CINDY SHEEHAN: NOT SO PROGRESSIVE

More surprising than Cindy Sheehan’s return from her ostensible break from activism is her willingness to embrace conservative cant against the income tax:

The Federal Reserve, permanent federal (and unconstitutional) income taxes, Japanese Concentration Camps and, not one, but two atom bombs dropped on the innocent citizens of Japan were brought to us via the Democrats.

The 16th amendment empowers the majority to legislate against subjugation and plutocracy. It institutes a critical tool to confront on the badges of slavery abjured in the 13th amendment and realize the equal protection promised in the 14th.

Cindy Sheehan’s inane legal argument and her outrageous ethical argument against the income tax are disappointing. What’s more discouraging is skimming through the comments and realizing that taking on Nancy Pelosi arouses more outrage from DailyKos commenters than taking on the income tax.

ABRA-MATHON

On today’s YDN opinion page, Eli Luberoff writes a letter responding to the statement in my Tuesday column that

While Abramoff made strategic donations to members of both parties, it was Republicans with whom he collaborated to break the law and the trust of the American people.

Eli agrees with the second part of the sentence, but he disputes the first part – that Abramoff made “strategic donations to members of both parties.” In retrospect, my wording was needlessly imprecise. Literally, Abramoff did make “strategic donations to member of both parties,” in that he made in-kind donations to Democrats as well as Republicans. More important, though, are the donations Abramoff directed through his clients to Democrats as well as Republicans, which were more substantial. Better wording here would have more clearly encompassed those contributions, which while heavily skewed towards Republicans, didn’t go exclusively to them. But as my column made clear, I agree with Eli that this is a Republican scandal through and through.

My Tuesday piece also comes up in Roger Low’s column today. Roger notes that Democrats do corrupt things sometimes too, which I think we can all acknowledge without losing sight of the underlying ideological edge of the Abramoff scandal: this is a story about concentrated economic power trumping popular majorities in setting policy and distributing resources. Roger rightfully calls the Democrats on their failure to champion a more aggressive reform agenda, and then veers off into an encomium to John McCain, who – besides being a staunch conservative except for his opposition to torture, global warming, and soft money (talk about defining deviancy down) – hasn’t championed any of those reforms either.

YES IT WILL

Ezra Klein claims that

making Wal-Mart do better will not change [T]arget, or whoever dominate[s] the next major industry.

Of course it will.

Right now, Wal-Mart is militating against living wage employment with human rights nationally by forcing higher-wage employers out of business and inspiring competitors to ape its strategies for temporarily squeezing as much labor power as possible out of each of their employees before dumping and replacing them. Puffed up with public subsidies, Wal-Mart is the pep squad as well as the front-runner and the finish line in the race to the bottom. Transforming Wal-Mart into a progressive ally, as Ezra rightly seeks to do, would cease the damage Wal-Mart is currently doing far beyond the ever-multiplying communities which it’s entered.

And transforming Wal-Mart will send a clear signal to its competitors. Wal-Mart does business the way it does – locking employees indoors, forcing them to work off the clock, vetting them for class consciousness – because it can get away with it. When Wal-Mart changes, it will be because a broad-based coalition has used effective mobilization and pressure to show that they can’t.

The longest strike in the history of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International (HERE, now merged to become UNITE HERE) was the strike at the Las Vegas Frontier Hotel and Casino, fought against a viciously anti-union family which preferred to run their hotel into the ground rather than settling with the union. These people reprogrammed their sprinkler system in an effort to target picketers. Once they caved in 1998 (the family essentially went bankrupt and had to sell the hotel to someone else willing to settle), after a six-and-a-half year strike during which none of the 550 strikers crossed the picket line, workers at each of the neighboring hotels were able to win recognition without having to go on strike for a day.

The same principle, writ large, is at work in the campaign to transform Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the biggest and the baddest, and a movement which fought them and won would entirely reshape the playing field in the struggle over whether we a s a country will race to the bottom or pave the high road. Change them, and you change the country.

