By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 18, 2012
“The Big Freaking Deal”: Progressives Might Want To Take A Brief Break From Anxiety And Savor Their Real Victories
On the day President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act into law, an exuberant Vice President Biden famously pronounced the reform a “big something deal” — except that he didn’t use the word “something.” And he was right.
In fact, I’d suggest using this phrase to describe the Obama administration as a whole. F.D.R. had his New Deal; well, Mr. Obama has his Big Deal. He hasn’t delivered everything his supporters wanted, and at times the survival of his achievements seemed very much in doubt. But if progressives look at where we are as the second term begins, they’ll find grounds for a lot of (qualified) satisfaction.
Consider, in particular, three areas: health care, inequality and financial reform.
Health reform is, as Mr. Biden suggested, the centerpiece of the Big Deal. Progressives have been trying to get some form of universal health insurance since the days of Harry Truman; they’ve finally succeeded.
True, this wasn’t the health reform many were looking for. Rather than simply providing health insurance to everyone by extending Medicare to cover the whole population, we’ve constructed a Rube Goldberg device of regulations and subsidies that will cost more than single-payer and have many more cracks for people to fall through.
But this was what was possible given the political reality — the power of the insurance industry, the general reluctance of voters with good insurance to accept change. And experience with Romneycare in Massachusetts — hey, this is a great age for irony — shows that such a system is indeed workable, and it can provide Americans with a huge improvement in medical and financial security.
What about inequality? On that front, sad to say, the Big Deal falls very far short of the New Deal. Like F.D.R., Mr. Obama took office in a nation marked by huge disparities in income and wealth. But where the New Deal had a revolutionary impact, empowering workers and creating a middle-class society that lasted for 40 years, the Big Deal has been limited to equalizing policies at the margin.
That said, health reform will provide substantial aid to the bottom half of the income distribution, paid for largely through new taxes targeted on the top 1 percent, and the “fiscal cliff” deal further raises taxes on the affluent. Over all, 1-percenters will see their after-tax income fall around 6 percent; for the top tenth of a percent, the hit rises to around 9 percent. This will reverse only a fraction of the huge upward redistribution that has taken place since 1980, but it’s not trivial.
Finally, there’s financial reform. The Dodd-Frank reform bill is often disparaged as toothless, and it’s certainly not the kind of dramatic regime change one might have hoped for after runaway bankers brought the world economy to its knees.
Still, if plutocratic rage is any indication, the reform isn’t as toothless as all that. And Wall Street put its money where its mouth is. For example, hedge funds strongly favored Mr. Obama in 2008 — but in 2012 they gave three-quarters of their money to Republicans (and lost).
All in all, then, the Big Deal has been, well, a pretty big deal. But will its achievements last?
Mr. Obama overcame the biggest threat to his legacy simply by winning re-election. But George W. Bush also won re-election, a victory widely heralded as signaling the coming of a permanent conservative majority. So will Mr. Obama’s moment of glory prove equally fleeting? I don’t think so.
For one thing, the Big Deal’s main policy initiatives are already law. This is a contrast with Mr. Bush, who didn’t try to privatize Social Security until his second term — and it turned out that a “khaki” election won by posing as the nation’s defender against terrorists didn’t give him a mandate to dismantle a highly popular program.
And there’s another contrast: the Big Deal agenda is, in fact, fairly popular — and will become more popular once Obamacare goes into effect and people see both its real benefits and the fact that it won’t send Grandma to the death panels.
Finally, progressives have the demographic and cultural wind at their backs. Right-wingers flourished for decades by exploiting racial and social divisions — but that strategy has now turned against them as we become an increasingly diverse, socially liberal nation.
Now, none of what I’ve just said should be taken as grounds for progressive complacency. The plutocrats may have lost a round, but their wealth and the influence it gives them in a money-driven political system remain. Meanwhile, the deficit scolds (largely financed by those same plutocrats) are still trying to bully Mr. Obama into slashing social programs.
So the story is far from over. Still, maybe progressives — an ever-worried group — might want to take a brief break from anxiety and savor their real, if limited, victories.
By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columist, The New York Times, January 20, 2013
The Perils of Pauline melodrama over the “fiscal cliff” will drag on as Washington heads toward another “debt ceiling” faceoff that will climax over the next eight weeks or so.
This farce captivates the media, but no one should be fooled. This is largely a debate about how much damage will be done to the economic recovery and who will bear the pain. There is bipartisan consensus that the tax hikes and spending cuts that Congress and the White House piled up to build the so-called fiscal cliff are too painful and will drive the economy into a recession. So the folderol is about what mix of taxes and spending cuts they can agree on that won’t be as harsh.
