The First In The Nation (#FITN) Campaign Is Underway (InZane Times)

Image by Arnie Alpert
Image by Arnie Alpert

Image by Arnie Alpert

Senators from opposite ends of the political spectrum took to lecterns on opposite ends of Manchester yesterday to test the waters for potential presidential runs.  At the NH Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders engaged in spirited  back-and-forth with 200 progressive activists on topics including campaign finance, excessive military spending, and the need for a “political revolution.”  Meanwhile, the Americans for the Prosperous Foundation and Citizens United hosted a parade of right-wing Senators and others trying out their stuff before an audience of several hundred conservatives at the Executive Court. 2014 04 12 freedom summit 005

Outside the conservative event, progressive activists – mistakenly identified with the Democratic Party by the Concord Monitor – held signs lambasting proposals to weaken retirement security.

It was perhaps the first in what will soon be a typical day on the trail to the 2016 New Hampshire Presidential Primary.

The conservative event was tickets-only, but I got my request in early enough to get a seat and hear speeches from leaders of Citizens United and Americans for the Prosperous, followed by NH Senator Kelly Ayotte, Senator Mike Lee, Do2014 04 12 freedom summit 008cropnald Trump, and a couple of local pols.  While Trump was entertaining, audience response to Senatorial speeches about low taxes and the evils of Obamacare drew tepid responses.  The speakers were ushered to the stage from behind a curtain, gave their prepared speeches, and disappeared again behind the curtain without taking any audience questions or comments.

Senator Kelly Ayotte, who seems to be on lots of lists of potential VPs, quoted former Governor Meldrim Thomson, equated freedom with low taxes, and equated the Affordable Care Act with freedom’s opposite.  Applause were somewhere south of excited. Senator Lee was teacherly and likewise failed to excite the crowd.

Trump was different.  Speaking without notes – and criticizing politicians who  depend on speech-writers and tele-prompters – Trump wandered from point to2014 04 12 freedom summit 028point, some of which departed from standard AFP scripts.  For example, he defended Social Security and Medicare in an apparent dig at proposals coming from Congressman Paul Ryan.  He said we need “to come up with a humane solution” to the country’s immigration system, but then drew applause for ridiculing Jeb Bush’s recent “act of love” statement and said he could build a physical barrier that would keep immigrants out.  Trump said we had spent $2 trillion on the Iraq war, “for what?,” but then implied maybe it would have been worth it if we had taken2014 04 12 freedom summit 020 over the country’s oil.

With no candidate Q&A, the event was rather boring.  My colleague Addy and I left during the introduction of Congressman Louie Gohmert and headed across town.

Senator Sanders had already finished his speech and was talking about Harry Truman when we arrived at the Institute of Politics.  The mood felt different, and it wasn’t just that we were in politically comfortable surroundings.  The seats were all filled, except for ones emptied by people standing in line to get their turns at microphones on the left and right sides of the stage.  Sanders handled questions comfortably, clearly at home in a town hall meeting environment.  Decrying “a Congress largely dependent on corporate2014 04 12 bernie sanders nhiop 011money,” Sanders called for development of a grassroots movement to demand change and then hold politicians accountable.

Sanders, a socialist who ran as an Independent and caucuses with the Democrats, is giving active consideration to a presidential run without saying whether he would run as an Independent or take the fight inside the Democratic Party.  “Somebody has got to be talking about these issues,” he told a group of labor activists who met with him in a small conference room after the main event.

We could have returned to the Freedom Summit and perhaps would have been able to hear Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, but I had had enough for one day.  I would have liked to hear Senator Paul criticize corporate welfare at a Koch-fueled forum.  But I’m pretty sure all these wannabe Presidents will be back, as will the progressive protests, grassroots activists, and the reporters who love to take it all in.

Canterbury Residents Push For Medicaid Expansion In Town Meeting (InZane Times)

Rep. Lorrie Carey (image by Arnie Alpert)

Twenty Canterbury residents exchanged perspectives with their three State Representatives at the town’s Meeting House Saturday morning.  Long-time Representative Priscilla Lockwood, and first-termers Howard Moffett and Lorrie Carey fielded questions on topics including unsatisfactory road conditions, tar sands, burdens on municipal government, building codes, GMOs, and the influence of corporations on elections and policy-making.

