On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Meyerson

They Got Plans! By one metric, at least, the still-developing 2020 Democratic primary process is already a stunning success. I speak here of the so-called Ideas Primary. Prodded in part by Elizabeth Warren, but not only by Warren, an increasing number of Democratic candidates are coming up with genuinely progressive, in-depth proposals that were nowhere in the Democrats’ playbooks just a few years ago. 

Just today, for instance, Warren released a detailed outline of how the nation should combat the climate crisis—an interlocking series of proposals that would require federal outlays of $1.5 trillion over the next decade. A couple of hours later, Joe Biden came out with his own Green New Deal proposal, which sees Warren’s $1.5 trillion and raises it to $1.7 trillion. Clearly intended to swat down criticisms that Biden is soft on climate, the proposal goes well beyond the actions taken by the Obama administration, and even won praise from the Sunrise Movement.

Warren’s and Biden’s proposals follow by one week that of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has made meeting the climate challenge the central theme of his campaign. All three proposals involve massive commitment of resources to a clean infrastructure and clean energy, and detailed plans for holding workers in the fossil fuel economy, and regions that center on those economies, as harmless as possible.

Cumulatively, the effect of these proposals, as well as the less systematic climate-related plans of most of the other candidates, is to move the Green New Deal from the presumed margins of Democratic thought and action to its very center. To complete that journey, the candidates—and most certainly, the eventual nominee—will have to sit down with the unions that represent impacted workers to develop policies and programs that ensure those workers won’t end up on history’s scrapheap. But many of these programs—particularly Warren’s plan for domestic manufacturing, which was also released today, and which my colleague Bob Kuttner wrote about this morning—mandate the massive creation of new, good-paying jobs. And a common theme to these various Green New Deal programs is what we might call a carbon tariff: If, say, a steel import was produced in a coal-fired plant, while U.S.-made steel is required to be produced in a clean (or cleaner) process, a tariff will be slapped on that import. (Of course, the Warren Plan in particular has far stricter domestic-content rules than anything we’ve seen before.) That’s a tariff not just workers but climate activists, Democrats, and garden-variety humans should all support.

Meyerson

Don’t Just Gawk at These Ratios. Punish Them! Among the many fun features of last Sunday’s New York Times was the Business section’s annual survey of how much the CEOs of the 200 biggest companies made last year, along with how much their median employees made, and the consistently head-spinning ratios between those two numbers. Heading the list was old friend Elon Musk, whose take-home pay of nearly $2.3 billion came to 40,668 times what his median employee was able to pocket. 

By my count, only nine CEOs made less than 100 times what their median employees made. Twenty, by contrast, made more than 1,000 times their median employee, including four who made more than 2,000 times, three who made more than 3,000 times, and Musk, dwarfing them all at his more than 40,000 times. 

Of course, these ratios are almost all smaller than the actual ratio between CEOs and their median workers, a category that includes not just the employees whose pay is the basis for these calculations, but also the independent contractors—whether real or just deliberately misclassified employees—their companies employ, who invariably make less than employees and don’t qualify for any benefits.

Writing in the 1960s, the great management consultant Peter Drucker figured that the highest justifiable ratio between the pay of a CEO and that of his median worker might be 20-to-one. At the time, most such ratios were in the 10-to-one to 20-to-one range. That time, not coincidentally, was also the period of the lowest levels of economic inequality and the highest levels of economic upward mobility that this nation has ever experienced. 

Any number of proposals for reducing our now stratospheric levels of inequality have been kicking around for years. My own proposal—adjusting the tax rate on corporations to the CEO-median-employee pay ratio, so that corporations with a ratio under 100-to-one would have their rate reduced, and those with a ratio in excess of 100-to-one would have theirs raised progressively, so that it would be much higher at, say the 1,000-to-one level—was the inspiration for the new corporate tax rates that the Portland, Oregon, city council set a couple of years ago. It’s not as simple as a maximum wage law, or income tax rates that go to 70 percent on incomes over several million dollars (back when CEOs made just 15 times what their workers made, the top rate was around 90 percent), but it may be just a smidge more enactable. 

