Next week, progressives in Congress will release their annual budget proposal. They do this every year, and every year the national news media largely ignores it. Will the elite media report on it this year? Make some noise, and maybe they will.
There are alternative ways to run a government budget, but they are just excluded from the national debate. The elite position creates a “conventional wisdom” that there are no alternatives. But America’s top income tax rate used to be more than 90 percent, to combat inequality and the threat inequality poses to democracy — and the rich still got richer. At the same time, the corporation tax rate was 50 percent, and corporations paid 32 percent of all taxes. That has dropped to just 8.9 percent now, and Congress and the president are now proposing to reduce the corporate tax rate dramatically — again. As a result of these cuts, inequality has soared, budgets have been thrown out of balance, schools have declined, we no longer even maintain — never mind modernize — our crucial infrastructure.
We can have a budget that serves “We, the People.” It’s about priorities. Frankly, in the richest country in history, it is possible to make sure that everyone has a job, good medical care, a good retirement, a good free education, and keep our infrastructure modernized and up-to-date — and all while making sure that the budget is balanced. It really is just a matter of priorities — choices about how we distribute the country’s resources. Unfortunately for 99 percent of us, “we” choose intense inequality and a vast military machine.
Silicon Valley is an area of contrasts. When you stop at a traffic light in Silicon Valley you will often find a Maserati or Tesla on one side of you and a beaten up, 15-year-old Accord on the other. It seems there are more high-end Mercedes, Jaguars, Bentleys or the occasional Maybach than in other areas.
Silicon Valley companies, many run by stock-billionaires, pay a lot at the top, and squat at the bottom. There are the lucky employees, and a huge number of “contractors” – employees who are not called employees. The employees that reach over a certain age are discarded.
There are not a lot of people in the space between Silicon Valley’s top and its bottom. One in three Silicon Valley workers cannot even afford to live anywhere within a one-hour drive. The regular three-bedroom house costs a million dollars and don’t even ask about the rents (starting at more than $2,000 a month for a one bedroom apartment), but on the streets in working-class neighborhoods there are so many cars parked that you can barely pass – because there are so many people and families crammed into the housing. And, of course, the traffic is terrible, but you have to use a car because public transportation is cut back due to tax-dodging by giant companies like those in Silicon Valley.
Contract talks between the American Postal Workers Union (APWU) and the U.S. Postal Service for a new contract start Thursday. Along with asking for fair wages and benefits, the APWU wants improvements in customer services, including postal banking.
“There are two competing visions of the future of the Postal Service,” said APWU President Mark Dimondstein. “Postal management’s policy has been to severely degrade service, dismantle the postal network, and engage in piecemeal privatization. … Management has shortened hours at neighborhood post offices, closed mail processing centers, lowered delivery standards, and slowed mail delivery.”
Instead of trying to “save money” by cutting service with layoffs and closings that cause more customers to turn away, which costs revenue, the Postal Service should add services such as postal banking. This would also help millions of people who currently are left wide open to predatory services like payday lending.
Postal Banking: A Public Option For Banking
Until 1967, the Postal Service (then called the Post Office) operated postal banking through the United States Postal Savings System. Reviving postal banking would be like offering a “public option” for financial services. It would let people have accounts they could use to cash checks, get small loans, pay bills and even get prepaid debit cards. These services would enable lower-income Americans to avoid the exploitative “payday lenders” and check-cashing “services” that eat up working people’s earnings.
The Postal Service would use existing bank infrastructure as the backbone for these services, particularly the debit card service. In “A public option for banking,” Mike Konczal explains how the Treasury Department is already doing this with their Direct Express debit card program for disability and pension payments.
The program allows unbanked recipients of Social Security, federal disability and a few pension-related federal programs to receive their benefits on a debit card. The program emerged from congressional efforts in the 1990s to move from paper checks to direct deposits for these benefits. Congress tasked Treasury to make sure there were low-cost accounts available to the unbanked so they could access deposits.
… By 2007, the department initiated a competitive bidding process for the cards, and Comerica won the account by offering the low-fee schedule the cards now have.