Largely missing is any discussion of how to fix the economy, to make it work for working people once more. Just sustaining the faltering recovery won’t get it done. We’re still struggling with mass unemployment, declining wages and worsening inequality. Corporate profits now capture an all-time record percentage of the economy; workers’ wages have hit an all-time low. A little constriction, or a lot, won’t do anything to change that reality.
So how about a New Year’s resolution for Washington’s political class: Vow to focus on what can be done to fix the economy, rather than on how much to lacerate it. That would require dealing with causes, not effects. And those surely would include:
Inequality: Clearly — as even the International Monetary Fund has recognized — extreme inequality saps the effective demand needed for a robust economy.
We need to rebuild a middle class if we want to again have a vibrant, growing economy. That requires a lot more than repealing the Bush tax breaks for the top 2 percent. We should be lifting the minimum wage, empowering workers to bargain for a fair share of the productivity and profits they help to generate, and limiting CEO pay packages that give them multimillion-dollar incentives to ship jobs abroad or plunder their own companies. Congress and the White House might also imitate the Federal Reserve and keep pressing the stimulus pedal until we move much closer to full employment.
Catastrophic climate change: Gross domestic product registers growth when people go to work picking up the pieces after a climate disaster, but Americans suffer rather than benefit. It’s long past time for the United States to get serious about global warming, make the investments needed to capture a lead in the green industrial revolution that is sweeping the world, end the subsidies to Big Oil and King Coal, and help the movement to clean energy.
Fixing health care: The wrongheaded agonizing over whether to cut scholarships for poor students or lay off food inspectors ignores the gorilla in the accounting books. Our long-term budget deficits are a consequence of our broken health-care system. If we spent per capita what other industrial nations spend on health care (with, incidentally, better health results), we would be projecting surpluses. This isn’t about stripping 65-year-olds of Medicare; it’s about taking on the drug and insurance companies and hospital complexes that drive up our costs. Affordable health care is a right, not a privilege.
Rebuilding America. While Washington hyperventilates about cutting spending, the excesses of this conservative era have starved society of essential building blocks. A high-wage economy needs a modern, efficient, world-class infrastructure to be competitive. Families depend on effective governance for clean air and water, safe sewage, enforcement of occupational safety standards, world-class schools and more. Our debate has deteriorated to the point that a Democratic president brags that domestic discretionary spending — which covers basic public services from the Coast Guard to child nutrition — will be cut to a share of the economy not seen since Eisenhower. That is, in a word, goofy.
Why not at least begin an informed discussion of the services we need and the ways we can afford them?
The Congressional Progressive Caucus has started that discussion with its “Deal For All” — a smart mix of fair-share taxes and cuts designed to ensure that those who never benefited from “shared prosperity” don’t get whacked unjustly by the prevailing mantra of “shared sacrifice.”
Americans, sensibly enough, will grow more disgusted with Washington whatever resolution is reached on the fiscal cliff over these next weeks. Politicians will continue to fight about how much damage to do, not how to build what comes next. What the country needs is legislators who will focus on building rather than dismantling.
By: Katrina vanden Heuvel, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 31, 2012
“Something Is Stirring”: There Is New Space For Debate And Rethinking Of The Catholic Church’s Rightward Tilt
To say that the Belle Harbor neighborhood on New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula was slammed by Hurricane Sandy understates the case. Like many other parts of the region, it has suffered the kind of devastation we usually associate with wars.
In these circumstances, people turn to government, yes, but they look first to trusted friends and to neighborhood institutions that combine deep local knowledge with a degree of empathy that arises only from a long connection with residents of a particular place.
Two of my brothers-in-law who have been washed out of their homes are involved in one such group, the Graybeards, a local nonprofit recently featured on the “NBC Nightly News.” They immediately took up the task of restoring the city blocks they love.
And at the heart of the relief effort is the Roman Catholic parish of St. Francis de Sales, the epicenter of so many practical works of mercy that it has received a mountain of earned media attention. The Post published a photo last week of a big Thanksgiving dinner organized in the parish gym where I once watched my nephews and my niece compete fiercely on the basketball court. Last week, for a moment anyway, competition gave way to fellowship.
I intend to come back again to the determined struggle of this neighborhood to rebuild. But I also hope that the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops contemplating the future of the church’s public and political engagement notice how the witness of this parish has inspired people far beyond the confines of Catholicism.
During the presidential campaign, many bishops, though by no means all, seemed to enlist firmly on one side of a highly contested election. The church didn’t endorse anyone, but some bishops made clear their preference for Mitt Romney over President Obama. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia was about as clear as he could be short of putting a Romney-Ryan sticker on his car.
“I certainly can’t vote for somebody who’s either pro-choice or pro-abortion,” he told the National Catholic Reporter. On the other hand, he said of low-tax conservatives: “You can’t say that somebody’s not Christian because they want to limit taxation.” No doubt Paul Ryan smiled.
