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.

 

 

 

 

Voting Matters

It is finally spring (really summer last week, with temps in the 90s) and another election rolls around.  I’ll be voting in the Democratic primary in 8 days.  This is kind of a big deal here in South Philly, since whoever wins the primary basically has the general election locked up, with the 8-1 Democratic registration advantage in the city.   This itself is a problem, since Republicans get no representation and Democrats usually have few choices amidst entrenched incumbents backed by the party machine.

Despite news reports of highly energized and mobilized Democratic voters, eager to cast a symbolic blow against Trump and retake the Congress, I see little evidence of this in my neighborhood.  The Governor, US Senator and my state representative are running unopposed.  The one exception is the newly created 5th Congressional District where I reside.  Here, with an open seat after long time incumbent Rep. Bob Brady stepped down amid scandal, there are an incredible 13 (!) candidates running, according to the City Commissioners sample ballot.  Yet you wouldn’t know this unless you dug it up on the web.

Only two candidates, Rich Lazer and Molly Sheehan, have posted signs along major roads and medians (we don’t have lawns in South Philly).  Only one, a young Chinese American woman named Lindy Li, has sent me any mailers.  There was a candidates’ night at South Philly High last week, but I only found out about it in the Inquirer after it occurred.  I have heard no conversations about the race in my normal travels around the neighborhood.  I’m thinking about reinstalling my landline so I can at least get robo calls again on my answering machine!

If past trends continue, and I see no reason they won’t, only about 20-25% of registered voters will show up at the primary.  With 13 candidates (or 6-8, no matter) the winner will be elected by only a fraction of the district’s voters.  They will cruise to victory in an uncompetitive  general election, then use the advantages of incumbency and the party machine to stay in office as long as they please, even for decades.  Is this any way to run a “representative” democracy?

No wonder people feel ignored and reach for phony populists who promise to bring their jobs back to dying industries in crumbling towns.  It’s a two edged sword – people would be better represented if they voted and engaged in the system more often, yet they feel their vote doesn’t matter in a “rigged” system structured to primarily serve incumbents and the special interests that keep them in office.  In a democracy as well as the marketplace, you get what you pay for, in money or votes.  If you’re not rich, vote!