Higher taxes (for some) have to be on the table

Bill Humphrey in The Boston Globe: Should higher taxes be off the table in state budget talks? No.
In early 2015 and again last month, Democratic Massachusetts House Speaker Robert DeLeo promised that the House of Representatives would not pass budgets that involved new revenues of any kind. This goes beyond Governor Charles D. Baker’s Republican standard of no-new-taxes.

Anti-tax conservatives in both parties have been dominant for a full generation now. The unchallenged politics of tax cuts — and spending cuts to offset them — has become self-sustaining. There has been comparatively little defense of what spending actually means: programs and policies that deliver vital public services.

Speaker DeLeo, explaining his position, cited pre-existing pressures on family budgets. It’s true, many Massachusetts families have been struggling to get by. Unfortunately, further cuts likely will worsen that pressure.

Nobody disputes the importance of fiscal efficiency, but after decades of cuts there is virtually no fat left to trim in the state budget. Even the rainy day fund has been exhausted to plug other budget gaps. Without new revenues, even deeper cuts will necessarily be made in vital arenas that intersect directly with family budgets.

Transportation infrastructure, public education, economic development, social safety nets, our courts, and more are funded in large part or wholly by government spending. “Consolidating” services often means reduced access for citizens, particularly the most vulnerable. Cutting back public investment in these areas hurts families, costs good-paying public employee jobs, and shrinks the economy.

How we raise revenues most effectively and fairly is a good question – and a political one.

Our current state tax system is regressive. It shouldn’t be. The proposed Fair Share constitutional amendment would fund transportation and education via an additional millionaire’s tax on those whose family budgets won’t be broken by an extra contribution to our society’s shared coffers. Increased tax compliance by large corporations likewise would ease the burden on small businesses without access to offshore tax shelters.

What is not debatable – given our fiscal situation and our public investment needs – is that we need more revenues from somewhere. Taking revenue increases off the table is fiscally irresponsible and ultimately harmful to the very people the speaker says he wants to help.

The politics of compromise

I’m getting tired of people suggesting state and federal legislators should pass bills with morally reprehensible amendments and carveouts/omissions just to make it “easier.” These advocates have a critically flawed, short-termist view of governance that is ultimately more harmful than helpful.

Here’s a simple rule: Do it right or don’t do it at all.

What this means in practice: Don’t amend out special exceptions that undermine the moral integrity of the overall law. Examples: Don’t leave out trans people from your employment and accommodations non-discrimination bills. Don’t leave exceptions to your death penalty bans. Don’t create loopholes against reproductive freedom (e.g. Hyde). Stop passing bills with giant gaping holes in them just to help some people, when in doing so you’ll make it harder to go back for those you left behind.

This is not a case against compromise. This is a case for understanding how compromise should function at a systemic level. This is a case for making compromise work for you in the long-term, instead of the short-term at the expense of the longer view.

Incremental compromises, when needed, should move everyone forward, not just some. It is a massive political misunderstanding to think that it’s better to establish protections and programs for some people, instead of for all people. Making laws for everyone, without carve-outs, is both consistent with the principles of equality before the law as well as politically more sound, within both the voting public and among legislators themselves.

If it’s politically hard to pass reforms and protections for some people, it’s obviously going to be even harder to do it later for a smaller subset you left out. It is easier (and morally better) to pass laws that protect & help everyone, even if you have to wait, than to sell out some of our society so that others of us are helped.

This is the principle of true solidarity: We all sacrifice a little bit longer so that we’re stronger together and no one has to sacrifice/suffer alone for our advances.

Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Safe Air and Water

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part IV: A right to safe air and water, by Bill.

Protecting the environment is not an abstract concept about saving rainforests or polar bears, although these are important in their own way. Environmentalism is fundamentally about people. Whether or not environmental safety is maintained has a tangible, daily effect on millions of lives. Poisoned air and water is responsible for the premature deaths of tens of thousands of Americans each year. The air we breathe and the water we drink must be free from contaminants. That is an inalienable human right.

Sadly, too often, our society has allowed dangerous pollution to be released into our air and water, with enormous health consequences. Disproportionately, those impacts have fallen on low-income and minority individuals and communities. Justice for these crimes has been intermittent at best.

We need to ensure — swiftly and fairly — the elimination of pollution, meaningful and substantial compensation for those affected, and punishment for those responsible.

Environmental public safety should not be taken lightly or be treated as an afterthought corrected by an occasional minor fine. Just as we have taken seriously the public health threat from smoking, so too must we take seriously the daily public health consequences of poor regulation and poor enforcement of environmental public safety.

