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“Clearly In Peril”: Thomas Jefferson’s View Of Equality Under Siege

On the 236th anniversary of our nation’s birth — squalling to the world in our very first utterance that all men were created equal and endowed with unalienable rights — the essence of our politics remains who exactly are those men who are self-evidently equal and inherently vested with those rights. Over the subsequent two-plus centuries, we’ve invoked the spirit of our primal shout every time we’ve expanded our definition of equal men — when we moved to popular elections, abolished slavery, gave women the vote, enacted civil rights legislation and today, when gays and lesbians are winning the equal status and unalienable rights that heterosexual Americans take for granted.

But the author of our founding declaration was concerned with more than legal equality. Thomas Jefferson envisioned a nation of yeoman farmers (and, to be sure, slaveholders like himself) and wanted it to remain chiefly rural to avoid the concentration of wealth and power that would come if the nation urbanized and if finance grew into a dominant sector. His great rival Alexander Hamilton feared that the nation would remain a backwater absent cities, finance and manufacturing. As Treasury secretary, Hamilton used the powers of the nascent republic to foster industry and development. As the United States grew into the world’s dominant economy, the concerns that Jefferson voiced grew more acute. How could the United States retain its formal equality and civic virtue in the face of towering economic inequality that enabled the rich to dominate our political system?

In the first half of the 20th century, both Roosevelts and their allies devised reforms to restore some of Jefferson’s egalitarianism in what was, by then, Hamilton’s America. Progressive taxation, the establishment of wage and labor standards and the legalization of unions reduced economic inequality, while the prohibition of corporation donations to political campaigns diminished, somewhat, the wealthy’s sway over government.

But that, as they say, was then. The war that the American Right and corporate elites have waged against the Roosevelts’ Jefferson-Hamilton synthesis for the past 40 years has largely prevailed. Taxes have grown radically less progressive, the minimum wage has declined as a percentage of the median wage and unions’ legal protections to organize in the face of employer opposition have eroded. In consequence, wages are at their lowest level since the end of World War II as a share of the national income, and U.S. median household income is at roughly the same level it was 20 years ago. The nation is richer and more productive than it was 20 years ago, but all that added income and wealth has gone to the top 10 percent, and disproportionately to the richest 1 percent.

The growing concentration of wealth has led to a growing concentration of political power as well. The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission struck down 100 years of legal restraints on corporations’ ability to fund campaigns and buy elected officials. The court permitted unions to dip into their treasuries to fund campaigns too, but, as I noted last week, its decision last month in Knox v. Service Employees International Union, Local 1000 — issued by the same five conservative justices who promulgated Citizens United — created a legal double standard between unions and corporations. By virtue of Knox, a union must ask its members’ permission to spend on political campaigns, but a corporation need not ask its shareholders.

So how is our foundational assertion of equality faring on this July Fourth? As to social parity, it has seldom looked more robust. As to economic equality and the political equality with which it is inextricably intertwined, the picture is bleak. The mega-banks that plunged us into deep recession have had the political power to forestall their breakup. A handful of billionaires continues to donate unprecedented sums to election campaigns. The share of national income and wealth that goes to the vast majority of Americans continues to decline. The Republican Party — and the five Republican appointees to the Supreme Court — are committed to doctrines that will make these disparities more glaring. The recent exception to this trend is the health-care-reform act, which partially extends the Declaration’s assertion of equal rights to the realm of medical access. That’s no small achievement, but, with that single exception, on this July Fourth, Jefferson’s vision of equality is clearly in peril.

 

By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, July 3, 2012

July 4, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bereft Of Discernible Principles”: Our Strange Ideological Divide

When Democrats pursue centrist solutions to problems, Republicans react as though we were all just herded onto collective farms.

If you knew nothing about the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the picture you saw last Thursday of liberals celebrating and conservatives lamenting the end of American liberty would have convinced you that a monumental shift to the left had just taken place. Was the military budget cut by two-thirds or higher education made free for all Americans, you might have asked? At the very least, a universal, public health-insurance program must have been established. But no, the greatest ideological battle in decades was fought over a law that solidifies the position of private health-insurance companies.

