AlterNet.org: Steven Hill http://wvvw.alternet.org/authors/steven-hill en The 7 Biggest Myths and Lies About Social Security http://wvvw.alternet.org/books/7-biggest-myths-and-lies-about-social-security <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Social Security is not going broke, not by a long shot.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/shutterstock_61894678.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p><em>The following is an excerpt from the new book</em> <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Expand-Social-Security-Now-Retirement/dp/0807028436/?tag=alternorg08-20">Expand Social Security Now!</a> <em>by Steven Hill (Beacon Press, 2016): </em></p><p><em>Social Security is bankrupting us. It’s outdated. It’s a Ponzi scheme. It’s socialism. It’s stealing from young people.</em> The opponents and pundits determined to roll back the United States to the “good old days” before the New Deal regularly trot out a number of bogeymen and bigfoots to scare Americans into not supporting their own retirement well-being. That hasn’t worked too well. Americans of all political stripes remain strongly supportive of Social Security and other so-called “entitlements” like Medicare. But the other reason for plastering the media waves with a chorus of myths and lies is to stir up a political climate that causes politicians of both parties to cease looking for better alternatives other than to cut, cut, cut, or even to maintain the inadequate status quo. Below are rebuttals to some of the biggest whoppers regularly told about one of the most popular and successful federal programs in our nation’s history.</p><p><strong>1. Social Security is going broke and will bankrupt the country.</strong></p><p>Social Security is not going broke, not by a long shot. The Social Security Board of Trustees released its annual report to Congress in July 2015, and among all the tables, charts, and graphs in that big fat report, it would be easy to miss the most important take-home message: Social Security is one of the best-funded federal programs in U.S. history. That’s because it has its own dedicated revenue stream, which is composed of the insurance premiums paid by every worker (deducted from our paychecks by what is called “payroll contributions”), which are automatically banked into the Trust Fund. Even the Pentagon and the defense budget do not have their own dedicated revenue stream.</p><p>In fact, Social Security has not one dedicated revenue stream, but <em>three</em>. Besides the payroll contributions, Social Security is also funded by income generated from investing all those set-aside wages into U.S. treasuries. That money earns a sizable return on the investment. And Social Security is also funded by revenue that comes from levying income tax on Social Security recipients (yes, your Social Security check and that of other Americans is treated as income and taxed—and it brought in $756 billion to the Trust Fund in 2014). Those three revenue streams combined have banked $2.8 <em>trillion</em> in the Trust Fund and resulted in a $25 billion <em>surplus</em> in 2014.</p><p>Bankrupt? That charge does not even pass a good laugh test.</p><p>Indeed, because Social Security has its own funding source, and by law is not allowed to spend any money it does not have, it is actually impossible for Social Security to add to annual operating deficits or the national debt. Moreover, the Social Security Board of Trustees is required by law to report to Congress every year about the financial fitness of the program. The annual trustees report projects its revenues and payouts, not just for the next five, ten, or twenty years, but for the next seventy-five years. It’s one of the few programs anyone can identify that has had the wisdom to plan for the future, rather than planning around short-term political calculations and the next election cycle.</p><p>Over the next twenty years, as more and more of the huge population bloom known as the baby boomers continues to retire, Social Security is projecting a modest shortfall of just 0.51 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). If nothing is done to plug that gap, sometime in the 2030s the Trust Fund will have enough to cover only 75 percent of benefits. But there are so many budgetary ways to cover that shortfall, it becomes clear that the problem is not the finances of finding the money but the politics of partisanship and paralysis. No other government program can claim that it is fully funded for almost the next quarter century. What government critics ever say that the Defense Department or the Departments of Energy or Education are going bankrupt? Yet those programs don’t have dedicated revenue streams, and certainly no one plans or projects costs for those programs over the next seventy-five years.</p><p>For example, simply removing the payroll cap and taxing all income brackets equally would not only be fairer to all Americans, it would also raise all of the money and then some to plug any Social Security funding shortfalls twenty years from now. Opinion polls have demonstrated that most Americans—even 70 percent of Republicans—think if they pay Social Security tax on their full salary, others should as well. That’s just one example of the many adjustments we can enact that would make the U.S. retirement system more fair, robust, and stable, and better adapted to the realities of today’s economy.</p><p><strong>2. Social Security is unsustainable because we have fewer workers for every retiree, even as our society is “greying” and people are living longer.</strong></p><p>Another charge leveled by critics is that the number of workers compared to the number of non-workers—what is known as the dependency ratio—is declining, and so as a result Social Security is unsustainable. President George W. Bush really pushed hard on this point in his bid to gut the program and turn it into private accounts. In his 2005 State of the Union address, President Bush said:</p><blockquote><p>"Social Security was created decades ago, for a very different era. . . . A half-century ago, about 16 workers paid into the system for each person drawing benefits. . . . Instead of 16 workers paying in for every beneficiary, right now it’s only about three workers. And over the next few decades, that number will fall to just two workers per beneficiary. . . . With each passing year, fewer workers are paying ever-higher benefits to an ever-larger number of retirees."</p></blockquote><p>President Bush’s key strategist, Karl Rove, had the president tour the country to promote his privatization plan for Social Security, and he repeated his talking points everywhere he went, in state after state. President Bush must have set some kind of record: rarely has anyone been so wrong so often about Social Security as the president was during his “privatization or bust” tour.</p><p>Yet this claim by not only President Bush but key Republican and even some Democratic leaders reflects a deep misunderstanding. The “dependency ratio” is not just a factor of the number of workers compared to the number of retirees. It has to be configured according to the number of total dependents, including children. A different picture emerges when children are included.</p><p>The fact is, declining birthrates have resulted in a fall in dependent children, so the rise in the number of retired will be partly offset by a decline in the number of dependent children. According to Gary Burtless, an economist and demographic expert at the Brookings Institution, when the decline in children is factored in, total dependency ratios in many countries in 2050 will look more favorable than the ratios were in the 1960s. In the United States, for example, the dependency ratio peaked in 1965, when there were ninety-five dependents (both children and retirees) for every one hundred working adults. By 2050 the figure will be eighty dependents for every hundred workers, which, while much higher than the highly favorable figure of forty-nine dependents in 2000, will still be markedly lower than the number of dependents in 1965.</p><p>How did we as a society manage to get wealthier in the 1960s and ’70s despite a much higher dependency ratio? The answer, in a word, is “productivity.” Labor productivity is a measure of the amount of goods and services produced by each worker, which in a well-functioning economy increases over time due to the implementation of technology, greater education and job skills training, as well as more efficient business practices. If our labor productivity continues to increase, and the political system passes on the economic gains in the form of a broadly shared prosperity, then the rising tide will float all boats. Political analyst Michael Lind has argued that “productivity growth can solve much or all of the pension funding problem,” and as proof of that he points out that if the ratio of workers to retirees goes from 3 to 1 today to the expected 2 to 1 in the future, that is quite a minor shift compared to a change from a ratio of 16 workers to 1 retiree in 1950, or even 8 workers to 1 in 1960, to 3 to 1 today—a shift made relatively smooth and painless by education, training, and technology-driven productivity growth over the past half century.</p><p>That doesn’t mean that we can ignore factors like dependency ratios, but the fact is that as long as our economy is healthy, robust, and growing, creating jobs and increasing productivity, and the political system is inclusive and passes on the increased prosperity to the general public in the form of higher wages and a robust safety net, there is no reason that the greying of society or the ratio of workers to dependents should hamper the nation’s economic future.</p><p><strong>3. IRA s and 401(k)s have replaced private pensions and Social Security. Americans want to be self-reliant on their own private retirement accounts, because you can do better investing on your own.</strong></p><p>One would think that the volatility and havoc wreaked by the stock market in recent years would have laid to rest the notion that “self-reliant” Americans can invest and save on their own. It’s really not that easy to build up a private nest egg in savings that an individual will need to cover their needs during their post-work years. The fact that three-quarters of Americans nearing retirement have less than $30,000 in their private savings—less than 5 percent of what they will need—shows what a bust of an idea this really is.</p><p>For years, advocates for deregulation and entitlements have pushed for privatized retirement accounts—401(k)s, IRAs, and other private savings vehicles managed by Wall Street’s financial managers, which skims off the top their own lucrative fees. At the same time, businesses have pushed to shut down their “defined-benefit” pensions, which have long provided a guaranteed monthly payout for life, just like Social Security’s lifetime annuity. Now that we have nearly three decades of experience with replacing pensions with 401(k)s and IRAs, and of Americans trying so hard to stuff their retirement piñatas, it’s clear that most American retirees are no more secure than before. In fact, they are much less secure.</p><p>The 401(k) system that was positioned in the 1980s to replace pensions was sold to American workers as the new and improved successors to the guaranteed payout of a defined-benefit pension. Business leaders and the politicians took away what worked and replaced it with an experiment. But that experiment has failed, and proven to be more fragile and inefficient than the system it replaced. Besides having failed to produce enough retirement savings for the vast majority of Americans, the 401(k) system has forced everyday Americans to face a number of significant risks, the most obvious being that you can lose your personal savings to unpredictable stock market gyrations or a housing-market downturn, especially since most people have little expertise in how to navigate the ups and downs. But there is also the uncomfortable fact that, with wages flat over the last few decades, millions of individual workers have been unable to save enough. Consequently, as we have seen, 80 percent of the federal subsidy for individual retirement savings goes to the top 20 percent of income earners—the people who need it the least.</p><p><strong>4. Social Security is stealing from young people and saddling them with a level of overwhelming debt.</strong></p><p>Billionaire Peter G. Peterson has been one of the pioneers of this kind of intergenerational doom-saying. Headlines about the old stealing from the young certainly grab the media spotlight. But this one is an old, old trope that never made any sense. Peterson first raised it back in 1982, in the midst of the deliberations of the Greenspan Commission. Social Security, Peterson wrote, “threatens the entire economy. . . . The Social Security system will run huge deficits . . . these deficits will push our children into a situation of economic stagnation and social conflict and create a potentially disastrous situation for the elderly of the future.”</p><p>But Peterson hasn’t been the only Cassandra prophesying a generational war between young and old. More recently, the <em>Washington Post’s</em> Robert J. Samuelson took up the cause. “We need to stop coddling the elderly,” he wrote in a 2013 column, calling Social Security and Medicare “a growing transfer from the young, who are increasingly disadvantaged, to the elderly, who are increasingly advantaged.” In a 2014 column, Samuelson continued his anti-elderly and antigovernment debt diatribe, writing, “Giving the elderly as a class special treatment heaps the costs of deficit reduction on workers and children.” </p><p>Pitting the elderly against children makes little sense for many reasons, but one obvious one is that today’s children will one day be seniors themselves. And they will need the retirement benefits that people like Peterson and Samuelson are trying to cut from retirees. Robbing Peter to pay Paul might make sense from a maniacally focused budget buster’s perspective, but it makes little sense from a public policy perspective. If that makes sense, then why not cut funding from cancer research, or diabetes treatment, since those ailments mostly affect older people and not the young. But obviously the young today could be attacked by those ailments tomorrow. Society benefits as a whole when it tries to address conditions that affect humanity as a whole.</p><p><strong>5. We have to raise the retirement age because people are living longer and the nation can’t afford to pay for all these aging retirees.</strong></p><p>Wrong. We do not have to raise the retirement age.There are common-sense changes we can make to Social Security that would not only safeguard it financially for the future, but would actually allow us to <em>double</em> the monthly benefits for retirees. For example, we could increase tax fairness by lifting the cap on the payroll tax so that wealthy Americans make the same percentage contribution as every other American. At the same time, the payroll contribution base could be extended to profits from investment income, such as capital gains. This would raise additional revenues in a progressive fashion that could be used to enhance the program for all Americans.</p><p><strong>6. Social Security is un-American and too “socialistic” for most people in the United States.</strong></p><p>Un-American? Too socialist? Social Security remains one of the most popular and successful government programs in history—opinion polls show nearly 70 percent of <em>Republicans</em> don’t want it to be cut or hurt. So if Social Security is too “socialist,” Americans must all be a bunch of closet socialists. Millions of Americans from all political persuasions now depend on Social Security, and no amount of divisive rhetoric, or even Pete Peterson’s billions of dollars, can change that fact.</p><p><strong>7. The United States already has the world’s highest living standard, with an overly generous retirement system for seniors. We must be more realistic.</strong></p><p>The United States is quite a bit less generous to its retirees than other developed nations. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tracks and compares features like national pension systems. According to its numbers, the U.S. pension “replacement rate” for the average earner—the share of gross income the pension is expected to replace—is 38.3 percent, which is below the OECD average of 54.4 percent and 58 percent for countries in the European Union. For low-income workers—defined as earning 50 percent of the average wage—the United States was even more stingy, with a replacement rate of 49.5 percent compared to the OECD average of 71 percent and 73.9 percent for EU countries. Like in the United States, retirement pensions in most of these other nations are funded by regular payroll deductions from both workers and employers.</p><p>On other replacement metrics like “transfers in retirement income,” which measures the share of retirement income made up by both public pensions and social welfare assistance, the United States also looks stingy. The OECD average is 58.6 percent while the U.S. average is only 37.6 percent, barely half the average of the EU countries at 70.6 percent and just above Mexico and South Korea. Consequently, the poverty rate for seniors in the United States is substantially higher than in most other OECD countries, nearly 20 percent compared to 12.8 percent in the OECD and 8.9 percent among EU countries in the OECD. The U.S. rate is even higher than in Chile and Turkey.</p><p>My proposal for Social Security Plus shows how to greatly expand the retirement payout for America’s retirees, as well as how to pay for this expansion. This proposal would not only double the current payout, it would also make our retirement system fully portable. That’s the type of bold step that our country needs. Our American nation is heading into an anxious era driven by a new, high-tech economy in which more workers will have to gain access to a portable safety net without the benefit of a single employer or a regular workplace. Many workers will have multiple employers, none of whom would be expected to provide much of a safety net under the current, antiquated model. If we are going to provide adequate resources for our retired seniors, we have to update, upgrade, and modernize our retirement system.</p><em>Adapted from Expand Social Security Now! How To Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve by Steven Hill (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.</em> Mon, 23 May 2016 09:23:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Beacon Press 1056210 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Books Books Economy The Right Wing social security The Sharing Economy Will Screw Us All—and It's Retirement We Have to Be Really Worried About http://wvvw.alternet.org/books/sharing-economy-will-screw-us-all-and-its-retirement-we-have-be-really-worried-about <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">More like a share-the-crumbs economy. As more of us fight for the scraps, Social Security is more important than ever.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/shutterstock_335652113.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p><em>The following is an excerpt from the new book </em><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Expand-Social-Security-Now-Retirement/dp/0807028436/?tag=alternorg08-20">Expand Social Security Now! How To Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve</a> <em>by Steven Hill (Beacon Press, 2016):</em> </p><p>Meet Howard and Jean, an older couple I know, who like so many Americans of the “greatest generation” plugged into the New Deal world that promised a secure lunch pail for the middle class. Howard is a World War II veteran who became a mechanic; when he was younger he worked on automobiles for a local Chevy dealership, and then on commercial airliners for United Airlines out at the airport. Jean was a housewife and part-time sales clerk. They worked hard, saved their earnings, bought a house, opened passbook bank accounts for their five kids to save their dimes, sent all five of those kids to college. As the years stretched on, they began to prepare for their retirement. But something bad happened along the way to their retirement plans.</p><p>A university education is expensive (especially in the United States), and other rising living expenses began to nibble away at Jean and Howard’s middle-class lifestyle. As with so many of their fellow working-class Americans, their wages didn’t rise as fast as prices for a couple of decades, nor as fast as for other Americans enjoying a wealthier life. So at a certain point, Howard and Jean decided to take out a second mortgage on their home. It seemed like a perfectly good idea, lots of people were doing it. Their bank’s loan officer actually encouraged them; indeed, the friendly loan officer suggested they add on tens of thousands of dollars more beyond the value of their home just so they would have a bit of a cushion for themselves. Interest rates were reasonable, and the value of their home had been increasing in recent years. The loan officer showed them the charts—of what the value of their house had been, what it was now, how much it had increased recently, and where it likely would be in . . . five years, ten years. Heck, it almost seemed like free money, this second mortgage.</p><p>Indeed, it was free money, their own personal ATM . . . until it wasn’t. When the housing market crashed in 2008, so did Howard and Jean’s retirement plans. They had sunk most of their savings into their home since, like many Americans, their home was also their piggy bank. Across the nation, the collapse of the housing market in 2008 and the subsequent loss of approximately $8 trillion in housing-based wealth amounted to a direct hit on the nation’s retirement security. Like millions of other Americans, the value of Howard and Jean’s house plummeted, and while it has recovered some of its value, it is still worth less today than the mortgage they owe on it. They are what is known as “underwater,” a graphic but accurate term for their plight, which is shared by nearly 10 million Americans—almost a fifth of all homeowners—who are still financially drowning. Their house, which had been a big part of their retirement future, was now a lead stone around their necks, with the water rising.</p><p>Besides owning their own home, Howard and Jean had been thrifty and managed to save a modest amount of money—about $55,000—which they had invested into a 401(k) retirement plan through Howard’s workplace. But like the small number of other middle-class Americans fortunate enough to save a bit— three-quarters of workers nearing retirement have less than $30,000 in their 401(k)—they had invested that small nest egg into several mutual funds. Unfortunately, the amount of their savings was nearly cut in half by the stock market collapses of 1999–2000 and 2008–2009. In a matter of a few years, their retirement plans had been shipwrecked as a result of the depreciation in value of both their home and private savings. As they readied for retirement in 2010, their financial prospects had been deluged by a flood of bad news.</p><p>Fortunately, Howard and Jean had another unshakeable asset to depend on—Social Security. They had paid into the Social Security fund all their working lives, not always sure what this 6.2 percent deduction from their paycheck was good for, and they were susceptible to arguments from fiscal conservatives that Social Security should be turned into private retirement accounts so Howard and Jean could keep more of their wages in their pockets. But suddenly, in the depths of their financial flooding, Howard and Jean understood <em>exactly </em>why Social Security was important— it created a buffer between them and the whirlpool threatening to suck them down.</p><p>While Social Security was their thank-God life jacket, as a life jacket it is rather small. By design, Social Security is only supposed to replace about 30–40 percent of your wages at retirement; yet most financial advisors say you will need 70–80 percent of preretirement earnings to live comfortably.  So Howard and Jean really had to tighten their belts, and their middle-class standard of living took a big hit. But at least they did not end up destitute or homeless. Theirs is not a happy story, but the ending of that tale could have been far worse.</p><p>Howard and Jean are not the only older Americans in this situation. Many baby boomers, seniors, and soon-to-be’s are facing similar circumstances, particularly in the aftermath of the worst economic collapse in the United States since the Great Depression. But what has become known as the Great Recession was just the latest disruption to show that the working life can be a precarious one.</p><p>According to the Economic Policy Institute, any Americans who started their working careers in the mid-1960s have witnessed seven recessions—in 1969, 1973, 1980, 1981, 1990, 2001, and 2008—and have lived through inflation, stagflation, oil shocks, oil rationing, the stock market crash of 1987, the savings and loan collapse, the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the bursting of the housing bubble, and the stock market crash of 2008. Add to that the real-estate and leveraged-buyout implosions of the early 1990s; the Enron and WorldCom bankruptcies in the early 2000s; the meltdown of Lehman Brothers; the bailout of AIG, the financial industry, and the auto companies; the issuing of IOUs by the nation’s largest state, California, to cover its debts; and a spotty recovery following the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. In addition, working Americans have seen the national unemployment rate climb above 10 percent twice, and all this during a time that has seen virtually no wage growth for the vast majority and a decline in traditional retirement pensions.</p><p>Even in the midst of this Superman-sitting-on-Kryptonite economic recovery, the Chinese bubble collapse in August 2015, which led to a huge stock market sell-off around the world (ignominiously named the China Syndrome), showed how fragile the global stock markets remain—how could any sane person possibly suggest the markets as a suitable target for investing your life’s savings? The last several decades have been one hellacious roller-coaster ride, with casualties scattered all across the pockmarked landscape in which 145 million working Americans are toiling away. For all but the most well off, navigating the ups and downs of the economy has not been easy.</p><p>Since the 1930s, Americans of all political stripes were lucky that they had not only Social Security but also other government programs to fall back on. Howard and Jean are not the only Americans who, when faced with a tough situation that threatened their and their family’s economic vitality, reached out and grasped the “visible hand” of government. Hundreds of millions of Americans over the last three-quarters of a century have benefited from the New Deal society that was forged decade by decade, law by law, in the aftermath of the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt embraced the unique capacity of government to pull people together and create pools of social insurance that shielded all Americans against the risks and vicissitudes that we all face in common. Besides Social Security, other federal laws and national programs—a long alphabet soup of policies that FDR and successor presidents passed—have shaped the world in which all Americans alive today grew up. These include Medicare, Medicaid, the Family and Medical Leave Act, student financial aid, the Federal Housing Administration, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the National Labor Relations Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, Equal Employment Opportunity, the Civil Rights Act, laws against discrimination, and laws for the environment and consumer protection.</p><p>Our understanding of who we are as a people is inseparable from these policies—yet we don’t always recognize it, and many Americans today who are most dependent on these programs like to gleefully bash and deride government. Forty-four percent of Social Security beneficiaries say they have never used a government program; so do 60 percent of recipients of the federal home mortgage interest deduction, 43 percent of unemployment insurance recipients, and 40 percent of Medicare recipients.  Each of these programs and laws were passed, with painstaking effort, because they responded to specific situations and conditions in which many Americans—including the most vulnerable, such as the elderly and children—ended up in tough circumstances through no fault of their own, but because of the roller-coaster swings of the economy.</p><p>But the New Deal system wasn’t created by the wealthy and patrician Roosevelt, and the political and business leaders of the time, merely as an act of charity or compassion for the “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished” (as President Roosevelt described our country in his famous Second Inaugural Address). Following the devastation of the Great Depression, it was also a way of remaking the broader macroeconomy into one that was more stable, and of using government’s levers of fiscal stimulus, popularized by British economist John Maynard Keynes, to grow the economic pie. That in turn fostered a broadly shared prosperity, which gave rise to the middle class, which became the consumer engine that purchased the goods and services produced by America’s businesses. It was a virtuous circle, and while the system wasn’t perfect, it worked—it created the highest standard of living for more people in human history. That in turn made the United States the envy of the world, with the middle-class dream becoming an important part of our nation’s allure to people everywhere, which gave America more clout on the global stage.</p><p>But beginning in the 1970s, the United States engine started losing some of its steam. The plight of the middle class grew more tenuous, resulting in stagnant wages, less job security, the decline of health benefits and the safety net, and the cracking of Americans’ nest eggs when their savings and homes deflated after the collapse of the stock and housing bubbles. Over the last three decades, the US economy has more than doubled in size, but most of the benefits from that growth have gone into the pockets of a fortunate few. Corporate profits are at their highest level in at least eighty-five years, while employee compensation is at its lowest level in sixty-five years. The Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances found that the top 10 percent of families own 75.3 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the share of wealth held by the bottom 50 percent of families has fallen to just 1.1 percent. Income inequality is now as bad as it was in 1928, just before the Great Depression, with the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans—a mere 160,000 families—now owning nearly a quarter of the nation’s wealth, a share that has doubled over the last few decades. Incredibly, the share of wealth held by the bottom 90 percent is no higher today than during our grandparents’ time. It’s as if the New Deal had never existed.</p><p>And future prospects do not look much brighter. Even as corporations have seen a 30 percent rise in profits since the Great Recession in 2008, wages as a share of national income fell to their lowest point since after World War II. Real median household income is now 8 percent lower than it was in 2007.  Many of the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession of 2008 were what used to be considered “good jobs”—they offered decent pay, health care, retirement, and a comprehensive safety net, with a measure of job security. Now, nearly a fifth of the job growth since the recession ended has been in temporary jobs, and nearly half of the new jobs created in the so-called “recovery” pay only a bit more than minimum wage. Six years into the recovery, the economy had nearly 2 million fewer jobs in mid- and higher-wage industries than before the recession and 1.85 million more jobs in lower-wage industries. Three-fourths of Americans now live paycheck to paycheck, with little to no emergency savings to rely on if they lose their job. The fears of the middle class, which the Tea Party and politicians like Donald Trump have exploited masterfully, are not paranoia. Their standard of living is in fact eroding.</p><p>Yet as bad as the impacts of the Great Recession have been, it did not create the retirement crisis by itself. Rather, the causes are rooted in the larger fundamental economic shifts of the last thirty years. Deregulation, deindustrialization, automation, and hyper-financialization of the economy have all contributed to this mudslide over the cliff. Looking ahead, the shape of the future is coming increasingly into view, and it’s clear that other long-term trends warn of additional risks for the middle and working classes.</p><p>A 2015 survey from the Freelancers Union and Upwork found that more than one in three Americans—54 million workers— did freelance work in the past year. Other estimates predict that within ten years nearly half of the 145 million employed Americans—60–70 million workers—could well find themselves on shaky grounds, turned into so-called “independent workers,” working part time and cobbling together multiple jobs as contractors, temps, gig-preneurs, and contingent workers.  Even an increasing number of regularly employed, part-time workers are subjected to conditions like “just-in-time scheduling” in which employers dictate the daily work schedule with no employee input or even advance notice, putting these workers on permanent call (and making it impossible for them to plan their lives, hire babysitters, schedule doctor appointments, and more). Increasingly, all of these different categories of workers have little job security, reduced wages, and a deteriorating safety net— including inadequate retirement resources. So-called “sharing economy” companies like Uber, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Upwork, and Instacart are allegedly “liberating workers” to become “independent” and “their own CEOs,” but in reality workers are being forced to take ever-smaller jobs (“gigs,” “micro-gigs,” and “nanogigs”) and wages while the companies profit handsomely. Even many full-time, professional jobs and occupations are experiencing this precarious shift.</p><p>Indeed, in the gigs of the sharing economy, working for these app- and web-based companies, some contractors, rabbits, taskers, day laborers, and freelancers have multiple employers <em>in a</em> <em>single day</em>. The sharing economy’s app- and web-based technologies have made it much easier to hire and fire freelancers and contractors, so why would any employer hire full-time workers anymore? We are at the initial stages of the impacts of these new “job brokerage” technologies and how they will affect the labor force over the next several decades. Set to replace the crumbling New Deal society is the darker world of a “freelance society” in which, in the words of one new economy visionary, “companies want a workforce they can switch on and off as needed”—just like a faucet or a television. Hardly a “sharing” economy, it’s more correctly described as a “share the crumbs” economy.</p><p>Consequently, for Howard and Jean’s children and grandchildren, the ground looks even shakier than it does for Howard and Jean. Their future is still infused with that age-old American hope and expectation of a generational inheritance, but economic opportunity and fairness are fading for the younger generations. The New Deal society is slowly disappearing, melting away like the polar ice caps. And that in turn will be greatly destabilizing to the broader macroeconomy. For at the end of the day, if not enough people have sufficient income in their pockets and bank accounts to buy up all the products and services that US companies produce, the economy could reach a dangerous disequilibrium. Seventy percent of the economy is driven by consumer spending, but what happens if consumers’ capacity to buy starts shriveling up? We could well face the prospect of an “economic singularity,” the tipping point at which our economy implodes from too little consumer demand because the wealth has been captured by a small number of powerful economic players who extract the best of our nation for their own private use. Everyone else will be left to scramble for the scraps via the share-the-crumbs economy.</p><p>Considering the nation’s future, we can see that the American middle and working classes, as well as the poor, are occupying increasingly shaky ground. Only affluent Americans have emerged in better shape than before. But for more and more of their fellow Americans, the dream of a secure and stable life, including their retirement prospects, is becoming increasingly dim.</p><p><strong>The Shape of the Retirement Crisis</strong></p><p>When our current retirement system was conceived after World War II, during the years when Howard and Jean came of age, the foundation for old-age security was understood as a “three-legged stool.” The three legs were (1) private, employer-based retirement, like pensions and (much later) 401(k)s; (2) Social Security; and (3) personal savings centered around homeownership. But as we will see, private-sector pensions now are rare, and the number of public-sector employees (and their pensions) has declined. With the housing market crash in 2008, combined with increasing volatility in the stock market and flat wages for all but the wealthiest people, private savings for most Americans hasn’t kept up with the need. In the alluring narrative of the American Dream, homeownership has been not only a means for providing a secure domicile, but also a core element of household savings and retirement plans. The collapse of the housing market and the subsequent loss of approximately $8 trillion in housing-based wealth amounted to a direct hit on retirement security. Some of that has recovered, but the economic prospects of many Americans have not.</p><p>Thus, two of the three legs of a stable retirement have been gravely compromised. For far too many Americans, <em>Social Security</em><em>is the only leg left. </em>Three-fourths of Americans depend heavily on Social Security in their retirement years. Indeed, Social Security has been the most effective antipoverty program ever enacted in the United States. Almost half of elderly Americans today would be poor (incomes below the federal poverty line) without Social Security. The program lifts nearly 15 million elderly Americans out of poverty. For nearly two-thirds of elderly beneficiaries, Social Security provides the majority of their cash income. For more than one-third, it provides more than 90 percent of their income. For one-quarter of elderly beneficiaries, Social Security is the sole source of retirement income. Besides retirement security, Social Security also has contributed significantly to in come assistance for orphaned children and disabled workers. To those Americans covered under its safety blanket, Social Security has provided a guaranteed living allowance, month by month, when no other income was available. Where will these people turn if the politicians are successful in cutting back the last stable leg of retirement security?</p><p>Reliance on Social Security increases with age, as older people are less likely to work and more likely to have depleted their savings. Among those aged eighty or older, Social Security provides the majority of income for 76 percent of beneficiaries and nearly all of the income for 45 percent of beneficiaries. Social Security is particularly important to women and racial and ethnic minorities, who have historically earned lower wages than their white male counterparts because of discrimination. Social Security provides 90 percent or more of income for 55 percent of elderly Hispanic beneficiaries, 49 percent of blacks, and 42 percent of Asian Americans, but for only 35 percent of elderly white beneficiaries. And women constitute 56 percent of Social Security beneficiaries aged sixty-two and older and 67 percent of beneficiaries aged eighty-five and older, and they receive nearly half of Social Security benefits, despite the fact that women pay only 41 percent of Social Security payroll taxes. Millions of Americans are substantially if not wholly dependent on Social Security to keep the snapping jaws of poverty at bay.</p><p>However, it’s not just lower-income people or women and minorities who have something at stake here. In fact, it is little recognized that middle-income and upper-income households benefit the <em>most </em>from Social Security, in terms of dollars and cents. Since those individuals make more income throughout their lives, they actually receive a higher monthly payout than lower-income people. The average Social Security retirement payout in 2015 was $1,334 per month, or $16,008 per year. So a retired couple each receiving the average amount would get over $32,000 together (if they began taking their benefits at full retirement age, which is sixty-six). On average, a sixty-six-year-old man has about seventeen more years to live, and a woman, about twenty. That means their total take from Social Security would be nearly $600,000 over the course of their lives (adjusted for inflation). In other words, that couple would need a private nest egg of $600,000, reaped from their own individual investment and savings efforts, to match the same amount of income they will receive from Social Security.</p><p>And what about the more affluent? A retired couple who earned at or above the payroll tax ceiling ($118,500 per year in 2015) their entire lives would each receive the maximum benefit of around $2,660 per month, or $32,000 each per year—nearly $64,000 a year together (if they begin taking their benefits at sixty-six). If that couple lives to the average age, Social Security would provide them a $1.2 million nest egg (again, adjusted for inflation) for their retirement. That’s a lot of money that this couple would have to replace by rolling the dice, that is, by investing their savings in the casino of the stock market. Good luck.</p><p>American workers deserve a good and secure retirement. There are many reasons that the working life can be a risky one. Some workers make low wages throughout their lives and can never save enough; others never had a pension or 401(k) benefits through their job, or maybe they were laid off and had to spend their savings to stay afloat until they found a job. Maybe they became ill, or a family member became ill, and they had to stop working; or maybe the company they work for, such as the corporate giants WorldCom or Enron, went belly up; or maybe the stock market crashed and wiped out half of their 401(k) or the value of their home, which ended up underwater.</p><p>Those sorts of unfortunate circumstances have always plagued our economic destinies. Amidst all the headline splashes today about everything from the Kardashians to <em>Game of Thrones </em>to the Super Bowl, it’s easy to forget why we have a program like Social Security in the first place. Prior to its launch in 1935, many elderly people, as well as orphaned children and disabled workers, lived a life of dire poverty. At the time, older citizens had the nation’s <em>highest </em>poverty rate. They were a major part of the one-third who were ill housed, ill clad, and ill nourished. Now seniors have the <em>lowest </em>poverty rate of any age group.  More than any other government program, Social Security has been a crucial part of raising up the condition of the lowest, the weakest, and the meekest.</p><p>It’s also easy to forget that Social Security is an <em>insurance </em>program. It’s not a government handout; we all pay into it as a way of insuring ourselves against the risks and roller-coaster vagaries of life. With the collapse of two out of the three-legs of the retirement stool, Social Security is the last remaining protection against that risk for millions of Americans. Every worker pays for it, paycheck after paycheck, depositing money into the fund. Indeed, Social Security is <em>wage </em>insurance—it keeps wages rolling in when we are too old to work. It is also <em>universal </em>insurance—that is, it insures <em>all of us </em>against the universal risks <em>we all face.</em></p><p>Not only that, but once you retire and start receiving your monthly check, the amount is adjusted each year to keep up with inflation, unlike a savings account or investments in stocks and bonds. Private employers don’t adjust wages for inflation, and the federal government has left the minimum wage stuck at the same level since 2009. So this unique cost-of-living feature of Social Security is a godsend to many a retiree. Finally, the government administers it very efficiently; the program costs less than one cent of every dollar to administer. PBS <em>NewsHour</em>’s Philip Moeller, a retirement expert, says Social Security’s cost structure is so efficient that it “would be impossible for any private company to match” it.</p><p><strong>Ideology versus Reality</strong></p><p>Our political leadership is failing to adjust the US retirement system either to the recent tide of damaging economic events or to the unfavorable shifts of the past several decades. And the nation’s future retirees are wholly unprepared for the challenges of the new, high-tech economy. Part of what’s preventing us from making the necessary transition is that Americans have this deep-seated perception of ourselves as self-reliant individualists and a “republic of property owners.” Yet all the evidence shows that older Americans are more dependent than ever on <em>publicly</em>provided retirement income (primarily Social Security) and health care (Medicare). Americans live inside a schizophrenic disconnect between their view of themselves as Jefferson’s sturdy, self-reliant yeoman farmer, and the actual reality that their standard of living depends increasingly on an interconnected web of social supports, with government at the center. It’s time to connect the dots so that Americans understand this national reality.</p><p>Beyond the sometimes mind-numbing details of specific policy discussions, the debate over the US retirement crisis has become high stakes because it’s a tug-of-war over what kind of society we are going to be. A simple example illustrates the baggage of old thinking. Currently any earned income above $118,500 is not subject to the Social Security payroll tax deduction. And income acquired from investments via capital gains and dividends isn’t taxed at all for Social Security purposes (and at only half the usual rate for income tax). As a result, a secretary making $35,000 a year pays a 6.2 percent Social Security–dedicated payroll tax (with the employer paying another 6.2 percent, for a total of 12.4 percent)—but a lawyer making $500,000 a year in salary pays less than 1.5 percent. Taxed on the full salary, that lawyer would be paying another $24,000 per year in payroll taxes.</p><p>But it gets worse. Millionaire investment bankers pay a paltry 0.73 percent, if you just assume all of their income comes from a salary; but if you include wealth obtained through capital gains and dividends, those bankers and other wealthy people pay a much lower percentage of their actual income—much lower than their secretaries, chauffeurs, and domestic servants. The secretary is paying at least eight times the percentage of the banker for Social Security retirement. If the banker paid his or her full share, it would mean $55,000 more per year in payroll taxes—over eight times the current payment. So not only is Social Security’s payroll tax very regressive, but it becomes increasingly regressive as one ascends the income scale, even advantaging the mega-wealthy over the merely wealthy.</p><p>Moreover, with inequality having increased dramatically nationwide, and with the ranks of the wealthy swelling, that means an ever-greater share of the national income sucked up by millionaires and billionaires is not subject to Social Security’s payroll tax—and is therefore contributing nothing to the Social Security Trust Fund (which is the account where all the payroll deductions reside). Melissa Favreault, an expert at the nonpartisan Urban Institute, says that three decades ago, 90 percent of the  nation’s wage earnings were taxed for Social Security purposes; that proportion has now shrunk to 83 percent, making an already regressive tax even more so.  