A Look At The Fast Track Bill Shows It’s The Wrong Thing To Do

The “fast track” trade promotion authority bill has been introduced in the Senate. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution says, “The Congress shall have power to … regulate commerce with foreign nations.” But under fast track, Congress relinquishes that power and agrees to pass trade bills brought to them by the executive branch in a very short time frame with little debate and without making any changes should any problems present themselves.

Though it was announced that this year’s fast track bill was the result of a “deal” between Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) the 2015 bill is nearly identical to the 2014 bill that died in Congress without support for a vote. See this side-by-side comparison from Rep. Sander Levin of the House Ways and Means Committee. It is unclear from this comparison why the “negotiations” between Hatch and Wyden took so long, and what Wyden got that enabled him to put his name on it, enabling the bill to be sold as “bipartisan.”

Fast Track Sets Aside Normal Procedure

Congress does not set aside normal procedure, debate, the ability to fix problems that turn up and agree to vote within 90 days except for trade agreements – even though trade agreements have now proven to have such a tremendous and often detrimental effect on our economy, jobs, wages and inequality. Where did the idea to do this come from? According to Public Citizen, this unusual procedure was “initially created by President Richard Nixon to get around public debate and congressional oversight.”

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Postal Workers And The Public Want A Postal Banking Public Option

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.)


Also see “A “Grand Alliance” To Save Our Public Postal Service.”

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Holiday Bright Spots For Progressives

The midterm elections were a wake-up call. Voters had given up on the Democratic party as irrelevant – not really on their side, so they didn’t bother to show up at the polls. But there are end-of-year holiday season bright spots for progressives as we think about the coming year’s fights.

People are becoming more active with protests over issues like low pay and police treatment. Locally people are putting core progressive policies like fighting pollution, raising the minimum wage and giving people sick days off into effect. And there are signs that the national Democrats are starting to “get it” that they have to demonstrate they are on the side of regular, working people.

People Becoming More Active

Madison, Wisc. and the Occupy movement were flare-ups of popular protest that focused the national discussion on inequality. There are signs that people are starting to become even more active. Black Friday saw the largest strikes ever against Walmart, with employees demanding a living wage. There were pickets and strikes at 1,600 stores in 49 states.

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Is The Democratic Party Relevant Anymore?

Many Democrats examining what happened in the 2014 midterms are asking “what did the voters want?” But the right question is why did only 36.4 percent of potential voters bother to register and vote? Obviously Democrats did not give those voters a good enough reason to take the trouble. Is the Democratic Party relevant anymore?

“New Coke” Democrats

In 1985 Coca-Cola was the market leader, but Pepsi was gaining market share. Coca-Cola’s executives panicked and reformulated its flavor to taste like the more-sugary Pepsi. But Pepsi drinkers already drank Pepsi and Coca-Cola drinkers were left with no brand that they liked. If this sounds like an analogy to the Democratic Party consultants who keep urging Democratic candidates and politicians to be more like Republicans, that’s because it is.

Democrats were considered the majority party from the time of Roosevelt’s New Deal until the 1980s. All they had to do to win was to get a high enough voter turnout. Democratic operations were more about Get Out The Vote (GOTV) than giving people reasons to vote for Democrats instead of Republicans. They just assumed most people agreed with them – because most people agreed with them. But that time has passed.

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Democrats – There’s Still Time

“It is hard to understate the intensity of the response to the role of big money.”

Mike Lux, writing at The Huffington Post in “Four Weeks Out: What Will Be the Narrative of Election 2014?,” echoes something that we have been pounding on here at OurFuture.org: Democrats who campaign with a populist message will do better than Democrats who support the “centrist” – big corporate, Wall Street – positions.

In his post, Lux writes:

In a fascinating memo from Stan Greenberg and James Carville’s Democracy Corps and Page Gardner at Women’s Voices Women’s Vote Action Fund, they suggest that there is a modest but nonetheless quite significant trend toward Democratic candidates in the battleground Senate races. … They argue that a populist message especially focused on women voters’ top economic concerns and attacking the big money corporate interests that want to “make sure CEOs paid no higher taxes and that their loopholes are protected, while working men and women struggle” moves these razor-tight races an average of 4 crucial points, from -2 to +2.

… Democrats should be driving the story of the corrupting influence of big money in politics. As the DCorps memo states: “It is hard to understate the intensity of the response to the role of big money.”

I’m going to repeat that. Focusing “on women voters’ top economic concerns and attacking the big money corporate interests that want to “make sure CEOs paid no higher taxes and that their loopholes are protected, while working men and women struggle” moves these razor-tight races an average of 4 crucial points, from -2 to +2.”

