, “Low on cash and delegates, Warren ends her White House bid,” OpenSecrets.org, Center for Responsive Politics (https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2020/03/warren-ends-her-bid/)

LIES ABOUT THE 2017 TAX CUT ARE NOW CLEAR

The effects of the December 2017 tax cut bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), rammed through by Republicans in Congress and President Trump, are now quite clear. I’ll provide a summary of what it did, note the promises that were made about its effects, and then review its actual effects.

The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, among other things:

  • Permanently cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21% (the lowest level since 1939)
  • Repealed the 20% corporate alternative minimum tax (which had required profitable corporations to pay at least some taxes on their profits)
  • Allowed up to $63,000 of pass-through business profits to go untaxed to help small businesses (supposedly). (These are profits from businesses that are not taxed because they are passed through to and taxed on an individual’s tax return.)
  • Provided significant tax benefits to corporations for investments in facilities and equipment, as well as for borrowing money
  • Adjusted the taxation of multinational corporations to more fairly tax their profits, for example, by increasing taxes on profits shifted to overseas entities and by incentivizing corporations to repatriate trillions of dollars of profits previously stashed overseas
  • Doubled the size of an estate that is exempt from taxation from $5 million to $10 million per person
  • Repealed the requirement of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obama Care) that individuals have health insurance or pay a tax to support the health care system
  • Made changes in the personal income tax system that are generally neutral for most taxpayers, although several of the tax reduction provisions are scheduled to expire in 2025

The supporters of the TCJA, including Members of Congress, the President, corporate executives, and wealthy shareholders all promised that it would:

  • Provide a sizable tax cut for workers and middle-income people, while increasing taxes on high-income people
  • Increase wages and workers’ incomes by $4,000 a year
  • Increase business investment, and hence worker productivity, the number of jobs, and economic growth in the U.S.
  • Limit the increase in the federal government’s deficit to $150 billion a year
  • Discourage the shifting of corporate profits and jobs overseas through new taxes, while also increasing tax revenue by giving corporations an incentive to bring up to $4 trillion of profits stashed overseas back to the U.S. by reducing the taxes they would have to pay on those profits. (More on this topic in my next post.)

The actual effects of the TCJA have been: [1]

  • No discernable wage increase due to the TCJA. In fact, wage growth appears to have slowed in 2019.
  • Clear failure to increase business investment; no increase in 2018 and a significant decline in the first 9 months of 2019. When the TCJA was enacted in 2017, year-over-year investment growth was at 5.4%. However, it has been dropping sharply and was only 1.3% in the third quarter of 2019 (the latest data available). [2]
  • Larger than projected decline in federal corporate tax revenue, which was expected to be $96 billion a year (roughly a 26% tax cut). As a result, the deficit is increasing by about $30 billion a year more than the $150 billion a year that was promised. The deficit is projected to increase to over $1 trillion a year in 2020.

    The latest information suggests that the decline in revenue and the increase in the deficit may be even larger. (More on this in my next post.) The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that the deficit (including interest payments) will be an average of $230 billion a year higher over the next 10 years due to the TCJA and $310 billion a year higher in 2028.

    The federal government’s revenue from corporate taxes had already been declining as a portion of total federal tax revenue, largely due to corporate tax evasion and avoidance. The trend of declining tax revenue from corporations has been accelerated by the TCJA, which cut corporate taxes by about 26% or $96 billion a year. The corporate tax cut has primarily benefited corporate shareholders, at least in the short run; the 10% wealthiest households own roughly 80% of corporate shares and, therefore, these already wealthy households are the primary beneficiaries of the corporate tax cuts. [3]

  • Business profit pass-through tax exemption, supposedly targeted at small businesses, has largely benefited millionaires, which isn’t what most people think of when they think of a small businessperson. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone, as 49% of pass-through income appears on the tax returns of the richest 1% of taxpayers.
  • Increase in income and wealth inequality along both class and racial lines. Rich corporate executives and wealthy shareholders have been enriched at the expense of workers. White households are 67% of taxpayers but are estimated to receive 80% of the TCJA’s benefits, and most of this will go to the 5% of households with the highest incomes, i.e., over $243,000 a year. The average tax cut for a Black household has been $840, but $2,020 for a White household. For families with incomes under $25,000, the average tax cut has been about $40.

    In 2018, the 5% of individuals with the highest incomes received nearly 50% of the TCJA’s benefits. After the individual tax cuts expire in 2025, the 1% of households with the highest incomes will receive 83% of the benefits of the TCJA.

  • A bigger tax cut for foreign investors than for low- and middle-income households in the U.S. Foreign investors, as a group, will receive an estimated $38 billion tax cut from the TCJA in 2020, while the 20% poorest households in the U.S., as a group, will receive an estimated $2 billion.

The bottom line is that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 has delivered none of the promised benefits to workers and low- and middle-income households, but has delivered much greater benefits than were promised (or admitted to) to large, particularly multi-national, corporations and to wealthy individuals. Economic benefits for workers and low- and middle-income households have not materialized and there is no reason to expect them to. Business investment and economic growth have not increased as promised. The promise of more fairly taxing multi-national corporations’ profits to increase tax revenue and discourage the shifting of profits and jobs overseas have not lived up to the promises made, and the most recent findings indicate that this failure has been more dramatic than was initially realized. (More on this topic in my next post.)

The loss of revenue for the federal government is significantly larger than was projected and, therefore, the increase in the federal budget deficit is much greater than what was promised.

[1]      Corser, M., Bivens, J., & Blair, H., Dec. 2019, “Still terrible at two: The Trump tax act delivered big benefits to the rich and corporations but nearly none to working families,” The Center for Popular Democracy and the Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/files/uploads/20191211_Trump-Tax-Bill-R6.pdf)

[2]      Blair, H., 12/17/19, “On its second anniversary, the TCJA has cut taxes for corporations, but nothing has trickled down,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/on-its-second-anniversary-the-tcja-has-cut-taxes-for-corporations-but-nothing-has-trickled-down/)

[3]      Corser, M., Bivens, J., & Blair, H., Dec. 2019, see above

YEAR-END REFLECTIONS ON DEMOCRACY AND THE PROGRESSIVE MOVEMENT

For New Year’s Eve 2019, with a momentous election coming up in 2020, I’m reflecting on the state of progressivism (aka liberalism) and our democracy. One of my heroes in the world of liberal policy and political analysis is Bob Kuttner. The range and depth of his knowledge is truly incredible. His writing is clear and insightful even when covering very complex policy and political issues. A main outlet for his writing and thinking has been The American Prospect magazine, which he co-founded and has run for 30 years. When many print media outlets are disappearing, the Prospect is flourishing.

While the Democratic Party has strayed from its core beliefs and values to shift to the center and the right, especially on economic issues (to allow it to pursue contributions from corporate elites), The American Prospect magazine and Kuttner have stayed true to the progressive cause. They have consistently championed working people’s causes and exposed the abuses of the big, multinational corporations and financial industry. They have connected the dots among the structural corruption of unchecked capitalism, its inextricable link to the corruption of our politics and democracy, how these affect the everyday lives of regular people, and what’s need to reclaim our democracy and country for the people. [1] The Prospect’s most recent issue is an incredibly in-depth analysis of the Green New Deal and the need for urgent and radical, yet practical and doable, actions to address global climate change.

Bob Kuttner’s comments at the October gala celebrating the Prospect’s 30th anniversary, reflecting on the roles of “mainstream” and radical progressives or liberals, struck me as very relevant and insightful in the run-up to the 2020 elections. Here is an excerpt:

One of the things that fascinates me is the uneasy relationship and necessary symbiosis between liberals and radicals. Liberal democracy, at its core, is about the rule of law, democratic representation, the concept of loyal opposition, free inquiry, and due process. It’s polite. But sometimes, power relations become so out of kilter that radicalism has to violate well-mannered liberalism. The industrial union movement could not have succeeded without sit-down strikes that violated property rights. The civil rights movement required sit-ins, and marches, and other forms of civil disobedience. Lyndon Johnson, when he allied himself with Martin Luther King, understood that people had to break the law as it was then understood to redeem the Constitution. And of course the anti-war movement of the 1960s had to break a lot of china.

Just as liberals, however queasily, need radicals, it’s also the case that radicals need liberals. Because drastic change ultimately needs to be enshrined as law.” [2]

Since the 1980s, an important factor driving the shift to the right and the enhancement of the power of corporate America and the wealthy has been an imbalance in financial resources and in the way the wealthy are using them. As Kuttner notes above, liberals and the left tend to be polite, well-mannered, focused on consensus and bipartisanship, and to operate within the context of laws, institutions, and established norms and practices. The right and their wealthy funders have not been similarly constrained. They have readily adopted an extreme agenda, been willing to bend and break the truth and the facts, and have willingly, and at times apparently gleefully, ignored norms and traditions, broken the law, and trashed important institutions of our democracy. [3]

This closing reflection from Kuttner’s speech resonates strongly with me:

… the postwar system of managed capitalism, that my generation assumed was the new normal, was in fact an anomaly. …

It takes enduring continuous political struggle to keep enriching and expanding democracy, both for its own sake and to housebreak capitalism. That is a labor of Sisyphus. You roll the rock up the hill; and the rock tumbles back down the hill. But in Albert Camus’s celebrated essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, the last line is: ‘One must imagine Sisyphus happy. The work, and the joy, is in the struggle.’” [4]

Beginning in the 1980s, the Democratic Party, and we as citizens of a democracy, let too many rocks roll too far down the hill by undoing the oversight and regulation of capitalism and letting it and the wealth of corporate elites corrupt our politics and policies. The middle class and working people got buried in the landslide of rocks rolling downhill.

Many citizens learned from the election of 2016 that democracy is not a spectator sport; citizens need to be engaged and informed for democracy to work. Some in the Democratic Party recognized and others found their voices to say that too many rocks had rolled too far down the hill of economic inequality and of other injustices in our society. Hopefully, the 2020 elections will reflect that learning, which was evident to some extent in the 2018 national elections, as well as in elections at the state and local levels.

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to do whatever I can in 2020 to advance the movement that’s reclaiming our liberal democracy of, by, and for the people. I hope it’s one of your resolutions too.

[1]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, “Sisyphus is happy,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/blogs/tap/sisyphus-is-happy/)

[2]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, see above

[3]      Heer, J., 9/10/19, “In an age of policy boldness, think tanks have become timid,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/think-tanks-democratic-party/)

[4]      Meyerson, H., 10/24/19, see above

SUPPLY-SIDE, TRICKLE-DOWN TAX CUT THEORY HAS FAILED

Plutocratic economics (see this previous post for background), and specifically so-called supply-side or trickle-down economics, claims that cutting taxes, particularly on the wealthy and businesses, will stimulate economic growth so much that 1) government tax revenue will actually increase, 2) the number of jobs will grow, and 3) workers’ pay will increase.

There have been at least six significant federal tax cuts between 1978 to 2019 and, in every case, federal government revenue did NOT increase as promised. These tax cuts, under Presidents Carter, Reagan, G. W. Bush, and Trump, each produced some short-term economic stimulus, but federal revenue declined and the budget deficit increased. Furthermore, these tax cuts have been neither fair (economic inequality has increased) nor efficient (some of the country’s most profitable corporations and wealthiest individuals pay little or no taxes). [1]

Some states have also cut taxes based on supply-side economic theory, most notably Kansas in 2012. Like the federal cases, the results have not been what was promised. Kansas’s Republican Governor Brownback and the state’s overwhelmingly Republican legislature eliminated state income taxes for more than 100,000 businesses and greatly reduced taxes on wealthy individuals. Invoking supply-side, trickle-down economic theory, Brownback predicted the tax cuts would more than pay for themselves, i.e., that state tax revenue would grow. Instead, revenues fell so precipitously that shortages in funding for schools required that the school year had to be considerably shortened to save money, public construction projects ground to a halt, and the health coverage of the state’s Medicaid program had to be greatly reduced. The state’s economy ceased producing jobs and Kansas’s economy performed more poorly than its neighboring states on virtually every economic indicator. (See this previous post for more details.)

In 2016, Kansas voters – including Republicans who objected to seeing their children’s educations shortchanged – revolted. Republican primary voters, joined by Democrats, ousted legislators who had refused to repeal the tax cuts, and in 2017, the new legislature overrode Brownback’s veto of a bill repealing the cuts. In 2018, voters elected Democrat Laura Kelly as their new governor, and today, with adequate funding restored, Kansas has resumed its support for education, infrastructure spending, and the other basic governmental functions. As a result, in 2019, Kansas leapt from 35th (in 2018) to 19th on CNBC’s list of the top states for business. [2]

Nonetheless, in 2017, supply-side, trickle-down economic theory was invoked by President Trump and the Republicans in Congress in justifying their $150 billion a year tax cut primarily for corporations and wealthy individuals. The results of these tax cuts have been, predictably, NOT what was promised. Rather than stimulating higher economic growth, growth and job creation have been slow.

The federal budget deficit has grown substantially and workers’ compensation remains stagnant. Huge rewards have gone to large corporations and their executives, so economic inequality has grown sharply. The corporations are using the windfall to buy back their own stock at record rates. This enriches executives and other large stockholders. Corporations have not been increasing workers’ compensation, nor hiring additional workers, nor investing in innovation. (For more detail see this previous post.)

Furthermore, the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress, citing the growing budget deficit, argue that cuts need to be made in economic safety net programs including food assistance for the poor, health care for the poor and seniors (i.e., Medicaid and Medicare), and Social Security.

Future posts will summarize the harm plutocratic economics has done to workers and our democracy. They will also discuss the politics of neoliberalism and identify progressive policies that can reverse the harmful effects of plutocratic economics.

[1]      Kuttner, R., 6/25/19, “Neoliberalism: Political success, economic failure,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/neoliberalism-political-success-economic-failure)

[2]      Meyerson, H., 7/23/19, “Going up in economic ratings? Then lose trickle-down,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap/going-economic-ratings-then-lose-trickle-down)

FUTURE SUPREME COURT CASES WILL TELL A TALE

The following upcoming Supreme Court cases should be watched to see if the “conservative” majority continues to make partisan or ideologically-driven decisions that reflect judicial activism (i.e., they disregard precedents and established law): (See my previous post on why the “conservative” justices are really radical, right-wing activists.)

  • Department of Commerce vs. New York State, where the Court will decide whether to prohibit the addition to the 2020 Census of a question on citizenship status. The Constitution mandates a census to count all people living in the U.S. The Census Bureau itself (which is part of the Department of Commerce) estimates that adding a citizenship question would mean that 5.8% of households with a non-citizen would not respond to the Census, resulting in 6.5 million people not being counted.

    An acknowledged undercount (due to a citizenship question or anything else) would violate the intent of the Constitution. Furthermore, the undercounting of households with a non-citizen, who disproportionately live in states and districts represented by Democrats, will result in billions of dollars of reduced federal financial assistance to those areas due to funding allocations based on population. It might also result in Democratic leaning states losing seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and the loss of Democratic leaning seats in state legislatures.

    A citizenship question has been added to the Census 1) in violation of the law for modifying the Census, 2) over the objections of experienced Census Bureau employees and six former directors of the Bureau under both Democratic and Republican presidents, and 3) based on a rationale that has been lied about by Commerce Secretary Ross and other Trump Administration officials. [1]

    A recently uncovered 2015 report by a Republican redistricting strategist, Thomas Hofeller, concluded that a citizenship question would provide data to facilitate drawing political districts that would benefit Republicans. Hofeller also suggested using the rationale for the question that the Trump Administration has put forward: that the question would help protect minority voters under the Voting Right Act. The Justice Department letter to the Commerce Department requesting the addition of a citizenship question, uses, word-for-word, a paragraph from Hofeller, despite denials from the Justice and the Commerce Departments that they were aware of Hofeller’s work. [2]

    Therefore, if the Court rules that a citizenship question can be included on the Census, the decision will reek of partisanship.

  • Rucho vs. Common Cause and Benisek vs. Lamone are cases where the Court will rule on the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering of congressional districts to benefit Republicans in North Carolina and Democrats in Maryland. [3] Although these two cases reflect gerrymandering by each party, the bulk of and the most extreme partisan gerrymandering that is in place today has been done to benefit Republicans. (See my previous posts on gerrymandering here and here.)

    If the Court refuses to ban extreme partisan gerrymandering, the decision will clearly benefit Republicans and, therefore, appear to be partisan.

  • The Court has decided to rule on three cases involving employment discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) individuals. Courts, including the Supreme Court, have ruled since the 1980s that the Civil Rights Act of 1964’s prohibition on discrimination based on sex protected LGBT people from discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces non-discrimination in the workplace, has interpreted the Civil Rights Act to apply to sexual orientation and gender identity. Protection for LGBT people in federal law is important because 30 states do not have laws protecting them from discrimination. Many in the LGBT community are concerned that the Supreme Court will overturn these precedents in its rulings on these cases. It is even possible that its rulings in these cases could undermine protections for women. [4]

    If the Supreme Court’s rulings in these cases overturn protections for LGBT individuals, the Court’s decisions will be viewed by many as radical, right-wing ideological and partisan decisions by activist justices.

  • Although no case is expected to reach the Supreme Court for a while, anti-abortion activists in Alabama and a number of other states clearly intend to engender a Supreme Court case that will give the Court an opportunity to reverse the Roe vs. Wade decision guaranteeing women the right to terminate a pregnancy. Anti-abortion activists are pushing these laws now because they believe the current “conservative” Supreme Court justices will overturn the settled law and precedent that Roe vs. Wade represents and that has been in place for over 45 years.

    A Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe vs. Wade will be viewed by many as a radical, right-wing ideological and partisan decision of judicial activism.

If the Court makes radical, right-wing, partisan, activist decisions in some or all of these cases, Congressional action to reverse them is possible, with the possible exception of the inclusion of a citizenship question on the 2020 Census. Even there, Congress could ameliorate the effects of the inclusion of the question. (See my previous post on reversing the effects of Supreme Court decisions.)

These Supreme Court cases will be closely watched. A series of radical, right-wing, partisan, activist decisions will, unfortunately, continue to undermine the faith of the public that the Supreme Court – and our court system in general – is impartial and non-partisan. They would also undermine a foundational element of our democracy: its system of supposedly independent checks and balances.

[1]      Liptak, A., 4/15/19, “The Supreme Court will soon consider whether the Census will include a citizenship question,” The New York Times

[2]      Wang, H. L., 5/30/19, “GOP redistricting strategist played role in push for Census citizenship question,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2019/05/30/728232221/gop-redistricting-strategist-played-role-in-push-for-census-citizenship-question)

[3]      Stohr, G., & Robinson, K., 3/26/19, “Supreme Court Justices question suits over partisan gerrymandering,” Bloomberg Law (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-26/top-court-justices-question-suits-over-partisan-gerrymandering)

[4]      Arana, G., 5/22/19, “Does the Civil Rights Act protect gay employees? The Court will decide,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/does-civil-rights-act-protect-gay-employees-court-will-decide)

REVERSING SUPREME COURT DECISIONS

Congress could reverse the effects of many of the Supreme Court’s decisions by changing relevant laws. Many of the Court’s 5 to 4 rulings by the “conservative” justices (who I argue in a previous post would be more accurately described as radical, right-wing, activists justices) are politically or ideologically driven. Congressional action to reverse them is possible and in many cases would restore long-standing precedents and established law that the “conservative” justices have chosen to ignore or overturn.

One prominent example of a Supreme Court ruling that congressional action could reverse is the Court’s decision that gutted the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. (See my previous post on this case here.) By updating the criteria for determining which local jurisdictions are subject to federal oversight, Congress could reinstitute federal review of states’ election practices. The proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act in Congress would accomplish this. [1]

As another example, Congress could reverse recent Supreme Court decisions that allow businesses to force harmed consumers and workers to settle their claims in a privatized arbitration system that overwhelmingly favors business interests. These Court decisions selectively interpret legal language or fabricate legal reasoning to allow a business to require consumers and workers to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that prohibit them from suing the business if they are injured or harmed. For example, the Court has read into the Federal Arbitration Act, which says nothing about class action lawsuits, that a corporation can require a consumer to sign away his or her right to join a class action lawsuit. [2] Congress could pass a law that establishes a right for consumers and workers to sue a business if they are harmed.

Additional examples of legislatively correctible Supreme Court decisions where established law and/or precedent have been ignored or overturned include:

  • Congress could pass a law reinstituting long-standing anti-trust laws that the Court has overturned. The Court’s decisions have changed anti-trust laws to:
    • 1) allow price fixing between manufacturers and distributors, and
    • 2) define a theoretical promise of short-term consumer price reduction as the sole criterion for deciding whether to permit corporate mergers and aggregations of marketplace power.
  • Congress could reverse the Court’s overturning of executive branch agency regulations, which the “conservative” justices did by developing a rationale for ignoring a 35-year-old precedent that had been repeatedly cited as established law. The Court has rejected agency regulations based on its own re-interpretation of underlying laws, rather than deferring to agencies’ expertise and interpretation of the law as had been the precedent. This effectively shifts regulatory power from executive branch agencies with long-standing experience and expertise to the five right-wing, male justices of the Supreme Court. Congress could pass a law prohibiting the courts from overturning a regulation if it is based on a permissible interpretation of the underlying law (which was the old precedent).
  • Congress could reverse the Supreme Court’s dramatic weakening of protections from discrimination based on race, age, religion, sexual orientation, and gender-identity. In race and age discrimination cases, the Court has ruled, contrary to precedent, that discrimination must be proven to be the sole cause of negative treatment. It has defined the term “supervisor” so narrowly that almost no one can be found guilty of sexually or racially harassing a subordinate. It has ruled that an employer or business owner can, based on his or her personal religious beliefs, eliminate coverage for birth control from an employer-sponsored health insurance plan. [3] Congress could pass laws defining the term “supervisor” and the standard for a finding of discrimination. It could also pass a law requiring all employer health insurance to meet the standards of the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care), which would mean including coverage for contraception.

Congressional action to overturn these and other Supreme Court decisions is not only possible, and would not only reverse bad legal precedents and harmful effects, but would send a message that power resides with Congress, not with five, unelected “conservative” men. Even if legislation to reverse these decisions can only be passed by the House, doing so would be beneficial. It would highlight the harm and lack of impartiality behind these politically or ideologically driven decisions, as well as the “conservative” justices’ ignoring of precedents and established law. House passage of such laws might temper future decisions by the Court and highlight important issues for future hearings on the confirmation of Supreme Court justices.

My next post will identify some upcoming Supreme Court decisions that should be closely watched to see if the trend of politically or ideologically driven decisions continues.

[1]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, “Not so Supreme? Congress actually has a lot of power, mostly unused, to rein in the Roberts Court by clarifying the intent of the law,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/not-so-supreme)

[2]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, see above

[3]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, see above

THE NOT CONSERVATIVE AND NOT IMPARTIAL SUPREME COURT

“Conservative” is not the right term to use to describe the Supreme Court Justices who have been the “conservative” majority in many 5 to 4 decisions going back to at least 2000. This applies in particular to the current five “conservative” justices who will be the deciding majority in many future decisions.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Thomas are probably better described as “radical, right-wing” justices. They could also be described as Republicans, small government ideologues, corporatists (supporters of large corporations and businesses), and/or plutocrats (supporters of the wealthy elites). Predecessors Rehnquist and Scalia also fit this mold; Kennedy, Souter, and O’Connor were a little harder to categorize.

These “conservative” justices are frequently making decisions that are not impartial decisions based on the law – despite their claims at confirmation hearings that they are just umpires calling balls and strikes based on the law (or some variation on this theme). One expert commentator states that “many of the Roberts Court’s decisions are so poorly reasoned that they appear to be straight-up dishonest.” (p. 52) [1] Despite nominees’ statements at confirmation hearings they respect precedents and established law (or something to that effect), their decisions frequently do not do so.

The “conservative” justices are also not strict constitutionalists – committed to following the original intent of those who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights – despite their claims to be. Trying to apply laws and principles written back in the late 1700s to today’s world without interpretation and adjustment is ridiculous on the face of it, even if they did consistently try to do this (which they don’t). For example, corporations barely existed in the 1700s and they were nothing like the huge, multi-national corporations we have today. Also, the guns that existed then took many seconds, if not a minute or so to reload, while today we have guns that fire multiple bullets per second. Not to mention transportation and electronic communications that today happen at speeds that couldn’t have even been imagined in the 1700s, let alone the ability to store and have ready access to information on the scale we do today. Even if the relevant intent of those constitutional authors could be determined, there is no reason, over 200 years later, to give such deified status to their pronouncements.

And the “conservative” justices have sometimes made decisions that simply contradict reality, as in their decision to effectively overturn the Voting Rights Act. (See my previous post on that decision here.)

The Supreme Court, in the years since the Bush vs. Gore decision in 2000, has frequently ruled in ways that serve Republican partisan purposes, without apparent concern about overturning settled law or precedents, or violating their own stated principles. [2] In Bush vs. Gore, the Supreme Court ordered Florida to stop recounting ballots in the presidential election, when the recount might have shifted the victory from Republican George W. Bush to Democrat Al Gore. It overruled Florida’s Supreme Court and election officials despite the “conservative” justices’ frequently stated belief in “states’ rights,” which means that the states have the power to conduct their business, such as elections, without interference from federal authorities.

Other Supreme Court decisions that have clearly benefited Republican partisan interests and that were 5 to 4 decisions include: [3]

  • Janus in 2018, which ruled that workers in a unionized workplace do not have to pay union dues even though the union is still required to represent and advocate for them in collective bargaining and in grievances. This is expected to result in a drop in union membership and in the financial resources available to unions. The Justices were well aware that unions register and mobilize more voters, particularly minorities, than any other organizations and that these voters tend to support Democratic candidates.
  • Shelby County in 2013, which effectively overturned the Voting Rights Act and allowed Republican state governments and election officials to make it difficult for minorities, low-income citizens, and other Democratic-leaning voters to register and vote. (See my previous post on this decision here.) Without this decision and the voter suppression it allowed, Democrat Stacey Abrams and not Republican Brian Kemp would almost certainly have been elected Governor of Georgia in 2018, for example.
  • Citizens United in 2010, which, along with other rulings, allows corporations and wealthy individuals to spend unlimited sums of money in our elections. This money clearly works to the benefit of Republicans and, in general, those who support the power and political influence of corporations and wealthy individuals in our political system and policy making.
  • Vieth vs. Jubelirer in 2004, which ruled that gerrymandering of electoral districts to favor one party over the other is not unconstitutional. The great majority of such gerrymandering, and by far the most extreme partisan gerrymandering, has been done to favor Republicans. Absent partisan gerrymandering, Democrats would likely have 15 to 20 more seats in the U.S. House. (See my previous posts on gerrymandering here and here.)

Congress could act in all these cases (as well as others) to reverse the effects of the Supreme Court’s decisions by clarifying the legislative intent and goals of underlying laws. One clear example is the Court’s decision that gutted the effectiveness of the Voting Rights Act. This decision is considered by some to be one of the mostly egregiously reasoned cases of the Roberts court. (See my previous post on this case here.) Congress could reinstitute the Voting Rights Act’s control over states’ election practices by updating the criteria for identifying jurisdictions that would be subject to federal oversight. The proposed Voting Rights Advancement Act in Congress would do this. [4]

Congressional action to reverse these politically or ideologically driven decisions is not only possible, and would not only reverse harmful effects and overturn bad legal precedents, but would also send a message that power resides with the people and Congress, not with five, unelected “conservative” men. Even if legislation to reverse these decisions or their effects can only be passed by the House, it could potentially temper future Supreme Court decisions. At the least, it would highlight the harm and lack of impartiality behind these decisions.

A subsequent post will identify other Supreme Court decisions where congressional action could negate the effects of the Court’s rulings. Another future post will identify future Supreme Court decisions that should be closely watched to see if the partisan, rather than impartial, decision making continues.

[1]      Millhiser, I., 2/13/19, “Not so Supreme? Congress actually has a lot of power, mostly unused, to rein in the Roberts Court by clarifying the intent of the law,” The American Prospect (https://prospect.org/article/not-so-supreme)

[2]      Kuttner, R., 5/15/19, “Over to you, John Roberts,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap)

[3]      Meyerson, H., 4/23/19, “The GOP Justices: Republicans first, white guys second, Constitutionalists third,” The American Prospect Today (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap?page=1)

[4]      Millhiser, A., 2/13/19, see above

ON-GOING RUSSIAN ELECTION INTERFERENCE MUST BE STOPPED

Since the release of the Mueller report, the focus has been on obstruction of justice by and possible impeachment of President Trump. The report’s documentation of Russian election interference has gotten little attention. Concomitantly, there has been little attention to the need to protect our future elections from on-going Russian meddling.

Based on the Mueller team’s finding of “sweeping and systematic” interference by Russia in the 2016 presidential campaign, it indicted 25 Russians. Russian operatives used every major social media platform, and used them extensively, to spread false information, exacerbate social divisions, and influence the election.

The Mueller report spells out in detail the blatant and illegal efforts by Russia to affect the 2016 presidential election specifically to benefit Donald Trump and to undermine Hillary Clinton. It presents substantial evidence “that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the [Trump] Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” [1] [2]

Highlights from a much longer list of events related to Russian interference in the election include the following: [3]

  • September 2015: The FBI warns the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that at least one of its computers has been hacked by Russians.
  • June 2016: The Washington Post and others report that hackers working for the Russian government have stolen DNC emails and other information. Wikileaks announces that it has Clinton and DNC emails and documents. It begins publishing them in July.
  • July 2016: Russian intelligence agency hackers target Hillary Clinton’s home office.
  • October 2016: The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of National Intelligence on Election Security officially state that the U.S. intelligence community is “confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions” and are behind the releases of stolen documents by Wikileaks and DCLeaks. DCLeaks is later identified as a front for Russian military intelligence.
  • Late November and December 2016: Various media outlets report that the CIA has determined that Russia’s goal in interfering with the election wasn’t just to undermine confidence in the election and the U.S. government, but was also to support Trump and hurt Clinton. They also report that this intelligence has been shared with Congress.
  • Late December 2016: President Obama issues an executive order naming six Russians who took part in the presidential election hacking and imposing sanctions on Russia.
  • June 2017: A Department of Homeland Security official testifies before the Senate that hackers linked to the Russian government targeted voting systems in up to 21 states and compromised at least one email account at an American voting machine company. Although no evidence of effects on vote counting were found, voter information may have been accessed.
  • July 2018: The Justice Department, as part of Mueller’s investigation, indicts 12 members of Russian intelligence for persistent efforts to hack emails and computer networks associated with the Democratic Party.
  • September 2018: Facebook announces that more than 3,000 ads posted between June 2015 and May 2017 had undisclosed links to Russia. CNN reports that these ads targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin, two states Trump won narrowly and that were key to his victory.

