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Stop Exacerbating Inequality and Increasing Government Secrecy

June 21, 2015

Over six years into the Obama Administration, with the 2016 election to replace him consuming more press airtime and ink by the day, there are some areas for progressives and liberals to feel satisfaction, but many others where disillusion may seem more appropriate. The Affordable Care Act was passed and has gone into effect with some great successes – millions now have health care coverage who did not before. An economy that was in tatters in 2009 has made great strides in terms of job growth, along with some important reforms to the financial services industry designed to prevent the abuses that resulted in the financial debacle that marked the end of George W. Bush’s tenure.

Every major policy speech that President Obama has made ( States of the Union, Inaugural, etc.) has included majors calls for improvement along progressive, democratic lines. Much of the trouble in achieving lofty goals in areas like raising wages for those of us who are not members of the wealthy elite, improvement in income and overall economic inequality, creation of good paying jobs, and increasing overall wellbeing and equal opportunity for members of all segments of our society, has often been met with overwhelming silence in both Congress and State Legislatures across the nation.

Despite success in electing someone to the highest office in the land who at least talks a good game when it comes to representing the interests of the less fortunate among us, as a nation we have fallen far short of achieving the task of backing that person up with state legislatures, governors, and a Congress that even remotely shares those goals in their public pronouncements, let alone in their actions. We see more reactionary governors and state legislatures hell-bent on returning our society to 18th Century conditions with Orwell’s Big Brother thought control than to 21st Century democracy and FDR’s Four Freedoms.

Every step along the way in implementation of the ACA, Republicans in Congress have fought tooth and nail to derail it, even as it has achieved remarkable successes. State performance in this regard has been even more abominable, with most Republican dominated states even refusing to expand Medicaid – an act that leaves thousands in each of these states still unable to obtain affordable health care. More than once (including now), we have stood one bad Supreme Court decision away from stripping millions of the subsidies that enabled them to afford coverage – due to refusal of their states to create health care exchanges. Calls to repeal and replace the legislation are met with stunned silence whenever anyone asks “ Replace it with what?”

Likewise, financial reforms are being attacked and/or slowed down at every stage attempting implementation. Budget deals and regulatory battles threaten to return us to a state where another crisis like the one most recently endured becomes inevitable, if it isn’t already on the way. Republicans are not solely to blame for this situation. Plenty of Democrats rely on Wall Street millions to maintain their seats in Congress as well.

While the Republican controlled Congress refuses any attempts to raise the Federal minimum wage (as has been called for every year by both the President and his party in Congress), an increasing number of states and localities have successfully opted to raise wages under their jurisdiction. Local and even some national grassroots organizing have also helped to apply pressure on employers to better compensate their employees. But these gains are often offset by losses in other localities and states.

One of the most disappointing aspects of all of this activity is the fact that, despite a groundswell of grassroots activity to improve pay and working conditions for those at the bottom and middle of the economic ladder, legislative efforts at the state and national level have doubled down on the efforts that have been in effect for decades which increased inequality in economics as well as opportunity in our society as a whole. Some of the early key players in the run for the GOP Presidential nomination have been the worst offenders. Scott Walker in Wisconsin comes to mind, having gone out of his way to lower taxes on the wealthy and corporations while busting public employee unions and greatly curtailing their bargaining rights. He seems to have been eclipsed in public scorn by Sam Brownback in Kansas for now, but other governors and state legislatures have been likewise making life easier for the wealthy at the expense of the vast majority of the people in their states.

States have been passing Right-to-Work legislation which is designed primarily to lower wages for all workers by making traditional collective bargaining close to impossible. Short of that, eviscerating public employee unions, which are now the most effective collective worker organizations remaining in many of these states, serves much the same purpose. Cutting taxes on the wealthy, as promised, has not resulted in the accompanied economic resurgence which was also promised. Deep cuts to safety net programs, public education (at all levels) and basic social services still often hasn’t made up for the revenue shortfalls resulting from the massive tax cuts.

