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Friday, August 17, 2018

It's amusing how pundits' analysis can change on a dime

I will say in full disclosure before I dive into this post that I relish TV political analysis. I've spent copious amounts of my free time, and even my non-free time I am loathe to admit, pouring through such analyses. I am a political junkie at my core. In some ways though, that experience has given me sufficient perspective to provide my own analysis here.

To hear cable news pundits tell it, you would think American voters are paying attention to every single detail of an election campaign. Not only do these pundits laughably assume that voters have enough time on their hands to absorb every detail but they also assume that those details, news items that often only grab the attention of Beltway elites and political junkies, matter so much to voters' determinations that they'll affect the outcome of an election. 

Consider an example from just months ago, when pundits were losing their mind in a classic #DemsinDisarray episode about the Virginia's governor race tightening. On the eve of the election, as The Washington Post's Dave Weigel loves to point out, the entire Morning Joe panel predicted that longtime Republican political consultant and lobbyist Ed Gillespie would win the gubernatorial election.

MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski incredulously wondered if veteran Democratic political strategist Donna Brazile's tell-all book about the 2016 presidential election could swing the election to Gillespie. Brzezinski was not alone in this observation as countless media outlets analyzed whether Brazile's revelations would sufficiently shake up the race to hand the election, one focused on issues ranging from immigration to Medicaid expansion, to Gillespie. Instead, Democratic nominee and then-Lt. Governor Ralph Northam won by nine points, outpacing Hillary Clinton's 2016 margin in the state (one of the few states where Clinton outperformed Barack Obama's 2012 margin). 

Unsurprisingly, exit polls revealed the news about Brazile and the Democratic National Committee were nowhere in the top five issues voters cited as concerns. Furthermore, among voters who decided in the last week of the election, when the Brazile news and other media warnings about Virginia were paramount, 61 percent of that group backed Northam. Reliably, the morning after the election, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough (after admitting his panel's wrong predictions) led a panel in carefully scrutinizing the results as the pundits poured over the possibilities for why Northam routed Gillespie. 

This entire turn of events is vintage DC political media. They obsess over controversies that do not affect rank and file voters' lives. They believe voters are closely examining every single utterance of every political actor in a campaign and basing decisions off those statements and actions. They also consistently extrapolate great meaning from any one solitary election result or probability to claim there has been a grand realignment or awakening that will forever reshape the political landscape

The truth of the matter is that voters are incredibly busy; Americans are among the most hardworking people on the planet. Many of them juggle multiple jobs and other responsibilities or are in jobs that are extremely time-consuming in one way or another. They simply do not have the time or ability to dissect every detail of every election campaign. They vote with the national economy in mind, usually, and if not that, any number of other issues that might affect their communities and families.

The 2017 Virginia governor's race is a perfect example of the difference between media perceptions and reality on the ground. Pundits focused on Brazile while voters on the ground were worried about Medicaid expansion and gun control. During the current 2018 midterm election campaign, as reporters like Weigel and others have discussed, as pundits have endlessly discussed the Trump/Russia scandal, voters in key races are instead more worried about GOP efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and the effects of President Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

Nevertheless, that probably won't stop pundits from making ludicrous statements during this midterm season...such as when New York Magazine's Frank Rich after the 2006 midterms baselessly theorized that Stephen Colbert's White House Correspondents' dinner routine was the "defining moment" in that campaign. Really? The problem with analyses like that is that how many Americans are actually sitting down and watching a bit like that, how many are so moved by it to vote for a particular candidate, and how many see that as a pivotal moment that overrides or matches concerns integral to their lives.

One of the most amusing aspects of this charade is how, on the turn of a dime, this analysis could change depending on a variety of factors. Such a phenomenon exposes how flawed these analyses are. In many elections, particularly in very close elections like the presidential elections of 1976, 2000, 2004, and 2016, it is difficult to make any sweeping declarations about the larger meaning of the result. Any number of factors could have affected the outcome in such a scenario where a few thousand votes make all the difference. It is hard to diagnose then a close election result as the consequence of a grand, wise strategy, especially when external forces can hold serious sway.

It is also true that in a close election like that, it is absurd to claim that a realignment of some kind has occurred. Yet, amazingly, pundits after 2004 declared that Democrats were doomed, that they needed to appeal to white Southern evangelicals or else they would cease to be a national political force. These pundits ignored that the election was decided by about 100,000 voters in Ohio and that the national popular vote (51%-48% split for Bush over Kerry) was the narrowest margin by which an incumbent president had ever been reelected. Mind you that this came just four years after Al Gore won the popular vote in an even closer election. The 2000 election coverage itself is funny to watch because, at first, as the results appeared strong for Gore, as he racked up projected wins in Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, pundits raced for explanations as to Gore's wise strategy.

