Don’t “change politics.” Change government, structurally.

The original Progressive Era, from the 1890s to the 1930s, wasn’t just about specific policies. It was partly about fundamentally altering the form of government. Activists amended the U.S. Constitution five times (including direct election of Senators and women’s suffrage), rewrote state constitutions, and passed countless laws that changed the way our local, state, and federal government systems functioned. The initiative and referendum, for example, was a major structural change at a time of highly unresponsive legislative government in many states.

Nearly every state today (with the exception of a few like Massachusetts) has a formal process to initiate a constitutional convention, but many of these states have not held major conventions since the Progressive Era. It is worth recalling that the conventions held nearly a century ago in many places (including Massachusetts) were integral in giving more people the vote, among other vital changes to the organization and forms of our democracy.

But perhaps as importantly, those constitutional conventions also gave those new voters more powerful ways to use that vote, in ways that could again change their structures of government and laws — but directly. Now, unfortunately, far too many citizens are regularly too discouraged to exercise that power (or aren’t even aware they can), leaving it to a minority of citizens.

In response to this disaffection, too many politicians simply say they want to “change politics.” More candidates should say they want to “change government” — literally. Change how it works. I agree that too many candidates make unrealistic promises to voters. But more candidates don’t even promise to try to shift what’s possible. We need our elected leaders not just to leave us better policies than when they entered office, but also better governments – structurally.

Even many modern progressive activists have narrowed their horizons, particularly after so many years of conservatives successfully dominating ballot initiatives on deeply conservative laws and constitutional provisions, from social issues to extreme limitations on taxation and spending. There are, however, so many huge systemic left-leaning changes we could undertake if we organized for hardheaded, serious constitutional reform in the states. After all, before the conservative revolution rolled them back, many of the Progressive Era state constitutions baked in social and economic guarantees often found in other countries today. The right to a living wage for example. Imagine the rights to housing, education, and environmental public safety we could be guaranteeing today, if we were working on major constitutional overhauls as a mass movement.

As long as we’re pushing “voter registration” as a big solution, we might as well let new people know they can vote for literal systems change. That’s a more exciting pitch for turnout than “register to vote and pin all of your hopes and dreams on one of two flawed humans trying their best!”

The U.S. Constitution also allows us to call for a constitutional convention to propose federal amendments for the states to consider. We’ve never used one. If two thirds of state legislatures petitioned Congress, it would authorize a national convention to submit amendments back to the states. Congress could also authorize both a national drafting convention and state ratifying conventions to accelerate debate and votes on proposals.

It is entirely within the power of an organized people in most states to call for state and national drafting conventions. We must be prepared to help organize not just amendment campaigns but actual constitutional conventions in our states (and possibly federally) if we are to have any hope of achieving a second progressive era with far-reaching social democratic gains and broad social inclusion for all the American people.

Perkins Loan program set to expire at end of month, after 57 year run

The country’s longest-running student loan program, the Perkins Loan, is set to expire on September 30th and it remains unclear whether the program will be extended. For the past 57 years, the Perkins Loan has aimed to serve students with the highest needs and is unique because of the flexibility in the loan.

The Perkins program distributes $1.2 billion in loans each year, which represents only 1% of college loans disbursed in 2014.

Colleges and Universities receive an allotment of Perkins Loan money and are responsible for determining who has the most need in their student body and passing on the loan to them. Many believe this is a cost-effective model because universities use the money that they are paid back through the loan program to distribute more loans.

The loan also provides students with a 9-month grace period after graduation before they begin repayments and allows the loans to be cancelled if the student goes on to work in certain public fields, such as law enforcement or social work.

At least 95 members of Congress, university and college leaders, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) are prepared to defend Perkins Loans. However, key GOP lawmakers appear to be prepared to let the program expire.

Perkins Loans are not without their pitfalls. Some wish to simplify the federal aid programs to students to make it easier for students to navigate the system. The chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) would like to see a simplified system with three programs for aid: one federal loan program, one work study program, and one grant program — which would leave no room for the Perkins program.

Additionally, the funding formula used to determine how many Perkins loans a college can distribute is outdated. Ben Miller, Senior Director for Post Secondary Education at the Center for American Progress points out:

“The funding formula guarantees colleges receive the same amount of money that they did in 1999. Because the 1999 amount was supposed to provide colleges what they received in past years, that amount is similar to what schools received in 1979. The 1970s funding formula looked at school enrollment to determine how those dollars would be allocated. However, during that time period, enrollment in colleges and universities in the Northeast was much more concentrated than it is now, so students attending universities in other parts of the country are losing out, Miller said.”

While there are legitimate reasons to simplify student aid programs and ways to improve the existing Perkins program, there is little chance of that happening before the end of the month and if the program is allowed to expire, it is America’s neediest students who will pay the price.