According to the American Lung Association, the human and financial costs to our society are clear:

Particle pollution also diminishes lung function, causes greater use of asthma medications and increased rates of school absenteeism, emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Other adverse effects can be coughing, wheezing, cardiac arrhythmias and heart attacks. According to the findings from some of the latest studies, short-term increases in particle pollution have been linked to:

– death from respiratory and cardiovascular causes, including strokes;
– increased mortality in infants and young children;
– increased numbers of heart attacks, especially among the elderly and in people with heart conditions;
– inflammation of lung tissue in young, healthy adults;
– increased hospitalization for cardiovascular disease, including strokes and congestive heart failure;
– increased emergency room visits for patients suffering from acute respiratory ailments;
– increased hospitalization for asthma among children; and
-increased severity of asthma attacks in children.

By contrast, taking action pays huge dividends:

– Looking at air quality in 545 counties in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007, researchers found that people had approximately four months added to their life expectancy on average due to cleaner air. Women and people who lived in urban and densely populated counties benefited the most.
– Another long-term study of six U.S. cities tracked from 1974 to 2009 added more evidence of the benefits. Their findings suggest that cleaning up particle pollution had almost immediate health benefits. They estimated that the U.S. could prevent approximately 34,000 premature deaths a year if the nation could lower annual levels of particle pollution by 1 µg/m^3

Our federal, state, and local governments must guarantee and secure the people’s right to a habitable world, at present and in future, via enforceable law and regulation. In doing so, particularly by transforming our energy and transportation sectors to cleaner modes, we will ensure safe and clean air and water.

Our nation’s constitution ought to enshrine this common-sense governing principle as an amendment. That might read something like this:

“Every person has the right to safe and clean air and water. Congress and the states shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents. The federal executive and judiciary and the governments of the states shall implement and enforce these provisions by appropriate action.”

Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Childcare & School

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part III: A right to free and high-quality childcare and education, by Maria.

Education – and the possibility that it means your children can and will do better than you have been able to do – is what drives nearly all American citizens and citizens-to-be to believe in the dream of America. However, to realize that dream, both quality public education and quality early childcare/pre-K must be considered an unquestioned public right for all Americans. Access to both must be guaranteed to all, regardless of means or geographic location, to secure that right.

A need to act

Childcare and education are often intertwined. In order to spend an 8 hour day working, parents drop off their kids at a Pre-K, Daycare Center, or Day Camp that promises an enriching learning environment. Recently it was reported that childcare costs more than college in 24 states. An impressive and depressing statistic when you consider that college tuition “…has been rising almost six percent above the rate of inflation”.

Study after study shows that children who receive pre-school education do better than their less fortunate peers; progress begets progress for the rest of their lives. Competition for Pre-K programs can be so fierce that many schools operate by lottery.

We shouldn’t have to stage a Hunger Games for tots to decide who gets to learn the numbers and colors. We are failing our children and our own futures by not addressing this burden.

Uneven funding

Adding to this challenge is the inherent inequality in the way schools are funded in the United States, through local property taxes. What you and your community can afford to pay (or how much your local government prioritizes educational investment) will determine what kind of education your child receives over a lifetime.

Some parents are fortunate enough to be able to navigate and afford systems that may require applications for a child even before he or she is born. Others are financially secure enough to be able to move to better school districts. Clearly, not everyone can do this.

Should a child be denied a chance at a better life due the geographic circumstances of their birth? Should the quality of their earliest years of school be determined on their parents’ incomes? A meritocracy cannot emerge from such inequalities. These inequalities rob a certain share of our population’s youngest members of the opportunity for a decent start, for arbitrary reasons.

If the core of the American Dream is believing that your children will do better than you did, every child must be provided with at least a baseline of quality education and childcare. For our society to have any hope of realizing a meritocracy to, neither of these can be beholden to rich or poor, urban or suburban, etc.

The right of the people

State constitutions or the federal constitution should be amended to include a free public childcare and schooling provision along the following lines:

“Every person has the right to access high-quality, free education and early childcare regardless of his or her means or geographic location. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

Those who wish to supplement public offerings with private options would continue to have that ability, but everyone would have access to a strong starting point before reaching adulthood. The fresh slate promised by the American Dream currently does not exist for a poor child, but it could.

Countries the world over have enshrined the right to a free, high standard of education in their constitutions. If America truly wishes to remain one of the most highly educated countries, we must focus on making education freely accessible to all, while also highlighting quality.

Ensuring free public education and childcare for all children not only increases their chances at fulfilling their parents’ dream of a better future, it would also make sure the future of the parents – and our entire society – is well cared for.

Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Food Access

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part II: A right to food access, by De Ana.

