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“How To Really Rein In The Super Rich”: Giving Everyday People Equal Input With Business And The Rich In Policy Deals

Thomas Piketty, meet Bobby Tolbert.

Piketty is the French economist who rocked the worlds of social and economic policy with his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In it, Piketty documents with meticulous detail—and data—how we are returning to an era of extreme inequality where a few dynasties amass great fortunes through inheritance and everyone else withers and suffers.  Such gross inequality, Piketty argues, is not an accident but inherent in capitalism and can only be addressed through government intervention.

All of which is plainly true.  As Paul Krugman has pointed out, conservatives chomping at the purse to refute Piketty have come up with nothing more than name-calling.

Pretty much everyone else agrees gaping inequality is a massive problem in the world and that something has to be done about it.  Heck, even the Pope tweeted, “Inequality is the root of social evil.”  Not the devil.  Inequality!

What the vast majority, who agree inequality is a crisis, do not agree on is what to do about it.  Piketty proposes a global wealth tax as well as a progressive income tax that approaches rates, at the top end, closer to what the United States had in place when prosperity was more broadly shared during the ’50s and ’60s.  They’re good ideas, but only a start.  What they’re missing is a Bobby Tolbert.

Bobby Tolbert is member of the community organization VOCAL NY—a grassroots organization that builds political power among New Yorkers affected by HIV/AIDS, drug use and mass incarceration.  Tolbert was in Washington, D.C., this weekend to speak at the annual meeting of National People’s Action, a network of community organizations made up of groups like VOCAL.

Tolbert spoke eloquently about how gross inequality is destroying communities across America.  [Full disclosure: I was at the event to help Tolbert and other grassroots leaders practice and deliver their speeches.]  Tolbert shared his own story, one only made possible by state-funded HIV medications that are constantly threatened by budget cuts.  Tolbert works as a peer health educator but is paid so little that he qualifies for public support.  Recently, even those few public benefits were taken away because Tolbert transitioned from supportive housing to independent living—a move you would think everyone would be in favor of, but which meant Tolbert’s government health benefits being jeopardized.  He’s currently fighting to have them reinstated.

“Big corporations and the rich are fine with people like me dying,” said Tolbert.  “The only problem with that is I’m not ready to die.”

And while for Bobby Tolbert, public supports literally make the difference between life and death, the situation is pretty much as dire for millions of Americans who increasingly rely on food stamps and Medicaid and housing assistance to survive. At the same time our deliberately and aggressively unequal economy has pushed millions more Americans toward poverty and they need more help than ever, conservative corporate elites are pushing for public assistance to be slashed. Tolbert agrees with Piketty—and the majority of American voters—about taxing the wealthy to spread assistance and opportunity to the poor and working class.

But Tolbert argues for something that Piketty and most of the academic and political debate about inequality seem to miss—that the nature of our economy, the rules of the game that currently incentivize unequal distribution, will never change unless the people making those rules, the people seated at the tables of power, change as well. In other words, as long as economic policy decisions are made by Wall Street and their proxies (see, e.g., Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin, Henry Paulson and Timothy Geithner) then Thomas Piketty’s ideas won’t be included in the discussion, let alone Bobby Tolbert’s.

“We need a new political system,” Tolbert said, “one that takes money out and puts people in.”  Yes, that means campaign finance reform and reducing the barriers to voting, rather than increasing them.  That would help get more everyday Americans into positions of power.  But Tolbert’s vision also includes participatory budgeting in which communities, not special interests, set the government funding agenda—which is already happening in New York. And it means people’s organizations commanding and being given equal input with business interests and the rich in the smoke-filled rooms where policy deals are cut.  It means that when the Federal Reserve is weighing interest rates and the Senate Budget Committee is evaluating banking regulations, they should as a matter of habit meet with economists and CEOs and the everyday Americans whom their decisions affect most.

In his speech, Tolbert pointed to the diversity of the thousand-plus community leaders from around the country gathered in the auditorium in front of him.  “We represent every race, every gender, every sexual orientation—in fact, we represent America better than the people who are running it.”  In front of Tolbert were family farmers and immigrants and folks on welfare and small-business leaders—all of whom have stories to share about the ravages of inequality and solutions to offer.  Academic debates and data are useful and important, but until Bobby Tolbert and other everyday people like him are included in the discussion and political process, nothing will ever truly change.


