Cross posted yesterday at Notes on a Theory.
Today, Up With Chris Hayes featured a good discussion of wrongful convictions and the death penalty. But Chris repeated a misleading claim about public opinion on the death penalty that highlights a larger problem. The claim was that Americans overwhelmingly support the death penalty, and therefore efforts to repeal the death penalty face a serious challenge in terms of changing people’s minds. Chris pointed to a poll showing that a solid majority of Americans said the death penalty was morally justified. More typically, people point to polls that ask simply if people support or oppose the death penalty.
Robert Reich shows that it’s not that hard to talk about economics from a progressive point of view. He’s done a few of these that make seemingly complicated topics entirely understandable – they deserve wide dissemination (and can be found on his site).
This is one of the most straightforward and clearest explanations of wage stagnation I’ve seen, which is essential in understanding how we got to where we are. He did miss one important dot – when the superwealthy have all the money, and their political power dismantles regulation, it leads to massive increases in speculation, and the inevitable economic crash (and bailouts, which follow from the imbalance in political power).
In the American Prospect, Vivien Labaton and Gara Lamarche call for more attention to organizing movements and less to the electoral spectacle (a theme we’ve talked about here before). They focus on three (somewhat overlapping) areas where there has been “signs of life”: labor, immigration and economic justice.
What’s notable is that each of these movements has gained momentum without significant White House leadership. In fact, Democrats are the target of many of these initiatives, as frustrated progressives press the White House for change. What this tells us is that social-justice advocates need to take their cues from the communities they purport to represent, and need to insist that elected officials do the same.
We now know all too well that even elections touted as paradigm-shifting will not bring progressive change without a passionate and engaged constituency to fight for it. We need to build that lasting movement for change.
I found this piece a useful corrective to the Meyerson piece I wrote about here. It’s also worth noting that every one of these issues could see positive policy movement from the White House without any action from Congress. Some immigration rights groups have seized on this, pushing for an end to deportations.
A lot of people think labor is poised for a resurgence, in the wake of Wisconsin. Not everyone agrees. Harold Meyerson reports on some unfounded pessimism from the people who should be making that happen.
Many union activists viewed the 2009-10 battle for the most recent iteration of labor law reform — the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) — as labor’s last stand. EFCA could never attain the magic 60-vote threshhold required to cut off a filibuster, despite the presence, at one point, of 60 Democratic senators. Given the rate at which private-sector unionization continues to fall (which in turn imperils support for public-sector unions), many of labor’s most thoughtful leaders now consider the Democrats’ inability to enact EFCA a death sentence for the American labor movement.
“It’s over,” one of labor’s leading strategists told me this month. Indeed, since last November’s elections, half a dozen high-ranking labor leaders from a range of unions have told me they believe that private-sector unions may all but disappear within the next 10 years.
The failure of a Democratic White House and record Democratic majorities in Congress to even make a serious effort to attempt to pass EFCA was a travesty. But EFCA was never the only way to revive the labor movement, nor was it going to be very effective without strategic changes within the labor movement itself. (For more, see Julius Getman’s Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement, or my quick hits here and here.) That supposed leading strategists and thoughtful leaders believe otherwise is truly disturbing.
The Predator State Endgame – Using Supposed Deficit Crisis They Created to Justify Selling Off Public Assests [New]
A story in today’s Washington Post says that conservative economists are proposing selling off public assets, like the gold at Fort Knox, to address the deficit. But the gold is just a distraction.
The United States may have run up a huge debt, but it is not a poor country by any stretch of the imagination. The federal government owns roughly 650 million acres of land, close to a third of the nation’s total land mass. Plus a million buildings. Plus electrical utilities like the Tennessee Valley Authority. And an interstate highway system.
Economists of a conservative or libertarian bent have long argued that the federal government needs to get out of certain businesses, unload unneeded assets, and privatize such functions as passenger rail service and air traffic control. No one advocates selling Yellowstone, but why, some economists ask, should the federal government be in the electricity business?