That isn’t to ignore that those companies will be subject to greater regulation, outlawing their cruelest abuses of their customers, and millions will be added to the insurance program for the poor. The ACA is a very, very good thing, but after its full implementation we will still have the least socialized health-care system of any advanced country in the world. Yet to hear the ACA’s opponents tell it, the law will twist America into a socialist republic just a couple of short steps from Poland circa 1972. In other words, Democrats managed to pass a useful but rather centrist social reform, and Republicans reacted as though all private property were confiscated and we were herded onto collective farms. It’s enough to make one wonder what might have happened if a real-live liberal were to become president and pursue an agenda that even remotely resembles the caricature Republicans present of Barack Obama’s.

One thing we can be fairly sure of is that the ideology represented by that agenda would play almost no role in its chances for success or failure. Through no fault of his own, Obama has made sure of that. Republicans’ burning hatred of him has set the template for them, one they are likely to use again and again. When he embraced a health-care plan with Republican origins (an individual mandate plus subsidies) or a market-based notion of how to handle climate change (cap and trade), they not only turned away from those ideas but in the process also ran to the right even faster than they had been moving before. At the same time, they went about purging their ranks of anyone who had shown anything less than contempt for the other side. Those moderate (and many not-so-moderate) Republicans purged by Tea Party opponents in primaries will not be coming back.

The result is that in future debates, anything Democrats want to do—almost regardless of its content—will be met with cries of “socialism!” Obama could propose that the entire system of public education be dismantled in favor of private school vouchers, and Republicans would promptly declare the idea to be Marxist social engineering and come out for a system of private education without any taxpayer funds at all. The next Democratic presidential nominee could be Bernie Sanders or Joe Lieberman, and his ideas would be met with precisely the same response.

In many ways, Mitt Romney is the perfect candidate for this version of the GOP, bereft of discernible principles and willing to trot to the right at a moment’s notice. You may have noticed that despite the predictions of many a pundit, Romney did not “move to the center” upon becoming his party’s de facto nominee. There is not a single position he has taken that is at odds with the hard-right persona he established during the primaries—not a single radical nutball he has repudiated, not a single signal he has sent that he will be anything but what the Republican base wants him to be.

And what if Romney loses? The loudest voices in the party will insist that it was only because he was not conservative enough, and the pressure will be on to choose a nominee next time around who genuinely believes all the things Romney pretends to believe (get ready for Santorum ’16). Yet there may be a countervailing force within the party, likely led by Karl Rove, arguing that the GOP’s problem is a demographic one (Rove understands this well). It has increasingly become the party of white men, an evolution accelerated when its presidential primaries feature endless fear-mongering about immigration and slut-shaming of any woman more free-spirited than Queen Victoria. That demographic narrowing could prove disastrous this year. Ruy Teixeira, one of the clearest-eyed observers of electoral and demographic trends, argues that because of the growth in the minority populations that overwhelmingly support Obama, the president could lose white working-class voters by 28 points and white college-educated voters by 19 points and still win. In other words, he could do just as poorly with whites as Democrats did in the 2010 blowout and still be re-elected.

If that happens, will the Republicans try to moderate ideologically? The truth is, they don’t really have to. They were more conservative than ever in 2010 and won a historic electoral victory. Or consider the last Republican president. When he first took control of his party’s nominating contest in 2000, George W. Bush was hailed by innumerable commentators as a “different kind of Republican”—someone who could reach out to all kinds of voters with his “compassionate conservatism.” He was particularly good at convincing Latino voters that he bore them no ill will and lost their votes by a measly 9 points in 2004 (in the latest polls, Romney trails Obama among Latinos by more than 40 points). Yet what was the policy substance of Bush’s presidency? Massive tax cuts for the wealthy, needless wars costing trillions, a gargantuan expansion of the national-security state, a federal judiciary filled with movement conservatives—in other words, an eight-year orgy of conservative wish fulfillment.

