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.

A Government Captured by Corporations and the Wealthy

US Capitol with Sale Sign

The Republican tax bill passed the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday along straight party lines.  The legislation now goes to the full Senate.  It is one of the most disastrous pieces of legislation ever to be introduced in Congress, and yet it looks increasingly likely to pass the Congress and be signed into law.

The bill contains huge tax breaks for corporations and wealthy individuals while it hammers the poor and middle class.  Instead of stimulating economic growth, as Republicans claim, it is much more likely to hurt the economy over the longer term by exacerbating income inequality.

How did we get to this place where legislation of such immense importance and negative effect now seems likely to pass the Congress along straight party lines?

Well, you can blame Republicans and Democrats alike who have so contorted the budget process as to allow major legislations to pass on party line votes, instead of the 60 votes needed to ensure bipartisan support.

Or, you can blame the corporate media which is busy “reporting” on Donald Trump’s latest tweets – and totally out of its depth on most complex issues including taxation and the economy.

You can even blame the Democratic Party establishment which is mostly content to simply oppose Donald Trump rather than advance a coherent policy agenda of its own.

But if we are going to play the blame game, let’s get to the root cause: big money, mainly corporations, have so completely “Captured” the U.S. Government and they are now advancing legislation that clearly benefits them at the expense of the American middle class and the U.S. economy as a whole.

How do they do it: well, for one thing, they take advantage of court rulings such as Citizens United, and a lack of public disclosure requirements, thanks to Republican opposition in Congress, that allow corporations and wealthy individuals to operate out of public view while spending huge sums to lobby the government and influence elections.

Perhaps we should heed the words of Jeremy Grantham, a British born financier from Boston.  Grantham is a bit of a legend in financial circles, having predicated the last two financial bubbles in 2000 and 2007.  Here is Grantham quoted November 6, 2017 on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal:

“The U.S. form of capitalism has lost it way.  The social contract was previously in good shape.  Corporations looked after their employees.  They were more paternalistic.  Great pension funds were starting up.  The CEOs were increasing income alongside their workers.  CEOs earned more than 40 times workers.  Today that number is 350 times, and the system has gone to hell.  Keynes, Schumpeter – and Marx not to mention—thought, by their nature, corporations and capitalism would overreach simply because they could.  Corporations would use their advantages to get more power and more money.  Their share of the pie would increase, and cause society to push back.  Sooner or later there will be pushback.”

Well said, Jeremy.  But the time for “pushback” is not sooner. It is certainly not later.  It is now.

Oh when, oh when, will it ever end

Arise and fight!

Ever hopeful

God save our Nation once again

 

A Middle Class Under Siege

Tony Auth, Philadelphia Inquirer

As Republicans roll out the details of their disastrous tax plan, it is not a bad time to take a step back, tune out the media hype , and contemplate what is really going on in our democracy.

Since the 1700’s, America has led the world in the development of democratic processes and institutions.  It is hard to admit that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.  And yet it has.

For one thing, we elected Donald Trump President of the United States.

But, in our view, that is just a symptom of a much larger malaise.  The economy is in long-term decline and our government no longer works for the benefit of most Americans.

For decades after WW II, the American middle class was the envy of the world.  Today, that same middle class is struggling just to make ends meet.  Wages are stagnant; the level of income inequality is extreme.

Donald Trump tapped into this angst to get elected; Democrats, sadly, were oblivious to the struggles of the very people they were supposed to represent.

The tax debate currently taking place in the United States illustrates a big part of the problem – our political system has been hijacked by big money interests proposing to do just the opposite of what is actually needed.

Slashing taxes on the wealthy and major corporations, as Republicans have proposed, will almost certainly exacerbate income inequality and force cuts in services that primarily benefit the poor and middle class.

Many wealthy individuals, who rely primarily on capital gains and income from assets, already pay less as a percentage of their income than people who work for a living.  That is not fair.  It is almost certainly the reason Donald Trump will not release his tax returns.

Out tax system is already regressive.  Let’s not make it even worse.  Better yet, let’s fix it so the wealthy actually pay their fair share.

You don’t have to be a big-shot Ivy League economist to know that the American middle class has historically been the engine of economic growth in the U.S.  Yet under Republican proposals, by targeting additional tax breaks to the rich, the economy is more likely to shrink further, not grow.

Are you listening Democrats?  Will you take a stand up against the big money interests, oppose so-called Republican “tax reform” in all its nefarious forms, not get drawn in when Republicans throw you a bone like keeping deductions for state and local taxes, and finally do what is right for the American economy and its beleaguered middle class?

Let’s help fix our democracy by making damn sure this latest incarnation of tax cuts for the wealthy is consigned to the dust bin of history where it belongs.

Capturing the Spirit of Democracy

Museum of the American Revolution
Museum of the American Revolution, Philadelphia, PA (source: Wikipedia)

 The Museum of the American Revolution opened in April of this year, funded largely by private donations.  Located in Old City Philadelphia, the museum is just blocks from Independence Hall and across the street from the First Bank of the United States founded by Alexander Hamilton.

