In MT Special Election, Voters Must Reject GOP candidate Greg Gianforte

Not only is freedom of the press under assault from the rise of “fake news” and the lack of critical thinking in this country, it is also under physical threat from politicians who are treating reporters like punching bags.

Today Montana is holding a special congressional election for its “at-large” House seat to replace Ryan Zinke who Trump appointed to be Secretary of the Interior earlier this year. The contest is between Democratic candidate Rob Quist, a popular musician and rancher, and Republican candidate Greg Gianforte, a New Jersey millionaire who was rejected by the state’s citizens in November in his race to become governor against the popular Democratic incumbent Steve Bullock.

The special election is turning out to be referendum: not only about Trumps’ presidency and GOP policies, because many citizens of the state are deeply unhappy with proposed legislation to overturn the Affordable Care Act, but also about the lack of civility and decency in American politics.

On the night before the election, Gianforte assaulted Ben Jones, a reporter for The Guardian at a campaign event, right before he was scheduled to give a televised interview with a Fox News correspondent and her crew. Here is how Fox News reporter Alicia Acuna described the incident:

At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, “I’m sick and tired of this!” 

This assault by a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives on a reporter reflects the “zero sum” politics of elections in recent years, and it has to stop. The rise of social media and its outsize influence on electoral politics has come at a cost: the decline of civility and decency among and between citizens and their elected officials.

There is also another cost: with very little consequence for saying whatever people believe, the rise of “fake news” and outright lies have become part and parcel of this political in-fighting. This trend is disturbingly self-evident in the press release provided by the Gianforte campaign after the incident.

Shane Scanlon, who is Gianforte’s spokesperson, should not just be ashamed for lying about the incident in an effort to cover it up; he should also be charged with obstruction of justice for lying to law enforcement officials during the course of their investigation. What Scanlon describes in this press release is falsified by three eye-witnesses who confirmed the details supplied by the reporter to Gallatin County sheriff’s detectives that Gianforte assaulted him.

Unfortunately, over 200,000 Montana voters have already cast mail-in ballots before the campaign was over. If voters do not reject Gianforte at the ballot box today, he should withdraw from consideration. And if he fails to do that, and he is welcomed with open arms to Congress, it will be dark day for Montana history and American democracy.

How Democrats Can Win in the West

From yesterday’s New York Times Opinion Section by Gov. Steve Bullock (D-MT):

HELENA, MONT. — I AM no fan of Neil Gorsuch or his legal theories, but his appointment to the Supreme Court raises a question that Democrats must answer. Justice Gorsuch is the first person from the Mountain States named to the court since Ronald Reagan chose Sandra Day O’Connor from Arizona in 1981. Since then, Democratic presidents have appointed four justices, all more or less drawn from the Washington-New York-Harvard-Yale corridor. Why was it left to President Trump to finally take a person from the American West or, for that matter, anywhere from the interior of the country?

I ask this because a related question has been put to me lately. On the night that Hillary Clinton got 36 percent of the vote in Montana, I won re-election comfortably, running on progressive ideas and against an extremely wealthy Republican opponent. Ever since, national reporters have asked me whether Montana Democrats have some secret recipe, given that we’ve won the last four elections for governor, that might be used in national campaigns. I tell them yes, we do.

But it’s not really a secret, or all that hard to figure out. Above all, spend time in places where people disagree with you. Reach out. Show up and make your argument. People will appreciate it, even if they are not inclined to vote for you. As a Democrat in a red state, I often spend days among crowds where there are almost no Democratic voters in sight. I listen to them, work with them and try to persuade them.

Democrats as a national party have ceased doing this. This has to change. They should take a more expansive view of the America that exists beyond the confines of the Eastern Seaboard. To use a local analogy, Democrats should try casting the fly line a little farther out into the river.

The party has plenty of room for improvement here, in both politics and government. Only one person from the interior West has ever served as the party’s chairman. The last five came from up and down the I-95 corridor. The last vice-presidential pick from west of the Mississippi River was 29 years ago, and as concerns Montana specifically, it was not until last month, after 129 years of statehood, that a person from our state was named to a president’s cabinet.

If you’re not geographically diverse, it’s hard to even speak a language that makes sense to folks in faraway places. That’s especially a problem in the West, where voters have always mistrusted the federal government. Lately we watch cable news broadcasts coming from New York, featuring creatures of Washington and a dialogue full of lifeless talking points that either defend or assail some federal policy or proposal. That’s the native tongue of Washington, and it’s a language the Democrats’ last three losing presidential candidates spoke fluently but that almost always misses the reality of what Americans, especially those far from the nation’s capital, think and feel.

