On TAP: Kuttner + Meyerson

Kuttner
July 11, 2018

If Putin Is Trump’s Chum, Why the Pressure to Spend More on NATO? OK, it’s not exactly news when Trump contradicts himself, but consider this doozie:

Trump is excoriating America’s NATO allies for failing to meet the agreed-upon target of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on the military. The U.S. spends close to 4 percent, and Trump has just urged NATO members to double their target to 4 percent, too.

But hold on. If memory serves, NATO was created to protect Western Europe against Soviet Russia.

The Kremlin is no longer Soviet, but its near-neighbors like the Baltic republics and Ukraine are all too aware that Russian territorial swagger has not disappeared. Donald Trump, however, seems to believe otherwise. If things go according to plan, he will go directly from the summit meetings bashing our NATO allies to a love-fest session with Putin.

So please explain: If Putin is a benign pussycat, why does NATO need to spend more money on the military—to contain a nation that Trump no longer considers a threat?

a) This is just an excuse to bash Europe.

b) Trump doesn’t know, and he is oblivious to contradictions.

c) Whacking NATO is another way to suck up to Putin.

d) Europe is spending plenty, even if Putin is a problem.

e) All of the above.

Meyerson
July 10, 2018

Questions for Kavanaugh. From what we’re now learning about Brett Kavanaugh, it’s clear he thinks indicting a sitting conservative president would be a disaster. Whether he feels that way about a sitting liberal pope—in this case, Francis—isn’t so clear. President Trump’s pick to succeed Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court has written a great deal about how our system needs to defer to presidential power, and it’s also apparent that he’s a charter member of the Antonin Scalia/Pope Benedict Society for the Preservation of Patriarchal Norms (the Older, the Better).

One newer norm that Kavanaugh looks poised to uphold is that of answering no substantive questions during his upcoming Senate confirmation hearings. A newly released study documents that Trump’s previous court pick, Neil Gorsuch, set the record for the highest percent of questions evaded during his hearings. Kavanaugh may well try to shatter Gorsuch’s record, but if the senators on the judiciary committee allow him to get away with that, they’ll not be doing their jobs.

The business of the Supreme Court is policymaking—that is, politics. It ratifies, modifies, or rejects the laws our elected officials enact, and in so doing, advances, confirms, or sets back the norms that we elect our legislators and chief executives to codify. As the replacement for the Court’s longtime swing vote, Kavanaugh, not just a jurist but a longtime Republican operative, would have it in his power to repeal reproductive rights, uphold Republican gerrymanders, rule for corporations over workers and the claims of the environment, strike down the Affordable Care Act, and protect the man who nominated him from investigation and prosecution. These are all momentous questions of public policy, and as senators are presumably in the business of creating public policy, they need to ask him where he comes down on these issues.

In particular, the two pro-choice Republican senators, Maine’s Susan Collins and Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, should announce—if they’re really serious about preserving women’s right to choose—that they won’t vote to confirm Kavanaugh unless he declares publicly that we won’t vote to repeal Roe v Wade. Democratic Senators Joe Donnelly, Heidi Heitkamp, and Joe Manchin should announce they won’t vote to confirm Kavanaugh unless he publicly declares he won’t vote to strike down the Affordable Care Act. The public policy questions involved here are too fundamental to give Kavanaugh a pass on.

This is not a course of action that senators have taken before, at least that I’m aware of. But it should be precisely this course that the many groups opposing Kavanaugh’s confirmation demand of the senators who’ll cast the deciding votes. It should be the course that Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer demands of his colleagues, and that Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, sets as the norm when or before the hearings commence.

Americans elect their legislators and executives based on those candidates’ positions on fundamental questions of national direction. Now that the Supreme Court may be handed over to a new majority that could well reverse or retard fundamental national directions, the positions that Kavanaugh would take if confirmed are no less important than the positions of a candidate for president. The only way that he could be compelled to reveal those positions would be if Collins, Murkowski, Manchin, & Co. announced he wouldn’t get their vote if he evaded answering where he stood. Americans demand that standard of their candidates; our elected officials should demand no less of a nominee who could yank the nation back to a radically less egalitarian time if confirmed as the next justice of the Supreme Court. 

Kuttner
July 9, 2018

As Ohio Goes. Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in Ohio by more than 450,000 votes in 2016. Yet Ohio could well lead the blue wave in 2018.

