Economic inequality

  • January 28, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Nearly a week after providing a staunchly liberal vision for a second term –– leading law professors, attorneys and other advocates are providing via an ACS project ideas and proposals for the administration’s second term. (Regarding the tone and vision of the president’s second Inaugural Address, some apparently believe the president was merely defending New Deal programs and policy the Clinton administration had supposedly advanced.)

    The ACS project, “Toward a More Perfect Union: A Progressive Blueprint for the Second Term,” was recently launched with three Issue Briefs:

    Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Colgate Love looks at why the presidential pardon power “has lost its vigor, its integrity, and its sense of purpose,” and argues why it should be reinvigorated, as well as offering examples, many from the states, for reforming the process.

    Brookings Visiting Fellow Russell Wheeler examines the Obama administration’s record of filling federal judgeships during his first term and puts forth ideas for fixing a judicial nominations process that has become increasingly rancorous and ineffective. In a Brookings’ Up Frontblog post, Wheeler, a leading expert on the federal bench, explains, in part, why the process needs reforming. “First, judicial vacancies, which declined in Clinton’s and Bush’s first terms, increased during Obama’s. Empty judgeships hamper the federal courts’ ability to do their jobs – to sort out contractual disputes and other matters that, left unresolved, contribute to economic uncertainty, as well dispose of criminal complaints and adjudicate claims of discrimination and civil liberties violations.”

    University of Michigan Law School Professor David M. Uhlmann urges the Obama administration to exert great presidential leadership on climate change. Uhlmann, director of the law school’s Environmental Law and Policy Program, noted the small steps the Obama administration took during its first term. But, citing the work of climate scientists, Uhlmann warns that if our country fails “to limit greenhouse gas emissions, searing heat, widespread drought, destructive storms, and massive flooding will become commonplace.” Moreover, Uhlmann argues that climate change will be a “legacy issue” for the president – “either because he helped chart a course toward a sustainable future or because America failed to act while it was still possible to prevent catastrophic climate change. Uhlmann’s Issue Brief goes on to provide ways for the president to act, even without the help of Congress, to put the nation on a path toward sustainable resources.

    During his second inaugural, the president reminded us that “preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action” and unlike too many of his predecessors lauded the noble goal of advancing equality. Obama also took a shot at right-wing economic policy that is all about coddling the superwealthy at the expense of everyone else.

    The president also called for collective action on climate change.

  • January 25, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Senate Republicans devoted to protecting big business interests and undermining workers’ rights vigorously fought President Obama’s efforts during his first term to keep the National Labor Relations Board functioning and appoint a leader for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

    Republicans in the Senate have long sought to ensure that Obama could not alter the makeup of the NLRB, in order to keep it pro-business or inoperative. Moreover, Senate Republicans were opposed to the creation of the CFPB, intended to crack down on some of the shady business practices that helped lead to the Great Recession; and after its creation they were bent on making it as ineffective as possible.

    Earlier today, the Republican agenda of hobbling the NLRB, which exists to enforce the National Labor Relations Act, was advanced by a ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. According to the court, Obama’s appointments to the NLRB in early January 2012 during a 20-day recess of Congress were unconstitutional.

    The appeals court opinion is at odds with other rulings from appeals court circuits and the fact that for a century, presidents, citing Article II of the Constitution, have used recess appointments to fill executive branch vacancies.

    As The New York Times notes, the appeals court decision “also raises doubts about the legitimacy of Mr. Obama’s recess appointment” of Richard Cordray to the CFPB. Obama appointed Cordray the same time he selected the three members of the labor board. At the time Obama noted that he was forced to make the recess appointments because of the Senate’s refusal to move on his nominations to the board and the bureau. “The American people deserve to have qualified public servants fighting for them every day – whether it is to enforce new consumer protections or uphold the rights of working Americans. We can’t wait to act to strengthen the economy and restore security for our middle class and those trying to get in it, and that’s why I am proud to appoint these fine individuals to get to work for the American people.”  

    The opinion by the appeals court panel – all three judges are Republican appointees – is radical and sweeping. Adam Serwer, in a piece for Mother Jones, notes that if the appeals court decision were to be upheld – the Obama administration is likely to appeal it – it would invalidate NLRB decisions made since last January and also impact actions taken by the CFPB.

    The CFPB, Serwer writes “has done what liberals hoped and Republicans feared: Prevented companies from gouging consumers with the kind of unscrupulous business practices that caused a nationwide economic meltdown four years ago. Although Cordray’s appointment is being challenged separately, Friday’s ruling gives companies impacted by CFPG’s decisions an opening to argue that some of the CFPB’s actions should be invalidated.”

    But constitutional law experts argued at the time Obama made the recess appointments that he was on solid legal ground. In a Jan. 2012 piece for The Times, Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe said the president’s recess appointments “ought to be a slam dunk” and that the Constitution is clear on “reserving the authority the president needs to carry out his basic duties ….” 

  • January 7, 2013

    by Jeremy Leaming

    It can be difficult to follow with great interest the machinations in the nation’s capital, especially with divisive, often ridiculous debates that unfold and then are taken to a whole new level by loud pundits dominating airwaves. But when cynicism sets in, as it has within parts of my family, there’s almost no room for serious, calm conversation about policy that is actually being advanced in the confines of the beltway.