Responding to a question for Doris Hampton, who organized the session, Rep. Moffett gave a passionate call for the state to expand Medicaid.  “The House is going to support Medicaid expansion as often as it’s given the opportunity to do so,” he said, but explained that the resistance is coming from Republican Senators.

“It’s partisan,” agreed Rep. Lockwood, who made sure to say she was one of six Republican Representatives who voted for it.

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Rep. Howard Moffett

“What i have seen coming out of Republican Senators just doesn’t hold water,” Rep. Moffett said.  Medicaid expansion would bring two and half billion dollars – money we’ve already paid in federal taxes – back to the state “to create jobs and provide health insurance,” he observed.

“It feels like a war on the poor,”  Rep. Moffett said.  No one in the room seemed to disagree.  Rep. Carey threw in an anecdote about a landscaper badly injured on a job across the street from Concord Hospital who was afraid to seek medical attention for fear of getting a bill he’d be unable to pay.

“We can’t let any member of our population think they need to bleed to death because can’t afford care,” she said.

Rep. Moffett hopes pressure can be exerted on Republican Senators – only two are needed to join the unified Democrats and create a majority – in order for the Medicaid proposal to pass.

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Rep. Lorrie Carey

Rep. Carey is a member of the State-Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs Committee, which tends to get responsibility for non-binding resolutions that if adopted express the sense of the legislators on a wide range of topics.  Last year the House adopted a resolution calling for a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision and declare that constitutional rights are intended for natural persons, not corporations.  The Senate refused to take it up, but the issue has re-surfaced this year, with two resolutions in Rep. Carey’s committee calling for a Constitutional Convention to be convened on this matter.

“Is there a lot of money being pumped in by the corporations?” she asked.  “The answer is yes,” she responded to her own question.

Despite what the Representatives indicated was strong support for something to be done, none of them felt that passing resolutions makes any difference.  “Resolutions in the end are meaningless,” Rep. Carey said.

The presence of two town Selectmen guaranteed that state-municipal relations was on the agenda.  The Selectmen, Tyson Miller and Bob Steenson, worry the legislature could adopt bills intended to increase transparency but which would have the effect of impairing the ability of volunteer town officers to manage local affairs.  They also were eager for funds for road improvement.  The three State Representatives were supportive of proposals to raise taxes on gasoline, with Rep. Carey pointing out that it hasn’t been hiked since 1991. 

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Rep. Priscilla Lockwood

The Representatives said they read all their email, but that messages which appear to be form letters crafted by advocacy groups tend to be ignored.  So write your legislators, use your own words, and make sure you let them know you’re a constituent.

Rep. Lockwood, a legislative veteran who has also served on the Select Board, said she plans to step down after the current term.

This story was cross posted with permission from InZane Times.

MLK A Devoted Labor Leader And Leader Against The Death Penalty

Dr Martin Luther King

MLK’s First Campaign was against the Death Penalty

Bus segregation was not the first issue that grabbed the attention of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when the young pastor moved to Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. His first campaign in his new home focused on a sentence of death for Jeremiah Reeves, a 16-year-old black boy convicted of raping a white woman, which512px-Martin_Luther_King_Jr_NYWTS_6-wikicommons became his first civil rights campaign in his new home. Reeves had confessed under duress, but later recanted, a claim widely believed in the black community. King joined the NAACP’s efforts to save Reeves’ life.

So did Claudette Colvin, like Reeves a student at Booker T. Washington High School. Colvin, who the next year would be arrested for refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus nine months before Rosa Parks did the same thing, recalled, “Jeremiah Reeves’s arrest was the turning point of my life. That was when I and a lot of other students really started thinking about prejudice and racism. I was furious when I found out what had happened.” [1]

“In the years that [Reeves] sat in jail,” Dr. King wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, his book about the Montgomery movement, “several white men in Alabama had also been charged with rape; but their accusers were Negro girls. They were seldom arrested; if arrested, they were soon released by the Grand Jury; none was ever brought to trial.” [2]

Reeves was found guilty by an all-white jury and put to death on March 28, 1958.

A week later King addressed a “Prayer Pilgrimage” rally in front of the State Capitol building. “The issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves,” King told a crowd of two thousand. “Even if he were guilty, it is the severity ad inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence.”[3]

Such gerrymandered justice was a well established fact of life in the South, going back to the days of slavery when blacks were commonly executed or lynched for crimes that drew less harsh punishment — or none — when committed by whites. This discriminatory pattern continued after emancipation, as Stuart Banner documents in his book, The Death Penalty: An American History. “In the first half of the [twentieth] century,” he writes, “the southern states punished many crimes by death only if they were committed by blacks, in the second half of LR&Mark11-14-12 019the century they accomplished the same result by delegating to all-white juries the discretion to choose capital or noncapital punishment.”