On health care, for example, Montanans aren’t in love with Obamacare — but they don’t want to see it eliminated, either. Our state voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Trump, yes, but voters of all stripes here want a system where everyone is covered, and they supported me when I expanded Medicaid to cover 70,000 low-income Montanans. And yet many of us were puzzled by the Democrats’ resistance to make any changes at all to the Affordable Care Act, given the often outrageously high premiums and deductibles.

And there are some progressive battles that Western Democrats have been left entirely to ourselves to wage. It wasn’t long ago that the Citizens United decision focused the nation on the corrupting influence of money in politics. Washington has apparently moved on, but in Montana we kept fighting; in the past few years we eliminated all of the anonymous corporate campaign expenditures that used to plague our state elections, often millions of dollars a year. This dark money is now illegal in Montana, and we are bringing, and winning, legal actions against the bad actors.

In the past decade Democrats in the West have battled a bizarre but powerful right-wing movement to allow wealthy individuals to take ownership of public lands and close them off, an issue on which even some of the most conservative voters here side with Democrats. These are our forests and parks and rivers, great equalizers where all citizens can escape to hunt, fish and hike, activities central to our heritage. But it barely moves the needle in Washington, because it seems like such a faraway issue to people inside the Beltway bubble.

I remember a humorous episode from Bill Clinton’s presidency in which his advisers prevailed upon him, one summer before his re-election campaign, to spend his vacation in Montana and Wyoming instead of the usual Martha’s Vineyard. The theory was that he’d benefit from hanging out someplace a little more down to earth. He took the advice, and won re-election. It’s a lesson Democrats should take to heart.

U.S. Senate votes to block California-led effort on retirement security for low-income workers

From today’s LA Times by Evan Halper

A pioneering, California-led effort to create retirement security for low-income workers has been thrown into jeopardy after the U.S. Senate voted Wednesday to block states from starting programs to automatically enroll millions of people in IRA-type savings plans.

The measure, aimed at stopping the fledgling state retirement programs, now goes to President Trump, who has vowed to sign it.

That leaves lawmakers in California, Illinois and other states who only months ago were celebrating the success of their long-planned initiative scrambling to regroup. The Senate voted 50 to 49 to stop the state plans.

The retirement programs that were about to launch in seven states and are under consideration in many more were targeted by Wall Street firms and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The vote reflected the renewed influence of the business lobby in Washington since the 2016 election, with lawmakers defying the 38-million member AARP, a vocal supporter of the auto-IRA program. The seniors group had warned senators that its members would hold them accountable for their votes.

“Nobody had a problem with this except for the big Wall Street companies who invented in their mind that they would be losing business to these state innovations,” said Sen. Christopher S. Murphy (D-Conn.), whose state was moving to implement an auto-IRA program. “This is a terrible, terrible thing we are doing,” he said of the Senate’s vote to undermine the state programs.

The California Secure Choice program and similar retirement laws generally require employers with no retirement plans to automatically invest a small percentage of each worker’s pay in a state-sponsored retirement account. Employers can opt out of the program if they choose.

The money is managed by private investment firms that partner with the states. The accounts are intended to help build financial security for some 55 million workers nationwide whose employers do not offer a retirement plan.

The push to implement the programs was delayed for years by complicated federal Labor Department rules governing such investment pools. In its final months, the Obama administration gave states the green light to pursue their vision. But Congress has now voted to revoke that authority, leaving the programs in limbo. Opponents of the state programs say they became too risky for consumers after the federal rules were changed.

Read the entire article here.

American Priorities at a Crossroads: Trump’s Budget Leaves America Behind

The Trump Administration released its 2018 Budget Proposal and the picture is a disturbing set of priorities aimed at increasing military and law enforcement spending over the next 18 months by $100 billion, while slashing spending on domestic programs that will adversely affect health and human services, education, and scientific advancement.

If this is putting America First, then there are surely tough times ahead for the majority of working Americans and families.

