Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington

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.

(This article was originally published on January 18, 2016)

Progressives are Crying While Billionaires Rejoice

Progressive Tears

Elizabeth Warren’s campaign offers a coffee mug with the catchphrase “Billionaire Tears” plastered on the front in bold red and blue letters.  It is a reference to Leon Cooperman, a billionaire hedge fund manager, who became emotional during a television interview over Warren’s proposed wealth tax.

The mug resonates with Progressives.  We believe that after decades of wage stagnation and the benefits of economic growth flowing to the very top of the income scale, it is time for billionaires to pay more in taxes.  We can use the proceeds to invest in people, in education and job training, and infrastructure, and we can build a strong, fair economy that works for everyone, not just the wealthy.

But Progressives now also have a reason to cry, while the Billionaires are rejoicing.

Warren and Sanders refusing to shake handsIn Tuesday’s Democratic debate on January 14, just weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the friendship and cordiality that seemed to characterize the relationship between Warren and Sanders vanished.  During the debate, the two parried with each other over who said what about whether woman can win the election.  Elizabeth Warren appears to be guilty of publicizing something said in a private conversation.  The feud may have been exacerbated by reports that the Sanders’ campaign was talking down Warren as being more in tune with highly educated voters.

Any way you slice it, it is a bad omen for Progressives looking to unite behind the one with the most momentum and the best chance of beating Trump.

So here is a little advice for both Bernie and Elizabeth – No infighting.  Work together.  Cooperate.  Help unite a strong, energetic Progressive movement that takes down Donald Trump.

Maybe then we can give the Billionaires something to really cry about – an election that returns power to the people, restores a fair economy, and requires Big Corporations and Billionaires to finally pay their fair share.

An Economy on a Sugar High

A lot has been written lately about how great the U.S. economy is doing.  But don’t believe it.  The media parrots the latest government statistics on GDP, employment and wages, but is clueless about longer-term economic trends and their impact on the lives and livelihoods of average Americans.

The fact is the U.S. economy is on a sugar high, with asset prices artificially inflated by a Federal Reserve Bank that has lowered interest rates three times in the past year and has re-instituted its bond buying program.

But the Federal Reserve is not the main problem. The Fed is focused on helping ensure the economy does not slip into recession and, by most measures, it is doing a reasonable job with the limited tool set it has available.

The real problem is the lack of a coherent fiscal policy (i.e., the Federal budget) – and for that we need to blame both Congress and the Executive branch.  The Trump tax cuts enacted in 2017 with Republican backing were a total disaster – a bonanza for big corporations and wealthy investors.

Despite Republican rhetoric, and the failure of the mainstream media to see the bigger picture, the tax cuts have been counter-productive.  They have been used mainly by large corporations to buy back shares or increase dividends to gin up stock prices.  Meanwhile, the resulting deficits actually discourage the kind of investment in  infrastructure, education and job training that is needed to foster real, sustained economic growth that benefits all Americans.

Remember candidate Trump, the so-called “master builder”, who promised an infrastructure investment program.  How did that work out?

And in the meantime, an army of lobbyists are working closely with Trump-appointed Treasury officials behind to scenes to write regulations that allow multi-national corporations to continue to transfer profits offshore and avoid taxes.  And so, the Federal deficit, currently estimated at more than a trillion dollars in 2020, just gets larger and larger with no real investment in economic growth.

Eventually, likely sooner rather than later, the bubble will burst.

But it is not just Congress and the President that are to blame.  It is “We the People” who have failed to address the corruption inherent in our political process that has led to policies that benefit the rich and powerful while putting our entire economy at risk.

The time for change has come, and not just some little tweaks here and there, as some Democratic presidential candidates argue.

 

Medicare for All – Or Progressive Overreach?

Bernie Sanders Medicare for All

Elizabeth Warren is right: “We must be willing to fight.”  Politics in this country is totally dysfunctional.  The economy isn’t much better.

