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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Is Warren’s Medicare For All Plan Realistic?

The Daily Escape:

Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, CA

Let’s talk about Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s recently announced Medicare for All (M4A) plan. She, along with other 2020 presidential candidates have endorsed some form of M4A. Bernie has a plan. Yang has a plan. Mayor Pete has a plan, called “M4A for those who want it”. Biden is against M4A, pushing an extension of Obamacare instead.

The multiple Medicare for All proposals are unclear to most of us.  Presently, Medicare is primarily a government program for older people that pays a portion of their medical expenses. Participants pay premiums. Medicare Part B pays about 80% of medical expenses. The participant either pays the remainder or, has a supplemental secondary insurance.

Medicare for All is a single payer, government-pays-all concept.

One part of Warren’s (and Bernie’s) plan is forcing people who have private insurance to move to the M4A coverage. According to the US Census Bureau, 66.1% of the population had private health insurance in 2018. Of that number, 217.8 million are covered by private plans, of which 178.4 million are insured through their employers, so that means 218 million Americans would have to move from their current plan to a plan that doesn’t yet exist

In rough terms, the US spends about $4 trillion a year on health care, split almost evenly between government programs and the private sector. The $2 trillion in private-sector costs are also split roughly in half, with about $1 trillion each spent by households (premiums, and out-of-pocket money) and by employers (their share of premiums).

To pay for her plan, Warren needs to raise $2 trillion in government revenue to replace the spending of the private sector. She starts with the $1 trillion that employers are spending and requires them to redirect this money to Medicare via a per-worker fee.

Finding the other $1 trillion is trickier. Warren raises taxes on corporations and the wealthy, whose taxes have declined significantly in the past 30 years. Even after all of the increases she has proposed, tax rates on the rich would still be lower than during the Eisenhower administration.

In addition, by the time M4A had taken the place of private insurance companies, Warren thinks that 2 million jobs would be lost in the health insurance business, and other health-connected services. The principle purpose of a health insurance company is to pay for people’s health care needs. Its goal isn’t employment of workers. Most who would lose their jobs can always transfer those skills to another sector.

As long as the total number of patients doesn’t decrease, we won’t be seeing laid-off doctors or nurses.

Warren’s plan is a detailed policy road map. It’s not draft legislation, but there’s enough detail to write the bill, making it the first time a presidential candidate has gone beyond the arm-waving we usually see around single-payer. Whether you like her plan or not, her focus clarifies the debate.

The best feature is the plan’s aggressive approach to cost control. We can question whether the plan’s too optimistic: it may be unrealistic to get all of the cuts to health care administration, drug costs, and bend the overall growth curve of health care costs by as much as she’s assuming.

The NYT’s David Leonhardt makes the point about the least popular aspect of M4A: the fact that it replaces private coverage. Warren isn’t letting people opt into Medicare, she would force them to join:

“The biggest weakness of Warren’s approach is that it tries to bulldoze through the sizable public anxiety about radical changes to the health care system. Warren would not let people opt into Medicare, a wildly popular idea. She would force them to join.”

Warren makes the point that not all who have private coverage love their health insurer. It’s clear that Americans are far less happy than citizens of peer countries that have universal coverage. But even if not really popular, doing away with private health care will be disruptive.

Also, we’re not as healthy as those in countries with universal coverage. In particular, life expectancy is much lower (the US ranks 37th world wide), and we’re paying far more per capita for health care than anyone else.

“Free enterprise” health insurance simply isn’t working for Americans, and the dissatisfaction is real.

Can we do better? Is Elizabeth Warren’s plan the right amount of aggressive change, or would a more incremental approach be more palatable to voters in 2020?

Wrongo likes Elizabeth Warren and many of her positions. Her goal of fixing a broken health insurance system is right on, including her drive to cut health care costs aggressively. But her plan to eliminate all private health insurance is divisive, and may not bring about the desired goal of universal coverage.

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Taxes Aren’t Theft

The Daily Escape:

Humpback Whale, Tonga – Photo by Rita Kluge

Joseph Stieglitz has an op-ed in the NYT about saving capitalism from itself. He wants to re-brand capitalism as “progressive capitalism”: (emphasis by Wrongo)

“There is an alternative: progressive capitalism. Progressive capitalism is not an oxymoron; we can indeed channel the power of the market to serve society….The prescription follows from the diagnosis: It begins by recognizing the vital role that the state plays in making markets serve society. We need regulations that ensure strong competition without abusive exploitation, realigning the relationship between corporations and the workers they employ and the customers they are supposed to serve. We must be as resolute in combating market power as the corporate sector is in increasing it.”

