Saturday, June 29, 2019

Elizabeth Warren Is Coming On Strong

I have long been an admirer of Elizabeth Warren.

She first became nationally known as a member of academia shining a light on the problems that America's middle and lower classes have faced. Among the books she has authored, the one that got her known by some of the general public was The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke.
Warren and her daughter Amelia Tyagi wrote The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke. In the book they point out that a fully employed worker today earns less inflation-adjusted income than a fully employed worker did 30 years ago. Although families spend less today on clothing, appliances, and other forms of consumption, the costs of core expenses such as mortgageshealth caretransportation, and child care have increased dramatically. The result is that even with two income earners families are no longer able to save and have incurred greater and greater debt.
And Warren did a great deal of research into bankruptcy laws and became a noted authority as a law professor at various universities. Although she is now known as a liberal populist, she was originally a staunch Republican, once believing that for example, people filing for bankruptcy were little more than deadbeats.  As she explored more, she concluded that almost all of these people were victims of an economy and poorly conceived financial laws that were stacked against them. From then, she eventually became a Democrat and dedicated herself to being a watchdog for the lower and middle classes.

It doesn't appear that Warren originally had any ambitions for an elected office. But because of her efforts to champion the causes of the little guy battling against corporations and financial institutions, President Obama appointed her to help form a new agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama then made the next natural move which was to announce that Warren would be the agency's first Director.

Republican and various business interests put up a great deal of resistance, with the Republicans vowing that she would never be approved by the Senate causing Obama to withdraw the nomination. The plan was to relegate her to obscurity, hopefully never to be bothered by her again.

That backfired - big time! Back in Massachusetts where she lived, Republican Senator Scott Brown was up for reelection after previously winning the late Senator Ted Kennedy's seat in a special election. The Democratic Party persuaded her to run.  A video of a 2011 speech circulated around the Internet with a magnificent speech to start her run.
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. ... You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
It was an election race that was followed throughout the country. Brown had all the money that corporate America could muster against her. Did she have a chance? As it turned out, she won by a relatively comfortable 7 percentage points. Now she gets to regularly torment the same people who tried to get rid of her on her Senate seat on the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

Many wanted Warren to run for president in 2016. Perhaps not wanting to battle Hillary Clinton who many perceived to be the presumptive nominee, she declined. Instead, Bernie Sanders decided to run to represent the more liberal wing of the party. At age 66, this was thought to be her last chance if Clinton was elected to serve a pair of 4 year terms - as many expected. But Donald Trump scored an improbable upset victory.

So Warren will get a crack at the presidency at age 70 against the incumbent Donald Trump. Running against an incumbent president can be a tall order. But with Trump's record unpopularity in his poll numbers, about a couple dozen Democrats - including Bernie Sanders are vying for the nomination.

Warren decided to go against the grain and immerse her campaign over the issues. Her campaign stops were about all issues, all the time. She came up with almost countless and well thought out plans for seemingly every issue under the sun. It got to the point where "I have a plan for that" bordered on self-parody.

Warren’s Policy Proposals

(From the NYT article Elizabeth Warren Has Lots of Plans)
Senator Elizabeth Warren has been rolling out detailed policy proposals nearly every week since March, outpacing her major Democratic rivals.

JAN. 24
Wealth tax»
FEB. 19
Universal child care»
Breaking up big tech companies»
Corporate executive accountability»
Corporate taxation»
Public lands»
Student debt cancellation and free college»
Maternal mortality»
Military housing»
Puerto Rico debt relief»
Opioid crisis»
MAY 15
The military and climate change»
MAY 16
Pentagon contracting»
MAY 17
MAY 31
Indicting a sitting president»
“Economic Patriotism”»
Green manufacturing»
Of course, this appeals to policy wonks like me. But I have to wonder about some of the other candidates who offer much less in the way of specific policy solutions. How can someone envision him or herself as a future president without already having created a lot of ideas on how they can solve the problems they will certainly encounter?

With only Warren (along with Sanders) refusing large donations from Wall Street, it appeared that she would be at a permanent disadvantage against her rivals. And indeed, she started slowly. But her plain authenticity and dogged determination to passionately focus on plans to fix America has begun to pay off and at the time of this posting, she is second or third in the various polls behind Joe Biden.

