Tuesday, June 30, 2015

That Was The Week That Was

Political change moves slowly across our big nation, but last week changed America. The Affordable Care Act is now settled law. Same-sex marriage will prevail in every state. The Confederate flag is coming down.

Ever since the ACA was passed in 2010, it has suffered constant attack by Republicans. The day after it was signed, Republican politicians in both houses of Congress voted to repeal it. The House voted over 60 times to repeal Obamacare. Republican arguments that the ACA was unconstitutional, however, have failed twice at the Supreme Court, although the majority of justices were appointed by Republican presidents.

Wikipedia characterized the ACA as “the most significant regulatory overhaul of the U.S. health care system since the passage of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.” This victory does not end the war over health care and how to pay for it. It is one step forward in a long journey. During those 50 years, there have been many attempts to reform health care, as the cost of medicine has exploded. The politics have been clear: Democrats have proposed and Republicans have opposed.

This time, Republicans tried to stoke fears among the elderly that billions to pay for the ACA would come out of Medicare. That was untrue and cynical. In 1961, a youthful-looking Ronald Reagan came to national attention when he produced a 10-minute LP record outlining a nightmare vision of John F. Kennedy’s proposal to expand the government’s role in health care for the elderly: “behind it will come other government programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country until one day, as Norman Thomas said, we will wake to find that we have socialism. We are going to spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children, what it once was like in America when men were free." Republicans opposed the bill unanimously in House committees, and eventually split down the middle in final votes.

In those days there were liberal Republicans. When the Clintons proposed health care reform in the 1990s, Republicans were totally opposed. The fight over the ACA is now over, although Republican leaders keep wasting public time with futile gestures. Rep. Brian Babin of Texas introduced the SCOTUScare Act to force Supreme Court justices and their staffs to enroll in Obamacare.

The day after announcing that Obamacare was the law of the land, the Supreme Court declared a momentous milestone in another long political battle. Same-sex marriage is legal in every state. “No longer may this liberty be denied,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority.

In 1960 every state considered gay sex a criminal act. As recently as 1986, the Court upheld a Georgia law against gay sex. Twelve years ago, Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion for an overwhelmingly Republican-appointed Court in Lawrence vs. Texas (2003), which struck down such laws in 14 states, mainly in the South. Scalia and Thomas also dissented from that attempt to protect the rights of gay people from violent government intrusion. Scalia was prescient: “this reasoning leaves on shaky, pretty shaky, grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.”

The struggle for sexual equality is by no means over, but the current desperation of its opponents is notable. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, running for President, proposed a national convention to write one constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage and another mandating retention elections for Supreme Court justices every 8 years. Nothing less would do in these “darkest hours of our nation.” Cruz might consider that hundreds of Republican political leaders, nearly half of Republican voters, and two-thirds of Americans support same-sex marriage. Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee have both advocated treason, if elected: “We will not honor any decision by the Supreme Court which will force us to violate a clear biblical understanding of marriage as solely the union of one man and one woman.”

Since a Confederate-flag loving racist killed 9 black worshipers in a South Carolina church, many conservative leaders have suddenly changed their minds about its meaning. That political fight has also been waged for decades. The Confederate battle flag was never the official flag of the Confederacy. It became popular in the South not during the Civil War, but later as a statement in favor of discrimination. Mississippi incorporated the symbol into its state flag in 1894, right after imposing a poll tax that eliminated the possibility for African Americans, the majority of the state’s population, to vote, serve on juries or hold elected office. Georgia added the Confederate symbol to its state flag in 1956, in response to another Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954). South Carolina lawmakers raised the Confederate flag over the State House in April 1961, after a year of sit-ins across the South revived the civil rights movement.

June 2015 will be remembered by us and by tomorrow’s historians as a moment of profound cultural and political change. Like many significant moments, this one is tinged with tragedy. Behind the moment are long struggles for equality, dignity and justice, and desperate, even violent measures to stop that human progress. Remember the past and fight for the future.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 30, 2015

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Bernie Sanders for President?

The Democratic nomination for President seems all locked up. Hillary Clinton has name recognition and donor appeal that nobody can come close to. What chance does a Jewish man from Vermont, who calls himself a democratic socialist and refuses to have a super PAC, have against the Clinton juggernaut?

You might think that Sanders would try to run away from the socialist label, but that would mistake two things: Sanders’ honesty and the real nature of American democratic socialism.

For decades, conservatives have used the idea of socialism as equivalent with Soviet-style communism to mislead Americans into voting against liberals. Every policy that President Obama, a liberal, advocates has been labeled “socialist”, and therefore presumably un-American, in the conservative media world. Obama-haters regularly call him a “Muslim socialist”, despite the inherent contradiction. A fine way to find out what American socialism is really about is to look at Sanders’ first political job as mayor of Burlington, Vermont, for eight years, 1981-1989.

Although conservatives claim socialism is about big government, Sanders showed that American democratic socialism is about social ownership. His administration promoted locally owned small businesses, affordable housing, and community involvement in city planning. He fought a big developer’s vision of converting Burlington’s Lake Champlain waterfront into high-priced hotels and condos. Instead what used to be an industrial wasteland now has a community boathouse, a bike path, public beaches and parkland, and a science center.

The developer did not become an enemy, but a friend of Sanders, because both were committed to making Burlington a better place to live. Sanders promoted programs to give women an equal chance as entrepreneurs and workers. His administration passed an ordinance requiring that 10% of city-funded construction jobs be held by women. Corporations opened new facilities in Burlington, some of which are now owned by their employees. Burlington has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country.