In the United States, food – and access to it – is a highly political subject. Dietary fads of more affluent citizens can greatly affect the access poorer citizens have to staples. Food deserts can cause financial or other burdens, as well. The largest Federal program to help address some of these challenges for the neediest citizens, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), has struggled to keep pace with various developments.

There needs to be an overhaul on how Americans access food. It is a universal human right that every person should be guaranteed the right to obtain nutritious food, regardless of means or geographic location. How do we secure this right?

Combating food deserts

Food deserts – concentrated areas without nutritious fresh foods widely and affordably available – are becoming more and more common in poorer areas. People who are stuck in these deserts are forced to buy mostly processed foods that contain preservatives that can be bad for your health. Access to fresh fruits and vegetables comes at a price in a food desert. The tradeoff is either the cost of traveling to a grocery store outside of their neighborhood or the cost of paying hiked-up prices for fruits and vegetables at non-grocery stores, such as corner stores or bodegas. Things like grocery stores, Farmer’s Markets, and neighborhood gardens need to be brought back to these neighborhoods to cut down on that cost.

Helping to pay the grocery bill

But what good is having access to food if you can’t afford it. The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, is supposed to be a supplemental program that helps needy people pay for groceries. Eligibility for the program, however, is based on the Federal Poverty Limit. This hasn’t been revamped in over 50 years. Worse, in its inception, it was only really a loose guideline for what should be considered the poverty line in the United States. Back when the FPL was officially introduced, many households only had one source of income, and it was assumed that each household would have two parents. Nowadays you’re more likely than a half century ago to have either single-parent households or two parent households where both adults are working. In either case, there are now added expenses for things like childcare which an outdated FPL does not reflect.

In some states, there are even limitations to what kind of food people can buy with SNAP benefits. Some states don’t allow those receiving SNAP to buy hot meals. Other states are considering banning people from getting things like seafood or even hot pre-made foods with their benefits. This creates a problem, because many people receiving SNAP benefits are homeless and don’t have a place to cook or store meals that aren’t already prepared.

Managing food trends

Banning certain types of food because of the belief that those foods are “too good” for SNAP recipients is also unethical – and not just because denying people the right to buy food is cruel itself. Due to “food gentrification” and food trends, foods that were once inexpensive can become suddenly very expensive. Seafood like lobster, for example, was once a cheap maritime staple food for the poor, but it transitioned into being a luxury food. More recently, if you look at how the rise of quinoa in the United States has caused it to become increasingly less affordable in places where it’s a staple food like Bolivia, you can see how food gentrification and SNAP limits on “luxury” foods can cause folks to suddenly lose affordable access to core components of their diets.

The right of the people

To fix all of this, the United States and state governments must constitutionally guarantee the people the right to food regardless of means or location. It might read:

“Every person has the right to access nutritious and sufficient food regardless of his or her means or geographic location. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

To secure that right, governments should enact various measures to:
– Bring Farmer’s Markets and grocery stores back to food deserts
– Expand both who qualifies and what can be received on SNAP benefits.

In a country like the United States, which touts itself as being “well-developed” and “first world,” food should not be a luxury that only a few can afford, but a right for all of us.

Proposed: A Constitutional Right to Housing for All

In this Arsenal For Democracy mini-series, we propose new, progressive Constitutional rights. Part I: A right to housing, by Kelley.

Participating in the American dream requires a roof over one’s head. It does not have to be a fancy roof, but it does have to provide a little space to get yourself ready for work in the morning and a safe place to tuck your children in at night.

What if the American people and their government decided that having a home was not a privilege, but a right? Imagine a constitutional amendment to that effect:

“Every person has the right to adequate housing regardless of means. The legislature [or Congress] shall make such laws as are necessary to secure this right to all residents.”

The moral case for an absolute right to housing should be clear. All people deserve a little corner of the world to help them feel safe and stay healthy. They just do. A lack of housing can prevent progress in any other aspect of one’s life – from finding stable employment to keeping your children in school. Without stable housing, it is difficult, if not impossible, for people to break out of the oppressive cycle of poverty.

The economic case for a right to housing is also clear. Helping individuals and families to secure a place to live allows them to focus on finding employment, addressing health problems, or whatever other roadblocks may exist in their life. This allows them to contribute to the US economy and reduces their dependence on other government aid programs.

The history of housing policy in America is one tainted with efforts to help potential White homeowners, while making it nearly impossible for people of color to purchase a home. From Jim Crow laws to redlining loan policies to deed restrictions to the creation of ghettos, there is no doubt that the United States has an ugly and racist history when it comes to housing.

In recent years, states and cities have taken two distinct approaches to homelessness. The first approach is to criminalize homelessness, allowing individuals to be arrested for being outside at night or even adding active deterrence measures in public spaces. The second approach is to create long-term solutions for the homeless, particularly for homeless veterans.