Her passionate liberal populism is gaining her support. But Democratic voters have to solve the question of who has the best chance to defeat Trump in 2020. Some say that a moderate (or centrist) has the best chance in a general election. But moderates seem to have trouble getting a passionate following and can underperform like for example, Hillary Clinton in 2016. Like him or hate him, one must agree that Trump has a passionate (but relatively small) following. Although Warren may be too liberal for some Democratic tastes, she also unarguably has a passionate following.

So many ask what is the point of all of the plans if Senate Republicans are able to block most or all of them. It is accurate to say that just about every bit of social progress we have made in our history was at one time considered impossible. Think of women getting the right to vote, legalizing marijuana, or gay marriage to name a few examples. It takes time but somebody first has to get the ball rolling to have any chance of success.

Of all of plans she has, perhaps the most problematic is her (and Bernie Sanders') version of Medicare for All which advocates for switching all private insurance to public Medicare insurance. This is a tough sell to people who already have private insurance through their employers. This will undoubtedly lead to pushback from not only Republicans and the insurance industry but also many Democrats!

But there is another side to the argument. Conservative Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle had these surprising (for her) comments on Warren's plan in a recent op-ed Elizabeth Warren had better hope voters want radical honesty:
Piecemeal reforms that don’t touch employer insurance, or don’t touch it much, may modestly expand coverage. But they won’t fix everything else that’s broken in the current system — and for that reason, the piecemeal reforms would probably be too expensive to pass.
So if you’re serious about creating a European-style health-care system, then you have to be serious about abolishing private insurance.
Call it high risk, high reward. Warren is calling for major government changes. Go big or go home. I will conclude with these remarks to open her 2020 presidential campaign:
It won't be enough to just undo the terrible acts of this administration. We can't afford to just tinker around the edges – a tax credit here, a regulation there. Our fight is for big, structural change. This is the fight of our lives. The fight to build an America where dreams are possible, an America that works for everyone!

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Invasion of the Socialists!

At the time of this posting, most of the Democratic candidates for president have been announced although there may be a few more. Although many of them may be quite liberal, others may run as moderates.  But it doesn’t matter to the Republicans who label everybody not on the right as socialists. Indeed, President Trump included this dire warning about socialism as part of his 2019 State of the Union speech.
"Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. ... Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country,"
Facing low approval ratings, various probes and a failure to accomplish some of his key campaign goals ahead of his November 2020 re-election bid, the president appears intent on stirring fears about the political ideology. A Trump campaign spokesman said that the rhetoric about socialism "resonates with the vast majority of hard working Americans who recognize that Trump's patriotic capitalism is benefiting all Americans nationwide."
This Red Scare strategy is hardly a new idea in the Republican playbook. FDR and Truman were called socialists. During LBJ’s term, there was Ronald Reagan with this famous warning about the horrors of socialized medicine if, God forbid, Medicare was ever passed back in the early 60s. More recently, Obamacare and the proposed improved Medicare plans have been decried as socialist.

When Republicans and right-wing media routinely call anybody or anything not Republican as socialist. it becomes a routine part of any conversation about Democratic ideas for them.

When somebody in a conversation with me starts calling out those on the left as socialists, I have a simple rejoinder: What in your mind is the definition of socialism? This often leads to stunned silence. They really don’t know what a socialist is. They are just repeating what they hear from others on the right.

For the record, Wikipedia defines socialism as “characterized by social ownership of the means of production.” In a capitalist country such as the US, the means of production is overwhelmingly the private sector except for certain services that are best handled by the government. To my knowledge, no Democrat has ever advocated turning over all private production to the government to run. So in this case, the socialist label is a misnomer and little more than a pejorative to instill fear that the next stage after that may be communism.

Unfortunately, there are those on the left such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who openly label themselves as democratic socialists which only pours gasoline on the fire. But what’s strangest of all is that neither of them are really democratic socialists!  

Here, Wikipedia defines democratic socialism as advocating the conversion of a capitalist society to a socialist one which neither Sanders nor Ocasio-Cortez are in favor of.