The Treasury Department is already offering this service. There is no reason the Postal Service could not do the same thing with postal banking.
Millions Would Benefit
A lot of people would benefit if the Postal Service offered postal banking. The term for people with no bank accounts is “unbanked.’ According to the 2013 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households, “7.7 percent (1 in 13) of households in the United States were unbanked in 2013. This proportion represented nearly 9.6 million households.” On top of that, “20.0 percent of U.S. households (24.8 million) were underbanked in 2013, meaning that they had a bank account but also used alternative financial services (AFS) outside of the banking system.”
In “The Post Office Should Just Become a Bank, David Dayen explains how this idea could free these millions from the grips of “check-cashing stores, pawn shops, payday lenders, and other unscrupulous financial services providers who gouged their customers to the tune of $89 billion in interest and fees in 2012,” and help the Postal Service at the same time. With small fees for services, including small, low-interest loans, the Postal Service would be helping Americans and increasing its funding.
Post offices could deliver the same services at a 90 percent discount, saving the average underserved household over $2,000 a year and still providing the USPS with $8.9 billion in new annual profits, significantly improving its troubled balance sheet. The report calls simple financial services “the single best new opportunity for the posts to earn additional revenue.”
These millions are not being served now by the financial industry, as Dayen explains,
Banks don’t want these customers; if they did, they would actually make a play for their business. Large banks have closed branches in the very low-income communities with the largest percentages of unbanked Americans. In fact, banks find it more profitable to fund payday lenders that charge junk fees and outrageous interest—currently the subject of a Justice Department investigation—than actually take market share away from them.
Instead of partnering with predatory lenders, banks could partner with the USPS on a public option, not beholden to shareholder demands, which would treat customers more fairly.
If ever there was an idea whose time has come (again) it is the idea of a public option for postal banking. It would help millions of people, would boost the revenue of the Postal Service and would demonstrate that our government actually can be on the side of regular people. (Note that a government service in a democracy should be providing a government service, not trying to “operate like a business” and “make money” off of citizens.)
Alongside Friday’s good employment data, there is a brouhaha on the Internets over claims that the government’s employment numbers are a “big lie.” Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of the Gallup polling company penned “The Big Lie: 5.6% Unemployment,” claiming that “the media” is “cheer-leading” and the White House is “scor[ing] political points” over phony numbers that the government makes up to make things look better than they are.
In fact, the “top line” unemployment number – now 5.7 percent, representing 9 million people, does not factor in people who have given up looking, 6.8 million part-time workers who want to work full-time, 2.2 million “marginally attached” people, people who are grossly underpaid, etc. But everyone knows that, and the government reports that. The “official” number has a specific definition, the “U-6 “alternative measure of labor under-utilization” reports the more accurate 13.5 percent number. So somewhere between 15 and 20 million Americans count as un- or underemployed. But even that doesn’t count those who have given up. It’s still bad out there, but the government’s figures are not being manipulated.
Intentionally High Unemployment
I want to suggest that this high un- and underemployment is intentional. Here is why. Two things that the government could easily do right now would pretty much get rid of unemployment. But our government is blocked from doing those things by extremely wealthy people, who benefit from the low wages, and a desperate and “cowering” reserve army of unemployed status quo.
A way to visualize this is to imagine the effect on our economy of $500 billion of new orders coming in to businesses that make and do things inside the U.S. Then another $500 billion next year and every year after that. Our annual trade deficit is $500 billion. Fixing that means $500 billion of new business here, now, and continuing every year from now on. What you are visualizing is the damage this trade regime has done to us since Wall Street and the right’s “free trade” ideology took over.
So that’s conservatively 15.5 million jobs if we just go back to doing what the country did before the Reagan era. (This gives you a hint at the damage Reagan’s “trickle down” economics, and “free trade” market ideology have done. Look around. The extreme inequality that resulted tells you why it was done.)
Balance trade and fix up our aging infrastructure means at least 15.5 million jobs. (Think about what that would mean for wages, too.)
