Beyond Trump: A Federal Jobs Guarantee?

I recently received another video from my good buddy (at least he feels that way to me!), Robert Reich at inequality.org.   As an old New Deal Democrat, I was immediately drawn to the concept of guaranteed jobs at living wages.  I kept Trump’s name in the title in the hope it might draw a few extra readers to the blog!

In the video Reich highlights some obvious flaws in our labor markets.  Despite near record low unemployment rates, millions are not working because of “discouragement, discrimination and location.”  Others, like myself, are working two or more part time jobs without health or retirement benefits.  Nearly all workers, except for executives and those with high demand skills, have seen their wages stagnate in recent years as gains from economic growth increasingly go to the top 10, 5, 1 or .01% – take your pick.

Reich’s solution: guaranteed federal jobs in public service at an (undefined) “living wage.”  This would inject government competition into the labor market, raise the floor” on wages and benefits, increase worker’s bargaining power with private employers and provide an automatic economic stabilizer in periods of recession.  All these benefits and it will only cost $670 billion in the first year ($30 billion less than the Defense budget!), with future costs falling (when does that ever happen with government programs?) as incomes, consumer spending and tax revenue rise while welfare costs fall in a “virtuous cycle” of growth and redistribution – a “progressive utopia” indeed!

The idea holds appeal, but I think I’ll pass.  First, it’s too expensive.  Assuming we’re not going to drastically cut Defense, Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid, where will the money come from?  Massive tax increases on the wealthy?  This is certainly a post Trumpian notion, only possible if the modern Republican Party collapses as in the Great Depression/New Deal era.  At present, there are no signs of that happening.

Second, it’s too bureaucratic.  It’s doubtful the federal government could efficiently run such a massive program.  Who would identify or create the jobs, and by what criteria?  Who would supervise the workers, hire and fire, and by what criteria?  How would you prevent cronyism and corruption from creeping into the process?  If these jobs were truly better than their private sector equivalents, who wouldn’t want them?  Would they compete with or crowd out private employment?  Are these temporary or permanent positions?  Do we really want to double or triple the federal workforce?  Even FDR never contemplated that.

Third, it’s unnecessary.  We already have the tools in our policy box to increase incomes: higher progressive taxes on the wealthy; raising the minimum wage; subsidized training and apprenticeship programs; Pell grants and especially strong support of private labor unions with sufficient legal protection and collective bargaining power to force corporations to share their excess profits.  We could also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) into a wage subsidy  for a broader range of earners, perhaps to the bottom 60-80% of the population, so that “work pays” and no one working full time lives below, at or near the poverty line (a position well over 90% of Americans consistently support in polls).

In the end, there are numerous ways to decrease inequality and increase opportunity, and no one has done more to bring the problem to popular attention and pose solutions than Robert Reich.  What is lacking, as he has pointed out, is the political will to pursue these policies and form a social movement for the common good (the title of his last book).  This is the prevailing challenge of our time – who’s ready to join and fight for justice?

 

 

 

A New Poor People’s Campaign?

You wouldn’t know it from watching the news or reading the papers (assuming you do), but there’s a new Poor People’s Campaign in the USA , launched on  the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis.   It was the final campaign of King’s life, the hardest and most ambitious, challenging the “evil triplets” of poverty, racism and militarism.  He was stoned trying to integrate housing in Chicago in 1966, shunned by his allies and the media for denouncing the Vietnam War in 1967 and finally gunned down fighting for a 10 cents an hour raise for Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.  His later efforts proved far less popular with the elites and general public than ending racial segregation in the South in the early 1960s.

The new Campaign is led by Rev. William Barber, a North Carolina pastor and former head of that states’ NAACP, and Rev. Liz Theoharris, co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice in New York.  They are supported by a gaggle of over 60 religious, civil rights and social justice groups, from the American Friends Service Committee and Democratic Socialists of America to the National Welfare Rights Union and World Beyond War.  In other words, the same collection of left wing, “progressive” groups that launch internet petitions, show up for rallies, raise funds, agitate for broad social change and lose nearly every major election and policy debate.  Obviously, more needs to be done.