Hours later, after Florida flipped to Bush and the state and the presidency were prematurely called for Bush in the wee hours of the morning, those same pundits started giving profound assessments of Bush's successful strategy. Maybe, just maybe, these pundits ignored that it was a close election basically between a standard Democrat and standard Republican that was bound to produce such a result in a polarized country and that so many myriad factors could have made either candidate win. As for the 2004-era pundits, they were of course wildly wrong and too perilous about Democrats who came roaring back to win 2006 and 2008 routs. Consider how these pundits would've been decrying the GOP's political strategy if just 100,000+ voters in Ohio had voted the other way and given the presidency to John Kerry who would have (in that scenario) won in a Trump-style/Rust Belt-fueled/popular vote-losing election.

To hear me say all of this about political punditry might be even more puzzling given that I have a bachelor's degree in political science. But as I've grown and lived through even a few more elections since then, including a particularly major one in which political science itself was widely doubted, I've come to understand more the difficulty with punditry. Voters are an interesting bunch, to put it casually.

Their often complex, complicated lives and concerns, based on their experiences and families and unique set of circumstances, animate and inform their political choices and predispositions. Often, these decisions can be highly predictable based on identifiers like party affiliation, voting history, race, gender, income, education, and any number of other classifications.

But, as I've learned in observing elections, these characteristics do not dictate automatically how voters will behave in the privacy of the polling booth. These identifiers do not turn voters into robots. So many factors beyond their control, national economic forces or local developments or concerns about their children being sent to war, can shake things up in ways no pundit really can fully understand.

Therefore, what to do with political punditry? Is anything pundits say worthy of our attention? Of course, there are instances where their predictions and assessments are accurate, based on real evidence, and reflective of genuine conditions on the ground. When you have consecutive landslide elections that benefit one party, there's something going on in the country: a real realignment.

When you have a huge sweep in power for one party after a decade of dominance on the part of one party, it's worth noting why that happened and there can be truly a series of major events that gravitated voters in that direction. As such, the punditry business ought to be sharper, more evidence-based, and more sophisticated than it is. Will that happen? Probably not. So for now, let's at least enjoy the show.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

21 Sort of Non-Legal Things I Learned in Law School (Or Wish I Knew Before I Started!)

Two weeks ago, I took the Pennsylvania bar exam, two months after my graduation from Villanova Law. My momentous summer capped a formative three-year experience that has shaped me in ways I did not fully expect when I enrolled at Villanova. For what it's worth, in honor of the incoming law school class of 2021, I've compiled a brief list of the 21 sort-of non-legal lessons I learned in my law school career, from least to most important. I know many of these may seem like tropes, that they can be banal and standard pointers you could find anywhere, and I may not be a consistent, perfect messenger on all of these fronts (because, gasp,  I have flaws and make mistakes!) However, I think they are worthwhile lessons that anyone entering law school this fall should take to heart:

21. Take advantage of the free food because as a student, your income is limited and because usually the free food is offered at a panel or other kind of event where you might learn something.

20. Take notes by hand if possible because the evidence really does show you learn better that way...but if you have an open-notes exam where you can do control+F to search Microsoft Word outlines you wrote, then it may be worth it to maybe take notes by hand and then type them out, which itself can be a form of review.

19. Keep tabs on what's going on in the news. Often, major news stories end up being the topics of exam hypos and end up presenting interesting issues related to the law that will keep your mind working and fresh.

18. Go to law school-related social events to get to know your classmates and professors (if they are events at school) and to unwind because it will help you understand each other better.

17. Go to non-law school social gatherings, parties, etc. with people outside of law much as possible. It's a key way of staying sane.

16. Attend office hours; professors will often zone in on the key information you need to know and will dissect it for you in easily comprehensible ways.

15. Take courses in subject matters that appear on the bar exam, especially in your 3L year as they will be fresh in your mind.

14. Buy or rent your textbooks on Amazon because you will save lots of money!

13. Don't. be. a. gunner. under. any. circumstances. (case in point:

12. Legal writing classes are the most important classes you will take because literally, that's where the money is: 55 percent of the entire bar exam in Pennsylvania is essay-based, much of the work you'll do as an attorney will likely include lots and lots of writing (including in your internships), and it's a skill that takes some time to craft so do not get discouraged easily if it does not come to you easily at first.