The system that most liberal Democrats favor is social democracy where changes are advocated within the capitalist system. The Scandinavian countries with their comprehensive benefits and safety nets are examples of social democracy but are not socialist.

With all the people being called socialists, one has to wonder how real socialists feel about this. In fact, real socialists think Bernie's a sellout for billing himself as a socialist when in fact he is not!

So how will this all affect the Democrats’ primary season? For one thing, a number of Democrats are trying to head off all the attacks on them as socialists by proclaiming to anybody who will listen that they are indeed capitalists. Whether this will work is anybody’s guess.

Most observers feel that the top issue in not only the past 2018 midterm but also in the upcoming 2020 presidential election will be healthcare. Hardly any other issue brings out more cries of socialism. But in reality, the private insurance industry has been well taken care of throughout.

Take the dreaded Obamacare, labeled as “government takeover of healthcare.” In reality, the idea which completely preserved private insurance was based on ideas developed by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank and first implemented by Republican Governor Mitt Romney in Massachusetts. It was quite successful in reducing the number of uninsured there.

But for Romney to hope for the Republican presidential nomination, he had to take a very contrived position that while his Romneycare was successful in Massachusetts, the nearly identical Obamacare was a disaster for the nation so he along with the other Republicans resorted to their tired “repeal and replace” mantra.

Despite its many faults, Obamacare shrunk the number of Americans without health insurance from about 50 million to 30 million. But compared to all the other industrialized countries with universal healthcare, that’s 30 million too many! I hope that our next healthcare plan will finally cover all US citizens.

So while in the last presidential election, only Bernie Sanders was in favor of Medicare for All, some improved version of Medicare has become a de facto litmus test for all of those running for the Democratic presidential nomination this time around.

For those in the US under 65, Medicare is seen as free socialist health insurance that provides free socialist healthcare. Those of us 65 and over know better. For starters, $134 is taken out of our Social Security benefit each month to help pay for our Medicare coverage. But more importantly, Medicare was purposely designed to have enough coverage gaps so almost everybody has to buy some form of private insurance in addition to fill those gaps!

So while just about everybody on the Democratic side is proposing their own versions of Medicare for All or some form of expanded health insurance, the devil is in the details! Some like Bernie Sanders advocate replacing the entire private insurance system with public insurance. But will those who are happy with their private insurance through their workplace be willing to give up that insurance? Others are advocating a hybrid of private and public insurance. Needless to say, it’s complicated! 

While none of this will come to pass unless the Democrats capture the presidency and both houses of Congress in 2020, we can examine the alternatives and come up with a healthcare plan for America’s future in the meantime. In closing, I am asking the American voters to choose or reject the candidates and their ideas based on their merits - and reject those whose only response is to label everything they don’t approve of as socialism!

Monday, January 28, 2019

Our Shutdown Extortion

The US has just gone through the longest government shutdown in its history. We’ve had a number of government shutdowns in the past, but with a few exceptions, they only lasted a few days. This is because although there were some hotheads who started the shutdowns, more reasoned people saw the serious consequences of such a thing and soon decided to call the whole thing off.

In this case, the consequences were about 800,000 federal workers who were either being furloughed without pay or for those employees deemed essential, were required to work without pay until this whole thing was settled.

There have been many stories in the news about some of these employees who are living from paycheck to paycheck and going through the agony of wondering how they are going to be able to pay their mortgage/rent along with food, utilities, and other necessities of life. I have experienced this and can tell you that the mental along with the physical stress of all of this can be unbearable!

How did we get here? It goes back to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump whose main thrill in addressing his supporters was to feed them ‘red meat’ to get them fired up. As it turned out, the idea of building a wall on our southern border excited the crowd perhaps more than anything else until every campaign stop featured a refrain on the order of  "We’re going to build a wall - and who’s going to pay for it?  Mexico!!” Note that in the video, Trump emphasized that he was going to build an actual wall on the Southern border, not a fence nor any other substitute for a wall.

This became his signature issue that helped put him over the top on the way to an improbable election victory. But a wall was what he promised, and a wall is what his followers expect. Trump now had to come up with a way to build this unpopular wall along with letting Mexico know that they were going to pay for it. But of course they aren’t going to pay for it as emphatically conveyed to Trump by former Mexican President Vincente Fox in this hilarious and profanity laden rant.

