Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Alan Grayson-- The Guy With The Progressive Vision For A Better America


Monday night Alan Grayson was on The Ed Show, not just to announce his candidacy for one of the Orlando congressional seats (the boundaries aren't drawn yet) but to lay out an alternative vision to what we've been seeing from the weenies in the Democratic Party. All I can say is, please watch the clip and, if you're so moved, drop in on the Blue America page and give Alan a hand with his race.

Yesterday James Galbraith posted an exhaustive and perceptive guide to the catastrophic debt ceiling debate and I want to contrast some of his conclusions with what Grayson has had to say about that debate. "News reports," Galbraith reminds us, "hold that President Obama scored a political victory by agreeing to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block to achieve a 'go-big' $4 trillion deficit reduction. Speaker Boehner had to concede that Republicans won’t vote for any package that includes tax increases-- and the deal died. So the gambit worked and the President emerged with a solid image as the alpha deficit hawk." Grayson referred, politely even fondly, to Obama as "my president" and "the leader of my party," but he was clearly uncomfortable with his approach. When asked by Ed Schultz, "How would you handle this," he answered unhesitatingly, "I would not vote for any cuts in Medicare. I would not vote for any cuts in Social Security and I'd be grabbing anybody else by the collar and telling them they should do the same... I know a way to cut two trillion dollars out of the deficit in the next ten years: you could end the wars. You could end the war in Afghanistan. You could end the war in Iraq and Libya. Those wars cost us $157 billion last year and the cost is going up, not down. If you want to save two trillion dollars, how about peace? Why don't we give that a try!"

When Schultz pressed him on Obama's willingness to cut Social Security, Grayson was very clear:
Washington is now divided between the Meanies and the Weenies; that's the real two party system today... The Meanies want to take Social Security and Medicare away from grandma and grandpa and the Weenies are quite willing to go along with it and "compromise." Well, people need Social Security and Medicare to live and there's no compromise between life and death; there's no middle ground. The average person who retires in America today has less than $50,000 in savings. That's good for one, maybe two years. And those people live for twenty. There's no way [these people] can live without Social Security and Medicare and that's what the right-wing in America wants to take away. I say NO-- no compromise. We need to strengthen Social Security and Medicare. I want to see Medicare cover dental work. I want to see Medicare cover hearing aids. I want to see Medicare cover actual medical leaves.

Galbraith points out that the debt ceiling, dating back to 1917 and the U.S. entry into WWI, was "an exercise in bad faith" right from the git-go-- and still is.
Today this bad-faith law is pressed to its absurd extreme, to force massive cuts in public programs as the price of not-reneging on the public debts of the United States. Never mind that to force default on the public obligations of the United States is plainly unconstitutional. Section 4 of the 14th amendment says in simple language that public debts, once duly authorized by law and including pensions, by the way, “shall not be questioned.” The purpose of this language was to foreclose, to put beyond politics, any possibility that the Union would renege on debts and pensions and bounties incurred to win the Civil War. But the application is very general and the courts have ruled that the principle extends to the present day.

What is going on in Congress at this moment already violates that mandate. It is an effort to subvert the authority of the government to meet and therefore to incur obligations of every possible stripe. It is an attack on the concept of government itself-- as the “Tea Party” by its very name would no doubt agree. It therefore paints those deficit hawks who are using the debt ceiling to take budget hostages as enemies of the United States Constitution.

The President, though supposedly a constitutional expert and though sworn to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution, will not say this. Instead he appears to treat the Constitution as an optional matter, to which he will not resort, in the hope that by negotiating with the hostage- takers he can reach some reasonable outcome that will preserve everyone’s good name. (The great Harvard legal scholar Laurence Tribe recently argued that the President cannot defy the debt ceiling on his own. That’s a debatable point.) It is as though Lincoln in 1861 faced with the siege of Sumter had sat down with Confederate commissioners to see what could be worked out.

In Washington it appears that this assault on government has a large measure of elite and media support, if not on the crass details or vulgar personalities but because it could conceivably force the parties to do “what they should do anyway”-- namely come to a long-term deficit and debt agreement. Such an agreement would cut spending, raise some taxes, put the projected debt-to-GDP ratio on a declining track, and solve the “government’s fiscal crisis.”

What fiscal crisis? The great unasked question in this summer of sound-and-fury is “why?” The United States has many problems at the moment: a high-and-stubborn unemployment rate, a foreclosure catastrophe, a slowing economy that has not recovered and will not recover from the Great Crisis, and the ongoing challenges of infrastructure, energy and climate change. Fiscal crisis? The entire thing is a figment, made up of wise-men’s warnings repeated endlessly and linked to the projections of technicians at the Congressional Budget Office and elsewhere.

...There are many people who believe fervently in the resilience of the private sector and for whom government is just a burden. Some of those people are pure predators: resource magnates, media magnates, banking magnates. Others have blinded themselves to the role government actually plays in sustaining the advanced networks, human protections and social systems that make up our lives, and imagine that one can go back to the world of subsistence farming, church charity and credit from the corner store. But there were many fewer people in that world, they didn’t do what we do, and they didn’t live nearly so long.

In broad terms, today’s government does four major things:

– it provides for the national defense.

– it purchases goods and services from the private economy for a wide range of public purposes, most of them individually quite small-scale in relation to GDP.

– it regulates a wide range of private-sector activity, for safety, health, environmental and other purposes, including financial stability-- or so one should hope.

– it administers Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as other pension and health benefit programs.