We got here by cutting taxes for the rich, gutting government, deferring maintenance, a and letting a few billionaires harvest our public wealth through privatization, etc. We’ll get out of it by fixing the trade deficit, repairing our infrastructure, undoing policy mistakes that have continued since the Reagan era, and ending “trickle down” tax cuts.
How do we take this a step further? The following things would employ tons of people and bring a long-term economic return far above any “cost.”
First, retrofit buildings and homes to be energy-efficient. Start with the basics: plug leaks and drafts, paint roofs white. These simple things could employ tons of people who we call “low skilled.” Take it a step further, and install energy-efficient windows, insulation, modern heating and cooling systems, solar on the roofs, etc. — all made in America, of course — and we will employ millions more. The energy payoff would be enormous, and we would go into the future with a much more efficient economy.
Next, engage in 21st century infrastructure projects like high-speed rail across the country and into Canada and Mexico — just like China is already doing. (See: “New Silk Road.“) We’ll create jobs, and end up with a massively more efficient, competitive economy. Then, modernize our power grid and install wind turbines across the plains states. Again, we end up with a massively more efficient, competitive economy. Requiring American-made supplies boosts the return to our economy.
What about building out national, high-speed, fiber internet? Imagine the innovation that would result.
There is so much we could do to first bring about full employment, and then move our economy into the 21st century. But we are held back by this weird Reagan/Wall Street/conservative ideology that tells us not to believe that We the People deserve a government that spends to make our lives better. That spending boosts us up now, makes our lives better, and more than pays for itself later. But we are kept from dreaming and doing because that return on our investment would go to us, instead of into the pockets of a few billionaires.
In December the trade deficit in goods and services made its largest percentage jump in more than five years and the 2014 yearly total is its highest since 2012 – which begs the question: Why is the Obama administration doubling down on the failed trade policies of its predecessors?
The U.S. has run massive trade deficits for decades since the Wall Street-driven “free trade” ideology came to dominate. “Free trade” de-industrialization has cost our country millions of jobs, tens of thousands of factories and entire industries. It has pushed down wages and greatly increased inequality. Now the Obama administration is doubling down, pushing a vast “NAFTA-style” trade agreement and asking Congress to pass a rigged “fast track” process to pre-approve it.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported Thursday that the December trade deficit jumped $6.8 billion (17.1 percent) to $46.6 billion, the largest since November 2012 and the biggest percentage increase since July 2009.
Exports fell $1.5 billion to $194.9 billion (with a chunk of our exports being oil and gas and other raw materials, not manufactured, finished goods). Imports rose $5.3 billion to $241.4 billion.
For all of 2014, the trade deficit increased $28.7 billion (6 percent) to $505 billion. There was a $6.5 billion (2.9 percent) increase in the services trade surplus and a $35.2 billion (5.0 percent) increase in the goods trade deficit. Note that exports increased, but imports increased more. Exports were $2,345.4 billion, up $65.2 billion or 2.9 percent. Imports were $2,850.5 billion, up $93.9 billion or 3.4 percent.
The resulting trade deficit subtracted 1.02 percentage point from last year’s GDP growth and is causing the government to revise growth forecasts downward.
The Economic Policy Institute’s Robert Scott pointed out that “The U.S. trade deficit in manufactured products increased to $524.2 billion in 2014, an increase of $76.8 billion (17.2 percent) from 2013. … Growing trade deficits in manufactured products have been a primary driver in the displacement of U.S. manufacturing jobs since 2000.”
The 2014 trade deficit with China increased by $23.9 billion to $342.6 billion. Exports to China were up $2.3 billion to $124.0 billion while imports from China increased $26.2 billion to $466.7 billion. Again, exports increased but imports increased more, resulting in job loss and a drain on our economy.
Korea and NAFTA
Since the Korea Free Trade Agreement, our trade deficit with Korea has surged more than 80 percent, which equates to the loss of more than 70,000 U.S. jobs. The U.S. goods trade deficit with Korea increased 20 percent in 2014 to more than $25 billion. 2014 exports to Korea were lower than 2011 — which was before entering into the KORUS Korea FTA.