The answer is because if it’s not, then many will be left without electricity. But I suppose we’re here to serve markets, not vice versa. Of course, we all know what we should do – work with reasonable conservatives in Congress to come to a bipartisan agreement about how much of the assists of the American citizenry we need to sell off in order to prevent taxes on the opulent, reductions in corporate profits, or fewer wars.
Mike Elk reminds us that Congress is not the only thing stopping the White House from advancing the cause of labor rights. They could be using an executive order to enforce rules on contractors, as as already been proposed for disclosing political donations.
By updating the standards, databases, rules and guidelines for enforcing contracting rules about what corporations get the law, Obama could stop a wide range of anti-worker practices, from workplace safety rules to sexual harassment to unionbusting.
If President Obama signs this executive order forcing disclosure of corporations’ political donations, the progressive movement should then hound him to sign a similar high-road contracting rule.With a stroke of his pen, he coud go a long way toward curtailing rampant unionbusting and workplace safety violations.
Given the renewed attention to labor rights as a result of Wisconsin and the rest, Democrats who want to be seen as pro-labor need to actually do things that are pro-labor. Not being a Republican is not enough. And unlike with legislation, there is no one to blame for this failure to act other than Obama himself. It’s also worth noting that more union rights would mean better wages and a stronger economy for everyone (including Obama, who’s reelection chances are largely a product of the state of the economy).
Mike Elk reports on a victory using “creative, direct action.”
On Sunday, 500 Rite Aid workers at the company’s massive Southwest Distribution Center in Lancaster, California signed a three-year tentative agreement with the management of Rite Aid. The contract was a strong one, providing affordable health care, protections against jobs being outsourced to subcontractors (a common practice in the warehousing industry), job safety requirements, and most stunningly, wage increases in each of the next three years. While many unions are making concessions to keep companies open, the Longshoremen Union was actually able to win a wage increase – an extraordinarily rare feat.
We focus a lot on how the law is stacked against unions. But there are still ways to win despite this hostile legal environment. (For more on this topic, I recommend Julius Getman’s Restoring the Power of Unions: It Takes a Movement.)
Paul Rosenberg‘s latest at Alternet includes an interview with Michael Perelman. It’s a long piece, so here’s a taste, on the dual narratives early economists told to difference audiences.
“So on the one hand, they wrote to the powerful people, markets don’t work, markets are destructive, markets are duplicative, give us free reign to organize this stuff as we see fit, more or less modeled on the German system of cartels.” This was their equivalent of the Journal‘s reality-based business news coverage.
“The other dialogue was with workers–’You’re getting exactly what you deserve, markets are fair, markets work perfectly,’ and of course, the second version is the one that became dominant,” Perelman explained, much as the Journal‘s editorial page promotion of “supply side economics” became dominant in the Reagan era, despite sharply reversing 35 years of declining debt-to-GDP ratios.
Partnership Banks can raise revenue for states without raising taxes, and increase loans to small businesses precisely when Wall Street banks have cut back on lending and raised public borrowing costs. A Partnership Bank would act as a “banker’s bank” to in-state community banks and provide the state government with both banking services at fair terms and an annual multi-million dollar dividend.
If modeled on the successful Bank of North Dakota, Partnership Banks in other states would:
- Create new jobs and spur economic growth. Partnership Banks are participation lenders, meaning they partner—never compete—with local banks to drive lending through local banks to small businesses.1 If Washington State had a fully-operational Partnership Bank capitalized at $100 million during the Great Recession, it would have supported $2.6 bil- lion in new lending and helped to create 8,212 new small business jobs.2 A proposed Oregon bank could help community banks expand lending by $1.3 billion and help small business create 5,391 new Oregon jobs in its first three to five years.3 All of this would be accom- plished at a profit, which Partnership Banks should share with the state.