“The death penalty was a means of racial control,” observes Banner, a UCLA law professor.

Sadly, the role played by race in decisions about the death penalty persists. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, recent studies “add to an overwhelming body of evidence that race plays a decisive role in the question of who lives and dies by execution in this country. Race influences which cases are chosen for capital prosecution and which prosecutors are allowed to make those decisions. Likewise, race affects the makeup of the juries which determine the sentence. Racial effects have been shown not just in isolated instances, but in virtually every state for which disparities have been estimated and over an extensive period of time.”

New Hampshire is a case in point.

Michael Addison was charged with capital murder for killing Michael Briggs, a police officer, in 2006.

John Brooks was charged with capital murder for hiring three men to assist him in killing Jack Reid, a handyman, in 2005.

The trials took place in adjacent counties in 2008.

Addison, a poor black man with a prior criminal record, was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Brooks, a white millionaire businessman, was found guilty but spared the death penalty.

Monica Foster, Brooks’ attorney, said of her client after the sentence was announced, “He’s not the kind of people juries routinely kill,”

Racial disparities in the use of the death penalty have been a focus of scholarly research for decades. According to Justin Levinson, Robert Smith, and Danielle Young, authors of a 2013 study, “The most consistent and robust finding in this literature is that even after controlling for dozens and sometimes hundreds of case-related variables, Americans who murder Whites are more likely to receive a death sentence than those who murder Blacks.” They note as well that “Black defendants are sentenced to death more frequently than White defendants, especially when the universe of studied cases is narrowed to include only those cases that result in aexecutejustice11-14-12capital trial.”

What Levinson, Smith, and Young found ought to be a wake-up call for anyone interested in the fairness of our judicial system. After studying 445 jury-eligible citizens in six states where the death penalty is most actively used, they concluded that “implicit racial bias does have an impact on the administration of the death penalty in America.”

“We found that death-qualified jurors implicitly valued White lives over Black lives by more rapidly associating White subjects with the concepts of ‘worth’ or ‘value’ and Black subjects with the concepts of ‘worthless’ or ‘expendable.’ This finding could potentially help to explain why real capital juries impose death sentences more regularly for White victims: at least at an implicit level we value White lives more than Black lives, and thus, perhaps, we seek to punish those individuals who have destroyed those whom we value most.”

The implications of this finding go far beyond the death penalty.

As for Dr. King, it is worth noting that his comments on the prosecution, conviction, and execution of Jeremiah Reeves did not directly reject capital punishment, just “the unequal justice of Southern courts.” As King matured into the leader we honor today, his critique of injustice deepened and blended with a prescription for change.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that,” he famously said.

“Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence,” King told the world on the day he received the Nobel Peace Prize. “Man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation. The foundation of such a method is love.”

The realization of King’s vision is far off. Abolition of the death penalty would be an excellent step in the right direction.

To get involved, join the NH Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

 


 

[1] Phillip Hoose, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009, p. 23-24

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Stride Toward Freedom

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Statement Delivered at the Prayer Pilgrimage Protesting the Electrocution of Jeremiah Reeves,” April 6, 1958

NAFTA Failed to Live Up to Promises

NATFA Bad For Workers Crop

By Arnie Alpert and Gabriel Camacho

In the twenty years since the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect, millions of Mexicans have been pushed by NAFTA to make the dangerous journey across the border into the United States, many without legal authorization.  The U.S. government has responded by turning the border into a militarized zone, jailing hundreds of thousands of people, and deporting record numbers back across the border.

Militarization of the border began in 1994 with Operation Gatekeeper, which erected fencing, walls, and other barriers between San Diego, CA and Tijuana, Mexico, forcing migrants into dangerous desert terrain.

This was not supposed to happen.

According to NAFTA’s backers, the agreement was supposed to promote prosperity in both countries and actually reduce the pressure to migrate.

President Bill Clinton asserted NAFTA would give Mexicans “more disposable income to buy more American products and there will be less illegal immigration because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home.”

Mexico’s former President, Carlos Salinas, offered a similar opinion:  NAFTA would enable Mexico to “export jobs, not people,” he said in a 1991 White House news conference alongside President George H. W. Bush.

