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Fashioning a Bold Progressive Vision for the 21st Century – posted 5/29/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 6/5/2016

May 29, 2016 3 comments

It is common to hear that our upcoming national election is a change election. Sometimes the success of the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are explained by saying that they are change candidates running against the status quo. The appeal is that both are not “more of the same”.

The problem with that characterization is the meaninglessness of the word “change”. It is just a cloudy vagueness with multiple possible interpretations.

On the Democratic side, we have the debate between the incrementalist change represented by Hillary Clinton and the big change represented by Bernie Sanders. I think we have a pretty good idea what incrementalist change is about but what would big change mean now for the United States?

You rarely see a fleshed-out vision of that so I will offer my own take. In offering this vision, I have not reviewed the platform of any candidate, including Sanders, nor have I consulted with any campaign.

Before outlining my ideas, I would add that both progressives and conservatives can be legitimately criticized for the staleness of their ideas. Neither major party has kept up with the magnitude of the changes we actually do need. I should also say that I offer this vision with a keen awareness of the obstacles in the path of its realization.

First and foremost, big change in 2016 requires an assault on income inequality. I think that is central. We need to be increasing the power and income of ordinary working people. Things have been way skewed in America toward the accumulation of extreme wealth for the 1%. Now it should be everybody else’s turn.

People in more equal societies live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Although not widely recognized, equality benefits everyone.

It is not just raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We need a moratorium on all layoffs and wage cuts. We should be reducing the interest rates on all credit cards and mortgage debt. Predatory lending needs to be more closely scrutinized and prohibited.

We need a massive rebuilding of our infrastructure, especially mass transit. Such a publicly subsidized program could offer good job opportunities to millions of people who are on the margins. This would be a modern day new New Deal.

We have a genuine career crisis in America. Good-paying, stable jobs with benefits and pensions have become an endangered species. Instead of long-term career jobs rewarded by greater income commensurate with lengthy service, more jobs have become temporary, contingent or part-time. We need better quality jobs that offer a future – not just a chance to be exploited.

Our brand of capitalism has failed to address so many crises. Young people, if they are fortunate enough to go to college, are paying ridiculous sums to emerge into an economy with not enough opportunity. Public college should be free or way less cost than it is now. The cost of college is a scandal. Young people should not be coming out of college buried in debt.

Those not going to college also need career paths that offer vocational opportunity at a liveable wage. Jobs like caring for children, older people and the sick deserve greater pay based on the principle that such jobs are a public good.

We need to totally rethink the role of senior citizens who will be becoming a larger part of our population. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience there. Seniors need to be treated as a valuable resource. Instead of putting people out to pasture early, we need to integrate seniors and use them more as mentors. Too many seniors are shunted aside when they could be contributing and could be a part of community life. Seniors deserve so much better than lives of loneliness, isolation, and financial privation.

We should consider a 30 hour work week for 40 hours pay. People could have six hour shifts and be paid for eight hours. I believe people would come to work with more energy and focus. It has been roughly 80 years since we moved to the 40 hour week. I think it is time for a shorter work week. A shorter work week would allow more people employment while allowing workers time for other pursuits outside work.

I also like the idea of five week mandatory paid vacation for all Americans. People in America are working too much for too little. Everybody needs a break.

We should have free, publicly provided quality childcare as well as paid family and medical leave. France has very successfully created such a national childcare system so that families pay far less out of pocket than we do.

We should move in the direction of publicly financed, affordable multiple-dwelling rental housing. Along with a universal right to health care, we should create a right to housing. There are way too many evictions and foreclosures. We need a major program to finance high quality, affordable housing. Homelessness is not acceptable in the 21st century.

I know many will say we cannot afford all of these ideas. My answer would be a stronger, progressive tax code. Progressive taxation is an absolutely honorable and time-tested principle. The current tax system grossly favors the rich and they can easily afford to pay much more. Creative tax lawyers should not be able to give the rich a free ride by stashing money in tax shelters , Swiss banks and the Cayman Islands.

Nor should the rich be able to buy elections. Citizens United and its ilk must be overturned. It is utterly undemocratic for billionaires to purchase election results like they are just another commodity for sale.