That slippage might seem small, but it results in a loss of tens of billions of dollars every year from the Social Security fund. Just in 2014, about $60 billion should have gone into the Trust Fund, but instead it was pocketed by the wealthiest Americans. So when you hear that Social Security is going to run short of money sometime during the 2030s, this is a big part of the reason why. Wealthy people are no longer required to contribute their fair share into the nation’s retirement system.</p><p>The logic for capping the level of income that is subject to Social Security contributions flows out of the fact that this is an insurance system, not a welfare handout. Social Security in effect is insurance against our loss of wages when we retire (or are disabled), and if wealthy people are not eligible to receive a much higher payout, then, some people believe, they should not have to contribute more. That logic has prevailed for decades, but only for Social Security—when it comes to income, property, or sales taxes, no one asserts that if you pay higher taxes, you should be privileged with a claim for more benefits. With the nation’s retirement infrastructure increasingly rickety and unstable like a tottering bridge, it’s urgent that we revisit this attitude. Removing the income cap and taxing all income brackets equally—a flat tax, in other words—not only would be fairer but in one bold swoop it also would shore up any long-term financing shortfalls and ensure funding for the Trust Fund beyond the 2040s.</p><p>Many conservatives have espoused a flat tax on income, but when it comes to Social Security, suddenly a flat tax is ridiculed as a bad idea. Yet opinion polls have demonstrated that most Americans across the political spectrum think that if they pay Social Security tax on their full salary, others should as well. So removing the payroll cap and making all income levels pay according to the same rules would be the fair and financially wise thing to do, and it would be very popular as well.</p><p>And yet the US Congress, even when there has been a Democratic majority, has done little to shift its thinking. Politicians in recent years have had virtually no response to the impending retirement crisis. They have refused to remove the payroll cap and tax all income levels the same, or to take other steps to stop the longer-term deterioration of Social Security’s funding. Stuck in the rigid ideology of years past, Beltway politicians are obsessively focused on a “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” austerity regimen. As part of that attitude, leaders in both political parties have advanced plans for cutting Social Security even further than the cuts that were passed on to future generations by the Greenspan Commission in 1983. In another sign of our nation’s split personality, even as Americans like Howard and Jean have come to depend increasingly on Social Security, Medicare, and other pillars of a government-sponsored safety net, the attacks on those “entitlements”—a curse word in US politics—have become increasingly furious and shrill.</p><p>Lifting the payroll cap is just one example of how a relatively simple tweak to the system can take us a long way toward solidifying the US retirement system and making it better adapted to the realities of today’s economy. Other tweaks that will be discussed in this book will take us further down the right road.</p><p>Most Americans realize what is at stake in this battle over Social Security. It’s reflected in the worry that most Americans feel over their personal finances, including their retirement future. A poll from March 2015 by the National Institute on Retirement Security (NIRS) found that nearly 75 percent of Americans are “highly anxious” about their retirement outlook, and 73 percent agree that the average worker cannot save enough on their own to guarantee a secure retirement. Nearly half of Americans worry that they will have to sell their homes to be financially secure in retirement, with 81 percent saying it is getting harder to prepare for retirement.  A poll in August 2015 commissioned by the senior advocacy group AARP found that nearly two of every three respondents expressed concern that Social Security won’t provide enough to get by, especially if they have a major health-care expense that drains them financially. Given all that anxiety, it is hardly surprising that nearly seven in ten people fear that they will not have enough savings to last their whole lifetime.</p><p>That’s what Americans are feeling—but are the politicians listening? The talented generation of American politicians and business leaders in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s tackled head-on the challenge of forging a new deal for the country in the face of a paralyzing economic crisis and devastating second world war. But the current crew of politicians and business leaders have watched helplessly, or even worse have passed one bad policy after another, as the recent national collapse accelerated decades-long trends that are taking major parts of our economy backward to pre–New Deal conditions. Given the worrisome direction of the national economy, and the safe harbor provided for millions of Americans by Social Security, you’d think our nation’s leaders would be trying to figure out how to improve the program, and build up on it. Build upon what works, right?</p><p>Wrong. After all, why should members of Congress worry about the nation’s retirement plans when the Congressional Research Service reports that, in 2013, over six hundred former members received their own federal government pension that averaged anywhere from $42,048 to $71,664 per year (depending on how long ago they retired). They’ve got theirs, and it appears they have pulled up the drawbridge.</p><p><em>Excerpted from <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Expand-Social-Security-Now-Retirement/dp/0807028436">Expand Social Security Now! How To Ensure Americans Get the Retirement They Deserve</a> by Steven Hill (Beacon Press, 2016). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.</em></p> Tue, 17 May 2016 10:05:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Beacon Press 1056675 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Books Books Economy social security sharing economy retirement Uber Is a Nightmare: They’re Selling a Big Lie and the New York Times Keeps Buying It http://wvvw.alternet.org/labor/uber-nightmare-theyre-selling-big-lie-and-new-york-times-keeps-buying-it <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">A new Uber launch has serious labor, environmental and consumer downsides. You&#039;d never know from reading the Times.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/ffe4980fd91a3308573efd4110ae80c6488a8e9a.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p>Uber has been slowly rolling out its latest “trust me, I’m saving the world” product, this one a service that allows its Uber-taxis to pick up multiple passengers in serial fashion. Much like a commercial airport shuttle, strangers share part of the same ride and pay a reduced fare for just their part of the ride. It’s called UberPool, as in carpool, and CEO Travis Kalanick touted its alleged environmental and labor positives in a recent interview <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/31/technology/car-pooling-helps-uber-go-the-extra-mile.html" target="_blank">with the New York Times</a>, saying that “reducing traffic was part of Uber’s mission.” If true, this is a welcome change from the CEO whose previously stated mission was to flood the streets with Uber cars to win his war for market share with Big Taxi and ridesharing competitor Lyft.</p><p>Before going into the considerable labor, environmental, consumer and public transit downsides to this latest blitz of Uber hype, I can’t help but say that it has been puzzling to see the New York Times consistently offer up its pages to Uber as a genteel and uncritical forum for promoting its private interest. Much of the latest article from its tech columnist Farhad Manjoo <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/31/technology/car-pooling-helps-uber-go-the-extra-mile.html" target="_blank">reads like a press release from Uber</a>, without a single comment from a critic or transportation expert on the impact of UberPool. To be fair, Manjoo has written some excellent articles about technology – his series on the <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/robot_invasion/2011/09/will_robots_steal_your_job_2.html" target="_blank">impact of robots and automation for Slate</a> a few years ago was first-rate – but that’s what makes his “Uber blind spot” all the more baffling.</p><p>No question, taxi service in most U.S. cities has been sub-par for many years, and if Uber and Lyft have demonstrated nothing else, it’s that there were not enough taxis on the road to service all the customers (in Berlin, where I am currently living for a few months, taxi service has always been pretty good and Uber has had a hard time gaining traction). Properly regulated, there could be room for app-driven ridesharing in the overall transportation matrix. Despite its considerable downsides, Uber has become popular in the U.S. because it’s filling that “taxi gap,” and that makes it harder for many well-meaning people to figure out what to make of a service like UberPool. So let’s break it down, sector by sector:</p><p>Labor issues. Uber drivers are complaining that with UberPool they are working a lot harder for no more, and possibly even less, income. A website called TheRideshareGuy, which is run by Uber driver Harry Campbell and is chock-full of insightful advice and discussion for fellow drivers, provides a <a href="http://therideshareguy.com/what-should-drivers-expect-from-uberpool/" target="_blank">helpful example of what’s wrong with this picture</a>.</p><p>Imagine two Uber drivers each carrying a single passenger along the same route which results in a fare of $11. After Uber takes its brokerage cut as well as its “safety fee” (even though the company still has the poorest driver background checks in the taxi industry), each driver ends up with $8 each in her or his (usually his) pocket, while Uber ends up with $6, a 27% commission for Uber.</p><p>Now along comes UberPool, and these same two serial riders get picked up by a single driver. Since UberPool offers passengers a substantial discount for sharing a ride, that means each passenger now pays $6 (in this example). After Uber takes its commission, including the safety fee, the payout to the driver is $4 for each passenger, or a total of $8. So the driver makes the same amount, but Uber’s take of the overall $12 for this ride is also $4 – a 33% overall commission. So Uber makes a higher percent on UberPool rides, yet the driver makes about the same amount.</p><p>But it turns out driving passenger after passenger, picking up and dropping off in a serial fashion, is a grind. Christian Perea, a longtime Uber and Lyft driver says, “Drivers end up doing a lot more work for the money.” Experienced drivers, he says, know that pickups and drop-offs are the most stressful part of each ride, and adding in a second or third rider only compounds the difficulty. “As people get added into your ride or cancel along the way, it becomes frustrating having to change direction every few minutes while constantly checking your phone while in traffic,” he says. “It’s honestly kind of a safety hazard.”</p><p>Uber’s response is that drivers will benefit because they will have less downtime waiting for the next fare. By picking up passenger after passenger, the driver won’t have any idle time and the meter (so to speak) will keep rolling, resulting in steadier earnings. But another Uber driver, Frank, disputes that.</p><p>“We are using more gas hauling more weight. More weight is a harder wear and tear on the vehicles and it increases the insurance risk if there is an accident… more distractions [from] more Pool pings in the middle of driving, now changing directions or U-turns making it more dangerous overall for everyone… the little money return is not a justifiable risk.”</p><p>Driver-support websites like UberPeople.net and various Facebook groups have lit up with complaints from drivers that UberPool is not worth the extra hassle and stress. It feels like a classic case of assembly-line “speed up,” in which you are working harder but not getting any further ahead.</p><p>Consequently, some drivers have begun declining the second or third passenger ping. If they truly are “independent contractors,” and not Uber employees (soon to be settled by a federal lawsuit which begins in June), shouldn’t they have the right to refuse? In theory, yes, drivers can refuse. But in practice, Uber has fired drivers whose “acceptance rate” of rides falls below acceptable levels.</p><p>Consumer confusion. Passengers, of course, love having their fare cut in half, but they don’t necessarily like having other passengers in “their” car. So they are deploying tactics like pinging for an UberPool and jumping into the car with another two or three buddies, so there’s no room for other paying passengers. What a deal – their own private car pool at discounted rates! And the driver doesn’t earn any extra money since this situation would be counted as a single ride.</p><p>Other passengers, after pinging UberPool, have pressured drivers not to pick up too many additional passengers. Perea says “Some Uber drivers have complained that passengers have rated them poorly for actually accepting too many Pool requests.” The situation becomes especially severe when the first passenger picked up ends up being dropped off third or fourth, because the UberPool requests can keep flooding in all along the route, as long as there’s room in the car. Drivers live in fear of the rating system because if their rating falls too low, the Uber algorithm automatically cuts them off the platform — it’s a firing squad by computer, employment-wise.</p><p>A Los Angeles Uber driver says, “Pool riders invariably want no interaction whatsoever with the other passengers and are expressly disappointed when there is another rider already in the car or will be picked up next. This fact kills me, because it was them that requested the Pool ride.”</p><p>Yet if the driver refuses a second or third passenger to keep the first customer happy, then their acceptance rate falls too low and they get in trouble with Uber. It’s a classic Catch-22, caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of the rating system and acceptance rates. “Negative ratings are inevitable,” says the L.A. driver.  “UberPool is a lose-lose proposition for drivers and riders.”</p><p>Environmental issues.  There is no question that Uber and Lyft are adding to traffic congestion, despite these companies implausible claims to the contrary. Ed Reiskin, director of transportation for San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, says, “[Uber and Lyft] have put a lot more vehicles on the streets,” <a href="http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/S-F-traffic-Numbers-don-t-show-why-it-really-6268436.php" target="_blank" title="Uber in San Francisco">an estimated 15,000 autos in San Francisco alone</a>. Not all of those vehicles are on the street at any one time, but thousands typically are, many of which double-park in bike lanes and bus stops when dropping off passengers, further snarling traffic flow. “They’re all contributing to the increased traffic,” Reiskin says.</p>In London, a study by the Department for Transport found that the rise of taxi apps such as Uber has played a part in worsening congestion. <a href="http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/d2b603dc-5249-11e5-8642-453585f2cfcd.html%22%20/l%20%22axzz42G8p0TM4" target="_blank" title="Private Hire Vehicles in London">The number of private-hire vehicles has jumped 26 percent</a> in the past few years, according to the city agency. In New York City, where there are now<a href="http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20151006/BLOGS04/151009912/uber-doubles-number-of-drivers-just-as-de-blasio-feared" target="_blank" title="Uber and Lyft in New York"> twice as many Uber and Lyft cars</a> as <a href="http://money.cnn.com/2015/07/21/news/companies/nyc-yellow-taxi-uber/" target="_blank">yellow taxis</a>, transportation analyst Charles Komanoff has crunched Uber’s own numbers and estimated that Uber-caused congestion has reduced traffic speeds in the central business district <a href="http://www.streetsblog.org/2015/07/22/ubers-own-data-reveals-it-slows-manhattan-traffic-9-percent/" target="_blank" title="Uber and Reduced Traffic Speed">by about 8 percent.</a>Urban cores, which have already been operating at or near traffic capacity, cannot simply add thousands of additional cars to already-crowded streets and not expect dramatic knock-on effects. That’s just common sense.<br /><p>Yet in Farhad Manjoo’s glowing review of UberPool, he cites a new report from the American Public Transportation Association that suggests the opposite. Other media outlets also <a href="http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/news/2016/03/21/uber-lyft-seen-as-complements-not-competition-for.html" target="_blank">uncritically cited</a> this report with <a href="http://www.shareable.net/blog/research-finds-that-uber-complements-public-transit" target="_blank">puffball coverage</a>, despite glaring methodological shortcomings.</p><p>The APTA surveyed <a href="http://www.apta.com/resources/reportsandpublications/Documents/APTA-Shared-Mobility.pdf" target="_blank">more than 4,500 people about their transit and travel habits</a>. The average household income of survey respondents was $90,926, which is nearly twice the average household income of all Americans – hardly a representative sample. Among the respondents, only 10% used ridesharing, which was used far more for socializing than other needs like getting to work. Nevertheless, the report’s grand conclusion was that those who use ridesharing are more likely “to use public transit, own fewer cars, and spend less on transportation overall.” But is that a causal connection or mere coincidence? Perhaps those with brown hair or blue eyes are also more likely to use public transit, own fewer cars, etc. The researchers didn’t even attempt to probe deeper and figure that out.</p><p>And neither does Manjoo, who reports the results uncritically.  Indeed, he doubles down and claims that “Uber’s data bears this out,” which points to one of the most glaring shortcomings of his article. Anyone who has been following Uber (as well as other “sharing” economy companies like Airbnb) knows that this is a company that plays fast and loose with the facts. Princeton economist Alan Krueger discovered this, much to his embarrassment, when he<a href="http://observer.com/2015/11/how-uber-drivers-could-trip-up-ceo-travis-kalanick/" target="_blank">co-authored an Uber-funded study</a>with an Uber executive that was panned by <a href="http://cepr.net/blogs/beat-the-press/ubernomics" target="_blank">other economic experts</a> and critics. Indeed, relying on Uber’s data is like trusting the tobacco companies to do their own studies.</p><p>We’ve already seen numerous examples of manipulation, such as CEO Kalanick at one point saying with a straight face that his full-time drivers make $100,000 per year, which if true would put them in the upper 10% of income earners in the United States. That was reported at face value by media outlets that should have known better, such as the <a href="http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2013/11/25/uber-cuts-deals-to-lower-car-costs/" target="_blank">Wall Street Journal</a> and <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/innovations/wp/2014/05/27/ubers-remarkable-growth-could-end-the-era-of-poorly-paid-cab-drivers" target="_blank">Washington Post</a>. But that claim bit the dust when some <a href="http://www.buzzfeed.com/johanabhuiyan/what-uber-drivers-really-make-according-to-their-pay-stubs#.wr4DxxPKv" target="_blank">enterprising journalists took a ride with Uber drivers</a> and asked to see their pay stubs, only to discover that most of them don’t make much more than taxicab drivers. Some drivers claim they make less than minimum wage, once you subtract their considerable driving expenses. Now Uber’s chief PR flack David Plouffe – yes, the same strategist who ran Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008 – has changed the Uber hit tune, saying that the service is “saving the middle class” by mostly creating part-time jobs where people can make a few extra dollars. Their boasts about six figure incomes are gone.</p><p>Despite Uber’s data being thoroughly suspect, throughout his article Manjoo cites it as a credible source. He includes information about the number of “pooled trips” taken so far (allegedly 100 million, an enormous number since this service is still fairly new), the percentage of overall Uber trips that now occur via UberPool (allegedly 50%, a figure that has skyrocketed in an unbelievably short time) and the number of automobile miles (21 million), gallons of gas (400,000) and metric tons of carbon dioxide (3,800) allegedly eliminated by UberPool – just in the first three months of 2016, claims Uber via Manjoo.</p><p>Meanwhile, another study from the  University of California Transportation Center of ride-sharing customers in the San Francisco area found that <a href="http://www.uctc.net/research/papers/UCTC-FR-2014-08.pdf" target="_blank" title="Universtiy of California Transportation Center Study">nearly half of respondents</a> said that if they had not had the option of using a ride-sharing service, they would have instead used a public bus, train, bike or simply walked, <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/catherine-rampell-consumers-likely-to-lose-the-uber-lyft-ride-share-war/2014/10/02/f4810f74-4a6c-11e4-a046-120a8a855cca_story.html" target="_blank">reports the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell</a>. This study indicates that ride-sharing is taking away business, not just from traditional taxis, but also from more low-carbon modes of travel.</p><p>Undermining public transit. Not only is ride-sharing flooding the streets with cars and increasing traffic congestion, but it also may turn out to be a direct threat to public transportation, particularly in its latest UberPool incarnation. The economics of public transit systems are built around the busiest bus or train lines, which are heavily used and profitable, subsidizing other routes which are not so full. That equation is crucial in allowing a public transit system to be citywide and serve less-populated neighborhoods. If Uber and Lyft begin offering a service that sprints up and down the busiest and most profitable routes, such passenger poaching could destroy revenue for public transit.</p><p>Indeed, the Eno Center wrote a report that examined <a href="https://www.enotrans.org/wp-content/uploads/EmergingTech.v13.pdf" target="_blank">the impact of new technologies on transportation</a>, and warned about the transit tragedy that will result if Uber and Lyft end up forcing traditional modes like public transit and taxis out of business. “Lower income travelers that do not have access to a smartphone or cannot afford the new services might be left worse off as the traditional transit services they rely upon lose market share,” <a href="http://www.wired.com/2016/03/uber-actually-makes-public-transit-better-youre-rich/" target="_blank">concluded the report.</a> So it’s alarming that Kalanick has described UberPool as <a href="http://www.buzzfeed.com/johanabhuiyan/uber-is-laying-the-groundwork-for-perpetual-rides-in-san-fra#.eqEYZ1BMn" target="_blank">“a private bus-type service.”</a></p><p>Can UberVAN be far behind, in which Uber provides loans to Pool drivers to buy their own 15 passenger vans? Kalanick has always said his “enemy” is Big Taxi, but having won that battle, now it appears that he has set his bull’s-eye on his real competition in this transit space: public transportation.</p><p>It’s unfortunate that the New York Times can’t bring a more critical and healthy skepticism to its reportage – is it really that hard to say to Travis Kalanick, “OK, prove your claims?” The Times does publish some solid “new economy” reporting from several of its writers, such as “Your Money” columnist Ron Lieber about Airbnb, with Lieber writing <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/14/your-money/death-in-airbnb-rental-raises-liability-questions.html" target="_blank">several exposés</a> about the considerable <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/11/your-money/questions-about-airbnbs-responsibility-after-vicious-attack-by-dog.html" target="_blank">liability issues</a>, data manipulation and <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/15/your-money/airbnb-horror-story-points-to-need-for-precautions.html" target="_blank">lack of corporate accountability</a> associated with that home-renting service.  So this is not an issue of some general infatuation with the so-called “sharing economy” at the Times. No, for some reason, Uber gets the kid gloves treatment.</p><p>But lest I sound too overly carping, I will end this by praising a new service announced from Lyft called <a href="https://www.lyft.com/carpool" target="_blank">Lyft Carpool</a>. Despite Lyft recently revealing (unintentionally) that <a href="http://www.salon.com/2016/01/16/uber_and_lyfts_big_new_lie_their_excuse_for_avoiding_regulation_is_finally_falling_apart/" target="_blank">it is, in fact, a taxi company, not a “technology” company</a>, with the launch of yet another service in which it will rent cars to drivers who don’t have their own vehicles, Lyft Carpool shows real potential. It uses app technology to connect a person who is already commuting to work with a passenger traveling along the same route. The driver gets to make a little extra money (up to $10) while driving her or his regular course. The service could help fill up some of the scandalous number of empty seats in cars driving back and forth to work, and that would be a good thing. It could help revive the practice of carpooling to work, which has been <a href="https://www.census.gov/hhes/commuting/files/2014/acs-32.pdf" target="_blank">slowly dwindling in the U.S</a>. to levels that are less than half those in 1980.</p><p>Lyft Carpool charges a service fee, though in its <a href="https://www.lyft.com/carpool/terms" target="_blank">Terms of Service</a>, the specific amount is left oddly unspecified. Regardless, it seems like a worthy undertaking – and also one bound to not be a moneymaker for Lyft. Not only are other companies such as <a href="https://www.gocarma.com/" target="_blank">Carma</a>already inhabiting this space more responsibly, but once a driver and passenger are connected and have begun regularly carpooling together, why would they need to continue to use the Lyft app? Cut out the middleman, cut out the service fee.</p><p>What this points to is that this app-based technology has great potential and opportunity, once the for-profit incentives and greed of venture capitalists are removed from the equation. I can think of no good reason why nonprofit organizations, as well as the government, shouldn’t create its own versions of transportation apps that would be offered to the public for minimal cost. Where are the techies out there looking to make a difference, rather than gobs of money? Public service awaits your talented contributions. Don’t make us hold our breaths too much longer.</p><p> </p> Mon, 11 Apr 2016 07:40:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Salon 1054337 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Labor Labor Uber labor workers work nyt The 'Uber Model' Isn't Working: Why Silicon Valley's Dream of Destroying Your Job Won't Become Reality http://wvvw.alternet.org/economy/why-silicon-valleys-dream-destroying-your-job-wont-become-reality <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">The Uber model just doesn&#039;t work for other industries. The price points always fail—and that&#039;s a good thing.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/15809871802_0704725724_z.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p>The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo recently wrote an oddly lamenting piece about how “<a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/24/technology/the-uber-model-it-turns-out-doesnt-translate.html">the Uber model, it turns out, doesn’t translate</a>.” Manjoo describes how so many of the “Uber-of-X” companies that have sprung up as part of the so-called sharing economy have become just another way to deliver more expensively priced conveniences to those with enough money to pay. Ironically many of these Ayn Rand-inspired startups have been kept alive by subsidies of the venture capital kind which, for various reasons, are starting to dry up. Without that kind of “VC welfare,” these companies are having to raise their prices, and are finding it increasingly difficult to retain enough customers at the higher price point. Consequently, some of these startups are faltering; others are outright failing.</p><p>Witness the <a href="http://techcrunch.com/2016/03/15/spoonrocket-shuts-down/">recent collapse of SpoonRocket</a>, an on-demand pre-made meal delivery service. Like Uber wanting to replace your car, SpoonRocket wanted to get you out of your kitchen by trying to be cheaper and faster than cooking. Its chefs mass-produced its limited menu of meals, and cars equipped with warming cases delivered the goods, aiming for “sub-10 minute delivery of sub-$10 meals.”</p><p>But it didn’t work out as planned. And once the VC welfare started backing away, SpoonRocket could not maintain its low price point. The same has been happening with other on-demand services such as the valet-parking app Luxe, which has degraded to the point where Manjoo notes that “<a href="http://www.bizjournals.com/sanjose/news/2015/12/30/instacart-increases-delivery-feeslays-off.html">prices are rising</a>, service is declining, business models are shifting, and in some cases, companies are closing down.”</p><p>Yet the telltale signs of the many problems with this heavily subsidized startup business model have been prevalent for quite some time, for those who wanted to see. In July 2014, media darling TaskRabbit, which had been hailed as a revolutionary for the way it allowed vulnerable workers to auction themselves to the lowest bidders for short-term gigs, underwent a major “pivot.” That’s Silicon Valley-speak for acknowledging that its business model wasn’t working. It was losing too much money, and so it had to shake things up. </p><p>TaskRabbit revamped how its platform worked, particularly how jobs are priced. CEO Leah Busque defended the changes as necessary to help TaskRabbit keep up with “explosive demand growth,” but published reports said the company was responding to a decline in the number of completed tasks. Too many of the Rabbits, it turns out, were not happy bunnies—they were underpaid and did a poor job, despite company rhetoric to the contrary. An increasing number of them simply <a href="http://www.theverge.com/2014/6/17/5816254/taskrabbit-blows-up-its-auction-house-to-offer-services-on-demand">failed to show up for their tasks</a>. As a results, customers also failed to return.</p><p>A contagion of pivots began happening among other sharing economy startups. Companies like Cherry (car washes), Prim (laundry), SnapGoods (gear rental), Rewinery (wine), HomeJoy (home cleaning) all went bust, some of them quietly and others with more headlines. Historical experience shows that <a href="http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/06/23/the-disruption-machine">three out of four startups fail</a>, and more than nine out of 10 never earn a return. My favorite example is SnapGoods, which is still cited today by many journalists who are pumping up the sharing economy (and haven’t done their homework) as a fitting example of a cool, hip company that allows people to rent out their spare equipment, like that drill you never use, or your backpack or spare bicycle—even though SnapGoods went out of business in August 2012. It just disappeared, poof, without a trace, yet goes on living in the imagination of sharing economy boosters.</p><p>I conducted a Twitter interview with its former CEO, Ron J. Williams, as well as with whatever wizard currently lurks behind the faux curtain of the SnapGoods Twitter account, and the only comment they would make is that “we pivoted and communicated to our 50,000 users that we had bigger fish to try.” Getting even more vague, they insisted “we decided to build tech to strengthen social relationships and facilitate trust”—classic sharing-economy speak for producing vaporware instead of substance from a company that had vanished with barely a trace.</p><p>Zaarly, in its prime, was another sharing-economy darling of the venture capital set, with notable investors including Steve Jobs, hotshot VC firm Kleiner Perkins and former eBay CEO Meg Whitman on its board. It positioned itself in the marketplace as a competitor to TaskRabbit and similar services, with its brash founder and CEO, Bo Fishback, explaining his company’s mission to a conference audience: “<a href="https://vimeo.com/24878946">If you’ve ever said, ‘I’d pay X amount for Y</a>,’ then Zaarly is for you.” Fishback once spectacularly illustrated his brand by bringing on stage a cow being towed by a man in a baseball cap and carrying a jug of milk—“If I’m willing to pay $100 for someone to bring me a glass of fresh milk from an Omaha dairy cow right now, there might very well be a guy who would be super happy to do that,” he said. That kind of bravado is what gave these companies their electric juice, as media outlets like <a href="http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21637393-rise-demand-economy-poses-difficult-questions-workers-companies-and">the Economist lionized them</a> as the “on-demand” economy.</p><p>Like so many of the sharing-economy evangelicals, Fishback brandished a libertarian Ayn Randianism which saw Zaarly as creating “the ultimate opt-in employment market, where there is no excuse for people who say, ‘I don’t know how to get a job, <a href="http://www.fastcompany.com/3027355/pixel-and-dimed-on-not-getting-by-in-the-gig-economy">I don’t know how to get started</a>.’”But alas, those were the heady, early years, when Zaarly was flush with VC cash. Flash forward to today and Fishback is more humble, as is his company, having gone through several “pivots.” The “request anything” model is gone, as are Fishback’s lofty sermons to American workers. Instead, Zaarly has become more narrowly focused on four comparatively mundane markets: house cleaning, handyman services, lawn care and maid service.</p><p>And then there’s Exec. Like Zaarly and TaskRabbit, Exec also started with great fanfare as a broader errand-running business, this one focused on hiring a personal assistant for busy Masters of the Universe. Like other sharing startups, initially it had grand ambitions about the on-demand economy and fomenting a revolution over how we work: connecting those with more money than time with those 1099 indies who desperately needed the money. But eventually this company too was forced by its market failures to narrow its focus, in this case to housekeeping exclusively. Finally the company flamed out and was <a href="http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/15/exec-an-errand-service-exits-with-an-acquisition">sold to another housekeeping startup, Handybook</a>. Exec’s former CEO, Justin Kan, wrote a self-reflective farewell blog post about <a href="http://justinkan.com/exec-errands-post-mortem">what he thought went wrong with his company</a>. His observations are illuminating.</p><p>His company had charged customers $25 per hour (which later rose to $30) to hire one of their personal assistants, and the worker received 80 percent, or about $20 per hour. That seemed like a high wage to Kan, but much to his surprise he discovered that, when his errand runners made their own personal calculation, factoring in the unsteadiness of the work, the frequency of downtime, hustling from gig to gig, the on-call nature of the work as well as their own expenses, it wasn’t such a great deal. Wrote Kan, “It turns out that $20 per hour does not provide enough economic incentive to dictate when our errand runners had to be available, leading to large supply gaps at times of spiky demand ... it was impossible to ensure that we had consistent availability.</p><p>Kan says the company also acquired a “false sense that the quality of service for our customers was better than it was” because the quality of the “average recruitable errand runner”—at the low pay and on-call demands that Exec wanted—did not result in hiring the self-motivated personality types like those that start Silicon Valley companies. (Surprise, surprise.) That in turn led to too many negative experiences for too many customers, especially since, like with TaskRabbit, a too-high percentage of its on-demand workers simply failed to show up to their gigs. (Surprise, surprise.) It turns out, he discovered, that “most competent people are not looking for part-time work.” (Surprise, surprise.)</p><p>Indeed, the reality that the sharing economy visionaries can’t seem to grasp is that not everyone is cut out to be a gig-preneur, or to “build out their own businesses,” as Leah Busque likes to say. Being an entrepreneur takes a uniquely wired brand of individual with a distinctive skill set, including being “psychotically optimistic,” as one business consultant put it. Simply being jobless is not a sufficient qualification. In addition, apparently nobody in Silicon Valley ever shared with Kan or Busque the old business secret that “you get what you pay for.” That’s a lesson that Uber’s Travis Kalanick seems determined to learn the hard way as well.</p><p>Kan, like Leah Busque, Bo Fishman and so many of the wide-eyed visionaries of Silicon Valley, had completely underestimated the human factor. To so many of these hyperactive venture entrepreneurs, workers are just another ore to be fed into their machine. They forget that the quality of the ore is crucial to their success, and that quality was dependent on how well the workers were treated and rewarded. The low pay and uncertain nature of the work keeps the employees wondering if there isn’t a better deal somewhere else.</p><p>Moreover, a degree of tunnel vision has prevented startup entrepreneurs from seeing that their business model often is not scalable or sustainable at the billionaire unicorn leve without ongoing VC welfare subsidies. Silicon Valley has an expression, “<a href="http://recode.net/2014/08/07/instant-replay-the-second-coming-of-on-demand-delivery/">That works on Sand Hill Road</a>”—referring to the upper-crust boulevard in Menlo Park, California, where much of the world’s venture capital makes its home. Some things that seem like great ideas—like paying low wages to personal assistants to shuffle around at your every whim, or lowballing wages for someone to hustle around parking cars for yuppies—only make sense inside the VC bubble that has lost all contact with the realities of everyday Americans.</p><p>A pattern has emerged about the “white dwarf” fate of many of these once-luminous sharing startups: after launching with much fanfare and tens of millions of VC capital behind them, vowing to enact a revolution in how people work and how society organizes peer-to-peer economic transactions, in the end many of these companies morphed into the equivalent of old-fashioned temp agencies (and others have simply imploded into black hole nothingness). Market forces have resulted in a convergence of companies on a few services which had been the most used on their platforms. In a real sense, even the startup king itself, Uber, is merely a temp agency, where workers do only one task: drive cars. Rebecca Smith, deputy director of the National Employment Law Project, compares the businesses of the gig economy to old-fashioned labor brokers. Companies like Instacart, Postmates and Uber, she says, talk as if they are different from old-style employers simply because they operate online. “But in fact,” she says, “they are <a href="http://www.sfweekly.com/sanfrancisco/san-francisco-freelance-contractors-couriers-app-companies-postmates-caviar-instacart-uber/Content?oid=3550851">operating just like farm labor contractors, garment jobbers and day labor centers of old</a>.”</p><p>Tech enthusiasts like the Times’ Manjoo seem to be waking up to the smell of the coffee. “The uneven service and increased prices,” writes Manjoo, “raise larger questions about on-demand apps,” which he says “now often feel like just another luxury for people who have more money than time.”</p><p>Yet that strikes me as too black-and-white, as overly gloomy as Manjoo once was excessively optimistic. The sharing economy apps have proven to be extremely fluid at connecting someone who needs work with someone willing to pay for that work. Some workers have praised the flexibility of the platforms, which allow labor market outsiders—young people, immigrants, minorities and seniors especially—who have difficulty finding work to access additional options. It’s better than sitting at home as a couch potato with no income. And by narrowing the scope of their services, these companies stand a better chance of contracting with quality people, and developing real relationships with them.</p><p>I suspect that, properly pivoted in the right direction, these app-based services will continue to play a role in the economy. Eventually many traditional economy companies may adapt an app-based labor market in ways that we can’t yet anticipate. But that means we need to figure out a way to launch a <a href="https://www.newamerica.org/economic-growth/new-economy-new-social-contract/">universal, portable safety net for all U.S. workers</a> (hint: we can do it at the local and state levels, we don’t need to wait for a dysfunctional Congress). At the end of the day, the sharing economy startups have been hamstrung by the quality of the workers they hire. If they want good workers, they need to offer decent jobs. Otherwise, this sharing economy is not about sharing at all, and not very revolutionary.</p><p>The current startup model destroys the social connection between businesses and those they employ, and these companies have failed to thrive because they provide crummy jobs that most people only want to do as a very last resort. These platforms show their workforce no allegiance or loyalty, and they engender none in return.</p><p> </p> Wed, 30 Mar 2016 10:28:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Salon 1053514 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Economy Economy Labor Media ayn rand media criticism Uber sharing economy gig economy economy silicon valley freelancers The Sharing Economy? Or the Share-the-Crumbs Economy? http://wvvw.alternet.org/economy/sharing-economy-or-share-crumbs-economy <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">The vision has a utopian spin that is incredibly seductive in a world where both government and big business have let us down.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/shutterstock_120010618-edited.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p>In the aftermath of the economic collapse in 2008, a significant factor in the decline of the quality of jobs in the United States, as well as in Europe has been employers’ increasing reliance on “non-regular” workers — a growing army of freelancers, temps, contractors, part-timers, day laborers, micro-entrepreneurs, gig-preneurs, solo-preneurs, contingent labor, perma-lancers and perma-temps. It’s practically a new taxonomy for a workforce that has become segmented into a dizzying assortment of labor categories. Even many full-time, professional jobs and occupations are experiencing this precarious shift.</p><p>This practice has given rise to the term “1099 economy,” since these employees don’t file W-2 income tax forms like any regular, permanent employee; instead, they receive the 1099-MISC form for an IRS classification known as “independent contractor.” The advantage for a business of using 1099 workers over W-2 wage-earners is obvious: an employer usually can lower its labor costs dramatically, often by 30 percent or more, since it is not responsible for a 1099 worker’s health benefits, retirement, unemployment or injured workers compensation, lunch breaks, overtime, disability, paid sick, holiday or vacation leave and more. In addition, contract workers are paid only for the specific number of hours they spend providing labor, or completing a specific job, which increasingly are being reduced to shorter and shorter “micro-gigs.”</p><p>In a sense, employers and employees used to be married to each other, and there was a sense of commitment and a joined destiny. Now, employers just want a bunch of one-night stands with their employees, a promiscuousness that promises to be not only fleeting but destabilizing to the broader macroeconomy. Set to replace the crumbling New Deal society is a darker world in which wealthy and powerful economic elite are collaborating with their political cronies to erect the policy edifice that allows them to mold their proprietary workforce into one composed of a disjointed collection of 1099 employees. Employers have called off the marriage with their employees, preferring a series of on-again, off-again affairs.</p><p>This is a direct threat to the nation’s future, as well as to what has been lionized around the world as the “American Dream.”</p><p>I’ve experienced the vagaries of this new working life myself. After working for many years in the Washington, D.C.–based think-tank world, the program that I directed lost most of its funding and was shut down shortly thereafter. All my employees, myself included, were laid off. I was promoting my latest book that had been published a few months before, so I surfed that wave for many more months. For a while, all seemed normal and natural, but without realizing it I had stepped off the safe and secure boat of having what is known as a “good job,” with a steady paycheck, secure employment and a comprehensive safety net, into the cold, deep waters of being a freelance journalist.</p><p>Suddenly I was responsible for paying for my own health care, arranging for my own IRAs and saving for my own retirement. I also had to pay the employer’s half of the Social Security payroll tax, as well as Medicare — nearly an extra 8 percent deducted from my income. The costs for my health-care premiums zoomed out of sight, since I was no longer part of a large health-care pool that could negotiate favorable rates.</p><p>But that’s not all. Suddenly not only was the pay per article or lecture not particularly lucrative, but I didn’t get paid for those many hours in which I had to query the editors for the next article or lecture, or conduct research and interviews. It was as if I had become an assembly line worker who was paid on a per-piece rate; the “extraneous” parts of my working day — rest and bathroom breaks, staff meetings or time with co-workers at the water cooler, usually paid time in a “good” job — had been stripped to the bone. Not to mention I no longer had paid vacations, sick days or holidays, nor could I benefit from unemployment or injured workers compensation. Instead of receiving a paycheck from a single employer, now I had to track my many and varied sources of income, making sure that unscrupulous editors didn’t stiff me.</p><p>In short, I had to juggle, juggle, juggle, while simultaneously running uphill — my life had been upended in ways I had never anticipated. And I began discovering that I was not alone. Many other friends and colleagues — including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, professionals and intellectuals, as well as many friends in pink-, white- and blue-collar jobs — also had become 1099 workers, tumbleweeds adrift in the labor market. They found themselves increasingly faced with similar challenges, each in his or her own profession, industry or trade. In short, we had entered the world of what is known as “precarious” work, most of us wholly unprepared.