11. Civil procedure is, arguably, the second most important class of law school. I often cite civil procedure when family and friends ask me what surprised me the most about law school. I had no idea about the rules of civil procedure, how they operate, and how crucial they are. This class is one worth fully diving in for because it'll equip you with the information and knowledge you need as you approach the real world. You will find too that the concepts you learned here will be useful to you in other courses you take.

10. If you are in a class where there is no cold-calling, find ways to stay engaged with the material throughout the semester. Keeping the information fresh in your mind throughout the semester in a class like this is vital because it is easy to not feel as motivated to continually review in a class where there is no cold-calling because there is less pressure. Therefore, it is crucial to keep reading, keep reviewing, doing other exercises, etc. so that you don't feel like you need to cram right before finals.

9. Enjoy the summers of 1L and 2L as much as you can, while also working hard in your internships, because the summer of bar prep is genuinely grueling.

8. Sign up for a bar prep course as soon as possible and stick to their plan because they know what they are talking about and they can keep you on track and disciplined to get to where you need to be to pass the bar.

7. Pursue positive-minded, fun-loving, relaxed classmates as friends; they can form a great study group for you and more importantly, can become lifelong friends. Somebody who is truly your friend and loyal and dedicated to you, and willing to put up with you, through the stresses of law school is someone worth keeping as a friend.

6. Avoid negative people: it obviously is said a lot but it is absolutely crucial. In law school particularly, you will find some folks who are incredibly arrogant, mean-spirited, and selfish. It is easy, especially in 1L year, to let these individuals' attitudes get to you. I fell victim to this even though I intellectually understood that the negative energy was draining and unnecessary. Try to ignore these individuals as much as you can and remember to prove them wrong through your own hard work and dedication.

5. If you need to and can afford to, prioritize the job search over classes. As someone once told me, "you're in law school to eventually work, not to be in school all the time." It's better to prepare for an interview the night before that interview than to read as closely as you usually would that night.

4. Pursue clinical programs and other extracurricular opportunities, particularly public interest opportunities, offered in law school. The single most valuable experience in law school for me was the asylum clinic at Villanova because it is where I honed key legal skills and talents; I even got to argue in court, compile evidence submissions, interview clients, perform legal research, and do almost all of the things that an attorney usually would do. I learned a lot and nothing prepared me more for the "real world" than this experience.

3. Seek out genuine diversity in your friend group, in your classes, and in all of your pursuits in law school. Truly, this cannot be said enough because the value of this diversity is seen in perspectives offered in class, in ways to think about the law and how it impacts different communities, and in even mundane conversations you might have with friends and classmates. You will learn more and grow as a person, in your understanding and in your empathy, if you prioritize these interactions.

2. Study smart by looking at past law school exams, if they are offered by your professor, and sample answers because they often indicate how a professor expects you to answer a question, what topics they frequently hit, and what issues to highlight; review your notes from lectures because professors often say in class, "this is something you should expect to be on the final," and that material (or something they emphasize repeatedly) should be more heavily studied than something relatively minor in comparison. 

1. Never lose sight of the most important values and priorities of life: your family, your loved ones, and your mental and physical health, and your character. All of these pillars of life are monumentally more important than law school. If you take care of yourself and those around you, you will leave a far greater legacy and a greater impact on the world regardless of what happens in school. I write this now as a happily engaged man; I am marrying the love of my life and I could not be more thrilled about it. She has been there with me through the entirety of law school and helped me overcome stresses, regain my focus when needed, and kept me going as I always knew that she believed in me and would love me no matter what happened. My parents have also been incredibly helpful to me in this time as I know that I would not be where I am today without them. They've provided me with all of the resources and tools I need to succeed and they've given me key inspiration throughout the years to work hard and to put others first. Without them, I would not be the person I am today.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Trump's tax cut for the rich will only worsen inequality that fueled his rise and that's bad for democracy

Credit: Tax Policy Center
When President Trump was running for office in 2016, he told the hosts of NBC's Today that he would raise taxes on the wealthy. He has long claimed that he favors policies that do not financially benefit him. He feigns concern for the "forgotten man." However, his new tax reform law will only worsen the decades-long, deep income inequality that created the conditions for his ascension. After President Obama's 2013 fiscal cliff deal increased the top tax rate to 39.6% from 36% and after his Affordable Care Act instituted higher Medicare and investment income taxes on the wealthy, there was a modest, positive effect on income inequality that was long overdue. The tax code became slightly more progressive and median incomes finally rose in 2015 and 2016 after several years of stagnation. The new law, which cuts the top federal income tax rate from 39.6 percent to 37 percent and doubles the exemption from the estate tax (among other regressive changes), will reverse those minimal, yet important, gains. The net effect of such a measure, even as middle-class tax rates are simultaneously cut, is the worsening of income inequality

