Saturday, February 26, 2011

End the Recession or Shut Down the Government

            The federal government faces two budget crises.  One is the attempt to reduce the deficit in the next annual budget as well as the remainder of this operating fiscal year. Many economists believe that cutting spending and reducing jobs as we are coming out of the Great Recession will stop the recovery and cause another recession.  In fact a recent study commissioned by Goldman Sachs contends that the Republican budget cuts will cost the growth in GDP 2 percentage points at a time when we are struggling to reach 4%. Cynics believe the Republicans don’t care a double dip recession because they’d just  blame it on Obama and use it to defeat him in 2012.

            The second budget crisis is how to get long term federal debt under control.   This is the question that the Presidents’ Debt Commission tackled last December. Most of the politicians of both parties make noise about cutting items like foreign aid and earmarks - items which would have no real impact on trillions of dollars of federal long term debt.

            The only way to reduce the long term debt is to deal with the three parts of the budget that make up 88% of it.  One of those is Military spending --which is almost untouchable in our political system.  We won the Cold War with the Ronald Reagan strategy of forcing the Soviet Union to spend itself into collapse in an arms race.  Now we’re spending ourselves into collapse and racing with no one. 

            The second of the three big ticket items is health care - the costs to the federal government of Medicare and Medicaid.  We could raise the payroll tax contribution for Medicare, and do it in some progressive fashion – that might be fair; and we should allow those who retire on partial social security to buy into Medicare.. We won’t solve the problem until we get the costs of health care down. Instead of rearguing “Obamacare” we should be finding ways to reduce health care costs in America. 

            The third item is Social Security - while it does not really impact on the federal deficit it will soon unless we revise the system to take in more money to cover the costs. I am amazed that Republicans and Democrats fall all over each other to fight against the small retirement age change proposed by the debt commission.  Currently the retirement age for those born after 1960 is 67.  The proposals are to gradually increase that age to 69 by the year 2075 (people born in 2006).  It affects no one working today and in no way violates the social security compact.  I also see no reason why workers shouldn’t contribute something to SS on their incomes over $106,000.  That contribution could be progressively scheduled so that the next $100,000 might withhold 3% and income above $206,00  1.5%. 

            The remaining big portion of the federal deficit is the interest on the debt.  That can only be reduced by ending the annual deficits and that is difficult because only about 12% of the federal budget is discretionary spending which can be cut.  On those cuts there is a great philosophical divide between the two national political parties. Republicans want to reduce the federal deficit by cutting the programs that created the middle class and help those who need help without a commensurate increase in the taxes that the very rich pay. 

            Republicans in the House want to cut from energy conservation programs; gut Americorps and heating assistance to working poor (LIHEAP); eliminate the operating budget of the Environmental Protection Agency; cut $5 billion for hi-speed rail programs that would catch us up to China and Europe; and cut  the Corporation for Public  Broadcasting (the only Corporation that Republicans don’t like).

            A country that would balance it’s budget by ending Sesame Street for it’s children and continue to spend $2-4 billion a week in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan so that men and women can be killed and can kill others is not the country that the USA was meant to be.

            What is occurring today is a national debate on the role of government in our lives; Republicans argue that government is inefficient and should be limited; Democrats contend that government plays an essential role in regulating and making safe the services that are critical to our daily lives. Our country is at a crossroads - one fork rears to an imagined past and one to an uncertain future. If we choose the fork to that mythical past we take a dead end.


Monday, February 21, 2011

The Unions -- They Must Be Preserved

            What’s going on in Wisconsin and Ohio today is a radical right-wing Republican attempt to break public employee unions for the dual purpose of weakening the Democratic party and crippling private sector labor unions (leaving both without public employee allies).  Claiming to plug budget gaps these Republicans are seeking to abolish collective bargaining  rights. The public employee unions have agreed to paying a share into their pensions and health insurance equivalent  to what private sector employees contribute.  But, abolish their unions, or restrict them to negotiating only salaries and you take away rights of public employees recognized for the past seventy five years – this the working people of Wisconsin are protesting. Irresponsible politicians of both parties have spent the past decades negotiating deferred compensation --  where for low or no salary increases public employees were allowed to contribute less to their pensions and health insurance.  The real cause of the state deficits is the Great Recession - caused not by public employees but by large multinational corporations and the super wealthy on Wall Street who are paying income taxes (when they pay and can’t find loopholes) at the lowest rates ever.  Minnesota had a huge budget deficit.  It raised income taxes on all those making over $½ million by 5% and closed the gap.  Right wing Republicans want to close those gaps on the backs of the working men and women of America and while at it destroy their ability to exercise influence collectively through a labor union.