In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued an Intelligence Community Assessment entitled, “Assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent US elections.” [4] It states that it is a “declassified version of a highly classified assessment; its conclusions are identical to those in the highly classified assessment.” It concludes that Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was the most recent example of Russia’s longstanding efforts to undermine US democracy but represented a significant escalation of their efforts.

It finds with “high confidence” that Russian President Putin ordered the efforts with goals of aiding Trump and hurting Clinton. It also concludes with “high confidence” that Russian military intelligence was behind the release of hacked information. It states that “Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. … We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts.” (p. iii)

The Trump campaign was happy to accept the help of the Russians, apparently without actively conspiring (i.e., colluding) with them. It nonetheless engaged in a variety of contacts with Russian agents and did not report offers of help from them to the FBI or others. Members of the Trump campaign and family, including the President himself, lied to the FBI and others on multiple occasions about their contacts with Russians.

To respond to the evidence of on-going Russian attempts to influence our elections, the House and the Senate should continue the investigation and identify remedies. Based on their findings, they should formulate legislation and allocate resources to ensure the integrity of our future elections.

One would think that any American president and any Members of Congress, regardless of party or ideology, would support a thorough investigation of Russian interference to determine how to block future threats to our elections, and ultimately our national sovereignty and security. The Republican-controlled Senate and the formerly Republican-controlled House have refused to do so. The Republicans in Congress have abandoned their oath of office and American democracy in the interests of their re-election and political power.

President Trump, as the Mueller report spells out in detail, has repeatedly tried to terminate, limit, or impede the investigation of Russian interference in our elections. Trump’s actions make it clear that his concern is not for American democracy, but reflects three things: [5]

  • Acknowledgement of Russian meddling on his behalf undermines the credibility of his election in 2016,
  • On-going Russian efforts benefit his presidency, and
  • Russia’s activities improve his likelihood of re-election in 2020.

Former President Ronald Reagan, who branded Russia the “evil empire” and worked assiduously to win the Cold War with Russia, must be turning over in his grave to see his Republican party failing to protect America’s elections from Russian interference.

Despite President Trump’s resistance to an investigation, the FBI, intelligence agencies, and the Department of Homeland Security have made their task forces on election interference permanent. The FBI recently moved 40 agents and analysts to its Foreign Influence Task Force. [6] However, without leadership from the President, and the cross-agency coordination and support that would provide, the efforts by these agencies will be less effective.

I urge you to contact your U.S. Representative and your Senators and urge them to take action to protect our elections from meddling by Russia or other foreign actors.

You can find contact information for your US Representative at  http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/ and for your US Senators at http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Cole, D., 4/23/19, “An indictment in all but name,” The New York Review of Books (https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2019/05/23/robert-mueller-report-trump-indictment/)

[2]      Mueller, R. S., III, May 2019, “Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election,” U.S. Department of Justice (www.justice.gov/storage/report.pdf)

[3]      CNN, 4/18/19, “2016 presidential campaign hacking fast facts,” CNN Library

[4]      Office of the Director of National Intelligence, January 2017, “Intelligence Community Assessment: Assessing Russian activities and intentions in recent US elections,” (https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3719492/Read-the-declassified-report-on-Russian.pdf)

[5]      Cole, D., 4/23/19, see above

[6]      Barnes, J. E., & Goldman, A., 4/26/19, “F.B.I. warns of Russian interference in 2020 race and boosts counterintelligence operations,” The New York Times

ARE THE DEMOCRATS’ IDEAS RADICAL?

The mainstream media’s frequent characterization of ideas put forth by Democratic members of Congress and Democratic presidential candidates as “radical” or “far left” or “out of the mainstream” is simply inaccurate. Most of the ideas so labeled are policies that:

  • Have previously been in place in the U.S.,
  • Are broadly supported by the American public,
  • Have been seriously considered in the U.S. in the past, and/or
  • Are widely in place in other wealthy countries.

For example, Representative Ocasio-Cortez’s recent suggestion that the income tax rate on income over $10 million be raised to 70% was called “insane.” In addition, it was stated that it would kill our economy.

However, in the 1950s, the top income tax rate was over 90% and our economy did just fine. The top tax rate was 70% on income over $216,000 up until 1980 and the economy continued to do well. In the 1980s, President Reagan slashed the top tax rate. The economy didn’t boom as a result, rather the growth and prosperity of the middle class stalled, workers’ wages became stagnant, and income and wealth inequality in the country began to explode. [1]

The 1950s, 60s, and 70s were a 30-year period with top income tax rates of 70% or more, on incomes of roughly $200,000 and up. This period also had strong economic growth, a growing middle class, and increasing equality. Therefore, a proposal to restore such a rate on incomes over $10 million represents a partial return to a policy with a proven track record of success. It is not “radical” or “insane” to say the least.

Ocasio-Cortez’s idea, therefore, is a sensible proposal to address growing inequality and an economy that is working for the rich (and especially the super-rich), but for no one else. What is out of the mainstream is President Trump’s and Congressional Republicans’ 2018 tax cut for the wealthy, given that 43% of voters say they want taxes raised on incomes over $250,000 (not just $10 million) and 60% say they don’t feel millionaires are paying their fair share of taxes. Furthermore, since 2003, the Gallup Poll has annually asked the public whether taxes on the rich were too high, just right, or too low. Every year, 60% to 70% of respondents have said “too low.” Yet, the mainstream media refer to supporters of the tax cut for millionaires as “moderates” and those who propose doing what a clear majority of Americans support as “radicals.” [2] [3]

Polls of the public also indicate that several other proposals reported as “radical” or “out of the mainstream” by the media are supported by majorities of Americans. Proposals for universal health insurance or Medicare for All are called radical, yet 70% of Americans support this, including a majority of Republicans. Proposals for tuition-free public college are called radical, but 79% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans support this.

In the 1950s and 1960s, tuition at public colleges and universities was free or minimal. Universal health insurance has been a topic of serious discussion in the U.S. on and off since President Franklin Roosevelt proposed it in 1944 as part of his Economic Bill of Rights, which included “the right to adequate medical care.” (See this previous post on FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights for more information.) Former Representative John Dingell, who just passed away at age 92, filed a bill, “The United States National Health Insurance Act,” in the U.S. House every session from 1955 to 2013; it would have created a single-payer health care system. [4]

Multiple polls have found that most Americans (including a majority or near-majority of Republicans) support Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for an annual wealth tax of 2% on wealth above $50 million, rising to 3% on assets over $1 billion. [5] Yet, the mainstream media and most pundits are calling her proposal radical.

We currently have a wealth tax; but it’s only on the main form of middle-class wealth – people’s homes. Homeowners pay a property tax, which is typically used to fund local government and schools. Nonetheless, the suggestion that other forms of wealth, ones that are typically owned by the very wealthy, be taxed at a similar rate is branded as radical.

Internationally, of course, the U.S. is the country that’s out of the mainstream. Most other wealthy nations have higher income tax rates than the U.S., have universal health insurance, and have free or near-free post-secondary education. A number of these countries also have a wealth tax – and more would have one if it were established as an international standard so the wealthy couldn’t so easily hide or shift their wealth to another country to escape a wealth tax. (But that’s a whole other topic for another post.)

Here in the U.S., these and many other policy proposals being put forth by Democrats are being labeled as radical, when they are actually anything but radical. They are supported by majorities of Americans (see this previous post for more information) and, in many cases, have been mainstream ideas for generations. Many of them have been pushed out for the mainstream by radical “conservatives” over the last 20 years, building on efforts that began over 40 years ago.

These ideas and policies – for higher income and wealth taxes, for universal health insurance, and for free public college – are being brought back into the mainstream by these Democratic politicians and their grassroots supporters. The election results of 2016 have brought them new levels of attention. Broad public support for the politicians proposing them, along with probable future election results, appear likely to put them squarely back in the mainstream. Resistance from the mainstream media and some politicians will have to be overcome, but it’s becoming clear who the real radicals are and who’s truly in the mainstream.

[1]      Eagan, M., 1/11/19, “There’s nothing ‘extremist’ about social welfare,” The Boston Globe

[2]      Eagan, M., 1/11/19, see above

[3]      Meyerson, H., 1/24/19, “AOC’s achievement: Making American’s progressive beliefs politically acceptable,” The American Prospect Blog (https://prospect.org/blog/on-tap)

[4]      Nichols, J. 2/8/19, “John Dingell kept the faith, from the New Deal to ‘Medicare for All’,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/john-dingell-obit-medicare-for-all/)

[5]      Kapur, S., 2/9/19, “Warren starts 2020 bid, vows to end system ‘rigged’ by rich,” Bloomberg (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-09/pushing-a-wealth-tax-elizabeth-warren-to-launch-white-house-bid)

RAISE THE MINIMUM WAGE? FEDS: NO! VOTERS: YES!

The bad news is that Congress and the President have not raised the federal minimum wage since July 2009 when it was set to $7.25 (about $14,500 per year for a full-time worker). After adjusting for inflation, it is now worth only $6.19. At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was worth $11.39 in today’s dollars. If it isn’t raised by this July, which seems unlikely, it will have been 10 years that low-income workers governed by the federal minimum wage have gone without a raise; the longest period without an increase since it was first establish in 1938. [1]

Failing to raise the minimum wage as inflation increases prices shifts money from low-income workers’ pockets and the local economies where they spend their earnings to the pockets of their employers’ executives and shareholders. This is borne out by the fact that executive pay and corporate profits are at record levels. The minimum wage does not get increased because employers are greedy and politicians cater to wealthy campaign supporters rather than regular voters and workers. By the way, the best data available show that increasing the minimum wage does NOT reduce overall employment.

The good news is that some states and communities, often driven by grassroots activists, are increasing the minimum wage. On January 1, 2019, the minimum wage in 20 states and 24 communities went up, increasing pay for over 5 million workers. Over the course of the year, workers will earn over $5 billion more as a result. In eight states, the minimum wage is linked to inflation and is automatically adjusted each year. Alaska is one; there the minimum wage will go up, but by just $0.05 per hour, the smallest of the increases. [2]

The minimum wage increases were set by legislative action in six states and by local governing bodies in the communities where the wage increased. In New York City, for example, the minimum wage went up by $2.00 per hour.

In six states, increases in the minimum wage were the result of ballot measures that voters approved. Increasingly, as the federal government and some state governments (Arkansas and Missouri for example) are refusing to increase the minimum wage, grassroots activists are taking matters into their own hands and putting increases on the ballot.

The bad news is that in Michigan and the District of Columbia (D.C.) legislators blocked, reduced, and/or delayed increases in the minimum wage that had been put forth by voters! In D.C., city councilors overturned a law approved by 55% of voters that would have increased the minimum wage of tipped workers so that over time it would be the same as the minimum wage for other workers. [3]

In Michigan, the Republican legislature and Governor went out of their way to deny the will of the voters. Over 300,000 citizens had signed a petition to put a minimum wage increase on the November ballot, where its approval seemed certain. The ballot measure would have increased the minimum wage from $9.25 to $10 on January 1, 2019, to $12 by 2022, and then had it increase automatically based on inflation.

In September, the Michigan legislature and Governor, in an effort to circumvent the proposed minimum wage increase, adopted the language of the ballot initiative. This meant it would not appear on the ballot, thereby denying voters the opportunity to approve it. Then, the legislature voted for (and the Governor signed) a delay in the minimum wage increases with the increase to $12 delayed from 2022 to 2030! They also eliminated the automatic increases based on inflation. This would likely mean that minimum wage workers would see their real wages (after adjusting for inflation) decline over this period.

The good news is that the Michigan law that allows the legislature and Governor to intercept a ballot measure and prevent it from appearing on the ballot by approving it, states that the approved measure cannot be amended in the same legislative session. However, this is exactly what they did. Therefore, a lawsuit to the state’s Supreme Court is likely and would appear to have a good chance of succeeding. [4]

Given the almost 10 years since the federal minimum wage was increased and the 40 years of other policies that have left workers’ wages stagnant, raising the minimum wage at the state or local level is perhaps the most effective way to lift the incomes of our lowest-paid workers. Unfortunately, 21 states still rely on the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

The resistance of our elected officials to increasing the minimum wage reflects the extent to which many Republican and some Democratic elected representatives are more responsive to large employers and their wealthy executives and shareholders than to every day workers. The fact that every minimum wage increase that’s appeared on the ballot has been approved by voters shows the strength of support for a higher minimum wage among the voting public.

[1]      Ingraham, C., 12/27/18, “Here’s how much the federal minimum wage fell this year,” The Washington Post

[2]      Cooper, D., 12/28/18, “Over 5 million workers will have higher pay on January 1 thanks to state minimum wage increases,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/12/28/over-5-million-workers-will-have-higher-pay-january-1-thanks-state-minimum-wage) or Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/over-5-million-workers-will-have-higher-pay-on-january-1-thanks-to-state-minimum-wage-increases/)

[3]      Cooper, D., 12/28/18, see above

[4]      Anzilotti, E., 12/6/18, “Michigan Republicans decide that people can live on $9.25 an hour for the next decade,” Fast Company (https://www.fastcompany.com/90277788/michigan-republicans-decide-that-people-can-live-on-925-an-hour-for-the-next-decade)

ELECTION AND ETHICS REFORM

With Democrats taking over control of the U.S. House in January, there’s a wide range of issues they might tackle. Even if many of the bills they propose, and hopefully pass, don’t become law (because they aren’t passed by the Senate or are vetoed by President Trump), they will frame the debate going forward and into the 2020 elections. Furthermore, policies can become law by attaching bills or provisions to must-pass bills such as those funding the government. This is a tactic that has been used for many, many years and has been used frequently by Republicans over the last 12 years. Talking about substantive issues will shift the discussion to ideas from personalities and to meaningful, long-term policies to address important problems rather than short-term, idiosyncratic, one-off deal making.

Two key topics will be the focus of the first bill in the new House in January. They were the first two topics on my previous post’s list of possible issues for House Democrats to address. They are:

  • Elections: stop voter suppression, encourage voting, stop gerrymandering, and reform campaign financing (e.g., limit contributions, provide matching public funds, and require full disclosure of spending and donors)
  • Ethics: address conflicts of interest for Congress and all federal workers; stop the undue influence of special interests obtained through lobbying, the revolving door, and campaign expenditures

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the current leader of the House Democrats (and likely Speaker of the House come January), has stated that the first bill in the new House in January, known as H.R. 1, will address the restoration of democratic principles and procedures. It will address election and integrity issues where government of, by, and for the people has been undermined by wealthy individuals and corporations. The overall goal of the bill will be to end the ability of special interests to bend public policies to their benefit and against the interests of hard-working Americans and our democracy. This will restore Congress’s and the federal government’s abilities to enact policies that address the problems of average Americans. This is essential to renew the public’s faith in our democracy. [1]

Pelosi’s bill would do many of the things President Trump promised to do during his campaign when he stated he would “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C. His actions and appointments have done nothing to drain the swamp and have probably made things worse.

This bill will address the huge amounts of money in our elections and the significant portion of that money that is “dark money” – money where the identity and interests of the true donor are hidden. The bill would require all organizations making donations to or expenditures on campaigns to disclose who their donors are. [2]

The proposed legislation would also take steps to increase the impact and number of small-dollar campaign donors. Incentives would be provided for individuals to make small campaign donations and the impact of those donations would be multiplied by matching them with public funds. Candidates who agree to accept these matching funds would have to limit the size of donations they accept and, perhaps, their overall spending.

The Pelosi bill would re-establish the Voting Rights Act’s protections of every citizen’s right to vote and would stop voter suppression. It would make it easier to vote through automatic and on-line voter registration while strengthening election infrastructure to prevent hacking and ensure accurate, auditable, tabulations of votes. To ensure that everyone’s vote has a fair chance of being meaningful, it would end gerrymandering, probably by requiring that an independent redistricting commission in each state draw congressional district boundaries.

The bill would strengthen ethics and conflict of interest laws governing Congress and federal government workers. It would ban members of Congress from serving on the boards of for-profit companies, which presents a clear conflict of interest. It would also enhance disclosure of who’s lobbying the federal government, so these efforts would be publicly known and not hidden in the shadows. And it would require Presidents to disclose their tax returns.

Pelosi’s bill would implement a code of ethics for Supreme Court Justices, who are currently exempt from the code of ethics that applies to other federal judges. [3]

It would close the revolving door of personnel between government positions and private sector jobs, which creates major conflicts of interest and is a major avenue for undue influence by special interests. It would prohibit employers from giving bonuses to reward employees for moving into public sector positions (as Wall St. has done repeatedly in the past). These individuals often go back to the same private sector employers later. The bonuses present the individuals with a significant conflict of interest from day one in their public sector job, particularly if the bonus is being paid out over time and, therefore, is being received when they are in their public sector role.

Tackling elections and ethics reform as a top priority makes sense for several reasons. First, these issues are very much on voters’ minds. Voters passed several ballot measures addressing them at the state and local levels in November, as was summarized in a previous blog post. Publicity about voting and ethical scandals in the Georgia election, as well as in Florida and North Carolina, have heightened the public’s awareness and concern about these issues. [4] In addition, candidates who refused corporate and PAC money fared very well in November. Noting incumbents’ acceptance of special interest money and linking it to specific votes was an effective tactic for beating them. [5]

Second, over the longer-term, addressing elections and ethics issues is critical to restoring democratic decision-making to government by ending the undue influence of wealthy individuals and corporations. This is essential to making progress on every other issue that would advance the public good. A fairer political process, where government is truly of, by, and for the people, is necessary to eliminate the system-rigging power of wealthy individuals and corporations. This will actually drain the Washington swamp. [6] Restoring faith in the fairness and integrity of our elections and policy making is a necessary first step toward restoring trust in our government.

If Democrats are willing to commit to a new code of conduct and to stand up for true democracy, they could reap the benefits of the current backlash against corrupt behavior by elected officials and the overall corruption of our political processes. There’s an opportunity to lead on re-establishing fairness and integrity in our politics. Some Democrats will resist this, fearing the loss of campaign donations and spending by wealthy individuals and corporations, but not doing so will risk losing a tremendous opportunity, both politically and for the good of our democracy.

I encourage you to communicate with your elected officials at the national and state levels about these issues. Nothing is more likely to persuade them than hearing from constituents who care about fair and ethical elections and behavior by government officials. I welcome your comments and feedback on steps you feel are needed to make our elections and policy making fairer and more responsive to regular Americans.

Thank you for your feedback on the list of topics in my previous post. In upcoming posts, I will delve into infrastructure investment and environmental policy issues since these were the two topics that were most frequently identified as priorities.

[1]      Pelosi, N., & Sarbanes, J., 11/25/18, “The Democratic majority’s first order of business: Restore democracy,” The Washington Post

[2]      Wertheimer, F., 10/10/18, “House Democratic challengers demand campaign-finance reforms,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/house-democratic-challengers-demand-campaign-finance-reforms)

[3]      Mascaro, L., 12/1/18, “House Democrats’ bill seeks reforms,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[4]      Carney, E. N., 11/29/18, “Read it and weep: Georgia lawsuit paints stark portrait of voter suppression,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/read-it-and-weep-georgia-lawsuit-paints-stark-portrait-voter-suppression)

[5]      Lardner, J., 11/30/18, “What the Democrats must do first,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/what-democrats-must-do-first)

[6]      Lardner, J., 11/30/18, see above

THE TRUE STORY OF THE 2018 ELECTION

The dominant narrative of the 2018 election from our mainstream (corporate) media had congealed even before the polls on the west coast had closed. As it turns out, their narrative was wrong.

The narrative goes something like this: there was no blue wave for Democrats; Trump and the Republicans won the election. Furthermore, there was no progressive shift among voters, because even where Democrats won, it was moderates who won; progressive Democrats, like Beto O’Rourke in Texas, lost.

In an attempt to correct the narrative and provide updates on the many races that were not determined by the end of election night coverage, CNN did a novel thing: it held a night of programming a full week after the election that it called “Election Night in America Continued.”

Because of the expansion of mail-in ballots, absentee voting, and early voting, as well as the new use of ranked choice voting in Maine and some very close races, final results have taken longer to tabulate than in the past. A week and a half after the election, two US Senate seats are still up in the air (Florida and Mississippi), as are seven US House seats and two governorships (Florida and Georgia). [1]

The inaccurate story of Democrats losing the election was based on early results from the east coast. Democrats lost a US House seat in Kentucky that had received a lot of attention only because of a scrappy fight in a long-shot race by a woman combat veteran with some advertising that went viral on social media. Democrats also lost a high-visibility US Senate race in Indiana early in the evening. Close races for Governor in Georgia and Florida, and a close Senate race in Florida, all of which are still counting votes but which some pundits prematurely called Republican wins, fueled the Democrats-are-losing story.

Beto O’Rourke’s close loss in the Texas US Senate race, which had received so much attention only because it was so amazing that this race was anywhere near close in deep red Texas, cemented the narrative that the Democrats were losing.

The premature claims of Republican wins are now being used to fuel Republicans’ and Trump’s demand that vote counting stop with claims that these elections are being “stolen.” These false claims are dangerous as they undermine voters’ faith in our democracy and in our voting systems, as well as the commitment to accurately count every vote.

However, as more votes are counted and more results are finalized, especially from the west coast, the blue wave for Democrats is becoming clearer and larger. The Democrats flipped at least 38 seats in the US House. They will have at least 30 more seats than the Republicans. In the US Senate, the Democrats were defending ten seats in states that Trump won but lost only three of them. Meanwhile, Democrats won two Senate seats from Republicans (Arizona and Nevada). [2]

Furthermore, without the gerrymandering and voter suppression done by Republicans, Democrats would likely have won at least a dozen more seats in the US House. For example, in North Carolina, Democratic candidates for the US House got 50% of the overall vote, but only 3 out of 13 seats. With fairly drawn districts, the Democrats would have gotten 3 or 4 more seats in North Carolina alone.

With votes still being counted, it seems certain that in the overall popular vote for US House candidates, Democrats will have at least 7% more votes than Republicans. This would make the 2018 blue wave bigger than the Republicans’ waves in 2010 (President Obama’s first mid-term election) and in 1994 (President Clinton’s first mid-term election). [3]

The mainstream (corporate) media and others who fear a resurgence of progressive values and policies (such as universal health insurance, a $15 minimum wage, and free public higher education) have inaccurately characterized the Democrats’ successes as coming from moderates. They claim that where Democrats ran progressive candidates, they lost. However, to make this argument, they have had to define as moderates many candidates who support progressive policies. [4] For example, of the 60 new incoming Democratic House members, 45 have publicly supported expanding Medicare (including 20 who support Medicare for All), 42 have publicly supported increasing the minimum wage, 49 support campaign finance reform, 48 support reducing prescription drug prices, and 41 support unions.

Overall, 65% of new House members support expanding Medicare or Social Security, while 82% rejected corporate PAC money for their campaigns and / or support campaign finance reform. (Even before the election, the House’s Expand Social Security Caucus had 150 members and the Medicare for All Caucus had over 70 members.) [5]

The Democratic blue wave was also clearly present in state election results. Democrats picked up at least seven governorships (with Florida and Georgia still undecided), three Attorneys General, 50 state Senate seats, and 200 state House seats. There are now 14 states where Democrats hold the governorship and control of both houses of the legislature, up from 8. Republicans hold similar control in 21 states, down from 26. In fourteen states, the parties share control of state government. [6]

Even in deep red Texas, where O’Rourke lost the US Senate race, Democrats picked up two US House seats, two state Senate seats, 11 seats in the state House, and four appeals court judges. In addition, a slate of 17 black women was swept into offices in Harris County. [7]

So, although Democrats and progressives did not win everything they tried for, there was a strong blue wave for Democrats and it had a strong progressive tint to it.

In my next posts, I will provide an overview of the results of the many ballot initiatives that were voted on and then share some thoughts on policy changes that should be high on the House Democrats’ agenda.

[1]      Ballotpedia, retrieved 11/15/128, “Election results, 2018,” https://ballotpedia.org/Election_results,_2018

[2]      Walsh, J., 11/13/18, “Yes, there was a big blue wave last week,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/midterm-elections-democrats-left/)

[3]      Yglesias, M., 11/13/18, “Democrats’ blue wave was much larger than early takes suggested,” Vox (https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2018/11/13/18082490/blue-wave)

[4]      Walsh, J., 11/13/18, see above

[5]      Green, A., 11/15/18, “The midterms prove it: Progressive ideas are now mainstream,” The Washington Post

[6]      Ballotpedia, see above

[7]      Yglesias, M., 11/13/18, see above

WHY WE NEED A POLITICAL REVOLUTION

Bill Moyers – one of the most savvy and respected commentators on US politics and society over the last 40+ years – just published an interview with the author of a book Moyers describes as the best political book of the year. [1] The author is Ben Fountain and the book is Beautiful Country Burn Again.

Fountain, an acclaimed novelist, was hired by The Guardian (a respected British daily newspaper with a US edition) to cover the 2016 US presidential race. His reflections on and analysis of the current US political environment are poignant and very relevant to this fall’s election.

Fountain found that millions of Americans are experiencing significant confusion, frustration, and anger. Working and middle-class people are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet and, therefore, are feeling more and more beleaguered. Their financial and psychological security has been undermined by the shredding of the social contract of the 1950s – 1970s, which promised that if they worked hard and played by the rules, they would have a secure middle class life. They are working harder than ever but, nonetheless, are falling further behind in their efforts to have a decent life, provide for their children, and have a secure retirement. Meanwhile, they see the wealthy doing better and better, getting richer and richer.

Fountain states that this is “not a situation that can be sustained long-term in a genuine democracy.” (p. 3 of the interview transcript). The tremendous increase in the inequality in income and wealth over the last 40 years has led many Americans to have a “basic, pervasive sense that the system is not fair.” (p. 4) Given this legitimate sense of grievance among the millions living economically precarious lives, the declaration by candidate Trump, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and others that “The system is rigged” resonated strongly.

These beleaguered, aggrieved Americans are resentful and looking for an explanation for why they are experiencing such hard times. This makes them vulnerable to false narratives and scapegoating from politicians. This resentment is exacerbated by the fact that for many white Americans their position of power and privilege has been (rightfully) challenged over the last 50 years. The uncomfortable truths of the racism of America have presented “a challenge to some people’s identity and sense of personal integrity.” (p. 4)

Trump was a master at playing on this resentment, vulnerability, and discomfort. He gave many white Americans “psychological, emotional affirmation as an antidote for all the anxiety, all the resentment they’d been feeling.” (p. 5) Despite the obvious contradictions of Trump’s wealth, New York background, and anti-worker business practices, he provided easy-to-digest explanations and solutions for beleaguered white, working people (especially men). Fountain describes this as the “classic con man dynamic” that shows “how easily we’re taken in when we’re hearing what we want to hear … [which has] more to do with emotion and raw attraction than anything that might be called rational thought.” (p. 7)

Fountain says that the gullibility of the American public is in part due to what he calls the “Fantasy Industrial Complex.” The public believes in the possibility of the fantasy lifestyle we see in the advertisements and commercial propaganda that bombard us day and night from our screens in movies, TV, celebrity news, and social media. The cumulative effect is that this “numbs us out and dumbs us down.” (p. 8) As a result, “it takes a supreme effort of will on the individual’s part to distinguish advertising and propaganda from facts,” (p. 8) lies from truth, and fantasy from reality.

Fountain states that both of our political parties have lost their way. Trump, with the help and acquiescence of many others, has taken the Republican Party’s “politics of paranoia and racism, cultural resentment, xenophobia, misogyny and all the rest” to new extremes. The Democrats, during the 1990s with leadership from the Clintons, maintained their commitment to civil rights and diversity, including based on sexual orientation, but abandoned their commitment to workers, the poor, and Main Street for financial support from Wall Street and the wealthy. They stopped making the case for the important roles of government in maintaining a safety net and regulating business and the economy. As a result, the economic security of working and middle-class people collapsed, while income and wealth inequality skyrocketed.

The political power of the wealthy has been super-charged by changes in laws governing the financing of our political campaigns. Unlimited amounts of money can now be spent on campaigns and the sources of much of it may be kept secret. Without wealth, everyday citizens are left speechless in our elections and, therefore, underrepresented in the halls of government. The big campaign spenders have unprecedented access to and influence on policy makers, resulting in policy outcomes they favor and that benefit them further.

Democracy is overwhelmed by the hyper-capitalism in the US today with its great concentrations of wealth and power, both in our economy and in our political system and government. This is the result of the deregulation of business and the economy over the last 40 years, which has been supported by both political parties. The big corporations and the capitalists will overreach if they are unregulated and unrestrained. The 2008 crash demonstrated this again, as the savings and loan crash of the 1980s had, along with the dot com bubble crash and the crash that led to the Great Depression. Today, the system is indeed rigged, and the result is plutocracy – where the wealthy elites rule.

The American identity, and the exceptionalism of the US that the right-wing asserts, are based on democracy and the foundational principles of equality and representative government that is responsive to all the people. This is not the America we have today. Citizens can’t be equal with corporate CEOs and wealthy investors if they can’t earn enough to support a family and don’t have time to devote to public civic and political responsibilities, often because they are working multiple jobs or long hours.

Fountain concludes that “corporate power and concentrations of wealth have such a hold over our economic system that for the country to wrest some of that power from them, it can’t be incremental. It will take a political revolution.” (p. 12) The New Deal, responding to the 1929 financial crash and the Great Depression, was, in fact, a bloodless political revolution. It saved capitalism from itself, building the regulatory infrastructure that we relied on with great success for 50 years. It also built the physical infrastructure of sewers and water mains, parks, libraries, public buildings, the power grid, and many of the roads and bridges that we rely on to this day. We take all this largely for granted today, forgetting about the trauma that triggered it and the public sector response that turned the country around and built the foundation for the future.

Fountain notes that the American commitment to and understanding of the importance of public civic, political, and physical infrastructure “has been stunted the last 40 years by a very aggressive sales program on behalf of free-market fundamentalism and hard-core capitalism.” (p. 13) The subtitle of his book, Democracy, Rebellion, and Revolution, highlights his belief that we need a political revolution to save our democracy – and to save capitalism from itself.

You can be part of the political revolution:

  • By being an informed voter in this fall’s election, and
  • By encouraging and helping everyone you know to also be an informed voter this fall.

As I’ve written about previously, voter participation in the US is dismally low and higher voter turnout will produce different election and policy results. This is how the political revolution must happen.

[1]      Moyers, B., 10/12/18, “The bold bravery of ‘Beautiful Country Burn Again’”, Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/10/12/bold-bravery-beautiful-country-burn-again)

OUR DEMOCRACY NEEDS MORE VOTERS

The United States has very low rates of participation in our “democracy,” which is perhaps most dramatically evident in our very low voter turnout. In our last presidential election – a very visible and hotly contested race – only a bit over one-half (roughly 56%) of those eligible voted. In the upcoming 2018 elections for Congress and state offices, it is likely that only a bit over one-third of those eligible will vote.

