Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King

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It’s 1963. In the spring of that year, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Birmingham, Alabama police chief, unleashed high-pressure water cannons and police dogs on civil rights marchers, including children. By early June, George Wallace, the Governor, was standing on the steps blocking the admission of black students to the University of Alabama. After watching the scene at the University unfold on television earlier that day, President Kennedy addressed the Nation on his intent to introduce Civil Rights legislation guaranteeing African-Americans equal voting rights and an end to segregation. Sadly, the same night the President spoke to the Nation, Medgar Evers, one of the leaders of the NAACP, was shot dead in the driveway of home returning from a civil rights meeting.

African-Americans began mobilizing as never before. Led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders, including A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, black leaders planned a massive protest in Washington in support of civil right legislation and economic opportunity. They met with President Kennedy, who initially was cool to the idea of a March on Washington because he was concerned, as were many, with the potential for violence and thought it would jeopardize passage of civil rights legislation.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom took place on August 28, 1963. A quarter of a million people jammed the Mall, streaming in by bus and train, walking up Capitol Hill from Union Station. At the Lincoln Memorial, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary and Mahalia Jackson performed for the massive crowds while millions more watched on television. Baez sang “We Shall Overcome” while Dylan sang “Only a Pawn in their Game” about the death of Medgar Evers.

But it was Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel” who sang just before Martin Luther King’s famous speech and who rocked the crowd with her famous rendition of “How I Got Over,” referring to the struggle of African-Americans to conquer slavery, racism, discrimination and injustice down through the centuries.

YouTube recording of Mehalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over” at the March on Washington on in 1963

The recording powerfully takes you back in time. You can see, hear and feel the enthusiasm of the crowd as it sways and claps with Mahalia to the rhythms of “How I Got Over.” And you begin to understand why, just a short time later, as Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech, he hesitated a moment, and from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just below the podium came a voice. It was Mahalia exhorting Dr. King to:

“Tell Them About the Dream, Martin”.

And so he did. In one of the most eloquent and enduring speeches in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King, departed from his prepared text, and clearly feeling the enthusiasm of the crowd, infused with the rhythms of righteousness in Gospel song, as if the Mall in Washington was grand church which is was on that day, lifted his voice and proclaimed:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

YouTube recording of Martin Luther King’s I Have and Dream Speech at the March on Washington in 1963

Later that year, in November, President Kennedy was assassinated, but his successor, President Lyndon Johnson, secured passage of the Civil Rights Act passed in June 1964. Even after passage of the Act, King continued to work on issues related to economic justice, housing segregation and poverty, and famously spoke out against the Vietnam War in a 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam.”

Dr. King himself was tragically assassinated in April 1968 around the time he was planning the “Poor People’s Campaign” to include an occupation of Washington, DC.

Today, much of Dr. King’s work remains unfinished, particularly on the economic front. More than a half century after his speech, far too many African-Americans and others continue to live in poverty, particularly in major cities of this country, denied basic rights to decent housing, education and health care, and often unjustly incarcerated because they are forced to live in poverty-stricken environments where crime and drugs prevail. We can address these issues, but it won’t happen with politics as usual. It will take another movement reminiscent of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, one that picks up where Dr. King left off.

The greatest tribute we can pay to Dr. King is to carry on his work. Hopefully we are seeing the birth of that new movement today in the recent campaign of Bernie Sanders, the Black Lives Matter movement and others calling for a “revolution” in how this country addresses issues of race, poverty, injustice and economic inequality.

The President’s Farewell Underestimates Threats to American Democracy

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In his farewell speech at McCormick Place in Chicago earlier this week, President Obama delivered a rousing endorsement of the progress made in the last eight years.   And despite potential threats including economic inequality and continued racial tension, the President affirmed his faith in the future of American democracy.

But is Obama’s optimism misplaced?  Is he too complacent about the state of our democracy?  Indeed, one might reasonably ask: Is America still a democracy in the purest sense?  Despite the trappings of representative democracy, do we still have a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”, as Abraham Lincoln so famously put it?