How can Democrats say this? Lux suggests this:

The real-world narrative Democrats should tell is about the spending of the Koch brothers and their agenda, which they laid out at their secret meeting in June: no minimum wage, no Social Security, no public education or student loans, lower taxes for the wealthy, and less regulations. “Because we can make more in profit,” said their so-called “grand-strategist” Richard Fink.

Not a bad idea, considering that the Koch brothers network is driving much of the Republican party at this point, and certainly their money is driving much of the election.

Democrats, there is still time.

Here are a few posts to check out (Many of these, plus some other useful posts, are on our “Winning Issues for 2014″ page):

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Full Employment Is More Than Possible – It Is Essential

Progressives have not only been able to beat back the D.C.-elite effort to cut Social Security, we put the idea of expanding Social Security on the table instead. We pushed LGBT rights and gay marriage and have won significant victories. Sunday’s Climate March will force climate onto the map.

We got the discussion of income inequality going. We have achieved minimum wage increases and paid sick days in several cities and states. The National Labor Relations Board is functioning and we even saw labor-movement gains in the South this week. We have held back (so far) the drumbeat for big cuts in corporate taxes they’re calling “tax reform.”

Now it’s time to put our demand for full employment policies on the table. And guess what – it’s a great way to win elections!

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Why Fight For Unions? So We Can Fight An Economy Rigged Against Us

The other day I wrote about how FedEx has been pretending that their employees are not employees, which gets around labor standards for things like overtime, family leave and the rest.

This misclassification game is just one way that big companies have been rigging the rules to give themselves an edge, getting around what We the People set down for our democracy.

The result, of course, is even more people paid even less with even worse working conditions. And the bad players get an advantage that drives out the good ones.

Like misclassification, this game-rigging, cheating, edge-seeking, rule-bypassing stuff is everywhere you look. (Rigged trade deals, corporate tax “deferral” and inversions, corporate campaign donations, too-big-to-fail banks, Congressional obstruction, etc. and etc…) This rigging of the game in favor of the ultra-wealthy gets worse and worse.

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Perhaps We Need Corporate ‘Loyalty Oaths’

Several American corporations are using a tax loophole scheme called “inversion” to get out of being American corporations obligated to pay American corporate tax rates. They buy or merge with a non-U.S. corporation (usually located in a tax haven), pretend they are a subsidiary to that corporation and renounce their U.S. “citizenship.”

That’s almost the only thing that changes. Their U.S. executives, employees, facilities and customers remain where they are, along with the benefits and protections they get from our courts, education system, military, infrastructure and all the other things we pay for through taxes. They just stop paying various taxes to help pay for those things.

Walgreens announced today that they will not “invert” and become a non-U.S. corporation. (And their stock tumbled as the bailed-out “patriots” on Wall Street heard the news.) Walgreens’ decision follows the collection of more than 160,000 signatures on a “Tell Walgreens to stay in the USA!” petition organized by a coalition of progressive organizations demanding that Walgreens remain a U.S. corporation.

But that announcement is just one victory in what has to be a continuing campaign to make sure corporations honor their obligations to America and pay their share of the cost for the things that enable them to prosper in America.

Corporate Desertion

At The Daily Beast Monday, Jonathan Alter wrote about this “corporate desertion.” In “The United States Needs Corporate ‘Loyalty Oaths’,” Alter writes that “…it’s time for red-blooded Americans to take matters into our own hands. My answer is to make every corporation sign something.” Alter suggests “… a “non-desertion agreement” with the John Hancock of every board member and CEO in the United States.”

If boards thought for even a second about the long-term interests of their companies, they would summon their lawyers and sign. It’s protection against the risks of resurgent nationalism that could strip them of the many advantages (indirect government subsidies, easy access to American markets) that they currently enjoy.

Alter points out that the president can just do this today with an executive order for corporations that receive federal contracts:

“The president should issue an executive order that says any company that wants to keep its federal contracts must sign a new-fangled NDA. It’s reasonable to expect most federal contractors to be American companies. Obama has already used that leverage to raise the minimum wage for companies doing business with the government and, in a little-noticed move, to force government contractors to pay their suppliers on time.

This executive order would get the attention of major corporations, most of which receive federal contracts.”

The Benefits And Protections Corporations Get

Corporations themselves are not the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, as long as we understand what they are and are not. A corporation is just a tool – a way to get something done. A corporation really is just a legal contract – entirely a creation of government (We the People) – a legal form of business organization that allows multiple investors to aggregate funds in order to accomplish projects that would otherwise be difficult to get done, except by governments. (It takes a huge investment to build a factory, buy the equipment and supplies, and hire the people required to make automobiles, trains, or other goods. The corporate form of a business enables this aggregation of funds from multiple investors.)