Democrats certainly warned from the beginning that there was less compassion than conservatism in Bush’s ideas. But they had nothing like the collective freak-out that Republicans had over Barack Obama, casting his center-left accommodationism as a terrifying program to achieve radical socialist tyranny. They will say the same about the next Democratic president, no matter what his or her true leanings. Their own ideology, on the other hand, will be something that most Americans have only the vaguest sense about, and their policy radicalism will be no bar to winning elections. All it will take is the right economic conditions and some symbolic toning-down of their rhetoric to cover the twisted face of anger, resentment, and outright hate that increasingly defines their soul. They’ve done it before, and there’s no reason they can’t do it again.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 3, 2012

July 4, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012 | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mythical Republican Reform”: Will Romney Pretend to Have a Health Plan?

The health-care ruling has exposed a delicate dance within the Republican Party. Romney does not want to run on the health-care issue. To the extent that he wants to invoke the issue, it’s to flay Obama for having focused on it as a distraction from the economy, not as an ideological crusade against Big Government. But conservative activists want to be sure that, if Romney wins, he will commit his political capital to repealing the Affordable Care Act. Thus their current focus on demanding that Romney pledge to repeal the law (see Avik Roy, Keith Hennessey, Rich Lowry, and David Brooks, among many others).

The interesting thing about these conservatives’ arguments is that they are all committed, to varying degrees, to upholding the pretense that the Republican Party really wants to impose a more technocratically sound version of health-care reform. To be sure, they insist they are advocating a vastly different philosophical vision centered around self-empowerment and free markets and other wonderful things. But all of them say, or imply, that they share the basic goals of the Affordable Care Act, which is to make coverage available to all Americans and to control cost inflation. So, for instance, Lowry argues, “The two central selling points of the law — insuring millions more people and keeping people with pre-existing conditions from getting locked out of insurance — can be addressed with policies that are cheaper and less disruptive (a tax credit for purchase of insurance and high-risk pools, respectively).”

I see two problems with this hopeful scenario, both fatal.

The first is that the mythical Republican reform plan is really hard to pass. Conservatives may think they have a cheaper way to fix the system, but it still costs money. And Republicans have never appropriated any money to cover the uninsured. Indeed, all their plans divert money that already exists to cover people who need health care for other purposes. Conservatives hopefully propose turning the health-care tax deduction into a more progressive tax credit. Great idea! Except the plans put forward by Romney and Paul Ryan plow the savings from eliminating that tax deduction back into lower tax rates. And it leaves no budgetary provision for high-risk pools or any other mechanism to subsidize coverage for the poor and sick.

Now, you could suppose that maybe this is all one giant oversight. Republicans failed to craft an alternative plan during the health-care debate, then voted to just straight repeal Obamacare with no replacement, then voted for a budget that just straight repeals Obamacare with no replacement, but when they have power, then they’ll really come up with a plan.

But where is the evidence that they have any desire to do so? Sunday, the two most powerful Republicans in Congress appeared on interview shows and were asked what they plan to do for the uninsured. Mitch McConnell hilariously danced and weaved, admitting that covering the uninsured is “not the issue”: http://youtu.be/QvZvNSKrOZ4

Paul Ryan, as he is apt to do, offered a much smoother take, couching his position in philosophical abstractions:

What — what Mrs. Kennedy and others were saying is this is new government-granted right. We disagree with the notion that our rights come from government, that the government can now grant us and define our rights.

Those are ours. Those come from nature and God, according to the Declaration of Independence, a huge difference in philosophy.

What this blather actually means is that he does not accept that the government has an obligation to ensure that all Americans have access to health care.

