The Idea of a Mexican Border Wall is Off-the-Wall – posted 2/6/2016

February 6, 2016 Leave a comment

Central to the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is the idea that, if elected, he is going to build an impenetrable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out illegal Mexican migrants. Not only that, he says he is going to make Mexico pay for it.

Among the Republican presidential candidates, Trump is not alone on the wall idea. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and John Kasich have all supported building a wall on our Southern border.

It is surprising how little critical scrutiny the Mexican wall idea has received. Not only has the wall been assumed a needed and good idea, the assumptions behind the wall have largely remained unexamined.

I think the wall would be a colossal white elephant. It would also be an extravagant public spending boondoggle. The journalist Jorge Ramos of Univision correctly called it “a waste of time and money”. As Ramos points out, 40% of those deemed illegal immigrants are people who come to the United States by plane and who overstay their visas. The wall does not address that large group.

Our southern border runs 1954 miles. At present there is fencing along 670 miles. That leaves 1284 miles unfenced. The New York Times has estimated the cost of building such a barrier as $16 million per mile, adding up to a project of around $20 billion.

That is a huge cost for a project of dubious efficacy. Every wall can be circumvented, either under or over.

Trump has said that building such a wall is “easy” and it can be done inexpensively. That is not a view that is widely shared by federal officials and other experts.

Richard Stana, now retired, who worked in the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and who wrote reports on border security has said, “It is extremely challenging to put a bricks-and-mortar wall along the Southwest border for any number of reasons.”

The reasons are pretty obvious: the wall has to be built in extremely remote and difficult topographical areas. Desert in Arizona, mountains in New Mexico and rivers for almost two-thirds of the length. We are talking places that lack roads or infrastructure.

Providing food, water, shelter, bathroom facilities, transport and medical supplies to the wall workers in remote locations would be no small challenge. Much of the wall would be located in different forms of wilderness, removed from civilizational niceties.

There are other hurdles as well. Not all land around the border is federal property. Private land owned by ranchers and farmers would need to be purchased. In Texas, in places where fencing went up already, ranchers and farmers were upset that fencing would cut off access to the Rio Grande, the only regional source of fresh water. Local business groups were also opposed to the fencing because it slowed cross-border traffic that helped the local economy.

There are also issues with Native American tribal rights. Acquiring the land and using eminent domain could involve significant additional cost and possible legal challenge.

Trump’s assurances that such a project would be “easy” are about as persuasive as his idea that he is going to make Mexico pay for the wall. When asked, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto absolutely denied Mexico would pay. Eduardo Sanchez, the spokesperson for the Mexican president said this about Trump’s assertion:

“It reflects an enormous ignorance for what Mexico represents and also the irresponsibility of the candidate who’s saying it.”

The idea that Mexico would be made to pay for the wall is simply macho bluster. It is campaign braggadocio. There is no credible reason to believe that Mexico could be made to pay for a wall built to benefit the United States. Bullying about the wall is a strange way to treat a country that has been our strong ally. While political allies can certainly have disagreements, the wall is tactless, is diplomatically offensive and it actually would harm local economies that depend on border crossing.

The wall idea rests on racist stereotypes about an ongoing invasion of undocumented Mexicans crossing into the United States. While certainly we live in an era of mass global migration with desperate people dying to escape dire war zones, the stereotype about Mexicans is false.

As of 2014, there are 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States. That population has essentially remained stable for five years. According to Pew Research, Mexicans make up about half of all unauthorized immigrants (49%) and their numbers have actually declined over the last few years.

That reality is at odds with the fearmongering propaganda we have seen from the more extreme Republican candidates. Truth is the first casualty. In his TV ads Trump was actually using pictures of people in Morocco scaling a fence. The ad was designed to create the impression that it was our Southern border. The appeal of such ads go directly to our emotions. Vague plausibility speaks to our unconscious fears.

The world is a scary place. In an unthought-out way, the wall speaks to our fears about terrorism and drug trafficking. It also addresses economic insecurities. Those problems are real but the wall is a non-solution. By the same logic, why would we not need a wall on our Canadien border? The wall idea is a fundamentally irrational response to a complicated series of problems.

The wall idea also reflects an utter lack of understanding of the history of immigration on our southern border. In her book, Undocumented, Aviva Chomsky explains how for much of U.S. history the border between Mexico and the U.S. was virtually unpoliced and migration flowed freely. U.S. business interests, especially agribusiness, relied on cheap, migrant Mexican labor to pick crops. Agribusiness still relies on these seasonal workers.