This low voter participation is not healthy for a democracy and is inconsistent with our democratic ideals and principles of government of, by, and for the people. Worldwide, most other democracies have higher voter participation; Belgium leads among the 34 advanced democracies at 87% with the US’s 56% in 27th place. [1]

Our voting system, with most voting procedures determined by the states, does little to encourage voter participation. For example, voting on Tuesdays, a work day, has never been convenient for working people. Moving election day to a weekend or making it a holiday would make voting more convenient and almost certainly increase participation. The voter registration rules set by the states have historically set deadlines to register to vote well before election day and required residents to appear in a government office to register, neither of which encourages voting.

In the 2016 presidential election, voter participation varied among the states from 74% in Minnesota and 71% in New Hampshire and Maine, to 42% in Hawaii and 50% in West Virginia. [2] Some states have encouraged voter participation by allowing early and expanded absentee voting, as well as same-day registration.

Many states are putting hurdles in front of potential voters rather than encouraging participation. In most cases, these efforts to restrict or discourage voting have political motivations, usually to reduce voting by groups that tend to vote for Democrats. Some states have reduced early or absentee voting. Some have reduced the number of voting locations, making it more difficult for some voters to get to the polls or resulting in waiting lines to vote, sometimes waits of over an hour.

Thirteen states have imposed more restrictive identification requirements for voting since 2010, typically requiring voters to produce a government-issued ID. It is estimated that 21 million eligible voters do not have a such an ID. So, in the states that require them, voting becomes much more difficult, requiring these potential voters to obtain a government ID in advance of the election. This and other policies that suppress voting are profoundly anti-democratic and have no valid, non-political rationale. [3]

Four states have laws that prohibit Americans who have been convicted of a felony crime from ever voting, even after they have completed their sentences. It is estimated that over 6 million Americans cannot vote because of this felony disenfranchisement.

In general, people who are better-off economically, have more education, and are older are more likely to vote and those who are low-income, young, and non-white are less likely to vote. For example, 41% of registered voters over 70 vote regularly while only 1% of those between 18 and 29 vote regularly.

Research has found that voters and non-voters support different economic policies. Not surprisingly, given their demographics, non-voters are more supportive of policies that promote economic equality and provide a safety net for those experiencing economic hardship. [4] Therefore, getting significant numbers of non-voters to vote would likely change election results and policies.

Some eligible voters don’t vote because they feel that their vote doesn’t matter. Gerrymandering of district boundaries means that indeed some voters don’t matter because the district they live in is overwhelming tilted to a party or ideology that they don’t support. In primary elections, some states require that you be registered in a party to vote in that party’s election. This means that the large number of voters who are independent or unenrolled in a party have no say in deciding which Democrat or Republican will appear on the ballot for the final election.

Some eligible voters feel, with good reason, that our electoral and political systems are rigged in favor of large corporations and employers, as well as the wealthy individuals who are typically the executives or investors in those corporations. Because our election campaigns are almost exclusively funded by wealthy individuals and corporations, and backed up with lobbying and the revolving door of personnel moving between corporations and positions in government, these alienated voters see no difference between the two political parties and feel their voices are inevitably drowned out at the ballot box and in policy debates.

Some analysts make the case that the lack of participation in our democracy and voting reflects not just a loss of faith in government and the efficacy of participation, but also a loss of experience with civic activity more broadly. A decline in volunteer participation in civic organizations and groups in the US has been documented since the 1960s. One study found that from 1994 to 2004 memberships in civic organizations and groups fell by 21%. This trend is likely accelerating. A 2010 census survey found that only 11% of respondents had served on a committee or as an officer of any group or organization in the previous year. Voluntary participation in churches, clubs, fraternal organizations, and labor unions, for example, provide individuals with experience with self-governance, democratic decision making, and participation in civic life focused on building community and working together for a greater good. As participation in local civic life has withered, the orientation to and understanding of the importance of participating in our democratic political process has declined as well. [5]

Higher voter participation would produce elected representatives that more accurately reflect the priorities of the public and, if participation were consistently high, would result in less partisanship and more stable policies. Currently, the Republicans in particular, but the Democrats too, are focused on low turnout elections where they pander to their hardcore supporters, known as their “base.” Therefore, their candidates and those who get elected tend to be focused on appealing to this small group of supporters who often have relatively extreme views. Higher voter participation would require the parties and their candidates to work to appeal to a broader set of voters. This would make a big difference in election results.

I encourage you to ask candidates and elected officials what they are doing to increase voter participation. This is a core issue that we must address if our democracy is to live up to its promise and potential.

[1]      The Sanders Institute, May 2018, “Why don’t Americans vote?” (https://www.sandersinstitute.com/blog/why-dont-americans-vote)

[2]      Khalid, A., Gonyea, D., & Fadel, L., 9/10/18, “On the sidelines of democracy: Exploring why so many Americans don’t vote,” National Public Radio (https://www.npr.org/2018/09/10/645223716/on-the-sidelines-of-democracy-exploring-why-so-many-americans-dont-vote)

[3]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 9/18/18, “New voting restrictions in America,” (https://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america)

[4]      Khalid, Gonyea, & Fadel, 9/10/18, see above

[5]      Appelbaum, Y., Oct. 2018, “Americans aren’t practicing democracy anymore,” The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/10/losing-the-democratic-habit/568336/)

A BETTER DEAL: A WIDE-RANGING POLICY AGENDA FROM THE DEMOCRATS

The Democratic National Party has been rolling out a series of policy proposals it calls A Better Deal. Its goal is to provide a campaign message that will win the votes of middle-income workers, many of whom voted for Trump because they felt they’d been forgotten by the Democratic Party. [1]

The first piece, presented in July 2017, focused on the economic well-being of workers and the middle class. It was subtitled: Better Jobs, Better Wages, Better Future. It’s three major components are:

  • Higher wages and better jobs. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2024. Create 15 million good jobs by spending $1 trillion on infrastructure and supporting small businesses. Ensure that workers can retire with dignity by protecting Social Security, pensions, and Medicare. Fight the loss of jobs to other countries.
  • Lower the cost of living for families. Lower the costs of drugs, post-secondary education, child care, cable TV and Internet service, and credit cards. Curtail the monopolistic practices of large corporations that lead to higher prices and reduced consumer choice. Provide paid leave for a new child or a family member’s illness.
  • Tools workers need to succeed in the 21st century. Expand public investment in education, training, and other tools workers need to succeed in the 21st Provides incentives to employers to invest in their workers’ skills and knowledge, including through apprenticeships.

(See a more detail summary these policy proposals in my previous post and my post critiquing them.)

The second piece, unveiled on May 8, 2018, focused on housing and communities and was subtitled: Public Housing & Ladders of Opportunity for American Families. It has four major components:

  • Repair America’s aging public housing. Invest $6 billion a year for five years to eliminate the deferred maintenance in public housing, including eliminating all major lead and mold hazards, improving energy efficiency, and making units accessible for residents with disabilities. Provide $9 billion a year in ongoing operations and maintenance funding.
  • Empower residents to fully participate in governance of their public housing. Facilitate the active involvement and participation of public housing residents in governance and increase tenant protections during relocation for renovations.
  • Ensure public housing agencies have the tools to connect residents to opportunity. Provide resources and tools to improve employment opportunities, earnings potential, and health outcomes for public housing residents by investing in job training and counseling services; educational programs; after-school enrichment programs; and access to other services.
  • Provide comprehensive solutions for the communities surrounding public housing. Invest $2 billion annually to rehabilitate and transform neighborhoods where public housing is located, while leveraging private resources as well.

The third piece, unveiled on May 21, 2018, focused on elections and ethics and was subtitled: Fixing our broken political system and returning to a government of, by, and for the people. Its three major components are:

  • Empower the American voter. Protect every citizen’s right to vote and the security and accuracy of our voting systems. End partisan gerrymandering.
  • Strengthen our nation’s ethics laws. End the influence of big money in election campaigns and of lobbyists. Close the revolving door between government jobs and positions working for private sector special interests.
  • Fix our broken campaign finance system. Break the stranglehold of wealthy campaign donors on our democracy. Pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and end the undue influence of big money in our elections, especially of unaccountable “dark” money from undisclosed donors. Increase and multiply the power of small campaign donors, while supporting new and diverse candidates. Improve enforcement of existing campaign finance laws.

The most recent piece, unveiled on May 22, 2018, focused on education and was subtitled: A Better Deal for Teachers and Students. It had five components, which it proposes paying for by rescinding the recent tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations:

  • Dedicate $50 billion over 10 years to increasing teachers’ compensation. Recruit and retain a strong, diverse workforce.
  • Establish a $50 billion fund for school infrastructure. Invest in up-to-date buildings and classrooms, as well as educational technology and materials, for all students.
  • Provide additional support to schools serving children from low-income families. Ensure all students have access to academic opportunities and a rich curriculum, including computer science, music, and civics.
  • Protect teachers’ right to join a union. Ensure that teachers can collectively negotiate for better pay and conditions.
  • Fulfill the federal promise to fund 40% of the cost of special education.

While A Better Deal’s four proposals present a wide-range of policy proposals and are fairly specific about some of them, they do not present a vision or comprehensive policy agenda in the way An Economic Agenda for America’s Future does. (See my previous post on this proposal from the Campaign for America’s Future.)

While A Better Deal’s proposals could excite some voters and increase voter turnout by addressing issues that matter to working Americans, they are less inspiring and more policy wonkish than An Economic Agenda for America’s Future. They present a set of nuts-and-bolts, pragmatic, and sometimes bold steps, rather than a vision.

There are gaps in A Better Deal. For example, it doesn’t address climate change and greening the economy; support for unions (other than for teachers); a more progressive, fairer tax system to address economic inequality; reducing the power of the huge corporations including on Wall Street; and reforming our health care system.

A Better Deal is viewed by some as timid and underwhelming. It doesn’t clearly renounce growing economic inequality and the greed of corporate executives. It doesn’t provide a truly inspirational message such as the one Senator Bernie Sanders delivered in the 2016 primary.

The support for A Better Deal from Democratic members of Congress and the Party’s leadership isn’t strong and solid, and, therefore, the Party’s messaging is not consistent and effective. Similarly, Democratic candidates don’t yet appear to have widely, let alone enthusiastically, adopted A Better Deal for their campaign messaging.

I’m interested in your comments on this post. Do you think A Better Deal will motivate voters to vote for Democrats this fall?

[1]      Cottle, M., 7/31/17, “Democrats pitch a kinder, gentler populism,” The Atlantic (https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/07/the-struggle-to-sell-a-better-deal/535410/)

MUELLER’S INVESTIGATION RESULTS TO-DATE: 35 INDICTMENTS, 3 GUILTY PLEAS, AND MORE

I’m interrupting my series on a progressive policy agenda for the US, because I think it’s important to document the results of the Mueller investigation into Russian influence in the 2016 election, given that President Trump and his supporters are apparently ramping up their efforts to discredit the investigation. (Much of this post is a summary of an article in the Huffington Post.) [1]

In 15 months of a very complex investigation, Mueller has gotten 35 indictments, 3 guilty pleas, 1 incarceration, and 1 on-going trial. Here are some of the details:

  • The on-going trial is of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman. Although the charges he’s currently being tried on aren’t directly linked to the campaign, they involve work he did for Ukrainians with close ties to Putin and Russia. He also had close ties directly to Russians and attended the Trump Tower meeting with Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and a Kremlin-linked lawyer who supposedly had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
  • Rick Gates, who worked on the Trump campaign and on the Trump inauguration, pled guilty to lying to Mueller and FBI investigators, as well as to financial malfeasance. He was also Manafort’s business partner.
  • Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, pled guilty to lying about his meeting with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
  • George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, was the first person to plead guilty in the Mueller probe. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his knowledge that Russians had thousands of apparently stolen emails that would embarrass Hillary Clinton. He had mentioned this to an Australian diplomat. When hacked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed information about Papadopoulos on to their American counterparts. Alarmed American officials had the FBI open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016, months before the presidential election. In accordance with FBI protocol, this investigation was kept secret. Papadopoulos was apparently one of the contacts the Russians used to try to establish secret communications with the Trump campaign.
  • Alex van der Zwaan is the one person who’s gone to jail as a result of the Mueller investigation. He’s the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his work with two members of President Trump’s campaign team, Manafort and Gates. He served 30 days in a federal prison and has been deported to the Netherlands.
  • Thirteen Russians have been indicted for a multi-million dollar conspiracy to influence the 2016 election through social media. They pretended to be Americans and bought political ads and organized political events. Facebook acknowledges that these efforts reached at least 146 million people, almost half of the US population, through Facebook and Instagram.
  • Twelve Russian military officers, who work for Russia’s main intelligence agency, have been indicted for hacking into the email servers of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. They stole and then released thousands of emails. The content of these emails, along with reporting on their theft and release, dominated the news for weeks and clearly had an impact on the election.

The Mueller investigation is clearly a serious probe of significant and successful efforts to affect the 2016 election. Over its 15 months, the Mueller investigation has cost $7.7 million (as-of 3/31/18), a tiny fraction of the Justice Department budget of $28 billion. By way of comparison, the Starr probe of President Clinton lasted four and a half years (over 3 times as long) and cost $39 million, or around $58 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation (over 7 times as much). There were at least three other independent or special counsel investigations during the Clinton administration that cost more than Mueller’s probe has. [2]

This investigation is NOT partisan. Mueller and Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation and is second in command at the Justice Department, are both Republicans. Mueller is a highly decorated Marine officer who has spent most of his career in the Justice Department. President Reagan appointed him the US Attorney for Massachusetts, and he later served as an assistant US Attorney in D.C.  and as US Attorney for Northern California. President George W. Bush appointed him second in command at the Justice Department and later as FBI Director. Congress unanimously extended his term as FBI Director in 2011. Rosenstein worked for the Starr investigation of President Clinton. President George W. Bush appointed him as US Attorney for Maryland and later nominated him to be a federal appeals court judge. President Trump appointed him as second in command at the Justice Department.

Before the election, in the early fall of 2016, the seriousness of foreign efforts to influence the election were becoming clear to US intelligence and criminal justice officials. President Obama convened a bipartisan meeting with members of Congress. His goal was to develop a bipartisan public statement on the Russian efforts to influence the election. He felt it was essential to have it be bipartisan so that it didn’t appear to be a partisan issue during the election. But the Republicans refused to go along, and no public statement was made.

Trump and his supporters have engaged in persistent, on-going efforts to discredit Mueller, Rosenstein, and the investigation. Their goal, according to Trump’s lawyer Giuliani, is to get the public to question the legitimacy of the investigation. The only reason I can think of that they would want to do that is because they are worried about the results of the investigation. From Trump’s personal perspective, which does seem to be all he really cares about, the most likely negative outcome of the investigation is evidence that would support impeachment.

The most likely impeachment charge against Trump is obstruction of justice, assuming no smoking gun of direct Russian collusion on his part is uncovered. So far the most likely obstruction of justice charges would be 1) his request that then-FBI director Comey stop the investigation of Michael Flynn’s meeting with the Russian ambassador, 2) his firing of FBI Director Comey, apparently in an effort to stop the investigation into Russian interference in the election, 3) his attempts to get Attorney General Sessions to rescind his recusal and take charge of the investigation (even though he met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign), and 4) his incessant efforts to discredit and undermine the investigation. As you think about whether this obstruction of justice might be grounds for impeachment, remember that President Clinton was impeached by the US House of Representatives (but the Senate failed to convict him) for obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement about his affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. If lying about an affair is grounds for impeachment, President Trump is right to be worried.

(Note: The investigation of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, is not part of Mueller’s investigation, although it is reportedly the result of a referral from the Mueller team. The investigation of Cohen is being undertaken by the US Attorney in New York.)

[1]      Reilly, R.J., 7/27/18, “The Mueller investigation, explained. Here’s your guide to the Trump-Russia probe,” HuffPost (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mueller-investigation-trump-russia-probe_us_5b4cdda5e4b0e7c958fe3141)

[2]      Kutner, M., 12/5/17, “Mueller’s Trump investigation cost slammed by Republican: ‘They must be having one hell of a Christmas party’,” Newsweek

WINNING ELECTIONS BY EXCITING VOTERS WITH PROGRESSIVE POLICIES

We need to elect people to Congress in November who will stand up to vested and powerful interests (namely wealthy individuals and large corporations) on behalf of everyday working people and families. We need to do this to rescue our democracy from plutocracy. This will require a high voter turnout, which will happen only if voters are excited and enthusiastic about the candidates they are voting for. It does not happen if voters are just voting against the other candidate or party, or for the lesser of two evils; that is not enough to motivate many voters to get out and vote.

In the last presidential election, despite all the attention it got, less than 56% – barely half – of eligible citizens actually voted. Although Trump and Clinton each excited a relatively small segment of voters, the electorate at large was not excited by either of these two candidates. Senator Sanders in his run for the Democratic nomination excited more voters and had more voters enthusiastically voting for him than either Trump or Clinton. President Obama excited enough voters, particularly Blacks, in his 2008 run for president that 62% of eligible voters went to the polls, which is the highest turnout since 1970, but still well below voter turnout among most of the other relatively wealthy democracies. (I’ll do a subsequent post on low voter participation in the US and reasons for it.).

If Democrats want to win in November, they need to put forward a clear, progressive agenda that will excite and motivate a broad swath of the electorate. Such a strategy has the potential to increase turnout substantially by getting people who vote irregularly or who have never voted excited and wanting to go vote. This is particularly important in non-presidential elections when typically, only 40% of eligible voters go to the polls. Some Democrats think that running against President Trump and the Republicans who are enabling his behavior and policies will lead them to electoral success. This is a risky strategy; it’s much better to be running for something than against something.

Exciting and motivating voters is what Senator Sanders did in his surprisingly successful and almost victorious campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. This is what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez did in winning a shocking upset in her recent primary election victory for a US House seat in New York. This is what Senators Merkley and Warren and others are doing in their re-election bids. And what a wide range of candidates for local, state, and national offices are doing across the country. It is why Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez were in Kansas supporting two candidates for Congress, James Thompson and Brent Wilder. Overflow crowds of thousands enthusiastically rallied for these progressive candidates in Republican Kansas. [1]

An emerging progressive movement is evident in at least four candidates for Governor (in Florida, Maryland, Michigan, and New York), at least 53 congressional candidates, and too-numerous-to-count candidates for state legislatures and local government posts. [ 2] These candidates are listening to the grassroots and to polls that show what Americans want from their government – good jobs with fair pay, good K-12 public education, affordable higher education, support for balancing work and family, a health care system that works (with many specifically supporting a single-payer system or Medicare-for-all), and economic security. Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the Democratic party are resisting this progressive ground swell of energy, fighting against it by supporting centrist and corporate-leaning candidates rather than progressive, grassroots candidates.

Many in the media and some political pundits are describing this progressive movement as “far left.” That may be true in today’s political climate, but it is not true historically. Many of the progressive policies being espoused by the current progressive movement were mainstream Democratic policies in the 1960s and a surprising number of them were supported by Republicans then as well. As a more recent example, believe it or not, the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – the requirement that everyone buy health insurance – was a conservative, Republican think tank policy proposal. Despite the vehement Republican attacks on the individual mandate ever since the ACA was proposed – and Democrats’ unwillingness to defend it with any vigor – the individual mandate was proposed by the very conservative and Republican Heritage Foundation as part of its plan for comprehensive national legislation to provide universal “quality, affordable health care.” The plan was introduced in a 1989 book, “A National Health System for America,” by Butler and Haislmaier. [3]

In labeling current progressive policy proposals as “far left,” people are forgetting that President Clinton and other Democrats in the late 1980s and 1990s moved the Democratic Party a long way to the right and toward the political center in their efforts to win the presidency after 12 years of Republican presidents and then to win Clinton’s re-election.

The emerging progressive movement is getting short shrift from our mainstream media. A dramatic example is the lack of media coverage of the Poor People’s Campaign. From late May through June, it sponsored 40 days of action including multiple rallies and civil disobedience actions in Washington, D.C., and 30 state capitals but it got almost no coverage in the mainstream media. Thousands of people demonstrated, and hundreds were arrested for civil disobedience, but coverage was minimal. It was organized to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s original Poor People’s Campaign that linked the issues of civil rights and economic justice for all. [4] [5]

A number of groups have been organized to support progressive, grassroots candidates including Our Revolution (the spinoff from Senator Sanders presidential campaign), the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (which describes itself as the Senator Elizabeth Warren wing of the Democratic Party), the Working Families Party, Indivisible, Justice Democrats, and Brand New Congress. They provide numerous opportunities to support progressive candidates and activities, if you’re so motivated.

These organizations and the candidates they support are putting forth a progressive policy agenda. However, they tend to do so in a piecemeal fashion that makes it hard to grasp or summarize overall goals. In my next posts, I will summarize various proposals for an overall progressive policy agenda for the US that would excite voters by addressing issues that truly matter to working Americans.

[1]      Nichols, J., 7/20/18, “Sander and Ocasio-Cortez rally Kansas for a working-class politics that stands up to the Kochs,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/sanders-ocasio-cortez-rally-kansas-working-class-politics-stands-kochs/)

[2]      Burns, A., 7/21/18, “There is a revolution on the left. Democrats are bracing,” The New York Times

[3]      Roy, A., 10/20/11, “How the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, promoted the individual mandate,” Forbes (https://www.forbes.com/sites/theapothecary/2011/10/20/how-a-conservative-think-tank-invented-the-individual-mandate/#720de15a6187)

[4]      Sarkar, S., 5/23/18, “Hundreds of Poor People’s Campaign activists got themselves arrested for racial justice,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/views/2018/05/23/hundreds-poor-peoples-campaign-activists-got-themselves-arrested-racial-justice)

[5]      Corbett, J., 6/21/18, “‘Stop the war! Feed the poor!’: March by Poor People’s Campaign ends with arrests in DC,” Common Dreams (https://www.commondreams.org/news/2018/06/21/stop-war-feed-poor-march-poor-peoples-campaign-ends-arrests-dc)

STOPPING GERRYMANDERING; RESTORING DEMOCRACY

Gerrymandering, the manipulation of the boundaries of electoral districts to predetermine outcomes, has become more blatant, dramatic, and effective in the 21st century. Please see my previous post for a discussion of how extreme partisan gerrymandering is undermining our democracy. The redrawing of electoral districts is done every ten years after new population data is available from the Census. Typically, state legislatures do the redistricting, and these partisan, elected officials have a built-in incentive to engage in partisan and other types of gerrymandering.

Gerrymandering can be stopped through multiple strategies:

  • Challenging gerrymandered districts in court,
  • Establishing standards for districts and the redistricting process, and
  • Creating non-partisan commissions to do the redistricting.

Districts that appear to be gerrymandered are being challenged in state and federal courts. In Pennsylvania, state courts ruled that the districts drawn after the 2010 Census were illegally gerrymandered and the US Supreme Court upheld this finding. There are currently two other cases before the US Supreme Court, one from Wisconsin challenging Republican gerrymandering and one from Maryland challenging Democratic gerrymandering. Decisions are expected to be announced this month. Unfortunately, these decisions will probably be too late to allow the gerrymandering to be fixed before the 2018 elections. [1]

Another solution to gerrymandering is to write standards into state or federal laws that govern how districts are drawn and the redistricting process used to draw them. There are several statistical tests that can be done of historical election results to identify whether gerrymandering is likely to have played a role in the outcomes. These tests can also be applied to projected results based on party enrollment and past voting patterns in proposed districts. [2] [3] These tests are valuable because they can be used during the redistricting process or by courts afterwards to determine if districts are being drawn fairly.

Perhaps, most promising is the creation by states of truly non-partisan, independent redistricting commissions that remove redistricting from the hands of partisan legislatures. Currently, twenty-one states use some form of redistricting commission for redrawing either or both of state legislative districts and congressional districts. Some are more independent of partisan political influence than others. [4]

The use of and interest in redistricting commissions is growing. In 2017, 29 state legislatures considered bills related to creating redistricting commissions. In the Pennsylvania legislature, a bill to create a redistricting commission is gaining significant support. In other states, citizens are putting measures to create redistricting commissions on the ballot. In Ohio, a badly gerrymandered state, 75% of voters recently approved a proposal on the ballot to extend the role of their independent redistricting commission to include congressional districts, in addition to state legislative districts. This was forced on elected officials by a grassroots campaign that collected nearly 250,000 signatures. Michigan is likely to have a proposal on its November 2018 ballot to create such a commission because of a grassroots organization that collected 425,000 signatures. Redistricting reforms are likely to appear on the ballot this fall in Arkansas, Colorado, Missouri, and Utah. These redistricting reform efforts are backed by strong bipartisan coalitions. [5] [6]

Gerrymandering is a significant threat to representative democracy as it undermines the basic tenet that every voter has an equal voice. It distorts democracy and lets the voices of a small subset of voters, often those with extreme views, dominate elections. The elected representatives, therefore, tend to reflect these minority and often extreme views, leading to extreme partisanship and gridlock in our legislative bodies.

In gerrymandered districts, many voters, with good reason, don’t feel they have a voice and that their elected officials don’t represent their interests and points of view. The broad support for ending extreme partisan gerrymandering is bipartisan: 80% of Democrats, 68% of independents, and 65% of Republicans back efforts to end it.

I urge you to contact your representatives in your state legislature and ask them to ensure fair redistricting after the 2020 Census. If you’re in one of the states mentioned above as likely to have a relevant ballot question in November, I encourage you to find information on the effort to reform redistricting and then get involved if you can. To learn more about the redistricting process in your state, the National Conference of State Legislatures has information here, and if you’re interested in knowing if there was a bill filed in your state legislature relative to the creation of a redistricting commission look here. For more information on ending gerrymandering and other reforms to our voting systems in general, Fair Vote has lots of information on its website.

[1]      Wheeler, R., 2/28/18, “The Supreme Court and partisan gerrymandering cases,” The Brookings Institution (https://www.brookings.edu/blog/unpacked/2018/02/28/the-supreme-court-and-partisan-gerrymandering-cases/)

[2]      Wang, S., & Remlinger, B., 9/25/17, “Slaying the partisan gerrymander,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/slaying-partisan-gerrymander)

[3]      Royden, L., Li, M., & Rudensky, Y., 3/23/18, “Extreme Gerrymandering & the 2018 midterm,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/publication/extreme-gerrymandering-2018-midterm)

[4]      Wikipedia, Retrieved from the Internet 6/4/18, “Redistricting commission” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redistricting_commission)

[5]      Rapoport, M., 12/7/17, “Prospects brightening for redistricting reform,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/prospects-brightening-redistricting-reform)

[6]      Daley, D., 6/14/18, “Voters take charge in making elections more fair,” The Boston Globe

GERRYMANDERING IS UNDERMINING OUR DEMOCRACY

Gerrymandering, the manipulation of the boundaries of an electoral district to predetermine the outcome based on party, race, incumbency, or other factors, has been happening for a long time. Traditionally, it was used to protect individual incumbents or to limit black and minority representation.

Typically, the state legislature redraws the boundaries of its state’s electoral districts with the new Census data available every ten years. With the 2020 Census coming up soon, there are efforts that some believe are meant to undercount hard-to-reach populations such as low-income households, minorities, and immigrants. (See my previous post for more detail.) If this occurs, it would mean that these residents will be under-represented when electoral districts are drawn, and, therefore, their voice and representation in state and federal legislative bodies would be diminished.

Gerrymandering has become more blatant, dramatic, and effective in the 21st century. It has been both fueled and exacerbated by partisanship and extremism in our state and national legislative bodies. It has been facilitated by increasingly sophisticated computer technology for mapping, analyzing, and tracking voters’ preferences and history. Historically, both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in gerrymandering.

Independent analyses find that in the redrawing of districts for the US House of Representatives following the decennial Censuses from 1970 to 2000, Democrats engaged in what’s called extreme partisan gerrymandering in one state after each of these four redistricting cycles. This occurred most dramatically in California in 1980. At its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, the best estimates are that through gerrymandering Democrats gained 3 – 5 seats in the House (out of 435 seats) above what would have otherwise been expected. After the 2010 Census, the Democrats did not engage in extreme partisan gerrymandering in any state. [1]

In redistricting after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, independent analyses of the redrawing of districts for the US House find that Republicans engaged in extreme partisan gerrymandering in four states and seven states, respectively. The best estimates are that Republicans currently gain, through gerrymandering, between 15 and 20 seats in the House (out of 435 seats) above what would have otherwise been expected. A shift of 22 seats would change control from Republicans to Democrats.

For example, North Carolina is one of the states with extreme partisan gerrymandering of its Congressional districts. As a result, in 2012, Democrats got 51% of the votes for Congress statewide, but only won 4 of 13 seats in the House. In Pennsylvania, another state with extreme partisan gerrymandering, Democrats received just over half of the votes in 2012 but only 5 of 18 Congressional seats. [2] (This previous post has more information on the 2012 election results and on gerrymandering.)

Partisan gerrymandering has also dramatically affected thousands of seats in state legislatures. In Wisconsin, for example, in the 2012 election, Republicans received 49% of the statewide vote but got 60% of the seats in the Assembly of the state legislature. [3]

Extreme partisan gerrymandering has another, more insidious, effect. Nationwide, almost 100 of the 435 seats in the US House have been gerrymandered so only one of the two parties can win the seat. This means that the final election in November is meaningless for these seats. It also means that the voters of the party not in control of the district are effectively disenfranchised – their votes don’t matter (at least in terms of the election of their US Representative). Hence, tens of millions of voters effectively have no say in who is elected as their congressional representative.

In these congressional districts, gerrymandered to allow only one of the parties to win, the only election that matters is that party’s primary. Given the low voter participation in primary elections, a small number of voters, often ones with relatively extreme political views, determines who the US Representative will be. This is a significant contributing factor to the extreme partisanship and gridlock in Congress.

Extreme partisan gerrymandering insulates elected officials from all but a small handful of their constituents – those that vote for them in primary elections. Therefore, these congressional representatives do not need to worry about representing the interests of most of their constituents. When elected representatives redraw legislative districts after the Censuses and engage in gerrymandering, essentially the elected officials are picking their voters, rather than voters choosing their elected representatives.

This is clearly undermining democracy and the democratic principle of one person, one vote, i.e., that each voter has an equal voice in our democracy.

Partisan gerrymandering is accomplished by packing as many supporters of the opposition party into as few districts as possible. The opponents will win these seats overwhelmingly. Meanwhile, supporters of your party are spread more evenly across the other districts, so your party will comfortably win as many seats as possible. For example, in Pennsylvania in 2012, as the result of Republican gerrymandering, the Democrats won 5 congressional districts by an average margin of 76% to 24% (a 52 percentage point margin). The Republicans won 13 districts by an average of 59% to 41% (an 18 percentage point margin). [4] Clearly, if the Democratic voters had been spread out more evenly, the Democrats would have won more seats but by smaller margins. Overall, Democrats got about 350,000 votes and Republicans got about 250,000, but the Republicans won 13 of 18 seats. With fair districts, Democrats would have gotten 10 or 11 seats and Republicans 7 or 8 seats. So, extreme partisan gerrymandering produced a swing of 5 or 6 seats to the Republicans in Pennsylvania.

