Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Lessons from the Gilded Age

Medicare, Social Security, unemployment insurance, collective bargaining rights - who could have imagined political attacks on the programs that American workers and retirees have long relied upon for economic security? As Republican politicians, such as Romney and Ryan, seek to fundamentally alter or destroy these programs under the mantle of fiscal responsibility, they insist that these policies need “repair” to survive. But a look at history, especially the period surrounding the Great Depression, reveals parallels to today and provides clarity as to their motives. 

During the Gilded Age (1880s -1920s), an enormous economic gap existed between the small number of billionaires who owned most of the country’s wealth, and the rest of the American people. These capitalists had made use of generous government land and dollar giveaways to start them on their way towards building vast personal fortunes in the manufacturing, railroad, oil, steel, and finance industries. With their wealth came political power which ensured that government policy largely benefitted corporate interests. 

The Great Depression signaled the beginning of a very different climate for the leaders of American enterprise. By the time the unemployment rate climbed to 25%, this ruling class had lost the trust and admiration of the American people. As President Roosevelt and Congress struggled to get the economy back on track, dire economic circumstances provoked strikes and protests against the old laissez-faire economic order and deplorable working conditions. This political unrest fueled the governmental policy-making that lead to the New Deal. Among the policies passed in 1934 were: collective bargaining rights, a national minimum wage and maximum-hour work week, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and financial regulations. As the government began the monetary investment in World War II that most economists believe ended the Depression, it was clear to the American population that government had an important role to play in their lives. 

Rich industrialists had resisted such government policies for decades, but had finally lost their clout. Their financial dominance melted away as the top marginal income tax rate more than tripled under the New Deal, from 24% to as much as 79% by the end of the Roosevelt administration (President Eisenhower further spiked this tax to 91%), and federal taxes on corporate profits and estates rose significantly. 

Wealthy business leaders predictably reacted to their misfortune by organizing against the New Deal. They formed free enterprise groups whose mission was to get rid of government policies which shifted spending towards the common good and away from their pockets. But their attempts to paint the New Deal as a threat to personal liberty failed to sway a public that had so recently benefitted from the very programs the wealthy were disparaging. Their warnings of the dangers posed by high taxation and regulation were contradicted by the longest period of economic prosperity and equality in U.S. history, lasting from the late 1940s to the early 1970s. President Johnson’s expansion of government help with Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc. dealt them a further blow.  

The corporate rich were undeterred, however. Their goal was, and remains, to regain the power and financial advantage lost to them by the implementation of the New Deal.  They have made great strides over the last three decades, and as they have rebuilt their wealth and power, their ability to influence government policy has returned to the days of yore. We can see this influence in recent Republican accomplishments.Tax rates on the wealthy and corporations have been slashed. Union protection for workers and the regulation of corporations have been decimated. Corporate profits have once again soared. And the real after tax income of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans has exploded upward, while the income of the lower classes has stagnated or declined, returning economic inequity to the level present during the Gilded Age.

Conservatives see these times of financial hardship as a prime opportunity to justify the erosion of the safety net programs of the New Deal and the Great Society, rather than take less drastic measures that are possible to ensure the viability of these programs. Meanwhile, they refuse to act on measures which history has shown would help return our country to economic stability, such as the reinstatement of financial regulations and top tax rates to Clinton-era levels, the closing of corporate loopholes, and ending subsidies for already prosperous industries. Business tax cuts remain the platform of their economic policy in spite of the acknowledgement by the vast majority of economists that they do not “trickle-down” to benefit the majority of Americans. America isn’t “broke”; government policy has simply been skewed once again to ensure that our country’s wealth flows to the top. As the richest country in the world, we need to reject the claim that we can’t continue to help the vulnerable among us and ensure the economic security of our citizens.  


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Case Against Voter ID

How many Minnesota voters were convicted of voter fraud in the 2008 elections? Answer: less than 1 percent of the roughly 2.9 million Minnesotans who voted; an estimated 113 convictions. Is this a problem worthy of a permanent change to our state constitution? Before even one person’s constitutional right to vote is taken away from them due to a lack of a photo ID, and before scarce government resources are spent in the implementation of such an expensive program, this question needs serious consideration. 
Notably, of this small number of fraudulent votes, NONE WOULD HAVE BEEN PREVENTED BY PHOTO ID. They were mostly performed by felons who voted (usually due to misinformation) while ineligible. A photo ID wouldn’t have caught this. They weren’t pretending to be someone else.
A majority of Minnesotans voice approval for requiring a photo ID at the voting booth because they already have such an ID, and are unaware of or haven’t imagined themselves in the place of the hundreds of thousands of Minnesota citizens who don’t have one. There is a reason why this proposal has provoked an enormous outcry among people who work with the elderly, poor, disabled, and other minorities. These workers know, more than anyone, that for these groups, the expense and difficulty of obtaining documentation to prove their status (so they can apply for a photo ID) presents an obstacle that shouldn’t be present in the exercise of anyone’s right to vote.
Despite the usual arguments in support of this amendment, the basis for a challenge to a constitutional right must be more compelling than an unproven possibility of uncaught perpetrators. Also, opening a bank account, visiting a doctor, getting on a plane, buying concert tickets, medicine, or groceries are not constitutional rights. They have no place in the debate about requirements to vote.      
Having confidence in our voting system all depends on who you listen to - the many experienced election officials and law experts who have repeatedly verified the integrity of our electoral system, or the people (and they are many) who have something to gain from the disenfranchisement of the voters who would be most affected by a photo ID requirement. The battle for equal voting rights for all U.S. citizens has been long and hard-fought. The enshrinement in our constitution of an obstruction to the right to vote, without making the case for systemic fraud, is wrong.