The GOP Ditches Property Rights

For those of us who used to belong to a very, VERY different Republican Party, the most bewildering–and infuriating–feature of the cult that has replaced it is its blatant hypocrisy. A political party that used to favor free trade, fiscal prudence, individual liberty and property rights has cheerfully abandoned its devotion to those–or for that matter, any– principled approaches to civil liberties.

Granted, rational folks in both parties understood that your liberties aren’t absolute, and that concern for the public good–public health, national security and other social requirements– will necessarily constrain your ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. But once upon a time, the arguments between serious folks tended to be about specifics: when is it legitimate for government to limit certain liberties?

Thanks to the devolution of the Republican Party, virtually all of its once-sacrosanct principles have become disposable.

Free trade? When Donald Trump decided to impose tariffs–long considered unthinkable by the Grand Old Party–the cult jettisoned its prior beliefs and embraced them.

Fiscal prudence? These days, fiscal responsibility–not necessarily balancing the budget (the preference of a fringe unwilling to understand why such a constraint could be dangerous) but a commitment to imposing taxes to pay for government programs is long gone. The party that recoiled from Democrats’ perceived willingness to “tax and spend” became the party opposed to any and all taxes, especially on those most able to pay them. If the government really has to “do stuff,” today’s GOP favors”borrow and spend”–put it on the national credit card and let the next generation pay for it.

Individual liberty? That principle has been rewritten too. Now, it’s highly selective. Republicans are all for your “liberty” to act in ways with which they agree. They believe you should have the “liberty” to ignore public health mandates and decide for yourself whether to wear a mask (i.e., the “liberty” to infect your neighbor), but they remain adamantly opposed to a woman’s liberty to control her own body. They support your liberty to communicate racist sentiments, but not your liberty to voice your disapproval of those sentiments–that’s “cancel culture.”

And of course, they support the liberty of anyone and everyone to “pack heat,” but oppose even the most reasonable constraints to protect public safety.

And what about property rights? The GOP long defended property rights, arguing (I believe properly) that the government that can confiscate your property poses a danger to other civil liberties. After all, if the government can infringe your property rights in retaliation for the exercise of  your right to freedom of speech or religion, how likely are you to exercise those rights?

Apparently, property rights are also old school. As an article from The Week put it, the GOP no longer believes a man’s cruise ship is his castle.

“Texas is open 100 percent,” Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a Twitter video Monday, “and we want to make sure you have the freedom to go where you want without limits.” To that end, Abbott said, he signed a law banning any business or government entity in the state from requiring documentation of a COVID-19 vaccination or recovery for entry (commonly called vaccine passports).

Abbott cast the legislation as a bold strike for freedom, but it’s nothing of the sort — not in the sense the American right has traditionally understood the term, anyway. Though it may be said to enhance consumer choice, it is a betrayal of private property rights, which have long been core to visions of small government in the United States.

The article quotes James Madison’s 1829 address, in which the father of our Constitution explained “that the rights of persons, and the rights of property are the objects for the protection of which Government was instituted. These rights cannot well be separated.”

Abbott begs to differ. Evidently, Texan business owners have no right to determine what happens on their property. Abbott isn’t the only Republican governor to  ignore property rights. Florida’s Ron DeSantis has banned vaccine passports, including those required by cruise ships departing from Florida.

Ironically, as the article notes, reliance on property rights allowed  the right to win many battles purportedly over religious liberty.

On questions like whether Catholic employers should be made to pay for employees’ birth control, whether conservative bakers should be forced to bake for a gay wedding, or whether Christian adoption agencies should be required to place children with same-sex couples, the right’s religious liberty position has long been buttressed by property rights: If you own the business, the argument goes, you should be able to make these calls as your conscience directs.

These days, however, only when your conscience points you in a GOP-approved direction.

Mitch McConnell Issues A Threat

This morning, I’ve created a theoretical exercise. it’s intended to put you in the proper frame of mind to consider the latest outrage from Mitch McConnell–aka the most dangerous man in America.

Assume we are watching a TV western. The sheriff–having won a hard-fought election in his scruffy border town by promising to keep the residents safe from (unspecified) “bad guys”–issues a proclamation promising to deal severely with law-breakers. Well, maybe not all law-breakers. He’ll deal severely with any law-breakers who supported his opponent in the election.