To make up the difference and balance budgets (as Constitutionally mandated in 49 states), rather than rescind the tax cuts, states such as Kansas are resorting to tax increases in the most regressive manner possible – increased sales taxes and fees that cost the same for all regardless of income. Thus, overall tax burden is radically shifted away from those who can most afford it (and who obtain the most benefit from living in state and still end up paying a lower percentage of their income in taxes) to those who can least afford it – those who were having a difficult time making ends meet to begin with. To top that off. there have been increasing movements in states to punish those receiving benefits such as welfare, food stamps, etc. by forcing them to undergo mandatory drug testing and/or further restricting how and on what they may use their benefits. No similar effort is made to ensure the wealthy are wisely using their tax windfall – or even prove that granting it to them has any beneficial effect on the state whatsoever.

Whether people are so beaten down attempting to make ends meet, having their attempts to make a difference squashed by voter suppression legislation, or the decisions by SCOTUS to allow virtual unchecked availability of corporate and individual funds to pay for ever more expensive media campaigns that buy way too many elections, these politicians continue to be re-elected no matter how horrendously their policies render their states. Checks and balances that are supposed to prevent us from losing control of our government seem to be failing miserably. The only thing that could make things worse, it seems, would be if someone like Trump or Cruz got elected President with this Congress.

One area where it has become apparent where liberals and progressives may indeed have a bone to pick with the President comes in this current massive effort to force through Congress new “Free Trade” legislation without demonstrating in any way how it will benefit people in this country, let alone in the world as a whole. Promises made in passing previous trade agreements, such as NAFTA, turned out to be mistaken, if not intentionally overblown. Such agreements have contributed to a virtual race to the bottom in terms of wages and working conditions for workers here, while not seemingly benefitting our counterparts in other countries. As Right-to-Work laws here have encouraged industry to migrate in such a manner as to lower wages and increase inequality within our country, free trade agreements have done little other than free up capital to move production abroad.

That corporations are being allowed to formulate these agreements to facilitate an even larger concentration of total world wealth in even fewer hands cannot be disputed with a straight face. Labor cannot possible move with the rapidity of capital. Pretending that the lives of textile workers in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh and countries are improving economically and otherwise is not self-evident. Has there been any movement toward greater workplace democracy in any of these countries? Why should our government be condoning slavery and other serious human and workers’ rights violations permitted by other governments that we do not allow here (with good reason!)? Do they see improvement in their working conditions, standards of living and political freedoms? Should our citizens seek to emigrate there to improve their lives when the main jobs available to them here are lower skilled and/or unable to be outsourced abroad?

If the technological advances that make the free movement of goods and services are supposed to be beneficial to all, why is so much the distribution of the wealth accruing primarily to the puppet masters and bosses and so little to the workers who actually produce the goods and services? Most importantly, why are these decisions being written and designed to be implemented in secrecy without input or knowledge of the people whose lives stand to be most affected by them. This should not be a question only for those living under authoritarian regimes, but even more so in the nations like the United States, Canada and Australia which pride themselves on being governments of, by and for their people, not the corporations and oligarchs who seek to rule over them.

Pretending that this agreement is not being written in secret with all the contortions and restrictions any member of Congress needs to go through to even read the thing, let alone get advice as to what the ultimate effects of the provisions contained in it will be, is absurd. If fast track passes and debate is as limited as they want it to be, it should be voted down unanimously. Calling this process transparent is like calling a blindfold transparent because you can tell if it’s light or dark, even if that’s all you can see. The details matter. Workers rights, the environment, and basic human rights need to be given due consideration, not just seen as another obstacle to the glorification of greed and further accumulation of wealth and power by people who have proven a propensity to abuse that which they already possess.

Further Suggested Readings:

Liberal groups vow to punish 28 Democrats who voted yes on trade bill

Two competing visions for American fairness

In the Global Apparel Industry, Abusive and Deadly Working Conditions Are Still the Norm

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