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Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Keys to a Stronger Recovery

(PHOTO from the Christian-Science Monitor: President Barack Obama holds up his second term agenda items during a reelection campaign rally in the fall of 2012).

Full disclosure: I am not an economist. I am no expert in the economy. Having said that though, it's become clear, based on independent, nonpartisan projections, that there are numerous steps government can take to improve and broaden the economic recovery. Beyond the three Nation Magazine-endorsed executive actions the President could take (all of which combined would have a minimal - but necessary - effect on economic growth), there are a few legislative initiatives that, if they were to become law, could certainly help:

First, the damaging cuts of the sequester ought to be repealed entirely. According to the estimates of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), sequestration could prevent the creation of up to 1.6 million jobs next year. The losses incurred by sequestration are almost entirely in the public sector, which has already been damaged more significantly than the private sector in the recovery. The cuts to scientific and medical research, Head Start, transportation, housing, commerce, and domestic violence prevention programs, among other things, are harmful for the middle class, reducing the workforce at a time of a fragile recovery, and treacherous for the broader economy. Repealing these cuts would increase the budget deficit, which is shrinking dramatically, but it would certainly put the economy on a sounder footing as it would spur more government investment and help increase GDP.

Second, the American Jobs Act, legislation drafted by the Obama White House in the fall of 2011, should be enacted. According to John McCain's chief economist from the 2008 campaign, Mark Zandi of Moody's, the AJA would create up to 1.9 million jobs. Indeed, the legislation proposes $50 billion on new and existing infrastructure projects to enhance and build roads and bridges across the U.S. Given the fact that 10,000 bridges are over 60 years old and many across the country are deemed structurally deficient, this initiative would be a huge deal in improving the infrastructure of our country. (More money for high-speed rail projects as part of that infrastructure improvement would be great too!)  The bill also proposes payroll tax relief (the two-year holiday expired in the fiscal cliff deal), creating a National Infrastructure Bank with $10 billion deposited initially, $35 billion to hire more police officers, teachers, and firefighters (crucial public sector jobs that the economy sorely needs), and further spending for stimulative measures such as unemployment benefits. Oh and guess what? The AJA is fully paid for as well.

Third, if the House ever passes the Senate immigration bill or some kind of immigration reform legislation, the ultimate law should include this key component of the Senate bill (which passed alongside everything else in that legislation): $1.5 billion for a youth jobs initiative. This funding was proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who caucuses with the Democrats. As Sen. Sanders' office puts it, "it would provide the funds to the Labor Department for both summer and year-round employment for low-income youth through approved state plans," and thanks to deficit reduction measures in the immigration bill, the spending is paid for as well. This kind of program is reminiscent of some of the core elements of the New Deal, such as the Civilian Conservation Corps or the Works Progress Administration. The youth employment program would help create up to 400,000 jobs, according to Senator Sanders. It should be noted too that the entire immigration bill as a whole is also quite stimulative, according to the CBO, as it would bring in millions of workers.

As Eliot Spitzer said on "Real Time with Bill Maher" this week, one of the great GOP myths of the last few years was that the Recovery Act, President Obama's 2009 $826 billion federal economic stimulus law, was a bust and "did nothing." That flies in the face of the facts which show that 3.6 million jobs were either created or saved by the Recovery Act. The stimulus helped bring the country out of the dire straits of the financial crisis -- as did the auto rescue and President Bush's $700 billion in TARP spending for the bank bailouts -- and more of that kind of government investment in the economy could increase GDP, spur growth, and create the conditions for a broader, more expansive recovery. Unfortunately, given this Congress' terrible record of passing legislation and Speaker Boehner's mantra that we should judge the Congress on the laws they repeal instead of how many laws they pass, good luck with any of these initiatives becoming law. We can only hope those members of Congress opposed to these initiatives will rethink their attitude soon to help improve the economic recovery.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Three Reasons to Be Proud to be an American

The Declaration of Independence, one of the finest political documents in the history of the world, was adopted 237 years ago today. The ideals of "governments are instituted among men, "all men are created equal," and the enshrining of rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" continue to define our great country today. It should go without saying though that at times we've had difficulty, at best, fully living up to these principles for all of our people. Continually though, we've strived to perpetually perfect our nation -- to always try to achieve that "more perfect union." However, as we sit here today and celebrate the fireworks and the company of family and friends in celebrating our nation's birth, there are at least three core reasons why we should be proud to be Americans:

