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!

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.

 

 

 

 

7 & 1/2 Cents Doesn’t Buy a Hell of a Lot

Last week I had the pleasure to twice watch my daughter’s school play, The Pajama Game.  Set in a 1954 garment factory in Iowa City, the all female workforce is determined to get the same $0.075 per hour wage increase that other industry workers have already received.  Aside from the brilliance of the performers and a father’s pride, three things stood out for me: the modesty of their demands, the tenacity with which they pursued their just claims, and the fact they had a union representing them, so, despite their work slowdown and other tactics, none could be fired – except for the plant manager’s sweetheart who deliberately sabotaged the power line and fessed up to it.

In 1954, when the play was set, 33% of private sector workers were represented by a labor union; today,  less than 7% are.  This is one of the greatest accomplishments of the conservative business elite in ushering in the 2nd Great Age of Inequality, following the “Gilded Age” from the 1880s to 1920s.  They used rising globalization to move jobs to Southern or Western “right to work” (for less) states or beyond our borders, literally destroying millions of good paying, union jobs in the process.  Neither Democrats or Republicans did anything about it, but happily raked in the outsize campaign contributions of these bloodsuckers.  Then, in desperation, the victims elected to President the ultimate charlatan, who promised to bring their jobs back but has only succeeded in passing a tax cut highly favorable to rich while cutting environmental, health and safety regulations that put their health and lives at risk – bastards!

Justice is often delayed, but can’t be ultimately denied.  Today, Colorado teachers joined their peers in conservative, “right to work” (for less) states like West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma, in demanding decent salaries and adequate resources for their classrooms.  If the previous examples apply, they will win their battle and taxes will be raised enough to accomplish their modest objective.  These states have teacher’s unions but they are weak, as no one can be compelled to join them.  Having once spent two weeks trying to recruit new AFT members in Texas, I know what they’re up against.  But sooner or later someone has to say, like Howard Beale inn the movie Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”  What’s your breaking point?

 

Small is Beautiful?

I’ve recently been thinking that the rising economic inequality over the past 40 years may have, at least in part, a simple but vexing source – the sheer size and scope of modern businesses.  After all, it’s impossible to become a millionaire, let alone a billionaire, with the small, individually owned businesses that still prevail in much of my South Philadelphia neighborhood.

A recent piece by David Leonhardt, “Big Business is Too Big,” redrew my attention to the topic.  I also, over Easter, borrowed my brother in law’s copy of Titan, the biography of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow (later of Hamilton fame).  Since we’re in a “New Gilded Age,” with levels of economic inequality unseen since the late 19th century, there must be a direct, causal connection between the size of a business and the amount of profit you can pull out of it.   This is especially true of capitalism, which rewards ownership over all else, including character, wisdom and social utility.  After all, Donald Trump became a billionaire (or so he says) by bankrupting businesses, stiffing contractors and slapping his name on any building or product he could find.  Do we need further proof that wealth and merit are not necessarily related?

Whatever happened to antitrust laws?  The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 is generally hailed as the first major piece of legislation in the Progressive era.  Weakly enforced at first, it was used to great effect in the later Great Depression and post World War II periods, ushering the greatest period of economic growth and shared prosperity in US history.   It fell out of favor at the outset of the first Reagan administration (of course), which relied on Chicago School of “free” markets which argued, like Rockefeller, Carnegie and other “Robber Barons” that huge size equals “efficiency.”  The only standard would be consumer impact – that a merger or consolidation not drastically increase prices.

Since then we have witnessed the “Great Divide” between workers and corporations.  US productivity nearly doubled between the 1980s and 2015, yet average wages rose only 12%.  All the rest of the money went to owners, executives and shareholders, exploding economic equality.  According to the recent Roosevelt Institute report, Powerless: How Lax Antitrust and Concentrated Market Power Rig the Economy…

huge firms with “monopsony power” hurt workers and consumers by suppressing wages, raising prices, stifling investment, innovation, research and development, job creation, crushing labor unions and restricting labor mobility through practices like  “no poaching” agreements and “non compete” clauses.

Rising mergers and acquisitions (from less than 2,000 per year in 1980 to 15,000 annually after 2000) rig the economy “against the many for the benefit of the few.”  Normally occurring in major metropolitan areas, they decimate rural communities and small businesses, whose survivors then vote for “populist” phonies like Trump who promise to “bring your jobs back.”  This can’t happen, however, because concentrated wealth perverts the political system to over-respond to the demands of individual companies and industry trade associations, who benefit from the very policies they’re protesting in the first place.

When I was in college I read (or was supposed to) a book called Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, by E.F. Shumacher.  I’d like to pick it up again, but you get the gist by the title.  It’s probably too late to return to the early capitalism Adam Smith described in The Wealth of Nations, 1776, based on the “perfect competition” of many small businesses producing fairly uniform products with complete information about the local market.  This seems to work well for the numerous pizza and hoagie shops in my neighborhood, but maybe not for globally traded goods and services.  Yet constantly placing “efficiency” over “equity” in our scheme of values is a formula for emptiness and oppression.

A growing number of economists are calling for reviving antitrust policy, breaking up huge, monopolistic firms and better regulating competition and market structure to serve the needs of workers, consumers and citizens, not just owners, executives and shareholders.   This is one more strand of the web of inequality that is choking us and it deserves serious consideration.