    Over the winter break I had the great fortune of seeing three of my brothers, two of whom I rarely get to see anymore. One brother, who has veered from libertarianism to socialism, has written off the entire political process. President Obama is a tool of Wall Street, it would not have mattered had Mitt Romney won the White House, they both represent the same interests, he would say. He scoffed at the Affordable Care Act – no public option, no expansion of health care to the needy – and at the extension of unemployment benefits that has occurred under the Obama administration’s watch. In my brother’s mind the entire system was bought by big corporations a long time ago and they pull all the strings of both major political parties. But I wasn’t all that surprised – he’s been regurgitating the late comedian George Carlin’s stinging, though simplistic, lines about a broken American government for many years now.

    The reality is that the American political process is messy, incredibly divisive and often terribly exhaustive and inadequate. But the constant carping about how bad politicians are is also tiring and irrelevant. When hasn’t our democracy been a messy, maddening affair? Sure there have been respites, but they often don’t last long. It’s a fairly large country, and regardless of Carlin’s jabs, we do and have had some remarkable politicians and heroic leaders for equality and civil rights.

    And regarding the Obama administration’s first term, a little research would reveal that it is wildly over-the-top to blast it as a tool of big business. As The American Prospect’s Jamelle Bouie notes, Obama’s first two years in office “are a good case study of what happens when Democrats have control of the federal government – they try to expand it. In those two years, Democrats greatly expanded the welfare state with a new, quasi-universal health-care program, funneled hundreds of billions of dollars to infrastructure and clean energy research, and implemented a host of new financial regulations. There’s a reason Time correspondent Michael Grunwald called his book on the stimulus The New New Deal – in both size and scope, the activity of Obama and the 111th Congress resembled that of FDR’s first term.”

  • January 2, 2013

    by John Schachter

    Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” has earned rave reviews, myriad award nominations and more than $132 million at the box office. All this for a 2½ hour movie about politics. While other films with government and politics at their core often struggle to draw sizable audiences, “Lincoln” has transcended the genre and demonstrated mass appeal. That’s likely because of the superb acting and script – and the moral force behind the film’s focus, the fight to end slavery in America once and for all..

    Tuesday, January 1, marked the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, a document Fredrick Douglass praised as “the most important document ever issued by an American president,” according to historian Eric Foner (in his book The Fiery Trial).

    Douglass was no Lincoln apologist; he recognized the great man’s flaws and imperfections. But Douglass also got to know Lincoln and appreciate the great pressures under which he operated. When it came to the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass understood the content, the context and the confines. In his “Oration in Memory of Abraham Lincoln,” delivered at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Washington D.C. in memory of Lincoln, on April 14, 1876, Douglass said:

    “Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January, 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the emancipation proclamation. In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness, forgot that the President had bribed the rebels to lay down their arms by a promise to withhold the bolt which would smite the slave-system with destruction; and we were thenceforward willing to allow the President all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.”

    Though sectional conflicts over slavery certainly contributed to the war, ending slavery was not an initial goal. The National Archives notes that that “changed on September 22, 1862, when President Lincoln issued his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, which stated that slaves in those states or parts of states still in rebellion as of January 1, 1863, would be declared free.” Just 100 days later, seeing no action from the rebelling states, Lincoln issued the official Emancipation Proclamation declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious areas “are, and henceforward shall be free.” While the proclamation did not end slavery in the United States, it did fundamentally transform the character of the war and added moral force to the Union cause while strengthening the Union both politically and militarily.

    Eric Foner wrote in The New York Times that to some extent the Emancipation Proclamation “embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life.”

    Across the nation, celebrants have many opportunities to appreciate the value and meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Library of Congress is displaying Lincoln’s first handwritten draft, on display for six weeks starting Jan. 3 in "The Civil War in America" exhibit. And the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian has an exhibit called "Changing America," which recounts both the 1863 emancipation and the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights. The exhibit includes a rare signed copy of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery and is the centerpiece of the Spielberg film. What a great opportunity to see and appreciate the reality of what's been portrayed on the movie screen!

  • December 14, 2012

    by E. Sebastian Arduengo

    Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) despite a massive outcry of protestors at the state capitol in Lansing signed a so-called “right-to-work” bill into law. And just like in neighboring Indiana, right to work passed despite a massive outcry, and Michigan joined 23 other states that have passed such legislation in a seeming race to the bottom for the benefit of corporations that have made massive political donations to the Republican proponents of these bills.

    So what is “right to work,” and why are so many Republican officials making it a legislative priority? Put simply, right-to-work legislation prohibits agreements that require employees of a firm to maintain union membership as a condition of employment, allowing workers who choose to do so the right to “work through a strike.” The problem with this is that federal law requires unions to bargain for a contract that benefits all workers, regardless of whether they become members of the union. And, unions are founded on the premise of collective action, when individuals can take advantage of the benefits that unions win in contracts without having to pay their fair share in dues; it creates a massive free-rider problem that undermines the purposes, and ultimately the benefits that a union provides. For that reason, the AFL-CIO calls this kind of legislation a “right to work for less [pay/benefits]” law.