Senator Sherrod Brown, a progressive who was once a key target of Republicans, is up by 13 to 17 points in his re-election campaign, depending on which poll you follow. Former Attorney General Richard Cordray, who also served as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, is leading in the race for governor.

Several House seats could also flip. In their extreme gerrymandering of Ohio, Republicans got so greedy that they distributed likely Republican voters rather thinly—so that in a state where the popular vote for Congress hovers around 50–50, the result was 12 seats for Republicans and just four for Democrats. But in a wave election, where swing voters switch to Democrat, there aren’t enough Republican voters to go around, and several of these designer seats could fall to the Democrats.

Brown, as much as any progressive Democrat in public life, emphasizes pocketbook issues. He is also a down-the-line progressive on social issues such as abortion and LGBT rights—but he leads with the economics. That’s why socially conservative blue-collar voters cut Brown some slack on the avant-garde social stuff. They know he is on their side. The rest of the party could learn something from Brown.

So, for that matter, could political commentators, who keep blathering on about the dangers of Democrats moving “too far to the left.” But you need to distinguish economics from social issues. 

Progressive populism on economics is always a winning formula for Democrats. It is indeed possible to move too far left-fringe on social issues and scare off mainstream voters, but popular economics provides a lot of inoculation on issues like abortion rights, civil liberties, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and civil and human rights broadly defined.

Commentators need to get it through their heads that there is a difference between left on economic issues and left on social issues. And of course Wall Street on economics and left on social issues is the worst of all worlds. RIP Hillary ’16.

Kuttner
July 6, 2018

Kielbasa Republic. Question for today: What exactly is the difference between the way Poland’s autocratic rulers have disabled its Supreme Court and the way the Republicans have taken over the U.S. courts?

Poland, where the governing party has an absolute majority in parliament, is in trouble with the leaders of the European Union and many of its own outraged citizens for jamming through a measure requiring mandatory retirement at 65 for Supreme Court justices. This thinly disguised coup will force the ouster of some 27 of 72 sitting justices, and turn the Court into a rubber stamp, removing the last obstacle to full dictatorship.

In the U.S., Republicans under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pursued a policy of blocking as many Obama judicial appointments as possible, slowing the process way down, and bargaining with the administration to appoint more centrist nominees as a condition of agreeing to a vote at all. This was in sharp contrast to the way Democrats treated appointees of President George W. Bush, when only the most extreme nominees were challenged.

When a Supreme Court seat came open after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016, McConnell pursued the unprecedented course of simply refusing to act on Obama’s nomination of the relatively moderate appellate judge Merrick Garland. As a consequence, Trump got to fill a seat that was rightfully Obama’s.

So, what is the difference between destruction of an independent judiciary in Poland and the U.S.? Mainly, timing. In Poland, the coup has been abrupt. In the U.S., it has been a slow roll. The outcome isn’t that different—hijacked, politicized courts. 

Meyerson
July 5, 2018

Adding Insult (More Precisely, Discomfort and Anger) to Injury. Airline passengers, abandon all hope. On Tuesday, Donald Trump’s Federal Aviation Administration decreedthat it would do nothing about the relentless shrinkage of airplane seats and legroom. Rejecting a plea from Flyers’ Rights (a passengers’ organization) and a judge’s order that it reconsider its position, the FAA said that such concerns as passenger comfort were none of its business.

Over the past couple of decades, the average width of a coach airline seat has shrunk from 18.5 inches to 17 inches. The average amount of seat pitch (the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you) in coach has shrunk from 35 inches to 31 inches, though on some airlines it’s been scrunched to 28 inches.

The size of the average passenger has not shrunk correspondingly.

If passengers flying in steerage—excuse me, in coach—have problems with the FAA’s obeisance to the airlines, they’re left with what is effectively the non-option of imploring the airlines themselves. However, the years of seat shrinkage coincide with the years that airlines have increasingly come under the control of private-equity firms and other large-scale investors bent on squeezing more seats on to the planes and more profits out of the airlines. In 2015, a former private-equity executive and American Airlines board member penned a gushing column in The Wall Street Journal, celebrating how private equity’s ownership of American had eliminatedthe “inefficiencies” (such as the decent treatment of passengers) that had reduced the airline’s profits. Just yesterday, the Journal reportedthat a private-equity firm had purchased Sun Country Airlines.