My next post will discuss what can be done to stop gerrymandering.

[1]      Wang, S., & Remlinger, B., 9/25/17, “Slaying the partisan gerrymander,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/slaying-partisan-gerrymander)

[2]      Li, M., 2/6/18, “What Pennsylvania’s landmark partisan gerrymandering ruling means,” Brennan Center for Justice (https://www.brennancenter.org/blog/what-pennsylvania-landmark-partisan-gerrymandering-ruling-means)

[3]      Fried, C., 7/10/17, “Gerrymandering is unfair and unjust,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Ballotpedia, retrieved from the Internet on 6/4/18, “United States House of Representatives elections in Pennsylvania, 2012” (https://ballotpedia.org/United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections_in_Pennsylvania,_2012)

THE UNDERMINING OF THE INDEPENDENCE OF OUR JUDICIARY

There is widespread acknowledgement that fair and impartial courts and judges are essential to public trust in our court system and our democracy. A key role of the judiciary is to ensure that the legislative and executive branches of government do not overstep their authority or violate individuals’ rights. This is one of the key checks and balances that is part of the Constitution. Members of the legislative and executive branches should respect judges’ independence even when they disagree with their decisions.

In recent years, the judicial appointment process at the federal and state levels, elections of judges in some states, and court decisions themselves have gotten increasingly politicized. This is not a positive trend for our democracy and the politicization of the judiciary only seems to be accelerating.

President Trump on multiple occasions has criticized judicial decisions and demeaned individual judges. This is unprecedented and unhealthy for our courts and our democracy.

The President’s attacks on the judiciary seem to have emboldened others in their efforts to politicize our judicial system. In 2018, at least 14 states are considering at least 42 legislative proposals that would reduce the independence of judges and court systems. These proposals include giving legislators more control over the selection of judges, putting political or financial pressure on judges to rule the “right” way, and giving legislatures the power to override court decisions, including deciding the constitutionality of laws they themselves wrote. [1]

The attacks on judicial independence are coming from right-wing, wealthy interests in efforts to:

  • Have unlimited ability to sell guns and ammunition, as well as to carry guns, (Note: This is not really about Second Amendment rights; it’s about the ability of gun manufacturers to sell guns and ammunition to make big profits.)
  • Limit women’s ability to make decisions about their reproductive health,
  • Limit the rights of LGBTQ individuals,
  • Block every citizen’s right to an equal voice in our democracy through 1) restrictions on voting rights, 2) gerrymandered voting districts, and 3) unlimited campaign funding by wealthy special interests,
  • Expand the use of the death penalty and maintain an inequitable criminal justice system,
  • Block funding for public schools that ensures that every child receives a free and appropriate education as required by state constitutions,
  • Block fair taxes and fair employment and business practices necessary to stop spiraling economic inequality, and
  • Promote policies based on religious beliefs rather than the interests of the public.

For example, in Pennsylvania, legislators unhappy with a state Supreme Court ruling that a Republican gerrymandering of congressional districts was illegal, at first refused to comply with the court’s order and then threatened to remove the judges who had ruled against them. [2]

In Washington state, where judges are elected, legislators have proposed requiring analysis of how much each state Supreme Court decision will cost taxpayers. In decisions about individuals’ rights, cost should not be a factor and using the cost of a judge’s decisions should not be a factor in an election campaign. In North Carolina, legislators have proposed giving themselves more power in the selection of judges and in gerrymandering judicial districts. They have also proposed making judges run for election every two years. In Iowa, legislators unhappy with a judge’s decision to ban guns from courthouses have threatened to cut judges’ salaries and to require the courts to pay rent, using their control of the purse strings to try to affect judges’ rulings.

The impartiality and integrity of our state courts is critical because they handle the vast majority of criminal and civil cases in the U.S. For example, 94% of felony convictions occur in state courts, including 99% of rape cases and 98% of murder cases. In criminal cases, there is compelling evidence that the pressures of election campaigns and negative campaign ads affect judicial decision-making. (See this previous post for more detail.)

In summary, judges are facing unprecedented challenges to their ability to deliver fair, impartial justice free from partisan pressure. Not only are partisan elected officials trying to put their thumbs on the scales of justice, but in addition the rapid increase in spending on judicial campaigns has exacerbated the challenges to judicial fairness and integrity. (See this previous post for more detail.) We need to oppose efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary whenever and wherever they arise.

We need to support policies and practices that protect the independence of the judiciary. Two key policies related to the selection of judges are for states to use an effective, non-partisan appointment process or to have effective regulation of judicial elections and spending on them. Partial public financing systems, which match individuals’ small contributions with public money, can legally limit spending and the size of contributions. These are important steps in controlling the influence of campaign money on judicial decisions. (See this previous post for more detail.)

Eroding the checks and balances between our branches of government, and in particular the courts’ independence in making decisions fundamental to our democratic principles, is unpatriotic and antithetical to the Constitution. Increasing politicization of the courts is likely to further increase divisive partisanship. Reduced independence and power in the courts could be extremely difficult to reverse after the fact; this may well be a snowball that will roll uncontrollably downhill. Politicizing the judiciary would make its decisions subject to the whims of the current political environment rather than based on long-term constitutional, legal, and democratic principles.

[1]      Brennan Center for Justice, 2/6/18, “Legislative assaults on courts – 2018,” New York University Law School, (https://www.brennancenter.org/analysis/legislative-assaults-state-courts-2018)

[2]      Keith, D., 2/21/18, “Democracy unchecked: Trump spurs state lawmakers to curb judges’ powers,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/democracy-unchecked-trump-spurs-state-lawmakers-curb-judges%E2%80%99-powers)

LOCAL POLICIES SERVING RESIDENTS BLOCKED BY RIGHT WING CONSERVATIVES

Right wing conservatives supposedly, ideologically, support local political control. Their actions, however, are first and foremost, designed to benefit the special interests that provide their financial support. They are using their political power at the state and federal levels to block and preempt progressive policies at the local level. Policies that benefit workers and the public good are blocked if they are opposed by the large corporations and wealthy executives who provide campaign funding. Right wing conservatives loudly proclaim their support and allegiance to the Constitution and democracy, but willingly undermine both when it serves the interests of their plutocratic backers. [1]

Right wing conservatives block the will of the majority using multiple strategies:

  • Passing laws or taking executive actions that block progressive policies of local communities,
  • Limiting the ability of judges and the courts to uphold the Constitution and laws that protect political, social, economic, and civil rights, and
  • Manipulating voting and representation through gerrymandering, voter suppression, and rigging of the Census.

This post will focus on laws and executive actions that block progressive policies. Subsequent posts will cover efforts to limit the independence of judges and the courts, as well as gerrymandering. Previous posts have discussed the rigging of the Census and voter suppression.

The plutocrats (i.e., those who have power due to their wealth) have used their money over a period of 40 years to buy political influence and elections. The resultant political shift to the right in Congress and the White House, and in many state legislatures and governorships, has meant that local communities are more frequently finding themselves at odds with policies established by right wing conservatives at the state and federal levels. In particular, large cities, which are substantially more diverse and politically progressive than the non-urban population, are having their progressive policies blocked by conservative, elected officials in state and federal offices.

One of the more notable conflicts between the Trump administration and local communities is over the treatment of immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants. Over 150 cities or counties have directed their police forces not to arrest or hold residents based solely on federal immigration law violations. Local law enforcement needs to have positive relationships with all residents, including undocumented immigrants, so it can keep everyone safe and ensure that everyone is comfortable interacting with the police for their own and others’ safety.

The Trump administration uses multiple tactics (e.g., threats to cut off funding and engaging in aggressive actions by federal immigration enforcement forces in those communities) to attempt to discourage and punish local initiatives to maintain good relationships between undocumented immigrants and police. The Trump administration is trying to coerce local communities into undermining local law enforcement and public safety.

At the state level, there are many examples of state governments blocking local policies that serve residents. These have gotten little attention in the mass media. For example, states have passed laws that prohibit municipalities from:

  • Raising their minimum wage (25 states, including almost every Southern state),
  • Requiring local employers to provide paid sick time and / or establishing a paid family and medical leave program (at least 17 states),
  • Providing local Internet service (typically at lower cost or higher speed than available from private providers) (at least 17 states),
  • Regulating ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft (at least 37 states),
  • Implementing local taxes to meet local needs (at least 42 states),
  • Regulating consumer and public health safety (e.g., tobacco products, food labeling, plastic bag bans, and fracking and other environmental threats),
  • Removing or altering Confederate monuments (at least 6 states),
  • Regulating short-term home rentals such as Airbnb (at least 3 states),
  • Protecting the rights of gay and lesbian people (at least 3 states), and
  • Taking steps to reduce gun violence by regulating guns and ammunition. [2] [3] [4] [5]

Nonetheless, local communities are asserting their progressive values. For example, 21 states and 32 localities have raised their minimum wage above the federal level since 2014. In response, the corporate-funded and run American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) has drafted and provided to state legislators across the country model legislation called the “Living Wage Preemption Act” designed to block local increases in the minimum wage.

In some cases, states have overridden and reversed policies and programs after they have been established at the local level. For example, in Austin, Texas, the state struck down a local ordinance requiring fingerprinting of Uber and Lyft drivers. And Texas legislators have promised to introduce legislation to repeal Austin’s recently passed paid sick time law. In Ohio, the state retroactively canceled Cleveland’s increase in its minimum wage.

These efforts at preemption of local progressive policies are occurring because right wing conservatives and their wealthy backers know that the successes of these policies and programs represent a powerful refutation of their ideology and political arguments. The right wing also knows it is outnumbered if there is broad participation in elections and political activity. Therefore, one of their goals is to suppress voting and political engagement. Limiting the success of grassroots initiatives is key to preventing the building of a truly powerful, larger and broader progressive movement.

State and federal preemption of local policies usurps communities’ power and right to control their own destinies. Although preemption can play a positive role in setting a floor or minimum standard for policies on safety, environmental standards, human rights, and labor standards, its current use by right wing conservatives is anti-democratic because it is pushing the interests of the plutocracy – wealthy individuals and large corporations – and undermining democratic self-determination.

[1]      Doonan, M., 12/14/17, “Opportunistic federalism and a liberal resurgence,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/opportunistic-federalism-and-liberal-resurgence)

[2]      Miller, J., 2/21/18, “In the face of preemption threats, Austin passes paid sick leave,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/face-preemption-threats-austin-passes-paid-sick-leave)

[3]      Miller, J., 8/22/17, “On monuments and minimum wages,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/monuments-and-minimum-wages)

[4]      Von Wilpert, M., 3/13/18, “Preemption laws prevent cities from acting on everything from labor and employment to gun safety,” Economic Policy Institute (https://www.epi.org/blog/preemption-laws-prevent-cities-from-acting-on-everything-from-labor-and-employment-to-gun-safety/)

[5]      Hightower, J., May 2017, “GOP state legislatures are attacking local democracy,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/gop-state-legislatures-are-attacking-local-democracy/)

THE UNDERMINING OF THE 2020 CENSUS

The 2020 Census is coming up soon and preparations for it are underway. You’ve probably heard about the controversy over the Trump administration’s effort to add a question on citizenship to the Census. Unfortunately, the politicization and undermining of the Census runs much deeper than just this question.

The Census is supposed to enumerate every person living in the U.S., regardless of whether they are a citizen or not. This is the Constitutional mandate of the Census. It’s used to determine boundaries for Congressional Districts and state legislative districts, as well as votes in the Electoral College (which, of course, elects the President). It’s also used every year to apportion $675 billion in federal funding for health care, schools, housing, and roads. Essentially every major U.S. institution uses Census data, from businesses analyzing markets to countless researchers analyzing demographics and driving policy decisions.

The 2010 Census was the most accurate one in history, but it over-counted white residents by almost 1% (e.g., people with more than one home) and under-counted Blacks by 2%, Hispanics by 1.5%, and Native Americans by 5% – failing to count 1.5 million residents of color. [1] The fairness and accuracy of the Census, as well as trust in it and its process, are essential elements of the core infrastructure of our democracy.

The undermining of an accurate count in the 2020 Census began in 2012 and has accelerated more recently. In 2012, Congress directed the Census Bureau, over the objections of the Obama White House, to spend less on the 2020 Census than it had on the 2010 Census, despite inflation and a population that was expected to grow by 25 million residents (about 8%). After Trump’s election in 2016, the Bureau’s budget was cut by another 10%, although some of that funding was just restored last month.

The Census Bureau’s Director resigned in June 2017 after Congressional budget cuts. The Deputy Director position was already vacant; however, the Trump administration has not yet nominated anyone to fill either of these posts. A rumored nominee was an academic without any Census experience who had supported racial and partisan gerrymandering of Congressional Districts. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has installed a “special adviser” at the Census Bureau who is from a partisan polling firm and who reports directly to the White House. These personnel issues undermine the Bureau’s ability to effectively run the 2020 Census.

Budget cuts have forced the Census Bureau to cancel crucial testing of the Census process. These tests are particularly important because for the first time the Census will be conducted primarily through on-line responses. Rather than mailing Census forms to every household, a postcard will be sent with instructions on how to fill out the on-line form. As in the past, Census workers, called enumerators, will visit households that don’t respond to the initial Census mailing to ensure the counting of those residents. Even though the initial response rate is likely to fall because of low-income or elders’ households that lack the technological capability to respond on-line, the number of enumerators has been cut by about 200,000, from 500,000 to 300,000. (Roughly a third of low-income households and a third of Black and Hispanic households lack Internet access and a computer.) The enumerators are also charged with finding and obtaining Census responses from residents who did not receive the mailing.

Budget cuts also forced the Census Bureau to cancel trial runs specifically designed to help it figure out how to reach hard-to-count populations. It also canceled two of three “dress rehearsals.” It has half as many field offices as it had in 2010. The development of the Bureau’s technology systems is behind schedule and the launch of its website is not scheduled until April 2020. Cybersecurity for the new on-line Census is a major concern as well. A group of 51 economists from across the country and across the political spectrum have written a letter to Congress supporting “robust funding of the 2020 Census sufficient to ensure a fair and accurate count of the U.S. population.” [2]

The budget cuts mean that the outreach and publicity the Census Bureau will do to encourage responding to the Census have been reduced substantially. Currently, the Bureau has only 40 employees working on outreach, compared with 120 at this point 10 years ago. States, cities, and private foundations are already working to fill this void, but they will be hard pressed to match the 2010 effort where the Census Bureau spent $340 million on promotional advertising.

As if these challenges to accurately counting every resident weren’t enough, the Trump administration recently announced its intention to add a question to the Census that would ask whether the respondent is a citizen. The Census Bureau was already concerned that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant actions and rhetoric were going to make it harder to get an accurate count of immigrant residents, both documented and undocumented ones. A citizenship question will only exacerbate this challenge. Not only will non-citizens be less likely to respond to the Census, but citizens in the 16 million households with some undocumented members may refuse to respond out of fear of exposing their undocumented family members. [3]

The Trump administration says that getting citizenship data in the Census is necessary to enforce the Voting Rights Act and prevent discrimination against minorities. This claim would be laughable if its implications weren’t so serious. There hasn’t been a question on citizenship on the Census for 70 years. [4] Furthermore, the American Community Survey, which is done annually with a statistically accurate sample that consists of 3.5 million residents, does have a question on citizenship that provides the data needed to analyze issues where citizenship information is needed.

The opposition to adding a question on citizenship has been swift and broad. Six former Census Bureau Directors who served under both Republicans and Democrats wrote a letter in opposition. Two dozen states and cities have announced a lawsuit aimed at blocking the inclusion of this question. [5] Normally, adding a question to the Census is a careful process with testing to determine effects on response rate and other factors. In this case, there is no opportunity to test the effect of adding this question given that very limited field testing is being done and that it is already underway.

An under-count of immigrants and people of color would shift economic and political power to rural, white, conservative populations. These effects would last for at least the next 10 years until the 2030 Census. California estimates that each resident who is not counted will cost the state $1,900 in federal funding each year. It receives about $77 billion annually in federal funding and could lose about $2 billion each year for the next 10 years if its low-income and immigrant populations are significantly under-counted. This could also cost the state one or two seats in the House of Representatives and in the Electoral College.

A significant under-count in the 2020 Census would undermine the commitment of our democracy to treat each resident fairly. The Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress, by significantly under-funding the Census, by adding a question on citizenship, through their anti-immigrant actions and rhetoric, and by refusing to use more accurate statistical techniques, seem to be working hard to under-count hard-to-reach populations. Not surprisingly, these low-income, minority, young, and student populations are the same ones they are trying to keep from voting through ID requirements and other steps that make voting more difficult. They appear to be more than happy to undermine the 2020 Census and our democracy to achieve political goals.

The Census has an extraordinary reputation for counting all residents regardless of income, race, ethnicity, or immigrant status. Undermining confidence in the integrity of the Census by politicizing the process will erode trust that is essential to a functioning democracy. [6]

I urge you to contact your members of Congress and urge them to support adequate funding for the Census, to oppose a question on citizenship, and to strongly advocate for as accurate a count of all residents as is possible. You can find your US Representative’s name and contact information at: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/. You can find your US Senators’ names and contact information at: http://www.senate.gov/general/contact_information/senators_cfm.cfm.

[1]      Berman, A., May/June 2018, “Hidden figures: How Donald Trump is rigging the Census,” Mother Jones (https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2018/03/donald-trump-rigging-2020-census-undercounting-minorities-1/#)

[2]      Economic Policy Institute, 4/2/18, “An open letter from 51 economists to Congress urging robust funding of the 2020 Census” (https://www.epi.org/publication/an-open-letter-from-51-economists-to-congress-urging-robust-funding-of-the-2020-census/)

[3]      Loth, R., 4/9/18, “Turning the apolitical Census into an anti-immigrant tool,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Cerbin, C. M., 3/27/18, “Citizenship question to be put back on the 2020 Census for first time in 70 years,” USA Today

[5]      Kamp, J., & Adamy, J., 4/13/18, “Citizenship question rankles in trial run of 2020 Census,” Wall Street Journal

[6]      Wines, M., 12/9/17, “With 2020 Census looming, worries about fairness and accuracy,” The New York Times

TAX CUTS FOR THE WEALTHY DON’T STIMULATE THE ECONOMY

Tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations don’t stimulate the economy, grow jobs and wages, or increase government revenue. The evidence for this comes not only from national experience under Presidents Reagan and G. W. Bush, but also from the recent, dramatic events in Kansas.

In 2012, in an effort led by newly elected Governor Sam Brownback, Kansas passed a tax bill like the one recently enacted by President Trump and the Republicans in Congress. The Kansas law slashed income tax rates (especially for the wealthy) and for privately-held companies, just like the recently enacted federal tax law. It also cut tax credits that helped low and moderate-income families, just like the recent federal tax law.

Governor Brownback and his supporters in the Kansas legislature promised that Kansas’s economy would boom and state tax revenue would grow as a result, just like the promises President Trump and the Republicans in Congress are making. [1]

In the almost six years since Kansas’s tax cuts, it has had one of the worst performing state economies in the country, the state’s tax revenues have been falling by hundreds of millions of dollars each year, and Kansas ranks among the top ten states for the percentage of people moving out-of-state. The big tax cut for privately-held companies appears to have fueled more tax evasion than job creation.

To deal with the dramatic decline in revenue for the state’s $6 billion budget, Governor Brownback and Republican Legislature have:

  • Cut hundreds of millions of dollars from spending, putting public schools (see more below) and other service providers into crisis
  • Cut payment rates for health care services, putting many of the state’s hospitals into crisis
  • Cut state administrative capacity, resulting in residents experience lengthy delays and waitlists when accessing state services (e.g., the delays in approving seniors’ eligibility for Medicaid so they could go into nursing homes became so bad that the federal government charged Kansas with violating federal law)
  • Increased regressive taxes, such as the sales tax and alcohol and tobacco taxes
  • Diverted over $100 million from the state’s highway fund and $40 million from the required contribution to the state employees’ retirement fund in 2015 alone
  • Increased state debt by over $1 billion, which, along with other fiscal issues, led to the downgrading of Kansas’s bond rating

The cuts in public school funding led to a lawsuit where the state’s Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the state had to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more on K-12 public education. A previous, decades-long dispute between local school districts and the state over the levels and allocation of state funding for public education had been settled in 2006. That settlement required the state to increase funding for public education. However, the Great Recession of 2008 and then Governor Brownback’s tax cutting in 2012 had reduced state revenue so dramatically that, despite the settlement, the state cut funding for public schools by 16.5% (one-sixth) between 2008 and 2013.

In 2015, as state revenue continued its dramatic decline due to the tax cuts, Brownback cut another $28 million from K-12 public education funding. Two school districts were forced to end their school years early because they ran out of money. The cuts in state school funding disproportionately hurt low-income and urban school districts that couldn’t make up for lost state funding with increased local funding.

Some of the school districts sued and in 2015 the state’s Supreme Court ruled that the state had to provide $40 million immediately as a first step in correcting the under-funding of public education. In a further ruling in 2017, the courts required the state to come up with over $700 million for public education over the next several years.

In the 2016 elections, while Trump was winning 57% of the presidential vote in Kansas, Democrats and moderate Republicans were winning state legislative races due to concerns about the public schools and other issues. Facing a nearly $1 billion shortfall in the state’s two-year budget and a court requirement to significantly increase funding for K-12 education, the legislature voted in February 2017 to repeal most of the 2012 income tax cuts for individuals and privately held companies. Governor Brownback vetoed the bill and the legislature came up just short of overriding the veto.

In June 2017, the legislature again passed a repeal of most of the 2012 income tax cuts. Governor Brownback again vetoed the bill. This time the legislature overrode the veto by one vote in the Senate and four votes in the House. Although it will take Kansas many years to recover from the damage that has been done to the state’s schools, health care system, and economy, the state’s bond rating was lifted a step just two days later.

There are striking similarities between Governor Brownback’s tax cuts and those of President Trump and the congressional Republicans. There are also striking similarities in their promises of economic growth and increased government revenue. However, the great majority of economists and other knowledgeable observers believe the results of the federal tax cuts are very likely to be similar to Kansas’s experiences.

The major difference is that the federal government does not have to have a balanced budget. So, along with the recently passed budget bill, the result in the short-term will be federal budget deficits of roughly $1 trillion per year. This is not sustainable, financially or politically. Sooner or later, significant federal spending cuts and/or tax increases are highly likely to be necessary.

The only questions, in both Kansas and nationally, are how much damage will be done by the tax cuts and how long will it take to recover from them. Note that some individuals in Kansas, such as children whose schooling was compromised or people whose health was compromised by lack of access to health care or other services, will never recover all that they have lost. The harm on a national level will certainly be greater in scale – more people will be harmed. Only time will tell how great and long lasting the harm will be for individuals and for our society.

[1]      Miller, J., 6/28/17, “Kansas, Sam Brownback, and the trickle-down implosion,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/kansas-sam-brownback-and-trickle-down-implosion-0)

VOTER SUPPRESSION IS A REAL THREAT TO OUR DEMOCRACY

The biggest threat to the integrity of our elections is voter suppression. Our democracy is built on the principle of one person, one vote, and the right of every citizen to cast his or her vote and have it counted. However, in the 2016 presidential election, hundreds of thousands of citizens were kept from voting by new state laws and procedures that have made it harder to vote.

State laws and procedures that inhibit voting are part of a Republican strategy to win elections at any cost. (This strategy also includes the overturning of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court, extreme gerrymandering of legislative and Congressional districts, as well as loosening campaign finance laws to allow wealthy individuals and corporations to spend freely and often anonymously on our elections.)

These voter suppression techniques are designed to reduce voting by low-income and minority citizens, who are more likely to vote for Democrats. The techniques include making it harder to register to vote, purging names of eligible voters from voting lists, permanently prohibiting those with felony convictions from voting even after they have served their time, and making it harder to actually vote.

States have made it harder to vote by reducing the number of polling places, reducing the days and hours for voting, and requiring specific personal identification – and sometimes making it difficult to obtain the required photo identification document. These actions often target communities or neighborhoods that are disproportionately low-income or minority.

For example, Wisconsin passed a restrictive voting law in 2011. Although state Republicans promised that not a single voter would be disenfranchised by the law, the best estimates are that 200,000 – 300,000 eligible voters lacked the photo ID necessary to vote in the 2016 presidential election. And Republican state legislators acknowledged in more candid moments that Democratic voter suppression was the goal. The law also cut early voting days, hours, and locations.

A judge struck down the law as clear voter suppression, but was overruled by a conservative appeals court. A judge overseeing the implementation of the law, repeatedly criticized the state for its failure to provide IDs in a timely fashion and for other actions that inhibited voting. [1] Overall, the result was that 91,000 fewer people voted in Wisconsin in 2016 than in 2012 and the turnout was the lowest since 2000. After the election, many eligible voters’ stories of being unable to vote were reported by the media. [2]

Trump won the election in Wisconsin by just 22,750 votes (less than 1%) and the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts may well have been the deciding factor. In Milwaukee, where 70% of the state’s African Americans live and Democratic voting is strong, 41,000 fewer people voted than in 2012, a 13% drop. [3] It’s possible that some of this may have been due to lowered interest without Obama on the ballot. However, a recent study found that in Milwaukee and Dane counties [4] 11% of registered voters (17,000 people) were deterred from voting by Wisconsin’s voter ID law and 6% (9,000) were prevented from voting by the ID law. Among low-income registered voters (household income under $25,000), 21% were deterred from voting, compared to 7% with incomes over $25,000 and 3% with incomes over $100,000. For white registered voters, 8% were deterred from voting, while for African Americans it was 28%. [5] Statewide it is estimated that 45,000 voters were deterred from voting by Wisconsin’s voter ID law. It is likely that this alone (not including the other voter suppression efforts) switched the Wisconsin presidential election outcome and its 10 electoral college votes from Clinton to Trump.

In Michigan, a Trump campaign official stated prior to the election that they had a three-pronged voter suppression effort underway. The Michigan voter ID law, as in Wisconsin, clearly prevented or discouraged many eligible voters from voting. Furthermore, 55,000 voters had been purged from the voter registration lists based on an error-prone process of matching their names with the names of registered voters in other states. Finally, in Detroit, a recount was cut short despite large numbers of ballots that voting machines failed to read properly, but where the voter’s intent was clear based on a visual examination of the ballot.

Given that Trump won the election in Michigan by 10,700 votes (less than ¼ of 1%), the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts are likely to have been the deciding factor in his victory there, which gained him 16 electoral college votes.

In Pennsylvania, a strict voter ID law was passed in 2012, but was overturned by the courts before the 2016 election. Other voter suppression efforts were identified in 2012 and responses to them lessened their impacts on the 2016 election. However, in 2016, a delay in processing valid voter registrations kept at least 26,000 voters off the list of registered voters on election day, and the number could go higher if further investigation is done. The majority of the identified disenfranchised voters were in the diverse city of Philadelphia.

Given that Trump won the election in Pennsylvania by 44,300 votes (less than 1%), the Republicans’ voter suppression efforts might have been the deciding factor in his victory there, which gained him 16 electoral college votes. [6]

A change in the winner in these three states with 46 electoral votes would have changed the outcome of the presidential election. So, the impact of voter suppression efforts is potentially very significant.

These three states are examples of a broad, decade-long attack on voting rights. Over 20 states have passed new restrictions on voting since 2010. [7] An analysis from the non-partisan General Accounting Office (GAO) examined the effect of voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee in 2012. It concluded that due to their new voter ID laws, voter turnout dropped 1.9% in Kansas and 2.2% in Tennessee. That would represent about 34,000 voters in Kansas and about 88,000 in Tennessee. The GAO’s analysis found that young people, Blacks, and newly registered voters were disproportionately impacted. [8]

The US Supreme Court overturned key portions of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, claiming that racial discrimination in voting was no longer a problem. However, subsequent events proved them wrong. Within months of this decision, states were passing voter suppression laws that federal courts have noted were “passed with racially discriminatory intent.” [9] A judge struck down a package of voter suppression laws in North Carolina last year, noting that they targeted Black voters “with almost surgical precision.” [10]

Nationally, it is estimated that 10% of eligible voters (13 million people) don’t have an ID that would comply with new state voter ID laws. And although some of the most egregious voter suppression laws have been struck down by the courts, this often doesn’t happen until after the election when the damage has been done.

Voter suppression is antithetical to the principles and integrity of our democracy. Not only does it distort and manipulate the outcomes of our elections, it violates the one person, one vote, foundational equity of democracy and undermines the trust of the electorate in our governments. It makes elected officials less accountable to the people they supposedly represent. It harms our credibility around the world as our elections are seen as illegitimate and rigged. We need to condemn and fight back against voter suppression efforts as undemocratic and truly un-American.

[1]      Berman, A., Nov. / Dec. 2017, “Rigged: How voter suppression threw Wisconsin to Trump and changed the election,” Mother Jones (http://www.motherjones.com/mag/2017/11/toc/)

[2]      Cassidy, C.A., & Moreno, I., 5/9/17, “In Wisconsin, ID law proved insurmountable for many voters,” Associated Press (http://www.apnewsarchive.com/2017/In_Wisconsin%2C_ID_law_proved_insurmountable_for_many_voters/id-624a00e48a444f2c8fbd2faa07d44ad5)

[3]      Rapoport, M., 8/7/17, “Voter suppression in the mirror and looking forward,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/voter-suppression-mirror-and-looking-forward)

[4]      These 2 counties account for almost 1.5 million of Wisconsin’s 5.8 million residents.

[5]      Mayer, K.R., 9/25/17, “Voter ID study shows turnout effects in 2016 presidential election,” University of Wisconsin at Madison (https://elections.wisc.edu/news/voter-id-study/Voter-ID-Study-Release.pdf)

[6]      Rapoport, M., 8/7/17, see above

[7]      Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 10/13/17, “New voting restrictions in America,”  New York University of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/new-voting-restrictions-america)

[8]      Bump, P., 10/9/14, “Voter ID laws in Kansas and Tennessee dropped voter turnout by over 100,000 votes,” The Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/10/09/gao-voter-id-laws-in-kansas-and-tennessee-dropped-2012-turnout-by-over-100000-votes/?utm_term=.6f7fb4686bcf)

[9]      Coons, C., & Austin-Hillery, N., 6/30/17, “The threat to American elections you don’t know about but should,” Time (http://time.com/4837622/voter-suppression-democracy-senator-chris-coons/)

[10]     Cassidy & Moreno, 5/9/17, see above

REGULATORY REFORM PUTS LARGE CORPORATIONS, NOT AMERICA, FIRST

The Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress have declared war on regulations. This puts large corporations and their profits first (not America) and puts America’s workers and consumers in danger.