Our Mexican immigration policy has been largely dictated by the needs of American business which wanted the economic development of the Southwest. Categorizing Mexican immigrants as “illegal” did not begin until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 when, for the first time, numerical limits were placed on Mexican migration. Even for 20 years after that immigration rules were relatively slack. Ironically, it was not until the middle 1980’s, that the number of undocumented immigrants precipitously rose after the U.S. began to try to seal the border. As Chomsky points out, this was in large part due to the fact that migrants felt compelled to stay after a season of work since they realized returning would now be more difficult.

Before 1965, the earlier waves of deportation directed against Mexicans in the 1930’s and 1950’s had nothing to do with their being undocumented. Entry then was restricted on the grounds of indigence and concerns that Mexicans would become public charges.

Since the 1990’s, the Latino threat narrative has been manipulated and promoted by right wing politicians. They hope to channel national anxieties about economic inequality, job loss, and a worsening economic future away from their real causes.

I see two political purposes behind the current Mexican wall idea. First , it is an effort to rabble rouse the most angry, racist, and xenophobic Americans, especially those with the least informed understanding of immigration matters. Second, it is an effort at blame-shifting. Migrants from Latin America who leave terrible situations to try and make a better life for themselves in another country did not shift good jobs out of the United States. It is the billionaire class in America which sold out American workers by shipping jobs out of the country in an effort to find cheap labor elsewhere.

For those who are looking to blame someone, our American plutocrats are a good place to begin. There is something sinister about billionaires, ensconced in a life of luxury, using their hired and paid for right wing politicians to point the finger of blame at some of the poorest people on the planet.

The Mexican border wall would cost a fortune, would predictably not work, would damage wilderness, and would act to poison relations with one of our closest neighbors and trading partners. The contention that such a wall would contribute to making America great again is laughable.

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On the occasion that would have been my sister’s birthday…posted 1/29/2016

January 29, 2016 1 comment

Today would have been my sister Lisa’s birthday. I wanted to offer three short Langston Hughes poems that evoked Lisa to me in different ways.


Sometimes a crumb falls
From the tables of joy,
Sometimes a bone
Is flung.

To some people
Love is given,
To others
Only heaven.

Shame on You

If you’re great enough
and clever enough
the government might honor you.
But the people will forget —
Except on holidays

A movie house in Harlem named after Lincoln,
Nothing at all named after John Brown.

Black people don’t remember
any better than white.

If you are not alive and kicking,
shame on you!

Lonely Nocturne

When dawn lights the sky
And day and night meet,
I climb my stairs high
Above the grey street.
I lift my window
To look at the sky
Where moon kisses star

When dawn lights the sky
I seek my lonely room.
The halls as I go by
Echo like a tomb.
And I wonder why
As I take out my key,
There is nobody there
But me —
When dawn lights the sky.

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Which way forward for New Hampshire’s Medicaid expansion? – posted 1/20/2016

January 21, 2016 2 comments

As New Hampshire’s Legislature kicks off, there is probably no issue of greater significance for the state than the future of its Medicaid expansion. More than 46,000 people are now enrolled in the New Hampshire Health Protection Program, our Medicaid expansion.

It is estimated that by the end of the year, 58,000 New Hampshire residents will have coverage. That is a major chunk of low income residents who were previously uninsured. It is not an overstatement to say that before the Medicaid expansion, these folks often could not get inside any doctor’s office.

The Legislature now has to decide whether to continue the Medicaid expansion. The program sunsets on December 31, 2016. Without reauthorization, it dies and all those who became medically insured would become uninsured again. The state would also lose an enormous amount of federal money: hundreds of millions of dollars per year moving forward.

So far, New Hampshire has taken quite an independent path in crafting a Medicaid expansion that fits our state. The state has used federal funds to offer private sector health coverage to lower income, uninsured residents. This New Hampshire-specific approach is not the conventional way and it required a federal waiver.

Medicaid is a joint federal-state partnership and all states with a Medicaid program must abide by federal guidelines administered by the Center on Medicare and Medicaid Services known as CMS. At the same time, federal rules allow some freedom for states to tinker as long as the federal government ultimately approves the plan.

I think it is fair to say that early reports have found our Medicaid expansion highly successful. Besides the thousands who were previously uninsured and became insured, there has been a noticeable decrease in uncompensated care for health care providers. A study by the New Hampshire Hospital Association has shown a marked reduction in uninsured inpatient, outpatient and emergency room visits.