The answer is not encouraging.    There is far too much money in politics thanks in large part to the Supreme Courts’ Citizens United decision.  Constructive dialogue across party lines is almost non-existent, drowned out by a flood of campaign-fueled attack ads and negative advertising.  There are too many lobbyists writing laws and regulations out of the public eye.  The Federal government, and in particular Congress, is largely dysfunctional.  We have a corporate media much too focused on the daily back and forth of he said, she said politics rather than the important issues of the day.  Meanwhile, despite Obama’s protests to the contrary, the U.S. economy is sputtering, with overall growth averaging less than 2% compared to 3% to 4% in earlier decades.

President Obama did about as good as one can do given the massive recession he inherited and the corrosive political climate under which he was operating.

But let’s not get carried away with unbridled optimism, Mr. President.  We still have many, many difficult challenges to overcome, including rebuilding our economy so the benefits accrue to all Americans, not just a privileged elite.    That will go a long way towards reducing income inequality and systemic racism in America.

But perhaps the greatest challenge we face is reclaiming our government from the crony capitalists, of which Donald Trump is just the latest example, and beginning the long, hard process of rebuilding a truly representative democracy – of, by and for the people.

Memo to Donald Trump: Want to Fix Our Crumbling Inner City Neighborhoods? Here’s How.

Philadelphia Mural Arts

Relocating Federal workers to inner city neighborhoods is one way to help revitalize those neighborhoods and stimulate much needed investment. Federal tax credits would also help …

America has one of the highest poverty rates in the industrialized world.  It is a living tragedy and a national disgrace, as TDV wrote recently.  Much of the poverty is located in rural areas, including Appalachia, the deep South and Southwest.  But many big cities also have high poverty rates, including Philadelphia, which ranks among the most poverty stricken urban areas in the country.

And yet in Philadelphia and other big cities it sometimes feels like a Tale of Two Cities.   Millennials are moving back and downtown and surrounding neighborhoods are booming.  Travel outside the downtown areas, however, and you will still find sections of the city that time forgot, with vacant houses, potholed streets and dilapidated buildings.

Donald Trump has called for increased investment in our inner cities, labelling them “ghettos” and  a “disaster.” He has also been roundly criticized, and rightly so, for overstating how bad things really are.

In many urban neighborhoods, there is a resilience and vibrancy that is easy to miss if you don’t get out of your car.  The “drug bazaars” of old are largely gone; crime is down, and commercial areas are coming back in many areas.

But Trump is right about one thing:  the infrastructure of many urban neighborhoods is in bad shape and now is a good time to invest, to build on the progress that has been made in reducing crime and revitalizing commercial districts.

But we need to throw out the old playbooks, think more creatively, and develop more comprehensive approaches.  These include, in addition to rebuilding infrastructure, attracting business, fixing the often broken school systems and providing quality support services including low and moderate income housing, job training and child care.

A good way to start the ball rolling is to move government agencies into those neighborhoods.  Such an approach provides an economic anchor that can be used to better deliver services while attracting additional investment and jobs.

One model is the Sharswood / Blumberg Transformation Plan in North Philadelphia where the Philadelphia Housing Authority intends to locate it headquarters, anchoring a revitalizing commercial district including low and moderate income housing and rehabilitated public schools.

But why limit it to just local agencies? How  about moving Federal agencies to our inner cities?  Such as approach was recently proposed by Fred Kupiec, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, writing in the Wall Street Journal:

Many towns and cities across America would welcome the economic development and stability that accompanies a well-paid federal-agency workforce like the FBI or the Labor Department. The expense of managing the federal government should be used to spread wealth beyond the nation’s capital and revitalize the economies of America’s ailing cities.

The Federal government should also provide tax credits to those who build affordable housing in our inner cities.  The burden for providing credits to stimulate investment in our inner cities falls too heavily on local governments whose budget is already strained by a diminished tax base and high demand for services.

Let’s hope Donald Trump keeps his word.  Our inner cities can use the help, and it is long past time for the Federal government to do its bit.

Book Review: Will the American Working Class Rise Again?