SIX POPULISMS

TPMCafe’s guest stint by Thomas Frank (One Market Under God, by the way, is a masterpiece) has stirred a spirited debate about the place of populism in a progressive future. Populism is a word which has rightly come up fairly frequently in more- and less-enlightened discussions of the left’s future, but too often it seems like folks are talking past each other. Here are six of the somewhat but not entirely related themes I think are in play in the way different people discuss populism:

Progressive Economics: In broad strokes, the economic policy proposals that get labeled as populist are the ones least popular with the Washington Post editorial board and the “Washington Consensus” crowd: fair trade or no trade; downward economic redistribution; unionization. Opposition to immigration often gets grouped in here as well as part of the same package, though for obvious reasons I’d rather apply the populist label to the push for equal labor rights for immigrants.

Direct Democracy: The other set of policy proposals which usually get the populist labels are the ones which bring political decisions under more direct control of the American public. This includes taking decisions away from judges and handing them over to legislatures and taking them away from legislatures and handing them over to public referenda.

Trust in crowds: Populism is also used to describe a posture – whether held by politicians or activists – of trust in the mass public and distrust in elites. Usually, trust in the public is justified by an appeal to the wisdom of common people in identifying their own problems and synthesizing their own solutions. And distrust in elites is justified on the grounds of their inability to understand those insights or, more often, their narrow interests.

Democratic Legitimacy: Populism also describes a particular kind of appeal made by elected or unelected political leaders. Candidates for office, especially, tend to get the populist label for seizing democratic legitimacy for themselves – that is, for framing themselves as the bearers and protectors of the people’s will. The corollary to the candidate as representative of the masses is the candidate as enemy of the elites, whose hostility is easily explained by their opposition to the popular policies and popular mandate.

Prejudice: Populism is also a frequently-invoked label to describe all manner of ugly prejudice, be it directed against Blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or immigrants. In this conception, populism is the cry of some self-defined majority against unwelcome interlopers. This meaning of populism – which gives elites a lot of credit – is never far when someone’s looking to discredit one of the others.

Economic Focus: Maybe the simplest sense in which the word populism is used is to refer to a focus on economic issues (rather than a particular stance on them), to the exclusion of others.

That makes two kinds of policy approaches, two rhetorical/ philosophical postures, a question of focus, and a very bad thing (generally thrown into the mix by pundits like Joe Klein to make everything associated with the word sound ugly). Each of them, though, has a way of showing up implicitly in discussions about what is or should be populist.

What does it mean, for example, to ask whether Bill Clinton was a populist President? He often gets described that way, in large part because he ran on the economy (“It’s the Economy, Stupid”), and because his challenge to Bush benefited significantly from a sense that Clinton represented the concerns of the American people with which the President had fallen out of touch (and supermarket ray-guns). Others associate Clinton with the decline of populism in the Democratic party, and of the party in the country, pointing to his conservative stance on issues like NAFTA and the technocratic underpinnings of the “Reinventing Government” concept. I’m not going to say they’re both right (I’d say Clinton campaigned as a populist, but he didn’t govern as much of one). I will say that on those terms, it’s no surprise that those conversations don’t get farther than they do.

Thoughts?

THE COSTCO ALTERNATIVE

In yesterday’s New York Times, Steven Greenhouse profiles Costco, its Chief Executive Jim Sinegal, and the model he’s providing as an alternative to the Wal-Mart economy:

Costco’s average pay, for example, is $17 an hour, 42 percent higher than its fiercest rival, Sam’s Club. And Costco’s health plan makes those at many other retailers look Scroogish. One analyst, Bill Dreher of Deutsche Bank, complained last year that at Costco “it’s better to be an employee or a customer than a shareholder.” Mr. Sinegal begs to differ. He rejects Wall Street’s assumption that to succeed in discount retailing, companies must pay poorly and skimp on benefits, or must ratchet up prices to meet Wall Street’s profit demands. Good wages and benefits are why Costco has extremely low rates of turnover and theft by employees, he said…If shareholders mind Mr. Sinegal’s philosophy, it is not obvious: Costco’s stock price has risen more than 10 percent in the last 12 months, while Wal-Mart’s has slipped 5 percent…

