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Archive for November 2012

Against Judicial Supremacy, for Democracy

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[T]he candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the government upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made, in ordinary litigation between parties, in personal actions, the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.

Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Larry Kramer, The People Themselves.


Written by David Kaib

November 30, 2012 at 11:39 am

Drawing Lines on Social Insurance: Turning Tough Talk into Pressure

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Many people are taking heart in hard lines being drawn by progressives to oppose benefit cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid.   As Alex Seitz-Wald notes, Politico is reporting a proposed deal to include $400 billion over 10 years in “entitlement” cuts.  Keith Ellison, chair of the Progressive Caucus, said “Progressives will not support any deal that cuts benefits for families and seniors who rely on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to put food on the table or cover their health costs.”  Outside groups were making similar noises.

“If this report in Politico is correct, then some ‘senior Democrats’ are sorely misguided about where their base stands. So let me be crystal clear. Any benefit cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security, including raising the retirement or eligibility age, are absolutely unacceptable,” Ilya Sheyman, the campaign director at told Salon. “More than 80 percent of MoveOn’s 7 million members say they want us to fight a deal that cuts those benefits, even if it also ends all of the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent. And that’s a mainstream position everywhere except in the lobbyist-cash-infused D.C. cocktail circuit,” Sheyman continued.

There will be consequences, he warned, for Democrats who support a deal that cuts entitlements. “Bottom line: Any Democrat who votes to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security benefits does so at his or her own peril, and shouldn’t be in the least bit surprised to be held accountable by MoveOn members in the next primary election.”

Unfortunately, such statements don’t mean much. Members of the Progressive Caucus have made threats not to vote for things in the past and then didn’t follow through.  MoveOn and other groups have yet to show they have any ability to punish Democrats for betraying progressive values.  It will be small consolation if Congress seeks benefit cuts which undermine social insurance and progressive groups demonstrate they can punish Democrats for it after the fact.

But there is a bigger problem.  Even if the threat to punish Democrats for voting wrong could be credibly made, it’s not clear why that should work. Members of Congress all can look forward to well-paying lobbying jobs after leaving office.

The truly powerful don’t wait until the vote to flex their power. They go after people for merely suggesting things that deviate from their interests. They seek to pressure the first people to step out of line, long before a vote, to ensure that nothing threatening ever comes up for a vote.  If anyone, whether Keith Ellison, MoveOn, unions, or activists, wants to demonstrate their credibility–in terms of their commitment to hard lines or their willingness  to hold others accountable–they can do it now. They can do it by jumping on anyone who suggests that benefit cuts should be part of the deal, or who conflates benefit cuts with other spending cuts, or who (falsely) claims that Social Security is driving the deficit or that Medicare in inefficient, or otherwise use scare tactics to make cuts seems inevitable, should be viciously attacked.   They could start with Dick Durbin or Chris Van Hollen (“Mr. Van Hollen also said changing Social Security and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations.”).  And when people say the right thing, that needs to be something that energizes us to demand that others do the same, not an opportunity to demobilize.

Written by David Kaib

November 30, 2012 at 9:44 am

Why is Dick Durbin Trying to Undermine Social Security and Medicare?

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Dick Durbin, who wants to undermine social insurance

Dick Durbin, doing his best to undermine social insurance and the long-term viability of the Democratic Party, is seeking to convince progressives to demobilize rather than fight attacks on Social Security and Medicare.

A top Democrat pressured fellow progressives Tuesday to support – rather than fight – a far-reaching budget deal that includes cuts to entitlement programs after resolving  the upcoming fiscal cliff.

“We can’t be so naive to believe that just taxing the rich will solve our problems,” said Sen. Richard Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. “Put everything on the table. Repeat. Everything on the table.”

This is nonsense. Why on earth should everything be on the table? Even if it was true that deficits were out of control (they aren’t) and that we had to act now to address them (we don’t), things that don’t contribute to the deficit at all – like Social Security – shouldn’t be part of the conversation.  But beyond that, it’s just false. Vastly popular, wildly successful programs that happen to be unpopular with elites shouldn’t be “on the table.”