America has been debating the role of capitalism in our society since our beginnings. In 1790, John Adams published the Discourses on Davila in which he said that entrenched economic inequality would create a political oligarchy in America similar to what had already occurred in Europe.

The problem isn’t inequality. We’ve survived a permanent underclass, but until recently, it has been a statistical minority. But, we won’t survive today’s continuing erosion of the middle class. Stieglitz says:

“We are now in a vicious cycle: Greater economic inequality is leading, in our money-driven political system, to more political inequality, with weaker rules and deregulation causing still more economic inequality.”

He calls for:

“…a new social contract between voters and elected officials, between workers and corporations, between rich and poor, and between those with jobs and those who are un- or underemployed.”

Call it progressive capitalism, capitalism plus, democratic capitalism, or whatever you want. At the core of any reform of capitalism is less corporate control over the levers of power, and a redistribution of wealth. Along with the growth in economic inequality and political impotence, so grows the myth propagated by the ultra-rich that higher taxes are a public theft of their hard earned fortunes, and are a threat to their personal freedoms.

Let’s spend a minute on the difference between positive and negative rights.

In the simplest terms, negative rights (most of the Constitution’s Bill of Rights) protect us from the government. They tell us what the government can’t do. The Constitution was designed as primarily a negative rights document, to maximize our individual liberty, and to protect us from the government interfering in our lives. They are most helpful to people whose rights are already protected.

Positive rights are different. They include things like the right to an education, and in some countries, the right to healthcare. Most of us define freedom as: freedom from hunger, freedom from ignorance, freedom from exploitation, freedom from poverty, freedom from hopelessness and despair. Very few positive rights are enumerated in the Constitution, with the exception of the right to have the government protect private property.

Today, if there’s one enduring myth that drives US politics, it is the myth that the rich have earned their reward, through nothing but their own hard work and savvy. The rich want no income redistribution, which they call “socialism”, just as the fat cats said in this cartoon from 1912:

The Republicans in the 1930s called FDR a socialist. Now, as we are thinking about a New Deal 2.0, today’s Republicans want to again brand all Democrats as socialists.

Corporations and the 1% ignore how much they are helped by a system designed by them, and for them. They are contemptuous of government and public authority, which they say act as agents of the poor, attempting to extort the rich.

They forget that our government facilitates and protects their wealth. If not for the many Federal agencies that write regulations favorable to industry, the Federal Reserve, protectors of the banking industry along with others, there would be a lot less wealth for corporations and the 1% to aggregate.

Therefore, they should pay the most.

And remember, rural electrification was a federal project under FDR. The dams on the Columbia River made irrigation possible, opening up western lands to agriculture. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was the Green New Deal of its time, and was the basis for development of a modern Southeastern US. The railroads that opened up the West relied on government property provided to private companies (redistribution?) to develop.

Let’s decide to reform capitalism. First, by making it responsive to the positive rights that average Americans are longing for. Second, paying for that with much high taxes on corporations. If the loopholes created by savvy corporate tax lawyers remain on the books, let’s create a stiff Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) for corporations.

Just like the AMT that Wrongo has had to pay for lo, these many years.

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Trump Says Dems Are Socialists

The Daily Escape:

Sulfur Skyline Trail, Jasper NP Alberta, CN – August 2018 photo by MetalTele79

Trump wants to run against socialism in 2020, so he’s trying to paint the Democrats as socialists. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump brought up “socialism” four separate times:

“Just this week, more than 100 Democrats in Congress signed up for a socialist takeover of American health care.”

“America will never be a socialist country — ever.”

“If these socialist progressives had their way, they would put our Constitution through the paper shredder in a heartbeat.”

“We believe in the American Dream, not in the socialist nightmare.”

Steve Benen notes that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), indicated that the Voting Rights Bill passed by the House as HR-1 was a “radical, half-baked socialist proposal”. Benen goes on to say:

“There’s nothing “socialist” about automatic voter registration. Or curtailing partisan gerrymandering. Or requiring officials to use “durable, voter-verified” paper ballots in federal elections.”

Or making Election Day a national holiday.

Perhaps the GOP is redefining socialism as: Any legislation or policy that would diminish the power of the far right, or diminish the wealth differential enjoyed by their business elites.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that just 18% of Americans had a positive view of socialism, 50% had a negative view, and 26% had a neutral view. Most of the skepticism about socialism comes from older American generations. People who are nearly Trump’s age grew up fearing nuclear war. They saw the Soviet Union as an existential threat to the US.

OTOH, Axios reports that 73% of Millennials and Gen Z think the government should provide universal health care. They will make up 37% of the electorate in 2020. And Gallup found that Americans aged 18 to 29 are as positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%).