If someone who supported him breaks the rules, however, he says he’ll look the other way.

If we encountered  a show with that plot device, we’d be incredulous–not only is that not what we mean when we champion law and order, we’d turn the TV off while muttering about the ridiculous premise–after all, when TV bad guys decide to engage in nefarious acts, they don’t typically broadcast that intention. If that storyline did appear in our fictional TV episode, we’d expect the local folks–including those who’d supported the sheriff– to rise up and run him and his co-conspirators out of town, thereby reinforcing the primacy of justice over partisanship.

Which brings us to Mitch McConnell.

After the Senate confirmed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia (Jackson, a Black female jurist, will replace Merrick Garland), McConnell reacted with a threat.

In an interview with the conservative radio commentator Hugh Hewitt, Mr. McConnell said Republicans would most likely block any Supreme Court nominee put forward by Mr. Biden in 2024 if Republicans regained control of the Senate in next year’s elections and a seat came open.

Along with most lawyers, I was astonished and infuriated in 2016 when McConnell brazenly refused even to consider Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, piously intoning that it was “too close to the presidential election,” although that election was months away and nominees had previously been confirmed to the Court during similar timeframes..

As we all saw, that excuse was shown to be the partisan hogwash it was when Trump nominated, and McConnell pushed through,  Amy Coney Barrett a mere six weeks before the November election.

Republicans who had banded together in 2016 at Mr. McConnell’s urging and declared that it was not appropriate to confirm a Supreme Court nominee during an election year had remarkable conversions in the case of Judge Barrett. The Republican leader insisted that he had not changed his position, arguing that because Mr. Obama was a Democrat, it was entirely appropriate for members of his party to block his nominee.

“What was different in 2020 was we were of the same party as the president,” Mr. McConnell told Mr. Hewitt. “And that’s why we went ahead with it.”

Partisan misuse of power, in McConnell-land, is “entirely appropriate.”

America without the rule of law would not be America. As far short of our aspirations and stated beliefs as this country has often fallen, it still seems absolutely incomprehensible that a high-ranking, powerful political figure would publicly–proudly!– trumpet his intention to ignore so foundational a principle.

I often refer to the rule of law, assuming readers understand its importance. The shorthand we all hear is: the same rules apply to everyone. Maybe that’s too abstract.

As an educational site maintained by the US Courts defines the concept:

Rule of law is a principle under which all persons, institutions, and entities are accountable to laws that are: Publicly promulgated, Equally enforced, Independently adjudicated; and consistent with international human rights principles.

The Trump administration waged an unrelenting attack on the rule of law, culminating with Trump’s pardons of some of its sleaziest transgressors. But even Trumpers as morally and ethically compromised as Bill Barr drew the line at publicly announcing their disdain for fair and equal application of the rules.

McConnell is the sheriff from my mythical TV show–the guy who publicly announces that the rules don’t matter–that whenever possible, he will ignore fundamental fairness and the national interest, and exercise power solely to privilege his partisans.

In a very real sense, he has promised  a coup. 

Michael Flynn must be so pleased.

 

 

Some Things Aren’t Complicated

I often post about the complexity of the issues confronting us these days, but I will readily concede that everything isn’t complicated. In fact, some things turn out to be relatively simple.

Case in point: As the pandemic has eased, thanks to vaccinations, and Americans have begun returning to the restaurants and bars we all missed during our year of isolation, the media has been full of stories detailing the difficulty those establishments are having attracting staff.  Politicians and pundits have “explained” the problem via their respective  biases: Republicans, for example, have insisted that the reluctance to return to these jobs is a result of the unimaginable generosity represented by those $300 unemployment checks.

Several Red states, including Indiana, have rushed to terminate those payments–essentially, calculating that further impoverishing the unemployed will force workers back into the low-wage labor market.

A number of economists have suggested that blaming the problem on unemployment payments, as satisfying as Republicans may find that explanation, is incorrect, and emerging data–that pesky thing we call “evidence”–would seem to confirm that conclusion. A number of media outlets, including the Washington Post have reported that there is even a relatively simple “fix” for the problem: better pay.

The owners of Klavon’s Ice Cream Parlor had hit a wall.

For months, the 98-year-old confectionary in Pittsburgh couldn’t find applicants for the open positions it needed to fill ahead of warmer weather and, hopefully, sunnier times for the business after a rough year.