Brad Markell, Executive Director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council, issued a statement that included the following:
These numbers are a consequence of a murderer’s row of bad trade deals. Together, NAFTA, PNTR, CAFTA, and KORUS have gutted the U.S. manufacturing sector. They’re a hall of fame of horribles.
So why is the Obama administration doubling down on the failed policies of its predecessors? Especially when the President and his team have worked hard to encourage American manufacturing by saving the domestic auto industry, establishing a national technology strategy, and enforcing trade-rule violations. Their dogged pursuit of more old-style trade agreements will undermine all of the progress we have made.
Instead, the Obama administration should crack down on foreign government’s currency manipulation to help our manufacturing sector. Prominent economists across the spectrum like Art Laffer, Larry Summers, Jared Bernstein, Dean Baker and Rob Scott all agree this is a significant problem that should be addressed in trade agreements. But President Obama recently acknowledged provisions on currency manipulation are being left off the table.
A major cause of the trade deficits was currency manipulation by other countries. By manipulating the value of their own currency countries can cause American-made goods and services to cost more internationally. China and Japan are two of the worst offenders.
Currency manipulation is not addressed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement now under negotiation.
The Obama administration is pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) by saying that we need this trade deal to keep China from dominating the region. But our problem with China is because of trade deals. We set up conditions when we agreed to bring China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) and we were promised jobs from exports. Instead we got massive imports.
President Obama talks about “boosting exports” but does not mention imports or the enormous, humongous trade deficit. The administration is putting up with these trade deficits and refusing to do anything about currency manipulation by China, Japan and others, while pushing TPP.
The TPP has nothing that fixes this problem. It does not require balance; it does not address currency manipulation. All it does is set up rules that create conditions for the giant multinational corporations to dominate and prevent competition.
We don’t need any more “free trade” agreements. The U.S. has run large and increasing trade deficits since the late 1970s, when the “free trade” ideology took over. The results are obvious. These trade agreements have devastated entire “rust belt” regions of the country. They have kept wages stagnant for decades. They have caused “structurally” high unemployment. They have shifted the middle class down into demeaning, low-wage jobs. They have brought incredible, massive wealth to a very few gazillionaires as they move more factories and jobs out of the country and pocket the wage and environmental-protection differential and these gazillionaires are now controlling our entire political system.
Enough Is Enough
We don’t need more corporate-dominated, rigged trade agreements. Instead we need to fix the agreements we already have. To do this we need to reform the corporate-dominated process that has gotten us where we are today. We need to bring in all of the stakeholders in these agreements and put them at the negotiating table.
Imagine a trade agreement negotiation by representatives of consumer, labor, environmental, health, LGBT, democracy and other citizen “stakeholder” groups instead of solely by and for the giant multinational corporations. Imagine the changes in the way we can all live.
Imagine a trade agreement that prohibits employers from threatening to move a job out of the country to keep someone from getting a raise. Imagine a trade agreement in which the participants agree not to import any goods from countries that allow pollution of the environment. Imagine a trade agreement that outlaws the sale of goods made in conditions that are unsafe for workers. Imagine a trade agreement that sets minimum standards for product reliability and customer support. Imagine a trade agreement that sets a limit on the gap between CEOs and their employees.
Honestly, democratically and transparently negotiated trade agreements could bring about a new direction for the world’s economy and citizens.
PS: This is for real. The next round of “NAFTA-style” trade agreements actually let corporate courts — with corporate attorneys as the judges — stop countries from passing laws that interfere with profits. Treaties like these already let tobacco companies sue countries to block government-sponsored anti-smoking campaigns. This is for real.
So essentially passing Fast Track outsources Congressmembers’ jobs! See for yourself:
In a New York Times op-ed, American Civil Liberties Union Director Anthony Romero called on President Obama to at least issue a pardon to Bush and Cheney and Bush administration officials for the crime of torture. In “Pardon Bush and Those Who Tortured,” Romero writes: “… it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal.”
Politics is about delivering for your constituents. Underneath it all, this election was a statement by people against an economy that is not working for them.
We’ve heard the story but here it is again.
Most people say the country is still in a recession as far as their own life is concerned.
All the gains of the recovery went to the top 10 percent.