Already, the wealthiest Americans have amassed the lion's share of the growth in income during the recovery from the Great Recession: they have reaped far more of the benefits of the recovery than the middle and lower classes. As a consequence of these new measures, long sought by right-wing ideologues like House Speaker Paul Ryan, the richest individuals and families will proportionally see higher increases in their wealth than the middle class and the poorest Americans.

President George W. Bush's 2001 $1.3 trillion tax cut, which also largely benefited the rich, and President Ronald Reagan's massive 1981 tax cut were designed similarly. It does not have to be this way. The structure of this cut was something we were warned about in the campaign and yet the focus of that debate unfortunately drifted to Hillary Clinton's poor sloganeering rather than the substance of what she said. An "across-the-board" tax cut, a la the Trump/Bush/Reagan efforts, ultimately has the effect of disproportionately stuffing the coffers of the very wealthy

The after-tax income of the extremely wealthy will also increase more, by percentage, than the after-tax income of lower and middle-class Americans because of changes like the aforementioned doubling of the estate tax exemption and shielding *millionaire* couples from the Alternative Minimum Tax. The Republican leadership in Congress likes to continually emphasize that everyone gets a tax cut in their law but the law's societal effects unfortunately negate benefits middle-class and lower-class individuals will receive. 

It is true that the Child Tax Credit is doubled under this law and that is a positive element of tax reform but if the GOP were truly concerned about the "forgotten man," there are a range of proposals they could have adopted that would genuinely not tilt a tax cut to the rich and more substantially increase after-tax income for the lower and middle class. 

These ideas include increasing the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers, wholly eliminating payroll taxes (that regressively, disproportionately impact the poor) for people making under $30,000, and dramatically reducing the lowest tax bracket (10%), in which individuals who are in poverty are currently paying federal income tax, all while still paying state and local taxes that hurt them more than anyone else, but cannot take advantage of generous loopholes that effectively bring rich Americans' tax rates down to the *rates* the poor pay. 

A standard GOP response to this dilemma is that the law will result in increased economic growth which will thus benefit everyone. Besides the fact that such tax cuts previously did not ultimately benefit everyone in the way the GOP envisions, there is a gap in this explanation. While it is true that some tax cuts (i.e. those for the "bottom 95%") can be economically stimulative, they are far less stimulative than other measures the GOP could have adopted. Such prudent proposals include direct public works infrastructure spending - a professed priority for Trump who has yet to impress on this issue - and tax-and-transfer policies that boost after-tax income for the poor and middle class.

Further, a wealth of research and vast empirical evidence demonstrate that the most economically stimulative efforts are ones that largely benefit the middle class. Consider that the Obama-era Recovery Act included some of these genuinely, broadly stimulative measures. The stimulus featured billions in infrastructure spending and a "Making Work Pay" tax cut that only benefited the lower and middle classes.

Consider too that the two-year payroll tax holiday, promulgated by the Obama/McConnell tax cut deal of December 2010, also had a disproportionate impact on the lower and middle classes. They are the ones most hamstrung by the regressive FICA tax. A broad-based, flat cut like that cut was even more impactful for the poor for whom the effect of the credit on their finances was greater than on the rich who benefit from the so-called "payroll tax gap." The ultimate outcome of these efforts was genuine economic growth that resulted in some lessened inequality

That was also the case when President Clinton raised the top rate on the wealthy in 1993 yet expanded the EITC, which only directly benefits the middle class. Indeed, economic research shows that, as Obama said accurately, "when the middle class does well, everyone else benefits too." As their incomes rise, their ability to contribute to the economy, through their increased purchasing power, rises which thus supports jobs in those stores, markets, etc. in which they shop and travel and consequently, gross domestic product rises. 