Increasing spending on the military budget is a monumental waste of money that would be better used to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure, create jobs, and shore up entitlement programs that are in need of sensible reform: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Currently, military spending accounts for 54 percent of the federal budget (2015 figures). That means for every tax dollar raised in revenue, over half of it goes to spending that does not directly benefit American workers and taxpayers. The benefits we do get from such lavish spending in terms of national security is largely indirect in the form of a subsidized belief that the bigger our military, and the more money we spend on it, the safer we are. That is a false argument to be sure.

Spending more money on the military in a time of social, economic, and political crisis is a failure of Trump to live up to his stated priorities of putting Americans back to work and ensuring that economic prosperity is spread around to those states, and the working class citizens in them, who feel they have been left behind in the wake of trade agreements, technological innovation, and the forces of globalization.

Many people who voted for Trump may “feel” that his budget proposal reflects their values. But when the anti-tax Congress refuses to fund vital programs, including a much needed overhaul of our nation’s infrastructure, and jobs do not suddenly materialize by returning from overseas, they will once again be left holding the bag. We may have the most powerful military in the world, but the most powerful nation it protects will not be able to provide good paying jobs for its workers, while the streets and bridges crumble under their very feet.

Strong Unions, Strong Democracy

From yesterday’s New York Times “Opinion” by By Richard Kahlenberg

IF the questions that came up during oral argument in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association on Monday are any guide, the ruling bloc of conservative justices appears ready to render a decision later this year that would significantly weaken public sector labor unions.

By stripping these unions of key financial resources — their fair share of fees provided by nonmembers — the court would upend a longstanding precedent. A decision in favor of the plaintiff would effectively slam the door on an era in which some conservatives joined liberals in recognizing that vibrant unions help make our democracy work. This is radicalism, not conservatism.

Public sector unions — representing teachers, firefighters and the like — are the remaining bright spot in America’s once-thriving trade union movement. In the case before the Supreme Court, Rebecca Friedrichs, a dissident teacher in Southern California, argues that she should be able to accept the higher wages and benefits the union negotiates, but not help pay for the costs.

Relying on the First Amendment, Ms. Friedrichs says that she shouldn’t be forced by the government to support political causes with which she disagrees. But almost four decades ago, the Supreme Court came to a sensible compromise on this issue, written by an Eisenhower appointee, Justice Potter Stewart:

No public sector worker can be compelled to join a union or to pay for its political efforts. However, the state may require that every worker pay fair share fees to support the costs of collective bargaining over bread-and-butter issues like wages, benefits and working conditions.

That 1977 ruling appears in real danger of being overturned. Doing so, David C. Frederick, a lawyer representing the union, told the court, “would substantially disrupt established First Amendment doctrine and labor management systems in nearly half the country.”

Continue Reading Full Article Here.

Voodoo Econ, the Next Generation

From yesterday’s NYT “Opinion” by Paul Krugman:

Even if Republicans take the Senate this year, gaining control of both houses of Congress, they won’t gain much in conventional terms: They’re already able to block legislation, and they still won’t be able to pass anything over the president’s veto. One thing they will be able to do, however, is impose their will on the Congressional Budget Office, heretofore a nonpartisan referee on policy proposals.

As a result, we may soon find ourselves in deep voodoo.

During his failed bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination George H. W. Bush famously described Ronald Reagan’s “supply side” doctrine — the claim that cutting taxes on high incomes would lead to spectacular economic growth, so that tax cuts would pay for themselves — as “voodoo economic policy.” Bush was right. Even the rapid recovery from the 1981-82 recession was driven by interest-rate cuts, not tax cuts. Still, for a time the voodoo faithful claimed vindication.

The 1990s, however, were bad news for voodoo. Conservatives confidentlypredicted economic disaster after Bill Clinton’s 1993 tax hike. What happened instead was a boom that surpassed the Reagan expansion in every dimension: G.D.P.jobswages and family incomes.

And while there was never any admission by the usual suspects that their god had failed, it’s noteworthy that the Bush II administration — never shy about selling its policies on false pretenses — didn’t try to justify its tax cuts with extravagant claims about their economic payoff. George W. Bush’s economists didn’t believe in supply-side hype, and more important, his political handlers believed that such hype would play badly with the public. And we should also note that the Bush-era Congressional Budget Office behaved well, sticking to its nonpartisan mandate.

But now it looks as if voodoo is making a comeback. At the state level, Republican governors — and Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas, in particular — have been going all in on tax cuts despite troubled budgets, with confident assertions that growth will solve all problems. It’s not happening, and in Kansas a rebellion by moderates may deliver the state to Democrats. But the true believers show no sign of wavering.