They have updated the “evil triplets” of poverty, racism and militarism and appropriately added a fourth, ecological devastation.  Their list of proposed “Demands” is too lengthy to detail here.  It unsurprisingly includes something from the wish lists of every supporting group, as most committee documents do.  One thing is conspicuously absent: the lack of a clear political strategy to get from here to there.  Is this a political platform or social movement?  What’s the difference?

In my view a political platform brings you into the realm of party politics, of running candidates to win elections by uniting a broad and diverse coalition of voters.  A social movement is a form mass protest, an outside pressure group that agitates for specific changes in public policy to benefit the aggrieved and advance the common good.  In my life time, three social movements have succeeded: African American, women’s and gay rights.  All followed the same formula: clearly defined injustices perpetrated on an identifiable group with internal solidarity; external allies in the media, academia and elite circles;  articulate leaders and committed followers with a clearly communicated vision of the future; and especially fortunate timing to tell a message people were ready, willing and able to hear.

Do poor people share any of these traits?  Unfortunately, no and not in the foreseeable future.   They do not make campaign contributions or vote in proportional numbers.  They have no identifiable poor spokesmen, in part because they’re a stigmatized group, and anyone with the requisite leadership, organizational and communications skills would quickly work their way out of poverty.  While the general public supports increasing the minimum wage and jobs programs, there is little taste for the significant redistributive taxation and social disruption required to make “myth of meritocracy” and “equal opportunity” more than just a mirage.

Beginning on Mother’s Day and continuing for the next six weeks, the Campaign will hold protests in 40 state capitals, including your own.  They’re asking people to get arrested, so maybe you’ll see a news blip.  It will culminate in a mass rally in Washington DC on June 23.  I will probably be there, “showing the flag” in support, and I hope you join us.  But it won’t be nearly enough; it never is.  Not until the bottom portion of the population is mobilized to vote their interest in sufficient numbers and the upper classes, especially the top 10%, are moved by compassion or necessity (probably the latter) to sacrifice a greater part of their good fortune for the common good.

As children ask on long car trips: ‘are we there yet; how much longer?”   The answer: just keep moving forward.

 

The Monopolization of America

Happy Mother’s Day to all the blessed women who bore & raised & nurtured us through adulthood.  If your mother is still alive, as mine thankfully is, show her your full love today.  If not, tell her story to your children & grandchildren & anyone who will listen & benefit.

As I mentioned in my last post, Robert Reich is one of my true heroes and sources of inspiration.  In a recent inequality media video, The Monopolization of America” he details the high cost concentrated business control exerts on our economic and political systems.  I had previously written about this in my April 3rd post, “Small is Beautiful,” but since only two people viewed it and none commented, perhaps it warrants a revisit.

Reich begins the video with Monsanto as an example.  This agribusiness giant controls 90% of the soybean seeds and 80% of corn in the US, allowing them to raise prices beyond a competitive market rate.  He goes on to detail “monopolies everywhere”: the 4 largest meatpacking companies control 75% of sales; the 10 largest food companies have 80% of branded products.  2 companies produce 80% of the toothpaste; 2 large companies, Nestle & Mars, produce 90% of the cat food; 4 large drug companies dominate the pharmaceutical market and inflate prices by billions per year.  A few large health insurers control most local markets.  4 behemoths dominate cable & internet services, often in a local monopoly.  He doesn’t even mention the nation’s largest banks, which are “too bigger to fail” than ever, but does cite tech giants Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple, the latest manifestation of our “New Gilded Age.”

The first Gilded Age, 1870s – 1920s, was brought down by anti-monopoly legislation and the ravages of the Great Depression.  The Sherman Anti Trust Act of 1890, at first little enforced against the railroad, steel, oil and financial “trusts” that dominated state legislatures and Congress, was eventually given teeth by presidents Theodore Roosevelt, who broke the Northern Securities railroad trust, and William Howard Taft, who dismantled John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Co.  Woodrow Wilson added the Clayton Act and the 17th Amendment, providing for direct election of Senators.  The power of the national government really can be wielded on behalf of economic justice, when politicians heed the will of the people and the common good, rather than the selfish machinations of concentrated wealth!