Meyerson

The Social Democratic Collapse. I don’t claim to know how many elections have been held in Europe’s democratic nations since 1945, but I’m quite certain that Sunday’s European Parliament election featured the worst performance by socialist, social democratic, and labor parties since the end of World War II—and possibly since the end of World War I.

In the U.K., Labour ran third, getting a bare 14 percent of the vote, with anti-Brexit voters casting their ballots for the more unequivocally anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats (who came in second with 20 percent of the vote) and the Greens (who almost eclipsed Labour as well, winning 12 percent of the tally). Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence about the EU is at one level understandable: While many of the Union’s work rules reflect the continent’s greater commitment to worker representation and benefits, the entire structure of the EU, and particularly its anti-Keynesian monetary union, imposes austerity on Europe and limits leftist experimentation. Nonetheless, Labour’s failure to wholeheartedly condemn Brexit as a bigoted, racist withdrawal from a more universal modernity cost it heavily among voters who might yet side with it in winner-take-all U.K. parliamentary elections.

The social democratic picture wasn’t any brighter elsewhere. In Germany, the Social Democrats—since 1945, the nation’s second- or first-largest vote-getter—ran third, pulling just 16 percent of the vote, and trailing not just the Christian Democrats but also the Greens, who pulled down 21 percent of the vote. The Left Party won just 6 percent of the vote. In a separate election on Saturday, the Social Democrats failed to come in first in the city-state of Bremen, where they had won every previous election since 1945. Clearly, the party’s decision to serve as the subordinate coalition partner with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats has blurred its ideological and political profile to the point of near invisibility. It is the SPD’s worst decision—both for itself and for the nation—since it voted to support Germany’s decision to go to war in 1914.

In France, the Socialists finished sixth, with 6 percent of the vote, while France’s semi-equivalent of Germany’s Left Party, La France Insoumise, also won a whopping 6 percent. France’s Green Party got more votes than both left parties combined, winning 13 percent. And so it went throughout most of Europe, the chief exception being Spain, where in the past few weeks, the Socialists have placed first in the local, national, and now continental elections. Socialism in one country, indeed.

To be sure, there were some extenuating circumstances for the socialist wipeout. Sunday’s was an election about openness and closed-ness; it pitted a kind of cosmopolitanism against a kind (bigoted) of nationalism. Many of the issues that predominate in national elections—most especially, national economic policy, which once was the calling card of social democratic parties—weren’t in play. But first, the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Europe has made combating that nationalism a primary, at times the primary, issue for progressives, and in many nations the greens have been more prominent in opposing it than the social democrats. Second, the decades-long shift in class composition in Western Europe has long since shrunk the old working-class base of the left parties, and the greens seem increasingly poised to pick up left-of-center white-collar voters. And third, as in the United States, it’s disproportionately and understandably the young who’ve taken up arms against the climate crisis, and who voted green in Sunday’s elections.

Here in the U.S., the Democratic Party is beginning to experience its own green-vs.-social democratic conflicts, which could devolve into a second coming of the young-left-vs.-old-labor strife that divided the party during the Vietnam War. Democrats may well find it easier to finesse the Medicare for All against Medicare for Some battle than to come up with a way to bridge the green-against-labor war that looms menacingly over the horizon.

Kuttner

How Trump Gets Mainstream Media to Do His Bidding. Question: what do you do when the president of the United States is a serial, pathological liar as well as an aspiring despot, and the speaker of the House is an entirely sane leader trying to do her job? Answer: You treat them symmetrically, as rival, squabbling politicians.

No! That’s the wrong answer. But The New York Times, following the conventions of “objective” journalism, has been treating Donald Trump’s “spat” (the Times’s word) with Nancy Pelosi in exactly that fashion. Sample Times headline: “Trump and Pelosi Trade Barbs, Both Questioning the Other’s Fitness.”

Are you kidding? The special counsel, in a 448-page report, has virtually invited Congress to do its constitutional duty and pursue Trump’s obstruction of justice. Trump has also flagrantly violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, and is engaged in total stonewalling of Congress’s right to subpoena documents and witnesses.