Where our relationship with corporations goes wrong is in our understanding of what they are and what they are for. They are neither good nor bad, they can’t be; they are not sentient entities that have morals or “decide to do things.” A corporation is just a contract between investors. A chair or hammer can’t decide things, and neither can a corporation. It is the people who manage the corporations that decide to do things, not the corporation.

Alter writes of the advantages that corporations currently enjoy. They are granted these advantages and benefits because we – through our government – have decided to let groups of investors have them. We did this in order to better accomplish those things that we want to get done. So corporations get many benefits and protections, including (but not limited to):

  • Corporations can raise and concentrate money. Corporations can add new investors, issue stock and borrow. Also the corporation’s stock can be traded, providing liquidity.
  • Corporations provide limited liability. The personal assets of the shareholders of a corporation are protected from the corporations debts and liabilities. A shareholder doesn’t have to come up with money to cover what the company might owe from borrowing or from a legal penalty or fine. Shareholders also are not criminally liable for the things the corporation might do.
  • Corporations get special tax treatment. They pay lower tax rates than other kinds of “persons.” They get all kinds of tax deductions, subsidies, exclusions, etc. that regular persons do not. A huge benefit and protection shareholders of corporations get is something called the “capital gains tax rate.” When one of these owners of corporate stock sells the stock the profits from that sale are not taxed at the same rate as the income of working people. That sale is called a “capital gain.” (That tax rate just went from 15 percent to 20 percent as part of President Obama’s budget compromise.) The reason that the wealthiest people get most of their income from capital gains is because the capital gains tax rate is lower – and the reason the capital gains tax rate is lower is because the wealthiest people get most of their income from capital gains. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
  • Corporations can own property in their own name, including shares of other corporations. Even though they are not “people” we let them “own” things. This enables a certain level of “hidden” ownership of things.
  • Corporations live forever. They survive aside from the lives of the shareholders.

For The Benefit Of We The People?

We the People allow the corporate form to exist and grant these benefits and advantages to corporations because it enables the aggregation of funds from multiple investors to help accomplish those things we believe these corporations can do for us. We the People grant them special benefits, such as tax breaks, and in exchange we are supposed to get certain things back from this deal, beginning with well-made goods and high-quality services, good-paying jobs with benefits, and most importantly a share of the proceeds – taxes – to use to run our society, maintain and improve our infrastructure, educate ourselves, and all the other things We the People established our government for. In other words, this is supposed to be about making our lives better.

Why else would We the People make laws that allow this business form and grant these advantages and benefits to these corporations, unless it was for the benefit of We the People?

We the People create the fertile ground – education, infrastructure, courts, police and military protection, customers, etc. – for these corporations to thrive and We the People are supposed to reap the harvest.

We Get In Trouble When We Misunderstand What Corporations Are For

These advantages and benefits are supposedly granted in order to advance our – We the People’s – interests in getting certain things done and providing us with certain benefits, period. It is when we misunderstand what a corporation is that trouble begins.

One example of this trouble is that many people mistakenly believe that shareholders “own” a corporation. In fact, shareholders only have a contractual agreement related to the value of the stock. A corporation has no “owners.” It is just a contract, an understanding, a piece of paper.

Another example of the trouble that can occur from misunderstanding what a corporation is comes from the mistaken belief that the purpose of a corporation is to make money – and that there is a corresponding rule that they are required to “maximize shareholder value.” In fact, a corporation exists to allow investors to pool funds to accomplish certain tasks that benefit us. Their purpose is to better enable the accomplishment of those tasks.

Just Who Are We Talking About?

Unfortunately, public understanding of corporations has migrated from the original purpose of this form of business organization. Why is this? The answer might come from understanding who benefits from owning shares in corporations. This chart from the 2011 post “Nine Pictures Of The Extreme Income/Wealth Gap” explains who we are really talking about when we talk about corporations today:

The top 1 percent own 50.9 percent of all stocks, bonds, and mutual fund assets. The top 10 percent own 90.3 percent. The bottom 50 percent of us own 0.5 percent. That’s one half of one percent.

So Here We Are

We have drifted very far from our understanding of the relationship that is supposed to exist between We the People, our government, and the businesses that our government allow to exist. Why would we pass laws that set up corporations and grant them special benefits, except to make our lives better? How have we allowed these legal constructs called corporations (and the people behind them) to gain so much power that they can tell us what to do, and tell us they are going to just leave the country if we don’t let them have their way?

If We the People are not benefiting from the existence of these things called corporations, maybe it is time for We the People to put a stop to the special advantages and benefits they get. Why should the 1 percent enjoy limited liability, special tax breaks, use of courts, and police and military protection if We the People are not getting well-made goods and high-quality services, well-paying jobs with good benefits, good schools and the rest of the things called for in the original bargain that created corporations in the first place?

