Sanders’ popularity is a warning

THE ISSUE: For 40 years, the majority of Americans have watched their financial prospects fall as the wealthiest added to their fortunes. The rise of Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, suggests the oligarchs who increasingly control our government have gone too far.

The rising popularity of Bernie Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate and an independent senator from Vermont, has startled many. He has little of the charisma that marks most politicians. His appearance is unremarkable. His campaign coffers are tiny.

In short, he has none of the attributes that would lead people to overlook his message in supporting him. Which means it is his message that’s attracting massive crowds throughout the nation. It is his message that’s resulting in his growing strength in the polls.

And that’s where the shock really comes, especially in a state such as Alabama where the people are fed on a steady diet of the sanctity of free enterprise. He’s a flaming liberal in a nation that most thought was to the right of center. He describes himself as a democratic socialist in a nation where the term “socialist” is used as an insult.

To be fair, socialism is hardly a foreign concept in the United States.

As used by Sanders, it merely means the people should exercise their ability to regulate the means of production. America long has recognized unrestrained capitalism is dangerous. The 40-hour week, the minimum wage, child-labor laws, laws prohibiting employer discrimination based on race or gender, consumer protection and environmental laws, public utilities and infrastructure and schools — all are “socialist.”

But make no mistake, his ideas are radical. Some may be reckless. He calls for free tuition at public universities. Health care should be a right guaranteed to all through a Medicare-for-all system. The minimum wage should be upped to $15, meaning no person working 40 hours per week would live in poverty.

And Sanders is blunt on how he would pay for these benefits. He would increase taxes on the wealthiest Americans and corporations, who he claims are reaping the primary benefits of a rigged political system without paying their fair share.

Sanders has not had to answer the hard questions. Would escalating tax rates chase corporations from the United States, along with the jobs they provide? Would a doubling of the minimum wage result in skyrocketing unemployment and business failures? Would high taxes on billionaires lead them to forego investments in production that benefit all Americans?

Sanders’ growing popularity is a surprise, but it shouldn’t be.

During the 30 years after World War II, the economy doubled in size, and wages of American workers grew with it. Since 1980, the economy has again doubled in size — but wages have remained stagnant, and benefits have deteriorated. Productivity is higher than ever, but since 1980, the increased profits have gone almost exclusively to corporate owners.

And maybe most significantly, wealth now translates directly into political power — the ability to create laws that make the rich richer, at the expense of those who work for them.

Sanders as president would be a disaster for the wealthy, and the consequences of his policies might hurt the nation. His popularity, however, is a direct result of corporate greed and the politicians who are complicit in creating a system that ensures cheap labor and low taxes for their wealthy benefactors.

For those who control our political system with cash, Sanders’ rising popularity should come as a warning. Push the American people too hard, and they will push back.

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Filed under Income inequality, Presidential election

Partisan politics not working

THE ISSUE: Polarization of the electorate and a flawed primary system mean voters should be prepared to vote for the least-objectionable presidential candidate, not the best one.

The dance has begun, and if the stakes weren’t so high, it would be amusing.

The dance steps are most obvious in the Republican Party, which has a larger field of candidates and already has had a debate.

To have a chance at becoming their party’s nominee, each candidate must attract the support of a very conservative base.

This has bizarre results when it comes to the stance they must take on specific issues. Most polls indicate a majority of Americans favor increased gun control, lean toward deferring to women on abortion issues, favor diplomacy with Iran, and support marriage rights for gays.

A Republican candidate who espouses the majority view on these issues, however, has little or no chance of surviving the primaries.

The extent to which this forces the candidates to play to extreme views is evident in their treatment of the proposed deal with Iran. Maybe it’s a bad deal or maybe not, but the issue is too complex to expect every single GOP candidate to have the same opinion of it.

To begin with, the entire goal of the agreement is to keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. Absent military action — an option most Americans strongly oppose — the U.S. has minimal leverage without the cooperation of Iran’s major trading partners. So while GOP candidates uniformly gripe we did not negotiate the best deal with Iran, our most complex negotiations were with nations — including Russia and China — whose participation was necessary if Iran was to come to the negotiating table.

Iran is suffering from multi-national sanctions; U.S. sanctions alone provide inadequate leverage to compel Iran to make concessions. And however problematic the proposed agreement is, it provides for monitoring of the Iran nuclear program. Without the agreement, there is no monitoring.

The issue is complex, and involves negotiations to which the GOP candidates were not privy. The idea that every candidate would have the exact same view of the agreement defies logic. Rather, they are pandering to a base that is invested in the idea that anything President Barack Obama touches must be bad.