Less uncompensated care also reduces pressure for health insurance premium increases – not just for families and individuals but for businesses. This is an under-appreciated fringe benefit, and one significant reason that New Hampshire’s business community supports extending Medicaid expansion.

Simply put, the Medicaid expansion is a win-win. Providers get paid and consumers get coverage. Considering the mental health and opioid crisis in our state, this coverage could not be more timely. Medicaid coverage is an essential tool in these fights. It provides access to care so desperately needed for many facing addiction and mental health traumas.

Up until now, the Medicaid expansion has been paid for 100% by federal dollars. New Hampshire has not had to pony up any financial contribution which has been a phenomenal deal for the state.

Looking to the future, where things start getting sticky is the funding formula that includes a state contribution in dollars. After the first three years of the expansion, the state is obligated to kick in a small percentage of the cost. In 2017, the federal government will pay 95% of the cost; in 2018 94%; in 2019 93%; and in 2020 and beyond 90%. The feds never pay less than 90% of the total cost. So next year the state would have to pay 5% of the cost and it would gradually go up to 10% by 2020.

For perspective, in 2017 and in return for a $25 million state contribution, New Hampshire’s Medicaid expansion is projected to bring $475 million in federal funds back home, to circulate in our economy in beneficial ways.

I would submit that this is still a wonderful deal for our state. We will be receiving a very great benefit at a small fraction of the cost in state dollars. There is a weird irony in those who profess personal responsibility also wanting the state to get a free ride from the federal government on a program that provides so much benefit to New Hampshire. Doesn’t personal responsibility imply that our state pay some cost? We have skin in the game.

Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats have some different ideas about what the future Medicaid expansion should look like. Two bills, HB 1696, a Republican bill, and HB 1690, a Democratic bill, have been introduced and assigned to the House Health and Human Services Committee.

I will touch on some of the bill differences. The Republicans favor a 4 year, time-limited Medicaid expansion with a new sunset date of December 31, 2020. The Democrats propose to make the Medicaid expansion permanent.

The Republicans are advocating for low-income enrollees to pay premiums. Enrollees with incomes from 100% to 138% of the federal poverty level (that is $11,000 to $16,000 a year for an individual, and from $24,000 to $33,000 a year for a family of 4) would pay $25 per month. Enrollees with incomes from 0% to 100% of the federal poverty level (up to $11,000 a year for an individual and up to $24,000 a year for a family of 4) would pay $10 per month. The suggested premiums are higher than any, to date, that have been allowed by the federal government.

The Republican bill also contains a termination and lockout provision for any enrollee who fails to make premium payments within 60 days of when it is due. Those unable to pay the premium would face a 6 month lockout where they could not re-enroll. As applied to all enrollees, the proposed penalty design is more severe than any that CMS has ever allowed.

The Republican bill also imposes work requirements on Medicaid recipients. While there is legitimate room for policy discussion about the merits of such a proposal for able-bodied persons not caring for children or ailing family members, the reality is that federal law does not allow such a requirement and CMS has never approved a state waiver proposal that includes it.

The Democratic bill contains none of these provisions.

It remains unclear if the federal government, through CMS, would grant a waiver with the type of provisions that appear in the Republican bill. They impose conditions that are more stringent than have been previously allowed by CMS.

A question that emerges: would the Republican leadership in the State House and Senate be willing to sacrifice the entire Medicaid expansion if what appears to be a pet ideological laundry list is not okayed by the federal government? It is not clear if the Republican leadership, in an election year, is simply throwing red meat at its right wing base or if it intends to use the additional preconditions as justification for scuttling the expansion.

It is significant that the Republicans have not pointed out what is wrong with the expansion as it currently functions.

One observation I would make about the Republican bill: it does not recognize the degree of poverty poor people face. The overriding brutal fact of life for people living at or close to the federal poverty level is lack of income which leads to choices about what bills get paid. Basic necessities like housing, utilities, and food can reduce available cash to zero. Other costs like child care or transportation are necessary for employment. If money is short, preventing homelessness or repairing one’s car to get to and from work is likely a higher value than paying medical premiums.

Experience has shown that low-income people are very sensitive to even nominal increases in medical out-of-pocket costs. There is a wealth of research supporting that conclusion. I would cite the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured. In February 2013, they produced an overview of research findings relative to premiums and cost-sharing in Medicaid. The Kaiser Commission concluded that premiums act as a barrier to obtaining and maintaining coverage for low-income populations. It is common for premiums to result in coverage loss and the elimination of access to needed care, leading to adverse health consequences.