This is how Social Security and Medicare ends – with false progressive officials, supposedly liberal commentators like Kevin Drum, and compromised organizations like the AARP all shifting the terms of the debate so we’re only talking about how to cut benefits not whether, let alone how to expand these programs.

As I said in my last post, never trust anyone who extolls the value of a political deal without talking about the substance of the deal.

If people like Durbin can float these sort of claims without being punished for it, everyone in Washington will know that they can go after these programs without consequences.  If, on the other hand, he is made suffer, few will want to be next in line.  Social insurance is only vulnerable if we fail to mobilize to protect it.  Which is why this sort of thing is unforgivable.

For what its worth, Durbin holds the number two position in the Senate. As the whip, his job is to get Democrats to vote correctly.  He represents everyone else in the caucus.  It strikes me that every member of the Democratic caucus should face angry constituents demanding that they condemn him.

Written by David Kaib

November 28, 2012 at 11:53 pm

Kevin Drum Tells Liberals to Chill Out Over Social Security

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Kevin Drum wants liberals to calm down about the possibility of a deal to address Social Security.

If we extended the solvency of Social Security for the next century, it’s true that the Cato Institute would be back the next day complaining that this wasn’t enough. After all, they’re ideologically opposed to the whole idea of Social Security. It might take the Heritage Foundation a little longer, but they’d get right back into the fight pretty quickly too.

But the Washington Post wouldn’t. The Pete Peterson folks wouldn’t. The truth is that all the earnest, centrist, Very Serious People who want to reform Social Security don’t want to starve your granny. They don’t have a problem with the concept of a guaranteed retirement program. They just want it to be properly funded.

They just want it properly funded?  The chorus of people who keep falsely claiming we must deal with “out of control entitlement spending” leading to an “exploding deficit” thereby conflating Medicare spending, which is increasing because medical costs are increasing, although more slowly than in the private sector, with Social Security spending, which is not rising at nearly the same rate and contributes nothing to the deficit?  Anyone who’s paying attention can see all the very serious people have been emphasizing the alleged threat of social insurance to the budget deficit.  Read Dean Baker to see the endless attacks on Social Security from all these VSP – including the Washington Post.

The fact is, as Andrea Campbell and Kimberly Morgan (pdf) have shown, that elites turned against the social insurance model in the 1970s, while the public has remained supportive, wanting expansions of these programs rather than cuts.  Given the vast unpopularity of that position, as opponents have long realized, the only way to undermine Social Security and Medicare is by claiming that changes are needed to protect it – that is, by constructing threats to the programs.  The incentive to lie is obvious.

Of course, those of us who want to expand Social Security and Medicare are fine with reforms like ending the cap on payroll taxes which will bring in more money.  But why talk of a deal instead of the specifics?  Are cuts or benefits interchangeable?

Never trust anyone who extolls the value of a political deal without talking about the substance of the deal.

The only thing that protects these programs is that the public would mobilize if they realized what was really going on. There was a time when the mere whiff of a mention of cuts would have led to DEFCOM 5.  The whole idea of Social Security as the third rail of politics was that it was unacceptable to even speak of cuts.  When Bush sought to privatize Social Security, the Democrats were a united front against any changes at all.  Nancy Pelosi famously said “We have a plan. It’s called Social Security”This time there is far too much talk about cuts, even from people who stood against Bush.  Even the AARP has been wishy washy on this score.  This talk removes the chief barrier protecting these programs – keeping it off the agenda.

We don’t need to chill out.  We need a massive mobilization. We need everyone to take clear, repeated, bold stands against any benefit cuts, for whatever reason.  We need to press politicians for merely talking about austerity, or a so called entitlement crisis.

And anyone who claims otherwise, regardless of their intentions, is working to “starve your granny.”