Squeezed between the voraciousness of finance capital and the indifference to public welfare of Trump’s regulatory agencies, the American airline passenger has been officially told to lump it—and the lump had better be small.

Meyerson
July 3, 2018

How Big Business and Big Banks Are Using Their Tax Windfalls. In the topsy-turvy world of the past few weeks, it’s comforting to know that some things haven’t changed. Economic inequality, for instance, continues to surge.

Recent data make clear what any sentient observer could have predicted a year ago: The benefits of the Trump tax cut have gone chiefly to major shareholders, with little to no impact on either corporate investment or workers’ wages. “For the remainder of 2018,” S&P Global’s Howard Silverblatt toldThe Washington Post’s Heather Long, “expectations are high for record corporate expenditures in both buybacks and dividends.”

Indeed, in the first quarter of 2018, stock buybacks were the highest ever recorded ($189 billion). By contrast, wage increases are just keeping pace with inflation, and Morgan Stanley reports that capital spending by American corporations is “past its peak.”

Of course, you can’t invest or give your employees raises if you dole out all your money to your shareholders. Last week, after the Federal Reserve announced that all six U.S. mega-banks had passed their stress tests, the banks announced how much they planned to funnel to their shareholders over the coming year. The New York Times compared those numbers to the banks’ forecasts of how much they’d earn in the coming year, and the results tell us a good deal about the absurd state of the American economy. Bank of America planned to direct 95 percent of its anticipated profits to its shareholders in buybacks and dividends; JP Morgan Chase came in at 98 percent; Citigroup raised the ante to 128 percent; and not to be outdone, Wells Fargo won the bidding at 141 percent. (Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs came in at 80 percent and 69 percent, respectively, but these lowball numbers may be due to the fact that, as investment banks, they not only have to pay their shareholders but their many partners as well.)

How much, exactly, that leaves for loans is a good question.

Kuttner
July 2, 2018

You Never Know What You’ve Got Till It’s Gone. Are the centrists in the Democratic Party actually missing the labor movement now that the Supreme Court has dealt public-employee unions what Republicans hope will be a knockout blow? Noam Scheiber of the Times has a really smart piece detailing all of the ways the unions help Democrats and grassroots advocacy groups, and how weaker public-sector unions will set back not just workers but progressive politics generally.

This belated discovery by centrist Democrats of the value of a strong labor movement is a little like Eisenhower’s famous farewell address criticizing the military-industrial complex. Where the hell were they when we needed them?

The Republicans sure figured out how important unions were to Democrats, even if many Democrats didn’t.

We would have a much stronger labor movement, whose voting strength would surely have spared America Donald Trump, if only the last three Democratic presidents had made trade unionism a higher priority. But neither Obama, nor Clinton, nor Carter (though they all had good cabinet and subcabinet appointees at the Department of Labor) put any political muscle behind reforms of the Wagner Act needed to stop union-busting and making it possible for workers to organize without risking their jobs.

Those damned pesky unions—opposing corporate designs for trade that organized labor resisted, resisting deregulation of Wall Street, and challenging the Obama administration’s embrace of a brand of education reform that scapegoated public schools and schoolteachers. The real power players like Robert Rubin under Clinton (or maybe Clinton under Rubin), and his clones in the Obama administration, were opposed to unions and did not lift a finger to help them.

So now, when we need a labor movement more than ever, unions have even less backing from the government or from the rules of the game—and will have to rebuild labor strength one worker at a time. That may yet succeed. But truth be told, the presidential Democratic Party and its allied centrist theorists and Wall Street masters has been a pretty feeble ally of organized labor. Now we all pay the price. 

Kuttner
June 29, 2018

A Big Thank You to Our Readers. Our spring solvency drive set a goal of $50,000, and our readers came through with a total of $57,960. 

Thanks so much to all. The week’s events make clear that the Prospect’s voice is needed more than ever.

The November election—and more fundamentally the survival of our republic—will come down to a contest of energy and mobilization. Whether people who believe in democracy and a decent society can out-organize and out-motivate the haters and the apologists for tyranny.

We believe that we can. That’s why we will keep on keeping on—with your support.

Please enjoy the July 4th break and let’s all remember the republic for which it stands.