</p><p>Not to worry. The new economy visionaries — who like Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s <em>Candide</em> always see “the best of all possible worlds” — has a plan in place for us. A new mashup of Silicon Valley technology and Wall Street investment has thrust upon us the latest economic trend; the so-called "sharing economy," also known as the gig or on-demand economy. Companies like Uber, Airbnb, Instacart, Upwork and TaskRabbit allegedly are "liberating workers" to become "independent" and "the CEOs of their own businesses." These companies, the sharing economy gurus tells us, allow us to “monetize our assets” — rent out our house, our car, our labor, our driveway, our spare drill and other personal possessions — using any number of brokerage websites and mobile apps. This is the new “sharing” economy:  contracted, freelanced, “shared,” automated, Uber-ized, “1099-ed.”</p><p>Frederic Larson enjoyed a successful 30-year career as a staff photographer with the San Francisco Chronicle, during which time he won numerous awards, including being a Pulitzer Prize finalist. As Forbes reports, he was downsized during the recession, and needing income he “monetized his assets.” He turned his house into an Airbnb hotel and his spiffy Prius into a Lyft taxi. Now for 12 nights a month—40% of his life—he shutters himself in a rabbit hole inside his own home and showers at the local gym while complete strangers have the run of his place. This award-winning professional photographer has been turned into an innkeeper in his own home and a taxi driver in his own car.</p><p>In reality, these gig economy workers also are contractors, hiring themselves out for ever-smaller jobs (gigs) and wages, with no safety net, while the companies profit. Websites like Uber, Upwork, TaskRabbit, Airbnb and others have taken the Amazon/eBay model the next logical step. They benefit from an aura that seems to combine convenience with a patina of revolution; convenience as revolution. The idea of a “sharing” economy sounds so groovy — environmentally correct, politically neutral, anti-consumerist and all of it wrapped in the warm, fuzzy vocabulary of “sharing.” The vision has a utopian spin that is incredibly seductive in a world where both government and big business have let us down by leading us into the biggest economic crash since the Great Depression.</p><p>But the “sharing” economy’s app- and Web-based technologies have made it so incredibly easy to hire freelancers, temps, contractors and part-timers, why won’t every employer eventually lay off all its regular, W-2 employees and hire 1099 workers? Any business owner would be foolish not to, as he watches his competitors shave their labor costs by 30 percent (by escaping having to pay for an employee’s safety net and other benefits).</p><p>Sounds extreme? Merck, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, was a vanguard of this underhanded strategy. When it came under pressure to cut costs, it sold its Philadelphia factory to a company that fired all 400 employees—and then rehired them back as independent contractors. Merck then contracted with the company to carry on making antibiotics for them, using the exact same workers.</p><p>An Arizona public-relations firm, LP&amp;G, fired 88 percent of its staff, and then rehired them as freelancers working out of their homes, with no benefits. Even Outmagazine, the most-read gay monthly in the U.S., laid off its entire editorial staff and then rehired most of them as freelancers, without benefits and with salary cuts.</p><p>Examples abound of companies laying off all or most of their workers and then rehiring the same workers—as independent contractors, a clear abuse of this legal loophole. One new economy booster clarified employers’ audacious strategy: “Companies today want a workforce they can switch on and off as needed” — like one can turn off a faucet or a TV.</p><p>The apps and websites of the “share the crumbs” economy have made it easier than ever to do that. Companies can hire and fire 1099 workers at will. In essence, the purveyors of the new economy are forging an economic system in which those with money will be able to use faceless, anonymous interactions via brokerage websites and mobile apps to hire those without money by forcing an online bidding war to see who will charge the least for their labor, or to rent out their home, their car, or other personal property. These perverse incentives are threatening to destroy the U.S. labor force and turn tens of millions of workers into little more than day laborers. BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel has rightly observed that "any tech reporter who spends their time covering the sharing economy is now, essentially, a labor reporter.”</p><p>Outsourcing to these 1099 workers has become the preferred method for America’s business leaders to cut costs and maximize profits. This is only the beginning; we have yet to see how these trends will affect the labor force over the next decade or so. But already we can see that the so-called “new” economy looks an awful lot like the old, pre-New Deal economy. “Jobs” amount to a series of low-paid piece work – they’re called micro-gigs today—offering little empowerment for average workers, families or communities. We’re losing decades of progress, apparently for no other reason than because these on-demand companies conduct their business over the Internet and apps, somehow that makes them “special.” Technology has been granted a privileged and indulged place where the usual rules, laws and policies often are not applied.</p><p>If that practice becomes too widespread, you can say goodbye to the good jobs that have supported American families, goodbye to the middle class and goodbye to the way of life that made the United States the leading power of the world.</p> Sun, 13 Dec 2015 07:11:00 -0800 Steven Hill, AlterNet 1047258 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Economy Economy economy economics sharing Airbnb Is Contributing to the Displacement of Long-Term Tenants in San Francisco http://wvvw.alternet.org/books/airbnb-contributing-displacement-long-term-tenants-san-francisco <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">An unregulated sharing economy takes more than it shares.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/shutterstock_175718696.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> <p><em>The following is an excerpt from the new book  </em><a href="http://www.amazon.com/Raw-Deal-Capitalism-Screwing-American/dp/1250071585/?tag=alternorg08-20">Raw Deal</a><em> by Steven Hill (St. Martin's Press, 2015): </em></p><p>More than any other company, Airbnb has come to personify the sharing economy ethos. As one of the movement’s most successful and recognizable faces, Airbnb keeps its sharing philosophy at the forefront of its marketing strategy. “Belonging is the idea that defines Airbnb,” says its 34-year-old CEO and founder Brian Chesky. “Really, we’re about home. You see, a house is just a space, but a home is where you belong. That is the idea at the core of our company: belonging.” In a confusing, topsy-turvy world, his words sound reassuring, and Chesky in his many interviews comes across as sincerely believing it.</p><p>Truly a modern business miracle, Airbnb was started in San Francisco rather haphazardly by a couple of twentysomethings, Chesky and his roommate Joe Gebbia, both graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design. Unemployed in 2007 and having difficulty paying their rent, and noting the lack of available hotel space for attendees to an industrial design conference, Chesky and Gebbia threw air mattresses on their living room floor (hence, the name “air” bnb), turning their apartment on Rausch Street in the South of Market area into a cross between a flophouse and a short-term bed-and-breakfast. With that quick money in their pockets, they expanded by focusing first on conferences and events where lodging was scarce. They drew in friends who wanted to make a few extra dollars subrenting their apartment for a few nights. They added computer programmer Nathan Blecharczyk as a cofounder to build a website, and the whole enterprise took off like a rocket.</p><p>They tapped into a rich vein of people, at first in urban areas in the U.S. but eventually all over the world, who grasped for the financial benefits of hosting travelers. Those hosts in turn filled a niche for travelers looking for low-cost accommodations, particularly during high-season times when hotel vacancies were scarce. Airbnb has become an impressive commercial empire, yet its appeal has been authentically grassroots.</p><p>The young entrepreneurs had no idea what they had wrapped their arms around. Now, less than eight years later, Airbnb is a global success story, valued at $25 billion—the same as the 100-year-old Hyatt chain—and self-reporting a mind boggling 25 million nights booked since its inception, with a million current listings across 34,000 cities and 192 countries. It employs a thousand people around the world, and has become not only an economic but also a cultural phenomenon, already an iconic company in its short life. Its young founders have become wide-eyed billionaires who at times seem to barely believe their good fortune in stumbling upon a fabulous new innovation in global hospitality and travel.</p><p>But in San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles and elsewhere, the legacy of their gold rush has been decidedly mixed. Airbnb is not merely a “community-driven hospitality company,” as its founders like to say, but also a catalyst for massive lawbreaking, a tax rogue and, tragically, an impetus for the eviction of longtime tenants, including the elderly, the disabled, children, even people with life-threatening illnesses. Other short-term rental brokerages such as VRBO, FlipKey, Roomorama and Home Away, while much smaller in size, have followed the Airbnb model. For reasons that will be elaborated below, many cities have been left reeling from the bitter disruption of entire neighborhoods, as well as from poisoned landlord-tenant relations that were based on laws that had been stitched together over decades, yet now are being flushed as Airbnb’s investors and local real estate interests rush to cash in. If “belonging” is the idea that defines Airbnb, it depends a lot on whether or not you belong to the right club.</p><p><strong>Down and Out in North Beach</strong></p><p>Theresa Flandrich is a retired nurse who has lived for 30 years and raised her son in a two-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment on North Beach’s Lombard Street—and now is desperately fighting eviction as a greedy landlord tries to remove her (and other tenants in her building) to make room for Airbnb-ing her apartment (yes, Airbnb has become a verb, with nasty connotations).</p><p>Theresa gives me a tour around her North Beach neighborhood. North Beach is one of San Francisco’s most historic and loved districts, also known as “Little Italy” because it was the borough where many Italian immigrants settled in the early 20th century. Seeking opportunity in the wave of European immigration that flooded America, the Italians opened shops, built homes and churches and, with North Beach abutting Fisherman’s Wharf, anchored the then-thriving fishing industry. Joe DiMaggio’s father was a fisherman in the Bay Area, and Joltin’ Joe married Marilyn Monroe at San Francisco City Hall; Joe DiMaggio Playground is located a block from Theresa’s apartment. The North Beach neighborhood was a multigenerational place, where families thrived and kids played stickball in the streets, with grandparents in close proximity to their extended families. Neighbors knew and helped each other and felt a measure of post–World War II security. “It was a real neighborhood,” says Theresa.</p><p>But now things look very different. Just on her street alone, on a single block, Theresa can point to five buildings (including her own) where all the tenants have received eviction notices. Around the corner there are several more buildings with threatened tenants. “Most of these buildings,” says Theresa, “were owned by the old Italians who took care of their community. They kept rents reasonable, and didn’t mind rent control because, well, we were all neighbors.” That word says a lot to Theresa. “They wanted to help each other, and as a nurse when they needed medical care I helped them. Everybody took care of each other.”</p><p>But then the Italian patriarchs grew old and died, and many of their kids didn’t live in San Francisco anymore and so, for one reason or another, they wanted to sell. A new breed of landlords bought the buildings. Owners like Peter Iskandar of Bubble Realty (yes, that’s really his real estate company’s name), a speculator from Indonesia who saw this neighborhood as his personal gold rush. Like a Monopoly game board, he purchased property after property and began evicting tenants—often using questionable means—so that he could get them out of their rent-controlled apartments. Then he would jack up the rents, sell them as condominiums or, more recently, Airbnb them. The Anti-Eviction Mapping Project shows Mr. Iskandar as having bought at least 10 buildings in the neighborhood.</p><p>To make way for his ambitions, he has evicted a 68-year-old woman with breast cancer; Carlo Tarrone, in his seventies and using a walker, who had lived in his apartment for 56 years; and Sandy Bishop, who is 70 and has lung cancer. “I can’t even find a place to live because I don’t make enough money,” Bishop said. “Maybe I should just stay and let the sheriff carry me out.” Iskandar is a one-man wrecking ball, demolishing the lives of elderly and sick people, seemingly targeting the most vulnerable. Some have accused him of bending the rules to commit naked acts of what amounts to “elderly cleansing.”</p><p>Just down the street, Theresa shows me a four-unit building that is accessed via a quaint, brick alleyway, reminiscent of the honey-hive maze around Piazza Navona in Rome. All the tenants have been evicted and now, she points out, four lockboxes are visible on the banister outside the front entryway for the apartments—the telltale sign that this building has been Airbnb-ed. The constant carousel of new faces coming and going can check themselves in and out of each apartment, accessing the key via the lockbox for which they are given the combination, without ever meeting the landlord or manager. The transaction can be completed anonymously, facelessly, over the Airbnb website. Where before this building housed families who were part of the neighborhood, now it’s an Airbnb tourist hotel.</p><p>Theresa’s building has met with a similar fate, though the circumstances are somewhat different. The owner of her building died at 96 years old. “She and I were close,” says Theresa, “I used to help her take her medications.” Everyone in the four-apartment building was close, including the Palestinian shopkeepers who run a small grocery store on the street level. “They let the neighbors run a tab; if you had a short month, they would let you pay the next month. It was close knit,” says Theresa.</p><p>The deceased owner had willed the property to her niece who lives in faraway Laguna Beach, in Southern California. Within a week after getting her hands on the deed, the niece served notice to everyone in the building to clear out, including a man in advanced stages of Parkinson’s disease. The niece claimed she was going to invoke a legal loophole called an “owner-occupied move-in”—moving in members of her family, including herself, none of whom actually lived in San Francisco.</p><p>“Seven o’clock in the morning on April 11th, the doorbell rang. And, there was a server,” says Theresa. “My son answered the door and he was just given the papers. I was offended. I was hurt. I was shocked. My son had to go off to work. And he said, the first thing he said was, ‘Oh my God. This is the only home I’ve ever known. I didn’t expect to live here all my life. But I expected you to be here, Mom. This is where we’d continue to celebrate all our holidays and the neighborhood.’”</p><p>According to a report by San Francisco’s Rent Board, nearly 2,000 units were evicted in 2013, a 13 percent increase from 2012. Since most rented locations house more than one person (San Francisco is too expensive for most people to have their own private place), housing experts have estimated that figure represents at least 5,000 people evicted in 2013. The landlords have been relentless in using different tactics, some of them illegal, to evict, such as claiming they’re going to rehabilitate their building. The landlords know that, by law, tenants have the right to move back into their unit at the same rent after the rehab is completed. But the tenants don’t know that, and the landlord usually does not tell them because their goal is to remove these tenants from their rent-controlled apartments. They offer them a few thousand dollars to move out, telling the tenants they have no choice, and the tenants— especially when they are elderly, disabled, ill or language-challenged—often don’t have the will or tenacity to fight back. After a few take the buyout and leave, the landlord can really put the squeeze on any that refuse. They harass and threaten them, they cut off garbage service, they refuse to do repairs . . . suddenly water or electricity becomes unreliable.</p><p>Property owners also have ramped up their use of “gotcha evictions” to remove tenants from their rent-controlled apartments—trumped-up, petty violations for alleged “nuisances,” such as carrying your bicycle through a common hallway, painting the walls of your apartment or leaving a baby stroller in the common area. In Chinatown, tenants have been threatened with eviction for hanging laundry outside their windows and displaying Chinese New Year decorations in the hallways. Since there is no clear legal standard for what constitutes a “nuisance,” the landlord issues an eviction notice, initiating a legal battle that most tenants are ill-positioned to wage.</p><p>In 2014, more than a thousand San Francisco tenants were intimidated out of their homes over these kinds of trumped-up charges. Breach of lease and nuisance violations have become the leading causes of evictions in San Francisco. Most tenants, especially seniors, do not know their rights or are afraid to assert them. Once evicted, most move out of the city because, having been ousted from their rent-controlled apartment, they can’t afford to remain when the median monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment zoomed in 2015 to nearly $3,500 (up from $2,795 in 2013), and a two-bedroom apartment to $4,500. Under this kind of price pressure, the San Francisco Controller’s Office estimates that the city lost 1,017 rent-controlled housing units in 2013. “When this happens year after year, as it has for many years in a row,” says Sara Shortt from the Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco, “the very fabric of our neighborhoods, our communities and our city is ripped apart.”</p><p>But Theresa has successfully fought her eviction by organizing her building and her neighbors. They formed the North Beach Tenants Committee, and at the first meeting the turnout was strong, over 100 people. She has helped Diego resist his eviction, and other people are fighting back. Joe Tobener, a local San Francisco attorney, has represented many tenants against greedy landlords and their illegal evictions. Tobener is a straight-talking people’s lawyer who grew up poor, raised by a single mom with six kids on a cashier’s salary. “I feel like Robin Hood sometimes,” he told me, defending so many vulnerable tenants against the wealthy interests behind these Airbnb-fueled evictions. “We get about 60 calls a week,” many of them from tenants being illegally displaced so landlords can use Airbnb, VRBO, Roomorama, FlipKey or other services to rent to tourists. “There’s so little enforcement, it’s like the Third World,” he says. “Airbnb is contributing to the displacement of long-term tenants in San Francisco.”</p><p>San Francisco, like New York City and other major urban areas, has a complicated code of laws and regulations that oversee real estate and landlord-tenant relations. One of the laws prohibits the renting of apartments or homes for fewer than 30 days, to prevent exactly the type of shenanigans that afflict Theresa and her neighbors—property owners who decide it’s more lucrative to turn their property into tourist hotels, thereby reducing the supply of housing available for local people who need permanent residence. That practice is called “illegal hoteling” and was banned decades ago by the Apartment Conversion Ordinance.</p><p>Property owners have always tried to skirt this law, but even when Craigslist became the first online service to facilitate short-term rentals, the small number of lawbreakers was ignorable. Now, Airbnb and other short-term rental brokerages, with their sophisticated Web- and app-based portals, have made it super easy for virtually anyone with property to find a short-term tourist to rent to. They have facilitated lawbreaking on a massive scale, and an investigation in May 2014 by the San Francisco Chronicle found 4,798 properties listed on the Airbnb website, and another 1,200 properties on the VRBO site. A colorful map showing the location of each listing was produced, and the thousands of dots covering the map (especially the eastern half of the city) made San Francisco look like it was being swarmed by insects.</p><p>In the meantime, much damage has been done to the fabric of San Francisco. Not the least because Theresa and her neighbors have received little help from City Hall. Indeed, San Francisco mayor Ed Lee’s chief financial benefactor, Ron Conway, is a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a significant financial stake in Airbnb. And Conway is not the only local investor banking on Airbnb. Tech investor billionaire Peter Thiel, a politically connected San Francisco resident who cofounded PayPal and owns a big chunk of Airbnb (as well as Facebook), saw his net worth in 2013 shoot up from $1.4 billion to $2.2 billion, as Airbnb’s value steadily climbed. Tragically, while the new sharing economy service offered by Airbnb is lucrative for a small number of people, it is forcing out longtime San Franciscans and pushing up rents by shrinking the supply of available housing, particularly rent-controlled apartments, from the permanent housing stock. This is what life has become in a gold rush city, where regulations to protect longtime tenants are not enforced because public officials are in thrall to the techno sapien gurus of Silicon Valley.</p><p> </p> Wed, 02 Dec 2015 14:44:00 -0800 Steven Hill, St. Martin&#039;s Press 1046687 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Books Books Economy economy housing America Ranks 98th in the World? The Shocking Dismal Number of Women in Elected Office http://wvvw.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/why-does-us-still-have-so-few-women-office <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Why does the U.S. still have such low numbers compared with the rest of the world? </div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/mcgovern_warren_and_murray_1.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p><em>This article originally appeared in <a href="http://www.thenation.com/article/178736/why-does-us-still-have-so-few-women-office" target="_blank">The Nation</a>, and is reprinted here with their permission.</em></p><p>With Hillary Clinton the early front-runner in the 2016 Democratic primary, the United States may join the U.K., Germany, Brazil and Argentina as democracies that have had a woman as their top leader. Yet the alarming reality is that American women are still vastly underrepresented in elected offices all across the nation. Remember the “Year of the Woman” in 1992? Two decades later women still hold less than 20 percent of congressional seats, despite composing a majority of the U.S. population.</p><p>And compared to other nations, the United States is losing ground. America now <a href="http://www.representation2020.com/women-in-parliaments.html" target="_blank">ranks ninety-eighth</a> in the world for percentage of women in its national legislature, down from 59th in 1998. That’s embarrassing: just behind Kenya and Indonesia, and barely ahead of the United Arab Emirates. Only five governors are women, including just one Democrat, and twenty-four states have never had a female governor. The percentage of women holding statewide and state legislative offices is less than 25 percent, barely higher than in 1993. Locally, only twelve of our 100 largest cities have female mayors.</p><p>The reality is that at the current glacial rate of progress, “women won’t achieve fair representation for nearly 500 years,” says Cynthia Terrell, chair of <a href="http://www.fairvote.org/" target="_blank">FairVote’s</a>“Representation 2020” project, which has released a <a href="http://www.representation2020.com/" target="_blank">new study</a> on women’s representation.</p><p>But the U.S. can’t wait that long. Having more women in office not only upholds democratic values of “fairness” and “representative government,” but various studies have also shown that the presence of more women in legislatures makes a significant difference in terms of the policy that gets passed. In "<a href="http://www.amazon.com/Patterns-Democracy-Government-Performance-Thirty-Six/dp/0300078935" target="_blank">Patterns of Democracy</a>," former American Political Science Association president Arend Lijphart found strong correlations between more women legislators and more progressive policy on issues like the environment, macroeconomic management, comprehensive support for families and individuals, violence prevention, and incarceration. <a href="http://www.vanderbilt.edu/csdi/research/files/CSDI-WP-04-2010.pdf" target="_blank">Other studies</a> have found that women legislators — both Republican and Democrat — introduce a lot more bills than men in the areas of civil rights and liberties, education, health, labor and more.</p><p>Globally, research has shown that ethnically diverse and divided nations that elect women rather than men to key national leadership offices <a href="http://www8.gsb.columbia.edu/articles/node/1633" target="_blank">end up with better economic performance</a>. Columbia professor Katherine Phillips and her co-researchers found that for the most ethnically diverse nations, having a woman in the top national leadership position was correlated with a 6.8 percent greater increase in GDP growth in comparison to nations with a male leader. The authors attribute that to women leaders having a more participatory, democratic style than men, and more confidence from voters at managing difficult situations that require more inclusionary or cooperative approaches.</p><p>So electing more women is a national as well as a global imperative. But how can this be accomplished? We’ve already seen decades of heroic efforts by organizations like EMILY’s List and Feminist Majority to recruit, train, and fund more women candidates, as well as efforts by the <a href="http://www.nameitchangeit.org/" target="_blank">Name It. Change It</a>. campaign to combat gender stereotypes in politics and in the media. The National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s political organizations fought in the 1970s and 80s against the Democrats’ old boy network for nomination of more women candidates, as well as equal representation in party committees and structures, eventually succeeding in creating more internal female leadership (which can be a steppingstone to public office). To an extent, these cumulative endeavors have paid off: representation in Congress has increased from thirty-four women (six percent) before the 1992 election to a total of 102 (19 percent) in the House and Senate today (out of 535 seats).</p><p>But the continuing, vast representation gap shows that those efforts are not enough. It’s time for a change in tactics.</p><p>A look at nations that are more successful at achieving gender parity among elected officials provide some guidance about what would transform the political landscape. Leaders in electing women include Sweden (45 percent female representation at the national level), Finland (42.5 percent), Denmark and the Netherlands (39 percent) and Germany (36.5 percent). Most of their political parties prioritize recruitment of female candidates, some even requiring “positive quotas” where half their candidates are women. And their societies have sensible policies in areas like childcare that make it easier for legislators to balance their service with their families.</p><p>But the research of representation experts like the late Professor Wilma Rule has shown that, in addition to these positive quotas, the biggest reason for female candidates’ success in these advanced democracies is the use of “fair representation” electoral systems, also known as proportional representation.</p><p>These methods use multi-seat districts, rather than one-seat districts, where political parties (or, in a nonpartisan election, groupings of like-minded voters, i.e. liberals, conservatives, progressives) win seats in proportion to their vote share. If like-minded voters have 20 percent of the vote in a ten-seat district, its candidates win two of ten seats, instead of none; 40 percent wins four seats, and 60 percent wins six seats.</p><p>Such rules create multi-party democracy, since a political party can earn a fair share of representation with well under 50 percent of the vote. That in turn fosters greater accountability for major parties, as minor parties offer voters other viable choices. Facing real competition, major parties look to nominate candidates that broaden their appeal, including a lot more women. The German Green Party has never won over 11 percent of the national vote, yet for three decades has consistently won seats and promoted women’s leadership by having a 50-50 rule for female/male candidates, prodding other major parties to nominate more women.</p><p>How important is the electoral system to women’s success? A real-world test is provided by nations that use both fair representation electoral systems and U.S.-style one-seat districts to elect their national legislatures. We can observe the same voters, the same attitudes, expressing themselves through two different electoral methods. The result? In Germany and New Zealand, women win a lot more seats chosen by the fair representation method than in those chosen in one-seat districts — twice as many seats in Germany.</p><p>American women also do better in multi-seat districts, even if proportional representation rules aren’t used. As FairVote’s <a href="http://www.representation2020.com/" target="_blank">report</a> shows, women hold an average of 31 percent of state legislative seats elected in multi-seat districts, compared to only 23 percent elected in one-seat districts. Vermont’s state legislature has 41 percent women, elected in districts with anywhere from one to six legislators per district. Even a strongly conservative state like Arizona has 36 percent women in its state house, elected from two-seat districts.</p><p>The U.S. Constitution does not require the use of single-seat districts, so switching to these fairer election methods only needs changes in applicable laws. It wasn’t until 1967 that Congress passed a law mandating single-seat districts for House races, but that federal law could be changed again by Congress; state legislatures and local governments could adopt such methods by changing state and local laws. Advocates will find allies among those seeking to enhance minority voting rights (particularly in light of recent horrible Supreme Court rulings) and to correct today’s shocking geographic skew toward Republicans (which allowed Mitt Romney to beat Barack Obama in <a href="http://cookpolitical.com/story/5606" target="_blank">more House districts</a> (226-209) even though he lost the national popular vote by four percentage points). Public financing of campaigns also would help, since most women don’t have access to the good ol’ boy networks that primarily fund political campaigns.</p><p>Given the research and real-world experience on what impacts women’s representation, why don’t organizations like EMILY’s List, NOW and Feminist Majority focus more on enacting fair representation methods and other structural changes? “EMILY’s List was founded to work within the electoral system we have — and we’re proud of our successes in helping to elect a historic number of Democratic women to office,” Jess McIntosh, communications director at EMILY’s List, told me. “Our progress hasn’t been easy, and we’re nowhere near done — but there is clearly a mandate for women’s leadership in this country and we’re going to keep fighting.”</p><p>Kathy Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority and also executive editor for Ms<em>.</em> magazine, acknowledges that these structural issues are of paramount importance. But she says the power of incumbency and the old boys network is strong and very resistant to structural change. “The feminist movement has been fighting this battle for equal representation for over 40 years,” she says. “But you’re talking about changing the very rules that keep incumbents secure in their seats. We need more Democratic and Republican leaders to step up and help solve this problem.”</p><p>Spillar thinks voters increasingly see women as effective legislators, taking the lead in forging cross-partisan consensus on issues like the fiscal cliff and debt limit. But the male-dominated networks, even among Democrats, stand in the way of changes like requiring that 50 percent of candidates be female, or using fairer voting methods. “We’re pushing on a lot of fronts, and structural change is one of them. But we need more allies, and it’s a matter of picking your battles and figuring out where you can have an impact.”</p><p>McIntosh is enthusiastic about women’s chances of picking up a few more Senate seats in 2014, and cites EMILY’s List’s work training 1,000 female candidates for state legislative races. Training a thousand women candidates is indeed a great accomplishment, but that achievement also reveals the limitations of current approaches. The fact is there are more than 7,300 state legislative races, and over 6,000 will be contested in 2014. So the reach of EMILY’s List’s efforts only impacts 17 percent of state legislative races. Without structural change, the current heroic efforts by women’s groups seem doomed to always fall short.</p><p>As Representation 2020 chair Cynthia Terrell argues, “We should ask for nothing less than parity in representation, and push to achieve that goal in one generation, not half a millennium.” It’s time to get serious about addressing why 51 percent of the population has less than a fifth of the representation in Washington, DC. The future of the nation is at stake.</p> Tue, 11 Mar 2014 10:59:00 -0700 Steven Hill, The Nation 968921 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Gender News & Politics women in politics gender gap U.S. Congress percentage of women in national legislature fairvote.org Don't Cut Social Security -- Double It http://wvvw.alternet.org/economy/dont-cut-social-security-double-it <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Fiscal cliff chatter about slashing the venerable program ignores its fundamental potential and underlying strength.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/shutterstock_112541258_0.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p><i>This article originally appeared at <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/12/dont-cut-social-security-double-it/266095/">The Atlantic.</a></i></p><p>As the nation tiptoes closer to the fiscal cliff, a frightening number of leaders on both sides of the political aisle seem ready to push poor, beleaguered Social Security over the edge. Not only would that be a huge mistake for the nation's future, but these leaders show a dreadful misunderstanding of the new challenges faced by the U.S. retirement system. Particularly in the aftermath of the largest economic collapse since the Great Depression, none of the proposals on the table are grappling with some stark economic realities. How we settle this New Deal legacy will decide fundamental questions about what kind of society America will be for generations to come.</p><p class="p1">Here's the dilemma that the United States faces. Since World War II, individual retirement has been based on a "three-legged stool," with the three legs being Social Security, pensions, and personal savings (the latter primarily centered around home ownership). But two out of three of these legs have been chopped back to blunted pegs, leaving the retirement stool as an unstable, one-legged oddity.</p><p class="p1">Pensions have always been the least broadly distributed asset, with only a third of elderly Americans (those 65 and over) earning pension income, a percentage which has been declining dramatically in recent years. A bit over a majority of these older Americans have income from personal savings, most of that residing in the value of their homes. But 86 percent receive Social Security payments (see Figure 1).</p><p class="p2"></p><div alt="" class="media-image" height="405" width="362"><img alt="" class="media-image" height="405" width="362" typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/large/public/hill1.png" /></div><p class="p1">Even before the Great Recession, 40 percent of middle-income and 53 percent of lower-income Americans already were at risk of having insufficient retirement funds. But the economic collapse has taken its toll on two out of three of Americans' primary retirement resources: pensions and savings/investment in a home.</p><p class="p1"><b>Already Off the Cliff: Pensions, Private and Public</b></p><p class="p1">American pensions were some of the hardest hit in the world by the Great Recession, falling in value by over a quarter in 2008, with only modest recovery since then. But private pensions already had become a less steady leg of retirement security prior to the recent recession. Since the early 1980s, businesses have gradually shifted responsibility for pensions onto workers, with predictable results. In 1981, approximately 60 percent of private sector workers were covered by a pension with a guaranteed payout. Today only about 10 percent of private sector workers have guaranteed payout pensions. Meanwhile, 401(k)-type retirement contribution plans have gone from covering only about 17 percent of the private workforce to about 65 percent today (see Figure 3).</p><p class="p2"></p><div alt="" class="media-image" height="431" width="406"><img alt="" class="media-image" height="431" width="406" typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/large/public/hill2.png" /></div><p class="p1">401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans have turned out to be an unreliable pillar of retirement security, not only because they don't provide as secure a net but because many Americans are pretty lousy at managing their investments. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that more than one-quarter of baby boomer households thought "hardly at all" about retirement and that financial literacy among boomers was "alarmingly low." Half could not do a simple math calculation (divide $2 million by five) and fewer than 20 percent could calculate compound interest.</p><p class="p1">In the public sector, most workers still are covered by guaranteed payout pensions, but the number of public sector workers has declined dramatically in recent years, accelerating as a result of the Great Recession. There are now a million fewer federal employees than when Ronald Reagan left office, and public sector employment is at a 30-year low.</p><p class="p1">In addition, states have funded only about 80 percent of their pension liability, leaving a $3.32 trillion funding gap. Ohio and Rhode Island are in the worst shape, having underfunded their pensions by almost 50 percent of their gross state product. Other liabilities, such as retiree health and dental insurance, also are underfunded. City governments similarly are plagued by underfunded pensions, with Los Angeles underfunding its public pension liabilities by $3.53 billion, with an additional $2.43 billion owed for other employment benefits such as healthcare. As of June 2009, New York City public pension programs had liabilities that exceeded their assets by $39.9 billion with an additional $65.5 billion owed for other benefits.</p><p class="p1">So both the private and public components of the U.S. pension system are under severe strain, as the Great Recession combined with pre-recession patterns of rising inequality and a diminishing social contract have taken their toll. With fewer workers covered by pensions, this leg of the three-legged stool of retirement security is too short -- and growing shorter.</p><p class="p1"><b>Already Off the Cliff II: Home Ownership and Personal Savings</b></p><p class="p1">Now let's examine the second leg of retirement well-being, personal savings centered around homeownership. For tens of millions of Americans, security in their elderly years has been directly linked to the value of their homes. Yet the rupture of the housing bubble illustrated in dramatic fashion the danger of over-reliance upon ever-rising home values for retirement security.</p><p class="p1">The Federal Reserve has estimated that homeowners lost approximately $8 trillion in home equity during the Great Recession, a 53 percent drop in the overall value of the national homeownership stock. About 14 million Americans -- about 28 percent of all homeowners -- are still underwater today, owing more on their mortgage than their home is worth. These homeowners are, in effect, flat broke if they have no other accumulated savings or retirement vehicle (see Figure 6, which shows the percentage of mortgages that are underwater).</p><p class="p2"></p><div alt="" class="media-image" height="472" width="444"><img alt="" class="media-image" height="472" width="444" typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/large/public/hill3.jpg" /></div><p class="p1">This has been devastating for Americans' retirement well-being because home ownership accounts for a large proportion of assets for so much of the population. As of 2008, only the top two income quartiles had accumulated enough equity from financial assets and pensions to weather the bursting housing bubble. The bottom 50 percent had not saved enough outside their homeownership to avoid severe wreckage to their retirement plans.</p><p class="p1">Thus, the second leg of the three-legged retirement stool has been broken down to a nub. And with home prices unlikely to recover soon, this loss in equity has significantly reduced the economic security of the lower and middle classes, which are less likely to have pensions and other assets such as private savings (beyond homeownership) to sustain them. Indeed, the bottom two income quartiles for those aged 65 and over depend on Social Security for at least 80 percent of their income, but even the second richest quartile still depends on Social Security for over 50 percent of its retirement income (see Figure 7).</p><p class="p2"></p><div alt="" class="media-image" height="428" width="480"><img alt="" class="media-image" height="428" width="480" typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/large/public/hill4.jpeg" /></div><p class="p1">In short, the collapse of the housing bubble when combined with the slow erosion of America's pension system has hacked away two of the three legs of the retirement stool. In the future, the vast majority of baby boomers and other retirees will be almost completely dependent on the single leg of Social Security for their retirement. The retirement stool no longer is stable and secure, and suddenly Social Security, which always has been viewed as a supplement to private savings, is the only leg left for hundreds of millions of Americans.</p><p class="p1">Financial experts say it will take a monthly retirement income of about 70 to 80 percent of pre-retirement income levels -- as well as $200,000 to $300,000 in personal savings -- for the average American to have a secure retirement. Yet most older Americans have saved only a fraction of that. In 2010, 75 percent of Americans nearing retirement age had less than $30,000 in their retirement accounts. About half of all Americans are at risk of not having sufficient retirement income, and three-fifths of low-income households are at risk of not having sufficient income to maintain their pre-retirement standards of living at age 65 (see Figure 9).</p><p class="p2"></p><div alt="" class="media-image" height="374" width="375"><img alt="" class="media-image" height="374" width="375" typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/large/public/hill5.png" /></div><p class="p1">A single legged stool might be sufficient if that single leg was robust enough to stand on its own. But Social Security currently provides much less than the 70 to 80 percent of pre-retirement income needed to maintain pre-retirement standards of living. It is estimated to replace only about 33 to 40 percent of pre-retirement income for the average wage earner, compared to other nations like Germany or France where it replaces 70 percent (see Figure 10).</p><p class="p2"></p><div alt="" class="media-image" height="461" width="443"><img alt="" class="media-image" height="461" width="443" typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/large/public/hill6_0.jpeg" /></div><p class="p1">So the one-legged stool of the U.S. retirement system is looking like a rather odd piece of furniture, one that is increasingly unstable. For more and more Americans, the dream of a secure retirement is threatened. New solutions are needed to provide security to retiring Americans, both now and in the future.</p><p class="p1"><b>The Solution: "Social Security Plus"-- Expanding Social Security</b></p><p class="p1">An expansion of the Social Security retirement system -- one of the most successful and popular social programs in American history -- that converts it into a more robust retirement system would build upon the most stable component of the current system. Social Security already provides the major means of support for two-thirds of America's retirees. Since its New Deal inception in the 1930s, and gradual expansion in subsequent decades, Social Security has become a mainstay of retirement security, firmly rooted in America's cultural and economic landscape (as leaders like President George W. Bush discovered when he tried to privatize it).</p><p class="p1">The real problem with Social Security is not, as its critics say, that it is underfunded. Contrary to gloomy predictions, the program is on solid financial footing, with the Congressional Budget Office projecting that Social Security can pay all scheduled benefits out of its own tax revenue stream through at least 2037. The bigger problem is that Social Security's payouts are so meager -- far too low for the program's new role as America's de facto national retirement system. It only replaces about 33 to 40 percent of a retiree's average final wage, which is simply not enough money to live on when it is your primary -- perhaps your only -- source of retirement income.</p><p class="p1">The gritty reality that the Obama administration and House Republicans must face is that the vast majority of America's retirees cannot afford to watch them hack off part of the only leg that remains of the three-legged stool. Quite the contrary, we should make that leg more robust by doubling the current Social Security payout, and turning it into a true national retirement system called "Social Security Plus." Doing so not only would be good for American retirees, but also would be good for the greater macro economy.</p><p class="p1">Doubling Social Security's individual payout would cost about $650 billion annually for the approximately 53 million Americans who receive benefits. Here's how to pay for it.</p><p class="p1"><b><i>Step 1. Lift Social Security's payroll cap that favors the wealthy.</i></b></p><p class="p1">Currently Social Security only taxes wages up to $106,800 a year, and any income earned above that is not taxed. The net result is that poor, middle class, and even moderately upper middle class Americans are taxed 12.4 percent (split between employee and employer) on 100 percent of their income, but the wealthy pay a much lower percentage. Millionaire bankers effectively pay a paltry 1.2 percent.