Why is all of this important though? Even if some economic growth does result from the tax law, the effect of higher income inequality is truly dangerous for our society. The United States prides itself on being a pluralistic, classless, and vibrant democracy built on the grand notion of upward mobility. Trump's Tax Cuts and Jobs Act only makes that promise less realistic. As Thomas Piketty compellingly wrote in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the social consequences, for the core identity of a country and for its political system, of deepened inequality can be tragic. "The risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real," Piketty feared; such warnings should have been heeded as it is that precise social ill that helped catapult Trump's rise

Racial animosity was a centerpiece of Trump's campaign but the President's lambasting of concentrated wealth, though totally fraudulent on his part, gave his bid the economic veneer it needed to justify its faux populist brand. Disenchanted voters were driven to Trump's closing argument that railed against a "small handful of large corporations" that amassed massive wealth and tremendous political power; he chastised the cadre of "global elites" who were ostensibly determined to defeat him and destroy the working class. That is partly because many of those voters, in places like northeastern Pennsylvania, have borne the brunt of the economic and social effects of increased inequality. They further feel as if their voices and their economic concerns have been stifled in the political process

It is true that the levels of political power and of social clout of the poor and middle class pale in comparison to the deference legislators give to the needs of the wealthy. A prime example of this phenomenon is when Congress rushed to mollify the negative impacts of the 2013 sequester for the wealthy before they touched other, more devastating aspects of the sequester. Already, a much-touted Princeton study, one that generated significant media attention at the time of its release, has found that the U.S. is a society in which the "elites" have far more success in their "political preferences...[than] the ordinary citizen." 

Significant inequality tears at the very fabric of our country. High income inequality closes doors for those born into poverty even if they demonstrate incredible productivity and it makes access to basic goods and services more difficult. Further, it destroys a sense of a common, shared experiment and experience as a country such that we are then a less cohesive society. Economists, sociologists, and political analysts have documented a rise in these disturbing social trends over the course of the last four decades. 

These experts have theorized, over the years, that these developments could lead to the rise of a dangerous figure like Donald Trump, who brazenly promises that he "alone can fix" our problems. Predictably though, Trump's lone major legislative achievement (so far) will magnify those problems that plagued the communities that made him president. It is up to a Democratic resistance to present the flip side of this coin of American populism to advance an agenda that genuinely reduces inequality and is focused on benefiting poor and middle-class Americans. If Democrats fail to offer serious, concrete proposals while Trump continues to disappoint working-class voters, a political crisis may unfold as voters' confidence in democracy could entirely collapse. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

I was wrong about President Trump. I thought he'd be even worse.

In 2016, The Globe envisioned a Pres. Trump.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, President Carter was determined to expose Ronald Reagan as a right-wing ideologue who would eviscerate the social safety net, ramp up military engagements abroad, and stoke racial tensions at home. Unfortunately, many of Carter's warnings about President Reagan came to fruition; Reagan became a monumental figure in American politics as his policies spurred decades-long income disparity.

The conservatism Reagan espoused still continues to permeate our political culture. However, Reagan's leadership was, at times, surprisingly pragmatic and conciliatory. As such, his presidency's detrimental societal impact, on the liberal progress of the New Deal and Great Society, was mitigated. His administration ultimately fell short of the tremendous fear that Democratic figures like Carter exhibited in 1980.

Fast-forward over three decades later and another impactful election is held in 2016 between two candidates who also are dramatically different: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. During the campaign, liberals like Clinton (and I) warned of the frightening prospect of Trump's hand on the nuclear button, the possibility that he would succeed in undoing many of President Obama's policy achievements, and the likelihood that xenophobia would define his immigration approach. 

Much of what Clinton and her fellow Democrats predicted about a Trump presidency has come true. Similar to the developments that took place after 1980 though, Trump's administration has, so far though, fallen short of the worst fears imagined. It should be noted that, barring Trump's removal from office or his unlikely resignation, there still remains over three years (at least) of the Trump presidency so I am sure the President will test our imagination. 

Another distinction between the Reagan era and the Trump era thus far has also been that, unlike Reagan, Trump has shown virtually no willingness to work with congressional Democrats to advance scaled back versions of his agenda. From his perspective, he does not have to since Republicans control Congress (the Democrats held a large majority in the House throughout the Reagan presidency).

But in a striking similarity to the Reagan administration, the Trump administration, despite all of its repulsiveness, has been restrained by our institutions, political pressure, and other crucial external factors. Consequently, President Trump has been unable to or unwilling to carry out even more nightmarish policy. On election night 2016, as it became clear Trump would be the 45th President, I feared a war with Iran or at least the end of the nuclear agreement, a total ban on residents from Middle Eastern countries that would survive legal challenges because of presidents' broad authority in that realm, the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the bombing of North Korea, withdrawal from NATO, new surveillance measures (including a registry) targeting Middle Eastern immigrants, the elimination of the Legal Services Corporation and the Community Development Block Grant (among other domestic agencies), the reauthorization of torture, the addition of new detainees at the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the prosecution of Hillary Clinton, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law.