Written by David Kaib

November 28, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Just Cause Employment as Labor Law Reform

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I’ve expressed skepticism about the possibility of federal labor law reform, the white whale of organized labor.  Instead, I’ve suggested two alternate routes–first, the use of executive orders or other presidential policies to advance labor rights, and second, state level reforms.  Obviously, any effort needs to find a way to make a case that goes beyond ‘this will be good for unions’.  This is true even through non-union workers and society as a whole benefits from strong unions.

At Just Cause Reform (h/t Corey Robin), Rand Wilson offers a suggestion that meets that criteria and can be pursued at multiple levels–meaning it would not depend on getting a bill through the Senate.

What’s left to achieve that might inspire all workers—union and non-union alike?

“Employment security” could be the remaining frontier. A campaign to pass state laws requiring “just cause” before a worker is fired could also spur union growth, since one of the top reasons workers are afraid of organizing is the knowledge they are likely to be terminated.

Our existing laws have not diminished workers’ fears because the procedures are too uncertain and lengthy (two to three years at the Labor Board and another two years in the courts) to provide any assurance. Winning state “just cause” laws that allow cases to be decided quickly by arbitrators might give workers more confidence.

On the face of it, this proposal seems far more plausible then the alternatives.

Winning “just cause” legislation will certainly not be easy. But building a movement on a similar scale to the effort put behind EFCA would offer union activists an opportunity to champion an issue that would benefit all workers and also help union growth.

A “just cause” campaign could potentially engage working people at many levels. Short of state or federal legislation, local unions, central labor councils, and worker centers could seek to enforce a just cause standard through workers’ rights boards and community pressure.

I don’t see this as a magic bullet.  But in terms of finding a way to turn back the tide, both for union rights (and density) and employee rights in general, this holds a lot of promise. I was drawn to the idea of just cause employment before, but thinking about it as labor law reform makes it even more appealing.

Written by David Kaib

November 15, 2012 at 11:54 pm

Blog Imperialism

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Here’s a post of mine that got picked up by the excellent pro-union blog Talking Union.  Check it out.

Written by David Kaib

November 13, 2012 at 2:28 pm

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All Roads Don’t Lead Through the US Senate (Thankfully)

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Josh Eidelson has a story on Richard Trumka’s post-election analysis. The AFL-CIO chief insists “We won’t be taken for granted,”  pointing to labor’s essential role in the reelection on Barack Obama, as well as helping key progressives win their Senate races.  As a negotiating tactic, making demands after you’re provided support is not ideal.

Trumka takes a stronger stance when it comes to what he wants regarding Social Security and Medicare than some others have, but his reading of where the president has been on this is overly optimistic.

“If any bipartisan deal includes cuts to Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, or extends the Bush tax cuts for the top 2 percent,” Trumka pledged, “we will oppose it.” Asked about “chained CPI” – a way to slow Social Security’s growth that Sen. Bernie Sanders has warned could be part of a bipartisan deal – Trumka said, “That is definitely a cut to Social Security benefits.” Asked if he’s confident Obama would hold the line against cutting social insurance or extending all of the Bush tax cuts, Trumka answered, “I think so. He’s been pretty clear about that.” (In a September MSNBC appearance, top Obama adviser David Axelrod mentioned both “raise the cap” and “adjust the growth of the program” as elements of a Social Security “discussion worth having.”)

As always, near the top of the list is comprehensive labor law legislation.  I’d say the odds of any labor law legislation is close to zero, while the odds of legislation that is both comprehensive and positive is in fact zero. (As an aside, I don’t understand our general insistence that reform legislation should be comprehensive.  That usually means that it will be seriously flawed, since progressive forces are usually the weaker ones in our present political climate, a weakness that, as I’ve argued before, is not a product of lack of popular support.  What we need is legislation that creates a positive feedback loop.)  Hopefully the false promise of labor law reform won’t keep people from fighting tooth and nail against cuts in social insurance.