Regulations and rules are what the Executive Branch of government (i.e., the President and his administration) uses to implement laws passed by the Legislative Branch (i.e., Congress). Rules and regulations are also used to update the implementation of laws over time as things change. For example, new products are brought to market, new medical procedures are developed, new chemicals are formulated, new financial instruments and transactions are invented, and so forth. If rules and regulations can’t be updated to respond to these situations, the implementation of our laws would fairly quickly become outdated and inappropriate. New laws would have to be passed to deal with every significant change in the real world. This would clearly be an inefficient and ineffective way to deal with our changing world, especially given the current dysfunction in Congress.

Rules and regulations protect public health and public goods (e.g., our air and water, our environment). They also protect workers and consumers from unsafe situations and products.

The Trump administration and the Republicans in Congress want to block new regulations and repeal existing ones for two, inter-related ideological reasons:

  • Belief in an unfettered free market that allows corporations to make profits without any constraints, and
  • Belief in a very limited role for government.

I believe there is another, non-ideological reason: our elected officials want to reward and do the bidding of their large campaign donors, both individuals and corporations. (Note that their donations are often given via intermediaries that are used to disguise the actual donors and their interests.) These large campaign donations buy essentially unfettered access to our elected officials so large donors can lobby and communicate their perspective on every rule or regulation. This, along with paid lobbyists, skews rules and regulations to favor the interests of these large donors. For example, the oil and gas industry spends $300 million per year on lobbying and has over 1,600 lobbyists working to communicate and convince officials in the legislative and executive branches to follow the industry’s preferences on rules and regulations.

The current war on regulations is being fought on multiple fronts and with multiple tactics:

  • Repealing the 150 or so regulations implemented by the Obama administration in its last 6 months in office. Currently, there are over 50 resolutions in the House or Senate targeting over 30 regulations for repeal.
  • Passing legislation that would give Congress the power to review and veto new regulations. This would substitute the political judgement of Congress for the judgement of scientists and experts in federal agencies in developing rules and regulations.
  • Passing legislation requiring new regulations to be evaluated with a focus on costs, reducing or ignoring the importance and value of their benefits.
  • Requiring that 2 regulations must be eliminated for every new one issued. This is being applied only in areas where the Trump administration opposes regulation but not for new regulations they favor, such as ones restricting the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
  • Appointing executive branch personnel who do not support the mission of the agencies they head or are in. As a result, the agencies’ regulations won’t be effectively enforced. This clearly applies to Secretary Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), as well as to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) (which regulates banks and financial institutions) and the Department of Health and Human Services (which oversees the implementation of the Affordable Care Act).
  • Underfunding agencies so they do not have the capacity to enforce the regulations they oversee. Again, this applies to the EPA and the SEC, among others.
  • Reducing opportunities for public input into the repeal of existing regulations and the development of new ones.

In my next post, I’ll share some specific examples of rules and regulations that are being repealed, delayed, or weakened.

EFFORTS TO SUPPRESS FREE SPEECH

In the last 5 months, Republican legislators in at least 19 states have proposed laws that would crack down on the freedom of speech. [1] This is a bit of a surprise, since conservatives often present themselves as protectors of freedom of speech, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Republicans and conservatives have even asserted a right to freedom of speech for corporations. So, what’s going on?

These Republicans are trying to block the freedom of speech of protesters opposed to their and President Trump’s policies. Proposed legislation in various states would increase punishments for protesters, seize their assets (including homes), and remove penalties on drivers who hit protesters with their cars. Some of the legislation tries to make non-violent protests seem like serious threats that deserve severe punishment by redefining them as “riots” or terrorism.

The good news is that none of these bills has yet been passed into law. Several of them have been stopped by protests or the realization that they are unconstitutional. [2]

It’s noteworthy that these proposals are surfacing when the protests are from the left. They have arisen in the face of protests of the election of Trump, of oil pipelines, and of police shootings and harsh treatment of unarmed Blacks. They target protests that support raising the minimum wage and protecting the environment. Historically, similar efforts from the right to suppress protesting were evident during civil rights protests in the 1960s and workers’ protests in the late 1800s and early 1900s. [3]

It’s interesting that concern over protests wasn’t evident during Tea Party protests; pro-Trump rallies; KKK, white supremacists, or anti-civil rights protests; or anti-gay, anti-immigrant, or anti-Muslim protests. Concern over protests also wasn’t evident when anti-abortion protesters blocked, burned, and bombed Planned Parenthood health clinics. Furthermore, the response from the left to protests by those on the right has been very temperate and focused on efforts to ensure the physical safety of patients wanting to access Planned Parenthood clinics. Those on the left respect the fact that even verbal attacks and harassment are protected free speech.

One of the rationales for Republicans’ anti-protest legislation is that they’re trying to counter the actions of paid, professional protesters who foment violence. This is a common accusation that experts agree is overstated. If anything, instigators of violence more often come from the right than from the left. In fact, there has been remarkably little violence in the anti-Trump protests, despite their size, energy, and strong emotions.

Although none of the anti-protest legislation has yet passed, there is cause for concern. Many state governments are dominated by Republicans and the Republicans there and in Washington (including the President) exhibit quite conservative, law-and-order attitudes, as well as a desire to suppress opposition. This, combined with the frequent demonstrations protesting Trump and Republican policies, as well as the many powerful interests that have a stake in suppressing current protests, produce an atmosphere in which such legislation may pass and where violations of the right to freedom of speech are quite possible.

Threats of legislation that would punish protesters and anti-protest rhetoric are likely to have a chilling effect on dissent, on protesting, and on exercising freedom of speech. As citizens of a democracy, we must pushback against these threats and support the Bill of Rights and the freedom of speech.

[1]      Yoder, T., 3/7/17, “New anti-protesting legislation: A deeper look,” National Lawyers Guild and Moyer & Company (http://billmoyers.com/story/new-anti-protesting-legislation-deeper-look/)

[2]      McCauley, L., 2/28/17, “Outcry kills anti-protest law in Arizona, but troubling trend continues nationwide,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2017/02/28/outcry-kills-anti-protest-law-arizona-troubling-trend-continues-nationwide)

[3]      Ingraham, C., 2/24/17, “Republican lawmakers introduce bills to curb protesting in at least 18 states,” The Washington Post

IS TRUMP A POPULIST, A FASCIST, BOTH, NEITHER?

Some in the media and many political pundits have referred to President Trump as a populist or a fascist or both. These terms are not opposites, but they aren’t comfortable bedfellows. I cringe every time I see Trump referred to as a populist because my vision of populism is the inclusive, broad-based populism of Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

A populist is someone who supports the concerns of ordinary, working people, as opposed to the elite, upper class. Populist activism is based on the belief that the common people are being exploited by the privileged elite. The underlying ideology of populists can be left, right, or center. Populist activism becomes likely when mainstream political institutions fail to deliver economic and social well-being for ordinary people. [1] The direction that populist activism takes depends heavily on the style of the politician who taps into it.

Populism has a long history in the US. There was a Populist Party in the 1890s and William Jennings Bryan ran as the Democratic presidential candidate on a populist platform in 1896, 1900, and 1908. President Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Party took over the populist banner in the early 1900s. George Wallace’s campaigns of the 1960s and 1970s had populist themes that some labeled reactionary populism due to their racist underpinnings. Ralph Nader in the 1990s and 2000s ran for president using populist themes.

Trump’s campaign and presidency have a populist element in their appeals to the working class. However, their focus on the white working class evokes memories of the reactionary populism of George Wallace. Trump argues that the working class is being hurt by the actions of political elites in Washington, D.C. He also appeals to the working class by asserting that their well-being is being undermined by immigrants. There is a racist element to Trump’s appeals, as he lays the blame for the struggles of the white working class on (largely Latino) immigrants and Blacks. Historically, this type of reactionary populism has been fertile ground for the development of fascism.

Some view Trump’s populism as faux-populism and demagoguery because his appeals to the working class are based only on rhetoric and unrealistic policy proposals. Trump exhibits attributes of a demagogue, such as exploiting the prejudices and gullibility of some voters, and stirring up anger and resentment while eschewing reasoned debate. Historically, demagogues often overturn established customs of political conduct, assert the presence of a national crisis, and accuse moderate and thoughtful opponents of weakness or disloyalty to their country. A demagogic populist typically claims legitimacy directly from the people and asserts that he alone will do what the people want. He refuses to acknowledge the legitimacy of opposition and attacks institutions, from the courts to the news media, that don’t support him. Trump has exhibited many of these attributes. [2]

Personally, when I think of populism, I think of inclusive populism that is committed to including stigmatized groups (e.g., the poor, minorities, immigrants, and women). They are embraced and supported rather than being targeted for blame and as scapegoats. This is the type of populism that Senator Bernie Sanders promoted during the presidential primaries and for which Senator Elizabeth Warren has been advocating. [3]

Fascism, on the other hand, is an authoritarian and nationalistic approach to governing where the government controls or partners with business and/or labor. Typically, opposition is not tolerated and the government is led by a strong leader who asserts that strong central control is needed to effectively combat economic difficulties and external threats. A principal goal is self-sufficiency and independence through protectionist economic policies. [4]

Trump’s rhetoric echoes many of the themes of fascism. Perhaps most prominently, he promotes ethnic stereotypes and fear of foreigners, which is typical fascist rhetoric. Asserting concern about national decline is another common element of fascist discourse. Trump’s slogan “Make America great again” fits this theme exactly. Even though the US, by most measures, isn’t in serious decline, he’s able to persuade the white working class that the country is in decline, or at least their position in it is. Poorly-educated white males have experienced economic decline over the last 35 years. The Great Recession of 2008 and the weak recovery from it have left many working people economically worse off. [5]

Fascists tend to use threats of violence to intimidate opponents and silence critics. They are skilled at getting their followers to believe them even when the narrative they present is at odds with facts; truth becomes subjective. [6] These are also themes that have been apparent in the Trump campaign and presidency.

Trump’s selections for his Cabinet appear to contradict the populism of his campaign rhetoric. They do, however, fit with fascism’s alignment of business and government. Many of his nominees are from the corporate elite who have played a major role in diverting federal policy from supporting the working class to supporting large corporations. They seem positioned to strengthen the role of the private sector in policy making and undermine the role of the federal government in supporting working people. For example, they have opposed labor unions, workplace regulation, and workers’ rights; they have worked to privatize public education; they have weakened voting and civil rights; they have opposed environmental regulation and action on global warming; and they have supported weakening the social safety net. [7] [8]

There were and are elements of xenophobic, reactionary populism in Trump’s rhetoric and in some of his (to-date largely symbolic) actions. His style, cabinet nominees, and some of his actions exhibit themes of fascism. Although it’s too early to conclusively decide whether he is more of a populist or a fascist, President Trump has never expressed support for the inclusive populism of Senators Sanders and Warren. On the other hand, he has consistently displayed, and his background seems much more aligned with, some of the core themes of fascism.

[1]      Wikipedia, retrieved 2/18/17, “Populism” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populism)

[2]      Wilkinson, F., 2/16/17, “Why Donald Trump really is a populist,” BloombergView https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-02-16/why-donald-trump-really-is-a-populist

[3]      The Economist, retrieved 2/18/17, “The Economist explains populism,” http://www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2016/12/economist-explains-18

[4]      Wikipedia, retrieved 2/18/17, “Fascism” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fascism)

[5]      Chotiner, I., Feb. 2016, “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” Slate (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/interrogation/2016/02/is_donald_trump_a_fascist_an_expert_on_fascism_weighs_in.html)

[6]      Kuttner, R., 12/16/16, “The audacity of hope,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/audacity-hope)

[7]      Vanden Heuvel, K., 12/20/16, “Sham populism, shameless plutocracy,” The Washington Post

[8]      Bonham, L., & Jennings, G., 2/17/17, “Is Trump’s billionaire cabinet actually a closet full of fascists?” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/02/17/trumps-billionaire-cabinet-actually-closet-full-fascists)

GOOD NEWS FROM THE 2016 ELECTIONS

Believe it or not, there was quite a bit of good news in the 2016 elections. While I imagine many of us feel that the election of Donald Trump as president was bad news for our country, the frustration that fueled his election has positive aspects.

First, the election of Trump and the surprising success of Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary both reflect a strongly-felt, deep-seated frustration that many middle class and working people have with the downward slide in their economic security and well-being. If they have been able to maintain their standard of living over the last 35 years, it has been a struggle. Often, they have had to work more hours at the same or lower pay. Many have lost jobs that moved overseas or to lower wage areas within the US. Some have had their pay or benefits cut due to overseas competition or the decline of collective bargaining through unions. Meanwhile, they have watched the income and wealth of the economic and corporate elite skyrocket.

Small businesses have struggled while giant, multi-national corporations have been bailed out and given huge tax breaks and other subsidies. Our elections and political system have produced policies that favor big corporations, while small business people struggle, just like others in the middle and working class.

Voters did not give any sort of mandate to Trump and the Republicans to enact their policy priorities. As you probably know, 3 million more people voted for Clinton than for Trump. In US Senate races, Republicans won only 46% of the popular vote – but got 52% of the seats. In the House, the Republicans won only 51% of the vote – but got 55% of the seats. [1]

Only 53% of eligible voters actually voted. This means that barely one out of four eligible voters voted for Trump and the Republicans. And the only reason Republicans won the presidency (courtesy of the Electoral College) and a majority in the US Senate is because of the disproportionate power given to small states in those bodies.

Republicans won a significant majority of US House seats only because of the gerrymandering of House districts (i.e., the drawing of district lines to gain partisan advantage). Due to this gerrymandering, it is estimated the Democrats would need to receive about 10 million more votes nationwide than Republicans (i.e., almost 55% of the vote) in House races to gain a narrow majority of the seats. [2]

Not only don’t Trump and the Republicans have any mandate, but many election results were in direct contradiction to their brand of conservatism and their policy positions. Three very progressive women of color were newly elected to the US Senate: Tammy Duckworth in IL, Kamala Harris in CA, and Catherine Cortez Masto in NV. Two very progressive women of color were newly elected to the US House: Pramila Jayapal in WA and Stephanie Murphy in FL.

In Oregon, Kate Brown, was elected Governor as a candidate of the Working Families Party. In AZ, ultra-right wing sheriff Arpaio was defeated by a Democrat. In MN, a Somali-American woman, Ihlan Omar, was elected to the legislature. And in TX four Latinos gained seats in the legislature. [3]

Important progressive policies were enacted by voters through ballot initiatives. All four states (AZ, CO, ME, and WA) that had minimum wage increases on the ballot passed them. Overall, the minimum wage will increase in 19 states on January 1st. This will increase wages for 4.3 million workers, providing them with over $4 billion of increased income over the course of the year. Millions of additional workers who earn just above the new minimum wage levels will also likely receive pay increases. The well-being of all these workers and their families will improve. [4] Income inequality will be reduced and all workers and the middle class will benefit.

AZ and WA also passed laws requiring paid sick time, while SD rejected a decrease in the minimum wage for teenagers and VA rejected an anti-union initiative.

CA and WA passed initiatives calling for overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision (which allows unlimited spending by the wealthy in campaigns). MO and SD passed new laws regulating campaign spending. SD also passed an innovative $100 annual Democracy Credit for each voter to encourage small donors to participate in funding campaigns. Voters approved citizen-funded elections in Berkeley, CA, and Howard County, MD. They approved automatic voter registration in AK with a strong 64% vote in favor, while four other states enacted automatic voter registration through their state legislatures in 2016.

Maine voted for “ranked choice voting” which allows voters to indicate their first, second, third, etc. choices on the ballot. If your first choice is out of the running, then your second choice is counted, and so forth. Therefore, you can vote for the candidate you truly believe is best, without worrying that you might be aiding the election of a candidate you really don’t like. (For example, you could have voted for Ralph Nader for President in 2000 with Al Gore as your second choice, without worrying that your vote for Nader would help George W. Bush get elected.)

In CA, MA, ME, and OR progressive values prevailed in education reform ballot initiatives. CA and OK passed significant criminal justice reforms. [5] CA, NV, and WA strengthened laws designed to reduce gun violence, while RI and SD strengthened ethics laws for elected officials. [6]

These are only a few examples of the many successes in state and local elections on ballot initiatives, as well as on the election of candidates that will stand up for middle class and working people.

The support for candidates and policies that bolster the middle class and working people is broad and deep in the US. We all need to work together to ensure that the Republican Congress and President Trump work to improve the well-being of the 99% of people in this country who aren’t wealthy. We must be vigilant to ensure that the policies they enact aren’t for the benefit of the 1%, don’t exacerbate income and wealth inequality, and don’t continue the crony capitalism that benefits our giant, multinational corporations and their senior executives at the expense of small businesses and workers.

[1]      Singer, P., 11/10/16, “Democrats won popular vote in the Senate, too,” USA Today (http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2016/11/10/democrats-won-popular-vote-senate-too/93598998/)

[2]      Richie, R., 11/7/14, “Republicans got only 52 percent of the vote in House races,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/republicans-only-got-52-percent-vote-house-races/)

[3]      Hightower, J., 12/8/16, “We can beat back the reign of Trump – if we unite in a movement for populist justice,” The Hightower Lowdown (https://hightowerlowdown.org/article/beat-trump-with-populist-justice/)

[4]      Jones, J., 1/3817, “The new year brings higher wages for 4.3 million workers across the country,” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/blog/the-new-year-brings-higher-wages-for-4-3-million-workers-across-the-country/?mc_cid=d213e59597&mc_eid=2442dd3ea2)

[5]      Hightower, J., 12/8/16, see above

[6]      Politico, 12/13/16, “2016 ballot measures election results,” (http://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/ballot-measures)

HOW OUR ELECTIONS ARE RIGGED

Donald Trump has been claiming that our elections are rigged. He’s right. They are rigged – but not in the manner he suggests. Our elections are rigged to benefit wealthy interests and Republicans in three ways:

  1. Campaign finance laws allow unlimited and even secret spending by wealthy interests,
  2. States have made voting more difficult for low-income citizens, minorities, students, and some elders, and
  3. Republicans have gerrymandered Congressional Districts and state legislative districts to their benefit.

I’ve covered the first topic in a recent post (and other posts under the Campaigns category), so I’ll address the other two topics here.

Making voting more difficult: 20 states have put new laws making voting more difficult in place since 2010. The new laws range from photo ID requirements to reductions in early voting. These new laws are part of a broad effort to curtail voting by Democratic-leaning groups and individuals. [1] State lawmakers spanning almost all states have introduced hundreds of measures that would make it harder to vote. This is part of a strategic plan by conservatives and Republicans to shift election results. The effort has been spearheaded by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing and corporate-funded organization that develops templates for state legislation, including ones on voter suppression. [2] In a democracy we should be encouraging voting, not suppressing it!

Laws requiring specific types of IDs to vote are a key tactic. The supposed rationale for the voter ID laws has been to prevent voter fraud. However, every credible source that has examined this has documented that voter fraud is non-existent. In addition, to requiring IDs to vote, some states have made it hard or expensive to get an acceptable ID. For example, Texas does not allow the use of a student ID (but a firearm ID card is acceptable). These laws can be quite effective in suppressing voting. Wisconsin’s voter ID law is estimated to have kept 300,000 citizens from voting. [3]

In addition to changes in law, there are numerous examples of other efforts to suppress voting. Some states have reduced the number of polling places in minority neighborhoods, resulting in long waiting lines that prevent some people from voting. This was evident in Arizona’s September primary elections where the number of polling places in Latino neighborhoods was greatly reduced and created 5-hour waiting lines. North Carolina has reduced the number of hours and locations for early voting for the November 8th election. [4]

Another tactic has been to purge names from lists of registered voters, thereby preventing people from voting when they show up at the polls. This tactic is used in ways that target Democratic voters, as it was in Florida before the Bush vs. Gore election in 2000. So, it’s not a new technique, but it continues to be used today. Most recently, it has surfaced in multiple counties in North Carolina. [5] In Ohio, the Secretary of State is being sued for having improperly purged 2 million voters from the voting lists.

Trump has repeatedly talked about having “poll monitors” in certain (minority) areas. His “Vote Protectors” effort reportedly plans to send volunteers to monitor polling places in nine cities with high minority populations. The group is creating official-looking ID badges for its volunteers to wear and they plan to videotape voters. Using volunteer “poll monitors” is an old tactic but election experts say it does intimidate voters and keeps them from voting. [6]

Gerrymandering: Republicans and corporate America engaged in a very concerted effort to gain control of state redistricting efforts that followed the 2010 Census. They created the Redistricting Majority Project (REDMAP) and raised $30 million to fund it. State legislatures typically redraw district lines based on new Census data every ten years. So, in 2010, REDMAP’s creators succeeded in taking control of legislatures in 20 states. They then used this control of the redistricting process to gerrymander state legislative districts and the 193 Congressional districts in those states (out of 435 nationwide) to favor Republicans. While gerrymandering of districts is not a new phenomenon, they took it to new levels of aggressiveness, aided by computer mapping technology not previously available. [7]

Their gerrymandering significantly skewed results for the US House of Representatives in 2012. For example, in Pennsylvania, Democratic House candidates statewide had 100,000 more votes than Republicans, but Republicans won 13 House seats to the Democrats’ 5. In Michigan, Democrats won 240,000 more votes overall, but only 5 House seats to 9 for Republicans. In Ohio, Republicans got 52% of the overall vote, but 12 of 16 House seats. And so forth. This was accomplished by designing districts that Republicans could win comfortably but with a relatively small margin, while leaving a few districts where Democrats would win overwhelmingly. In other words, they crammed as many Democrats as possible into as few districts as possible. The result was that, despite President Obama’s overwhelming 2012 Democratic national victory, Republicans had a 234 to 201 advantage in the House of Representatives – even though Democratic House candidates nationwide garnered 1.7 million more votes than Republicans.

To fix this, the redistricting process should be performed by a non-partisan redistricting commission so that election results fairly reflect voters’ overall preferences. Eight states have already done this: Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, New Jersey, and Washington. The others need to follow suit.

To stop targeted voter suppression efforts, key provisions of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that were rendered unenforceable by a 5 to 4 Supreme Court vote in 2013 need to be reinstated. These would prevent states from enacting discriminatory voting laws and practices, which the VRA did quite effectively before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

[1]       Brennan Center for Justice, retrieved 10/29/16, “New Voting Restrictions in Place for 2016 Presidential Election,” New York University School of Law (https://www.brennancenter.org/voting-restrictions-first-time-2016)

[2]       Center for Media and Democracy, retrieved 10/29/16, “ALEC exposed,” (http://www.alecexposed.org/wiki/ALEC_Exposed)

[3]       Fitrakis, R.J., & Wasserman, H., Fall 2016, “War on the dispossessed,” Justice Rising, Alliance for Democracy (http://www.thealliancefordemocracy.org/pdf/AfDJR6404.pdf)

[4]       Pitney, N., 10/26/16, “This is what actual voter suppression looks like, and it’s appalling,” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/voter-suppression-2016_us_581028c2e4b02b1d9e63bcd2)

[5]       Berman, A., 10/27/16, “North Carolina Republicans tried to disenfranchise a 100-year-old African-American woman,” The Nation (https://www.thenation.com/article/north-carolina-republicans-tried-to-disenfranchise-a-100-year-old-african-american-woman/)

[6]       Wilkie, C., 10/25/16, “Trump loyalists planned voter intimidation using fake id badges, fake exit polling — until Huffpost asked them about it,” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/vote-protectors-voter-intimidation_us_580e4e63e4b0a03911ee03bc?section=us_politics)

[7]       Tarbell, J., Fall 2016, “Gerrymandering: The civil war over public policy,” Justice Rising, Alliance for Democracy (http://www.thealliancefordemocracy.org/pdf/AfDJR6405.pdf)

LACK OF GOVERNMENT SPENDING LEADS TO WEAK RECOVERY

The current economic recovery from the Great Recession of 2008 has been the weakest recovery since World War II. The average annual growth of our economy since the recession officially ended in June 2009 has been only 2.1%. [1] The other ten recoveries since 1949 have had annual growth rates of 2.8% to 7.6%, with an average of 4.65%. [2]

It’s not a coincidence that every other economic recovery since WWII was supported by increased government spending (federal, state, and local combined), except the one in 1970 – 1973. The current recovery (2009 – 2016) has seen government spending actually decline by 6.1%. It and the one in the 1970s both experienced declines in government spending of about 1% annually. The 1949 – 1953 recovery saw government spending increase at an annual rate of 17.9%, while the other eight recoveries averaged a little over 2%.

In contrast to the 6.1% decline (-0.9% annually) in government spending during the current recovery, government spending during the 2001 – 2007 recovery under President George W. Bush grew by 11.7% (1.9% annually) and during the 1982 – 1990 recovery under President Reagan it grew by 33.5% (3.8% annually).

A recession is defined as a period of time when economic output (i.e., Gross Domestic Product [GDP]), incomes, employment, industrial production, and sales decline. This occurs when the demand for goods and services in our markets – the spending of households, businesses, and governments – is not sufficient to purchase everything the economy is capable of producing.

The remedy for a recession is to boost marketplace demand. There are three ways to do this:

  • Reduce interest rates to spur borrowing and resultant spending,
  • Increase government spending, and
  • Cut taxes to spur spending by consumers, which increases demand for goods and services. (Consumer spending represents two-thirds of our economy.)

At the start of the Great Recession, interest rates were already very low so there was not much interest rate reduction that could be done. Currently, the basic interest rates of the Federal Reserve, the key ones to cut to stimulate the economy, are virtually zero.

Some cutting of taxes was done, but it was small scale because of concerns about increasing the federal deficit or creating unmanageable losses of revenue at the state level. Tax cuts for middle and low income Americans are the most effective stimulus for the economy because this group will quickly spend the increased money that’s in their pockets in the local economy. Tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, which were favored by some politicians, are less effective because larger portions of this money will be saved or spent outside the local economy (e.g., overseas), so they are not as effective in stimulating the local economy.

As noted above, government spending decreased during the current recovery and therefore reduced economic growth. Spending in the economy, including government spending, has what’s referred to as a “multiplier effect” on growth. That’s because each dollar spent supports additional spending by the individual or business that received it (a cycle that is repeated endlessly), meaning that its impact is multiplied. Similarly, cuts in spending have a multiplier effect in reducing growth, reducing economic activity by more than a dollar for each dollar of reduced spending.

One reflection of reduced government spending is that the number of government employees today is roughly 400,000 fewer than it was at the beginning of the recovery in June 2009, after bottoming out in late 2013 at 800,000 less than in 2009. Each person without a job adds to unemployment and reduces consumer demand for goods and services. Prior to President Obama’s term, the total number of government employees had grown under every president since Eisenhower. [3] This loss of jobs has been primarily at the state and local levels, where government revenue was hard hit by the recession, has been slow to recover, and has not been augmented by increased funding from the federal government. Government spending per resident in the U.S. is 3.5% lower today than it was in 2009. [4]

This austerity (i.e., reductions in government spending) are widely viewed as the primary reason the current economic recovery has been so weak and so slow. Government spending cuts have occurred largely because Republican lawmakers at the federal and state levels have insisted on them. [5] If it weren’t for these cuts, economic growth would be stronger and our economy would have lower unemployment and under-employment. [6] To confirm the harm that austerity policies cause, one can look to Europe and especially Greece, where austerity policies even more extreme than the ones in the U.S. have resulted in continuing high unemployment and fiscal crises.

Government spending, even if it increases the federal government’s budget deficit in the short-term, will stimulate economic growth. This growth will lead to increased government revenue that will reduce the deficit.

In particular, spending that represents investments in our physical and human capital has a high rate of return and pays for itself over the long-term. [7] Investments in infrastructure (e.g., roads, bridges, trains, public transportation systems, and school buildings) and education (from birth through higher education) create jobs, support our current and future economies, and address real needs while also stimulating the economy. Especially with the extremely low interest rates at which the federal government can currently borrow money, it is a lost opportunity to fail to make important and needed investments in our future.

[1]       Morath, E., & Sparshott, J., 7/29/16, “U.S. GDP grew at a disappointing 1.2% in second quarter,” The Wall Street Journal (http://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-economy-grew-at-a-disappointing-1-2-in-2nd-quarter-1469795649)

[2]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, “Worst recovery in postwar era largely explained by cuts in government spending,” Economic Policy Institute, Working Economics Blog (http://www.epi.org/blog/worst-recovery-in-post-war-era-largely-explained-by-cuts-in-government-spending/)

[3]       Walsh, B., 8/5/16, “Here’s an Obama-era legacy no one wants to talk about,” The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/obama-austerity-legacy-jobs_us_57a499ece4b03ba68012032b?)

[4]       Bivens, J., 8/11/16, “Why is recovery taking so long – and who’s to blame?” Economic Policy Institute (http://www.epi.org/files/pdf/110211.pdf)

[5]       Bivens, J., 8/11/16, see above

[6]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, see above

[7]       Scott, R.E., 8/2/16, see above

AUSTERITY AGENDA RESULTS IN THE POISONING OF FLINT MICHIGAN

You may have heard that the tap water in Flint, Michigan, has been poisoning its residents and particularly its children. What you may not have heard was that this was caused by the austerity agenda of the Michigan Governor and legislature (the same ones that pushed Detroit into bankruptcy). Moreover, as with Detroit, the residents of this depressed city are very poor and largely minorities (56% black).

Based on municipal budget issues, Flint was forced into receivership, control was stripped from local elected officials, and an emergency manager appointed by the Governor. In April 2014, the austerity plan called for a switch to cheaper Flint River water for residential tap water rather than that of the Detroit water system. Residents immediately complained about the color, odor, and taste of the water, as well as the appearance of rashes after using it for bathing. Residents’ concerns were ignored despite the history of contamination of the river from manufacturing plants’ wastes. And the switch was defended as a necessary business decision to address the budget issues.

Within 4 months, the water had tested positive for E-coli bacteria and residents were told to boil it before drinking it. Within 7 months, children’s blood tests began showing elevated levels of lead. By early 2015, after residents had suffered with this water for a year, state and federal officials began acknowledging privately that there were serious issues with the water, including data indicating high levels of lead in the water. [1] However, it wasn’t until October, 2015, that the source of water was shifted back to the Detroit water system after 18 months of contaminated water. And it wasn’t until January, 2016, that a state of emergency was declared. [2]

The harm to Flint residents will be long lasting. Chemicals in the Flint River water corroded water pipes and leached lead out of the pipes and into the water. The result is widespread lead poisoning whose effects cannot be undone. Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead, which is a neurotoxin that harms their developing brains and nervous systems. [3] Effects can include mental retardation, as well as stunted growth, hearing loss, and cognitive dysfunction. Over 1,700 cases of children with elevated blood lead levels have been found. In adults, high lead levels can cause miscarriages and increases in blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Some of Flint’s children and adults have undoubtedly suffered permanent harm from which they will never recover.

To add insult to injury, Flint’s emergency manager has been sending out shut off notices to residents who are behind in paying for their contaminated water. Over 1,800 such notices have been sent out and more are on their way. [4]

The potential for the problem of lead leaching into the drinking water was well known in advance. However, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality did not require Flint to treat the river water to prevent corrosion, belittled the public’s complaints, and did not conduct testing of the water. The agency’s director and other state officials resigned last month. [5] The federal Department of Justice has just announced that it is launching an investigation into the water crisis.