If Republicans really wanted to replace Obamacare with some more “market-friendly” alternative, then there’s a simple way they could go about it. They could promise to repeal the law only if they packaged the repeal with a replacement that did not increase the number of uninsured. But they’ll never do that, because the magic, cheaper free-market alternative does not exist, and the GOP has no interest in diverting resources to cover the poor and sick.

Hennessey, who lays out the most specific vision for repealing Obamacare, asserts, “Repeal and replacement should be separate legislative efforts.” This means, of course, that the actual plan is first to get rid of Obamacare, then pretend to work on a replacement before eventually discovering that it’s expensive and unpopular. Oh well. The only interesting question here on any level is why so many conservatives feel bound to pretend that the Republicans really are going to formulate some other plan to care for the poor and sick.

 

By: Jonathan Chait, Daily Intel, July 4, 2012

 
 

July 4, 2012 Posted by | Election 2012, Health Care | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Supreme Conflict”: Was Justice Clarence Thomas Behind The Obamacare Leaks?

The biggest revelation in CBS News reporter Jan Crawford’s piece on the Supreme Court’s health care deliberations isn’t that Chief Justice John Roberts originally voted to strike down the Affordable Care Act and then changed his mind — Crawford merely confirmed what many people already expected based on evidence in the opinions themselves. Rather, the biggest revelation is that fact that, in order for her piece to exist at all, someone inside the Court must have leaked confidential informationto her.

Yesterday, the New York Times‘ Adam Liptak strongly implied that the leak could be Justice Clarence Thomas:

[T]he possibility that conservatives had victory within reach only to lose it seemed to infuriate some of them. The CBS News report, attributed to two sources with “specific knowledge of the deliberations,” appeared to give voice to the frustrations of people associated with the court’s conservative wing. It was written by Jan Crawford, whose 2007 book, “Supreme Conflict: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Control of the United States Supreme Court,” was warmly received by conservatives.

In a 2009 interview on C-Span, Justice Thomas singled her out as a favorite reporter. “There are wonderful people out here who do a good job — do a fantastic job — like Jan Greenburg,” Justice Thomas said, referring to Ms. Crawford by her married name at the time.

Thomas’ affection for Crawford is mutual, and Crawford has spent years defending Thomas against his critics. At times, these defenses have been thoughtful and compelling, such as when she shot down the ridiculous idea that Thomas is merely a lapdog for his less conservative colleague Justice Antonin Scalia, or when she defended Thomas’ wife’s Ginni’s right to have her own career regardless of what her husband does for a living. At other times, they have been much less thoughtful, such as when Crawford accused Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) of racism for criticizing Thomas. Crawford has also conducted high-profile interviews of Thomas in the past.

None of this, of course, proves conclusively that Thomas is one of Crawford’s two sources. But it does demonstrate that the two of them have a strong working relationship based on mutual admiration for each other. If Thomas were looking to leak confidential information to a member of the Supreme Court press, it is likely that he would choose the one reporter he has publicly revealed to be his favorite. The fact that that reporter is a well-regarded conservative journalist who also works for a high profile outlet is gravy.

If Thomas is the leak, that would be a shocking escalation from the justices normal tactics — and one which could have lasting consequences for the future. Appellate courts function because of the assumption that their members can openly discuss their thoughts and misgivings about individual cases without fear that those discussions will later be used to embarrass them. If that assumption no longer prevails in Supreme Court conferences, the Court will morph into a far less deliberative, more factional institution.

Yet Thomas has shown no indication in the past that he cares about the sanctity of institutions or the consequences of his actions. Thomas continually finds himself embroiled in ethics scandals, including a high-profile gifting scandal similar to the one that forced Justice Abe Fortas to resign from the bench in 1969. Thomas’ jurisprudence is equally reckless, as he would declare everything from national child labor laws to the federal ban on whites-only lunch counters unconstitutional.

If Thomas did leak the Court’s deliberations, that still leaves open who the second leaker is (Noam Scheiber makes a strong case that the second leak could be Justice Kennedy). At the moment, however, we know that Thomas is the justice who is most likely to cast long-established practices aside due to a personal crusade. And we know that he already has a good relationship with the reporter who received the Supreme leak.