Meanwhile, in Congress Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, is dropping broad hints that after the election he and his colleagues will do what the Bushies never did, try to push the budget office into adopting “dynamic scoring,” that is, assuming a big economic payoff from tax cuts.

So why is this happening now? It’s not because voodoo economics has become any more credible. True, recovery from the 2007-9 recession has been sluggish, but it has actually been a bit faster than the typical recovery from financial crisis, despite unprecedented cuts in government spendingand employment. In fact, the recovery in private-sector employment has been faster than it was during the “Bush boom” last decade. At the same time, researchers at the International Monetary Fund, surveying cross-country evidence, have found that redistribution of income from the affluent to the poor, which conservatives insist kills growth, actually seems to boost economies.

 But facts won’t stop the voodoo comeback, for two main reasons.

First, voodoo economics has dominated the conservative movement for so long that it has become an inward-looking cult, whose members know what they know and are impervious to contrary evidence. Fifteen years ago leading Republicans may have been aware that the Clinton boom posed a problem for their ideology. Today someone like Senator Rand Paul can say: “When is the last time in our country we created millions of jobs? It was under Ronald Reagan.” Clinton who?

Second, the nature of the budget debate means that Republican leaders need to believe in the ways of magic. For years people like Mr. Ryan have posed as champions of fiscal discipline even while advocating huge tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations. They have also called for savage cuts in aid to the poor, but these have never been big enough to offset the revenue loss. So how can they make things add up?

Well, for years they have relied on magic asterisks — claims that they will make up for lost revenue by closing loopholes and slashing spending, details to follow. But this dodge has been losing effectiveness as the years go by and the specifics keep not coming. Inevitably, then, they’re feeling the pull of that old black magic — and if they take the Senate, they’ll be able to infuse voodoo into supposedly neutral analysis.

Would they actually do it? It would destroy the credibility of a very important institution, one that has served the country well. But have you seen any evidence that the modern conservative movement cares about such things?

A New Report Argues Inequality Is Causing Slower Growth. Here’s Why It Matters.

From today’s NYT blog “The Upshot” by Neil Irwin:

Is income inequality holding back the United States economy? A new report argues that it is, that an unequal distribution in incomes is making it harder for the nation to recover from the recession and achieve the kind of growth that was commonplace in decades past.

The report is interesting not because it offers some novel analytical approach or crunches previously unknown data. Rather, it has to do with who produced it, which says a lot about how the discussion over inequality is evolving.

Economists at Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services are the authors of the straightforwardly titled “How Increasing Inequality is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, and Possible Ways to Change the Tide.” The fact that S&P, an apolitical organization that aims to produce reliable research for bond investors and others, is raising alarms about the risks that emerge from income inequality is a small but important sign of how a debate that has been largely confined to the academic world and left-of-center political circles is becoming more mainstream.

Read the entire article here.

Room for Debate: Overcoming the New Low-Wage Economy

From the NYT “Room for Debate” by Robert Reich:

By raising its minimum wage to $15, Seattle is leading a long-overdue movement toward a living wage. Most minimum wage workers aren’t teenagers these days. They’re major breadwinners who need a higher minimum wage in order to keep their families out of poverty.

Across America, the ranks of the working poor are growing. While low-paying industries such as retail and food preparation accounted for 22 percent of the jobs lost in the Great Recession, they’ve generated 44 percent of the jobs added since then, according to a recent report from the National Employment Law Project. Last February, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 would lift 900,000 people out of poverty.

Seattle estimates almost a fourth of its workers now earn below $15 an hour. That translates into about $31,000 a year for a full-time worker. In a high-cost city like Seattle, that’s barely enough to support a family.

The gains from a higher minimum wage extend beyond those who receive it. More money in the pockets of low-wage workers means more sales, especially in the locales they live in – which in turn creates faster growth and more jobs. A major reason the current economic recovery is anemic is that so many Americans lack the purchasing power to get the economy moving again.

With a higher minimum wage, moreover, we’d all end up paying less for Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance the working poor now need in order to have a minimally decent standard of living.

Some worry about job losses accompanying a higher minimum wage. I wouldn’t advise any place to raise its minimum wage immediately from the current federal minimum of $7.25 an hour to $15. That would be too big a leap all at once. Employers – especially small ones – need time to adapt.