State savings from cost-sharing and premiums are due more to eligible people dropping or declining coverage than to increases in state revenue. Significantly, early results from states charging premiums to Medicaid expansion enrollees indicate that the administrative cost of collection exceeds any money actually realized from the premiums.

One would hope the Republican leadership would familiarize itself with the substantive research showing why premiums in Medicaid are generally seen as a failure. Their current bill appears to be more rooted in political posturing than evidence-based public policy.

No doubt party positions will evolve as the legislative session unfolds. Recognizing the paramount importance of maintaining the Medicaid expansion, I, for one, hope the parties can reach a fair compromise. The Medicaid expansion, which helps so many, deserves better than to be reduced to a political game.

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Some Great Places to Go in and Around L.A. – posted 1/16/ 2016

January 17, 2016 1 comment

In the last week, I got to visit my son Josh and his wife Nancy in Los Angeles where they live. We did get around. Here is my selection of best places we got to:

The Last Bookstore
Located in downtown L.A. in a space that used to be a bank, this bookstore, ironically named, has volume. The place is kind of dark, poorly lit, but there are many new and used books. I didn’t have enough time to look around that much but the literature and classic literature section were especially large. It looked like they put counterculture, aliens, and horror all in the same bank vault – an interesting commingling. I found a good book on Latino history by Juan Gonzalez titled Harvest of Empire. For book lovers, worth checking this place out.

Madcapra Falafel at Grand Central Market
This place may have the best falafel ever. At least the best I have tasted. They had four falafel options. I tried the yellow which included falafel with feta, harissa, cucumbers, pickled sweet peppers and parsley stuffed in flatbread. The sandwich had heft, was very tasty, and was really more than one meal. The cost was very reasonable and the service was good. I would mention the cardoman coffee too. Any coffee lover would dig it.

Skylight Books
I have to say I love this bookstore and I always try to get to it whenever I get to L.A.. It is great to see a legit independent bookstore that survives. I would think Amazon would put all out of business. Invariably, I find books I have not seen elsewhere. It has a superior non-fiction, politics and social science section, including progressive politics. I always leave with a list of books I should check out. Most of the books I never heard of before I walked in.

Daikokuya Sawtelle
I admit I don’t know from ramen. I had never been to a ramen house before. I think of ramen in little packages where the choice is beef or shrimp. New Hampshire has no ramen houses. The ramen broth at this place was very rich and flavorful. Bowl portions were generous and the noodles had good texture. For dumpling fans, I also would recommend the gyoza. Place is not expensive. The interior was cooly designed to resemble an Asian street scene.

Hiking to Lizard Rock at Thousand Oaks
It was a cool morning and the air was very fresh as we headed out. The hike is pretty easy but the views were good. Not that much vertical. The landscape is so different from the east. Very arid, plenty of cactus. I did not see any rattlesnakes but Josh assured me they were around. You do not see anything like this in New England.

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Book Review: “Avenue of Spies” by Alex Kershaw – posted 1/3/2016

January 3, 2016 Leave a comment

I have to admit that Alex Kershaw’s book, Avenue of Spies, grabbed me right from the start and it did not let go. It is a true story that reads like a fictional thriller. You could call it an adventure story, a love story, or a tale of remarkable bravery and heroism. It is all of those.

Set against World War II in Nazi-occupied Paris, Avenue of Spies tells the story of an American surgeon Sumner Jackson, his Swiss-born wife Toquette, and their son Philip. Much of the story comes from Kershaw’s extensive interviews with Philip Jackson.

The Jacksons lived on the same street in Paris as numerous Gestapo henchmen. Right down the street was the Gestapo headquarters inhabited by an assortment of fanatics, sadists and psychopaths. In the summer of 1943, Toquette joins the French Resistance, brings the whole family into the fight against the fascists, and operates right under the nose of the Nazi leaders in Paris. The fact that Sumner Jackson was a doctor provided cover for the various comings and goings of Resistance members into his house. As a doctor, he could explain the visits as patient medical appointments.

Avenue of Spies takes you into that world with an astonishing degree of realism. You could feel the danger. You also could appreciate the bravery. So many of the French collaborated with the Nazis. The Jackson family risked everything and they paid a big price. I am reminded of an Edward Abbey quote I have always liked:

“We live in the kind of world where courage is the most essential of virtues; without courage, the other virtues are useless.”