            Labor Unions are not without their faults.  Too many fat cat leaders who like corporate CEO’s earn too much (although nothing like the corporate salaries).   Too much special interest style hob-nobbing with incumbent elected officials of both parties; and, in some union locals too much corruption.  But those problems can be cleaned up, as they should be, and as they should be in the case of the multinational corporations.
            Labor unions are an easy politcial target since today only about 16% of American families include union members.  What some fail to realize is that all workers public and private, union and non-union, benefit from unions and collective bargaining.  There would be no minimum wage laws today and few increases in those wages without the grass roots lobbying of unions most of whose members earn more than the minimum wage. Without organized labor this country would never have passed child labor laws, and our 9 to 14 year old children would still be working in sweatshops and at menial jobs.  Many companies provide health and pension benefits to their workers modeled on what union workers receive in part to discourage their workers from organizing unions.

            There is a tendency today to classify Americans in groups.  There are the union and blue collar workers.  Then there are the white collar and professional workers.  The latter are often college educated with many having graduate degrees.  These higher educated workers have bought into the canard that they are too good to be in unions. That’s another reason for the attack on public employee unions because they include well educated teachers and social workers and bridge the gap between the two.  But if the radical right is successful in breaking the public employee unions they will come after the private sector unions with the misnamed “right-to-work” laws that have no legitimate meaning in an era when we no longer have closed shops.

            If large multinational corporations are going to be allowed to spend whatever they want of their profits, to control the political branches of our government; and if the federal government is no longer to be what Theodore Roosevelt (Republican) saw it as, i.e., a powerful enough entity to control big business, --  then the preservation of our democracy depends upon enforcing the peoples’ rights.  One of those rights is the right of association (though not named specifically it exists as a combination of the 1st and 9th amendments;  the 1st includes “the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances”.and the 9th provides that “the enumeration … of certain rights, shall not be constructed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”)).

In 1832 President Jackson was faced with the same crisis confronted thirty years later by President Abraham Lincoln -- whether the Union would be preserved.  It Was.  Now we must make certain that the working peoples Unions are Preserved!  


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What Liberals Can Learn from the Tea Partiers - Reclaim and Proclaiim our Values!

In the 1890's Populists fought against the power and influence of big wealth - the robber barons- and supported political reforms to supplement their economic programs e.g. silver parity, to better their lives.  These Populists were primarily from the rural parts of the nation with strength in the mid-west and the South.

At the turn of the 20th century there arose in the northern and urban areas of the country a Progressive movement that espoused political reforms  (initiative, referendum, nomination by primary, direct election of Senators)  They also supported the federal government as the most powerful political force in the nation supervising and furthering competition among the large corporations that were monopolizing most of the industries of the nation through trusts and holding companies. (oil, tobacco, steel). 

Today there is a modern incarnation of Populism - the Tea Party movement.  (I’m not talking about the TeaPartyExpress the front for a California Republican consulting firm that has made the Tea Party as envisioned by Dick Armey and his operation a dominant force in  the national Republican party ) I’m referring to the grass roots movement of people who are genuinely concerned about government spending, huge deficits and what they see as government intrusion in their lives.

On the left there are grass roots organizations like Move On. Org and NetRoots who also object to too much government in personal lives and too a huge national deficit that threatens this nations solvency down the road.

The right and left grass roots may disagree on where to cut the spending and which personal life decisions should be exempt from government interference, or need government sanction or protections, but the basic philosophy can be reconciled.  The problem seems to be the left is most concerned about government intrusion in the bedroom while the right is focused on government  having its hand in the pocket book.