- Generate new revenues for states directly, through annual bank dividend payments, and indirectly by creating jobs and spurring local economic growth. The table above shows projected dividends for established Partnership Banks in the states considering such proposals, based on BND’s 2009 dividend payment to North Dakota’s General Fund.
- Lower debt costs for local governments. Like the Bank of North Dakota, Partnership Banks can get access to low-cost funds from the regional Federal Home Loan Banks.5 The banks can pass savings on to local governments when they buy debt for infrastructure investments. The banks can also provide Letters of Credit for tax-exempt bonds at lower interest rates.
- Strengthen local banks even out credit cycles, and preserve real competition in local credit markets. There have been no bank failures in North Dakota during the financial crisis. BND’s charter is clear that its goal is to “be helpful to and to assist in the development of [North Dakota banks]… and not, in any manner, to destroy or to be harmful to existing financial institutions.”6 By purchasing local bank stock, partnering with them on large loans and providing other sup- port, Partnership Banks would strengthen small banks in an era when federal policy encourages bank consolidation.
- Build up small businesses. Surveys by the Main Street Alliance in Oregon and Washington show at least 75 percent sup- port among small business owners.7 In markets increasingly dominated by large corporations and the banks that fund them, Partnership Banks would increase lending capabilities at the smaller banks that provide the majority of small business loans in America.
This is an idea whose time has come. According to the report, bills to create or study the possibility of creating a partnership banks are on the table in Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, New Mexico, Maryland, New Hampshire and Maine. This seems like a good way to fight back against what Stoller calls the Debtcropper Society.
Another source for information is the Public Banking Blog.
Andy Kroll from Mother Jones reports
Behind the onslaught is a well-funded network of conservative think tanks that you’ve probably never heard of. Conceived by the same conservative ideologues who helped found the Heritage Foundation, the State Policy Network (SPN) is a little-known umbrella group with deep ties to the national conservative movement. Its mission is simple: to back a constellation of state-level think tanks loosely modeled after Heritage that promote free-market principles and rail against unions, regulation, and tax increases. By blasting out policy recommendations and shaping lawmakers’ positions through briefings and private meetings, these think tanks cultivate cozy relationships with GOP politicians. And there’s a long tradition of revolving door relationships between SPN staffers and state governments. While they bill themselves as independent think tanks, SPN’s members frequently gather to swap ideas. “We’re all comrades in arms,” the network’s board chairman told the National Review in 2007.
There is a progressive think tank that serves some similar purposes: the Progressive States Network.
[T]he bigger picture is decentralizing power generation and transmission.
As the Rocky Mountain Institute writes:
Often the cheapest, and most reliable, distributed power is the power produced at or near the customer. Distributed energy — often called micropower – refers to a variety of small, self-contained energy sources located near the final point of energy consumption.
This is in contrast to a more traditional system, where power is generated by a remotely-located, large-scale plant and electricity is sent down power lines to the consumer — often over vast distances.
RMI’s extensive research (culminating in “Small is Profitable,” the Economist’s 2002 Book of Year) on distributed energy resources found that properly considering the economic benefits of ‘distributed’ (decentralized) electrical resources typically raises their value by improving system planning, construction, operation and service quality.
Centralized electricity systems with giant power plants are becoming obsolete. In their place are emerging “distributed resources” — smaller, decentralized electricity supply sources (including efficiency) that are cheaper, cleaner, less risky, more flexible, and quicker to deploy.
Electricity production at or near the point of use can greatly improve efficiency and reduce the costs and energy losses associated with the national grid while increasing security and reliability.
Micro or distributed power (also called “micro generation”) can take the form of local solar, wind power, hydro, geothermal … or even making alcohol out of stale donuts to run your car. See this,this and this.
The big question is how to get there.
At the Slackwire, JW Mason generalizes the idea, offering progressives a useful counterpoint to neoliberal market ideas.
[W]hen public funds are used to reduce tuition at a public university, they don’t just lower costs for students at that particular university. They also lower costs at unsubsidized universities by forcing them to hold down tuition to compete. So while each dollar spent on grants to students reduces final tuition costs less than one for one, each dollar spent on subsidies to public institutions reduces tuition costs by more. 