As I noted, a truly malevolent collection of Nazis moved into Avenue Foch, the fashionable street where the Jacksons resided. Many of the previous residents exited before the Nazi arrival in 1940. The Jacksons certainly had an opportunity to leave but they ultimately decided to stay.

Among the Nazis who moved into the neighborhood, there was Theo Dannecker, head of the Gestapo’s Jewish Affairs Office in Paris. Dannecker was a central figure in the effort to exterminate French Jews. Dannecker worked closely with SS colonel Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution.

And there was Helmut Knochen, known as Dr. Bones. Knochen, a proud member of the SS and Gestapo chief in Paris, worked tirelessly to destroy all opposition to German rule in France. He worked under Heinrich Himmler, the Supreme head of the SS, to eliminate all Resistance networks in France. In his role, Knochen recruited a private army of criminals to capture, torture and murder all perceived opponents. Knochen trawled the prisons to find the toughest career criminals and sociopaths who would do Nazi dirty work.

The story includes an interesting discussion of the disagreement among Nazi leaders about how to accomplish the extermination of French Jews.. Dannecker wanted the SS to round up the Jews. Knochen wanted the French themselves to do it. Knochen got his way. On the night of July 16, 1942, 13,152 Parisian Jews, including 4000 children, were rounded up by the French police.

The Nazis hid their true intentions. They created the fiction that those rounded up were headed to a new Jewish state being created in the East.

As Kershaw says, the Jacksons were living in the heart of a vast web of informers, spies and mass murderers.

While the Jackson family was appalled by the Nazis and the Milice, the French fascist paramilitary, they had no choice but to maintain composure. Their situation required immense sangfroid.

Dr. Jackson rose to the challenge and was quite the operator. I should add that Toquette and Philip were equally brave. Dr. Jackson maintained ties with General Rene de Chambrun, godson of Marshal Petain, the Vichy leader. General de Chambrun was influential and had connections with authorities. Dr. Jackson effectively used this relationship to protect his hospital, the American Hospital in Paris, and to keep the Germans at bay.

Dr. Jackson was able to do this for a good part of the war years and he saved many lives. He secretly helped Americans who were escaping the Germans. He falsified records to list recovered prisoners as deceased. He helped patients disappear. He hid French-Jewish officers and made sure there was no record of their stay in his hospital.

The Jacksons certainly knew the risks they were taking in joining the Resistance. Neighbors on Avenue Foch kept their windows closed so they did not have to hear the screams of the torture victims.

Without saying too much about the ending, I will say that the Jacksons’ luck ran out in May 1944. The last third of the book is devoted to the experiences of the family in the Nazi concentration camps. Toquette lands in Ravensbruck camp for women. Kershaw captures the depravity of the Nazis and the extraordinarily awful conditions endured by the prisoners. The brutality, the hunger, the cold, the complete lack of humanity, pity or kindness demonstrated by the Nazis: it is still hard to read about, even now.

There is a quote toward the end from Jacques Delarue, the author of a book on the Gestapo.

“It was a world where people exterminated for pleasure and where the murderers were treated as heroes. It already seemed far away, like a nightmare one would prefer to forget. And yet the poisoned yeast is still ready to rise. Men have not the right to forget so quickly. They have not the right. Never…”

Philip Jackson lived to testify in war crimes trials in 1946. He testified in a trial of fourteen SS officers who had been in charge of Neuengamme labor camp where he and his father had been held. Jackson pointed out the Nazis he personally saw commit crimes. The defense attorney for the Nazis argued that his clients were “tools” and not responsible. The Nazis in this trial were sentenced to death. Kershaw wrote that the Nazis showed not even a shred of regret or remorse.

Helmut Knochen, the Gestapo chief in Paris, was sentenced to death in 1947. Incredibly, he escaped hanging. This was a person who played a major role in sending almost 80,000 Jews to their deaths. Knochen had argued: “Neither I, nor one of my subordinates could have acted otherwise, without being condemned to death immediately.”

Knochen was sentenced to death a second time during the Cold War. Knochen’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Then, in 1962, French President Charles de Gaulle inexplicably pardoned Knochen. Knochen returned to Germany and lived to be 93 years old before he died peacefully. He said that the extermination of the Jews by Hitler was the greatest crime in history but he claimed that he did not know the Jews of France who were deported East were being murdered.

The escape of so many Nazis from the fate that they so richly deserved never ceases to amaze. It is hard to understand how the fatuous and transparently false arguments made by Knochen and other Nazis were given any credence.