William A. Ormes wrote in Foreign Affairs that NAFTA would “narrow the gap between U.S. and Mexican wage rates, reducing the incentive to immigrate.”

So what happened?  As a precondition for NAFTA, the U.S. demanded drops in Mexican price supports for small farmers.  The agreement itself reduced Mexican tariffs on American products.  These changes meant that millions of Mexico’s small farmers – many of them from indigenous communities – could not compete with the highly subsidized corn grown by U.S. agribusiness that flooded the local Mexican market.

Dislodged from the places where their families had lived for generations, many people did in fact seek employment in export-oriented factories and farms.  But there were too few jobs to go around, and those jobs that were created did not generate the “disposable income” President Clinton had promised.

A 2008 report on “NAFTA’s Promise and Reality” from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace concluded that while half a million manufacturing jobs were created in Mexico from 1994 to 2002, nearly three times as many farm jobs were destroyed.

As for Mexican wages, they went down, not up, during the same period.  “Despite predictions to the contrary, Mexican wages have not converged with U.S. wages,” Carnegie observed.

Unable to earn a living at home or elsewhere in their own country, Mexicans did what people have done for ages; they packed their bags and headed for places where they thought they could find employment.

The experts shaping NAFTA knew that the deal would disrupt the Mexican agricultural sector.  That’s why Operation Gatekeeper was implemented the same year as NAFTA.  It’s impossible to integrate national economies without disrupting local ones – something that should give pause to those proposing new trade agreements today.  The realities of NAFTA should not be replicated.

As the American Friends Service Committee outlines in “A New Path Toward Humane Immigration Policy,” the U.S. should advance economic policies that reduce forced migration and emphasize sustainable development.  Instead of policies like NAFTA that elevate rights of transnational corporations above those of people, we need alternative forms of economic integration that are consistent with international human rights laws, cultural and labor rights, and environmental protections.

Modern-day free trade agreements are basically arrangements that take rights away from citizens and bestow expansive benefits to multi-national corporations.

Workers on both sides of the border have one thing in common:  they need the ability to organize for higher wages and decent working conditions.   Without the opportunity for workers to benefit from the rewards agreements like NAFTA generate for corporations, “free trade” becomes just another driver of the widening gap between the ultra-rich and everyone else.

With the Obama administration pushing hard to create a new arrangement linking the economies of eleven Pacific rim countries, and another that ties the U.S. economy to that of the European Union, it’s time for a new path.

Arnie Alpert is the American Friends Service Committee’s New Hampshire program director. Gabriel Camacho coordinates the AFSC’s Project Voice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

(This Op/Ed was written by NHLN regular contributor Arnie Alpert and also appeared in the NH Business Review)

NH Program Seeks Intern for Presidential Primary Project

american friends service committee logo (AFSC)

american friends service committee logo (AFSC)The AFSC NH Primary Project will promote civic engagement during the period leading up to the 2016 NH Presidential Primary on corporate domination of US political life and its impact on shared security and economic health.  The project will also support similar activity in Iowa during the same period and create resources which can be used by AFSC programs in other states.  Responsibilities will include research on corporate influence, with a focus on corporations that profit from weapons and prisons.  It will also involve networking with other groups, tracking the visits and views of likely Presidential candidates, and developing resources for grassroots activists.

This part-time, paid position is ideal for someone who has an interest in the ways grassroots activists can affect political discourse.

See the job Internship Description for more details and send a letter and resume toaalpert@afsc.org by January 13, 2013.

Deck The Halls With Higher Wages

Chicago Raise the Min Wage Rally-SEIU)
Chicago Raise the Min Wage Rally-SEIU

Image from SEIU Rally in Chicago 2012

By Arnie Alpert,

You’ve probably seen some stories about protests for higher wages and better working conditions at giant retail chains like Walmart and fast food restaurants like McDonald’s.   Perhaps you’ve even participated.  With another “day of action” for fast food workers coming soon, New Hampshire Slim showed up with a new song.

To be honest, it would be more accurate to say Slim brought “new lyrics to an old song,” since he really has little musical talent.  But he’s inspired by Joe Hill, the legendary Wobbly, who figured that if he put new words to familiar tunes they’d be easier for workers to remember and sing.

This one’s to the tune of “Deck the Halls”  and corresponds to legislation that will be considered in Concord next year.  You can fill in the fa-la-las.