We absolutely need “Big Structural Change,” starting with reforming a political system awash in money. A system where wealthy individuals and big corporations write the rules, while middle class wages stagnate; where the rich get richer, not by investing, but off of inflated stock prices and asset values that somehow passes for economic policy.

The thing is – if we are going to fight – let’s make sure it is the right fight.  Medicare for All isn’t going to happen in four years, as Bernie Sander’s Senate bill stipulates.  The health care and insurance industries are a huge part of our economy.  You can’t just upend the system overnight.  You risk major political and economic disruption.

Medicare for All is absolutely the right approach, in our view.  But we have to figure out a way to do it without scaring the hell out of more moderate voters, and handing Republicans a cudgel to beat us with.

How about we keep it simple – a public option that expands Medicare to include prescription drugs, vision and dental.  One that is administered by the Federal government and that anyone can buy into at cost with no insurance companies in the middle making money by denying health services to people in need.

Just to be clear.  It is not Pete Buttigieg’s “Medicare for All who Want it,” or Joe Biden’s “Medicare-like” plan, code language for insurance-company administered “Medicare Advantage” plans.

It is a government-administered, nation-wide public option.  Full-stop.  It allows Medicare for All to be phased in over time as more and more people become aware of its benefits vis-a-vis private insurance including lower costs and higher quality services.

Yes, taxes will still have to go up to cover the additional services, but not nearly as much, at least in the early years, as Elizabeth Warren has advocated in her proposal to pay for Medicare for All.  And, of course, total costs go down because you have a more efficient, nation-wide network without insurance company profits adding to costs.

We can still raise taxes on the wealthy and big corporations, to make our regressive tax system fairer and more progressive.  Let’s just use some of the proceeds to pay for other priorities including education, job training and infrastructure investment.

A true Medicare public option is still a heavy lift.  Just being willing to fight won’t cut it;  we are going to have to fight like hell.  Just as it did during the Obama Administration, the insurance industry is going to attack a public option with everything it has – and it has a lot of money and paid-in-full political influence.

But at the end of the day – or make that the election cycle – we have a lot better chance to bring about real change if we don’t get carried away with over the top rhetoric and set unrealistic goals and timeframes.

Let’s fight to make our system fairer and more progressive, and ensure everyone has access to quality health care.

But let’s do it in a way that brings people along and doesn’t scare the hell out of moderate voters who may need more time to get their head around the idea, despite an onslaught of Republican propaganda, that “We are Not Socialists; We are Progressives” who care about people; who prioritize quality health care over insurance industry profits.

On the Need for Big Structural Change

Big Structural Change

Elizabeth Warren has staked her campaign on the need for “Big Structural Change” and her point is well taken.

Our government has been captured by major corporations and the wealthy.  They exert huge influence behind the scenes, on everything from government regulations, to writing legislation, to the make-up of the court system.

Moderates argue, in effect, we just need to defeat Donald Trump, tweak some policies here and there, and everything will be OK.

Except that long before Trump took office, everything was far from OK.  Trump is merely the latest manifestation of a larger structural issue that undermines the foundation of our democracy – the undue influence of money in politics and a consequent tilt toward Oligarchy.

Joe Biden has it right in this sense – it would be nice to go back to some bygone era when legislators were willing to compromise, to reach across the aisle and come to agreement even on highly contentious issues like busing.

Memo to Joe: bi-partisanship and collegiality in Congress disappeared decades ago as politics grew from a public service vocation into big business: When money and lobbyists started flooding Washington in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  When actors like Newt Gingrich and, more recently Mitch McConnell, began setting a much more partisan agenda effectively dictated by big money interests.

The other problem is that once big corporations and the wealthy take control it is extremely difficult to regain control and restore democratic processes that truly represent the will of a majority of people and not just special interests.

Bernie Sanders has a point:  It will take something akin to a “political revolution” to bring about real change and to pry the Oligarchs from the levers of power.

