The Minimum Wage Shows Why (and How) We Should Vote Today

It is time for the states to lead.

Every once in awhile in the history of this great country of ours, the federal government just can’t get the job done. Partisan gridlock, constitutional uncertainty, public distrust all play a role. But one of the great strengths of the American system is that the states — those laboratories of democracy, as Louis Brandeis called them — can act when Washington will not. Abolitionism, women’s suffrage, health care reform, gay rights: All started at the state level.

This is one of those times. Our national system is inert. Our national leaders are mired in the muck of inaction.

And yet there is hope. For today is Election Day, and on this day, we will elect 36 governors. This is no time to stay home when the polling places are open. This is a time to choose leaders who will act where Washington has not.

I can think of no better example of the choice we face as a country today than the minimum wage.

After World War II, Congress set the minimum wage at approximately half the average wage in the country. In today’s dollars, it was over $10 an hour. Earning the minimum wage, one full-time worker could support a family of three above the poverty line.

Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, less than 36 percent of the average wage. It’s so low that it can’t even keep a family of two out of poverty.

Unlike Social Security or Medicare payments, the minimum wage is not indexed to the cost of living. Only Congress can raise it. The last time they did so was 2009. Democrats proposed raising it again earlier this year, but the majority of senators opposed it.

The feds have failed to act. It’s time for the states to lead.

And we have ample evidence that they can. Twenty-three states already have minimum wages higher than $7.25. Five states — Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota — have an initiative on today’s ballot to increase theirs.

But not everyone is onboard.

“I don’t think it serves a purpose,” said Wisconsin’s Republican governor Scott Walker last month.

“I don’t think as governor I want to be the cause of someone losing their job,” said Greg Abbott, the Republican candidate for governor in Texas, in explaining his opposition to raising the minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s Republican governor Tom Corbett made a similar argument when stating his opposition last year.

At least they pretended to know what they were talking about. When Republican Governor Rick Scott was asked what Florida’s minimum wage should be, he said, “How would I know?”

These men are on today’s ballot in four of our nation’s largest and most influential states.

And they are tragically out-of-step with the lessons of economic history. In a recent study, the economists Hristos Doucouliagos and T.D. Stanley survey the vast research that economists have done measuring the impact of the minimum wage in recent decades — 64 papers in total — and they find “little or no evidence” that minimum wage increases caused job losses.

On the contrary, raising the minimum wage is a clear boost to the economy. In another recent paper, the economist Arindrajit Dube found that raising the minimum wage significantly reduces the poverty rate, a finding that is consistent with the other 12 studies economists have published in recent years measuring the same effect in different ways.

Only a politician severely out-of-touch with the modern economy could think otherwise. Today’s corporations don’t have to cut back jobs when wages rise. They have to cut back profits, which are at an all-time high. In the long run, they might not have to cut back anything. Higher wages lead to higher productivity, better health, fewer strikes, lower turnover, and higher consumption, which in turn leads to more demand for their products and therefore higher profits.

Individual companies may not want to raise wages if their competitors won’t, but when everyone does it, everyone benefits.

Trying to save money by keeping the minimum wage low is like trying to improve your health by starving yourself. It’s classic shortsighted behavior, hardly the visionary leadership that we’d like to see in the governor’s mansion.

That’s why today’s election matters. In this age of do-nothing politics, it’s easy to despair, but we must remember the intent behind the design. The same founding fathers who created a federal system that resists radical change also created a state system that encourages experimentation. Today we celebrate their creation, and we direct its attention to the challenges of our time.

If the feds do not act, the states will. We the voters will make sure of it.

==========

This op-ed was originally published in the Huffington Post.

How Obama Cut the Deficit in Half — and Made Us Pay the Price

U.S. Budget Deficit Over Time

Remember when everybody was talking about the budget deficit?

It wasn’t that long ago. In fact, it was one of the biggest factors in the 2012 presidential election. After all, it was over $1 trillion at the time.

Today, it’s $500 billion. And falling.

This, of course, is one of Barack Obama’s legacies. He raised taxes on the rich and cut spending across the board. Even with strong growth in mandatory programs like Social Security and Medicare this year, the federal government is going to spend about the same amount of money it spent in 2012 — and less than it spent in 2011. Adjusted for inflation, the government has shrunk.

But it has come at a cost.

Case in point: We have run out of money to fight wildfires.

A couple decades ago, wildfires in the western United States typically consumed 2 to 4 million acres in a year. Nowadays, they consume 6 to 8 million acres. As a result, the cost of wildfire suppression has more than tripled in that amount of time. And yet, Congress continues to allocate funding based on what it cost a decade ago, instead of what it costs today.