By: Sally Kohn, The Daily Beast, April 29, 2014



April 30, 2014 Posted by | Businesses, Economic Inequality, Wall Street | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Sanest Approach To Gun Policy”: The NRA Won’t Like This Idea

The National Rifle Association has just finished its annual meeting in Indianapolis. I don’t think I’m being reductionist in describing the NRA’s position on gun safety as pretty basic: Guns are good; gun regulations are bad. That’s unfortunate because the key insight in the perpetually fruitless gun control debate is that our social problem is deaths from guns, not the guns from themselves.

That distinction opens up the door to what I’ve always believed is the sanest approach to gun policy: a public health approach. What if we treated guns like cars, cribs and small electrical appliances? What if we focused less on the guns and more on when, where and why people get hurt or killed by them?

Automobile safety is an encouraging example. America’s roads are much, much safer than they were a half century ago. We didn’t become anti-car. We didn’t take cars away (except for some chronic drunk drivers). We made cars and roads safer and minimized the situations in which Americans were most likely to kill themselves on the road.

In 2010, the last year for which we have data, roughly 11,000 Americans died in gun homicides; 19,000 died by gun suicide; and 600 died from gun accidents – over 30,000 gun deaths a year. To put that in perspective, the faulty General Motors ignition switch at the heart of the current massive recall has been blamed for 13 deaths. Not 13,000. Not 130. Thirteen.

Experts believe that a high proportion of gun deaths are preventable. David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, has been an advocate of the public health approach to gun deaths for decades. I first met him when I was writing about this subject for The Economist in the late 1990s. The NRA annual meeting prompted me to call Professor Hemenway and ask what his top three reforms would be if our goal were to reduce unnecessary gun deaths.

Here are three sensible policy changes that would enable Americans to keep their guns and not die from them, too:

Universal background checks to keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Unlike drugs, just about every gun starts out legal. (You can make heroin in the remote regions of Afghanistan; you can’t make a handgun that way.) Regulations that make it harder for legal guns to end up in the hands of criminals and psychopaths will make it less likely that those criminals or psychopaths rob or shoot the rest of us.

More responsibility on the part of manufacturers for producing safer guns. The phrase “safer gun” may seem like an oxymoron; it’s not. There are many ways that gun technology can be improved to reduce inadvertent harm. Guns can be childproofed, so that young children cannot fire them. Guns can be equipped with “smart chips” so they cannot be fired by anyone but the owner. (This makes them both safer and less likely to be stolen.) Recording the unique ballistic fingerprint on every firearm would make it possible to trace any gun used in a crime back to its owner.

Lean on gun dealers to do much more to prevent “straw purchases,” in which a person buys a gun legally with the express intent of passing it on to someone who cannot buy a gun legally (e.g. a convicted felon). We do not consider it acceptable for retailers to sell liquor to people who are underage. So why is this practice in the gun trade not more rigorously opposed, including by gun enthusiasts? Let me connect the dots: If it is harder for bad people to get guns, then fewer bad people will have guns.

The NRA and the most steadfast gun rights advocates oppose these policy changes as well as the public health approach to reducing gun violence in general. Opponents typically subscribe to the “slippery slope” argument: If the government is allowed to require background checks or to promote “smart guns,” then soon all conventional guns will be banned.

This is sadly tragic logic. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, traffic fatalities per mile driven have fallen more than 80 percent since the 1950s. We’ve cracked down on deadly behaviors like drunk driving. We’ve used data to reduce other risk factors (such as young drivers driving at night or with other teens in the car). We put airbags in every new car and required seat belts.

Lots of people are alive today as a result. I may be one of them. When our Ford Explorer rolled over at 65 mph on an interstate highway in 2001, my wife and I were wearing seat belts and our two children were in car seats; we were relatively unhurt.

These kinds of changes are not costless. In the 1980s the major car companies argued that airbags were far too expensive to ever become a standard feature. Technology solved that problem; the same companies now use safety as a selling point. Most important, we have saved a lot of lives without fundamentally changing the driving experience.

So let’s do that for guns. The public health approach seems like an end run around a pro-gun versus anti-gun debate that is getting us nowhere. We have the potential to prevent tragedy – while still respecting the basic rights of responsible gun owners – if we focus on one crucial fact: guns and gun deaths are distinctly different things. I’ve never met anyone who is in favor of the latter.