 

BY: Ian Millhiser, Think Progress, July 3, 2012

 

July 4, 2012 Posted by | U. S. Supreme Court | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Call It A Penalty, Call It A Fine, Don’t Call It A Tax”: Debunking The Individual Mandate “Tax”

Having lost their Supreme Court fight against the Affordable Care Act, opponents of health care reform have in recent days been attacking the individual mandate provision of the law as a “tax” on the middle class. This line of reasoning only makes sense if you think penalties for littering, speeding, or engaging in other irresponsible behavior are also “taxes.”

Yes, it’s true that conservative Chief Justice John Roberts used a tax rationale when upholding the constitutionality of the individual mandate—and the entire law—last week. But Roberts was making a technical argument and using the word “tax” in a way that really only makes sense in an arcane legal context.

First, some background: The health care law’s so-called “individual mandate” provision requires people who can afford to buy health insurance to do so, and when it’s phased in, it will assess a penalty of up to 2.5 percent of household income on those who don’t. That’s only fair, since the health care costs of the uninsured are borne by the rest of us.

You don’t need a law degree to understand the difference between a fine and a tax, and this one falls pretty neatly into the former category, as we explain below. Moreover, the vast majority of Americans—rich, poor, or middle class—will never be assessed what’s more rightly understood as the “freeloader penalty” at the center of this debate.

Still, while the tax-themed attack on the individual mandate is incoherent, it remains dangerous. Opponents of health reform well understand the power of the T-word to fire popular resentment, and will try to confuse the public about what the individual mandate is and how it works. Here are some facts to keep in mind.

Unlike taxes, this penalty is avoidable

Taxes are, for the most part, involuntary. We pay taxes on our income and when we buy things. The only way to avoid taxes is to earn less money and consume less. Penalties and fines, however, are quite different. We can avoid fines by avoiding bad behavior.

The individual mandate presents people with a choice: Either have health insurance or pay an annual penalty. The only people who will pay this penalty are those who willfully neglect to take responsibility for getting health insurance—and then stick the rest of us with the bill when they get sick or injured.

People who have health insurance will never pay the penalty

More than 80 percent of Americans today have health insurance, and the health reform law will dramatically expand coverage. When the law is fully phased in, only 6 percent of Americans will face the choice of either buying private insurance they can afford or paying a penalty, according to the Urban Institute. And only 1.2 percent of Americans will actually pay the penalty, according to congressional estimates.

Americans who can’t afford insurance will have it provided for them

Under the law, people who can’t afford to buy insurance will receive Medicaid coverage or the government will split with them the cost of buying private health insurance. Therefore, the penalty will only apply to people who can afford health insurance but would rather have taxpayers—you and me—bail them out when they need medical attention.

The individual mandate is grounded in conservative principles of individual responsibility

The idea that people should be required to purchase health insurance if they can afford to do so was first popularized by the conservative Heritage Foundation in 1989 and first implemented in law by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney—a Republican. The idea then and today is to promote individual responsibility and to prevent self-sufficient people from relying on public assistance. “[E]ach household has the obligation, to the extent it is able, to avoid placing demands on society by protecting itself,” Heritage wrote in defense of the individual mandate.

Happily, the evidence suggests that the individual mandate penalty will apply nationwide to a small fraction of the population. Less than 1 percent of residents of Massachusetts, the only state with an individual mandate in place, were assessed the penalty in 2009.

Once the federal law takes full effect in 2014 and Americans see that the individual mandate penalty only applies to a small number of freeloaders, the antitax argument should lose all power.

It already appears to be waning in some very telling quarters. An advisor to Romney on Monday said that the presumptive GOP presidential nominee agrees with President Barack Obama that the individual mandate penalty is not a tax.

 

By: Gadi Dechter, Center for American Progress, July 3, 2012

July 4, 2012 Posted by | Health Reform | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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