According to NASFAA President, Justin Draeger:

“If Congress doesn’t vote to extend the program before its Oct. 1 expiration date, incoming low-income students are expected to face a gap of $2,000, on average, in their financial aid packages.”


Republicans still trying to milk 9/11 for political points

Senate Republicans somehow think it’s symbolically important to vote against the Iran Nuclear Deal on 9/11 this week.

They probably forgot that 9/11 was an attack by Sunni extremist citizens of the Gulf countries that oppose Shia Iran, and that Iran and the Iranian people rallied to us on 9/11, extending a hand of support — and then they attempted to assist us with the reconstruction of Afghanistan before being slapped down by the Bush Administration. So, less symbolic than ironic.

AFD Radio Excerpt

Aug 19, 2015 – Ep. 139: Interview with Ambassador Nicholas Burns on the Iran Nuclear Deal

Poor US-Russia relations still thwart Native reunifications

“The ice curtain that divides US families from Russian cousins” – BBC News

The people of this Bering Strait region still see themselves as one people and the border as an irritant. It was first drawn up in 1867 when America bought Alaska from a cash-strapped Tsarist Russia. But no-one took much notice then. Families lived on both islands and criss-crossed back and forth until 1948 when the border was suddenly closed. The Soviet military moved on to Big Diomede and the civilians were forcibly resettled on the Siberian mainland.
Over the years [since the Cold War ended], hopes continued that the more entwined relationship between the Russia and the West would loosen up the border. But they have been dashed by the Ukraine crisis and by Russia’s military build-up.


June 2001 NASA satellite image of the Bering Strait, where the U.S. state of Alaska (right) meets Russia's Chukotka Autonomous Okrug (left).

June 2001 NASA satellite image of the Bering Strait, where the U.S. state of Alaska (right) meets Russia’s Chukotka Autonomous Okrug (left).

Previously from AFD:

NASA comes out swinging at Russia, US Congress

Also recently in the news:

The Atlantic: “In Alaska, Climate Change Threatens to Sweep Away the [Native] Village of Newtok” – A longform piece on this devastating trendline for Alaska Natives:

A 2003 report from the Government Accountability Office found that most of Alaska’s 200-plus native villages are affected by erosion and flooding, and that four were in “imminent danger.” By 2009, the GAO said 31 villages were in imminent danger.


U.S. homeownership in 2015 (in a global context)


Statistics and analysis compiled for and by The Globalist Research Center.

In the second quarter of 2015, the homeownership rate among U.S. households reached a new recent low of 63.4%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This was the lowest reported rate since 1967!

Homeownership in the United States had reached an all-time high of 69.2% in 2005, two years before the housing bubble burst in late 2007. Following the recession, prospective buyers shifted instead into renting. Growth in the rental market — approaching record occupancy levels in many areas of the country — is one of the factors driving down the share of homeowners in the overall pool of households.

At the same time, U.S. home buying and home prices have actually increased recently. But that demand has largely come from institutional investors, speculators, and foreign buyers. This makes it harder for ordinary homebuyers, especially in the youngest generation of would-be first-time buyers, to break into the market.

For comparison to some other major economies’ homeownership rates, about 53% of German households own their homes, 73% of Italian households own their homes, and 90% of Chinese households own their homes. The global average, however, is slightly below the latest U.S. homeownership rate.

But not all homeowners are created equal. In Romania, 95.6% of households own their own homes as of 2013 — the highest ownership rate of any EU country. And eight of the ten EU member countries with the highest rates of homeownership are all former Warsaw Pact or Soviet states. (Another is ex-Yugoslavian.) The ownership level is similar in Russia itself, where 84% of housing was owner-occupied as of 2010. All of this is at least partially related to rapid housing privatizations in the early 1990s. However, there are concerns that many of the homes in those countries, constructed in the suburbs and countryside during the Communist era, might not hold up much longer. Little new construction occurred in the decade after 1991. This could potentially put much of the housing stock in jeopardy and add major stress to those already relatively poor European nations.

Homeownership promotion has long been a goal of U.S. public policy — maybe because of its cultural association with early American colonists, homesteading pioneers, and the American Dream. Today its promoters seek to encourage building up equity and to ensure a steady need for jobs in the construction industry. The George W. Bush Administration, for example, promoted what it called an “ownership society.”

The general idea (in theory, at least) is that when people living in a home-owning household reach retirement age, the equity they have in their residence can provide a major source of funds to finance their retirement.

Home-owning households are generally wealthier, as least on paper, because a residence is often their largest asset. However, that asset is usually not a readily accessible source of cash.

Moreover, more than two-thirds of American homeowners in 2014 had mortgages on their homes. Homeownership is far less associated with debt in China, for example, than it is in the United States. Taking out a mortgage to buy a property is very uncommon in that country, barely reaching double-digits as a percentage share of homeowners in 2010.