Deck the halls with higher wages,

Raise the minimum in stages,

Index pay hikes to inflation,

Workers need fair compensation.

Higher pay for low-wage labor

Is the way to aid our neighbors.

Mickey D will you be willin’?

Help your workers feed their children.

Wages less than nine an hour

Gives too little buying power

Put it on your year-end wish list

Win a wage hike by next Christmas

 NH Slim, December 2013

 

Concord Activists Join “Black Friday” Walmart Protests (InZane Times)

concord112913004

concord112913010_thumbSix hardy activists held signs outside the Concord NH Walmart store this morning in solidarity with workers calling for higher pay and more respectful working conditions.  The “Black Friday” protest was one of many across the country intended to put pressure on the nation’s largest employer and the world’s largest retailer, which has built a business model on the lousy labor standards faced by its workers and those who produce the products it sells.

According to Making Change at Walmart, most of the company’s workers earn less than $25,000 a year.  Wages are so low that 42% of the company’s Massachusetts workers are eligible for subsidized health insurance, according to figures generated by the state’s Center for Health Information and Analysis.

concord112913004The Black Friday protests were coordinated by Making Change at Walmart,  a campaign challenging Walmart to help rebuild our economy and strengthen working families. Anchored by the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), it unites  Walmart employees, union members, small business owners, religious leaders, community organizations, women’s advocacy groups, multi-ethnic coalitions, elected officials and ordinary citizens who believe that changing Walmart is a vital priority for the economic health of our communities.  Making Change works closely with OUR Walmart, an organization of employees, many of whom have taken risky actions to  insist on a more respectful work environment.

It’s a busy season for “Days of Action.”  One focused on preserving Social Security will be held next Tuesday.  Another, focused on solidarity with fast food workers, will be held Thursday, December 5.   In addition to supporting the efforts of workers at low-wage retail chains and fast food restaurants, the actions can also boost support for legislation to raise the minimum wage at the national and state levels.

In New Hampshire, where the legislature abolished the state’s minimum wage in 2011, a bill to raise the wage for the state’s lowest workers in two steps to $9 an hour will be introduced in January.

Walmart can afford to raise wages.  Citing sources such as the annual Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans, the web site “The Walmart 1%” says the six wealthiest Waltons, the heirs to Walmart founder Sam Walton, have a net worth of $144.7 billion and that the family has as much wealth as 42% of the American population added together.

(Originally posted on InZane Times by Arnie Alpert)

Simple Math – US Wealth is Being Redistributed Upward (InZane Times)

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins, whose latest book is 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About it, spoke to the Henniker Peace Community yesterday. 

 

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins

Chuck Collins didn’t come to Henniker to “foment antagonism or class warfare,” he said, but instead to encourage people to do some “simple math.”  It’s pretty much the same thing.

The richest 44 households in the USA hold more wealth than the poorest 95%, for example.  The wealthiest 1 percent controls 36 percent of US wealth and more than 42 percent of all financial assets. 

It hasn’t always been that bad.  According to Collins, there’s been a “dramatic upward redistribution of wealth” in the past three decades.  That was no accident, but followed policy changes in which the rules of the economy were “rigged” to benefit asset owners over wage earners.  “These are the folks we need to defend ourselves against,” he told an audience of more than fifty people at the Henniker Congregational Church.

Historically, Collins said Americans have been comfortable with wealth and income inequality as long as they thought the rules were fair.  But that has shifted since the 2008 Wall Street meltdown.  Now, 70 percent of Americans believe extreme henniker 11-3-13 005inequality is a problem.

It’s a problem that can be addressed with three types of policy changes:

1) “Raise the floor,” through a higher minimum wage and a stronger safety net;

2) “Level the playing field,” through reforms of the political process, such as overturning the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision; and

3) “Break up concentrations of wealth and power.” 

It’s that third point that would meet the most resistance from the natural persons, organizations, and corporations where power and wealth are unfairly concentrated.  But there are specific steps to advocate, such as restoring the progressivity of US income taxes, raising the estate tax, closing loopholes that enable corporations to evade taxes by assigning profits to overseas subsidiaries, breaking up the megabanks, and imposing a tax on financial transactions.    Some of the One Percenters even agree.

One place we can take this message is into the presidential campaign, now warming up in both major parties.  New Hampshire and Iowa may soon be awash in candidates.  Let’s tell them what we think.