Despite Costco’s impressive record, Mr. Sinegal’s salary is just $350,000, although he also received a $200,000 bonus last year. That puts him at less than 10 percent of many other chief executives, though Costco ranks 29th in revenue among all American companies. “I’ve been very well rewarded,” said Mr. Sinegal, who is worth more than $150 million thanks to his Costco stock holdings. “I just think that if you’re going to try to run an organization that’s very cost-conscious, then you can’t have those disparities. Having an individual who is making 100 or 200 or 300 times more than the average person working on the floor is wrong.”…Costco also has not shut out unions, as some of its rivals have. The Teamsters union, for example, represents 14,000 of Costco’s 113,000 employees. “They gave us the best agreement of any retailer in the country,” said Rome Aloise, the union’s chief negotiator with Costco. The contract guarantees employees at least 25 hours of work a week, he said, and requires that at least half of a store’s workers be full time.

CostCo continues to prove, as I wrote here last year, that the choice Americans face isn’t between policies that are “friendly” or “hostile” to business, or between “big government” and “economic freedom.” Government policies can force a race to the bottom of ever-worsening standards and quality of life for the working Americans who make prosperity possible. Or they can pave the high road by rewarding companies that invest in the economic security of workers and consumers. It’s the latter choice which fosters and expands the real economic freedom which comes from workers’ voice on the job and control over their lives, and whose expansion increases the humanity of our economy.

A KICK IN THE TEETH

Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ): “There are hundreds of thousands of Americans who have their arms, who have their eyesight, who have their lives, because OSHA has teeth.”

Right now in the House, the Republicans are pushing four bills to further weaken OSHA by making it easier for employers to put off responding to complaints, making it easier for the President to stack the commission, and limiting OSHA’s ability to aggressively interpret its laws. All this, of course, in the name of protecting small business. “Mom and Pop” companies, we’re asked to believe are wrongly aggrieved by the requirement that they notify OSHA within fifteen days should they wish to contest responsibility for conditions which cause serious injury or death for their employees. And we’re asked to believe, further, that the current law is unfair to all those small business owners who are injured simultaneously with their workers. Employers, of course, already have the opportunity to seek extensions in extraordinary circumstances; what Republicans want is to shift the responsibility to OSHA to prove why the deadline, which saves lives by facilitating rapid redress of unsafe conditions, should ever apply.

Rep. Major Owens (D-NY): “There is a class problem developing in America…What we’ve found in this war in Iraq, is that people on the top aren’t providing the kind of protection needed for people on the frontlines from working families.”

Truth is, there’s been a class problem developing in America, sadly, for a long time. It’s one we should be hearing about more often on the floor of the Congress and outside of it. And we’d be well served by more media attention to dangerous legislation like the bills under debate right now. But for all their claims to be looking out for regular Americans, you’ll notice that the Republicans aren’t hoping to see their handiwork on this issue in the news:

Rep. John Boehner (R-OH): “Let me remind my colleagues what this small, inocuous bill does…”

If a line like that doesn’t set off alarms, you haven’t been paying attention.

SEEKING SOLAR SOLIDARITY

Nathan offers a good example of what a missed chance to build a broad-based pro-environmental constituency looks like:

California is debating a Schwarzenegger-backed bill to subsidize solar panels on homes and businesses across the state– on a level that could supply energy equivalent to 10 average-sized coal-fired power plants. Sounds good, but in a classic move to pit labor and environmental interests, the GOP cosponsors, as this article details, oppose a requirement that public money only go to installers paying prevailing union wages in the state. Labor in California has fought a long struggle to require that, if government pays for it, the labor has to meet union wage levels. Now, the GOP wants to open a multi-billion dollar loophole in the rule: somehow the hipness of solar panels makes using public money for sweatshop labor acceptable. This is a perfect chance for environmentalists to stand up for the principle that green policy can also be a pro-labor policy, but few environmental leaders have stepped up to champion prevailing wages for the workers who would actually install all these solar panels across the state.