For a country of such extraordinary wealth and natural resources, the Unites States has devolved into a country with shocking levels of poverty. These places of poverty are what the journalist Chris Hedges has called “sacrifice zones”.

I grew up in the Philadelphia area so I will cite the familiar example of Camden, New Jersey. I think that city is typical of how a city dramatically declines. I will mention some features of such places: environmental degradation, job flight followed by joblessness, poor schools, too much violence and drugs, bad housing, and lower life expectancy. These places are largely ignored and written off by the powers-that-be.

Big change would mean we do not ignore such places. Progressives must stand for abolition of poverty. Places like Camden or Flint, Michigan might be the worst examples but hopelessly poor neighborhoods exist in many parts of this country and they are not limited to any racial group. Such poor neighborhoods should become a thing of the past.

In the United States, we need to regain a sense of the collective mission and purpose of our country. The country needs to be for the people – not for a handful of billionaires. We need to be asking: what do the masses of people in the United States need?

It is not more wars and militarism. Over the last generation, we have been led astray on imperialist adventures. We should be done with stupid wars. Between Vietnam and Iraq, we have more than had our fill. While there are real threats out there, we must be much more circumspect about what constitutes a genuine threat to our national security. Our military-industrial complex is too large and its appetites will promote much more needless loss of life.

We do need to recognize climate change and we must stop ignoring the overwhelming consensus of scientists who warn us about it. The climate change deniers are an absurdity and have had too much sway. Moving beyond fossil fuels and toward environmentally sustainable energy is a no-brainer. The environmental challenges cut far deeper than is being acknowledged. We need to fight the ongoing mass extinction of biodiversity and we need to protect wilderness and prevent habitat destruction. Human life is integrally intertwined with our fellow species. We are failing to recognize that exterminating other species threatens humanity.

I would be remiss if I did not mention our original sins – racism against Native Americans and African-Americans. It is not like that has been adequately addressed. Denial still reigns. It is past time to own up and figure out an agenda that is intellectually honest and just. At the very least we need to stop allowing suppression of the vote. Such a low percentage of people vote in America. We should be doing everything to increase popular vote. I agree with Senator Sanders’ idea that we have a Democracy Day national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. We also may want to allow weekend voting.

I also feel compelled to mention defense of women’s reproductive rights. The anti-choice movement has chipped away for years now at the rights established by Roe v Wade. The extremism of that movement has created an environment where fanatics feel justified targeting and murdering doctors. Progressives must defend choice. It is sad that in an article about progressive vision, I am advocating an undeniably defensive action but there is a clear and present danger to women across the country and these rights must be protected.

Also we need to stop blaming undocumented immigrants. They did not bring the economy to its knees or move jobs to China. They are being scapegoated. Ideas like building a wall or banning Muslims from entry in the United States do not constitute change; such ideas are know-nothing reaction.

I know plenty of people will read these ideas and they will attack them as socialist. In this, they will be wrong. Socialism is about control over the means of production by working class people. The big changes I have outlined are only about fairness and fit more in the social democratic tradition.

The range of ideas allowed for serious discussion by Republicans and Democrats is far too narrow. I offer these ideas as a basis for further discussion and debate. Capitalism is consigning masses of working people, including in New Hampshire, to a permanent underclass. Maybe it is time to think big.

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Letter from Paris – posted 5/10/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/15/2016

May 10, 2016 1 comment

May 10, 2016.

Dear Readers:

I just had a chance to visit Paris for two weeks. What an awesome, friendly city! If there is a more beautiful, majestic city anywhere, I have not seen it. As has been written, Paris is a moveable feast. The art, the architecture, the history, the people, the food – so vital and alive.

Do not believe the hype scaring people into staying home and not travelling. Even in early May, the city is packed with tourists from everywhere. While security is heightened, Paris has quickly moved on from the terrorist attacks of last year.

I arrived in Paris right before May Day, international workers’ day. It is one of the biggest holidays of the year in France. There was a huge demonstration turnout of the French labor movement and all left wing political parties.

The left political tradition remains very vibrant in France. It appears to me that workers in France are more aware of their rights as well as being more class conscious than their American counterparts. The labor movement in France is certainly stronger than it is in the United States.