So it’s not surprising that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ran out of money to fight wildfires this year, forcing him to divert money away from programs that preventwildfires — magnifying the problem in years to come.

Traveling to the other side of the country, a Pennsylvania official testified in court earlier this week that he and his fellow regulators didn’t investigate chemical leaks that were allegedly poisoning citizens’ drinking water near natural gas wells.

But this shouldn’t surprise us either. After all, the Associated Press recently discovered that 40 percent of new oil and gas wells haven’t been inspected in this country. The report described the regulators as “so overwhelmed by a boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that [they have] been unable to keep up with inspections of some of the highest priority wells.”

It’s not like those investigations really matter, right? The Pennsylvania trial revealed that landowners were drinking water with “explosive levels of methane.” Meanwhile, a new paper published this week by researchers at Stanford and Duke showed that even tiny amounts of fracking wastewater can contaminate drinking water with toxic compounds.

So I guess it’s no big deal that regulators are so underfunded that they’re neglecting almost half the country’s drilling wells.

You’d think we would’ve learned this lesson last year when the IRS scandal revealed that auditors were singling out political groups — conservative and liberal, by the way — for investigation without any apparent probable cause.

For years, the IRS has been underfunded. The National Taxpayer Advocate said so. A Boston Globe investigation said so. The Government Accountability Office said so. And they all predicted that underfunding would result in less enforcement and more cutting corners. In fact, they said taxpayers would lose money because every dollar in budget cuts led to seven dollars in lost tax revenue that they would’ve collected if they’d had the manpower to do so.

Then the scandal hit, revealing that IRS officials were so “overworked” that they felt they had no choice but to take shortcuts through the “flood of applications” on their desks.

These are only a few examples of the price we have paid for a smaller deficit.

Barack Obama deserves credit for delivering on his promise to shrink the deficit — a promise that Mitt Romney and his tax cuts would surely have violated — but Americans have to ask themselves whether they really want a smaller government. Do we really want millions of acres destroyed by fire, and drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals, and government officials harassing the innocent? I know I don’t.

And I also know there’s a better way. It begins with the understanding that, for all its faults and inefficiencies, our government does many good, essential things in our society. And yes, those things come at a price. But that is a price worth paying.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel and Huffington Post.

Geography: The Latest Front in the Class War

Upward Mobility Across America

At the heart of today’s political gridlock is a sense of disconnect. Too many Americans feel disconnected from their government, their economy, and even their fellow citizens.

Gone is the collective bond that united us in war and in peace, the sense that we rise together and fall together. In its place is a deeply divided America.

We talk a lot about the partisan divide in this country, but we don’t talk enough about the geographic divide. The citizens who feel the greatest disconnect from collective institutions are often the ones who live farthest away from them.

The latest evidence of this fact comes from a new study by the Equality of Opportunity Project, a team that includes some of the most celebrated young economists in the country. They found that one of the greatest enemies of economic advancement was sprawl.

The more concentrated a city was, they discovered, the more likely its citizens were to climb the economic ladder. Conversely, the lower and middle classes had fewer opportunities to advance in cities that were more spread out.

The release of their findings just happened to coincide with the bankruptcy of Detroit, an episode that illustrated their point quite tragically. Detroit is one of the most spread out cities in America — and one of the most economically segregated. At its core, the average household earns an income that’s half of what suburbanites earn just outside the city’s borders.

This is yet another consequence of the extreme inequality that is rending this nation’s social fabric. Not only have the richest One Percent taken almost all of the income gains in the past thirty years, but they have isolated themselves in communities where they never have to see the pain of the 99 Percent they left behind. Walled up behind their iron gates, they become less and less aware of the struggles of the average American, until one day when the elites who run our country no longer know what our country even looks like anymore.

Nowhere is this disconnect more clear than Washington, D.C., which boasts six of the nation’s ten richest counties alongside one of its poorest cities. Our legislators never seem to notice that the people who need their help the most are in their own backyard.

The famous political scientist Robert D. Putnam made this case beautifully in a sad new essay about his hometown of Port Clinton, Ohio. He talked of how stable and connected the community once was and how that all disintegrated when the manufacturing jobs disappeared. He marveled at how far his classmates had come and how different their experience was from the poor generation that followed them.

Port Clinton no longer lives as one community but two.

“In the last two decades,” writes Putnam, “just as the traditional economy of Port Clinton was collapsing, wealthy professionals from major cities in the Midwest have flocked to Port Clinton, building elaborate mansions in gated communities along Lake Erie and filling lagoons with their yachts. By 2011, the child poverty rate along the shore in upscale Catawba was only 1 percent, a fraction of the 51 percent rate only a few hundred yards inland.”

