August 2015 Archives

Bernie Sander's Radical Politics

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English: Photo of Thomas Hill Green.

English: Photo of Thomas Hill Green. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of Germany, with the support of business, created the modern welfare state in response to the political threat  posed by the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Bismarck introduced old age pensions, accident insurance and medical care that formed the basis of the modern European welfare state.  In his own speech to the Reichstag during the1881 debates, Bismarck replied, "Call it socialism or whatever you like. It is the same to me."

    Similar political reforms were adopted in Sweden at the behest of the Social Democratic  Party and in the other Scandinavian countries by the early part of the Twentieth Century.

    During the second half of the nineteenth century, the British Liberal Party - inspired by Thomas Hill Green's critique of classical liberalism - gradually abandoned its commitment to laissez-faire government and became a staunch proponent of political reform. The party argued for toleration toward non-conformists, agitated for factory legislation to improve the working conditions of the British laborer, revised the poor-laws to eliminate their more onerous effects upon the down- and-out, improved education, and passed laws to include rural workers within the protective powers of government list.

   Upon becoming Prime Minister in 1908, Herbert Henry Asquith - who as a student had studied under Green at Oxford  - and his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lloyd George -  devised a program of social legislation that was sweeping in its scope. The program included provisions for public labor exchanges, minimum wages, housing, town-planning and a National Insurance Program to provide protection against sickness and unemployment. The bulk of the program - which far exceeded anything later proposed by Roosevelt's New Deal - was designed to improve the conditions of life for the average citizen in the United Kingdom and the program was financed through a sharply-increased progressive income tax, inheritance taxes, and levies upon incremental land.

    Here in the United States, Green's idea that government should  act "as a positive instrument for the public good" has been bitterly resisted by the 1% and their enablers for the past one hundred years. Through their calculated efforts, the words "liberal" and "socialist" have become pejoratives. Hence, the media, echoing the conventional wisdom , endlessly tells us that Bernie Sanders, as a self-declared social democrat, is too radical to be elected president.

    What would happen if every American voter were to ignore propaganda, the one-upmanship, and the inside-the-beltway punditry and actually paid attention to the issues as Senator Sanders has defined them on his website?

    *  "The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time."

    *  "Today, we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals."

    *  "Freedom of speech does not mean the freedom to buy the United States government. Oil companies, pharmaceutical manufacturers, Wall Street bankers and other powerful special interests have poured money into our political system for years. In 2010, a bad situation turned worse. In a 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for corporations and the wealthy to spend unlimited and undisclosed money to buy our elected officials. The Supreme Court essentially declared that corporations have the same rights as natural-born human beings."

    *  "The real unemployment rate is much higher than the 'official' figure typically reported in the newspapers. When you include workers who have given up looking for jobs, or those who are working part time when they want to work full time, the real number is much higher than official figures would suggest.

    "It's even worse for young people. A recent study found that over 50 percent of young African-Americans and more than one-third of white and Hispanic youth are looking for full-time work.

    "We are in the midst of an ongoing unemployment crisis, and we must take bold action to address it."

    *  "When my Republican colleagues mention 'family values,' they're usually talking about opposition to contraception, denying a woman's right to choose, or opposition to gay rights.

    "Real family values strengthen the bonds of family and improve the lives of our families. When it comes to these values, our country deserves better.

    "We are the only major nation in the world that doesn't guarantee paid time off for new parents. Of 182 nations that do provide paid leave for this purpose, more than half guarantee at least 14 weeks off.

    "We are the only one of 22 wealthy nations that does not guarantee some type of paid sick leave, and the only one that does not provide paid sick leave for a worker undergoing a 50-day cancer treatment.

    "We are the only advanced economy, and one of only 13 nations in the entire world, that doesn't guarantee workers a paid vacation.

    *  "Unless we take bold action to address climate change, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to look back on this period in history and ask a very simple question: Where were they? Why didn't the United States of America, the most powerful nation on earth, lead the international community in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the devastating damage that the scientific community told us would surely come?

    *  "Wall Street cannot continue to be an island unto itself, gambling trillions in risky financial instruments while expecting the public to bail it out.

    "It is time to break up the largest financial institutions in the country. The six largest financial institutions in this country today hold assets equal to about 60% of the nation's gross domestic product. These six banks issue more than two-thirds of all credit cards and over 35 percent of all mortgages. They control 95 percent of all derivatives and hold more than 40 percent of all bank deposits in the United States.