Originally Posted on InZane Times by Arnie Alpert

Who’s Behind The Collapse Of The American Middle Class? (InZane Times)

Hedrick ArnieAlpert

Author Hedrick Smith Tours New Hampshire with Answers and Proposals

That wages for typical U.S. workers have been stagnant since the mid-1970s is not breaking news to anyone who has paid attention, nor is the rise of wealth and income inequality that makes us the most unequal country in the so-called “developed world.” 

Forbes reported last month, “Five years after the financial crisis sent the fortunes of many in the U.S. and around the world tumbling, the wealthiest as a group have finally gained back all that they lost. The 400 wealthiest Americans are worth just over $2 trillion, roughly equivalent to the GDP of Russia.”  Such reports have gained more attention since the Occupy movement drove the concept of the “1%” into the national consciousness. 

Lawrence Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute says “A key to understanding this growth of income inequality—and the disappointing increases in workers’ wages and compensation and middle-class incomes—is understanding the divergence of pay and productivity.”  [see chart]  Growth of real hourly compensation for production/nonsupervisory workers and productivity, 1948–2011

But what was it that detached productivity from wages in the 1970s?  What started a trend that has continued pretty much unabated through all the booms and busts of the past five decades?  That’s the major theme of Who Stole the American Dream?, a new book by Hedrick Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who toured New Hampshire last week.  With a pace that might have made observers wonder if he’s running for president (he’s not), Smith spoke at three college campuses, one high school, 2013 10 24 NH AFL CIO 001the NH AFL-CIO, the office of the NH Democratic Party, and community groups in Exeter and Amherst.  He also appeared on NHPR’s “The Exchange,” recorded an interview with Manchester Community TV, and joined me for an interview on WNHN-FM.

Smith told an audience that packed the Peterborough Unitarian Universalist Church that he set out to write a book on “the American dream at risk.”  That was until he did his research and concluded that the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a wealthy elite was more extreme than he had realized. 

Smith attributes the beginning of the “bosses’ revolt” to an obscure memowritten by Lewis Powell in 1971.  At the time the future Supreme Court Justice was a well-connected corporate lawyer, worried that the “the American economic system is under broad attack.” 

“Powell’s intention was to spark a full-scale political rebellion by America’s corporate leaders … to change the political and policy mainstream in Washington and to put the nation on a new track, a track more favorable to business,”  Smith writes in the opening chapter. 

“The over-riding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival – survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people,”  Powell warned the US Chamber of Commerce, the body that commissioned his paper.  His prescription gave particular attention to the mood on college campuses and the need for business to take charge of the intellectual environment, but above all called for business leaders to “be far more aggressive than in the past.”

Business responded.  “After having kept government at arm’s length, the business community massively expanded its physical presence in the nation’s capital,” Smith writes.  “In a few short years, more than 2000 companies set up Washington offices.  The number leapt from 175 in 1971 to 2445 a decade later.”  Leaders of the biggest corporations formed The Business Roundtable, the heaviest of the heavyweight business lobbies.  New think tanks, notably Heritage and Cato, sprang to life, and the American Enterprise Institute ballooned in size and influence.  The National Federation of Independent Businesses, the most powerful advocate for small business groups, grew from 300 members in 1970 to 600,000 in 1979. 

“By the late 1970s,” writes Smith, “business interests had mustered such a hugeconcord 10-23-13 008force that they outnumbered Congress 130 to 1.  They had 130 lobbyists and advocates for each of the 535 members of Congress.”

Big business flexed its muscles big time during the 1977-78 Congressional session.  The business lobby took on Ralph Nader’s consumer movement and defeated the proposal to create a consumer safety agency.  They went head to head with organized labor and defeated plans for labor law reform.  They pushed for de-regulation of transportation, a new bankruptcy law that kept corporate leaders at the reigns of companies they had driven into debt, laid the groundwork for the decline of the defined benefit pension plan, and most important, won cuts in corporate and capital gains taxes.  The new tax law “gave the economic benefits of tax law primarily to the economic elites that were now exercising increased economic power,” says Smith. 

One aspect of this development is especially worth noting:  the revolt of the bosses began in part as a reaction to moves by President Richard Nixon, who Powell thought was overly sensitive to public pressure.  And the first big wins for the new business lobby came when Jimmy Carter was president and Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  Ronald Reagan carried the Powell prescription forward, but it was already gaining bi-partisan momentum when Reagan gained the White House. 