Despite the new water supply, damage to water pipes may mean the high lead levels will persist in tap water. The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s standard is that no amount of lead in drinking water is safe and it requires local water systems to take action if over 10% of samples at the tap contain lead. Unfortunately in Flint, almost a year went by before testing was done and another 6 months passed before action was taken.

This is an example (and there are numerous others at the state and federal levels) of what happens when austerity, budget and tax cutting, and shrinking of the public sector are the goals of elected officials – typically for ideological or political reasons – rather than the health and well-being of citizens.

[1]       Bryant, J., 1/15/16, “How much do we hate our children?” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/01/15/how-much-do-we-hate-our-children)

[2]       Gilmore, B., 1/13/16, “Flint’s water crisis flows from a much bigger problem,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/01/13/flints-water-crisis-flows-much-bigger-problem)

[3]       Lazare, S. 1/7/16, “Calls for Michigan Gov. Snyder’s arrest as Flint poisoning scandal implicates top staffers,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/01/07/calls-michigan-gov-snyders-arrest-flint-poisoning-scandal-implicates-top-staffers)

[4]       Lazare, S., 1/15/16, “’Ludicrous’ as Flint tells residents: Pay for poisoned water or we’ll cut you off,” Common Dreams (http://www.commondreams.org/news/2016/01/15/ludicrous-flint-tells-residents-pay-poisoned-water-or-well-cut-you)

[5]       Schneider, R., & Eggert, D. 1/13/16, “Michigan National Guard, FEMA help Flint amid water crisis,” Associated Press (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/68fbd53623b147b2831296c2bce2f9ff/michigan-national-guard-fema-help-flint-amid-water-crisis)

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE SANDERS ON DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently gave a speech focused on defining what he means by democratic socialism and why he has identified as a socialist for his entire political career. Our mainstream corporate media can’t seem to cover him or his campaign without labeling him a socialist. The intent seems to be to identify him as outside the mainstream at best or as a dangerous radical. Often the implicit or explicit message is that a socialist is one step away from being a communist – and many Americans do not know what socialism or communism means or the difference between them.

To address this pejorative use of the term socialist, Sanders began by noting that many of the programs and policies that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) instituted in the 1930s in response to the Great Depression were called socialist: Social Security for seniors, the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, the 40 hour work week, an end to child labor, collective bargaining for workers, job programs to reduce unemployment, and banking regulations. They were enacted despite the strong opposition of the economic elites and have become part of the fabric of our society and the foundation of the American middle class.

Similarly, when President Johnson provided health insurance through Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for poor children and families, these programs were called socialist and a threat to the American way of life.

Sanders stated that we need to transform our democracy and our country as FDR did in the 1930s. We are facing a political and economic crisis that requires dramatic change. He noted that the US is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world and yet we have high rates of poverty that include over one-quarter of our children. He called for a political movement to take on the ruling, economic elite class, whose greed is destroying our democracy and our economy.

Sanders cited FDR’s inaugural address in 1944 as one of the most important speeches in our nation’s history. In it, FDR proposed an economic bill of rights, noting that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security. Sanders pointed to this economic bill of rights as reflecting the core of what democratic socialism means to him. It includes:

  • Decent jobs at decent pay with time off and the ability to retire with dignity;
  • The ability to have food, clothing, a home, and health care; and
  • The opportunity for small businesses to operate without domination by large corporations.

Sanders noted that Martin Luther King, in 1968, echoed FDR’s call for economic rights and stated that the US provides “socialism for the rich and rugged individualism for the poor.”

Sanders went on to present specific examples of what democratic socialism means to him. He stated that the principle of economic rights for all is not a radical concept and that many countries around the world have done a far better job of providing economic security for their citizens than the US has done. In particular, he noted that almost all countries provide 3 months of paid family leave for new mothers and that all major countries provide health care as a right, not a privilege. The US does neither of these. He addressed climate change, racism, and economic and social justice issues including a fairer tax system and an end to excessive incarceration. He called for a more vibrant democracy with higher voter participation and the removal of barriers to voting.

You can listen to Sanders’ speech at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slkQohGDQCI. It’s an hour and 36 minutes long. You can listen to it while you’re doing something else or, if you want to listen to the highlights, listen to minutes 4 – 9 and from minute 24 for 5 – 10 minutes.

WHY GOVERNMENT DOESN’T GET CREDIT FOR ITS SUCCESSES

ABSTRACT: Government rarely gets credit for its successful programs and initiatives in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention. One reason is that denigrating government is at the heart of the political strategy of small government proponents and special interests who want large corporations and the wealthy to control our economy. Furthermore, there is no one presenting a forceful argument that government is a necessary part of a functioning society and that government does a lot of good.

Governments are needed, for example, to regulate the economy, protect civil rights, and ensure public safety. There are certain societal functions that only the shared enterprise of government can provide including public education, retirement security, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, a criminal justice system, and a safety net for those who experience life’s misfortunes.

A series of events over the last 50 years has divided the country and created resentment and mistrust of government policies. These experiences have been in sharp contrast to the unifying nature of the recovery from the Great Depression, World War II, and the widespread economic prosperity of the 1950s.

The active and purposeful government-denigrating forces have spent the last 35 years undermining government effectiveness. By under-funding and weakening government programs, the positive effects of government have been lessened and failures made more likely.

Among the public, the benefits of government are often taken for granted, seem to be going to other people, or are invisible or not visibly connected to government. Even direct government benefits are often taken for granted, including unemployment payments, Social Security and Medicare, public education, student loans for higher education, and the income tax deduction for interest on one’s home mortgage. Many people who have received such benefits say they have never benefited from a government program.

The media should cover government success stories with at least the same level of attention they give to stories of government shortcomings and should reject fear mongering and government bashing that is political and unfounded. The American public needs balanced coverage of government, including reporting of all the good government does.

FULL POST: Government rarely gets credit for its successful programs and initiatives in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention. [1] There are a range of reasons for this phenomenon. One is that denigrating government is at the heart of the political strategy of small government proponents and special interests who want large corporations and the wealthy to control our economy.

Furthermore, there is no one presenting a forceful argument that government is a necessary part of a functioning society and that government does a lot of good. Governments are needed, for example, to regulate the economy, protect civil rights, and ensure public safety. There are certain societal functions that only the shared enterprise of government can provide including public education, retirement security, infrastructure such as roads and bridges, a criminal justice system, and a safety net for those who experience life’s misfortunes. However, there is no organization or political group with anywhere near the clout of the government bashers that is promoting the good things government does and should do in well-functioning society.

Faith in government has been falling in polls for 50 years. A series of events has divided the country and created resentment and mistrust of government policies, including:

  • Resurgent racism over the Civil Rights Movement and the War on Poverty of the 1960s;
  • Disenchantment with the Vietnam War in the 1970s;
  • Disillusionment over the Watergate political scandal in the 1970s;
  • The small government, pro-corporation, and anti-labor rhetoric and policies beginning in the 1980s;
  • The North American Free Trade Treaty of the 1990s;
  • The Iraq War of the 2000s; and the current
  • Racial bias evident in law enforcement and incarceration;
  • Unjustified barriers to voting in some states; and
  • The slow economic recovery and growing inequality.

These experiences have been in sharp contrast to the unifying nature of the recovery from the Great Depression, World War II, and the widespread economic prosperity of the 1950s.

The active and purposeful government-denigrating forces have spent the last 35 years undermining government effectiveness. They say that taxes – government revenue – can be cut without reducing government services or benefits. Unfortunately, the American public has been willing to believe this promise of a free lunch. Until recently, it hasn’t noticed the deterioration in government services and supports, as well as the decaying of public infrastructure that has inevitably resulted from reducing government revenue. By under-funding and weakening government programs, their positive effects have been lessened and their failures made more likely. And the anti-government crowd is all too happy to point the finger and say, “See, government doesn’t work,” when the then inevitable shortcomings become evident. As a result, the public’s perception of government has been undermined as well.

This makes it hard for those who support the positive role of government because they have to criticize the weak, poorly performing government programs to make their argument for strengthening them. This criticism often just adds to the negativity surrounding government.

Among the public, the benefits of government are often taken for granted, seem to be going to other people, or are invisible or not visibly connected to government. For example, the government’s successful response to the Ebola crisis was taken for granted by many, seemed remote and as benefiting other people to others, and was connected to hospitals and medical personnel not to the government that had funded and supported them. The public isn’t left with a strong, positive impression of government when it acts to avoid a worse outcome, as in the Ebola crisis or the response to the 2008 financial collapse and recession. In particular, with the economic recovery, it is hard to get the public to acknowledge that things are better than they might have been when they are still not great. Let alone to give kudos to government for a job well-done in such a situation.

The Affordable Care Act is an example of where the immediate benefits for most people were hardly noticeable. Most people already had health insurance and for those who didn’t, the benefit of having health insurance is clear only when you are sick and need it. Therefore, requiring everyone to have health insurance, which has a great societal benefit and a long-term personal benefit, can feel, in the short-term, like a burden to those who are healthy. Similarly, the benefit of the ban on denying coverage for a pre-existing condition only becomes evident when one has to change one’s health insurer, which may not happen immediately. Moreover, when it does happen, the ability to get new health insurance is often taken for granted.

Other government benefits that are taken for granted, and only get attention when there is a breakdown or failure, include public safety, roads, and bridges. Even direct government benefits are often taken for granted, including unemployment payments, Social Security and Medicare, public education, student loans for higher education, and the income tax deduction for interest on one’s home mortgage. Surveys indicate that 60% of the people who have taken the home mortgage interest deduction say they have never benefited from a government program. Similarly, many people who have received student loans or unemployment benefits say they have never benefited from a government program. And virtually no one who has attended public schools, driven on our public roads, or felt safe in public recognizes that they have benefited from a government program.

The media should cover government success stories with at least the same level of attention they give to stories of government shortcomings and should reject fear mongering and government bashing that is political and unfounded. The American public needs balanced coverage of government, including reporting of all the good government does. Unfortunately, that is not the case with current media coverage.

You can contribute to achieving a better balance in the media coverage of government by writing letters or emails to the editors of media outlets with stories of government successes and posting them on social media. You can also write to criticize negative stories and the lack of balance and objectivity in the coverage of government. A democracy requires an accurately informed public and the media today are not doing a good job of providing accurate information about the role government plays.

[1]       Cohn, J. Spring 2015. “Why public silence greets government success,” The American Prospect (Much of my post is a summary of this article.)

GOVERNMENT SUCCESSES RARELY GET ATTENTION

ABSTRACT: There are many examples of successful government programs and initiatives but they rarely get much attention in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention. The media, and in particular right wing talk radio and Fox, along with “conservative” and libertarian politicians, fan the flames of supposed government failure at every opportunity.

Remember the Ebola crisis of last fall? The right wing media and politicians severely criticized the government for not reacting appropriately, stated that government could not be trusted to handle the situation, and predicted an epidemic here in the U.S. There was no epidemic here. The few patients were treated in facilities funded, designed, and/or supported by our government with great success. However, this success of government policies and facilities got very little attention or acknowledgement.

As another example, the largely successful U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial debacle almost certainly prevented a worldwide depression. It softened the recession here and put the U.S. on a better track toward recovery than has happened in Europe. However, the government got little credit for keeping us out of a depression or a much worse recession.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), tens of millions of people now have health insurance who didn’t before. Many of these families are now avoiding financial distress and bankruptcy due to medical bills because they have health insurance. The ACA has probably contributed to the slowing of the increase in health care costs and it clearly hasn’t generated the runaway inflation in health care costs that its critics predicted. Despite the tangible and significant successes of the ACA, the media coverage of it is largely negative as is a large portion of the public’s perception of it.

FULL POST: There are many examples of successful government programs and initiatives, but they rarely get much attention in the media or among the public. On the other hand, government failures or shortcomings get lots of attention; they are blasted across the headlines and blared out by talk radio and social media. [1] It seems that every member of the public has a story of a government failure on the tip of his or her tongue, but has a hard time identifying something positive to say about government.

The media, and in particular right wing talk radio and Fox, along with “conservative” and libertarian politicians, fan the flames of supposed government failure at every opportunity (including contrived ones). From President Reagan’s statement that government isn’t the solution it’s the problem to today’s Tea Party and the undermine-President-Obama-at-any-cost Republicans, denigrating government is in the forefront of these politicians’ political strategy.

Remember the Ebola crisis of last fall? The right wing media and politicians severely criticized the government for not reacting appropriately, stated that government could not be trusted to handle the situation, and predicted an epidemic here in the U.S. Fear mongering ran rampant. But what happened? There was no epidemic here; every one of the small handful of people who contracted the disease in the U.S. recovered, along with a number of others with the disease who were evacuated to the U.S. from Africa. Patients were treated in facilities funded, designed, and/or supported by our government. However, this success of government policies and facilities got very little attention or acknowledgement. The critics didn’t apologize and admit they were wrong, let alone thank the government for a job well-done. The media didn’t cover this success with anywhere near the attention it gave to the criticism and fear mongering.

As another example, the largely successful U.S. government’s response to the 2008 financial debacle, caused by irresponsible behavior by large Wall Street corporations, almost certainly prevented a worldwide depression. The bailout of the financial corporations prevented a full blown collapse of the financial sector worldwide. The economic stimulus bill, formally the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, created about 3 million jobs and kept the unemployment rate 2% lower than it would have been according to most economists. (See my blog post of 9/13/12 for more detail.) It accomplished this despite political opposition that limited the dollar amount of the stimulus and, consequently, its beneficial effects. Nonetheless, it softened the recession here and put the U.S. on a better track toward recovery than has happened in Europe. The slow but steady recovery has also been supported by the policies of the Federal Reserve.

However, the government got little credit for keeping us out of a depression or a much worse recession. It is interesting to note that Congress people who vociferously criticized the stimulus in Washington would tout the jobs it had created when they were at home in their districts.

Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), often called Obama Care in an effort to politicize it, tens of millions of people now have health insurance who didn’t before. (This number would be substantially higher if Republican Governors and legislatures had cooperated with the ACA. See my blog post of 8/13/14 for more detail.) Thanks to the ACA:

  • Millions of young adults in their early twenties can and do now stay on their parents’ health insurance;
  • Millions of people with pre-existing health conditions can now change jobs, go back to school to further their education, or start their own businesses because they can’t be denied health insurance if they switch insurance providers; and
  • Many families are now avoiding financial distress and bankruptcy due to medical bills because they now have health insurance to pay them.

Furthermore, the ACA has probably contributed to the slowing of the increase in health care costs and it clearly hasn’t generated the runaway inflation in them that its critics predicted.

Despite these tangible and significant successes of the ACA, the media coverage of it is largely negative as is a large portion of the public’s perception of it.

Another example is the arrival of tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors at the Mexican border last summer. Right wing media and politicians blamed the Obama administration for causing the problem and failing to respond appropriately. This crisis was a major news story. In reality, the problem was caused by a spike in violence in three Central American countries and weak, disrupted economies in part due to the NAFTA trade treaty and other long-standing issues. The Obama administration responded with an improved and expedited process for handling the immigration of these children, as well as diplomacy and economic support to address the issues in the three countries. Within three months, the arrival of unaccompanied minors dwindled and the crisis was solved. But coverage and acknowledgement of this success was, for the most part, nowhere to been seen or heard.

My next post will go into more detail on why the government rarely gets credit for or acknowledgement of its successes.

[1]       Cohn, J. Spring 2015. “Why public silence greets government success,” The American Prospect (Much of my post is a summary of this article.)

PROGRESSIVE VALUES ARE ALIVE AND WELL IN THE U.S.

ABSTRACT: Despite Republicans taking over control of the U.S. Senate, progressive values are alive and well in the U.S. In a recent poll of likely 2016 voters, over 70% supported the following policies:

  • Medicare should be allowed to negotiate drug prices
  • Student loans should have lower interest rates
  • Pre-kindergarten and Medicare should be available to all
  • Trade agreements should protect workers, jobs, and the environment
  • Corporations that ship jobs overseas shouldn’t get tax breaks
  • The government should establish a $400 billion / year infrastructure-building jobs program
  • Public higher education should be debt-free and Social Security benefits should be expanded.

The full set of poll questions and results are available at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.boldprogressives.org/images/Big_Ideas-Polling_PDF-1.pdf.

There also were many positive results on progressive ballot measures in the 2014 election. The question is, how did conservative Republicans get elected when they don’t reflect the will of the people? The four main answers are:

  • Turnout in the November election was very low
  • Many Democrats didn’t campaign on the progressive issues that are popular with voters
  • Gerrymandered electoral districts and our primary election system produce very ideological candidates who are not representative of the larger population
  • Voter suppression efforts by Republicans have succeeded in reducing voting by groups that tend to favor Democrats.

FULL POST: Despite Republicans taking over control of the U.S. Senate and therefore both branches of Congress, progressive values are alive and well in the U.S. The progressive policies that President Obama put forward in his State of the Union speech are much closer to what Americans want from their government than the conservative policy proposals the Republicans are espousing.

In a recent poll of likely voters in the 2016 election, over 70% supported the following policies:

  • Medicare should be allowed to negotiate drug prices with the pharmaceutical corporations
  • Student loans should have the same low interest rates as the big bank corporations get
  • Universal pre-kindergarten should be provided
  • Trade agreements should protect workers, jobs, and the environment
  • Corporations that ship jobs overseas shouldn’t get tax breaks
  • Medicare should be available to anyone who is willing to pay for it
  • Corporations should have to disclose spending on elections and lobbying
  • The government should establish a $400 billion / year infrastructure-building jobs program
  • Public higher education should be available to all debt-free
  • Social Security benefits should be expanded

There were other issues with over 70% support and many more with majority support. The full set of poll questions and results are available at: https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.boldprogressives.org/images/Big_Ideas-Polling_PDF-1.pdf.

There also were many positive results on progressive ballot measures in the 2014 election, some of which I covered in my 11/25/14 post. Here are some more, thanks to Jim Hightower and his Hightower Lowdown newsletter (http://www.hightowerlowdown.org/).

In dozens of communities in at least five states (Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Wisconsin), voters supported overturning the Supreme Court’s Citizens United and related decisions that have allowed unlimited sums of money to be spent on election campaigns. These voters called for a Constitutional amendment that would state that corporations do not have the same rights as human persons and that money is not equivalent to speech and therefore can be regulated in election campaigns. Voters in Wisconsin, who re-elected conservative, Republican Governor Walker, nonetheless, voted overwhelmingly in 12 communities for this Constitutional amendment (between 70% and 83% in favor). [1]

Voters statewide in Massachusetts; in Oakland, CA; and in two New Jersey cities voted overwhelmingly to require employers to provide paid sick time (between 59% and 86% in favor). In Alaska, Florida, and New Jersey voters approved conservation initiatives.

Local bans on fracking [2] passed in two counties in California; in Athens, Ohio; and in Denton, Texas. In Denton, the supporters of the ban were out-spent almost 30 to 1, but, nonetheless, won 59% of the votes; a resounding victory, especially because Texas is a major oil and gas state.

Republicans have accused President Obama of being political in his State of the Union speech because he proposed policies that are popular with the public but not with the conservative Republicans who control Congress. This seems like convoluted logic to me. Isn’t democratic, representative government supposed to put in place policies that are popular with the public? It sounds like the Congressional Republicans are admitting that they are out of step with what the public wants. The polling and results of ballot measures cited above confirm this apparent admission.

The question is, how did conservative Republicans get elected when they don’t reflect the will of the people? The four main answers are:

  • Turnout in the November election was very low (only 25% of those eligible to vote actually voted),
  • Many Democrats didn’t campaign on the progressive issues that are popular with voters,
  • Gerrymandered electoral districts, particularly for the US House, and our primary election system where turnout is even lower than in the final election (less than 15% of eligible voters) tend to produce very ideological candidates for the final election who are not representative of the larger population, and
  • Voter suppression efforts by Republicans have succeeded in reducing voting by groups, such as minorities, the young, and the elderly, that tend to favor Democrats.

If you know of other examples of progressive local ballot initiatives that were approved by voters or other examples of Congress not representing the will of the people, please share them in a comment on this post. Thanks!

[1]       Hightower, J., Dec. 2014, “As majorities tossed meek, dodgy Democrats, even more said “Yes” to populist ballot measures,” The Hightower Lowdown (http://www.hightowerlowdown.org/

[2]       Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing and is the process of drilling and injecting liquid made of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks and release natural gas or oil.

PROGRESSIVE SUCCESSES IN THE 2014 ELECTION

ABSTRACT: Perhaps surprisingly, in the context of Republican and conservative candidates’ victories in the 2014 election, many ballot initiatives that were decidedly liberal or progressive passed. Democrats running clearly progressive campaigns for the US Senate won in 3 states. The Republican victories in many very close races were made possible by very low voter turnout. Only 35% of those registered to vote and 25% of those eligible to vote actually voted.

Voters in four Republican states – Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota – raised the minimum wage despite concerted and well-funded opposition. In Richmond, California, progressives defeated mayoral and city council candidates heavily funded by Chevron, the nation’s third largest corporation. In Arkansas, despite a sweep by Republican candidates, a ballot initiative passed that reformed campaign finance and ethics laws. In Tallahassee, Florida, voters also approved reforms in campaign finance and ethics laws. In dozens of communities in four states (Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio), voters overwhelmingly favored ballot measures supporting a federal constitutional amendment that would state that corporations do not have the same rights as human persons and that money is not equivalent to speech and therefore can be regulate in election campaigns.

This all makes it clear that Republican candidates’ election victories do not reflect public opinion on many important policy issues. Rather, they were the result of a failure of many Democrats to campaign on popular progressive policies. Furthermore, the election outcomes reflect Republicans’ successes in changing the rules of our elections to suppress voter turnout and allow the spending of huge sums by wealthy corporations and individuals.

FULL POST: Perhaps surprisingly, in the context of Republican and conservative candidates’ victories in the 2014 election, many ballot initiatives that were decidedly liberal or progressive passed – sometimes even in the same jurisdictions that were electing conservatives. Furthermore, Democrats running for the US Senate who ran some of the most clearly progressive campaigns won: Senator Jeff Merkley (Democrat of Oregon), Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), and incoming Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.).

The Republican victories in many very close races were made possible by very low voter turnout – the lowest since 1942 – which favors Republicans and conservatives. Only 35% of those registered to vote and 25% of those eligible to vote actually voted. In the Congressional elections, Republicans won 52% of the vote, which represents only 17% of those registered to vote and 13% of those eligible to vote. [1] Hardly a mandate by normal standards. The Republican’s large majority in the US House is largely due to extreme gerrymandering of House districts.

Despite the context, every major progressive or Democratic ballot initiative won, even in Republican states. Every minimum wage increase won and every personhood amendment failed (CO & ND). (These are amendments to state Constitutions that confer personhood and all its rights on embryos at fertilization.) [2] Across the nation, voters also passed measures against fracking, for paid sick leave, for criminal justice sentencing reform, and for gun purchase background checks. [3]

Voters in four Republican states – Arkansas, Alaska, Nebraska and South Dakota – raised the minimum wage against the concerted and well-funded opposition of national and local big business groups. This will raise the pay levels for over 1.7 million workers. Alaska and South Dakota linked the minimum wage to inflation, so it will increase automatically in the future. San Francisco and Oakland voters also overwhelmingly increased the minimum wage in those cities. Illinois voters strongly supported a non-binding referendum to raise the minimum wage.

In Richmond, California, progressives defeated mayoral and city council candidates funded by Chevron, the nation’s third largest corporation. Chevron, which owns a huge refinery in the city, poured at least $3 million into the local elections in this working class city of 105,000 people (about $150 for each likely voter). It sought to oust a progressive local government that was requiring it to clean up its pollution, pay more taxes into city coffers, and be a more responsible and accountable corporate citizen. Wall St. corporations also participated in the attempt to throw out the progressives because the city government, faced with a decade of predatory lending and an epidemic of foreclosures and “underwater” mortgages, demanded that Wall Street banks help troubled homeowners save their homes. In the election, community groups, labor unions, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), and others mobilized a grassroots campaign to re-elect a progressive city government. [4]

A California ballot initiative reformed sentencing laws and one in Washington State expanded criminal background checks for gun purchases. In Arizona, voters defeated a right wing attempt to undermine public employee pensions. In Denton, Texas, the heart of oil and gas country, voters banned fracking, the controversial drilling method for extracting gas from rock formations.

In Arkansas, despite a sweep by Republican candidates, a ballot initiative passed that reformed campaign finance and ethics laws. It bans direct corporate and union campaign contributions to candidates, forbids lawmakers from accepting gifts of any kind from lobbyists, and increases the amount of time departing lawmakers must wait before lobbying from one to two years.

In Tallahassee, Florida, voters overwhelmingly approved an anti-corruption initiative limiting campaign contributions, creating a $25 tax rebate for small contributions, and boosting ethics reforms by creating an ethics panel and a tough conflict-of-interest policy for city officials. In dozens of communities in four states (Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and Ohio), voters overwhelmingly favored ballot measures supporting a federal constitutional amendment overturning Supreme Court decisions including Citizens United and McCutcheon. The amendment would state that corporations do not have the same rights as human persons and that money is not equivalent to speech and therefore can be regulated in election campaigns. [5]

This all makes it clear that Republican candidates’ election victories do not reflect public opinion on many important policy issues. Rather, they were the result of a failure of many Democrats to campaign on popular progressive policies. Furthermore, the election outcomes reflect Republicans’ successes in changing the rules of our elections to favor big business and conservative interest groups by suppressing voter turnout and allowing the spending of huge sums by wealthy corporations and individuals. [6]

[1]       Murphthesurf3, 11/20/14, “GOP columnist: The VERY bad news for the GOP in the GOP’s midterm victory,” The Daily Kos

[2]       Ladd, C., 11/10/14, “The missing story of the 2014 election,” Houston Chronicle

[3]       Dreier, P., 11/7/14, “Progressive Midterm Victories You Didn’t Hear About — And Some That Could Still Happen,” The American Prospect

[4]       Dreier, P., 11/7/14, see above

[5]       Blumenthal, P., 11/14/14, “Where campaign finance reformers actually won on election day,” The Huffington Post

[6]       Dreier, P., 11/7/14, see above

40 YEARS OF CLASS WARFARE

ABSTRACT: Class warfare has been going on in the US for 40 years, but most people either haven’t realized that it is class warfare, or deny its existence. Inequality between the wealthy, elite class and the middle and working class has grown dramatically. This is the result of policy decisions made by federal and state governments not the accidental or inevitable result of non-political events or changes in our economy.

Since 1979, workers’ productivity has grown by 65% but their median pay has grown by only 8%. Large employers’ profits after taxes have increased 239% since 1980.

Since the 1970s, changes in government policies have tended to reward corporations, their executives and investors, at the expense of workers. Trade policies, deregulation, tax policies, and labor laws are key examples. As the incomes of the richest 1% have grown dramatically, the income tax rate for those with the highest incomes has been reduced from 70% to 39%, with even lower rates on income from investments (as opposed to income from work). Meanwhile, the minimum wage has failed to even keep up with inflation.

Increasing incomes for the working and middle class doesn’t just benefit them and their families, it will benefit the whole economy by increasing the purchasing power of the average consumer. Consumer spending is two-thirds of our economy.

It’s time to acknowledge that 40 years of class warfare has occurred, that government policies have been its weapons, and that tremendous (and growing) inequality has been the result. It’s time to work to improve the pay, benefits, and job security of the working and middle class. And it’s time for our wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share of our taxes. Policy changes to achieve these results are possible and will be essential to strengthening our economy and reducing the startling inequality present in America today.

FULL POST: Class warfare has been going on in the US for 40 years, but most people either haven’t realized that it is class warfare, or deny its existence. The incomes and wealth of the wealthiest individuals and families in the US have grown dramatically, while the vast majority of Americans have seen their incomes stagnate, at best, and their wealth fall with the crash of home prices and the financial system in 2008. Large employers’ profits have grown significantly as well, while workers’ pay has stagnated or fallen.

As a result, inequality between the wealthy, elite class and the middle and working class has grown dramatically. This is the result of policy decisions made by federal and state governments, driven by wealthy campaign donors and lobbyists. It is not the accidental or inevitable result of non-political events or changes in our economy.

It used to be that as our economy and worker productivity grew, the rising tide lifted all boats. From 1947 to 1973, workers’ productivity grew by 97% and their median pay grew by 95%. That changed in the 1970s when the 40 years of class warfare began. Since 1979, workers’ productivity has grown by 65% but their median pay has grown by only 8%. The share of the national economy’s income going to workers in wages and salaries has declined from 67% (where it had been for decades) to 58% (the lowest level since this statistic has been recorded). Meanwhile, the share going to corporate profits is at a record high. [1] Large employers’ profits after taxes have increased 239% since 1980. [2]

Since the 1970s, changes in government policies have tended to reward corporations, their executives and investors, at the expense of workers. Trade policies, deregulation, tax policies, and labor laws are key examples. These policy changes have allowed and provided incentives for corporations to shift jobs overseas, reducing jobs and wages in the US. Financial deregulation has benefited Wall St. corporations and executives while hurting average American homeowners, credit card holders, and borrowers. Small businesses have been hurt by trade policies, deregulation, and tax policies that favor big corporations.

Changes in labor laws have shifted the balance of power toward employers, especially large employers, at the expense of workers. The use of part-time workers, “temporary” employees, and “independent” contractors instead of full-time employees has stripped workers of job security, benefits, and labor law protections, including the ability to unionize.

During the first 30 years of this class warfare, workers made up for the lack of income growth by working more hours (especially by women in two-parent households) and by borrowing, most notably against their homes (mortgages, second mortgages, and home equity loans), through their credit cards, and for the costs of higher education. Then, the Great Recession hit and the incomes and assets (primarily homes) of the middle and working class crumbled.

The result of this multi-faceted warfare against the working and middle class is the following (all figures adjusted for inflation):

  • Bottom 90% of the US population
    • Average household income: $31,000, down 24% since 1980
  • Top 10%
    • Average household income: $175,000, up 46% since 1980
  • Top 1%
    • Average household income: $700,000, up 124% since 1980

The top 10% of Americans as a group now have as much income as the bottom 90% for the first time in 100 years. And the average US CEO’s salary is now 331 times the average workers’ pay. [3] The inequality in wealth is even greater than the inequality in income; the top 1% have 76% of wealth in the US.

If the incomes of all classes had grown at the same rate since 1979, low and middle income families would be earning $6,000 – $8,000 more each year than they are. [4]

In perhaps the starkest example of this class warfare, as the incomes of the richest 1% have grown dramatically, and as inequality has grown dramatically, the income tax rate for those with the highest incomes has been reduced from 70% to 39%. And many of those with the highest incomes pay a far lower effective income tax rate because of tax loopholes (such as offshore tax havens) and even lower rates on income from investments (as opposed to income from work).