For the next 50 years, the federal government relied on a mixture of active regulation of concentrated business and breaking up “trusts” when necessary.  In 1950, the Alcoa Aluminum company was broken up for achieving an effective monopoly, even though they never sought one.  By 1960 overly big businesses were held in check and the the ratio of CEO pay to the average worker was 30:1.  Then came 1980 and Ronald Reagan.  If you’re a “progressive” (a label I shun) or pro worker & poor (which I enthusiastically embrace) Reagan’s election was the nadir of our our political economy, the “great divide” that ended 50 years of progress toward increasing equality and ushered in a government “of the rich, by the rich and for the rich” that endures to present.  Today, the average CEO earns 300 times their average worker and Jeff Bezos of Amazon sees space travel as the only way to spend down some of his $131 billion (and counting) fortune.

Since the 1980s successive administrations, both Democratic and Republican, have prostrated themselves at the altar of the rich for modest campaign contributions.  This is why none have made a dent in rising economic equality.  Case in point: The CEO of AT&T just apologized (because they got caught) for paying $1.2 million to Michael Cohen to influence the Trump Administration to approve an $85 billion proposed merger with Time-Warner, which the Justice Dept. thankfully opposes.  The same article noted that AT&T spent over $17 million on lobbying last year – chump change for a multi-billion corporation, but enough to buy a lot of political support on Capitol Hill.

Note also President Trump’s new prescription drug proposal, which includes no mechanism to limit drug prices or allow the government to negotiate better rates for the massive Medicare and Medicaid programs.  Also Trump’s empty threats to stand up to the National Rifle Association after Parkland, rescinded once Republican legislators reminded him of how much they rely on NRA cash to maintain their Congressional majority.  As the old Who song goes, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

The rich are too damn rich and have too damn much political power.  Just a little bit of their huge surplus is enough to turn politicians into lapdogs, doing their bidding and angling to join them in lobbying and law firms once their “public service” is done.  Currently I’m reading Democracy in America: What Went Wrong?  by Benjamin Page and Martin Gillens.  In Chapter 3 they find that, in examining 1800 discrete public policies, once you discount elite and interest group preferences, general public opinion has virtually NO impact on the outcome. “Well,” as Dana Carvey used to say as the Church Lady on Saturday Night Live, “isn’t that precious!”

We need effective anti-monopoly enforcement, campaign finance reform and publicly financed elections.  More to the point, we need a new social movement that puts the needs of the poor and working classes at the forefront of American politics, rather than in the dustbin of history, as Marx might say.  I’m talking about the type of Poor People’s Movement  that Dr. King gave his life for, in the toughest and least successful battle of his career.

Yet, while I write this, I’m listening to a “60 Minutes” interview about  a new film on Pope Francis, the headliner of my blog.  His opening remark: “Humanity is mostly deaf.”  Amen to that.  Jesus used to say “those who have ears to hear, let them hear.”  Is anyone really listening?  What would it take to bring forth a response?

 

What if Everybody Voted – Would it Make a Difference?

I am a huge fan of former Labor Secretary and current Berkeley professor Robert Reich.  In addition to his masterly feature film, Inequality for All,  which I highly recommend, check out the frequent short film clips from his inequality media project, which I you can sign up for or go directly to you tube and watch.

Recently one of these videos caught my eye.  “What if Everyone Voted?”, makes the point that the largest block of potential voters in the country are neither Republicans, Democrats or Independents but non voters who comprise the majority of Americans in every election, and even 40% in most presidential contests.  When I was a political science instructor I used to tell my students that there are only two form of political capital that politicians will respond to – money and votes.  Since most of us don’t have enough money to impact the process, our only option is to vote, in blocs that indicate preferred policies.

The mass of non voters are young, poor and people of color.  Surveys show they tend to support “progressive” policies that would benefit them, such as a higher minimum wage, guaranteed government jobs, universal health care, free college tuition etc.  By not participating they leave the door open for the donor class to drive elections toward more conservative candidates who cut taxes for the rich, reduce regulations that protect health and safety, and slash  social programs that benefit the poor and working class.  The theory is if everyone voted we’d have a more “progressive” country more friendly to the young, poor, minorities and working class.