Vilifying socialism might be a winner for the GOP, unless the Democrats hammer home a series of ideas. First, that Social Security and Medicare aren’t socialism or socialized medicine. Second, that we socialize corporate losses all the time. The taxpayers bailed out banks, capitalists and speculators 10 years ago. We also bailed out GM and Chrysler.

We bail out corporations that do not pay for “externalities”. Externalities are the indirect costs incurred because of actions taken by someone else. Think about pollution. When a manufacturer can make its decisions based on their bottom line, it makes sense for them to dump waste into our rivers or air, pushing the costs of cleanup onto society as a whole.

Today’s GOP is pushing quickly to gut regulations in order to protect the industries of their big donors from paying the cost of these externalities.

Third, reforming capitalism isn’t socialism.  Reform is necessary for the economic future of the country. The current neoliberal form of capitalism dominates both our economy and our thinking about economic success. And in the past 40 years, we’ve changed the rules of the game for corporations. We’ve moved the fifty yard line much closer to the capitalists’ goalpost than it was during FDR’s time.

And corporations and capitalists have been running up the score in the economic game ever since.

Neoliberal capitalism has made selfishness an economic and moral good. One result was that improving our economic security, or our social safety net, can no longer be discussed in our society.

The Green New Deal document directs the government to provide all Americans with:

(i) high-quality health care,
(ii) affordable, safe, and adequate housing,
(iii) economic security; and
(iv) access to clean water, clean air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.

These goals are within America’s capabilities, but they come with costs, costs that will not be willingly paid for by corporations, or by “public-private partnerships”. They will only come about with direct government intervention, primarily by implementing policies that encourage them, and by a new tax policy that finances them.

Nothing in the above requires state ownership of corporations, so we don’t have to talk about socialism.

Our market economy should remain, but capitalism needs to be different, because its current track cannot be sustained if we want to contain and correct income inequality, or deal with climate change. Today’s capitalism is creating concentrations in most industries, driving out the little firms. Price gouging is an issue, particularly with big Pharma.

Everyone should agree that companies above a certain size must pay for the externalities they create. That they should also pay a larger share of their profits as taxes. And that they should pay a fee for domestic jobs lost to overseas locations.

2020 should be about those who want to reform capitalism, and how to do it. It shouldn’t be about Trump’s trying to paint Democrats as Soviet-era socialists.

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Terror Delivered Via Joystick Is Here

The Daily Escape:

Winter sunrise, Mt Hood, OR – 2019 photo by dontyakno

The Russian company that gave the world the AK-47 assault rifle, the Kalashnikov Group, unveiled its KUB-BLA drone at the International Defense Exhibition and Conference (IDEX) in Abu Dhabi on Feb. 17.

This won’t be the first small-sized drone to be used in warfare. ISIS has already shown the ability to carry an explosive drone payload to a target. In January 2018, a swarm of 13 explosives-laden mini-drones attacked two Russian bases in western Syria. Each of those drones carried 10 one-pound bombs under its wings.

So, technology has again revolutionized warfare, this time by making sophisticated drone warfare technology widely and cheaply available to terrorists and under-resourced state militaries. Not a surprise that it is from the company that gave the world the AK-47, an automatic rifle that “democratized” infantry warfare.

The KUB drone is simple to operate, effective and cheap, according to Kalashnikov. Sergey Chemezov, chairman of Russia’s state-owned Rostec arms manufacturer, which owns Kalashnikov said:

“It will mark a step toward a completely new form of combat…”

The KUB is 4 ft wide, can fly for 30 minutes at a speed of 80 mph and carries six pounds of explosives, said Rostec’s news release. That makes it roughly the size of a coffee table that can be precision-guided to explode on a target 40 miles away, making it the equivalent of a “small, slow and presumably inexpensive cruise missile”, according to the National Interest website.

Apparently, the target market is third-world militaries.

KUB is similar in design to Israel’s truck-launched Harpy drone, which has been on the market for at least 25 years. The Harpy is jet-propelled, and much heavier than KUB-BLA. It carries a 51-pound warhead, and is in the hands of militaries in Azerbaijan, Israel, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Uzbekistan.

The Harpy is designed to fly for long periods, “loitering” above enemy territory.  A single Harpy reportedly costs around $70,000. A KUB will be substantially cheaper, possibly around $7,000, so an operator could purchase hundreds of KUBs and deploy them by the dozen to swarm enemy defenses.

The US wants its own suicide drone. The Air Force is developing what, in a burst of bureaucratic naming creativity, they call “The Low Cost Attritable Aircraft”, (LCAA). In 2016, they awarded Kratos, a San Diego drone-maker, a $41-million contract to design and demonstrate what the government described as a “high-speed, long-range, low-cost, limited-life strike unmanned aerial system.”