The moneyed interests that control our national and state governments keep these groups apart and fighting over deeply divisive cultural and social issues.  Abortion, gay rights, immigration, fear of Muslim-Americans; all these have become wedge issues that the 2% who rule America use to keep the 98% divided.  In the 1890’s as the Populists made inroads in the one party South the Democratic Bourbons (term for moneyed interests) pushed Jim Crow laws and were successful in keeping poor blacks (mostly tenant framers) separated from poor whites (mostly small farmers and mill hands).   At times when Southern politicians like Huey Long could put black and white voters together they overthrew these controlling interests and briefly installed governments that supported such radical ideas as public school education (albeit segregated) and New Deal programs.

Liberals can learn much from the Tea Partiers.   We can Reclaim the rhetoric of Populism which until the Tea Party movement was always associated with Liberals.    We can Reclaim the government reform issues of the Progressive movement.  Instead of fearing referendums we should embrace them and work to win them on the issues that mean much to us.  Most of all we should Reclaim our belief and support of Liberty.  After all it was Liberals who first insisted that government (state or federal) derived its powers from the consent of the governed.  It is Liberals who support the right of all citizens to serve their country regardless of their life style choices.  It is Liberals who believe that all children and adults in America have a right to access to quality education and quality health care. And it is Liberals who believe that women be allowed to make their own decisions regarding reproduction.

Liberals need to be more aggressive in appealing to those Americans who didn’t finish college (or for that matter High School).  We can’t allow the right wing in this country to paint all Liberals as elitist intellectuals from New England colleges.  Liberals need to “Proclaim Liberty Throughout the Land”.  Perhaps we should adopt the Liberty Bell as our symbol.

Liberals whether under the name of Democratic-Republicans in the 1790’s, or Young America in the 1840’s or Populists in the 1890’s or Progressives in the 1910’s have stood  for the right of every citizen” to work with dignity,  live with dignity,  and  walk this earth with dignity”.  


Friday, February 11, 2011

Sesquicentennial of the Civil War - Celebrate or Commemorate?

            One Hundred and Fifty years ago our nation was engaged in its most defining event – a great Civil War. A war that disrupted the country for four years and cost 600,000 lives (by todays population a proportion that would equal ten million), and measureless destruction. This week is the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Confederacy and the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as provisional President.

            In the early 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights movement that culminated in 1964/65 with the passage of the Public Accommodations Act and the Voting Rights Act (joined in 1968 with an Anti Discrimination in Housing Law) the nation also celebrated the Centennial of the Civil War.  There were reenactments of every battle (I observed one of a small battle in Georgia) but less attention was paid to the non- military events of the conflict.

            The sesquicentennial of the Civil War has apparently, at least among unreconstructed southerners, triggered a desire to celebrate every event - particularly political.  South Carolinians celebrated the ill-fated secession of that state as if it were something that was both constitutional and successful - it was neither.

            The great debate about what caused the Civil War and why it was fought rages among pseudo-historians.   If one reads the debates of the secession conventions and the broadsides written before secession it is clear to those who will see that slavery caused the Civil War - to be more precise the desire of the southern slavocracy and ruling economic interests to  assure the continuation of their right to own slaves, and their desire to expand the area open to slavery to include the territories acquired from Mexico.(some even dreamed of seizing Cuba and other areas to the south and adding them to the slave portion of the US. This imperialistic desire did not die overnight.  As a youngster visiting in Georgia I read a local newspaper that editorialized upon the admission of Hawaii as a state in 1959 that now it was time to complete Manifest Destiny and acquire Cuba and Central America.)

            Those who initiated secession to assure the continuance of slavery needed somehow to gain the support of the majority of the white population of the south - whites who did not own slaves. And so they wrapped the banner of state’s rights and southern independence around their movement.  While slavery caused the Civil War, it is true that most Southerners thought they fought for their independence.     My great great grandfather fought for the confederacy as did two of my great great great grandfathers.  They did not own slaves nor were they from slave owning families. They lived in northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia - unionist regions of the south. They believed they were fighting for southern independence.