I’m not so sure.  I believe and have observed that the main determinant of political ideology is temperment.  Some people are more liberal or “open ended” by nature, others more closure or “judging” oriented, according to the Myers Briggs personality types.   This is right and just.  A strong country requires strong liberal and conservative parties, able to coalesce their broad beliefs into a majority.  It further requires compromise  between these two visions in order to pursue shared goals in a positive and mutually acceptable manner.  It’s a shame that our current partisan warfare nullifies this goal.  Contrary to the dictum of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi, winning is NOT the only thing in politics or life.  When you crush and ignore your opponents you only sow the seeds of further conflict and discord, killing the relationships you depend on to survive.

At the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a good Philadelphia woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Dr. Franklin, what kind of government have you made for us?”  Franklin replied, “A republic, madam, if you can keep it.”  How do you keep a republic?  By voting in elections and advocating for preferred policies in the interim.  How do you get people to vote?  According to the above video there are several ways, including: 1) automatic voter registration through the Division of Motor Vehicles, tax and other public records, which could immediately add 27 million new voters to the rolls; 2) same day voter registration; 3) voting by mail; 4) allowing early voting; 5) changing election day to a weekend.

Republicans oppose all of these initiatives.  Instead, they favor: 1) tough voter ID laws that overwhelmingly disenfranchise the poor and minorities; 2) limiting or eliminating early voting and same day registration; 3) purging voter rolls of anyone who hasn’t voted recently; 4) prohibiting ex felons who’ve served their time from ever voting again, primarily hurting minority communities.  Why are Republicans afraid to let all citizens vote?  Do they fear the potential progressive wave the video predicts?  The only way to find out is to open the system to everyone and let the chips fall where they may.

 

 

 

 

Ben Carson is Half Right

In these highly polarized times it is risky, among my many “progressive” friends, to credit the opposition with any positive contribution to the general welfare.  Yet even a broken clock is right twice a day, and Republicans sometimes, on a “gut” level, tap into something that actually makes sense to a majority of Americans.  So, at the risk of being dubbed a “traitor,” by my self righteous and highly intolerant liberal friends (such defects know no party bounds), I’d like to commend HUD Secretary Ben Carson for shining a light on some of the injustices of our low income housing policy.

Last week Carson, addressing the Senate, had the umbrage, which often accompanies those with little political experience, to suggest that public housing and Section 8 vouchers may actually be detrimental to the long term welfare of its beneficiaries.   That’s because rents are capped at 30% of the tenants legally reported income.  This gives the tenant every incentive to either not work, to preserve their benefit, or to work under the table, and such opportunities are ubiquitous in most cities.  Carson suggested that rent might gradually increase to 35% of total income which, by some alchemic math, could actually triple the monthly rent of the lowest earners, from $50 to $150 per month.  $50 per month – who gets away with that?!

Turns out only a select minority of Americans, who we might call the “privileged poor,” if such an appellation didn’t sound so profoundly ridiculous.   In his 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, Matthew Desmond points out that only one of six Americans eligible for housing assistance actually receives it.  The rest are left to try their luck on the private housing market, where they will pay 50-80% of their income in rent and perpetually be at risk of eviction.  Of one of his main characters he writes, “Arleen had given up hope for housing assistance long ago.  If she had a housing voucher it would mean the difference between stable poverty and grinding poverty, the difference between planting roots in a community and  being batted from one place to another.  It would mean she could give most of her check to her children instead of her landlord.” 

Should anyone’s life choices be between “stable poverty and grinding poverty?”  We should not incentivize people to stay in public housing for life, being ever grateful for their “stable poverty” v. total deprivation.  Other poor people need to occupy those units as a means to move “up and out” of their present circumstances.  Despite the rising threats of technological change and automation to the global workforce, there is only one legal way to escape poverty: work full time, year round, year after bloody year until you’ve saved enough for retirement.  Also, get and stay married.  Maintain good relations with a wide circle of family and friends, who can support you in times of trouble.  Join a church or community organization; get involved as an active citizen, rather than a self server & seeker.  Live like an immigrant (currently under attack but the wealth of our nation), even though your ancestors have been here for centuries.  It’s hard math, but it works.  I know, because I have violated many of these precepts and have paid dearly for it.