The low cost part is estimated at $3 million each, making it clearly an American product designed to much less expendable that a Harpy, and far more costly than a KUB. So, think fewer swarms and less US suicide usage than the drones of our competitors.

This means we have now entered the age of terrorism by joystick. The Pentagon understands the risks, and is seeking $1 billion for counter-drone measures in its proposed 2019 budget.

While there are limits to the damage a cheap suicide drone can do, the psychological effects of a small, but successful attack could far outstrip the actual physical damage. Imagine three suicide drones diving into the crowd at the Super Bowl. America would probably never play football outdoors again.

This is an unwelcome development that was also inevitable. Military planners have wanted air-to-ground weapons that were cheap, and liberated from the need to protect a human pilot.

A fleet of low-cost micro-bombers could be decisive in intra-state warfare, civil wars, and the kind of popular unrest that we experience today. Weapons like the KUB will undoubtedly find a home in the arsenals of various countries, particularly as the technology continues to improve.

The point though isn’t what one of these could do, but rather, what thousands of them might do. Soon, Russia, China and the US will be producing a mass market, cheap and destructive drone.

What could go wrong?

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Demographics is Making Us Less Democratic

The Daily Escape:

Sunset at Malin Head, Donegal, Ireland – 2019 photo by jip

There was an article by Phillip Bump in the WaPo (paywalled) “In about 20 years, half the population will live in eight states.  By 2040, 49.5% of our population will be living in the eight most populous states — California, Texas, New York, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. All are growing significantly faster than the collective population of the remaining 42 states.

Sounds like just an interesting demographic fact until you consider the implications for the US Senate. Matt Yglesias tweets:

When Yglesias says “four” instead of “two” he means the margin in percentage points of the 2020 national vote for president going to the Democrat. His point is that even with a weakened presidential candidate like Trump, it will be a long uphill climb for Democrats to control a majority in the Senate.

Last fall at the Kavanaugh hearings, many pointed out that Senators representing only 45% of voters were able to appoint him to the Supreme Court. Some said it was the first time that a president elected by a minority nominated a Supreme Court Justice who was appointed by a minority in the Senate to decide certain legal questions against the will of the majority of Americans.

And while California has about 68 times the number of people in Wyoming, their votes can cancel each other out in the Senate.

This demographic imbalance is the result of 1787’s “Connecticut Compromise”, which created our two houses of government. This was designed to balance federal power between large and small state populations. Today, equal representation in the Senate is a permanent feature of our system.

After each decennial census, the map of US House districts are redrawn and seats are shifted to states that have gained the most population. That means, leaving aside the gerrymandering issue, each state’s representation in the US House will roughly reflect its share of our total population.

This isn’t the case in the Senate, where the representation of all states is fixed at two Senators apiece. And that can’t be changed, because it’s based on a Constitutional provision (Article V) which establishes that an amendment requires a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states. It also says: “No State, without its Consent, shall be deprived of its equal Suffrage in the Senate.” It’s hard to imagine a situation where a small state would agree to give up one of its two Senators to another, larger state.

That was the essence of the Connecticut Compromise. The framers agreed to make the guarantee of equal power in the Senate beyond even the reach of the amendment process. It was a means of protecting the rights of the minority as “minorities” in 1787 were small states, while today, minority has an entirely different meaning.

Changing demographics has implications for the Electoral College as well. Each state’s votes are the sum of their House and Senate representatives with the total number of Electoral votes fixed at 538. If population growth moves representatives from rural states to the big eight in population, their share of votes in the Electoral College become larger as well.

There is a state-based movement to make the Electoral College represent the will of the majority of America’s voters. NPR reports that so far, 11 states have passed legislation that requires their Electoral College electors to vote for whoever wins the national vote total. To be effective, the move would require approval by states representing 270 electoral votes, the same number it takes to win the presidency. So far, they are 98 votes short of that goal.

Colorado appears poised to join as the 12th state. The state legislature passed the bill, and the governor is expected to sign it. New Mexico is considering it. This would be one way of restoring the idea that every vote in the country counts equally.

Wrongo’s pie-in-the-sky dream is that every American voter gets a third vote for a Senator in any other state. Then we could vote for, or against a Senator we wanted to see stay or go. Wrongo’s dream began when Strom Thurmond represented South Carolina, but imagine, being able to vote Lindsey Graham out of office today.

That would be a real masterpiece of one-person, one-vote in America.