Some of these outcomes may unfortunately still come to fruition particularly since, at least with regards to the legislative goals, Speaker Paul Ryan leads a defiantly right-wing House of Representatives and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell leads a Republican caucus that is usually mostly united. But so far, President Trump has not succeeded in these aims nor has he even tried in many cases to carry out these efforts. He has flat out failed in some instances and succumbed to the political tides, and other pressure, in other instances -- and has been dragged kicking and screaming into those relieving decisions that he detested. 

Don't get me wrong: Trump has been horrid -- a disastrous president who has stoked fear among nonwhites and immigrants with his rhetoric and actions, tarnished our reputation in the world, and succeeded in squashing key Obama-era policies that protected our climate, public health and safety, and civil rights. That he has not been even worse should not obscure how dangerously effective has has been especially in quiet ways like reshaping Justice Department policies through his Attorney General, the retrograde Jeff Sessions. Nevertheless, beneath all of that, there is still the aforementioned unfulfilled that frustrates him and his allies. 

The reason the absolute worst has not come about is because of the sustained pressure the public, courts, and the press have placed on Trump and elected Republicans. Our exceptionally proactive and rich civil society has demonstrated, through activist uprising and judicial wisdom and dogged journalism, that Trumpism can be restrained. Consequently, it is up to all of us to defend those time-tested institutions -- free speech, free press, checks and balances -- to protect all of our rights, liberties, and protections. We can't expect President Trump to emulate President Reagan in advancing pragmatism but we can expect him, or at least his GOP allies, to fold under pressure. As Joe Biden would say: "keep the faith."


UPDATE: This post has been updated on September 5, 2017 to reflect the fact that President Trump is ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. As I said above, this post should not be construed as any kind of defense of Trump as he has over three years to demonstrate how horrendous he can be and, even up to this point, he has already been repulsive.

UPDATE II: This post has been updated on May 8, 2018 to reflect the fact that President Trump is renewing previously suspended sanctions on Iran and withdrawing the U.S. from the Iran deal. It should be noted that DACA, referenced above, has since been saved by federal courts but Trump continues otherwise to enact harmful, draconian immigration policy. Trump is proving again that he is a uniquely awful leader; we have it within us to do what we can to prevent further harm by voting for progressive candidates this fall.

UPDATE III: It's quite possible this post is increasingly obsolete, especially in light of the horrible week we've had as Justice Kennedy just announced his retirement. I still maintain that I truly was concerned that the outcomes of a President Trump would be even worse than they have been so far. Having said that, the awfulness of the effects of this administration's policies continue as the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the President's travel ban. Perhaps this post came too early in Trump's presidency for there to be an accurate statement made about expectations vs. reality. Still, we have blunted even worse damage to our society through our activism and mobilization. We must show that spirit at the polls in November. For our civil rights and civil liberties, it is absolutely imperative.  

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Trump's domestic policies reveal uncomfortable truths about the right

Photo Credit: Getty Images
President Trump is no stranger to hypocrisyalpha male posturing, and callous indifference to those he perceives as inferior to him. His domestic policy framework, as reflected in his draconian federal budget proposals and in his egregious health care legislation, exemplifies those traits. At the same time, those ultraconservative policies are revealing in an instructive way as they shed light on the parsimonious practices that have long steered the Republican right.

In terms of hypocrisy, the substance of Trump's domestic policy, though unsurprising to close observers of the presidential campaign, flies in the face of his self-professed concern for the working class. These are the individuals and families that would be most dramatically adversely impacted by the American Health Care Act (AHCA) and by Trump's proposed array of cuts to anti-poverty programs. Beyond the horrid policy implications of these measures, the politics provides a strong opportunity for Democrats to expose Trump and his GOP allies for who they really are: the robber barons who genuine working class champion Bruce Springsteen railed against in "Death to My Hometown."

Further, with regards to the ideological underpinnings of these policies, it should be clear by now what the ultimate aim of the Ayn Rand-inspired, Paul Ryan-driven agenda is -- one wholly adopted and embraced by the Trump administration in the form of White House Office and Management and Budget (OMB) Director Mick Mulvaney. Recently, Mulvaney condemned individuals with diabetes as people whose "bad choices" ought not to entitle them to the "care" of society.