Another stark example of this class warfare is that as upper incomes have soared, the minimum wage has failed to even keep up with inflation. This is a clear example of the eroding power of workers and a significant factor underlying their eroding incomes. Although successful efforts to increase the minimum wage have recently occurred in some states and cities, this is only one piece of a much larger puzzle. Much more will need to be done if workers are to regain the financial well-being and stability they enjoyed from the end of World War II until the 1970s.

Increasing incomes of the working and middle class doesn’t just benefit them and their families, it will benefit the whole economy by increasing the purchasing power of the average consumer. Consumer spending is two-thirds of our economy and the current economic recovery has been slow and weak because consumers simply don’t have money to spend.

It’s time to acknowledge that 40 years of class warfare has occurred, that government policies have been its weapons, and that tremendous (and growing) inequality has been the result. It’s time to work to improve the pay, benefits, and job security of the working and middle class. And it’s time for our wealthy individuals and corporations to pay their fair share of our taxes. Policy changes to achieve these results are possible and will be essential to strengthening our economy and reducing the startling inequality present in America today.

[1]       Meyerson, H., July / August 2014, “Why Democrats need to take sides,” The American Prospect

[2]       Gilson, D., Sept. / Oct. 2014, “Survival of the richest,” Mother Jones

[3]       In These Times, Sept. 2014, “Just the facts,” In These Times

[4]       Horowitz, E., 8/23/14, “Mass. Economy still hasn’t rebounded,” The Boston Globe

CAUSE FAILURE, BLAME GOVERNMENT

ABSTRACT: Government agencies perform many necessary and important functions. However, inadequate funding results in ineffective agencies. But the fault doesn’t lie with the government agencies; it lies with those who make the funding decisions. A classic strategy of the small government ideologues is to cause government agencies to be ineffective by underfunding them and then to point to their failures and say, “See government doesn’t work.” This strategy has produced the current crisis at the Veterans Administration (VA).

A similar crisis is brewing at the Social Security Administration (SSA).As millions of baby boomers are retiring, budget cuts are forcing reductions in access to SSA services. Since 2010, the SSA has closed 64 field offices, 533 temporary mobile offices, and reduced hours at the 1,245 field offices that remain open. Meanwhile, enrollment in Social Security retirement benefits has increased 27% over the last 6 years. In 2013, 43 million Americans visited SSA offices and 43% had to wait more than 3 weeks for an appointment.

Similarly, regulatory agencies that oversee public safety often suffer from insufficient funding to effectively perform their jobs. A classic example is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the 525,000 bus and truck operators in the US. Inadequate funding cripples enforcement. While the number of buses and miles traveled have increased significantly since 2006, the agency’s under $600 million budget and 350 investigators have remained essentially unchanged. 546 interstate carriers are operating with violations above acceptable levels but 29% of them haven’t had a federal safety review in over 2 years and an additional 11% have never been reviewed. Buses receive far less scrutiny than the airlines despite 7,518 crashes in the last 4 years resulting in 171 fatalities and 9,414 injuries, while US airlines have had no fatal crashes.

Buses are but one example among many of where a regulatory agency doesn’t have the funding necessary to effectively do its job of keeping the public safe. Such agencies, as well as the VA and SSA, are classic examples of the “shrink [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bath tub” radical right wing, libertarian strategy.

All too often the underfunding of government agencies is intentional – aimed at undermining both the effectiveness of the agencies and the public’s perception of government.

FULL POST: Government agencies perform many necessary and important functions. However, inadequate funding results in ineffective agencies. But the fault doesn’t lie with the government agencies; it lies with those who make the funding decisions.

A classic strategy of the small government ideologues is to cause government agencies to be ineffective by underfunding them and then to point to their failures and say, “See government doesn’t work.” This strategy has produced the current crisis at the Veterans Administration (VA). Responsible estimates are that the VA’s budget will need to double to effectively serve the growing number of veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (See my post of 6/5/14 for more details on the VA crisis. https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2014/06/05/find-a-crisis-demand-privatization/.)

A similar crisis is brewing at the Social Security Administration (SSA). As millions of baby boomers are retiring and requesting help from the SSA to make decisions about enrolling in Social Security, budget cuts are forcing reductions in access to SSA services. Congress has cut 14 of the last 16 budget requests from the SSA, despite the fact that its budget comes out of the Social Security Trust Fund and, therefore, has no impact on the federal budget or deficit.

Since 2010, these budget cuts have forced the SSA to close 64 field offices, 533 temporary mobile offices that serve remote areas, and reduce hours at the 1,245 field offices that remain open. [1] And its full-time workforce has been cut by about 4,000 (14%) to 25,420. [2]

Meanwhile, enrollment in Social Security retirement benefits has increased 27% over the last 6 years from 2.6 million to 3.3 million. As a result of this growing demand and declining capacity, seniors seeking information and help are experiencing increasingly long waits. In 2013, 43 million Americans visited SSA offices and 43% had to wait more than 3 weeks for an appointment, up from 10% the previous year.

Similarly, regulatory agencies that oversee public safety often suffer from insufficient funding to effectively perform their jobs. Here, the efforts of the small government, “free market,” right wing libertarians are aligned with those of the regulated corporations who push for weak regulations and enforcement.

A classic example is the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the 525,000 bus and truck operators in the US. Inadequate funding cripples enforcement. While the number of buses and miles traveled have increased significantly since 2006, the agency’s under $600 million budget and 350 investigators have remained essentially unchanged. More than 200 operators with serious violations identified by local police and other authorities have not received a full federal safety review in the last 2 years, if ever. And 546 interstate carriers are operating with violations above acceptable levels but 29% of them haven’t had a federal safety review in over 2 years and an additional 11% have never been reviewed. Buses receive far less scrutiny than the airlines despite 7,518 crashes in the last 4 years resulting in 171 fatalities and 9,414 injuries, while US airlines have had no fatal crashes. [3]

Buses are but one example among many of where a regulatory agency doesn’t have the funding necessary to effectively do its job of keeping the public safe. Others that have been in the news recently include distribution of tainted dialysis fluid, selling of contaminated drugs by a compounding pharmacy, and the chemical explosion in Texas that killed 14 and injured over 200. The responsible public safety agencies, as well as the VA and SSA, are classic examples of the “shrink [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub” radical right wing, libertarian strategy. [4]

Government is the solution to many of the challenges that face us – from providing a base level of economic security in retirement to promoting safety in our everyday lives. All too often the underfunding of government agencies is intentional – aimed at undermining both the effectiveness of the agencies and the public’s perception of government.

[1]       Ohlemacher, S., 6/19/14, “Social Security closes offices as demand is on upswing,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press

[2]       Pear, R., 6/17/14, “Social Security agency cuts services as demand grows, Senate report says,” The New York Times

[3]       Johnston, K., & Wallack, T., 6/9/14, “Bus lapses mount, but scrutiny lags,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Quote is from Grover Norquist in 2004. He is the founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grover_Norquist)

FIND A CRISIS, DEMAND PRIVATIZATION

ABSTRACT: Republicans are up to their old tricks: create a crisis at a public agency and then claim that privatization is the answer. The latest example is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Congress hasn’t provided sufficient funding to serve the 1.5 million new veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. When US Senate legislation proposed 27 new VA health facilities (a 2% increase) and authorized hiring additional doctors and nurses back in February, the Republicans filibustered it, obstructing progress. Now that the lack of capacity has come to public attention, the Republicans are claiming that privatization is the answer.

Most veterans give high ratings to the care they get from the VA and are opposed to privatization. The VA system is actually a model from which our private health care system could learn a lot.

This political tactic of using a “crisis” to push for privatization is one that Republicans have used with Social Security, the US Postal Service, the public school system, road and bridge building and maintenance, the prison system, and so forth. Conservatives in Canada have used the tactic as well to attack their postal service and their universal public health care system.

Using a real, created, or perceived crisis as an excuse to allow inefficient corporate takeovers of societal functions best suited to provision by a public entity puts corporate profits ahead of the public good. Such privatization through “crisis” is a disingenuous tactic used by ideologues who want to shrink government and expand corporate profits regardless of whether or not it’s in the best interests of citizens and taxpayers.

FULL POST: Republicans are up to their old tricks: create a crisis at a public agency and then claim that privatization is the answer. Sometimes the crisis is real, sometimes it is manufactured, and sometimes it’s a perception created by a public relations campaign. However, the answer is always the same: privatize the agency because the “crisis” proves that the public sector can’t do the job.

The latest example is the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The cover-up of the waiting list for needed care in the VA’s Phoenix office is unforgiveable. But why was the agency unable to deliver timely care? Is it because doctors, nurses, and others were sitting around with their feet up doing nothing? Or is it because of a lack of capacity to provide the needed care? I’m willing to bet it’s the latter.

Congress hasn’t provided sufficient funding to serve the 1.5 million new veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Many of these veterans have injuries, including traumatic body and brain injuries, that would have killed them on the battlefield in the past. However, our improved medical capabilities on the battlefield have saved their lives, but returned them home with significant health care needs. Mental health needs have grown as well.

However, when US Senate legislation proposed 27 new VA health facilities (a 2% increase) and authorized hiring additional doctors and nurses back in February, the Republicans filibustered it, obstructing progress on expanding needed health services for our veterans.

Now that the lack of capacity has come to public attention, the Republicans are claiming that privatization is the answer. Should we turn health care of our veterans over to the health care system that increases its profits by finding ways to deny coverage and care? Interestingly, most veterans give high ratings to the care they get from the VA and are opposed to privatization. The VA has unmatched expertise in traumatic brain injury, amputee care, and other combat-related health issues and it serves rural areas where private sector care is scarce. [1] It computerized medical records and undertook quality of care initiatives long before the private sector. The VA system is actually a model from which our private health care system could learn a lot. [2]

This political tactic of using a “crisis” to push for privatization is one that Republicans have used with Social Security, the US Postal Service, the public school system, road and bridge building and maintenance, the prison system, and so on. Conservatives in Canada have used the tactic as well to attack their postal service and their universal public health care system. [3] Using a real, created, or perceived crisis as an excuse to allow inefficient corporate takeovers of societal functions best suited to provision by a public entity puts corporate profits ahead of the public good.

Privatization of the VA is not good for our veterans or taxpayers. Such privatization through “crisis” is a disingenuous tactic used by ideologues who want to shrink government and expand corporate profits regardless of whether or not it’s in the best interests of citizens and taxpayers. [4]

[1]       Weisman, J., 5/30/14, “VA scandal forces Congress to study systemic change,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[2]       Gordon, S. 5/27/14, “Privatization won’t fix the VA,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Taliano, M., 5/16/14, “Privatization is the problem, not the solution,” Common Dreams, http://www.commondreams.org/view/2014/05/16-7

[4]       See my previous posts on privatization, especially the ones of 10/23/12 and 10/16/12, for more detail on the shortcomings of privatization.

GOVERNMENT GRIDLOCK AND GERRYMANDERING

ABSTRACT: The gridlock in Congress is caused by hyper-partisanship and by the extreme views and tactics of some Representatives and Senators. There are four major reasons for it. I will address each of these in upcoming posts, starting with gerrymandering in this post.

Every 10 years, the boundaries of the Congressional Districts (CDs) for US House members are redrawn to reflect shifts in population. The CD boundaries are typically determined by state legislatures. The opportunity to draw the boundaries to achieve political goals has been irresistible. This process of drawing election districts to gain political advantage often ends up creating oddly shaped districts. This is referred to as “gerrymandering.” Because of growing partisanship and improved geographical computer capabilities over the last two decades, gerrymandering after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses was taken to a new level. As a result, in the 2012 Congressional election, Democratic House candidates nationwide received 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates but won only 201 seats in the House to the Republicans’ 234.

Gerrymandering produces “safe” districts – ones where the party that will win the election is known in advance. Competition between the parties, which tends to push both party’s candidates’ policy positions to the center in the interest of being competitive, is increasingly rare. Candidates from the ideological extremes are encouraged and it is hard to hold elected officials accountable to the voters, as opposed to special interests, especially ones with money, because a candidate’s party affiliation virtually guarantees election.

One solution to gerrymandering, is to have independent, non-partisan commissions perform re-districting after the decennial Census. Six states have created such commissions; several others are considering doing so.

Gerrymandering, in effect, allows politicians to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians. It produces elected officials who are at ideological extremes and who will use extreme legislative tactics that cause gridlock. Ultimately, only the voters can stop gerrymandering and restore truly democratic elections, which are necessary for our democratic system, including Congress, to work.

FULL POST: The gridlock in Congress is caused by hyper-partisanship and by the extreme views and tactics of some Representatives and Senators. Many political scientists and others feel that this gridlock is a real crisis for American democracy. The last two sessions of Congress (2011-12 and 2013-14) have been the least productive since 1948 when such measurement was begun. There are four major reasons for the gridlock:

  • Gerrymandered Congressional Districts
  • The process for nominating and selecting candidates
  • Low voter participation
  • The huge and growing amounts of money in our political campaigns

I will address each of these in upcoming posts, providing background on them, their effects, and solutions for them. I start with gerrymandering in this post.

Every 10 years, the boundaries of the Congressional Districts (CDs) for US House members are redrawn to reflect shifts in population as measured by the decennial Census. The required goal is that each CD must have roughly the same number of residents.

The CD boundaries are typically determined by state legislatures, i.e., politicians in a political body. The opportunity to draw the boundaries to achieve political goals has been irresistible. Usually, the political goal is to benefit one of the political parties, although it can also be to produce a CD that enhances the likelihood of a specific individual winning, usually an incumbent up for re-election. The typical tactics are to spread opposition voters across multiple districts where they are in a clear minority to minimize their influence or, when necessary, to lump as many of them as possible into one or a few districts that are conceded to the opposition, preserving as many CDs as possible for the favored party.

This process of drawing election districts to gain political advantage often ends up creating oddly shaped districts, rather than compact districts (i.e., ones that are roughly circular or square) or ones that follow the boundaries of existing towns, cities, or counties. This is referred to as “gerrymandering.” The term “gerrymander” was created in reaction to a redrawing of Massachusetts state senate districts under the then-governor Elbridge Gerry in 1812. Governor Gerry signed a bill that redistricted Massachusetts to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party over the Federalists. The shape of one of the contorted districts on a map was said to resemble the shape of a salamander. Hence, the term “Gerry-mander” as it was originally written. [1]

Because of growing partisanship and improved geographical computer capabilities over the last two decades, gerrymandering after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses was taken to a new extreme. The redistricting that took place after the 2010 Census has been labeled “the most distorted and partisan redistricting in modern times.” [2] Because of the growing number of state legislatures and governorships in the hands of the Republican Party over this period, the increased gerrymandering has, at a national level, mainly benefited Republicans.

As a result, in the 2012 Congressional election, Democratic House candidates nationwide received 1.4 million more votes than Republican candidates but won only 201 seats in the House to the Republicans’ 234. Here are some examples of states where Democratic presidential candidate Obama won but most of the House seats were won by Republicans and the percentage of House seats won was at least 20% higher than the percentage of the vote received by the Republican presidential candidate Romney:

  • Ohio: Republicans won 75% of House seats (12 of 16), Romney won 48% of the vote
  • Virginia: Republicans won 73% of House seats (8 of 11), Romney won 47% of the vote
  • Pennsylvania: Republicans won 72% of House seats (13 of 18), Romney won 48% of the vote

Gerrymandering produces “safe” districts – ones where the party that will win the election is known in advance. Competition between the parties, which tends to push both party’s candidates’ policy positions to the center in the interest of being competitive, is increasingly rare. Therefore, voters’ choices are reduced and the party primaries becomes the real election. Candidates from the ideological extremes are encouraged because competition from the other party is rare and in primaries, where voter participation is often quite low, mobilizing highly motivated voters with extreme views is often the easiest way to win. And money has a bigger impact in these small, less publicized primaries.

Given the lack of competition between the parties, it is hard to hold elected officials accountable to the voters, as opposed to special interests, especially ones with money, because a candidate’s party affiliation virtually guarantees election. The weakened, typically emasculated, opposition party can’t serve as a check and balance. [3] As a result of gerrymandering, it is estimated that only 35 of the 435 House seats will have a competitive, inter-party race in 2014. Therefore, there is little to deter highly partisan and extreme behavior in Congress. [4][5]

Candidates or elected officials who personally may hold moderate views are pushed to express opinions in public and cast votes in Congress at the extremes because of the threat that their party’s primary election represents. [6] Even House Speaker Boehner and Senate Minority Leader McConnell are afraid to take moderate positions or actions because of the possibility of far right challengers in their re-election primaries.

One solution to gerrymandering, is to have independent, non-partisan commissions perform re-districting after each Census. Iowa, California, Arizona, and 3 other states have created such commissions. Several other states are considering doing so. [7]

Iowa’s non-partisan redistricting process was created in 1980. Three bureaucrats, who sequester themselves for 45 days after the Census data is available, redraw Iowa’s four Congressional Districts. They are not allowed to consider voters’ party affiliation, previous election results, or the addresses of current members of Congress, or to have any contact with any politician. The goals for the districts, other than equal population, are compactness and respect for existing county boundaries. The result has been some of the country’s most competitive races for the US House and candidates who focus on representing the people of the district, not some ideology or party. [8]

Congress could pass legislation to require states to create independent redistricting commissions, but there is no sign of a sufficiently powerful grassroots movement to force such an action, which would require Congress to act against its own perceived interests. [9]

Gerrymandering, in effect, allows politicians to choose their voters rather than voters choosing their politicians. [10] It produces elected officials who are at ideological extremes and who will use extreme legislative tactics that cause gridlock. Ultimately, only the voters can stop gerrymandering and restore truly democratic elections, which are necessary for our democratic system, including Congress, to work.


 

[1]       Wikipedia, retrieved 3/3/14, “Gerrymandering,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerrymandering

[2]       Drew, E., 9/26/13, “The stranglehold on our politics,” The New York Review of Books

[3]       Rapoport, A., Nov. / Dec. 2013, “Fifty shades of purple,” The American Prospect

[4]       Drew, E., 9/26/13, see above

[5]       Potomac Chronicle, Dec. 2013, “Angry about partisan gridlock in Washington? Blame the states,” Governing http://www.governing.com/columns/potomac-chronicle/gov-redistricting-gone-mad.html

[6]       Stockman, F., 10/8/13, “Shutdown: Join the club,” The Boston Globe

[7]       Potomac Chronicle, Dec. 2013, see above

[8]       Jan, T., 12/8/13, “Iowa keeping partisanship off the map,” The Boston Globe

[9]       Drew, E., 9/26/13, see above

[10]     Fair Vote, retrieved 3/2/14, “Redistricting,” The Center for Voting and Democracy, http://www.fairvote.org/research-and-analysis/redistricting/

SHORT TAKES ON CURRENT EVENTS

ABSTRACT:

CONFIRMING PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEES: The US Senate voted on 11/21 to change its rules and eliminate the use of the filibuster to block presidential nominees other than Supreme Court Justices, given that Republicans had returned to full-scale obstructionism since the deal to approve 7 nominees in July. Under the new rules, the Senate has confirmed 11 nominees and Senate Democrats are pursuing at least 10 more confirmations before the holiday recess. Roughly 70 nominees remain pending.

FINING DRUG CORPORATIONS FOR COLLUSION: The European Union has fined two giant drug corporations, Johnson & Johnson and Novartis, $22 million for colluding to delay the availability of a cheaper generic drug.

FDA REDUCING ANTIBIOTIC OVERUSE AND DRUG-RESISTANT INFECTIONS: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking steps to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics in meat production. This overuse of antibiotics used for treating infections in humans is linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. 23,000 people are dying each year from such infections. The FDA is asking drug corporations to voluntarily stop labeling drugs used to treat human infections as acceptable for growth promotion in animals. The FDA is using this voluntary approach and giving the drug corporations 3 years to comply because it believes the complex regulatory process a mandatory rule would require would take many years and might not be successful.

FULL POST:

CONFIRMING PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEES

The US Senate voted on 11/21 to change its rules and eliminate the use of the filibuster to block presidential nominees other than Supreme Court Justices. Democrats in the Senate exercised this option, the so-called “nuclear option”, because after a deal in July that allowed the approval of 7 nominees for executive branch positions, Republicans had returned to full-scale obstructionism. With roughly 90 judicial vacancies and some key executive branch openings, the Democrats threatened again to change the filibuster rule and proceeded to do so when the Republicans refused to relent from their obstructionism.

Since then, the Senate has confirmed 11 nominees including the Secretary of Homeland Security, an Assistant Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Air Force, and 2 judges, despite continuing Republican use of delaying tactics. Interestingly, once the Republican blockade of the first two of these was overcome, they were confirmed by 78-16 votes.

Senate Democrats are pursuing at least 10 more confirmations before the holiday recess, including the Chair of the Federal Reserve and the head of the Internal Revenue Service. Roughly 70 nominees remain pending and some of them may have to be re-nominated and start the process all over again in the new year. (1. Alman, A., 12/16/13, “Jeh Johnson confirmed by Senate as Secretary of Homeland Security, The Huffington Post.  2. Reuters, 12/13/13, “U.S. Senate confirmation marathon approves two more Obama nominees,” Reuters) (See my post A Respite from Obstructionism on 7/25/13 at https://lippittpolicyandpolitics.org/2013/07/25/a-respite-from-obstructionism/, as well as those of 7/21/13 and 7/16/13, for more details on the July deal and obstruction of nominees’ confirmations.)

 

FINING DRUG CORPORATIONS FOR COLLUSION

The European Union has fined two giant drug corporations, Johnson & Johnson (J&J) and Novartis, $22 million for colluding to delay the availability of a cheaper generic drug. A patent on a J&J pain killer expired in 2005 but J&J paid Novartis to delay for 17 months production of a cheaper generic version of the drug. Both corporations were more profitable as a result. (Daily Briefing, 12/11/13, “EU fines drug firms over delay,” The Boston Globe)

FDA REDUCING ANTIBIOTIC OVERUSE AND DRUG-RESISTANT INFECTIONS

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is taking steps to reduce the unnecessary use of antibiotics in meat production. Many producers of cattle, hogs, and poultry give their animals antibiotics to make them grow faster. This overuse of antibiotics used for treating infections in humans is linked to the development of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans, which are much more difficult and expensive to treat, and can be fatal: 23,000 people are dying each year from such infections. The FDA is asking drug corporations to voluntarily stop labeling drugs used to treat human infections as acceptable for growth promotion in animals. This would make such use illegal without a prescription for use in a sick animal. The FDA is using this voluntary approach and giving the drug corporations 3 years to comply because it believes the complex regulatory process a mandatory rule would require would take many years and might not be successful. (Jalonick, M.C., 12/12/13, “FDA working to phase out some antibiotics in meat,” The Boston Globe from the Associated Press)

 

NOTE: There are so many issues and events that I think those of us trying to be well informed citizens and voters should know about that I can’t write full posts on all of them. And I’m sure you don’t have time to read full posts about them. Therefore, I’ll use this format to complement the full posts: Short Takes on current events. Please let me know if you find these valuable by commenting on them. I will provide references or links to more information for the topics, so you can pursue them in more depth if you have the interest and time.

THE FEDERAL BUDGET DEAL

ABSTRACT: As you probably know, Congress will vote this week on a budget deal for fiscal years 2014 and 2015. If the budget deal doesn’t pass, the government would shut down again on Jan. 15. The deal could fail to pass in Congress. Without a deal, the phase 2 sequester cuts take effect and would be much more painful than the phase 1 cuts were this year. Under the sequester, the 2013 cap on discretionary domestic and military spending is $986 billion. This cap is slated to drop to $967 billion for 2014.

The budget negotiators are proposing spending $1,012 billion in 2013 and $2,014 billion in 2015, claiming deficit reduction of $23 billion over 10 years and smarter budget cutting than the across-the-board sequester’s cuts. However, some of the shrink-the-government diehards are opposed to this increase in spending.

To cut costs, the contributions new federal civilian employees pay into their pension fund will increase and military pensions will receive smaller cost of living increases. To increase revenue, airlines’ fees to pay for the TSA will go up, resulting in a $5 increase in add-on fees on each airline ticket. This consumer fee increase has been criticized and some in Congress have suggested closing the private jet tax loophole as an alternative.

A bone of contention is that the deal does not extend the emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. These benefits will expire on Dec. 28 for 1.3 million workers. Without an extension, an additional 850,000 workers’ will lose benefits in the first quarter of 2014. This would have an estimated impact on the economy of 300,000 fewer jobs in 2014 and a reduction in economic growth of 0.4%.

If there are issues in these budget negotiations that you feel strongly about, now is the time to contact your Congress people and get your two cents (or more) into the discussion.

FULL POST: As you probably know, Congress will vote this week on a budget deal for fiscal years 2014 (which started last Oct. 1) and 2015. Their deadline is this Friday because Congress is planning to adjourn and go home for the holidays then. Other deadlines are lurking behind this one: the temporary extension of the fiscal year 2013 budget in October expires on Jan. 15, the second round of automatic budget cuts (phase 2 of the sequester) goes into effective Jan. 1, and long-term unemployment benefits expire on Dec. 28.

If the budget deal doesn’t pass, the government would shut down again on Jan. 15, a result almost no one appears to want. The deal could fail to pass in Congress because the negotiating has been done by a small group and there is opposition to the deal from multiple sides. [1]

Without a deal, the phase 2 sequester cuts would take effect and would be much more painful than the phase 1 cuts were this year. Many federal agencies and programs were able to use surplus or reserve funds that are now exhausted. In the case of air traffic controllers, airport construction funds were used to fund them and aren’t available again. And some one-time accounting maneuvers were used. Therefore, the second round of cuts will have much greater impacts. [2] The phase 2 sequester cuts in government spending would also hurt the economy and cost an estimated 800,000 jobs in 2014. [3]

Nonetheless, a number of issues could derail the budget deal. One such issue is the overall spending caps currently in place under the sequester, officially known as the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. The 2013 cap on discretionary domestic and military spending is $986 billion. This cap is slated to drop to $967 billion for 2014.

The budget negotiators are proposing spending $1,012 billion ($1.012 trillion) in 2013 and $2,014 billion in 2015. Military spending would be $521 billion and non-military spending $492 billion. [4][5] With some offsetting revenue increases and future cuts in spending, they are claiming deficit reduction of $23 billion over 10 years and smarter budget cutting than the across-the-board sequester’s cuts. [6] However, some of the shrink-the-government diehards are opposed to this increase in spending. Spending that Obama called for in his State of the Union speech on education and infrastructure (in part to create jobs) is not part of the budget deal.

To cut costs, the contributions new federal civilian employees pay into their pension fund will increase ($6 billion over 10 years). This is causing some pushback given that federal workers have already experienced a 3 year pay freeze, unpaid furloughs due to the sequester, and delays in receiving their pay during the government shutdown. [7] Military pensions will receive smaller cost of living increases ($6 billion over 10 years). A cut in payments to Medicare health care providers is extended 2 years to 2023 ($23 billion). [8] Costs of mineral leases and petroleum extraction research will also be cut.

To increase revenue, airlines’ fees to pay for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will go up, resulting in a $5 increase in add-on fees on each airline ticket. This consumer fee increase has been criticized and some in Congress have suggested closing the private jet tax loophole as an alternative way to raise revenue. [9] Companies’ premiums for insuring pension plans will increase, however, the closing of corporate tax loopholes, including the use of offshore tax havens (which alone could generate over $20 billion a year in revenue), that some in Congress had called for, are not part of the deal. [10]

A bone of contention is that the deal does not extend the emergency unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed. These benefits will expire on Dec. 28 for 1.3 million workers who have been out of work for longer than the usual 26 week limit on benefits. An extension of benefits would cost $25 billion for 2014. Not only do such benefits help the workers and their families, but they also support the economy by helping to maintain household incomes and consumer spending, which is two-thirds of our economy. [11] Without an extension, an additional 850,000 workers’ will lose benefits in the first quarter of 2014 when their regular 26 weeks of benefits run out, and 4.8 million workers would be affected by expiring benefits over the course of 2014. This would have an estimated impact on the economy of 300,000 fewer jobs in 2014 and a reduction in economic growth of 0.4% (from a current level of 2.4% for 2013) in the first quarter of 2014. [12] Some Democrats would still like to see this in the budget deal, while others are planning to push it separately in the near future.

Although unemployment is down to 7.0%, long-term unemployment is still a serious problem. Furthermore, the emergency long-term unemployment benefits were started under President George W. Bush when unemployment was only 5.6%. Over 37% of the unemployed have been unemployed for over 26 weeks, and this percentage is still rising. [13]

If a budget deal is successfully passed by Congress and signed by the President, it will be the first official budget since 2011. However, a number of issues could present challenges to passage in the House or the Senate.

If there are issues in these budget negotiations that you feel strongly about, now is the time to contact your Congress people and get your two cents (or more) into the discussion.


[1]       Everett, B., & Gibson, G., 12/8/13, “Budget talks worry those not in the room,” Politico

[2]       Taylor, A., 11/12/13, “Mandated cuts expected to be more painful in ’14,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Montgomery, L., 12/6/13, “Congressional GOP may be willing to let emergency unemployment benefits lapse,” The Washington Post

[4]       Weisman, J., 12/11/13, “Congressional negotiators reach deal on federal budget,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[5]       Przybyla, H., 12/11/13, “Budget deal easing spending cuts faces Republican ire,” Bloomberg

[6]       Weisman, J., 12/6/13, “Congress appears near a modest accord on the budget,” The Boston Globe from The New York Times

[7]       Montgomery, L., 12/9/13, “Budget deal expected this week amounts to a cease-fire as sides move to avert a standoff,” The Washington Post

[8]       Espo, D., & Taylor, A., 12/10/13, “Congressional negotiators reach budget pact,” The Boston Globe

[9]       Przybyla, H., 12/6/13, “Budget negotiators seek limited deal as opposition mounts,” Bloomberg

[10]     Tong, J., 12/5/13, “Representatives Doggett and DeLauro introduce legislation to end sequestration and corporate offshore tax havens,” Common Dreams (www.commondreams.org/newswire/2013/12/05-4)

[11]     Krugman, P., 12/8/13, “The punishment cure,” The New York Times

[12]     Lowrey, A., 11/17/13, “Extension of benefits for jobless set to end,” The New York Times

[13]     Needham, V., 12/8/13, “Advocates see hope for renewal of unemployment benefits extension,” The Hill

REPUBLICANS OBSTRUCTING NOMINEES AGAIN

ABSTRACT: The Republicans are back to blocking the President’s nominees for judgeships and executive branch positions by filibustering. Currently, there are roughly 90 vacancies for judgeships. In terms of Executive Branch nominees, the Chair of the Federal Reserve and the Secretary of Homeland Security are among those waiting for Senate confirmation.