By: Charles Wheelan, U. S. News and World Report, April 29, 2014

April 30, 2014 Posted by | Gun Deaths, Guns, Public Health | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“The Grazing Moocher”: Cliven Bundy Is Free To Be Crazy And We’re Free To Call Him On It

I want to tell you one more thing I know about freedom of speech.

Having pontificated about how “the Negro” was actually better off when not burdened by freedom and government subsidies, fringe hero Cliven Bundy is shocked – shocked! – that people would dare take offense at his musings. He went on CNN Friday morning to explain (h/t ThinkProgress, which was kind enough to add the emphasis):

I took this boot off so I wouldn’t put my foot in my mouth with the boot on. Let me see if I can say something. Maybe I sinned and maybe I need to ask forgiveness and maybe I don’t know what I actually said. But you know, when you talk about prejudice, we’re talking about not being able to exercise what we think and our feelings.

We don’t have freedom to say what we want. If I call — if I say negro or black boy or slave, I’m not — if those people cannot take those kind of words and not be offended, then Martin Luther King hasn’t got his job done then yet. They should be able to — I should be able to say those things and they shouldn’t offend anybody. I didn’t mean to offend them.

Let’s set aside his truly weird suggestion that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “job” was to move society to a place where racism is completely acceptable in the public space. (I kind of thought that he was trying to move the country away from there, but whatever.)

Let’s instead talk about Bundy’s concept of freedom of speech. I get that Bundy – who achieved fame and a level of conservative-libertarian hero cred by asserting his sovereign right to freeload off of public lands – has some novel ideas about liberty and freedom. (Case in point, his belief that anyone could be better off without liberty and freedom.) But maybe I can help him out on this one.

The fact is that he does have the freedom to say what he wants. I know this because he said what he wanted and is still at large and able to make appearances on CNN trying to explain himself. He’s in absolutely no danger of being arrested for his racist views regarding black people. He has, in fact, been furnished a metaphorical megaphone in the form of just about every major media outlet in the country.

The best and most important expression of free speech is in the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…” It says the federal government is not allowed to make freely expressing yourself illegal. It doesn’t say anything about a sovereign right to express yourself without other people expressing themselves back.

As a wingnut residing on the conservative end of the political spectrum, I would think Bundy favors free markets, but he seems genuinely mystified at his experience with the free market of ideas. He proffered his thoughts on race and – as happens with markets – consumers of information and ideas weighed them and decided that they weren’t buying.

So Bundy’s feelings are hurt because he expressed and society expressed itself back. But contrary to what he seems to think, this wasn’t an absence of free speech, it was an expression of it.


By: Robert Schlesinger, U. S. News and World Report, April 25, 2014

April 30, 2014 Posted by | Cliven Bundy, Freedom, Liberty | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“We Can’t Handle The Truth!”: House GOP Leaders Scramble After Accidentally Telling The Truth

With a tip of the hat to Michael Kinsley, it appears half the House Republican leadership committed gaffes in recent days by accidentally telling the truth. They’re now scrambling to reverse course.

Late last week, for example, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the chair of the House Republican Conference, conceded to her local newspaper that the Affordable Care Act is unlikely to be repealed. Though she wants to “look at reforming the exchanges,” the local report added that McMorris Rodgers “said the framework established by the law likely will persist and reforms should take place within its structure.”

This was a perfectly sensible position for a House GOP leader to take. Yesterday, the congresswoman’s office assured the right she has no use for such reasonableness.

“The headline is not an accurate or representative portrayal of what the congresswoman said in the interview, what her voting record reflects, or what she believes. She will continue fighting to repeal Obamacare at every opportunity moving forward and replace it with patient-centered reforms,” McMorris Rodgers spokesman Nate Hodson said.

Also last week, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) conceded that opposition from rank-and-file House Republicans is to blame for the demise of immigration reform, and he was filmed openly mocking their reluctance to work hard. This morning, he walked it all back.

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) reiterated Tuesday that he believes that the major impediment to moving forward with comprehensive immigration reform is a distrust of President Obama, and not an unwillingness of the members of his caucus to take up the legislation. […]

Boehner reassured members of the GOP House caucus during a closed-door meeting Tuesday morning that he was not mocking them and that he believes Obama is the reason immigration reform has not moved forward.

The message from Boehner and McMorris Rodgers couldn’t be more obvious: they’re awfully sorry they got caught accidentally telling the truth.

This isn’t even a close call. In McMorris Rodgers’ case, what she told her local paper made perfect sense. The Affordable Care Act isn’t going anywhere, so it stands to reason policymakers should move past trying to destroy “Obamacare” and start looking for how best to make the system work effectively.