Putting aside the breathtaking ignorance of Mulvaney's armchair diagnosis of millions, these remarks are unusually candid as they lay bare an unspoken tenant of right-wing dogma. Mulvaney's assessment reflects the deeper strain in the conservative ideological mindset that Social Darwinism, the notion of survival of the fittest, ought to steer public policymaking.

Indeed, the logical extension of the right-wing campaign to promote ostensibly individualistic ideals in domestic policy is that ideally meager public benefits only belong to highly deserving citizens, if anyone at all, at the exclusion of those who suffer supposedly 'self-inflicted' misfortune. Mulvaney uttered the unvarnished truth of the right's guiding belief system, a philosophy billed with appealing language (i.e. "personal responsibility") but grounded in suspicion towards the disadvantaged.

Ultimately, if nothing else, the shamefulness of these policies is that it does not have to be this way. Several years ago, Chris Hayes made a compelling point on his nightly broadcast that struck me with its simple yet clear message that "poverty is a policy choice." The empirical evidence plainly demonstrates that to be the case. There exists, within the right's school of thought, a determination to blame sky-high income inequality on workers.

Yet productivity has not kept up with wages over the course of the last several decades. It is no mistake that as wages and safety net spending declined since 1980, income inequality skyrocketed. Policymakers like Mick Mulvaney argue that, in light of this dilemma, fiscal restraint is necessary anyway. The United States is the wealthiest, most resourceful country on Earth, with the means to alleviate suffering at home and abroad so fiscal responsibility may be an offered justification for Mulvaney's cohort yet one without merit.

If anything, the expenditures of safety net measures are investments that help families prosper and the economy grow. We have the capability, on many levels, to remedy what ails the working class yet we choose not to do it -- all in the service of rewarding the fittest and punishing the unworthy and in the name of fiscal prudence.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

All the good you can: the path forward in Donald Trump's America

He may not have actually said it, it turns out, but John Wesley, a cofounder of Methodism, is often credited with having imparted this wisdom: "do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can." In the 2016 presidential campaign, this saying became the motto for Methodist Hillary Clinton's campaign.

As a volunteer on the Clinton campaign, I especially appreciated this slogan. The high school I attended, Wyoming Seminary in Kingston, Pennsylvania, also embraced this motto. The school was founded by Methodists so it made sense that this ostensibly Wesley-originating quote was prominently featured on Sem's campus.

Whenever I heard that message uttered at Sem - "do all the good you can" - I was reminded that there was a higher calling and a broader purpose to the grind of school, to the work I wanted to do. When candidates like Hillary Clinton don't succeed in elections, it's important for progressives, for Democrats, and for anyone who is concerned about the future of our country under President Donald Trump to remember that why we became involved in the first place. For me, part of that motivation was my community.

When I canvassed and made phone calls for President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign in the Wilkes-Barre area, I saw a side of my hometown that I had read about and understood intellectually, as much as I could at that point, but didn't get to see up close and personal much. Voters told me they were looking to support change because they struggled with medical bills, gas prices, and discrimination. To them, these issues and frustrations consumed their lives so much so that they couldn't be as fully productive and energetic as they wished to be. Working for them, doing all the good you can for them, in any way, is what the spirit of progressivism and being Democrats should be all about.

Within this community though there are imperfections. There are deeply troubling sentiments that pervade corners of our neighborhoods; to deny that the nativist Trump campaign preyed on those fears, in my community and other parts of our country, would be delusional. But John Wesley would not want progressives to turn their backs on the least of us. Our brothers and sisters who suffer in poverty, often through no fault of their own, should be treated with "malice towards none and charity for all," as an actually great Republican president preached, regardless of their imperfections.

On the other hand, hate must be rooted out, regardless of economic anxiety. That requires us to seek out the "bravery that resides in every heart," as NEPA's own Joe Biden extolled -- light it, overcome fear, and know that whether it be in your own community or online or in your private interactions, that strength will build your character and strengthen your values. These battles though, aiding the disadvantaged and battling bigotry, need not be mutually exclusive. In fact, the sun is setting now on a presidency that showed us just that as Barack Obama united Americans of all backgrounds, from the small city of Kingston, Pennsylvania to the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, to his side to advance a more progressive America.

So what does this kind of path forward look like concretely? It means identifying the greatest needs in your community and addressing them in measurable ways. It means putting in the blood, sweat, and tears that local politics requires: getting the signatures to put a progressive on the ballot, knocking on doors for that candidate, and writing letters to the editor to make their voice heard -- or doing it yourself.