Sleeping Giant by Tamara Draut

For too many people in this country, the American Dream is a distant memory, something their parents aspired to, but which is now beyond their reach. Today, if you are working man or woman, you often find yourself toiling long hours for low pay in near poverty.  Even the college educated are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet as they leave school and enter the work world with extremely high debt burdens and facing an anemic job market.

What do you do about it? In “Sleeping Giant: How the New Working Class Will Transform America” Tamara Draut provides some useful historical perspective.  Draut is Vice President for Policy and Research at Demos, a progressive “think tank” that advocates for political and economic equality.

Her book, published in the Spring of 2016, just as the presidential election was heating up, recounts a history in which big business launched a counter attack on the liberal activism of the late 1960’s and 1970’s by setting up think tanks and Super Pacs and flooding Washington, DC with high-paid lobbyists

The union movement was eviscerated starting in 1947 with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act. The law banned Communists from union leadership positions; established the principle of “right to work;” allowed workers to “opt out” of paying dues; banned secondary boycotts and sympathy strikes, and gave employers the power to hold anti-union meetings in the workplace. In later years, deindustrialization combined with the rise of the service sector made it increasingly difficult for unions to organize.

Meanwhile, what labor protections remained on the books have (and continue to be) largely unenforced.  Draut recounts how big companies in the ever expanding service sector routinely exploit employees by hiring mostly part timers and not paying benefits. Other companies require “on demand” scheduling and encourage off-the- books work to meet unrealistic production quotas.

The decline of the unions was abetted, according to Draut, by a Democratic Party which, beginning in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, began appealing more to college educated whites on high-brow issues such as environmental justice, largely turning its attention away from bread and butter economic concerns of working class voters.

For their part, Republicans cleverly exploited the division by appealing to racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, particularly in the South. The rift caused an historic realignment of the political parties with many working class whites and union members switching their allegiance to the Republican Party.

Draut’s book is well written and thoroughly researched. It contains many personal antidotes illustrating how misguided policies can affect the lives of ordinary Americans struggling to make ends meet. She also offers a number of familiar, common sense policy proposals including raising the minimum wage, revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure and reforming the electoral process.

At times, however, the book seems a little starry-eyed about the potential role of working class Americans and the resurgence of the unions to help turn things around and bring about change. The “Sleeping Giant” (i.e., the working class) awoke alright, but in doing so it seemingly reignited the politics of division and despair, scapegoating immigrants and people of color and electing Donald Trump.

To really bring about change in this country, Progressives must rally Americans of all classes and income groups who understand that an economy that rewards wealth and depresses wages for ordinary Americans is ultimately doomed to fail, and everyone loses, rich and poor alike.

Is the Democratic Party up to the task? Can it reform itself? Can it educate and motivate voters on the inherent dangers of economic injustice, broaden its appeal, transcend class and racial divisions and effect positive change?

Can we tear down the wall of big money donations, entitlement and privilege that so characterizes today’s Democratic Party? Bernie Sanders started to show us the way. He may not have succeeded this time, but he blazed a trail.

This was an election so profoundly negative in tone and substance that tears at the very fabric of American Democracy.  At its core, Draut’s book is a much needed antidote to the post -election blues. It reminds us that after more a half century of struggle, we are in this for the long haul, and that there’s hope for a better future.

Time to Reform a Tax System that Favors the Wealthy

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It turns out Donald Trump has carried forward more than $900  million in business losses on his personal income taxes in 1995 and may not have paid taxes for up to 18 years, according to reporting by the New York Times.

What’s outrageous is not that Trump took advantage of existing tax law; it’s that a law allowing him to avoid hundreds of millions in taxes even exists to begin with.

Other provisions of our regressive tax code provide similar benefits to the wealthy and large corporations:

  • The owners of real estate can “depreciate” assets even if those assets are actually increasing in value;
  • Corporations can stash huge amounts of revenues overseas to avoid taxes, and
  • The incomes of hedge fund managers and other professional investors are taxed at lower “capital gains” rates than rates paid by hard working Americans on “ordinary” income.