It’s this kind of failure build not just a momentary majority but a stable, inter-generational, cross-cause constituency that caused some environmental leaders last year to declare “The Death of Envionmentalism.” Of course, where Nathan says,

And the enviros wonder why some labor unions joined the GOP in supporting drilling in ANWR when they promised that all those jobs would pay union wages

one could with equal justification fire back “And the union people wonder why some environmentalists are willing to screw them to get solar energy in the wake of ANWR.” The stakes for both movements – fostering an alternative to a laissez-faire race to the bottom and building an economy which values and invests in human beings and the earth – are too high not to work together. Everyone has on the left has some work to do to get their own house(s) in order. If you want to see what the payoff from broader-based, cross-issue organizing looks like, just check out the modern Right in this country.

THE LOCHNER LITMUS TEST

Finally made it into the Philadelphia Airport late last night, after several hours delayed in George Herbert Walker Bush Airport in Texas, a real monument to small government if ever there was one. It was long enough to read a good chunk of Ed Klein’s anti-Clinton screed, and yes, it’s as bad as they say, and certainly libelous – though I’m not convinced that should be illegal. And it was a chance to watch the same couple minute CNN piece on O’Connor’s resignation several times.

Not being a Democratic Senator, I have the freedom to go off message and say that O’Connor’s resignation is unfortunate not because she was the linchpin in some sort of divine cosmic balance on the court that’s best for the country, but simply because her replacement will almost certainly be even more conservative than her, and conservative jurisprudence is bad for our country. Of course, if she herself didn’t want that to happen, she shouldn’t have presided over the theft of the 2000 election.

As for who comes next, my sense is that the Alberto Gonzales trial balloon is a red herring. It wins Bush credit from some moderates and Latinos for having an ostensibly moderate Latino on the “short list,” and when he goes with a Janice Rogers Brown instead, he’ll win that much more credit from right-wing extremists for having “listened” to their concerns about Gonzales.

The good news is that there are still five votes on the Court for upholding Roe (Casey was 5-4, but since then Justice Ginsberg replaced Justice White, who was one of the four), though not Steinberg v. Carnhart, which the federal late-term abortion ban seems to have navigated around anyway. That said, support for the right to autonomy in intimate spaces and decisions long recognized by the court is absolutely a standard for just jurisprudence.

At least as important as support for Roe in the coming controversy, though, should be opposition to Lochner, the court’s atrocious 1905 decision overturning New York’s minimum wage statute on the grounds that the absolute right of contract including a “right to work” for poverty wages. Lochner was overturned in West Coast Hotel, which rightly upheld the power of the people, through the legislature, to foster justice in the face of collective action problems and asymetrical bargaining relationships by enforcing universal labor standards.

Since Justice Black’s dissent in Griswold, opponents of privacy rights have made the perversely labelled the cases protecting them as “Lochner”-like, ignoring the differences between legislation regulating the relationship between employers, employees, and consumers, one which is by definition public, and legislation which regulates the private choices of individuals. Much as Footnote IV in Carolene Products suggests that judicial review is more justified when exercised to protect the rights of “discrete and insular minorities” who face more obstacles in protecting themselves in the legislative process, legislation itself is that much more justified when it achieves collective ends a majority of individuals might prefer but be unable to enact individually due to collective action problems. The law wrongfully overturned in Lochner achieved majority support despite employer opposition because most workers preferred to work less than 60 hours a week but could not unilaterally refuse to work more without threatening their livelihood. It is far less credible to argue that the legislation barring contraceptive use rightfully overturned in Griswold solved a collective action problem shared by a majority of couples who did not want to use contraception themselves but were somehow unable to decide for themselves not to use them. This illustrates the distinction between private and public interaction, and why privacy rights, which protect the former from the kind of regulation appropriate for the latter, preserve personal freedom, while the absolute “right to work” suggested in Lochner diminishes it.

While Justice Black makes equivalence between Lochner’s invocation of substantive due process and that in Justice White’s concurrence, the relationship between the fourteenth amendment and absolute laissez-faire contract rights is far more tenuous than the relationship between the Bill of Rights and privacy. The laissez-faire hostility to so-called “class legislation” was also explicitly rejected as constitutional law by the people through the sixteenth amendment, which in imposing an income tax recognizes the right and responsibility of government to pursue economic justice and equal opportunity through law. The American people, whose prosperity has been fostered and protected by many of those laws, deserve a new Supreme Court Justice who recognizes that right and that responsibility as well.