But legislation is not the only way to improve the situation for labor rights.  Eidelson continues:

Meanwhile, there’s plenty the Obama administration could do – and so far hasn’t – without Congress. With an executive order, the president could change federal contracting to exclude more union-busting companies. With regulations, his Labor Department could restrict the use of dangerous equipment by teenagers working on factory farms, or extend basic overtime protections to domestic workers.

Trumka called for swift action on a long-delayed OSHA regulation regarding silica dust. Asked how quickly it should move, Trumka answered, “Last year.” As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade talks currently underway, Trumka said, “They have to make sure they negotiate a deal that actually helps in-sourcing rather than promotes outsourcing. That’s a position that he stood for throughout this election, and I feel confident that he will follow through on that.”

In fact, the Obama White House had drafted a fair contracting rule prior to the 2010 election, but didn’t issue it after the Republicans took the House.

I recognize that legislation is more long-lasting, but since there’s no reason for us to push for other things as well. To be clear, I’m not laying all the blame for inaction on the feet of the White House – there has been very little discussion of the possibility anywhere. Until we push for it, it’s on us.

One more thought. Not all workers are covered by federal labor law.  State employees, domestic workers, and agricultural workers are all outside the NLRB’s jurisdiction. States could extend protections to those workers.  I wrote before about government enforcing labor standards on government assisted businesses and those with government contacts at the local level to protect workers. And despite the fact that it didn’t pass in Michigan, the idea of seeking a constitutional amendment to protect collective bargaining rights.  There are numerous ways that protections can be sought.  The tendency to focus on legislation draws out attention away from that.

Written by David Kaib

November 12, 2012 at 11:02 pm

The Grand Bargain, Pressuring Democrats and the Future of Labor

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Greg Sargent has the story on how some of the largest unions, which also are among those who are closest to the White House and most inclined towards emphasizing supporting the Democrats as their central strategy, ‘have the President’s back’ when it comes to taxes and social insurance.

Along those lines, I’m told that SEIU, AFSCME, and the National Education Association are putting together a major push, including TV ads, to pressure Congress to adopt a fiscal cliff approach that doesn’t do any harm to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — and includes higher taxes from the wealthy. If necessary, the campaign might target Dems who stray from these principles.

“We believe this election was a crystal clear expression by working people in this country that the rich need to pay their fair share,” SEIU president Mary Kay Henry told me in an interview. “The new majority needs to continue to hold everyone accountable — Democrats and Republicans — by making sure we back the president’s vision for the country.”

So if it’s necessary, these unions might pressure Democrats.  Let that sink in for a moment.  (Glenn Greenwald  gives a good indication of what will likely happen given past history.  Step one is that liberals declare that they won’t accept any cuts.  It’s never good when he’s insufficiently pessimistic.)  The phrase ‘doesn’t do any harm’ concerns me quite a bit as well.  A better one would be ‘absolutely no benefit cuts.’  That’s the people’s vision, something I’d say is far more important than the president’s vision.

I saw Sargent’s story passed around this past week, and most people seemed to take it to mean these unions were ready to play hardball with recalcitrant Democrats.  No doubt this is what they would like people to believe. But that isn’t what the story says.

Interestingly enough, these were some of the same unions that took out loans in the waning days of the campaign to add to the large sums of money they had already spent to support Senate Democratic candidates.  The Democrats did maintain ‘control’ of the Senate, and even extended their majority.  But unless they jettison the indefensible and unconstitutional filibuster, it’s not clear how valuable a few extra seats are.

Whether Democrats will return the favor, leaving aside whether they are capable of doing so, is another matter.  As Mike Elk put it,

But while labor spent heavily to re-elect Barack Obama, it’s not clear that Obama will return the favor. From failing to pass labor’s key priority, the Employee Free Choice Act (which would have made it easier for workers to organize), to freezing the pay of federal workers, to signing free trade treaties with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama (and now in the process of negotiating the largest free trade treaty ever, the Trans Pacific Partnership, which involves most of the nations on the Pacific Rim), Obama has hardly been labor’s strongest champion. Indeed, rumors are swirling around Washington that Obama might use his second term to strike a “Grand Bargain” in which he would agree to cut Social Security in order to raise taxes and reduce the deficit.