</p><p class="p1">Making all income levels pay the same percentage -- which is how Medicare works -- is popular with Americans according to opinion polls, and would raise about $377 billion toward the $650 billion needed to double the Social Security payout. As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama stated that he supported raising the cap on the Social Security tax to help fund the program.</p><p class="p1"><b><i>Step 2. Cut out the business deduction for employees' retirement plans.</i></b></p><p class="p1">With all Americans receiving Social Security Plus, employer-based pensions would be redundant, so businesses no longer would need the substantial federal deductions they currently receive for providing employees' retirement plans. These deductions total a substantial $126 billion annually.</p><p class="p1">These two steps alone would provide three-fourths of the revenue needed to double Social Security's payout.</p><p class="p1"><b><i>Step 3. Cut or reduce other deductions that disproportionately benefit top income earners.</i></b></p><p class="p1">Other possible revenue streams should include ones that would reduce or eliminate unfair deductions in the tax code which currently allow the top 20 percent of income earners to reap generous deductions that barely help most low and moderate income Americans. These include deductions for private retirement savings, health care, homeownership and education.</p><p class="p1">Only higher income individuals have enough earnings to divert for savings or investments that allow them the luxury of enjoying considerable tax deductions for their 401(k)s, IRAs and pensions. The poor and middle class rarely can take advantage of these sorts of deductions because they don't make enough income to benefit from itemizing deductions on their tax returns. As Josh Freedman <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/11/the-tax-break-myth-theyre-not-really-for-the-middle-class/264388/"><span class="s1">pointed out recently in <i>The Atlantic</i></span></a>, in 2011 <a href="http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/numbers/displayatab.cfm?Docid=3549"><span class="s1">less than 30 percent of all filers itemized their taxes</span></a>, and more than 80 percent of the benefits from itemized deductions went to individuals in the highest income quintile.</p><p class="p1">The same goes for the much vaunted home mortgage interest deduction. Those with annual incomes over $100,000 dollars received nearly 75 percent of the benefit from the home mortgage interest deduction in total dollars. Most middle class individuals would not see any increase in their taxes if the mortgage interest deduction were eliminated. Instead of buying a home as part of their retirement plan -- which we now realize can be a risky undertaking -- more people could put their money into Social Security Plus. Eliminating the mortgage interest deduction would raise another $100 billion to pay for Social Security Plus, and eliminating the other deductions would bring us close to the $650 billion mark.</p><p class="p1">An expansion of Social Security not only would be good for America's retirees, it also would be good for the broader macroeconomy. It would act as an "automatic stabilizer" during economic downturns, keeping money in retirees' pockets and stimulating consumer demand, especially since low and middle income people are more likely to spend an extra dollar on goods and services than are affluent individuals. Social Security Plus also would help American businesses trying to compete with foreign companies that don't have to provide pensions to their employees, since those countries already have national retirement plans.</p><p class="p1">Moreover, unlike private pensions, Social Security benefits are portable when changing from one job to another. Every worker could contribute to her or his own retirement pension no matter where she or he worked. Those savings could be directed into a Social Security Plus system with investments restricted to Treasuries, instead of handing it over to mutual or pension fund managers who gamble on the volatile stock market with future retirees' money (there is no evidence that the typical investment fund manager consistently beats the average return on Treasuries). And this system would be broadly fair, since even those higher income Americans who are having some of their tax deductions reduced would see part of it returned to them in the form of a greater Social Security payout.</p><p class="p1">In short, Social Security Plus would provide a stable, secure retirement for every American and contribute greatly toward a solid foundation from which to build a strong and vibrant 21st century economy. All Americans should have retirement benefits they can count on, not the crumbling casino of retirement overseen by the same Wall Street bankers and financial managers who drove the U.S. economy off the cliff.</p><p class="p1"><i>This article is adapted from </i><a href="http://growth.newamerica.net/publications/policy/secure_retirement_for_all_americans"><span class="s1"><i>the author's study</i></span></a><i> for the New America Foundation.</i></p> Thu, 27 Dec 2012 23:45:00 -0800 Steven Hill, The Atlantic 766274 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Economy Economy fiscal cliff economy social security Why America Can't Pass Gun Control http://wvvw.alternet.org/tea-party-and-right/why-america-cant-pass-gun-control <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Hint: It&#039;s not the NRA or a gun-loving culture. </div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/images/managed/topstories_texasguns.jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p> </p><p class="p1"><em>This article originally appeared at <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/12/why-america-cant-pass-gun-control/266417/">The Atlantic.</a></em></p><p class="p1">The horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., is the latest grisly episode in what has become a muted debate in the United States: what to do about gun violence and well-armed mass murderers. But we will make a prediction: Even in the face of this national tragedy, President Obama will have little success enacting substantive gun control.</p><p class="p3">Here's why: Obama can read the political map as well as anyone, and he knows that, just as in the past after previous brutal tragedies, the politics of gun control rest on complicated terrain. Many gun control advocates blame the lack of policy action on America's gun-loving culture and the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA), but that's too simplistic. Already in the wake of the Newtown carnage we have seen a<a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/ruth-marcus-after-newtown-beating-the-nra-at-its-own-game/2012/12/18/9036f1c6-494e-11e2-ad54-580638ede391_story.html?tid=pm_opinions_pop"><span class="s1">slew of pundits</span></a> drawing the wrong conclusions, just as they have after previous tragedies.</p><p class="p3">Sure, Americans like their guns more than other nations, but polls often have shown<a href="http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-12-17/majority-of-americans-favor-gun-control-laws-poll-shows.html"><span class="s1">a majority of Americans</span></a> wanting more gun control, with <a href="http://partners.nytimes.com/library/national/082699poll-watch.html"><span class="s1">two-thirds</span></a> calling for more regulation following the Columbine massacre in 1999. But the political system - including the Democratic Party -- has failed to respond. And it's not because Democrats and Obama are afraid of the NRA's deep pockets, as so many pundits are wrongly concluding. Quite the contrary, the NRA has money because it is powerful, not the other way around. And the NRA is powerful because it is clever at working the clunky architecture of our political system, which gives immense clout to a tiny slice of swing voters in a handful of congressional districts.</p><p class="p3">To understand the importance of this factor, Obama and gun control advocates have to grapple with the fact that Mitt Romney carried 228 out of 435 House districts (52.4 percent) despite losing the national popular vote to Obama by 4 points. <a href="http://www.fairvote.org/fair-voting-solution"><span class="s1">According to an analysis</span></a> by FairVote, the median House district (the 218th) is one that leans 52 percent Republican. <a href="http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB10001424127887324339204578171180887571110-lMyQjAxMTAyMDEwMTExNDEyWj.html?mod=wsj_valettop_email"><span class="s1">Cook Political Report analysis</span></a> found that of the 234 Republicans elected to the 435-seat U.S. House in November, fully 219 came from districts that were carried by Mitt Romney. That means that these Republicans don't need to worry much about challenges from the left or accommodating the president over the next two years. It also means that Democrats will have a very steep uphill climb to retake the House in 2014, since their candidates would have to run well ahead of their presidential nominee in at least a dozen Republican-leaning districts.</p><p class="p3">Just like our recent presidential election was settled in only a handful of battleground states, control of the U.S. House of Representatives comes down to only about 35 districts -- fewer than 10 percent of the 435 districts -- every two years.<b></b>That gives overwhelming power to undecided voters who live in these swing districts, many of which are rural and conservative-leaning. This set-up also gives enormous power to the NRA, because many NRA members <a href="http://professional.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324731304578189864148514602.html?mg=reno64-wsj"><span class="s1">live in these rural swing districts</span></a>.</p><p class="p3">So the Democrats and Obama know that the NRA doesn't have clout because it has lots of money -- it spent $18 million in congressional elections in 2012 -- but the contrary. The NRA has money because it has clout. And it has clout because it has a lot of votes in key battleground House districts and battleground states voting for president and U.S. senators.</p><p class="p3">Back in 2000, Republican strategist and NRA board member <a href="http://www.thenation.com/article/nra-wants-you?page=0,2"><span class="s1">Grover Norquist summed it up nicely, saying</span></a>, "The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are they going to vote on their 'control' position?" Though many voters back gun control, says Norquist, their support doesn't really motivate them when they go to the polls. "But for that 4-5 percent who care about guns, they will vote on this."</p><p class="p3">Things have hardly changed since Norquist made those comments. The NRA's job is made easier because it can target its resources at the three dozen swing districts like a military strategist dividing quadrants on a battlefield. That allows a small number of NRA voters to form a potent single-issue voting bloc, since a change in 5 percent of the vote in any swing district can make all the difference. The NRA has power not so much because of its deep pockets but because of the fundamental design of our geographic-based political map in which representatives are elected in single-seat, winner-take-all districts.</p><p class="p3">Many Democrats believe that strong support for gun control has cost their party key elections in such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Colorado, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. They believe that Al Gore lost the presidential election in 2000 in his home state of Tennessee because he was on the wrong side of this issue.</p><p class="p3">That led to Democrats ducking and even pandering on this issue. Who can forget the ridiculous sight of John Kerry <a href="http://www.salon.com/2012/04/13/when_democrats_gave_up_on_guns/"><span class="s1">trumpeting his own prowess as a gun owner</span></a> when he ran for president in 2004. When Democrats regained the House after the 2006 elections, they did so largely based on victories by Democrats winning in Republican-leaning districts. Knowing that support for gun control could cause them to lose their race, no matter how broad national support was, most of those winning Democrats backed the NRA positions. And in his first term, President Obama continued the Democratic duck, not even pushing to reauthorize the lapsed ban on semi-automatic weapons.</p><p class="p3">The reality is that the dynamics of winner-take-all elections allow gun control opponents to form a potent single-issue voting bloc that far outweighs their minority status -- much like anti-Castro Cubans in Florida have pushed Democrats as well as Republicans to go hard on Castro. Despite lobbying from his liberal constituency, Obama has not fundamentally changed the Cold War era policy towards Cuba, due to fear of how that would play among a key bloc of swing voters in a key presidential swing state. Democrats know how to count not only votes but swing votes, whether in battleground states or battleground House districts.</p><p class="p3">That gives pro-gun swing voters and their advocates like the NRA tremendous influence in our political system. American pundits and political scientists often portray multiparty democracies elected by proportional representation, such as in Italy and Israel, as being beholden to tiny political parties of extremists who hold their governments hostage. Yet they fail to recognize how the dynamics of our own winner-take-all electoral politics allow well-organized political minorities such as those represented by the NRA to mobilize anti-gun control swing voters to push a radical agenda on the mainstream.</p><p class="p3">Looking ahead to 2014, control of the House once again will come down to the outcome of 35 or so close races. To earn a House majority, Democrats will need to sweep nearly all of them,  largely in districts where a pro-gun control position doesn't play well. The math of the 2014 election is daunting, since Democrats can't win control of the U.S. House without winning more than a dozen districts where Mitt Romney defeated Barack Obama in 2012 -- and that assumes that the Democrats sweep all 207 districts carried by Obama. So this dilemma for President Obama and the Democrats will not be settled easily.</p><p class="p3">Obama might manage to use the passion unleashed by this latest tragedy to re-authorize the ban on semi-automatic weapons. But any hope that he will lead an effort to enact substantive gun control is pure fantasy. Tragically so. When it comes to gun policy and the House, demography is destiny.</p> Mon, 24 Dec 2012 09:40:00 -0800 Steven Hill, Robert Richie, The Atlantic 766273 at http://wvvw.alternet.org The Right Wing The Right Wing nra gun culture newtown sandy hook mass shootings No Wonder So Many Are Disillusioned by Our Politics -- We've Got an 18th Century Political System http://wvvw.alternet.org/books/no-wonder-so-many-are-disillusioned-our-politics-weve-got-18th-century-political-system <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">It’s time for American patriots to roll up our sleeves and get to work to reform our political institutions. </div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/wall_st..jpg" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p><em>The following is an excerpt from the Introduction to <a href="http://www.10Steps.net">10 Steps to Repair American Democracy: A More Perfect Union, 2012 Election Edition</a> by Steven Hill.</em></p><p>In 2008, an economic earthquake of historic proportions shook the world. That was followed by numerous aftershocks whose effects are still being felt years later. In the middle of the economic crash, a new audacity of hope arrived in the form of the first African American president elected in U.S. history. It was a jubilant moment showing America at its best, taking a giant step toward the dream of a multiracial society.</p><p>The very campaign of Barack Obama, which drew in unprecedented numbers of young people, seemed to auger a new era in politics that held out the potential for a badly needed transformation. <i>Time </i>magazine featured the face of President-elect Obama on its cover, photoshopped into a likeness of President Franklin Roosevelt complete with tipped cigarette holder and grey fedora. It seemed that a new New Deal was on the horizon for an America suffering from the ravages of a historic economic collapse.</p><p>Yet, within a short time, the Obama administration found itself flat-footed on nearly all policy fronts. Confronted by intractable challenges and difficult choices presented by the economic crisis, and hindered by a polarized Congress more interested in political brinksmanship and deploying cheap, anti-majoritarian strategies like the filibuster, the Obama administration responded with timid proposals that failed to realize its promise. It turned out that America’s antiquated political system was so creaky and sclerotic that it was impervious to even the most talented of its politicians.</p><p>President Obama’s leadership failure came at a crucial moment. Without a politics that could rein in the economics, Wall Street honchos at Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brother and others had turned our banks and financial system into their personal casinos to be bailed out by taxpayers when their bets tanked. The economic crash had been caused by a hyper-deregulated U.S. financial system that, without sufficient political and administrative oversight, had spun out of control. Wall Street’s brand of capitalism resulted in a socializing of the losses and privatizing of the gains. And so it fell to the American political system, which had failed to rein in the runaway train to begin with, to re-regulate the economy and try to make the country safe again for capitalism.</p><p>Yet following President Obama's inauguration in January 2009, not only did he continue many of the Bush administration’s policies but the people he chose as his cabinet members and regulators were industry insiders who were not going to change things fundamentally. Wall Street executives, at first cowed by their own incompetence and the sudden systemic instability that forced them to accept government handouts, rediscovered their bravado and began digging in against fundamental reform. The Obama administration and other key authorities, such as the New York Federal Reserve, stood back while Wall Street and the corrupted ratings agencies resurrected much of the ultra-complex trading system that had led to such a spectacular global collapse. New regulations eventually were passed, especially the Dodd-Frank legislation, but many financial experts felt that certain key defects were never adequately addressed. After the dust had settled, many of the “too big to fail” banks and financial institutions that remained were even bigger than before the crisis, having swallowed those that went belly up. Wall Street was back to its high-flying ways, and a smoldering anger rumbled across the nation as it became clear that Main Street had been swindled by Wall Street, and government had done little to protect everyday people.</p><p><b>The Weakening Pulse of Democracy</b></p><p>But this spectacular economic collapse was just the climax of a long downhill slide for America, the last remaining superpower of the Cold War era. The crash of the economy exposed an ugly truth: The forces that have drastically increased economic insecurity and risk for so many Americans are rooted in fundamental shifts over the last thirty years. These longer-term trends, which culminated in the Great Recession, mark one of the great social transformations of the postwar era. But how could such alarming concentrations of wealth be possible, more than eighty years after the lessons we thought we had learned from the Great Depression? How could there be so much poverty and inequality within a nation that has so much wealth and power? And how could those who wrecked our economy end up profiting so brazenly from the destruction they created? These are the questions on many lips and minds, not only in the United States but around the world, where a struggling Uncle Sam has lost much of its narrative appeal and sizzle as an international beacon.</p><p>There are many potential responses to those questions, but overwhelmingly one factor is looming larger: The economic collapse was preceded by a long-standing political collapse.  Unfortunately, the antiquated American political system is desperately broken, mired in antiquated ways that have resulted in political paralysis in the face of urgent new challenges. Even today, policies that will exacerbate the inequality, unemployment and sluggish economy, such as tax cuts for the wealthy and the slashing of Social Security and Medicare, retain considerable political momentum among political elites, despite their unpopularity in opinion polls. The political system has become unresponsive to “We the People.” At this point, the economic system — and those who dominate it — have captured the political system.</p><p>Understandably this has prompted great outrage and frustration among the American people. These passions crystallized into a right-wing populist movement known as the Tea Party, and later into a youth-inspired protest encampment in the belly of the beast called Occupy Wall Street (which eventually spread to other cities around the United States). Both of these populist insurrections struck a chord when they said, in effect, that it is time for Americans to take back our government. More than two hundred years after our national “birthquake,” government of, by, and for the people remains an unfulfilled promise.</p><p>Today, the antiquated American political system finds itself plagued by partisan polarization, a rigidly divided Congress, superficial debate, and paralysis in the face of new global challenges. Even before the economic crisis, the U.S. was <span lang="EN" xml:lang="EN">beset by choiceless elections, out-of-control campaign spending, backward voter registration laws, a filibuster-gone-wild U.S. Senate, mindless media, even a partisan Supreme Court. Americans are increasingly frustrated and have tuned out, causing the middle to collapse and allowing the partisans and apparatchiks to take over.</span></p><p><b>The Way Forward</b></p><p>Fortunately, there is a better way than the status quo, one that can lead us toward a brighter national future. That better way involves making fundamental changes to our basic political and media institutions, and bringing them into the 21st century. It involves not only crafting laws to cope with new assaults on American democracy— such as the horrendous US Supreme Court ruling known as <i>Citizens United, </i>which has opened up the spigot for corporate donations and unlimited spending in our elections—but also figuring out how to transform our increasingly creaky and antiquated political institutions. </p><p>In <a href="http://www.10Steps.net"><i>10 Steps to Repair American Democracy</i></a> I provide a blueprint for renewing the American republic. I outline ten essential steps that can repair and modernize American democracy including:  ways to allow more people to register and vote and to make sure voting equipment counts our ballots properly; replacing winner-take-all elections with alternative methods like proportional voting and ranked choice voting (also known as instant runoff voting) that give better representation, promote higher voter participation and encourage constructive debate and coalition-building rather than scorched-earth tactics. I propose that presidents be elected by a national popular vote, and I advance reforms for the sclerotic Senate, which increasingly exaggerates the power of sparsely populated, conservative “red” states, and its arcane rules like the filibuster that undermine majority rule. I also propose reforms for the U.S. Supreme Court, which now resembles an unelected legislature of nine members that not only is badly out of step with mainstream America but where “five votes beats a reason any day.”  And I promote the advantages of publicly financed elections, free media time for candidates, more vigorous public broadcasting and media reforms that will produce a more robust debate in the free marketplace of ideas.</p><p>Not only do I propose specific reforms, but I discuss ways to enact them and provide at the end of each chapter a list of organizations that already are working on these reforms. By parsing the big picture into smaller bite-size pieces suitable for activism, <i>10 Steps</i> provides a roadmap for moving forward. </p><p>As the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg says in the foreword, <i>10 Steps</i> shows “that there actually is a way we can keep faith with our Founding Fathers. And it’s not to pretend that the particular political improvisations and compromises they came up with more than two centuries ago—brilliant and clever though they were in the context of their times—provide the answer to every question. No, the way to honor the Founders is not to worship them. It’s to imitate them. It’s to do what they did: diagnose what’s wrong; be fearless about innovation; learn from experience; design political mechanisms with a view to taking account of human imperfection and marshaling the self-interest of politicians for the common good. The question isn’t, ‘What, way back when, did Jefferson (and Madison and Hamilton) do? The question is, What would they do now?’ The answers begin here.”</p><p>So it’s time for American patriots to roll up our sleeves and get to work. I believe these are commonsense changes, most of them are already working in other nations and in some parts of the United States. I’m certain that the Founders and Framers of our nation, being the enlightened pragmatists that they were, would have applauded efforts to modernize their eighteenth century political creation and make it into one that lives up to the lofty rhetoric and aspirations of their astonishing age.  The challenge before us of remaking American democracy is an epic one. The brightness of our national future depends on our success. But Americans have risen to great challenges before, and I believe we will again.</p> Mon, 26 Nov 2012 16:25:00 -0800 Steven Hill, AlterNet 750485 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Books Books Economy News & Politics financial crisis economy economic collapse financial system big banks wall st. obama democracy Israel's Short-sighted Opposition to Palestinian Statehood Is Dragging Down Its Economy http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/152471/israel%27s_short-sighted_opposition_to_palestinian_statehood_is_dragging_down_its_economy <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Israel is missing historic opportunity to lead a regional economic renaissance.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p>Who could have imagined even a year ago that the Arab Spring would blow a fresh wind across the Middle East, opening minds and hearts to new possibilities. Now in the next chapter of this remarkable story, the Palestinians are taking their quest for statehood to the United Nations. Perhaps no other issue in the Middle East packs as much symbolic value as this one, and holds as much potential to be a catalyst for profound change.</p> <p>But the reactions of the US and Israeli governments are key to what happens next. Both should jettison their fears and old thinking, and embrace this wind of change. How? By boldly supporting the Palestinians’ bid at the UN.</p> <p>The reason to do this is not only that it's undeniably the right thing to do morally, but also because it's a smart thing to do from Israel's economic standpoint. The Israeli economy is a mess, which has resulted in massive demonstrations and occupations of city centers by Israeli protesters that have crippled the domestic scene. On September 3, some 450,000 Israelis thronged the streets of Tel Aviv and three other towns, calling for affordable housing, cheaper basic food and better social services.</p> <p>Israel has much to gain from a peaceful and prosperous Middle East, as well as to contribute to it. In June I attended a roundtable discussion in Barcelona which featured over a dozen young leaders of the Arab Spring, from Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Palestine, Morocco and more. It made me tingle to hear these brave young people tell about the successful struggle they were waging for freedom, democracy and a better life, albeit at great personal cost and danger. The realization struck me over and over, "These are the people who my country should be wholeheartedly supporting.” They had strongly embraced much of the American/western creed, and they clearly represent the best possible future for the Middle East.</p> <p>The region needs the vitality and budding entrepreneurialism of these young Arab leaders. And Israel, being a central part of the region, likewise needs these young Arab leaders. A more farsighted Israeli leadership – as well as American leadership – would recognize that a peaceful and prosperous Middle East and Mediterranean basin is in Israel's best interest. A transformation of the region by the emerging democracies and developing economies of the Arab Spring would contribute much to Israel's own peace and prosperity. Israel is an island in a sea of potential commercial opportunities which would be greatly expanded by a deepening of the Arab Spring.</p> <p>Indeed, Israel could become a key economic and technology hub for the region, and lead a badly needed regional Renaissance. Premier Israeli companies like Mellanox, Allot Communications, SodaStream International, EZchip Semiconductor, Orbotech and Teva Pharmaceutical are well-positioned to benefit from a revitalized regional economy. Israel could be to its region what Germany has been to Europe – the hub of a robust commercial zone where a rising tide lifts all boats.</p> <p>All that's needed is some vision and courage to stare down the extremists on both sides. In effect, Israel would be swapping some land for real prosperity and future opportunity, as well as normalized relations with its neighbors. People who trade together generally do not make wars against each other, as Germany, Britain and France have discovered.</p> <p>But instead the Israeli leadership under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is trapped in fossilized thinking centered around land disputes. His government is arguing over who gets the olive trees instead of over how to maximize the regional economy. Like the United States, it is plowing precious resources it can ill afford into its military, subsidized with $3 billion annually from US taxpayers who are stretched thin by slashed budgets and austerity.</p> <p>Despite that sizable American subsidy, still the Israeli economy is a mess. Rather than enabling the Netanyahu government’s bungling of both the domestic economy and relations with the Palestinians, the US government should push the Israelis to get more serious about negotiating over a two-state solution. Israeli foot-dragging over Hamas not recognizing Israel's right to exist might seem justified, but it really just provides a fig leaf over the failures of Israel’s own short-sighted leaders. After all, nothing will undermine Hamas’ credibility more than making gains in bilateral negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.</p> <p>The momentum of the Arab Spring is still gaining velocity, from Libya to Syria, but the US and Israel are about to miss another historic opportunity. If Nixon could go to China, then Netanyahu should be able to go to the Palestinians and say, "Go to the UN. We will stand with you and support your petition." And then all parties should return in earnest to the negotiation table to settle outstanding claims, inspired by the recognition that an Arab Spring combined with an Israeli Spring would be a watershed moment for this still young 21st century.</p> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><a href="http://www.steven-hill.com/">Steven Hill</a> is a political writer and columnist whose latest book is <a href="http://www.europespromise.org/">"Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age"</a> Follow him on Twitter: <a href="http://twitter.com/#!/StevenHill1776">. </a></div></div></div> Mon, 19 Sep 2011 13:00:01 -0700 Steven Hill, AlterNet 667816 at http://wvvw.alternet.org World World Economy israel obama palestine netanyahu un Japan and Germany, Often Dismissed By US Economists, See Sustainable Growth and Less Unemployment http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/149285/japan_and_germany%2C_often_dismissed_by_us_economists%2C_see_sustainable_growth_and_less_unemployment <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">During the “lost decade,&quot; Japan had universal healthcare, less inequality, the highest life expectancy, and low rates of infant mortality, crime, and incarceration.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p>The <i>New York Times</i> recently did a series on Japan that it describes as an examination of “the effects on Japanese society of two decades of economic stagnation and declining prices.” Reading the series is about as cheery a task as rubbernecking at a car wreck on I-95. But unfortunately the <i>Times </i>series simply repeats the “conventional wisdom” about Japan put out by the same economic experts who missed an $8 trillion housing bubble in the United States, and in fact have been wrong on most of the big economic issues over the past two decades.</p> <p>In the midst of the Great Recession, the United States is suffering through nearly 10 percent unemployment and 50 million people without health insurance. A new report has found over 14 percent of Americans living below the poverty line, including 20 percent of children and 23 percent of seniors, the highest since President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. That is in addition to declining prospects for the middle class, and a general increase in economic insecurity.</p> <p>How, then, should we regard a country that has 5 percent unemployment, health care for all its people, the lowest income inequality and is one of the world’s leading exporters? This country also scores high on life expectancy, low on infant mortality, is at the top in literacy, and is low on crime, incarceration, homicides, mental illness and drug abuse. It also has a low rate of carbon emissions, doing its part to reduce global warming. In all these categories, this particular country beats both the United States and China by a country mile.</p> <p>Does that not sound like a country from which Americans might learn a thing or two about how to get out of the mud hole in which we are stuck?</p> <p>Not if that place is Japan. During and before the current economic crisis, few countries have been vilified as an economic basket case as much as the Land of the Rising Sun. Google “Japan and its economy” and you will get numerous hits about Japan’s allegedly sclerotic economy, its zombie banks, its deflation and slow economic growth. This malaise has even been called “Japan syndrome,” sounding like a disease to warn policymakers, as in “you don’t want to end up like Japan.”</p> <p>No one has been more influential in defining this narrative than <i>New York Times</i> columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. Throughout the 1990s, and still occasionally today, Krugman has skewered Japan’s economy and leaders. In the late 1990s, Krugman wrote a series of gloom-and-doom articles, complete with equations, theories and titles like “Japan’s Trap” and “Setting Sun,” bluntly stating: “The state of Japan is a scandal, an outrage, a reproach. It is operating far below its productive capacity, simply because its consumers and investors do not spend enough.”</p> <p>Krugman was commenting on Japan’s so-called “lost decade” of the 1990s, when the Japanese economy was considered sluggish and underperforming. But let’s look at some of the Japanese metrics during that time. Throughout the 1990s the Japanese unemployment rate was—ready for this?—about 3 percent. Not 30, that is 3. About half the U.S. unemployment rate at the time. During that allegedly “lost decade,” the Japanese also had universal healthcare, less inequality, the highest life expectancy, and low rates of infant mortality, crime, and incarceration. Americans should be so lucky as to experience a Japanese-style lost decade.</p> <p>Reopening the case of Japan raises some important questions. How do economists such as Krugman decide what to value and prioritize, or what to measure? What is an economy for? To produce the prosperity, security, and services that people need? Or to satisfy economists and their equations, theories, and models? For too many economic Cassandras, if their spreadsheet columns do not add up, if the surplus nations do not balance the deficit nations and the supply does not meet the demand, then disaster surely awaits.</p> <p>Krugman has gone on the attack again recently, this time in a debate over fiscal stimulus vs. deficit reduction as a strategy toward economic recovery. As a stimulus hawk, he has written that the Germans—one of the few economic bright spots in a struggling global economy—“seem to be getting their talking points from the collected speeches of Herbert Hoover.” He is criticizing Germany for the same thing he criticizes Japan—not spending or consuming enough to stimulate its economy.</p> <p>But what exactly are the Germans or Japanese supposed to buy more of? Surely Krugman has visited both countries, and it is plainly evident that neither are lacking in any material goods or modern trinkets to speak of. Americans are the only ones who seem to think they need three refrigerators, four televisions, and a car for everyone in the household. Too many economists have yet to figure out that it is this consumer-driven economic model that has crashed and burned.</p> <p>Japan’s economy has been and remains successful. So is Germany’s. Unlike the trickle-down U.S. economy, Japan and Germany have reached an economic steady state in which they do not need roaring growth rates to provide for their people, and here’s why: they are better at sharing the wealth produced by their economies to foster a more broadly shared prosperity among their populaces.</p> <p>But for the economic experts, apparently, it does not matter if people’s needs are being met; what matters is whether their theories and equations balance. Similarly with the media like the <i>New York Times</i>, which has been getting it wrong for years—they also missed an $8 trillion housing bubble, as well as weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (prompting the Times to issue an unprecedented mea culpa to their readers). In the same way, the Times and the rest of the media have been missing the real story about what is occurring in Japan and Europe.</p> <p>As a result, there is a common sense aspect to this that gets lost amid the rhetoric and the headlines. Two lessons of our times are that economic bubbles eventually burst, and that the environmental consequences of unbridled growth in this age of global warming are severe. The world needs to figure out how advanced economies can provide for their people without having roaring growth rates driven by asset bubbles. If consumer-driven growth was the order of the day in the post–World War II era, going forward it is going to be steady-state economic growth—growing not too fast, but not too slowly—and learning to do more with less. Yet stimulus hawks like Krugman do not seem to get this; they want to crank the “growth machine” into full gear with huge government stimulus spending.</p> <p>But the real game is no longer strictly about economic growth, it is also about sustainability. The era of U.S.-style trickle-down economies is over for wealthy countries because trickle-down is neither economically sound nor ecologically sustainable. The developed nations must lead the way towards a different path of development. This is not an easy challenge, yet it is the course that Japan and Germany have chosen. If the United States did not have such a trickle-down economy that has produced so much inequality—if it was, in fact, better at sharing its wealth—perhaps it would not need so much fiscal stimulus and growth.</p> <p>At the recent G-20 meeting in Seoul, South Korea, German Chancellor Angela Merkel rebuffed President Barack Obama and Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner’s appeals to go back to the toxic economics of Wall Street capitalism. Said Merkel, “It is essential to return to a sustainable growth path.” One cause of the crisis was that “we did not have sustainable growth. In many countries growth was built on debt and [speculative] bubbles.”</p> <p>Her finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was even more blunt. He described American policy as “clueless” and said the American growth model is stuck in a deep crisis. “The USA lived off credit for too long, inflated its financial sector massively and neglected its industrial base.” Catch the irony: Germany—previously sneered at by U.S. pundits for its “weak and sclerotic” economy—is lecturing America about how to grow our economy. Given Germany’s 6.7 percent unemployment (compared to 9.6 percent in the US) and an impressive record at manufacturing things that the rest of the world wants to buy, the Obama administration as well as Paul Krugman should be listening attentively.</p> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Wed, 22 Dec 2010 07:00:01 -0800 Steven Hill, New America Media 664654 at http://wvvw.alternet.org World World News & Politics Economy economy japan germany Why on Earth Would Americans Vote the Old Bush-Cheney Agenda Back into Power? Europeans Are Perplexed http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/148841/why_on_earth_would_americans_vote_the_old_bush-cheney_agenda_back_into_power_europeans_are_perplexed <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Even conservatives in Europe are scratching their heads over their transatlantic allies who appear to hate the idea of cheaper, universal health care.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p>For several weeks before the recent U.S. election, there was much nervous speculation among Europeans as they watched the fluctuations of the poll numbers.  Now that the results are in, Europeans are perplexed by this turn back toward the politics of the Bush-Cheney era.<br />  <br /> Like the rest of the world, Europe cheered the election of Barack Obama as a change from the economic and foreign policy disasters of his predecessor.  Yet just two years later the US government is returning to Bush-lite.  How could this be, Europeans are wondering? The American electorate is looking like a coyote with its leg caught in a trap, chewing its own leg off to get out of the trap.<br />  <br /> Europeans are puzzled by the success of the populist Tea Party movement, which seemingly wants to roll back the last two years and return to how things were at the end of the Bush-Cheney years. Even conservatives in Europe are scratching their heads over their transatlantic allies -- “Americans don’t want health care??? How can these Tea Party people say ‘Get government out of my Medicare -- don’t they know Medicare IS a government program???” <br />  <br /> While participating in a conference in Budapest in September, where prominent conservative leaders and thinkers were in attendance, including the president of the European Parliament and two prime ministers, some of the most eye-opening comments had to do with new perceptions about America. One speaker, Christian Stoffaes, who is chairman of the Center for International Prospective Studies based in Paris, stated the "United States is in disarray, extremely polarized. It is practically a civil war there, and you can't count on it."<br />  <br /> This theme was echoed by others speakers, who went even further. One said "We need to shift our emphasis eastward (towards Asia) and not wait for the Obama administration." I found these statements to be surprising, and even vaguely alarming, given the importance of the transatlantic relationship in the post-World War II era. But there was a widespread view that the US is being consumed by the severity of the Great Recession, brought on by a broken Wall Street capitalism, as well as by the quagmires of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and an inability to change course. <br />  <br /> Previously, Obama’s failure at the Copenhagen summit on climate change to deliver a serious commitment to that agenda, and instead to strike a deal with the Chinese to do next to nothing, was a real wakeup call to the Europeans. It was as if they suddenly “got” it, that it wasn’t George W. Bush who was the problem, but something more profound about America’s broken political system that prevents any leader, even one as talented as Obama, from delivering.  That political system is marinated in money, is paralyzed by a “filibuster-gone-wild” Senate that has allowed a minority of Senators to obstruct all legislation, and is hamstrung by a sclerotic, winner-take-all, two-party electoral system that has left voters poorly represented and deeply frustrated.<br />  <br /> Keep in mind that these were the conservatives of Europe venting at this conference, who currently are in control of the European Parliament, the European Commission, as well as the governments in Germany, France, Britain, Sweden and elsewhere. The European right is nowhere near as conservative as the Tea Partiers or GOP Congress members.  Indeed, in most ways the European right is to the left of the Democratic Party, which is fairly startling to contemplate. If European conservatives were allowed to vote in America’s November 2 election, there is no doubt how they would have voted.<br />  <br /> Now, in the aftermath of the recent election, the European media landscape is screaming with headlines like:  “Is the American Dream Over?”, “A Superpower in Decline,” “Deep divisions across political map,” “Power gridlock looms between parties,” “Washington turns into a battleground,” and “Elections tarnish Obama's world image.” The recent move by the Federal Reserve to jumpstart the U.S. economy by taking steps that will result in the devaluing of the dollar has been met with great skepticism in Europe. Germany’s Finance Minister Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble has said the Fed's action shows U.S. policy makers are "at a loss about what to do."  The American growth model, he said, is stuck in a deep crisis. "The USA lived off credit for too long, inflated its financial sector massively and neglected its industrial base.”<br />  <br /> The predictable American reaction has been, "Europe is one to talk. Have they gotten their PIIGS back in the pen yet?” Certainly Europe has its own challenges. But to the extent that the election of Barack Obama represented an American rejuvenation in the eyes of the world, this recent election represents a further loss of American mojo.  Americans may shrug their shoulders and say, "We don't care what the rest of the world thinks"--  but that will only reinforce what the rest of the world thinks.</p> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Fri, 12 Nov 2010 12:00:01 -0800 Steven Hill, AlterNet 664231 at http://wvvw.alternet.org World World election united states europe The China Superpower Hoax http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/148284/the_china_superpower_hoax <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">How is a country with a lower per capita income than Mexico hailed by so many as the next global superpower?</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p><em>This article <a href="http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_china_superpower_hoax_20100923/">first appeared on TruthDig</a>.</em></p> <p>China must have the best public relations maestros in the world. How else would a country with a lower per capita income than Iran, Mexico and Kazakhstan, one of the worst environmental records of any major nation, endemic corruption, jails stuffed with dissenters, and a dictatorship, besides, be hailed by so many as the next global superpower?</p> <p>Certainly China is big—1.3 billion people big, a fifth of the global population. As Forbes’ columnist John Lee has written, China has long been the place for the world’s biggest anything: the Great Wall, the 2008 Olympics, Tiananmen Square, the South China Mall in Dongguan, dams, consumption of cement and production of automobiles; most recently, China even had the world’s biggest traffic jam—an incredible 60 miles long—which lasted a month and during which drivers were stuck in their cars for days at a time.