Nancy Pelosi points out, accurately, that Trump is engaged in a cover-up. Trump replies with his usual name-calling tantrums, calling her “Crazy Nancy,” and adding, “She’s a mess, she’s lost it.” 

And the best the Times can do is to play it straight as an ordinary political tiff? (Latest Times headline in the Friday print edition: “A Capitol Spat Turns Personal As Jabs Poke at Mental Fitness.”)

Pelosi is trying to do her job of holding the president accountable, in the face of tactical divisions within the House Democratic Caucus about how best to proceed. Trump is trying to hijack the republic. To that end, he tries to reduce his stonewalling of the House efforts to find the facts to a schoolyard game of insults. 

By playing it Trump’s way, as a symmetrical standoff of “personal jabs,” the Times helps Trump win. Surely our paper of record can do better.

Meyerson

One Dumpable Democrat. Cherri Bustos is running out on Dan Lipinski, but the question is why any Democratic official should be sticking with Dan Lipinski.

Bustos is both a member of Congress from an Illinois district that Donald Trump carried in 2016, and head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, in which post she has pledged to funnel funds to the re-election campaigns of any Democrats who need them. She’s one of the more resolutely centrist members of the Democratic caucus, and has pledged to have the DCCC boycott any consultants who work for Democratic primary challengers to incumbents. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez famously and successfully challenged a notable incumbent in 2018; so, though not successfully, did Barack Obama back in 2000, on Chicago’s Southside.

Dan Lipinski has been the Democrat representing Chicago’s Southwest Side and adjacent suburbs in Congress since 2005, succeeding his father, who had held that seat for decades. He stands out in the House Democratic Caucus for amassing a voting record that can fairly be called neo-Dixiecrat: He voted against the Affordable Care Act; he refused to endorse Barack Obama for re-election in 2012; and he is a longtime foe of gay rights and pro-choice legislation. Lipinski’s district—Illinois’s Third—is still home to what used to be called “white ethnics,” and in 1996, while covering the Republican presidential primaries, I attended the annual Southwest Side Saint Patrick’s Day Parade, in which then-presidential-candidate and then-and-now neo-fascist Pat Buchanan marched and drew cheers. Like the rest of the world, the district has changed some since then, and two years ago, Marie Newman challenged Lipinski from the left in the Democratic congressional primary and came within two percentage points of unseating him. Obama carried the district by 13 points in 2012, Lipinski’s non-endorsement notwithstanding; Hillary Clinton carried it by 15 points over Donald Trump in 2016. 

In the wake of the draconian anti-abortion laws passed recently in a number of Republican-run states, and the ensuing backlash among pro-choice advocates, Democrats, women, and numerous other humans, Bustos announced this week that she was cancelling a planned fundraiser for Lipinski. The cancellation is eminently understandable, particularly since Bustos is said to have hopes to run statewide whenever Democratic Senator Richard Durbin opts not to seek re-election, and not standing up for abortion rights just now would clearly hurt her chances.

But why has it taken so long for the Democrats to ostracize Lipinski, who is not only flagrantly to the right of the rest of the caucus on virtually every known issue, but, by the metric of presidential election results, flagrantly to the right of his district, too? The right-wing yahoo-ism and racism that he expressed in his opposition to the ACA and Obama’s re-election, not to mention his hostility to gays and abortion rights, should have led the Democrats to cast him adrift long ago—assuming that the party has some basic minimum standards to which its standard bearers are supposed to adhere. To stick with Lipinski—as the DCCC still might when he’s challenged again by Newman in 2020—is to all but say: “Standards? Who, us?”

Kuttner

What Is the Stock Market Trying to Tell Us? Every day, the news stories keep telling us that a deal with China is farther away than ever. Yet the stock market has been going up since the stalemate was announced. (It was down trivially today after being up this week and last.)

What gives? A trade war with China keeps being described as an economic catastrophe. What do the wise guys on Wall Street know that orthodox economists don’t know?