1. The United States enjoys the greatest and most expansive individual freedom of speech rights in the world.

In the First Amendment, the language is clear: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." In the course of history, there have been numerous assaults on this right. These attacks on free speech most notably included the Alien and Sedition Acts, elements of the Espionage Act, the Smith Act, and the activities that were uncovered by the Church Committee. One of the positive aspects of our nation's trajectory though is that these assaults on free speech were constantly corrected and rescinded thanks to movements of people rising up and protecting this core right. Today, the freedom of speech is strong in the United States. Yes, there are numerous exceptions to it - most famously, "you can't yell fire in a crowded theater" - though these are generally sensible exemptions that all civilized nations embrace. The freedom of speech rights in the U.S. are greater than anywhere else in the world in large part because the rights of free speech are broad and wide. We may not like hate speech or derogatory remarks and certainly they deserve to be condemned but we should be thankful that nobody, by law, can be sent to prison for these kinds of speech. This reality distinguishes the U.S. from most Western European nations where hate speech is criminalized. Whenever government gets in the business of defining what speech is acceptable and what is not acceptable for the purposes of criminalizing it, it can be dangerous. It can be dangerous because such restrictions may ultimately lead to the marginalization of so-called "radical" views while permitting only expressions of speech within what the government would define as the "mainstream." The protection of even the most radical points of view as free speech should be something we are proud of because once you define a particular kind of speech as too inflammatory to be protected by the First Amendment then who's to say where government can draw the boundary for what is legitimate speech? Our free speech rights are such that the law recognizes that there's a distinction between saying "this view is wrong and extreme" and "this view should be censored and criminalized with jail time." Even Professor Noam Chomsky, a constant critic of the U.S. government, acknowledges that the core reason he lives in the United States is because, in his view, it has the greatest free speech rights in the world. 

2. Thanks to the people of the United States, our country has always moved in the progressive direction of expanding basic civil rights for full equality.

The Declaration of Independence states that "all men are created equal." When the document was drafted though, these words only truly applied to white male property owners. In fact, these Americans were the only ones who were allowed to vote at first. During the course of our history though, America has perpetually enlarged and broadened civil rights so that we can truly live up to that concept of "all men are created equal." Anyone who has studied about American history in school knows this to be true. African Americans were freed from the oppression of slavery, given the right to vote, and the right to citizenship, defined to include anyone born in the country after nearly a century otherwise. Women were given the right to vote in the 19th Amendment, de jure segregation in public hotels and restaurants and water fountains (among other places) was outlawed, public schools were integrated, barriers for blacks in voting ("Jim Crow laws") were removed, 18-year olds were given the right to vote, and same-sex marriages were ultimately recognized by the federal government. In terms of economic, social, and political justice, we've also perpetually moved in the direction of greater rights. The minimum wage was established, working conditions for workers were dramatically improved, child labor was outlawed, and the people of the states were given the right to democratically vote for their own United States Senators. The best part of this progress is that it was achieved because of the people. Mass movements of people rising up to demand greater equality and justice accomplished these achievements that broadened our equality. In doing this, these movements, organized in championing greater civil rights and equal justice, embraced a core concept of American democracy that Abraham Lincoln articulated in 1863 that government should be "by the people, for the people, and of the people." 

3. The United States is exceptionally individualistic but simultaneously has a strong collective purpose.

Our American culture is famously defined as one of "rugged individualism." This inherently free-minded and entrepreneurial spirit has led to amazing innovations and discoveries in our history such as the broadening of our land (the Louisiana Purchase), the transcontinental railroad, land grant colleges, the world's greatest universities, the assembly line, the phonograph, the motion picture camera, a long-lasting, practical electric light bulb, and Microsoft and Apple, among many, many other examples. However, none of these achievements were possible without our collective spirit of working together as one to accomplish great feats. Together, as one country, we collaborated to collectively support public education, a wide-ranging infrastructure, and the expansion of our safety net, all of which have improved our country's magnificent experiment. This communitarian spirit brings us together in times of need and crisis too such as during World War II and after the 9/11 attacks. It is this incredible balance that is at the core of the identity of the America we know and love today.