Meyerson
June 28, 2018

How Democrats Should Fight the Battle for the Court. Mitch McConnell has said he’ll bring President Trump’s nominee to succeed Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court to the Senate floor before the midterm elections. There’s really nothing Democrats can do to prevent that, and they don’t have the votes to block confirmation. On a straight party-line vote, assuming John McCain is absent, Trump’s nominee would win confirmation by a 50-to-49 tally. Not exactly a resounding vote of confidence, but enough to enable the Court to plunge the nation into a morass of plutocratic rule and evangelical bigotry for decades to come.

So, is there any chance a stray Republican might cross over and vote “No”? If, as is likely, the nominee looks willing to join the four current Court right-wingers in repealing Roe or Obergefell, then perhaps Maine’s Susan Collins or Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski could be persuaded to vote against him or her. Which means that while Democrats highlight the threat to choice and gay marriage in a nationwide campaign—which could also benefit Democrats in the November election, most particularly in those affluent suburban districts that could swing Democratic—they should raise the issue to stratospheric heights in Maine and Alaska and any other state where a wavering Republican solon is to be found.

Assume, though, that Trump’s pick is confirmed, and we are thereby compelled to settle into decades of legal diktats rooted in the Benedictine religious biases and the Spencerian social Darwinism of the Court’s right-wingers. How should the Democrats respond to that?

First, if they retake the Senate this November, they should refuse to confirm any Trump judicial nominations. And if a few Democrats break ranks on this, the Senate leadership should do what Mitch McConnell did when President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Court: Refuse to hold hearings or to bring the nomination to a vote on the Senate floor. We can term this strategy the McConnell precedent.

Second, assuming the right-wing Gang of Five is firmly ensconced on the Court in 2020, and none has suddenly taken leave to meet his Maker, Democratic candidates for president should embrace what we can term the FDR precedent: Call for legislation to expand the number of justices from seven to nine. President Roosevelt advanced this strategy early in his second term, after the right-wing majority then on the Court had shot down most of the core elements of the early New Deal. Roosevelt’s fear was that they would continue on that course and strike down Social Security and the National Labor Relations Act, both newly enacted.

Roosevelt’s proposal drew a furious backlash, not only from Republicans but also from the Southern Dixiecrats in Congress, and he was compelled to withdraw it. But it had a real effect on the Court, which subsequently and surprisingly upheld the NLRA, Social Security, and other key New Deal legislation.

One of the problems with FDR’s proposal was that he didn’t introduce it—indeed, he may not have conceived it yet—when he ran for re-election one year earlier. If the Democratic presidential candidates in 2020 make it part of their platform, however, and should one of them oust Trump that year, the new president could claim that he or she had a mandate to expand the Court.

This is admittedly a controversial course of action—but even as it will mobilize Trump supporters, particularly evangelicals to turn out to vote in 2020 (which most of them will do, in any case), it could also mobilize the low-propensity voters in the Democratic base if the Democratic campaign makes clear just how much the Court’s troglodytes have it in for them. Besides, it’s not clear what else the Democrats could do to short-circuit decades of the Court diminishing freedoms and afflicting lives.

Kuttner
June 27, 2018

The Court: First Muslims, Now Public Employees. The Supreme Court has ruled, 5-4, in the Janus case that public-sector unions may not collect “fair-share” fees from workers who benefit from union contracts but choose not to join the union as dues-paying members.

This in effect extends “right to work” principles to the entire public sector, the largest source of union growth in recent years, for schoolteachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, and myriad other public workers, some 17 million in all.

The decision, in the short run, will weaken unions such as SEIU, AFSCME, and the teachers’ unions. However, as shown by recent successful actions by teachers in several red states, public-worker political consciousness is on the rise, and so is popular support for them.

Public appreciation of the value of collective bargaining is growing generally. More than three in five Americans have a favorable view of unions, with two-thirds of young people supporting unions.

After Janus, public-sector union members will have to redouble efforts to persuade their free-riding brothers and sisters of the value of strong unions. They will be helped in this enterprise by the worker-bashing of right-wing state governments, the Trump administration, and now the Supreme Court.

It would be an exaggeration to call Janus a blessing in disguise—it is one more outrage by a Supreme Court taking advantage of Neil Gorsuch’s stolen seat. But the organizing that occurs in the wake of Januswill bring out the best in trade unionism.

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