Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

Andrew Young
Civil rights icon Andrew Young appearing on Meet the Press

Andrew Young was interviewed on Meet the Press on Sunday (Aug. 20) in the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Va.  Young, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement and protege of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., agreed with the essence of TDV’s point of view that we need to be careful not to let our outrage and condemnation drown out larger issues that may be in play including extreme poverty and lack of opportunity for too many Americans of all races.

Here are excerpts from the interview with Young:

The reason I feel uncomfortable condemning the Klan types is they are almost the poorest of the poor. They are the forgotten Americans. They have been used and abused and neglected …

We need to keep our eyes on the prize, and the prize is not everyone getting even. The prize is redemption …

Our job is not to put down white people. Our job is to lift everyone up together, to learn to live together as brothers and sisters, rather than perish together as fools.”

In addition to advising and marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement, Young formerly served as Chairman of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He was also a congressman from Georgia; UN ambassador during the Carter Administration, and the Mayor of Atlanta.

Here’s a video of the full interview at nbcnews.com

Beyond Charlottesville: Addressing Underlying Causes of Racism and Violence

Racism and violence, of the kind we saw in Charlottesville, Va, this past week always merit our outage and condemnation.  But we have to be careful. Such attitudes pose a subtle danger: they can be overly simplistic and serve to obscure underlying issues that contribute to the unrest.

History has taught us that racism and violence are often symptoms of a deeper malaise rooted in economic hardship.  That was one of the lessons learned from the Nazis in W.W.II. They were able to exploit people’s economic anxiety and fear to create a police state that persecuted and killed Jews and other minorities.

America today is not Nazi Germany.  But there are parallels, not the least of which is an elected leader wiling to stoke fear and division for political gain rather than encouraging people to come together to pursue a greater, public good.

Meanwhile, economic opportunity and upward mobility have all but vanished for many Americans, rural and urban, white and black.  People feel trapped; there’s no place to go; the future looks bleak, and they lash out at everyone and everything that is different from them.

In a democratic society, we have a responsibility not only to condemn the racism and violence, but also to try to understand and address underlying issues – including pervasive poverty and a broken economy that leaves people feeling frustrated and trapped with few options for improving their lives.

Of course Trump has said many times that fixing the economy so it works for everyone is a central goal of his administration.  But his is purposefully misleading rhetoric designed to inflame passions rather than heal wounds.  The problem is all those immigrants and foreigners taking our jobs!  Trump and others like him are the problem, not the solution.  Scratch the surface of his policy proposals and its tax cuts for the rich that is at the core of Trump’s agenda (and that of his Republican allies in Congress).

The reality is that fixing the economy requires just the opposite: raising taxes on the wealthy, whose incomes have skyrocketed in recent decades while wages for working Americans have stagnated.   Taxes on high earners are at the lowest point in modern history.  The proceeds of the higher taxes should be invested in basic infrastructure, roads, bridges and transit systems – and in people, in health care, education and job training.  That would stimulate job creation and economic growth for all Americans.

Particular emphasis should be placed on investing in inner cities and rural areas where poverty and lack of opportunity are most pervasive.

Sounds like a heavy lift, and it is.  Politicians who propose higher taxes of any kind quickly become fodder for a flurry of attack ads.

Fortunately, there are some politicians willing to step-up:  Senator Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential nominee, for one; more recently, Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York  proposed a tax on those earning over $500,000 to pay for long overdue subway repairs that primarily benefit working class New Yorkers.

We should always condemn racism and violence in all its forms, but we should never stop searching for the underlying causes and work to address those issues.  A rigged economy, that favors the wealthy while leaving working and poor people behind, is a contributing factor to the kind racism and violence we’re seeing in Charlottesville (and around the word).

The very fabric of American democracy is fraying.  It is time to fix it, with real, concrete economic reforms that improve the lives of all Americans, black, brown and white.

Crossing a Red Line

In the past, it has been rare that an event in American politics provokes such outrage. That’s because politicians are trained to offend as few as possible and appeal to a broad middle class and win elections.