There are plenty of smart folks vying for the Republican nomination, and it’s a fair bet most recognize the Iran deal is not susceptible to simplistic evaluation. They probably also recognize the complexities of abortion, gay marriage and other hot-button issues that are contentious precisely because rational people can come to different conclusions on them.

But intelligent, nuanced views are toxic to candidates of either party. Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton know they need moderate views to win the general election, but they also know those same views will prevent them from surviving the primaries.

In his farewell address, President George Washington famously warned of the “continual mischiefs of the spirit of party,” making it the “interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.” Party politics, he said, would “enfeeble public administration.”

As the nation heads toward the 2016 elections, Washington’s wisdom is increasingly apparent. Our nation no longer attracts the best candidates, but the most malleable ones. The political dance requires them to pander to extreme views in the primaries, and then shift to centrist views in the general election. Where they truly stand — and whether they have any principles at all — remains a mystery to voters until they enter office.

The likely end result: Americans will not be picking the best candidate in 2016. They’ll be picking the least-objectionable one.

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Filed under Partisanship, Presidential election

How to distract voters: Planned Parenthood

THE ISSUE: Desperate for a distraction that would keep their constituents from expecting them to govern, the Alabama Legislature found one: Planned Parenthood.

It’s an awkward time to be in the Alabama Legislature for those who have spent their political careers calling for smaller government and lower taxes.

What do such politicians do when they already delivered on the small-government promise, but don’t have the tax revenue even to sustain that?

One approach, of course, is to confront the problem. To explain to constituents that as much as they might like the state to provide no-cost services, it needs tax revenue.

That’s the approach Gov. Robert Bentley has taken since being elected to his second and last term. His naive hope was his willingness to educate the people on the realities of running a functional state would give legislators the courage to take the only responsible avenue open to them: increasing taxes.

Far from it, lawmakers delighted in using Bentley as a political punching bag, shaming him by passing a budget they knew he’d have to veto, refusing to go into special session when he asked and proposing unrealistic cuts he will once again have to veto.

With those theatrics getting tiresome, however, lawmakers needed something else. The Planned Parenthood videos — showing an official with the organization discussing the availability of fetal tissue for scientific research — were made to order. Legislators, baffled by the budget, are vocal in their support of a bill that would ban the sale of aborted fetuses.

No matter that a federal law already prohibits sale of fetal tissue and places numerous restrictions on its use for life-saving research. No matter that the tissue has been used for medical research for decades.

The Legislature did not need a bill that mattered, it needed an issue that distracted the public from its utter failure to govern the state. It needed something that would prevent people from noticing it is pillaging the Education Trust Fund rather than fixing the General Fund budget. Legislators needed something sensational enough it would keep constituents from asking why they ignored the imminent budget crisis not just in this year’s regular session, but over the last several years.

Indeed, it takes a major distraction to obscure the fact lawmakers year after year patched budget holes with one-time windfalls and borrowed money, but didn’t grapple with the issue of what to do when the one-time fixes ran out.

A beleaguered Bentley was determined to one-up the Legislature, which he did by ending Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood.

This gesture was even more pointless than the House bill that largely duplicated existing federal prohibitions. Medicaid does not cover abortions in Alabama. Indeed, total state Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood over the last two years came to $4,351, and that was for contraception.

With Bentley’s fiscal-conservative halo tarnished by his call for a needed tax increase, he is determined to make headlines that help his social-conservative halo gleam.

Our elected officials have shown us they are brilliant at manufacturing distractions. Now it’s time for them to show they have the backbone to govern.

(Published Aug. 9, 2015)

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Filed under Abortion, Alabama politics, Tax reform

Lawmakers still failing to address budget crisis

THE ISSUE: The Alabama Legislature is demonstrating new levels of dysfunction as it deals with a budgetary crisis. The people deserve better.

Gov. Robert Bentley called the Legislature into a July 13 special session on the budget. It was earlier than lawmakers expected, and for good reason. Bentley had just watched the elected representatives of the state fritter away an entire regular session with no progress — none — on the budgetary crisis that will slam the state Oct. 1.

And while he has been part of the problem in the past, Bentley also must have recognized the Legislature has known the crisis was coming for years. And done nothing about it.

He knew lawmakers needed plenty of time to hammer out legislation that would eliminate a shortfall in the General Fund of at least $200 million, but in reality closer to $500 million.

Rather than acknowledging the urgency of the situation, lawmakers responded to the earlier-than-expected special session with indignation.

“I’m just flabbergasted. I just can’t believe it,” said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said lawmakers were angered by a special session that interfered with their schedules and vacation plans.