The job posting for scoopers — $7.25 an hour plus tips — did not produce a single application between January and March. So owner Jacob Hanchar decided to more than double the starting wage to $15 an hour, plus tips, “just to see what would happen.”

The shop was suddenly flooded with applications. More than 1,000 piled in over the course of a week.

When a variety of media outlets reported on Klavon’s experience, it prompted a number other business to emulate the tactic–and guess what?! That clever ploy worked for them, too!

As the Post story noted, across the country, businesses haven’t been facing a scarcity of workers — they’ve been facing a scarcity of workers interested in applying for low-wage positions.

The current shortage of workers isn’t solely a function of low wages, of course–the problem isn’t quite that simple. There are a number of other elements exacerbating the problem, as the article pointed out.

Republicans have blamed enhanced unemployment benefits for the shortage; Democrats and most labor economists say the issue is the result of a complicated mix of factors, including many schools having yet to fully reopen, lingering concerns about workplace safety and other ways the workforce has shifted during the pandemic.

That said,

The experience of 12 business operators interviewed by The Washington Post who raised their minimum wage in the last year points to another element of the equation: the central role that pay — specifically a $15-an-hour minimum starting wage — plays in attracting workers right now….

Enrique Lopezlira, a labor economist at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert on the low-wage workforce, said the stories were a sign, albeit anecdotal, that the market was functioning as it should in the face of excessive demand for workers.

“The more employers improve the quality of the jobs and the more they think of workers as an asset that needs to be maximized, the better they’re going to be able to find and retain workers long term,” he said.

Several individual stories recounted in the Post article bear that out.

Many of the business operators interviewed said that the decision to raise their employees’ starting wage was not motivated primarily by altruism or a desire to do right: It just made good business sense.

They said wage increases would help attract stronger candidates, reduce turnover and elevate company morale and culture — important for customer-facing businesses such as restaurants.

“We’re going to see savings in retention and turnover, which is so expensive,” said Nicole Marquis, the founder and chief executive of HipCityVeg, a group of fast-casual vegan eateries with locations in Philadelphia and D.C. that recently announced a $15 starting wage. “And this is going to help with recruiting, which will help with our culture — and is really what drives profit at the end of the day and creates a long-lasting brand.”

No kidding.

Some things aren’t that complicated…

 

Money Makes The World Go Round…

Follow the money…

A recent study found that a dozen “mega donors” contributed one in every 13 Dollars raised by political campaigns since 2009. The study was undertaken in an effort to determine whether and how the role of the super rich had grown following the loosening of restrictions on political spending by the U.S. Supreme Court more than a decade ago.

The growing influence of multimillion-dollar megadonors has been accompanied by another, competing trend: a surge of small online donations to politicians of both parties. Those contributions — in $5, $10 and $25 increments — have given Democrats and Republicans an alternate source of money beyond the super rich.

Still, the study found that the top 100 ZIP codes for political giving in the United States, which hold less than 1 percent of the total population, accounted for roughly 20 percent of the $45 billion that federal candidates and political groups raised between January 2009 and December 2020. The study used data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiles figures from the Federal Election Commission.

The study didn’t include state-level contributions, so the picture that emerged is incomplete, but the overall message is clear enough: money matters disproportionately in American politics.

The amount of money at a candidate’s disposal isn’t necessarily dispositive; as a a friend who used to be a political strategist has always maintained, a good candidate with a good message who raises at least enough money to get that message out can defeat an opponent with a much larger campaign war-chest. But anyone who dismisses the significance of campaign funding is delusional.

That said, trying to get a handle on campaign finance is a fraught exercise, and many seemingly good ideas end up generating unanticipated–and negative–consequences.

Take the reforms that have focused on limiting candidate spending.  It sounds fair, but imposing uniform limits tend to work in favor of incumbents, because most Incumbents begin the election cycle with high name recognition. Challengers need to build that recognition (which is one reason why celebrities with no government experience have a leg up in such contests).  Once a non-famous challenger  spends enough to build that name recognition, campaign spending limits kick in. Typically, that’s the point at which the incumbent is just beginning to spend. In other words, just as a challenger starts to become competitive, spending limits choke off political competition.