So what is wrong with Donald Trump? He essentially won because the Democratic Party, (mis)led by Hilary Clinton, split in two – Progressives and moderates. The so-called moderates couldn’t seem to relate to working people or offer a positive message of change. Ultimately, they failed to generate the enthusiasm needed to counter Trump’s vacuous, populist bluster.

In this environment, one would expect Trump to move to the middle, to cement his support with disaffected voters on the margins whom he will need to win the next election.

Instead, Trump has doubled down with dangerous, “bomb”-bastic rhetoric targeted to his most ardent followers. In so doing, he has violated one of the most sacred pillars of American politics – America’s nuclear arsenal is intended as a deterrent, and you never, ever threaten nuclear war for political gain.

But that is just what Trump did and, in so doing, he has proven himself unfit for office.

He now needs to feel the “fire and fury” of the American electorate.

A Small Ray of Hope for American Democracy

Senator John McCain

Here at TDV we are Progressives. We believe in strong government that works for the people to improve their lives. That includes enabling a robust economy and providing educational opportunity and quality health care to all Americans. And, in the richest country on earth, no one, ever, should be forced to live in poverty.

Then, on the other hand, we are also realists. Not everyone is going to agree with us. Our point of view is more prevalent among young people in the big cities of our country. In rural America, the prevailing view tends to be much more conservative, libertarian, and anti-government.

This tension is not new. It has been a dominant theme in American politics since the founding when Jefferson and Hamilton faced off over the role of government, the creation of a central bank and the drafting of a constitution.

Yet, throughout our history, the political parties have usually found a way to reach compromise and to put the good of the people above partisan politics.

With the most recent election, however, any concept of compromise to achieve a higher public good seems to have gone missing. Trump and his allies, with few exceptions, appear to be in this exclusively for their own aggrandizement. Trump may be democratically elected, but he acts exactly like what he is: an oligarch.

Following the President’s lead, Republicans in Congress recently tried to ram through the repeal of “Obamacare”, President’s Obama’s signature health care legislation, with no Democratic support. During the debate in Congress, it started to become painfully obvious, and more than a little depressing, that our democratic system was floundering the shoals of abject partisanship. Are we really going to deny millions of people health care so we can cut taxes for the rich yet again?

Then one man, Senator John McCain, stood up, and joining two of his female colleagues, Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, issued a “thumbs down,” to the repeal of Obamacare.

And in so doing so McCain, recently diagnosed with brain cancer, saved millions of Americans from losing their health care. Now, inspired by McCain, Collins and Murkowski, other Republicans such as Senator Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate committee responsible for health care legislation, have promised to work with Democrats to fix Obamacare rather than repeal it. And, so, after months of vicious partisanship, there appears to be a glimmer of hope that Democrats and Republicans can actually work together to get something accomplished for the good of the American people.

McCain is a conservative who supports high defense spending and the aggressive use of American military power.  TDV doesn’t agree with much of what McCain stands for, but we admire him as a hero and a patriot who endured torture during more than five years of captivity in North Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” (Hao Lo prison).  More recently, McCain has also proven himself a man of real principal who rebuffed the leaders of his own party to help save American democracy.

Thank you (again) Senator McCain for your service.  A few more people like you in Congress and maybe our troubled democracy can be still be salvaged.

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Here’s How Democrats Can Start Winning Elections Again

Mark Penn and Andrew Stein argue in a New York Times Op-Ed piece that Democrats should reject the “siren calls” of the left and move back to the center in order to win elections. Penn should know: From 1995 to 2008, he was the former pollster and senior adviser to those paragons of centrism, Bill and Hillary Clinton. Stein is the former president of Manhattan borough and New York City Council who was convicted of tax evasion in 2011 and endorsed Donald Trump for president last year.

