Thursday, November 18, 2010

Being a Democrat Stands for Something

Clearly, today was a big day. G.M is now a publicly traded company on Wall Street again, and I think this proves, unequivocally, that the G.M bailout was a success. It may have been a struggle to streamline their business model, and many people did lose their jobs in the process, but the bottom line is that the bailout worked. I don't care whether Texas Governor Rick Perry was in front of cameras today proclaiming that the government should not have bailed out the company because companies are supposed to go bankrupt when they make bad decisions. Anyone who questions whether the Obama administration made the right decision is simply not looking at the facts. Also today, Democratic leaders announced that there would be a vote on keeping tax cuts for the MIDDLE class only, which should force Republicans to at least go on record that they support giving tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, even as they remained hyper-focused on trimming the deficit. I didn't think I would say this two weeks ago, but I'm cautiously optimistic, because I believe that the Democrats are standing up for legitimately good ideas. Clearly, it's going to be a lot tougher to get things done in these next two years, but Democrats should not shy away from the ideas that define them.

We've all heard so much about how the Obama administration has not done a good enough job of publicizing and advertising the legislation that has been passed. There's been real progress in the last two years, and even though it may take a few years for the majority of Americans to start seeing the effects of healthcare reform and other legislation, that doesn't mean that Democrats should hunker down and expect to have to submit to Republicans on every issue. We still have the President and one house of Congress. I'm not so naive to think that compromise won't be necessary, but from a purely political perspective it is much better for the Democrats to go on the record supporting good policies so that they can point to what could have been accomplished if it weren't for Republican obstructionism.

I'm ranting here, but its not the President's fault that the Republicans have supported hardly any policies in the past year that would be good for ordinary middle class people in the name of political obstructionism. The Democrats offered up plenty. A good example is the Consumer Financial Protection, designed to protect consumers from being swindled by greedy credit card companies or being pushed into signing for higher mortgages. Can you imagine Republicans ever tying the hands of big business like that so that you don't get cheated out of your life savings?

Politics are politics, so compromise is the name of the game, but when John Boehner goes on the TV and tells me that he is going to bring a new way of doing business to Washington by borrowing money from China to give tax cuts to billionaires, I want to spit in his face. It is so frustrating as an observer to see that there is this sort of expectation in Washington that liberals will capitulate to movement conservatives who stand firmly on their principles. Why can't Democrats be the ones framing the debates on things like job-creation, the environment, and taxation. There are numerous issues that cut to the core of the Democratic agenda like controlling carbon emissions, repealing Don't Ask Don't Tell and trying to bridge the out of control income gap between the wealthy and the poor, that are popular with much of the country.

Take immigration reform. Some of what I would consider the uglier aspects of our society are against it, but many polls show that a majority of the country supports comprehensive immigration reform. The Democrats have a responsibility to the Latino base to try to do something on this issue, and they can at least mount an aggressive campaign to inform the American public that it makes zero economic sense and is un-American to not allow a path to citizenship for illegals already living here. The bill might not pass but I'd like to see the issue be raised by the Party that is actually looking to move America forward instead of by the one that wants to discriminate against Latinos.

Look at Green Energy. Ask anyone who knows anything about the global economy, and they will tell you that in order for America to lead the world in the 21st century it has to become a technological leader in green energy. For a party that professes to care so much about not placing a burden on future generations, how can the Republican party want to block this from happening. They won't tell you that they want to block it, but a look into campaign contributions from oil companies might tell another story. This is a huge issue that the Democrats can take ownership of, and your heart has to tell you that they can win the public battle on this issue, because it makes so much sense to invest in this country's green energy future.

This past election taught us that the Republican party is exceptionally good at mucking up the system long enough to mount campaigns against good legislation (Death panels anyone???) However, it can still be politically savvy for Democrats to support good legislation that will provide real change. Its defeatist to admit that standing up on principle for bills actually based in reason and designed to protect the average American, like the Financial Regulatory Reform legislation, has to cost you in the next election cycle. Do that and you're basically admitting that the system is completely broken. If Democrats have to learn anything from Republicans its how to win the battle in the court of public opinion.

I think what many of us have felt over the past two years is maybe a sense of disappointment, or frustration about the beating the administration has been taking over the airwaves. I know my heart sunk a little bit every time I read that the President's approval rating dipped another such and such percentage points. The enthusiasm was gone. Obama was governing in prose after campaigning in poetry, and it was rocky. A lot got done but it didn't feel like that all the time. With a little more perspective, maybe we can see these next two years as a series of small successes. This vote on the Bush tax cuts would be a nice place to start. But it wold be remiss to be overly concerned with pragmatism and fear communicating the big issues that the party stands for. In the end, the merits of our party's stance stand on their own. Be proud of it.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Justice FTW

The California Supreme Court made a landmark decision yesterday by unanimously upholding AB 540, a law which allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public universities and colleges in California. A lower court ruled against AB 540, swayed by the argument by the plaintiff that out-of-state students should not have to pay more than illegal immigrants to attend California Universities. The Supreme Court ruled that AB 540 does not offer in-state tuition based on legal residency, rather it is based on the number of years a student has attended high school in California. Therefore the legal status of the student should have no bearing on their eligibility for tuition benefits.