For such bishops, the election came as a shock. I’m told by people who attended the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops post-election meeting this month in Baltimore that many of them had been convinced Romney would win. Yet Romney not only lost; he also narrowly lost the Catholic vote, partly because of overwhelming support for Obama among Latinos, the fastest-growing group in the church.
The fallout: disarray in the Bishops’ Conference. This is actually good news. One person’s disarray is another’s openness. There is now new space for debate and a rethinking of the church’s tilt rightward over the past several years.
One surprising result in Baltimore was the refusal to endorse a vague statement on the economy after the document came under attack from more progressive bishops for failing to deal adequately with inequality, the rights of unions and poverty. Rarely does a document reach the floor of the conference and then fail to win the two-thirds majority necessary for approval. Something is stirring.
There are also influential bishops who now want to work with the Obama administration to secure a compromise on the contraception mandate under the health-care law. This, too, would be a positive break with the recent past, and the president should seize the opportunity. He can provide contraception coverage while building on the adjustments he has already made in the mandate to accommodate the church’s legitimate conscience concerns. And there’s nothing that should stop the bishops from cooperating with the administration and other progressives on behalf of immigration reform.
But above all, the bishops need to learn what I’ll call the St. Francis de Sales lesson. A church looking to halt defections among so many younger Catholics should understand that casting itself as a militantly right-wing political organization — which, face it, is what some of the bishops are doing — clouds its Christian message. Worse, the church seems to be going out of its way to hide its real treasure: the extraordinary examples of generosity and social reconstruction visible every day in parishes such as St. Francis and in the homeless shelters, schools, hospices and countless other Catholic entities all over the nation.
Politics divides Catholics. The works of mercy bring us together and also show the world what the power of faith can achieve.
By: E. J. Dionne Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 25, 2012
While the election is dominated by talk of the economy and Mitt Romney’s latest foreign policy blunder, don’t lose sight of one important fact: Perhaps nothing will have a bigger impact on the United States’ future than the Supreme Court. And with four justices above the age of 70, the next president of the United States could have enormous power to shape the court for generations to come. Age is not, as Playboy mogul Hugh Hefner has suggested, just a number.
In a government paralyzed by partisan gridlock on the most important matters of the day, the Supreme Court has become what Bill Moyers calls “The Decider.” A majority of the justices has taken a far right turn in its decisions.
This extremism has a history. In 1971, Lewis Powell, then a corporate lawyer and soon to be a Supreme Court justice, wrote a memo at the request of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, urging it to push for an activist, pro-business court that would rubber-stamp its agenda. Powell’s memo laid the groundwork for a right-wing rise in all areas of public life, including law firms, think tanks, campus organizations and media outlets. The 1987 failed Supreme Court nomination of right-wing ideologue Robert Bork was, in hindsight, only a setback in the movement to push the court toward the right. Extremists including Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito would eventually be confirmed.
For much of the past 40 years, even as the court has contributed to growing inequality and the enrichment of the 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent, public opinion has largely and consistently favored the justices. But today, after a series of 5 to 4 decisions in high-profile cases such as Bush v. Gore, Citizens United and the Affordable Care Act, 75 percent of Americans believe that the justices’ decisions are influenced by their personal or political views.
They’re right. The court headed by right-wing Chief Justice John Roberts has suppressed the ability to organize through labor unions. It has weakened the right to bring class-action lawsuits. It has impeded ordinary people’s access to courts. It has given corporations more power — and personhood — to inflict their will on Americans. It has shielded financial institutions from accountability. It even threatened the Constitution’s commerce clause in its health-care decision, putting a range of social programs and protections at risk.
Unless progressives find a new way forward, the juris-corporatists will only strengthen their grip on our courts. As Alliance for Justice President Nan Aron outlines in this week’s issue of the Nation (which is devoted to the 1 percent court), progressives cannot sit on the sidelines. Indeed, they should take a page from the Powell playbook, adopting “a new way of thinking about the courts, new tactics for shaping the public debate, and a whole lots more energy from the left.”
Progressives should focus on “building the bench for the bench” with a pipeline of progressive legal talent ready to fill judicial appointments — and a Senate that understands the importance of those candidates. And just as conservatives have used the courts to mobilize their supporters, progressives must make this a galvanizing issue. This means educating the public about how Supreme Court decisions impact almost every aspect of their lives. Moreover, progressives must reshape the debate by exposing the hypocrisy of a right wing that criticizes so-called “activist judges” on the left while aggressively pushing justices who legislate from the bench.
In the four decades since the Powell memo, the right has understood and used the power of the courts to shape U.S. politics, U.S. policies and the U.S. economy, while progressives simply haven’t demonstrated the same intensity on this issue.