So how do we fix it?  As Democrats we need to stop arguing incessantly about the minutia of public policy and start talking much more about the overriding issues of our time including the outsized influence of money in politics.

That starts with full disclosure of all political contributions to candidates, labor unions, Super PACs or any organization engaged in political activity.  Full transparency is an absolute cornerstone of democracy.

Then, we should tighten laws so that Federal officials and legislators, after leaving government service, are prohibited from going to work for the very people they are charged with regulating.

And we should fix the electoral system so all people have an equal vote, starting with abolishing the electoral college and fair and non-partisan re-apportionment of congressional districts after each census.

And let’s acknowledge that bringing about real structural change is challenging and stop pretending that all we really need to do is defeat Donald Trump and everything will return to the way it was in the good old days.

It is not going to be that easy; we have a lot of hard work ahead of us.

We are Not Socialists; We are Progressives

The Progressive Democratic Flag

“Socialist” – the word is fraught with history, of upheaval and revolution.  In its standard usage, it defines a government in control of the means of production and suggests, perhaps not so subtly, a tilt towards totalitarianism, a rigid adherence to doctrine and an unwillingness to compromise.

In today’s environment, the term “Socialist” is easily weaponized by those who support the status quo and oppose change. Donald Trump, most Republicans, and even some so-called “moderate” Democrats, have already begun to use the label to smear all Democrats calling for substantive political and economic reform.

But the truth is, notwithstanding Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, self-styled “democratic socialists,” most reform-minded Democrats identify as “Progressives.”

In the tradition of the Progressive reform movement in the early 1900’s, and the New Deal led by Franklin Roosevelt, today’s Progressives believe in government and an economy that works for all people, not just big corporations and the wealthy.

Progressives believe government should identify and serve the “public good.”  As Elizabeth Warren has argued, there should be rules in place to ensure markets work for the good of all and are not skewed to advantage mega-corporations.

Progressives believe we should have a fair system of taxation in which corporations and individuals pay higher rates in proportion to their ability to pay and the benefits they have received.

And, as Progressives, we believe in growing our economy and creating jobs and opportunity for all through investment in infrastructure, education, job training, affordable housing and health care.

Bernie Sanders, in a speech recently at George Washington University, reaffirmed that he is a ”democratic socialist” while likening his philosophy to that of Franklin Roosevelt.

Except that Roosevelt was not a Socialist, democratic or otherwise.  He was, in effect, a Progressive who saw his duty as restoring faith in our system of government following the ravages of the Great Depression and W.W. II.    He adamantly disavowed Socialism while proposing an “Economic Bill of Rights,” part of a “New Deal,” in which all Americans were entitled to a living wage, a decent education, housing, and health care.

Sound familiar?

Today there are obvious parallels to the original Progressive era in the early 1900’s, Roosevelt’s New Deal and today’s Progressive movement.  Major reforms are needed now, as they were in earlier times, to ensure that the big banks and monopolistic corporations don’t again take down our economy and that the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.

And yet instead of reform, what we are getting is the exact opposite: a government that is lowering taxes on major corporations and those with high incomes; rolling back regulations designed to protect consumers and the environment; failing to constrain big banks from overly aggressive lending and failing to limit the size of corporations to ensure we have real competition in the marketplace.

Rhetorically, Bernie may have a point that, in today’s dysfunctional, indeed corrupt, political environment, it may take something akin a socialist political revolution to bring about real and lasting change.

But while, as Progressives, we aspire to meaningful reform that lifts people out of poverty and provides economic opportunity for all people, perhaps we should dial back the “Socialist” rhetoric just a bit and not hand our political opponents a cudgel to beat us with.

Rather, let us reaffirm our commitment to a true Progressive agenda that, in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, builds a strong and robust economy, second to none in the world, one that works for all people, not just big corporations and the wealthy.