The essence of their argument is not new: that Democrats have lost elections by advocating big government and failing to appeal to working class voters on the core issues they care about most: trade, immigration, jobs and the economy. In endorsing Trump, Stein wrote in a Wall Street Journal Op Ed piece: “He (Trump) is for strong pro-growth policies like reducing the marginal and corporate tax rates and eliminating thousands of job-killing and business-stifling regulations, the biggest of which is ObamaCare.”

That’s one point of view, mostly shared by Republicans and, sadly, too many so-called Democrats. Here’s another view: Democrats have lost elections because they became too centrist, caved to political expediency, and used polls to determine their positions on important issues rather than standing up for core Democratic principles. Those principles include the need to guide and regulate capitalism so the economic benefits of the economy don’t flow only to those at the very top of the income scale.

Ensuring that economic benefits are fairly distributed is not “big government” or “job killing regulation” as many Republicans and corporate Democrats, such as Penn and Stein, would have you believe. It’s fair government and we need more, not less of it.

When Democrats stand-up for equality and opportunity for all, without equivocation, in plain language, as they did in the earlier times after W.W. II and, more recently, as part of the Bernie Sanders campaign, maybe they will regain the mantle as “the Party of the People” and start winning elections again.

Voices from the Past: Remembering JFK

President John. F. Kennedy

Through much of the late 1940’s and 1950’s, the U.S. was in a state of fear. The memories of the Great Depression and W.W. II were still fresh, but now Soviet domination of Eastern Europe was replacing Fascism as the next great threat. The Korean War was fought in 1950 through July 1953, highlighting the rise of Communist China.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg went on trial in 1951, accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviets. They were executed in 1953 in what many regarded as a legalized lynching.

Shortly thereafter, a prominent member of the Rosenberg’s prosecution team, Roy Cohn, was appointed chief counsel to the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and, working for Senator Joseph McCarthy, helped lead the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.  Those hearings further whipped the nation into a near frenzy of fear and suspicion. It was a low point when American liberties were tested, a time in which it was a de facto crime simply to associate with known “Communists”.

In those dark days, a little known junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, published a book in 1957, Profiles in Courage, which came through as a ray of sunshine.   Indeed, times were changing. The economy was improving and Americans were emerging from the shadows of the post-war period into a new era of optimism and hope. Kennedy’s book, which profiled senators down through history who stood up and fought for what they believed irrespective of the consequences, captured that new spirit and helped catapult Kennedy to the Presidency over Richard Nixon in 1960.

It is worth revisiting some of Kennedy’s words in Profiles In Courage (and later repeated in a 1960 speech) as we enter a moment in American history when fear and suspicion again seem to be triumphing over the American spirit of optimism and hope:

If by a ‘Liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reactions, someone who cares about the welfare of the people-their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties-someone who believes we can break through the stalemate and suspicions that grip us in our policies abroad, if that is what they mean by a ‘Liberal’, then I’m proud to say I’m a ‘Liberal’.

Kennedy was not perfect. As if forgetting his own words, as President he took the country to the near brink of war over the Cuban missile crisis. And there were accusations that much of Profiles In Courage was ghost written. But there is no denying that Kennedy helped usher in a new, more optimistic period in American history, and that may be his greatest legacy and one worth remembering in times of crisis.

Kennedy’s words remind us that “liberalism” is not a dirty word, but a way of viewing the world that is inherently optimistic; that rejects fear mongering and embraces the role of government in serving the needs of people.

Fostering Terrorism, Selling Arms to Dictators and Screwing the Poor

This was a bizarre week in U.S. politics, and it wasn’t because of Donald Trump’s tweets. Two things happened that gave us more insight into who Donald Trump really is: Trump went on his first foreign tour, and his administration released its 2018 proposed budget.

In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, we witnessed Trump declaring war on “radical Islamist terrorism.” In the ridiculous extravagance of the Saudi Royal palace, Trump could be seen cozying up to the self-same autocrats and dictators who repress their own people, deny women rights, bomb civilians in Yemen and Iraq and support Wahhabi Islam, a fundamentalist strain that does more to foster terrorism than combat it.