So legislators shot Bentley down. They convened the special session July 13, as they were legally required to do, but immediately adjourned until Monday. To keep the move from looking as petty as it was, they gave assurances to their constituents the delay was not about vacations, but about maximizing the chance for a consensus.

When the special session resumed Monday, however, nothing had changed. More than a hundred bills have been filed, many of which are silly ideological efforts to distract both voters and lawmakers from the budget. One of the few tax increases that seemed to have a chance in the regular session — a cigarette tax — was quickly shot down in committee.

The same legislators who fumed during the regular session that they had campaigned on pledges of no tax increases are still saying they won’t support tax increases, and are still failing to offer any realistic options for fiscal 2016. Instead of expanding Medicaid — a move that would generate millions in tax revenue — they are threatening to make cuts in a Medicaid program that already is among the least-funded in the nation. This in a state that has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation, and that has among the highest prevalence of preventable health conditions in the nation.

Bentley has proposed an uninspiring list of tax increases that fails to address the fundamental inequality of a tax system that places a far greater burden on the poor and middle class than the wealthy, but at least he’s confronting the budgetary crisis.

A longtime conservative who has cut the state’s budget with little regard for consequences, Bentley has the sense to know there is a point at which cuts erode the state’s ability to function.

Instead of treating him as the enemy, it is time lawmakers wake up to the urgency of the problem.

It turns out Bentley was right to call for a July 13 special session, but lawmakers stalled. He is right to insist on limiting the special session to legislation that addresses the fiscal 2016 budget, but lawmakers are ignoring his call. He is right to point out the impossibility of addressing the budget without new tax revenue, but so far lawmakers are refusing to act.

The people of Alabama deserve better.

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Filed under Alabama politics

City, state shortsighted on school funding

THE ISSUE: Elected officials in Decatur and the state are scrambling to take tax dollars from schools and use them for day-to-day operations. In both cases, it is a mistake.

In 1980, the Decatur City Council, in a 4-1 vote, passed a 1-cent sales tax. Unlike another penny added in 2001, the 1980 tax increase stirred little public complaint. The public largely was agreeable to paying the tax because it was going to Decatur City Schools. In good economic times and bad, the City Council has for 34 years provided 100 percent of the proceeds from the 1980 tax to DCS.

As the city prepares for fiscal 2016, Mayor Don Kyle has his eye on the penny tax. He proposed giving DCS the same dollar amount as in fiscal 2015 — about $9 million — and retaining any growth in tax revenue for the general fund. Because Decatur’s economy is growing at a slow rate, he points out that this change would have minimal impact on DCS revenue in fiscal 2016.

Yet the cap also would have minimal impact on the general fund in the coming year. So why do it at all?

The answer is obvious. Once city officials break the expectation that 100 percent of the penny will go to DCS, they can begin treating contributions to the schools the same way they treat expenditures for Parks and Recreation, Sanitation, or any department. In lean times, they could reduce the contribution to DCS. If they really want another amphitheater or to renovate another train depot, they can take the money from DCS. If the economy actually begins growing, DCS will not share in the benefit.

The mayor correctly points out the City Council in 1980 did not pass a resolution designating the tax exclusively to education. There is no legal impediment to the current council giving less than 100 percent of the tax proceeds to DCS; it is not legally required to give the schools anything.

That the city can legally reduce the educational opportunities of Decatur children, however, does not make it a good idea.

Former City Councilman Max Patterson, who cast one of the four votes in favor of the 1980 tax, was blunt in expressing his frustration that the current council appears poised to end the 34-year practice of giving all of the penny to DCS.

“That penny was established for the schools and should continue for the schools,” Patterson said. “If they don’t give the whole penny to the schools this year, I worry that this council and future councils will keep whittling away at it.”

The timing of the mayor’s effort could hardly be worse. DCS recently issued bonds for the construction of two buildings to replace the deteriorating Austin and Decatur high schools, and it will need any revenue it can get to finance operations while handling debt service.

Moreover, the Legislature has been engaged in a relentless attack on public schools, draining money from the Education Trust Fund for non-educational purposes and to finance private schools and charter schools. The ongoing special session could be even worse, as many legislators have their eyes on education funds as a way to plug holes in the General Fund budget.

When lawmakers take money from the Education Trust Fund, they reduce DCS funding.

Both the city and the state are looking greedily at education funds as a way to pay day-to-day expenses. But in both cases, current economic problems are in large part a function of high poverty rates.

The most effective way to combat poverty is through education. Officials in Decatur and the Statehouse should be looking for ways to improve education and buttress long-term economic growth, not raiding education funds to solve short-term financial problems.