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren Tells Netroots: “Push Back And Fight Hard”

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Senator Elizabeth Warren took her fight against a rigged system to the Netroots Nation gathering in Detroit Friday morning, saying that she is fighting back, and if We the People “push back and fight hard, we can win.”

Outside the hall, people were passing out “Ready for Warren” hats and signs. Inside the hall, the hats and signs were everywhere.

Fighting back against a rigged system was the theme of Warren’s rousing speech to Netroots. She began by briefly telling the story of how the about Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) came to be. She had the idea for the agency, started talking about it, people told her it was a great idea and badly needed, but said to her, “Don’t do it because the biggest banks in the country will hate it and you will lose.”

She said they had that half right. “They spent more than a million dollars a day for more than a year lobbying against financial reforms. But we fought back and we won. We won because you and a zillion other people across the country got in the fight. We said we the people will have this agency and we won.”

And now we have the CFPB and it has already returned $5 billion to people that the big financial firms tried to steal, she said.

Warren’s message was that we should “never miss the central point of this story. The CFPB is proof of how democracy can work in the 21st century. It is proof that if we push back against the biggest, strongest, most ruthless lobbying effort in the country, if we push back and fight hard we can win. We can’t win every time and we are still trying to figure out how to make it all work. We don’t win every time but we’re learning to win. We will keep at it; we will fight and we will win that’s my message today.”

A Rigged System

Warren moved from there to what is happening in the country today. She said companies naturally look for profits. “But many of them have another plan – they use their money and their connections to try to capture Washington and rig the rules in their favor … That’s what we’re up against that’s what democracy is up against.”

She compared what happens to regular people with what happens to wealthy elites at the top, saying, “A kid gets caught with a few ounces of pot and goes to jail but a big bank launders drug money and no one gets arrested.”

Not Just Big Banks

Warren said, “But it’s not just the big banks.” She called on the audience to look at the choices the federal government makes, such as piling debt on students. Then she went straight after Republicans as the enablers of the rigging and corruption. “Instead of building a future, this country is bleeding tax loopholes. Billion-dollar corporations squeeze out deals with foreign countries, renounce their citizenship and pay no taxes. How does this happen? They all have lobbyists and Republican friends in Congress to protect every loophole and every privilege. The game is rigged and it isn’t right.”

Rigged Trade Deals

“Take a look at what happens with trade deals. Trade negotiations are like Christmas morning for the biggest corporations,” she said.

Warren described how corporations can bypass pollution and wage laws. “The corporations can get special gifts through trade negotiations they would never get from Congress,” she said, because trade negotiations are secret, held behind closed doors. The corporations are “all smacking their lips at the possibility of rigging the upcoming trade deals.”

“Stop and ask yourself, why are trade negotiations secret? I have had people involved in the process actually tell me, If people knew what was going on they would be opposed. My view is if people would be opposed then we shouldn’t have those trade deals.”

It’s Everywhere

Warren said the tilt in the playing field is everywhere. “When conservatives talk about opportunity, they mean opportunity for the rich to get richer and the powerful to get more powerful. They don’t mean do something about student loan debt or help someone unemployed to get back on their feet.”

The Fight

“Deep down, this is a fight over values. Conservatives and their powerful friends will continue to be guided by their internal motto ‘I got mine and the rest are on your own.’ ”

“My motto we all do better when we work together and invest in future. The country gets stronger when we invest in helping people succeed. … These are progressive values and these are the values we are willing to fight for.”

She then went into a refrain:

We believe that Wall Street needs stronger rules and tougher enforcement.
And we’re willing to fight for it.

We believe in science and that means that we have a responsibility to protect the planet.
And we will fight for it.

We believe the Internet shouldn’t be rigged to benefit big corporations.
And we will fight for it.

We believe no one should work full time and still live in poverty. That means raising the minimum wage.
And we will fight for it.

We believe that fast-food workers deserve a livable wage.
That means we will fight alongside them.

We believe students are entitled to get a good education without being crushed by debt.
And we will fight for it.

We believe after a lifetime of work people are entitled to retire with dignity. That means protect Social Security and Medicare.
And we will fight for it.

We believe – I can’t believe I have to say this in 2014 – in equal pay for equal work.
And we will fight for it.

We believe equal means equal and that true in the workplace and at home and everywhere.
And we will fight for it.

We believe immigration has made country strong and vibrant.
And we will fight for it.

And we believe that corporations are not people. (The crowd was on its feet making a lot of noise so I don’t know what she said next.)
And we will fight for it.

Right here in this room this is where it happens. This is 21st-century democracy. This is the future of America. This is where we decide that We the People will fight together and do that, we will fight together and we are going to win.

And the crowd went nuts.

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This post originally appeared at Campaign for America’s Future (CAF) at their Blog for OurFuture. I am a Fellow with CAF. Sign up here for the CAF daily summary and/or for the Progress Breakfast.