So what does this mean for the rest of us? First, the case sets a precedent for the 10 other states that have similar laws. It is unlikely that similar challenges will be successful, and that's a great thing for motivated students across the country who are looking to escape the cycle of poverty and ignorance that trapped their parents. (Excuse the sweeping generality. Not all undocumented workers are ignorant, poor or trapped. And by ignorant I simply mean uneducated. But as a general rule, people don't sneak into other countries just for a change of scene. Most "illegal aliens" leave behind desperate circumstances and come to America as a means of survival and to give their children and families better opportunities, something they're not likely to find anymore, sadly. But that's another story.) The California ruling is a rejuvenation of the American Dream.

Just as importantly, the ruling brings some positive publicity to the DREAM act, currently languishing in Washingotn. Pundits can argue semantics and technicalities till they're blue in the face, but what it comes down to is every child's right to an education. Students who were brought to this country by their parents when they were children should not be punished by society for a choice they did not make. If a student has the mental capacity and drive to get into college, something a lot of legal citizens can't do, then the country should allow them, should encourage them, to grow as people and become productive members of society.

As much as I hate to say it, I don't think the DREAM act will pass this congressional session. But I commend California for taking a step in the right direction by extending the right to education to the thousands of students trapped by their parents choices. If change won't happen at a federal level, this is a nice reminder that it can happen at a state level. The battle's not over, but progress has been made. Happy studies!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Meaning of Freedom

*Article was published in the Observer on Friday November 12, 2010

Freedom is "the absence of necessity, coercion or constraint in choice or action" (legal definition). The word freedom dominates the U.S. political discourse. While the nature of the word is expansive, its use in U.S. politics has been deduced to a concrete and tightly bound definition of personal choice without the interference of government. This interpretation of the word and its portrayal as the founder's sole intention defined the rhetoric of the wave of conservative victories in 2010.

What was left out of 2010 debate is that there is a spectrum of freedom that spans from government intruding on individual freedom by requiring certain behavior from its citizens, to an economic structure that chains people to economic necessity in their decision making. The debate of what it means to be free is not as simplistic as conservatives like to believe. A person who must choose to turn down treatment for a disease because her family cannot afford it, is equally relevant to the discussion of freedom as someone who is forced to buy health insurance to prevent free-riding and bring costs down for everyone. Let the citizens choose whether they want to prevent government from protecting citizens from medical tragedies due to economic constraints, but it is unjust to claim that more government involvement in health care unequivocally means less freedom.

Before further argument, it must be exposed how far the lines have been moved on the definition of freedom. The 4.6 percent tax increase President Obama is seeking on the wealthiest two percent to a rate of 39.6 percent, the highest tax rate under Clinton when the budget was balanced and more than 22 million jobs were created, has been compared to socialism and a government takeover of the economy. These claims become increasingly hyperbolic the more history is examined. The new tax rate under President Obama on the highest earners would be considerably lower for that tax bracket than the rates of three Republican presidents in their third year in office, prior to being reelected. Under the Eisenhower administration the U.S. had a top marginal income tax rate of 91 percent, under Nixon it was 71.75 percent and finally under Reagan it was 50 percent.

While it is always a temptation to create growth as fast as possible by dismantling what appear to be irrational limitations, the temptations must occasionally be refused. A new political class has been elected that believe the U.S. needs to drastically reduce restraints on business designed to protect society. The core belief is that taking away the freedom of business to act in its best interest is what is preventing our economy from a full recovery. Democrats do not want to stop business, President Obama and the vast majority of Democrats are ardent capitalists who believe a system of competition and markets drives ingenuity and efficiency, but they also believe speed limits must be set that ensure the long term health of society.

It is a natural impulse to want to get somewhere as fast as possible or to have it as cheap as possible, but without constraint that urge has likely created problems for every American. The same will occur across society when regulations are removed, and programs designed to keep the financially vulnerable above water while they recover their health, work to find employment or get an education will be cut in order to reduce taxes on businesses and the wealthiest two percent.

The United States will never represent anything but the strength and opportunity of capitalism despite the worst fears of the right. Setting limits to ensure the health of civil society is not an infringement on the founding values of this country or the freedoms of individual citizens. It is not anti-business to disagree with business some of the time. In reality, business functions better in the long term if there is some basis of equality to drive aggregate demand. The United States is at risk to succumbing to a systemic risk of democratic governance, that short term need or pleasure, will replace sound and balanced long term economic growth and societal health.

It is important to have a social infrastructure in society designed to promote freedom from making choices based on economic need. Are seniors more free when cost cutting results in the retirement age on social security being pushed to 70? Should the poor have the freedom to know they can temporarily feed their families with food stamps in order to buy other necessities for their family? Or should their success in the free market determine the family's survival? Should Americans have the freedom to pollute the environment or the freedom to live with clean air, clean water, and a stable climate? Should companies have the freedom to mislead people into debt they cannot afford, or should people be protected against exploitative contracts written by the nation's wealthiest lawyers? Do people have the freedom of using their voice in democracy? Or is it more important that the government not regulate campaign donations letting corporate money take over elections? These are debates on freedom that should not have clear partisan lines. Unfortunately, these issues are robbed of a fair hearing when one party monopolizes the definition of freedom.

A real discussion of freedom in America does not leave out the millions of Americans who work hard and play by the rules only to remain in poverty. No one is less free in the United States than the 43.6 million people that live in poverty according to the Census Bureau. In 2010, one in five U.S. families admit to struggling to put food on the table and 20 percent of children are growing up in poverty. Should we put freedom from government influence ahead of the success of the next generation? It is fair to debate the level of which government should be involved to ensure opportunity and a safe and just society, but it is dishonest to claim that the only domestic force threatening the freedom of U.S. citizens is the U.S. government.