Once you have “worked hard and played by the rules,” as Bill Clinton used to say, the government’s role kicks in.  Any business who employs over 20 people should immediately begin to pay their workers $15 per hour minimum; smaller businesses should get a government wage subsidy to bring them to that.  The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which benefits the working poor, should be dramatically expanded, especially for single, childless workers who are currently screwed in the process.  Government can provide guaranteed jobs and training, at a sub minimum wage, for those excluded from the private labor market.  Housing subsidies should be expanded so no individual pays more than 50% of their income in rent, leaving them perpetually vulnerable to eviction and indigence.  If we truly cared about the common good, rather than our own petty individual advancement, we might actually lobby for and vote on such issues.

PS: When I started this blog a few months ago I invited about 40 friends, at least twice, to follow.  About 10 accepted the invitation.  I spend a lot of time and effort on these pieces and get precious little response.  Comments are few & sparse; “likes” virtually non existent.  If you’ve read this far, please make some response.  Be assured that if you spent several hours sending me your own original writing (rather than some pithy comment on Facebook) I would do the same.  I am getting very discouraged at the lack of response and am thinking of giving this up or seeking an alternate venue.  Jesus truly said, “A prophet is without honor in his hometown.”

 

 

 

“Evicted” in Philly

There was an excellent article by Julia Terruso in last week’s Phila Inquirer, “Many in Philadelphia Live on the Edge of Eviction.” Its part of the new “Broke in Philly” project, a collaboration of 19 local media organizations.  This article takes inspiration from Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize Winning book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City , which I am currently rereading closely.  This month Desmond’s Eviction Lab  released the first national database on evictions.  It’s well worth examining the data on this growing and under-reported national crisis.

Following Desmond, Terruso finds that more than 20,000 Philadelphians, or about 1/14 renters, will face legal eviction proceedings in a typical year, and half will be put out of their homes.  This does not count informal evictions, where landlords simply lock out tenants, remove their front doors or pay them to leave.  In the poorest big city in America, I suspect these are just as common.  Only 8% of tenants have legal representation, while 81% of landlords bring lawyers – guess who prevails in the vast majority of cases?  1/3 of tenants don’t bother to show up for the hearing – they just filed as a delaying tactic to buy more time before vacating.

Tenants sometimes withhold the rent as a means of compelling the landlord to make necessary repairs; their chances of prevailing are precarious.  Terruso does make a nod to the landlords in one brief paragraph, quoting Victor Pinckney, Vice President of the Homeowners Association of Philadelphia: “People don’t have jobs.  They need money, and the city is trying to turn us into a social service.  The bottom line is most of us who are in this business are in it to feed our families.”

Well, isn’t that precious and classic – pitting small landlords with thin profit margins and debts against poor tenants paying 50, 60, 70% or more of their income in rent for substandard units.  Turn a public problem (lack of affordable housing) into an arena of private profit and let the chips fall where they may – including eviction, homelessness, foster care and incarceration – good call!  There’s always a buck to be made off of someone else’s misery – strike fast before another beats you to it!

The City of Philadelphia is taking some modest steps to address the problem.  They currently have a modest, six month, $500,000 pilot program to provide enhanced legal representation for tenants facing eviction – compared to a $155 million, permanent program New York City provides its low income population.  An Eviction Task Force has been studying the problem and has made some modest recommendations, including: 1) low interest loans for small landlords to make repairs; 2) a pre-complaint resolution process to reach a compromise before court; 3) a permanent fund to increase legal representation for low income tenants; 4) expunging eviction filings and judgments after three years (currently they’re permanent); 5) providing a bridge fund to prevent tenants who are only a few hundred dollars behind from being evicted.