In this election year, with so much at stake, there is an enormous opportunity to close that intensity gap. Unless the Supreme Court becomes a central issue in this election, progressives are at risk of losing everything they care about, fought for and won.
This is no exaggeration. Let’s not forget that Mitt Romney has resurrected Bork as his chief judicial adviser. This is a man who would overturn Roe v. Wade, who doesn’t think the equal protection clause applies to women, who consistently favors corporations over citizens, who opposes voting rights. He originally opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act! As Sen. Edward Kennedy said before the Senate rejected the nomination, in Bork’s America, “the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is — and is often the only — protector of the individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.”
With Mitt Romney in the White House, Bork would be in a position to reverse the progress the United States has made to expand its democracy.
In this election, Americans have a choice that is bigger than the next four years. They will choose between those who would turn the clock back economically, culturally and socially to the days before the New Deal, or those who want to build a more just, fair and diverse 21st-century society.
At an event this weekend marking the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, I was reminded why the success of these protests was so improbable in the first place. It wasn’t just that we’d tried this sort of thing before and it had never worked. It wasn’t the predominance of anarchists, whom we were all accustomed to dismissing as the irrelevant fringe at progressive protests. It was also the smell. New York City smells bad enough on its own. But put populists in a public encampment for a few days and it stinks. After months, it’s repulsive.
I was an early skeptic of Occupy Wall Street. “I want to know what democracy looks like, not what it smells like,” I wrote at the time. This was a roundabout way of criticizing the movement for its lack of polish, its incoherent leadership structure, its fuzzy demands—all that chaos that was swarming around Zuccotti Park. On its face, Occupy was a Type A organizer’s worst nightmare.
Yet, in spite of the odds that stood against it, Occupy Wall Street did not repel America, but attracted it, crystallizing and dramatizing the inequality that has become the central political struggle of our time. In the wake of an economic collapse that devastated every community in America and with a progressive movement that had been unable to respond to small crises—let alone major ones—with any unity of purpose or voice, Occupy stepped into the void. With threadbare blankets, it somehow wove together the disparate agendas of the left. Like the countless tent poles at protests across the country, Occupy gave the too-often cowering American left a spine.
But what, a year later, can we say the movement accomplished? Reflecting on Occupy’s anniversary, The New York Times, columnist Joe Nocera quoted a Prospect story that asked, “Can Occupy Wall Street Become the Liberal Tea Party?” Nocera wrote, “A year later, we know the answer: It can’t, and it isn’t. For all intents and purposes, the Occupy movement is dead, even as the Tea Party lives on.”
But perhaps this is the wrong measure of success.
The tactics and grassroots energy that Occupy harnessed were nothing new to the left. Certainly, its scale was unlike anything seen in decades, but progressive organizations—from Code Pink to MoveOn to the Rainforest Action Network—had long engaged in direct action and employed community-organizing-style tactics to build consensus. No, Occupy’s contribution was to give progressives a simple, effective way to talk about economic justice. That “We are the 99 percent” became such a powerful refrain was almost as refreshing as the fact that often-insular progressive organizations quickly took it up. The idea of the 99 percent didn’t take hold just because Occupy was chanting it, but because the narrative was repeated in e-mail after e-mail, speech after speech, report after report across the institutional left. Then, it crossed into the mainstream. “Just pay attention to political coverage,” says J. Matthew Smucker, who was involved at Zuccotti Park early on. “The number of times the 1 percent or the 99 percent are mentioned? It’s still not enough, but the conversation has definitely changed.” Occupy didn’t change the agenda for progressives; it changed how that agenda was articulated and for once got the rest of the country to talk about it.
But it wasn’t just the rhetoric that changed. “Occupy empowered the floundering progressive movement,” says Jodie Evans, co-founder of the activist group Code Pink. “Pieces of the Occupy movement live on inside an enormous number of organizations who will carry that spark forward.” Some of that work will continue to include protest tactics, like those of Code Pink (which occupied spaces long before Occupy even existed). While Occupy has favored protests over political engagement, the progressive movement that was inspired and invigorated by Occupy includes many organizations focused on electoral strategies, concrete policy advocacy and much more. In other words, Occupy is not the equivalent of the Tea Party; the progressive movement is. And Occupy made that movement more populist and powerful.
I was wrong about Occupy Wall Street. In pulling us professional progressives away from our business meetings and relentless focus on incrementalism, it reminded us all that dramatic, awe-inspiring change is possible. A year later, while the crowd celebrating the Occupy anniversary is still pretty stinky, the possibility for achieving big and bold change now fills the air all around us. And that has never smelled sweeter.
BY: Sally Kohn, The American Prospect, September 17, 2012