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Monday Wake Up Call – Green New Deal Edition

The Daily Escape:

Double Rainbow, Kauai, Hawaii – 2018 photo by Charlene Renslow

There has been plenty of talk about the introduction of a Green New Deal (GND) as an answer for what ails America. Here is the text of HR 109. Everyone should take a few minutes and read it.

The power of the GND is that it addresses the power imbalance between established political and business interests in the US and the rest of us. The GND injects compassion into our democracy. Justice for workers is compassion. Care of the environment for future generations is compassion. A more equitable distribution of wealth is compassion.

From Ed Walker:

“The Green New Deal is an overarching statement of political goals for the Democratic Party, something the party has not had for decades. It lays out a vision of a future inspired by the best the party has to offer, Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms, which he laid out in January 1941 as the US stared at the unfolding crisis in Europe…..It is a combination of Roosevelt’s unfinished goals and the massive work done by liberals to expand the reach of the Constitution to previously disfavored groups. It offers hope and possibility as we confront the crisis of environmental disaster.”

Most people think the GND is about fixing the environment. That’s true, but there is a larger theme running through it, the reform of capitalism.

Capitalism is at the core of our country’s growth and place in the world. It has created wealth for all. In accordance with its tenets, a few of us are fabulously rich, while the majority of us are not. It also imposes economic costs on the 99% while sucking up most benefits for those at the very top. As Ed Walker says:

“You don’t see the rich living next door to petroleum processing plants or airports or gravel pits or trash dumps. You don’t see their kids suffering from asthma caused by factory pollution or heavy truck traffic or worse. You don’t see them unable to pay medical bills or take their kids for needed medical attention. That’s for the little people.”

The GND’s most important virtue is that it doesn’t assume that the entire burden of the disruption caused by economic growth (if the GND becomes law), should be borne only by the 99%. It insures corporations will not grab vast profits, or control adaptation to the new economy for their sole benefit.

For example, when the price of natural gas dropped, capitalists stopped using coal, and coal miners lost their jobs, their insurance, their homes and their futures. Under the GND, when natural gas is phased out in favor of alternative sources, displaced workers will have a job and health care, because the GND offers a job guarantee and universal access to health care.

The knee-jerk reaction from Republicans (and many Democrats) is that the GND is socialism, and it’s impossible to implement in a free society. It is true that HR 109 is designed to rebalance the power about who decides the future of the nation. It explicitly favors the interests of the vast majority. It explicitly limits the power of corporations to dictate what response will be made to the threat of climate change.

This isn’t socialism, it’s an overdue reform of capitalism. Our companies, in particular the large global firms, can no longer be trusted to do the right thing when it comes to the welfare of Americans. For the past 70 years, people accepted that they would do well if American companies did well.

Globalism has made a lie of that ideology. Corporations must pay taxes. Corporations must be responsible for bearing the economic costs for all of us that come from their decisions.

Capitalism reform is a serious challenge not just to corporations and the rich. It is a serious challenge to our current political parties. Democrats claim to be the party of the people. The GND will force them to prove it.

The GOP represents the interests of corporations and the rich against the interests of working people. The GND makes this clear. It offers voters a contrast with the Republican/MAGA vision for this nation.

Both parties claim to want the best for the country’s future. Thinking about the GND forces them to come up with positive programs, or to do nothing in the face of mounting inequality, and a zero-sum political economy. Some have compared a GND transition to the abolition of slavery. Slavery was immensely profitable, and the benefits went to relatively few. And those few held all the political power in the South. It led to war.

Meanwhile, the media focuses on the horse race of ideas, and the cost. Can the Green New Deal pass? How could we ever pay for it?

Democrats and Republicans opposed to the GND must explain why even more neoliberal capitalism will accomplish what voters say they want. Republicans will continue to argue that the GND will turn us into Venezuela or worse.

But the rest of us now have a vision for a better future.

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The Power of Messaging

The Daily Escape:

Buttermere Lake, Cumbria, England – photo by Matt Owen-Hughes

On Monday in El Paso TX, Trump attacked Democrats, calling them:

“The party of socialism, late-term abortion, open borders and crime…To pave the way for socialism, Democrats are calling for massive tax hikes and the complete elimination of private health care…They’re coming for your money and they’re coming for your freedom.”

Trump’s focus on “socialism” is based on the few liberal Democratic presidential candidates who have called for Medicare-for-all, or environmental proposals intended to lower carbon emissions.

He brought up the “Green New Deal”, saying it would virtually eliminate air travel and that it sounds “like a high school term paper that got a low mark.”

