Having It Both Ways
During his most recent State of the Union address, President Obama discussed several progressive themes and ways in which he could and would effect change with or without Congressional action by the use of Executive Orders. This was welcome news for many, especially in light of the obstructionism being practiced to an unprecedented degree in Congress for the past several years. The measures that may be taken in this manner will not go as far in fixing the problems that face our economy or alleviating the extent to which economic inequality has come to plague our society as Congressional legislation would. They would constitute a start, however, and set an example that Congress might be pressured into following through the expression of popular opinion in this election year.
By pledging to sign an executive order mandating a minimum wage of $10.10 for future federal contract employees, the President took a positive step toward lifting workers paid by tax dollars out of poverty. It isn’t enough to help out millions of others working for poverty wages, but sets an example that at least the government is not encouraging paying wages that don’t even allow people to make ends meet. Obviously, raising the minimum wage throughout the economy requires Congressional action, but public pressure has been building for that for quite awhile, and will undoubtedly become an issue for the November elections if not acted upon before then.
There are at least two areas of major concern that appear at this point to be addressed by the Administration in conflicting and perhaps even self-defeating ways. One is the push to level the economic playing field for American workers by decreasing the level of economic inequality present here. This inequality has been caused to a great extent by government policies over recent decades advocating so-called trickle-down economics. The policies lowered tax rates on the wealthy to give incentives to “job creators” to invest in the economy and provide good jobs for all in the process. In effect, what has resulted has been a reverse Robin Hood economy in which wealth has been redistributed from the poor and middle class to further enrich the wealthy. Income and wealth inequality in this country has increased to the point of rivaling that prevalent just prior to the Great Depression. The alleged recovery from the most recent economic downturn has resulted in making matters even worse from the perspective of most American families.
Such policies as increasing the minimum wage for all could raise millions above the poverty level and stimulate the economy at the same time. Strengthening social safety net programs such as social security, Medicare, Medicaid, Unemployment insurance, etc. would likewise provide a boost for the economic recovery which has been stalled by the budgetary drag of the sequester cuts. While supply side economics and austerity policies have fallen into disrepute by most economists, conservative politicians on both sides of the Atlantic appear determined to double down on them. As long as they maintain their ability to prevent new approaches to change the direction of public policy, the trend to increase the wealth of a few at the expense of the rest is bound to continue in the foreseeable future.
Talking about addressing economic inequality is not the same as actually achieving it. Some policies, such raising the minimum wage, providing funding for preschool education, increasing funding and opportunity for higher education, and funding for needed improvements to infrastructure seem impossible to get through Congress. Previous legislation designed to fund jobs for such activities brought forth by the Administration was totally ignored by the House and blocked by Republicans in the Senate. Every gain in one policy or program seems to be negated by a serious budget cut in another. Raising revenues or cutting payments to the wealthy or corporations are off the table entirely. Their opponents are intractable in their unwillingness to compromise even in the face of strong public opposition to their position. Recent refusal to extend long-term unemployment benefits and to significantly cut food stamps are two cases in point. Progressives have the edge in public opinion on these issues, but the opposition has been too powerful to budge so far.
Where Administration policy gets muddled on this score is on its apparent insistence on gaining fast-track trade authority for the TPP and other supposed “free trade” agreements currently under negotiation. Free Trade agreements have, in the past, been accompanied by massive shifts of good paying jobs in this country to other countries having both lower wages and weaker worker protections. Examples of factory disasters and horrendous working conditions in Bangladesh, China and other countries producing products for American and multinational corporations have been widely reported on in recent years. Fast-tracking agreements negotiated in secret for rapid up-or-down ratification in the Senate helped get us NAFTA in the 1990’s. The effect of such legislation on our economy has generally been to increase, not decrease, economic inequality here. Corporate executives and shareholders benefit from increased profits, while factory workers and other lower-level employees either see job losses or pay/benefit cuts that lower their standards of living. The practice of pitting American workers against foreign workers and busting unions by closing factories here to open them abroad worsens the situation. Why say you want to decrease inequality while taking policy directions proven to accomplish the exact opposite? Seems like trickle-down on a global scale to me. The only winners are the plutocrats.
The other area of policy confusion for me involves energy, environmental and climate policy. In light of scientific research regarding climate change, Administration proposals for increased fuel efficiency, conservation and development of clean energy resources make a lot of sense. Why put so much emphasis on developing even more drilling and mining capacity for increasing the availability of the fossil fuels we know are contributing to the adverse consequences of global climate change? Fracking and other techniques that enable the acquisition of oil and natural gas that was not previously economical to produce have enabled the US to become a major source of these fuels once again. Does the fact that we can get rich quick by drilling and selling the stuff here and abroad make up for the environmental degradation caused by these extraction methods? For years, we have allowed corporations to benefit from extracting natural resources without having to pay the full cost of the damages caused by their practices, to the workers, people living near the sites of the operations, and the environment as a whole.
Oil spills, both at sea and inland via pipeline, train and factory explosions, as well as other manmade and/or natural disasters have become more commonplace as our increasing use of and demand for these fuels continues unabated. If we are endangering future generations of all forms of life on earth, why are we building and making plans for even bigger exploitation to speed the process, instead of taking more steps to slow it down? The Keystone XL pipeline should be a no-brainer rejection by the Administration. Should’ve been cancelled years ago. It will allow for easier, cheaper access to some of the dirtiest oil to date to reach across the world and speed global environmental degradation. Who benefits? In the short term, a relatively few workers, but mostly just the oil companies, their executives and shareholders who find a new way to exponentially increase their profits at the expense of the rest of us. Neither the TPP nor the Keystone XL pipeline will contribute to a safer, more equitable US or world. Neither should be completed or implemented without adequate safeguards to prevent the tremendous harm they will cause if not adequately regulated by the people and governments they will affect.
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