One other story I would mention: Kershaw tells how Hitler wanted Paris completely destroyed at the end of the war. Even though it was clear the Nazi cause was lost, Hitler madly ordered they fight to the last man. He wanted all the great monuments and bridges blown up. Hitler wanted Paris, the most beautiful city in the world, left a vast ruin. As insane as the Nazis were, it turned out that some of their generals did not want to go down in history as the destroyer of Paris.

Kershaw quotes the French Resistance leader, Jean-Pierre Levy:

“We lived in the shadows as soldiers of the night, but our lives were not dark and martial…There were arrests, torture and death for so many of our friends and comrades, and tragedy awaited all of us just around the corner. But we did not live in or with tragedy. We were exhilarated by the challenges and rightness of our cause.”

It was inspiring to read about and feel the atmosphere of that humane heroism.

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It is time for paid family and medical leave – posted 12/26/2015

December 27, 2015 Leave a comment

This campaign season the issues of terrorism and national security have pushed domestic matters into the background. That is too bad because we are starved for discussion of new policy ideas on the home front.

This is the first presidential election where paid family and medical leave has been discussed by the candidates as a real possibility. You have to ask: what took so long?

The Family and Medical Leave Act, also known as the FMLA, mandated 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees in companies of 50 workers or more. The FMLA passed in 1993. Advocates at the time of bill passage thought the FMLA was only a first step in addressing family friendly employment leave policies.

Here we are 22 years later and we are still waiting for step two. This in spite of the fact that the FMLA has been widely recognized as a very successful and popular program.

In an earlier life when I worked as a lobbyist in the New Hampshire Legislature, I tried to assist bills in multiple legislative sessions that were designed to create paid family and medical leave in our state. In those efforts, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Rep. Mary Stuart Gile of Concord.

Rep. Gile is the unsung heroine of paid family leave in New Hampshire. For years, Rep. Gile has brought forward bills to advance that issue. She deserves credit for consistently trying a variety of ways to promote paid family leave and for making compelling policy arguments for why it would be good for our state.

In her advocacy, Rep. Gile has been a genuine educator. As those around the Legislature know, it can often take a very long time to translate a new idea, even a very good idea, into law.

I believe the bills Rep. Gile has introduced in the past have typically stalled because of opposition from business lobbyists and also from very conservative elements in the Republican party. The lobbyists always raised questions about the funding mechanism. While the questions were valid, it often seemed like fear of something new and any possible cost immediately trumped recognition of perceived benefits.

It would be one thing if the idea had never been tried or if it had been tried and it failed. Three states have successfully instituted paid family and medical leave – New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island. In these states, predictions of adverse consequences never materialized. Where it has been tried, paid family and medical leave has helped thousands of workers.

Two-thirds of children in the United States live in homes where both parents work. That is up from 40% in 1970. Only 12% of workers in the United States have access to paid family leave. These workers are typically higher earners, often located in the high tech industry. Under the current FMLA, only about 60% of all workers are even covered by unpaid family leave. Some significant percentage of the covered cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

These demographics dictate the increased importance of paid family leave. Millions of workers juggle caregiving responsibilities for young children or aging parents with work responsibilities. The timing of the birth of a new born or an unexpected illness of a family member can throw a monkey wrench into complicated work and family schedules. The challenges of juggling work and family can be particularly acute in single parent households.

Here in the United States, we have been remarkably slow in recognizing the importance of paid family leave. While Americans like to brag we are number one in various international contests, when it comes to paid family leave we are number last. We are the outlier country. With the exception of very small Papua New Guinea, every other nation in the world now requires paid maternity leave.

Just to gain perspective, I think it is important to see what other countries are doing with paid family leave. Among the most generous, Sweden offers 16 months of paid parental leave. Finland offers 9 months of paid leave. The parents in Finland can take or split additional paid “child care leave” until the child’s third birthday.

The United Kingdom offers 40 weeks of paid maternity leave, Vietnam and Ireland offer 26 weeks, Canada offers 15 weeks, China offers 14 weeks, Congo offers 14 weeks and Mexico offers 12 weeks. Obviously, there are many countries I am not listing but what is important is that all offer some benefit.

70 countries offer paid paternity leave. To give a sampling, Iceland offers fathers 3 months paid paternity leave, Finland offers 54 days, Portugal offers 20 days, Spain offers 15 days and the United Kingdom and Australia offer 14 days.

Investigative journalist Sharon Lerner writes that many other cultures treat the immediate post-natal period as a sacred time when both the new mother and baby receive help and special attention. Too often, in the United States, the lack of time off can turn new motherhood into what Lerner calls a distressing ordeal.