            This belief was supported by the official federal position during the first two years of the war that the North was fighting only to preserve the union. That was Lincoln’s public position.  Not until late 1862 and Jan 1863 did the President declare as the war aim of the North the eradication of slavery.  My great great great grandfather, William Kelly, lived in eastern Tennessee  and he fought in the union forces for the union.

            Americans truly were divided brother against brother - in fact in my own Wilson family brothers fought on different sides.

            So as we enter this four year period of sesquicentennial anniversaries should we be celebrating this cruel war and its 600,000 deaths?  To CELEBRATE is  “publicly honor or praise an important occasion” and implies approval. I suggest that the only thing about the Civil War to celebrate is the abolition of slavery, the great stain upon the American mosaic and the cruel and inhuman practice that once pervaded our country. There is much of our Civil War history that we should COMMEMORATE.  To commemorate is to “act to honor the memory of an event or person”.

            While nostalgic southerners, spurred on by todays conservative Republicans, yearn for the “good old days” and celebrate battles and the events of the lost cause we should commemorate those events in our history that helped build the American nation.  Let us commemorate Lincoln’s two inaugurations; let us remember Antietam and Gettysburg as great battles that saved the Union.  Let us celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation that made whole the promises of the Declaration of Independence
Most of all let us be guided by the words of Abraham Lincoln when he dedicated the national cemetery at Gettysburg and declared that those who died there had died so: that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom … .


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Political Parties -- Do They Matter Anymore?

What is the purpose of an organized political party in the second decade of the 21st century?  It’s simply not what it was in the 20th, nor was was envisioned by the state legislation enacted mostly at the turn of the 20th century.
At one time there was a need for  two committee people in each precinct  to work outside the polls on primary and election day and keep their neighbors informed and help them with problems.  Now, people work the social networks:  Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, You Tube and build audiences of activists that candidates can pitch their message to and recruit.
Once party committees and clubhouses provided social services to the new voters, found jobs for the workers and helped cut the red tape with government agencies.  Now those tasks are handled by elected officials with district offices and paid staff and by government social service agencies.
Once the only way to seek public office, elected or appointed, was to work your  way up the political ladder held by the party.  Parties determined their nominees and you couldn’t get elected without that nomination.  Today money can buy instant grass roots canvassing operations and any other facet of campaigns. As fpr appointed offices we have instituted civil service merit hiring (some of course influenced by elected officials).
Today the party structure seems to spend all its’ time replenishing itself, filling party positions and endorsing candidates (who then have to face primary elections – and in some states even the party chair or leader positions are determined by a primary.)
If political parties are not going to nominate candidates; not  adopt party platforms and fight for those positions; not organize or motivate the grass roots, but rather concede that  function to social networks; our political parties become nothing more than labels.
A group of moderate centrists (a double label) have organized a NO LABELS campaign to push an end to partisan divisiness in our politics.They might as well be pushing to return to the era of  no parties  Then they could at least  claim George Washington as a supporter.
During  the 1960’s academics (they were the media talking heads before we had the 24-7 cable news media) called for a realignment of the parties. It took place through the 1970’s and the Democrats became left of center and the Republicans right.  But the parties continued to adopt  generalistic  platforms so all candidates could proclaim their allegiance and all voters find something they liked.  Party platforms like national conventions became irrelevant.
Big Tents may sound nice and conventional wisdom may argue that candidates win when they appeal to the 15% undecided; but, let’s face it voters don’t understand or study issues -- they evaluate people.  This year everyone brought up Carville’s old mantra “It’s the economy, Stupid.”  I always wondered if the Stupid in that exclamatory slogan was the electorate or the candidate.  The voters have no idea how to improve the economy nor do they relate to statistics they way they do to baseball stats.  They want to know that the candidates feel their pain and they want to see their elected officials do something.
NYC Mayor Bloomberg and his allies may succeed in making labels, e.g. liberal, conservative, moderate, leftist, right-winger, extremist meaningless -some would argue and I would agree that most of these labels already are.
Just as the wish of academics that our parties should become realigned, and not be catch-all groups but be either liberal or conservative, became reality; this pronounced desire for NO LABELS may also be successful – or more likely we will reduce our politics to two labels: Democrat and Republican because in fact that’s what our parties are now –merely LABELS.