Interestingly, May Day actually originated in America. In the late 19th century American workers were fighting for an 8 hour work day. It was quite common for workers in America to be working 10 to 16 hours a day in unsafe conditions. May Day started as a commemoration of the Haymarket affair in Chicago which was part of the effort for legal establishment of the 8 hour day.

This year, France is bitterly divided over a new proposed labor law reform. Much of the focus of the May Day demonstration was on the law, dubbed “El Khomri’s law”, after Myriam El Khomri, France’s Labor Minister. The Socialist government of President Francois Hollande initiated the reform, ostensibly to address high unemployment which stands at over 10%.

The reform has been met by furious opposition from the left. Much of the right wing and business community response seems favorably disposed to the law changes.

France’s labor code applies to all workers in the country so the labor law reform is hugely consequential.

The reform has multiple components. Among other provisions, it could lengthen the prescribed work week to 48 hours or even more. The French work week is currently 35 hours. As someone said to me this week, the French do not live to work – they work to live. The legislation considerably reduces the bonus paid to employees who work more than 35 hours in a week.

It also would allow employers greater flexibility in hiring and firing employees. In France, workers who lose their jobs without “just cause” are eligible to seek compensation. So if you are laid off, you can seek legal damages for unfair dismissal. Employers typically have to make a settlement based on your length of employment.

The new proposed law would lower the limit on money damages. Under the reform, workers would get less compensation.

The reform would also permit firms to negotiate “offensive agreements” at the company level. Such agreements could undercut existing standards on pay rates, working hours and other aspects of the labor contract. Previously, employers have not had the ability to do this as such changes were a violation of labor law.

The changes would be highly beneficial to business. French business has long complained that workers in France have too many rights. They believe French law is full of too rigid labor law restrictions and too many regulations.

The struggle over the labor law reform has prompted the creation of a new movement, Nuit Debout, which has been compared to our Occupy Wall Street. Nuit Debout means “arise at night”. For several months now, Nuit Debout activists have occupied Place de la Republique, a part of Paris, much like how Occupy activists camped out in New York City, Manchester and other cities.

Nuit Debout reflects an anger French young people feel at the French system as well as disillusionment with the dominant political parties. Nuit Debout demonstrations have popped up all over France. It remains unclear where Nuit Debout is heading but every night activists have been gathering in public assemblies at Place de la Republique and venting. Nuit Debout does want the bill on the labor law withdrawn.

I have been struck by historical parallels and convergences with things American in France. Our revolutions happened only 13 years apart, in 1776 and 1789. Thomas Jefferson helped Lafayette to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, which was a founding French revolutionary document. That Declaration recognized rights to liberty, property, safety and resistance to repression. The document asserted that all citizens were equal.

Jefferson was actually in Paris in 1789. He was the United States Minister to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin. When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette sent the key of that prison to Washington to express his sense of indebtedness to the Americans. Jefferson felt the French Revolution would act to confirm the American Revolution.

Although it is not well known, in February 1794, the French government voted to abolish slavery. This was 69 years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. France was the first government in history to abolish slavery.

France has had and still continues to have profound issues with racism. Napoleon reversed many of the racial gains made by the French revolutionaries. He reinstated racially discriminatory laws. Napoleon was supported by slavers and plantation owners.

The history of the struggle against slavery in France is quite fascinating. Going all the way back to the 1750’s, French lawyers fought the powerful colonial sugar lobby to establish rights for people of color. One hundred years before the infamous Dred Scott decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court, French lawyers represented slaves taken to France from colonies. Through lawsuits, these slaves won freedom from their masters.

While people in the United States tend to associate the French Revolution with the Terror period, the French Revolution did open doors of emancipation for millions of enslaved people.

There are so many things to like about France. In closing, I will offer my personal list: public displays of affection, the Metro, Bordeaux red wine, universal health care coverage, love of dogs, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, apricot flan pie and bakeries to die for, the Eiffel Tower at night, TV that covers politics seriously, including international news, the photography of Lore Kruger as displayed at the Jewish Museum of History and Arts, escargot and sidewalk cafes.

Au revoir, Jon

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