Thursday, February 21, 2013

America's Political Filters: A Veto on Majority Rule

I have observed America’s political system for 25 years now waiting for some progressive legislation to help deal with our many social, economic, and environmental problems.  The last real liberal program was enacted in the 1960s with the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.  A few times since then watered-down laws have been passed, such as the Americans With Disabilities Act (of 1990!) or Obamacare; and sometimes a bit piece of reform manages to squeeze through after too long a delay, such as the revocation of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.  But on the whole, week after week, month after month, and year after year, nothing substantive happens to solve our main of inequality, alienation, and environmental destruction.

American laws are still technically passed by Congress, but legislation- and policy-making is in reality done during the lobby process, in which a horde of interest groups negotiate, maneuver, and horse-trade in order to make laws that benefit little factions rather than the good of the whole, or the good of common people.  These interest groups are legion, and while a few groups sometimes represent interests of some general benefit (such as, at times, the American Association of Retired Persons), the lobby process is dominated by corporate, military/security, and culturally regressive interest groups,because they are the ones who have the most money to effectively promote their interests.

The end result is that any proposal must pass through a series of interest-group “filters” in order to be made into a law or policy.  Indeed, these filters often define and delimit political discourse itself.  These filters are defined by the prominent lobbies and cliques in Washington with vested interests, who have the power to block, bog down, capture, or dilute legislation.  They thus have, in effect if not formally, a veto over proposed laws, albeit early in the policy-making process before legislation even reaches the floors of Congress for a vote.  Legislation also must pass muster of the centrist Washington establishment which imposes its own filters.

These filters include, but are not limited to: 
  • Oil/Hydrocarbon energy -- the research funds and massive seed capital alternative energy needs to address climate change is blocked by the oil extraction industry and its corollaries, including the auto industry.
  • Militarism -- the military-industrial complex has so much power that military solutions to problems become the preferable, and even default, choice. 
  • Security/Intelligence -- After 9/11, considerations of privacy and human rights took a back seat to those of intelligence collection and security, such that in some corners of the government these concerns are scoffed at and seen as left-wing fringe, akin to drug legalization or environmentalism. Which says a lot.
  • Centrism, "bipartisanship," anti-populism -- because the political pundit class of the Washington establishment lacks real expertise on matters of substance, it has but one lens by which it evaluates policy: is it somewhere in the middle? Is it based on middling compromise, no matter how asymmetrical the bargaining positions of the two sides, and no matter what policy is called for by facts, experience, and good judgment? 
  • Preference for privatization of public goods -- every damn thing has to be done by some supposed “entrepreneur” or another, with the dogma that the private sector always delivers services better than government taken as a given, whether it’s true or not, or whether there are other considerations at play.  This leads to systematic venality and profiteering, as when war-fighting functions or the delivery of critical public good like healthcare or electronic voting are privatized. 
  • Consumerism -- Before the first Gulf War in the oil-rich Middle East, George Bush Sr. said that “The American lifestyle is not up for negotiation,” and after 9/11 his son called upon American citizens, in response to the attack, to start shopping again as soon as possible to get the economy moving.  Green, communitarian, and other non-consumerist philosophies are filtered right out of political discourse by the need to keep the consumption machine chugging along. 

There are many other such filters, including the American work ethic with its atomized, rugged individualism and Social Darwinism;  American exceptionalism which must declare the USA to be the best country in the world in though it lags behind in so many areas, and the anti-intellectualism/anti-science prejudice that has so plagued American political culture since the founding Puritan days. 

America’s political filters are sometimes conceptual schemata set down by ideological powers, sometimes criteria set down by powerful vested economic interests, and sometimes both.  Policy and discourse must pass through the filters to be heard.  The filters prevent rational, systemic, deliberative policy-making in line with democratic majority preferences by making a precondition of passage the approval of all the relevant interest groups.  

The result?  When circumstances call for a needed reform, as today’s circumstances do, what usually happens is that symbolic measures are proposed or even passed that rhetorically address the issue, or appear to address it, but in fact do nothing to actually address it. 

Finally, it is critical to understand that the people do not vote for any of this.  Whatever policy platform the electorate thinks it is voting for or against is irrelevant to the effective veto power of the groups that can impose these filters: “majority rule,” which is supposed to define what democracy is, is effectively negated by the existence of the filters.  