The museum documents the history of the American Revolution through numerous exhibits, short films and reenactments, including hundreds of artifacts ranging from pamphlets to clothing to ships and weapons used by both sides.

But what really sets this museum apart is that, through pictures and short videos, it also tells the stories of real people, of farmers, African and Native Americans. And in so doing, it seems to capture the “spirit” of a Revolution where ordinary people rose up to oppose the oppression of a distant monarch and claim the “right” to govern themselves.

Upon entering the museum, an exhibit recounts how George Washington deliberately chose to live in a tent, to demonstrate that he was not above his men, and that he would share the hardships of long and brutal winters that nearly destroyed his army.  At the end of a video presentation, the curtain rises and the actual tent Washington used is revealed.

Another exhibit documents the contributions of Thomas Paine, a Philadelphian who helped spark the Revolution with the pamphlet “Common Sense” and whose later rallied troops on the brink of defeat with a series of pamphlets, “The American Crisis” (see excerpt below), written in part while Paine was encamped with Washington’s army near Trenton.

At one point, there’s a video reenactment of patriots tearing down a statue of King George III in Bowling Green in Lower Manhattan.  Its serves as a timely reminder that we must oppose tyranny in all its forms, and that the symbols of tyranny matter, whether kings or Confederate generals who fought to preserve slavery.

At another point towards the end of the museum’s self-guided tour, the question is posed: “What Kind of Nation did the Revolution Create?”  The answer suggests a tension that continues to this day:

“The Revolution is not over yet … ever since the adoption of the Constitution, Americans have struggled to balance their ideals of Liberty with the practical need for governmental authority.”

Later, as you exit the exhibition halls, there is a wall covered with mirrors.  Standing before the wall, with your image reflected in the glass, a caption asks you to gaze upon “the Future of the American Revolution.”  It gets you thinking.

Today, the spirt of the American Revolution is being challenged as never before.  It can be subtle as when our elected officials manipulate the media to cast tax breaks for the rich as health care or economic reform.  Or it can be more overt, as when those same officials denigrate and arrest minorities.

But subtle or overt, such actions betray the values of our founders fought for.  The Museaum of the American Revolution reminds us we have a duty as citizens to look in that mirror, and to fight to reaffirm the principles of justice and equality for all that are the foundation of our great democracy.

THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. (Thomas Pain, the American Crisis, December 23, 1776)

O Canada, Health Care, Glorious and Free

It is smooth sailing for Canadians accessing quality health care at reasonable cost. Shelburne Harbour, Nova Scotia, Sept. 14, 2017. TheDemocraticView.com

My wife Mary and I recently took a short vacation to the Maritime provinces.  We visited Yarmouth and Shelburne, among other small towns along the South Coast of Nova Scotia.  We reveled in the natural beauty of the landscapes and the warmth of the people we met.

The only time it got even remotely strained was when a Canadian customs agent asked “the purpose of our trip” and I joked that “I was seeking asylum from Donald Trump.”  Oops! As a veteran of the Vietnam War protests, I was remembering a time when Americans did flee to Canada to escape the draft, and were mostly welcomed.

Today, I am told, Americans are fleeing once again, but this time many are seeking access to the Canadian health care system which most closely resembles the single payer, “Medicare for All” approach advocated by Bernie Sanders and other Democrats.

But unlike the Vietnam War era, the welcome mat is not out.  The custom agent (and wife Mary) were visibly upset with my half-assed humor.  Before letting me through, the agent made me prove we had travel reservations for the return trip to the U.S.  Canadians, understandably, do not want to bear the costs for Americans looking for access to affordable health care.

The Canadian health care system is not perfect.  Some services are not covered, like dental, vision and mental health. Users must pay out-of-pocket or carry private insurance.  Still, basic health services are free; total per capital costs are significantly lower than in the U.S. and health outcomes, such as life expectancy and infant mortality, are better.

All citizens, Franklin Roosevelt once proclaimed, have a “right” to a living wage, housing and health care.

Obamacare was a positive step in that direction.  In their latest effort, the Graham-Cassidy bill, Republicans are trying to roll back Obamacare not because they believe in “states rights,” as their latest, repackaged rhetoric would have you believe.  Rather, Republicans simply want to avoid paying higher taxes to subsidize low income folks – even if that means effectively denying basic health coverage to millions of people.

Well, democracy has a price.  Franklin Roosevelt understood that.  Canadians understand it and are living it every day.  But somewhere along the line, many Americans lost sight of basic democratic values of justice and equality.  People struggling to make ends meet should never have to choose between food on the table and a visit to the doctor.  Never.

Republicans, motivated by big money and corporate interests, are once again assailing our basic rights – and we need to fight back.

O Canada! Our home and native land!

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!