So why does her office insist she’ll “continue fighting to repeal Obamacare at every opportunity”? Why bother? How many millions of Americans will lose coverage if she succeeds?

As for Boehner, what the Speaker said last week was entirely true: the “blame Obama” talking point is transparently dumb, so Boehner’s candor about who ultimately bears responsibility was a welcome change of pace. Why run back to Capitol Hill now to deny what is plainly true?

Worse, Boehner told reporters, “There was no mocking.”

Mr. Speaker, there’s no point in fibbing when we’ve seen the video.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, April 29, 2014



April 30, 2014 Posted by | GOP, House Republicans, Obamacare | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Chief Justice Roberts, Meet Bundy And Sterling”: An Ugly Corner Of Contemporary American Life, Invisible To The Supreme Court

It’s challenging to keep up with the latest in racist tirades, so let’s attempt a brief review. Last week, Cliven Bundy, a Nevada rancher who became a conservative folk hero for his refusal to pay his debts to the federal government, said that he often wondered if black people fared better as slaves. Then, over the weekend, a tape of what appears to be the voice of Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, surfaced, and it featured Sterling instructing his girlfriend to avoid being photographed with black people and to refrain from bringing African-Americans to the Clippers’ basketball games.

Bundy and Sterling represent an ugly corner of contemporary American life, but it is one that is entirely invisible in recent Supreme Court rulings. In the Roberts Court, there are no Bundys and Sterlings; the real targets of the conservative majority are those who’ve spent their lives fighting the Bundys and Sterlings of the world.

Chief Justice John Roberts has made a famous utterance on the subject of race, and it’s a revealing one. The remark came in a case in which the Justices addressed perhaps the most celebrated precedent in the Court’s history: Brown v. Board of Education. In that decision, in 1954, the Justices ruled that segregated public schools were by their nature unconstitutional. In 2007, the Justices evaluated one of the many attempts that communities have made to address the legacy of legal segregation in schools. Seattle used race as one factor to determine which schools some students attended; the goal of the local initiative was integrated schools. But the Court struck down the Seattle plan as a violation of the Constitution and of Brown. Even to ameliorate segregation, the consideration of race was unconstitutional. In Roberts’ evocative phrase, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” In other words, those who were trying to integrate the schools were the ones doing the “discriminating.”

The majority engaged in the same kind of blame-shifting in a recent case, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action. In response to an earlier Supreme Court decision permitting some forms of affirmative action at the University of Michigan’s law school, voters in the state passed a constitutional amendment barring any use of race in admissions. The question in the Schuette case was whether the Michigan amendment violated the U.S. Constitution. It was a close, difficult case, and the Court concluded, by a vote of six to two, that the answer was no; voters could ban affirmative action if they so chose.

It was as if the Justices in the majority and those in dissent were writing about different countries. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion suggested that the debate over affirmative action should and could take place in a genteel, controversy-free zone. “In the realm of policy discussions the regular give-and-take of debate ought to be a context in which rancor or discord based on race are avoided, not invited.” (Yes, it “ought” to be, it just may be that it isn’t.) Kennedy said that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution include the people’s right to “try to shape the course of their own times and the course of a nation that must strive always to make freedom ever greater and more secure.” Apparently, this noble endeavor includes banning affirmative action.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote about a country where the Bundys and Sterlings still hold considerable sway. Indeed, she went beyond the simple bigotry of the Bundys and Sterlings and found that more subtle wounds of racism still exist in this country. “Race matters,” she wrote, “because of the slights, the snickers, the silent judgments that reinforce that most crippling of thoughts: ‘I do not belong here.’” Indeed, Sotomayor threw Roberts’s famous line back at him. She quoted him—“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race”—and then wrote, “It is a sentiment out of touch with reality, one not required by our Constitution, and one that has properly been rejected as not sufficient to resolve cases of this nature. While the enduring hope is that race should not matter, the reality is that too often it does. Racial discrimination … is not ancient history.”

The vile words of the rancher and the basketball tycoon showed just how right Sotomayor was. Even if her colleagues insist otherwise, racial discrimination, far from being ancient history, is as fresh and new as the latest alert on your phone.


By: Jeffrey Toobin, The New Yorker, April 29, 2014

April 30, 2014 Posted by | Discrimination, Racism, Supreme Court | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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