</p> <p>The world has never see anything like mega-nations the size of China (or India for that matter), and no one even knows if populations of this magnitude ultimately are sustainable. China’s voracious need to supply its population and avoid the social explosions that have plagued its history has made it one of the world’s largest consumers of natural resources, especially timber and energy, extracted from places like Africa, Southeast Asia and South America. With such large appetites, China has the ability to drive global markets, and, consequently, has become the new frontier where “get rich quick” investors and Western businesses go panning for gold by speculating in some hot Chinese start-up.</p> <p>Unfortunately, the hype ignores a starker reality—that China is barely holding it together. Contrarian voices like Hu Ping, the chief editor of Beijing Spring, a pro-human rights and democracy journal, try to humanize the conventional wisdom of economic statistics and facts that obscure reality. “With China portrayed in the news every day as an economic and political powerhouse, the rest of the world, at least those parts that treasure freedom and peace, should pay attention to the real China,” says Hu.</p> <p><b>The Paradox of China</b></p> <p>To understand the “real” China, it is necessary to see it through the double lens of its paradoxical condition as both a major economy and a still-developing country. China is filled with contradictions and serious challenges. When I visited China in August and September of 2008, after the Olympics, the country that I saw, whether in Shanghai, Beijing or the rural areas, was a long, long way from being a global leader in any meaningful sense. Two hundred million people out of a working population of nearly 800 million are migrants, chafing at their lowly status and rotten wages. Inequality is rampant. Returning from the rural areas—where the vast majority of Chinese still live—to cities is like a form of time travel, moving from feudal conditions where plowing is still done by water buffalo to a land of impressively jutting skyscrapers. Corruption is epidemic, whether in banks, the legal system or the political leadership at national, provincial and local levels, causing an estimated annual economic loss of approximately 15 percent of GDP, according to economist Hu Angang.</p> <p>Even China’s much-touted economic power has been misunderstood. Recently it was announced around the world that China had surpassed Japan to become the second-largest national economy. But compared to the United States and Europe, China is still an economic mini-me. Europe’s gross domestic product is $17.5 trillion, according to the latest IMF figures, while the U.S. figure is $14.8 trillion and China’s is $5.4 trillion (by Europe, I mean the EU 27 plus Norway, Switzerland and Iceland).</p> <p>Beyond economic output, more than three-fifths of China’s overall exports and nearly all its high-tech exports are made by non-Chinese, foreign companies. Foreign companies take advantage of low Chinese wages to reprocess imports of semi-manufactured goods that are then shipped to Europe and the U.S. China remains, in essence, a subcontractor to the West, says Will Hutton, British political analyst and author of an influential book on China, “The Writing on the Wall.” Despite China’s export success, there are few great Chinese brands or companies. China needs to build them, says Hutton, but doing that in a one-party authoritarian state, where the party second-guesses business strategy for ideological and political ends, is impossible.”</p> <p>Because of China’s climate of corruption and authoritarian secrecy, even the volume of industrial output has been questioned. Some doubt China’s numbers and official reports. Investment guru <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/08/business/global/08chanos.html%20">James Chanos</a>, who rose to prominence when he predicted the Enron meltdown (and pocketed a billion dollars shorting Enron stock), is shorting China now.</p> <p>Says Chanos, “China is cooking its books. State-run companies are buying fleets of cars and storing them in parking lots and warehouses” to pump up state-mandated production figures. As evidence of this, experts point out that while car sales have been rising by a huge 20 percent per month, auto fuel usage seems to be rising by only 3-5 percent per month. Chanos also says China is plagued by an ominously growing real estate bubble in high-rise buildings, offices and condos. Much of China’s high growth originally came from decades-long heavy investment in infrastructure, but increasingly it has been coming from construction. Chanos estimates that 50 percent to 60 percent of China’s GDP now comes from alarming levels of overbuilding, virtually none of which is affordable to the average Chinese. “This is not affordable housing for the middle class; this is high-end condos in major urban areas and high-end office buildings, which no one is buying,” says Chanos.</p> <p>China is on this “treadmill to hell,” he says, because so much of its GDP growth comes from construction which can’t be sustained. If China were to slow down the construction industry, its GDP growth would go negative very quickly.</p> <p>“That’s not going to happen, because in China people are rewarded at almost every level of government for making their economic growth numbers. The easiest way to do that is put up another building. They’re really hooked on this sort of heroin of real estate development to keep the numbers going,” Chanos says.</p> <p>Sino enthusiasts are betting that China’s rulers, whom they see as having been competent stewards of a growing economy for decades, have the means to slowly let the air out of the bubble and avert disaster. But with entire building complexes—urban forests of office and condo high-rises—standing empty in China, Chanos and others are predicting a housing market crash like the one that occurred in the United States.</p> <p><b>Walking an Environmental Tightrope Without a Net</b></p> <p>The only thing cloudier than China’s economic model is the sky over its major cities, so choked with smog that some days you can’t see the high-rises a few blocks away. During the run-up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, many were concerned that athletes wouldn’t be able to breathe the foul air. To try to clear the air, the government instituted an odd-even auto policy, i.e. cars with license plates ending in an even number could drive one day, odd numbers the next. People in Beijing told me that the skies had not been so clear in decades (and they were greatly chagrined when the authorities eventually reverted to the previous laissez-faire policy, resulting in unprecedented traffic jams that make India’s look tame by comparison).</p> <p>Four hundred thousand Chinese die every year of respiratory diseases caused by pollution. About 500 million rural Chinese—equivalent to the population of the entire European Union—still do not have access to safe drinking water. Acid rain, caused by sulfur dioxide emissions that belch from smokestacks of power plants, is endemic, with the state-run China Daily reporting that in Guangdong province—China’s most prosperous region, and also its most industrialized—53 percent of total rainfall in 2008 was acid rain.</p> <p>Food scares, such as <a href="http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article4758549.ece%20">industrial toxins</a> mixed into milk powder, pet food and cough syrup, have been frequent, and there have been instances of exported toys bearing lead paint and drywall containing highly toxic sulfur compounds that made brand-new homes in the U.S. and elsewhere unlivable.</p> <p>These consumer dangers are additional manifestations of the amoral, corrupt, robber-baron business practices that have been unleashed in China. The 2008 earthquakes in western Sichuan province, which resulted in the collapse of more than 7,000 schoolrooms and thousands of deaths among schoolchildren, disproportionately impacted the poor who lived in areas where corruption had resulted in shoddy construction practices. The suicide rate among the elderly in rural areas is four to five times higher than the world average because 90 percent of the elderly have no retirement pension, even as there is a growing shortage of nursing home services, and so many elderly choose to quietly end their lives on a barren hillside or in a forest to avoid being a burden to their children. For all these reasons and more, China is plagued by 70,000 protests per year, many of them more like riots and quite violent (including occasional bombings), and had 300,000 labor disputes in 2006 alone, nearly double the number reported in 2001.</p> <p>Young men and women I met in the cities had fled the Third World conditions in their farming villages only to accept the yoke of working in sweatshop factories or as bar waitresses, earning just enough to afford a bedroom shared with three others, four to a tiny room, two to a bed. Disposable income was practically nil and life was hard. Education is not a way out for most, since it is not free at any level and university is much too expensive for most young people to afford. The only hope they nurtured was that their country would one day be more affluent and some of that wealth would trickle down their way, as according to the Confucian virtues of “sacrifice” drilled into them by the ruling Communist Party. Recent strikes at factories producing products for Western corporations like Apple, Honda and others have managed to exact sizable wage increases of about 20 percent. But for most Chinese, life is a grim struggle and will remain so for years to come. Walking around China, even with all its tourist charms and ancient curiosities, it is hard to envision a superpower taking shape, no matter how far one peers into the future.</p> <p><b>There’s Gold in Them China Hills</b></p> <p>Welcome to China Inc., this ancient land where the entire country is run like a giant corporation. Certainly the land of “capitalist communism”—an oddball combination, to be sure—has made some impressive gains with its roaring economic growth rates and in lifting several hundred million people out of the abject poverty of the Mao years. Over the past 30 years, China has sustained nearly double-digit growth, a remarkable run which has produced a growing middle class of perhaps 200 million to 300 million people. But an important qualifier is that China started from a very low level of GDP. By 2009, China’s per capita GDP still was only $3,600, compared with $46,000 in the United States. China’s metrics indicate significant challenges for years to come, and considering all its other economic and environmental ills, its past record is no guarantee of future success. Prophecies of its global leadership are premature at best.</p> <p>Beyond economic and ecological indicators, the hallmark of a great power is when other nations want to emulate you. What made the United States <i>the</i> great power of the post-World War II era was not just its military might but its promise of economic betterment and freedoms—glamorized by Hollywood, the best public relations machine ever—which caused people from all over the world to want to flock to our shores. The City on the Hill inspired people toward an ideal, however much America itself didn’t always live up to that ideal. But no one is banging down doors to get into China, and only the poorest countries aim to be like the People’s Republic.</p> <p>China inspires curiosity with its ancient history and huge population, but not envy or emulation. That will not change anytime soon, and perhaps never unless China at some point opens up its political and economic system. The absolute unwillingness of Communist Party authorities to tolerate any public reflection, let alone protest, during the 20-year anniversary in June 2009 of the Tiananmen Square crackdown exposed their great fear of their own people, as well as the lack of confidence among China’s rulers in either their system or themselves. It remains to be seen how much of a “new China” will continue to emerge, but all these horizons certainly provide a different view of China from the one typically given by the Sino enthusiasts.</p> <p>Given this reality, why does China receive so many rave reviews while Japan and Europe—which actually do a far better job of providing for their people—are treated with scorn and derision? The answer seems to boil down to the fact that China’s high-growth economy has become the place where corporations can realize the quickest return for their quarterly profit sheets. To many awestruck pundits, China represents the future, or at least the future of business success.</p> <p>But it is also the case that China’s über-growth has become an ideological weapon in the hands of free market fundamentalists and pro-growth zealots. The Chinese economy and its high growth engine is used to browbeat other countries viewed as growing insufficiently. Europe and Japan are proof that high growth is not necessary to create the highest living standards in the world, yet in an ideological battle between free market fundamentalists and everyone else, China is a useful propaganda tool.</p> <p>But once you peel back the curtain, as Toto did in “The Wizard of Oz,” the China reality doesn’t live up to Wall Street’s hype. In fact, the hype actually is damaging to China, as it causes members of the U.S. Congress to propose foolish ideas such as protectionist measures, when in reality China needs different forms of assistance—especially technical assistance—from Europe, the U.S. and other developed powers. The entire world has a stake in China succeeding, both economically and in greening its economy and reducing its carbon emissions. The prospect of China as a “failed state” is too terrible to contemplate.</p> <p>China has come a long way, but it has a long, long way to go. It’s anyone’s bet whether China will sink or swim. So much for superpower status.</p> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Steven Hill is a writer, columnist and political professional based in the United States with two decades of experience in politics. Hill is the author, most recently, of <a href="http://www.truthdig.com/?URL=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.europespromise.org%2F">“Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope for an Insecure Age,”</a> published in January 2010. His previous books include <a href="http://www.truthdig.com/?URL=http%3A%2F%2Fp3books.com%2F10steps%2F">“10 Steps to Repair American Democracy”</a> (2006), <a href="http://www.truthdig.com/?URL=http%3A%2F%2Ffixingelections.com%2F">“Fixing Elections: The Failure of America’s Winner Take All Politics”</a> (2003) and <a href="http://www.truthdig.com/?URL=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.amazon.com%2FWhose-Vote-Counts-Democracy-Forum%2Fdp%2F0807044237%2Fref%3Dsr_1_1%3Fs%3Dbooks%26ie%3DUTF8%26qid%3D1282077893%26sr%3D1-1">“Whose Vote Counts”</a> (with Rob Richie, 2001). </div></div></div> Thu, 23 Sep 2010 10:00:01 -0700 Steven Hill, Truthdig 663674 at http://wvvw.alternet.org World World china united states superpower Don't Cut Social Security, Double It http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/148100/don%27t_cut_social_security%2C_double_it <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Let&#039;s vastly expand the Social Security payout, and making it a true national retirement system.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p>In the aftermath of the Great Recession, a debate over Social Security, is heating up. This debate raises fundamental questions about what kind of society Americans wish to live in. So far, the debate has been between those deficit busters who say Social Security must be trimmed back to reduce government indebtedness, and others who want to maintain it as is.</p> <p>But the New America Foundation just released a <a href="http://growth.newamerica.net/publications/policy/secure_retirement_for_all_americans" target="_blank">study</a> that I authored that proposes a different approach:  doubling the current Social Security payout, and making it a true national retirement system.  Creating a more robust system of "Social Security Plus" not only would be good for American retirees, but also would be good for the greater macro economy. </p> <p>Here's the dilemma that the U.S. faces. Since WWII, retirement has been conceived as a "three-legged stool," with the three legs being Social Security, pensions, and personal savings centered around homeownership. But today most private sector employers have quit providing pensions, and state and local government's public pensions are drastically underfunded.</p> <p>In addition, a collapsed housing and stock market, combined with increased inequality even before the Great Recession, have drastically reduced Americans' personal savings. In short, the "retirement stool" no longer is stable and secure, and suddenly Social Security, which always has been viewed as a supplement to private savings, is the only leg left for hundreds of millions of Americans.</p> <p>Studies show that people in the bottom two income quartiles depend on Social Security for 84 percent of their retirement income, and even the second richest quartile depends on Social Security for 55 percent of its retirement income.  Only the richest 25% of Americans don't rely heavily on Social Security.</p> <p>But the real problem with Social Security is not, as its critics say, that it is underfunded. Contrary to gloomy predictions the program is on solid financial footing, with the Congressional Budget Office projecting that Social Security can pay all scheduled benefits out of its own tax revenue stream through at least 2037.</p> <p>The bigger problem is that Social Security's payout is so meager, which is problematic since it has been thrust into this new role as a de facto national retirement plan. Currently it replaces only about 33 to 40 percent of a worker's average wage from the year prior to retirement (compared to Germany where it replaces 70 percent).  That is simply not enough money to live on when it is your primary -- perhaps your only -- source of retirement income.</p> <p>Doubling Social Security's individual payout would cost about $650 billion annually for the 51 million Americans who receive benefits. Here are some ways to pay for it.</p> <p>First, lift Social Security's payroll cap that favors the wealthy.  Currently Social Security only taxes wages up to $106,800 a year, and any income earned above that is not taxed. The net result is that poor, middle class, and even moderately upper middle class Americans are taxed 12.4 percent (split between employee and employer) on 100 percent of their income, but the wealthy pay a much lower percentage. Millionaire bankers effectively pay a paltry 1.2 percent.</p> <p>Making all income levels pay the same percentage -- that's how Medicare works - is popular with Americans  and would raise about $377 billion.</p> <p>Second, with all Americans receiving Social Security Plus, employer-based pensions would be redundant so businesses no longer would need the substantial federal deductions they currently receive for providing employees' retirement plans. These deductions total a whopping $126 billion annually.</p> <p>Those two alone would provide three-fourths of the revenue needed to double Social Security's  payout. Other possible revenue streams exist, such as reducing or eliminating other unfair deductions in the tax code which currently allow the top 20 percent of income earners to reap generous deductions that most low and moderate income Americans cannot enjoy. These include deductions for private retirement savings, homeownership, health care and education. For example, individuals who have enough income to divert for savings or investment are allowed considerable tax deductions for their 401(k)s, IRAs and pensions. Similarly the homeownership deduction for mortgage interest only benefits people with sufficient income to buy a home. But the poor and working class rarely can take advantage of these since they don't make enough to itemize deductions.</p> <p>These personal deductions were enacted by Congress in part as a means to incentivize savings.  While a certain number of moderate income Americans benefit from these, if we enacted Social Security Plus they would no longer need to rely on these deductions as vehicles for retirement savings.  Instead of buying a home as part of their retirement plan -- which as we have seen is a risky investment -- they could put their money into Social Security Plus. In 2010 the mortgage interest deduction alone will amount to about $108 billion.</p> <p>We also could implement this in stages, targeting first those who are most in need. We also could allow active seniors who have not yet reached full retirement age to take a half-pension and work at half-time without losing their right to a full pension upon their retirement.</p> <p>An expansion of Social Security -- one of the most successful and popular social programs in American history, currently celebrating its 75th year -- would be good for the macro-economy as well because it would act as an "automatic stabilizer" during economic downturns, keeping money in retirees' pockets and stimulating consumer demand. Benefits would be portable when changing from one job to another.</p> <p>It also would help American businesses trying to compete with foreign companies that don't provide pensions to their employees, since those countries already have generous national retirement plans. And it would be broadly fair, since even those higher income Americans who are losing their tax deductions would see part of it returned to them in the form of a greater Social Security payout.</p> <p>In short, Social Security Plus would provide a stable, secure retirement for every American and contribute greatly toward a solid foundation from which to build a strong and vibrant 21st century U.S. economy.</p> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Steven Hill is the author of the New America Foundation’s report<a href="http://growth.newamerica.net/publications/policy/secure_retirement_for_all_americans" target="_blank"> "Secure Retirement for All Americans"</a> and also author of <a href="http://www.europespromise.org/" target="_blank">"Europe's Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age"</a> (<a href="http://www.EuropesPromise.org" target="_blank">www.EuropesPromise.org</a>) published recently by University of California Press. A shorter version of this article was published in the New York Daily News. </div></div></div> Sun, 05 Sep 2010 21:00:01 -0700 Steven Hill, AlterNet 663502 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Economy Economy News & Politics economy retirement social security What Can Europe's Answer to Wall Street Teach Us About American Capitalism? http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/146839/what_can_europe%27s_answer_to_wall_street_teach_us_about_american_capitalism <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Sweden, Germany and other European countries are proof that you can have it all -- but only if you have the right institutions.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--><p><em>This article is adapted from Steven Hill's recently published Europe's Promise: Why the European Way Is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age (</em><a href="http://europespromise.org"><em>EuropesPromise.org</em></a><em>).</em></p> <p>A year and a half after an economic earthquake shook the world, the so-called experts are still trying to figure out what happened and how to move forward. In the shadows of that confusion, new economic models are beginning to find traction. Alternatives to Wall Street capitalism, the epicenter of the temblor, are suddenly getting a new hearing in the United States, whether it's Paul Volcker calling for reinstatement of Glass-Steagall regulation of the banking sector, the United Steelworkers announcing an alliance with the Mondragon cooperatives in Spain to develop manufacturing cooperatives in the United States, or Cleveland-based efforts to establish worker-owned co-ops in distressed communities [see Alperovitz, Howard and Williamson, "The Cleveland Model," March 1].</p> <p>But the brightest spots in the postcollapse landscape are in Europe, which long ago advanced a degree of economic democracy that has proved its mettle in this crisis and therefore deserves closer inspection. If Americans want to learn about cooperatives, Europe is a great place to start. They produce an estimated 12 percent of the GDP of the European Union and involve, directly or indirectly, at least 60 percent of the population. Besides the Mondragon co-ops in Spain, in which 256 companies employ 100,000 people in industry, retail, finance and education, there's also Coop Italia, which operates the largest supermarket chain in Italy, employing 56,000 with more than 6 million members; housing co-ops like Poland's TUW; and the Co-operative Group in Britain, which is the world's largest consumer-owned business, with 4.5 million members.</p> <p>However, most cooperatives are generally small-scale and thus unlikely anytime soon to replace the most important economic institution in modern mass economies, which is the corporation. The corporation, even with all its considerable warts, is the greatest wealth generator that humans have ever created, but its success raises the questions: Who gets to control that wealth? Whose pockets should the wealth flow into?</p> <p>To answer those questions, Europe, led by Germany, has evolved over several decades one of its greatest contributions to the global economy. Practices unfamiliar to Americans, such as co-determination, supervisory boards and works councils, have been crucial in helping to harness capitalism's tremendous wealth-creating capacity so that its prosperity is broadly shared.</p> <p>Co-determination has several features, one of which allows workers to elect representatives to corporate boards of directors known as supervisory boards. Supervisory boards then oversee company managers, who handle day-to-day operations. In Germany, the world's second-largest exporter and fourth-largest national economy, fully half of the boards of directors of the largest corporations--Siemens, BMW, Daimler, Deutsche Telekom and others--are elected by workers. In Sweden, one-third of a company's directors are worker-elected. To understand the significance of this, imagine if Wal-Mart were legally required to allow its workers to elect a third to half of its board, who would then oversee the CEO. Imagine how much that would change Wal-Mart's behavior toward its workers and supply chain. It's hard for Americans even to conceive of such a notion; indeed, when I ask Americans at my lectures how many of them have heard of worker-elected supervisory boards, usually no hands go up. Yet most European nations employ some version of this as a regular feature of their economy.</p> <p>The impact has been impressive. Klas Levinson, a researcher for the former National Institute for Working Life in Sweden, is one of the world's experts on co-determination. I met with Levinson at the institute's Stockholm headquarters, a sleek glass structure with the air of a university campus. "Co-determination is Europe's little secret advantage," he told me. "The idea that elected worker directors should sit side by side as equal decision-makers with stockholder representatives, supervising management, is a little-known yet unprecedented extension of democratic principle into the corporate sphere."</p> <p>Levinson's research shows that employee representation on corporate supervisory boards, contrary to fears that it would cause tension or render decision-making too cumbersome, has actually fostered cooperation between management and workers. This, in turn, has benefited the businesses as well as the workers. Workers have input, even into important decisions, so companies are less plagued by labor strife and internal schisms. And workers are well compensated, with high salaries and the most generous social support systems in the world.</p> <p>One of Levinson's studies of Swedish businesses found that two-thirds of executives viewed co-determination as "very" or "rather" positive, because it contributed to a positive climate, made board decisions "deeply rooted among the employees" and facilitated implementation of "tough decisions." Eight of ten chairmen were satisfied with the arrangement and felt it was not important to reduce worker representation. An EU directive establishing a continentwide framework for board-level employee representation went into effect in October 2004, firmly rooting supervisory boards in Europe's economic culture.</p> <p>The other pillar of co-determination is known as works councils, which are just what the name implies--elected councils at businesses, through which employees gain significant input into working conditions. Works councils, which are separate from labor unions but often populated by trade unionists, have real clout. They enjoy veto power over certain management decisions pertaining to treatment of employees, such as redeployment and dismissal. They also have "co-decision rights" to meet with management to discuss the firm's finances, work and holiday schedules, work organization and other procedures. In addition, they benefit from "consultation rights" in planning the introduction of new technologies and in mergers and layoffs, as well as in obtaining information useful in contract negotiations, such as profit and wage data. In some nations, including Germany, Sweden and France, works councils have acquired even more rights and greater influence.</p> <p>In France the food manufacturer Danone agreed with its works councils to specific rules on job cuts, including consideration of union proposals to avoid layoffs and worker transfers. The Polish union Solidarity has said that the inclusion of Central and Eastern European worker representatives in works councils is "the most effective and sometimes nearly the only way" for them to obtain information on multinational companies' operations. German law stipulates that factorywide workers' assemblies must be held at least four times a year, at which a management representative must report on the plant and the business. The head of the works council also reports, and workers use these assemblies to promote their views and, if necessary, criticize company decisions in front of management.</p> <p>In 1994 the EU issued a pioneering directive on works councils, stipulating that every multinational with at least 1,000 workers, and at least 150 workers in two or more EU nations, must negotiate agreements with works councils. Other nations have supplemented that directive by requiring councils in every workplace. Studies by Princeton's Jonas Pontusson and others have concluded that works councils contribute to efficiency by improving communication, which in turn improves the quality of decisions and legitimizes decisions in the eyes of workers. The studies also found that works councils are associated with lower absenteeism, more worker training, better handling of grievances and smoother implementation of health and safety standards. It turns out that when workers are given a degree of consultation, it makes them more satisfied and more productive.</p> <p>In Germany works councils and supervisory boards can take substantial credit for the fact that, while the US unemployment rate has more than doubled during this economic crisis, Germany's has barely increased. That's because Chancellor Angela Merkel was heavily influenced by works councils and labor unions, and by the culture of consultation in general, to adopt a policy called Kurzarbeit, or "short-time work," in which, instead of laying off millions, employees agreed to spread the pain by working shorter weeks. Most of the lost wages have been made up from a special fund squirreled away during more prosperous times. As a result, more Germans have money in their pockets, and communities and households haven't been decimated by layoffs like they have been in the United States. (Despite the advantages, when Larry Summers, one of Barack Obama's closest economic advisers, was asked why the president didn't pursue short-time work to stem the economic bleeding, he dismissed the idea, saying the White House wanted to create new jobs, not preserve old ones.)</p> <p>Co-determination has proved crucial to Europe's economic success and its broadly distributed wealth. "The practical effect of co-determination," says Levinson, "is that corporate managers and executives must confer extensively with employees and unions about a range of issues, even about the future direction of the company." Co-determination reflects European "social capitalism," with its communitarian values, long-term strategic vision and emphasis on manufacturing, much the way huge executive bonuses, quarterly earnings and a bloated financial sector reflect America's Wall Street capitalism. Social capitalism has both produced and benefited from the culture of consultation, which has also contributed to the creation of cooperatives and resulted in a vibrant small-business sector that produces two-thirds of European jobs, compared with only half of US jobs.</p> <p>Interestingly, the conquering US powers in World War II can take some credit for co-determination. After the war a group of prominent German economists, led by future chancellor Ludwig Erhard, Walter Eucken and others, proposed what they called the "social market economy" in the belief that the market should serve broader social goals. And it was conservative Christian Democrats, not the leftish Social Democrats, who introduced this idea. The Allied powers encouraged this line of thinking, since it decentralized economic power, shifting it away from the German industrialists who had supported the Nazi war effort. In effect, US planners "punished" postwar Germany with economic democracy as a way of handicapping concentrated wealth and power, helping to birth the most democratic corporate governance structure the world had ever seen.</p> <p>In the decades after Germany's launch of social capitalism, co-determination spread throughout Europe; it has been adopted in most of the new EU member states from Central and Eastern Europe. Sixty years after its genesis, co-determination is a core element of the European economy, and it distinguishes Europe's social capitalism from America's Wall Street capitalism.</p> <p>Critics allege that co-determination hurts competitiveness, but the success of the European economy and of its many global businesses belies this criticism. Contrary to the US media stereotype that "old man" Europe is chronically plagued by a weak, sclerotic economy, Europe has the largest economy in the world, producing nearly a third of the world's GDP. Indeed, its economy is almost as large as those of the United States and China combined. Europe has more Fortune 500 companies than the United States and China together, and Europe had a higher per capita growth rate from 1998 to 2008 than the United States. Long denigrated by US pundits as the land of high unemployment, the EU currently even has a slightly lower unemployment rate than the United States. Indeed, the World Economic Forum in 2008-09 ranked Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Germany and the Netherlands--all of which employ some degree of co-determination--among the top ten most competitive economies in the world. They are also ranked at or near the top of most lists for quality of life, healthcare and social benefits. That's not a coincidence, since co-determination allows for both economic vibrancy and more egalitarian social policy. And while the United States also ranks high in competitiveness, it is near the bottom among most-developed countries in healthcare, social benefits and quality of life.</p> <p>Sweden, Germany and other European countries are proof that you can have it all--but only if you have the right institutions to facilitate both a powerful economic engine and the supportive institutions and benefits to harness that engine and keep employees and families healthy and productive. These distinctly European advances may be the most important innovations in the world economy since the invention of the modern corporation, since they encourage free enterprise combined with economic democracy and worker consultation that does not unduly burden entrepreneurship and commerce. The advances allow businesses to be both competitive and socially responsible.</p> <p>In effect, Europe has reinvented the corporation. Yet the latest critiques of capitalism by leading authors like Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky and the producers of the popular film The Corporation tend to view all corporations and all capitalisms as the same. American progressives, while searching for effective responses to globalization, appear to be mostly unaware of these intriguing European inventions. Movements to revoke the charters of offensive corporations, while having gut-level appeal, have failed to recognize that European corporations are fundamentally different animals from their "disaster capitalism" US counterparts. When I asked a leading globalization critic from the Economic Policy Institute his opinion of co-determination and works councils, he replied dismissively, "Bah, those just lead to company unions," a demonstrably false claim.</p> <p>Of course, the American right rejects co-determination as socialism incarnate, ignoring its potential to renew capitalism and support real family values. While the United States does not have a strong history of economic democracy, we do have a recurring pattern of responding to economic crisis by extending stakeholder rights as well as New Deal-type supports. This has resulted in employee stock-option plans, a small but vigorous co-op movement and stakeholder laws passed by an unusual labor-business coalition in Pennsylvania as a shield against corporate raiders, and other reforms. The Steelworkers alliance with the Mondragon cooperatives is another encouraging sign. These are some of the American threads of consultation and economic democracy that can be used to fashion a progressive response to the stunning failure of Wall Street capitalism. There is nothing magical or culturally determined about Europe's use of co-determination. All it takes to start the ball rolling here is a legislator, a governor or a president willing to introduce such a law. What would be the argument against it--that the CEOs who nearly destroyed the American economy and then came back for a government bailout know best? That's a debate any progressive leader should relish.</p> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Thu, 27 May 2010 11:00:01 -0700 Steven Hill, The Nation 662373 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Activism World Activism Economy Books capitalism europe european capitalism sweden capitalism germany capitalism Five Lies About the European Economy Debunked http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/64668/five_lies_about_the_european_economy_debunked <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Western Europe has achieved a balance between capitalism&#039;s dynamism and socialism&#039;s humanity -- no wonder the Corporate State has to lie about its success.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->In the global economy, today's winners can become tomorrow's losers in a twinkling, and vice versa. Not so long ago, American pundits and economic analysts were snidely touting U.S. economic superiority to the "sick old man" of Europe. What a difference a few months can make. Today, with the stock market jittery over Iraq, the mortgage crisis, huge budget and trade deficits, and declining growth in productivity, investors are wringing their hands about the U.S. economy. Meanwhile, analysts point to the roaring economies of <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/China?tid=informline" target="">China</a> and <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/India?tid=informline" target="">India</a> as the only bright spots on the global horizon.<br /><br />But what about Europe? You may be surprised to learn how our estranged transatlantic partner has been faring during these roller-coaster times -- and how successfully it has been knocking down the Europessimist myths about it.<br /><br />1. <i>The sclerotic European economy is incapable of leading the world.</i><br /><br />Who're you calling sclerotic? The <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/European+Union?tid=informline" target="">European Union</a>'s $16 trillion economy has been quietly surging for some time and has emerged as the largest trading bloc in the world, producing nearly a third of the global economy. That's more than the U.S. economy (27 percent) or <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/Japan?tid=informline" target="">Japan</a>'s (9 percent). Despite all the hype, China is still an economic dwarf, accounting for less than 6 percent of the world's economy. India is smaller still.<br /><br />The European economy was never as bad as the Europessimists made it out to be. From 2000 to 2005, when the much-heralded U.S. economic recovery was being fueled by easy credit and a speculative housing market, the 15 core nations of the European Union had per capita economic growth rates equal to that of the United States. In late 2006, they surpassed us. Europe added jobs at a faster rate, had a much lower budget deficit than the United States and is now posting higher productivity gains and a $3 billion trade surplus.<br /><br />2. <i>Nobody wants to invest in European companies and economies because lack of competitiveness makes them a poor bet.</i><br /><br />Wrong again. Between 2000 and 2005, foreign direct investment in the E.U. 15 was almost half the global total, and investment returns in Europe outperformed those in the United States. "Old Europe is an investment magnet because it is the most lucrative market in the world in which to operate," says Dan O'Brien of the Economist. In fact, corporate America is a huge investor in Europe; U.S. companies' affiliates in the E.U. 15 showed profits of $85 billion in 2005, far more than in any other region of the world and 26 times more than the $3.3 billion they made in China.<br /><br />And forget that old canard about economic competitiveness. According to the World Economic Forum's measure of national competitiveness, European countries took the top four spots, seven of the top 10 spots and 12 of the top 20 spots in 2006-07. The United States ranked sixth. India ranked 43rd and mainland China 54th.<br /><br /><i>3.</i> <i>Europe is the land of double-digit unemployment.</i><br /><br />Not anymore. Half of the E.U. 15 nations have experienced effective full employment during this decade, and unemployment rates have been the same as or lower than the rate in the United States. Unemployment for the entire European Union, including the still-emerging nations of Central and <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/Eastern+Europe?tid=informline" target="">Eastern Europe</a>, stands at a historic low of 6.7 percent. Even <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/France?tid=informline" target="">France</a>, at 8 percent, is at its lowest rate in 25 years.<br /><br />That's still higher than U.S. unemployment, which is 4.6 percent, but let's not forget that many of the jobs created here pay low wages and include no benefits. In Europe, the jobless still have access to health care, generous replacement wages, job-retraining programs, housing subsidies and other benefits. In the United States, by contrast, the unemployed can end up destitute and marginalized.<br /><br />4. <i>The European "welfare state" hamstrings businesses and hurts the economy.</i><br /><br />Beware of stereotypes based on ideological assumptions. As Europe's economy has surged, it has maintained fairness and equality. Unlike in the United States, with its rampant inequality and lack of universal access to affordable health care and higher education, Europeans have harnessed their economic engine to create wealth that is broadly distributed.<br /><br />Europeans still enjoy universal cradle-to-grave social benefits in many areas. They get quality health care, paid parental leave, affordable childcare, paid sick leave, free or nearly free higher education, generous retirement pensions and quality mass transit. They have an average of five weeks of paid vacation (compared with two for Americans) and a shorter work week. In some European countries, workers put in one full day less per week than Americans do, yet enjoy the same standard of living.<br /><br />Europe is more of a "workfare state" than a welfare state. As one British political analyst said to me recently: "Europe doesn't so much have a welfare society as a comprehensive system of institutions geared toward keeping everyone healthy and working." Properly understood, Europe's economy and social system are two halves of a well-designed "social capitalism" -- an ingenious framework in which the economy finances the social system to support families and employees in an age of globalized capitalism that threatens to turn us all into internationally disposable workers. Europeans' social system contributes to their prosperity, rather than detracting from it, and even the continent's conservative political leaders agree that it is the best way.<br /><br />5. <i>Europe is likely to be held hostage to its dependence on <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/Russia?tid=informline" target="">Russia</a> and the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/Middle+East?tid=informline" target="">Middle East</a> for most of its energy needs.</i><br /><br />Crystal-ball gazing on this front is risky. Europe may rely on energy from Russia and the Middle East for some time, but it is also leading the world in reducing its energy dependence and in taking action to counteract global climate change. In March, the heads of all 27 E.U. nations agreed to make renewable energy sources 20 percent of the union's energy mix by 2020 and to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent.<br /><br />In pursuit of these goals, the continent's landscape is slowly being transformed by high-tech windmills, massive solar arrays, tidal power stations, hydrogen fuel cells and energy-saving "green" buildings. Europe has gone high- and low-tech: It's developing not only mass public transit and fuel-efficient vehicles but also thousands of kilometers of bicycle and pedestrian paths to be used by people of all ages. Europe's ecological "footprint," the amount of the Earth's capacity that a population consumes, is about half that of the United States.<br /><br />So much for the sick old man.<br /><br /><i>AlterNet is making this material available in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107: This article is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Steven Hill, director of the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/New+America+Foundation?tid=informline" target="">New America Foundation</a>'s political reform program, is writing a book comparing Europe and the United States. </div></div></div> Mon, 08 Oct 2007 04:00:01 -0700 Steven Hill, The Washington Post 641864 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Economy Economy economy europe social welfare system End Lifetime Appointments http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/23958/end_lifetime_appointments <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Vicious battles over Supreme Court nominees could be avoided with term limits and mandatory retirement ages. Why should senators representing a minority of U.S. voters confirm a justice for life?</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Should U.S. Supreme Court justices serve life terms? The question is raised whenever there is a vacancy on the Court. At 50 years of age, Judge John Roberts -- President Bush's Supreme Court nominee -- could serve for decades.<br /><br />Perhaps more than any single factor, this "until death do we part" constitutional requirement has been responsible for bruising confirmation battles. On the partisan chessboard, nailing down one of nine Supreme Court spots is a major victory.