This is just the latest stage in the war waged by the right against the ideals and programs of the New Deal. Kim Phillips Fein, reviewing the new bookWinter War: Hoover, Roosevelt, and the First Clash Over the New Deal” by Eric Rauchway, writes: (brackets by Wrongo)

Throughout the [1932] campaign, Hoover had attacked what he considered a “social philosophy very different from the traditional philosophies of the American people,” warning that these “so-called new deals” would “destroy the very foundations” of American society. As Hoover later put it, the promise of a “New Deal” was both socialistic and fascistic; it would lead the country on a “march to Moscow.”

2020 will be all about messaging. Once again, just like 88 years ago, Republicans will run on socialism. Trump will add the threats posed by open borders and abortion to the right-wing stew.

The question is what will be the 20+ Democrats who are running for president be talking about? Michael Tomasky in The Daily Beast suggests: (emphasis by Wrongo)

I am saying, though, that Democrats should stop pretending they can unite the country. They can’t. No one can. What they can do, what they must do, is assemble a coalition of working- and middle-class voters of all races around a set of economic principles that will say clearly to those voters that things are going to be very different when they’re in the White House…

There is a power to fashioning a new political coalition around the concept of economic justice. We live in a time when politicians of both parties have followed a consistent strategy: massage the economic numbers and the media, keep the rich and powerful happy, and make sure you stay on the “fiscally conservative” side of the line.

Now, a few Democrats are pushing the party elders to re-consider economic justice as FDR did in the1930s. These Democrats intuit that most Americans are trying to reconcile the life they were told they would have with today’s reality. The gulf between what they were told, and what actually happened is wide. And it looks as if it will only get wider.

Many Americans feel that they can’t pay their bills anymore, and they are afraid. Their jobs aren’t stable, they can’t look forward to retirement. About 20% say they have more credit card debt than savings. The lives they thought they’d live are upside down, and they’re not sure they can do anything about it. Quite a few followed their preachers and a few charlatan Republicans, and can’t understand why things are so scary and bad for them.

America is divided, but maybe not in the way you are thinking. It’s the left behinds and millennials who are worried about their future. And it’s both of them against the politicians, corporations and the oligarchs. As David Crosby sang:

“There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear”

In 2020, we’ll be fighting for not just the soul of our country, but the meaning of American life: Should the one with the most toys win?

What is more important, universal health care, or outlawing abortion? Better roads and bridges, or keeping out immigrants? A better environment, or lower taxes?

Ocasio-Sanchez’s Green New Deal (GND) can easily be dismissed, but what really is the difference between how the Green New Deal might be financed, and how the Federal Reserve spent nearly $4 Trillion on its Quantitative Easing (QE) schemes?

The big difference is who profits. QE was welfare for the banks. For the GND, society at large would benefit.

You will get to decide, and plenty of people are already fighting for your attention.

Some are worth listening to. What will you choose to do?

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It’s Time to Raise Taxes

The Daily Escape:

Autumn in Hunza Altit Valley Pakistan – 2017 photo by Nasr Rahman. This shows that beauty can exist in very difficult places.

In 1785, Thomas Jefferson called for a geometric progression in taxes on assets of property holders as a way of lessening inequality. People with more assets would pay much higher taxes. Today, we’re still in search of policies that will do the trick. From The Fiscal Times:

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have sparked intense debate this month by proposing higher taxes on the rich, with Warren calling for a wealth tax and Ocasio-Cortez proposing a 70% top marginal tax rate.

But, Senate Republicans are moving in the opposite direction. Three GOP senators reintroduced legislation to permanently repeal the federal estate tax. The 2017 GOP tax overhaul has already reduced the number of estates subject to the tax by roughly doubling the value of assets that can be excluded from the tax. For 2019, this tax will only be paid by 1,700 families, but that’s all too much for Republicans.

Axios just reported on what Americans think about taxes:

Polling has found tax increases on the wealthy to be popular. A survey earlier this month by The Hill and HarrisX found that 59% of registered voters, including 45% of Republicans, support increasing the top income tax bracket to 70%. A Fox News poll released last week found that 70% of voters favor tax increases on families making over $10 million a year and 65% favor tax hikes on incomes over $1 million annually. Paying taxes is a complicated and controversial issue. What is not controversial is the need for people to take advantage of tax services that can help ensure they pay the right tax and thus appease the ever-lurking IRS. Going to http://daveburton.nyc/tax-services-nyc/ will provide more detail on this.

Those numbers suggest that a complete repeal of the estate tax might be about as popular as the polar vortex.

This shows how vast the gulf is between Republicans and Democrats on taxes. A poll by Axios, along with SurveyMonkey, ironically presented at Davos, showed that 70% of Americans think the economic system is skewed toward the wealthy and the government should do more to fix it. It further showed respondents are ready to vote for a 2020 candidate who agrees.