Senate Democrats are again talking about changing the filibuster rule. One Senator called this obstructionism “a government shutdown by another tactic.” I encourage you to contact your Senators and let them know that this obstructionism should stop because we need our judicial and executive branches of government to function and perform the work that we have charged them to do.

FULL POST: The Republicans are back to blocking the President’s nominees for judgeships and executive branch positions by filibustering. [1] In July, Senate Republicans agreed to approve 7 Presidential nominations, but only after Senate Democrats threatened to change the Senate’s filibuster rule to stop the on-going and pervasive obstruction of nominees. (See post of 7/25/13 for more detail.) But on Thursday, the Republicans were back to filibustering nominees, blocking a judicial nominee who had 56 votes in favor and an appointee for a housing regulatory agency who had 57 votes in favor. [2]

Furthermore, Republican Senator Graham has threatened to hold up all nominations until further hearings are held on the attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, a year ago. Linking approval of nominees to a totally unrelated issue is certainly unusual, if not unprecedented. Furthermore, 13 Congressional hearings and 40 staff briefings on this issue have already occurred along with the delivery to Congress of 25,000 pages of related documents. [3]

Currently, there are roughly 90 vacancies for judgeships, many of which are considered judicial emergencies. These vacancies are having a negative impact on the functioning of the federal courts and their ability to deliver justice for the American people in a timely manner. (See post of 7/21/13 for more detail.) Several nominees have been approved by the lengthy and detailed vetting of the Judiciary Committee but have not been confirmed by the full Senate.

In terms of Executive Branch nominees, the Chair of the Federal Reserve and the Secretary of Homeland Security are among those waiting for Senate confirmation. (See post of 7/16/13 for more on the blocking of executive branch nominees).

As a result of this resurgence of Republican obstructionism of nominees by filibustering, Senate Democrats are again talking about changing the filibuster rule. One Senator called this obstructionism “a government shutdown by another tactic.” [4]

I encourage you to contact your Senators and let them know that this obstructionism should stop because we need our judicial and executive branches of government to function and perform the work that we have charged them to do.


[1]       A filibuster occurs when one or more Senators refuse to end debate on a piece of legislation or other matter. It then requires a super-majority of 60 votes from the 100 Senators to close off debate (cloture) and allow a vote on the bill or other matter.

[2]       Fram, A., 11/1/13, “GOP blocks Obama picks for US court, housing agency,” The Boston Globe (from the Associated Press)

[3]       Associated Press, 11/2/13, “GOP Senator vows to block nominees,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Fram, A., 11/1/13, see above

REPUBLICAN SABOTAGE

ABSTRACT: Republicans are sabotaging democracy and the United States of America. Republicans in both the US House and Senate have used obstructionist tactics to block progress on a budget to keep the government operating and on an increase in the debt ceiling to avoid a financial default. In efforts to get policy changes that they don’t have the votes to pass in Congress and didn’t convince the American public to support in the last 3 elections, they have shut down the government and are on the verge of causing an unprecedented financial default.

Republicans in the US House of Representatives have blocked a vote on a simple, straight-forward bill extending the budget, which passed in the Senate, and would keep the government operating. In the Senate, a bill to increase the debt ceiling received a favorable majority vote but the Republicans filibustered, blocking progress.

An extremist minority has taken over the Republican Party because the rest of the Republicans refuse to stand up to them and say, “No.” These extremists have escalated their demands every time President Obama and the Democrats have compromised with them. For example, the extremists are demanding more budget cuts, even though the deficit has shrunk to half its size of 4 years ago.

Every compromise put forth on the budget or debt ceiling that has any chance of passage is torpedoed by the extremists, often with new demands. The track record makes it clear that these extremists won’t be satisfied with any concessions they get. In fact, anything they get will just embolden them to create another crisis so they can demand more.

It is frustrating to see a minority in Congress and in the country creating such hardship and inconvenience for so many in their pursuit of political goals that have been rejected repeatedly by the majority in Congress and multiple times by the voters. It’s past time to raise our voices and demand that our democratic principles be honored by the extremist minority and their Republican enablers in Congress. I urge you to contact your Representative and your Senators to tell them to reopen our government and raise the debt ceiling so our government can pay its bills.

FULL POST: Republicans are sabotaging democracy and the United States of America. Republicans in both the US House and Senate have used obstructionist tactics to block progress on a budget to keep the government operating and on an increase in the debt ceiling to avoid a financial default. In efforts to get policy changes that they don’t have the votes to pass in Congress and didn’t convince the American public to support in the last 3 elections, they have shut down the government and are on the verge of causing an unprecedented financial default. [1]

Republicans in the US House of Representatives have blocked a vote on a simple, straight-forward bill extending the budget, which passed in the Senate, and would keep the government operating. They used an unprecedented parliamentary procedure to block any chance that the bill would get voted on in the House. They did so by making a very specific change in the normal rules of operation of the House. Under normal procedure, any House member would have been able to request that the Senate bill be voted on. On the night of September 30, the eve of the shutdown, Republicans changed the normal rule to say that any request to vote on the Senate bill would have to be made by the Republican majority Leader or with his approval. “I’ve never heard of anything like that before,” said Norm Ornstein, resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. As a result, efforts by Democratic House members to bring the Senate bill up for a vote and keep the government operating, were blocked. If the bill had been voted on it almost certainly would have passed because at least 28 House Republicans have publicly said they would support such a bill if it were brought to a vote, which, when combined with Democratic votes, would be a majority. [2][3]

Meanwhile in the Senate, a bill to increase the debt ceiling was brought to a vote. A majority voted in favor of it but the Republicans filibustered, making a 60 vote super-majority necessary to move forward. [4]

An extremist minority has taken over the Republican Party because the rest of the Republicans refuse to stand up to them and say, “No.” These extremists have escalated their demands every time President Obama and the Democrats have compromised with them. In 2010, they wanted the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy extended through 2012 so they could make their case for the tax cuts to voters. They made their case and lost the election. Did they then let the tax cuts expire? No. As part of the fiscal cliff negotiations they demanded they be extended permanently. The President and the Democrats compromised and extended them permanently for incomes up to $400,000. And now the Republicans are back demanding tax cuts for the wealthy.

On spending cuts, they demanded large spending cuts and held the financial credibility of the country hostage to their demand in the summer of 2011. When the President and the Democrats compromised and made significant cuts, they demanded more. So a Super Committee was created to find ways to reduce the deficit but the extremists refused any compromise. They presented their case for budget cuts to the voters in 2012 and lost. Nonetheless, the extremists refused to compromise and the automatic, across the board cuts that the Super Committee was supposed to find a way to avoid went into effect in March. But the extremists are demanding more budget cuts, even though the deficit has shrunk to half its size of 4 years ago and is continuing to shrink.

The extremists have also demanded that the Affordable Care Act, which they have dubbed Obama Care, be repealed, even though it would provide health insurance to tens of millions of Americans who don’t have it now. Having campaigned on this issue in 2012 and lost, and without the votes to repeal it in Congress, they are now holding our democracy hostage to their demand to stop it.

Every compromise put forth on the budget or debt ceiling that has any chance of passage is torpedoed by the extremists. Often, they put forward new demands such as restrictions on health insurance coverage of women’s reproductive health or shifting the sequester’s budget cuts to cut social programs rather than the military.

The track record makes it clear that these extremists won’t be satisfied with any concessions they get. In fact, anything they get will just embolden them to create another crisis so they can demand more. Hopefully, the country, President Obama, the Democrats, and perhaps even the majority of Republicans have learned that extortionists’ demands escalate if you give in to them. Furthermore, keeping the government running and paying the nation’s bills should never have been negotiable in our democracy in the first place. [5] This is sabotage of the democratic process and the democratic principle of majority rule.

It is frustrating to see a minority in Congress and in the country creating such hardship and inconvenience for so many in their pursuit of political goals that have been rejected repeatedly by the majority in Congress and multiple times by the voters. It’s particularly frustrating to see Congress people getting paid (although some have committed to donate their salaries to charity), keeping their staffs on at full pay in some cases, keeping their gym and pool open, and even keeping their special little subway running between the House and Senate office buildings, while so many others are harmed or inconvenienced. Meanwhile, among other things, toxic waste clean-ups have stopped, accepting new patients into clinical trials at the National Institutes of Health has stopped, access to National Parks is blocked (except where states are paying to keep them open), contractors and programs that depend on federal government funding are shutting down, people who depend on, need, or expect government services or information are having to go without, and, of course, hundreds of thousands of government employees are not getting paid, creating real hardships for many families. [6]

It’s past time to raise our voices and demand that our democratic principles be honored by the extremist minority and their Republican enablers in Congress. I urge you to contact your Representative and your Senators to tell them to reopen our government and raise the debt ceiling so our government can pay its bills.


 

[1]       Moyers, B., 10/4/13, “On the sabotage of democracy,” http://billmoyers.com/segment/bill-moyers-essay-shutdown-showdown/

[2]       McCarter, J., 10/10/13, “How House Republicans guaranteed a shutdown: by changing the rules, “ Daily Kos

[3]       Alman, A., 10/13/13, “House Republicans changed the rules so a majority vote couldn’t stop the government shutdown,” The Huffington Post

[4]       Laing, K., 10/12/13, “White House slams Senate Republicans,” The Hill

[5]     Reich, R., 10/12/13, “Why giving Republican bullies a bloody nose isn’t enough,” The Huffington Post

[6]       Terkel, A., 10/9/13, “Congressional perks deemed essential during government shutdown while public sacrifices,” The Huffington Post

WHY IS THE GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN?

ABSTRACT: The federal government’s shutdown for lack of a budget has nothing to do with the deficit or democracy; rather, it has everything to do with politics, ideology, and the tyranny of a minority. The extreme wing of the Republican Party, without the support in Congress to pass legislation and having lost the last election, is trying to impose its ideology on the country by taking the government’s budget hostage.

The federal government’s budget deficit is at its lowest level in 5 years and roughly half of what it was in 2009. The Republicans’ primary policy target is the Affordable Health Care law, also known as Obama Care. They ideologically oppose this expansion of the government’s role in health care, even though it is built on conservative principles and will provide health insurance to tens of millions of Americans who don’t have it now.

There’s a bill sitting in the House that funds the government for a few weeks – a so-called Continuing Resolution (CR). With a simple yes or no vote, it would pass. But because it doesn’t have the support of the majority of Republicans, Speaker Boehner won’t allow a vote on it.

800,000 federal employees will lose their paychecks and millions of Americans will lose services funded by the government. Nonetheless, members of Congress will continue to get their paychecks and their good, taxpayer-subsidized health insurance.

As recent history has shown, if the extremists in Congress get what they want, or any part of it, they’ll just be back at the next opportunity, creating another crisis, and asking for more. Therefore, negotiation with this extortion, blackmail, hostage taking, or bullying, whatever you want to call it, should not and cannot be undertaken.

FULL POST: The federal government’s shutdown for lack of a budget has nothing to do with the deficit or democracy; rather, it has everything to do with politics, ideology, and the tyranny of a minority. The extreme wing of the Republican Party, without the support in Congress to pass legislation and having lost the last election, including the presidency and seats in both houses of Congress, is trying to impose its ideology on the country by taking the government’s budget hostage.

This extreme faction is not willing to abide by the last election, by legislation previously passed (such as the Affordable Care Act), or by the will of the American public. And they are not willing to engage in meaningful negotiations because they believe they know what is best for the country and for all of us. They are willing, however, to disrupt the lives of millions of Americans and to harm our weak economic recovery by shutting down the federal government.

And this is not about the deficit. The federal government’s budget deficit is at its lowest level in 5 years and roughly half of what it was in 2009. [1] The deficit is projected to continue to fall as the economy recovers, which increases government revenue and reduces expenses. Many economists expect that in 2 years it will have decreased to a sustainable level. [2]

The Republicans’ primary policy target is the Affordable Health Care law, also known as Obama Care. They ideologically oppose this expansion of the government’s role in health care, even though it is built on conservative principles: 1) it uses private health insurers and providers, and 2) it requires personal responsibility through the mandate that individuals purchase health insurance (an idea born in a conservative think tank). They oppose it despite the fact that it will provide health insurance to tens of millions of Americans who don’t have it now, and the fact that the more the public knows about Obama Care’s specific provisions, the more they like it. (See my posts of 8/21/13 and 8/19/13 for more information.)

Various budget proposals from the Republicans identify their other policy targets. They have included cuts to other social programs that their extreme wing opposes, including cuts to Social Security, the Medicare and Medicaid health programs, and food and nutrition assistance, among others. On the other hand, most of them would increase military spending on top of its significant increases in recent years, which already mean that we are spending more on the military (adjusted for inflation) than at any time since World War II. [3]

The Republicans in the House of Representatives, who are the roadblock to passage of a budget, are refusing to bring to a vote any budget that does not have the support of a majority of Republicans. Therefore, the most extreme 117 Republicans in the House, 27% of its overall membership, can and are blocking progress and forcing this shutdown. (See post of 7/27/13 for more information on obstructionism in the House.)

There’s a bill sitting in the House that funds the government for a few weeks – a so-called Continuing Resolution (CR). It’s simple and straightforward; it simply funds the government at current levels without making any policy changes. If the Republican leadership in the House would allow a simple yes or no vote on this bill, it would pass with support from members of both parties – as it did in the Senate. But because it doesn’t have the support of the majority of House Republicans, Speaker Boehner won’t allow a vote on it.

800,000 federal employees will lose their paychecks and millions of Americans will lose services funded by the government, including meals for seniors, Head Start classes for preschoolers, and access to national parks for all of us. Nonetheless, members of Congress will continue to get their paychecks and their good, taxpayer-subsidized health insurance.

This is the second time in 20 years that an extreme Republican agenda has forced a government shutdown. Democrats have never done this when they were in the minority or did not hold the presidency.

As recent history has shown, if the extremists in Congress get what they want, or any part of it, they’ll just be back at the next opportunity, creating another crisis, and asking for more. Therefore, negotiation with these extortionists, blackmailers, hostage takers, or bullies, whatever you want to call them, should not and cannot be undertaken. [4]

Long before blocking Obama Care was linked to a government shutdown, Norm Ornstein, the political scientist at the conservative America Enterprise Institute, wrote that “What is going on now to sabotage Obamacare is not treasonous – just sharply beneath any reasonable standards of elected officials with the fiduciary responsibility of governing.” [5] I wonder what he would say now about those in Congress whose behavior has led to this government shutdown.


[1]       Klimasinska, K., 9/12/13, “U.S. budget gap narrows as stronger growth boosts revenues,” Bloomberg

[2]       Lowrey, A., 4/22/13, “The incredible shrinking budget deficit,” The New York Times

[3]       Bilmes, L., 7/31/13, “Pentagon a ripe target for cuts,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Reich, R., 9/30/13, “Why Obama and the Democrats shouldn’t negotiate with extortionists,” The Huffington Post

[5]       Light, J., 7/25/13, “Obstructionism for the recordbooks,” Moyers & company (billmoyers.com/2013/07/25/obstructionism-for-the-recordbooks)

THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT PART II

ABSTRACT: Other than the individual mandate (see 8/19 post), the biggest focus of resistance to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been the expansion of Medicaid, the health insurance program for low income individuals. If all states implement the Medicaid expansion called for by the ACA, over 21 million individuals, including 4.5 million children, who don’t have health insurance will gain coverage.

The resistance has been based on the assertion that the expansion will cost states money. However, for the first three years, the federal government will pay 100% of the cost and at least 90% thereafter. Because the newly covered individuals would have cost the states about $18 billion for uninsured, uncompensated care, overall the states will save $10 billion.

Republican Governors and state legislators, looking for a symbolic and substantive way to express their opposition to the ACA, have taken steps to refuse to participate in the Medicaid expansion, refusing significant federal funding. As a result, nationwide, hundreds of thousands of low-income residents will not receive health insurance.

Although it is too soon to know for certain, the bottom line is likely to be that the Affordable Care Act will provide very significant benefits to those who don’t have health insurance and get it, and that there are likely to be real benefits for those who already have health insurance as well. States that are focused on making the ACA work will see good results; states that work to undermine the law will not see good results. The sad thing about this self-fulfilling prophecy is that it will be the residents of those states who will suffer with no, or less effective, health insurance and probably worse health.

FULL POST: Other than the individual mandate (see 8/19 post), the biggest focus of resistance to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been the expansion of Medicaid, the health insurance program for low income individuals paid for jointly by the states and the federal government. If all states implement the Medicaid expansion called for by the ACA, over the next 10 years over 21 million individuals, including 4.5 million children, who don’t have health insurance will gain coverage. But when the Supreme Court upheld the overall ACA, it ruled that states couldn’t be required to participate in the expansion of Medicaid included in the law.

Aside from the political opposition, the resistance has been based on the assertion that the expansion will cost states money. However, for the first three years the federal government will pay 100% of the cost and at least 90% thereafter. Over 10 years, it is estimated that if all states implement the expansion, they would spend an additional $8 billion, which would be a 0.3% increase over their spending without the expansion. Furthermore, because the newly covered individuals would have cost the states about $18 billion for uninsured, uncompensated care, overall the states will save $10 billion. There may be other savings to states from the implementation of the ACA as well, although the impact will vary by state. [1]

Republican Governors and state legislators, looking for a symbolic and substantive way to express their opposition to the ACA, with encouragement from the Tea Party and other staunch Obama opponents, have taken steps to refuse to participate in the Medicaid expansion, refusing significant federal funding. As a result, nationwide, hundreds of thousands of low-income residents will not receive health insurance, despite the fact that there would be no cost to the states for 3 years and a 10% maximum share of the cost after that. In some states, such as Florida, after a hard look at the numbers and some grassroots activism, Republican elected officials have reversed their original stand and have decided to participate. However, New Hampshire, for example, currently is refusing to participate. This means that 58,000 low-income residents will not receive health insurance and, for many of them, it will likely mean they don’t get care they need. [2]

Republicans, and especially Tea Partiers, are making wild claims about how Obama Care will hurt small businesses and the economy. These claims have been soundly refuted as false by independent groups such as FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com. The latter notes that economists generally believe that the federal budget cuts due to the sequester have done much more harm to the economy.

Undoubtedly, there will be bumps in the road during implementation of the Affordable Care Act. There always are challenges in implementing complex legislation, and the ACA was made more complex by the compromises Obama made in trying to get Republican support, which they then never gave to him or to the law.

Although it is too soon to know for certain, the bottom line is likely to be that the Affordable Care Act will provide very significant benefits to those who don’t have health insurance and get it, and that there are likely to be real benefits for those who already have health insurance as well. Most experts believe that states that are focused on making the ACA work will see good results. But that in states that work to undermine the law the results will not be good. [3] For example, some states are refusing to set up the exchanges to help the uninsured buy coverage and some are refusing to provide information to help residents make informed decisions on which plan to buy. Elected officials in these states are likely to then say, “See it doesn’t work!” The sad thing about this self-fulfilling prophecy is that it will be the residents of those states who will suffer with no, or less effective, health insurance and probably worse health.


[1]       Holahan, J., Buettgens, M., Carroll, C., & Dorn, S., 11/1/12, “The cost and coverage implications of the ACA Medicaid expansion: National and state-by-state analysis,” The Urban Institute and the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured (http://kaiserfamilyfoundation.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/8384_es.pdf)

[2]       Editorial, 8/7/13, “GOP stance against Obamacare hurts thousands of NH families,” The Boston Globe

[3]       Lehigh, S., 8/14/13, “The GOP’s Obamacare whale hunt,” The Boston Globe

THE AFFORDABLE CARE ACT PART I

ABSTRACT: As implementation of another key piece of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (also known as Obama Care) approaches, the information and disinformation in the media and from the opposition builds. On January 1, 2014, the “exchanges” – where individuals can purchase health insurance if they don’t have it – will begin operation. On October 1, 2013, individuals can beginning selecting the health insurance plans they want to enroll in.

No one disputes that if the ACA is implemented as intended roughly 30 million Americans will have health insurance who don’t have it now. From a worldwide perspective, the US has the most expensive health care system but ranks 37th in overall health outcomes. Nearly 45,000 deaths annually are associated with not having health insurance.

From the first days of the Congressional debate on the ACA, its supporters have done a horrible job of presenting its benefits: millions already have better health insurance, $7 billion has been saved by those with health insurance, lifetime caps on benefits are prohibited, and denying coverage for pre-existing conditions will be banned.

The primary target of the opposition has been the individual mandate, which originally was promoted by the conservative Heritage Foundation and Republicans as part of personal responsibility. However, once Obama adopted the individual mandate as part of the ACA, it became anathema to Republicans. The Republicans’ focus on repealing, obstructing, and undermining the ACA has been described by Norm Ornstein, a long-time political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, as “monomaniacal.” He went on to write, “What is going on now to sabotage Obamacare is not treasonous – just sharply beneath any reasonable standards of elected officials with the fiduciary responsibility of governing.”

FULL POST: As implementation of another key piece of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) (also known as Obama Care) approaches, the information and disinformation in the media and from the opposition builds. On January 1, 2014, the “exchanges” – where individuals can purchase health insurance if they don’t have it – will begin operation. On October 1, 2013, individuals can beginning selecting the health insurance plans they want to enroll in.

There has been good news on the cost of the new plans to be offered through the exchanges: so far 5 states’ plans will cost less than expected. Where the plans cost more than current options, it is often because they provide more comprehensive coverage than current insurance, where coverage has often been narrowed to reduce costs and increase profits.

To put all of this in some context, no one disputes that if the ACA is implemented as intended roughly 30 million Americans will have health insurance who don’t have it now. Further, many of us who have health insurance will get better and, in many cases, more affordable coverage. From a worldwide perspective, the US has the most expensive health care system (at over $8,300 per person) but ranks 37th in overall health outcomes, and worse for infant mortality and life expectancy. And we have the most people without health insurance. In the US, nearly 45,000 deaths annually are associated with not having health insurance. [This estimate takes into account the effects of the education level, income, health behaviors (for example smoking and drinking), and baseline health (for example, obesity) of those who don’t have insurance.] [1]

From the first days of the Congressional debate on the ACA, its supporters have done a horrible job of presenting its benefits, including: [2]

  • 3 million young adults up to age 26 have had health insurance because they could continue to be covered by their parents’ health insurance
  • 13 million Americans with insurance have received $1 billion in rebates because their insurance companies spent more than is allowed under the ACA on expenses other than health care (for example, administration and advertising)
  • 54 million Americans have gotten free access to preventive services, such as checkups and cancer screenings
  • 6 million seniors have saved over $6 billion on their prescription drugs
  • Lifetime caps on benefits are prohibited (Isn’t the whole purpose of insurance to cover catastrophic losses? At least that used to be the case before the profit motive took over.)
  • Denying coverage for pre-existing conditions or denying renewal of an insurance policy when a health condition or accident occurs will be banned

The primary target of the opposition, particularly from the Tea Party types, has been the individual mandate – the requirement that everyone have health insurance or pay a penalty. Historically, the individual mandate was promoted by the conservative Heritage Foundation and Republicans as part of personal responsibility, i.e., being self-reliant and not depending on government or others for support. Democrats and progressives were cool to the idea because they were concerned that it would pose a burden on lower income families and individuals. The individual mandate was a centerpiece of the Republican alternative to the universal health care proposed by President and Hillary Clinton. And it was the centerpiece of Massachusetts’ universal health care law that Republican Governor Mitt Romney spearheaded and was so proud of (when he was Governor).

However, once Obama adopted the individual mandate as part of the ACA, it became anathema to Republicans. Ironically, as the Tea Party holds town hall forums and rallies today, the headline speaker against the ACA and the individual mandate is often Jim DeMint, the President of the Heritage Foundation, despite it having been the original promoter of the individual mandate. [3]

The Republicans’ focus on repealing, obstructing, and undermining the ACA has been described by Norm Ornstein, a long-time political scientist at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, as “monomaniacal.” The US House has voted 40 times to cut funding or repeal all or part of the ACA, knowing full well that it was a waste of time and effort given that the Senate would never pass such legislation and that the President would veto it and there weren’t the votes to override a veto. (This is one reason why Congress over the last 2 ½ years has been the least productive it’s been in the 75 years that records have been kept.)

Ornstein notes the contrast with President George W. Bush’s Medicare prescription drug plan. The Democrats, led by Senator Ted Kennedy, negotiated a compromise bill with the President. (Something Republicans refused to do with Obama on the ACA.) Then Republicans in Congress removed all of the provisions Kennedy and the Democrats had negotiated for and passed the stripped down legislation. Nonetheless, Democrats worked with Republicans and the Bush administration to make the law work.

In contrast, to undermine the ACA, Republicans refused for 3 years to confirm anyone to head the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which was responsible for implementing the ACA, as it had been for the Bush Medicare drug plan. In addition, they have worked to discourage states from participating in the Medicaid expansion and the exchanges where the uninsured would obtain insurance. They are now threatening to shut down the entire government on September 30 when the fiscal year ends unless Obama stops all implementation of the ACA.

Ornstein went on to write, “What is going on now to sabotage Obamacare is not treasonous – just sharply beneath any reasonable standards of elected officials with the fiduciary responsibility of governing.” [4]


[1]       Cecere, D., 9/17/09, “Uninsured, working-age Americans have 40 percent higher death risk than privately insured counterparts,” Harvard Gazette

[3]       Lehigh, S., 8/14/13, “The GOP’s Obamacare whale hunt,” The Boston Globe

[4]       Light, J., 7/25/13, “Obstructionism for the recordbooks,” Moyers & company (billmoyers.com/2013/07/25/obstructionism-for-the-recordbooks)

VOTING RIGHTS AT RISK

ABSTRACT: Judicial activism by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court was on display on June 25 when by a 5 to 4 vote the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was ruled outdated and unnecessary despite: 1) Previous Supreme Court rulings upholding the law including as recently as 2009; 2) Use of the Voting Rights Act 74 times since 2000 to protect voting rights; 3) Re-enactment by Congress in 2006 by overwhelming, bipartisan votes; and 4) Extensive efforts in many of the covered states (and others) in the 2012 elections to interfere with voting rights at levels unseen for almost 50 years. The dissenting justices issued a strong critique of the decision.

It seems ironic that the Supreme Court, charged with ensuring justice in our society, has overturned the VRA, whose goal is to ensure justice for minorities in exercising that bedrock building block of our democracy, the right to vote.

The evidence for the need for the VRA has been quick in coming. Within a month after the Supreme Court decision, six states have passed or are implementing new voting requirements that will make it harder to vote. Most observers agree these requirements will disproportionately effect and reduce voting by minorities, low income individuals, the elderly, and the young. Although voter fraud will be cited as the reason for these efforts, cases of fraud are incredibly rare.

I encourage you to let your representatives in Congress know that you are outraged and that they need to pass legislation to reinstate the VRA immediately.

FULL POST: Judicial activism by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court was on display on June 25 when by a 5 to 4 vote the Voting Rights Act (VRA) was ruled outdated and unnecessary despite:

  • Previous Supreme Court rulings upholding the law including as recently as 2009
  • Use of the Voting Rights Act 74 times since 2000 to protect voting rights
  • Re-enactment by Congress in 2006 by overwhelming, bipartisan votes
  • Extensive efforts in many of the covered states (and others) in the 2012 elections to interfere with voting rights at levels unseen for almost 50 years.

The Court’s majority felt that in the covered jurisdictions – nine states, mostly in the South, and numerous smaller jurisdictions including sections of New York City – barriers to voting for racial minorities were no longer sufficient to justify the law.

The Supreme Court not only ignored its own precedents, it ignored the clear will of Congress on a law that has been in place for 48 years. The reauthorization of the VRA in 2006 passed the House by a vote of 390 to 33 and the Senate unanimously, 98 to 0, before being signed into law by President George W. Bush. It seems ironic that the Supreme Court, charged with ensuring justice in our society, has overturned the VRA, whose goal is to ensure justice for minorities in exercising that bedrock building block of our democracy, the right to vote. The VRA was a key achievement of the Civil Rights movement and a key to implementing the post-Civil War 15th Amendment, which prohibits denying the right to vote based on race.

The dissenting justices issued a strong critique of the decision, which Justice Ginsburg presented at the announcement of the ruling – an unusual event, indicating strong disagreement. She stated in part that the decision was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” [1]

The evidence for the need for the VRA has been quick in coming. Within a month after the Supreme Court decision, six states have passed or are implementing new voting requirements that will make it harder to vote. Most observers agree that these requirements will disproportionately effect and reduce voting by minorities, low income individuals, the elderly, and the young. Many, if not all, of these changes in voting laws would have been rejected by the US Justice Department under the VRA. Steps are being taken on the same path in other states. Although voter fraud will be cited as the reason for these efforts, cases of fraud are incredibly rare. [2]

North Carolina is poised to enact a requirement for an ID to vote, reductions in early voting, restrictions on voter registration, and increased opportunities to deny voters at the ballot box, among other provisions. This is a dramatic change for North Carolina, which, historically, has been a state where voting and registration were facilitated, and, where, as a result, voter participation has been high. The state’s own Secretary of State has acknowledged that the new laws will reduce voting by Blacks and Hispanics. [3] The new law will also increase campaign contribution limits, reduce disclosure of campaign activities, and repeal public financing for the election of judges, putting them and the state’s justice system at the mercy of large campaign contributions.

In Texas, a new voter ID law that was blocked by the Justice Department under the VRA will now go into effect. A revised map for election districts that had been blocked will now also go into effect. And in Florida, a purge of registered voters that had been blocked will now go forward, despite errors made in previous such purges. [4]

As a result of the Supreme Court decision, the Justice Department or individuals will now have to file lawsuits challenging changes in voting procedures after the fact on a case by case basis, a much less timely and efficient remedy than the pre-approval of changes previously required by the VRA.

The fact that this Supreme Court decision abets the active and growing efforts to throw up barriers to voting that will disenfranchise minorities and those with low incomes, groups that disproportionately vote for Democrats, makes it hard not to view the decision as ideological and political activism. The fact that it undermines the right to vote – the foundation of our democracy – in the face of clear attacks on that right makes it particularly egregious.

I encourage you to let your representatives in Congress know that you are outraged and that they need to pass legislation to reinstate the VRA immediately. I know that passage in this Congress, given the partisanship and obstructionism that I have written about, probably isn’t likely, but if no one tries it definitely won’t happen and this issue needs to be put on the agenda of our policy makers, the public, and the media.


[1]       Gerson, S., & Sopoci-Belknap, K., 6/28/13, “Constitutional right to vote needed more than ever after Supreme Court guts Voting Rights Act,” Common Dreams (www.commondreams.org/view/2013/06/28-5)

[2]       Berman, A., 7/26/13, “North Carolina passes the country’s worst voter suppression law,” The Nation

[3]       Drum, K., 7/26/13, “Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act unleashes GOP feeding frenzy,” Mother Jones

[4]       Reeve, E., 7/26/13, “As states rush to restrict voting rights, Justice Ginsburg says, ‘I told you so,’” Associated Press in The Atlantic Wire