Friday, February 21, 2014

The Real State of the Union

Lincoln’s great formula for successful government requires the participation of us all.  You can’t have government of the people, and for the people unless there is a healthy contribution by the people.  Too often, we want government of the people, for the people, but we want to skip over the by the people clause. 

I am an optimist and a liberal (which is the same thing, in a way) and so I believe that the American people have the final say about our country’s public policy.  For example, the people spoke and Social Security was not privatized during the Bush administration.  The people spoke against the government shutdown and the GOP voted this year a clean bill to raise the debt limit.  The people spoke and the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized in 2006 and there is bipartisan support for restoring Section IV of the VRA in Congress today.  The people spoke and the crack-powder disparity in criminal sentencing has been ameliorated to some degree.  The people are speaking and marriage equality is becoming the law of the land.  One of America’s great virtues is that when the people’s voices are loud and clear, elected officials respond.   

Elected officials respond to donations, but they also respond to polling results. 

Suppose –

1.     The Census Bureau reported recently that 30.4 percent of people over age 25 nationally hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and 10.9 percent hold a graduate degree, up from 26.2 percent and 8.7 percent 10 years ago. While that's the highest college graduation level ever for American workers, it shows that almost 70% of the workforce doesn't have a degree beyond high school.

Suppose we decided that every high school graduate who wanted further study and was capable of doing the work could receive a public university degree tuition free.  Suppose the lottery scholarships were need-based instead of merit-based only.  Suppose any college grad could discharge his/her student loans by doing national service. 

2.    The health care and social assistance sector is projected to grow at an annual rate of 2.6 percent, adding 5.0 million jobs between 2012 and 2022. This accounts for nearly one-third of the total projected increase in jobs. The growth reflects, in part, the demand for healthcare workers to address the needs of an aging population.   

According to the Census Bureau, five of the top ten best paying jobs that require an associate degree, rather than a four year college degree, are in the allied health sciences.  Web developer, electrician, skincare specialist and plumber, automobile body repairer, bookkeeper, communications equipment mechanic, electrician, glazier, tower technician, air traffic controller all pay better than a living wage, without the requirement of a four-year degree. 

Suppose we invested in the education or training of any child who wants to study a health related profession, or learn skills associated with health care delivery.  Suppose that anyone who wants to study health sciences or learn a skilled trade  in the U.S. could get a tuition free associate degree?  We could increase the number of health providers, increase wages for lots of workers, improve access to health care for millions of new patients under the affordable care act; remove one objection to the affordable care act. That investment will pay for itself in a decade and lay a solid foundation for economic growth for decades to come.  It will also alleviate poverty, address income inequality with jobs that are not easily outsourced.  

3.    Suppose Georgia and the other GOP states agreed to expand Medicaid to cover the working poor?  57% of Georgians think we should do it.  69% of metro Atlantans think we should.  71% of those earning less than 50k think we should expand Medicaid.  62%of those between 18 and 39 think we should.  

4.    Suppose there was an infrastructure bank making low-interest long-term loans to cities and other areas for infrastructure improvements like commuter rail and a dedicated municipal gas tax to pay for it like Sacramento’s? 

5.    Suppose Atlanta and other densely populated areas had robust regional transportation systems.  During the storm three weeks ago, I received a FB post from a woman who detailed how Alpharetta looked like a skating rink but a Marta driver got her to the train station and the rest of her commute went “without a hitch.” 

6.    Suppose homeowners whose homes are under water, or who lost their homes due to a provable hardship like illness, death of a spouse or loss of a job, could get a portion of the lost equity in their homes from the fines being paid by banks, or the loans restructured to reflect the current value of the homes.  Had we done this years ago, we might have avoided the mass foreclosures, blight and declining tax revenues they caused. 

7.    Charlie Rose interviewed U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew Thursday night.  He said China needs more consumer demand and a stronger safety net to keep the economy healthy.  What’s good for China is good for the U.S.  Suppose we finally abandoned the myth of trickle-down economics and embraced demand side economics.  The less money you make, the more likely you are to put most of it back into the economy, demanding cars, refrigerators, houses and tuition. 