  • 58% of people surveyed say that “unfairness in the economic system that favors the wealthy” is a bigger problem than “over-regulation of the free market that interferes with growth and prosperity
  • Among 18-24 year-olds, that gap is a chasm: 76% to 21%
  • Among those 65 and older, it’s a very narrow 51% to 46%
  • 89% of Democrats agree
  • 68% of independents agree
  • But 77% of Republicans say over-regulation of the free market is a bigger problem than economic unfairness
  • A huge majority of Democrats (90%) said they would be excited to vote for a candidate who promises to reform the economic system, with 71% of independents saying the same.

(SurveyMonkey’s online poll was conducted January 16 through 18, 2019 among a national sample of 2,277 adults.)

After WWII, America had very high marginal tax rates, and one result was corporate income was reinvested in the company, rather than given to top management or shareholders. Why give 70% of every dollar to the government?

Back then corporations, in exchange for limited liability, assumed they had fiduciary duties to the public and to their employees as well as shareholders. But the Right got behind the doctrine that a corporation’s only duty was to their shareholders. CEO’s became significant shareholders through stock options.

Then, Reagan and Bush lowered taxes on corporate and personal income, and dividends.

Our basic political issue in America has become: “Does the economy exist to serve the nation, or does the nation exist to serve the economy?”

Our affirmative vote must be for the economy to serve the nation. Over the past 40 years, we have reduced taxes for high earners and corporations. We’ve added loopholes that subsidize corporations, but our need for infrastructure spending hasn’t declined, and our military spending has grown dramatically.

Over the past forty years, the share of income taxes paid by corporations has declined. It is now only 9% of US government tax revenues. It was about 24% in 1960.

We’ve financed the tax cuts for high earners and corporations with ever growing budget deficits. The golden age for these policies must end now.

We need to go back to the days of socially responsible capitalism, not the predatory capitalism we have today. High marginal income tax rates will help. In addition, taxing dividends at the same as ordinary income is a good idea.

Let’s raise the capital gains tax above its current 20% rate.

Let’s find a Constitutional way to tax wealth as Elizabeth Warren suggests. Add a very small transaction tax on sales of stock on all public markets.

It’s time to move past the politics of “What can America do about inequality without corporations and rich people actually giving anything up?

This isn’t an anti-corporate, anti-wealth assault, it is a necessary corrective to bad tax policy from the 1970s to today.

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Funding The Revolution

The Daily Escape:

Lake Louise, Alberta, Canada in snow – photo by Yan Gao

When the President and the incoming Speaker of the House get into a televised shouting match over whether we have enough money to fund Trump’s wall, you know that things have to change in America. They’re fighting over use of a limited resource, the US government’s funding.

We now have within our means the ability to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate everyone. But, as a country, we are unwilling to do so, because we buy into neoliberal economic theory. Never in history have we had the ability to make our species as secure as we do now, but we choose instead to make as many as insecure as possible.

Until about 1980, economic growth created a level of prosperity that earlier generations of Americans could only dream about. But, economic growth no longer makes people more economically secure. We’ve become prisoners in a system that promotes permanent growth, where wages stagnate, schools decay, and Goldman Sachs sits inside our government.

The question we should be asking is: How can our politics provide an answer to our people’s need for economic security? We know that neoliberalism has reduced many of our people to states of economic insecurity. We know that our economic and social order must change, and profoundly, or face an eventual revolution. This isn’t an option, it’s a certainty.

That means that only state funding will create the (peaceful) change we need.

Here’s a big idea from Richard Murphy, a UK tax accountant:

…To put this another way, what may be the biggest programme of change ever known in human history is required in very short order. We need new energy systems; transformation of our housing stock; new transport infrastructure; radically different approaches to food that might even require rationing if we cannot create change any other way; different ways of working and new ways of using leisure time.

Murphy goes on to say:

But this must be done in a way that increases certainty. Jobs must be created on the ground…And I mean, in every constituency….but the transport and other infrastructure must be provided in that case and that does not simply mean more roads. The social safety net must be recreated. That means a job guarantee. It also means a universal basic income. And business must be transformed. Since that process will be incredibly expensive this requires capital and if that means state investment and co-ownership, so be it.

Murphy says that if this was wartime, our government would find the money to fund radical change. He says that we can no longer just extract higher taxes from the rich to solve our funding requirements, we need to create a vision, a plan and funding to achieve the change required.

One way to fund a portion of these requirements may be to restrict funding for the military, to eliminate tax breaks and subsidies for corporations. More from Murphy:

The time for pussy-footing is over. We know what we need to do. We know the scale of the issue. We know the reasons for acting….and we know we can pay for it. This is not left or right as we know it. And any party not addressing it is part of the problem and not the solution.