A compelling argument against libertarianism…from Glenn Reynolds:

…if bankruptcy law is “anti-freedom.” then what’s pro-freedom? Debtor’s prison?

Glenn is responding to a reader questioning how a devout libertarian like him can be so opposed to the bankruptcy bill that would make it harder for those who fail in the free market to mitigate the effects of that failure. The reader’s right: if the free market is really a just and efficient tool that distributes goods according to virtue, any good libertarian should see the existence of bankruptcy law as a reward for bad behavior or even a “perverse incentive,” and staunchly support a bill like this one to further shred that protection net. Protections for debtors are a good idea, and this bill is a trainwreck, because – contra the libertarians – it’s too often the obstensibly free market which fails citizens, not the other way around. Contemporary libertarianism is, dare I say it, bankrupt precisely because it posits a vision of economic freedom which fosters greater economic slavery for the majority by accelerating the race to the bottom, encouraging exploitation, further marginalizing the already vulnerable, and denying the rights and freedoms which enable consumers and workers to leverage demands from employers. As Glenn himself recognizes, a system which leaves someone who goes bankrupt to rot leaves him less free. But so does a system which allows employers to lock their employees inside for the night with impunity, or forces parents to choose between medical treatment for themselves or their children. Debtor’s prison is certainly “anti-freedom,” but so is child labor, so is union-busting, so is social security privatization, so is cutting tax cuts for the rich, and so is the Senate’s refusal to reverse the near decade-long decline in the value of the minimum wage. It’s nice to see Glenn and other conservatives recognize that this bankruptcy bill is a threat to real freedom, but the threat isn’t just this bill: it’s the broader economic agenda this administration is inflicting on America.

Nathan’s had a series of good posts recently the kind of social security reform we should all be behind: taking on the regressive income cap on the payroll tax so that Bill Gates no longer can finish earning his payroll contribution for the year long before he wakes up on New Year’s Day.  Payroll taxes are a huge chunk of the tax contributions made by low income Americans in the post-Reagan era, and that a CEO making millions a year pays no more in absolute dollars than an employee making $90,000 is an outrage we should be hearing much more about from the Democratic side of the aisle.  It’s time they did, because it would be good for the country and as Nathan observes, it would be good politics as well:

The argument against talking about a deal is reasonable as short-term politics: when your opposition is stumbling, let them fall on their feet. But that does buy the idea that there’s nothing wrong with Social Security that needs fixing. No, there is no funding crisis, but the reality is that social security is fundamentally a regressive tax…This has been a problem for decades and progressives never took proactive action to improve the situation. Which opened the door for this rightwing attack in the first place…We know that House Republicans won’t agree to elminating the payroll tax cap, so there is no danger that proposing it as a reform will be met with any real negotiation on the issue. But we can slam the conservatives for supporting such a regressive policy.

And since progressives don’t believe there is a crisis, we don’t think there needs to be any new revenue raised TODAY, so any rise in revenue from eliminating the payroll tax cap should be matched with an overall cut in payroll tax rates paid by average workers– probably equivalent to saving them 2-3% of their income. Yes, Dems should be proposing a TAX CUT! You want wedge politics, you’ve got it. Many progressives have pushed for raising the cap to cut payroll taxes over the years (see here), and we should not abandon pushing the idea just as national attention is on social security. Progressives are not going to revive their national fortunes by only playing defense and defending the status quo. They need to play political jujitsu to take ideas put on the national agenda by Bush and use that debate as a vehicle for selling a vision of better, more progressive alternatives. Otherwise, we may win a few rearguard fights, but we won’t move forward in building broader support for the changes WE want.

And as Nathan further notes, eliminating the cap will keep social security solvent for most of a century, while gaining many more voters than it would lost. The polling bears it out as well…

The Wall Street Journal is mourning the drop of the United States from the top 10 “Economically Free” countries – as measured by the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S., with its strong property rights, low inflation and competitive banking and finance laws, scores well in most. But worrying developments like Sarbanes-Oxley in the category of regulation and aggressive use of antidumping law in trade policy have kept it from keeping pace with the best performers in economic freedom…Most alarming is the U.S.’s fiscal burden, which imposes high marginal tax rates for individuals and very high marginal corporate tax rates.