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Minimum Wage, Minimum Raise

According to a study by CEPR highlighted in Huffpo, if the minimum wage had kept pace with productivity since the 1960s, it would be $21.72 an hour by now.  If you "only" go by inflation it should be $10.52; it currently stands at $7.25. The tipped minimum wage is $2.13 (although employers are supposed to make up the gap to meet $7.25). 

In the State of the Union speech on Wednesday, Obama proposed that the minimum wage be raised to $9.00 an hour. This proposal is typical Obama, and typically centrist: propose something too weak to begin with, so it can be negotiated down to almost nothing by the mule-headed Republican party. We'll be lucky to see an increase that breaks the $8.00 barrier.

Obama's strategy should go like this: "Since productivity indicates $21.72, that would be the just minimum wage, and therefore that's our baseline standard. My starting position will be a $30 minimum wage, because we know that Congress has a history of not raising it properly, so we must pad it now because working people can't expect another increase for years. That's only fair.  And we also have to make up for decades of lost minimum wage increases.  That's only fair too.  Alternatively, we start at $27 and tie the minimum wage to automatic increases based on productivity and inflation, so we don't have to rely on a procrastinating Congress to increase it." Once you’ve made a strong starting proposal, you then negotiate from there, and privately send out signals that your do-not-cross red line is $25. When Congress fails to act, you use that fantastic Obama campaign machine to mobilize lengthy workers' protests, you have a full PR blitz of speeches and commercials, you whip out the veto pen and use it as a weapon (Obama has only two vetoes, whereas Bush, Jr. had a dozen, Clinton 36, and Bush Sr. 44). You might even call Congress into emergency session until they pass a $25 minimum wage so working people can feed their families in tough economic times.  

That way, you have at least a chance of a real reform that will help people and make things a little fairer.  And a more directly confrontational approach will clarify conservative opposition to the public interest in people’s minds, too.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Demographic Change Is Not Enough

Much has been made since last year's election of demographic shifts in America and their effects on our politics.  Pollsters, pundits, and politicians have all pointed out that the racial, ethnic, and gender makeup of America is evolving.  Soon whites will be just one of a number of minority groups, bringing an end to the politics of fear and resentment on issues of race, sex, gender, and secularism, which has been used so successfully by conservatives to resist economic egalitarianism.  While angry white males and cultural conservatives still retain much political power, especially in Congress, and while they appear hell-bent on maintaining that power by disfiguring democracy through vote suppression and electoral college manipulation, the power of demographics in the long run is like the power of flowing water to wear away rock.  It thus appears that reactionary politics may have peaked, with the worst now past.  Progressives can be hopeful that the changing face of the country will lead to positive policy change in the long run. This is undeniably a good thing. 

Political change is often demographic, when growing aspirations and influence by marginalized demographic groups lead to demands for inclusion, as the civil rights, feminist, and LGBTQ movements have been demonstrating for the last 40 years. One kind of demographic change that is very important is generational change, when an influx of young people into politics generates new ideas, new energy, and new political will for reforms to ensure their future. Youth movements have been critical in creating political change since the second half of the 20th century at least, with the protests of the 1960s the most famous example.  History is full of other examples of political reform or revolution triggered by generational change, including America's own founding generation; today, youth movements are a key part of the Arab Spring, of protests in Eastern Europe, and of demands for change in China. 

I hope that the demographic shifts in America do ultimately lead to real political change, especially on climate change, for American political institutions have become so sclerotic that they seem thoroughly resistant to any other force for change.  They are not responsive to the will of the people: no matter what happens in our national, state, or local elections the same bad basic policies and processes continue unimpeded.  Polls for years have shown that while people have bought into the conservative media's dislike of the term "liberal," on most matters of substance they support liberal positions. Furthermore, they want good government, meaning that they want politicians to implement effective policies for the public good, and to do so in an effective and timely way; the fact that they are not getting this is the source of our political legitimation crisis. So this demographic trend is positive, for it seems that America cannot change any other way. 