Despite decades of name-calling by the right, socialism is no longer the political curse word associated with Senator Joe McCarthy. According to a Pew Research Center poll in 2011, 31% of Americans had a positive reaction to the word socialism, while 60% had a negative reaction. But those responses are highly dependent on age. Americans over 50 were highly negative about socialism and positive about “capitalism”. Those 18-29 were more positive than negative about socialism (49% to 43%), and more negative about capitalism (47% to 46%).

Another poll from 2011 found that a majority of Americans agreed with Sanders’ basic platform. Both Republicans (53% to 41%) and Democrats (91% to 8%) said there is “too much power in the hands of a few rich people and large corporations”. Both Democrats and Independents overwhelmingly said that our economy “unfairly favors the wealthy”. Inequality has suddenly emerged as a major media story, and a more recent poll less than a year ago showed that 46% of Americans say “the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem”.

Sanders’ specific proposals to shift economic power back toward the middle class are gaining wider public support. He wants to raise the minimum wage and increase Social Security payments. He wants to close the tax loopholes that benefit the wealthiest 1% and lower the taxes of the great majority of Americans. He says about the biggest banks, “if an institution is too big to fail, it is too big to exist.”

He won the Congressional Leadership Award of the Military Officers Association of America for trying to increase disability compensation for veterans and collaborating with Sen. John McCain to reform the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Unlike Clinton and all the Republicans, Sanders does not have to explain away past votes. He voted against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. He voted against the Patriot Act intrusions into our personal communications. In 2005, he proposed curtailing the government’s ability to look at our library and book-buying records. While Clinton and all the Republicans try to line up the support of billionaires, Sanders has refused to create a super PAC.

His real positions rather than right-wing caricatures have begun to turn people’s heads. His speeches attract increasing numbers of older Americans, the most reliable voting bloc. A straw poll of delegates to the Wisconsin Democratic party convention earlier this month showed Sanders catching up to Hillary Clinton, winning 40% of votes against her 49%. Many Republicans agree with some of Sanders’ fundamental positions about money playing too great a role in politics. Some are openly talking about voting for him.

It’s too early to say who will win the Democratic nomination. But it’s never too early to think about how we can win back our country from the billionaires and their political buddies.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 16, 2015

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

What is China Like?

I just spent a week in Shanghai, the most modern and cosmopolitan city in China. Visiting Shanghai is more like seeing Chicago or New York than being in the vast reaches of rural China or most of the hundreds of large cities far from the coast and Western tourists. But it still provides a glimpse into a different society.

On the ride from the airport into the city, the exquisite highway landscaping is remarkable. Every inch of land on the median and on the sides of the highway is filled with plants, shrubs and trees, carefully arranged and flowering in late May. The beauty of the highway was created by intense labor. Labor is very cheap in China, allowing different kinds of investments and accomplishments.

The oversupply of labor is visible in the large number of people doing what seems to me to be unnecessary jobs. At my hotel, many young men and women stand near elevators to press the buttons or help guests into taxis. Where two will do, five are working. Men in uniform stand around on the streets with job titles sewn into the caps or shirts, but little to do: parking assistant, security, traffic assistant.

But relatively inexpensive labor does not mean a lack of advanced technology. The train to the airport goes over 250 miles per hour, as do a growing number of train lines linking major cities. As we neglect our own transportation system, China, along with other formerly less advanced nations, moves ahead with more efficient forms of mass transport.

So what is China like? What facts should I use to answer that question? Here are a few significant measures which provide an outline of Chinese life.

China’s economy is very large, just a bit bigger than the US, which had held first place for 140 years.
But its population is 4 times ours, so the size of the economy per person makes a better comparison. The per capita GDP of the US is thus 4 times as large as China’s, and the average private sector worker earns only quarter of the American yearly average.

But these are just statistical averages. They tell us just a little bit about what it’s like to live in China. Here’s a less precise bit of data, but it says more – most people in Shanghai whom I saw got around on mopeds, scooters, bicycles propelled by tiny engines, or bicycles under human power. There were lots of cars, but only one in ten Chinese families own a car, while eight of ten do in the US.

Life expectancy is a good measure of a population’s health: while average expectancy for men and women is slightly higher in the US than in China, that lead is shrinking fast. The difference was about 30 years in 1950,
over 5 years in 2010, but now is only 4. By that measure, the US ranks only 34th in the world.

I was able to go into one person’s apartment, a dank and cramped space between concrete walls, where a family squeezed into a couple of tiny rooms. I don’t know where that person fit into the social structure, but it was clear that such apartments were common. Yet the per capita living space for urban Chinese tripled from 1988 to 2008, and continues to expand. I saw dozens of high-rise apartment buildings going up across Shanghai.

Food consumption is a very important indicator of the quality of life. Meat consumption per person in China is perhaps half of the US, but again that measure is growing much faster in China, multiplying by seven over the past 40 years.

China is becoming a bilingual nation. Although I can only say “Hello” and “Thank you” in Chinese, I could get along fine in the big city, because nearly every sign is in Chinese and English. Cash register receipts, hotel room instructions, and countless other documents are in both languages. Although older people might speak just a few words of English, young Chinese are more likely to be partly fluent, because English is taught beginning in elementary school.

The message is clear – life is much richer in material goods in the US, but China is catching up. That is happening under an undemocratic political system. Ultimate power is held by one party which picks leaders from the top. Those leaders are afraid of their population having too much freedom to make political protests. We often read about Chinese advocates for democratic reform being silenced by house arrest or even prison.

They also worry about too much information. The most frustrating aspect of my visit was the difficulty of using the internet. The Chinese government blocks many websites, including Google, and thus gmail.

Getting people more food, more living space, and more modern conveniences contributes mightily to national satisfaction. I saw a country where the lack of democracy was barely visible, but economic growth was everywhere. For the people whose country was among the poorest in the world no so long ago, that might seem an acceptable trade-off.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, June 9, 2015