Herewith, four conjectures:

First, the tariffs and the blockage of some Chinese tech companies are just not that big a deal for the economy as a whole, and they have some offsetting benefits to U.S. industries such as steel and possibly to Silicon Valley and the future of U.S.-based supply chains in general.

Second, many Trump watchers suspect that sooner or later Trump will cut some kind of a deal with China, but closer to the election when he really needs it.

Third, there is more to the stock market than China. Thanks to the 2018 $1.6 trillion dollar tax cut, corporate profits are astronomical.

Finally, the low-inflation, low-interest rate, and low-unemployment environment is a sweet spot that economists expect to continue. How can very low unemployment rates coexist with low inflation? Because labor’s bargaining power has been savaged, even in an economy where jobs are plentiful and idle workers are scarce.

Wages are up, but not very much.

In other words, the Trump economy is great for Wall Street, mostly lousy for Main Street. We kinda knew that.

Kuttner

Impunity: Understanding Trump's Coup d'État. Trump’s categorical denial of any wrongdoing and his wall-to-wall efforts to block all investigations, whether by Congress or in other investigations such as the Deutsche Bank case, adds up to a blanket claim of impunity. As Richard Nixon claimed, if the president does it, it’s legal.

Nixon’s contention, of course, was ridiculed and not allowed to stand. But that was in a different era—with independent courts, a Democratic majority in Congress, and even some principled Republicans. None of those obtain today.

If the president, as Trump claims, is literally above the law, and by definition cannot be investigated in any legal venue, then this has ceased to be a democracy. We are not quite there yet, but we are close.

Congress, as Representative Jamie Raskin of Maryland has proposed, could impeach Trump on the narrow ground of contempt of Congress, one of the counts in the Nixon impeachment. If ever there were an open and shut case, it’s this one. Trump has made it all too clear that he and his associates will resist any congressional demand, no matter how legitimate.

It’s also possible that highly damaging information, against Trump, his enterprises, or his family, will emerge from one of the other investigations, such as the Deutsche Bank case, where both Congress and the New York state attorney general have ongoing investigations of possible corruption in the bank’s extensive financing of the Trump organization. Trump has sued Deutsche Bank in an effort to block the bank’s cooperation with prosecutors’ demands for documents. The bank’s loyalty to customer Trump is at odds with its health as a government-regulated institution.

At bottom, there is a race between several investigations and the Republican takeover of the courts, which is not yet quite complete. There is still some judicial independence. But if we lose this race, and Trump manages to place himself above the law by definition, then his coup is complete.

The idea that we must choose tactically between going forward with impeachment and winning the 2020 election is preposterous. If Trump is above the law, then he can steal the election in several key states. 

Those of us who want American democracy to survive and thrive need to be waging this battle on every available front. 

Kuttner

Trump’s Itchy Trigger Finger. Earlier in the week, we were hearing from unnamed administration sources about small patrol boats of the Iranian Navy armed with missiles preparing to attack American warships. 

Are you kidding? Why in the world would Iran pull such a stunt and bring the U.S. into a war? This Trumped-up provocation has all the credibility of the phony Gulf of Tonkin incident, which Trump is probably too illiterate to know anything about. For that matter, it has all the credibility of George W. Bush’s faked pretext for war with Iraq.

But wait, that was in the last news cycle, 48 hours ago—an eternity ago. In today’s news cycle, Trump is walking it all back. He doesn’t want war with Iran after all.

This is also reminiscent of Trump’s two-year folie a deux with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, who went from being Little Rocket Man to being a great statesman and back again without so much as a by-your-leave, and without any change in North Korea’s actual policies.

It’s bad enough that Trump is promoting lunatic and contradictory policies on everything else from immigration to infrastructure to tariffs. But on the foreign policy front, his ignorant trifling, short attention span, pirouettes, and double reverses could end with all of us getting blown to bits.

And if Trump imagines that he might lose the 2020 election, the risk of an entirely fake national security crisis only grows. But hey, let’s exhale and take it one day at a time. We’ve averted a war for this news cycle. Grateful for small favors.