These are just a few examples of a tax system riddled with loopholes that favor the rich.    But perhaps the most egregious provision of all is that dividend and capital gains rates top out at 20% whereas taxes on ordinary incomes go as high at 39.6%.

As a matter of basic fairness and common sense, the incentive (e.g. lower rates) should be on encouraging people to work hard, improve their lives and get ahead.

Instead, in today’s system, we discourage labor through high tax rates, but give huge breaks to people who invest in real estate or churn paper assets for a living.

In addition, since the Great Recession starting in 2008, an almost exclusive emphasis on monetary policy through the Federal Reserve Bank, including buying bonds and keeping interest rates low, has served primarily to inflate asset values while wages have stagnated for ordinary Americans.

These policies not only favor the wealthy.  They can lead to asset bubbles and put our entire economy at risk.

There is very little that comes out of “Lying Donald’s” mouth that remotely resembles the truth.  But Trump is “right on” in this respect –  the system is rigged and nowhere is that more evident than in our regressive tax system.

Democrats need to stand up and fight for tax fairness.  That starts not just with closing loopholes of the kind Donald Trump has used to avoid taxes.  It also means increasing the top rates on dividends and capital gains so the wealthy pay their fair share.

Has the Party of the People Become the Party of the Elite?

2016 Presidential Election Map

Once upon a time, the Democratic Party was the “Party of the People” and Republicans represented the well-to-do. Over time, that seems to have changed, probably starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 with the help of so-called “Reagan Democrats.”

2016electiontableToday, the shift in party alignments is evident in the polling numbers. As shown in the accompanying table, in states where Clinton is leading, the median household income is $64,634; in states where Trump is leading, median household incomes are significantly lower – $52,382.

Just as troubling for Democrats, perhaps, is that in “Toss Up” states, the demographics appear to favor Trump. Household incomes, the percentage of minority voters and educational attainment levels in Toss Up states more closely track to those states in which Trump, rather than Clinton, is ahead in the polls.

This is going to be a close election. The numbers suggest that to win Democrats are going to have to broaden their appeal to the very “People” the Party has left behind over decades of rightward drift.

A good place to start would be in the presidential debates beginning tonight. It would be nice to see Hillary Clinton step up to the podium and, instead of playing Trump’s game of negativity and fear mongering, reach out to people of all income levels and project of vision of how she is going to revive the economy so it works for everyone, not just a privileged elite.

An Appeal to Hillary Clinton – Lift Us Up; Don’t Tear Us Down

Hillary Clinton Deplorables

Dear Hillary:

As the debates approach, I am asking, no begging really, that you not attack ordinary people, group them into broad categories and call them names such as “deplorables”.

And yes, some of the so-called “deplorables” hold racist, misogynistic views.  But do we really need to go there? Must we attack our fellow Americans, many of whom, like the veteran pumping gas on the NJ Turnpike, are struggling to make ends meet in a faltering economy?

Instead, at the debates, please focus on telling people what you are going to do to stimulate the economy, generate jobs, and increase income for poor and working class Americans.

Tell us how you are going to constrain out-of-control military spending.

Tell us how you are going to end the tragedy of pervasive poverty across America.

Tell us how you are going to reign in Wall Street and limit the influence of big money in politics.

If “Stronger Together” is more than just a fancy campaign catch phrase, then please send a positive message of inclusiveness.

This is one of the most important elections in American history.  The outcome could profoundly alter the direction of this country for decades to come.

The real question is: Are we a country that pulls together to bring about positive change, or one that is divided into a million little subgroups each fighting for an smaller and smaller slice of an ever dwindling pie?

At the debates, please do not descend to Donald Trump’s level.  Please, no more talk of “deplorables”; no more pitting one group against another.

We can and must rise above petty name calling to lift people up, not tear them down.

Sincerely,

John Conlow, web facilitator

TheDemocraticView.com

Political Dysfunction at Root of U.S. Economic Malaise

U.S. Economy: Standing on the Brink

Lately, the economy is looking pretty good.  Unemployment is declining, wages are rising, consumer spending is up.  Things are going so well, the Federal Reserve Bank is poised to start raising interest rates.