<br /><br />But a survey of judicial appointment practices in other democracies suggests there may be better methods for selecting the U.S. Supreme Court. For instance, some democracies employ judicial term limits. High court justices in Germany are limited to a 12-year term, and in France, Italy and Spain, a 9-year term.<br /><br />There's American precedent for judicial term limits, with judges on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims limited to 15-year terms. Also, members of the Federal Reserve Board, shielded from politics because they oversee the nation's economy, serve 14-year terms, with their Chairman Alan Greenspan appointed for a four-year term.<br /><br />Some nations require that high court justices retire at a certain age. In Israel and Australia that age is 70; in Canada it's 75. A few American states also have established a retirement age for judges: 70 years in Minnesota and Missouri. If that age limit were applied to the current Supreme Court, three justices would have retired already, with two more stepping down next year.<br /><br />Interestingly, for America's first 20 years Supreme Court justices averaged 13 years in service. But between 1989 and 2000, the average term for Supreme Court justices doubled, to about 26 years. Two current justices have been on the high court for more than 30 years, including the Chief Justice. In recent years, the average retirement age has risen from 67.6 years to 78.8 years, according to Northwestern University law professors Steven Calabresi and James Lindgren.<br /><br />Beyond judicial term limits and a mandatory retirement age, it's also worth considering multiple appointing authorities. In France, Germany and Italy, no single person or institution has a monopoly on appointments to the constitutional court. In Spain, four judges are appointed by the upper-house, four by the lower house, two by the government, and two by a Judges Council.<br /><br />Bipartisan appointments also hold promise. The Senate might review only nominees proposed through a bipartisan selection procedure. As a step in that direction, one option is to require a confirmation vote of 60 Senators instead of a simple majority. Since no one party usually would have 60 votes that would nudge the parties towards bipartisan consensus.<br /><br />Requiring 60 votes also would be an acknowledgement of how distorted is representation in the U.S Senate. Out of 100 senators, only 14 are women and five are racial minorities. But they aren't the only constituencies underrepresented in the Senate.<br /><br />According to Professor Matthew Shugart of the University of California-San Diego, for the past three election cycles more than 200 million votes were cast in races electing our 100 senators. Republicans won 46.8 percent of the votes in these elections -- not a majority. The Democrats won more votes, 48.4 percent. Yet the GOP currently holds a lopsided 55 to 44 majority. In 2004, Democratic senatorial candidates won over 51 percent of the votes cast, yet Republicans won 19 of 34 (56 percent) contested seats. So the minority party holds a majority of Senate seats.<br /><br />This GOP over-representation is due to Republican success in low-population, conservative states in the West and South that are given the same representation -- two senators per state -- as high-population states like California. The 52 senators confirming Clarence Thomas in 1991 represented only 48.6 percent of the nation's population, showing that senators representing a minority of voters can confirm a justice for life. A body as unrepresentative as the United States Senate should not be confirming lifetime appointments, especially by simple majority vote.<br /><br />Defenders of the status quo undoubtedly will view any tampering as an assault on judicial independence. But the bitter partisanship of the current process has deeply undercut all notions of justice and fairness.<br /><br />Judicial term limits, mandatory retirement ages, higher confirmation thresholds and multiple appointing and confirming authorities would help to decrease the politicization, create a modest amount of turnover and ensure that one party doesn't monopolize the process. In these times of extreme partisan polarization, that would be good for America. <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Steven Hill is an Irvine Senior Fellow with the New America Foundation, and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. </div></div></div> Mon, 08 Aug 2005 21:00:01 -0700 Steven Hill, Pacific News Service 629786 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Civil Liberties Civil Liberties The Mainstream Crying For Election Reform http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/20802/the_mainstream_crying_for__election_reform <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">When you have &lt;i&gt;Tom Brokaw&lt;/I&gt; calling for election reform, it means that something is really wrong.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->The day following Election 2004, retiring NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw indicated the need for strong national standards in how we count the votes. In an unusually serious interview with David Letterman, Brokaw said point blank, "We've gotta fix the election system in this country."<br /><br />In a message to supporters, former presidential candidate John Kerry echoed this sentiment, calling for new "national standards" for elections and saying "It's unacceptable that people still don't have full confidence in the integrity of the voting process." In Ohio, Reverend Jesse Jackson also called for reform, emphasizing the need for a Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote, a right guaranteed by most established democracies. Every returning member of the Congressional Black Caucus has signed onto Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HJR 28 to provide a constitutional right to vote.<br /><br />The 2004 elections underscore the urgent demand to modernize our elections and bring them in line with international norms. Without such modernization, we will fail to establish a vital democracy and remain vulnerable to electoral breakdowns.<br /><br />Consider these reforms:<br /><br />1) Non-partisan election officials. At the top of the list must be nonpartisan election officials. It hardly matters whether the method of voting is with paper and pen or open-source computerized equipment if election administrators are not trustworthy. The secretaries of state overseeing elections in three battleground states – Ohio, Missouri, and Michigan – were co-chairs of their state's George Bush reelection campaigns. In Missouri, that Secretary of State was running for governor – he oversaw elections for his own race! A highly partisan Republican Secretary of State ran elections in Florida, as did a partisan Democrat in New Mexico. A Mexican observer of the 2004 election commented, "That looks an awful lot like the old Mexican PRI to me." Election administrators should be civil servants who have a demonstrated proficiency with technology, running elections, and making the electoral process transparent and secure.<br /><br />2) National elections commission. The U.S. leaves election administration to administrators in over 3000 counties scattered across the nation with too few standards or uniformity. This is a formula for unfair elections. Most established democracies use national elections commissions to establish minimum national standards and uniformity, and to partner with state and local election officials to ensure pre-election and post-election accountability for their election plans. The Elections Assistance Commission established recently by the Help America Vote Act is a pale version of this and should be strengthened greatly.<br /><br />3) Universal voter registration. We lack a system of universal voter registration in which citizens who turn 18 years of age automatically are registered to vote by election authorities. This is the practice used by most established democracies, giving them voter rolls far more complete and clean than ours – in fact, a higher percentage of Iraqi adults are registered to vote than American adults. Universal voter registration in the U.S. is now possible as result of the Help America Vote Act which mandated that all states must establish statewide voter databases by 2006. It would add 50 million voters to the rolls, a disproportionate share being young people and people of color.<br /><br />4) "Public Interest" voting equipment. Currently voting equipment is suspect, undermining confidence in our elections. The proprietary software and hardware are created by shadowy companies with partisan ties who sell equipment by wining and dining election administrators with little knowledge of voting technology. The government should oversee the development of publicly-owned software and hardware, contracting with the sharpest minds in the private sector. And then that open-source voting equipment should be deployed throughout the nation to ensure that every county – and every voter – is using the best equipment. Other nations already do this with positive results.<br /><br />5) Holiday/weekend elections. We vote on a busy workday instead of on a national holiday or weekend (like most other nations do), creating a barrier for 9 to 5 workers and also leading to a shortage of poll workers and polling places. Puerto Rico typically has the highest voter turnout in the United States, and makes Election Day a holiday.<br /><br />6) Ending redistricting shenanigans by adopting full representation. Most legislators choose their voters during the redistricting process, long before those voters get to choose them. 98% of U.S. House incumbents again won re-election, and 95% of all races were won by noncompetitive margins. The driving factor is not campaign finance inequities but winner-take-all elections compounded by rigged legislative district lines. As a start, redistricting must be non-partisan, driven by nonpolitical criteria. But by far the best solution is full representation electoral systems which make voters far more important than district lines.<br /><br />7) Abolish the Electoral College. The Electoral College enables presidential campaigns to almost completely ignore most states. It allows a shift of a handful of votes in one or two states to decide the presidency, inviting corruption and partisan election administration. It can deny the presidency to the candidate with the most votes. We need to support Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr's HR 109, to institute direct election of the president with a majority victory threshold.<br /><br />8) Pry open our democracy. Our "highest vote-getter wins" method of electing executive offices creates incentives to keep third-party candidates off the ballot as potential spoilers. Battles over Ralph Nader's ballot access demonstrated that our system is not designed to accommodate three or more choices, yet important policy areas can be completely ignored by major party candidates. Most modern democracies accommodate voter choice through two-round runoff or instant runoff elections for executive offices, and full representation electoral systems for legislatures. Instant runoff voting had a great first election in San Francisco this November and passed in other places like Burlington, Vermont and Ferndale, Michigan.<br /><br />A number of organizations are highlighting reform packages, among them Progressive Democrats of America and Common Cause. We can't win all these reforms at once, but we can make advances if we keep our eye on the prize and pursue opportunities that emerge. We urge people to visit FairVote's website at <a href="http://fairvote.org">fairvote.org</a> to find out how to get involved. Whether you're a Democrat, Republican, Green, Libertarian or independent, you can be part of one big party: the "Better Democracy" party. <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Steven Hill is Irvine Senior Fellow for the New America Foundation and author of "<a href="www.FixingElections.com">Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics</a>." Rob Richie is executive director of the <a href="http://fairvote.org">Center for Voting and Democracy</a>. </div></div></div> Tue, 21 Dec 2004 06:00:01 -0800 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 611538 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Election 2004 Election 2004 A Safe Seat for Twenty Grand http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/20583/a_safe_seat_for_twenty_grand <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Forget about &quot;money buying elections.&quot; Congressional redistricting in California allowed the politicians to handpick their voters before voters picked them.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->What if you could pay $20,000, and for that modest sum end up with lifetime employment at a salary of $158,000 annually, with the best health and retirement benefits, frequent travel to Washington D.C., and staff and paid expenses, all on the public's dime? What a deal, eh?<br /><br />As the most recent election results show, that's the situation for California's congressional delegation as a result of gerrymandering their own legislative district lines. The 2001 redistricting in California was a travesty. The Democratic incumbents paid $20,000 apiece to the political consultant drawing the district lines – who happened to be the brother of one incumbent – to draw each of them a "safe seat" where they would easily win re-election. It was like paying protection money to a Mafia don for your turf. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, knowing a bargain, told a reporter, "Twenty thousand is nothing to keep your seat. I usually spend $2 million every election."<br /><br />Then, to the dismay of national Democrats, the California Democrats controlling the line-drawing gave the GOP incumbents safe seats too, in return for their acceptance. The fix was in. It was a bipartisan collusion against California democracy and the voters. And it worked. In the recent November election, 51 out of 53 congressional seats were won by huge landslide margins.<br /><br />The Democrats also drew safe seats for the state senate and assembly districts. Those resulted in 90 percent of state legislative races won by landslide margins in the recent election. The incumbents literally did away with most legislative elections in California. Forget about "money buying elections," most elections are decided during the line-rigging process, when the politicians use sophisticated computers to handpick their voters before voters pick them.<br /><br />But that's not all. This backroom redistricting has produced a government where hard-core partisans dominate the legislature and fewer moderates get elected. It has exacerbated a red vs. blue California marked by regional balkanization, where the high population coastal blue areas are dominated by Democrats and the low population Red interior by Republicans. Not that there aren't Democrats in red areas and Republicans in blue areas – as well as independents and third party supporters – it's just that they rarely win representation. Purple California gets smothered in the zero-sum game of winner-take-all elections.<br /><br />Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republican recall activist Ted Costa and others have proposed taking redistricting out of the hands of a partisan legislature. This makes sense, but the devil is in the details. For instance, the Costa initiative would immediately reopen redistricting instead of waiting until the end of this decade, as is customary. And it would create an unwieldy process that requires any redistricting plan to receive voter approval. This is a formula for bitter partisan battles that will disrupt the remainder of the decade.<br /><br />More importantly, even the best-intentioned "public interest redistricting" will have limited impact in addressing redistricting's many ills. Because at the end of the day the problem is not just who draws the legislative lines, it's our antiquated, single-seat district, winner-take-all system.<br /><br />The Democratic vote has become so highly urbanized and concentrated that even the fairest redistricting will make only a handful of districts more competitive. And there is a tradeoff between making more seats competitive and allowing "communities of interest" such as minorities to elect their chosen representative. Winner-take-all elections pit everyone against each other – Democrats, Republicans, independents, different racial groups – all trying to win a limited commodity – representation.<br /><br />So what can be done? Political scientist Arend Lijphart from University of California-San Diego says "the best solution is to evolve from winner-take-all elections toward some moderate form of proportional representation." For example, in the state senate, instead of electing 40 individual district seats we could elect 10 districts with four seats each, elected by a proportional method where a party's candidates wins legislative seats in proportion to their percentage of the popular vote. Twenty percent of the vote wins one seat, 60 percent wins three seats, and so on.<br /><br />According to Professor Lijphart, that would make all parts of the state competitive for both major parties, occasionally even a third party. Rural areas would elect some Democrats and coastal areas some Republicans. And moderates and independents running grass roots campaigns outside party machines would get elected. Purple California would have a voice. Illinois' state legislature has used such a system, and their experience shows it's a better way to foster competitive elections, elect more moderates, reduce balkanization and provide minority representation.<br /><br />If Governor Schwarzenegger and others really want to do something about the ills of redistricting, simply changing who draws the district lines won't accomplish much. It's necessary to get rid of California's antiquated winner-take-all system, and adopt some version of the more modern proportional representation system.<br /><!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Steven Hill is Irvine Senior Fellow of the New America Foundation, and author of "<a href="http://FixingElections.com">Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics</a>." </div></div></div> Tue, 23 Nov 2004 07:00:01 -0800 Steven Hill, AlterNet 610796 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Election 2004 Election 2004 How to Handle Nader http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/19298/how_to_handle_nader <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Democrats have an alternative to attacking Ralph Nader &amp;#8211; advocate instant runoff voting systems.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->In 2000, Al Gore beat George W. Bush in the state of New Mexico by a mere 356 votes – a slimmer margin than in Florida. Ralph Nader polled 21,000 votes. Nader not only nearly cost Gore the state, but forced him to expend valuable resources there in the campaign's waning days, draining his effort from Florida.<br /><br />Flash forward to 2004. Once again the Democratic and Republican candidates are locked in a tight race nationally. Once again Nader's entry into the race threatens Kerry's hold on New Mexico. And once again two candidates who share many views and bases of support – and who ideally could work together to challenge George Bush on the economy, the war in Iraq, the future of social security, the environment, political reform and health care – instead are players in a Cain and Abel drama, courtesy of the all-or-nothing, winner-take-all nature of our presidential election method.<br /><br />Yet there is a way out – if New Mexico Democrats decide they want one. Democrats control New Mexico's state legislature, and one of Kerry's leading vice-presidential contenders, Bill Richardson, is governor. Democrats could pass into law – right now – a runoff or instant runoff system with a majority requirement for president to ensure that the center-left does not split its vote between Kerry and Nader.<br /><br />Here's how. The Constitution mandates the antiquated Electoral College system for electing the president, in which there is a series of elections in the fifty states and the District of Columbia rather than one national election. But the Constitution specifically delegates to states the method of choosing its electors. States historically have used a variety of different approaches, including letting the state legislature appoint electors, as threatened by Florida Republicans in 2000. Nebraska and Maine, for example, award two electoral votes to the winner of the statewide vote and one vote to the winner of the popular vote in each congressional district (a flawed approach that would boost Republicans if in place nationally).<br /><br />The remaining states use a statewide winner-take-all plurality method where the highest vote-getter wins 100 percent of that state's electoral votes, even if that candidate wins less than a popular majority. With plurality voting, a majority of voters can split their vote among two or more candidates and end up winning nothing. Indeed because of the presence of Nader and other candidates like Pat Buchanan, nine states in 2000 awarded all their electoral votes to a candidate who did not win a popular majority. Fully 49 of 50 states were won without a majority in 1992. It is the lack of a majority requirement that leads Nader and Kerry forces to clash so bitterly.<br /><br />To be sure, Republicans may cry foul if New Mexico Democrats suddenly switch to a runoff system, but even if Democrats' action is self-interested, it's also in the public interest to protect majority rule and allow for voter choice. One approach would be to adopt a runoff system similar to that used in most presidential elections around the world, most southern primaries and many local elections: A first round with all candidates would take place in New Mexico in early October. The top two finishers would face off in November, with the winner certain to have a majority.<br /><br />Better still would be to adopt instant runoff voting (IRV). Used in Ireland and Australia and recently adopted for city elections in San Francisco and for congressional and gubernatorial nominations by the Utah Republican Party, IRV has drawn support from Howard Dean, Jesse Jackson Jr. and John McCain. By allowing voters to rank the candidates (for example, a 1 for Ralph Nader and a 2 for John Kerry), IRV can resolve the spoiler problem. Voters are liberated to vote for their favorite candidate without helping to elect their least favorite. IRV also saves candidates the campaign costs of a runoff election and preserves more voter choice in the decisive November election when voter turnout is highest.<br /><br />New Mexico's state senate in fact already passed IRV legislation in 1999 in the wake of Democrats losing two congressional seats due in part to Green Party candidacies. Despite support from the AFL-CIO and Common Cause, the proposal died because of concerns about costs of implementing it and because some Democrats would rather destroy Greens than allow for co-existence.<br /><br />Democrats also call the shots in the presidential battleground states of Maine, West Virginia and Tennessee. With one vote of the legislature and a stroke of the governor's pen, these states could accommodate the reality of the Nader candidacy. The question is: What is stopping them?<br /><br />While Ralph Nader may be ready to risk a repeat of 2000 – and could do much more to make multi-party democracy a viable option by highlighting reforms such as IRV – most Greens don't want to be spoilers. They consistently support reforming winner-take-all elections, and their presidential frontrunner David Cobb promises to focus this fall on safe states, in recognition of Greens' interest in defeating George Bush. But only Democrats and Republicans have the power to change the rules of the game.<br /><br />Democrats' failure to use that power poses the question: Would they rather engage in name-calling and suppressing candidacies, even at the risk of costing themselves the presidential election, than allow new political voices to join the fray? More people, Democrats and non-Democrats alike, should begin asking party leaders: Why not IRV? <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Steven Hill is a senior policy analyst with the <a href="http://www.fairvote.org">Center for Voting and Democracy</a> and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics." Rob Richie is the Center's executive director. </div></div></div> Wed, 21 Jul 2004 08:00:01 -0700 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, The Nation 607187 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Election 2004 New Mexico Election 2004 Dropping Out of the Electoral College http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/19103/dropping_out_of_the_electoral_college <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">The Electoral College system isn&#039;t only cumbersome and outdated &amp;#8211; it&#039;s anti-democratic.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Every presidential election matters, but 2004 has particular significance. Re-election of George W. Bush with the return of Republican majorities in the U.S. Senate and House could tip the ideological balance of the Supreme Court and federal courts for a generation. It could trigger a wave of Democratic retirements in the House that might cement Republican domination on Capitol Hill for decades. It could unleash a wave of hard-right policy initiatives.<br /><br />So everyone should be involved, right? In a democracy, it's one person, one vote?<br /><br />There's just one problem: that's not the way we elect the president. We cling to a thoroughly outmoded Electoral College that divides us along regional lines, undercuts accountability, dampens voter participation and can undermine legitimacy when the electoral vote trumps the national popular vote. As the bumper sticker notes, Democrats have to RE-defeat Bush this year because the Electoral College denied Al Gore's popular vote advantage of a half-million votes in 2000.<br /><br />Instead of a simple national election, we hold 51 separate contests in the states and the District of Columbia, with each state having a number of electoral votes equal to its number of U.S. Senators and House members (ranging from three electoral votes in the states with the fewest people to 55 electoral votes in California). This arrangement awards more electoral votes per capita to low population states which tend to be conservative, giving Republican candidates an unfair advantage. It's like having a foot race where one side starts10 yards ahead of the other.<br /><br />A presidential candidate needs to receive the highest number of votes in the right combination of states to win a majority of the Electoral College vote.The perverse incentives created by this method are painfully obvious from this year's campaign – most states already are effectively ignored by the candidates and groups seeking to mobilize voters because in a competitive national race, most states are dominated by one party or the other. Most campaign focus and energy – and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern – are pitched to undecided swing voters in the key battleground states. If you feel like your issues and concerns are being ignored, chances are it's because you live in the wrong state and/or are not part of the faceless slice of undecided swing voters.<br /><br />The Electoral College's democratic deficit is compounded by the use of plurality elections – the candidate with the most votes wins 100 percent of the electoral votes from that state, even if less than a majority. Plurality elections mean that a popular majority can be fractured by the presence of a third party candidate. Far more than any ballot corruption in Florida, Al Gore was hurt by the nearly hundred thousand voters in Florida who supported Ralph Nader.<br /><br />So what can be done? Over the years, leading national political figures like Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy, Kweisi Mfume, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have supported approaches to amend, reform or scrap the Electoral College. The time has come to institute a national direct election.<br /><br />While there are serious proposals that would keep the Electoral College, fundamentally, the only transparent solution to this anti-democratic mess is to have "one person, one vote" jall across the nation. Every American voter should count as much as every other voter; it shouldn't depend on where you live. All would have the same incentive to vote, no matter your postal address.<br /><br />There are important questions to resolve for a nationwide direct election, however. One of them is related to our antiquated plurality tradition where the highest vote-getter wins, even if less than a majority. This has happened in several gubernatorial elections in the past decade. That possibility occurring for a nationwide presidential election presents problems of legitimacy.<br /><br />To prevent this problem, most direct election amendments call for a second "runoff" election between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote. But 40 percent is an arbitrary standard that is too low for winning our highest office. A strong leader should be able to reach out effectively to enough voters to command majority support.<br /><br />Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and additional costs to election officials for a nationwide election could be a half billion dollars. And voters would have to trudge out to the polls one more time.<br /><br />Rather than mandate a low 40 percent threshold and two rounds of voting, any amendment to the Constitution should allow electoral mechanisms to determine a majority winner in a single election, such as instant runoff voting. IRV simulates a two-round runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank their "runoff" choices along with their first choice, 1, 2, 3. Instead of having a second election, ballot-counters use the rankings to determine the runoff choices of those voters whose first choice failed to advance to the runoff. The system is used for major elections in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland, and this year in such diverse settings as the Utah Republican Party state convention and city elections in San Francisco.<br /><br />With large majorities of Americans against the Electoral College, Democrats have nothing to fear in picking up on Hillary Clinton's call in November 2000 for a constitutional amendment for direct election. And they have much to gain: a unique opportunity to end an anti-democratic, 18th-century anachronism. <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Rob Richie is executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steven Hill is the Center's senior analyst and author of Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics. </div></div></div> Tue, 29 Jun 2004 13:00:01 -0700 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, TomPaine.com 606576 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Election 2004 Election 2004 Ensuring a Fair Presidential Election http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/18412/ensuring_a_fair_presidential_election <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Advocates of fair elections should work to ensure that we don&#039;t have another &#039;Florida&#039; for the 2004 presidential election -- in Florida or any of the other 15 battleground states.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Many pundits and activists have finally figured out what political insiders always knew: our presidential election is not a national election at all. The battle for chief executive will be fought in 15 battleground states, none either solidly Republican red or Democratic blue, each fought as individual contests that will be too close to call. This political geography presents important lessons for partisans and reformers alike.<br /><br />In a likely replay of the 2000 election, the battleground states are Florida (of course), Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, West Virginia, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Arizona. Some add Louisiana, Tennessee and Nevada, making 18 states.<br /><br />These states' concerns will drive much of the campaign debate. Those in the Midwest's rust belt have been hit hard by job losses, particularly in well-paying manufacturing jobs, making states like Ohio competitive. More Latino voters in New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada create dilemmas for Republicans on issues like immigration. With the prominence of Florida and its senior citizens, we'll hear a lot about Medicare and Social Security. And don't expect John Kerry to highlight gun control or other pet liberal issues when the almighty swing voters in battleground states mostly oppose them.<br /><br />Key issues of concern to those in other states -- even large states like Texas, New York, Illinois and California -- will get short shrift because they are not in play. Just as in our largely non-competitive congressional races, most Americans effectively will be on the political sidelines.<br /><br />But that doesn't mean those voters can't be involved in certain ways. They can make sure friends and relatives in the battleground states are registered to vote. They can hold house parties to raise campaign cash for the close states. Some might even be able to travel to a nearby battleground state and volunteer.<br /><br />Most immediately, voters everywhere can highlight the need for fair elections. With the two sides so close, we could be looking at another "Florida" happening in any number of battleground states, perhaps in several of them. The political geography of battleground states allows the presidential candidates to target not only their resources and campaigning -- but also their attempts to steal the election. Changing the results in one battleground state, particularly a large state like Ohio or Pennsylvania, will make a difference in the outcome.<br /><br />So advocates of fair elections similarly must target our efforts to lessen the chance of another Florida happening. That means working in the 15 battleground states with civic groups like People for the American Way, the League of Women Voters and Advancement Project to:<br /><br /><ul><li>Establish high-profile 1-800 numbers where voters can report incidents of fraud or disenfranchisement, with "hot spot" legal teams ready to be dispatched to problem areas.</li><br /><br /><li>Ensure voter registration lists are handled fairly, unlike in Florida where tens of thousands of likely Democratic voters were mistakenly tagged as ex-felons and removed.</li><br /><br /><li>Educate voters and pollworkers that voters now have a federal right to cast a "provisional ballot" if they barred from voting because aren't on the voter list in their precinct. Election officials must research each provisional ballot and either validate or deny it before certifying any winners. This new right won't be much use if barred voters don't know to ask for a provisional ballot, or precinct poll workers aren't trained to handle them.</li><br /><br /><li>Demand greater public scrutiny of both old and new voting equipment, ensuring that antiquated punchcards and more modern optical scan machines and "touchscreens" count voters' ballots as intended.</li><br /><br /><li>Protect the rights of overseas voters, both civilians and those in the military, by sending them ballots in a timely manner.</li></ul><br /><br />It would be wise to take precautions immediately. We have to be especially aware that there are built-in conflicts of interest where the official in charge of elections has a big stake in the outcome, such has happened in 2000, when Katherine Harris acted as both Florida's Secretary of State in charge of elections and as chairwoman of George Bush's campaign in Florida.<br /><br />Many Ohio counties use Diebold's computerized touchscreens to count their ballots. Fair elections advocates should demand greater scrutiny of that equipment, including examination of the software code and witnessing the "logic and accuracy" tests that are performed before and after Ohio's election to certify the reliability of the equipment.<br /><br />Longer term, we need to challenge how the Electoral College marginalizes most voters because they live in noncompetitive states. We should push states to require majority winners through instant runoff voting, and debate ideas like an Election Day holiday and universal voter registration.<br /><br />But this year it all comes down to the battleground states. The Florida debacle pretty much revealed the template for the types of goofs, manipulations and fraud that must be avoided in 2004. We must organize in the 15 battleground states to ensure that this time, all votes are counted and all votes count.<br /><br /><i>Steven Hill is senior analyst for the <a href="http://www.fairvote.org">Center for Voting and Democracy</a> and author of <a href="http://www.FixingElections.com">Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics</a>. Rob Richie is the Center's executive director.</i><br /><!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Tue, 13 Apr 2004 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 604746 at http://wvvw.alternet.org Election 2004 Election 2004 The Challenges to Creating a New Democratic Majority http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/16834/the_challenges_to_creating_a_new_democratic_majority <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">The rosy view that there is an &#039;emerging Democratic majority&#039; in the US, must factor in how our 18th century winner-take-all electoral system often maintains minority control despite fewer votes.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->In their recently acclaimed book, <i><a href="http://isbn.nu/0743226917">The Emerging Democratic Majority</a></i>, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira make the case that long-term demographic trends favor the Democratic Party. Given the electoral letdown suffered by the Democratic Party in the 2002 and 2000 elections, and also throughout the 1990s as the Democrats lost control of the Congress and the presidency, Judis and Teixeira's themes have offered a ray of hope in a dismal political landscape.<br /><br />But a stable Democratic majority in the Congress or the Presidency is not likely to emerge anytime soon, and here's why: Because even if Judis and Teixeira are correct that the demographics are shifting toward the Democratic side, structurally our 18th century winner-take-all political system will continue to favor conservatives and the Republican Party. Unless confronted by reformers, that structural bias trumps the shifting demographics.<br /><br />Electoral battles for the House, the Senate and the presidency are fought out district by district and state by state in winner-take-all contests -- not on a national basis. So the national polls on which Judis and Teixeira rely for their analysis are less and less meaningful.<br /><br />The problem is where Democrats and Republicans live. Democrats tend to live heavily concentrated in the Blue America urban areas, with Republicans more evenly dispersed in the Red America rural areas as well as suburban areas. The fact is, when the national vote is tied, Republicans still win a healthy majority of Congressional seats.<br /><br />Indeed in 2000, even as Al Gore beat George Bush by a half-million votes, and the combined center-left Gore-Nader vote had an even bigger lead, Bush beat Gore in 227 out of 435 U.S. House districts and in 30 out of 50 states. New U.S. House districts are even more lopsided, with Bush's advantage now rising to 237 to 198. It's no coincidence that Republicans currently hold 229 U.S. House seats.<br /><br />An issue like gun control is a great example. National polls have shown for some time that, nationally, the public wants gun control. But that doesn't make a bit of difference, because most of those people who want gun control live in states and congressional districts that already are locked up for the Democratic Party, particularly in the urban areas of Blue America. What matters are the battleground states (for the presidency and Senate) and battleground congressional districts (for the Congress), and those electorates either don't care as much about gun control or actively oppose it. In the aftermath of Election 2000, many Democrats now believe that Gore's pre-campaign support for gun control may have cost him such rural states as West Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Arkansas and his own state, Tennessee.<br /><br />Even if there are more Democratic voters, to make a difference they need to be moving into areas now held by Republicans, not into current Democratic strongholds. If the "Democratic majority" emerges mostly in states and districts where Democrats already are strong, it just increases their winning majorities in those areas -- without changing the outcome of presidential winners or congressional majorities. If it occurs in states and districts where it's not enough to overcome safe Republican majorities, again no electoral results will change. Ultimately it will take a supermajority of Democratic voters to win a bare majority of Democratic seats -- particularly progressive Democratic seats.<br /><br />Also, the distortions resulting from the redrawing of legislative district lines can turn a statewide partisan majority into a minority of legislative seats, and Republicans seem more conniving and successful at this backroom dealing. For instance, Virginia Democrats in 2001 won their first gubernatorial race since 1989, but Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds majority. How? Republicans drew the district lines. In Florida, Democrats were strong enough to hold both U.S. Senate seats and gain a virtual tie in the presidential race, but with full control over redistricting Republicans went from a 15-8 edge in U.S. House seats to an overwhelming 18 to 7 advantage. Republicans also have won lopsided shares of seats in Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania due to control over redistricting, and now the Tom DeLay-led GOP in Texas is seeking to re-redistrict their House districts to pick up another 5 to 7 seats.<br /><br />Moreover, the Democrats did not leave themselves very many opportunities for retaking House seats. In states like California, where the Democrats controlled redistricting, they opted to protect their incumbents rather than try to gobble up more seats as the GOP has done in other states.<br /><br />Teixeira and Judis try to account for these factors to some degree on pages 69-72 of their book, but their analysis of this is brief, overly optimistic, and unconvincing. Also, they and others point to the increasing migration of Latinos to the heartland, as well as states like California, Florida, and Texas, as a trend that will overturn the Republican applecart. Certainly, the Latinization of the U.S. is one of the "hopeful" scenarios, but the horizon for that is more like 20 years, not ten.<br /><br />Similar arguments also can be made for the presidential election, which is won or lost in a handful of battleground states, and the U.S. Senate. Both of these have a structural bias that awards more per capita representation to low-population states, which in turn favors the Republican Party and its candidates, and will tend to frustrate any emerging Democratic majority.<br /><br />Thus, due to the distortions, peculiarities, and the lack of proportionality built into our 18th-century winner take all, geographic-based, political system, winning a majority of votes does NOT necessarily mean you end up with a majority of seats. Winner-take-all means "if I win, you lose," and in that zero sum game the Democrats will continue to come out on the short end of the stick. The Republican Party and its think tanks seem to understand this much better than the Democrats.<br /><br />Relying on our analysis, one can make a strong case that the hope for the Democratic Party lies in enacting full representation electoral systems. With full representation (also known as proportional representation), the Democrats as well as the Republicans will win their fair share of legislative seats that matches their proportion of the popular vote. Redistricting and demographic trends will not distort outcomes and produce such exaggerated results. Only with full representation systems will the types of demographic shifts identified by Judis and Teixeira, that perhaps over time should favor an emerging Democratic majority, ever have a chance to win at the ballot box.<br /><br />Steven Hill is a senior analyst at the Center for Voting and Democracy (<a href="http://www.fairvote.org">www.fairvote.org</a>) and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics," which is out in paperback this month (<a href="http://www.FixingElections.com">www.FixingElections.com</a>). Rob Richie is executive director of the Center.<br /><br />For more information about CVD's upcoming national conference, "Claim Democracy," November 22-23 in Washington, D.C., backed by a broad range of pro-democracy groups, visit <a href="HTTP://www.democracyusa.org/events/conference.html">www.democracyusa.org/events/conference.html</a>.<br /><br /><i>The co-authors of this article, Steven Hill and Rob Richie, are both with the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steve is the author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press, <a href="http://www.FixingElections.com">www.FixingElections.com</a>), and Rob and Steve are co-authors of Whose Vote Counts (Beacon Press, 2001).</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Wed, 24 Sep 2003 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 600338 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Instant Runoff Voting: Power to the Voters http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/15186/instant_runoff_voting%3A_power_to_the_voters <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">When the presidency can be won by 527 votes in a nation of 300 million, something needs to be changed. Around the country, people are working to fix a wounded electoral system.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Spurred by the memory of Ralph Nader spoiling Al Gore's election, by other third party threats to major party incumbents and by expensive runoff contests, instant runoff voting (IRV) has moved to the top of major parties' reform agenda in several states. At the same time, a growing number of social change activists are supporting IRV as a means to bring new ideas and energy into electoral politics resulting in its adoption in cities like San Francisco and on campuses like the Universities of Maryland and Illinois.<br /><br />States could implement this win-win reform right now for all federal elections, including the presidential race, without changing federal law or the Constitution. The Northeast is leading the way in promoting IRV, and momentum is rapidly growing. In Vermont, a bill to institute IRV for all statewide elections, including those for president, has a real chance in the next year. The supporters of this bill show the strength of the movement: former governor Howard Dean, civic groups like the <a href="http://www.lwv.org/">League of Women Voters</a>, <a href="http://www.nationalgrange.org/">Grange</a> and the <a href="http://www.afl-cio.org/">AFL-CIO</a>, and a grassroots surge of activism have all lent their energy to this campaign.<br /><br />In Maine, the president of the state senate recently declared instant runoff voting as one of her top priorities, saying that she wants it in place by 2004. With a nascent <a href="http://www.mainegreens.org/">Green Party</a> boosted by Maine's public financing of elections, Democrats are worried about losing control of the Senate due to split votes with third party candidates even as the Greens are excited by their new opportunities. The <a href="http://www.mainepeoplesalliance.org/">Maine People's Alliance</a>, Maine Citizen Leadership Fund and other organizations which worked to pass clean elections in 1996 are now spearheading the IRV effort, seeing instant runoff voting as a natural complement to public financing.