Trump and Puerto Rico

Remember when Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico last fall, a week or two after the devastation of Hurricane Maria?  He threw paper towels to the crowd, boasted of the size (why is he always so obsessed about size?)  of the recovery effort and bragged that the island had “only” experienced 14 deaths, compared to the 2500 plus from Hurricane Katrina.  Later he criticized residents for not doing enough to help themselves and got into a Twitter spat with San Juan’s mayor – sad!

Well, the stats are in and once again our president is exposed for peddling falsehoods, whether intentional or not.  In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Harvard School of Public Health and others updated the figures through December 31, 2017.  Using a survey of 3299 households (why not 3300?), they concluded the actual death toll was 4645, or 70 times the Puerto Rican government’s official total of 64.  Comparing figures with 2016, this represented a 62% increase in mortality on the island that year.

At least 1/3 of increased deaths were attributed to delayed/denied medical care.  It’s not clear, from reading the report, what the other 2/3 were caused by.  The average household went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without running water and 41 days without cell phone coverage.   The further you were from a major population center, the longer you waited.  Today, nine months later, over 30,000 residents still lack electricity.

I traveled to Puerto Rico between Christmas and New Years of last year, seeking warmth but also interested in assessing the damage.  I stayed in San Juan (most of the outlying hotels were still damaged) but spent three days driving around the countryside, sacrificing beach time and a killer tan!  Some observations: the island is small but densely populated, with 3.5 million souls spread throughout.  The map from my rental car agency showed many small towns and cities with large green areas in between.  I assumed these would be fields and forests – not so.  Instead, I drove up and down winding roads over endless mountains with houses perched, continuously and precariously, on the side.  Outside of a few parks, very little land was unsettled.

This would present a logistical challenge in the best of times, which this obviously wasn’t.  Power and water lines would need to be stretched foot by foot across the whole island.  Worse, the power grid was on the verge of collapse before the storm, as was the government, with over $85 billion in unpayable debts.  Bureaucratic snafus worsened the problem.  A FEMA contractor staying at my hotel said the main problem was the lack of supplies, particularly power lines.  Later they discovered many thousands of miles of power lines sitting unused in warehouses in Florida, waiting for authorization to ship.

The ocean, too, became a problem.  Puerto Rico is a large island 200+ miles off the mainland, not a compact geographical zone around Houston, Texas.  With these logistical challenges and less than half the per capita GDP as the mainland US, Puerto Ricans were at a distinct disadvantage in “helping themselves.”  Add political impotence to the equation.  The island is a “commonwealth,” or territory, not a state.  They have no Congressman or Senators and they don’t vote for President.  Nor do, I suspect, many residents contribute large sums of money to US campaigns to buy “access” to favored politicians.  They were, in a word, screwed.

I’m not sure exactly what should have been done but the answer, obviously, is much more.  Let’s start with something near and dear to Trump’s cold heart.  He signed and helped push through an increase in the Defense (a misnomer) budget to over $700 billion for a country with no natural enemies or fear of foreign invasion.  What’s it all for?  Why not take a small portion of that money and use it for civilian reconstruction, especially since the Army and its marvelous Corps of Engineers are the only federal agency with the organizational capacity, resources, knowledge and skill to handle such a mammoth task?

Hurricane season is upon us again.  Let’s hope and pray that Puerto Rico is spared any major storms in this and coming years.  It is a lovely island with warm, beautiful people whose major downfall is to have been made, in effect, a “colony” (not a state) of the USA in 1898.  Nevertheless, they are US citizens, hence our brothers and sisters (hermanos y hermanas).  Let’s treat them that way now and in any future hour of need.

Death by Uber

Last Sunday morning I opened my Philadelphia Inquirer to find a front page story titled “In Cabs or Ride-Sharing Vehicles, Drivers Struggle to Scrape By.”  It described the plight of one Bangladeshi immigrant taxi driver, Shah Golamkader, who has seen his income plunge by over one third since Uber and Lyft entered the Philadelphia market in 2014, even though he’s driving more hours than ever.  He switched to Uber for a time, then returned to the cab company after finding he made no more money and had to sacrifice his personal vehicle in the process.  Either way, he concluded, “If you’re driving a taxi cab or Uber, you have no money.”

On the way up to New York City with my daughter a few hours later, I heard that the body of a taxi driver, Burmese immigrant Yu Mein Chow, was found in the East River.  He was the fifth New York taxi driver to commit suicide in as many months.  Mr. Chow purchased a taxi medallion in 2011 for $700,00, a good deal at the time.  Today it is worth less than $100,000, but he still has to make payments on the existing loan, a task now impossible since his income was cut in half by Uber.  A day before his death he tried to make a loan payment but his credit card was rejected.  The next day he jumped off a bridge into the East River, leaving behind a daughter in college and wife battling cancer.

I confess a personal interest in this story, since I have been doing some Uber driving since January.  The money’s okay for a part time gig but you can’t live on it.  The fares are so low (and the company takes 20% for booking them) that you only make money at peak times during “surge” prices, when they raise rates to cover increased demand.  Unfortunately, but predictably, this leads drivers to “flood the zone,” resulting in less rides per driver. Since they pay no salary, benefits, gas or vehicle maintenance, Uber has every incentive to sign up as many drivers as possible to maximize coverage and customer satisfaction.  On the way home I heard a radio ad and saw a billboard touting the great benefits of Uber driving. I sadly shook my head and thought of P.T. Barnum’s phrase, “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

The bottom line is, in exchange for your cheap ride and my driver’s pittance, Uber (and to a lesser extent Lyft) have ruined the taxi business.  Rides and revenue in Philadelphia have declined nearly 50% since 2014, and similarly in New York and other cities.  This has crushed the livelihoods and spirits of tens of thousands of hard working people, many of them immigrants, who work 12-14 hour days, 6 days a week, and still can’t make a living.  They are precisely analogous to the millions of “forgotten” men and women who lost their good paying factory jobs and voted for Trump in 2016. They worked hard, played by the rules and got screwed through no fault of their own. They need and deserve our help.

State and local governments should immediately impose a tax of at least $1 per ride on Uber, Lyft and their ilk, to “level the field” in terms of fares.  They should use it to help taxi companies and public transportation adjust and retool their services, as well as to repair roads which increased congestion has damaged.  Uber and Lyft are predatory competitors who take advantage of their “independent contractors” to destroy family sustaining jobs.  The only ones who truly benefit are the “mafia” and their minions in Silicon Valley, who take a cut on every transaction.  As for you, do you really need to save those few bucks to get to the airport or go crosstown?  You might ask a friend to drive you or take public transportation if the fare actually represented the true cost, socially speaking.

“The drivers are the sorry losers in it,” says David King of Arizona State U, who has studied the industry.  “That’s kind of the larger narrative about deregulation and the technology enabled gig economy.”  Think about that the next time you click the Uber or Lyft apps.  Think it doesn’t apply to you?  Who knows what automation and artificial intelligence will do to your job in the near future?  If compassion and solidarity isn’t enough to move you, consider this: “Whatsoever you do (or don’t) to least of my children, that you do unto me.” (Matthew 25: 40)  The life you save may be your own.

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.”