Meanwhile, the avowed enemy, Iran, was holding what, by most accounts, was free and fair elections. So much for America being a beacon of democracy around the globe.

The real purpose of the trip was revealed when Trump, while in Riyadh, signed a $100 billion-plus arms sale agreement with the Saudis.  At least the President is being transparent.

While Trump was in Saudi Arabia doing the bidding of U.S. arms manufacturers, his administration back at home was releasing its blueprint for the 2018 federal budget. In a nutshell, the budget is another bonanza for the armaments industry with defense spending rising more than 10% while domestic discretionary spending is slashed. Many of the largest cuts are to programs, such as Medicare, that are intended to aid the poor and disadvantaged.

In addition, Trump’s budget proposal contains still more tax cuts for the rich, paid for by a presumed rebound in economic growth from 2% to  3% annually – a level not seen consistently since the 1990’s. The rebound assumes all those tax cuts he’s recommending will “trickle down” to the ordinary working people Trump claims to represent. More supply-side B.S.

Here again, the underlying strategy is pretty obvious: Let Congress fight over where and how to cut the budget, divert people’s attention and take the heat while more tax cuts for the rich slip through amidst the clamor and chaos of a dysfunctional Congressional budget process.

Note to Donald Trump : The American people are not as stupid as you think they are.

Are We Witnessing the Birth of a New Progressive Party?

TR 1902 State of the Union

Princeton Professor Cornel West and some former Bernie Sanders campaign staffers are trying to convince Sanders to lead a third party, a progressive “People’s Party.” Sanders has said he intends to work within the Democratic Party to bring about reform, but he has left open the door just a crack if the Democratic Party doesn’t get its act together.

But that just doesn’t seem to be happening: Lately, we have Hillary Clinton going around saying her loss in the November election was essentially everyone’s fault but her own. Former President Barack Obama may be even more tone deaf than Clinton, accepting a $400,000 “honorarium” for a speech to Wall Street bankers. Other Democrats seem content to simply oppose Donald Trump rather than put forth their own positive vision for moving the country forward.

The leadership of the Democratic Party just doesn’t seem to get it: it is time for real change, not more of the same-old, same-old coalition politics that courts the professional class at big donor fundraisers, but refuses to address (or even acknowledge) the concerns of millions of poor and working class Americans struggling to feed their families and make ends meet.

Perhaps Cornel West is right. A third party may be needed to give the Democrats a much needed wake-up call. The downside is that a third party could potentially split the Democratic vote and result in Republican victories in the short-term. Longer term, however, it might prove to be the only way to jolt the Democrats from their politics-as-usual, middle-of-the-road stupor.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, America had a third party – The Progressive Party – led by Teddy Roosevelt. The Progressives fundamentally altered the direction of American politics, simultaneously taking on the corporate “robber barons” and the corrupt, patronage ridden political machines that ruled the big American cities of the Northeast.

The Progressives sought to radically reform government, to professionalize it; to make it more efficient; to make it work for the people. And they largely succeeded.

Maybe the Democrats need to take a lesson from history and broaden their message: Big government is not evil, as Republicans have argued. Rather it is inefficient government captured by modern day corporate robber barons that is part of what has made American democracy so dysfunctional.

We can and must do better. Taking a lesson from Teddy Roosevelt and the Progressives of the early 20th century is not a bad place to start.

Here We Go Again – More Supply-Side B.S.

Supply-Side B.S.

Donald Trump’s tax plan, unveiled Wednesday, calls for massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy (i.e. “small business”). He also threw a bone to the “middle class” in the form of increasing the standard deduction from $12,700 to $24,000 for a married couple.

All justified in the name of jobs and economic growth. Economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has famously labelled the economic growth argument for tax cuts as “Voodoo Economics.” We think Krugman is being too kind. Our name for supply side economics can’t be printed, but the initials “B.S.” more accurately reflect our view.