Middle-class incomes are down.
The new jobs in the economy pay less than the jobs people lost.
People are not able to find good jobs. Lots of people have given up looking for work.
Student debt is at crushing levels.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
The Republican strategy since 2009 was to obstruct any and all efforts to make things better for people, and then campaign on people’s dissatisfaction with things not being better for them. It worked. You can blame Republicans all you want, but the fact is they kept Democrats from delivering, and Democrats paid the price for not delivering. Democrats failed to deliver a better economy and a better life for most people, and voters held them accountable. Staying home and not voting is just as much a form of accountability as voting against Democrats.
However, the core of this is about more than just passing some bills, raising the minimum wage, providing some relief to the long-term unemployed. This is about the need for much bigger, transformational changes in the who-gets-what of our economy. The bigger picture is about deciding who is our economy for, anyway? Republicans say it is for the already-wealthy few. If Democrats are going to deliver for the people they are supposed to deliver for, they are going to have to face up to the core of the problem and do something about it. Until then … well, we saw what happens.
… [T]he Democrats’ failure isn’t just the result of Republican negativity. It’s also intellectual and ideological. What, besides raising the minimum wage, do the Democrats propose to do about the shift in income from wages to profits, from labor to capital, from the 99 percent to the 1 percent? How do they deliver for an embattled middle class in a globalized, de-unionized, far-from-full-employment economy, where workers have lost the power they once wielded to ensure a more equitable distribution of income and wealth? What Democrat, besides Elizabeth Warren, campaigned this year to diminish the sway of the banks? Who proposed policies that would give workers the power to win more stable employment and higher incomes, not just at the level of the minimum wage but across the economic spectrum?
The economy is not going to get better for most Americans until some fundamental changes are made. It’s a structural problem. The system is rigged for the benefit of a very few and their giant corporations. This is what has to be fixed before a better life can be delivered to most people.
Drudge and others depend on people just reading their misleading headlines. But if you click to the story it’s about disclosing whether stories and videos are paid for. Currently election-spending disclosure is required for TV, radio, etc., but not on the internet.
The FEC deadlocked in a crucial Internet campaign speech vote announced Friday, leaving online political blogging and videos free of many of the reporting requirements attached to broadcast ads — for now.
In other words, any so-called “censoring” is really about requiring Drudge and other sites to disclose whether its “stories” are planted for pay and who paid for them — just as is currently required for radio and TV ads.
If you go to Drudge right now there are no visible ads. Yet the site makes a fortune. Hmmmm…
Trade deals like NAFTA have helped create terrible inequality by outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries so “investors” can pocket the wage difference. These corporate trade deals also create “corporate courts” that bypass the borders of democracy and place billionaires and their corporations beyond the reach of governments when it comes to deciding on laws and regulations that protect citizens.
There are more of these “NAFTA-style” being negotiated right now. These are much bigger than the trade deals that have already created such inequality and corporate hegemony. If Republicans take the Senate and keep the House they will pass these new trade deals and clinch this deal worldwide – and President Obama has already indicated he will sign them. This is serious so try to talk a few non-voting friends into showing up this time.
Trade Deals Being Negotiated Now
The big corporations are pushing our government to finalize three very big trade agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). These are not really trade deals but cover all kinds of issues, including the ability to place corporate rights alongside or above the rights of countries to make their own laws.
These “trade” deals will, if passed by Congress and signed by the president, cement a corporate right to profits above the rights of citizens to pass laws to protect our health, environment, wages, working conditions and anything else we might decide to do to make our lives better. That’s right, these trade agreements place corporate rights above national sovereignty, and they do this behind a veil of secrecy.
These deals, like NAFTA and other “NAFTA-style” agreements, have “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) provisions that let giant corporations sue governments for passing laws that might cause investors to make lower profits. For example, these (and current) agreements allow tobacco companies to stop governments from engaging in anti-smoking initiatives to protect the health of their citizens. These suits do not come up in front of government courts. These are adjudicated by corporate-controlled tribunals of private arbitrators — “corporate courts” set up by these trade agreements. The “judges” are often corporate lawyers who just happen to also represent global investors and whose livelihood depends on the very corporations they are judging.