So what would effective, workable reform look like? Previous efforts–caps on contribution amounts, reporting requirements and the like–have been circumvented by canny lawyers. The hope that small donations facilitated by the Internet would be a countervailing force has dimmed, as it has become apparent that it is easier for fringe candidates to generate those funds from equally fringe voters (evidently, Marjorie Taylor Greene has taken in very substantial amounts). It would be great if we could set time limits for campaigning, but that would probably help incumbents as well–and in any event, run afoul of  the First Amendment.

Given the rules as they exist, the only counter to the influence of money in American politics is the franchise–and the multitude of civic and political organizations that are working to expand voter turnout. As we approach the 2022 midterms, Republicans are working furiously to counter those efforts, and as I have noted in previous posts, the GOP goes into each election cycle with a number of structural and financial advantages, not to mention a media ecosystem supporting–nay, trumpeting– their messaging. (And no, MSNBC tilts left but is absolutely not a counterweight to Fox, et al. Accusations to the contrary are assertions of a false equivalency.)

Democratic systems are supposed to reflect the will of the people. Political actors who enjoy enough resources and structural advantages can and do ignore and subvert that will. How we even the playing field, how we facilitate “fair fights” and prevent donations from drowning out the voice of  the public is by no means clear.

But at the end of the day, money really does make the political world go around….and we need to figure out a way to lessen its impact.

 

Free Speech

“Cancel culture.” “Political correctness.” “Hate speech.” Americans have been arguing about free speech since passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Recently, there have even been reports of disagreement within that bastion of free-speech defense, the ACLU.

As we all know, no one is trying to shut up people with whom they agree. The First Amendment was designed, as Justice Holmes memorably put it, to “protect the idea we hate.” In an effort to explain why that insight is so important, I often shared with my students a personal experience from “back in the day”– early in my long-ago tenure as Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU.

Members of the KKK had applied to use the steps of the Indiana Statehouse for a rally. Then-Governor Evan Bayh (who surely knew better) refused to allow it. The Statehouse steps had routinely been used by other organizations, and despite Bayh’s posturing, the law clearly forbid the government from allowing or disallowing such use based on the content of the message to be delivered.

So the Klan came to the ACLU.

At the time, the people who ended up representing the rights of these odious people included the Jewish Executive Director (me), the affiliate’s one secretary, who was Black, and a co-operating attorney, who was gay.

Each of us knew that if the Klan ever achieved power, we’d be among the first to be marginalized or even eliminated–so why on earth would we protect the organization’s right to spew its bigotry? Because we also knew that– in a system where government can pick and choose who has rights– no one really has rights. The government that can muzzle the KKK today can muzzle me tomorrow–and as we have (painfully) learned, we can’t assume that good people will always be in charge of that government.

As one ACLU leader put it, poison gas is a great weapon until the wind shifts.

As with so many other misunderstood elements of the Bill of Rights, the issue isn’t what you may say or do– it is who gets to decide what you say or do? And right now, at the same time state-level Republican legislators are accusing the left of “canceling” their messages and “censoring” Dr. Seuss, they are waging a determined war on protesters’ and educators’ right to say things with which they disagree. 

As Michelle Goldberg recently reported,

In a number of states, Republicans have responded to last year’s racial justice uprising by cracking down on demonstrators. As The Times reported in April, during 2021 legislative sessions, lawmakers in 34 states have introduced 81 anti-protest bills. An Indiana bill would bar people convicted of unlawful assembly from state employment. A Minnesota proposal would prohibit people convicted of unlawful protesting from getting student loans, unemployment benefits or housing assistance. Florida passed a law protecting drivers from civil liability if they crash their cars into people protesting in the streets.

Meanwhile, the right-wing moral panic about critical race theory has led to a rash of statewide bills barring schools — including colleges and universities — from teaching what are often called “divisive concepts,” including the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist. Even where such laws haven’t been passed, the campaign has had a chilling effect; the Kansas Board of Regents recently asked state universities for a list of courses that include critical race theory.

As Goldberg says, there’s nothing new about the left growing weary of sticking up for the rights of reactionaries. Personally, I would find it really satisfying to shut down Faux News, or to tell the My Pillow Guy to go stuff a sock in it. The problem is, satisfying that urge won’t take us where we need to go. Goldberg’s last sentence is worth contemplating.

 Maybe every generation has to learn for itself that censorship isn’t a shortcut to justice.

To which I would just add: and criticism of your position by people who aren’t using the power of government to shut you up isn’t censorship.