But despite the Republicans having control of both houses of Congress for the first two years of his term, Trump could not get enough votes to build the wall. This last December, Trump gave in to reality and backed off of his $5 billion demand for a border wall.

At that point, the far right led by Ann Coulter, called Trump gutless if he can't build a wall.
“Gutless President in Wall-Less Country,” her column, which ran on Breitbart, was titled.
“This utterly unlikely and, at least for president, in many ways, a not particularly attractive presidential candidate beat the most qualified woman ever to run for the office, basically on one promise: the promise to build a wall and never backing down on that,” she said on the Daily Caller’s podcast.
She said Trump’s White House risked becoming a “joke presidency that scammed the American people” if he wasn’t able to get the wall built, and said she wouldn’t vote for him in 2020 if he didn’t.
“Why would you?” she said.
Fearing the loss of support of his political base, including Ann Coulter along with Rush Limbaugh and others, Trump suddenly changed his position and announced to Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi that he would indeed proudly take the blame for a government shutdown if he didn’t get the $5 billion for his border wall. And so he followed through on his threat.

While Trump considers a government shutdown just another part of his arsenal, in fact a government shutdown is little more than extortion, in this case with the 800,000 government employees and their paychecks being held hostage.

The easiest thing to do would have been to cave in to Trump’s demands and reopen the government. After all, $5 billion is just a drop in a bucket compared to the total budget. But this would be a fatal error. If extortion is shown to be effective, what is to keep Trump or anybody else from threatening future shutdowns over all kinds of things?

So Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats were correct in standing firm and insisting that the government first be reopened before commencing negotiations,

Although Trump insisted he would hold out for months if needed, the eventual results of the shutdown proved that these shutdowns are inherently self-limiting. Yes, the loyal government workers who were forced to would obediently show up for work - for a while. But loyalty doesn’t pay the bills or put food on the table. Making things even worse, Trump and the wealthy patricians that surround him started making incredibly tone deaf comments that completely dismissed the suffering these people were going through.

Soon, TSA airport workers and then air traffic controllers saw their absentee rates creep up steadily to where there was a fear of eventually hitting the breaking point.  Seeing this, the president who saw his popularity poll numbers steadily drop during this debacle, decided to give in and open the government without any funding for his wall - but only for 21 days to hopefully allow a compromise to be worked out.

For Trump, it was the worst of both worlds. To keep those on the far right happy, he agreed to the shutdown that many observers feel took a large political toll on him. And when he eventually had to give in and open the government without getting his wall funding, these same people on the far right roundly condemned him as a loser. So to appease these people, Trump is threatening another government shutdown if he doesn’t get his wall funding in the 21 day peace period in essence resorting to extortion again even if the first try didn’t work!

It’s fair to say that both parties in Congress have no taste for another shutdown. But as a backup plan, Trump announced that he would consider declaring a national emergency to get his wall funding without congressional approval. In essence, this would be getting what he wants without resorting to extortion. But even Republicans objected to this dangerous precedent fearing that a future Democratic president may resort to this. As a practical matter, many observers feel that this political stunt would be tied up in litigation for quite some time.

What will happen in the present negotiations during this 21 day period is anybody’s guess. Perhaps wiser heads will use this opportunity to craft some badly needed immigration reform. But those on the far right (yeah, them again) will cry Amnesty!! for even the slightest concession that would improve the lives of the immigrant population.

So while immigration reform may be out of reach at this time, another bit of reform is on the minds of those in Congress.  Although bills have been proposed and rejected in the past that would outlaw future government shutdowns, the bad taste in their mouths from this latest catastrophe of a shutdown has launched a renewed effort to try and keep this from ever happening again. Extortion is wrong, no matter which party is behind it!

Perhaps these recent quotes from Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander will give us hope:
“Shutting down the government should be as off limits in budget negotiations as chemical warfare is in real warfare,”
“We accepted the idea that shutting down the government is an acceptable bargaining chip in a budget negotiation and it should never, ever be, and we should resolve that that should never, ever happen.”