<br /><br />Public financing allows more candidates to run, raise issues, debate and get information into the hands of voters without becoming beholden to special interest donors. IRV accommodates these new candidates by allowing voters to rank their candidates -- first choice, second choice, third choice -- without worrying about spoilers or unintended consequences such as helping to elect your least favorite candidate.<br /><br />In Massachusetts, another "Clean Elections" state, grassroots activists are joining with statewide organizations like <a href="http://www.commoncause.org/">Common Cause</a>, Commonwealth Coalition and <a href="http://www.bostonvote.org/">Mass Vote</a> to push instant runoff voting. They organized a one-day conference in Boston that turned out a packed audience despite a blizzard raging outside. Last fall <a href="http://www.ma.fairvote.org/">FairVote Massachusetts</a> sponsored two non-binding referendums in the Amherst/Northampton area, polling local voters about their support for IRV. Both of those referendums passed with over 70 percent of the vote. Currently, activists are working with Democratic legislators who have introduced three IRV-related legislative bills.<br /><br />But it's not just the northeast that is catching on to instant runoff voting. Other statewide IRV efforts include Utah, Hawaii, California, Washington, Florida, and New Mexico, where state senate leader Richard Romero has introduced IRV legislation. In the wake of the growth of Jesse Ventura's party in Minnesota and the Green Party threat to the Paul Wellstone candidacy, Minnesota has seen real interest in IRV, with the state's governor and largest newspaper endorsing IRV.<br /><br /><b>Avoiding Another Election 2000 Debacle</b><br /><br />Why does this movement matter? The very fact of the acrimonious debate in 2000 over Ralph Nader's campaign between Green Party voters and Democrats reveals a serious flaw in our antiquated 18th century electoral rules. Unfortunately, with our current method, voting for your favorite candidate can lead to the election of your least favorite candidate. Providing the means to express one's real views and ensuring majority rule are basic requirements of democracy, but our current system badly fails these tests.<br /><br />The British, Australians, and Irish have turned to a simple solution: IRV. They shared our tradition of electing candidates by plurality -- a system whereby voters have one vote, and the top vote-getter wins -- but have adopted IRV for most important elections. Irish presidents like Mary Robinson are elected by IRV. Labor Party maverick Ken Livingstone was elected mayor of London by IRV in 2000. The Australian House of Representatives has been elected by IRV for decades.<br /><br />IRV simulates a series of runoff elections, but in a single round of voting that corrects the flaws of runoffs and plurality voting. At the polls, people vote for their favorite candidate, but they also indicate their "runoff" choices. They do this by ranking candidates on their ballot. If a candidate receives a majority of first choices, she or he wins. If not, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and a runoff round of counting occurs. In this round your ballot counts for your top-ranked candidate still in the runoff. The eliminated candidate is no longer a "spoiler" because the votes of that candidate's supporters go to their runoff choice. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.<br /><br />Think back to the 2000 presidential race. Without Nader, Al Gore likely would won more than 50 percent of the vote in both Florida and the nation and now be President. But with Nader, that majority vote was divided just enough to elect Bush. With IRV in 2000, Nader supporters worried about George Bush could rank Nader first and the Democratic Party candidate second.<br /><br />In 2004, for example, suppose Bush won 47 percent of first choices in a key state like Florida and the Democrat 46 percent, Nader 6 percent and the rest 1 percent. Under current rules, Bush wins. But with IRV, after Nader loses in the instant runoff, his supporters would have the power to propel the Democrat above 50 percent and defeat Bush. Rather than contribute to a Democrat's defeat, Nader could help stop Bush, while delivering a message to the Democrats: Watch your step on trade, political reform, and the environment.<br /><br />Freed from the spoiler stigma, Nader could more easily gain access to the presidential debates, inform and mobilize a progressive constituency, and win more votes. Higher turnout and increased attention to progressive issues could move the political center and help Democrats retake Capitol Hill -- a very long shot in the current pool of voters -- while allowing the Green Party to gain a real foothold. In other words, a Green campaign would be a win-win, rewarding the energy of activists, whose belief in electoral politics is put at risk by the ongoing bitterness between Green supporters and Democrats.<br /><br />Some, including Ralph Nader himself, have suggested that they like the ability to spoil the Democrats, and so they are afraid that IRV will cause them to lose their sting. But they fail to understand that the ability to sting is a short-term lever. Much like a bumblebee loses its weapon after stinging, another Nader candidacy surely will win fewer votes than the 2.7 percent attained in 2000 without IRV. Already Nader supporters like Ronnie Dugger and others are calling for Nader to bow out in 2004.<br /><br />But with IRV, Nader might have hit double digits in 2000, and the Green Party would have achieved the five percent threshold for federal matching funds. Also, with IRV a Democratic candidate desiring to be named as the second/runoff ranking on Green Party ballots has incentive to court those voters by bending toward their issues instead of ignoring them. Evidence from Australia, London and elsewhere shows that with IRV, progressive voters would enjoy a level of influence and leverage both inside and outside the Democratic Party that currently does not exist.<br /><br /><b>Moving Forward on the Local Level</b><br /><br />To advance IRV, cities are good targets for IRV campaigns. San Francisco achieved a major victory in March 2002 when its voters passed IRV for most major local races despite more than $100,000 spent by downtown business interests who were worried IRV would strengthen the city's progressive majority. The first election for mayor and other offices will be in November 2003, and that will be a tremendous watershed in the history of voting system reform. City charter commissions in Austin (TX), Kalamazoo (MI) and Albuquerque (NM) have all recommended using IRV. Voters in Santa Clara County, San Leandro, and Oakland (all in California), and Vancouver (WA) have approved ballot measures to make IRV an explicit option in their charters. In an exciting new branch of the movement, students in a number of major colleges have adopted IRV for student government elections.<br /><br />To achieve truly fair representation, full (or "proportional") representation remains the Holy Grail for electing legislators. But IRV is the quickest way to eliminate the spoiler dynamic that suppresses candidacies -- and the debate and participation they could generate. If progressives learn one lesson from Election 2000, let it be that all of our elections should be conducted under fairer rules. Real democracy needs a rainbow of choices, not the dull gray that results in one of the lowest voter turnouts in the democratic world.<br /><br /><i>Steven Hill is senior analyst for the <a href="http://www.fairvote.org">Center for Voting and Democracy</a> and author of "<a href="http://www.FixingElections.com">Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics</a>" (Routledge Press). Rob Richie is the Center's executive director. To keep update with developments on IRV or join with local supporters, see the "<a href="http://www.fairvote.org/get_involved.htm">get involved</a>" section of the Center's website.</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Wed, 12 Feb 2003 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 595492 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics The Ups and Downs of European Politics http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/14841/the_ups_and_downs_of_european_politics <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">American media routinely fails to distinguish the unique political characteristics of the European landscape.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Several months ago, American media outlets were sounding shrill alarms over the rise of the far right in Europe. But recent election results in Germany, Sweden, Austria, and elsewhere reveal that the panic button was pushed prematurely.<br /><br />In Germany, the largest economy in Europe, the red-green coalition of Social Democrats and the Green Party eked out a close victory in September. In Sweden, the ruling Social Democrats scored an unexpected victory, handily beating the predictions. Recent elections saw center-left governments take the reins in Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.<br /><br />Meanwhile, the fortunes of the far right have fallen on harder times. Following the media frenzy over France's Jean-Marie Le Pen making the runoff in their presidential election, his party failed to win a single seat in the National Assembly races. In Austria, the bogeyman of Europe who started the far-right alarm, Jorg Haider of the Freedom Party, saw his party plummet. After a stunning upset in the Netherlands for the assassinated Pim Fortuyn's party, bickering internal politics led to its collapse and Fortuyn's party is expected to virtually disappear when new elections are held on Jan. 22.<br /><br />So the scary forecasts of the American media were overblown considerably. But this is not that unusual. Unfortunately American reportage on Europe often is fraught with half-truths and Hogan's Heroes stereotyping. And this in turn has led to profound misunderstandings between the two continents.<br /><br />For instance, rarely do American journalists point out that Europeans still enjoy free health care for all, cradle to grave; free education through university level; comparatively generous retirement for their elderly; an average of five weeks paid annual vacation, more sick leave, parental leave, and a shorter work week with comparable wages for their workers (French workers, with their 35-hour work week, work nearly a full day less per week than American workers, who now work on average 42 hours per week). Social spending in Europe runs some 50 percent above that in the United States. Environmental, food safety and labor laws are the envy of activists in the U.S.<br /><br />In fact, what was lost upon the U.S. media is that the leaders and political parties known as the "far right" in Europe for the most part do not seek to overturn the European social state or its proactive government regulation. On the contrary, they accept its existence to a degree even the Democratic Party doesn't accept today. In some countries the far right parties attained their recent electoral successes by <i>defending</i> the welfare state that the center-left parties had been rolling back the last few years. Their leaders called for things like a re-commitment to quality public health care, elderly care, mass transit, subsidized housing, and the protection of the public pension and education systems.<br /><br />Thus, in many respects, Europe's multiparty politics do not fit the old left-right axis typically employed by American journalists. It's comparing apples and oranges. Yet American media routinely fail to distinguish these unique political characteristics of the European landscape. Instead, much ink dwells on the very real anti-immigrant sentiment that, while cause for concern, is hardly unique to Europe.<br /><br />The two sides of the Atlantic both are founded on their own variant of capitalism, but in crucial ways follow different social models. The United States is noted for our freewheeling, free enterprise economics, while Europe's social democracies seek to regulate capitalism for the general welfare and to spread the benefits around. While American observers tend to disparage the constraints on growth and higher unemployment that may result from the European model, Europeans scratch their heads over America's income inequalities, our consumerism, and our readiness to sacrifice the social contract for individual material gain.<br /><br />The net result is that neither side knows each other terribly well. And yet, in this age of globalization, never has it been more important that we learn to cooperate on issues of security, trade, human rights, and the global environment. The European and American nations share much in common. Hopefully we can learn more about those mutual aspects, and get past media stereotypes that perpetuate trans-Atlantic misunderstanding.<br /><br /><i>Steven Hill is senior analyst for the <a href="http:/www.fairvote.org">Center for Voting and Democracy</a> and author of a new book, "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press).</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Fri, 20 Dec 2002 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, AlterNet 594498 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Are Young People Too Smart to Vote? http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/14443/are_young_people_too_smart_to_vote <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Perhaps young people don&#039;t vote because they have a better sense than adults that our political system truly is broken.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->This election season, once again young people will not vote in very great numbers. In the 1998 midterm election, only 12 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds and 8.5 percent of 18-19 year olds voted, and this year will be about the same.<br /><br />And yet a recent study funded by Pew Charitable trust found that young people are volunteering in their communities more than ever. Young people are not apathetic, but most find little connection between volunteering and voting. While volunteering is viewed as a way to "give back" and help one's community, voting doesn't inspire the same sentiments.<br /><br />So why don't young people vote? Perhaps young people don't vote because they have a better sense than adults that our political system truly is broken, particularly from the point of view of a young person.<br /><br />For instance, a recent survey conducted by Harvard University found that 83.5 percent of 18-24 year olds said that they had not been contacted by any political party during the 2000 election season. On the other hand it is well documented that both parties went out of their way to connect with the 65-and-over population.<br /><br />Why are candidates going after one group of voters and relegating the other to the political sidelines?<br /><br />One obvious reason is that seniors vote in greater numbers than young people. Politicians court likely voters, and that creates a vicious cycle: Young people don't vote because they aren't courted, and they aren't courted because they don't vote.<br /><br />But a more careful reading reveals something more broken about our "winner take all" political system. In close electoral contests -- such as our last presidential election, or in a handful of races that will determine control for the U.S. House and Senate -- a small minority of voters has much greater influence than the rest of us. This is the group known as the almighty "swing voters." Swing voters are undecided voters, and in close races politicians court them because swing voters decide which candidate will win .<br /><br />It just so happens that, not only are seniors more likely to vote than young people, but also many of them are fiscal conservatives who are more likely to be swing voters than young people. Think back to the presidential election, what were the issues that mostly were addressed -- Medicare, prescription drugs and Social Security lockboxes. All important issues, but there were a lot more issues out there and constituencies that cared about them, yet they were overlooked. Why? Because in the zero-sum game of "winner take all" politics, polls and focus groups are used to figure out which group of voters to talk to, and which group of voters to ignore.<br /><br />As one twentysomething said during the last presidential campaign, "I feel like if you are not 65 years old and have arthritis, these candidates have nothing to say to you."<br /><br />"Winner take all" campaigns have become a matter of targeting the right demographic using polls and focus groups. But as Mario Velasquez, president of Rock the Vote, which registers young people to vote, has said: "Demography, I like to say, is the death of democracy. If you have precision demographics, you are only talking to people who vote, not to the entire country."<br /><br />Young people aren't the only ones being left out by the "precision demographics" of our "winner take all" system. Racial minorities and poor people also usually are excluded from candidate appeals. The incentives of our "winner take all" system fragment our nation, as politicians and their consultants use polls and focus groups to slice and dice the electorate. In the process, whole swaths of people -- potential voters -- are dropped from the invite list of our 'invitation-only' elections. Demographics, it turns out, is destiny.<br /><br />Change certainly is needed. Other nations experience much higher voter turnout rates because they don't use our "winner take all" system. Instead they use what is known as proportional representation, which creates multi-party democracy where voters have more political choice, more competitive elections, and more people's issues are addressed by the various parties and their candidates.<br /><br />Other necessary changes include instant runoff voting, Election Day as a national holiday, Election Day voter registration (Prop. 52 on the California ballot) and public financing of elections. Not surprisingly, nations that employ these practices enjoy much higher rates of voting among all people, including young people, poor people, and others who are left out of our political system.<br /><br />More than adults, young people seem intuitively to recognize that our political system is broken. And they register their awareness on Election Day by not bothering to participate in what to them is a pretty meaningless exercise. So when you see the low numbers for voter turnout this time, don't think of it as apathy. Think of it as the wisdom of youth.<br /><br /><i>Steven Hill is senior analyst for the <a href="http://www.fairvote.org">Center for Voting and Democracy</a> and author of "Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner Take All Politics" (Routledge Press). Rashad Robinson is the Center's field director.</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Sun, 03 Nov 2002 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, Rashad Robinson, AlterNet 593407 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Major Victory for Voting Reform http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/12568/major_victory_for_voting_reform <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">On March 5, cities in California and Vermont adopted &quot;instant runoff voting&quot; systems that could crack open American politics to new voices and better choices.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->The first Tuesday in March marked the starting gun for this year's critical off-year congressional elections. In California, Democratic and Republican primaries ended the political careers of scandal-ridden Congressman Gary Condit, who was running for re-election, and former Los Angeles mayor Richard Riordan, running for Governor.<br /><br />But the biggest bang may have been ground-breaking votes on instant runoff voting in hip, urban San Francisco and more than four dozen towns across rural, independent-minded Vermont. Instant runoff voting has the potential to crack open electoral politics to new voices and better choices.<br /><br />San Franciscans voted 56 to 44 percent to pass their city's "Proposition A" and become the first major city in the United States to use instant runoff voting (IRV) to elect its local officials. The comfortable margin caught city observers by surprise, given editorial opposition from the paper's dailies and a slick, well-funded opposition campaign from political consultants and downtown business leaders fighting for traditional "delayed" runoffs.<br /><br />In Vermont, more than 50 town meetings debated adoption of IRV for statewide offices. Of the 51 reporting results, 49 towns gave a big thumbs up, most by overwhelming margins. Several bigger towns like Burlington supported the issue by two-to-one margins. The Vermont League of Women Voters led the campaign, but backers include a range of supporters, from Governor Howard Dean and Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz to 2000 Republican gubernatorial nominee Ruth Dwyer, Progressive Party leaders and the Grange.<br /><br />The San Francisco campaign, a grassroots effort that garnered endorsements from a range of civic players, was spearheaded by the Center for Voting and Democracy. Supporters included California House Assembly Leader Kevin Shelley -- an upset winner in the race for the Democratic Party nomination for Secretary of State -- 1999 mayoral candidate Tom Ammiano, Democratic Party, Common Cause, NOW, California PIRG, the Sierra Club, Green Party, Libertarian Party, Reform Party, San Francisco Labor Council, AFL-CIO, Congress of California Seniors, Asian Week, Chinese for Affirmative Action, Harvey Milk Democratic Club, United Farm Workers and over three dozen others.<br /><br />Why did all of these groups -- often political enemies -- come together behind IRV? Consider our current electoral laws. When several candidates run for a particular office, the winner often receives less than majority support. A quick flashback to the presidential election of 2000 recalls not only that George W. Bush won with less than a majority of the popular vote, but the center-left majority split itself in states like Florida and New Hampshire between Al Gore and Ralph Nader. Allowing the "plurality" winner to take office can deny the majority its right to decide single-seat elections, and at the same time stifle support for underdog candidates who are too easily pigeon-holed as "spoilers."<br /><br />Delayed runoff elections are a flawed alternative used in many cities and southern primaries. If no candidate receives an initial majority, voters must return weeks later to choose between the top two vote-getters. Supporters of the two advancing candidates must show up again to reconfirm their initial vote, while backers of eliminated candidates must generate enough enthusiasm to vote for their preference among the top two.<br /><br />Not surprisingly, voter turnout in runoffs often drops precipitously, particularly once the candidates start battering one another in negative campaigns. This allows special interest contributors who fund those negative ad blitzes to gain more leverage over winners.<br /><br />Instant runoff voting, also called "same-day" runoffs, provides an effective alternative. Used for major elections in Australia, Ireland and Great Britain, IRV ensures that candidates win single-seat offices with majority support in one efficient election. Voters indicate both their favorite and their runoff choices on the same ballot. If no candidate receives a winning majority of first choices, the weak candidates are eliminated. As in a traditional delayed runoff, their supporters choose among the runoff finalists according to the preferences marked on their ballots. Voters who ranked one of the finalists first continue to have their votes count for their favorite choice.<br /><br />Imagine if instant runoff voting had been in place in 2000 when Ralph Nader and Al Gore together won a clear majority of the presidential vote, both in Florida and nationally. Many voters for Gore or even for Bush might have supported Nader if they had not been worried about the "spoiler effect." Not only would Nader's vote have been a truer reflection of his level of support, but ultimately the Nader vote would have pushed Gore to clear wins in Florida and the national electoral count.<br /><br />Among its benefits, IRV could be particularly helpful in cities with racially diverse populations. Last year, runoff elections between white and non-white mayoral candidates exacerbated racial division in cities like Houston, Los Angeles and New York. Instant runoff voting would have promoted coalition-building in a single round of voting, rather than the charged politics of a one-on-one runoff election.<br /><br />The March 5 wins for instant runoff voting could start a national trend. California is developing into a hotbed of enthusiasm for instant runoff voting, with strong interest in Oakland, Pasadena, Santa Clara County and San Leandro. Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg last year introduced legislation to implement IRV for special elections to fill congressional and legislative vacancies.<br /><br />Vermont's grassroots success promises to boost state legislation already backed by the governor and secretary of state. Instant runoff voting advocates in states like Alaska, Florida, New Mexico and Washington are poised to capitalize on the San Francisco victory and the clear message from Vermont's towns.<br /><br />Even as Congress moves toward apparent passage of bills to ban soft money in campaigns and modernize the way we run elections, the thirst for more responsive, open, and accountable democracy will not cease. In cities and states around the nation, democracy advocates are ready to push beyond their current efforts to lessen the impact of money in politics and improve electoral mechanics. As so often in our history, we can count on dedicated reformers at the grassroots to keep pushing us toward a stronger, fully realized democracy.<br /><br /><i>Rob Richie, Eric Olson and Steven Hill work for the Center for Voting and Democracy <a href="http://www.fairvote.org" target="_AlterNet">(www.fairvote.org),</a> a national nonprofit organization. Steven Hill was the campaign manager for San Francisco's Proposition A.</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Tue, 05 Mar 2002 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, Eric C. Olson, AlterNet 589248 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Redistricting Returns with a Vengeance http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/12229/redistricting_returns_with_a_vengeance <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">The year 2002 may go down in political history for the crass way Democrats and Republicans alike use &quot;redistricting&quot; rules to protect their power and disenfranchise voters.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Voters, beware. Redistricting is back. Every 10 years it revisits us like a recurring plague. This year's shenanigans show just why the renewed civic pride in the wake of September's terrorist attacks won't bring many disenchanted Americans back to the polls.<br /><br />After the release of new census numbers, all legislative districts in the nation must be redrawn to make sure that they are closely equal in population. In a large state, that means about 640,000 residents for each U.S. House district.<br /><br />Whichever political party controls the line-drawing process has the God-like powers to guarantee themselves majority control and make or break individual political careers. They rely on "packing" and "cracking": packing as many opponents into as few districts as possible, and "cracking" an opponent's natural base into different districts. Powerful computers and software have made this process of unnatural selection ever more sophisticated and precise.<br /><br />Does it make a difference? You bet it does. In Virginia, the Democrats in 2001 won their first statewide race for governor since 1989. But Republicans went from barely controlling the statehouse to a two-thirds' majority. How? That's right -- Republicans drew the district lines.<br /><br />One of the best examples of partisan gerrymandering was California's congressional plan in the 1980s. The late Congressman Phil Burton, its chief architect, called it his "contribution to modern art." One district was a ghastly looking, insect-like polygon with 385 sides.<br /><br />The result? In the 1984 elections the Democrats increased their share of California's house seats to 60 percent even as Ronald Reagan's landslide win helped Republican congressional candidates win more votes than Democrats in the state.<br /><br />This year in various states one party indeed has stuck it to the other -- just ask a Republican who was mugged in Georgia or Maryland or a Democrat roughed up in Michigan or Pennsylvania. In all those states and more, one party or the other used their redistricting advantage to wipe out seats of the opposition.<br /><br />But this year the real story is that both parties have often colluded to take on their real enemy: the voters. This year will go down in political history for the crass way it has raised "incumbent protection" to a whole new level. With half the states finished with redistricting, the current round may be the most anti-democratic ever.<br /><br />Take California. The California Democratic Party controlled redistricting, and its leaders decided to cement their advantage rather then expand it. Incumbents took no chances. Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez acknowledged to the Orange County Register that she and most of her Democratic U.S. House colleagues each forked over $20,000 to Michael Berman, the powerful Democratic Party consultant in charge of redistricting.<br /><br />The money was classic "protection money." Sanchez stated "$20,000 is nothing to keep your seat. I spend $2 million (campaigning) every election. If my colleagues are smart, they'll pay their $20,000, and Michael will draw the district they can win in."<br /><br />California's Republican Party, which has vociferously opposed past Democratic redistricting plans, was largely mute. That's because their pliant incumbents also were bought off with the promise of safe seats. The one incumbent facing a tough re-election battle promptly announced his retirement; the rest are likely free from serious competition for the next ten years.<br /><br />The story has been the same in state after state. The Wall Street Journal in a November editorial on "The Gerrymander Scandal" estimated that as few as 30 of the 435 U.S. House seats will be competitive next year. Already fewer than one in 10 House seats were won by competitive margins in 1998 and 2000.<br /><br />The ones hurt by these back-room deals are the voters. For most voters, their only real choice in the next decade will be to ratify the candidate of the party that was handed that district in redistricting. One-party fiefdoms will be the rule no matter what changes are made in campaign financing and term limits until we reform the redistricting process or turn to more innovative voting methods like proportional representation.<br /><br />There once was a time when voters went to the polls on the first Tuesday in November and picked their representatives. But that's changed. Now, the representatives pick us first. Following on the heels of Florida's election debacle, this only further undermines confidence in our already shaky political system.<br /><br /><i>Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy <a href="http://www.fairvote.org" target="_AlterNet">(www.fairvote.org)</a> and co-authors of "Whose Vote Counts?" (Beacon Press 2001).</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Mon, 14 Jan 2002 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 588921 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics One Person, One Vote, All Districts http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/10596/one_person%2C_one_vote%2C_all_districts <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Once the census data is provided to states this month, states will begin to redraw legislative districts to ensure they are equal in population. Lawyers love redistricting -- unscrupulous legislators generate tons of litigation -- but the practice rips voters off.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->The partisan struggle over the use of statistically adjusted data from the U.S. Census to avoid "undercounts" was just a warmup for the real game: the redistricting of thousands of legislative districts across the country.<br /><br />Once the census data is provided to states this month, legislative districts must be redrawn to ensure they are equal in population. With few public interest checks on their near God-like power in drawing state legislative and congressional districts, incumbents use increasingly sophisticated computer software and demographic data to literally choose the voters before the voters have a chance to choose them.<br /><br />Moreover, political parties with full control of the process in a state -- such as Democrats in California and Republicans in Pennsylvania and Ohio -- can seek to cement their power. By using techniques like "packing," whereby lines are drawn to concentrate many supporters of political opponents into a few districts, and "cracking," where opponents' supporters are split among several districts, they can dramatically heighten their chances for the next decade.<br /><br />Jim Nicholson, former chair of the Republican National Committee (RNC), stated last year, "The winners [of the state legislatures] are going to determine the political landscape in at least the first decade of the next millennium, because they are the people who are going to preside over the process of reapportionment and redistricting of their respective states as a result of the 2000 census."<br /><br />With so much at stake, Democrats and Republicans are preparing to claw like cats and dogs -- especially in the courts. "There's going to be a race to the courthouse," says Stanford law professor Pam Karlan. "The redistricting process following 2000 is going to be more of a litigation-driven process than it was in the past." Caltech professor J. Morgan Kousser says, "Redistricting in 2001 is going to be the greatest bonanza for lawyers since the founding of the New Deal."<br /><br />More hearings, more lawsuits, more investigations. Sound familiar? The fragile "bipartisanship" of the past month is sure to evaporate under the torrid heat of redistricting.<br /><br />Who gets ripped off by this process? The voters, of course. As a result of the redistricting process, most voters become locked down into noncompetitive one-party districts where their only real choice at election time is to ratify the incumbent or heir apparent of the party controlling that district.<br /><br />In 2000, for example, 78% of U.S. House seats -- nearly four out of five -- were won by landslide margins greater than 20 percentage points. Only 38 seats - less than 9 percent -- were won by competitive margins of less than 10 percentage points, the lowest figure since 1988. Most big wins were in districts where one party has a lopsided partisan advantage.<br /><br />Like a Soviet-type Politburo, nearly 99 percent of House incumbents won re-election. A whopping 41% of state legislative races were contested by only one major party. Is this any way to run a democracy?<br /><br />Redistricting -- or shall we say the "incumbent protection process" -- is the leading cause of uninspiring, choice-less elections. If you are a Democrat in a solidly Republican district, or a Republican in a solidly Democratic district, or a supporter of a minor party everywhere, you don't have a chance of electing your candidate. Demography is destiny, it turns out.<br /><br />What can be done? Redistricting will happen over the next year, and the partisan technocrats already are drawing their maps, but there are several options to consider:<br /><br />1) At the least, redistricting should be a public process, with full media coverage and citizen input.<br /><br />2) Redistricting should be taken out of the hands of the incumbents and given to independent commissions guided by non-political criteria. Arizonans recently voted to implement such a citizen review procedure.<br /><br />3) Replace single-seat districts with multi-seat legislative districts and adopt a proportional voting system. This would give all voters better choices, better representation and foster more competition. Nearly every multi-seat district would have full representation, instead of the safe, one-party districts we have now.<br /><br />With re-gerrymandering nearly underway, a movement for reform has a natural rallying cry that fits with our nation' s democratic impulse: "This time, let the voters decide."<br /><br /><i>Rob Richie and Steven Hill are, respectively, the executive director and the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy.</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Mon, 12 Mar 2001 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 587262 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics When Machines Pick Our Presidents http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/10189/when_machines_pick_our_presidents <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">This may be the first presidential election that will result in victory by voting machine malfunction.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->More than a century ago, New York City party boss William "Boss" Tweed was infamous for using fraud to win elections. Popular legend also has it that President John Kennedy may have won his election via fraud, courtesy of the Daley political machine in Chicago. But the 2000 presidential election raises a whole new specter: electoral upset resulting from voting machine screw ups.<br /><br />What if Al Gore really had more support from Florida voters than George W. Bush? But due to voting equipment failure and well-meaning human error enough votes were swiped from Gore's tally to overturn the election? Indeed, a precinct by precinct analysis conducted by the Miami Herald concluded just that, saying that in a less error-prone election Florida likely would have gone to Al Gore by as many as 23,000 votes.<br /><br />This may be the first presidential election that will result in, not victory by fraud, but victory by, what shall we call it -- malfunction?<br /><br />Without a doubt, the antiquated punch-card voting machines used to count votes in many Florida counties are prone to errors and irregularities. Even a Republican witness in one of the Florida court cases -- a designer of the disputed punch-card machines - admitted to the court that the devices malfunction and fail to record votes. This witness also testified that a hand count would be necessary in "very close elections."<br /><br />Specifically, in Miami-Dade County, the punch-card machines failed to count nearly 10,000 ballots because the machines could not ascertain a vote for president. These orphaned ballots still are sitting in a pile somewhere, uncounted.<br /><br />Those ballots alone may be enough to tip the election in a race as close as this one. If they ever get counted. Now add to that the poorly designed butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County that did not conform to Florida's legal specifications regarding the design of ballots, and apparently confused thousands of voters. A typical election has a spoiled ballot rate of about 1 percent of ballots. In Palm Beach, the spoiled ballot rate was over four times that number, more than 20,000 ballots were thrown out. So clearly something was amiss there as well.<br /><br />These are just two of the many voting machine snafus and irregularities that, because the race was so close, acquired blockbuster proportions. Thousands of voters - 185,000, to be exact, 335 times Bush's margin -- have had their legal vote tossed aside due to the vagaries of outdated voting technology compounded by official decisions. But the quagmire gets deeper.<br /><br />A recent precinct by precinct analysis by the Washington Post revealed that the Florida counties and precincts most affected were poor and minority. Heavily African American neighborhoods in Florida lost many more presidential votes than other areas because of outmoded voting machines and rampant confusion about ballots<br /><br />Up to one in three ballots in black sections of Jacksonville, for example, did not count in the presidential contest. That was four times as many as in white precincts elsewhere in mostly Republican Duval County. A ballot that perplexingly spread presidential names over two pages led to many accidental double votes, which are automatically voided.<br /><br />The Post reported that senior GOP strategists say privately that a key reason the Bush campaign did not ask for a statewide recount was it feared that Gore would pick up more votes than Bush, because of the high rate of ballot spoilage in black precincts.<br /><br />Examining all the evidence, the picture that emerges is that voting irregularities and antiquated voting machines that disenfranchised thousands of minority voters is probably determining our next president. If we allow such a slipshod process for the highest office in the land, what kind of standard does that establish for future elections, especially at lower levels?<br /><br />And how will that look to the rest of the world, to whom the United States has upheld the ideal that elections should be decided on democratic principles like fairness, the secret ballot and the "highest vote getter wins." What shall we say now -- "except when the voting machines mess up?"<br /><br />However this election is eventually settled, the American public and politicians should speak as one voice to say: "Never again." Never again will we allow malfunctioning voting machines and poorly designed ballots to determine who wins our elections.<br /><br />The new president and Congress need to step up to the plate and enact national standards for modernizing our elections infrastructure. That includes voting machines, ballot designs, procedures for recounts and other details of elections. And those counties too poor to foot the bill should receive federal assistance.<br /><br />No cost is too great to make sure that every vote counts, and that every vote gets counted. As this presidential election has shown, a vote can be a terrible thing to waste.<br /><br /><i>Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of Reflecting All of Us (Beacon Press, 1999).</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Thu, 07 Dec 2000 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, AlterNet 586883 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Scrap the Electoral College http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/10089/scrap_the_electoral_college <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">The historical moment has come to scrap the Electoral College and institute a national direct election.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->The presidential election roller coaster ride has taken one of its oddest turns. Imagine if, after the conclusion of the Super Bowl or the World Series, it was announced that the "winner" didn't really win. That instead the championship would be given to, well -- the loser.<br /><br />We have a long tradition of the person or team with the most points, runs or votes winning -- except when it comes to electing our president, the highest office in the land. How do we explain that to young people, already so disengaged from politics?<br /><br />It's like two elections taking place, side by side, one open and the other hidden. And suddenly the nation is realizing that the one that counts is the hidden one. Nothing less than the legitimacy of the presidency is hanging in the balance.<br /><br />The blame for this democratic anomaly rests with that 18th-century anachronism, the Electoral College. Created in less democratic times by our Founders, the Electoral College is a clumsy device that has been the subject of more proposed amendments than any other part of our constitution. It harkens back to a time when the U.S. Senate also was devised to be elected by our state legislatures, instead of a direct vote of the people. We changed the Senate to a direct vote in 1913 with the 17th amendment. But 200 years later we are still left with the ponderous Electoral College.<br /><br />Here's how it works. Each of the 50 states' presidential races are conducted as individual contests, with its votes weighted to its population. The presidential winner does not need to win a majority of the national popular vote -- just more votes than other candidates in any piecemeal combination of states to win a majority of electoral votes. A popular majority can be fractured easily by the presence of a third party candidate, as Ralph Nader and Ross Perot have demonstrated.<br /><br />The perverse incentives created by the Electoral College are painfully obvious from this year's campaign. States like New York that are locked up early are effectively ignored by the candidates. Consequently, voter turnout increased sharply by 10-15% in the "battleground" states, but was down in the rest of the nation. Nearly all campaign energy -- and increasingly, even the candidates' messages for how they plan to govern -- are pitched to swing voters in a few key battleground states.<br /><br />So what can be done? Over the years, leading national political figures like Strom Thurmond, Orrin Hatch, Ted Kennedy and John McCain have supported approaches to amend, reform or scrap the Electoral College. The time has come to scrap the Electoral College and institute a national direct election.<br /><br />There are important questions to resolve, however. What if the highest vote-getter only received 35 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate race? That possibility also presents problems of legitimacy. Consequently, some reformers call for a second "runoff" election between the top two finishers if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote. But 40 percent is too low for winning our highest office. To avoid minority rule, the president should be required to command majority support.<br /><br />Two-round runoffs also pose problems. Candidates would have to scramble for extra cash to run a second campaign, and the cumulative additional costs to local election officials would be more than a hundred million dollars. Weary voters would have to trudge out to the polls one more time.<br /><br />Instant runoff voting is an efficient and inexpensive alternative. This method simulates a traditional runoff in one election by allowing voters to rank on the same ballot their top choice as well as their second and third "runoff" choices. If no candidate wins a majority of first choices, the weakest candidates are eliminated and their voters' ballots counted for their runoff choices. Rounds of counting continue until there is a majority winner.<br /><br />The instant runoff corrects the defects of traditional runoffs, and improves on their benefits. The system is used in Great Britain, Australia and Ireland and likely will be the subject of a statewide ballot measure in Alaska in 2002 for its federal and state elections, including the president.<br /><br />Win or lose, the challenge for both George Bush and Al Gore will be to bring the nation together. What better message to the American people than providing for direct popular election of the president -- preferably using instant runoff voting -- to ensure that the nation's chief executive commands support from a majority of voters. Let's join together and abolishes this 18th-century dinosaur.<br /><br /><i>John B. Anderson is a former presidential candidate and Congressman, and currently the president of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Steven Hill is the Center's western regional director.</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Mon, 13 Nov 2000 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, John B. Anderson, AlterNet 587471 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Politicians Even Shake Down Their Own http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/9365/politicians_even_shake_down_their_own <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Congressional leaders recently set a whole new standard for raising campaign funds -- now they are shaking down their fellow House members.