He’s suggesting deficit financing for societal gain. What are the chances that revolutionary change can happen? Almost zero today. Left to our political class, we’re just going to keep on doing what we’re currently doing, that is, until we can’t.

As we said yesterday, people say, “It’s the system, we can’t change it”.

But, in the Middle Ages, the exact same thing could have been said about feudalism. That institution was deeply entrenched, it was “how things are, and were meant to be.” It was inconceivable that something like democratic government could ever succeed feudalism, yet it did.

Today, our revolutionary task is to allow democracy to express its full potential to reshape and revitalize our social and economic life.

We must begin by setting priorities, taking resources from areas that drain the economy. Then we need to devote those resources to things that will make for a healthier, more secure economy.

One example is to adjust the priority that military defense spending has in our economy. Let’s stop being the world’s policeman, nobody wants us to do it. Then, use the excess resources to build infrastructure, and renewable energy systems.

Everything else we need then will become easier to build.

It’s a matter of deciding what our priorities are, and voting for those who agree with that vision.

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Can America Learn From France’s Yellow Vest Movement?

The Daily Escape:

Turtlehead Pond, Groton State Forest, VT – October 2018 photo by mattmacphersonphoto

The Yellow Vests have thrown France into turmoil with their protests in recent weeks. They say they want lower taxes, higher salaries, freedom from gnawing financial fear, and a better life.

It’s a uniquely French phenomenon. Every automobile in France is supposed to be equipped with a yellow vest, so that in case of car accident or breakdown, the driver can put it on to ensure visibility and avoid getting run over.

That enabled the wearing of a yellow vest to demonstrate against unpopular government measures to catch on quickly. Most people had one. The symbolism was fitting: in case of an income inequality emergency, show people that you don’t want to be run over.

What set off the protests was a rise in gasoline taxes. But it became immediately clear that much more was driving the protests, that the gasoline tax was the last straw in a long series of measures favoring the rich at the expense of the majority of the population.

That’s why the movement achieved almost instant popularity and support.

The Yellow Vests held their first demonstrations on Saturday, November 17 on the Champs-Elysées in Paris. Most French trade union demonstrations are well organized. People carry banners and listen to speeches from leaders at the end. But, the Yellow Vests showed up without any organization, and no leaders to tell them where to go, or to speak for the crowd’s demands.

They were just there in yellow vests, angry and ready to explain their anger to any listener. Their message was:

We can’t make ends meet. The cost of living keeps going up, and our incomes keep going down. We just can’t take it anymore. The government must stop what it’s doing and change course.

This is another example that income disparity between the rich and rest of us is out of control on a global basis.

The Yellow Vest protesters know that our political systems are controlled by the rich, and by their captured politicians. They are enriching themselves on the backs of the working and middle classes. Interestingly, it was the French economist, Thomas Piketty, who has researched and publicized the fact that the US has the largest income gap of any Western nation.

We should be paying closer attention both to Piketty and the Yellow Vests.

Global corporations and their fellow traveler politicians know that this sort of discontent is infectious, so politicians always try to quell it quickly. If the American 90% got the idea from France, revolution might migrate, as our revolution in 1776 migrated to France in 1789.

It is interesting that the NYT reports that in France, the Yellow Vest protests were totally unanticipated by the government.

We all know that income inequality is a growing global problem, so how can it be that the suffering of a country’s citizens and their protest against the French government’s plan to increase gas taxes would be “totally unanticipated by the parties’’?  Are the powers that be in France completely tone-deaf to the needs of their constituents?

So, are there lessons for America in the Yellow Vest movement? There should be, because the issue here is similar to the issue in France, and elsewhere in Europe. That issue is economic insecurity.

There’s no political will to deal with job insecurity. There’s no mechanism in place for those who can’t pay their bills. Soon, given automation and AI, there will not be enough work available for everyone to support themselves and their families. Underemployed people will still need food, shelter, and health care, so they might start by demonstrating in order to get them.

The sooner our corporate and political leaders decide to work on these problems, the better we all will sleep at night. But, no one in the top 10% of our economic strata has any idea what it is like to go without the necessities; it is simply inconceivable to them.

Many think that there are no consequences to the inequality that has developed in America since 1980, but there certainly will be consequences. We are in the midst of economic class warfare. The politicians, bought by the corporate plutocrats, are pushing their corporatist agenda down the throats of the middle and working classes.

We can either engage in a slow reform of Capitalism, or we can wait another generation, and participate in an urgent, rapid destruction of Capitalism as we know it today.

If we opt to go slow, let’s not kid ourselves. You don’t close a deep wound with a Band-Aid. It takes surgery.

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