The same logic applies to public subsidies for any good or service where producers enjoy significant monopoly power: Direct provision of public goods has market forces on its side, while subsidies for private purchases work against the market. Call it progressive supply-side policy. Call it the general case for public options. The fundamental point is that, in the presence of inelastic supply curves, demand-side subsidies face a headwind of adverse price effects, while direct public provision gets a tail wind of favorable price effects. And these effects can be quite large.
This suggests why public universities are superior to public educational loans, public elementary schools are superior to vouchers, and public employment is better than the EITC. It is often the case that tax incentives simply funnel money to producers that enjoy monopoly power.
From David Moberg, The Debate That Wasn’t, on the economic crisis.
Regulation is obviously necessary, but it is not enough without a comprehensive vision of finance as a public utility, like a highway (or other utilities that would better serve the nation if publicly owned). Regulated industries consistently capture their regulators, and the financial services have ideologically captured Republicans and many Democrats. Little can be accomplished with even a militant campaign if the public and politicians remain captive. The industry needs more than a traffic cop. It needs a new architect and greater democratic control, just as corporations in general should be more closely controlled through national charters.
The goal of any new movement to reform American capitalism should be more than restoring “the American dream” of homeownership and personal accumulation. It should also stimulate dreams of a new America, where people hold more power over the key institutions of our society, and their own lives.
This is what a progressive vision looks like.
Tim Francisco at Working Class Perspectives offers some helpful advice about framing what’s at stake in Wisconsin and beyond.
Walker’s “frame” [in his WSJ op-ed] parallels much of the coverage of workers’ issues that, in an earlier post, I criticized for failing to address the complexities and the realities behind the eye-catching and heart-tugging “working class” frames like his. For example, rather than simply accepting as unassailable inevitability the plight of Walker’s brother, why aren’t we asking why his health-care premiums are so high, or why the important work that he and his wife do to support their family is so undervalued at a time when corporate profits and worker productivity are at all-time highs?
Imagine the impact of a story that, after describing the plight of Walker’s sibling, actually examined the profit margin of the hotel and department store that employ the couple to let readers discern whether or not the couple is being asked to “sacrifice” because their employers are exploiting the recession to squeeze more out of employees.
The “unassailable inevitability” hits the nail on the head. A central component of neoliberalism is the acceptance of existing power and economic distributions–this is what is meant by “pragmatic”–and looking for solutions within that framework. But as I’ve said before, politics is the art of the possible, but that means you have to think about changing what is possible, not that you have to accept it in perpetuity. Also the last paragraph highlights why I am so focused on union campaigns involving service workers, like Hotel Workers Rising!
In the Nation, Corey Robin suggests we have yet to provide a deep critique of conservatism and market fundamentalism.
We must confront this ideology head-on: not by temporizing about the riskiness or instability of the free market or by demonstrating that it (or its Republican stewards) cannot deliver growth but by mobilizing the most potent resource of the American vernacular against it. We must develop an argument that the market is a source of constraint and government an instrument of freedom. Without a strong government hand in the economy, men and women are at the mercy of their employer, who has the power to determine not only their wages, benefits and hours but also their lives and those of their families, on and off the job.
We must, in other words, change the argument from the abstractions of the free market to the very real power of the businessman. More than posing an impersonal threat to the deliberations of a democratic polity—as the progressive opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision would have it, or as liberals like Paul Krugman and Hendrik Hertzberg have suggested about the unionbusting in Wisconsin—the businessman imposes concrete and personal constraints on the freedom of individual citizens. What conservatives fear above all else—more than higher taxes or lower profits—is any challenge to that power, any inversion of the obligations of deference and command, any extension of freedom that would curtail their own.
My emphasis. ”It’s long past time,” Robin argues, “for us to start talking and arguing about those first principles, especially the principle of freedom.” I couldn’t agree more.