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Raising campaign funds today is done with religious fervor, as politicians shake down everyone from corporate CEOs and movie moguls to Christian PACs and Buddhist monks. But Congressional leaders recently set a whole new standard -- now they are shaking down their fellow House members.<br /><br />The Republican House leadership announced recently that they are hinging the reward of leadership positions and chairmanships of powerful committees to those incumbents who raise the most money for the party. Since committee chairs have near-dictatorial powers to set committee dockets, dole out pork and establish the national agenda, this plan debases government to a whole new level of crassness and political patronage.<br /><br />But beyond that, this sordid episode reveals something more fundamental about the role money plays in politics. The situation is so much more complicated than many campaign finance reformers make it out to be, and in some ways so much worse.<br /><br />The typical campaign finance reformer rant is that "money buys elections." But if that were true, the Republican leadership would not be able to shake down their fellow Republicans. Nor would they want to, because these incumbents would need that money for their own re-elections. They would be robbing Peter to re-elect Paul.<br /><br />But the fact is that most incumbents don't need the money for their own re-election. That's because they live in safe, non-competitive districts where incumbents have about as much chance of losing as a snowball melting at the North Pole. The respected Cook Political Report lists a whopping 87 percent of House Republicans as easily winning re-election in 2000.<br /><br />Most of these safe seats were carved out of conservative areas of the country during the last redistricting. The decennial redistricting process, which is about to revisit us in 2001, is when all legislative lines are gerrymandered to make most congressional districts lopsided, either for Republicans or Democrats (90 percent of House Democrats also are safe). No matter how much money opponents raise in these carefully crafted districts, their chances of winning are about as good as that snowball's melting.<br /><br />So Republican Speaker Dennis Hastert can twist the arms of these safe-seat Republicans to raise money they don't need -- and then hand over the money to party leaders. The leadership then will target this soft money like a laser to the two dozen competitive races that will decide control of the U.S. House. The Democrats do this too, but House Republicans have raised the bar by hinging these efforts to the awarding of leadership positions and committee chairs.<br /><br />This creates a fund-raising pecking order, where the "Captains of Cash" are rewarded. This is how political machines and fiefdoms are created and maintained, with all its progenies of patronage, logrolling and pork-doling. The Captains of Cash sit atop the pile, dispensing favors and collecting fealty, both within their own personal districts and within the House of Representatives.<br /><br />The corruptive effects on our democracy are obvious. But that's not the same as money buying elections. The fact of the matter is, most elections can't be bought. They already are too lopsided and non-competitive to even need to be bought. This allows safe-seat politicians to raise money far beyond their own needs, and then sprinkle it around to their colleagues needing a hand.<br /><br />Such a pyramidal shape to our political landscape is much more distorting of our democracy than simply money buying elections. It means that political leaders can create their own political machines. It means that donors are giving money to candidates they know will win, because the district has been drawn to produce that result. Donors usually are buying access and influence, not elections.<br /><br />If we don't understand the full complexity of how our system is malfunctioning, we will miss the mark when we try to reform it. <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Mon, 26 Jun 2000 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 586022 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Guns and Moms: November's Race within a Race http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/9235/guns_and_moms%3A_november%27s_race_within_a_race <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">November promises to be a potentially historic shootout for both supporters and opponents of gun control.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->On Mother's Day, several hundred thousand people gathered in Washington, DC for the "Million Mom March" to support gun control. Nearby, several thousand gathered to oppose gun control. Which side do you think has a better chance in the November elections?<br /><br />Al Gore and most Democrats are betting that gun control is an issue whose time has come. Yet the National Rifle Association is working hard to mobilize its several million members. November promises to be a potentially historic shootout for both supporters and opponents of gun control.<br /><br />Paradoxically, it just may be that both Al Gore and congressional allies of the NRA will gain in the process.<br /><br />Gore's highlighting of gun control is based on a shift in the politics of guns in recent years. After tragedies like the shootings at Columbine High School, a widely recognized tool in voter mobilization -- fear -- was available to Bill Clinton and other gun control advocates. To the NRA's dismay, Clinton paid no price in 1996 for advocating gun control; Republican nominee Bob Dole avoided defense of gun rights as a political loser.<br /><br />In presidential elections, gun control indeed may now be a winning issue. Gore stands to pick up swing votes from "soccer moms" and other independent voters in cities and suburbs in key states who respond positively to sensible-sounding efforts to protect children and curb violence.<br /><br />Yet Al Gore's gain may be his party's loss in its other major electoral goal: retaking the U.S. House of Representatives.<br /><br />The simple fact is that the NRA has power because there is a critical mass of voters out there who intensely support gun rights. What's more, these voters are disproportionately "swing voters" -- among that 10 to 15 percent of voters up for grabs in a close election. They often are classic Reagan Democrats, who fear infringement on gun ownership. They form a potent single-issue voting bloc, particularly in rural areas.<br /><br />The combination of their passion for gun rights and willingness to "swing" between Democrats and Republicans traditionally has outweighed their minority status. Although big majorities tend to support gun control measures, their support has been broad rather than deep.<br /><br />The NRA's influence has come from its capacity to move its supporters in key swing districts and states -- with its message more than its money, contrary to what some campaign finance reformers say, who focus on the NRA's hefty budget.<br /><br />As NRA board member Grover Norquist said recently, "The question is intensity versus preference. You can always get a certain percentage to say they are in favor of some gun controls. But are you going to vote on your control position?"<br /><br />An analysis of House Democrats who voted against gun control measures in June 1999 reveals that most represent competitive, blue-collar districts, where constituents are more likely to embrace gun rights. For these Democrats, support for gun control traditionally has caused them to lose their seats, no matter how broad the national support for gun control.<br /><br />Control of the House this year will be decided in some 35 close races -- the other 400 essentially are being conceded by one of the major parties because of incumbency or lopsided partisan splits that make the district safe, no matter how much money challengers spend.<br /><br />The power of the NRA comes from its power to influence these relatively few close elections. There, a change in 5 percent of the vote can make all the difference -- both for winning those races and control of Congress.<br /><br />Democrats hope that some of those "million moms" and their families have become equally passionate about gun control, but that hope has yet to be tested. Given this delicate balance, both Democrats and Republicans are trying to position themselves between the swings of the polls. Unfortunately, sound policy and civil debate get caught in the crossfire.<br /><br /><i>Rob Richie is executive director of <a href="http://www.fairvote.org">The Center for Voting and Democracy</a> and Steven Hill is the Center's western regional director.</i> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Mon, 29 May 2000 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 585819 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Internet Decency and the First Amendment http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/7429/internet_decency_and_the_first_amendment <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Now that a federal appeals court has blocked the part of the Telecommunications Act concerned with indecent material on the Internet, First Amendment advocates can all breathe a sigh of relief. Or can we? The parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that remain are far more damaging to the First Amendment than the sub-section known as the Communications Decency Act (CDA). Taken as a whole, the Telecommunications Act is a kind of &quot;free trade&quot; agreement for the corporate media. So, before we celebrate too wildly the federal appeals court&#039;s acceptance of an anti-censorship argument to strike down the CDA, we better ask ourselves: have we won the battle only to inadvertently contribute to losing the war?</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->Now that a federal appeals court has blocked the part of the Telecommunications Act concerned with indecent material on the Internet, First Amendment advocates can all breathe a sigh of relief.Or can we?The parts of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that remain are far more damaging to the First Amendment than the sub-section known as the Communication Decency Act. Taken as a whole, the Telecommunications Act is a kind of "free trade" agreement for the corporate media. The bill deregulates the telecommunications industry and makes takeovers and mergers even easier, like Disney's takeover of ABC which created the world's largest media company. Many experts predict the Telecommunications Act will inevitably result in increasing media centralization and job losses as merging media corporations slim down. Why then, has so much of the protest and litigation focused singularly on the Communication Decency Act?Here's a further subtlety to ponder: the ACLU's lawsuit that defeated the Communications Decency Act used an anti-censorship argument to fight government regulation of Internet content. But the corporate media love to manipulate anti-censorship arguments. The Turner Broadcasting System used an anti-censorship argument in Turner Broadcasting System v. Federal Communications Commission to try and stop a 1992 federal law that requires cable systems to set aside up to one third of their channels for local broadcasts. Anti-censorship arguments have also been used to fight set-asides for minority-owned businesses of frequencies for cellular communication services, and to fight limitations on how much frequency any existing cellular companies can control in a given service area. Corporations and the ACLU have used anti-censorship arguments to block attempts at effective campaign finance reform, and to fight restrictions on commercial speech and advertising, and to sue "truth in advertising" laws that prohibit political campaigns from knowingly making false statements.Unfortunately, anti-censorship policies fit in perfectly with a corporate media agenda. As the fight over NAFTA showed, corporations want deregulated environments. When the corporations are media conglomerates, anti-censorship policies have the same effect as NAFTA. They become the opposite of anti-trust policies, creating a "free trade" environment where the wealthiest media companies can grab bigger and bigger chunks of an unregulated market.So, before we celebrate too wildly the federal appeals court's acceptance of an anti-censorship argument to strike down the Communications Decency Act, we better ask ourselves: have we won the battle only to inadvertently contribute to losing the war?Effective speech in the modern age is not free. In fact, it's quite expensive, and very few can afford it. Those with the most money end up with the most speech. Certainly one of the goals of the First Amendment should be to enhance -- in the words of free speech champion Justice William Brennan -- a "robust public debate" of significant social issues. The robust debate principle recognizes that sometimes in a crowd of speakers it is necessary to turn down the volume of certain loud and clamorous speakers -- like Disney, NBC, or Rupert Murdoch -- in order to give others a chance to speak. Or at the very least, it's necessary to turn up the volume of others who can't be heard, with policies like the Fairness Doctrine, a beefed-up public broadcasting system, the National Endowment for the Arts, and set-asides. And in certain cases, where there are one or two loud-mouths in the group completely dominating the discussion, it might be necessary to ask them to shut up for a little while. Who but the government has the capacity to act as a First Amendment referee in these instances? The government already acts as a referee in matters of civil rights, education, low-cost housing, and in some countries, national health care. Why not in matters of the corporate media and the First Amendment? If the government isn't allowed to regulate corporate behavior -- media or otherwise -- who can? Certainly not consumers or the free market.Yet this is exactly the type of regulation of corporate media that anti-censorship policies cut off at the knees. The entire Telecommunications Act should have been opposed, but not because the government does not have a compelling interest at times in acting as referee in matters of speech. Rather, it should have been opposed as an infringement on the public discourse and the First Amendment that is increasingly being dominated by multinational corporations and market forces. This would have required a more nuanced and sophisticated attack than an anti-censorship argument can muster.The First Amendment, in order to be useful in the modern age, must be able to distinguish between the "cheap" speech of most individuals and small institutions, and the "wealthy" speech of multinational corporations and rich individuals. It must also be able to distinguish between what is said, and how often and how loudly certain dominant speakers say it. Each of these should be guided by a different set of laws and policies. But the anti-censorship approach treats corporations like individuals, and treats volume like content. It has a single fundamentalist standard for the First Amendment that only seeks to handcuff the government in matters of speech. It does not recognize that market forces can also be an enemy of free speech.If we are to imbue the First Amendment with democratic and egalitarian values, we will have to divest ourselves of the naive notion that Big Brother comes only in the guise of government or law enforcement bureaucrats. Big Corporation is also watching you, and trying to gobble up all the public speech it can. And it is using anti-censorship arguments to further its goals. We should be wary about helping to fashion a legal hammer that will be used to bludgeon us over the head. Journalist Steven Hill works for an Internet service provider. <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Tue, 25 Apr 2000 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, deleted 584025 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics The U.S.'s Gold Medal of Competitiveness http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/7739/the_u.s.%27s_gold_medal_of_competitiveness <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">LaborNet coordinator and labor journalist Steven Hill writes; &quot;The Olympic flame less than a month away from arriving in Los Angeles to commence its cross-country torch relay to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games. But already the United States is busy wracking up gold medals against our international competitors. Recently, a global survey was released that says that world business leaders give the gold medal to the U.S. economy as the most competitive in the world among industrialized nations. What business leaders mean when they say most competitive is this: low wages, few worker benefits, and deregulation.&quot;</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->The Olympic flame less than a month away from arriving in Los Angeles to commence its cross-country torch relay to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympic Games. But already the United States is busy wracking up gold medals against our international competitors.Recently, a global survey was released that reports that world business leaders give the gold medal to the U.S. economy as the most competitive in the world among industrialized nations. What business leaders mean when they say most competitive is this: low wages, few worker benefits, and deregulation."A lot of people are looking at the United States as a new El Dorado for competitiveness," said Stephen Garelli, director of the World Competitiveness Report conducted annually by the International Institute for Management Development.Ranked just behind the U.S. are Singapore and Japan. Other countries in the top ten include Malaysia and Hong Kong. Now there's something for American workers to crow about: our economy is more competitive than Malaysia and Singapore.It used to be that American workers had something else to boast about: being the highest paid work force in the world. But not anymore. In a free-trading world turned upside down, now we get the gold medal for just the opposite.According to the 1994 Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing labor costs in the U.S. averaged $17.10, while German labor costs were 60 percent higher ($27.31 per hour) and the Japanese were 25 percent higher ($21.42). Those poor wretched German and Japanese workers! If only they could make wages like their American counterparts, their country too could win the Gold Medal of Competitiveness.The hapless Germans have also been so foolish as to reduce their work week by two hours to an average of 30.6 hours per month (with no reduction in pay). But the competitive American workers have seen our average work week increase from 38.3 to 39.5 hours. Americans put in more working hours during an average year (1847) than workers in Britain (1622 hours), France (1619), Sweden (1569) and Germany (1419). American workers also have the least number of paid holidays and vacation, an average of 23 days per year compared to Japan (25 days), Britain (31), France (35), Sweden (38), Italy (40.5) and Germany (42).In other words, Americans win the gold for working longer hours for less pay. Now that's something to brag about!And that's not all. The United States also has the Olympic distinction of being Number One in widening the income gap between rich and poor. In no other country do CEOs of corporations make 150 times the income of workers on the shop floor. What's more, though world business leaders ranked the United States first in global competitiveness, American business leaders ranked the U.S. as only seventh. American business leaders apparently don't know how good they've got it, or else they're never satisfied. Perhaps they won't be satisfied until they've wrung more blood, sweat and tears out of the American worker.These are confusing times. What's all the more odd is that it takes the likes of Pat Buchanan to make sense of these things for American workers. When reports like the World Competitiveness Report are issued, American workers have to ask: is the glass half empty or half full? Is it worth it to win the Gold Medal for this Olympic event? <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Tue, 25 Apr 2000 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, deleted 584312 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics Beyond Voting As Usual: Proportional Representation http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/8262/beyond_voting_as_usual%3A_proportional_representation <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) recently announced her introduction of House Bill 2545 which would lift the 1967 federal law that mandates one seat per Congressional district, allowing states the option of electing their Congressional delegations by multi-seat proportional representation. Most third party efforts in the U.S. have already endorsed the idea. So has progressives Jesse Jackson and Lani Guinier, conservatives Kevin Phillips and Michael Lind, and the editors of USA Today. Justice Clarence Thomas has written favorably in his legal opinions of proportional systems as a race-neutral method of giving representation to racial minorities. Indeed, there is a startling convergence of thought on the subject taking place from both the left and the right, slowly gathering momentum since race conscious districts first came under attack in 1993.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->"What we have tried to do is to take some lemons that were handed to us by the Supreme Court, and make some lemonade." Thus spoke Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA) at a late October press conference announcing her introduction of House Bill 2545. HR 2545 would lift the 1967 federal law that mandates one seat per Congressional district, allowing states the option of electing their Congressional delegations by multi-seat proportional representation. Congresswoman McKinney's own district was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court this past June. In its ruling, Miller v. Johnson, the Supreme Court rolled back thirty years of Voting Rights litigation and activism when it ruled that race-conscious districting is unconstitutional. In its continuing knee-jerk rollback of affirmative action, the High Court found McKinney's black majority-minority district in violation. Yet it has not found bizarre-shaped super-majority white districts unconstitutional, such as Texas' 6th Congressional district which is 91% white and has been compared by some pundits to the shape of "splattered spaghetti sauce." Besides attempting to make lemonade out of the lemons of Miller v. Johnson, the McKinney bill has been drawing attention because of what it offers to other constituencies besides the traditional Voting Rights beneficiaries. Conspicuously present at the news conference supporting HR 2545 was Jody Newman, executive director of the National Women's Political Caucus; Paul Jacob, executive director of U.S. Term Limits; Congressman James Clyburn, Democrat from South Carolina and member of the Black Congressional Caucus; civil rights leaders from the United Church of Christ; and Rob Richie, director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. Newman, of the National Woman's Political Caucus, stated that "research has suggested that systems of proportional representation result in greater numbers of elected women, and that greater numbers of women are elected in multi-member [rather] than single-member districts." What Newman was referring to is recent research showing that the number one predictor of women's success in national legislative elections, when tested with other political and socio-economic variables, is the presence of proportional representation (PR) voting systems. For instance, Australia uses both proportional representation and U.S.-style single seat "winner take all" districts for electing different legislative bodies. Germany's mixed member system uses both PR and winner take all to elect representatives to the same legislative body, the Bundestag. The results in the proportional balloting compared to winner take all is revealing: three times more women legislators were elected in Australia and Germany by PR in the 1987-1993 elections. Furthermore, countries that use PR exclusively elect many times more women to their legislatures compared to countries that use winner take all exclusively, with countries like Sweden (41%), Finland (39%), Norway (36%), Denmark (33%), The Netherlands (29 %), and South Africa (25%) leading the way. Despite the so-called "Year of the Woman," the U.S. is stuck at only 11% women in the U.S. House and 8% in the Senate, ranking 24th of 54 western democracies. The three types of proportional systems allowed by the McKinney bill -- preference voting, cumulative voting and limited voting -- also offer something for proponents of third parties and independent politics. At her press conference, McKinney criticized what she called "the inherent flaws in our winner take all electoral assumption which gives 100% of the power to the candidate who can secure 50% of the vote plus one...As a Democrat, I firmly believe that the 30% of Republicans living in a 70% Democratic district should at least have some representation." This elegy to electoral fairness and representation echoed similar words last year from law professor and rejected Clinton Justice Department nominee Lani Guinier in a <i>New York Times</i> interview. No question, third party efforts like the New Party, Green Party, Ross Perot's Independence/Reform Party, Labor Party Advocates and others would find the going much easier in a proportional system using multi-seat districts where 10% of the popular vote wins 10% of the seats. The success of the German Green Party, currently the third largest party in the Bundestag, demonstrates the potential for third parties under PR. Most third party efforts in the U.S. have already endorsed the idea. So has former Republican Congressman and presidential candidate John Anderson, progressives Jesse Jackson and Lani Guinier, conservatives Kevin Phillips and Michael Lind, and the editors of <i>USA Today</i>. Justice Clarence Thomas, more known for his glowering role in dismantling affirmative action, has written favorably in his legal opinions of proportional systems as a race-neutral method of giving representation to racial minorities. Indeed, there is a startling convergence of thought on the subject taking place from both the left and the right, slowly gathering momentum since race conscious districts first came under attack in 1993. McKinney says there is "a lot of enthusiasm" for her bill among other legislators from majority-black districts. But she needs support of the Republican leadership if the bill is going to have a chance. Republicans' recent conversion to "color blindness" and "fairness for all colors" has provided them just the rationale they needed to dismantle affirmative action, racial set-asides, indeed the Voting Rights Act itself. But McKinney's gambit turns the Republicans on their head. Clearly, without the tool of race-conscious districting in a majoritarian winner take all system, proportional representation offers racial minorities the only chance they have left for representation. But the effect of HR 2545 will also be to open up Congress to third parties, allowing them to compete on a nearly-even playing field with the two major parties. As a result of the McKinney bill, both the Democrats and the Republicans have to choose between either protecting their two party duopoly, or doing what's right to allow electoral opportunity for Americans of color and women candidates. As both parties have demonstrated on many occasions, fairness is all well and good -- as long as it works to their advantage. <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Tue, 25 Apr 2000 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, deleted 584795 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics WTO Dissent in the Streets, but Not in the Legislature http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/705/wto_dissent_in_the_streets%2C_but_not_in_the_legislature <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">Where did all the dissent over the WTO come from? It certainly didn&#039;t come from our elected officials, since our Winner Take All political system doesn&#039;t allow representatives to express carefully nuanced positions or vocal opposition to controversial issues like free trade.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->As the clouds of tear gas dispersed over the streets of Seattle, one couldn' t help but wonder where all this dissent over the World Trade Organization came from. Certainly in booming economic times we have not heard much vocal opposition in our state and federal legislatures.In fact, no matter which political party has been at the helm, Democrats or Republicans, the U.S. government and corporations have been the world's primary boosters for globalization and the World Trade Organization. Unfortunately, the heat of debate usually has reduced the complexities of the issue to simplistic slogans and sound bites.While the nostrums of free trade, consumer choice and technological innovation have become the mantra of the times, our politics seem to be running headlong in the opposite direction -- toward less choice and less quality information. Campaigns have become increasingly negative, and legislative races increasingly noncompetitive. Third party efforts have had little chance of success.But what else should we expect from our Winner Take All system? Winner Take All elections are contested in one-on-one races where 51 percent wins everything and 49 percent wins nothing. This guarantees a two-party system where each side campaigns and governs by blaming the other side.In the carnivorous climate of Winner Take All, positions that question the promised land of globalization get chewed up. Even carefully nuanced positions expressing doubt or seeking compromise get chewed up. So do third parties like a Labor, Reform or Green Party that might offer voters a different kind of choice than the doo-wop chorus of the Democrats and Republicans.Without the presence of a political party whose candidates are explicitly pro-worker, the American labor movement has had little choice but to support the Democrats. This has left the Democratic Party under the leadership of Bill Clinton free to drift as far to the right as they dare. The mantle of speaking for the little guy in recent years has mostly fallen to the likes of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, with Democrats Dick Gephardt and David Bonior occasionally voicing opposition to their party leader, President Clinton.There has been some agitation for a Labor Party, but nascent efforts have not been promising, due to the toxic soil of Winner Take All. There have been over a thousand third parties in our 200 your history, but nearly all have quickly fallen into the dust bin of history because Winner Take All is so notoriously hostile to the success of third party efforts.Yet third parties are the laboratory for new ideas. Without them, controversial issues are mostly left on the political sidelines. Fresh ideas about globalization get strangled in the crib by Winner Take All's two-party duopoly.Instead, candidates feel compelled to campaign on safe issues, substituting simplistic slogans for complex issues that have been determined by polling and focus groups. The goal is to hone your campaign message to one that attracts swing voters, and then repeat that message like a mindless advertisement jingle.Thus, the Winner Take All dynamic contributes little to our understanding of complex issues like globalization and its impact on American workers or the environment. Fostering understanding and debate of issues related to globalization is simply not the way you win elections today when faced with the Winner Take All conundrum.And the major media, which is seemingly stuck on political coverage of the "horse race" aspect of campaigns, routinely ignore candidates who are judged unelectable, even if they are raising good ideas and issues -- like the downsides of globalization.Consequently, when fervent opposition to the World Trade Organization erupts in the streets, it looks as if it's coming from out of nowhere. But it's not. It's just that such a point of view so rarely wins representation in our Legislatures or is reported by the media.The story in Europe is quite different. There, instead of Winner Take All, they use forms of proportional representation that allow points of view and political parties from across the political spectrum to win representation. The European labor and environmental movements have used this effectively to build strong Social Democrat and Green Parties that have articulated an agenda questioning globalization and related issues like genetically modified foods and secrecy of the World Trade Organization.When President Clinton addressed the delegates of the World Trade Organization, he stated that the perspective espoused by the protesters should be listened to and included in their deliberations. If he is sincere, then he should consider a change of electoral rules in the U.S. that will allow that perspective to win representation in our legislatures.Try to imagine what our politics would look like if our legislatures mirrored the full range of opinions that exist in our society, not only on globalization, but a whole range of issues including health care, Social Security, education and more.Instead, with Winner Take all, we get simplistic sound bites and polarized politics. And national policy suffers as a result.Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press 1999). <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Tue, 25 Apr 2000 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, AlterNet 571305 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics American Women Have a Long Way to Go http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/516/american_women_have_a_long_way_to_go <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">It has been eight years since the &quot;Year of the Woman&quot; nearly doubled the number of women in Congress. But the United States still ranks 43rd in the world in its percentage of women elected to its national legislature -- a lower ranking than such nations as Mexico, South Africa or Seychelles.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->It has been eight years since the "Year of the Woman" nearly doubled the number of women in Congress. But it has been slim pickings ever since.A recent study found that the United States ranks 43rd in the world in its percentage of women elected to its national legislature. Currently, women hold only 12 percent of Congress, a lower percentage than such nations as Mexico, South Africa or Seychelles. In 1998, fewer than half of our states elected women to the House of Representatives.The study, conducted by the nonpartisan Inter-Parliamentary Union, shows Sweden leading the pack with 43 percent women in its legislature, followed by Denmark, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands, all at least three times higher than Congress. Women also fare poorly in executive offices. 47 of 50 states have male governors, and 24 of our largest 25 cities have male mayors.Given American women's success in many areas, why has politics proven such hostile terrain? Some propose that it's women's own reluctance to sacrifice their traditional home lives. Swanee Hunt, director of Harvard University's Women and Public Policy Program, suggests that many women don't think politics is a reasonable option because they don't want to give up being mothers and wives.Women also don't necessarily vote for other women. One recent survey revealed that both male and female voters still prefer a man over a woman for powerful offices such as governor, attorney general and president.While discriminatory attitudes certainly play a large role, they certainly don't explain why women do so much better in some nations than others. The key lies in the rules for how elections are conducted.A virtual laboratory is provided by nations that use both proportional representation voting systems and U.S.-style "winner take all" voting systems. Proportional representation systems use multi-seat districts where a political party or grouping of voters may need only 5 percent of the popular vote to win representation.For example, in Germany, Italy and New Zealand, women are three times more likely to be elected in seats chosen by proportional representation than in those chosen by winner-take-all. Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands, the world's leaders, all use proportional representation. In their first proportional representation elections last year elected 39 percent women.In fact, comparative research has shown that the leading predictor of women's success in national elections, when tested against all other variables, is use of proportional representation. When a majority of votes is needed, as in the U.S.-style single seat "winner take all" legislative districts, a small number of discriminatory voters can deny women candidates the margin they need for election. Women also are less likely to run when there is only one representative.Electing more women to legislatures is not only a matter of fairness. Practically speaking, the presence of women in legislatures makes a measurable difference in the types of legislation that are proposed and passed into law. Although outnumbered 8-1, women in Congress have been successful in gaining legislation long overlooked by men, including gender equity in the workplace and in education, child support legislation, and laws for prevention of violence against women. It was Congresswomen who ensured that the offensive behavior of U.S. Senators Bob Packwood and Brock Adams were not swept under the "good old boy" carpet.Most established democracies have rejected our "winner take all" system in favor of proportional representation because of the underrepresentation of women and other problems resulting from giving 100 percent of the power to candidates that win only 51 percent of the vote. Implementation of proportional systems in the United States at local, state and national levels does not require revising the Constitution. Changes in applicable local, state and federal laws will do. It is high time to seriously address why 52 percent of the population only has 13 percent of the representation.Rob Richie is executive director of The Center for Voting and Democracy and Steven Hill is the Center's west coast director. <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Tue, 25 Apr 2000 21:00:00 -0700 Steven Hill, Rob Richie, AlterNet 585494 at http://wvvw.alternet.org WireTap WireTap ICANN: The Secret Government of the Internet? http://wvvw.alternet.org/story/103/icann%3A_the_secret_government_of_the_internet <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-teaser field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even">The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a little-known international body that oversees crucial Internet functions. Depending on whose description you read, ICANN is either an innocuous non-profit with a narrow technical mandate, or the first step in corralling the Internet for commercial and other purposes. And despite the centrality of it&#039;s role in the online world, there has been almost no media coverage of ICANN.</div></div></div> <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-story-image field-type-image field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"><img typeof="foaf:Image" src="/files/styles/story_image/public/story_images/default.jpg" alt="" /></div></div></div> <!-- BODY --> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter-->The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a little-known international body that has been established by the US Dept of Commerce to oversee crucial Internet functions. Many Internet watch dogs fear that this technical oversight will have profound policy ramifications regarding the future of the Internet and of Internet governance. ICANN recently held its international meeting in Cairo (March 7-10) where certain fundamental matters regarding the future of Internet governance were decided.Despite the centrality of ICANN's role in Internet governance issues, there has been little media coverage of ICANN. I believe this ought to be a matter of greater public concern. ICANN has set up a means for individual Internet users to have input into their decisions, which I also detail at the end of the commentary.As our increasingly globalized world tiptoes towards experiments in globalized governance, the World Trade Organization is not the only newborn institution raising concern. In particular, commercial interests are beginning to pull at the hem of Internet governance, with the potential of corralling the decentralized international online network.How many people have ever heard of ICANN, The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers? Depending on whose description you read, ICANN is either an innocuous non-profit with a narrow technical mandate, or the first step in corralling the Internet for commercial and other purposes.Here are a few facts: ICANN is a nonprofit corporation that was chartered by the U.S. Dept. of Commerce in November 1999 to oversee a select set of Internet technical management functions previously managed by the U.S. Government. These functions include fostering competition in the domain name registration market (i.e. the selling of .COM, .NET and .ORG suffixes) and settling disputes over "cyber squatting" (the intentional buying of domain names like McDonalds.com for later re-sale at exorbitant prices to the corporation).That all sounds fairly bureaucratic and benign, but there's more to the picture than first meets the eye. And it's really got some watchdogs like the Center for Democracy and Technology and Common Cause worked up.To understand the suspicion it's necessary to understand a bit about what is called the "root server", and the critical role ICANN plays in overseeing it. Servers are high-powered computers that function as the crossroads of the Internet, kind of like the neurons of our central nervous system, through which all email messages and requests to view Web pages get routed.Whomever controls the "root" server can decide which other servers all Internet users worldwide will be directed to when they try to view any Web site address in the .COM, .NET and .ORG domains. Controllers of the root server can say: "From now on, we will use the data in server X as the authoritative list of .COM names and addresses, but only so long as the operator of that server complies with the following conditions." Those conditions being things like requiring that all domain server operators pay them a certain fee, or provide them with particular kinds of information about the people to whom they have handed out specific names and addresses, or only allow transmission of files in a specified format. Or things as yet undreamed of.Since ICANN controls the root server, it is technically feasible for this nearly anonymous organization to exercise a kind of life-or-death power over the global network, because presence in (or absence from) this chain of interlocking servers and databases is a matter of cyberspace life or death. If your domain name and Web address cannot be found on the root server or its mirror servers, you simply do not exist -- at least, not on the Internet. Eliminate the entry for xyz.com from the .COM domain server and xyz.com vanishes entirely from cyberspace. Designate as the new .COM domain server a machine that does not have an entry for xyz.com in its database, and you have imposed the electronic equivalent of the death penalty on xyz.com.This raises important policy questions around issues of privacy, sovereignty and cyber-property that have the potential to go far beyond ICANN's narrow technical mandate. Take the following test, and see how you would resolve the following:* One anti-abortion Web site listed the names of doctors performing abortions and crossed them off as they were assassinated. Another Web site published the names of alleged British intelligence agents and put their lives and, potentially, British national security, at risk. ICANN has the power to wipe out these Web sites, should it do so?* Or how about a Web site of anonymous Chinese dissidents, broadcasting their message to the world and to their compatriots? How should ICANN balance anonymity on the Web -- a key element of political freedom -- with the right to know who is behind a domain name?* There's a Web site called MartinLutherKing.org, and guess what? The authors of that Web site and the owners of that domain name specialize in slandering the slain civil rights leader. Is that free speech, or is that a violation of the "trademark," not to mention the legacy, of Martin Luther King?* Should Internet users under the jurisdiction of the Palestine Authority be eligible for an email address ending with .pl, just as users in the United Kingdom have email addresses ending with .uk? How about the Kurds? How about the Basques? Who should decide?* Should ICANN have acted in the case of B92, the courageous and respected independent radio station in Belgrade that had its online identity -- b92.net -- taken over and used by Slobodan Milosevic? B92 asked ICANN to suspend b92.net, but ICANN declined.In many instances, acting or not acting will have equal implications. ICANN must decide what falls within their scope of jurisdiction. Bizarre as it may seem for a decentralized global network that supposedly "exists nowhere and everywhere," the root server and the various domain servers to which it points constitute the very heart of the Internet. The root server is the Archimedean point on which this vast global network balances. After all the talk over the past few years about how difficult it will be to regulate the Internet, the domain name system looks like the one place where Internet policy can be enforced.Anyone interested in controlling the rules under which activities on the Internet take place -- and many commercial interests, who now realize the huge economic stakes in the Internet, and many governments too, find that they are indeed quite interested -- is likely to find the existence of a single controlling point awfully tempting for imposing its will. Indeed, according to the New York Times, ICANN's policy-making process so far has been dominated largely by technical and commercial interests.Not surprisingly, watchdog groups have proposed that, unlike the secretive World Trade Organization, ICANN's international board of directors should be publicly elected and subject to public meetings and disclosure. Some within ICANN are embracing this call for elected representation and accountability, while others are resisting.Not too many people have even heard about this ICANN business, and that's just fine with certain elements within ICANN. In fact, that's the way they want it. Don't let it stay that way. To find out more information, visit the Web sites of the Center for Democracy and Technology (<a href="http://www.cdt.org/dns">www.cdt.org/dns</a>) or ICANN Watch (<a href="http://www.icannwatch.org">www.icannwatch.org</a>). Any Internet user can become a member of ICANN for free and vote in a September election by registering at <a href="http://www.icann.org">www.icann.org</a>. Also, ICANN has created an Internet forum where people can post their opinions at <a href="http://www.icann.org/feedback.html">www.icann.org/feedback.html</a>, or <a href="mailto:comments@icann.org">comments@icann.org</a>.Let them know what you think, and spread the word. Someday we may look back and realize that this moment was the Internet's "1776," critical in deciding who got to control this new form of global communication.Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. For more information, see <a href="http://www.fairvote.org,call">www.fairvote.org,call</a> or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122. <!-- All divs have been put onto one line because of whitespace issues when rendered inline in browsers --> <div class="field field-name-field-bio field-type-text-long field-label-hidden"><div class="field-items"><div class="field-item even"> <!--smart_paging_autop_filter--> </div></div></div> Fri, 31 Mar 2000 21:00:00 -0800 Steven Hill, AlterNet 570180 at http://wvvw.alternet.org News & Politics