Bernie Sanders: A True American Hero

Truckers For Bernie

I was filling my car with gas the other day when a truck driver saw the “Bernie 2016” sticker prominently displayed on my back windshield and yelled out, “Will Bernie win?”

“No”, I responded. “I think he’s a little too old.”

To which the truck driver shot back, “Bernie has already won. His ideas have won.”
And, of course, the truck driver is spot-on.

Whether Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination in 2020 or not, he is a genuine American hero whose willingness to fight for progressive ideals over decades has completely upended the political debate: Medicare for all, free college tuition, a $15 minimum wage – we wouldn’t even be talking about these issues today if it weren’t for Bernie Sanders.

The wages of working people in this country have stagnated over decades. Poverty levels in the U.S. are among the highest in the industrialized world. Our politics has descended into chaos. And we have hugely regressive tax system and a federal budget that prioritizes defense spending over the needs of real people.

Bottom line: we need more people, like Bernie, willing to stand up and fight for the right of all people in this country to a decent job, a livable wage, debt-free education, and quality health care.

To so-called “moderate” Democrats, like Joe Biden, “here’s the deal, man”: cozying up to radical right-wing Republicans, holding big-dollar fund-raisers with the very monopolists you are supposed to be regulating, and tinkering around the edges of public policies that are heavily skewed in favor of the wealthy and big corporations may have been acceptable in decades past, but it is no longer good enough.

We need to fix our broken economy and dysfunctional political system, and to do that you have to get down in the trenches, as Bernie has done for his entire career.

So fight on Bernie (along with other progressive Democrats such as Elizabeth Warren) for truckers like the one I talked to, and working people everywhere.

Joe Biden and the Need For Unity

Joe Biden held a campaign rally yesterday at Eakins Oval near the Philadelphia Art Museum and the iconic “Rocky” statue. It was a glorious day. The sun was shining brightly while the Triumph Baptist Church Choir kicked off the rally with a moving rendition of “Amazing Grace” among other gospel classics.

People of color, African Americans in particular, were out in force. Working people, including union members, wore blue Biden T-shirts and helped stoke the crowd with chants of “We Want Joe.”

The rally started with a inclusive, optimistic vibe. That is until Joe mounted the podium.  His message of unity in opposition to Trump came across as a bit scripted – long on campaign rhetoric, short on specific policy proposals and the fervor needed to bring about real change.

Progressives want more. Among other things, we want someone who will stand up to the moneyed interests and restore some fairness to an economy that favors the rich while hammering the poor and working class.  

It was telling that the Comcast building in downtown Philadelphia (see photo as left) was a towering backdrop to the event. On the very day he announced his campaign a week ago, Joe attended a big dollar fundraiser at the home of a senior Comcast executive in Philadelphia. It is going to be hard to push a progressive agenda when you take large contributions from the very people you are supposed to regulate.

Joe Biden says he believes in standing on principle, but also in working across the aisle, with Republicans, to get something done. Then he talked about free “community” college. Memo to Joe: the principle at issue is free college tuition so students are not strapped with huge debt to get an education that is increasingly essential to making a decent living.  By limiting your proposal to community college, It sounds a lot like you have compromised on that basic principle before the debate has even begun in earnest.

But there is reason for optimism.  Three years ago, Hillary Clinton preached “Stronger Together” while she and her campaign organization relentlessly attacked Bernie Sanders and the Progressive wing of the party.   Rather than bring the party together, she tore it apart, tragically paving the way for the election of Donald Trump.

Joe Biden has his flaws, but he is unlikely to make that same mistake. Nor is he totally out-of-touch with working people as was Hillary Clinton. Even if he does lean a little too “centrist” for many Progressives, he has strong support, as the Philadelphia rally demonstrated, among minorities and working people.  These are the very folks Democrats need to win the 2020 election and restore American democracy to some semblance of decency.