As Krugman has pointed out on numerous occasions, there is no evidence that tax cuts stimulate significant economic growth. In fact, history has proven the opposite to be true: in periods when tax rates were high relative to today’s rates, economic growth was more robust than during periods of lower rates.

In the two decades after W.W. II, for example, personal income tax rates averaged more than 80% for the highest earners, and yet economic growth was robust, averaging more than 4%. In contrast, during the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, personal income tax rates were slashed, but economic growth fell to 3.5% and 2.1% respectively.

Today, the top rate for personal income is 39.6% for married filers earning more than $466,950 a year, while growth is averaging an anemic 1.5%. Trump, for his part, wants to cut the top rate to 35%. The last thing we need is yet more of the failed policies of the past.

What’s wrong with the supply side theory? It sounds good, and it has popular political appeal (which is why Republicans have used the argument so successfully to justify tax cuts) but it doesn’t stand even a common sense smell test. It smells like, well, B.S.

Cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy may stimulate marginal investment, or, just as likely, more profits will be redistributed to shareholders in the form of dividends and increased capital gains. And, oh by the way, those dividends and cap gains are taxed at a top rate of 20% – a much lower rate than ordinary income, a double bonanza for the rich.

To make matters worse, Trump has proposed eliminating the “estate tax” on accumulated wealth (currently levied on estates valued at over $5.45 million for an individual and $10.9 million for a married couple). Triple bonanza!

“Supply side” economics is simply code language for redistributing income to the wealthy, including Donald Trump and most of his appointees.

If you really want to stimulate the economy, you should invest for growth – in job training and education; in infrastructure including clean power, roads, bridges, mass transit and high speed rail, the things that actually make our economy run. That is what we did in the period after W.W. II, when we educated veterans on the GI bill and built the interstate highway system, among other initiatives, and it worked.

To fund this investment without blowing up the deficit, yes, we would have to raise taxes. But maybe it is past time raise the rates on “unearned” income, such as dividends and cap gains, so the wealthy actually pay their fair share.

Big Data’s Potential to Foster Transparency and Accountability in Government

Transparency

Transparency is one of the bedrock principles of democracy, as TDV has written. In government of, by and for the people we, as citizens, have a right to know.

Unfortunately, transparency, though a worthy political goal, is often illusive. This is especially true in these days of extreme political dysfunction.

Donald Trump refuses to make his tax returns public, or disclose the names of visitors to the White House. Are we surprised? No. Those damned Democrats would use the information against him!

And that is exactly the point: the taxes and work related actions of government officials, elected and appointed, should be able to withstand public scrutiny. If those officials, including Donald Trump, cannot be transparent, they should be disqualified from serving.

But the issue of transparency is bigger than just Donald Trump. Government agencies are not transparent often because full and complete disclosure can hurt some people, or make others look bad. If the aggrieved person happens to be, say, a senior member of Congress who serves on an appropriations committee, well, maybe your funding won’t be there next year.

For its part, TDV frequently mines government data. The good news is a lot of the data already exists. The bad news is the data is often so fragmented across multiple agencies, in many different formats, that it is often difficult if not impossible to make sense of it in a comprehensive way.

Enter Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers. Someone with a net worth of more than $20 billion. As reported in the New York Times, Ballmer is funding a non-profit, “USAFacts.org”, which collects government data from multiple sources and puts that data on the internet in an accessible and consistent format. A beta version, available to the public, was launched this past Tuesday (April 18).

And, oh by the way, those tax breaks for the rich we talked about? According to USAFacts.org, middle income taxpayers earning between $31,000 and $61,000 receive tax breaks averaging about $2,400 per filer (individual or household).

Meanwhile, the top 1%, earning more than $711,000 per year, get tax breaks averaging about $48,000 per year, which is more than the total most average taxpayers earn.

Good to know – we are finally getting a platform that makes government data available in an accessible format – and it has the potential to reveal some areas in need of reform – like excessive tax breaks for the wealthy.

Thank you Steve Ballmer for helping strengthen our democracy.