No federal agency collects statistics on how much post-childbirth time off, paid or unpaid, women are actually taking. Data analyzed for the periodical, In These Times, by Abt Associates, a research and evaluation company, showed that 23% of the women interviewed were back at work within two weeks of having a baby. If true, that is a cold and brutal fact.

The data showed 80% of women who were college graduates took at least 6 weeks off to care for a new baby while only 54% of women without college degrees did so.

I believe the lack of paid family leave hits low-income workers harder. Workers in lower paid jobs with less benefits have no choice but to return to work soon after giving birth. If they don’t return, they probably lose the job. Such workers generally have no leverage with employers.

Paid family leave results in better outcomes for parents, children and businesses. It increases worker retention and it reduces turnover. More women will be able to stay in the workforce after giving birth. At the same time, businesses save dollars associated with replacing employees.

Worker stress is bad for business. It is likely that a more progressive family leave policy would result in increased productivity, improved employee morale, and greater company loyalty.

On the health side, paid family leave positively affects the health of children and mothers. I don’t think it is rocket science to recognize that more parental time at home confers health benefits to young children. It allows for better family bonding and a longer duration of breastfeeding.

There is quite a bit of research showing that the experience of interacting with familiar, responsive and stimulating primary caregivers during the first two years of life is critically important to a child’s later social, emotional and intellectual development.

The Republican presidential candidates have had little to say about paid family leave. Marco Rubio is the only Republican candidate to have any kind of plan for providing paid family leave to workers but his plan is hardly a guarantee. He would offer tax incentives to business to encourage having it. Rubio doesn’t think paid leave should be federally legislated. All the other Republican candidates oppose the idea totally.

On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley have all endorsed mandatory paid family leave. Sanders described our lack of paid family leave as “an international embarrasment”, which it is.

Democrats are pushing a proposal, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act (the FAMILY Act) which would provide 12 weeks of paid leave, during which workers would receive 66% of their monthly wages. The program would be paid for through small payroll contributions made by employees and employers. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Ct) are the prime bill sponsors.

It is important to say that the paid leave proposal is not an entitlement. It would be an earned benefit. Workers have to be employed and must have paid into the system in order to collect benefits.

There is some polling data which shows that the idea of paid family leave is extremely popular with voters. An early 2015 poll from Lake Research Partners, a Democratic polling form, found that a large majority agreed with paid time off to care for family members. This cut across voters of all persuasions.

America should not be the worst country in the world on paid family leave. Surely we can do better than that.

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Donald Trump and Fascism – posted 12/17/2015

December 17, 2015 9 comments

Probably no word in political vocabulary is more misused than fascist. It gets used all the time as an insult or as a way to tag a political opponent. It may just be used as a form of name-calling to indicate political disagreement with someone seen as authoritarian or dangerous. People on the political right or left can be called fascist although it is a charge typically levelled at someone on the right.

Lately it is hard to miss all the articles appearing on the subject of whether Donald Trump is a fascist. He certainly is not calling himself that.

In trying to get a handle on whether Trump is a fascist, I thought of an article written 20 years ago by the Italian novelist and writer Umberto Eco. The article, “Eternal Fascism: Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Blackshirt” suggests a list of features of fascism.

How Trump stacks up with these features is one way to get at the question about whether he is the real fascist deal. Eco thinks it is enough that one feature he describes be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

Eco suggests that the first feature of fascism is a cult of tradition. Trump’s baseball cap says, “Make America Great Again”. He harkens back to a mythological American past. In Trump world, there was no genocide against Native Americans or slavery. Trump doesn’t recognize that our past was worse than our present. We have actually made some progress in overcoming original sins.

I think irrationalism is at the core of the Trump phenomenon. Facts get in the way of his fantasy. The NBC reporter Michael Isikoff asked Trump if he thought the State of Hawaii was lying in regards to Obama being born there and Trump did not answer.

Trump says he will build a wall. He will deport eleven million and shutdown immigration. He will register Muslims. He will not allow American Muslims who leave the country back in when they want to return. He will waterboard and restore torture. He will keep us safe. It doesn’t matter that so many of his ideas are utterly unconstitutional. He demonstrates a cluelessness and disregard for constitutional law. For Trump, the law gets in the way.

What is important is that he is number one, especially in the everchanging polls. He is the smartest, the best, the richest. He holds himself up as so great. You have to ask why he is so insecure that he always feels the need to tout himself so much. I am reminded of something my dad used to say: “Self-praise is poor recommendation”. While it is not unusual to expect presidential candidates to be megalomaniacs, Trump carries the megalomania to new levels of preening narcissism.