Joe Biden may not be perfect, but he is likely someone Progressives and others can work with. Regardless of who eventually gets the nomination, we need candidates who will help unify the Democratic Party, and the country, not tear them apart. 

Progressive Economics: A Long Overdue Conversation

The U.S. Economy is broken. Long-term economic growth is fluctuating on average between two and three percent which ranks this as perhaps the worst economy since W.W. II excluding major recessions.

Decades of adherence to “supply-side” economics (translation: tax cuts for the rich)  is mainly to blame.

In addition, advances in information technology, globalization, the decline of unions, and the government’s virtual abandonment of worker protections, have caused wage stagnation which , in turn, has led to lackluster demand and slower overall growth.

So how do we fix it?  Well, we should do the exact opposite of what has been done for decades since the 1980’s.  Rather than cutting taxes, we should be investing to grow the economy.  The technical name is “demand-side” or “Keynesian” economic theory.

Under this approach, the government can stimulate demand and growth by investing directly in infrastructure, such as highways and rail systems, and in people, in programs such job training, health systems and education. That’s what progressive Democrats are getting at when they talk about things like the “Green New Deal” and “Medicare-for-All.”

In effect, the Progressive wing of the Democratic Party is having a long overdue conversation about failed economic policies and what is really needed going forward to distribute economic benefits more equitably to all Americans and grow the economy through increased demand.

How do you pay for it?   Thanks in large part to long-standing adherence to “supply-side” economics since the 1980’s and resulting tax cuts, we now have a hugely regressive system where wealthy individuals, who derive a significant portion of their income from dividends and capital gains, pay less in taxes as a percentage of income than average working men and woman.

And if that isn’t bad enough, our tax code is riddled with loopholes that corporations and other wealthy individuals and businesses often use to avoid taxes altogether.

It needs to be fixed – and that is what Democrats are getting at when they talk about raising taxes on the wealthy: It is really about making our tax system fairer and more progressive so we have the resources  needed to invest for the future, stimulate economic growth and reduce income inequality.

And so those who have benefited the most, pay taxes in proportion to the benefits they’ve received.

Radical ideas? Hardly. They worked in the aftermath of W.W. II, one of the greatest periods of overall economic and wage growth in American history. And they can work again.

Let’s start by at least having the conversation and not demonize as “radicals” and “socialists” those who dare to talk about important economic issues affecting the lives (and livelihoods) of everyday Americans.  And let’s admit that there will be compromise along the way.

Let’s keep talking, respectfully, to each other.  Let’s not be distracted by those, including much of the mainstream media, who want to turn everything into a conflict, a virtual war of opposing ideas and ideals.

And when we are done talking, let’s try to actually get something done, because the economy (and our political system) is broken and change is long overdue.

The Real Debate Over Health Care: the Role of the Insurance Companies

A lot is being written over the fissures within the Democratic Party on Health Care. Some, like Bernie Sanders, unequivocally support Medicare-for-All. Others, like Amy Klobuchar and Sherrod Brown, both Midwest senators with more conservative constituencies, want a more incremental approach, a Medicare buy-in option for example, or lowering the age for Medicare eligibility from 65 to 50.

Sounds good, right. Medicare-for-All is way too radical. A more moderate approach stands a better chance of getting the broad-based support needed to get through Congress and be signed into law.

Except that the insurance companies, with their web of campaign contributions and armies of lobbyists, will pounce on any compromise and turn it into a variation of what we have today – a system with huge overhead and administrative costs that rewards waste and inefficiency over positive health outcomes.

Sound familiar – that’s essentially what happened with Obama Care. State-by-state exchanges just to make sure there are no incentives to create national plans that operate more transparently and efficiently.

So Progressive Democrats are right – it is time for universal health coverage in a nationwide program that takes the insurance companies out of the mix, thereby saving U.S. economy and the American consumer huge amounts of money that today are wasted on a system that rewards administrative inefficiency over the health of the American people.