But that itself is a problem.  Progressives should not get too comfortable with demographics alone.  Despite the positives of the current trends, change should not come this way only, for the fact that it does is undemocratic and slow.  There are several problems with reliance on demographic change: 1. It is contingent, a product of arbitrary historical forces.  What if the demographic trends were going in the opposite direction.  Would liberals be happy then?  2. It is not a result of democratic choice; change is coming about because of social forces, not deliberation.  3. While it is true that in political systems rapid or revolutionary change can easily go awry, our system has gone too far in the other direction: it is thoroughly unresponsive to any real change, especially democratic, electoral change.  Politcal change should come through elections that reflect the experience and deliberations of the public, and which result in really new and different policies, if the public so wills it.  4. Demographic and generational change is too slow: having to wait for a new generation to exert its influence allows injustices to persist. In the past mass numbers of African-Americans, women, LGBTQ persons, and other groups have endured oppression and exclusion for their entire lives while waiting for the political system to grant the rights and inclusion that they were due.  As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied.  Additionally, the glacial pace of political change in our system is far to slow for the environment to bear: we must act soon on climate change in order to avoid catastrophe.

In short, while demographic trends are going in a positive direction, the discussion of them in the media highlights the dysfunctional sclerosis on our system, and relying on generational change prolongs injustice and is likely to be too little, too late for the biosphere.  Instead, we should insist time and again that our political institutions be altered to make them more responsive and democratic until that sinks in to both the public at large and the elite.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Expect No Real Change Until We Build More Political Will

Two issues that have grabbed post-election headlines were gun control and filibuster reform.  The first got attention, of course, due to the tragedy of the shooting deaths of some twenty schoolchildren in Newton, CT -- only the latest in a long string of mass murders by guns in America.  The second was prompted by the growing realization that the Senate has become entirely unable to function, mainly because of the supermajority requirement of the filibuster.  Nonetheless, prospects for substantive reform in each area are dead or dying.  

In the Senate, despite calls to scrap or strictly limit the filibuster, the initial reform proposals were weak.  The strongest was the “talking filibuster,” which only aimed to restore the traditional practice of requiring the opposition to actually stand up and talk for hours or days to hinder the passage of legislation, rather than continue with the current practice that allows stoppage with the mere threat of a filibuster.  That reform would not have been good enough, as it would only take us back to the way things were in the mid-twentieth century when the filibuster was routinely used to delay civil rights laws to protect African Americans and other oppressed minorities.  Indeed, historically the filibuster has mainly not been used to stop unjust laws, but to perpetuate injustice for generation upon generation. That is the main reason it needs to go into the dustbin of history, and that fact also puts the lie to the common argument of some centrists and center-leftists: “When it comes down to brass tacks, even the left wants to preserve the filibuster, so they can block legislation they don’t like when they are in the minority.”  But in our political culture the filibuster has normally been biased asymmetrically against reforms from the left, and only rarely to block egregious laws from the right.  If you tallied up the pace of progress over the decades we would be far further along today if we had never had the filibuster, even if an occasional piece of right-wing lunacy would have gotten through (which without the filibuster could more easily be repealed anyway later).  Yet even the modest reforms proposed for the Senate at the beginning of this term went essentially nowhere.  All we’ll see is a few procedural adjustments that will not end the right’s ability to prevent needed legislation from moving forward.

Similarly, gun violence has been a huge problems costing the very lives of tens of thousands in America for decades now. Other countries long ago dealt with this horrific problem in the very sane, rational, and obvious way, by severely restricting access to firearms in their countries.  In Australia, the 1996 Port Arthur massacre of 35 people led to mandatory licensing, a 28-day waiting period, requirement of a genuine reason for firearm possession (such as pest control or hunting), and other restrictions.  Great Britain took a similar approach after the Dunblane massacre.  These countries found that safety is not a matter of putting more guns on the streets in the fantasy that criminals will fear victims, nor is it a matter of improving the level of civility and politeness in society or some other such tripe.  They found that it was a matter of gun control.  America needs to follow the sanity of their example and protect its citizens with a rational approach to gun control, but this has been prevented by the false ideas of a minority who identify their freedom, personal power, and often masculinity with the ownership of a weapon of death, and by their representatives in the gun lobby, primarily the National Rifle Association.