In this fractured world, it’s easy to see how the average American would feel abandoned — by the government, by the economy, even by their own fellow citizens — and why they would distrust anyone who asks them to bind together in common cause.

I know whereof I speak. This month marks my seventh anniversary of moving from the country to the city. I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and suburban Florida. Since then, I’ve lived in Philadelphia, New York, London, and Los Angeles. I’ve seen the world through two very different lenses, and I don’t blame the one for being suspicious of the other.

But we must overcome this disconnect if we are to rebuild these forgotten communities and resurrect our ailing economy. The more isolated we have become, the more we have all suffered. We must find ways to connect the rural and urban regions, whether through physical connections like high-speed rail or social connections like labor unions. We must work together, and that means we must put our trust where it has always done the most good: in each other.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

The Sins of Our Fathers, According to Rick Santorum

We have sinned, and in so doing, we have brought this economic mess on ourselves. Thus says a nasty meme pervading American culture.

Now, we certainly bear some blame for electing politicians who allowed fraudsters and plutocrats to corrupt the system, but that’s not what this meme alleges. Instead, we’ve been told, we have changed. Our morals, our values, the way we raise our children, our dying work ethic: These are to blame for our meager inheritance.

You can see it in surveys of older generations. In a recent report by the Pew Research Center, the Silent Generation, born before 1946, told pollsters that they are more honest than younger generations, and Baby Boomers claim that their work ethic, respectfulness, values, and morals separate them from today’s youth.

You can see it in the resilience of Rick Santorum’s campaign for president. The former Senator from Pennsylvania built his political career around family values. In 2008, he attributed this country’s problems to the “corruption of culture, the corruption of manners, the corruption of decency.”

And you can see it in the popularity of Charles Murray’s latest book Coming Apart: The State of White America, which suggests that declining family values are responsible for the economic plight of the working class.

It’s a lie — and a prejudiced one, at that.

It’s true that there are more women in the workforce than ever before and that men now work fewer hours as a result. It’s also true that the divorce rate is higher than it was forty years ago and that more and more children are growing up in households with one parent or cohabitating parents.

But these trends don’t seem to have had a negative effect on childrearing. Mothers still spend 10 hours per week on child care, exactly the same as they did in 1965, and now fathers spend more time — 5 hours, up from 3 — on child care.

Partly as a result, 40 percent of adults believe their family life now is closer than it was when they were growing up; only 14 percent believe it’s less close. Similarly, 51 percent of married adults believe they are closer than their parents were; only 5 percent believe they’re less close.

And, although 95 percent of Americans think the divorce rate has risen over the past 20 years, in fact it has gone down.

That’s not the only number that’s been going down. For the past thirty years, violent crime rates have been plummeting. Teenage birth rates have fallen over 40 percent since the 1950s. Wife beatings and spousal rape are no longer condoned by law enforcement, as they were just a few decades ago. Lynch mobs and other evils of segregation are rapidly becoming a distant memory.

It’s also hard to imagine how older generations can claim that kids don’t have a work ethic when the percent of college students working more than 20 hours per week (46 percent) is higher than it was when they were college-age (39 percent in 1986, for example).

But that’s what happens when you have more bills to pay than ever before. Education costs, like health care costs, have grown faster than the rest of the economy, all the while government assistance has been shrinking. The result has been an explosion of student loans.

And therein lies the rub, for the real difference between old and young, between past and present, is not the state of our values, but rather the state of our economy.

The tax code has become less progressive, regulations less strict, unions less powerful, the safety net less generous, and pensions less secure. Is it any wonder, then, that families have become less reliant on the singular male breadwinner?

In a cruel irony, the very policies advocated by Santorum and Murray have corroded the “family values” they claim to admire. It makes you wonder why people are still listening to them.

==========

This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

What to Read on Rick Santorum

Who Is Rick Santorum? — The Atlantic

Homosexuality, abortion and family values have been the signature issues of Santorum’s career, rising to prominence as he did during the height of the 1990s culture wars. He authored the partial-birth abortion ban that passed the Senate in 2003. He proposed an amendment to the No Child Left Behind legislation that would have required public-school teachers to discuss the “controversy” surrounding evolution. Remember Terri Schiavo? That was him, too — he was one of the leading voices calling for the federal government to intervene to prevent the Florida woman from being taken off life support amid conflicting family wishes. Santorum decries secularism, hedonism and the idea that different family configurations are equally acceptable, openly pining for a bygone society built around heterosexual marriage and traditional gender roles. In his book, It Takes a Family — intended as a rebuttal to Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village — Santorum blamed “the influence of radical feminism” for the distressing fact that women were finding it “more socially affirming to work outside the home than to give up their careers to take care of their children.”