Hedrick Smith’s strongest chapters are in the sections called “Dismantling the Dream,” “Unequal Democracy,” and “Middle Class Squeeze.”  With a blend of stories from downwardly mobile middle class workers and solid descriptions of the specific policies promoted by the business lobby, Smith provides ample details to explain why the bosses are winning. 

For example, he describes how Dirk Van Dongen, President of the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors, led the backroom lobbying that enabled George W. Bush and Karl Rove to push through another round of massive tax cuts benefitting the rich.  Despite public opposition, Van Dongen and his Gang of Six – the US Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, National Association ofconcord 10-23-13 015Manufacturers, National Federation of Independent Business, National Restaurant Association, and Van Dongen’s Association of Wholesalers – organized thousands of CEOs, district by district, to lobby for the tax cut.  “With a full court press by the Gang of Six reinforcing the White House push, the Bush tax bill, offering $1.35 trillion in tax cuts over a decade, passed the House by 240 – 154 in May 2001.”  The bill then cleared the Senate 58 – 33. 

“When economists did the numbers,” Smith writes, “they found that 52.5 percent of the Bush tax cuts went to the richest 5 percent of U.S. households.”  When joined with the off-budget trillions for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tax cuts are the major contributor to the federal deficit that has right-wingers calling for cuts in Social Security and Medicare.  

Who Stole the American Dream also gives great descriptions of the shift from defined benefit pensions to largely self-funded 401-k plans, and the resulting insecure retirement faced by the baby boom generation.  In addition, the book has a good chapter on the housing bubble and sub-prime banking crisis that touched off the 2007 financial meltdown.  It details Wal-Mart’s decision to outsource production to China and the ripples this has sent through the US job market.  Smith also describes the outsourcing of knowledge-sector jobs to China and India.  Given that these are the jobs we were told would replace blue collar manufacturing, the implications are stark. 

That NAFTA is not mentioned at all and the World Trade Organization is mentioned only as a body that might help the U.S. improve its trade relations with China leads me to wonder what Smith thinks of the approach to global commerce brought to us by the same corporate lobbyists.  Likewise, I wonder how he sizes up the impact of Paul Volcker’s tight money policies during the Carter years.   Attention to the link between race and poverty would have provided valuable depth to Smith’s analysis.  But those quibbles aside, Hedrick Smith has answered his own question; we can read who stole the American dream and how they did it.

Smith confessed at a couple of talks that as a journalist he was somewhat reluctant to offer a prescription for middle class resurgence.  “Changing America’s direction will not be easy,” he writes at the beginning of his concluding section.  “It will happen only if there is a populist, grassroots surge demanding it, like the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s.”  That’s hard to argue with.

Instead of a bold plan to reverse the agenda foisted on the country by Lewis Powell, Dirk Van Dongen, and their legions of corporate lobbyists, Smith offers a conventional set of proposals to rebuild the infrastructure, rebuild American manufacturing, cut military spending, and protect the safety net.  Those are all admirable objectives, but Smith then states that progress is being held back by “partisan extremists,” as if the Left somehow shares responsibility with the Right for the rise of plutocracy. 

Instead of a resurgent Left, Smith calls for a resurgent “center.” Step 9 in his ten-2013 10 24 NH AFL CIO 005point plan is “to regenerate the centrist core of American politics both by rejecting extremist candidates in both parties and by opening up our political process in every state to give more influence to moderate and independent voters.” 

This left me confused.  Smith understands and states clearly that “Democrats have been dragged toward the right by the gravitational pull of the Republican Right.”  That means the “center,” a function of political geometry, has moved right as well.  That’s the wrong place to look for inspiration and answers.  Throngs chanting, “What do we want?  Moderation!  When do we want it?  Now!” won’t worry Dirk Van Dongen and his Gang of Six. 

Writing recently in The Nation, Gar Alperovitz starts an article on “Renovating the American Dream”

Everyone knows the United States faces enormous challenges: unemployment, poverty, global warming, environmental decay—to say nothing of whole cities that have essentially been thrown away. We know the economic system is dominated by powerful corporate institutions. And we know the political system is dominated by those same institutions. Elections occur and major fiscal debates ensue, but most of the problems are only marginally affected (and often in ways that increase the burdens).The issue is not simply that our situation is worrisome. It is that the nation’s most pressing problems are built into the structure of the system. They are not unique to the current economic slump or the result of partisan bickering, something passing in the night that will go away when we elect forward-looking leaders and pressure them to move in a different direction.