Meyerson

Our Already Meritorious Immigrants. According to numerous press accounts, President Trump is set to present a semi-new immigration policy in the next few days. It’s only semi-new because it still contains funding for Trump’s wall and makes no mention of the undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children, leaving them vulnerable to eventual deportation. 

What is new—supposedly the result of a compromise between the neo-fascism of White House Svengali Stephen Miller and the general doltishness of White House Son-in-Law Jared Kushner—is a proposal to base admission on “merit.” No more of that “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” business.

Ironically, even without the “merit” criterion, the actual pool of newly arrived immigrants is increasingly credentialed. A new study from the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California reveals that in 2017 in California—home to more immigrants than any other state—the share of working-age immigrants who’d moved to the United States during the past five years with bachelor’s or graduate degrees was 52 percent. By contrast, the share of U.S.-born Californians with bachelor’s or graduate degrees in 2017 was 36 percent.   

Like the rest of the U.S., only more so, California has a two-tier economy, disproportionately employing higher-paid professionals on one end and low-paid service, retail, and construction workers on the other. Most of the immigrants with no advanced degrees end up in that low-end sector. It wouldn’t be so low-end if California hadn’t gone through two massive waves of deindustrialization in the 1980s and ‘90s, losing both its auto factories and then its aerospace plants, at the time the largest private-sector employers in the state. Those factories had just begun to provide an economic ladder to the new wave of immigrants when they were unceremoniously shuttered. Thus were meritorious immigrants ghettoized in meritorious but un-remunerative jobs, their “value,” as measured by income, called into question. 

All of which raises questions of their own. Among them: Why is Trump demonizing immigrants when so many of them, even by his administration’s own narrow criteria, pass the “merit” test. And who’s to say what’s really meritorious? If America still had the levels of economic and social mobility it had half-a-century ago, then poor immigrant, and native-born, parents would be raising children who’d grow up to surpass them economically, many of them becoming middle-class in the process. Moral and social merit, of course, has nothing to do with economic merit, but if we should narrow our definition to the one the Trumpians are using, then the shrinking of the middle class—for the native born no less than for immigrants—is the problem we need to address.

Kuttner

Over to You, John Roberts. The future of American democracy may literally come down to the decisions of one man, Chief Justice John Roberts. That’s because all of Trump’s efforts to place himself above the law—stonewalling subpoenas, telling his people to defy contempt citations, making dictatorial claims about executive power—will eventually end up in court. The Supreme Court.

And as we all know, the current court is divided 5-4, with five far-right toadies and four beleaguered liberals. Though one of the five, Roberts, occasionally seems to have second thoughts about the Constitution, the democracy, and the reputation of the high court.

This sure as hell needs to be one of those times.

The signs are far from auspicious. Roberts has been utterly promiscuous in overturning settled law when it served Republican partisan and ideological purposes. He has had a view of executive power almost as extreme as Trump’s.

But occasionally, he gives defenders of democracy some hope. In NFIB v. Sebelius, where the court’s conservatives hoped to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Roberts voted with the liberals—sort of. He held that the ACA was not legal under Constitution’s Commerce Clause, but was OK under Congress’s power to tax. 

However, Roberts opined, both the individual mandate and the required state expansion of Medicaid were illegal. Now, however, in a new pending case backed by the administration, conservatives argue that with the mandate gone, the ACA is no longer an example of Congress’s power to tax and should be tossed out in its entirety. So Roberts may either have outfoxed himself, or maybe was foxier than we thought.

Last November, Roberts professed to be offended at Trump’s characterization of an “Obama judge.” He declared:

We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them.

But that was posturing. The high court is ideologically split, the five conservatives are shills for Trump, and Roberts himself is Exhibit A.

On the other hand, in three recent cases, Roberts voted with the liberals to deny high court review of lower court rulings that went against the right, but taking care to note that these were procedural decisions, not substantive ones.

In short, unless Roberts gets an attack of conscience, he is a slender reed on which to place the survival of American democracy. That said, he is a much classier act than Trump, and he’s what we have.

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