What if the American people went farther? What if we no longer waited for cities and states to provide housing for their citizens but told our government that housing was a human right and demanded that they act accordingly, providing housing for all of America’s citizens?

We wouldn’t be the first country to do so. The EU has included the right to adequate housing as a part of its human rights charter. Many member states have taken significant steps in making this right a reality for their citizens. Notably, Belgium, Finland, Greece, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden have enshrined the right to housing in their constitution.

The moral and economic imperative to make housing a right in the United States exists. The only question is – will anybody act?

Op-Ed | France and the West: Inconvenient Questions

This essay originally appeared in The Globalist.

January 2013: French troops being airlifted to Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon)

January 2013: French troops being airlifted to Mali. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Nathanael Callon)

Nothing can ever justify or excuse an act of terrorism against civilians. But that does not absolve us from truly comprehending the links between the foreign and military policy approaches pursued by Western governments and the reactions this generates.

The aftermath of a terrorist attack is an especially difficult time to ask difficult questions about strategy. But just as the United States has faced a lot of (justified) criticism for refusing to acknowledge the direct linkages between misguided interventions and blowback incidents, we cannot apply a different yardstick to France.

Watch for the warmongers

This is all the more critical as, in the wake of the events in Paris, there are those pundits and policymakers who are trying to let slip the dogs of war or beat the drums by defining the scourge of “radical Islam” and “homegrown terrorism” as the root of all evil.

If we should have learned one thing by now, it is that tough talk is not the same as serious, strategic policymaking. It is irresponsible to undertake foreign policies without accurately representing to the public the likely risks to them that it will create.

As we assess the future approach, we must also take account of the role that Western governments have played in creating this catastrophe.

This applies especially to all those who glibly claim that ISIS “cannot be contained; it must be defeated,” as Hillary Clinton has just done.

Such an argument conveniently overlooks the fact that it was the U.S. government that inadvertently gave rise to this movement. Its decades of invasions and unpopular interference in the region ultimately culminated in the Pandora’s box war of choice in Iraq. Out of, and in reaction to, these policies grew al Qaeda and ISIS.

The advocates of such a strategy must also explain what can possibly be accomplished by responding with yet more force in an already war-torn region.

An eye for an eye strategy, while sounding principled, makes the whole world blind to the pitfalls such an approach has been triggering.

The French example

France can actually serve as Exhibit A of the pitfalls of a more “muscular” approach. The cruel attacks in Paris are demonstrably reactive in nature.

The unfortunate reality no one wants to discuss at the moment is that France’s Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) and François Hollande (2012-present) have pushed the envelope for modern France on maintaining a highly aggressive and forcible military presence in majority Muslim countries.

Not since perhaps the Algerian War has France meddled with, sent troops to or bombed so many predominantly Muslim regions in such a short span.

President Sarkozy led regime change in Libya by air campaign in 2011 at the nadir of his domestic popularity. We know what that resulted in. He did it for oil and whatever it was that Iraq War apologist Bernard-Henry Lévy promised him would transpire.

But his successor, President Hollande, went way, way farther — claiming, almost George W. Bush style, that he was fighting ‘them’ over there to protect France from terrorist attacks at home. This approach painted a much bigger target on France’s back.

Hollande’s misadventures

The Hollande record is this: First, he invaded Mali in January 2013, after it collapsed as part of fallout from the Libya meltdown. He did so purportedly to stop terrorism and prevent the creation of a terrorism launching pad near Europe (despite Libya being much closer and truly festering).

In December 2013, he then invaded Central African Republic to ‘save’ Christians from Muslim militias that had already been disbanded. (It did not help that French troops now implicated in widespread child abuse stood by as Christian militias mutilated Muslim civilians’ corpses in front of them.)

In May 2014, Hollande announced a large, permanent rapid strike force deployment to five “Sahel-Sahara” West African nations, all of which were majority or plurality Muslim. He sent jets to bomb Iraq in September 2014. Finally, a year later in September 2015 he sent jets to bomb Syria.

It is difficult to understand Hollande’s declaration that the November 2015 Paris attacks are an “act of war” by ISIS, in view of the reality that France has already been at war with ISIS for more than a year.

Note, too, that the United States was barely involved in half of those misguided efforts.

Whether or not it can match U.S. capacity, France is no longer a junior partner or even hapless “sidekick” to the United States’ mayhem. In that sense, Hollande has gone much further than Tony Blair ever did during the Iraq War episode. Blair restrained himself to just being a sidekick.

France under Hollande has turned itself into an active cyclone by pursuing a militarized foreign policy – a strategy that may prove self-defeating. Read more