For Alperovitz, whose latest book is What Then Must We Do?, the answers come from building democratic economic institutions, such as worker-owned enterprises, state-owned banks, and a state-by-state transition to a single-payer health insurance system.   When combined with active resistance to plutocracy, that route is promising.

Alongside his plea for a resurgent “center,” Hedrick Smith also calls for a mass uprising against the plutocrats,

“an army of volunteers prepared to battle for the common cause of reclaiming the American Dream.  Occupy Wall Street and its spin-offs in more than fifteen cities around the country began that process, focusing more of the national dialogue on the hyper-concentration of wealth and power in America – the costly divide of gross inequality between the top 1 percent and the other 99 percent.  But for significant long-term impact, either Occupy will need to mature or some new movement will need to emerge with broader participation, better organization, more clearly articulated goals, and specific policy targets.”

Bring it on!

 

Originally posted on Arnie Alpert’s blog, InZane Times.

Rising Inequality is Theme of New Documentary (By Arnie Alpert)

Robert Reich

Inequality For All“Inequality for All,” the new documentary that centers on Robert Reich’s exploration of the deepening chasm between the ultra-rich and everyone else, opened this weekend.  It took in $140,000 at the 28 theaters where it’s playing now.  Please try to resist comparing these box office figures to the $35 million weekend gross for “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2,” which played in 4001 theaters.  Try instead to find out whether “Inequality for All” is playing near you.

Reich, best known perhaps as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor and since then as a prolific pundit/writer, these days teaches at Berkeley, where his classes apparently fill large auditoriums.  He is smart, witty, and an effective educator.  With clips from his lectures and interviews, combined with great graphics, viewers will get a good intro to how the economy got so screwed up since the 1970s.

The film’s emotional punch comes more from a series of interviews with people we generally think of as “middle class” but who in recent years have been having a harder and harder time getting by.  There’s also one billionaire, pillow entrepreneur and venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who explains that part of our economic problems are caused by the fact that people as rich as he is can’t spend their money fast enough to affect an economy in which most consumers can’t afford to consume the goods and services they need.

Reich and the film-makers want us to know how bad it’s really gotten.

A single top income could buy housing for every homeless person in the U.S.

On a winter day in 2012 over 633,000 people were homeless in the United States. Based on an annual single room occupancy (SRO) cost of $558 per month, any ONE of the ten richest Americans would have enough with his 2012 income to pay for a room for every homeless person in the U.S. for the entire year . These ten rich men together made more than our entire housing budget.

For anyone still believing “they earned it,” it should be noted that most of the Forbes 400 earnings came from minimally-taxed, non-job-creating capital gains.

“Out of 141 countries,” states another fact on the film’s web-site, “the U.S. has the 4th-highest degree of wealth inequality in the world, trailing only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon,”

According to a study cited today in “Too Much,” a weekly newsletter from the Institute for Policy Studies, it would take $175.3 billion to lift 46.5 million Americans to the poverty line.   That’s just 58% of the amount by which the nation’s 400 richest individuals saw their fortunes increase over the past year.  I could go on.

These facts are not facts of nature.  They result, Reich explains, from globalization and technological change but also from changes in tax policy, an attack on unions, divestment in higher education, and a corresponding increase in control of the nation’s politics by those who control most of the money.  “With money comes the capacity to control politics,” he says.

From a “virtuous cycle” of rising middle class incomes in the post-WW2 economic expansion, we entered a vicious cycle of contraction when wages for most workers peaked in the 1970s.  With upward mobility new trending downward, the squeeze on the middle class is a threat to democracy.

Reich winds up by saying “history is on the side of positive social change.”  Perhaps, but “history” in that sense is no more a fact of nature than the drastic cuts in the marginal tax rates of high-income individuals.  History is up to us.

This film doesn’t explain everything.  For example, it leaves out the story of the people – mostly people of color – who were excluded from the “virtuous cycle” of the 1950s and ‘60s.  He doesn’t devote sufficient attention to the de-regulation of finance responsible for so much of the rising wealth of the 1%.  I think he still is too wedded to the notion that more education in technological fields will tilt the labor market back in the right direction.  But the film is entertaining as well as informative, and can spark some of the conversations we need to be having.  Go see it if you can.

Originally posted on InZane Times