All good and helpful, but guaranteed not to solve the basic, structural problem: the rent is too damn high, the income is too damn low, and the government is too damn cheap in failing to provide subsidized housing to more than a fraction of those who qualify for it.  Both Terruso’s article and Desmond’s book highlight individuals who are on Social Security Disability (SSI), which means they don’t work and receive a check of around $720 per month, plus food stamps.  It’s really hard to pay rent and survive in an urban area, or anywhere, on $720 per month.

When I was a small landlord, renting rooms in my house after my wife left, I had a stream of disabled roommates.  They paid me between $500-600 per month, leaving them $5-7 per day for expenses – and they all smoked, at $8-10 per pack!  Don’t know how they made it but they never worked, even though they weren’t completely disabled and were capable of employment, at least part time, if they weren’t afraid of losing their benefits.  They rarely left my house and spent their days cooking, eating, smoking, sleeping and watching television – what a waste of human potential!

People need to work more and be paid a decent wage for doing so.  Businesses should be made to pay a living wage of at least $15 per hour for adults, which is bare survival in urban America.  Governments should adjust their “cut off” points to encourage, rather than punish, people for working.  They also must compel developers to include more affordable units in their housing projects and provide sufficient vouchers and public housing units for those who genuinely need them.  Housing is a basic need, so should be a right, as long as an individual is willing, if able, to work for it.  The current disability system is a scandal, but that will be the subject of a future post.

The High Cost of Poverty

A recent op ed by Dr. Mark Rank, professor of social welfare policy at Washington University, states that a majority of Americans will be poor at some point in their lives.  I went on his website, confrontingpoverty.org  and clicked on the “Poverty Risk Calculator.”  By entering only five variables – my race, age, sex, education and marital status, I found I had a 20% chance of falling below the official poverty rate in ten years and at 25% risk over 15.  Now, those acquainted with my checkered work history know I’m well familiar with poverty, both before and after my marriage, but I’m an outlier here.  A white, middle aged college graduate with three MA degrees should have the world on a string, rather than working three jobs to keep the wolf away from the door.

Others have it far worse, of course.  I am working as a long term substitute teacher in the Philadelphia Juvenile Justice Service Center, instructing, as best I can, adjudicated youth awaiting a hearing and placement.  I’d estimate 80-85% are black, 10% Hispanic, less than 5% white and NO Asians I’ve seen.  Nearly all, I’d wager, come from poor families.  Counting total personnel – teachers, administrators, counselors, secretaries, residential staff, judges, lawyers, technicians, security, custodial etc. – there are more people working here, making a living (with health & pension benefits) off the backs of the poor, than being housed.  I’m told confinement costs, on average, about $975 per day per youth.  This is an extremely costly way to “correct” the costs of poverty, if in fact that ever happens.

Rank and his colleague, Michael McLaughlin, calculate the cost of childhood poverty to the nation at $1.03 trillion in 2015.  This was 5.4% of total GDP or an amount equal to 28% of the federal budget.  Consider that the recent GOP tax “reform” effort is aimed at increasing economic growth from 2.5 to 3% annually, mainly to benefit the rich, at a cost of $1.5 trillion over ten years.  This tells you where our priorities lie.  Further, they estimate that each dollar spent on reducing childhood poverty saves the country $7 in the long run in increased productivity, lower health care costs and incarceration rates.  I’m not sure how they calculate this, but the general principle makes sense.

The piece is short, with few details.  Crucially, how do you reduce childhood poverty without helping the adults on whom they depend for survival?  Other than Social Security Disability (which averages $750 per month) the Earned Income Tax Credit (worth up to $4000 per year for a worker with 3 minor children earning around $30,000) and Food Stamps ($100 – $300 a month) we have little to help the poor, working or non.  A true child anti-poverty policy would focus on increasing the employability and incomes of the adults who care for them.  These folks, however, get scant attention in the policy process, as they have few advocates, make no campaign contributions and vote at lower rates than the wealthy.  So, like the old Fram oil filter commercial used to say, “You can pay me now or pay me later.”  We, in our shortsightedness and hardheartedness, have chosen the latter path – and we pay for it.