Santorum is an extreme Iran hawk, arguing that tough action, likely military, is needed to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. In effect, he says, the U.S. has been at war with Iran since 1979, and regime change will be necessary to ensure the country is no longer a threat. Santorum has been pounding this drum for some time. In 2005, he authored a bill to put $10 million toward Iran regime change.

Santorum Rose Quickly From Reformer to Insider — Sheryl Gay Stolberg

Mr. Santorum won election in 1990 to the House by attacking his Democratic opponent for living in Washington while representing Pennsylvania; by 2006 his critics said the same of him. As the third-ranking Senate Republican, he was a point man in a controversial effort to place Republicans in lobbying jobs. And his finances came into question, amid controversy over political donations and tuition money he accepted.

[In college, he] struck professors as ambitious, if more interested in tactics than issues.

“Most students would ask whether a policy would be worth the cost; he was unusual in that he was interested in what would get you the most votes,” Robert O’Connor, a former professor, recalled.

The group [Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington] put Mr. Santorum on its list of the “20 Most Corrupt Members of Congress,” and accused him of introducing legislation to benefit political donors.

Santorum: States Should Have the Right to Outlaw Birth Control — Igor Volsky

Santorum has long opposed the Supreme Court’s 1965 ruling “that invalidated a Connecticut law banning contraception” and has also pledged to completely defund federal funding for contraception if elected president. As he [said, “Contraception is] not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

…contraceptive services provided at publicly funded clinics helped prevent almost two million unintended pregnancies. Without funding from Medicaid and Title X, “abortions occurring in the United States would be nearly two-thirds higher among women overall and among teens; the number of unintended pregnancies among poor women would nearly double.”

Santorum Says He Would Bomb Iran’s Nuclear Plants — Michael Ono

Rick Santorum said today that he would be in favor of launching airstrikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.

“We will degrade those facilities through airstrikes, and make it very public that we are doing that,” Santorum said…

“On occasion, scientists working on the nuclear program in Iran turn up dead. I think that’s a wonderful thing, candidly,” Santorum said…

Among the possible methods for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat listed on Santorum’s campaign website is treating nuclear scientists working for the Iranians like enemy combatants.

Santorum Hypes Iran “Threat” — Juan Cole

GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum warned North Dakota on Wednesday that it was in the cross-hairs of an Iranian attack.

Iran has a small medical research nuclear reactor, which produces nuclear isotopes for use in chemotherapy.

The medical reactor was given to Iran by the United States… The reactor is being regularly inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure it is being used only for civilian purposes.

The reactor actually has no conceivable military purpose, and its fuel, uranium enriched to 19.75 percent, is used up when run through the reactor, so it cannot be used to make a nuclear warhead. Nuclear bombs need the uranium to be enriched to 95 percent…

Top Ten Catholic Teachings Santorum Rejects While Obsessing About Birth Control — Juan Cole

  1. …Pope John Paul II was against anyone going to war against Iraq…
  2. The Conference of Catholic Bishops requires that health care be provided to all Americans.
  3. The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty for criminals in almost all situations.
  4. The US Conference of Bishops has urged that the federal minimum wage be increased, for the working poor.
  5. The bishops want welfare for all needy families…
  6. The US bishops say that “the basic rights of workers must be respected–the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to the organization and joining of unions…”
  7. Catholic bishops demand the withdrawal of Israel from Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. Rick Santorum denies that there are any Palestinians…
  8. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops ripped into Arizona’s law on treatment of immigrants…
  9. The Bishops have urged that illegal immigrants not be treated as criminals and that their contribution to this country be recognized.
  10. The US Conference of Bishops has denounced, as has the Pope, the Bush idea of ‘preventive war’, and has come out against an attack on Iran in the absence of a real and present threat of an Iranian assault on the US.

Ayatollah Santorum Excommunicates Obama, Mainstream Protestants — Juan Cole

Rick Santorum does not think Episcopalians are Christians.

…he believes the social Gospel and non-literal approaches to the Bible are un-Christian, and he has thrown President Obama out of Christianity along with 45 million other mainline Protestants. Santorum does not believe that the Bible suggests you care for the poor and needy.

In fact, Santorum by declaring the social Gospel to be un-Christian has not only excommunicated liberal Protestants from Christianity, he has excommunicated the majority of American Catholics, along with the US Council of Bishops and the last few popes, all of whom speak of an “option for the poor.”

…he condemns fornication and adultery, but also implicitly revealing clothing. And he is against condoms and birth control pills because in his view they encourage sleeping around (though he doesn’t approve of them for married people either; go figure).

…Santorum’s approach to religion and social policy is reminiscent of Muslim fundamentalist parties…