It means standing up to bullies in your own backyard, in speaking out, even in intimate settings, if you hear something that contradicts your values. It means investing in genuine public service, not just paying it lip service. It means putting your money where your mouth is so shared prosperity isn't just a pipe dream. It means doing all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can. That's our path forward in Donald Trump's America.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

What Obama meant to me

When you grow up with an unusual name in a homogenous community, you are bound to experience all sorts of intrigued reactions when you introduce yourself or even just exist in that universe. "Where are you from?" is a common refrain. (Or "where are you really from?") Responses can range from the genuinely curious to pure indignity.

People project on to you all sorts of emotions, feelings, and fears that have followed them through life, that are displayed regularly on their television screens, and that permeate our culture. It is that fear that produces suspicious sentiments like "this is America, please speak English."

But that reaction, I know, deeply, is contrary to our core identity; it was an American hero, Abraham Lincoln, after all who implored us to appeal to our "better angels." A strain of xenophobia in our history exists but so does a society that adapted, that welcomed immigrants in a way unlike most other advanced democracies, that made people like my parents feel like they are Americans. 

Nobody spoke more compellingly to that optimistic view of our country, in our modern political history, than Barack Obama. When he landed on the national political stage in 2004, he spoke in terms about our country, as Chris Matthews said, like no other politician had in decades, perhaps since Bobby Kennedy.

It wasn't that he brushed aside those stains on our culture. He accepted, acknowledged, and understood them but he embraced a version of American exceptionalism that demonstrated that we were unique because we actually were, and could be, better than all that. That capacity for self-improvement for a nation was demonstrated in our own progress in elevating Obama to power. People with "funny names," immigrants, their children -- there was a place in America for them, too. "Omeed's a pretty good name," said the most powerful person in our country.

It was the same country where others have denigrated me for my heritage and my ethnicity. Nevertheless, that attitude did not define us. It was the election, and the reelection, of President Obama that spoke more about us. Nothing can change the fact that that's part of our history; we still did that and we still appealed to the better angels of our nature. We stand out on the world stage for being one of the small handful of countries to have elected an ethnic minority to the highest office in the land.

For me, and millions of others in our country and around the world, the Obama presidency has been a deeply emotional journey, impactful in immeasurable ways. As our country strived to become a more perfect Union, my own progression, as I came of age in the Obama era, was one marked by renewed possibilities. "If our country is ready to elect Barack Hussein Obama as president, in thirty years, it can be ready for" an Iranian-American president, perhaps, my family friend (a two-time Obama voter) wondered aloud. 

I was interested in politics but with the rise of Obama, I became passionate about it because I could relate to him. His 2008 campaign was the first political campaign I got involved in, in fact. I am a liberal Democrat and I support his policies but my affinity for our first black president went beyond that. He and his campaign represented the notion that it was okay to be different, that we should celebrate and embrace that difference, rather than bully or mock it. It was a validation but so too were the actual, tangible accomplishments of the Obama era.

For Iranian-Americans, it was an "open hand," a message of Nowruz greetings, an agreement that both eliminated a potential nuclear weapon and improved dialogue. No U.S. president before understood Iran in the way this president did, with all of the complications, complexities and animosities that existed in these countries' histories with one another. But he also knew the deep appreciation and love, truly, that Iranians have for America, its people, and its democratic history. To see up close and personal Iranian-Americans, some of the most pro-American people you'll meet, dancing in front of the White House after the passage of the Iran deal, just blocks from my college campus? A powerful sight unthinkable just years before.

Barack Obama's personal qualities were immensely appealing too: his calm in difficult moments, his comfort in his own skin, his confidence in his own judgment, his discipline in his lifestyle, his focus on details, his selflessness in working as a community organizer rather than taking corporate gigs he easily could have landed and his loyalty to his family. As someone who was a teenager when Obama took office and is halfway through law school as he leaves office, having that kind of role model on a national stage was particularly meaningful.

In these ways, though specific policy achievements are at risk, there is a permanence to Barack Obama's legacy. The indelible impact of his leadership and of his promise, of all he symbolizes and exudes, is felt in my upbringing, is appreciated by millions, and is enduring in our society. His presidency brought into focus the "better angels" of our culture. 

Our collective identity is, and forever will be, one where "all things are possible" (said the then-president elect on that balmy November night in 2008), one where we can achieve what the "cynics said we could not do" (said the victorious black candidate in the heavily white state of Iowa), and one where, yes, even someone with a funny name can make it and make a difference.