The last sentence is hard to square with Sargent’s story.  The reality is that the White House, along with key Democrats, have been making noise about a Grand Bargain since before Obama took office.  A number of Democrats have been incoherent and shifting – appearing to take stands that would halt this nonsense and then backing away.  Digby has been all over this story from the beginning.  Regardless of the reasons for this, it makes organizing opposition difficult, in a way that taking a clear position would not.  Indeed, Democrats in office as well as commentators have often not been clear on the difference between cutting costs, which is both necessary and popular, with benefits cuts, which are neither.  That said, as Corey Robin pointed out, on election night Obama “claimed that reducing the debt and the deficit—elsewhere they call that austerity—will be a top priority of his second administration.”

It’s also worth noting to that this list of Elk’s is not simply about failing to enact legislation, but includes active efforts by the White House to enact anti-worker policies.  And he doesn’t even mention the most important positive step to support working people the White House could take, yet has failed to – fair contracting.  Among other things, it could actually help to reverse the decline in union density by providing protections for workers in areas not covered by federal labor laws.

This problem is not limited to certain unions.  It can also be found in many liberal constituency groups, like the AARP.  They often share this perspective–that unqualified support for Democrats in both elections and policy will cultivate insider connections, under the belief that this is the most effective route to power.  But if you’re unwilling to challenge those you are negotiating with, how is there any power?  While some believe that Social Security remains the third rail of politics, in part because of the power of the AARP, I think that’s no longer true.  Throughout the election, the AARP ran commercials about the potential for changes in these programs.  You might have thought their opening position was to oppose any and all cuts.  Instead, the commercials insisted that retirees deserved the facts, deserved clear answers about what was going to be done.  Another version said that you’re earned your say, that politicians should listen to retirees, without specifying what exactly they were saying.  These are fairly low bars, and aren’t even close to being met.  But the AARP remains fairly quiet.  And they are not alone.

Part of the problem here is that the whole premise of the policy problem, accepted as unquestionably true by elites, is complete and utter nonsense.  Jamie Galbraith explains what is going on.

That the looming debt and deficit crisis is fake is something that, by now, even the most dim member of Congress must know.  The combination of hysterical rhetoric, small armies of lobbyists and pundits, and the proliferation of billionaire-backed front groups with names like the “Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget” is not a novelty in Washington. It happens whenever Big Money wants something badly enough.

Big Money has been gunning for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid for decades – since the beginning of Social Security in 1935. The motives are partly financial: As one scholar once put it to me, the payroll tax is the “Mississippi of cash flows.” Anything that diverts part of it into private funds and insurance premiums is a meal ticket for the elite of the predator state.

And the campaign is also partly political. The fact is, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the main way ordinary Americans connect to their federal government, except in wars and disasters.  They have made a vast change in family life, unburdening the young of their parents and ensuring that every working person contributes whether they have parents, dependents, survivors or disabled of their own to look after. These programs do this work seamlessly, for next to nothing; their managers earn civil service salaries and the checks arrive on time. For the private competition, this is intolerable; the model is a threat to free markets and must be destroyed.

The media’s constant drum beating on this issue reminds me of the push for war in Iraq.  All pretense of objectivity and neutrality is out the window as they relentlessly push for a policy lacking public support but enjoying broad elite support.

We’re heading in exactly the wrong direction.  We should be expanding Social Security and Medicare, not cutting them.  And if unions were interested in garnering more public support, in demonstrating that they will fight for everyone not only their members, taking a strong stand–one that was maintained throughout the process–against any and all cuts would be a great place to start.  Either way, for those of us who care deeply about the idea of social insurance, it’s not enough to get periodic reassurances that someone might not allow cuts to happen or plans to fight them. We have to push all the players to take clear, unambiguous stands.  That means getting aggressive with those who are supposed to be allies.

Written by David Kaib

November 11, 2012 at 1:51 pm

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