But this isn’t what Seattle is doing. It’s raising its minimum from $9.32 (Washington State’s current statewide minimum) to $15 incrementally over several years. Large employers (with over 500 workers) that don’t offer employer-sponsored health insurance have three years to comply; those that offer health insurance have four; smaller employers, up to seven.

My guess is Seattle’s businesses will adapt without any net loss of employment. Seattle’s employers will also have more employees to choose from – as the $15 minimum attracts into the labor force some people who otherwise haven’t been interested. That means they’ll end up with workers who are highly reliable and likely to stay longer, resulting in real savings.

Research by Michael Reich (no relation) and Arindrajit Dube confirms these results. They examined employment in several hundred pairs of adjacent counties lying on opposite sides of state borders, each with different minimum wages, and found no statistically significant increase in unemployment in the higher-minimum counties, even after four years. (Other researchers who found contrary results failed to control for counties where unemployment was already growing before the minimum wage was increased.) They also found that employee turnover was lower where the minimum was higher.

Not every city or state can meet the bar Seattle has just set. But many can – and should.

Read other views in the debate here.

NPR Reports: Does Raising the Minimum Wage Kills Jobs?

NPR’s David Kestenbaum investigates the question, Does raising the minimum wage kill jobs? Here is an overview:

President Obama has called for increasing the minimum wage, saying it will help some of the poorest Americans. Opponents argue that a higher minimum wage will lead employers to cut jobs.

Figuring out the effect of raising the minimum wage is tough. Ideally you’d like to compare one universe where the minimum was raised against an alternate universe where it remained fixed.

Economist David Card found the next best thing. In 1992, New Jersey was about to raise its minimum wage. Right next door, there was a parallel universe: Pennsylvania, which was not raising its minimum wage.

Card and a colleague decided to study what had happened to jobs at fast-food restaurants in both states. They surveyed restaurants and found that the number of jobs actually went up in New Jersey, which increased its minimum wage, compared to the number of jobs in Pennsylvania, which didn’t.

Card theorized that employers were making less money. The prices of hamburgers had gone up. But as far as he could tell, raising the minimum wage did not end up costing jobs.

The study and subsequent book, Myth and Measurement: The New Economics of the Minimum Wage, bugged economist David Neumark. He explains:

“It was presented as, ‘Economics has it all wrong.’ And I think that coupled with the evidence that the data looked kind of strange, just really prompted us to say, ‘Let’s go back and get what we think will be better data, and do the whole thing over again.’ “

Neumark and a colleague got actual payroll data from fast-food restaurants in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. They came to the opposite conclusion: Raising the minimum wage slightly reduced the number of jobs.

But this was not the end of things. The authors of the original paper then went back and redid the experiment using government data. And they came to the same conclusion as from the first study: Raising the minimum wage did not cost jobs.

Findings like these are the reason the debate over the minimum wage goes on and on — not just among politicians, but also among economists.

The newest study, which the Congressional Budget Office published in February, says raising the minimum wage could cost 500,000 jobs. But it would also increase hourly wages for more than 16 million people.

Listen to the entire story here.

SOTU 2014 focuses on jobs, fairness

President Obama’s State of the Union Address last week highlighted a number of themes that focused on creating more opportunities for working Americans by streamlining the tax code, providing financial support for small business innovation, and making older industries like auto manufacturing and newer industries like vaccine manufacturing more competitive in the global economy.

Underlying all this was a promise to get the country back on track after it went off the rails in 2008 from a financial collapse that was precipitated by poor financial oversight, risky investment, and gross mismanagement of the nation’s financial and banking sectors. Obama claimed that the recession was making several trends worse, including growing income inequality between the wealthy and the rest of Americans. Although the President called on Congress to end its politics of obstruction and act to reform a sluggish economic recovery, he indicated that he didn’t expect much from the Republican Party, and he would move ahead without them wherever executive orders could be made on these issues in place of substantial legislation.

Here is an excerpt of Obama’s SOTU 2014 that focuses on the theme of economic recovery and fairness:

And in the coming months — (applause) — in the coming months, let’s see where else we can make progress together. Let’s make this a year of action. That’s what most Americans want, for all of us in this chamber to focus on their lives, their hopes, their aspirations. And what I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all, the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead in America. (Applause.)

Now, let’s face it: That belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.

Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by; let alone to get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.

So our job is to reverse these trends.

Read the full text and watch the video of President Obama’s SOTU speech here.