What’s not to like?

Well, quite a bit, actually.  As was pointed out in a previous article in this series, the long term trend is ugly.  Economic growth since 2000 has averaged less than 2%, compared to growth rates of 3% to 4% in the 1950’s through the 1990’s.

Now, a 1% to 2% decline in economic growth may not sound like a lot, but it represents millions of jobs and the difference between rising standards of living and stagnant wages for millions of Americans.

There has been a lot of debate about the causes.  Bad trade deals; the decline of unions; failure to raise the minimum wage.  And yes, we can (and should) reject the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), fight back against efforts to eviscerate worker bargaining rights and raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

All are good and worthwhile initiatives. But they are a little like the well-meaning family doctor who treats the symptoms of a major disease, but doesn’t think to look for the root cause.  Meanwhile, the patient winds up clinging to life in a hospital bed.

A slight upward blip in employment and spending doesn’t alter the fundamental trend – the U.S. economy is seriously ill and we need to find a cure, not just treat the symptoms.

Enter the Federal Reserve.  The Fed pumps money into the economy and holds down interest rates, and the patient actually shows a slight improvement.  But that simply masks an underlying disease that continues to worsen.

Fed policies – aggressive bond buying coupled with low interest rates – probably saved the U.S. economy from falling off a cliff following the Great Recession of 2008.  But monetary policy has run its course.  Continued reliance on the Fed alone has only served to over-inflate asset values, drag down productivity and exacerbate income equality.

What’s lacking is “fiscal stimulus” – or, in other words, budget measures to spur economic growth and productivity.  Such policies might include increased Federal investment and tax incentives to stimulate investment at all levels of government and in the private sector.

Uh oh – that would require action by Congress!  The cold, hard truth is that Congress is so dysfunctional it can’t pass a budget on time, let alone come up with a coherent fiscal policy in the face of persistently slow economic growth.  And since the Fed is effectively out of ammunition, the next recession could be far worse, and last far longer, than the last one.

What can we do about it?

Well, for one thing, Democrats must be more aggressive in challenging Republican orthodoxy that tax cuts (mainly for the rich) actually stimulate economic growth, and all government spending and taxation are inherently evil.

In fact, spending on infrastructure is not spending at all in the traditional sense– it’s investment in future growth.  And It is almost unthinkable that with the economy sputtering, and interest rates near zero, that the government is not borrowing aggressively to rebuild this country’s crumbling infrastructure.  Such policies would create millions of good paying jobs, lift wages and reduce income inequality.

And while we are at it, let’s not forget we need to invest in people, to ensure the next generation is well educated, productive and poised for the jobs of the future in areas such as clean energy and technology.

Far too much money in this country is sitting on the sidelines, or being paid back to stockholders in the form of buybacks and dividends.  We need tax policies that actually spur investment to upgrade plant and equipment, not reward people who churn paper for a living or companies that stash their profits overseas to avoid taxes.

We also need a fairer and more progressive tax system.  Taxing capital gains at a much lower rate than wages and other earned income (21% top rate for capital gains v. 39.6% for earned income) is the very definition of a rigged system that favors the rich over the poor and middle classes.   Donald Trump should know; he is one of the main beneficiaries of that rigged system.

It is past time that capital gains tax rates were raised just to restore some measure of fairness into a system that has become heavily tilted in favor of wealthy (e.g. those who derive most of their income from assets) at the expense of working men and women.

These are reforms that won’t happen overnight.  Entrenched interests, in particular the financial services industry, are formidable opponents with deep pockets who exercise out-sized political influence behind the scenes.  Meaningful reforms will take time, and will require a level of effort and political will that has been absent in recent decades.

Bernie is right – it will take a political revolution.  But It’s a revolution that needs to come sooner rather than later before political dysfunction turns what amounts to an economic slowdown into another major recession.

This is the third article in a four-part series “Fix the Economy, Stupid.”