8.    Suppose we considered high quality education and health care as elements of U.S. citizenship instead of privileges.   

9.    Suppose there was a national increase in the minimum wage so that anyone who worked full time could support themselves and not live in poverty.   

10.                    Suppose we decided to enact national service so that the military was not a place for youngsters with fewer options or family traditions of military service, but a responsibility shared by all families regardless of income and connections.  Suppose instead of hiring private contractors like Halliburton and Fluor Daniel, all young people had to serve two years in national service as part of being Americans.   Perhaps we would value peace more and romanticize military action less.

11.                    Suppose there was an active and persistent national conversation about budget priorities.  We have ended the War in Iraq and we are winding down the war in Afghanistan.  Suppose we insisted on a peace dividend, with real cuts to military spending, as opposed to merely slowing down the growth of the military industrial complex. 

But good government is not merely a matter of good jobs and sound economic policies.  Economic stability is built on a foundation of shared values and respect for individual liberties. 

12.                     Jimmy Carter once said that he could not monitor U.S. elections in the same way he monitors elections around the world because the U.S. has no central election authority and no uniform national election standards.   

Suppose instead of cutting back polling places and cutting back on early voting we encouraged everyone to vote; made it part of our national responsibility; established same day onsite registration nationally; taught the voting rights movement in civics and history classes using documentaries like the one on Mississippi’s sovereignty commission that aired on PBS the other night. 

13.                      The single biggest threat to one person/one vote in the U.S. is Citizens United.  But polls suggest that 80 percent of the American people oppose Citizens United, including 65 percent who "strongly" oppose it. If citizens are prepared to make this a "make or break" issue for politicians of both political parties, then adoption of a constitutional amendment seems at least plausible.

But what should such a constitutional amendment say? Superficial slogans like "money is not speech" or "corporations are not people" will not suffice. Can the government forbid you from using money to buy books? Can it prohibit the New York Times (a corporation) from publishing? Slogans may be good rallying cries, but they do not make good law.  

If I were to propose a constitutional amendment, here's what I would suggest:

"In order to ensure a fair and well-functioning electoral process, Congress and the States shall have the authority reasonably to regulate political expenditures and contributions. 

14.                     "In 2005, the United Nations recommended to the United States that it “strengthen its efforts to combat racial profiling at the federal and state levels.”  In 2013, the U.S. State Department finally responded in part by saying, “…the United States recognizes that racial and ethnic disparities continue to exist…Statistics indicate the need …for continued vigilance …in pursuing the goal of equality.”   

Suppose racial profiling was illegal in all 50 states and we kept statistics on who gets stopped and why, to make sure the rules against profiling were not being circumvented.  Police would have a disincentive for making race-based traffic stops, leaving more people with clean records and easier employment options. 

15.                    Suppose in every state, you could vote if you are no longer on probation or parole and after five years of crime-free unsupervised living, your criminal history was wiped clean automatically for purposes of credit and unemployment?  Suppose we permitted teenagers to pre-register to vote while still in high school without the distractions of college or jobs?  FL does and NC did, until the GOP takeover. 

16.                    Suppose the Congress adopted the recommendations in WAND’s letter   supporting ongoing diplomatic efforts between world powers and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program.

17.                    Suppose the U.S. left Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and joined the world majority of 140 nations including the entire European Union, Turkey, Armenia, Honduras, Iceland and South Africa other nations in outlawing the death penalty.  What signal would it send to young Americans about patriotism? 

Part of being a liberal is a point of view that there is something we can do.  Whatever your political philosophy - whether you believe in Paul’s faith, hope and love; or you prefer Oliver Wendell Holmes’ admonition that the life of the law has not been logic – that the law is more about the felt necessities of the times, or you believe in Dr. King’s moral arc of the universe, what is required for a more just, verdant and peaceful world is action.  Faith without work is dead.  We must make our necessities felt.  The moral arc leans toward justice when people of good conscience bend it to their will. 



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