On what grounds are any of these functions too large? As an economist concerned with peace and security issues, I do believe we would be better off ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan quickly, that we could dispense with the real resource costs of many foreign bases, aircraft carrier groups, fighter aircraft and submarines and nuclear weapons left over from the Cold War. But these are security judgments, not broad economic ones. In other words, I would not cut a single dime of Pentagon spending that was actually necessary to defend the United States, in order supposedly to lower the interest rate on federal debt.

By the same reasoning, why should we cut transportation, or public health, or environmental protection, or scientific research, or bank inspectors or funds that support the public schools? One can argue these matters program by program-- and one should. (I would happily cut ethanol subsidies and oil company tax breaks, for starters.) But there is no economic case for placing an overall limit, and it is obvious that the 500,000 public sector workers-- including many teachers, police, fire and park rangers and librarians-- who have lost their jobs since 2009 were doing good and useful things that are now missed. If sacking them had been good for the economy, we would be having a stronger recovery than we are.

Finally there are Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Unlike the military or the transportation program, Social Security is not a government purchasing program. It therefore takes nothing directly from the private sector. What it does, is provide insurance: it protects workers from poverty in old age, whether or not their families would otherwise be willing and able to support them. And it taxes all workers, whether or not they would otherwise be burdened with elderly parents, or survivors, or the disabled, to support. Along with Medicare and Medicaid, Social Security is a powerful protector of the entire working population-- young and old. It redistributes purchasing power, in loose relation to past earnings, in a way that meets the basic needs of a large number of Americans who would otherwise, in many millions of cases, be destitute or medically bankrupt.

What economic purpose would cutting such programs serve? To do so would again redistribute incomes. Many of the future elderly would be much worse off, and of course many would die younger than they otherwise would. Survivors and the disabled would suffer as well. In return, what would the federal government and the country gain? A release of real resources to the private sector? Social Security does not take real resources from the private sector! Lower interest rates? The idea is absurd, and not just because interest rates are low today. The notion that cutting Social Security would help keep interest rates down is absurd because interest rates are set in a way that has no relationship at all to the scale of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.

This argument has nothing to do with the trope, oft-repeated and perfectly true, that the Social Security system does not contribute to the deficit. It would not matter if it did. The important question is: are benefits too high? Obviously not. How about payroll taxes-- are they too low? There is no case for that either. One of the very few bright spots in recent policy was the decision to reduce payroll taxes on employees, temporarily, while leaving Social Security benefits alone.

If you wanted to build on that, the right steps would be to lower-- not raise-- the Social Security early retirement age, permitting for a few years older workers to exit the labor force permanently on better terms than are available to them today. This together with a lower age of access to Medicare would work quickly to rebalance the labor force, reducing unemployment and futile job search among older workers while increasing job openings for the young. It is the application of plain common sense. And unlike all the pressures to enact long-term cuts in these programs, it would help solve one of today’s important problems right away.

Instead of this, what do we have, from a President who claims to be a member of the Democratic Party? First, there is the claim that we face a fiscal crisis, which is a big untruth. Second, a concession in principle that we should deal with that crisis by enacting massive cuts in public services on one hand and in vital social insurance programs on the other. This is an arbitrary cruelty. Third, a refusal to stand on the strong ground of the Constitution, against those whose open and declared purpose is tear that document and the public credit to shreds.

There's a real danger in American politics-- and that danger is that independent voices for working families, will be replaced by corporate handmaidens. What would our system be like if all we had were the Boehners and Cantors and Obamas and Liebermen and Ryans without someone to speak up for ordinary working people the way Bernie Sanders, Raul Grijalva and Alan Grayson always do. When the DNC asks you for money to support Obama's reelection, they're telling you two things: the Republicans are worse (true) and Obama's solutions are noble (false). When the DSCC and the DCCC ask you for contributions they're asking for money to help elect or reelect corporate whores like Ben Nelson, Jim Matheson and Joe Donnelly, Democrats who consistently vote against the interests of American families and who reflexively support right-wing Republican positions on issue after issue. But they wear blue t-shirts... for whatever reasons.

You can find Alan Grayson and other independent progressive candidates here. Check them out. Let's make sure regular folks even have a voice. And check out this note from Nick Ruiz to his donors. "Republicrats," he warns, "continued to raise $millions this second fundraising quarter, in order to ensure the New Deal legacy goes down in flames. This is what they want. It’s what their paymasters want. It’s what they have been working toward since FDR. We are outgunned, but never outnumbered-– make those numbers count by volunteering your time and money to people that will work for you, and work to further human progress, rather than increase America’s suffering with their indifference to our shared human struggle... Will you help to put this progressive Democrat in Congress, so I can join Sanders et al. in order to stop them?"

UPDATE: “Look at our campaign. This is what People Power looks like,” said Grayson.

The Grayson for Congress campaign is off to a great start: in less than 48 hours, more than 2,000 contributors have made contributions at the campaign website and through Blue America. That, plus contributions and pledges from other channels, has raised more than $75,000 already for the campaign.

The Grayson for Congress campaign raised more than $5 million for the 2010 campaign.  In fact, he raised more money than any other Democratic Member of the House.

“And it’s all clean money,” says Grayson. “I won’t beg for money from the special interests, the lobbyists and the PACs. I won’t put the law up for sale. I can’t be bought or sold. I owe nothing to anyone but the voters.”

The 2,000 individual contributors yesterday and today are the first “down payment” toward the record number that Grayson attracted to his 2010 campaign. More than 80,000 people made more than 100,000 individual contributions to Grayson’s campaign. By comparison, his 2010 opponent’s Federal Election Commission reports show contributions from 1,336 people.

Labels: , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home