(Published Aug. 6, 2015)

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Filed under Alabama politics, education

Iran nuclear deal is better than status quo

The criticisms of a proposed deal with Iran have been loud and often reckless, but few critics have suggested alternative ideas on preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The primary leverage the United States has in convincing Iran to forgo developing nuclear weapons is economic sanctions. Iran has been reeling since sanctions were imposed, and the hope of getting the sanctions lifted is what brought it to the bargaining table.

Sanctions imposed solely by the United States would have minimal effect on Iran. The sanctions have been effective because they involve not only the U.S., but also the United Kingdom, France, Germany and, separately, the European Union, as well as China and Russia.

These nations support the nuclear deal with Iran. They have made clear they do not favor continuing economic sanctions against Iran if a deal collapses because the U.S. rejects it.

While Americans tend to bristle at the idea we should be in lock-step with other developed nations, this situation is different. The success of the economic sanctions depends on the participation of other nations. If they discontinue sanctions against Iran, we have lost the most powerful non-military leverage we have against Iran.

For years, the U.S. and the rest of the world have been engaged in a guessing game as to how long it would take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. While there is broad consensus among Americans that a military strike would be appropriate as a last resort to prevent development of such a weapon, the reality is that we are handicapped by a lack of information.

The nuclear agreement would change that. While the proposed international monitoring of Iran’s nuclear facilities may be imperfect, it is a vast improvement over what exists today.

The best estimates are that Iran could develop a nuclear weapon in two to three months. Once the deal is implemented, Iran would need a year to build nuclear weapons. And the world would have plenty of advance notice, because Iran would have to violate the monitoring requirements of the agreement during that year.

Griping about the deal is not productive. Americans want to avoid a war with Iran, a nation that is larger than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. The issue is how best to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons while minimizing the likelihood of war.

Does the deal improve our ability to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon as compared to the status quo? Clearly it does. Unless critics can offer something better — something that is acceptable to the other nations participating in the imposition of sanctions — they should embrace the agreement as being beneficial, if not perfect.

(Published July 30, 2015)

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Alabama gets F on protecting the unborn from preterm birth

Few states can match Alabama in its zeal to protect the unborn. Our lawmakers happily flout U.S. Supreme Court decisions in their efforts to close abortion clinics. Every year, bills appear at the Statehouse that would prohibit abortions closer and closer to the date of conception.

Such efforts to limit abortions are, of course, easy for lawmakers. Regulating clinics out of existence has no effect on the state budget, and the effort to do so generally receives public approval.

The sincerity of the state’s concern for the unborn does not stand up to scrutiny.

The annual March of Dimes report card on premature births came out recently, and Alabama was one of three states to receive an F.

Compared to an 11.4 percent rate of premature births nationally, Alabama’s rate is 15.1 percent. Louisiana had the same rate as Alabama, and only Mississippi — at 16.6 percent — was worse. Failing to meet the national rate is an embarrassment, as 130 countries have a lower percentage of premature births than the United States.

And while the national rate has been creeping down, Alabama’s rate is rising.

To put Alabama’s 15.1-percent rate into global context: Only 11 countries have a rate over 15 percent. All but two are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Does the state’s high rate of preterm births matter? Absolutely. Premature births are the No. 1 killer of children under the age of 5. Alabama has 10,000 premature births a year, contributing to 520 annual deaths of children less than 1 year old.

Does the state have the ability to reduce preterm births? Again, absolutely.

Not surprisingly, there is a direct correlation between the percentage of uninsured women — 21.2 percent in Alabama — and the rate of premature births. States with relatively low rates of premature births invariably are states that have liberal Medicaid coverage. A healthy mother is far more likely to deliver a full-term and healthy baby, but women without insurance are less likely to be healthy.

So in a state like Alabama, where almost every politician vows publicly and often to protect the rights of the unborn, why do we not do more to reduce premature births?

Partly because of money, and partly because of politics.

Improving the health of prospective mothers — through Medicaid expansion, education and preventive care — costs money. In a cash-strapped state, that means raising taxes on the wealthy. And those who control Montgomery through political contributions are both wealthy and resistant to taxes.

Railing against abortion and passing laws that close abortion clinics costs nothing. Protecting unborn children from the health risks of premature birth, however, requires funding.

It’s also, however, simple politics. Most Alabamians oppose abortion, but they also oppose the most direct route to preserving the lives of the unborn: Medicaid expansion.

It is time for Alabamians and their elected representatives to either abandon their avowed enthusiasm for protecting unborn children, or to recognize that supporting the sanctity of life is not just about rebelling against the U.S. Supreme Court. We can save the lives of children by expanding access to health care.

(Published July 26, 2015)

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Filed under Abortion, Alabama politics, Health care