    "We must break up too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Those institutions received a $700 billion bailout from the US taxpayer, and more than $16 trillion in virtually zero interest loans from the Federal Reserve. Despite that, financial institutions made over $152 billion in profit in 2014 - the most profitable year on record, and three of the four largest financial institutions are 80 percent bigger today than they were before we bailed them out ?

    "Our banking system must be part of the productive, job-creating productive economy. The Federal Reserve, a government entity which serves as the engine of the banking industry, must eliminate its internal conflicts of interest, provide stricter oversight, and insist that the banks its supports serve the economy in a way that works for everyone, not just a few.

    "If a bank is too big to fail, it is too big to exist. These institutions have acquired too much economic and political power, endangering our economy and our political process."

    Do those issues seem too radical to resonate with ordinary Americans?  If the answer still is yes, perhaps Erasmus's observation provides a clue: "In the land of the blind, the one eyed-man is king."

Hypocrisy and the Impasse over Immigration Reform

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      Donald Trump wants America to build a permanent wall at the U.S.-Mexican border. "We'll have a great wall. We'll call it the Great Wall of Trump," he told Fox Business recently. Chris Christie has stated that if he is elected president, he will track undocumented immigrants like FedEx packages - perhaps with electronic transponder implants? - although he has yet to explain why it would not be easier and less expensive for the federal government to find less  intrusive methods to exclude illegal immigrants than to "brand" them.     
    The Pew Research Center reports that as of 2014 there were 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. and that the number of undocumented has remained relatively stable for five years. Undocumented aliens now comprise about 3.5% of the nation's population. The number of unauthorized immigrants apparently peaked in 2007 at 12.2 million - or 4% of the U.S. population - before the financial meltdown that began in 2008.

    Currently, undocumented Mexicans make up approximately half of all unauthorized immigrants, but their numbers have declined in the last five years. In 2012, according to Pew Center reports,  there were 5.9 million Mexican unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. in 2012, down from 6.4 million in 2009. During the same time period, the number of unauthorized immigrants from Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, the Middle East, Africa and some other areas increased slightly.

     Pro Publica reports that the U.S.spent nearly $18 billion dollars on immigration enforcement in Fiscal Year 2012, and that the Department of Homeland Security employed 21,790 officers to patrol U.S. Borders and enforce immigration laws, while the Federation for American Immigration Reform estimates that illegal immigrants receive $ 9.2 billion dollars annually in direct and indirect benefits paid for by U.S. taxpayers.  

       Irrespective of whose statistics one chooses to accept, there is little doubt that the presence of undocumented aliens and the inability of the Untied States to control its own borders pose serious problems. These problems are compounded by a strange alliance among competing political, economic and legal interests that together have stymied the adoption of two very simple mechanisms to ascertain citizenship status and to control immigration - a national identification card, which virtually all policy analysts concede would be effective  and the mandatory use of the U.S. Department Labor's existing E-Verify system for all employers.

    To date,  these two very simple, comprehensive and cost-effective proposals have been resisted because of concerns about alleged government intrusion and threats to privacy and individual liberty. Ironically, by contrast, the enormous and intrusive amount of personal financial information and data that Equifax, Transamerica and Espiron - three unelected, private, for-profit credit reporting agencies currently compile and maintain on almost every American citizen - barely elicits a critical comment.

    Undocumented immigrants have violated American immigration law, but their crimes are compounded by the thousands upon thousands of American employers who illegally employed and exploited them while feigning ignorance of their status as ineligible employees, despite the fact that current federal laws require that prospective employees present proof of citizenship or show that they are lawful alien residents. 

    Western European democracies - with the notable exception of the United Kingdom - have embraced the use of national ID cards with little difficulty or divisive political debate.  One explanation for the difference in addressing immigration issues may be found in the differing political traditions. European democracies, in contrast to the individualism of American liberal democracy, are communitarian cultures that have retained residual cultural values which emphasize the importance of community and support the notion that there exists something called the public interest, or, to use Rousseau's phrase, "the general will." 

    In the United States, however, the persistence of the traditional consensus - what Gunnar Myrdal defined as the American Creed - constrains the ability of citizens and policymakers alike to imagine, or to advocate, policies which promote a social or public good, as opposed to the policies that are calculated to benefit only individuals or special interests.

    Until the American electorate can see beyond those self-serving parties whose interests would be adversely affected by the adoption of a national ID system, hysteria, demagoguery and hypocrisy will continue to dominate the public debate over immigration reform.