Of course, it’s not news that the Journal sees the ability of wealthiest in our society to merge, spend, downsize, outsource, dump, poison, union-bust, scam, and exploit with impunity as a measure of economic freedom. It’s long past time for the left to take back the language of economic freedom to discuss the meaningful control over one’s own life which is fostered by the economic security the Journal is doing everything it can to destroy for working Americans. It’s not seemly, of course, for the Journal to appear to be waging class war on behalf of the wealthiest in America, so readers get the obligatory claim that shredding social insurance and regulation is good for the poor:

Policy makers who pay lip service to fighting poverty would do well to grasp the link between economic freedom and prosperity. This year the Index finds that the freest economies have a per-capita income of $29,219, more than twice that of the “mostly free” at $12,839, and more than four times that of the “mostly unfree.” Put simply, misery has a cure and its name is economic freedom.

Funny thing is, the US (supposedly the 13th most economically free country) had a 17% poverty rate in 2004, while Norway (all the way down at #30) was at 6.4%. So if you believe, as most Americans do and even the Journal (itself “pay[ing] lip service to fighting poverty”) claims to, that poverty is a blight on a decent society, think again before trying the Journal‘s prescription.

This article by David Sirota has been the subject of spirited criticism over its portrayal of the Democratic Leadership Council’s positions on various issues. As far as I’m concerned, if the argument of the DLC’s defenders is that it’s actually more liberal than we give it credit for, great. Would’ve been nice if they’d come around before incubating Clinton’s erosion of the social contract, but better late than never. But as much as many of us enjoy taking shots at the DLC, and they enjoy taking shots at us, there’s a more salient point to be made in Sirota’s piece: the median American voter is much further left on economic policy than Democrats seem to give him/her credit for:

Yet almost every major poll shows Americans already essentially believe Republicans are waging a class war on behalf of the rich–they are simply waiting for a national party to give voice to the issue. In March 2004, for example, a Washington Post poll found a whopping 67 percent of Americans believe the Bush Administration favors large corporations over the middle class. The “centrists” tell Democrats not to hammer corporations for their misbehavior…A 2002 Washington Post poll taken during the height of the corporate accounting scandals found that 88 percent of Americans distrust corporate executives, 90 percent want new corporate regulations/tougher enforcement of existing laws and more than half think the Bush Administration is “not tough enough” in fighting corporate crime.

On taxes, self-described “centrists” like Senator Joe Lieberman, a senior DLC leader, attacked proposals to repeal the Bush tax cuts to pay down the deficit. Yet even the DLC’s pollster found in 2001 that a majority of Americans support such a policy, and that a strong plurality of voters would actually be more likely to vote for a Democrat who endorsed this proposal…a September 2004 CBS News poll found that 72 percent of Americans say they have either not been affected by the Bush tax cuts or that their taxes have actually gone up. On healthcare, we are led to believe that it is a “liberal,” “left” or “socialist” position to support a single-payer system that would provide universal coverage to all Americans. But if you believe the Washington Post, that would mean America was some sort of hippie commune. The newspaper’s 2003 national poll found that almost two-thirds of Americans say they prefer a universal healthcare system “that’s run by the government and financed by taxpayers” as opposed to the current private, for-profit system…On energy policy, those who want government to mandate higher fuel efficiency in cars are labeled “lefties,” even though a 2004 Consumers Union poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the policy…more than three-quarters of Michigan voters support it–including 84 percent of the state’s autoworkers. Even in the face of massive job loss and outsourcing, the media are still labeling corporate Democrats’ support for free trade as “centrist.”…Yet a January 2004 PIPA/University of Maryland poll found that “a majority [of the American public] is critical of US government trade policy.” A 1999 poll done on the five-year anniversary of the North American trade deal was even more telling: Only 24 percent of Americans said they wanted to “continue the NAFTA agreement.”