These deals are being negotiated with only the interests of the giant corporations at the table. Citizens groups, labor groups, consumer groups, environmental groups, health groups and other representatives of stakeholders in the world’s economy are excluded from the process.
Why is our own government negotiating a deal that gives so much to the big corporations and the billionaires behind them, and takes so much away from regular people? Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) sums it up, saying there are three kinds of people negotiating these agreements on behalf of our government:
People who used to work for the giant corporations that benefit from these agreements.
People who want to work for the giant corporations that benefit from these agreements.
People who used to work for the giant corporations that benefit from these agreements and want to work for the giant corporations that benefit from these agreements again.
Why would the giant corporations and the billionaires want these agreements? Because they clinch the deal and get them around the borders of democracy.
Wow, That Sounds Extreme
Trade deals are placing corporate rights above national sovereignty? They are intentionally undermining democracy? This sounds extreme. What kind of person would make such extreme accusations?
Yes, it sounds extreme. This is a dilemma progressives continually face when describing the agenda and actions of the corporate/conservative right. Because so much of what they are accomplishing is hidden behind a veil of secrecy, obfuscation and long-term step-by-step strategy (think frog in a pot with the water being heated slowly), and because people pay very little attention to the news and current events until something smacks them in the face (or wallet) you sound like a crazy extremist when you simply describe to people what is going on.
They’re trying to privatize Medicare? What an extreme accusation to make.
They are trying to make it hard for legitimate citizens to vote? Wow, what an extreme statement.
They’re trying to get rid of public schools? What an extreme thing to say.
They’re trying to engineer a cut in everyone’s pay and benefits? What an extreme … oh, wait, we all can see now that they did that.
The corporate right depends on this one-two punch of secrecy and a poorly informed public to get their way.
Tea-Party Republicans vs. Chamber Of Commerce Republicans
So far enough Democrats have opposed these trade deals to keep the Congress from passing the “fast-track” trade promotion authority that is used to push them through. Fast track requires Congress to rush to a vote immediately after the treaty is made public, prevents Congress from amending the agreements and prevents filibusters from blocking them in the Senate. But if Republicans take the Senate and keep the House, there may no longer be enough non-corporate-controlled members of Congress to keep this from happening.
However, there would still be one hope for blocking these trade deals, even if Republicans take the Senate, and that’s the party’s tea party wing.
These trade agreements undermine the sovereignty of our country. They allow others to override our own ability as a country to make our own laws. This is one place where the tea party gets it squarely right. And this is one place where the tea party wing of the Republican Party is at war with the Chamber of Commerce (corporate-controlled) wing of the Republicans. National sovereignty is important to tea party Republicans, so they oppose these agreements. Also they oppose them because they are favored by President Obama. “Don’t let Obama negotiate away our national sovereignty” is a tea party rallying cry.
If Republicans take the Senate, let’s hope this appreciation of national sovereignty overrides their appreciation of corporate cash.
A top economic official in the White House on Tuesday expressed confidence that the next Congress can pass corporate tax reform.
… Obama has proposed lowering the corporate statutory rate from 35 percent to the high-20s while eliminating many deductions. Camp also proposed to lower the rate, but down to the mid-20s.
Camp has proposed shielding most of the profits corporations make offshore from U.S. taxation, while Obama has called for a minimum tax on global earnings.
Why is it that any time you hear the word “reform” coming out of Washington, it always ends badly for about 99 percent of us? They talk about entitlement “reform” – meaning cutting Social Security and Medicare. They talk about regulation “reform” – meaning our food and workplaces are going to be less safe. They talk about spending “reform” – meaning doing less of the things that make We the People’s lives better. (They never “reform” the military budget. It is more than double what it was when ‘W’ Bush took office. Because we have to defend against the Soviet Union.)
“Reform” is lobbyist-speak for opening up the floodgates, hanging the flags out, lighting the savings accounts on fire, letting dozens of blackbirds fly out of the pie, letting the horses out of the barn and generally fleecing the citizenry.