Trump is not interested in ideas. He is a man of action. Eco says that irrationalism depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Trump builds casinos and hotels. These other politicians simply talk. Trump doesn’t do policy, plans or specifics.

Without real policies beyond the cult of himself, Trump is totally mocking other candidates. They are losers, low energy, stupid, at one percent in the polls or weak. There is no room for disagreement. If you disagree with the Donald, you are, by definition, a fool. He says all who oppose him will fall. Ted Cruz is next. He sucked up but his time is now coming.

Eco says the fascist exploits and exacerbates the natural fear of difference. Fascism appeals against the intruders. The Donald is big against The Other. First it was the Mexicans. They were rapists and criminals sneaking across the border. Now it is the Muslims – all the Muslims. We must keep them out because they could be secret jihadis.

Racism is close to the heart of Trumpism. He has become a favorite with America’s pitiful white supremacists. Trump’s rants give white supremacists more room to spew their poison and to act out. In August, two Boston brothers beat a homeless man with a metal pipe and then urinated on him. The two men told the police, “Donald Trump was right.” They thought the homeless man was an illegal immigrant and they went on to say, “All these illegals must be deported.”

Rhetoric matters and Trump’s unhinged style has green-lighted violent vigilantes and white supremacists. I think we can expect more attacks on those perceived to be Muslim. It would appear that for American fascists Muslims are filling and replacing the role previously designated for Jews.

It probably does not need to be restated where scapegoating led during the German Nazi era. I will say millions perished. The historical track record of fascism is littered with corpses. Trump has commented favorably on Operation Wetback in the 1950’s and he has been equivocal about the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. In spite of almost universal condemnation of the Japanese-American internment, Trump still sees it as a tough call.

Trump plays to the frustrations and insecurities Americans feel about the economy and terrorism. He indulges simple-minded solutions. Bomb them, kill them, deport them. To the rest of the world he is the stereotypical Ugly American. I would note that there is a popular petition going around the United Kingdom right now which would ban Trump from travelling there.

It is sadly ironic that some white working class and middle income people fall for the Donald’s celebrity routine. Trump tries to act like a regular guy but he is a one percenter through and through. Trump said his dad helped get him started with a small loan. The loan was for $1,000,000. Doesn’t everybody get that?

There is a dark side to the glitz. I find it surprising that the media has not more closely investigated his bad business practices. The multiple bankruptcy filings, the bad real estate deals, the evictions carried out against poor and elderly people, all are part of the Trump story and they deserve an airing. The media likes the fact that Trump’s celebrity has increased viewing and ratings.

Trump says he is not dependent on campaign contributions from rich people but what he is not saying is that he acts in the interests of his 1% friends. He will never do anything about economic inequality.

What Trump does when he scapegoats Muslims or Mexicans is to point the finger away from Wall Street and Big Business profiteers who did tank our economy. It is not Muslims or Mexicans who shipped good American jobs overseas, reduced wages and harmed our standard of living. In thinking about Trump supporters, I am reminded of this quote from the writer, Michael Lind.

“The American oligarchy spares no pains in promoting the belief that it does not exist but the success of its disappearing act depends on equally strenuous efforts on the part of an American public anxious to believe in egalitarian fictions and unwilling to see what is hidden in plain sight.”

Whether Trump is considered a fascist or a demagogue, his candidacy poses a special problem for Republicans. Trump is no conservative. He is not about conserving what is valuable in America’s laws and heritage. He has crossed enough lines to indicate he is something else altogether.

Being Jewish, I would admit to a special concern about fascism. The words “never again” ring in my mind. The maligning of broad groups like Muslims or Mexicans is unacceptable coming from any political candidate.

I do think members of the Bar have a particular responsibility to repudiate Trump’s unconstitutional antics. We need to protect our Constitution and our Bill of Rights. During the Nazi era, the German Bar and judiciary did a terrible job of repudiating fascism as it advanced to power. They accommodated fascism and ended up as fascist apologists. Americans lawyers and judges have a responsibility to do far better than the disastrous performance of their German counterparts.

It would be wrong to expect fascism in America to evolve as a duplication of previous fascist incarnations whether in Germany or elsewhere. It would likely be uniquely different and as Eco writes it could come back under the most innocent of disguises. Americans of all stripes need to repudiate fascism in whatever form it takes.

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